Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Lovely, articulate teenage readers for Christmas

It took two gins and an overstuffed cigarette, but this afternoon I pushed the doorbell at my mother’s next door neighbours’ and took a deep breath, followed by a hacking cough. I was due an audience with the two teenage girls who live there, and who have read the manuscript of my first novel. It was written for a young readership, probably 11-13, and they are slightly too old for it, but they had agreed to give me feedback and I was, to be honest, terrified.

They are my first young readers, and I have been shored up by positive reviews from grown-ups who have all been either related to me or good friends, so this was the novel’s first real test. A big thank you, then, to Isabel and Eleanor, for intelligent comments, the odd highlighted typo and also recommended reads for next year.

I have to admit I was slightly spoiled by having these two as readers. They are both avid devourers of books, picking from their parents’ bookshelves at random to see what’s between mysterious covers. One is reading Jane Eyre, having been set it before for school course work. They are divided over Harry Potter.

Not surprisingly, they both felt the book was slightly younger than something they would choose themselves. However, they judged the age of the teenage protagonist exactly as I’d imagined him, and despite my reservations didn’t find him na├»ve for his years.

I’ve been waiting ages to get some opinions from teenagers regarding the very concept of a teenage book market. Interestingly, they weren’t directly opposed, but both said they would simply choose books they liked, regardless of intended audience. Eleanor (the younger of the two) in particular noted that the teenage book market seems to assume that all people of a certain age want to read the same kind of thing, which obviously is no more true of teenagers than it is of adults.

The best part for me was Isabel’s avowal that she really enjoyed the descriptions in the book. These lines and phrases are the ones closest to my heart, plotting and narrative being for me the greatest challenge, and I was so happy to hear someone pick them out as something she liked, over character or events. I’ve done a lot of cutting in that department, not enough according to some, so now I feel a small amount of vindication for leaving in the extra words that mattered to me.

I have left the manuscript in the hands of their ten year old brother; both his sisters assure me he won’t get the drug references, but he’s clearly at a reading level where he will have an opinion. Before I left, while we were discussing A level and university topics, he asked me what Philosophy is. I elaborated on my favourite answer (‘it’s thinking about thinking’) by giving him a taster of Berkeley.

“Imagine that everything around you is imaginary, but carries on seeming exactly the same way as it does now. Is that better, or worse? Does it have any funny consequences for how you have to think about the world?”

“It’s worse,” he replied immediately. His mother explained. “He’s imagining a world without sugar, aren’t you? Imagine a world where my store cupboard doesn’t exist, but the fridge drawer does. Only leeks and cabbage.” He nodded and grimaced.

One of the major preoccupations of philosophers – i.e. what’s for dinner – nailed down already at the age of ten. I await his comments with interest.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Short story #1 - commuting

My writers' group is producing an anthology, and each one of us has provided another member with three possible themes or titles to write from, designed to get us out of our comfort zones. I wrote three very short stories for mine here, but have decided to try to write all three full stories (2,000 words each) and pick the best one.

So I've made a start on a story called 'commuting.' It's still a working draft, and I'm interested to see if readers have the same theory about what's going on in it as I do. So far interpretations are divided, which is good. I don't want it to be obvious, but I don't want it to leave readers at a loss either. The style is well out of my comfort zone, as intended, and I wonder if it shows. Thoughts welcome.

'Some days she counts how many more times she will do this: the lurch from home to work, the limp back again. Then she sub-divides. How many out of those times will she rush in a clatter to jab a shoulder between the closing doors? How many times will she sit in the car park, window down to ward off sleep, listening for the lengthening delays? Take off sick days, holidays, her own and the children’s, not that Michael is really a child anymore. There are still too many more to contemplate on a cold Monday morning.

Today it is still dark while she manoeuvres, aiming for her favourite seat, glancing away as a girl wearing a hat like a stuffed animal slides into it. Aisle, travelling backwards then. You can’t always win. The girl wriggles and sighs and checks her phone.

As the train heaves away between chicken wire lit by tired streetlights, a tinny tune plays. She can’t even name the genre anymore, let alone a singer, a band. Do young people still tune in to the top ten? When do we stop keeping up? The girl lets it play, glaring at her phone, then lifts it to her ear as the clip begins to repeat.

It’s not like the music on Michael’s phone, not that she recognises that either. Now that there’s the girlfriend, he pounces on it before the singer can get a word in. Runs up the stairs before he’s even got to “how’s things?” She knows what the girlfriend looks like though. The top ten might be beyond her, but Facebook isn’t. Sweet, but a bit too much make-up. Blonde, but probably highlights. Carly. She wonders if Michael has a nickname for her. He’d never use ‘babe.’

That’s what the girl is saying now, snuffling under that bizarre hat. Maybe it’s a girly thing, calling everyone and anything babe. The announcement for the next station blares and the girl raises her voice, I can’t hear you babes, I’m on the train. If she had a penny for every time she’d heard that. She can’t bring herself to say it now, just switches off the phone for the journey. The signal’s terrible anyway.

They pull out again, platforms sliding away under their sour lights. If only there was a way to forget each stop, each name; to make the journey new again. So many more times. Take off sick days, holidays…

The girl is staring at her. Not at her, through her, absorbing some piece of information. Her mouth is pink between fake-pink frosted lips.

