Friday, 31 October 2008

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin ...


Happy Halloween boys and girls - the little ones are togged up as a pumpkin and a vampire skeleton, and we're off trick or treating. In England, Halloween has only really taken off in the last couple of years - when I was small you were hard pushed to find a single pumpkin in Devon. How do you feel about it all? Is it an excuse for a party or do you feel uncomfortable with the whole thing for religious and/or moral reasons?


Strange things happen at this time of the year. I never thought I'd write these words, especially having laughed at Little Britain's spoof of her for so long (see the post before last): Dame Barbara Cartland has inspired me. Well not her exactly, but the BBC4 docudrama of her life. Take heart all ye writers who fear global recession is the death knell for your publishing prospects, BC has spoken:

'In times of strife people need happiness and hope.'

Normally the sighthound only rouses herself from the sofa to lunge at wild cats and other dogs on the TV, but she made an exception for Dame Barbara. Every time the actress came on screen she leapt to her feet huffing and wuffing, practically knocking the screen over at one point when the woman was wearing a huge feathered hat. The lady is something of an institution in the UK - fifteen books a year. Count them. Fifteen. Over one a month. How? Narrating to a team of secretaries from a chaise longue certainly helps with your stamina but it is still impressive. These days a book a year is good going for commercial authors. I've never read one, but millions have. Have you? Perhaps having dismissed M&B it's time to step outside my comfort zone and give BC a whirl.

By now those of you who have been good enough to read the posts regularly have an idea of where I'm coming from. Misssy kindly referred to me recently as the 'windswept jazz loving authoress' - perhaps a new tag line? However as much as I love fresh air and great music (fnaa) - I have always adhered to the idea that once in a while it is a great idea to push your comfort zone. While I dislike tacky - I love kitsch. (As if you couldn't tell from the 'Werewolves in London' track accompanying this - if it sounds oddly like Kid Rock, this came first). If you embrace places like Vegas or Blackpool with an open mind they can be terrific fun. I was arrested by the Hare Krishna 'Smile Police' in Waikiki (for wearing black and just looking too - well - London/jet lagged), and cleaned up on the slots at the Luxor in Vegas, (so we blew it on a room at the top of the pyramid with a purple hot tub in the bedroom that overlooked the Strip) - both experiences never to be forgotten. Don't even get me started on Blackpool - 'Kiss Me Quick' hats, the illuminations, Jess Conrad as Joseph and the majesty of the organ rising out of the pit in the Tower Ballroom as old couples waltzed gracefully round and round beneath the mirror ball. Under normal circumstances you wouldn't catch me dead in any of these places, but as you travel pushing your comfort zone, and being able to find something wonderful in the places you end up will keep your eyes and ears open - and may just give you the key to your next piece of work.
TODAY'S PROMPT: How are you feeling tonight? Comfortable ... or a little nervous? I am feeling unsettled but it has nothing to do with Halloween or Werewolves in London. Dame Bab's battle cry inspired me to sign up for NaNoWriMo for the first time (bites knuckles). Writers, your countries need you! Have any of you done NaNoWriMo? Are any of you going for it this year? If any of you have tips or comments to share with those of us seriously pushing our comfort zone (a novel in a month? how many words a day?) ... you know where to click.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Calling Wyoming ...


As an aside during Halloween posts, this is a call out to all writers in Wyoming. Is anybody there? Jump on board - join the party, comment away! We'd love to hear from you. I am not good about checking the stats (it's been ages ..) - but was thrilled and overwhelmed to see WKDN is being read in over 60 countries and every single US state ... except Wyoming. Why? Was my immediate reaction. I'm curious. Why not Wyoming? 'Green Grass of Wyoming', 'My Friend Flicka' and 'Thunderhead' were ironically the best horse books I ever read as a child - as much loved as the 'Silver Brumbie' series. Everyone knows that 'horses come between toys and boys', but this is one girl who has never given up the dream ... (cue Holly Golightly/Moon River).

To all the other States - thank you, and thanks to our readers around the world. As Halloween tends to turn everything upside down, how about we open the floor to questions, or your own prompts? Is the blog working for you? Are the prompts useful? What would you like to know? As Frasier said: I'm listening ...

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

What a Strange Trip It's Been ...

Thank you Angela for the invitation to join your Halloween Travel Blogapalooza over at Just Go! May this terrifying tale about one of the new 7 wonders of the world add to your celebrations.



Every time I look at the small skeleton dancing on the corner of my writing desk, it reminds me how precious life is and how lucky I am to be here. It's my own memento mori from Mexico. The journey to our ‘heart of darkness’ began among crowds of fresh faced preppy kids like the ones in the Vampire Weekend clip, but they were thronging the sticky streets of Cancun rather than the beaches of New England. It wasn’t an auspicious start – I had dreamt of travelling through Mexico for years, ever since seeing an exhibition at the Museum of Mankind in London where life size Day of the Dead skeletons loomed out of the darkness on winged beasts and leapt from open graves.
The Mayan pyramids have always interested me as much as the Egyptian’s – as we flew in from the US I could hardly wait to finally be in Mexico. What I hadn’t reckoned on was how commercial the coast is – to a European it is like Benidorm. Less whitewashed pueblo buildings and skeletons than Margarita happy hours and kids lurching drunkenly out of Senor Frog’s like zombies. In my disappointment, I forgot that tequila is no antidote to Mexican ice. Even hardened travellers make stupid mistakes sometimes. Daybreak found me curled up on the bathroom floor in a foetal position praying for an early release. Unfortunately this was the day we planned to head into the jungle and begin our exploration of the Mayan ruins.
I remember little of the hours our jeep rattled through the jungle. There was no radio – we rode in silence, bumping along the dusty track. The screech of metal on metal awoke me – the roof had sheared off, and the jolt cut my temple as the hot steel door frame slammed against my cheek where I lay. Blood trickled slowly at the corner of my eye. I felt pretty wretched. Fortunately, the pilot had sensibly stuck to bottled beer and was fine. Not long before we reached Chichen Itza he saw a gas station – ‘Let’s fill up, just in case,’ he said. Blearily, I gazed around – men in sweat stained khaki with machine guns slung over their shoulders chatted by the pumps, a couple of dogs kicking up dust as they snapped at one another, yellow teeth bared. Knowing we were getting close to the pyramids, I forced down a bottle of water and tried to feel excited instead of like dying. As we drove on, a steel grey sky drew close over the dense jungle - it felt like the vegetaion was closing in behind us.

At the Hacienda, fans creaked slowly overhead as the manager signed us in. He tossed a key at us, and dabbed at his sweating forehead with a limp handkerchief. Our cottage was in the gardens, a short walk from the pyramids. An empty cane rocking chair on the terrace shifted to and fro in the breeze. In the silence, the dank air hummed with insect life – it was alive, electric. Glassy eyed crows hopped among the blood red bougainvillea as we approached the clearing. At once, I had a sense that the jungle was only being kept at bay – you could easily imagine within months it would engulf the pyramids again. It made you feel as though you were encircled by a thousand watching eyes from the darkness.


