Sunday, 17 August 2014

See What the Map Says

Yesterday, Steve and I went to LonCon 3, the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention.  We could only justify one day, so we opted for the Saturday.  There were a couple of panels about literary agents which were of particular interest to me, and it was a chance to hear Anne Sudworth talk about her paintings.   
The Anne Sudworth Website

Multiple paths in life had led us to being there: collaborating on Steve’s science fiction novel, trying to market it at the 2010 EasterCon where we met the author Liz Williams and the contacts I made through Liz and at subsequent events.  Added to these strands were childhood influences, in particular my father’s fascination with the occult and esoteric and his love of science fiction and fantasy.  I was reared on myths, legends and fairy tales and started reading Ursula K Le Guin, Anne McCaffrey and Ray Bradbury at a very early age.

My father always wanted a library and he accumulated a vast collection, fiction and non-fiction alike; poetry, plays and novels, as well as music – on vinyl, audio cassette and CDs: classical, jazz, blues and folk, even the occasional rock album.  I enjoyed some of it and dismissed a great deal more, taking it all for granted, as I imagine many privileged teenagers do.  There seemed to be reference material on any given subject, so if I asked for help with a homework assignment, there was a tendency to be overwhelmed by a list – or worse still – pile of relevant information.  Was I grateful?  What do you think?

My parents and brother were members of the Epsom Poetry Reading Circle which met monthly to participate in a programme prepared by one of the members.  I went occasionally but never felt fully engaged.  I assumed I wasn’t really “into poetry” and although there were particular poems I liked, I wouldn’t make a point of reading a particular poet or anthology.

I never really appreciated how lucky I was and there were probably many lost opportunities to learn even more.  I absorbed so much through familial osmosis – for example, it drives Steve mad that I rarely lift a finger in the garden but I know what all the plants are called.  I recognise pieces of music and, most extraordinarily, I can quote chunks of poetry and in many cases I even remember who wrote it!

I was rooting through some of my early writing pieces this week and found a series of anecdotes, most of them more personal diary entries than anything I would wish to commit to bloggery, but one of them quoted Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”, so that’s twice in three posts. In Frost’s poem he talks of choosing one of two paths and feels that he may come to regret the decision.  This reminded me of my father’s poem “See What the Map Says”.  His view is different – you should seize every opportunity to explore while you have the time, not waste time prevaricating or regretting your decisions.

In “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead”, Tom Stoppard has Guildenstern present an even bleaker view of life:

“We cross our bridges when we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and a presumption that once our eyes watered”.

I favour my father’s view – what’s yours?

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long as I stood
And looked down one as far as I couldTo where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same.

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference. 

Robert Frost

 See what the map says

The map is a record of places visited,
all else is hearsay – there be dragons!
The map grows outwards, pausing at times
to consolidate an area, invest towns,
rushing at others to stake new claims.

Always there are places you mean
to go back and revisit, promising
“This time it will be different.”
Always there are places unasked,
visits some circumstance dictates.
And when, as the light fades
on winter evenings, you take out the map
the empty quarters stare at you
asking “Why did you never?”
“What happened?  What intervened?”
So perhaps the route to hell
has on it all the missing stations,
the journey of no return encompassing
all the lost occasions of “do I dare?”
But you can never count on it.

Better always to dare further,
gamble on the unexpected, reach out,
seize every ticket, use up the visas
in case there are no Thomas Cooks
waiting your sacrificial goose. 
The map unfolds, unrolls
picturing the ebb and flow of time
as the shadow of a tree in leaf
moves on a whitewashed wall
never showing twice the same pattern.
It is far easier to make an excuse
than to make the simplest journey.
The empty spaces stand in rebuke.
While yet there is time, see what the map says.
Peter Stanford

Sunday, 10 August 2014

The Tyranny of Aging

Shortly before my father died, he asked me what I thought about buying a bicycle.
“For you, you mean?” I asked.
“Well, it would need to have good gears,” he answered.  “But I could use it to get fish & chips from the Upper High Street.”

As his house was on the edge of Epsom Downs, it might have been downhill to the chippie, but it was most definitely up on the way back, just a choice of gradients from the two approach roads.  Considering this was barely two months since the stair lift had been installed, and then only after several major arguments and a promise that it could be removed once he was more mobile, I wasn’t quite sure how to answer.

My father’s battle with cancer lasted several years and there were various near death experiences, spells in hospital, followed by recovery periods, some of which necessitated either my brother or me staying with him until he was well enough to cope by himself.   I visited him once or twice a week and both of us phoned daily.  He was also blessed with good friends and neighbours, but like Dylan Thomas, he had no intention of going “gentle into that good night” and there was definitely plenty of raging against the dying of the light.

