John Clare, gardener and writer; and Bloom & Wild

In this strange spring and early summer of ours, where March’s snow, frost and ice stopped all plant growth and May’s hot days and tropical rainstorms encouraged it wildly, I’ve been wondering how many writers worked as gardeners. I only found one: John Clare.

John Clare.jpgJohn Clare, 13 July 1793-20 May 1864 (aged 70)
by William Hilton, oil on canvas, 1820

Countless writers’ work has been influenced and informed by plants, flowers, trees and the glory and gore of the natural world, and George Orwell did grow vegetables at Barnhill on Jura where he finished 1984 but, as Robin Lane Fox writes in a 2014 article for the FT:

Great writers write powerfully about gardens that they visit, see or, above all, recall [but] … the very idea of James Joyce hoeing is hilarious.

But the young John Clare did work as a gardener at Burghley House in 1807 and again between 1816-1817 and, in his cottage garden at Helpston, he grew some of the plants he discovered there. To this day, every summer, children from the John Clare primary school put Midsummer Cushions on Clare’s grave. As Clare wrote:

A very old custom among villagers in summer time [was to] stock a piece of greensward full of field flowers & place it as an ornament in their cottages which ornaments are called Midsummer Cushions.

He gave the name to a collection of poems he tried to publish in 1832 which were eventually published 150 years later. He also documented the natural world near his village, Helpston, in Northamptonshire. In 1824 he wrote a group of letters which became known as an unfinished Natural History of Helpston. They too weren’t published until 1983.

I wonder what Clare would have made of the thing I would love to have made this month, in a world where time is infinite and all things are possible? Bloom & Wild deliver flowers. So do thousands of florists, of course they do. But Bloom & Wild pack many of their arrangements so they’ll fit through your letterbox thus solving the difficulty of delivering flowers to busy people who are out at work, out with children, or just plain out. Clever, aren’t they?

Posted in Artists, Fiction, Gardening, Mental Health in Fiction, Things I'd Love to Have Made, Uncategorized, Writers, Writing | Leave a comment

Writers on writing, and an exquisitely beautiful tea

When our writers’ group met this week one of our number described how the rise of the ‘plotting and typing’ approach to writing was driving her demented. How all the work is done before you’ve typed a word and then you just carry on thwacking through, typing typing typing … .But how, however much is planned ahead (even though planning is necessary), in the end the story will just be what it will be. How a story is quite subversive in the way it will just suggest things. How getting it right is a very mysterious experience.

Needless to say I entirely agree. And then I found an essay by Patricia Lockwood at The Tin House, called How Do We Write Now? Lockwood is a poet so her prose is particularly lyrical. The full article is here but she said she was happy for me to quote a few of her suggestions for what to do (and what not to do) first thing in the morning, if you write:

The first necessity is to claim the morning … if I look at a phone first thing the phone becomes my brain for the day.

The single best way to give the morning back to myself is to open a real book as I drink my first cup of coffee. I’m not sure why real books are best. I think the pages remind me that I have fingerprints.

It sometimes helps to let someone else tell you what to do, so listen: … Read the most minute descriptions you can find about other artistic processes: Moss Hart writing plays with George S. Kaufman, his teeth glued together with terrible fudge; Maya Angelou on the road in Europe with the company of Porgy and Bess.

If you have an afternoon, cook something that takes a long time, it will think along with you.

Keep a physical notebook. Remember how to use the kind of pen that runs out … . Learn the names of trees.

The best advice. All of it.

And the thing I would love to have made in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible is a glass of tea I was given the other night after dinner. I had no idea how it would look or taste, I just asked for what Frantoio – a restaurant in London we’d never been to before – described as lily and jasmine tea. The first thing that happened was a waiter brought a large wine glass and set it beside me. Then he put something that looked like a nutmeg into the glass. Then he poured boiling water onto the nutmeg lookalike and told me to wait. So I did. And this is what happened.

And it was entirely delicious. And, if you’re my kind of vintage, it might remind you of those magical paper flowers you dropped into a glass of water and watched bloom.

Posted in Artists, Creativity, Fiction, Things I'd Love to Have Made, Writers, Writing | Leave a comment

RMS Titanic: on this day 106 years ago … & Samira Addo, Portrait Artist of the Year

It’s 106 years ago today that the ‘unsinkable’ passenger liner, RMS Titanic, hit an iceberg and sank in just two hours and forty minutes. For years the tragedy was a matter of private internal horror: people didn’t talk about trauma then and only two years later the First World War broke out, eclipsing Titanic’s tragedy with its own tremendous tragedies. Then came the influenza epidemic, bringing tragedy upon tragedy, then there was a brief respite before the Second World War brought more terrible tragedy … so it wasn’t until the release of A Night to Remember in 1958 (a film based on a book by Walter Lord and starring Kenneth More) that public consciousness of the Titanic tragedy surfaced.

My great-grandmother, Noël Rothes, helped pilot Lifeboat No 8 which was commanded by Able Seaman Thomas Jones, but although her family knew she’d sailed on Titanic and had survived, no details were known until after she died in 1956 (she never talked about the tragedy). But when my grandfather and my aunt were sorting through Noël’s papers they found letters, newspaper cuttings, her evidence to the enquiries into the disaster and a plaque that Able Seaman Thomas Jones had made for her to thank her for her:

courage under so heartrending and terrifying circumstances

Bronze 8 from Lifeboat No 8, RMS Titanic

We make much of the Titanic tragedy these days (I include myself, I give a talk about my great-grandmother and the able seaman and how they worked together in Lifeboat No 8) but it is salutary to think that, at the time, many of the survivors never talked about it.

