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Saturday, 10 May 2014

Death, Daddies and Self-Deprecation (warning: this blog contains meat)

On Bank Holiday Monday we go to Essex to see my GF's Dad and wife in their new house. The day before it's Easter Sunday and my family - my sister and her lot and mum and dad - come up to our flat for slow roast pork belly. 

You need good teeth to eat this
A Jamie Oliver favourite, roast lamb is normally on the table, but this liberation from the traditional menu shows the way in which my family appreciate things are a little different up the block. It is also an offering to my niece who is back from University and has treats as long as she is back at home and continues to endure leaving us.
Heavy encased life

Our flat, less than a year old to us, is still viewed as new and an escape for all the family. I like to think of my home as many things; party house, sun trap, studio, cinema, nunnery. It is five minutes walk from both their houses, but the carpeted lift does its job; it elevates. The fact you have to go through a foyer, into a lift, press a button, doors open onto another floor, into a corridor, you're higher, the angle of garden view out the window has changed, past other front doors all shut and brown, each containing private lives - it doesn't take much for it to work a little magic. Dad is still not well, but he is all the better for lunch up in the air.

We're on the train to Wivenhoe, Essex. GF's Dad, 70 years old, five years younger than mine, has returned to the place of his youth after having lived
All around and safe and sound
in Florence for thirty years. Her father is a sculptor, raconteur, cook and has the rare qualities of being a child-like and yet sincere man. A kind of playful Picasso but not topless. He writes to his daughter - white envelopes arrive through the post with his hand writing on. They correspond. After lunch my GF's Dad, Teddy let's call him (he has a collection of childhood teddies which make an appearance on important occasions) brings up the subject of Death. 'I'm not morbid,' he says. 'I just like talking about it.' Tears prick at the back of my eyes, no the tears are somewhere below in my stomach.

Wafer thin - almost weightless
Two Dads, worlds apart - yet their daughters, us, are together. How does this happen? Both left us alone for vast quantities of time I suppose. GF walks into the room and thinks I've confessed my suspicions about my own Father's state of mind - that this is why we are on the subject of Death. But I have not said a word. This is the first extreme coincidence, or co-occurrence, that will happen in the coming weeks (more about this magic network later). I can see that both Dad's are approaching the same end with very different views through their binoculars. Teddy tells us about his Grandmother who lived on her own in the middle of nowhere, a house in the centre of a common and she slept with a policeman's whistle in her bed. She was friends with a pharmacist who he believes provided her with the necessary drugs to end it. She took her own life when she was getting too old and unable to live as she wanted. He talks of leaving his dying mother to go to America. He says she told him to go and she died a week later. He says it was fine to do this, she told him to go and then she went. With Death on the table, it seems refreshingly light, the tears remain unwept and un-nudged - Parma Ham light and fine. I think about how I can befriend a pharmacist and how there must of been a few people back then lucky enough to take their deaths into their own hands and not be prosecuted. I think that this is how it should be now, we choose our lives, we choose our deaths. 

One Dad will talk, another's just beginning to try. 'You should come home,' my Dad said quietly, as I was saying goodbye to go to France for the Retreat. 'Safely?' I finish the sentence for him, skipping a little up the street.

This boat was a magnificent 
floating airport lounge
The adventure begins - Scribbling Crow Writing Retreat, April 2014
Self-portraits on sick bags
on the ferry
After devising a six week Creative Writing course which runs at the Bookseller Crow (now into its third successful year) I had questioned, what can I do next? Apart from writing the new book I find tutoring inspiring alongside the practice of writing. They go hand in hand. I used to think my first retreat tutoring would be with the Arvon Foundation and so when Justine Crow, co-owner of Bookseller Crow, suggested we utilise her family house in Normandy as a retreat, but with all food cooked for the writers (thus maximising writing time) I went for it. Her can-do attitude is infectious and this is what gave the retreat so much life: a feeling that the sky is the limit. Because if you want to write, it's this kind of energy and spirit which fires you up. A friend said to me the other day, 'You have to have all your horses riding in the same direction. The writers that are successful are running with them, none of them are branching off. You've got to keep them all going.' The more I think about this, the more it makes sense.

Oeufs for writing
10am. Writing Time. The first morning I discuss how, if I have learnt anything in the last few years, it is the importance of self-compassion. I speak about how I wasted a lot of time being nasty to myself and therefore stalling my writing, finding every weapon in my bag of tricks to throw at myself, every critical or negative comment or question from other people I turned into a sharpened blade. I was like one of those women strapped to a knife throwers' board, being spun by my own fair hand. Ultimately, you'll send yourself bonkers if you don't get off that stage and change your approach to living and writing.