Michael must have had frost to contend with the last few nights. Camping out, the last round of his Duke of Edinburgh. It’s good for my CV, Mum, he says, no more convinced than she is. At least he’s out there, breathing real air, seeing real stars, hearing the real world instead of engines and security warnings and halves of conversations. She hopes it is helping, this trip. Fresh air is good for you. Rising to a challenge raises the spirits, sometimes.

A line of streaky black has appeared on the girl’s cheek. What is she doing on this train anyway? No briefcase, no tidy backpack with a wasted hiker’s logo, just that teddy bear hat. What do you mean, babes, I’m not getting it. What do you mean? She sounds panicky. It’s too early for panic, the world hasn’t woken up yet. You can smell the sleep fogging this carriage, every head wishing for its pillow.

Michael wouldn’t take one with him, not even a cushion off the settee. It’s proper wild camping, I won’t use it, he said. You never need as much as you think, Mum. Pack and then empty half back out again. Wisdom from a teenager; it made her smile but she knows he’s right. All those sarongs she squeezes in for Spain, padding out the shoes for smart and the sandals that rub and never leave her case. Take off holidays…

Except Spain had been more like sick days, this year. Sick with worry, is the expression, but it’s not as simple as nausea. Wrung out with worry. Wasted energy, but she can’t help herself, watching for a smile, listening for a hint of humour until her ears ache. It’s natural, is another thing people say. Teenage hormones, don’t you remember? Get him a bit of sunshine, out to the disco, distractions.

Neil calls it what it is, but only for his own benefit. Depression is medical, it’s an illness, a chemical imbalance. Like it’s a rash. Take off sick days…

But Neil isn’t at home anymore to see it. You can’t put a poultice on Michael’s mind. You can’t lift a cloud with aspirin. What has Neil been doing all weekend while she has been worrying?

Has she missed a station? She can’t remember. That’s what habit does to you. You zone out. But she must have, here’s the tunnel, and the girl is saying, I can’t hear you, Gemma, what did you say? Gemma? And she makes a little sobbing sound. There are two streaks of black now. Wet noises coming from her nose.

Should she ask if she’s alright? You don’t though, do you. Especially not with the young ones, they think you’re off another planet anyway. Get out of my face, she’d probably say, what’s it to you? Or worse.

She stares at the poster above the girl’s head, reads the words she has read so many times it makes her stomach turn. Has that image of the smiling couple, photoshopped over white cliffs and seagulls, written over a real memory? There’s only so much room up there. She flicks through images of Spain in her head, going a couple of years back to find the smiles and sunburn, but it’s just the photos she’s remembering. Whatever happened between those moments of posing has blurred together.

There weren’t any photos from Spain this year. Not enough smiles to last a whole film. No smiles, and no Neil to lug the camera.

A phone bleeps morse code behind her. Michael could have sent a text. She wishes he had, but then there’s probably no signal out there either. And you have to let them go. Birds from nests, boys from apron strings.

You’ never do anything silly, would you? She’d asked him once, when that other buy was found. You’d always talk to me, wouldn’t you? Yes Mum.

Having a girlfriend must be helping a bit, though. Maybe she should ask Michael to bring her next time, or over for Christmas even. She could take them out for something to eat, somewhere they’d like where young people go, never mind about her. Carly might warm to her, confide, open a little window into Michael’s life and she could smile and say, I see! Thank goodness he’s got you. Thank goodness he’s alright, really. She’d forgive the blonde highlights, the overdone make-up.

Babes, spit it out, the girl is repeating. I told you I’m on the train, it’ll go again, just tell me, tell me. Her voice is whining. The pinstriped suit across the aisle does one of those public sighs that says, you’re ruining everyone’s journey. The girl is oblivious. Her eyes see nothing that is around her, ringed in smudges.

The sky has turned from not quite black to grey. It looks as tired as these passengers, heaving itself up like a crumpled duvet, letting in cold air. The doors hiss open and more cram in, all coats and bags, jamming into the spaces between the seats. She always feels guilty, but she knows most of them see her as the old woman now. Offer this seat to those less able to stand. How do you tell just by looking? Offer this seat to those less able to stand it, this repetition, this sharing of space without sharing anything at all.

A couple of the new arrivals are glancing at the girl now, because she’s whimpering, like a puppy under her puppy hat. There’s a hand over the frosted-pink mouth with a mitten on it, a mitten like a child’s, with stars and spots. The phone is still pressed against her ear.

The train is gathering speed, empty trees flashing past, rows of lights dimmer against the lightening grey. The girl wipes the mitten across her nose and looks up. Her eyes are terrified, searching for something. She can’t help it, she stares back for a moment and then looks away again. She’s the adult, she can see what’s happening, should she take charge? But what would help be, even if it was wanted? She can’t offer a tissue. Whatever the girl is hearing, it needs more than a tissue.

On Friday, the girl says. But he was alright, he said it was the right thing, to split up. The phone is interrupting her, she shakes her head. No, I swear, he didn’t do nothing weird.

Anything, she thinks. Michael would get that right, he’s always been well-spoken, and the girl is up, their knees bang together and the small figure is pushing through the tuts and glares, through the impossible bulk between her and the door. She can hear the raspy gulps coming from that pink mouth and she strains to watch the girl’s progress as she ducks under an upstretched arm. The elbow catches her furry hat and she moves forward without it, streaked blonde hair trailing behind her.

