The saga continues. He’s been spotted

I haven’t given him up. He’s special. He’s my Majick cat. And since I moved to the wilds of Somerset, he’s been the Wanderlust King. I haven’t seen him for four weeks but, since he took off that Thursday morning with a gleam in his eye, I knew he had his sights set on a life of freedom, open fields, wide skies and sheep worrying.

Then, today, I heard there’d been a sighting.

My neighbour – I have great neighbours here – was in his house, painting the walls of his lounge and he turned around to look into the amber eyes of a low slung cat, in perfect condition, sleek and short-legged, broad shoulders, thick tail, a little bat face. They stared at each other for a while, and then the cat turned around and strolled away through the door. I showed my neighbour a picture of Majick on my phone. ‘That’s him. That’s the one. I’ve seen him around a couple of times.’

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So he’s out there. He’s ok. I’m so relieved.

Apparently, he’s living with the pigs over by the silo, catching rodents, hunting and looking a million dollars. Up to his catty tricks, dodging and diving, weaving and worrying the wildlife.

Later this week, I’ll go down and see if I can find him among the troughs and the silage. I’ll call his name and see if he’ll come running and, if he does, I’ll invite him home to dinner and feed him and spoil him rotten.

Hopefully, he’ll come back for a visit, for supper, to stay the night or for a few days’ holiday. However long he wants. He might remember me. He might even sit on my knee and purr and push his damp nose into my cheek.

Or he might turn round and run. He might not recognise me. He might have forgotten.

But he’s alive and well-fed and happy. He’s Majick cat and he’s living the dream. Still, it would be nice to see him again, to remind him of old times and to tell him there will always be an arm chair next to the fire with his paw prints on.

That’s if the pigs will let him go. He’s such a character, no doubt they’ll have taken him into their hearts and their sties. It would put Colin’s nose out of joint though if he came back. There would be a stand-off and I know Maj would come out on top, particularly after all the outdoor lifestyle and field training. I hope I can see him. I hope he’ll at least say hello and I’ll know he’s alive and well and kicking ass. We’ll see.

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Patience for Klopp

A new season, a new person to love, to hate. Change manifests itself in football as the wind blows in the autumn leaves. Last season Ronald Koeman was doing well; this season, without Lukaku, he is floundering and many fans are booing during Everton games, blaming him for the low league position after he has brought in so many new players. I don’t really get it.

More troubling to me is some Liverpool fans’ attitude to manager Jurgen Klopp. A draw with Manchester United yesterday was not so bad; Liverpool were the better team and played some exciting football. I think that the players are improving: there is increasing confidence, a noticeable lack of fear of any opponents and Liverpool would have won the game with Matip’s shot, had De Gea not made what may be the save of the month.

Klopp has revitalised his team, made the style of play breathtaking and potentially brilliant. He’s not there yet but already some fans are baying for him to be dismissed, questioning his managerial skills and creating an atmosphere of negativity. Some comments on social media are vitriolic, personal and there is the hyperbole of frenzy which lacks logic or consideration.

I read recently that many fans were suggesting that Benitez should return as manager. I love what Rafa did at Liverpool. Yet it took  it took him five seasons to build a team that could seriously compete for the title. It is the immediacy and anger of off-the -cuff negative comments which makes them stand out and be noticed;  however, the senseless lack of logic renders them hot air. Even ex-players, fans and pundits are suggesting that Klopp is wholly reprehensible each time the team draw or lose. But who can win everything? It’s a long season.

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Klopp’s Liverpool team is, perhaps, where it should be in the league, given the spending power of the teams who occupy the top three positions. It is clear he has a long-term plan, which will hopefully include securing Virgil Van Dyke in defence in January and a striker or two. Klopp fits the Liverpool ethos of positivity, support, energy, commitment, loyalty, good-humour: in his words, ‘heavy metal’ football. But the constant calling for his dismissal every time we draw or lose a game, the incessant criticism of a moment’s minor but costly mistake, is another manifestation of the manager-maligning culture which is becoming the acceptable face of football.

Fans regularly criticise Dejan Lovren for the leaky errors in defence, but they don’t  acknowledge the heroism and loyalty of  him playing with back and achilles injuries which force him to take five painkillers before each fixture. Klopp, of course, knows the background of each player, his fitness, his mental attitude, and he has an overall plan beyond the next game. As fans, we should see the potential and be positive and supportive, and trust in Jurgen’s judgement. But knee -jerk comments and hyper-critical personal sound-bites are so much easier.

