Thursday, June 13, 2013

True North

I am supposed to appear at the York Festival of Ideas on Saturday evening and talk about "Living up North" along with Paul Morley who has just written an enormous book on "The North (and almost everything in it)". The thought of this event has been giving me sleepless nights and hives the size of whippets.

"The North" is what you call a big topic. Big.

Plus I can't find the valium I usually take when I have to do a reading. It is two days away and my body is running cold at the thought of it. I am such a wuss when it comes to leaving the house - never in a million years would you have me down as a child who'd had to do monologues at the PTA cheese and wines of the seventies complete with granny outfit and walking stick.

So I thought I might hammer out some ideas here and see if it helps...

For me the move from South to North was a return of the native - bearing in mind I'd been born and brought up in Leeds, gone to Durham university and worked in Newcastle.

Then I left.

Then I came back.

I still live in it. Since the gig at York university effectively brands me a "professional Northerner", this makes me unusual because most professional Northerners live somewhere else.

There is a truth to the North - an integrity, an authenticity.

The North pulls you to it, draws you to it - even the rocks themselves.

There is an idea of journeying Northwards, towards the unknown, towards the Other - of crossing boundaries into a place with dangers.

There's cold and snow, wolves and bears, invaders and raiders.

There's a cultural representation of straight talking and plain dealing of silent honourable men and gritty women, of poverty and pits, of black-faced miners and back-to-backs, community and mill chimneys and pit wheels, Victorian architecture and ambition. There's moorland and mountains and rivers that cross it. There's fiction and reality.

There are all of those things that we each of us carry and tweak, and accept or reject and polish to a North of our own making.

This North we have made for ourselves is the North we live in - and the North that lives in us.

...or I could manage a few scrappy verses of a monologue...?

Friday, March 15, 2013

I Rode the Bus

I rode the bus today – if it’s good enough for the new Pope, it’s good enough for me. And where to go? I started out from Durham bus station and had my choice. The ends of the earth where new Popes live? Or closer to home? Perhaps a pit village? High Pittington? Esh Winning? Crook? But the pits are long gone, and maybe not Crook. This had to be a journey into faith after all and Popes and crooks don’t mix, although Jesus was crucified between thieves so what do I know?

I plumped for Newcastle upon Tyne because that bus came and I wanted to leave the bus station pretty much as soon as I arrived. The station doesn’t inspire, still the Pope might, so I fought my way through the thick pork smell of chilli dogs to buy a newspaper full of Pope-y news to read on the way. I rather like the idea of diversifying from newspapers into chillidogs – it shows an original mind, and the newsagent certainly beats the shut-up shop along from it. A cheery notice on that door warns “Doorstep Callers Beware! You are not welcome here. I do not buy at the door.” No-one had been doing much buying apparently. The landlord had left his own notice stuck to the grubby glass announcing he had “re-entered the premises and as a consequence of such re-entry the lease has been forfeited and the premises secured.” Still it works, because it really does make you want to get on a bus.

I have travelled on plenty of buses in my time of course though not in the last few years. My mother said that at four years old, criss-crossing Leeds, slicing it up between home and school, wearing a straw boater and buttercup yellow cotton, I’d talk to anyone. I have this vision of dawn travellers sinking into their shiney, slidey seats in silent horror at my Shirley Temple entrance for fear I’d sit next to them and lispingly, ruthlessly, relentlessly chat. One afternoon, I’d asked her whether I could sit next to an old lady sitting across from us whom I thought looked lonely. “You didn’t care about leaving me,” she said accusingly (the eternal cry of the mother). “You talked to her for the entire journey and when it was our stop, I took your hand to stand up and the lady said to you ‘Your mummy and daddy must be so proud of you’ and you said ’I don’t have a daddy. I’ve just got a mummy,” and that poor woman almost sank through the floor with embarrassment. I had to tell her he’d died when you were a baby – that made it worse.”

