This post is from 2017, on the subject of genius. Enjoy…
The current model of Genius At Work may be in flux but the go-to setting is the same as it has always been: a man in a study with a virtual Do Not Disturb sign on the door; family creeping around and No Interruptions Whatsoever. Genius works odd hours and cannot be relied upon. It won’t be awake in time to take the children to school or make their sandwiches.
If this genius has to balance writing with paid work he will come in, pour a glass, have some food and devote the rest of the evening (and weekend) to Art. There are people who can do this: C P Snow was one, holding down a career first as a barrister, then as an academic and finally as a politician whilst writing a bunch of novels about – well, about being a barrister, academic and politician.
But I’ve never been…
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Here’s a golden oldie on why I blog
I started blogging 12 years ago in the spring of 2008 because none other than the author Hanif Kureishi (Buddha of Suburbia) advised it, and I’ve never stopped. I may have paused for a short while to take a holiday but I have largely sustained the daily – or at least thrice-weekly – discipline of writing a blog post. So why is this a good idea? Let me count the reasons.
1. You get exposure. It may not be much exposure but once published your post is out there for any and all to read. Don’t be discouraged if you only get a few views because you never know who might happen upon these posts years later. I’m constantly surprised by the number of people who stumble across posts from years before. Good tagging helps with this, as does linking to social media.
2. You get practice. When you’re…
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Most weeks recently have flown by with indecent haste but this one is crawling, perhaps because on Friday I shall pack up my books and pen-drives and power down for the entire month of August. But worry not! dear reader, for I shall get together – or curate, as we now say – some golden oldies for you to read, so you will not be bereft of posts.
I won’t be going mad; no foreign holidays or weeks at the coast, instead I’ll be doing stuff at home and having some days out, possibly with the son. We may get as far as the coast, though I doubt it; it’s a bit of a trek from here. It’s odd that such a sea-loving person as I should so persistently settle inland; Leicester, Loughborough and Madrid are all about as far from the sea as it’s possible to get. But there you are. I cherish a dream that when I retire (if I ever do) I shall get a dog and a bungalow by the sea and end my days walking on the beach like my grandfather did.
Since there is such an appetite (in one or two quarters at least) for posts about my childhood, I’m going to describe my grandfather. Herbert Newell (Bert) was what is known as a ‘character’; that is to say, he was mildly eccentric and completely unselfconscious. He’d been in the Navy in the First World War and used to shout ‘Orf keps!’ and other naval phrases at random intervals for no apparent reason; he’d then lived and worked in the East End and knew snatches of Yiddish which he spoke mainly to the cat, Monty. This venerable tabby lived for nearly twenty years, as long in cat years as Grandpa himself.
Grandpa believed in hard work and self-sufficiency and was a Tory, though of the old, one-nation school (he had no time for Thatcher.) He bought their newly-built bungalow in 1963 for £300: it sold after his death in 1991 for £90,000 and is probably now worth three or four times that. I remember our first trip down there; we’d been used to visiting them in Hackney but some inner clock told me that the journey was longer this time. Our parents said nothing and hugged a secret to themselves and finally we drew up outside this brand-new bungalow where Grandma stood at the door. By some miracle they had translated themselves here – but it was all right, because the miracle had a name: retirement.
My childhood is measured by those holidays in Rustington, every year a new challenge, every year the boundaries of life expanding. I bought my first camera there, a Polaroid (Mum said it was a waste of money; I said it was my money and in the end that camera lasted ten years) and learned to row on the boating lake. We measured our years in how far out from the shore we could swim, homing in on our parents far away on their blanket. An outing to the beach was a major operation involving blankets, towels, flasks* of coffee, bags of sandwiches and a huge, wide-necked thermos containing hot stew. Later on we would go for tea and ice creams at Macari’s, an Italian cafe which Grandpa always translated into Greek as Macarios’s. But when I hit teenage these holidays became boring: there were very few boys on the south coast and I longed to meet one as fed up as I was. He’d be with his family; I’d be with mine: our eyes would meet across the cafe… nope, never happened, only in my Jackie magazine.
*I’d better not use the word ‘thermoses’ or I’ll be in trouble…
There were rituals on these holidays: we ‘always’ had to visit ‘Auntie Nellie’ next door (I remember her husband Noel as a sick, declining figure; their house was called ‘Elno’, a combination of their names.) There were obligatory visits to Uncle George and Uncle Reg, Grandpa’s brothers whom he never visited (‘I know where they are and they know where I am’) trips to Arundel Castle, rows on the boating lake and walks on the Downs. Some of these rituals were delightful; others, like having to go to the old flint church in the village, a bore: on family holidays you had to take the rough with the smooth.
