Friday, 15 November 2013

Sublime Screenplay - The Night of the Doctor by Steven Moffat

Well, that doesn't happen very often does it? A little bit of TV history that was kept a total secret, was full of surprises, referenced a classic show's history, sets up the 50th anniversary episode and ALL in 7 minutes. I came home last night to see my lovely twin advertising The Night of the Doctor on her Facebook page. As a semi-Whovian (I'm fairly obsessed by the current show and loved the Pertwee/Baker years of my childhood) I do get all fangirl when I see anything new and I'd been waiting for this minisode. But I wasn't really expecting much, so clicked on the link thinking it would be a couple of minutes of teaser for next week. Oh boy was I wrong.

At this point if you haven't seen it,  I would urge you to look away now. Or at least look away until you have had a chance to watch here. And then come back with the biggest smile on your face and scroll down to read on.












It started in familiar territory, a space ship out of control,  flown by a typical Nu-Who strong female, with the Tardis in quick pursuit. We are given a typical selction of silly Who jokes about needing a doctor, and then he arrives. Except, "it's not the one you were expecting", it is the legendary Paul McGann. Oh WOW. Steven Moffat & Paul McGann  played a total blinder here. Every obsessed fan has been wanting to see this ever since the TV film of 1996, It's never happened. And  given how McGann has been so vigorous with his denials, we didn't expect to see it happen. Yet there he was, instantly the Doctor, even though (unless you are a total Whovian and listen to the audios) most of us have barely seen him in the role. I didn't even get a quarter of the way through the TV movie, but even I was screeching with delight. What a way to start.

I still thought at this point  we were going to have a bit of a light hearted romp, maybe a few other old doctors in the mix, particularly when McGann was wisecracking his way through the space ship, dragging what looked like a new companion, Cass, to the back. "Is the universe always like this?" she asks, "If you are lucky" he says, and we glow in the beginning of that new relationship. Except, in the cleverest twist of an always clever show, when they get to the back, and he tells her his TARDIS is bigger on the inside, instead of being amazed and delighted,  she backs away. A complete subversion of the rules of Who, and beautifully played out. For we've come upon the Doctor in the middle of the Time War, a major part of both Classic and Nu-Who. A war that started with the 4th Doctor, when the once genial Time Lords asked him to finish the Daleks before they began.(The very wonderful Genesis of the Daleks). In a very famous speech, the Doctor struggled then with the idea of committing genocide then, and yet a key part of the Nu-Who backstory is that he committed an even worse genocide in the end, killing not only the Daleks and his own people.

But in this minisode, the Doctor is at a point in his story, years from that decision and as far away from the Time War as he can be, at odds to point out that he is not joining in. To Cass, this doesn't matter, he's a Time Lord, they're all evil, even the good ones.  "At least I'm not a Dalek," he says, "These days, you can't tell the difference," she replies, before locking herself back in the ship, choosing death rather than to ally herself with his race. Again, a lovely reference to recent Who. The final episodes of the tenth doctor revealed just how bad the Time Lords had become and now we see someone demonstrating the truth of that in the starkest of ways.

We've seen the Doctor despair many times before, but this time, the horror of such a rejection literally fixes him to the spot. As a result he goes down with the ship, and they both die. That's right he dies, he doesn't regenerate he dies. This is no lighted jolly adventure at all. It's as dark as Who gets.

Fortunately. he lands on Karn, a planet he has been to before. Another great reference to classic Who(I did have to check and it's a fine Tom Baker story - The Brain of Morbius).  Luckily the mystical Sisterhood of Karn remember him and have an elixir to revive him. We cheer for a moment, till we realise they have a very terrible purpose in mind and they give him  four minutes to decide to help them. The Doctor has rejected his people and done what he can to help the Time War victims, but it is not enough. The Universe is being destroyed and only he can stop it. Presented with the inescapable fact, symbolised by Cass' dead body, that the Time Lords and Daleks are equally evil, the sisters tell him he must get involved. He must take an elixir, regenerate and join the battle.  At first he rejects their position, but when he realises if he doesn't act now, everyone will die he reluctantly accepts.  In doing so he has to stop being himself,  as there is no need for doctors now. He agrees to drink the elixir, taking a potion for "Warrior" before saying sorry and farewell to his former companions (again a nice touch for uber-fans, as it makes the Big Finish audio books canon) resulting in a painful regeneration (with another corny Moffat joke, knowing who's coming next "Will it hurt?").

And then he emerges, taking Cass' soldier's belt, and declares himself "Doctor No More." Instead we see a glimpse of a young John Hurt. And since the incarnation of the War Doctor we met in the last episode was old and battle weary, we realise he is going to be fighting for a long time to come.

All in all, it is a tremendous piece of writing, acting, directing, beautifully produced (the sight of he spaceship crashing on Karn was wonderful, and shows how far the show has come from its early wobbly set days). A brilliant homage to the show past and present, revealing the heart-breaking end to the kind and caring 8th Doc and the painful beginning of the War Doc, and why his successors have kept it a secret. It stands both as a fine piece of screenplay and a wonderful homage to the fans, and a demonstration that when Steven Moffat is at the top of his game, there are very few people who can top him. Like his predecessor, Russell T Davies, Moffat gets a lot of unnecessary vitriol from the fans, but I have yet to find one criticism of this love letter to us all. So it's I leave you with Moffat's own words on the minisode  "I should probably learn to have a little more faith in the fact that what gets me excited as a sad, old fan will get other people excited as well". It does Steven, it does. Thank you!!

Sunday, 10 November 2013

"Lest We Forget"- An extract from "Echo Hall"


 
It being "Remembrance Sunday" I thought it was timely moment to share an extract from "Echo Hall" in which Joseph Clarkson, a former conscientious objector reflects on remembrance a few years after the end of World War 1:
 
"'Lest we forget'. How often have heard those words in the last four years? Particularly at this time of remembrance. 'Lest we forget.' But what do we mean when we say them? Some would have us remember sacrifice, courage, struggle. And I wouldn't disagree...we all know the soldiers who fought in the trenches were brave, that they suffered, that many of them still do. The generals and politicians who sent them into battle would argue that their suffering was not in vain. Those that fought, were injured or died, were acting in a greater good: "Dulce et Decorum est, pro patria mori." - It is sweet and fitting to die for your country. Noble sentiments? Or as Wilfred Owen put it "The old lie?" He paused, adjusting his glasses so he could read his notes better, "I would argue that it is Owen we should listen to, not the governments who drive wars, the generals who run them. We should remember struggle, sacrifice, courage. Of course we should. But we should also remember that the war cost the lives of millions of soldiers and civilians on both sides, leaving twice that number wounded. We should remember that after four years of fighting in the most appalling of conditions, the British Army advanced less than a hundred miles. We should remember the sound of women weeping in the streets on Armistice Day. And we should ask ourselves what it was all for? Whether it was worth it?"

            "We'd all be speaking German if everyone thought like you." A man called from the back of the hall. "How dare you disrespect their memories? They died to give you this freedom to spout your conchie nonsense."

            "I mean no disrespect," said Joseph placing his glasses on the lectern. "I am merely suggesting that perhaps the conflict might have been resolved without so much suffering and death."