On a happier note, the things I would love to have made this month – in an alternate universe where time is infinite and skills multifarious – are Samira Addo’s portraits, particularly her Portrait Artist of the Year winning paintings. Here they are:

Emeli Sande by Samira Addo

Zandra Rhodes by Samira Addo

Aren’t they stunning – even in these small reproductions? Here’s how Addo talks about herself and her work and you can see all her portraits here and here. Before Addo’s work was chosen to win, one of the judges, Tai Shan Schierenberg, the only portrait artist among them, said:

What we want to see is not only the ability to capture likeness but to make art, to make something that tells us about what it is like to be alive today.

I wanted Samira Addo to win from the beginning of the final. Her work stood out for its brave originality. Hers aren’t conventional portraits: her approach seems to me to be to paint a likeness with a vision that shows the person clearly, but her unconventional colours and the way – sketch-like, apparently rough but actually not rough all when seen finished – she captures the nature, the very essence of a person as well as what that person ‘looks’ like is, I think astonishing. Tai Shan Shierenberg was in tears as he tried to describe that ‘extra something’ that Addo’s work has. When he found his voice he said:

Portraits are about the specifics of a person at the same time as being about shared human experience and I like that to come across in the paintings being made during the competition. Portraiture has a long tradition, of course, but I always hope to see artists who have found a way to reinvigorate it or reinvent it with their unique artistic language. 

Addo’s work undoubtedly does that. But when Tai Shan Shierenberg was momentarily lost for words I thought he illustrated perfectly the point of great art: it doesn’t need words, it speaks for itself.

Posted in Artists, Creativity, Things I'd Love to Have Made, Titanic | Leave a comment

Social media and the writer; Modigliani and Akhmatova

It’s wise for writers to have a social media presence these days. Publishers don’t exactly insist on it, but they like writers who have significant followings. (Followers equal interest in the writer and so potential sales, obviously.)

But how does a writer balance the time she spends on social media and the time she devotes to her fiction?

Dani Shapiro‘s article here, tells how, when she had a book coming out in 2010, her publisher urged her to start a blog. Now (February, 2018) Shapiro writes, ‘The blog seems quaint’. But she’s kept with it and, here, see how she turned her blog into a book … .

The way I divide time spent in cyberspace with time spent talking to and writing about imaginary people is this: I still blog (quaintly, perhaps, because only once a month and I doubt there’s a book lurking there). And I have a Facebook page and a Twitter page @AngelaYoung4 where I post Goodreads reviews and other writing-related things. My blog subject matter is usually connected with writing / the creative process, and then a paragraph about something which, in a parallel universe where time is infinite, I’d love to have made. I refuse to allow it to take up too much time, the vast majority of which is spent doing the thing without which I couldn’t properly exist: writing fiction, with my email and internet connections turned off.

And this month, the thing I’d love to have made in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible is this:

Possibly Anna Akhmatova,
by Amedeo Modigliani

The sculpture is probably based on this drawing:

Drawing of Anna Akhmatova’s head, by Amedeo Modigliani

I saw Modigliani’s sculptures at Tate Modern’s exhibition recently (it’s on until 2 April) and, when finding out more about them (I never knew Modigliani made sculptures), I discovered, through the eloquent Richard Nathanson, in his article here, that:

Throughout her stay in 1911 [in Paris], Modigliani repeatedly took … [Anna Akhmatova] to the Louvre’s Egyptian gallery, so that he could see her among the statues and friezes.
and
The drawing is closely related to the carving [sculpture] … . The rich heavy black seems already to be ‘feeling’ the sculpture. The dream-like quality of the face. Its length. And implied mass of hair [‘à l’Egyptienne’] with its distinctive fringe, suggest that Modigliani ‘saw’ Akhmatova in this drawing.
and
‘He used to rave about Egypt,’ Akhmatova wrote. ‘He drew my head bedecked with the jewellery of Egyptian queens and dancers, and seemed totally overawed by the majesty of Egyptian art.’

Posted in Artists, Creativity, Love, Social media, Things I'd Love to Have Made, Writing | Comments Off on Social media and the writer; Modigliani and Akhmatova

Teaching kids to fall in love with science (a different kind of love for Valentine’s day); and things to do with rubbish

I was noodling around on the internet wondering what I was going to post about this month when I discovered Arvind Gupta. He won the Padma Shree on 26 January (India’s Republic Day) for his work in literature and in education, particularly scientific education. He’s an engineer, toy-maker, scientist, teacher and book-lover who spends much of his time making toys from trash to demonstrate scientific principles. And he’s delightful to watch, see here (it’s about 4 minutes long, but it seems far less):

Doesn’t he make you fall in love with science? I wish I’d been taught by him. And didn’t he say, somewhere in there, that, ‘Rubbish [waste, trash] is the birthplace of creation.’ When we’re struggling to find ways to recycle the mounds of plastic we’ve decided it’s sensible (not) to use and breaking our hearts over our own stupidity, Gupta shines a benign, practical and humourous light.

And the thing I’d love to have invented in a parallel universe where time is infinite and anything is possible is also connected with rubbish, plastic in this case. Norway’s plastic-bottle recycling idea recycles 97% of all their plastic bottles. (That’s 97%.) This BBC News article describes how the Norwegian scheme not only recycles, but repays you for the cost of the bottle when you return it and reduces the need to make more plastic bottles. That must be good. (And it seems we in the UK might adopt the Norwegian scheme. I hope hope hope we do.) Here’s the YouTube vid from the beginning of the BBC News article.

