Sunday, 30 December 2007

Chalk Lines

So thrilled am I with my new blackboard wall I just had to share it with you.

Saturday, 29 December 2007

Illuminating with Black

I have had a brilliant idea. I'm hoping it will be the one. As a student of literature I have to have instant access to quotes, ideas, the contents of my own addled brain. When I read I write down little bits and pieces that I think I need to remember, that somehow shine out from the whole. Then when I'm writing an essay, I find I can't remember where I put something the importance of which my very life depends on. I spend hours searching through my notes and journal. Most of essay writing, for me, consists of tearing my room apart looking for IT. Trying to remember who said it and finally trying to link 'its' together.

As a novice writer I am inspired by the little tips I glean from the forewords, afterwords and introductions to the work of accomplished writers and also their letters, interviews and journals. I read these things avidly and often have several on the go at the same time. In my own journal I write down snippets of note and then promptly forget. I need this stuff to be there, right in front of me.

Another thing I find I need, at a certain stage in the writing process is to be able to see the shape of my work. I need to be able to just look at the form of it. At the moment I'm doing an anthology with an introduction. I have mind maps and notes on bits of paper that delineate it but I keep having to get up and find them, and, of course, the shape changes over time so I end up with piles of scraps of paper and often can't find the latest or most pertinent one.

So I've had a brilliant idea. Today I am going to paint one of the walls in my room with blackboard paint. So when an idea is taking force I will write on this wall all those slippery nuggets I feel will feed it. And as ideas grow and become stories, or chapters or essays I'll draw them out on the wall so I can see where they are leading, not in their entirety, just the shape of them.

So there you are, my latest big idea. I'm hoping it will de-clutter my mind and my room and help me to become just a little more organised.

Tuesday, 25 December 2007


Half an hour to go before Santa arrives, so just thought I'd say happy, happy and thanks and love you, to all my blogging pals before I collapse into bed.

Just incase you were worried I managed to get a goose and everything else so Christmas will be Christmas in the Moffat Shields household for yet another year. I've been on my feet preparing and cooking and ... fuck knows, for several days now, but it will be worth it if I get The Letters of Ted Hughes tomorrow, if I don't well...

Anyway, hope you all get what you want and more, much love and thanks for keeping up your visits, Eryl X

Thursday, 20 December 2007

Hardy Perennials

Here is a photograph of my garden taken at about 11.30 this morning. It's absolutely flippin' freezing here and it's been like it all week, though I think it warmed up very slightly for a couple of hours on Tuesday. Yesterday Bob went out to get a few provisions. When he got back he looked quite blue, then went pink as the warmth in here hit him and made his hands all a tingle. This is what winter should be like. It should punch you in the face. Wake you up. Invigorate.

I can't remember a winter in which the temperature dropped so low for such a sustained length of time. Normally here it's dank and gloomy and makes me want to do nothing but sleep. Now it's bright and sparkly and crisp. You have to wrap yourself in layers and don scarves and hats, and wear sunglasses. That's a real winter. And it feels so Christmasy. It makes me want to hear carols and toast muffins on an open fire. And read Dickens whilst wearing velvet.

All we need now is snow.

Sunday, 16 December 2007

The Christmas Bitch's Ganders

Christmas, as I'm sure you are all aware, is nearly upon us once more. And, although it appears every year at the same time, for me, it's as if by magic. It always takes me by surprise. I'm never organised. For months it seems to be ages away, too soon to do anything about it, too soon to get excited. Then pa-dah... it's here and I have done nothing to prepare. This year is no exception in all but one respect: I'm not tearing my hair out.

Why? Because my pretensions to perfection have been expunged by not only surviving, but actually enjoying, the unrelenting chaos of last Christmas. My two sisters, our three husbands, three children, brother and me all rented a house in Norfolk. I was voted chief cook, though my two sisters both had their cooking roles: one made the first course, the other, pudding. The men all had their tasks too, from wood gathering to drinks making. The kids decorated the tree and the cake and found berry heavy branches to line windowsills and mantelpieces.

On Christmas morning the kitchen was heaving with people all vying for space. I had a goose and a duck to roast, as well as spuds and stuffing balls, and needed space and extreme heat, not to mention quite some oven time, to do them all justice. The main cooker was an Aga, though there was another. We had spent the weekend trying to get the Aga hot enough but by the time I needed to put the birds in it was still at a temperature safe enough for a baby to kip in. It would take a week for butter to melt in the blasted thing. Plans were changed, I'd have to use the other oven, it was quite small but I could do the spuds and stuffing once the birds came out. No problem. Someone poured me a glass of wine while stuff got shifted and the temperature turned up to full blast. Half an hour later the oven was ready but the goose, or at least the only roasting tin that could accommodate the damn thing, wouldn't, just would not, fit inside. I began to sense the imminent departure of my sanity. Cupboards were disembowelled in search of a vessel that would suit both oven and bird, nothing was found. Someone postulated the notion of a fire pit in the garden, children kept out of the way. But there's always a simple solution and this one came because we started the search for a rental house too late to get something big enough to accommodate us all. My sister Elsa and her husband Ron were sleeping in a 'granny flat' at the end of the garden. This had a kitchen of its own in which there was an oven. Someone rushed off with the key and bird, to check for a fit and fit it did. Problem solved, and although lunch was late by a good hour and a half it was still Christmas, still celebratory, no less delicious. We all tucked in and it has to be said, had a bloody good time.

In previous years I have had a vision of Christmas which I now realise was ridiculously uncompromising. Lunch must consist of this and must be served at this time. Present opening must take place at this time and blah, blah, blah... Thanks to last year's fandango my vision of the perfect Christmas consists of things going wrong but everyone pulling together and enjoying it all the same. Food and drink got consumed at odd hours, crumbs and wrapping paper littered the floors, cups and plates could be seen on any flat (ish) surface. People were there to be bumped into, books to be tripped over, the pub to escape to. It was great.

So this year I'm not worried that I haven't got round to buying a single gift, or ordering the goose, or making mince pies, or hunting down organic vacuum packed chestnuts. I have a cake and half a bottle of rum and the Co-op does quite a good chicken and there's only going to be the three of us, and, and, and...

Anyway, there's still over a week to go. Any interesting, scary, hairy or particularly jolly Christmas tales to tell? Please share.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Learning Curve

Thanks to the Guardian, which I love anyway due to its focus on literature, I have a new addiction: The Sartorialist. This blogger goes out onto the streets everyday and takes photographs of ordinary people who catch his stylish eye. It probably helps that he lives in New York; if I tried to do something similar I would have to seriously re-think the meaning of sartorial style. As it is the nuances of getting dressed have been antagonising me of late. I've begun to notice that as I get deeper into my studies I bother less about clothes. And clothes can be a bother, especially as you get older and fashion seems no longer to apply. It doesn't help, either, living in the country where trends seem to go unnoticed and people dress for reasons known only to themselves. I just don't live in a world in which catwalk looks are interpreted for everyday life, or style seems to matter any more, so I've stopped looking, closed that particular door. But now the Sartorialist has reopened it by showing lots and lots of images of very different people of very different sizes, ages and budgets so I can once again see the possibilities. I know I suffer from extreme ambivalence when it comes to dress, finding certain sorts of socks with certain sorts of shoes almost painful on other people whilst feeling free run around in ill fitting clothes myself for example, and now the Sartorialist has got me reflecting on why.

I haven't often mentioned my father, he died when I was thirteen so my memory of him is fragmentary, but one thing that stands out amongst those fragments is his style. He was extremely pernickety about his clothes. Actually, about all our clothes and appearance in general. He must be one of the few men who ever brought home hair removal devices for his ten year old daughter's legs. He had all his clothes made and I remember spending hours in tailors perusing shirting, suiting and lining fabrics. Sleeves had to be measured to exacting standards so just the right amount of shirt cuff peeked from his jacket, trousers had to break on his shoes just so, his socks had to be two shades darker than his pants etc., etc.

I remember a school trip to the Tower of London. We were eating our packed lunches in a pigeon populated square, giggling and chatting as kids do, when I looked up and saw my dad, flanked by two colleagues, coming towards me. He was wearing a dark suit and sunglasses. I jumped up, laughing, and ran to him, throwing myself into his arms. Later my friends expressed amazement: 'Who was that?' they asked. 'My dad' I told them. 'I thought he was a president or something.' said one 'I thought he was a film star.' said another.'Who were those men? Were they his body guards?' 'No, they were his friends.' I answered finding it all hilarious.

He was a man who stood out, not because he was particularly handsome, or tall, or muscular but because he paid attention to the detail of his appearance. He took his suits to a particular dry cleaner in the city of London, washed and ironed his shirts himself, had his hair cut almost weekly and sometimes spent as long in the bathroom as a teenage girl. This apparently obsessive preparation meant getting dressed in the mornings, early because he had to get to London by train, in the dark so as not to disturb the household, was easy. He had to look smart for work, so he made it impossible for him to look anything else.

