On International Women’s Day – it’s about being worth it.

Today is International Women’s Day and there’s much debate about whether we need a day to celebrate all women. It doesn’t take long to realise that we’re not there yet in terms of gender equality – experience and statistics speak for themselves: in the workplace, in terms of pay, in terms of prospects, even in terms of childcare and the home, we aren’t all sharing equal status yet. Some people don’t want equality; some don’t care about others’ equality and for some it’s a global issue whereas for others, it’s personal. And of course, men need to be equal too.

Perhaps it starts with accepting, loving and celebrating the people we are as individuals – only then can we accept, celebrate and love others. It makes sense: in the world where people feel the need to project perfect selfies on social media and are embarrassed by their bodies, to such an extent that they are afraid to attend health screenings; where people feel dissatisfied with their lives and fall into anxiety, perhaps we need to adjust to the fact that, while not being perfect, our imperfections are all right. We are unique and we shouldn’t try to be perfect. Perfection is overrated and it doesn’t matter.

My parents’ generation affected their kids’ confidence by pointing out our faults all the time. We fell short. My generation affected our kids ‘confidence by telling them they were beautiful and could do anything they wished and when they couldn’t, they fell short. We just need to accept it all – we are all beautiful, we can try to do anything and yes, we have faults: we will fall short occasionally but it doesn’t matter. That’s part of who we all are.

Then there is the case of rewarding ourselves, being ‘worth it’ as the advert constantly reminds us. Being worth it is not about indulging ourselves, but about cherishing the person we are. I often think of it as being our own best friend. If my friend perceived a problem with his or her appearance, their happiness, their health, their relationships, their job, I’d be there for them. I’d encourage them, tell them they were special, wonderful, and bad things don’t last forever – it will come good again soon and I’d encourage them to keep going. So why don’t we do that with ourselves sometimes? Why do we behave like our own worst enemy and let the inner voice tell ourselves we are rubbish?

Is it just a women’s problem, on this international day of women, the fact that we want to highlight our own inadequacies and ignore our real potential, or do we all share the self-deprecation, whatever our gender? Here’s a basic example. Yesterday I had some great news – my book is being published in Slovakia. I was thrilled. I didn’t need rewarding though – the news was exciting enough in itself. Then I saw a lovely jacket I wanted to buy, not expensive, useful.  I can afford it but I don’t need it, as a reward or otherwise. I have other jackets – but my first response wasn’t ‘I don’t need it’ but ‘I’m not worth it’ – I should spend the money on someone else or on something more sensible.

Human wastefulness is another debate for another time, buying ‘stuff’ we don’t really need – but the real issue for me here was that it was a nice jacket, it would suit me ok, I’d wear it a lot and get a lot of fun from it but, no, I don’t deserve the treat – I can do without.

There is a school of thought about success that I agree with, and it’s to do with Ki or Qi – basic energy. I use Ki in Reiki healing; I studied it for years in Ki-Aikido, and it makes sense – focusing on what you want is important. Not in a greedy way or a selfish way to the exclusion of others, but simply to focus on a goal that is important to us is how we go on to achieve it. We need to focus on the positive, on the inner voice that tells us we are worth it, that we are strong. If we dissipate our focus with anxiety or self-deprecation, we dilute our potential; we hold ourselves back. Then the cycle begins again: we feel inadequate and miserable and we start to fail again.

So on International Woman’s Day, the message is simple, whatever your gender. Care for yourself and then you can care for others. Love yourself and then share the love. Believe in yourself and you’ll be able to believe in everyone else.

Much needs changing in the world, today and every day to promote equality:  attitudes to gender, race, religion, culture, age, species and sexuality – I could go on. Maybe we should start with ourselves first. Self-respect means we respect others and that’s the beginning of change for equality. It’s a nice thought for the day.

Now about that jacket….

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In praise of audiobooks

Today is world book day and I’d like to bring up the topic of audiobooks. Life is a learning journey and it is good to have the opportunity to reconsider and sometimes even change our views. I’ve always loved reading – I’m usually stuck to the pages of a book, often multi-tasking, reading while I eat, cook, hoover, travel – anything that doesn’t require an active mind or great dexterity is better with a book on the go, clutched in my hands, my eyes not on the task. However, I’d never really thought about audio books as a choice. Then an artist friend of mine told me she was into audio books in a big way while she worked. A light came on almost immediately. Of course – it is so much easier to do those tasks that have to be done when you are listening to a book. I’d never really thought about audio books before but oh, what a joy they are.

