Tag Archives: London

The Brighter Side of Life

It was the Queen’s birthday yesterday but she wasn’t in the party mood. Instead she announced, ‘Today is traditionally a day of celebration. This year, however, it is very difficult to escape a very sombre national mood.’

The past couple of months have seen some harrowing incidents in the United Kingdom and it does feel like I am living on an island that has been battered and bruised. This is though a country that is used to ‘pulling through’. It has a history of digging deep into its stoical pockets. As the Queen also said in her message, ‘United in our sadness, we are equally determined, without fear or favour, to support all those rebuilding lives so horribly affected by injury and loss.’

Many of my friends have moved out of London. Seeking space, quiet and a quality of life that can be purchased at a quarter of the price, certainly compared to what those of us still living in a shoe box with a single figure postcode pay. I go through phases when I wonder if I would be better off in the suburbs. But, for the moment, the arrow on the scales that balance the commute v central London living, swings in favour of my inner city life.

Yesterday, as I sat on the tube on my way to an appointment at my opticians. I was surrounded by the multi-cultural background of London’s inhabitants. Next to me an Asian teenage boy was deftly flipping a Rubik’s cube, opposite me a middle aged Frenchman virtually played his piano, turning the pages on a music score cradled in his lap. Two girls giggled, one with pink hair, one with blonde, as they discussed what they would buy on Oxford Street. An elderly Middle Eastern man in front of me smiled and leaned on his walking stick. In one carriage we spanned several decades in age, along with a wide diversity in gender, faith and cultural background but that is how London should be. Londoners have their own identity, do their own thing, and for the most part are happy to live their lives next to each other. For an introvert like me it is the perfect environment. A non-judgemental community where I get to co-exist alongside others, but without having to meet the expectations of life’s unspoken agenda. An agenda which some of my peers choose to match their achievements against.

After the opticians I walked  home, trying not to fall over as I tested out my new multi-focal lenses. Before I knew where I was I had stumbled into the end of the parade for the Queen’s birthday celebrations and there was Queenie, bobbing along Pall Mall in her open-top carriage with Prince Philip beside her. Admittedly between my blurred vision and the crowd I only glimpsed her hat and a brief regal wave but it felt special.

The sun shone, the sky was blue and I was surrounded  by people speaking fifty different languages, from fifty different backgrounds but for all our differences, we had one thing in common – a smile on our faces. After everything that has gone on in the past few months, I needed that. Just a little reminder that the brighter side of humanity lives on.

 

Yes I did it! I passed my Masters

I did it! I got my MA. More amazingly I passed with Distinction. I was at work when I received the email with my results. I had to print it off and look at the hard copy. Somehow the words on the computer screen didn’t feel real. I went into the Professor’s office clutching the paper.

‘I got my results.’

‘And….’ He swivelled round in his chair.

‘I passed,’ I said, bursting into tears. ‘With Distinction.’

He sat me down, congratulated me, and told me I was in shock. I think he was right – partly. Shock or relief maybe. I finally had the results which I had been so strung out waiting for.

But if I am honest there was a little more to the tears. There is one person above all else I wanted to call with my news, my father or Pops as I called him. But no matter how many times I pick up the phone and dial, he won’t answer.

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William John Todman

Growing up my father was a very traditional man, conservative with a small and large ‘c’.  I think he was a little bewildered when I came along. Not at first. I was quite a sweet child, all rosy cheeks and blonde curls but as I knocked on the door of my teenage years, a young girl emerged who decided to question life.

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My father believed that family was at the heart of society. I remember him as a guest on ‘Question Time’ on the radio, asking the panel was society breaking up because women were going out to work. My jaw dropped and so did that of my friends. I was of an age where I had put the School Chaplain into a head spin when I questioned the role of women in the bible. And marriage – what was that all about? One man walks you up the aisle and hands you over to another man? And now my father was saying on live radio women should stay in the home. After it was broadcast he said he was playing devil’s advocate and encouraging a lively debate. But I know at that stage in his life, a small part of him believed it to be true.

However, as I grew up, he in his own way grew, and although I tested him over the years, he was always the gentleman and always a gentle man.

When I was at University, dressed all in black, smoking Marlborough lights and living off vodka, I never really spoke about my father, especially as at that time he was standing to be the Conservative Parliamentary Candidate (PPC) for Cheltenham.

I was a leftie lurvie, studying Drama, far too cool, and like Oregon out of ‘Fresh Meat’, the last thing I wanted to admit to was the fact I went to Cheltenham Ladies’ College and my rather comfortable upper middle class background.liz-in-her-early-twenties

But then my father was splashed all over the papers. He had decided to stand down as the PPC. The opposition at the time battling for the post was John Taylor. Like my father, John Taylor was a brilliant and successful lawyer, but unlike my father, he was black. The racial slurs that came out of Gloucestershire at that time were hateful. My father refused to join a fight where people were judged on their appearance and not on their ideals. I had never felt prouder of him. Several years later, he did go on to re-join the election fight to become an MP, but I will never forget that time he was prepared to put his dream on hold for fairness and equality.

