Friday, 8 December 2017

More (A short story)

Shall I shan’t I? Shall I shan’t I? This is how it goes, on and on, round and round. It’s that time of year again when madness takes over and people make terrible mistakes.

It’s almost a year to the day since I made mine and yet here I am contemplating going down the same road again. Didn’t somebody once say that was the true definition of madness – making the same mistake over and over again? The trouble is now that I’ve entertained the thought that I might go, I can’t get the idea out of my head.

It’s the Christmas ‘do’ see, tomorrow night at the big hotel on the outskirts of town. We have it there every year; it means people can have a drink without having to worry about driving home. It’s never really been my thing but you know what it’s like, you have to show your face or you never hear the end of it. Before last year I’d never stayed over. I’d never had the need - moderate drinking and sensible shoes that’s more me.

At least I thought that was me until Mark Grantham. He transferred to our company when we merged with a smaller rival and I was meant to help him make the transition. It can’t be easy moving to a new job in a new town – not that I’d know given that I’ve worked at the same place since leaving school. It’s good money and secure which in this day and age counts for a lot. I’d be a fool to let it go for something more...

More, that’s always been my problem. Everyone says so, my mum, sister, friends and even Lee. I’ve never been able to shake the nagging feeling that there must be something more. “More what?” my sister snapped at me the last time I brought it up. She was furious that I couldn’t be satisfied with a hardworking husband who provides us with everything we could want while she’s struggling on her own with two kids. I help out as much as I can, of course I do, but it’s not the same. She misses the man who used to treat her like dirt before he ran off with the woman who worked in the bookies.

He’s got a new life now with not much time for his old one and now and then I can’t help but wonder if he too was looking for something more. I’m playing with fire I know, Lee and I have been together since school we’re best friends as well as husband and wife. I genuinely can’t imagine my life without him in it so why do I crave this elusive concept of more?

It’s always been there, beneath the surface, that dull sickly feeling of being trapped. Some days the thought of spending the rest of my life sorting out other people’s mortgages, living in our lovely detached house, three streets away from mum’s neat little semi, makes me want to claw my own skin off. I have to keep reminding myself how lucky I am. My sister would kill for what I have, I’ve no right to feel trapped, no right to long for something more.

What more could there be any way, I’ve got everything, hit the jackpot? I think maybe I would have carried on believing that if I’d never set eyes on Mark Grantham. I had to go and collect him from the HR office and show him around. He’d smiled and my chest felt constricted, my breathing jagged and out of rhythm. I felt awkward and ridiculous for weeks as he worked alongside me seemingly unaware of the effect his presence was having.

By the time last year’s Christmas ‘do’ came around I was spending almost every waking moment fantasising about being with Mark Grantham. Being his lover, his wife, his mistress, I didn’t care. I just wanted to feel his skin on mine, to acknowledge the charge that he must surely feel as it totally consumed me. Even though we had not exchanged a word about what was going on I knew exactly what would happen at the party. It had to; I couldn’t live in such a heightened state of excitement. It was driving me insane.

Lee had been asking me what was going on for weeks. Just the very sight of him made my flesh crawl as I thought of nothing other than Mark’s lips on mine, his hands all over my body, him inside me. Thinking about it pushed me to the brink of desire in such a way that I’d never felt with Lee. By the time the party came around I knew that Mark and I had to be together.

If my colleagues had been surprised by the fact that I’d spent half my monthly salary on a new outfit and was drinking vodka and tonics like they were going out of style, none of them mentioned it. The only person who commented on my sleek new bob and decidedly non-sensible shoes was Mark as I attached myself to him the second he came through the door.

If I’m being honest the night was a bit of a blur but it predictably culminated with Mark in my bed. His hands weren’t all over me in the fevered rush I’d anticipated and I can’t remember if we kissed. The whole thing was over in minutes and then Mark was getting dressed and calling a cab. His wife was waiting for him at their new house and as she was pregnant he didn’t want to stay out too late.

The vodka buzz had left my system as he’d thrust mechanically into my body, taking with it the thrill of my fantasy. The thrill that had made me happier than I could ever remember feeling. After an uncomfortable goodbye, I’d sobbed out all my disappointment and failure. What kind of person was I to risk everything I had for sordid sex? I was no better than a cheap tramp.

