Deja vu

This week, I was moved to get my hair cut.  I say ‘I was moved’ because it came upon me as a directive, rather than a choice.  My hair looked fine. I like my hair. It’s curly and a little wild.  But watching an episode of ‘Friends’ with my two teenaged daughters caused hair angst.  Or so I thought.  I looked in the mirror, thought – hey, let’s get a fringe and some layers, so that when it grows, it grows into something nice.  I got an appointment with my favourite hairdresser, Graham.  I get my hair cut every two years.  We’ve known each other for about fourteen years, so we spend the haircut touching on family and kids, but mainly talking existentially.  When I walked in, he said – ‘Your hair always looks so great, I often wonder why we’re cutting it.  Why don’t we just have a cup of tea and a chat?’  Which was nice.  But no, I was determined this was happening, and so it happened, and I looked a bit different.  We talked about the balancing properties of learning the piano, and I gave him tips on the flexing of those new muscles he was developing in his brain.

Yesterday, I got dressed in my teal skirt and black jumper and went off to Bristol for the day.  On returning home, I clicked onto Facebook, which flagged up a memory from two years ago.  It was a photo of me wearing my teal skirt and black jumper, showing off my new haircut.  I found it amusing, and posted about it on Facebook, completing a pretty lame circle.  This morning I woke up and thought – I must go to Cirencester today.  I’ve no reason to go to Cirencester.  I am concerned that I am now being ruled by an uber brain which is telling me to do things because it assumes that my life has a seasonal quality.  Don’t move forward, it is saying.  Sit within your lane of routine.

And I hate that.

Because I come from a family of immigrants, I feel that movement and change equals success.  Unless we are challenging ourselves to be in new places, how are we to see the world in a new way?  Unless we cut our hair off, how are we to see renewal and growth?  Unless we spend time in new environments, watching new people, interacting with them, learning their language and their ideas, how are we to challenge the old ways we thought and our parents and grandparents thought?  And how will the world evolve into the best place it can be?

All of this swirled around within me, making me anxious and unhappy this week.  Should we sell the house and move on?  What am I doing with my life? How can I counteract the rise of the far right and the movement toward jingoism and hatred within my own little sphere?  And then, I got myself a new habit.  I took myself off every evening at around 6pm, lay on my bedroom floor and meditated for half an hour.  Brain balancing, I realised, was what I needed.  My brain was sending me a very clear message: it wasn’t saying ‘you’re stuck in a routine’.  It was saying: ‘you’re not listening to me enough.’   In clicking through to Facebook/Twitter – the internet, in fact – routinely, instead of doing what I used to do: pick up the phone and call a friend, or turn on the radio and listen to a show I liked at the time it was on rather than catching up on iPlayer, or writing a letter to someone, or reading an article in a magazine, or reading a chapter of the book I’m so looking forward to getting back to in my last twenty minutes before sleep, I’ve been clicking through to read a lot of news, a lot of people’s opinions, a lot about the nonsense of people’s lives.  It engenders a feeling of not being quite here.  I’ve not been quite here for a while.

Meditation every night for a week has caused all sorts of things to come into focus.  November has brought sadness.  I cry at the slightest thing: this morning, I sobbed when Radio 3 played Willard White singing Aaron Copland’s song ‘Simple Gifts’ for Thanksgiving.  The words are stunning:

Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,

‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,

And when we find ourselves in the place just right,

‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gain’d

To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,

To turn, turn will be our delight

‘Till by turning, turning we come round right.

The music is the music to the hymn ‘Lord of the Dance’.  It made me miss my father -it was one of his favourites.  It made me miss everyone.  Everyone I’ve ever known.  I missed the people I know now – I missed the aspects of my children lost to time.  Grown ups sit at my table, and I miss their childlike responses to everything.  I missed my birth family and the friendships of childhood, and the people who lived on our street who were old and the teachers and the friends and yes, everyone.  
Perhaps my uber brain is a wise old thing.  Perhaps I’m living in the valley of love and delight now.  Perhaps when I’ve changed it all in six months or a year, or two years, or five years, I will look at this time, now, and think – oh, we had it so good.  But, here’s the thing: hair grows.  Life grows.  We move on and we change and we live our lives in stages, incrementally.  That is the truth of us.  It is the turning – to turn, turn – that is the delight.  By turning, turning we come out right.

