Wednesday, 31 March 2010

The Day of Awkward

Sometimes the day of awkward just slaps you in the face with a soggy slipper.

The day started with a visit to the dentist. You just know this tale bodes well, huh? To be honest I was still reeling from my cat’s recent dentistry bills… for the price I paid she could have been the only naughty tortie with a gangster-style gold grill. From now on I shall look at prices in a whole new light… hm, a £100 dress ‘or one cat tooth’. But I digress…

For some reason known only to womankind, I had decided to wear a pair of boots with a heel ‘even though I knew the day would involve a fair amount of walking’. I had also completely forgotten I had agreed to house/cat-sit for a friend for a few days, and would therefore need to lug around a small suitcase all day. So there I was - heels, suitcase, handbag, phone I still don’t understand, and imminent dentist visit.

Although I live nearer Hertfordshire than London, my dentist is in leafy posh north London suburb, Highgate. This is because I desperately want to live in Highgate, and I figure if I get enough reasons to be there then Highgate will sort of painlessly absorb me like a comfy sponge. It is madness as the only thing I can afford in Highgate is a coffee and even then it would be with a stoic smile at the bill. But anyway…

It was only somewhere underneath Kentish Town on the Northern line did I remember that the dentist was not actually by the tube station, but was a twenty-minute trod up a hill. So, panicking slightly, I emerged at Highgate tube and started walking, fishing my mobile (iPhone!) out of my bag so I could call ahead.

Now, I know there are fancy things out there to protect iPhones, but at the moment mine lives in a sock. Somehow I always bring swanky new technology down to my level. So there it is, a sock. A clean sock… but still. I then realised I couldn’t walk and dial (tap) at the same time, and as I am not used to tapping numbers yet on a touch screen, I kept tapping the wrong things, as well as being out of breath. Eventually I got through and gasped something that probably sounded like I was trying out for an asthmatic Cadbury’s bunny.

I arrived at the dentist, sock/phone in hand, and luckily they could still see me for my appointment. They must have taken pity on the sock; either that or I looked wild-eyed and desperate. Five minutes later I was on the chair, trying not to steam up his mirror, feeling all sweaty and red-faced. Apparently I have a Bad Tooth, and a Bad Filling, and both need to have Bad Things done for a Price. I nodded dumbly, and then was released back into the wild to stomp back to the tube.

I then realised the only chance I would get to buy lunch would be to pop up at King’s Cross. Boy was that a big mistake. More walking, more stomping. Did I mention the suitcase? I got my lunch (take-out from Yo Sushi as a treat) but was starting to wilt, limp and look generally unkempt around the edges. This was the look I took in with me to work. I rocked that look. I owned it.

Later I was homeward bound, and was told (not personally, although I like the thought) that the Met line was suspended, and was in fact turfing everyone out at Wembley Park. Okay, I thought. I’ll just get the Jubilee line… and realised that the closest I could get to going north again would be changing at Green Park station for the Victoria line. For those that don’t know, Green Park is a whole lot more south than I wanted. Still it had to be done, and so, after a meandering Jubilee line crept into Green Park, I found myself on the world’s busiest platform. A tube stopped, and I was whooshed up and onto the tube into a space roughly the size of a pea. Everyone already looked grim but then we were told someone had taken ill on a tube at Seven Sisters, eight stops away, and they had managed to suspend the whole line.

I’d like to say that everyone on the entire suspended network only wished good vibes towards that poor ill person, but I rather suspect… well, you can probably imagine. Faces like thunder, we all disembarked and did what I was trying to avoid, the seemingly mile-long stomp through the tunnels to the Piccadilly line.

Never mind, I thought, as I stared at the racing black through the window. Nearly home! And after everything that has happened today, what could possibly go wrong?


That’s what.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Golden iPhone delicious

It dawned on me the other day that my mobile was ancient.

I think it was while my friends were busy tapping their phones and practically getting them to go to the bar and get the drinks. My phone, by contrast, is rather happy with itself if it manages to send a text. I also realised that while everyone else pays a tenner for unlimited everything, I was paying a whopping amount for not a lot. It was time to get a better deal.

