Heroes – Common People like Jarvis Cocker

If asked to create a Top 10 favourite songs of all time, I would decline. It would never remain the same. But if pushed, Pulp’s ‘Common People’ would be up there every time. Jarvis Cocker’s story of a posh girl wanting to slum it, to “live like common people”. He tells her to “rent a flat above a shop, cut your hair and get a job” to “pretend you’ve got no money”. Jarvis came from common people and so did I – thrown into the world of ‘college’ as we called it then (Thames Poly in my case) from a working class family that lived in a council house, the first in any generation to go on to further and higher education. I didn’t cut my hair, but I did get a job – several jobs – to see me through teenage years and college holidays.

‘Common People’ is on the album Different Class. It’s in my Top 10 albums, too (if forced to list those). It got me through a year of immense change in my life. It has a choice of album covers that you can slip into a frame. The main one was a wedding group photo, and this reflected my early marriage, a week before my 21st birthday. Some of the songs I could directly identify with, like ‘Misshapes’ – about those of us who didn’t quite fit in with the kids on our estate, about the boys at risk of being beaten up for being different. Like ‘Live Bed Show’ – “she doesn’t want to go to work, she doesn’t want to stay in bed.” As for other songs, I could only imagine what it would be like to be one of “twenty thousand people standing in a field”, having left my festival days behind, having never been to a rave, in fact being a thirty-six-year-old mother of two in a failing marriage. Let’s brush over the fact that Jarvis may have been ‘a bit of a perv,’ as a friend of mine put it at the time – hiding in wardrobes, watching girls. Let’s not examine that I got my young daughters singing along to ‘Sorted for Es and Whizz’ in the car. I relate that song to rushing to school in the car, crossing Rochester Bridge, knowing whether we were late or on time by how far the barber who worked in Strood had progressed across the bridge on foot, in the opposite direction to where we were travelling.

I once wrote Jarvis a fan letter. I sent it by email to his BBC 6Music Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service programme. It was probably never read by him, dismissed by some intern as the ramblings of a crazy middle-aged woman. But it was the writing of it that was important. I needed to tell Jarvis that he had got me through a marriage break-up, the most difficult year of my life. That I could still ‘dance and drink’ (‘and screw’) like common people in spite of all the pain.

I was asked by someone what I blog about. ‘Oh, all sorts of things, ‘ I said, struggling for a theme. I didn’t start blogging with the intention of it being ‘about’ anything – just things that interest me, that fire me, that get my goat, that make me feel. My first blog of 2016 was about a musical hero – David Bowie – and I think I shall carry in that vein, making Heroes an occasional theme. Stay tuned for the next hero. Or for the next thing that fires me, makes me feel.

Oh no love, you’re not alone. Remembering David Bowie

I started writing this post some months ago. It sat half-finished in a notebook, the flow interrupted by the train journey, on which I was writing, coming to an end. I kept meaning to finish it, get it up on this blog, but it seemed like there would always be time.

IMG_0053The news of the death of David Bowie came two days ago, on waking, announced on Radio 4. Sleepless during the night, I had put the radio on, then fallen back to sleep, waking again just before 7.00 a.m. Then the news. Mishearing it as David Byrne at first, then the true name was unmistakable. There is – was – only one David Bowie. Switching to 6 Music, in floods of tears, Shaun Keaveny and Matt Everitt sounded so shocked, knocked sideways, and then came a day of Bowie songs, the airwaves taken over by his music, stories of in-the-flesh encounters and, for most of us, the personal relationship we had with Bowie and his music, him talking to us in our bedrooms, alone or with friends. For a man who was so protective of his private self, who presented several public persona, we all knew him. He made us feel part of it: “Oh no love, you’re not alone,” he sang, shouted out, in ‘Rock and Roll Suicide’, and we felt that someone understood.

I could not bear to write this  post on the day I learned of his death. The day was lost in tears and and disbelief. But here is what I wrote in my notebook, dated 8/6/15. I present it here unedited:

Our all girls grammar school was decidedly liberal about some things. The compulsory wearing of hats was abolished in our second year (bottle green, round felt in winter; straw boaters in summer). We could wear any style of skirt we liked, as long as it was bottle green. And the decorating of form rooms was allowed by some teachers.

