Saturday, April 28, 2007

Out Of Her Head

I am not getting out of my head enough. I don’t mean drink and drugs – my “condition” rules out more than the occasional glass or two of wine or half pint of Guinness, and I wouldn’t touch with a barge pole the skunk that seems to have taken the place of mellow Lebanese gold and homegrown Mary Jane. I am talking about fictional characters that take you over so that you are walking around living in their heads as much as ( sometimes more than) your own, and when you are not with them you miss it. Any writer who has written fiction of any length knows about this. When it happens you can be sure you have hit a seam and if you know what’s good for you and the thing you are working on, you stay with it. My last serious attempt at a novel ended when I decided to take a break roughly two thirds of the way in, thinking I could pick it up again when my real life became less demanding. This is a very risky thing to do. The characters, who depend on your continued focus to give them substance, begin to fade or they walk out on you.

The central character of something I am sporadically working on lives in a village on the edge of a forest and has a mysterious illness. She has a husband, two children and a cat. She is not me, but is a kind of doppelganger who seems to have done a lot of things I have done and lived in the same places. She has a relationship (professional) with an earth acupuncturist who comes and puts metal rods in the unmade road outside her house to neutralise the possible negative effects of underwater streams. If I’m not mistaken it’s the same one who stood under my apple tree a few years back and had what he called a “sacramental smoke”. She is copying me. She probably has a blog and is at this very moment blogging about a woman like her who is blogging about – . I’m disappearing up my own arse.

What I enjoy about writing stories is getting inside a character who is, in the details at least, nothing like me. I remember being invited to a bookshop in London to read one of two stories which had just been published in an anthology. When I had finished reading, the woman organising the event (who had read my stories) said she had expected someone completely different and that I was not like either of the two character/narrators of my stories. It was a strange thing to say to a writer of fiction, but then I remembered what 'd been told by someone who knew about these things: that people will always think you are writing about yourself, so best get used to it; and that of course you are writing about yourself, but not in the way people think.

I’m also working on a poem that speaks so directly from personal experience it’s like tapping into a vein. I am not sure how long it wants to be and can only work on it in short bursts, not because I’m overwhelmed by feeling (in which case I’d be unlikely to write it) but because it seems to require this way of working: brief, intense periods with spaces in between for the substance of the next part to fill me.

So whichever way you look at it I’m not getting much of a break from myself at the moment. I might have to do something drastic with the doppelganger before she gets too settled (little does she know I’m selling my house but she is staying put). At the moment, though, there isn’t any other character knocking at the door to be written.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

House Bonne Femme

What shall I do with her, this house that people come to view and will not buy? I have prepared her each time so as to draw attention to her best features and though not possessing the propertyspeak “wow factor”, her virtues are plain to see. Her defects also. And the people who come are not, I sense, people without a bob or two to spend on something with fuller dimensions. She will appeal to worthy hippies of modest means. Where the devil are they? According to instructions, I have buried my figure of St. Joseph (and dashed good-looking he is, too) upside down at the front of the house. I have shown due respect and wrapped him in a polythene bag to protect from the damp earth, but have forgotten to mark the exact spot so hope I will be able to dig him up again when the time comes so as not to incur the wrath of the heavenly saints – if I have not already done so.

I have let things slip a little, it has to be admitted. I can’t keep the house as pristine as it should be. It is clean but cluttered – by showroom standards, that is. There are things on surfaces, books everywhere and sheaves of paper for the non-existent “to do” file lying around like indolent teenagers that won’t get their act together. The cat’s latest hobby is eating prickly grass to regurgitate on the carpet. It leaves marks. Because the house is on an unadopted, unmade road it gets easily dusty, which I don’t mind, but you can’t show a house off without washing its face, and I forget to.

