The Strangest Treat of All

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This week I got out my pink highlighter pen and crossed another treat off my list. Each time I do this I get a rush of satisfaction from solving a mystery. When I made the list six years ago, I had no idea how each of these sixty wishes would come to fruition and what the experiences would be like. I recounted the stories of thirty-one of them in 31 Treats And A Marriage, and since then I’ve carried on enjoying the remaining twenty-nine. I’ve done most of the at-home or close-to-home ones like horse riding lessons, planting some old-fashioned roses, and reading Middlemarch but there are still thirteen left and they include more demanding adventures such as Japan and an American train journey. Some are already in progress; I’m part-way round the glorious 630-mile South West Coastal Footpath, and can hardly wait to resume it next weekend after a break for the winter.

As each treat goes through metamorphosis from unknown prospect to memory, its personality is revealed and the mystery is solved. By then I know where it fitted in, and what it was like. In the beginning, they were simply things that I wanted to do whilst I was still fit enough to do them but I had no fixed plans. And that turned out to be lucky, as soon after, my life turned into a stormy sea that heaved with overwhelming events. During that time, the treats provided an anchor. Thankfully, life is much calmer now and the sun has come out.

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One of the remaining twenty-nine treats has been to ‘get a clock with a nice tick.’ That ended up on the list because
as a teenager I sometimes stayed with friends in Edinburgh. They had lived in their large, elegant Morningside villa for many years and it felt solid and established. I particularly loved coming back after an evening out when the house would be dark and quiet, apart from the sound of an old clock ticking. It was reassuring and homely.

I did have a clock of my own for many years but we had a tetchy relationship; I got it overhauled several times but it stubbornly refused to work reliably and was an ongoing source of frustration. Eventually I gave up and sent it to auction, where it failed to sell and so the auctioneer disposed of it. That was the end of an unhappy horological affair but I still wanted to fulfil my treat and find a clock that was a source of pleasure. As always, I had no fixed plans so I put the idea on hold. Then one day, last autumn, I was helping my new husband clear out his loft. We opened a cardboard box and there inside was a wooden mantle clock. It didn’t look particularly exciting and he couldn’t remember where it had come from, or even if it had ever worked. We wound it and did a bit of tentative exploration; we gave a little push on the pendulum and it moved back and forth a few times, and then stopped. We tried again but it clearly didn’t want to be coaxed back to life so it sat for several months in a dark corner while we ignored it. Then one morning I woke up with a rush of enthusiasm. I looked on the British Horological Institute website to find the nearest accredited clockmaker, put the clock in a shopping bag, and drove across the city to a dark little shop in uncharted territories.

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The clockmaker was elderly and wore fine wire-rimmed glasses just as I’d imagined. He didn’t say much first of all, but fiddled deftly around inside the clock. “Is it worth repairing?” I asked. “And how much will it cost?” “I can certainly get it working,” he said. “It’ll be about three hundred and fifty pounds.” “Hmm,” I said, as I couldn’t think of anything more sensible.

We chatted for several minutes about similar clocks that he’d mended and I started to adjust to the idea of spending quite a bit of money. Then he said, “Listen.” And in amongst all the various tick tocks in the shop I heard a calm, mellow tick tock right in front of me. He delved back inside. “And now listen.” There was a pleasing sound of mechanical whirring and anticipatory positioning and then the clock struck five. It didn’t matter that it was actually ten past eleven in the morning. What mattered was that I liked the sound very much. “Look,” he said. “I’ll be honest with you. I’m very busy at the moment. Several other clockmakers in the area have retired so it might take me a couple of months to get around to yours. But I think you might find that it’s alright–it’s still ticking. Strap it carefully into the car with a seatbelt and see how you get on. You can always bring it back to me.”

So that’s what I did. I took it home and placed it on the mantelpiece. To my surprise it looked just right. I set the pendulum going again and moved the hands carefully until they were synchronised with the chimes. My husband came home later and it was still ticking away–a new, comfortable texture in our home.

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Now, several weeks into my relationship with the clock, it feels like a member of the family. I love to hear it work itself up towards the restrained quarter-hour chimes and then the big bongs on the hour. But sometimes it’s a bit too noisy and I’m glad of the little switch that silences the chimes. We use that if we’re listening to music or watching television. And the other night my husband got up and closed the sitting room door as the ticking was keeping him awake. He said it was nice to know it was there, but it was a bit like shutting a bedroom door on a snoring baby. I’m gradually learning its habits. It needs winding more often than the clockmaker suggested but other than that, it’s undemanding and we’re both delighted with it.

