Monday, 28 May 2012


So it's Monday, and I spent the weekend looking at my daughter's art show at her sixth form college, eating Turkish food in Stoke Newington and writing my PhD thesis with the blinds down because it was sunny.  (Normal people were outside.) Also watched Dark Water* which was brilliant (slightly too scary for me, but I have to butch up now due to having teenage kids who aren't scared of anything). And I read some of Susanna Jones's new novel When Nights were Cold which is also brilliant and increasingly intense. Oh, and I did three loads of washing, went to two cafes and two pubs, walked round Clissold Park and spent 45 minutes at the gym.

But the writing? What about the writing? I was going to do one of those posts where I say, it's fine not to write for two days, because sometimes life closes in, when I remembered that last night I edited two short stories down to flash fiction length, and then had an idea for another story which I will write today. Writing can be done in corners of time, there is no need to rent a cottage on a Welsh mountain though I would dearly like to. (I wrote my first novel when I was a busy freelance journalist by pretending it was a succession of feature articles.)

Creativity doesn't need vast swathes of time. In fact, deadlines can be a useful prompt: check out Jonah Lehrer's book How Creativity Works if you don't believe me. Necessity really is the mother of invention. It's the deadline for the Bridport prize on May 31st, which is this Thursday. And that is all the prompt that anyone should need...

* N.B. Pedant's note: this was the Japanese version. Haven't seen the US remake, but as a general rule I'd rather see the original than the Hollywood imitation, subtitles or no subtitles.

Friday, 25 May 2012


After the notebook - drafting. A notebook is the writer's dumping ground for random thoughts and scribbles, and the first draft marks the next stage in the creative process. These days some writers - maybe most - write their first draft on a PC or laptop. But there are others, including Patrick Gale, who stick to the traditional pen and paper method when developing their early ideas.

What seems sad to me is that with fewer writers using the old school approach, there will be fewer chances to see a first draft in all its muddled glory. (Track changes just aren't the same.) Shakespeare may never have blotted a line but most writers blot and scratch out at will, and a first draft is fascinating to read.

Case study. Charles Dickens. Here is the first page of A Tale of Two Cities...

I love this - it's like watching him thinking. Of course, had Dickens had access to a laptop, he would probably have written about 97 more novels. (Though there are those who think he would have been writing soaps or screenplays, who knows?) But in any case, there it is. He didn't, and we are the richer for it.

The Victoria and Albert Museum has Dickens' whole manuscript for A Tale of Two Cities up on its website.   And you can also access it through the Penguin English Library.

Sunday, 20 May 2012


I'm going to blog soon about reading aloud and current vogue for literary 'slamming' and 'gritting' and so on: i.e. the newly sexy live authorial reading with the lights down and the stories short.

Not all writers want to stand up and read in front of a paying audience, and not all readers want to go to live events. And there is no way that any writer, no matter how ebullient, extrovert and vocally gifted, can rival live music or actual drama, in my humble opinion. But sometimes this is the best/only way of reaching your potential readership.

It's four years since I read this piece at the Brighton Festival and it marked a turning point in my writing. I realised that I could 'do' short, and that people liked it. And I realised that there is humour in even the worst things that can happen to you. In this case, being punched by a stranger at my own wedding.  

So here it is - A Punch Up the Pavilion.

Our invitations say: “We’ve had the booze, the fights, the kids and the cardigans. Now it’s time for the wedding.”
The Pavilion is the venue.  The red drawing room. Hence the frock – floor length scarlet. strapless satin, with a bit of a train. The black taffeta shrug doesn’t quite fit, it’s a teeny bit tight.  My shoulders have a faintly gladiatorial look. I had the whole ensemble made - for the grand sum of sixty quid - by a retired midwife with face piercings. So we’re not talking Liz Hurley levels of outlay here. 
I’m wondering if it’s all a bit too Goth?
My mother envisaged me in raw silk separates, cloche hat, cream roses: Gatsby garden party styled by Next.   Since I passed the 40 mark, she’d rather I were swathed in neutral shades, as if I was an object of minor interest in a National Trust property, in need of protection from out-of-season dust.
My friend Bernadette – a serial divorcee, and an expert in bridal dos and don’ts – told me to “hold the moment” at some point during my big day. “You must take a step back, and think – this is it,” she said.  “It is your one and only wedding day. A once-in-a-lifetime experience.” Bernadette has had a once-in-a-lifetime experience three times, so she knows what she is talking about.
This is it, then. 
I’m standing on the windy lawn at the back of the Pavilion. The weirdly corporate little ceremony is over. We’ve processed out of the drawing room with Ella Fitzgerald in the background. The children are leaping around me, my son in his grown-up grey suit, hands in his pockets like a boy in an old photograph, my daughter in her wreath of pink lilies, gold hair down to her shoulders. My legal “husband” is corralled by the Irish relatives, not able to think of much to say to them. Everyone is smiling, smiling.  There are blank spaces between the groups of ill-assorted guests.  
A swift breeze whips my hair across my eyes so I am blinded for a moment and I don’t see her coming.  