A few wangles later, a stern call to my service provider, a hint that I was about to leave, and the next day an iPhone winged its golden way to me. I almost heard the reverent harp music as I opened the parcel. iPhone!

The packaging alone makes you feel swish. It’s just so seamless and stroke-able. I held the new phone aloft (iPhone!) and thought it was wonderful.

That was six hours ago.

I have since come to the conclusion that I perhaps should find a friendly pigeon for future correspondence, as I am hopeless at new shiny things. I spent ages saving all my contacts and pictures from my old sim to my old phone, and then inserted my new sim and saved them all over again. And did that work? Nope… new phone has no idea and doesn’t care who my contacts are, and wouldn’t give a toss if no-one ever phoned me ever again. New phone (iPhone!) wants me all to itself.

It also won’t let me transfer my pictures. My old phone is gamely trying to Bluetooth them to the new phone, but the new phone doesn’t want to know. It is in love with its own shiny self and doesn’t want anything of the old to sully it. Including me, I fear.

I had to update itunes to the latest version. Once it was done, itunes promptly forgot what audio CDs were and told me that its drivers were missing from the registry. Oh dear, I thought, this means trouble. I uninstalled, reinstalled, rebooted, cursed, raged around the room, shut down, shut up, and ate an angry sandwich.

The only thing to do in that situation is to register on various techy forums and act like a complete girl (apologies to all girls out there who are amazing tech goddesses. I don’t mean you). I step up to the forum, pink bonnet in hand, and make my grovelling confession and plea for help. Thankfully it was answered, and I was pointed to a helpful link. Praise be! (iPhone!)

Helpful link, however, was a bit more hands-on then I had hoped. It involved fiddling with the Windows registry, deleting gears for drivers, and then reinstalling them. At every stage there was a red warning sentence in bold that said messing with the registry could seriously damage your computer's health. Needless to say I was wondering whether it would ever turn back on again, so it was all a bit heart-in-mouth as I did the final restart… and hooray, it worked! (iPhone!)

So, six hours later, I appear to be set up. Apart from there’s the little matter of not understanding the actual phone yet. And of course, I have no contacts left. But I can play with swishing things from one side of the screen to the other, which is surely the main point of a mobile.

*Hello? Friends? Heelllllloooooooooooooo....*

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

The Writer vs The Fly

I hear the buzzing and a small dart of black flies across my vision. It dive-bombs the screen, wheeling away again with a chuckle (or so I think). It circles my head, zooming so close to me I feel the ripple of displaced air. It is the Red Baron of the fly world.

At the moment all is silent. This means it is regrouping with its friends, ready to launch another dastardly attack. But I shall forward the special weapon – to arms Cats! To… oh, they are outside on the shed. Bless them for covering my back so efficiently (and so distantly).

For some reason chapter nineteen advances to the tune of Nessun Dorma. I have replayed this song on youtube more times than I think are healthy. But words are happening… slow, but you know, sort of steady.

*is that the sound of the Red Baron? I pause and listen to a distant buzz. Mapping the territory of the stairs, I presume*

Later, and the cats are in, which means the Red Baron has gone into hiding. I just know this means it is practising evasive manoeuvres in my bedroom. There won’t be a single tell-tale buzz while the cats are on the prowl, as to them a fly means a visit to the delicatessen to select a choice succulent olive. But in a few hours, just as I close my eyes to settle… oh yes.

I’ve reached chapter twenty by the way. I will still no doubt go back and pick at chapter nineteen, and chapter twenty is still a continuation of the same scene as before (sort of, ish, in passing) but moving onwards feels so good!

I still need to lose 7,000 words overall, though, to get down to my goal of 95,000 words. This leads me to a question. In a query most people mention the word count of their novel. If I send this out before finishing it, and put that the book comes in at 95,000 words, would agents be very cross if in fact it finishes at 100,000 instead? What do you think?