But those bus-and-glory days are long gone so why did I feel I had to ride this bus this morning? Because I wanted to know why a cardinal did not ride in a leather-seated, tinted-windowed limo though the streets of Buenos Aires, but chose instead to travel among the faithful and less-than-faithful, bumping and swaying, the wheels on the bus going round and round. What did Jorge Mario Bergoglio get from those bus-rides around the city? Stories? Comfort? Warmth? An understanding what it is to work hard, to be tired, to be lonely, to have to stand when you want to sit, to know you are going home or going far away? Maybe too, I wanted to get on the bus, any bus, because we are on our own journeys and right now at least so far as faith goes, I don’t know where I am heading. Maybe, I thought, if I catch a bus like a Pope, I’ll arrive at a destination called Faith.

The queue of pensioners and shoppers, the unemployed and students shuffled forward out of Durham bus station and onto the X21 bound for Newcastle’s Eldon Square. I asked the price of a ticket. Single or return? Return – it is always good to have a chance to come back to where you started and at £5.30 (“Valid for one return journey on the day of issue only”) it seemed like a bargain, though doubtless Pope Francis would advise the money would be better spent on the poor.

Without thinking, I plumped down in the last seat downstairs and an elderly man with knobbly cheekbones and an oversized black wool coat got on after me, then hung disconsolate from a pole. Worried for his wellbeing come any sort of corner or abrupt halt, I eased myself around him and his coat to clamber up the steep stairs: the upstairs was full, every window seat with someone in it and everyone with an empty seat next to them waiting to be filled. I sat next to Joyce. I didn’t know it was her because she started out a stranger. The thing is, when you travel by bus, you don’t have to travel next to a stranger.

Joyce lost her husband Graham eight months ago, nearly nine. She believes he visits. One night as she lay in bed she felt his cold hand on her shoulder, his cold body against hers and leaped from bed. “ ‘I’m not scared, I told him. It was just I said to him “Ooh you’re cold,” and then remembered he was dead.”

Graham used to be a rep. He was 79 when he died of oesophageal cancer. He left a letter she found in a drawer telling her that if it was possible he’d come back to her as an angel. Joyce believes in angels – they both did. She carries a little one in her purse; ceramic ones hang from her lamps; and a cast-iron male angel holding a female angel stands by the garden bench where she and Graham used to sit together. White feathers have appeared in the living room, a book with his photo has fallen over twice, and robins are everywhere, their heads cocked, eyes bright, perching on her garden angels, telling her he is with her. “We used to talk to each other all the time”, she said. “I still talk to him all the time in the house. “ I asked whether she talks to him outside the house. That too. Discretely. She demonstrated, turning to the window, her elbow leaning on it. “Well, look at that,” she said, her hand against her mouth, not something you would hear, not something you’d worry about, just an elderly little body murmuring, reminding herself of something or other - not a widow talking to a shade.

We carry the dead with us. In her purse, Joyce carries a prayer card for her dad, half of a 10 bob note from her mother in a plastic wallet (who knows the whys and wherefores of the other half – not Joyce) , and she carries too her husband’s pictures – him as a young soldier, as a devoted husband holding her as if she is most precious. We sucked on Joyce’s Trebor mints and I thought how we travel with the dead – that the vacant seats are not so very vacant it turns out, occupied as they are by lost loves, by those who have slipped from this world but remain lodged in our memories and in our hearts.

Joyce and I rejoiced when the bus hits the A1 for a stretch, acknowledged the Angel of the North with his outstretched arms, sighed passing a washeteria someplace we didn’t know we’d be. “They go a different way every time,” said Joyce, looking out the window, all adventuresome.

I liked Joyce. She has joined a walking club. Took a bus the other day and walked six miles. “You have to make the effort,” she told me, “anyway he makes me.” There was no particular reason for this particular trip. “I’ll only be in town the hour.” She took the bus today because she thought she’d make the effort. “Just for the bus ride out,” she said. The family scattered Graham’s ashes in South Shields overlooking the sea, by a bench where they’d eat fish and chips. She’d almost caught a different bus to see if the handful of daffodils bulbs she’d planted there were out, though now she’s glad she didn’t.

“And now let us begin this journey…” Pope Francis told the world last night, “this journey of the Church of Rome which presides in charity over all the Churches, a journey of brotherhood of love, of mutual trust.” I took a journey with Joyce today, and Joyce I decide is the reason cardinals take buses – to know of loss and constancy, to know there is love and death and despite death there is still love, and because there are travellers who believe in angels.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Holy Father, Holy Mother

The Catholic Church is so busy absorbing the shock of the Holy Father’s decision to quit, it is missing the point. Holy mothers are quitting too.

