Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Friday 31 August 2012

Incandescent... Moi?

If we only get one chance, in this life, surely it behoves us to take it?

I become, frankly, incandescent with... well, not so much rage (not a terribly angry person), as disappointment* when I see someone letting what might be his only opportunity slip through his fingers, and all for what? Well, in this instance for the want of effort, it seemed to me.

People just don’t try, do they?

Here you go, have a platform, have somewhere to show what you can do, take the stage, write something, see it in print, this person was told.

What was his answer?

His answer, this person who calls himself a writer; his answer was, I’m not really feeling it, and I don’t want to force anything, and it might be better to wait until the spirit moves.

Some of you might be able to imagine what my answer would have been had this been someone I knew well enough to scold: say a very close friend of very long standing, a brother, a son or, if we were back in 1952, a student in my charge. Some of you might be able to imagine that I might have said something like, “Call yourself a bloody writer! Step aside, fool, and let someone who’s prepared to work at it have a go, and don’t expect any sympathy from me when you’re still pushing in a pen in a crumby office in another twenty years. Idiot!” 

What this person was actually told was something along the lines of, No pressure.

No bloody pressure, my fundament!

If and when you can name you price for your next novel, and if and when you can afford to produce a book a decade, and if and when the World adores you enough to give you... I don’t know... a bloody Nobel Prize for Literature, then you can tell me you’re not feeling it, but until you’re published, if you’re offered an opportunity to showcase yourself or your work then give the spirit a hefty kick in the breeches and get the damned thing moving. That’s your one chance, Buster, and it’s a slippery little sucker.

*Incandescent with disappointment isn’t cutting it, is it? but I am incandescent... I am, I tell you!

Thursday 30 August 2012

Clever, Pretty Women

Women think that men like clever, pretty women, which is weird, because most men are absolutely terrified of them.

I like women, and the older I get the more I like them. Sadly, women have never seemed to like me very much. The people I have formed the most enduring friendships with have invariably been men. I have adored them, but I really would have liked to have had more women like and befriend me, especially in my teens and twenties when good girlfriends seemed to me to be about as rare as hen’s teeth.

Honestly, making friends has become easier as I have got older, and not only do I have more women friends now than I have ever had, but I am finally finding it easier to make good women friends. I feel blessed.

It was in conversation with my bone-mage that the question arose as to why, historically, I have found it difficult to make friends with women. I said I thought it was because I was ‘a bit rubbish’. 

My bone-mage, a longstanding male friend, wasn’t having any of it, and I was forced to think about it. It isn’t a pleasant experience, wondering why people don’t like you, and, while I haven't actually avoided the issue, thinking too much about it in the past has left me feeling rather depressed. 

I took a moment. I’m plain-spoken and opinionated, and I know that can alienate people, but not everyone, surely? I’m not horrible, cruel or malicious. I’m more likely to wince at another’s misfortune than laugh about it. I won’t say anything behind anyone’s back that I won’t say to his face, so what does that leave?

I managed to get a degree before the big education reforms of the late 80s were put into practice and I was the first of my family to do so, and, on top of the obvious disadvantage of being clever, I was also, heaven forfend, good-looking. It’s only now that I look back at old photos that I realise just how good-looking.

I wouldn’t go back, though. The 80s should have been a time of great promise, but, actually, I was sad and lonely, and rather adrift in the World, not least because I didn’t have the security of good and lasting friendships; I do, now, and I’m eternally grateful for them.

I won’t look like this again, but my looks weren’t a blessing then and losing them isn’t a curse now. I hope that ‘clever’ doesn’t go away, but, on the subject of ‘being a bit rubbish’; I suspect I probably was, and I do hope I’m doing better with that.

Wednesday 29 August 2012

What’s the Point?

I rather like it when my blog hits a nerve.

I don’t want to open any wounds, or anything, but what’s the point of writing a blog if it doesn’t garner a response?

I don’t consider myself to be a particularly aggressive or negative person, but, like most, I do have opinions on lots of things, and, like most, I do get exercised about one or two issues in particular.

When asked, you lot seem to like it when I have a good snark about something. When I check the statistics for my blog, the most popular posts are generally the ones in which I have a good old moan, and I guess that’s the nature of the beast. It rather makes me smile.

I don’t promise to be consistent, and I don’t promise that I’ll always be fair. I’m human, after all, probably about as human as you are. Some of you write blogs, too, and those of you that do also voice your opinions. That’s what a blog is for.

So, I’m always a little surprised when I’m told that I’m being unfair or unjust, or when I’m told that I’m wrong, especially when I’m told those things somewhere other than on the comments of this blog.

I keep an open comments page. You can say what you like here, and I’d be happy if you did so. I think a dialogue is a wonderful, healthy approach to almost everything. I’m more than happy for you to persuade me out of my opinions, especially if they are ill-judged or just plain snarky, but they are only opinions, and, as such, they can hardly be characterised as simply ‘wrong’.

You and I will not always like the same things or people, but neither one of us is wrong, although... you know... your taste is questionable.

There are, of course, views that I do consider to be beyond the pale; they include tendencies to sexism, racism, persecution on religious grounds and homophobia, so I’d prefer you keep those nasties to yourself, but I’m not going to ban anything, and I do want you all to join the debate.

Don’t tell me that a blog... MY BLOG is no place for my opinions, especially not when the reason I’m writing a blog in the first place is to air my thoughts and even, sometimes, my feelings about stuff.

