Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Resolution Road

It's nearly upon us, New Year, and with New Year comes New Year's Resolutions. Our annual character self-assassination. Regret-soaked promises to change for the better. Our vows to work harder at being perfect, become a 21st century interpretation of Michelangelo's David, ideal in every way, golden in proportion, honed, serene, and universally venerated. We stare at our bloated, tired, pallid bodies in the mirror, repulsed and guilt-ridden, then slavishly hang, draw and quarter ourselves, piece by piece. We all do it; it's mass flagellation of the highest order. And so then the bacchanalian orgy of eating, drinking, loving, fighting, and slobbing that is Christmas is replaced overnight with a puritanical knee-jerk instigation of starvation, teetotalism, and an exercise regime that would suit an Olympic athlete. We vow not to swear. Instead we will enrich our conversation with a new word learnt each day from the Oxford English Dictionary. We must work harder whilst simultaneously spending more time with the family. We will cook from scratch. Every day. Out damned pizza! Be gone ye cheating ready meals! The pure, addictive EVIL that is chocolate will forevermore be replaced with broccoli, grilled chicken, and celery. We must have more sex. Or less. We must moan less, laugh more, vegetate less, read more, and we must absolutely, definitely, cross-our-hearts-and-hope-to die, stick-a-needle-in-the-eye, NOT watch Britain's Got Talent...

On Saturday my resolutions will be as follows:

1     I will not eat anything with sugar in it, so will be two stone lighter by March.
2     I will run three miles five times a week, so will be two stone lighter by March.
3     I will limit Twitter usage to ten minutes per day.
4     I will listen to, and heed, the advice given to me by those wiser than I.
5     I will not shout at my children. At all. No matter what they do. Even if they walk muddy boots through the house just after I've mopped the floor. Yep. No shouting. None.

Mark Twain, a man far wiser than I, once wrote:

New Year's now the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.

So with some careful searching through the words of those wiser than I, then listening to, and heeding, the advice (and therefore fully abiding by Resolution Number 4), I can happily restart scoffing chocs, slobbing, Tweeting, and shouting on Monday 2nd January 2012, safe in the knowledge that keeping to one of my five resolutions will absolutely, definitely, bring me closer to that David-esque ideal. Brilliant!!

Happy New Year! xx

Monday, 19 December 2011

There's Always Gin...

The bread and cranberry sauces are made and in the freezer (Delia said it's okay, so panic not). An army of mincepies sit patiently in cake tins. And I've just ordered my husband's present, which should (fingers crossed) arrive on the 24th. There are, however, a few things I need to do, for example, restock the advent calendar. We have one of those ones you re-use year-on-year, a twee plywood Victorian townhouse with little drawers to fill with chocolates. I raided days 21 onwards last night (the chocolate called to me relentlessly from nine pm; little muffled clamouring that I wasn't strong enough to ignore). I need to ice the cake and make the brandy butter, but otherwise I am, most would note (possibly with a little envy), really quite organised. This is unusual. Organisation is a gene I don't possess. I forget assemblies, I run out of milk, I'm always the last one through the school gate in the morning, I double book social events, I forget to wash uniform...the list of errors in the ridiculous chaos that is my life is endless. So, unsurprisingly, as well as the sauces in the freezer there is also a pile of unsent birthday thank you cards written by my two oldest children three weeks ago that I failed to send on, my godchildren's presents still sit, unposted, in carrier bags in the hallway, and I have just announced that we are replacing Happy Christmas cards with Happy 2012 cards. (I am peddling the line that this is a statement of my individuality, a small rebellion if you like. We all know the truth...)

However, I have had to work hard to battle this innate disorganistion, because, on paper, the next ten days look horrendous. The family (my parents, grandmother, and sister's crowd) are coming to us on Christmas Day, we have friends for supper on Boxing Day, three families joining us on the 29th, and four families, staying (yes, staying) on New Year's Eve. It's a social train wreck. I predict death and destruction (my husband's death, my sanity's destruction). But rather than panic I have frozen the sauces. I have also remembered to have my annual haircut, then if all else goes tits-up at least my hair will look good. And anyway, my mother likes me coiffed, it's actually her ideal Christmas present: me, coiffed and not weaing my muddy old jeans. (Happy Christmas, Mum!). Slight problem with the haircut: while I was resolutely ignoring the grumpy old crone, with her frightful, pale and tired-looking face, staring out from the mirror in front of me, I lost concentration and, without thinking properly, said to the teenage colourist the fatal words: "Do something Christmassy. Something fun. Suprise me!" I should have noticed the glint in her eye, the gleeful set of her mouth, the speed with which she dashed off to prepare the colours for my highlights. When I opened my eyes three hours later the old crone had pinkish stripes in her hair, a cross between a tabby cat and Amelia Lily, only with wrinkles. More worryingly the old crone appeared to be me.

