Hogwarts School of Wizardry, I Wish!

Inspired by Leigh Ward-Smith’s entertaining post Six-Word Stories: On School, I’m going to share with you twenty-one six-word memories of the girls-only boarding school I attended. Why twenty-one? Because that’s my age … hah, hah, I wish. You won’t see me cross my heart and hope to die on that score.

All girls school torture for tomboys.

School tuck box. Lemon sherbets. Toffees.

Not on diet. Pudding third helpings.

Playing vinyl records on portable player.

Terror of lacrosse and hockey sticks.

Sadistic sports teachers with hairy legs.

Sent out of chapel for giggling.

Bogey up French teacher’s nose distracts.

English teacher sings Joan Baez songs.

Art class. Life drawing resembles Queen.

Swearing. Mouth washed out with soap.

Performance nerves. Messes up school concert.

Headache, tears of frustration over algebra.

Slide rules. No calculators. Mental arithmetic.

Writing science fiction instead of studying.

Midnight. Reading banned books by torchlight.

Talking after lights out. Nocturnal detention.

Chicken pox. Mock O-levels in bed.

Blank paper in exams. Time up.

School Prize Day. Nothing for me.

Wishing too late, I’d worked harder.

Previous posts related to school:

School, serpents and sin

A tribute to Roald Dahl: bad school reports versus literary genius


Guest Post: Editor, Gary Bonn, Talks About His Fascination for Autobiographies

The sheer joy of editing (really!). Gary 1 290x290

The startling revelations of scary intimacy.

Themes that shock your soul.

Most authors are happy to edit other people’s work. This is often a reciprocal exercise and I don’t know of a single writer whose work doesn’t benefit from their having edited the work of others, or whose writing hasn’t been significantly improved by the labours of skilled and experienced input.

I am an editor, and working on autobiographies is my favourite by far. Everyone has a unique and fascinating life and I haven’t worked on a single autobiography that doesn’t have profound themes.

*Gasps from the audience* “Themes in non-fiction?”

Oh boy, yes.

Currently I’m working on the autobiography of a nurse who worked in the community, in a bombed-out area of London, shortly after the second world war.

As if her descriptions of post-war chaos, the beginnings of the Health Service, the antibiotic and immunisation revolutions weren’t enough to blow my mind, there are social and personal themes in her commentary that enable me to step outside of my world and take a hard look at how things are now—both in my world and in me.

As in fiction, the editor has to work out what the writer is trying to say, exterminating ambiguities, clarifying the unclear, and strengthening the weak. This is the most beautiful challenge, taking people’s often blurry ideas and accounts of real life and working with the writers to make everything crystal clear.

And you learn about the authors. There is nothing more fascinating to me than another human. I…

Oops… yes… themes… ahem. I was getting there, honest.

Themes are the depth of a novel and the most moving element of a personal history. But there can be no richer source of themes than another person.

Everyone heads off into life armed with around 18 years of it and the knowledge that they know just about everything. When amply supplied with 80 years’ experience, and the realisation that they’ve never really known anything, people’s wisdom and humanity are often their strongest points. These can reveal the themes of human existence—and can profoundly shake you.

One client was dying, and this catalysed a unique situation. On toxic levels of medication to fight the oedema that crept, day-by-day, up her legs and would eventually flood her lungs, she started to tell me her life story. Recording it was a race against time as either the medication, or heart-failure would inevitably kill her.

However, she became more interested in my life and insisted, like an interrogator, “I’m asking the questions!”.

So, over a couple of weeks, we discussed ourselves and each other.

What developed from this highlighted just about the strongest human theme imaginable. Fuelled by impending death, my client became increasingly honest and open. She warmly encouraged me to do the same.

I kept taking notes – notes I’ll probably not allow to be published, for both our sakes. Never have I had such an intimate conversation. It was a mutual invasion of each other – but with every question welcomed, respected and handled with absolute honesty and openness.

Scary stuff, asking a question reveals a lot about the person asking it.

We abandoned any moral judgements of each other. She helped me find the courage to follow her lead and ask personal questions. She led us both to a revelation.

The theme? How little we humans know about each other, how much we could know, but dare not ask about; how scared we are of ourselves, of revealing our most intimate secrets, even to close friends and relatives.

I’ve never heard of a conversation so unrestrained. Surely it’s happened to others at some time, but there’s nothing in all the literature and other media I’ve come across that even approaches it.