Don’t tell me I’m wrong, because it’s only the same as saying that you’re right, and you’re in my house, and you’re welcome, and I’m content for us to agree to differ and so should you be.

If you’re a fan of the abomination that is self-publishing, weigh in with your opinion. If, heaven help you, you enjoyed 50 bloody Shades, have the courage of your convictions. I’m happy to respect you, just so long as you do no less for me. 

Tuesday 28 August 2012

You and Me and Dear Old Stephen Fry

I’m not a huge fan of FaceBook, although I do still use it to keep in touch with people, and I’ve used it quite a lot in the past. In particular, it made a great platform for a very interesting art project on the nature of identity. No doubt some of you are more than a little familiar with Adelie High.

Anyway, some of the things that continue to pop up on FaceBook are for the purposes of increasing awareness of various things, and I’m pretty sure that increased awareness is probably a good thing. Let’s talk about stuff. Let’s share our experiences of important things. Talk to me about whatever you like. I’m happy to share my opinions, and, if I have them, my experiences.

I’m just not sure about scale.

For example, I notice that a number of people are sharing, on FaceBook, a YouTube video of Stephen Fry talking about Manic Depression, perhaps more commonly known as Bi-polar Disorder.

I do not know Stephen Fry, although, let’s not pretend I don’t have an opinion or two about him, largely based on his output in the media, and, most recently in the realms of social networking, which have caused me to more-or-less discontinue taking any concerted interest in him. He is, in my (I’m terribly sorry, not always ever-so-humble) opinion, someone whose output benefits from consideration, a period of thought (the ability to ‘sleep on it’ generally doesn’t occur to him (oh... perhaps that’s the mania talking)) and from a good deal of editing. He is, undoubtedly clever. He is not, however, always as charming as he has been led to believe he is, and some of his thoughtless remarks simply come across as ignorant. Being Stephen Fry does not, for example, excuse him from knowing what and where a clitoris is.

Anyway... Can I expect that watching a YouTube of Stephen Fry talking about Manic Depression will increase my or anyone else’s awareness of the condition? I don’t know. I wonder if this is more about Stephen Fry and increasing my awareness of him, and excusing him. I wonder if this is somehow a way of shining a more sympathetic light on one individual than it is a public information film.

That might be too harsh, but I think that my point is this: Most people who suffer from Manic Depression are not Stephen Fry. In fact, no one else who suffers from Manic Depression is Stephen Fry, just as no one else who suffers from Manic Depression is Ruby Wax or Russell Brand or Robert Downey Jr, or Carrie Fisher or Sinead O’Connor. I wonder in the end how much it matters whether I like or admire any of these people, whether I consider them clever, funny or talented. I wonder if most people who suffer from Manic Depression want or need an ambassador of his kind, or, perhaps, of any kind.

With at least one percent of the population affected by the condition, it shouldn’t be difficult to find someone of your acquaintance who is dealing with Manic Depression, so, if you want to increase your awareness, why not talk to him about his experiences? And, if all else fails, why not talk to me?

Monday 27 August 2012

Shu’ Up!

So... What can I say? I had a bloody marvellous weekend!

I had a splendid time with the very lovely Sarah Cawkwell. We didn’t do much more than bibble about, indulge in room service and talk for England, but that was sort of the point. I slightly wish I’d remembered to feed her properly on Saturday, because an endless supply of good cake, world-class cheese scones and hotel sandwiches doesn’t really cut it, nutritionally speaking, but I suppose you can’t have everything.

The people made up for it, though. The three hours that Sarah and I spent in the bar of the White Hart Hotel on Saturday afternoon left us both with seriously aching cheeks, for two very good reasons that we shall call Ian and Debbie, mostly because those are their names. It's been a while since I've laughed so damned much.

I had a bit of a moan, the other day, in my blog “Passive Aggressive Much!” and it’s really very lovely to be able to redress the balance.

At about four o’clock on Saturday afternoon, just after Sarah had bought the two of us lovely champagne cocktails (I had the classic and she had the French 69, because, you know, a detail or two always adds a touch of verisimilitude to a good story) a gorgeous young couple wandered in for a drink, and made their way to the sofa next to ours. They were smiling and talking to us before they’d even sat down, declaring that it was their tenth anniversary. When I said I’d been with the husband for thirty years, Debbie said, “Shu’ Up!” and that was the beginning of things!

They were absolutely charming company. They were smart and funny, and incredibly personable. They were friendly with the staff and with us, and, what’s more they were sweet and caring with each other. They couldn’t speak long enough or lovingly enough about their four year old daughter, whom they both clearly adored, and they were genuinely engaged with the World, which meant that they were interested in who we were, too.

This from a couple who do serious, professional jobs, and who’ve been through some very difficult years together. Their lives have been tough... so tough that Ian wants nothing more than to keep his wife and child eternally safe from harm, secure and happy. If he could wrap them in cotton wool and let nothing but the sun shine down on them, I think he’d do it. Their lives have been so tough that Debbie wants nothing more than to live as full a life as she can possibly manage. If she could stand naked under the biggest thundercloud the World has to offer and feel the downpour on her skin, I think she’d do it.

