I hit the desk when I write. I stand up and kick at the chair. I shout. I finish a paragraph by hitting ENTER in a parabolic gesture that begins at shoulder level and ends in my hair. I suck the air in through my teeth. Continue reading
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I was sitting on a bit of ruined abbey nursing the book I was supposed to be reading, enjoying the breeze and the faint brown smell that mulched York.
I tweeted something like: “What a magnificent city this is. Like a goddess! I am stumbling around like a primitive something.”
This was not altogether true, I was now sitting and stumbling only inwardly.
I started trying to write what follows in the past tense which I find very awkward, like writing left-handed. But here I went.
A friend of mine spent her school years abroad. She studied English literature and history and watched a lot of BBC television. After about eighteen years she finally set foot in Europe, was granted some sort of residential permanency and set about the serious business of assimilation.
She started in Rome. Being a trusting and naive member of the European diaspora she believed Europe to be some sort of cultural aggregate. (She later learned this to be an accurate but uncommon view which for a time she found confusing.)
In her far away studies she had spent many hours poring over street plans and elevations of urban, C 14th Rome. She knew which chapels bristled from which naves of which cathedrals and whose canvases and sculptures would be found in them. She knew which galleries and palazzi owned which works by whom and even which were of doubtful provenance. She knew the mythical stories depicted in fountains and on plinths and how the whole buildings had once looked, where now stood roped-off stony outlines. She knew these outlines too.
But, she said, no essay or exam preparation had prepared her for the shock, the smack of realizing that THIS Rome, thrumming with Piaggios and boys with nice jumpers and combed hair, THIS Rome was THAT Rome. The microfiches and slides, the imported catalogues and postcard reproductions of Great Works she had consumed, the material that constituted her entire education was this: this gelato, this boy in D&G glasses, this nappied toddler scrambling over this fallen column lovingly guarded by this black moth of an Italian Mama – this was that.
And here she was in it, drinking in the sun, the shameless admiration of Italian boys, and the starry glasses of prosecco.
She could recite this literature, she could draw maps of these streets possibly better than the people who lived on them, but she still thought: “Why didn’t anyone say?”
It wasn’t that she felt deceived or deprived, she said. Neither was it like she had turned up to a party the morning after, only to find everyone gone – though she admitted it was sometimes a little like that.
It was more like, and she said this was the best she could explain it, that she didn’t know who to thank.
As I wrote this I thought, as I often do, that had I been sitting where I then was, exactly 400 years earlier, I would have been part of a thick stone wall. I wondered how many centuries-dead people might have leant against that wall crying or laughing or bursting to go to the toilet, praying or farting? What might I, Wall, have seen or heard?
I finished writing and was walking away now remembering a documentary in which a scientist described how one day we will be able to hear all the sounds that have ever been emitted on the earth. Yes. Everything that has ever whispered, plinked or fizzed. He said it was all out there – the sound was all still out there: dinosaurs’ yowls, Shakespeare’s discarded drafts, Jesus’ teachings – we just have to develop a way of capturing it. An ear for the universe.
And then we will know.
What a reckoning that will be.
Everyone tells me it is extremely stressful moving house – it is meant to be the equivalent of a major car accident. How was that ever calculated?
I am wondering if a major part of the stress is simply the reconsidering of Everything that Previously did not Need to be Considered.
Most of what we now own is either in a box or in a recycling depot of some kind. A small part is in drawers and on walls and the kind of environment those objects call home. For the next few months when I need something I envisage where it was in our old house, recall the moment of packing it and go in search of that box. It is like looking for things in an unfamiliar supermarket. The smoked salmon is not going to be very far from the… Humous? Or maybe fish? Perhaps blinis? There have to be some universal rules.
So I am looking, for instance for my hiking boots. I find the wellies. No boots. I find the ski stuff (woo dusty). No boots. I find the tennis racquets. No. I find the box marked “kitchen jumble”. There. Oh yes.
I curse the movers for two days for losing my essential kitchen equipment. I cannot cut an onion with a SPOON. I refuse to buy any of it again. Any part of it. I refuse very loudly. With a plate. The children go quiet and helpful. The missing things were in a drawer. Which? The drawer in the side of the dresser. This? That. Look.
And the essential kitchen items jangle a bit as I open the full empty drawer.
The difficulty is that the drawer is no longer in the kitchen so I could not conceive of its containing the same objects once it had moved. It simply is not the same drawer. I suffered an Expectation Shift Breakdown. They are everywhere.
They are actually everywhere everyday. When I write a short story I expect it to build to a punchy end. When I get to Act Three of The Seagull I expect to finish it tired. When I get to the beginning of my second glass of Cava I expect to finish it sober.
Did you get that? Hiking boots. Another reason I don’t know where anything is, is simply because I am distracted by views like this:
My Life in Art has a whole new meaning.
I have, it was recently, been caught making poignant yet unscientific observations about hills. It was something I wrote. You might have seen it.
Apparently hills just don’t form like I think they do – like a duvet settling on a bed – that is just plain wrong. A friend tells me. Then when I try to describe what I mean I use the phrase “a meniscus of billowing duvet” and I am apparently digging even deeper. Meniscus. He asks me.
So I have to be told that the way I view hills, that is: as a very, very slow wave – that view is very, very wrong. I was thinking of a wave so slow as to be imperceptible. In my mind I saw the earth inhaling and exhaling at sub-glacial speed. I was working up to a metaphor that drew on surfing and foam. But what I imagine is not an analogy – it is a fantasy. It just doesn’t happen.
I might like to think of the earth’s crust as dappled and textured as a puddle in a wind, but it’s not.
For a person who knows how hills are made, it is physically painful to have them described as waves. Or ripples. For me to imagine God plinking a celestial pebble onto the unformed surface of the earth and then watching for several millennia as ripples break around and away is a lovely thing – mainly for me.
So I take back what I said about hills being waves.
Specificity is freedom. A thing needs to be pinned down before it will grow.
We have a trough of strawberry plants in our kitchen at the moment and not many strawberries. I’ll tell you why. These strawberries send out runners. When the runners are allowed to rest, undisturbed in, say, the pot where peppers are growing (oh yes, our kitchen is a Horn of Plenty), it puts down roots. It quietly makes another plant. It just needs peace and a place and off it goes.
All this energy spent making more strawberry plants diverts the mother strawberry from making strawberries. So not many strawberries. But seven happy strawberry plants where we planted three. Bouncy and bushy as an army in camouflage.
I can’t be at peace if my idea about the hill is plain wrong. That idea has no place. And nothing will grow from it.
In fixity – freedom. That’s what I’ve learned.