The Scribbler

15 April 2014

Appearing at the Oxford Story Museum

There’s a place in Oxford called The Story Museum. It’s just re-opened after a bit of a break, with an exhibition called 26 characters, which features 26 famous authors dressed as their favourite character from childhood, photographed by Cambridge Jones.

The list of writers is like a who’s who of children’s literature and includes some of my contemporary favourites. There’s Neil Gaiman as Badger from Wind in the Willows, Philip Pullman as Long John Silver, Terry Pratchett as Just William, Malorie Blackman as the Wicked Witch of the West; Julia Donaldson, Holly Smale, Francesca Simon (of Horrid Henry fame), Benjamin Zephaniah, Michael Rosen and many others.

And thanks to my wonderful writing mentor, John Simmons, a piece of my writing features there too. I’m a member of a writing organisation called 26 (after the number of letters of the alphabet) ideally linked to the theme of this exhibition. So, I was invited  to contribute a poem, to accompany one of the portraits.

The 26 writers were matched completely randomly with an author and a letter of the alphabet. We got to see Cambridge Jones’ splendid photographs of our author and were set the task of writing a sestude – a literary form of exactly 62 words (26 in reflection).

I positively squeaked when I discovered that my author, Steven Butler, had chosen The Hatter from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as his favourite character. I love Alice in Wonderland and the characters have continued to inspire some of my creative writing.

Michelle reading The Horse and His Boy

Enjoying one of my favourite books from childhood again. Photo by Mike Tulip

I didn’t know Steven Butler’s work, so I quickly read a couple of his books and found out a bit more about him. He’s written a fabulously funny series called ‘The Wrong Pong’ which tells the story of how Neville Briskett is mistaken for a young troll and sucked down the toilet to Underland.  And more recently, he’s written ‘The Diary of Dennis the Menace’.

I loved ‘ The Wrong Pong’ and think it’s a great series for children to read for themselves. It has the right mix of disgusting, yuckyness to put off most adults as well as being a cracking adventure story that rips along  at a fair pace.

It’s been great to discover a new writer who I wouldn’t normally come across too. I really like the way he creates his characters, especially the troll family who adopt Neville and absolutely love the special language they use. I was delighted to be able to include one of Steven’s brilliant made-up words in my sestude which you can read on the Story Museum’s website.

I’ve also written about one of my favourite childhood characters, Aravis from the Horse and His Boy for the museum’s digital gallery. Thanks to Mike Tulip for taking the accompanying photo.

It would be enough to have a poem in an exhibition alongside some of our most brilliant writers, but to have the chance to pay tribute to one of Lewis Carroll’s most memorable characters in the city where he first created Wonderland is a real honour, and a little daunting.

But Carroll wasn’t just an Oxford man. He has connections with the North East of England, where I live too. He visited members of his family who lived at Whitburn, and according to his letters, wrote the first verse of the poem ‘Jabberwocky’ while he was in the area. So there’s a nod to that in my poem too.

I studied Carroll at university and later researched the influence of the North East landscape on his work for a feature I produced whilst working at the BBC. You can see what I discovered about Lewis Carroll’s connections with the North East on this archived website.

I haven’t seen the exhibition yet, but thanks to stalking the story museum on twitter, I’ve seen a few glimpses. It seems each room becomes the setting for a different character, so I look forward to stepping into Narnia, Neverland and Wonderland when I go to visit in May.

It’s been a brilliant project to work on. The only difficulty has been keeping it secret for so long. And now I can’t wait to see it for myself. The exhibition lasts until December, so if you’re in Oxford and go to see it, I’d love to hear what you think.

27 March 2014

Losing the gremlins in the woods

Filed under: run — The Scribbler @ 21:07
Tags: , , ,

I’m focusing on running at the moment, trying to make the most of four run sessions a week – usually a couple of 10ks, a 30 min interval set and a long, slow run. It’s hard. It’s been a long time since I’ve focused on just running, but in a way, it’s good to go back to where it all started. I’d just forgotten how much it takes to get out and do it, to tackle to tough sessions and push myself further and faster.

The plan was to run 10k , so I set out under grey skies and light drizzle with around an hour’s running in mind. It being a longer run, I was kind to my feet and chose my old trainers, ones I knew would get me through the distance without my toes feeling like they were being blitzed by fire and ice.

