Cracking the Second One-

We are in southern France, attempting to find some vestiges of the summer we felt cheated of in the UK.

I had also meant, whilst here to attempt to get the first draft of Novel 2 knocked off. In the event it’s proving more difficult than I’d imagined, for a number of reasons.

When I wrote the first novel I thought it was hard; now I realise that it was a proverbial walk in the park compared to the wild, flapping, untameable story that is the second book. Novel 1[ The Year of Familiar Strangers] ’s central character is loosely based around a person I knew in the past and many of the episodes in the story are real incidents that only needed a little embellishment, a little alteration, to form the basis of what I still consider to be a ripping yarn. Several of the peripheral characters were also lifted from real life and very little invention was needed. I even had the locations in my head [no surprise that much of it is set in France!].

Novel 2 is as different to 1 as a toothbrush to a vacuum cleaner. All of the characters are inventions. I’ve had to get to know them as the story has progressed, never sure if their actions are true to type or too far-fetched for credibility. The plot continues to escape my direction, twisting and turning and having a mind of its own. The nearer I think I’m getting to the denouement the longer it appears to be taking to crack it. There is a constant need to refer back in the text to ensure continuity and half the time I forget who did what, and when. I want to tie the ends up, bring the threads together in some semblance of logic, a conclusion that leads the reader to say ‘Ah, so that was why/where/ what, but like Alice, every step I take goes in the opposite direction to where I want to go.

A further difficulty is that having chosen to set the novel in the moderately near future and then taking too long to write it leads to ideas getting high-jacked by reality. Did George Orwell have this problem with 1984? I am now loath to tie it down to any date due to the rapid technological developments that are catching up with-and in some instances overtaking those in my novel! This is frustrating-technology moves along faster than my novel-writing! And the future is BIG. HUGE! It is a mistake to try and corral it into a novel.

Choosing to hand-write the last section hasn’t helped. Having visualised sitting in the sun scribbling away and penning the final words with a flourish I’m contending with strong breezes, insects and the lure of cycling, walking and sightseeing. Ah yes-I should be so driven as to eschew such pleasures. This morning we woke to rain, so if you will excuse me I can’t be frittering away my time on frivolous blog-writing; I need to get on before any more innovations come in…

Advertisements

About ‘Nora Webster’

I just finished reading Colm Toibin’s ‘Nora Webster’. Although a companion book to the more commercially viable ‘Brooklyn’ which was made into a film, I found it an altogether more thoughtful and evocative novel.

Set in early sixties Ireland, it is the story of widowed Nora’s journey into some kind of independence and happiness following the death of husband, Maurice.

At the beginning of the novel I felt that Nora’s conservative, narrow way of life had everything to do with her staunch Catholic background but as I read on I began to see that the era in which the story is set was itself an era of conservatism. This will resonate with anyone who was born in the fifties as I was.

The story plays out against a background of the Irish troubles, when TV news footage impacts on Nora’s family life in their jittery responses and constant anxiety.

Nora struggles with bringing up her four children, with money and with every decision, since during her marriage she’d looked to teacher husband, Maurice to decide everything. ‘What would Maurice do/say/choose?’ she asks, constantly. My own mother was the same, an unwaged housewife, leaving every decision for my father to make. Her views, like Nora’s were my father’s views. We all holidayed in his preferred destinations, bought things when he wanted them, agreed with his political viewpoint and his wellbeing was paramount in the family. This, I believe was commonplace in the post-war era.

Nora’s children are her preoccupation, a constant worry as she has to find a job and keep it under some trying circumstances. At first she either relies on advice from family or makes knee-jerk decisions which she then regrets. But gradually she learns to trust her own judgement and gains confidence. She finds joy in the appreciation of music and takes singing lessons.

The older of Nora’s sons exhibits behaviour which we would now realise is autistic, being disruptive in class and obsessing about photography. The behaviour deteriorates in the time after Maurice’s death. One of her daughters, Aine becomes involved in the struggles and the other, Fiona, a student teacher wants to spread her wings and spend money that Nora doesn’t have.

Most of these difficulties are likely to plague any single parent today. Juggling the needs of a family and the imperative to hold down a job is a tricky business. The problems that Nora experiences are no more trivial for the children being older.

