Novels are like good friends

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

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

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

Related image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image result for cartoon writer drinking alcohol

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

Advertisements

How theatre tells us to fear the inadequate life

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

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

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

Death be not proud

Though some may call thee mighty and dreadful

For though art not so

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

Image result for amanda lawrence

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

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

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

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

Image result for andrew scott hamlet

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

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

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

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

FullSizeRender (5)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Who do writers really write for?

I recently read an interchange on social media, a discussion by writers about who they believe they write their novels for. A gifted writer who I’ve met, for whom I have much respect, said he always wrote for the reader. That’s another reason why I respect him. Someone else disagreed strongly. This person wrote for himself. If he was happy with his writing, then so would his readers be. He suggested that it follows that people who liked his writing would be like him, sharing his tastes, and anyway his enthusiasm would shine through in his novel. He has a point. I  went away and thought about this one. It’s not the first time I’ve comnsidered this dilemma, nor will it be the last, but I have a strong idea where I stand in the discussion.

I’ve read many books. I used to read each one to the end, even if it was a challenge, mainly because I always thought I could perhaps change my mind: I mightn’t like the book at first, but I might like it later. I’ve stopped doing that, especially now I write so much myself. I don’t expect my reader to persevere beyond chapter three if he or she isn’t engaged with the story. If I want my own writing to leap off the page, then I’d like to be at least interested in what someone else writes. If I’m inwardly groaning or, more likely, bored by the fifth chapter, I put the book down and read something else. In fairness, that doesn’t happen often. But I live and read by the principle that there are so many more books out there to be read.

Image result for Stephen King quote about Readers

I don’t like indulgent writing. Writers who write purely for themselves in an egocentric, self- pleasing way. I don’t mean ridiculously intelligent writers, novelists who are genius word-spinners and weavers of incredible ideas, the Martin Amises of this world. I’m referring to writers who create characters who are themselves but in another parallel universe. A vicarious creation of heroes. Characters who resemble the writer a little bit too much but are perfect, or flawed in admirable ways and then invariably have greatness thrust upon them. Usually, writing is weighed down with so much cumbersome and overblown description that nothing is left to the reader’s imagination. As I read, I feel controlled and  force-fed by someone indulging their own ego. I can sniff it out at any distance and it’s pungent and not pleasing. It stinks of self-satisfaction.

I now pick up books from genres I don’t usually naturally gravitate towards. It keeps me open minded. There was a time I read books by writers I liked, choosing subject matter I knew would suit my tastes. But it’s humbling to read YA novels, graphic novels, non-fiction, historical or crime stories and think Whew! How well written was that! I want to be aware of good writing, whatever form it takes. I can still return loyally to my favourite writers at any point.

Image result for writers and books

I also read books that are recommended to me. I have friends who read a lot and one friend in particular, who is erudite, critical and a skilful wordsmith herself, will say ‘Have you read…?’ and I know that whatever she recommends will be brilliant. I have another friend, a crazy ex-dancer  who is completely opposite to me in terms of literary experience and taste, and without her, I’d never have read Neil Gaiman or Robin Hobb.

I write for the reader first. There. I’ve said it. I remember an incident in the second novel where I wrote something and burst out laughing. I had entertained myself – I thought I was hilariously funny. But, seconds later,  I reminded myself that my sense of humour isn’t everyone’s and I made a mental note to check it with my reading group. If faces remained straight or perplexed when I read it back, it would be edited out without a second thought. It wasn’t, but I was ready to raze it for ever if it didn’t work for others.

Working with good editors is so beneficial. When I write, I try to be cinematic, to create something visual, so that my reader can imagine what I’m trying to evoke really clearly without telling them everything, leaving them space to make it their own picture. I also try to focus on detail, emotions, moments of impact. But when an editor says ‘tell the reader more at this point…’ ‘explain…’ ‘The reader needs to understand…’ then I know there are gaps to fill and I’m only too happy to embellish. Working with an astute editor is an education in itself and, as writers, that’s part of how we develop our craft. We continue to learn, to reconsider, to improve.

Image result for writers and books

I treat my readers with respect. First of all, I know some of them won’t like what I write. They won’t like the genre, the subject matter, the characters. That’s fine. Subjectivity and variety of taste are a reader’s prerogative. But what I do expect of myself at the first hurdle is to write well, to be lucid, accurate and to offer an interesting journey. If nothing more, my writing should be clear and readable.

I know there are readers who won’t think as I do. Readers who might not understand why I write about characters who are quirky, eccentric, mischievous. Readers who want flailing heroines and masterful heroes who snatch them from the jaws of danger probably won’t like my feisty independent women and responsive sensitive men. But that’s ok; there are plenty of other novels out there which those readers will enjoy. And, even if my whacky lively characters are not for them, then at least they might read the book and enjoy it for the langauge, the wit or the descriptions.

