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!

Image result for sunny beach goa

We don’t tolerate bullying. Or do we?

From our first day at school – maybe even before that – we are told that bullying is wrong. It’s not difficult to work out morally. When a person is marginalised, abused, made to feel isolated, hurt, it can’t be right. Schools and institutions do their best to eradicate it yet, headteachers admit, it is part of the culture of schools, part of human behaviour. It goes on.

We’ve all been bullied, haven’t we? Sometimes it’s obvious – a gang of kids puts on pressure, or there is name calling, intimidation, attacking. Sometimes it’s less obvious, but just as vindictive, as any child isolated in a playground with no friends knows too well. Sometimes the bullying comes with insidious threats about what will happen if the victim tells someone, which not only prevents a cry for help but also forces the victim to inhabit a place of utter loneliness and helplessness.

We may also have all been bullies. Either deliberately or inadvertently, we have hurt someone or looked the other way when someone is hurt. Perhaps this is the schadenfreude effect, deriving some sort of perverse pleasure from other’s misfortune. Perhaps it’s the human behaviour that Orwell demonstrated in 1984 when Winston said ‘Do it to Julia. Not me!’ If someone else is being bullied, then we are not. Not this time.

I remember flushing a girl’s ham sandwiches down the toilet, my friends cheering me on while she sobbed. I walked away from the act feeling that, in violating another, I had violated myself and it wasn’t a good move to behave this way in order to ingratiate myself with others. I made a point of befriending the bullied girl afterwards, sharing my lunch with her, and it was uncomfortably humiliating to see how quickly she forgave me and wanted to be my friend.

I’ve been bullied, too. Not just as a child, either. I’ve had my share of name calling, rivalry put-downs, being on the end of others’ controlling behaviour. I remember my A-level English teacher at school telling me I wasn’t anything special and I’d probably manage an E grade. I got an A. Nietzsche was right.

Image result for Nietzsche That which doesn'tSo why do we do it? Why is bullying so commonplace? I read somewhere it is an atavistic and tribal thing. The alphas bully the ones they consider rivals or suitable prey, and the masses adhere to the stronger group because it is safer there and prevents them from being victims themselves. So, basically, cowardice sustains a culture of bullying and it’s easier to hang with the perpetrators than defend the weak. Not an impressive bunch of cave dwellers, are we?

It’s quite hard to stop bullies, too. The insidious and repetitive nature of their attacks, not always in the open, not always visible in their needling, makes it difficult to analyse what’s happened after the event. I’ve seen it in the workplace: in schools, defined as the natural corporate  fabric of an establishment, used to suppress and deflate anyone who seems a little different to the company norms and certainly anyone who thinks outside the box. Bullying expects conformity, demands it. It goes on unchallenged and that’s why people shrug it off and don’t stand up to it, but accept it as part of the dominant culture

It has even pervaded the media. I’m no fan of Theresa May’s politics. I believe her policies have stretched some of our public services close to breaking point and pushed many people closer or further into desperation and poverty. That said, the glee of the reporters and some of her opponents, in her own party and in others, that her disastrous conference speech, marred by the farcical incident with the P45 and her unfortunate coughing fit was, I think, an example of bullying. By all means disagree with her perspectives and her politics, but to take pleasure in watching someone squirm in the public gaze is a cruel example of schadenfreude. The enjoyment of someone else’s public discomfort, revelling in their humiliation – this is almost the definition of bullying.

Related imageBeing a bastard when you’re a kid is one thing. As an adult, to take any joy from someone else’s pain shows how little we grown since we left the playground. We can do so much better. We can differentiate between disagreeing with people who don’t share our views or behave how we would like them to, and wilfully wishing them harm. The way forward is conversation, writing, listening, debate, education, joining groups of likeminded people and campaigning for change.

We may disagree with someone strongly; we may even find someone’s views or behaviour (or policies) abhorrent, but the answer certainly isn’t going to be found by flushing away their sandwiches or their self-esteem. Because, if we’re not careful, we may be playing into the hands of another bigger bully with even more malicious intentions and doing their dirty work for them.

