Five inspirational writers on International Women’s Day.

 Image result for international women's day 2018   For International Women’s Day, I’ve taken five writers who inspire me. I have chosen them because their use of language is unique and thrilling and because they do not follow other writers’ rules and conventions. They are iconoclasts, writers who write their own way, in their own style, and the result is stunning. Have a look at the list below and see what you think. 

Ruth Hogan. I’ve just read her book, The Keeper of Lost Things. It’s a clever book, unusual, well structured, an excellent concept and I adore her crazy sense of humour. A debut triumph.

Cynthia Bond. I raved about Ruby when I read it a year ago. I recommended it to friends, who either adored it or couldn’t finish it. A brave, brave novel which many will find challenging to read because of the protagonist’s experiences, but it’s so brilliantly written. One I think all women should read.

Cecelia Woloch. One of my three favourite poets. I love the way she uses language and creates images. She is special, gifted, an important poet, unique and exciting. I give her books away as presents all the time. Beautiful, moving writing. Check out Tsigan or Earth.

 Aphra Behn, born in Canterbury in 1640. She was an amazing poet who broke down cultural barriers and wrote ‘scandalous’ works which she claimed would not have been deemed improper had a man written them. Read The Disappointment and decide for yourself.

Jeanette Winterson. I’ve read most of her novels and every time I am even more amazed at her skills as a writer. I recently read A Gap in Time and it blew me away. I didn’t want it to end. She breaks rules, writes boldly and it seems not only to amaze but also to redefine genre and brilliance.  

Of course, there are so many more. However, for today, I’ve concentrated on writers who stand out from the crowd, who do their own thing, unafraid and unique, unapologetic. Thanks to them for the inspiration.



Campervans, cherry clafoutis and my novel…

Last night was lovely. Perfect ingredients: London skyline, champagne, a real home-made cherry clafoutis (baked with love,) a giant cut-out campervan. A team of Avon angels, lots of smart independent booksellers and hundreds of great books. Wine. Canapes. Speeches. And me.

My first Indie event with HarperCollins Avon was such great fun. I met the charming CEO, brilliant authors such as Cecelia Ahearne, the fabulous Bosh! boys and some really lovely people. I had the opportunity to introduce my novel, A Grand Old Time, which is out in April. I talked about the novel’s origins and development and it was so nice to have the time to chat about my protagonist, Evie Gallagher.

My novel is about Evie, a woman who is seventy five, but it’s not just a book for older women any more than Wurzel Gummidge is a book for scarecrows or Pooh is a book for bears. Evie goes to live in a care home by mistake and runs away. She gambles, drinks too much, misbehaves, buys a camper van and goes on a road trip. Of course, her son and daughter- in-law think her behaviour is inappropriate and they follow her, to bring her back. But, trapped in a car together, they realise they have problems of her own.

On her travels, Evie meets a septuagenarian hunk and sparks fly. Of course they do – she is feisty, wickedly provocative, unpredictable and a bit of an iconoclast. She’s bound to have adventures.

But A Grand Old Time is a novel for us all. It’s about having an appetite for life and not being afraid to take a big bite out of the present. In our so-called ageing society, we may all expect to live to be seventy five and more, and we certainly won’t want to be on the scrap heap. Evie says of her own mother, ‘She was done at forty. I’m seventy five and I’m  damned if I’m done yet.’

The novel is for all our mothers and fathers who, bless them, endured society’s concept of age as something which should slow you down, which limits you and makes you behave yourself. In fact, it could be an opportunity, a freedom, the time to do something wonderful. It is a chance to turn the mundane into a road trip. Like Evie, I hope we’ll all live to a ripe old age and then, I hope, we’ll take a leaf out of her book and find ways to have A Grand Old Time of it all.

My top ten to bring us in from the January cold

January isn’t most people’s favourite month. I’ve heard a lot of people complaining about it. It’s cold. Christmas has gone and won’t be back for a long time so it seems like there’s nothing to celebrate. It hasn’t snowed. It probably won’t. A holiday to somewhere warm would be nice but….

So, with a brief nod to a lovely woman I worked with once, who said I was ‘horribly positive,’ here’s my top ten of things to warm the heart this January. In no particular order other than random selection …

  • VEGANUARY. So many people are trying a plant- based diet this January and 61% of them, according to statistics, will still be vegan by December. The Bosh! Cookbook will be out soon and, having followed their blog for years, I know there will be some sumptuous recipes to make everyone happy, whether they are looking for a Christmas dinner, a delicious burger or a chocolate cake.
  • BOOKS. There are so many good books to read. Mary Beard. Sarah Winman. Patrick Gale. This is just my January reading list. On the exercise bike, it’s amazing how many chapters I can whizz through in an hour. I’m so lucky to have good books to read.

