Nicola Vincent-Abnett

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

Thursday 31 December 2020

So… It’s New Year’s Eve

To tell the truth, we’re not really New Year’s people.

Me and Him
photo by James K Barnett

When the kids were small, we used to hold the annual New Year’s Eve family do, but as they began to grow up and drift away, we stopped.


I don’t remember the last time we did anything for New Year’s, except for the party the Dort threw a few years ago, which I’m sure was great fun, but I was in bed with a migraine.


In the past, I’ve always felt a little sad about sloughing off the old year as if it were nothing, to greet a new year that we could not know anything about.


We’re not really New Year’s people.


Many, probably most, of you will be very glad to see the back of 2020. There have been years gone by that I have been very glad to see the back of. This year seems to have been universally bad.


I sympathise.


I sympathise with all those on the front line. I sympathise with all those who have found themselves alone too much and too often. I sympathise with those who want to work and can’t, with those who have been made redundant, with parents struggling to cope with their children. I sympathise with anyone suffering in a bad, abusive or violent relationship. I sympathise with you all for the problems you endure or have had to learn to overcome.


At the most personal level, 2020 has been perfectly fine by us, but we know how lucky we are. Yes, it would have been nice to get out at weekends, and for our regular trips for work, for research and for fun. It would have been nice to see the people whose company we enjoy so much. It would have been lovely to spend time with our grandchildren. It would have been nice to have had my regular medical treatments. We had plans that had to be cancelled.


We’ve been content, though, happy even, and we’ve been productive.


Like I said, I realise that we are very lucky. We were used to working at home long before it became the pandemic norm. We were used to most of our time being spent alone and together. We’ve always been content to be alone, and we’ve always been happy together.


We have been able to rid ourselves of unhappy obligations, probably permanently, and we have learned who and what truly matters to us personally.


We know how lucky we are.


Dan has worked consistently in a year when many of his colleagues have struggled. He has diversified with projects that have excited him, stretched his mind and made good use of his talents. His long career and his work ethic have given him what he needs to make the best of things, and 2020 has opened new doors and given him unexpected opportunities.


We know how lucky we are.


I wrote two novels this year. It’s been a while since I’ve written anything, having deliberately taken an extended break to pursue other passions. Writing came easily to me when I sat back down with my laptop and opened a new file. Writing was my employment, but also my solace, this year, and I am happy that I had it to fall back on when I couldn’t join my cohort at ceramics school.


I’ve made things, too; I’ve knitted blankets and sewn quilts, and I’ve made some pots in my little studio at home, to keep my hand in. I’ve even diversified in my pot-throwing, making art pieces rather than the domestic bowls, beakers and cookware I’ve made before.


We know how lucky we are. 


2020 has been strange, sometimes awkward, often surreal. It has not been the battle for us that we know it has been for some of you.


New Year’s is not really our thing. We don’t really celebrate the beginning of something that we have no control over and no knowledge of. However, 2020 has been tough on many of you, and so we would like to wish you all a very heartfelt Happy New Year.


May 2021 bring you everything you wish for yourselves and each other.

Wednesday 30 December 2020

On how to succeed in the Creative Arts

 The truth is…

Dan Abnett, my husband
photo by James K Barnett

Christmas was a bit weird this year.


We Christmassed by FaceTime, Zoom and Skype, and we stayed in touch with the people that really matter, including getting videos of kids opening gifts… Some of their favourites as it turned out, so that was nice.


We actually made Christmas lunch for two, and then ate it on trays in the drawing room, because, why the hell not?


We had a very relaxed, happy time, which was nice for us.


The government got it wrong, though. We would have posted gifts to friends and family in other parts of the country, had we known that we wouldn’t be able to see them. As it happens, it was far too late to post anything once the announcement was made.


I’ll refer you back to my post I don’t really want to blog about Covid.


I hope that everyone managed to have a decent festive season, but I suspect there were many sad and lonely people out there, who could have been helped much more.


Dan works so much that we rarely have real down-time. When he’s not actually writing, he’s reading, or taking onboard stimulus for various projects. Everything is work for him, whether he’s mapping out a town, and making notes on architecture; visiting a museum or gallery; watching a movie, reading a book, or catching up with the news… Very little in Dan’s life is strictly outside of work. That’s why he carries a notebook with him, everywhere. And I do mean everywhere, including from room to room in the house.


Of course, there were moments, during our break, when Dan jotted something down in his notebook, because we did watch some tv and he did browse some books, but this is the first time in a very long time that he decided, essentially, to do nothing.


I think the rest has probably done him good, because, this morning, he was up with the larks, and I haven’t seen him yet. Writing makes him happy, and he’s clearly on a roll, so there’s no chance I’m going to interfere with that.


Those of us who can spend our lives doing something we love are among the luckiest people on Earth. I know lots of people, and lots of writers who have a day job, and many of them would very much rather be doing something else.


Not everyone can turn their hobby Into their livelihood, but that’s probably because, for most people, their hobby actually is a hobby. They might take a great deal of interest in something, but when only an hour a day or a few hours a week is devoted to that thing, how is it possible to get good enough to make a living at it?


