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.

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A Pregnant Australian Pre-Raphaelite Lesbian Fitness Guru Speaks

I used to be in a soap on the BBC World Service called Westway. I played a lesbian, Australian gym-instructor called Billie. Me and my girlfriend had a baby. In fact (after I walked out on her, fled to Oz and then returned remorseful, wanting her back and having come to terms with my future as a co-parent) we had a baby at the funeral of her ex-husband. Yes – at the funeral of her ex-husband.

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The Westway Cast

That’s soap.

When asked who my character was in this soap I would often say she was a gym-instructor. A pre-Raphaelite gym-instructor if pushed, because according to the writers, she was. I am many things but one of those is not pre-Raphaelite. Furthermore when I began the contract I couldn’t have been further from gym-instructor because I was seven-months pregnant. Lesbian I would avoid because it seemed wrong to emphasise her sexuality as her especially defining feature, and I don’t like to admit to Australian except under contract. So for me, if Billie had an adjective it implied ginger tresses and a faraway look. Which was never in the script.

It didn’t pay many of the bills and there was little kudos involved but it was a good project. Westway was openly instructive. The neatly diverse set of characters set up small businesses, coped with foreign ideologies, learned about each other’s differences and, because it was largely set in a GP’s surgery, shared news also about their diseases and psychiatric conditions. This might sound cack-handed but it was not. It was simple and direct and compassionate and useful. I was proud to be part of it.

The pin-board in our green room was peppered with letters of thanks from listeners around the world. They had strong opinions about the behaviour of some of the characters and they were also grateful that Westway was there for them each week. Their letters had a completely different tone to the fan letters I was used to seeing. There was an investment, there was some implication of a federation between the drama and its listeners, they were not service-users or licence-payers, they were people on the other end of a conversation. I especially remember hearing from a BBC journalist who had been in the refugee camps in Darfur. He returned and made a point of telling the producers that every week when Westway was broadcast, groups of refugees all over the camp would huddle around wind-up radios to listen.

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The Westway Flyover

That was it: a GP’s surgery in West London. Under a flyover. Busy with the comings and goings of all sorts of urban types: lost and slick, assertive and traumatised. All the World. Chirruping out from inside a wind-up radio in a dusty, hungry refugee camp in a part of the Sudan no-one would want to live.

And then it was axed. Axed is the word we use and I think it’s germane here because it did seem sudden and violent and utterly unreasonable.

The difficulty with a programme like Westway and dramas on the World service is that they go out in the small hours here in the UK. Although Westway had an audience of tens of millions they were mostly abroad and mostly voiceless. They were not on the end of a wind-up email address or internet connection. The foreign pleas to continue the service, though many, were not many enough and not influential enough and so in spite of the foot-stamping which would have looked like self-interested job-protecting from us, the cast, Westway went.

Gordon House, a former World Service Drama Producer describes here how when World Service listeners are asked which programmes they particularly remember they will cite dramas and documentaries. Not the news.

The World Service is now planning to axe the meagre rest of the small number of dramas they annually produce as of early next year. Here is a petition.

Please sign because although you may not tune into the World Service (if you are English) – many do and many of those are used to their half of a global conversation being, when it comes to the crunch, the unheard, listen-only half. In recent years especially, many World Service dramas are by untried writers from abroad as well as English, collaborations with people and worlds far from ours. It is about looking out and understanding something outside of ourselves, it is about people across the world looking out.

It is something we do well, it doesn’t cost us much at all and I want us to keep doing it.

Ice Blocks (Manila 2)

(…cont…) Part Two of a little taste of the Philippines.

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In Manila we take cold showers which would normally be unbearable but are a relief here. After one of these Rob lies on Jo’s sofa in his pyjama bottoms. His skin is rashed from the impossible heat. He is reading, Give me a Home Among the Gum Trees.

He doesn’t want too much cuddling when it is this hot. We stick and it’s uncomfy.

At night he sprawls with arms and legs wide open on a mattress in the kids’ room. Jo’s kids are used to it and sleep easily. When I go to bed I find Robbie whimpering in the dark.

‘It’s so hot.’