So Ian protects Debbie, and Debbie bats his protection away, and they smile and order another round of cocktails. In four more years, I suspect that the two of them, and their little girl will happily wander out into any storm together in their wellies with a golfing umbrella shielding all three of them from the worst of whatever the elements might have in store, because, in the end, that's what life's all about, isn't it?

Bloody good luck to them, too, because, you know what? They thoroughly deserve the best of times that are surely to come, and you can't say that about everybody.

Sunday 26 August 2012

Blog 200

Today I am writing my 200th blog.

I’m not quite sure I believe that. It seems to have come round awfully quickly.

200 days ago, I learned that I was going to be a writer, after all. I learned that I had come second in the Mslexia novel writing competition for my novel “Naming Names”.

Since then I have secured a very lovely agent, started a second round of edits on the book, and had some interest in reading the novel from four mainstream publishers. I’ve also outlined a second novel to follow the first, and I’ve become ambitious.

I was wondering what to write for this blog. I wanted to write something useful, something interesting, something significant, but it’s only now, with my laptop on my knees that I know what it is I want to say. 

It is this.

If the last two hundred days have taught me anything, it is to know my own value.

Creative types, and I think this is true of us all, not just writers, fall into two broad categories: those who believe that they are good and those who believe that they’re a bit rubbish.

They seem to fall into these two categories pretty well regardless of what they actually know about what they are capable of. Unfortunately for the World, there are a very great many writers who are not terribly talented, who believe themselves to be very good indeed. They have a tendency to clog up all the artistic byways for everyone else, taking up the time of readers and agents, producing awful, self-published nonsense, and generally getting in the way. It’s easy for me to say that they should stop it, right now, but we all know that’s never going to happen, and all we can do about it is blog and sigh.

There are good writers, who know that they’re good, but who remain undiscovered, and even some who are being paid to write, who still believe they’re a bit rubbish. It doesn’t matter what you do or say for those people, they will always struggle with their confidence. While they are writing, no doubt they have great moments of clarity, creativity and inspiration, but when it comes to promoting themselves and their work, I suspect it all becomes rather difficult.

Before the Mslexia prize, I knew that I could write. I knew that I was good, and yet, for various reasons, some of them to do with self-esteem, I never believed that I would see “Naming Names” in print. That has changed.

I wrote on this blog the other day that modesty is an attractive trait, and I still believe that to be true, but I am, I think, rightly proud of my first novel. 

“Naming Names” is a worthy runner-up to the Mslexia prize. I am a good writer, and I know it, and I should celebrate that fact. If I am going to make a success of this, and I hope that I am, I’m not going to do it by being self-deprecating, because writing a good book isn’t nothing. Writing a good book takes a good deal of talent, drive and discipline, and that’s only the beginning.

When I’m required to read out chunks of my novel at festivals, answer questions for interviews, or sign books in shops I’d like to be able to do it with a certain grace and charm. I’d like to be able to do it without my hand shaking, and with a genuine smile on my face. If I know that the book is good, that the cover price is well worth paying, and that people will be glad they bought it, the battle will be won.

So, yes, I am a good writer, and I wrote a good book, and I’m not afraid to say so.

Saturday 25 August 2012

Empty Nest or Open Door?

It can’t possibly have escaped your notice, I’m sure, that I’m off on a girly weekend with my good friend, Sarah. We are going to Lincoln; in fact, I’m on the train, right now, winging my way (it’s the fast service) to my destination.

It sounds ridiculous, I’m sure, but I suffered a certain amount of trepidation getting on the train, alone, sans husband. I left him on the platform. I kissed him, picked up my suitcase and found my seat. I put my hand on the glass of the window, like a prisoner in a bad American tv drama, and he pulled a face and placed his hand on the other side of the glass, and we grimaced. There was real pathos... almost.

What happens? 

What happens to all those years between the last bit of independence we have as young adults and the first bit we find again in middle age?

I suppose my life isn’t really very much like other people’s lives. I suppose it’s actually rather rare for anyone not to have her own personal means of transport. I suppose it’s actually very rare for a married couple to live and work together, and, as a consequence, to share their lives quite as completely as the husband and I have done.

I tried to remember when I was last out in the World alone, and I could not. Yes, of course, I run an errand or two, but I don’t drive, so I do those things on foot, because we live, quite literally, in the middle of our home town. 

Anything more than a bit of shopping or a trip to the hairdressers, I almost always do in company, either the husband’s or, for most of the past twenty-two years, one or both of my children’s.

That is beginning to change.

Our older daughter left for university three years ago, and the other one’s just about to fly the nest. Neither one of them needs us. They’re both very independent, and I rather like that they’re out in the World, where they belong.

The husband has an increasingly full professional life and an increasingly global presence,  and that, too, is gratifying. The time he spent travelling used to be filled with taking care of the children, but, now, I have the option of going with him, which broadens my horizons. Honestly, I don’t always want to tag along, and when I do accompany him on trips, I want to spend some of that time enjoying the places we visit rather than standing in his shadow, hanging off the words I’ve heard him say before.

Only last week, that meant I found myself eating alone, in public, for the first time in so long that I couldn’t remember ever having done it before, although I know that I have. It was quite the adventure. I chose from a menu without consultation. I found things to do that didn’t involve any talking. I paid the bill, for goodness sake! I only ever do that when I take my mother or sister out to eat. I liked it, though. I really did.

A little while ago, I decided that my empty nest actually represented an open door, and that I could and would do more for myself, more of the things that please me. I have long been extolling the virtues of women and friendships with women, so, that’s what this trip’s about. That’s why I’m on a train, on my own, for the first time in twenty years.

