Sunday, 24 July 2011

I think I may have blown my cover ... part 2

I’ve just read the blog I wrote earlier in the week which is not yet posted because I am still on my writing course and, as part of the isolation process, there is no internet access. If you’re reading these two blogs back to back, then you may be pleased to hear that things have moved on.
My fellow students are, as I surmised earlier in the week, terrifyingly brilliant. They are also very supportive and friendly with only one or two exceptions. I won’t write anything about the exceptions as I suspect that there will be a mass-sharing of email addresses and they might track this blog down.
Without naming names, some of them have been absolute heroes to me this week. The isolation, combined with the pressure of having to read stuff out to the assembled brains trust, creates huge pressure and earlier in the week, I cracked. I’d had a couple of occasions in the workshops where, like the Psammead in the Five Children and It, I would have dug myself a hole in the sand and disappeared without trace. Writing stuff about work is easy compared to this soul-searching process and the feeling of being judged was overwhelming. Also I blame my natural competitive instinct. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt it’s that creative writing courses are, like Pilates, not for the competitive.
I’ve also learnt - big cliche coming up, no pun intended - not to judge a book by its cover. My breakthrough moment was sharing my sense of humour with the four chairs lady. Although she had unwittingly started the downward spiral into Monty Python-esque farce (to which the rest of the room were oblivious), when I told her, she roared with laughter and she then spent the next meal-time attempting to establish whether people in HongKong like Monty Python to see how far she could wind up the lady who lived in a cubicle. We were off and Four Chairs and I have shared some very unlikely moments of sheer hysterics - laughing at things that the rest of the crew have no idea about. Naughty, naughty. But the laughter has released me and I can now look at the rest of them without terror and even contemplate my reading tonight with only a slight fluttering in the stomach.
The last two nights (last night and tonight) we each read something we have written, up to 10 minutes in length. Last night, various people read things, most of which had been written before they came and some already published. The standard is phenomenal. Tonight it is me. I am reading something which I have written here and which is a part of one of the two stories I intend to write before the Alzheimer’s sets in. My effort, which I stayed up until the small hours writing, is not just new, but scarcely off the delivery table in the entirely medical sense of the word.
Wish me luck.
Postscript: the lady from HongKong is called Doris. My brother, who is currently between marriages, refers to his prospective girlfriends as Dorises. Why I felt the need to tell the assembled group this at lunchtime I have no idea. I may have to buy Doris flowers by way of apology. (Actually she offered to go out with my brother, making her the Doris Doris but that’s way too much to consider!)

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Think I may have blown my cover...

I am away on a creative writing course this week. Why? Because my beloved says he’s fed up with me talking about writing the great novel and would like an instant transformation into J K Rowling. Anyway, in case you are wondering, I suspect that I won’t be ratcheting up the tone of my blogs any time soon...
I am in the wilds of West Yorkshire on a residential course in what was the home of a renowned, now dead, poet. That’s enough detail on location. There are sixteen of us here with two published and award-winning authors to tutor us. 
The mornings are spent in workshops where we discuss various fiction techniques and do writing exercises. The rest of the day is spent writing, walking (me because if I don’t go outside and get some fresh air and exercise I’ll have cabin-fever), and cooking and eating supper and clearing up which we do in turns. My turn to cook hasn’t come yet but I am getting to the point where if I don’t get a proper meal with meat I may bite someone. And then in the evenings, we have readings and more discussion. All very hard on the brain and there are some seriously mighty brains here. In fact, I must be the only person here without a degree, or multiple degrees, apart from the two girls who are studying at UCL and Cambridge. So you see, academically so far out of my depth that I can’t even see the bubbles on the surface.
Anyway, my strategy on day one was to volunteer to be the first to read a piece of work out to the assembled formidable audience of my fellow students. The reasoning behind this gung ho approach was that if I waited till everyone had read I would have been so terrified that I would have bottled. So off I went, it went ok and all was far.
Day 2 and my strategy failed. We were asked to write about our childhood home. We had about twenty minutes so lots of adrenalin and writing to a deadline which is, of course, what I am all about. I wrote and returned to the barn where the workshops take place and sat in my usual place. Bad news! The tutors decided to go round the room and I was alarmingly near the end of the queue.
Each student read out a childhood memory - these guys are amazing and all have so much more experience and word skills than me. The oldest of the students talked about being evacuated to the country during the Second World War - it was like Goodnight Mr Tom but captured in about ten sentences - awesome. Then gradually the process moved round the room, and I noticed a theme emerging. One had grown up in a house with seven people and only 4 chairs so that she never had a chair until several of her siblings had left home. Another lived in a Scottish tenement where washing was hung out on a communal green. The lady from HongKong had grown up in a cubicle and slept on the floor. Could I re-write my piece so I lived in a shoe box? (“We used to dream of living in a corridor” Monty Python)
My brief memory of moving to the country and the fulfillment of my childhood dream of having my first pony went down... well, what can I say? Lead balloon doesn’t cover it really. Someone asked me if the pony had died - obviously looking for a bit of tragedy in my nice middle class childhood. “No, the pony was fine.”
So you see, cover blown. Perhaps I am really here to write about this surreal experience and not the great novel after all...unless I can turn this into a novel - now there’s a thought. 

