What I learned about writing a novel from the TV detective series Luther

As a writer, I try to learn about the craft of writing a novel from every source I can. The obvious source is reading and I try to read all the time. Each day I’m perched on my exercise bike for an hour, devouring anything I can get my hands on, and even if I have no more time for reading that day, at least I’m getting in the literary and physical miles at the same time. My favourite novel last year without a doubt was Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, the retelling of the Antigone story. Shamsie is a writer who clearly knows how to craft a clever story.

But I am on a mission to learn and to improve my writing all the time, and that means seeking out all other means of refining my skills. And this brings me to the fifth series of Luther on TV, written brilliantly by Neil Cross. Now it has to be said that Luther is a terrifying programme. That shouldn’t be a problem for me: I was brought up with scary films and books. My mum loved everything from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Agatha Christie. She loved the thrill of danger. It was escapism. (It has to be said at this point that my dad did not read, nor could he shift his stance from a stubborn belief in only that which he could see and touch at any moment of time, the real, the mundane.)

But since the screening of the Luther episode of the killer in the street wearing the luminous mask, I won’t to go out in the dark to put out the bins. Neil Cross deliberately targets our potential to be afraid and he unleashes the power that lies in our dread and anxiety about the unknown. He said ‘So all of the bad guys are avatars of my fears and anxieties, and once I have isolated that fear – the guy under the be- that’s a shared anxiety with so many of us – once I’ve got that initial spark of anxiety, then I begin to think about the character that could exemplify it… Who is he? Why is he doing what he is doing? What does he want? But that ultimately comes second to the scary stuff. You start with the fear and work backwards.’

Character is always important. Idris Elba’s John Luther is a sex symbol of our time, but more importantly he’s a maverick, a flawed genius who steps outside the rules, a man of the law who sails close to the wind, breaking convention. Other characters shine. Ruth Wilson’s Alice Morgan is brilliantly contrived – a ruthless unpredictable psychopath who turns up unexpectedly and behaves outrageously.

William Faulkner said ‘In writing, you must kill your darlings’ and Cross does exactly that in Luther. Justin Ripley’s death shocked us all, as if we thought someone so loyal, so important and good-natured was exempt from being murdered, and when he was not, we were stunned and we mourned. And then came the demise of Benny, the tech expert – another martyr. Neil Cross underpins my belief that the reader should be surprised by what happens next – no character is safe, no eventuality should be predictable. And the importance of complex likeable central characters with the potential to amaze but who bring empathy and warmth and human vulnerability is not to be overlooked.

An impactful setting is something we all strive to create in our writing. Luther is firstly a visual medium, but it works on the same principle as writing. Whether it is from a camera angle or the written word, whether we are following a victim onto a bus or watching someone take off their shoes from a killer’s viewpoint under the bed, setting can create emotional impact and needs careful consideration. Cross’ work prompts me to ask myself if I can make the setting more powerful, more relevant or can I find an alternative setting that is more surprising and unexpected.

Neil Cross excels at twists and turns in storylines and having several threads unravelling at the same time. He leaves vital questions unanswered, which draws the viewer in, and he misleads us deliberately to add to the surprise at the moment of anagnorisis. My background in both theatre and writing tells me how vital it is to suspend disbelief, to keep the interest of the audience strong but to draw them out of the comfort zone and keep them guessing. In series 5 of Luther, we wonder what will happen to George Cornelius’ kidnapped son, but we don’t expect what Alice does or when and how she’ll do it. We are interested in how new DS Catherine Halliday will fare working with Luther – the signs are mixed, a tentative novice but with a cool head. It could go horribly wrong. And DSU Martin Schenk is on to Luther – he now has real evidence of his dangerous liaison with Alice.

Then there are the murderers – Vivien Lake and her evil, strange husband, Jeremy: the luminous horror mask, the needles, the eyeballs, and that incredible moment where the patient was talked through her impending heart operation by the psychopath doctor and he slipped the shocking phrase ‘diseased whore’ into the professional dialogue, much to the patient’s – and our- revulsion and incredulity. Cross is offering a master class on suspension of disbelief, terrifying the audience, misleading them and keeping them guessing, interweaving threads of characters’ action and contrasting story lines in an intricate way so that the outcome will never be clear until the shocking moments of catharsis.

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Photo by Stephan Müller on Pexels.com

I got into Luther late, and scared myself silly by watching all the earlier series in a week. Series five is no exception – it’s horrific, brilliantly contrived, the stories unfolding expertly. Most importantly Neil Cross, like any good writer, knows how to channel and manipulate his audience’s emotions, how to create the dynamic interplay between fear and hope, relief and shock, admiration and sadness and dread. He knows how to pull us in to the plot and keep us there, how to make us take sides and invest in the characters, how to force us to feel sympathy, empathy, antipathy and to steel ourselves against a huge barrage of horror. And he knows how to keep it coming.

There is a lot to be learned about writing a novel from a television series, and in particular, from Neil Cross’ Luther. Series five was excellent, and although the action is often about male killers and female victims, I still focused on the belief that the horror was real and spent a lot of it watching through the gaps in my interwoven fingers. But, like every great novel, it leaves me sad when it’s over and waiting for more, although I’ve no idea what the next series might hold. But I’m looking forward to the superb storytelling and how it can help me to refine my own writing.