The view’s good. I’m relaxed, and any trepidation I might have had is fast ebbing away.

I’m out in the World, and I say, “Bring it on!”

Friday 24 August 2012

Passive Agressive, Much!

Perhaps someone could explain to me the point of passive aggressive behaviour.

Who does it benefit?

Last night, I watched a couple leave a bar, having placed an order, but not having been served. I watched the man stew for three or four minutes after an acceptable time lapse between the order being placed and when he might have expected his drinks to be served. The woman said nothing. It was the man’s decision to leave, and the woman, whom I assume to have been his wife, had clearly been through other incidents like this one on any number of occasions previously.

As they left the bar, the man said, loudly, “It wouldn’t do to be thirsty around here, would it?” The question was clearly rhetorical. I don’t know whether the woman we shall call his wife had ever attempted to answer any of these questions, although I guess he’d been asking them for most of his adult life, but if she ever had, she’d clearly stopped, probably several decades ago.

I doubt that the barman was thrilled, but the man huffing off weakened his position considerably, if he could be said to have a legitimate one at all, by being what is technically known as an utter t*sser (and I can’t believe I’ve used that term twice in two days).

Would it have hurt him to wave and smile sweetly at the barman, and get him on-side? I think not. He was in the warm and dry, in perfectly clean, sweet-smelling surroundings, and he was sitting down. He wasn’t expected to stand at the bar and wait for his drinks, and he wasn’t even expected to pay with his order. This was a very, very civilised bar, let me tell you.

Would it have done him any harm at all to notice that the poor, hardworking barman, with his minimum wage job, was working rather hard, and, I thought, terribly efficiently, building (and I use the word advisedly) a series of very complex, celebratory cocktails for what appeared to be members of a lovely, happy party? I very much doubt it.

I was not the only person in the bar who was unimpressed by the man’s behaviour, and I was not the only one inclined to feel sorry for his wife. I doubt he was the sort of man who would like to be thought ill of. I’m tempted to think he was precisely the sort of man who’d very much like to be thought rather highly of. Not one of us was sorry to see the back of him, and isn’t that a pity? Especially since not one of us could also claim to know anything about him other than what this little scene demonstrated.

In my experience, and, I think, in the experience of the wider world, we’re rather tempted to admire modest, humble, kindly people. We are obliged, by history, to remember dictators and tyrants, despots, martinets, autocrats and plain old-fashioned bullies, but you’ll notice that I haven’t named any of them here. 

We choose to celebrate instead, I hope, the wonderful men and women who really changed the World. 

Let’s face it Gandhi didn’t do it by sulking and neither did Gorbachev or the Dalai Lama or Desmond Tutu or Aung San Suu Kyi or anyone else that the Nobel committee has seen fit to recognise and celebrate, either with a nomination, or five in the case of Gandhi, or with the Peace Prize, which all of those named above have won since I earned the right to call myself an adult.

Thursday 23 August 2012

Experiences do not Touch us all Equally

I went to sit in front of a Jenny Saville picture again yesterday. 

I have visited Oxford a couple of times in the past few weeks, and on both occasions it has been my pleasure and privilege to pop into the Ashmolean, climb the couple of flights of stairs to the European Art Gallery and stroll down to where the two Jenny Saville pictures hang on either side of the room. 

I sat for long periods of time, waiting for the lull in the crowd that would allow me to take a good, long, uninterrupted look at the work.

And that’s the thing.

People breezed past these most amazing of pictures, and I was astonished that was even possible. They glanced, and they clearly did not see what I saw. If they had, they would have stopped and stared, and their mouths would have hung open. They would have salivated and they would have coveted, just as I did.

I wondered what was wrong with people.

I wondered if there were things in the museum that would have left me cold, and, if I’m honest, I knew that there were.

I am not hugely, culturally, interested in things that I am not terribly familiar with. So, for example, I am more interested in the ancient Roman, Greek and Egyptian cultures, that I learned a bit about in primary school, than I am in the Asian or South American cultures that I was introduced to rather later.

I am rather more interested in European art than I am in, for example, what might, loosely, be called, Commonwealth art.

I understand adults picking and choosing and breezing through the areas of the museum that interested them little or least. After all, when I entered the Ashmolean yesterday, it was with the express purpose of looking at Jenny Saville’s work and one of the two pictures in particular, so I can hardly judge anyone else who has developed a very particular interest.

It was the kids that really baffled me, though. I watched them. It seemed to me that children of all ages struggled to engage with just about anything.

I wonder if the toddlers in push-chairs might have looked a little further out at the World if the immediate environments of those push-chairs hadn’t been so busy with mobiles and things attached on coloured springs and luminous bungee bits and bobs, and if they hadn’t had their hands full of bright food-products to eat in order to keep them busy and quiet, and wrapped in hopelessly enclosed little bubble worlds of nothingness.

Of course, there comes a time when a child has to walk around, and then, when there was nothing left to restrain and entertain it, and to chew on, literally, all hell broke loose. There are no degrees by which a child learns to be civilised, no stepping stones to moderate behaviour. 

It is to their credit, but it is also a wonder to me that so many kids turn into functioning, if disillusioned and often sad, young adults. Can we not do something more to engage them, and engage with them before we expect them to engage and engage with us? Please?

