Saturday, 14 June 2008

Workshop With Susan Fletcher at Titchwell RSPB Reserve

Intrepid authors braved uncertain weather on the North Norfolk coast to take a guided walk around Titchwell in the company of guide, Dale Harrison and prize winning novelist, Susan Fletcher. Fortified with hot coffee, they then learned ways of using landscape to help tell a story and carried out various writing exercises in the picnic area. Happily, we missed the rain by the skin of our teeth!

New Writing From Reads and Writes Workshop Participants

The Moth Box
‘I want you to do weird.’ Mark Cocker tells us,’ get away from what you think and look at the extraordinary in front of you. Look into this.’ It is 9.30 and raining and we’re standing in the tool shed in Strumpshaw Fen at the start of a workshop on nature and writing.
‘This’ is a moth box, a square wooden box with two pieces of glass making a valley where moths have crept in to lie among a forest of egg box fragments. We cluster round as Mark takes out a large piece of grey carton, and look as the subtly patterned and coloured creatures come into focus against the dull background. The moths remain still as he passes them round, some with wings spread, others held close to look like extra nubbles on the moulding.
‘They won’t fly off, this is their night time,’ he explains. And they do lie still, asleep except for the eyed hawk-moth, large and plump bodied, as it shivers its wings desperate to fly our attentiveness. The poplar hawk-moth is the grandest, a plum grey the colour of dusk, its uplifted tail and deeply serrated wings like a galleon give it a stately and, if I were thinking of eating it, an alarming appearance.
‘A peppered moth,’ and Mark points to one with outspread wings and variegated speckles. I am handed a piece of egg tray, admire a ‘snout’ the colour of crumbly old paper near a moth of such velvet black with a patterned band, an embroidered elizabethan cape of a moth. Turning over this moth bed I see more and more, they have no sense of up or down and it’s me that worries about them falling off.
I find a traditional looking one, with flat folded wings making that familiar shallow v at the tail end and a mark. ‘There, that pattern, that’s what gives the moth its name,’ says Jenny, a veteran of Strumpshaw Fen, ‘A setaceous hebrew character.‘ Well weird.
The rain continues and so do we dispersing into the woods and the fen itself, our weatherproof greens and browns melting into a landscape where everything is blurred. We need a bird sharp eye to see, and a quiet mind to hear. The next hour gives up woodpecker nestlings, the red headed sort, lesser I believe, then a toad, and for others on this workshop more dramatic sightings, marsh harriers and a grebe.
But the moths still cling to my memory, tiny ones, a finger width or a hand span big, furry legged, blotched or eyed, and I want a dress for summer evenings, softly spotted like the wings of the peppered moth. At home that evening I leave the light on and the door open and there’s one on the faded white door, off white and banded. Tonight I see its uniqueness and want to know it.
Bernardine Coverley

Mother Nature’s Palette by Melanie Beck.

It is interesting how as children we are taught
The sky is blue, trees are brown, leaves are green
Now take a closer look, beyond the simplicity of a child’s colour blocks
Into the artist’s paint box, to see the true colour of nature’s palette

The sky is blue on sunny days but rarely a flat wash of one tone
In reality the wash is graduated, a mixture of hues
Cerulean, cobalt, ultramarine, with large brush randomly blended
Interspersed with white fluffy curls bringing the blues alive

On stormy days there is no sky blue, instead an indigo
Intense, dark and dominant between shades of grey
Pewter, charcoal, almost ivory black with less blending, few random strokes
More thought and defined edges around the silver grey smoke like shapes

Trees are brown it is true but look at that weathered old stump
Ageing bleaches that outer shell, paler, greyer, faded
Unexpected colour like drops from the brush, green moss, pink fungi
Draws your attention, pulls you further into the tree, into the palette

Look deeper into the stump; peel away the layers one by one
Subtle colour changes are exposed with each discarded skin
Careful brushstrokes of sepia, burnt sienna, red ochre, raw umber, Indian red
Separately or combined intensify the strength and depth within

It can’t be denied that leaves are green but what is leaf green?
Light green, dark green, yellow green, olive green, intense green, grey green
Bright and shiny as if still wet on the paper, dulling as time passes, as the colour dries
So many leaves, so many greens, working together complimenting, highlighting

Splashes of floral colour that catch the eye, prominent, distracting
Brought into the foreground by the wealth of greens happy to fade away
Rose, crimson, lemon, gold, violet, mauve, single colours, mingled combinations
Attention to detail painstakingly applied with the finest of brush and the steadiest of hand

With no pattern to copy, no instructions to follow, no advice to listen to
An abstract is created from freedom from restraint, or pressures
Expressing a personality with each colour chosen, each application made
Everything belonging, being important to the picture unfolding

The scene may appear simple before us in its execution of colour
Like that of a child’s innocent eye, not knowing how to express what is before them
Yet is seems that Mother Nature knew exactly what she was doing and the complexity before her
When she carefully selected her colour palette and created her masterpiece.