I guess I picked some of that up and for quite a large part of my life I was really into fashion and Vogue was my bible. However, my mother was the complete opposite: she only bothered to look smart for church. She argued that people should accept the person, look beyond the clothes, that she didn't have time for all that fussing, that clothes shouldn't matter, that trying too hard showed a lack of moral fibre and indicated someone who has too much time on their hands. So I guess I picked that up too.

These days I do often feel I just don't have time, and anyway what's the big deal? Here I am, take me or leave me, I have more important things to think about than how I look. And, actually, most of the time that's OK because I rarely go anywhere where there are people who do bother. I mostly mix with the 'there are more important things' brigade. But, when I have to go up to Glasgow or Edinburgh, or to some place where everyone else might have made an effort I panic. And the older I get the more these situations bother me.

There was a time when I was young and pretty enough to get away with jeans in a room full of ball gowns, but not now. Wearing jeans when everyone else is not often just looks bad mannered when you are not so young. And I fear looking bad mannered almost as much as I fear looking as if I've tried too hard. We are a bit odd in this country, I've noticed, in this regard: scruffy is frowned upon but so is effort. It's as if we believe everyone should look smart, or elegant or whatever, naturally. And if you don't there is something lacking, you're not the right sort. Negotiating this balance, as someone who doesn't cut it naturally, can be quite alarming.

Last week it was my husband's office Christmas 'do' and I was called upon to attend. It was in the Witchery, one of Edinburgh's most expensive – though, I discovered not best – restaurants. His colleagues are all young with access to all the fabulous shops of the city and few responsibilities, so they can spend their earnings in them should they choose. And of course, they are there everyday so they know what people wear, they live that life. All the other people in the restaurant, too, I began to think would also be stylish city folk with money, and access to the ways of style. I must have bought every fashion magazine available in the weeks leading up to the event but they were full of the sort of clothes I either couldn't possibly afford, could only be bought in London, or worse: flesh baring. Young, airbrushed models looking like sculptures in frocks of feathers or sequins or barely anything at all adorned every page and only increased my anxiety: I needed to know what real people wear to go out and about, not what fantasies wear to stand dead still in front of fantasists. In the end I dragged poor Bob around the shops of Glasgow shrinking at the seasonal sparkle, do people really dare to wear head to toe silver sequins and skirts so short one wrong move and your knickers would be on display? It took us five hours of searching with two stops for coffee and cake before I finally bought the plainest black dress I could find - not easy – and a dark gold belt to wrap around it. On the night I added a pair of ancient gold Gucci sandals from my fashion days and it was fine. No one pointed at me and laughed as I had feared.

But if I had already discovered the Sartorialist I'd have known more about what normal people wear in cities; what they look good in. And I wouldn't have spent more money than my dress eventually cost me on magazines. Perhaps I wouldn't have worried so much either, and I may even have already had a suitable frock in my wardrobe because this site somehow makes it OK to bother, not in an angsty way but in a way that suggests it's perfectly normal. We all have to wear clothes so they might as well be nice. It is possible to be comfy and stylish but it does take a little effort or, at least, thought. My father was right, I think, get the details right and dressing becomes easy. It's a bit like cleaning your house regularly so you don't have to hide behind the sofa when a knock comes at the door unexpectedly.

One of my new year's resolutions is definitely going to involve tidying up my wardrobe to make sure everything fits me properly and is the right length. Get rid of all the stuff with holes and other signs of wear and tear, and keep an eye on the Sartorialist to see how other women my age interpret fashion to their advantage so that some it might rub off on me. Hopefully that way I'll actually spend less time, not more, on my appearance.

Obviously at the moment I am far to busy to start all that but by this time next year...

Sunday, 2 December 2007

The Hours

Two random things about me: I really feel the cold and I'm not an early riser. As the days get shorter, darker, colder I don more and more woolly layers fretting over the thermostat, and slip into lateness in the same way that weight watcher of the year slips back into obesity.

Because the rest of the western world operates on a day-time only basis, refusing to acknowledge that, actually, there are twenty four hours in the day, every now and then I attempt to take myself in hand and fit in. So I set my alarm and force myself to get up early. Early for me that is, early for other people is something I can rarely manage, and I can't understand how some people declare with shameful pride that they always rise at five or six or before seven as though they are peasant farmers. I set my alarm for eight o'clock and drag myself out of bed, still sleepy, at eight thirty, and hope the haze will lift so I can at least give the impression that I am taking part. I usually manage to operate in this fashion for a month or so.

But the nights call me: I work most easily at night when the rest of the world is asleep and quiet reigns. Even when I force myself to go to bed early - before midnight - I don't fall asleep until two or three or even four in the morning; this is the time when my mind is most active, when inspiration strikes and stories form, when solutions to problems present themselves, when things in general begin to fall into place. So after a little while of early rising I begin to feel not quite right. I become more and more tired, look paler and paler, my eyes puff up until looking at anything for any length of time becomes uncomfortable, painful even. Reading becomes a strain, inspiration dies on the page, but sleep refuses, still, to come. Thus I begin to slip back into my old ways: pressing the snooze button one extra time, two extra times until it seems prudent to set the alarm for a little later, then a little later still. Just like that weight watcher reasons that one bun can't hurt. And all of a sudden life begins to ease again. I find I no longer need the alarm: I'm setting it for so late that I can wake before it. And so I am back to my comfortable ways: I feel brighter, I look brighter, I can read until four in the morning without getting a headache, I can do good work again and get my ideas down on paper the minute they appear. But then the 'real' world (as my husband calls it) intrudes and I have to start the process all over again.
And today that has happened.

Yesterday our heating developed a rather odd tick. The radiators on the second floor were doing their job as usual but on the first floor where I live they had gone cold and refused to warm up again. So we called the plumber, a lovely man called Brian, and he said he could come over this morning at ten thirty. Husband and child are away doing something war-like with paint and so I had to get up to let Brian into the house. I set the alarm for nine, pressed the snooze button too many times and just managed to get out of the shower when he rang the doorbell twenty minutes early. I threw my dressing gown on and let him in. Slipped into the bathroom to get dressed as he made for the boiler room with his bag of tools. Then sat in the kitchen hugging a mug of tea as he occasionally flashed passed checking radiators, pipes, thermostats. And eventually attempted to appear like a fully functioning member of society as he confronted me with the news that he couldn't find anything wrong. The pump is working and so is the motorised valve, there is nothing to indicate why the radiators on this floor remain cold. Then he was gone.

He had to go off for another job but said he'd come back later. So now I am left in the cold with puffy eyes and a vague feeling of helpless resignation. I live in a cold climate with idiosyncratic heating, where people have to work ten hours a day to make ends meet, yet everything shuts at five. I'm seriously thinking of moving to Barcelona.

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Sister in the Making

Kanani the Easy-Writer has tagged me for a meme which strikes me as a good way to avoid cleaning the house for a little longer, it would be rude not to accept and get to it staight away. This meme is to write about my earliest memory.

I was three, we were staying with my maternal grandparents because my mother had left my father again: she was such a drama queen! There would be raised voices and then my mother would say 'that's it' and suddenly we wouldn't be at home any more. So my brother, who was two, and me were a little disturbed, confused, uncomfortable but also a little excited because we loved our grandparents and their big comfy house. But I don't really remember much about that, just a general mixture of feeling, what I do remember is a sudden burst of frantic activity one day and my brother and me being consigned to the front sitting room and being told to keep out of the way: more discomfort of feeling, no one explained anything, we were simply put in the room. Then my father's voice...

Of course, wanted to rush out and see him but the door had been locked from the outside: we were trapped. So we waited for him to come in and see us, but he didn't. Then there was an ambulance, lights and sirens going, the room turning blue then white then blue again. And my grandparents and father were out on the front steps, my mother was being helped into the ambulance by a strange man wearing uniform, my father looked worried. I pressed my nose to the window. My brother was frantic, he tugged at the door handle and wailed.

Now, the window I was pressing my face to was the huge sash type characteristic of Victorian town houses like this and as I needed to make my self heard I used all my strength to open it. Success! I stuck my head out and called to my mother but she didn't seem to hear me. Grandpa, Grandma and Dad were now surrounding her in that fidgety way adults do sometimes and no one paid any attention to me. My brother was still frantically trying the door when the window came crashing down on my neck, locking me in position. Now my brother was at my side, desperately pawing at the window, tears streaming down his face as I screamed and shouted and still no one paid me any attention. The ambulance drove away with our mother inside...

The remaining adults turned towards the house, my brother still pawing at the window, desperately trying to lift it and free me, me still screaming for mum, for dad, for my poor, troubled brother. Finally they noticed, my head trapped outside of the window, my little three year old body inside. Alarmed faces, the key turned in the lock and at last I was freed. My brother and me rushed at dad.

Things quietened down, we stayed at our grandparents, dad went home. The next thing I remember is dad coming back and taking us away. Then we were standing in a dingy, green tinged lobby, silent and cold, holding his hand...

Out of nowhere mum appeared apparently holding a bundle of white fancy knit, and dad was rushing up to them, and we followed him, and then we were home.

