No, I’m neither a dinosaur nor a Luddite, but recently, I’ve had a Facebook moment. You know that time when you realise you are not keeping up with everything you should that your real friends are doing, and that you have a long list of friends you actually haven’t really communicated with in years or know, but not that well? That if you do spend time looking at your newsfeed, it feels like time wasted, or living life vicariously, but you’re not sure how to deal with it?
Well, I had a friend cull, as it is called, rather like some kind of seal slaughter, but hopefully less bloody. Probably, most will not notice because I am fairly unimportant to them, and that’s ok. You see, for most of us, friends are people we communicate with regularly and can really talk to, not people we vaguely know through some social media platform.
Facebook has close friends categories, friends and acquaintances, and others, but the system of differentiation is so laborious that it makes it almost worthless. The reality is that my really close friends know about me, my other friends probably don’t know or need to know, and acquaintances don’t even need to be there. Yet, I am reluctant to dispense with it completely, for Facebook can be interesting, I can learn things and I discover who has changed job, partner, parental status, and so on. Quite useful for big life event announcements, though I often miss them!
The answer perhaps is, for others and for me, to slowly reduce friends until they become manageable and if people delete me, no, I will not be offended.
So, I wondered if there is a more efficient way of using Facebook. I prefer Instagram and Twitter and mainly have a personal Facebook account because I have so-called business pages which cannot be run without a personal account. I decided to try just posting to my pages, and making all my posts on my personal page ‘me only’ in my privacy settings. For now, let’s see if that has any impact. All ideas welcome!
My brother-in-law handed me Lynsey Hanley’s paperback, Respectable, telling me I may find it of interest. He was right. It is a book about crossing the class divide from the working class to the middle class (however we define that). Like Lynsey, I grew up as part of the respectable working class in Birmingham. Guess I’m now not really a wage slave but am a property owner, and have so-called middle class ‘pretensions’ which probably firmly places me in a different class group to that in which I was born. However, I remember having this precise conversation about crossing the class divide with an old university friend who found herself in exactly the same boat as me. She said: “it’s as if you don’t quite belong anywhere”. Certainly, as a working class university student, product of the 11+ grammar system, I never felt confident at university, never quite good enough. I probably only ultimately conquered that feeling many years and five degrees later, when I managed to work my socks off while working and raising children, to attain a First in Literature. When I went home (and this started at grammar school when I wore a different uniform to the rest) I didn’t feel a part of things, either. My tastes had moved on: food, film, television, music, culture, language. It was hard to slip back into the old ways of being.
Common ground is that Lynsey Hanley and I both had those Birmingham roots, though she was at Chelmsley Wood. To the child me, Chelmsley Wood was desirable, as it contained modern housing estates with gardens, rather than the terraced houses with yards, like where I lived. However, there was also a distinction in those days between the council and privately owned properties. A great deal of this book resonates. The desire to aspire to a new way of living, to be different, but in a way which ensures you cannot ever fully return; which is not to denigrate working class life and culture, despite feeling that something else is needed, that in itself it didn’t feed my desire to know more. It always and invariably reminds me of that pub scene in Educating Rita.
I was raised in Winson Green and one thing I didn’t know, which I learned from the book, was that it had riots in 2011. By then I was living in Devon and my parents had also moved from that specific area so I had become disengaged. Now I have no great desire to go back because it seems pointless. What use would it be to anyone, including me? Anyway, it’s probably changed. Hanley wrote:
Most people probably remember the Channel 4 documentary based in Winson Green, Benefits Street, focusing on James Turner Street, the road parallel to where I spent my first 18 years of life. The community agreed to the programme because it was supposed to represent their “strong, mutually supportive community”. Oddly enough, despite it being a stone’s throw away, James Turner Street felt posh in my Perrott Street days as most houses had small front gardens. Walking out onto the street was seriously poor. Hanley writes: “The programmes that resulted, shown under the title Benefits Street, seemed designed not to highlight such a community, but instead tacitly to encourage its viewers to denounce the welfare state and insult the people who’d agreed to be filmed”.
