Monday, 31 December 2012

CHASING TIME

Well, as the old year comes to a close and I wonder whether I may drown before the new one really gets going, my mind turns to resolutions as it does at this time each year. Sometimes I make some. Sometimes I don't but I always take the opportunity to have a good hard look at stuff to see what might benefit from a bit of a shake up.

I've already paved the way for something newish for 2013. I'm going to start keeping a diary again. I have decades worth of carefully kept diaries and then, as you may recall, two years ago I decided that my life was so terminally dull that I had nothing to say worth recording and so I stopped. My life is much the same now as it was then. However, there's far more interesting stuff going on in my brain so I have decided to resurrect the old habit. If, in years to come, anyone questions the two year gap in the sequence I shall come up with some fiendishly exciting reason as to why I was unable to put pen to paper in that period. For example, a spell on a desert island where paper was hard to come by or a temporary loss of memory meaning that I was unable to remember anything for long enough to write it down.

My other idea also has a terribly familiar ring to it. There are so many things that I want to do and never enough time in which to do them. I need to make myself some more. Obviously physicists much cleverer than I have been struggling with this problem for many a moon so I'm not sure I will be able to pull it off. What I can do however is use the time that I do have available more profitably.

I hear you scoff. Time management! That old chestnut. Pah! But actually I do waste a lot of time. I know you're thinking about my addiction to facebook and dragons but I don't actually consider those to be a waste of time and I shall continue to spend ( note the change of emphasis ) my time on those worthy pursuits. No. What I have discovered, by careful consideration and analysis, is that I waste time through guilt.

Let me explain. Each day I have two lists - the Things I Must Do list and the Things I Want To Do one. The Things I Must Do is generally more or less bottomed each day. List 2 is more problematic because it consists of things that one might possibly consider to be a bit of a waste of time. When you come from an environment, as I do, where every minute of your day has to be recorded and accounted for and if possible charged to an unsuspecting client, anything that might be described as a leisure pursuit struggles to find legitimacy.

My second list is basically made up of reading and writing. I write to practise because I want to write and I read to learn because I want to write. Both activities make me feel guilty. So, instead of just getting on with them, I faff about doing other unnecessary tasks. This results in the amount of time left for the Things I Want To Do list being so short that I no longer feel guilty about it.

This is the time that I need to reclaim for myself. There are hours of it every week - time that I spend on things that don't really need doing or that I do slowly so that I don't feel bad about spending the balance on my 'leisure pursuits'.

THIS IS GOING TO CHANGE. If I say it in capitals it looks like I mean it doesn't it? That's because I do.


Happy New Year to you all and good luck with finding that change that will improve your life immeasurably.

Friday, 28 December 2012

A CROSSROADS

I haven't written anything here for ages. I would love to say that that's because my life is so busy with other writing and to a degree that's true. There's always something that needs exporting from brain to page. But actually if I'm totally honest my relative silence has another cause. I haven't got much to say. Over the years I've covered pre Christmas stress and post Christmas analysis. I've done diary keeping and New Year's Resolutions. I've done Santa and presents and several posts about snow ( not that that is terribly relevant this year.)

I've talked about my literary ambitions until I'm sure you can think of a whole host of uncharitable things that you would like to do with my manuscripts. I've pontificated about parenting dilemmas ad nauseam. (This is a seemingly endless supply of inspiration but is now difficult to cover given the number of my children's friends who drop in here from time to time. I may never mention my children by name but it's not really difficult to work out who is who!)

Domestic drudgery had also had its moment in the spotlight. Ironing, cleaning and cooking have all had a post or two. And how many times can you read about how proud I am of my children's extra curricular things without wanting to vomit?! School is also a banned subject now that I'm a governor.

And they you have it. My life in a nut shell and the grim realisation that it's really rather dull. Not much changes and if it has happened to me once in the four and a half years that I've been tapping away at this blog then it's happened a million times, been thought about, written about and had a cherry put on the top.

So from this I reach a number of conclusions :

1. It's time to call it a day and let Imogen Clark at Home pass away quietly and with dignity.
2. I need to revitalise my life with a whole range of new things that I can witter on about.
3. I need to start making it up.

I need to give the matter some thought over the coming months as my  reader figures have taken a significant tumble as there's nothing new for them to read. I am tempted to have a go at publishing a book chapter by chapter a la Dickens. This might be fun and also scary at the same time which is supposed to be good for one's soul. It is one of those things though that once started must be seen through to the end.

Whatever I decide, I will begin (or stop) in the New Year so if you, as a loyal reader, have any views please comment either here on the blog or on the facebook page. And in the meantime I'll continue to mull things over.

Monday, 10 December 2012

MUMS MAKE CHRISTMAS

Oooh! What a fuss the Asda Christmas advert seemed to be causing. If you haven't seen it, it suggests that mums do Christmas and for the rest of the family Christmas appears as if by magic. No s**t Sherlock!

But of course there have been lots of gainsayers. There are those families where the man does the cooking, others who share the present buying on a romantic, festive date. And of course in many households both partners work long hours and the only way that Christmas can happen is by delegation and team work. I even heard someone say that Christmas can be a shabby affair if you don't have the time or inclination to do the whole Victorian thing. Of course it can!

However, the point that 'Outraged of London' has missed when they slam Asda's advert as insulting to women or men or anyone who happens to watch is that in many, many households across the land Asda has got it spot on. Mum does do Christmas.

In the Clark household I think they would accept that I do it all. There are two reasons for this. Firstly and most importantly I don't have a job. ( Please don't start with all that my job is in the home business! You know what I mean.) My husband works long hours to provide the wherewithal for us to have a lovely Christmas with all the trimmings and my part of the bargain is to make that happen. It's a simple division of labour that happens all year long but is just heightened at Christmas when there is more to be done. We have chosen this very traditional model of family life, it plays well to our strengths and it works for us.

The second reason why I do Christmas is because I'm a control freak. I want Christmas to be done properly and the proper way is my way so I might as well do it all myself! Even when we both worked I did Christmas. It's just the way it is. No one makes me do it. I like it (although I accept that that might not always be immediately apparent and I reserve the right to moan a bit and stamp my feet from time to time.)

This is where I part company with those that are insulted by the advert. I could delegate and make my life easier but I don't want to. I choose to do it all and turn myself into some sort of whirling dervish for a month. I do it because I want my children to have the kind of Christmas that I had, the magical ones with ridiculous traditions the origins of which no one can remember but that cannot possibly be tampered with. The ones with food that nobody actually likes but always get made because that's what you do at Christmas. In short, I want them to have the kind of Christmas that my mum made for me.
When I make the magic, I'm doing it because I want to. I can choose what kind of Christmas I want. We all can. And just because what I choose to do doesn't match what someone else's idea of how things should be doesn't make mine wrong or theirs right. It's just different.

I know that my experience of life is very different to many others but most of people in my world will watch that advert and think it's funny because it reflects how things really are. When that mum sits down at the end of the Christmas Day with a glass of wine and surveys what she has achieved single-handedly, she can rightly feel proud. She has undertaken and produced the most long awaited and memorable event of most people's year and the fact that that is a domestic task makes not one jot of difference and shouldn't be allowed to undermine her achievement. And when Christmas Day is over, I shall feel proud like that too.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

THAT SPECIAL SOMETHING

When my eldest was three and I took her to Maureen Williams School of Dance to enrol, I had no idea what I was getting us into. Now, thirteen years later, dance school is almost as big a part in all four of my children's lives as school school. We are there every day with one class or another and both my big two are incredibly proud to have little jobs helping out with music and tying ribbons for the younger dancers. Not going to dance is inconceivable and mountains are regularly moved to ensure that nothing is missed.

Every two years Dance School puts on a show. It's a lavish affair over two weekends two casts of principals and over three hundred dancers with a multitude of glittering costumes. Everyone gets their moment in the spotlight from the tiniest child who points their toes and beams at the sea of faces staring up at them to the elegant young women who pirouette around the stage en pointe, the choreography carefully conceived so that each parent gets a chance to see their own dancer.

The atmosphere in the theatre is electric. All the children know their dances and have the confidence to perform even though this environment is quite daunting for them. Backstage an army of mums and dads help out with hair and make up, changing costumes and curtains and provide encouraging words and tissues if things get a bit overwhelming. It runs like clockwork and it is a joy to be part of. When the run comes to an end and the children flop in exhaustion everyone agrees that this must have been the best show yet.

It's hard to explain why dance school is so important to us. There are the obvious things - it's great exercise for both body and mind. It teaches discipline and concentration and it's really good fun. But it's the hidden benefits that are as important. It gives my children a focus to their lives which some of their friends lack. They take from it the confidence to say that they are busy and so not available for kicking about town. They learn about team work and commitment and there are disappointments which have to be overcome. They feel a huge sense of belonging, that they are part of something that is special and worthwhile. But most of all they go to dance school, work hard and come away feeling good about themselves.