Grandpa must have been frustrating for the adults as his habits were so ingrained, but for us children he was a delight. He was a fund of stories, songs and poems and talked to himself continually. He smoked roll-ups in the sun-lounge (Grandma wouldn’t allow it in the house), a habit from his Navy days, and taught us to play cribbage. Grandpa was independent to the last, refusing to give up his bungalow until he died, still healthy, still going for his daily walk and flirting with his ‘girls’ in the shops. For this and all his other qualities, I salute him.
RIP Grandpa, we miss you.
I’ve got Joni Mitchell’s line in my head about reading the news (‘and it sure looks bad’) from ‘California‘. In fact I’ve stopped reading the news altogether because my desire to be well-informed is contending with my desire to remain sane, and the latter is more important. But now I’m starting to wonder: does reading the news actually make me well-informed? I’m beginning to have my doubts.
You don’t have to look hard for bias in the news; the print media in the UK is famously overwhelmingly right-wing and objectivity is poorly served by a bunch of expat Tory-donating billionaires. There are exceptions but they are few, and struggling; the Guardian, my paper of choice, has just announced that they are laying off staff, and the Weekend magazine is due to be axed. (I have an article scheduled to come out in that magazine, more of which anon.) But it’s not only political bias which is the problem. There are many other biases in the media, but perhaps the most important one for me right now is the Bad News Bias.
No news is good news – by which I mean, if something good happens it is not deemed to be news. It might feature as a small coda to a bulletin – a bit like the water-skiing budgerigar in Harry Potter which signals that there is no more serious news and he can stop worrying about Voldemort attacking the Muggle world – or it might be a tiny uptick in the general gloomy downward trend, but in general the media works on the principle that bad news is blown up out of all proportion while good news is ignored – or worse, twisted to make it look bad.
This reached a ridiculous point the other week when a story broke about global population. We have been told for decades that a rising global population is not sustainable; that we won’t be able to feed ourselves, let alone look after other species, and that we must have fewer children. Environmentalists including David Attenborough have been warning about this for years. So as soon as global population begins to fall, that’s good news, right? But how did the story go? THREAT OF PLUNGING WORLD POPULATION! DOOM AND GLOOM! WOE, WOE AND THRICE WOE!
Reader, I yelled at the radio. And then I turned it off – and I have not listened to another news bulletin since. I feel much better for it.
So perhaps my need to be informed would be better served by some sort of weekly news magazine? I don’t know – but in the meantime I’m staying away from all forms of so-called news.
Oh, and the article I mentioned above is an interview I gave to the Guardian about being married to someone who comes out as trans – it’s part of a larger article featuring other straight partners. I really hope it comes out before the magazine gets axed. I’ll keep you posted.
When I lived in London I knew the Tube map – or parts of it – like the back of my hand. I could recite all the stops from Hounslow West up to St Pancras; I knew where to change for Wimbledon and the nearest stop to Clapham. I knew which areas were well-served (North and Central London) and which were not (South London.) I could almost have done the ‘knowledge’ like an underground taxi driver if needed; and had Mornington Crescent existed back then, I’d have been a master player.
But this knowledge did not avail me much as I had no-one to share it with. It was an alienating experience living in London and I was often lonely. I like to be part of a community; to know my neighbours; to walk down the street and meet people, to chat to staff in the shops; to walk into a pub and nod to the locals. But until I left London I had no idea there were places where people would talk to you at the bus stop instead of edging away as if you were a dangerous lunatic. I had no idea there were communities where people knew each other and popped in and out of each other’s houses. If I wanted to visit a friend I had to make arrangements ahead of time, then get on a bus or tube and travel. After I left school I had no friends in Hounslow at all; they were scattered over a wide area.
The effect of all this is to give the individual little or no context. You can be one person at work, another in the pub, another with your boating friends in Richmond and a completely different person at home. True, there can be something exciting in being who you want to be but ultimately it’s wearing. We all need to be known – and after I left school and church I lost that context.