I’m a Catholic. Was a Catholic. Am a sort of Catholic. Am hardly a Catholic? Is there a word for what I am anymore? I’d like to be a better Catholic but it is just not cutting it for me. And why is that? Because the Catholic Church has nothing to say to an educated woman with socially liberal views – nothing, except “Please give us your children.”

I have so far – given them my children. Two of them – the boys, have taken their First Communion in red ties and polyester sashes, in part to keep my elderly and very Catholic parents happy. Now the Church wants my daughter. She is seven, and somehow, I am more reluctant to put her through the whole fandango of instruction. Why is that? Perhaps because I have to take instruction too, and it is dull, the church is drafty and I am busy? More likely, there is the small matter of “the future” because my daughter may well have children herself. Boys are boys. The chances are they probably won’t marry Catholics. They probably won’t have Catholic children. But my daughter might. Am I just perpetuating the cycle for the sake of it, because I was brought up on tales of Catholic martyrs crushed and racked, hung and quartered? On stories of priestholes and secret masses and “No Catholics here”? Because we were taught we were different, knew better, lived better, because we were “other”. Because I was educated by nuns who wore hearts spiked with nails, and because a perspex crucifix still hangs on my wall adorned with a silver, drooping Christ?

But in reality what does the Church offer me in return for the children it claims – the children we agreed to raise as Catholic when my Protestant husband and I went for marriage preparation with our then priest Father Kit Cunningham (Father Kit whose paedophiliac behaviour in Tanzania in the 1960s was the subject of a documentary not so long ago.)

I disagree with the Church’s prejudices against homosexuality. I regard as laughable – and tragic - its position on contraception, and as a woman who believes in equality in all things, I struggle to keep faith with a faith which reserves not just the top job but its priesthood for men. Because there is one thing we already know for certain sure about the next pope – black or white, traditionalist or liberal, Italian or not so Italian – the next pope is an old man. Money on it. So I am telling my daughter she can do anything, all things, that she can be anything – anything that is,except a Catholic priest.

Moreover, the next leader of the Catholic Church and its 1.2billion congregation, will not only be another old man just like the last old man, he will of course never have married and never have had children, with all that means in terms of life and love and humanity. Children mean everything. We mothers know that and not because we were taught it in a seminary.

Arrogance and insularity fed the church’s position on child abuse, the delays, the obfuscation, the reluctance to blame their own, punish their own, make some kind of recompense. Make no mistake, the scandal of child abuse in the Catholic Church puts the anachronisms, the illogicalities, and the stuff they get plain wrong into the shade. In a letter sent some months after news broke of Father Kit, I warned the head of his Rosminian order, Father David Myers, that if the Catholic Church lost the mothers “the game is up and you lose everything.” He reassured me as a mother that is to say "our hope for the future and...the ones who provide the next generation with a wonderful vision of the gospel of love."

The Catholic Church - Christianity itself - makes much of fishermen and of shepherds when fishermen and shepherds are far removed from this high-tech modern life. Then there is the ultimate mother - Mary, but this particular and almost faithless Catholic mother takes small comfort in the example of the innocent speak-no-evil virgin with her hands clasped and stars around her head, her naked foot upon the serpent, appearing then disappearing in her now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t kind of way. The priesthood was for men, motherhood for women, well motherhood carries responsibilities - not least to ourselves.

My message to the old Pope: Live long and prosper.

My message to the new Pope: Allow women to be priests, allow priests to marry, change your position on homosexuality and contraception, maybe then we can talk. You’ve got my number and I’ve certainly got yours.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Lost and Found

My aunt is slipping away from us. Old as she is, frail as she is, even so - I don’t want her going anywhere. I want her here where I can see her, not a memory, not someone I love but cannot put my arms around. Yet, I know we are losing her.

