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Friday, October 30, 2015

Barred in Paris

One of the treats for my big forthcoming birthday was to visit the photography exhibition in Paris: 'Qui a peur des femmes photographes' (Who's afraid of women photographers) The tongue-in-cheek reference to Virginia Woolf was echoed by a portrait of her mother, taken by one of the photographers featured. The hint of an allusion to the big, bad wolf was no accident either.

The exhibition challenged, informed and inspired me. We think our digital cameras are state-of-the-art but Kodak happily targeted the mass photographer market a hundred years ago with tag lines like 'You press the button; the camera does the rest'. Queen Victoria thought photography an appropriate hobby for ladies and as long as the ladies kept their cameras focused on family and flowers, everybody was happy. But women did not stay confined within their Brownie - or any other - Boxes. Nor did photography remain a bourgeois hobby. If you are lucky enough to see the exhibition, you'll find photography beyond gender as well as imagery exploring gender; from war journalism to smashed dolls.

Maybe the ghosts of Margaret Bourke-White, Lee Miller and Lisette Model whispered in my ear as I re-visited Paris. For many years, I have focused beyond the bars - made them disappear. If I didn't see them, they couldn't stand in my way. When I am described as a 'woman writer' or - ironically, in view of this wonderful exhibition - a 'woman photographer', bars are created. Is the glass ceiling there if I behave as if it's not? 

Self-portrait: Going through the glass ceiling
Even if the exhibition hadn't got me thinking about women's exclusion in the past from e.g. The National Geographical Society, being in a city always makes me feel constrained, regardless of gender. I love the explosion of culture and contrasts in cities - for a maximum of five days. Then the feeling of being trapped becomes too much for me. In Paris, this time, I let myself see the bars. Here are a small selection of the images and all twenty-six can be seen in my new gallery. 

Paris, the honeymoon city

Notre-Dame behind locks; Pont de l'Archevêché

Since 2010, the craze has spread for couples to declare their love by attaching a padlock (!) to a bridge and throwing the key into the Seine. I'd be tempted to throw the man in with it if he offered me such a 'romantic' gesture. Despite the removal of padlocks from one bridge, which was breaking under the weight, the craze continues and entire bridges are covered. Any railings are now starting to display padlocks. 

The Seine at Night

City gardens and parks are forbidding places behind their fences and walls, prohibitive signs and controlled access. Plants and flowers live behind bars.

This sign for 'Keep off the grass' reminds me of political posters protesting repressive regimes. But we are in France...

Don't Kill the Grass in Winter

Such signs arouse the instinctive rebel in me. Before I saw the 'Don't pee in public' sign, I never considered doing so.

The City and the City by China Miéville describes two cities occupying the same space, the inhabitants of one city pretending not to see the inhabitants of the other, and that dislocation is what I felt, sitting in a cosy bar, drinking a glass of wine, looking at this window. 

Nouvel Arrivage

You can see the whole gallery here in the Photography Galleries on my website. If you find my photos interesting, you can see a selection in my illustrated collection of shorts One Sixth of a Gill, free if you sign up for my newsletter. 

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Friday, September 25, 2015

Part 2 Thank you, Rachel Koch, from those who speak with tails

Welcome back, Rachel. Last time you visited, you told the story of Max, a special dog. This time, we're going to talk more about dog fostering and adoption in general.

Rachel with her pack
How many Great Pyrenees live with you ? I have 7 Great Pyrenees at the moment: 3 males and 4 females.

How do you introduce a new dog to the pack?
I just walk with the new dog and the rest will follow.  I’ve never had any problems.  If it is a young Pyrenees with a lot of blabla I present them to the pack and normally the blabla disappears very quickly when they are confronted by 7 other Pyrenees. Behavioural problems like that normally solve themselves.
I remember you once said it was like a man walking into a bar full of really strong people - he doesn't put on a tough act in that situation.

The pack chez Rachel
Do you intervene in the relationships between the dogs?After a month or two, maybe three, the pack will find out themselves where the new dog will be in rank. I never intervene. A pack is a pack and I am not a dog, but I am the pack leader so all the dogs stand under me. That has to be clear from day one!

I know that you worked with huge packs of hunting dogs in England. How did that come about? What did you gain from the experience?
Through friends that I had met through hunting I came into contact with various large dog packs in England and France.

The old saying is 'look at dogs and you will learn'. People do not take the time to observe and they treat dogs like humans and that is where all the trouble is coming from. A dog has a different way of looking at things. I see so many mistakes that people make and dogs going into a shelter because it is allegedly a mean dog who has attacked children. But for a dog, a child can be seen as another dog. 