Something makes her follow. She is embarrassed by not knowing what but she murmurs, sorry, excuse me, can I just squeeze? The pinstriped suit catches her eye. He knows this isn’t her stop, what’s she playing at? Breaking the equilibrium. Don’t sit at the end if you’re not going all the way. Don’t take a seat if you’re not staying. Stand. Stand it.

She can’t see the hat but the girl is standing, one mittened hand pressed against the glass of the door. Are they sure it’s him? She is pleading. He breath is raggedy, sodden.

She wants to tell her, it’s alright, only a minute till the next stop, you can get some air then, okay? Some fresh air? It’ll do you good. The blonde head is shaking again.

As the concrete strips crowd in alongside the carriage, sucking the train into the platform, she hears the small, whining voice. He said he wouldn’t do nothing silly. That’s what he said.

The doors beep and slide and the girl tumbles out. She should go too, just watch, just make sure she’s alright. It’s what she’d do for Michael. It’s what she does for Michael, hovering outside his bedroom door until she hears him safe in sleep.

But it’s not her stop, and what could she do, anyway? She’s a stranger, a weird old woman who eavesdropped on a conversation and broke the silent commuter rules. Don’t listen, don’t comment, don’t interfere.

She leans awkwardly on the blue plastic handle all the way to the final stop. This train terminates here. She always hates hearing that word. Terminates. So final, the cold death of a journey.

Trotting along with the herd, she fumbles in her bag and switches on her phone. Not thinking, just habit. She did the right thing, she’ll be on time at the office, tube allowing. The girl had someone to talk to, after all.

The screen flashes back at her, impertinent, not following the pattern. Fourteen missed calls. Three new messages. Check your voicemail now? Twelve calls are from Neil’s number, two unknowns. Neil is never up at this time, now he does the late shift, now he has only his own bed to fall into with no sleeping wife to disturb. Neil never calls at all. And he’s picking Michael up later, in the station car park. Monday morning.

She weaves to the edge and stands apart from the traffic of feet and tripping trolley cases, feeling her stomach twist, the buried fear rising to her skin. Yes, she presses with her thumb. Check my voicemail now. As the phone dials she watches a station worker emerge from the train, holding his gripper stick aloft, laughing. The girl’s teddy bear hat is dangling from the end.'

Sunday, 12 December 2010

The train goes running along the line

I am writing a short story at the moment set on a commuter train. It might be more accurate to say that it is set in the mind of a commuter, dealing with the repetition of those journeys, the way the little differences from one morning to the next become magnified against the familiar background.

Almost every weekday I take the same overground train East to West across London. Even though I grow weary of the struggle to wedge myself onto the train, and the every man for himself attitude that usually prevails, I still love to stare out of the window, when I can get near one. Trees, marshes and reservoirs slide past, pointing out the seasons that are hidden by the buildings that follow.

The train gets an unusual view on its path, taking you past the backs of everything. Instead of neat terrace fronts I can see the jumbly back gardens, washing flapping from awkward roof spaces, the places where foxes escape through the back fence into the strips of railway wilderness.

I remember the first time I spotted the rows of icicles fringing a station platform like its own secret Christmas decorations. Little views like that I sometimes wish I had captured, so I dared to get out my Diana camera with her new wide angle lens last week as I waited for my train, which was miraculously running. This is what she saw:

Some friends who came to live in London from Mexico used to say to me that London was blue, always blue. They meant it literally (they were professional photographers) but it took me a long time before I saw what they meant about the light here. You don't notice until you return from a faraway place, and then every view across the Londn skyline, from the bridges, morning or evening, seems to have a dusky blue filter across it. When I can't see it anymore because I've been in the city too long, one place where the air is always blue is in St Pancras, up under the roof.

I love big stations, but St Pancras is my favourite at the moment. My photo didn't do it justice at all, and failed to capture just how far away that roof seems, like a lid on a cool blue world that the inhabitatnts can never touch. It's probably a bit sad to admit it, but wandering about in there makes me glad to be in London again.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

I have elbows too

My sense of fairness or justice, as applied to myself, often seems to be turned up too high. I turn into ‘Outraged of E17’ over things that should wash over me like the London air, leaving only a smudge of dust, rather than a red face.

What often irks me most is the perception of someone taking more than they are entitled to, or not giving back the equivalent of what they take, leaving others (including me) short. Elbows and knees protruding from seats on the underground are guaranteed to get me going, but then I am writing this in the morning when I am at my least tolerant.

I’ve tried to kitchen-sink analyse this over-sensitivity but never really believed what I’ve come up with. I’m the older of two children in my family, so I thought, maybe it stems from the dinner-table eagle-eye of siblings wanting to ensure they are apportioned food (and love and opportunities) equally. In reality though, I don’t care if somebody gets more pudding than I do, though interestingly I remember my father, one of five siblings, getting het up about this. Possibly it stemmed from his passion for apple crumble rather than egalitarian principles.

On the other hand, wouldn’t an only child have a stronger sense of entitlement, not having had to share? Alternatively, having lacked competition, does an only child breeze through life without noticing minor infringements on their portions of space, attention and so on? I’ve no idea, I should ask a few of them.

