Sunday, 16 September 2012

The Biggest Coincidence of all

I was about to read an article entitled "Are we alone in the universe?" but when I clicked on the link all I got was a spinny-roundy thing, so while I watched it spin I thought a little about the possibility of life other planets.

It seems unlikely, I thought to myself, that whatever the combination of circumstances which resulted in Planet Earth and all its going-on-ness would not have also happened elsewhere in a universe that is so vast and has so many possibilities. Our planet has so much lifely stuff in it that it would be crazy, wouldn't it, if all that came from just one coincidence of requisite conditions, and it never happened again, anywhere, at all?

Or... is it the monkeys writing Shakespeare? That classic idea, which is clearly nonsense? I hate to break it to you but those monkeys with their typewriters would not write any plays. Not even a Mike Leigh. Or not without some incredibly enormous unlikeliness. Is that us? Are we the incredibly enormous unlikelihood? Or were we inevitable?

The best thing about all this is that, even if there is another Us out there, we may never find them. They may have already happened, and be long gone. They may not happen until we are over and done. We may find them but be unable to communicate with them. We may completely miss them because their lifeliness is so other to ours that we wouldn't recognise them if they shat on our heads, nor they us.

None of this is original. I'm just filling in time while the spinny thing spins.

Oh look, it just stopped.

(Haha, and now I've read it, and all it does is repeat my questions and answer none of them).

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Too Old to Make my Own Decisions

I was driving to work this morning, listening to Capital FM. I often listen to it. I like it. They were playing something happy and poppy and dancey and druggy, with the kind of synth-layered climaxes that make you think of being in a giant club with high ceilings and thousands of drug-soaked bodies, sweating and gurning.

I was thinking about how possible it would be for me to make a track like that. If I could be bothered. If I could find the time. Whether I could cobble something together by cheating and sewing some samples together. And then I imagined myself expressing these vague desires to somebody else, and instantly I crumpled. Just writing it down brings back the feelings I had. It is a laughable idea. There is of course the small problem of a lack of equipment, experience or expertise (although I have slightly more of those things than you might think - I still own a PA and once upon a distant past I was in a band, and we produced our own backing tracks, and we called it techno blues...)... but that wasn't what made it seem laughable, not really. The biggest problem was that those things are not for me. I'm not allowed.

I'm not really allowed to listen to Capital FM in the first place, let's face it. I'm certainly not allowed to lower both windows of my car and blast it out at high volume, and especially not in traffic jams.

And that feeling of not being allowed... it makes me feel like a little girl. A lost little shy girl, dressed in faded pink, with wrinkled knee socks that won't stay up. Tentatively asking the grownups if she can stay up late and watch Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em, but knowing they'll say no.

Hold that thought. The thing about being a little girl.

So why do I feel banned from listening (loudly) to Capital FM? It's not because they play the same ten tracks over and over, day in day out. It's not because they won't play anything unless it's got a million pound marketing budget and already been earmarked as a hit (for fuck's sake, even X Factor winners don't get on Capital FM unless they're actually really genuinely going to sell millions of records). It's not because they are sponsored by the Sun, and they report celebrities' broken fingernails with the same gravitas as thousands dying in earthquakes. 

Actually I love Capital FM. I love it because they only ever play upbeat music. They never play ballads or dirges, and the only love songs aired have a square four-four beat behind them. They play stuff you could dance to. They play stuff you can turn up loud. And a lot of that popular stuff? It's popular because it's good. And there are few things more guaranteed to get me angry than the sneering bullshit attitude which says that if something is popular, if something is liked by millions, then it is by definition shit. Because obviously if you have something in common with millions of other people then you are yourself, ipso facto, common. And common is bad. Because... well, why is common bad? BECAUSE YOU ARE AN ARROGANT ELITIST SNOB.

Ahem. Sorry. Anyway. That's not why I'm not allowed to like Capital FM. The real reason is small, and boring. It's because I'm old. And a mum. And therefore I am not allowed to like modern music, or listen to modern music, or listen to modern music loudly in a car with the windows down.

And even though some small surviving other part of me knows that is nonsense, it is a very small very quiet part, and its voice struggles to be heard. I am an old frumpy mum, and there is a whole raft of things that I'm just not allowed to do any more.

But simultaneously that too-oldness turns me into a child, a shy nervous child, asking for permission and failing to get it.

And worried. Worried about getting it right. The rest of my journey to work was occupied with thoughts about all the stuff in my life this week, and all the different ways I can worry about it. Money, my kids, our holidays, our new lodger, the laundry, all my loved ones and my relationships with them, what I need to do, who I need to talk to, how, when... and in the midst of all this I was fretting about the fact that I was fretting, and wondering whether I need to do more, or do less, or do it differently, or be more chilled, or be more mindful... and every one of those fidgeting restless thoughts could be summed up as one simple question: Am I doing it right?

And there we are again, back at the small child. Anxious for approval, for permission.

I need to get old enough that I can be properly old, which means not caring that I'm old, and therefore not being a child.

There's some sense buried in there somewhere. I think. Did I do it right?

Monday, 16 July 2012

Possessed, by Niki Valentine


Today I'm very privileged to be hosting an interview with Niki Valentine, who is doing a blog tour to promote the release of her novel Possessed for the Kindle. Niki also writes under the name Nicola Monaghan, and is a fantastic writer. This is the first Niki Valentine book I've read, and I can recommend it. I would also recommend her Monaghan books (particularly The Killing Jar, which I loved).

Here are my questions and Niki's answers.

1. You write under two different names. How would you describe the difference between the two writing styles?
I think the difference is quite subtle. The Monaghan books are, generally, dark thrillers too, but more literary, so I might do things with language and imagery that I wouldn’t necessarily try in the Valentine books. And my approach to endings is probably slightly different too, where I might leave big questions unanswered in the Monaghan books, and play a bit more with this. However, I’d say that the biggest difference is that potentially supernatural things happen in the Valentine novels and, as a result, they are marketed differently. I explore similar themes in both, really, like destructive relationships and damaged psychologies. 