So with frozen sauces, pink hair, and the spectre of Christmas cards removed, I am ready, as ready as I'll be. The only thing left to worry about is the bird. I had no idea how expensive a free-range Turkey was. I have remortgaged the house to pay for ours. I presume the beast was fed exclusively on smoked salmon, caviar and lobster tails, that it slept in a gilded nest on the top floor of the Savoy Hotel with views of Buckingham Palace, and was treated to daily massages with it's best friend, Wagyu Cow. Considering I think I prefer chicken to turkey anyway, the knowledge that I could have bought two chooks for a fifth of the price of this Prince of Birds is weighing heavily. Will the damn thing fit in the oven? Will I overcook it? Will I drop it? The pressure is tampering with my hairdo. If I had one wish, it would be that I was the Queen or Victoria Beckham, and had Delia on speed dial. I'm not and I don't, so I suppose it's just old fashioned hope and a very large glass of gin.

Happy Christmas! I hope you get a good walk in, enjoy the Ab Fab Christmas special and get at least one purple one from the Quality Street tin.

See you on the other side...

Monday, 12 December 2011

Aliens, Machine Guns & Severed Fingers

Last week, whilst helping out at school, my sister heard a teacher say the following: "would the two shepherds at the front PLEASE stop using their crooks as machine guns." You gotta love nativity plays. A few days previously, my smallest daughter was due to find out what part she was playing in her primary school's production of that well-known classic: Christmas with the Aliens. With her cousin as the Angel Gabriel in her own school play a few miles down the road, my smallest had high hopes. Another Angel Gabe? The Christmas star? Maybe, even, (fingers tightly crossed), Mary...

As soon as I arrived to pick her up from school I could tell things weren't quite right. "Are you okay?" I asked.
She shook her head, her face contorted into that cartoonish sad-mouth that only small children can carry off. "I don't like what I am in the play."
"What are you?"
"I...I'm..." There was a long pause, followed by a dramatic palms-over-face, and finally a banshee wail. "I'm...a...CHHIICCKENNNN!"
This drama-queen gene is carried by all the women in our family, including myself, so I had full sympathy. I swallowed my laughter, gathered her on to my lap and told her what an important part the Chicken plays in the Christmas story. Thankfully, her teacher sensed her uncertainty, and the following day bestowed on her the pinnacle of responsibility. Presumably due to the lack of a Chistmas Stork in this nativity-meets-ET extravaganza, it was now the Christmas Chicken's role to present the Baby Jesus to Mary at the appropriate moment.

So there I am, not long after, crammed into the hall with the other mums and dads, all of us grinning indulgently, as we watch a small group of colourful Aliens crash-land on Earth, stumble across a nativity production, and ultimately learn the importance of pre-booking hotel rooms. And then when Joseph, Mary, and a donkey in grey pyjamas, reach the stable, my eyes fall on my Chicken. She seemed agitated, looking madly around her, trying to get the teaching assistant's attention. The TA ignores her concern and ushers her on to the stage, along with the Christmas Pig, the Christmas Sheep and the Christmas Chick (my Chicken has a baby! Very proud). I hold my breath. This is her moment. The delivery of the baby to his yawning mother. My Chicken walks up to the edge of the stage and, in sotto voce worthy of any am-dram farce, says: "someone's taken the Baby Jesus." Then she makes a who-cares-anyway face, and the nativity continues without the main character, until all the Aliens are safely back in their spaceship, taking the story of Christmas home to those corners of the Universe it has yet to reach.

In peculiar juxtaposition, three hundred miles away, before the start of another nativity, two fathers get into a fight. During this kerfuffle one of them bites the other one's finger off.

Did you hear that? He bit the finger OFF.

Now call me old-fashioned, but as far as I'm aware a primary school nativity play is the least appropriate place for biting anyone's finger off, least of all someone else's. A dog fight, a death metal concert, or a Mike Tyson appreciation convention would be far more suitable events for such dedigitation. Perhaps in the future we should provide shepherd crooks at the door so any would-be finger-eaters could grab a couple on the way in and shoot each other instead.

That or make sure there are enough mince pies to go around...

Monday, 5 December 2011

Homage to the Washing Machine

We have just experienced four weeks and six days without a washing machine. From the moment our Hotpoint stopped working it's been a trial of patience. The saga itself is dull, merely a catalogue of failed diagnoses and screwed up deliveries that most of you will recognise. But living without a washing machine for five weeks was hard, obviously not refugee-hard, or terminal-illness-hard, but within the confines of domesticity, losing this particular appliance is traumatic. My 97 year old granny was deeply sympathetic; the horror of living without a washing machine, even for a day, concerned her greatly.
"You should buy a Miele, dearest."
"We have a Hotpoint."
"It's broken. You must get a Miele. My Miele has never broken. I've had my Miele 18 years. My Miele has never let me down."