I have said before that money cannot buy what standing on a stage and performing to a supportive audience does for young people. Every time a show comes round I watch my children change and grow. When the last costume is packed away and all the photos have been giggled over, they each have a little cloak of inner confidence wrapped around their shoulders and they walk a little taller in their shoes.

We are exhausted. For two weeks we have grabbed food where was can, done homework in dressing rooms and cancelled anything that wasn't dance related. It's a huge commitment for all of us but one that we would collectively walk over red hot coals to achieve.

Next time will be the last show for my Big Ones. They will have achieved their dream to be at the top of the school, the senior dancers. And I will be grateful that dance school has done so much for them since they were tiny that this is their ambition and that, all being well, they will be there to achieve it.



Friday, 23 November 2012

TIRED OF FATHER CHRISTMAS

I'm tired of Father Christmas.

Am I allowed to say that or am I committing some huge maternal faux pas? I have been embracing his funny little ways to the best of my ability for sixteen years now and I've had enough. It's too complicated, too easy to slip up and strangle myself in the web of porkies that I have spun over the years.

It crossed my mind this morning that Christmas is nobbut a hop, skip and a jump away and I am uncharacteristically unprepared. To be fair to me, I have been a bit distracted in what would normally be my pre- Christmas build up period but when I say I have done almost nothing so far you have to believe me. This is not one of those situations when you say you've done nothing but what you actually mean is that you haven't quite finished curling the ribbon on the presents.

No. I have baked my cake - twice (the first being a tad on the crunchy side) and there my Christmas preparations cease. I blame my kids. You may not think that that is entirely fair. After all they are just waiting for Christmas to happen to them. The trouble is buying things for my children is the main focus of my pre Christmas activity. It perhaps shouldn't be but there you have it. Gifts for other family and friends can be sourced in a couple of concentrated spurts of activity but stuff for the kids needs strategic planning.

So, to return to my original theme. My younger two children, despite what appear to be the massive odds stacked against this being true, do still seem to believe in the beardy chap. I know this may seem unlikely but I had exactly the same with the elder two who had earnest conversations with our teenage babysitter long after you could possibly have imagined that they might. I must just breed them gullible.

The trouble began about a month ago when child 3 announced her foolproof plan for testing out Santa. She would write her letter in secret and send it up the chimney without telling anyone what it contained. Clearly this is a highly risky strategy but what could I do?! I bleated a bit about disappointment on the day etc but I'm not sure the situation was resolved satisfactorily for either of us.

Then child 4 decided that he wanted the Lego Death Star. Have you seen how expensive that is? For a bit of lego? Well, a lot of lego actually but how do you explain that Father Christmas does not have an unlimited budget? Tricky.

But the worst of all is that I can't get any of them to button down what they actually want. 'I might like this but then again I might like that...' Now I know that they will be delighted with whatever they receive but I would rather buy things that I know are winners than take a chance.

What I really want to do is to tell them that it is me who chooses, buys, wraps and then hides all their gifts and that if they don't tell me what they want then all stock will be gone and they will have to put up with whatever's left. It's not awfully festive though is it? Not really in keeping with the magic of Christmas? I'm holding on to the hope that this is the last time that I will have to jump through this ridiculous, self-created Christmas hoop and that next year we can do the whole thing with a nod and a twinkly wink like I do with the Big Ones. But then I thought that last year. And the year before........

Sunday, 18 November 2012

NANOWRIMO - WEEK TWO AND A BIT

So it's starting to get tricky now.  I'm just over two weeks in and so far I have managed to write the 1,667 words a day to keep on track but it's not all been plain sailing.

Firstly I had technical problems. I'm not good with computers. I do my best but I really don't have much comprehension. About a week ago I accidentally deleted the whole thing! All of it! Gone! Now I'm not entirely hopeless and I know that nothing is ever entirely lost at the outset so I stopped fiddling until my Husband in Shining Armour could come and rescue me. The irony of the fact that I was trying to back the book up at the time was not lost on me.

Then I had more technical issues when, in an attempt at clever restructuring, I managed to muddle all the chapters up. That wasn't too difficult to fix but it took up valuable writing time. A further consequence of that particular hiccup has also been uncovered. I discovered that in trying to sort it out, I had inadvertently copied an entire chapter so my word count was out by over a day's writing. I haven't actually lost any words but it did feel a bit like I had, knowing that I had to write 2,000 more to be back where I thought I was.

However, this coming week is when I think things are going to start to get tough. For a start I am reaching the climax of my story which, though incredibly exciting to write, requires full concentration. No filler words here. Every sentence is crucial and I need to remember what seeds I've planted as I've been going along so that my characters can harvest them all now. For this I need uninterrupted space for my thoughts to align.

But, in the way of these things life has a habit of getting in the way. I built myself a buffer on my course work before I began but this week I really need to do some serious study or I'll get behind. I also have lots of commitments coming up that mean that I can't just slope off to my computer and hammer out the words. Finally and of most importance, the children are all in a huge show next weekend and the one after and so all usual routines are thrown up in the air whilst we deal with technical and dress rehearsals. It will take all of my available energy to work out who needs to be where and when and what they'll eat. There's not much spare space for self indulgent plot twists.

I'm sure it will all work out - these things usually do - and I knew when I started this mad enterprise that it wasn't going to be a piece of cake. The main thing is that I'm having so much fun with my story and my characters and really, that's what it's all about.

And in my quieter moments I'm even starting to think about a title. I think I may need some help with that one. Watch this space.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

NANOWROMO - WEEK ONE.

I'm afraid that my life is being totally dominated by attempts to complete a novel in a month and so, somewhat self indulgently, I'm going to witter on about it here too. If you prefer my usual postings then you'll have to hang on until the month is over when no doubt they will return.

So it's day 7 and I am ahead. I have written 14,990 words so far against a target of 11,669. Here are the things that I have learned so far.

1. It's much easier writing to a clear outline rather than making it up as you go along. This may sound obvious but it isn't something that I've tried before. Up until now I have had the germ of an idea for a story, worked out some characters to populate it and come up with an ending. Then I've just set myself off like a wind up toy to see where I end up. This method (pantsing, it's called I gather) is terribly exciting but also a bit tricky when you get to the middle of the story. With my NaNo story I couldn't begin until 1st November so there was nothing that I could do whilst waiting to start but plot out exactly where I was going to go. Whilst it is slightly less thrilling to write like that, it is also much easier.

2. My NaNo story is written in the first person. This is new to me. I generally prefer to have some distance between me and my characters. This space acts like a kind of  security blanket to make me feel less exposed. But, throwing caution to the wind, I decided to immerse myself totally in the world of my character without having the luxury of being able to step outside her. This gives me a problem. I can only write the things that she sees or feels and I can't be inside anybody else's head. This would be fine except that she is 12 and so is a tad unreliable as a narrator. So I have been experimenting with ways of getting things across even if my character doesn't fully understand what is going on through dialogue and her response to the actions of those around her- particularly her mum. I'm hoping that by the time I've finished some things will be clear to the reader whilst my narrator still languishes in the dark.

3. Writing from the point of view of a 12 year old girl is harder than it looks. I've had to rewrite the whole first chapter (which is not really what NaNo is all about ) because when she spoke she sounded far too young. I think I must have been channelling Lauren Childs (she of Charlie and Lola and Clarice Bean fame.) This would have meant that I was unable to raise the more adult themes that I had in mind because they just wouldn't have been suitable for a reader of that age. This, in turn, would have rather ruined the point of the book. It's a shame because I quite liked that voice. Maybe I'll save her for something else.

So, that's the story so far. I'll post again in a week with an update as to how things are going. All tips gratefully received. Watch this space.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

NANOWRIMO

"Are you doing NaNoWriMo this year?" someone wrote on Facebook.
"What?" I thought.

I had no idea what NaNoWriMo was or whether it was something that I wanted to be doing. A little bit of messing about on google revealed all. NaNoWriMo is a writing challenge. The idea is that you commit to writing a novel, any novel, in the month of November. The only proviso is that you have to have written 50,000 words by the 30th.

I have to admit that my interest was piqued. As I understand it the idea is not to write a masterpiece - rather you write as fast as you can which encourages you to go off on tangents that might prove interesting at a later date.

As is my wont, I got all fired up and started thinking of ideas. Within a few days I had one that I thought that would work (a travelogue incorporating seven people, seven degrees of separation and the seven deadly sins.) However, after a bit of head scratching I decided that this was far too complicated to rattle off in 30 days and I sort of went off the whole idea.