However, it is interesting to see how Klopp deals with critics. It is a lesson we might all find useful. Ridiculed for his suddenly thicker hair, he replied ‘Yes, it’s true. I underwent a hair transplant. And I think the results are really cool, don’t you?’

He has an attitude of positivity. He wants to do well and accepts that there will be criticism when mistakes are made, but he is determined and focused on the future. ‘I am not the guy who is going to go out and shout ‘we are going to conquer the world’ or something like this. But we will conquer the ball. Yeah? Each fucking time!’

He is realistic. Although fans want instant results, he sees a future beyond the single game. He is a manager with a long-term plan.”You have to get information in each situation. You’ll never find me three days after a win, drunk in a hedge and still celebrating.’

So Klopp has a useful stance on fault-finding, whether it is personal or professional. He accepts that it will happen, rises above it and stays true to himself. Difficult to do, of course, when the disapproval is rife, but Klopp demonstrates a self-belief which will stand up to condemnation. He renders his critics’ statements trivial. His attitude is simple: retaliate, ignore or diminish.

Mourinho called himself the special one, so Klopp became the normal one. Arsene Wenger’s ball passing was deemed an orchestra, so Klopp reinvented himself as heavy metal. He is loyal, prizes collective positivity, team-spirit and praise. He is outspoken, honest and not afraid to stand up for what he believes is right. He is ready to take on critics, bullies, whiners and intimidators. Just look at the quotation below, when he refused to answer a question from a journalist who represented so many negative values to his team and to the Liverpool culture itself . The way he dismisses their perspective is perfect.

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He may build up our team and win trophies, but probably not this year. He may be sacked one of these days after we lose or draw one game too many. Who knows? But his integrity and self-belief and his determination to stand up against needless negativity is a breath of fresh air. It may even be enough to blow some of the critics away. I hope so.

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.

Mellow Fruitfulness

It is autumn now. There is something new, something sharp, a scent of change in the air every morning and the fields are damp. A soft mist rises and leaves are already falling from trees. Autumn is a time when, if it’s not raining, it’s good to go for a walk and breathe cool air, watch crows whirl and pull clusters of blackberries from the prickles to take home and cook into something delicious, courtesy of autumn.

Or it’s a time to sense winter’s first ice on the wind and contemplate the bite of the cold, whether the central heating will work this year and then start to chop firewood.

Summer months are long and fickle, some days gloriously warm, some much less so, but although the weather controls much of what we do – and it’s at this point that it’s appropriate to remember those people whose lives are caught up in storms,  hurricanes, avalanches and forest fires – we are lucky that we can decide whether we allow the weather to dominate our moods and actions.

Pathetic fallacy is wonderful in literature –the storms on the moors in Wuthering Heights, Frankenstein‘s violent lightning, Ophelia’s broken willow branch in Hamlet –but of course, it is a fallacy. Nature isn’t a metaphor for human emotions.

I went for a walk last Thursday, a three mile stroll along the country lanes, and the rain was drumming on the hood of my coat, but it was exhilarating. It’s interesting how the imagination works in time with the rhythm of squelching footsteps, and how new ideas form when we force our heads to become empty. Ted Hughes’ brilliant poem  Thought Fox explains it so well: prints begin to form in the mind and then on the blank page at the point when we don’t force them.

Image result for Fox in snowMy thoughts during the walk drifted to think about people who will find the winter’s temperatures challenging. People who live in damp accommodation, who can’t afford heating bills. Many people have nowhere safe to live: communities who travel are in need of warmth and welcome; those who are homeless are really at the mercy of the elements. For those of us who are fortunate, winter is about log fires, toasted crumpets, steaming mugs of hot chocolate and it is precisely that feeling of being safe, warm and comforted which we all need. As the cold weather approaches, wherever we live in the world, adequate food and clothing are important, shelter, someone to visit and talk, to help break the monotony of loneliness.

My garden has a great quantity of fruit this autumn and I have a freezer full of stewed apples. I’ve given bags away, to friends, relatives, the Amazon driver, anyone who will benefit. My neighbour has a bowl of Bramleys at the bottom of the lane, for anyone who wants them. And that really is a metaphor, sharing our abundance with those who have none.