When the Man-Who-Knows-Washing-Machines finally pronounced ours deceased, we decided to take her advice; I was desperate, on the verge of tears and wearing bikini bottoms in place of pants. Don't get me wrong, I am not a domestic goddess by any means (my eldest daughter, when aged three, picked up a plastic iron in the Early Learning Centre, and - no joke - asked what it was), but there is something deeply depressing about seeing each of your children morph into Stig of the Dump, about humongous piles of washing growing in the corner of every room, about cupboards stuffed full of grubby towels and sheets. I felt dreadfully spoilt and princessy, moaning about laundry when the economy is going to the dogs and poverty ravages the lives of 1 billion people globally. I reminded myself that only a few hundred years previously I would be sat at the mangle for hours each day, my red-raw fingers scrubbing cinders off rags, while I scolded the children for playing marbles too loudly, and looked forward to bread-and-dripping for supper. None of this helped. I was down to my last pair of bikini bottoms. Soon, I'd be going commando. This scared me.

So, when my Miele arrived, I have to admit, sod the three births and the wedding, this was the happiest day of my life. I literally screamed with euphoric glee. Shiny and new, it glowed in all its Miele glory, its proverbial chest puffed up, muscles flexed.
"You must not vorry any more, Frau Jennings," it purred in authoritative, Germanic tones. "I am here and I vill vosh all of your clozes."
"But Meile," I said, crying tears of ecstatic joy. "How? This mountain of washing..?"
"Zis is no match for me, Frau Jennings. Voshing warst piles of voshing is vot I do best."
And then Miele - with his multitude of programs, his helpful display, his temperature variations, his soft-wash, extra-wash, short-wash, and variable spin - voshed and voshed and voshed, until finally my children stop resembling grubby street-urchins and I am wearing normal pants. These are happy days. You are now safe to venture into my home.

One thing though, if you do come and visit, you mustn't go into the spare room....

...unless you want to help me sort and fold.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Let them eat cake

We have just finished birthday season in the Jennings’ household. Three birthdays in ten days, two of them consecutive. A time of great joy and merriment ? A house filled with birthday laughter? No. For me, birthday season over equals sigh of relief.

Don’t tell those involved, but I loathe the end of November. In fact, I dread it. Firstly, I dread the cakes. This might seem strange, especially to those who know me (skinny I ain’t), it’s just we end up with a surfeit of cakes that makes the EU butter mountain look merely hilly. One for daddy - always pink, always sparkly, perfect for the only man in a household/menagerie of 14 (the boy dog had his bits off, so doesn’t really count). One for each child on their birthday, one for each child's party, one for each child to take to school, and then, occasionally, if the grandparents can’t make the mid-week birthdays, another on the weekend. Bejeezus. It’s cake for tea, cake for lunch, cake for breakfast, cake for the dogs’ dinner, cake for the chickens, and when even the chickens have had enough bloody cake, it goes out for the pigeons and squirrels, who, incidentally, also eventually get bored of cake.

And then there are the cards. Oh dear, I’m not good with cards. My husband LOVES cards. In his house, growing up, cards stayed on the mantelpiece, as far as I can tell, for the entire year. In my house they get swept into the recycling bin within a few hours – as soon as the first one blows over when the front door opens. Don’t get me wrong, I love writing cards, and reading cards – though I would say, and here I'll wager I’ll make myself terribly unpopular, if you are going to the trouble of buying a card only to write ‘To X, Happy Birthday, from Y’, don’t bother. You might as well send a text. Please, write a message of love, a joke, or even a simple: ‘I saw this card and thought of you’. I know. I know. I’m on my own here. The lone voice of card-fascism. Fine. Keep writing boring cards, keep them on the window sill for three months, dust around them and spend your hours repeatedly re-standing them. Blame my cynicism on the birthday deluge.

The November birthdays a day apart really was bad planning. Not least because it opened us up to all sorts of inappropriate commentary on our sex life. A few years back my husband had a young and funky assistant who dated a famous DJ. She was the type of girl who sends the rest of us scuttling beneath the nearest rock. When my husband happened to tell her we had both the girls’ birthdays coming up, she smiled indulgently at him, gave him a sympathetic pat on the arm, and said, “you and Amanda are allowed to have sex more than once every four years, you know.” Thanks for that, lady.

This year my smallest daughter coped brilliantly with the birthday bonanza. Being five years old and seeing your two sisters enjoy a pile of presents, and non-stop attention, must be hard. She was great though. Not even the sniff of a whinge. As soon as the last cake-stuffed family member finally left the last party, I took her upstairs to bed, tucked her in and gave her a kiss. She suddenly looked a bit sad.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

She stared at me for a moment or two, considering if she should answer, and then said, “I’m just a bit fed up.”

“Really?” I said, stroking her forehead.