‘I know lovely boy.’

‘I can’t sleep.’

I love this heat – even though I have had the most fantastic headache since we arrived here. I don’t think that is so much the heat as the fact that we are on the final leg of a terrifically turbulent trip across the world and back. I love this heat because I am leaving it for a long time very soon. I love it because it has been a hard winter at home and I have been cold for months and months. I love how here you can put your clothes on straight from the washing machine and let them dry on you, how you don’t need many clothes, or bed linen or even food. You can make a sandwich with frozen bread because in a few minutes, the time it takes to get it to the table, it will be thawed. Heat like this makes your body soft – it makes your brain soft too.

The Philippines is a Catholic country. Catholicism and this viscous heat are a strange match. I can’t put the two together. What I know of San Pietro, Michelangelo, those Tuscan roadside shrines – and this impenetrable, slow-moving, insect-heavy heat, does not go together. Italy gets hot but this is equatorial and to my euro-centric view, utterly without reference. This might as well be Mars.

Jeepneys and a suburb

Jo gets an ice block out of the freezer – the kind that goes in an esky – and she wraps it in a wet tea-towel. Rob takes it back to bed mewling a little and cradling it like it’s a hot-water bottle. Only then can he fall asleep.

In the morning, of course, the tea towel is crispy dry and warm and the melted ice-block slurps.

Jo is very sympathetic. ‘It’s a strange place. Everything is strange here. The heat. The smells. Everything looks different.’ I am expecting Rob to adapt expertly to this environment which is so unfair. Even I am a bit in shock.

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Qantas

Yes, and exhausted after Australia. At the end of this week we will spend a day in Singapore. You can drink the water in Singapore and you can get ice cream. And after Singapore we will be home to a cool English Spring.

 


The Ground Relative to the Feet

This is the first half of a little slice of the Philippines.

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Jeepneys in Manila. Public Transport. GI leftovers.

On our way back to the UK from Australia, Rob and I visit my old school friend, Jo, in Manila. She has lived here for years. We are her first visitors outside her family. She has four children and lives in a tiny house with no air-conditioning, no garden and a rabbit. Manila is hot and poor and polluted and noisy. All the white people have drivers and ‘help’ and live in gated areas. Except Jo. She drives their nine-seater family van on roads without lines or laws and they live in a Phillippino area.

The cars here drive in shoals. There is a complete and total lack of order and calm. You cannot even be sure which roads are one way until a truck comes towards you.

Four children. And white. I spend three days with Jo witnessing the most impressive, stoical and acrobatic act of Extreme Parenting I could imagine. Her children are immaculate, creative, articulate and so, so happy.

In Manila, Robbie has to take his top off at every opportunity. He is skinny, like a little raw bird. We go for a swim at the apartment block down the road. We stay most of the day at the pool. He spends more hours in that pool than he has spent in water in the last six months. Including baths. When he needs a rest he finds a warm spot on the concrete beside the water and pillows his head on his arms. I remember that day-by-the-pool pose. That is a happy, restful, sun-filled position – your body on the hot concrete, your arm hanging down, your ear at water level, the rest of the world a general quiet roar away in the back there. The tickling drops of water collecting on your spine and down your chin. The drying bits and the wet bits. The cool on your front when you peel yourself away from the ground to go and find a lounge chair or the heat building up til you to tip back into the pool. The terrible, laughable shock of the cold water. The close silence and distance of having your head under – the distance from everything else.

We leave the pool at the end of the day, the kids are comparing wrinkles when Robbie starts skipping – hopping and zig-zagging all over the road. I have taught him so carefully about roads. ‘Rob! It’s a road! Rob!’ I use my big voice.

As it happens, there are no cars anywhere nearby. There is, however, a principle – so I shout.

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‘Rob!’

‘Oh! Oh! Oh!’

‘Rob not in the road – get off it!’

‘It’s hot! Ow! Ow! Ow!’

Then Jo and I shout ‘Head for the grass!’

He had no idea where to go – the asphalt has been exposed to sun for about 12 hours now. The temperature is in the mid-thirties somewhere – perhaps higher. Even the Philippinos call this hot. I wouldn’t even think of walking barefoot on this road. I didn’t notice he was barefoot. He leaps onto the tiny patch of grass and giggles.