As the great pyramid loomed before us, my heart was racing. The first thing I heard was the sound of women weeping at the top of the steps. The acoustics in the clearing are incredible – the Mayans were well known for their mastery of this. The sobs and wailing reverberated around the site. Thunder rumbled in the distance. I wondered how the cries of the priests and the terrified screams of the sacrificial victims would have rung out over the jungle. The women had climbed the sheer stone face, only to find they were too terrified to descend. I watched a grown woman crawling backwards, sobbing hysterically as she clung to the guide rope. It was enough to put me off - I still felt like someone was slowly turning a knife in my stomach and didn't have the strength for that. As I sat back with my camera to take in the atmosphere, the pilot gamely climbed to the summit. On his return, even he was a little shaken if not stirred. The odd thing about the Mayan ruins we saw on that trip was that although I knew all the stories about human sacrifice, of brutality, of hearts torn out, and heads taken as trophies I had not expected the place to still be so chilling. I had studied plenty of Mayan artefacts in museums and books. I had read up on the brutal history. What I was not prepared for was to feel so scared once in the place itself. I grew up in a remote and beautiful part of England, moors populated with stone circles and tales of vengeful ghosts and disembodied hands snatching the wheel from late night drivers. As a child you grow pretty blase about the strange things you see and feel - they are part of the landscape. Maybe that's why now as a writer my senses are attuned to shifts in people's moods and the atmosphere of places – and as a person I always get a strong gut instinct about both. What I had not expected about a place that is now becoming something of a tourist destination was that the sense of menace would still be so palpable. It was like centuries of bloodshed and violence had seeped into the stones themselves.


The worst place I experienced was the great cenoteCenote Sagrado. This is the site of sacrifice – human and otherwise. It is approached through a narrow jungle path. By the time we reached it, darkness was falling – it felt as though you could reach up and lay the flat of your hand against the dense grey sky. Suddenly, beneath us, this vast, gaping hole opened – a sheer 27m drop to a 60m diameter pool. The atmosphere was chilling. Archaeologists have dredged it – and found precious gold, jade, obsidian – and apparently the skeletons of children and men.


Looking at the horrified faces around me, I wasn't the only one who felt the sheer terror of the place - is it too much to say a place felt evil? It was enough for me – we did not stay for the tourist friendly light show in which they re-enact how the snake ‘writhes’ along the steps of the great pyramid at equinox. The video clip above gives you an idea of the effect. Back at the hacienda, we ate a subdued meal on the terrace. Pewter chargers beneath our plates of chicken with chocolate and chili mirrored the dull, sulphurous sky above us. As we turned in for the night in our single metal framed beds with crucifixes above them, my dreams were fitful and dark.

Then, in the middle of the night, a sharp pain tore me from my fevered dreamstate. I felt something on my leg. Then again, a second, searing pain on my arm. I cried out. The pilot awoke, swearing in pain. I fumbled for the lightswitch. The beds were heaving – a carpet of huge fire ants covered us, and on the wall above, a perfect disk of ants the size of a large clock face moved in unison. More were following – it was like the jungle had disgorged them, they were streaming through the cracks in the wall like a dark, seething tidal wave. Screaming and yelling, we flicked as many of them off as we could and dived into the bathroom. In the shower, we washed them away, and I sat trembling as the pilot stamped on the few trying to squeeze through the door frame. What to do next? We couldn’t stay there all night.


We took it in turns to grab our few belongings from the room which by now was black with ants. Their bodies crushed against the terracotta tiles as we raced to get out of the cottage. The Hacienda was deserted. No cars, no people – not even the rangy dogs we had seen on arrival. We left our key, and drove non-stop through the jungle at night, nursing searing bites on our bodies and the fear of coming across machine gun toting locals, breaking down, or running into wild jaguars. Thanks to the pilot’s sense we at least had enough petrol to get back to the coast. As the first rays of sun broke through the dark night, we began to relax, began to laugh and chat at last. Suddenly a wild animal the size of a pig leapt from the jungle. There was a sickening cry, the crack of bone and a dull thump as we hit it. There had been no way to avoid it. I remember the headlights illuminating dark eyes as it ran in front of the jeep and swung its head towards us- who knows what it was. We stopped in the road, looked back to where its body lay prone in the road. It was motionless, stretched out, the size of a man. We waited. Once we were sure it was dead, reluctantly we pulled away - what can you do in the middle of the jungle, call the RSPCA? Another short life in Mexico, another brutal end. As we pulled into Cancun at dawn and stumbled through the sand towards the ocean, I finally let my hair down – literally – and a solitary ant fell to the ground, shook himself, and ran off into the darkness.


TODAY’S PROMPT: For more Halloween horror stories why not visit Just Go! http://aknickerson.blogspot.com/ There you can visit over thirty other sites with terrifying travel tales, and enter the draw for one of three fabulous goodie bags.

Monday, 27 October 2008

What Is Love?


This, according to a recent edition of Imagine? is the most asked question on Google. 'What is love?' Warms your heart doesn't it? You would think from all the gloomy statistics about divorce, the acres of press given over to celebrity break ups that love has had its day. However, romance is thriving, which is great news for writers - Mills & Boon apparently sell a book every five seconds in the UK. How incredible is that - either we are all hopeless optimists or the quest for true love is alive and well. I've mentioned before one of my much loved and completely terrifying English teachers was rumoured to write steamy M&Bs on the side. While not in the category of 'Lace', 'Fear of Flying' and all the other eighties bonkbusters, these slim volumes single handedly perpetuate a certain kind of mass market romance. I was staying on a friend's boat years ago - I wasn't much older than my daughter - and idly picked up the M&B the mother had left on deck. I glimpsed the immortal words 'his strong, masculine thighs clasped her ...' just as the mother reappeared, ice chinking in her glass. I never looked at her, or M&B the same way again. Have you ever read one? I have to be honest and say I haven't. I may be missing something but say Mills & Boon and I think single red roses, doctors and nurses, haughty landowners and feisty governesses. I think Fabio. Is this romance to you?:

Maybe I'm missing the obvious, but perhaps you also go for something different with your romantic hero/ines (what would the highly successful female actress/pin up version of Fabio be for the chaps - or girls for that matter? (Love is where it falls, as they say). Pamela Anderson in the US perhaps? Jordan in the UK?). I like imperfection - sexy is Javier Bardem's broken nose, or the gap in Vanessa Paradis' teeth. Look at the latest Bond - Daniel Craig is not in the mould of Pierce Brosnan but for the first time since Connery there's a genuine, dangerous, sexy edge to him and it has as much to do with his imperfections as how good he looks in tiny trunks. A gay friend gleefully informed me my type is 'ugly good-looking'. Not sure what the pilot would make of this, but I do prefer intelligent actors like Willem Dafoe or John Malkovich .... The great beauty of writing fiction is that you can say of your hero: 'his blonde hair lifted in the breeze,' and some readers will see Fabio in their mind, some will see a young Robert Redford while others will hopefully picture something more characterful:

Through fiction, readers get to act out the desires and disappointments of their own lives - books are cathartic, inspiring - it's the greatest disjuncture when best loved books are made into films and the characters are not as you saw them. I've just chosen 'The Lives of Pippa Lee' by Rebecca Miller for our book club - mainly because it's a first novel by an interesting writer/director, and I thought from the reviews the main character sounded challenging. From browsing the new, dedicated website, the film is already in production and they have cast the very beautiful Monica Belluci as the first wife. She's gorgeous - but not at all what I had in my mind, and Gigi was one of the most interesting characters (intelligent, beautiful, edgy - I saw someone much older, angular, whose beauty had been tested by experience. I can't imagine Ms Belluci shooting herself at the dinner table). Maybe you've experienced this - what are the book adaptations you've loved and hated? It does work the other way of course - Mr Darcy will forever be dear Colin Firth.

