Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Writing prompt: Weather

Write a poem or story from the viewpoint of a particular kind of weather phenomenon. Here are some possibilities:

hurricane

tornado

gale

thunderstorm

lightning

heatwave

heavy rain

snow

sleet

hail

drizzle

fog

mist

mild sunny weather


Update on recent publication

Two of my poems will appear in next edition of Pushing Out The Boat, a fantastic mag based in Scotland.

My poem 'Rattled' appeared in the April edition of English Review - thank you, Luke McBratney.

Two of my poems appeared in the recent first edition of Makarelle, a fab new publication created by three fantastic writers who did the MA in Creative Writing with me last year - thank you, Dini Armstrong, Jane Langan and Ruth Loten.

One of my poems appeared recently on The Haar, a fantastic literary blog - thank you, Lydia Popowich.

Bandit magazine has accepted one of my stories, 'Seahouses', for publication later in the year.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: A Writer's opinion

 Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney

Conversations With Friends, Irish writer Rooney's debut novel, was published in 2017 after what appears to be a fairly frenzied bidding war between publishers. It was nominated for the 2018 Swansea University International Dylan Thomas Prize and the 2018 Folio Prize, and won the 2017 Sunday Times/Peters Fraser and Dunlop Young Writer Of The Year Award. 

I feel a degree of personal interest in Rooney as she was, for a couple of years, editor (and is still a contributing editor) of Dublin magazine The Stinging Fly, which has published two of my poems in the past and which I rate highly as a literary journal.  

According to Wikipedia, Rooney wrote the first 100,000 words of the novel in three months while studying for an MA in American Literature at Trinity College Dublin, which gives you a flavour of her drive, energy and ambition.

Her follow-up novel, Normal People, was an international bestseller and was longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize. It won Irish Book Of The Year at the Irish Book Awards and Waterstone's Book of the Year for 2018. In 2019, it won the Costa Prize and was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize and the Women's Prize for Fiction. It was made into a critically-acclaimed 12-part mini-series by BBC3 and Hulu, and Conversations With Friends is also going to be made into a TV series. Her third novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You?, is due to be published later this year (2021). 

                     

The problem with this sort of success is that it sets reader-expectations unfeasibly high. I was given a copy of this novel for Christmas a couple of years ago and have only got round to reading it this year, but I was aware of the hype surrounding the novel when it was first published. Even the cover quotations, ironically, have a kind of negative effect on the reader. They had this effect on me, anyway. The stream of flamboyantly admiring quotations from celebrity commentators on the dust jacket and inside the front cover of the paperback felt like they couldn't possibly be true, or even seemed like a challenge to the reader to prove them wrong. It felt as if we were being told what to think about the novel, and most readers, I suspect, aren't completely keen on this. 

On the front cover, a quotation from the Sunday Telegraph describes the novel as 'darkly funny', but I have to say that I didn't find it even remotely funny, except very slightly in odd vignettes here and there. I felt it had an atmosphere of imminent tragedy all the way through, as if something terrible was about to happen. So I was primed to find the novel different from how these celebrities viewed it, right from the start.

This does a disservice to the book, as in fact it is a fine piece of writing. However, it took me a long, long time to start appreciating its qualities and strengths (though I am obviously in a minority here). The narrator, 21-year-old Frances, a highly intelligent university student, has a flat narrative voice where everything she tells us seems lacking in emotion. It takes a while for the reader to understand that this is intentional: Frances is a damaged individual who self-harms and represses her emotions. Her best friend and ex-lover, the beautiful Bobbi, seemed inconsistent to me - sometimes vividly drawn but often responding to events in ways I found unconvincing, though I eventually decided that this too was part of the unreliability of the narrative voice. The two women perform poetry written by Frances, and through this they meet Melissa, a photographer and essayist, and her handsome actor husband, Nick, with whom Frances embarks on an affair. The novel is built around the various conversations Frances has with the other three members of this group, and with other characters such as her mother and alcoholic father. These include telephone conversations, emails and texts.