“Uh huh. It’s everybody’s birthday right now. Mine is ALWAYS next year.”

Thankfully, I resisted the urge to say 'thank bloody goodness'.

“It doesn’t matter ,” she said then, turning over and pulling up her covers. “It’s Christmas in a few days; I'll have some presents then.”

And that’s the other problem with three birthdays at the end of November. Just as the pigeons are getting bored of cake, Christmas decends on us. More cake. More cards...

To X, Happy Christmas, from The Jennings'. That’s your lot, I’m afraid, and don't be surprised if it comes by text.

Epilogue: I have just remembered my vow to out-Christmas the most Christmassy of them, as stated, in writing, in my blog post dated Novemer 7th. Bugger. I might have to turn to drink to get through this one...

Appendix: My husband has just told me this post is too grumpy. Apologies. Do feel free to re-read last week's post if you need something jollier! Or hold out for next week, of course. *winks and then goes for a slice of cake*

Monday, 21 November 2011

Bum glue

Two days ago something bad happened. My husband got to say ‘I told you so’. These four words form perhaps the single most irritating phrase known to marriage, irrelative of whether that marriage is happy, unhappy or indifferent. It carries a trite smugness about it, designed to make you want to drive a butter knife into your beloved’s heart. So what prompted the heinous utterance? The computer died. It blew up. Literally. Except it didn’t blow up, rather it ppfftted, pathetically, into permanent dormancy, its demise made all the more tragic when I realised I couldn’t remember when I last saved my work.

Cue husband: "I told you so".

Nearly ten thousand words were lost in that wishy-washy ppfftt. Ten thousand words equates to about three weeks work. Not months or years, admittedly, but traumatic nonetheless. Mustering the energy to rewrite those words is strenuous. Even if managed, there’s always that nagging suspicion that these new words aren’t as good as the vanished ones. That somehow the literary genius (oh, how we dream) will never be recaptured, that the one canny observation that might lift my prose above the others has gone for good, in a ppfftt of computer smoke. Losing words feels like walking to the summit of a sizeable hill and rather than finding the view-to-die-for, you find a sign that says Keep walking another ten miles, then do a jig and forty press-ups. View will appear on left. I’m not sure I can be arsed. Sadly, unless I want to curtail my fledgling career at this point, I have to. And this is where that smug I-told-you-so bites hard. He must have told-me-so a hundred times: “Have you backed up your work? Why don't you email it to yourself each night? Here, I’ve bought you a memory stick just for you to save your work.” The more he told me to save my work, the more I thought, bloody hell, stop telling me what to do the whole time, and didn’t. And then, presumably sick of hearing me ignore him, my obviously-male computer, in the spirit of brotherhood, decided to teach me lesson in common sense and pegged it. My word count slipped from 30 something thousand to 20 something thousand. Electronic, suicidal git.

Now, word counts are to some writers (like me) what calories are to some dieters (like me). It can get obsessive. I can live by my word count: 1000 words to lunchtime, 250 before I leave for the school run, 150 while the kids are watching the Simpsons, if you don’t hit x words by 7pm you’re not having any wine. (Shudder at the thought). My ideal would be 1500 words a day. That's quite punchy, but on those days when words spill out of me like water from a tap, when I’m immersed in the book, with my characters sitting in the room beside me, it’s not hard. I’ve been known to laugh out loud or cry real tears when I’m in this place; it’s a glorious place to be, when I write for the joy of writing and the words clock up without me noticing. But then there are the dark days. The blood-from-the-proverbial-stone days. Days when I’ll write ten words then make a cup of tea, march myself back to my desk, write another fifteen, check my emails, force out another twenty, check Twitter, tweet two or three times, tell myself off, close Twitter, stare at the page, start to reread the page, then, evil of all evils, begin to edit, and then discover I’ve reduced the damn word count by a hundred words.

To keep me on track on days like this, I have a few inspiring quotes stuck to the walls around my study. One of these reads: When asked the secret to finishing his 500 page masterpiece, The Power of One, author Bryce Courtney growled, ‘Bum Glue’. I love this. Firstly, I love the ‘growl’. Writing can be a battle, drawing out sentences, bending them into shape, searching for the ideal turn of phrase, avoiding clich├ęs, killing unnecessary words. And though I’m not proud of this, most of the time the growl is how I address anyone who speaks to me while I’m writing. “Mummy, where’s my history book?” In your room, I growl. “Would you like me to lay the table for supper?” Yes, I growl. Of course I would; I’m writing. Phone rings. For crying out loud, what do you want? I growl. You get the picture. The second thing I like about Courtney’s line is the bum glue. I need bum glue. I love the imagery. I love the thought of not being able to stand up to put the kettle on for the fifth time in an hour because I’m stuck to the chair with bum glue. Please, someone, invent bum glue!