While I was at school though, a local artist (who turned out to be a friend of my boyfriend’s mother) painted a picture of the pupils. He chose to do an abstract called ‘The Thin Green Line’ and whilst I was excited to be part of an art work, I found the abstractness disappointing. But I daresay, were I to see it again, I might find more in it to appreciate.
I don’t think I can say the same of London. But never say never…
For the last couple of years I’ve been trying to get together a radio play. Aimed at Radio 4’s Afternoon Play slot, it’s called The Trans Woman’s Wife and basically does what it says on the tin, being the story of my experiences since the whole trans thing erupted. It’s a story that needs to be told, though whether the BBC will agree remains to be seen; anyway, I managed to write about two thirds of it but was then stumped by not knowing how it ended. How does this story end? I don’t know how it ends in real life so I couldn’t finish the play. I was well and truly stuck.
And then it came to me. That’s it! That’s the ending, not knowing what happens! So now it finishes with the main character saying ‘I don’t know how it ends.’ It begins with a voice-over and ends with a voice-over. Perfect! I was able to put the play to bed (at least until I edit it further down the line) and go down to dinner feeling a deep sense of satisfaction and release.
It’s not often I feel that in writing. I generally get little spurts of release followed by yet another bloody great brick wall. I generally go down to dinner with a sense of deep frustration and blockage. Not this week. This was a good week.
On the down side, my book arrived – and it’s not my book. It’s the story of a lawyer hired to trace the provenance of a painting and nothing to do with the writing process at all. Turns out there are two books called The War of Art. Who knew? So now if I still want it I shall have to order it again.
Aaaand, if you have a parcel to send, don’t use DHL. They picked up our parcel OK and gave us a delivery slot for the next day but then weren’t able to deliver. Instead of telling us, they took it back to the depot and filed it away, forcing me to chase it up with the hospital and then DHL themselves. When I complained to the woman on the line about it she said in a dull, robotic voice, ‘that must be very frustrating for you.’ I wonder how many times a day she has to say that phrase. Anyway the upshot is the parcel will eventually arrive back here – and we will not be using DHL again.
I have received a request for more stories of my childhood, and I’m minded to oblige so the rest of you will have to put up with them.
My childhood began in 1968 when I was eight. This is because my most iconic memories date from that time, when we moved half way across the known world around the equator, aka the terrible North Circular Road, from Edmonton N9 to Hounslow West. We didn’t have a car in those days so my father was to be taken by a parishioner in his old black Ford. I was fascinated by cars and could tell them apart (easier in those days when they were all different) but few people we knew owned one. I begged and begged my parents to be allowed to go with my Dad and see the new house. They said I’d be sick: I said I wouldn’t. They said I’d be tired; I said (huge concession) I’d go to bed early. Eventually I was allowed to go. The car was a severe old black Ford Prefect with indicators that flipped out the side like ears, except that one of them didn’t so my Dad had to keep giving it a thump whenever we were turning left. The journey was long and halting – even in those days the North Circular was a pain – and the traffic fumes lay heavy on my stomach, but I knew I’d never live it down if I was sick so I told myself I wouldn’t. When we arrived I ran happily about the echoing house and overgrown garden and went home proud of myself for being part of the advance party and taking possession of it ahead of my mother and sister.
Shortly after we moved we acquired a car of our own, the parish being too large for my Dad to cycle round. It was a brand new Hillman Imp. I don’t know why my parents settled on this but it looked like a sewing machine on wheels and didn’t perform much better – in fact my mother’s trusty old Singer would probably have got us from A to B more efficiently. The Imp was temperamental and we never really got on with it, but the worst thing for us children is that on long trips we were made to sit on the back seat folded down, which meant sitting upright for hours with no backrest and the edge of the seat digging into our legs. Imagine! You’d be arrested nowadays.
Last night before watching the Crown I listened to Victoria Coren Mitchell’s Women Talking About Cars. This week it was the excellent Sarah Millican and last week it featured Olivia Coleman whose cars were frankly more interesting than her life (how can such a great actress have done so little?) It’d be no good me going on it though, since I’ve owned only three cars in my life, a Vauxhall Cavalier, a Ford Escort estate and my current model, a Ford Focus. Nor did my parents do much better, owning only the Hillman Imp, a Morris Traveller and the Vauxhall Cavalier which they eventually passed on to us. The Morris had an interesting demise; whilst built like tanks to go on and on, they had one weak point which was the front axle. One day my sister and family were driving on the motorway when the axle went; like a lame horse the wheel folded underneath and the car crashed. The dog was cannoned out of the back, shot across six lanes of motorway and landed on the hard shoulder on the other side. He survived with only a broken toenail.