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Be wherry of words

I just heard on the television a director talking about a film festival based about the east end of London. He said that people of the past ‘left a residue’, which to be honest made me feel a bit queasy. I pictured a thin film of people left smeared onto brickwork and windows. I don’t think that is quite the image he was hoping to achieve.

This leads me to a mistake I made very early on with writing. I put on the page that ‘the rain was running in rivets down the window screen’ – you can just hear the smashing of glass, can’t you? Of course I meant rivulets…

But it is enormously easy to reach for the wrong word when you are writing (unless you are a Writing Guru. Such people do exist, so I hear). Homonyms are the most obvious ones…

Eye have always liked poet tree
Eye think eye wood be rather good
If only eye didn’t believe my spell-chequer
Witch says lies are better than Ruth
I have severed books and like to reed
When the whether outside is coaled
One day I will right and rime my own
Poems when I am feeling bowled

Today I have gone backwards to pick at chapter eighteen. I feel a bit better about it now, so tomorrow will be facing chapter nineteen again. I just need to somehow propel myself over this hurdle and then I think I will be fine. What I need, in fact, is a medieval rock-slinging contraption. I could sit in it and it could throw me into chapter twenty. Although if you’re all out of rock-slinging contraptions, I notice Madeira cake works pretty well instead.

I think one of the first things I will do when I finish this novel is join a gym.

Sunday, 21 March 2010


Did some evil pixie come along in the night and nick my ability to write? It’s the only thing that can explain my difficulty in stringing words together of late. I’m still on chapter 19, despite all and sundry urging me forwards. It’s like the more I am urged, the more I hedge. The more I hedge, the more I stall. The more I stall, the more I just sit here eating chocolate, whimpering.

I actually think this condition has a name. It’s called The Fear of Finishing.

It is, of course, the fear of sending this puppy away to frolic alone on an agent’s desk. I worry that it will stumble and fall into the wastepaper bin. I am worried it will drool and appear unseemly. I am worried that despite all the research, the agent will not like puppies. I am also worried about this strange puppy analogy – where did that come from?!

This fear is not helping my writing one jot. Every time I try to add more to chapter 19 it seems my vocabulary has reverted to Ladybird Reader style. Florence can run. Max can run. Let’s all run together!

And then there’s this blog. Sometimes I think, well, if I cannot write on the story I will write here instead. But I find myself horribly thumb-tied over here too. And then I feel guilty for spending too long over here thinking about a post when I should be over there pulling my hair out over chapter 19. I keep thinking that sometime I will find a balance with all this – that everything will start to effortlessly fall into place, and I will be able to comment on others, sort out this blog, follow more people, pretty it up a bit, write my story, go to work and back, and all will be smooth-running. At the moment it all feels like plate spinning.

I also think part of the Fear is a self-confidence thing. I’ve never felt that special as just myself, and ‘being a writer’ is the thing (the only thing) that makes me feel that there is a point, my raison d'être. Sending this off is almost like me asking timidly whether I am special or not! I know it shouldn’t be like that, and I shouldn’t think like that… but it is amazingly hard to change the way you are wired. I do try to think positive – it’s like a constant internal battle – sometimes negative wins, sometimes positive.

The thing I am trying to concentrate on now is that everything really is win/win. If I send it away and they like it, fab! If it is rejected, send it again! If it comes back every time see if it can be changed. If not, put it away for a while, congratulate yourself for completing a novel, and start the next one. If I have to believe writing makes me special, then the ambition to keep going can be what makes me special too.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Walking the Thames Tunnel

The letter said ‘no alcohol’ before the tour, so of course we met in the pub on the corner. Suitably fortified, we promptly set off to stand outside Rotherhithe station, along with half the pub’s clientele. It seems we were not the only ones to ignore instructions, and down a quick pint before walking in history’s dusty footsteps.

This is looking at the original section of the tunnel

The gated doors were manned by two smiling tube officials in their fluorescent jackets. Four more laughed and joked inside, which made a nice change considering most of the underground staff I see while commuting look distinctly less thrilled with their lot in life. This alone convinced me we were in for something special.