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Two Shakespeare plays, two inspirational pairs of actors but two very different theatre experiences…

A few months ago I went to see Macbeth in Stratford, with Christopher Eccleston playing the eponymous role and Niamh Cusack as Lady Macbeth. I was looking forward to it because I admire both actors and I thought it would be a real privilege to see them in roles that would offer exciting performances. I wasn’t disappointed. Eccleston was very much the plain soldier Macbeth, completely at ease on the battlefield but not so able to deal with real-life emotional issues: he was a ‘nice bloke’ who did his job, adored his ambitious wife, respected his superiors but very quickly found himself out of his depth. Cusack’s performance crackled with passion and the desire to seize life’s opportunities. They conspired together to kill King Duncan; she was strong and organised; he was loyal and troubled by his softer conscience. Then after the deed, he fell apart and she could not sustain life with the guilt she had accumulated. His performance as tortured hero who became a murderer and her descent into mental illness suffocated by guilt were superb. I should have loved the production. But I didn’t.

Then recently I saw the National Theatre production with Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo as Antony and Cleopatra. A simpler storyline than Macbeth, I expected to be blown away by the acting but less impressed by the play itself. It’s a three and a half hour long performance about two privileged and self-absorbed people whose love is obsessive and at times controlling and they both get what they deserve at the end. The actors’ performances were brilliant – off the scale, but I couldn’t have been more wrong about the production not gripping me. The text was construed in a considered, innovative fashion; the characters were complex and well-studied and the result was a powerful sizzling interpretation.

Eccleston and Cusack as Macbeth and Lady M impressed me greatly, but the rest of the cast didn’t. I invariably try very hard to see positives in an interpretation and I am always in awe of people who perform well on stage, but the production contained two thrilling actors and a weak supporting cast. Banquo’s extended silence as he heard that his children and wife had been murdered didn’t work, making him look like an actor who’d forgotten his lines, and his subsequent high-pitched wail of grief was incongruous. The directorial decision to cast three little girls as the witches never resembled the chilling corridor scenes in The Shining, where children are ethereal and scary. Imagine the ‘Double double’ cauldron scene, Eccleston acting his socks off while three sweet kids in pink onesies skipped around him chanting a nursery rhyme. It didn’t work at all for me, or for the complete stranger I bumped into coming out of the loos during the interval, who looked at me and grunted ‘What did you think? Bloody amateurish waste of my time.’

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In contrast, the three hours plus of Antony and Cleopatra flew by. Although Fiennes and Okonedo weren’t immediately likeable, they impressed as complex characters both separately and together. The play ticked all the boxes: the revolving set made the action fast-paced; the opulent Egypt and contrasting business-like Rome was a clearly effective way of transposing action and place and highlighting cultural difference. All the actors, with a special mention for Enobarbus, Caesar, Eros and Agrippa, offered a wide range of emotions and were readily believable. Fiennes showed Antony’s dilemmas clearly, troubled by loyalty, caught between his brutal military life and his turbulent passion for the Egyptian Queen. Okenodo was playful, proud, imperious and controlling, occasionally vulnerable, but always fascinating. Their ability to allow the roles to consume them in performance was second to none. Antony’s intense anger, his self-hatred and his tragic destiny consumed the audience. Okenodo was incredible: her death scene came after three hours, and it is neither a short nor an easy death to portray, but her performance was measured, powerful and poignant as she infused despair and dignity into her final scene.

The director of Antony and Cleopatra combined inventive interpretation with the gimmicks that work well visually: a lavish lake into which Cleopatra pushes Eros and creates comedy; the powerful and violent war sound effects; the evocative images and crashing waves of being at sea. The play was effective as an entity; the text made absolute sense and the characters were totally credible.

Compare the successful realization of Fiennes’ and Okenodo’s Antony and Cleopatra to the predicament of two excellent actors, Cusack and Eccleston, and a supporting wooden cast acting around a wooden table. I came away from Macbeth pleased because the two main characters had been glorious, but with a sense of unhappiness that the rest was not good enough to balance their brilliance; they had endured bravely against the challenge of what was to me a pedestrian production stuffed with random gimmicks that were not joined-up in concept and therefore did not work. In comparison, Antony and Cleopatra demonstrated what happens when two great actors perform in a production where everything gels and the result is harmonious.

I love live theatre and it is very satisfying when a production absorbs me from start to finish. It is delightful, consuming and it enables me to leave the theatre feeling that in some way, my life has been embellished. It is less satisfactory when my suspension of disbelief stops during the early scenes and I start to consider the ways in which the production could be improved while it’s still playing out before my eyes. It is interesting to see how two great actors can thrill together and separately whatever the circumstances, but how much brighter they can shine when they are given a strong supporting cast and are part of an innovative production.

 

Finding inspiration in unexpected places…

Writers look for inspiration everywhere. I have a note pad that declares Be careful – or you may end up in my novel. And there is truth in that statement, although I’d never transpose someone straight from reality into my writing but, on the other hand, we can only write about what we know (and what we can find out.) Recently, I was creating a character with a ’country’ occupation, so I lifted my neighbour’s trade of hedging straight into the novel. And while Evie Gallagher from ‘A Grand Old Time’ isn’t my Mum, she has many of my mum’s traits: she’s feisty, independent, with a strong sense of justice and a wicked humour. In ‘The Age of Misadventure,’ Nanny Basham’s behaviour when she’s alone, dependent and eating frozen meals for one owes a lot to my dad, who responded to being a widower in a similar way: he could be demanding, lonely, and unhappy but he always reacted to day-to- day living with resilience, mischief and warmth. A lot of Nan’s lines to Georgie are his, and I smiled a lot as I wrote them. I heard them resonate somewhere within me.

So many characters are ‘composites’ – real people blended with imaginary people. I’d never move into the taboo realm of characters being based solely on real people or –God forbid – on me. The same is true with the situations I create, the plot. Again, ideas come from the real world and are then shaken, stirred and reformed. I have a friend called Nick who is one of the best storytellers I’ll ever meet, from the oral tradition of captivating an audience and then wowing them with a brilliantly stunning ending. I have a couple of his corking tales fermenting away in the attic of my imagination. One of my lovely neighbours, Jackie, told me a story about something she did that was so evocative, I’m going to reshape it and use it for the end of my current novel. So all the ideas are out there – they must come from somewhere. And often those places are unexpected.