Brave old world

We’re in the era of Trump.  We’re in a moment, that moment we can breathe in, before we jump into a new, strange world.  Post referendum, we’re in that moment in Britain.  Waiting until we jump.

It’s actually an OK place to be.  It’s a place where we can understand how we feel.  We can regroup. We can make personal structural policy about how we go forward.  Becoming old has given me a sense of the world that is so very different from the world twenty somethings see, or thirty somethings, or even forty somethings.  I look at Trump and think – I’ve seen it all before.

Yes, he has risen on a tide of rightwing populism after an austerity crisis: a trope taught for seventy years to anyone who scratched their heads in wonderment at the rise of a Chaplin lookalike with a funny moustache.  Why didn’t the Jews rise up? is another question we all asked when we were kids. And, look.  Look at the ‘Day One’ posts.  Women being texted by their mothers to please not wear their Hijab, swastikas on walls, the liberal use of the ‘n’ word in graffiti, women being sexually harassed because that’s the behaviour the President elect has modelled.  Yes, people are being silenced, and are worried about their resistance.  But this is a world where we watch each other.  This is a world where – for every moment of propaganda from the candidate, there is a moment countering it.  For every vile media outlet – the Daily Mail – spewing their poisonous fumes, there is another shouting them down.

I remain optimistic about the world.  I’ve seen it all before.  Trump is Reagan.  I remember my bitter anger about the two term Reagan.  I remember the getting up at the crack of sparrows to march the streets of London against him and Mrs Thatcher.  If I look back at him now – well, hindsight is a marvellous thing. He seems fairly benign.  He seems as damaging as the movies he made in the 1950s.  A small frisson in a history book.  A laughable oaf of a man.  He seems now, to be nothing more than a dyed hairdo with an ambitious wife.  Toward the end of his second term, there were rumours that his wife’s astrologer was making the major policy decisions for the United States, and that, my friends is what I remember of Reagan.

Trump, similarly to Reagan, will surround himself with people who will try to push through his agenda in the first years of his first term in office, and on finding that the excesses are impossible, he will learn on the job, perhaps grow up with the strain of actually having to do something serious, and become a moderate.  This will anger his more virulent supporters who may not even vote him in for a second term.  He will split the GOP, and they won’t recover for at least a decade.  From my mouth to God’s ears, right?

Meanwhile, we will all continue to live in our brave old world.  The great thing about extremism is – it brings people together.  It is a catalyst which causes activity.  On Saturday night, we went to see Hassan Akkad speak in Stroud.  He is a Syrian refugee, who fled his country after being tortured in prison for protesting against the regime.  A production team gave him a Go Pro camera to film his journey.  On the same camera my 15 year old daughter used to film us jumping off rocks in the Med, Hassan filmed himself take the journey from Turkey to Greece, in a flimsy boat which failed and began to let water in.  The films he made of his journey were then edited into the TV series ‘Exodus’ which was aired earlier this year on the BBC.  If you haven’t watched it, I urge you to.  It is perhaps the finest TV I have seen this year.  It is immediate, and effective in its ability to churn up our own thoughts and attitudes.  It asks us to understand our attitudes to the refugee crisis, and to our fellow man.