This is very important - if a child walks by with a sausage, the dog will take it because he thinks that the child is lower in rank than he is. The dog would never try to steal the same sausage from a higher-ranked dog. That is why you should not intervene in a pack and normally they will sort themselves out. A dog that is too late for dinner eats less than the rest etc. Of course it is a difference if you have one dog or 10 or 60 but  basically it is always the same. If you want a stable environment, whether you have one dog or many, you must be a pack leader otherwise the dog will take over!

Christmas chez Rachel
You have succeeded with all kinds of dogs, including those who have been labelled as dangerous, aggressive with people or with other dogs; what is the secret of your success?
Especially in the beginning with an aggressive dog (by the way not so many dogs are aggressive it is mostly through fear that they developed that behaviour) but the best thing to do in the first encounter with a dog not to look at him and not to touch him just avoid him and give the dog time to come to you. I also think that as a pack leader you need a certain energy that the dog will pick up; do not hesitate and again maybe only 2 or  3% of dogs are really dangerous and the rest is simply bad behavior that you can correct with time.

Feeding Time
How do you cope when dogs you’ve fostered, and loved, go to new homes?
You simply have to. Of course it is not always easy but as a foster home you cannot keep every dog  and I am always happy if they find good homes.

As somebody who offers foster care, you have to work with many organisations. Do you ever find it hard to stay on good terms? If you disagree with their advice? Or if you know that the conditions in which the dogs are kept are appalling?
It is sometimes not easy. Some organizations are happy that the dog is in a foster home and think that the problem is solved. You have to ask them again and again to find an adoptant. They always think that you will keep the dog but the problem is that if you want to continue to foster dogs you cannot keep them all.

Let’s talk about money. Sometimes thousands of euros can be spent getting one very ill dog transported hundreds of miles to be rescued, while another healthy abandoned dog in a SPA, near the rescuer, is put down. Do you think associations make rational business decisions?
No I think a lot of organization are not run as a business but are run by people who react from their heart and not with rational thinking. I also think that organizations put sad pictures on the internet to get the most amount of money to finance other things. I had that with a dog from Spain who was in a very bad situation for months and months I was called by two ladies who had already donated 1000 euros to get the dog to France. However the dog was still in Spain and there was always an excuse why the dog could not be transported but they kept putting the most horrible pictures on the internet demanding for money.

So I decided to contact with the organization and informed them that I would take care of transport with the money they already had from the two ladies and otherwise I would expose the story on several sites. I arranged transport and the dog was brought to me the following week me in an extremely bad condition. I am not certain if he had been kept for much longer in the shelter in Spain where he was being fed bread if he would have survived.

I sometimes feel that the money that is spent bringing a dog in from a far away country could be better spent closer to home. Am I against taking dogs from Spain?That depends if somebody falls in love on the internet and wants to pay transport etc. to adopt that dog. There is nothing wrong with it but I am against organizations that use that kind of pictures to gain money even if it is to finance other things because I had the good example of the two ladies who paid 1000 euro for one dog and the dog nearly died in Spain. In my opinion that is bad management!

As somebody who fosters dogs, you make loads of money, don’t you? And get lots of other support too?
I never received any money except for the transport of the Spanish dog paid by the two ladies and it took a while to convince the organization!  I always pay the vet and the food. I see that as my contribution to help.  So as a foster home I have never received any money.

How do you keep your spirits up while working with abandoned, abused and ill dogs in a world that seems ever worse for them?
I always think that one dog saved is one dog saved. As harsh as it may sound, I do what I can but you simply cannot save them all.

Twilight barking chez Rachel
Tell us about some of the dogs who’ve come to live with you. 
We kept several dogs mostly because they were already quite old or very difficult to place.  Cimba, who tried to climb up the walls out of fear when he first came to our house and Weasson who had been maltreated.  Unfortunately they all died several years after they came to us, from causes that began in their ill treatment. 

Weasson died from a brain tumor, probably caused by being hit on his nose by his previous owner. He developed a tumor above his nose). Cimba was mistreated with a stick in his mouth when they wanted to move him from one box to another in the refuge.  He died from cancer of the jaw probably from the injury.  Max died from lymphatic cancer and that was very difficult for me because he finally had a good home but had such  a short time to enjoy it.

So yes, it is a great joy to be a Foster Home and yes, it is also difficult to lose a dog who in your opinion would have deserved a better life for many years but that is life and it does not always go as you want to.