What are the great love stories that have really touched you? One recent film that approached the subject in a fresh way was 'Paris je t'aime' - multiple love stories to the city by different directors played out by a dream cast. The segments were hit and miss, but they covered the gamut of love - straight, gay, love of family and friends. Juliette Binoche's segment as a grieveing mother reunited for a moment with her dead son by Willem Dafoe's ghostly cowboy broke me. It's the old raw nerve left exposed by parenthood - the love you feel for your children is unquestioning, fierce - the thought of losing them unbearable. Loss is woven deeply into all the great stories - Pride & Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, Brief Encounter, Casablanca. Even recent romantic hits like 'The Notebook' have a great sadness to them. 'Your mother is my home,' the old man tells his kids when they are beseeching him to leave his true love at the hospital and come home. It reminded me of one of the simplest and truest lines I've ever read: 'the best a man can do for his children is to love their mother.' Home is where we learn everything we do and do not want from love - what lessons did you learn, and what do you want to pass on to your children?

An interesting point the documentary made was how frequently the best loved love stories end badly. I had to laugh - while The Book is not 'romantic' in terms of genre/category fiction - (it's darker, more about families and relationships than simply a love story), for years it was called 'Love & Loss'. Only this summer did agent number one say 'Naaah - I never liked that title. Too depressing.' Which is ironic - I fought hard for a happy ending (yes, I know suffering = serious = literature, but there's enough of that in real life). She could have told me years ago (shrugs). It has a new title now but love and loss is what it's about. Love and loss is what life is about. At least in fiction, love can conquer all - or give you the impression it can if you cut the story at the point where everything is finally going well. I'd always attributed the wonderful line 'happiness writes white' to Philip Larkin after seeing an excellent BBC film. Turns out he didn't write this, though Clive James has a fascinating article on his site about this very topic. Larkin did say: 'Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth.' In the Larkin biopic, Hugh Bonneville captures the poet's delivery perfectly. It's an affecting performance - Larkin says at one point that writing about unhappiness is the source of his popularity - after all most people are unhappy. What do you think?

TODAY'S PROMPT: Have you read about Georges Polti's Dramatic Situations? Based on an earlier work, he argued that there are only 36 situations on which all works of drama and fiction are based. I can't recommend the work highly enough - not just in terms of studying drama, but also as a tool for writers. If you are stuck for a storyline, Mr Polti clearly lays out the thirty six options. Nine of the situations refer directly to love. If you are at a loose end today, why not look the work up online, and pick out a couple of the scenarios that appeal to you - rough out a scene or character, or reflect upon how those situations have played out in your own life.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Does Size Matter?

Driving home to a half term sans pilot, (nine day US tour … I’m going to be a basket case by the end of it). On the radio they were savaging lovely Ewan McGregor’s latest film. (Being half Scottish I have a soft spot for him - we even have a family sporran fluffed and brushed for weddings, and as a christening gift to my baby son the clan brooch was passed on. Actually that doesn't sound very manly does it - brooch? Perhaps there's a technical name for the big silver clasp you use to hold the clan tartan over your shoulder?) Back to Ewan - the script came off the worst: ‘Who wrote this?’ the presenter laughed incredulously. ‘Who wrote lines like: ‘I miss the simple things in life, like fish fingers.’ I winced for the poor person who had sweated blood over the script, who thought they were onto something real, modern, touching. I winced for Ewan – whose ‘come-back’ this is meant to be (has he been away? He’s been buckling swash with lightsabres, doing dashing things for Davidoff and circumnavigating the globe hasn’t he?) The best they could say for it was that Mr McGregor gets his kit off again. From the excitement in the studio, evidently no need for a body double there. It’s just one hurdle after another with creative work isn’t it? Like the Grand National – you make it over all the jumps (the sheer physical, mental and emotional endurance of writing a book or script in the first place, finding an agent, a publisher, rewriting, publicising …) only to reach Beecher’s Brook: will it be liked and will anybody read it? All that effort for some wiseguy on the radio to give you a ‘Turkey’ rating. Ack.

Do you read ‘big’ books? I mean big as in heavyweight literature, or big as in doorstop. I came across The Atlantic’s new site today - beautifully designed and it poses some terrific questions including ‘Are Good Books Bad For You?’ Big books certainly are – one or two of our recent book club books have been humongous great hardbacks – as I regularly fall asleep reading I have woken myself up with a whack on the face several times. A writer friend told me the other day that size really does count, at least with fiction. Her agent had told her to aim for 100k words. Anything over this causes problems with printing. Uh oh. Do you think they told Tolstoy? Touch wood, size has never been a problem for me – if anything I start big, like building up a hunk of stone and then sculpt and polish back to the finished work. The second book is much shorter than the first and I think this troubles people – perhaps they want a similar sized book to the first. First book too big, second book too small ... maybe book three will be 'just right' as Goldilocks said, or perhaps it's time to take inspiration from Little Britain’s Dame Sally Markham, making up her count with sections of the Bible and ‘wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeee’.
If you say ‘woman writer’ to a normal person there are normally two knee jerk reactions: a) starving suicidal Plath inspired lunatic in a freezing cold garret or b) Dame Barbara Cartland/Daphne du Maurier in their beautiful old homes, knocking out phenomenally popular bestsellers. Which one are you aiming at? I was at a house party in Cornwall years ago, and was the first to wake up. I staggered bleary eyed into the kitchen to make coffee only to come face to face with two slumbering Rottweilers. As the low snarl started, I began to back away. ‘Oh don’t do that!’ a cheery voice called from the back doorstep. ‘It will only excite them.’ My friend’s mother popped her head round the corner. ‘Just off to the village. Fancy a ride?’ One look at the by now slathering Rottweilers and I was off. We careered round Fowey in a wood framed Mini, the lovely old woman pointing out landmarks. ‘That’s Daphne du Maurier’s house,’ she waved a hand gaily at a beautiful old mansion, it’s windows reflecting the sunrise as we hurtled past. ‘So that’s how writers live,’ I thought.

Du Maurier had been obsessed with Menabilly – a house she could never own. It became one of her characters – Manderley, and haunted her life and work. I also have a strong feel for place and architecture – the same wild and beautiful (but fictional) West Country landscape is the backdrop for the first two books. I also have a strong sense of our ‘forever family home’ as Kirsty Allsop so winningly puts it. It’s out there. I don’t know about a mansion, but right now more space, and peace would be wonderful. We’ve had a couple of funny moments with children visiting for tea recently. ‘So do you live in a £1m house, or one of those squished up houses they knock down?’ one asked during the drive home. When they saw the cottage: ‘Mmm. Is a bit squashed up isn’t it?’ Talk about being cut down to size by a six year old. I’m trying to teach ours that size doesn’t matter … but does it? To children it really does. You want to feel equal, if not the best. You don’t want to be the one whose Mum is always the last to pick you up, or who has to wear the ‘wrong’ uniform – you want to blend in. Children are very conformist, love boundaries – it’s only later on that they hit the rebel stage we talked about a couple of posts back. But teaching our children what really matters in life, and not to take themselves too seriously are great gifts. Even work as loved as Du Maurier's 'Frenchman's Creek' is open to comic interpretation. We could all do with a good laugh tonight. Recession? Pah - enjoy.