2. Do you find it difficult to move from one writing style to the other? Do you switch frequently, or do you have to have large chunks of writing time in either one writing voice or the other?
I don’t find it too difficult a transition at all. There isn’t much difference in the process between the two to be honest, and so it doesn’t feel that different while writing. If anything, switching is quite invigorating because the different demands of the two genres add a bit of colour and variety. And, yes, I switch quite freely. Having different projects on the go at one time is a good way to work for me. It means I never get writer’s block as, if I’m having problems with one project, I just look at another and usually this gets my creative juices flowing again.

3. You're clearly drawn towards darkness (and to great effect) in the things that you write. Can you explain why? Do you ever feel like writing about fairies, sparkles and puppy-dogs? ;)
Lol, no, I’ve never really thought about writing about those things. Unless, of course, we’re talking fairies as tall, dark, malevolent creatures, like some of those created by Charlaine Harris and Graham Joyce. And the nearest I’ve come to writing about a puppy dog was a growling, sharp toothed ghost. I’m definitely drawn to the dark side of life and the human psyche and I don’t really know why. Primeval fears fascinate me, as does death and how we deal with it. The closest I come to working this out is thinking about the level of loss in my family and how death was such a constant for me, growing up. My uncle died the year before I was born, and my granddad when I was eighteen months old. My mamma (grandma) had four children die of the ten she gave birth to. So I was brought up with all sorts of stories around death and loss and I think it left me with a lasting fascination. But I think there’s a part of me that’s drawn to these things, anyway. I’ve always loved graveyards, and dark stories, and the sense of the past you feel in some places. Secretly, I’m a bit of a goth at heart. 

4. Possessed is a psychological horror story about a pianist. Was the music an important aspect of the novel for you? Do you imagine soundtracks to the books you write?
Yes, it’s interesting, but I think it’s only as a writer that I’ve really understood how important music is to me. It’s been a major theme in three out of the four novels I’ve published so far and I definitely have a sense of a soundtrack in everything I write. I do play the piano, to a reasonable standard, although I’ve never had lessons and taught myself on a bontempi organ, and then a tiny casio keyboard, in my teens. I was so absorbed with it by the time I was in sixth form that my parents thought I might abandon my studies and go to music college instead. It was a temptation. But, instead, I went to study maths. I think it’s quite common, isn’t it, with mathematic people, to have this musical part of themselves too? I’ve always loved dancing and singing and playing any musical instrument I can get my hands on.

5. Tangentially to the above question... do your dreams have soundtracks?
Sometimes. It really depends. I am quite a dreamer, I don’t know if this is common to writers but I think possibly it is, based on conversations I’ve had with other writers and with my students. I dream a lot, vividly and, often, lucidly too. So there is sometimes music. I’ve even woken up singing before.

6. I am often surprised by the subtle thoughts and emotions I find myself having in dreams; not remembered responses from real life, but reactions to complex unreal scenarios that I would be pleased with if I'd written them. I often wonder if I can consider myself the "author" of my dreams, or whether subconscious creation doesn't really count. Do you ever use your own dreams as material for the fiction you write?
I think that for any writing process, the subconscious is very involved. Often, when you have a problem with a piece of work, going away and doing other things, not thinking about, is the best thing if you want to solve it. I’ve done this all my life, even with mathematical problems, and found that the subconscious is cleverer than other parts of my brain! So, yes, I do think we are the author of our dreams in the sense that we’re the author of anything we create. I have often used my dreams as a material although, sometimes, I’ve woken up thinking that I’ve dreamed a great story then realised, fully conscious, moments later, that it doesn’t translate at all. I am absolutely fascinated with the dream state, though, and it’s another thing that comes out in my writing.

7. Possessed is based in a music college called the "Conservatoire". Is it based on a real educational institution, and if so, is it one you've attended / taught at?
There are a number of music conservatoires around the country, but this is not based on any specific one. In a sense, it did come out of my own teaching. The conservatoire method of teaching involves masterclasses, where students are taught skills and techniques in front of a student audience, by a professional musician. This is an emerging technique in creative writing teaching, and one I’ve seen employed to great effect by the National Academy of Writing. It was fantastic for the students involved but it did strike me that it could be a destructive force, in the wrong hands, and that led to the premise for this novel.

8. I was interested in the sense of otherness highlighted by your protagonist's having just arrived at Uni and feeling herself out of her comfort zone. Was that an important element to the horror / suspense aspect of the novel?
Yes, I think that this was important. There needed to be a strong justification for her psychological state in the story. That said, this was at least in part an autobiographical thing. I went to a good University, and was one of the very few people there from a proper working class background. It didn’t really bother me as much as it does Emma in the story, but I did notice the differences. I suppose, even then, I was observing them with writerly detachment. Like Emma in the book, I had a moment of panic after arriving when I was stuck to my bed in my room, terrified to move and utterly homesick. It didn’t last long. Just like in the novel, someone knocked on the door and the next thing I knew, a bunch of us were out in the city centre eating Italian food.

9. Do you have a preference regarding endings to books? For instance, do you prefer everything neatly wrapped up, or do you prefer to be left asking questions?
I like both. And I do quite like leaving the reader slightly challenged with some open questions. My two literary novels do this in a big way, and readers have responded very positively to this. I’ve had to rein this in slightly for the new genre but have managed to write endings for both Niki Valentine novels that close the main question and let off all the tension, at the same time as opening up a set of new questions that I don’t answer. The ending to Carrie, the film version, was quite an inspiration to me. I know not everyone likes it, but I was not expecting that final twist, and the idea that it might not all be over after all horrified me.


Sunday, 17 June 2012

Being a Writer

Recently my mind has turned repeatedly to The Next Book. This is a book I will write one day. Because I am A Writer, and Writers Write Books.