I write for readers who want to come on a journey: a physical journey or a journey of self- discovery. Sometimes both. Readers who like strong characters who are properly flawed, real, funny and eventually resilient. My readers want to believe in a character, an interesting place, powerful action. They want words that jump off the page, a story that intrigues. They want surprises along the way. They want well-written, evocative language. They want to smile, to be entertained, to be sad sometimes, to be asked to think a little about life, love, luck. They want to put the book down on the final page, after not wanting to put it down on the previous pages, and then breathe out and smile.

Image result for   fantasy writer

Someone who read my first novel in an earlier stage said it made them laugh and cry. Can I ask for better engagement with a reader? A reader of my second novel liked a male protagnist so much she said ‘I could do with meeting a man like that.’ I was happy that I’d created someone with traits she could fall in love with. A reader of my third novel said ‘I admire the main character. I like her. I feel like she is a close friend.’ I’m delighted. My character is credible, likeable, empathic, warm and funny. A reader of the fourth novel said ‘I was totally shocked when… happened.’ As a writer, I am so pleased that I can create twists and turns which my reader won’t see coming and then I can generate a powerful, emotional reaction. That’s what I’m after.

My quest is to continue to learn what readers want and then to provide it for them in an entartaining and innovative form, if I can. I’m a conduit to others’ enjoyment, not simply a reveller in my own craft. To some extent, I do believe if I write what I like, with enthusiasm and relish and it entertains me, then it’s possible my reader will be entertained too. But that, by itself, isn’t nearly enough. As I write, I have to be aware of a perpetually moving periscope which swivels to view my readers’ thoughts, tastes, needs. I have to consider their reactions to each sentence that I write and to continue to find new and exciting ways to supply more thrills and spills. That’s all.

But each novel is another chance to provide something which will come closer to what I aim to achieve. After all, who doesn’t relish a challenge and the opportunity to progress?

Vegan Wars

People who love the taste of meat and then become vegetarians or vegans are admirable. The idea that you give up something you find delicious because of ethical beliefs or the idea that it is beneficial to your health is commendable. It’s much easier for me. I’ve never liked eating meat. Some of my earliest memories are of my Dad producing a pheasant from a long pocket and my mum rendering it ready for the oven, plucking it and draining the dead bird of most the shot embedded in its white flesh, although never quite all of it. I remember the sound of a fork hitting metal embedded in flesh all too vividly. I couldn’t eat it, much to their disappointment.

I’ve been vegan for a long time. I’ve never liked eggs and the last milk product I had was probably well over twenty years ago. I’m still here.

It’s not too hard to be vegan nowadays. There is a better understanding of our dietary needs; we have B12 supplements, vegan cheese, nutritional yeast, vital wheat gluten, excellent sources of proteins and vitamins and most restaurants are serving vegan options, even if it is sometimes the dreaded, ubiquitous green salad. We even make acceptable cakes, omelettes, even burgers. Better than acceptable. It’s all so much better than when I first stopped being vegetarian: I remember saying to a waiter in a restaurant  ‘I’m vegan,’ and she replied: ‘Oh, I’m so sorry. How long have you got?’

Vegans are a bunch of label readers, of questioners, and it’s easy to be thought a little pedantic when we ask ‘Were the chips fried in the same oil as the fish?’ or ‘Does the wine contain fish, eggs or milk? (Quite a lot of it does, although many wines now are clarified using clay.) However, if we don’t ask these questions, we’re often inadvertently offered food which goes against our principles. It’s not dissimilar to offering an omnivore dog’s milk or roasted puppy.

Image result for vegans

Sometimes, I think I can understand why we’re so disliked by carnivores. Often viewed as part martyr, part saint, we carry our ethics along with their lifestyle everywhere  we go. No wonder there’s that joke about vegans telling you they are a vegan before they tell you their name.

Many carnivores view vegans with suspicion. The question ‘Are you a vegan? and the reply  ‘Yes’  is quickly followed by a nervous ‘Oh, I couldn’t give up meat’ or ‘I don’t eat that much meat’ or ‘But oh, how do you live without bacon?’

Image result for vegans

It’s as if they think we are trying to convert all the world into vegans. Perhaps that’s a nice thought. So there’s the problem.

And this is the beginning of the vegan wars.

Of course, understandably, many vegans want to persuade the whole word to enjoy and value what they believe are the benefits of veganism. Many omnivores understandably feel threatened by the pressure and are uncomfortable with the inference that they are responsible for oppression and murder. Speciesism will become a big movement if it isn’t already and, like any cultural change, perspectives shift at a different rate, depending on our experience of life.