Many writers, perhaps most, throughout history, have had a job, patronage, or a private income. It’s a difficult thing to do well if it’s impossible to work full-time at writing.


Some people simply are what they do, and Dan fits that category.


Me?


I’m a jack of all trades, and master of sod-all.


Yes, I write a bit, and I’ve had some small success doing it. I also enjoy it, when the spirit moves. But, I have other creative interests. The second time I went to university it was to study fine art, so I draw and paint. Now, I concentrate on throwing pots on the wheel, and spend more time doing that than writing. During the pandemic, I’ve also taken up sewing and knitting again, both very satisfying occupations. It is rare for me not to have a piece of work in my hands. I’m not idle, but I focus on many things, and switch between them.


Sometimes, success isn’t about talent, it’s about intent… perhaps it’s even about the inability to do anything but the thing you’re intent on.


Dan is a writer. The two full-time jobs he did, way back in the eighties and nineties, were in comics, which, while being a useful apprenticeship, never stopped him writing every hour of every day that he wasn’t doing his salaried job.


If I had an apprenticeship, part of it was that I wrote, but some of it was certainly watching how Dan works, which is to say, relentlessly… Relentlessly, and with the confidence of a person who has spent their life in a single pursuit.


Read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. He proposes that anyone who practices a skill for ten thousand hours has the talent, the smarts or the capability of being successful.


For those who work a forty hour week, with holidays, that’s between five and six years of work.


That isn’t what people like Dan do, though.


I’ve seen this with my daughter, too. While she was at university, with a full course load, she averaged more than forty hours a week making theatre. Ironically, her degree was in theatre, so I have no idea how many hours she clocked up, but just in her spare time at university, she covered more than half of those ten thousand hours. Add in her four years in youth theatre, six years of dance training, and various theatre-related jobs, along with her volunteer work with a theatre company, and she clocked up her ten thousand hours of practice very young.


Celebrity culture might fool some people into thinking that anyone can be successful. It only proves that anyone can be famous.


So, if I had a piece of advice for those of you who want to pursue a career in the arts, I’d have to suggest that you put in the hours, work with relentless intent, and have the confidence to share that work.


I feel the compulsion to make, and sometimes that includes writing, but it took me a lot longer than it took Dan to get those ten thousand hours under my belt, and I still never know when I start a story whether it will ever be finished.


That’s the difference between me and Dan. The daughter? While she’s a lot like me, I’m thrilled that she followed Dan’s path, and got those hours in… For her, it’s just a matter of watching this space. 

Thursday 17 December 2020

While we’re on the subject of creativity…

Aren’t we always? 

We’ve been thinking about having a new kitchen ever since we moved into the house, which is twenty years ago. The house has evolved, and ten years ago, we bought the house next door, so more evolution happened. I don’t know about people who only live in their homes, but, because we work in ours, too, change is sometimes necessary to accommodate the work, and, of course, all that creativity! The house is a creative project, all of its own, though, and we love that. 

We don’t change things much. When a room has reached the optimal combination of functional and attractive, things only change in small ways. Some rooms have changed use over the years, so needed to be redecorated. The Dort loves to decorate, so her original bedroom was re-jigged every eighteen months or so. Then she elected to move rooms, then she took over the two top rooms in the house, so those rooms have seen several incarnations. 

Our drawing room has not changed. I decorated when we moved in, and when we decided it needed freshening up, we scoured the paint charts, and then painted it the same colour that it had been painted the first time. The room needs to be sunshine yellow… It spoke to us. Other things have evolved, like a good broom… I’ve had this broom thirty years; it’s had four new heads and three new handles, but it’s been a good broom. 

We have never emptied the drawing room and started from scratch. We’ve added things and taken things away… That’s how we like to live. Sometimes, we replace furniture, but we prefer to move it to other rooms, or repurpose it when we can. And, if all else fails, we give it away. Waste-not-want-not. 

Our kitchen is right at the heart of the house, with doors leading to the drawing room and the conservatory, stairs down to my studio, and up to the first floor. With four doors and a window, it’s a tricky space to organise a kitchen in. 

When we moved in, way back in 2000, I did a rudimentary revamp, and I don’t know how long the original kitchen had been in, but it could, easily be twenty-five or thirty years old. I’ve painted it a couple of times, including the drawer-fronts and doors. We’ve had a new cooker and sink, but the kitchen really needs doing, and we know how we want to do it. 

We’ve been talking about a new kitchen for almost as long as we’ve lived in the house, and, in the end, it’s the logistics that are putting us off. Ripping out a kitchen is bloody hard, bloody dirty work. I know, because I’ve done it before. There is no way around the kitchen. We cannot isolate it, and shut it down while the work is done… And SO much works needs to be done. 

The other problem is kitchens… We’ve had people come and look at the space, and they’ve provided designs that are just WRONG! We need a proper, working kitchen, not a fancy showpiece that will ‘add value to the house’. 

