A Coastal Jigsaw

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The honeymoon is over. It was a glorious week on Guernsey where we cycled, swam, and did a bit of sea kayaking. I’d like to sound brave and sporty about that last one, but when the wind pushed me sideways, I confess that I panicked. My imagination ran riot for a few dramatic seconds as I fantasised about being swept off to the Pacific and spending years on a desert island. That seemed tragic as I’d only just got married but luckily I was rescued by the group leader, Skip. He was young and competent and didn’t make me feel hopeless as he tethered my kayak to his, and towed me through the tricky bits.

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Guernsey is beautiful and one of the best moments was when we stood high above a tiny bay late at night. The Channel stretched  beyond and the full moon was reflected in rippling, golden stripes–a true honey moon. Another holiday pleasure was having time to read. I still struggle with fiction (see Parkus Interruptus), but thankfully I do now enjoy non-fiction and one of the books I took with me was Bryony Gordon’s ‘Mad Girl’. A journalist with a glossy career, loving husband and baby daughter, she seems to have everything. But she’s remarkably candid about the obsessive compulsive disorder and rigid thoughts that have troubled her for years. At one stage she found it easier to take the iron to work rather than having to go back and check a dozen times that she’d switched it off. It made me reflect on my own behaviour which veers towards rigidity at times.

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When we got home, there was still a bit of holiday left so we decided to spend three days walking the South West Coastal Footpath in Dorset. This is probably the most challenging treat on my list. The act of writing it down was simple enough but at times I’ve wondered whether I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. It’s 630 miles long and as each section gets further away from home it becomes more of a time-consuming and costly obstacle. There’s a list on my study wall that breaks it down into fifty-two stages and so far, only eight stages have been crossed off with my pink highlighter pen. I’ve started to wonder whether this treat will fail to reach crossed-off Nirvana by the time I have my next big birthday. That’s only two and a half years away. Help.

The only way I know how to tackle a challenge is to try to tame it and impose some order. However, this treat is presenting particular challenges and I’ve already had to hold my nose and make a major tweak to my method. When I started five years ago, I was intending to walk anti-clockwise from Minehead to the Dorset coast near Poole. I got as far as Barnstaple. Then when my marriage ended I abandoned the walk for several years. When I restarted, I was living in another part of the country and it made logistical sense to resume at the Poole end and to walk clockwise in stages until I got back to Barnstaple. It felt like a daring break with the natural order but I justified it to myself as a symbol of a new and different life salvaged from the chaos.

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Then, last week when we were planning this second half of our honeymoon a radical thought planted itself in my head. I realised that it might be sensible to postpone a few stages. These were close enough to home to be done as day trips and staying away for two nights would give us an opportunity to do others that were further away.  I hyperventilated and struggled. Once again, chaos seemed to be threatening my nice ordered list.

In the end I managed to overcome my discomfort and we had three memorable days of walking. Each was different and brought unexpected pleasures. We spent much of the first day walking alongside the Fleet Lagoon that runs beside Chesil Beach. Three cormorants sat motionless in a wooden rowing boat, mountains of pebbles rose up to our left and we saw only a handful of people.  The next day we trudged along the beach for miles. The pebbles made it hard work but once again it was unexpectedly deserted. Several times we walked close to great flocks of gulls that had gathered by the sea. As we approached they took off and gave us a private aerial display.

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I enjoyed seeing the sea kale that has colonised the inhospitable shingle and as we approached West Bay, the cliff towered above us, steep and golden like an Egyptian sphinx. We swam and then we explored the small resort. I was expecting it to be staid and faded but instead we found ourselves eating wonderfully fresh fish at one of the coolest places I’ve ever been. Sins at the Bay is furnished in a salvage-gone-mad kind of way with red rusty metal rafters and techno music. I felt fully alive.

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The third day was different again with lots of upsy-downsies. I puffed my way unhappily up the first one and realised that I needed a better strategy. Golden Cap, the highest point on the South Coast loomed as an after-lunch challenge so I tried a new approach: thirty steps then rest for five breaths, and so on. It worked and I reached the top having barely broken into a sweat. I also made some new friends on the way. A young couple were just behind on the uphill trudge, and when I told them about my new discovery they looked pleased. From then on, every time I paused, I looked back to see them standing still as they concentrated earnestly and puffed out their cheeks. It felt like an unusual kind of antenatal class.