But as the start date  approached I began to get supportive emails from my fellow NaNoers in Yorkshire. It's all over the internet once you know where to look. Strategies for every conceivable angle of the project, social media groups, writing tips.  And it's worldwide. There are hundreds of thousands of people all preparing to hole themselves up in November and write.

I decided to give it a bit more thought. I came up with a second, far less complicated idea and now have six days to decide what to do.

THE PROS

- it might be fun
- it will make me write lots every day
- it will give me chance to practise all the things I'm learning about on my course
- it will feel fantastic if I finish

THE CONS

- I will have to write every day ( its 1,666.666 words a day if you're struggling with the maths)
- it might get in the way of my course
- my family will have to make allowances
- I will feel like a complete failure if I don't finish

On careful reflection I have decided that fear of failure is the only true con and so I need to focus on making sure I don't fail. Good planning is the key I feel. That and telling enough people what I'm doing so that giving up will just be more painful than battling on.

So to that end I have decided to devote my blog's Facebook page to giving a daily update so that I have to keep going. Or lie - which is not an attractive option. Then I will have an outlet for the highs and lows of my month of fevered writing and hopefully a bit of support when the going gets tough. I'm hoping it'll be like having your friends positioned at strategic places on a marathon course to cheer you on when spirits are flagging. So, if you fancy being part of my virtual cheering crowd then hop on to Facebook and like Imogen Clark at Home and then you can watch me turn myself inside out for a month!

Happy writing!

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

FIGHTING YOUR OWN BATTLES

One of the hardest lessons that I have had to learn as a parent is when to welly in and when to leave well alone. And it has been really hard. All parents want to believe the best about their children. We encourage and nurture them and teach them right from wrong. We think that we know them better than anyone else and we probably do. But we also think that we can predict their every move and second guess how they will react to a situation with pinpoint accuracy. This, in my experience, is a mistake.

How well did your parents know you? Pretty well probably. How many times did you pull the wool over their eyes and get away with it? A fair number I should guess. So why shouldn't our own children be the same? Children are exceedingly good at manipulating adults in general and parents in particular. After all, it starts at birth with that ear piercing cry that no human can ignore. So I know that any story I hear has been spun either to gloss over my child's part in the misdemeanour or to blacken the name of  their current foe. And sometimes it might even be 99% fabrication.

As parents we fuel this fire. We can't help it. We show concern. We might even tut or make some ill advised comment about another child. Our own children zoom in on that and use it to their advantage. Now that they have our attention the incident starts to gather momentum and before too long our child is up high on a pedestal polishing their halo whilst everyone else involved would be better off in Borstal. We can't stop it. We are protecting our own.

However, unless there is real harm done, I believe that that should be it. The child sounds off. The parent shows sympathy and secretly thinks that the other party should be better parented and then we all forget about it and move on. I have learned to resist the urge to march to the school gates and complain. Firstly there are two sides to every story and I cannot necessarily rely on what I have been told as being gospel but secondly, what good can it possibly do? The world is a tough place. It starts in the playground and it just keeps getting tougher. If I run into school at the first sign of trouble then how will my children ever learn to deal with it?

 I need to smother my lioness instinct. The children have to develop strategies for dealing with the difficulties that they face in life. This is how they develop socially and is what makes them into rounded, capable and tolerant adults. And sometimes it hurts that they are the butt of jokes for day after day or that they are being isolated or even that there's a bit of physical rough and tumble. But that's life and the sooner they learn how to deal with it themselves then the happier life they will lead.

It has been undoubtedly a hard pill to swallow and I will no doubt have to struggle with it many more times before I'm finished but I firmly believe that my children have to stand up for themselves and fight their own battles without me to help and that that lesson will stand them in good stead for life.


Thursday, 11 October 2012

TO SPELL OR NOT TO SPELL

I can't spell. I never could. I think my first school was what was called 'progressive' and we were pretty much left to our own devices. As a result, spelling wasn't high on my agenda. By the time I got to primary school number 2, which was much more traditional in outlook, the damage was done and I've been rubbish at it ever since.

But does it really matter? In this age of abbreviations and text speak who will notice whether a word is correctly spelt or not? This is an argument that I heard recently and I have discussed it with those of my children who are similarly lexicographically challenged. ( I know but please indulge me. It's such a cool word even if it's not entirely appropriate in that sentence!) Language is evolving, they say. There have always been variant spellings of words. Everyone knows what I mean even if the spelling is dodgy. I've heard it all.

There are two questions lurking here. 1) Does it matter if I can't spell? and  2) Does it matter if I can't spell because there are so many things out there to help me do it?

For a while spelling does not seem to have been a high priority for schools. Children have been encouraged to simply get down what they want to say and worry about the formalities later. Far be it from me to staunch the creative juices by insisting on correct letter order. People in glass houses and all that. But....the difference is that I am ashamed that I can't spell. I know that I should be able to and it is a failing on my part that I struggle with it sometimes. By contrast we seem to have been actively encouraging our children to spell badly.

For me, being able to spell is a bit like table manners. Having them should go unnoticed. Not having them marks you out. I'm sure that that is wrong but in my experience that's the way of the world. So if you can't spell it suggests that there is something wrong with the standard of your education. Obviously I'm not talking about people who struggle to spell for learning reasons. Just people like me that can't do it.

I get away with not being a great speller because most of what I write is corrected as I go by whatever device I'm working with. This is really helpful and I'm sure my spelling has improved by being constantly corrected before my very eyes. There are a couple of downsides. Quite often my first stab at a word is so far off the mark that the spell check fails to recognise it. This is really frustrating and I have to play around with the letters until I get it closer to something that can be corrected. I should make a note of some of my first attempts. They'd make your hair curl!

Secondly, my devices correct my English into American. I know that because despite my failings I do know enough about the rules to know one from the other. But if we don't teach our children how to spell then the distinctions will be blurred and before long 'u' will become redundant and 's' and 'z' will be entirely interchangeable.

I gather that the emphasis in schools is changing back so that spelling and punctuation will once again become important at every level. (How anyone could ever think that punctuation was an optional extra is beyond me.) In the meantime, I shall continue to try and improve my own spelling and correct my children's texts. After all, if a job's worth doing and all that......

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

BUT IS IT ANY GOOD?!

It's October so it must be Ilkley Literature Festival. Town is full of writers promoting their books and tv presenters promoting the books with their names on the jacket. There's a real buzz about the place and I lap it up.

This year I must have been feeling particularly brave when the programme plopped onto my door mat as I signed myself up for a couple of masterclasses in Creative Writing. This is a first. For all that I bang on endlessly about my writing ambitions, I almost never share my work. However, there's no gain without pain they say so I decided to stop being so lily-livered and actually put my money where my mouth was. I filled in the form and posted it. The deed was done.

The morning of the first session dawned and I was sick with nerves. I tried to engender sympathy from my family but no one took a blind bit of notice so I gathered my notebook and pen and set out womanfully into the world of reality and rejection. After all, tapping away at my keyboard in the privacy of my own home allows me to indulge in all manner of pretensions about my own ability. But put me in a room with lots of other ambitious and potentially highly talented writers and there is a real danger that my dreams will evaporate faster than cheap nail varnish remover.

The first tutor was lovely - award winning novelist, emeritus professor on the best writing course in the country and a nice person to boot. She set the class at ease with entertaining tasks. We wrote, we read out our work. The two hours flew by and I came away feeling slightly calmer and deeply inspired.

My second class was a whole different kettle of fish. The tutor, male this time, more confident and assertive than the last. He asked us to explain what we found hard in our writing and from the answers it was clear that this group was either more accomplished or had higher aspirations than the first. As I listened to them speak about tricky plotting devices and publishing difficulties I could feel the little bit of confidence that I had gained ebbing away. I kept my head down and my mouth shut. When I read out my work he praised a particular phrase but even that couldn't dispel the feeling of despondency that washed over me. All these people, all sharing my dream and shouting about it. What on earth did I think I was doing?

You see that's the problem. How do you know if you're any good or not? 

When you have children, you realise how useful it might be to have a doctor amongst your closest friends in case of disaster - someone who you can ring and fret at but who knows you well enough not to resent the call.  Now I'm thinking an agent as a mate would be fab! I could send them my drafts and get them to tell me the uncompromising truth before I wasted my time sending stuff anywhere else. Sadly, I haven't picked my friends very carefully in this regard and whilst they are a jolly talented bunch, none of them can help me get published.

All is not entirely lost on the honest critic front however. This weekend I have a whole day cooped up in a lecture theatre with my tutor for the year, herself a published author. Perhaps she can help? I shall try to wow her with my sparkling prose and thus encourage her to suggest honestly whether I'm whistling in the wind.