We’ve been in any number of kitchen showrooms, and they don’t provide us anything that we want. Try buying a pair of kitchen taps that turn… It’s virtually impossible. There are endless versions of mixers and spouts with spray attachments and levers, but a pair of old-fashioned kitchen taps, the kind that were used for a century, or more, simply do not exist in modern forms. 

There was one infamous occasion in a rather smart showroom. First, I asked the ballpark cost of a kitchen, giving the dimensions of the room, which isn’t big. I knew, right then, that I wasn’t going to pay £30K for a kitchen. 

Nevertheless, we walked around the showroom. I opened a drawer. Then I closed it… It didn’t close. It stopped short, and then sighed back into place. I couldn’t believe it. I looked at the salesman. “Soft-close,” he said. “They’re brilliant.” My reaction was that when I want to slam a drawer, I damned well want to hear it slam. 

I’m not an angry person. I don’t stomp and shout and throw things around, but there is that moment when I’ve spent ten minutes rootling around in the bits drawer, totally unable to find the thing I was pretty sure was in there, when I close it harder than I need to, mild frustration adding weight to my hand. You can’t do that with a soft-close drawer. 

The salesman wanted to show us all the fancy gadgets: machines appearing on hydraulic platforms out of cupboards. He didn’t appreciate me laughing. Another poor designer didn’t understand that we want the kitchen cupboards to extend all the way up to the lowish ceiling rather than have a four or six inch grease trap on top of the cupboards, that I would never get on the step-stool to clean. He also didn’t understand that we didn’t want six or eight inch kkckboards, because they just represent lost storage space, to us.

Kitchens are expensive, and designers aren’t the people who use them, so, when we do sort the kitchen out, we’ll employ a joiner/carpenter, who can give us exactly what we need. And, not for nothing, it’ll work out massively cheaper than any of the quotes we’ve had, even from all those lovely budget stores on all those out-of-town industrial estates. 

There’s no shame in buying budget. Not for nothing, ‘bespoke’ kitchens still use standard sized units for cupboards and cabinets, so they might hike up the budget, but they don’t offer more alternatives than anywhere else. 

It’s probably just as well that we don’t intend ever to move, because our idea of a fabulous kitchen, apparently isn’t most people’s idea of a fabulous kitchen. We need good storage for ingredients and cookware, and a couple of good knives, to cook, and that’s about all. Other people’s essentials are our redundancies. On the other hand, I know people with expensive kitchens that, no doubt do add value to their homes in terms of resale price, who think that cooking is taking a pre-prepared meal out of the freezer and putting it in the oven. 

Right now, we have a good, working kitchen, and we
Not our kitchen... Never our kitchen!

don’t plan to give that up for all the bells and whistles on the market. We will have a new kitchen some time in the next couple of years, but it will have to be as functional as our current kitchen. It’s going to be fun trawling for the stuff we want and need, and it’s going to be fun working with a joiner to get our perfect kitchen. It will take thought and creativity, and lots of decisions about colour, texture and materials. Our creativity will be well-used, and even stretched in accomplishing this feat, and it will be worth it. 

Meanwhile, there’s work to be done on the attic… Again.

Wednesday 16 December 2020

I don’t really want to blog about Covid...

I want to blog about doing stuff, and making things. I want to be cheerful and positive. I want to salute Dan’s work, and post pictures of my pots, because I think they’re gorgeous.

I don't need to tell you:
This Covid.

The thing is, everyone’s talking about Covid, and I disagree with so much of what’s being reported, and what’s being ranted about on social media, that I feel the need to express myself on the subject.


It seems to me that the consensus opinion of the science community is what really counts here. We have scientists. We have scientific advisors to the government. 


Here’s my thing: Let’s just take the advice of the scientific community. Let’s not filter it through a political process that, it seems to me, few of us trust.


Science doesn’t need any filter. 


My doctor has told me that if it’s possible for me to isolate, that’s what I should do. I’m in a more at risk group, so, if I got Covid, it could be bad; bad for me, and bad for the NHS, which would have to treat me at some considerable expense to the tax payer, which, not for nothing, is also me. I might also be delaying someone else’s treatment for something that isn’t Covid. I don’t want to be that woman.


Of course, I’m very lucky, because we work and play in the space we live in. So, I don’t go out, and I don’t let anybody in.


We have socialised a little in the garden, distanced, and we wear masks and wash our hands. I even have a dispenser attached to the wall beside the front door, so that if someone has to come in, they can douse their hands on the way.


There are things that I miss doing, and there are people that I miss seeing. I’m very lucky that I don’t live alone.


I miss hugging the Dort, and I miss contact with the grandkids… Who wouldn’t?


My mother and mother-in-law both live alone. My mother-in-law has decided not to have anyone in her home, including us, and we’re fine with that. She’s fine, too. She doesn’t have the internet, but we have brief conversations every day. She’s content in her own company, and she’s an artist, so she’s always working on something. She loves her garden, and she reads, and watches the tv and the dvds we drop off for her, distanced, on a regular basis.