Now I am supposed to tag five others to write their earliest memories but in the interests of egalitarianism I am simply going to invite whoever has such a memory to share to write it up on their site if they so wish.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Multiple Personality Disorder

As part of my Mlitt I have had to set up a blog. Now, as I already have one and contribute to another it might seem that that is something I've already got covered but somehow I haven't been able to resist making another. So here is a link to my new, what I hope to be, writerly blog: http://anmlittofonesown.blogspot.com/

The idea behind the assignment is that blogging is a new genre all of its own and so I am to visit other blogs
and then do one of my own. So I have taken the opportunity to try a different template and will attempt to make it a kind of writer's diary. Eventually I'll get some writerly links on the side-bar and post some inspiring writers quotes. It will be dedicated to all things literary. That's the plan anyway. Maybe I'll ask writers out there to guest post, maybe I'll try interviewing some of you about your writing lives. Lord it's beginning to run away with me already...

PS: I'm having a deal of trouble posting at the moment, the text is all over the place and when I try and include photographs it all comes out wrong. I tried putting up a picture of my writing room, inspired by the Guardian Review, and at one stage it started multiplying before disappearing all together. What the hell's going on? 

Sunday, 11 November 2007

Rewriting the Myth

Outside the sun is shining making the berries on the Rowan tree my window looks onto shine like tiny Christmas baubles. And it is Sunday. A day for kicking back and taking stock, reading the papers, clearing the mind, preparing for the week ahead.

As a child I was taught that Sundays were special: the mornings were taken up with church, we wore our best clothes, the tone was hushed and whatever the weather was like outside I always sat shivering for that preaching hour as the ancient walls sucked the heat from my blood. Once back at home my father listened to the archers 'shush...' and my mother cooked lunch: the fabled Sunday roast. Every Sunday was like a mini Christmas but without the presents. After lunch we were allowed to change and go out to play, it was such a relief to be ourselves again.

Later, Sundays were spent at my in-laws. These were the mid years. Church was no longer a feature but there was still an air of 'best' about the day and we would all dress with care. My mother-in-law would get up early to prepare the meal: roast beef or lamb or chicken, vegetables aplenty,crisp and soft roast potatoes, and pudding. This usually involved Bird's custard, richly yellow with a faint taste of raw cornflour, it was oddly moreish. At this table debate raged about all number of subjects and it was years before I could join in, it seemed so alien for children (we were children, still, in my eyes) to argue with their parents. I ate in bewildered awe. After lunch, we females would clear away the dishes while the males finished the wine and settled down with the papers. In the kitchen the preparation for 'tea' would begin. A cake or two would be baked and various packets of pancakes and potato scones would release their contents onto best china, new jars opened to reveal exotic preserves and crumpets toasted. Sometimes, if there was time between the two meals, we would go out for a walk along the river and feed the ducks. However, if there was an 'antiques' fair on in town time would be created, tea would be put back, and we would all squeeze into my father-in-law's Volvo to go and coo over faded crockery and old oak chests of drawers.

As Stevie and I settled into our own life as a couple, and then parents too, we created our own Sundays out of our heritage. For years we did the whole dressing up thing with me in the kitchen chopping and basting, mixing and baking, stomping and stressing as he sat and read the papers and Bob pulled at my skirt. But slowly and surely as life became less formal, more relaxed, Sundays took on the comfortable hue they have today.

Now I wear the same old clothes I wear every other day, I cook the way I always cook and we eat in the evening as normal. Anyone who wants lunch can have Saturday's left-overs or make themselves a sandwich, I do only one meal a day. And I can spend hours with the papers if I so choose. It is still a special day, however. We are usually all at home and I do sometimes bake a cake or make pudding with custard - made from vanilla infused cream and eggs - but only if I want to. We sit and read in unison and there is still a sense of hush about the day. Sometimes we go out for a walk in the hills or along the river, and over the evening meal we discuss the issues of the day picked from our various current interests. Afterwards we might watch a film together or we might go back to our separate, but somehow together, activities.

In a way I miss the days of frantic kitchen activity wearing an apron to protect my Sunday best, but not enough to actually effect a return. I save that kind of thing for Christmas now. Sunday is, after all, supposed to be a day of rest.

How do you 'do' Sunday, I'd love to know?

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Telling Stories

On the storyteller's blog recently, I read this poem and Pat the darling suggested that it might be nice to be able to read it as well as hear it. Thus, making this weeks post easy for me. Here it is just for her. Please feel free, all you writers out there, to suggest punctuation, or other, corrections. Neither punctuation or poetry are my strong points so don't worry about offending me. I definitely think of this as a performance piece rather than a visual one. Some poems have a look on the page that, along with other aspects of form, contributes to the overall effect. Not this one. This one needs to be read aloud, preferably by a slightly stressed out housewife, with Charlie Parker playing in the background. So if you can get your most psychotic female friend to read it to you , slightly squiffy if possible, that will only contribute to its meaning. Failing that pop over to storytellers and listen to me reading it.

A Sense of Routine
- After Tomaz Salamun

I smell a blue tinsel Christmas tree
I smell excitement, expectation, a spicy fug.
I smell the lure of the snow but the threat of a cold not yet caught.
I smell Brighton, seagulls, cool blue light
The promise of the sea beyond that hill.
Sandcastles, ice-cream, flask-tea, modesty. Running, running to get wet.
I smell an ambulance long gone
I smell the absence of my father
As my mother ‘gets on’ I smell the fear in her eyes.
Time moves forward, I smell the silver jubilee
Bunting, street tables, a pride of neighbours, I smell camaraderie.
I smell puberty.
I smell the odour of indifference that permeates my school
Working class kids already dismissed
I smell the obliteration of hope. Teachers that preach resignation,
Boiled cabbage, meat pie, spotted dick, ho ho.
I smell a new boy in town, his middle class ease,
I smell London and restaurants and theatre seats.
I am infused with the perfume of ‘will you marry me?’
I smell parenthood. I am a mother, responsible, joyous, fat.
I smell Robert, Bob, Bebop, Bippity, Bobsey, BOO, there you are!
Baby powder, knitted booties, clown borders, Winnie the pooh,
Old broken pianos. I smell chit chat and giggles and tractors and trains and
When the fuck did I last talk to an adult?
I smell loneliness. To Kent, to Bedford, anywhere but here, I hate this town.
I smell grey, shrivelled, bastard natives.
I smell promotion, a new house a new town, hope.
The Heck, Islesteps, Glasgow, Bedford I, Bedford II, real friends.
I smell a garden, a kitchen table, supper parties and wine dipped nights.
I smell fizz at Christine’s, cat food at Julia’s, poetry at Frances’.
The aromas of friendship and comfort permeate my life.
Learn Italian, learn French, read law, learn to cook, to dress, to be, to relax.
Too soon, I smell change, smells like doom. Career, promotion, Moffat.
Leave friends, leave life, leave law, leave garden. Bob cries.
Follow husband, and smell stupid, sulking self.
I smell money, greed,
New interests,
Virginia Woolf’s trifles and foreign holidays.
Thirty different types of lettuce in a French supermarket
Ruins in Turkey
Barney’s in New York, Frank Lloyd Wright. I smell consumed.
I smell a burgeoning friendship while smoking in the rain.
I smell the choohie monster wild but with a good heart,
The dirty fairy, just wild.
I smell Julie Arkell, haberdashers, ironmongers, V. V. Rouleaux, wallpaper, green.
I smell normal.

Saturday, 27 October 2007

Walking while chewing gum

A couple of months ago I started a post grad degree in writing. I have been sucked into a world of critically analysing the tools of the writing trade: narrative stance, point of view, free indirect discourse, diegetic, mimetic, motifs... It's like being stuck in a foreign country where they speak English but in a different way, and my life depends on understanding and making myself understood. I spend hours trawling through the work of writers trying to find clues. Then more hours trying to write using what I've learned, using those newly acquired tools. But they are unwieldy in my hands, or rather my brain. So I spend more hours staring into space.

The result: time evaporates. I find I have no clean clothes to wear, no food in the fridge, fifty six unread emails in my inbox: I have done nothing in days, weeks even.

So on Thursday I took some time out to make a timetable factoring in all the things I need to do on a regular basis in order to live a normal life. Hopefully, once this becomes routine I will be able to function fully once more.

I'm not naturally an organised person, I have to impose structure on myself. Each time I take up something new I have to reinvent the wheel to fit it in, or, rather, fit the rest of my life around it because the new thing always takes over for a while.

Anyway, all this is a sort of extended apology for ignoring all my blogging friends but from now on I hope to be back on track. My plan is to spend, a mere, fifteen minutes a day working on a post and another fifteen doing the rounds. Once a week I should then actually be able to post something. I have a squillion ideas for posts knocking about in my head. All I need do now is get them out...

Thursday, 4 October 2007


Inspired by that old bearded rambler I thought I might try an audio blog so here is my favourite innuit tale for you to listen to, hope you enjoy it.

