That’s all for today, folks!
I’ve just changed (look up) the tagline of my blog. So I’m officially allowed to write this sort of shit, instead of feeling subtly guilty and or dirty for cheating on my novel blog as well as my actual novel.
Anyone seen the film Sliding Doors in which Gwyneth Paltrow inhabits two parallel story lines: one with luscious flowing locks, and t’other with sassy Brad-Pitt era slick-fringed crop? (There’s probably a proper hair-dressy word for this style. Do say if you know.)
It all hinges (nice bit of door-related humour for you there) on whether or not she makes her train. I’ll say no more, because spoilers, but suffice to say that, as butterflies’ wing beats can make skyscrapers crash (or something; as you may have gathered, I don’t really understand chaos theory), the missing or catching of a London train has profound effects on more than Paltrow’s flaxen hair.
I think lately I seem like I’m happy and smiley and possibly hothousing metaphorical testicles under my dress (we all know that real ones don’t make you ballsy). And often I am. But you know how people say you’re only ever three pay cheques away from homelessness? For me it’s three shit things away from feeling entirely rubbish about myself. Not even three, actually. Today is one of those days. And I’ve only accrued two reasons. One’s just the usual baloney I tend to get myself involved in, and the other’s the fact that it’s Father’s Day. If you’ve read this post you’ll know that my dad has dementia. Buying him presents is the devil’s own work. In the end I bought baby shampoo, because he hates having his hair washed, and anyway, blah, that’s the end of the sentence because I physically can’t write down the other stuff I’m thinking.
It makes me sad, is all.
So this could be a crappy day.
And then again, it couldn’t.
Like Gwyneth catching/not catching her train, I suppose I have two choices: sit here accumulating gloom, or get up and live.
The ‘getting up and living’ option was just on the brink of including a walk in the woods, but God or Zeus or whoever has put the kibosh on that with a sheet of thrashing rain (which I wouldn’t actually mind walking in, but my neighbours would probably think I’d gone mental again if I set off in that). So I’m back at the drawing board.
I reckon, with a nod to radical acceptance, the crucial don’ts are these:
don’t wish things were different;
don’t feel angry with the world for the fact that things aren’t different;
don’t feel angry with yourself for the fact you’re not different;
don’t feel angry with other people for the fact they‘re not different;
don’t feel differently about yourself because of other people;
don’t let jealousy make you feel differently about other people;
don’t let any old riffraff into your head.
And the crucial dos, I reckon, are these:
have bubbles in your bath;
have chats with the (many, lovely) people who actually give quite a lot of fucks about you;
step away from the school campaign for long enough to remember you were once a (sort of) writer;
play some fortissimo piano, wrong notes and all;
post a link to your speech at the school meet last week where (drum roll) you got a standing ovation;
post a link to the school survey you set up (to counter the ‘official’ piece of taxpayer-funded shit) and remind the nice readers of this here blog than anyone can fill it out (hint hint);
get up, get dressed, get some music on;
have tea, have cake, be kind to yourself;
remember it’s you who decides what to think about;
be smiley and happy, this afternoon, when you visit your dad: no matter what, you can still have a cup of tea and a row about politics together;
and maybe, just maybe, retreat to your novel? It’s where you belong. Possibly. Maybe. Most of the time.
And, just as I write these words, the rain has stopped. The sun is shining. Turned out nice after all.
Today I’m concerned about Nicky Morgan’s eye health. All that staring! It can’t be good, can it?
Surely she’s a shoe-in for the Stare Out Championship Finals?
Anyway, I’m feeling like a massive bitch now, because mocking someone’s appearance isn’t cool. I should know better. I do know better. But I’ve been awake since 4.38 feeling stressed about my powerlessness to bloody do anything in the face of Nicky Morgan’s policies (coughs noisily into handkerchief and mumbles the word Gove… which, curiously enough, is a little-known synonym for the contents of one’s handkerchief when one has been too long in the capital, hence acquiring the sad affliction colloquially known as black bogies).
Moving on… (Because mocking Gove’s appearance would be entirely too easy, and irrelevant of course because one’s appearance has nothing at all to do with the state of one’s soul. To say, for instance, that Gove resembled a slippery fish would be wholly unfair when in fact— Oh, hang on…)
Very, very, very soon I will be blogging about writing again. I hope, I beg, I pray. I have reached the point in our school campaign (you can see more here) when I just want it to be over. I once had a normal life, I think. (Normal by Lynsey-ish standards at least.) By the bed there are two Cindy Shermans (not even prints – before you pop round to rob me: photocopies of prints. Wonky photocopies n all) that make me remember the heroine of my novel (I’ve fallen a bit out of love with the word protagonist) but no matter how many times I look at them lately my brain’s on a patch of ice, or a laminate floor with a rug on, or maybe roller-skates, because it won’t stick to anything it’s meant to stick to. It keeps getting angry and picturing Nicky Morgan’s bug-eyes and wanting to ruminate on the fact that, if Inspiration Trust invade my daughter’s school (the Hewett in Norwich), we’ll be making profit, by proxy, for a bunch of millionaire Tory donors. That’s definitely not something I want to do.
Other things I don’t want:
- a Principal instead of a head teacher
- children referred to as ‘products’
- an openly right-wing deputy and an openly Catholic head (sorry, Principal).
The last time I checked, homosexual activity was ‘contrary to natural law’ in the Catholic church. In our school we have several gay or bisexual children. Last night (at the second of our parent ‘consultations’ on the future of the school) I raised the issue of LGBT rights in the light of Inspiration Trust’s avowed ‘traditional values’. I wanted the Catholic head, newly appointed, to offer a firm commitment to positivity around homosexuality (along with a woman’s right to choose, and the continuing rights of teenagers to access free contraception at the Base (a community centre operating on the Hewett site) in direct contradiction to everything their religion holds dear.
Sheree Dodd, however, (who was orchestrating the consultation at taxpayer expense), shut me down. I raised my hand again later, but sadly the sands of time had run away with us (probably while the White Men in Suits who constituted the panel were rambling on: this was the kind of consultation where some were more equal than others; you know – the unfair kind).
I’ve done you a little gallery here… I’ve even done you some captions: but owing to the fact I’m having fancy circles instead of boring old squares (because I’ve had enough of boring old squares at these bloody consultations) you’ll have to click on the pictures to read the captions. (It may not be worth it. Your call. Life’s short.)
It’s worth blogging about this, I think, because the kind of consultation we’ve been ‘enjoying’ this week will very shortly go the way of this: Stary Nicky announced an education bill last week. This bill will enable her to ‘sweep away’ (her words!) the ‘bureaucratic loopholes’ (aka parents’ views) in order to push through the forced academisation process with a speed as yet unseen. At the moment it takes, on average, 13 months for the journey from ‘troubled’ community school to glorious academy. With Morgan’s sensible court shoe on the gas it could take as little as two months in future. In other words, from this: to this:
If you think this is a good thing you’re probably an idiot and should stop reading now because the rest of this post will only irritate you further.
I think we’ve got up Morgan’s nose. I’ve tweeted her enough times that there’s a passing chance she makes the sign of the cross when she sees my name (another rightwing Christian; awesome). Last night I was so far up the nose of Sheree Dodd that I could’ve investigated for ‘Gove’. ‘We heard a lot from you last night,’ she said, slapping me down again. Well, we heard a lot from Ian Burchett, too: that’s the IT guy, and for IT read Inspiration Trust, BTW. Wouldn’t want to give the impression that anyone connected with academy BS is remotely Roy or Moss-like:
You know what else is a ‘statement of fact’, according to Ian Burchett? Only one child (yes, one child) in the whole of Norwich defected from the Hewett to one of our brand-spanking-wholly-unnecessary-new free schools, Jane Austen College (owned by Inspiration Trust)! It really is true. Ian Burchett does have that kind of information. It isn’t opinion, or supposition, but a ‘statement of fact’.
He was in the mood for offering these cast iron sorts of statements last night.
Oh, hang on, no. Except he actually wasn’t! He couldn’t say ‘how long’ Jane Austen would remain in their present location (where, as I pointed out, they have no frigging windows! ‘I said please don’t send me here; it’s like a prison,’ as one child remarked to me last night). He couldn’t say why Dame Rachel de Souza, head of IT, should be negotiating over the future of Hewett’s land when – silly Rachel! She must’ve forgotten – she doesn’t own it yet. He couldn’t say anything concrete either about the future location of the newest player in the IT empire: Charles Darwin Primary Academy. He couldn’t say much about ‘traditional values’ either, except that, in his universe, traditional means ‘learning taking place in classrooms’. Or summat like that. No, it didn’t make sense to me, either.
I am roundly mocking him because it reflects the contempt shown to us by Inspiration Trust. We Hewett paupers are so terribly lowly that Dame Rachel couldn’t be arsed to show her face, but sent a stooge instead. I know supermodels used not to get out of bed for less than £10,000 dollars but FFS we have 54 acres of land, worth sixty million quid, at our disposal. The stooge didn’t even do us a bloody powerpoint. I’ve talked before about Aristotle’s definition of the distinction between empty (but impressive) rhetoric and genuine policy. Burchett had neither skill under his belt. I don’t pretend to be a policy maker, but I can write a speech: Mr Burchett, if you want a hand in future, I’ll help out! I rewrote the FAQ sent to us by our Interim Executive Board (IEB) whilst waiting to be (wo)manhandled by a gastroenterologist on Monday, so you see it won’t take me too long. What’s your hourly rate? I extend this invitation to the IEB as well: if you’re struggling to write a job advertisement you don’t need to ask IT to do it. I used to write job specs for a living. Once again, if you quote me your (own) hourly rate I could probably undercut it by, oh, 75% and still feel decently rewarded.
Anyway, we’re holding our own public meeting next Tuesday, 16th June at 7 p.m. There’s a link here if you’re Norfolk based and you’d like to come along. We’ll be talking about the same lack of choice I was talking about on this Future Radio story on Norfolk’s schools. We’ll be talking – honestly – about IT and why, no matter how Stary Nicky insists otherwise, they’re not the right fit for our non-traditional school. All the white men in suits, and Sheree Dodd, have been publicly invited (by yours truly) and rest assured I’ll be most upset if they don’t show their faces. I’ll (probably) blog about the meeting here.
And then… I’m done, I think. I really, really, really do have a book to finish. I’ve got to get back to it. My soul has got little bits of blackish bad stuff attaching to it, like lungs in anti-smoking ads, and I reckon it’s time for a detox.
Update: this post has been edited in light of the recent pointing-out to me, on ye olde twitter, that our incoming deputy is not, as I’d originally stated, a Catholic. He is, however, a Gove fanatic. Both these things are, of course, manna from heaven for an atheist pinko such as myself.
One day soon I will actually blog about writing my novel. (Before trading standards come knocking.)
One day soon I will actually do some work on my novel.
Neither of those things, however, will be happening today.
If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you may know that 2014 was a year of such cataclysmic awfulness that it’s almost been wiped from my head. For most of that time, I didn’t know how I would carry on being alive. I thought I was pointless and awful. It took a long while to get better. Some days would be bearable; some would be worse. There’s no rhyme to these things, and no reason. You just have to keep showing up every day and believe you’ll recover eventually.
I did recover. I am recovered. I’d had an unpleasantly sticky break-up, on top of other things, and it takes time to un-plunge yourself from the bog of lost affections. ‘You’re more like you,’ my daughter said to me the other day, ‘now you’re single. You used to complain all the time… and now you just get on and do things.’
It’s like being an alcoholic, though, or an addict: you don’t just get better; you have to stay better, actively, as I wrote about here. Just the way a relationship needs to be worked at, you need to keep working at loving yourself. Is it harder or easier to love yourself than someone else? It should be easier, right? But it isn’t, not always. I think people (especially women) often make allowances for undeserving others. It’s way easier to make such allowances for someone you fancy (and unless you’re really peculiar, or else Narcissus, you don’t usually fancy yourself…) ‘Well, he did try to call me, but it wasn’t his fault a passing magpie swooped through the open window and, in the process of trying to steal his phone, hit the delete key with its beak, so you see he had no way of knowing my number and, what was even worse, he was nude when it happened, and Christ knows how but the magpie’s claw must have caught the camera button, because that’s the only possible explanation for the willy pic he accidentally sent my hot best friend.’