When winter comes, being cold is part of the fun. We all hope for snow: not the snow which is hazardous to drivers, but the white drifts which pile high in the hills and we can walk for miles, our breath like mist, and go tobogganing on tin trays and come home with red cheeks and melting clumps of ice on our boots. Winter is not to be feared, as long as we look out for each other.

Of course, if we are lucky with our health, another spring will come around. Crocuses will peep through the hard soil, the pale sun will deepen to a rich yellow and then summer will be with us again. There will be more apples to share, more long evenings around the barbecue with friends and more days strolling on the beach with that special person.

So each moment, whether warm or cold, is to be welcomed, embraced and enjoyed. We are fortunate if we can watch drizzle from the warmth of a room, behind a window, our feet too hot against the radiator.

I spend a lot of time writing during the winter months . My desk is in front of the window and I can see pigs, sheep, fields, trees, brambles. The pylon. I spend a lot of time not looking out of the window. On the computer screen, the thought fox is pressing its little prints on the keyboard and there are pictures, images, ideas, wild and whirling words. But when I glance up and see the rain battering the glass or the grey sky hanging like a tarpaulin, I realise I’m lucky. I can always go and put the kettle on, sit in front of the fire, have a cup of tea.

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Majick cat, where are you?

When I moved house, I took my three cats, each in a basket, in my car. On the way, I told them they were going to a lovely place where they could run amok and have fun to their hearts’ content. Colin and Pushkin settled quietly. But Majick was not a happy cat.

Majick is about six years old. He came to me from a cat rescue centre when he was almost two and it was love at first sight. Affectionate and obstinate, a cat with his own ways and his own mind, he ruled the other cats in my house with determined grumpiness. Pushkin is my cat, a familiar, always on my knee, but she’d jump off if Maj wanted the space. Colin Feral always deferred to Majick when it came to the feeding bowls. Majick is Boss Cat.

Majick was always called Majick. Probably Magic. His first home was with a Romanian lady in a flat in Plymouth and he’d never been outside. He would even use the toilet in her bathroom. He was a cat with dignity and good manners. She was broken hearted to leave him, but she took him to the cats’ rescue, along with his bowl and toys and written instructions about the tastes and habits of  ‘Magic cat.’ So, of course, he came to me and was pampered and spoiled and, as soon as he smelled the outdoor air, he developed wanderlust, which I encouraged. I’d often see him half a mile away in the bushes, doing his own catty thing. He’d stay out all night. Sometimes he was away for days.

So when we arrived at the new house, I put the cats  in an upstairs room with food and toys while  furniture was being bundled about downstairs. Pushkin went to sleep. Colin found a hole in the stairs and covered himself in cobwebs. Majick made his feelings clear by pooing everywhere.

As the weeks progressed and the cats had to stay indoors, Majick peed in places no cat should pee. He began by weeing on my yoga mat. He then urinated in the vegetable rack and I had to wash pumpkins and onions several times.

I’d never been to Waitrose and thought I’d try out the local one. I parked the banger in between the BMWs and the Jags and in I flounced, selecting a few organic vegetables and a packet of quinoa. I queued properly and paid for my purchases, then pulled out my recycled bag, a strong plastic one that  I’d bought in a Leclerc somewhere in Brittany, and I was about to stuff the shopping in. The smile on the cashier’s face froze and her nose began to twitch. I could see and smell why. Majick had peed in the shopping bag.

He was not a happy cat and it troubled me every night as he pressed his nose to the window and howled. ‘Just three weeks, Maj, and you can go out,’ I promised.

Then the  time came. We went out together into the garden, me with the three black cats following and, at first, they were tentative, sniffing everything, staying close to my heels. Within a few minutes, Pushkin had caught a mouse, brought it in, dropped it and it was running around the kitchen. I failed totally to coax the mouse out from under the cooker with a piece of vegan cheese, so Big G cornered it with a cardboard box. ‘Got him.’

The mouse shot up his trouser leg and lodged somewhere between his thigh and his belly button. Somewhere warm and safe, no doubt. I watched, laughing inappropriately, as he ran outside doing the hokey cokey and came back with his jeans around his ankles and the good news that the mouse was now safe in the field next door.

The cats began to feel more comfortable outside. It was sunny. But Majick had a gleam in his eye every time his little nostrils sniffed the clean air. The next day, he didn’t come back. Six days passed: I thought the worst and hoped for the best. Then one evening, he sauntered around the corner, fatter, happy and demanding food. I picked him up, hugged him, but his eyes were still on the hills.

