Friday, 31 July 2009

Children’s Book Month – August 2009

Back in 2007 I decided that August would be Children’s Book Month, and enjoyed revisiting favourite authors and illustrators of my childhood. It seems I wasn’t the only one – a lot of people come to my blog searching for Jill Barklem, creator of Brambley Hedge, and for more information on characters like Roger Red Hat.

This August I am returning to the idea with a wealth of authors and illustrators that made my day as a child, and that still thrill me as an adult. I’ve also put a hopefully handy link on the side of this blog so you can find all the previous entries for Children’s Book Month, people such as Enid Blyton, Joyce Lankaster Brisley, Tracker books, and C S Lewis. But what fantastic people shall I write about this time? You’ll have to wait and see…

I will still keep you updated on any novel news (ho-ho), and anything else that pops up that strikes me as rather exciting. I do think I may have to change my profile though – it says I am hopeful to send the first three chapters away in August, and I just don’t think that will happen, unless a miracle takes place. I am basically on chapter seven, with tiny revisions to be done to chapters 4 – 6. I have a week off work coming up so will frantically attempt The Big Push – but even with superhuman editing powers I don’t think I will get beyond chapter ten. It’s not even halfway! Dearie me. Anyhow, I shall do my best.

I shall leave you with a small funny, entitled How Not to Start the Working Week. I managed to mishear ‘courgette’ for ‘croissant’ when someone came in the office offering some from their garden, and said yes eagerly – far too eagerly – green veggies don’t usually provoke such excitement at 9am on a Monday morning. I was so surprised when I opened the bag and saw courgettes, and just said ‘wow courgettes’ in a small voice, trying to distract from the fact I was practically leaping from my seat in excitement a minute beforehand. Don’t get me wrong, am very happy with home grown veg, but I spent the rest of the day in mourning for the Croissant That Never Was.

Now my boss surely thinks I am the sort of person that gets inexplicitly excited by vegetables. I obviously need a holiday.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Borders in Oxford Street, London

I had a few minutes to spare before meeting a friend yesterday, and decided to head to my favourite hang out spot on Oxford Street, the four floors of the book shop Borders. But what a surprise awaited me!

It appeared to be busier than usual, tables at the front entrance with a sign saying ‘books £1’, and many folk rummaging through Transformer annuals and the like. ‘Hm, a summer sale’ I thought as I moved upstairs to the main area for fiction and then it hit me. The whole shop was for sale! The flagship store is another victim of the recession – it is closing its doors forever on August 8th (and when it reopens it will more than likely be a new branch of clothes shop New Look).

I moved like a stricken survivor through the upper floors, watching desperate people trawl their way through the wreckage. Books everywhere, in any place, in any order. Books on the floor, books trodden on, books clambered over, books torn under feet. It was the autopsy of a friend.

Perhaps I had inadvertently helped contribute to its demise? I would often head to Borders to do magazine and book research, as I could gather together everything needed and then sit in the in-store coffee shop and jot down information in my notebook. Publishers details, agent information, useful websites, magazine feature ideas, ‘letters to the editor’ – it was perfect, and what is more I didn’t have to actually buy any of the magazines or books, great for me at the time being rather skint. And I wasn’t the only one – nearly every table at any one time would be strewn with books as people tapped on their laptops with a coffee by their side, it seemed encouraged by Borders itself. But perhaps using a book shop as a comfortable research library is not really the done thing, especially now. We are all sorry now.

And so I gazed around at the carnage in front of me. 50% off everything! Buy this for £3, buy that for £1! I pulled one book off the shelf, but had to put it back. I couldn’t join in with the gleeful stripping of shelves, not just then, when it was all a bit raw and painful. No doubt though I shall be back before the last day, sad at heart and basket in hand.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Combating a cliché

I am glad to report that the redrafting for chapters four, five and six is almost done and dusted (at least at this stage). I’ve gone through the print outs, made a few tiny inked corrections, and finally think I can move on like the plodding slow but sure tortoise to chapter seven.

I have already walked all around chapter seven, poked at it, stared, frowned, gone out of the room and quickly come back in again to see if it changed, and then frowned once again. I’m still frowning. Cue over-dramatic music - is this a cliché which I see before me?