Posted in Artists, Creativity, Design, News, Science, Things I'd Love to Have Made, Uncategorized | Comments Off on Teaching kids to fall in love with science (a different kind of love for Valentine’s day); and things to do with rubbish

A new writing resolution; and a new (to me) altruistic way of advertising

I’ve made a new writing resolution: I will not allow the confusing complexity, the sheer size and the constantly changing, shifting nature of a novel’s first draft to eclipse the excitement I felt when its guiding idea first electrified me. I. Will. Not. Ever. Again.

Which means I’ll hang on to my curiosity however much confusion and chaos threaten to extinguish it. Because curiosity is the headlamp that shows me the way through the dark. Albert Einstein said:

I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.

Asking What If? And Why? And refusing to judge my work (or refusing to take my judgements seriously) before the first draft is finished is the only way story, narrative, character, plot and all the rest have a chance of seeing the light. Sandra Scofield wrote about this and much else in The Last Draft. Her article about it – which sparked my resolution – is here.

And the thing I would love to have invented in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible is a lateral approach to advertising that focusses less on getting people to buy things and more on helping people become what they’d like to become. I was chatting to a millenial the other day (I’m a baby boomer) who told me how the company he works with has made it possible for people to go to film school for free (in association with a photographic product, of course, but film school for free? How miraculous). And how, among other things, the company has brought artists and scientists together (in conjunction with a PC microprocessor, but still … brilliant) to discover what they might create together. Our conversation made me wonder about the differences between his generation and their work ethic (more altruistic?) and mine.

I found this here:

Millennials vs. Baby Boomers

Photo courtesy of apndle.co.uk

Baby Boomers value success while Millennials value individuality. [Baby Boomers] … grew up with ideals of anti-war and anti-government, believing anything is possible … looking for personal gratification and growth. Millennials have high morals, focus on achievement, are tolerant … [believe in] civic duty and are the most educated generation with realistic values … . Millennials are [also] … extremely technologically savvy.

There’s much more here and it’s got me thinking.

Posted in Baby Boomers, Creativity, Fiction, Millenials, Psychology, Rewriting, Things I'd Love to Have Made, Uncategorized, Writing | Comments Off on A new writing resolution; and a new (to me) altruistic way of advertising

Our Christmas Tree: a work in progress … and The Connection at St Martin’s

My other half put our Christmas tree together yesterday (it has hundreds of branches, all with different colour codes, all with their own little slots in its metal trunk). He also strung the tree with lights. Now it’s my turn to put on the decorations. So it’s a work in progress.As everything is. Especially our lives. So the thing I would love to have dreamt up in a parallel universe where time is infinite and everything is possible is The Connection at St Martin’s. The heartwarming stories I’ve heard from homeless people whose lives have progressed through The Connection, not only with the obvious things like a temporary roof, warmth, hot food, somewhere to sleep and feel safe, somewhere to clean-up and wash clothes, but with listening to what’s happened, listening to why that person became homeless in the first place. Listening and staying, as the vicar of St Martin’s Sam Wells says, with people when they reach the most scary point in their story. ‘By walking with them,’ as he says, ‘while they address the issues in their own lives.’ By listening as they painfully unearth trauma. By listening without ever attempting to fix and without ever assuming there’ll be a happy ending. Because it’s only through listening and allowing the pain and the fear to be expressed that there’s a chance of progress.

The people who work at The Connection deserve anything and everything we can give them … especially our hearts, as the carol suggests:

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am? —
If I were a Shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man
I would do my part, —
Yet what I can I give Him, —
Give my heart.

Posted in Homelessness, Love, Things I'd Love to Have Made, Things that don't fit anywhere else | Tagged | Comments Off on Our Christmas Tree: a work in progress … and The Connection at St Martin’s

Atul Gawande and Being Mortal; and a Remembrance Poppy Badge

Atul Gawande‘s Being Mortal – which I wrote about here in the context of his 2014 Reith Lectures – is extraordinary for its courageous and honest confrontation of our failure to confront how we want to die. Or, as Atul Gawande would say, from a surgeon doctor’s point of view:

We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine. We think our job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being. And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive. .. . Wherever serious sickness or injury strikes and your body or mind breaks down, the vital questions are the same: What is your understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes? What are your fears and what are your hopes? What are the trade-offs you are willing to make and not willing to make? And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding?

In other words it’s all about how we want to live out our final days or weeks or months, or even years, if that’s what our final disease allows. It’s all about perspective. And if our doctors ask us the questions that allow us to face what’s coming and how we’d like to face it then we can remain the authors of the stories of our lives until the very end (as opposed to having a structure and a routine imposed on us as so often happens in nursing homes where what happens is organised to suit the staff rather than the residents: it takes an elderly infirm person much longer to dress him or herself and so staff will hurry her or him along which results in a loss of autonomy and often a resigned giving-up). Whereas in the original assisted living idea residents can lock their doors and be in charge of their medicines and their lives (with help near at hand). And, as Being Mortal shows, residents in such homes, or who have hospice care at home which is tailored to the way they’d like to live to the very end, these people live more fulfilled lives right to the end.

And the thing I would like to have made in a parallel universe where time is infinite and anything is possible is The Royal Hospital Chelsea (London)’s poppy brooch. So many people have commented on it this Remembrance Week and it really does look beautiful and, more importantly, it makes you notice it and so it makes you think about all those young men (and they still are mostly men) who’ve died in conflict. And it lasts and lasts and lasts. Lest we Forget.