It occurs to me, not for the first time, that I didn’t have a proper upbringing. My mother had people to “do” for her – a cleaner that came most weekdays plus a live-in mother's help/au pair. She wasn’t rich, it was just how people like her lived then and, one supposes, labour was cheap. For much of the time she worked and, in between husbands, she was a single parent so it undoubtedly made life a little easier than it might have been. I can’t remember ever seeing her doing the cleaning and she only really cooked for high days and dinner parties – exotic things like salade nicoise and fondue. She shopped at a German delicatessen for things like salami and stollen and went to Selfridges for asparagus and smoked salmon. I’m not complaining. Our dysfunctional relationship had nothing to do with her lack of hands-on housewifery. But I never absorbed the skills. The cooking thing I picked up myself – doing it was fun and at the end of it you had good things to eat. It was the cleaning up after that got me. It took me years to learn that there were other ways of removing burnt sugar from a pan than scraping with a knife or that you could clean windows with vinegar water, that there were better ways of maintaining lavatory hygiene than pouring a bottle of bleach down it once a month, that sweeping a floor worked better if you worked from the outside into the middle. Still, I came of age at a time when women were no longer, in theory at least, expected to take all this on their shoulders and never lived among people who considered a dirty front step the sign of bad character. Or if I did, I didn’t notice or care. Him Outdoors has always done his share, and more in the days with young children and me not strong enough. So it’s fine. But I could do with a bit of help from Stepford Wife right now – just while I’m giving the old house a bit of a push, until a new match is secured for her.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Beach Less Travelled

After several days of activity I have arrived at a stretch of days with nothing at all planned other than a trip to the cinema. It is like contemplating a shoreline in some remote place in the early morning when no footprints have been made. I say early morning, but it is in fact getting close to mid-day, and I have not yet fully incarnated into the day, unless you count eating a very nice breakfast of bacon and eggs and drinking a mug of Assam tea, hot, with half a spoonful of sugar and smoking a Marlborough Menthol that I have been saving.

And I say “contemplating” but the Signs character is not one easily given to such, in the true sense of the word. I did try transcendental meditation when I was 16. My dear Dad who was a bit of a closet spiritual tourist, was into this at the time and paid for my “initiation” fee. I went with a friend to a terraced house just off the seafront at Brighton with some fruit (we’d been asked to bring) and a clutch of pound notes. The woman who initiated me was a middle-aged blousy bottle blonde with ultramarine eyelids and fuschia-pink lips whose colour, I noticed, went over the lip line. These kind of details got in the way. I was, to quote Bob Dylan, so much older then, I’m younger than that now. I had doubts about whether anyone who looked like that could be spiritual. I had a framed photograph on my chest of drawers of John and Yoko in Amsterdam doing bed-rest for peace. They looked spiritual. So did Donovan and Che Guevara. My initiator took me to a room upstairs where we sat on floor cushions, she did some chanting in a language I didn’t know and gave me my mantra – a word which she said I wasn’t to tell anyone. It was to act as a kind of screen-saver for the mind to help clear intrusive thoughts when meditating. It also meant something but it wasn’t important for me to know what. My friend went in for her session and we both left with a piece of the fruit we had brought – the initiator said we should eat it soon because it would have a lot of something I can’t remember the word for. We ate the fruit, an apple and a banana, sitting on Brighton beach. We smoked a few cigs, played “Guess My Mantra” and she got annoyed with me because I nearly did guess hers, only because I intoned a word similar to the one I had been given, which made me think we were probably given the same word, and I felt a bit cheated.

We sat and did our first meditation practice with our brand-new mantras. The idea was to begin with two 20-minute sessions per day (these would lengthen as we progressed in the discipline). The stones of the pebble beach pressed into my backside. I silently repeated my mantra, bringing my wandering thoughts back to it whenever they meandered to whether he would ring me today, his hands on my thigh, where I was going to get enough money for the next packet of No. 6 because I only had two left and hadn’t we done enough because it felt like hours let alone minutes. I was bored long before time was up. My friend, though, wasn’t. It had been, she said, a good experience, calming and refreshing. She looked happy, as though she’d just been kissed by someone she fancied. I hid my disappointment and pretended it had been good for me too.