Some of my friends are going through similar experiences at the moment – all of them are familiar with the sudden dashes across country, fights with hospitals and difficult conversations with doctors and social services.  You get to the point where, whenever the phone rings, you don’t think “I wonder who that could be?”  It’s “Oh God, what now?” and you never relax.

But it’s just as bad for the ailing parent – as memory and/or mobility diminishes, they find themselves increasingly dependent on others.  Simple pleasures like reading or going for long walks become more and more difficult.  As their social circle dwindles, so too does their ability to get about under their own steam.  Having to give up driving has to be one of the bitterest blows, relying on public transport, family or friends to go any distance at all.  It took a trashed nearside wing mirror to convince my father to hang up his car keys.

As we grow older, the relationship we have with our parents evolves but nothing prepares you (or them) for the time when you have to take over the parenting.  Maybe it’s payback for all the heartache you cause them when you’re growing up!

My father was away a lot when I was at school, and I left home a couple of years after graduating, so I didn’t see that much of him.  As his health deteriorated, we spent far more time together and as a result, became really good friends.  He loved prowling round charity shops, claiming to be a true hunter gatherer, and these outings always included his beloved fish & chip lunch.  No matter how angry, bitter or resentful I felt, sooner or later there would be a funny remark or a shared memory that made it all worthwhile.

Although he was frequently in pain and he was less and less able to get about independently, his mental faculties were largely unaffected.  He was able to indulge his passion for movies, read avidly and continue with his writing: short stories, novels and poems.  The two that follow express how he felt far better than I can.
Storm warnings
Yesterday again the pains came back,
sudden tremor, contraction in the chest,
those hints once laughed aside in sayings,
A goose walked over my grave.
It is no longer prudent to assume
a wealth of years ahead, safe in a bank.
The currency of life fluctuates and falls,
each rumour setting off another change.
So much to do, so little time.
Hollywood's words in Zola's mouth
but health variable as clouds
does put careful husbandry in doubt.
Today's urgent need so easily becomes
tomorrow's forgotten yesterday.
Excuses sprout like weeds,
the garden runs to wilderness.
The fabric of the house is in decay.
bricks need pointing, slates split,
frost takes the structure apart,
Judas silver in hands of clay.
Today the pains have yet to strike:
tablets and powders keep the weather sweet.
Time perhaps to write a sort of peace
bought with the wasting assets I have left.
Coming to terms
I had to come to terms with silence:
turning on the radio didn't drive it away.
It became my landlord… made the rules,
dictated when my sun could shine,
summoned rain like a steel screen
to keep me penned indoors, the better
to acknowledge my isolation.
Silence is a compendium of loss,
a telephone that does not ring,
mute photographs of those I loved,
dead leaves of words unspoken,
those last missed opportunities
to say exactly what I meant.
Tangible fall-out of the aging process
I had to come to terms with silence.
The dead deserve their moments of repose:
why disturb the darkness they inhabit now?
The invitation will arrive some day
for silence has its own allotted span.
No point in wishing precious days away.
No welcome for the guest who comes too soon.
 Peter Stanford: 18 November 2000.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Mending Fences

Robert Frost: "Mending Wall"

Our garden is once more fully enclosed and indeed there is much rejoicing!  To quote Robert Frost: "good fences make good neighbours".  It’s a shame that this could only be accomplished by sacrificing our ash tree.

I'm not exactly the outdoors type - the closest I've come to roughing it was a youth hostelling holiday (by car) the summer before my A levels and a long weekend in a static caravan in Barmouth about 20 years ago - in October - brrr.  Even in Thailand, I declined a rudimentary beachside bungalow in favour of one further inland, with a proper shower and a flushing toilet (and a scorpion in the sink, but that’s another story).  To quote my husband: "let's face it - you don't do mud."  Well, namby-pamby softy I might be, but I appreciate the four elements and Mother Nature in all her glory.  And I love trees.  OK, I don’t go around hugging them, but they're wonderful and it breaks my heart to see them cut down.

Our property has five immediate neighbours: three down one side, one at the end and one on the other side. When we first arrived, there was a well-established ash tree on the border between us and Neighbour #3.  About six years ago, we agreed to pollard it because it overshadowed their garden.  Unfortunately, the tree surgeon arrived a day earlier than expected, so our neighbours didn't get a chance to cover their fishpond.  He scattered branches over both gardens and only did rudimentary clear up in ours.  Then, thanks to strong winds and horrible weather, the fence collapsed.  Repairing it was a total nightmare because the ash tree had grown too far across the border, and next door were on at us to cut it down completely.  Eventually the tree stayed and the fence was restored, but it left me determined that no matter what happened, no-one was touching that tree again.  I should add that we'd paid for everything, fence included.

