Let’s talk about death, baby

Death the human experienceWhat are your thoughts about death? Do you think of it freely, with curiosity or turn from it with dread? The current exhibition at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery invites us to face our fears and explore the myths and realities surrounding our eventual expiration.

death: the human experience is an unexpectedly beautiful, contemplative exhibition, displaying archaic associations with death (from an exquisite death’s head hawk moth to a Victorian mourning dress. There are insights into burial practices across the world, including a piece on ‘sky burials’, examples of items left at gravesides and buried with the deceased, and a cheeringly rambunctious Ghanaian coffin shaped like a lion.

You can listen to funeral and mourning songs from a variety of cultures, admire memorials intended to honour the dead or display how well they were loved, and perhaps reconsider or identify your own attitudes to these rituals, and what’s important to you personally.

The subject matter is handled sensitively and thought-provokingly, with special separate sections where you can consider darker aspects such as infant mortality and cannibalism, with small doors to open on exhibits that may be especially distressing. For me the mortuary table from a former Bristol hospital was a more sobering sight – something about its clinical contours just seemed very cold. There are also videos of commentaries for and against assisted suicide, which tackles the important issue of quality of life.

Whatever your feelings on death when you enter, I think you’ll emerge able to speak about death more readily – this is an aspect of life we’ll all experience at some point, whether as the deceased or as a mourner, and being able to talk about it can only help.

As the Mark Twain quote emblazoned on one wall states: “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”

What a curiously comforting idea.

death: the human experience runs at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery until 13 March 2016. Visitors are invited to pay what they feel the exhibition is worth.

Writing prompt – impressions

Tulip quilt by Jane Brocket

Tulip Fields quilt by Jane Brocket

This week’s writing prompt was inspired in a rather round about way by a particularly vibrant quilt. A while back I interviewed designer Jane Brocket for Simply Sewing magazine and we discussed her Tulip Field quilt, which resulted from her passion for Holland’s dazzling tulip fields. Jane‘s quilt appears in her book The Gentle Art of Quilt-Making.

Tulips cr Judy DarleyAfter a grey January day in the office, I came home to the discovery that my man had brought me a bunch of hot pink tulips, reminding me of Jane‘s quilt and seeding an idea.

Quite simply, I encourage you to imbue your next written piece with a particular flavour by keeping a scene of your choosing in mind, whether that’s a frosty hillside, raging sea or cosy coffee shop. Hold the colours, shapes, sounds and scents in your imagination, and layer your story around it. Hopefully the atmosphere of that view will coil through your fiction, adding extra depth, texture and richness.

Let me know how you get on by sending an email to Judy(at)socket creative.com With your permission, I’d love to publish your written response to this prompt on SkyLightRain.com.

A writing course in the Lake District

LinthwaiteAs the 150th anniversary of Beatrix Potter’s birth approaches, authors are invited to take a break in the spectacular wilderness she called home. Couple with her love of writing and creating iconic whimsical characters, Potter was ardent about the Lake District’s rural splendour, and left 14 farms and 4,000 acres of land to the National Trust when she died in 1943.

Fancy tapping into the energy of that scenery?

Designed to unlock a writer’s creativity, the residential course at 4-star country hotel Linthwaite is designed for every level of writer, from beginners to published authors. It will run from 29th February, concluding on 3rd March 2016, just before the region’s annual Words by the Water literary festival in Keswick on 4th-13th March 2016.

The three-day Creative Writing Course will be run by Angela Locke, author of six internationally published novels and non-fiction/travel books, as well as being a prize-winning poet with five published collections. The course aims to help participants “find their creative voice, expand their minds and encourage them to write poetry, stories and prose in a supportive environment.”

Linthwaite private tarn

The real draw here is the location. Linthwaite is situated only a few minutes from the famous Bowness-on-Windermere, and is set within 14 acres of beautifully landscaped gardens including its own tarn. Its picturesque location, with panoramic views over Lake Windermere.

The course fee of £462 per person covers the course itself, three nights’ accommodation, and three evening meals, one of which will take place at William Wordsworth’s family home, Rydal Mount, and will include a private viewing of the property and recital.

For full details and to book your place, visit www.linthwaite.com or call 015394 88600.
Find the full programme of Words on the Water at www.wayswithwords.co.uk


How to write children’s books

Sunshine snail cr Judy DarleyLate last year I decided to treat myself to a special gift by signing up to Rachel Carter’s Children’s Book workshop at Bristol Folk House.

Taking place on Saturday 12th March 2016, Children’s Book in a Day promises inspiring exercises that will help you explore aspects of writing “such as character, setting and plot.”

Ethan's Voice coverRachel Carter is the author of children’s novel Ethan’s Voice, about a boy who cannot speak. I was keen to discover more about the course teacher, so got in touch with Rachel to find out what drives her own writing.

“I was always drawn to creative writing as a child,” she says. “When I was twelve, I was chosen to be sent on a residential writing course in a big old house for a week. I think that experience sowed a seed.”