I think you catch my drift.
Good things and bad things have happened in the last few weeks. I’ve made sensible decisions, and I’ve made some really stupid ones. The kind that are so stupid you auto-cringe whenever you think about them. I’m auto-cringing a bit now.
But so what? There are worse things than cringing. Worse things than making a dick of yourself. What I’ve come to believe is this: if you don’t take chances, your life will be shit. If you want something, ask for it. Speak up, speak out, speak your mind. Have a go. You will fail sometimes. Things will happen that make you feel silly or sad. I’ve felt silly and sad quite often, the last few days, but I’ve also felt totally fucking awesome. I feel proud of myself. I will keep making twatty decisions, I’m sure, because one of the many facets of my personality is, if I’m honest, a bit of a twat. I did something a little bit twatty last night, when I’d guzzled some wine, and I might be a twat again later. There’s no way of knowing.
But yesterday I did some cool stuff too. Nicky Morgan, our fabulous Education Secretary, announced a bill of such stunning stupidity, arrogance, and injustice that our school campaign got a much-needed fix of publicity. These links won’t last for long, but you can see me here (about 8.15)
If you’d rather not look at my mug anymore you can hear me here with a fellow campaigner, Jo Smith, on breakfast radio this morning around 40 minutes in. And we made a pretty good team, if I say so myself.
And even though it turns out my forehead is way more crinkly than I thought it was, I’m proud of myself for stepping up.
Because, what the hell, there’s always Botox. And, yes, I’ve messed up (yet again) this week. But I’ve also done good things too. So long as, occasionally, I can do something good then I’m happy to carry on being a twat, occasionally, too.
There’s a certain, very famous Longfellow poem I expect you’re familiar with (although, hang on, Gove’s not fond of American literature, is he?):
There was a little girl,
Who had a little curl,
Right in the middle of her forehead.
When she was good,
She was very good indeed,
But when she was bad she was horrid.
While I can’t lay claim to curly hair (without the assistance of heated appliances, or else a particularly sweaty night) I think there’s some relevance, for me personally, in the last three lines.
I’m a fairly mild sort of person most of the time. I wouldn’t say I was good, exactly; but most of my acquaintances would likely be willing to chuck a ‘nice’ in my direction. Sometimes I can be very nice. When the mood takes me. I’m usually kind. I find kind things to say down the back of the sofa when there isn’t any obvious kindness immediately to hand. I smile at animals in the street. I say cheerful things about the weather to passing neighbours, even if those neighbours have passed my car on more than one occasion with the express aim of checking the date on my tax disc.
But, you know what? Don’t piss me off.
Don’t piss me off because, believe me, I will argue till the cows come home, and that first generation of cows will have withered and died and in fact their grandchildren will also have long been home and quietly resting in fields of chewed grass by the time I finally shut my gob.
I just like the last word. Always have; always will.
I think it’s a consequence of growing up with Tory parents. (Although, happy day, Mum has now defected to Labour.)
Before I explain, let me first bring some shame on my head by confessing to something:
Until the age of nine I, too, was a Tory.
Just because, you know, my parents were. And then my middle school held a mini election in class. We listened to the parties’ policies and made our considered nine-year-old decisions and, after hearing the arguments, the party I voted for was… Ecology. (1980s incarnation of the Greens.) This was a surprise to me. My thoughts and feelings weren’t, after all, that similar to my mum’s and dad’s in this respect. I actually had my own opinions. And they were strident. And natural-seeming. They seemed to have formed the way cliffs do, for instance – without even meaning to; in response to the buffeting of the world around them – or much as a freshly rinsed white linen sheet (in my house) will attract, by the laws of inevitability (and Sod), a black cluster of cat hair within twenty-five seconds of leaving the washing machine, even if both cats are currently outside. It’s a conundrum.
What was I talking about?
Ah, yes. Well, I grew up arguing, you see. I was hot-headed and angry, and so was my dad, and we’d clash about twelve times a minute when I lived at home, because I cannot stand (just cannot stand) being told what to do, or to think. And it may be that I do it anyway, what you want me to do, but – trust me – the resentment is building, and one day, whether it’s a giant ding dong (not as pleasant as it sounds) or the metaphorical scissoring of your life from mine (like an angry divorcee with the family photo album), you are going to know about it.
Ofsted, you have been pushing me for a while now. I’ve said nothing. Or next to nothing. In fact, I semi-defended you on the radio a few months ago (‘I’ve got no particular beef with Ofsted’, I think were the words), but you – and the government that has hold of your reins – is really beginning to piss me off now. First you helped capsize my daughter’s school with your doom-mongering of the knee-jerk variety (all your reports are knee-jerk, dear Ofsted, because you simply don’t spend long enough to make reports of a more considered variety), and now you’re coming for adult education.
Let’s stop for a minute and talk briefly about the education of adults.
How do you define an adult?
The dictionary says ‘person who is fully grown or developed’. Immediately, see, we’re in murky waters, because ‘growing’ and ‘developing’ are so open to (mis)interpretation. I’m 41 and still not sure I’m a grown-up. It’s one of those things that’s hard to define.
Something else that’s hard to define? Enjoyment. According to Ofsted, it isn’t enough for my learners to enjoy my classes; there has to be evidence of achievement on a scale from one to five, or one to ten (it keeps changing), and something called a RARPA (I still don’t know what that stands for) that may or may not be the same as the ROA (or possibly the ILP) and learners must self-assess themselves in order to evidence achievement against a range of SMART targets (don’t ask), and if you replace the words ‘giving’ and ‘receiving’ (in the following clip) with ‘evidencing’ and ‘achieving’ you’ll have a good idea of the massive balls that teachers are forced to regurgitate, over and over again, for the benefit of Ofsted, because Ofsted have no real way of assessing the success or failure of actual teaching. The only thing Ofsted know how to assess is paperwork.
In my classes I teach consenting adults. I say consenting because everyone’s here, primarily, to enjoy themselves. Yes, they want to learn something – and they will learn something, I guarantee it; or else! – but that something can’t always be easily proven in any meaningful sense. They have fun. We get on. As a person I suck in a number of ways, but I think, as a teacher, I’m good at making people welcome. How would Ofsted know? They wouldn’t. They’ve never once visited one of my classes. They’ve never seen one of my lesson plans. If they had, they wouldn’t like it…
I’m not meant to use these lesson plans anymore. We got slated by Ofsted a few months ago (more specifically, the management team were slated; hence, by association, the teaching has also been tarred… because them’s the rules). If you’ve worked in teaching in the last ten years you can probably picture the carnage. We can’t move for steering groups and rapid intervention teams and six-page lesson plans with space for each activity to be checked off against Ofsted’s Every Learner Matters criteria:
- Be healthy – promoting excellent physical, mental, emotional and sexual health
- Be safe – ensuring all learners stay safe from all forms of harm
- Enjoy & achieve – making progress in learning and personal development
- Make a positive contribution – developing self-confidence, social conscience and enterprise
- Achieve economic wellbeing – preparing for financial independence
In my lesson plans, I’m supposed to achieve ‘number two’ (being safe) by ensuring my learners remove their bags from any gangways.
I’m actually supposed to write this into my lesson plan. Every week.
These are adult learners: professionals, past and present, with far greater economic wellbeing (for the most part) than the poorly-rewarded tutor who’s teaching them. It is really appropriate for me to make space in my lessons to help prepare an eighty year old retired policeman for financial independence?
I have yet to promote the sexual health of any learner, young or old.
As for three and four: come on! This is what you do your teacher training for. Once you’re trained, why can’t someone assess you (once, twice, thrice if you like) on probation – and once it’s been proven that (a) you’re not a massive bitch and (b) you do actually know, mostly, what you’re talking about, then leave you to get on with it. Would that be so crazy? You could have an appraisal once a year – you know, how they do in other jobs. I’ve had lots of other jobs: in shops, in offices, in restaurants… even a summer spent French polishing furniture for a pervert (don’t ask)… I don’t recall inspectors leaping from the woodwork to assess me, unannounced, in any of those jobs. (Although actually, in the latter case, an inspector might’ve helped.)
We have a peculiar new magazine called the Rising Standard (which I’m almost a hundred percent certain is what Nigel Farage calls his wang), and a red alert system to summon the rapid intervention team if a learner goes AWOL. It’s like a police state. I hate it.
I just want to teach. Is that too much to ask, Ofsted?
Over the years I’ve thought happiness was a place to get to. Nine enormous lit-up letters, nestling in the hills somewhere like the Hollywood sign. And as soon as you get there: pow, like a comic-book sock in the face, you see stars. Hello, life. You can start now. I’m happy. And happy is how I’ll eternally be. Of course things will go wrong: I’ll forget to buy butter, and cats will still vomit, and Mailer’s Law decrees that every writing class I teach will contain a student who’s hell bent on being a bell end… but once you’ve arrived at Happiness you’ll manage these things happily and all shall be happy, as Julian of Norwich nearly said, and all manner of things shall be happy.
Of course, this is bullshit.
There’s a story about the Hollywood sign. One ordinary Friday evening in 1932, when the sign was only nine years old, a young actress called Peg Entwhistle climbed to the top of the letter ‘H’ and dived to her death down the side of the mountain.
If you go about life thinking ‘happy’ is somewhere uphill and you’ve just to climb to the summit then rest up forever, you might go the way of poor Peg.
That’s why happiness isn’t a place, or a state, or an end in itself. That’s why happiness, I think, is a little kid next to a river. And the bank’s a bit slippery, and he’s not really watching his feet, and his laces have just come undone, and that’s dog poo he’s about to step in, and who’s that weird man in the bushes – are those binoculars he’s holding?
And you, yeah you, are responsible for that kid. If you don’t keep your eye on him, unhappy things are going to happen.
Happiness, too, has got to be kept an eye on. As any fule kno it looks perfickly lovely from the outside, watching kids play by the river. But under the skin of the outside it’s different. If you’re the one tasked with ensuring that child returns safely alive at the end of the day it’s less perfick and lovely than constantly stressful in small sorts of ways: like a kettle that can’t ever come to the boil but keeps trying to start. (Just been teaching my daughter about systems of imagery for her poetry paper this morning, and boy does this blog post need one…) You can’t close your eyes for too long, you can’t properly read, you can’t talk without having to check, check, check – and each check is accompanied by a squirt of adrenalin and after all, before you know it, this isn’t actually as much fun as you hoped it would be. Roll on bedtime.
That’s life too, right? Sometimes (not always) it isn’t as much fun as you hoped it would be. And then there are days, of course, when it’s downright fucking awful.
Even on downright awful days you can still be jolly.
By deciding to be. By tending to your happiness the way you’d tend a tottering two year old by a fast-flowing river. By looking out for it.
It’s not in the big things: the new job, the fancy house, the lottery win. It’s a known fact that people who break every bone in their body can end up as happy, eventually, as a person for whom the giant sparkly finger said, ‘It’s you!’
As hard as it seems to believe when you’re going through shit, it’s not actually life events that make you happy. Except momentarily, fractionally, fleetingly. It’s a tiny bird hopping beside you when you walk into town, or treating yourself to sugar in your tea. It’s a text from a friend. It’s playing the ornaments in a Chopin nocturne exactly the way you meant to (fingers don’t always do what they’re told, as any piano-playing fule kno). It’s noticing colours, lights, sounds, faces. It’s walking along a warm street lined by trees and remembering that, even though you hate your legs in every cosmetic sense, you’re incredibly lucky to have them. It’s finding the right word. It’s cuddling a person you love. It’s throwing a bobble for your cat to chase. It’s being told you’re the staffroom pin-up in your new job because your students gave you such glowing reports, and that teachers you’ve never met in a school you’ve never been to are supporting your campaign against academisation and know who you are, and think you’re kind of cool.
