Shit. Where's he gone?

Happiness is a little kid next to a river.

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.

Shit. Where's he gone?

Shit. Where’s he gone?

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.

How, Lynsey?

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.

Really serious now.

Forty-one and fighting.

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.

Lickle me and my nanny Gladys.

Lickle me and my nanny Gladys.

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.

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Lynsey White’s journey to fighting against the Inspiration Trust

*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.

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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…)

They’re not great at IT, either, in spite of their chain’s initials…

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. 

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Raining on the parade.

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.

Although I must admit, this is a novel way to give birth.

Although I must admit, this is a novel way to give birth.

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.

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This is the ‘royal’ baby’s second home, Kensington Palace, where taxpayers picked up the £4 million refurbishment tab:

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Meanwhile, in other news, here are the contents of a food bank box from the Trussell Trust:

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Here’s an interesting fact:

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.

Hurrah.

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Old Maid

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:

Spinster_BookClubKit-dragged-1240x958

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.

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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?

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ASMR, f*ck yeah! Russell Brand liberates ASMR from obscurity in the style of Team America liberating Paris...

ASMR, f*ck yeah!

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.

Russell Brand on ASMR reminds me of the Living and Growing DVD that convinced a nation of 5 to 8 year olds that feathers were an essential part of sex.

Russell Brand on ASMR reminds me of the Living and Growing DVD that convinced a nation of 5 to 8 year olds that feathers were an essential part of sex.

https://www.youtube.com/embed/vYVJwBkg1D8

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.

Not in public please, love.

Not in public please, love.

Russell, although undeniably a man of the world, has come blundering into the ASMR debate like a horny cow at the crockery counter.

ASMR, f*ck yeah! Russell Brand liberates ASMR from obscurity in the style of Team America liberating Paris...

ASMR, f*ck yeah! Russell Brand liberates ASMR from obscurity in the style of Team America liberating Paris…

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?

Er…

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:

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…or invites you on a date.

Hailey cooks up a feast in the ASMR kitchen.

Hailey cooks up a feast in the ASMR kitchen.

Okay. Wow. I’m really not helping myself here, am I?

Let’s talk about onions. This is my absolute favourite ASMR video.

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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:

The inimitable Tony Bomboni. Credit where credit's due: he's got some balls.

The inimitable Tony Bomboni. Credit where credit’s due: he’s got some balls.

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.

The lazy servants have brought the tea at last. However they have only brought one cake. When her friend has gone the woman will speak to them sharply.

Even Hedgehogs Get the Blues, and Other Bedtime Tales.

Settle down, children, and I’ll tell you a story.

This hedgehog owns a school. It is a large school.

This hedgehog owns a school

She looks happy.

The hedgehook looks happy. That's because she is happy.

But she is not happy. She is not happy because her school has a tiny garden. This is her garden.

Only one tree

She is sad because her garden is shit.

My garden is shit

Whenever she looks at her tree, all she sees is failure. The man in charge of the country says there will be zero tolerance for failure. She is afraid.

‘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.

The tea has not arrived yet because the servants have not brought it. The servants are not achieving at optimum levels. If they are not careful they will be sacked.

The tea has not arrived yet because the servants have not brought it. The servants are not achieving at optimum levels. If they are not careful they will be sacked.

Luckily the hedgehog’s friend is in charge of schools. She is wearing a blue dress because she likes the colour blue.

The lazy servants have brought the tea at last. However they have only brought one cake. When her friend has gone the woman will speak to them sharply.

The lazy servants have brought the tea at last. However they have only brought one cake. When her friend has gone the hedgehog will speak to them sharply.

‘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.’

The village school has lots of trees.

The village school has lots of trees.

‘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.

This man is the school inspector. He likes arithmetic.

The village school has only one chair.

The village school has run out of chairs

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.

It is a sunny day. The children are playing in the garden

But the inspector is angry. He takes the teacher into a spooky room filled with shadow.

He tells the pinko teacher off.

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 servants have not brought the inspector a cup. They are really in the shit now.

The servants have not brought the inspector a cup. They are really in the shit now.

‘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.

The woman in charge of schools meets secretly with the man in charge of inspecting schools

The hedgehog is definitely not listening at the door.

Later that day, the woman in charge of schools sets off in her motorcar.

Her friend goes everywhere with her. He used to be in charge of schools until the pinko teachers said mean things about him. He was very sad about this.

Her friend goes everywhere with her. He used to be in charge of schools until the pinko teachers said mean things about him. He was very sad about this.

‘Your school has failed,’ says the woman in charge of schools to the pinko teacher. ‘We are taking your trees away.’

The woman in charge of schools arrives

Her friend is hiding in this picture. He does not want to be seen by the pinko teacher.

‘What will happen to our school?’ says the pinko teacher.

‘I do not care,’ says the woman in charge of schools.

You have not learnt your equations. You must give your trees to my friend.

The children say goodbye to their trees. They belong to the woman in charge of schools now. She will take them to her friend.

Now I have your trees

Hurray! Here are the trees

‘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.

Here is the school inspector. He is hiding behind the trees

He is camera shy.

The hedgehog looks happy. That’s because she is happy.

The hedgehook looks happy. That's because she is happy.

Very happy.

Very happy.

The End.

Sleep tight, children!

Disclaimer: All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons living, dead, or hedgehog, is purely coincidental. 

Upside down world

Landlubbers, and life on the ocean wave.

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.

Harrumph.

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:

Call yourself a writer? I'd call yourself a taxi to Loserville if I was you...

Call yourself a writer? I’d call yourself a taxi to Loserville if I was you…

And yesterday it was sunny but now:

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And your face is all:

itcrowd

And you come across this on the internet:

I can tell you now, God. You need a bigger jar.

I can tell you now, God. You need a bigger jar.

And you feel a bit:

uploadedimage

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:

Upside down world

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.