It’s telling, though I’m not sure what it tells us yet, that this kind of indignation is often the result of perceived unfairness surrounding the minutiae of life, rather than bigger issues. A housemate wants cocoa and finishes the morning milk, a colleague hogs the desk with a better view, a classmate spreads their books over 55% percent of the shared bench. These things really don’t matter in the long run.

Yet people who let themselves become momentarily enraged by such trifles (like me) often don’t engage with much bigger injustices, even ones that affect them directly. The gender pay gap is one example, affecting a large proportion of us. Another is energy prices, where the hikes in actual cost to suppliers are allegedly passed onto customers more often that the reductions.

I feel bad that I let my rage flare over the small stuff such that I let bigger stuff slide, but I’m sure I’m not alone in this. In philosophical terms it seems to be one of those cognitive errors that we are told we are all guilty of committing on a daily basis. An analogous behaviour is seeking out supermarkets where our staple buys are a few pence cheaper than elsewhere, whilst being prepared to pay that extra couple of thousand on a house just to get the seller moving.

I will turn my thoughts to higher injustices while I cram onto the tube tomorrow morning, and try to ignore those protuberant knees. Who knows whether I will feel more serene by the time I emerge at my destination, but if anyone pushes into the queue for coffee, that will be the end of that.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Diana in Rome

This is a view of the river taken from a bridge near Trastevere in Rome in October. I remember the colour of the sky, that odd royal blue that is bright and deep at the same time, and it has sort of shown up here. I sat Diana on the edge of the bridge and opened the shutter for about 15 seconds, meaning the lights that didn't seem so bright to the eye at the time now look like flares.

I like the way the pattern in that image echoes the one in this photo which is more recognisably of Rome:

When I first glimpsed the Coliseum from up the hill, the hairs on my neck prickled, and I was surprised to find my eyes watering. I hadn't expected such a familiar landmark to have an emotional effect on me, but it did, more than anything else I saw in Rome. I spent the five days gravitating back to this building and just staring, wondering why I was mesmerised. I still haven't figured it out. If I believed in past lives I'd say I must have been there before.

I had imagined Rome to be mash of honking traffic jams, pollution, and urban development crammed in amongst the ruins. It turned out to be a lovely city to walk around, with spaces and quiet to be found even in the busiest parts. Curtains of creepers hung everywhere, drawing me down side alleys and into dead ends with their flashes of green and red. I felt quite at home there, and would happily have settled into a few months of writing and wandering, fuelled by perfect espresso, finding new views of the Coliseum from Rome's hills.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

The strategy of hope

‘Remember: Hope is not a strategy!’

The first time I came across this statement I was filling in a form at work, justifying a procurement method (such fun!). It was fair enough in the context, given the amount of investment involved; hoping that it turned out to save money certainly wouldn’t be enough to make that happen.

For some reason it stuck in my head. There was something true but sort of depressing about it, I felt. It illustrated the difference between what counts as strategy in the world of business, and what we more broadly refer to as strategic in everyday life.

The depressing part comes in the implication that there is no point in hoping. If strategy is what works, and hope is ineffectual, then it’s a waste of energy. It might even obscure the reality: if we hope everything will be okay, will we still do all we can do actually make it so? It has even been pointed out recently that depressed people, i.e. those who are not hopeful, have a more realistic view of the world. This may be useful from the point of view of making rational choices, but it’s not much fun.

Arguing from the premise that ‘hope is not a strategy’ to the conclusion that ‘hope should be jettisoned’ is obviously fallacious. Hope may not make a better outcome more likely in the way acting on a decent strategy might, but it performs other very important functions for human beings. It engenders positivity; it makes us carry on; it gives us a bit more strength even if we are facing grim odds.

And that’s the funny thing about hope. It isn’t logical or rational in the classical sense. How many times have we heard someone say, ‘I never gave up hope,’ when they have emerged from a situation that looked utterly doomed, even to them? Maintaining hope in these kinds of situations may require some self-deception, some chosen delusion, which in itself looks irrational. But in fact, choosing to delude yourself and remain hopeful seems like a very good strategy for a human being.

So, the statement ‘hope is a strategy’ makes some sense, too. It may not be acceptable in the context of justifying a money-saving procurement method to a business strategy unit, but as a strategy for staying happy as a human being it has pretty reliable precedents. There are lots of good reasons to make yourself hopeful, even when the odds seem to be against you.

We are told, by some popular psychology pundits, that we can choose to be happy rather than waiting for it to happen to us. This can seem like a tall order. Choosing hope, on the other hand, feels easier, a smaller step; but it is a strategic one that can lead to being happier, even when things don’t work out the way we hoped.

I’m off out now to collect my latest set of Diana photos from the developers. I know, deep down, that half of them will be rubbish, but I am filled with hope that they will be good all the same. This part is almost as enjoyable as finding the one or two prints I love.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Ultimate nest-building

My father has been discussing recently the once-in-a-lifetime experience of fixing up the last house he will ever live in. He is enjoying riding rough-shod over the usual set of considerations that go into house-shaping – when you know that at some point you’ll have to sell it to another human being. With no plans ever to move again, he has filled the hall wall cavities with contingency stair lift wiring, and implemented a pressurised air-circulation and heating system that nobody else will ever be able to figure out, let alone make work.