Posted in Death and Dying, Psychology, Storytelling, Things I'd Love to Have Made | Comments Off on Atul Gawande and Being Mortal; and a Remembrance Poppy Badge

Chaos & Creativity; and Beautiful Bookshops

I dislike hate chaos. Very much. Who doesn’t? But it’s an essential state if you want to write fiction. Messiness of the mind is the sine qua non for writers. But, when a piece is finished, it looks so orderly that we – when we first dream of becoming writers – think the process must also be orderly. We have no idea about what happens before that book is neatly printed and bound and settled in its right place, waiting to be to read.

Malcolm Gladwell – he of The Tipping Point and The Power of Thinking Without Thinking – says creative people have messy brains (here’s an illustration of mine: a noticeboard in my study):
And, of course, writing and all creative work is the making of order from chaos. But it’s such an uncomfortable vile feeling that I resist it every day. It’s why I procrastinate. I don’t want to feel that churning, frightening, I’ll-never-make-any-sense-of-this feeling. I don’t want to fail to make order. I hate looking at all the notes I make when I’m not at my desk (conversely I love making them) in their higgledy pile because I don’t know how I’m going to make a story from them. It’s why, on the worst, days, I wish I had a job at a check-out: it would be so very simple (and orderly). But the joy, the indescribable joy, of pulling something through the chaos, finding there really is a working story and a story that works, that joy, that sense of fulfilment, is worth a great deal of uncomfortable chaos. So finding a way to live with acute discomfort of the psyche is essential.

Malcolm Gladwell suggests we creative folk embrace the chaos. Because, he says, if you’re selling soap you have to focus on selling soap and throw every irrelevant thought or idea out, otherwise you won’t be a very good soap-seller. But in the creative world the opposite applies: we gather everything and anything, anything that appeals, anything that sparks an idea or that might work in a story, anything that might become an essential key to a character. But then, naturally, we end up with a pile of chaotically disconnected ideas.

I was talking to a friend the other day – just after the funeral of another friend, so we were in sad and thoughtful mood – and she asked me if I ever felt a sense of chaos when I was writing. I said, ‘Often.’ And as soon as I said it I realised I’d never said it to a single soul before. And so we started talking and thinking and now here are a few more thoughts. And a few conclusions: find a way to embrace/accept/not-run-from the (inevitable) chaos. Know that it will lead somewhere, eventually. Know that it is an essential part of the process. Know that without it, creation cannot happen. Trust the chaos … .

And the thing I would love to have made in a parallel universe where time is infinite and anything is possible, is a beautiful bookshop. At the end of August, Literary Hub published an article about the most beautiful bookshops in the world. Have a look. There are several illustrations, including this bookshop, in Maastricht:

Boekhandel Dominicanen, Maastricht

Doesn’t it make you want to go there immediately?

Posted in Artists, Bookshops, Creativity, Fiction, Psychology, Writers, Writing | Comments Off on Chaos & Creativity; and Beautiful Bookshops

Rejection is a rite of passage for writers, and the Raw Chocolate Company

One of the things that a writer takes a while truly to believe (it’s taken me a while) is that rejection is part of the process: it’s necessary, inevitable and makes our work better. It’s a rite of passage.But the thing is, no piece of writing is born fully formed, just as no child is born able to walk, talk or do calculus (no, I’ve no idea where calculus came from either). But accepting this incontrovertible fact isn’t easy. The pieces we write are our babies. They’re precious and – almost always – have taken so long to write that the idea of rewriting, of changing a thing, is anathema. But if, when the rejections come (and they surely will) there’s the smallest hint of a suggestion about how to improve the piece, value it as if it were a piece of delicious chocolate (see below) and digest it. Stephen King got this rejection once:

Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck.

It changed the way he wrote forever.

Susan Sontag, said this:

I don’t write easily or rapidly. My first draft usually has only a few elements worth keeping. I have to find what those are and build from them and throw out what doesn’t work, or what simply is not alive.

Vladimir Nabokov, this:

I have rewritten—often several times—every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.

And Colette, this:

Put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.

All quotes (and more) from an Atlantic Daily article here.

I had a wonderfully productive conversation with an agent in August about my third novel. (It was she who wrote that rejection is a rite of passage for writers.) She loves the idea, says I write beautifully, but has several worries about the way the novel is written. We talked for about an hour and now I’m rewriting. I hope very much that as she reads my rewrites she’ll feel the novel is heading in the right direction. I know I must hang on to my courage, take risks, get things wrong before I get them right and throw out what doesn’t work as I go … then the novel will have a chance of becoming its best self. As Ernest Hemingway said:

The only kind of writing is rewriting.

PS Calculus is (I’ve just looked it up in case you, like me, have never really known what it is): the mathematical study of continuous change. Now there’s a metaphor: writing as calculus.

And the thing I would love to have invented, in a parallel universe where all things are possible and time is infinite, is the Raw Chocolate Company. I love hot chocolate and have been making it with Raw Chocolate’s raw cacao for a while. They sell many delicious chocolatey things which are all certified vegan, vegetarian, organic and whose ingredients are simple. They don’t use cane sugar but Xylitol (meaning ‘tree-sweetness’) made from Finnish birch trees. Xylitol has a tenth of the glycemic index of standard cane sugar and is great for those who want to avoid sugar altogether … so what, as they say, is not to like? 