  • FOOTBALL. After Liverpool’s monumental win over Manchester City last week, (a team I admire for their attacking football and excellent players such as De Bruyne,) the future for the Reds looks good, especially if we can sort out the goalkeeper conundrum. Plus we have signed Virgil Van Dijk, and the Fab Four (Salah, Mane, Firmino, Ox) continue to amaze. Football is theatre, a performance in two halves. Which brings me to the next one on my list.
  • THEATRE. Last year ended on a high, seeing Josie Lawrence in Mother Courage. This year promises to be brilliant too. Hamlet is on in Plymouth next month and it will be really good. I must sort out tickets and then I’ll look forward to it throughout January.
  • MUSIC. I’m enjoying Spotify while I work at the computer and my current writing backing track is Humble Pie. I love Steve Marriott’s voice and the stomping rhythm makes sure my writing is pacy. Check this one. I know it’s from way back in 1973 but who cares if it’s this good…
  • WORK.  My book cover is out. My novel follows soon and I am so excited. I’ve had a wonderful review and such kind words and real enthusiasm blow me away. It’s a joy to work with people who aren’t just incredible professionals, but truly lovely. We are blessed if we find ourselves alongside people we trust, who are supportive, efficient and completely totally nice. Kiran, Rachel, Sabah, the Avon Team – they know who they are.

  • NATURE AND TRAVEL Whatever the season, whatever the weather, being outside, travelling, going somewhere the wind blows the salt of the sea in your face, or somewhere there is nothing but silence and a deer peering behind a tree, or somewhere you have to try a new language and rethink your own lifestyle, or somewhere you can be lost in bustle and noise and culture. It’s good for the soul.
  • ANIMALS (CATS). Last year, my best cat, Pushkin, was knocked down on a lane where three cars pass daily. She was so unlucky and of course, I said, as we all do, ‘No, I won’t get another cat. Ever.’ My daughter persuaded me to adopt Monty and Murphy, two mad clowns who had been feral and will now scrounge hummus on toast. Colin is just starting to tolerate them. They are lovely and cats make such great company. I love the way they slap their bottoms full-on the keyboard when I’m editing and give me six pages of dzzsmk..rrrtlgggggggggggg

  •  FRIENDS. My friends are scattered everywhere from the North to the South. I don’t always see them all as often as I’d like. I know we have email, messenger, Facebook, Skype, Twitter, phones. When we do meet up it’s rock and roll. I have happy friends, mad friends, friends who need a hug, who give hugs. I have funny friends, talented friends, kind friends. Where would life be without friendship? I love you all.
  • FAMILY. Family is at the centre of everything I think and do. Without them, it would all mean so much less. They are my backbone. They are my smile when I wake up each morning.

You don’t choose your family. They are God’s gift to you, as you are to them. Desmond Tutu 
I’ll tell you what I’m grateful for, and that’s the clarity of understanding that the most important things in life are health, family and friends, and the time to spend on them. Kenneth Branagh.

Is nostalgia good or bad?

Christmas is over and we have finished celebrating the arrival of a new year. It’s now a time when we can look forward to the wonderful gifts 2018 can bring. We all hope for health and happiness for ourselves and for those we love and we wish for world- wide peace and an end to discrimination, disease and destruction. We consider changes to our lifestyle, wanting to be instrumental in making positive developments. We decide to eat healthier food, join a gym, spend more time outside, and help others. Such plans are admirable: we all know of people who will run a marathon in 2018, land a new job, find the perfect partner, raise money for charity or, simply, be more content with their lives. It doesn’t really matter if it’s January or July, looking forward confidently and with optimism is a good thing.

Yet we spend so much time looking back. Christmas time is a good example. We all love White Christmas, the archetypal festive 1950s film showing how perfect life used to be, and the Irving Berlin song dates back to 1942. We sit around the dining table, reminiscing about previous Christmases, missing people who are no longer with us, and old childhood memories of past years are stirred up and savoured. Many people yearn for aspects of bygone times, when food tasted better, everything was cheaper, we were less focused on commercialism, and people’s lives were less complex and perhaps in some ways happier. I remember as a teenager hearing a woman in her seventies talk about the Second World War with fondness. I was horrified. What about rations, bombs, the sacrificed lives? But she simply looked misty-eyed and said ‘Ah, but you had proper neighbours then. We all looked out for each other.’

I wonder if nostalgia is a bad thing: if we are always looking backwards through rose-coloured glasses, does it prevent us from looking forward clearly and determining our own destiny? But then, there are things we learn from the past. Life experience enables us to make decisions focused on a knowledge of likely outcomes. But the future is ours to determine, so why would we want to hold on to memories which have long gone? Perhaps that is it: like an old photograph, a letter or a school report found at the bottom of a drawer, the pages yellowed and the ink faded, perhaps the past provides us with a soft fuzzy feeling that makes us happy.

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Finding joy in nostalgia is not always easy to achieve. I have returned once or twice to the place I grew up and several times to towns and cities I have lived in. Much has changed and I feel no impetus to relive the past there. Yet I spoke to someone recently who went back to a town they left just over a year ago and they were filled with a sense of having belonged, having grown up there, having developed and become the person they are today against a backdrop which was important, which was in some ways formative. Memories such as those are tangible, important and cannot be taken away.

Music and the media are quick-fire ways to start a nostalgic conversation. Hearing The Clangers theme tune takes me back to childhood. Certain rock songs remind me of adolescent mischief. I know exactly where I was when I heard about The Twin Towers tragedy. Similarly, smells take us back to happy times, whether it is the lavender perfume of Grandma’s handkerchief, the smell of hot dogs at the fairground or the aroma of Mum’s apple pie in the oven, we are transported instantly and memory is picture- clear.

