Sunday, June 22, 2014

Doing Somersaults

This weekend I attended the Winchester Writer’s Festival with a couple friends from my Creative Writing class.

I only took up writing when I moved to America, and then it was just a dabble, dipping in my toes to while away a few lonely hours. I began to blog because it seemed a better way of telling everyone back home what I’d been up to without having to send out repetitive e-mails or round-robin newsletters (urgh – my pet hate), and it also saved spending a fortune in therapy.  America was driving me mad. Psychologists and psychiatrists always tell you to keep a diary and write your feelings down, so I did. I realised I liked doing it, and people told me they liked reading it too.

So, buoyed by new literary skills I thought, why not write a novel, or rather, sat at my computer one morning staring out the window of our apartment at the beautiful San Gabriel Mountains a story just sort of popped into my head.  For the first time ever I had the time, I had the idea, so why not?  Then it just grew – not just grew but mushroomed. I was confined to the apartment for two weeks following dental work and before I knew it I’d written about 30,000 words.

Two years later that same story is now 80,000 words long. I’ve attended Creative Writing classes, I’ve learned about metaphors and alliterations, I’ve cut characters, added characters, thickened the plot, deleted scenes…and finally felt brave enough to show my first chapter to a couple of literary minded friends.

A few more tweeks later and it seemed like a now or never time. As my creative writing teacher keeps telling me, there’s no point writing stuff and then leaving it sat in the drawer. Who is going to see it there? So I took it to the Writer’s Festival, where as part of your conference fee you can show your work to real live publishing people. 


I’m not saying I’ve sold my novel, I’m not saying anyone is actually going to publish it, I’m just saying I got really good, encouraging feedback. The sort of feedback that made me want to rush home and do somersaults on the lawn, hug the husband and high-five the teenager. It felt that good.  





A picture of two sleeping cats in Italy which has absolutely nothing to do with the above post but I thought I'd put it in because I like it anyway.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Stressed - Who Me?

Ours can’t be the only household at the moment swamped by a high volume of stress pheromones.

It’s exam time. There isn’t a clear surface anywhere in the house – everything is covered with note paper, writing material, text books. The poor teenager sits with her nose to the grindstone, morning, noon and night.

I tell her she is doing too much, she argues she is not doing enough. Revision has become competitive.  First thing in the morning she learns from Facebook that her friend Fred has been in the college library since seven o’clock. He was there until closing time last night. He will get A*’s, she will only get A’s…

Things have changed a lot since my day. Back in the 1980’s I undertook one of those new-fangled modular style courses at the local Technical College.  I accrued passes, and apart from a Business Studies A Level which I took alongside RSA typing and shorthand (yes – it really was that long ago) I didn’t have to sit two hour long hand-written exams, regurgitating a whole load of facts and figures.  I wasn’t going on to university – my life didn’t depend whether I passed or failed, whether I got that all important A* or just a sad old E, which I did, for my Business Studies. By the time I left college I already had a job lined up. Those were the days.

Naturally I try and sympathise. Of course it’s tough, I know it’s important, but it really isn’t the be all and end all.  Exams can be re-sat, careers – and universities - can be and do get changed. What you want at 18 is not always what you want at 21, or 30.

I know the teenager will do her best. I tell her to breathe, take a break.  Brains reach saturation point. There is only so much knowledge that can be consumed at any one time.  Obviously I don't understand at all.

Our whole lives are now on hold for the next couple of weeks.  We are walking on egg-shells, tip-toeing around piles of papers. I provide food and drink upon demand, I am on standby for the emergency dash to the train station.  I have read essays, listened to the re-counting of philosophical and psychological practices, recitations of quotations. I will be there in that exam room with her and I too am stressed beyond belief....

Soon it will all be over and the teenager won't be the only one hitting the vodka and heaving a huge sigh of relief.




Monday, May 26, 2014

The Fear of Failure

I admit I’ve been lacking a little inspiration lately. When anyone asks what I have been up to, or how I fill my days, I have fallen into the habit of muttering  ‘I potter’.

Why? The verb to potter is defined as to move about in an unhurried, relaxed way, to occupy oneself in a desultory but pleasant manner, to dabble.  It all sounds rather aimless and without focus, a description of someone with a little too much time on their hands doing something rather self-indulgent.