In one way it was the most easily accomplished of all my treats as it just appeared in my life, unannounced. But in another way, it was the most difficult of all. I had to get divorced… go on a writing retreat where I shared a room with an interesting woman… who introduced me to her friend who is another interesting woman… who introduced me to a very lovely and interesting man… who asked me to marry him…and then I helped him clear out his loft. Easy really. And so that’s another mystery solved.

new clock

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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.

shakespeare

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.

manchester

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.

System Overload

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I like my neighbourhood very much but one of the disadvantages of living in a terrace is that it’s rarely possible to park outside our house. We often have to resort to the next street and sometimes this causes problems. Fortunately, our neighbours have dogs and regularly walk to and from the park. They’re impressively observant as several times they’ve spotted Mike or me wandering along vacantly trying to locate our cars, and have pointed us in the right direction.

This week, though, there have been many things to occupy my mind other than parking spaces. The most important of these is that Frank is in hospital. I’ve written before (in The Old Man and the Pea), about this rather wonderful 96-year old gentleman who last summer came to live with us. Five weeks ago he was admitted to hospital with stomach pains and then he got pneumonia. It’s very upsetting for him as he’s almost blind and matters are not improved by the fact that his hearing aid has disappeared. We think it got caught up in his bedding. His beloved talking watch has also gone. It probably went down the same laundry-oriented route. However, he does press the button every five minutes so we can’t discount the possibility that a fellow patient got fed up with the continual updates and disposed of it for him.  We’ve bought a replacement that he can use at home but for now, he is without it.

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It’s hard seeing him in hospital as he is so disoriented. The other day I went in just as two nurses were changing him, and he looked so small lying there. I felt compelled to tell them that this frail, confused man once took an engineering maths exam and got the highest result in the whole of South Africa. My comment was no criticism of the staff, incidentally, as it’s been heartening to see the kindness and respect that they show to patients even when dealing with challenging behaviour.

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We hope to get Frank home soon but his care needs have increased and we’ve had a number of conversations with the occupational therapy team about new equipment. He needs a pressure-relieving mattress, a special cushion for his chair, a frame to go round the toilet and an alarm to warn us if he gets up at night. There’s a lot to consider.

Something else to think about is our forthcoming move. This should be happening in about three months after the new house is  renovated. Currently it’s a building site. We’ve cleared the overstuffed loft, disposed of the old appliances, and had many, many trips to the tip and charity shop. Now we’re into the stage of constant questions from the builders. It’s exciting but there are so many decisions to make: kitchen units; bannister rails; door handles; sinks; windows, paint—my head feels full.

construction

The other big thing that has preoccupied me this week is the birth of 31 Treats And A Marriage; my first book. It was published on Tuesday and is something I’ve been working towards for over four years. That morning my editor emailed and reminded me that I should post something on Facebook. But because of this ‘full head’ problem I couldn’t think what to say. I couldn’t even remember how to put up a post. Then after a bowl of porridge and a strong coffee, I got some perspective. An elderly gentleman, a house that’s a building site, and a book launch are a lot less demanding than previous bouts of juggling. The most challenging memories are those when I had four children at four different schools, a stressed-out commuting husband, an acre of out-of-control garden, and a pair of goats who spent every spare moment plotting their escape. These are all in the book together with plenty of things that made me laugh, and plenty more that didn’t.

goat

Eventually I managed to post something. The day improved as the book crept up the ratings and by the evening it was number one in its category on Amazon. Suddenly it all seemed very real. Then Amazon went into its own kind of system overload. It uses a complicated algorithm to work out how much stock to keep and when demand exceeds this then it puts up a message that says ‘temporarily unavailable’. If you were thinking of ordering a copy then please don’t let this put you off. It should get resolved quite quickly anyway, but will undoubtedly be helped by people placing orders. Click here for the link.

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That evening after all the palaver, Mike took me out to a New Forest pub to celebrate. It was old with atmospheric woody corners and the air was full of a fishy deliciousness. We had a happy few hours and managed for the most part to keep off the subject of juggling. But as we got back, the day’s concerns sidled in again. We drove past our house and into the next road looking for somewhere to park. ‘I must have a good look for my car, tomorrow,’ said Mike. ‘I don’t know where it is.’ We both stared blankly into the darkness ahead.