There’s a 5k route that I use quite often, away from traffic but over decent paths and light trails. I set along it feeling heavy legged and bodied. No bounce, more a shuffle. I made a conscious effort to think about my form, land light, pick up my feet, ease into the run, relax.

I grumbled round the loop, negative thoughts floating through my synapses. ‘Why am I doing this? It’s meant to be fun? This doesn’t feel like fun. I’m so much slower than I was. I expect too much. I’m not getting any younger. This will keep on getting harder.’

Sometimes they threatened to stick and form goals ‘I could just go and run my home race for fun… I should drop Alnwick tri… I should pull out of that standard tri, just do the sprint’. Of course, I could do all of those things, I just need a better reason than mental gremlins made me do it.

Rather than completing my usual 5k loop and running it twice, I extended it on through to a nature reserve.  The trees alongside the narrow path are woody and spindly, not showing their spring greens yet. But the shade and the renewed focus on finding my feet along the trail seemed to lift my thoughts and before I knew it, I’d outpaced the gremlins and left them stumbling through the woods, unable to follow me.

I started to breathe a little easier, feel the flow of movement a little more naturally. The path continued and I was enjoying myself, so I followed it, hoping that I’d remember a route from years ago as I came across the landmarks.

I didn’t. I thought there was a style. There was a gate and a main road. I thought I could run alongside on the verge for a little way and then turn in by a big tree. I didn’t find the tree, but I did find a sort of path at the edge of a field, heading in the right sort of direction, so I followed it.

I wasn’t lost. Just exploring. At any point I could have retraced my steps and found a familiar path. But I didn’t want to go back. I wanted to go forward. My route took me over some rather rough ground, and eventually back onto a tarmaced footpath pretty close to where I first entered the nature reserve.

Earlier thoughts of cutting the run short had been banished. I’d come so far and enjoyed my little off road adventure, I would see out at least an hour’s running or more. I found something like pace. Legs which had grumbled and begged me to slow down at the start seemed willing to push on after an 8k warm up and I completed my distance target.

As always, I felt so much better for doing it. And reflecting on my run, there were far more positives than the gremlins could throw negatives at me.

My first race of the season is a 10k road race. I can run the distance. I’ve done it a few times recently and will do a few more before race day. I can do it after a heavy week’s training on legs tired from weight training. And I can lose the gremlins along the way, and actually enjoy a run that didn’t start out that way.

Now to find a bit more pace and my racing head…

24 March 2014

Triathlon training in sunny Scotland

Saturday, sunshine, blue skies and a trip north, over the border to Scotland for the first tri day of the year, hosted excellently as ever by my fab tri buddy Lesley.

These often happen midweek, so despite it being the weekend, I still felt like I was skiving off as I put my bike in the car and drove north on a practically traffic free road, casting admiring glances at the calm blue seas off the coast. I must have had about three complete changes of outfit packed in my huge tri bag, in anticipation of any kind of weather, but it was very kind to us.

Four runners in red tops

On the run with my tri buddies (Photo Bob Marshall)

With me, Lesley, Al, Lucy and Cat  all arrived safely, we headed off for a pool swim at Haddington. With the pool shortened, it was a good chance for me to try out some of my coaching and Swim Smooth tips and to suggest drills that would help improve the efficiency of swimming strokes. It’s amazing what you can learn from watching other people swim and see all the different styles and learning techniques.

I had them doing doggy paddle, sculling, torpedo push offs and swim backs, and I did some 6-1-6 and catch up drills using a High 5 tube, which I passed from hand to hand. It worked very well, but I’d forgotten how hard those drills are. I need to make sure I spend a bit of time doing them.

I did get a bit of a swim in, but no great distance. It was just lovely to be in such a bright, airy pool. And reminds me I do need to make time for my swimming as I do enjoy it.

After a bit of a refuel with flapjack from the cafe, it was back to base and change into cycling gear for the main part of the day. Much faffage and discussion about how many layers and pumping up of tyres, but we were soon on our way out onto the quiet and largely traffic free roads around North Berwick.

Cyclists ready to roll

No one gets dropped on a tri day (Photo Bob Marshall)

The best thing about these rides is that no one gets left behind. We all enjoy a nice cycle, stop and regroup at junctions, push on and fall back when we need too. This time everyone seemed to be at a similar level of cycling and it was very pleasant just moving along, spotting swathes of yellow daffodils, passing a couple of horses and chain-ganging down a lovely smooth stretch of road.

