Sunday 31 March 2024


Using Eight Words

Sometimes when I write the words just come and the piece is finished then and there, sometimes I need to mull a little, refine, rewrite, reflect. I started this one whilst in Bath a couple of weeks ago and finish it this morning, the first day of British Summer Time, on a rainy day in Coverack. 


I’m running a Creative Writing Workshop for Bath Beacon: Sport and Technology in a Digital Age at the University of Bath. I’ve set participants  a writing task: ‘chose eight words from those chosen by others from their piece of free-writing’ (each person had picked out and shared four of the words they wrote during our warm-up exercise). I’ve picked eight too. Thought I’d join in. It was easy to fine a good number that related to some of the main messages from my workshop today. As I’ve already said this morning, writing this way – using memoir, fiction, song lyrics and more – as a way to tell  academic stories challenges the more formal, traditional and still widely expected ways of representation. (Anyone who knows me well knows that I avoid dissemination whenever I can: ‘the scattering of male seed’ indeed). A style that in my view, at least, often does injury to the voices of those involved; respondents and researchers included. How wonderful then that more and more scholars, from across many disciplines, are embracing creativity and thinking differently about how to present data, discussion and debate. Such openness acknowledges and embraces the messiness of the research process, as an embodied, emotional, power-laden experience and not an objective and value-free one. Which is, of course, as true when we communicate to others what it is that we’ve done and what it is that we’ve found, as when we plan the project and collect the data. But ‘what will the reviewers think?’ I anticipate the question even though nobody has asked it.  I tell the story of the one and only time in my career that a journal article reviewer wrote ‘publish it as it is’ after reading my submission; a piece in which I wove some epistemological reflection with short fictional stories and pieces of memoir. I also share my experience of writing memoir and fiction for non-academic audiences and my view that this can make our work more impactful in that such storytelling enables us to more easily share our messages across and between disciplines and besides and beyond the academy. And yet, this way of working is not without risk: ‘nice but not theoretical’, ‘not very academic’, ‘self-indulgent’, ‘over-romanticised’…. I’ve heard it all, been accused of it all, and more. Any yet, and yet, so many more scholars are coming to appreciate the value in, and of, such representations. I’ve written about this before, and I know I will again. For now back to my chosen eight words. I’ve used seven so far – formal, injury, messiness, communicate, reviewers, impactful, risk. So what of the eighth – seagulls – which I just had to include. Oddly enough just this morning on my Facebook page up popped a memory from four years ago:

Visitor to my balcony. Seagulls get such a bad press but I love them and it was us that  drove them inland. I've been thinking all week 'what must the birds be thinking with the  streets so quiet?' (I know, I know). I think they're missing us and not just for the chips they  might pinch.

I shared it again with the words….  One of the seagulls that kept me company through lockdown one. Thinking of this now (and although I very much appreciate the new ways of hybrid working that we’ve been left with since the pandemic forced us to think differently about how to work and socialise) I smile to myself thinking how great it is to be here in person working with such an interesting group of people.

Friday 22 March 2024

Shades of Grey

NB: this piece of memoir contains references to loss, including baby loss. 

I’m sitting in my neighbour’s flat. She lives on the floor below me in our small block of flats. It’s the first time I’ve been inside her home, although we often chat outside in the shared parking area. The décor is not quite to my taste but I like it. There’s been some reconstruction work so the lay-out is a bit different to mine too. The building is over 50 years old so the rooms are somewhat bigger than in some of the newer builds in town. In amongst the sofas, bookcases and coffee tables there’s quite a bit of child paraphernalia including toys and a colourful plastic table and chairs set. I smile and ask after her grandchildren who I sometimes hear when they are staying over. She apologies, as she always does, about the noise they make and I reply, as I always do, with ‘no, don’t apologise, don’t worry, I like to hear them’. I mean it. I do. Another neighbour, newer to the block, who lives above me, and whom I’m already finding more difficult to connect with, asks the inevitable (well so it has been for me) question; ‘do you have any grandchildren Gayle?’.

‘No, no children or grandchildren.’

Oh a nice easy life then.’

My mood dips as my stomach clenches, my world turning pale grey. Not the blackness of despair which I once felt, nor the bright flashing red of angry for, for sure, I’m used to such comments by now. The assumption that I will have followed the expected maternal path and the insensitive – through embarrassment or just a lack of real interest or care – throw away retort when I name my status, or rather the lack of it.

