Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Happy New Year

I like to begin each new year in the way I hope it will continue. So today has seen me mopping floors, plumping cushions, painting my nails and refusing the temptation of the remains of my Christmas stocking chocolate orange.

This year was a bit of an up and downer: five deaths of near relatives; redundancy; the comment, "this portfolio was a joy to read," for my first portfolio assessment.

I'm not a planner, but a dreamer, a hoper. I hope that next year Stevie will find his dream job and be cheery again; that Bob will continue to flourish, and that my latest portfolio isn't as bad as I think it is.

And I hope that you all continue to grow into the people that you are.

2009, I suspect, will be much like 2008 only we'll all be a little older and wiser and more able to run with it.

Chin, chin XXXXXXXXX

Monday, 29 December 2008

Where do Poems Come From?

I was given the book Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney by Dennis O'Driscoll for Christmas (no, Mr O'Driscoll didn't give me the book he wrote it). And last night as I was reading it I was given to remember my first school friend Maria. This gave me an idea for a series of poems.

Maria was very pretty and always enviably dressed in floral A-line frocks: crisp as country house napery. She had hair like Nigella Lawson, long limbs, and I wanted to be her. Our friendship didn't last. She soon deserted me for cooler girls. That was the first time I knew what loss was. I remember sitting in the playground and seeing her with her new friends running up to the sports field and wondering what went wrong. But I also remember a sense of inevitability. I wasn't the right sort.

Thirty or so years later I saw Maria again. She was the size of a small farm and I didn't recognise her. I only noticed her because she looked peculiarly happy to see me, then rather pained when I failed to return, with my forced smile, her sentiment. I had to ask my sister, once we were out of earshot, who she was. She didn't know either but later, over supper, we worked it out, and then I felt terrible.

Terrible in a 'serves her right' sort of way it's true.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Shrink to Fit

I have a folio of writing to hand in on the 15th of December. It's not quite ready yet and this week I am working away at it: polishing the syntax, trying to find better words, cutting.

I have four very short stories; a longer short story; two long narrative poems and the first scene of a half hour radio drama. The very short stories are inspired by those American writers sometimes referred to as minimalists. In particular Raymond Carver, Dave Eggers and Amy Hempel. Amy Hempel is a new discovery and has been especially inspirational. Here's one of her stories:


She would always sleep with her husband and with another man in the course of the same day, and then the rest of the day, for whatever was left to her of that day, she would exploit by incanting, "French film, French, film."

This is so short it's like a snippet of conversation overheard. I desperately want more: who is this woman; where does she live; how old is she; does her husband know about this? And that’s just for starters. Though, it’s true, there is something about her that bores me, 'sad cow,' I thought at first, and dismissed her. But something got a hold of me.

I kept going back to this story, and every time I did I got more out of it. I began to fill in the gaps myself. The phrase in parenthesis: 'for whatever was left to her of that day,' along with the word 'exploit' seem to suggest that her days are not her own, she isn't in control of her own life, but she’s trying. She grabs what she can but she’s so wasted that all she can do is chant ‘French film.’ Why French, why not Italian or British? French being italicised, thus emphasised, suggests that the frenchness of the film is important. So I began to think about what makes a French film distinct, and I came up with all number of possibilities. In fact, now I’m thinking about it again, I’m still coming up with them. All Hempel's stories have a similar effect on me: they make me think. By juxtaposing a handful of features that lurk in the shadows of everyday life she invites me to reinterpret the landscape in which I live. And I find this really exciting. Hempel seems to have hit on a way to use fiction to show how precarious, not to mention multifarious, our perspectives are, and in the most egalitarian way. So with my own very short stories (not nearly as short as this) I have tried to do the something similar, and add to the debate. I have tried to provide just enough to get the reader's imagination going. I've done this by juxtaposing two (or more) small blocks of text (as Hempel does too in other stories), almost like the verses in a poem, separating them with a gap, and hoping that the gap, by providing a space for the reader to think, says even more than the prose. Here's an example:


She was oiling the wooden counter. For this she used a viscous hybrid oil that she had to order from Denmark. It was a job she had been attending to, daily at first, now weekly, for almost a year: layer over layer, each one taking twenty four hours to dry, the room rendered unusable. Ensure the area is well ventilated.
She poured it onto the soap clean surface and massaged it in with her bare hands, as if it were a Kobi beef cow. Her fingers pushed and pulled in circular motions until all was even and gleaming.

In half an hour she would remove the excess, as per instructions, with the old silk camisole: once the pride of her underwear drawer.

The idea is that there should be a spark between the two ‘verses,’ a relationship but not a too obvious one. I've recently changed that last sentence from 'the old silk camisole her groom once slipped from her shoulders.' I realised that that narrowed down the possible interpretations. I do have a tendency to place rather heavy sign posts in my work that say 'this is what it's about,' which is incredibly boring of me, and as Jimmy McGovern once said 'I'd rather be confused for ten minutes than bored for five seconds.' This means that the editing process is mostly about cutting stuff out. I have to read my work over and over again to try and ascertain what can, what needs to, be taken out. Though not always.

My longer story, being a different type of thing altogether, needs stuff added. Writing the very short stuff has changed the way I approach fiction writing. My actual thoughts seem to be edited down to the bone. I start off the way I always have: with an image, but now I seem unable to answer my own questions: 'why is she doing that?' 'what's driving her (or him)?' In this case I have an image of a woman out shopping who chooses clothes that she feels make her look like certain film characters. She rejects a dress that looks fabulous on her because it reminds her of her war bride grandmother. I've got myself all tangled up as to why. The back-story is the story, but I can't write it. It's driving me nuts. I either need to strip it right down and leave it up to the reader or I need to explicate. I suppose I could do both and see which works better, but I'm running out of time. Time can be such a bastard. Sometimes lack of it can spur you on, but at other times it can paralyse and that is what it's doing to me at the moment.

The other pieces fit more with the very short stories, are much more about cutting out superfluous material. The two narrative poems both started out as prose pieces. One a story of my own that my tutor suggested turning into a poem and the other an Inuit tales, also at his suggestion. It’s bad enough cutting out my own words, like cutting up favourite dresses that no longer suit the times, but doing it to someone else’s feels truly presumptuous. There’s no way I’d have tried if Tom hadn’t made an explicit request. And if I hadn’t read Christopher Logue’s War Music in which he reworks Homer’s Iliad I don’t think I’d have been able to continue. Logue gave me the added permission that I needed. If someone can mess with Homer, I thought, then perhaps it is OK for me to mess with this. And I’m so glad of this because it was such fun seeing the poem come alive, feeling that I could do it, and although I don’t think it’s perfect yet I am quite pleased with the result. It is now a completely different thing to the original story, in the same way that a film of a novel and the novel itself are quite distinct, the translation – for that is what it is – requires new words and a new approach. Hopefully this brings something to, if not the original itself, the conversation it is part of.

The final piece is the radio drama. This came about because we were asked to write the blurbs for three possible novels and when my tutor read one of mine he said, ‘this is a ten minute radio play!’ So off I went and had a look at the BBC website on how to write a radio play and had a go. I was rather bamboozled by all the stuff on radio drama, for example: ‘Radio is not about sound, it is about significant sound.’ I had no idea what that meant, but gradually by listening to plays on the radio and to what radio dramatists have said, I got into it. Dialogue is that last thing you must think about. First you must imagine the scene and translate it into sound. My scene is the household of a woman, suddenly single with two young children, whose brother, a born again philosophy student, keeps phoning her and quoting odd existentialist phrases. She is confused and has lost control of her life. So the sounds are of pots and pans clanking and boiling over, oven timers going off, the phone ringing, the brother’s voice, and children trying to get her attention. This has been enormous fun to do. I did, of course, begin with the dialogue but the more I thought about the other sounds the more I was able to cut from the chat. It’s now about fifty-fifty stage directions and dialogue. I’ve still only written the first scene but I have bits of the next one on index cards and hope to get time to do more over Christmas.

So that’s my third folio nearly completed. Next semester will be totally different, more of which later.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Bogged Down in the Writing Process

I've been watching Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe (series 4, episode 3) over and over again on BBC iPlayer. In this episode he interviews a number of screen writers about their art. It's a joy. I love hearing writers talk about their process, their ideas, and the obstacles they have to overcome. I love reading about it too and have several books on my shelves of writer's interviews. It's the nearest thing I get to staff room chat.