Computer modelling has played a part in the process, as it sometimes does with his sculptures. However, when he made me my very first house for my fourth birthday, the starting point was a plastic swing-bin and a lot of carbon fibre. I remember watching him stirring that pot of thick yellow goo like fibrous custard, with no notion of what it would become.

What was unveiled later (literally – it was too big to wrap) appeared to be a three foot section of a real tree. He had hunted the woods for a fallen elm, carefully peeled strips of bark from the dead trunk, and reconfigured them to perfectly cover this new, irregular cylinder.  This tree, though, had tiny windows, and light glowed from behind their diminutive curtains.

Opening the front of the tree trunk section revealed a slightly less labyrinthine version of this:

Indulging my mouse obsession, and its outlet at the time via Brambly Hedge books, my parents had laboured for months to create three storeys of rustic mousey lifestyle. This was partly to distract me from the impending arrival of a sibling, but that doesn’t diminish their dedication. Kitchen table and chairs, the dresser, even the kitchen sink had been made by hand, after bed-time in clandestine fashion in the basement.

There were walnut and hazel shells for bowls, Quality Street wrappers for glowing coals in the fireplace, a piece of patterned corduroy edged with lace for a rug. Best of all were the mice: fully jointed by my father and dressed in loyal Brambly Hedge style by my mother.

Over the years, as with any house, the furnishings changed. Miniature mouse portraits, painted by my aunt and mounted in delicate frames, appeared on the walls. Later a friend who clearly had never read Brambly Hedge donated a grand piano and matching grandfather clock, which somewhat took over the sitting room. Meanwhile I blithely promised my friends that my dad would make another one for their birthdays, as if it had materialised at the click of a finger.

I never, ever tired of playing with my mouse house. Still, soon after, my father had re-created the harvest mouse’s nest from the same book series. After that, driven by my new fascination with moles, he permanently stained the bath tub while soaking and clamping open cork bark, to create mole tunnels I could populate with anthropomorphised diggers.

The mouse house still exists, as does the harvest mouse’s nest. When we unpacked the mouse house recently so that my father could do some much-needed restoration work, we remembered the terrifying moment when our new cats had found it and poked their paws through the windows to swipe at whatever was inside. How did they know there were mice inside, we wondered?

Twenty years later my cousin, who is young enough to call me Auntie by mistake, benefited from a revival in my father's nest-building. Nest II was born and is pictured here.

Those creations (I can't really bring myself to call them toys, they seem too special) embodied for the small me everything that was wonderful about a home.They were cosy, natural, full of strange joys such as ladders to rooms and secret back doors that still give me a thrill today. I hope that my father is applying the same principles to his own ultimate nest-building and making it into something that appeals to him and gives him joy, regardless of what any future inhabitants might think.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Nablopomo – in at the deep end

I began this blog the day before National Blog Posting Month kicked in, so have posted daily ever since. It’s going to feel strange to reduce this intensity of activity here, as it’s all I’ve ever known in blogging world. Even if I had the time, I wonder whether I’d be able to keep coming up with the content.

On the other hand, I can return my attentions to my novel, which I am looking forward to. That and the short story I need to get down to go into the anthology for my writers’ group. It’s a long time since I’ve written a short story and I’m nervous. Writing posts for this has been a good lesson in concision, which does not come naturally to me, so I hope this will help.

I never stopped thinking about the novel while I was busy generating posts, and some distance has been useful. I found solutions to problems that were slowing me down, and saw how to go on with it. The world I created for the story had not yet been fixed in a particular decade, though it clearly wasn’t quite the 21st century as we know it. I’ve decided to let that slide and just write the world as it is in my head. If it turns out not to be the real world at a real time at all, then that needn’t be a problem.

I thought of posting here as a different kind of writing from the ‘creative’ kind I am usually involved in. When my father told me it felt slightly intrusive to read, a bit like opening my diary, I objected that I was writing here exactly the kinds of things that I’d never bother to put in private journal. That made me wonder… is this a kind of creative writing too? Had I created a persona for Mind and Language that is a lot like me, but not me?

If I had, it certainly wasn’t a conscious decision – there hasn’t been time for that kind of thinking, I’ve just had to write what comes every day and press ‘publish’ before I think too hard about it. On reflection, I think I am writing as me, just perhaps not that much about me.

This is probably a good thing, since I always thought of diaries as repositories for all the things that the world does not want to, or should not, hear about. My first ever diary entry as a twelve year old was a heavily coded rant about the girl at school who insisted on flirting with my heart’s desire in front me. As I recall it went on much in that vein for several years, probably descending into the murk of lovelorn adolescent poetry and intermittent self-loathing. I wouldn’t have the energy, or the requisite raging hormones, to write like that now, thank goodness.

I have other challenges preoccupying me. Do I continue the hunt for an agent for my first novel, or throw myself into another deep end: self-publishing, electronic or otherwise, and the marketing battle? No doubt I’ll report here on the sinking and swimming that results. It’s a whole year until Nablopomo starts again, and a lot can happen in that time.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Come on snow - Diana loves you

I'm still waiting. It feels as though everybody except London has been plunged under the snow queen's spell, and I'm jealous. Fondly I recall that fortnight last year spent in wellington boots, when it seemed as though the pavements really had turned into iced rivers and would flow away when the thaw finally came.

I took these pictures around Henley-on -Thames, where my brother and I dusted down the sledge in the loft and slid triumphantly to the best tobogganing hill. My grandfather made the sledge out of gas piping decades before either of us were born, and it appears to be indestructible as well as unbelievably fast (I'm sitting on it my profile picture, terrified).