            "It's all very well to have your principles, and very fine they are too," said another, "But principles don't stop soldiers with bayonets, soldiers do. Others were brave enough to do this. Why weren't you?"

            Joseph was about to respond, when a different voice spoke, "I was at the Somme. I saw the waste of life there. I killed soldiers myself, I had to, to save myself. But I asked myself then, and I ask myself now, why? What was it for? I think Mr Clarkson is making a very important point."

            "Thank you," Joseph picked up his glasses and continued to speak,. "Lest we forget. I agree, we should not forget. We should never forget. We owe it to those who died, to those who survive and struggle now, not to do so. To remember that our leaders enticed us into a foolish, pointless war. That they preferred to suffer heavy losses on our side, than give up even a tiny inch of land. We should not forget. We must not. For the sake of our children, and our grandchildren, we cannot let the unjust peace carved at Versailles ferment into another conflict. We have to say never again. The world must find other ways to resolve its disputes. War is too crude, too bloody, too cruel a solution."

Friday, 8 November 2013

White Wedding


"Hello." His voice is rough, grizzled from sleep. I should have called a bit later, I know how he loves his Saturday morning lie-ins.
            "Dan - it's me, Jen."
            "Hey little sis, how are you?"
            "Fine. Actually, more than fine. I've got some news. Or should say, we've got some news. Ruth and I."
            "Oh?" Dan sounds a little uncertain, as he often is when I mention Ruth's name. But he's my brother, and I love him, so I plough on, ignoring his hesitancy.
            "We're getting married."
            "What?"
            "We're getting married. Going for the works, white wedding, big cake and a party. We want a big party. And I want you to give me away."
            "What?"        
            "Ruth's got her parents, I don't. I have you. I want you to do it." There is silence at the end of the phone.  "Dan?" Still silence. Then:"People like you don't get married."
            "What's that supposed to mean?"
            "Lesbians, gays, whatever the correct term is these days." His venom is startling. I thought we'd got over this.
            "Dan!"
            "Don't get me wrong Jen, I'm happy for you. I really am. Ruth's nice enough. I can see she makes you happy..." I say nothing.  He continues, now he has started, it's clear he wants to get this off his chest. "It's not right, though is it? Two women marrying each other. Marriage is for a man and a woman. It just doesn't make sense otherwise."
            I think of marshalling some arguments. About Equality. Justice. Love. But I can sense he is only just getting going. I don't think I can bear it. So I hang up the phone and return to the living room where Ruth is Ruth, wise, compassionate, kind. But even she cannot alleviate this hurt. Not now, anyway. Dan is my only brother. His kids, my only family. If they turn their backs on me now, what will I become? I cannot explain this to Ruth entirely, Ruth who is so central to her parents and siblings,  so loved, so accepted.  She does her best, but she's never known what this feels like: to be outside the fold, excluded from the love you believed would last. I thought Dan had got over this. Clearly, I was wrong.
            But, after a long run, through the puddled park, the yellow-orange leaves drifting about me like blossom, and a hot bath filled with rose-scented bubbles, I feel better. Sod Dan. Sod him. Ruth and I are getting married. The day we never thought possible is going to be ours. I set about planning with a vengeance.

*******

            "Auntie Jen?" The call wakes me at six,
            "Finn! What are you doing up so early?" It is unusual to say the least, and to be honest, I could have done with the extra hour in bed.
            "School trip to Germany. We're leaving in a bit, but I had to call. When I found out. I had to."
            "Found out what?"
            "About your wedding. I saw it on Facebook and asked Dad."
            "Ah."
            "He's a tool, Auntie Jen. A total tool."
            "I'd say respect your father, but on this..."
            "I'll do it."
            "What."
            "Give you away." My eyes prick with tears.
            "Won't you get in trouble with your Dad?"
            "I won't tell if you won't." I smile; I've always appreciated Finn's rebellious streak, it reminds me of my own teenage naughtiness.
            "You're on."
            "Great. I know it's cheesy, but I do love a white wedding."
            "Who was that?" asks Ruth, sleepily as I hang up. I explain. "Thank God for the youth of today," she says. I smile, the warmth stealing through me. She drifts back off to sleep, allowing me to lie and gaze, and gaze at her beautiful face. We are going to be married. I will have someone from my family to support me. I am content.

 *******

            On the morning of our wedding I wake alone, but I don't mind. We're embracing every aspect of the white wedding experience, including  traditional pre-wedding separation.  Now as I stretch out in the unfamiliar bed, I simultaneously long for her presence and am filled with excitement at the day ahead. I send her a text: Let's get married today Her reply returns immediately:  It's a date. I smile, and step into the shower.
            The morning is a whirlwind of activity. Angie, Flick and Sue arrive to help with hair, make-up and flowers. Last minute checks are made at the venue. Eddy arrives with salmon and champagne for a light lunch. Finn and his girlfriend Ally pitch up just as I've put the finishing touches to my dress.
            "Auntie Jen, you look gorgeous." He gives me a kiss.
            "So do you." The little boy I once babysat, has suddenly become, in top hat and tails, a handsome young man.  The others pile off to the hotel in two cars, and Finn and I are left alone.
            "How are you feeling?" he asks.
            "Nervous, happy, excited." I don't say that I wish his Dad was here. It's brilliant he's stepped up for me, but I wish he was Dan nonetheless. "Thanks for being here."
            He squeezes my arm, "My pleasure," and then looking at his watch,  "Shall we?"  We walk out to the waiting White Bentley, decorated with white ribbon, a bouquet of pink roses in the back. I am off to marry the woman I love - nothing else matters.
            The journey is short. We pull up outside the front of the red-brick hotel. The sun is glowing yellow in a bright blue sky. It's a perfect day for it. We walk into the hallway, where Ruth is standing with her parents. I catch my breath. This is the first time I've seen her in her dress: it is a simple white silk that hugs are willowy figure and brings out the colour in her cheeks. She looks stunning. I blow her a kiss. She blows one back. The guests are already seated, and now it is time for Ruth to walk down the aisle ahead of me. I watch her glide to the front, conscious of how lucky I am. I am about to start my own walk with Finn, when someone taps me on the shoulder.
            "Hey little sister," It is Dan. Unbelievably, it is Dan. "My job I think," he says to Finn. I am about to protest, but Finn just grins and says, "Go for it." Dan takes my arm.
            "Sorry. I've been a plonker."
            "You have."
            "Start again?" I look up at my big brother, seeing  the sincerity of his apology in his eyes. I look down the aisle where Ruth is waiting for me with the biggest smile on her face. I nod. It's a nice day for it, after all.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