The novel I’m currently writing, which we’ll call ‘BATS’ as a title anagram (for the time being), is about the interplay between three characters. One of them is in her late seventies, single, and I needed a background for her that shows her independence, her background, her career and her attitude to being alone in a time when most women were expected to marry and have children. For a while, the character of Barbara was fermenting away on the screen, waiting for the final ingredient.

Then, this weekend, I went to a ‘Christmas Dinner,’ one of those events I’m invited to, but I don’t really know anyone well and I don’t really want to go. It was a club event, a hobby I’m not really interested in, and I was invited by default. I arrived during a damp mid-day, and I wasn’t looking forward to a three-course meal. My lunch is usually a handful of dried fruit and a mug of green tea. I bought a glass of wine at the bar, decided I’d make the best of it and went over to talk to a few people. Once there, I started to look forward to it a bit more – I knew a couple of people who were there already and they are very nice. When I took my place at the table, I was seated next to people I didn’t know, which always means two things: firstly, they’ll probably never meet me again, so I can misbehave as much as I like, and secondly, it’s an opportunity to research for characters in a novel. I have to admit, I love meeting new people, as long as I can get them to chat with me reciprocally, avoiding them embarking on monologues or offering lengthy episodes of transmission about things I don’t understand. (That scenario does happen to me frequently.)

The lady seated to my left was called Lizzie. She was beautifully dressed, neat and charming, and she told me she was in her early nineties. We started talking before the soup arrived and she told me she had a ‘toy boy in his eighties’ and they went dancing together every week. He was sitting next to her, on her left, smiling and dapper in a dark suit. They were both lovely people. She told me she’d been a secretary in the Royal Airforce in her younger days, a good profession then, in a time when women were not allowed a mortgage except jointly, with their husbands. We had a great chat about her youth, although she never used the phrase ‘in my day.’ These are all Lizzie’s days, the past, the present, the future.

The meal passed quickly and she was delightful company. I was mentally recording her history, her experiences and her attitudes, some of which will find their way into Barbara’s character in the novel I’m currently writing. There was a raffle for fun and she won a panettone. ‘Oh, lovely – I’ll enjoy eating that at Christmas,’ she giggled. It was clear she had an appetite – not just for posh Italian cake but for life. She was living in the present with an eye on the future. What an inspiration.

When we left she hugged me and her friend, the ‘toy boy,’ kissed my cheek and said ‘Thanks for talking to Lizzie.’ I was amazed. I was thankful she’d spoken to me – not just for the research, but for the privilege of meeting such a wonderful woman and having an insight into her life. I wondered for a moment about his thanks: if it was because younger people rarely chatted with older people with such interest. Then her partner whispered in my ear ‘She’s ninety nine, you know.’ Of course I was amazed – Lizzie defied all stereotypes. She was fit, lithe, beautiful, graceful, sharp-witted, humorous, energetic – all those things older people are not supposed to be.

I went home with a smile on my face. Time teaches us lots of lessons – firstly, going to a lunch at any time is a joy, an opportunity for fun. I was lucky to be invited and to have the chance to meet new people. What a waste of my energy it was for me to decide beforehand that I didn’t want to go, that I probably wouldn’t enjoy it. Such prejudgement is more about me being a Christmas curmudgeon than about the event itself. And I also needed to reflect on how society thinks about older people, who are a font of wisdom and a source of great interest. To be thanked for talking to someone who was such a delight seemed at odds with how the world should be. I should have thanked her. Is it really so surprising to want to talk to someone who is so much older than we are? If that’s so, we need to reconsider our attitude to older people. Our most senior citizens aren’t just there for sitting around in Parliament and care homes. They certainly aren’t to be dismissed as just the ‘ageing society.’ They are fascinating people, warm and wonderful, who are a privilege to know. And of course, before too long, we will be older, just like them. If we are lucky.

 

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The final happy and sad Majick episode….

Majick’s return home after fourteen months’ absence was an incredible surprise, and I was so happy. The wanderer had been reconnected with me via a local vet who phoned my mobile after checking his chip. He’d been brought in by a woman who’d been feeding him for a while and I suspect that she wanted to adopt him. The low-slung black cat with the stumpy tail and the little bat face was delighted to be home though. He sat on my knee, purred, slept each night with his paws round my neck. I was so glad to have him back.

Ten days later, I had to go to London for an overnight stop. Majick had settled, been using the cat flap to come in and out for a few days, but I was still worried about letting him roam. My gut instinct said that leaving him for 24 hours would be risky, even though there would be someone popping in to feed him.

I was right. When I came back, there was no Maj. Colin was asleep on his cushion. TC and Murphy had eaten everything they could get hold of. But Maj was absent.

That night I didn’t sleep well, hoping that he’d come back. It had been his style – to stay out half the night, turn up in the early hours and shout at me for food, then sit on my knee and purr. But the next day, he still wasn’t back.

I phoned the kind woman who’d been feeding him and she said she’d seen him hanging around again. I called her a few days later and he was in her house, well-fed and asleep on his own bed with her other cat. He’d settled back in. Of course – that’s where he’d really been living for the last six months. He’d turned up there after the snows in the spring and settled. His new owner loved him. He was her cat. He had gone home.

I talked to friends who all said ‘Go and get him. Bring him back. Try again – he’ll stay this time.’ I wasn’t sure that was the right thing to do. I didn’t want to be selfish.

Was it Sting who sang the song If you love someone set them free? I had some soul searching to do and it was fairly clear what had to happen next. I didn’t want to do it, but it was about Majick, not me. Hadn’t he made his choice? Hadn’t he gone back home to the place where he’d been comfortable and fed for a long time? A place where he was loved.