In Class 2H, 1972-73, we had Mr Stokes as our form teacher. Tall, lugubrious, bearded, in a dark pin-striped three piece suit with a watch chain stretching between his waistcoat pockets, we thought we were in for a no-fun year. Mr Stokes turned out to be a sweetie. He won us over with chocolate treats at Christmas and Easter, and by allowing posters on the back wall of Room H. One of these was a double page of Bowie from a teen magazine. Some years away from being named the Thin White Duke, he was super-skinny, hair razor-cut and orange, pale-skinned, made-up, and wearing a kind of short knitted jumpsuit with leggings of the same orange and red stripes. ‘Snow-white tan,’ like Ziggy Stardust. He wasn’t looking out at us, as David Cassidy was, on the same wall, wholesome and pretty, or Michael Jackson, in the days before plastic surgery and skin bleach. He was facing right, half-crouched in performance.

David Bowie was exotic, alien, strange, yet an ordinary boy from Bromley. We thought, in those days, that he wore a coloured contact lens to make one eye look different. I learned only this week that his unusually large pupil, diminished iris, was the result of a playground accident. But then there were, and remain, so many secrets, so much misinformation about this enigmatic singer, performer, composer, actor.

What I can say is, in 1973, he was the most exciting thing on my horizon. If I could get away with watching Top of the Pops (my mum said it was ‘pure rubbish’), he might appear singing ‘Life on Mars’, strangely contorted and with bad dentistry, and absolutely mesmerising to my 13-year-old self.

There was a cabinet at the top of one the staircases at school, which was given over to different classes to make displays, and our theme was Life on Mars. We hadn’t quite got the meaning of the song, so took the title literally, and created a planet surface populated by little rubber aliens that you could buy from sweet shops, with holes in the bottom to balance them on fingers or use as pencil tops.

David Bowie’s songs and albums bring back such memories, such feelings. I remember the track listings of The Fall and Rise of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and Aladdin Sane, which I still own on vinyl. with stickers of my name and address on, for when I took them to parties. One person was not so careful, and I accidentally came home from a party with two copies of Ziggy Stardust, unable to reunite it with its owner.

Diamond Dogs, borrowed from a friend, reminds me of the death of another friend. I had been listening to it constantly during her short illness and following her death, and can now no longer bear to hear it. I can’t see the cover, or hear the opening track, without being thrown back 40 years to that time, that grief.

David Bowie, and other music of that era, is associated with seminal moments, suicidal thoughts, feelings of sorrow and embarrassment, first kisses, love, betrayal, and the Sunday boredom of ’70s teenagehood.

There the notebook entry ended. Thank you, David Bowie, for making me feel like I was not alone. May you rest in peace.

Free lunches, or the freedom of the freelance life?

Nearly seven years ago, my husband came home from work one day and said, ‘I don’t think I can work under her for much longer,’ meaning his line manager. Nine months prior to this, we had taken on a mortgage on the basis of his salary. Some nine months after this moment, we agreed that he should resign from the job, after several months off work with anxiety and depression. His supervisor had been micro-managing him, finding fault at every opportunity. The last straw was an appraisal, filled with negative feedback, which he was then asked to write up.

Work-based counselling, talk of mediation – any benefits were cancelled out when, on a phased return to work, the first thing she asked of him was to complete the appraisal process. The very thing that his counsellor said should not be raised at this time, as it was the trigger for his illness. We realised that there would be no positive changes as long as he worked under this manager. The only way was out.

So, for some five years plus, my husband has been working freelance, pursuing the work he loves – commissioning and editing books. (The paid employment had not been so interesting, editing examination questions.) The work is often speculative, and there is no income while book projects are in development; they may or may not be taken up by publishers. In short, some of the work does not pay at all. And outlets for the kind of books that he commissions are in decline, with some of the big players pulling out of that area of publishing (Science, Technical and Medical). When he does get a book accepted, or does a piece of editorial work, it often takes several months of chasing up invoices to receive the money.

He has no sick pay, no holiday pay as a freelancer, even on some of the long-term contracts. He has worked through sickness, and if we have taken a holiday, it has been in the knowledge that there would be no money coming in that week.  One ‘employer’ ended his contract the same day as he sent notice of termination, with no financial recompense; he had worked for this publisher for eighteen months. Legally, the contract should have been on a direct employment basis, as regular work of the same kind for the same employer. He should have received the same rights as an employee, but who would argue this point when the work could easily go to another freelancer? We had discussed approaching the publisher about this, to put my husband’s work on a more permanent footing. Then came the termination notice. He saw a solicitor about pay in lieu of notice – the contract gave two months. The employer said that he was giving this notice, but had no work for my husband during this time, and payment was only due for work actually carried out. The solicitor thought my husband had a case, but when he approached the employer with this information, asking for two months’ pay, the scoundrel threatened him with bad-mouthing his work publicly.