Loss is terrible. You lose so many things in this life. A sock. A black umbrella. A bag you put down and forget to pick up. You lose those you love and cannot imagine life without. You lose faith - sometimes in God, sometimes in men, sometimes in men of God. A man in a hurry who believes the law applies to others and not to him, can lose a reputation as former Cabinet minister Chris Huhne is discovering. He can even lose his freedom. Over the last few years, bankers, priests, policemen, and journalists have lost the trust of the public. You can lose your job, your money and your home. You can lose your head, your heart and the best years of your life. You can lose yourself and wake up too late or not at all. You can lose your life in combat when it has barely begun or when you are ancient and tired of it all but one thing is certain - lose it you will.

I have lost some of those things. A golden brooch with a raw pearl heart, in the shape of a bee, and given by a lover. I lost the lover too now I come to think of it. More than one - how careless I was in my youth. I have lost the odd friend – their loss too I’d like to think. Lost a bag on a train, a bet on a horse, a baby. Lost all perspective on the odd occasion.

And yet, we carry on despite our heavy losses. Moreover, often we try to find that which we have lost, and there, right there, is our glory. Once in a blue moon, you find a king and dig up his bones. And when a child is lost, we don’t shrug, we try our damndest to find her – week after rainy month combing riverbanks and stark hillsides, checking out sightings in hot and far-off places. Sometimes if we are fortunate, we find the lost child, and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we find glory, happiness, peace and love, or go on a journey and find ourselves, or something we weren’t even looking for. We find out we didn’t need “it” anyway, and we find just what we need. We lose everything and we find we can go on.

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Right Stuff

Third (and probably) final excerpt from A Year of Doing Good . I tried to join the lifeboat crew - for some reason they wouldn't have me.

Tuesday, 10 May

I walked into the lifeboat station past the little shop selling model lifeboats and teddies, then along a metal gallery; to the right there are crew rooms, and to the left the space drops away to the boathouse where the lifeboat sits in dry dock looking huge and orange and brave. Wooden plaques line the walls with the names and years of the former lifeboats and coxswains and all the rescues that the lifeboat has gone out on. A bearded chap who helps launch the boats took me through to the room where the lifeboat men were gathered. They were ranged in seats around the room chatting to each other, and silence fell as I walked in, which was the right moment to be a foot taller and ten years younger with a willy to call my own.

The operations manager was lovely and cuddly, like a cut-outand- keep grandad, but he wasn’t exactly biting my hand off. I may not be the ideal candidate. A five-foot-two, forty-something woman isn’t exactly poster material for the lifeboat crew. Grandad starts talking about training and the sea survival test you have to go through at the Royal National Lifeboat Institution in Poole where they throw you into a tank of choppy water and see if you drown. Physically, I’m not sure I’m up to it. I’m a terrible swimmer with a bad back and a tendency to migraine. I’m short-sighted and I never lift anything heavier than my handbag or a glass of Chablis. I wouldn’t want to get to someone who needed rescuing in a stormy sea, decide, ‘Do you know what – that looks like far too much trouble,’ lean over the boat and, instead of reaching down a hand, shout into the wind, ‘Any last words? I’ll be sure to pass them on.’ But I can’t blink. I’m here to join the lifeboat crew. Grandad meets me halfway. He offers me a ride.

First things first. I climb into the yellow rubberized boots and trousers and enormous jacket. The trousers aren’t too bad because the boots stop them trailing on the ground, but the boots must be at least two to three sizes too big, which means I have to throw one leg up into the air to clear the boot before it comes to rest on the ground, then throw the other up in the air to keep the momentum going. Another woman turns up, a young teacher in the local high school, and I breathe a sigh of relief that I am immediately less of an oddity.