For a good part of the novel, I found this constant focus on Frances's inner life rather tedious, if I'm honest. She seemed rather cold, distanced, and the novel appeared to be solely about the emotional game-playing, self-delusion, and often slightly mystifying interactions between these characters, none of whom I found recognisable. I'm a middle-aged, working-class Yorkshire woman, and I don't mix with actors and photographers, even minor ones, or with 21-year-old writers who are offered several hundred euros to publish the first short story they've ever written. I found it difficult to really care about these people and they seemed to be from a different planet to the one I live in, but not in an interesting Star Trekky way. When I was twenty-one, I wrote poetry but I was never the kind of woman that an extremely handsome actor in his thirties would have found sexually or romantically attractive. So I'm probably not the target audience for this novel. It is, in fact, an indication of the power of Rooney's writing that I kept reading for long enough for the novel to get under my skin. 

I found myself beginning to feel intrigued by Frances, invested in what happened to her, almost in spite of my mild boredom and failure to empathise with her. I began to realise the depth of her low self-esteem, the way she despises herself and constantly self-sabotages, her inability to talk about her feelings with her close friends, her constant dissection of the discourses in which she participates and the supposedly Bohemian morality of her group of friends which only thinly conceals their basic human feelings of jealous insecurity.

As the novel progressed, I still often found it sometimes irritating. Characters often seemed to react to things in ways I found implausible. Melissa's sort-of-acceptance of Frances's relationship with Nick seemed unlikely. The fact that the highly intelligent and well-read Frances seems never to have heard of endometriosis struck me as peculiar, though I suppose that a woman of her age might not have heard of it. The fact that no one immediately investigates why Frances's father told her he had transferred money to her bank account but then it turned out he hadn't, struck me as odd.  And there were aspects of the writing that I found difficult to evaluate - images that I found problematic (were they terrible or brilliant?): 'The sky was soft like cloth and birds ran over it in long threads', 'We were driving along by the harbour, where the ships implied themselves as concepts behind the fog'. 

Yet I found the novel increasingly compelling. There were moments when the story came vividly alive for me, one being the visit of the horrendous literary agent, Valerie, during Melissa and Nick's sojourn in Etables. Though there were moments when I wanted to shake Frances and tell her to grow up, there were others when I felt deeply sorry for her and found her inability to recognise her own emotions very poignant. And I have found that I appreciate the novel much more in retrospect than while I was reading it: it has stayed with me in a way that many novels fail to.  It had a greater impact on me than the last thing I read, Celeste Ng's Little Fires Everywhere. For this reason, I would, slightly grudgingly, give it four stars and consider reading more of Rooney's work. I think that a different kind of reader would find it deeply rewarding. All I would say is that you should ignore the promotional blurb and just read the novel itself. Make up your own mind.

****





Saturday, April 24, 2021

Ring a ding ding

 

Let me tell you about my only trip to Germany. In 2004, my sister and I went on a coach trip to the Christmas fair in Cologne. We spent longer on the bus than at the destination, but it was all we could afford (story of my life). My sister insisted we both take travel sickness tablets as she gets bad motion sickness.  I’m not sure why I had to take the pills too, but my sister is not a woman you argue with. There was an overnight stop on the outskirts of Belgium and a further two-hour coach journey next morning. Due to the tendency of travel sickness pills to make you sleepy, we both overslept and missed breakfast, and then we found we couldn’t stay awake on the coach. I mean, we just couldn’t stay awake. It was as if we’d been shot with tranquiliser darts. To make it worse, for this final stretch of the journey, we were sitting on the very front seat, close to the driver and the spare driver. We tried to take it in turns to sleep, but neither of us could keep our eyes open and we ended up jerking awake in Cologne in a pool of our own dribble, with the driver and the spare driver laughing their heads off because we’d been snoring most of the way.

 


Anyway, after this ignominious start, we disembarked and the cold air soon woke us up. I got into a ludicrous tussle with a middle-aged German man whom I thought was trying to steal my shoulder bag but it turned out he was trying to instruct me to wear the strap bandolier-style in order to prevent my bag being snatched. This was my introduction to the German tendency to interfere for the good of others, a trait I find intellectually laudable but in reality, speaking as an English layabout, a bit alarming. A friend of mine lived in Germany for a year and her landlady once rang her at work to ask her to come home and rearrange the washing she had put on the line to dry. My friend refused and when she got home the landlady had rearranged all my friend’s wet clothes so they were now ordered by category, size and colour.

