Friday, August 31, 2007

New Leaf

You know that feeling when there is an itch and you would scratch it if you could only locate it; nothing serious, you just can’t concentrate on anything else until you’ve found it. Or, as one of Charles Dickens’ ladies of a certain age (but I can’t remember which one) remarked: there is a pain somewhere in the room, if only I could find where it is – or words to that effect. There is something skewed, and it surely isn’t to do with the apples that have passed their prime and are dropping to the ground in disconsolate fashion and then just lying there waiting for the worms, or me to gather them into harvest home. And it surely isn’t to do with the the season’s turning and the nights coming on us, it seems to me, unseasonably early. Go to, in any case, and read your Manley Hopkins, or at least Spring and Fall – no, no, I am autumn’s child and do not suffer from seasonal affective disorder – unless – but no, this isn’t that. I am, though, it has to be said, uneasy. I make a mental checklist:

Kids’medical and dental things being sorted.
Cat – ditto.
My health as usual and certainly not the worst for which one is always thankful.
Him Outdoors’ work situation ditto.
Finances – obviously overspending but ostrich mode ok for now.
House – might have another stab at selling the old girl.
Extended family – nothing particularly nasty brewing (or at least nothing new) in the dysfunctional quarter, though one musn’t get complacent.
Writing – ouch, oh.

I haven’t done any since before Edinburgh and it is like playing a musical instrument or dancing or anything that requires you to turn up and do the thing regularly; the days, hours and minutes begin to stack up and turn against you. I offer no coy excuses about not being able to get down to it – there are, as always, practical reasons why not and these have to do, as usual, with available energy. I have also, since my return, been experimenting with walks, seeing what happens if I take myself on a more demanding than usual stretch. I know from experience that this is a complicated negotiation with no clear victory and damned if I do or if I don’t – but I am driven to try following a period where I have walked more than usual with no long-term (for the moment at least) bad effects. Trouble is if I do that, the energy ration is used up. Added to this, I have been doing some proper cooking again. This kind of thing really falls away when I am at all focussed on writing. I could never quite bring myself to kill the angel in the house, though that is, as Virginia Woolf said, one of the tasks of a woman writer. But I’ve never been much of a domestic angel. Cooking, though, is something I do that belongs to me in a way that other domestic tasks do not. It’s something I do well that I can offer and enjoy at the same time. Yesterday I made ratatouille, the slow-cook way. Today I will make lamb curry and tarka dhall with cucumber and onion raita. The apples that “ben ripe in my gardayne” are asking me to make a crumble or a pie tomorrow, perhaps.

And the words and stories, dear reader, press on me with purposeful intent. Quia amore langueo. Begin again, as always, a new leaf.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Fringe and the Steps

Have I been dreaming? it is as though I have spent the last week or so at a non-stop surreal party. The Edinburgh fringe scene can’t really be described. Or it can, but rather as one might describe a dream. I still feel as though I’m half in the dream and a bit out of the body so won’t try (and can't work out how to download the video footage we took, and Him Outdoors is watching football) - but it was full of people and sound and extraordinary exuberance. I have come home to this:

and walked on the forest today to try and bring myself back. But I still have Festival in my ears and eyes.

We had an apartment right bang in the middle of the Royal Mile where much of the action is, in one of the tall old tenement buildings where Robert Burns apparently hung out during his time in Edinburgh, from where we could watch the tail end of the military tattoo pass by at night, and yet the bedroom at the back was quiet. Daughter stayed out partying until the small hours and slept on a futon in the huge front room and it might all have been perfect but for one little detail: we had booked a first floor apartment but they put us at the top of the building. There were seventy seven stone steps to climb up the circular staircase. Something to do with “overflow”, or the fact that the agency had fucked up and/or didn’t know or care about the reality of dealing with this when you have M.E. – which I had told them about. I am hounding them for compensation. And that’s all I will say about this except to vow to you, my brothers and sisters, that when I have finished hounding they will know and care a great deal more.

On Wednesday I met up with lovely NMJ and we had supper together. I said I’d be wearing something purple, but spotted her at once, sitting at the back of the restaurant scanning the menu. We slipped into conversation as easily as if we’d already known each other a while – which we have, in a way. We talked about life and blogging, and then we talked about blogging and life (and I could not resist asking about the vittun cooker hood), over a very nice starter of haggis, neeps and mash with a whisky gravy followed by some leathery steak, coffee and chocolate. Then we noticed everyone else had gone. We were hustled out too soon for my liking, would have liked more time. But I’ll probably be back again next year – by which time NMJ’s book will be out and I may have completed chapter one of mine.

