Midweek writing prompt – fearful things

Marionette shop, Prague cr Judy DarleyI think most of us are unnerved by things that don’t bother other people in the slightest. Spiders, for instance, don’t worry me at all, but puppets, now, they’re proper scary.

Writing from the heart ramps up the power of any work of poetry or prose, and considering the things that make your skin crawl, or provoke you to check under the bed, can tap into that quivering darkness deep inside.

So this week, I invite you to face your fears head on, whether they’re something physical, like puppets, or the daunting dread of impending joblessness, loneliness or ill heath. Whatever makes your bones shiver, look it in the eye, put in on the page, and turn it into a piece of creative writing.

Who knows, taking control of your anxiety may even free you from it. See you on the other side!

If you write something prompted by this idea, I’d love to know. Just send an email to Judy(at)socket creative.com. With your permission, I’d love to publish it on SkyLightRain.com.

We wordbombed a flea market

Vintage cravats cr Judy DarleyThere’s a particularly fine flea market that rocks up not far from me each month. By fine I mean eclectic – packed with eccentric folks selling unexpected wares from storefront dummies to diving bells, to extraordinary arrays of colourful hats. It always fills me with the urge to try to capture the scene, give so much ephemera a sense of permanency.

So we decide to wordbomb it – and had a ball.

Doll heads poem cr Judy Darley

How to wordbomb

It’s a perfect simple premise. Just take a few scraps of blank paper and some pens along with you. Browse at your leisure, and when you feel moved to, scribble down a few thoughts inspired by what you see. I’d advise stepping away to do this – the idea is to act as fast as possible so that there’s less chance of you being spotted in the act – hence the ‘bombing’ or ‘storming’ part.

Diving helmet poem cr Judy Darley

Now the tricky part – surreptitiously place your scrawled words with the items that inspired them. If you have the chance, snap a quick photo of it in place, but this is less important than managing to leave your words.

Diving helmet cr Judy Darley

Of course, you ought to ask permission, but then it wouldn’t be wordbombing, it would be, um, word leaving. As in yarnbombing, the illicit element is an intrinsic part of it.

And the aim is to scatter your words so that they can surprise, bemuse and possibly even inspire others.

Alligator poem cr Judy Darley

Note: You will receive varying response to your words and actions – but the man selling the crocodile suitcase smiled as he read my spur-of-the-moment poem, which made it all worthwhile.

Wearing hats cr Judy Darley

Remember Me To The Bees – The Beast

The Beast cr Louise BoulterThe 15th story in my debut short fiction collection Remember Me To The Bees is The Beast. I wrote it in response to a call for submissions from bi-annual journal of new fiction Riptide for their Cornwall-themed issue, and was really chuffed that it was selected for publication in  Riptide Volume 7.

I wanted to write a story blending together urban myths, in this case the Beast of Exmoor, along with the taboos and secrecy thrust upon us by society, as with regards to domestic violence, and then explore these through a child’s eyes who may not fully differentiate between the two.

The artwork at the top of this post is by Louise Boulter. The others are my own.

A short excerpt from The Beast

The school day was long and achy and boring. Especially at break-time when the other kids watched him and whispered together as he shuffled outside to sit while they played footie. He hated the fact that they hadn’t known him before, when he could run and kick as hard as any of them. As far as they were concerned, he’d always been damaged, and always would be. Through their eyes he could only see himself as he was now. The real him was nowhere in sight.

Mrs Braithwaite had got his mind whirring, wondering about the creature that was too terrible for her to risk telling him about. Back in the classroom he toyed with the idea, trying to imagine what it could be.

‘Tyler Clarkson, I’ve been calling your name!’ The teacher’s voice made him jump, but she sounded more worried than cross. ‘What are you thinking about?’

‘The Beast,’ he said, without meaning to. He hunched down in his chair as the class erupted into giggles.

‘Hush, class,’ the teacher said firmly. ‘Do you mean the Beast of Exmoor, Tyler?’

The note of kindness in her voice made him brave enough to nod. ‘Yes, Miss. What is it?’