As for myself, I have worked in a very stressful environment and found it hard to stop the speeding waltzer that was my working life. It felt more dangerous to jump off than to cling on tight and carry on. I was brought to a halt by ill health. That was sixteen years ago, and despite periods of extreme poverty (as a single parent on sickness and disability benefits), and relative poverty (still on benefits, married to a freelancer, growing older, and with a mortgage outstanding), I would not go back to that life, employed and relatively well off financially, impoverished in health and leisure time.

Were we right, my husband and I, to decide that he should resign from that job? From sick and holiday pay, from the free lunches (no such thing as…) in the staff dining room, a perk of that job? Hell, yes! He now chooses his work, his hours, his commute is from the living room to his study, in the cellar. If we want to  go off to the seaside on a summer’s day, he can decide to do that. He is free to pursue his music, to potter in his shed, to spend time with our granddaughter. The lunches might not be so good, but he can eat them in his armchair, in my company.

Every so often, we have ‘the conversation’ about whether he should apply for jobs in London, which would bring in twice his freelance income. The money seems attractive. The commute, about three hours per day, the unknown nature of management, the fact that he reaches sixty this month, and deserves to be slowing down … it’s a no-brainer.

Wellbeing versus a reasonable income – it shouldn’t be a choice. And low income, money worries, can affect your wellbeing. My closest friends and family regularly listen to me talk about money, the lack of it, particularly when unexpected expenses come up. We recently had a leaky roof. Rain was dripping through the bedroom ceiling onto the bed. We were bailed out by a loan from a friend to pay a roofer, spared some of the cost by using a scaffolding platform owned by another friend. We often wonder if we can carry on living in our house, whether we should sell it and rent another property. One friend reminded me that she had heard me say this before, a couple of years previously, and yet we were still there.

We begin 2016 overdrawn, like many people. In 2015, we borrowed off Peter to pay Paul, so that we could keep up with the mortgage. It’s something I learned from working alongside a debt advice service – meet your housing costs before anything else. Holidays were dropped, as were meals out, takeaways, concert tickets, gym memberships. It’s felt grim sometimes, but we are better off than some.

Hopping Down In Kent. Freelancer Bob Carling, on guitar.  Area 51 Photography

Hopping Down In Kent. Freelancer Bob Carling, on guitar. Area 51 Photography

On New Year’s Day, we went for a walk, ending up at a pub. ‘Let’s pretend we are rich people, ‘ I said, and we had lunch at the pub, toasted the new year. And remembered the amazing things we had achieved in the last year: publishing eleven books with Cultured Llama, my husband producing Hopping Down in Kent, a community-based folk opera from scratch, in less than three months. And we were thankful for our families, friends, and the freedom of the freelance life.

Bob Carling is a freelance commissioning editor, editorial consultant, publisher, science journalist, and typographical designer. He is also Managing Editor of Cultured Llama Publishing. See his website here.

Bring your own tent? Why I’m taking a break from the literary world

Three months ago, overwhelmed by many things, I resolved to take a break from public readings. I had got into a habit of saying yes to every invitation to read, perform and organise literary events, and felt obliged to go along and support others in their artistic endeavours. I had become jaded with it all, and while some invitations to read were beautifully hosted, the last straw was when I was invited to read at an outdoor event. I had kept the date free, which was on a bank holiday weekend. Given my health problems, a ten to twenty minute spot in the afternoon meant that I had to keep the whole day free, resting before and afterwards.

A few days before, I checked with the person who had invited me to read – the organising committee had changed the time of the reading to much later in the afternoon, without telling me, and two reading spots had become one. He then said I could bring my tent along in the morning, set it up, and sit there all afternoon alongside my books. I made it clear that I had been invited to do this reading and expected tent, table, chair and PA system to be made available to me, and that I would only be there for the reading. I was grumpy throughout the afternoon, and though I did deliver a reading (alongside another grumpy poet who had been similarly treated), I didn’t enjoy it and wondered why I had turned up at all.

Filling up journals is the way to go

Filling up journals is the way to go

So I stopped readings altogether, and also held back on submitting my writing to magazines and e-zines. After winning the Tom-Gallon Trust Award in the summer, I hadn’t been able to place a thing. Rejection after humbling rejection arrived. The high of publication and awards is short-lived, and only leaves me craving more, so I reminded myself of why I began writing. As a way of dealing with a life-changing and devastating illness. So I have gone back to writing as nurturing, sharing my words mostly with my journal, only attending writing events that add to my own wellbeing.

I am learning to not feel guilty about declining or ignoring invitations to others’ literary events. Facebook is a demon for this – I find it easier to ignore a notification telling me I have 15 event invitations rather than to pick through them, responding with apologies and explanations.