But is nostalgia good for us? A 17th Century medical student first used the term nostalgia for the anxieties displayed by Swiss mercenaries fighting away from home. It was thought of as an illness, caused by demons. The word derives from the Greek nostos (return) and algos (pain), suggesting suffering due to a desire to return to a place of origin. However, modern thinking is that nostalgia makes people feel more socially connected to others.  This social connection boosts people’s positive feelings about themselves.

One of my neighbours has an old Ford Cortina she wants to sell and another neighbour longs to buy it, as it was the first car he drove when he was 18. Of course, he could own a modern car, one which is much easier to drive, more economical, but the idea of owning a defunct banger matters, quite simply, because nostalgia makes people feel good. Nostalgia is not merely for the older generations, either; I have heard twenty year olds wax lyrical about Pokémon, Beyblades, Wispa bars. People are nostalgic because reminiscing makes them feel happy about old times, and it allows us to share common feelings and experiences.

But nostalgia isn’t real, is it? Every time we recall an experience, the memory becomes a little distorted. It can be more positive, more negative; we even have the capacity to change things unintentionally. As time passes, the memory becomes further out of touch with reality and so it is hardly accurate or reliable, especially where emotions are concerned. But sentimental recollections often include anecdotes and memories of loved ones, which reinforce the social web that extends across people and across time. There is also evidence that nostalgia works towards counteracting depression. The act of reminiscing has been shown to neutralise loneliness and anxiety. When people speak fondly of the past, they also tend to become more hopeful for the future. So nostalgia can in fact be a healing and a bonding experience.

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So, on that note, I’ll wish everyone the very best for 2018. But when you find yourself reflecting back on your life, on those special moments, remember that you are finding value and meaning in it. You are reminding yourself that life so far has not been unfulfilled and you are looking forward to creating more fond and wonderful memories. So, enjoy remembering the past: and here’s to the future!

Amazing production of ‘Mother Courage’. It should be on national TV.

I took time out last weekend to see Josie Lawerence in Mother Courage. It was in a lovely little theatre in Southwark. I had front row seats, which is ideal for a Brecht play, to be able to take in every facial expression. I couldn’t understand why the theatre was three quarters full: tickets were only ten pounds each. But the play was a real gem.

Mother Courage and her Chidren is a play by Bertolt Brecht, set in  Europe during the Thirty Years’ War. Mother Courage is a canteen woman who pulls her cart with her three children, Eilif, Kattrin, and Swiss Cheese. Following the army, she lives by trading with the soldiers and attempting to profit from the war. To her, war is her living but making money costs her dearly in the long run .

The play is typical of  Brecht: his epic theatre was a phenomenon arising in the early to mid-20th century,  responding to the political climate of the time. It educates through the medium of entertaining; it’s political theatre.

I once directed The Mother, another play by Brecht and it was greeted by two typical responses. One was from audience members who thought that it was a serious play, too political, dull, lacking frivolity and entertainment. The other was that it was pertinent, moving and important.

Josie Lawrence’s Courage straddles both audience viewpoints. With lively music and lots of laughs, she and her cast entertain as Brecht intended, but the strong political message about capitalism and profiteering, poverty, war and exploitation is central.

I remember as a teacher of theatre, working hard  to enable students to understand the individual style of Brecht. I wish I could have taken them to see this production. Mother Courage embodied all Brechtian theories, from Gestus to alienation. It was funny, poignant, tragic and beautifully performed by a team of talented actors, headed by the superb Josie Lawrence.

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There were magical moments, from raunchy song and dance routines, to Courage’s devastating silent scream when Swiss Cheese dies; from Kattrin’s martyrdom to the final seminal image of Courage pulling the cart, her personal ball and chain. With the fourth wall broken, the actors would share jokes and biscuits and eye contact with the audience. There was one wonderful moment where Mother Courage put out a hand towards the person next to me, begging for support, as she trudged on alone.

The production has now finished but I hope someone decided to film it. I hope it’ll be streamed to cinemas. Apart from it being full of accomplished performances,  it is an important play. The storyline is gripping and Brecht’s words are perfectly translated by Tony Kushner, a playwrite I adore for his best works, Angels in America and A Bright Room Called Day.  (Apparently, he’s currently busy writing a play about Donald Trump.)

I hope Mother Courage tours the country and packs huge theatres. It’s one of those plays I’d love everyone to see. Sadly I suspect this production won’t be seen again. I’d love it to be on TV over Christmas, so that everyone could watch it from the comfort of an arm chair. But I fear it wouldn’t compete with Corrie or Strictly.

Brecht intended his plays to be for the masses, so it’s ironic that only a few theatre-goers will have witnessed this brilliant and thought provoking production. But then that’s the moot point, isn’t it? Audiences for whom it was intended will never see it.

I’ll leave you with some ironic lines from Mother Courage and let my readers decide if it’s still a relevant must-see play after almost eighty years. Does it still resonate?