We were near the cafĂ© where JK Rowling began writing Harry Potter and it struck me that the locality was just how I pictured the settings for the daily life and business of the wizards and witches. The world of the non-magical muggles is the privet-hedged estate of dormitory/commuter middle-england and the magical world is Edinburgh old town, I’m sure of it.

I saw eleven shows. The four highlights were (in the order I saw them):
- A play my daughter directed.
- A jazz a cappella group my son was part of.
- “Woody Sez” – the story of folksinger Woody Guthrie, including his own words and songs.
- Jerry Sadowitz – superb (“world’s most offensive”) comedian.

The two real bummers were:
- A ghastly play about William Wordsworth, his sister, wife and opium addicted mate Sam Coleridge, inexplicably given four stars and it makes the one-woman Dorothy Wordsworth show satirised in the film “Festival” (showing tomorrow 11.40 C4) look like sheer genius.
- An hour of Scottish folk of the kind that endlessly, and with nauseating coyness, prods at the imagined sensibilities of the Sassenachs and whose idea of humour is a cheeky little ditty about Nessie the monster.

And there I was wanting Hamish Imlach. But he’s deid.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

70 Things - Untagged.

1. I have a triceratops in my bath.

2. He once had 3 brothers.

3. I can make Tarka Dall like you get in restaurants.

4. I don’t like buying new clothes

5. I used to love The Monkees.

6. I believed that smoking menthol cigarettes made you sterile.

7. I went to 11 different schools.

8. I was expelled for missing a biology exam.

9. I lost my virginity at 16.

10. The background music was Break on Through by The Doors.

11. I had a grandmother called Eva.

12. I have three different kinds of reading glasses.

13. When I was 10 I wanted to be a ballerina.

14. My father sang in South Pacific.

15. My first word was “picture”.

16. One of my fictional characters was a carpenter called Emily.

17. I once had a best friend called Shakela.

18. When I was 13 I wanted to be an air stewardess.

19. The Female Eunuch is why I love Germaine Greer.

20. My husband makes perfect bramble jelly.

21. The first film I saw was a cartoon of Tweetie Pie.

22. I have a stuffed donkey in the attic.

23. I didn’t have breasts till I was 15.

24. I am a late developer.

25. I read all the Enid Blyton Mallory Towers and St. Clare books.

26. I have my own rock concert.

27. I never liked Brussel Sprouts.

28. I don't tell you the half of it.

29. I won 2nd prize for a daffodil when I was 9.

30. I can only drive an automatic car.

31. I miss my father.

32. I used to fiddle the electric meter in my bedsit.

33. I haven’t been out of Europe.

34. Unless you count a kibbutz in Israel.

35. I know how to pick oranges and lemons.

36. My Lewis chess queen says Oi Veh.

37. I don’t have a favourite colour.

38. My son once found a four-leafed clover

39. I have a necklace made of moonstones.

40. I like IKEA meatballs with lingonberries.

41. I thought I would never ever use a mobile phone.

42. I have a Samsung D600.

43. My mother is 84 and very fit.

44. She does Pilates and acqua aerobics.

45. I was scared by a mountain once.

46. I want to go ski-ing again.

47. I have a favourite Sappho fragment.

48. I kept my daughter’s milk teeth in a box.

49. I can never find my nail scissors.

50. I want a cigarette.

51. I play the recorder and the penny whistle.

52. If I moved from here I would miss the trees.

53. Sometimes I want unbroken horizons.

54. My grandmother has visited me in dreams.

55. I have kept all my old Spare Rib diaries.

56. I wish I could be tidy.

57. My father’s ancestors were Sephardic.

58. People still ask me where I originally come from.

59. I taught myself how to cook on a Baby Belling.

60. I am not entirely sure why I am doing this.

61. I am an alto.

62. My favourite choral work is Mozart’s Mass in C Minor.

63. I like the circle of light from anglepoise lamps..

64. I have a picture of a lion king.

65. My mother-in-law was a potter.

66. My other favourite choral work is Bach’s St. John’s Passion.

67. I am going to Edinburgh tomorrow.

68. My kids are doing things in the Festival.

69. I am proud of them.

70. I thought I’d do 100 but changed my mind.

See you in a week or so.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Welcome to the House of Fun

