All aboard the Spooky Ship

Dorothy Collins as Emily Lancaster, The Spooky Ship 2017. Photo by Jon Rowley

The ss Great Britain, moored at Great Western Dockyard in Bristol, is a wonderfully intriguing vessel. Populated with impressively realistic models of people and animals, it also has a hint of the uncanny about it.

Each year in collaboration with Bristol Old Vic Theatre, these characters are brought to life in an eerie succession of performances that share stories inspired by real lives lost and lingering.

Scott Bayliss as a Crimean soldier aboard The Spooky Ship - 2016 - Photos by Jon Rowley

Scott Bayliss as a Crimean soldier aboard The Spooky Ship 2016. Photo by Jon Rowley

Last year I had the chance to go along, bringing a friend with me to hide behind if necessary. We were expecting something along the lines of a haunted house, but what we got was so much more, as our guide led us through the impressive architecture of the ship to witness vignettes from a pitiful bride, a broken soldier from the Crimean war (Scott Bayliss), a vengeful nun (Kirsty Asher) and a ship’s butcher (Hal Kelly) who happened to enjoy his work just a little too much.

The ship's butcher played by Hal Kelly, The Spooky Ship 2016. Photo by Jon Rowley

The ship’s butcher played by Hal Kelly, The Spooky Ship 2016. Photo by Jon Rowley

We paused in the first class dining saloon where a 19th couple (Julia Head and Matt Landau) were feasting and gossiping – all good and fine until one confessed to chowing down on a plague-ridden rat and the other commented on the deliciousness of the ship’s pudding-faced cat, then turned their eyes hungrily on us.

The atmosphere was heightened by overhearing fragments from early set scenes – while Sister Benedict talked of the fallen women she despised, shrieks from the distressed soldier rose through the floor. Our guide fed us titbits of the histories that gave the performances their foundations, while cabins fitted out as they would have been in previous centuries, complete with realistic figures in the midst of their own frozen adventures, added to the creepiness.

Sister Benedict played by Kirsty Asher, The Spooky Ship 2016. Photo by Jon Rowley

Sister Benedict played by Kirsty Asher, The Spooky Ship 2016. Photo by Jon Rowley

Many of the tales pulled at the heart strings, such as that of Mrs Gray (played by Stephanie Kempson), who arrived at docks to welcome her husband Captain John Gray home only to discover he’d mysteriously disappeared a month earlier when the ship was still at sea. Her wailing grief sent shivers through the crowd.

The story of Emily Lancaster (Dorothy Collins – shown top of post) was particularly disturbing. Crouching on a flight of steps beneath the dry dock, she told us how she’d succumbed to the pox and been flung overboard before she was dead. Her anger and sorrow was palpable, enhanced by the wonderful setting.

The mix of frights, facts, horrors, dark humour and laments, all staged in and around the ship, made this a fabulously immersive Halloween voyage.

Look out for the Spooky Ship when it returns to Bristol Harbour this weekend. Who knows what or who you’ll encounter!

All photo by Jon Rowley. Buy tickets at www.bristololdvic.org.uk/the-spooky-ship.html.

Young adult fiction

Fallen apples cr Virginia BerginAuthor Virginia Bergin writes exquisite young adult fiction loaded with social context and thought-provoking conundrums. In an exclusive interview she explains how she created her latest novel Who Rules The World?, its protagonist River, and her life set 60 years from today.

How did you go about creating River’s world?

In Who Runs the World? almost everyone with at least one Y chromosome has been wiped out by a virus, 60 years before the story – told to you by River, a teenager –  begins.

But what would a world run by women look like?!

I felt under enormous pressure to ‘get it right’. It surely couldn’t be worse than the world we live in now – even if only because people had had the chance to start again! – but if it was significantly better, perhaps even a utopia . . . what would I be saying? That women are BETTER than men? I’ve lived all my life under ‘the patriarchy’, a world in which we’re given the message that men are ‘better’ than women. That’s not true or right – in any way, shape or form – and I had no wish to turn that lie on its head and repeat it.

And there were deeper problems: whatever kind of world I created, I realised I would be in danger of implying that women and men are somehow fundamentally cognitively different when, as far as I know, all current brain research pretty much indicates otherwise – or points at sex differences so minimal as to be irrelevant. And in any case, what would women and girls be like in a future in which our current ideas about gender – as expressed through, for example, family, society and media – have ceased to exist?