What they could use around here is a good war. What else can you expect with peace running wild all over the place? You know what the trouble with peace is? No organization. And when do you get organization? In a war. Peace is one big waste of equipment. Anything goes, no one gives a damn.



When you see something you disagree with…

There are lots of things we disagree on. Some things are inconsequential – a matter of taste – tea or coffee, cats or dogs. Some things are cultural, embedded in our way of life, important to us morally, such as choices about religion, matters of lifestyle. We all know that we have the freedom to make personal choices and we understand about respectful disagreement and the right to an opinion. But what about when the situation isn’t so clear cut, we disagree with something we think isn’t as it should be. It isn’t right, but we don’t know how to respond.

My mother hated injustice. She worked as a dinner lady in a school for a while, and in a soap factory. Both jobs had a hierarchical management system and the expectation was that supervisors were workers with a lot of experience who were paid a little more than the other workers to make sure that the job went smoothly. In both cases, my mum noticed supervisors humiliating inexperienced members of the team and my mum spoke out and made the point that the supervisors’ behaviour was unacceptable and demanded that they changed the way they treated individuals in public. Although she was just an ordinary worker, my mum felt it was the right thing to defend someone who was upset and couldn’t speak up for themselves.

It has taken a long time for rules about how we treat each other in relationships to become clearly defined. It wasn’t until 1993 that the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against women affirmed that violence against women also violates their human rights. We know attitudes about domestic violence have been slowly changing – it was only in 1994 that rape in marriage was made a crime, and that was after fifteen years of hard campaigning.

We’re not there yet, and sometimes things happen to remind us that not all partners in a relationship enjoy equal rights or are fairly treated.

Last weekend, I was in a DIY store and needed some assistance – with door knobs, as it happened. I approached an assistant who was helping a man and a woman and I intended to wait until they’d finished. The man was explaining to the young male assistant what he wanted and the woman quietly chipped in, to help. At this point, the man turned to the woman with an angry face and said, too loudly,  ‘Shut up.’ She recoiled and he leaned towards her and said ‘Go away and do some knitting or something.’ Who would even speak to their dog like that?

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We all know that’s abusive. It worked. She did shut up and she moved back and waited in silence. I wondered what to say. The man had help from the assistant and moved off and she trotted away behind him. Later in the store, I saw them both again, walking along in silence side by side in silence.

My point is, what could I do? What should I have done? I wasn’t intimidated, but to intervene with ‘That’s not very nice’ mightn’t have helped at all. I could have said to the woman  ‘Are you all right?’ but how would that have helped? How could she have replied?

The interchange was not part of a humorous role play, not a bit of intimate banter or fun between the couple. It was aggressive and meant to hurt. I wondered why the woman didn’t walk away, why she couldn’t.

Had the roles been reversed, and the woman had said to the man ‘Shut up. Go away and play with your golf clubs,’ would it have been met with a similar tacit public reaction? (Is the insertion of golf clubs as demeaning as knitting? What is the equivalent?) Hopefully, we have the same attitude to domestic abuse whether a man or a woman is the recipient. Abuse isn’t acceptable, no matter who is on the end of it. I wonder how many people -men, women or chidren – are used to this type of constant  bombardment on their emotions and end up feeling being unworthy of anything better. How can we speak out to help them?

It’s not just partners who indulge in repeated emotional abuse. It happens in the workplace, in schools, in families. The point is, how should we react when we see it? Are we nosy parkers if we speak up or cowards if we don’t?  Are we just making more trouble for the victim when they get home or do we owe it to them to help them realise they aren’t isolated?

I remember a story about a friend of mine carrying his four-year-old child out of the supermarket over his shoulder because she was having a tantrum. The girl was screaming ‘Put me down, you horrible man. I want my Mummy.’ But no-one challenged him, not for the three minutes it took him to leave the store. He said he’d have welcomed intervention, just in case he hadn’t been the parent. He’d have been pleased to see someone speak out for the safety of his child.

I don’t have an answer to this one, but perhaps we’re living in a time where our social lives are such that it’s easy to retreat into thinking it’s ‘not my business’ and then make a judgement afterwards. If we don’t know someone personally, perhaps we don’t think we should try to help. Perhaps we live in our own little worlds and are afraid or detached or just not interested enough to support others.

I’m not wholly happy that I don’t know how best to help a stranger who is being badly treated in a public place. Perhaps the man was able to be rude to the woman in the DIY store because he knew no-one would care enough to ask him why he was so abusive. Perhaps some teachers are regularly disrespectful to some children, perhaps some bosses take liberties with workers’ self-esteem  because they don’t expect anyone to speak out.

Perhaps we’ve become too self-absorbed and we’ve lost the concern for others which would make a challenge against injustice the norm, the right thing to do. There is the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian citizen in prison in Iran on trumped-up ‘espionage’ charges. There are things we can do to help. We can write to our MPs and urge them to take immediate action. There are countless cases of women abused by men in postions of power. Where are the people who know what’s happening and can speak out to support them? There are more than 250,000 homeless people in our country, and 1.2 million older people who are chronically lonely. Is there something we can do beyond a moment’s empathy and a cursory glance at our debit card?