After a while comes the temptation to start it all again – in fact, I have had new ideas for adding more into my literary and organising life. This is old stuff for me: over-commitment, getting excited by new projects without regard to the consequences to my health. I have to remind myself that the break from it all is doing me good, whilst not being an absolutist. I am the child of an alcoholic – we tend to have an all or nothing approach. I have made a small submission for publication this month, and shall wait to see if it is accepted. I have also agreed to review a new poetry book, which is something I do rarely, and I am looking forward to doing that.

Although I have enough material now for a second collection of poetry, I am holding back on planning publication, and working instead on a collaboration with an artist. We have no funding for this, nor any goals or end in mind; we are just exchanging work-in-progress by snail mail and seeing what happens.

If you are interested in writing and wellbeing and live in the Canterbury area, there are poetry workshops with Vicky Field and journalling sessions with Canterbury laureate John Siddique starting in January with Wise Words. Read their latest newsletter here. Many events are free.

Read my article: Low energy high creativity – discovering writing through chronic illness, originally published in Writing in Education, 62, Spring 2014.

It’s Advent: Let the Pre-Christmas Tension (PCT) begin

He hasn’t even started his Christmas shopping. He sighs deeply at the task ahead. I’d show some sympathy, except that I have taken care of the presents; he only has to choose one for me.

IMG_0930We’re having a reduced Christmas this year. Fewer names on the gift list, spending less on those that remain. We (mostly) gave up sending cards a few years ago, sending emails and a Christmas missive instead, giving news of the year gone by. This was supposed to save us (me) time and energy. I have energy problems already, and the writing and sending of cards was a further drain on my limited resources. What has happened instead is the Christmas missive has become a major production. We both have a perfectionist streak – my words have to be witty and well-edited by him; we have to choose just the right photos to add in, chosen from the thousands we’re now cursed and blessed with, in the days of digital; he has to make the layout as perfect as possible. This year, we are wondering whether to just email a nice photo with links to our respective websites. But which photo?

Pre-Christmas Tension (PCT) is the name I have given to the phenomenon, and I think that women are particularly prone to the condition.

In my childhood, my mum went into debt every year to give a good Christmas to her five children. Gifts were bought from Ali’s Bazaar – a chap who sold toys and all other sorts of goodies from the back of an estate car, on easy terms, instalments paid throughout the year. Then there was the food, tons of it, and the trauma of Christmas dinner. The magic of the feast was performed while Dad gaily went to the pub with his mates. I recall Mum serving everyone else, then finally sitting down in front of her plate, and sobbing at the tragedy of lumps in the gravy. Meanwhile, my whiskey-sozzled father nodded in a doze over his dinner.

When I grew up, and had a family of my own, there was the annual decision of who we were going to upset that year – my parents or his. Until someone suggested that we could do as we pleased: stay in our home with our own children, upsetting both sides of the family. By that time, my mum had given up on choosing presents. ‘Oh, you know what they want,’ she said, meaning my children, husband and myself. ‘You buy them and I’ll give you the money.’ Her PCT was no doubt reduced, while adding to mine.

Like my mum, I tried to give my daughters a good Christmas, and got thoroughly exhausted in the process. Though the rewards were sweet – the squeals of delight on Christmas morning. And they both still love Christmas, even in their thirties, when they are now prone to experiencing PCT for themselves.

The lessons I have learned about Christmas are:

Please yourself – don’t do things out of duty

Perfection is never achieved – don’t cry into the lumpy gravy

Keep your expectations modest, then you won’t be disappointed

Don’t place expectations on your grown-up children – they have their own lives, their own, newer Christmas traditions, which might not include you

It’s OK to opt out – of gatherings, jollity, or out of Christmas altogether

Give yourself a rest – in the PCT season and during the festivities. Last year, I went to a yoga and meditation morning at the beginning of December – the best gift I could give myself

I was raised Catholic, and though I am lapsed, I love singing carols. My favourite is In The Bleak Midwinter, from a poem by Christina Rossetti, and one of the things I like about Christmas  is light in the darkest days of the year. Also, a chance to remember those we only hear from once a year, like Elsie, who was a neighbour, and sat with my two-year-old daughter on a snowy winter’s day over 30 years ago when I went into hospital to give birth to my second daughter.

Perhaps I will send this as my Christmas letter, or maybe an email with a nice photo, and a link to this post. Meanwhile, it’s my turn for the odd dates in our shared, everlasting Advent calendar, so I shall slot the first reindeer in his stable. Tip – I don’t get Christmas Eve, but there are more reindeers on the odd dates of Advent.

No pumpkin – a story instead

When I was a child, we celebrated Halloween at home. We didn’t dress up, but we did bob for apples in a washing-up bowl, or attempt to take a bite out of apples strung from the beam in the living room, hands clasped behind our backs.