We always knew the neighbours in Winson Green, and we children played on the street together; adults looked out for each other’s offspring. Was there a real community spirit? It depends on how you define it. Did everyone work together to make life better? No, that was largely a middle-class prerogative, which I see now in towns and villages, though maybe it happens in some inner-city areas, too. However, if someone died we all closed our curtains as a mark of respect and women would go round the street for a door to door collection to help pay for the funeral, so maybe that was the elusive ‘community’. Largely though, during my childhood, people were too busy working to feed their families to engage in large-scale improving the community for others. Men like my Dad worked long hours, often in two manual jobs, while women like my mother relied on tranquillisers to get them through life; it wasn’t a life I aspired to.
As for Lynsey, education was my way out. I went to grammar school, which I largely hated until the sixth form, as I didn’t fit in there either, but I gleaned from it the desire to move on and the qualifications with which to do it.
In principle, I’m anti grammar schools (and aspirations for us working class children within them were still low, such as being told in the sixth form I only needed latin if I was going to university, and that I’d be a leading light at a polytechnic) but it remained part of my engineered escape to something which, if not better, was different, and for which I’m eternally grateful.
Today, I visited The Cabin, at Bucks Mills, left untouched since the 1970s when it was abandoned following the death of the artist, Judith Ackland, by her devastated partner, Mary Stella Edwards. Mary declared it should be left as it was, a testimony to their lives together as artists. It’s a tiny place, but how devoid of any distraction it must have been. Bucks Mills is isolated now, so must have been truly so then, making the opportunity to intimately observe nature, land and sea, and to spend time painting in the warmer summer months, a jewel.
It was lovely to meet two of the authors. Wendy Percival, originally a primary teacher from Shropshire, was inspired to write crime novels after tracing her family history upon finding some old documents. Is there such a thing as genealogical crime fiction?
By contrast, despite being born in North Devon, which barely saw a Roman, Ruth Downie’s writing interests are of that period. What inspired them? Well, in Ruth’s case, Hadrian’s Wall, but the authors and I discussed the boredom that accompanies the female domestic role, making the desire (for women especially) to do something creative, imperative.
Throw in some hard work and real focus, too, of course, as being a published author is never easy.
So, now all I need to do is to try reading some of their books. And get stuck into my own writing!
If reading would make me a better writer of fiction, then I should be amazing by now. Perhaps it is because I’m always on trains or in the bath that I get through so many books, but my latest read was The Handsworth Times by Sharon Duggal. I’m not above a touch of nostalgic Brummie, especially given I spent much of my younger life walking backwards and forwards to the library on Soho Road in Handsworth, and as my extended family were raised around Lozells where this book is also set. The author grew up in Birmingham, with her Punjabi family who immigrated to the UK.
Despite now living in Brighton & Hove, she retains an affection for Handsworth:
Handsworth is an inner-city area typified by diverse communities; where adults share similar economic deprivations but generally live culturally segregated lives whilst their children play out alongside neighbours of all backgrounds, sharing popular youth and music culture. Growing up, I was surrounded by people written off by the education system and/or struggling to make ends meet but these particular personal experiences were never ones I came across in books I read. There are two things here that are fundamental to my journey as a writer. Firstly, it soon became apparent that practical circumstances meant being a writer was not going to sit high on any priority list. Secondly, Handsworth was an extremely lively and exciting place to grow up in, full of untold stories that never seemed to get written about.
The blurb tells us it is a story of loss and transition, a “pulling together because ultimately, there is such a thing as society”. There is but I’m not convinced this book is about the positives of society; more, it focuses on community, finding like-minded people even within a sea of local difference.
It relates to an early 1980s working-class family led (I use the term loosely) by Mukesh Agarwal, who saves a life and loses one (or more). Mukesh has many burdens to carry, so tries drowning himself in an alcoholic haze, which renders him powerless. The family includes 2 boys (one dies, one ceases caring) and 3 girls (one who escapes to university and falls in love with a Pakistani boy, one whose first experience of affection is same-sex, and one who is attacked by a man she is attracted to) all struggling with Thatcher’s fractured Britain of 1981. The National Front was marching, the counter attack was mounting, the riots were blazing and unemployment was high, especially if you doused yourself in Eau de Whisky before going into work. Mum, Usha, has an OCD cleaning thing going on until she is actually saved (I think) by a friendship which forces her into community engagement. There’s all the day to day stuff of friendship, gender war, protest and pop music in a family which seems to be going nowhere, carefully juxtapositioned against questions of power and sexuality, where violence is masked and hidden, yet accepted.