Wednesday 22 August 2012

Biting the Hand that Feeds

It came to my attention yesterday that a cast of pretty well known older actors has been strutting about suggesting that the latest series of their pretty well known detective drama isn’t terribly good, and it’s all the fault of the writers, who wrote banal, repetitious stuff that wasn’t sufficiently character driven. ie didn’t put them, the stars, front and centre and allow them to do whatever the hell they wanted to do. What’s more, they were quite happy to include guest directors when they were handing out drubbings, suggesting that they would happily give anyone the runaround, on set, who didn’t come into line with their way of thinking.

It wasn’t funny and it wasn’t clever, and I’m tempted to think that the fools just shot themselves in the foot, or, I suppose, since three of the four leads were quoted in the news article, feet.

I don’t watch television, but, if I did, and I heard an actor say this sort of thing, I would think two things. I do think two things.

  1. I won’t be watching this stuff if the actors think it’s so bad they won’t even meet their obligations to promote the material.
  2. I don’t want to support anyone doing anything, who is clearly a t*sser.

The so-called stars of this show, are, I suppose, in the small-scale world of UK television, bankable, and you could make an argument that the show might not be able to continue without them. However, and it’s a big but, I’m guessing they all saw scripts and storylines ahead of filming, and I’m also guessing that directors were slated for episodes in advance. If the actors really had problems with the material there are channels for making their feelings about the course the show was taking known. They could and should have used them long before the episodes were in the can, and very long before they were giving interviews to promote the new series.

Everyone has a job to do. Everyone is commissioned to do the job that they do. Writers are employed to write, directors to direct and actors to act, and it’s precisely when there’s a power shift that things start to go horribly wrong.

If I was the money man at the production company putting out this particular show, and, since it’s the BBC, as a license-fee payer, I am, and you are too, I’d be slapping some wrists bloody hard, seeking some public apologies and levying some fines.

This behaviour was unprofessional and singularly unappealing. I don’t know or really care whether the show will survive it, and, frankly, I don’t care whether the actors concerned have rendered themselves unemployable in the process. It would, I suspect, serve them right if they had.

Tuesday 21 August 2012

The Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing

Once in a while, my mother might accuse someone of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing, and you know exactly what she means, don’t you?

Tricky, though, isn’t it, when you think about books?

At one end of the spectrum, you’ve got the bidding war problem. 

Every publisher wants the hot new book. He wants it because it will raise the profile of his outfit, and because it will make him money... Or does he? Perhaps he simply wants it so that the other guy doesn’t get it, or maybe he just gets carried away with the process and ends up with a horribly expensive lemon.

It’s cynical too. How many publishers do you suppose actually want to read Katie Price’s biography (and perhaps it's no accident that her name is 'price')? Or the latest  50 Shades rip off? None of them, right? Right. They don’t want to be the one that misses the boat, either, though, do they?

Or so you’d think.

I have heard tell, though, that it’s rather less like that than you’d think. Book people, from agents all the way through, are not envious of success, and they’re quite happy to pat  on the back their colleague (and let’s not pretend this isn’t a terribly incestuous business), who lands that big deal, who makes that pile of cash in an industry that is very difficult to succeed in right now. What no one really wants is to be left with egg on his face. That’s the real curse, that’s the position there’s no way back from.

Advances are getting smaller all the time, and, heaven help me, I’d be much happier taking smaller advances and selling a book every couple of years for the next thirty years, until I retire or expire, than taking, say, a seven figure advance for my first couple of books with the World watching, corks popping and the expectation that I might be the next great British novelist, only to fall on my face and never be able to sell another book as long as I live, because my name is associated with failure.

At the other end of the spectrum, tell me what you pay for a lipstick, a trip to the pictures, a bottle of shampoo, socks, snacks... I don’t know whatever it is you pick up and pay for almost without thinking. 

I don’t know how long it takes you to read a book, but I know that it takes the average person twelve to eighteen hours to read the average book, (and yes, I know that comes with a pretty decent sized -ish). On the other hand, I seldom actually read a book in less than four or five days. So a good book might give me a week’s worth of pleasure, but that’s a conservative estimate. A really good book gives me a lifetime of pleasure, because it informs every other book I read and everything else I take an interest in. A really good book enriches my life, and isn't that priceless?

The average paperback costs about £8- in your local Waterstones, which, coincidentally, is the home of your local Costa Coffee, where the same amount of money will buy you two cups of coffee and two muffins... almost. Now tell me books are expensive.

Monday 20 August 2012

Work, Rest and Play

Of course, advertisers simply aren’t allowed to fib anymore, not even a little bit, so, when the confectioner used the tagline, “A Mars a Day Helps You Work, Rest and Play!” no one actually believed that it was true, but it was a neat little ditty. They’re not allowed to say it now.

I was reminded of it on Saturday when my alter-ego spent a couple of hours with the husband making his Q&A video blogs. 

Yes, obviously it’s work. I have to set everything up, sort questions, and make sure the whole thing rolls smoothly along, and, those couple of hours of him answering questions might be the beginning and end of the work for him, but it's only the start for me. Afterwards, there’s at least a couple of hours of film to cut and edit and upload to Youtube, and then there are links to distribute. So, you know, all told, there might be several days work in it for me. I don’t take this stuff on lightly, which is why I don’t find the time to do it too often. The fans do seem to love the results, though, and I always promise myself I’ll get round to doing it more than the once or twice a year that I generally manage.

