Friday, 31 December 2010

Learning to know

At sixteen there was so much you didn't yet know, so little you could face with confidence.

You were still learning how to watch the others, picking up the right words to say, the right things to talk about. You were beginning to understand their reactions, starting to see when it would be better to laugh off a clumsy comment as a failed joke. You almost knew when you shouldn't say what you really thought, or felt.

You already understood that it was better if you looked ok. So, as you got ready that New Year's Eve, you applied the lilac shimmer eyeshadow, oh so carefully. You stroked the black mascara over and over your lashes, eyes staring, mouth wide open, glancing every now and then at the dress hanging on the cupboard door. You still weren't quite sure about the dress, even though you'd saved for weeks, setting aside the money earned from your Saturday job in Woolworths; even though you'd taken the number 3 bus up to Oxford Circus and spent almost a whole day browsing through the racks downstairs at Top Shop. You'd practised how to use the hair tongs, how much hair to slip between the metal jaws, how long to hold it before your hair would singe.

You'd told your Dad you were going out, but not where you were going. He hadn't asked, hadn't really paid attention, seemed quite relieved. You were too wrapped up in your own plans to wonder what Mum was doing, who she'd be spending New Year's Eve with. You didn't even think about your sisters.

There was no need to hesitate at the door of the Railway Tavern, you knew the others would already be in there, that someone would offer you a gin and bitter lemon as soon as you arrived, so you didn't have to go to the bar yourself. You had no cause to worry about being under age, this was already your regular pub, where the landlord valued his 'young crowd' and didn't ask any questions.

Before long it would be time to leave the pub, pile into the orange Hillman Imp that waited outside and head off to Streatham. To the Cat's Whiskers, the one-time Locarno Ballroom, the only place in South London to spend New Year's Eve. You'd never met the boy squashed in next to you, though you'd heard his name at school. He didn't try to talk to you, but shared a friendly smile that reached his eyes, that made you feel ok.

You didn't know then that he'd stay by your side all evening, that he'd be the one who'd kiss you when the clock struck twelve, the one who'd ask for the last slow dance at the end of the night, the one who'd walk you three miles home and the one who'd take you to the pictures the following week.

And you didn't know then, that it wouldn't get any better than that. That for the next year you'd try so hard. That you'd turn up at the Railway Tavern every Friday and Saturday, knowing he would walk you home; even though he hadn't bothered to take you there himself, or call to see if you were coming.  You'd be so ridiculously pleased, so grateful, on those Thursday afternoons when he'd telephone, just after you'd both finished watching Little House on the Prairie, when he knew you'd be at home, that you'd pick up the phone, that he wouldn't have to explain himself to your sister or your Dad.

You didn't know that you'd spend fifty-two weeks putting a circle round the days in your diary, the days when you saw him or spoke to him. Marking the days to show this was something, each circle a proof that he must really like you. Not wanting to ask any questions of him and not brave enough to talk to your friends. Telling yourself this was how things should be.


At seventeen there are still so many things you don't understand, but you know a little more.

You know that there will be another New Year's Eve and another night at the Cat's Whiskers. You know that there will still be a quiet boy. By the time the clock strikes twelve, you will also know that however carefully you get ready, however hard you try, his friendly smile will be for another girl, not you.

Friday, 24 December 2010

The Bookcase

In every book there are two stories waiting to be told; one emerges from the print on the pages, the other comes along with the perceptions and experiences of its reader. So it is then, that the shelves of a bookcase can hold a whole world of stories and a whole lifetime of meaning.

When I was a child we had only a couple of small bookcases - most of my books came from the library and had to go back, they didn't need their own home at ours. But before very long, I grew up and got married. I started to create our family home, to fill the second-hand teak units with an ever increasing collection of paperbacks supplemented by our favourite picture books for the children's bedtime stories.

In my mid-thirties, when I found myself starting all over, with a new life in a new home, I bought a bookcase. It was the first piece of furniture I'd ever bought with my own money, just for me.