In other ways the week’s been shitty. Campaigning is scary and stressful. I haven’t been sleeping, and eating’s gone out the window too (even Sainsbury’s knock-off nobbly bobblies have lost their appeal: don’t buy the real ones, people, because: Nestle…). I’m waking at 1.45, or 2.25 if my brain’s being kind, and I re-plump my pillow and pull down my eye mask and try to get back to the dream I was having, but this happens:
Twice this week I’ve been marking at 4 a.m. which doesn’t seem fair or proper for someone so poor she has holes in 87% of the clothes she owns, but there we are. Life is what you make it. You have to keep paying attention: and, yes, your purse has just dropped down a drain with your house keys in it, but maybe you never liked that purse anyway. And maybe you’ll have to ask help from a passing stranger, and maybe that stranger will have a long pole, and it might be the start of a beautiful friendship, etc.
My cat’s on the bed and he’s well cute. I had five hours sleep last night instead of two, so yay me, I’m winning at that, and I’ll bury my face in his floofy belly and not care too much about big things going well or wrong or so totally tits up you can hardly bear to think about it. All there ever is, in life, is this moment. The thing I just wrote? It’s already the past.
So is this.
Now is life.
And now can have happiness in it, no matter what, if you just keep an eye out.
I wrote this exercise for my Write Club group a couple of weeks ago. I call it I am born and it’s simpler than a two times table or the sky in a child’s painting or… other random things that are also quite simple. (My brain doesn’t seem to be working today: I blame the election.)
It has to be written in present tense (or else I’ll come round personally and tell you off) and each ‘chunk’ of your life is addressed in a single sentence: you’re aiming to capture a snapshot from that part of your life.
I am born and my hair is black.
I am four and I look fat in photographs.
I am twelve and I still believe in God.
I am fourteen and nothing has really gone wrong yet.
I am sixteen and miserable now, heaven knows.
I am eighteen and aching to leave.
I am twenty four and I don’t know yet that I’m pregnant.
I am twenty five and feeding fifteen times a night.
I am twenty nine and serious about writing.
I am thirty-one and sad about my skin.
I am thirty-five and can see the hill in the distance.
When I read this to the group in class I opted to maintain an air of mystery, amidst the crows’ feet, by stopping at thirty-five. But life didn’t stop at thirty-five, I’m glad to say (although, back then, I did feel it might be winding down, like that hideous bit when the lights come on at the end of a party and everyone blinks).
In another life I’m fairly sure I was a tortoise (slow and thoughtful; fond of lettuce), and hence, you see, I’ve decided I was just in hibernation. Under the straw in somebody’s shed. Tucked away in my shell.
But it’s Spring now. On my street, as I write this, lawns are being mowed. There are wildflowers in the grass strip between lanes on the way to the Sweet Briar Roundabout and, in between watching idiot drivers weave from one lane to another, without so much of a blink of their lights, I can turn my face a fraction of an inch and see those flowers. They make me smile. Am I silly for smiling at flowers? You might think so. I don’t.
There is always more life to be led. Well, not always, of course. I haven’t yet become immortal. We lost both our tortoises one awful Spring when my mum left them too long in the shed and if sheds are a metaphor for death (which, apparently, they now are) there’s a shed waiting for all of us, eventually. Which is why it’s important to do things now while you’re alive. Not tortoise-y things, bless them, because four hours with your face in a water trough isn’t something I’d particularly sanction (and neither is humping your good lady companion whilst she’s chomping lettuce; there’s a time and place for these things, as I used to think, in my childhood years, glancing out of the bedroom window to see poor Flash in the process of being molested by Speedy) but you can certainly come out of your shell (see what I did there) and get involved with your community, your country, your world a wee bit more.
And so I’m campaigning. Not like a tortoise; more like a yappy dog (that a fair few people would probably kick in the face, if they could). I’m campaigning because it’s wrong not to, if things are happening that you’re not very happy about, and you have a voice (I think I do).
Since I started campaigning I’ve been lucky enough to sit on a panel for the People’s Question Time with Natalie Bennett and Rufus Hound, where I shared my experience of depression (among other things) and finally got to say a public thank you to the nurses who played such a big part in keeping me alive last year.
Photos courtesy of John Ranson and Ann Nicholls.
But the fight continues. We have a Tory government, and our Tory government is hell bent on privatising every last inch of our country. They’re hell bent on privatising my daughter’s school, and if that’s something you, too, feel strongly against, then join our campaign here on Facebook.
And so, as this post ends, we come to the end of my timeline (so far):
I am forty-one and fighting.
Long may it continue.
*Please note: this post has been edited.*
In writing this post I have been inspired by an inspirational post on the inspirational website of the inspirational academy chain called Inspiration Trust.
I am no longer going to link to this post, nor name the author. Perhaps it is unfair to single out an individual and perhaps it detracts from the larger battle. Perhaps it should also be noted that individuals can be placed under pressure by companies for whom they work.
Nevertheless, this particular individual was happy to sling the first blow by suggesting that those who sit on the sidelines shouting and moaning about his employers, Inspiration Trust, were basing their observations on nothing more than ‘lazy twitter comments’.
Here’s one of these lazy twitter comments. Actually, it took me a whole four seconds to take that photograph. Another ten seconds or so to upload it and a minute or two to compose an appropriately concise slogan.
But it’s taken weeks and weeks and weeks of being ignored by the Department for Education and Inspiration Trust for me to reach the point of snark. If de Souza had come and fecking well asked if we wanted to give her our 54-acre school site, worth approximately £60 million, we’d have told her very politely: ‘No! But thanks for asking.’ and sent her on her way.
However she has never asked. And never will.
People ought to ask. They really ought. Along comes a group of venture capitalists and Tory donors. Along they come. And they can prise your locally-owned school from your poor, cold fingers, and snaffle the freehold, and cream off the profits from businesses run on the site (never mind that Norwich taxpayers paid for that site), and splurge taxpayers’ cash on designer tea sets and furniture (£420 for a Vera Wang tea set; over £3000 for two armchairs) whilst advertising for cut-rate unqualified teachers and driving away the ardent, the outspoken, the unionised… (Look at their staff turnover if you don’t believe me: it isn’t just the unionised pains-in-the-butt, either…)
Neither has Sir Theodore Agnew, the chair of Inspiration Trust, come cap in hand to Hewett and said, ‘Hello, lovely yokels! May we please have your school and all its land?’ Theo Agnew is also, since you probably didn’t think to ask but ought to have done (because, hello Tory democracy!), the chair of the Department for Education’s Academies Board. Oh, and also he sits on Policy Exchange, the right-wing think tank which ‘advises’ the Department for Education on all matters educational. Did I forget to mention he’s great friends with Lord Nash, the DfE’s Academies Minister? Perhaps I neglected to say that he’s also a Tory donor, to the tune of several hundred thousand pounds. Oh, and one last thing! He made his fortune outsourcing work to India, where graduates could happily earn a pittance for doing jobs for which he’d have had to pay unskilled British workers more.
Actually it isn’t the last thing, since I probably ought to say that he went to an independent school (Rugby, I think, off the top of my head), failed his eleven plus, and has a crinkly fat-cut chip on his shoulder about anyone and anything to do with education.
Such are the men (for they are, primarily, men, with Trophy Woman Rachel de Souza providing the female touch) who are taking slow hold (and I said ‘slow’ because I like the way slow and hold sounded together, quite menacing, although in fact they’re doing it rather quickly; rather bloody quickly indeed) of our education system and please, please, please will everyone stop wetting themselves over the r*yal baby and find the inspiration to sit up and say, actually, no, we don’t want all our schools to fall into the hands of private businessmen who do this sort of thing with them.
And hence my journey: not to work for Inspiration Trust, but to oppose them.
At Hethersett Academy, owned by Inspiration Trust, there is a tiny room. It is the isolation room. It is where children are sent to spend the day alone when misbehaving. It is a room where a child with special educational needs can be sent to spend the day alone.
It isn’t called Room 101. But it doesn’t have to be, does it?
This is where we are heading if we don’t do something now.
I was seven when Charles married Diana. My street had a party. My mum or dad bought me the Ladybird book about the wedding, and to this day I remember my fascination with the name of one of her bridesmaids: Clementine.
It was all quite exciting, I seem to remember. Also the sausage rolls were very tasty. They always taste better on paper plates.
Fast forward thirty years or so and I’m walking home with radio four on my headphones, swearing out loud in the street at the fawning coverage of the ‘royal’ baby’s birth.
The thing is, yes it’s lovely that Kate and Wills, or whatever their names are, have had a baby – by which I mean: it’s lovely for them. It’s lovely for the baby’s gran and granddad and aunties and uncles and so on and so forth, as it’s lovely for all families when a new arrival comes along. But the grown men and women who’ve camped for twelve days outside the posh London hospital where poshos give birth (is it just me, or does Lindo Wing sound like a Bond villain?) must surely be in need of psychiatric care. When the ‘duke’ arrived with ‘the toddler prince’ there were screams from the audience. Actual screams.
I don’t mean to be rude, but: WTF? In a country where our Prime Minister (although, fingers crossed, not for much longer…) goes to great lengths to avoid being seen, or snapped, with his titled chums – mere peasants, of course, when compared with the ‘royals’ – because that sort of thing doesn’t ‘play well’ with the electorate… why, then are we falling over ourselves on bended knee to lick the boots of the land’s most toffish toffs?
Does anyone really believe (really, truly) that God chose Queen Elizabeth to rule us?
If the answer is no, then un-bend your knee immediately, un-doff your cap, get the next bus out of London and stop saying silly things on the radio about how it’s all been ‘worth it’ – for a glimpse of the toddler prince and then, some time later, a tinier glimpse of his new sister’s head in a shawl. ‘We’ve got a princess!’ said one of the crowd, excitedly, in a strong Geordie accent.
I don’t want to rain on your parade, love, but I doubt she’ll be round Newcastle way any time soon.
It’s the feel good factor, according to radio four. But what, exactly, are we meant to feel good about?
A night’s stay in the Lindo Wing is £5,913. (Kate gets a discount, having used the Lindo once before.)
This doesn’t include consultant’s fees, which are roughly £6000. (Reminds me of my own labour! I lay on the floor of the day room in the dark, by myself, for a couple of hours, because I didn’t want to wake the sleeping women on my ward.)
According to the Torygraph, the ‘Cambridges’ will hire a second nanny – one per child – although:
‘the Duke and Duchess are determined their children should have as normal a childhood as possible, and since they moved into the newly-refurbished Anmer Hall at the end of last year they have been immersing themselves in local life.’
This is Anmer Hall.
This is the ‘royal’ baby’s second home, Kensington Palace, where taxpayers picked up the £4 million refurbishment tab:
Meanwhile, in other news, here are the contents of a food bank box from the Trussell Trust:
20,247,042 meals were given to people in food poverty in 2013/14
Here’s another, from Barnados:
There are currently 3.5 million children living in poverty in the UK. That’s almost a third of all children. 1.6 million of these children live in severe poverty. In the UK 63% of children living in poverty are in a family where someone works.
Did you know that some children in Britain today don’t know what a banana is? Food banks can’t often give fruit, because it doesn’t keep.
A hundred people every day, too mentally ill to work, have their benefits sanctioned (i.e. stopped) for paltry reasons. Forty two of them leave the benefits system altogether. Only seven enter work.
That’s thirty-five mentally ill people every day who don’t have a penny to live on. And, thanks to these sanctions, a hundred thousand children are suffering.Through no fault of their own. (Even if you ‘blame’ their parents.)
But yeah, you’re right. I should be celebrating. Two small children get to live in luxury forever at our expense.
Courtesy of the fab blog In the Media by the fab blogger Naomi Frisby (who is well worth a follow on twitter as well) I came across this collection of spinster cut-out dolls on Literary Hub. This is Edith ‘Age of Innocence’ Wharton, whose quote is my favourite of all:
I am myself a spinster, being over forty and having never married. I do have a daughter and I think I’ll be horribly lonely at first when she goes off to university (and yes, you will go, darling daughter, no matter what you occasionally toss into the conversation about taking a different route through life…) but actually, in terms of needing another ‘half’, I think in fact I don’t. Need one. I feel whole.