I remember thinking – what is this articulate, good looking, finely boned, moral person doing in the Jungle?  What is this guy even doing getting on and off boats in the Med, fighting to get to Britain?  I remember thinking – to my horror and shame – why does he need to come to Britain: surely he can find a way to live in Syria?  The kick is in the tail end of the show.  Watch it to the end.  I cried – sobbed, in fact.  I won’t spoil it for you.  But there he was on Saturday night, answering our questions.  He said this truth that he seems to have stumbled upon, during his journey.  A guy at the front asked a convoluted question about Trump and hatred – he asked Hassan this question, and I thought – what can he imagine the poor guy will say? – I mean, he’s 28 or something.  But his reply was brilliant.  He said: ‘It’s all about telling stories.  That is how to fight hatred.’

The Daily Mail spews the poisonous fumes – but if you follow that metaphor through, they are driving their vehicle into oblivion.  Their stories are biased and untrue.  People – the majority of the people – like true stories.  They buy truth of emotion, truth of a moment.  They don’t buy manufactured story.  The Hollywood movies that sell are not always the ones whose producers have spent millions on.  I mean, I’m sure the millions help.  ‘I, Daniel Blake’ was packing out audiences across the UK in October.  A film about a brave, small man fighting a labyrinthine system, struck deep and beat many more expensive movies.

We must keep telling our stories.  It is incumbent upon us to reach out and understand the stories, to read them, to retell them to each other. It is morally important for us all, and for our brave old world.  If we can tell the stories with a smile on our faces, all the better.  If we can laugh – well, we’ve won.  We are here. Breathe in. Tell the stories. Laugh. Carry on…

Synchronicity

This morning’s breakfast has been full of examples of artists demonstrating the notion of synchronicity.  That combination of practice of their art – Gladwell’s 10,000 hours – and the effortless confluence of the artists’ spirit: a demonic work ethic driven by a need to complete a project they completely believe in, and then the sitting back and not recognising what they have achieved: because it is simply beyond what they had imagined they could do.

We had music on shuffle, so the Beach Boys and the Beatles came through – ‘Sloop John B’ and ‘Ticket to Ride’.  These were 10,000-hours-songs, artists demonstrating their craft.  And then ‘Good Vibrations’ played, and ‘Back in the USSR’.  The playlist went through Dylan, Hendrix, Presley, the Kinks, Clapton, and landed on Frank Sinatra, singing ‘Strangers in the Night’.  This is where I was struck deepest.  I read recently about how Sinatra made the recording of this song.  He sang, with a full orchestra in a studio, doing take after take until perfection was reached.  Yet, that two minute and thirty six second song sounds so effortless.  It sounds like we imagine it – he stood up in a crowded, dark bar, walked to the microphone cigarette in hand, and just sang it.

Dylan’s ‘Just Like a Woman’, sung acoustically in front of an audience is a different example.  It is strangely dull, yet also meditative to the point of hypnotic.  It is a demonstration of what I am trying to understand in my own work.  That confluence – the moment when you practice and practice your art – writing, drawing, playing, singing – and then there is an interchange, and you become the work, and the work becomes you.  That is what I understand when I hear these people, and what I want to achieve.  It is what I am worried about – that I am not achieving it at the moment.

Because there has to be a drive forward, when you work.  There has to be a reason for doing it.  We all want to be rich, apparently. We all want to be famous.  This is what the zeitgeist seems to be telling us.  The Presidential election driving us insane with worry and desire for something beyond our control, the Brexit armies on either side of this chasm driven into our daily lives, the refugee crisis catapulted onto us by wars our governments created: they are all magnified in the way we receive our news, hour by hour, day by day, week by week.  The voters vote for the most raggedly popular liar, and half of us give up and hold our faces in our palms, trying not to catch a glimpse of the ugly light through our clenched fingers.

But we used to sit in sunny rooms and read.  We used to put music on the record player and darn our torn jeans.  We used to listen and think.  We used to do our best for the people who needed us – marching with placards, shaking buckets to raise money.  We used to do things collectively because we are people who cannot exist without each other.