These days I don’t need a mantra to walk the walk, talk the talk and do the minutes, hours, days and more. I am doing the advanced course, focussing on the particulars of a grain of sand as though my life and the universe depended on it. Which it does, of course. I’m holding up the sky. No thanks necessary.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Margins and Spaces

I don’t know how some people do it. Live their lives, I mean. The way I do it is simple – I don’t try and fit things in. The day wouldn’t hold it because I would run out of strength. Almost everything is given a place with space around it, even going to the supermarket (especially that). If I “arrange” more than two things in a day I become nervous. There is enough of the ordinary, unschedulable things to be getting on with in any case. I just looked at a day in the life of Wife of Brian and could barely imagine how such a day could be processed let alone achieved. In her case, she has little choice, having young children, a husband with M.E. and being the sole bread-winner. I have a sister who lives a life where there is no time to have coffee with a friend or even talk on the phone. She has a daughter with special needs, a career that flies her around the world and, close as we once were, we don’t meet any more, other than at funerals, big occasions or times when she has brought her daughter to stay with me. But it isn’t only people who have to deal with extreme or particular circumstances. There seems to be a “busyness” that has gone around like a virus and now almost everyone has to some extent got it in their system. My feeling is that it began to happen in this country some time in the eighties, when the property market was booming, zappy young people were becoming seriously rich and fun was becoming a pretty serious business too. I read in the papers then that work was something that had become too good for the lower orders, but the well-to-do middle classes couldn’t get enough of it. Being too busy and time-poor was a sign that you were in the groove and making it. The glamour wore off a long time ago, we’re stuck with the busyness and many people are sick and tired of it. It seems a strange paradox that you have to be sick and tired in order have the essential spaces that for everyone else are just luxury.

Thursday, April 19, 2007


Awake in the small hours again, just me and the birds and the sun coming up as it does this time of year, as though we’re living in the first days. “Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird”. With me again, my old companion migraine, not the full-blown thing but the beginnings, which I knock on the head with a couple of those lovely pink pills. Drugs, eh? Reasons to be cheerful, as if I needed to look for them, can be found in any number of chemical substances that enhance the quality of my life by blocking or modifying nasty symptoms that are part of the package that is M.E. A respectful nod in the direction of homoeopathic and herbal products that have a significant place in the house of Signs, but what I really have in mind is the magic bullet effect of allopathic substances that go to work predictably and immediately. Of course their effects are temporary and they cure nothing, but they and I have an honest relationship. I do not ask for more than they can deliver. I am particularly happy that Co-proxamol, a combination of the humble paracetamol and an opioid called dextropropoxyphene, has been granted a temporary reprieve, having been withdrawn from the market. What they give is a few hours respite from muscle pain, and the difference this can make to how one manages a day is hard to describe. I don’t want to give the impression that I am a pill-head. It’s just good to know they are there for the times you really need something more than inner fortitude.

There are things I want to do in the next couple of days: another poetry cafĂ© event to be prepared for and attended, a whole day’s workshop on the poetry of Sappho and some writing to get done for a workshopping session on Monday. I won’t manage all this without drugs, caffeine and sugar and yes, the system pays for it later. But it is, as I have said before, worth it.

Speaking of substances, I have been reviewing the hair colour situation and, though not exactly chickening out of my recent decision to let the grey shine out, I have put it on hold by using a bit of temporary colour while I mull things over a bit. It may be that for a while I will be neither one thing nor the other before I properly come out or it may be that I carry on being in the closet for a few more years. I know this sounds lame after my brave words about doing cold turkey and possibly starting a revolution but the Signs character is inclined to be fickle in some respects and is, in this season of strange, exuberant and unnaturally warm spring, not inclined to be wintering down just yet