It’s very restful listening to the husband talk. He loves his job... Really, really loves it. If he wasn’t writing for a living, all of his free time would be filled with scribbling down his thoughts and ideas, and turning them into stories. He’s a very lucky man to be paid to do what he’d do for love. He is also a great communicator; he enthuses, endlessly about the projects he’s working on. The latest thing, whatever it might be, always seems to be his favourite thing, and, trust me, he works on a very wide variety of projects. I don’t know how he does it. I am also always soothed by his voice. It never grates or annoys, and he doesn’t have any vocal ticks or foibles that irritate me. I could listen to him forever.

Then, there’s playtime. The artist in me loves cutting film. When Dan was taken ill with epilepsy, three years ago, I was halfway through a fine art degree, and I was getting very interested in film. I enjoy nothing so much as messing about with it, cutting and pasting, editing and arranging, clipping and timing, and generally getting as much out of those two hours of the husband talking as I possibly can. It’s fun, hours and hours of fun... I can’t wait to get to the gag reel, so watch this space.

In the meantime, the first vlog, as we have begun to call these videos, is available right here, right now. Go take a look.

Sunday 19 August 2012

Beware the Dog

When I was a kid, some people would have a ‘Beware the Dog’ sign on their front gates, or back gates, or wherever they thought they needed them to keep people at bay. Oddly enough, I don’t remember seeing one recently, but I presume they still exist.

I should probably have a ‘Beware the Occupier’ sign.

It’s not that I’m not perfectly lovely, it’s just that I speak the truth, and the poor sod knocking on my door isn’t necessarily expecting that.

Take yesterday, for example.

I was busily working, as usual, when some unsuspecting person knocked on my front door; in fact, he rang the bell, but, for the purposes of storytelling, the convention of knocking seems, somehow, more interesting or appropriate, or something (these are the choices we make, as writers, after all).

You should know that it was a very hot day, yesterday, and my door was recently painted, and it had swollen up, so I wasn’t easily able to open it. Given that I was expecting my kid brother, and he’s a bruiser of a man, I shouted ‘Push’, thinking that... you know... he’d probably push. Whoever was behind the door didn’t push, but he did say something in a youngish, not terribly muscular voice that I couldn’t quite hear.

I messed about in the letter box until I’d prised it open, pushed my hand through, and, finally, after a good deal of messing about, pulled the door open. It was quite the pantomime

On the other side of the door stood a very young, curly-haired man-boy. He was string-thin and pale, and clearly far too hot in his blue, nylon tabard. He was also carrying a clipboard. Already, the poor thing was rather embarrassed.

Nothing much embarrasses me, and I explained about the door. He didn’t know what to say. He’d been ready with his spiel; he’d learned it, at best, a couple of days before, and if he didn’t get a chance to spit it our more-or-less straight away, he was going to be in trouble. 

He was canvassing on behalf of Battersea Dogs’ Home. He said I’d probably heard of them, which, of course, I have, and asked if I had any pets. 

Now, I know for a fact that some of my regular readers are already wincing. The rest of you might want to read The Mercy Dash.

Like I said at the beginning of this little tale, I have a tendency to answer questions directly, with the truth.

All I can say is poor, poor child! He really didn’t know what to say or where to put himself. He rather gave up at that point, and I had to run down the street after him to warn him not to knock on a certain door that it would have been a really, really bad idea for him to knock on. 

Grief is a tricky thing, and, if I’d had my wits about me, I would have told the poor lamb that, in the end, it doesn’t matter what you say to the bereaved, it only matters that you say something.

I do hope he has a better day today, and I’m pretty sure, in a week or two, when he’s considered a veteran, that he’ll be telling this story to the raw recruits as his very own cautionary tale.

Saturday 18 August 2012

Art or Commerce?

I like my reading group, and I like the people in it.

I haven’t been going for long, six months or so, but, already, I look forward to our monthly meetings, and I look forward to seeing the other members and hearing what they have to say.

We are a mixed group. We are more women than men, which, I gather, is common, and more middle-aged than young, (so no young men, obviously), but, nevertheless, mixed, and I like to think that we are various and lively and pretty bright.

I didn’t volunteer the information that I had ever written anything, but I guessed that at least some of us must harbour ambitions to be writers, since lots of readers do, and I was right, because one of us is studying for a degree in creative writing (heaven forbid she should ever read my thoughts on the subject). In the end, I was outed by another member of the group, a man whom I think of as a ‘senior member’, or even ‘THE senior member’ of the group. He obviously googles people. Good for him. It wasn’t difficult to deflect, since the husband is much more interesting on that front than I am.

In the context of the short stories that we were reading this month, and in the interests of sharing, as other members were, I offered to disseminate a bit of flash fiction of my own, something that was freely available and in the public domain.

“Oh no,” said one woman, slightly horrified. “That would be awful! I like you, and I’d hate it if you’d poured your heart and soul into something that I didn’t think was any good. What would I say?”

I like her too, and I very much like that she cared.

Perhaps I have become terribly thick-skinned, perhaps a writer has to; I don’t know, but it never crossed my mind that I would have any problem taking criticism from these lovely people. I get paid to write. It’s my job. Why should my heart be broken or my confidence skewered if any reader should happen not to like what I’ve done?