Perhaps I say it because to say ‘I’m actually trying to write a novel’ sounds too pretentious. I’d love to write a number one best-seller – who wouldn’t, but the main reason I want to write is because I’ve read some pretty crap stories in my time and I’m quite sure I can do better. Why shouldn’t I try and get something published? That’s not self-indulgent; that’s ambitious. I’ve attended classes, been to lectures, studied the market, and even won a couple of competitions.  I haven’t dabbled, I have become a serious student.  So why am I so  reluctant to admit it? Is it really the fear of failure? What if I don't ever become a successful writer.....

I know I’m lucky. The whole point in staying home and not seeking a job was to have that valuable time to give it a go.  With my other half working away 90% of the time I saw no point missing what little time he had at home being stuck in an office. We agreed it was an arrangement which  suited us both. But writing can be a lonely, unsociable task.  I need peace, quiet, and solitude, which is great when the words burst forth and flow like a raging river.  Those are the days when I find myself wishing away my social engagements, resenting the need to stock up on groceries or clean lavatories, tasks which take me away from my computer.  On the other hand there are plenty of days when the words just don’t come and my life suddenly feels worthless and unrewarding.  Perhaps I haven’t got that ‘book’ in me at all. Wouldn’t I be better off working, being sociable and at the same time earning some money?

I’d been feeling a bit deflated since our return from China. After the excitement of unpacking the miniature mock terracotta warrior , admiration of the (fake) silk scarves and discrete disposal of the Chinese pastries hastily purchased at the airport,  I seemed at a bit of a loose end.  Before I knew it I found myself researching part-time jobs on the internet. Within hours I’d sent off a CV.

Suddenly there I was having an informal chat about how many hours a week would I like to work and how much commitment would I like to make to ‘the company’? I started making mental calculations…. If I offered two days a week that would mean only three left to write, well actually, only two and a half because one morning a week I volunteer at the local library, and then of course, Creative Writing class takes up another morning, and often a lunch time…

Three days a week, I was told was the minimum required, possibly more to cover sickness and holidays. That only leave mere hours in a week spare. I’d have to give up my ‘dabbling’. I found myself edging towards the door.  I apologised, I really probably wasn’t the person they were looking for….

Yes I know I haven’t actually sold any work yet but to take a ‘proper’ job would almost be like admitting defeat. I don’t have to write a Booker Prize winner to consider myself an author (in fact I can guarantee I’m not going to write a Booker prize winner)  but if I quit now, I’ll stand no chance of any success, and I don’t mean commercial success, I mean ‘personal’.

My other half recently completed his first triathalon. It was just something he wanted to do – just like me and my writing. He didn’t dismiss his frequent trips to the gym, his Sunday morning cycle rides, as ‘pottering’, he was in ‘training’. I applauded his determination and was very proud of him. He set himself his target, and stuck to it. 

Commitment-phobe? Not me. I too have set myself a target, and I’m going to stick to it. From now on I’m in training. It's back to the computer with a vengeance. Failure is not an option.


Monday, April 28, 2014

Beijing for Beginners

Time for another travel review....

Daughter No 1 has been working in China for the last six months and we felt she was due for a parental visit.

‘Just be prepared for culture shock,’ she warned. Culture shock? I’d spent three years living in LA. I thought I was pretty well prepared for anything.

Our journey into the unknown began on the Express Way from the airport. We expected to be greeted by the fug of hazy sunshine – who hasn’t heard all about China’s pollution problem – but not the blizzard of ethereal white blossom that fell from every available tree.  The husband’s nostrils began to twitch rather ominously as this cloud of kapok infiltrated in through the open car window.

A visit to China is an attack on all senses. We stayed near the Wangfujing, one of Beijing’s major shopping streets, where the rancid aroma of steamed tentacles from the food market hits you as you browse western style malls. 



Deep fried scorpion, silk worm cocoon and star fish on a stick are all available within spitting distance of the latest Prada handbag. And I mean spitting distance.  That’s another Chinese habit which sends shivers down every western visitor's spine. The sound of en masse guttural clearing of the throats and depositing of phlegm is as synonymous to the city as beeping car horns.

(Closed toe shoes are a must. Apart from the fact that you will be spat upon and trampled upon, according to our daughter nappies are also apparently a privilege of the rich. When that toddler suddenly squats down in front of you, move out of the way.)

The locals queue up to view Chairman Mao’s mummified remains on public display in a crystal casket in a huge mausoleum adjacent to Tiananmen Square.  

‘Surely he would be turning in his grave at the sight of all this capitalism,’ I remarked to the husband as we passed yet another Starbucks. He no longer cared, his sinuses were so blocked up.  