Time to put up a fun post, I suppose – not that I make any apology for the previous one or, indeed, any post that tells how it is with regard to M.E., ingrowing toenails or the state of my herbaceous border. For the record, I do not have ingrowing toenails or even, strictly speaking (for I have just looked it up on Wikipedia) a proper herbaceous border. But if I did and they were causing me grief, I would talk about it when the spirit moved. The word “fun” is jangling around as I was today reminded of the late Andrea Dworkin’s remark: “I am a radical feminist, not the fun kind,” and what a loss it would have been to us if she had been that kind instead of the ardent and fearless campaigner that she was. And then I considered that I don’t much like the “fun kind” of anything much, really. The word itself conjures up a weekend in some dreary hotel with organised games for tired business people to try and get them bonded and generally perked up so they can go back to whatever deadly thing they were doing and carry on making money for the company they work for. Or it conjures up a karaoke night out with people who don’t like singing and have nothing in common other than the desire to get out of their skins for a space (nothing wrong with that in itself, obviously) – and in case anyone is tempted to let me know what a supercilious snob I’m sounding: yes, I agree, each to his own – no blame, no judgement, this is just my take on things and if you give me a convincing story about a knockout and uplifting Murder in the Dark weekend or a Karaoke Night Out I’ll read and enjoy.

I’m not a miserable effer though, far from it, (she says, putting on her red nose and cracking open the party poppers). Ok, maybe I am, then. But if so, then I promise you I know how to enjoy myself because while I despise Fun, I love play – real, intense, lose-yourself-in-the-moment play. It’s why I started making up stories, I reckon. It’s something I have in common with my daughter who, in the playground at school, lamented the loss of her best friend who really understood how to “make it up as you go along” rather than decide in advance to play Ghostbusters or Hero Turtles (though admittedly these would have possibilities, but only if you diverged from the script). I like play because play has soul and Fun (the way I see it) doesn’t. It conforms to the idea one has of how something should be rather than creating out of the moment something new. I appreciate funny, playful posts and those that give an uplift to the spirits. Grief, anger and melancholy also have soul and when I find those set down truthfully in a blog post I appreciate those too, and yet so often people apologise for having expressed them, feeling that they have been indulging in self-pity (not the same thing at all). Or there is the sense that the expression of something lower than uplift is tantamount to a request for sympathy. For me, at any rate, this is not the case – though it is of course a gift to know that one’s words have been heard, received or appreciated.

So anyway – but if you want to do yourselves a favour, go and visit a place of horseplay and foolery (the Real Deal), in the house of The Periodic Englishman. Say I sent you – and beware: he’s a bit of a charmer. (But don’t tell him I said that).

Monday, August 13, 2007

Mind the Gap

There is no doubt in my mind that some people can't help but feel that having a chronic condition such as M.E. might be a bit of a breeze. When someone asks me what I’ve been doing and I say not a lot because I have had a to spend most the time lying or sitting down there is something wistful about the responses I have occasionally had: people tired and desperate for a break in their relentlessly busy lives, can’t help but feel (and say), I wish I could just do nothing. The picture they have is that one is lying on the chaise-longue, fresh out of a long soak in a scented bath, reading a good book or watching a film, while someone brings refreshing drinks and nourishing food. Of course, all or some of these details may apply, but they don’t add up to the truth of the situation. Obviously. If we are lying down all the time we are most likely far too ill to be able read and when we are up and doing, or even lying/sitting and doing, we are probably coping with varying degrees of pain and fatigue and risking more of the same or worse on the following day. The years pass and we long for life. If we seem content with our lot it is a hard-won serenity that has had to be practised over years of illness where so many hopes have risen like new moons, only to fade again. I believe that most of us do not look for sympathy. Empathy is good, but most people can’t possibly know what this is like, it takes a particular talent to feel oneself into another’s situation, one can’t bang on about it the whole time and when an illness just goes on and on it scares people. So now the deal is this: I let it be known that I have a condition called M.E. which impinges significantly on what I am able to do, and then I want acceptance, pure and simple. If anyone wants to disrespect me (which doesn't happen much these days) they can piss off. I am prepared to deal with a certain amount of ignorance and to give information. Basta.

