Saturday, 29 May 2010

Birmingham Book Festival: The Spring Thing

The day started out quite well; the normally crowded two-carriage train from the Fens to Birmingham was waiting at Leicester station and there were plenty of seats. Things took a wrong turn when the first taxi driver at New Street station denied all knowledge of the Birmingham Conservatoire and asked me to leave the cab. The second driver was more patient, asking another driver for directions and gently explaining to me when we arrived at the Conservatoire that I hadn't needed a taxi at all as we were just at the top end of New Street. But it was cold and pouring with rain and had I walked, I would have been soaked through which would not have done at all as the Adrian Boult Hall was freezing. It puzzles me that the event organisers did not give more thought to the well-being of the audience, or delegates, or whatever we were. The tickets were expensive, yet the toilets were blocked, there was no lunch and the queues for coffee were long. Worst of all, two of the 'headline' acts had cancelled. A nightmare for the organisers, certainly and they had done well to find replacements but I would have liked to have known, so that I could have made a choice whether it was worth going at all. For me, a wasted day is worse than a wasted ticket, especially as trains, taxis, lunch add extra cost.
During the first session, I became sure about my ability (or lack of) to process aural information. This was a persistent problem for me at school but I have only recently become aware of the problem again at Writers' Club where members read their scripts aloud. I can only process what I'm hearing if I visualize the words and then 'read' them in my mind, which is hard work. Consequently I stop listening. As a psychologist, I pose three hypotheses for this problem: a slight miswiring in the brain, a lack of experience of being read to as a child and a difficulty controlling my own thoughts, which tend to crowd in if my eyes aren't occupied. I suspect there is a problem in all three areas but the latter is the worst offender. During aural processing I start to 'ruminate', which can be more colloquially described as 'wool gathering.' Gradually, my mood darkened, so that by the time we broke for lunch it was close to its' 'Black Death' phase. I had tried to listen to some pleasant readings from some no-doubt well written books but I realised that there is absolutely nothing new to say about the process of writing. With minor variations, it's a fairly samey process for everyone. What also deeply irritates is hearing about the trials and tribulations of authors who have all day to write. What can possibly be useful or worthwhile about having to listen once more to the 'tyranny' of getting up in the morning to face the keyboard, the excitement of the postman, the staring out of the window, the guilt over not starting to write until three o'clock in the afternoon. I say to them, 'get over it'! Many of us fight to squeeze writing into corners of our lives but still think of ourselves as writers. P.D James worked full time as a civil servant until she retired.
I went for lunch in a dark, brutal shopping mall cynically called 'Paradise Forum.' I haven't tried Nando's before but their mushroom and halloumi cheese wrap was delicious; warm and spicy and mood enhancing. Outside the mall, the rain had stopped and I knew where I was. To my left, the Birmingham Central Library and facing me the art gallery. I was feeling better; still grey but reflective. I was a student in Birmingham in 1975 and the Central Library had been my safe haven in a city that was reeling from the New Street bombings. At the time, I hadn't noticed that the architecture of the library was so grim, even though I was in deep culture shock from having left behind the ancient streets and crashing, north sea beaches of St. Andrews to learn how to teach in Birmingham schools, where our tutors told us there was nothing they could say about behaviour management, it was 'sink or swim'. I sank.
I did go back after lunch to hear Stuart Maconie, as his radio show with Mark Radcliffe is my companion when I'm working in the evenings. He was a good raconteur, full of stories and humour and not much about the writing process, except the advice to be on your own, watch, listen and make notes.
After that I left, taking my visual processing skills first to a cafe, where the people interacting around me were ten times more interesting than anything I had heard during the day and then across to the art gallery 'disguising misery as aesthetic appreciation' (Salley Vickers: Dancing Backwards). I'm ashamed to say that I didn't stay for Carol Ann Duffy but with my new understanding, what was the point? I own a book of her poetry I can read whenever I like. Besides, I couldn't wait to get home to my warm house, my flushing toilet and my own novel.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Night Train