What is a cliché anyway? Overdone shorthand? Good as gold, hard as nails, blind as a bat? Expressions or visual imagery that has been done to death (ahem) making the audience bored to tears (oh my God they are everywhere). It can be corny, it can make a reader (or viewer) wince, it can be something everyone can second-guess way before the scene draws to a conclusion. And I don’t want any in my novel thank-ye-very-much-lazy-brain.

I wanted Arthur (my main character’s husband) to give Florence a gift before he goes off to battle through the Second World War. The first thing I thought of was splitting a coin – half a silver sixpence, and she to wear her half around her neck (as silver doesn’t make your skin go green). Does this make you wince? Does this make you roll your eyes with disdain? Does this make you think of the lovely Tommy Steele? See – I thought all these things on re-reading, and yet when I confided my cliché fear to a friend, she had never heard of ‘splitting a sixpence’ and thought it was a nice idea.

So then I thought there might be a way around this… and hit upon – wait for it - half a florin coin. You see – the florin’s origins were from Florence in Italy and my main character is called Florence… it is the same sentiment, but breaks with the sixpence idea which maybe is a bit over-done. The florin I wanted was the 1872 gothic florin, as it has the Latin FD - Fidei Defensor, defender of faith, which I felt fitted in nicely with Arthur and Florence believing they will make it through the war. The gothic florin was also a silver coin (according to eBay anyway – I’d have to make more enquiries!) so you can wear it close to the skin. It is also a good size – 30 mm in diameter.

I’m fond of it, but there are practicalities now to work out – this will be a coin handed to Arthur from his granddad on the occasion of leaving school to start an apprenticeship. But now I am wondering what the value of such a coin was back then – a florin is two shillings, a tenth of a pound, so basically ten pence, but back then… well if we go only back to when Arthur is thinking of cutting it in two it could have bought him four pints of beer. If you think nowadays a pint can cost £3 (going most expensive, here) then a rough comparison (e.g. one that isn’t exactly right) is £12, and would he have seriously cut it in two or dined out for a week on it? At least a sixpence is less monetary value… gosh how unromantic. Darling I am off to fight in the war… and I give you this farthing I found down the back of the sofa to remember me.

Of course this is the part when I start seriously researching and find out the 1872 gothic florin is a collector's item worth billions and was only issued in gold to Kings. Or something.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009


My printer at home only works if I stare at it. The conclusions I draw from this is either it likes me and wants me close at all times or that it is distracting attention from the dastardly attack the toaster is planning behind my back.

It is one of those HP all-in-one printers that cost £100 three years ago, and now presumably comes free with a magazine. It is shaped like a breezeblock and can withstand both cats using it as a springboard to the window-sill, and me treating every paper jam as a tug of war. I have so far been impressed with the printer’s agreeable nature, but things are set to change.

I cannot have a printer that only works if I hover nearby like an anxious parent.

Take today. Today I wanted to print out chapter’s four to six for a final read-through to see if there were any oddities hanging around that needed to be pounced upon from a high height. Yet already there are rituals – I cannot just stack the printer with paper. I have to rifle through the A4 pages first in the hope they won’t all attempt to sail through the printer’s mechanisms in one go – the theory being ‘air between the pages’ will help. I then can only stack in around 30 pages at a time, as too many or too few will have the same effect – the printer will dramatically choke to death in splutters and wheezes like a hammy actor. Once stacked, I then have to rest my hand gently on the top page, like I am feeling for a pulse, as the printer goes into action. This seems to calm it down and stops it from a paper feeding frenzy.

Once the printer is in motion I cannot walk away. Walking away means acceptance that the printer will do its job and actually print without needing me as a reluctant audience. If I walk away I shall come back to find the printer choking to death, and the computer flashing an error message. I shall then find that whatever I wanted printed will have missed a few pages in spite. Yet if I stay near, it prints perfectly.

Maybe it is lonely? Maybe I don’t give it enough love and care. I mean – do I ever really align the pages from the test print like you are supposed to when you insert new ink cartridges? I bang the Hoover against it on (ahem) rare occasions and I let it get too hot next to the radiator. I haven’t clicked into ‘printer tools’ for ages. I rarely press its buttons, so it seems.

Now I feel sorry for it.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

I want to live somewhere nice

Back when I was growing up, my neighbourhood was a nice place to be. It wasn’t rich, it wasn’t poor, but it had decent folk from all nationalities and everyone got along. We had neighbourhood parties where we ate jerk chicken alongside cucumber sandwiches, we danced to reggae and roxy music, and people tended their gardens and waved to each other in the street.