I’m asked quite often why I’m vegan and I always want to ask the same question back, why do you eat meat? But I don’t want to be aggressive. It’s simply that the default is to eat meat and any divergence has to be explained and rationalised, whereas it is interesting to question the prevailing culture of carnivorous diets and look for an answer other than because it’s there and available and everybody does it.

Health is a big issue on both sides, vegans suggesting that a diet of meat, egg and dairy, as well as being cruel, is detrimental to health. Meat eaters often claim that we can’t live without meat. Recently someone suggested to me that when cows eat grass they also hoover up tiny insects. Ergo, they can’t live without meat so therefore neither should I. QED? Logic does not always feature in some people’s arguments.

Image result for vegans

I have lots of omnivore friends who enjoy eating vegan food with me and it makes me happy that they enjoy meat-free meals and therefore are more likely to try them again. I treat meat-eaters with respect: they might eat less meat and one day even become vegan. Culture is changing. In a recent Guardian article, George Monbiot predicted that livestock farming is coming to an end. He writes some interesting and powerful words:

While we call ourselves animal lovers, and lavish kindness on our dogs and cats, we inflict brutal deprivations on billions of animals that are just as capable of suffering. The hypocrisy is so rank that future generations will marvel at how we could have failed to see it.

Plant-based meat substitutes are becoming more available and taste more and like the original. Of course, many vegans are asked why they don’t just eat real meat instead of substitutes if they like the taste, and often they are told that it is ridiculous to want to eat something which tastes like meat but isn’t when the real thing is so accessible. This is to ignore the three major beliefs of vegans entirely: that veganism is better for health, animal welfare and our environment.

Image result for vegansEating out as a vegan is easier now. When I first became vegan and went to a restaurant, I was offered a plate of lettuce. Another time, I was told there was nothing available – all the vegetables had butter on them. Even poor vegetarians had to choose between omelette and macaroni cheese. Those incidents, while on the decrease, still happen. Recently in a restaurant I rang up in advance, as I usually do, and was pleased to hear that they had vegan choices available. When I arrived, I was offered one choice:  a quinoa, feta and green leafy salad. I was impressed that quinoa was on the menu. I was offered the dish minus the feta and I asked what it would be replaced with. The vegan version would be the same price. I said an avocado or even some beetroot would do but there was a measure of surprise that I wasn’t thankful that they’d extract the cheese, and when the dish arrived for £9.95, it was 80% salad leaves, a small portion of quinoa and a slice of tomato. Not great. But there have also been occasions when I have been served with such a sumptuous plate of food that the omnivores have gazed with envy. Things are improving slowly.

Image result for vegan foodI know a few vegans who are quite aggressive towards meat eaters. Passion is high when animal suffering is on the menu. I know vegans whose argument is sentiment first, logic second, which I can understand to a point as their feelings are strong, but it often doesn’t help their cause. Equally, I know a couple of omnivores who are defensive, irritated and angry when confronted by a vegan, and will argue the case for a carnivorous diet even to the point that they suggest pulling up a radish makes it scream in pain. I’ve seen lots of strongly-worded and disrespectful interchanges on social media.

But mostly, these vegan wars don’t need to happen. So many people who eat meat or fish, eggs or dairy, are eating less of them and becoming more experimental with plant-based meals in the kitchen. Transformation is happening, albeit slowly, and most people are concerned about their health and the condition of the animals they eat as well as the taste of the food and the facility with which it can be obtained. While I enjoy making sausages from vital wheat gluten, nooch herbs and mushrooms – sausages which taste nothing like the real thing, or so I believe – there are many people who enjoy plant-based products from supermarkets which are apparently indistinguishable in texture and taste from meat.

It is likely that the industries that profit from animal slaughter will do less well as the facts of how animals are treated become better known. People are rarely wilfully cruel or inhumane, but it is easy to munch a bacon sandwich and not think about a piglet screaming. For years we have been told that milk is good for us. Now, post-Cowspiracy, many people are already changing their minds and cutting some dairy and meat from their diets. My Dad stopped eating lamb. ‘It hasn’t had a life.’ A friend no longer eats chicken. ‘I like chickens.’ The revolution has started and that means more choice is available, and there is wider understanding of the facts behind the food on the plate. I’m not sure we need a war to bring change. It’s happening already.

Image result for vegans

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.’

Image result for black cat leaping

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.

Image result for black cat leaping

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.

Image result for Jurgen Klopp quotes about his critics

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.

Image result for Jurgen Klopp quotes about his critics

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.

Image result for log fire and crumpets 

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.

Related image

 

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…

 

Image result for black cat rear view in fields

 

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?’

Image result for writing and music

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.

Image result for writing and music