Remembering always

Sometimes I think the world has always been crazy. If I go back to the time of my parents, their parents, I find story after countless story about those who are on the inside and those who are on the outside. It doesn’t always matter who the insiders are – they often have different faces and different policies – but those of us on the outside are always aware of being a bit different. When my mother said ‘You are as good as they are,’ the starting place was inevitably that some people didn’t think I was.

As Nietzsche says, that which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.

The problem is, it does sometimes kill. And not just kill. It maims, incarcerates, deforms, destroys. And it doesn’t matter how long ago it happened, whether it was over seventy years ago or seven days ago, it goes on. In memory. In history. In blood. It is always there.

Today  we have heard justification of waterboarding. Justifying torture. Justifying abusing outsiders because the insiders think it is necessary. Prejudice makes those who are outsiders just a little less human, their lives a little less precious. Then it’s easier to erode humanity, to hurt it, to destroy it in the name of difference.

Today I will stop thinking the world is crazy. I will hold that breath for a moment and  remember those who were victims of the craziness. And those who still are victims.

Na bister 500,000

‘The Homesman’, a ‘homely’ woman and why I was bored with it all

Picture the scene: I invite round some friends, we order a nice take- away and watch a movie. Expectations run high as we choose the 2014 film ‘The Homesman’, starring and directed by Tommy Lee Jones, and also starring Hilary Swank and Meryl Streep. There’s a good cast, a promising film, and critics are calling it the best film since Eastwood’s ‘The Unforgiven’, so we think it will be good. The wine is open, the slipper socks are on and the food is delivered bang on time: crispy papadums, a tasty sagwalla and some nice basmati rice. We all snuggle down and press the on button, and the title comes up: ‘The Homesman’.

Firstly, we are treated to Swank, whose character is self-sufficient and independent and a dreamer. She is Mary Bee Cuddy, 31 years old, single and single-handedly working her smallholding in 19th century Nebraska. She ploughs, she pumps water, she cooks, all this in a dress, with a smile on her face as wide as the Nebraskan landscape. She invites some grubby local farming guy to dinner, proposes marriage after singing sweetly to him and he has the audacity to turn her down. We discover he thinks she is ‘plain as an old tin pail… and bossy.’

I write this gender imbalance off as 19th century patriarchal culture and I continue to try to suspend my disbelief and enjoy the movie.

Mary Bee then volunteers to cross difficult terrain in order to fetch three ‘mad women’ back home, to be cared for in the church, because the dishonourable menfolk of the town refuse to make the journey; she is brave and determined and has leadership and team spirit. Before she begins her quest, she saves the life of a weak, aimless army deserter who is a cheat and a coward, who calls himself ‘George Briggs’, and she cajoles him into accompanying her, as recompense for her charity.

The ‘mad women’ have lost their wits through abuse and bereavement and their men are quite happy to let them go, like they would send an old mare to the knackers or chuck out a broken chair, so the wives are packed up, chained and barred in an old wagon.

Swank is great in this film. Her character is plausible and poignant: she has guts and panache, but it ends badly when she proposes to the unprepossessing and unpleasant Briggs. He turns her down but, when she appears at his sleeping bag, naked, he is kind enough to give her a quick seeing to, and of course this reinforces her lonely plight, and there is a shocking outcome the next morning.

We are led to believe that such was the dilemma of women in the 1850s, a choice between bad marriage or the lonely and demoralising social lowliness of spinsterhood. So good old Briggs brings the loony ladies to a sweet home where the church can look after them, after he has meted out a few punishments to some bad men and become a bit of a rogue hero on the way, binge shooting and setting fire to a hotelier who will not give them food.

He buys shoes for a barefoot sixteen year old, telling her sentimentally that Mary Bee was the best of women, and then he abruptly suggests that the kid marries him. No wonder she turns up her nose. It was enough to put me off my roti.

Everyone wants to look good, of course, but that ‘good’ should not be decided by someone else: certainly not the contemporary George Briggses of this world.