Thank you, Rachel. In Part 3 of Rachel's visit to the blog, she will give some tips on dog adoption and give some more of her views on what leads to dogs being abandoned.

If you would like to win an ebook of my story 'Someone To Look Up To' just post a comment below, before 30th September, in any of the blog posts about Rachel. If you already have my story from the viewpoint of a Great Pyrenees, please choose another book.

Rachel is happy to answer any questions you might have so feel free to post them below.

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Thursday, September 17, 2015

Meet horror's dark queen Suzi Albracht

I am petrified of my first guest in The Most Excellent Worldwide Book Tour so let's give a terrific chilling welcome to Suzi Albracht, who's only happy when she's frightening her readers. Be warned: this is a writer not to be scorned. 'Scorn Kills.' Children and scaredy-cats like me should not be reading these books so I'm hoping I can make it through the interview without hiding behind the cushions.

Contact Suzi: 
email her if you want to be alerted of new book releases.

Pull up a chair and tell us about yourself, Suzi.

I love to write horror thrillers with intense personal relationships between characters. I started reading earlier in life than most of my friends and spent many hours hidden in closets and under beds, sneaking in just another ten minutes of whatever book I was reading. As soon as I was old enough, my mother would send me to the library to pick up books for her. This delighted me because it opened up a whole new world of books not available in school.

I read everything I could get my hands on but was drawn to sci-fi, horror and thrillers. As I matured, I would say my main influences became Stephen King, Dean Koontz and William Faulkner. My writing definitely reflects those influences.

I can honestly say my twitter bio describes me to a T - Write, scare myself, turn all the lights on, write some more. Take a break, play pool, kick butt/get butt kicked, go write more horror, double lock door.

Stephen King, Dean Koontz and William Faulkner. What impresses you about each of these writers? How do you think they influenced you?

I fell in love with William Faulkner first. I love the way he makes music with words. From the moment you first open my favorite Faulkner book – A Light in August – you find yourself swept away with the melody he plays. Sometimes that tune is dark and gloomy, other times it is wistful and longing. He fills me with emotion. Dean Koontz captivates me with his stories. To me they could be happening right next door. While he is totally a horror writer, he is also a writer of human experiences. 

But Stephen, oh baby, he speaks to my heart. He takes Faulkner’s melodies and Koontz storytelling to a new level of heart wrenching, soul stomping, in your face horror. He weaves his stories of horror in such a way that I feel they are happening to me. The first SK story I read was Salem’s Lot. By the time I read The End I was hooked for life. I felt the desperation, the fear, the need for normalcy, every emotion the characters felt. He also surprises me with this stories. Each is unique and none of them are cookie cutter Stephen King. I especially love him because he hasn’t resorted to the slasher novels that are so trite to me, instead he relies on the readers imagination. He takes you to that dark place where you fear going and then leads you into even darker places. Because my writing is in the style of Stephen King, I only hope I never get boring and can capture your imagination the way SK has captured mine.

How do you think the horror genre is perceived by other writers?

Interesting question. I think true writers, no matter their genre, respect the horror genre. They know the hard work everyone puts into their writing and they know that includes horror writers. There are some writers who look down their noses at the horror genre but to be honest, those individuals are not true artists. Just because someone puts a few words on paper and even self publishes a book on Amazon doesn’t make them a true writer. They authored a book, that’s it. True artists study the craft. They grow with each sentence they write. Each word they put to paper is critiqued in their minds and shined to perfection before it is allow to stay there. A writer like that appreciates other genres because writing is a gift that is earned.

Why do you think people actually want to be scared? Isn't fear a negative emotion?

Let’s start with the negative emotion aspect. Isn’t every emotion that makes you feel something good? Some people just go through the motions of life without feeling anything. No joy, no anger, no fear, nothing. They think they are happy but are they? I say no. As human beings, we were designed to feel emotions. Sure love or happiness make you feel secure but fear makes you feel alive. Once you experience fear in a novel, the emotion of love will be richer and more vivid than before. 

I can’t speak for anyone else but when I write or read a novel, I can experience things I’d never experience in real life. And that means emotions too. While I’m not a thrill junkie, diving out of airplanes or jumping onto moving trains, I can get that same heart pounding thrill in a novel. When a novel is really good and puts goosebumps on my flesh, it gets me so pumped up that when I close it, the sheets on my bed feel silkier, the perfume of my shampooed hair hangs in the air and my own breathing is reassuring to me. I feel ALIVE.

