Scenes from the “land of the upright men”

A radiant young woman roars on her motorbike into a grimy courtyard under the reproachful eyes of a tethered ram. Another, studying for a French degree, stands for a photo with dignity outside the two-room hovel where she sleeps on the concrete floor with her mother. A life-size model of Santa Claus is playing the saxophone in the airport terminal, And the wigs, the wigs! Why spend hours getting your hair braided when you can put on a wig?

These are some of my indelible memories from my just-ended trip to Burkina Faso, my first to West Africa. I was there with Fred Eckhard, Kofi Annan’s former spokesman who founded the Burkina Women’s Education Fund which pays for its grantees’ university studies.

“Bonne arrivée”, the Burkinabè say when welcoming travellers. The people of Burkina Faso, one of the world’s poorest countries, are cheerful and enterprising, as evidenced by the stalls that line the main roads out of the cities, crowded with motorbikes and cycles. The young women we met, all in their 20s, are inspiring in their determination to overcome the grinding poverty in which they’ve been raised. All of them have multiple siblings, many of whom live at home. Ursula is applying for a Fulbright scholarship with her degree in translation and interpretation. Clarissa, who is completing a nursing diploma, came to an open house event with us in Koudougou, the country’s third largest city, and brought along her excellent test results. Haoua, the girl on the motorbike, has a Master’s in Project Development but is working as an accountant while trying to get back into her specialist subject.

As you might expect, the sanitary conditions are dire. As soon as you leave a main road you are bumping up and down along dirt tracks of red earth, scattering chickens as you go. Yellow fever jabs are obligatory and anti-malaria pills recommended. I was also aware that Burkina Faso lies in the meningitis belt. While we were waiting for Haoua and her half-sister, another woman brought over a green plastic jug filled with water for us to drink. Foreigners are advised to only drink bottled water. I had a moment of panic – we’d already shaken hands with everyone and even kissed some of them, to cries of “bonne arrivée”. Now what would it be, bilharzia, meningitis or river blindness? Fred whispered to me that as guests we should take a sip. It’s meant to cleanse the palate of lies, apparently. I put my lips to the rim then handed it back. So far, so good.

Haoua’s father is a Muslim with four wives who was elected village chief a couple of years ago. She’s now a fervent Catholic, but when she converted to Christianity, nobody batted an eyelid. In Burkina Faso – which means land of the honest, or upright, men – about half the population are Muslim and the other half Catholic, and the two communities live in harmony. Indeed inter-faith couples can end up having four different marriage ceremonies – in church, at the mosque, at the town hall as well as a traditional wedding.

But the country’s religious tolerance has been tested by the growth of the jihadist threat. Terrorists have struck Ouagadougou three times in the past three years. The northern and eastern border areas are under curfew and 800 schools have closed. I heard that girls in the “red zone” are being forced to wear headscarves. Just before I arrived, a young Canadian travelling with an Italian went missing on the road from Bobo Dialassou, one of the country’s main tourist attractions, to Ouagadougou. A European aid worker told us over lunch that “tourism in Burkina is dead” as a result of the attacks. He and others pointed out that the jihadists are mainly coming from outside the country and the Burkinabè resilience may help overcome. But people are scared. Several of our charity’s grantees expressed concern for relatives living in the red zone which is now under a state of emergency.

Rita, the medical student, knows that she’ll be sent to a rural area to work after she qualifies. I asked her what she would do if she was sent to the red zone? “I won’t go,” she said. “It’s too dangerous.”


Exploring a WWI family mystery

On a gorgeous day this week, I returned to the imposing Thiepval memorial which commemorates the 73,000 British and South African soldiers killed in the Somme during World War I who have no known grave. I wanted to pay my respects to William Penketh, and the other young people who died in the carnage of the Somme battlefield, to mark the centenary of the Armistice in my own way. It’s always poignant to find the inscription on the memorial to Private William Penketh, who joined the “Liverpool Pals” to serve with the King’s Liverpool Regiment at a time of patriotic fervour, and who was killed at the age of 18 on July 30th 1916.

   It’s terribly moving to visit the small, well-tended cemeteries of the Somme. My favourite is Lonsdale cemetery, from where you can see the Thiepval monument across a field of flowering rapeseed. The rows of white Portland stone mark the resting place of so many British soldiers killed in the carnage of the first day of the Battle of the Somme on July 1st 1916. It’s hard to hold back tears from the cumulative effect of seeing that date replicated on the headstones of soldiers as young as 18, 19 and 20.  The British army on the Somme sustained a staggering 57,470 casualties, including 19,240 deaths, on that date.

   So what about William Penketh? Was he a great uncle? Alas no! He was from the Seaforth branch of the Penkeths, whereas my branch comes from St Helens in Merseyside, all of 14 miles away. According to his service records, he was posted to the front on November 7th 1915, but that’s all we know. My research since returning from the Somme this week has pulled up two other Penkeths, William and Ernest, who were also killed in World War I. My heart skipped a beat when I saw that they both hailed from the same Thatto Heath area of St Helens where my great grandfather Francis Edward Penketh lived with his family. But after checking with with an uncle who has looked into our family history, we drew a blank again.

On my mother’s side of the family, we have a wartime hero, whose name is inscribed on the Tower Hill memorial which commemorates the merchant seamen who lost their lives at sea. Captain William Henry Bullock went down with his ship, the SS Canadian, after it was hit by a German torpedo outside Liverpool on April 4th 1917. He made sure that everyone on board was evacuated, but then made the tragic mistake of going back to his cabin for the ship’s papers.

And yet it’s not the heroic and bemedalled Captain Bullock who’s in my thoughts on this Armistice weekend. It’s 18 year old William Penketh, the relative I never had.

