Monday 26 April 2010

A classless society? Not if you’re a writer

There was a time when you could tell which class someone belonged to by the cut of their clothes. Now we all shop at the same stores. Even designer label outifts look similar to High Street copies. Holidays in hot climes are available to all and eating out is no longer a reserve of the rich and sophisticated few. It’s true that cars still give a hint of a person’s buying power but I’ve never experienced snobbery attached to car ownership.

So have we finally achieved that utopian dream of the classless society?

I don’t think so!

As a writer in the UK I am continually being made aware of my place in the industry. For a number of years I wrote short stories for women’s magazines. There were times when fellow writers would imply that this was a lesser form of writing. I often challenged them to give it a try. They never did. It’s not as easy as it looks.

Shortly after my picture book, Bathtime Rap, was published, someone made the inevitable comment about how I should now move on to writing proper books for adults. Writing for children is not an apprenticeship for the real thing. It is the real thing.

What is it with writers? Why is light romance not deemed to be as worthy as a literary tome, especially as the romantic novel often brings more pleasure to more people? There’s no point in writing if it’s not to bring pleasure or enlightenment... which brings me to blogging and its standing in the literary world. Opinions are definitely mixed.

I met an old writing friend the other day. She asked me if I was managing to get much writing done at the moment, what with my husband being on chemotherapy and my son and daughter-in-law having a new baby. I said that yes, I was keeping the writing discipline going especially as I now had a blog. I explained that regular postings are all part of writing a blog but the expression on her face made me feel as if I had admitted to child abuse. She grunted and turned to talk to someone else. I was a blogger. I was a lesser writer.

Inevitably all those of you reading this will understand what a blog is and will be enjoying it... hopefully, but how can we educate those who don’t know a blog from a blag? I’ve learnt a lot by reading other people’s blogs, especially those with advice for writers. I’ve also got a lot of enjoyment from blogs. There are funny ones, thoughtful ones and ones that make you say, ‘Yes, I’ve been there and I know exactly how you’re feeling.’ So I’m sorry for those people who think that blogs are beneath them. They are the losers for sure.

Does this sort of class distinction exist in other professions or is it just writers?

Tuesday 20 April 2010

What if we had an editing pen for our lives?

This may not be an original idea but there are times when it is a highly attractive one. Allow me to elaborate...

When a writer edits their work they take out the unnecessary bits, the boring bits and the bits that don’t work. ‘Oh yes!’ I can hear you all saying. ‘I could do with removing a few of those!’

Events can be moved around so that the characters and the reader can make more sense of them. A writer can even go back to events near the beginning, make improvements and then weave those changes into the rest of the story. How many times have we wished we could do that with our lives?

During the editing process a writer will work and rework speech until the words say exactly what the character needs them to say. I’m the sort of person who opens my mouth, thinks about it afterwards and then regrets it for weeks and sometimes years.

By far the most attractive aspect of the editing pen is its ability to allow characters to ‘live happily ever after’... Oh well, back to reality.

Wednesday 14 April 2010

Seven trains for seven story-starters

I had an adventure this week. I made an impulse journey to Manchester to cuddle my newborn grandson, my proud son and my exhausted daughter-in-law. I’ve never been on seven trains in one day before. It should have been six. One was a mistake but they provided lots of material for my writer’s notebook.

Train No. 1 – Leicester to Sheffield
Opposite me a suited business man tapped out a report on his laptop while his headphones fed a gentle suss suss into his ears. He was unaware of the drama unfolding in the seat behind me, of an anxious voice on his mobile,
‘We have to close the deal today.’ ...pause... ‘Because I’m leaving the country tomorrow.’ ...pause... ‘You’ll have the money by 5 pm, right!’ I didn’t see his face but he was fast becoming a character in my mind.

Train No. 2 – Sheffield to Manchester
I was on the Trans-Pennine express, not as romantic as it sounds. There were no seats, hardly a spare piece of floor. A man took pity, stood up for me and I fought my pride and accepted. We travelled side by side, him hanging from the overhead rail, me squashed between people and suitcases. He looked as if he’d missed a night’s sleep, eyelids drooping, hangdog jowls. Shame he hadn’t got a seat! As we approached the station he tapped out a text, one-handedly. The reply was swift. His face was no longer hangdog. He pushed his way to the doors and was the first to leave the train.

Train No. 3 – Metrolink Tram to Eccles
I hadn’t seen the centre of Manchester since 1968. It’s changed. The tram provides an excellent vantage point for sight-seeing/nosying. We passed Salford Quays, a square of water surrounded by newly developed flats. The place was deserted except for a man sitting on a bench, his legs outstretched, his head hanging down. The tram veered to the right and he was gone but for a moment longer his despair travelled on in my mind.

[At this point the above photograph should be inserted but Blogger won’t let me move it down.]

Train No. 4 – Metrolink Tram to Altrincham
Yes, I know that I shouldn’t have been on this tram but it didn’t take me too far out of my way and it provided a colourful character for my notebook. He was with his mates. He spoke with a gentle rap rhythm, shoulders undulating, hands gesticulating. The closer we got to the City the more animated he became.
‘We is gonna have, right, one hell of a night, right!’ At Market Street I left them to it. I only hope it was a good night he had rather than a hell of a one.

Train No. 5 – Metrolink Tram to Piccadilly Station
A short trip. I stared through the window until we entered a tunnel beneath the station and a row of faces reflected back at me. My own was tired. I glanced away to the face behind, a young girl, long black curls, red lipstick and a tear rolling down her cheek.