I think there are many reasons for people to want to feel scared. As I just mentioned, it makes me feel more alive. For others, it is an escape from whatever boredom they live through every day. For still others, they need to forget their car that needs a new transmission and their looks that are leaving them at a rapid pace.

You've said that what you most want is for readers to feel the emotions of your characters. Do you identify with your characters and their situations? Any that you specially drew you in?

Actually, I don’t identify with any of my characters or situations. I do wish I could meet some of them in person. Mikael, for instance, is someone I could admire. He is loyal to a fault and has the kind of compassion more people need. He’s also funny and fun to be with. He both loves and adores his wife and son. Hey, I could date him! Teasing, but seriously, both Mikael and Jake are men who are interesting and multi-layered. To be fair, Carl is a very complicated person who would be fun if he wasn’t such a jerk. I think there is more to Carl that will come out in future books. I hope before he meets his end. I like all my characters, even snarky Bill. I find every dimple, every character twitch to be interesting, and even when they are being total d**ks, I want to know more about them.

Do you have any little writing habits?

I just keep a supply of a special brand of pens in purple and hot pink nearby. I can’t go without my neon colored index cards. Whenever I am starting a new book, I start jotting snippets of the story on my index cards. I carry those cards everywhere with me and jot down my snippets in the weirdest places. Once I get enough, maybe three inches, I type them into the computer. I’ll juggle and re-juggle them until I get the backbone of my story and a flow of potential chapters. After that, it’s all champagne and roses as I begin to flesh out and write the story. That part is euphoric for me. I feel all the emotions the characters experience, smell all the scents, even hunger if they do. It’s like living my own personal story.

Tips for new writers, especially of horror as a genre?

Develop a thick skin. There is an abundance of critics who are quick to offer suggestions that may or may not work for you. You have to learn how to decipher whether a criticism is deserved and should be taken to heart, or if that person just has a different opinion from you. It is also critical to your own sanity to keep in mind that trolls are everywhere, even among your fellow writers. You should still keep an open mind, unless it is an out and out attack. 

Most importantly, if someone says you have typos in your story, say thank you and fix them. If you are putting your book out there, even if it is free, you are obligated to provide the most honest product you can. That includes giving your reader an enjoyable read that is not marred by typos. 

Lastly, always, always be true to your character and story. Just because you write horror does not mean you can feel free to throw in gratuitous slasher scenes or gross-out sex lines to sell your story. When you do that, you are lying to yourself and your art. Only put in what moves the story along and tells your story as it is meant to be told. Oh, and have fun. I do every single day and I love it.

Thank you for joining me on my blog, Suzi. Your passion really makes me want to read your books. Perhaps a peek. In daytime...

Scorn Kills, Death Most Wicked and The Devil’s Lieutenant are all part of The Devil’s Due Collection

Book link
Book Description
The thing Evil craves most is innocence. When small children disappear, you can be assured that Evil has crawled out of its dirty corner. And when those children turn up dead, Evil has clawed its mark on humanity.

What if you were a homicide detective and little girls were suddenly being kidnapped and murdered by a devious pedophile? And what if that pedophile left no evidence behind except for the broken bodies? What would you sacrifice to save just one innocent child? Would any sacrifice be too great? What if it cost you someone you loved? What if, by saving that child, you unleash a horrific monster into your own life?

Mikael Ruskoff was living his dream. He was a highly successful, homicide detective working a career he loved. He had a mother who adored him, a son he took skateboarding, and a wife he loved more than words could express. He played a mean drum set every Thursday night with his best friend on guitar. His life was comfortable and pleasurable. Then he caught a case that would change his life forever.
Here are some reviews of Suzi's books to make up for the fact I just can't read or watch horror. I get nightmares and I avoid anything that might spark them off. However, I have every respect for the genre and for those of you who like to feel the fear and read it anyway, these are for you!


Death Most Wicked
By B. Martin 

This is one creepy novel. First you have a man who wants a little sister so desperately he's willing to kidnap children, only to kill them when they refuse to live inside his shed. Then you have this hellish substance that turns victims into puddles of bloody liquid. And in the middle of all this is Mikael Ruskoff, a homicide detective who's charged with solving a seemingly never ending string of murders.

Suzi Albracht has a fantastic imagination, and she does a wonderful job bringing this disturbing tale to life. Twists abound. Characters are connected in ways you least expect. And it's all presented in a way that will leave you on the edge of your seat. (or in my case, my bed) Definitely a novel horror fans will want to check out.