I have said all this before, one way or another. But now, with my new decision to take an extended “gap” period, (where I’ll be working but not “going out to” work) I know I’ll meet a number of responses that have, perhaps, less to do with my situation than with the stressful lives that so many people choose, or are obliged to lead. When I told my sister last year that I wouldn’t be working for a while, there was a silence and then she said, “I have to work.” A divorced friend of mine, run off her feet with work, children and health problems must see this life of mine as an oasis. I don’t get into arguments about it, I can imagine how it feels and have, in my way, been there too in the early days of my illness when there was little money and if I had been on my own instead of living with a supportive partner, my children may well have had to be taken into care. There were hard times, and I never had a penny of incapacity benefit as I wasn’t working at the time the illness struck. Things are easier now. I liked going out to do the work I did, but it took all my strength and what happens in the future is open. So, for now, I am having another gap year and taking the road of “never apologise, never explain” – the contradictions notwithstanding.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Notes from the Coalface

I’m not complaining, but it’s tough at the old coalface – the novel-writing one, I mean. I am writing, but not yet the kind of writing that feels like yesss, and we have lift-off kind of writing. What I am waiting for is the sense that I have hit a seam, because when that happens one is given wings for a space. Then the thing is to keep going. I made the fatal mistake once of taking a break when I was 30,000 words or more into the work – and this was one where I could see the whole picture, story and characters were alive in me, all I had to do was put pen to paper (which I always did first, typing it up later). Trouble was I took a break, a long one because of the M.E. and so many other things then needing my attention, and the characters began to lose heart and finally they cleared off altogether. I had the memory of them but they weren’t there any more. I could have resurrected the project but it would have been something completely different. After that it was short stories and poems – ok, you can sometimes complete them (first draft) in one sitting, but you need to re-boot each time. At least that’s how it can feel with M.E. energy. I like the feeling you get, with a longer work, of coming back to a place that already exists and comes to meet you.

Anyway, down among the bloggers, I can feel it’s in the air: Ms Pants has completed a significant draft of the novel she has been working on for some time, the novel-racing Mr. Moon has recently become re-inspired, Jane Holland has emerged from an Arvon course and seems ready to go and we have recently had some excellent advice from intrepid thongster and coalface veteran, Chip Dale. And NMJ, who has actually done the deed, is to have her novel published some time (spring?) next year.

If only one were still smoking Camel Lights! But one is a-chewing on Wrigley’s Extra sugar-free peppermint gum and trying not to think of Beryl Bainbridge saying how she can’t write without smoking. And one is taking the prescription drugs, when necessary, for muscle pains.

At the moment, I have very few hours in the day that are properly available for real work. PWME will just know what I mean and others will just have to take my word for it. Incarnating into the day takes time unless I grab some morning hours and do absolutely nothing else (practically not always possible) afternoons are out of the question till I have got my wings back. Or hit a seam. Sorry about the confusion of images. Goodness, is that the time?

And thank you, Anna Mr, for giving me the Booker Prize Creative Blogger Award.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Auspicious Signs

On the weekend I spent a day with a friend who came up from London on the best of all possible days, the weather being warm and blue and gold with just the right amount of breeze. We sat outside on the terrace of a country hotel that used to be a convent, looking at the monkey puzzle tree and close-cut grass that sloped down to the lake with ornamental fountains, drinking white wine spritzers with cassis, eating Caesar salads with fresh prawns. There was a wedding party and we watched the guests gather on the lawn and considered the strange Queen Mother-style clothes that women wear for such occasions. There was one, though - a striking and very large dark-haired woman who wore a white trouser suit that made no apology for her size and clothed her beautifully. An added adornment was the shine of kindness on her face and in the way she accompanied a much older woman as she walked away from the party and back into the hotel. Watching her it felt, somehow, auspicious. But then, you know me.