What struck my sister and myself most was how physically large and healthy-looking the Germans were. They all looked like Olympic athletes. They seemed like giants to us, though it might have been another side effect of the travel sickness pills.

Anyway, the main thing I want to say here is that we were both mightily impressed by the Christmas Fair. This was in the days before such fairs became so ubiquitous in Britain that you can’t visit a large British town or city between November and January without emerging covered in fairy-lights and tinsel. And even now, the Cologne Christmas Fair was the best I’ve ever experienced. For one thing, it went on for what seemed liked miles. Round every corner, a new stretch of colourful wooden huts would appear, like in the holodeck on Star Trek: The Next Generation which appears to increase in size as you walk round it. Everywhere you turned, you’d see new delights: a huge ice-skating rink, street performers, an oompah band, carol-singers, stalls selling bratwurst and huge cauldrons full of deliciously fattening potato-y concoctions. We drank so much gluhwein we almost missed the bus back home (I still have two gluhwein mugs in my cupboard), and we travelled for ten hours on the homeward journey with our purchases packed around us like polystyrene peanuts.

But it was the quality of everything that blew my mind, particularly on the stalls selling German goods. The marzipan didn’t taste like playdough but instead as if it should be called ‘marchpane’ and served on a golden platter to the queen. Christmas tree ornaments in wood and metal that were genuine works of art. Intricate puzzles and clever handmade toys, clockwork that actually worked, glittering tealights and handmade chocolates that tasted of actual chocolate rather than fat and sugar.

This very short experience of Germanic excellence has coloured my view of German craftsmanship ever since. Our Bosch fridge-freezer was bought in 2001 and is the most reliable thing I’ve ever bought – we now have a Bosch washing machine and a Bosch oven. So, after some deliberation, I decided to get my wedding rings from a German company. We’d originally liked the old-film fantasy of wandering into an upmarket jewellery store, where an eccentric but romantic sales assistant would smile benignly at our poverty and give us a good deal on a special ring. But then I realised that, even if such things ever did happen in real life, they didn’t happen to people our age who don’t look like Robert Redford and Jane Fonda at the height of their physical perfection. When you’re middle-aged, being a bit poor seems like failure rather than the charming temporary Bohemian poverty of youth. And if you’re short and dumpy, you just never get treated like Audrey Hepburn, something I’ve regretfully had to accept over the years! The reality of such a visit to a real-life jewellery store would be that, through subtle methods like not actually putting prices on individual rings and employing ever-so-slightly-slightly snooty staff, we’d be made to feel like over-reaching paupers. And I have eczema and my hands often look like they belong to someone who’s been gutting fish on a Grimsby dockside for thirty years, so I’m not keen to try on rings in front of a perfectly manicured young shop assistant. Also, we’d have to wear masks so there’d be the chance we would mishear the prices quoted, which might lead to embarrassment.

               ‘That ring is mumble-mumble-mumble.’

               ‘Oh, a hundred and fifty pounds? We’ll take it.’

               ‘No, I said one thousand, one hundred and fifty pounds.’

               ‘Oh.’                    

                                                                                       


  

So, we chose an online German company, though I was slightly worried that Brexit would lead to problems (it didn’t). They sent us, free, a device to measure our fingers which arrived only two days after I’d asked for it. I mean, during the pandemic, I’ve sent letters, first class, to friends in the next town up the motorway which have taken a fortnight to get there! We had to make compromises, of course, but at least we didn’t have to do this in front of a condescending sales assistant. I wanted 18ct white gold rings in a modern style, maybe studded with diamonds, but we ended up with the substantially cheaper 14ct yellow gold traditional plain bands, though mine has a minuscule diamond in it just so we know which is which. Inscriptions on the rings were free. One ring has ‘Grow old along with me’ inscribed in it, and the other has ‘The best is yet to be’, two lines from a Browning poem. We constructed our rings using their easy-to-use online tool which allowed us to choose material, thickness, style, decorative flourishes, size, etc and gave us very clear prices for every choice we considered.