A Man's Job


It's a man's job to provide for his family. That's what my father always taught me. That's what my mother always said. That was the reason, Father worked all those long hours in the office, so that when I was tiny I sometimes didn't see him for five or six days. It was the reason Mother was always the one to meet us boys at the school gate. The reason she was the one who cooked the meals, darned the socks, soothed sick brows. That was Mother's job, it was what was expected of her. Father's role was to pay the bills for our expensive private schools,  fund music lessons, acting classes  and scout trips. His time with us  limited to Sunday afternoon rugby matches, shouting from the sidelines, making sure we  didn't let the side down.  Is it any surprise that I grew up thinking that was what  Fathers did. What they were. Strong. Reliable. An absence so powerful, the very mention of their names struck terror in naughty childish hearts. I had no doubts whatsoever that this is what I would become.
            It certainly seemed that way, didn't it Steffi, my love?  Though, being a modern father, I couldn't escape attendance at the grimacing births,  or changing the obligatory nappies, the natural order quickly asserted itself once the paternity leave was done.  I spent long days at the office, leaving you at home, with the job you claimed fulfilled you.  A job that  you have always claimed you loved. You may wail plaintively now, but for all that you chose me for who I am: an alpha male, with a six figure salary, and a media profile. You needed me to fund the  lifestyle of your choosing:  the country house, the chance to redecorate every year, the three foreign holidays you could brag about to your friends.  Most of all, you wanted me at work, so you could establish your power base: the stranglehold you hold over home and hearth that has rendered me isolated, a stranger to my own family.
            There have been times in the last ten years, I have wanted to protest. Times when the late night deals have palled, and I'd rather be at home with you and the kids, cuddling in front of the television. Weekends when I've found myself redundant - as I've watched you race from activity to activity assuring me I'd only be in the way. Moments when I've felt excluded from a relationship with my own children, because you have somehow created a situation where you are everything to them, and I am not.  But, I've said nothing, accepting it as the way of things, or - vaguely aware now from conversations with other men that not every relationship is like this - the way of things in our house. I have done my duty by you, delivered home the bacon, created the life you wanted. I have always been the man you have wanted me to be.

            And now, after all I have done for you, after all these years,  you tell me you are leaving me. It is now that you tell me that when I thought I was giving you exactly what you wanted I was doing just the opposite. Now that I learn that I have held you back, confined you to the kitchen sink, prevented you from realising your dreams. Your divorce citation makes pretty reading. A tyrant, a bully, who forced me to stay at home, not letting me work. And your behaviour has been a revelation. First you lock me out of the house bought with my money. Then you casually tell me you are moving to the other side of the country to be with the new man who has conveniently just showed up in your life. Now you are trying to deny me access to my own children,  claiming they have no interest in seeing me, their own father.
            I have a feeling that you think I'll take this lying down. You have clearly held me in such contempt for so long, you believe that you have neutered me.    You underestimate me. You have forgotten, you see, how I was taught it was a man's job to be strong, reliable, and above all powerful. You have forgotten, that in the years you have sidelined me, I have not been unobservant.  I have taken notes. The affairs you imagine you kept hidden from me. The drinking you think is a secret between you and the housekeeper. The moments when the perfect image has slipped, and you have revealed the raging, hysterical woman underneath. And you have forgotten, haven't you, that in the days we had pet names, I was your lion.  You are so sure you have neutered me, you do not realise I am a lion still.


                        Watch me roar.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Reaching The Summit

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I had an idea for a novel. The galaxy in question was The Eirene Centre, Clopton, a tiny hamlet in rural Northamptonshire where we lived a very different sort of life; and it was so  long ago, only our oldest child was at school. This week I made what I believe is the last edit to that novel (at least without professional help) finally reaching the summit of writing mountain that has taken me the best part of a decade to reach.

At the time I had the initial thought for "Echo Hall" I had just taken a career break. After five years of juggling childcare with increasingly demanding jobs, I'd had enough.  So when Chris was appointed Director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a job with a live-in flat, it was a no-brainer. The flat was tiny, it was in the middle of nowhere, looking after three children of five and under was both wonderful and gruelling, but for the first time in years I had time to think. And think I did.

I had always wanted to write a novel. In my twenties I had written 2/3 of one and had ideas for several more. But for years I had found excuses not to do it: I was doing a Masters, had a busy job, was falling in love, getting married, having children. There was just NO time. In 2004, conscious I was about to turn 40, that my sisters and friends were all doing writing courses and embarking on ambitious projects,  it suddenly occurred to me that if I didn't start now, I never would.  And sometime in that Spring, the first inkling of "Echo Hall" came to me. I had no idea  then, that it was going a) take over my life and b) take me the best part of a decade to write. I just had this compelling vision of a woman in a strange country house overhearing ghostly voices. It didn't take long to work out who those voices belonged to, what they were talking about, and the critical incident at the heart of the novel. Nor did it take long for me to work out the story was intergenerational, and something to do with family conflict. And I realised I also wanted to talk about international conflict. The 2003/4 Iraq war was still at its height, and felt too close to write about.  But thinking back to 1990, I remembered how the Gulf War was promoted as World War 2 all over again, with the Western allies, repeating their heroic role against Saddam Hussein, the new Hitler. So I set the beginning of the story there and the previous generation in World War 2. My parents lived through that war, and I have grown up listening to their experiences. Whilst the men (my father included) obviously had to directly deal with the horrors of war,  it was the women's stories that always affected me. My paternal grandmother had 3 sons in the forces; my maternal grandmother had a sick husband and a family of 6 to raise through the terror of the air raids; my aunt and godmother had three small children to care for whilst her husband was away in the RAF; another aunt married her husband one weekend and didn't see him for two and a half years. All of which was rich source material for a novel focussing on war seen from a distance, experienced by the people left behind.

At this point, I had to write something down, and came up with a prologue detailing my two protagonists, Ruth (in 1989) and Elsie (in 1939) arrival at their new home. The working title was "The Inheritance", and the house didn't even have a name. I think from memory Ruth's arrival ended with the ghostly voices, but I somehow lost the pages, and never got back to my computer. But, over the next three years, the story began to pursue me. I scribbled ideas down in notebooks, planned out the structure, drew lots of time lines and googled historical facts.


Gradually, I realised that I needed to go back a generation to World War 1, as the story of Leah and Jacob needed to be told. By the time we had moved to Oxford, and I was back at work, I had plotted out the novel entirely, working out a complex structure, which I haven't deviated from since. By 2007,  I had a little more time, and I began to tentatively write the opening chapters. Receiving a copy of Robert Fisk's Great War of Civilisation, gave me both my opening epigraph, and a new title for my novel: "The Echo Chamber", which soon changed to "Echo Hall" after I finally named the the Flint family's house.

It was then that I started a writing course. It seemed like a good idea at the time: an opportunity to hone my skills and carry on with the novel, and it was local. But it  didn't turn really turn out that way. My limited writing time was taken up with the demands of weekly homework and tough assignments every half term. The teaching was patchy, and I found an academic environment was the worst place for me to be developing my writing. Furthermore, I was itching to get on with my book, but there was never any time, which I began to resent. In the end, I resolved that dilemma by submitting sections  for assignments. This proved at times to be challenging, the critique I received of my first year portfolio left me despairing of ever being a writer. But it did get me going on all three stories. And in the second year, sharing chapters with my friend and fellow student Rachel Crowther, took me a lot further. I also spent a lot of time during this period researching the period parts of my novel. (I recognise 1989-1991 is also history, but since I lived it, it doesn't feel like that to me! Though I have found myself misremembering things, so I've had plenty of research to do there too). So when I finished the course in 2009, I had various bits of writing to show for it:


And then I really got going. My lovely tutor Dennis Hamley said I should show my opening chapters to an agent. Although, I was only really on the foothills of my book, I thought I might as well. I found the first person who seemed to fit in The Writer's Yearbook, sent the chapters off and thought no more of it.  And, I realised, that the course had left me an important legacy. In two years, I had become used to writing most days, cramming it in evenings, bus rides, cafes, and waiting for children to finish their activities.  It was natural and easy to keep that up with the novel. That autumn, I began to break the back of the first part, helped by a fantastic Faber Academy course at Shakespeare and Company which was both inspiring and practical. After that I had high hopes it would take me about a year to finish the first draft, but I didn't consider the impact of major projects at work crowding my brain so much there was nothing left for the novel, or how the death of my friend Pip, 2010 would bring me to a stuttering halt, unable to write a word. But despite these setbacks I managed to keep going. Joining  the Friday Flash writing community, kept me writing when I was stuck; a lovely retreat here, helped in the summer of 2010;and I was greatly encouraged when the agent liked my opening chapters. She gave me great feedback on the first section and kindly said she'd be happy to read more. And at last in August 2011, I finally finished my first draft. As I said at the time, it was a little thin, only about 5,000 words were any good and it was full of gaps (particularly the middle section) but I finally had something to show for 7 and a half years work:

 
 

I found that having text to work from, rewrite, edit and add to, was a much easier process than the difficult first draft. I took each separate story and edited them together, parts 1& 5 telling Ruth's story, 2 &4 telling Elsie's and 3 telling Rachel's. This helped me strengthen the individual narratives and spot where I could make links between them. Useful feedback from a Friday Flash buddy, Marc Nash kept me at it, and a lovely four day writing retreat here really helped me progress. Away from home I rose at 7 and wrote till 11 every night  able to focus entirely on the novel - a marvellous experience! Even so it still took just over a year to redraft into something a lot more substantial. And to help with the next set of re-writes I devised a colour code to assist with  edits pink indicated a major plot re-write, orange/yellow being terrible language:


Now it was time for the third edit. Fortunately my twin sister Julia Williams and my friend Anne Booth  were both working on novels, so we swapped (Julia's Midsummer Magic, was out in the summer, Anne's The Girl with the White Dog is out in March 2014!). I enjoyed their books enormously and their feedback on mine was immensely encouraging. This edit required some bold decisions:changing Elsie and Daniel's story into the present tense; restructuring the first part; reframing Rachel's middle story and adding chapters to it. I was so committed now, I was up at 6, putting in an hour before breakfast and resenting being dragged away to the days work, back at my laptop for the evening shift. In February, I had another wonderful writing retreat at the fabulous Gladstone's Library (which still deserves a blogpost all of it's own). Yet again, I worked from 7 till 11, an immensely productive time. And thanks to a writing challenge from Imran Siddiq on twitter, I kept totally focussed. It was an exhausting few months, but the end result was something that was beginning to resemble a book:

It still needed a lot of work, but I sent it off to the agent anyway, and set about on my fourth edit. This time I edited backwards, as I  had found that I ran out of steam as I came to an end of a revision, and was being less careful as a result. I also started paying attention to the balance of the parts, 1&2 were much heavier on words than 4 and 5, so I tried to bolster up bits that were light and shave off in other places where there were too many words. Just as I was coming to an end, the lovely agent sent me some extraordinarily good feedback, which gave me much food to thought. I finished the edit, and decided it was time to share a bit more widely:

 
Chris, who had read some of the earlier drafts was the first to complete it. Thank goodness, he enjoyed it, and gave me some great pointers for improvement.  My wonderful book club, The Cowley Consonants, not only took the time to read it, but insisted we had it as our September book, which was a great privilege. They too were both supportive and encouraging. I put all the feedback together and got to work on my fifth edit. I've just spent the last month using every spare minute to cut words, rewrite, add words in, shaping and rebalancing. Yet again, I edited each individual story first. As this late stage, I also decided to rewrite the central section as letters. Although it's one of the oldest parts of the novel, it's been one of the weakest. It was immensely hard work but it has paid off as I know this story is now much stronger. I did one last read through and spell check, and on Wednesday morning, I was done. I had finally made it to the top.

Of course, I now have another challenge ahead of me: I have to hook an agent (if not the lovely one I have been speaking to, someone else), then hopefully, a publisher. I am realistic to know that both these things might not happen, and even if they do, it could all go pear-shaped.  But after all this time, and with all the encouragement I have received, I believe in my novel. And I believe it's something that people will want to read. So it's time to come down from the mountain, to go out and spread the word so there's a chance of making it happen.

Friday, 27 September 2013

Rave Review - Dear Girl

Over the last 9.5 years as I've been writing "Echo Hall" I have been really conscious of a book I needed to re-read. "Dear Girl" is a collection of the letters and diary entries of two working women a hundred years ago, which I came across sometime in my early 20's. It's a brilliant account of how life was for Edwardian women, which I loved when I first read it. I've  been aware for a long time it would be helpful background for the central section of my novel, which is set in this period, but I've struggled to get hold of a copy. It wasn't till this summer, when I made a radical decision to change my clunky middle from 3rd person narrative to a series of letters, that it became imperative for me to have another look. Unfortunately it's out of print and  I'm a bit crap at finding things on-line, so I'm grateful my lovely Chris is brilliant at it and managed to track a copy down for me while we were on holiday. So when we got home my copy was waiting for me and I could dive straight in.

Sometimes you come back to a book and it is not quite as you remember it, but "Dear Girl" did not disappoint second time round. The collection of letters and diaries documents the friendship between Ruth Slate and Eve Slawson,  two ordinary women who met in their late teens and continued to be close friends until Eve's untimely death in 1917. It's an amazing slice of social history, showing what life was really like a hundred years ago. In a world without the NHS, Ruth's first love, Ewan died of consumption, struggling to pay for his treatment. In a world without welfare, both Ruth and Eva witnessed their family members experience difficulties with job losses that led to uncertain income and the need to continually move from one precarious private rented situation to the next. Furthermore, they were expected to contribute to the family income, and were consequently confined to dull, meaningless jobs, when what they really wanted to do was write and learn.

When I read "Dear Girl" twenty years ago, I was struck with the parallels with my own life and my friendships with passionate, feminist women. At one point Ruth lived in Hornchurch, where my parents grew up. Her parents moved around South London, near to places I worked, ending up in Wood Green, which was just down the road from my home town, Southgate. Later, she moved to York, where I studied, and became a social worker, whilst I have worked in social care all my life. And I recognised in her intense, loving relationship with Eva, my equally intense relationships with so many of my wonderful friends. Coming back to it, this summer, just around the anniversary of the death of my friend Pip O'Neill, I felt this even more deeply. Everything about Ruth and Eva's friendship reminded me of mine with Pip. Like Ruth and Eva, we met when we were young, and followed each other through many similar experiences (For Ruth and Eva this was developing an understanding of faith, embracing feminism, learning to fight their own corner, and then studying at Woodbrooke College, Birmingham. For Pip and I, it was working first in the voluntary sector and then for local government and studying at the LSE). And Pip, liked Eva, lived in Walthamstow, and was passionate about her local community. So when I reached the moment of Eva's sudden death, I was in pieces, remembering the friend who died too soon, and grateful, as Ruth was for the community of friends she left behind, who helped me more then they can ever know.