Sunday, 30 September 2007

Waiting for Godot

Mary has kindly asked me to share my blogging expertise in order to help those new to the blogopolis to thrive. So here are my top tips for successful blogging:

1) Never forget your own insignificance: Why do you think that anyone would ever want to read your thoughts on anything?

2) Learn from the greats: Read only those blogs that regularly get over a hundred comments. They know the secret.

3) Read the comments first. This way you will learn what to think of the post before you actually read it. This makes reading far more productive.

4) Don't attempt to set down a single word until you are utterly convinced that you have a thorough understanding of the 'greats'.

5) Emulate: Start by typing out in full all those great posts you have discovered. Do this over and over again keeping these practice sessions to yourself.

6) Emulate II: Slowly and carefully practice writing the 'great posts' in your own words. Never substitute your own ideas though. In fact, make their ideas your own.

7) Remember there are rules in the blogsphere as there are rules in life. Learn them, they are there for a reason. You do not need to know what that reason is, just that it exists.

Realising that I may have missed out some crucial elements I now ask the good Doctor Maroon, Pat and Carole to fill in the gaps.

Friday, 21 September 2007

All The Cool Girls Smoke

Some men (it's invariably men: I know a mechanic who says he can always tell when a car is owned by a woman because it's filthy and full of crap)... So, some men spend whole afternoons washing and lovingly polishing their cars. They drive them with pride. I've seen men patting their cars and smiling. To such men the cars they own mean something, they are more than merely vehicles to get them from one geographic point to another.

I have, in my kitchen, a yellow bowl. Actually it's mostly unyellow but it's the yellow that stands out. In this bowl I cream together butter and sugar, add eggs – one at a time – then flour followed by one or more various flavourings: fruit and cinnamon; vanilla; chocolate or what-not. Then I scrape the resultant mixture from the bowl into one of a variety of metal tins and put it in the oven. For the rest of the day my house will be filled with the aroma of baking. I have several other mixing bowls but if this one ever got broken I would be devastated because, for me, this bowl has meaning. It is the bowl in which my mother mixed the cakes that demonstrated her love and by using it, in my mind, I do the same for my family. It is the bowl of a thousand birthdays, Christmases, Easters and weddings. But when it sat, sometime in the early '60s, on the shelf at Woolworth amongst a row of others just like it, it had no meaning it was just a cheap bowl. But because whenever I use it I am transported back to those childhood days filled with the anticipation of bowl licking and cake worthy celebration this bowl, to me, is worth far more than one shilling and six pence. It is one of only two things I inherited from my mother. Over the years I have imbued it with specialness. Others may understand this but will not feel it.

I quite understand that anyone else who casts their eye upon it will see merely an old mixing bowl because, in truth, that's all it really is. If what I'd inherited from my mother was a beautiful jewelled brooch that I remember her pinning carefully to her evening coat, smelling of powder and Chanel No.5, before going out hand in hand with my father for a glamorous party, the significance could be no greater. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and price doesn't count in matters such as these. My yellow bowl, crack-glazed and greying, with no exchange value whatsoever, is the loveliest object in my possession.

I have a favourite pair of trousers. They are old and torn and splattered with paint. They are too big and hang down dragging on the ground as I walk. Yet when I put them on I feel good: slightly bohemian, a bit rebellious, slim and, dare I say it, even rather sexy. However, the man in my local deli suggested I might do well to put them on the scarecrow I told him I was making. To him they are just a pair of long-in-the-tooth, scruffy, worthless trousers. He didn't hear my husband once tell me that they make my bottom look great. He doesn't know how easy they are to move in. To me they are life enhancing trousers, they tell a story, my story, though very few people can read it in them. I'll be distraught when the left leg comes away as it's threatening to do.

When, twenty three years ago, I stood at the altar and took my marriage vows, my husband put a pretty, engraved, rose gold ring on my finger. We had found it together, one Saturday morning, in a flea-market. It only cost about twenty quid, but it came to symbolise our togetherness, our till-death-do-we-partness. Sitting on that flea-market table amongst watches with cracked faces and once loved tarnished silver the ring had no meaning, but by choosing it for a wedding ring we gave it plenty. I polished that ring until it gleamed. Sadly, as is my way, I'd lost it within the year. Pregnancy had swelled me and I had to take it off. I, no doubt, put it somewhere 'safe' but failed to find it again when the time came. At first I missed it terribly, feared that people would think I was a single mother, mistake me for something I was not. I felt less married without it. But I got used to the loss, learning as I grew that real love can do without symbols.

Eleven years later, for our twelfth wedding anniversary, my husband presented me with a new set of rings. One hand made by an artisan jeweller adorned with little hearts of various precious metals and two diamond eternity rings to go either side. The combination is a beautiful one and I was delighted by the gift. He'd put a great deal of thought into it, had it made specially. But these are not the rings he placed on my finger on 18th August 1984. Although he meant them to fill the gap caused by my lack of the original I have been unable to give them the meaning he anticipated. I had got used to not wearing a ring over the period of eleven years, there was no longer a gap to fill for me. And somehow these rings are too beautiful for my scarecrow-trouser lifestyle. I tend only to wear them when I go 'out'. I do not wear them to dig the garden or to cook supper or to sit at my desk and work. To me they are no more, or less, special than the diamond stud earrings he bought me for my fortieth birthday which he also had made especially for me. They are a beautiful but unnecessary gift, as most gifts are, and speak no more of love that any of the other such gifts I have in my possession. On Saturday night, at my cousin's fiftieth birthday party, I will wear them, along with the earrings, with pride. A pride borne of having a husband who loves me enough to spend his hard earned cash and his little spare time on bringing me such objects of beauty. But today as I type this I sit here unadorned in my favourite old trousers no less loved or loving. As for my long lost ring I sincerely hope that someone else has stumbled upon it and that now it adorns another finger with a newly given meaning.

That no object has meaning in and of itself whether it is a car, a mixing bowl, a pair of trousers or a ring is a valuable lesson to learn. Objects don't give our lives meaning we, our lives, give meaning to them. That's one in the eye for the advertisers.

Sunday, 16 September 2007

Michel de Montaigne: How Wrong Can You Be?

The first thing I noticed about Rhona was her hair: rich chestnut brown and so shiny she appeared to have a halo. In an office full of black wool-mix and barely there make-up she wore brown slub-silk and La Dolce Vita eye-liner. As I walked through the office in which she occupied a small space from my own across the hall in order to use the shared kitchen, she was the only person to smile, to say hello. She didn't look me up and down and bristle. She didn't stare at her screen in studied silence. And when I actually took up a full time position in that very office and her colleagues became my own she was the only one who's eyelids remained unbatted as aspects of my core character leaked through the professional veneer. We got to know each other during our multiple fag-breaks on the corner of Cadogan Street, the heart of Glasgow's red-light district.

After I met her husband, Craig, he commented that in me she had met herself. She lent me Cinema Paradiso. I lent her The Life of Pi. She endeared herself to my son Bob by being the only adult never to ask him what he wants to do when he leaves school. Our sensibilities connected in a way I'd never experienced before.

After a couple of years of interviewing people for jobs they were too good for we abandoned our efforts to earn a living within months of each other. I went first having realised that I spent more in compensation for the horrors of work than I actually earned. She, a little later to have her first child. She moved out of Glasgow to the north. I lived (still do) about sixty miles south. Neither of us are very adept at picking up the phone either to make a call or answer one. We both have mobiles at the insistence of our husbands but mine lies festering in the bottom of a bag and hers lives in drawer. There is a fourteen year age-gap between us. We are both apt to get waylaid by our circumstances.

She had her second child, Edith, in January. I've had my dissertation to grapple with. Occasionally I would leave a message on her answering machine or find she'd left one on mine. Christmas, the season of our last meeting, began to feel like a very long time ago. Then two weeks ago a miracle happened: she phoned and I answered. We talked for about two hours until she had to go and pick Oscar up from nursery. We discussed getting together but left it vague. She would phone me back. Several missed calls later we alighted on yesterday as the date, but where? She would phone me back. On Friday night at about nine o'clock she did and it was settled. We would meet upstairs at the Ubiquitous Chip at two the next afternoon.

Some friendships are based on shared interests, others on mutual circumstances. I have my philosophy friends, my mother-too friends and my home-town friends. Most fit more than one category, flow in and out of the various boxes. This one defies all attempts of reasoned situationism. Rhona has a philosophical bent, an inquiring mind but hasn't studied the subject to any depth. She is my most willing and ardent editor and critic but doesn't, herself, write. There is an eighteen year age-gap between her motherhood and mine. The spiritual home of our friendship is Glasgow but neither of us lives there now. Our relation to one another appears quite unfathomable to some. Stevie, my husband, has admitted he doesn't understand it. I often fear analysis will undermine but to try and explain what keeps us connected I brainstormed:

Reservoir Dogs, green, enamel-ware, flasked tomato soup. Toast. Kate Moss for Top Shop, Kate Moss for anything, razor hip bones, old leather sofas. Big sunglasses, bobbed hair, teal patent shoes. Tapas. Cocktails. Fine bone-china cups. Edward Monkton, Julie Arkell, Cath Kidston, Johnny Depp. Cinema Paradiso, The Station Agent, Edward Scissorhands, anything with Kirsten Dunst. Kiera Knightley's not too thin. Buxom is admirable but we don't want to be it. Grey hair is cool. Kings of Leon, French Film Noir. Noir, French, passion, chic. Scuffing along the beach. Greenhouses, sheds, gift wrapping, ribbon.