And then I found myself reading a novel* about a writer, and there was some discussion about the business side of his life - what projects he was working on, how much they were paying, how motivated he was to finish them off. I was reminded of my time as a full-time writer, during which I was so distracted by the workaday stress of what, when, how and how much that I rarely wrote anything I was happy with.

I remembered the stubborn glee with which I turned my back on the publishing world and self-published, vowing pompously never to fall for the artificial allure of Literary Success again.

So why, when I imagine this book I am going to write, do I frame my thoughts with publishers, reviews and - yes - Literary Success? I don't even know what the damned thing is about, just that I must write it.

I've been kind to myself and allowed myself a few more months off, but apparently I have to start writing next year. Not only that, but I have to write fast. I'm only allowing myself a year or two. God knows how, as it's unlikely I'll get any time off work or parenthood.

But this morning, for the first time and, with shame I realise, in a spirit of Honest Deconstruction of One's Desires which is rare for me, I wondered why. Why the impatience?

Because I need proof. That I am a writer, that I didn't make it all up, that I am not some flash in the pan. That I am worth something. And for that I need a product. A published product.

Well, this will not do. I didn't enjoy the business of being a full time writer and I didn't like the misery of trying (and only partially succeeding) to get published. I don't have the time to write a novel soon or quickly, and the pressure created by such an attempt would make me unhappy.

So. Let it be known.

I Am A Writer.

But that doesn't mean I have to write A Great Novel (or any novel) some time soon, or any time at all.

I will write what I want, when I want, and I will bloody well enjoy it.

So there.

*Zoe Heller: Everything You Know (which I am enjoying, despite the unsympathetic protagonist).

Friday, 18 May 2012

When Pans Come Together

(that was a typo in the title, but rather apt so I'm keeping it)

Don't you just love it when a plan comes together?

I do have this tendency to commit myself to crazy endeavours that involve a lot of headless-flying and not a lot of sleep, and this last fortnight has been no exception... but it has all paid off.

Basically it is Felix's tenth birthday tomorrow, and he decided weeks / months ago that he would like another Camping Birthday Party, which involves us, our friends, Felix's friends and assorted hangers-on disappearing up into t' hills for a weekend, getting muddy, having Nerf Gun wars and eating cake (and drinking lots of beer after the kids have gone to bed).

It's lots of fun, but when it doesn't coincide with half term it's an organisational marathon.

Normally I try to mitigate this by going down on my own in the morning with a car jam-packed full of stuff and setting the tents up for everyone before they arrive on the train. Advantages: I get some peace, I get to tinker and organise and arrange stuff without having naggy hungry impatient children biting my ankles, and - crucially - I can shove as much stuff into the car as I like without having to worry where the pesky people* will sit.
(*I'm not really a misanthrope**)
BUT this year I can't get the time off and am basically having to drive from Oldham (where I work) to Edale and will be arriving later than the hordes.
SO. I came up with a brilliant plan: Pack the car up on Wednesday evening, take all the camping stuff to work with me on Thursday morning, drive from Oldham to Edale on Thursday night, set the tents up, have the campsite all to myself, get up at the crack of dawn on Friday morning, drive to Oldham, go to work, go back to Edale on Fri night to find everyone happy and arrived (having come on the train with Ally) and everything set up and ready for maximum chillage / enjoyment.
There were, however, some snags:
1a. LOTS of people, all of whom had tents and general baggage which I helpfully agreed to take with me.
1b. LOTS of stuff. Cos this ain't just any old camping trip, this is a birthday party, AND two of the guests are other people's children for whom we will be in loco parentis, and I would like to make things as comfy and nice for them as possible, which means beds, duvets, pillows etc.
... meaning that it takes HOURS to pack everything up and get it into the car, and it only just fits. Our (big) car has never been so full. By the end it was like that vid of Japanese people being forcibly squeezed onto a train by helpful conductors. I had a gap on the passenger seat so I could see my left wing mirror, but apart from that it was like driving a van. TOTALLY FULL. And we had to put the roof box on too. In the middle of the night on Wednesday night. When we realised we wouldn't get away without it.
2. Oscar being ill. Oscar (3yo) has had a temperature all week and generally been unhappy and coughy and ill, which has made everything more difficult, not least the worry that he might not be well enough to come away, and what the hell we would do if that were the case.
3. Genius Day. It is Genius Day at work today, which meant that I wouldn't have been allowed the day off even if I did have enough leave. But also meant that I have spent every spare moment I possibly could for the last month developing my exciting piece of Genius Day software and being ever-so-slightly obsessed and distracted by that.
4. "flexi-start" working hours. I do not have flexitime where I work, but I do have "flexi-start", which means I am allowed to arrive at work any time between 8am and 10am, but after that I have to work 7 hours and I have to take an hour for lunch, so the time I leave is dictated entirely by the time I arrive. Which means that, in order to have time to drive to Edale and put tents up in the light, I had to leave work at 4pm yesterday, so had to arrive at 8am, so had to have the car packed up and ready to go by 7.30am yesterday morning. It also meant I had to leave the campsite at 6.15 this morning so I can leave work at a decent time tonight.
Net result: One VERY tired Clare yesterday, after several nights in a row of very little sleep. And a car FULL of stuff. I had to plug myself into YouTube and listen to LOUD MUSIC on headphones all day just to get myself through (had lots of fun with 70s and 90s nostalgia though).
So, the happy ending? A campsite full of tents and beds and duvets and food and a kitchen and tables and chairs, all set up beautifully. A very-snug Clare in bed by 10.15pm (with 4 mattresses and a onesie and a sleeping bag and two duvets, oh yes, although I will have to relinquish some of that to the hordes tonight). A decent night's sleep. A morning wakening to hills and trees and air and running water in the background. A peaceful early-morning drive through the hills. Genius Day, which is really rather fun, and my software is nearly finished and I like it lots and I am proud of it and who knows, maybe I will win a PRIZE???
Nothing to worry about at all, a fun weekend ahead, and best of all Oscar has no temperature at all and is back in school for the second day running.
RESULT!!
** Oh all right then, maybe I am. PS When I arrived at the campsite yesterday, there were four (four!) hares, chasing each other about madly, and coming really-really close to me whilst doing it. They were really beautiful. It was magical. PPS Massive props to my friend's teenage son, who met me there last night and helped me put all the tents up. He was still asleep when I left this morning.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

RIP Dipsy

(sorry, this is a bit of a weepy one I'm afraid)

Our dog Dipsy was 14 years years old. We'd had her since she was a puppy. She'd seen us through a lot of different life stuff, came on holiday with us every year, quietly occupied her corner of the room and hated it when we closed doors. She liked to do her regular rounds to make sure everyone was OK.