Two weeks ago in Australia he refused to take his shoes off. My sister, who will brook no opposition, muttered, ‘I’ll get him barefoot.’ She succeeded. But it was only two weeks ago and Australia is pleasantly autumnal. Here in Manila you can chew the heat.

‘Why is it so hot?’ He is shocked and laughing. How can a road get hot? A road is a road.

I have spent this last month with him in Australia seeing things he has never seen before. But I am stupid and slow about adjusting to the difference. The road will be hot. You will need shoes. You only need to learn this kind of thing once. I need to learn that it is not enough to know these things – I should also be able to say them.

(…cont…)


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.

Impossible is Not French

My friend Olivier works for an organisation that finds and returns trafficked and exploited children to their families. Olivier is used to talking about it, but even though he is used to it, his flawless English isn’t that fluent when he tries to describe this work.

Olivier is Swiss. He likes mountains and running and therefore running in mountains. Sometimes he runs a long way. Days in fact. At the end of August he will run 166 kilometres, through three countries, France, Italy and Switzerland, climbing then descending 9,500 metres and he will (in fact, he has to) do this in less than 46 hours. He is doing this to raise money.

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Chamonix - Switzerland

When he is not running or in his office in Geneva, Olivier goes to West Africa where the land is flat and, in just about every way we could imagine, is the opposite of Switzerland. Mostly, he is at his desk in Geneva, but West Africa is where the work happens.

Olivier runs the international programme for the Swiss Foundation of the International Social Service (SSI).

When I ask him about his work he is not sure where to begin. He cannot find words to describe the environment, the conditions in which these people live, he can only call it “crazy”. In the very poorest countries, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Niger, the poverty beggars belief. This year too, there have been terrible droughts which means the rain now coming is washing everything away. Not just farmland and livestock – houses, entire villages. He calls it “crazy”.

“Half the population of Niger are malnourished,” he says, “Half! It is really, really crazy. No one talks about it.”

Many families in West Africa entrust their children to people who say they can provide an education, employment and a secure future. It sounds like the best future they could imagine for their children. The children will leave home to grow up in an environment that is safer and healthier than their families can provide.

But these children are not schooled or looked after, they are taken away from their countries and trafficked. They are put on the streets in big cities as organised beggars or they are sold into domestic service and much worse. Many do not ever return. Some leave as young as 2 or 3 years old.

The SSI supports street workers and local social services who find these children and return them to their countries and their homes. The SSI takes responsibility not only for repatriating them but working with them for two years after they are returned home in order to ensure that they are safe and that they stay. As Olivier says, working in Africa, you can’t tackle just one task – you have to work on many issues to combat one. The communities need food, they need tools and education, solar phones, regular contact from local workers. Community leaders need support and resources. They need hope for the future.

Olivier explains this and then he stops. This is the litany we always hear about Africa, I think he is thinking, and he has made this speech many times in his job – and haven’t we all heard it so much we can’t hear it anymore? Then he says: “It’s also – you know – a region full of potential. Human and natural resources. You know – the children of Africa are the future (this is so obvious and frustrating to him he laughs) so we need to focus on them. They are half the population of the continent! We can’t let them down. We don’t want Africa to stay where it is now. Left over. Isolated.”

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So that is why Olivier is running. He says that the scenery and the sensation of running is so wonderful he will truly enjoy the first few kilometres. He means the first sixty or so. He talks about trees and Alpine peaks and mountain goats and other animals whose English names escape him. I know he will see two sunsets. He will probably arrive at the finish just after the second sunrise. The race starts in Chamonix on the afternoon of Friday 27th August and finishes there on Sunday morning.

“Will you finish?” I ask.

“Yes!” he says and then he laughs a lot, as though it is a very naive question. “Impossible is not French!”

Then he says, “It helps to think of the number of people who trusted you.”

“Trusted?”

“Yes,” he says, “the people who, you know, trusted you. It helps to think of all of them.”

Please visit Olivier’s site: www.run4children.ch

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)