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.