Book link
The Devil’s Lieutenant
By Glen Barrera 

After reading and enjoying Albracht's Scorn Kills, I knew what was in store when I began reading this novel. I wasn't let down. In fact, after the first few pages I was convinced the author had taken this tale of horror to an even greater level. Like any good novel, horror or not, it's the well written characters that drive the story. 

In this department, Albracht didn't skimp: Jake Holyfield and his pregnant wife, Caroline; his brother Bobby and friend Max - the good guys - pitted against evil in the form of Carl and Dimitry Ivanovich. Quite simply, the bad guys want the good guys on their team, by whatever means. And they do have interesting means. 

But this story is also about the frailty of the human condition. What moral price would someone pay for unlimited money, youth, or the woman of their dreams? This is a fast paced read, with unexpected twists and turns, leading to a well-done ending. I definitely want to read Albracht's next book.
Book Link

Watch the Book Trailer if you dare: The Devil’s Lieutenant

Monday, August 24, 2015

Part 1 Thank you, Rachel Koch, from those who speak with tails

If you know the dog world in the south of France, you know of Rachel Koch. Although she hates the term, forums and associations call her an angel for her work in fostering and adopting dogs, especially the Great Pyrenees she loves so much. I prefer to call her an expert, whose understanding of dogs comes from years of experience, from some sixth sense that defies analysis, and from love. I also prefer to call her friend. As well as a weakness for big furry independent types, we share a shaggy dog story of dubious legality about how we didn't meet in a car park ...

Rachel and some of her Great Pyrenees at home (Max on the left)
Welcome, Rachel! I know your first language is Dutch so thank you for responding in English for me. We often talk in French because of where we live so it's a change for me to talk in my own language with you. Please tell us a bit about yourself.

I gave up my career as a flight attendant because I was away from home for long periods. I had always wanted to have animals around me, and, starting with a wire-haired Daschund, I soon began breeding dogs and got involved in  showing and working with them. I followed several courses in the Netherlands in order to become a show and field work judge, and travelled to many countries in Europe in the course of my judging activities. I left judging when I moved to France as I found that it took up too much of my time.

I did a quick count of the dogs I have taken in and came to 15 dogs fostered and 10 adopted although I’m sure I have missed a few. Most were of advanced years like old Jake, a Golden Retriever, whose owners were killed in a car accident. He was completely lost when he came to me but found his “maison de retraite” (retirement home) with us and died in his sleep like a gentleman a few years later.

It is difficult to send away a dog who finally has found his home at the age of 12-14. I prefer to keep older dogs with me as I want to avoid the stress of adapting to a new environment. Young dogs always find a new home very quickly. Older dogs are obviously harder to place. You also must realise that if you adopt, it can be for up to 15 years. I am 58 at the moment so a puppy will stay with me 15 years. Plan ahead if you want to adopt!

Our meeting in a car park was set in motion when I received a phone call from a volunteer with a dog association. A member had rescued a Great Pyrenees, who was in terrible conditions. She couldn't keep him and I was asked if I could drive him part of the way down through France to a foster home. I could. I did. In fact, my long-suffering-husband 'volunteered' to be the get-away driver on condition that I handled the dog. 

When the fugitive was handed over in a car park, he didn't resist. He didn't care any more. His eyes were dead. I've seen this before in shelter dogs, where they have given up completely and it is heart-wrenching. The foster-carer was of course Rachel, and this is what she saw when she came to meet me in the car park of Aix-en-Provence motorway services. Rachel took over with Max and his story.

Rachel's first view of Max (and Jean)
Jean and Max during the rescue

If I tell you that Max is the love of my life of course you cannot compare that to your parents or your husband. A dog is a dog and not a human being. But what I had with Max started probably when he came to our house in a bad state and I knew right away that we were connected. 

I was contacted by Adoption Gros Chiens. His story can still be found on their site. It was one of their first rescue operations. They had rescued Max but they did not have a foster home for him so I agreed to take him temporarily.

Max at Rachel's being nursed back to health

Max after adapting to his new life :)
As I am a judge for hunting dogs I went to a show not far from my house a few days after  and left him in the care of Sven, my husband, and told him to keep Max always on a leash or chain when he was outside.

Sven phoned me in the evening that Max had escaped and the chain was broken. It was at lunch time. He just went into the kitchen to prepare a meal and returned - no dog. So when I came back next day, Max was gone and the search started. Sven and I put pictures of Max everywhere, drove miles and miles to find him. I searched the entire neighbourhood, putting up pictures and of course informing the Gendarmes and Vet.People called to say they had seen him walking with a length of chain hanging off him but every time I went to look… no Max.