 

Posted in Creativity, Fiction, Rejection, Rewriting, Things I'd Love to Have Made, Third Novel, Writers, Writing | Comments Off on Rejection is a rite of passage for writers, and the Raw Chocolate Company

A very small trawl through a few less well-known news sites

This month – perhaps because it’s the silly season when news tends towards the frivolous because the House of Commons is in recess and us ordinary folk go on holiday – I thought I’d have a little light trawl through a few lesser-known news outlets. Obviously not these:

I found one called KarmaTube whose aim is to:

bring inspirational stories to light, using the power of video and the internet to multiply acts of kindness, beauty, and generosity.

And I did find an inspiring video from Jane Goodall about how her mother was responsible for her scientific nature: she never told her off when she took earthworms to bed or disappeared for hours in the chicken shed (to see exactly where eggs came from). The video is a delight (as are many others on KarmaTube). 

I found The Canary which states that it:

remains completely independent of any advertisers, funders, companies, political organisations, or political parties.

It’s left of centre and pro-remain, unafraid to say what it thinks and has pomposity-bursting satirical section called Off the Perch.

Then, I found (wishing I hadn’t) the terrifying Trump Real(?) News channel. One Kayleigh McEnany who, until 5 August, worked for CNN, now presents the ‘news‘ for this, erm, channel. Let’s hope it has as short a working life as many of Trump’s staff. Or, that it’s very soon mistaken for an amateur version of Off the Perch (see above).

Then, I found the HuffPost’s Weird news site (you never knew you wanted to know about kilted yoga, did you? Or the odd things people do in the shower that have nothing to do with washing and no … it doesn’t include that).

And then I remembered how very much I love Prospect and how I still haven’t finished the July issue, let alone the August one, so I stopped my tiny trawl and retired to read it.

Happy summer.

Posted in Creativity, News, News Outlets, Science | 2 Comments

Blurt It Out and Instead of a Card

I’m submitting the manuscript of my third novel to literary agents. It’s a process that requires much patience, a certain amount of luck and, most importantly, the ability to pitch my work well to the right agent at the right agency at the right time. (I’ll post the result when there is one.) Recently I pitched on Twitter which is both terrifying (is it really possible to describe the essence of a novel in 140 characters? – yes, and it’s an extremely useful process: you find out if you really know what your novel’s about) and exciting (if an agent likes your Tweet that’s the signal to send the synopsis and opening extract direct to that agent).

In the process I saw that an agent had tweeted about Blurt It Out, an organisation dedicated to increasing awareness and understanding of depression. The link between Blurt It Out and me, my novel submission and the agent’s tweet is nothing more than the fact that I saw it on her twitter feed. But for many people the link between their depression and its cause is hazy or entirely unknown. But talking helps, even though it can feel terrifying as Blurt It Out say:

Telling people is tough, and not everyone will understand. We’ve compiled a library of resources to help you understand depression and what it means for you.

Blurt It Out are dedicated to helping people with depression in all kinds of ways, including a lovely idea: you can sign up for occasional freebies-and-kindness emails (about half way down this page).

And the thing I’d like to have invented in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible, is Candlestick Press’s Instead of a Card. Instead of a card you can send one of their (many) poetry pamphlets (collections of ten poems). They cost just under a fiver and aren’t much fatter than a card, but they mean much more and last far longer. Here’s one to inspire you:

Posted in Creativity, Fiction, Mental Health in Fiction, Things I'd Love to Have Made, Third Novel, Writing | 2 Comments

Words on Writing, and Pass on a Poem

There are hundreds of thousands of words written about writing fiction: how to write, why we write, what to do when we can’t write and on and on so that, sometimes, I feel as if I’m adrift on a sea of advice. 

But at other times wise words become the lifeboat that takes me safely back to my story. Image result for wooden dinghyHere are a few that have done that recently (some of the authors’ names link directly to the source of the quote. Others link directly to the author):

Hold out your hand and the stories will come. John Steinbeck

We restore order with imagination. We instill hope, again and again and again. Walt Disney

Grief is love with nowhere to go. Anonymous

It’s not the subject matter, but what you do with it that counts. Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie

Plot is what happens. Story is how the characters feel about what happens. Neil Landau

If you make your characters properly they will simply do what is within them, they’ll act out the nature you have given them, and there – you’ll find – you have your plot. Hilary Mantel

My life would be more possible with the women’s movement existing and no running water than the other way around. Naomi Alderman in her acceptance speech for The Power‘s 2017 Baileys Women’s Prize win.

And Pass on a Poem is the thing I’d like to have invented in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible. Small groups of people meet from time to time to read poems they love to each other (any poem, except their own). They meet in various parts of the country at various times. Pass on a Poem is owned by the wonderful Reader Organisation who run shared reading groups across the UK and who’ve discovered that shared reading not only brings communities together but that it enhances empathy, as Jane Davis, founder and director, writes. (I wrote about the organisation here, too.)

Poem Clip Art

And here’s a link to Helen Dunmore‘s wonderfully empathetic poem about death, Hold Out Your Arms, written on 25 May, just eleven days before she died, on 5 June. It likens death to a mother holding out her arms to a shy child. Read it, weep and wonder at what the imagination can do.