My friend and I both used to live in Hackney, round the corner from each other, we belonged to the same women’s writing group. Our children played together and we saw each other most days. Being with a good friend means one can breathe more easily, properly inhabit one’s body and skin. She poured coffee straight from the packet into the cafetiere. We liked coffee and books and writing. The first time she heard me read my stuff she said I was possessed and I felt newly and exuberantly gifted. She too could write up a storm. I had M.E. then but I could still find pockets of strength with which to override it. It cost me, but really there was no choice, I had found the thing I wanted to do and I sat at the kitchen table in the late hours, in the early hours, and I did it. We published stories and then I moved here to the edge, we both did all kinds of other things, my illness became more entrenched, but whenever we met we talked about writing; about everything else too, but it always flows back, as a river goes to the sea, to the writing, the process, the notebooks, the others, the words, the writing.

After the Caesar salads, strong Americanos and an absence of cigarettes (we have both given up again), I spilled my misgivings about the formal, paid work I was about to undertake, how the small strength I had would be taken by it. Her judgement was swift and uncompromising. Don’t do it, she said. Life is too short and we are women of a certain age and must grasp it, life, the nettle or the thing that won’t be pushed aside, the writing. Sometimes it takes someone else to say the obvious and the road ahead suddenly rises to meet you.

The novel-racing, competition-hosting, good Mr. Moon has given me an Inspirational Blogger Award. So cloth-headed do I feel that I can’t for the moment figure out how to upload the nice badge thing so it appears where I want it to. But I’ll see to this and everything else because just now – what with the woman in white, the perfect advice of a friend, good words from a blog-pal and a very attractive black and gold award – everything looks very, very auspicious. Of course, there is always the possibility that I am losing my marbles. At present, however, I remain,
yours truly,
Reading the Signs.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

any bird in flight

I was briefly reminded of William Morris’s News From Nowhere the other day in a conversation with someone about what life would be like if we didn’t have money or “work” as we know it. In Morris’s socialist utopia there is no such thing as private property and no division between art, life and work. I did read the book a long time ago and can’t remember who did things like empty the bins and such but presumably such a world would be greener than Green and committed to state of the art composting. Everything works on the assumption that our basic impulse is towards good will, and that this will establish itself given the right conditions. Anyway, the character in the story woke up and found Utopia had all been a dream.

I suppose we try to create, or hope for, a kind of utopia in our relationships and it’s either neurosis or unquenchable optimism that keeps us hoping for the best of all possible worlds. Occasionally one sees it: the fully-functional family, group of friends or work colleagues where people like and help each other and let each other be; we may even know a few individuals who are simply inclined to look and hope for the best in people. But just lately (and I don’t think this is down to having re-given up cigarettes) I feel as though I’ve been bumping up against an awful lot of dysfunctionality: nothing that comes too close to me personally, but I find myself steering a conscious path in order to avoid it.

I like to think that my own (nuclear bit of) famly are pretty functional, fingers crossed that my kids will look back and feel the same, though one can never make too many assumptions about this. In the wider extended family I have experienced both extremes and various bits in the middle. Nothing too unusual there, perhaps, but the dysfunctionality is something I still have to take into account, find the balance between leaving myself too open, without adequate defences, and being too defended, closed to possible change. On the whole, I think I have erred on the side of the former and I am, as I will never tire of saying, a very late developer.

But these days, like I said, I am steering a path, giving a wide berth to anyone on the “life is shit therefore you are bad” trip, which is a journey an awful lot of folks seem to be on. No wonder so many people seem to be locking themselves away with their computer screens for company – I’m not talking about artisticos like us, friends. Natch. But really, life is short and getting shorter each day. It used to be hip to say that one didn’t choose one’s mates because they were good. From where I stand (or sit), though, kindness and sanity rule ok. And here’s a poem I like, by Brendan Kennelly.

The Good

The good are vulnerable
As any bird in flight,
They do not think of safety,
Are blind to possible extinction
And when most vulnerable
Are most themselves.
The good are real as the sun,
Are best perceived through clouds
Of casual corruption
That cannot kill the luminous sufficiency
That shines on city, sea, and wilderness,
Fastidiously revealing
One man to another,
Who yet will not accept
Responsibilities of light.
The good incline to praise,
To have the knack of seeing that
The best is not destroyed
Although forever threatened.
The good go naked in all weathers,
And by their nakedness rebuke
The small protective sanities
That hide men from themselves.
The good are difficult to see
Though open, rare, destructible;
Always, they retain a kind of youth,
The vulnerable grace
Of any bird in flight,
Content to be itself,
Accomplished master and potential victim,
Accepting what the earth and sky intends.
I think that I know one or two
Among my friends.