My art is writing.  My art has upset me more than anything in the past ten years because my art has followed the free market enterprise by demanding success, and demanding a structure that is reliant on a single hero’s journey.  If you don’t know what the hero’s journey is, look up Joseph Campbell.  This is the nutshell of it: apart from maybe three cultures in our enormous world, every myth, every story – novel, film, play – fits into the simple structure of the Hero’s Journey.  A Hobbit, say, or Dorothy Judy Garland, set off on a journey – reluctantly.  They are forced into this by events larger than themselves – an authoritarian figure summons them for this purpose – and off they go, into the magical world of Oz or some other kingdom thereof.  They face adversities – yada yada yada, I won’t tell you it all – but all the time, all the time, they realise that – ‘there’s no place like home’.  They spend a long time realising this, so that they can come back to their lives again, changed, better for purpose, hungry for life.  It probably takes them 10,000 hours to get there.  You see where I’m going with this?  Along the way, they have many friends who help them, but you see, the reason why I’m pissed off with this structure is: they don’t work collectively.  No.  The friends encountered, work toward the hero’s success.

This is where we’re at, politically and artistically.  Trump and Clinton are products of a system – the free market – which says: singular journey good, collective journey – Marxism.  (And that’s bad, ok?)  But if that is bad, what happens to our world?  Already a handful of billionaires control the money.  Already natives are driven off their homelands for the sport of the rich people.

Art.  Frank Sinatra recorded and recorded that song and we just think of Frank, standing there in the spotlight, singing to us, the singular person in the audience.  But that song is violins soaring.  It is the producer who spliced together the various takes of Frank’s already strained voice.  It is a collective moment of genius.  Trump’s path is strewn with people he has defeated by grabbing them in areas he shouldn’t have, people he has thrust a sword into willy nilly, and he hasn’t ever completed the journey – just gone back to the beginning, over and over, because he hasn’t learned.  He hasn’t understood the traditional way of growing: he has not grown up, or gained wisdom.  He has stayed 13 while growing older.  Clinton has wisdom, but is part of a hero’s journey that is far more complex –  she must wilfully make this journey about herself, a singular hero, in order to achieve the goal of being President.

And isn’t that the problem and the point and ultimately the tragedy of the human being, and the democratic system?  We must work those 10,000 hours to learn our craft.  We must give ourselves to our art.  But then, we must thrust forward onto the pathway of the world, selling of ourselves.  Our art and ourselves conflate and change each other, and then people buy into our system.  Because that is what pays us, that is how we eat and how we live.  I don’t know what I am selling.  I don’t know how to be in a world where I sell of myself – I’ve tried to do it, and I’ve failed, because I don’t really believe in a system where I walk to a mic and pretend I did it all by myself.

I guess I will turn my record player on, turn it up, and play that other Frank Sinatra song, which came on just as I was writing this: ‘That’s Life’.  When she was six, my 24 year old daughter was asked to a popular girl’s party.  Isobel had always been the kid in the corner in class, the one who played imaginary games and read books.  It was a karaoke party, so she wanted to go, because she’s always liked to sing.  I left her in a large, oak lined house in Beckenham, with trepidation.  Three hours later, I was greeted at the door by the mother:

‘Your Isobel has had us up, dancing in the aisles…’

‘What did she sing? SClub7?’

‘She did a perfect – ‘That’s Life’.  Perfect…’ the mother said, laughing.

It sort of sums her up, really.  The quiet girl, the shy one, part of a large family, who seemed to be the arms who caught things when they fell from cots, who smiled when I felt defeated, who came in every day from school, every day, and made me a cup of tea.  When you’re despairing, put Frank on the record player, and take your face out of the palms of your hands, and when you think you’re going to cry this Wednesday, sing along instead.  Because guaranteed, although you despair of your place in the world full of singular heroes, you will understand yourself within it all.

You have to pick yourself up.  And get back in the race.

 

Throwing cups

I was never very good at sport.  I had flat feet and asthma.  When I was first diagnosed – at the age of four – there were no easy solutions.  If you couldn’t breathe, you’d lie down.  Plastic, streamlined puffers were a thing of the future.  When I was a little older, there were inhalers with plastic capsules that were pressed with inbuilt needles, so that you could inhale the powder inside.  For a six year old, it was yucky.  I didn’t like doing it, so I think I tried my best to avoid it.  I spent a lot of my childhood in bed, reading, and watching clouds scud past the windows.