If the film intended to show me that a woman’s lot was not a happy one – there they all are, strong, lovely, and alone in an unforgiving landscape while the only male, a whisky-soaked deserter, was there to judge them plain or mad, turn down their advances, chain them up and call all the shots – then it did it’s job well. I would go further. Swank’s Mary Bee was neither plain nor useless, although Lee Jones’ Briggs was both of these things his rejection cost her dearly. The film gave me no logical reason why she should be so suddenly desperate, other than the prevalent history and culture, and it is odd that she proposes to the one-dimensional Briggs out of the blue, moments after castigating him for his bad character.

The ‘mad women’ were parodies, stereotypes, hissing and wailing at one moment, then staring into space, and then being meek, doing as they were told. They were neither credible people nor objects of pathos. They were tangential to the story, other than being ‘mad’ and, once deposited at the church where kindly Meryl Streep, a vicar’s wife, said they’d be looked after, they were forgotten for the rest of the film. Their care, cure and rehabilitation didn’t matter at all. Despite being the impetus for the story, there is no emotional investment, by the audience, in them or in their future.

I got nothing from this film. It was disjointed in its story line and I thought it was a little unclear about it’s purpose. It was indulgent and too long, and if it intended just to be bleak and show us how tough it was to be a woman 150 years ago, then Tommy Lee Jones’ character didn’t serve to make that point credibly. Hilary Swank’s Mary Bee begins the film strongly: then all of a sudden she is so desperate, even a bum won’t have her, so she immediately loses all hope.

I didn’t feel that the positive role model who failed so miserably made much sense – the wonderful Hilary Swank, giving up so readily when she had so much to offer – and for so little in Tommy Lee Jones! Maybe that was the whole point, but then the film went on to turn the hapless Briggs into some sort of quasi-messianic dispenser of justice who gambled and drank and danced on a boat while his memo to Mary Bee floated off into indivisibility, becoming, just as she was, unnoticed. Was that the point, as he ambles on to the end, drunk and raucous?

It’s at this point that if the film’s moral is one which shows women’s meagre lifestyle and their few options, I hope women of our time have changed considerably, and are no longer faced with the lack of choices which caused Mary Bee to do what she did. I am surrounded by airbrushed Facebook images of females who put up gorgeous pictures of themselves so that friends and various sycophants will tell them how lovely they look. Some people still dress little girls as pink princesses and urge them to simper and stamp their feet: the aspiration is that they will ‘break hearts’ when they grow up but we should maybe urge them to break rules and to become independent, strong and to follow their own desires.

I know women who deny themselves and castigate themselves so they will not go unnoticed, or that they will appear more attractive to others. What they look like is of most importance to them, and it comes before health, happiness or self-respect. How good they look is entirely based on someone else’s opinion. Like poor Mary Bee Cuddy.

The most beautiful women I know radiate inner confidence: they don’t care less about what others think of their appearance. Of course they look good and want to look good, on their own terms, in their own skin. One woman I know is fifty, attractive because of her wit, her iconoclasm, her intellect and her refusal to take on board others’ expectations. Another one I know is in her twenties, fiercely clever, fiercely independent, following her own future – no one would dare to write on her face book page ‘Oh you look gorgeous, babe.’ She knows she looks good, but she is focused on much bigger issues like having fun and being successful on her own terms. Everyone wants to look good, of course, but that ‘good’ should not be decided by someone else: certainly not the contemporary George Briggses of this world.

I didn’t like ‘The Homesman’ as a film: it was lengthy, prevaricating and, at times, pointless, but if it tells us anything, it is that Mary Bee should have ignored the old drunken bum, not rescued him and gone on instead to live her own life, singing and ploughing and cooking, and looking great pushing the plough and horse in her dress, and she should have paid no attention to those who called her plain and bossy. She was strong, lovely and admirable.

Mr Nice Guy might have turned up one day – they usually do, there are many of them out there – and the ones she propositioned weren’t worth the paper from my takeaway meal. And, of course,  if Mr Right didn’t turn up, she could have invited the three ‘mad women’ round for peach pie and had a bloody good time on her own terms.