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Three weeks ago, he climbed on the wall, looked at the sheep in the field next door and his eyes glazed over. His bead nose sniffed freedom in the air and I thought, he’s off. And off he went.

I expected him to come back after a few days, but I haven’t seen him since. Each morning I walk towards the misty fields and shout ‘Majick’, and listen, but there’s only the call of crows and the grumble of the sheep.

I’ve asked about, talked to neighbours and farmers. Apparently, lots of feral and farm cats live around here. I’ve seen a tabby and a wiry ginger tom, but not Majick Cat.

I believe he might come back. It wouldn’t surprise me. I don’t let myself think of him lying still under a combine harvester or lost down a distant lane. He may have found himself a new home and, if so, he will be well loved. I imagine him running wild, a rabbit hanging in his mouth, hunkering down in a field as the sun rises. I hope he’s happy.

One spring morning, he may saunter back. Or it might be a bit cold one evening in winter and he’ll think, I’ll go back to that place where they have a warm fire and they feed me. I haven’t given him up yet. I’ll recognise the yowl, the persistent howling at the window which orders me to let him in and rip open the cat food at once. And I know I’ll go running outside, pick him up, hug him stupidly and yell ‘Oh Maj, where have you been?’ like I always do, and he’ll stare into space over my shoulder and put up with me kissing his neck then, as soon as I put him down, he’ll run to the food bowl and look up at me, frown and wait.

He’s Majick cat. I hope he’s out there somewhere. I hope he’s having a cat whale of a time. Colin doesn’t miss him. He’s Boss Cat now. And Pushkin monopolises my knee and the food bowls and she is quite happy. But I haven’t given him up, not yet. He’ll be back…

 

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Music to write a novel to…

On a recent Radio 4 programme, Marlon James was asked if he’d listened to reggae as he wrote A Brief History of Seven Killings. He suggested that reggae was the last music he’d have listened to: the novel was set mostly in Jamaica around the ‘Bob Marley era’ and of course he didn’t listen to reggae: his head was probably full of it already. As if Agatha Christie would have listened to the Elvis Costello’s Watching the Detectives and Douglas Adams had The Planet Suite set to replay.

Of course, the most fascinating aspect is what writers choose to listen to while they are writing that brilliant novel, not what they don’t listen to, and even more interestingly, why do they choose to listen to a particular type of music? Do writers need serene music, to clear their minds of all other thoughts, or do they want something fast and energetic to get the fingers typing fast?

Then there’s the question of what is intrusive. When you’re working on that precise edit, do you really need AC/DC belting out Girls Got Rhythm or Aerosmith’s Dude (Looks Like a Lady)? Do you need anything at all, or is silence worse, that incessant emptiness which offers no pace or energy, no distraction, no clarity or inspiration?

A friend of mine has just published a fabulous book of poems called Pillars of a Dateable Man. I guessed he’d been listening to Leonard Cohen’s Thin Green Candle, as his writing is deeply sensitive, often iconoclastic, sometimes morose and always insightful. But no. He listens to jazz, always music without lyrics. It makes sense – jazz epitomises the jangling of powerful emotions but each note has the precision of poetry. He adds his own clever words to the abstract canvas, using the motivating musical energy of jazz as inspiration.

Of course, each author will have a personal preference. Impressively, Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Blind Assassin, listens to a Canadian Band called Arrogant Worms. J. K. Rowling listens to The Beatles. When Vladimir Nabokov wrote Lolita, he insisted on a sound proof flat, his rationale being that he had ‘no ear for music… I am perfectly aware of the many parallels between the art forms of music and those of literature, especially in matters of structure, but what can I do if ear and brain refuse to cooperate?’

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Most of us choose to listen to music when we write. Whether it inspires us or promotes a feeling of wellbeing and calm is debatable. Lyrics can be important, inspiring writers to achieve their best subliminally, by channeling the feeling that success is possible and achievable. Best to avoid the wonderful songs of The Smiths  then when writing a lively bestseller. I Know It’s Over, with lyrics like ‘Oh, Mother / I can feel / the soil falling over my head,’ are not going to inspire a greatly needed feeling of increased fluency, positivity and power flowing from the brain to the fingers to the keyboard.

Writers constantly peer into others’ heads and reach out to empathise with characters’ emotions in order to write successfully. Mozart’s Lacrymosa would be perfect to help someone write a tragic scene and Pink Floyd’s Breathe in the Air might inspire pages of pastoral beauty. But many writers suggest that they can’t concentrate when music is playing. Some are even irritated by the purr of the cat or the hum of the fridge.