Another scrap of paper stuck to my wall is advice from Leonard Bernstein: You can sit there all tense and worried, freezing the creative energies, or you can start writing something. It doesn’t matter what. In five or ten minutes the imagination will heat, the tightness will fade and a certain spirit of rhythm will take over.  

In other words ‘just get on with it’.

This advice, of course, can apply to most things. Staring at the sea, wanting to swim, but worried it looks cold and grey? Come on, man up, jump in. You’ll feel great. Want to get fit? Stop moaning, put your trainers on, and get out there. You’ll probably be signed up for a marathon before the week is out. (Not me, obviously...I’m glued to a chair). The long and short of it is, if you want to finish a book you need to write some words. Then don’t lose those words. So from now on I will be saving my work every day. I advise you to do the same thing. But if you don’t, I promise that when your computer goes ppfftt, I will try very hard not to say those shameful words.

I told you so.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Which Way to 309?

I was at Wimbledon with a friend this Summer. We’d had a glass of Pimm's. It was sunny. We were giggly. We couldn’t find the entrance to our seats. "Don't worry," I said. "I’ll ask that lovely looking young man with the helpful looking badge". “Hi there," I said to him, flashing my best I'm-all-dressed-up-and-without-the-kids smile. "Could you tell me where Gangway 309 is please?” The young man nodded and pointed. “Second on the right.” Then he turned away from me, readying himself to be helpful to somebody else. It felt like a kick in the stomach. He didn’t offer to show me the way. He didn’t suggest we discuss the directions over a drink. He didn’t even wink at me. I stood gawping like a guppy. My friend, who's four years older than me, laughed. “Oh, yes,” she said. “Didn’t anyone tell you? Get to about thirty-eight and to anyone under the age of twenty-two you might as well be wearing Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak. Don’t worry,” she said, with a kindly pat on my arm. “The upside is octogenarians will now find you irresistible.”

We found our way to Gangway 309, which now felt like Room 101. The first match was Ladies Singles. Two women, nubile, tanned and toned, throwing their perfect early-twenty something bodies around Number 1 Court for my so-called enjoyment. I let my mind drift. I thought about those first wiry grey hairs that had appeared a few years earlier. How I used to tear them out with angry fervour, but how, now they came in such numbers, I left them be, content to let them reproduce and multiply. Wrinkles I ignored. Aching joints didn’t surprise me anymore. I’d even grown used to having to stretch my arm out as far as possible in order to read words on a menu. A few years ago I met a passive aggresive American publisher who told me categorically that no person had anything of merit to say until they passed the age of forty-five. I was thirty-three, opinionated, educated and full of passionate aspiration. I stomped home, huffing and puffing, finding her dismissiveness both narrow-minded and misguided. I put her comment down to her jealousy of my comparative youth. Everybody, of every age, has something to say, I grumbled. All opinion is valid. Youth has a voice and that voice has a right to be heard.
But at Wimbledon this Summer I began to understand what she meant. I still disagree with her sentiment; young people have much to say and should always be listened to, from the very first babble. But perhaps until you reach the age where you begin to rationalise your own mortality, until you start to view life from the wider angle that age brings, objectively rather than subjectively, you cannot have the breadth of understanding to fully appreciate a situation. Science has backed this up. White-coats from the University of California found that older people are less affected by the chemical responsible for emotional and impulsive reaction, and hence, as one gets older, decisions are reached more carefully, using experience and knowledge instead. It's called Wisdom. And it comes with age. Of course this was of little help to me at Wimbledon. I just wanted the young man with the I'm-ever-so-helpful name badge to flirt with me. Christ, truth be told, I just wanted him to acknowledge my existence.
To lift my distinctly immature, self-pitying mood we decided on another Pimm’s in the sunshine. And then, lo and behold, a knight in shining armour. My friend was right: 'All hail the Octogenarian!' As we poured our drinks an elderly couple approached us, and the rather dapper gentleman – for this is what he was, my friends – asked if he and his wife could share our bench. “It would make my day,” he said, with a glint. “To sit with two lovely ladies like you.” His wife chuckled and shook her head indulgently. “He’s always had an eye for the ladies,” she offered. “Only the young and pretty ones,” said the twinkly, wrinkly love god. Then he winked and patted my knee. I beamed at him. I was visible. I was back. All was well with the world.
And to those blinded twenty-two year olds? Pah. I am so over you. After all, nobody under the age of forty-five has anything remotely worthwhile to say, right?..
...including, arguably, me. 

Roll on the glorious arrival of Wisdom.  I'm ready for you now.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Remember, remember...

I have not been a great mother this week. Sadly, I have not been a great writer this week either. Or a great wife. It's been a dodgy week for greatness, or even mediocrity to be honest. The annoying thing is that on paper the potential to be a great mother was high: two events in one week. Hallowe'en and Bonfire Night. All I needed to do is facepaint three witches, trek about in the dark and rain for an hour pestering perfect strangers for a tonne of minging Haribos, and then a week later take them to a firework display and buy them a crappy burger for ten pounds and one of those vile plastic light-up things that whizz and whirr and cost another ten pounds.