Ultimately, all these tricky issues set me free. I couldn’t ‘get it right’, so I didn’t have to! Rejecting any homogenous, universal idea of female, River’s world – which is only one tiny part of this future world – is a mish-mash. It’s a mish-mash of ideas I am interested in, and of conventions and practices that could conceivably have emerged from the global tragedy. That felt very important; whatever you think about this world run by women, there should be nothing in it that doesn’t make sense. It is a world that has arisen out of our world, in which people are still experimenting with new ways of living.

Forest path cr Virginia Bergin

Why was it important to you, and to the story, to create as genderless an environment as possible?

In many ways, there wasn’t much choice about it! As I saw it, with only women left in the wider world, current gender concepts would rapidly dissolve; binary notions of gender died along with most of the men. There is huge diversity in how women live, love (and look), but, most importantly, words like ‘woman’ and ‘girl’ have no real meaning for River beyond ‘person’ or ‘young person’ – until Mason, the boy in the story shows up. He has some shockingly sexist ideas about women (and men).

At times, it was almost impossible to write. It was so difficult to see through River’s eyes, to think through her mind. I had to imagine what a girl who had been raised without our ideas about what it means to be a girl would be like – and, crucially, what decisions she would make when confronted by Mason. Her upbringing enables her to think and act in the way that she does (though it’s still a struggle); the apparent absence of gender in her world is crucial to the plot, which centres, ultimately, on a question of justice.

I noticed that River had a really strong idea about what words relating to Man and Men meant – why do you think it was impossible to make her world entirely genderless?

I don’t think she has a really strong idea – at least not consciously – until Mason’s arrival. Up until that point, how the world was has been ancient history to her, and of very limited interest, but his behaviour is so strange, alarming and threatening to her, all the negative comments and ideas she has ever half-heard about Man and Men come flooding back. This was a deliberate choice in the story; I wanted River to live in a world where memories and experience of Man and Men linger on – and so are passed on to the generations that follow. This was what I wanted to explore: an apparently genderless world in which a gendered world still exists – in education, in culture, and most of all in human memory.

How did you go about testing this when she encountered her first boy?

River knows men and boys still exist, but she would never in her life expect to come across one! The males who escaped the virus were placed in remote Sanctuaries – the nearest one is hundreds of miles from River’s village – and to leave a Sanctuary means certain, rapid death. When she finds Mason in the woods, her astonishment is total. I imagined the thoughts that would go through her mind – ‘This cannot be. It simply cannot be’ – and how she would come to think the unthinkable. In the end, it’s not Mason’s physical appearance that leads her to conclude he is a boy, but his behaviour, and the things he says. There is a terrible match between what she has heard about Man and Men and how Mason behaves and speaks.

Forest cr Virginia Bergin

Why sixty years, specifically, in the future?

I suppose I could have set the story hundreds of years in the future, but I was more interested in what a girl who is almost – but not completely – free from our ‘now’ would do. River has never seen a man or boy before in her life, and nor has her mother (a politician; a respected and trusted Representative of the people) – but River’s Granmumma, Kate, has; she was just a teenager herself when the men and boys died. Kate’s memories, and those of the other Granmummas, play a huge role in the story . . . but her life experiences were (obviously) very different to River’s. I set it up this way to bring the generations into conflict, and to allow some of our current thinking about gender to be questioned from a very different perspective: River’s. She is the future.

What kind of fun did you have with the granmummas in the book, who are today’s teens?

The best fun!

If you’re a teen and you read this story and you identify with Kate: hurray! She’s you – she’s your feistiest, most apocalypse-surviving you – 60 years from now. In fact, most readers of all ages seem to love the Granmummas – and I do too. They’re great survivors, very resourceful people who have lived through an immense tragedy… and yet they really know how to grab joy(And also how to use a mobile phone).

I enjoyed the ecological issues you raised in the story. What made you decide to include this thread?

Hmmm . . . I suppose there was a link in my mind between the patriarchy and capitalism – the source of so much of our environmentally damaging behaviour. In River’s world, ‘The Earth comes first’ (Global Agreement No.1), but the damage has already been done: the climate is unpredictable, creating difficulties for humans and the rest of nature. I was drawn to the idea that the environment would take even longer to ‘forget’ the past than humans. It takes a long time to change and to heal.

Daisies cr Virginia Bergin

What do you hope your YA readers will take away from this book?

A sense of freedom!

Who Runs the World? is an invitation to imagine what a world beyond gender might look like. I’d love it so much if readers did that.

Why is YA fiction such a good arena for this kind of political ‘big questions’ novel?