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Blown away by the girls...

Sometimes when I look at my daughters I am completely blown away. Not just by my daughters but other people's as well. I simply cannot conceive that we were, in our teens and early twenties, anywhere near as gorgeous, confident and poised as the current crop.

My oldest spent Monday morning here chatting to a features writer from the Yorkshire Post and having her photo taken. She looked so beautiful and hopefully the pictures will reflect that. They won't, I hope, show that as well as wearing a tie-dye dress (aah, I remember tie-dye!) and my cardigan, she was also wearing her father's socks. Anyway, there she was, telling her life story and looking as though she had spent her life dealing with the media. Later in the week, she gave a speech at the school prize giving and held a hundred and something 11-14 year olds in her spell for fifteen minutes. She is, in an email I got from one mother, 'a beast' according to her teenage boys. Not sure what that means but apparently it is very good!

Unlike daughter 1 whose dress style can only be described as 'shabby chic', daughter 2 is the epitome of power dressing. I gaze in awe when I see her in her work clothes complete with very high heels which deal neatly with the vertical challenge issues she has. I couldn't wear those heels for an hour, let alone a day but she tells me they're comfy and who am I to argue? I can imagine that in that dress and those heels she is formidable in the workplace.

Daughter 3 is my style guru. I now require her approval before leaving home if it is an important event. 'No, you can't wear a jacket with that.'... 'It might rain.'...'Tough! It won't look right.' And so it goes. She has her own style and is fully up to speed on Vogue and Harper's Bazaar in a way that she probably isn't on chemistry and biology.

When I was the age of my daughters, it was the 1970s. How could you be a style icon in the 1970s? The other day, my friends and I were discussing the fashions of the time. I had, no word of a lie, lilac hotpants. On the other hand, the older sister of my best friend had turquoise loons - now they were a thing of beauty. She wore them with a pink mohair jumper and she looked the business. She also went out with the most good looking boy of all our friends. No more about him as he now lives rather near me these days and someone might tell him... One of my other friends admitted that every pair of jeans she possessed had a tartan stripe down the side in homage to the Bay City Rollers. See what I mean about how hard it was to look good in the '70s?

Anyway, on a positive note, my daughters presumably don't think I am such a dinosaur as they all borrow my clothes - daughter 2, I'd like my boots back please! I certainly wouldn't have dreamt of borrowing my mother's clothes - but then her wardrobe didn't extend to hotpants! It is flattering when I see them rifling through my wardrobe looking for various items (usually the newer ones that I have hardly had time to wear). Though it is equally annoying to find the same items either on the floor in their bedrooms, or worse still in either Leeds or London where daughters 1 and 2 live.

Their friends are equally lovely and glamorous. Do they realise how immensely powerful they are with their long hair, fabulous clothes and all that confidence? Boys of similar age must be in a permanent state of anxiety - they look so completely outgunned by these amazing creatures. The two daughters of a friend of mine regularly arrive at cricket matches looking stunning - I'm surprised the players can concentrate on the game, so lovely are these two.

I hope all these girls are really enjoying their moment in the sun. Looking back, I can only remember being so lacking in confidence that I scarcely realised this was my time. But, if I knew then what I know now ...

Monday, 11 July 2011

The Big One!

Village life is punctuated by various annual events but the Big One is undoubtedly Feast weekend. This annual celebration has just come and gone, and the curious mix of the traditional and the modern brings out the best - and most quirky - elements of village life. Regardless of the age of your children, they seem to start looking forward and planning it as soon as the last one is over!

