Monday, 19 October 2009

Talk to the Post

It's best to draw a veil over the early part of the evening but by nine o' clock, ruffled feathers soothed, we were ready to leave the restaurant. One of our party of three middle-aged ladies about town was uncertain where she'd parked her car. After twenty questions, we guessed it was in the Highcross Rooftop car park and insisted on walking there with her. Confused and in denial about the exact meaning of the gate across the entrance, we turned back to try and find our way into the car park from the mall. The doors were locked. We rattled them but they remained locked. Did you know the Highcross closes at 8.30 pm? I thought these places never closed. Well, we know now.
Still convinced that there must be a solution, we walked right around the outside of the Highcross (a long way if you're used to walking through it) and into the service yard for Debenhams, where we could see the exit ramp for the Rooftop car park, tantalisingly out of reach. I was convinced there must be a way up.
A voice boomed out of the darkness, 'Can I help you?' We stopped and turned, mouths open. No one was there. The voice came again, 'Can I help you?', with the resonance of Gandalf except with a Leicester accent. The voice seemed to come from a yellow post that supported the barrier to the service yard.
I had no option but to speak to the post. 'Yes, it could help us. My friend's car was in the car park. Could she have it back now please?'
'Has she got a sleeping bag?' the post quipped. I had to explain, sotto voce, that this wasn't the best time for jokes.
I will now share something with you that only a few hand-picked others know: there is a secret way into the Highcross Rooftop car park after it's closed. You can collect your car AND drive out. We got this nugget from the yellow post, once it had realised that murder was a definite possibility. First, you have to find the Hand Made Burger Company (no mean feat) and beside it there is (no, we didn't believe it either) a little, grey door. Through this door there is a long shiny, empty corridor and at the end of the corridor there are lifts, which eerily and anonymously whisk you up to the car park. It wasn't over for us; my friend had forgotten where exactly her car was . It was creepy, searching the deserted levels, trying to remember the layout and knowing that we were almost certainly being followed on security cameras. The evening finally ended. We found her car amongst others, similarly abandoned, on the second level outside the entrance to Debenhams. We all returned safely home to our beds but this isn't 2009, the date is 1984.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Small World

Last night the South Knighton Book Group met to discuss Jenn Ashworth's A Kind of Intimacy. In an ironic 'homage' to Annie we were served with a cheese and pickled onion porcupine, fairy cakes and toffee popcorn. If you haven't read the book, you won't know how deliciously funny that was. It was a reflection of the complexity of the novel that we had one of our longest discussions, as we have an ill-deserved reputation for not being sensible and concentrating more on the wine than the book. One of our group said that A Kind of Intimacy was a study of anger and this thought has stayed with me and grown and I now think this judgement is perceptive and answers many of the questions I have had about Annie's personality. I was a student with Jenn at Manchester University, on the same creative writing course, so I felt I had some personal connection with the novel having heard some early drafts in our critique seminars.
This is the second 'first' novel we have read as a group. The previous novel was The Ghosts of Eden by Andrew Sharp, who is married to one of our members and is my former next door neighbour. Andrew came to part of the meeting and it certainly focused our discussion to have the author there, to answer our questions and discuss the writing process. Unlike a fictional account of this situation, Andrew didn't have to stay upstairs in a bedroom and listen to the discussion on a baby monitor.
I have since learned that both Jenn and Andrew are short listed for the Waverton Good Read Award, hosted by Waverton Village in Cheshire and sponsored by Borders. Jenn has recently read to the group and Andrew is reading in November. Small world!
If you haven't read these novels yet, they're very different but both outstanding. Jenn and Andrew are on their Cheshire?