Monday, April 16, 2007

every move you make

Last week or so has been a bit scary on account of symptoms threatening with the usual push-me pull-you bully tactics. I’m well used to it but still after all this time I still have a fear of being clobbered into complete submission by M.E. I decided, unwisely probably, to work on a poem about all this and managed to produce something that was a) crap and b) suggested something about my relationship to the illness that isn’t true and makes me want to throw things. Of course poems don’t have to be true and we can take on as many supposed selves as we want, but this was simply unacceptable. It made M.E. seem a bit sexy and seductive, albeit in a dark and murky way (which is ok in different circumstances and don’t get me started on sex and death – really). To explain: I have often pictured the illness as a stalker figure who watches my every action with a kind of “every move you make” obsessive interest. He is a sweaty, toad-like creep in a suit who sits in his luxury but airless office where he monitors me on a screen and can bring on relapses at the push of a button, and does so for his own amusement or to remind me of who is boss when I do things that are a bit too much like living a life for his liking. This is not the stuff of erotic fantasy – not mine at any rate, but that’s the impression the poem gives, unsurprisingly with phrases like “touch of a demon lover who’s after your blood” and “poor Leda of the loosening thighs” (I told you it was crap), which I had intended to be so deeply and acidly ironic as to be purely sarcastic. Only once written it didn’t look like that at all. Even Keats would not have been half so in love with “easeful death” if he had known about this bugger. Anyway, I’ve binned it and have another inkling of an idea which I’ve begun to work on, so feeling in better humour now and for the moment a bit less clobbered. Planning a week’s island-hopping (words – doncha love ‘em) in Scotland with Mr. Signs in May. Yesss!

My son flies off to New York today to compete, with others from his uni who are part of a jazz a cappella group, in an international a cappella championship event at the Lincoln Centre. Then it’s back to maths and philosophy exams and the summer term. My daughter is busily involved with organising a festival in London for which she has also written a short play. My kids might guess, but will never know, the intense joy it gives me to see them living their lives.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

a feather

I am not strong enough to attend poetry workshop today.

I am thinking about people who have severe M.E., those for whom the minute details of life can take on extraordinary significance. I have been deeply moved by the posts on Greenwords’ blog (thanks nmj) and by the following words, which I assume are hers:

“I live in bed and plant flowers under my pillow. They bloom round my head and I pick them for visitors. I’m not tired. Would you like a daisy, a song or a feather?”

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Something about Nothing

So I’ve come here with nothing, and not for the first time. It is, after all, “good writing practice” to turn up at the page without any particular agenda. You begin to move the pen across the page or, in this case, tap your fingers on the keys (I like these ones, they have a resistance and you can give them a bit of a bash, makes you feel you’re actually doing something) and then before you know it, for better or worse, you have a post, a poem, the beginning of a story, a fragment, a something. A couple of lines from an old school hymn begin to hum inside my head. I would like to push them away but they are very insistent:

“Nothing in my hands I bring,
Simply to thy cross I cling”

I have nothing to say about this except that the creative unconscious works in mischievous ways its wonders to perform. It pushed out those last few words as well and is having a right laugh at my expense, I can tell you. The idea being that you come to the empty page with nothing and trust in the renewing and renewable power of the creative impulse to fill you and the page, just as the faithful come to the altar ready to receive the holy spirit. A poet of my acquaintance does describe the business of turning up at the page as being like a priest’s office in that you have to do it whether you feel like it or not, whatever your mood or inclination and even without a single member of congregation present and if you don’t want to commit then don’t be a priest/poet (delete where appropriate).

Personally, I prefer to talk about going to the coalface. When setting exercises for new students I would often favour the kind that had them putting pen to paper immediately and writing without much pause and less thought for as long as I saw fit in order to break through a few initial inhibitions and brush aside the gremlins that whispered how they weren’t allowed to write anything until they thought they had something worth saying – in which case we might all (with the exception of the students who came with a master plan to write the new Da Vinci Code or Harry Potter and wanted advice about how to market themselves and their yet-to-be-written best-seller) have sat there until kingdom come. I liked to tell my students that I too had “been to the coalface” and asked nothing of them that I hadn’t done myself, which was the truth. Apart from the idea that what they were about to do was real work, I quite liked the image of hacking away until you hit a seam. And unlike the idea of turning up with nothing in your hands, you carried a pickaxe (your voice, your style, your pen) which you had to use to get at the precious stuff.

So here I’ll be tomorrow, hacking away at a new poem, and because of where I am at right now (see previous post) I haven’t got a clue what I’ll be writing about, I will just be putting out words on paper (blue ballpoint, new notebook – shocking pink, a gift) and where there was nothing there will be something.