Nora is a complex character, reserved but at the same time feisty. I liked how she stood up to a difficult manager at work and manoeuvred herself into a better position. She is constrained by her religion and influenced by the religious figures in her life. In many ways this is a feminist novel. I wish I could say that life is completely different for women today but there are still too many outstanding inequalities to address.

Always Laugh when you can-[Lord Byron]

Laughter, it is said is good for our health. There are also studies that show that sense of humour declines as we age [http://www.belmarrahealth.com/why-your-sense-of-humor-fades-the-older-you-get/].

During a recent programme on the radio a psychologist explained that laughter is fundamentally a means of communication that demonstrates a connection between people. It is true that once you are with someone like minded who shares your sense of humour there is an escalation effect. Years ago [in working life] I attended a drama course which required us to pair up for some activities. Whilst I’d never met my ‘partner’ before she and I became helpless with mirth within moments and continued in this vein for the remainder of the day, no doubt irritating the pants off the course leader.

While I understand the communication element there are plenty of times when I’ve laughed whilst alone. What does this signify? On occasions a book will make me laugh out loud. A particular sequence in a novel called ‘Are You Experienced?’ by William Sutcliffe had this effect on several of us as we underwent a group tour in India. The narrative describes a Bollywood movie showing on a bus and provoked me to tears of hilarity. I am also addicted to YouTube videos of funny animals-one of my favourites a compilation that includes a hen riding on a broom as it is utilised and a particular sweep causing her to lay an egg. For me, even watching alone, the comic effect is undimmed by repeated watching!

I could never have become an actor, since corpsing would be my downfall-was my downfall in working life; meetings were a special source of difficulty. I’ve never lost a particular weakness for slapstick and have an unfortunate tendency to dissolve into hysterics during Punch and Judy shows or anything aimed at children, often discovering I’m alone amongst a mainly po-faced audience.

Alcohol and of course, cannabis are well known to loosen inhibitions and elicit laughter. Years ago at a party I realised too late that I’d over-indulged and was lolling on the host’s lawn convulsed with a fellow reveller when I heard someone nearby asking what their companion would like to drink. ‘Whatever they’re having’ was the reply.

Making comedy is hard. Only comic genius can provoke mirth without seeming contrived. We all have our favourites; ‘Not Only but Also’, ‘Monty Python’ and ‘The Young Ones’ were some of mine, but the sit-com has had its day and many great comedies begin life on the radio. It is all subjective, but big failures for me are manufactured comedy panel games [with the exception of the wonderful ‘I’m Sorry I haven’t a Clue’ and ‘The News Quiz’-both radio offerings] and American rom-coms [my least favourite genre]. In these times of spontaneous video, YouTube and sharing on social networks comedy is becoming more difficult than ever. What is the future of comedy? And what tickles you?

Grace’s Guide to Stress-Busting [at a stressful time of year!]

Many years ago, when I was  young teacher [and yes, I can remember that far back], I underwent some kind of training for something or other [I am vague about this part of the story] during which an older, more experienced ‘old lag’ mentioned that his most commonly used phrase to the students was ‘do your best’. As a new teacher I was happy to adopt others’ ideas and to try out their methods-even to use their phraseology, so I went away and back into my classroom to give ‘do your best’ a go.

On the face of it, ‘do your best’ doesn’t come across as an innovative, pioneering new educational method, does it? It would be unlikely to make a headline in The Times Educational Supplement or be lobbied for in Parliament, yet having tried it out in my own classroom I became an instant convert, finding it useful in a multitude of situations. Can’t find a glue stick? Do your best. Can’t solve the problem? Do your best. Can’t do your laces up? Do your best. Don’t like the person sitting opposite you? Do your best. Teachers of young children often find that while they are attending to one child they are beset by queues of others clamouring for attention. ‘Do your best’ works wonders.