I did have a brief patch of doubt about spending what for us is a substantial amount of money on two small items that might get lost in the post, and I emailed the company to ask whether we’d be refunded if the rings failed to arrive; I got a reassuring reply the same afternoon in perfect English.

The rings arrived on the middle day of the three the company specified, at the reasonable time of eleven o’clock, and the delivery man knocked on our door THREE TIMES!  I mean, when does this ever happen? I don’t know about you, but I usually arrive at the door breathless, pulling up my knickers or trying to flatten down my bed hair, to see the delivery van vanishing over the hill and my goods resting the wrong way up on my doorstep. I’d been worried that the rings would be different from what we expected when they arrived – we’d open the packaging to find we’d been sent chrome curtain rings or the inscriptions would be two lines from ‘Humpty Dumpty’. But the rings are precisely what we ordered and fit perfectly. And they were expertly packaged in an appropriately sized box (I once received a paperback book from Amazon which arrived inside a cardboard box big enough to fit my four-year-old nephew inside).

I wish the Germans could just arrange the entire wedding, frankly.

I showed the rings to my now-seven-year-old nephew yesterday. He twisted them round in his grubby fingers for a while, peering at them critically. I asked if he would consider being a ‘ring-bearer’ at the wedding. He asked for details of what exactly his duties would be. I explained, as I retrieved partner’s ring from down the back of the settee, that he’d have to hold the rings in their box until called upon to hand them over.

               ‘You’d be responsible for keeping them safe,’ explained partner, as I fished my ring out of the box of toy cars where it had fallen when nephew momentarily lost interest.

               ‘You don’t have to decide now,’ I told nephew. ‘The wedding isn’t until December.’

               ‘Will I be eight by then?’

               ‘No, but you’ll be nearly eight.’

He looked dubious, as if him being eight was a deal-breaker.

As I wiped the melted chocolate from his fingers off both rings and replaced them in their box, he gave a shrug and grudgingly said he’d think about it.

It’s the best we could hope for, really…

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Wedding Plans

Yes, I know. When you've lived with someone for twenty-eight years, it hardly seems worth getting married, does it? It's like announcing to your family that you've bought a pet after they've been looking after Fido or Tiddles for you every time you've gone on holiday for the past three decades. 

        As a statement of romantic commitment, it seems hardly worth saying, does it? When you've shared a home with a person for so long, you've kinda made it clear that you're prepared to tolerate his noisy eating and the way he re-interprets your instructions to suit himself, because he's such a good nurse when you're ill and he's so thoughtful and kind - or, in his case, that he can tolerate your outbursts of irrational rage and your nagging because you’re so sexy and beautiful...

        It was Covid what dun it, gov. We were all plunged into this terrible pandemic and suddenly it seemed like maybe we ought to tie the knot finally after all. I mean, if we're on our way to Apocalypse Very Soon, we ought to be legally-bound to each other in respectable matrimony, didn't we? That will surely ensure we survive the End Times, won't it? - or at least that we’ve one good party before one or both of us expires.

        Initially, we wanted to just sneak off to the register office and commit to each other secretly and privately. No fuss. No Oom-pah-pah. We wouldn't even have to tell anyone (except the registrar and the witnesses). If we didn't have the money for a fully-fledged 'proper' wedding, then we could have a very cheap clandestine one instead. What a hoot! Everyone would think we were still living in sin, when, unbeknown to them, in fact we'd actually be legally wed. It could be our guilty secret. I mean, I actually like the notion that I've been 'living in sin' for twenty-eight years - it sounds racy and exciting, even though the reality is that it's exactly like being married but without the rings and the tax breaks. I like my friend referring to my partner as my 'Live-in Lover' - way cooler than 'my husband'! So being secretly married would have meant we looked like unconventional rebels on the outside while, behind the scenes, being boringly betrothed.

