Monday, 31 August 2009


I have been asked by Titus to take the book nearest to me, turn to page 161 and cite the 5th complete sentence. The book nearest to me is Nick Laird’s On Purpose which is a very slim book of poems that only goes up to page 65.

The next nearest is difficult to determine as I have a small shelf just above my desk for reference books, supposedly, and there are about four books there which look to be exactly the same distance from me. Whatever book I choose I will have to bend the rules a little: either cite the 5th sentence of the last page of the Nick Laird, or, the stipulated sentence of not quite the nearest* book.

The other thing I could do is choose the book that is nearest to my reading chair. So not the book that was nearest when I read Titus’s request which was there, between my keyboard and my monitor, because it only just arrived in the post and that is where I unwrapped it, but the one nearest to where I actually sit and read. But that itself poses a problem.

The chair sits between this:

and this:

I am a bit of a dipper when it comes to reading and so am currently flitting between most of these books. Not The English Passengers, it being a novel I am waiting for a quiet, undisturbed stretch of time, to give myself up to it. As I haven’t read this it’s quite tempting to choose it and get to know one sentence, but that could ruin the story. I’ll unwittingly fill in the gaps and then it won’t live up to expectations. I'm sure it's much better than my imaginings could ever be, but that won't stop me anticipating what I know happens, and thus not pay proper attention to what does happen. I've spoilt many a good book in this way, and had umpteen spoilt by reviews too. Best not do that then.

Titus did say she chose me (as one of her five people to pass the baton on to) because she needs more Nietzsche, and, as luck would have it, there is a book about Nietzsche in the running: Alexander Nehamas, Nietzsche: Life as Literature. This is the only secondary text on Nietzsche that I’ve managed to get all the way through, it’s a really good read: well argued and not even remotely pompous. It lives just above my head – literally and metaphorically.

Here is the 5th sentence of page 161:

The narrative that relates [the past] to the present is altered, and even the accidents in our past can be turned into actions, into events for which we are willing to accept responsibility (“Thus I willed it”), and which we are therefore willing to repeat.

Got that?

I should pass this on to five others now, but everyone else seems to have already been nominated, so I'll squish that rule a little too and say: if there is anyone out there who hasn't been tagged and would like to do this (it's an easy post after all), here is your cue.

*I've just reread the rules and they don't say 'nearest' but 'most handy' which could have made for a completely different post: most handy as in most 'to hand', ie nearest, or most handy as in most useful, and if the latter for what aspect of life? Thank goodness I misremembered because I'd have tortured you with this one.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Eternal Sunshine of the Student's Mind

I have found the secret of happy housewifery and it looks like this:

Taking time out from my writing to deal with chores, some of which are created because I choose to live with someone for whom flakes of croissant on the couch are no deal at all ( let along a big one), has always felt like an indulgence. There are more important things to do than make the bed or clean the loo; wash the dishes or dust the books; vacuum, scrub, polish or iron. And standing at the kitchen table rubbing butter into flour until it looks like wet sand, adding just enough iced, acidified water to bring it all together, leaving it to rest for at least an hour, and then going back to roll it out and line a pie dish, when there are perfectly acceptable ready to use packs of frozen pastry available in any supermarket, and it is only me in this house who notices the difference, has felt bordering on the insanely spoilt. But now as I do these things I can, at the same time, at least feel like I am making an effort to learn my craft.

Why I didn't think of it before I don't know. This beautiful machine has never felt less of a gadget and more of a tool. Here is a selection of my current listening:

The bloody marvellous Ted: lifting onions
in the rain and searching out a suitable place
for them to dry has taken on new meaning.

Because Anglo-Saxon is the tap root of my poetic
sensibility I need to understand more about it.
Being able to learn the wordhoard as I peel eggs is,
quite frankly, a revelation.

Fifteen CDs worth of pure joy. All of
Seamus Heaney's poems read by
himself. The more I clean, the more
I'll absorb his genius.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Transformative Moment

Here, a little late in the day, is my response to Steven’s meme. I’ve been trying to write this for days but there have been no momentous events in my life that I could point easily to and say, ‘that was transformative,’ more lots of piddling little things. These little things often connect, but trying to disentangle them and then put them back together in a way that makes sense has had me in a bit of a pickle. Then, this morning, as I was coming to I remembered: ‘amor fati:’ from Nietzsche’s autobiography Ecce Homo. This, I realised, was the link I needed. The full sentence reads:

My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be other than it is, not in the future, not in the past, not in all eternity. Not merely to endure that which happens of necessity, still less to dissemble it – all idealism is untruthfulness in the face of necessity – but to love it...