I never thought running was something I would want to do.  My sisters were captains of many sports teams, my father a Marathon runner, my mother a sprinter in her youth.  I was the odd one out, and of course, in a family of characters, I was happy to be the quiet reader.  Now though, at fifty years old, six months teetotal, vegan, gluten and sugar free (I’m taking middle age seriously, and the fact that I am of south east Asian descent, which means diabetes is almost inevitable, if I don’t make these changes) – I am a runner.  Three times a week, I go out onto the cycle track and run 5 miles quite fast.  This morning, I did it in an hour, which isn’t great by anyone else’s standards, but by mine – it’s fantastic.  It’s more than fantastic.

Dad started running in his mid forties.  His own father died at the age of 45, and he always had it in his mind that he would need to ward off that hypnotic thought of dying young.  Dad was a funny, dear man, full of laughter and jokes.  He was serious too, and very religious, but he loved to play.  He loved children.  When he was working in the garden, he would call us to make a cup of tea, and we would take it out in his favourite cup.  A mustard coloured, nondescript seventies mug.  We would stay and chat, and when he finished drinking, the cricketer in him would throw the cup in the air.  Or he’d throw it at us – from a very young age, he would take all three of us out into the garden and throw balls at us, make us dive for the high catches.  I was never any good.  It was almost certainly because I didn’t practise.  You can’t really practise catching if you’re holding the page in your book with one hand.

When I was sixteen, I took the tea out, and had a chat with him, inspecting the flower bed he was digging.  And then he threw the cup, in the air first, catching it himself.  When he pointed it at me, I said ‘Don’t throw it at me!’, but he did anyway, and I turned away.  I turned away.  I can’t tell you why. But I keep seeing that turn away, today.   The mug smashing on the rockery.

Time is finite.  We cannot do everything.  I really thought, for a long time, that I actually  could do everything I wanted.  I have a limited pallet of choices.  A palate, if you will.  I like to write. I like to draw.  I like children.  I thought I could do everything within those loves.  It is proving harder than I imagined.  When I’m out with people who have just done a whole degree in illustrating, I am fascinated and a little alarmed that they draw and draw.  They sit down, and pen goes to paper, and there you have it, amazing artworks are created while I scrabble about with pencils and staring and deciding on framing and so on.  It’s like lying in bed and looking at the sky: it’s fascinating, but at some point, you have to get up and do.  You have to catch the cup.  You have to draw.

I told myself this the other day: cut yourself a break.  Be compassionate to the child you were.  You were sick. You didn’t have the practise to catch the cup.  Practise is all it takes.  So I started drawing this week.  I started completing projects.  I started running faster.  I used new pens, new techniques.  I learned to land on the balls of my feet.  I learned to play with colour.  I learned that – hey, if time is finite, chucking a cup in the air, or at someone, hoping they’ll catch it, is like drawing a picture or telling a story – you’re taking a chance.  Either someone will catch it, or they won’t.  And if they don’t, it’s only a mug.  It’s only a picture.  It’s only a story.  They may be the most important thing in the world, but at least you’re not in bed watching it happen to other people.

Immigrant

I am a sad mummy this morning.  My second child, Isobel, got on a plane to New Zealand yesterday evening.  She is twenty four.  She aims to be there a year, maybe forever, if they will let her.  Three of us waved goodbye to her at the station.  As the train approached, I held her to me and kissed her cheeks over and over, telling her it would be alright, while sobbing from my gut.  She cried too and said ‘I love you’ over and over, and I said it back, and then she got on the train and waved from the window.  Fifteen year old daughter said ‘Someone should run down the platform…’ and then she did.  We waved as Isobel waved from the window.