So "Dear Girl" has two levels for me. It stands as an insight into a world where to be an independent woman meant struggle, heartache and conflict with everyone around. But it's also a reflection on how the world we might live in now is very different, but the essentials of relationships never change.  It really is a tragedy that it is out of print, and I sincerely hope some feminist publisher will pick it up in future.

And thankfully, it also did the trick on the novel. Immersing myself for a fortnight in the language and style of Edwardian England, ensured my rewrites worked, and I'm convinced that my novel is much better as a result.

Ruth and Eva I salute you - two women who made an impact in ways they couldn't have imagined.


Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Virginia and I

I can't remember when I first heard the name Virginia Woolf, but I was probably quite small.  Our Dad was an English teacher and so we had most of the literary canon on our groaning bookshelves. Virginia being a relatively unusual name, I'm sure I would have noticed it and liked the connection with my own, without actually knowing anything about the author in question.

I'm not sure how old I was when curiosity got the better of me and  I picked up "To the Lighthouse." but it was way too young. I was totally mystified. For pages and pages the characters talk about going to the lighthouse and then the weather is too bad and they don't.  Then all of a sudden we've rolled forward a several years, and Mrs Ramsey has died. The father (who stopped the trip) wants to make the family go  but the kids are reluctant. It all seemed to me to be unbearably painful and frustrating, what was the point?. I knew enough about English literature to understand that Woolf was important,  but I decided she was too difficult for me, and I put her to one side.

It wasn't till  a few years later, when my lovely twin Julia Williams was writing a dissertation on women writers that I began to wonder whether I ought to reconsider. Julia raved about A Room of One's Own so much I had to give it a try, and of course, I was blown away. A few years after that  I signed up to a book catalogue. (In the days before Amazon, it was the cheapest way to get lots of books when when I could remember to put an order in.) Consequently I got a whole load of Woolf in as a job lot, Mrs Dalloway, A Room of One's Own, Orlando and To the Lighthouse. And I fell in love. The trip to the Lighthouse that had puzzled me so much, revealed itself as an intimate account of family life, the moments that are precious, the moments you wish you'd acted differently, the inevitability of time passing. Orlando is just a total riot, zipping along with energy and zest and astonishingly for a novel written in the 1920's it challenges gender, sexuality and the role of women in society. And Mrs Dalloway - well it's just sublime isn't it? The most perfect example of stream of consciousness I've ever read, weaving Clarissa Dalloway's intimate thoughts with those of the crowds she wanders through, and poor doomed Septimus Smith, before returning to the heroine as she prepares for her party. It's quite, quite brilliant.

So it was a no-brainer to name this blog after my heroine's famous essay. Her dictum that a woman needs money and a room of her own has both resonated with me and made me furious enough to defy it...When I was young, I often used it as as the reason I didn't write - I had a room of my own when single, but had to work for my money, and I never seemed to find the time. Once married the situation was reversed, we were better off, but I shared my space, first with my husband and then with our three children. It was only when I took a career break 10 years ago, that it struck me that I had been making excuses too long, and that if I didn't start now, I never would. I started my writing career in a tiny two bedroom flat the five of us lived in at the time, hesitantly typing on the shared computer in our kitchen diner, when my youngest was asleep.  Alas he soon took to staying awake in the day, and writing time became harder to manage. It was a couple of years before I found a way to do it, by which time I was living in a more spacious environment, but working again, and having even less time. This was the moment when I realised Woolf was both right and wrong. Right, in that if you have independent means, and personal space, it is easier to be able to write. Wrong, in that, if you don't have those things, but you do have the compelling need to write , you can't let lack of them stop you.

Recently though I've found myself  criticising Woolf a bit...It was all right for her, I've occasionally thought,  she had a large house, independent wealth and no kids to distract her. No wonder she was a genius. I began to think she was a bit too upper class for me, not having to bother with a domestic life because servants did everything for her. It seemed a bit disloyal, but I couldn't help myself. And I
 might have gone on thinking like that, if it hadn't been for the biography of Virginia Woolf  Chris gave me for my birthday which I read on holiday. Although it was a little dry, it was full of information about Woolf that has made me re-appraise her completely. As I read I found myself emotionally connecting with  a woman who, like me  was one of 8 children (even if 5 were step siblings). Like me, her relationship with her father was volatile. Though her father was more severe, and controlling than mine, the descriptions of their stormy arguments and intense love reminded me of my own experience. (One critical difference was that my father encouraged me to write, whereas hers prevented her. She recognised if he'd lived she'd have never been a writer, I regret my father died before I started to be one). And one of the loveliest finds of the book was the letter from Leslie Stephens referring to Woolf as "Ginia" - the name my family always call me - which I read that on the beach at Manorbier, a place she sometimes stayed. At that point, I fell in love with her all over again.

Here was a woman who was sexually abused by her half brothers, yet refused to be a victim about it, learning to mock and deride them. A woman denied the University education of her brother, who managed to educate herself. A woman, who finally broke free after her father's death and step brother's marriage to become the greatest writer of her generation. And I realised she was, in fact,  less independently wealthy than I thought, needing to rent out rooms in her London home in order to stay there, and editing and writing articles from an early age to support herself. She was 33 before her first novel was published, and even then it took a while for her to be a critical success. I was reminded again what a  mental struggle it was for her to write, and how critical she was of her own work. And whilst I knew that she grappled with mental health problems for most of her life,  it was clear from the biography that she was lively, funny, acerbic.  I am sure had I ever met her I'd have enjoyed her company - she was so intelligent,  thoughtful, and though she was a self-confessed snob, she was committed to social justice, pacifism, anti-fascism just as I am. You can't know about Woolf without knowing about the manner of her ending, how she filled her pockets with stones and drowned  herself in the river. And yet  I was still crying at the end of the book reading her last  words to her husband Leonard, so full of despair, but so full of love for him.

After that, when I spotted The Waves in Tenby's only bookshop, I had to buy it, diving into another brilliant novel. An intense stream of consciousness that leaps through the minds of six characters, following them from childhood to middle-aged, interspersed with descriptions of waves on a beach from early morning to evening. It is a lyrical, poetical novel, that stirs the emotions and somehow captures the essence of life despite very little apparently happening. A work of art from a true original.

All in all, it's been a great summer for reading, and the highlight for me has been Virginia Woolf.  The woman who lined my family bookcases in childhood, who at first mystified me, then later inspired me, has reminded me again how essential she is to my literary life. I know I will never be able to write at the level and quality of my namesake, but thanks to her, I continue to be inspired to try. And knowing about her creative struggles, helps me make sense of my own.



Friday, 2 August 2013

Plug of the Month - Point North and Pedal





As someone with  a couple of marathons & half marathons under my belt,  and currently training for another half, I know what takes to complete an endurance event. I know the physical pain, mental strength and sheer stubbornness that it takes to get you across the line.  But my friend Phil Cox's achievements literally left me gasping in awe.  Last summer he cycled from Lands End to John O'Groats, on his own, with no back up in TWELVE days. ( That's 1,000 miles by the way, think about it.)

Point North and Pedal is Phil's account of that journey. And it's a great read, instantly recognisable to anyone idiotic to take on one of life's more extreme challenges, and soaked in his characteristic wit and sarcasm. Not only that, but being one of life's total good blokes, he's raising money for Cri du Chat Syndrome - so you by buying his book you get to support a great charity as well.