Hair is seeping from places that used to be smooth, and stray bits of me (teeth, hair) are dropping off, and the other day I happened to turn my arm over to look at a lumpy scar I’ve had for years and my elbows look really old. I have spots and melasma. I snore. I get really worn out. I hate parties. (Don’t all rush at once for my phone number.)
Perhaps I’ll feel differently one day, but now I don’t care. I like work. I like reading and thinking and walking and watching TV by myself. I like going to libraries alone, and the cinema too, and I’ve got friends (and my daughter, occasionally, when I unstick the glue that attaches her lately to her friends) and I’m not really sure what marriage is for, if I’m totally honest. It seems to be totally fine for some people. For people who want it that’s totally fine. I even tried to join in once, a while ago, but it’s not my forte, I don’t think: marriage, relationships. Oh, I like it at first (I suppose everyone does), but then afterwards isn’t it all a bit hard and upsetting and boring? Either you don’t care enough, or you care too much, and the two of you seem to switch places every so often – caring, uncaring – and what about all of that effort we put into reassuring each other: she isn’t more pretty than you, I promise; I wasn’t flirting, etc? Stay single and channel that effort somewhere more interesting instead.
Whether or not I’ll read this book Spinster that everyone’s talking about, I don’t know. I like these cut-out dollies, though. I don’t even mind the word ‘spinster’ although everyone says it isn’t fair because ‘bachelor’ is much cooler. To which I say: really?
Fair play to Russell Brand. He gets off his arse and does something, and just lately I’ve begun to understand how difficult and time-consuming and plain bloody admirable that is.
But this week he’s really got my goat.
I was watching a video on his channel (an admirable video) about taking direct action against the sort of buggers who are trying to nick our school (more to follow on this), and just as I was feeling a wee bit mean for linking to Parklife on another post I noticed this:
So, cheers for that, Russell. Have a gratuitous Parklife link in return:
First of all: female porn is just porn. Sometimes it’s porn with a knowing edge to it but it’s still porn. Willies are out and proud and enjoying their usual excursions to all the usual holes. The men tend to be better looking in female porn, but otherwise: tis porn as we know it.
I’m subtly insulted by his olde-worlde implications that women are titillated – yes, in their nether regions – by the mere fact of somebody paying them attention.
Secondly (and here you can imagine me emitting a primal scream) why the red-top headline? Surely, but surely, RB already has enough attention without needing to sex-up (and, hence, smear with the pervy brush) something that’s (eventually, hopefully) going to be a key part of mental health strategy? You might as well call meditation ‘mental masturbation’ and have done with it.
Russell, although undeniably a man of the world, has come blundering into the ASMR debate like a horny cow at the crockery counter.
You might as well ask a nun about the ins and outs of tea-bagging as ask someone who doesn’t experience ASMR to ‘explain’ ASMR to his million-plus followers.
So, what is ASMR, I hear you ask?
All right. Hands up. If you don’t experience it, you will think it’s weird. You’ll think it’s creepy. You’ll want to stay especially clear of Hailey WhisperingRose who is mainly composed of bosoms (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and posts videos in which she ‘snuggles up’ with you:
…or invites you on a date.
Okay. Wow. I’m really not helping myself here, am I?
Let’s talk about onions. This is my absolute favourite ASMR video.
This is someone who calls herself Fairy Char. And she cooks caramelised onions. That’s all she does. She begins by lightly stroking the uncooked onions (because people who get ASMR like scratching and stroking noises) but other than that: there is no inappropriate handling of onions. The onions get peeled and go straight in the pan. They start cooking. Her clothes remain firmly in place at all times. She discusses the merits of onions. Perhaps you might like to include them on a pizza topping?
PHWOAR. Right, Russell?
He talks about ASMR as if it’s a fetish.
It isn’t a fetish.
I mean, I like onions, but I don’t like them like them.
ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) has always (we think) been around. I used to experience it years ago, and it wasn’t until another writer said: ‘Hey, do any of you guys get this weird tingly thing when someone talks to you slowly?’ that I realised there was a whole community of tingle heads out there. And I WASN’T WEIRD, because other people felt it too.
I used to get it on first days at work (of which I had several, as a temp in London) when somebody soft-of-voice was explaining, and pointing, and speaking at a certain pace… (And would promptly ‘come round’ afterwards none the wiser on how to work the photocopier.) Now and then a cold caller’s voice will fall into the exact rhythm that triggers my ASMR and I won’t even listen anymore to what they’re actually saying, about double glazing or needing my bank account details as a matter of urgency or whether I’ve heard of business opportunities recently in Nigeria, because all I hear is the cadence of it. And it’s lovely.
The key thing is that people shouldn’t feel WEIRD for experiencing something so fecking fantastic. I’m genuinely sorry for you if you don’t experience it, because it’s kind of like your brain’s in a bubble bath being soaped by velvet hands while angels serenade from on high and nothing matters except that feeling. You’re properly in the moment. You don’t even have to stare at a raisin for a really long time; you can soak your own head in the bliss of mindfulness and watch the world’s shit drift away.
Also, it helps you sleep.
So who cares if you have to keep minimising your youtube window when you work in the library, because sometimes, yes, there is oddness on screen:
I listen to ASMR a lot when I write, and it prickles my brain and keeps giving me tiny spurts of joy that help me write better, more happily, and I’ll quite often have two windows open at once and some Brian Eno overlaid on the crackle of frying onions because, wow, then I’m in heaven.
The University of Sheffield have a study going. The scientific community is slowly waking up. This is a medication free way for people who suffer stress, anxiety, and depression to lift their spirits for a bit. I suppose, if the women (and men) who ‘perform’ in these vids (ASMR-tists) are easy on the eye that’s because they get so frigging close to the camera (to whisper in each of your ears in turn, using binaural mics) the profession does tend to invite those confident enough about their lack of nostril hair and pustules to actively enjoy extreme close ups.
But that doesn’t make it porn. If that makes it porn, then 97% of the output on mainstream television is porn. Porn is:
‘printed or visual material containing the explicit description or display of sexual organs or activity, intended to stimulate sexual excitement.’
See, Russell, nothing about onions.
Settle down, children, and I’ll tell you a story.
This hedgehog owns a school. It is a large school.
She looks happy.
But she is not happy. She is not happy because her school has a tiny garden. This is her garden.
She is sad because her garden is shit.
‘I am special and important,’ she says to herself. ‘My school is special and important. My school should have a bigger garden.’
So the hedgehog invites her friend to tea.
Luckily the hedgehog’s friend is in charge of schools. She is wearing a blue dress because she likes the colour blue.
‘I’m sad about my garden,’ says the hedgehog.
‘I’m sad about it too,’ says her friend.
‘I walked past the village school last week,’ says the hedgehog. ‘Their garden is very big.’
‘Yes,’ says her friend. ‘It is much too big. Also the teachers are pinkos.’
‘They are really taking the piss with that garden,’ says the hedgehog.
‘Luckily,’ says her friend, ‘the school inspector is going to visit them this afternoon.’
This is the school inspector. He likes arithmetic.
The village school has only one chair.
They asked for new chairs from the woman in charge of schools.
She said no.
The inspector calls. It is a sunny day. The children are playing in the garden with their teacher. Their teacher likes pink.
But the inspector is angry. He takes the teacher into a spooky room filled with shadow.
He speaks angrily to the pinko teacher. The children have not yet learnt ‘Dover Beach’ by heart! Their school is failing.
Now the inspector must leave. He has an appointment for tea at the school with only one tree.
‘The village school is failing,’ says the inspector to the hedgehog’s friend.
‘We must take away their trees,’ says the hedgehog’s friend.
‘Be quiet!’ says the inspector. ‘We must go upstairs.’
‘I don’t think of you that way,’ says the hedgehog’s friend.
‘You are flattering yourself,’ says the inspector. ‘We must go upstairs to talk about the trees or else the pinkos will be angry. The pinkos will say we stole their trees to give to our friend.’
They go upstairs to talk about the trees in secret.
Later that day, the woman in charge of schools sets off in her motorcar.
‘Your school has failed,’ says the woman in charge of schools to the pinko teacher. ‘We are taking your trees away.’
‘What will happen to our school?’ says the pinko teacher.
‘I do not care,’ says the woman in charge of schools.
The children say goodbye to their trees. They belong to the woman in charge of schools now. She will take them to her friend.
‘Here are the trees!’ says the woman to her friend, the hedgehog. ‘They are yours now.’
‘Hurray!’ says the hedgehog.
The school inspector is hiding behind the trees.
The hedgehog looks happy. That’s because she is happy.
Sleep tight, children!
Disclaimer: All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons living, dead, or hedgehog, is purely coincidental.
It’s hard when you don’t get a ticket. It’s hard and it’s sad. I mean, after all, this isn’t the Titanic we’re talking about; this ship really is unsinkable, and some of the very best people you know are onboard already – or racing down the gangplank – and the worst thing is that you’ve been onboard before, a few times, years ago (you hitched a lift to the Cape of Good Hope but the Horn of Bad Luck was just round the corner and you fell with a splash into murky water)… So you can’t even tell yourself it’s a shit boat and the entertainment’s Jim Davison and the captain is Old Gregg.
No, it isn’t the boat that’s the problem. The boat is just fine. More than fine. It has all the English canon onboard and most of the Yanks as well, except people like Hemingway, who’s gone off in his own fishing boat with a bottle of turps (it takes a special kind of drink to get a ghost pissed), and Salinger, who went shopping for ear plugs on shore leave, once, and was never seen again.
I am, of course (of course! You mean you didn’t realise?) talking about rejection.
I’m talking about rejection through the hackneyed metaphor of ships setting sail. More specifically, the ship of literary success that was docked in the harbour for years and years and years and yet somehow, in spite of the fact you were once at the front of the queue, you failed to get a ticket.
It’s a little bit rubbish, sometimes, this writing lark. You put yourself out there, and the editor says:
And your heart goes bang-bang-bang and the critic that lives in your head says never write again and then these guys appear:
And yesterday it was sunny but now:
And your face is all:
And you come across this on the internet:
And you feel a bit:
So you go for a walk, and you walk to a bridge, and you stand on the bridge and look down at the river. You take out your phone for a photo and tap a few words in a memo:
Look in the river. It goes down forever. The sky is in it.
Darting insects make the river wink.
A boy is fishing.
Shirt as red as flags. I’m here, it says. I live.
If I hadn’t been so clueless, I wouldn’t be here today.
The only reason I’m still alive is that, rather than gobbling a handful of pills in one go, I took each individually: thirty-five paracetamol and five of my Dad’s blue pills (for his bad back… this was 1989 and Viagra was but a glint in a drug rep’s eye). All this swallowing took enough time that my stomach rebelled and disgorged quite a lot of its contents before I could fall asleep.
I was sixteen years old at the time. And, yes, you have read this correctly. I once attempted suicide.
People are talking today on twitter about #youngmentalhealth, and seeing the hashtag made me realise that, actually, this is something I want to share. I shared it with my own daughter a year or two ago, after a local school student committed suicide, because I wanted her to know that I know. I know how it is when you cannot go on… and I know how it is, the morning after, to be woken up, dopily, for your Saturday job at the library, a suicide note in your pocket, your family in shock and bewilderment. Frogmarched into the garden and walked up and down in the biting wind of a February morning. Rushed to the hospital. Stomach pumped. (I’d describe the pumping better if I could, but my brain doesn’t seem to remember it. All I have left is a couple of ‘flashbulbs': a doctor’s white coat gaping open, come on, Lynsey, we’ve got to do this, and the fact that my throat was being awkward, refusing to swallow the tube. (I always was contrary.)
Anyway, not that you need me to tell you this, but it’s horrible. Having your stomach pumped is horrible.
I was sky high for hours afterwards. A psychiatrist came and discussed my most intimate details with nothing for soundproofing except a plastic curtain. ‘These young people,’ stage-whispered the old lady next to me. ‘They don’t know how lucky they are.’
As I said, this was 1989. I’m not sure what it’s like these days, for an over-dosee, but back then they dumped you with everyone else in the general medical ward. You weren’t terribly popular either. You’d made extra work for the doctors and nurses. You didn’t know you were born, and what did you have to be sad about anyway? Your whole life was ahead of you.