Trick or treat didn’t arrive in England until the ’90s, by my recollection, when I had children of my own. We’d carve a pumpkin, and stand it in the window to attract passing ghouls. I once got cross with a boy who knocked twice at our front door, begging ‘Trick or treat.’ ‘You’ve had your sweets,’ I said. ‘That was my twin brother,’ he replied. ‘Oh yeah,’ I said, ‘heard that one before.’ I was just about to shut the door when a child identical to him arrived at the bottom of the steps leading to my house. Shamefaced, I offered the second twin a dip in the treats bag.

Maria reads The Man in Black at Horrorshow

Maria reads The Man in Black at Horrorshow

Seven years ago this month, we moved to a village. Expecting the usual trail of spookily-dressed children, we bought some sweets and lit the tealight candle in our pumpkin. Knocks came there none. Year 2, the same. Year 3 and beyond, we no longer buy sweets for Halloween. We are at the end of the village, just before a stretch of the A2 with few houses, only orchards shedding their autumn colours and fields of sheep. At our end of the village, there are few children. There are mostly older people who have lived in their houses for upwards of 30 years. A ‘young’ neighbour, 50-something, like me, describes it as ‘Death Row.’

In spite of the lack of trick or treaters, we’ve carved a pumpkin every year – a new experience for my husband, Bob, who I have known for a little less than 9 years. But this year, the weeks have passed without thinking pumpkin, without (as I often do too early) choosing a candidate for our Jack o’ Lantern. We are having a pumpkinless Halloween. In any case, Bob will be out gigging with his band on mischief night, while I stay home with the cat. Who isn’t even black.

To make up for this, I am sharing a story, ‘The Man in Black’. I wrote the first version of this 15 years ago and revisited it for an  event called Horrorshow, held at The Barge, Gillingham,  a couple of years ago. My Medway readers will recognise the setting, in and around Rochester. Versions of this story have won and been shortlisted for prizes; this is the first time it has appeared in print.

Happy Halloween, one and all. May your pumpkins glow brightly in the dark of the night.

Read The Man in Black. Beware, those with a nervous disposition…

How can you help?

A man goes to see his parish priest in rural Ireland during the ‘hungry years’ of the 1930s or 40s. The man has too many children; he cannot feed them all.  He travels to work in England and sends money back home, and still there is not enough money. He asks the priest if there is anything the church can do to help. The man’s eldest child comes home from school a few days later to find that some of her siblings have been sent to an orphanage, several miles away.

An extreme example of help, of charity, gone badly wrong.

I have not ever been in such extreme need, but there have been times when money has been short, I have been (and am) too sick to work, and things have seemed grim. The state has provided, through welfare benefits. I have been able to keep my home and to feed my children at times when I feared I would lose everything. The generosity of others has also been both a lifesaver in emergencies, and has added some colour to a very black and white existence.

When funds are low, it can be difficult to keep hold of your dignity. And pride can get in the way of accepting offers of help. How that help is offered, in a way that allows a person to accept or reject offers, and so that it does not appear patronising or pitying, is very important. Here are a few good examples from my own experience.

I have a friend who has offered me loans over the years. I have often declined, sometimes accepted. In a recent emergency, I asked if the offer still holds, and she happily sent a cheque with a cheery note saying that there was no rush to pay it back. She has also given me money in the past, a small amount to pay an unexpected bill, for example. It has never affected our friendship. I have paid back loans, or gratefully accepted funds given.

Christmas past - Biscuit inspects the presents

Christmas past – Biscuit inspects the presents

Some years ago, a friend took me with her on a day trip to France. It was close to Christmas, and she knew that I had very little money to buy presents for my children. We stopped at a service station on the way home, and she turned to me with an idea for a gift that my children would love, and would make a big difference to our household. ‘I have a mad money fund,’ she said. ‘It’s for money I don’t really need, but it’s for splurging on treats. I’d like to give you enough to buy a Freeview box.’ She would give me the money on condition that I didn’t tell my children where it came from; the gift would be from me. My children may be reading this now, and this will be the first time I have made them aware of this act of kindness. It was done in a way that preserved my dignity, and literally it added a little colour to a pretty basic existence at that time. And my children, big as they were at the time, squealed with delight when they opened the gift.

I have friends who invite me to lunch and lightly say it’s their treat. People who will buy a drink knowing that I cannot buy one in return. They know that funds are low, or that I just need cheering up.