Monday, 9 June 2008

More New Writing from Mark Cocker's Workshop

Birds on the Broad

A Poem by Jo Kjaer

They flap and wheel,
stack red legs in,
spill over reed tufted nests,
their three letter quarrels deafening;

lifting off like helmeted
kamikazes from abroad,
dive bombing local swimmers
gliding by on the calm mirror,

a-swanning and a-grebing,
their unruffled upending
undeterred by gull words
that have no meaning.

Jo won the first Cafe Writers Norfolk Poetry Commission in 2007. Her first collection, 'As The Crow Flies', was published earlier this year.

Birds and People

Norfolk Reads and Writes writer in residence, Mark Cocker, is working on an exciting new project to produce a book about the joys of birdwatching with contributions from the public via the Birds and People website. Visit to find out more.

Writers Workshops

About thirty writers, some experienced, some less so, and some who have never tried their hand before at poetry or creative prose, have enjoyed guided walks and workshops on nature writing with poet Mimi Khalvati and nature writer Mark Cocker.

Mimi's group visited Rockland Marsh with RSPB guide, Matt Wilkinson, then worked on their poems in the RSPB's hide overlooking the broad, or lurking among the vegetation for all the world like wildlife themselves! Here are two poems by Millie Comerford which came out of a lovely day in the sun and fresh air:


When you were all gone,
I could see again,
This year’s teasels standing there.
The meadow took on colour
And best of all,
A willow smashed up by lightening
Lay scattered
On that Euro funded footpath
Through the marsh.

When you were all gone,
I sank back into that childhood place
Where I could see pink and green.
I played in the ooze and slap of mud.

I could see Paddy,
A blur of old clothes and a hat,
A haze of kindness and delight
From an old bachelor
Allowed to like children.

When you were all gone,
The marsh took me in,
took me in,
Offered me water and warmth,
I felt it in my hand.


It’s like a grip to the wrist.
It fills the mind.
It filters into the emotions,
A peaty place.

I am tangled in the plant
Losining my way,
Even in the sunlight
Of the bright summer marsh,
Losing my way.

From afar others feel
Pity or horror.
For me the harrier
Hovers his prey.

Don’t let them see the darkness,
The water lapping at your edges.
Determination may emerge coot like
And the crab apple offer it’s fruit.

Dedicated to Mimi Khalvati

Our second workshop took place at Strumpshaw Fen, followed by writing time at Brundall Library where hot coffee was gratefully received by dripping but dedicated nature writers. I shall leave it to participant, Liz Barnard, to give a flavour of the day:

Nature writer

It is one of those drizzly mornings the Irish call ‘soft’ when the air is so heavy with moisture it coalesces into raindrops; ideal (not!) for the nature writing workshop I am booked onto.

On my way to the workshop I get lost in the cats cradle of roads between Lingwood and Strumpshaw and become very familiar with the Household Waste Recycling Centre which I pass three times: ironically it is much better signposted than the bird reserve I’m heading for. I arrive at the car park, flustered, fifteen minutes late, just as the fuel gauge warning light flashes on my dashboard.

The workshop has already started: ten women and one man. What is it about nature writing that draws more women than men? Some of our best nature writers are men, including our tutor: most bird watchers are men - so where are they? Not here, for sure.

Mark Cocker, our tutor, is well prepared with a giant wasps nest and egg boxes full of moths caught in his garden the night before. The nest resembles a lava flow, convoluted and colourfully striped depending on the wood the wasps had scraped that day: the moths so exotic they could have come from a tropical rainforest with names to match; Flame Shoulder; Pale Prominent; Cetaceous Hebrew Character. Their wings have a velvety pile, some shot through with gold iridescence as though conceived and fabricated by an eccentric textile designer. My favourite looks like a Stealth Bomber in camouflage and is prosaically named Snout! (I’m going to recommend this name to the RAF for their next commission). We peer through magnifying lenses, oohing and aahing until shooed out to do our own research.