Birds fly through the water-sky. 
Or is sky-water better?
You put your phone in your pocket, go home again, and boil the kettle. Book, tea, blanket. You always get sick on boats, anyway.
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How to stay alive.

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 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.

Margaret Atwood

The year I grew balls.

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:

Margaret Atwood

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:

When James Rhodes retweeted me!!!! Hurrah!

Shortly afterwards, Derren Brown (who probably needs no introduction) posted the link on his Facebook page.:

WhenDerrenBrownlinkedtomyblog!!! copy

As a consequence I got my first ‘1K’ likes:

MyFirstEver1Klikes! copy

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’.

That boy knew how to lean.

Change and the common girl.

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.

That boy knew how to lean.

That boy knew how to lean.

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.

Edward Seago: 'A Norfolk Landscape'.  In hills, it is somewhat deficient.

Edward Seago: ‘A Norfolk Landscape’.
In hills, it is somewhat deficient.

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?

Meh.

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.

Photo by ace photographer Lucy White.

Photo by ace photographer Lucy White.

I even, briefly (and silently) made the local news.

Angry and be-hatted of Norfolk.

Angry and be-hatted of Norfolk.

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.

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Alzheimer’s, and other embuggerances.

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.

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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.

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The Spam Chronicles: an open letter to Angelina from Minsk, Belorussia.

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. 

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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. 

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?

Is this you, Angelina from Minsk?

Is this you, Angelina from Minsk?

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. 

'Charming' is rarely synonymous with the other qualities you profess to be seeking, Angelina.

‘Charming’ is rarely synonymous with the other qualities you profess to be seeking, Angelina.

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,

Lynsey

Teacher writing on a blackboard

Other people’s work.

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).

Unknown

An ‘umble writer begging for a crust of bread.

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.

I'm not remotely religious... this was the best image I could find of a dusty book.

I’m not remotely religious… this was the best image I could find of a dusty book.

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…

beethoven_00370283

What’s the point of art?

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.

Shelfie.

Shelfie. (The book I’m holding is ‘Jar Baby’ by the very awesome Hayley Webster… which I have been too busy – writing my own paltry novel – to actually read yet… Such is life.)

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?

Why indeed?

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.

Imagine a world without Beethoven's music... (subsidised, like Mozart's, by the patronage system).

Imagine a world without Beethoven’s music… (subsidised, like Mozart’s, by the patronage system).

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?

Blog book quiz

Lynsey’s completely arbitrary, rather silly, possibly unfair Literary Quiz.

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.

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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!

My face when someone asks about my novel.

When I’m Queen (PS this book is driving me fricking crazy)

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?’

My face when someone asks about my novel.

My face when someone asks about my novel.

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.

Prithee, kind sir, refrain from your impertinent questioning.

Prithee, kind sir, refrain from your impertinent questioning. Instead, bringeth cake.

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.

Cigar-smoking Princess Leia.

The Four Horse Pills of the Apocalypse.

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.

Medication giraffe!

Giraffe.

Flower.

Flower. Somewhat denuded. (He loves me, he loves me not, etc.)

One-armed tennis player...

One-armed tennis player…

One-armed ballerina (or stereotypical librarian) holding lollipop.  Of course.

One-armed ballerina (or stereotypical librarian) holding lollipop.
Of course.

Man on Segway looking at a Mondrian.

Man on Segway looking at a Mondrian.

Cigar-smoking Princess Leia.

Cigar-smoking Princess Leia.

One-armed man. Essentials intact.

One-legged man. Essentials intact.

One-armed man semi-impressed by Fifty Shades of Grey.

One-legged man semi-impressed by Fifty Shades of Grey.

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Fifty Shades of Hurray! Why you shouldn’t wait for Christian Grey to come spank you, but should, in fact, spank yourself. Or something.

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.’

One of my fellow Virgoans.  (Fairly sure he preferred sex to reading, though.)

One of my fellow Virgoans. (Fairly sure he preferred sex to reading, though.)

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).

Look how angry he is. If you don't pay your poll tax he'll come and spank you.

Look how angry he is. If you don’t pay your poll tax he’ll come and spank you.

While Prime Minister of this jolly old isle he was shafting this woman:

Is that an egg she's holding or did she *actually* break his balls?

Is that an egg she’s holding or did she *actually* break his balls?

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).

Okay.

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.

50 shades

Where was her editor?

Unknown-3

I’ll just have a quick look at the inside of my eyelids…

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.

Settle down, children. The lesson is about to begin.

101 Hand Gestures for Teachers: A Manual

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.

Settle down, children. The lesson is about to begin.

Settle down, children. The lesson is about to begin.

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Basic Numeracy is a government requirement, students. You can use your fingers if it helps.

I was all, like, WTF?

I was all, like, WTF?

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I’m not even kidding. It was *this* small.

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HahahahahaSNORT

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So I caught this fish…

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Secret Teacher Hand Signal: ‘Class is sucking. Activate the ejector seat.’

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I’m not entirely agreeing with what you’re saying. But I’ll listen anyway. And then I’ll pounce.

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Roight, you. See me after class.

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Mwa ha ha.

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Go high on gas, low on electric. Secretly trading shares with those in the know.

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And this is the internationally recognised signal for ‘I am a tourist in your country. Please take my photograph’.

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Anyone seen my false teeth? Pretty sure they’re down here somewhere…

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All right, who’s guffed?

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Let me just chew this over a while.

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You, and you. There’s the door. Get yourselves through it.

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Is it just me, or is it raining in here? (This signal also referred to as The Boob Cup)

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My mouth may be talking about Point of View. My hands have just arranged the assassination of a minor dissident.

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Teacher Pose #72: ‘Looking Down the Nose’.

There was this rabbit...

There was this rabbit…

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There was this lop-eared rabbit…

Oh, there's the bell! Time to go home and watch 'Wolf Hall' on the telly box.

Oh, there’s the bell! Time to go home and watch ‘Wolf Hall’ on the telly box.

Me and my boyfriend.