Monday, 12 October 2009

This Writing Thing

My blog has been silent for some time, in parallel with my struggle to start another novel while there are still no takers for the last two. The start of term has been unusually busy but that's an excuse not a reason. I wouldn't say I've had writer's block; I haven't been stuck at my computer chewing a pencil. It's been more like writer's 'ennui' or apathy, a 'what's the point' feeling. My usual self-deluding trick of 'give it up then' worked in the end but what was also helpful was a discussion at Leicester Writers' Club, on a poorly attended evening, about the writing process. The usual advice to write every day and get into a routine is sound but I was finding that my writing in the evening was of poor quality compared to my writing at weekends. I have also discovered that now I am serious about publication, organisation of work to send out, preparing entries for competitions and self-promotion at writer's events is almost another job.
So instead of thinking about what to write, I decided to solve how I write. Having a full-time job, I will always be short of time, so it's essential I make the best use of whatever time is available. I no longer write in the evenings when I'm tired but use that time for the business side and perhaps some editing or research. All my creative writing now happens at the weekends and so far I've managed four hours every weekend and have four chapters of the latest novel at first draft stage. It helps that I'm reworking parts of an early, unfinished first novel, so progress is faster than normal.
What's good is that I don't feel under pressure. My first complete novel, Twenty-One Days, was written as part of my M.A. in Novel Writing and I felt I had to finish it within the year. The duress was self-inflicted, partly because I was returning to my demanding job but also to justify the year out. The second novel, The Hunting Party, was written while I was still with literary agents Mulcahy and Viney. They didn't want Twenty-One Days but asked me to write another novel, historical fiction. It was a mistake, I should have spent time shaping up Twenty-One days and it was madness to try writing historical fiction when I don't read the genre. I was delighted and flattered to be asked but felt under time pressure to produce a novel within a year. Since then, I've spent another year editing both novels to send out to agents. This time, I'm writing for myself and the novel will take shape in its own time. It's a good feeling.
I'm also writing some new poetry and have rescued some short stories I wrote before I decided to be a novelist. I'm no poet but writing and thinking poetically helps everything else I do.
Cyril Connolly said that the enemy of good art was 'the pram in the hall'. Here are my personal enemies: the internet (especially Facebook), T.V., wine, friends, children and weekends away. Normal life really!

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Literary Agents

I've just sent three more submissions off to agents, so that the novels are out there working while I'm on holiday. It's like communicating with extra-terrestial life, which Wikipaedia tells me is called SETI (search for extra-terrestial intelligence). The one I remember best is the Voyager probe from 1977 which was hurled into the darkness with only a diagram of the human form, a map of our solar system and some pictures and recordings of life on earth, as meagre justification for its intrusion into other worlds. The Voyager is still out there somewhere, bleating into empty solar systems, begging for recognition, much like my previous submissions to literary agents.
I'm well into double figures now as I systematically trouble agents from the pages of the Writer's Handbook. And clearly they are troubled. Their websites vary enormously, some chatty, some authoritarian, others headmasterly in tone, like an end of term report for a gifted but lazy child, 'if you cannot even take the trouble over your short letter, it will not say much for the rest of your writing.' Actually, my ex-teacher self has some sympathy with this view but I don't believe it to be true.
What all the websites give is an implicit or explicit impression that writers are a nuisance and that literary agents are really rather too busy or important ('we're not really for the untried unless they are real high fliers') to be bothered by writers.
This is an interesting customer/client relationship, not seen since the Captain Mainwaring days of the bank manager and his client and I think this is where the nub of the problem lies. Literary agents are doing writers a 'favour' and therefore the client, the writer, is a 'nuisance'.
I am actually making progress in my interaction with literary agents. My first tranche of submissions got no response at all, while later submissions are bringing e-mails or letters in response. So, I'm obviously doing something right, probably the dreaded introductory letter. I cringe that, at first, I may not have 'taken enough trouble'.
But it shouldn't be like this. I shouldn't have to guess where I might have gone wrong. A worthwhile novel should not be dismissed on the basis of a letter, or a weak synopsis. Let's put this relationship on a proper business footing and pay for the service. If literary agents were paid by authors to read their work, they could afford more staff and perhaps would not feel so threatened by an ever-increasing tide of unsolicited manuscripts ('please do not send e-mails, they will not be answered'). I can hear the response...not everyone can afford to pay. But I'm sure solutions could be found to allow for financial hardship.
The replies I have had so far are interesting but clearly not interesting enough, as the only response that matters is, 'Yes, we want to represent you.' Several agents have said they didn't 'love' the novel enough. I don't think I have 'loved' a book since Enid Blyton's 'Five on Finniston Farm' and it's curious to think our choice of books is being selected by people who need to have this level of emotional response. With a truly enthralling book, there is something of the lover; you think about the characters unexpectedly, longing to be with them, or sneak away to steal a few moments with the author's words. But once finished, like a book tart, you put it down and walk away. So, it can't be love. Many books are read and enjoyed that hit the radar of emotional engagement well below that level.
Since we're on the theme of lovers, agents know they cannot ask a writer to be faithful to them, because they take so long to reply. While they can no longer insist on being the sole agent reading the work, their websites give away the longing ' if you are submitting to other agents at the same time, please tell us in your cover letter.' In the true form of lovers past and present don't tell...just go on lying.
When I have a literary agent, I am sure that I will think they are wonderful. Right now, it feels like navigating in a fog.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Evaluating Evaluations

