Moonstruck: meeting Buzz Aldrin

Three years ago, I met one of the men who walked on the moon. Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing. Go out this evening and look up. The moon is a symbol of change: a few nights ago it glowed red as our planet cast its shadow on it during a lunar eclipse. It can glow pale silver, it can be dark grey. It can be a sphere, a semi-circle, a sliver – and it can disappear entirely. We cast it in the role of goddess of love and inspiration, haunter of our nightmares, presider over inspired madness. The moon visits us – but half a century ago, we visited it. Humankind, the lover of this mistress of our imaginations, came calling.

So, in honour of that, here’s the post I wrote about the time I met Buzz Aldrin (from my previous blog, Literascribe, in June 2016).

‘I’m sitting in the gallery of the Sheldonian Theatre, one of the most beautiful if not one of the most comfortable venues in Oxford. Looking down across the packed floor, I see a tanned face and a white beard through the glass of a side door. Moments later, in he comes, wearing a beige blouson jacket with embroidered badges on it. He waves like a king and air-punches like a prize-fighter as he makes his way through the applauding crowd.

He’s Buzz Aldrin.

His sassy, witty ‘Mission Director’ Christina Korb conducts the interview, trying to keep him on the straight and narrow, but she has trouble managing the blurted reminiscences and anecdotes. The man is bursting with things to tell us. He’s opinionated, forceful, waving be-ringed hands, talking about the Omega watch he wore on the outside of his spacesuit because it’s kinda hard to see the time otherwise.

I read Andrew Smith’s fascinating book Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth several years ago, struck by the poignant reason for its composition. At that time, only nine men were still alive who had walked on the surface of the moon, so he set about interviewing them while he could.

Well, there’s fewer than nine now. That is why several hundred people have queued in the chill rain outside and will later queue for the best part of an hour to get their books signed. I’m one of them. For a moment, we’re in contact with history, with what now seems a lost idealistic era. I grew up with the sense that space held all potential. I’d read Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martian and Venusian series. I’d read Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury. The stars, the planets and the dear old moon itself held out dreams of adventure and fulfilment.

So tonight we lap up the bombast and the showboating, enjoy the clearly oft-repeated wisecracks, the whole display of it all, because although this man is 86 now he is more alive than most we’ll ever meet and this man walked on the moon! He wears a t-shirt saying ‘Get your ass to Mars’ and is passionate about sending humans there, saying that a human can do in a week what took Spirit and Rover five years. He describes his spacewalk, saying he ‘wanted to putt putt putt around like George Clooney in Gravity.’ He says yes, the Russians put Sputnik up there but ‘if you put up a dumb satellite you don’t give it a parade and everybody loves a parade!’ What’s more, they put a dog in orbit and left it there – ‘at least we brought our monkey back.’ He expresses regret at the loss of Neil Armstrong. He talks of his family and his sense of destiny: his mother was Marion Moon and his father knew the Wright brothers. Yup, it was all meant.

When I eventually reach the head of the queue and he signs my copy of No Dream is Too High, I burble something about looking up at the moon from a Scottish garden when I was a little girl, amazed to think he was up there. ‘My mother came from Edinboro…’ he smiles and I pass on, past the selfie-taking crowd. Outside the Sheldonian I wish the clouds would part and I could see the old man’s stamping ground.

I remember another night, years ago, when I looked at the moon and it gave me an idea for a story of ‘something strange, spectacular and out of this world.’ This idea grew into a children’s book, Hinterland, which made it to the shortlist of a significant prize for unpublished novels. I remember the magic of writing that story, of describing grey dust and a terraced crater like an amphitheatre and ‘hanging like a jewel against the dense black void, with fat blue oceans and swirling white clouds’, our planet. And I think to myself, I need to rediscover what that story meant to me and maybe, just maybe, roll it out onto the launchpad once more and send it into the ether myself.

So thank you, Buzz.’

Three years on, after a week of TV programmes celebrating the moon landing mission, what are my thoughts on re-reading this post? The moon missions and the space programmes still speak to us of heroism, imagination, persistence, resilience, and all the power of human aspiration. We are in awe of the courage of the astronauts. We are in awe at the sight of the mighty and beautiful Saturn V thundering into the sky, fuel roaring and crackling as it burns its way into the heavens. This is wonderful. Fifty years on, it is still heart-stoppingly wonderful.

Yet we live on a riven planet, despairing as prejudice and the meaner aspects of human nature hold sway. Our planet is in more danger than ever before – and that is down to us. No stray asteroid or conquering alien race threatens us: we threaten ourselves.

