Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Why Starting Out is Hard To Do

Courtesy of
You know what it’s like when you are tinkering with an almost completed writing project. You are putting the finishing touches to something that you are pleased with. You know all the characters as if they were old friends – slightly creepy friends who have got right inside your head. There is still work to do, but you can sit down at the computer and spend a stretch of time in creative flow, producing solid, satisfying writing.

It’s just not the same when you’re starting out. There is a lot of staring into space. There is no palpable task to take up when you sit down to write – just a nebulous project that needs enormous amounts of ill-defined work. Your most productive moments come when you’re in the shower or miles from your computer. These flashes of inspiration result in notes stuffed in a folder, rather than pages of text you can be proud of. It feels as though you’re getting nothing done. You tell people you’re ‘working on a new project’, but a little voice in your head pipes up, ‘Yeah right. You’re a fraud.’

This is where I am at the moment. My first novel Unspeakable Things is off at a competition, waiting to be judged. Three short stories are waiting to be rejected – sorry, considered – by a magazine. So I am working on my second novel, Spite. This one is about a soap actress, so I have been reading autobiographies – Patsy Palmer’s All of Me (very good) and Danniella Westbrook’s Faith, Hope and Clarity (much less good). I can justify this as ‘research’, and it has been useful and inspiring in ways I hadn’t anticipated – I pretty much wanted to know what the dressing rooms are like on Eastenders, but there is a lot about fame, success and insecurity that feeds the themes of this novel.

But it’s not the same as the lovely tweaking and perfecting process that I so enjoyed with Unspeakable Things. I am giving up work to go freelance in a few weeks to spend more time writing. It would be great to have a discernible task to sit down and accomplish every day.

Then this morning, a little breakthrough. I had begun to think about how the novel would start. I had enormous trouble writing the beginning of Unspeakable Things, and I’m still not sure that it grabs the reader as it should. Most of the new novel will be from the point of view of the heroine aged 26, interspersed with a first person commentary from when she was 13. One of the themes is bullying, and I sat down to write a first paragraph by the young heroine about how she met her new best friend when they were 9 and her group of friends at school were leaving her out.

As I read back over this tentative first paragraph, tears came to my eyes – but in a good way. I thought, if I picked this up as a reader, I’d want to read on.

Hold tight. I think we’re underway.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

7 Annoying Things Women Do

As promised, the rejoinder to '5 Annoying Things Men Do'. The fact that the women's list has 7 points instead of 5 does not mean that women are more annoying. It means that men are infinitely annoying so I had to select the top 5 for them, whereas the 7 things listed here are the only things that are annoying about women. That's right isn't it..?

I asked both men and women for suggestions, and was thrilled to find that I do nearly all of these annoying things myself. There's only one thing that is something other women do*.

(Please note that I have used him/her scenarios to make the language simpler - I respect women’s right to annoy other women as well as men.)

Courtesy of

1 Hogging the duvet

As a wise man said, if you think women are the weaker sex, try getting the duvet off one in the middle of the night. Even in my sleep, my grip on the warm covering is steely.

2 Taking too long in public toilets

Seriously, what are you doing in there? Total outfit change? Catching up on emails?  There’s a queue!! And women will do this even when there is one of those anxiety-inducing queues, like in the interval at a show. They have no shame.

3 Refusing to make a decision, then disagreeing with someone else’s

‘Shall we have Indian or Italian?’
‘I don’t mind, you decide.’
‘Well I fancy an Indian, let’s go to the Balti House.’
‘We always have an Indian! Why can’t we have Italian?’

4 Not ordering a dessert, making her partner feel greedy for having one, then eating half of his 

Because calories don’t count if you didn’t order them?

5 Never getting to the point

 I laughed when a colleague suggested this one with a haunted, long-suffering look. Sometimes I meander around the point for ages, for the sheer joy of expressing myself.

6 In moments of crisis, venting emotion instead of looking for a solution

My computer does something terrifying in the middle of some important work. Do I calmly go through the likely causes until I find what’s wrong, and then fix it? Of course not. I scream and shout about how important the work is, how long it took me, how bloody typical this is and how much I hate my life. When colleagues suggest solutions, I angrily tell them why they won’t work (because life is unfair and randomly cruel) instead of trying them.