Then I had a moment of clarity. ‘I know where your car is,’ I said. ‘We’re in it.’

Thank you to everyone who has sent such supportive and kind messages about the book. I hope you enjoy it. And I hope, too, that the system overloads for me, Mike and Amazon are quickly resolved. Winter2012

Murder, Blackmail and Other Stuff

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“Mum,” said Henry the other day, giving me an odd look, “Is everything alright?” “Yes fine,” I said, briskly. “Why?” “It’s just that I was in the kitchen and happened to look at your list. It said, Clean bathroom—Hang out washing—Buy anti-snoring device—Get fence mended—Murder!”

By the latter part of this week, I’d done all of those things and had a new list: Take parcels to post office—Contact dentist—Ring Barbara—Buy vitamin tablets—Blackmail.

Blackmail

This week in amongst various other activities, I’ve completed Treat Number 41: watching Alfred Hitchcock’s films. A couple are lost but fifty-two have survived and I’ve now seen them all. There’s a wide range: from 1925 to 1976; silent to talkie; black and white to technicolour; horror to musical; British to American; outstanding to relatively forgettable, and Blackmail to Murder! The exclamation mark is Hitchcock’s not mine.

I watched most of these films on my own, often in moments when I should have been doing something else. They felt like stolen treasure. And as so often with treats, this one spread its wings beyond the original idea. I read Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Hitchcock, and went to the cinema to see the recent documentary about the Truffaut interviews. There’s the enjoyment, too, that comes from sharing the enthusiasm with friends. Alan, if you’re reading this, I look forward to continuing the conversation we started last year. I’m now better informed so will have more to say.

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The highs and the lows? Those that made the least impact were Jamaica Inn, Secret Agent, The Paradine Case, Under Capricorn, Juno and the Paycock, and Family Plot. But there were plenty of pleasures amongst the rest. Favourites include The Lady Vanishes (the true star is a steam train which puffs its way through pre-Second World War Europe), The Wrong Man (based on the true story of a decent man who is wrongly convicted of armed robbery and is played impeccably by a dazed Henry Fonda), Shadow of a Doubt (a strong plot and possibly Hitchcock’s own favourite), The Manxman (a powerful silent film about a love triangle) and Sabotage (engaging scenes of pre-war London and a moment that leaves you reeling. Even Hitchcock wondered whether he’d gone too far). But it’s Vertigo that I love best. I went to see it at our local Picturehouse cinema recently and the images, music and plot haunted me for days afterwards.

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One of the intriguing things about Hitchcock is that he didn’t always provide audiences with feel-good endings. Some of his films have shocking final scenes. Another is his use of suspense. Psycho and The Birds make audiences scream, but in many of his works the hooks are more subtle. In the silent film Easy Virtue, adapted from a Noel Coward play, there’s a scene where the audience knows that a man is phoning his girlfriend in order to propose. Hitchcock chose not to show these characters at this point, but instead filmed a telephonist who listens in on the phone call. Her expression reveals what’s happening and builds suspense while both she and the man wait for the girlfriend to make her mind up.

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Like most creative geniuses, Hitchcock had some unusual habits. One of the oddest was that every day on set he would drink his tea and then throw the cup and saucer over his shoulder. He had complex attitudes towards his leading ladies and he almost certainly had crushes on a number of them including, famously, Tippi Hedren. But in spite of that he was devoted to his wife Alma Reville who was just one day younger than him. He trusted her judgement implicitly and she worked on many of his projects as a screenwriter and editor.  They got engaged after he proposed to her during a terrible storm at sea. She was prostrate with seasickness and told their daughter years later that ‘I was too sick to lift my head off the pillow. I groaned, nodded my head, and burped.’ They were married for fifty-three years and she was lost when he died, as he would have been had she gone first.

A number of themes crop up again and again in Hitchcock’s films: trains, dominant mothers, secret lives, likeable criminals, obsession, murder, and blonde women. He also loved dogs so if one of his characters owns a dog it’s a strong clue that they’re of sound character.

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And just like Hitchcock, all writers have themes that preoccupy them. Hemingway’s include fear, guilt, betrayal and loss. For Hardy, it’s the damage caused by social constraints, and the role of chance in people’s lives. And JK Rowling’s writing centres around themes of mortality and morality.