We disperse to various points on the fen in search of inspiration and I soon regret bringing the kitchen sink: with one hand holding an umbrella against the steadily increasing rain, and the other clutching my bag with stool, camera, coffee, lunch there is no free hand to swat the mosquitoes.

I lose my companions as I aim for the orchids, hoping that my interest in wildflowers will provide ample material for some nature poetry. I rehearse phrases like ‘trembling grasses’ and ‘raindrops like diamonds’ until I sink to my ankles in waterlogged cattle hoof prints and change my mind. The ragged robins beside the path are bedraggled; I’m bedraggled; there are no orchids and my companions are distant blobs. All of a sudden a rainproof bird hide seems irresistibly attractive.

I step over the red twine directing me across a bridge over a dyke and plod on round the field edge, through a barbed wire fence and up a slippery bank onto the path to the hide - and shelter. The leaves of reeds and flag iris punctuate the dark water of the dyke alongside and I silently juggle words; sheaths, swords, slicing… but the creative well is dry.

I clatter into the monkish silence of the hide and join four other writers just as a bittern starts booming. Well, that’s a first! It has been worth coming just for that!

Through the window the landscape is layered by the rain into a child’s cardboard theatre set; sharp green nettles in the foreground, then reeds and water, elder in flower in the middle distance, then banks of willow and in the far distance the pale, misty outline of larger trees on drier ground. A bedraggled marsh harrier perches damply on an exposed branch. Mark points out another making a ‘food pass’ in the background. I wonder, given the projected global food shortages, whether this is the sort of rationing vocabulary that will soon pass into general use.

In the foreground, on the mere, is a stationary grebe, not doing any of the things I associate with grebes, like diving, but looking, from the rear, like a floating haggis, until with a glorious balletic movement it preens, arching its handsome russet head and white throat over its back.

I drink the decaf cappuccino to lighten my load and wonder if it’s too early to broach the packed lunch. It’s only 10.30. Somehow I’m not in the right mental space for this workshop. That said I could happily sit here all day looking at the view.

We are due back at 11.00am and leave the hide in one by one. I find myself alone on the path enjoying being solitary, aware of the charm of the shell pink saucers of the arching dog rose and the primitive spindles of horsetail. Chilled and damp I head for the toilets, passing a group member earnestly photographing a single bee orchid by the waste bin. I squash four mosquitoes on the loo wall before they can bite my exposed parts.

On the way to the car park a fellow writer tells me that Brundall library, where we are headed next, is ‘on the main road’. Shouldn’t be a problem; public libraries are prominent buildings; I’ll find it, no trouble. By this time my fuel gauge warning light has ceased flashing and is glowing steadily. On my way to through the village is a Budgens store. I stop to replenish my carbohydrates only to spot a notice saying they are closed for thirty minutes due to an electrical problem. Judging by the amount of rain that has fallen I expect their fuse box is waterlogged.

I drive on, confident that Brundall Library will smite me between the eyes. At one point I mount the pavement, a manoeuvre made necessary by a line of parked cars and overtaking traffic. As a result I miss the sign pointing to the Library. By the time I reach the Total garage on the bypass I know I’m lost. But I can fill up with petrol, at least I thought I could until I realised I’d left my debit card at home. Still, a fivers’ worth of petrol, which is all I have, buys enough to get me home and the garage is offering two large packets of Minstrels for £2.67 which will do wonders for my flagging self-esteem. The cashier tells me, in the calm, measured tone you use with panic-stricken children, how to find the library and I set off again.

Somehow I end up outside Budgens a second time where a young man taking a cigarette break tells me they will be closed until 3pm while they wait for an electrician. But, I’ve spotted the library, which, far from being prominent, is a modest building down a long path identified only by a notice on a narrow iron gate. I fall in through the door to face the collective gaze of my fellow writers, grateful for the warmth and the offer of coffee.

Mark scrupulously gathers in our creative contributions in turn, praising our use of language and making constructive suggestions when we anthropomorphise nature too frequently. He’s really very good at this. He laughs so generously at the account of my misfortunes that while I shall abandon my aspirations to become a nature writer I just might consider comedy.