Being somewhere else.

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. 

Me and Ferris.

Ferris and me.

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.

Don't Look Now

Don’t Look Now: awful, horrible, emotional… but somehow perfect too.

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.

A writer in the field, searching for Something to Write About.

The pornographic stapler, and a wee nomination.

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

 

Yes.

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. 

A writer in the field, searching for Something to Write About.

A writer in the field, searching for Something to Write About. She saw something an hour ago, but it was a teenage vampire. Best left alone.

In other news, I’ve been nominated for a blogging award! For which I would like to thank Inger at The Viridescent Consumerwho 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.

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So the rules for this award are:

  1. Show the award on your blog
  2. Thank the person who nominated you.
  3. Share 7 facts about yourself.
  4. Nominate 15 blogs.
  5. Link your nominee’s blogs and let them know

SEVEN FACTS ABOUT ME

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

    Not a job I'd care to do. Although I could make an exception for a young Malcolm McDowell.

    Not a job I’d care to do. Although I could make an exception for a young Malcolm McDowell.

  4. For the first 15 years of my life I was a Mormon.
  5. I’ve danced onstage with Wayne Sleep.
  6. 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.)
  7. 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…

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.
Put the kettle on, love.

Variable 4, becoming westerly 5 to 7 later.

Dear Lynsey,

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.

Put the kettle on, love.

Put the kettle on, love. (All right, if you think it’ll suit me.)

It only remains for us to wish you smooth sailing in 2015 and beyond.

Yours sincerely,

The Imaginary Met Office.

repent-the-end-is-nigh-ye-must-be-cleansed

Found art: a poem in blog posts

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.

repent-the-end-is-nigh-ye-must-be-cleansed

So I tried it.

And?

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…

Untitled 2014

Winter

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.

Spring

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?

Summer

Here’s something I hate.

Autumn

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
hand-stitched lace.

I’ve just been a-Googling and
hey nonny-nonny.

The hairs on my neck must be lazy.
I have fallen through the hole in the
paper. I like the number
eight.

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.

Winter

Everything will probably be okay.
It must be peculiar not to exist.

Don’t neglect your hot meat.

images

Hot meat and the skateboarding George Orwell: a thing about voice.

‘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.

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Image source

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.

images

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.
... and he's cross that you wrote cerulean when you just meant blue.

… and he’s cross that you wrote ‘cerulean’ as a fancy way of saying ‘blue’. You dick.

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.

Oi, Orwell! You're not big and you're not clever and I'll wrap that skateboard round your fecking neck in a minute.

I’ll wrap that skateboard round your fecking neck in a minute, son.

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.

Tiny words, I salute you.

Tiny words, I salute you.

 

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.

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Red and yellow and pink and green… violaceous and apricot and cobalt…

 

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.

The sister on the left was said to have died 2 days earlier...

Here lies one whose name was writ in water.

It must be peculiar not to exist.

Your strength is invisibility. You’re excellent at imitation. Your self-effacement knows no bounds.

You’re the wire that hoists actors into the air, or the stunt double donning a wig, or Zac Efron’s crooning in High School Musical, or perhaps you’re even Britt Ekland’s bum double in The Wicker Man.

You’re there to make others look good. (Or, in the latter case, to flash your arse for the cameras, because Ekland refused to flash hers.)

You have numerous names for your numerous roles – but in publishing you are known as a ghost.

The sister on the left was said to have died 2 days earlier...

The sister on the left was said to have died 2 days earlier… Think about *that* next time you’re listening to a Kenny G solo, alone in the house, after dark…

 

Image source

 

This post has been prompted by the ‘news’ that outrageously popular You Tube star Zoella (a name oft on the lips of my teenaged daughter) accepted a six figure sum from publishers Penguin for a novel, Girl Online, that, well, that she didn’t actually write. She did, however, come up with the ‘story and the characters’.

Zoe 'Zoella' Zugg, whose You Tube vlog has over 3 million subscribers at time of writing. This is small fry, of course, compared to PewDiePie who has over 30,000.

Zoe ‘Zoella’ Sugg, whose You Tube vlog has over 3 million subscribers at time of writing. This is small fry, of course, compared to Swedish gamer PewDiePie who has over 30 million.

After out-pacing Dan Brown, J.K. Rowling, and E.L. James with her first-week sales, things nosedived spectacularly for the smiley star when rumours arose that the novel was ghostwritten. Zoella tweeted this in response:

It’s fair to say she’d have needed some help with the spelling in her novel, if nothing else…

But we like Zoella in our house. She says useful things to teenage girls about her own anxiety issues, and also she has lovely hair.

I’m not meaning to patronise her (although I have, perhaps, patronised her a tiny bit so far). What I’m mainly saying, is no harm, no foul. Yes, it’s kinda shitty to take a six-figure sum from Penguin (who’ve also behaved kinda shittily from an outsiders’ point of view) when the person who actually wrote the book earned seven thousand, according to my informant (my daughter), and, yes, it’s kinda shitty to let legions of teenaged girls believe there’s no end to your talents (thus, perhaps, doubting themselves just a wee bit in response), but IT HAPPENS ALL THE TIME. Hence I find myself feeling a little bit sorry for poor old (actually, young) Zoe Sugg. I think she’s learnt her lesson. I don’t think she’ll do it again.

But, Penguin? They will do it again. As will every other publishing house so long as we, the public, are keener on buying a book because somebody famous wrote it (even though, nudge nudge, wink wink, we all know they actually didn’t) than because of the words inside. The words inside might be good, but it’s usually seen as hack-work, this ghost writing business. A writer who lovingly rubs each phrase till a genie pops out of it is unlikely to let Katie Price or Naomi Campbell take the credit. Instead they’ll hock them any old shit, because no one is buying the book on its merits. They’re buying it because it’s… pink and shiny. (I have tried for literally seconds to think of another reason they might buy a book that purports to be written by the human being formerly known as Jordan, and I cannot.)