I promised myself I was going to cherish my life with Lee after such a horrible near miss. I did, I have, and now here we are a year later. Mark Grantham was never the kind of man to stay long. By February he’d been promoted to regional manager so there’s no fear of seeing him at this year’s party. But still ... should I go?

My dress and shoes are in the back of the wardrobe and I’m sure Debbie could fit me in for a blow dry and manicure. It might be nice to dress up for a change and then there’s Colin in sales who I’ve been thinking a lot about lately...

Saturday, 28 October 2017

How Grown-up Are You?

I had to buy a new fridge this week and as always happens when I dip a toe into the world of grown-ups (where people expect you to know details like the measurements of the space available and whether you need a freezer section) I found myself flummoxed and feeling totally inadequate.

Before you ask – no I’m not a teenager or even a delayed twenty something. I’m a woman in her fifties who can’t seem to successfully navigate the path into adulthood. I suppose before we continue we need to ascertain some definition of adulthood. According to my mother it’s all about maintaining a home that doesn’t look like you’ve permanently been burgled.

Only last week when her washing machine was on the blink, I offered to step into the breach and help her out. My offer was met by abject horror and the rather dubious comment, “You’ve got to be joking, I’ve seen what you do to your whites!” I don’t do anything to my whites other than bung them into the machine with a bit of detergent but it seems that’s where it’s all going wrong as my mother bored me almost to death with a litany of products designed to keep your whites ‘white’.

My mother enjoys any opportunity to attack my domestic know-how primarily because she sees it as the root cause of my inability to bag myself a husband. Her lack of grandchildren has long been a thorn in her side. Ironically it’s no doubt my lack of progeny that has to a large extent facilitated my lack of maturity. Having never had to care for anyone other than myself has meant I can do pretty much what I please when I please, which doesn’t engender a sense of responsibility. Frankly I’ve never even had a pet.

Surely though being a grown-up is not just about not being a slattern. There must be non-house proud adults out there who can assume control when things get hairy. Despite spending most of my adult life with 30 plus children in my care at any given time, I’m definitely not the one to look to in an emergency. There are eleven year olds more able to cope in a crisis than me. My instinct the second there is an aberration from the norm is to look around for the nearest adult or in the absence of one a small child will do. To be honest I’ve found that some children are actually fifty year olds trapped in small bodies, probably just waiting for their physical beings to catch up with their personalities. Tragically I’m more Benjamin Button and suffer from the opposite.

I’ve been on many residential school trips both at home and abroad but only ever had to take a position of responsibility for one and let’s just say never again. It was a week in London and involved, in no particular order: hospital visits, children lost on the tube, irate parents, no sleep, alcohol and Italian boys. By the end of the week my nerves were quite literally shredded and I needed complete bed rest. If that’s what it’s like being a responsible adult then I’d rather have arrested development.

How much of being a middle-aged teen is circumstance and how much is personality? There’s no doubt in my mind that my lack of dependents has allowed me to wallow in my own sense of misplaced youth. My diet consists of mainly sugar and the occasional jacket potato. I can’t even remember the last time I bothered to attempt cooking a meal. Clearly unless I wanted to be responsible for malnourished off-spring I wouldn’t have this luxury had I chosen to reproduce.

The personality bit must come into the mix somewhere though as I’ve never had any desire to reproduce. I’ve always known that I’m far too selfish to want to put anyone else’s needs above my own. I like to spend my time reading quietly and watching Netflix, helping children with homework or indeed having to listen to their tedious prattling would get right on my nerves. Don’t even get me started on toddlers who evoke in me an intolerance that would put Mussolini to shame. I am a person who should definitely not be inflicted on others, a joy-snuffing, curmudgeon best left to my own quirks and failings.

My only consolation is I’m not the only Peter Pan in existence. I suppose it used to be a condition more associated with men who couldn’t grow up because, coddled by their mothers and wives, they didn’t have to. Gender equality however means that these days we are all free to be adult children. In fact I know quite a few of them.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

How Classy Are You?

Last week I went to a showing of a film called Strike A Rock, a documentary which follows the ongoing struggle of women in the community of Marikana following the Marikana Massacre in 2012. It’s taken me a good week to recover and not for the reasons you might think.

Harrowing as the film was it was the ensuing Q&A session with the director and two of the Marikana women that made my blood run cold. Q&As are the bane of my existence, I’ve never been to a single one that hasn’t left me squirming in discomfort. I knew the minute I saw the white, middle class audience, a sea of Palestinian scarves and ethnic fezzes that this one was going to be a corker.