Although I was not on paper what my father expected, he did accept me. Every Sunday we all sat down to a roast dinner after which my father, as a thank you to my mother, would briefly dip his hands into domesticity and a pair of marigold gloves. One time as he was washing up and I was on drying up duty, Gloria Gaynor played on the dodgy old cassette player. The song was ‘I am what I am’.

He turned to me and smiled. ‘This is your song.’

I picked up a plate from the draining board. ‘Not that it matters if I was,’ I said, wiping the flower-patterned china, ‘but you do know I am not gay?’

‘Yes, I know,’ he said turning on the tap so hard we both got sprayed with water. ‘But you are living life your way. You are who you are.’

I never set out to break any norms. I just had a lot of questions about it all. I still do. I think he knew then it was unlikely his daughter was going to get married, live in suburbia and be an integral member of the PTA.

I pushed Pops on many occasions. Over the years he was always the man I wanted to call, to share the good news and the bad. Although when I was in my twenties, he took too many late night phone calls from me. It was a strange decade for me, fuelled by a lifestyle of pubs and clubs, my anxieties spiralled. But my father was always there, picking up the phone at 1am, and patiently listening to my ramblings. He never bit back, he never told me to sort myself out. He just listened and told me he loved me. He gave me unconditional love.

And now, again, I want to call him. I want to pick up a phone and dial. I want to tell him something that he could be proud of. I got my M.A. and I have written my first book. But I can’t because in 2005 he died of cancer.

pops-with-book-on-hillsidePops was always a reader but, towards the end of his life, he discovered a renewed interest in books. During his last couple of years, as he was battling the disease, I would come back from London and spend the weekends with him. We would sit together in the conservatory and read, neither of us needing to say too much.

He wasn’t a religious man. When he was discussing his funeral arrangements with my mother she told him she would like to bury his ashes and put down a headstone. She needed somewhere she could go to visit him. Pops agreed but said he couldn’t guarantee he would always be in.

I would like to think he is somewhere close by and in his calm and quiet way he is watching the family he loved so much but had to leave behind.

Pops if you’re listening – yes I did it, I passed my Masters.

The Post Masters Slump

According to the Professor I work for there is a condition known as the ‘PhD blues’. After two years of intense research, a PhD student writes up their five hundred page study, sweats their way through a four hour Viva, perhaps follows up with a few amendments, but then they’re done. They’ve passed. Then what?

He reckons I am experiencing something similar. After two years of hard graft I have finished my MA (fingers crossed), and the first draft of my book. Perhaps not as intense as the ‘PhD blues’, more an ‘MA slump’, but definitely I have a feeling of now what?

This feeling of uncertainty is magnified by a change that is happening at work. My day job is not going anywhere but who I work with could change and that is throwing up questions in my mind. After thirty years, could now be the time to have a break from London?

The one thing I am sure of though, whatever I decide or wherever I go, I will keep writing. Depending on the feedback from my tutors, I am hoping my next step will be to go back to the first draft and edit it into something a little more polished. There is of course the concern that my book could be a complete turkey. That being the case, once I’ve locked myself away and sobbed into a pillow for a couple of weeks, I will have a shot at a fresh story. But regardless I am determined to plug away at the writing.

Post MA I now have my weekends back; my evenings too, as I no longer need to tap away on the keyboard trying to hit course deadlines. Having banned myself from looking at my manuscript and doing any work on the book, time is on my side, and it feels very strange. I have found myself walking listlessly around, wondering what to do with myself. A couple of Saturdays ago I decided to go through my TV record box and catch up with all the programmes I’ve missed while studying. After several episodes of Poldark and the Musketeers, I rolled off the sofa, overdosed on men in breeches, knee high boots and flowing shirts slashed to the navel. There’s so much chest hair a girl can take.

Deciding I needed to get some fresh air, I wandered along the Embankment to the Tate and popped in to see the Turner Prize exhibition. There I was confronted with Anthea Hamilton’s twenty-foot high butt cheeks. It was a change from the pecs.

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Turner Prize 2016 Anthea Hamilton

The selection of artists and the work they’ve chosen to exhibit for this year’s Turner Prize is very good. I do love my art, particularly sculpture, but I approach it on an amateur level and sometimes the hanging bin bags and piles of bricks can baffle me.

I noticed there was a theme of the written word running through this exhibition. Anthea Hamilton talks about being strongly influenced by the early 20th Century French writer and dramatist Antonin Artaud and his call for the ‘physical knowledge of images’. That explains the bottom.