At times, it is shocking, so I wanted to shake some of the main characters while feeling a deep alarm for the situations which arose. I’m no sure it is about working-class solidarity as The Morning Star suggests but more an in-depth private viewing of how the various characters all deal with their loss and their challenges. Do you hide away or get out and fight, or a variation somewhere between the two depending on what day it is? Read and find out.
A wonderfully evocative first novel from Sharon Duggal. It kept me gripped throughout.
There’s loads of soundbite advice out there for how to make yourself really productive in a distracting digital age. I’m as poor as anyone at settling down on task and focusing for a long period of time, so wondered why this is. As someone recently said to me: “you achieve so much, but imagine how much you’d get done if you really focused on one thing”. Truth is, I have lots of strings to my particular bow and can’t really simply knuckle down to any one thing. Many others are doubtless the same, but among all the advice I’ve found six key elements which apply to me. They may not work for everyone but are worth a few minutes to consider.
It is important to work out what matters, what you hope to achieve. What matters to me at the moment is that I make serious strides with my book. However, I also have a hyperlocal website to populate and a life to live. What matters most and how can I divide up the time I have?
Margin and priorities
Having decided priorities, and effectively timetabling them in, we need margins. If your timetable is rigid, there is no scope for something going wrong. Prime example, working this morning I was interrupted by a neighbour with a problem which took half an hour out of my schedule. I also had to walk my dogs. Luckily, I’d woken up early and started moving early, so my day started earlier. Therefore, if I lost 30 minutes along the way, the margin was built in.
There’s a sense of flow with any creative work. If you are constantly being interrupted or flitting between activities, flow is impeded. It’s like the feng shui of creativity. You need spaces to have positive energy flows rather than blocks impeding energy. You can use apps to sort you out, such as SelfControl for if you have a limited amount of your own, or you can just switch off your phone, or switch off the wifi on your desk/laptop if you’re writing. Find a space where you don’t see the mess in the kitchen and become distracted by mundane tasks. It’s also that realisation that your time is important. If I could switch the dogs off from barking, that would surely help my flow!
Do we actually need to check our emails/facebook/twitter/instagram/WhatsApp umpteen times a day? No, but many of us do. The world will not end if we have an hour or two off from being digitally connected. Actually, very little will happen. Facebook is a good case in point. If anyone really wants to contact you, they will message you rather than assuming you are checking their Facebook.
Finding flow and being active
It can help to set yourself targets (whether it is word count, or tackling a specific aspect of your writing) so you actively set out to achieve it. Finding flow is much easier if you have an action plan. If you simply think “I must do some writing today” then you probably won’t.
We all like something shiny to reward ourselves. Our productivity might be an achievement in itself or you may decide to treat yourself to a walk, a nice lunch, or an hour doing something you enjoy, like a painting, reading a chapter of a book, watching the news, pulling up some weeds, whatever floats you. Always finish on a high note, too, where something comes to a natural end point. That’s that chapter finished! Feels good.
Researching an enigma is fascinating, for not only do I have to read about her, I also have to read very much around Pamela Colman-Smith. Yet along the way, I am enjoying a range of experience from discussions with academics to people on Twitter sharing photos like this one. Thanks so much, Darren Jones. Darren said:
I bought a copy of The Russian Ballet from a charity book organisation. They described it as being an ex-library book which was puzzling as it was published in 1913. When I received it I found out that it had been a will bequest by a lady called Claudia Ayton – Lee to a private reference library run by the Old Vic theatre in 1955. And there it has been until sold it to me. On the title page was this picture.
Rose Elliot is my favourite ever cookery writer. Always was, from my first venture into vegetarian food in my teens, and still is. My daughter recently bought me a new copy of her Complete Vegetarian to replace my broken original, over 30 years old and exceedingly well-used. I was thrilled, though there was an element of sadness in disposing of the original.
Rose is also an astrologer. In 2013, she sadly discovered her husband, Robert, had Lewy Body Dementia. They had just celebrated their 50th anniversary. Eventually, he needed nursing home care and passed away at 82, on Boxing Day in 2014. Robert was 12 years older than Rose who met him when she was 18. It was he who was originally interested in Buddhism though Rose herself came from a spiritual family. So, her transition into writing books about both astrology and Buddhism was not too surprising.