Last time I rode this route, we got hit by a horrendous head wind in the last 3 miles, which was so bad one of our party actually got off and walked. It wasn’t quite so bad this time, but still tricky enough to slow us down and send me rattling down to my lower ring. I can still feel a flush in my cheeks and on my forehead today from the wind burn!

But we all made it back in one piece and us girls did a quick change around for a bit of a run while Bob took some great photos and Al made sure we’d have soup ready for our return. It was great all running together in our Fetch tops and we stuck together for one lap of the trail loop and did our best Runner’s World pose at the end for another photo.

How could 4pm have come round so quickly? It felt like we’d only just got started, but we were all hungry and soon devouring soup, bread, spreads and cake and flapjacks. Yum!

They say time flies when you’re having fun. It certainly did for me. Even cycling, which I usually get bored with in less than an hour, felt relatively easy and carefree. The chat flowed, the sun shone and it was all over too soon. But, as always, it was just one of the best days.

4 March 2014

How readable is your writing?

Your 20 page document outlining in detail the research, findings and recommendations of your latest project. That’s easy to read, right? I mean you know the subject in detail. You’ve been working on it for months. It’s obvious… isn’t it?

To you, it may be. But what about your audience? Someone who picks it up and reads it for the first time? What does it tell them?

Do they pick it up with a groan, put off by the thought of reading pages and pages of tight-packed text with long sentences and paragraphs that go on, and on and on? Will they be baffled by jargon? Stumped by acronyms? Wonder why on earth this is relevant to them?

Is it well organised, structured in a logical way? Does it have a beginning, middle and end? Do your conclusions actually conclude anything?

These are all questions and problems that came up for discussion on a business writing course recently. And there’s lots you can do to make your documents easy to read, starting with thinking about your audience and writing for them, not yourself.

Here’s one little tip to help you review how easy your writing is to read.

When you spell check and review a Word document, (because you all do a spelling and grammar check before you send it out, right?) did you know you can also see how easy it is to read?

Word can show you readbility statistics. To turn this option on:

  1. Click the File tab, and then click Options.
  2. Click Proofing.
  3. Under When correcting spelling and grammar in Wordmake sure the Check grammar with spelling check box is selected.
  4. Select Show readability statistics.

Next time you’ve finished checking the spelling and grammar of your document you’ll see information about its reading level.

Sadly, just having the statistics may not help you understand whether it’s easy to read or not. So for a quick guide to what the numbers actually mean and an online version of the scorecard, I like this readability checker from The Writer.

21 February 2014

Long slow running

Filed under: run — The Scribbler @ 13:30
Tags: , ,

After a long time training without much focus and a short run in with plantar fasciitis in January, I’ve felt like my running has gone backwards recently with some hard efforts for less than dazzling parkrun times.

So, time to try something different, and, for the last few weekends I’ve been doing a long, slow run based on MAFF heart rate training. It’s a rather unscientific basis, as I haven’t managed to get my heart rate monitor working, so I’ve been running as slow as I felt I could, and definitely at a pace at which I could hold a conversation.

I hadn’t run more than 10k since last August, and only ran a few 10ks since then, so when my PT suggested I should do a slow 12k, I was a bit unsure. But off I trotted, finding the pace hideously slow at first, and then willing myself on through the last couple of kilometres on that first run.

I stopped and walked a couple of times when I felt in danger of trying to push too hard, and was, in truth, very grateful to get to the end. But there it was, my longest run since 2012, just by going slowly.

The second weekend, it was a little easier and I didn’t have to stop and walk. And last Sunday, as I stepped out under blue skies and sunshine, it was positively enjoyable. Easy pace, no stress from the watch, the chance to say good morning to every runner who passed me by. People out and about with dogs and kids, walking along beside the coast, feeling that maybe, just maybe, spring is round the corner.

I still felt strong as I approached the final kilometres, so I carried on a little further than planned. Just another 500m I thought. And then I decided to treat myself to a lap of my beach. I eventually finished on 13.5k, feeling like I could have gone on.

The long slow run has been a great pick me up. Just stripping things back, giving myself time to think, feeling the sun on my face and enjoying the freedom of running along my beautiful spot of coastline.