I took my time filling its six shelves. The top shelf was for poetry books. Each one with corners turned down where I'd found a poem that expressed the anger and loneliness I felt. Below that, the penguin classics - a whole shelf of black spines with white lettering; nineteenth century novels, complete sets of George Eliot and Jane Austen, Tolstoy and Turgenev, cheek by jowl with Hardy and Dickens. Me trying to convince my few visitors I was well-read, intelligent.

Then came three shelves of the books I'd actually read, arranged not by author or genre, but by the colour of their spine. Annie Proulx's The Shipping News sat next to the faintly intellectual blue spine of Simone de Beauvoir; below that a group of old orange Penguin books including Thackeray's Vanity Fair that I'd won as a prize at school. At the bottom was the white shelf. It's surprising how many books have white spines, how few are yellow or purple. Of course not all the books were single-colour, and not all the same shade, but I spent hours arranging and rearranging the shades, finding the right tones that could sit together. When I was a kid I loved those wide flat tins of colouring pencils, 40 shades from white, through the rainbow, to the special gold and silver at the end. I'd spend nearly as much time sorting out their order in the tin as I did colouring, some days it was like that with the books.

If you picked up any of these books and turned the pages, the chances are a ticket would fall to the floor. A train pass or a boarding card, sometimes a theatre or concert ticket, each a symbol of things I'd been doing at the time I read the book, each a reminder of escape or perhaps truancy from expectation. If you looked to the back of Sebastian Faulk's Birdsong, you'd see the edges of a page roughly torn out, used to write a love letter on a beach.

When Philip and I first got together, I loved that he'd read more widely than me, that I could talk to him about poetry, that he'd be able not only to name a poem, but also to quote it and identify the author.  I welcomed the books he brought with him, that I might get to read myself someday. At first I resisted their entry to my bookcase, but over time, things changed. Suddenly the top shelf contained travel guides as well as poetry, the third was filled with cookery books. Colour-arranging went out the window, I began to relax into myself, the odd Agatha Christie story snuck in next to an allotment guide, I added my collection of Rowan knitting patterns, the pile of programmes from Bromley football matches began to grow.

Ten years later, the bookcase continues to change. The edges of the shelves have filled with the relics of daily life. As I sit here now I can see the incense burner, an empty perfume bottle, a set of drill-bits and a knife sharpener, some mints, a pair of sunglasses and an empty camera film holder.  We continue to accumulate books, read them, love them, then give them away when we run out of room. I was horrified when Philip first suggested a book-give-away - even if I was never going to read them again, it felt like my books were part of me, defined how I felt about myself. But once I'd tried it, seen the pleasure on people's faces as they browsed through the boxes we put outside on the bench, I began to see the appeal - and it's becoming a regular event.

The bookcase does still tell a story about my life, but it's become a story of change and possibility, of mixing and sharing.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Saying the wrong thing

There's a certain irony to this post, given that writing a blog is all about choosing the right words, but I guess in real life we've all done it - said the wrong thing in the wrong way at the wrong time.

Sometimes it's just plain funny. Like the time when my Mother, sitting under the hazelnut tree in the garden, turned to my beloved and exclaimed loudly, "Oh Philip, what lovely nuts you've got"

But at other times it’s more complicated. 

It was probably my twelfth birthday when my parents' gift to me was a hairdryer and some money. I've never really been a hairdryer person; I'm vain but lazy, so the effort of standing there for hours with aching arms to achieve a perfect hair-do was never my thing, but they meant well. And the money was brilliant - ten pounds was a lot in those days, I remember my friends at school being really envious and I was genuinely grateful for it at the time. Until... until my youngest sister's birthday six months, later when they bought her a Chopper bike.

Choppers were all the rage at the time. I'd never had my own bike, and never learned to ride one, I was horribly jealous. 

I didn't stop to think about the reasons behind the gift, or the tight finances that might have stopped them buying me one when I was her age. To me it was proof that they didn't care enough to think about what I wanted and that they loved her more. Complete nonsense, but it rankled. It rankled so much that next time I lost my temper I shouted "Ten pounds and a hairdryer! That's how much you care about me!"

Cruel, horrible words. Since then I've tried to erase the embarrassment that came to me too late, by attempting to make a joke of it, encouraging people to laugh at my mean-spiritedness and over time, my generous family have let it become just that - a family joke.