That, of course, was the problem. That is the problem, when you’re really sick. A whole life is ahead of you. And what if it’s all as horrendous as this little bit of it?
If this was a story you’d call it far fetched, but a boy from my school was wheeled in, later that night, having taken an overdose of aspirin after a row with his girlfriend (his ears ringing tinnily because of it, which is one of the consequences). Amazingly enough, he suggested I get into bed with him. (Of all the places I’ve ever been hit on, etc etc.) I declined.
This whole time, although nobody told me, they still didn’t know if I’d live or I’d die. Paracetamol has that effect: once the damage is done, then it’s done.
I was lucky.
But the thing is, you see, I did wake up. I didn’t die. I was glad to wake up; I had come to my senses. It wasn’t too late, for me, and I want to say STOP if you’re thinking of ending your life. Stop and think. Stay alive for another five minutes, then five after that. There are good things ahead of you. Honestly. I promise. A porter came whistling in while I lay in that hospital bed, and he stood a vase of daffodils on my bedside table, and he didn’t say anything but he smiled at me. A whistling man, a smile, a vase of daffodils. That’s all it takes, sometimes. If this blog post can be somebody’s vase of daffodils – yours, maybe – then I’m glad I wrote it.
Stay alive, please.
A book, a chair, a glass of wine. Such are the ingredients for a happy evening.
Add Margaret Atwood to the recipe and you have a properly fantastic evening.
Not just Margaret Atwood, but Margaret Atwood at the Book Hive reading from her new collection of stories Stone Mattress, Margaret Atwood shaking your hand, Margaret Atwood telling you inspirational tales of Robert Louis Stevenson’s semi-accidental creation of Treasure Island, Margaret Atwood signing the following on your copy of Stone Mattress:
The reason she signed this was because I asked her to. This is what I do now. I decide what I want, and I ask for it.
People can always say no, after all. (On occasion, they do.) They can also say yes.
Last year, 2014, was my annus horribilis. This year, so far, has been awesome. The fun started just before Christmas, at the tail end of the annus horribilis. I woke up one morning with balls, and decided I’d take a quick punt on tweeting a blog post of mine to the pianist and mental health advocate James Rhodes.
Moments later, this happened:
Shortly afterwards, Derren Brown (who probably needs no introduction) posted the link on his Facebook page.:
As a consequence I got my first ‘1K’ likes:
And I had the HUGE reward of being told, by several people, that my blog had helped them. Really helped them.
Good things do emerge from the ether sometimes, with no warning, but often – more often, it seems – they are likely to happen to those who go after them: don’t ask, don’t get, after all.
And so, in the spirit of living dangerously (NB by which I mean relatively dangerously: you’re unlikely to see me engaging in extreme sports any time in the next century) I applied for a TV game show (and got through the audition… watch this space!) and managed to land a lovely job teaching narrative strategies (posh name for ‘storytelling’) to animation students at the Norwich University of the Arts. I joined the campaign to save our local school from academisation (as I posted about last time) and ended up, somehow, on my soapbox as the opening speaker at Saturday’s demo.
I’ve set up my own Write Club in partnership with Norwich’s Maddermarket Theatre (beginning on April 11th, Norfolk peeps, if you’re interested) and, probably best of all, I made a guest appearance on the youtube channel of a certain Lucylou:
The awesome Lucylou would probably love you forever if you clicked through to youtube and gave her a thumbs up, by the way…
This time last year I was down in the mouth. I was cross and resentful and couldn’t bear anyone to mention my ex, his new partner or even their two little pugs. But things change. Yesterday, among numerous Mothers’ Day treats planned by the aforementioned Lucylou, we took the puggies to the park together.
And, as you can see, it was awesomely fun. If slobbery. Fun things often are slobbery, though, aren’t they?
So here’s to 2015: my year of living both dangerously and slobberyishly. (And making up words if I want to.)
And, finally, let me make clear that the having of testicles isn’t remotely connected to courage or brass neck or bravery. I just like the word ‘balls’.
I’m having a bit of a renaissance.
When I was fourteen I went to an all-night screening of John Hughes films at the local ABC and, watching Pretty in Pink, I remember despising (strong word, but the right one) the subplot about Iona, the thirty-something record shop owner, and her pursuit of true love.
Why is she even bothering, thought fourteen-year-old Lynsey? She’s so old, it’s too late, let’s see more of Steff (James Spader) leaning expensively on cars.
I wasn’t a complete idiot, though. This was always my favourite scene, even then (although I probably, yes, definitely used to have a massive heart-swell when OMD played at the prom where Andie and Blane – yes, you are reading those names correctly – were reunited at last over some oddly-sliced pink silk and chiffon. PLOT SPOILER. Oops, sorry).
Iona, the old-timer, is the disturbingly young looking creature in the pillbox hat.
These hastily-assembled teenage opinions came roaring back to bite me on the bum a few years ago when my daughter made the comment (apropos of something I’ve since forgotten): ‘What do you know? You’re thirty-five, you’re nearly dead!’
So, yes, I am now older than the old-timer Iona. Curiously, I have wound up giving that name to a character in The Novel That Dare Not Speak Its Name, so perhaps she had more of an influence on me than I realised.
What I want to say is that it’s fine over here, on the other side. Over the hill. The big hill that, in my imagination, has the numbers 4 and 0 in the style of the Hollywood sign. (The hill that seems mostly to be a part of the female landscape, IMHO, whereas men, perhaps, really understand this particular hill when they’re closer to 50. Or even 60. But I digress…)
The thing about being over the hill is that you’ve climbed it already. So, first of all, you deserve a goddamn cup of tea, in a fancy flask. And a biscuit. Give your old feet a rub. Have a natter with your fellow climbers about watercolour painting and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and admire a passing bird with royal blue plumage.
And then, oh aged one, hoist those binoculars because there is lots still to see on the other side of the hill. And the going is, well, it’s less hilly. One might say it’s Norfolk. It tends towards flatness.
The thing is, you see, that until you’ve climbed the hill you can’t see over it. You can’t see what’s there. The young still milling about at the base of the hill, or a little way up it, can’t peek yet (or possibly peak) because ‘over the hill’ is a place you can only see once you get there.
And it’s freaking awesome! This won’t be everyone’s experience, I know. And it wasn’t mine, either, until a few months ago. All I could think of, sadly, daily, were the things I’d lost. The ways I’d changed. The wrinkly crinkly face I was growing. The strange sudden urge to throw ice cubes down my top every so often. The inability to walk twenty yards without dripping in sweat.
And, yes, those things still happen. I’m still wrinkly, crinkly and, often, incredibly hot (and not in a good way). But, you know what?
There’s so much else to be getting on with. So many dreadful and wonderful things have happened in my life already: the dreadful things – well, no matter how dreadful, they’re rarely forever. And as for the wonderful things, it’s your choice to acknowledge them or not. A wonderful thing (as I said in another post, once) can be watching the wind on a stinging nettle, because so many wonderful things had to happen for you to be watching that wind and that nettle: the gift of sight (and it is a gift), the gift of freedom, liberty, aloneness (yes, they’re all gifts too), alertness. Aliveness.
I did a bit of rabble rousing yesterday, at a rally to save our local school from academisation.
I even, briefly (and silently) made the local news.
When I was younger, I wouldn’t have done that. I wouldn’t have bothered, and I wouldn’t have felt confident enough. I was too busy heaving myself up the hill (with a pushchair, to boot). There are lots, and lots, and lots of women in the Norfolk flatlands over that hill who have things to say and do and share. I never particularly thought I was worth it, to quote L’Oreal, because (a) upbringing (we’re kind of mousy in my family) and (b) what if I make an arse of myself?
But so what. It’s no biggie, making an arse of yourself. You always feel better the day after doing something, trying something, than the day after running away from it all.
So, don’t run away, my fellow hill climbers. You already ran up a hill (or crawled, or plodded): the scenery’s lovely, the tea’s hot, the biscuits are chocolate. There’s no going back, and it’s foolish to try. You can no more be 20 again than 11, or 8, or 4… Now is now. You are you. I’ll raise my fancy flask to that.
Today Terry Pratchett has died. Today Terry Pratchett has died, and although I confess I’ve read embarrassingly little of his fiction this death has hit me harder than any other ‘celebrity’ death.
This is going to be an odd little blog. A departure from my usual tone. My Dad was diagnosed with PCA, the particular kind of Alzheimer’s from which Terry Pratchett suffered, in the months following Pratchett’s own diagnosis. For that reason, my family and I have followed the very public progress of his illness with more interest than most. I sat down, one evening in (I think) 2007 and watched him, on a TV documentary, failing to tie his tie, trying a new-fangled treatment (a sort of futuristic hat), facing his diagnosis with the good-natured kind of bravery we all, secretly, hope we’d find inside ourselves in the same situation.
It’s a hell of a diagnosis. To face it as sunnily as he seemed to is a wonderful thing indeed. I’ll find myself suddenly, usually when driving, remembering moments, less than a decade ago, when my dad was a different man entirely. When my dad was still my dad. One day, not yet (thank God), there’s a chance he won’t know who I am. There’s a chance he won’t know I’m his daughter. The nerves in his brain are dying. His cortex and hippocampus are shrinking. He can’t read a book, do a crossword. He struggles to put down a cup on a table. It’s hard and it’s cruel and it’s not bloody fair.
As I write this, I’m raising my glass of white wine to my dad (in the full knowledge it ought to be beer, his tipple of choice), because I’ll always, always, be your daughter, even if, one distant day, you no longer know it.
And I’m raising my glass to Terry Pratchett too, this man I never knew, and barely read, for his bravery and his good nature. As a human being, he was top bloody drawer.
Rest in peace.
It’s been ages since I was offered a larger willy.
Last week I was hailed as, variously, an Anal Explorer and a Pussy Sensei (my cats attest to the latter qualification). More recently I’ve been swimming in invitations for lifelong love in the arms of young Eastern European women.
Hello friend, I am writing this letter to invite you to this website, with an intention of meeting you there. Maybe you are the Mr. Dependable, the Mr. Perfect and exactly the one I search for. Well I have always wanted to meet foreigners who are so interesting with their gentle and sophisticated nature and stylish looks. My Prince charming should be reliable, loyal, humble and courageous or in other words the perfect man and a dream-come-true for me. I am Angelina and I am from Minsk, Belorussia. Ours is a small country with lots of political problems but we still try to be happy and live life to the fullest. I am a straightforward and humble girl who believes in finding my true love sooner or later.
It must be fun writing spam. (Second only to choosing colours for paint shades.)
As it turns out, replying to spam is also fun…
Hello Angelina from Minsk, Belorussia! I received your ‘letter’ with interest. (FYI in English we call this an ’email’.) I confess I am somewhat perplexed. You refer to me as your friend (my apologies if we’ve already met and I’ve simply forgotten)! I must confess I am ignorant on the subject of Minsk (besides knowing that Phoebe’s scientist boyfriend, David, was relocated there in Episode 10 of the famous television show, Friends, entitled ‘The One With the Monkey’. Do you receive this programme in Minsk, Belorussia, Angelina?)
I’m sorry to say I shall not be joining you on the website you mention.
Allow me to tell you my story, Angelia from Minsk, Belorussia, as you’ve been so kind as to tell me yours. Or perhaps… might I call you Angie? You referred to me by a number of touching epithets: ‘perfect’, ‘dependable’, ‘gentle’, ‘sophisticated’, ‘stylish’. You also referred to me as ‘a man’. Dependable I may be, and one might also make a case for ‘gentle’. Sophisticated and stylish are rather less certain and surely, Angelina, you remember the final line of Billy Wilder’s ‘Some Like it Hot?’ Nobody, Angelina, is perfect.
With one of your assertions, however, I must take issue. A moment’s exploratory foraging in the underpantal region has reinforced for me the pre-existing notion that I am, indeed, a woman. On this issue, as so many others, I’m afraid I must disappoint you, Angie from Minsk.
I’ve never said that word aloud before. I’m saying it now, Angie from Minsk, as I picture you in your small country with lots of political problems.