Then another flood of realisation rushed in. Think of all those kids at school, the ones who didn’t like books, those who are dyslexic, those with concentration problems, the ones who’d been switched off reading at an early age, being able to enjoy a good story. And people who don’t see well enough to read print  – how important it is that they can access a library of books through their ears.

As children we love to be read to. We read to our own kids. It often helps us to access sleep – not because a book is boring but because a voice is soothing and safe and we are transported on the wings of our imagination. How nice to go to sleep listening to a story being read to us!

Then A Grand Old Time came out, as a novel and as an audio book, read beautifully by Aoife McMahon. She narrated the story with warmth and humour, bringing out the character of Evie Gallagher perfectly. I was so impressed. And in a review, someone wrote that she’d enjoyed the audio book so much; that the narration was so skilful and Evie’s occasional expletive wasn’t offensive at all, because the voice of the reader was Irish and it sounded so beautiful. That made me smile.

When The Age of Misadventure came out, I listened to Julie Maisey read the audio. I was blown away by her skills, as I was with Aoife McMahon’s. Julie Maisey had a Liverpool accent, not intrusive (although I adore the full-on Scouse voice) but with studied accessibility to all people, including those who might find accents difficult. The characters, action, settings were so well evoked by an actor who, apparently, is asked to achieve the whole thing in virtually one take. What impressive skills these actors have and, to the best of my knowledge, they are rarely known for their performances unless they are a big name.

So here’s my chance: thank you, Aoife and Julie and all the brilliant unsung stars out there that bring a book to life and send it singing into the earplugs of all of us. We who listen to audio books in the gym while pounding the treadmill, while walking coastal paths, while doing mundane domestic tasks and while driving or relaxing in a comfy arm chair with our eyes closed or while imagining the most exciting places and people with our heads on pillows, are truly grateful.

I have realised what a treasure an audio book is. I’m now aware of the skills and thought that go towards producing audio books. Audio books are the ears’ equivalent of block buster films, voices creating powerful visual images, and they are so impactful for so many people, including me now. So thank you, to all those involved in audio books. You are rock and roll. I am looking forward to my next sortie with the hoover, my next thirty mile bike ride in the gym, my next sleepless night when I can wake and in an instant be taken to a thrilling place by a warm and accessible voice.

Of course it’s a personal choice and I will always choose to hold a book, turn the pages, and stare at the words on the page in my own time. But audio books are now important too – they are right up there with all the fiction and non-fiction in my library.

 

 

 

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Celebrating the Age of Misadventure

My new novel, The Age of Misadventure, is out today. I really hope everyone will enjoy it. Grateful thanks to all the people who are with me on this journey – wonderful professionals, family, friends and so many people I am so glad to have come to know through writing novels. I have always wanted to write and I’m living the dream every day. I’ve just finished writing another novel, which I’m really excited about, and I’ve plans to write two more this year. They all contain characters in their golden years along with other characters too, of course. We live in a wonderful, diverse work and, although I want to have a diverse cast, I don’t want to miss out on the opportunity to create an older protagonist or two who have arrived at that age where they care little about what others think and revel in their own capers for the sheer joy of it.

It was for my mum, Irene, that I wrote my previous novel, A Grand Old Time. She loved to read so many books – they helped her to escape the daily routine. She was my Evie Gallagher, or at least, she was the Evie she could have been in another time. I’d have loved it if she’d been able to take off to France in a campervan and have those adventures. She’d have been just as feisty and as mischievous, and I knew exactly how Evie would behave because my mum would have been that way too. I haven’t finished with Evie entirely – she’s irrepressible, and I have a feeling she may be back.

In my new novel, The Age of Misadventure, I wanted to suggest that everyone should have fun, whatever their age. Georgie, at fifty five, has tried to harden her emotions, having been disappointed in love. She reminds me of so many women I know and respect – strong, gritty and independent, tough in order to shield herself from being hurt again but by the end of the novel, she has softened. There is a second chance for her. But it is the character of Nanny Basham that I really hope people will take to their hearts.

I wrote the character of Nanny Basham with my Dad in mind. I lost him a couple of years ago. He’d been living on his own, managing to be independent until the last few years. Then, like Georgie in The Age of Misadventure, it fell to me to cook his meals, do the shopping and sort out most aspects of his life. Many of Nan’s disgruntled words at the beginning of the book are his too. Being old and living by yourself, eating meals for one in front of the TV and not putting on the heating because it’s expensive is no picnic, and it’s often difficult for people in that position to feel positive about life.

So I wanted to allow Nan to have some freedom, and to enjoy herself. Inside the lonely woman living from day to day is a woman who has another life to live – she craves company, fun – she likes to party. And I wanted The Age of Misadventure to be exactly that, Nan’s chance to party.