7 Saying she’s fine when she isn’t

She’s annoyed. He doesn’t know why, so he asks if she’s OK. She says she’s fine but then goes out of her way to show that she isn’t. Now she’s upset, not just for the original reason, but also because he doesn’t know what this is. Frank Skinner calls this ‘my girlfriend’s favourite game: Guess Why I’m Upset’.

* In case you're wondering, I don't take too long in public toilets.

Saturday, 31 October 2015

I Fail, and Get Over It

Courtesy of Daily

So the middle of October approached and I still hadn’t heard from Mslexia, whose Women’s Novel competition I had entered. This was the one I was pinning my hopes on, the one I mentioned when people said, ‘So how’s the writing going?’ (into which I read, You’re not STILL working on that same novel – how can it not be finished?)

Even in fantasies, I did not envisage winning the competition: my ambition was to get long-listed which would mean that:
1)      My endless revisions were finally getting me somewhere and had produced a good first 5,000 words and
2)      Someone would ACTUALLY READ the many thousands of words after that and get to the really good bits.

Then an email arrived entitled ‘Sorry’. Sorry but the standard this year was so high, blah blah, don’t be discouraged, blah blah, best of luck in your BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH!

 I had a few hours of deep self pity. I saw all that hope and all that work coming to nothing. I pictured people’s faith in me slumping. Alone in the car on the way home, I ranted about how upsetting it was and asked God, ‘Why?!’

I emailed my writing mentor. Her answer was my first consolation. She was sorry, and she knew how it felt. She said that getting anywhere with Mslexia was tricky. However, entering the competition had accelerated the final stages of composition and made me look at the novel with a judicious eye. This would all help with further revision and submission. Finally, what about the Exeter Novel Prize? You had to submit 10,000 words and a synopsis. The deadline was in a few days.

But after such a knockback, how was I going to find the get-up-and-go to revise the beginning in time? Well, failure, it turns out, has a bracing effect. I now looked at the start with a totally new attitude. Previously I had tinkered with it, but on the whole it had seemed carved in stone – because everything else flowed from it. To change it would be to disrupt the whole. Now though, it was totally up for grabs. It had failed. It wasn’t working. So start again!

I did start again. I reimagined it, as though it were a scene from a new piece of writing, something infinitely malleable and full of possibilities. I rewrote it. I quite liked it but left it to marinate for a bit, and then I tried something else instead. That seemed good for a day or two, but then I read it again and saw that it didn’t quite work. I reordered it so that it flowed better. Now it was working. 

Then I rewrote the rest up to the 10,000 word mark. I loved the way the 10,000 words ended on a good bit, a bit that caused an intake of breath. Then I realised that I had to fit a 500 word synopsis into the word allowance. Sigh of frustration. Swear words. Then back to work, cutting and recrafting the sample and chopping back an old 900 word synopsis to 500 words, with just about recognisable syntax. And off it all went to Exeter on the wings of an email.

Maybe it still won’t win a competition. Maybe it won’t even get long-listed. But it is much better than it was. Failing freed my thinking and boosted my creativity, which had subsided into tinkering because so much work had gone into the novel that it had become like scripture in my head – something holy and not to be tampered with.

But that’s not how writing works. Reading of my setback on social media, some lovely, well-meaning people implied that I need to wait for the world to wake up to my talent. In truth though, until I produce something that makes people want to read on, my writing isn’t good enough to be published. Until then - though it baffles people that it is taking so long - the novel isn’t finished. But it will be! And it will be worth reading. And I’ll be proud of it.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

5 Annoying Things Men Do

I should start by saying that I like men. I have a lovely Dad and husband, and two wonderful sons. Nevertheless, I have had great fun working on this shortlist. The items listed are not necessarily the most annoying things – they are the ones I believe are most common, and therefore most recognisable to other women. Some of them, I hazard to suggest, are almost universal, and many of them begin early in boyhood and never go away.

courtesy of

1 Being offered a taste of something and taking an ENORMOUS bite

When I was a little girl, I was keen to gain favour from a little boy I liked, so I agreed to let him have a bite of my Milky Way. He bit at least half of it off and then laughed at my sad expression. Grown men still do this. They think it is manly and endearing. They still laugh about it too.