Anyway the film was fab but predictably everything went downhill after that. One ridiculous question followed another and the only thing that kept me from crawling under my seat was the fact that English was not the first language of any of the guests of honour and so hopefully they had no idea what the would-be warriors were wittering on  about. Events finally hit rock bottom when the Marikana women spontaneously burst into song unleashing something bordering on maniacal in the audience as they clapped, swayed and God help me ululated in response.

Before you ask, yes I am well aware of how shallow this makes me – faced with people fighting for the most basic of living conditions I’m fretting about mortification by proxy. In my defence though it’s a class thing. You see Philip Pirrip style I’m a working class girl thrust into a middle class world and have spent my entire adult life staggering from one debacle to another, a leg straggling each camp and let me tell you it’s not easy.

Back in the early 80s being working class was like finding Willy Wonka’s golden ticket. As education became more accessible, university lecturers bent over backwards to accommodate anyone with a northern accent, no doubt imagining we were down the pit or up chimneys when we weren’t in their classes. How my posh friends would seethe when I got let off for not handing essays in on time or not being bothered to attend tutorials whilst they got penalised and threatened with getting kicked off the course. All that changed, however, when more and more working class people went the Educating Rita route and my golden ticket became two a penny.

Becoming a teacher in the 80s meant taking on new sensibilities as the profession was still at that time a bastion of middle-classness. Dinner became lunch, tea became supper and frankly I didn’t know if I was up or down. The thing about life though is that we all adapt to our environments and so I embraced bread sticks, humus and candles (even though I had more than enough for the electricity meter). The only time my mask would slip was under the influence and what can I say, you can take the girl out the council estate but you can’t take the council estate out of the girl.

Fast forward thirty seven years and I suppose I’ve grown accustomed to the middle-classness of my chosen path and in fact now find myself snobbily appalled by our modern lack of standards. You see, we’re never satisfied. I may no longer shudder at the mention of a pashmina or chaise-longue but there are two things still guaranteed to give me the heebie-jeebies. One is the aforementioned Q&A sessions and the other is the humble dinner party.

How so? I hear you cry but believe me dinner parties rather than being occasions of innocuous get-togethers are fraught with more hidden dangers than a mine field. The obvious hazard is alcohol which can do you in more effectively than any IED. First off I don’t know anything about wine and am just as likely to guzzle the ‘ironic’ Blue Nun as savour a Sauvignon Blanc. Dinner parties to the uneducated palate can drift into University Challenge territory. And don’t even get me started on cheese. When faced with Yarg and Roquefort how I long for a bit of cheddar.

Then comes the dinner party chit-chat where if you’ve over-imbibed you can come off like Arthur Scargill as your working classness takes umbrage at its middle class surroundings and gets all shouty and belligerent. The look of fear in the other guests’ eyes warn you to rein it in but that pesky Blue Nun is colluding with your inner working class hero to ensure you’re going to spend the next three weeks avoiding everybody you know.

I know we’re supposed to live in an inclusive society and I spend my days trying to convince young people that their origins don’t define their future. None the less it only it takes a Q&A session or a dinner party to remind me that no matter how much we think we can none of us truly disentangle ourselves from our roots. 

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

The Surprise

I know people like to judge me, I’m the stuck up cow who never joins in with the summer fayres, Christmas fetes or whatever other nonsense these yummy mummies spend their time organising. What these people, my neighbours, fail to realise is that I simply don’t have the time. Ever since I became Head of Human Resources at one of the top three hospitals in the U.K. my focus has to be work.

They can look down their noses at me all they want but I’ve achieved everything I ever set out to accomplish. It’s not been easy and my personal life has had to take a back seat but luckily my husband understands. You can’t break into the top three without some sacrifices. John and I met at uni and have been together ever since. To be honest, neither of us had much experience and sex has never played a major role in our marriage. We connect on a deeper level than that; the intimacy we have is far more powerful than sex.

My sister says it’s not healthy to live in each other’s pockets but what does she know? She’s got a divorce and a string of failed relationships behind her. We never had much in common even when we were kids; she was the apple of both my parents’ eye, pretty, sociable and not clever enough to make anyone feel threatened. I, on the other hand, came out of the womb with the drive to succeed. Boyfriends, pop stars and inane TV programmes were of no use to me.