In the meantime, I shall continue to entertain myself with the twists and turns of my latest story whilst wondering what it would be like to see my name on the table in The Grove Bookshop. Maybe next year?

Friday, 21 September 2012

THE GENTLE ART OF CORRESPONDENCE

I miss letters. Not the typed correspondence that arrives from the bank or insurance company but proper, handwritten letters. The sort of letters that you delay opening until you have a cup of tea and a quiet moment. I can't remember the last time I had one and that makes me sad.

Before computers and mobile phones and Facebook I wrote letters - lots of them. We moved house a lot when I was young so there was always someone to write to but letters really came into their own when my friends and I left home to go to university. It hardly seems credible now that we had no other way of keeping in touch. When I try to explain it to my children they glaze over with a total lack of comprehension. But it's true. There was no phone in my student flat. The phone was in the corridor outside and the chance of actually receiving a call on it was slim. Firstly it had to be free, a rare event. Then someone who was passing had to answer it if it rang. Then they had to know you and which flat you were in and finally they had to be public spirited enough to run down the corridor, knock on the flat door and try to locate you by which time the person on the other end's 10p would have run out.

So we wrote letters. I had reams and reams of paper in vivd colours with matching envelopes and I used to squash my words up small so that I could impart the largest amount of information possible to the recipient. I must have spent hours writing them. They were full of news, gossip, how I was feeling and plans for what we would do when next we met. My friends included sketches to illustrate their words. I even received a poem or two. I would complete my missives daily and then stuff the folded paper into the straining envelope and post them on my way to lectures.

And in return I received letters. I got one most days, a just reward for the amount of effort that I put into keeping in touch. I would save them until I got home and then shut myself in my student cell and devour them. They entertained me and gave me strength when times were hard. Many of them had smudged ink where either the writer or I had wept on them, such was the level of emotion that my teenage self invested in them. Letters, slow, labourious and deliberate, allowed me to grow into my new life without constant interruption but whilst still keeping a weather eye on what had gone before.

Life is very different now. If I want I can communicate with friends old and new all day long. My children have phones with them constantly. It is the work of a moment to send them a two line text. And there are emails, rattled off with little thought and disregarded within moments of receipt. But it's hardly the same.

So I think I might write some letters just because... I shall invest in some thick, smooth paper and write about what has caught my attention, what is worrying me, what I dream of. You might even get one of these missives if I still have a snail mail address for you. Sometimes in life more is called for than just a click.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

TOOLS OF THE TRADE

Do you ever get the feeling that everyone else knows stuff that you don't? It happens to me all the time but of particular interest to me today is the ever mystifying world of technology.

Now, as you know I try really hard to keep up. It's tough. I'm naturally curious but not particularly adept. I know there are things out there to help me if I could only find them and then work out how they function and I persevere, hoping against hope that light will suddenly dawn.

I am about to embark on this year's module - Creative Writing. I get to spend a whole year mucking about with words and it counts towards my degree. What could be better? My course book has arrived. The course itself doesn't start for three weeks but I can't just let the book sit there festering so I open it and begin to read. As seems to be the way of these things, it starts with lots of stuff about keeping a writing journal, noting things down that I think are interesting, ideas for stories, words, unusual descriptions. You know the kind of thing.

This is clearly a stationery purchasing opportunity so I hot-foot it to town and buy myself yet another new notebook and a celebratory pen. I begin doing the exercises in my new notebook and all is well. Except it isn't. I don't do handwriting any more. I type everything. I can type almost as quickly as I think and it has the added advantage of being able to read what I've written.

Hmmm. I ponder what I should do. Stories on screen, observations in my notebook maybe? But then notebooks are, by their very nature, chronological. If I conscientiously write down all these brilliant little nuggets what are the chances of me ever being able to find them again? Or indeed being able to read them if I find them?

A rethink is required. Slowly, my troubled mind starts to ponder the problem. This is the age of technology and I am surrounded by the stuff. I cannot believe that real writers are still scribbling in notebooks. Do I have to use a quill too? There must be an app.

There's a Moleskine app now! Can you believe that? But after a few exploratory adventures I decide it's not for me. I have lots of writing apps already. I can just start a new folder for the course. Simples. But I still need somewhere to record the little things, the half-formed sentences, the plot twists, the interesting surnames. I have carried a notebook in my handbag for years but surely I can just as easily type a note on my iphone and then cloud it to myself somehow?

I discover another app. This time it's a cork board on which I can stick my own little virtual notelets. Marvellous. Once I get going I assume I will be able to catagorise them all. Need an interesting observation about weather? It's right here. Looking for a pen portrait for a minor character? Look no further. Or I could just record my ideas as I'm walking along? Of course, I'll feel a bit of a fool as I talk to my phone but I can always pretend that there's someone on the other end of the line.

Of course only time will tell whether I will be able to adapt to any of this stuff. Whilst the idea of all these apps is immeasurably appealing, I know that they have to be simple and immediate enough to make them workable or I will end up going back to pen and paper. I suppose the main thing at this stage has to be to have a go and to ignore the amount of valuable writing time that I waste trying to work out how to get all the apps to talk to each other. Surely at some point I will stumble across the perfect combination for me? I have three weeks to master my technology before the course proper starts. How hard can it be? All tips gratefully received.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

THE ALL INCLUSIVE DILEMMA

I like holidays. That sounds trite - who doesn't? But I really like them and will sacrifice whatever is required during the course of the year to ensure that I get two weeks in the sun as my reward. We've tried various formats but recently we have had a few encounters with that strange beast, the all inclusive hotel. It's not really a format that appeals to me as an adult. I would rather have the flexibility to go where I choose but when holidaying with children it has been a revelation, particularly in countries not yet set up for European style tourism.

There are lots of reasons why it works for us. It's all paid for for a start so we don't have to check the budget every time we stop for a drink. Buying d rinks for six is a pricey business, especially when all we really wanted was a couple of cups of coffee. Many I time I have gone round the table finishing all the children's tipples because I can't bear to leave them paid for and undrunk!

Next, there's no waiting around. You walk in, find a table and you're off. No need to desperately order the food with the drinks or entertain hungry and almost mutinying children whilst their food is being prepared. They can be sitting down and eating within seconds of entering the restaurants and this my children like. A lot.

And it makes them more adventurous in the culinary stakes too. It's a gamble choosing something new if it's the only meal you'll get until breakfast but if you can take a little bit and leave it if you don't like it then what's to lose?  Who knows? You may even like it! For example, they all ate curried goat in Jamaica. Can you imagine if I'd served that up for tea at home?

However, it's not quite as simple as all that. There are various aspects about the all inclusive hotel that make me increasingly uncomfortable. These concerns were writ large on our recent trip to Cape Verde, a small and undeveloped bunch of islands just off the African mainland. Until now there has been no industry on the island that we visited. It has sun and spectacular beaches but is too barren to grow crops. Tourism is their great hope.

I know very little about the lives of the people who were waiting on us. They wear a uniform so there is no way of judging their means from just looking. I saw some incredibly basic housing, far more rudimentary than anything I've seen in the Caribbean and I saw poverty there that would take your breath away. I can't say how the staff lived and I am worried that I may sound patronising but I think it would be fair to say that the standards of living are not high.

Enter the Europeans on their holiday. Two weeks to relax and indulge. And how? I think we forget how fat we've become because it is all around us. We are ever quick to judge the Americans without looking closer to home. It's clear that the poverty in our world is on a very different scale to that in Cape Verde. I try to ignore it. Other people's weight issues are no concern of mine after all. But it leaves a sour taste.

But I couldn't ignore the greed. Plates piled high again and again with enough food to feed several people. And then left abandoned to go and try something else. All that food wasted. It must horrify the locals to know what they throw away on an hourly basis. I was ashamed. Could people not see how inappropriate their behaviour was? Not only was the food wasted but what about the water and power that was used to cook it? There is no drinking water. It has to be imported and other water comes from the desalination plant which takes power to run. It's not just as simple as leaving your food.

I argued with myself every mealtime. These people are on holiday taking hard earned breaks from the reality of life. Who am I to criticise? Without this tourism the islands would go back to having almost nothing. It is providing work and an infrastructure that was missing before. But do we have to be so blatant with our wealth?

I don't know what the answer is. Time will tell whether tourism will be the panacea for Cape Verde that they hope and maybe they are not as offended by we Europeans as I am ashamed of us. But would it hurt to show some respect for the environment in which you choose to holiday and make allowances where necessary? I'm not suggesting that we should starve - but no one needs three plates full for breakfast.

