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.