(The internet says she also has four volumes of autobiography. To which I say: WTF? Her entire life has been televised, hasn’t it? What is there left to find out, for the love of God?)

Look inside ‘her’ first novel, Angel, on Amazon and you’ll find the following:

Angel by Katie Price

This was, in fact, written by a former journalist called Rebecca Farnworth. Very sadly, Farnworth died recently, of cancer, at the horribly early age of 49, which makes me disinclined to run on at any great length about the quality of this extract – except to suggest that Farnworth herself knew very well what she was doing. And what she was doing was writing by numbers. 

There is more writing by numbers in Katie Price’s recent book, Make My Wish Come True:

make my wish come true KP

This one wasn’t written by Price, either. I’ve made a cursory search online (including the book’s ‘author information’ page) and can’t tell you who did write it, but if Price – like Zoella – came up with the characters (in particular, if she came up with the heroine’s name) then I’m glad she didn’t write the book herself. It’s bad enough as it is. Once upon a time it was curious and new to read of sunlight ‘streaming’ through a window – but it isn’t anymore. Is warmth in any way watery? Why must sun ‘put in an appearance’ instead of simply shining? As openings go, this one is an omni-shambles, to quote Malcolm Tucker. If football pundits wrote novels, they’d write ’em like this.

An adverb here, a cliche there...

An adverb here, a cliche there…

It’s muzak for the eyes, that’s all. And there may be a stonking good story, once Storm’s finished basting that turkey – but I, for one, will never know, because life is too short to be squandered on Katie Price’s oeuvre. I’ve been known to remark, whilst listening to Radio 1, that if ‘music’ consisted of only this one particular song that my ears are enduring right now (I will mention no names) then I’d rather have silence. Forever. The End. And if Make My Wish Come True was the only book that existed, then quite honestly I’d have to give up reading.

(Ah, who am I kidding? I read the back of cereal packets. I read bus tickets. I read literally whatever’s in front of my eyes. But I’d hate myself while reading it. And I’d hate all of humanity. And I’d burn the book – and myself – afterwards.)

‘Everybody does have a book in them,’ said Christopher Hitchens, ‘but in most cases that’s where it should stay.’

Wise words. You see, having a story to tell is not the same thing as being able to tell it. And that’s fine! Why should everyone be able to write a (publishable) novel? They shouldn’t, quite frankly, and to suggest that they can – that they ought to be able to knock one off in their lunch break – makes a mockery of the profession of Writer.

Most artists can only do one thing really well. Shakespeare didn’t have a sideline in lute playing (that I know of). Margot Fonteyn wasn’t also a talented painter. Picasso didn’t compose symphonies. John Lennon didn’t write novels. The list goes on…

Bob Dylan did write a novel. Reviews ranged from ‘not good’ to ‘unreadable’.

Sylvia Plath was talented with a pencil as well as poetry:

 

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More pictures at Brainpickings.org

It’s just that she was more talented as a poet.

The actor Keanu Reeves is also in a band called Dog Star – but we’ll just leave that statement alone, without comment (because speaking frankly I’ve always quite fancied Keanu Reeves, since the long-ago days of Dangerous Liaisons, and River’s Edge shows the nay-sayers that he can act – when he wants to – and quite apart from all that he’s a genuinely generous soul who gives away vast quantities of cash – and I really do mean vast. And, for me, that helps undo the memory of his frankly dreadful English accent in Dracula). 

Let’s look at what happens when celebrity novelists Do It Themselves. (So far as I know…)

Take Judy Finnigan’s novel Eloise, for instance. (Go on, take it.) (Boom boom.)

Here’s an extract from page two. On page one, Chris and Cathy arrive at a cottage in Cornwall, under a ‘smoky-grey sky’ and stoke up the fire:

Eloise

 

For those who don’t know, Judy Finnigan is a TV presenter, latterly famous for the Oprah-knock-off Richard and Judy Book Club, who recently inserted her foot in her mouth on an episode of Loose Women, describing the little-known non-bodily-harm variety of rape. (Like Zoella, Ms Finnigan seems to be taking a break from twitter.) But that’s by the by. I’m not here to judge her opinions on rape (I’ve done that already elsewhere, and do have a look at the Republican Rape Advisory Chart if you’re curious about rape’s many varieties, including ‘legitimate rape’, ‘honest’ rape, and even ‘enjoyable rape’). She ‘misspoke’, as the politicians say, and I doubt that she meant any genuine harm: she once flashed her bra by mistake on live telly; in this case, she just flashed her ignorance.

But I digress. I’m not here to judge her for any of that. I’m here to judge her as a writer.

This really isn’t very good, is it? Could Try Harder, Judy. F for effort. I’m sure there are people who like this sort of thing, but quite a lot of the people who don’t like it have left their own comments on Amazon: ‘boring’, ‘tedious’, ‘amateur’, ‘overwrought drivel’, ‘truly awful’, ‘We Need a No Stars Option, Amazon!’…

Many of us have been misled into thinking that because Ms Finnegan has been the champion of many excellent and previously little known authors she might be able to write herself.
I have learned my lesson… says one reviewer.

As previously noted, even Queen Hilary gets crappy reviews on Amazon (it’s par for the course), but based on the evidence of the Kindle sample these folks have located the nail’s head and struck it with startling accuracy.

Spot the shoe-horning of the Info Dump into Chris’s opening parlay:

‘If you’re not careful you’ll get seriously depressed again… blah blah, Eloise’s funeral… blah blah, let you go to their house‘.

Rules for writing good dialogue #47: characters should speak to each other, not to the reader.

As for Chris’s lurch from ‘growing impatience’ to ‘studied patience’ within the space of eleven lines (yup, I counted them)… goodness gracious me. Page two of the novel and the Ideas Engine has run out already.