If we were Siamese twins we'd be joined at the sense of admiration. She gives me permission to be shallow as she points out my depth. She has a way of highlighting the positives and disempowering the negatives by inviting them in. She can tell how I'm feeling by the tone of my voice, my gait, even my hair. She knows more about me than I do. She aids integration. She understands, she listens and she is genuinely interested. She facilitates compromise and makes it feel like victory.

As the kitchen of the Ubiquitous Chip closed before we got round to ordering we moved next door. There, in a bar that used to be a cinema, we constructed a make-shift tapas from the starter menu. And feasted. Four hours in uncritical company with spicy fries on the side: a veritable banquet.

Today I know more about myself and I like myself more. And in my diary the date for our next lunch has already been marked.

Monday, 3 September 2007

Autonomous Imagism

Fresh damsons: pretty but inedible.

Autumn: Golden leaves and swirling mists. Open fires and toasted scones. Woodlands that smell of mushrooms. Ripening hedgerow fruits. Abundance and burgeoning chills but warm hearths to come home to. Long walks on crunching leaves wearing chunky knits and sturdy boots. Marshmallows. Harvest festivals. Giant leeks and tiny glistening dark coloured berries. Pumpkins for pies and lanterns and, for me, one of the best risotto recipes ever.

Thanks to the poets and other image makers we have a vast stock of autumn fantasies to indulge in and live up to. A golden season from a golden age of happy peasants and observant artists. When was that I wonder?

I've tried on various autumns for size. I've got the Wellington boots, the stripy scarf and am lucky enough to have a small wood behind my house for the purposes of both admiring and crunching on ochre leaves. Last year I bought a book on how to identify edible fungi but lost heart when I failed to find a giant puff-ball. However, I did make an awful lot of things with the courgettes that had taken over my garden. And I burnt a lot of leaves in my pot bellied garden stove. All rather satisfying I must say. Sometimes autumn can cause me to lament the fact that I don't have pale red hair and freckles. Sometimes it makes me think 'but we haven't had summer yet!' Generally though, for me autumn is a time of frantic kitchen activity (winter being the season of eating something I prepared earlier) and this week I have mostly been making jam. I have two damson trees in my garden and this year they have excelled themselves in terms of production. Fearful of waste I have been climbing ever higher to get at the fruit before it rots and searching out recipes to fill my store. Fools and compotes, chutneys and pies. I like making jam the best. It makes me feel like a goddess of the orchard. Yet the whole process, from picking to bottling, can be achieved in under an hour.

The alchemy of jam making is utterly fascinating. In the case of damsons one takes inedible bitter, sour fruit and turns it into something spoon lickingly scrumptious. All one has to do is boil them with sugar until that magic setting point is reached. Of course they must be stoned and this is the most times consuming aspect but with that image of domestic goodliness in my mind I don't mind it one bit. Here's my recipe:

1.5 kilos of damsons
1 kilo of preserving sugar
a teaspoon of ground cinnamon
a five second grating of nutmeg
a freezer chilled saucer

Put your damsons into a large, heavy saucepan with a little water. Bring to the boil, stir around a bit and when the skins begin to split (seconds, trust me) drain. Allow them to cool a little so you can handle them without pain and then squeeze out the stones. Put the fruit back into the pan, pour over the sugar, turn on the heat and stir until the sugar has dissolved. Add the cinnamon and nutmeg. Turn up the heat and bring to a rolling boil. Boil in this manner for 5 to 8 minutes. Once five minutes are up get your iced saucer out the freezer and blob a little jam onto it. Push this blob with your finger and if it wrinkles the jam is ready. If it doesn't wrinkle keep trying every minute or so. Once it's done pour it straight into warmed jars, cover with a waxed disc of paper and put on the lid. As the jam cools in the jars a vacuum will be created and, thus, you can be assured your jam will last the winter if stored in a cool place. Bereft of a pantry I keep mine in the cupboard under the stairs.

Sometimes, instead of using preserving sugar I use dark muscovado sugar and sometimes I add some vanilla extract instead of the nutmeg or cinnamon or both. Sometimes I use all three. Half the fun is in the experimentation and I am considering adding Madeira or Marsala wine next time. The recipe I have given is a kind of mish-mash of two of Nigella Lawson's: greengage jam and damson fool. The nutmeg and vanilla I add from my own imagination.

It strikes me that jam making is not dissimilar to life living. I certainly cherry pick from inherited and newly manufactured concepts of how to live a good life. From the plethora of images out there. And from that create my own recipe for living. Part domestic goddess part fashion model (the thin part only sadly). Part gardener part academic. Part shopper part anarchist. Part environmentalist part emitter of carbon. Part feminist all financially dependent. It's not perfect but it has it's moments.

Damson jam: delicious and gleamingly pink

Monday, 20 August 2007

A few unrelenting voices

Some of this years graduates. Now there will be many more!

This is just a quickie to say that we have managed to save our university campus!!!!!!!!

In February this year it was announced that due to funding issues the University of Glasgow was going to pull out of our small, rural campus. The Scottish Funding Council didn't think we were worth financing. We thought differently and created a rucus. The local papers rallied round to support us and we have managed to maintain a small but vocal profile. We petitioned, we sought meetings and finally we walked the hundred or so miles to Glasgow to show our determination to keep the campus going.

Today it was announced that we have been successful. The SFC have relented and offered over a million pounds to keep Glasgow in Dumfries. Undergraduate recruitment will resume, the arts will continue to be taught here in this much neglected region of Scotland. The SNP (Scottish National Party) have pledged to not only keep university education in the region but to expand it.

At times we all felt like we were banging our heads against concrete. That no one was listening. That perhaps we should just accept our fate. But something kept us going. And now vindication! All those sleepless nights, all those frantic phonecalls and endless meetings and that agonising trek upon tar and concrete in ever shrinking shoes; all those hideous newspaper photographs and bizzare interviews were worth it. The population of Dumfries and Galloway get to keep their university and thus their access to the world of poetry, philosophy, history, creative writing and storytelling. It all goes to show that it's true, education, once given can never be taken away.

Thursday, 16 August 2007

What the F***

For the past hour at least I have been trying to change my profile photo, I think you techie types call it the atavar. My last photo came courtesy of flikr but this time I couldn't seem to upload the new one onto flikr at all. So I moved to photobucket but there were 'illegal' characters in the url whatever that means. I have now resorted to trying blogger help's suggestion of posting the photo here and then doing something I have already forgotten, but will look up again.

F***ing displacement activities: if I wasn't trying to avoid writing an essay on Walter Benjamin's concept of technology I'd be relaxing with a glass of wine and a novel.

Anyway, let's see if I can get this f***ing photo sorted. Ghad zooks

Update: NO! it didn't work, more illegal characters and I can't for the life of me see what crimes they might have committed, no wonder our prisons are full.

All this because I've had my hair cut and now it's 8.30 and I haven't done a stroke of work yet. F.......

Thursday, 9 August 2007

From Gramsci to Boden

I'm currently trying to teach myself Marxist Critical Theory for an exam on the 22nd. Arrgh! I missed half the course last semester so was unable to sit the exam at the right time. Now I'm down for the re-sit and have an essay to do too. It's the last thing I need to complete in order to get my degree and it's hard. Trying to discern the subtle differences between hegemony and ideology; what is 'post' about certain post-Marxist theories; the difference between Marxist, post-Marxist and Marxian and how Marcuse's approach to technology differs from, and is similar to, Benjamin's. Imagine my glee then when, yesterday, the Boden autumn catalogue flipped through the letter box.

The Boden catalogue is full of healthy, cheery people wearing slightly off-trend clothes. Some people might call them classics. Some might call them preppy. I tend to think of them as allotment meets Sunday lunch with the in-laws. There are cheery coloured cardigans with big buttons, flippy skirts and useful jackets. Wide-legged trousers, stripy shirts and sensible boots. Oddly ageing print dresses, an awful lot of applique and things with velvet trim. But the best thing about the Boden catalogue is the questions they ask the models. Here is a selection of questions and answers:

Best place to be in autumn? Somewhere where it's summer; London; Stamford Bridge.

I'm always told off for: talking too much; biting my nails.

Last meal ever would be: Borsch; Roast lamb; Pasta al Forno; Lobster; Sunday roast.

Never have a quiet night in without: Popcorn; a Martini; a good stiff drink.

Best present ever recieved: tickets to Dolly Parton; white roses; my children; land.

Who would you be for a day? A monkey; Demi Moore; Daisy Duke; a rockstar; Bob Marley; Pablo Neruda.

Dreading: turning into my parents; giving birth.

I shouldn't like to but I do: gossip; rubbish t.v.; cheeseburgers; licking stamps.