2 Going shopping without checking what’s in the cupboards  first

Men are results oriented and react well to praise, so it is good to encourage them and not to get cross during the shopping debrief. However, sarcasm can come in useful. When I find a duplicate  item, instead of pointing to the waste of time and money, I comment, ‘Oh, that’s nice – we’ll put it with the other one in the cupboard.’

3 Boy looking

This is my name for ‘searching’ for things and quickly declaring them lost, without lifting up other things to look under them. For instance a boy will shout, ‘There’s no ham!’ When you find the ham under the cheese after a two-second search of the fridge, the boy will look at you as though you made it completely inaccessible by hiding it so deviously. Boy looking often survives into adulthood.

4 The ‘near enough’ underwear deployment policy

Socks or pants are considered near enough to the laundry basket if they are on the floor within four feet of it.

5 The double duvet manoeuvre

When getting out of bed in the night, the man cannot lift the duvet, slide out from under it and replace it on the bed where he was previously lying. Oh no, that’s for girls. He has to whip the duvet aside with the gusto of a cape-wielding bullfighter, then dump it on top of you, without asking whether you wanted to be woken up by a thudding quilt attack and left to swelter under a double layer of high-tog-rating bed furniture.

Next time  

5 Annoying Things Women Do. I have already been thinking this through and so far I do every one!

I would love to hear from you if you have any suggestions for either list!

Monday, 31 August 2015

What Tribe Are You In? Thatcher’s Britain, ISIS and the Need to Belong

Listening to a radio programme about how ISIS attracts followers, a couple of things struck me about people in general, and young people in particular:

1)      They need to belong

2)      They need to put their energy and commitment behind something that seems meaningful

These needs must have their roots in our tribal past, and they are particularly strong among adolescents with their drive to create a new adult identity.

In many ways, chance dictates what particular tribe people join. It might be a sub-culture, gang, football team, political movement, religion, type of music or support for an issue or minority. When I was a teenager I was into the Anti-Nazi League and CND. I went on marches and attended rallies against Cruise Missiles being brought onto British soil. It was only when I went abroad for a year to be an au pair that they managed to install them behind my back.

Image courtesy of

Young people are often fervently engaged with their cause, however wrong-headed or trivial it might seem to others. In my twenties, I studied English Literature. You may not realise how passionately that subject area was divided in the early eighties – how we disdained old-school, bourgeois literary criticism and cheered on Marxist, post-structuralist, psychoanalytical and linguistic approaches – oh, I can’t even remember all the ‘isms’ we believed in, but we were passionate about every one.

Thatcher's Britain - the miners' strike, image courtesy of

And of course, I lived in Thatcher’s Britain, and so we occupied campus banks that supported South Africa, and marched for the miners and against the cuts. In 2013, when Thatcher died and was duly eulogised, the vilification that followed was a wake-up call. People still detested her, in their blood and bone – which in an era of insipid battles for the middle ground, was a reminder of how tribal British politics used to be.

Ideology was made for the young, who haven’t yet suffered the disillusionment of seeing things fail. With maturity (or is it complacency, or compromise?) we look back on the beliefs of our youth and see how starkly black and white they were. I would not have believed you if you had told me then that in throwing out the old orthodoxies, we were just creating new ones.

When you are young and energetic, you are on the lookout for something to throw your energy into. It might be a sport or a personal challenge, but it might be a campaign or activity. Churches ignore this at their peril. If they are teaching the love of Jesus, but not leading young people into an active expression of that teaching, they will lose those young people (and some older people too).

Christian young people in community action, courtesy of

And young people quickly become expert at debunking the myths they are fed; the marketing and the media narratives that bombard them all day. This puts them on the look-out for an alternative reality, a counter-narrative that they can believe in.