Husband Richard (of afore-mentioned Book Club infamy) has muscled in on the fictional action himself. Here, dear reader, are the opening lines of The Way You Look Tonight (great title, also, Richard):

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Imagine the very first line in the voice of Victor Meldrew and it’s a helluva lot more enjoyable.

Again, you can entertain yourself by spotting the shoe-horns. This is rather a lot of boring back-story in exchange for four shit words of forward motion, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Here’s Richard again with Some Day I’ll Find You (not if I see you first, Richard):

RichardMadeley

So many questions. Why is Diana searching for the weather forecast? Might there perchance be a ration enforced in rationed-to-the-hilt England? (Perhaps we need Diana’s father to step in and remind us four lines after you first mentioned it.) Is it colder in England than it is in France? Could you possibly tell us more about the weather, Richard, because after all that is widely acknowledged as the best way to begin a novel…

You’ll have realised by now: it’s not my cup of tea.

Am I being a Massive Snob? The answer is: yes, a bit and no, not really. I’m trying really, really hard to write something myself and, although I also play the old Joanna to a reasonable standard, this here – this writing lark – is My Thing. (Even if no-one else agrees; in my heart, it’s my thing, and will always be, whether Madder Hall makes it to print or not.) I am genuinely putting everything into it. All you need do is bleed onto the typewriter, as Hemingway said. Did Judy bleed? Did Richard? Did Katie Price?

In my humble opinion – no. No. Most certainly no.

I imagine the conversation went something like this: ‘We’ve read lots of books, Richard, haven’t we?’

‘Why yes, Judy, we have.’

‘Our names have become entwined in the UK’s consciousness with the concept of a Best-selling Novel?’

‘Why yes, Judy, yes they have.’

‘And selling the books will be a Piece of Piss!’

‘Why yes, Judy, yes it will.’

Perhaps I’m being cynical.

Before you go, Lyns, what’s to do with the title of this here post?

Why, thank you for asking. It’s the epitaph of the poet John Keats, inscribed on his grave in Rome.

And what’s it got to do with celebrity writers, pray tell?

Well, Mr Keats? Over to you.

John_Keats

‘If poetry comes not as naturally as leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.’

Unless, of course, Ode to a Nightingale was ghosted by an ancestor of Miss Katie Price. In which case, I’ll look a bit of a fool.

Stranger: 'Do you have any hot soup?'
Twitter: 'No.'
Stranger: 'Do you have any coffee then?'
Twitter: 'No.'           
Stranger: 'Do you have any, uh, hot chocolate?'
Twitter: 'We've spirits and beers. If it's something hot you want, have tea.
Stranger: 'Then you have tea.'
Twitter: 'No.'

If twitter was a pub.

Welcome to twitter. Please enter quietly, and close the door behind you. Turn off your phone. We highly recommend the purchase of ale or stout in preference to Babycham or Bacardi and coke, as refusal often offends. The bar nuts may be covered in wee, but avoidance of said nuts will be viewed by the clientele as snobbery (village urine not good enough for you, eh, Londoner?) so get ’em in your gob and swallow, and, whilst we’re on this theme, there’ll be nothing but icy water in the toilet taps and if you want soap I suggest you go back to London. (There may be a morsel of soap, the approximate size of a cough lozenge, under one of the sinks, but the odds are it’s fallen in something you’d rather not touch. It’s a swings and roundabouts situation.)

The best chairs are already taken. The best chairs will always be taken. Contrive to stand artfully, casually, with an arm draped on the fireplace, and await an appropriate moment to join the conversation. The conversation will not stop for you. The conversation does not want you.

Stranger: 'Do you have any hot soup?' Twitter: 'No.' Stranger: 'Do you have any coffee then?' Twitter: 'No.'            Stranger: 'Do you have any, uh, hot chocolate?' Twitter: 'We've spirits and beers. If it's something hot you want, have tea. Stranger: 'Then you have tea.' Twitter: 'No.'

Stranger: ‘Do you have any hot soup?’
Twitter: ‘No.’
Stranger: ‘Do you have any coffee then?’
Twitter: ‘No.’
Stranger: ‘Do you have any, uh, hot chocolate?’
Twitter: ‘We’ve spirits and beers. If it’s something hot you want, have tea.
Stranger: ‘Then you have tea?’
Twitter: ‘No.’

 An American Werewolf in London

Compose your opening gambit with the sort of care otherwise reserved for wedding vows, eulogies, excuses for why you weren’t, in fact, working late at the office when you claimed you were. Charming self-deprecation is the way to go. ‘Tiptoeing onto twitter with all the panache of a geriatric tortoise’, for instance, although it’s possible someone (currently writing a blog not a million miles from here) may have used that one already. At any rate, it’s wise to be inventive with your self-deprecation. ‘I really don’t know what I’m doing!’ or ‘What’s this all about, then?’ have all the freshness of the year-old turd you will find down the back of the gents’ toilet if you poke about for a bit.

Whatever you do, incomer, don’t announce yourself with a pocketful of flyers. It’s advisable to buy the clientele a round of drinks before trying to sell them your book/film/interpretative dance project. Twitter is a conversation. Peruse the word ‘conversation’ in your dictionary. Reconsider your pre-planned material. Respond, instead, to a topic in mid-flow, unless you’d quite like to be chased all the way to the village green by strange men wielding pitchforks and banjos. I mean, picture the scene: there’s a nice juicy chat going on, the beer’s flowing, another few logs have been thrown on the fire… and up you jump, the cuckoo clock of the pub customer, with a frankly shit line from your novel. And picture, too, the peculiar looks you’d earn if you’d brought along your coterie of ventriloquist’s dummies, and every hour, on the hour, one of those leapt up as well with a frankly unbelievable review of your novel. And everyone could see your lips moving.

These things will not endear you to the clientele.

images-7

This is a local pub for local people.