TODAY’S PROMPT: What do you enjoy reading – short stories, novellas, or great bricks of novels? Do you like to be swept away in sagas, series, sequels? Or do you prefer something closely framed, tight, a one-act play? Have you even thought about word count, or are you just writing until it feels right? Out of interest, why not take a book you've really enjoyed and roughly calculate the length by multiplying the words on one page by the page count - it can be surprising to find out the length of a piece. How does it compare to your own work? How do you think you would feel about people's reactions to your life's work? Do you even care? Or do you lie awake at night panicking about it? I was interested to read an interview with Robert Downey Jnr - another actor I like a great deal. He said he thought he never cared about all the people who had criticised and dismissed him until he found box office success recently (with Iron Man), and was finally in a position to say 'to hell with you'. Perhaps it comes back to the ability to 'see ourselves as others see us?' - if you can anticipate reactions, even play up - tongue in cheek - and laugh at yourself, who is in control? The artist or the critic?

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Playing Games

Rowena tagged me. Haven't played tag for years, but this seems fun and a good way to come across new blogs - the idea is you share six random things about yourself, and tag six pals.

So here goes:

1) FILM: This is the first movie I ever saw. It was at the Godiva cinema, I was four or five. It was a real event - my mother put me in a stiff wool dress coat and patent mary-janes. I remember a lot of people in suits, and thinking Baloo was the most amazing person in the entire world. I still know the words and embarrass the children by singing along in the car:



2) NICKNAMES The weirdest compliment I ever had was 'She looks like the kind of woman who could just throw something in a wok and have your dinner ready in five minutes.' (This was from the brother of the engineer who wanted me barefoot and pregnant in New Zealand. Literally. He drew a picture). It's not the last time someone has oddly mistaken me for a domestic goddess - at the gallery, when she burst onto the scene they took to calling me Nigella and posting her pics above my desk. Beyond the fact I sound rather like her and we share a generous decolletage, there the similarity ends (I met her once and she is very petite, dark and beautiful). Apart from Nigella some other nicknames have been Claude, Margot, Miss Vogue.

3)

FAMILY I'm descended from Lloyd-George. The pilot's family is more interesting - his great great grandfather was a Romany prince who taught King George to shoot. My grandfather-in-law learnt to fly with Kirk Douglas during the war. (And I've been looking for a reason to post this picture since then - Bardot looking somewhat alarmed by the beard, and those trunks!)

4)
SUBTITLES I had this poster over my bed throughout the rebellious teenage years - it was a full size movie poster, and took up most of the wall. Ever since then I have had a weakness for European films, and a writer friend who read the book said 'This isn't a book. It's a French film, isn't it?'

5)

WHEELS I love driving (luckily as I'm on the road two hours a day). This is my dream car. A convertible Karmann Ghia has two seats, they are notoriously unreliable, but as a student I used to walk past one just like this on the way to work in Pimlico and have loved them ever since. Completely unsuitable for children, car seats, grocery shopping ... but then dreams are allowed to be impractical aren't they?
6)CAREER Before writing, I have worked in some strange places: numerous building sites, universities, stockbrokers, playsites, Harrods, hotels, galleries. I studied at the Courtauld Institute, fabled home of art history and espionage. When I met Norman Lamont in Moscow (as you do), his assistant said 'are you a spy?' It's also the alma mater of Brian Sewell - he came back once to reminisce about his days there, and basically told us we were pussies compared to the rigorous standards of the good old days. Apart from art historian, I have been a temp, playleader, travel writer and art consultant. I've been an artist. Some of the things I almost was are: ballerina, architect, designer.

Tag rules: Link to the person who tagged you. Post the rules on your blog. Write 6 random things about yourself. Tag 6 people at the end of your post and link to them. Let each person you have tagged know by leaving a comment on their blog. Let the tagger know when your entry is posted...

... and I tag: Scarlet, Misssy, EmmaK, Natasha, Ophelia Rising, and Magpie.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Rebel, rebel

The morning run to school, stuck behind a tractor on the A272, blood pressure rising rapidly as Stephen Fry recites 'Winnie the Pooh' for the millionth time. 'I hate pink' growls the six year old from the back seat.
'Punk? You hate punk?' I cry indignantly. (Maybe getting on a bit but we are still in hip rather than hip-replacement territory I hope, we pogoed with the best of them).
'Pink!' she shouted above Mr Fry and the toddler's singing, equally indignant, pointing at her puffa jacket.
'But pink is the navy blue of India, darling.'
'What??'
'It's true - Diana Vreeland said so.' Well, I read it in a book, so it must be true - yes?

How long did it take you to figure out that the written word wasn't gospel (unless of course it was among the world's all time best sellers - Bible, Koran, Chairman Mao etc - and touchingly 'The Little Prince')? Right up until university, it was more a question of 'appreciating' literature and art rather than pulling it to pieces. By the time I studied philosophy, then art history, Post-Modernism was in, and deconstruction was the rage. Perhaps it still is? I always found it rather disappointing at some level. There is something comforting about just being able to say 'I like that painting' without having to deconstruct why you are right or wrong to do so. I love instinct, go with outmoded ideas like 'genius'. To me, you have a gut feeling that some things, some people just are exceptional - like night and day, black and white. Who would you put in this category? Do you still think it is valid?



I loved the idea of Philosophy. There's something essential and pure about it. Where I grew up every moorland pub in the 80's had at least one Joan Jett look alike, (perhaps she looked more like Joan after a few pints), well past the age to be chatting up young farmers at the bar before fleecing them playing pool. I could not wait to get away and study, ideally in Paris or Oxford/Cambridge at a push. I think it was Miss Scarlet who blogged beautifully about Hard Rock hairspray the other day - one look at this video and it just takes you back to those days, to every provincial disco in Everytown - the smell of cheap perfume, dry ice and raging hormones. Now it makes you feel strangely nostalgic (how do we have any hair left after what we did to it?) - then I wanted to live in every capital city in the world. Best laid plans and all that.
This is French Philosopher Bernard Henri Levy - my tutors did not, sadly as it turns out, come from the same school. To me, philosophy is sexy, like rock and roll - the root of all things, it can take you anywhere. I wanted answers so badly as a teenager, practically inhaled any book I could get my hands on - stormed through the British philosophers, and found a soul mate with Gaston Bachelard. Sadly provincial English philosophers are less rock and roll (unlike M Levy). Now in Britain we have the charming Mr Alain de Botton (but he is Swiss) - I love his free-roaming meditations on everything from status anxiety to architecture, Proust and love. But at university the lack of answers, the arrogance of teenage undergraduate philosophers who thought they knew it all drove me up the wall. When I recall my tutors it was like they had been ensnared by some tweed spinning spider, entombed in their grey studies, bound to their armchairs by their hacking jackets and bow ties, all passion spent. But I fell in love, moved to London, switched courses - and never looked back. Maybe I'll finally do a PhD in Aesthetics once we retire.

Were you rebellious? Hands up who stayed out too late, drove too fast, bleached their hair (or dyed it black), smoked Gitanes, fell in and out of love ... and now we have it all coming back to us in spades. I worked hard at school, had fun yet was Head Girl, but my mother still says of the six year old 'Mmm .. you were challenging too.' Perhaps it's karma - what goes around comes around. It's our turn now to be the worried parents at home sitting up in our PJ's. We have a few years to go yet, but already the tables are subtly turning. We are the embarrassing ones - the hugs that are shrugged off, the ones whose pleasant requests are ignored, and then told to stop singing to our music. We all know how children make your heart explode with love on a daily basis, but nobody tells you how much they knock your confidence. Where are the books to tell you how to do this? Where are the books to tell you how to hold on to your free spirit and the best of you while letting someone you love like life itself blossom, grow, and go? How do you manage that juggling act where you fade into the sidelines enough to not overshadow a small human being finding their way while retaining enough strength and happiness to be able to help them, be your best, and emerge resilient once they go off to their own lives?