We walk from the gallery straight onto the boat deck before the boat trundles out of the boathouse pulled by a tractor. I am jacketed and booted and helmeted. The tourists lining the harbour taking pictures are firmly of the opinion I am a hero. A short hero, admittedly, but a hero nonetheless. One of the guys I am standing next to is six foot five if he is an inch, and I move away from him because he is making me look teeny-tiny. My fellow female lifeguard kneels by a massive metal chain, which is held in place by a metal bracket. When the alarm sounds, you hit the bracket with the hammer as hard as you can, the bracket lifts, the chain falls away and the boat slides from its metal bed parked on the slipway and into the sea. The only problem is there are two chains and two brackets. I kneel by the other chain, take the hammer from its box and raise it over the bracket. The vision of one chain falling from the boat while I repeatedly bash away at my bracket as the boat lists to one side and lifeboat men fall from its deck like passengers from the Titanic starts playing on the YouTube channel that is my brain. The alarm goes, and I hammer the bracket so hard I’m lucky I do not go through the plank beneath. Suddenly we are in the water. The helmsman guns the boat and it begins to plane, its pointy bit raised at a thirty-degree angle as it cuts through the water. The training exercise involves taking the boat across to Holy Island, opening up the engine, practising tying her up at the harbour and checking the shifting sandbars. Occasionally, spray hits me across the face and I try not to mind, like a real hero. The sea cuts Holy Island off from the mainland twice a day, flooding its causeway and occasionally catching strangers and the certifiably stupid off-guard. Only the month before, a car with four adults, two children and a dog had to be rescued by the lifeboat as they attempted to cross the causeway against the tide times.

I wonder why they do it. I’m out with a crew of seven and there are twenty-four volunteers in the village, including the chap who owns the crazy golf course, an IT technician, a college lecturer, a teacher, a plasterer, a plumber, a welder, a barman, a BT engineer, a few boatmen and one fisherman. I understand the boatmen and the fisherman, but everyone else? Why do they put their lives on the line? Because that’s what you do. They help the divers who get the bends or who push themselves too hard and run into trouble, surfers who get too ambitious, motorists who get caught out – like the man who took a drink too many one night and parked his van where the tide came in and was plucked from the roof of his van dressed only in his pants and shame. Occasionally, tragically, there are bodies; more often there are rescues.

I enjoy the sea journey out to the island; the problem comes when we moor. The boat is tied up against the harbour wall and a wet iron ladder set against it. We are distinctly lower than I would like us to be. I eye the ladder distrustfully and wonder whether, if I slip between the lifeboat and the lichened wall, I would be pressed flat and dead or would instead slide straight down into the waiting waters and drown beneath the boat. I sling my leg with its oversized boot over the side of the boat, step into oblivion and hope desperately that somewhere my boot will find a rung. I immediately start to dread climbing back in.

I climb up and down the ladders from hell three times: once onto the island, where we stretch our legs; once off the island back onto the boat; and one final time from the boat back into harbour, which is the very worst time, and I am certain I am not the only one envisaging me slipping between the boat and the dock. Still, there is the consolation of the admiring glances of spectators. It is almost enough consolation for having to heft two of the heavy rubber skids that the boat slides up stern-first out of the water and onto its carriage. These are so heavy, I can barely lift them off the ground let alone into the trailer to clear them away once the boat is free of them. I am useless at shifting the rubber beams but, given a hose, I excel at washing the saltwater off the lifeboat. This has to be the biggest thing I have ever washed. It just doesn’t make me look much like a hero.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

When the Snowdrops Come

Ok here is another extract from A Year of Doing Good:

Saturday, 5 February

I’ve had it in mind for a while to dig up a bunch of snowdrops for the little old lady who used to live in this house and who moved down to the village soon after her husband died. He was a keen gardener and made it his business to spread snowdrops around the garden, so that at this time of year, snowdrops with their tiny drooping white bells fill the lawn and the glade between the back wall and the sheep pasture. We loved him, and I always think of him when the snowdrops come. I am sure she thinks of him all the time. Together, my daughter and I found a trowel and we extracted a small bunch of snowdrops, their heads white and shy, hanging down as if they were admiring their new, leaf-green shoes.

We drove carefully through the rain with the pot on the floor of the passenger seat, reaching down every now and then to steady it. When we got there, the little old lady was preparing dinner. I’ve dropped in before when she is cooking dinner, and black smoke will be curling from out beneath the kitchen door, but she would not dream of telling you. She sits there patiently while you drink a cup of tea, and when you’ve gone, eats ash. We didn’t go in; instead we put them by her front door on the porch, out of the cold north wind, and I told her how I think of him at this time of year when the snowdrops come.

Good deed no. 36: said, ‘I remember.’