Train No. 6 – Manchester to Sheffield
The train had come from Manchester airport and once again was packed before I even got onto it. I squeezed in beside a young boy and his dad.
‘We’ve had a great adventure, haven’t we?’ said dad. The boy nodded, a plastic aeroplane in each hand. I didn’t mind as aeroplanes dived-bombed across my bags. I’d had a great adventure too.

Train No. 7 – Sheffield to Leicester
At Chesterfield an elderly mother waved as her son got onto the train. She walked back along the platform alone, trying to hide her tears. It’s hard to say ‘goodbye’ to your son and then go back to your own life while he gets on with his, even though that’s why you brought them into the world in the first place. I took another tissue from my handbag.

Friday 9 April 2010

Bring back our friendly local grocery shop

They’re building another supermarket in our area and I really don’t think we need it. I accept that it would now be very difficult to go back to those pre-supermarket days. Our shopping patterns have changed since the 1960s along with our currency but, being the incurable nostalgic that I am, I long to return to the days of Mr Sharp, with his brown overalls and broad grin, and his friendly local grocery shop with its £.s.d. till that didn’t need electricity to make it work. Of course, this was all long before we knew about such things as:

BOGOFs (buy one get one free offers)
It’s a strange concept. Buying something we don’t want because it comes as part of the package. Mr Sharp would be turning in his grave if he could see all those melons ending up on people’s compost heaps.

Fruit with a label saying ‘ripen in the fruit bowl’
It won’t. It doesn’t. Mr Sharp always sold us fruit that was ready to eat on the day of purchase.

Mass packaging
One of these days I’ll stand at the supermarket checkout and unwrap all those multi-layered items, pile the wrapping on the conveyor belt and walk out with my food and nothing but my food. Mr Sharp used to drop the items into Mum’s wicker shopping bag. No need for any wrapping at all.

The trolley-battle mentality
A visit to our local supermarket means fighting for trolley space along aisles full of strangers. Even the people on the checkout are only vaguely familiar. Shopping at Mr Sharp’s grocery shop was a social event. He knew us by name and so did all his regulars.

Queues at the checkout
I have been known to take one of the supermarket magazines off the rack, sit on the floor, read it and replace it, all before reaching the front of the queue. Mr Sharp would have got his wife down to help. Queues like that would never have happened.

Expensive impulse buying
This is encouraged by clever display and marketing and cancels out any savings that I might make by buying one of those items where the supermarket greatly undercuts the local shops. I admit that with very careful price checking it is possible to make savings but you have to have a steely determination to resist the rest and I’m afraid I don’t have one of those so...

...bring back our friendly local grocery shop.

[Mr Sharp would be well in his hundreds by now so I do realise that we can’t bring him back... but it's a nice thought all the same.]

Monday 5 April 2010

An Unlikely Travel Writer

Traveller? Me? I don't think so!

I can’t ride a bike. I tip over sideways. I think it’s got something to do with my centre of gravity.

Flying scares me so much that I’d really rather stay at home.

And I don’t do walking. I’m the one who’s always trailing at the back of a group of walkers thereby allowing them time to sit and rest while they wait for me to catch up... and then when I’ve caught up they start walking again... until I trail behind and they sit and rest and so it goes on until I end up in tears, have to be escorted home and vow never ever to go walking again.

I don’t much like car travel either. It’s not that I get car-sick. It’s more of a ‘car-ache’. Two hours is about the limit of my endurance which means that most of our holidays, until recently, have been spent in North Norfolk in a small village called Blakeney.

The first time we ever saw Blakeney it was getting dark, the tide was out, we had nowhere to stay and The Blakeney Hotel overlooking mudflats was as good a place as any. In the morning I drew back the bedroom curtains and was overwhelmed by the glittering scene. Yachts and dinghies dotted the sea. Gulls swooped across waving salt marsh grasses. Children sat on the quayside, legs dangling, nets scooping unsuspecting gilly crabs from the creek. A row of boards advertised boat trips to Blakeney Point to see the seals. People were sitting at an open-fronted caravan drinking mugs of tea and eating freshly prepared breakfast baps. I couldn’t wait to get out there.

Pedlars Way stretches along most of the North Norfolk coastline. It crosses the quay at Blakeney where it becomes a raised pathway leading out to Blakeney Point. I know I said I don’t do walking but Blakeney is exceptional. In Blakeney I walk. The path passes between the car park and the duck pond and I don’t just mean any old duck pond. This duck pond is home to wigeons, shovelers, teals, pintails, mallards and what’s more they sound exactly like laughing Donald Ducks. The car park soon becomes a boat park. Duck laughter is replaced with clinking masts and the screeches and calls from the gulls, terns and avocets. One winter we even saw a flock of Brent geese from Siberia swooping over our heads. Those big birds are impressive but personally I prefer the tiny reed buntings that hop and twitter around the marshes, hiding in the masses of samphire, known locally as ‘poor man’s asparagus’.

As for accommodation, The Kings Arms is the most dog-friendly pub I know. It’s a Grade II listed inn and Josh-the-dog has spent many happy holidays with us there. They cook a mean fish and chip supper, larger than any plate can ever contain. They serve locally smoked fish and there’s even a dog biscuit box behind the bar. The pub sits just off the quay within minutes of salt marshes and shingle walks, nature reserves and bird hides. What more could a travel-phobe like myself ask for?

...until we discovered Eurostar but that’s another blog-story.