Now litter blows from one end to the other. Gone are most of the neighbours that we used to know, their gardens replaced with ill-kept driveways. Teenagers patrol the streets on low-slung bicycles, casting about disdain and boredom in equal measures. Cars get scratched, police sirens and helicopters rule the night, and you know not to come home after dark. No one knows their neighbours anymore, and people hide behind their front doors.

Three incidents just this year alone – a violent alteration in the street outside my house in the early morning hours that led to a shooting, neighbourhood kids throwing stones at passers-by, and calling the police when I saw a man beat a woman to her knees in the street. I’ve just had enough of this place of no respect, where people and property mean naff all, and all you see is rubbish everywhere. Some neighbourhoods go up in London and some go down, and mine has been on a downward spiral for the last ten years. It may get better in forty years time, but it is going to get a lot worse first.

I hate not feeling safe in my home. I hate worrying about kids two doors down throwing stones at my cats (and at me!) when in the garden. I hate worrying about my mum being there on her own when I am not with her. I have to find somewhere new for all of us. No pressure then.

But where is nice? I want to feel safe and be surrounded by green trees and gardens. I want neighbours who say hello when you see them, who grow vegetables and cheerfully walk their dogs. I want a train line where the seat cushions are connected to the seats and people don’t spit on the platforms. I want a period house with some sort of period detail – like some tiles, or a fireplace. I want a shed full of plastic plant pots waiting to be filled and a garage for the car I don’t have. I want a grocer selling local produce. Heck – throw in a forge, I want that too. I want a nice restaurant and a pub with timbered low ceiling and real ale. I want to be able to get my mum and J’s mum sweet little cottages in the same street as mine, near yet far. I want some sort of local tea shop that sells cupcakes, and a nice bookshop. I want to be able to go for a walk without worrying about straying into the wrong areas. I want some peace, and no sirens.

I’m not sure this place exists but I will keep searching for it. And keep buying lottery scratch cards!

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Things I Learnt This Weekend

  1. Playing ‘youtube tag’ (clicking featured link after featured link) can lead one to blankly staring at the video to Y Viva Espana two hours later without any clue how or why you got there.

  2. Porridge with chocolate buttons is the way forward in life.

  3. Some days I just cannot write. And I shouldn’t feel guilty.

  4. Getting the skin on your neck somehow caught in the zip of your fleece jacket actually is somewhat painful.

  5. Maintenance of self is a long drawn out process and it is shameful I know but some days I would much rather be grubby.

  6. Watching the new ‘Harry Potter’ film made me strangely want to re-read Jill Murphy’s ‘The Worst Witch’ and some parts of Lord of the Rings. Odd, that.

  7. Twirl chocolate bars are very dangerous – if one is spotted you should pounce and eat immediately. I managed to get two of the little critters just today alone.

  8. Garages these days do not seem to stock ‘air’ for when you need to pump up bicycle tyres. How can ‘air’ possibly be out of stock?

  9. I still don’t understand all the jokes in ‘Yes Minister’.

  10. Cuddles with cats are one of the best things in the whole world, especially when the cats in question are called Ginger and Abigail.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Bikram Yoga

Earlier this year while in Manchester, I was introduced to Bikram Yoga. This is pretty much yoga done in a sauna - you burn a shed-load of calories, sweat drips off every limb, and by the time you get to the floor postures you feel pretty much like how I’d imagine a hot exhausted slug would feel on being asked to do sit ups. But the strange thing is I like it.

I’m not a natural exercise person, I’ve decided. I’m more a natural chocolate sort of person, more a let’s sit down and read a nice book rather than throw frantic shapes person. Yet sporadically over the years I have, like most people, tried out an exercise or two.

Gymnastics was my first and true love in the exercise world. I went to a weekly class after school for eight years; I was a whiz at the asymmetric bars, not so bad on the floor, and looked like ‘a dying duck in a thunderstorm’ on the beam, according to the sadistic gym teacher. Several migraines later, I sadly said goodbye.

After gymnastics came swimming – via lessons at school. Once a week we would eagerly be herded into a coach and taken to the local swimming baths. We used to navigate around the suspiciously warm splash pool for our feet, and then plunge into the water, yelling. Not quite sure why it was customary to yell but the rest of the lesson would be spent splashing first one way, and then the other, around and around the pool. They’d also be the intolerable wait shivering at the side of the pool while the teacher demonstrated something like the correct use of a float (held with arms out straight, not as a shield/weapon against another pupil). Woe betides your mother dressing you in tights when you had to wriggle out of your wet costume back into your school clothes. We had all perfected the art of getting showered and changed in one minute flat – needless to say the coach trip back to school was full of soggy small people.