The great thing about this show was the variety of answers given to the same questions by the various interviewees, in an easily digestible chunk of time. Just like a lunch break with colleagues. I could identify with pretty much all of them at some stage. So, as they are all doing well, I felt kind of vindicated. For example Graham Linehan (who wrote the first series of Black Books, and Father Ted amongst other things) made me feel much better about my tendency to procrastinate: he procrastinates a lot he said, partly due to fear, 'but also it's partly feeding the subconscious,' and you can't write if your subconscious is empty. He likened writing to 'having a poo, you can't go if you don't want to.' You have to feed your subconscious until you just have to write. People falter because they start too soon. Thus he put into words what I have always felt but stumbled at explaining, feeling a fool and a lazy one to boot. I love that man! Even though I have read other writers who have said exactly the same thing – in non bodily function terms – it's something that I seem to need to have constantly reiterated.

This might be because some other writers say things like, 'if you want to be a writer you have to write, just write.' Which can make me anxious when I'm not actually writing. When I have a deadline, and instead of just getting on with it I find myself looking at Topshop on line and wondering if that lovely green silk dress would be over the top for Christmas lunch, or my thighs are slim enough for those skinny leather jeans, there is always a whining voice telling me just how much I am not writing. Especially as I can't even afford to buy anything, even from Topshop, so there's no reason to be looking. I know I am doing it just to avoid doing the thing I profess to want to do most of all. And this notion, that all you have to do is write to be a writer: as though it's easy, simple, as though writers are creatures who only write; that they just have things to write about, asserted as it often is by established writers can be rather debilitating. Like having tiny amounts of noxious fumes pumped into your room. And it's not just them, well meaning friends and family do it too:
'How are you getting on with your work?'
'Well how much have you still got left to do?'
'Come on Eryl, just write!'
From now on I'll answer: 'you can't force out a poo if you don't need to go.'

There were also interviews with: Russell T Davies (Dr Who), Paul Abbot (can't remember what he wrote but it was a lot, and he must be doing well because he now employs people to force him to sit down and write!), Tony Jordan (Eastenders and lots of other stuff), and Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain who work together, at what I can't remember but again it was a lot. Because I don't have a TV I don't know any of these people's work – except Black Books which I watched by other means and loved – but I didn't find that an obstacle at all, they all clearly knew what they were talking about. They all have the same love/hate relationship with writing that I have, and I feel I have learnt tonnes from hearing and seeing them. Russell T Davies and Graham Linehan glowed as they talked, you don't get that from reading books.

So if you haven't seen it, and you are interested in the writing process, grab it while you can it won't be there for much longer. I'm going to watch it again just one more time, now.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Being Barbara

Last week Bob brought home this

(he's working at a country pursuits place)

so I had to do this

and more: I wore rubber gloves to pull its guts out; I haven't been fully assimilated into country life yet.

On Saturday I turned it into our Chinese restaurant favourite: Crispy Duck with Hoisin sauce and pancakes. The easiest recipe imaginable: put your duck into a medium-low oven for four hours, turn up the heat to high for the last half hour, take it out and eat. I meant to take a photograph of the finished dish, but it was a pile of bones before I remembered.

Does anyone know how to deflesh and brain the head without damaging it, I want to turn it into a trophy skull?

I have a portfolio to hand in on the fifteenth. After that I'm hoping to get back to normal blogging practise (Conan, have I spelt practise right here, I can't quite get my head around when it needs a 'c' and when it needs an 's', you're good at this stuff, perhaps you can explain it to me), so hopefully I'll catch up with you all soon. For now I'm stripping my poetry down to the bones and fattening up my prose.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Let me count the ways

2am Friday 14th November (an email from me to my best friend)
'I can't come tomorrow (today!). I'm so sorry, really I am. I really meant to let you know earlier. I really, really did, I was going to phone, I really was.'

7.55am Friday 14th November (her reply)
'You never need to apologise to me. I only wish I could give you a big hug.'

Wednesday, 12 November 2008


I am currently marking essays. Good god, what a job. I haven't come up for air for a week. I can't believe that those marvellous Americans have elected a new leader of the western world and I haven't even managed to pass comment on it. My husband has managed to secure some freelance work and all I've been able to say is 'that's nice dear' before getting back to writing in pencil on some poor first year's effort 'you must support your claim' or 'how does this connect to your argument?' and, thankfully, sometimes 'good point!'

I had no idea how difficult marking essays would be. It involves trying to assess to what degree the student answers the question. This is nowhere near as easy as it sounds; I've had to read and reread every single one and some are clearer than others. Some you really have to put in a bit of effort to extract their argument, these are first essays after all, and you really don't want to demoralise anyone. Is demoralise the right word here, cripes words are beginning to look and sound terribly alien? And do you know how much it pays, this essay marking malarkey? Two pounds and five pence a piece. I've had twelve to do and it's taken me over a week. Some have taken longer than others but on average it probably takes about two hours an essay. Giving useful, positive feedback is the hardest thing: I have to be able to support my claim. It's been like sitting the worlds most arduous exam. I've even pulled a muscle in my upper right thigh from sitting down too much. There are good things about it though, and I'm glad I'm doing it. Most of my students have managed some moments of brilliant insight and one or two of their essays have been a joy to read. I hope my comments have made that clear and they'll all feel uplifted when they get the essays back in tomorrow's class. I also hope they'll challenge me if they feel I've misunderstood them. After all I'm not the goddess of academic writing. If I get a moment I'll let you know how it went, once it's been that is.

Now I have to write a CV and a covering letter for that job I mentioned. Will I ever get time to write fiction and poetry again?

Anyway, well done America, and I'll be over to visit all my American (and other) cyber pals as soon as I can .

Sunday, 2 November 2008


This seems to be a time of bad news. Unemployment is rising. People are losing their homes and all they have worked for. My husband has been officially unemployed for a month now. It's the first time we've been in this position for years. But after umpteen interviews, one by one, companies have got back to him to say all recruitment has been suspended for the time being. Some say they will reassess in the new year, others can't even bring themselves to be that positive. The industry magazine that is usually bursting with advertisements for positions arrived through the post the other day ghostly in its thinness. There was the odd ad for consultants in Dubai but bugger all else. It's time to look out the old bradawl I picked up in a flea market for the beauty of its handle. Yes, the news is bad and we're getting used to hearing it.

Without an income we risk, like so many others, losing everything we've worked for: our house, our cars, and for me most worrying of all my post graduate degree. I could live in a council house and take the bus. I've been poor before. I grew up with six of us in a two bed terrace in industrial Kent. We had no heating, we just had to put on an extra jumper and wear thick socks when it was cold. After my father died (when I was thirteen, the oldest of four) my mother worked as a hospital cleaner. Every evening she would come home from work and cook supper from cheap cuts of meat and seasonal vegetables. I didn't have time for homework I was too busy looking after my siblings and watching my mother for signs of breakdown. I went to a school where you got the shit kicked out of you if you showed even the slightest inclination to do well, anyway. So I left school with one CSE (a long since defunct qualification in which, it was joked, you only had to spell your name correctly on the exam paper to pass) in English. My first job was as a checkout operator in a supermarket.

So I can be frugal with loo paper, I can do menial work, and I can make a chicken feed all three of us for a week. But I will struggle if I have to give up my course. It's taken me years to get to this stage. Twenty years ago I wouldn't even have thought it possible. Thirty years ago I thought people who went to university were freaks. Really. They were a different breed. They talked about theories and used words like paradigm, they wore old people clothes, they didn't seem able to do anything. I had a friend whose parents had gone to university and they were really nice, but I thought they were exceptional. Her sister was an artist who had gone to art school in London and she was, quite frankly, scary. But as I got older, and wiggled out of the confines of the world I'd grown up in, my view point changed. Stevie, when I met, him was doing his A Levels and planned to go to university. His mother was a teacher. Through his family I was introduced to several members of the 'breed' and they were all nice, even if they did use odd words and wear unflattering clothes. I still thought they were different to me, that they were born different, and merely entertaining thoughts that they were not would have been akin to heresy. Stevie didn't get the grades he needed, so got a job. I thought nothing of it, he was like me after all, and we got married. But his younger sister did well and went off to read English. So the boundaries blurred.

Then, when Bob went to school, I found myself on a Woman Returners course in Paisley. We were broke, I needed to get a job, but jobs were hard to come by, especially if you had been a housewife and mother for years. The course was great, full of women just like me. I had the self esteem of a rotting potato, having done nothing but follow Stevie from career move to career move. We moved so often that I never got the chance to make friends (twice in one year wasn't unusual). He worked so hard I never saw him. My only company was a five year old and now he had been seized by the education system and had made friends his own age. So meeting a bunch of women who were in a similar position was like coming into the air after being locked in a coal bunker for years. They were even meeker that I was. Some had spent thirty years looking after others with no thought for themselves. Hearing some of their stories, of utter servitude to parents, children, and, often bullying, men had me spitting bile. And then watching them, with the help of two patient caring tutors, as they grew in confidence and learned to assert themselves was a joy. They all got jobs at the end of the course, even though the country was in the grip of a recession. But the thing that made the biggest change to me was the aptitude tests.