So, last autumn, Neighbour #3, accompanied by Neighbour #2, approached Steve and asked us to pollard the tree.  Our Yggdrasil, bless its little World Tree heart and roots, had grown back bigger and sturdier than ever and the controversial fence was already severely challenged - even before the extreme weather set in.  Of course, I did the "over my dead body, look what happened last time, it cost us a fortune, it's not like there's that many trees left in this so-called conservation area..." speech.  In the intervening period, Neighbour #4 had cleared a substantial part of their garden, although this is now landscaped, laid to lawn with new trees and shrubs and it looks really beautiful.  And Neighbour #5 had cut back a particularly shaggy conifer - dubbed "Treebeard", which overshadowed just about everyone.  Apart from Neighbour #4's stunningly beautiful silver birch, our ash tree was the last tall tree standing.   Neighbour #5 had made a similar request when they tackled "Treebeard" but I'd refused. They got the speech too, and they'd only just moved in! 

I had to admit it: the ash tree was blocking the light from all our properties.  We found a different tree surgeon and he did a brilliant job, leaving nary a twig out of place.  I ended up with a pretty splendid Yule log and everyone was apparently happy.  Alas, no: the poor tree had been so severely pruned, it looked like a totem pole and the trunk had grown so thick, that there was no question of putting a fence straight across without one of us giving up some of our garden.  As an interim measure, the fence panels on either side of the tree were made as secure as possible, courtesy of the husband of Neighbour #2.  However, we were incapable of reaching an agreement on how best to plug the gaps in between, not to mention the fact that he'd shifted the boundary about 1ft in her favour on one side.

The dispute dragged on into spring, by which time none of us had the energy for further fence wars.  Even if we'd agreed on some way of closing the space, the tree would carry on growing and it would start all over again.  So in May we agreed to remove the tree and I made myself scarce while it happened.

You'd have thought that would have been the end of it, but no, there were further bickers about removing the stump and the on-going dispute over the boundary.  On the plus side, no tree at all was preferable to the totem-pole AND Neighbour #3 checked her deeds and said that the fence was down to her.  So, although we'd paid for pollarding, tree and stump removal, she'd pay for the fence.  She also conceded over the borderline.

So why, you may ask, did it take until the last day of JULY to get this done?  Well, the first person she asked was Mr Neighbour #2.  He said he'd do it, but made excuse after excuse until Steve suggested we tried someone else.  Sadly, this was someone we'd already had in to quote when we were looking for a gap-closing solution, and he never called back.  Finally Neighbour #3 asked her gardener to quote.  That was three weeks ago, but as of last night, still no fence.  So you can imagine our jubilation when the construction noises we could hear this morning turned out to be the Reluctant Gardener, installing the fence.

I can't see us ever being friends, but an Englishwoman's home is her castle - and maybe now, with metaphorical moats and drawbridges restored, we can be good neighbours.

Friday, 25 July 2014


It's nice to know that even now there are still new experiences to enjoy.  Mind you, eating al fresco in a thunderstorm was never likely to feature on my bucket list.  For a start, I've never been exactly relaxed in thunderstorms, having had a life-long phobia of sudden loud noises.  Much as I love firework displays, it's difficult to relax with your fingers crammed in your ears, cringing at every bang.  People blowing up and bursting empty crisp bags or playing with balloons, have been known to reduce me to a gibbering jelly.  And don't even get me started about small dogs outside supermarkets!

However, thanks to a lovely hypnotherapist lady I met through Reiki, the dog phobia was dealt with and as a result I'm a lot more relaxed these days, although I still try to keep indoors on Bonfire Night.

Anyway, back to the thunderstorm.  I blame Steve really.  It was only a couple of weeks back we decided to buy a new barbecue.  Off we trotted to Tesco's Home and took advantage of their seasonal offer.  It was a lovely day and we stopped at a local hostelry for lunch in their garden.  It's a cosy little walled enclosure, with cascades of petunias from hanging baskets. The plan was to christen the barbecue that evening, but alas, it started to rain on the homeward journey and kept it up on and off for days.  The barbecue stayed in its box and it's been there ever since. 

So today, another brilliant, roasting morning, both of us at home, so we went into Staines for a mooch round the market followed by lunch at the same pub as before.  On the way, Steve suggested a barbecue over the weekend.  We ordered our food, settled down in the garden and tried to ignore the gathering clouds.  No umbrellas, no coats and the car on the far side of town. Not exactly well thought out.