As an adult I've haven't eliminated my ability to be insensitive or stupid, but I've learned to recognise the tell-tale signs - the raised eyebrow, the polite smile and embarrassed laugh, or the fleeting expression of pain that comes in response to a thoughtless remark. And that's a kindness because it gives me a chance to redeem the situation.

But it only works when you're face-to-face with people. The advent of e-mail brought with it a whole range of opportunities for misunderstandings from hastily sent missives. And since starting this blog, I've uncovered another potential bear-pit - the comments form.

I love to receive comments; at their best, they make me feel proud of what I've written, at their most useful they help me to see how I could write better. So it seems only fair, when I read other people's work, that I should say something in return. And that's where the trouble arises - because it does feel like 'saying' rather than writing. For me, that sometimes means I'll fall into the trap of trying to make myself sound clever, without really thinking through or understanding how it will be interpreted at the other end and I'll press the publish button just a little too soon.

A few days ago I left a comment on a blog I admire very much. When I went back to look at later comments I re-read what I'd said. I winced at the horrible combination of patronising and glib, at words which say more about my character faults than anything about the person they were written to. There's been no response, so I've no notion of how it was received. The simplest thing would be to go back and delete it, but that might also seem odd and spark another load of misunderstanding. So I'm writing this with that slightly sick feeling of knowing I said the wrong thing at the wrong time and not quite knowing what to do about it. 

If you're reading this as the recipient of the comment, then I'm genuinely sorry. Given the chance, I will try and make a joke or a tradition of it. In the meantime, I shall just sit here and feel like my twelve-year-old self.

Friday, 17 December 2010

I love the PRS cheques that you bring

Those who know and love me, know my fondness for a Beautiful South song. Those who are forced to share my singing-in-the-car routines know my very particular fondness for a specific line in Song for Whoever - 'I love the PRS cheques that you bring' - I sing it loudly, with a certain 'yes I know what a PRS cheque is'  conceit and a smug-and-somewhat-self-satisfied smile.

Let me take you on a journey back in time. It was 1997, and I'd had a tough year. My Dad had died, I was struggling to work out how to live post-divorce, with four kids and no job. I was part-way through a teacher-training degree which seemed more and more distant from my idea of what teaching should be, when my very best friend Francesca Ferrari (yes that is her real name and worthy of another blog post all of its own) suggested that we nick off college for a week and take a holiday to Gran Canaria.

I'm easily led. It seemed a sensible option to spend my student loan on a child-free week in the sun. So we hatched our plot, packed our bags and set off. On the very first evening, just before retiring to our hotel beds, we happened across a couple of polite young gentlemen with strangely-accented English. And there it all began.

For the next few years I conducted a long-distance liaison with an Austrian music producer. Time was spent between London and Vienna. I didn't get to see the usual tourist attractions, Schonbrunn Palace, the coffee houses, the art galleries, but I did become quite familiar with a basement studio, with its blue-plastic-lined ceiling and bewildering range of mixing desks.

Though it might be somewhat difficult to appreciate the difference, Austrian Euro-pop in those days was trying hard to maintain a distinction from German Euro-pop. To do that it really needed English lyrics - and that was where I came in. Words and music were exchanged across the miles, until eventually there was a whole album full of songs.

Of course, I'd made no efforts to protect my interests (they were largely of a personal nature) so there were no formal contracts, but my Austrian musician had suggested that I join the Performing Rights Society, just in case the album sold. And to my amazement, it did. It even found its way into the Austrian charts, and for the next few years a small sum made its way into my bank account each year in recognition of our efforts.

After a while the distance between London and Vienna proved too much and the Anglo-Austrian relationship foundered. I grew ever-so-slightly ashamed of my links to the under-valued genre of Euro-pop, and my time as a published lyricist came to an end.

It's been a long time since I had anything to do with UniqueII, they don't exist any more as a production team and my days in Austria are a fond but faded memory. Imagine then, my surprise and delight when I checked my bank statement earlier today to find the sum of £2.76 credited to my account from PRS. It's certainly not the early retirement sum I might have wished for, but I can't help but be pleased that, somewhere in the world, my words are still being listened to every now and then. 