It isn’t that I don’t pour my heart and soul into what I do, but writing for a living is both more and less than that. Yes, I have to open a vein, but I have to do it all the time, and I’ve become an expert at closing a wound and healing in anticipation of the next. I open a vein in sterile surroundings, in hospital conditions; I don’t just take a rusty razor blade to an artery in a dark, dirty alleyway somewhere. 

There is time, too; there is time, rounds of editing and proofing and then more time; there is a flurry of reviews and possibly signings and then yet more time passes. By the time real readers are talking to a writer face to face about a story, it’s generally months or even years since it was written. 

It’s worth remembering that I’m not paid in glory, I’m paid in cash.

What’s more, most readers, face to face, are kind and sweet and lovely. Most readers are rather impressed to meet a real life, published writer at all, under any circumstances, and it generally isn’t their default position to be snarky. Most people, in my experience, do what I try to do, which is to say that if they can’t say something nice, they don’t say anything at all. The worst thing anyone standing in front of me, across a signing table has ever done to me is open their eyes wide and point and say, “You’re a girl!” He was all of twelve years old and red-faced and cherubic, and so easy to forgive.

People say all sorts of things, but no one has ever looked me in the eye and told me that I’m rubbish. 

That’s what the forums and chatrooms on the internet are for... surely.

Cathy, if you’re reading this, there’s a little list of flash fiction on the right hand side of the page. I’ll never know if you’ve read any of it, unless you tell me, so fill your boots.

Friday 17 August 2012

One of My Perks is Missing

One of the perks of being a freelance writer, a freelance anything I suppose, was taken away from me this week. If you’re a freelance anything and you live in my hometown, it was also just taken away from you.

This happens every year, and, thankfully, I know that it will pass. It always does, but while I’m in the middle of it, honestly, I rather resent it.

Freelancers do not live like other people. If we do not work, we do not get paid. We can take duvet days, like everyone else, but the work we do not do on those days does not get paid for. I take duvet days, but when I take them, I take them with a laptop, and I work. I don’t do hard work, or real work. Usually, I catch up on e-mails, put a couple of extra blogs in the drawer, work up pitches, collate ideas, you know, peripheral stuff, rather than writing stuff, but it’s rare that a duvet day has a zero workload.

Other people don’t work on duvet days. Other people take holidays, too.

On the other hand, I feel sorry for 9 to 5-ers. They have to go to the tanning booth at lunchtime when it’s hot and busy. They have to go to restaurants in the evenings when they’re noisy and busy. They have to shop at the weekends when shops are stuffy and busy. I don’t have to do that. I can wander into the tanning booth at ten-thirty in the morning when no one’s been in yet and it’s cool, have a chat with Delhi, and take my time rubbing in the lotion, because I don’t feel like I’m holding up the queue. I can have lunch at half past three in the afternoon when waiters are falling over each other to serve me because the place is empty and they’re looking for something... anything to do, and they know they can earn a decent tip. I can shop any time of any day without fighting for my turn at the rack or missing out on the last shirt in my size.

Not this week.

Every summer holidays there is one week when everyone seems to be at home with their kids. Every summer holidays there is one week when no one has gone on the family holiday, the grandparents can’t have the kids because gran’s knees are playing up, the kid’s club at school has closed because of sickness or head-lice or ringworm or something, and the rain has stopped and the Olympics aren’t on the telly any more. During that week, everyone mills about in my home town, clogging everything up and making it busy and uncomfortable. There are thousands of moaning little brats and nagging mothers, and it’s my idea of hell.

I’m an easygoing sort of woman, but, this week was a good week to get an awful lot of work done. Heaven help me, it wasn’t good for much else. Still, it’ll all be over soon, the 9 to 5-ers will go back to work, the kid’s will go back to school, and I’ll have my little world back to myself.

I bloody love my life... Well... fifty-one weeks of the year, anyway.

Thursday 16 August 2012

A Story is Still a Story

Today might not have been a typical working day, but it could prove interesting to you, and a story is still a story, after all.

Today I had a breakthrough with a story that the husband and I have been collaborating on for quite a while. We have come to the final couple of chapters, and we need to go out with a bang. It’s up to me to sort this stuff out, and plot the last twenty thousand words, pull all the strands together and produce a finale.

It’s the end, so it shouldn’t be difficult, right?

Today, I had an epiphany, but it all got a bit complicated.

The whole thing hinged on a map. I kid you not... a map.

That’s fine... A map exists. The city that the entire denouement of this twelve episode epic takes place in already exists, and so does the map for it, which is great, because it simply meant that all I had to do was download the material, print it and take a couple of coloured pens to it to work out the action.

Simple, right?

Simple indeed.

Except... Here’s the thing.

We are an organised household, ergonomic even, which means that every computer in the house shares one printer. That would be OK if our printer would hook up with our wi-fi and interface seamlessly with every machine that wants to interface with it.

You know and I know that in the real world peripherals, and printers in particular, simply don’t operate that way.

The husband is away, and... you guessed it... the printer is hooked up to his desktop computer.

When any of us wants anything printed we simply e-mail it to ourselves, or to the husband if he’s at his desk, and it’s an easy enough job to print it off.

The husband is away in London working for a few days. Sensibly, I suppose, he thought he’d give his desktop computer a rest; he turned it off. Fine... I turned it on; I’m not an idiot, and it’s not difficult; in fact, the husband and I run the same hardware, so everything really ought to run very smoothly.

