Before we go on

I have been reading a lot at the moment because the book I am writing is enjoying a rest and I am finishing another thing and it is Christmas which is a busy time, too busy for writing much but I can read. As long as the book fits into my jeans pocket I can read. This means that currently I am reading Skippy Dies by Paul Murray which fits on my bedside table and also Goodbye to All That which fits in my pocket.

By a very strange coincidence these two books turn out to be brothers, which is not unusual. Read any two books side by side and they will talk to each other. Any book you read will talk to what you are writing too. This I find to be true often. However, Skippy Dies refers to Goodbye to All That – directly – often – which is more than just a little chatty. It is as though they are old pals.

I use some bloggy software called Ecto so I can write for the blog offline and also because you get into all sorts of difficulties if you export from Word (I believe). On this I have the beginnings of many blogs and I am going to offload some of them.

Here is the first one:

Some of us are balanced and secure enough to accept disappointments with a smile and a little sigh. My friend Olivier suffered a Major Disappointment recently when, 2 hours, 10 minutes and 21 kilometres into his Alpine ultra-marathon, a race he was running to raise money to support trafficked children in Africa, the weather turned bad and the organisers, fearing mud-slides, cancelled the race. Over 2000 runners from around the world found themselves without accommodation at 2 in the morning in a small village high in the Swiss Alps.

My brother drove from Geneva to assist many of them maintain their dignity in a local bar.

In a similar way our home-grown cucumbers were disappointing. They were bitter. This came as a surprise. So I peeled, salted and washed a bowlful to see if they got better. We made some crepes. We mixed chopped cucumbers with yogurt and dill. And it was good. Not disappointing. I wouldn’t have bothered if it had been the usual condomed cucumber from the supermarket.

Take my friend Emma, who has won a medal for her preserves. People clamber over children to get at her piccalilli which is as near perfect a pickle as you might wish for. Emma’s piccalilli is crunchy, but not demanding, and has bite enough to be assertive, without being impolite. The bits are the right size – substantial but not invasive. Emma’s Soft-Set Strawberry and Balsamic Jam is, no truly is, the kind of jam you hide from guests. It is Epic – bordering on a religious experience.

Really, this woman has a gift.

A few of us were having a chat about marketing Emma’s Incredible Preserves. None of us having this chat knew much about marketing but we knew the aim was to stand out from the crowd. But when the rest of the crowd is jars of Christmas-ready deliciousness grown on Mrs Earthy’s farm, Granny-stirred and made from Great-Auntie Whatsit’s special recipe, it’s hard to come up with appropriately competitive copy.

We gave up.

But the next day at a Foodie Fair where she had a table, Emma ended up in a St John’s Ambulance van after being stung by a wasp (no, two wasps). Apparently the St John’s Ambulance guy said reassuring things like, “You’re not what I’d call ‘severe’,” while Emma gasped for breath and her entire arm, chest and head went up in flames.

Poor Emma was unable to drive herself home and had to suffer the indignity of friends and rescuers being sent out to collect her and her car (and her preserves). One of the friends and rescuers came back with a Tupperware box of jam which had been laid out as a diversion. There were wasps inside. The wasps were quite noisy and the Tupperware box is still down the end of our garden.

This has not solved the branding issue.

 

 

My sister likes how I tend to gather the loose strands of my blog posts into one final meaningful pith. I am not sure if I am not actually a bit moralising, or worse at times, in my quest for pith. So take the above as a picture of our year. Some adventures, some ventures, some disappointments, most of which end up having at the very least, a poetic value.

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Lewes. Snow. Night.

It’s Raining Cataracts

There’s nothing between the back of our house and the coast so when it rains the house tips and lists and handfuls of weather rattle on the windows like pebbles. It’s wonderful. I leave the curtains open to get a better effect.

But there is the walking to school which is not so entertaining. We have made the decision not to get out the car because “it’s only a few days a year” and once that precedent is set… Look, guys, we say – it’s a bit of rain. Wind. All you need is the right clothing and a bit of push. Quite a lot of push when you are very small and the wind is enough to lift you off your feet and grab your umbrella out of your hands.