I am writing this today because some people performed what they saw as an act of love, an act of kindness. It was done without asking, arrived unannounced, and although this was not their intention, it has offended my dignity. It feels like an act of charity, pity even, not an act of love. Love is not something you do at people, it has to be with their consent. I still love those people, but I do feel that my wishes have not been considered. Life has been difficult recently, things feel out of control. People in my position need to feel that they have some control over what happens in their lives, to be given choices.

Going back to man who went to the parish priest at the beginning of this post. That man was my grandfather. His eldest child was my mother. Things done in the name of charity can be wonderful, can give people an element of control over their own destinies, can help people get back on their feet during hard times. Or they can be like what happened to my granddad, to my mother, to her brothers and sisters who were sent away.

 

Chin up – counting on things getting better

The school hall was wood-panelled, with one wall adorned with the names of past head girls, a list of gold-leafed lettering. There were high windows along one side, and a stage with a table and a high-backed chair where Miss Collins, the headmistress, sat during morning assembly. At one time, I knew how many wood panels lined each wall, how many windows and windowpanes there were in the hall. I knew because I counted them every day.

Counting was a way to keep me safe. There was a lot to be anxious about back then – not only homework, exams and the ups and downs of friendships, but also that I did not always feel safe at home. Counting was, and is, a bit like stepping on the cracks in the pavement. Terrible things might happen if I didn’t count or if I failed to step over the cracks.

Today is the first day of October. My first words were to the cat, who has developed a habit of pulling her water bowl into the middle of the kitchen floor, for me to kick or trip over as I walk through to the bathroom without turning the light on, so I don’t wake up too much, giving me a chance of getting back to sleep after the 5 o’clock wake up. I may have sworn. I neglected to leap out of bed saying, ‘White rabbits, white rabbits, white rabbits’, which would have protected me from anything bad happening this month. There is, however, still time for ‘Pinch, punch, first of the month,’ which might just cancel out the bad luck.

We all have rules, routines to keep us safe. Some of us take this to greater lengths than others. I’m not claiming to have OCD. I would not belittle those that are slaves to their compulsions. But sometimes my obsessions become too much to handle. At times of distress, the counting takes over. I add up the numbers on car registration plates, the digits in dates. If they add up to multiples of 5 they are good. 21 and 22 are also safe numbers. Today, 01/10/2015, is a safe day, a good day. I count the number of letters in newspaper headlines. I can calculate quite fast. During very bad times, I add up the number of letters in sentences I hear spoken, seeing the words in my head. My head can be a very busy place. It’s no wonder I have trouble sleeping, relaxing, with so much counting to do.

When I was very ill, with severe anxiety and depression, I was advised to use scheduling. This is a method whereby you plan what you will do in a day, even as simple as ‘have breakfast, shower, get dressed, clear breakfast dishes, listen to radio, try to step outside the front door.’ The last of these was because I was terrified of everything, including leaving the house and staying in the house. Scheduling imposed structure and rules that were more helpful than my personal rule of counting everything. If I did get to step outside, I would feel like I had achieved something. I was told that if I kept doing it, taking small steps, that eventually it would not be so hard, I could get back to doing some of the things that I used to enjoy. Support was a factor in this recovery. I used to think that I had to do everything myself, a belief built on having a shaky start in life, where I wasn’t kept safe or made to feel safe. I learnt that a few good friends were pleased to take me out for very short outings, to take me home again if I started to panic.

I have another good rule, one I invented myself. I call it internet-free Sunday. I’ve been practising it for the past three years, I think. I shut down my laptop by six o’clock on a Saturday (I also have a daily curfew on internet use – none in the evenings), and don’t open it again until Monday morning. It’s a break from mental overload, from always being available, from the temptation to check if there are any more Likes on my most recent witty Facebook status. It’s how Sundays used to be, only less boring.

I guess the point of this post is that rules can be tyrants or liberators. And that even the good rules are made to be broken. I once had a text from my son-in-law, suggesting that I might want to break internet-free Sunday to see a video of my granddaughter having her first taste of solid food. That was a good enough reason to break my internet fast early.

I’ve been counting a lot in the last couple of weeks. It’s one of those times when one bad thing after another has piled on. Sometimes bad things happen in spite of counting, in spite of it being a good date, numerically. I don’t feel in control of some of the things that are going on. The counting has not helped. Writing has. Writing has saved my life many, many times. My notebook is my friend. I can tell it anything – it does not judge, it doesn’t say I’m overreacting or being silly. It doesn’t tell me to pull myself together or to look on the bright side. As I fill the pages, I feel the tension leaving my body for a while. I feel ready to face the world.