In my work I am continually evaluated. At the end of the year, schools are asked to respond to over twenty questions on the service they've had from their educational psychologist. When we finish work with a child, parents are sent a questionnaire and the child is asked to answer one question, 'on a scale of one to ten' know the sort. We're currently involved in discussions about how we can get better feedback from the children we work with, as we become more outcomes driven. That's okay, we're a local authority service and accountable to the taxpayers of Leicester but it is hard, in any form of therapeutic intervention, to account for what actually made the difference (because you don't have a control group and you don't stop other interventions.)
But I was surprised to get two evaluation forms through the post this week, one from the company that recently fitted a new carpet in my living room 'we value your opinions and would like your views on our products and services', the other from Curve Theatre in Leicester 'we would love to hear about your experiences at Curve'. You will note I didn't say THE Curve, which isn't allowed in Leicester. The definite article has been dropped, without explanation. To say 'the Curve' is like asking for an ashtray. No one will say anything, but the look will tell you a faux pas has been made. Anyway, in the carpet evaluation, I have to rate the sales floor assistant, the estimator, the clerk and the fitter on a scale from 1 to 5. Naturally, Curve ask more creative questions, 'what does the word theatre mean to you?' That question alone would satisfy the dissertation requirements for a B.A. in Theatre Studies but only a single line response is allowed. Reductionist arguments only please. I am delighted with the form from Curve. At last I can complain about being served a cup of instant decaffeinated coffee in the cafe. The theatre blurb says, 'it's one of those rare places where you can drop in and mingle with actors over a cappuccino.' No mention of mingling over instant decaff.
I will be wasting my time. Evaluation forms are only about percentages. But is this rating business becoming a little overdone? Today I took part in an open mic event, part of the Lyric Lounge, a poetry and music fest currently happening at the Y Theatre. As I left, I was handed an evaluation form for performers. Back at the office, I found a message in my in-box from the council's I.T. support team asking me to evaluate their response to my recent call. Isn't it better to drill quality into services through training and skills development and to respond quickly and efficiently to complaints rather than conduct pointless evaluations? What next...shall we rate our G.P. after each consultation or bus drivers after each journey?

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Lytton Road Under Fives

In a recent post I dredged from the shifting sands of my personal narrative a lowering memory of the Lytton Road Under Fives, a unique 'starting' school for toddlers that was held in a dark, Baptist church hall that seemed gloomy even in summer. The children were dressed in a uniform of Osh Kosh dungarees or handmade Clothkits dresses. Members followed a strict rota for setting up the tired and battered toys, clearing up and making coffee. The hall smelt of dust and floor polish.
One of the mothers, expecting her second child, developed breast cancer during the pregnancy. Bad enough to have cancer at any time but during pregnancy, the choice is between treatment or the child. This mum opted to go without treatment until the unborn child could survive outside the womb. When this day came, the child was delivered and her treatment started. Anyone who's had a baby can imagine her life; coping with a new baby, a toddler and chemotherapy. I remember her as cheerful, busy and positive but she died within twelve months. The group planted a climbing rose for her and put a plaque next to it on the church wall. The church is now a Hindu temple and when I drive past, which is rare, I wonder whether the rose thrived and if the plaque is still there. I should go in and ask. I think her name was Lynn. While I tell this story I wonder about using other people's lives as part of my own narrative. I'm reading the Secret Scripture and found these lines: 'a person without anecdotes that they nurse while they live, and that survive them, are more likely to be utterly lost not only to history but the family following them.' I hope that Lynn would be okay about not being 'lost' to at least one former member of the Lytton Road Under Fives and about sharing the end of her story with you. And I will check her rose.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Beauty Therapy