Time for bed, as Zebedee once said – a very long time ago.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

My Brilliant Career

I am considering the old potato in the vegetable rack who, in spite of being long past it’s eat-by or anything useful date, still sprouts and puts out ridiculously hopeful white and green shoots according to the life force that is still in it. I am not an old potato but it must be said that I am possibly (think Jean Brodie here) “past my prime.” This is fine by me. My prime would have been useless to me anyway, even if I hadn’t got M.E. which scuppers all possible plans. I would have gone on bicyle rides and proper camping holidays (I don’t mean Eurocamp) with my kids is all. I would have written more and/or earned a bit more money is all but whether the world would have been a substantially better place as a consequence is unverifiable. I never knew what I was really for in any case. The schools I attended – at least eleven, but I have lost count – mostly looked at me as though I were a peculiar variety of potato that was best not cultivated, and this, with absence of “proper” career, has left me free to be more or less concentratedly myself for most of my life. It might have helped if I had been able to identify what that was earlier on, but in the grand scheme of things this also doesn’t matter. I am, as I've said before, a very late developer.

Still, it’s time to get a bit of a move-on now. As filling up cheap notebooks with blue- ballpoint words does seem to be my metier I am concerned about how little of this I have managed to do in my gap year which has already gone past the half-way point. In September I will again be focussed on others’ creative potential and development and pleased to be so – the more pleased, however, if my own work is on some kind of a roll. Basically, I am stuck at the moment because I can’t decide whether to focus on poetry or prose-writing and am beyond the point where it is ok just to fill up notebooks and see what happens. I really need a proper task. The only one who can give it to me is me and I am blocked by, strangely, a sense of having too much (rather than nothing or too little) to say and how to choose and find a form for all or some of it. I suspect that even Natalie Goldberg, who has been so helpful to many writers, especially those who are just starting out, suffered at some point from this kind of thing. She could write beautifully, especially (imho) in Wild Mind, about the writing process, but when it came to writing her own stuff she petered out and some of it was bad and almost embarrassing to read. It was as though she never really found her sense of direction outside of writing about writing and perhaps that was what she was really for. My case is different: I’m not famous as she was so don’t have that pressure and I have a sense that once I’ve settled on form and task I’ll be able to take hold. Meanwhile, back to the notebook, it’s the only way in and out. Physician heal thyself.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Long Night's Journey into Day

I have been doing the night watch. I have not slept more than perhaps a couple of hours and even then I didn’t really go under. Sleep disturbance is so much a part of the M.E. picture that it’s no surprise. One can never have it quite in the way one needs it and nights like these can leave you jet-lagged for several days. It comes at an inconvenient time this Easter weekend as there are things planned that need a measure of my strength. The sun has already lit the garden and the sky is pure powder blue. The blossoms that were in such trouble after the hail a short while back seem to have recovered themselves. It looks like a wedding out there. Sometimes details like this do not make me feel particularly cheerful. Today, though, I’m glad of them. Glad also of the home-made hot cross buns made by my vegan neighbour who lives in the cottage attached to ours.

Each Good Friday a number of us pile into her small kitchen to eat a quantity of buns and drink too much coffee and when we leave she gives us a bag of them to take home. She gets up in the small hours to make them all, criss-crossing each one with shortcrust pastry and painting them with sugar glaze when they are baked to make them shine. She has always, since I’ve known her, lived on a shoestring budget, the floors in her house are bare boards – not the posh kind – because she has never had enough for decent carpets, her kitchen and living room are furnished with things found in skips and jumble sales, and somehow everything looks beautiful. It isn’t just the flair she has with flowers, candles and crimson tulip fairy lights (a string of them on the mirror over the fireplace), although it is that too. It’s something to do with the place that everything is given, the gleaming metal teapot with the dent in its side and the oven that has never quite worked but always does when she leans over and says, come on. There is no crap, it’s all good and she has a ready and renewable source of good will which doesn’t announce itself but is allowed to move out and become peripheral. All the people who gather for buns, even the ones who usually irritate or who you discreetly avoid for much of the year, look good, grounded and merry. We like who we are. The feeling lasts long after we have left with our brown paper bags of buns.