I first joined a gym when I was 15 – mainly because you could smoke in the tiny café area and drink milkshakes – both perfect things to do pre-work out. Needless to say I wasn’t quite into the ‘gym’ thing, although I liked the posters from Athena covering the walls.

At University I tried to take up jogging but swiftly decided it wasn’t for me. I liked the idea of it, but barely travelled the length between lampposts before I had to stop, wheezing. I’ve never lived anywhere nice enough to warrant a jog anyway – around the block usually involves a motorway. Also people running around here tend to look like they have just been involved in something dodgy. And so it was back to very sporadic gym visits – where you’d pay by the month, listen to bad techno over the intercom, and wish you were somewhere else.

And then I discovered yoga (cue some sort of harp music).

My first yoga lessons were in a tiny church hall in Tottenham. The teacher used to come in with her cassette recorder, fuss with it for ten minutes and then fill the room with tinny whale song. It wasn’t the most auspicious of starts, but surprisingly I stuck with it.

I think it appealed as it takes the flexibility of gymnastics, mixes in a bit of meditation and has an instant ‘feel good’ factor when you leave a class. So from then on I left the gym behind and began sporadically attending yoga lessons instead. Over the years I found nicer classes – usually tucked into community halls, where you’d do postures under a framed picture of the Queen. I liked it, but wanted more…

And then a friend introduced me to Bikram. Now this is extreme yoga – and one of hardest work outs I have ever done. But it is amazing! Even if I feel like a hot slug most of the time. I have now signed up until October, and as it is not cheap, I have to go twice a week to make it worth my while. That is a huge commitment for me, but I think it makes me feel more positive; I sleep better, and therefore feel better (as too knackered for pontificating). This is all good! And it means I can stir Cadbury’s chocolate buttons into my morning porridge with no remorse at all.

Sunday, 12 July 2009


I feel very unsettled recently, and keep having Deep Thoughts about Life, the Universe and Everything. You know - those sort of thoughts... quick run to the hills! It all began with an innocent idea to look at old school photographs…

If I had a super-hero name, it would be The Archivist. I keep a large collection of various ephemera from my schooldays – including cassette tapes that I used to record the sounds from a typical school day. Yes, I was a little strange. The idea behind it was an urgency that nothing would last, and that one day all this would be just a memory. This was no doubt prompted by the unexpected death of my father when I was 12 – mortality hit, and my response was to keep everything I could get my hands on – no matter how small, I carefully treasured it. None of it has any value except to me – unless in the future a museum would like to know what a day in the life of a comprehensive school sounded like in the late eighties. Loud, mostly – ‘norf landen’ gobby teenagers trading insults and frenzied laughter between lessons so dull you can practically hear the boredom.

The other reason I kept everything, fuelled by the feeling that nothing would last, was because I wanted to be able to remember what it was like to be a teenager if I was old by the time I became a writer. I had the idea I would grow up and write for teenagers (as when I was a teenager all my stories were for my contemporaries) and I didn’t want to forget how it felt. I kept a lot of diaries around this time as well – gut-achingly awful things to re-read, but perfect for wanting to remember how awkward life was back then. Perfect in fact for research, as long as I try and pretend that the hopeful voice coming from the diaries wasn’t mine.

The unsettling part of this post, apart from the fact looking back can always be a double-edged sword – is that I started to wonder what my contemporaries back then would think of me now. I am still in my childhood home where some might remember knocking for me, outwardly nothing has changed. I am like some weird pickled version of Miss Havisham. What would I think of them – if they were still in the same place as back then? My first thought might be ‘what on earth happened to you?’ like the theme song to the TV show ‘Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads’ - one of those shows that trade on nostalgia and the whiff of regret, sentiments sometimes too close for comfort.

Hey what happened to you?
Whatever happened to me?
What became of the people?
We used to be
Tomorrow's almost over,
Today went by so fast,
The only thing to look forward to is the past.