I am no expert on jihadist persuasion, but I do wonder if it uses all these factors to draw young people in. What if they haven’t found something to believe in, if life seems mundane or pointless, if they don’t have a feeling of belonging? What if someone points out that the media are feeding them a worldview that needn’t be theirs? A lot of what enters their minds through screens, large and small, is skewed or untrue. If someone offers them an alternative reality, it might feel like the scales falling from their eyes and a truth that had been kept from them finally being revealed. Friends or loved ones who argue against it might just seem blind to its real value. 

This is why people join cults; it might also be why they leave everything behind them and travel to Syria, while in the same news bulletin, we learn that people whose lives and homes are in Syria have died in their desperation to leave.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Is the Old You Still In There?

Courtesy of

Do you ever wonder if you are still the same person you have always been? Can you feel your inner child inside you, reacting to the life you live now? Do our personalities survive intact over years of growth, change and (at my age) a certain amount of external sagging?

Sometimes we feel completely divorced from our past selves. What do I have in common with the Sophie who so desperately wanted to win the bunny hops race at primary school that she burst into tears yards from the finishing line? Or 26-year-old Sophie who left everything behind and flew off to live in Hong Kong, with only the promise of a floor to sleep on and a reliable supply of Chinese food?

Think of the number of brain cells that have died and been replaced since childhood, continuously creating a new self and discarding the old one. Am I, in scientific fact, not still the same person I was?

As a married forty-something with a mortgage and two children, I was stunned when a counsellor looked me in the eye and said, ‘Ah! You’re a risk taker. It’s a character trait.’ I remembered how toddler Sophie climbed the highest slide in the playground, and came swooping down, thrilled, while Mum called out predictions about ending up in casualty. And how, at 26, I was ready to relocate to war-torn Sudan where, disappointingly, there wasn’t a big demand for book editors. But was I really still that person?

Yes, something of the child survives – and this is how I know. A few years ago I went to a primary school reunion, and there was Sally Forsyth. She was called something different now, and was an adult woman, and – I kept having to remind myself as we stood in the school building where we were once best friends – so was I. We caught up with where life had taken us. I had had children, and she hadn’t. She had a head for business, and I don’t. But I came away knowing exactly why I loved her when we were five. There was the same spark, the same sensation of a self recognising a compatible self across a crowded room, and knowing we should be together.

A few weeks ago, I went to Jim Watson’s funeral. The Watsons were our closest friends when I was tiny. Kitty was Mum’s friend; and Jim was Dad’s. They had two girls too. I was the younger child but paired up with their older daughter, Rosalind, while my older sister was friends with their younger girl, Miranda. We played together all the time, spent Christmas day together, grew up side by side.
We had not seen each other properly for years, yet at the funeral, my sister and I each gravitated towards our former friend. And there was that spooky sense of recognition. Rosalind’s sharp wit. The way she laughed out loud when she found something outrageous. The forthright, original things she said. She was still the bright, imaginative, quirky person she had been as a child. We might have been back in the bedroom where she put pillow slips on her arms, we back-combed her hair and she sang ‘Ride a White Swan’ like Marc Bolan; where we screwed our eyes shut and convinced ourselves that her bed could fly us to the moon. She was still the person that child-Sophie thrived on and recognised as one of life’s true friends.

Courtesy of

However many brain cells die, however much adult life buries us, something deep within us is continuous, and survives. Now excuse me while I head for the park to find the biggest slide.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Are We Living Too Fast?

Courtesy of

The BBC’s Back in Time for Dinner, which concluded this week, was a surprise hit with me.