My two favourite answers are 'a monkey' and 'licking stamps'. The first because of the stretch from who to what, it makes me wonder if there is a particular monkey that she would like to be, which could just about come under 'who', or is it any old monkey? This would really be a what. Here is a girl who thinks nothing of breaking the rules. I'm so glad there are still some people like that around.

The second throws up more questions than it answers: Why does she feel that licking stamps is something she shouldn't like to do? Is there some tacit proscription against such a seemingly innocent pleasure? Is the glue on stamps considered, somehow, dangerous? Or ghastly? Or is it the stamps themselves? Perhaps it has something to do with tongueing the Queen.

I can't think of anyone, or anything, I'd like to be for a day. Except, perhaps, for me on my death-bed. According to Martin Heidegger (early 20th century German existentialist philosopher) one can't become truly authentic until one knows one is going to die. That is until one becomes fully aware of one's own mortality. Which is more than just knowing in theory that we all die eventually. I'd quite like to reach that state of authenticity sooner rather than later, so being my dying self for a day now might help.

I won't bore you, dear readers, by giving my answers to all the questions but I would be jolly interested if you answered one or two of them. And I will tell you this: the thing I'm always being told off for is overcomplicating things. I don't know why this is though.

Well it's back to Marxist critical theory for me now, briefly, and then I'm off to get all my hair cut off.

Wednesday, 25 July 2007


What an interesting couple of days I've had! We, of the Save Crichton Campus campaign group, have been trying to think of ways to keep the campaign going during the summer holidays. So Bob suggested setting up a group on Facebook, 'do it' I said, and he did. On Monday he patiently set up a group, using my profile, on facebook called Save Glasgow University at Crichton Campus and I set about inviting people to join. I got six members in a few hours and then one of them noticed we'd spelt Crichton wrong! So, as I couldn't edit the title, we had to scrap that group and set up a new one yesterday. Then Bob noticed that Gordon Brown, our new Prime Minister, had joined the facebook community so he invited him to be his friend. Gordon accepted. Bob then invited Mr. Brown to join our group. This morning when I got up Bob rather excitedly told me to check the group page, before I'd even had a cup of tea. I put the kettle on then went to my computer.

There in the members section of the group was, da-da-da, Gordon Brown!!!!! How cool is that? Of only two groups our P. M. has joined one of them is ours. What a scoop. It seems that he is a truly egalitarian Prime Minister interested in keeping education available to everyone. Lets hope the money men take note.

I'm afraid with all this activity I still haven't got round to writing up my hike diary for this blog yet but hope to get it done at some point soon. I know some of you want to know about the baby frog plague. Meanwhile here is a photograph of the four key walkers in our finest at the Graduation Ball.

We are (clockwise from bottom left) Wendy, hike co-ordinator; Robert; Bob and me.

You won't believe the problems I had with that dress but at least it was long enough to hide my hugely puffed up ankles and feet.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Take less excercise

The walk is over and I'm now back where I belong: sitting at my desk, a plie of work chiding me at one end. I seem to have contracted elephantitis and fear I'll never be able to wear shoes again. Bob is on crutches and we are both exhausted.

I can't quite believe I did it. About ninety miles over five days with erratic weather. We had a variety of setbacks including a very late start due to the press; a sick child that caused another delay; various injuries and general complaints and at one stage we got totally lost. But we found so many interesting things: a plague of baby frogs; wildflowers galore; a shrine to a Celtic supporter in a forest and a fantastic truck stop in the middle of nowhere to name a few.

Once I've recovered sufficiently I'll write up the adventure but for now here is a snap to, hopefully, whet your appetites.

P.S. Can you believe I've gained five pounds?!

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

Shake a Leg

Bob (my son) and me are going for a walk tomorrow with a few friends. We will start in Dumfries and finish, five days later, in Glasgow. Why? For the Save Crichton Campus campaign. The hope is that we will engender some much needed publicity and some cash. I am also secretly hoping to loose a pound or two so I can do my ball gown justice on the 13th. That will be a bonus, though, and an unlikely one at that considering the amount of chocolate and biscuits we plan to take.

We have our waterproofs, sturdy boots and comfy socks. We have blister plasters, a first aid kit and maps. And we have enthusiasm and will. I also have forty six year old smoker's legs but am hoping that the positives outweigh the negatives.

I'm really looking forward to this walk: I've driven to Glasgow many times but all I really see are the other cars on the road. One sees so much more when on foot, there's more time and one passes by so much more slowly. I'm sure there are many secrets to discover en route: wildflowers, animals, even buildings to notice if only someone would look. Well this is my chance to really look and properly see. I'll take a note book and my camera with me and write a diary as I go. I will fancy myself intrepid or rather like Dickens who I believe walked all over the country.

The picture above is of Bob and me at his graduation. When I graduate later this year I would really like it to be from a university campus that is no longer under threat merely because of a little bit of money.

Anyway, wish me luck and I'll see you when I get back...

Thursday, 28 June 2007

Voter power

One day early this week, or maybe late last, I recieved an email telling me that one of my dearest friends wants me to be his friend, 'Huh?' I thought. This email was from Facebook and thankfully my son was looking over my shoulder - no privacy with kids around - and he told me what it meant and what to do. 'Click on the link... NO! that link... yes there...'

I clicked on the link: Now what?

Well 'what' turned out to be this: Several hours spent futtering about on the site checking it out, learning about it: exploring.

Facebook is a bit like a city: huge. There are millions of subscribers all doing slightly different things. You have your own page and this is like the face you present to the other residents of the city. You add different elements such as photographs, interests, educational details, or not. You can leave it as empty as you like, keep it as private as you wish. Some people are very bold and upfront loading their pages with masses of information, photographs and messages. They're like the people you see in a city wearing 'notice me' clothes and jewelry, maybe driving flash cars or talking loudly on thier mobile phones. Then there are the quieter ones you have to make an effort to get to know. They may only have one or two photographs and list just a handful of interests but you think 'Mmm... someone who also likes Captain Beefheart/felt-craft/green', so you say hello. Others mix only with people they already know or even keep entirely hidden from everyone. They are like the ones who never leave their houses.

It seems to work like this you browse the site checking out other people's pages and perhaps leaving a comment, a bit like talking to a stranger at the deli counter. You notice something about them, see what they are buying and then, perhaps, say something about it: 'Have you tried the unpasturised Yarg? It's great with those crackers and a bottle of Rioja.' You can bump into people you haven't seen for years and you can search them out too. You can also join clubs focussed on just about anything. I have joined only one, Friedrich Nietzsche, so far and it's great. The people who subscribe have actually read Nietzsche, some in great detail, and understand his thought. They have also read other philosophers so they relate and crossreference, it's like being in a university cafe whilst in the comfort of your own room. It may just save my dissertaion.

Monday, 25 June 2007

Reader Poll

My head is buzzing at the moment. I seem to have so many things going on, my fingers in too many interesting pies, that I can't decide which to write about next. So I thought I'd let you make the decision for me. The choices are:
1. My graduation ball: this is nearly upon me and I have so much to do to get into Cinderella mode. Hair, arms, dance practice...
2. 75 mile walk to Glasgow: This is part of the ongoing struggle to save our campus. I really have to do some work to get into shape for this but how and what?...
3. Creative writing portfolio: I need to submit twenty or so pages to the uni to support my masters application.
4. My garden: Rain, wind, tomatoes... waiting for a greenhouse to arrive. Everything's getting tall and where have all the canes gone...
5. Facebook: A new and interesting discovery...
6. You invent a topic for me and I'll try and write about it.

Thursday, 21 June 2007

Cherished Neurosis

In my kitchen there is a shelf; on this shelf there is a large array of mugs. There's bird, Russian and green cone to name but three. There is also my mug . The one I drink my tea from every morning. Somehow morning tea doesn't taste the same from another. It's not the most attractive mug in the collection but it says A Room of One's Own and Virginia Woolf on it. It is purple, not my favourite colour but my husband bought it for me specially.

On Monday morning, my visiting mother-in-law used my mug for her tea so when I got up I had to wash it before using it for mine. As I was drinking a thought began to grow in my mind 'how ridiculous of me, why couldn't I just use one of the others?' I looked at it; it is just a cheap, mass produced mug. Hardly anything to become attached to. It's not made of the finest porcelain; it doesn't feel just so in the hand; it isn't the one thing I managed to rescue from the embers of a happier past. It's just one of many ordinary bits of kitchen tat in my possession. So, if it is not the mug's physical (or sentimental) properties it must be something else. I must have invested it with a specialness it doesn't, in reality, posses. The only thing that comes readily to mind is the link with Virginia Woolf, the idea of a room of one's own.

Every morning I make myself the tea and sit down at my desk in my study to drink it and check my emails and blog. There I sit, smoking and drinking and checking in my own room. A room I snaffled from the rest of the family -it used to be a beautiful but under-used dining room – when I started my degree. I have filled this room with books and papers, several chairs, an old leather couch, a desk and computer. It now tells the story of me as a hard working student and writer. It is my dream room. A room of my own. And this story is reinforced every morning by the mug. By the ghost of another writer in another era who actually succeeded at her craft. Her narrative feeds mine.