For the last two years or more, she's been in various flavours of decrepitude. We'd had so many false alarms, it began to seem she would last forever.

One of her hips was kaput and she had trouble getting around because she had arthritis (as well as a dodgy heart and menhirs disease and a dodgy stomach, and partial blindness and partial deafness and possible senility). For the last few months we'd stopped taking her to the park cos she just fell over. She still enjoyed sniffing around the garden, but had to be carried up the steps back into the house, as well as across the kitchen floor, as she couldn't get any purchase on the tiled surface and her legs would just go from under her.

We still got tail wags when we came home, and she still enjoyed her food.

But in the last week or so, we had increasing episodes of Dipsy waking us all up at night, clearly in distress and unable to settle. Last night was the most extreme episode of this kind, and in the end she could only be calmed by giving her one of the valium the doctor had given me for back pain.

We decided yesterday that we needed to think about taking her to the vet and asking him to end her life. This was horrible, because I had always assumed she would just keel over in the night or we would take her to be fixed, only to be advised by the vet that her time was up. I struggled with the idea that we would pre-empt the process. How could we know if we were making the right decision? How do you define quality of life? But it was clear her enjoyment of life was only going to go downhill from this point, and that even if she had some pleasure at some times, she also suffered a significant amount of distress. So we prepared Flash (our 9-year-old) for the possibility that she may be taken to the vet at some point this week.

That was a horrible conversation. We decided to wait until after Oscar (who is 3, and really too young to benefit from / properly understand any kind of forewarning) was in bed. But then Felix was all full of chatter and excitement about his birthday in 2 weeks' time, and the release of Minecraft for the xbox. And then he was putting his pyjamas on, and...

In the end I waited until I'd read him his bedtime story and he was all ready for bed. Of course, he cried. We were already snuggled up, so cuddles were easy. This morning he asked whether Dipsy would still be there when he got home from school, and I had to say no. He said goodbye and gave Dipsy one last Bonio, and we sent him off to school with an explanatory note for his teacher.

We decided during the night, when nothing but valium would calm her, that today would be the day. Ally had a meeting so I decided to use up a day's leave. I wouldn't have been able to concentrate on writing Javascript today anyway. My bosses were nice about it.

I took her to the park first, as she hadn't been for ages and always used to like it so much. She sniffed about a bit, but didn't stray more than a metre from my side, and after a few minutes came and stood next to me expectantly. This is what she does when she's ready to be carried back inside, after being in the garden.

I'd tried to arrive early at the surgery and beat the queues, but I somehow managed to miss it altogether and drive straight past it, and by the time I'd done a fraught U-turn (and nearly crashed into a bus), the doors had been opened and a queue of people and their dogs had been let in.

It's a tiny waiting room which Dipsy never likes, particularly if there are other dogs, which stress her out. She wouldn't lie down and didn't want to be on my knee. She was panting. The other dog-owners were all chatting animatedly amongst theirselves, and I couldn't stem the tears. I just prayed desperately that nobody would ask me what was up - I knew I wouldn't be able to speak.

Eventually it was our turn. The vet was brisk and businesslike, and agreed it was the best thing. He did his best to reassure me. She wouldn't lie down on the table. His assistant cuddled her and supported her. I sort of felt that should have been my job, but I might not have done it right. I stroked her flank ineffectively, and choked back the sobs. I couldn't think of anything to say to her. It was so quick. She just sort of crumpled. You could see that her whole body went into instant relaxation. Her eyes stayed open. I thought she was still breathing, but she wasn't.

I sobbed and sobbed. They were very understanding.

When she was a puppy she had a brightly-coloured giant rattle, designed for a baby. She used to bark at it madly. In the end we had to hide it. Every Christmas she would get a squeaky toy which she would attack with gusto, squeaking it madly until finally the squeak was killed, which was always a relief. If she didn't kill the squeak, I would eventually crack and hide it somewhere out of her reach, only for it to be unearthed a few months later by either her or one of our kids, and the squeaking would resume (sigh).

I've washed her bedding.

I confess I've looked forward to no longer having a garden full of dog poo, or having furniture and whole rooms that stink of old ill dog, or little presents on the hall carpet in the mornings. I won't miss those things. She'd reached a point where she couldn't really be a part of the family any more.

I slept on the sofa next to her the night before last. I gave her lots of cuddles in the last two days.

We might scatter her ashes in Edale or maybe the Lakes. Felix/Flash wants some kind of memorial in the garden. A plaque, maybe?

I'm glad I took the day off. I have nothing to do today but grieve. That's fine.

Goodbye Dipsy.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Boobs

Thanks to Captain Black for alerting me that my old internet domain has been taken over by malicious hackers. Apparently if you visit the boobish place, you may end up doanloading a nasty virus. So please don't!

The domain expired and I didn't renew it, as we're poor and it was an unnecessary thing to be spending money on, so I'm afraid it is beyond my control.

Apologies to anyone who has been similarly stung.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Hello

Hello.

Dunno why I'm here really, just that I was reminded that I haven't been here for a while. It's weird though, I feel very little drive to write these days. I keep thinking vaguely that maybe I could write some blog posts, but then I dash off a brief tweet and that seems to be enough. I have faint ideas about writing novels too, but they never last. The fact is I'm now working full time, and I only ever wrote novels when I was working a 4 day week or less, so that I had whole days free for writing. And for most of the time, I only had one child.