The story that leapt out at me was that of our growing compulsion to do everything faster. In the 1950s, Mum was virtually tied to the stove because everything took so long, what with the daily shop for still-rationed staples and all that boiling the flavour out. In the 1960s, the kids took off to embrace flower power, leaving Mum bewildered in the kitchen where, to achieve the flavour sensation of spaghetti bolognaise, she had to take a time-consuming trip to exotic Soho for garlic. Then came the 70s with their spectacularly empty promise:

‘With all these labour-saving devices, the only problem in future decades will be what to do with all the leisure time’.

courtesy of

So, let’s see – how did that turn out? We decided to take the so-called ‘leisure time’ and pack more work into it, and the faster we could do things, the more we felt compelled to shoe-horn in. In the 80s came pre-packed sandwiches to eat at your desk – so no need to take a lunch hour and sit chatting with colleagues. Soon there was no time for family meals, as everyone did their own thing in the microwave and ate it in front of a screen. Only last night I caught the new Weetabix ad – they have invented a drink that contains all the benefits of a solid breakfast, whizzed up into a drink that you can sling down your neck while breaking the land speed record on the way to work. It gave me indigestion just watching it.

Now, I don’t want to be like the man who warned that that the speed of the newly invented steam train would cause people’s brains to explode.

 But what effect does this high-speed living have on our wellbeing?

With most people working full time, everything else we want from life has to be crammed in round the edges. We have become so busy that we no longer have time to think about what we want from life. The fact is that some things that are valuable take time. Writing, for instance involves a lot of staring into space before we can get on to the nippy speed-typing part.

This blog post could be really insightful, but let’s face it – you just want it to be quick. 

And so do I – I’ve got loads to do.

We want to be fit and well-read and involved and well-informed, and our bosses want us to produce stuff better and more efficiently than anyone else, and the only way to achieve all this in one lifetime is to do it all faster.

Our children start school in nappies, because no one has time for old-fashioned, thorough potty training, and we must start cramming education into them at four, or we’ll all get left behind. 

We harass them out of the house every morning for the nag-athon to school, then hassle them along to improving after-school clubs that fit in with our own busy lifestyles. We want everything for them: wellbeing, happiness, success – and we want it fast.

I have always been mystified by statistics that show us to be the most stressed generation ever known.

How can we be more stressed than the people who lived through the Blitz? 

Could this insatiable need for speed the reason?

My husband had a major breakdown a couple of years ago, caused at least in part by his job as a primary school Deputy Head. He was spending his days running from place to place addressing problem after problem, with no time to go into the staff room for a chat and no realistic chance of solving anything or actually completing a task. He ended up suffering from crippling anxiety and depression that took nine months and a major life rethink to cure.

Courtesy of

Even those of us who remain well could do with a rethink.

We yearn for inner peace or a lost sense of community, while being unbearably irritated by the motorist who delays us by twenty seconds, or that rare person with ‘time on their hands’ who wants to use up our priceless minutes chatting(?!) 

Even in the middle of doing something I love, that I have looked forward to, I sometimes find myself mentally ticking off the moment and thinking, ‘I must move on now to the next thing on the list’.

But does it have to be this way? 

The Back in Time for Dinner programme did offer some hope. In every decade, as lifestyles have changed, there have always been people who have thought outside the box and decided to do things differently.

To accept that ‘this is just the way things are’ is to accept a life that someone else has chosen for you. 

We have make our own choices – but it might mean looking the prevailing culture in the eyes and declaring that there is another way. It’s worth thinking about. Or would be if any of us have time.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

A Very British Eclipse

Courtesy of Michael Hobson @guardiannews

There was something peculiarly British about this week’s eclipse, at least viewed from the overcast South East, which is where I saw it, or more accurately, didn’t see it. I hear it was spectacular in the Faroe Islands - and how did they get the big show? Did I miss some kind of bidding process? - Here, it was dull, cloudy and cold for three days beforehand, and on the day itself, it remained cloudy and went a bit duller and colder, before brightening up later when it was too blinking late.

But in a funny way, in Britain, isn’t that how we like things? The French can have their gallic shrug; we are masters of the eye-roll skywards and snort of derision that mean things are nowhere near what they were cracked up to be. This is what we did when the French finished their half of the Channel Tunnel, and despite an enormous build-up, we failed to meet them half-way. This is how we like our celebrities, too – we cheer them on in their success, but then wait for them to fall on their faces. We might even give them a little push, since a star’s downfall is a reassuring return to the status quo in which people do not ultimately overreach themselves. Real life, in the British mindset, is not bright and extraordinary; it is a little bit poxy.