Once inside, we were ushered to collect latex gloves so we didn’t get mad rat disease. One size fits all was the rule, which meant my gloves mainly flapped in the breeze, each fingertip with its own trailing flag. We then had our health and safety talk, which consisted of ‘stand still if we need to evacuate’. We nodded in faux agreement, stamped feet, and flopped gloves. And then we were off!

Down the stairs to the platform, and scaffolding had been erected for us walkers so we could step down to the tube lines. There is something ever so much fun about standing where you ought not to be. The tunnels stretched with a line of light before us, accentuating the dip and slight incline in the curve of electric. Back in the day this would have been flickering gas light. We were cautioned not to stand on the rails, not because of any power of course as it was switched off, but in case we fell from the slight height. I looked at them in alarm anyway; after years of terrifying public safety films as a child I would rather go outside and lick the road than go near any rails, powerless or not.

Instead of it being one large tunnel, as I presumed from Victorian illustrations, it was two twin tunnels. Strange serendipity means that although the tunnels were built for horse-drawn carts, they are the exact size for current day tube trains. Archways linked each tunnel at strategic gaps, and it was from these small gaps that Victorian traders would sell their wares to the passing promenade. They wouldn’t have been very private for a naughty rendezvous, but that apparently didn’t dissuade the more naughty-minded of the public towards the latter years.

The older style walls of the tunnel have been left at one end to preserve its link with history, as you can see from my top photograph. It was odd to think of all those people who came down here to walk through ‘a wonder of the world’ – six million Victorians made their way down here to gawp and admire, and now two thousand modern Elizabethans to add to the list, with our walking shoes and cameras. I loitered at the back taking pictures, and sauntered along beside a knowledgeable tube official engineer. I sensed he wanted me to ask him some clever questions. But try as I might, I could not think of one clever question to ask him whatsoever. Sadly our conversation went more like this:

Him: This is one of the signal boxes. *points it out*
Me: Ooo. Um. Er. *stares at it* Does it control the signals?
Him (patiently): Yes.
Me: Ah. It’s a nice colour.
Him (contemplates it): Yes, I suppose it is.
Me (striking up bold conversation): So you’re an engineer?
Him: Yes.
Me: Right. Um. *casts around desperately for something engineer-y to say* This rail is shiny.
Him (as if speaking to small child): Yes, it is rather, isn’t it? And this one is greasy.
Me: Yes! That one is greasy. *pleased with discovery like child*
Silence for a bit.
Me: Tunnels are really cool aren’t they?
Him (ponderingly): Yes I suppose they are.

I bet he was really pleased when someone came along and asked him something proper.

This is the newer section of the tunnel - you can see the walls are different

At the end of the day it is just a tunnel, I suppose, but what a great place to point a camera! We clambered back up the scaffolding to the surface, and then went along to the 'fancy fair' at the Brunel museum. Although the fair was good, it was a nearby pub that took our fancy, and we decided to retire with a fine ale instead. Cheers, Brunel!

Friday, 12 March 2010

Thames Tunnel

Tonight I am following in the footsteps of Marc and Isambard Kingdom Brunel; Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, various Victorian gentlefolk and pick-pockets; tube workers, and London Mayor Boris Johnson. I am going underground to walk beneath the Thames, and I am so excited!

Image courtesy of the Brunel Museum - people banqueting in the tunnel.

The Thames tunnel stretches between Wapping and Rotherhithe, and was THE place to promenade if you were an upmarket Victorian in the mid-19th century. It was the engineering brainchild of the Brunel’s, and the only project they worked upon together. When the tunnel opened people came from far and wide to walk through it and be entertained by the many side-shows that plied a trade under flickering gas-light.

Exactly under the middle of the river is a refreshment room, kept by an eccentric old man who has not been a half mile from the Tunnel since it was completed. Daylight to him is almost unknown. He does not sleep in the Tunnel, but he enters before day in the morning and does not leave until late at night. This old man on account of his many wonderful stories and jokes, in addition to good cakes and wines, has many visitors.