And then we went off and got on with the rest of our days – I bought food, made it, ate it, went out to a committee meeting.  All the time,  a small half of me was on the train, then on the bus, then sitting at Heathrow with my child.  This baby, toddler and child who the younger children didn’t know.  That’s the thing with large families: the older two had a space in their parents’ lives that was exclusively theirs.

They were babies when we were babies: I had Isobel when I was 26, I had her elder brother Ed when I was her age.  We were off-hand, busy parents, always marching on to achieve…what we have now.  When I sat on the floor with Ed and Isobel, it was in a chaotic household in south east London, and when we went out for walks, it was to tiny playgrounds.  We ate sparingly and saved up for shoes, for treats, for toys.  Our closeness is a strange clairvoyance: they learned to read the minds of people who were always flying by the seat of their pants, while assuring their tiny wards, carried on their shoulders – that everything was fine.  Fine, fine, fine.  Isobel became someone who seemed to understand undercurrents of emotion better than words.  She always giggled, Tom remembers, was always smiling, as if assuring us that yes, it would be fine.

I came back from the committee meeting through the rainy, unlit, winding country roads, feeling like a failure.  It is a totally undeserved moniker, but as a mother, the instinct is to keep your young near to you for as long as possible.  As a modern, feminist human being, my tendency has been to usher the children out into the world – claim your place within it, we have always said.  I sat and looked at Isobel’s baby album.  What a shame we didn’t look at it together, when she was here.  What a shame Tom didn’t sit on one side of her, and I on the other, and she in the middle, holding the album, turning the pages, the way it would have happened in one of those terrible movies they seem to make for the 3.30pm audience of Channel 5.  I sat and cried, looking at all the grandparents taking turns to hold her after she was born: three of them gone.  With them, they have taken collective memory, and it is a loss.

This morning, I thought about my grandmother – my father’s mother – who had five children.  Two girls and three boys.  My father was her fourth child: when he was twelve, his father died.  He and his brothers were sent to boarding school.  All three, in their twenties, got on a boat from Colombo, Sri Lanka and travelled to the UK, to seek their fortunes.  It is so  very hard to let go of your child, when you’re holding them and they’re crying and you’re crying, and they used to live inside you, and you carried them and loved them and supported them, like an addictive habit. How did my grandmother let go of three children?  How will I let go of four?

And yet, I will.  Because from those four children in the world, will come permutations of culture and happiness that I can only guess at now.  We went to Beirut in the Easter break.  Two or three shops carried a small advert for a horse shampoo called Mane’n Tail.  I scoured the streets of Beirut for horses.  There were none.  There were, however, a majority of women with the most gloriously thick and heavy, dark hair swaying across their backs in the sea salt stung breeze.  I ordered Mane’n Tail shampoo and conditioner from Amazon on my return, and use nothing else.  I am alien to myself a lot of the time, because I was born and brought up in London, and ate British food (yes, that means curry most weekends) and drank British drinks.  Thanks to the hipster culture, I have more coconut oil and coconut water in my diet, and feel more at home with it than I do with red wine – it is, after all, the main export of Sri Lanka.

Being an immigrant means the moving forward, the adapting to change, adapting to a different geography.  It also means you are a magpie.  You are someone who is always looking at the best all cultures can give to you.  Last weekend, the four children lived in our house again, for three nights, revelling in each other’s company, listening to the music of their childhood, reading the books they collectively loved: Asterix books mainly.  I made the foods they love – chicken curry and yellow rice, dhal, salads, and 15 year old made the Nigella chocolate cake that every feast finishes with.  We sat in front of the fire and nattered.  On Sunday, we took our Christmas walk with the dogs.  I imagined that in a year or two, there will be additional people with the four, creating new permutations of our family, enhancing our culture, challenging us and making us move forward.  We will travel to their new found worlds, and we will change and adapt and become better.  Forward is the only way.