Seriously committed and a serious good read. Get your copy today!

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Almost at the top

I think I quite like this editing lark...It's been a mere couple of months since my last post and here I am celebrating the completion of the fourth edit. For once this has been quick, and relatively easy. The path has been straight, the sun has shone, I've been mostly bounding with energy as a result, I've just ripped through the text
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Following advice from my writing friend Catherine Chanter, at the end of each edit,  I've always paid to have a printed bound copy. It's a great way to enable me to  read and annotate (without losing any pages!) before re-writes on the computer. Since my first draft was finished in 2011 I have developed a little ritual of going to the same print shop (the lovely Press to Print in Gloucester Green - whose staff are efficient, kind and always fascinated by my work in progress), paying for a copy and then bringing it home to dissect it. (This has become such a ritual that my son is still peeved I didn't take him with me last time!  Gloucester Green is also important for this novel as  it is the place where I had a complete meltdown following an awful tutorial on 2 chapters I'd submitted for a writing assignment. My lovely husband Chris was an absolute star on that occasion, meeting me on a bench, hugging me when I sobbed and promising me we would return with champagne when I get a book deal - I'm holding him to that one...) An added advantage of doing these prints is that I can mark the progress of my novel by these bound copies. The first draft  completed in 2011, was a little thin  full of stereotypes and half finished characters, and chapters ending in xxx because I wasn't sure quite how to resolve them. The second, completed last November, fleshed this out a lot, doubling the size and making sense of the narrative, cost me £18 instead of £8 and at least looked a lot thicker, but was still cliché ridden and a lot of it was not up to scratch. The third  which took from January to April involved a radical re-working of the text, cutting and pasting, splitting chapters in half, deleting whole sections, in order to re-shape the story. This version cost £30, coming in at 125,000 words, 420 pages, and is satisfyingly solid enough to actually feel like a novel. It has, however needed significant re-writing.

So this time round I've been focussing on line by line edits. I went through the whole text with a blue or sometimes black biro, re-reading every sentence and changing every one that felt clunky, overwritten, or too clichéd. Sometimes this has involved rewriting whole scenes, or deleting them, and sometimes the excision of "that", "but", "and", which I over use, the removal of commas and semi-colons, replacing them with semi-colons and full stops. For three weeks I took my copy everywhere with me, on the bus, in cafes, and (my favourite place) the Hay Festival, where I really enjoyed sitting in coffee shops, surrounded by book lovers as I ripped my sentences apart. I even had a wonderful encounter with two lovely women (whose names unfortunately I forget) who wanted to know what I was writing and were so enthusiastic and encouraging, it gave me a glimpse of what it might feel like to be a published author...(speaking at Hay is so on my wish-list, along with staying at Shakespeare and Company and being a writer in residence at the Gladstone Library...one day...).

I returned from Hay ready to start typing, deciding this time, that I'd work backwards. I have a tendency when editing to get a bit bored by the end. As a result, earlier sections are meticulously reviewed, and by the last chapters I'm getting a bit slapdash. I think this was a wise call - I found lots more problems with parts 4 and 5 then I did with parts 1 and 2 and hopefully I've picked them up. I did save the middle section for last though, as this is still the part that continues to trouble me...

I was doing really well, managing about 3 chapters a night, thinking I might get two parts done in the space of a week, when our lives had an unexpected interruption. Chris is a peace activist, and from time to time, will take part in civil disobedience. At the beginning of June he headed over to Lincolnshire to join others in an anti-drones protest. This sort of thing is so much part of our lives, and Chris is so often away with talks, I hadn't really thought much about it to be honest. Half term was busy, with Hay, work and our middle daughter being off in Belgium that I waved him off thinking his absence would help me get on with my edits.

It didn't quite turn out like that. As expected, Chris was arrested with 5 others,  and was held incommunicado all day. This is quite unusual for such a low level action but it does happen.  After tea, I still hadn't heard from him, so I focussed on my work thinking he'd ring me soon. I'd reached a point where Daniel, a character in 1943 is debating whether to be a conscientious objector like his father, and considering the implications of prison, when I happened to look out of the front window to see a police car drawing up. There was a knock on the door, and I realised when I saw their plastic bags, that they'd come to raid our house, looking for evidence of conspiracy to commit criminal damage. I had a very surreal hour watching them rifle through our mail,  examine our computers, desperately hoping they wouldn't take them away. Despite my protests, they took the family computer, and then said they must take the laptops. Aagh...at such a critical moment. They watched me download the novel onto a memory stick, as I silently cursed them for taking away my means of continuing to write, but for some miraculous reason,  they forgot to come back to the kitchen to collect it. That was a result, but unfortunately I was so wired there was no hope of writing that night, and in fact the rest of the week was a bit of a washout. For 24 hours Chris and the others were facing serious charges of conspiracy to cause criminal damage (which have seriously heavy penalties). Chris then rang in the morning to tell me that an outstanding fine from a previous action had emerged on the system, so though the charges were lessened, and our friends released, he was sent to Camberwell magistrates court to be asked to pay. We'd been waiting for a summons on that one, and expecting a 2 week imprisonment, so the next 24 hrs was slightly anxious. When your other half is in a police cell, communication is limited to a brief phone call, so like many of my characters in Echo Hall, I was living with the absence of my husband and the uncertainty of when he would return. Luckily for Chris he got the nicest magistrate in the universe, who wiped the fines on the basis of his time spent in custody, and he was unexpectedly home in time for the Apprentice. A case of life imitating art a little too much...

It took a few days to recover from that one, but ever since, I've been ploughing through, back to my up at 6 and work till late routine. I am REALLY tired, and there have been days in the last fortnight in particular, when I've begun to feel sick of the sight of the damned thing, when I look at it and think Oh God it's complete rubbish.  And days when I seem to spend hours taking commas out, only to put them back in again. But on other days I find myself reading a passage and asking, did I really write that? I  haven't read it yet, but, I do believe the changes I've made, have improved the quality of the writing,  & hope I've got rid of some of the clunkier passages.

Just as I was drawing to the close, I received  fantastic and very encouraging feedback from a publishing professional which has provided me with a lot of food for thought. I agree with a lot of what she says, but some points she's making are a challenge. I have to weigh up whether she is right, or whether her reactions are personal with the thought that I shouldn't hold onto things I love if they are detrimental to the plot, but nor should I ditch parts I believe to be integral. So, as I completed my final chapter last night (having reworked the central section into three long parts), I've decided to pause before the final ascent. I need to think about what she's said and decide how much to take with me, and how much to discard. I need to reflect on what I think is working and what is not, and I need to seek advice from other readers and writers I trust.

What I do know, is that I am getting close to achieving my artistic aims, and that this novel definitely has the potential for publication. Whether that happens or not, will be partly down to me, to luck, and to finding the person who will be willing to champion it. In the meantime, as I rest here, drinking up the view, my eyes are firmly fixed on the horizon, where I can see a bunch of characters, assembling on a beach. Before "Echo Hall" is finally finished, I aim to make a start on "The Wave." Publishing is a tough business, I might not be successful first time. I need to keep going, and one day, who knows, I might just get to speak at Hay.