Perhaps it’s because she doesn’t have the internet that she’s decided on this course of action. For her, there seems to be no ‘discussion’. Science, by way of her GP, tells her that she shouldn’t socialise, so she doesn’t. She finds other things to do.


Science should prevail in this situation. That Man Johnson (TMJ) and his cronies are more interested in the economy.


I wonder how it all stacks up.


I wonder how the cost of the NHS treating Covid patients or the cost of testing meticulously, or the cost of a vaccine, stack up. 


I have regular treatments at a hospital (less regular since the crisis began), so why don’t I just get the vaccine at my next outpatients appointment? Why isn’t everyone who sees a doctor, in or out of hospital, being vaccinated? Why aren’t all our kids in all our schools being vaccinated, and why aren’t their teachers?


Why aren’t we vaccinating our captive audiences? We did it for TB, Rubella and HPV… We know how to do this.


Christmas is coming, and the goose is getting fat. Commercially, this is the biggest quarter of the economic calendar. TMJ doesn’t want to mess with that. He doesn’t want to mess with office Christmas parties, with dining out, and with going to the pub to get slaughtered on Christmas Eve. He wants businesses to stay open, because he’s a capitalist.


The reason that universities were opened for the autumn term wasn’t for the benefit of the students… It was for the benefit of all those landlords making their fortunes off student rents. That’s what TMJ understands. He doesn’t understand that student health and mental welfare suffered because many of them were away from home for the first time, were isolated in strange, new places, and lacked the support of close friends and family.


You can call me a cynic, if you like, but I’m going to miss Christmas, too. I’m going to miss my children and my grandchildren. This year, the Dort, her partner and his mother were planning to spend Christmas with us, and we were all looking forward to it.


My kids are grown up, so, for the past ten years, they’ve done what they want to do for Christmas, and that has often meant them spending that time with their partners’ families, or just with their partners. We’ve always respected that. We never wanted to be the kind of parents that made those social demands on our children. We had them to raise them, and then put them out into the World to make their own lives. I hope and believe that’s exactly what they’ve done.


We’ve spent a number of Christmases, just the two of us, at home, and we’ve been perfectly happy doing it.


We were all looking forward to this Christmas, but it isn’t going to happen, because the consensus of the scientists is that we shouldn’t mix households.


There will still be plenty of good cheer. We will still drop off Christmas stockings, and we’ll talk to each other on the phone. We might even play some games by Zoom.


We could decide to be miserable, because we won’t have the Christmas that we planned and looked forward to. Or, we could decide to make the best of the situation, and hope that TMJ and his government get their shit together, roll out the vaccine, efficiently, and make sure we’re all alive so that we can enjoy Christmas together next year.


Let’s stop filtering the science through the eyes of politics and capitalism. Let’s look after those who are struggling to work, or who have been made redundant. Let’s look after parents and the children they’re struggling to look after. Let’s do the right thing for and by each other.


But, and I’ll say this one last time: Let us be led by the science.


Tuesday 15 December 2020

Can I have a comma, please…

I don't have a current author pic,
so here's 
me as a cocky teen,
from Dan's collection c.1982
When I write, I’m being a writer, and when I’m editing, I’m being an editor.

When I write, I hand my work off to be edited by someone else. That’s how it works. That’s how it’s supposed to work.


Writing and editing are two very different skills, and I take no issue with the wonderful editors that I work with. They make the changes they feel the work needs. They make changes relating to modern usage, house style, and, sometimes, just because of their own personal preferences.


When the relationship between a writer and an editor works, a better book is delivered to the reader.


Writing is about so much more than putting pen to paper, for me. It’s about cadence and rhythm, and, even about the way the page looks.


When I set out to write, I have only the page on-screen, fullscreen, so that there are no distractions on the desktop. I choose a font, depending on the tone or mood that I’m trying to create, and I begin to write.


I keep writing until whatever I’m doing is finished. A short story might be written in one or two sessions; a novel takes a matter of weeks.


Every editor I have ever worked with removes a big chunk of my commas.


Writing is a very different thing from editing.


I like a comma.


When I read, I like to take in every word. I never skim-read, and I ready slowly. Essentially, I read out loud to myself, in my head. My first degree was in English, and it involved a lot of reading. After my degree, I didn’t read for pleasure for several years. It was only when I reminded myself that I could read at whatever pace I liked, that reading became fun again.


Writing is a little like that. I write quickly, completing projects in short order, but I still want to read them slowly.


I write the stories I want to read; they are often linear and uncomplicated. I like my stories to be very accessible, so I use simple words, and straightforward sentence structures.


Here’s the thing, though: I do like a comma.


I was taught grammar in a very formal way, a very long time ago. It’s like maths, to me, or music. Everything a writer puts on the page makes a difference to the reader.


I do like a comma.


Suddenly, I realised I needed a comma.


You see, I used a modifier, so I used a comma.


I thought I needed a comma, and Dan agreed.


You see, the subject and verb changed in the second half of the sentence, so I used a comma.