She smiled, seeming pleased. ‘Well, class, here we have a newcomer who doesn’t know our local legend. Who can help?’

A dozen hands shot up, some waving furiously. Tyler blinked around at them. It had to be something good to get such a response.
‘A giant cat, Miss.’
‘A puma, Miss!’
‘Loads of hikers have been attacked by it, torn limb from limb.’
‘My great-uncle was a farmer and in the 1980s he lost more than 100 sheep to the Beast!’
‘My granddad once saw its footprints. He said they were bigger than dinner plates!’

The teacher clapped her hands, making them fall silent. ‘Well, most of you are right, in one way or another, but perhaps the most important thing is that it’s a myth, which means what?’

‘That it might not be true, Miss?’

She nodded, pleased again. “It probably isn’t true. If there ever was a Beast, which I doubt, it’s long gone from Exmoor now. So there’s nothing to be afraid of at all.”

The Beast: The moor cr Judy Darley

Midweek writing prompt – wordbomb

Grandfather Clock cr Judy DarleyHave you ever been tempted to try a spot of wordbombing? It’s a bit like Rachael Charwick’s 60 Postcards project, only a whole lot more ramshackle.

Wordbombing is something I got into a few years ago, but it harks back to my childhood, really. I grew up in a house that was a few hundred years old, crammed with curious nooks, as well as the curious old bits of furniture my parents had inherited from their own predecessors. My mum and dad still live in that house now, surrounded by those same inherited treasures. In particular, there’s a rather odd but lovely grandfather clock that for some unknown reason was never finished – the clockface has a few lines missing as though someone got distracted midway through and then forgot.

I loved that  clock so much – its distant bongs would murmur through my dreams. I used to open the door at the front to see the pendulum swing in the shadowy, mysterious space inside. Continue reading

Home from home – Quintinha de São João

Quintinha de Sao Joao cr Judy DarleyEntering Estalagem Quintinha de São João feels more like coming home than checking into a hotel. Located on a discreet side street close to the center of Madeira’s capital city, Funchal, the hotel has the air of the home of friends with impeccable taste, a sense that’s enhanced by the warm welcome from the reception staff. The fact that there are only 43 rooms adds to this further, so that by the time you walk into yours, you’ll feel like part of the family.

This is the perfect place to relax between bouts of sightseeing, with spacious balconies overlooking the rooftop pool, gardens and surrounding hillsides. The pool opens early, so an early swim is a great wake up, followed by the sumptuous breakfast served in the A Morgadinha restaurant.

Quintinha de Sao Joao pool cr Judy Darley


If you prefer more privacy, arrange to have croissants, cereals, fruit and coffee brought to your room, and sprawl on the sofa while you wait for the caffeine to kick in. Each room has a spacious living area, while suites have separate living and bedrooms with a balcony opening out from each so you can choose where to relax. You can have a masseuse come to your room, or visit the hotel’s spa with three treatment rooms plus jacuzzis, a sauna and hamman steam bath.

If you don’t make it out of the hotel, there are plenty of shady corners in the garden, as well as comfortable nooks with fat armchairs, tables and sofas where you can read, plug in your laptop and catch up with a spot of writing, or scribble long overdue postcards.

In the evening, sample cocktails in the Vasco da Gama bar, or ask General Manager André Barreto to have a romantic meal served to you in the gardens beneath an arbor of sweetly scented jasmine blooms. By the time the stars come out, you may have decided never to leave.

Quintinha de Sao Joao jasmine cr Judy Darley

Remember Me To The Bees – Otters

Otters by Louise Boulter

The 14th story in my debut short story collection Remember Me To The Bees is Otters. It came to me in a flash one day as I considered that disconcerting moment when you realise your parents actually aren’t immortal after all, and find yourself worrying more about them than they do about you.

It’s a curious time of transition, and one I wanted to explore through two characters, a grown woman and her ageing father, who, despite his advancing years, still has a thing or two to teach her.

The artwork is by Louise Boulter.