I think YA fiction can be more honest and direct than non-YA lit. More open. And I think that’s because of the readers. We come up against all sorts of ‘big questions’ – and probably for the first time – when we’re teens, so it feels as though there’s a real hunger for those issues to be explored in literature.

And, for those of us who are no longer teens . . . we were all 15 once. I think, sometimes, it can be helpful to remember what it was like when so much of the world was new to us – and, in the case of Who Runs the World?, it’s precisely River’s being part of the younger generation that enables her to see the world in a new way . . . and I think that might be what we all need right now, isn’t it?

To see the world in a new way…

Virginia BerginAbout the author

Virginia Bergin’s debut YA novel The Rain (titled H2O in the US) was published by Macmillan Children’s Books in July 2014, and was followed by a sequel, The Storm, just seven months later in February 2015. Who Runs The World? came out in June 2017. Her agent is Louise Lamont at LBA Books. Virginia has a background in psychology and enjoys like science, archaeology, nature, art and walking. Find out more at www.virginiabergin.com

All images in this guest post have been supplied by Virginia Bergin.

Virginia will be on the panel of Stories of Strong Women, taking place at the Spielman Centre, Arnos Vale Cemetery, Bath Road, BS4 3EW on Friday 20th Oct, 1pm-3pm, as part of Bristol Festival of Literature.

Read my review of Who Rules The World?

Got some writing insights to share? I’m always happy to receive feature pitches on writing genres and writing tools. Send an email to Judy(at)socketcreative.com.

Writing prompt – dusk

Dusk-winter-trees-cr-Judy-Darley

As the days shorten and nights lengthen, my mind turns to the winter solstice, and to the Solstice Shorts Festival 2017 due to be hosted by micro publisher Arachne Press.

Arachne Press proprietor and publisher Cherry Potts is seeking submissions of new and unpublished poetry and prose on the theme of Dusk. What does it bring to mind for you?

Cherry describes dusk as “the last ‘official’ segment, when the sun is down, but there’s still a lingering light in the sky, through to out and out night.”

The deadline for submissions is 5th November 2017.

Think about how you can turn that time when light and dark hover around each other into a story or poem. Find out how to submit your words at arachnepress.com

If you write or create something prompted by this, please send an email to Judy(at)socket creative.com to let me know. With your permission, I might publish it on SkyLightRain.com. You can help make the Solstices Shorts a nationwide festival.

Solstice Shorts Logo

Book review – Who Runs The World? by Virginia Bergin

WhoRunsTheWorldcoverFor aeronautical student River, it’s a day like any other. She’s been out in the woods, collecting cider apples, and is now on her way home without a care in the world. But then she encounters a stranger who is seriously unwell. More worryingly, that person is an XY, a male, and River has never in her life met one before.

In Virginia Bergin’s third YA novel, Who Runs The World?we enter a reality set sideways from our own thanks to one significant difference. Sixty years earlier, a virus wiped out the majority of men on the planet, and now all male babies are taken away to live in sanctuaries, safe from the illness that would kill them, but which leaves the females untouched.

River has grown up in a society ruled by women, where concern for the planet comes first, and concern for community second. Concern for self is barely worth mentioning, as empathy and Courtesy (awarded a capital letter throughout) are the only accepted behaviours. It’s an outlook newcomer Mason is set to challenge.

If TV series The Handmaid’s Tale introduced a new generation of women to Margaret Atwood’s warning, Who Runs the World? kicks us into assessing our own auto-responses to what we think of male and female and the space in between. In many ways, the sans-XY world she has created reads like a utopia, but seen through an adolescent’s eyes, there’s a level of naivety and ignorance that allows for credibility to shift and crack. The darkness of the sanctuaries and the realisation that secrets are being kept at higher levels of society knocks River’s certainty about the world she inhabits. It’s a process we all go through as we get older, but set against a re-imagined world, it’s heightened in a way that’s wonderfully thought-provoking.

Throughout, Bergin is subtly seeding ideas about a better tomorrow, not least through the doctrines River takes for granted, from manners to avoidance of greed, waste and laziness. At the same time, the Grandmothers, a generation of women who were teenagers when the virus struck, offer reflections of a more familiar time and outlook. Bergin manages to achieve a perfect balance between the contrasting viewpoints formed by different societies, while allowing for contradictions that make sense within the bubble River has grown up within. For instance, while her understanding of the female gender is refreshingly broad and open (why would some jobs ever be left to men?), her untested opinion of men is stark –

It’s no wonder that when her first encounter with a male doesn’t go well, she can only assume the ideas she’s picked up on are correct. “Every strange and scary thing I’ve ever heard said about XYs comes bursting into my head.” Mason is terrified, and therefore threatening, in a way River has never experienced from any person previously. With her mother Zoe-River equally alarmed by the creature’s arrival in their lives, it takes River’s great-grandmother Kate to point out that Mason isn’t an It or a man, but a boy, and that he has far more reason to be afraid than they do.