Let’s be honest, the success of the 2012 Olympics completely threw us. As sports commentators, ex-athlete peers and royals assured us this would be our time to shine, Britons were unshakable in the belief that it was all going to be a disaster. I will never forget the almost cringeing expectation with which my family sat round to watch Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony. A few minutes in, we looked at each other with expressions that said, ‘Wait – is this actually going to be good?!’ And so it turned out, from Super Saturday onwards. Who knew that we could do a good Olympics? This aberration dented our faith but it didn’t break it: in Britain, big build-ups come before a fall; high expectations are just crashing disappointments waiting to happen.

We are pessimists and we love a moan. We will never achieve the perky self-belief of Americans. But there is something I love in this national determination to expect the least, and I think it’s the quirky, self-deprecating humour of it.

And so, on Friday as 9.30 approached, my colleagues and I trooped outside to view the much heralded planetary phenomenon, telling each other that with the super-moon, the spring equinox and the extraordinary line-up of heavenly bodies, anything could happen. At the very least, we could expect to burn our retinas. It was parky and didn’t look promising, but we allowed ourselves – fools! I blame Brian Cox – to get a bit excited. The day was so impenetrably cloudy that you couldn’t even work out where the sun was in the sky. ‘Is this it?’ asked our youngest staff member, who has not yet learned that cynicism is there to protect us. ‘I mean, I thought it would go dark? Like a light going out?’ We shook our heads sagely, as if to say, ‘No that’s about it. Poxy isn’t it? Get used to it.’ But at that moment, I stepped aside from the grumbling crowd to have a look down the drive, and coming towards me was a bizarre apparition.

Courtesy of

  ‘Do we know anyone with Morris Minor?’ I asked. ‘Only there’s one coming up the drive...’
  ‘It’s a tear in the time-space continuum!’ shouted someone. ‘We’re back in 1953!’
  Two ladies from a charity, come to collect out food bank donation, climbed out of their car to find us falling about, laughing at ourselves and our silly hopes with a strange kind of British joy.

Friday, 20 February 2015

5 Things I Would Say Out Loud To Strangers If I Were Stroppy Enough

     1) Oi! You’ve peed on the seat!

You know the scenario. As you go into the Ladies, you catch the eye of a woman coming out. You exchange that vague half-friendly nod that says, ‘excretion, eh?!’ She looks, as far as it is possible to tell, like a civilised person. Then you go in the toilet stall. You look down. She has peed all over the seat. Many is the time I have fantasised about stalking out and bellowing:

Courtesy of

‘Excuse me – you’ve peed all over this seat! If I had sat down, I would be covered in your wee by now! I bet you are one of those toilet-phobics who hover instead of sitting down. Well you know what? It’s people like you who make seats wet for the rest of us! You are the ones causing the problem! It’s time you got over your mother’s warnings about diseases and wised up. Here’s what you do in a toilet. Go in. Look down. Even if you can’t see any visible drops, wipe the seat. Sit down – preferably over the large hole in the middle. When you’re done, just in case, and as a courtesy to the next person – wipe the seat again. Exit. Wash hands. Job done. WHY IS THIS TOO HARD FOR YOU?!’

2 Get control of your dog!

If your dog is hurtling towards me, slathering from bared jaws, or jumping up trying to slash at my clothes with its claws, it is not good enough for you to object balefully, ‘He’s only a puppy! He won’t bite you!’

Courtesy of

Here’s what I would say if I dared. ‘I don’t care. I am already not OK with what he is doing now. To you he may be an adorable best friend, but I was bitten in the face as a baby by a Pekinese, which my grandmother assured everyone was only playing. When you see cute playfulness, my primitive brain sees toothy death bearing down on my jugular vein, ready to rip it out. And apparently your half-arsed baby-voice cries of Tootsie! are making no difference. This beast has prey in its sights and has forgotten you exist. Can I ask that you GET CONTROL OF YOUR DOG!’