 

 

Magic Ballet Pen

I have arrived at a place where I’d like to stay, perhaps for the rest of my life.  It is a very comfortable, forgiving sort of place, full of interest and challenge.  I write in the morning and draw in the afternoon.  I am finishing a book, which is going swimmingly, thank you for asking.  I am starting to learn my craft, drawing-wise.  I have a feeling that the learning will take the duration of my stay.

I have always drawn – we all have.  Before we learned to express ourselves with words on a page, we used pictures.  Letters are pictures of a noise. I remember the excitement of my first days at school – being given crayons and paper specifically for drawing. There was always a fascination with art materials – I remember days like today: rainy and windy, struggling through puddles and crowds of children, to arrive at a desk and find: exercise books with a blank top and three or four ruled lines at the bottom.  A fat HB and colouring in pencils.  The joy – to be asked to draw and then write some aspect of your life.  Imagine that being the start of your day, now?  I have configured my working life so that that is, almost, what my work is now.

Starting a project can be difficult though.  Starting a work, any work, is daunting.  Putting that first mark on a blank page is the most difficult thing.  The pictures in your head are never as good as the pictures you put on paper.  I scrabble around with an 8B pencil.  It’s sharpened with a craft knife, so it looks whittled, with a chiseled lead.  I make indistinct marks on paper with it, rubbing at the marks to smudge them, in order to make what I’m drawing look like what I am looking at – if I screw my eyes up tight and see shadings, rather than people or trees or buildings.  It’s daft.  I want to draw graphic novels. I have already planned the first, and am writing speech bubbles in my head all the time, while the characters who say them are still, well, blurred and rubbed at with my graphite stained finger.

How to change this? How to have the assuredness of a five year old holding their first pencil?  ‘This is my daddy going shopping.  This is me and my sister laughing’, my first picture in my first book says.  Dad saved my first books – he gave them to me when he was clearing out his study when I was in my thirties.  I like looking at them, because as we get older, we know ourselves less, it seems.  When you’re five, you describe everything you see from that simplicity of viewpoint.

We went to see Isabel Greenberg at Cheltenham Literary Festival on Saturday, and her clear drawing starts with a brush pen.  Chris Riddell too.  So. I bought a brush pen.  And there it was.  The first picture I drew with it was on the report slip for the fifteen year old: husband looking angry, me looking worried, with a note in the comment box ‘we will be monitoring her’.  The second picture was a sketch of the David Bowie postcard taped to the kitchen wall, with a cartoon of 15 year old next to it.  The writing underneath says ‘Spiky and David Bowie accidentally get married while she does her Maths homework and she thinks it’s really stupid.  She thinks EVERYTHING IS REALLY STUPID’.  I have drawn her eyes well – when I was drawing them, I thought – I’ve drawn these before: tracing their shape onto the page, I realised they were the same as my younger sister’s eyes.  I drew what I thought was 15 year old’s mouth, but when I looked at it again, it was my mouth.  That happens a lot too – I seem to draw myself.

The pen is like the red ballet shoes in the movie: once you take the lid off, you can’t stop drawing.  We had a children’s series of books for our children- The Berenstein Bear books.  One was called ‘The Magic Toe Shoes’ – a rather prosaic story about the placebo effect of buying a pair of ballet shoes for the sister bear, who on putting them on, finds she can dance.  When fifteen year old was five, she found she could swim when we bought her flippers.  I find I can draw with my magic pen.  I find that my pictures are everything I imagined them to be.  No – I find that I am everything I imagined I would be when I draw – and that my pictures are magical, because what comes from the pen is not what I imagined. It is different.  It is sometimes better.