I used a colour film to take these photos, though you can hardly tell. I wonder what the result would have been in true black and white, which enhances the contrast. This year, I'm going to try out colour flash filters - little slips of coloured plastic that slide in front of the Diana flash bulb and tint the illuminated world. Snow seems like the best subject for these. When it does arrive, and it better do, I will capture it through Diana's rose-tinted spectacles.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Birth or Not - sneaky, shortsighted or simply wrong?

Nearly two million votes have now been cast on birthornot.com, a website set up by a Minnesotan couple purportedly to let the world decide whether they should abort their foetus or not.

Debate is still raging over whether this site is 'real.' Is it a pro-life publicity stunt? A social experiment? A method of stimulating debate? Any of these would be better than it being a genuine way to let people make the couple’s decision for them, and thankfully this latter option seems unlikely once you take a good look at the website.

Firstly, while some people might be stupid enough to do something like this for real, the couple don’t appear to fit that template. They are educated, articulate, and according to their own accounts have so far led sensible, average lives. They’ve even planned to have a family and been thwarted by two miscarriages.

Add to this the unavoidably provocative set-up of the website. On one side is a box counting down to the last date on which they can legally have an abortion. They plan to let voting continue until the last possible moment, meaning that given the alleged pregnancy is so far successful, if the vote makes it so they would abort a healthy foetus at twenty weeks’ gestation.

This is a surprising approach, especially for a woman who has experienced two miscarriages. Surely this is the kind of decision one makes as quickly as possible? This opinion may just be driven by my own sense that the further into a pregnancy a mother gets, the more morally risky abortion becomes, not to mention physically dangerous. Twenty weeks is the legal cut-off point, but that in itself is a source of great controversy.

Secondly, the blogs published alongside this information include regular ultrasound images of the foetus, nicknamed ‘Wiggles’ by the parents, and developmental details such as when eyelashes first appeared. It was also revealed that Wiggles is a boy.

It is either brave or false of the mother to be engaging affectionately with these details, if she is genuinely open to having an abortion at the behest of a host of anonymous voters, especially given the self-selecting nature of the kind of people who will go and vote on a website like this.

Sure enough, birthornot has attracted attention that cannot be called well-meaning, and voting has been hijacked by a group not acting in the best interests of parents or foetus.

The whole exercise raises so many ethical questions, some of which will be resolved when we find out what the couple behind it are really up to. However, even if the truth in that regard redeems them somewhat, one potential moral objection will remain for me. This is around the use of the ultrasound images.

Where these come from I of course cannot know, but there are several possibilities. The woman may really be pregnant, and they may be actual images of her foetus. If so, there’s a nasty consequence. If her pregnancy goes to full term and a human being grows up, he will inevitably find out about birthornot. Even if his parents were not actually inviting the world to vote on his life, he will know that they used images of him for a cause he may not believe in, and far worse, that in the event millions of people did in fact vote that he should be aborted. This will not be a comfortable discovery for any of them.

If the images are not ‘real’ in this sense, the only morally acceptable source I can think of is that they were donated by their consenting owner. They’d have to be pretty old for this to be the case, and I doubt the likelihood of this possibility.

Lastly, they may be images from a pregnancy that did not result in a living human being. In this case, it’s awfully sad that they are appearing in this particular setting, and would imply a certain amount of callousness on the part of a woman who has suffered miscarriages herself.

I’ll watch with interest as voting closes and the creators of birthornot reveal their true intentions. I hope the answers do redeem them, especially in the case of the ultrasound images, but I can’t say my hopes are high.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Diana's new glasses

Not that her vision isn’t perfect already, but I decided Diana could do with changing her way of seeing now and again. This week they arrived: telephoto and extra-wide angle lenses designed especially for my 100% plastic Diana camera. I can’t wait to start playing with them, and will post the results here when my film has been processed, in a few weeks.

I have to believe in delayed gratification in my analogue photo world. Overall, the lengthy process has some interesting side-effects. When I go to pick up my prints, never quite remembering what I have shot on that particular roll of 120 film, I am invariably disappointed by at least a third of the shots. Heads are chopped off, views are half-blocked by Diana’s looming lens, and over or under exposure completely changes the view I thought I had captured. I sigh and shove these to the back of the green envelope.

Coming back weeks or months later, having forgotten them, it’s often the images at the back that I like the most. They seem to change as the time since the shutter click lengthens. As they become detached from my original intention they become more beautiful and interesting. I suppose they become images in themselves, instead of failed representations of something else. Since they are no longer failing, I take them as they come and I like them.

Representation in art is a funny thing. If the artist says so, then a lollipop stuck in a pincushion is just as much a representation of Kate Middleton as is the inevitable realistic portrait that will be painted of her. One resembles her, the other doesn’t, but if the artists both intend it they both represent her. (Now I think of it, a lollipop stuck in a pincushion is perhaps not such a bad metaphorical representation of Kate M in her new life.)