I Met a Monk was published in 2015. Rose wrote on her website: I cannot tell you how much the wisdom the monk shared with me has helped me to navigate these dark times. Living with someone with dementia, especially Lewy Body (with its delusions and hallucinations) is very dark indeed.
Basically, it is an account of course provided by a Buddhist monk who attended Rose’s and Robert’s home, and Rose’s of own journey along the path towards further enlightenment. The book is laid out in steps, which is the way to approach it, really. It explains how Buddhist philosophy can be incorporated into our lives at a time when ‘mindfulness’ has become a trendy buzzword. The book is accessibly written, describing the social situation of the group setting, the words of the monk, and the questions people present asked. Each section is then summarised, but all the concepts interrelate.
In the book, we are introduced to mindfulness, which is commonly used but really quite difficult to achieve at any realistic daily level, Metta (loving kindness, to ourselves and others), suffering or happiness, and the depersonalisation of suffering which is the first of the Four Noble Truths. We learn about letting go, and learning peace. The idea of Buddhism seems to be that it gives you the tools you need to live a life of peace, happiness and freedom in relatively simple ways which could be “written on the back of a postcard”.
One of the hardest things for us to do is to stop “judging, comparing, criticising and condemning” both others and ourselves on a pathway to peace. The phrase “it is as it is” is often used in the book, and I’ve since heard others use it, too. Accepting people and situations as they are brings peace; not taking offence helps. It seems that Buddhism is a useful way to try to live life. It accepts there is suffering (we all grow old, we all die, we all experience hurt and frustration but dealing with it makes life a lot happier). It struck me that this is how I have dealt with my many bereavements. I have a moment or two of “life’s unfair” but ultimately it is as it is and me being upset cannot change anything for the better, so while I may not like it, I accept it. A good coping strategy so far.
It considers the causes of suffering, many of which can be applied to consumer society today. We suffer if we expect others to conform to our desires and expectations. It is that sense of constant wanting and craving (which capitalism fuels) that deprives us of comfort and happiness. As a teenager, I decided that life on earth was actually hell because people were never satisfied, they constantly craved more, self improvement or simply material goods. Maybe that thinking was influenced by Buddhism. If we modified our wanting, we would be happier?
How do we live that happier life (which is what we all seek, after all)? Through compassion seems to be key. Compassion towards all living things, including ourselves. There are 5 precepts:
…not to take the life of anything living, not to take anything not freely given, to abstain from sexual misconduct and sensual overindulgence, to refrain from untrue speech, and to avoid intoxication, that is, losing mindfulness…
We need to have an inquiring mind, not blind faith. The website link below says: the Buddha pointed out the danger in fashioning one’s beliefs merely on the following grounds: on hearsay, on tradition, because many others say it is so, on the authority of ancient scriptures, on the word of a supernatural being, or out of trust in one’s teachers, elders, or priests. It adds that tolerance is important, meaning:
Tolerance does not mean that one embraces every idea or view but means one doesn’t get angry at what one can’t accept.
Ultimately, Buddhism teaches that the answers to life’s problems are within us, and most of these can be resolved through kindness, bringing yourself back to the present and letting things take their natural course. Then your life will become still. Which all sounds very easy but isn’t. There is, however, also the law of karma to consider, which is reaping what you sow. In practice, this means treating others as you would be done by, being mindful of the suffering of others. It doesn’t happen naturally. It is hard to forget old hurts and scores, for example, but doing so is liberating.
I’m not a Buddhist and would fall down in adhering to many areas outlined. However, there is much to be said for taking the ideas on board and running with the ones I can use. For example, I have found myself becoming far less agitated by the actions of others when I’ve reminded myself of the elements in this book, and focused on the present moments. That’s good enough for me.