The incident has given me a lot to consider. I will give it much more thought.

Is there a novel in all of us?

A friend of mine sent me a lovely piece of writing this week and asked my opinion on its worth. By coincidence, I’d just read a bestselling novel by someone I worked with a few years ago. I was pulled in by the intrigue and the characters of both stories straight away.  Although the styles and genre were very different, I enjoyed both pieces of writing on their own merit and not because the writers are people I like.

Another talented woman I know has just had a novel turned down by an agent – refused very politely and with encouragement, but it was her life’s work, her magnum opus, so I hope she perseveres.

I belonged to a vibrant writers’ group for over a year and I collaborated with talented wordsmiths in my master’s group. I’m surrounded by some inspirational novelists and poets and I read all the time, so I’ve a good idea of what works, up to a point. So after my friend, a novice writer, offered me this wonderful story to read, she asked me the question ‘Am I good enough to be a writer?’ I said yes, of course. She has energy, enthusiasm, talent in bucket loads. But that started me thinking about the old saying that everyone has a novel in them and I wondered: is it true? Can anyone be a novelist?

It depends what the question means. If it means can anyone physically sit at a computer and bash out 90,000 coherent words, then yes, that’s just endurance and editing. If it means can anyone get published, that’s a question of resilience, luck and the good fortune to create a saleable product. Does the question ask if all writers have talent? Subjectivity is an issue here up to a point – one person’s favourite book is another’s bin liner, although readability is an important factor.

There is so much talent waiting in the wings, ready to dive into the spotlight. I know two brilliant poets who are yet unpublished although I believe they both have the potential to rock the world. I know three novelists who could easily take the bookselling charts by storm. I’ve also read my share of really disastrous writing by people who believe that bashing out a sequence of random pretentious words makes them Gerard Manley Hopkins or Virginia Woolf. Not at all. But they can learn. We all learn as we go.

After some thought, I’ve reconsidered the answer to the question about whether anyone can write a novel. The answer is no.

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So many people don’t have the time. Full-time jobs, responsibilities, hobbies, tiredness, commitments all get in the way of being a writer. Many people don’t have the desire, the patience, the resilience, the inclination to sit for hours bashing away at a computer. It may be that some people don’t have the spare thinking time to come up with and develop a novel idea, or the opportunity to find quiet time or space to write. Some people don’t have a computer or a pen. Some people are not interested – they’d never make a novelist. Why would they even want to? They have a life.

That aside, writing is not an exclusive profession. A writer’s talent isn’t measured or assessed against other writers’ work; it’s not even equal to the success or enjoyability of the novel. It may not even be a hugely important factor in the novel’s popularity, although it does help to have a love of words and the ability to tell a story. There are some useful rules to be aware of as a writer – the show don’t tell, the avoid using too many adverbs, or clichés, the vary pace and sentence length, the create characters you are interested in and a novel you’d like to read yourself advice. But all these things are teachable and learnable with experience, and all writers have to continue to develop their skills.

My friend wanted to know if the short story was good enough. What on earth does good enough mean? There isn’t a sliding scale which suggests that the better writers (whoever they are) will have more enthusiastic readers and sell more books. I can think of competent writers who have sold millions of novels and they are hardly James Joyce. But these writers satisfy what many readers want – a good story, a gripping journey swathed in interesting words. We have help at our fingertips – spellcheck, Google research, writers’ groups, buddies, editors. There’s no reason why someone shouldn’t be able to write a novel which stands up well. Anyone who wants to should go ahead and do it and believe in themselves. Without self-belief, the going will be a lot tougher.

So I’ve come to a conclusion and the answer is, to people who want to write – yes, start now. You can do it.

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Books are brilliant. Hard copies, kindle, audio books, books which could become a TV series, a stage play, a film. Books which thrill, which entertain, which intrigue. There are all sorts of readers, even people who don’t know they are readers yet. There can never be enough books so it follows that there can never be enough writers. If someone wants to write a novel, they should be sure about the commitment involved – a writer needs to spend a lot of time, energy, emotion. But it’s a whole lot of fun – a privilege to step into another world, to stay there for a while and to be responsible for how it shapes up.

I’ve found the writing industry fascinating and wonderful. Agents, publishers, publicity managers – they are a breed of guardian angels and each of them is a brilliant companion on the journey to completing a saleable novel. Such people with experience and ability are to be cherished for their skills and advice. The chance to sit and write is a blessing and it’s an opportunity I would so gladly share with and recommend to anyone else. I’m 25,000 words into a fifth novel and my first is published next year, pre-orderable on Amazon. I love writing and I love books. What could be better?

So, back to my friend who asks me if her work is good enough, I want to scream YES. Her writing is entertaining, thoughtful, it has strong legs and I believe it can sprout wings and fly. I’ve heard all the warnings about how writing is an isolated profession, how it’s steeped in anxiety; how there wil be problems with writer’s block, patience, focus, crushing deadlines. But I’m shaking my head as I type. It’s a chance to work with ideas, with words, with imagination, to share something exciting with others.

There are many people who wouldn’t want to write. That’s fair enough. I can’t build houses, grow wheat, perform open heart surgery. But to those people who sniff the hint of a desire to create that novel, there’s only one answer. You are good enough. Don’t hold back. Don’t deliberate and don’t doubt yourself. Just do it.