1 February 2014

Swimming with the tiddlers

Filed under: swim,training — The Scribbler @ 20:28
Tags: ,

The forecast was not favourable for Newcastle parkrun this morning. Overnight rain and freezing temperatures bring ice to the exposed moor and just after I parked up, I learned it was off. I’d arranged to meet my friend Tove for a post parkrun swim, so I walked over to the start, spreading the word to those arriving and catching up with her as she appeared on her bike.

Neither of us fancied hanging around for two hours before the nearby pool was open for public swimming, so we deferred our session for another time. I could have done a freedom run I suppose, and a good few did choose to take their chances over the slippery paths, but I decided to save my legs for a long slow run tomorrow and went to swim at my gym instead.

I fancied a long slow swim. There’s been a 1500m set sitting glaring at me from my plan this week. With the pool nice and quiet and the lane empty, it looked like a good shot.

So, slow and steady was my mantra, a few easy lengths warm up and then into the big swim. I swim in a 20m pool so 75 lengths was the order of the day. I broke it down into 3 x 20 plus 15 but I wasn’t intending to stop, just to use this as an easy way to count up the distance without it becoming overwhelming.

During my first 20 lengths, I spotted a man bringing out floats and swim noodles and other bits of kit and putting them at the side of the pool. I figured there were some kind of lessons or an aqua class about to start. So, after my first 20 I stopped and asked him if I needed to move out of the lane. He explained that it was a babies swim session, so they’d be using the swim lane and I moved into the main pool.

I started again, reasoning to myself that if it was hard going or I felt particularly achey, I could count that first 400m provided I swam the rest continuously. But I settled into a nice easy rhythm, kept it slow and steady and by the time I’d done 1000m, I knew I could manage the last 500m to make it a genuine continuous swim.

Swimming up and down to the sound of ‘Twinkle, twinkle little star’ and ‘Wibble wobble, jelly on a plate’ as well as baby noises from the next door lane was quite a new experience. But I just focused on my swim,  visualising a smooth blue ocean and swimming in gentle waters. I let myself really relax, which meant my form was a bit scrappy and I went back to lifting my head further than I need to, but I’m trying just to focus on one thing at once when I swim. This was about keeping going over the distance. Next time I’ll do some shorter sets and be stricter about my form.

With the additional 400m and a bit of warm up and cool down, it meant my swim overall was just over 2k in 51 mins. And the 1500m took 34:35, which I’m pretty chuffed with as that was a very comfortable effort level and I know I could increase that to go faster.

I know people who regularly run 100 miles a month and see my friend Nicki who logs 30km runs at the weekends and think, ‘how do you do that?’

But it’s all about building and training for whatever it is you’re focused on. I can still remember the achievement of running 2 miles non stop and my first continuous 400m swim which I guarantee left me more out of breath than today’s 1500m.

So today, I’m really pleased that I can get in a pool and do 1500m front crawl. That I can relax and control my breathing so that I don’t have to think about it so much. I know that not so long ago, I couldn’t do that.

So, fellow swimming tiddlers, I just want to say you can do it. I’ve been there, coughing and spluttering and clinging to the side like a fresh-landed haddock after a length or two. It takes time and practice, but if I can do it, you can too.
Each swim is a lesson and each stroke a movement forward.

27 January 2014

Wild encounters on the run

Filed under: run — The Scribbler @ 12:53
Tags: , ,

Inspired by Nicki’s post about her run in with a kangaroo in Australia, I’ve just added a new blog post to Running Up Top Down Under, about my wildlife adventures out on the road.

 

23 January 2014

Finding the joy of business writing

I gave blood yesterday. There’s sometimes a bit of a wait, so I grabbed a book to pass the time. Having finished my most recent fictional treat, I picked one off my desk – Room 121 by John Simmons and Jamie Jauncey.

The front cover proclaims it “a masterclass in writing and communication in business”. I say it’s a really good read.

It takes the form of a dialogue, a conversation between the two writers, sharing their thoughts, wisdom and experience of writing for many different kinds of business. And having spent many wonderful hours in their company on a couple of Dark Angels writing courses, I can hear John and Jamie’s voices in my head as I read it.

I opened it at random to find John speaking to Jamie about the joy of writing (page 119 if you’re interested). As a copywriter for a large company, it’s sometimes something hard for me to find. It’s a challenge to keep things fresh when you’re covering the same subjects or writing about the same products over a sustained period of time.