Onwards and upwards!


PS In a spookily twinny moment, my lovely twin sis Julia Williams blogged her take on her writing process  yesterday as she launched Midsummer Magic. I find on reading it, we have a lot of similarities - though she of cause being a proper author gets an editor to help! (looking forward to that day...)

Friday, 21 June 2013

Plug of the month - Midsummer Magic

 
 
 

It being Midsummer's Eve (that's if you believe the 21st rather than the 24th June paradigm), I HAVE to load my plug of the month. The latest book by my lovely twin sister Julia Williams is a wonderful riff on A Midsummer Night's Dream. It features hypnotism, midsummer, love, outrageous behaviour and a riotous romp through standing stones and clifftops. It's great fun and a brilliant summer read...You can download it on E-books now. Or if you're old fashioned like me and prefer a hard copy it's out at the beginning of July. So order your copy now!

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Away the Crow Road - Farewell Iain Banks

Like many people across the country, our household was deeply affected by the announcement earlier this year that Iain Banks was a bit "poorly".  Chris and I rarely agree on books - Iain Banks was one of the few novelists we both enjoyed. So much so that when I just trawled our bookshelves this morning I found a Banks novel in every bookcase (sometimes the same copy twice). We were very saddened to hear about his cancer diagnosis, and even more to hear that he had died last weekend.

Last night we sat up very late to watch Kirsty Wark's recent interview with Banks which I would urge every one of you to catch if you can, regardless of whether you liked his writing. He comes across as such a marvellous human being. As he reflects on his astonishing output (29 novels); the irony of writing a novel about a man dying of cancer, only to get the diagnosis himself 87,000 words in; & what it feels like to face death, you just can't stop warming to the man. (Watch out for his enthusiastic fanboy gushing for his favourite authors, lovely). The interview is moving and funny and, despite the dark subject matter of many of his novels, he comes across as a  kind, tolerant human being, a bloke you'd like to share a pint with. Such as shame we no longer can.

I first read Banks sometime after The Wasp Factory came out, it being one of those literary must-reads at the time. Back then I think I hated quite a lot of it: I enjoyed the black humour, the quality of the writing was peerless, but the ghoulishness of Frank's actions, the violence, the nastiness was rather off-putting. I was glad I'd read it, but I put Banks aside for the next decade dismissing him rather as a writer that men would appreciate more than women. It was not until ten years later when on holiday with my family that I picked up another of his novels. Casting around for something to read, I thought I might as well try The Crow Road. From the moment the grandmother's pacemaker explodes at the funeral, I was absolutely hooked, so much so that I couldn't put it down. I even read in the back of the car all the way back from Bayeux, despite the inevitable car sickness. The Crow Road is a great mix of black humour, mystery, horror - a corking family saga with a heartbreaking father-son relationship at its centre.

But it was only when I met Chris, and discovered he was a massive fan, that I was truly converted. It is impossible to buy presents for my beloved. I will be forever grateful to Iain Banks that he usually had a book out in September, making at least one gift easy. I even got to meet the great man once. I happened to notice in the paper that he was doing a book signing near my office, so I trotted off to get a copy for Chris  and for a friend whose ex also had a birthday. The signing did confirm one prejudice, I was the ONLY woman in the queue of young geeky men, but it also confirmed what lovely bloke he was. Apparently he hated book tours, but I'd have never guessed, he was chatty, funny, happy to sign two copies of A Song of Stone and to pose for a picture. Turns out when I got back Chris already had a copy, but now he had one that was signed  and having met the author, I was very keen to read it. A Song of Stone is one of the darker novels, very very brutal, and bleak, but brilliant executed.

After that I dived into Banks old and new, particularly enjoying  The Bridge, a fascinating exploration of a totalitarian state that exists on a bridge to nowhere (one of my favourites) and  Complicity  in which a serial killer  takes out all evil people - corrupt politicians, arms dealers and the like in increasingly brutal fashion. I must confess some of his later novels The Business, Dead Air, The Steep Approach to Garbadale didn't grab me quite as much, but I can't say I've ever been disappointed by a Banks novel. And though I find the science fiction a bit dense - (I think I read  Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games before giving up) - I do recognise that the creation of the Culture is a towering achievement. We are grateful he managed to finish his last novel The Quarry, before he died. By all accounts it's vintage Banks - we can't wait to read it.

Banks was known for his love of whisky, even writing a travel book on the subject  (of course we have a copy), so Ian Rankin's twitter tribute was a perfect way to mark his death. Alas! We haven't got any whisky in the house at the moment, but it hasn't stopped us raising a glass or two to this wonderful writer, thanking him for the pleasure he has given us. He's away the crow road far far too soon.

Friday, 7 June 2013

The Cottage in the Country #fridayflash

Last week's Friday Flash told the story of a mother waiting for her daughter's visit. Some of you wondered what was going on in with her daughter. Well here goes...


You never meant to leave her behind: all alone in her cottage in the country. You were always going to home one day. But when you finally escaped her, leaving behind the claustrophobic chintz curtains, the china ornaments, the constant smell of cup-cakes, freedom was just too delicious. The more you relished the ability to live by your own rules, the harder it was to return to hers.

You really did intend to come back that first year. Honest you did. When you saw that porcelain spaniel with the sad eyes and floppy ears in the gift shop, you knew it was the perfect gift. But then Dan invited you to spend Christmas skiing with his family in the chalet and you persuaded yourself you wouldn't be missed. You wrapped the spaniel up, put it in the post, consoling yourself with the thought she'd have a better time with Uncle Jim, before boarding the flight to Switzerland.

It got harder after that. You'd used up all your annual leave on the holiday; and somehow, afterwards, you never could quite find the time to visit. You wouldn't admit it, but the thought of a weekend of banal conversation, drinking tea from porcelain cups, eating the inevitable Victoria sponge, made you want to puke. So you made your excuses, knowing she didn't believe them, that neither of you did. And knowing it didn't matter: preserving the fiction you understood each other was more important than the truth.

And now there are no excuses left. The conference centre is only twenty minutes from her village. You could get away with it of course, if you don't ring she'll never know you were even there. But some vestige of conscience, some memory of skipping the path to the village shop, of baking cakes in her kitchen prompts you to pick up the phone.You'll be in the neighbourhood, you say, could you pop in for a cup of tea? You try not to wince at the breathless excitement in her voice when she says yes.  She's always placed too much importance on your activities - it's part of the problem.

It's sod's law that the conference runs over, that you're in a mobile blackspot and can't get a signal to let her know. You really do have to be in London for 8 for a social engagement that  is too important to miss. But you can't help feeling bad. You try to be casual on the phone, pretending that it doesn't matter; that  you're the kind of daughter who visits regularly; that it's easy to rearrange. You pretend that you believe her when she says she's not made an effort, though you know deep down that making an effort is all that she ever does, all she has ever done for you.

It's not your fault, you think as you drive away from the layby where you stopped to phone. It's really not your fault, you convince yourself, trying not to think of her sitting in her kitchen with a sponge cake that she'll eat by herself. The trouble is, she was always too much for you. She still is. How can she expect you to come backnow? No, it's not your fault, you think, as you pass the road that leads to her door. You put your foot on the pedal and accelerate, getting away as fast as you can.