Elbows at the ready we battled our way through the throng to all the tourist hot-spots – the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, Lake Houhai, the Summer Palace, the Great Wall. We took our life into our hands crossing Beijing's busy, congested roads - an adventure in itself. (Don’t be fooled by that green man.  If the taxi doesn’t run you down on the zebra crossing, the moped rider will.) 

Despite Beijing’s cosmopolitan veneer, Chinese families asked if they could pose with us – celebrity style – for a photograph. Others strategically placed grannie or granddad close by for a surreptitious snap of a trio of ‘waigouren’. Fair-skinned foreigners are still a novelty to those visiting the city from the outlying countryside.

Beijing is a city of contrasts. It is impossible to ignore the growing gap between the young and wealthy who embrace the western influences, and the poor and elderly, who appear to have been left behind. 

China has a fascinating history and I'm glad I've visited.  To stand on the Great Wall was an amazing, uplifting experience and so was the visit to  our daughter's neighbourhood spa. This is where a little local knowledge goes a long way.  £12 for a full sixty minute body massage.  Every taut, tense muscle pummelled, pinched and pulled into submission. It wasn’t my heart I lost in Beijing, but my back ache.





Saturday, April 5, 2014

Off to Uni

One of the pleasures of being a mum of a teenager is the University Open Day.

In the autumn we set off at the crack of dawn for our first day out at the University of Bath. We both liked it, but Bath is a campus university, located out of town, and dissected by its very own 1970’s concrete self-contained shopping precinct.  The teenager’s chosen field of study, we were told, was well over-subscribed.  The entry requirements are high and Bath can afford to be picky. There was a sharp, disapproving  intake of breath when we mentioned the teenager's US education to the Admissions Officer. Therefore, we cast our eyes further afield and the following week we set out for Bristol.

Bristol. Yes, this the place to be. The teenager fell in love with it immediately.  We spent more time admiring the Gothic architecture of the city centre than worrying about the course content. And why not? If you are going to have to live somewhere for 3 years then you may as well live somewhere you like.

We toured the accommodation blocks, some way out of town, some in the thick of the city centre. You want night clubs, one the student guide told us, then this is the place to be. The teenager nearly moved herself in on the spot.

Two more open days followed, both in London.  The husband and I had already decided to steer the teenager in a westerly direction after three years of heavily subsidising daughter No 1 in the capital. Fortunately, we need not have worried. Nothing, it seemed, compared to Bristol.

Last week we were back in Bristol again.  An offer of a place now secured, the teenager was invited to a taster day, further encouragement – not that she needs it – to name Bristol as her first choice.

While the teenager went off to sample lectures, we parents were plied with free tea and coffee and expected to mingle.  This doesn’t happen of course, because we’re British. However, these occasions are always interesting from an observation/researching the next novel point of view – there’s always the Ab Fab type mum, more trendy than her daughter, parents who seem even more addicted to their techno toys than their offspring and the couple arguing over the parking metre expiry situation and inevitably heading for a divorce. 

At the end of the afternoon the teenager was scheduled on a lab tour.  As it was late in the day, and the Bristol traffic is notoriously bad, everyone else in her group had already departed, so I was invited to go along.

We were met by a post-grad student eager to demonstrate the wonders of his electro something or other research into brain responses.  He had rigged up an experiment and sat the teenager in front of his computer monitor with a simple instruction to press a clicker at certain sounds.  This she duly did.

‘Let your mum have a go,’ post-grad student said, obviously needing more than one example to prove/disprove whatever theory he was working on.

I’m not sure how many years he’d spent on his research but the teenager and I are apparently a psychological phenomenon.

‘It must be genetic..’ he said with a baffled expression on his face.

Apparently our responses to the experiment were not the norm…in fact the only other participants, he informed us, to have achieved the same results were all American….

Two years on and it seems the US psyche is still embedded in our soul. We left him perplexed, and re-writing his project parametres….

Meanwhile, although the teenager's brain may well have remained in California, her heart is still quite firmly set on Bristol.




Friday, March 28, 2014

Out to Lunch

A restaurant review.

What do you buy the man who has everything?

It's a dilemma, especially as I am currently a woman of no-independent-means. Whatever present I bought my other half for his 50th, it was not going to be a surprise as he would inevitably end up footing the credit card bill.

I decided to take him out to lunch, on the premise that if he’d already consumed/ enjoyed his present, he’d be more than happy to pay for it himself.