This is just the beginning of River’s reawakening, and as she twists and turns through the story, re-examining what she has been brought up to believe, it’s inevitable that we readers do a semblance of the same. “I can’t find a place in my head where that fits,” she says near the beginning, but by the end of the novel, a new space has grown and her mind is more open, and wiser than ever. Throughout, River has questioned what she holds to be true, and we’re prompted to ask questions too, about right and wrong, gender norms and the society we’ve been shaped by, at least to some extent.

Vigorous, energetic and exhilarating, this is a novel that has heart and courage, just as its protagonist River does. A refreshing fiction with a core of truth, which should be compulsory reading for all age groups and genders.

Who Runs The World? by Virginia Bergin is published by Macmillan Children’s Books and available to buy from Amazon.

Read Virginia’s insights into writing YA fiction.

What are you reading? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a review, please send an email to Judy(at)socketcreative.com.

Literary Bristol

Judy Darley in Redcliffe CavesBristol Festival of Literature returns from 19th-28th October 2017, with curious, intriguing, inspiring events popping up all over the city. I wrote a feature about it for The Bristol Magazine, titled Bookish Bristol, and was wowed by the options on offer. Events are already selling out, so get your tickets fast!

You can pick up copies of The Bristol Magazine all over the city, in cafes, hairdressers, estate agents and other businesses.

I’m taking part in a least two events. The first is Bristol Writers Group and Friends Go Into The Dark, taking place in Redcliffe Caves from 7-9pm on Tuesday 24th Oct. Tickets have already sold out! I’m one of the friends, and very excited to be invited back. Reading in the caves is a really magical event – it’s a wonderfully spooky environment. I’ll be sharing my tale Merrow Cave. The pic at the top of this post (photo taken by Sally Hare) shows me at a previous year’s event.

Tickets cost £5.50 each.

Novel Nights Oct 2017 readers

Novel Nights Oct 2017 readers

The second is Novel Nights, which I’ll be co-hosting with founder Grace Palmer from on Wednesday 25th October. Three local writing talents, Alison Brown, Kate Simants and Deborah Tomkins, will share novel extracts before Cornerstones literary editor Dionne McCulloch offers her insights on novel-writing and answers questions from the audience. It’s happening at The Square Club, 15 Berkeley Square, Bristol. Get tickets for £8 here.

There are so many other fabulous literary happenings to choose from too. Find the full programme and ticketing details at unputdownable.org. Hope to see you at an event or few!

An expression of love

DancinginMocoMoco#3 by Natsuko Hattori

DancinginMocoMoco#3 by Natsuko Hattori

Natsuko Hattori’s soft, curving sculptures are beguilingly sensual creations, yet they express sorrow and feelings of helplessness as well as love.

“In 2011, a year after I moved to New York, the earthquake that devastated the northeast Japan happened,” Natsuko explains. “It was very big thing for me. I lost contact with my family and friends for more than a week. I panicked and spent sleepless nights crying. I felt so powerless.”

Sculptures in blue by Natsuko Hattori

Sculptures in blue by Natsuko Hattori

Through her desperation, Natsuko began to wonder if she could do as an artist to express or alleviate these feelings, not just her own, but those experienced by others too. “In the end, I came to the conclusion that I want my art to make people smile, make them feel warm and tender at the moment they feel sad and down,” she says. “I decided to recreate through art what I feel when I think of the word love. To me, to love is to embrace, or to envelop someone or something with warmth, tenderness and affection. So I came up with the idea of wrapping cotton balls in piecse of cloth and putting them together to create a soft sculpture. This is how MocoMoco was conceived.”

SCULPTURES1 by Natsuko Hattori

Sculptures by Natsuko Hattori

She sees textiles as the perfect medium to t communicate emotions on a relatable level.

“Fabric is my medium of choice because people everywhere can relate more easily to this material, which conveys warmth, natural softness and the intimate human touch,” she says. “My works are all made up of my feelings and experiences. People who have seen my work for many years say that each piece of work represents my life and ideas. For me, the work is like a diary, which confines the feelings of that time. Just through looking at my work, I feel my thoughts from that time again.”