We ready ourselves like a little army, checking gear, counting hats and bags and pairs of shoes to go on after wellies at the other end.

This is all especially hard for (this is the pseudonym) Joey who hates rain and wind. I think it is the random nature of the rain and the wind which just bounces around him like a sugar-rushed puppy snapping at his coat and yipping in his ear. His hands get cold. It is all very uncomfortable and this is one of those areas in which he does not understand that the weather is beyond our control. It is all part of the chaos we strange Normal People choose to live with and inflict on him.

Yesterday I picked him up from school and he was shivering. He didn’t want his coat on. He didn’t want a hat. At times like these hats and coats are added sensual assaults. I was wearing my favourite hat. It is ridiculously furry and warm. I cannot manage when my head is cold. I could wander around in a t-shirt in sub-zero temperatures but I would need a good hat. The lack of a good hat really does make me cry. I wear it most of the year because “warm” to me, is “pretty cold”. I knew if I could get my hat on Joey’s head for a second he would feel much better, but I had to get it on.

Fed photographing a mirror she was thinking of buying at auction. In the hat.

So there’s me, in the playground, wrestling a large, furry, woman’s hat onto my small, resistant and squealy son, in the school playground at pick-up time. I am not sure if this was before or after the Ofsted Inspectors had left. (Oh yes. We did.) He pushed and squealed and I do the thing I normally have to do of ignoring what it might all possibly look like and doggedly pursue what I know has to be done.

Once upon a time, when he was a toddler, this was the sort of scene that would draw a vocal crowd. “What are you doing to him?” “I’m… erm… looking after him.” In those days: “What’s wrong with him?” “Well, I don’t know…” There was never, in any of these encounters, an offer of help.

A few times I have yelled at people who do this which must look very classy.

Though once – once – I was at a bus stop in Finsbury Park, Gateway to All Sorts of Places That are Less Ugly and all three kids were being their usualness at my knees. Noisy. A woman came up to me and I readied myself, I tend to look down during these encounters. Just look at the floor. It makes it go quicker. And this woman said: “Hi. I just wanted to say… I love watching you with your kids. You’re great together.”

And I don’t think I said anything at all – I had no defence for that at all.

She was Australian, wouldn’t you know.

I got my hat on Joey’s head and I was right he stopped, he loved it. That hat is magic. He pulled it down over himself (it is a full-body hat) and we were fine, in fact, until half an hour later he took it off and gave it back because he was too hot.

I am not very good at all this. Jonathan makes up for my gaps. The day he took them to school in the howling rain he discovered at the other end of their brave trek that wellies had leaked and the boys who had been exhorted to be brave and not complain, had not mentioned the water seeping into their boots. After noisily shucking their wellies off their wet feet, their socks dripped, but Jonathan – who does these things properly and quietly and without looking at the floor, who looks a thing in the eye and only then decides whether it is a problem – had a pocketful of dry socks.

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I have been a while away from the blog because I am finishing my book… in fact so near to that I am now thinking about the next. I really must learn to do several things at once.

On Not Frotting the Dusty Image of a Very Dead Thomas Chatterton (1)

Chatterton - Poet

I don’t often write about writing – but here we go. Not so much getting it off my chest as doing a little literary tombstoning.

This is what I have to say: Don’t tell me writing is a lonely, isolated business.

Anything is an isolated, lonely business if that’s what you want it to be. Accounting. Basketball. Gardening.

I am an actor (too) – I could choose to spend years touring a one-woman show. I know people who do. I don’t. But it’s an option. I could video myself and post on Youtube – never even see an audience. It’s an option. Some writers choose to write alone. Some don’t. Some make it work when they don’t have a choice.

None of those jobs (accounting/ basketball/ gardening) is any more lonely than they need be.

Just because you can do it in the nude at 3am does not mean writing is isolating. A writer has choices. Write in the nude. Or write in overalls and gas mask. Something in between. No-one cares. They’ll care when you come up with the writing and then they will only care about the writing. Not your gas mask.