I'd always thought I had nothing more to offer than good dress sense and nice hair. I dreaded the day of the tests. This was when all my worst fears were going to be confirmed: I had already found my place, and should be grateful. I almost didn't go. I still don't know why I did. The tests were explained for a good half hour before we started, and they were to take the rest of the day. I can't remember what they all were now, there was verbal reasoning, maths (which I failed dismally), and other things to do with pattern recognition and the like. I went home that evening feeling very flat, and quite exhausted. In two weeks time a woman from Dundee university was going to come and interview us all about our results. Oh god. I can't tell you how long it took me to decide what to wear for that meeting. I don't think I slept for a week beforehand. I got to the centre late and in a flap, that's one of the main problems with relying on buses, but the tutors only smiled at me and made me a cup of tea. When I had drunk it they told me I could go in and pointed to the office door: 'don't worry!' they said in unison, seeing the look on my face. So I stood up as straight as I could and knocked.

Sitting in the office was a pretty young woman in a floral dress. She smiled and beckoned me to sit down beside her:
'What's your degree in?' she asked me.'
'Your degree, what's it in?'
'Um...' my head was a buzz, what on earth was she talking about, degree?
'You did go to university?'
'Oh! no.'
'You didn't go to university?'
'No, I didn't go to university.' I thought she was confused.
'Well you really ought to consider going now.' She was smiling but she didn't seem to be joking.
'I don't... I don't, um... OK.' I said to keep her calm.

She went over my test results, I can't remember what they were, didn't actually quite understand them: she talked about things like percentiles. But the gist was I did jolly well in everything except maths, and she thought I had a mental block with that, probably due to unfemale friendly teaching. She recommended that I go and enroll on a maths evening class and then apply to university.

We moved shortly after that and it was another four years before I got the opportunity to go to evening class. I didn't do maths though, I wanted to see if she was right, that I wasn't an idiot, so I chose English A Level. When I passed that I then enrolled for maths (as well as history, law, and french) the next year. I had to get a private tutor to help me with the maths and I still only got a 'c', but I did well in all the other subjects. Then I applied to university to read law and got in. And then, just as I was finishing my first year, we moved again. It was another seven years before I got a chance to try again. And now I am here: my primary degree bagged, and half way though my masters. If only I had opted to do it full time instead of part, I would have it by now. But I chose the route of luxury. Two whole years of tutoring instead of one. Two years of having my writing looked at through a microscope. Two years of constant feedback and evaluation. It seemed economically sensible too. Two years to pay the course costs rather than trying to pay them in one. But perhaps I am a fool after all. Because now we don't have the money to pay the fees and it doesn't look like we'll get it any time soon. The university have given me till the end of this month to pay the first installment of just over six hundred quid. That could probably feed us, will probably have to feed us, for three months. But all is not yet lost.

Yesterday I got a letter from the Crichton Foundation. They are a charitable body whose aim is to encourage education in this region. The letter told me I have been awarded a bursary of five hundred pounds for academic excellence. The money is meant to allow me to concentrate on my studies, buy extra books, travel to places that would help me with my work, now it will go towards the first installment of my tuition fees. So it may just have provided me with a lifeline until a job comes along.

Also, as luck would have it, a job I would definitely have applied if I'd already got this degree has come up locally. It's in the arts, in fact it's all about promoting literature in the region. I have asked a few people I know who work in the arts if they think I could do it and they have all said they see no reason why not, and given me lots of tips. So I will apply. It's a full time position, which means I will have to be very organised in order to do it properly, and continue with my studies. I expect the house will get very dirty. But, if I am actually deserving of the bursary, that is if I am academically excellent, and haven't just managed to fool people, I should be able to pull it off. It feels like it's worth trying. And worrying isn't helping my writing at all, I spend far too much time staring at nothing at the moment; then chastising myself for not having achieved a damn thing.

Another piece of good news, before I stop wittering, is that the man came to fix the roof yesterday (yes, the man), so hopefully it won't rain inside the house any more. And the bathroom ceiling hasn't fallen in yet, so with luck it now won't.

So, although in terms of great strides the news seems bad all the time, when it comes to small ones it ain't necessarily so. It's unlikely that we will be able to turn the heating up, or order pizza when I'm too tired to cook, or buy new books, for a while. We may lose our house. I may never be able to buy Eve Lom face wash again. But some of the hard work we've done over the years has given us more than any of those things, and that still seems to be paying off incrementally. There is still good news, we just need to know where to look for it.

Friday, 31 October 2008


I forgot to get a pumpkin. So I'm hoping this

will keep those witches away.

Now I'm going to settle down with Cormac McCarthy's The Road. It made my tutor cry, so I'm rather looking forward to it.

Sunday, 26 October 2008


Late yesterday afternoon I found myself being driven, by my husband, in heavy rain through the wilds of Dumfries and Galloway: the car skidding off puddles, spray from lorries obscuring the road, dark coming on. We got stuck behind a particularly cautious driver for some miles, overtaking not being an option in such conditions. Sensing Stevie's frustration, worrying slightly about the work I should probably be doing, and not knowing quite what I was letting myself in for, I wondered if we should turn back. But something made me keep these thoughts to myself, and so we found ourselves standing in the rain, hats pulled down, collars up, ringing the bell of an only faintly familiar front door.

And then the door opened, and there in the amber light of a hall bursting with coats and scarves was the smiling face of our host. As we were welcomed in, and our coats taken, delicious smells coming from the kitchen had me trying to peer round the door for a look while at the same time trying not to appear nosy. Thankfully we were ushered downstairs to the sitting room. As we descended we saw big squashy sofas and chairs, a wood burning stove glowing in the hearth, tea-lights in glass holders on just about every flat surface and, crucially, other guests.

Before we knew it we were helping ourselves to drinks and nibbles, and chatting happily away to people who had been total strangers five minutes earlier. The room filled up. I didn't once feel like I didn't belong. Children started to clamber among us. Then it was announced that dinner was ready and we all went upstairs to find a table groaning under the weight of umpteen tempting looking dishes: roasted vegetables, pumpkin soup, salads, chillie, roast spuds. Stevie piled his plate high while I, wanting to try everything, took a little of each. Sitting by the fire I ate the best rice salad I've ever had, and joined in a conversation about the merits of living in the region: beautiful countryside, friendly inhabitants, proximity to the coast. And the downsides: dearth of public transport, rubbish shopping, miles from 'civilisation.' Stevie went for another plateful and I, for a second, thought of asking him to bring me some more rice salad and another spud, but decided to save myself for cake. This was, after all, the home of a budding master baker. How glad was I of that, uncharacteristic, moment of self control fifteen minutes later?

A surprise was announced, happy birthday was sung, and there on the table was a display to make Laduree weep with envy: chocolate cake, Smartie cake, Rocky Road, several cheesecakes, a cream topped pie. It took me some time to compose myself enough to make a decision. I chose chocolate cake and, just to be on the safe side, a hunk of Rocky Road: mmm... There was crunch; there was meltiness; there was moist, dense but light, sponge, and there was intense, almost musky, chocolate depth. After which a visit to the rain soaked pavement for a fag seemed in order.

When I got back inside instruments were being tuned: a fiddle, a guitar, a salt-tree? a bouzouki, and more. I'd never seen a salt-tree before, never heard the name: 'What's it called?' I asked, hoping for clarification.
'A salt-tree' the owner of the strange triangle of wood with strings said, 'with a P.'
Right then. I didn't like to ask where the P went, everyone else seemed to understand. She explained its Medieval origins and its Elizabethan relaunch, then touched the strings with the bow and out came an eerily compelling sound. The sort of sound that leads you to fairy grottoes. I'd heard a bouzouki but not been in the same room as one, and had never associated them with Irish music. But there in the heart of south west Scotland I was transported to mythical rural Ireland, then Elizabethan England, Greece, Morocco, not to mention Glasgow and modern Dublin. All by music played right in front of my eyes, as our hosts' little girl snuggled up beside me on the couch, sucked her thumb, and stroked my hair. Conversation buzzed between songs, about the music itself, the instruments, the passion of those who play while holding down jobs and raising families. It was great to see a group of people communicating through music, and doing something they clearly love doing just for the sake of doing it.