Writing is something I will do again, but not yet.

For the moment, I'm just enjoying not being a teacher. I have more spare time than when I was a teacher, but not a lot in the grand scheme of things. It still feels like an incredible luxury that I have time at the end of every day that is for ME, but it's at the end of a full-time-working-mum day, and I mostly want to spend it either watching telly or reading books. I'm reading more books than I have read for years - approximately one a week, and this is compared to - at times - one a year.

It dawned on me recently that I have never before been a full-time-working-5-days-a-week mother of two: I have only ever been a full-time-working-4-days-a-week mother of one.

That's rubbish, of course: when I was a teacher, I was a full-time-working-5-days-a-week mother of two, and how. But that was just some altered dimension when I only got 3 or 4 hours of sleep a night and I was sleep-walking through this strange unending torture because I believed there was no escape. So, now I find myself with a full-on busy life with few breaks, but it feels like a warm bath compared to my life before. What I feel is an amazing contentment.

I have a history of pushing forward to some invisible future where everything will be all right, and of course it never arrives. I have always had thoughts along the lines of "If only I can get this thing sorted, then everything will be all right."

Towards the end of my teaching career, I started looking for other jobs and thinking, "If only I could have the kind of job where you go to the office in the morning, you do difficult but predictable stuff all day, you think hard and organise stuff but you don't have to make anybody else do stuff, and then you come home and forget all about it until the following day... then everything would be all right."

And here I am, and everything IS all right. I really rather love my new job, and that's a bit of a surprise. I stopped being a software engineer a few years ago and had no desire to return after being made redundant and having a baby and being a full time writer and generally having a couple of years away from it all. I'd run out of software-engineering steam, and I realise now that the company I was working for had become a really bad match for me. But now I'm doing it properly, which means I'm being a geek and cramming as much new knowledge I can fit into my head, and loving every minute. There's a fantastic culture at my new workplace, where you're encouraged to ask questions and nobody minds taking time out to come and explain things to you in detail.

So there's that, and the mothering, and not a lot of time or energy for anything else. And a rather sumptuous pleasure in not even attempting to do anything else, but instead watching telly and reading (mostly mass-market crime fiction) books and doing a bit of desultory home improvement. Oh yes, and swotting for exams. My new employers insist that everyone should be studying towards some geeky exam or other, and I can't even pass my probation until I've passed an exam (Microsoft Certificated Database Administrator, SQL Server 70-433, in case you're interested).

When I was a teacher, one of the things I really hated was the way you had "homework" to do every night. You were always working, preparing for the next day, the next week...and never feeling prepared. I remembered how, towards the end of my degree, I looked forward to never having homework to do again, and wondered how the hell I had managed to find myself in a career full of such bloody unending homework. But this is different, because this is for me, and I can study at my own pace, and to be honest I've always rather enjoyed sitting exams. I'm such a gleeful swot, it's brill.

But how funny it is that my life feels so chilled and luxurious, when in fact I work really hard and have so little time. People have said to me on several occasions that even though I didn't become a teacher, the time won't have been wasted. I will have learnt a lot.

I'm not sure I'll ever rid myself of the feeling that in fact all I ever did was FAIL to learn the skills I was supposed to be learning, but I have gained various things. An appreciation for a life I once failed to appreciate. A lack of fear. A willingness to admit when I'm confused about something, and ask for help.

Oh yes, and I have my choir. It was desperation, the need for something, anything that was creative, enjoyable and for ME... that drove me to finally get round to joining a gospel choir, and I love it.

Of course I don't technically need to be anonymous any more, but I've rather got used to it. I can't see myself blogging so very publicly again, but I might resurrect some of Boob Pencil's archives. In the meantime, here are a few posts I unearthed.

This contains links to a whole series of posts relating to Julia Darling, an amazing writer friend who died of breast cancer a few years ago.

And this is a series of posts I wrote about breaking into my old primary school, when it was half-demolished.

Dunno when I'll be back, but rest assured I'm fine.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay

I GOT THE JOB!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I am more relieved than a relieved bag of 100% proof relief with a side serving of relief and several giant injections of RELIEF.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Forward March

Oh golly gosh I am very 'zausted.

This is just a quick one while I have a rest from the relentless tide of progress.

I have a job interview tomorrow morning. Doing what I used to do four years ago, before I had the cracked idea of changing career. Twice. [sigh]

Aaaaaaaaanyway. I used to work in IT, which is fine and grand and all that, but you're supposed to Know Stuff About Stuff. So I have been cramming my brain to bursting with Stuff About Stuff for the last two weeks. I have already been made to sit three very difficult and technical tests, and I will be given another one tomorrow morning. This is a bit scary, especially as it feels like a bit of a blag (but that's only cos I don't believe in myself. I do actually know lots of Stuff About Stuff).

I have an interview on Monday morning, too.

I'm trying to think of tomorrow as the dummy run, and then it doesn't matter if I fall arse over tit. I find it hard to believe they will give me a job, but I guess anything's possible.

We also have some foreign visitors coming to lodge with us again for a few weeks, and I have got meself a private client in my New-But-Hopefully-Soon-To-Die-A-Death career, so hopefully that will stave off impending starvation and make up for all the days' wages I'm missing cos of job interviews and time spent preparing for them.

So, you know. Busy and tired and still pretty stressed, but definitely moving forward, and glimpsing a potential exit from the gloop of not-right-ness I've been stuck in all this while.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Status Update

I'm back to doing agency work again, but have (almost) made a decision: I'm giving up on the new career.

For now what I'm doing is low-paid and untaxing, but is a toy version of what my career really entails, is very low paid and is temporary. As a family we are the poorest we've ever been, but the thought of getting a proper job in my supposed career fills me with dread.