When witches wove their spells

In 1878, in the area where I now live, a house was being demolished and a secret room was found. Inside, a witch’s ladder was discovered, an armchair and six broomsticks. The ladder was made of knotted cord, with feathers woven in to it. It was used to cast a death spell. The local area is famous for the witch trials of 1664, when Sir Richard Hunt, JP, presided over a trial of seventeen people, six of whom were men, four of whom were husbands of accused women. The trial followed a zealous eight year hunt, during which victims were arrested and confessions were extracted by torture, along with ‘evidence’ such as blemishes, birthmarks and spots. These areas were pricked by professional witch finders armed with bodkins to see if the ‘witch’ felt pain.  Interestingly, ‘prickers’ could earn up to twenty shillings for finding a witch, so the use of retractable needles was prevalent.

There was widespread victimisation. It was easy for a woman to be accused: someone would blame her for any ailment or local tragedy and hysteria would follow, evidence would be contrived and the woman would be thrown into a river, hanged or disposed of in a variety of other dreadful ways.

Many innocent women were targeted: the elderly, anyone who lived outside the community, even someone who owned a pet would be under suspicion. Incidents such as accidents of weather, petty jealousies, unfortunate deaths would result in a poor unfortunate being singled out for blame. Wise women, healers, herbalists and midwives were often met with mistrust. The last witch to be ‘discovered’ in the county in which I live was in 1707. The Witchcraft Act was repealed in 1735. The death penalty for witches was replaced by penalties for the pretence of witchcraft. Attitudes had started to shift.

We consider Hallowe’en to be an exciting and imaginary night when witches venture during the night to wreak final havoc before All Hallows’ Day on November 1st. But old attitudes still prevail. On 31st October, ‘Secret midnight hags’ are said to roam at large and images of witches usually fall into one of two simple stereotypes: crone or temptress. The old witch with a hooked nose, warts, straggly grey hair and a broomstick is renowned. It appears that it’s still acceptable to view old women as hags.

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We have a problematic attitude to age in our society. Phrases like ageing population don’t help. Adverts bombard television screens with creams and cosmetics which claim to reduce wrinkles The expectation that we can turn time backwards and the belief that being older is unattractive doesn’t support the idea that people can grow old and still be worth looking at. Prejudice towards the old is not only rife, but it’s not yet entered the pc radar sufficiently to become the contentious issue it should be. Old people are viewed as less active, feeble even, both mentally and physically. Their contribution is marginalised, as if younger people can do everything  better. Which is not to say that young people can’t excel – it is the widespread assumption that age means that people are past their best which is erroneous.

Look at adverts on television. Older people seem only to be represented when someone is selling pension, retirement and funeral plans. Actors are silver haired, smiling and bland. Nothing defines them other than just being old. Not sage, not experienced, not – God, forbid – interesting, attractive,  intelligent, with a sense of humour or an opinion. Just old. And a bit doddery.

I researched attitudes to older people, and the ‘cut off’ point from young to old was interesting. People above 50 were deemed to be ‘old’ generally. People above 35 were ‘ageing’ when it came to mental or physical prowess or fitness, as their ability was already believed to be diminishing.  Yet I know of people much older than 50 who are athletes, students, thinkers, geniuses. Lovely people. I fail to see why age is an issue at all in many cases.

Age is a blessing. Isn’t the point, though, that we all want to grow old? We don’t want to die prematurely. We are struck with horror when someone passes before their time. We all have a right to hope for our four score and ten – or much more now, in this age of medical science, prevention and cure. We all want to live to a ripe old age. We want to be as physically and mentally strong as possible, to work, to create, to be active, to be attractive even and, certainly, we want to be able to have a laugh with our grandchildren, help them with homework and beat them at paintball and drinking competitions. So, why all the denigration of old people when that is exactly what we all aspire to being?

I’m wondering how far we have come since the witches were hunted and shunned? An old lady in her cottage, alone with her cat, her fingertips blessed with healing skills and a sound knowledge of potions was viewed with suspicion and then she was blamed for every natural disaster. Now, perhaps, a similar old woman is ignored, ridiculed and viewed as a member of the ageing society, a burden on the state. That’s a long way from the respect older people – all people – deserve. It’s about time we treated others with care and empathy rather than wrongly assess the cost of their usefulness to us and then shove them to one side. That was also true of the convicted women in the trial in 1664. Blamed, victimised and then forgotten.

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I have affection, an affiilation even, with the women who healed and charmed, who harnessed the powers of nature four centuries ago, followed as they worked by a lone black cat. I wonder what they would think if they were able to visit the 21st century. I wonder if tmodern ageing counterparts are treated with more respect and dignity. Perhaps if they were here now they’d blend a potion to redress the balance and dispel the continuing prejudice. It’s a nice thought.