And now that the honeymoon is over I find myself longing for the next opportunity to get back to the footpath. I’m hoping to do another two stages soon, and for logistical reasons it’s likely that one will be in a clockwise direction from our accommodation, and the other in an anticlockwise direction. I’ve managed not to hyperventilate too much at this impending disorder. A friend asked the other day, ‘So does this mean that if I invited you to join me in Falmouth, that you’d be prepared to do some stages out of order?’ I took a deep breath and said, ‘Yes’.

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The Sixty Treats project that led to my book 31 Treats and A Marriage started out so innocently. But it continues to teach me all sorts of surprising things. I realise that I’ve misled myself into thinking that the pleasure of this great walk lies in its ordered completeness. I’ve yet to find out whether I’ll finish the entire walk before my sixtieth birthday but I do know that it won’t be in any kind of order and that ultimately neither the completion nor the order matters. I want more of the great sweeping views but even more than that I want to uncover the small unexpected pleasures that make each day such a unique mini-treat. Maybe the honeymoon’s not over after all.

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An Exceptional Treat

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These days I spend a lot of time in my head, playing with ideas. I used to think naively that writing was about sitting down and making the words flow but actually the most time-consuming part is working out how to solve various problems—what angle to take, how to structure the story, what to include, and crucially if you are not to bore your reader, what to leave out. This is all wonderfully absorbing but the downside is that with so much mental stimulation it’s easy to neglect the physical world.

The first time I gave proper attention to this thought was about four years ago when I was in shreds at the end of my marriage. I had some sessions with a counsellor and during one of these she suggested I spend time focussing on the sensual side of life. And she was wise—moments of taking in the smell of the roses in the garden, the taste of a juicy nectarine, or the sound of birdsong in the park, brought brief relief. They provided some escape from the repetitive thoughts that went round and round in my head as I tried to make sense of what had happened and to adjust to it.

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When my marriage finally shuddered to an end in court I tested out my new, raw state of independence by having a day alone in London. I did something to stimulate each sense as a symbol of being alive and ready to face a different path. At the National Portrait Gallery I lingered amongst entries to the annual portrait competition. Some made me smile, others were poignant. Such a mix of lives ranging from two elderly women having their hair done, to an impoverished waitress in a South African township cafe. They stared out at me and I escaped briefly into many different worlds.

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Photo: Jeremy Thompson

Then I walked to Paul A Young’s Soho chocolate shop. He pushes the boundaries with extraordinary flavour combinations…sea salted caramel with cigar leaves…raspberry and rose vodka…ginger pig black pudding, sourdough and rye whiskey…goats cheese, rosemary and lemon… The assistant offered me a sample. It was quite simply the best truffle I had ever tasted; dark and velvety with a hint of salt. I groaned Harry and Sally style, and she backed away nervously. Later, I sniffed 1930s perfumes whilst discovering some inter-war social history in one of Odette Toilette’s engaging talks. A swim at Marshall Street’s art-deco baths came next and I tried to concentrate on the cool water rushing over my bare arms and legs. It was welcome on a sultry city day. And to round it all off, I sat in a pew at St Martin-in-the-Fields whilst a passionate, long-haired violinist bowed Vivaldi, and reflections of candlelight cascaded in the windows. It was a perfectly distracting, perfectly rounded day to mark the start of my new life. But grieving is not easily cast aside and the next day I was frustrated to find myself crying in despair at the supermarket checkout.

Paul A Young

Photo: Tom Morris

There were reasons to be cheerful, though, and one in particular was a man I met for the first time under the clock at Waterloo. We’d been introduced via email by a thoughtful mutual friend and I was nervous at this first date in thirty years. I tried to stay cool and present myself as a woman of the world but within minutes I’d blown it. Instead of leading us confidently towards Waterloo Bridge and the lunch he’d booked, I led us confidently into a dustbin area round the back of the station.

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Photo: Oxyman

Things progressed tentatively but positively and after a couple of birthdays together I gave him a present of a five senses day in London: a guided walk around Chelsea’s Arts and Crafts architecture; spectacular food at Borough Market; choosing a new aftershave at Jo Malone on Sloane Street (nutmeg and ginger); an indulgent afternoon at Ironmonger Row spa, and a balmy outdoor performance of Porgy and Bess in Regent’s Park.

The day was such a success that we had a return match for Christmas. This time with 1960s perfume in another of Odette Toilette’s social history talks—hippie patchouli, Kennedy, bachelor girls, and aspirational advertising. Then there was a giddy view of London from the top of the Shard, and later, cocktails at the Ice Bar. The walls are frozen and it’s so cold that they give you insulated cloaks to wear, and gloves to hold the chunks of ice that serve as glasses. We took in the sharp, hot, satisfying flavours of Peruvian food at Ceviche in Soho and then danced in Camden’s Jazz Café as Yolanda Brown played reggae-influenced jazz—a beautiful young woman in a short skirt, totally absorbed in playing her smoky saxophone. I knew my companion would enjoy that.