I don’t propose to deliver a lecture on meaning in Nietzsche, but I will say this: by ‘greatness’ he doesn’t mean what we think of, traditionally, as great. He doesn’t mean statesman-like, or conquering, he’s not talking about being seen as great by the rest of the world but is more talking about living a good life in the eyes of the individual living it. There’s no living for others in Nietzsche, as far as I can discern. Though, the thing about Nietzsche is that he is very open to interpretation because he was very much against dogma and absolutism.

When I first read this I didn’t experience a eureka moment, it was more of a ‘huh?’ But it was enough to make me read on and then read more. And as I did I got to thinking about myself and my own life. I had been brought up to ‘endure’. My mother was a Catholic and she believed that life was shit but if one didn’t complain one would eat at the banquet beside God in heaven. Being of mixed race in an all white working class neighbourhood I had had quite a lot to endure as I grew up: I got called names on a daily basis, boys threw rocks at me (really!), even a trip to the corner shop to get a pint of milk was fraught. But I endured, like a good Catholic. Then, like all good teenagers I rebelled. I stamped my feet at the injustices of the world and wailed about how people should be accepted for what they are, that appearances shouldn’t get in the way of what’s inside. This phase lasted until well into my twenties and, I have to say, made me pretty miserable.

At some point I began to accept the way things were and just live with them. By this time people had stopped throwing rocks at me and calling me names. The term ‘racism’ had been invented and no one wanted to be it. My appearance became, not an obstacle as once it was, but a calling card. But I was still pissed, something still grated, the world still seemed unfair. My acceptance was of the ‘it’s fucking shit but hey ho,’ kind.

Enter Nietzsche. I read everything of his, most of which didn’t make immediate sense but it bubbled away like pie filling in a slow oven until the above quotation mingled with other things and one day I thought: he’s telling us to love everything that has happened to us, big and small, good and bad, because all of life combines to make the person one is right now. It’s a bit like steak and kidney pie: although I love steak and kidney pie I hate kidneys, yet without the kidneys it is only steak pie which isn’t as nice.


There began a slow period of reassessment which goes on to this day. I like my life, I like myself, I’m glad I’m alive and like this. Sure, I wish I was better organised and that I didn’t procrastinate so much, I wish my obsession with detail didn’t get so much in the way, and life would be much more comfortable if I could get up early in the mornings and work during the day rather than slowly coming to some time around eleven, because I work better after dark. But these things are the little pieces of kidney in my pie, they’re horrid in isolation but without them the pie wouldn’t taste as good. With long enough cooking kidneys disintegrate and meld with the sauce that makes the pie so enjoyable. There have been some really big ones though, that along the way I have had to chew.

When I was six the prettiest girl in the school was able to convince our class teacher to steal from me my birthday Barbie, and give it to her. A child as ugly as I was could not possibly be in lawful possession of such a lovely new doll. It took a week for my father to get the doll back for me, by which time it was in a sorry state and I never played with it again. I remember this vividly, it was the first lesson in what was to be a long series on the importance of appearance. I learnt that appearance was currency, a door opener. Some people, no matter how much bollocks they talk, will always have a voice merely because of the way they look. For a long time I thought that was unfair. Later I accepted it and now I think thank goodness, for this has been a major factor in shaping the me I am today, without it I wouldn’t exist in my current state. I am not a natural beauty, but because of the, largely unconscious, work I have been doing all these years in this regard I am now able to convince pretty much everyone that I am. If Joanne had not stolen my Barbie I would probably be two stone heavier have far more wrinkles and have much less of an idea about what suits me – clothes, hair, make-up wise – than I do. It’s the details I attend to on an ongoing, daily basis, without even thinking about them, that creates the illusion. I have chopped, boiled and fragranced with garden herbs, this particular kidney: it is now the most velvety element in my sauce.