The comma, semi-colon and period are all useful punctuation marks.


You see, I made a list, so I used a comma.


The comma, much over-used by me, is, nonetheless, a useful tool.


You see, I inserted a clause in there, so I used a comma, and, look, there’s another modifier, so, more commas.


I’ll show you that, again.


The comma is a useful tool.


Complete sentence, right?


The comma, much over-used by me, is a useful tool.


Look, I’ve added a clause, so there are the commas. 


Shall we put the modifier in, now? Okay, we don’t actually need to, because you can just read that sentence again, above.


And, there’s another thing: Conjunctions.


I need a comma, because ‘because’ is a conjunction, but some editors would delete it.


See how complicated it gets?


Sometimes, often, even, there is a change of noun or verb after the conjunction, which is just one more reason to use that comma, for me, at least.


You’ve started counting commas in the sentences that aren’t in italics, haven’t you?


I could do this all day, but, perhaps, my work here is done.


Thursday 10 December 2020

What is it, exactly that Dan does?

My last blog… yesterday had to be a duvet-day, unfortunately… My last blog was about the different ways I satisfy my creative urges. I’m a maker, not just a writer… Not just anything.


By coincidence… and I do love a coincidence… someone posed a question on Twitter within hours of that blog going live. They wanted to know whether Dan only wrote for Black Library, and whether he was contracted exclusively to them.

photo by James K Barnett


This made me smile.


It happens less with the passage of time, and with the influence of the internet, but I have sat at tables with Dan, at conventions, where he has been conducting three conversations, virtually simultaneously: Talking 2000AD with a Sin-Dex fan, while discussing Gaunt’s Ghosts with a Black Library fan, while answering questions about working for DC Comics.


Writing anything is a skill… Writing everything is something else.


Dan has fans in the European comics market, in the American comics market, and globally with Black Library. He’s also written for games, perhaps most notably, Alien Isolation, although he’s also created and written NPCs for Shadow of Mordor, among other things.


During the first lockdown, when the kids living with us didn’t know what to do with themselves, but had talents to exploit, Dan drew them into a collaboration to write a musical for his strip “Lawless” for the Magazine. He wrote words and melodies for a dozen songs… just for fun. The kids played, sang, arranged and produced the work.


The best creators are, in my experience, invariably polymaths. Dan’s a musician, an artist, a writer, and he is engaged with all things cultural. I can’t keep up with him, and I know very few people who can. Although, put him in a room with Steve White, or listen to him on a call with Ian Culbard, and I know that there are other people out there who have something similar to the engagement that he manages.


Honestly, talent and flair are real, if intangible parts of some (even most) people’s spirits. But talent and flair are not enough on their own. Talent must always be supported by practice… practice… practice. 


The practice of writing or making is one thing, but there’s more to it than that. If we want to create, we must put ourselves into some kind of historic context. Dan knows what he’s doing, and he’s been doing it for long enough to rely on the talent. He practises his craft every day, and it pays him back.


He also knows how he fits into the historic context of whatever he’s doing. He’s been reading SF since primary school, and was given a random pile of American comics by a school friend when he was eight or nine. He studied English at Oxford, so has a classical education too; can quote ‘Beowulf’ in the original, at will. He listens to music of all kinds, all the time, he watches shows and movies in all styles and genres. The house is filled with art and books, and objects of stimulus. There are fossils, bones, antique and vintage objects, toys, textiles, film props, armour… you name it, we have an example of it somewhere on a shelf or in a cabinet. He cooks, too, and understand how food works, how ingredients interact.


Dan knows about these things, and he refers to them, either directly in his work, or he uses them, indirectly as stimulus.


There are people who can write, and there are writers who are successful. Most of them are known for the thing they do. There are very good writers in all genres, and in all mediums. There are great horror writers, great thriller writers, great comedy writers and great drama writers. There are those who write alternative history, and those who write romance. Sometimes there is crossover.


There are novelists, and short story writers, screen-writers and comic book writers. There are writers for the gaming industry, and there are poets and lyricists.


I don’t think I know another writer who writes in several genres across several mediums.


I know that Dan has fans for his American comic work, and fans for his British comic work. I know that he has fans for his Black Library fiction, and fans for his independent fiction. I know that Dan has fans for his licensed audio dramas, and I know that he has fans for his work in computer games. I’d be very surprised if any of Dan’s fans have experienced the breadth and depth of his work across all the genres he employs and the mediums he exploits, and I know that there are fans who know Dan for just one thing.


I’m totally down with that.


I’m still surprised when I’m asked whether Dan does anything other than the one thing a fan knows him for. But it doesn’t matter, just so long as he touches a fan with whatever it is they’ve discovered in his work. Besides, they can always type his name into google and gape at the number of results that come up.


Dan’s been working as a writer for thirty-five years, and he’s been writing stories almost since he learned the alphabet… Knowing him, as I do, I suspect he began telling stories as soon as he could speak. His whole life is his work.