As the children began to fade parents readied themselves to leave. Instruments got packed into cases, coats and hats were donned, and people began to trickle out. We left just after ten with a bagful of cakes and scones. On the way home the rain continued to bombard the road, but we were so busy talking about what a great time we'd had we hardly noticed when the car jerked as it hit a body of water.

That was the birthday party of Kim, bearded rambler, bouzouki player, storyteller, philosopher, father, husband, and genial host. And he thinks he hasn't found the answer to life.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Imagined Present

Saturday's a good day. When I was younger Saturday was a day of recovering from Friday and preparing for the night ahead. These days Saturday is my mini-break day; the day I try not to work, but relax instead. I don't always manage it, and today I have a long, narrative poem to finish for Monday, so I know I will work tonight. But for now I am managing to attain that Saturday feel, and this morning I realised I have a new Saturday habit. A kind of add-on habit that enhances the Saturday feel.

For some time my way of relaxing rather than working has been to read every word of the Guardian Review. I love the Guardian Review, and it takes me pretty much the whole day - sometimes part of Sunday too - to read it. Even though it is all about reading, writing and the arts it doesn't feel like it has anything to do with my work while I am reading it - later my work benefits though. It feels like a hobby. No, it feels like escapism. It feels like a portal into the world of real writers. When I read the Guardian Review I feel like I belong in that world. And this feeling is greatly enhanced by the new add-on: a latte from the cafe in the high street.

I love a latte. I love the size, the heat, the creaminess that balances the intensity of the strong double espresso at its base. There's something urbane about a latte which, combined with Saturday, and the Guardian Review, makes being a provincial housewife less, well, provincial feeling. The fact that I can get them here in beyond-provincial-town is of no consequence, because when I am reading, Styrofoam cup in hand, I could be anywhere. And today, because Stevie is away sorting out his mother's house I had to go out and get them myself. I nearly didn't bother, I'm that lazy. But I'm so glad I did because the sun was shining, and when I returned to my room with my booty it looked like this:

which for some reason made me feel like I was in Paris.

So, later, after my frugal supper of lentil soup, when I am slaving over line breaks and punctuation, I will, in my mind, be a real writer.

Friday, 10 October 2008

The Drama in My Head

Today I have been head down trying to imagine my play in terms of sound only. Trying to translate all the visual images I have about my character's life and actions into noises, if I can put it that way. So, I'm thinking music, pots bubbling, the phone ringing, a child interrupting, and about the distance from the mic these sounds need to be, to show my character's feeling of powerlessness over her life as it is at this moment. I was sitting in silence and imagining sounds, closing my eyes to sights. Then I needed a pee...

Can you imagine the sound this

engendered when I brushed up against it on the way to the loo?

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

To Do

Do you ever feel you've bitten off more than you can chew? At the moment I have to:

1) Prepare the answers for questions I will be asked later today for a promotional DVD for the campus.

2) Ready myself to engage with a visiting writer, also today.

3) Write the blurb, plot outline, and first chapter of a novel.

4) Write a radio play for which I inadvertently wrote a blurb

5) Write a narrative poem

6) Check out Ghazals and try writing some

7) Work up four short stories

8) Write a prose poem a day

9) Write two more blurbs and plot outlines for novels.

10) Organise a series of classes to combine philosophy and creative writing in two primary schools in order to teach them next semester.

11) Prepare my next lesson for Wednesday.

12) Read, read, read.

13) Cook supper and deal with the debris of eating and general living, for three adults, every day.

All this and I also have my Nietzsche book to finish. Will I manage to hold on to my sanity this year?

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Just Call Me Miss

Tomorrow I have my first class as a university seminar teacher. I am being trusted to get twelve first year undergraduates through the first of the four core courses they need to pass in order to get their degrees. I will have to teach them how to write academic essays, how texts can manipulate them, how to decipher the coded messages we all receive every day. From me they will have to learn how to learn at university level: how to make the most of lectures, summarise the books they read, and form coherent arguments of their own. Not all of them will be doing this in their first language because some of them are overseas students. How I feel sorry for them all. But I need the job.

Meanwhile, I am still a student myself and just getting to grips with being back in the throws of work after a decidedly non-working summer. And I seem to have forgotten how to write. I still haven't mastered poetry and my prose, which once was good, is an abomination. I can feel my grades slipping.

The half bottle of wine I've just drunk probably isn't helping; is it just me or is it awfully warm in here?

Monday, 22 September 2008

Kicking Against the Pricks

It's back to school for me today. The first day of the autumn term, and I am so looking forward to it. I haven't quite done the full prep, not given my colleague's stories, emailed to me a couple of weeks ago, the attention they deserve, so I'm going to have to wing it a little. It's a Monday morning, I woke up before my alarm went off, and Stevie wasn't (and still isn't here) here (he's gone to Glasgow for an interview). It feels so normal.

I still don't know how I'm going to pay my fees, but I'll keep attending until they escort me out the building. Then I'll put it in my book, which, having been abandoned over the summer, is beginning to come back to me.

And if I wanted a reason to stop feeling sorry for myself and bloody get on with it I found one here. Now I really know I have nothing to complain about. Jane is a friend of mine so I knew something of what she'd been through, and what she is going through now. But fucking hell, read this. If I end up living in a council house on benefits all I'll need to do is think of Jane to know how easy I've got it.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

An Angel At My Table

Twenty three years ago, on this very day (7th September), I woke up at about eight o'clock in a warm wet bed. It took me a moment or two to get over my disgust and realise what was happening, after all it wasn't supposed to happen for another fortnight. I got up, stripped the bed and phoned Stevie's office, he hadn't yet arrived, so I spoke to his boss. I then had a bath and phoned the hospital. It was beginning to hurt. But it was worth it (and the agony that was yet to come) because at five to three that afternoon Bob gasped his way into the open air all fingers and toes accounted for.

After living together for five years, Stevie and I had married on the 18th of August the previous year with the express intention of having a child. Being a bit of a 'by the book' sort, I had come off the pill six month earlier. I hoped to get pregnant on my wedding night. That wasn't to be, it took five months. Five months! It seemed like an age. By the time that little card stick turned blue I was convinced I was infertile. But no, so we went out and celebrated with champagne. Only one glass for me and no more for another nineteen months, until I'd stopped breast-feeding. That was worth it too, because although motherhood hasn't always been easy - to immunise or not? shouldn't he be home from school by now? Oh my god, what have you done to your hair? - it is by far and away the best thing I have ever done. So today we celebrate.

Like my mother, I express my love with actions rather than words. And, also like her, I believe the best way to show someone you love them, that you are thrilled by the fact that they exist, is to give them what they need to continue to exist: food. When it comes to my family food is my poetry. I have spent a great deal of my life labouring to perfect my skills as a cook. At first I struggled badly, although I followed recipes to a t they rarely came out looking like the picture in the book. Things usually tasted ok but I worried about whether they tasted as they were supposed to and suspected they didn't. If I hadn't had people to feed I would probably have given up, but I did, so I didn't. I cooked, from scratch, every day, and slowly got better at it. I began to understand how ingredients reacted, to each other, and temperature. I listened acutely to the reactions of Stevie and Bob, and those I considered more expert than me, to try to discern what worked for them, and at some point began to experiment, usually substituting what I had for what I couldn't be bothered to go out and buy. When I bought Nigella Lawson's first book, How To Eat, in the late nineties I realised for the first time that I no longer needed pictures to show me what a dish was supposed to look like. It had only taken me about twenty years to get to that stage. Now I only use other peoples recipes as templates, and I don't think I've made anything inedible or unappetising this millennium.

The cook gets a breakfast break.

We have developed a birthday meal tradition over the last twenty odd years: big breakfast with something fizzy to wash it down, no lunch, a favourite of the celebratee for supper with cake for pudding. Today I did pancakes with bacon and maple syrup for breakfast, Bob didn't want wine so we had that with supper instead. Which was Patatas Bravas (my version includes Chorizo sausage, as I once ate it in the south of France) with salad, followed by Bob's favourite NYLON cheesecake. As it's now way past my bed time I'm too tired to give recipes.

Friday, 5 September 2008

The Fall

I (we, really) got back on Sunday night. The funeral on Friday had gone well: odd things funerals, they're sad, beautiful, and cheery - due to seeing and chatting to people you haven't seen for a while - all at once. You can be laughing one minute and teary the next. But one thing they do is allow you to let go and move on. So on Monday I was hoping to get back to happier things. I began to clean the house and work out a menu for the week, and generally to get things back in order so that I could begin to work again and ready myself for the new term. Then I got a phone call from Stevie to say he was on his way home as he and the company he worked for had 'parted company'.