Here's the autobiographical piece I read at Short Fuse this month:

Night Train

Somehow I’d only made the connection between paedophiles and girls. This was 1969 and I was fifteen. With my younger brother, I’d taken the overnight sleeper from Glasgow to Kings Cross many times before. Our compact cabin was like a doll’s house, everything miniaturised and tucked away. We lay awake and heard the stations announced to empty, echoing platforms as we rocked and jolted through the night: Edinburgh, Newcastle, Crewe. In the grey light of early morning, tea and digestive biscuits were brought to our cabin by a steward in a white jacket. We would roll up the blinds and watch the countryside emerge from the mist.
It was just before Christmas and the taxi ranks in Glasgow had queues that were long and slow. We needed to cross to the other side of the city to catch our train and as time crept by I was afraid we would miss it. It was dark and late. In a crowded, busy station, we were alone.
I asked my eleven year old brother to stand at one taxi rank, while I stood in the other line on the opposite side of the concourse. It was risky but he was always visible, even if we couldn’t communicate except by hand signal. Separately, we stood twice the chance of getting a taxi I explained, sending him off alone.
After about twenty minutes, when my line seemed to have grown no shorter, he waved to me, beckoning, a man at his side.
‘He’s got us a taxi,’ my brother called out as I staggered across, dragging our heavy suitcases.
I thanked the man, grateful for the kindness of a stranger. But glancing out of the rear window as our cab pulled out of the station, I saw him climb into the next taxi. I felt immediately afraid. He might be following us.
At Glasgow Central, his cab pulled up behind ours and although I tried to walk fast, he caught up. He appeared normal, even kind and fatherly but I didn’t want any more help. He ignored my protests and picked up our suitcases, carrying them to the ticket barrier. At last, I thought, he can’t come any further. But the ticket inspector made the natural assumption that the man was our father and waved him through. Would children today have protested? I hope so. I hope they would have shouted, ‘he’s not with us, he’s not our father!’ In the fifties and sixties, children like us were brought up to be compliant, not to question adults or make a fuss. Children like us would certainly have died of politeness, given the chance.
He can only come with us to the train door, I thought, trying to push down my panic as he carried our cases down the platform, my brother chattering comfortably at his side. The steward won’t let him on without a ticket. He did. The man, this intruder, insisted on carrying our cases onto the train and into the compartment. By now I was very anxious and certain that he wasn’t safe. I realised he was one of the ‘strangers’ I had been warned about for years but even then, I thought I must be the likely focus of his interest.
He sat down on the bed next to my brother and looked at his watch. ‘I bet you two are hungry,’ he said cheerfully. ‘There’s plenty of time before the train leaves. Why don’t I take your brother away with me to get some fish and chips?’ He leaned across and touched my brother’s cheek.
My brother looked at me, keen for my approval. At that moment I understood. If I let him go I would never see him again. In a split second I became an adult. Anger swelled in my chest. He had no right to harm us. I pressed the bell for the steward, praying he would come quickly. If we were left alone for any longer, I might not be able to stop him taking my brother by force. He could kill us both, to stop me telling.
The steward came at once, filling the doorway with authority and re-assurance. I can’t recall the words I used but I know I told him that the man was a stranger and that I wanted him to leave us alone. He was escorted from the train, leaving without remorse or explanation and waved goodbye to us as he passed our window.
I did tell my parents but they took no action. Perhaps I downplayed the story to protect my brother as he had no understanding of how vulnerable we had been. Or perhaps I felt responsible for putting him at risk and was afraid of criticism. When I think about that night, I know I almost let him go.
Now, I wish our story had been reported as the man might well have been caught. He will almost certainly have tried again and may have been successful. I know I saved my brother’s life and possibly my own but for a moment, our future had hung precariously in my hands. I made the right choice. That I might have got it wrong is the stuff of sleepless nights.