The last time I saw my sister she decided to issue a few ‘home truths’. It was quite out of the blue and I don’t know what brought it on but she called me a ‘hard-faced cow’ and said I had no friends or real family to speak of. She’s never understood me so I don’t know why I felt so disappointed. I haven’t got time for friends and the nature of my job means I have to be hard. I’ve had to let people go who I’ve known for years and any attachments would make that difficult.

Anyway that was about six months ago and since then everything’s changed. So much so I’m tempted to email my sister and tell her how wrong she was. It all started with Olga – obviously with my busy schedule I have to have staff and Olga had been with us for years. I suppose she was what you might call a housekeeper; she did the cleaning, shopping and generally kept things ticking over. At least she did until she became a grandmother and her daughter couldn’t afford to pay for child care. I mean why people have children when they can’t afford to pay for them I’ll never know. It was an enormous inconvenience but there was no dissuading Olga against becoming an unpaid nanny.

As it turned out the whole thing couldn’t have worked out better as I found Tess and she is quite literally an angel. Despite all my training and instincts warning me not to get involved with an employee, Tess and I have become the best of friends. Even John adores her and he’s not a social creature by nature. Somehow it’s as if she’s opened all of the windows and let the sunshine into our lives. She even moved in with us after some sort of misunderstanding with her flatmate and now I can’t imagine life without her.

In fact John and I have been talking a lot lately about something so incredible it hardly seems possible. It was actually John’s idea, which is unusual because he normally leaves that kind of thing to me. However he’s so fond of Tess she must have inspired him to think outside the box. We’ve really never met anyone quite like her before, so full of life and adventure. We’ve become a sort of family. For the first time ever I look forward to coming home from work, wondering what John and Tess are doing. I’ve even left work at the same time as everyone else on a couple of occasions and we’ve watched TV together with pizza ordered in from the local takeaway.

John’s idea then feels like the next step. You see we never wanted children and, now that Tess has shown us the possibilities, it’s too late. My child bearing days are over. I feel silly just saying it but a surrogate could be the answer and who better than Tess? When she came to us it was because she’d run out of money travelling around the USA and most of Europe. She’s a free spirit and why should a lack of funds clip her wings? It’s the perfect solution, we get what we want and she gets her freedom.

Obviously we will have to work out the fine details and we’ve not really broached it with her yet. John is convinced she’ll agree and they are so close I’m sure he’s right. That’s why I’ve taken a few hours personal time and I’m going to surprise them and put our plan to Tess. I can’t leave this kind of thing to John; he’s not got much initiative which is why I’m surprised he came up with this idea in the first place. I can’t wait to see their faces when I arrive home early. An afternoon off is quite unheard of. 

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Who Do You Want To Be?

During a recent visit to the hairdressers I met up with an old acquaintance who brought me up to speed with her life. She had ended a ten year relationship and was loved up with her new perfect ‘partner’ of seven weeks. The said ‘partner’ had already moved in and everything was amazing as they played happy families with her three children.

This is a woman who I have known for many years but our paths only cross every couple of years or so. It might sound like I’m judging but I’m really not. It’s just that listening to her I had a moment of clarity that I’m sure could apply to all our lives. You see I recognised a fellow ‘fresh starter’. We really have very little in common other than the desire to frequently start over. My acquaintance does this via relationships, she’s had several long term partners including a couple of husbands and always seems happiest at the start when she’s got it all to play for. There’s an obvious pattern here but she presumably can’t see it.

What became obvious to me is that we all do it although not necessarily in the same way. For some of us it’s jobs or travel, friendships or houses. The sense of new beginnings creates a heady feeling of euphoria, the illusion that we’ve found our perfect life. The truth is once the novelty has worn off, for most of us, we’re back to square one.

The older we get the harder it becomes to make the grandiose changes that we might have embraced when we were young. Moving cities or even countries is easy when you don’t have anything to tie you down but life has a way of, depending how you want to look at it, blessing us or encumbering us with kids, mortgages, careers etc. This means we either have to make do with little changes, my aunt used to decorate her house constantly – she would put her family through the horrible upheaval only to start again a week later when it wasn’t what she’d imagined, or swallow down our dissatisfaction and disappointment.

