Friday, 21 September 2012


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


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


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.