My middle witch
On Monday the girls plead to go trick-or-treating with their friends. Now, I hate trick-or-treating. I fundamentally disagree with charging around en masse and demanding sweets from people who I know don't want to see us. I hate the sugar-crazed eyes, the gluttonous counting of e-numbers, watching my usually polite children fail to thank the slightly nervy old dear who looks on in undisguised horror at the multitude of hands diving in for grabfuls. So I plead  louder than them. I point out the cold and the wet and the dark. And when that fails I tell them I am tired from not-writing all day. (Not-writing is guarenteed to put me in the blackest of moods, especially if I have sat at the computer to write for hours on end and not-written. They know this, bless them.) But even this falls on deaf ears; the thought of mountains of sweets blocks their empathy entirely. I change tack. "I've got an idea," I say in my most excited voice. "You go and dress up, and when you're ready, go outside, ring the doorbell, and trick-or-treat me!" Three blank faces. "Come on. It'll be fun!" I try a whoop, whoop. And finally they trudge up the stairs.

Is that a face in that scary fire?!!
Bonfire night comes. The perfect opportunity for me to repair the damage and be the very-best-mum-ever. Problem. I hate fireworks (loud, anti-climatic, potentially lethal). And bonfires. The big ones. I actually quite like bonfires of the small and contained variety, the ones you can sit around, a handsome boy playing guitar softly in the background, a glass of wine and gentle chat, and perhaps a long stick to poke dying embers with. But those big blazing ones that look like they might topple over at any moment give me the heebie-jeebies. I manage to suggest a gathering at my parents' house with their cousins, successfully avoiding the massive display with the grubby burgers and the flashing tat-for-cash. The slight problem? My sister, father, husband and brother-in-law are extreme pyromaniacs and love nothing better than rummaging about in emormous fires searching for burning branches to hold aloft to the cheers and screams of our delighted children. So, rather than a friendly fire, we have a ginormous fire. All I see when I gaze on its vastness is two hours in A&E, and I retreat into the shadows to grump, trying not to shriek "please be careful!" every five minutes. Watching from the darkness, however, I can see how much fun everyone is having. Eyes glint in the firelight, sparklers whirl madly about, marshmallows toast on spindly sticks, and then I have a stern word with myself. "Don't be a killjoy. Pour yourself a drink, get a smile on your face, and go and enjoy that towering inferno with your kids." So I pop a Quality Street in my mouth and grab a sparkler, and burnish the following across the darkness: 'remember, remember be more fun in December'. I do this three times. A few moments later my littlest girl rushes up to me and says "mummy, isn't this the best fun ever?" And I can't help but grin at her.

On the way home I tell the girls we are going all out for Christmas this year. We're going to out-Christmas the Christmas best of them, even Delia and Kirsty. Christmas music will play all day every day, there will be gingerbread making, christmas cake baking, and unpoliced glitter shaking. We are even going carol singing on Christmas eve. At which point my husband groans and puts his bonfire-sooty hands over his ears. "Enough! Enough! Please stop," he begs. "Can't we have a quiet one this year? Just us. No fuss. Look, I tell you what, you guys can get dressed up warmly and then knock on the door and sing carols just for me!"

I guess his fun was all used up on November...