We all know that alcohol is the great equaliser and I’ve had many surprising conversations with people under the influence. Conversations they wouldn’t dream of having sober. I’ve had women tell me how motherhood is nothing like the fulfilling experience they thought it would be and how they feel ashamed to admit that they go to work not because they have to but because to be at home with their kids would drive them insane. Other women have spoken about their hatred for their successful careers and a desire to just pack it in and get a job at Tesco’s. How can they though when they’ve spent their entire adult lives striving to be in the very place they currently reside – what would people think?

The unwritten rule of drunken confessions is that they are never referred to again and the next morning life goes on as if the dark dirty secrets were never uttered. The truth is though it’s this denial that makes us miserable and leads us to make choices that often make us even more miserable. What those of us who are ‘fresh starters’ fail to see is that wherever we go we take all our disappointments and failings with us. The only way to truly make a change is to examine exactly what it is that we want and have the courage to embrace it.

Nobody gets to middle-age without realising that expecting to be happy all the time is foolish. Alain de Botton put it succinctly when he recently said that being middle-aged means becoming a pragmatic depressive because let’s face it, life is hard. So why do we make it harder than it needs to be by denying ourselves the things that might bring us the most joy.

We seem to live in an age where doing anything for the heck of it is seen as something to be ashamed of. Who can remember learning for pleasure or working ‘just for the money’ to fund your leisure? Nowadays if we aren’t all striving for promotions or reaching targets we’re deemed to be unsuccessful. We are all subject to endless scrutiny courtesy of performance management, a faceless, moronic system designed to help us all become ‘outstanding’ in whatever role we happen to be in. Those of us old enough to remember when  some imbecile first came up with the idea that if we weren’t all adhering to mid-term and long-term targets then we weren’t up to the job, will know that at one time Outstanding, Good, Satisfactory and Unsatisfactory actually meant just that. Now though anything other than Outstanding means you have a target on your back. Somehow the definition of the words have been distorted so that to be Satisfactory or Good equates with, in the eyes of more often than not less than satisfactory management, incompetent.

Now I’m the first to admit that given the chance I would spend my life loafing my time away indulging my imagination. I recognise though that not everyone is the same. I inherited my loafer gene from my maternal grandmother who was forced to work three jobs to keep her family afloat after being widowed in her 40s. She was 63 when I was born however and so already retired. A retirement she spent next to the fire with a constant supply of tea and biscuits, reading Mills and Boon books. She was quite possibly the most content woman I’ve ever known. In contrast my mother, who was widowed at 60, has spent the ensuing 11 years filling her life to the brim with courses, groups and volunteering. She doesn’t have a minute to spare and that’s the way she likes it.

She’s always been like that, as kids my sister and I would howl with laughter at her need to list everything she had to do within a day – make breakfast, clean the bathroom, go to the shop, make tea, blah blah blah. We would joke, behind her back of course, how she should include, breathe in and out, switch on the kettle and pick up the tea-cup, such was the minutiae she’d include in her list. The scary thing is though all that list making and boasting about how much you have to do has become the norm. I’m sick of people telling me they are rushed off their feet without a moment to spare, multi-tasking and making me feel guilty for wanting to sit drinking tea all day.

So the upshot is I’m not playing any more. You can stuff your medium and long-term targets that I never read anyway; I’m quite satisfied to be satisfactory. You can keep your multi-tasking, the only thing on my to do list is to get in as much loafing about as humanly possible. Maybe if we all stopped trying to be something we’re not we wouldn’t need to be constantly looking for pastures new. Instead we’d be happy with what we’ve got because we’d have chosen it for the right reasons and not because we felt we should.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

What Kind Of Society Do You Want To Live In?

There are certain times of the year which lend themselves to optimism and spring for me is one of them. The nights are light and while we may not be basking in sunshine the potential is there. Don’t get me wrong, by the time September comes around I’ll be gazing longingly towards autumn but, for now, it feels like we’ve got it all to play for.

My excitement is heightened even further by the up-coming general election, although I feel hopeful and terrified in equal measures. I genuinely believe that this could be our last chance to create a fairer society. I have no control over the future however and am preparing myself for a major disappointment.

On the whole I’m quite a positive person who likes to think well of my fellow humans but whenever there’s a general election I often feel completely alienated from what seems to be the mood of the nation. I recognise that a lot of this is down to media manipulation and the Tory bias means that there’s a focus on people whose views are at odds with my own. This time around however there seems to be a generational split like never before.