This leads me to wonder whether Creative Writing courses ever use music to support and improve writing. Certainly, during my MA, there was no delving into the use of music to promote better outcomes and no investigation of the psychology or rationale between using music  compared to the need for silence to promote concentration. (At the moment of writing, I’m listening to Planet Rock playing Black Sabbath’s War Pigs, and I’m perfectly capable of erasing Ozzy from my ears completely if I need to.)

But it’s an interesting and perhaps under-investigated subject. Do writers write better with music or not, and why do some choose background noise and others shun it? As I finish my fourth novel and complete the edit of my first, I have to admit that I’m better off with Spotify than without it. My moods dictate which playlist to select, as does the type of writing I’m doing. The beginning of a novel demands something very different from the final chapters; focusing on the rigour of an edit would suggest a totally different choice to the music I’d pick when I’m on a roll and smashing out 2500 words in a sitting.

It’s at this point that I’ll invite others’ opinions. Who’s a writer who needs background music and who isn’t, and why? I wonder whether it affects outcome – what we write, how we write and how we feel as we do it? Fascinating. I hope someone will think about it, take it further and let me know. At the moment, I’m too busy writing and listening.

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Fourth Novel Challenge

I’ve been busy writing. My third novel is finished and I’m editing it, making a lot of  changes, before I step away for a while, go back, later and  decide if it still feels fresh and readable. Then I’ll edit some more.

I’m becoming better at editing.  I have an incredible two-book deal and a fantastic agent, so I’m really enjoying upgrading the first two novels. In truth, I’ve only just started to edit them: I have a lot of work to do later with an editor at HarperCollins and I am really looking forward to it. I love the experience of developing another voice in my head which says ‘Have you thought about…?’ ‘Did you check…?’ ‘Can you find a better way…?’or simply ‘Do you really mean that?’

More about all that later.

When I wrote the first novel, Never Too Old To Dream, it made me laugh out loud as I was typing. I was confident in the characters and the action as the words hit the page, but it isn’t as perfect as it will become. I wrote the second and third after discussing women’s commercial fiction novels with experienced agents at a writers’ festival and nailing the genre down, then reading other books in the genre, so I was really sure what women’s fiction felt like. Only then could I bring my own twist to it. So I’m happy with both of these novels, which are similar in shape but very different in content.

My heroines are all older women because they are ‘woefully under-represented, as a clever publisher once said. Evie, the first protagonist, is seventy-five. The second, Susy, is fifty -five and the third, Dee, is forty-nine. These women are, in turn, feisty, wildly determined and fiercely single, but have their own roads to travel before they discover what they really want. They are not conventional woman in conventional situations and they all demand a life for themselves which goes beyond a job, a kitchen sink and a man. More about them another time.

For my fourth novel, I wanted to try something different and challenge myself to create a character and settings I hadn’t tried before. A short story I wrote at a writing group went down particularly well, and I chewed the idea over and decided to extend it, to see if it had potential to become a novel. Without giving away the story the protagonist, Helena, is an eighty year old woman who is seeking something she believes to be true, and it is her quest which makes the novel leap from past to present. I have never wanted particularly to write an historical novel but this journey has taken me from Wallachia to County Mayo via Paris and the Black Hills of Dakota so far, and I’m just halfway through.

The Wallachia section is inspired by a brilliant book I read, The Pariah Syndrome by Dr Ian Hancock. Wallachia constitutes only a short section of my novel, but this part of history is seldom told and it needs to be. The County Mayo episode I know a lot about already, but a writer can never be complacent, so I checked as I wrote. The rest is all research.

Like most things I write, I know exactly where I’m going but not how I’m going to get there. There will be a shock at the end, maybe more than one. I know I’ll need to research big things and small things. I’ve written to experts, interviewed them for their knowledge and Google is my new best friend as I pore over maps and ask questions about history and remind myself about culture, or bring up pictures so that I can describe something accurately.

The fourth novel is currently called, The Seventh Time, and it’s written mainly in the first person, as Helena is the protagonist and it’s her story. But flitting into the past has enabled me to try out ideas with voice and character, perspective, even tense, and I’m enjoying the challenge of creating a range of settings. At the moment, I’m writing it all down furiously, and then going back for a first edit each day. It will need much tougher editing later.