I took a couple of days to think it over, but really I already knew what I had to do. I’d spoken twice to the woman on the phone. She obviously adored him. I’d go to visit her one time, see him there happy and curled up in front of a log fire in his new home, safe and loved, and then I’d come back and remember him with fondness, knowing that he is happy.

A good friend of mine said ‘I couldn’t do that- I couldn’t say goodbye to my cat, and give him away.’ I didn’t really want to, to be honest. Majick’s a special cat, lovely natured, great to be with. He has a deep purr; he’s more affectionate than quirky grumpy Colin, or TC and Murphy, the feral perils, who follow me everywhere for food and then sleep like curmudgeons by themselves in front of the fire, although I love all three of them to bits. But it’s not about me, is it?

So that’s what I did. I handed over adoption. He has a new home, not mine. Majick lives three miles away now, so I’m not likely to see him in the garden hunting mice and rabbits. He won’t call in for a cuddle, a quick nibble of cat biscuits and a purr. He’s gone now and that’s it. I hope he’s as happy as he can be. He’s fine, well cared-for – that’s the most important thing. And I’m glad that I know he’s alive and safe and happy and I’m glad I had him for those few days, because I realise that he’s fond of me. That’s enough.

It’s been quite a tale – and he’s a real personality. People would write novels about the adventures of Majick Cat. He’d find his way into people’s hearts as easily as he found his way into a new home. He’ll be well fed and warm this winter. I won’t visit him now – that wouldn’t be easy. I will think of him from time to time and I’ll still look for his little bat face amid the shrubs and flowers. But I know he won’t come back.

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Why I’ve stopped writing my new novel for at least a week…

I moved home about fifteen months ago, at the end of the summer of 2017, into a beautiful old farmhouse in the sticks. It is quirky, fairly spacious, perfectly habitable, well-loved by its previous owners; it’s in a fantastic setting of fields and trees, sheep, pigs, pheasants and buzzards, with great neighbours. Last winter was cold here – we had ice and snow, but there’s an old Rayburn in the kitchen and two wood burning stoves in each of the downstairs rooms, so everything was cosy.

By Christmas day last year, the new kitchen was ready – I cooked nut roast wellington with all the usual stuff on the new range and it was great fun finding out how all the knobs and settings worked for the first time. Bold from the success of a nice new kitchen, I moved to decorate the dining room and stripped off the wood panelling to find damp walls underneath. Of course, in a house that is 500 years old, a bit of damp isn’t a problem, but I decided to have it lime plastered and done properly. The man who did the job was brilliant and I’m now putting 10 coats of lime paint on the walls. Every time I open the tub of lime wash, I think ‘This is the stuff they used to put in paupers’ graves. Mozart went down under a load of lime wash. It is fierce stuff: I’d better mask-up and wear protective clothing. On a roll, I ordered new windows, to make the house better insulated for the winter. A dear friend recommended the company who’d done his beautiful windows. All would be well, of course- what could go wrong?

A month later, I’m still lime-washing a huge empty room. All the dining room furniture is in the lounge, so I can’t move around in there. My desk, my computer, two sofas, two easy chairs, a TV, books, shelves, CDs, furniture and me, are squashed in or piled high. I can’t light the fire in the wood burner – I can’t even see where it is. It’s incredibly cold in the lounge. And then there is the saga of the windows.

Last Friday I looked on as the window installers sat in an open windowless frame upstairs, in tears, as several large random bricks fell about them out of the wall and onto the ground outside. ‘I didn’t expect this…’ he muttered. ‘It’ll need plastering. And rendering.’

‘It’s an old house…’ I suggested, feeling very sorry for him.

‘Can I come back next Friday and finish it off?’

So the current situation is that the Beast from the East is out there along with cold icy blasts, perhaps even snow. The house is freezing, especially the lounge – the rubble room, where my desk and my computer are.

I’ve been busy writing: I’m over 50,000 words into a new novel and I love it. I’m having such a good time writing about the adventures of my three protagonists who are mixing it up hilariously in a little village in the middle of summer time. I’m laughing out loud and I know exactly where the plot is going next, with great effect. I’m completely enjoying myself and I’m really pleased with how the characters and action are coming together.

So, imagine me on my way to work each day, climbing over the rolled-up rugs, the sofas and chairs; there are piles of books like elephant droppings everywhere. I crawl over to my computer to log on amid the icicles. My cats TC and Murphy follow me into the lounge in case I have any food – the oldest cat, Colin, won’t come – it’s too cold, he can see his breath! So I’m dressed in two jumpers, a pair of jeans, thick socks, sturdy boots, a long coat, a colourful faux- woollen hat with plaits and the word Amsterdam on the front, a football scarf, a pair of fingerless gloves and leg warmers. I have a steaming cup of green tea to keep me warm, a flask of pumpkin soup, and I’m still freezing. The patch of sky I can see through the half- finished window over the piles of junk is stone grey.

Back in the kitchen, I can press my backside against the Rayburn and try to heat up my bones. Upstairs, I can go in my little gym to warm up, but I’ll need to step over the floor boards that are there resting before they go into the new en suite. And as I try to reach my exercise bike, I have to clamber over a new shower tray, a radiator and a toilet, complete with fittings, which is leaning against my punch bag.

Of course it will all be over by Christmas. (Isn’t that what they said in wartime?) But I’m keeping my pecker up with green tea and soup. Perhaps I’ll take a week off writing, do some planning instead with my feet on the Rayburn, listen to music, go for a walk or a run, and make bread and vegan bacon. (Note to reader – Another blog post is in its early stages, about a conversation someone had with me recently, which went ‘Why do people even make vegan bacon? Can’t you just eat the real thing?’)