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Within the next fortnight, I shall become a published author too, so I’ve had a think about what my preoccupations might be. At the moment I’d say they are individual differences, coping and the unexpected twists and turns of life. Lists crop up a lot too. 31 Treats And A Marriage will be available through Amazon and other booksellers by the end of the first week in May. My previous post has a link to an audio recording of the prologue. If you’d like some more you can listen to Chapter One. Just click here. I do hope that you enjoy it.

The Politeness of Treats

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Last week I reached the end of a long walk. The North Downs Way stretches 153 miles from commuter-belt Surrey to the English Channel and I’ve been walking it in stages for over four years. Put like that, I seem a slow walker. But a lot has happened along the way. I’ve not only walked from Farnham to Dover; I’ve walked into a new life.

It was one of the first treats that I started, chosen because it was the nearest of the UK’s fifteen National Trails. I love the mystery of a long walk; you never quite know what’s going to unfold beyond that bend in the distance.  There are plenty of other pleasures, too: the landscape changes constantly; you have to watch out for the direction markers so it’s a bit like a puzzle, and it’s a perfect opportunity to think. Much of the North Downs Way coincides with the ancient Pilgrims’ Way: the route from Winchester to Thomas Becket’s shrine at Canterbury Cathedral. And at times, in the ancient broadleaf woodlands I felt so far removed from modern life that it would have been no surprise to bump into a silent, brown-robed monk.

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I shared some stages with family and friends. These were chatty and companionable. But other stages were solitary and helped me to think my way round some tangled issues. Wordsworth is well-known as a contemplative walker and is estimated to have walked about 180,000 miles. In The Art of Walking, Christopher Morley says that ‘cross-country walks for the pure delight of rhythmically placing one foot before the other were rare before Wordsworth. I always think of him as one of the first to employ his legs as an instrument of philosophy.’ The South West Coastal Footpath is also on my list and providing my knees hold out, I’m hoping for some stunning days of walking around the very edges of Dorset, Devon and Cornwall. There’s much more to be said about walking, but this isn’t the point of today’s post, so I’ll save it for another day. Instead I want to think about the difference between treats and goals.

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When I made my list, all the stages of the North Downs Way were quite accessible as day trips. But then I moved to another part of the country and it became more of a challenge. I managed some stages last summer, and eventually, there was just the final stretch left. The excuses of the winter came and went and then I got an image in my head of walking through fields with Henry, my younger son, and the English Channel coming into sight. He was happy to join me but finding a day we could both do was the first hurdle, and we postponed several times. When the agreed day finally came, we set off from home at 7.30am and with dire traffic it was midday before we were at the starting point. It was all quite an effort and I began to feel that I was doing it because it was on a list and needed to be ticked off.

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But later as I sat high on the headland with my son, I had a moment of clarity. The Spring sunshine scattered diamonds on the water; the chalky cliffs of Dover were to our left and the transport hub of Folkestone bustled to our right. We ate sandwiches made from Henry’s homemade bread, drank lukewarm coffee, and chatted easily. I realised in that moment exactly what it is about a treat that makes it so different from a goal.dover

Goals are in your face. They’re the kind of guys that spout management jargon and make you feel bad about yourself because you’re never quite up to scratch; qualifications—deadlines—efficiency—success. Goals are necessary to some extent, but they’re voracious feeders. Tick one off to keep it quiet and there’s another one screaming at you. Treats are quite different. They hang back politely in the shadows and defer to the goals. They wait to be granted permission to step forward, and often get neglected. Sometimes they’re just the germ of an idea or desire but give them a chance and they’ll blossom. They’re the things that allow us to express our individuality and to grow into our real selves.

I’ve got many memories from my day of walking with Henry. There was the moment when we stood high on the cliffs above Folkestone and looked down as a train disappeared into the earth at the start of the Channel Tunnel.  It was strangely thrilling to think that it would emerge in a different country. Another moment was realising, when stuck in traffic, that I had my son’s company and so the time was not wasted. And when we arrived in Dover we needed to make our way back to the car. ‘When’s the next train to Folkestone?’ I asked the ticket clerk at the station. ‘September or October,’ she said. We hadn’t heard that the line got swept away in the Christmas storms. So we got a bus instead.