A short excerpt from Otters

At the reptile house he seemed to find an affinity with the giant tortoise, one wrinkled face gazing at another. “Says here he’s over 80 years old!” he said, peering at the notice.

“Wonder what keeps him going in there. Reckon he’s got an Enrichment Programme of sorts?”

They moved quickly through the insect house, passing the cockroaches and ants with barely a glance before coming to a halt in front of a beehive, where you could see the worker bees returning with their loads of pollen. “Never get to grow up, these ones,” he told her. “Never get to reproduce, poor things.” He touched her shoulder when he said that and she had the feeling he meant it as a compliment, a way of saying he was glad he’d produced her.

He led the way outside, pausing at one of the benches adorned with a plaque commemorating someone who’d apparently loved the zoo till the end of their days. Perhaps she could get one for him when he died, Rachel thought, then felt sick that it had crossed her mind so easily.

“Lunch,” he said, opening his backpack and bringing out a bottle of juice and two fat packets of greaseproof paper. “Tuna sandwiches!”

“Shall we save one for the seals?” she suggested, regretting her comment the moment she saw him seriously considering it.

Rachel was keen to see the seals being fed, to recapture another childhood memory, this one of sitting on his shoulders for a better view in a similar zoo thirty years before. She led him through the crowd, hoping the other visitors might notice his now narrow and sloping shoulders, his shrunken frame, and make space for them. At last the glinting water was right there before her, the stench of fish strong in the air, but when she turned he was gone.


The keeper began the show, and she had to force her way back through the wall of people to the entrance. “Dad!” She scanned the hordes, hoping desperately, and spotted the flock of yellow-hatted youngsters.

“Have you seen an old man? He was with me earlier. Wearing a red jacket and a grey backpack.”

They shook their heads and she moved on, retracing her steps, past the insect house, the ancient tortoise, the ape enclosure. Panicking she ran to the map on the wall of the gift shop and tried to guess what could have caught his attention. Perhaps he was hungry again, had gone to the café. Then she saw it, between the signs for the marmosets and the meerkats: Otters.

Bristol Zoo giant tortoise cr Judy Darley


Midweek writing prompt – flavour

Cafe Majestic tart cr Judy DarleyIt’s not news that some tastes or smells can shoot you back to certain moments in life, conjuring up all the emotion that went with them. Author Marcel Proust utilised this wonderfully with a mouthful of tea into which a madeleine had been dipped, aptly demonstrating the powers of involuntary recollection.

In your own writing, I invite you to evoke this strange alchemy – give your character a bite of some food or a mouthful of some drink, and use it to evoke a memory that tells you something significant about them.

Now go and get yourself a slice of something delicious. It’s all research, you know.

If you write something prompted by this idea, I’d love to know. Just send an email to Judy(at)socket creative.com. With your permission, I’d love to publish it on SkyLightRain.com.

Book review Nigel Slater’s The Kitchen Diaries II

The Kitchen Diaries II coverI sometimes think of Nigel Slater as the favourite uncle I never had, and in a curious way this book is like a series of postcards from an affable relative, keen to ensure you’re eating well and taking good care of yourself.

It’s a beautiful, hefty tome, with a textured cover, elegantly patterned endpapers, a fat silky ribbon to mark your place, and page after page of sumptuous sounding recipes to pore over in a favourite squashy armchair rather than risk on a kitchen shelf.

Recipes are laid out by date (hence the kitchen diaries of the title) so you can look at a calendar then turn to see what Uncle Nige is recommending for that day, each flavour discussed with powerfully evocative descriptions. For April 15th, for example, the chapter’s heading is ‘A fistful of garlic leaves’, and begins with a dreamy paragraph on the scent of wild garlic encountered while walking in the countryside. “Each leaf crushed underfoot will send up an instantly recognisable puff of the sweet, fresh young herb.” Continue reading

Laments in Lisbon

iew of Lisbon from St George's Castle, LisbonA hush falls as an elegantly dressed woman stalks among the crowded tables, coming to a halt into the centre of the room. A guitar is gently strummed, then the laments begin.