I had put him a collar with our phone number on but even then you have no idea if the collar is still on and Max had no tattoo or chip. I searched every day and finally I received news after ten days ! in the evening, on the day that there was terrible rainfall in Draguignan. (A lot of people were killed in the heavy rains and floods) On that very day, a lady phoned to say that she had found Max and he was in her  barn with the horses. She asked me if she could feed him.

I was crying all the time and gave the phone to Sven to try to figure out where he was. It was 75 km !! from our house and indeed he had tried to return to his old place in the mountains but he missed one crossing. I could not wait so we went in a storm with trees falling on the road, floods everywhere. They told everybody to stay at home because people where dying in Draguignan but we went in search of a dog ! 

And there he was in the barn. He could hardly walk so we put him in the car and drove home, where I put him in a blanket. I was so happy but then a few  days later he escaped again. He jumped the fence with me close to him, and I screamed and screamed, 'Max, no no!' and I was completely - how do you say that? - devastated, disappointed. How could a dog you have given so much attention and love and food leave you again?

But the next day, in all my despair, I saw him next to the fence in the forest. He was looking at me and laying still and looking at me, and at seven in the morning I went up to him in my pyjamas and said, 'You are home,' and he never left me again.
Max chez lui

From that moment on his love was in my heart and it stayed until he died so that was the moment  that we had that unconditional love for each other and he became the love of my life. 

Rachel, you and Max were lucky to find each other and to know such happiness, for the last of his nine years. He is a different dog from the one with dead eyes who trudged across a car park with me and I'm sure his tail thanked you every day.

Max and Rachel on the ski slopes

The story of Max highlights some of the issues that arise when you foster or adopt a dog. They DO often attempt to run back to the place they know, even if they were horribly abused. We need to be so careful! I am so neurotic about a dog escaping that I take a collar and tag with my phone number on it when I go to the shelter to pick up the dog. 

Rachel, when you take in a rescue dog, what do you do during the first couple of days? 

I keep them in a quiet place away from the other dogs and with food adapted to the need of the dog. In the case of Max,  I started with rice and chicken and supplements and vitamins.  I also give them a bath and if necessary anti-flea and anti-worm pills. If needed I take them to the vet. I let them sleep a lot and go out with them on a leash, wearing a collar with my phone number on it.

The first days I always take a dog in my bedroom at night. I think this is very important and I do this with all rescue dogs.  Some people are against it but put yourself in a situation that you are lost and find yourself in a house that you do not know, and you are locked up in a kitchen with nobody around you!  So I try to bond with the dog, to keep him with me 24 hours a day. 

Different breeds adapt at different tempos, but with Great Pyrenees it will normally take a month for a dog to understand that he has found a new home. I think this is because they are so attached to the place they live, or the flock they are guarding. 

Thank you so much, Rachel. I love hearing your stories and advice. Neither of us will ever forget Max. His story and those of other rescued dogs show us what is possible. In Part 2, Rachel will tell us more about her adoption and foster care of dogs.

Sherlock, my own adopted dog, is lying beside me at this very moment, worried about the thunderstorm. Ditto Blanche. 
Jean with Sherlock (and Blanche's reflection)
If you would like to win an ebook of my story 'Someone To Look Up To' just post a comment below, before 30th September, in any of the blog posts about Rachel. If you already have my story from the viewpoint of a Great Pyrenees, please choose another book.

Rachel is happy to answer any questions you might have so feel free to post them below.

amazon link

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Taking Stock as a Photographer

What do you really want to photograph?

To answer that question, I spent last weekend in a workshop with Ana Puig Rosado, an amazing photographer who lives only 30 minutes' drive from me in the beautiful lavender valley of La Roche St Secret. This is my photo of her house, reflected in the window of a typical Provencal cabanon. She maintains two websites to separate her photo-journalism from her weddings and other projects. Both are stunning.

Fears that my French would let me down diminished as I discovered that 'RAW' is 'RAW' in French, pronounced 'Roe', evidemment. Camera settings and menus are all in English so it's my French friends who have to get used to S for Vitesse (or for Canon shooters TV, which I always think of as Toute Vitesse).