Posted in Artists, Creativity, Death and Dying, Fiction, Literary Prizes, Things I'd Love to Have Made, Women, Writers, Writing | Comments Off on Words on Writing, and Pass on a Poem

Auditioning to become a WI Speaker, and ‘Born Baffled: Musings on a Writing Life’

In March I auditioned to become a WI speaker. The WI, you say? Don’t they just make jam, sing Jerusalem and talk a lot? Yes to all three, but no to JUST. There are 6,300 WIs in this country with 220,000 members and their community interests and campaigns have a long reach and are extremely varied. They campaign for equal pay and climate change, to fill gaps in the midwifery workforce and to save the honey bee. They also provide a focal point for women in rural (and urban) communities and if you know nothing else about the WI you surely know about the Calendar Girls Campaign for Bloodwise (to raise money for leukaemia and lymphoma research with what might be called a stripped-down campaign …). They’re a very effective bunch, they take their talking seriously so I was nervous.

image from http://brucemctague.com/tag/being-nervous-can-be-good

So nervous that it took me half an hour to set up my projector, laptop etc., because my right hand was shaking which meant I failed to plug the scart cable securely into my laptop and the slide image kept disappearing. By the time I was (shakily) guiding the mouse to cancel the image for what felt like the fiftieth time, I had to hold my right wrist with my left hand and when one of the (very kind) organisers suggested I was taking rather a long time (I had half-an-hour to set up, do a snapshot of my talk and take down) I shook all the more! Happily I was the first to audition so I’d begun my set-up half an hour before I was due on. If I’d been second or anywhere else in the audition list I’d have spent the whole time (shakily) setting up and they’d never have heard a word.

Image result for not hearing from someone

Sorry, what was that dear?

The introduction to Surrey Federation WI Members at that particular Speaker Selection Day included the fact that WIs are often asked for recommendations for speakers by other organisations. The Members were advised to think carefully and to choose wisely. I reckoned they wouldn’t be choosing me: they’d already seen me struggling with my extension lead, microphone, laptop, projector, images … and the fact that the table wasn’t high enough for the beam from my projector to hit the screen on the stage above it. Until I and another kind organiser (they were all kind, but they must have been wondering who on earth they’d invited) found a milk crate to put the projector on.

I’d projected neither a careful nor a wise image of myself but – with a millisecond to go – I was ready. And, dear reader, it did go well. Thanks to the WI Members kind attention and the courage of two particular people, an aristocrat and an able seaman, who helped twenty-six others in Lifeboat Number 8 on the night Titanic sank. So now my talk is about to be included in the WI Speakers Year Book and I’ve already had twelve bookings which just goes to show that nerves really can be a good thing, in the end.

And the words I’d like to have written in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible are these wise ones about writing. They come from a much longer article by Parker J Palmer, syndicated from couragerenewal.org at The Daily Good a blog I love (I wrote about here).

Care more about the process than the outcome.
Be generous in order for luck to play its part.

And, my favourite:

Dive deep, dwell in the dark, and value beginner’s mind no matter how loudly your ego protests.

Posted in Psychology, Talks, Things I'd Love to Have Made, Titanic, Women, Writers, Writing | 3 Comments

Spring in London, and The Kid Stays in the Picture

Spring in London is an astonishing thing: blossom among the grey buildings and pavements; green and blue and pink and white making us look up at it and then at each other and smile, us Londoners who spend most of our time walking around looking at the pavement (or the now-ubiquitous technology in our hands), making us open our mouths and say something to a stranger about the beauty all around us. The postman said, this morning, ‘It’s lovely isn’t it, all this sun? All this flowery stuff?’ Outside a city it would sound ridiculous. Outside a city the seasons still govern life’s rhythms. But inside a city we’re insulated, interior, isolated from the natural. Spring makes us look up and out and reminds us that: 

The Earth is like a child that knows many poems.
Rainer Maria Rilke in his Sonnets to Orpheus


And the thing I would love to have made in a world where everything is possible and time is infinite is Simon McBurney’s The Kid Stays in the Picture. It’s technically brilliant and breathtaking as Michael Billington’s review says here, and I who, unlike Billington, knew nothing about Robert Evans (the subject of the play and head of production at Paramount Pictures which gave us, among many, The Godfather, Love Story and Chinatown) thought it had everything to add to the story of Robert Evans’ life. It’s a play that’s, in the words of one of the folk I went to see it with, ‘Eight-dimensional’. And the actors take on several roles each, all brilliantly. The run has just finished but if you spot it on anywhere go and see it and be amazed at what theatre about film can do.

Posted in Artists, Creativity, Spring, Theatre, Things I'd Love to Have Made | Comments Off on Spring in London, and The Kid Stays in the Picture

A History of Britain in 21 Women, by Jenni Murray

This is both the thing I’m writing about this month and the thing I’d love to have written, in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible:What an entirely brilliant and inspiring idea. It begins with Boadicea, not Boudicca, because:

To me … she will always be Boadicea because I was ten years old when I came across her, and she became the first woman to make me realise that the designated future of a girl born in 1950 – to be sweet, domesticated, undemanding and super-feminine – did not necessarily have to be the case.

After a bit of a trek round London, Murray’s first visit, she ‘got a little bored with the endless parade of statues which Dad proudly pointed out as REALLY IMPORTANT HISTORICAL FIGURES’, until she saw this:

Boadicea and her Daughters by Thomas Thornycroft

and noticed her carriage, the lethal blades sticking out from the wheels and her massive horses rearing. ‘She’s in complete control.’ And she liked Boadicea because of a love of horses instilled in her by her grandfather at the tender age of two. And so began Murray’s own journey which her education fuelled. She realised, ‘at a wonderful girls’ high school in Barnsley’ that ‘there were women who influenced history and challenged the assumption that a woman’s place was in the home.’