In short it seems I see myself as a Virginia Woolf mug sort of person rather than, say, a Russian mug sort. But, for cocoa I always use bird. As ever even the most, apparently, simple things reveal complexity when one looks under the surface. I don't know why I find one mug suitable for tea and the other perfect for cocoa. But I know changes must be made; one of the things I want to be more than anything else is flexible so that I can take life in my stride and respond to every event positively.

I really don't want to be a neurotic mug fascist who can't function properly when forced to use a different one. It doesn't seem far from being unable to step on pavement cracks. So on Tuesday morning I took my tea in Civilisation by Clive Bell: never heard of him but what do you know? My tea tasted just as good. I used that mug again yesterday too and today I am drinking from Russian which looks much more attractive on my green painted desk.

This is all about me regaining control of my life. For too long I've allowed habits, neuroses and other people's rules to lead the way. And recently I've been finding myself slipping deeper and deeper into apathy. Hopefully by changing the little things the biggies will follow suit.

I've still been using bird for cocoa it's the perfect size, so maybe I can allow myself that. But I think tonight I will eat my supper from a different plate.

How about you, any odd habits you feel a need to shake? A problem shared is a problem halved as my mother used to say before laughing scornfully at the prospect of having anyone to share it with. But here there is always someone to share, to understand and, sometimes, to mock. And I often find being mocked helps a great deal.

So lets have your stories.

Tuesday, 19 June 2007


Just a quickie: I need help. This year for the first time in my life I have planted tomatoes. This was brought on by a hot spell that has now been replaced by a dark wet one. And now just look at my tomato plants.

If there is anyone out there who knows what this is and what can be done about it I would be forever grateful. I dream of home grown toms.

Tuesday, 12 June 2007

You're IT (Flea-bag)

Mary has tagged me for a meme; she got tagged by Katie and Katie got tagged by Brian and now it's been passed to me, Kim and Kanani. For this moment blogland has been turned into a virtual playground. Thankfully as it's virtual no running is necessary. But I am reminded of being screamed at: 'RUN or you'll spoil the game!!!' Yikes.

This particular game involves coming up with fifteen personal goals and at first I couldn't think of a single one. THINK or you'll spoil the game.


I discussed it with my son: 'blah blah blah could be one'

'That's not really personal though, is it?'

'Isn't it? No I suppose not.'

So I've had to define personal. What would I like to achieve in my lifetime? This is what I've come up with – the order isn't entirely particular, by the way...

1 Get my dissertation finished. This probably involves removing myself from blogland for a time and concentrating on 'academic style.' But not necessarily...

2 Learn how to be the sort who can have more than one thing going on at a time without loosing concentration.

3 Become more organised. I've been working on this one for quite some time and still haven't managed it. Mainly, I think, because I am so naturally disorganised that I only work on it sporadically. Not that I can't be pretty organised in certain situations: in the kitchen, for example, I can cook several things at once and keep things tidy. I'm also fairly organised in the garden: I don't have an outside tap, so no hose, and most of my plants grow in containers. When the weather is warm and dry I have a lot of watering to do so I have several pitchers and a watering can that I fill up in the early afternoon in order to give the water time to warm up before the evening watering splurge. Then at around six I get to it.

I just need to extend this level of organisation to the rest of my life.

4 Get out more. I keep thinking I'd like to engage more fully with the rest of the world but somehow can't be bothered to leave the house.

5 Act: I have ideas, notions, imaginings but most of them stay in my head. It would be nice to be able to act on a few more of them or, rather, one or two of the more adventurous ones. Getting up and making custard because I have a notion to eat some isn't really good enough. Finishing my novel: that's the sort of thing I mean. But even just submitting something I've already written to... what/where/who?

6 Find out the things I need to know. For example, where does a budding writer send her stuff?

7 Keep in, proper, touch with friends. I don't have very many it shouldn't be that hard to phone them and actually go and see them occasionally.

8 Stop regretting past mistakes. Accept they've been made, that they contribute to the person I am, and move on.

9 Stop worrying about what other people think of me. Apparently my mother-in-law believes that I have her son to thank for everything: 'She didn't know anything when we first met her; she hadn't even read Jane Austen!'
This really pissed me off when I first heard it but she may be right: I came from a poor immigrant family; went to a rubbish school and lived in a very working class, impoverished, part of town. My parents were well educated but my father died when I was thirteen and my mother had to work as a cleaner to raise the four of us. Meeting Stevie introduced me to middle-class angst and the arts. It is possible that I would have married a brickie from Chatham and had four kids and never read a book if I hadn't met my husband.

The point is no one knows and it doesn't matter anyway. What my mother-in-law thinks is nothing to do with me. I can't affect it and it makes no difference to my life. Yet, truth be told, it still bothers me.

10 Get a haircut.

11 Realise that if I eat prunes I'm going to have to spend a lot of time in the bathroom.

12 Get a dentist. If, for no other reason than (mental) ease of smiling.

13 Commas: learn how to use them so as not to incur the wrath of those who know, or get a good editor.

14 Deal with those internal conflicts: put on a jumper rather than the heating if the environment is really a concern. Either get a job or stop whining about not being able to afford an Arne Jacobson Egg Chair. Realise that a woman of my age can't expect to wear shorts and have her wrinkly knees go unnoticed. And, that I can't expect to get a good grade if I don't put in the effort; making an effort isn't 'trying too hard' it's practical...

15 Learn to play the guitar.

16 Realise when to stop.

There you are then, fifteen (+1) personal goals for a lifetime. Now I tag Carole, EG and Sam PBC. Run girls, run!

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Will to Power

I have developed a serious and quite debilitating addiction. I know it will run its course and in a little while I'll be free of it but for now it is ruling my life. This happens to me occasionally: I have, in the past, been addicted to – amongst other things - chocolate brownies made by a company called the red house; tables; shoes; Riesling; sunshine; Mossyard beach and going out for cocktails. I often get addicted to a particular author and read everything I can get my hands on written by that person. I also have a tendency to become addicted to certain music or musicians: at the moment I'm a bit partial to the Kings of Leon. But this latest serious addiction is to to the American TV series Heroes. My son has the whole first (and, so far, only) series on his computer and I can't stop watching it. Last night, alone, I watched four episodes. It's great, about a load of disparate people who are discovering that they are different from what might be considered normal: they can do things.

There's the girl who can't be hurt: any injuries heal immediately; the artist who paints the future; the chap who can bend time; a politician who can fly and whose brother can adopt the power of whoever he is with. So when he's with the artist he can paint the future, when he's with his brother he can fly etc. There's also a policeman who can read people's thoughts and a woman who has a lethal alter-ego and is very confused. There is also 'the baddie' who we haven't yet seen properly. He also has super-powers and is going around killing anyone he suspects of having them too. Then there's the chap who might be good, might be bad. It's all so riveting.

The premise of the plot seems to be that we, humans, are entering the next stage of our evolution. With all the evil in the world we need people who have certain skills in order to enable survival of the species. And these people are beginning to discover that they have such skills, but they don't know why yet. Luckily there is a very handsome young Indian professor whose father, a geneticist like him, had a theory. This theory got the father killed and now his son is agonizing over whether daddy was bonkers or right. This is where I've got to so far.

It's quite an interesting premise don't you think? Extrapolating Darwinism out to the world of the comic book. The reason why humans have been so successful is because we are so adaptable. Whatever the conditions we have found ourselves in we have managed to, not only survive, but multiply to the point of being a danger to the rest of the planet. So, running with this one, in order to continue to survive we need to start trying to adapt our way of life into a less competitive and more co-operative one. We need to begin to stop thinking only of ourselves and think of the rest of the world. If we continue to plunder for our own short term goals we will wipe ourselves, and everything else, out.

So, going back to Heroes, could there be a new evolutionary type that has the power needed to take the species to the next stage and could this type be what we might call the super-hero? A type that has the extraordinary power needed to bring the rest of us greedy, selfish bastards into line? Who knows, but it's fun to imagine it especially if one tries to imagine what type of super-power one might have oneself.

So, of course, I have been trying to decide what super-power I might develop if conditions were ripe. Firstly by trying to pin down and identify any talents I might have. Secondly by trying to imagine how they could become enhanced and lastly by asking how such enhanced talents could save the world.

The first thing that came to mind that I certainly seem to have a talent for is procrastination. I mull, turn things over in my mind, analyse, ignore, worry and eventually, when all hope of action has evaporated... act. I'm not sure, though, how this 'talent' could develop any further. Perhaps the process could be speeded up: if I could mull and analyse in the blink of an eye, omitting the ignoring bit, it might become a power that could save the world. Someone who could look at a situation, see it for what it is and then act on it could, I'm sure, be of use. But, it has to be said, the part where I ignore is crucial as this is where my subconscious takes over and the solution, or answer, grows. It is then presented back to my conscious self enabling me to act. So I'm not quite sure about that one as a super-power, however if I mull it over for a while I may be able to draw out its potential.