By Christmas I will have a proper lounge, a living room, an en suite and double glazed windows. And I’ll have another novel, almost finished, ready to soak in brandy, leave to mull for four weeks and come back to edit in the New Year. By Boxing Day I will be able to invite friends round for drinks and nibbles (such as vegan bacon…) and a good time will be had by all, as we huddle close to the wood burning stoves fresh from a shower in the new en suite, and chatter about nothing much in the warm, well- insulated rooms. There won’t be an Amsterdam hat with plaits or a pair of leg warmers in sight as I sprawl on the sofa watching the football in vest and pants murmuring ‘Open the new windows – I’m boiling.’

But for now I think I’ll just take a week off, park my bum against the Rayburn and dream of a fortnight in Goa, imagining myself sitting on a beach sipping cool beer. Brrr. I wish!

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The continuing saga of a cat called Majick

He left fourteen months ago, about six weeks after I moved house. I kept him in for the advised few weeks and then he’d been out a few times, coming back for feeds and sleep. Majick Cat had always been a bit of a character – I’d had him for a few years, inherited from a woman who lived in a flat in Plymouth, loved him to distraction: she’d never let him out and finally gave him up to Pet Rescue when she had to move back to Romania to look after a sick parent. She’d labelled his bowl with his name so when he came to me aged two years old, I continued to call him Majick. He was all black except for a little white spray of fur on his neck; he had a little bat face, short legs and a stumpy tail. He was a character, he’d take off for a few days, come home at midnight and howl at the front door rather than use the cat flap, and he’d sit on my knee for hours. He was lovely.

Then one day, after I’d been living in the new house in the sticks for six weeks, something lit up in his eyes as he stared across a wide field full of sheep. And off he went. I didn’t see him again, although he’d been sighted several times by neighbours. I wouldn’t give him up.

Of course he’d made it clear he didn’t like the new house. He peed on my oak floor and sulked under the bed. He didn’t adapt well. But he’d still cheer up, eat, purr and sleep with his paws round my neck at night. I thought he’d be all right.

After he took off,  I looked for him. Wherever I’d go, I’d keep my eyes out for a little bat face in the hedge or a stumpy tail and short legs belting across the road. Nothing. The winter came, the cold, deep snow, icy wind. Someone told me ‘He’s dead, get over it.’

Spring came, then summer – still no Majick, no happy return of the wanderer. Then a week ago, I was driving home from a meeting and the phone rang. I pulled over. The local vet said ‘Do you have a cat called Majick? Well, he’s here.’ I couldn’t speak for an hour.

I went to pick him up. When he saw me his eyes shone – he leaped straight on my knee and purred. He’d gained weight, two little chins on his bat face. But he was ok. I took him home, fed him. He wasn’t keen on the other cats – he’d forgotten Colin Cat completely – but he slept on my bed all night purring, his paws round my neck and he seemed glad to be back.

I rang the kind woman over the hill, three miles away, who’d been giving him food, to thank her. She’d coaxed him into her house after several months of feeding him, then she took him to the vets. I think she loved him and wanted to keep him. Why wouldn’t she? Maj is a real character.

He stayed in for a week and was happy enough. After eight days, he sat in the window and sulked a bit – he wanted to go out. I kept him in for three more days. He broke through the mesh on the pantry window and scrambled into the outside shed. I brought him back inside and promised him he could go out the next day. Then, the following morning, I let him out: we walked round together, me chatting to him for half an hour while he explored the garden. Then he came in and had some food. I thought, ok, this is it now, he’s settling.

For three days he came in and out of the cat flap like a good cat, eating, sleeping, purring. He stayed out late one night but he came into my bedroom in the early hours, asking for a hug and some food. Several days later I went to London and stayed overnight. When I came back, he was gone.

I’d been worried he might disappear. I rang the kind woman who’d fed him, who lived about three miles away. She said she’d seen him again, but only in the distance. I drove up to the fields where I think he is and I called him. After half an hour, I went home by myself.

I sat quietly and did some soul searching. If he wants to be a wanderer, who am I to stop him? If he loves the other place and has a bond with the woman there who feeds him, if he’s happy, who am I to want to drag him home? Perhaps he’ll come back to me occasionally for food and enjoy the life of a vagrant cat? Perhaps he’s just lost. I rang the woman again and left a message on her phone yesterday morning. I haven’t had a reply yet.

I haven’t given him up. He might be back tomorrow. He might be back in fourteen months. The vet might ring again if he’s handed in. But then what do I do? As I do with cats, children, everyone, I put them first. My feelings don’t matter – it’s about what’s best for Majick. Was it my day of neglect in London when I broke the continuity that made him want to run off or does he just want to roam? How do I know? I hope he’s not lost – I hope that he knows the way back home. Maybe he’s found his home with the woman beyond the hills who loves him.

It wouldn’t surprise me to see his stumpy shape in the garden or his little bat face at the window. But as is often the case in life, I’m waiting for his next move. It’s not up to me, is it? Ah well.

I dare say this won’t be the last post about Majick cat. I find myself looking out the window, wondering where he is as the skies turn grey and the wind batters the glass, and suddenly I’m singing that old song from Lady and the Tramp, the lines that go:

 

He’s a tramp
He’s a scoundrel
He’s a rounder
He’s a cad

He’s a tramp
But I love him
Yes, even I have got it pretty bad

He’s a tramp
He’s a rover
And there’s nothing more to say

If he’s a tramp
He’s a good one
And I wish that I could travel his way
Wish that I could travel his way
Wish that I could travel his way

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Frustrated are the vegans for they shall not eat (sometimes)…

Imagine the scene.

A woman walks into a restaurant. ‘I’m hungry,’ she says. ‘What’s for lunch?’