Apparently I belong to the Generation X, preceded by the Baby Boomers and in turn preceding the Millennium Generation. This is all news to me but the divide between these generations is becoming all too real. The media at the moment is giving the greatest voice to the so-called Baby Boomers, probably because this is where much of Theresa May’s support lies. If I hear one more silver haired pensioner talking about ‘girl power’ I swear I’ll put the television screen through.

The fact is the Baby Boomers like to claim that they have worked hard and deserve their long retirements and pensions and I agree with them but why can’t they afford the people coming up behind them the same opportunities. After all they are not the only people who have worked hard, young people are staring down the barrel of working until they’re 70, never being able to afford their own homes no matter how hard they work and paying off student loans well into middle-age. Let’s not forget that those of us who studied pre-1990 not only got our education for free but received maintenance grants as well.

What to do then if the Tories get the landslide win that the media is predicting? Short of emigrating or throwing myself into the nearest river I’m going to need a strategy to get me past the realisation that I’m living in a country surrounded by people that I don’t understand. I once read somewhere that the best way to achieve something is to behave as if you already have it so I’m going to have to behave as if I’m living in a society where community matters and people care about each other, even if the evidence suggests otherwise.

I believe passionately in education as the antidote to poverty and, as we edge ever closer to the return of educating only those who can afford it, I think those of us who benefitted from an education owe a debt to all young people. I’m fortunate enough to work with both children and adults who are striving to learn and hopefully realise their ambitions. Not everyone succeeds the first time around and I don’t want to be part of a system that closes the door on people after just one chance. It’s becoming harder and harder for adult learners who want to return to education because of cuts in funding and that’s where the voluntary sector comes in. If we don’t like what’s happening within education we can always volunteer our time to counteract the attacks on life-long inclusive learning.

Likewise with poverty, which is surely the most corrosive problem a society can have. Food banks have become a lifeline for record numbers of people and Sheffield can’t be the only city that seems to have returned to the levels of homelessness last seen in the 80s. We should all be ashamed of the fact that 30% of our children are now classed as living in poverty and 254,000 people were registered as homeless in England in 2016.  Rather than ranting about the unfairness of it all maybe it’s time that those of us who do feel shame at the way our country is shaping up became proactive. Food banks are crying out for donations and volunteers as are homeless charities. There is a way of countering everything that we feel angry or upset about, it just requires that we put ourselves out and consider other people’s needs. This is the kind of society I want to live in, where kindness is valued more than affluence or status.

Taking my cue then from all the new beginnings that abound in spring, instead of worrying about the things I can’t control, I’m going to surround myself with people who I admire. People who value everyone regardless of their situation and understand that lending someone a helping hand benefits everyone in the long run. 

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Is There Such A Thing As The Perfect Childhood?

I’ve just finished reading a great book (The Silent Kookaburra by Liza Perrat, if you’re interested) and part of the reason I enjoyed it was the fact that it was set in the early 1970s. The narrator was a year older than me and despite it being set in a small Australian town, a million miles from my own experience, her childhood really resonated with me. More than anything it highlighted the way the world has changed and got me thinking whether this was for the better or worse.

Like most things in life, there is no easy answer. Hopefully as human beings we have evolved as the world has become smaller through technology. Prejudice is no longer as widespread as it was and although racism and sexism do still exist it’s nowhere near as limiting as it was in the 70s. This in itself has to be a good thing but what about the other changes?

The most striking changes have taken place in the way we view our children. I am not a parent but work with young people who have been reared in a child-centred society. From birth they have been encouraged to believe that they are deserving of respect and validation regardless of their behaviour. There is no hint of children being seen but not heard or respecting their elders. In fact they are often quite shocked to discover that the world does not actually revolve around them.

It’s easy to point out the negatives of this kind of child-rearing. We have lots of young people who are not very resilient. The world is a tough place, perhaps more than ever before, and yet children are fed the idea that they can achieve anything they want to achieve. In an ideal world this might be true and hard work would pay off but in reality life is not necessarily fair. Big dreams are all well and good but you are never going to be a doctor or vet if you aren’t academically inclined nor are you going to be a successful singer even if you can carry a tune and have been in a couple of school shows. Why then do we constantly peddle the myth that children can be whoever they want to be and then wonder why they grow up into disappointed, unemployable adults? Shouldn’t we all be questioning why lots of big businesses would rather employ pensioners than young people?