Beauty therapists are the profession that used to be known as beauticians but everyone is a therapist now. Cleaning ladies are house therapists, writers even do narrative therapy. I'm a late adherent to beauty therapy, as I am in everything except marriage. Although I am often assumed to be of the generation that grew up as hippies, the year I went to university (which is when life used to start), hippiedom was over and it was the age of the 'new romantics', David Bowie, Adam Ant, and... dare I say his name... Gary Glitter.
But the influence of the hippies was strong, even in the Tory bastion of St. Andrews, home of the Adam Smith Institute. The politically correct stance was that we should be admired just as we were, sans make-up, hairy armpits etc, as were the blokes. The sales of Rimmel and Max Factor and much borrowing of boyfriends' razors belied this, but beauty was a hidden activity. When I went to U.B.C in Vancouver in 1975, the power of the sisterhood was still much in evidence. Vancouver was the home of draft avoiders from the U.S, dope smoking and all-night beach parties; a really laid back, 'right on' place. Hirsute armpits, dungarees, hair tied back in an ethnic headscarf (preferably Musqueam Indian) and a couple of babies, one at the breast and one on the hip, were de riguer. Although much plucking, shaving and ex-foliation went on in private, I can't remember seeing a beauty salon in Vancouver.
I arrived back in the U.K. in 1981, complete with baby, ethnic headscarves etc. and was surprised to find the sisterhood still held court at our local church hall playgroup, although the Thatcher era was almost upon us. My health visitor cast her gimlet eye over me and my baby girl and remarked that we weren't quite ready for the Lytton Road Under-Fives and she was right, I was terrified of them. They still wore dungarees, had their hair tied up in plaits and were breast-feeding four year olds. One of them child-minded all our babies and breast-fed them when they cried. Now these women are working, heading up Education and Social Care in Leicester, or executive headteachers in flagship schools. If I see them, they glance at me from under (plucked) eyebrows and avoid my eye. No one wants to be reminded of Lytton Road Under Fives.
Anyway, I wasn't aware of anyone having anything 'done', except their hair. As soon as I found one white hair in my thirties, I had my hair professionally henna'd, since it was so tedious and messy to do at home. But beauty 'treatments' belonged to the rich, an outrageous expense for anyone with children. The change came when places like Ragdale Hall opened their doors for day visits and soon, carloads of very ordinary ladies from Leicester were heading up the A46, happy to spend a day in a white towelling robe having massages, facials and a calorie-controlled lunch in the wood panelled dining room. My friends and I were at the front of the queue, four of us crammed into a Ford Fiesta, bleary eyed at eight on a Saturday morning ('day guests must arrive by nine a.m.'), propelled into a world of luxury where porters carried our Nike bags into the changing room and then escorted us to the Orangerie for a cappuchino before our timetable of sybaritic pleasure. Our first day cost fifty pounds each. We became so blase that on one visit, a hot day in June, we lay by the pool and forgot to go for our 'treatments.'
What the sisters rejected, but their mothers knew well, was that beauty treatments, make-up and lovely clothes are fun and I'm glad I found out that simple thing before it was too late. I do believe that people should be judged as they are but as a psychologist I also know that how you present yourself tells people how you feel about yourself. If you feel crap, taking the time to look great helps you to feel better because people treat you as if you aren't feeling crap. Only the most depressed can't do this and that's why it's a key sign of true depression.
So now I'm an enthusiast and a regular. It doesn't make me look younger, just good for my age. My 'therapist' is Varshna, a Hindu lady who gets more religious with every year that passes. She's not into the menopause yet, so when she asked me (look away chaps) if I wanted even more hair removed from bits of my body as yet unexplored, I explained to her that the upside of being post-menopausal is that hair leaves the body. The downside is that it gravitates to the face. She looked at me wide-eyed, absolutely horrified. 'God must hate women' she said at last.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Aylestone Meadows, Leicester

I live near a river meadow, which acts as the flood plain for the River Soar. The meadows are cut through by the Grand Union Canal and the River Soar. It is possible to walk into the city along the canal, or out of the city all the way to London. The track of the old Grand Central Railway also runs through the meadow; another path or cycleway into the city. The area is known as Aylestone Meadows and I walk there often. It is lovely in places, scary in others but is a sanctuary for birds and animals, runners and dog walkers. I have twice seen a kingfisher and today I saw a green woodpecker and a kestrel, so close I could have touched him. There is a mediaeval packhorse bridge and one lock further south from this, a cottage that sells lunches and teas in the summer. It sounds idyllic and it almost is. Electricity pylons march across the landscape, bringing power to the city and the vast Fosse Park shopping complex is visible from the teashop garden. Traffic from the ring road hums in the background. Human wildlife is the worst aspect. Drugs are openly dealt and cottaging a pre-occupation of single men. Fortunately, this happens largely in one car park area, so can be avoided. A man has offered to show me his willy (no thanks) and a retired sub mariner stopped me to express his concerns about submarine activity in the area. It's pretty safe but I'm careful where and when I walk. I talked about the area with a friend and we thought about whether women ever 'cottage'. Somehow, the idea seemed both ridiculous and funny. Any ideas why?

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Middle-aged ladies about town stay in hotels.