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Good Woman

Over the next couple of days, I thought I might run a couple of excerpts from "A Year of Doing Good" here on the blog. The media narrative focussed on my good deeds, in reality the book is as much about what other people do as it is about anything I did during the year. One of the most remarkable "characters" in the book is Jean.

The Helper (extracted from "A Year of Doing Good")

I am trying to set my kids a good example, having been set the best of examples by my own parents. I may fail. Epically, as my son would say. Still, epic fail or not, I’ll know I tried. What happens, though, if you don’t learn about charity and generosity from those who should teach it to you as a child? What then? Do you grow up hard and loveless? Or do you teach yourself what goodness is?

Jean taught herself. Standing four feet eight and a half inches in her tiny stocking feet, 61-year-old Jean makes you want to pop her in your pocket and take her with you wherever you go, like a lucky charm. After twenty-seven years of working with the terminally ill and those with mental health issues, she retired as a community support worker because of acute osteoporosis and osteoarthritis. Since then, two days a week for a decade, the pupils at my kids’ school have taken it in turns to sit next to Jean as she hears them read. ‘That’s marvellous,’ she says as they stumble through the words. ‘Superb,’ she tells them as they turn the final page. Encouraging children when she was only ever discouraged. Boosting their self-esteem when hers was covered over with ash and beatings. Her arm around these children, when her own mother would never hold her.

Jean grew up in poverty in Ashton-under-Lyne with an alcoholic father who served in the merchant navy during the war, was unemployed thereafter and whose mood depended on the 2.30 at Chepstow. ‘I used to protect the kids. I can remember standing with my three brothers behind me’ – she stretches out her arms as she talks, as if to bar a doorway – ‘and saying, “Don’t hit them, hit me,” and he did. That’s how it was. That’s what life was like, but he was still my dad and I loved my dad – worshipped him. Three weeks before he died of lung cancer – he was only forty-six – he apologized for all he’d done, and I did forgive him – and my mum – because you have to.’ Jean says that life was hard in the 1950s. ‘Nobody had anything after the war. It was all make do and mend and it was all big families. I was around six and I remember my mother saying to my dad, “We can’t send her to school – she’s too many bruises.” You’d get a good hiding and that was one of those things. It wasn’t any different for the girl up the road, but it was a horrible childhood – hard and cruel. I’ve got more bad memories than good.’

However tough life was for that ‘girl up the road’, there was certainly no sanctuary to be found for Jean in her mother’s arms. Jean’s mother worked shifts in a cigarette factory and as a piecework machinist making handbags at home. ‘A grafter’, Jean describes her as. ‘Grafter’: a word of respect – a compliment. But compliments didn’t flow the other way. ‘I can’t remember a word of encouragement – none whatsoever. The only thing I can remember from my mother is her saying, “Go into the other room – you make me feel sick.” ’ The woman had spent her war in the Land Army, had five children in five years, ten years fallow and then two more children. She had an alcoholic husband and worked all hours. But there are all kinds of poverty in this world – did she work so many hours, was she so spent, that there was never a moment for a fond word or a loving gesture? ‘I can’t remember my mum or my dad ever giving us cuddles,’ says Jean. ‘I tell my children I love them every day, but there was none of that when I was growing up. That wasn’t just my upbringing, that was the 1950s for you, but she was a hard woman. Mind you, she had to be.’ As she speaks, I wonder that tiny Jean was strong enough to keep growing on the inside to the size of a giant. Years after, a woman can still feel a father’s fists fall on her young girl’s body, however heartfelt his ‘Sorry’. You can’t recover from the thousand tiny hurts where there should have been a hundred-thousand-million mother’s kisses. But you can hold your own children tighter, cover them in the kisses you never had, and say, ‘I love you, love you, love you, child, love you all the more for never knowing this myself.’