And I hope that whoever is still listening is having a lovely time, maybe even dancing.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Nobody does vincible half as well as us*

Our vincible band of writers
marched unseeingly on,
as the clich├ęs flowed like hydrants
to extinguish wintry sun.

The images donned their armbands
for the struggle to the shore,
crawled through the sands of thens and ands;
the flotsam of the jaw.

The adjectives drowned the pronouns,
yet the adverbs missed their cue,
while the metaphors fought with similes
to outwit the plain and true.

Our vincible band of wordsmiths
described, unknowingly, on,
deconstructed by our verbiage.
The war of words not won.

*my thanks to @MrLondonStreet  for the tweet that prompted this poem 
(and brightened an otherwise gloomy day).

Sunday, 12 December 2010


When I was 18 my best friend went off to the other side of the world for a year. She left quite a gap in my life which I tried to fill by writing long, long letters to her. Over time, in my letters, I became the interesting, entertaining, confident young woman I really wasn't. She got the edited highlights without the embarrassing faux-pas, the witty comments without the dull silences.

When eventually she returned, I realised that while she had gained maturity through experience, I had only achieved lyricism through letters; it was almost inevitable that we'd struggle to connect in person. I couldn't help but feel I'd disappointed her and that feeling has come back to visit me more than once since then.

So, when my beloved mentioned the idea of a few bloggers getting together for a pre-christmas meet, my outwardly positive response was tinged with more than a little trepidation.

As the plans for #yuleblog began to take shape, and a date and venue were agreed, the guest-list waxed and waned. I wondered if others were like me, intrigued by the prospect of meeting the very finest of bloggers, but scared of the reality.

Finally the day dawned. I'd spent a whole week planning what to wear, but that didn't stop the last minute faffing - which boots? Hair up or down? One bracelet or three? Philip stoically calmed my rising anxiety with a bacon sandwich and then we set off for the trip into town.

As we sat sipping cider and waiting for them to arrive, I looked around at the old black-and-white photographs lining the walls of the French House bar. Pictures of people who'd been known and loved in the 1930s and 40s, their confident smiles and knowing eyes gazing down as we sat there in nervous anticipation.
We both looked up expectantly each time the door opened - but we'd barely been there five minutes when they arrived and then, almost immediately, I knew it would be alright.

Many of you will already know Bag Lady  and Mr London Street from their blogs and admire their writing. It would be impossible for me to describe them in a way that does more justice than their own words - if you haven't come across them before, please go and read their blogs and soak up the mixture of reflection and memory, of acute observation and life-affirming love, all underlined by a mix of caustic wit and smut, then you might get an idea of what I'd want to write. All I can say here is that they were all the good bits of all their best posts only better.

They were simply just lovely.

As lunchtime wore on into evening, we drank, we shared food, we chatted without awkwardness or embarrassment. We admired the tiny wine glasses, waxed lyrical over the soft-shelled crab and guffawed at the presentation of the spicy pork and fennel polpette. We talked about our writing, filled in some of the gaps in our individual life histories, and got to know each other a little better. When lunch was done, we made our way to an overcrowded Soho bar and carried on. Eventually, some nine hours later, when Philip could tell that I was flagging, we agreed to call it a day and set off home, but even then it felt like we should have gone on for longer.

This morning, I realised that if I'd given in to all my egotistical worrying about what I wore, how I looked, and what they might think of me, I might have ducked out of meeting them. I wouldn't only have missed a lovely day out in London, I'd have passed up the chance of more days like that in the years ahead - and that would have been a big mistake.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Christmas past, Christmas present

Once upon a time, there was a young mother who believed in the magic and wonder of Christmas. Each year she set about the tasks of shopping and cooking, making and decorating; convinced that if she only tried hard enough she could create the perfect day.

As the glitter frosted windows of the advent calendar were opened, she spent the days of December assembling the chocolate coins, tubes of sweets, pencils and socks; all those long thin objects that would fit in a Christmas stocking. She helped the children write their letters to Santa, lifted them up to reach the letter box, made sure they didn't find the shiny-wrapped gifts hidden under her bed.