As a dark skinned, ugly child I was always considered stupid. No teacher expected anything from me. That seems quite unbelievable now, I know, but this was in the late 1960s and early 70s when England was still hanging on to its imperialist past and all the beliefs necessary to mercilessly overrun someone else’s country and annihilate their culture. You really couldn’t do that to someone you thought was as morally and intellectually worthy as you. I was a ghastly colonial. This was made resoundingly clear to me by a maths teacher called Mr Steer. He was one of those old military types, he looked like he had been a general at some point, and he hated me from the minute he set eyes on me. He openly mocked my ineptitude at every opportunity, he made me wash the class room floor on a pretty regular basis, he called me stupid to my face every time he saw me. And he never lost an opportunity to cause me actual physical pain: his ruler made regular contact with my face in full view of my classmates. So I learnt never to look him in the eye and never to even suggest that I might know the answer to a question, and this fed into all my classes throughout my school life. But sometimes I would be asked a question directly by a teacher and would have to give an answer. So, terrified of being mocked or even beaten (even the ‘nice’ teachers still believed in the purgative quality of violence) I ensured I knew the answer to everything I might possibly be asked. I rehearsed answers to possible future questions over and over. I checked them and rechecked them in multiple books, and for good measure I learnt how to reason clearly and carefully in order to explain how I’d come to a conclusion should I have got the answer wrong. I drove my poor parents insane with my questions. School was agony and I couldn’t wait to leave. When I did it was with one paltry qualification in English literature and I only got that because a new, young, enthusiastic teacher had come along and given us George Orwell and Alexander Solzhenitsyn to read. Once I left school I was really angry, I was sure I wasn’t stupid but I had no idea how to find out.

It took almost thirty years of trial and error but I’ve kind of got there. In my mid forties I embarked on a philosophy degree, and loved it. I was crap at essay writing (this tendency I have to try and cover every single eventuality can be paralysing, it leads to very tangly sentences that can take ages to sort out, not good for short deadlines) but it was enough to lead me to a post grad degree in writing, and my current incarnation as a writer. So I have a lot to thank Mr Steer for: because of him I learnt how to make sure of my sources, how to argue using reason – long before I knew what reason was, and the importance of communicating my ideas in a clear way. This kidney is still breaking down but is now so small I can take the odd piece with potatoes and, of course, the sauce of the previously described one. If it hadn’t been for Joanne teaching me the first lesson I wouldn’t have been heard in the first place: people only started to listen to me because they thought I was pretty.

But, of course, my main debt of gratitude goes to Friedrich Nietzsche because thanks to him I’m no longer enraged by the apparent injustice of the world (not the bits that affect me directly anyway, when I hear about how other people are, or have been, treated I am still apt to want to punch something). Now I have a beautiful crisp, golden pastry crust holding all the ingredients that make my life, kidneys and all, a pie worth savouring. Thanks Fred.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009


About twelve years ago* we were invited to a friend's soiree to celebrate her twenty fifth wedding anniversary.

'Twenty five years!' I said to her, 'how have you managed to stay together that long?'

'That's easy,' she answered, 'you just don't leave.'

Today is our twenty fifth wedding anniversary and I find that Joanna was quite right. Our marriage is a bit like our old bed: it fits our shapes, we both have our comfy spots in it, there are a few lumps in the mattress that sometimes disturb the sleep of one or other of us but we have become accustomed to it and can mostly shift over and nod off again. A new one might be exciting but it would take years for it to become quite so accommodating. The odd rampant spring not withstanding.

The two of us, a bit worse for wear, at the dog end of a party a few years ago. Stevie loves this photo which is why I've chosen it, even though I was much plumper then.

*where has the time gone!?

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Out of my Pie!

I am so in love with this girl, she is youth perfected. A living poem. Just look at that outfit! And then listen to the perfect cross over of voice, music and lyrics.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

The Ruin

About ten years ago an old country-house hotel just outside this town suffered a fire. The couple who ran it left. Naturally when I heard about it I got on my bicycle and went to explore. I went back a few times, but I don't think I knew what to make of it at that time, then I forgot all about it. Today, though, I went back, and oh what marvels I found (click on the photographs to make them huge enough to look at the details):

The first thing that caught my eye.


Bannister, why the wire, I wonder?

Detail of the balustrade

Local colour

I can't think of a more suitable book to find in a house like this

Tear drop

Country Pile

The central tower.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

The Art of Writing

I asked the writer James Kelman recently* what was his starting point for Kieron Smith, Boy, his answer was a joy. I could see him thinking as he started to speak: 'Well...' His eyes sparkled and his face warmed to a soft glow: 'you know artists studios...?' I nodded. He went on to describe an artist's studio: packed to the gunnels with stuff, gathered for the hell of it. This stuff inspires, feeds, informs and, sometimes becomes part of the artist's work, he said.**

His computer, he continued, was like an artist's studio: on it he gathers all sorts of little things, snippets, which he puts into files. He has hundreds of files like this. Some might sit untouched for years, but generally he will add to one or other of them from time to time. Every now and again he might have a look to see what he has, and occasionally when he does he sees the start of something, and that is how he works. He collects what may or may not turn out to be material, keeps it with no particular aim in mind, has a look at it from time to time, adds to it, and then sometimes he will find the suggestion of a story. One such file was the starting point for the book.