The waiter hands her a menu, and she peruses the list: chicken pie, omelettes, fish cakes, macaroni cheese, and several other choices. Then the waiter points to the specials board. ‘We also have beef stroganoff, tuna bake, sausage and mash, gammon and eggs and I can recommend the scampi and chips.’

‘Mmm.’ The woman licks her lips. ‘It all sounds so good. I’m spoiled for choice.’

Meanwhile, not so far away, I’m invited to lunch at the same restaurant. I haven’t been there before so I ring them in advance, hoping they’ll have something I can eat. ‘Hello. I’m joining a friend for lunch on Friday. I’ve looked at your menu online and there doesn’t seem to be anything vegan. Can you accommodate me, please?’

The nice lady on the end of the phone pauses a moment. ‘Oh, I don’t know.’ She thinks for a little longer then I hear her yell ‘Sandra? It’s a vegan. ’

Another voice is on the line. ‘Hello.’

‘Hello,’ I try again. ‘Can you feed me on Friday lunch time? I’m vegan.’

There’s a silence. ‘I’m not sure. I’ll ask the chef.’

‘Thanks,’ I say. I wait for a few minutes, wondering what choices I’ll be offered. I’m not the greatest tomato on pasta fan. I’d be happy with a hummus sandwich. I hear Sandra coming back, the sound of footfall becoming increasingly louder.

‘Hello?’ She’s loud and clear.

‘Hello,’ I reply optimistically.

‘Chef says yes.’

I think for a few seconds. ‘Yes you have something vegan?’

‘Yes.’ She sounds pleased, efficient. ‘So we’ll see you on Friday.’

‘Ok, thanks. What is it?’

She’s puzzled. ‘What’s what?’

‘The vegan meal?’

She’s now surprised by my question. ‘I’ve no idea.’

‘Ah,’ I sigh a bit without meaning to. ‘Can you find out? It’d be nice to know what the choices are.’

She’s confused. ‘Choices?’

‘Of the vegan meal.’

‘Chef said he’d do you something vegan. It’s fine. We can cater for you.’

I can sense I’m becoming a stereotype – a vegan who is being difficult, pernickety. I don’t just want something vegan, but I want to know what it is. What affrontery! ‘It’s just that I don’t like –um- Quorn sausages or soya mince…’

Sandra is a bit fed up now. ‘Well, I ‘m not sure what chef is doing for you, but it will be vegan.’

I wonder how I can explain to Sandra that I’m grateful that they are making me a meal but I have likes and dislikes, as everyone does. I recall past meals I’ve been offered in cafés and bars: the bland vegan salad of lettuce and tomatoes with no dressing; the vegan potato curry that contained nothing but boiled potatoes, curry sauce and rice; the steamed courgette covered in a heated tomatoes from a tin, that I couldn’t eat because it looked both phallic and unhealthy. I simply want something that I’m happy to eat. I’m not asking or a menu of several choices so that I can make my mind up on the day. I just want something I’ll like.

I give up. ‘Can chef just make me a hummus sandwich?’ I’m trying my best. ‘Lettuce, tomato, no mayo?’

Sandra is cross now. ‘I suppose so. I’ll check later. He’s busy now.’

‘Thank you. I’m looking forward to next Friday…’

The phone goes dead. Sandra is undoubtedly telling anyone who’ll listen that vegans are a pain in the butt, ungrateful and ridiculously fussy – why can’t they be thankful that chef is making the effort?

Meanwhile, I’m not surprised. The same thing has happened before. There was the long-haul flight when I was offered something that contained meat and told there was nothing else available, despite the fact that I’d booked a vegan meal well in advance. Another time, at a conference, having been promised something vegan, I was told that they had nothing appropriate – even the vegetables had butter on them. A third time, when I asked for mushrooms on toast for breakfast because I was a vegan, I was told ‘You should change.’

I’m delighted that things are getting much better nowadays. Most people know what vegan means and there is so much vegan fare available in supermarkets now. When I first became vegan twenty five years ago, that wasn’t the case. And I’m grateful when I’m catered for, I truly am. My local pub and restaurant do vegan food to die for – it’s so good that non-vegans choose it, and I’m all for that. My favourite curry restaurant cooks me something incredible every time I go there. A cafe in town makes a vegan breakfast that knocks spots off everything else on their menu. I am understood, well fed and happy.

But just once in a while, the above scenario rears its head again in some form or another and I find myself back to square one. I don’t want parity with meat eaters, to be offered lots of choices – the world isn’t there yet. But I would like a meal I’m happy to eat and it would be very useful to know that I will want to eat it before it is presented as a fait accompli on the plate….

 

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Why some of my protagonists are older people..

I’ve been asked the question a couple of times in interviews: why do you write about older protagonists?

My first reaction is that I don’t – I write about people, all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds. I’m comfortable doing that, as long as I know what I’m writing about. This in itself is part of a debate I’ve heard many times: should writers from one social class or specific background write about people from other groups; should writers create characters of a different gender, sexual orientation, race, background to themselves? Is researching a character’s lifestyle good enough preparation or is a character only valid if the writer has personal life experience? That’s an interesting and complex debate for another time.

There is a woman I know – we were students together – whose academic work I admire, who wanted to write about women’s lives in the sex trade and so she integrated herself within the industry in order to discover what she wanted to write about. Not easy research. It’s a similar concept to the method acting work of performers like Robert De Nero, who worked as a taxi driver in order to give his role in the film an authentic representation. Research and knowledge about the character are important, whatever length an artist goes to in order to understand, but should we, in fact, only write about characters when we have first-hand experience? Certainly, for me, that’s a starting point. My protagonists could, arguably, be said to be composites of many people who have been an influence during my life.