Another of the artists, Michael Dean, starts his work with writing – which he then gives physical form. ‘He creates moulds and casts of his words, abstracting and distorting them into an alphabet of human scale shapes.’

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Turner Prize 2016 Michael Dean

Walking through these giant distorted letters I felt like  I was revisiting one of my ‘first draft’ nightmares.

michael-dean

Turner Prize 2016 Michael Dean

After seeing the exhibition I went up to the members’ room. Outside of a library, it is one of the most serene and calm spaces I’ve found in London. Based up on the top tier of the gallery, beneath the large glass domed atrium, chairs and tables are nestled between the cool stone pillars and arches. Over the past two years I’ve spent many a Sunday morning sitting on one of the Art Deco sofas, tucked behind a bronze bust on a plinth, notebook in one hand, coffee in the other, as I worked through my plot.

This time though I just sat quietly with no pen in my hand. And I think perhaps that’s what I need to do. Just sit and be for a bit. Let my brain have some time off and breathe.

The First Draft

A couple of weeks ago I completed the first draft of my first novel. Everyone tells you writing a novel is a marathon and not a sprint. After what I have been through over the past year I understand why.

The novel was part of the MA in Novel Writing which I have been completing at City, University of London. So it hasn’t been all about the book. There has also been workshops, lectures, tutorials and other assignments to complete, but it was the novel that nearly finished me off.

In the last three months I have visited my doctor more times than I have done in the past three years.

I am lucky I have a doctors’ surgery that is patient with patients and open at weekends. There was a particularly dark moment one Sunday morning. I was convinced I was having a heart attack. Gripping pain in my left arm, dizziness and palpitations. It turned out to be an anxiety attack.

‘But I don’t get stressed,’ I said to the doctor.

‘Do you feel like an elephant is sitting on your chest?’ he calmly asked, unfolding the blood pressure cuff and unclipping the oxygen monitor from my finger.

‘Not so much an elephant,’ I said, although I did want to point out that if an elephant was sitting on my chest I probably wouldn’t be feeling anything, ‘Just a novel.’

I was physically manifesting symptoms of stress. The characters, structure and plot issues of my book had invaded my head and were causing anxiety attacks, night terrors and palpitations. Combine this with back pain and a frozen shoulder from sitting at a computer for hours at a time. I was a wreck.

I came out of the surgery with a handwritten five point check-list of what the warning signs of an actual heart attack are and a promise to my doctor that, if my book ever got published, I would send him a copy.

bigstock-woman-typing-madly-retro-cli-37020847Writing a book – even the shaky first draft that is my book has been hard. It wasn’t made easier by having a full-time job. Finding the mental energy to be creative after eight hours in the office was a challenge. But it was often the intensive periods when I took leave from work to focus on the writing, that I really felt I was losing the plot and not just the one on the page.

After one such week, locked away on my own, writing eighteen hours a day with no other company than my fictional characters, a close friend became concerned about my rambling online messages. He decided to mount a rescue mission and turned up on my doorstep. There he discovered a deranged writer who hadn’t slept properly for six days.

He insisted on taking me out for dinner but only after I’d taken a shower, found some clean clothes and brushed my hair. After an hour in the restaurant, and once I’d re-engaged with verbal communication, I tried to explain to him the frustrations of it all.

‘It’s like banging your head against a wall,’ I said.

‘I had an image of you sitting on your terrace, wearing floaty dresses, sipping martinis, and typing away,’ he said.

I thought about the night before when I’d lain on the sofa, weeping, a pillow over my head, willing the neurons in my brain to come up with a solution to the crater sized plot hole I’d just discovered 60k into my book.

‘Not exactly,’ I said.

‘Then why are you doing it?’

He had a point. Why was I doing it? I couldn’t give him an answer.

In fact not until I typed the last word on the last page did I have an answer. Then I knew. I love stories, always have done, whatever form they come in, plays, films, books or day dreams. And to have my story unfold in 398 pages felt pretty special. Building up every agonising twist and turn of my plot, creating my characters and then colouring them in – the process might be hard but when it comes together it is magical.

So now what?

I have submitted my first draft as part of my degree. The manuscript is saggy and baggy like its author, but I am hoping we can both firm up in the second draft, and yes I am going back for more.

But in the meantime I am taking Stephen King’s advice in his book ‘On Writing’ – walk away from your first draft. In the UK, October is the month for pausing. Go Sober for October. Stoptober. For me it is going to be ‘Take a break from writing your book October’. I am going to use the time to rest, recuperate and get ready for round two.

I end with a short clip.

Often when I was writing, I would play this. It reminded me that as a writer, along with your protagonist, you have to keep pushing through those walls to get to the end.