        My sister put paid to that idea by pointing out that, if it ever got out (and, of course, inevitably, it would), our respective mums would be upset that they hadn't been invited to the wedding. So we gritted our teeth and booked the slightly larger ceremony suite at the Town Hall. As it turned out, my mum was mystified and told us she thought we were already married (?), and partner's mum was horrified at the thought of having to leave her house to attend the ceremony (self-isolation has become a way of life for her). She refused to go to the meal afterwards point-blank due to her belief that restaurants would a) serve her food she couldn’t actually eat (she considers capsicum peppers to be dangerously exotic) and/or b) give her portions far too large for human consumption.

        And this was only the start of what I can tell is going to become a typical Wilford-Badger catalogue of, if not exactly disasters, at least muddles. misunderstandings and potential mayhem. For one thing, I will have to wear high heels and that means, given my recent track record, there’s a high chance I’ll fall over at some point during the ceremony, probably while reciting my vows. I'm not kidding - this is a serious possibility. My most recent fall was during a sedate walk on a completely flat canal path, while wearing completely flat walking shoes. On that occasion, I landed face down, performed a comic skid and my head rebounded against the floor like a gong against a cymbal but less melodically. And then I made it worse by shouting ‘F***ing sh***ing hell, not again!’ at the top of my voice just as a couple in their mid-nineties sprinted over to ask if they could help. Hands laminated with industrial grit, forehead swelling to Klingon-like proportions, and muttering apologies, I hobbled to a nearby wall next to a road to wait for partner to bring the car round, and pretended I always went hiking wearing trousers with the knees ripped out and with only one lens in my glasses. I have a friend who also falls over a lot, and we don’t tend to go out for walks together in public any more for fear of being mistaken for Abbott and Costello.

So walking slowly across a carpeted indoor room will be no guarantee that I won’t fall over. Some of these municipal carpets have really thick piles.

 







 


Writing cue: random connections

 Choose ONE word from each of the following lists:


LIST ONE:        LIST TWO:        LIST THREE:        LIST FOUR:        LIST FIVE:

silver                    cherry                     bacon                        horse                      steam train

pewter                  orange                     bread                        elephant                    Porsche

clay                      lime                         banana                     tortoise                   school bus

treacle                  pomegranate            yogurt                     cuttlefish                skateboard

ruby                    persimmon                quinoa                    labrador                   helicopter

soot                    apple                          cheese                     snake                      aeroplane

chalk                   pear                           linguine                  lion                          raft

linen                    grape                        potato                      frog                         scooter


Now, write down your five words and try to think of as many things associated with those words as you can. Allow your mind to wander and write down everything that comes to you. Don't put too much thought into this. Let one idea suggest another. Each word might suggest something specific or generic, something only you would think of or something many people would think of. Cross out any association that seems too obvious or uninteresting. 

EXAMPLE:

'soot' - after a fire - burnt-out building - letter burning in a fireplace - industrial site - nineteenth century air pollution in big cities - darkness (black as soot, sooty sky) - Sooty and Sweep - Sooty as name for a beloved teddy bear or pet - Sooty as a racist slur - a world of soot with soot covering every surface - wet soot like black ink - what has been burned? Soot = ashes? - blackness - dustiness - dirt - smudges - knee-deep in soot - Othello's 'sooty bosom' - soot/foot/gut/slut/glut/shut/hut/mutt/cut/strut

Next, try to make some connections between items on your 'Ideas Chart'. Which ideas are you most drawn to? Can you see any narratives forming, or possibly just ideas or hints for narratives? Have any unexpected images arisen? Do any of the ideas have a strong emotional pull for you? Are different ideas coalescing or transforming your original thoughts?

Use this 'Ideas Chart' to generate some prompts for stories or poems. Hopefully, you will find that each Ideas Chart you produce gives you several ideas for writing, and you can go back to the five lists you started with to select different words as often as you like. 

You might also attempt to link the words, or write a story which uses all five words, or use derivatives of the words (such as 'elephantine', 'chalky', 'appleblossom', 'cheesy', 'rafting', etc). The words are there to be used in whatever way you wish.

Happy writing!