The 19th century romance about the wasting, tubercular, attic-living, candle-eating fringe-dweller is a ROMANCE. It is useful for people who want to “be a writer”. It is easy to confuse wanting to “be a writer” with “writing”. Don’t tell me I need to live in an attic. I just want to write. I am wishing for time – not a hermetically-sealed writing-bunker.

I tell you this: I would kill for lonely and isolated. Not because it fits the image – but because I am desperate to write. But there are kids and family. Then there are the summer holidays. Then there is the world. Mostly, the world.

Mum working - photo by Joey, 9.

I applied for a grant recently, one established to assist women writers, which would have given me uninterrupted time to write. I was very, very eligible for this grant. I was recommended by a friend in the right place. All boxes ticked. Except one. For reasons I won’t go into here – but largely procedural, historical and nothing to do with my work – I was finally ineligible for the grant. Well, that’s how it goes.

But – there was a long time on the phone listening to how the grant was set up to address exactly the issues that Virginia Woolf addressed in the 1920s – conditions which still dog and disable so many female artists (the inequitable burdens of children, elderly parents, wider social expectations). I listened. I did a lot of agreeing and recognising of the issues. Finally, the CEO administering the grant asked me:

‘…and how many children do you have?’

I said: ‘Three boys. 5, 7 and 9 years old.’

‘Oh…,’ she said, ‘…you make the most of them!’

And she terminated the conversation and with it my hopes of a bubble of time which would have made an enormous amount of difference to my work. Immeasurable. The sign off “you make the most of them” is: “wait your turn – you’re not finished your day job yet…” it was: “Three kids? What are you thinking? And who is going to look after them?” It was: “…go and stick to what you know. I’ll decide when you’re ready to leave your kids.

And she knows as well as I do that she wouldn’t have said it if I had been the Dad.

Mum working (2)

Ten Things Every Writer Should Think About

I am suspicious of lists. I can only feel suspicious about definitive lists of essential knowledge. I would not, for instance, post Ten Things Every Writer Should Think About here. I would put it, say, elsewhere.

In truth, I would rather stay close to this end of the professional spectrum. The still-getting-the-hang end. It’s kind of warmer and more sociable here than out there where the stars hang in a winter sky and the plank you’re standing on is kind of fragile and public. So I am not going to take on the responsibility of declaring what (today) I think is essential. I have no idea. Tomorrow it will be different. There will be so much I haven’t thought of.

I am considering a pen name. Is that short-sighted? Cowardly? Missing the point? It’s like coming up with the name of a band. Fun but who cares?

Literary-wise, it’s all been a bit of a ride lately but the most exciting thing that has happened by far has been my son’s new obsession with reading. Under covers when he should be asleep. Legs crossed, reclining on the sofa. Splashing milk over his open book at breakfast. Getting dressed in a hurry so he can go back to his book. Always with a slight frown.

I ask him: “Do you understand all the words?”
“No.”
“What do you do when you don’t understand a word?”
“I make it up.” (He is slightly irritated – well? What else would you do?)
When bits are boring he skips chapters.
When he’s really enjoying it he goes straight back to the first page when he reaches the last.
When he doesn’t quite get what’s going on he reads on until he does.  He thinks this is all obvious.

I do not think any of this is obvious. I carry an (electronic) dictionary with me at all times. I compulsively make lists of the books I have read and choose them by their relevance to – well – me. Obscurity makes me feel inadequate. On some level I am still trying to get it all right.

The same son also speaks French. (No, I don’t.) He has a few words and has watched some French language dvds. He knows what it sounds like (his voice becomes slightly quavery as though he is on the edge of a song.) How hard can it be? Of course he can speak French. Looks fun. Listen to this.

One Thing Every Writer Should Think About: Not thinking too much.