He worked in recruitment in the banking and finance sector. It seems the economy as it heads for the bottom of the abyss has decided to take us with it. I feel like I'm in an Anglo Saxon poem, death and destruction is all around me. I am the lamenting wife.

So the last few days have seen me trying to make sense of this new phase. How to ensure we can put food on the table in the long run, if no new job comes along? How to keep those many bills up to date? My course fees are due on Monday, am I being selfish in wanting to continue my degree? As a part-time, post-grad student there doesn't seem to be any help out there. There's plenty of help for undergraduates, they are seen as potential workers, but for a middle-aged, would be writer there is nothing, I'm on my own. I know I can't complain, a Master of Letters in creative writing is a luxury. But I was hoping it would lead me into teaching as well as writing. I have no plans to lock myself permanently away in a boat-house on a loch and write my great work. I hoped the degree would enable me to become a functioning member of society too.

Not that I think those who do lock themselves away and write - or paint, solve equations, or examine the sex life of gnats - aren't contributing to society. They absolutely are. I just don't think I'm one of them, much as I fantasise. I'm too tangled up with other people to take myself off into hiding. If I lived in a croft up a mountain, who would eat my chocolate and rum Panna Cotta?

100g dark chocolate
125ml double cream
140ml full fat milk
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
2 tablespoons rum
6 leaves of gelatin
a little sugar to your taste

Soak the gelatin in cold water until it swells. Meanwhile bring the cream, milk, vanilla and sugar to the boil in a saucepan. Add the chocolate, stirring until it melts and becomes one with the milk/cream/sugar mix. Turn off the heat. Squeeze the excess water out of the gelatin and add it to the pan of chocolate sauce. Stir till incorporated. Add the rum. Pour into moulds or, as I did, tea-cups. It will stretch to six dariole moulds should you wish. Leave to cool, then put in the fridge to set for a couple of hours. Unmould, or not. Eat and forget your troubles, if only for a while. I have to confess that, not having a recipe to hand, I made this with a whole carton of double cream and just a little milk and it came out more like jellied creme brulee. Having, now, looked at a Panna Cotta recipe I have revised the quantities here. It should come out more wobbly and less dense. I enjoyed the denseness myself, even though it was wobbliness I was looking for.

Tonight I'm going to try lavender Panna Cotta. My sister-in-law assures me that it's delicious and I have lavender sugar in my larder made with my own grown flowers. And this time I will use moulds and turn them out. I'll let you know how it goes. When times are tough I cook. Until the food runs out that is.

Monday, 25 August 2008

Dirge Without Music

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving
hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out
of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely.
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains, - but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the
laughter, the love, -
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses.
Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I
do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the
roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

Edna St Vincent Millay (1892-1950)

Last Thursday (21st August), at 5.50am my mother-in-law stopped breathing in her hospital bed. Her daughter, nodding off beside her in the piss-proof chair started at the silence, and went to call the nurse. Ten minutes later I awoke to the sound of the telephone and a tear-stained voice. Then I had to tell my husband his mother was dead. Then I had to phone his brother and tell him. Then we had to tell our son the last of his grandparents was gone. Then we had to throw on the clothes we'd taken off only two hours before and go back to the hospital.

She was only 72. A cancer that had been removed seven years ago had reappeared in a different place and, this time, it was discovered too late. Bob and I had panicked on Tuesday evening and called an ambulance. The houseman on duty in A&E had told us to call the rest of the family and thus begun our bedside vigil.

Now, we are home for a couple of days, and then it's back in the car on Wednesday for the funeral on Friday.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Due to family ill health I'm going to be away for a while, not sure how long, it depends on a number of factors. We'll need to form a working plan based on a medical trajectory. Until then as Bob and I are the only ones who are in a position to drop everything and go, that's what we're doing.

We'll be taking an old lap-top with us so I will still be able to check in on your blogs, but it's doubtful that I'll be posting. I'm one of those people who can't walk and chew gum at the same time. Not when the gum is an enormous great gob-stopper at least.

Monday, 11 August 2008

Teach Yourself Latin

We love a bit of pesto in our house. That glistening green sauce of basil plopped and stirred into pasta. It's the taste of summer. I hate, hate, hate the jar stuff though, it tastes, and looks, as if you've scraped the mould off a cellar wall and added cheese. No, it has to be fresh and the freshest comes from making your own. It is eminently easy to buy decent fresh pesto in most supermarkets these days for not very much at all, but I like to make my own at least once every summer, it makes me feel like I belong in a Dolce and Gabbana advertisement.

So, every summer I attempt to grow enough basil specially to make it. Last year, because the weather was appalling my crop failed. This year because the weather is appalling still, I've grown it on the bathroom windowsill in an old apple crate. Bringing the crate into the house resulted in me getting a scar on my nose, so I was horrified to find when I got back from a trip to visit my mother-in-law that my plants were covered in whitefly. I'd foolishly left the window open a smidge to keep the air fresh. So the last few weeks have had me frantically spraying with a mild solution of fairy liquid in the hope of saving my dream, to little effect. Having failed to get rid of the blasted sticky mites I decided that today I would have to crop a little early and make the sauce before my efforts were reduced to limp nothings.

What a ghastly job it proved to be. Fishing for enough firm shiny leaves amongst the goo to get a decent amount. But I managed it thank goodness. A scarred nose and no pesto for the second year running would have sent me over the edge.

I use the recipe from Anna Del Conte's book The Gastronomy of Italy, but because I can't easily get peccorino cheese I use all parmesan. It's not quite as good, and certainly not as authentic but it's still better than supermarket sauce. I also toast the pine nuts in a dry frying pan rather than on a tray in the oven. This because using the oven, in these days of energy efficiency, seems ridiculously extravagant. The result is the same, you just have to be a bit more careful not to burn them. Also, I make it in a food processor but if you feel that using machines is an inauthentic step too far you can bash it all to a paste in a mortar with a pestle. And there is something to be said for doing it that way. You probably use up more calories making the sauce than you get from eating it, for one.

If you have any basil and would like to make pesto easily and deliciously, here is my augmented recipe:

20g of pine nuts
50g of fresh basil leaves, the bigger and glossier the better
1 clove of garlic, peeled
a pinch of sea salt
6 tablesoons freshly grated parmesan cheese (or 4 + 2 of grated pecorino if you don't live in a food desert like me)
120ml mild extra virgin olive oil.

For the full on Italian dream experience ensure you are barefoot and wearing a tight fitting, floral tea dress, and flicky eye-liner. Toast the pine nuts in a dry frying pan over a medium heat until they are speckled with brown. It will only take a few minutes, so don't be tempted to abandon them. Put the basil, garlic, pine nuts and salt in a food processor or blender and whiz to a paste. Once you have your paste, transfer it to your most Italian looking bowl, add the grated cheese stirring it all together, then add the oil in a trickle as you beat it with a wooden spoon. To eat it just add a tablespoon or so to a bowl of hot pasta or gnocchi. This should easily serve four. I rather like it spread thickly on toasted sourdough bread and topped with tomatoes too, so as usual I made double the quantity.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008


This picture comes courtesy of The Sartorialist (not that I actually asked him if I could use it, I'll ask now: 'can I please Mr S.?').

I said I would explain why tank-tops, Fair Isle ones in particular, are cool. Now, of course, I find myself struggling to do so. Not because I've changed my mind, but because what someone finds themselves attracted to isn't subject to reason, logic, or any kind of rational explanation. I am just attracted to Fair Isle tank-tops, in the same way I am attracted to brown leather, sea-side towns that have seen better days, and coloured string.

When I see someone wearing one I immediately invest them with all number of traits they may very well not have: artistic, intellectual, maverick. I think they probably enjoy solitude, wide open spaces, beach-huts, and beer. That they are the sort who only speak when they have something to say, rather than because they want to say something. That they are strong individuals and not part of the herd. How often do you see an adult male in a Fair Isle tank-top? Exactly! I instinctively take them to be the sort I could have an easy conversation with, and that they will be interested in, at least some of, the same things I am.

Fair Isle makes me think of hills, of coming in from a long walk to a warm fire and tea and scones. Of staying at the beach after the sun has cooled to scramble about in rock pools. Of ice-cream sundaes; best china; cake stands with glass domes; camping; unusual punctuation; Dylan Thomas (who knows why); poetry; mixing-bowls; duck-egg blue.

Tank-tops are a little less cosy than jumpers. The arms are kept free for ease of movement. They speak of cool summers rather than cold winters, of getting out and about rather than hunkering down. And they can be worn under a jacket without giving you bulky (never attractive) arms.