As a child of the Fifties myself I realised, rather later than Murray, that domestic slavery wasn’t the only course open to me, but I always felt it. Always I sensed there wasn’t any difference between women and men when it came to ability and intelligence, ideas and ambition. What was different was education, access and encouragement. What I realised was that, as a woman, I had to be willing to stand out and stand up whether in the domestic or the wider world. The personal is political, as women began to say in the late Sixties. My personal stand was not to marry (I worried I wouldn’t have the strength to ignore the daily chores or ask him to do them so that I could write) and I never have (married). But now that I live with my other half, we live in what what one of my sisters called ‘a very democratic household’ and I do write.

I haven’t led an army, I haven’t stood for Parliament, I wasn’t the first woman to write fiction nor am I a scientist, but I made my own stand in order to write fiction and the burgeoning feminist atmosphere that surrounded me as I grew up helped beyond measure.

Murray’s book is dedicated to ‘All the young people who need to know’. I wish it had existed when I was one of those young people but the fact that it does now, for them, is essential and right. The 21 are: Boadicea, Queen Elizabeth I, Aphra Benn, Caroline Herschel, Fanny Burney, Mary Wollstonecraft, Jane Austen, Mary Somerville, Mary Seacole, Ada Lovelace, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Millicent Garrett Fawcett, Emmeline Pankhurst, Ethel Smyth, Constance Markievicz, Gwen John, Nancy Astor, Barbara Castle, Margaret Thatcher, Mary Quant and Nicola Sturgeon. Murray is eloquent about those she’s left out and why, in her Introduction and, at the front of the chapter about Mary Wollstonecraft and her Vindication of the Rights of Woman is Wollstonecraft’s:

‘I do not want them [women] to have power over men, but over themselves … It is not empire, but equality and friendship which women want.’

As Wollstencraft also wrote, ‘Their [womens’] first duty is to themselves as rational creatures.’ Thank you Jenni Murray for directing our attention to these remarkable women and so to our own remarkable selves.

Posted in Creativity, Psychology, Reviews, Women, Writers | Comments Off on A History of Britain in 21 Women, by Jenni Murray

Anselm Kiefer and Heywood Hill

On the weekend we went to the Anselm Kiefer Exhibition at the White Cube in Bermondsey. It’s just closed, but if there’s any of his work anywhere near you do go and see it. He is the most imaginative of artists. He sees with a keen but compassionate eye: several of his works made me want to weep. There’s one in the just-finished exhibition of an iron bed with leadened coverings and an enormous boulder on the bed that makes it sag. It’s called San Loreto (I don’t know why … ).

San Loreto © Anselm Kiefer. Photo © White Cube (George Darrell)

Either side of the bed’s iron headboard are wings, also made of lead, which saddened me because how could anything fly when weighed down with such a boulder?

There was a long tall thin room with shelves to the ceiling filled with paper, messages, labelled boxes, old machinery, leadened reels of film with film spilling from them, food, books and everything you could imagine. It’s called Arsenal.

Arsenal - Anselm Kiefer - 1983-2016 - 121275

Arsenal © Anselm Kiefer and White Cube

I thought of it as an arsenal of the imagination, a necessary tool for each and every one of us in this often-far-too-utilitarian-and-sometimes-frightening world. And then, at the end of a sombre, sad, darkly desolate corridor lined with iron beds with leadened coverings called Walhalla, was a room filled with light and works of such size and intensity I could have stayed all day. It was as if a shaft of sunlight had pierced the darkness. This one’s called nubes pluant (from the Advent liturgy and meaning ‘Let the clouds rain’).

nubes pluant - Anselm Kiefer - 2016 - 119008

nubes pluant © Anselm Kiefer and White Cube

Go and find them if you possibly can (and thank you to the White Cube, Bermondsey, for permission to reproduce the images).

And the thing I would love to have invented in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible is Heywood Hill’s A Year in Books subscription scheme. It’s a glorious idea. You can buy (or someone can buy for you) a subscription to 6 or 12 books a year, hardback or paperback. But the unique thing is that each book is a surprise. You fill in a form online (or you talk to the lovely people at Heywood Hill) and tell them about your bookish tastes: fiction, non-fiction, authors you love, authors you hate, ideas you’d like to explore or not and then, magically through the post (my first book arrived a couple of weeks ago complete with an elegant January bookmark) comes a book you might never have discovered for yourself. A Valentine’s present perhaps? Bravo Heywood Hill.

Posted in Artists, Creativity, Fiction, Things I'd Love to Have Made | Comments Off on Anselm Kiefer and Heywood Hill

John Berger, Ways of Seeing … and PEN International

John Berger, who died aged 90 on January 2nd, was a critic, novelist, playwright, screenwriter and poet and well-known to many. Occasionally, in his early writings according to this Guardian obituary, Berger’s ‘Marxist dialectic did force him into uncomfortable contortions’, but whenever I heard him or read his fiction I loved his originality and his extraordinary ability to make the complicated simple.

The Guardian obituary includes clips from interviews and a documentary and episode two from his 1972 programme, Ways of Seeing. I read the book, devoured might be a better word, but I never saw the programmes. This episode makes me wish I had.

In it he says:

A woman is always accompanied, even when quite alone and perhaps even then, by her own image of herself. While she is walking across a room or weeping at the death of her father she cannot avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she is taught and persuaded to survey herself continually … because how she appears … and particularly how she appears to men, is of crucial importance to what is normally thought of as the success of her life.

And, a little later, he talks about the difference between being naked which, in Berger’s words is simply to be yourself, and being nude, which is to be an object to be observed. Thus, he says:

The mirror [in paintings of female nudes] became a symbol of the vanity of woman. Yet the male hypocrisy in this is blatant. You paint a naked woman because you enjoy looking at her. You put a mirror in her hand and you call the painting vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you have depicted for your own pleasure.