When I was pregnant, I must have kept Amazon going with deliveries to our P O Box in Spain - there was no family, no ante-natal classes, no NCT. Everything I learnt about preparing for a baby, giving birth and childcare I owe to Miriam Stoppard and a really scary video that showed everything. Everything. We hid behind cushions on the sofa going 'Noooo! That's not possible!' By that point it was a bit late in the day to rebel and say 'Nope. Not me. I am Not Doing That'. Just today, our daughter said to me: 'Mama, doesn't it hurt when a baby comes out of you?' and I found myself saying 'Oh a bit, but at the end you have this beautiful baby so you forget all about it.' Did you? Have you? The pilot famously said he'd never go through labour again. Every single woman I know lied through her teeth before the first, then said 'Ohmigawd, I know ...' Afterwards. What are the little white lies we tell to get through each day?



TODAY'S PROMPT: So, were you Rizzo or Sandy? Good boy or bad boy? If they invented the teenager in the 50's and 60's where did that leave the generations who came after? Are we the ones who refuse to grow up, the Peter Pans? Or are you quite happy growing older? Is age in the mind? Why not take your journal and have a think about people you have been drawn to - perhaps young people with 'old souls' or older friends who have retained an incredible lust for life (like dear Iggy), or rebellious teenagers (as Prince said - 'act your age not your shoe size'?) Who are the great teenage rebels who influenced you - at school I had James Dean pinned up over my desk, peeping out of his 'sweater'. Others had 'the boulevard of broken dreams'. What do you remember about being a teenager - why do you think we are all so extreme and melancholy? Or did you cruise through? Do you think as the population demographic shifts and there will be many more 'golden oldies' than teenagers, our attitudes will shift too? Is the rebellion, the gilded beauty of youth It - or is the best yet to come?

Friday, 17 October 2008

Cockahoop


In the midst of so much doom and gloom, just wanted to pass on some personal good news and say thank you to all of you who swing by regularly, subscribe, and grace this blog with your perceptive and challenging comments. I signed my client agreement today with Curtis Brown! Have waited months - no, make that years, for this moment. It feels like we are one big step closer to seeing the books in print, and I'm cockahoop to be working with such a great agent. Anyway - just thought out of everyone, you'd all appreciate how this feels. Thanks to you all - your support and the pleasure of writing with you over the last couple of months has meant a great deal. Have a great weekend.

TODAY'S PROMPT: We've talked a lot recently about the importance of finding what makes you and your work unique. Having had an incredible offer to work with a brilliant design team on the new website next month, I've put together a folio of images for each book. This 'storybook' shown above plus Miles Davis plus the 112,000 word manuscript = the book at the moment. It's only a partial view - how I see and feel the book won't be how readers picture it, but it's a beginning. Until we can pick the thing off a shelf in a bookstore this is as real as it's going to get. It's an interesting exercise - why not give it a go? In advance of seeing your work published, why not make it real for you?

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Are you thinking what I'm thinking?


Well, we made it through the seven deadly sins. Interesting exercise and plenty of food for thought but I’m glad we can skip around a bit without a theme and have fun now. A friend’s perceptive comment the other day about how we are all walking around and everything looks normal while we are all secretly contemplating how we are going to survive what’s happening globally has got me thinking. I don’t know about you but I’ve always given people the benefit of the doubt – assumed most people you meet are up front, honest, bright and curious. Maybe I’m naïve or an eternal optimist. Do you naturally assume that everyone is as interested in the world as you are? It took someone telling me categorically that most people do not examine their lives, that the majority have neither the luxury nor the inclination to question their existence for me to realise that it is not ‘normal’ to think beyond the day to day (as mentioned before, my dear mother-in-law famously said, ‘Neither of my children married normal people’).
Wassily Kandinsky - Cossacks

Other people are endlessly fascinating – in real life do you listen far more than talk? I tend to because I’m curious about learning what people think, have experienced and seen. The closest we get to seeing through another person’s eyes is watching film – but then it is only a partial view (we do not come to the images with the same life experience as the director). What goes on in your mind? It wasn’t until reading Kandinsky’s ‘On the Spiritual in Art’ and ‘Point and Line to Plane’ that I realised not everyone thinks the way I do, and it has a name. One in twenty-three people experience synaesthesia, and as a lot of these people become artists, designers and writers there is a fair bet plenty of you reading will be that one in 23, whether you realise it or not yet. Basically it’s a neurological mix up – for example people with synaesthesia may ‘hear’ colours, sense numbers or letters as particular colours or textures, or see days and seasons as having personalities, and think of calendars three dimensionally. Not everyone does this. It explains so much about how people learn differently, and how we are drawn to certain things. Hockney, Nabokov, Kandinsky – these are just a few of the famous people who see the world in an interesting way (let’s face it one in twenty three is pretty common). To a lot of people it is ‘normal’ but they are in a minority and I wonder if this isn’t a key to creativity, and to helping young artists learn?



When I found this animation of a Mondrian painting it reminded me of mental arithmetic. It may not be the ‘right’ way to do it but to me maths - however complex the quadratic equation or trigonometric calculation has always felt like a colourful game of Tetris. Which is curiously like Kandinsky’s interest in Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophy – one of their many esoteric theories is that creation comes from a single point and expands in a series of geometrical building blocks. Mondrian was also influenced by Theosophy – many see it as a fad, but it had far reaching influences in Modernism including the liberal Steiner schools. It’s certainly a melting pot of philosophy and religion – its emblem (‘There is no religion higher than truth’) incorporated the Om symbol, swastika, oroborus, and pentacle for good measure (or maybe it was a star of David, I don’t remember?). Kandinsky placed a lot of emphasis on the ‘artist as prophet’ – how do you feel about this? Perhaps it comes back to artist as shaman – rather than artist as servant of religion (I’m thinking particularly of Renaissance Italy as I’ve been looking at Michelangelo today). Is it our job to channel the divine, open people’s eyes? Or are we just doing what we are good at, and here for, in the same way some people are good with taxes or horses? No better, no worse, no more remarkable.

Personally, I don’t see synaesthesia as anything out of the normal. It’s just a cross-wire, and to be honest I’ve never bothered talking about it before (maybe because you would get that wide-eyed look of fear in most ‘normal’ people). Perhaps it explains why when I write I tend to involve all the senses – music (book one is Miles Davis' ‘Kind of Blue’), visual imagery (the scrapbooks that map out the story like a film’s story boards), perfume (beeswax candles lit religiously as I start work), touch (right now I have stones on my desk from Flying Point, a chunk of a mountain in Ojai, and a tile from the Alhambra which is a talisman for book three). And yes, taste – I do tend to cook around my books – it’s a fair bet I’ve shared the same memorable meals my characters are enjoying - desire filled oysters on the beach for example (book one). Well – I could have them rinse out a dirty bowl and eat cornflakes but kitchen sink isn’t my style and we could all do with a little romance around now. All writers have their rituals – what do you do?