Friday, 31 August 2012

LIFE WITH NO INTERNET


I am on a volcanic island off Senegal. Barring an airport, a couple of small towns and our hotel there's not much here. There are no native mammals except the bat which presumably got here under its own steam. It's pretty quiet.

So I am going without my daily internet fix for two weeks. The hotel does offer wifi but we have decided not to subscribe as an interesting experiment and to keep the children off it. Usually I would check Facebook and emails as my early morning coffee brews and then be on and off the internet throughout the day. I am curious to discover how I fare without it.

Day 1. 

I turn my phone off on the plane knowing that my check in at Manchester Airport will be the last for a fortnight. Seven hours later I arrive at our hotel. It is beautiful - a cross between an Arabian palace and an elaborate sandcastle raising majestically from the dunes. I can see and hear the Atlantic from my veranda but I have to keep that to myself. I think of the photos that I can post on my return. I wonder how 'A' level results day is going and hope that everyone has what they need. I cannot check. I miss my Dragonvale dragons.

Day 2.

As I walk through the hotel reception I see a girl sitting in the wifi zone tapping on her laptop. I could just subscribe and log on for a few minutes. I don't. In the evening the sky is clear and dark. The stars are bright, far more numerous than at home and I see constellations that I don't recognise. I could look them up but I need a wifi connection to pinpoint my location on Star Walk. I decide to draw the patterns instead and check when I get home. I miss my dragons.

Day 5.

Today, somewhat inexplicably, I begin to sing 'My Brother' by Terry Scott, a song that has not crossed my consciousness for at least three decades. Had I been at home, I would have found it on You Tube and shown the kids who would have feigned interest and then scoffed at it behind my back. Perhaps the internet is not as life enhancing as I'd thought! I do miss my dragons though.  

Day 6.

Today I wonder about tides. What is vital on the shores of England seems not to matter anywhere else. I remember childhood holidays at home spent poring over tide tables to make sure that trips were properly timed. Such things seem to have no relevance anywhere but Britain. If your towel is dry at the beginning of the day so will it be at the end. Why is that? Had I been within striking distance of the internet, I would have plugged the gaps in my meagre knowledge with a quick google search. As it is, the world's tidal systems remain as mysterious to me as they were to those who wrote 'There be dragons' on maps to signify places not yet discovered. Talking of dragons I hardly missed them at all today.

Day 7.

What is the average number of children per family? It certainly isn't 2.4 any more. On this international little outcrop of rock the Clarks seem to up the average considerably. The only large groups contain more adults than children and there are a surprisingly high number of families with just one child who tags along after its parents looking bored. Is this breeding pattern common in the rest of the holidaying world then? Whilst no one bats an eyelid at four children in Ilkley, here we seem to be not just bucking the trend but kicking it firmly in the teeth. But I can't look the figures up. No internet you see. 

Day 8. 

Today I have a penchant for a cup of tea made properly with freshly boiled water and served in a bone china cup with a saucer. The bone china bit is, I suspect, an affectation brought on by a combination of the heat and my reading material. I seem to think I am in the Raj and should be floating about in white linen and taking tea on the lawn. I don't even have a bone china tea cup and saucer at home (although I could probably muster a decent coffee cup.) Had this thought occurred to me when not  internetless, I  would have found my way on to the John Lewis website and wasted 15 minutes choosing myself a new tea service after which I would have promptly forgotten the whole idea and made myself a decent cuppa in a mug. I have no internet so such pretensions will have to see if they survive my unreliable memory and wait until my return.

Day 11.

There are hardly any birds here which is strange. There are lots of noisy little sparrow types which chirrup loudly and stage daring raids on my breakfast table but other than those I've seen three crows, a single gull and a large and intriguingly brindled feather. I am used to tropical climes bringing exotic species into my world but here the skies are empty. I am certain that this island is not that remote but we don't seem to be on their flightpath. Perhaps they don't come because there's nothing for them here but toast crumbs? I will look it up - when I get home.

Day 14.

Home tomorrow. As usual, I am not quite ready to return to real life and could happily stay for another few days but I am looking forward to having my computer back. It has been wonderful spending a fortnight with my family and no on else, having all my household tasks undertaken for me and spending most of my time reading but it can't last forever. It's not so much that I haven't missed the internet. It's more that it has no place for me here. Apart from the odd question that has had to go unanswered, I have not felt the need to log on whilst here in paradise but at home things are different. Life is busy and hectic and at times quite dull and the internet makes things simpler, quicker and sometimes just more fun.

So my conclusion? Pleasingly, I do seem to be able to function without updating my status three times a day and my dragons won't have died without me but as soon as I get home you can expect to see my internet presence renewed because these days it is just part of who I am.

Monday, 13 August 2012

DREAMS AND DEDICATION

The country is buzzing with a positive post-Olympics glow and the message is loud and clear. If you really want to do it then you can. All it takes to achieve your dreams is hard work and dedication and then anyone can do anything. I had a long chat with my children on similar lines yesterday. Through the inevitable tears that always flow when I talk about people succeeding, I explained that real achievement comes with determination and focus and that there is no alternative to putting in the hours to get where you want to go.

This message is made all the more poignant by the distinct dearth of appropriate role models that society has in this age of instant stardom. For a while a  martian visiting planet earth may well have thought that to achieve success all that was required was to spend a disproportionate amount of time grooming oneself, then to be loud and brash on a reality television show and Bob's your uncle. Sit back and watch the money role in.

Of course, despite what the media might make the martian and the young people of today believe, life's not like that. The real winners, I told my children over the cornflakes, are the people who are happy in their life because they work hard and get to where they want to go through dedication and maybe a tiny bit of luck. They are the ones to be applauded. The Olympians fall very neatly into this category but sport is not the only aspect of life that is improved by a bit of dedication. Almost anything you can name is caught by the mantra.

But is is true? As I have mentioned before, I have had two real dreams in my forty odd years. (I don't count my family as a dream because somehow I always just assumed that that would work out like it does in the fairytales.) The first is achieved and that box is ticked. The second is a work in progress. But no matter how hard I dedicate myself to my writing ambitions, will I ever actually achieve my dream and have a novel published? I do have to say that it is remarkably unlikely but that realisation doesn't dull the dream. I am still as determined to try. I do wonder though whether my natural pragmatism might colour my efforts. I push that thought to the back of my mind.

And which came first? The dream or the natural leaning towards the use of language? Do I want to write because I think I can do it a bit and might improve or because I want to write and am teaching myself how? I don't know the answer to that. What if I had decided that I wanted to run the fastest 100 metres in school, the country, the continent, the world? Would hard work and dedication have allowed me to achieve that without any obvious talent in that area? The post-Olympic message seems to be yes. I'm not so sure.

One thing I do know - if you don't try you are very unlikely to achieve anything. If you want to be good on your roller skates you can't just strap them on and go for it. It takes hours of patient practise. True instant gratification is as rare as hen's teeth.

So the message stands proud over the world, the country and my breakfast table. If you want to realise your dream then you have to focus and work and if you do that then who knows? Your dream may turn out to be even bigger than you dared to imagine.


Thursday, 9 August 2012

STRESSED? MOI?!


‘Why do you always get so stressed just before we go on holiday Mum?’ asks teenage daughter. ‘It makes everyone else stressed you know?’

‘I don’t really know darling,’ I reply through gritted teeth.

‘I mean, all we have to do is pack and then we’re off.’

‘Hmmm’ I reply and bite my tongue. Hard.

She’s right though. I do always get myself in a proper pickle before we leave the house and there is generally some kind of meltdown at departure minus one day that results in me losing my cool spectacularly. It happens every time.

It starts with the laundry. With a week to go I begin the pre-holiday warnings and pray for bad weather so that the holiday clothes can be spirited away without being missed. I ask and ask and when I am convinced that I have anything I wash, iron and congratulate myself on being ahead of schedule.

However my confidence is always misplaced. When the task of placing items into bags comes round, a major flaw in the plan is revealed. My idea of clean and my teenagers’ idea of clean do not coincide. As item after item comes out of the wardrobe pre-worn I get close to screaming pitch. After all, had I not asked for all this stuff so that I could get it all ready at my leisure?

Of course my children can’t see what I’m getting so aerated about. The clothes aren’t dirty as such. They are just worn. They can pack them and then wear them when we get there. This absolutely does not accord with my idea of how packing is done. I throw all offending items into a pile as big as a funeral pyre and shout a lot. More laundry undertaken with very bad grace and lots of stomping.

After the laundry comes the house. I want it to be tidy before we go and preferably clean so that on our return it feels good to be home. However as fast as I tidy at one end, the children are getting things out at the other. My suggestion that they sit in the garden with a book falls on deaf ears. Today they want to do painting, or Hama beads or dressing up and promise faithfully that they’ll put it all away afterwards. Is it any wonder I get myself so stressed?

