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.