And then, suddenly, before you know it, you are the clientele. You’re in one of the chairs. (Not the chairs by the fire, but still… small mercies.) You’re composing blogs about how to behave in this pub that you think of, now, as your own. You look up, disgruntled, from your oddly-named ale, at the stiff blast of wind when an incomer opens the door. You tut when ‘something white, not too dry’ is asked for at the bar. ‘What’s wrong with the nuts?’ you say quietly. You have long come to terms with the fact that some of the cleverest things you say will slip soundlessly into the ether. You don’t even mind.

Because this is a noisy pub. And on twitter, as in life, it’s not always about you. 

Mine’s a vodka, if you’re asking.

harold-lloyd-s-safety-last-kicks-off-the-flatpack-festival-314652517

Everything will (probably) be okay (in the end).

When is a writing blog not a writing blog?

In the case of this particular blog, the answer is: today.

Ordinarily, I write about writing. You can see it right there in the tagline. I’ve just done thirty posts for thirty days of nanowrimo (which you’ll find in the Recent Posts to your right), or let me direct you here or here or here or here if you’d like to take a pot luck stab at an older, more writer-y sort of a post.

Today’s post is about depression. If I was the sort of a person who understood Venn diagrams, I might use a Venn diagram here:

Blank space where a Venn diagram should be.

… with writers in one circle, and sufferers of depression in the other circle, and I’m willing to bet (all of twenty pence) that the overlap would be LARGE. It might even be XXL. Here’s a roll call:

Sylvia Plath
Ernest Hemingway
David Foster Wallace
Virginia Woolf
Anne Sexton
Primo Levi
 

And those are just some of the ones who, very sadly, didn’t make it out alive.

But I’ve talked before about writers with depression, and that isn’t the point of this post. The point of this post, as 2014 rolls to a close, is to write an ending to my own Depression Story, as detailed in my previous wafflings. 

Above all, what I want to say, as I pretty much said in the title, is that everything will probably be okay. Eventually. You just have to hold on. That isn’t to say it won’t be not-okay, again, at some point in the future (this wasn’t my first spell of depression, and, much as I hate writing this sentence, I have to face facts: neither may it be my last), but then, after that, it will be okay again and… I’ve just tripped over my own fingers writing this sentence.

But saying that ‘things will probably be okay’ is chocolate-teapot-ian in its uselessness if I don’t back it up with some rock hard evidence, right? So I offer the following neatly bullet-pointed list, containing everything I did to get better, and if it’s raining in your head right now you may choose to try some of the things on the list.

  • I took drugs. Still take drugs. Specifically Sertraline (Zoloft in the US) at a dosage of 50mg. The first 24 hours weren’t very nice. I began to wonder if Sertraline was, in fact, a mega-dose of Blue Smartie. It was hard to sit still. I was thinking at twice, or even thrice, my normal rate, and the thoughts were universally horrible. If you’ve ever poached an egg without the assistance of an egg poacher, you’ll know that the water needs to be swirling, fairly dramatically, before you can drop in the egg. After 24 hours of swirling, I snapped my pills in half and took 25mg instead for a week. The water stopped swirling. The egg still poached, eventually. I also took Zopiclone, which helps you fall asleep, and (best of all) releases a dose of feel-good chemicals that your joy-starved brain can party with for twenty minutes or so before nodding off.
  • I took ten to twenty minutes of exercise every day. This was usually a bike ride through the woods. Sometimes it was indoor exercise of the close-the-curtains variety (which has created an unduly masturbatory aspect, I now realise) accompanied by a cut-price DVD (not helping myself, am I?) of a go-get-’em American woman assuring me I’m the best, I can do it, etc (could I dig this hole any deeper?)
  • I wrote down three new things every day that I was grateful for. They have to be new. You have to be actively beach-combing your day for the shiny shells amongst the crisp packets, condoms, and dog faeces. Even tiny things can be shiny. One day I was grateful for the wind on my face. One day I was grateful for seeing the beauty in a windblown stinging nettle. (NB: there were other things not involving the wind.)
  • I focused on other peoples’ life stories (radio 4 has a good cache of this sort of thing, in particular their One to One strand), and looked outside myself. I listened to BBC reporter Frank Gardner describing the day he was shot in the spine and his subsequent life in a wheelchair. I read a book about living in North Korea. I reminded myself every day, several times every day, that, yes, some people (appear to) lead Charmed Lives, but those people are best ignored when you’re feeling depressed (unfollow anyone on Facebook, for instance – you don’t have to unfriend them; they need never know – who fires heavy photographic artillery of the My Life is Amaze-balls variety). Open your heart, instead, to the elderly man who’s had nothing all week but frostbite and shit telly for company, or the children who mightn’t eat tonight, or the factory worker who stitched this onto a Primark label:

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  • I learnt about radical acceptance. If your depression has a particular cause (as mine did) you may find this helpful. The principle is this: when things go wrong in our lives we have four options. (1) Solve the problem (if it’s possible to solve it). (2) Change how you feel about the problem. (3) Remain miserable about the problem. (4) Accept that you can’t solve the problem, but life can still be worth living. So if (1) isn’t possible (as it wasn’t, in my case) you must radically – by which they mean fully – accept that there’s bugger all you can do about it, and perhaps (as in my case) you can’t do number (2) either, because it isn’t possible to feel positive about some things, is it? It just isn’t. So, instead, you have to ‘turn your mind’ (as it’s called) by stopping the endless flow of Why me? This shouldn’t be happening… Perhaps God or Zeus or Paul Daniels will wave his most magic of wands and make this not have happened, if I don’t do anything else wrong, ever, for the rest of my life… You have to watch out for this shit, like red lights when you’re driving, and turn your mind to acceptance instead – for which the phrase shit happens comes in very handy. There were days when I read and reread the stuff on this site and then read it again, and I clung to those pages as Harold Lloyd clung to the hands of the clock in Safety Last. So, yes, although radical acceptance does sound a little mung-beans-for-dinner-and-breast-milk-in-your-tea, it’s actually just bloody wonderful.