I’m not viewing the 70s through rose tinted glasses, however. I grew up in a world where children were kept firmly in their place. We were told in no uncertain terms that we were not on equal footing with adults who warranted our respect for no other reason than good manners. We didn’t join in adult conversations, we gave up our seats if an adult was standing and we never questioned authority. Basically we were encouraged to be passive and accepting. Assertiveness is something that most of us have had to learn in adulthood and it’s often a steep learning curve.

Young people today tend to have a positive body image despite the statistics telling us that obesity is on the increase. In contrast I remember greed being viewed as something to be ashamed of and nobody beat around the bush where weight gain was concerned. I had a friend whose mother made her wear a panty girdle throughout her early teens due to her “running to fat.” There was no letting it all hang out and acceptance, being fat was undesirable and showed a weakness of character. We may have kept our weight in check and been less of a drain on the NHS but it can’t be a coincidence that every woman I know who is of my generation has a neurotic, unhealthy relationship with food. Is this any less damaging than the new eat all you can, junk food generation?

A notable positive change that I’ve seen is the way that young people have embraced inclusiveness. I often feel ashamed as I’m choking back laughter watching singers who can’t sing or dancers who can’t dance whilst young people encourage and support each other. We are all told that bullying is on the increase especially online but in my experience young people are kinder than I remember. Kids were brutal when I was at school and if you lacked skill there was no giving it your best shot, you were roundly mocked. I was beyond useless at PE and consequently never got picked for any teams; even my own friends viewed me as a handicap. To this day the idea of team games fill me with horror as I think back to shivering on the school field as the sporty girls deliberated who would be the least damaging to their success – an obese girl called Lesley, Nicola a chronic asthmatic or me.

I don’t suppose it takes a rocket scientist to figure out that our modern child-centric society is probably a direct result of the confidence crippling childhood of the 70s. Most of my friends who like me had to cope with low self-esteem and people pleasing disorders swore their own children would not be subject to the harsh child-rearing they endured. And as often happens they over compensated with their own offspring to try and rectify what happened to them. Consequently we are seeing different but just as damaging results from their own efforts.

Is there ever going to be an ideal childhood then? My own parents would scoff at my assertions that they were too strict as they recalled being given the belt and having to go out to work at fourteen. I suppose in comparison we seemed spoilt and pathetic. Their criticisms were just as limiting though as their own parents’ discipline had been to them and later generations may have chosen a more liberal approach but succeeded only in unleashing a whole set of new problems on their progeny. Maybe growing up should just come with a government health warning. 

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Do What Makes You Happy

Despite Storm Doris and the fact that it’s lashing down outside, I can feel spring in the air. There’s light at the end of the dark, dreary tunnel of winter and suddenly I’m full of inspiration and ideas.

I’ve got to admit I’ve been a bit of a misery for the last couple of years and as a result everything seems to have gone by the wayside. Particularly my writing which, for as long as I can remember has been a source of much pleasure. Thinking about it, what knocked me for six was getting caught up in the idea that writing had to be about something other than personal fulfilment.

I’d found myself in a position where I was able to take extended periods of unemployment and any bits of work I did were all about funding my pre-occupation with writing. I wrote like a demon for a couple of years and life felt pretty much perfect. But then somewhere along the way I lost sight of my own feelings and began looking outward for external validation. Anybody who self-publishers will tell you that getting a readership is brutally hard work – a full time job in itself. Most books languish on Amazon unread by anyone other than a handful of people and the realisation of this stung.

Not only did I have to abandon the idea that I wasn’t going to be able to abandon the day job, I simultaneously entered the time of life that people like to flippantly refer to as a mid-life crisis. The understanding that (unless I’m going to be in the Guinness Book of Records) I’m well past the half way stage – it should really be called a three quarter life crisis although I concur it doesn’t sound very catchy. Anyway, I became consumed by what I hadn’t done and the ever decreasing road that lay ahead of me.

Fortunately, as with all things human, these things pass and I now find myself inspired by the very same things that had felt so limiting. I don’t need to prove myself because at 54 I’m never going to be the next ‘bright young thing’. No, I’m old enough to appreciate that anything that brings us pleasure should be grasped firmly by both hands.

During my writing adventure, I didn’t spend my days locked away in the attic living like a church mouse. Instead I lived beyond my means, crashing and burning rather spectacularly. I was forced to re-evaluate my relationship with the workplace and now work considerably more than I’d like to which has had an impact on how much time I can dedicate to writing.