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I’ve many impressions, too, of other stages of the walk. Dappled woodlands, quiet lanes, steep climbs, streams, lakes, brick viaducts, Neolithic burial chambers, sheep, bulls, thatched cottages, ugly developments, quarries, vineyards, fly tipping, primroses, bluebells, barns, chapels, the noise of the Medway Bridge traffic, cake, being elated, being sad…  On one of my walks I forgot to take any money. Solving that problem gave me confidence, as did walking alone. There were obvious pleasures and benefits but there were subtle, unexpected ones too. It was a multi-layered experience. And a true treat.

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Photo: Del Malcolm

A final word – it’s now less than a month until the publication of 31 Treats And A Marriage. You can have a taster if you want—click here for an audio file of the prologue. I hope you enjoy it and that you like the music too. It was specially composed and performed by Henry.

Hoarding Stories

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In the past ten years or so, I’ve moved house five times and now it won’t be long until I move again. Several of those moves have involved significant downsizing and each time I’ve pruned my worldly goods a bit harder. But now as I edge into a new phase I’ve become even more ruthless. Unless an object is useful, beautiful or of genuine sentimental value, it goes. I’m trying to rid myself of delusions about what I will use, wear, read, watch or listen to in the future.

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Fantasies about what we might be or do are a justification for holding onto things but so is the need to leave a trace. Without tangible reminders then there’s no proof that we ever existed. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently since my friend, Helen, told me a story. She was helping one of her friends to clear some space and found a whole room full of memory boxes, each labelled with a different year. “Let’s look at this,” said Helen, lifting the lid on the one marked ‘2002’. At the top was a Motorola manual. “Have you still got the phone?” asked Helen. “No,” was the answer “but it might come in handy. I’ll keep that”. Then came several dental appointment cards. There were cinema tickets, too. The name of the film had faded past recognition but the fact that they’d been part of an Orange 2-for-1 deal was still legible. “I’ll hang onto those,” said the friend grabbing them, protectively. Next out of the box was a leaflet for the sexual health clinic. “You surely don’t want that, do you?” enquired Helen. The answer was inevitable.

I’ve found a different way to prove my existence to myself; I’ve written a book. Four and a half years ago I set out to have sixty treats before I was sixty. At that stage it was just a way of reconnecting with life. Many things had been on hold while I’d raised children and dealt with a few tricky blips. Each treat sat in the wings of my list like characters in a play and I didn’t know when they would step on-stage. But very soon after the first character, ‘Tate Liverpool’, spoke up, I realised that these were going to be rich experiences. Each was valuable because they were all things I’d longed to do, and I wanted to find a way to pin them down before they slipped back into the dark corners of the wings from which they’d come.

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Three hundred years ago, young aristocrats on their Grand Tours of Europe would commission artists to record what they saw. Today we rely on photos. But that was never going to work for me as I’m a haphazard photographer. And even when I remember to point my camera in the right direction, they’re only a partial record. Photos can’t recount stories of the people I met, the information I discovered, the smells and tastes I experienced, and the unscheduled branch lines I darted down. Only words can do that. I mostly eschewed souvenirs too. That’s just a further route to ‘stuffocation’. So, what I did was to make some notes.

Then after six months something unexpected and devastating affected my world and I was thrown off balance. It was a great support to have family and friends but I knew that ultimately I had to create my own path through the chaos. So I turned to the characters who were waiting in the wings and like the best of friends, they revealed hidden depths in a crisis. ‘New York’ was a sassy friend who took me out and provided stimulating distraction. ‘Italian cookery’ cajoled me to eat when everything tasted like cardboard and ‘Riding’ provided a moment when the sheer physicality of being on a horse counterbalanced the unhappiness and I tipped into joy.

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Throughout all of this I kept jotting down notes and gradually those notes became a few chapters. And somehow by a miraculous process, those chapters grew into a book. We all have certain things that grate on us and mine are the words ‘feisty’ and ‘suited and booted’. I’ve avoided those. Nor have I said anywhere that I’ve ‘been on a journey’ unless I have physically moved from one place to another. And I’ve been authentic to the best of my ability. Blagging only gets you into trouble as the novelist Ruth Rendell discovered. When she was a young journalist she filed a story about a local tennis club dinner and said that everyone there had thoroughly enjoyed it. The problem was that she’d failed to attend and therefore also failed to mention that the after-dinner speaker had collapsed and died half-way through the speech.

Now, at last after many stages the book is finished and next week I’ll receive the first printed copy complete with illustrations by the talented artist, Jo Dalton. I’d be delighted if some of you would read it when it’s published in May. And if you do then I hope that you’ll find something you can relate to from within the mixed hoard of stories.