Rachel grew up surrounded by animals and fields on a Somerset smallholding. “There was lots of space and time to reflect. I worked in publishing for years, including children’s non-fiction publishing. I decided instead of editing other people’s work my heart lay in creative writing and I was drawn to writing for children because it felt like such a flexible medium…a really broad genre.”

She admits that writing for children is challenging. “I think it’s harder than writing for adults because you have to tailor your language and so on to the age of the children you’re targeting. It’s very competitive and hard to make a living just from being a writer. There is a lot of rewriting involved as with any form of writing.”

Rachel CarterThe best things, Rachel suggests, are “being able to lock yourself away, or sit in a cafe, and focus on creating something you really want to create; meeting children who genuinely love what you have written, and going into schools to do author visits.”

The course is designed to provide the tools needed to start writing your children’s book. “It’s a combination of discussion, imparted advice and inspirational creative writing exercises,” says Rachel, who is also available for school author visits, talks and workshops. “It covers character, plot, setting, the ages and stages and the industry/getting published side of things. It is a fun, uplifting day that uses pictures and objects, and guided exercises to prompt the imagination.”

Sounds wonderful to me.

Children’s Book in a Day at Bristol Folk House is on Saturday 12th March 2016. Taking part costs from £18.10 to £25.90. Find out how to book your place at www.bristolfolkhouse.co.uk.

Theatre review – A Girl is a Half-formed Thing

Aoife Duffin in A Girl is a Half-formed Thing1 Credit Mihaela Bodlovic

Aoife Duffin in A Girl is a Half-formed Thing © Mihaela Bodlovic

Sweeping us from the days before birth deep into a girl’s life, Annie Ryan’s adaptation of Eimear McBride’s award-winning novel for The Corn Exchange Theatre is a formidable journey. The adaptation itself is a work of mastery – at no point do we exit the inner narrative of the half-formed girl, instead experiencing everything that comes her way with visceral intensity.

To accomplish this, Ryan cast just one character, the girl, performed with extraordinary power by Aoife Duffin, who also presents us with every person the girl encounters, from mother, brother and uncle to a breezy roommate, and a succession of men. Her ability to portray different presences is striking – a few alterations to her voice and posture conjure up a host of folks with a variety of intentions towards the girl.

With equal economy, the stage is dressed with no more than a covering that could be carpet, could be mud, and Duffin’s costume comprises what looks like lounge wear – comfortable, unassuming and disarmingly vulnerable. Her feet are bare throughout, allowing Duffin’s talent to shine as she acts from head to toe.

Aoife Duffin in A Girl is a Half-formed Thing cr Mihaela Bodlovic

Aoife Duffin in A Girl is a Half-formed Thing © Mihaela Bodlovic

The story isn’t easy-going. There’s grief, betrayal and an awful lot of sex, most of elicited but less with passion than a desire for self-abasement.

Yet, this is a love story in the purest sense of the word, as the girl aims to protect her older brother and keep him safe from the tumour that afflicted him before her birth. He is the ‘You’ she refers to frequently, and when she talks of their childhood, we’re offered the impression of them hiding together from their irate ma, secure and for the most part happy.

Subtle use of sounds and lighting move us from scene to scene, and mood to mood, but truly this is a play of words; fractured, invented, poetic and bold. Duffin breathes them with every part of her being, so that when she is sore, we are sore, and when she is searching for a sense of herself in all the wrong places, we are searching for her too, so we can bring her safely home.

It’s a performance full of strength, raising questions about culpability and the tendency of victims to punish only themselves. By the end of the 1hr, 25 minute play, Duffin is in emotional tatters, running from the stage after each curtain call with palpable relief. The courage required by this show, and by the girl it focuses on, is evident on her face.

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is at Tobacco Factory Theatres until Saturday 30th January. To book tickets visit www.tobaccofactorytheatres.com, call 0117 902 0344 or email tickets@tobaccofactorytheatres.com

Opportunity for artists of sound

Weather Station projectb-side festival & OSR Projects are looking to commission artists who work with sound to produce a piece in collaboration with the Weather Station project.

South West-based sound artists are invited to put forward proposals to take part in Weather Station (Part 2), an art project culminating in an exhibition at the b-side festival on the Isle of Portland, Dorset, in September 2016

The deadline for submissions is 7th February 2016.

To apply, submit a brief outline (around 250 words) detailing how you would respond to the subject of flooding and extreme weather, and how you might explore the changing relationship we have with landscape and the natural world. The organisers say: “Particularly we ask that your response should engage with the ‘Weather Station’ itself, which is a large transparent inflatable sphere (see all available images HERE). It’s large enough to stand, walk or sit in – if wished – on land or water. It’s waterproof, and also therefore ‘breath-proof’, meaning there’s a limitation on the amount of time you can spend inside it.”

Weather Station project2

You must be available to take part in Weather Station (Part 2) sometime between March and June 2016, with results being exhibited at the b-side festival in September 2016.