What emerged, and profoundly shocked both of us, was the depth of separation between people and the desperate tragedy of it. Even in our closest relationships we reveal very little of ourselves and know so little of each other. The tragedy is we are not aware of it.

My client and I realised how lonely humans are, at least in our culture, and how close they could be.

In a world where politicians role-model ways to humiliate and ridicule even a single statement made by another, and strut their momentary moral superiority like posturing cockerels and hens, it’s easy to understand why we’re so timid.

Caught up in this extraordinary situation, driven by imminent and inevitable death, this awe-inspiring and courageous woman pushed us both into a whirlpool of openness and unconditional acceptance. I learned not only how easy it is to accept everything about someone, but also how wonderful it is to have a person know you completely and yet still admire and cherish everything about you, no matter how much you despise yourself .

Maybe the details will never be aired, but, for me as a novelist, this theme is too hot not to handle.


Sarah says: Thank you, so much, Gary for sharing this insight into autobiographies. I admit to not reading an autobiography for ages, but perhaps I should.

My beloved Grandmother, who died aged 98, read them avidly up to the end of her life. I remember her sometimes getting through about four books a week; then she’d delight me with snippets about whoever she’d been reading about, calling them by their first name as if they were her best friends. 

Other guest posts by Gary:



And for anyone interested in having their manuscript professionally edited by Gary, you can check out the details at


Guest Blogger Neil Ansell Talks About His Book “Deer Island”

Deer-IslandI would be the first to admit that my new book, Deer Island, is a curious beast. It is short enough to be read in one sitting, and is something of a personal project, moving back and forth between tales from the streets of London, and from an almost uninhabited Scottish island.

???????????????????????????????It is a story from my past that I felt was crying out to be written; that I needed to put down on paper in order to understand it myself. I have a habit of writing whatever takes my mood, rather than thinking about the market or the possibility of publication, and indeed this was not something that I ever really expected would see the light of day. But then I was contacted directly by a small press called Little Toller Books, asking if I had anything ‘short and quirky’ that didn’t suit my main publisher. I was a great admirer of this press – they have made their name reissuing out-of-print books of nature writing, the sort of books that I grew up with, and making a beautiful job of them – and I offered them Deer Island at once. It is now their first ever book of new writing, and yet it was written in a single draft and was barely edited at all. (You can read a summary of the book on the publisher website here.)

It is an uncompromising little book, something that no-one else could ever have written, yet I like to think that because it was written for love not money it has a certain kind of integrity, and I have been pleasantly surprised by the critical reception. The Independent called it ‘short, subtle and moving,’ and highlighted how it flew in the face of convention. ‘Ansell might have thought of expanding his memoir to a full-length book, but here he has done what he wanted. He has told us one story, in its two aspects. And he has done us a favour – the book is just as long as it needs to be, and no longer. And the publisher has given it the best possible frame imaginable. Deer Island is, I’d say, of roughly novella length, and ‘nobody publishes novellas’- let alone novella-length memoirs, yet here it is.

’Whenever I am asked for any advice I can offer to new writers, I never give the kind of advice that we often hear, about researching the market or building your platform. I always just say: Write from the heart.

Neil Ansell is also the author of Deep Country: Five Years in the Welsh Hills (Penguin 2011).


You can purchase Deer Island  direct from Neil’s publishers, Little Toller Books here as well as on Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com 

If you’d like to watch a video of Neil being interviewed about Deer Island, click here  and to listen to him reading from his book, here


A little post script from Sarah.

Thank you so much, Neil, for guest posting on my blog about your wonderful book.

I really loved Deer Island when I read it, and awarded it five stars on Goodreads. I’ve copied the review below.

“This is a real gem of a book, which is best described as a meditation on what it means to belong. Set in the 1980s, it moves between Neil Ansell’s three years spent in a life of voluntary poverty working for the Simon Community, helping homeless people, his first trip to the remote Scottish Island of Jura, his penniless return to London living in rough squats, and a return trip to Jura. He describes each setting in vivid detail, moving with ease between the harshest orders of human urban existence, where fear and insecurity rule every day, and the wild beauty of an island with a small human population and unafraid wildlife.

Neil Ansell has a way with saying so much in so few words, in flowing and visual prose. It is a book that is an enriching experience to read, and one that I’ll return to time and time again”.

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