I, for one, can’t wait to see what he does in the second half of his career, because, sometimes, it’s as if he’s just getting started… and he’s not about to stop, any time soon.

Tuesday 8 December 2020

Handmade

When I was a kid, lots of things were handmade or homemade. I never ate a meal that wasn’t made from scratch, until I was in secondary school. My first ever burger was from our local Wimpy. Going to a restaurant was a very big deal. I had my first steak dinner at the ‘Wig and Gown’ for my best friends tenth birthday.


The same was true of other things, too. I never had a shop-bought uniform sweater until secondary school, and, even then, I was still regularly knitting my own.


I learned to handmake or homemake when I was still a small child. My father taught me to knit before I even went to school, and I would sit and watch my neighbour sew for as long as she’d allow me to. About two years ago, I was in a vintage shop, and saw hanging on a rail, a dress and jacket in the same fabric that my grandmother had used to make one of her favourite dresses, back in the sixties. I never saw her in a shop-bought dress. My mother made me a trouser suit for a birthday party when I was six or seven.


My father did all our home diy, including hanging wallpaper, and he did all the mechanics on our ancient family cars. He taught me how to use tools, and there isn’t much I can’t turn my hand to.


We live in an incredibly disposable society, now, particularly, it seems to me, when it comes to clothes and home decor. There are enough garments on the planet to clothe the next five generations of people… if the Earth lasts that long. Frankly, I don’t imagine it will if we keep producing, wearing and throwing away such huge quantities of what is, essentially, cheap fashion…


Anyway, this is not intended as a political blog about the ills of our disposable lifestyles. I’m not having a dig at Primark, or those who shop there.


The point is, I’m a maker of things. Some of you know that I write, but it’s a relatively small part of the time I spend making things. I knit and sew, and even try to crochet. Thanks Jess Woo. I also draw and paint, although less now than I have in the past. My favourite make is throwing pots, which I’ve been busy doing quite a lot of recently. I bloody love my pots. I’m never going to be a master potter, but I take classes with one, and I’m finding it a huge creative outlet, as well as a chance to learn a new skill.


I’m a practical person, but I like to think that I’m creative, and even, when the spirit moves, artistic.


So… This is a blog about Christmas… No, really, it is.


In the past, we have revelled in Christmas, buying heaps of gifts, and opening them together, on our bed, on Christmas morning with whoever happens to be with us. Once in a while, we try opening gifts in the drawing room, under the tree, but bed is still the best place, still the cosiest for exchanging gifts.


We’re incredibly lucky that we can be a little excessive at Christmas, but we’re also lucky that we can have the things we want when we want them; and, the older we get, the less we want.


This year, we’re trying a new gift-giving system. It goes like this: everybody gets something they need, something they want and something handmade/homemade.


So for the past few weeks, and from now until Christmas, I have had and will have the very great pleasure of making things. Some knitting has already happened so that the kids have something they can always use for a blanket fort. There are ongoing sewing projects, as I piece together vintage fat quarters (batches of 1/2 square metres of fabric) of sari silk to make quilts for some of the more grown-up members of the family, and then there are my pots.


Dan wants a new tea mug. This sounds simple enough; I’ve made plenty of mugs in my little studio, and under the tutelage of Alan, my instructor. I’ve made teapots, too, jugs, plates… All sorts of things. The problem is that I work in stoneware or earthenware, and we all know that pot is the right medium for coffee cups, but that tea needs to be served in porcelain. Working with porcelain by hand is a real art; it’s like putty, it moves easily under a potter’s hands, but doesn’t hold its shape. I’m a pretty precise crafter, but I tend to thrash about when it comes to the arts, and porcelain is an art. I can manage drawing with big lumps of charcoal on huge sheets of paper, and I can watercolour with big brushes on soaking wet paper, but draughtsmanship with a pencil or delicate, pretty painting eludes me. Porcelain fits into this category.

Aylesford Pottery for
West House Restaurant, Biddenden


My pots tend to be solid, unsophisticated, robust things. They please me, but they are not delicate or pretty, and neither do I want them to be.


So, Dan wants a new tea mug. I won’t be making it for him, but I know a man who can. Alan at Aylesford Pottery, and his oppo, Billy are master potters, who make everything from flowerpots to tableware for restaurants, and they are artists, too. So, Alan is going to make me half a dozen porcelain mugs for tea. Dan can pick his favourite, and I can pick mine, and the rest will go into the cupboard for when we have visitors (if that ever happens again).


Meanwhile, I have other projects. I know someone who has regularly admired my beakers, and there might be a baker in want of a new cake plate.


So much to do, so little time.


Meanwhile, my latest patch of pots, which I’m calling ‘Pot Shots’ are almost ready to be photographed.


Make something this Christmas, and if you’re not a maker, buy something lovely from someone who is.

Monday 7 December 2020

Monday, Monday…

It doesn’t matter that everything in this house is related to work or creativity. It doesn’t matter that Dan’s up at dawn every day (pre-dawn now it’s winter), sitting at his desk, doing his thing. It doesn’t matter that Sunday is always an early night, to start the week swinging. It doesn’t seem to matter what we do, Monday is always Monday.