All this was aeons ago, of course, even the final death throes of my career have faded into   the furthest reaches of the back shelves of the memory archives; but ‘do your best’ has not entirely disappeared from my vocabulary-rather it has metamorphosed into another, commonly trotted-out phrase: ‘I’m doing my best’. I advocate this retort to anyone struggling with anything. Behind with getting ready to go out? – ‘I’m doing my best’. Can’t manage the yoga Head-Down-Dog?  Can’t find a gift for your mother in law? Can’t get a novel published? Aha! That last one is complicated!

Then there is ‘I’m doing my best’s’ close relation, ‘I have done my best’; because while ‘reaching-for-the-stars’, ‘living-the-dream’ and all those other epithets for ambition are laudable aspirations only a few can actually say this is what they have done. Excellence is fine, applause, accolades and glory are desirable and fun, but all most people need is to be good enough; to be a good enough parent, an adequate bread-winner, have a comfortable enough home, scrub up well enough for a night out, ensure those around us are happy enough.

So with ‘do your best’ in mind, I would like to wish all readers, visitors, critics, the interested and the disinterested a most relaxing, uneventful, contented, unremarkable but good enough Christmas. Do your best. Don’t worry that you may be not having enough fun. And don’t attempt to change what cannot be changed or attempt what is impossible. That’s all.

Grey-What Does it do for You?

Grey. It’s the colour of the moment.
For one thing, I have just swapped the vibrant, colourful exuberance of the Caribbean for the dull, sombre, grey skies above the UK. It made me wonder what immigrants from hot, sunny climates must make of their first sight of our island country. For grey weather, which we are prey to for long periods of our year renders everything else grey. Trees, vegetation, buildings and people-we are all grey; never mind that we are a ‘green and pleasant land’. It is not at all evident at present.
For another thing, the odious ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’, that best-selling novel which was a sensation, made its lucky ‘writer’ into an immediate millionaire, spawned a brood of follow-ups plus copycat novels and should have been consigned, at best, to the Mills and Boon section of book shops and libraries has been released as a movie. The timing, of course is cynically devised to coincide with Valentine’s Day; the advertising and the accompanying merchandise in your face at every turn. The book, and it its turn the film are said to appeal to mature women. One study, by Michigan State University found that readers were more likely to be in abusive relationships or have drinking or drug problems. A cynic might suggest here that the university was somehow involved in the marketing of the book.
In other areas the ‘grey’ theme continues as, on returning from a holiday, once I have recovered and regained the ability to stand upright to peer into the mirror the inevitable grey roots of hair are apparent, surging through the remaining vestiges of colour as usual. At times like this I envy those who’ve had the courage to ditch the pretence. I almost followed suit two years ago as my 60th approached but was deterred by Husband, who may just have been right on that occasion. Making radical changes to your appearance is not best effected at such a momentous lifetime event.
From time to time the fashion industry conducts a serious campaign to seduce us to buy a lot of grey clothes. It does always work for me-I like grey, especially deep, charcoal grey although as I’ve grown older I’ve begun to realise that the relationship I have with it is not evenly balanced. Grey may not actually be so fond of me.
At the end of the last of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy a significant number of the main characters drift off in pale ships to somewhere called the ‘Grey Havens’. I’ve always wondered what the Grey Havens was. Was it a euphemism for death? After all some of the characters [eg the elves] had traded their immortality to save the world. Poor Frodo, forever injured by a blow from a ring-wraith was also compelled to repair to this mysterious location. Perhaps Tolkien knew something we don’t. Perhaps we all end up there, condemned forever to the grey. Who knows?

I’ve Seen the Future-Now What Was it Again?

I was standing in the middle of our garage. I am normally competent at looking for items but this time I was at a loss. During my autumn 2014 incarceration [which is documented in a previous post] a number of objects have made mysterious moves to different locations. My beloved kitchen steps, purchased by myself as a tailor-made solution to being vertically challenged had undergone a change for a different set. Husband’s initial response to an enquiry as to the whereabouts of said steps was that ‘These are better’, but a pursuit of the subject revealed that my own, preferred steps had found their way into the camper van and been replaced by these, unsuitable, usurper steps. Hmph!