The sensations experienced as one sits here are very peculiar. A thin brick ceiling over head, covered with a few feet of mud, and many feet of water, with water trickling from the ceiling and through the walls; - and steamers, ships and barges sailing along far above you! Many bright eyes of timid beauties, and ominous glances of frightened old men, have I seen directed to the walls and ceiling as the crowd hurried along.

~ W. O'Daniel, Ins and Outs of London, 1859

Back in the day it cost a shilling for the public to gain entrance. Tonight it has cost me £5 – there’s inflation for you! It seems public opinion was divided between those who thought this was an amazing feat of engineering, and those who thought it was a colossal waste of public money.

This great, but for many years comparatively useless, work of Sir Isambard Brunel was carried under the river from Wapping (left bank) to Rotherhithe (right bank) at a cost of nearly half a million of money. For about twenty years after its completion it was one of the recognised sights of London, and a kind of mouldy and poverty-stricken bazaar established itself at the entrance of the tunnel. The pence of the sightseers and the rent of the stalls proved wholly insufficient even to pay current expenses, and in 1865 the Tunnel Company were glad to get rid of their white elephant at a loss of about half its original cost. It now belongs to the East London Railway Company.
~ Charles Dickens (Jr.), Dickens's Dictionary of the Thames, 1881

I shall update you more tomorrow! But I am taking my giant camera (nicknamed ‘the Beast’) which shuns digital and favours the old-fashioned film approach, so my photographs may take some time arriving on the blog.

Read more about the Thames Tunnel

Monday, 8 March 2010

Never too old

My lunchtime scurry yesterday took me into a charity shop and I overheard two elderly ladies conversation. It went like this:

Not-so-elderly lady: Did you do anything for your birthday at the weekend?
Definitely-older-elderly lady: No! (Loud and defiant)
Not-so: Oh. You didn’t go out?
Definitely-older: No! (Long drawn out ‘no’ suggesting stupid question)
Not-so: Oh. (Voice suggests wariness of proceeding)
Definitely-older: No point celebrating birthdays when you get to my age (laughs, but sounds sad).

What a shame to get to live so long and feel like that. She could have got herself a film to watch, a nice dinner, a bunch of flowers, listened to favourite music, ate some chocolates. Why rely on other people for these things? Who knows what happened in her life that made her so defiantly bitter but it does seem a pity. Framing it better might have led to a more pleasant conversation with her friend:

Not-so-elderly lady: Did you do anything for your birthday at the weekend?
Definitely-older-elderly lady: Yes, I didn’t go out but made a day of it indoors.
Not-so: Oh. That sounds nice!
Definitely-older: It was, and the sun was shining. Makes a difference doesn’t it? (Smiles)
Not-so: Oh I agree! (Voice suggests settling in for a long chat)
Definitely-older: Always worth celebrating birthdays, whatever age you are (laughs, and means it).

Sigh. I wish I could rewrite things for people, sometimes.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Design change

Last night, some point between 'should have been asleep' and 'about to go to bed', I decided to have a little change on my blog layout. Always the best time to fiddle with settings! But here we are. What do you think?

I would love to customise this blog, as I'd like the header to be the full width of this writing panel, but it doesn't seem possible in standard settings. Also the colours - still not totally happy. But I like the width, and I like the font. There seems room to play - one day I shall do this blogging malarky properly!

My ginger cat is sitting beside me purring. He is like a lion in the mornings, so sure of his rightful place (on my lap), so sure of his rightful portion (of my porridge) and so happy with his lot in life! Here he is settling down for a snooze.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Book Worm: February 2010

In each monthly 'Book worm', I review all the books I have read the previous month, no matter how varied! I am looking forward to discovering what takes my attention in a year.

Sharpe’s Tiger, by Bernard Cornwell. Published July 1999
Rothschild Buildings: Life in an East-End Tenement Block, 1887-1920, by Jerry White. Published 2003
Gypsy Boy, by Mikey Walsh. Published 2009

Sharpe’s Tiger

I must admit the reason I bought this was I passed by the television and saw the actor Sean Bean with his kit off playing the character of Richard Sharpe. Hello, I thought, maybe it is time for me to read about the battles of the 18th century.