Interestingly, content- wise,  especially for the kind people who read my stuff for me, this novel is dark in places. The first three novels are, in different ways, amusing and the characters are charming and playful. Helena is not an amusing character: her situation is difficult, and her life stories are often full of tragedy and pathos. My aim is to be emotionally focused while I’m writing and, certainly, when I read it back I want to be moved. I want others to read it. and comment on the shocks, twists and turns and the emotions inherent in character, action and language. Then I know it is on it’s way to being effective.

I usually arrive at 40,000 words before I know if a novel will work. By that point, I ‘love’ my protagonist.  I like and fully understand the motivation of the characters and I am comfortable with the action and the journey. Novel four is different. I will write it to the end to check that it works because the idea is more complex. Writing this one is about the pleasure and excitement of a challenging theme before I start to justify the effectiveness of the product. But I think it will work.

My usual practice of  ‘write  during the cold weather and have fun in the sun’ is not so easy now we are enjoying the warm June days. Once a writer is ‘in the zone’, it’s hard to stop, so I’m writing in the cool evening and waking early to edit.

I am very lucky doing what I do. What could be more exciting than running with an idea and watching it take shape on the page? Equally exciting,  I guess, is finding out that other people want to share my ideas, read my novels and find my writing entertaining and enjoyable. An interested reader is a writer’s blessing.

Being a writer is about being on a wonderful journey. I take great inspiration from the writers whose novels I read every day, even from the ones I don’t like. Taste is subjective. Meeting other novelists and  hearing them speak about the craft of writing helps me think about how I’m developing and how I can improve.

The blog is taking a back seat at the moment. I’ve failed to mention some fairly major political events recently and I’ve missed opportunities to comment on smaller things such as theatre, music events, books and sport. But I have a novel to finish and it fills my days, morning and evening. I am grateful that life has given me such an opportunity.

As Ray Bradbury said, ‘I don’t need an alarm clock. My ideas wake me.’

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International Romani Day: April 8th

Today we remember. April 8th is a day designated to think about the largest ethnic minority- some ten million Roma live in Europe  and six million within the EU- and we should remember that Romani people are still subject to discrimination and social exclusion.

I’ve heard the same argument all my life, words which come from people who don’t seem to know better. I heard it again a week ago, when  a man I know vaguely, whom I was chatting to at a party said he had never met a Rom who wanted to integrate with him. He then issued forth with a mouthful of stereotypes and misinformation, based on prejudice and hype, complete with words I found offensive.  I moved on.

Education is the answer.

Years ago, my Dad was born in a wagon. My Grandmother pushed him out while my Grandfather was outside playing the hurdy-gurdy. At that point, my Dad had no concept of prejudice.

Eighteen  years later, my Dad joined the army to fight for this country.  He told me he was more afraid of the prejudice of the men on his own side than he was of the enemy. He said one of his fellow soldiers told him he would cut his throat and make it look like he’s fallen in the line of duty.

As a child, I was told to ‘keep it quiet and keep my distance’: the idea that outsiders would judge, that there would always be discrimination, was a constant companion. My parents were brilliant and proud of who we were: they did their best and I am grateful  but there was a repeated message:  ‘You are as good as everyone else. Don’t let them tell you otherwise.’ The inference was that, somehow, other people wouldn’t see it the same way.

For me, education was the answer, my way to restore the balance.

My Dad didn’t go to school for long. Days, not months. He could recite a couple of random lines – he didn’t know the source but it was from Love’s Labour’s Lost. He had no idea what it meant and  it didn’t help him with literacy. He spent most school days in the woods and learned a number of useful skills which he later passed on to my brother.

When icicles hang by the wall
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail
And Tom bears logs into the hall
And milk comes frozen home in pail,
When blood is nipp’d and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
Tu-whit;
Tu-who, a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

My upbringing was perfectly normal to me but I always knew we were outsiders: there were different words for things, different rules inside and outside our council house home. Then there was my Grandma, with her clay pipe and her unusual ways of cooking, washing, speaking. I loved my Grandma.

When my Dad died, I couldn’t tell the registrar when or where he was born. He never had a birth certificate. I wasn’t even sure of which of his names was the official one. But I didn’t care. It didn’t matter. He’d have found it hilarious, the fact that the person filling in his death certificate had no information to go on. He’d have preferred the anonymity.

But today isn’t a day to keep quiet: it’s a day to celebrate Romani culture. There are so many other people in the UK who are proud of their heritage. On March 17th, so many people wave the flag of their Irish ancestors and enjoy the celebrations of St Patrick’s Day. I’m sure St George’s Day is commemorated in many schools.