While gradually learning your individuality is not the be all and end all can be the gateway to genuine wisdom, cherishing the unique way you see the world is the key to finding your particular voice. Assuming everyone feels and thinks the same way about colour, sound, letters, abstract concepts like time and space is limiting yourself. So what do you react intensely to? You will write strongly about these things, and people will feel that, and experience it through you. I think my taste for ‘clean’ architecture (high modern or the pure elegance of Georgian proportions) has a lot to do with the stress bad design causes. Clashing colours, cheap air freshener, harsh light, synthetic or irritating fabrics – all make me anxious. Space, fresh air, natural materials - these give you room to think. There is no time to be prissy when there are children in the equation – as adorable as they are, they ensure the world does not revolve around you, (and in fact being taken for granted day after day is a sure fire way to eliminate your ego, and sap your self confidence). Constant demands and little thanks – how do we survive? How grateful are we for the odd hug let alone adoring appreciation?




"Listen...you know those days when you get the mean reds?" –Holly Golightly said.
"The mean reds? You mean like the blues?" --Fred (Paul).
"No... the blues are because you're getting fat or because it's been raining too long. You're just sad, that's all. The mean reds are horrible. Suddenly you're afraid and you don't know what you're afraid of. Do you ever get that feeling?" --Holly.
"Sure." --Fred (Paul).
"When I get it the only thing that does any good is to jump into a cab and go to Tiffany's. Calms me down right away." --Holly.

Unfortunately the nearest Tiffany’s is a long train ride from here. It always used to do the trick. I like the fact that the carpets are (or at least used to be), threadbare. I love Elsa Peretti’s organic designs. My wedding band is from there, and under duress I have a habit of twisting it. When my grandmother-in-law first saw it she said ‘Oh yes, my wedding band from my first marriage was thin as well’. But I love it. And the pilot, wherever he is somewhere in the air between Colombo and Male. It was as wide as we could afford at the time, and it has a lovely depth and weight to it. After what we’ve been through I’m on a promise for an eternity ring sometime. Maybe once book four or five sells. Or the kids have graduated. Just as Holly loved Tiffany’s, anything solid, timeless, beautiful and calm works. Unfortunately, like most parents, I spend my days surrounded by the fleeting, domestic, messy and chaotic at the moment.

Maybe galleries and museums have the same effect on you as me – I spent the evening before my first finals sitting in front of the Brancusis in the Tate. Meditation makes me fall asleep or giggle. Beautiful art, architecture, nature or design beats TM for me every time. I knew immediately what Truman Capote meant by the mean reds – I’m not particularly melancholy, more prone to free-form anxiety. I like to get things done. So much to do - so little time. Stress levels are riding high at the moment. Do you remember that children's book with the guy who had a little angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other - Don Capello or Camillo? The devil is saying: 'Now the pilot's suddenly in Sri Lanka for a few days how are you gonna work? All your plans? Phht. Forget it! Give up! Watch Desperate Housewives!' 'But hey' – (the angel on the other shoulder says): look on the bright side, the night's young - tomorrow is Thursday, a work day, Conde Nast have asked for some feature ideas for Monday and you never know, maybe you can squeeze four day's work into six hours … ' Maybe you have similar converations with yourself. You get better as you get older at stopping the ‘mean reds’ in their tracks but sometimes they are beyond your control. Perhaps we could all do with Audrey Hepburn bringing us typewriter ribbons and cheerleading our efforts:

Holly: ‘Wat’cha doing?’
Fred: ‘Writing’
Holly: ‘Gooood!’

TODAY’S PROMPT: Do you think you might be among the one in twenty three? What colour is the letter ‘A’ in your mind – black as on the screen or something else? What sound is blue? For that matter why are the Blues blue? Everyone accepts that one don’t they? Do you get the mean reds? Or see red? Perhaps you dream very vividly and recall them well – almost like a ‘real life’ experience? Do you dream in colour? What do you see when you close your eyes? Dark? Or light? Why not take your journal and have a think about the way you see and think about the world. Maybe you’ve always taken it for granted that everyone sees life like this – maybe you are extraordinary.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Bringing Down the Moon

If the Tweenies had been around in William Blake's day, he would have known that 'I want doesn't get'. How many times do you hear 'I want, I want ..?' Learning to say 'Please may I have,' to share what you have doesn't come naturally to children. The crumbling financial world is pretty much summed up in this little engraving - the few people who blindly said 'I want' have brought the moon crashing down to earth and changed the world for us all. We met up with friends at the weekend - glorious sunfilled afternoon, leaves falling, acorns and conkers crunching underfoot. Six children and a very happy hound running wild through the fields. We stopped at the farm shop, shared sweet plums and a bar of chocolate - as we walked, the adults talked uncertainly of the future. It reminded me of the war films where people look out across the idyllic landscape and nobly say 'this is what we are fighting for'. It was a picture perfect afternoon - perhaps made more keenly beautiful by the trouble that may lie ahead.

I was thinking of Blake the other day - there was an interview with the artist Billy Childish (painter, ex-Stuckist, performance artist, ex-of Tracy Emin, and bears an uncanny resemblance to my performance artist/painter brother). He's often compared to Blake. In any interview with him, the implication is always 'don't you envy Tracy's success?' Enough to make any man bitter but he seems to carve his own path (whatever you think of his work). Envy, covetousness is a tricky one - do you think you envy people you like, or is it just people you feel intellectually/morally/artistically superior to but have found greater success than you? That sense of schadenfreude (secret pleasure in another's failure) - are you sensing it yet watching bank bosses get their comeuppance? By a strange stroke of synchronicity I ended up watching the remake of Bedazzled last night. Pete and Dud's original inspired this whole exploration of the seven deadly sins and virtues, and as we reach the last one Brendan Fraser and Liz Hurley's attempt finishes it off. It's unfair to compare Hurley's devil with Cook's (though she possibly looked better in a bikini that he would have). Fraser's first incarnation was as a Colombian drug lord - complete with beautiful young wife, and envious employees.


Envy, jealousy is a powerful emotion and a great catalyst in fiction. What are your favourite examples? One of my best all time lines comes from Greene's 'The End of the Affair'. He wrote that the thwarted lover was 'jealous even of the rain' that fell on the woman's skin. The entire book is suffused with envy, jealousy, longing - and it destroys them. Take the pride of the wealthy older man in Shawn Colvin's song whose young lover could ask him for the moon if she would wear his ring - is that enviable? He may never have felt more like a man - but by the end of the song he's taking a pill and going to bed alone. On the surface he has it all - wealth, power, a beautiful young wife but who would envy that? A friend said to me the other day it's amazing how everyone is walking down the street in London looking perfectly normal, but we are all facing this uncertain future. Behind the masks we all wear, behind our closed doors who knows what goes on? This is where the story lies.