Find Natsuko’s sculptures at www.natsukohattori.net 

Are you an artist or do you know an artist who would like to be showcased on SkyLightRain.com? Get in touch at judy(at)socketcreative.com.

Writing prompt – fog

Undiscovered Faroe Islands © Per Morten Abrahamsen

Undiscovered Faroe Islands © Per Morten Abrahamsen

Did you know that the people of the Faroe Islands have 37 words for fog?

It’s just the kind of detail that makes me want to reach for pen and paper and start scribbling down ideas for stories and poems.

The archipelago of 18 tiny islands is currently petitioning Google Translate to share their language. Located in the North Atlantic, between the Shetlands, Iceland and Norway, they have created their own Faroe Islands Translate in a bid to have their language taken on by Google. Less than 80,000 people speak Faroese worldwide.

Faroese fog © Kate Chapman

Faroese fog © Kate Chapman

The Faroese version of the online translation service employed the services of locals rangings from sheep farmers to school teachers, and chefs to social workers. “This initiative provides an opportunity to see the friendly Faroese before visiting, and to gain a window on to their magical world.”

To me that sounds like a fabulous feel-good film!

Lisa í Dali, a student at the University of the Faroe Islands, is one of the locals involved. Lisa’s favourite Faroese phrase is “um tær ikki dámar veðrið, bíða so bara í 5 minuttir” which means “if you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes.” Perfect!

Use this beautiful story to inspire a piece of writing, and celebrate the power of language.

To learn more about the Faroe Islands, visit www.visitfaroeislands.com/en. To fly to the Faroe Islands, visit www.atlantic.fo.

If you write or create something prompted by this, please send an email to Judy(at)socket creative.com to let me know. With your permission, I’ll publish it on SkyLightRain.com.

London Literature Festival 2017

Philip Pullman photographed by Michael Leckie

Philip Pullman © Michael Leckie

This year’s London Literature Festival hosted by the South Bank Centre asks, how literature is being shaped by contemporary life?

The festival takes place from 13th October until 1st November 2017 and is crammed with enticing options.

Meet YA authors and take part in practical writing workshops at the Young Adult Literature weekender. Experience poetry, film and spoken word at the Poetry International founded by Ted Hughes at Southbank Centre in 1967. Listen to author Naomi Klein discuss Donald Trump, neoliberalism and her latest book ‘No is Not Enough.’ Meet the 2017 Man Booker Prize for Fiction shortlist. And, tantalisingly, discover why and how Philip Pullman has returned to the realm of His Dark Materials and his character Lyra In the exclusive London launch of the highly anticipated La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust Volume One.

In short, have your imagination thoroughly stirred and your mind inspired.

Tom Hanks - 2013 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc All Rights Reserved Austin Hargrave

Tom Hanks © Austin Hargrave

You’ll also have the chance to see Tom Hanks at the Royal Festival Hall discussing and reading from his first short story collection on Wednesday 1 November 2017. Uncommon Type explores the human condition and all its foibles, with each story connected by the recurring motif of a typewriter.

For the full programme, visit www.southbankcentre.co.uk.

All images supplied by the South Bank Centre.

Art worth climbing hills for

Urban Archaelogy 2 By Peter Ford

Urban Archaelogy 2 By Peter Ford

Art On The Hill returns to the Windmill Hill area of south Bristol on 7th-8th October, promising a wealth of exceptional creativity. I’ll be heading to 13 Cotswold Road to ascend the narrow stairs leading to Off-Centre Gallery. Printmaker and curator Peter Ford has long had me entranced with his unique view of the world, and this year he’ll also be joined by artists Dr. Michael McCaldin and Ruth Ander.

Urban Archaeology 1 by Peter Ford

Urban Archaeology 1 by Peter Ford

Other highlights I’m looking forward to include Stephen Mason’s ambiguous photography at 39 Gwilliam Street. Sixty artists have signed up to exhibit on the trail, so there should be plenty to tempt you.

Stephen Mason photography 2

Photography by Stephen Mason

Find full details and the trail map at www.artonthehill.org.uk.

Writing prompt – voyage

Voyage by Judy DarleyIt’s always intriguing to see a boat out at sea. Where are they going and where have they been? Is this about pleasure, arduous work or desperation? Is this the end or just the beginning of their voyage? Weave a tale from this simple image.

If you write or create something prompted by this, please send an email to Judy(at)socket creative.com to let me know. With your permission, I might publish it on SkyLightRain.com.