He’s a bit of a foodie, and his current favourite is Michel Roux jnr. No gimmicks, just down to earth (?) cooking with a Gallic twist.

I googled Michel Roux jnr, along with several other celebrity chefs with restaurants in London and decided that his set lunch menu was (a) affordable, and (b) edible.  No point paying good money for something neither of us would want to eat. 

I read the reviews on Trip Adviser and Top Table and it all looked good. Three course, a glass of champagne, coffee and petit fours all for £36.50. Compared to the some of the others I looked at that wasn’t too bad at all. I noted the comments about the smallish portions, but that’s nouveau cuisine. I’m always the first one to bang on about oversized portions and wastage, (although to be on the safe side I decided not to skip breakfast).

I had chosen the Landau located in the Langham Hotel, just off Regent Street and opposite BBC Broadcasting House. My husband had never seen Broadcasting House before and insisted we hang around outside in the hope of spotting someone famous. We loitered for ten minutes as a woman emerged  surrounded by waiting photographers and autograph hunters.  Neither of us had any idea who she was. It was just like LA all over again…. My lack of celebrity knowledge is a serious let-down.

We crossed the road to the discreet (blink and you’ll miss it) entrance of the Landau. We were greeted and seated immediately, our jackets taken, our napkins unfolded and placed on our knees. We were handed menu’s, invited to enjoy our champagne. From start to finish the service was impeccable. Not rushed, not delayed.  We were offered bread, served appetisers. There was a choice of three dishes for both the starter and the main. I had fish, followed by fish. He had meat, followed by meat. He left to visit the cloakroom, his napkin was whipped from his chair and re-folded in readiness for his return.


We had dessert, coffee and a platter of petit fours - decorated  with a birthday message as I had commented on the on-line booking form that it was his special day. It was  a small but personal  touch that was very much appreciated. 

I couldn't fault it and fortunately neither could he.  Highly recommended.








Thursday, March 20, 2014

Happy Now?

According to a study – and I read about this in The Times so it must be true – women are at their happiest in their fifties.

Last year, when I was still 49, the dental receptionist commented on my approaching ‘big’ birthday – which I was then dreading - and told me it was the best thing that happened to her.

‘You can get away with anything once you get to 50,’ she said.

Taking her advice I planned a birthday party – I hadn’t had a party that was just all about me for years (in fact since my 18th) so I thought, why not? I insisted on fancy dress, gave my night an 80’s theme, and thought what the heck – go for it.  I invited everyone I’d ever met and had a great time.  Not sure what everyone else thought, but well, I was 50. Who cares?

And that’s probably the reason why women in their 50’s are at their happiest. They’ve stopped giving a toss.  They’ve stopped worrying about body hang-ups because well, everything has already ‘peaked’. It will only get worse. They’ve stopped worrying about  keeping everyone happy because, after 50 years of trying, they finally realise they can’t.

Life is too short. Each day becomes more precious, and should be filled with doing something you want to do, rather than something you have to do, or feel you should be doing.  If the husband can’t cook his own dinner, then it’s about time he learned.  If the kids can’t work out how the hoover works, so what, it’s their room that stays messy, not yours. That’s the attitude you reach at 50. 

The empty nest - or nearly empty nest - is not to be dreaded, but embraced.  It’s ‘me time’ - an alien concept when so much of your life revolves around looking after other people and ‘servicing’ their needs. I remember when even snatching 5 minutes to read a book was a sheer luxury – I never thought that I could perhaps, if I planned my routine carefully and a kept a couple of hours a day clear ‘just for me’, find the time to attempt to write my own book….

Men have a ‘mid-life’ crisis, desperate to recapture their lost youth. Where’s the Ferrari? The blonde half their age, the Harley Davidson? I don’t think women want to recapture their youth – awkward moments hoping for a date at the school disco, stressing over exams followed by sleepless nights, changing nappies and the dread of children’s birthday parties? No thank you - that's the last place I want to go back to.

My other half has just celebrated his half century at our local Chinese Disco (rather bizarrely we have one of these in our village). The Teenager came with us and afterwards expressed her surprise at how much fun  ‘old people’ had when they went out.  


Us oldies have nothing to prove and no-one to impress. If I’m in the mood for dancing to the Nolans and reaching for the stars with S Club 7 then so be it. The dental receptionist was right, at 50, you really can get away with anything. Just do what makes you happy.


the old folks do know how to party after all...