So what’s changed? Simply my outlook on life. Whilst I’m never going to be able to retire completely, in a couple of years I will be in a position to cash in my pension which will afford me a financial cushion – albeit a flimsy one. I feel lucky to be coming to the end of my career and contemplating a time of indulging in whatever takes my fancy. Hopefully that will mean writing a whole host of novels that can be read or not.

Because what difference does it really make? The pleasure I get from writing is in no way connected to the number of people who read it. Yes, as I write there’s an audience in mind and I imagine what kind of reaction my words might inspire but once I press publish all that becomes irrelevant. I’ve no idea what happens to my words as they loaf about in cyber space in much the same style I loaf my way through life.

So my advice to you my dear potential reader is do what makes you happy for its own sake and not for anything it may bring you. If you are a fellow scribe it doesn’t matter if you write for you alone or an audience of many, the power is in the joy of expressing your words onto the page. If it’s some other pastime that makes you smile then my message stands the same. I love dancing and singing and the fact that I’m never going to be Beyonce doesn’t diminish that joy one little bit so why should not being Jane Austen stop me from putting pen to paper?

Thursday, 12 January 2017

The Power of the Review

How important are reviews? It seems in the 21st century they are the way most small businesses are validated. The only experience of reviews that I have is via book reviews and even that is limited but how reliable is the review system?

It’s inevitable that if you have a small customer base your reviews aren’t going to be plentiful but does a wide customer base guarantee more reviews? It seems the answer to this is yes and no. If you Google big companies they seem to have less reviews than small independent companies and the same is true of writers. For example I wanted to buy a copy of a play by Sam Shepard and when I went to Amazon was stunned to see it had only one 2 star review. We are talking about arguably one of the greatest living American playwrights here and yet if you Google any writer of commercial, disposable fiction you can find anywhere up to several hundred 5 star reviews. I’m in no way trying to detract from the pleasure derived from reading light hearted romance or vampire books but there does seem to be a bit of a discrepancy here.

Does this discrepancy invalidate the review system then? I don’t know. Before I wrote my own novels I never reviewed anything. In fact, up until that point I had no idea that the world of reviews even existed. If I wanted to buy a book I would just go to my local book shop and buy one. The advent of self publishing however has blown the market wide open and lots of novels are now only available online, which is the home of the review. I would imagine that most reviews are readers’ natural responses to the books they’ve read. It would seem though that this may not always be the case.

Self publishing a book is about so much more than writing and lots of effort goes into garnering a readership and reviews and as the world of self publishing has blossomed so too have blog sites dedicated to reviewing books. Most of these sites are great, set up by book lovers who offer honest reviews. However, alongside these sites are other reviewers who have set up businesses where they review books in exchange for a fee. Likewise there are companies who employ people to write reviews for small businesses despite never having used their services. The world of reviewing like most things is vulnerable to corruption.

Having said that I have found that I really like reviewing books. I feel in no way qualified to set myself up as an expert critic but enjoy offering my opinion on what I’ve read. It’s a bit like being back at school doing English Lit – I mean when as an adult do you ever get to write your response to ideas or writing techniques anymore? Review writing clearly feeds my inner swot.

Even with the best of intentions though reviewing is a thorny business. I personally don’t like the idea of marking someone’s work out of 5 and would far rather simply express my own response. After all, who is to say my response will be the same as someone else’s and reducing a review to a score just seems so definite. I struggled for days recently over a book I didn’t feel connected to because it wasn’t my kind of thing despite the fact that it was well written, brave and original. Do your score on your own feelings towards a book or how another potential reader might enjoy it. There’s no way of knowing and if readers look at the score rather than the review then they are missing all of the nuances a reviewer may want to express.

So what’s the point of this rambling post I hear you ask? In all honesty, I don’t know. I was provoked into thinking about reviews by two things. One was my surprise at Sam Shepard’s lack of them and the other was a small plumbing company who my mother paid to install a bathroom after reading glowing review after review about them online. The truth turned out to be a little bit different and we’ve since learnt that none of the reviews are genuine and there are lots of dissatisfied customers trying to get their money back.

The power of the review then can be a mighty thing. In the age of the internet it has replaced the old recommendation system of word of mouth. This need not be a bad thing but how can we check the authenticity of reviewers and how can we take seriously a system where a reader scores To Catch a Texas Cowboy 5 stars but Jane Eyre 1.