But when I was at school, I never heard any mention of the Romani people in History lessons. I was never taught about the 500 years of Roma slavery. There was no mention of Roma literature or poetry, yet I invite you to read Louise Doughty and Cecilia Woloch for some of the loveliest words written. We were never taught about Porajmos. All cultures should be represented in schools if all children are to feel included. We all need to understand our own and others’  history.

Education is the answer.

As a culture, Romani people are often expected to be invisible. Think back to the words of my racist acquaintance, whose attitude stems from ignorance rather than evil . It’s sometimes easier for us to stay quiet, keep out of the way, say nothing, : after all many people today who consider themselves non-racist are still validating racism, saying anti-ziganist abhorrent things which they consider somehow to be acceptable because it falls outside the racism most people mean when they use the term.

Jekh dilo kerel but dile hai but dile keren dilumata.

Education is the answer.

Someone once suggested the Romani people make little contribution to society. Perhaps some of these Romanichals will surprise you. My guess is that there are a ton more Romani people, some now house dwellers, achieving brilliant things in the normal way, discreetly and modestly.

But today April 8th is a remembrance day. It is a day for dignity and respect. A day to put dangerous stereotypes and misleading information to one side, and to celebrate a culture which emerged from India from the time of Alexander the Great. It is a time to move forward, to ask for improved human rights. It is also a time to remember the history of abuse and ill treatment, and to consider the victims of the Porajmos, who are believed to be upwards of near 500,000 men, women and children.

Education is always the answer. The words of Dr Ian Hancock  resonate with me, today and every day:

In order for things to change, the Gypsy Image must be deconstructed, and a more accurate one put in its place – in the bureaucratic structures as well as in the textbooks.

Ashen Devlesa, Romale. Na bister 500,000.

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If the EU vote had been a second hand bike…

After the EU vote went the way of the Leave Campaign, many people have said, ‘The country has made a choice and we must stick with it.’ Others suggest, ‘You can’t keep having another vote until you get the result you want.’ The British people are, essentially, stoics, especially the English with our stiff upper lip and our Carry on and Keep Calm. A majority vote is after all a fair, democratic majority vote.

But then I thought, what if the EU referendum had been a second hand bicycle. Imagine.

For sale: second hand bicycle. Two wheels, two pedals, handlebars. All the usual trimmings. Goes really fast. Beautiful vermillion colour. Contoured comfortable saddle. One previous owner, Bradley Wiggins. £100. Can deliver. Must be bought unseen.

So, you buy the bicycle. It sounds ideal, doesn’t it, and you pay your £100 without a second thought and wait eagerly for the bike to land on your doorstep.

When it arrives, it isn’t vermillion red, it’s grey. And scratched. There is only one pedal so your ride will be uncomfortable. The saddle is going to give you a pain in the backside. There is only one wheel although you were promised two. It will wobble and be unsafe. You thought you’d get the bike you were promised. What do you do?

Do you climb astride the bike and say  ‘Well, I ordered a bike and it is, certainly, a bike. There were a few misleading details… the wheel, the saddle, the pedal, but that’s only a few details. And I did order the bike. Bradley Wiggins has never been near it but, hey, I’m not Sir Brad, so I don’t deserve as much in the way of being able to stay upright and the bike hopefully isn’t an accident waiting to happen. Maybe other road users won’t think I’ve been stitched up and settled for a bike which didn’t fulfil it’s promise. I’ll just Keep Calm and Carry On.’

Or would you take the bike back, complain, demand a refund and suggest that the advert lied?

I know Brexit is not a bike. I know Article 50 will be triggered on Wednesday 29th March, and we will make the best of it, as we always do, and maybe there may even be the odd opportunity, or the chance that we may not take a fall at every corner and land flat on our faces.

But how many people who voted Leave now feel they were lied to? The NHS logo on the campaign bus, for example. Millions were promised, an extra £350m a week to be exact, but the next day Nigel Farage claimed it was a ‘mistake.’

Then Tory MEP Daniel Hannan suggested that taking back control of immigration did not necessarily mean cutting it, although taking back control of immigration was the central and pivotal issue throughout the campaign. And despite promises to the contrary, impoverished counties will be much worse off: Cornwall would have made £2.5billion from EU money.