My pre-holiday requirements are very simple. I just need an empty house for three days and all would be well. A pre-holiday holiday if you like. I need quiet so I can think through every possible scenario and then pack for it. I need to make lists of what will be happening in our absence and make sure its covered before we go. And most of all I need to clean the bathroom and not have anyone else use it!

Of course, I’m existing in cloud cuckoo land if I think I’ll get anywhere near my perfect packing environment. I have to work with what I’ve got - a houseful of excited children and a busy husband. So this year I’m going to beat them at their own game. I shall extract what needs washing myself. I shall take myself off to quiet corners and make lists in peace and I shall lighten up on the cleaning front because let’s face it, a lot of dust can settle in a fortnight.

Hopefully the net result will be that we will get to the airport without my relationship with the children being in tatters and I will be ready to start the challenging task of relaxing all the sooner.

(By the way oh loyal readers. My blog has its own Facebook page. Please ‘like’ it if you do. It's at Imogen Clark at Home. Thank you.)

Monday, 6 August 2012

OLYMPIC LEGACIES?

I've been to the Olympics! Can you believe that? Well, if you know me you may find it slightly surprising. Sport really isn't something that occupies my mind in any meaningful manner. At school I wasn't bad at PE. I never had to suffer the humiliation of being the last to be picked for a team although I was certainly never the first. Sport just never captured my attention but then none of my family was interested either and so it's hardly surprising.

When we learned that the Olympics would be coming to London however I was instantly determined that I would go to see the gymnastics and that I would take whichever of the children wanted to come too. Of course that all changed when the tickets were released and I discovered just how difficult it was to actually get tickets for the sport that you were interested in - and just how expensive. With regret I abandoned the plan.

Fast forward several months, more ticket releases and a considerably lighter purse later and my Third-born and I were London bound in a wave of excitement. I don't think I, or many others, had appreciated just how gripped by the Olympics the nation would become. Wall to wall tv coverage combined with the school holidays and an unprecedented level of success in the medals table have meant that the country has a buzz about it that I'm not sure I've seen before. Well, if the likes of me, who would never watch televised sport unless there was a gun to my head, is enthralled then the rest of the country who is actually interested is bound to buy in to it.

We had a great time. The trampolining was fascinating to watch and very exciting even though the British competitor just failed to make the cut into the Final. We went on the cable car, we watched the big screens in Hyde Park and were amazed at just how well our capital city had managed to scrub itself up for its big day. I have never seen London as clean or as friendly. Nothing was too much trouble and everyone was wearing a smile. It was almost uncanny.

I have to say that I did have the feeling, having been unable to get tickets to go into the Olympic Park itself, that it was all happening somewhere that I wasn't and my Olympic experience was not quite complete but such is life.

The feeling that I am left with now that I am home with my BBC coverage is one of relief. For so long my home nation has been down at heel. We have moaned about the weather, the bankers, the economic disaster, the government ( whatever its hue), the NHS, fat people, drunk people, lazy people. I could go on and on. I'm not saying that hosting a successful Olympic Games is going to change any of that and, whilst I will be delighted to be proved wrong, I fear Legacy will be a one year wonder. However, we have proved by the way in which the country has transformed itself that we still have the ability to think positively and focus on things that I see as important - hard work and payback, dedication, working as a team, pride in achievement.  I was worried that we had spent so long blaming someone else for all that is not great about Great Britain that we had lost the gumption to do anything about it.

The buzz from the Olympics will die down after a while, the nights will draw in and Christmas will be upon us before we know it but I will be able to lie slightly easier in my bed knowing that deep down we are still a nation that can do more than sit and lick its wounds.


Wednesday, 25 July 2012

FORBIDDING FIFTY SHADES

What do we think about controlling what our children read?

I know that many people would be grateful if their children just picked up a book. My brood contains both voracious readers and those for whom it's a pleasant enough activity but far from a passion. At least they all read to some degree. But what do they pick?

I was at a tutorial earlier in the year and we were discussing which literary works should make it into the canon of English Literature. My tutor gave the example of Enid Blyton.  She had never read any as a child and dismissed the books in damning terms. I challenged this attitude. Having never read any how could she be in a position to have a view as to their merits? Also, if you judged which books made it into the canon based on the pleasure that they had given millions of children over nearly a hundred years then surely Enid Blyton should be there.

It turned out that my tutor had never read any Blyton not because she had made that decision for herself but because her father had banned it and refused to have it in the house. This made me cross. I spent hours lost in Enid Blyton's imagination without judging the quality of the writing. I suspect I have emerged unscathed.

The idea of controlling a child's reading material has arisen again recently as my 15 year old daughter asked to borrow my copy of "Fifty Shades of Grey." Now my principles were really on the line. In my view the book is not the ideal bedtime reading for a teenager. Whilst I, as a mature and experienced woman, can pick and choose the messages that I wish to take from it, I can hardly expect my child to be as discerning.

"You can read it," I said, "But you must remember that men like that are to be avoided and that you should never allow a man to do anything to you that makes you feel uncomfortable."

Even to me I sounded ludicrous. She stared at me for a moment and then said, "I have no idea what you're talking about. So can I borrow it or not?"!

She read for a morning. Then she forgot about it and moved on to something else before she got anywhere near the Red Room of Pain. Thank goodness I didn't ban it I thought.

The only time I have not allowed a book was when my eldest was about 9 and wanted to read Jacqueline Wilson. I thought then that I should protect her from the stark world that Wilson paints in her novels, being, as it is, so far from the one she was growing up in. With hindsight, I suspect that decision was flawed and I'm not sure I would make the same one again. I have certainly allowed the others to read Wilson's work.

In fact, I have found that my children are self regulating. In much the same way as 'Fifty Shades" lies unfinished, they have also abandoned books that they consider too sad, too scary or which make them feel uncomfortable in some other way. Reading for leisure should be a pleasurable experience and my children have very clear ideas about what kind of story fits the bill. Perhaps they will come back to the ditched ones when they are more emotionally equipped to deal with them?

My opinion seems to have developed into allowing my children to read anything and everything that they choose (although I did hide the Louise Rennisons for a while when nothing else was being opened). After all, surely the more they learn from what they read the better they will be able to deal with life's twists and turns? That said, I am currently reading A Beginner's Guide to Satanism (it's research) under the covers with a torch!


Thursday, 19 July 2012

FIFTY SHADES OF CONTROVERSY

It's months since I first heard about "Fifty Shades of Grey", the recent publishing phenomenon. As you might expect, anyone who gets a result with self-publication tends to catch my attention. So it was the story of the book's success rather than the story itself that I was interested in. Of course it would be hard to ignore the subject matter entirely. Whilst books about sex aimed at women are nothing new, it's been a while since they have been in the public eye and the soaring sales of hard-wear and sex toys have been headline news.

So the publicity grew and the book went from something you might download surreptitiously onto your kindle to being stockpiled in WHSmith's for Ilkley's gentile ladies to snap up with their newspaper. Lots of people told me that it was rubbish and that they would never read it without ever having opened its cover. That alone was enough to spur me into action and so I acquired a copy and began.

The first five pages are awful. There's no getting away from it. I read them and my heart sank as I thought of the injustice of such massive success with such meagre material. But then we meet Mr Grey and suddenly something changed. Despite the quite dreadful cliches and his preposterous good looks, my interest was piqued. I have looked back over the text to see what it was that made me sit up and take notice but I can't identify it. I was just curious to know about him and her and what would become of them.

And so it went on for 500 pages. Notwithstanding the limitations of the language, the lack of any kind of plot and the narrator's irritating vocal habits I read on. I wanted to read on. I enjoyed it.

So me being me, I decided to work out what I and perhaps the millions of others that have read and enjoyed the book took from it. I could then set that against the objections that I've heard about it to see which rang the most true for me.

The most common attitude that I've come across is the book being dismissed as rubbish. I can't accept that. It is impossible to achieve those incredible sales figures with a product that stinks. I can immediately disregard all those who say that they won't read it for whatever reason. That is up to them of course but what can they possibly add to the debate? Those who read it and dismissed it seem to fall into three camps - those that genuinely were not interested in the story, those that objected to the story and those who may be indulging in a soup├žon of intellectual snobbery. The former is fine. The latter is a sad reflection of our society but isn't something I can do anything about. The middle group deserve more consideration.

From what I gather, the main concern seems to be the idea of a young, idealistic and innocent girl being abused by a dominant and manipulative sadist. That concept, I can see, contains plenty to object to. However, that is not how I read the story. Rather than an abusive man preying on a young innocent, I saw an intelligent and sassy young woman in control (in the main) of her own destiny. Call me a traitor to my sex (and you wouldn't be the first) but as far I could see this was a two way street.