I remember having lunch with some new friends a few years ago. The house was immaculate, the food exquisite. As the baby fell asleep in my arms at the table, the hostess must have pressed a silent bell - a hidden door swung open and a kind old Filipino maid appeared magically, asking if I would like her to tuck him down for a nap. This is the Home Counties, not the far East, and it still isn't normal to have help like this here. At that moment, (thinking of the chaos at home), I envied the order, the calm, the confidence of the hostess. These days I don't so much envy material things as abstract conditions - space, peace, help, security, the time to write. That and word counts. A writer Mum at school (kids in full time so she is footloose during the day), merrily announces '2000 words today!' each time I see her at pickup. Envious? A little - of the time to achieve that on a school day (I mean, book three's barometer in the sidebar isn't moving very quickly is it ...) Where we live, there are a lot of older husbands off in the City with very glossy stay-at-home Mums casually wandering the aisles of Waitrose after school drop off, or chatting in the coffee shops while au pairs watch the children at other tables. Times like this suddenly everything looks rather more precarious. Is the grass really greener elsewhere or do you think it's true that if we knew the reality of other people's lives we wouldn't trade our problems for theirs?
Older man - younger woman. If you can tear your eyes away, I have this photo pinned above my writing desk at the moment because I was thinking about an Armani dress like this the other day (and yes, it is an excuse to gaze at gorgeous George). I remember spending a free afternoon from college window shopping with a friend (well, I was browsing she was shopping - this was the beautiful, glamorous girl who had starred in a Gerard Depardieu film and was dating a photographer in Paris). In Armani's Knightsbridge window we saw The Dress. The perfect little black dress. She tried it on. It looked exquisite. She could afford it. She was a great friend - loved her to bits but was I envious? At that moment, absolutely. Didn't show it of course, (told her, genuinely, that she looked beautiful), but I was green eyed with longing. This is a perfect example of using the 'method' to trigger emotions for your work. I'm developing a character in book three whose entire life is focused on her envy of the protagonist. Whenever I want to turn on to her emotions all I have to think of is that dress. Maybe there are things, or situations like this you can think of? The Frankfurt Book Fair kicks off tomorrow. It will be interesting to see how it goes. At one point the idea of selling the Book there was mooted - it isn't going to be. For months I've had it pencilled in the diary as possibly the moment when all the waiting, and hoping, and longing to see the book sold will come to an end - and now it will come and go, no relief in sight yet. The thought of all the other deals that will be made and books that will be sold ... envious? Too damn right. But good luck to them. As Winston Churchill said often during the Wilderness Years, and we said a few posts ago - the secret of success? KBO. (Keep buggering on).

TODAY'S PROMPT: Patience, hope, kindness - it's tough to hang on to them sometimes, but it's grit that makes the pearl. Why not consider the things you are envious of at the moment? Jot them down in your journal - and get to the bottom of what you really want (more often than not it's not the thing you pin your emotions on). Envy can be the flag for what's missing, what you want to work for. Dig out the pearl and throw away the rubbish (is it really to be a bored trophy wife in a gilded cage or is it to have some time to yourself to write, to work, to be yourself not just someone's wife or mother?) Teaching children kindness, sharing - to think beyond themselves is the single most important thing we can do as parents. If 'I want' is the natural state, learning to temper this with thinking about what other people want and need is the key to finding balance. Maybe we've all grown to used to getting what we want immediately with easy credit, loans, easy mortgages. Perhaps this 'correction' can be a good lesson for us all. Maybe 'there are no short cuts to any place worth going'.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Will you slow dance with me?

Well, will you? If you're in a hurry, don't hang around - we're going to take it eeeeaaasy. It's the weekend after all. For today's illustration, it was a toss-up between Eric Carle's worthy 'Slowly, Slowly, Sloth' and Alexis Deacon's 'Slow Loris' with his pimp hat. Carle's classic 'take your time to find/know yourself' fable is enchanting, but in this house the Loris wins hands down. Look at that hat. Need I say more? Dude. Appearances can be deceptive. During the grey old day, Slow Loris does nothing ... very slowly. Come nightfall - hello! Maybe you know the stories - they are both great, but perhaps I am more Loris like (like most of us mothers he/she looks like us, sleepwalking during the day, but once the children are tucked cosily in their beds, we whoop it up with our writing at night). I'm tired of worthy, think I'm old enough to know myself by now - the thought of earning a Huggy Bear style hat like the Loris is much more fun.


Did you ever play the cloud game with your kids? If ever road trips are getting out of hand, the toddler has flung the last DVD out of the window like a Frisbee, I-spy has lost its interest, and someone is saying 'I need the toilet NOOOOWWW' this is our 'make it to the next service station' game. The rules are simple - spot an incredible cloud, and tell everyone what it looks like (a dog, a duck, a house). Our kids love it. It stops anyone in their tracks - and even when we're not playing they will now say 'Look! Look, that cloud looks like a crocodile' to the confusion of our more 'normal' young passengers. Zone out of the chaos, concentrate hard enough as an adult on those open-vista highway/motorway journeys and you can see the answer to everything. When I found a version of 'Slow Dancing ...' accompanied by clouds, I knew it was the perfect one for this post.

I first heard this song on 'Leaving Las Vegas' - a film which in spite of myself I love. It's heartbreaking (spoiler: love is not enough to save Ben/Nicolas Cage from drinking himself to death in Vegas). It goes against everything I believe in - salvation, love conquers all, love saves you. Thing is, you have to want to save yourself, and as much as Sera loved him, Ben didn't want to live. The song was beautifully chosen for this bittersweet film - Mayer is known only in the UK as Jennifer Aniston's ex-arm candy, which seems a shame. I love Blues almost as much as Jazz, and he seems a likely candidate to take over from Clapton if not Hendrix (as a few overexcited reviews have suggested). You cannot be fast to the Blues. It's the weekend - why not kick back, relax, and slow down. B B King, John Lee Hooker or whoever you choose. Couldn't find Hummingbird which always reminds me of home. (If you like the JLH song there are better recordings but in honour of Slow Loris, we have a Hat Thing going on).

Everything goes by so fast. Now that the years are broken up into term-sized chunks again, it seems the months are accelerating. Every day when Dad dropped me off to catch the 7am bus to school in Exeter he would say 'Don't forget to smell the flowers.' Every day. Don't you hate it when your parents give you good advice? Even now, 25 years later, and he is five years into fighting Non-Hodgkins having actually died but fought back - again - this summer, I realise I just haven't been taking his advice. (Did I ever?) I finally printed off digital photos from the last three years - I look at my baby son and can't remember him being that small. Where did that baby go? Where has the time gone? I have lost nearly three years consumed by waiting to be settled, waiting for our own home, waiting for the book to be published. This is time you don't get back. Maybe you have the same things going on with your life, the waiting - how does that make you feel?

What matters to you? Is it slothful not to have a showhome, when you would rather spend your freetime writing rather than polishing? If the basics are there - the children are loved, contented, fed, your other half remembers what you look like and nobody is dying of dysentery does it matter if you haven't ironed the underpants?


In 1980 we missed the strangely erotic subtext of the Cadbury's rabbit helping Mr Beaver keep his log aloft, but she had it right. Take it easy - particularly with something as sociable as food. Tonight, the pilot is in Mexico (probably working his way through the all you can eat breakfast buffet with chilli on everything before flying a 767 home). The children ate with their playdate friends three hours ago: bangers & mash, ice cream and berries - then we made popcorn which is now adorning the toddler's bedroom (perhaps he thought it was confetti). I lost the will to live, and carried him to sleep under his rainbow bed and glow stars, popcorn crunching underfoot. Vacuuming can wait til tomorrow - this is My Time. Friday nights used to be high heels and gladrags, Margaritas, dancing, dinner, or Ronnie Scott's. An old friend reminded me last night how young we were. This was me (far left, with Gaia, Amanda and Katie) on some 1990 Friday night gone by with much loved old friends - heading out for a party, why we are all carrying flowers like we are going to a funeral who knows. It's probably the last photo of me as a single woman - shortly after the pilot and I became an item. In fact this photo kills two birds with one stone - Ophelia, hiding behind the bolero jacket and those hideous yellow carnations is the skin tight, Robert Palmer minidress of near 20-year old lore that you said it would be fun to see a photo of:
Clement Stone said 'what the mind can conceive the mind can achieve.' Someone else put it more usefully as 'keep buggering on.' Some of my nobility seems to have been rubbed off lately, but I'm determined it will all come good. I have all these dreams for us. Friday nights when I won't be sitting here alone wearing two sweaters, Uggs and a blanket because of the wind whistling through the gaps in this old beamed cottage, listening to cheery groups of people heading for a pint in the pub opposite. We are working for these dreams - that's why the pilot is on the other side of the world, and I'll be sitting up until the early hours on book three. In the sidebar is a world webcam - I have this as my screensaver. I love how random and slow these images are, and how poignant. Some of the images remind me of holidays or what the pilot might be seeing so many miles away from us. Not everything is immediately beautiful. Empty car lots and abandoned picnic furniture - each fresh image has an aching beauty to it (they remind me of that sequence where they filmed the floating carrier bag in 'American Beauty'). It is a daily reminder of how vast and how small this world is, of our importance and insignificance, how close we are and how far apart - to take it easy, and see the beauty around us.