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A Difference of Opinion

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Last week I went to see the film, Suffragette. I thought it was understated and moving, and it reminded me of the debt that we all owe to the brave women who fought for a fairer society. The film ends with the death of Emily Wilding Davison who threw herself in front of the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913. But that was not the end of the fight; this particular battle for equality was protracted and fierce—it took until 1928 for women in Great Britain and Northern Ireland to be granted equal voting rights with men.

At the end of the film, the audience is reminded that this was an international struggle, and many countries were slower than the United Kingdom in giving women the vote. The International Woman Suffrage Alliance was formed in 1904 but it took until 1971 for Swiss women to be granted suffrage, and Saudi women have only, this year, been promised the vote.

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The film also reminded me of something I learned when I visited the Statue of Liberty a few years ago. Her official name is ‘Liberty Enlightening the World’, and she was donated to New York by the French in recognition of the friendship that was established between France and America during the American Revolution. The dedication ceremony for the statue took place in 1886, but despite the overt femininity of this symbol of liberty, women were banned from attending. Outraged suffragettes responded by hiring boats and bellowing through megaphones that even if Liberty were able to get off her pedestal, she would not be allowed to vote in either France or America. American women got the vote on equal terms with men in 1920, but their French sisters had to wait until 1944.

pork pie hatAnother story that is not referred to in the film is that of The Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League. This was formed in 1908 by women who opposed women getting voting rights. Over the next ten years more than a hundred branches were established throughout the UK and there were large demonstrations where women protested that they did not want the vote. The League depicted suffragettes as ugly and masculine, and with a tendency to wear unflattering pork-pie hats. Surprisingly the League garnered support from some women who were active in extending other kinds of female rights. These included Elizabeth Wordsworth, the founding Principal of the Oxford women’s college, Lady Margaret Hall. Anti-suffrage campaigners were content for women to get the vote in local elections as these were concerned with feminine-friendly issues such as education. But matters that were debated on a national platform, such as international relations and war, were considered outside the acceptable scope of feminine influence. The fear was that women would become masculinised if they were to become involved, and then men would be unwilling to marry them.

It seems to me that whatever you think, there will be someone who disagrees with you; politics, religion, philosophy, history, human rights, you name it—there are many potential angles. And the life blood of culture is that its interpretation is subject to opinion. Fashion, for example, thrives on pushing boundaries and provoking debate. Molly adores clothes and used to love reading what we called the ‘Poor Thing’ column; a regular fashion article in a national newspaper which took six women and put them in various ‘stylish’ outfits. Almost always, we would look at these women and say that if we saw them in the street dressed like that we would feel very sorry for them. This is how it came to be called the ‘Poor Thing’ column.

fashion

Book groups, too, thrive on disagreement. I’ve belonged to several groups in the past and on occasion I’ve admired and loved a book so much that I couldn’t imagine that anyone would dislike it. Rohinton Mistry’s, ‘A Fine Balance’ was a case in question. A rich tapestry of Indian society, it captivated me, but sure enough whilst some in the group shared my view, there were others who thoroughly disliked it. And then there was Iris Murdoch’s, ‘The Sea The Sea’ which I found intolerably tedious. That got high ratings in the group.

I am soon going to be at the critical coalface myself, as my book ’31 Treats And A Marriage’ is in the final stages of preparation and will be published at the end of the Spring. I shall have to harden myself to criticism. I hope that many people will like it but there is no getting away from the fact that some people will not. It’s just the way things are.

Dorothy Parker

But at least I won’t have to face the humiliation of being reviewed by the acerbic Dorothy Parker, pictured above. In 1925 she started writing book reviews in the New Yorker under the name ‘Constant Reader’ and they were said to delight everyone except the unfortunate authors. She found A.A. Milne’s,,’The House at Pooh Corner’ sugary, and wrote that ‘Tonstant Weader Fwowed up’ after reading it.

Undeterred by these concerns, I’ve enjoyed the process of writing my first book so much that I’ve recently started on my second one. This combines visits to English cities with the stories of women who for a range of reasons have had to push against the constraints of society. It’s still open to debate but I think there will be a suffragette somewhere in there.

suffragette sophia singh

‘What’s your blog about this time?’ asked Molly’s boyfriend.                                                ‘Disagreement’, I replied. ‘Whatever you say there will always be someone who disagrees.’               ‘No there won’t,’ he said with a naughty grin.