I did not buy the bike. I never believed the £350m promise. I think the majority of immigrants embellish our country, through their payment of taxes, their hard work and diversity. But I am prepared, always, to work alongside a democratic system which is fair, honest and balanced. A vote is a vote, as long as it’s honest and democratic.

But perhaps the bike was always flawed. Perhaps the details were misleading: outright lies, in fact. Perhaps the purchaser now feels duped and misled, even cheated? Perhaps we should complain, send it back and ask for a refund. Perhaps we have been sold a dud? After all, there are Trading Standards which govern such transactions and protect the buyer’s rights.

A novel, hours of editing and me.

My third novel is almost finished and editing it is my next focus. What could be better? It’s time to see if I would choose to read my own novel and, if so,  how I can make it more readable.

I am learning all the time. My first novel is out there with a really experienced agent, although I know it might lie in between two genres.

My next two novels are almost finished and edited. I know, thanks to smart advice by an intelligent agent, that these two fall bang in the middle of the genre I have chosen. They belong where they are.

I have researched the genre extensively, reading books I have liked and hated. The ones I liked had plausible and interesting characters who had some impact on me as a reader as they embarked on their journey. These characters have some depth. I know now who the writers are who have readers who will love my work.

I know which writers I have found laborious to read. Too many protagonists are bland middle class passive women. I understand that readers may want an accessible heroine, but my protagonists, while being hugely flawed and with a lot to learn and  experience, have determination, guts and resilience, and are not afraid to make up their own mind.

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I’ve read novels by a woman whose audience I’ve been told will enjoy my novels, according to an experienced agent and, I have to say, that writer has been pivotal in my learning journey. I will never create characters like hers. They simper, fret and seldom make a decision -and that is both male and female central characters. By the end of these novels, I know the characters no better than I did on the first page and, what’s worse, I don’t like them. I have nothing in common with them because they are weak, flaccid and incapable of change.

Worse, the pace is slow and the writing indulgent. I have learned to give up on a book. Like some relationships, sometimes there is nothing to be gained from ploughing on uphill.

 

My female protagonists are always strong characters. The same can be said for the men. In one novel, a male ‘co-star’ was a really nice guy, which would balance the female character’s personality and action well. Women who read my novel said they would like to meet him, would benefit from knowing such a man, so I let him stay where he is.

But in the last novel, I wanted to create  male characters who are unpredictable and perhaps a little unusual. I also wanted to reflect the world we live in: hence a character who is not mono-dimensional, but has tendencies to behave in ways the reader might not expect. I also wanted my reader to smile.

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Reading others’ novels and reading widely is vital, not just to see what I like and don’t like. In a way, my own opinion of others’ novels  is not hugely important. Someone must like them – they’ve been published and are popular. I have to read analytically and go beyond the choice of characters and action.

It’s important to look at how writers signpost events. It is vital that I map the reader’s journey, as a reader myself. It is interesting to see how writers use conversation, how they show that time is passing or places change.

It is interesting to note how they weave plot and develop the action. I analyse roaming protagonists, flashbacks, tropes which work and others which scream  cliché from a mile away. It is fascinating to consider the use of language and to ask myself what appears to make for satisfying reading and why.

I am in awe of some authors’ beautiful writing and their ability to create thrilling characters and plots. Some novels leave me cold and some make me wonder how the book came to be published at all. The important thing is that I continue to think and I continue to learn.

I then need to edit my own writing and apply what I have learned. I have already decided to rewrite a chapter completely. I know where some of the editing will take me, but not all decisions are made at the outset. Some changes will emerge slowly and will change again after several edits.

I like to have days where I just think. Thoughts come during exercise, conversation, sleep.  I can alter ideas, adapt action, conjure a new device. Editing doesn’t always happen at the computer. I can wake at five in the morning and think ‘I know what I need to change.’

I work best when I have left the novel for a while and come back to it with fresh eyes and a rested mind. If it works then, it is pleasing and it can stay. If not, it is ripped out and edited.

I cannot underestimate the value of having good readers: not just friends, people who like the genre and people who have taken the same MA as I have, but people whose experience, age, background, gender is different to mine. I consider what they all have to say very seriously.

Then of course there is the weather, which is a really major influence. My central rule. Edit inside when the weather is cold or wet outside. If it’s sunny, go to the beach and think. The beach and the sunshine give me my best ideas for the novel I’m editing and more inspiration for later novels to come.

Who said a writer’s life isn’t perfect?

 

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