This may very well be because I was brain-washed in 1974. Or it may have something to do with when I was nineteen my (then to be) mother-in-law went to the trouble of measuring my tee-shirts in order to knit me a Fair Isle tank-top for the first Christmas I ever spent with my husband's family. And my sister-in-law who, having helped with the subterfuge, was at first envious and then delighted to get one too. We wore them proudly for our Boxing day walk. And I, having been somewhat nervous of the whole event, was made to feel part of the family that I have loved ever since.

All I know is this: I would always give a person in a Fair Isle tank-top the time of day, no matter what the rest of them looked like, and I don't think I'm the only one. When Boden did them a few years ago I promptly ordered one for myself. The first time I washed it - in the machine, defying hand-wash only instructions - it shrunk to the size of a bee, so I went back to the site to order another and they had sold out never to get them back again.

In this day of mass-manufacture, designer labels and tee-shirts that say such ghastly things as 'Real Man' across the chest - 'Really!' I want to yell, 'who fucking says?' - a Fair Isle tank suggests hand crafting and time taken. I know it's a bit like a label that says size four in the jeans of a woman who knows she is really a ten. Or opening a tin of 'home made' soup. Or even, as I saw the other day, a faux-leather handbag that costs as much as a real leather one. But, as I said, it's all based on feelings that however much I try I can't really justify. A bit like preferring the poetry of Ted Hughes to Keats (check), the paintings of Ben Nicholson to Constable (check) or chocolate cake to curry (check).

If I were to find myself sitting in a cafe eating chocolate torte with Nicholson's paintings on the wall, a book of Ted Hughes' collected on my lap, and looked up to see my husband coming towards me wearing a Fair Isle tank top and cords, that would be a good day.

Friday, 1 August 2008

Getting a Slice of the Pie

I am a potterer and one of the places I like pottering about the most is the kitchen. Since I got back from my mother-in-law's I've been reorientating myself with kitchen activity. It's probably the equivalent for me of a dog sniffing and peeing in his territory. First I tidied and smoothed and made sure everything was in it's proper place. Then I sharpened all my knives and ensured all my tools were in working order (one of the most satisfying things for a cook is a knife that just glides through ingredients). After all of which I began to think of baking to fill the house with the requisite smells.

By Wednesday I was ready to get into full feeding mode and decided to make my son's favourite quiche for supper. The whole thing was incredibly therapeutic, from the fact that I had all the ingredients to hand (except the cream which I sent Bob out for, a gladdening notion in itself), to the sun shining outside, and the way the kitchen looked with broken eggshells, torn packaging, and other sundries littering the counter and table. I love walking into a pristine, tidy kitchen, but I also love to see flour snowing all over the table, a fat yellow disc of dough sitting amongst it, pressaging all the good things to come. The very thought of pastry thrills me and this day I experimented by merging two of Nigella Lawson's pastry recipes and (joy!) managed to make my own perfectly light and flaky shortcrust.

Here's my recipe for hot smoked salmon and feta quiche (I know it's not really quiche if it doesn't contain bacon and Gruyere for the purists out there, but it's delicious nonetheless). This fills a dish 28X18X5cm, but you can shrink or expand the quantities to fit your own dish without any harm, it's not an exact science:

2 fillets of hot smoked salmon
1 packet of feta cheese (I use organic)
6 large eggs
600ml of double cream (ish)

For the pastry
300g of Italian 00 flour (this doesn't need to be sifted like ordinary plain and is much lighter)
170g of unsalted butter
1 teaspoon of yoghurt
a few tablespoons of iced water with half a teaspoon of salt stirred into it

I make the pastry in my food processor a la Miss Lawson's recipe in How to Eat. Measure out the flour and butter, cut butter into small dice, put both in a bowl and stash in the freezer for ten minutes. Once they have had their chilling, put them in a foodprocessor and whizz till they look like fine oatmeal (you can do the rubbing in by hand if you so wish). Add your teaspoon of yoghurt and pulse for a second, then with the machine running add the iced water very slowly through the funnel until the pastry is just about to come together but hasn't quite. Swich off and turn the dough onto a surface, squish it into a ball, wrap in plastic and put it in the fridge to rest for at least twenty minutes.

Once the pastry is rested bring it out, roll it to size and line your, buttered, dish. Put it back in the fridge, put the oven onto gas mark 6, and gather all the other ingredients. Flake the salmon, beat the eggs with the cream and crumble the feta. Bring the pastry lined dish out of the fridge once the oven is up to temperature and get on with building the quiche. Put the salmon in the dish, pour in the eggy cream, arrange the feta all over and put in the oven for about an hour. You may need to turn the temperature down after about forty five minutes, but ovens vary so much, so just have a look and see what you think: if it's getting rather brown but is still very wobbly turn it down a notch.

I really like this eaten hot with salad and a baked spud, but it's great ice cold the next day too. This size will easily feed eight people but I like to make a lot so there is plenty left over, it freezes very well and it's great to have the odd wodge stashed in the freezer for unexpected feedings.

The finished product

One of the best things about making pastry is that there is almost alway some left over from trimmings, and with this I like to make pudding. Sometimes I make custard tarts but on this day I made jam tarts. Little teeny fat ones filled with raspberry jam.

P.S in my next post I will be talking about tank-tops, and why fair-isle is cool, specially for Conan.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Hitting the Fan

I had to go away unexpectedly because my mother-in-law was taken in to hospital. And I then stayed with her for a couple of weeks because they discharged her and she was too ill to stay alone in her house. She is still ill and awaiting tests to tell her what's wrong. My sister-in-law is with her now.

Once I have reorientated myself I will write a proper post but for now, and until I have caught up with everyone else's blogs, I just thought I'd say hello.

Actually, while I'm here I have a problem one of you might be able to help me with. It's next door's puppy, a black Lab, and it keeps getting into my garden and trashing my borders. My neighbours have increased the height of the fence between our gardens so he can't jump them, and also lowered them so he can't get underneath, but still he gets in. When I got back, late on Sunday, I found poo everywhere and all number of plants, including three lavenders, a rosemary and several scented stocks, crushed and snapped. Does anyone know of a way to make my garden a less inviting loo for a dog, I'm being driven doolally?

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Vanity Sizing

One of the requirements of the writing course I am doing is to keep a journal. I started with an ordinary Moleskine notebook but this soon proved inadequate for my particular purposes. I needed something much bigger because I wanted space to stick pictures and news paper cuttings, as well as write my own literary thoughts. I looked in all the shops but nothing grabbed me. You know how it is when you have a vague notion of the kind of thing you want, you begin all hopeful that it is out there to be got for a few quid, then slowly come to realise that no one with power over the means of production thinks quite like you do? I tried everywhere I could think, then some places I wouldn't have thought of, before giving up all hope and going back to the Moleskine. After all, I told myself, this was the pad of choice for Hemingway and Chatwin so I must be being an awfully fussy cow. But it didn't do and I actually struggled to write anything of any use, it just didn't feel right. I begun to be irritated with the very notion of keeping a journal and rather disgruntled at being made to do so. Then one day I was having one of those 'big cleans.' The kind of clean that involves moving all the furniture around and takes at least a day.

And I found this under the couch.

It was covered in dust, I don't have those kinds of cleans very often, and looked like the kind of thing that Harry Potter would find the answer to a magical conundrum in. I was puzzled for a moment and wondered about fairies and the like until remembering that I had bought it for my husband well over a year before. He had expressed an interest in keeping a diary and I had stumbled upon it in a stationery shop in Edinburgh's elegant George Street and thought it just the thing to inspire him further. I put this inscription in it for him and presented it to him one day.

But fortunately for me my marvellously poignant and generous words hadn't been enough to inspire him to mark the pages, so now I asked him if I could use it. Very generously he said of course I could, and it has done me well for nearly a year. But now it is almost full up.

So needing a new one I asked him if he would go back to that shop (he has an office in Edinburgh) and get me another. But they don't sell them anymore and the hunt began again. And, unsurprisingly, we could find nothing like it anywhere.

This morning, in a panic because I have only two blank pages left, and a pile of news paper cuttings, not to mention a guddle of thoughts a buzz in my mind, I checked the internet. I tend to internet shop only as a last resort for such things because I enjoy the mooching, touching and discovering that goes with shop shopping. I tried eBay, Amazon, and all the stationery shops I could think of, but nothing. Then I thought to merely type 'leather bound journal' into google and pah-dah, I found a site called papernation and they had the exact same one. It should arrive mid-week. Thank goodness! I won't have to bottle up my thoughts for too long, and you know what that's like.