Monday, 31 October 2011

Dead Pets Society

What is read without doubt influences what is written. What is read in childhood, those first words that strike a chord, that ignite as yet unexplored emotions, will be fundamental to the development of a writer. My own writing is rather dark - families dealing with tragedy, battling to recover, desperate to cope again. Shortly after my book was accepted for publication Mum asked to read it. A few days later she handed it back to me, silent, her face downcast. I felt a stab of disappointment.
     "You didn't like it."
     "No, I did. It's good..." Her reticence was painful.
     "What's wrong with it?"
     She looked forlorn. "I just don't know what I did wrong. You seemed such a joyful child." She was right. My sister and I had very happy childhoods: we wanted for little, our opinions counted, and we were loved. We were fortunate.
     Poor Mum.
     I blame my reading material. My first memorable book (after the Enchanted Wood, the Famous Five, and every Asterix book I could lay my eight-year-old hands on) was Susan Cooper's monumental The Dark is Rising Sequence. I quite literally climbed on to her magic carpet and let her fly me to a world  of seventh sons of seventh sons, The Light versus The Dark, amulets, runes, Old Ones, Walkers and Sleepers. My heart raced and my hands scrabbled to turn the pages as I ate up her words. A year or two older and my need for that adrenalin hit took a darker turn. Bypassing the Judy Blumes and Jilly Coopers (okay, maybe I did read Riders, but wasn't that on the curriculum?), I landed upon Virginia Andrews. Her twisted, sinister writing found the dark nooks and crannies of my teenage brain and fed them incarcerated children, sibling incest, abuse and torture, and then finally the mind-altering paragraphs that described the family dog, tethered and dead, a bag of bones, sores around its neck from desperate attempts to reach the bowl of water left just inches beyond its reach. That hit me hard. We had a menagerie growing up. We have our own now. A life without animals around me is unthinkable. But I haven't yet written a story that doesn't include a dead pet.
     There's something vital about the abuse of a helpless animal, something that cuts through us, our humanity. Those trusting eyes, the unconditional love, the unwavering loyalty. Dead pets stir emotion. Think Glenn close and that poor boiled bunny. It’s such a powerful device, often used at the peak of the drama, when things have got really bad, when the last threads of decency have flown. It's not illegal to kill a pet (humanely, at least). And cruelty is rarely punished with anything more than a fine. Yet animal abuse is linked to psychopathic behavior with many serial killers admitting to it as a child. Put it this way, if your husband-to-be tells you he used to cut the tails off field mice as a boy, however gorgeous he is, I advise you to start backing towards the door, and when you get there, turn and run as fast as you can.
     After Virginia, Stephen King and James Herbert were my next beloveds (it was an 'open' relationship, my love divided equally between them), and both know a thing or two about using animals to ratchet tension. In King's The Dead Zone a Bible salesman beats a barking dog to death with a bible and in doing so we learn all we need to know about the man. In The Magic Cottage, Herbert conversely uses the miraculous recovery of a half-dead thrush to establish a feeling of elated happiness (his subsequent transformation of the cottage in the story from love-filled haven to menacing epicenter of evil, in my opinion, is a master class in tone and mood). Now, I don't write horror. I don't even read it anymore (though having just written this post I might well go and blow the dust of The Magic Cottage). The pets in my books aren't starved or beaten to death, but I have been known to run one over and have it lie undiscovered for a day or two. Thanks to the lessons I learnt as a child, there's nothing I find as symbolically emotive as a dead or dying pet. 
     So, Mum, do you believe me now? My fascination with grief and loss, and the appearance of the occasional maggoty cat, has absolutely nothing to do with you...unless, of course, you blame yourself for having such poor control over what I read. I mean, Virginia Andrews? Good God, woman, what on earth possessed you to leave me alone with her?

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Agents love bananas

I am represented by a lovely agent. Fact.
I am grateful for her every day. Fact.
It is because of bananas that she is my agent. Fact.

'She' is the paragon of patience and generous provider of tissues and shoulder I will hereafter refer to as The Lovely One. Ensnaring The Lovely One was simple (ish). I merely tempted her out of her agenty lair with bananas. Not the well-packaged yellow is-it-really-a-fruit enjoyed by cartoon monkeys, but bananas of the semi-humorous kind.

The story of my route to becoming an almost published author is not an unusual one. There was no headline-worthy six figure sum, no ravenous editors fighting over my book at auction, but there were a number of long, and sometimes lonely, years of bringing up my babies and writing whenever they fell asleep or got the lego out. There was the first book. Then the second. (The first crashed and burned). The tortuous trawling through the Writers' Yearbook in search of a suitable (read 'any') agent, agonising over evil (still so evil) synopses, the excessive printing of chapters and introductory letters, and remortgaging to cover postage. Then there was the awful wait before rejection letters fell like confetti on the mat. Funnily enough you soon you begin to enjoy the rejections, albeit in a faintly masochistic way. My all time favourite came via email from Intern...EIGHT, not even one, two or three. This was a girl who was literally at the bottom of the unpaid pile of pre-school (possibly) people who between making tea, filling the printer, and sending her CV to television production companies (possibly), decided to send me a two line email with two spelling mistakes, thanking me for sending my first three chapters - that had only taken me a hundred years of blood, sweat and my kids’ tears to write - but that it wasn't really Our Sort of Thing. I laughed at that one (maniacally, whilst jamming a fork into my thigh, of course). But soon the rejections begin to wear you down. The confidence ebbs. The shoulders hunch, the mouth saddens, and the eyes lose their sparkle. Just as I was ready to throw my keyboard out for the bin man, a ray of light. Not one but two agents requested to read the rest of my manuscript. One thought my writing had a 'haunting quality'...the other liked my 'voice'!! I was ecstatic again. Note: this emotional alternation between extreme high and extreme low is something the would-be writer needs to get used to. It happens a lot.

Then followed another excruciating wait before the two rejections appeared within days of each other. That bit was tough, though amidst the disappointment there was a single chink of hope. One of the agents, The Lovely One, offered to take another look at the book if I happened to do any work on it. I think she was just being polite. Because she is. I wrote her a thank you letter (if I can pass any advice on it would be to send thank you letters. People like being thanked. Thank you is a greatly underused phrase considering it's weight to length ratio) and then did what any loving, committed mother slash desperate author would do. I ignored the children for six months and rewrote the entire thing.