This is just as well because today I go to see my mother who lives with her partner in the next village, not far from me. How she comes to be there is a story in itself. We have a complicated relationship and do each other no good. Her partner is not well-disposed to me or my sister and meetings are always tense, but on we go because I love her, as Cordelia might say, according to my bond. My neighbour gave me a bag of six buns of which there are three left and I am taking them round. Hoping that they might succeed where I have failed.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Grey Pride

I first hit the bottle about ten years ago because the grey happened so quickly and I wasn’t ready. Actually, there is no such thing as grey, there is just white. For a while you colour it aubergine and look funky with purple streaks which go pink as the colour fades, then you use the Clairol “Loving Care” non-permanent tint, persuaded by the photo of the brunette with post-coital eyes. It is a bore because you have to re-do it every other week and it makes an unholy mess of the bathroom and towels. So you graduate to Clairol “Nice ‘n Easy” which isn’t nice or particularly easy. It stinks of ammonia and bleach however much they try to mask it with fragrance. When the roots grow out you have to keep touching up so as to hide the evidence. You read about all the nasty chemicals in hairdye (particularly brown ones) that might give you cancer and Alzheimer’s but you carry on because you don’t want to look like Cruella deVille or Ann Widdecombe with the white streak down the middle, before she went blonde. You don’t want to go blonde. You remember the early days of your courtship with Mr. Signs when a friend of his described you as a sultry, Levantine beauty (you mention this once in a while just so everyone knows that this is what you really are or, at least, were). And then you think, sod it.

I’m giving it up, doing cold turkey, going on the wagon. I don’t know how I’ll look until I’ve done it and everything grows out, and it wouldn’t be true to say I don’t care about how I look. I may be grunge but I can still be sharp. I have been inspired by a couple of women who are bottle-free natural and look fabulous. One of them, a poet who leads the monthly workshop sessions I attend, recently gave a reading after which person after person came up to compliment her – not for her poetry but for her hair which is a combination of snow-white and raven-black. Understandably (being a poet with clout) she was a bit pissed off about this, but still. The other woman is the owner of an extraordinary sculpture garden and is completely white-haired and – I can’t think of any other phrase – drop-dead gorgeous and stylish. It has to be said that there wasn’t a hint of grunge about her, but sharp’s the word and I’m up for it. My “greydar” is already identifying all the women who should and could be throwing off the shackles. I might start a revolution.

Monday, April 2, 2007

on the rocks

I have been to the Smoke again. To London, I mean, but I have also been at the cigarettes. I have a love/hate relationship with both, although the real grande affaire is with cigarettes. It’s just a blip, I’m not taking it up again, by order of the doctor who has convinced me of the real risk of dropping down dead of a stroke or heart attack if I do. I did think for a while, and decided to choose life. It’s just that once in a while I have the urge to dance with death. I have talked about this before.

I stayed with my daughter. On the plus side it was good to spend time with her alone and experience afresh the revelation of her unfolding character and unique loveliness. I also had the new experience of sleeping on an airbed, and surprisingly comfortable it was too. I recommend it as a cheap and storable alternative to the futon. My daughter's life has been rocky just recently. Sometimes things are like this. Amongst other things, she was assaulted as she walked home one night in one of the supposedly “nicer” areas of London, a stone’s throw from the underground station. She was wrestled to the ground by a man who wanted, presumably, (it wasn’t clear) her mobile phone, and she fought for several minutes until someone else appeared and her attacker ran off. Apart from a graze she is unhurt, but these things leave their mark, need processing and leave a shadow on the landscape and in the body.

It is not just my thin skin, nostalgia for 1970s and the fact of living in the country that makes London feel so alien to me. There is an edginess everywhere, more people are on drugs and not in a fun way. The rich/poor divide feels more dangerous. The bijoux little whitewashed houses with flowers blooming on the trellises are bang next to council estates where there is gun-crime and drug trafficking and we all cross our fingers and hope it will go away or at least not touch on our lives.

Back in the sticks, of course, it’s spring and everything is fine in the garden. Isn’t it?