This is one of my autistic spectrum reads, like The Rosie Project, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, and Shtum. They are all books filled brimful with humour but also poignancy. All focus on relationships, largely parents and children but also husbands and wives (or whatever combo) and all involve a sense of strain caused by the demands of the condition, followed by relief and learning when the lead characters (invariably men) finally understand what creates difference and that difference is OK. Tolerance happens. My son once mentioned a boy with Aspergers at school. He reckoned he was incredibly honest and said what everyone else was merely thinking. Imagine, he added, if we didn’t have all this game playing and messing around, imagine if everyone was that honest. Indeed.
So Keith Stuart’s book is about a dad with an eight-year-old autistic son. The story is invariably one of separation, resolution and ultimately, understanding. It’s upliftingly inspired by real life, which is often more interesting than true fiction. If you like Minecraft or even Lego, you’ll probably really get into it. It’s one of those light bulb moment tales, when after wading through life’s
It’s another one of those light bulb moment tales, when after wading through life’s mire, then suddenly the lead character understands, but no less worthwhile for that.
Worth a read. Funny how most of these novels are written by men though.
As a writer, inspiration comes from many sources. This week, I spent a day in Exeter visiting the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) and Exeter Cathedral along with the Sacred Heart Church.The exhibition at the RAMM was a series of watercolours documenting Queen Victoria’s visit to Paris in 1855. The visit occurred from 18-27 August, the first time a British monarch had visited the French capital in over 400 years. She was the guest of Napoleon III, nephew of Bonaparte, along with her husband, Albert and two eldest children. The visit was celebratory, following the Crimean War. The watercolours were made for the Queen as a souvenir of her visit, as she was a keen collector of this form of painting. The paintings were rich images of costume, pomp and circumstances. For any historical novelist, the series would provide rich source material, as you can see here.
The churches tell different stories. In the Sacred Heart is a row of confessional boxes. Within are kneeling stools for the confession of sins. There is surely material for a scene or a short story there. Within the Cathedral, there are various memorial stones which tell their own stories, and which may surely be used in many a tale. Take the story of poor Rachel Charlotte O’Brien, a mere 19, from Montreal, whose death was occasioned by her clothes catching fire. She sacrificed her own life to save her infant. A tragic tale in every sense, but one which could do easily be incorporated into a storyline.
We also learn a great deal about dress, activity, names and ways of writing through historical sources, so a day out viewing art and churches could just fire the imagination and lead to all sorts of ideas/inspiration.
Once I sneaked past ‘O’ level (yes, yes, GCSE then) I liked exams. I also liked researching and writing essays, having written many in my time and, to be honest, achieving pretty decent marks. I am reasonably adept at putting together short reports/factual pieces for my hyperlocal website. When curious about a subject, I can also write a thought-provoking piece. I can spell, I can edit.
What I seriously cannot do is write fiction.
My one attempt at writing fiction was so closely based on real life people and facts as to be potentially libellous.
People tell me I need to write a stonking novel, a blockbuster, the kind that will make me rich. I need to be J.K.Rowling.
I quietly smile and agree that it is indeed a thought. However, I truly know that it will not happen, for while I very much enjoy reading fiction, it does not translate easily to paper. My brain doesn’t seem to work in that way.
I love a good novel. I can also enjoy abstract art and beautifully imaginative paintings. However, when it comes to ‘doing’, I am far better (though certainly not proficient) at life drawing which is based more on measurement, proportion, observation and accuracy. Arguably, since I studied sociology, the attraction of life drawing is merely a different representation of humanity, involving finely tuned observation skills. It does not require imagination, which it something I seem to lack. For, in life drawing, it is easy (and often acceptable) to ignore the details such as hands, feet and even faces.
In writing factually, much of the fine detail is lost. A factual report or writing of biography is not something Hardyesque. Writing about reality does not involve a convoluted plot. Talking to people on trains and recounting their stories does not require a fictional tale because they tell the story for me, and usually, the truth is strange enough.
My current research project (hopefully, for a book; definitely for a book) is about the life of Pamela Colman-Smith. Those who know me are already sick of hearing about it, but those who do not may not even know who she is. Never fear. The important part is what I am enjoying about uncovering the life of this person. The project involves lots of digging, reading, talking to people, gleaning, and surmising, but what it really does not require is too much imagination. Just up my street!
My advice: It’s good to try new things and to get out of your comfort zone, etc. However, it is also good to realise your strengths and play to them. If it isn’t in you, play around with ideas and see what happens, but don’t force it.