My second reaction is that I write about older protagonists because they are perhaps underrepresented in the genre I write. Older women and men have been, somehow, perceived less interesting, less worthy of empathy, less attractive, less likely to be involved later in life in fascinating escapades, romantic or otherwise: less sexy and somehow less interesting. Of course, now that sixty is the new forty, we know that’s no longer the case and it’s a shame that it has ever been perceived otherwise. Age is just a number: we all know health and happiness are more important.

My third reaction is that writing reflects the world:  novels will contain characters of any age and background and older people are very much a part of the world. But it is true: I do like to create some of my protagonists as people in their golden years. Now they have no daily job, no growing families, no looming responsibilities, it’s time for them to make mischief. I enjoy winding such characters up and letting them go.

In my first novel, ‘A Grand Old Time,’ the central character, Evie, is in her seventies. She is witty, feisty and glamorous; she embarks on a journey of self- discovery which takes her through France in a campervan. She meets a septuagenarian hunk. Jean-Luc, who is difficult and brooding: but he has a private problem that will ultimately affect Evie. So yes, the two older protagonists are central to my story, but so too are the marital difficulties of Evie’s son Brendan and his wife Maura. The four characters have needs and problems, they have to bring about changes in their lives and they find themselves in situations which spark mischief, comedy and bittersweet action. I enjoyed writing about all of them.

Although my novels are perceived as being in the category of romantic or comic women’s fiction, I’m delighted for anyone and everyone to read them. I had a lovely comment from a man who read the novel and said that, although he valued Evie and her fun adventures, for him it was Brendan who struck a deep chord. In a job he dislikes, a loveless marriage and blaming himself for his hapless situation, Brendan is depressed and lonely. The male reader suggested that many men would empathise and he found Brendan’s plight moving. I was moved myself to hear his response and very grateful.

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My second novel, ‘The Age of Misadventure,’ is a story of four women of three generations, who go on the run together. The youngest, Jade, is twenty-four; the oldest, Nanny Basham, is eighty-eight. The other two women are in their fifties. Having the opportunity for the three generations to interact together gave me the chance to create comedy, but also to examine the difference between the lifestyles, attitudes and behaviour of the women. It’s true, most of the comedy comes from Nan, who is outrageous at times, but her character is inspired by the idea that dependent older people might be lonely and Nan’s brusqueness is a coping mechanism for how hard it is to live a solitary life. As Nan says, she’d rather be faced with the danger and death during their experiences on the run than stuck at home in a cold house eating dinners for one.

I’m currently embarking on a new novel. The main characters are two sisters in their seventies and a very bad man of a similar age. I’ll keep the storyline under wraps for now but yes, I’m writing about older protagonists who are interesting, who are not what they first seem, who are full of mischief and who have the opportunity to be a little iconoclastic. But there will be a whole range of other different characters in the novel, of all ages and backgrounds. I’m looking forward to writing this during the autumn and I know if I have a whale of a time creating the characters and the action, then there’s a good chance readers might enjoy the romp too.

The answer to my question, then, is yes –I do write about older protagonists, giving them the opportunity to misbehave and go on adventures, to fulfil their expectations of life. But they can’t do it alone. The world is full of all sorts of people: it’s a rich tapestry of diverse characters. Ideally, that’s how I’d like my novels to be.

 

 

 

 

Why writing novels is the best

Three years ago, I had a job that I loved; a job that I was so passionate about, that I never thought about leaving it. But it was hard work: early starts, never finishing until late into the evening. I didn’t care: I gave it my heart and soul and every day was filled with creativity, fun, friendship and exhaustion. I was happy. But one day, I realised I could keep on doing it until I dropped and then I’d be replaced by someone else who’d do the same. A light came on in my head. I knew I was a person who gave my energies readily and so fervently and was good at what I did. That defined me to some extent. But who else was I? That thought made me take the time to reconsider.

Now I realise the stick that was driving me on was in my own hand: the need to achieve something good every day. Three years ago, being the best I could be was based on external criteria I had little control over. Now, to a much greater extent, I can dictate what I do.

I left my relatively secure job, a role that made me feel appreciated by many and therefore pleased with myself every day, determined to write novels. It was an ‘I will do it and I don’t doubt that I can’ moment. I was sure that I could become a novelist.

Skip forward to finding a fantastic agent whose wisdom and common sense are totally appreciated, an intelligent, forward-thinking publisher, a lively and talented publicist and an amazing, strong team, and to having my first novel published. Fast forward further: radio interviews, press interviews, blog tours, book signings. It couldn’t be more exciting. I wouldn’t look back.

Of course, I’m selling being a novelist in the most positive way. That’s because for me, there are no down sides. As long as writing 100,000 words doesn’t deter you, then editing every word and phrase into the late hours, revising characters and settings,  meeting deadlines, reading reviews, listening to critics. But for me, all of that is part of the excitement, part of the journey and I wouldn’t change any of it.

I can get up when I like, not always at six in the morning. I can work the hours that I like, taking a couple of hours off to go to the gym or for a walk. I can make time to have lunch with friends, take an evening off to go to the theatre or to watch football. And I can work through the evening and into the late hours if I like, which is often therapeutic. I have more autonomy, a lifetsyle I didn’t have before; gone is the treadmill which sped up as the day progressed and the bells that constantly told me it was time to move to the next part of my day.

I am so lucky. Being a novelist is a privilege.

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Then there is the element of research, one of the greatest perqs of beng a writer. For A Grand Old Time, the novel being based on Evie’s journey through France, it was such an opportunity to go back and check the location. My second novel, The Age of Misadventure, is also a journey, beginning in Liverpool, a city I love, and ending in Sussex, where the scenery is wonderful. Being able to pack up the van and take off as part of my location research is a blessing in itself.