I sit in near-darkness in a room crammed with Portuguese Fado aficionados, all listening intently. Not a single fork scrapes against a single plate. I haven’t experienced Fado before. Part of me was expecting something akin to the explosiveness of Spanish Flamenco, but Portugal’s national song is far more contemplative. I don’t understand the words, but the sentiment is clear, and shivers race up and down my spine.

“Fado translates as fate,” Carmo tells me when the performance ends. “Many of the songs are about beloveds who never returned home from sea.”

Tram, Lisbon cr Judy DarleyI’ve only been in Lisbon a matter of days, but the area around Clube de Fado, the Alfama district, is already one of my favourites. When we return in the morning, only a little the worse for wear, Carmo reminds me that it survived the great earthquake of 1755, so retains a sense of the small city as it would have been long before then, with washing hanging haphazardly between wrought iron balconies and steep, narrow streets. “Many homes here still don’t have their own bathrooms,” she comments, an note that could equally be horror or pride in her voice.

The streets are stacked one above the other another, giving the impression they were built in haste, yet it’s hard to imagine anything here ever being done in a hurry – even the trams amble like commuter-crammed caterpillars.

There’s a curious beauty about the Alfama, with some of the houses beautifully tiled. Most feature at least one small painted tile paying homage to a saint, and keeping the homeowners’ family safe from harm. This is a place where fate is taken seriously – anything you can do to safeguard your family is done.

Castelo de Sao Jorge, Lisbon cr Judy Darley

Above all this sits Castelo de São Jorge, where we wander through dappled sunlight and drink in panoramic views that showcase the city like a painted tableau. Despite the tourists, it is peaceful here – people murmur as they pose beside cannons, and cameras whir gently. Terracotta roofs are stacked above creamy buildings, and the strong, rectangular towers of churches rise above all else.

Far to my left I glimpse a crimson bridge that seems oddly familiar. “It was designed by the same company as San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate bridge,” Carmo says.

Ah, that explains it. The river it spans is the Tagus, a thread of water that broadens at times into an estuary lake so wide it resembles a sea, yet it narrows as it nears the sea – seeming reluctant to leave.

It’s an impulse I can relate to. I wonder how Portugal‘s explorers could bring themselves to head out to the unknown, knowing they might never make it safely home.

“This is my favourite place in Lisbon,” Carmo says, eyes half closing in bliss. “You know, don’t you, that the city was founded by Ulysses?”

I ask her to repeat herself. Surely Ulysses, the one I’m thinking of, is a fictional hero.

She shrugs, either uncertain or not caring. “I like to imagine him standing here on this hillside and saying, yes, this is good, this is home.”

Discover Barcelona.

Remember Me To The Bees – the launch

Remember Me To The Bees book launchI’m a great believer in doing the things on your wishlist, your bucket-list, if you get the chance. A book launch was on mine, though I hadn’t dared look it straight in the eye.

So when the opportunity came to have my short story collection, Remember Me To The Bees, published, that was exciting, but glimmering at the edge of my vision was the launch.

But I almost didn’t do. Almost lost my nerve. Almost let the idea of ‘what if no one comes’ fright me into inaction.

I pushed past the fears – started planning the night.

And one excellent piece of advice from Mike French on throwing a successful book launch made it work – plan it not as a selling exercise, but a celebration, as a party.

Here are the ingredients of my book launch

1. The venue

I thought about what I would do if money was no object and set my heart on my dream venue, The Birdcage – a coffee shop cum vintage clothes shop cum bar cum music and lit night hosts.

The Birdcage, BristolI had a few chats with them about what I wanted to do, and they agreed to let me have the space free of charge on a Monday night. And that was that, preparations in motion.

The Birdcage Bristol

2. Live music

Having achieved this, I had the courage to come up with a dream list, and a pretty clear picture of the kind of tone I was going for – going with the party theme and the vibe of the venue, I was keen to have live music…

Rabbit City at Remember Me To The Bees launch

I asked around a discovered that a friend of a friend, Anders aka Rabbit City, is an extremely talented musician and singer/songwriter. I listened to some of his sets on SoundCloud and realised his music would work really well with the stories in my collection, create the vibe I was after and was exactly what I was after.