Leaving (1)

Very recently I was on the tube remembering another journey on the tube. On this other journey we had stopped at Baker St station and the carriage had all but emptied when I noticed a briefcase sitting near the door. No-one was near the briefcase and I was not the only one who had noticed it. There were shy, querying glances. Being a good ex-Londoner I started to sweat a little, weighed up the options, jumped up, leaned out the carriage door and yelled down the swarming platform (and I have a voice, let me tell you) :

“…has anyone left a briefcase on the train?”

A wag walked by muttering “…it’s a bomb…” without breaking stride.

I didn’t say:”…or someone’s briefcase.”

Nor did I say: “…pillock.”

No-one stopped, no-one even turned around, so I retreated back to my seat with a meek: “Well, I tried,” to the few passengers around, none of whom even broke a smile. Let’s be honest, none of whom now even dared eye contact.

With every visit back to London I thank my stars, just a little more vehemently, that we have left.

I was thinking this scenario through and collecting adjectives to describe that moment when the train pulls away – your bag on it. The cold, leaden-sick feeling, the dummy-chucking frustration, the isolation of the “…actually… hang on… where is my bag” instant. I wondered what had happened to the bag after the nonchalant TfL guy had carried it off at the next station. (“Excuse me? – hi – someone’s left their bag.”) How someone, somewhere was pulling at their hair thinking: “It’s got to be somewhere.” How they might be listing item by disposable item, the things in it.

Losing stuff – it’s finally so infantilising.

I lost my hat once, I was thinking, my favourite, my best, most happy hat – and the joy of getting it back months later, was almost worth the loss. There is a lesson in that, I was thinking. Surely it is good to let it all go? Letting go is good. Where does letting go merge with dumb, empty loss? I was wondering.

And at that moment – I missed my hat.

In my mind I saw it on the shelf on the train I had been sitting on less than half an hour ago. In my mind I rewound the insruction I had given myself to put it in my bag NOW. And how I had ignored it.

We pulled up at Warren St. I had twenty minutes to get to Euston to meet my friend. Plenty of time to get to Euston. Not enough time to go back to Victoria, chase a hat, then get back to Euston. I stepped onto the platform, did a quick sum, stepped back on the train, trailed a foot back on the platform. Make my friend wait? Make the most of my best chance to retrieve the Hat? Miss the hat, be late for friend. Hat. Friend. Hat. Friend. Then those dee-dee-dee noises as the doors shut. I stayed on the train. I jammed my hands in my pockets and regretted the breeze on my ears. I was early for my friend. Who was late.

Tinsel and Tea Towels

I have seen four tiny Nativities in a week. One involved dancing to “La Bamba” and another this track. Seriously.

This is the New Christmas. We acknowledge the religious nature of the “holiday” but we’re also awfully cavalier and post-post-modern about it.

I’d also say, and this may be the result of being the mother of boys, or it may be a reflection on the vicissitudes of children’s early development, but all of these Nativities were undeniably matriarchal.

The schools’ sound systems’ default setting seem unusally loud.  In one, the chorus was just a row of tiny kids opening and shutting their mouths and waving their arms about in very approximate unison.  Cute though. In another, the angel asked Mary: “Do you want the good news or the bad news?” But we didn’t find out what either was because the sound system drowned out the answer. However, the two-foot-high angels’ gestures implied late-stage pregnancy and the vigorous rocking of a tiny baby so I could have a guess.  Though whether it was good or bad I have no idea.

I do actually, I’ve been through labour more than once – that may have been the bad news.

Or the colic or the cracked nipples or the demise of the pelvic floor. All sorts of options.

“The good news is you’re going to have a baby whose very existence will inspire Great Works of Art and Magnificent Buildings and even Universities – and that’s after being born into a donkey-trough. The bad news is you’re going lose your virginity through giving birth – which kind of flies in the face of all sorts of givens… but it makes you a Force of Nature – and you will be dressed in a blue sheet and synonymous with Good Manners for eternity. All sorts of upsides – here, have a lily.

These days – school Nativities, even in church schools, come laden with complex ironies.

But at least the kids know that Christmas is about Jesus. I am relieved they have some sense of a cultural inheritance that is out of the hands of Disney. Even if do they think the Angel is called Tinkerbell.