Novels are like good friends

There’s something heart-rendingly sad about my statement, that novels are like good friends. It begs the question: but what about real friends, real people, not ones who are imagined and made up? The life of a writer is essentially solitary, so the idea has developed that we are a lonely  bunch of individuals who have no-one to turn to in the long silent hours while we’re typing away. We are friendless, forced to seek solace in fabricated characters. The only excitement in our lives is found at in a new placid character we control ourselves; happiness is at the bottom of a plot. Or a glass. Such is the stereotypical image of a writer’s existence, a singular single person, focused entirely on the process and then the product we are desperate to complete before we begin the next novel.

There is some truth in the idea. There is not a great deal of instant cameraderie when you write alone at the desk each day; there’s  no office culture, no management structure, (thank goodness!) no banter. No one to share lunch breaks and jokes with at coffee time. In that sense, writers are solitary people who must seek their social lives away from the computer screen.

But when I suggest that our novels become our good friends, I am talking about the warm fuzzy feeling felt through constant interaction, through increasing familiarity. We go through a lot together, we writers and our novels. It is sometimes love at first sight, but we know pretty quickly whether we will get on together, whether we have a future, or whether early separation is inevitable. I’ve started novel number five twice, after delaying it as long as possible. The first time, I liked the new idea. I threw it away. It wasn’t good enough. The second idea clicked, started to rev like a formula 1 engine and I’m now up to 12,000 words, which is the point where I know I will write it all.

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Our novels are our friends because we get to know them slowly but we will eventually know them completely. We know their flaws and their strong points. We know where the relationship will lead but we don’t know every twist and turn. That’s an exciting part of the journey, discovering the bits we don’t know yet but we know they’ll fall into place in time and surprise us.

We know we will have disagreements with our novels, but we’ll work it out. Our friendship will survive. We will cut and paste and delete chunks, chapters, whole characters. The novel will keep us up at night, arguing with us whle we scratch our heads for a pact, a solution which won’t pop in until dawn, just before we fall asleep smiling. It will cause us headaches, researching, changing, editing, aiming for the perfect phrase, the exciting plot moment, the thrilling and unexpected dénouement.

In all my novels, the main characters are people I like. I meet them in my imagination and I respect and admire them; I know their flaws, I believe in the honesty of their thoughts and actions. It’s indulgent, because I have written them, created them. But it’s also about finding out bout who they are, growing together, bonding, love: I am often at their mercy, as I have no choice but to follow their impetus. They make me laugh out loud. They make me cry. I feel sorry for their  sadnesses and I cheer when things go right for them. I root for their triumphs and I fear for their safety from page one until the end of the novel. And that’s what friends do.

But I don’t want to keep them to myself. It’s not a secret relationship, forged between brain, keyboard and blank screen. It doesn’t exist without a ménage à trois. The third person. The reader. In fact, I’m aiming for the biggest friendship group I can muster. I want lots of people to love my protagonists, and to enjoy their journey within the pages of a novel.

The important thing is that, although I write chartacters from imagination and don’t base them on real people, I’d love them if I met them. They’d be good friends. They are plucky, feisty, mischievous, women who deserve the good things which happen to them in the novel. And they don’t deserve the tragedies. I love them because of their stories, their backstories, for what happens to them and how they survive and are resilient, quirky, funny, strong.

But it’s not just the characters who are my friends. It’s the novels themselves. It is as if each one has forged itself into my subconscious, metamorphosed into a being, become real and I feel loyal. I owe each novel thanks for existing, for allowing me to work it so hard and dsipte my constant nagging, it still comes out the other end valid and credible and worthwhile.

Perhaps then, going back to my opening statement, we writers are a sorry solitary lot with only flying fingers, whirling words and made up people for comfort.

But that is only during working hours. The rest of the time, we’re all scintillating social creatures. Party animals. Table dancers. Exciting conversationalists. Midnight movers. Our lives are full, fecund, fruitful and our friends are real people we value, trust and hold close to our hearts. Writers are just like every one else.

Of course, the problem would arise if the world we created and then inhabited became more tantalising than the real world. What if our characters, our imaginary literary friends, became more important and vital to our existence than our real friends? Then what would we do?

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At this point I go back to the stereotype, the lonely writer focused on the screen. She’s  blocked, frustrated, waiting for inspiration, seeking solace at the bottom of a bottle, alone and tortured and friendless. Perhaps that’s what makes a genius. Or maybe that’s just a myth…

How theatre tells us to fear the inadequate life

I love theatre. I love all different types and styles of theatre: Shakespeare, Brecht, Stanislavsky, Artaud, Grotowsky, Meyerhold, Lecoq, agitprop, avant garde, physical theatre, mime, puppetry, theatre of the absurd, naturalism, modernism, post-modernism. I can go on. I love the moment when the lights dim and then it’s often a journey of the mind and the emotions until applause breaks out hours later and I remember I’m in a theatre again. And the best theatre transports not just the imagination, the mind, the emotions but the soul. Think of McKellen in Richard the Third, and Godot and Lear. Dench in Macbeth. Rylance in Twelfth Night and Endgame. Ralph Fiennes in The Tempest. Graeae Theatre are great in everything they do, but Bent was magnificent!

Leave the caves of being. Come. The mind breathes outside the mind. (Artaud.)