I tried to analyse it (as that always makes things better, right?) and I guess my biggest fear is that they would all think I am a loser. Which means, as I don’t really care what faces in photographs think, is that ultimately *I* think I am a loser. And if that is what underpins everything, then it is really hard to change. I try so many tactics to not feel this way – I do try to trust that everything I do is for a reason and one day it will all work out swimmingly, but this is a whispy confidence that is hard to hold.

I think I put too much pressure on my story. I want it to save me… and I think I need to work out how to save myself first. I want the book to sell so it can take me away from all this – I want to buy a little place of my own, I want to justify my life, and prove that if you keep trying enough you will succeed. But these shouldn’t be the reasons – the reason should just be I have a story to tell. That was the original thought – and on the way it has instead become my saviour that will rescue me. I think that is what is piling on pressure and why I am finding editing so hard. I need to step back somehow, and convince myself that it is all alright, and just telling a story is a fine thing to do.

So feeling like this, it probably didn’t help that I found 28 consecutive episodes of Home & Away from 1989 on youtube. I used to love that show back then, as when everything else around me seemed insane and confusing, it (and Neighbours, and Grange Hill) was a constant reassuring presence. So I have been watching shows last seen when I was 14 (helping to add to the weirdness) and it was strange and somewhat lovely to revisit them again. Apart from finding out the actress that played (and still plays) little Sally Fletcher is now 30 years old. Google has a lot to answer for, sometimes.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Writers' Rooms

The Guardian newspaper has an ongoing series called Writers' Rooms. This reveals where many famous authors sit and create their masterpieces. It also seems to reveal them all as being incredibly wealthy, owning at least two heirlooms (owning just one is so passé) and being able to namedrop a famous designer who created their shelves/chair/desk/lamp/ancient parchment notebook on wish to compose.

This is my take on the series - written in the style of The Guardian. In fact - please read this first, and then come back...

Writers' Rooms: Jayne Ferst-Second

It’s the back of the house, and only seventeen years ago stars shone through the gap between the ill-fitting curtains while the floor was ankle-deep in computer magazines left behind by my older brother. I love the sound of sirens and view of the motorway in the distance. Who says London is overcrowded? True, the room is often noisy but silence addles my brains.

I’ve got cat hairs round the little window, and type by hand at the chest of drawers awkwardly positioned in front of it. The corkboard was made by Argos.

The bookends are stacks of historical books to bring me good luck, because my debut novel covers a span of decades. On the window ledge stands a strange plastic pot with plastic flowers my mother brought back from a car-boot sale.

On top of the shelf containing my essential reference books is a 1960s dolls house and a lustrous feather duster – both from my Nan’s in Stoke Newington. And there’s an unholy mix underneath: a Matchbox scooter, a Camden-era candle and a cobalt pot thrown by me in anger the last time I was looking for something.

I bought my shelf unit when I was 19 with my pay cheque from Woolworths, and that’s where I store crap. The shelves don’t really fit, but I jam everything into it. There’s a photograph of me when I was grumpy and small on the shelf, and in the corner a 21st-century embossed double-whammy candle. Books, coasters, paintbrushes, mugs…everything in the bedroom either relates directly to my mum or is rich in personal association. Everything is here by accident.

The half of the room out of shot has wooden wardrobes, their slats all covered in dust, a Hackney ottoman and a dresser piled with perfume and projects. There’s also a primitive painting of flowers by the Swedish shop Ikea.

Each of the walls are the same colour, but what you can’t see is the hidden blue tack stains from teenage posters – pictures of childhood. So the walls are as merry as a bog-standard bedroom, dressed in the colours of suburbia.


Click here for more on Writers' Rooms

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Seven hours

Today I have sat here for seven whole hours and how many words did I redraft? Exactly 979. Speedy Gonzales is my new nickname. But the good thing is that I tightened the last page of chapter five, did a read-through of the whole thing, still liked it, and have proceeded onwards. I can now officially say I am redrafting chapter six. Maybe one day I will end up with a story that I am happy to let people read!

I really wish I could invest more of myself in this blog. Sometimes I feel I have nothing new to say – work is work, life is life, things are still in the doldrums of recession. Every so often I get a burst of creativity with no time to play – ideas that I think are terrific but I have no money to back them, no time to let them grow, and so they flare and then flicker out. I think I should resort buying lottery scratch-cards – maybe it will happen, right? Or maybe it is just a poor woman’s tax after all. I hate feeling despondent. This is my golden age, my time of infinite possibilities – and all that happens is I grow older one day at a time. I want to be able to throw back the windows and be happy in my skin.