He goes on to describe paintings that are, ‘As personal as love poems’, by Rembrandt and Rubens and a couple of others, paintings that don’t exploit women but admire and love them. And then there’s a discussion among five women who watched the film. They discuss the interiority of women and the exteriority of men: how women tend to depend on men for a view of themselves; how men are confirmed in themselves by their achievements in the world. And, towards the end (it’s half an hour long) there’s an examination by the women of the difference between being nude and being naked. One of the women talks about a painting by Lorenzetti of a woman in a loose comfortable garment (see below) who is her idea of what a picture of a real woman (not an object) should look like. Interesting, isn’t it, that this painting was made in the fourteenth century but the woman in Ways of Seeing (made in 1972) didn’t – or couldn’t – cite a painting from the twentieth century.

The figure of Peace in The Allegory of Good Government

Depressingly, it seems we haven’t moved on much since 1972 either. Pirelli’s 2017 calendar advertising blurb boasts that its images of women have broken with tradition because the women are dressed. But they’re still objects: they’re not themselves. They are, in the words of the German calendar photographer Peter Lindbergh, ‘Nude while being fully dressed,’ because the camera has ‘stripped them to the very soul’.

How I wish you were still here to argue against that hideous statement, John Berger.

And the thing I’d love to have invented this month, in a world where time is infinite and all things are possible is PEN International, for its campaigns on behalf of persecuted writers worldwide. You can take action or you can donate money to defend freedom of expression and if you’re a writer you can email PEN International here and ask for their list of imprisoned writers and write to one. Imagine yourself being imprisoned simply for something you said or wrote: a letter might offer a little comfort, don’t you think?

Posted in Artists, Equality, Women, Writers | Comments Off on John Berger, Ways of Seeing … and PEN International

Dare Always Dare, and Guerilla Grafters

A friend pointed out to me a week or so ago that this: DARE ALWAYS DARE is written in neon above the foyer entrance to the Old Vic Theatre (no idea why I’d never noticed it before):

And so we should, if only we could, all the time. But I think it’s good enough to DARE SOMETIMES DARE. (Think how exhausting it would be if we dared all the time … .) It was  the founder of the Old Vic, Lilian Bayliss‘s favourite anthem.

And the thing I’d love to have invented, in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible, is guerilla grafting : slide 4

A group of innovative San Franciscans are grafting fruit-bearing branches onto non-fruit bearing, ornamental fruit trees without official permission. There are many fruit trees in San Francisco, and all the world’s cities, but councils often don’t like fruit-bearing trees because the fruit, they say, falls onto pavements and makes a mess that has to be cleared up! But San Francisco’s Guerilla Grafters want free food for San Franciscans and the beauty of their technique is that it’ll be some time before the grafts take and the trees bear fruit and – in the meantime – it’s very difficult for any cruising civic authority to see them! Hurrah for the Guerilla Grafters.

Happy Christmas and 2017.

Posted in Artists, Creativity, Gardening, Things I'd Love to Have Made | Comments Off on Dare Always Dare, and Guerilla Grafters

Third novel, and the Reith Lectures, 2016

This month I finished my third novel. Finished to be interpreted loosely: there will be redrafts when I’m working with an agent and then with an editor. It’s working title is For the Love of Life. Rejoice. At least for now.

But now, while I do all the things I haven’t had time to do (updating my laptop with all those programmes it should have on it and hasn’t, and finding out which organisations might like to hear my Titanic talk – which I developed from my research for my second novel, The Dance of Love – to mention just two, since you ask …) I can’t help wondering about my novel’s fate out there in the big wide world. So many writers liken the writing process to childbirth. Some say the swimilarity (I meant similarity, obviously, but I rather like swimilarity) is in the forgetting of the pain, afterwards; some wonder whether the metaphor is apt if you’ve never given (physical) birth, as I haven’t; some say the two have absolutely nothing in common. But, whatever the parallels (or lack of them) I think this phase, the waiting-to-see-what-its-fate-will-be phase, is both a joyous one (the novel is at last a real, written, tangible piece of work) and an anxious one (for obvious reasons).

And the thing I’d love to have made and written (even simply to have had the clear intelligence to organise in my mind) – in a parallel universe where all things are possible and time is infinite – is this year’s Reith Lectures. Kwame Anthony Appiah

Image result for 2016 reith lectures

Image and more information from here: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2016/oct/15/this-weeks-best-radio-reith-lectures-incredible-women

Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University, has been an eloquent and thoughtful lecturer on his themes of Creed, Country, Colour and Culture. He said, here:

We live in a world where the language of identity pervades both our public and our private lives. We are Muslim and Christian, so we have religious identities. We are English and Scottish, so we have national identities. We are men and women, and so we have gender identities. And we are black and white, and so we have racial identities. There is much contention about the boundaries of all of these identities. Not everyone accepts that you have to be a man or a woman; or that you can’t be both an Englishman and a Scot. You can claim to be of no religion or gender or race or nation. Perhaps, in each case, someone will believe you. And that is one reason why the way we often talk about these identities can be misleading.

It’s been fascinating and I highly recommend listening again if you missed them.

Next year’s lecturer will be Dame Hilary Mantel. Her subject-matter will, ‘Focus on the nature of writing about history and history’s hold on the imagination.’ Looking forward to those, Dame Hilary.

Posted in Creativity, Equality, Fiction, Things I'd Love to Have Made, Third Novel, Titanic, Writers, Writing | 2 Comments