Likewise an object can resemble another without representing it. The example trotted out in many an aesthetics seminar is that of ants crawling across a beach, which as they surge just happen to make the face of, say, Che Guevara. We test our intuitions by asking, does that insect formation represent Che, in the same way the print on a Che Guevara t-shirt does? The argument begins; is representation about meaning for the viewer, or creator’s intention? Neither? Both? What if there’s no resemblance, and/or no meaning for the viewer (only an alien sees the ants from his flying saucer, oblivious to the existence of Che Guevara)? And so on.

Then this wonderful photograph turned up in most UK papers this week of flamingos in flamingo formation (image courtesy of the Guardian).

They didn’t do it on purpose, but we get double-flamingo (flamingo-go? Probably the Sun caption, I didn’t bother to check). It’s hard to get our heads round the idea that the formation itself (rather than the photo of it) is a resemblance but not a representation. Unless flamingos are even more surprising than we knew.

If I could attribute intentions to Diana, I still wouldn’t be able to say what hers are exactly. I just hope she likes her new glasses as much as I do.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Six month old raspberries

My proudest achievement of the last month has been teaching a six-month old person to blow raspberries. When I explained to Cecelia’s mother that she had imitated my own farty noises, blown in an attempt to entertain, she told me it was the first time her daughter had copied in this way.

She went on to mention that her older daughter had become fascinated with the game hide and seek at exactly the time as, but independently from, her best friend. They had never played it together but when they discovered their shared passion became unstoppable.

This reminded me of some famous experiments in developmental psychology which I garbled to my friend between gulps of hangover tea. I will try to explain them better here.

A child watches a furnished stage set on which Molly doll watches Milly doll hiding. Say Milly gets in the wardrobe. Molly then exits stage left. Milly is made to come out of the wardrobe and hide again, this time under the bed.
Molly returns.

“Where does Molly go to find Milly?” the developmental psychologist asks the child observer.

Before a certain age – something like three to three and a half from memory – the child points under the bed, where she knows the Milly doll is. The conclusion is that the child has not yet learnt to see from another’s point of view, and to be able to reason that the last place Molly saw Milly go was actually into the wardrobe.

Something clicks beyond this age, and quite reliably all children begin to point at the wardrobe. They know that Molly is missing a crucial bit of information, and that her point of view is different from the truth.

This fundamental change in understanding the world is also crucial for hide and seek. If, at a young enough age, a child thinks that other agents, even ones not present, can see and know what she knows, then what would be the point in hiding?

I wondered whether my friend’s daughter and her small friend had gone through this change at the same time and so suddenly ‘got’ hide and seek, which once discovered is endlessly compelling. Part of me hopes this is the right explanation and all that pondering over psychological experiments has finally borne fruit. If not, then it was a lot of fun playing, despite my ultimate humiliation. It’s a lot harder to hide when you’re over five feet tall, after all.

Cecelia may have got the hang of blowing raspberries, but I am making a mental list of all the other funny noises I can teach her next time. I’m a hopeless whistler, though; she’ll have to figure that one out for herself.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Beauty, serenity and all that

I remember my mother’s friend commenting once that she’d seen me from a distance, walking along the street in the town where I grew up, and that I gave off an aura of serenity. At the time I was pleased if a little confused. Perhaps it was my purposeless teenage gait, or the slightly flaky, distant look in my eyes.

Now, in London, serenity can seem hard to come by. It takes an effort of will to remind myself that it’s a state of mind, not the state of the world around me, and that therefore it can be chosen to some extent. There’s no point in waiting for the world to deliver it to me.

When I first moved here I had the same concerns about beauty. I was leaving many things I found beautiful: my open fire, my walls painted a melodramatic purple named ‘Russian velvet,’ the views of misted green that appeared like pastoral visions at the end of so many Bristolian hill streets. I doubted the capacity of London streets to deliver up these little gems to me.

Sure enough, Walthamstow’s pavements have more than their fair share of gnawed chicken bones, spittle deposits and mangled pigeons. I had to learn to find the beauty in order to feel as though I would survive the urban onslaught. Luckily I did, with a little help from my friends. I spent my first year here marvelling from the tops of buses at the secret sights to be had.

The colour of an autumn tree lit by the blue TV light of the window behind; a small glove dropped just at the intersection of paving slabs, like a sign pointing nowhere; the creeper that has edged across the concrete floor of an empty shop; the rhythm of a pumping air vent, as if from a secret rave under the pavement.

For a while it became overwhelming. There were beautiful things to look at everywhere and I regretted whizzing past them. I became fanatical about the tops of bus stops, where accidental and deliberate arrangements of objects might be seen only by those staring from the upper deck.

For a long time there was a whole salad of fruit on top of a shelter at Kings Cross, complete with pineapple, while suitcases and travellers wheeled past below in their thousands, oblivious. On the 56 bus route through Hackney you could see, atop every shelter going North, a ball of plasticine stuck with wooden skewers. Each one was slightly different, and it became a game to see how long the secret art route could remain intact.

At some point I forgot to keep looking like this, not just at bus shelters but at the million moments of beauty that are everywhere in London. I was so grateful to be jolted back into it, and seeing these things and smiling brings not just beauty, but a bit of free serenity. With enough practice, maybe being serene doesn’t have to be an effort.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Diana captures creativity

My sewing box captured the attention of two unlikely candidates at a party. A few hours later I had a beautiful necklace made from seaweed and miniature mussel shells.

We carried the apples back to London from my mother's tree, and pressed them on the roof terrace. It was hard work, and I won't bang on smugly about how good the cider was. It didn't last long.