It doesn’t matter what I’ve planned the night before, I always wake up a blank slate. The plan is lost to the mists of the moon, the appetite is gone, and I’m back in neutral. It happens every night, and most mornings it comes as a surprise to me. All the energy and intent I went to bed with is always gone by morning.


Dan is completely different. Most mornings, he wakes up ready and raring to go, all his thoughts and ideas at his fingertips, all his enthusiasm for the work driving him on, his appetite for storytelling compulsive... Except on Mondays.


Dan has a morning routine, always the same, his chores completed in the same order: He feeds the cats and empties the dishwasher. He makes a cup of tea, and attends to his ablutions. And when the small, domestic stuff is done, he sits at his desk and gets on with doing his thing. By the time he brings me my first cup of tea at eight o’clock, he’s already well into his first job of the day.


The routine doesn’t change on a Monday. The cats still get fed, and the dishwasher still gets emptied. Dan still gets cleaned up ready for the day, and he still makes his cup of tea. On Monday, he sits at his desk and bibbles. He moves things around, unnecessarily, since his desk is always in good order. He organises his diary, which is always organised, and he sorts out his schedule, which is always sorted, because it’s ongoing. He plans his week, which is fine, up to a point, but the torrent of e-mails and the non-stop phone calls mean that his plans for the week can change on a daily, sometimes hourly basis.


He still brings me my cup of tea at eight, but instead of breezing in, and flying out, as he does most mornings, on Monday's, he hovers. He wants something. He wants some stimulus, some clue as to what he should do next, some impetus. Long experience has shown me that I can’t actually do anything about his Monday-morning-itis, so I generally just say something positive, but neutral, and gently encourage anything he does take an interest in.

and here's the gorgeous special 
edition of 'Penitent', just because


This is when the errands get done. This is when he drops off groceries for his mother, goes to the post-office, or pops to the pet shop for supplies. They’re never big, scary jobs, they’re an excuse for a little air, a change of pace, and a chance to recharge his batteries.


I wake up in neutral every day. Dan wakes up in neutral on Mondays. He’s allowed. I can do stuff, and I do do stuff. I could never keep up the sustained creativity that he does, and I could never produce the volume of work that he manages. I don’t have the stamina. I don’t have the chops.


I take a couple of hours to get going every morning, and some days, I never really get myself moving. I think Dan’s allowed to take a couple of hours one morning a week to be in neutral. The really weird thing is that it always seems to surprise him. For me, it’s just part of his routine; for him, it’s an embuggerance.

Saturday 5 December 2020

We had a plan...

Dan works a lot, so I needed to have a plan. I didn’t ask him, I just told him that we were going to do something outside the house every single weekend in 2020.

But that was a year ago.


Dan and I have been in lockdown since March 12. We’re in our ninth month of essential isolation.

We haven’t gone out every weekend in 2020. I don’t suppose that anybody has.


We’ve been living together, and working together and separately, in this house for twenty years, and in these two houses for twelve years. For virtually all of those two decades, we haven’t had weekends and holidays, and, when we have, they’ve been about stimulus for the work. That’s fine, we also happen to love galleries and museums, book shops and antique markets, and experiences. The ideas come from everywhere. Any time we went out to eat in the past two decades, it was about research, and getting as much as we could out of conversations with specialists, with scientists, artists, gamers… you name it. Those people are also friends, so work and play are inextricably linked, melded, inseparable.


Dan’s entire life is about his work. My entire life is about creativity and craft, whether that’s re-seating a tap, decorating a room, or knitting blankets, throwing pots, or making curtains. However busy Dan is, I can always be doing something, even if that’s only reading, or soaking up really good tv, or, maybe, writing a blogpost.


We’ve had a good life. We have a good life.


2020 has been as full of weekends as any other year; two days of every seven are devoted to things other than work, if you’re a 9-5er of course. We never were.


We have done a very great deal with our lockdown weekends. They have been stimulating and fun and productive, even if they haven’t been sociable, and even if we haven’t been able to explore new places or revisit old favourites. We have found our stimulus at home, and we have brought stimulus into our home. We have developed a routine.


Take newspapers… Newspapers are important. We take a print paper every day, and more at the weekend. Ideas come from everywhere, so one of my first jobs of the day is to go through the papers and clip anything that I think might be interesting or stimulating to Dan. Now, at the weekends, we sit together in bed with a cup of tea, each, and we go through the papers together, reading stuff out to each other and discussing ideas. We even get our brains ticking over by doing the crosswords and quizzes, guessing the ages of the people on the birthday lists, and checking obituaries.


Print papers bypass the filter bubble, they generate ideas, and they show us a version of the World, unfettered by algorithms, if not by opinion.