I am sure that readers of this post will have advice for me – mindfulness, walking (yes, that does work for me), keeping my chin up. The chin up thing worked for me yesterday. I had been trying to regain control. Exhausted from lack of sleep, from feeling tense all the time, from the goddamned usual symptoms of chronic illness, I stepped outside into the garden and looked up. A buzzard was hovering overhead. I see buzzards from time to time in our area. I like to think it’s the same bird I see each time. It reminded me of the last time I saw it, just a couple of weeks ago. It was a beautifully warm September day, dragonflies were flitting over the vegetable patch, three sunflowers were nodding their yellow heads at the edge of the garden. My husband Bob had lifted up our granddaughter so that she could see the sunflowers close up. She was running around on the grass, wearing Bob’s sun hat. The day was already perfect, and then I saw the buzzard flying over the orchard that backs on to our garden. It made my heart soar. Seeing the buzzard again, yesterday, brought me back to that perfect day, reminded me that happiness is not so far away, even when things seem bleak, unresolvable.

For the love (and fear) of short stories

I love short stories. I fear them, too. As a reader, a good short story can stay in the memory for a lifetime. As a writer, one short story can have several lives: a publication in a print or online magazine; placed in an anthology; part of a single-author collection; a prizewinner. My story ‘More Katharine than Audrey’ has now achieved three of these, having won the Society of Authors Tom-Gallon Trust Award 2015.

The Society of Authors Awards Party was over a month ago, and it has taken me this long to process the experience. There was an email three weeks before, which swore me to secrecy until the awards evening. There was the choosing of something to wear. There was the feeling that there had been some kind of mistake, that someone else would be called up to receive the £1000 award. There was also my usual terror of big occasions. I told myself that I would escape as soon as seemed decent after the awards had all been given – £85,000 was being distributed for a variety of literary awards. There was also the fact that I had recently been at the point of giving up on writing short stories.

Blogging comes easily to me, as does other forms of non-fiction writing. Writing poetry is harder, but not as hard as the months and years it takes me to write a short story. As I write this post, I am avoiding going back to a story I have been working on since Christmas. I think I have come to the end of the first draft (I never know how a story might end when I begin it), but now comes the editing, the picking apart and discarding, rearranging the order of things, adding new sections. The truth is, I’m scared of it.

Here are a few popular misconceptions about short stories:

They are easy to knock off in an afternoon – after all, they are short.

Wrong – it takes a very long time for the writer to reduce a story to the fewest, best words. It’s like writing poetry in that respect. In fact poets write very good short stories for that reason. See poet Kate Clanchy’s excellent short story collection The Not-Dead and the Saved.

They appeal to people’s short attention spans; people can zip through a book of them in no time at all.

Wrong – stories require good attention from the reader, and they are like rich desserts: you take your time over them, and you wouldn’t want to consume several at one sitting.

Short story writers are failed novelists.

Wrong – short story writers have chosen a difficult form, perhaps one that is more difficult than novel-writing.

I could go on…

At the awards party, I spoke to several writers who have great respect for the short form. Ben MacIntyre, who was receiving the Elizabeth Longford Prize for his book about Kim Philby, A Spy Among Friends, said, ‘Ah, proper writing’ when I told him I had won a prize for a short story. In that room that evening, there were people who understood the devilish nature of the short form, who looked on me as a good writer for having mastered writing at least one good story.

Tom-Gallon Award winners - Maria with runner-up Caroline Price,

Tom-Gallon Award winners – Maria with runner-up Caroline Price,

After the awards had been handed out (remember that this was the moment I had planned to escape the scary big party), I got into conversation with Joanne Harris. We talked about the low regard for short stories among the bigger publishers, and how approaching literary agents as a short story writer means they don’t get beyond ‘short stories’ on the covering letter before reaching for the rejection slip. We talked about how a short story can stay with you for the whole of your life: we both loved reading Oscar Wilde’s fairytales as children, both sobbed at ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’. I told Joanne that I was trying to write a ghost story and I was scared to return it, that I might fail. ‘That means it’s good,’ she said.

The lights were being turned on and off in the room; it was time to leave. In fact I had stayed way beyond the official end of the party. ‘You do realise that’s THE Joanne Harris,’ Aamer Hussein, one of the judges of my prize, said to me. Yes, I’d been aware of that for the first minute or so, but then it was just two writers talking about what they do, what they love.

The Awards Party was a glittering evening, studded with big name writers, people I had been in awe of. The truth is that we all share the same thing – we have to return to sit alone in a room to put words on the page, and many of us are terrified by it. Even Philip Pullman told my friend and I that when he finishes a morning’s writing, he stops at the top of a page, so he won’t have to face a blank page the next time he comes to write.