Ana travels. Sometimes commissioned, sometimes with a project she hopes to sell afterwards and sometimes because she just 'wants to go to Tel Aviv.' She is a photo-reporter, working usually with natural light and an emphasis on getting it right in camera. She is the antidote to stock photography, in which I've been semi-conditioned for the last 6 years. Her notion of editing is to choose a small selection of photos that make a coherent collection.

Here's the portfolio that Ana put together showing the workshop behind the scenes as well as mini-galleries from each of us (mine is the first one).  

Until recently, I saw each photo as a one-off. Albums were 'best of'. Influenced by reading David DuChemin, I have started to think about collections as a whole, in the galleries on my website; in the selection chosen with my Editor for 'One Sixth of a Gill'. You can imagine how pleased I was with the reviews from the Wishing Shelf judges; 'A worthy finalist... 5 (of the 31) judges thought that the photography was the best part.' It is time to ask more of myself as a photographer.
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With perfect timing, I received a professional report on the portfolio from LensCulture, whose portrait competition I'd entered. By happenstance, this is also the organisation which featured Dead Season on the Edge of the Black Sea by - guess who - Ana Puig Rosado! Some things are just meant to be.

The opportunity to receive a review was given as a bonus for entry and I was asked to submit a portfolio of 10 photos. I chose the 3 portraits I'd entered for the competition (that hadn't won) and 7 others I liked, showing the range of my work.

Don't cheat. look at these photos and decide what feedback you would give. Then read what I was told. 

Reviewer Feedback

I found some of these individual images very interesting and was drawn in by your innovative approach to self-portraiture. The mix of work here is very eclectic. I can understand it is hard to summarize your work in one edit and you may have wanted to demonstrate the depth and breadth of your practice, but I suppose we are just very used to seeing series of work in photography where you see one body of work explored in-depth. There are many images here that are very singular and beautifully taken shots particularly image 5 and 6. But I would encourage you to move from picking an individual good image to thinking about your work as a series.

Editing into a coherent series would enable the viewer to see more of you and how you work and also what you have to say. As we are so saturated by images all the time we need to work out what we are looking at and how to position it easily. I notice you do not have an artist's statement. It might be a very helpful exercise for you to write one. I realise they are hard to do as they in part require you to be concise and clear about what you are doing and you may work in a more organic less premeditated way. But the advantage is they force you to consider what might connect your work, and help you to develop confidence in your own voice.

Perhaps that is why the self-portraits interest me, they tell me more about you ( I am assuming they are of you). They make me think of Bill Viola's moving and slow studies of faces which take on a religious or spiritual edge and are very powerful. I like the idea that a single fixed image of self is never enough. We change so much over time and expressions alter our faces completely and you capture this well with this group of 3 images. I hope you will continue with those more in the future.

What do I think of the review?

I'm chuffed! And I smile now at my naivete in putting the collection together in such a random way. I'm writing this blog for everybody who's shared in my progress as a photographer - and for others who still think of one photo at a time.

Compliments like those in the review are really motivating me to carry on experimenting without worrying about what will sell in my istockphoto portfolio

Thank you to that anonymous reviewer, who made further suggestions. I would love comments from other photographers on the blog, on the review, on the idea of collections. I haven't answered the question of what I really want to photograph but I have some ideas!

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Bad hare days and medieval dogs

Everyone went hunting in medieval Europe, for fun and for food, legally and illegally, and where the hunters went, so did their hounds. But what sort of dogs were they, what jobs did they do and how were they trained? For my current novel, I needed to imagine myself into a hawking expedition in 12th century Provence and my interest in dogs led me down research rabbit-holes…

Were there dogs in the 12thC anything like Blanche, Sherlock and Luca (a friend's Australian Shepherd)? 

Photos: Claire Hamlisch

The missing favourites: no labradors, no golden retrievers, no Newfoundlands. These breeds didn't reach Europe until the 19th century so the job of retrieving medieval game lay in different teeth. Neither were there any collies so Luca is out of the picture (although she always manages to be in any we take). Dogs were often referred to by their jobs rather than by breed names. The majority of a kennel consisted of running-hounds, in a pack that gave scent and chased game, looking and behaving like modern foxhounds. In addition to the running-hounds were the specialists:- 

The greyhound was the medieval knight’s all-round dog of choice: a noble dog, swift enough to take down game and sweet enough to curl up indoors with the family. Commemorated in poetry,on tombstones and in tapestries, greyhounds were prized. Training focused on the chase, with rewards (bloody meat) for catching prey. Medieval training by fewterers (houndmasters) did not scruple to use crippled birds as easy prey to encourage dogs to try for more difficult targets such as hares. Deerhounds and wolfounds were included in the category of 'greyhound'.