'Today we are going to write about childhood,' I say. They all look a little worried. 'When you think about writing about childhood it might seem like you're facing Everest.' I say. They relax, realising I know what its like to face the white of the page and the hugeness of a subject, so big and daunting it has no edges to grip on to. 'So we are going to break it down into specifics.' I speak about not trying to climb Everest (or maybe it should be Mont Blanc) all at once, but pick by pick, scene by scene, idea by idea. The quote I use as inspiration is from E. L. Doctrow, 'Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make a whole trip that way.' So we take the ideas of smell and childhood and smallness as a theme and begin to think around it. Can we visualise anything if we close our eyes?

10am and go!
suggest writing about school dinners. I ask them to think in visual details, the five senses. Remember we have bodies and your characters will have bodies. What was in your packed lunch? What does your sandwich reveal about your family's attitude to food? What were the horrendous sandwich ingredients that you couldn't stand? Was it ever like lifting the lid on the insides of your family life, did it show or mask how well everything was going back at home? Did you show off if you had crisps or a chocolate bar? I mentioned the foreign quality of Sonia Skittini's lunch** when she opened up her Tupperware box to reveal a raw sliced green pepper. The smell! So, we spend 30 minutes writing about school dinners and then for 30 minutes family dinners, free wheeling - seeing what comes out, but filling up pages and pages with material and people and textures. The final exercise is writing about an object you have carried with you from childhood to adulthood. Can anything from the three exercises be combined to make the beginning of an interesting story?

'Oh no, not me! For I am only a mouse.'

Something crops up time and time again and I address this as soon as it arises. 'There should be no apologies on the retreat.' I start to sound a bit like I imagine my German self would sound, a bit barky. I temper myself. 'Please do not start reading your work out by apologising for what you have written before we even hear it, please!' I say at one point. This is interesting as I have noticed alot of debut UK authors tend to do this at the shop events. The Americans just plunge straight in as if they're having a bubble bath. I want everyone to have a bubble bath, so I have to say it: 'This is the first rule of thumb. Do not think of your writing practice as a piece of shit. It might well be rubbish and not at all fully formed yet - you might throw it away - who was it that said all first drafts are awful? - but there might be a golden thread in it, or hanging off it somewhere to the left or right. You wouldn't slag off a child for its tap-dancing after one term of learning to do a shuffle ball change?' I realise I'm sounding less like a writing tutor and more like a therapist, or a lunatic. But it is this balancing act which I decide, with the specific students on this retreat, knowing the challenges they are facing, is the right approach. In future, with a different group dynamic, it will call for a different method I'm sure.

Listen to your own instruction McLeod

It is the lack of noticing the very details in front of me which makes me get lost. 

Afternoons for the students are spent writing, reading or walking. As a tutor I'm busy planning the morning writing session for the day ahead, while thinking about my own novel and its path forward.
I go out for a walk mid-week in a vain attempt to work off some of the salty butter and baguette and the three meals a day prepared by The Hostess. (Read The Hostess' brilliant take on the retreat from the food side of things ) As I leave the road that leads to the entrance to the Normandie Nest 
I swerve from the two viscously barking dogs behind a fence up on high by a house on the corner. This is my signpost, I think. I will not miss these by volume alone. I do not think about what the road will look like when I come at it in reverse. I see a man in a blue truck. I find St. Anne's chapel in the middle of a field and then start the return walk back, careful to remain on the same road. I have timed a G&T in my mind for 6pm. No drinking before six seems to be right. The road in reverse of course looks different. I have no watch and no phone to check the time, but by the position of the sun it still feels early-ish. I see haystacks, rolled up on top of one another, I see a sign for a BIO ferme. I see the man in his blue truck returning from somewhere. A boy on a bike waves, he shouts, 'Salut!' This means alot as he is a French boy. 'I am here,' I think. He doesn't think I'm a scary stranger. I watch a small white haired woman who is walking her terrier. She shouts something across at me and I shout 'Oui', perhaps agreeing with something I'm not understanding.

Was lost, Stockwell

After walking for too long a time I have not come across the two barking dogs. I find myself by wind farms which are still being built. One is a white pole, reminiscent of a ship's mast or a nuclear chimney with no blades on it. All rather unsettling, I recall how The Hostess pointed them out from afar when she was driving across the marsh-land. This was some distance from the Normandie Nest. I recall the previous night over dinner telling the story of the Vasile Balea, a Dad on holiday in London who got lost for three days in London in January 2014. His son got off the tube and the doors closed behind him and his Dad was transported away. Vasile had only £17, no phone and spoke no English. The Police didn't understand him when he approached them so he gave up. He was looked after by some kind men in an Indian restaurant, fed sandwiches and it wasn't until the man pointed to his face on the front of a free London newspaper that they realised who he was and they called the Police and he was reunited with his son. I had said, 'Imagine that? Living on the kindnesses of strangers! London is supposed to be so cold, but its you, you, you and me, that's all, that's all London is.' A day later here I was with no phone, no money, no recollection of where the house was, or even the address. Another co-incidence? A bit heavy handed to be one of those lessons it is as ridiculous as a slap round the face.