As the big day drew nearer, she went in search of the tree, just the right height and width, non-dropping needles and a tall spike at the top for the fairy. She tested the lights, replaced the fuse-bulbs where necessary, then carefully, one by one, placed the fragile glass baubles and home-made paper lanterns. She searched out the pine cones they'd collected in summer, then tied them with scarlet ribbon to the green garlands draped around the fireplace. Her evenings slipped past in writing cards, shaping and painting marzipan fruits, finishing hand-knitted jumpers.

Almost before she realised, it was Christmas Eve, with its own special schedule. A carol service at church; walking there in the cold with excited children pulling her along. Coming home to baths and hair-washes; there'd be no time for those on Christmas Day. Putting the girls' hair in rags to curl them, keeping an eye on the boys to stop them eating all the chocolates on the tree.

And then it was bedtime. There were no difficulties in getting any of them to bed on Christmas Eve - the sooner they went, the sooner Santa would come. But before they could go up the stairs there was the sherry and mince pie to put out for Father Christmas, the saucer of milk and carrots for the reindeers. Then the song they'd all sing -

Christmas time is here
so we go to bed.
As we climb the stairs
nodding sleepy heads.
Take our stockings off
hang them in a row
then jump quickly into bed
and off to sleep we go...

But then came the years when the Christmas sparkle faded, when they didn't live in the lovely house any more, when the choices had to include decisions about spending the day with Mummy or Daddy. Two sets of presents didn't make up for the things that were missing. Pleasure offset by guilt and regret.

Year after year of not-quite-right Christmases followed.

Last weekend, the not-so-young mother went shopping with her best friend and her youngest daughter. They chose jumpers for the boys, looked at boots and leather jackets, checked out different types of make-up, bought new fairy lights for the tree.

At the bookshop they spent ages looking through the children's section. She found the books she'd loved as a child, Pippi Longstocking and the Chronicles of Narnia. She re-lived the times she'd shared stories with her own children, their laughter over Peepo and Each-Peach-Pear-Plum. She carefully selected the first books she would read to her grandson on his first ever Christmas.

When lunchtime came, they stopped at a new restaurant. They sat on soft leather seats while they waited for their steaming mugs of chocolate. They looked around at the light fittings made of tea-cups, at the velvet patchwork sofas, the cake-stands piled high with dainty treats. She noticed the excited, smiling  faces of children and adults alike;  she couldn't help but smile back.

It was still early in December, but it felt almost as though they were finding a new tradition.

Maybe a perfect Christmas wasn't quite so far away.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Home and away

I've been on a training course this week - cloistered in a hotel near Colchester. Seventy-two hours away from family and friends, seventy-five miles from Shoreham.

While the minutes ticked by in north Essex, the world changed around me. Snow fell constantly; it accumulated in piles and drifts; it bent the tree branches with its weight; it slowly transformed the cars outside into indistinguishable white mounds. The flakes swirled and floated past the windows of the conference room.

I watched the news and weather reports on TV in between seminars and 'case-plays'. I listened to the stories of stranded train travellers, of lorries abandoned at the sides of motorways, of schools and offices closed, and of farmers transporting midwives by tractor to the bedsides of women in labour. The whole country seemed to be sliding to a halt.

As time passed, I began to feel less and less connected to reality. I wasn't sure if it was just the wintry blizzard outside that made me feel so cut off.  Perhaps it was the faded '70s decor of the hotel, or the Christmas menu complete with crackers and paper hats, that greeted us in the restaurant.

I don't know if it was the experience of spending so much time with people I barely know, or the strange jargon-filled language that peppered our earnest discussions, but gradually I felt as though I'd lost my centre of gravity.

I've never experienced homesickness before, I haven't known that gut-wrenching pull. In the years since we came to Shoreham, I haven't realised just how much the rolling green hills of the valley and the messy cosiness of our house, have taken me up and enfolded me.

More than that, I haven't noticed how the comforting arms of my big kindly northerner, and the non-stop singing chatter of my dancing daughter have given me a sense of belonging.

Without them I am lost.