Nowadays, greyhounds are still prized for speed (track racing in the UK) and for hunting but have gone downmarket in social class and they are less likely to enjoy old age by the fire than in the 12thC. Traditional hunting with 'galgos' is still popular in Spain, where each summer the failures are abandoned, tortured and killed - or rescued by greyhound associations across the border in France, whose members wonder whether they are merely supporting this annual clear-out. Also by Spanish tradition, a hunting-dog's performance reflects on his master's prowess, and only a slow death to the dog can restore the human's reputation: hence the torture and death administered as punishment.

The lymer was the scenting-hound. In a kennel of 60 running-hounds there might be 5 lymers. Typically very long-eared, working on leash, either with nose to the ground or in the air, a lymer would track the quarry in silence. Training would include punishment for barking and rewards for nose-work, finding objects by smell. As with the greyhounds, the handlers would build up from easy activities (find the chopped-up liver a yard away) to more difficult ones (same liver hidden behind a tree or still inside a moving creature).

A nose with four feet, the lymer also gathered in smells via his long ears as they trailed on the ground. He didn't need to be fast as he could pick up a trail when the prey was long out of sight. 

Bloodhounds and basset hounds would have been in this category and you've figured out who my lymer is... Sherlock, my bleu de Gascogne, a Gascony Griffon, who was abandoned in summer 2013 by his hunter owner and has adapted just fine to home life. 

The spaniels - perfect bird-dogs then as now - flushed out and retrieved small game. They also had a reputation for being 'quarrelsome, noisy and easily distracted', just as likely to go off and chase  a villager's chickens as hunt the rabbits in the forest. The name came from the word for 'Spanish', their country of origin, and medieval English writers didn't hold back on racist comments comparing the spaniels' failings to those of their human countrymen.

Nevertheless these small, plucky and playful dogs were essential to the chase, and their most common liver-and-white colour stands out in images of a hunt.

The setters had a fine reputations as quiet stalkers, water-dogs who retrieved game. In medieval England, hunting-dogs of Sherlock's colour were called 'French blues', and speckled blue was seen in spaniels and setters, as today in the English Setter.

The mastiffs were the heavyweights. Wearing spiked collars, they were capable of taking down wolf, boar and bear after the greyhounds had chased the prey to the ground. Often portrayed with large testicles, mastiffs represented raw, male animality, which was allegedly aroused in the humans hunting too. 

An après-hunt party might start with the traditional innards feast for the dogs, to which the lymer had first entitlement. Then, it was quite likely to continue with a large quantity of alcohol and anecdote. If ladies were present, as they usually were in hawking expeditions, then other kinds of sport might follow. Double-entendres regarding 'losing one's hart' and 'the beauty of hare' were the language of foreplay.

Among the mastiffs were the special breeds, still wearing their spiked collars, who did not hunt but guarded flocks and herds from wolf and bear. The Tibetan Mastiff, the Anatolian Shepherd and the Great Pyrenees were all among these ancient guardians. They were guardians, not herding dogs, among whom you would still recognise the ancestors of my Blanche.

According to one book on the troubadours, there was 'a rumour that a female troubadour toured the south of France with a large white dog' and this statement sparked Song at Dawn. I couldn't shake off that image of the girl and a Great Pyrenees, who became Estela and Nici. The large white dog plays a key part in the story and he even has his own fan club.

Underlying my Troubadours Quartet is this sort of research, on every aspect of 12thC life and politics but only a tiny part will show in the books. If it's not relevant to the people and the story, it doesn't belong in my novels. That doesn't stop me lingering along the way, finding out about alaunts, brachets, and harriers, and sometimes sharing those findings here with you. Did you know that black dogs were shunned in Christendom as evil?

Winner of the Global Ebooks Award for Best Historical Fiction, Song at Dawn will be on promotion from 7th-12th April at 99c/99p so now is a good time to discover the 12thC ready for the 3rd book Plaint for Provence on November 1st. The book trailer starts with the image of a 12thC citadel right beside where I now live. Inspiration out the window!


amazon link
Do you love dogs too? If you review any of my books you can add your dog to my Readers' Dogs Hall of Fame. Just drop me a line with a link to your review, a photo and a brief description of your dog.  

Further Reading
Thanks to Robyn Young (writer of outstanding historical fiction) for recommending The Art of Medieval Hunting - John Cummings. 

Another good source is Medieval Hunting - Richard Almond