TODAY'S PROMPT: If you have kids, I can't recommend the Eric Carle or Alexis Deacon books enough as lessons to take things slow. If your life has been feeling frantic this week (like mine), why not take a leaf out of the sloth and loris' books, and slow down. What does slow mean to you? Do you remember your first slow dance? (Mine: he asked me, I stood up and towered over him. We danced with his head nestled on my shoulder. When you are 13, nice to be asked for the first time all the same). Maybe you have some memories of when you were forced to slow down, and how it gave you a chance to appreciate things you would have missed? I remember after 'O' levels, they packed thirty 16 year old girls onto three canal barges and set us loose. It was mayhem (we managed to wedge one of the boats across a narrow section of the canal, and spent most of the last night touching up the paintwork with nail varnish). Looking back it was a wonderful way to say goodbye to people who were like sisters and I haven't seen since that day. I remember every late night conversation lying on the top of the barges looking at the stars - you can't help but move slowly on a river barge.

Closer to home - the next time you think you want it all to go faster, remember everything passes, none of this lasts forever. All you have is now - and for parents maybe remember this poem I found last weekend tucked among the kids' paintings I'd stored:

'Beattie is Three'

At the top of the stairs
I ask for her hand. OK.
She gives it to me.
How her fist fits my palm,
A bunch of consolation.
We take our time
Down the steep carpetway
As I wish silently
That the stairs were endless.'

(Adrian Mitchell from 'Heart on the Left' Bloodaxe 1998)

Thursday, 9 October 2008

You won't like me when I'm angry ...

Have you ever had your personality analysed? I read an interesting article about a writer who uses the Enneagram system to build believable character profiles. When the pilot was a headhunter in London, he asked me to try out one of the tests they used on their clients. It was a Jungian Psychological profile – I came out as ‘Counsellor Idealist’ – along with Mother Teresa, Gandhi and Oprah. Right. Who knew they had time for Psych profiles? I bet you, were they still alive and hanging a painting, Mother T or Gandhi would not have just - uncharacteristically (one of those afternoons, you know ..) yelled ‘f***’ when they hit their thumb with the hammer only for the toddler to mimic ‘Fug, fug, fug!’ as he happily wandered past. Jung once wrote: ‘Show me a sane man and I will cure him for you.’ Who knows, perhaps somewhere in here there’s a ‘counsellor idealist’ fighting to get out (or no, she wouldn’t be fighting would she – she’d be waiting patiently, counting petals on lotus blooms).

BC (before children), I used to be a very calm person. In an article I archived at the weekend from a Mother & Baby commission on relaxation a few years ago, I wrote that pregnancy intensified my ‘normal zen-like state’. What? I’m sorry? I do a very passable impression of the Hulk on a daily basis at the moment. What I probably meant was pregnancy made me near-narcoleptic and unable to hoik myself off the sofa. That was a different life. At the moment I feel like a guitar string that is being tuned higher and higher until … Is it just me, or are we all under more stress than normal? Even on a good day, it feels out of control. From sleep we are dragged to news headlines of recession and demanding, beautiful children yelling to get out of cots/dirty nappies/have breakfast. I have a ‘can do’ attitude to life and resist drugs (optimistically bought a book called ‘Potatoes not Prozac’ that suggests dietary equivalents to the calming effects of modern medicine. A visiting Mum said ‘But why not go for the real thing? It’s wonderful.’ She smiled benignly as the children played). Angels and demons. I love my angels. As Mario Andretti once said ‘If everything seems under control you’re not going fast enough.’

Patience is vital – as parents and writers. Out of 30 speculative submissions sent out on Friday so far one article query has been picked up (one …) by a glossy UK gardening magazine, (yes, I have a pitiful track history with killing plants but it’s going to be about Georgian follies and pleasure gardens in case you were wondering …). They might – might, be able to fit it in in 2010. So – that’s not going to help with this month’s groceries then. Back to the drawing board or tap-dancing on street corners. Ideas on a postcard welcome. Do not lose heart. Hey – so I’ve exhausted UK Writer’s & Artist’s Yearbook – there’s still the US Writer’s Market lurking on the desk. Tomorrow's another day. Send another thirty out. Send sixty. Sock it back to them. Writing, child rearing – said it once and I’ll say it again – the only reason to do either is LOVE.

TODAY’S PROMPT: Take a deep breath. Take several. Take as many as you need until you calm down. This is the single simplest thing you can do to help if you are feeling angry, frustrated, trapped. With everything that is going on am I the only person who has caught themselves holding their breath – literally? So, breathe. At the risk of sounding like grumpy old men and women, why not take a few minutes and let rip – write out your anger and frustration. Anger is a bitch if you internalise it – it becomes depression, anxiety – research links psychological repression of anger with the body self-imploding with physical illness … as mentioned, there’s a lot of Celtic seething in our family’s history (a lot of repressed anger, addiction, tragic early deaths – and creativity). Figured out early on the need not so much to Let It Be as to Let It Out.

Here’s a rant to get you started: From today’s headlines alone, I am livid that hard working middle income tax payers struggling to get by are bailing out the banks whose greed got us all into this mess in the first place (and sending them off on jollies to spas of all things – grrrr). I am incredulous that a whole country (Iceland) can be bankrupted. I am incensed that a drunk driver who killed two young boys and paralysed their father will be out in three years. I am beyond furious that thousands of old people will be unable to heat their homes this winter because of the oil prices. And that’s without getting personal. (Today, I am thoroughly ashamed that after failing to hang the painting because the fifteenth century damp cottage wall crumbled – (probably built of hay and horse shit), I yelled ‘I hate this wall!’ and the six year old sobbed ‘No you don’t you hate me’). Children take it all to heart – to them, they are the centre of the universe, the cause of everything good and bad that happens in your home. It stopped me in my tracks, (and the 'worst mother award goes to ...). We had a hug, popcorn and a movie curled up under blankets before bedtime. Nothing matters as much as them. The old adage – never go to bed angry is one to live by. At least they know their mother’s not a robot (push too many buttons and watch out …) but I don’t want to inflict my frustration (which rather than coming out on how slow publishing is, how dire the economy is – comes out on nails and walls).

So – have a go, try catharsis, get it out safely, get angry (Google anger management if it’s bothering you, I did – or sing along to Meredith, Kelis, Alanis - or Jack and Adam if you are feeling pretty witty and gay) – then (importantly) let it go, take lots of deep breaths. Lighten up. Wouldn't it be great to be Mother T, G, the Mighty O one day – but right now I’m feeling pretty challenged, fallible and human … how about you?

Separated at birth?

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