harold-lloyd-s-safety-last-kicks-off-the-flatpack-festival-314652517

  • I asked for help. Sometimes it was horrible, asking for help. One GP leaned back in his chair, like the cock of the walk, while pondering whether or not he would give me the drugs I wanted. I sat for two hours in a Sunday morning emergency waiting room with my greasy hair over my face. I was pushy, I argued, I insisted. If you’re not in a place to be pushy yourself, find a friend or relative who is happy to go a bit postal with the medical service on your behalf. (Some friends actively enjoy this sort of thing and are only too happy to have an excuse.)
  • I took fish oil. As recommended in this great TED talk from Shawn Anchor.
  • I practised mindfulness. I didn’t realise I was practising it (I was told, years ago, that mindfulness meant staring at a raisin for a really long time, which, in retrospect, probably wasn’t entirely useful or accurate). If a piece of chocolate tasted sweet, I noticed that it was sweet. If my head felt comfortable on the pillow in bed, I noticed that too. My brain was a child that wanted to play in the Past Failures ball pool. Mindfulness was the parent who ushered them towards the All That Really Exists Is This Moment slide instead. (Alton Towers, you need one of those.)
  • I watched videos about ballet dancers. Now, this one may be specific to me. But you can customise it. It’s soothing watching physical activity, especially if it’s set to music, and especially if men with shapely buttocks are wearing lycra whilst doing it. It gave my eyes something to focus on that was mentally undemanding.
  • I took up knitting. This gave my hands something to focus on that was mentally undemanding.
  • I played video games. This gave my hands and eyes something to focus on that was mentally undemanding.
  • I swore a lot to myself. I borrowed a catchphrase from Withnail in Withnail and I, and I said it (silently or aloud, when alone) if I felt my mind drifting towards things, and people, that in all honesty it was better off avoiding. Some people have om as their mantra. Mine can be found at 1.21 in the link below:
  • I watched ASMR videos on youtube. Relaxation videos don’t work for me: being told to relax is tantamount to telling me not to think of elephants. I need to secretly relax myself whilst my brain is distracted by people doing relaxing things. And if you think that’s something you’d like to try then read more here.
  • I drank Complan when my mouth refused to eat solid food. I’d lost two stone in less than a month. It was time to take action.
  • I talked to my friends by email when I couldn’t talk in person. 
  • I googled depression and anxiety and sadness and read everything I could find on the subject. 
  • I let myself cry when I wanted to cry.
  • I took a break from work. A long break. As long as I needed.
  • I had a few therapy sessions.
  • I cuddled my daughter.
  • I tried to watch funny things on TV.
  • I read biographies when fiction was too much.
  • When I was able to write, I wrote. When I wasn’t, I didn’t.
  • I stayed alive even though I didn’t always want to.
  • I wrote an occasional blog about being depressed.

And now we appear to have come full circle. To the best of my memory, this is everything I did on the way to recovery.

I’ve been thinking for ages now that I ought to write this post, because – thinking back over my annus horribilis as Queenie would say – it was posts like this that kept me occupied for five, or ten, or twenty minutes and five, or ten, or twenty minutes of calm sailing is all you can ask, sometimes, when the wind blows.

And now it seems I’m back to wind again.

There’s an awful lot of wind in my novel, too. But that’s another story…

Excuse me a second while I just open the door to let these folks in...

30 Days of Nano: Praise the Lord, it’s Day Thirty!

Am I sad or happy that NaNoWriMo, and hence my 30 Days of Nano blog challenge, comes to an end at midnight tonight?

I’m a mix of the two: I’m shappy.

I didn’t do any writing at all yesterday. I’d already locked and loaded the day’s blog post ahead of time, so I didn’t even write a blog. (Boo! Hiss!)

Statler: I hear they're calling this the Medium Blog.  Waldorf: Well it certainly wasn't rare or well done!

Statler: I hear they’re calling this the Medium Blog.
Waldorf: Well it certainly wasn’t rare or well done!

But the day before that, I finished the first draft of my novel.

I don’t think you heard me.

I FINISHED THE FIRST DRAFT OF MY NOVEL!!!!!

Oh yeah. Go me.

Oh yeah. Go me.

 

I had my headphones in when I ‘validated’ on the nano site, and was promptly deafened by their cutesy recorded cheers. But I get to call myself a Winner. Hurrah! I like being a winner. Although it’s possible I’m only a winner for the remainder of 2014…

Winner-2014-Twitter-Profile

But at least I’ll have a month off from being a loser!

What have I learnt from this year’s nanowrimo?

We could really do with a Team America montage round about now.

 

Instead, have some bullet points:

  • The more often you write, the easier it gets.
  • Dorothea Brande was right: the subconscious will provide, if you let it.
  • The more you write, the more frequent your typos.
  • The more you write, the less inclination you have to amend those typos.
  • Sometimes, when you’re writing a lot, your brain attempts to reread, reflect, revise with every random thought you have, and this is almost as annoying as an Agadoo ear worm when you’re trying to sleep.
  • An insight scribbled in your notebook at four in the morning is better than two insights in a bush.
  • Two years of planning and writing and failing and writing and failing and tearing up plans and despairing and agonising and shredding and howling at the moon are all worth it when you’re not even writing your final scene: you’re following it, like a child in the Pied Piper’s wake, and you eat dinner because you have to eat dinner (you’re a human being, natch, and human beings need dinners) but you are eating with your left hand so you can carry on typing with your right.

Over the coming weeks and months it will all go pear-shaped. Of course it will. Bliss is fragile. I’m enjoying it now, because I can. I haven’t read my first draft yet. Why would I? I’m enjoying my honeymoon. You don’t go checking your new husband’s internet history when you’re on your honeymoon, do ya? No siree. You leave that for a rainy day in the future.

It’s not raining today (yet). And it’s too soon to go back to it yet. Fireworks and first drafts: leave ’em alone, for the love of God! 