I'm convinced we're given the worst rooms, although an alternative could be that internet 'deals' also sell off rooms no one else wants. I travel a fair bit on my own, mainly to Manchester and I have slept in a dreadful room every time. Last weekend, I stayed in the Palace Hotel in Manchester. I was giving them a second chance, to test out my theory but I also needed to be near the university and Manchester is light on decent hotels within walking distance of the university. My room was small but very high, like a corridor on its side. The windows must have been 15 ft. tall. The room had been carved out of a much grander space and two corners were filled with parts of ornate pillars in a state of decay. On the wall facing the bed, there was a blocked off window. The most worrying thing was that one of my windows was in such poor repair, it had no catch to close or lock.. Outside the window (first floor) there was a flat roof. I got back from seeing friends too late for a move and lay awake all night listening for sounds of an intruder on the roof. The last time I stayed at the Palace I had a room overlooking the dank canal at the back of the hotel, with air conditioning that rattled all night. My friends say I should ask for a move of room and they're right but why give us these rooms in the first place? Is it in the hope that a women on her own won't complain or because I'm not part of a corporate booking, so loss of my business doesn't count for much. Hotel chains such as Premier Inn, where every room is exactly the same and of a reliable standard must be strong competition for four/five star 'character' hotels who still try to pawn unacceptable rooms onto the public.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Return to Top Shop

It's safe to go back to Topshop. They've realised that middle-aged ladies about town have money to spend and like to look good. To be honest, where else can we go? We don't want to look like our mothers...not yet. What the designers for young girls have cottoned on to is that a three-quarter sleeve looks great on everyone and jeans are comfortable if the waist fits just above the navel. Exactly what we need too! They've also done something about sizes as I now fit a Top Shop 14 and they stock a few size 16's if you search for them.The thing to watch out for is Mutton-Dressed-As-Lamb-Syndrome (MDAL). If you hang around too long, you'll catch it. You'll know you've caught it if you start trying on all the pretty 'little girl' stuff just to see 'how it looks.' Trust me, it looks awful. Stick to the lovely cardis, jeans and trousers and you'll be okay.
Talking of sizes, I went into the Reiss sale. My batwing arms could barely open the door but I persisted and tried on a black dress, size 14, greatly reduced. I have eaten next to nothing since January and have lost ten pounds but it was far too small. It wouldn't zip up over the tummy. I was told that they don't stock size 16. Well, they're on the way out, as I complained to the sixth former who served me in Hobbs. She was sympathetic, unlike a young colleague at work who told me that some shops don't like to see their clothes being worn by older, erm fatter women. It spoils their image. Well, an image is worthless without customers. Middle-aged ladies about town have tummies because they've had babies or eaten too much cake at work, or both. Think about it...thirty years at many colleagues birthdays? How much cake? We may have tummies and batwing arms but we also have money. So where are the clothes?

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Coffee Shop Etiquette (2)

To continue the theme...what's the correct way to ask for the coffee? Do you pronounce the words like macchiato, talle or massimo correctly to show off that you're a well-travelled and educated person or do you act like a little Englander and huffily ask for 'small, medium, large.' Or here in Leicester, should we ask for our coffee in a 'Lestah' accent... 'that's a grandeh for me' ... even if we're in Costa or Starbucks. In Marks and Spencer they helpfully line up the cup sizes for those of us who can't read the menus on the wall, so pointing is quite acceptable (well done to M&S for the little biscuits and sensible cup sizes).
Coffee in buckets is definitely not European. In Spain and Italy cappuccino is served in an ordinary cup and always with chilled water. The first coffee shop in Leicester to serve real European coffee will become a regular with me. So far, Cafe Mbriki makes the best coffee. In too many places the coffee is burnt.When did sixth formers become 'baristas'?
Here's a tip for Starbucks. You can ask for a spoon. Those wooden sticks bring back memories of 1950's ice lollies. It's horrible the way your tongue sticks to the wood. As an experience it's up there with scraping nails down a (1950's) blackboard.Why would anyone subject their customers to this?

Monday, 22 June 2009

Coffee Shop Etiquette

I was puzzled to be asked for my first name when I paid for my coffee on Saturday. It was needed, I was told, because I would be called over to collect it. I can see the sense. It saves all that hanging around at the end of the line, like in Starbucks, although some good conversation can be had in the Starbucks melee. But I felt uncomfortable because Morag isn't common in Leicester. I had to repeat it several times for the girl who served me and I waited anxiously for whatever version might be bellowed across the heads of the waiting shoppers. I felt full of shame, fearful of having to stand up and own a mangled version of my name. In the end it was fine but I did think of the generation above my own who wouldn't want to give their first name or those whose first names are truly hard to pronounce. On the other hand, a lot of fun could be had...a different name every time, a chance to try out all those names I would have preferred.