It’s only fair to inform you that you are currently competing for my affections with Yoshiko Centini, location unknown, possessor of ample breasts and butt, and Eugenia, a middle-class girl from Petrozavodsk in Russia, whose upbringing has rendered her free-thinking and liberal. (Amplitude of physical attributes as yet unknown). Poor Eugenia, so busy in the ‘computer labs’ of her software firm that she rarely has a chance to ‘mingle’ in nightclubs. ‘Left behind’ in personal life. My sympathies, Angie, are beginning to drift towards Eugenia…
If I just knew a little more of your taste in literature, Angie. What films do you enjoy watching? Do you have any firm beliefs on God’s existence? Where do you stand on monogamy?
I’m wondering, you see, if you’ve thought sufficiently of the day-to-day nature of ‘true love’ as opposed to the fantasy version exemplified by your reference to ‘Prince Charming’? One might say that ‘Charming’ and Cinderella have remarkably little on which to base a lifetime together. For instance, does Cinders enjoy long walks, foreign films, nights out with friends? Does Charming have a good sense of humour? Perhaps he is passive aggressive, controlling. He might be a drinker.
It’s hard to be sure of these things from an evening’s dancing together, abruptly severed at the stroke of midnight. Frogs may turn to princes, in the realm of fairytale, and indeed, in the realm of what we call ‘Real Life’, a prince may suddenly, nay shockingly, unleash his inner frog, so to speak, on possession of his ‘princess’.
I’m concerned for you, Angie. You’re too pure for this world. ‘Reliable, loyal, humble and courageous’ are certainly good qualities to aim for in your search for lifelong love, but you may find the juxtaposition of ‘humble’ and ‘courageous’ somewhat rare once you move from the digital dating realm to the actual. How ‘humble’, in fact, was Prince Charming in the aforementioned fairytale? I saw no evidence for this. Neither do I feel sufficiently informed to make clear judgement on the issue of his bravery and/or reliability.
Let me end this response by wishing you all the very best in your search for love. Had I, after all, decided to pursue the tempting offer of an eight inch appendage with which to give the ultimate in sexy satisfaction all night long, perhaps I could have been your ‘dream-come-true’. Let me humbly, if not courageously, suggest that you search within for the fulfilment of your dreams, Angelina from Minsk, Belorussia. Certainly you shouldn’t count on a prince to fulfil them for you. Indeed, if one can believe the recent revelations with regard to a member of our royal family here in England, it may be a very different variety of ‘happy ending’ that he’s hoping for.
Yours in sisterhood,
One of the hardest things about being a writer (unless you happen to be Stephen King, Jackie Collins, John Grisham etc) is having to spend the lion’s share of your time reading other people’s work.
You have to do this because it’s notoriously difficult to make a living from actually writing. Unlike bank managers, say, who are able to pretty much exclusively manage banks for a living, writers are expected to also have ‘day jobs’. A novel that takes upwards of two years to write (and some take much, much longer) could earn you far less than the minimum wage. A sobering thought, she writes (reaching for the wine glass beside her).
Some of you who read this blog will already know that my ‘day job’ (and, often, my night job too) is Creative Writing Teacher. if you’re interested in seeing the sort of things I teach, I direct you to the Exercises menu up above (i.e. at the top of this screen; it isn’t floating in the sky, I’m afraid. Although I sincerely wish it was). The actual teaching is fine, and often fun, and even though the cows have come home hours ago I’m still talking about writing… which is my silly way of saying I rarely run out of things to say about fiction. I love it. I love helping people get better at writing, and (most of) my students are extraordinarily nice human beings. They send me hampers of Cornish goodies to enjoy whilst watching the tennis and buy me notebooks at art exhibitions and give me ruddy lovely books for Christmas. (Students, you know who you are.) Many of my students have become friends, and that’s A Good Thing.
So I’m not carping. But I spend hours, and hours, and hours reading other people’s work. I spend hours, and hours, and hours writing comments about other people’s work, and then suddenly I turn around and… shit! I was meant to be writing a novel.
Today is one of those days. I literally (I really do mean literally) cannot remember what I’m writing about. Which scene was I on? What’s my novel called? How does one write a sentence that isn’t a response to a sentence already written by a creative writing student? Why does an ice wind blow when I open the Scrivener file with my novel on it? (And while we’re asking questions: is it positive or negative that my dishwasher’s broken? Washing dishes by hand is labour intensive, yes, but Agatha Christie got her best ideas while washing up…)
The weird thing is, I think teaching has made me a better writer. I’m much faster, now, at deciding what I think about a sentence, and landing – with the accuracy of my cats in the vicinity of a spider – on the precise problem that’s causing an ending to fall flat, or the reason a piece feels empty, or the single thing (sometimes the single word) that needs adding to make a thing make sense. I’ve got better and better at structural editing. Words and sentences have always felt either ’round’ or ‘non-round’ to me (round being good…), but now I can feel the roundness or non-roundness of an entire story, or scene, with fairly impressive speed. (Other people’s, I hasten to add. I’m still more tortoise than hare when it comes to my own work.) I’m good at striking out sentences that are nothing but echoes of what’s gone before.
If a sentence says nothing new, then you ought to remove it. I’m good on the difference between story and plot, and I ought to have some kind of cape and a tight lycra costume for my superhuman efforts to eliminate the twin beasts of the Info Dump and the Unnecessarily Fancy Speech Tag.
All this makes me better, faster, simpler, more honest. Reading is reading (whether published or not), and writers ought to read. Must read. (I doff my cap here to Andrew Miller who writes, in the Guardian’s masterclass on fiction – ebook available here – that a painter who wishes to paint a tree must do two things: look at trees, and look at pictures of trees. Well said, Sir.) It isn’t the reading, per se, that’s the problem: it’s the mulling, and pondering, and probing, and mulling, and pondering, and commenting, and wondering, and mulling, and pondering, etc that a conscientious teacher does, and does at great length, quite often, while the clock ticks, and the day darkens, and the memory of her own novel creeps quietly into a corner and lightly festoons itself with cobwebs.
Anyway. That said, I must go. I have marking to do. And dishes to wash. And a novel to write. But that’s another story…
What’s the point of art, eh?
Does society owe artists a living?
Such were the topics for debate on Radio 4’s ‘You and Yours’ today. I listened while hanging out the washing on the multitude of radiators and clotheshorses jam-packed into the tiny flat I share with one daughter, two large pets (having had to say goodbye to our very lovely house-bunny earlier this month), and several hundred books, DVDs, and CDs.
I carried on listening while various callers rang in to explain the point of art, or to moan that their hard-earned taxes were being relentlessly frittered away by men in tights, or frizzy-haired women sculpting vaginas from plasticine and nasal hair (these may not have been the actual words), or to point out (as if it was axiomatic) that art is a middle class affair for people whose wallets are bristling with fifty quid notes. If art can’t pay for itself, why should we?
Because of people like me.
I grew up in a seventies house with wood chip walls, and salad cream (instead of mayonnaise), and a packet of dried spaghetti that sat at the back of the cupboard, unused, for at least five years. My dad got drunk in the pub every Saturday. Mum did the ironing in front of the telly. Pot Noodles were treats. As a kid I waltzed round in my brother’s handed-down jeans (which were awesome, with crossed swords on the knees). I never got the Play-Doh hairdresser’s I begged for. When money was tighter than usual I sat, aged seven, concocting a plan: I would cut all the grass in the garden with scissors, thus saving… electricity, I suppose (even though, as I seem to recall, we had a push mower). It seemed like a very good plan at the time.
I was far, far poorer than all of my friends. They had houses with hallways. Their parents owned classical music. They went to the South of France for their hols.
By comparison, we were poor as church mice. I still am as poor as a church mouse.
But I loved to read.
More than that, I excelled at reading. In fact, I was better at reading – and writing – than lots of the wealthier, middle class kids. I mean, look at me: I use words like ‘axiomatic’. (Actually, I don’t, very often. I heard Lou Reed use it in an interview twenty years ago, and looked it up.)
Because of that love for reading, I managed to do well in school. I did well enough in school that I went to university (the first person – the only person – to do so in my whole family). My brother loved drawing, and ought to have gone down the art school route; but didn’t. Didn’t feel able. Wasn’t encouraged at school (because he was less academic than me) and has wound up in one job after another that he doesn’t really like. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt in the last few years, it’s the value of having a job that you like.
Shall we pause for a moment and think of a world without any literature? Music? Film? Television? Perhaps, now and then, a few shillings are spent on the sort of esoteric, elitist work that’s never going to set the world alight, and perhaps, yes, you could say it’s a waste of the taxpayer’s money when people need hip replacements, heart bypasses, chemotherapy. But the money for hip replacements and heart bypasses and chemotherapy exists a hundred, a thousand, a million times over in the purses of the wealthiest one percent of the country who live, parasitically, off the worker-bee efforts of millions of minimally-rewarded Britons. It isn’t a modern-day restaging of Tristan and Isolde that’s eating into the NHS budget; it’s the fundamental unfairness of the capitalist system. And if you accept (as everyone seems to) that communism – although sensible and fair in principle – inevitably gets effed-up in practice, then let’s all understand the same about capitalism. The cream on the top of the milk is going to fat cats with private planes and plastically-altered wives (or husbands, of course), not frizzy-haired ladies and their plasticine vaginas.
And even if it was… so what? For every plasticine vagina there’s a Rembrandt. For every overly-ambitious Metal Machine Music (sorry, Lou) there’s an Emperor Concerto.
A crucial part of art is failure. Another crucial part is waste. If you don’t want to subsidise art – any art – then I hope you like sitting alone in silence with nothing to look at and nothing to read. If you want people to excel in their artistry then you must fund their failures as well as their successes. Of course I wouldn’t choose art over life-saving surgery. But art makes the life-saving surgery worth having. From cave paintings and tales told round campfires to men in tights and plasticine vaginas, humans need art.
What’s the point of life without it?
It’s Sunday and I’m in a silly mood. I’m also in training for an upcoming audition for a certain ITV quiz show… hence I’m currently boning up on UK PMs and US Presidents and Kings and Queens of England and/or Scotland and even the periodic table.
Which got me thinking…
Q: How come I’ve never had a quiz on this blog?
A: Because I’ve only just worked out how to do them.
Anyway… For those of you, like me, who enjoy answering random questions of a Sunday morning, here’s my (fairly pointless, just for fun, absolutely no cash prizes) Literary Quiz… I would be tickled pink if you’d post your scores in the comment box!
If words were beans you could feed the whole world with the words I’ve expended in writing this novel.
You could paper the walls of houses up and down the length and breadth of England with the drafts I’ve printed out and chucked away.
If you stood all my sentences end to end they would stretch to the moon.
if you broke them all up into letters you’d need a Scrabble bag the size of Russia to hold them.
And yet… and yet… and yet…
I still haven’t finished it.
That word haunts me. Still. As in: ‘You’re not still writing that novel, are you?’
Another favourite is yet. As in: ‘Haven’t you finished that book yet?’
When I’m queen we shall outlaw ‘still’ and ‘yet’ in all public discourse on the subject of printed works and their nearness to completion and/or the duration of time thus far expended with the purpose of completing said printed work.
We shall, in addition, outlaw the asking of these questions by all persons not sufficiently, themselves, acquainted with said process.
When I’m queen, those persons who, personally, have no prior, personal experience of the production of a printed work of novel-icular length, shall be disallowed from the raising of eyebrows when
excuses are made responses are given. Any and all persons encountered by the person encountering Herculean labours in novel-icular service shall select from the list 7(b) to be found in Appendix 12(f), titled: Soothing Statements. Under no circumstances should comparisons ever be drawn with rocket science or coal mining. In such cases (as indeed sanctioned by the Pope himself) a punch in the face may be forthcoming.
To speak plainly…
I think I may have stuffed up my novel.
Gulp. (And other four letter words.)
So, yes, I am still writing my novel and, no, I haven’t finished yet. Soothing Statements gratefully received.
A couple of months ago, my doctor prescribed four horse pills every morning.
They’re bloody HUGE. And I hate taking them. Admittedly they’re not as big as lemons… but at least if they were lemons, I’d know to make lemonade with them.
So what do you do, dear readers, when life gives you horse pills?