To continue, I had a small hand brush in my hand and was searching for something. What was it? I could not say. I knew what it looked like. I also knew that I would need to ask Husband, who has undertaken some item location changes, where it was. But this presented a problem. How could I ask him? Because, reader, I could not think of the word for it. Horrors! I stood. I thought. The word was there, within my clutches but just out of reach, taunting me. It was no good. I would have to succumb to the humiliating act of describing the object I was seeking.

Husband was outside on the patio. We’d been removing the tiny, Brussel-sprout shaped Christmas tree that has survived its third festive period inside the house and whilst being removed to its outside home had dumped large quantities of soil en route-hence the search for the ‘thing’.

I waved the brush at him as an opening gambit.

‘Where’s the…thing?’

‘I don’t know what you mean. What are you looking for?’ This was my question. What was I looking for?

‘The thing. You know.’

‘I don’t know. What do you want?’

I sighed. I would have to describe it. ‘The sweeping-into thingy. It goes with the brush.’

He straightened. ‘The dustpan.’

Dustpan. The word streamed into my brain like a flood. Of course. How could I not have known it? Dustpan. I was horrified. The words ‘senile dementia’ flashed in alarm where ‘dustpan’ should have been.

Words constantly flee from my mind like this, provoking a combination of pity, laughter and derision from those who share my home. I also repeat myself, a trait which elicits frustration. Both of these habits are symptoms of dementia.

One of my hit reads of 2014 was Emma Healey’s brilliant ‘Elizabeth is Missing’, narrated by a very elderly woman, Maud, who suffers from senile dementia. The book is both tragic and comic and I alternated between laughter and near tears while reading it. The long suffering carers who make daily visits to Maud’s home are unerringly kind. If a long, slow plunge into senility is to be my fate I do hope those whose misfortune it is to care for me are as humane as they are!

Ditch the Lifestyle Advice-It’s all Here with Grace’s Guide

I don’t make resolutions. I may have done so in the long, distant past, but some previous experience must have taught me that such determinations are bound to fail.

This does not prevent everywhere and everything else bombarding you with encouraging and/or harassing messages. Facebook, for instance has many well-meaning souls posting up urgent lists of to-do and not to-do. TV adverts are choc full of well-intentioned exhortations-‘STOP SMOKING’, ‘LOSE WEIGHT’, ‘GET RUNNING’, ‘EAT BUTTER’, ‘DON’T EAT BUTTER’, ‘5 WAYS TO IMPROVE YOUR WILLPOWER’, ‘GYM MEMBERSHIP OFFER’, ‘START COLLECTING’, ‘TAKE CONTROL OF YOUR LIFE’-blah blah…

The trick, as far as I am concerned is to begin any ‘life changes’ you want to make as soon as you are ready, ie now, next week, on August 14th or never, if that is what suits. I gave up smoking during a memorable mini-break in Barcelona with Husband one Easter, resulting in some explosive differences of opinion-one in the middle of a busy thoroughfare as I recall.

I used to be a runner. I began running one random morning, early, before anyone else was awake. I started with a miniscule stumble around the block. Years later I was regularly running ten miles, until injury broke in and stole the party. I happened to be jogging along the promenade one New Year’s day and met some ex-colleagues out walking. ‘New Year’s resolution?’ one suggested, provoking an affront that only an increase in pace and distance could assuage. I’d been running every day for about twenty years by then.

Rather than pledging lofty and unachievable goals I prefer to make myself suggestions. I think, ‘I might take up yoga’ this year, or ‘I might get back to my abandoned novel’, or ‘I could clear out those outgrown and outdated clothing items’. See what I mean? This way you don’t set yourself up for failure. It might happen; or it might not.

Another strategy is to qualify resolutions by adding ‘continue to’, as in ‘I will continue to walk to the shops if there isn’t a hurricane raging’ or ‘I will continue to reply to emails within the month in which they arrive’. As you see, I don’t try to make it too difficult. I’m not aiming to fail. Sometime during this weekend I just might take a look at the website for a new gym that opened towards the end of last year [matching my strategy very nicely] and I might even look for a yoga class to attend-but then again I may not have time.

So there you have it. Tried and tested lifestyle advice. My New Year’s gift to readers. Some people pay a fortune to lifestyle gurus to know how to improve their lives, be better, richer, healthier, thinner and happier. More fool them!