Because of all the crap that happened in my previous job, it will be another year before I'm fully qualified. Another year of being judged, graded and scrutinised, and (now) being terrified that the same thing will happen again: I'll think I'm doing all right and then be informed at some late stage, most emphatically, that I'm not. Things in my career are getting considerably worse under the Tories and I just don't think it's worth it. So I'm (probably) getting out.

I've been looking into going back into IT, which is what I did four years ago. Before the miscarriage, before being made redundant, before losing my literary agent and failing to get published and failing to make a living as a writer and failing to get anywhere with this new career and (successfully, hurrah) having another baby.

I stopped doing IT because I was made redundant, and then because I was having a baby, and then because I wanted to be a writer, and then because I didn't believe I would be able to get a job easily in IT because of the recession and because my skills are out of date. But it turns out my skills aren't as out of date as I thought, and anyway brushing them back up again won't be as hard as I thought. I think. I haven't actually got a job yet, so I may be wrong. But the recruiters seem to think I'm onto a winner. So we'll see. Failing that I think I'd rather some random tedious office job, for now at least, than return to the new career. So, unless my confidence magically returns or I discover I really am not qualified to do anything else, I'm probably giving up.

I hate giving up.

But what's the point of carrying on, if the reality is so utterly fucking miserable?

And how ironic, if I can indeed just walk back into a job in IT, when I thought it would be so hard?

It helps that I am no longer distracted by novel-writing, by small babies or the attempts to make them.

Plus ca change, and all that.

Life is hard still, and full of angst and worries and woe... but I am finally looking forward to a future that I can believe could be enjoyable, instead of one that I believed might maybe ought to be all right at some distant point in the future... but maybe not.

Onwards and upwards. Innit.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Happy?

Well, first, the boring stuff: After getting increasingly antsy and worried about not having work, I just landed a month of low-paid but easy and mostly-stress-free agency work. So that's good.

On a slightly more meta level...

I've been thinking about happiness. Because every now and then, I manage to get my head out of oh-fuck-shit-everything's-going-wrong mode, and start thinking things like, "Well, look at me. Here I am with beautiful children, out in the sunshine, and with no horrible job to make me miserable. This is quite nice. I can enjoy this."

And that's when the anti-happiness tzar starts shouting from the back of my cranium. "What?" he says. "Are you MAD? How dare you have fun? You're unemployed and completely crap! IT'S NOT ALLOWED."

The tzar is an embodiment of guilt and self loathing. I'm crap and don't deserve to be happy. But there's also something a bit more insidious: I'm playing a role. I tell people how crap things are and I want their sympathy, therefore I can't be happy cos that wouldn't fit the role. But... maybe I don't actually need their sympathy? Maybe things aren't so bad after all? Maybe this life, which on the face of it looks like a mess, is actually quite pleasant and stress free and not so bad after all?

But then I start worrying about money and the future and the fact that people have told me I'm crap at what I'm trying to do, and the stress returns and I can't believe I ever said I was happy...

Part of this is a typical me thing: I think in black and white. Intelectually I know the world isn't that simple. Not only do I know it, I appreciate its beauty. As a novelist I love the fact that you can have characters who are contradictory, who are both good and bad, cos that's real life, man. But despite all of that... somehow the basic me, the one who just reacts to stuff and doesn't think about it, wants everything to have a nice neat box to live in. And gets continually confused about whether I'm living in the Happy box or the Unhappy one. (both. I'm living in both. Why is that so hard to grasp? It's normal. I'M BOTH.)

But anyway, trotting quickly past the confusion of what box I'm living in, there is another issue: Why on earth am I even trying to be happy? Isn't that just the most bourgeois self-indulgent thing you ever heard? Happiness? Pah! Most people don't even have the option.

Why do I think such a thing is even attainable? Why should I deserve it? What's so special about me? Why do I keep chasing after it, even though it's so obviously hard to find? Why don't I just accept that life is hard and that's the way it's meant to be?

A few people have said to me things like, "No job is worth this. You shouldn't have to go through this kind of shit. If it's making you this unhappy, just get out."

And I sort of did. I got out of one particularly nasty job, but I'm still flailing my fists at the door of the same career, hoping they'll let me back in, with no guarantee that I won't end up in the same old shit. Part of me thinks, well done me for escaping one bit of crap and still holding out to minimise any more... but part of me thinks, who am I trying to fool? What makes me any different? Why should I get an easy ride? - and how presumptuous of me to even aim for one.

I spout a lot of hippy shit to myself, some of it mangled through a second-hand Buddhist sieve, but it generally goes along the lines of keep calm, be nice to yourself, chill out, stop worrying, cuddle your kids... and poor and calm is better than rich and stressed. But let's face it, that kind of crap is the preserve of the middle classes - those people who have nice houses and spare time and can afford to talk like that. OK, yes, I have no job and no money and neither does my partner. But we're not poor like really poor people are poor. We have a big house and a small mortgage. We have qualifications and skills and connections and Nice Families and the gift of the gab and a million advantages that the truly poor people just don't have.

The irony is that the middle-class-ness both opens the door to the pursuit of happiness as well as slamming it firmly in my face with a guilt-clad chattering glove.

So, you know. Happy? Me? Well I might be, if I would only let myself.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

hiatus

People are strting to worry about me again, which I suppose may be justified, but I'm not convinced that blogging is really helping at the moment.

I'm in a slump, these things happen. But slumps never last and life is ever changing. This will all be in the past and forgotten about soon enough. I have so many different abilities, sooner or later I'll find some way of believing in myself again. Don't worry.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Stupid Things That Make You Blue

Stupid things.

My 9-yr-old spotted a leaflet in Tesco: Some kind of competition for the best mum in the country. "You should enter that," he said. "You'd win." "Why would I win?" "Because you're the best mum." He couldn't explain why. A friend who was with us told him he should take the form home and fill it in for homework, but the form said the entrant had to be 18+, so I told him to get his dad to help.