3 Everything would be all right with my meal if you would just stop interrupting it to ask!

Courtesey of

I know, waiters are trained to do this. It is meant as genuine polite concern for the customer. But when you are enjoying a meal out, and deep in conversation, there is nothing more annoying than someone breaking right in with, ‘Is everythink all right with your meal?’ It’s worse when they do it again when your next course arrives. And again when you forget that Christmas is still clinging to your thighs and go for pud.

Conversation is really important to me. When I combine this with an eating activity, I am already jostling with the need not to show other people the contents of my mouth. I am multi-tasking, and I don’t want to be stopped mid-sentence for an analysis of my dining experience. I really don’t mind you asking, but please wait for a lull, when your intervention might alleviate an awkward silence, and would be welcomed with enthusiastic praise.

4 Mind your own business!

Courtesy of

This is, once again, clearly the result of over-optimistic training – this time of supermarket cashiers. Now, I love to strike up a genuine conversation with a cashier, if I’m in the mood and they seem amenable. I have been a cashier. It is stressful and dull, and you work ridiculously long shifts with, these days, barely any right to a tea break. It’s nice to make human contact with the person scanning your tins of mushy peas, and the next time you shop, you’ll know them and the world will seem a friendlier place.

But if you’re in the middle of an existing conversation, or stressing that it’s pouring and you’re going to get soaked lugging the trolley to the car, you don’t necessarily want an awkward teenager to bust in with a rote-learned, ‘Have you got any plans for the weekend?’ And when you grunt something non-commital, hoping they will see the signs and leave you alone, you don’t want a detailed itinerary of their weekend plans for a trip to Laserquest.

Cashiers and trainers of cashiers, actual conversation is an art, not something you can thrust on people. And British reserve is there for a reason. It protects our right to shop silently if that’s the mood we’re in. Respect it!

5 Stop trying to swim through me!

Courtesy of

Yes, this time it’s personal. Where I go swimming, there is a woman who has no concept of personal space. I think she may be amphibious, because even though I arrive at 6.30am when the pool opens, she is always in the water already. She ploughs up and down, and when she reaches the end, turns and pushes of with absolutely no reference to anyone else in the pool. If you are in the way, she just carries on as though you made of a liquid she can swim through. If you are, in fact, made of solid matter, this can result in bruises, but she never stops to check.

My problem is that her speed is similar to mine, except that she slows down a bit towards the end of a length. If I set off after her, I will catch her up. However, if I overtake, this seems to offend her. For the next length, she will flap at my feet or barge me out of the way, until she is ahead again.

Early morning swimming is meant to be a relaxing pastime. You don’t want pool rage incidents. So I always make sure that I am a full length away from her. Even so, more regularly than you would expect in a non-contact sport, I feel a full-blown punch connecting with head, or a kick in the ribs, or see a watery dervish exploding towards me. And it’s always her.

Once, a fellow pool user noted that she actually tried to swim through me, and ended up barging her sea-creature body right over mine, with a lot more skin to skin contact than I normally encourage with people I am not married to.

This has gone on for years, several times a week, and I have never said anything. That British reserve can be a curse sometimes!

Go on, I’d love to hear, what would you say out loud if you were stroppy enough?

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Where Has the Time Gone?! Rip Van Winkle Strikes Again

Rip Van Winkle, courtesy of

I don’t mind telling you that one of the novel ideas that keeps nagging at me is a time-slip story. My protagonist, like Henry in Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife, will jump around in time. She will journey repeatedly from a mysterious present into different eras of her life, falling in and out of each, not in the peaceful way we access memories, but with a traumatic disorientation. For her, one reality will melt away unresolved and a new one will break in with its own urgent demands.

There are moments in all our lives when the passage of time confronts us in this stark and staggering way, and I am so fascinated by this that if Washington Irving had not written Rip Van Winkle in 1918, I would have to write it myself. In the story, Rip goes up into the mountains, falls asleep for twenty years and returns to his village, not realising that time has passed and everything has changed.