My life on the Edinburgh Fringe

This month at the Edinburgh Fringe, I subjected myself to a novel form of torture: I watched the same play 22 times.

It was my own play, Sugar Baby, a one-woman show performed by the mesmerising young actress Holly-Rose Clegg. After months of preparation with Holly and director Katie Haigh Mayet in Paris, I brought the show to the vault of a church in central Edinburgh, converted to a 40-seat studio theatre at the Paradise Green venue.

Looking back on our first experience on the Fringe, which ended today, it would be an understatement to say it’s been a rollercoaster of emotion. Watching the hugely talented Holly perform the first few shows in front of an audience, I was gripped by an irrational terror which was akin to a fear of flying. I was aware of my total lack of control with her in the role of pilot – if she decided to crash land the plane, there was nothing I could do about it.

We’ve had the full Fringe experience, from an audience of two for our world premiere (and both of them were my friends), to 34 at the end of the first week. Over the first three weeks before the box office began to trail off in the final week, the theatre was half full on average. That’s way better than we’d been led to expect. I heard it said that the average Fringe audience is 6. But the venue had told us, as newcomers to the world’s biggest arts festival, to budget on a third full.

I knew before we arrived in Edinburgh that I was going to lose money – everybody does unless you’re here with one of the shows that arrive already garlanded with stars. The expenses included accommodation for the three of us, in a grim Edinburgh suburb that makes Trainspotting look glamorous, our travel, and paying the venue for the month. Even with a crowdfunding campaign behind us I was looking at a financial black hole. I realised I was not alone when casual conversations with other participants quickly moved to the question: how much have you lost?

It comes down to how you get noticed amongst the 3,300 plays vying for punters’ attention – even our own venue was running a total 65 plays. I heeded advice and hired a PR agent who secured us press attention and (positive) reviews in a couple of major outlets. But the first thing you discover on arrival in Edinburgh is that “flyer” is a verb and that word of mouth is king. For me, our daily flyering – often in the pouring rain – was one of the most daunting, but also the most exhilarating, of our Fringe experiences.

For every person who brushed you aside, or explained that they were already completely booked up, others would engage. The Royal Mile was a mob scene of flyerers and tourists. Every day I would join the crowds flyering at the Half Price Hut, where sometimes there were more Fringe participants than potential spectators. Then there were the free tickets handed out near our venue as the witching hour of our performance grew nearer. My phone told me I was clocking up an average 15,000 steps per day.

So why did I do it? I felt that the subject of my play, the role of the food companies in the global epidemic of obesity and diabetes, had plenty comic mileage and deserved a wider debate. That leads of course to the next question, would I do it again? I’ve said to friends who made the journey to support us in our adventure, Never again. The most distinctive memory for me is the clatter of hundreds of empty bottles being collected around the clock by the Edinburgh binmen, invariably outside our theatre when Holly reached the most poignant part of the play. But the Fringe is like a drug – as I pack my trainers and anorak I realise that you can leave Edinburgh, but Edinburgh doesn’t leave you.

What’s the date of the next Brighton Fringe?

World Book Day, the first draft of my new crime novel and the night visitors

It’s World Book Day which coincides with my completing the first draft of my new crime novel, Blood Sister, #2 in the DI Clayton series. I’ve been sitting immobile on my sofa for so long that I must be at risk of contracting DVT.

But the book event leads me to think about the creative process and one of my main difficulties as a fiction writer. For me, that is reaching a goal of 70,000 words which corresponds to the average novel size. It must be my background as a journalist which constrains me from the expansive and discursive, but with time and experience I’m gradually getting to grips with the problem. Relax, Penketh, I say to myself, let it go!

Journalism of course comes in handy for researching a book. In the case of Blood Sister, I’ve been in touch with a forensic scientist, put myself through a forensic course run by Dundee University, contacted gun experts, Classic car owners and a medical doctor. Not to mention tramping round Norwich where the novel is largely based. It’s fascinating to explore an unfamiliar world, and I’ve just handed the draft to a retired policeman who will pick up on any procedural mistakes.

But in the writing, you have to unlearn all the journalistic tricks of the trade in favour of “show, don’t tell”. I ground to a halt in early January at 47,000 words. I told a fellow writer friend, the other half of my two-woman support group, that I could see where the story was going and that I couldn’t imagine getting beyond 50,000. Why not bring in another sub-plot, she said, helpfully. But the problem with that was my worry about introducing new characters in a police procedural which already has quite a few. Would the reader become confused? And, more to the point, a new sub-plot would have to develop organically from the story.

In the end, inspiration struck in the middle of the night. I’ve discovered that my most creative moments are when my brain starts churning after midnight. Dialogue, plot inconsistencies, character insights, you name it, have to be written down on a notebook that I now keep in the bedroom. They say that solving cryptic crosswords, at which I’m hopeless, also happens when you’re doing something completely different.

As a result of the night visitors inside my head, I managed another spurt which took me to 60,000 words. Blood Sister is still 10,000 short of my goal, which I may never reach, but I’m no longer in despair because the rewriting will inevitably expand, polish, and hopefully improve the book. But while I solved a problem, I gained another: insomnia.



Guilty Secrets and the Road to the Fringe 3

It’s 2017 and the Edinburgh Festival is eight months away. Since my last posting I’ve completed the script, found the actress and director for the one-woman show, and a PR agent, on a shoe-string budget.

The one-hour play is now entitled Sugar Baby, instead of Guilty Secrets, and I’ll be posting updates on the Sugar Baby page of the website in future. Before Edinburgh, we plan performances at the Paris Fringe in May and in London in mid-June. Stay tuned…