Then, on Saturday mornings, I take a long bath, while Dan showers, and gets started on brunch: bagels filled with cheese, meat, sauerkraut, mustard, mayo, and croissants filled with good cheese, and baked, always accompanied by lots of good decaf coffee. Brunch is eaten in the drawing room, while we watch something documentary… currently “Parts Unknown” on Netflix. Bourdain was a clever, funny, engaged man, so this isn’t so much about food as it is about people, politics, ideas, change, hope… All stimulating stuff when it comes to creativity.



Saturday afternoons can be about many things. Sometimes they're about catching up with new movies, or revisiting old ones. We still have stacks of DVDs for the more esoteric stuff, but BFI player is useful too. Today, I’m waxing pots, while Dan puts together a ForgeWorld model. We’re talking, too, keeping up with each other.


Whether it's luck or time, whether it's love or compatibility, I don't know and it doesn't much matter, but we get on; we're happy in each other's company, and we share. We laugh together, we're grateful for and to each other, and we rarely argue.


Saturday supper, like weekend brunch is deliberately different from weekday fare. We eat junk on Saturdays, often very good quality or homemade junk, but junk nonetheless: good hamburgers, hotdogs, steak-frites, or the full English, eaten as supper, are all Saturday night favourites.


The evening will pass in a haze of Strictly, since we’re a family of dancers, with commentary on personalities and performances, not to mention the scores, and texts back and forth with the Dort, with lots of upper case and a mass of unnecessary exclamation marks: It’s a whole thing. Then there’s the check-in with elderly relatives, followed by more good coffee, tonight accompanied by fabulous syrupy apple cake made by our friend and neighbour.


Our weekends, this year, are not what we thought they’d be, and they’re not what we planned, but we’ve made them into something new and different. We do things that we’ve done before, things that we’ve done many times before, but the way that we do them, the routine we’ve mapped out for our weekends is new. And it’s lovely.





Friday 4 December 2020

By way of a re-introduction…



The World is a strange place… a very strange place.

Time to update this pic...
I look nothing like this
Author photo: James K Barnett


We live in interesting times. Personally, I’m among those who’d rather read about historic interesting times than try to survive them. But there it is.


It’s for this reason (mostly) that I stopped writing posts for this blog. What could I possibly say about Brexit or Trump? or about the ludicrous nonsense that has transpired over the past three or four years?


I couldn’t do it. I was sad and angry, and I didn’t really want commenters being sad and angry back at me… That was never really what this was all about. I stopped writing, and the blog hung somewhere in limbo for a couple of years or so.


Meanwhile, a week or two ago, I began to take notice of Twitter, mostly because of something to do with one of my daughters. As a consequence, someone tweeted me that my website was showing pages and pages of Japanese girdles, and I might want to do something about that. I don’t google myself, so this anomaly had passed me by, but somehow, people, or at least a person was still watching.


The fact that someone was still checking my site so long after my last post was interesting. Dealing with hackers was not interesting; it was frustrating, and it stretched my computer skills to their limits. As far as I’m concerned, if you delve into any kind of computer, you’re going to find fairy dust. When I first used DTP, back in the eighties (that’s the 1980s, not a typo), it was just a little fairy dust; thirty-plus years later, it’s a veritable torrent of fairy dust. I got covered in more than my share of it this morning, sorting out silly hacker shit. As it turned out, I lost three hours of my day, but I also saved myself some cash, so, you know, there’s that.


It is done. And, having done it, it seemed only right that I should at least think about reviving this blog. I thought other people might like to think about it too; I put out the call on FB and Twitter, and got lots of lovely, positive feedback.


So, this is by way of an introduction to my newly revived blog. I hope you’ll enjoy my posts.





A Rose By Any Other Name…


Writing a novel is a funny thing. At least, for me, the process of writing a novel is a funny thing. It is fast, spontaneous, consuming. I don’t do it often, and perhaps these are some of the reasons why. Besides, when I’m writing a novel, nothing else gets done… Nothing!


On March 11 2020, I had one of my regular, quarterly hospital treatments. I knew it would be the last time I left the house, for a while.


On March 12 2020, I lit a fire in the library, sat in an easy chair, my laptop on my lap (it’s right there in the name), and began writing. I stopped when I’d written a novel. I dare not tell you how long this one took to write. If I did tell you, I doubt that you’d believe me.


The novel began with a title. My novels, in fact, all of my stories in all their forms, generally do. I have titles that I haven’t written stories for, but no stories that I don’t have titles for. Titles are important; they’re part of what drives the writing.


Today, I had a lovely e-mail from the lovely publisher of this, my latest novel, due for release in 2021. The publisher wanted to ask me if I was wedded to the title, and he made a suggestion as to what the book might be called.


The title came first. I’ve been calling this novel by its title since March 12, when I sat down to write, or, more probably since before March 12, when I first began to think I’d write this novel… My memory is cloudy as to the details.


The publisher was right, though. The title he had lifted from the novel is more appropriate, more compelling, more apposite, and it leaves less room for confusion.


In my head, this novel will probably always have the title I gave it nine-plus months ago; I won’t be changing the folder label on my desktop. Today it has a new, better title, which the reader will know it by, and that’s absolutely fine with me.