As the rain started, Steve drew comparisons with storms he'd seen in Cameroon - rain like waterfalls, carrying on for up to 14 hours.  "Nothing like we see in the UK," he said. I don't know if he was trying to provoke a response but I'm sure the Gods have a sense of humour.  Luckily most of the tables are under a vast umbrella, albeit not the one we'd chosen.  By the time the food arrived, we'd moved under cover and just in time.

Initial spots of rain developed into full son et lumière - most impressive, if a little noisy.  The storm gathered pace, the wind picked up and the rain hammered down.  An elderly gent came out to the garden as the rain started.  "I blame you," he said to me.  "You're a witch!" Don't get me wrong: it was a logical conclusion I suppose - I'm a member of a pagan group which meets there, and he's a regular, although I can't remember seeing him before   I explained I had no control over the weather (although a friend of mine once managed to hold back the rain long enough to complete a hand-fasting - oh to have his command over the elements!) and thought no more about it.  It was only when the old gent started to make jokes about sacrificing chickens, to which I replied I believed in preserving life, not taking it, that we decided weather and company were getting tiresome and we retreated indoors until the storm passed.

So no barbecue this weekend - and my apologies anyone else who had one planned.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Self-Publish and be Damned?

This article was first posted in August 2009, after my husband Steve and I decided to self-publish our science-fiction novel, “Einstein’s Question”. Reading it again, five years later, I can't fault my enthusiasm and optimism, but having learnt so much more about writing and publishing, it really warrants a rewrite.

Once the book was finished, we did our research and drew up a list of agents who specialised in science-fiction. There were various factors that meant we weren’t an immediate choice:
  • First-time novelists
  • No follow-on book and definitely not the first part of a trilogy
  • Joint authors
  • Some heavy scientific content including equations
Only one agent requested the full manuscript and in the event, he offered to represent us, but unlike traditional agents, he also charged a management fee. Perhaps that should have rung warning bells, but we were so thrilled someone wanted to take us on.  After 3 rounds of submissions to science-fiction friendly publishers, we were still without a publisher and rather than wait, we discussed it with our agent and he suggested we self-publish with AuthorHouse. This too had its challenges, in particular, how to handle the graphics and equations.  In the end, I had to generate the final PDF file from our manuscript because I had the appropriate equation editor.   AuthorHouse produced softback and hardcover editions, both of which look really impressive and the paper quality is excellent. Working with a self-publishing organisation gives you an enormous amount of freedom over the manuscript and the cover. There was a painting we wanted to use for the book jacket, so we supplied photographs which were then converted and cropped.

Unfortunately, when you self-publish, you have total responsibility for the marketing as well as the book content and cover. We commissioned a website:, sent out press releases to press- release websites and registered on various book-focussed social networking sites. We publicised the book to our facebook and LinkedIn contacts and tapped into all our personal connections. Through Steve’s involvement with Theoretical Physics, we approached Physics World and New Scientist and took out a Star Product advertisement with Physics World. We also posted the book release on the British Science Fiction Association website ( and had a full page colour advertisement in Interzone.  People bought the book through Amazon - US and UK and there were some nice reviews.

We still haven't been able to attract a really large audience. AuthorHouse handle the retail book distribution, either from their own website or through Amazon, Waterstone’s etc. Unfortunately, that is bundled into the cost, so an AuthorHouse paperback retails at a considerably higher price than a mainstream publisher, albeit slightly less if you buy it direct from them. There was no question of handling storage and distribution ourselves - that would have been far too much hassle. Luckily, we retain the publishing rights, and as a result were able to produce and upload our own Kindle version, which is much more affordable and accessible.

Periodically AuthorHouse call and ask us either if we would be interested in a marketing campaign, or a discounted bulk order.  Every time I explain, sometimes patiently, sometimes peevishly, that we only buy copies 10 at a time, and it's cheaper to buy them direct from the AuthorHouse UK retail outlet - if you buy in bulk, they are shipped from the US and it costs a fortune.  Anyway, where would we put 200 copies, even if we had the market for them?  As to marketing, they would no doubt run an excellent campaign, but at our expense and with limited results.  I'm tired of being told it could be the next best-seller: of course that would be fantastic, but I really don't think it very likely.  And if I get the Harry Potter speech again, I won't be answerable for my actions.  I'm very proud of "Einstein's Question", but I don't see it as the starting point of a multi-million pound franchise.  For a start, we have no plans for a sequel, and I'm not sure about turning it into a movie, although I know Steve would disagree.

I don't regret our decision.  Nothing can take away the amazing sense of achievement of holding a properly published copy of your own work.  We learnt a lot and met some incredible people and we're both still writing.  But next time, the next book - will be different.