Over a hedge I ask a cow, 'Which way now Cow?' I don't say it in French because I have forgotten how to speak French as I am starting to feel the hot rise of panic in the area above where my bra doesn't cover. She moves her head, swaying her nose to the left and I say, 'Thank you.' I always believe if you ask an animal a question you will get an answer. Cows especially have been co-operative on the few occasions I have asked them to be*. I see her calf is sleeping sheltered by the hedge, hidden, I think about how long a mother stands by a calf letting it sleep and fatten with those dark shiny eyes, as glossy as prunes, her semi-eyelids, do they close? Do cows blink? I am thinking how she must hate the taking of the baby cow and then I tell myself to stop thinking randomly and channel home. 
'Nineteenth of January, Nineteen Seventy-two.' - I can still recall my birth date. I am lost in locale but not in mind. Always good to check. I walk and walk and send The Hostess a psychic thought. 'Help me!' I'm sure this is how people communicated before mobile phones. I walk past a pretty cottage and there is the old woman with the white hair and her terrier. She is stood in her doorway reading supermarket junk-mail. 'Excusez-moi madame, mais je suis perdue.' She comes over and shows me her ear and pats the lobe with her finger. 'Quoi?' she says.

 'JE SUIS PERDUE!' I deaf-shout, in that loud but controlled way. Then she says, 'Nous sommes toutes 
perdues, peut-etre?' Translated: 'We are all lost, aren't we?' I wasn't betting on getting a slice of existentialism. I try to describe the house and she starts to walk with me up the road. I say, 'Il y a deux chiens, qui dises WOOF WOOF WOOF WOOF!' She smiles and nods, thinks perhaps I am just barking. After walking for some time back up the road towards the chapel, s
he says I can stay with her if I can't find my house. She is now taking me to another house 'avec un anglais qui s'appelle John' when we meet a man in his dusty overalls, just returned from work. We all shake hands. He knows the house I am describing and says 'it's just up there' with a short flick of the hand. I find that I am by the exact landmark where the dogs should have been barking manically, but the dogs are no longer outside. With relief I run back, like Julie Andrews over the field with my arms outstretched. 

The week is full of creative discoveries. I have time to really talk in depth to the writers about their aims and hopes and frustrations. One writer makes the painful decision of letting go of a novel she has been trying to write for the last couple of years. She is free to start on something new and I can see a big weight has been taken off her shoulders. Letting go of a plan is like a small relationship break-up, and the grieving comes before you do it and hopefully not for too long after. Suddenly you think, how could I not know that this wasn't right for me?! Another writer finds confidence by discussing the series of road-blocks she is facing, the reason behind her wanting to write but her lack of productivity. We devise a plan and I mention how if you do not write there will be nothing to work on and nothing to get rid of. I talked about the importance of having an idea that is yours and couldn't belong to anyone else, that writing is living, no one can do this for you. I wanted to quote the modern day French philosopher Frederic Gros, 'one should ask: could someone do this in my place? And if the answer is yes, give it up.' but I couldn't remember it and also I might sound like a tit. An other writer feels extremely enthused and lit up from the week, determined to continue on his project when back home. He has written thousands of words.
As one student leaves, she hugs me and she says, 'I feel a little changed.' This is the best thing I could have hoped for.
Come on in!

On the final evening, before I have to say goodbye to what had become our small writing community, I raise a toast, 'Thanks to the Hostess for all her amazing cooking and reminders of not to overdose on coffee and finally....To Love, Life and Passion.' The Hostess, a maverick, says, 'I would like to say something: blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.' Words are everything and yet, they are also noises just at the right time. But oh yes, remember, can't words be ever so funny too?

*Yorkshire cows inadvertently help me get an agent and help me to lie to British Airways crew report sick desk

**At the end of the retreat The Hostess is on the phone to the Bookseller who is at the shop. He says, 'hold on' as someone comes in. It turns out it is Sonia Skittini asking for me, who I haven't seen since school. The power of memory evocation through writing, eh?

This month I am reading Lorrie Moore's 'BARK', Carson McCullers 'The Member of the Wedding' and Brian Wright's 'Penge Papers'. All three have genius moments.