The first signs are the arrival of one of two trailers for the fair on the village green and the strategic hanging of the bunting up and down the village which stays there until after the Fun Run later in the summer - and this usually happens on the Monday or Tuesday before the big weekend. Children coming out of the village school or getting off the school buses outside the shop remark on what fair rides might be coming. Will there be dodgems  - or The Edge - so terrifying and brutal that I am obviously never going on it. In fact, my favourite ride hasn't made an appearance since a few years ago when I spent half the afternoon sliding gleefully down the helter-skelter!

My children make a point of returning to the village for Feast weekend - that is daughters 1 and 2 who don't live here all the time. They all bring friends so that usually makes the total number staying to well over 10 on the Saturday night. The older ones love to regale their friends with stories of previous feasts. This, I have noticed, usually takes the form of what embarrassing costume I made for them to wear in the fancy dress competition which is one of the main features of Saturday afternoon.

The event kicks off with a parade down the hill accompanied by a brass band - this year, excitement abounded with men in kilts! There are few things which can buck a girl up like a man in a kilt - and there were several to choose from! All the children parade from the village hall down to the bottom green and then into the show ring. Then they are herded out and divided into age groups, boys and girls, for the judging.

Judging is a serious thing. The first Feast after we moved to the village, we were invited to judge. Not realising the serious nature of the task, we turned up slightly late and slightly tipsy. We sat ceremonially in a row next to a senior lady of the village (sadly no longer with us). As we chose winners from each group, we were politely corrected, as, in those days at least, who won what was a matter of politics as well as standard of dress.

For years after our not-very-spectacular judging of the event, I dressed my own children in various costumes - unicorns, pied piper of Hamlyn (complete with recorder and rats), bats - with the excellent and very successful recycling of umbrellas from the charity shop - jellyfish, sheep and Bam Bam and Pebbles! One year, when the twins were small I customised the enormous family Silver Cross pram as the night sky complete with solar system and pushed it - because it was so huge there was no other way to transport it - the mile into the village only to be beaten by the local architect who had obviously spent the entire winter turning his son's pushchair into Bob the Builder's digger.

After the judging of the fancy dress, the band plays and everyone makes their way back up the hill for village tea. Village tea is a serious tradition. A committee of senior ladies of the village meet before the event and discuss sandwich fillings and numbers of cakes and where the top table (for the aforementioned judges) and the band should sit. Rather a lot of years ago, when my children had told me firmly that they were too cool to dress up, I offered my services as a washer-upper (not on the committee of course - I know my place!) and so I now spend a couple of hours each Feast day in the smallest sub-kitchen ever devised washing up the same cups, saucers and plates over and over again. I have long ago established myself as the lowest form of human life in this once-a-year food chain and I seldom leave the sink except to scuttle back and forth filling giant tea pots and milk jugs. But I never cease to marvel at the  diverse methods each of these ladies employs to seat, serve and clear the hungry, thirsty, rather harassed (parents) and rather scruffy (fancy dress abandoned but face paint still in evidence) children of the village.

Once tea is over, the children find their way across to the school field where the races take place. This year I failed to make an appearance at this event but I still think that my annual cameo in the three legged race may live on in the memory from previous years. I have definitely been more successful in this race (with either a daughter or the Barnsley lodger) than in the obstacle race when year on year I managed to get tangled up in someone's strawberry netting only to emerge much later than the rest of the competitors with rather challenging hair.

The main event for the teenagers is, of course, the raggle taggle fair which lands on the village green with a selection of rides for small children and something dangerous for the big ones plus the dodgems for everyone which becomes significantly more daring as evening turns to night and the alcohol kicks in. Whether the fair work out their charges based on how well-to-do the village remains a mystery, I only know that large amounts of cash disappear and if we are on hand in the village, children return again and again to have more money handed over. One year, in fact the first year we let the twins loose on their own, we went to the pub for supper with several like-minded parents with similar aged children. During the evening, each of the little treasures trouped in for extra pocket money until finally ours delivered a goldfish which spent the rest of the evening in the wine cooler on the table before having a long and happy life at home.

Feast is a rite of passage for teenagers in our village with early experiences of alcohol and probably other things as well. It is, perhaps, one of the safest places to experiment in the way that teenagers must. What is so special is that even when they grow up and go to clubs, bars and restaurants all over the world, they find their way home for Feast. And long may they do so...