The form is still sitting on the side, and I can't say what I want to, which is this: "Mothering is the only thing I have any pride in at the moment. There's no question of me winning, I know that. They're looking for inspirational stories of magical mums. But that's not the point. Between you, you and your dad could come up with some concrete praise, and it would do me no end of good, just being able to read it."

The only person who fills forms in round here is me, and if it can only be done as the result of my nagging, it won't work. So it sits there, unfilled-in and depressing. Another small dig at the failure that is me.

I bought new clothes. I hadn't done this for over a year. Because I had no money, and there's no point if you'll look just as bad in the new as the old.

Because I never have any time or confidence, because I look rubbish in clothes shop mirrors, because nothing ever fits me, because I always buy the wrong things, I do clothes shopping in a mad fool rush. I run into the shop, grab an armful of things which don't quite fit or suit, run out again. Go home. Try them on in front of the mirror. Despair.

But this time, a combination of Primark and the local market-for-the-downtrodden created one magical outfit which, I thought, was rather stunning. So I wore it, and nobody said a word. Even my 3-yr-old, who is normally very observant and says "I like that top Mummy" whenever I wear anything new (I know, it's fantastic, I'm hoping he'll be gay) stayed schtum. My conclusion: They're awful clothes, and everybody is being kind. I have terrible taste and the clothes I like are the ones everyone else hates. Another outfit from the recent outing only created the remark, "It's very you," said as though it was an insult. Of course it's very me. I am me. Fat, and old, and with terrible taste in clothes.

I'll have a piece of cake then. Sugar cheers me up.

I read a novel about a woman with a boring husband and a grown-up daughter, traipsing around in twinsets and pearls, a housewife, preoccupied with all her "middle-aged" occupations, everything about her being described as old. She was two years older than me.

I went for lunch with a friend, who told me about some new converted mill in town, with a nice courtyard and a performance space and loads of other lovely things. I had no idea what she was talking about and knew I was never likely to see it. I have no idea what's happening in the world, in my city, in the various arty circles I once moved in. I don't do stuff like that. We tried to make conversation but I had nothing to say. Beyond bemoaning my jobless futureless state or eulogising about my children, I have nothing to contribute.

I keep having conversations with friends, about how things are. I list the reasons I'm crap, my life is crap. Then I try to balance it, by thinking of redeeming qualities. "But at least I'm A, or I can B," I say. But I keep getting silence for a response, or on a couple of occasions, they challenged my interpretation. These friends are in no better situations than me. Most people I know are struggling with some deep malaise or other. I don't know whether it's our age, the times we live in, neither, or both - but I'm not unique. Maybe they don't think they need to validate my pronouncements, or are distracted with their own worries, or maybe I forget to notice the nice things they say (and I do, because they certainly sometimes do), or maybe I'm sometimes just wrong.

I am obsessed with time. Is there time to vacuum? When will I fit in the washing? Can I clean out this cupboard? When will I read that book? How will I find the time to pack for the holidays, wash the bedding, fill in those forms, renew the insurance, tidy my study, prepare myself so that I'm ready for some unpredictable future which probably won't happen anyway? And how can there be so little time, when I don't even have a job? (Answer: motherhood. But my children are my saving grace, so I can't use them as an excuse).

There's not enough time to live even this unremarkable life.

I've been acccused of being solipsistic. I can't deny it - it's always been true. It's obvious, especially when my first complaint is that nobody has praised my clothes or entered me into a Best Mother competition. It's all about me, even when that me is a reduced little creature who does nothing and hates herself. I don't understand how people aren't solipsistic. Surely, in your own heads, you're all thinking about yourselves, your lives, how you're going to get through? Is it just that other people don't admit to it? Of course I think about other people. All the time, particularly the ones whose forms I fill in, whose clothes I clean, whose lives I try to make easy, who I try not to burden with my self-obsessive whines. I care about them, I worry about them, I want them to be happy. But yes, I think about me too. And I know, have always known, that I do it more than others. I can't deny it, but I don't think I can change either, and it's just another reason that I'm not quite right, am less than the person I'd like to be.

I thought I was doing OK. I was chilling out, pottering about, fixing and sorting and enjoying my children. I probably am OK. And then people ask how I am, and I feel as though the answer should be "bloody awful", because objectively things aren't great. No job, no real clue of who I am or who I want to be or what the hell I'm going to do with my life. Yes, I'm still trying to succeed in my chosen career. I'm not convinced I'll ever get there, or that I even want to. But I don't know what else to do.

So, there are two little mes in my head. One of them is saying "Oh God, what a mess," and the other is saying "How nice, not having to go to work." The first says, "I can't cope," and the second says, "Look how well I'm coping!"

The truth is, I am. I haven't fallen apart. Not yet. But today I melted a bit. I say to myself, "why aren't I falling apart?" and suddenly I am. Damn those self-fulfilling prophecies. But I'm like one of those little wooden toys held together with elastic. You push the button underneath, they crumble and fall. But if you release the pressure? They bounce back into life.

Just take that damn thumb off my button.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

riotous

Everything fine here. Nasty in the centre of Manchester but nothing where we live. I was coincidentally in the main shopping street at the moment the riots started, and had my 3-yr-old in a pushchair, but it was pretty simple really. I heard the banging from further down the street as they started battering their way into a shop, but all I saw were people running (well, trotting) in my direction and saying "Get out", so I turned round and got out. Was a little freaked but went home, summoned hubby home and quickly realised we were going to be fine.

PS: Rather than attempt any political comment myself, I recommend you read this, which I think is pitch perfect. Explain, but don't excuse.

As for the rest of my life... I still have no job. I'm spending a lot of time with my kids, and they are great, which is helping to keep me sane and prop up my flagging ego. But there is an underlying current of "I'm a waste of space", and a rather disturbing dread of actually getting another job in the career I'm supposedly still trying to establish myself in. I'm writing more about that elsewhere - email me if you don't have the link.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Oh

Just had the job interview from hell. Fucked it up in about as many ways as it's possible to fuck something up. Walked in there already knowing I wasn't properly prepared and didn't have a clue what I was doing.