Answer: make art with them. (On second thoughts, maybe that ought to be ‘art’…)
Handily, I also take other pills of varying sizes (as you’ll see), and I present a few of the highlights here for your viewing pleasure. LOOK AWAY NOW IF OFFENDED BY PILLS IN THE SHAPE OF WILLIES.
I was three when I learnt how to read. It was awesome. ‘Oh brave new world,’ I (probably) said, ‘that has such goodly creatures in’t!’ It felt like a secret. A secret that adults were keeping. And now I was part of the club. There were all these black words on white pages, and under those words, or inside them – by some kind of alchemy – there was all this cool shit going on. I mean, WHOAH. While your body was under the covers, lamp on, with one eye closed and the other one squinting to carry on reading a little bit longer, your mind could be anywhere. Anywhere! And you didn’t even need to take a sick-bag for the journey.
Me being me, I didn’t journey terribly far. I was too poor to bother with Swallows and Amazons: that was for middle class kids (they had posh schools and trips to exciting places in real life; literature had to work harder to give them a thrill). As for me – stick a toasting fork in my hand and gently swell my bosom with a sense of school pride, and I’m happy as proverbial poo-covered pigs.
Words were everywhere. Hell, yeah. And even though some of the words had clearly missed a trick (to this day I remember the deep sense of personal affront on discovering that chimleys were actually, disappointingly, not chimleys at all but chimneys) I loved them as if they were tiny, mewling kittens with pink noses. Carrying fifty-pound notes in their mouths. And sitting on top of a freshly-mixed gin and tonic.
All of which is to say:
I like reading.
I like reading so much that I’m not even opposed to ebooks. (Back in the day there were probably monks who thought the printing press was the work of Satan.) Yes, I own a Kindle. Sorry, decent citizens who have their priorities properly in order: for me, morals are quashed by the need to have more books now, now, NOW from the world’s biggest book shop – and if you’re not excited by the idea of the world’s biggest bookshop AT YOUR FINGERTIPS then clearly your inner reading geek is less vocal than mine.
I don’t love ebooks: they’re ugly and they don’t smell of paper (yet) and I weep for the absence of page numbers (because that’s just wrong, damned wrong), but a train trip with a Kindle is a happier thing than a train trip with a paper copy of Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests or Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety (and I can say this because I own the mega-beast olde worlde versions of both books). My failure, so far, to finish The Paying Guests is partly due to the relentless world-building where there ought to be plot, but mainly because it’s too big and pointy (hardback copy) to be read in bed.
Where’s the Fifty Shades stuff, you’ll be wondering round about now?
Well, a long time ago I was reading (of course) about star signs. Mine is Virgo. ‘Virgoans make great bus drivers,’ the book said. ‘They’d rather read than have sex.’
In a similar vein, I gave books to a friend once for her birthday (we were seventeen at the time) and her younger sister, who witnessed the gift-opening, looked up at me with jaw a-gape and said, ‘Lynsey, why are you so boring?’
A boring, celibate, bus driver. That’s me. Apparently.
Just occasionally (Henry Miller, anyone?) books are so saucy they make people want to have sex while reading, or immediately afterwards (one hopes, for the sake of secondhand book-buyers). One of those books, as you can’t fail to know, is Fifty Shades of Grey.
As a resident of Planet Earth it’s equally hard not to know the following two facts:
1. Valentine’s Day is coming.
2. Fifty Shades of Grey THE MOVIE is also coming. (Oh yeah, baby, it’s coming. It’s coming right in your face.) Fifty Shades of Grey THE MOVIE EVENT OF THE CENTURY is, purely coincidentally, coming right in your face the day before Valentine’s Day. And if you didn’t want a spangled riding crop and a set of fluffy handcuffs for your Valentine’s gift the following morning then, tough shit, because – if you’ve been to see the movie with your other half, or intend to see the movie, or even once remarked over your morning cornflakes that the movie was showing at your local multiplex – that’s what you’ll be getting.
Okay, listen up, everyone. I’ve read two chapters of Fifty Shades and, as Bill Hicks once said (with his usual Anglo-Saxonisms) of Basic Instinct…
If you don’t believe me, try this test.
Reimagine every scene with John Major in the place of Christian Grey.
John Major is grey. He is also (probably) a Christian. He even gets angry (real angry, baby).
While Prime Minister of this jolly old isle he was shafting this woman:
And you may find it helps to imagine her in the role of… hold on while I google this. Anastasia Steele. (Ah, yes. How clever. She, in fact, is the ‘steely’ one. Do I pass Dickensian Naming 101?)
(Unspecified time passes, during which you reimagine the entire book with Prime Minister Major and Edwina the Ball Breaker… the entire trilogy, if you’re a hardened case… or if you have a secret thing for greying politicians, in which case I cannot help you).
You’re back in the room. Back in reality.
Still feeling horny?
Excellent! And now that you’re not feeling horny anymore, you can read with your brain instead of your loins.
Where was her editor?
Maybe the red ink ran out – I mean, literally, the entire world’s supply of red ink – and the editor (waking, startled, from her impromptu nap, cheek coated with dribble) thought: ‘Ah, what the hell. They’ll be too busy masturbating to notice the adverbs’ and went back to sleep.
That’s the ONLY possible explanation.
So what’s going on, world? Can it really be true that 97% of the adult female population wants to be spanked and bossed by exceptional entrepreneurs whose time is extraordinarily precious? Are we yearning and burning for the egomaniacal attentions of some mega-industrialist tycoon we’ve never heard of? I mean, damn my hair if I’m wrong, but isn’t that all a bit Super Soft Shampoo 1975?
Here I am sighing. And it’s not even a sigh of post-coital contentment. What I want to say to everyone who NEVER NORMALLY READS, BUT HAD TO READ THIS BOOK is: bugger off back to your back issues of Cosmo.
If you don’t bugger off back to your back issues of Cosmo, then eventually the book trade will only ever want books this badly written. Worse still, men will only ever want women who submit to their every whim, and women will think it’s okay to choose men who are rich and want to hit them, and all manner of disturbing shit will happen.
Let me put this out there into the universe: I don’t want to be spanked. I don’t fancy Christian Grey. I won’t be watching the film, hot-faced with embarrassment in the darkness (because, seriously, who wants to watch a porno in a cinema?), and I won’t be receiving anything – not even a nipple clamp – for Valentine’s Day. That doesn’t mean I won’t be celebrating. I’ll be celebrating the fact that I’m happy by myself.
I’ll be having a chilled white wine or two in the company of the yellow roses I bought myself the other day and watching a film of my choosing and reading in bed with my one squinty eye. It’s all right, you know, being single. Don’t let anyone tell you it isn’t. It’s fifty shades of hurray, if you secretly like spending more time in your head than hanging out with other people.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a bus to drive.
If I didn’t have hands, would I still be able to teach? My lovely daughter came to my class with me last week to take some promotional pictures (watch this space). I’ve never seen myself teach before.
And now I have.
I’ll say no more.
We all want to be somewhere else sometimes. We all want to be someone else. When I was fourteen I wanted to be Ferris Bueller’s girlfriend, Sloane, in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
I wrote a fictional diary from Sloane’s perspective. I didn’t want to be the girlfriend of Matthew Broderick (who played Ferris B, for all you people who’ve lived under rocks for the last thirty years), because it wasn’t Matthew Broderick I wanted; it was the atmosphere of Ferris Bueller. It was the blue sky of Chicago mornings, the city parade, the Smiths song on the soundtrack, the kids holding hands in the gallery, the race through his neighbours’ suburban back yards to get home on time.
As I write this I’m watching Don’t Look Now for the umpteenth time, and even though the drowning rips to me pieces there’s something pure and clear about it: the water is watery, the grass is grass-like, her little red coat and red tights have a kind of perfection about them: red as red can be. Later on, I like the Venetian hotel they stay in, the stained glass in the church, Donald Sutherland’s moustache, Julie Christie’s nipples in her brown jumper.
I never planned to write this post. I was meant to be posting another post entirely, yesterday, while it was snowing (for all of ten minutes), but something about it was wrong. Fake. Squeezed out of me like the pink goop they use to make Chicken McNuggets. And now I am meant to be writing (The Novel), but failing to write it. I’ve poured a glass of wine, lit candles. I’ve listened to music, Coffitivity, ASMR. Nothing’s happening.
So I’m putting on films for inspiration, much as I’ve lit a peony candle to make the room smell pretty. I don’t really watch them; I soak up the atmosphere. I like the being-somewhere-else-ness of a really good film. And I like to be in the presence of art when I’m trying to make it myself. In particular I like Kubrick films for this purpose: 2001 is the obvious choice, but I’ll often feel quite aggressively arty after watching A Clockwork Orange. Other good atmospheres can be found in:
If… (Lindsay Anderson)
Bright Star (Jane Campion)
Blow Up (Michelangelo Antonioni)
Le Boucher (Claude Chabrol)
Am I the only writer who does this? When I’m utterly, utterly blocked, like a failed game of Tetris, I’ll take out my notebook and write a description of what’s on the screen. But I’ve got to the sex bit in Don’t Look Now so I think, on reflection, I won’t do that. I’ll return to The Novel, and try to turn the bloody lights out (1970s Britain) without saying they were plunged into darkness. Wish me luck.
First of all, an apology. This was supposed to be with you days ago. (Incidentally, this is how most of my correspondence begins.) Two things account for the lateness:
(a) we’ve only just begun… (if you could imagine this sung by Karen Carpenter, it would help) the teaching term, and I’m knee deep in exciting things called Schemes of Work;
(b) I’ve been working a lot in our lovely library (the busiest in the country, I’m told) and although the library is lovely it won’t let me access my blog (as I mentioned here) for reasons of PORNOGRAPHIC CONTENT. At some point I need to get off my ass and walk to the desk a few paces away and ask them how I might reinstate access to my blog, owing to the fact that IT ISN’T PORNOGRAPHIC, but that would involve taking action (albeit of a very limited sort) and I’m not great at taking action (although I am getting better at it). And the business of getting the best table to work at (the one with the view of Norwich’s spiry skyline) always, immediately, becomes the most important thing when I enter the room. (Although I rarely do get it, just FYI, and yesterday I surrendered it because I was making too much noise with my stapler and I could see the woman next to me would have told me to go away if she hadn’t been English.) (Being English I decided to preempt a possible ‘scene’ and scurry away to a distant table.) One day in the near future I will give up on my dream of A
Room Table With a View, and go straight to the desk and sort it all out.
Most days (not all) the library does great things for my writing. Yesterday, having finished my stapling, I sat down to treat myself to a bit of the novel. I put my headphones in (for these are essential for working in public), reminded myself not to talk – or even mutter – whilst working, and opened the latest scene. And then
A moment’s respectful silence.
The scene was dead.
It was stiff, bereft of life. It definitely wasn’t pining for the fjords, and it wasn’t exhausted after a long squawk.
It was all, to be frank, a load of bullshit.
I’d already scoffed my blueberry muffin, and ordinarily, being at home on the sofa, I’d have taken emergency action by boiling the kettle (which really ought to be a service provided by an AA-type organisation, do we not think? A network of Emergency Kettle Putter Onners for when you’re feeling a bit limp and defeated). Anyway, what was I saying? Ah yes. When one’s working at the library, one cannot simply Put the Kettle On. So I was forced to sit there, at my distant desk, with nothing but my stapler for company – but here’s where the library environment comes in useful. A woman wandered in, using the end of my enormous desk as a resting place for her bags, and I looked at her face (thinking: get your bags off my bloody table) and something, IDK what, about her general demeanour or the navy windcheater she was wearing or perhaps just the smell of her, gave me a bit of a pulse again, and I was able to dive in with my CPR and my paddles and bring the scene back to life.
As I was telling a class last night, you need to put yourself in the way of experiences. This, above, what I’ve just gone on about, is perfectly adequate as an experience, small as it was. If you feel that 2015 is the time in your life to experiment with attending a rubber wear dungeon party or navigating Niagara Falls in a barrel then knock yourself out (in the case of the latter, you probably will). But the sort of experiences a writer needs needn’t even be new. They need only remind you of something you’ve already done. All the neurons (?) will fire excitedly in your brain and you’ll find you have something to write about. Ah. The Holy Grail. What we’re all searching for. Having something to write about.