Following three days of nervous hesitation I plucked up the courage to recontact The Lovely One. I asked her if she was still interested in seeing the rewrite. I explained that I had fed my three girls nothing but bananas - quick, nutritious, and filling - for half a year, and said I was pleased with the result (of the rewrite as opposed to the neglected off-spring). The Lovely One wrote back to say she would take a look, but only if I promised to feed my daughters. Two weeks later an email appeared to say the banana diet had been worth it. It was Champagne time! We signed a contract shortly after. And though I can safely say it's been a long and bumpy ride - the book we signed on also crashed and burned amid another matful of rejection letters, a third book was written, and rewritten, and rewritten again - with many bouts of tears (mine) and wise words (hers), our shared sense of humour kept us glued together. Three years after the banana quip I signed a deal with Constable and Robinson.

So, if anybody asks me if I have any advice on finding an agent, for what it's worth:
Make sure your children like bananas.
Make sure your agent laughs at banana jokes.
And don't forget your thank you letters.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Tweeter, Blogger, 25 for Lunch: One Weekend in October

Hello! I'm not sure who I am talking to. Most likely nobody. I talk a lot and hence I'm used to people glazing over. With this in mind I'm viewing this blog as therapy, my internal monologue posted, just in case there's someone out there who might be interested in reading, and might read without glazing, just for a paragraph or two.

A bit about me: three daughters, two large dogs, two fluffy cats, six chickens of various sizes, a husband, and a book out - yes, out, I'm still pinching myself - in August 2012 with Constable and Robinson. I'm starting to think about publication, and why, how, when and where, people might buy my book. Promotion. A little voice in my head. Promotion. The thing won't sell itself. One chance. Don't blow it. Think: Twitter. Facebook. Blogs. Website. Snog someone notable. Boris Johnson? (yuk), Clive Owen? (now we're talking).

Though guaranteed to help, snogging celebrities is not an option as the Husband seems unreasonably opposed to the idea. Back to traditional methods then. I looked at the list. Facebook was done, up and running, and you know? I get Facebook. Photos. Messages on walls. Replies to messages on walls. It's virtual stalking, right? Like I said, I get it. I have about a hundred and fifty friends, 60% of which I actually know, perfectly respectable for a technophobe of my age and standing. So, Facebook. Tick. Next Twitter? This is a bit more of a problem. Three years ago I opened/started/twitterered an account. Then I stared at it. For a long time. What to tweet? What to tweet? What to tweet... There was nothing and so I left it at that, a barren username with no meat or pastry, hanging lonely and followerless in the ether. But last Friday I tried again. I turfed Daughter 1 off the computer, ignoring her disgruntled, teenage mumblings. 'I need to work,' I said, unsympathetic to her Powerpoint homework she was halfway through. As she muttered her way out of the study I took a deep breath. 'Be brave,' I thought. 'You can do this.'

Just start with a profile description. So I wrote one, set it, sat back and stared at it on the screen. It didn't look too bad. 'Ok, you're up and running, girl. It's a walk in the park.' But then I got a couple of followers!!! The pressure nearly killed me. How to be funny? Or was funny too try-hard? Was one supposed to be funny? I read some people's (tweeple's?) tweets. Perhaps I should recommend a website or a blog or retweet something. I panicked all of Friday and all of Saturday and finally went with '...been staring at Twitter trying to tweet for two hours...' or something like that. Genius, eh?! Then the doorbell rang; 25 people had arrived for lunch. I shut the computer down, fed 13 kids shepherd's pie and 12 adults curry. Coffees all round. Red wine. Chocolate brownies. Bendicks Mints. Ribena on the carpet. Dog fight. Last person leaves at seven in the evening. Washing-up pile the size of a mountain and the dishwasher already on. uniform! My book, as is normal, is forgotten amidst the chaos.

But this morning I'm back at the computer. I have a second book to finish by the end of the year, an author photo to have taken (weight loss required), and didn't I say I would write a blog as well? Bolstered by a you'll-be-fine tweet from a new follower, and scarily successful, Kate Colquhoun (review in The Telegraph, April 2011, for her book Mr Briggs' Hat - '...unputdownable'), I am feeling up for it. I tweeted this morning - twice - and decided this was the day I would start my blog. But what should be my USP (unique selling point as opposed to University of Sao Paulo)? I log on early with a cup of tea while the kids are eating breakfast, and in the middle of the first sentence of my brand new blog Daughter 2 treads in cat sick and Daughter 3 tells me she has a headache and feels sick. She's hot too, however much I blow cool air on her forehead before feeling her. No school for her...

And with this comes the birth of Three Girls and a Pen: Juggle Juggle Toil and Trouble. It might not be unique, but it's all I know.