But I find ways. Sometimes I take a sideways approach, starting a draft in a deliberately different style, or with a word chosen at random from a nearby book. Or I begin the assault on the blank page by free writing, just spending 15 minutes or so taking my pen for a walk, writing non stop, banishing the inner editor and seeing where it takes me. There’s usually a phrase or combination of words, a nugget that gives me a way in to the next, more focused draft.

Yesterday’s moment of joy came from using the word ‘palaver’ in a piece I was writing. Palaver – what a wonderful playful word. Doesn’t it just make you smile? Don’t you want to say it? To feel it tumble around your mouth?

It’s not a word you might expect to see in a piece of business writing. But it was a direct quote from a customer, a fish and chip shop owner describing the experience of using his software saying: “There’s no faff. There’s no palaver.” Perfect. Real words. Authentic, natural and robust language. They gave me a small moment of joy. I reckon we need more of that in business writing.

Read more from John Simmons and Jamie Jauncey on their blogs.

19 January 2014

Always learning

Filed under: run,words — The Scribbler @ 22:33
Tags: , , ,
So there I was with a nice new training plan, full of long slow paced runs to build endurance. And then I got up from my chair in the office to walk across the floor and felt it in my left heel. That little nudge, nudge tightness that said plantar fasciitis.I tried to convince myself it was a spot of cramp, shrug it off. But massaging the base of my foot over a golf ball (still got one in my desk drawer), it was just the same tight and uncomfortable feeling as last time. Harumph! Not what I wanted.But I had the advantage this time. I knew what it was and even though it was the merest hint of painful, around a 1 on a scale of 1-10, I knew not to ignore it. Home and on the ice packs and as good a calf massage as I could give myself.

I had to change my plan to pace 30 mins at parkrun last Saturday, volunteering for another role instead, opted for at least a week off running and booked a sports massage.But if I couldn’t run, I could still swim and cycle. I substituted parkrun for a swim and surprised myself at how easily I managed a good distance. On getting out of the pool, I had the brainwave of using one of the jacuzzis and treating my foot to a good massage with the water jets. It loosened up no end.By the time I had my sports massage on Tuesday evening, there was very little pain, and Frances spent a good 30 mins easing up my calf muscles. There’s some satifaction in being able to tell your therapist that it was your posterior tibialis that caused the problems last time, and her getting her fingers to work on the right spot.

NThis Saturday I volunteered once again at parkrun. It was the 4th anniversary of the event and a record breaking turnout of 525 runners at Newcastle. I was handing out number tokens with the smiley blonde lady who encouraged me on my first parkruns, who I now know as my friend Tove. I’m afraid we rather struggled to keep the finish line clear as the crowds came through as it was a very packed finish area, but it was great to be part of it.

By now I hadn’t run for 10 days, and there was no sign of discomfort from walking, so I kitted myself out for a test run. It was grey and drizzly, and the plan was to do a good warm up and drills, then run very easily for 4 mins and walk for 1 minute and repeat. So I made sure I had some good warm layers on and set out.

When running I kept the pace very easy, focusing on keeping good form – light on my feet, shoulders relaxed, thinking about all stages of the run. Of course, I felt like I wanted to keep on running, but the deal was to break it up with short walks and I did. These were useful as they helped me reset and remind myself to focus on form over speed or distance. I could just feel it starting to break down on the last repetition, so had a good easy warm down, stretched and hoped I wouldn’t have aggravated my niggle further. I’ve rarely enjoyed a damp, wet and cold run so much.

Today, all is well. No further pain, so I’ll build back into my running this week provided I have no more problems with my foot. But with a 25k indoor bike session and a 600m swim in the bag today after a decent week’s training, I reckon I’d be okay to get round a sprint tri if you told me there was one next weekend, so that’s not a bad place to be early on in the year.

16 January 2014

Launching ‘ Running Up Top Down Under’

Filed under: run,travel — The Scribbler @ 19:45
Tags: , ,

Meet my friend Nicki. While I  take to the roads and trails here in the North East of England, she tackles the roots, dust and mud in the southern parts of Australia. While she sweats under the unforgiving sun, I’m wrapping up to face the frost.

We’re both runners and love to write, so we’ve started a joint blog:
http://runninguptopdownunder.wordpress.com/

Running Up Top Down Under is a conversation between two runners at the opposite ends of the earth. An insight into two writing runners and proof that when it comes to running, there’s always someone in the world who understands.

I’ll still blog here and let you know when there’s something you might be interested in ‘Up top or down under’. It promises to be an adventure. So check it out and let us know what you think.

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