The problem was that, naturally, we all have our own passwords. None of us can get into each others’ computers without those passwords. What do you suppose the chances are of me remembering the passwords to my husbands computers? Yes... That’s right... ‘Slim to none’. What do you suppose the chances were of the husband being in a part of North London that supports a Vodaphone signal? Yes... That’s right... ‘Slim to none’. Given those two things, what do you suppose the chances were of the husband not being able to pick up a text from me concerning my desire to print maps from his computer for hours, and hours... and sodding hours? Yes... You got... ‘Bloody good!’

So, I have been up since 6 am. I was thrilled to have finished all of my incidental jobs by, oh, about elevenses, which, incidentally, I do not partake of, so that I could get on with a long, and hopefully productive day writing. 

That was twelve hours ago, and I have finally finished printing, cutting and pasting city maps so that I can work out just how to finish these final chapters. I can assure you that it’s going to be bloody good, and I can assure myself that I’m going to have a blast writing it.

In the meantime, I’m just going to remind you that I’ve worked a seventeen hour day today. I sort of wish that I could say that was in any way unusual.

I love being a writer, to the extent that I wouldn’t change any minute of any day of it... not for anything. 

I do urge the rest of you, though, to be very careful what you wish for.

Wednesday 15 August 2012

If I needed a reason to blog

There was a lot to do today, and, thankfully, I have managed to do most of it.

The high point of my day, though, was meeting up with Sara. I think I might have mentioned Sara before; she’s an artist friend of mine, and you can find her work over here. She is a busy woman, running a thriving business and making a lot of very good art, and, once in a while, when our schedules coincide, we manage to eat lunch together. That happened today.

We were talking about all sorts of things when the subject of this blog came up.

Sara commented that she feels very much in touch with me, because it is her daily routine to check her mail and then read my blog. As a consequence, I always feel like there’s lots and lots to catch up on, but she generally has a pretty good idea what’s going on in my life. She has also begun to see just how addictive the internet can become, and how easy it is to start to think that you know someone very well, who you might not actually know at all. Yes, obviously, Sara does know me, but what if she was reading the blog of a woman she’d never met? She wondered how long it would be before she began to feel as if she actually did know her. I thought it a very interesting point.

Anyway, as some of you might have noticed, I have failed, once or twice, of late, to write a blog. One or two days in the past two or three weeks have passed without a new blog appearing on these pages. It was always my intention to write a daily blog, so I have been a little disappointed in myself, and I have told myself that I must do better.

What I didn’t realise was that me missing a day might make the slightest difference to any of you.

If I ever needed a reason to write a daily blog it is this:

Sara was able to tell me, in detail, the ten day weather forecast for Kent.

Sara was able to do this because, when a new blog didn’t appear for her to read a couple of days ago, she clicked on the long-range weather forecast for her e-mail provider and spent ten minutes reading that instead.

Frankly, I was horrified.

So, Sara, I will endeavour to write my daily blog... you know... daily! And, if it should happen that I don’t quite manage it, scroll down to the bottom of this page to ‘my blog list’ or nip over to the right hand side to my bullet-pointed chums, of whom you are one, and dig around until you find something you like. Trust me, every single link will take you to something more interesting than a weather forecast... guaranteed.

Tuesday 14 August 2012

Close to Home

Being misunderstood is not just a possibility; being misunderstood is inevitable.

I begin to think that the longer people know each other, the better people know each other, the more likely they are to misunderstand each other, and that goes double, or maybe triple for families, for the people we grew up with.

I’m a person who speaks her mind; in fact, I’m quite well known for it in certain circles, and the closer those circles are to home, the better known I am for saying what I’m thinking without using any sort of filter between my brain and my mouth. The misunderstanding does not lie in the fact that I dissemble or bluster. The misunderstanding does not lie in the fact the I tag along with an idea because it seems expedient to do so, or that I mumble some vague agreement rather than stand my ground and risk a conflict.

People misunderstand me simply because they choose to. They choose to misunderstand me for their very own reasons, some of which seem good and fair to them, and some of which probably are good and fair to them. It matters not that their reasons are neither good nor fair to me. That, as they say, is life. I’ll take it. I’ll suck it up. That, after all, is the nature of the beast.

What I won’t do is apologise for it.

If you have an opinion and you state it, especially if you state it knowing that it might not be popular, you will, inevitably, get into conflict with people. They will argue with you, and, the better you know them and the longer you have known them for, the more likely they are to marginalise you simply because it is easier to do so than it is to think about what you have said or the reasons for your saying it. It is, in short, easier for them to marginalise you than it is for them to change their thinking.

As far as those closest to me are concerned, I have lived a charmed life, and I would have to agree with them. I have had more education than most, more interesting and demanding work than many, and I have had greater access to a more diverse mix of people, colleagues, friends and acquaintances, than a lot of people have had the pleasure of. I have travelled more and experienced more of the World than some, and I have been lucky enough to have known people much cleverer than I am. I have listened to them talking about their ideas and I have read their books, and those things, those people, those ideas have changed me. 

I will not apologise for being broader of mind and more liberal of politics than I was in my twenties. I will not apologise for being the better person that people of my more recent acquaintance believe me to be. 

Neither will I apologise for expecting more from the people who have known me the longest. It changes nothing, of course, but I feel a damned sight better for having said it.

Now... What’s next?