And then she is there, standing right in front of me. Addled by bridal celebrity, my brain just gets an image, no information attached.  A woman with a set face, white and undernourished. Her thin hair is stretched tight against her skull, as if she hates it and has strained it back for a punishment. She is small-eyed and zipped into a light blue padded jacket. 

We look at each other.
“Are you the bride?” she asks.
“Yes, “I say, flushed and grinning. “I am.”
Then, there is a black thud, obscuring everything. My head goes down, my hands go up to clutch my face.  My bouquet of oriental lilies falls, and no one catches it. A scream from my daughter. There is a dull, hard pain. Gasping, I open my eyes, and there’s the world at ground level. Gobbets of chewing gum and sun shrivelled grass.  The woman is standing quite still.  I can see her jeans and her smart new training shoes, complete with price tag. Pale blue to go with the jacket.
“She’s punched her!” shouts somebody.  “Arrest that woman! She punched the bride!” 
I look up. The guests are now united, surging towards us. The woman turns and legs it, hurtling across the grass, powering herself forwards with her arms. My mother tries to chase after her, her angry feathery headgear fluttering in the wind.  My mother is restrained. Other guests give chase as well, but the woman is faster. She leaps the wall by the bus stop, and disappears.  I feel completely alone, cut off in my sudden little violent space.

Then I remember Bernadette. “Hold the moment”.  Hold the buggering moment. Not much point in that now. I straighten up and look at my hands. No blood. No damage done. My nose feels twice its natural size, but is still there. I look around me, at all the anxious faces. Everything ruined.On my once-in-a-life-time wedding day.
At the Arts Club, bottles of chilled cava are lined up on the bar, ready to toast our journey into married old age.  Later, there will be a salsa band and sixteen kinds of salad.  
“Come on everyone,” I say, hitching up my skirt so no one treads on my mini-train.  “I need a drink.”  
And off we go, tripping along through the Laines, an ungainly crocodile of wedding folk:  me, husband, sobbing children, Irish relatives and incompatible guests. Then we dance all afternoon and most of the night.

                  *  *  *  *                                
Afterwards, I found I wasn’t the only one. There were other brides, other punchees. She used to go to the drop-in centre for street drinkers next door to the Pavilion. She’d been unlucky in love, as in most other areas of life.

Brides seemed an obvious target, smugly ponced up in their cream-cake crinolines. Over privileged and easy to identify.  I sort of saw where she was coming from.

I wear a thick gold ring now, like a knuckle duster.  And I wonder what she did next?  If she moved on from punching brides and settled for something safer. Or if, her trainers still that pristine shade of arctic blue, she kept on running.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012


While I was walking round the Lucian Freud exhibition on Saturday evening, I wrote this down on an old envelope (having left my notebook at home, bad girl): 'Why are art galleries so tiring? It's as if our eyes are muscles that we rarely use.'

Weird idea, because of course everyone who can see must be looking at things all the time. But we can 'look' without seeing, on the autopilot that Virginia Woolf calls 'non-being'. What I find inspiring about Lucian Freud, love him or hate him, is the intensity of his seeing, and the way he makes the human form loom up at you, more vivid and realised than the actual people looking at the paintings on the wall.

I don't find his work offensive, but affirming. The fact that most of his models are not conventionally beautiful is inspiring in itself. The (literally) cocky Leigh Bowery, bald head set magisterially on his bulbous torso; the artist's mother with her withered, fragile hands; Big Sue the benefits supervisor (above) spilling over a sofa like a pile of plump flesh cushions: these all made me realise that I spend a great deal of my life hating my own body, apologising for it, promising that it will be narrower, firmer, more controlled, in future. But it's really all I am, all I've got.

Really seeing, as well as looking, is a homage in itself. It doesn't matter if you depict your subject sympathetically or - as Freud does - forensically. This picture of his children, crowded together and yet all separate from one another, looks to me like a celebration of the strangeness of family life, and the ruthless self-absorption of childhood and adolescence.

How does this relate to writing? Ah, well. That's for anyone who wants to write to work out for themselves...

Writing what you know

'Write what you know' the saying goes. So (notebooks bulging with ideas) off we go with our stories about obsessive first love or scarily weird parents. If your break-ups have been amicable, and your family is functional, you are at a disadvantage.

But if I were to be all academic about it, I might say: how do you define 'know'. Do you mean 'remember'? How do you know your memories are accurate? Do you mean 'feel'? What vocabulary do you have to communicate your emotion to someone else, so they can feel it too?

In an excellent book about writing called 'The Agony and the Ego', Graham Swift suggests that that we should also write about what we don't know. You can learn to 'see' the material for your writing.
Research is as important to good writing as vividly recalled experience, and the skill of noticing, and using words with unselfconscious skill. Good writing comes from a sort of meticulous honesty.

A.L. Alvarez says writers need two things:

* 'The particular faculty of mind to see things as they really are, and apart from the conventional way in which you have been trained to see them.'

* 'The concentrated state of mind, the grip over oneself which is necessary in the actual expression of what one sees'.

More on 'seeing' soon, courtesy of the genius of Lucian Freud...