In other news, I’ve been nominated for a blogging award! For which I would like to thank Inger at The Viridescent Consumer, who very kindly named me, and also blogs honestly and movingly about her writing life, and some recent sadnesses, at So You Think you’re a Writer? The latest posts have been genuinely awe-inspiring.
So the rules for this award are:
- Show the award on your blog
- Thank the person who nominated you.
- Share 7 facts about yourself.
- Nominate 15 blogs.
- Link your nominee’s blogs and let them know
SEVEN FACTS ABOUT ME
- I’m trypophobic. Which means I have a fear of clustered holes. So trypophobic that you’ll have to google this one yourself because I can’t go near any links in case there are images.
- I speak to my rabbit in German and my cats in French. When I ‘do’ their voices replying (which I do do: bonus embarrassing fact for you there, a kind of 2(a) if you will) they have Mexican accents.
- My idea of humour: the bit in A Clockwork Orange where Alex is naked, being admitted to prison, and there, of course, is the handily-placed box to cover his meat-n-two – and then suddenly, ha, it’s whisked away. And there you have his willy. This makes me laugh.
- For the first 15 years of my life I was a Mormon.
- I’ve danced onstage with Wayne Sleep.
- When I was seven my favourite song was the Beatles’ Revolution, because of its chorus: You know it’s gonna be all right… and I’d sing it to myself when I was scared at night. (The actual meaning of the song passed me completely by at that tender age.)
- Aged twelve, I did an ad-lib in a school play rehearsal (I was Miss Silicon – laugh it up – the deputy headmistress) that used reincorporation of a symbolic object (and was also, though I say it myself, very funny) and, although the director called me back onstage for a bollocking, the geography teacher (Mr Kent) who had written the play reinstated my change. Stories are in my blood, I think. Writing the novel has helped me remember that, yes, I love fannying about with words, but I love telling stories the most.
My 15 nominees for this awards are…
- Maggie Madly Writing
- Lynley Stace
- Counting Ducks
- Joanne Leonard
- Katie M Anderson
Actually I’ve only done 7. Seven seemed more appropriate, since I’ve shared seven facts. Also I have to go to work.
This is work-work, of the stapler-requiring variety, but tomorrow, oh hallowed day, I’ll be back in the library. Back to rewriting Part One of the novel. If you have an interesting face that you think might assist me in this matter (or a blue windcheater, or you smell particularly interesting… er, on second thoughts…) please arrange to pass my desk whenever I’m looking droopy*.
*Which is pretty much all the time, since turning forty.
Whilst blowing an eyelash from your fingertip at 9.42 a.m. on 31/12/14 you radioed a wish for general happiness in the year 2015.
We at the Met Office intercepted this signal whilst sailing the high seas in our yellow sou’westers, scanning the far horizon with our salty binoculars (because this is definitely how we prepare the Shipping Forecast, and don’t let anyone tell you anything different or less romantic).
Owing to God’s absence (which was reliably confirmed by ourselves and our salty binoculars a number of decades ago) and the somewhat vague nature of the ‘universe’ to whom you were appealing, we at the Met Office have stepped into the breach to offer our own predictions for 2015 based on careful assessment of incoming clouds in the Norfolk area and the consumption of a celebratory Bacardi and Coke or two.
Our results are as follows:
Completing the final draft of your novel, entitled Madder Hall: fair, to good.
Sexual intercourse: slow moving with little change.
Defrosting the fridge: wintry showers expected.
Taking more exercise: drifting slowly east.
Submitting novel to agents: rain at times.
Eating less cheese: moderate, becoming poor.
Keeping on top of paperwork: warning of gales.
The general synopsis is moderate, becoming fair, good, poor, then moderate again. But we at the Met Office subscribe to the internet-approved statement that life isn’t about waiting for the rain to finish, but learning to dance in the rain. Here, indeed, is a photograph of a lady drinking tea in the Blitz to illustrate our firm belief in the following: (a) all storms can be weathered eventually; (b) the sun’ll come out tomorrow: a fact on which we have bet our bottom dollar; (c) there are few situations that can’t be improved by putting the kettle on.
It only remains for us to wish you smooth sailing in 2015 and beyond.
The Imaginary Met Office.
It’s nearly the end of 2014 and the world and his wife (or something less egregiously sexist) are blogging about the year just gone. I was reading this rather good blog t’other day, findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com, and I found a cool idea for assessing one’s 2014 through a very specific lens: namely, the first line of the first blog you posted each month.
So I tried it.
The results were quite dull, to be honest. It turned out I didn’t like having to choose a particular line, by default.
But I did enjoy skimming old posts for the sort of line that JUMPS OUT from the page. So I put my own spin on the game, and I made a found poem with chronological scraps from my blog posts, season by season.
And here it is…
On a day like today there is cake,
Ten seconds of toe-tickling or
an accidental pin-prick.
Dear People of Planet Earth
I’ve grown cobwebs.
Occasional pinholes appear.
I’m a terrible knitter.
When my daughter was little
(a cup of sweet tea when you didn’t expect it).
But I digress.
What do you do with all this – all this life,
all this shit – if you don’t
write it down?
Here’s something I hate.
By now you may be wondering
how to be interesting.
All the good stuff will happen tomorrow.
The moon has moved on
to a new piece of sky with
I’ve just been a-Googling and
The hairs on my neck must be lazy.
I have fallen through the hole in the
paper. I like the number
Congratulate yourself. You wait all
day for a pirouette and then
three come along at once.
A little too much about snot.
David Cameron in his underpants.
It’s been a long week.
All the bells and whistles please.
I turned some water into
wine and verily I did drink it.
I’m feeling a little peculiar.
Somebody’s left you a shit in the pan.
Bliss is fragile.
Everything will probably be okay.
It must be peculiar not to exist.
Don’t neglect your hot meat.
‘It’s one of those places that are supposed to be very sophisticated and all, and the phonies are coming in the window.’
So says Holden Caulfield of good ole’ Pencey Prep (still my favourite ever school name; Malory Towers a close second) in The Catcher in the Rye.
I’m a writing teacher. Most of the people I teach are beginners. A few have raw talent that just needs the edges hemmed, and a few have a talent that’s medium-rare to well-done (though they still mightn’t have the discipline for the long slog of drafting again and again) and a few are so good I do wonder if they should be teaching the class instead.
But the things I see oftenest, as a teacher of novices (briefly visualised myself as a nun there, just for a second) is writing that’s meant to be very sophisticated and all but ends up being merely phony.
If I was a different sort of teacher (i.e. a bitch) I might award badges.
But I’m not. So I don’t.
Not least because I’ve been guilty of phoniness myself on more than one occasion and, anyway, these are beginners. You don’t sit down for your first piano lesson and come out with this:
But neither can you ‘allow’ people to carry on writing like phonies without at least pointing out that, hey, there’s another way. And that way is actually lots more fun. It allows you to write with your Own Goddamn Voice, as Holden might put it.
‘Never use a long word where a short one will do, said George Orwell very sensibly (and English-ly) in his essay Politics and the English Language (1946). He also said:
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
I part company with Orwell somewhat on the word ‘barbarous’, which no doubt was less of a sore-thumb sixty-something years ago when the essay was written. But otherwise:
- The fewer blankets of snow, and skies of gun-metal grey, and light flooding through windows, the better.
- If it is possible to cut a word out without spoiling the sentence’s cadence, cut it out.
- Use a passive occasionally for particular effect. (Penelope Lively’s Next Term We’ll Mash You has a perfect example: a schoolboy being borne away by a headmistress)
- Anglo-Saxon all the way.
- To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, you are free to do whatever you can get away with. But no one in fiction has ever gotten away with much…
Curiously, since these six rules seem ruddy good to me, and fairly inoffensive, Will Self got his knickers in a twist in The Grauniad a couple of months ago, with an article declaring Orwell ‘the supreme mediocrity’.
The comments, of course, are rife with ‘smug git’s and ‘takes one to know one’ and a reference or two to Self’s affliction with the most socially acceptable of the diarrhoea family: the verbal variety. In Self’s eyes, Orwell seems a Michael Gove-like repressor of young minds, rejecting the language’s tendency to mutate, a bit like a virus, and telling us all we’ll be shot in the face if we dare to use words of more than one syllable.
Talk about making a drama out of a crisis. Or indeed a mountain from a molehill (she says, offending against the first of Orwell’s rules). I was reading, t’other day, about something called ‘outrage porn‘: intellectuals enjoy being irritated as much as Disgruntled of Norfolk in his/her letters to the editor of the local rag about disrespectful youths on skateboards, and Will Self has whipped himself into a froth about Orwell in much the same way. What he’s basically saying is:
Oi, Orwell, your wheels are too noisy, you’re going to trip someone up in a minute, and get yourself a haircut, boy.
Self can’t subscribe to the Orwellian way of writing because it isn’t his way. And that’s fine. You only need to catch a clip of Self on the telly, talking the talk, to know that Self is naturally verbose, and erudite, and borderline-pompous. That’s his voice. It works on the page, as it works in person. It isn’t quite enough to make you want to shout Park Life! at the end of each sentence
but that’s only because Self drawls and pauses and generally talks at the pace of a snail in one of those dreams where the floor’s turned to syrup and forward movement becomes an impossibility – but Self, like Brand, wears his vocab on his sleeve, and why shouldn’t he? Nothing wrong with that.
But the chances are that Orwell’s ‘rules’ were intended for novice writers. And, speaking as someone who teaches novice writers, there’s nothing wrong at all with encouraging people to write simply.
Hum Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, for instance. (Even if you don’t think you know it, you definitely do.) Watch the green notes in this piano tutorial:
and note how stunningly basic the tune is, moving in steps up and down the keyboard. And yet, how memorable. And how well it lends itself to development…
I love a short word, me. I’m Orwell’s bosom bud in that respect. A favourite exercise of mine is to write a scene using words of only one syllable: the result is always tight, clean prose, and it’s most of all useful for those who must first insert a poker into their derrière before commencing the transference of their thoughts from brain to paper, as if they’ve never actually heard themselves speak and have no clue at all what their own voice is like. Of course I understand that certain of your characters may care to describe the lowering of their denim-clad derriere into the ready embrace of a chintzy armchair whilst relieving a curved fruit of its indigestible yellow skin, but ‘she sat down, peeling a banana’ is a perfectly decent sentence and not to be sniffed at.
The ‘hot meat’ of the title has nothing to do (thank God) with the contents of Self or Orwell’s trousers. I gave my most recent class of beginners the task of writing a scene in single syllables – and, because it’s Christmas, the scene was ‘cooking Christmas dinner’. Straight off, turkey’s out the window of course. (Not literally. Although that might have been an interesting way to go…) So immediately your brain’s got to find a host of short, sharp words that it wouldn’t ordinarily have looked for. One student (lovely and smiley, and I hope she doesn’t mind me quoting her if she ever reads this) was forced to return ‘the smell of the cooking turkey’ to the Shelf of Mediocrity, and instead wrote the rather joyous sentence:
The cat smelt the hot meat.
Something, of course, that a child could write. But the same argument that applies to modern art (‘I could’ve done that myself!’ ‘Ah yes, but you didnt…’) applies in spades here: yes, a child could write that, but we, as adults, with all our fancy long-syllabled crayons on the table, so often forget that simple can be beautiful. What did the cat do? The cat smelt the hot meat. I understand all those words perfectly, immediately, and my brain doesn’t have to perform an obstacle course in order, BANG, to grasp that image straight-a-bloody-way.
I’m not saying you can’t play with long-syllabled crayons: of course you can. (Occasionally, sparingly, or all the fricking time if that is your natural voice – or the natural voice, of course, of your first person POV… or third person free indirect… yada yada.) But don’t neglect your hot meat either, because here’s the thing: the most beautiful, lyrical prose has to do with the way – like musical notes – those words are joined together, the music they make on the page, in the ear, for the eye. Even Will Self would agree with that. And if he doesn’t… just flip him the bird as you rumble by on your skateboard.