Rabbit City play Remember Me To The Bees launch

3. Original artwork

Art was always my vision for the night. Bournemouth-based artist Louise Boulter created the cover for Remember Me To The Bees and artwork for each of the twenty stories in the collection. I checked with the venue and then asked Louise if she fancied holding a one-night exhibition of her work at the Birdcage on the launch night. She was keen – so that was the décor sussed, if a way that matched the feel of the book, the music and the venue.

Louise Boulter Fishermen

4. An outfit for the author

Okay, this one may feel pretty frivolous, but for me the right clothing can help to put me in the right frame of mind, and I wanted a fancy frock. I opted for a vintage-look silky navy blue number with a wonderfully flowy skirt and lacy back, and felt like a literary princess all night long. It helped give me an extra boost of confidence, and added to the party feel for me.

Judy Darley Remember Me To The Bees launchI also wore a gold bee pendant my hubla had given me, just in case people weren’t aware this was a book of stories smattered with bees.

5. The readings

I prepared four excerpts to read at the launch, only around ten minutes in total, and just enough to whet people’s appetites. My reasoning was that a full story demanded too much attention from attendees – I wanted everyone to be intrigued by what they heard, and be left wanting more. It seemed to work!

Judy Darley reading from Remember Me To The Bees I practised diligently in the weeks before the launch so that I almost knew the snippets off by heart. It definitely helped to be so well prepared when I took to the stage and saw quite how many people had turned up!

Remember Me To The Bees launch

Which takes us to…

6. The invitations

I invited people I loved, people I liked, people I respected and people who I simply thought might be interested.

Philip at Remember Me To The Bees launch This included members of my family, local publishers, authors, journalists I’ve worked with, and just a lot of people I’ve enjoyed the company of at one time or another. The majority of the people I hoped would come did, and a few more besides. The place was packed!

7. A compère

I was happy to go up and introduce myself, but my hubla wisely pointed out that it would look far more professional if someone introduced me and then Rabbit City, and he kindly offered to take on that role, and did a grand job!

James as compere fro Remember Me To The Bees launch

8. The signings

Judy signing copies of Remember Me To The BeesThe Birdcage is a curious l-shape, with a main room that has the bar at one end and the stage at the other. A slightly smaller space spills off this and we took over a large table in there to pile up the books onto. I sat there and signed copies of the book and chatted to my fans (!) while Rabbit City played. It was utterly exciting, but when I felt overwhelmed it definitely helped to have a friend come and sit with me, or get lovely Louise Boulter to come and sign a few books too!

Judy signing copies of Remember Me To The Bees1

9. The photography

Last but not least, the gorgeous photographs that will helped me remember this night till the end of my days. Pete Gettins turned out to be the perfect man for this – unobtrusive and keen-eyed. Pete took all the photos published in this post. He captured many moments I hadn’t seen and many that made me exclaim as I laid eyes on them for the first time. Working in low-lighting and a party atmosphere he managed to take a collection of images that feel to me part art, part reportage.

Remember Me To The Bees photographer Pete Gettins

And on the night everything went swimmingly – there was a golden glow to the evening that brought to mind weddings, birthdays, the gladdest of times.

I shared excerpts from Girls in Windows, Stalagmite, On The Ledge and Singing For Seals, signed and sold a lot of copies of Remember Me To The Bees, basked in the shimmer of a job well done, saw the pride on the faces of family and friends, revelled in having my own, one-person house band, posed for photos, forgot to pose for photos (those ones turned out better, I think), made contacts, had some jolly chats, felt like a literary star, and floated home feeling like moonlight was seeping from every pore.

So this is my advice. If you publish a book, even if your publisher has no publicity budget, have a launch. It raises awareness of your work, but more importantly it marks a pretty special achievement, and you’re bound to have a fantastic night.