Of course, a frail older lady now, Nanny Basham has a past and she has loved and lost. Her life is to some extent about memories. But I want my older characters to believe they have a present time to enjoy and in The Age of Misadventure, Nan has the time of her life, both on the road trip and in Sussex. She lives a completely different lifestyle: surrounded by people, she feels pampered, important and she is happy. It is no wonder that, at the end of the novel, she says that she would rather be on the run and in danger and have fun than go back to sitting in front of the TV by herself with a meal in a box.

The Age of Misadventure is a road trip, an adventure, a comedy romp and the story of three generations of women finding out what they want from life. As ever, each day is a lesson and from the difficulties we experience comes learning. Bonnie is a much more likeable character by the end of the novel, when she has learned to be independent and when she discovers who she really is, rather than being content to reflect what her husband wanted her to be. Similarly, when Georgie puts her guard down, she is warm, loyal and funny, and yet she remains a lioness, fiercely protective of those she loves. Jade, still very young,  moves to the next stage of her life, becoming independent and carving out a future with her new partner. Nan relishes being with others, having company, and by the end of the story we hope she will enjoy herself now, living each day in her own riotous way but with a heart of gold.

Having been through an adventure together, all the characters are ready to celebrate life in the present. I believe that we should try to celebrate every moment in our lives whatever age we are and whatever our circumstances. It’s not always easy though, but books can help, as they helped my mum to dream when her life was all about routine. And that is where the older protagonists come in, having characters who misbehave, who enjoy every moment, who – even in their older years – refuse to fade into the background and be quiet. Hopefully we’ll all become older people as life expectancy increases. And perhaps we’ll benefit from characters like Nanny Basham and Evie Gallagher: new role models, older characters in novels who are flawed, who fight against adversity and come through triumphant, perhaps a little scathed, but positive and having learned something important about life.

So I’ll continue to write about fun characters that are in their golden years, as well as some other characters that are not. Perhaps that’s how the world is and should be – it’s about inclusion and celebration. To some extent, Nanny Basham was written for my Dad, Tosh. But really and truly, she is written for all of us. May we all live long enough to enjoy our later years when, like Nan, we have earned the right to be who we are – funny, feisty, a little outrageous and very much ready for some misadventure.

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My top ten reasons why I love writing novels…

I’m an avid reader. I’m the sort of person who will read everything: all genres, crisp packets, adverts on buses. I have my preferences, of course – I love anything by Gerard Manley Hopkins, Shakespeare, Jeanette Winterson, Ian Hancock, Roddy Doyle, Sarah Winman, the Brontë’s, Zola, Turgenev, Cecelia Woloch, Kamila Shamsie and lots more. Reading is fuel for the mind, the imagination and the emotions. I can’t read enough.

Reading also helps me as a writer. I start from the place that someone has written something as a gift and as a reader, I have the joy of unwrapping it. It has taken them a long time and their work has come from a special place in the writer’s creativity. I extract everything I can from it, like a nutritious meal. Mostly I love lots about others’ writing and, if I don’t, I can still learn about the style, the craft. Other people will love a book I don’t get and so I seek to find out what it is about the novel that hits the mark with readers. Very rarely, if I can’t get into it at all, I put it aside, like some people do with Brussel sprouts. It’s not for everybody but it’s not my style to be negative.

Then, of course, writing books has given me so much to be grateful for. I’m learning about the craft and the industry all the time. My next novel The Age of Misadventure is out this month and I’ve just finished writing another novel I have so much love for, so it is a good time to reflect and pick my top ten reasons why I love writing. Putting them into an order has been difficult, and of course, I will find more reasons as time goes by and there may be a top twenty. But here we go. My top ten:

10 Holding the baby. It is a powerful moment when the novel stops being a series of pages on the PC and first takes the form of a book. The writer can actually hold a copy, touch the printed pages, read the familiar first lines and the acknowledgements and think ‘Wow – this is real.’ To be able to take the book in your hands is incredible, turning it over and realising that you did this yourself – (well, not entirely by yourself – more of that later.) Then the book arrives and it’s in German, Czech, Italian, Japanese, Swedish, and the Canadian edition. I’m so grateful to so many people.

9 Being asked to talk about the novel. I’m quite a humble soul really and to be asked about my book is something that triggers a strange reaction. I’m being allowed to talk about something I’ve created and people are really interested in it. It takes some getting used to. I’ve done radio interviews, which I love, and a few signings and talks at book shops and universities. It’s a little bit scary and a little bit surreal when people ask How did you think up that character…? And why did you make this happen at the end..? But I’m overwhelmed that people have invested the time and interest to read and think about my novel. It’s a real honour.