Speech

I was asked to be the guest speaker at the Bristol Short Story Award prize giving event.  This was fairly thrilling for me: I love meeting other writers.  I love being with my people.  My clan.  There is something rather wonderful about the shorthands one can use, the friends of friends one meets, the daftness of writers.  We’re all, bar none, like the art teacher you admired when you were fourteen.  There’s a devil-may-care nonchalance to our demeanour, a glamour the perceiver tends to put on to us, and a strangely wavering sense of humour, which glints with knowledge and disappointment.  We’re very much like famous literary figures: Atticus Finches, all of us, or Dorothea Brookeses.  We have that hands-in-the-pockets-shrug, that creased-shirt-happy-whistle, that stare-into-the-back-of-you-because-we-can-guess-your-story.  It must be the same for other professions when they meet – an instant recognition.  But with writers, we’re all immediately equal.  There is no one more successful or better at our jobs.  People who don’t write perhaps make that distinction.  We don’t.  We just see each other on different pathways in the same forest.

So, writing a speech for a crowd of my people was easy, but also very difficult.  I tend to self-sabotage.  I make self deprecating jokes which are almost suicidal.  No, I used to do this.  Then, I grew some self respect. (How?  I taught myself to run, and each step I run, I say – look at you, you’re great! – though I don’t believe myself most of the time, but then I look to my dog’s face and she confirms that my words may be true).  So, I couldn’t write a funny-at-my-expense speech.  Instead, I wrote the following.  I’m putting it here because people liked it.  I knew it was OK because the 15 year old came with me, and when I finished, she did the face the dog does at the end of the run.

 

The short story is uniquely blessed and problematic. It is an artwork: a painting. It is often the final secret: the end of a story or a life and the beginning of another. Flannery O’Connor said – it is the third barn burned, that she writes about. The first and second attempts are the textured surface on which she paints the final, third attempt, when the barn burns down.

The short story condenses a life – it is easier, I think, to write a novel, when you have the time and space to explain everything. For the short piece, we writers need to know everything of that life, but we get to choose only one or two or three, scenes.

When I was published – the question I was asked more frequently than any other was – are your stories autobiographical? I’d say – no, of course not! But of course, all of us write autobiographically. The cute thing a child said or the dying words of a parent: seem to enter the story, and be swallowed into a narrative that becomes something beyond us, greater than us. That space between us and our audience, is where its truth is muddled and sanded down and created again.

This creating of the artwork saves us. It can heal, soothe, calm us.

I wrote a story called ‘Research’ for my first collection . I was unsure what research meant in the context of creative writing. I asked my tutor Stevie Davies what she thought. She gave me possibly the most useful writing tip: the research is in the writing. As we work, as we write, we discover what we are trying to write, and we discover our identities as writers. And our identities as people. Our perspective changes. We research our lives themselves. We unpack them and shake out the moth eaten memories and smooth them down and refold them neatly. As I get older, I understand that the easy assumptions I made about life when I was younger: the classifications and judgments mean nothing – there is nothing that can be taken for granted – there is only the life that takes place in front of us and us witnessing it and trying to make sense of it.

In the story I wrote, a child is taken on holiday to Sri Lanka, by her father. Her parents divorce soon after and she loses contact with her father, so the memories are precious. There is a moment – a drive late at night through island streets encroached upon by the jungle, where the father shouts stop to the driver, and the little girl and her father jump out of the car and chase fireflies on the side of the road.

I was six when my father took me to Sri Lanka for his mother’s funeral. I remember that my father shouted stop, with a fierceness, at the driver. I remember jumping from the car and chasing fireflies, and my father’s face laughing. But it didn’t happen. I wanted it to be true. I wrote the story the year he died – and now, it is true. The picture is there. Even if I tell you it isn’t true and my stories are not autobiographical, they are true.

Writers give ourselves an advantage – by trying to understand the secrets or the madnesses – by trying to articulate the colour or the movement, the beauty or the death – we somehow give ourselves the chance to rise above, look down and see – really see – truth. Or a near guess at it.

The art of it, the art of what we do is – this. We can provide – we can create – pictures or musical notes or tears or fireflies that are truth. They are our way of navigating the seas of our worlds, and I urge you on, I commend your bravery, I bow to your valour in entering competitions, and indeed, winning them.

It is a good way to be alive and to stay alive.

Thank you.