Thursday, 10 July 2008


Two of my favourite bloggers have triggered this post: Pat and Kim. In Pat's latest post she mentions the notion of cleaning one's plate and in a recent post Kim writes that the way to keep off weight lost is to define yourself as a healthy eater rather than a dieter. These things interest me because I have been struggling with my own weight since I was nineteen.

I remember the exact moment when I realised I can no longer eat whatever I want whenever I want. Wimbledon was on and I was watching it with my sisters and brother when the doorbell went. I got up to answer it and as I did so I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror above the couch. I looked fat. My stomach bulged under the waistband of my skirt and the battle commenced. I went on a diet and lost the weight I needed to regain my self esteem, but after a while some of it came back, so I went on another diet and lost it again. And thus, for nearly thirty years, my life has gone. I never let myself get really overweight, I began to check the scales daily and eat accordingly so no one ever knew about my battle, but it was a constant.

When I went to work in a Glasgow office I was seven stone two, I'd been seven stone two for years. I guess I thought that I had got the hang of things and instinctively knew my weight and what to do about it because when our scales broke I didn't bother to replace them. Big mistake. Working in an office in the city centre there are just too many temptations: a latte and muffin for breakfast as I planned the rest of the day, a sandwich, snatched at my desk, for lunch, a 'treat' of chocolate or cake mid afternoon to help me get through the rest of the day, on and on it went. Friday night beers didn't help either. By the next time I got on the scales, about four years later, I was eight stone seven. I didn't understand, I had actually dropped a dress size, from a ten to an eight, in that time, I thought I'd lost weight with the stress of working. How could that be? I bought a new set of the best quality scales available. They confirmed the worst: I was, for all intents and purposes, a stone and a half over weight. Looking in the mirror I saw my blubbery self in all my hideous glory. Fat had won the war, and fat was building a palace on my thighs, bloody tyrant. Thin was going to have to gather all its resources and start a revolution.

But thin was in a very weakened state and was unable to see the full strength of its enemy. It really believed the number on the label of a dress: 8. It thought that that number 8 meant that it was the true prince, that somehow those other numbers, the ones on the scales and the tape measure, were lying. I had to give it a serious talking to to stir it into action. There ensued a long battle of arbitration.

I got my weight down to seven stone twelve and there it stayed. I told myself I was a healthy eater who could be allowed the odd treat and when I dropped a dress size, to a six, I believed I'd made it. I was perfectly happy to be a size six and seven stone twelve and went back to my daily weighings and that was that. Except when I saw photographs of myself when I would starve myself for a week.

Then I started my degree course and once again, with tea and cakes available in the coffee bar between classes, the weight crept up and I struggled, then gave up. Physical appearance was shallow I told myself, I was now a philosopher and so had much greater things to concern myself with. Anyway I had noticed that the size sixes in the shops were a little loose these days so I really had nothing to worry about. I unfocused my eyes when presented with a photograph of myself and got in with my studies. Then suddenly this time last year I found I was six stone nine.

And I remain between six stone nine and six stone eleven. Now I have to search out size fours. The odd thing is my waist is exactly the same size it was when I was eighteen and wore a size ten. I still have a denim jacket that I bought when I was seventeen and it still fits me in the same way it did then. So what happened?

Well, I think Nietzsche's theory of becoming fits here. For thirty years I have been trying to keep my weight down, I have tried dieting, exercise, thinking of myself as a healthy eater, I have come upon obstacles that have stopped me and others that I was able to get over with ease. And now being the kind of thin I want to be has become second nature. It probably helped that with the studying I stopped consciously thinking about my weight, so the things I'd learned were unconsciously assimilated. I don't need to weigh myself everyday now, I don't need to say no to chocolate, I don't need to think 'I am a healthy eater'. All I need do now is listen to my instinct: I know when I've had enough to eat, so I can eat anything at all, and I have found a form of exercise which I love, and therefore don't have to force myself to do. It's all just a matter of drawing all the threads together and then blending them in with the rest of your life. You have to really want it though, and really work on it for a very long time. It's no different to practising your art.

Which all probably makes me sound rather sad: for thirty years I've been practising the art of being thin. Good god, just how shallow am I?

Monday, 7 July 2008

Perfect Storm

So, off we went to the shops, only one problem, the branch of Ikea that stocked the shelves I wanted in the desired colour didn't have a branch of the paint shop nearby. Which to choose, paint or shelves?

We chose shelves. If I still didn't like the paint colour the next morning I could run into Dumfries and change it. Decision made we headed up the M8 to Glasgow just in time to hit the rush hour traffic. A one hour journey turned into a three hour slog and we finally got to the store at about seven thirty. Still, that time on a wet Thursday turned out to be a great time for shopping, we were about the only customers in the place: glorious.We were able to mooch and stroke and dawdle without getting in anybody's way. We tried out swivel chairs (wheeee!), pulled out drawers (swishhh), and wondered aloud at who would buy that! Then we got to the shelves and, 'oh my god' there were the green ones. Not pantry, or pea-soup, or apple but photo-shopped grass. I stroked the elegant birch-ply version but Bob was having none of it: we had endured the agonies of the M8 at rush hour for the green ones, and it was the green ones we were taking home. I could see his point, but...

He wrote down the warehouse location of the green shelves and off we went to aisle 8, location 3. Picking up a hanging rail and hooks, a magnetic knife holder, a wall hanging dish drainer and a pot lid holder on the way. Ikea does that to you, everything's so cheap you can't help putting a lot of it into your trolley. Still, I managed to resist the pale wood venetian blind and the large squashy cushions.

Aisle 8, location 3 turned out to be an empty hole: no shelves of any colour and just as I was thinking we'd have to go to aisle 14, location 7 and get the birch-ply after all we spotted that unmistakable colour further up the row. The label said "Lack side table" but the goods looked remarkably like shelves so Bob pulled one out. Shelves they were, so we loaded six of them onto the trolley and went off to check the bargain basement before going to pay.

We finally got home at ten o'clock where, thank goodness because I was starving, Stevie had bought Moules Mariniere for supper. As we were sitting down to eat Bob put one of the green shelves against the wall so I could see what it looked like against the paint colour.

The next morning I woke up scandalously late and staggered into the kitchen and there, leaning nonchalantly against the thunder cloud-blue wall was the grass-green shelf. While my tea was cooling I got out the paint and applied another coat. It's not a warm colour, true, it's a broody, don't mess with me colour, but it turns out it's exactly what the room needed. Or exactly what I needed, I don't know which. Anyone else might walk in and go 'arghh!'

Getting the shelves up was a bit on the trying side: the walls aren't even, the corners aren't right angles, the joists seem to just end randomly. So I didn't get my seamless run of three perfect rows of corner shelving. I got one and a half imperfect rows and a steel rail. We have used three of the six shelves we bought. On Monday we will try to put two more up on the wall above the table and the last one in the utility room. Why does nothing ever go to plan, other people seem to have the kitchens they want? But, see the pictures below, despite the problems I'm really quite taken with it. The room couldn't be more different to how it was before. It reminds me of a makeshift basement bar that serves tapas and strangely potent tequila based cocktails.

Before: this is a photo of the working corner of the kitchen at Christmas, so it's a bit more cluttered than normal.

After: this is how the same spot looks now.

Thursday, 3 July 2008


This morning the kitchen looked like this,

and we were ready to paint. So we got out the brushes and rollers and applied the first coat and it now looks like this,

and I hate it: it's too blue, it's too dark, it's just wrong. So now were off to swap the second tin for a different colour and brand. I knew I shouldn't have eschewed Farrow and Ball for the cheaper, by ten squids a tin, store's own brand but... Anyway, we'll get the shelves while we're out so all is not lost.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

There's no such thing as a finished kitchen, only and abandoned one

So, I moved a cupboard out of the kitchen and was so pleased with the newly spacious look and feel I took a photograph. But in the photograph the room looked, not bright and roomy, it looked dingy a little sordid even. And I realised I hadn't decorated for almost twelve years. 'A lick of paint is what it needs,' I thought and some nice green shelves. But...

As I emptied the kitchen of all its gubbins: pictures, blackboard, saucepans hanging from hooks, more flaws began to assert themselves. I had strategically placed all sorts of objects in order to hide such things as enormous blue plastic rawl-plugs and even the hole you see above. A large wooden chopping board stood guard there, I never used it, felt I couldn't use, even though I couldn't quite remember why. The boards I did use stood in front of it. I liked my stack of different woods there, thought they gave an air of a proper working kitchen.

For the last two days I have been filling such holes in with plaster, I'm no expert, what would take a professional seconds takes me hours. During these hours I have time to look around and contemplate the space and this morning I woke up knowing that this quick fix wasn't going to be enough. Today the real work begins...