‘Well it wasn’t my choice,’ I reply, ‘but I’m lucky to have many children and young people in my life’.

The conversation moves on. We are gathered to discuss some work that needs doing on the property we share. My mind wanders. I’m thinking of a quote from Hilary Mantel’s memoir Giving Up the Ghost (published in 2004 by Harper Collins publishers) which I first saw when it was shared on twitter just after her death in late September in 2022:

You think of the children you might have had but didn’t. When the midwife says, ‘It’s a boy’, where does the girl go? When you think you’re pregnant, and you’re not, what happens to the child that has already formed in your mind? You keep it filed in a drawer of your consciousness, like a short story that never worked after the opening lines.


I began this piece during a writing workshop organised by the Centre for Death and Society (#CDASWriting). Our theme was ‘narratives of loss’ and our first writing prompt was ‘what colour does this morning feel like to you?’ Still uneasy following the interaction in my neighbour’s flat I chose ‘pale grey’ as my colour. Yet grey is an ambivalent, not solely negative, colour for me. I love my smart grey trousers and the several same colour comfy, soft to the touch, jumpers I wear through autumn to spring. I chose to have two grey walls and a grey carpet in a living room otherwise full of colour. So although ‘pale grey’ seemed to fit well my, on the verge of sombre, mood (and the weather) I choose it also for its' (for me at least) association with warmth and the comfort of home.

Shortly after the house meeting I posted a brief outline of the unsettling exchange on Facebook and received many supportive and empathetic comments. The most touching being; ‘Easy life, nah, you’ve got all of us’ accompanied by a photograph which includes the friend who posted the comment, her two young children, her brother and his husband, her mum (my oldest friend) and dad and me. The picture was taken at a day out at a local sculpture park earlier this year. The sun is shining. We’re all smiling as the selfie is taken. I remember a good day. There was a picnic and other fun too. I was with people I love, who love me; the group including some of the most significant children and young people in my life. This memory leads me to reflect on others, of other days, other happy times. When writing of loss and of grief my mum, Dorothy, (my dad, my baby and my husband too but especially my mum), is never far from my mind. My wonderful, funny, clever, ferociously protective mother who always put me first and foremost, who loved me unconditionally and who supported me through so many other losses (my dad, my baby, my husband and more).  The day after the #CDASWriting workshop, whilst doing 10 minutes or so on the exercise bike ‘temptingly’! placed in the corner of my living room, the second track from Kirsty McCall (the artist I’d chosen to encourage me on my ride) comes on; ‘Thank You For The Days’. I cried listening to this at my mum’s funeral and as my legs continued to circle round and round I lifted my hand to brush away my most recent tears for my most beloved. The memories on this occasion were mostly happy though; the many wonderful times we had together, the laughter we shared, her smile and her gentle touch. Grief, such a funny, complex thing.

The final exercise of the writing workshop was to write a piece to challenge a dominant narrative, an expectation of behaviour, feeling, thought. I returned again to my own personal maternal identity and experience:


People say ‘never mind, it’s for the best. It will happen next time, next time, when the time is right'.


But there never was a next time, a right time.


It did NOT happen ever again.

it did NOT happen ever again

It did NOT happen ever again.


It began with an actual loss. A baby. Just a foetus to some but a baby to me. A baby who died before it had the chance to be born.

And then a loss of possibilities.

No more pregnancies (or at least not that I know of).

No more babies, children, grandchildren.


Childless I am not.

There have always been, and are, plenty of children and young people in both my personal life and my work life.

But, the loss, the losses, I feel acutely still, more than three and a half decades on since my baby died.

I’m reminded everyday by a family tableau in a café, a TV drama, a careless comment…  


I feel the loss, I carry it huddled in a corner within me.

Waiting, always, waiting to remind me of what might have been.

I talk about my loss(es) when asked and share my experience in the hope that in some small ways I might raise awareness in the less than empathetic and connect with others who have been through similar.

And yet the word never feels quite right.

If I accept that I ‘lost’ my baby, aren’t I admitting to failure? To a lack of care, to not preventing an event that could have been prevented?

A worry underscored by the fact that the time never was right.


People say ‘never mind, it’s for the best. It will happen next time, next time, when the time is right'.


But there never was a next time, a right time.


It did NOT happen ever again.