It's the sex that seems to have caused the biggest stir and puts people off. I may be a prude but I don't remember reading anything as explicit before. But it's like everything - once the initial surprise has worn off it's just sex and it quickly stopped being significant.

What appealed to me and I suspect is behind the success of books two and three is plain old romance. I would love to be swept off my feet by a handsome stranger who makes me feel like I am the most important thing in the world in a way that no one else has ever come close to doing. If I can't live like that myself, and let's face it who can, then I'm happy to read about it or watch it. It's a straight forward feel good factor. Of course, I don't really want a jealous lover who wants to control my every move and refuses to share me but it might be nice to think that I could provoke that kind of reaction in someone.  The world is full of women reading love stories and indulging in day dreams and if you've never done it then you probably hated this book. If you want to tie yourself up in knots objecting to the concepts then that's up to you but I'm a simple soul and frankly I have bigger things to fret about.

So. As a piece of literature? It's not going to win the Man Booker. As a piece of entertainment? It worked a treat. I was entertained. There is a place in this world for all manner of things. Not everything will suit everyone but then isn't that part of the joy of being alive?




Monday, 16 July 2012

THE ANATOMY OF A SHOW - A MOTHER'S PERSPECTIVE

Show minus six months - the Upstagers' panto, a nine show run involving all six of us, finishes and the Clarks are buzzing. The next one is for seniors only so I heave a small sigh of relief. We have six months off. (As it turned out, one of mine ended up in it but such is life with the Upstagers.) Next it's Les Miserables. Potential parts for everyone? I buy the DVD.

Show minus five months - all change! Upstagers have been offered the opportunity to stage one of the very first productions of the schools' edition of Miss Saigon. Huge excitement. I know nothing about the show except that it's a bit like Madame Butterfly. The audition date goes in the diary and various other things have to come out.

Show minus four months - auditions. The buzz starts early. BBM messages flash around my kitchen table. "There's no dancing! It's all singing!" What to do? We have exams. We are busy. It will be the fifth show of the year. I listen to their deliberations and a part of me thinks - phew! They decide not to audition, worried by the unfamiliar territory. I nearly scratch show week from my diary but something makes me leave it in.

Show minus three months - after a couple of conversations we're back in. No there's not much dancing but there are a few big ensemble pieces which will be fun. I gird my loins. Rehearsals begin and my weekends disappear. I cancel plans, decline invitations and try to manage busy diaries, apologising to those existing commitments that get let down. We juggle GCSEs, my uni exam, music exams, ballet exams, gym competitions and school. Life is hectic.

Show minus one month. A trip to Primark to source bits of costume. We buy tickets - the matinee as the evening show is a bit late for the Little Ones. (Little did I know...)  Rehearsals heat up. Diary clashes become worse and worse. Commitments were made after they had decided not to audition. I try to keep my cool. I wonder why on earth I get caught up in all these shows.

Show minus two weeks. A family meal in Pizza Express  A phone call. "How tall is your little boy? Can you bring him to rehearsals at 7 on Tuesday?" He goes to bed at 7. "Yes."

Show minus one week. A rare trip to the doctor's with my daughter. "It's vertigo. Try not to move your head too quickly." Perfect. 

Show minus three days. My husband leaves the house early to build the set and returns much later raving about the number of lights and the sound effects. I'm starting to feel excited.

Show minus two days - I wander around Sainsbury's looking for wholesome yet fast food that can be produced at the drop of a hat. I buy plasters to stop tap shoes tapping. I make sure that our supplies of grips and hairspray are topped up. My children look tired already.

Show minus one day - I catch the last ten minutes of the performance as I wait to pick them up. I weep.

Showtime - I chaperone. No child may be left unaccompanied. I scamper around backstage trying to keep track of my charges. I make lots of shushing noises and tell teenagers to pipe down whilst directing all complaints at my own children because it's easier than shouting at someone else's. Opening night is a huge success. Everything runs like clockwork. The audience cheer. Ticket sales soar.

The run continues. I dress in black - so not my colour - I wait for cues, I follow children, I hang up clothes, I sort out disputes, I take children to the loo but most of all I enjoy the buzz. The show is going well. The theatre is packed and everyone is working hard together. The atmosphere is intoxicating.

And that's why we do it. I moan and I complain and I chunter about my lost weekends and my tired children but then when the run starts it is all forgotten. Every time they are involved in a show they grow a little in confidence. The learn how to work with others and what it is to be part of a team. They see the seniors and they are inspired to try harder. They are so proud of their involvement in the production and so am I  but I'm not just proud of my own children. Somehow I am proud of every one of those young people who give their hearts and souls to every single moment of the performance. I am always an emotional wreck by the end. The songs go around my head in a never-ending cycle and I burst into tears when I remember particular moments. The children look on, bemused.

But most of all I am so very grateful that we get the chance to be a part of something so special and I know that the precious memories of these happy days will never leave us.








Wednesday, 4 July 2012

PLOTTING IN THE SUN

My course is over for the summer and so, instead of spending my time reading other people's books, it's time to turn my attention to my own. I began book two in flurry of enthusiasm about this time last year and rattled off the first thirty thousand words or so pretty much without drawing breath. Then along came the holidays and the children and the course and work and suddenly my time was diminished and my muse took a cheeky sabbatical.

But my dream remains very much intact and so I decided to lock myself away in my metaphorical garret (the playroom) and continue. When I reread what I'd written I wasn't too disheartened. I was still interested in my story which was a good start and found the things that I had hidden in the plot to be rediscovered later. However, it quickly became apparent why I had put it to one side last September. I was stuck!

From my huge novel writing experience, I have learned that it is not enough to have a story that you wish to tell. In some ways that is the easy bit. I dream up an idea and some characters and it all seems hunky dory. But then comes the realisation that you can't just take them from A to B. That does not a novel make. You need the twisty turn bits, the parts that the reader is intrigued by and which stop him or her from guessing the outcome unsatisfactorily early. You need sub plots.

So then I struck upon a fabulous idea. I was about to go to France for a long weekend with a friend whose opinion I trusted so I sent her the draft. She read it as we reclined in the Mediterranean sunshine. From behind my kindle I searched her face for clues as she turned the pages. Was it ok so far? Was she engaged or just going through the motions to please her deluded mate? After what seemed like an age she sat back and closed her iPad. "So?" she said with a smile. "What happens next?"

And thus began a highly entertaining couple of days. We picked at my characters, testing their motivation  and the strength of their relationships. We challenged my themes, hunting for the inconsistent and the glib. And then we played 'what if?' coming up with numerous plot turns with varying degrees of ludicrousness. I baulked at ideas that might involve major plot shifts - we can save that for the rewrites - and some ideas didn't match with things that are in my head but not yet on paper. But by the time we'd finished I had some decent kernels to work with to get me to my denouement. And, more to the point, we had a laugh.

I have promised her that when my novel published, I will put her and our trip in my Acknowledgments so the world can know of our time in France. I also warned her that we may have to have a repeat trip should my muse desert me again!  In reality this book will no doubt end up in a virtual drawer like its predecessor but I'll never succeed if I don't keep trying and I'm nothing if not determined!

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

DRAGON CRACK

I've never been terribly interested in computer games. I can't seem to do them and I won't make the time to work out how to play properly. I know that it's just another form of leisure activity like reading a novel or watching a film but somehow I can't seem to get beyond the feeling that the whole thing is a monumental waste of time.

I wasn't even much good at in my youth. I am of the Space Invaders generation. It was new and everyone was at it but I never seemed to have the spare cash to feed in to the machine. I could always think of something else I'd rather spend my money on. We even had one of those Atari games consoles at home with the flashing lines to indicate a tennis bat or what have you but it soon lost its shine for me.

So, imagine my surprise when, over the course of an ordinary 48 for period, I developed an addiction to a game. My son has had a dragon thing going on for a few weeks now and in his search for all things dragonesque he came across this app, Dragon Vale. He seemed to be spending quite a lot of time building his park and then cross breeding his various dragons to come up with a selection of cute looking hybrids. He can talk for England and so rather than just let him rattle on about his new game to an unappreciative audience, I decided to download the app so that I could have a quick look round and then have an idea about what was so catching his imagination. After all, it was free.

I'd say the first half an hour or so was fairly harmless. A friendly looking wizard chap told me what to do, suggested how I might like to spend my money and pretty soon I had a reasonable looking dragon park. And that's where I should have stopped. I didn't. Before I knew it I was hooked it. All I wanted to do was feed my dragons and collect enough coins so that I could afford to buy a breeding cave and create new dragons of my own to hatch. I could just have used the in app purchase to buy myself some extra coins but that's for suckers right? Who spends hard earned cash on virtual money?!