Winning the Tom-Gallon Trust Award is a big thing. Some friends have said, ‘You’ll sell more books; maybe you’ll get an agent now.’ I am expecting neither. I’m a realist. I write short stories, for heaven’s sake, and I’m not interested in writing novels. The hard task of writing (and selling) short stories for very little return is my lot, my vocation. The £1000 prize is more than I have ever received for my writing; it’s a good thing to add to my writer’s biography. But it won’t sell more copies of As Long as it Takes and it doesn’t take away the love-hate relationship I have with writing short stories.

The winning story of the Tom-Gallon Trust Award 2015, ‘More Katharine than Audrey’, was first published on Writers’ Hub along with a blog piece on how I came to write the story: From Noreen to Norah: on writing More Katharine than Audrey. The story appears in my short story collection As Long as it Takes.

My love of short stories, and an awareness of the few opportunities that exist to publish them, led to the establishment of Cultured Llama Publishing, which publishes poetry, short stories and Curious Things (cultural non-fiction). Cultured Llama now boasts two winners of the Tom-Gallon Trust Award among its authors. Emma Timpany won the award in 2011 . Her debut short story collection The Lost of Syros has just been published by Cultured Llama.

I am judging the Save As Writers’ ‘Writing the City’ short story award this year. The closing date is 31 August 2015. More details here.

Here are a few champions of the short story: Short Stops; Thresholds; The Reading Life.

Orchards and the A2 – writing for Wandering Words

No entry - orchard in Teynham, by S Palmer

No entry – orchard in Teynham, by S Palmer

A couple of months ago, an email arrived in my inbox, asking if I would like to write something for a new website called Wandering Words. Wandering Words is an Ideas Test project, working in partnership with Rochester Literature Festival, to put the written word on the map in Swale & Medway.

One of twelve writers tasked with ‘site-specific writing’, my given subject was the A2, which I could respond to in any way I liked. The only provisos were that I should spend at least three days ‘on site’, should encourage the participation of the people of Medway and Swale, and I had about six weeks to complete the writing.

I live on the A2, on London Road, Teynham, and I had already been working on some poems about the orchards that surround us. I am fascinated that Richard Harrys, fruiterer to King Henry VIII, lived in Teynham, and established the ‘chief mother of all orchards in England’, in and around the village. Initial research revealed that the Faversham Fruit Belt, which Richard Harrys began, stretched from Rochester to Canterbury, following the route of the old Roman road. In fact the first cherry trees in England grew as the result of Roman legions spitting out cherry stones as they marched.

For several weeks in March and April I could be seen hanging around in orchards (wandering lonely as a cloud?) gathering material for writing, taking photos, waiting for the blessed blossom to come out (two and a half weeks late this year, I was told), and talking into a borrowed iPhone to make audio recordings.

I made a couple of trips up and down the A2 with a photographer friend, Stephen Palmer, looking for orchards – both commercial and old, abandoned ones. It was the latter that interested me most, our best find being a disused orchard near Newington, which people pass by every day without even seeing. I documented a favourite walk, starting and ending on the A2, going up Cellar Hill, taking public footpaths along by orchards and down Nouds Lane. It’s amazing what new things you can notice, even on familiar walks.

I interviewed several people – a cherry farmer who I met at a farmer’s market; Pam Talbot, who used to pick cherries with her family in the 1960s and ’70s; an older neighbour, about his life travelling up and down the A2 for work, his memories of the road, the countryside and his working life.

The result is a sequence of poems, some nature and journalistic writing, photos and audio interviews, which appear on the website www.wanderingwords.org.uk

Teynham to Sheppey as the crow flies, from the author's attic, by S Palmer

Teynham to Sheppey as the crow flies, from the author’s attic, by S Palmer

I wondered at the end of it all, whether I had written an elegy for a disappearing world. The old orchards are going, replaced with short rootstock. New cherry trees are even grown under polytunnels with irrigation systems at their roots. More efficient, less back-breaking to pick from, but what have we lost? To quote from my final piece, ‘Walking anti-clockwise’: “The sight of orchard ladders in tall trees dripping with fruit will disappear from the Kent countryside. The orchards that Pam Talbot picked from in the 1960s have already gone. ‘I remember,’ she told me, ‘right at the top, you could see the cathedral.’ A clear view from Faversham to Canterbury, seen from the top of a cherry tree.”

 

Here are a few words from the funders: ‘Wandering Words is developed, managed and funded by Ideas Test, working in partnership with Rochester Literature Festival. We hope to inspire others to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and share their work too. Blogs, poetry, journalism, graphic novels – all are welcome – we want to create a digital library of written reflections on the area.’ Contribute your own Wandering Words at www.wanderingwords.org.uk

 

 

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