Buzz and his like remind us that even in imperfection, in in-fighting and rivalry, in near-misses and tragic accidents, in times when it doesn’t seem worthwhile to believe in any ideal at all, that vision and a sense of human destiny still matter.

Keep going out there and looking up. Keep dreaming. Keep asking for the moon. And the stars. And everything we as humans are capable of. Keep trusting we can be the best we can be. (And by the way, that doesn’t mean going back to the moon simply to wrest the mineral riches out of it. I would rather we never went back than that we went back as raiders and exploiters. We have done enough of that on our own sublunary globe.)

As for Hinterland? Still waiting on the launchpad – but that doesn’t mean it won’t blast off sometime! In the meantime, the next book on my personal launchpad is The Unputdownable Writer’s Mindset. Because writers dream and take their own kind of risks; they need to believe those risks are worth taking. Even if they’re not flying to the moon.

Visit www.theunputdownablewriter.com to sign up for advance news and sneak peeks ahead of publication.



Paying tribute to Barbara Large

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Many years ago, I arrived in the beautiful and ancient city of Winchester, carrying a novel I had nearly completed. I was wrestling with guilt because for the first time, I had left my two young children with their father, so that I could have a couple of days to myself. I had set off on a bold adventure: I was attending what was then known as the Winchester Writers’ Conference, an annual event attended by hundreds of writers from all over the world. 

Shortly after my arrival, a slender dark-haired woman with a Canadian accent came to chat with me. Back in the days when there was scarcely any internet and certainly no Facebook groups for writers, we were used to working in isolation. I had come seeking information but more than that, I was looking for connection. I didn’t really understand at the time just how significant those connections were going to be and that meeting Barbara Large MBE, the conference’s founder and Director, was going to change my life.  

Barbara, who died in March of this year, was an extraordinary person. Her will and energy were phenomenal. I was always in awe of her dedication and her genuine concern that no writer should feel alone or adrift in the literary world. She welcomed and encouraged every single delegate and she celebrated the success of conference attendees with as much pleasure as if that success was her own. Even when she retired in 2013 after 34 years of presiding over the conference, she kept on reaching out to writers and running her own Creative Words Matter courses, with the help of Adrienne Dines and Sarah Mussi. At last year’s conference she was physically frail but her will undaunted, her joy undimmed. Her indomitable spirit was still an example to us all. 

Barbara’s favourite expression, when she made her annual welcoming address and when she drew each conference to its close, was to call us her ‘family of writers’. She listened, sympathised, and encouraged. She drew us together, establishing connections both personal and professional. 

When I was at last a published author, I started a whole new relationship with Barbara. She first invited me to give a talk at the conference and then to run workshops and give one-to-ones. Winchester became an annual feature in my working calendar. I ran some weekend workshops for her in Shawford at other times of the year. Barbara opened up a whole new career for me as a creative writing teacher and editor, culminating in my setting up Fictionfire Literary Consultancy ten years ago. 

Over the more than two decades I have been attending what is now the Winchester Writers’ Festival I have made friends with so many fellow writers – a couple of whom I met that very first year. It all comes down to that first tentative visit, where Barbara made me welcome and made me feel seen and understood. 

This year’s Winchester Writers’ Festival starts on the 14th June and you have until the 10th to book your place. I won’t be teaching there this year but I will be raising a glass to Barbara and all she stood for: an unselfish commitment to sharing knowledge and experience, a dedication to being an encouraging voice, cheerleader and guide. I’ll be sending my good wishes to everyone there this year.

We writers are far less alone than we used to be, thanks to the internet. We know more about the world of publishing than we used to do. We are able to self-publish in a way we couldn’t before. We can research agents, attend events online and offline. We are connected. 

But still in the wee small hours we may be full of doubt about the value of our work. We may feel alone with those doubts and wonder if we will ever be able to complete that book or find a publisher. 

Barbara would say to you: ‘Yes, you can! You’re not alone! You are part of the wonderful family of writers – welcome!’ And she’d go on to regale you with the famous anecdotes of the delegate lost in the nearby cemetery and the pink nightdress on the bed of one male delegate’s room … 

I hope that in your writing life you find true guides and cheerleaders. Seize every opportunity to attend events where you may meet them – you never know where it may lead!


You can read some of my blogposts about the conference on Literascribe, my previous blog. Just follow the tags in the sidebar - Winchester Writers’ Conference and Winchester Writers’ Festival.

I will be teaching on Oxford University’s OUSSA summer school programme and the Creative Writing Summer School at Exeter College as usual this year.

I’m also working on my new book, The Unputdownable Writer’s Mindset - visit www.theunputdownablewriter.com to sign up for advance news and sneak peeks ahead of publication in the autumn.