Still have no job. Everything they told me at the last place seems confirmed. I'm crap at this.

Here I am, 42, no job, no career, no skills, been a while since I was any good at anything.

I used to have such grandiose arrogant dreams. I really thought I was something. Why did I think that? What was it based on?

I have lovely children. I might not conform to some people's ideals of what a mother should be, but they are gorgeous and happy and I can take some credit for that.

This is what happens. The "job for life" is a dwindling concept. Many of us arrive on this pebbled-and-cold East England beach with no idea of how we got here or where we're going next.

Most of us don't achieve our dreams.

Consoling? Or depressing.

I finished reading a book yesterday. With hindsight it was not the best book to be reading. I was avoiding the failure of not having the ability to prepare well for today's interview. The book was gripping, and well-written, and I wanted to know the fate of characters that had wormed their way into my thoughts. The ending was bleak, pessimistic, and very sad. I cried a lot, and suddenly I wasn't just crying about a young boy's suicide. I was crying because I'd fucked up.

The book was written by a friend of mine. She had her first book published at the same time as me. She got the deal I narrowly missed, or so I used to think. Her publisher gave me an encouraging "We like you, but..." rejection just as they signed her up. Our books were similar. We were similar. But she's better than me. I don't have what it takes, in talent or commitment.

I'm just not good enough.

But most of us aren't.

Here we are, not halfway through but already over the hill and slumping down the other side, muttering and sighing and nursing our aches and pains, blaming everyone/everything else for the sheer bloody fact that hope, dreams, energy, creativity... none of it lasts. And it dies with a horrible speed.

Ignore me. I have these lurches. I'll be chipper and perky and annoying again tomorrow. What can you do except look forward? Even if it's not as shiny as it once was, it's still there in front of you. Pulling you along, because time has no sympathy and no interest in your moans.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

achey-smiley

I was wondering the other day, whatever happened to my creativity?

I'm not writing anything and I'm mostly not that bothered. I don't feel the urge to write, and when I do... well, it's hardly jaw-dropping.

Life, I guess. Not true for everyone, I know, but I don't think having kids has helped.

Still. I've been asked to sing a song of my choosing at choir on Monday. I utterly failed to write anything new (not that they were expecting me to, but it would have been nice), but did manage to write some nice harmonies and new words for something I wrote ages ago. Quite looking forward to that actually - hearing the whole choir sing sumfink wot I rote. What was I saying? Oh yes, I'm not very creative at the mo. Oh.

Anyway. This blog has no bite and no edge. I apologise for that, but any kind of solution seems beyond my reach. I've gone soft in my old age.

I ran ten kilometres this morning. My legs ache. It made me cry, all those women with their messages to dead, dying and not-dying loved ones taped to their backs. But they were all cheerful and wearing pink, so it was fine.

I might write more about it later. First I have to vacuum floors. The Chinese teenagers go home tomorrow. We'll miss them. We like them. We have a new batch arriving on Thursday. I've become a housewife. But I still can't cook. They don't think much of our food (they pretend they do, but they obviously don't) and I can't really blame them.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

still here!

Hello,

Thankyou to the kind person who enquired how I was - I am fine! Just busy. We have Chinese teenagers staying with us at the moment - we are playing host family to Chinese pupils over here for a summer camp - and I have some short term agency work which is keeping me busy (especially as I have to cycle nine miles to get there every day). Still no permanent job, which is a worry as the agency work will end in a couple of weeks and there's no prospect of any more. But there you go. Oh, and my computer has broken (and I can't afford a new one), so I'm not on the internet so much. Apart from that I'm quite enjoying the summer, and looking forward to more summer niceness.

This weekend I'll be running the 10k Race For Life. Sadly my training programme fell by the wayside when I got this agency work, but I'm cycle 18 miles most weekdays, so I figure that must be helping. I'm a teensy bit worried about my poor knees, but I daresay they'll cope (Note to self: do knee exercises).

And then on Sunday it is Birthday Barbecue time, for me and the littl'un, so that should be fun.

Summertime, and the living is easy...

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

The Unbearable Impossibleness of Smiling

Gah. Happiness is an elusive old chap, what?

By rights I ought to be happy. For months - no, years - I've been bemoaning my lack of spare time and wishing I could just find time for this and that and the other. Tidying, sorting, organising, relaxing, spending time with loved ones. Now I can do all that and more, but am I happy? Am I bollocks.

Of course there is the small matter of having no job or income in the midst of a global recession and having been told I was rubbish at what I was trying to do with my life... but I'm managing fine financially for the time being, and I'm pretty confident I'll get a job soon, and the job application process has actually done wonders for mny career-based confidence, as I've had three interviews from four applications and two of them went really well and I very-nearly got jobs out of them, and they were for good employers. Which is why the number of applications is so low - I'm being very picky about what I apply for, on the basis that I don't want to end up back in the same hole I've just clawed my way out of.

The Things That Make Me Happy, however, are frustratingly complex. I need exercise, I need human company, I need positive feedback, I need to feel productive, and I need time to relax (but not too much of it).

My worst problem is decision-making. Not only can I not decide what to do from one minute to the next, I can't stick with those decisions once they're made. "Tomorrow I will read a book," I say gaily, only to find mnyself durfing the net. "Tomorrow I will sort out my finances," I quip. And then I read a book. I plan to get exercise and sort my finances out instead. They are all good things to be doing (well, maybe not the surfing the net bit), but I can't allow myself to feel good about doing them.

I either feel depressed because I haven't been productive or anxious because I might be called upon to do temping work in an alien environment or - and this is the most ridiculous of all - guilty because I'm finally managing to enjoy myself and I'm supposed to be jobless and miserable!

Pah.

Oh well. Today I will mostly be... faffing. fretting. fidgeting. failing?

No! No failing!

Oh. All right then.