There. That’s enough memories for now. I’m off now, in that horrid phrase, to ‘make some more.’ Ugh.
Alan Bennett once remarks amusingly in his diaries that his mother is with him ‘on a state visit’. However regal his mother may have been, Bennett himself is endearingly down-to-earth; though a successful playwright who hobnobs with the great and good, he retains a sort of Piglet-ish self-doubt. Piglet is one of my favourite characters in the world of Pooh because he agonises. He is highly intelligent but timid and yet overcomes his timidity by rescuing Pooh and Owl from a fallen tree. (Here’s AB himself talking about doing the audio book.)
I’ve been rewatching the recent series of The Crown, and it reminded me of what an ardent royalist my mother was. We sat down in fascination to watch the ill-fated series showing the Royal Family at home (‘weah jahst like eny femmily rahly’) and at that time I had no idea it was such a flop. My mother was something of a monarch herself, which is why I think she identified so strongly with the Queen and the Queen Mother before her. My grandma, another family matriarch, was also a strong royalist. To be honest I think we all identified slightly with the royal family in their palace: it’s a bit of a goldfish-bowl existence living in a vicarage as it’s a semi-public space and you never know who you might bump into. I have gone into the lounge in my pyjamas to watch TV only to find it occupied by visiting bishops, and more than once slammed the door on a furious argument to bump into startled banns couples in the hall. In those days vicarages were not the cheerful ‘pop-round-for-a-coffee’ places they have since become; they were grand, austere buildings, a bit like a palace in miniature. Of course we had no servants (unless you count the cleaning lady) but there were reminders of them; a bell in the dining-room, a scullery and what would have been servants’ quarters in the attic. I always longed to discover a ghost – some forlorn maid-of-all-work, perhaps, or a love-struck footman – but I never did. The house remained stolidly prosaic and so did the garden, in spite of my efforts to dig up underground tunnels or secret chambers. We did once discover an air-raid shelter while playing, though we were never allowed to explore it.
I used to wonder what it would be like to live in an ‘ordinary’ house. Well, I soon found out…
I have often told you the story of how, coming home after two years in Spain, I didn’t really feel I’d arrived until I saw a sign by the road saying ‘Hedgehog Crossing.’ The Spanish, for all their virtues, are not a race of animal-lovers and would not think twice about killing a hedgehog or fox as they drove; but we put signs up to protect them, as we do for frogs and, for all I know, badgers. I went once to a bullfight – merely so I could say when I was arguing against it, that I knew what I was talking about – and it is not an experience I would wish to repeat. There’s very little heroic about sticking arrows in a bewildered animal that’s been penned up for most of its life and I’m glad the practice has been abolished.
A propos of hedgehogs, I had a dream yesterday. I fell into a nap around mid-afternoon and in this short but very vivid dream I was looking after a hedgehog whose name was Etha Zetrocrutinush. I was very proud of having come up with such an exotic name in the course of an afternoon nap, and so I wrote it down straight away. Etha Zetrocrutinush. I don’t know why but it seems a very apt name for a hedgehog. Perhaps I’ll put it in a story for my granddaughter.
I’ve got another story on the go connected to my successfully using Alexa for the first time. It’s not exactly rocket science using the app – all you have to do is say loudly and clearly, ‘Alexa! Play radio 4!’ and instantly the little rainbow-coloured halo on the top starts whizzing in a gratifying way and a smooth, deep female (of course female) voice says ‘Here’s radio 4.’ I think our Alexa must get fed up with only being asked to play radio 4 and not do any of the other million and one things of which she is capable; I also think she must get annoyed by people on the telly waking her up by asking their Alexa to do things.
Last night we watched a retrospective of Victoria Wood in which she takes the piss out of ‘professional Northerners.’ I too have an aversion to this, and particularly (no offence, Taskerdunham) to the poet Ian Mcmillan who we call ‘the professional Yorkshireman.’ I’ve absolutely no objection to people being proud of who they are: Alan Bennett, Maxine Peake and Victoria Wood (amongst others) are or were all thoroughly and unashamedly Northern – but without being professionally so.
Bit of a mixed bag this morning. But that’s where I’m up to. I’ll leave you with Monty Python’s Yorkshiremen sketch. Ee, you were lucky!