This notion has been percolating away in my mind for a month or so, I love the imagery of it, have always adored getting a peak at the studios of artists. One of the best things about Saturday has for me been the 'Writer's Room' feature in the Guardian Review, though, sadly that seems to have stopped recently. The thing I can't quite get to grips with, though, is the thought of keeping everything on the computer, everything. I wonder if he actually does, I didn't ask him? How I would love to be able to do that, imagine how neat and serene his room must be. I dream of having a large, virtually empty space to work in, no distractions. Unfortunately I can't seem to keep my collecting habit to my computer, it keeps spilling out into the material world.

My writing table, this morning. No wonder I'm unable to get any work done.

*At the Borders Book Festival during the questions bit after his reading, sadly he wouldn't know me if he had to scrape me off the sole of his shoe.

** I should just say here that I didn't take notes so this probably isn't exactly what he said.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Picture This

My best friend came for lunch today with her three children, the oldest of whom is five. They live quite a distance away, and have to spend almost as long in the car as they can here, so it takes some thought for them to come, which means they don't come often. This is a shame because we have such a ball when we're all together, but the kids will grow and things will get easier, in the meantime when they do come they always leave plenty to remember them by:

Oscar, the five year old, spotted my old (sadly now legless) tailor's dummy and decided to dress it up. It is now called Sheldon.

They also brought home-made gifts.

Edith who is two and a half made this for me yesterday.

Oscar made this and was really rather excited about giving it to me.

They all made these together; isn't that a lovely image?

After lunch we went to the park and Blythe who is just one lost a shoe. We retraced our steps and kept our eyes peeled, but we didn't find it. They were brand new and cost forty quid. None of which bothered her; when we got back to the house she was sleeping soundly in her buggy.

As Oscar had been desperate to draw on my blackboard wall from the minute he'd seen it, I showed him where I kept the chalk while the baby slept and mummy gathered up their belongings before they had to leave, and was rewarded with these masterpieces.

I Need Cake, by Edith.

Higher, by Oscar.

I do hope they can come back soon.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Fantasy Writer

I've remembered the other thing I wanted to tell: I went to the beach with Kim and his kids, Rogan and Meg, last Monday so he could practise his photography by pretending he was doing the shots for the inside of my book jacket. I say pretending because I don't have a book jacket. But I might one day so maybe this was more of a rehearsal. Whatever it was, it was fun. We took a picnic and everything.

This doesn't look like the beach because it's not, it's a viewpoint we stopped off at on the way back to Kim's but is the only shot I got of the three of them that is in focus and not too dark.

I asked if we could go to the beach for the shoot because I felt I needed a theme to feed a look, and I had landed, like an excited bee in a field of comfrey, on exploration. I've always admired those lady explorers. You know the ones who set off on their own across continents when women were supposed to stay home as a male appendages? They always looked so strong, free, and defiant, yet no less elegant and no less female. They proved certain dichotomies to be myths, and I hope that I am carrying on in the tradition they started. When a colleague once asked me to choose another noun for myself (once he'd explained what on earth he was talking about and given me an example – he chose 'witness' for himself ) I said 'explorer': I do feel that's what I do when I write: explore the why and how of us as a species, not to mention the possibilities of literature itself, and what I can do with it. Once the look/theme was decided I needed a setting, and as neither Kim nor I live near a desert or jungle the Galloway coastline seemed the next best thing. In the space of one small cove you will find smooth and sandy here, rocky and jaggy there, grass, pebbles, shells, and rock pools with tiny creatures in them. I could feel like an explorer in such a place. Also, the light is good at the beach which means fewer unpleasant shadows.

I can't pose for photographs, the minute I become aware of the camera pointing my way I kind of freeze, it takes someone with a good dose of empathy to get a decent shot of me. One day, when I'm feeling gung-ho I'll show you one or two of my wedding photographs and you'll see what I mean. By the end of that day I'd been stiffly smiling for so long that my cheeks hurt. I look like a stuffed hamster in every photo.

Kim saw my discomfort and suggested I just run about the beach with the kids saying he'd merely follow. So that's what we did, and very soon I pretty much forgot about the camera and simply had fun. And, although out of the hundred or so shots he took there were only about ten I could bear to look at, there were some I actually liked!

As You can see I didn't dress up but next time, if there is a next time, I'm thinking of wearing a ball gown.

After the exertion we stopped in at Cream o' Galloway for an ice-cream (we chose our beach carefully!) before heading home. As we were driving along Kim pointed out this:

My dream writing room!

Click on any of the pictures to enlarge. The two photographs of me are courtesy of Kim Ayres Photography.