Day 2 and I discover that my husband had allowed an in house purchase so that my son could buy an ice dragon. I am sniffy. We have always had a blanket ban on them in the past. Then it crosses my mind that I am an adult, it's my iTunes account and if I want to spend £1.49 on some spending vouchers then who is there to stop me? Someone really should have.

This morning I began a massive reorganisation of my park to maximise footfall and consequently income. When I looked up over an hour had passed. I know I have some time on my hands now that I'm between courses and the vacuum has not yet been filled with doing everything I usually do but slower. But an hour? On a pretend dragon park.

Now all I want to do is check my park all the time. It's completely addictive. My husband called it dragon crack and I think he might be right. I am a totally lost cause. Me, who eschews all forms of electronic game. I think all I can do is indulge myself for the time being and hope that the novelty wears off and I lose interest....rather like I thought it might with Facebook!

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

EXAMS IN YOUR 40S

I've got an exam tomorrow. Three hours on English Literature and I'm nervous. I'm nervous about getting there on time. I'm nervous about my ability to sit still and concentrate for such a long period and dubious about my ability to do it without weeing. I'm nervous about whether my hand can write for three hours and whether the result will be legible.

These are not concerns that I had last time I sat exams. Then it was 1989, Simply Red were at the top of the charts and this was the last step on my eight year campaign to be a solicitor. The Law Society Finals consisted of two or three papers a day every day for eight days and my main worry was still being alive at the end of it. This, by comparison, is a walk in the park.

It's funny how different the whole process is now I'm a) a grown up and b) doing it with absolutely nothing riding on it except my pride.

I have revised but not in that all consuming, no time to eat or sleep or even breathe kind of way that I did when I was young. I've worked in and amongst the demands of the rest of my life, snatching an hour as and when. I made a revision timetable but it was far more nebulous and flexible than those of days gone by and yet I've still got through the material.

But what really is different about revising in my 40s is that I know stuff already. I'm not starting from a stand start. I have learned lots of new things - if not then what would have been the point? - but the new facts have mingled with what I already knew to make something far bigger and more interesting than the muddled concepts and ideas that I tried to cram into my mind the first time round. And it's not a chore. It's fun to slot the pieces into the jigsaw and note the crossovers.

It's such a shame I didn't think like that first time round. University in the 80s was one long list of things I didn't  fully understand and that everyone else apparently did. Of course it wasn't that bad and I passed and went on to work successfully in my dream job but it would be so much easier to study Law now when I can see the wood for the trees and identify the practical application of what I'm learning.

Before I began this course I thought the complete opposite would be the case. I had assumed that my head was so full of all the detritus of life that there would no point even trying to add to its burden with unnecessary titbits about Modernism or Realism. But actually and very surprisingly, my mind has stretched to accommodate it all. My head is full of quotes from James Joyce and John Webster whilst also dealing with who needs picking up from where, which birthdays are coming up and what we might have for tea.

I'm not saying that tomorrow will be easy - of course it absolutely won't. It is degree level study after all and they do expect a standard of insight that won't come from  accumulated trivia. But not only is it not nearly as bad as I thought it would be but in reviewing what I have studied this year, I have learned far more than just the course material. I have discovered how incredibly versatile the human mind is and that mine in particular is up for challenges that I had thought were firmly encased in the past.  And to me that lesson is as valuable as the degree that I hope I will eventually end up with.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

MUSICAL YOUTH

When I was a child, my parents acquired a beautiful old piano and arranged for a musical friend of my mum's to teach me how to play it. I was never much good. Constantly moving house and changing teachers didn't help but basically my excuses are of the usual type. I didn't practise enough.

These days I can just about get by picking out a tune. I can play some bits and pieces and my scales by relying on spookily effective muscle memory and, if I worked at it, I could probably work myself up a little portfolio of polished pieces. If I practised.

But even though my own musical career has hardly been sparkling, I fervently believe that everyone should be given the opportunity to learn how to play something. There are few pleasures in life as satisfying as making music in the company of others but you need at least some of the basics in order to make that happen.

A while ago I was hunting around for a new piano teacher for child number 2 and so I did what you usually do in these circumstances - I asked in the playground.

"We've got a great teacher,' said one mum. "He comes to the house. He's really enthusiastic and the kids love him." That ticked all my boxes. I probably should have been more interested in qualifications and whatnot but stumbling across a child friendly teacher was such a boon that I fixed up a lesson and hoped for the best.

We have never looked back.  Each week he turns up and my children torture him with bad jokes, their own compositions and occasional gentle violence. All kinds of sounds emanate from the room during the course of the hour. Scales of course and set pieces to varying degrees of proficiency but also unusual rhythms and unfamiliar chords. Recently he taught one of them how to play a discordant version of that old taunt ner ner ne ner ner with which they have constantly goaded each other ever since. And there's laughter.... lots of laughter.

When I took lessons, as one used to say, I sat at the piano, played dreadful arrangements of classical pieces with the constant beat of a metronome ticking away in the background like a bomb. I spent most of the lesson frightened or bored or both and the result it what you see. An incompetent pianist. My children's teacher is showing them how to use what they learn to make music. He instills in them the confidence to experiment, to leave behind the printed notes and discover how to make the rules work for them.

I don't know whether they will carry what they learn forward into their adult lives but the mere fact that they don't see playing as a chore gives me confidence that perhaps they will. One of my favourite things is to hear a child, any child, sitting at the piano and tinkering, picking out a familiar tune or experimenting with pitch or key signatures. Even making the instrument reflect a mood when there is no discernible tune at all is music to my ears.

It's as I always say - a good teacher is good but a great teacher is so much more than the some of their parts and what they teach you stays with you for life. I only really had one of those teachers in my life but he too, coincidentally, taught music. And now my children also have a fantastic woodwind tutor who brings a similar excitement and sense of adventure to his lessons. I hope that they don't look back on their musical tuition with a sense of missed opportunity like I do but with fondness at the fun that they had on a Tuesday afternoon. And hopefully they may make a little music too.


Thursday, 17 May 2012

MUTTON DRESSED AS LAMB

Sixty is the new forty we're told. Women are no longer shackled by clothing conventions of the past and can get away with whatever they fancy wearing. It seems that anything goes. My hairdresser tells me that she recently dyed her mother's hair pink and I smile wryly as I try to imagine my own mother suggesting that to my grandmother. We are now, we're told, allowed to wander around Top Shop without pretending that we are buying for our daughters or going to a fancy dress party. We too are welcome and our browsing is just as legitimate as those thirty years younger.

I'm not sure I believe it. I have undoubtedly reached a stage when I see things I would once have loved but now leave on the rack untried. And I'm not talking about the obvious stuff. My days of hot pants and cropped tops left me in my teens and I shudder at anything that leaves more leg on show than not. But there are other, less obvious no go areas. I could wear super-skinnys but I won't. Ditsy floral tops are no longer for me and Peter Pan collars make me feel like Grayson Perry.

I do know the new party line. I've watched Mary Portas. I can wear whatever I like as well as its well cut. So what's holding me back? Mutton dressed as lamb. I remember first hearing the expression when I was a young child and it fired my imagination. I pictured a sheep in sheep's clothing and wondered what on earth it had to do with the woman in the leopard print cat suit to whom it was being applied.

We are all judged by our appearance within seconds if the statistics are to be believed. I was only too aware of this when my entire wardrobe, barring the clothes I stood up, in was stolen from the car on my first day at University. There I was, 19 years old leaving home to live with a bunch of girls I'd never met in a new city and without a stitch to wear. All the things that I had carefully built up through out my teenage years together with some choice vintage pieces of my mum's all gone. Divested of my image, I had to begin university without one, gradually piecing myself back together as money allowed. So the impact that I hoped to make on my fellow students was lost. Looking back I'm not sure I ever really recovered my sense of self until I was able to start again somewhere new.

So, whilst I generally don't give a hoot what people think of me, when it comes to what I wear it's important. I have a favourite shop and I buy almost everything I have there. It suits what I like to think of as my style and it's firmly marketed at women my age, as the 80's soundtrack will attest to. I'd struggle to make a mistake in there and whilst it may seem a bit dull, it suits me for the time being whilst I work out how I want to dress in the second half of my life.

I'm sure my ideas will change over time - they generally do. What I consider to be a no-no now may well be gracing my wardrobe next year. I suppose having teenage daughters with their brutal honesty will keep me in line. After all, standing next to them can shatter one's self confidence if you're not very careful! Maybe I should wait until I'm in my 80s and then I can wear purple and dye my hair blue and not give a fig about age appropriate clothing. Until then, I'll just have to continue to feel my way and hope for the best!