The second thing I think I'm quite good at is nurturing. This is probably a second nature talent that has developed over years of experience. When I first started I was pretty hopeless at it. I've cooked some disgustingly inedible meals in my time, but now I pretty much turn out something delicious and nutritious every time without much effort or thought at all. I can usually tell if someone, or some other life form, is not quite in the peak of health and do a bit of nursing. I have, for example, nursed two puppies back from the brink of death. I have saved ailing plants and of course brought my son up into a healthy, strong adult. What use might this be in saving the world however?. A few intuitive nurturers might be necessary if all else has failed perhaps.

I'm sure I will continue to ponder this one for a while. Maybe by the end of the series I will have worked out what I might be capable of in the hero department.

But what about you chaps out there in blogland, do any of you have a skill or talent that could help save the world? Or, if you could choose a super-hero talent what would it be and why?

Monday, 28 May 2007

Telling Stories

Sitting beneath my monitor and winking at me is a check from the Association For Scottish Literary Studies. Paid to me for a fifteen minute performance of three stories: my first professional storytelling gig. I don't know whether to frame it or cash it.

My son has just told me that scientists have created a substance that can stop light. It is neither gas nor liquid, but something in between.

When I woke up on Friday morning after running through my stories in my head all night I realised I knew what I had to do: wash my favourite grey t-shirt. It would go with my skinny jeans, my old suede sandals and faithful tweed jacket. That was the outfit nearly sorted. So I put on a wash and mooched around in my dressing gown for most of the day occasionally making an effort to warm up my voice and breathe deeply. I drank gallons of water and ate lunch. Finally I had a shower, properly blow dried my hair and even applied some make-up. I went out to the garden and took my now clean tee from the line, on went the clothes and I was ready to leave.

Driving into Dumfries I did the voice exercises for real and told the stories to the dashboard...

John was a lonely fisherman who lived on the very edge of a small village on the Solway coast in quiet isolation. He lived alone, fished alone, was shunned by the villagers because it was said he was touched by the devil on the day he was born: he had the red mark of the devil down the side of his face. He longed for nothing more than companionship...

I arrived in Dumfries early so stopped at Tesco to get some bottled water as I'd forgotten to bring the tap water I'd meant to. I also got some lavender chocolate as I was there: emergency supplies. Once on campus I took a long draught before walking up to the building. Bracing myself I opened the door, went in and spotted Valentina the lecturer who had organised the proceedings. Paused briefly and went up to her, I didn't quite feel nervous but I am shy so was a little awkward. However she is a very nice woman and was definitely feeling nervous herself. She said she felt like she'd organised a big party and was now waiting for people to arrive: would anyone turn up? She introduced me to the people from the ASLS. After which I found myself in a room full of literary types and the buffet supper. Onto my plate went a tiny stuffed tomato, a mini spring roll and a satayless chicken stick, mmm. I gulped orange juice.

The other performers arrived and we checked out the room: row upon row of seats and a tiny portable stage behind a desk with three chairs arranged at it. There was to be an introductory talk before we were on.

The other performers were Jo Miller a fantastic fiddle player and singer of traditional Scottish folk songs, Cathy Hobcross a traditional ballad singer and Lincum Doddy (apologies to them if I've spelt the name wrong) a group of rather marvellous singers. We organised a programme between us: a round each, a break, another round each. Jo first, then me, Cathy next and finally LD. After the introductory talk, while everyone had gone to top up their glasses, we moved the desk out of the way and brought the stage forward. I got more orange juice. Now we were ready to do our stuff. As Jo was playing and singing I was thinking 'fuck she's good, how can I follow...?' Then I was being introduced and I was up...

It was the time of the great Narwhal hunt. Tuglik was an old woman who lived with her grand-daughter Quajapik. They couldn't hunt and having no man to do it for them they began to get hungry. But Tuglik knew a little magic and one day she uttered an incantation and turned herself into a man. She had a seal bone for a penis and a hunk of mattock for testicles: her vagina became a sledge...

I got up on the stage, my heart in my mouth, introduced my story and began. Everyone sat quietly and listened. I lost my way briefly, began to sweat, got back on track - did anyone notice the glitch? Finished the story then... silence. I was beginning to sink into my chair but then realised that everyone was clapping; one down two to go, but not yet...

During the break I allowed myself a glass of wine and a fag. When I went outside one of my lecturers – an evil smoker too - was also out there and said to me 'well done you, well done you!' and I felt quietly released.

Next round: Jo, first again, had us all singing along, she was just so bloody good, but my nerves had evaporated and when I went up for the last two stories I was much bolder and members of the audience smiled at me as I looked at each one in turn. My last story had everyone in fits at the end and garnered me an enthusiastic round of applause.

...'it was when we were dogs' she said 'but oh! You died a terrible death, terrible...'
'Really! How... what...'
'You ran out into the road, got hit by a car... and oh! Your right shoulder was smashed up, leg over your head and you just lay there bleeding and whimpering. All I could do was stay with you; I barked and howled but nobody came and eventually, as the sun began to sink, you went'

I won't give away the ending, just in case. Though Kim knows it.

So, I'd done it and survived. My first gig as a 'professional' storyteller. How odd! I'd never in a million years have considered the possibility. I just stumbled into a storytelling class to make up my points. This time last year I didn't know such people existed.

Thursday, 24 May 2007

Dress Code

This post comes as a direct result of the comments on my last. I had asked what I should wear on Friday for my first paid storytelling gig. Most people advised me to wear something I was comfortable in and this got me thinking about: a) what I am most comfortable in and b) the whole nature of dress and how we can and do use it.

Virginia Woolf said something about clothes being apparently trivial and yet actually important. I used to think that this related to the time in which she lived: now we are much more sophisticated and such things don't matter so much. Yet, witness the 'hoodie' farrago that has been raging. And the fact that in some provincial night-clubs jeans are still not allowed. This suggest that today, still, clothes are signifiers. Clothes speak to us and it is worth learning the language.

As I have mentioned on numerous occasions I tend to wear the same ancient pair of combat trousers. They have paint on them and the bottom part of the left leg is coming away from the top half. What do they say about me? I'd like to think they say 'here is someone so innately elegant and comfortable in her own skin that she can wear any old tat.' But they might say 'here is someone who is old and has lost interest in her appearance'; 'here is someone who is so poor she can't afford new clothes and she may rob us' or 'here is someone whose tatty clothes match her tatty mind.' Or any number of other bad things. And it is true that ten years ago I would never have worn such scruffy clothes with such regularity. There is an element of not wanting my clothes to be more beautiful than I am, and as I've got older and more, lets say, faded, so have they. But since the interaction generated by that last post I've realised that I do, however, use clothes to get what I want. And that what I am most comfortable in depends on the situation.

I have noticed, for example, that although it's been going out of fashion for years black gets results. And I instinctively wear it to create a 'don't mess with me' aura: last week I had to take my husbands car to the dealer because the roof – which folds down – broke. He thought it should get done under warranty and I knew that if they haggled I would lose and we'd have to pay. So I put on my smartest, knee length black skirt, a black top and heels. And for good measure some black eye-liner. I also took my son for moral support but that's another story. I spoke only to ask for the workshop manager and say, later, 'I haven't a clue' to some mundane question about servicing. They checked the car, explained the problem and it was booked in for this week. No questions asked. To be on the safe side, when I took it in for the work to be done, I wore my smart black trouser-suit again with heels and black eye-liner. And again I didn't have to speak, I just handed over the keys and left. When the car was ready they phoned and I went to pick it up. I walked in, the receptionist immediately took my keys off the shelf and handed them to me even though there were two other customers in front of me. I left without a mention of a bill. I wonder if I had worn my combats and old vest top I would have got the same effortless result. Somehow I doubt it even though I like to think I would.

And that's the problem a lot of people, including me, have: we like to think that clothes shouldn't make a difference so we dress like they don't when the fact is they do. We'd be better off exploiting that fact. Nietzsche said that appearance is everything. I don't quite go that far but am beginning to realise that it does count, and more than just a little.

This doesn't mean one has to be perfectly groomed, made-up and expensively dressed. It just means one will get on better if one's appearance signifies what one wants it to. It's about being in control. I'm always hearing the saying 'dress for the position you want not the one you have' with regards to work but it applies to everything. The difficulty comes, I guess, in understanding what one's clothes say about one. I know smart black makes me look a little intimidating, but that's as far as my knowledge goes. For example I'm still not sure what to wear to the storytelling gig. I definitely don't want to intimidate my audience. I also don't want to look like I've lost my marbles. What I am aiming for is to look approachable, inclusive and honest. Like I fit in to the tradition but am also not afraid to challenge. Really I want to look like a slightly nicer and more confident version of myself. Unfortunately I haven't yet worked out quite who, or what, I am.

I've just realised, though, what those old combats say about me: 'here is a woman trying to deny that clothes are important.' No, actually I think they say 'here is a woman who puts comfort before appearance.' Yes that's better. What do your clothes say about you?