When I returned to Tunbridge Wells from Hong Kong with a husband, toddler and baby on the way, I had not lived here since I was a teenager. As I walked around with a pushchair, I searched the faces of seventeen-year-olds, looking for my friends. I constantly had to remind myself that I was now thirty-one. The teenagers I gazed at were strangers. My local friends had probably moved away and in any case were unlikely to be hanging out in the precinct; they were probably pushing prams somewhere themselves.

I have experienced a couple of moments that felt like actual time travel. In conversation with a counsellor once, I described a feeling of anguish and helplessness I had had in a recent encounter. ‘Do you remember feeling like this in this person’s presence before?’ she asked. Suddenly I was in the grip of a childhood memory of raw intensity. It was a memory I knew was there, but hadn’t thought of for years, and I had recalled it with its emotional sound turned down, as if watching a cine-film of someone else’s life. Now I experienced it at full power, as real and present as if the intervening years had fallen away. Afterwards, I found my way to the car and sat wondering how a traumatised three-year-old was going to manage to drive home.

A much more pleasant time-travel experience was a trip back to my beloved primary school for its fortieth anniversary. I had been one of the first pupils and was welcomed like a historical relic, to talk to the children about the olden days of 1969 when I started. I met old teachers and pupils and stood in the cloakroom where I had hung my plimsoll bag and coat as a five-year-old, just staring and feeling the years lift way. I drove back to work, my mind in a time decades past, and nipped into the loo, still spellbound by memories. When I opened the door, strange figures were passing by in the corridor outside. They were my colleagues. This was the twenty-first century. I might have been stepping out of a time machine.

It was yesterday that brought on all this time-slip rumination. Jon and I met up with friends from our time in Hong Kong: a drinking mate from my first carefree days there and his then girlfriend, now wife and mother of his daughters. We lived those, wild, heady expat years together and then met up for several reunions after our return to the UK with our settled new lives and little children. 
A previous reunion with Hong Kong friends. 

And another!

We met yesterday after a gap of almost ten years. Our little children have gone their separate ways into student life; theirs will soon be gone too. Our Hong Kong life was an intense but even more distant memory. It was lovely to see them, but as we ate dim sum and sipped jasmine tea (driving, and middle-aged health issues making a drunken gathering unwise) I for one felt the ghosts of our former selves at our elbows: young, carefree and full of a joy we can only hanker after now. Where has the time gone? I fell off the edge of it and found myself here and now. I don’t know how this happened. 

Sunday, 25 January 2015

In Praise of Praise

courtesy of

Did someone in your life do something well this week? A partner, child, colleague, shop assistant,  hairdresser, gas fitter, trainee, student or pupil? Were you pleased?

Yes? Did you tell them?

courtesey of


I don’t know why it sometimes seems hard to praise people. Perhaps we’re afraid of sounding patronising, or pointing clumsily to the relationship in which our approval is something they need. Perhaps the person in question has worked for you for ages and you don’t really think about what they do any more. Maybe you think your teenager doesn’t need your little hurrahs the way he did when he was a child. Perhaps you think it goes without saying that you’re pleased the gas fitter came on time and that your boiler is working again.

But we all need approval. Going through life without praise is soul-sapping. It shrivels our self-esteem and turns our keen efforts into drudgery that makes no sense.

courtesey of

A few words of praise from someone we respect can give us the motivation to succeed.

My writing mentor is always encouraging, but she’s measured and doesn’t gush. She points out every flaw, and so she should; that’s what I’m paying her for. But it meant all the more when my latest chapters came back with more positive comments than I have seen before.  Words like ‘brilliant’, ‘excellent’ and ‘lovely’ described elements of the story I’ve been working on for so long.

 I still need to watch out for ‘a tendency to over-write’, and this is pointed out in detail in her report on each chapter. But that’s fine; I can work on that. I’m learning. My writing is getting better. It has attracted the praise of someone whose opinion counts. I can’t wait to get on with it and continue the push towards improvement.

courtesey of

So, thanks, Lorna! The cheque’s in the post! No, I mean, it actually is in the post...

This comes at a time, let us say, when approval is lacking in other areas of life. Take note – because we all have the power to make someone feel appreciated. Praise matters. We all need it. It makes effort feel worthwhile.