To be in with a chance of being part of this, consider the part the sphere itself will play in your performance – “to use, react to, present, record, collaborate on, share, or otherwise engage with” before the Weather Station travels on to the next artist in this cumulative project. In your proposal include the South West setting you would like the Weather Station to come to for your particular piece, whether that’s a street, river, rooftop or field.

Weather Station project

OSR Projects and b-side will jointly select one artist from the proposals. The final exhibition of Weather Station (Part 2) also offers the opportunity for the selected artist to include some existing relevant work. The successful applicant will receive an artist’s fee of £400 to cover any travel and materials.

Find full details at www.curatorspace.com/opportunities/detail/commission-opportunity-for-artists-working-with-sound/513 

For further information on Weather Station visit osrprojects.net/archive-projects/weather-station-part-1/weather-station-part-i.

Writing prompt – Chagall and Fo

La passeggiata by Marc ChagallIn November last year I attended the Marc Chagall: Russian years 1907-1924 exhibition at the Santa Giulia Museum in Brescia, Italy, where works by Chagall are currently displayed in conjunction to responsive pieces by Dario Fo.

Chagall’s romantic The Promenade inspired Fo’s creation, titled Un colpo di vento e Bella raggiunge il cielo, which translates as A gust of wind and Bella reaches the sky. Bella was Chagall’s beloved wife, and the subject of many of his paintings.

Un colpo di vento e Bella raggiunge il cielo cr Dario Fo

Un colpo di vento e Bella raggiunge il cielo © Dario Fo

While Chagall’s artwork shows the airborne woman anchored by her love for Chagall, in Fo’s interpretation, she seems to be buffeted – helplessly at the mercy of the wind. Her devoted lover races after her, his body language a panicked cry.

Either work on its own is ideal as a writing prompt, but I ask you to consider what happened between The Promenade and Fo’s responsive painting.

What has changed between this couple, and why?

If you write something prompted by this idea, please send an email to Judy(at)socket creative.com to let me know. With your permission, I’ll publish it on SkyLightRain.comFind out more about Brescia at www.skylightrain.com/brescia-10-top-experiences

The Marc Chagall and Dario Fo Exhibition will be at the Santa Giulia Museum in Brescia, Italy until 15th February 2016.

Discover Budapest.
Discover Bath.
Discover Barcelona.
Discover Laugharne.

Book review – Astray by Emma Donoghue

Astray coverIn her short story collection Astray, author Emma Donoghue takes us on a journey that leads us through time and across oceans deep into the lives of people both real and imagined (sometimes a skilful blend of the two). We encounter their hardships, bear witness to their darkest deeds, share in their triumphs, and hope, very much hope, that a happy ending is just over the next horizon.

It’s a reminder that travel was once only for the intrepid, the desperate and those determined to find a better life. As a historian, Donoghue is adept at taking shreds of ephemera and transforming it into something with body and spirit, and with each of these tales, she reveals something of the era, and the people concerned

Following each story is a brief explanation of its origins, including the facts that inspired the fiction. More than once I found myself surprised by which pieces were true, and which made up – evidence, I think, both of Donoghue’s powerful imagination and reality’s tendencies towards peculiarity.

Continue reading

Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook 2016 Short Story Competition

Beautiful skies, Victoria Park cr Judy DarleyThis annual competition is one of my favourites on the literary calendar, and well worth entering if you have a story that fits this year’s theme, or if the theme prompts the germination of a grand idea.

The theme for 2016 is ‘ageing’. So many directions you can take this in! Your story must incorporate this theme in some tangible way, and must be no more than 2,000 words long.

The closing date for entries is midnight on Monday 15th February 2016.

Entry is free, but you need to register on www.writersandartists.co.uk before submitting your story. Continue reading

New Artist – a new magazine

newartistI recently got invited to write a feature for a brand new magazine, New Artist. It was a dream commission, involving me visiting galleries, coffee shops and the like and talking to the people about the pros and cons of choosing to exhibit in unconventional spaces. It opened up really interesting discussions, and gave me an opportunity to consider some unexpected sides of the arguments for and against, while enjoying spending time in some of my favourite kinds of places with some truly talented people.

I was thrilled to receive my comp copy of the magazine last week, which comes with a cover gift of a set of sketching pencils (bonus!), and is packed with beautiful practical articles designed to improve artistic skills and inspire ideas for new compositions.


One special detail for me is that among the photos I submitted along with my feature text was a photo I’d taken in the Grant Bradley Gallery, Bristol, which just happened to include a small work of art by my mum. It made it onto the printed page, which means I now have the pleasure of letting my mum know her collage has been featured in a national art magazine. How lovely.

Print editions of the quarterly New Artist magazine are available to buy online from craft.buysubscriptions.com/Special-Issues/New-Artist, with digital versions available on iPad, tablets and Zinio. The print version of issue 1 will be on sale until early March 2016, with digi editions available indefinitely. Huzzah!