A book I read years ago comes to mind. Not so much the words within the cover but the cover itself. A couple holding a baby between them, BUT NOT, as the space where the baby should have been was blank. Like a jigsaw puzzle with a few missing pieces.


My life is full, enriched, happy. And yet my own personal jigsaw (like, for various reasons, those of many others) will always be incomplete.

Saturday 16 March 2024

Sunny Side Up


Sunny Side Up: I wrote this piece in response to an exercise I set participants during the creative writing session I facilitated as part of the 'Reengaging the Body Symposia/Workshop' organised by the

Symposia/Workshop: Reengaging the body – in May 2023


Conscious of keeping time and ensuring everyone is comfortable in what they are doing I don’t always join in the writing exercises (at least at the time). On this occasion I did.


Sunny Side Up 

I adore eggs, cooked every and all ways. They are absolutely on my desert island foodstuff list. The ultimate comfort food has got to be a scrambled egg buttie (or maybe ‘sandwich’ if you’re not from Liverpool); white bread, the eggs not too runny, nor too hard and bouncy, so they melt in to the butter making a messy but delicious and happy meal. I recall an afternoon 25 or more years ago when after what I had guessed would be a difficult work meeting my late husband John came into the hall to meet me as I returned home.

‘How did it go?’, he asked before I was even properly inside the house, my key still in the door.

Saying nothing I held up my hands; a loaf in one, six eggs in the other.

‘Ahh, as you expected then’, he said before taking the ingredients from me to carefully prepare some sympathy on a plate.


The day starts grey and wet but later the sun comes out and it feels like everyone’s mood, already good, lifts a little more.  In the writing workshop I’m leading as part of a weekend focusing on re-engaging the body I’m encouraging those I’m working with to think about what colour the day feels like to them. I ask participants to concentrate on the memories and emotions the colour evokes, what senses it stimulates and more. It’s an exercise I’ve done before in workshops led by others but this is the first time I’ve included it in an event I’ve facilitated. We start with a spider diagram of thoughts which leads onto a story, poem, piece of memoir, or anything else that people feel like writing. I’ve brought coloured pencils and felt-tip pens for the first part of the exercise and everyone seems to be enjoying using them.  

As we begin, and without much thought, I see, and feel, a warming yellow. Images of the sun and of sunflowers, of a pretty bedspread I bought for my mum for her 60th birthday, even a yellow submarine (there’s that Liverpool connection again) drift in and out of my mind. Next I’m remembering the discussion about eggs I had with a fellow participant, and newish friend, at breakfast. She’s over from the U.S., well into her three and a half week stay, and we are sharing our delight at the quality of the scrambled eggs, which are unusually good for a buffet breakfast; creamy and delicious and so beautifully yellow. My friend tells  me how impressed she has been with the food this trip, the eggs – scrambled, sunny-side-up and poached - being a particular unexpected treat.

In our afternoon workshop as I’m reflecting on the pleasure of the morning’s eggs I remember too how my dad, Ron, used to prepare boiled ones for eating; a practice I follow. Tap, tap, tapping the egg gently with his teaspoon, dad would  painstakingly remove each piece of shell from more than a third of the egg. He’d work from the top down, checking that all the outer covering was gone before digging his spoon into the egg-white, allowing the wonderful bright and beautiful yoke to drip and be mopped up by toasted bread. There are of course two types of people when it comes to boiled eggs. The tappers and diggers like my dad and me and the slice off the toppers of which my mum, Dorothy, was one. Her practice, like mine, following her father’s. My mum’s grew up in a poor household. My grandfather was a builder and when there was no work there was no pay. Sharing a bed with one of her sisters, in winter my mum, and my Auntie Blanche, slept under coats as well as one thin blanket and without the Salvation Army, my mum told me, often they would not have eaten at all. Every Sunday (money, or the Sally Army, permitting) my maternal grandfather would have a boiled egg for his breakfast and once a month (there being four girl children in total) it would be my mum’s turn to receive and eat the top slice.

Despite their egg differences my parents were very happy together. I’ve written before about our small (just the three of us) family life; often lean in terms of income and material goods, but always rich in love. One of my many happy memories is of how at Easter my dad would draw funny faces on all of our boiled eggs before we tapped and dipped or sliced in order to reveal the glorious golden protein within. My oldest friend, who knew both of my parents well, sometimes still boils and decorates me an egg or two on Easter Sunday. Family – by birth and/or by choice – and good food (particularly when it’s yellow); what a combination.