Tuesday, 25 March 2008


Before I go on with my camper van story I can no longer resist showing you a picture of my new desk. I should say newly installed desk, as it has, in fact, been lying in wait in my next door neighbour's garage for the past three years. It's only finally made it into the house because she asked me if she could take it to a charity shop as she needed the space it was taking up.

As my old desk was getting a bit long in the tooth I asked Bob to bring it in for me and here it is all settled and lovely. I can't get over how pleased I am with it.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Grand Narrative: the camper van years

On the day my husband turned to me and said, ‘I’ve been looking at camper vans on eBay, I’ll get you one for your birthday if you like.’ I felt no one could be more loved than me. I had long since nourished a fantasy of setting off round the British coast in my trusty old van, stopping off in lay-bys to make myself cups of tea whilst taking in magnificent views and sleeping wherever, whenever, I wished in my own - 360 thread count - Egyptian cotton sheets. In the next few weeks, as he trawled the internet, dashing off emails to people called Vic and Nobby, I poured over the Kath Kidston catalogue and taught myself how to crochet.

The dream grew. In the past year Stevie had taken a job that meant he was away from home all week. Now Bob, our son, was set to leave for a university over four hundred miles away. I wanted to get out and explore too, and a camper van would allow me to do it on my own terms. I wouldn’t have to talk to anyone, book ahead, or eat other people’s food, I would be travelling in my own – tastefully shabby - mobile bedsit. I would go wherever I pleased, make my own discoveries, forge new paths, armed only with a hard backed atlas, a fridge full of croissants and the wherewithal for a night-cap daiquiri.

When Stevie first thought to look for vans, he found them everywhere, hundreds on eBay, and umpteen specialist websites. But now that we were looking with intent, the perfect van became elusive. In the dream mine had always been a chalk-blue split screen Volkswagen. But the ‘splitty’, it turned out, was a rare and costly icon. My pale blue one had even featured on the album cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan which made it the most iconic and therefore most expensive of all. Bugger. Our budget was limited. We turned to the type 2. Everyday Stevie would email me a small selection of for sale ads. And every evening he would phone with news of near-misses. As time went by I found myself compromising on matters of colour (strawberry ice-cream pink, pistachio green, beige? yeah beige would be cool), styling (a spare wheel mounted on the front, why not?), and age. Still, I continued to crochet coloured squares and stood my ground on matters regarding the kitchen. There would be no point, I insisted, if I couldn’t feed myself. I wanted to sit on beaches at dawn, wrapped in a blanket, a mug of cocoa in hand, and the promise of a bacon buttie hanging.

Stevie, over the course of a few weeks, learned everything one could possibly need to know about air cooled engines, pop-tops, and van to camper conversions. I learned my tastes exceeded my budget. We both learned we’d need to be quick: Vic had sold all four of his vans ‘within an hour!’ for at least double the reserve. It seemed there was at least one person in every street in Britain with the same dream and the cash to finance it. Not only that, they could and would travel to anywhere on the island at the drop of a hat to part with that cash. Stevie had to be where his job was and I was stuck in Scotland where there wasn’t a single camper to be had; a pile of crochet growing beside me.

Then, just as I was beginning to think I’d have to settle for a diamond panda broach or some such froufrou nonsense for my birthday the gods intervened. Stevie was in London and he’d found a van in a Bedfordshire village near to where his parents lived. It was just in our price range. The next day was a Saturday, he arranged to view.

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Tryin' Eyes

A few years ago I started getting an odd sensation when looking at things close up, as if my eyes were camera lenses slowly focusing. I could almost hear them buzz. Then they became zoom lenses and anything too close remained a blur. Lately too close has been expanding and reading has become a headache, literally. And the zoom lenses are now smeared with the filthy fingerprints of age and so anything beyond a certain point no longer reveals its detail. Driving any distance caused a headache too. Anyway, on I soldiered, valiantly, much to the amusement of my boys who would joyfully remark on the way my head would shoot backwards when they tried to show me something small. And then a week or so ago I realised I’d stopped reading certain favourite poets because of the size of the print and knew I’d have to do something about it.

So, I am now the confused owner of a pair of varifocal spectacles. I chose the varifocal option because it seemed simpler than getting two pairs and having to swop them about all the time. In lectures I have to both look at power-point slides projected onto a screen and write notes. When driving I often have to consult a map or written directions. When out exploring, or shopping or just generally mooching, I look at things both near and far. Plus, my bag already has far too much stuff in it. So I went for multi-function, assuming it would be the path of least annoyance. Wrong!