I’ve just been to the Loire valley to plan a third novel. It won’t be set there, but I needed an excuse to research one of the character’s background. The setting was beautiful: sunshine, rivers, open roads. While I was travelling, I met some fascinating characters: Marie-Ange who owned a farm, Bernard who gave me the loveliest rosé wine from his vineyard and some of the nicest English people, whose incredible wine- fuelled hospitality until two in the morning will certainly inspire mayhem and fun in future novels. I ate pasta and drank Armagnac under the stars at midnight and slept with the sound of the sea in my ears. Can there be a lifestyle better than that?

It certainly beats the old daily routine. Of course, writing’s not for everyone. I’ve heard all about the down side of being a novelist: writer’s block, carpal tunnel, headaches, deadlines, loneliness, excessive alcohol to fuel the late nights, cramping buttocks on unforgiving swivel chairs. But I’m grateful for every day of writing. As the seasons change and new ideas come and go, I know I’m really fortunate to be able to do what I love every day and to have time and energy to decide how I will do it. I just wish there was a magic wand I could wave where everyone could have a job they’d love and enjoy as much as I enjoy mine.

 

 

 

 

 

If a vegan diet is good for a septic tank, then it might just be good for us…

I’ve just had an interesting conversation with a man who shovels poo for a living. More accurately, he has a machine which slurps waste from septic tanks and cess pits. Not the best job in the world, perhaps, but someone has to do it. On the plus side, it took him half an hour to stand by his machine while it sucked the smelly stuff from the septic tank in the field and  educated me on the vagaries of cess pits.

It was his conversation that interested me most. We had a lovely chat about waste: he knew all about it, the ups and downs, the best sort, the worst sort, what to put in a septic tank to make it function well and what never to put in. He was a real expert.

I’ve lived in the house for a year and had paid no attention to the bog-standard septic tank covered in nettles and briars in the field adjacent to my garden. I’m very careful what I put down the drains of course: no detergent, no washing powder, no cotton wool or plastic, just gentle stuff which biodegrades, a bit of food waste, water, that sort of thing.

So I uncovered the tank and invited out the man to clean it. What he said really surprised me. Not the bit about the tank being old, that he had no idea how it functioned so well at such a great age, that it would benefit from installing a smart new system, and everything else you’d expect him to say. What was really interesting is that he said ‘You don’t eat meat, do you?’

I was impressed: he could tell things about my diet from my cess pit? Now that’s a real professional.

It turns out that meat, the cooking of it, the disposing of residual bits of it through drains, the residual oils, all contribute to clogging and to the general bad condition of the system. Basically, it’s greasy and likely to make the drainage system function less well.

Now there’s an allegory.

If regular meat intake clogs drains and is bad for them, I wonder what it does to the human digestive system and to arteries?

I hear a lot from non-vegan people about vegan diets being inadequate and how do we ever manage to survive without meat. I am asked frequently what I eat and how I get enough protein, vitamins, how I maintain a high level of energy. I agree, whatever you eat, vegan or otherwise, it pays to have some understanding about the value of what you’re putting in your body. I take vitamin B12, and vitamin D in the winter. I consider what goodness I am getting from my food at each meal. I try to weigh up the balance of nutritional benefits and avoid foods high in sugar and bad fats, palm oil, too many empty calories. Doesn’t everyone?

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Nowadays, some people want to veganise everything, so they can enjoy burgers that bleed, authentic sausages, and cheese which tastes exactly like the ‘real thing.’ I can understand why these products are popular; it’s impressive when people who love meat and dairy give it up and it’s understandable that they want to replicate their favourite flavours and textures in everyday vegan fare. It’s useful to have ready-made standby foods in the freezer too. 

On social media, I read about a lot of vegans who are thrilled to find ‘sfv foods’: safe-for-vegan stuff is really just food not originally intended for vegans but that just happens to contain nothing which is non-vegan. Such ‘accidental vegan’ foods include things like Oreos, some makes of custard powder, pickles, some types of pot noodles, some crisps, bourbon biscuits, Skittles. Some vegans’ delight when discovering Oreos are vegan is touching. Vegan pizza has been a huge success, as has vegan ‘fish’ and chips. Now people can be vegan and not give up fast food and treats they crave from their pre-vegan diet.

 While I’m happy that ‘accidental’ foods like vegetable extract, baked beans, peanut butter and hummus are vegan, I’m cautious about commercial high sugar, salt and high fat foods and the long-term effects of eating too much processed fare, vegan or not. I’m happier cooking something from scratch, with simple ingredients that I know and that I can be confident are good for me. While I understand that people can live off a diet of bourbons and kettle chips and still be vegan, and that fast food takes less time to prepare and it’s great to have an indulgent cruelty-free sweet treat occasionally, ready meals are perhaps best as a stand-by.

Of course, it’s a different kettle of hummus when it comes to alcohol – in moderation. There are great vegan wines to be found, beers too, and supermarkets are starting to understand what makes alcohol vegan and label it accordingly. I still find myself in trouble in bars, restaurants  and shops when I ask ‘Is the wine vegan?’ There are still many places where I’m greeted with confusion, horror and the question ‘Why, isn’t all wine vegan?’ Why, indeed.

Back to the neglected cess pit in the field. What if our bodies are similar to septic tanks: we put stuff into them and they reflect our lifestyle- choice back by being in good working order or less so, depending on the nature of what we put in? The better the quality of ‘stuff’ that goes in on a daily basis, the better the tank functions long-term.

Of course, there’s no scientific correlation between the cleanliness of a septic tank and the health of the human digestive system; I’m being facetious: it’s just a thought. I’m delighted that the meat-free septic tank is hanging in there. I will continue to feed it a diet of biodegradable waste, detergentless cleaners and good vegan manure. I certainly won’t be adding any Oreos and custard into the mix, but there may well be a recycled glug or two of good vegan Merlot every so often.

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