When Jean fell pregnant at sixteen she was sent to a Church of England home for unmarried mothers and their babies in Blackburn, the girls taken together for antenatal classes but not given pain relief in hospital during the birth of their babies and talked down to by nurses. ‘Inside you were all in the same boat – in a lot of ways it was better than home. Outside, though, they segregated you. You felt awful, you had to walk down the street with your head down, you felt shame – I still do sometimes.’ Her newborn son should have been put up for adoption; instead – ever the protector of the vulnerable – Jean fought for him. ‘I prayed on my hands and knees to my dad to keep him, because you were in that home to give the child away. I thought, I just can’t, and finally my dad said, “If you bring this baby home, you’re not to ask me or your mum for anything because we won’t help,” and by gum they stuck to their word.’ Jean cleaned houses with her baby in tow while bringing up her two youngest siblings, now one and three – siblings who when they left school came to live with her and her husband.

I am looking at Jean and thinking, ‘Why are you here doing good? Why aren’t you mean and angry after the start you had in life? When your health broke in your forties, why didn’t you say, “I’ve done enough,” rather than, “What can I do now?” Why don’t you take rather than give?’ I ask her whether it helps her to do good and she says, ‘I’ve seen it – I’ve been there, but you have got to have hope, you have to know that things will get better. I am who I am because of what I have gone through and I can never see me not caring, not doing what I do.’ In nature, where there should be bitter herbs and rank weeds, occasionally a tangle of wild roses bloom: scented, startling pink and beautiful.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

How Do You Write a Memoir?

How to give good memoir (otherwise known as Top tips for memoir writing.)

*get a life. You cannot write a memoir unless you live an interesting life. Live it. Live it the best way you can. Try to fit the writing around it. If you spend all your time writing about your life, life will be dull and your writing will be duller.

*find yourself fascinating. This one is hard because - best will in the world - the kind of people who find themselves fascinating tend to be the kind of people you don't want to be around. Nonetheless you have to overcome your scruples and find yourself interesting enough to write about, and talk about when someone asks you what you are writing about. And not mind when they sidle away really fast.

*find everyone else fascinating too. This is not as hard as finding yourself interesting because everybody has a story. The trick is to be interested enough to find out what it is. Don't judge someone. Get to know what they have to say - it is very probably worth hearing.

*having said "get a life" sometimes it is all in the writing. Don't presume because you are writing about something that has happened a gazillion times before that you can just knock it off without thinking about the words and how they fit together. Words count - who knew?

*it isn't necessarily about the outside that is to say, what you do, it is also about what and how you think, and ofcourse - everytime - about how you feel. A memoir is not a book of events.

*remember a memoir is about Life, not just your life, real life.

*unless you are willing to be honest and reveal who you are, you might as well write a novel.(Obviously you can also be honest and reveal who you are in a novel, there is just an outside chance you won't have to.)

*if you care too much about what people think, you might as well not write at all.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

A Year of Doing Good

The book is out. That's good. Two years in the doing and the writing and the polishing and the talking about, then it is all over and there is silence. I have no control over sales. Whether people will fancy it? Whether they will have seen the publicity or been too busy to take note. Strange period this.

So what struck me about launching a book?

*you have to talk about yourself a lot. Sometimes in the car when you agree to an interview en route someplace. This can give rise to your husband and children quoting back entire sections of your patter at the drop of a hat, and pleading, downright pleading, for you not to tell that joke about the coppers not fitting into jam jars again because really it wasn't that funny the first time.

*ideally launching a book when everybody else is on holiday means you feel ever so slightly delusional. I have a book out, you tell people. Let me come on your show, appear in your paper. I do really. Call me.

*it is advisable not to read online comments. This takes an effort of will. It takes less effort when a mate texts you out of the blue saying you are doing very well, and people are just jealous and not to get upset pet. Because that makes you think - wow bet there are some really peachy comments out there. Sometimes of course they are hard to avoid like the twitter message sent straight into my feed with my name and the cheery message "You make me sick." I checked out the sender and bearing in mind he was encouraging his followers to send him song titles with the word "vagina" in them, I decided against taking it too personally.

*that you need your friends around you when you have a success in the same way you need them around you when you fail, you need them to let you obsess, and hose you down as you lose all perspective, and mop up salty tears and reassure you it will all work out in the long run, and that I count myself extremely, extraordinarily fortunate in my friendships.

*that this book was as good as I could get it, that it required a huge amount of very hard work, that I am very, very lucky to get it published.

*there is always another book written by someone else coming along the tracks far too soon and that's alright.