Admittedly I’ve only had them since Saturday, but they’re driving me doolally. You can’t look sideways in them, you can only look straight ahead: chin up for reading, chin down to look around, which seems counter intuitive. Any deviation and I’m sent into a spin. And the window of clarity doesn’t seem to be as wide as a small paper-back so I’m forced to move either the book or my head to scan the page. It’s so bloody odd. Now when trying to read, or write, I spend most of my time with my eyes closed in exhaustion. And my head hurts all the time.

And that’s not the only thing. I’ve never seen myself as a wearer of spectacles, they don’t go with my hair, and they make nasty huge dents in the side of my nose which hurt. Also, they’re smarter looking and more polished than the rest of me. I feel I ought to go out and buy some dry-clean only separates and a pair of Gucci loafers.

Looking out the window’s good though, I can do that. And I can read all the titles on my bookshelves from my couch. I can also read the packaging on Lidl cakes, which means I know what I’m contaminating my body with. Apparently it does take time to get used to varifocal lenses and after a while you make the small head movements necessary without thinking. But for now I can’t stop taking the damned things off and cleaning them. Should I have gone for contact lenses and a large pair of reading specs?

Tuesday, 4 March 2008


I had a post all written up and ready to go for today and then I saw Mary’s comment on my last post which said something along the lines of not being able to wait for me to write about the literary agent I met. This made me think again. It does seem a bit rotten not to tell all.

First of all I have to say that she, Jenny Brown of Jenny Brown associates, was the most enthusiastic and encouraging person I’ve ever met. She was willing to answer any questions and she had lots of stories to tell about the publishing industry and her line of work. She didn’t, however, artificially sweeten the pill.

Publishing is an industry and it is in the business of making a profit. Like all non-charitable institutions it is only able to survive in this way. Agencies are no different, if the people who work for them are going to feed their children and keep a roof over their heads they need to make money. Bummer. Market forces dictate.

What this means for writers is that we have to put in a bit of effort to find the right agent for the type of work we do. Every agency will have a website and there’s plenty to choose from. So we must do a little research and find out who specialises in what. The best individuals to send work to are the newest recruits to an agency. This is because they will be working to build their lists and will, therefore, be more likely to read submissions eagerly. Send three chapters (the first three for fiction) a synopsis and a covering letter. This letter should say something about the writer’s relationship to the work. For example, I am currently writing a book on Nietzsche, it’s an analysis of his theory of self, viewed through the lens of the domestic realm. If and when I submit it to an agent my letter should give a brief account of both my academic achievements and my life as a housewife and how in this light I came to write the book. Why, in fact, I am the person to write it. The kind of letter that won’t help you is the sort that says something like ‘I’ve worked as a P.E. teacher for the past thirty years and now I’ve retired I thought I’d fill the time by writing a book. I chose to write about the lesser spotted toad of Madagascar as I saw a lovely photo of one in the National Geographic while in the Doctor’s surgery.’ I know none of you chaps are likely to do that but I thought I’d mention it as she did say the number of inappropriate letters she received was bewildering. I guess the covering letter should convey one’s utter conviction and enthusiasm for the subject matter.

On current publishing trends she said that it is almost impossible to sell new fiction writers to publishers at present. However there are a few fledgling publishing companies who are still very enthusiastic about fiction, so all hope is not lost. The big houses are looking for quirky, literary non-fiction, an example of which is a book she has just sold by a woman who has an eighteen-year-old raven for a pet. The book is the story of how the raven came to live with her and how they co-exist. Apparently it eats a particular type of cheese. I have to say she sold it to me, I can’t wait for it to come out. So memoirs are popular as long as they have an edge, are a new story, or, at least, a story told in a new way. Another big seller right now is historical fiction. The book buying public like to learn something when they read, escapism is a secondary concern, where literature is concerned anyway.

Lastly, if you are a poet or short story writer you don’t need an agent at all but rather to submit work to magazines. I believe, from talking to a recently published poet that once you have had twenty-five poems published you can start looking for someone to publish your first collection. But don’t be impatient, it took that particular poet fourteen years to get his book published.

I’m not sure whether or not I’ve covered everything so feel free, please, to ask for any gaps to be filled.