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Photo: Richard Kaby

And now, several years later, I’m on holiday in Guernsey. Relaxing after a hectic few months and once again trying to make sure I notice at least some of what my senses feed me. There’s the crunch of the pale sands, the fruity sweetness of mango sorbet licked in the cone until my tongue is rough like a cat, the wide open island sunshine reflected from the water all around, the elusive scent of the hedgerow honeysuckle, and best of all—the feel of my new husband’s hand in mine.

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Enough’s Enough

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I’ve had to talk firmly to myself over the past few weeks. Unfortunately, there are plenty of momentous distractions in the UK right now so I’m not concentrating terribly hard on what I’ve got to say. But I must find a way to listen. It’s important.

My problem is that I’ve unwittingly hopped onto a treadmill. And now that I’ve realised my mistake I need to figure out how to get off—it’s exhausting and can only end in tears.

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Since publishing my book, 31 Treats And A Marriage, it’s been gratifying to get positive feedback. Some people seem to have genuinely enjoyed it and I got a lovely write-up on the BBC Arts website.  At one point I was squeezed there between Benedict Cumberbatch and Kazuo Ishiguro—a pretty good place to be.

The trouble is that whilst that’s more than I could have hoped for, it’s a hungry beast to feed. The other day I spotted a good review on Amazon—the pleasure was momentary—then it was straight onto hoping for the next one. A book group told me that they were planning to read 31 Treats—and then there was another—it was all very pleasing but I couldn’t help wondering about the next one.

The drive to keep achieving more is one of the reasons we’re such a successful species. Monkeys don’t push themselves like this. But whilst it’s got plenty of benefits, it’s also a curse. Is the really successful person the one who ticks all the boxes and immediately creates a new set of goals? Or is it the one who finds every bit of success exciting and takes a lasting pleasure in each one for its own sake?

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Shall I find a way to be happy that I’ve met one of my biggest ambitions by writing a book? Or shall I be dissatisfied because I’m never going to win the Pulitzer Prize? And even if I did win it, then the next wish would throw itself into the fray. I’d long for comparisons to Shakespeare—with him coming off worst, of course. A hedonistic treadmill, indeed.

And if I was to reach the absolute pinnacle of my ambitions? Where next?

I could slither down or jump off.

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I did an interview recently with a young actor named Susan Wokoma and we talked about some of the problems of being creative. One, is that it’s hard to know when you’re a success. Out of a hundred people, ninety-five might like your work and five might hate it. But Susan has a calm confidence and talked about realising that her rewards don’t come from impressing people or showing off. What’s important is the intrinsic satisfaction of doing something that she loves.

My chat with her came at just the right time, when I was tussling with my treadmill. It made me realise that I, too, am doing something that I love. Sentences go round in my head all the time and elbow their way out—sometimes at the most inconvenient times. If I stopped writing then I wonder where these sentences would go. I imagine them rioting through the streets or worst of all, lying defeated and lifeless in the gutter before they’ve had the chance to draw breath. I couldn’t let that happen and so would have to write even if I had no audience whatsoever.

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I’m working on my second book now and am becoming intimately acquainted with twelve great English cities. I’m finding out such a lot of interesting things. In Worcester I learned about secret industrial recipes; in Manchester I got to grips with some powerful political history, and far-flung Hull was saturated by the elements and its history of whaling and fishing. All of this was interlaced with the poetry of Philip Larkin. And most recently, in Leicester I set foot tentatively inside a huge white Hindu temple where I was welcomed and allowed to sit quietly and absorb the atmosphere. Every city has many sons of which it is proud, but I am focusing on just one daughter for each; twelve women who have challenged the prevailing constraints of their time. Who knows what might happen with all of this—and does it matter anyway? I need to step off the treadmill and just enjoy the process. After all, I’m busy saving those little sentences from an early demise in the gutter—I’m doing what I love.

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One thing I’m particularly enjoying at the moment is the Chain Interview Project. I’m meeting fascinating people and mining all kinds of stories that I would never find otherwise. I recently interviewed Susan, a young actor. She told me about her work and what’s important to her. It’s an exciting time for her: she’s just started filming a big TV series and at the end of our interview she passed me on to someone who’s played a very important part in her life.