As kids, we all experiment with theatre from the moment we start to play. Role play. Then we get creative and try and refine what we do. A talented young actor said to me this week about her GCSE performance piece, ‘My play is pretty dark.’ We explore issues we don’t want to happen in our own life from the safety of the stage. I remember being allowed to ‘do’ an assembly as a kid at school, making experimental theatre, a row of friends in black clothes with white masks jerking around to sombre music,  me dressed up in a long black cloak and a skeleton mask. A girl called Higby tried not to breathe while lying on a table under a cloth as I intoned the John Donne lines, below:

Death be not proud

Though some may call thee mighty and dreadful

For though art not so

I thought I was cool. My friends thought it was funny when some of the teachers took out hankerchieves and snivelled. Looking back, I wasn’t cool or funny. I was using the stage to prod people’s emotions about a subject I then knew nothing about, when the audience clearly did.

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Some years later, I directed The Mother, a great and often ignored play, by Bertolt Brecht. The lead was played by a talented young actor who is now Amanda Lawrence. Remember her performancein the film,  Suffragette. Then, she was just as magnificent as Pelagea Vlasova, the eponymous mother.

She spoke a line in The Mother which has always stayed with me. Resonated.

Do not fear death so much but rather the inadequate life.

Simple words but profound. A motto. A guide by which we can make our lives more meaningful. Death, of course, is The undiscovered country from whose bourn No traveller returns. We don’t know what to expect. Many people offer many suggestions about death, what comes afterwards. Heaven, Hell, The Afterlife. Or, of course, it could be nothing at all. I love the way Andrew Scott said the lines of Hamlet’s soliloquy recently. Not the often spoken  To die, to sleep No more… but To die, to sleep. No more. There’s the rub. That’s it. The end. Nothing. Infinite space. Brilliant interpretation.

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Hence the importance of making life all we can make it. Not to spend it fearing something which might happen, will certainly happen, but packing present time with good things: kindnesses, learning, making fun, loving, excitement, creating, contemplation, mischief, dancing on tables, making music, hugging, laughing, whatever is ‘adequate’ and beyond. I recently spoke to a fascinating vicar, who suggested that GP doctors, rather than ask patients ‘Do you drink or smoke?’ as lifestyle questions, should ask ‘What makes you truly feel alive?’ She has a point. It’s a question we should ask ourselves from time to time. We need to strive for good health, but we also need to live an adequate life, at least. So many people live inadequate lives, bound in circumstances they can’t control and can’t escape from, and it’s both a tragedy and a travesty. Brecht’s words are a bare minimum: we should expect and work towards adequacy, at least.

Artaud explains how theatre motivates and shapes our experience,  in his own passionate way. Theatre inspires us to move away from inadequacy and mundanity towards something which can truly change lives .

A real theatrical experience shakes the calm of the senses, liberates the compressed unconscious and drives towards a kind of personal revolt…

This week, my little cat was knocked down in a lane where only three vehicles pass each day. Pushkin. I rescued her two years ago, a skinny, starving stray in a city and she rewarded me with one thing I don’t find anywhere else. Unconditional time. If I called her, she’d come and rub her face against mine. She’d lie in the crook of my arm when I was typing. She’d pat my face, stroke it, show me her tummy and ask for hugs. Humans can’t give you that. Humans are always too busy doing something else, aren’t we? That offer of unconditional time has gone now. But theatre is always there, ready with a quotation, something which fits the bill exactly and clarifies the moment and explains how grief affects us. Brecht again The Mother, after her son Pavel is shot. It wasn’t reason that made me weep. But when I stopped, reason had something to do with that.

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I’ve lost my best ever cat. I hope she had an adequate life. She wasn’t much more than four years old. Now Shakespeare’s words come to me:

And will he not come again?
  No, no, he is dead,
  Go to thy deathbed.
 He never will come again.

So, Brecht was right about fear. Not death, but an inadequate life. The inadequate life is to be avoided and we must make the most of each moment. Theatre is a condensation of life in the form of a play, and there are pithy words for every occasion.  All the world’s a stage, as Shakespeare said, and we need to make the most of the short hours traffic of our stage before we end up Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Brecht had a more than adequate life: women adored him, his plays were well received, he was a prolific writer, although he was a refugee, his plays blacklisted due to his Marxism. That’s more than adequate, though. That’s inspirational.

Artaud was a genius, flawed and hospitalised. He died alone in a psychiatric clinic, at the foot of his bed, clutching his shoe.

Meyerhold was brutally tortured and sentenced to death by firing squad. He said:

I want to burn with the spirit of the times. I want all servants of the stage to recognize their lofty destiny. I am disturbed at my comrades’ failure to rise above narrow caste interests which are alien to the interests of society at large. Yes, the theatre can play an enormous part in the transformation of the whole of existence.
Their lives weren’t inadequate, though. Far from it. They were game changers, all of them. Inspirational people. Their theatre is energising, enabling us to suspend disbelief, so that our souls soar and reach out for new ideas, making our lives richer and our hope to rise above mediocrity becomes intense, greater. As Swiss director and performance artist Natasha Tsakis says:
We know the Arts are the archives of our human history, the wind of invention and the heartbeat of humanity

That’s well above adequate. I’ll aspire to that.