That aside, I really enjoyed this book. I wonder what came first for the author – the story or the research? As there is a real love of his subject here and I wonder if he was first a historian and wrote the story around his obsession, or had the idea for the story and fell in love with the research. Either way it definitely works – there is a real sense of a soldier’s life in the King’s Army, and it is very clever to write so much detail without resorting to showing off your knowledge.

The story itself is good – regardless of the association with the handsome leads of the long-running successful television series. Inter-woven against the hot back-drop of India, fact and fiction meld perfectly. The characters are all equally compelling from the wily hero Sharpe to his sadistic sergeant Hakewill, and there is enough action to ensure the adventure doesn’t stop until the very end. Well worth a read, good escapism.

Rothschild Buildings: Life in an East-End Tenement Block, 1887-1920

In a way this book is family history for me! My family have strong links to the Rothschild Buildings; and so this has a dual purpose – satisfying my love of social history, and also exploring my roots.

The east end of London has always absorbed, if not welcomed, immigrants from overseas. Back in the time this book documents, those immigrants were mainly poor but respectable Jewish people escaping from the troubles of Eastern Europe. The Rothschild Buildings were erected on slum-clearance ground as a solution to the over-crowding in the area, and were set up to be ‘model dwellings’ for a mainly artisan population.

Totally gripping and fascinating, the book draws on the testimonies of people that lived through those times, and paints a complete picture of their lives, tensions, and the community spirit that springs from close habitation.

This is my east end, my family history. I must find out more sometime.

Gypsy Boy

A bit of an odd one for me to pick up, as I usually steer clear of anything that smacks of a tragic life tale. But there’s a couple of things going on here that make this book head and shoulders above mis-lit autobiographies.

Firstly the author has a very good subtle sense of humour. In fact, this is what persuaded me to buy the book – in the first paragraph he describes his small granny as a ‘pygmy in a cardigan’ – and I was hooked. He has a deft light touch with his words, always a pleasure to read.

Secondly he gives us a glimpse into the gypsy way of life that demonstrates pride in his roots and yet is objective enough to see from an outsider’s point of view. Since non-travelling folk don’t get much of an opportunity to learn about gypsies apart from what is highlighted in the Daily Mail, this is a fascinating reveal.

It is the light-touch with his writing that makes the abuse he suffers all the more horrific and unexpected to read, although the author, understandably, doesn’t dwell on such periods in his life. Instead he goes on to tell of his escape and reincarnation, by which point you are rooting for him so bad that you want to give him a hug and shake his hand.

My only quibble with this book was that it felt as though the end was somewhat rushed, as a reader I would have liked to share more of his joy at discovering freedom, especially after all that hardship.

Read more from January's Book Worm

Monday, 1 March 2010

Book Watch – February 2010

I decided to record what books other people were reading on their way to and from work during the month of February. So if you saw a girl staring at you and fumbling around with a pen and notepad, I’m afraid it wasn’t the start of a saucy commuter’s fantasy. I wasn’t going to offer you my number. I’m just interested in what you are reading right now, right this very minute…

Married Lovers – Jackie Collins
One Good Turn – Kate Atkinson
The Brain That Changes Itself - Norman Doidge
Tiny Deaths - Robert Shearman
Humboldt's Gift - Saul Bellow
Company of Liars – Karen Maitland
Torn Apart – James Patterson
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Stieg Larsson
Twenties Girl – Sophie Kinsella
Push - Sapphire
Managing and Learning Textbook

Sons of Dorn - Chris Roberson
It’s Only A Movie - Mark Kermode
High Society – Ben Elton
The Ten Ms of Money – Matthew Ashimolowo

Do more women read books in general I wonder? Most men I saw were plugged into their own private world via ipods, or reading newspapers. Although look at the authors – most are men.

Maybe I should call myself Jim.

As for genres –a bit hard to judge as I haven’t read any of these but there’s chick lit escapism, educational books, ruminations on death, historical fiction, tragic lives, science fiction, and memoir. A mixed bag for our commuters! Wonder what March will bring.

What book are you reading right now?