You won't be back in a hurry.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Tea for Two

 "You look happy this morning," Mrs Giles sounds surprised. I can't say I blame her. I have been a bit morose of late. Winter never agrees with me and this one has been worse than most. It's exceeded it's sell by date by at least three months. In March I froze, in April I turned the heating up, by May I was still shivering. It's not made me very sociable, I have to admit.But that's all changed today. Today the sun is shining. Today I feel warm for the first time in months. Today my bones don't ache, my knees aren't sore. And today "My Ginny's coming home." I tell my neighbour, "She'll be back in time for tea."

"No wonder you're looking so pleased with yourself," she replies. "It's been a while since she's been back hasn't it?"

She's right, it has been a while - that useful catch-phrase which round here means anything from a month to a decade. Four years in Ginny's case. Four years in which my only contact with my only child has been the odd postcard or phone call. She often tells me off for not having a computer: it would be so much easier to be in touch if I had email or Facebook, she says. I want to reply that if she'd only move closer, we wouldn't need computers to keep in touch, but I never do. Instead I nod as if she could see me, and promise I'll look at the catalogue she sent me in the post. We both know I won't, but preserving the fiction we understand one another is important . It helps us avoid dealing with the questions I never want to ask: Why has she been away so long? Is she ever coming home?

Today at least, the second is answered. "She'll be home by 4," I say, "I'm going to make a Victoria Sponge."

"How lovely. I hope you have a nice visit."

I will, I know I will, as I head to the village shop where I purchase the necessary ingredients. It doesn't seem so long ago that we used to take this path together. I used to love the feel of her tiny hand in mine, the way she bounced with excitement at the thought of an afternoon spent baking. In the old days we'd race back to the house anxious to get started, so we'd have the cake in time for tea. Just the two of us, the perfect pairing. Today, I move at a more sedate pace, enjoying the surprise of the sun on my back, the smell of mown grass signalling the possibility of summer.

In the kitchen, I unpack the shopping, take out a plastic bowl, put on the pinny she bought me one Mother's Day years ago. Chief Cook and Bottlewasher it says, though the blue writing has faded over the years and after all this time without her, I no longer feel I own the title. Still, I won't let myself think about that, as I cream the butter and sugar together. In a couple of hours, she'll be here sipping tea, eating warm sponge cake, just like she used to when she was a child.

I'm humming as I break the eggs in a bowl, Tea for Two, and Two for Tea. We always used to love singing that song as we worked,  and this was always her favourite part. The tapping of the egg on the side of the dish, the crack as it broke open, the yellow yoke plummeting into the centre of the bow. Finally the joy of pouring it over the butter and sugar, watching it liquefy into a gooey mess. I smile at the memory, stirring the flour in. Soon I have two tins ready for the oven.

Ginny would always beg me to lick the bowl afterwards. I can still see her sitting on the step, wooden spoon in hand, cake mix round her lips, grinning from ear to ear. I think about keeping the bowl out for old time's sake, but it would make the kitchen messy. Besides, she's probably too grand for such childhood nonsense now. I take the bowl, rinse it under the tap, tidy up the kitchen and put my feet up until the cakes are ready.

At a quarter to four I take the tins out of the oven. They have risen beautifully. I smear jam on the inside of each cake. The sponge has the perfect consistency, springy, crumbly, it will melt on the tongue. The perfect cake, for the perfect tea with the daughter who has been missing too long. I try not to get too carried away as I put the kettle on and warm the pot. But it's difficult. It's been so long since I've seen her. I can't help wondering what she'll be wearing, whether she's changed her hairstyle, what we'll talk about. The kettle bubbles away feeding my excitement. She'll be here soon.

At four o'clock I listen out for sounds of the car approaching. But the road brings no-one, and all I can hear are the swallows chirping as they swoop overhead. I put the kettle on again. Warm the pot again. I want the tea to be ready as soon as she gets here.

At quarter past  four. I touch the top of the cake. It is still warm. Though I suppose it won't really matter if it's cold when she comes. So long as she does come. The kettle has re-boiled four times now. I'd better not boil it again. It's such a waste of electricity.
At half past, I step out onto the lane to see if  I can catch sight of her. After I've watched a blue Citroen, a black Ford, and a red Micra go past without stopping, it strikes me that this is pointless: I don't even know what car she drives. The sun has gone in, and I am beginning feeling cold. I return to the house. The cake is cold.

It is nearly five o'clock. I put the sponge in the fridge. Ginny hasn't said she'd be staying for dinner, but she's so late now, she'll need feeding won't she? I'll cook something special and we can have the cake for pudding. I root through  the freezer and come across two steaks. Lovely. I'd never have these normally.

Just as I am placing them on a plate, the phone rings.

"Hi Mum."

"Ginny, where are you?"

"Look, I'm sorry, but I won't be able to make it today after all. The conference ran over and I have to get back to town."

"Oh."

"There was no signal at the venue, so I haven't been able to call till now."

"I see."

"You didn't put yourself out did you?"

"No of course not."

"I'll check my diary, find a better time."

"I'll look forward to it." But she has hung up, driving off to her mysterious life in the city, that has no place for me.

I return to the kitchen. I look at the steaks. It's not worth cooking them just for me. I put them back in the freezer. They can wait for that better time, when her diary is clearer and her conference won't over-run. Tonight, as usual, I will prepare supper for one. Omelette, I think. It's easy and I am tired after the days exertions. And perhaps, afterwards, if I can stomach it, I might help myself to a slice of cake.



Sunday, 12 May 2013

Plug of the Month - Ten Things I've Learnt About Love by Sarah Butler



I usually use this slot to plug books by friends and family. But I'm making an exception this time. Partly because I met Sarah Butler at the January Short Stories Aloud &  she was absolutely delightful, but partly because I think this is a great first novel, and in this  day and age, first time novelists need all the help they can get. I was lucky enough to get the last copy that was on sale that night which meant I read it before publication day, which is always a bit of a thrill. And I'm delighted to say it lived up to the all my expectations.

Ten things is my kind of book. It's set in  London, and perfectly captures both the murk and the magnificence of my wonderful home city. In addition, it deals with fathers and daughters, grief and loss, the complexity of family life, the meaning of home: all subjects close to my heart. It alternates between the viewpoints of two protagonists, Alice and Daniel. As the novel opens Alice is returning from Mongolia to be at the side of her dying father. We discover that she has always found it hard to settle, struggles to connect with her sisters, and is mourning the loss of a relationship that was always doomed. The second narrator, Daniel, is a homeless man, with angina. Obsessed by the thought of the daughter he has never met, he criss-crosses London in search of her. A creative, sensitive person, who is also synaesthetic (seeing names and people in colour) Daniel too mourns lost love, as he seeks out the daughter who doesn't even know he exists.

I don't want to say anymore, as this is a novel that should be read with minimum pre-knowledge. Suffice to say,it is a finely crafted book, with believable, sympathetic characters. Though there are moments of total heartbreak, I found it ultimately hopeful - however transient we may be, we can always connect with each other if we are willing. Ten things is my choice for my book club this month - and I can't recommend it highly enough.

Coincidentally, Sarah Butler has literally just tweeted her latest short story, check it out - it's brilliant