But I have got a nagging awareness of the ‘project notes’ in my Scrivener file, where I noted down inconsistencies as I thunk of them. And I’ve sent Nancy Drew on the case of The Missing First Four Chapters and she’s presently teaming a rib-knit sweater with a pair of capri pants and enjoying a morning coffee with her kindly-eyed housekeeper Hannah Gruen, but she’s made some preliminary observations already:

  • At 8.04 a.m. the chapters were seen to be partially assembled.
  • They seemed not to be written in English, but gibberish.
  • Consultation with relevant sources suggests that it’s easier to write the beginning once you’ve got the end.

So, mainly because I find that I want to be writing today, and every day thereafter, I’m heading back in to the war zone with my dictaphone and my camera to start fiddling around a bit. (NB: Not to read the draft. Oh no. I don’t want to blow my face off with an unexploded rocket, thank you very much.) Expect further dispatches at some point in the future:

Novel is shit stop send reinforcements stop wondering if I should just stop 

And what have I learnt from my 30 days of daily blogging?

  • I should never compose a post in public, because I find myself quite funny sometimes (and that isn’t socially acceptable).
  • Some posts are bigger than others. (As Morrissey almost said.)
  • If I had to blog every day for the rest of my life, I probably could. But I don’t, so I won’t.

I do like blogging, though. And I like it when folk like my blogs.

This is me in the internet pond:

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Image source

This is not me:

That's me holding the fish. Kidding.

That’s me holding the fish. Kidding.

Image source

But that’s cool.

Sometimes a few people stop by. They get snagged on some click bait in a tweet I wrote, or they google a search term that whisks them my way, or they (just occasionally) set out intentionally to come here. They put on their shoes, and coat, and gloves and they strap their binoculars round their neck and they brave the harsh winds of the internet in winter to peer through the fast encroaching fog for the faint glow, up ahead, of lynseywhite.com, where legend has it there are comfy chairs, hot tea, fluffy slippers for frostbitten feet, and a roaring log fire full of clichés. Not to mention willy jokes.

Excuse me a second while I just open the door to let these folks in...

Excuse me a second while I just open the door to let these folks in… they’re cold and tired and mightily in need of a joke about members.

Blogging gives me something (an outlet for my lunacy) that I don’t get from fiction – or don’t get so quickly, and easily, from fiction. So, whether or not there’s anyone out in that snowstorm searching, there’ll always be a brew on at lynseywhite.com (tea only; I don’t do coffee). It’s just I’ll be boiling the kettle slightly less often from December 1st…

We’ve had muppets, and fireworks, and insights in bushes, and weary travellers, and tiny fish… and if that ain’t enough confusing analogies for ya, then let me point you to some of my favourite posts from this whole 30 Days of Nano experience:

Day 18: in which Nano comes of age.

Day 10: my homage to Lorrie Moore’s How to Become a Writer

Day 28: on being an older writer. (The internet liked this one the best.)

Day 6: something quite sensible about finding your ‘seed word’ (as Scarlett Thomas calls it).

Day 29: in which nanowrimo reports on my progress. 

December, here we come.

Report Card

30 Days of Nano: Day Twenty Nine

If NaNoWriMo wrote report cards…

Report Card

In general we are pleased to inform you that Lynsey has worked well this month. She completed a total of 74,435 words, amply achieving her personal monthly target of 70,000 with 24 hours to spare, and as regards the story contained within those words we are pleased to describe the present status as ‘motoring along nicely’.

English

Lynsey has shone in this subject, and frankly, considering what she does for a living, it would be bloody worrying if she hadn’t. 

Biology

Lynsey has demonstrated a thorough acquaintance with the human body, in particular the breasts, buttocks, and genitalia and, indeed, writes so frequently about these three areas that one might even describe her as ‘fixated’.

Chemistry

Lynsey has survived the month with no recourse to illegal chemicals, with the exception of the occasional syringe of heroin for medicinal purposes.

Physics

In general, Lynsey has excelled at battery management as regards the use of her laptop in various cafes, except for that one occasion when she didn’t turn the plug on and, consequently, achieved very little actual writing with the 2% remaining of her battery life. She had to read a book instead.

Physical education

We regret to inform you that Lynsey’s progress in PE has fallen far short of the minimum standard required to maintain the healthy functioning of a human body. Indeed we are surprised she’s still alive at all.

Home Economics

Lynsey has used the microwave this month rather oftener than we’d recommend. She did, however, serve vegetables at least twice, and only once, on a wet Wednesday, did she have recourse to a packet of Super Noodles. 

Mathematics

We cannot congratulate Lynsey on her success in this subject. Indeed we are curious as to who she actually is, having never once seen her in class.

Art

Lynsey spends a long time gazing at images on the internet, and although these fall largely under the ‘fine art’ umbrella, as opposed to the ‘hard porn’ umbrella (and frankly we hope never to see such a thing as a hard porn umbrella), she has yet to exhibit any personal skill with a paintbrush. In addition, she has a tendency to daydream. There are those of us in the art department who strongly suspect she’s imagining future book covers.

French

Zut alors! La plume de ma tante. Etc.

German

Efficiency has risen notably since we, in the German department, refused to participate in these fake report cards.

Information Technology

We are quietly pleased with Lynsey’s progress. She has learnt how to arse around on the internet conduct research via google, how to embed tweets and youtube videos in her blog posts, and how to use the strike-through function with the aim of making said blog posts more amusing. We await the examiners’ decision on the success or failure of the latter point.

Religious Education

We gave up on Lynsey a long time ago, and can only report that she needn’t pack woollens for where she’s going. 

History

We are pleased, or perhaps disappointed, to report that Lynsey has utterly failed, this month, to let history repeat itself. Whereas, previously, she might have sat on her arse all month eating biscuits, this year she sat on her arse all month eating biscuits with one hand whilst typing with the other.

Geography

By and large Lynsey has remained in one spot. All month. Thus proving Hemingway’s dictum that writing broadens the ass as well as the mind.