Monday, 30 June 2008


Look what I saw on Sunday morning!

But now I'm back to reality. Today Bob and I emptied the kitchen, crikey I hoard a lot of crap, it took forever to get it all out. There were umpteen slimy pictures on the walls, a 'decorative' carpet beater and other crap hanging from hooks, odd things made by children that aren't even my own stuck up wherever there was a space for them, we eventually found homes for it all, a good one was the bin. Then we removed various redundant rawl plugs from the walls and filled the holes in with plaster. Stripping off the wallpaper created even more, some huge, holes so we filled them in. It's amazing what you can do with a butter knife and a bucket. The kitchen now looks like a sordid hole, as if the former occupants died and no one has dared enter for years.

My room has a pile of cookery books on the table and a bowl of fruit on the couch. I wouldn't make my worst enemy spend any time in the sitting room.

I live in hope, they say it gets worse before it gets better, and I'm sure whoever they are they know what they are talking about. Tomorrow we will paint the walls and then I will tackle the floor before, hopefully by the end of the week, getting the shelves up and turning it back into a working kitchen again.

In the meantime I will have to remember not to answer the door.

Friday, 27 June 2008

Out With the Old

Today it is raining again. It was lovely and sunny when I got up so I stripped the bed. By the time the machine had done its bit the rain had come on and now there are sheets all over the radiators and it is hot and steamy in here. The life of a housewife can be so trying.

Now I'm going to clean out the old shoe cupboard, which since the shoes were removed from it, has been stuffed full of junk: manuals for long since defunct electrical goods, wall-paper paste, old boxes that seemed too good to throw away. But I could do with the space for table linen and napkins now, so it's time to deal with it. I quite like a bit of a clear-out. The other day I emptied the old wash-stand in the bathroom, moved it to the hall, then emptied the free-standing cupboard in the kitchen - which began life as a bookcase in an educational establishment - and put that in the bathroom and refilled it with towels and unguents. The wash-stand will go to New Zealand with my friend Mark, it came to me by way of my in-law's shed where it had been languishing for some time, and fulfilled a very useful role with us for years. But now it no longer works for us, it takes up too much space and holds bugger all. So Mark has offered to take it off my hands.

Both rooms look so much better now: the old book-case has swallowed up all the bathroom stuff, and without it the kitchen seems to have doubled in size, so I'm inspired to keep going. Next week I will paint the kitchen before Bob puts up some shelves to house the stuff that came out of the cupboard. The kitchen hasn't been painted for almost twelve years, when I painted it white until I could decide on something more suitable. Now it's time to add a bit of colour I reckon so I have decided on Ikea's green 'Lack' shelves and a cool blue-grey for the walls. Not sure about the floor yet, perhaps a darker grey.

Tomorrow I'll drag Stevie paint shopping. But for now I'll content myself with transforming the old shoe cupboard.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008


I'm getting slower and slower at this writing malarkey. I start to write a post and then I can't stop re-drafting and editing. In the last week I have written three posts but not been able to bring myself to actually give up editing them so I can actually post them. I've rewritten the next installment of my camper van story about nine times now, over about three weeks, and I'm still not quite there with it yet. I started off all enthusiastic but now can't bear to look at it again. I've been taken over by a bossy grammarian. Oh no! Will I ever get my youthful just put it out there old self back? Tips please.

Meanwhile I won't let myself re-read this, so here it is warts and all.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

The Chicken Factor

The birthday trauma is over!

I got Rogan to make the cake. Just look at these snaps and you'll see what a success that was. I recommend placing an order if you live near enough to pick one up: as well as looking fabulous it was delicious. As I wasn't making it I decided to go for total culinary bling, so chose a Horlicks flavoured sponge and got him to fill it with Nuttella and top it with chocolate ganache and smarties. I would never have been quite so adventurous, in fact I would never have thought of Horlicks at all. I always think of Horlicks as the kind of thing old people think children should drink before bed. It worked really well though, the cake was moist with that desirable springyness and tasted great. As for the Nuttella, well, that is a staple in this house and one of our favourite things is smearing it onto hot pancakes where it melts slightly. Cold in the middle of the sponge cake layers it was scrumtiously fudgy. The chocolate ganache added depth and a touch of sophistication and was gloriously melty, like chocoalte butter. Actually it would be great on crumpets. The best bit, for me, though was the smarties: with the moisture of the cake the shell coating softened so your teeth were able to sink straight through to the chocolate, and they just looked so bright and cheery.

As for the gifts, luckily Stevie had recently snapped the head on his badminton racket, so after some internal debate - was it too much of a needy present? - I trawled the internet to get him a new one and had it strung to his precise specifications. I hope it is a slightly better one than he would have bought himself. Unfortunately the blasted thing didn't actually arrive on time so thank goodness I also got him a book of Norse Legends (I'll read it after him!), a chocolate pig from Rococo Chocolates, a tin pecking chicken and a book on chicken management. Those last two because we have a tradition of getting him something chicken related every year. I can't remember how it started, but am apt to believe he would be disappointed if chickens in some form or other didn't feature. The book on chicken management was a lucky find and he's been regaling us with chicken facts: did you know that a hen can suffer a prolapsed vagina if an egg she is trying to lay is bit on the large side, and the other hens on seeing her vagina hanging there will think it a tasty snack and eat it, thus killing the poor thing? There's plenty more where that came from! Perhaps next year I'll just get him a chicken suit.

Bob got him a rather nice linen shirt: roomy and cool looking, it makes him look a bit like a foreign correspondent. To ensure an aura of celebration we broke open a bottle of fizz when he arrived home from work. We meant to do it as he entered, but these things never go quite to plan and I was ironing a table cloth at that particular moment, so we had to send him into the sitting room alone while we put the last few touches to the scene: got the candles on the cake and lit, replaced the manky old table cloth and got everything on the table. I don't suppose it did him any harm.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Birthdays Letter

Do you ever have periods in which you don't know what to concern yourself with first? I've been going through just such a time. The usual worries: leaky roof, writer’s block, not enough money have been added to. First up, my best friend was due to give birth to her third child early last week. I spoke to her the day after her due date and she was feeling rubbish: muscle spasms, extreme tiredness, and totally fed up. She lives too far away for me to just pop in and see how she's doing and, anyway, due to health concerns her doctors had warned her against any excitement: no visitors. Health concerns!? So I sent her a package which included Angela Carter's The Magic Toyshop, an Anglo-Saxon poem, and, because she asked to see it, the introductory chapter to my book. She wanted stuff to read because she couldn't move. After that all I could do was wait. I knew her husband would text me when the baby was born so I’ve been jumping every time I hear the Nokia message tone. I'm not a phone person so almost no-one has my number which means I very rarely get a call or message on my mobile. But on Tuesday, as I was sitting quietly working, the phone made that sound, I jumped nearly out of my skin, grabbed it and read: 'Sally, can we make it next week for lunch as Rick has the day off on Thursday, love Caroline.' I tried to read this as 'Rhona has had a little girl' but it didn't work so eventually replied, 'You must have miss-dialled as I'm not Sally.'

Secondly: It's my husband's birthday next Tuesday. I never know what to get him. He is a brilliant gift giver: for my birthday this year he gave me, amongst other things, a Ted Hughes signed copy of Crow, a first (English translation) edition of Nietzsche's letters, and a box of the most beautiful, and delicious, chocolates I've ever seen. He manages to turn my birthday into a festival, so I always feel I'm short-changing him when it comes to his, and I worry endlessly about this as the day approaches.

Thirdly: We have a party coming up. I love parties but I won’t know anyone at this one. It’s to do with Stevie’s work and he’s only just joined this company so I have no knowledge whatsoever of what I am in for. Actually, I know that I am likely to be the oldest woman there by about fifteen years and that everyone has been told I’m a writer. Stevie has already told me that this has excited interest which means people will talk to me. I’m going to have to get my ‘right sort’ head on and I don’t know what I’ve done with it.

But things are looking up.

Yesterday I finally got on top of the birthday thing: thank goodness for the internet. Now I just have a few little things to organise, and hope that everything will arrive on time. I do still have one or two questions I’m mulling over: would he appreciate flowers? Should I make bunting? That sort of thing. But in general things are taking shape.

This morning as I was just beginning to wake, I thought I heard a distant text message tone. A ghostly pah-pa, pah-pa that could have come from anywhere. As I was making a cup of tea later I remembered this so checked my phone and found I had a voicemail: Rhona had the baby yesterday at nine o'clock, both are doing great, and they will be home at some point today. Oh my!

Now I can concentrate on searching out that head. Where will I find it do you think?