8 The cover. Being shown an artist’s visual interpretation of your novel, and design which an expert believes will encapsulate the story and persuade others to read it is a great experience. My daughter is a talented illustrator and I’m always overwhelmed by people’s artistic talents and interpretation, and the time it takes to create the final piece. It is a joy to reveal a cover, and quite an emotional moment. Then, seeing the way the cover is designed for release in other countries is an experience that takes my breath away.

7 Being outside and being inspired. One of the greatest joys of writing a novel is that I have the freedom to choose how I schedule my working day. I’m quite driven, so I don’t spend lots of time in the bath or gazing at the sheep in the fields but I do make myself stop, in order to think and to recharge. The beach is a favourite place to go for thinking time, or on the moors, where ideas will blow through like clouds and I become clearer about what I want to write. I’m lucky to have a campervan so that I can travel, research my work and just let thoughts move around.

6 Laughing out loud at my own story – and even crying. If my own writing can move me, then it might move a reader. I find myself laughing aloud at what I’m typing sometimes and that’s a good measuring stick. Characters such as Evie Gallagher and Nanny Basham, and the three main characters in my latest novel, have all made me guffaw. When I’m editing and I know the story so well, it is another good time to test the waters. I shed a tear at the end of A Grand Old Time and Nan’s story about her past in The Age of Misadventure made my heart ache. I think the central issue is that I care about the characters – always flawed, dented by life’s experiences but optimistic and feisty, they deserve something special and that’s what I’m aiming for by the end of the novel. Of course, it won’t always be a happy ending for all of them…

5 Starting a new novel. Like a first date or a new love, a new novel grips the writer and you can’t get enough of it. I just want to write all the time, I’m so full of enthusiasm and energy to tell the story. Of course, I have dumped a few novels on the way at 20,000 words. Filed might be a better word. But if I’m not bursting with excitement, then probably the reader won’t be.

4. Waking up at 2 am. I love it when I wake up and characters are sitting at the end of my bed, yelling ‘So, what happens to me next? How do I manage to resolve…?’ and I spend hours working it out. Early morning is active brain time for me but I don’t mind. It’s productive and fun, so I roll with it.

3. Finishing a novel. It’s a great feeling but not a simple one to explain. Finishing a novel goes way beyond ‘Yahoo, I’ve finished – bring out the bubbly.’ There is a feeling of immense satisfaction, because I’m pleased with it and I’ve brought the novel to a conclusion and all the characters have a resolution. I know I need to go through and edit and re-edit, and I enjoy the process of improving what I’ve written. But there’s also a bitter-sweet tinge of sadness. I have to let the characters go now… they move from the smaller place of my life and into the wide world. But like children, you have to let them grow, move on and find their own way…it is a good feeling to have brought them this far.

2. The support. I can’t praise enough the people who help me with writing novels. I know lots of writers advocate self-publishing and I admire their expertise and focus. But I am blessed with the invaluable support of experts. From my wonderful agent to cheerful and skilled editors who are so experienced and helpful, to the exuberant publicist who works non-stop, I am truly lucky. The encouragement and love I receive from friends, neighbours, ex-students from my theatre-teaching days, even people I hardly know, is immense. I’ve had some really touching messages and incredible support from all over the world. It’s mind-blowing and truly wonderful. And then there is the encouragement I get from my family. At the end of The Age of Misadventure, my daughter whooped out loud and cheered at Nanny’s brave actions. My son knows every plot twist and my partner will read a chapter or two of a first draft each night, offering me technical advice about anything that has a motor engine. They are special people, my family, and I can’t thank them enough.

1. Readers. I’ve left readers until last because a book has no purpose without a reader. The readers are in my mind all the way through the writing process…will the reader enjoy this? How can I entertain, move, grip, interest, surprise my reader? It is an honour to be in the position of offering something I’ve created to someone else. And it’s not something I’m anxious about: it’s a privilege. Whoever and wherever the readers are, male or female, new to my books or not, whether they are bloggers, editors, people who’ve picked up a copy in a shop (someone told me they’d bought it on a whim because of the title and had no idea if they’d like it,) whether it features in a reading group or it’s an audio or on kindle or in paperback, I’m so grateful that I have such wonderful readers. It’s what it’s all about, the process, the ideas, the crafting, and the editing. The reader is the prize at the end of the race. So whoever you are, thank you.

 

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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.

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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