My Uncle lives in Peel, on the Isle of Man, and plays the Manx version of the pipes. On the beach the sound still makes everyone wobble and lower their sunglasses.

Monday, 22 November 2010

The view from down here

I can see the whole world. Floating in the south pacific ocean are a tiger, a camel, a bell, an anxious looking ghost (are they soluble in salt water?) and, I’ve just realised rather appropriately, a seal, an octopus and two lobsters. The seal is made of wool, like the tiger and the camel, which explains why he is not smiling. There is also a pair of Dutch kissing children. Up close they are not so cute, having hollow eyes and magnets in their mouths.

This little crowd of objects are on a shelf in front of a huge national geographic map. It gives me something to stare at when I’m bored with the sky, and reminds me how tiny I am. Even tinier than the finger puppets, Mexican toys and cracker prizes on the shelf. I tried to get rid of them when I painted my room over the weekend, but I couldn’t. Small things inspire me.

Children are said to be fascinated by the miniature, with various theories put forward as to why. They live for a while in an over-sized world, so do other small things appeal because they too are dealing with proportions not meant for them?

Personally I don’t think small things enthral small people because they relate to them. There is something alien and a bit scary about seeing the world from the point of view of a being a few inches high. That in itself is compelling. It brings the possibility of seeing the world another way – with us as the giants, even children – and from that, the question of which of these views is the ‘right’ way. Hopefully the next step in this reasoning will be to realise that perhaps there isn’t a ‘right’ way, and ping! We can get our heads around the idea that what is normal for one person may be very different from what is normal for another.

I didn’t grow out of my obsession with the miniature, but then it was instilled in me quite thoroughly, partly by my parents – other grown-ups with a love of small and hidden worlds.

My father had kept a box from his childhood, resembling a treasure chest but about six inches long, which he called his Borrower box. Inside were a tiny pocketknife, an inch long but with a blade you could pull out just like his man-size Swiss army knives, a mouth organ with real reed chambers that a Borrower could have played, and other diminutive wonders. I coveted these objects but I didn’t assume they were meant for me, or other children. I could see how precious they were even to an adult.

I find myself doing the same, now I’m a grown-up of sorts. All these tiny things – inch-high zapatista dolls, a rubber duck the size of a sugar cube, a baby doll the size of a button – are not being saved in case I meet a small person who wants them. They let me dive into a world I love that feeds my imagination, and hold onto different ways of seeing that still excite me.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Overheard at Borough Market

-         Carrots seem so uptight.
-         Is that why they crunch?
-         Maybe, but cucumbers crunch, and they’re as laidback as they come.
-         Cool as.
-         Exactly. And what’s with courgettes? So grumpy.
-         Your vegetable perceptions seem very negative.
-         Not at all. Think of the butternut squash: generous, expansive, amiable. And the potato, which can make anyone feel at home without even trying.
-         Right.
-         I’ve never been able to make out avocados though. What’s your take?
-         How long do we have to play this game for?
-         Come on. You eat more salad than I do. I need your avocado assessment.
-         Can’t you just let them be enigmatic?
-         That’s it! Enigmatic. Charles, you’re good at this.
-         I didn’t mean to be.
-         Maybe you have a kind of vegetable character judgement synaesthesia going on. You didn’t even have to try. Do red onions next.
-         Synaesthesia?
-         Overlapping sense perceptions. You get coloured numbers, or scented emotions. Or in your case, vegetable personalities.
-         You started this, not me.
-         But it takes me ages, I have to really focus. Set aside my flavour preferences and so on.
-         Alright then. Test me.
-         Radish.
-         Cheeky.
-         Nice. Aubergine.
-         Misunderstood.
-         Cauliflower?
-         Conservative. Small ‘c’.
-         I never thought of political allegiances.
-         Probably a dead end. Doesn’t it put you off?
-         What?
-         I mean, do you still want to eat courgettes now you know that they’re grumpy? What if something really tasty, like a banana, turned out to be an amoral psycho killer?
-         You don’t absorb a vegetable’s attributes when you eat it. That’s a ridiculous thing to think, Charles. Especially once they’re cooked.
-         Yes, I am clearly the crazy one here. I do beg your pardon.
-         Anyway, bananas aren’t amoral. They’re actually quite conventional, but they don’t take themselves too seriously.
-         That’s alright then. Do you want some of mine?
-         No thanks. Are you really going to eat that?
-         Another sad loss to the organic community in London today, when a banana was skinned alive and devoured in a local market.
-         It’s not alive.
-         It’s not dead either. Yet. How long does it take your digestive enzymes to completely break down plant matter?
-         Stop it.
-         But I’m hungry.
-         It’s not even fully ripe. Give it a chance.
-         That’s how I like them. Young, fresh, firm of flesh.
-         You’re disgusting.
-         This one was going to go off the rails anyway. Not enough stability early on, left home too soon. The usual depressing story.
-         We could rehabilitate him. I’ve got some red apples in my fruit bowl that have a lot of love to give.
-         Don’t you know what happens to other fruit when you put a banana in with them? They ripen faster. You’d be shortening the lives of those apples. They’d be facing wrinkles, pulpy bodies, and an early death.
-         So it’s them or the banana? This is terrible.
-         Think of me as your apple-preserver.
-         Okay. But don’t make me watch.