The Hero Down The Hall

“AW! REMEMBER WHEN YOU HAD NITS? YOUR HEAD STANK!” was the way I was greeted by a family friend last week. I’d already had “Remember when ‘uncle’ Clive bit your bum?” (Er, yes. Yes I do. EVERY NIGHT AS I WANDER THE DARK ABYSS OF THE SOUL.) and “I’m getting ruddy sick of seeing your face in the paper” (Thanks. Well…be thankful it’s not my bum, I guess.), so a loving reminder of my pre-pubescent scalp infestation was a nice distraction. (Sometimes I actually yearn for the yanking of that tiny comb.)

My mother, not usually one for such unnecessary displays, decided to have a birthday. She stuffed a Portuguese restaurant so full of her nearest and dearest that I spent the first hour or so utterly overwhelmed and not knowing who to talk to. I even felt that thing that surprises me from time to time; shyness.

Then I saw my lovely cousins Michael and Sammy, laughing at the end of the long table. I scooched down to sit with them, and even though I rarely see them, felt instantly comfortable. We still had the same playful ease that comes from having been kids together.

We were all born in East London. My family moved when I was three to Leicester, and Michael and Sammy, and their brother Sean and sister Emma, all stayed and grew up there. They were like gods to me. They were everything I wanted to become, but I could never quite catch up.

Michael came to live with us in Leicester for a bit when I was little and became like a brother; the proudly flatulent hero down the hall. I would run to his room, throw myself like a bed tobogganist onto his belly and make him terrify me with tales of ‘Monsters and Demons’. I’d wriggle and scream but never once actually want to escape. He’d sing me ‘Ding dong bell, Pussy’s in the well. Who put her in? Little Johnny Flynn.” with a knowing malevolence that delighted me. (Songs about drowning cats were what I lived for back there in the formative jungle of ’85.)

My cousins joked about what I might be like now if I’d stayed in Hackney. We decided I would probably be a self-appointed warden of a notorious tower block, a well-meaning but potty-mouthed avenger of knife crime or something. Michael and Sammy laughed, but I could actually picture my Alsatian. His name was Atticus and he wore a patch. I probably would have got shot in the face for talking to my plants and died hanging out of my tenth storey window with my wet bedsheets flapping in the smog. (Or been a reasonably-priced prostitute upon whose boobs you could have a good cry and then I’d give you a biscuit.)

I often wonder, actually, what my life might have been like, in Hackney, in Leicester – if things had somehow wandered their way into being…different.

But being there at the party with my cousins, drinking beer and laughing, and seeing my mum warmly watching over at us like her many homes had aligned, our current circumstances sort of didn’t matter. We almost weren’t who we are, but who we were together, before life beckoned us away.

I’ve never really thought about how my cousins shaped who I am. Sometimes we don’t pause to credit people, do we? But they were where I started. They were the steps ahead; could read, write, play out, drink hot tea, swear, all before I could. Heroes.

And Michael taught me to love stories. It’s what my life rotates around now – dreaming and writing and playing in stories. And when someone has given you that, they’ll always be in your life, whether you see them often or not.

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Resisting The Ride

” ‘Ave anuvver little look, and when you fink you’ve looked enuff, ‘ave anuvver little look.”, my no-nonsense driving instructor told me repeatedly as I thrust a Rover down the road on my seventeenth birthday. At that nascent stage of my motoring career, I couldn’t envisage ever zipping around nonchalantly like my older DVLA-approved friends. (Turns out you can make it to 32 functioning quite well on a provisional, so that’s fine.)

I’ve never really regretted not pushing myself to pass my test; never had that hankering that most people have to traverse the tarmacked byways of the country. People say driving is ‘independence’, but I’ve felt no less independent getting myself from A to B or even to G by other means. I love walking, I love trains, and taking a few cabs a month when I’m in a hurry is way less than I would ever spend on a car, and I can foist a bit of my carbon footprint onto some other bugger.

Sometimes people look at you strangely when you’re a walker, when you say you’re going to ‘walk’. Some don’t want you to get mugged, which is nice. Some see the time it will take you to ‘get there’ as injudiciously spent. Some think you will die if you dare perambulate further than five roads away. Telling them you don’t mind walking, in fact want to walk, is always met with disbelief, like you’re being a martyr. Having a dog is a good prop in this event. You can explain away your willingness to move your joints as a reluctant necessity for the sake of the dog. “Well, of course I don’t want to stroll slowly along the sea-path looking out at a shimmering horizon and delighting in the natural slowness of a life before its many modern encumberments, but the dog’s not going to pick up his own shit is he?”

The other day, I chose to walk home from somewhere. I was met with disbelief as estimates were made as to how long it would take me. We all reckoned about an hour. Cue wide eyes and gusting inhalations. After insisting that I truly wanted to, I set off – wrapped up, earphones in, dog setting the pace.

I took a straight route down a long main road, feeling my cheeks pulled taut by a teasing chill. Almost every town has a London Road as its main tributary, and I’ve passed along or across parts of my town’s almost every day of my life here. On this day I was further along it than I’d normally find myself. On one particular stretch I realised I was seeing details I’d not been close to before. I’d passed down it many times in a car but I’d never walked it, so I was familiar with its overview but not its specifics.

I wasn’t looking at anything much when my eyes flicked upwards to the side of a building, its smooth expanse of bricks painted white with old-style signage. Gilbert’s Bakers and Confectioners. I smiled. I love faded paint on exposed shop sidings, like the place has been sliced in half to reveal an older life. I half expect to see 1920s ladies in the windows, milliners on their tea-break, dashing off when they see they’ve been discovered still living untouched by time, dazed woodlice from out of a lifted slab.

I attuned my eyes to everything then, drawn out of my music into my surroundings.

Two sad ladies ignoring each other in a launderette, a scrape-faced teen mopping the floor of a cafe with theatrical swirls, a man mixing cement, two stoners smirking, a house I used to think was so big and majestic now looking so small and tired, a spaniel waltzing past with ball-gown ears, broken stained glass in hidden turret windows, a proud Italian waiter in a waistcoat putting out the bins, pansies poking up through beer cans, a dropped tray of ring doughnuts with chocolate sprinkles, doomed to the swipes of passing gulls.

I wouldn’t have seen any of this if I hadn’t walked. If I’d accepted the lift I would have just seen the blurs of a journey I thought I already knew. I realised even in all my walking I had switched off to what was around me. We all shut out so much stuff, the minutiae of other people’s lives, of our own. When really we always have time to have a little look and then another little look on our way.

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Learning To Love Women, & Other Belated Tales

Some twitter-thoughts I surprised myself with on International Women’s Day…

I ping between anger and sadness when women joke (ineffectively) about being Essex girls, mistakenly thinking they are showing people we are liberated and fun.

I think one of the things that riles me is the women making these jokes are utterly unequipped with the irony to carry it off as an actual comment about real women.

They clutch for a ‘LOL’ like it makes them ironic. “Oh, silly me, I’ve got a cock in my mouth again. Typical little slutty me, of Essex.” NO. STOP IT.

YOU AREN’T DOING IT WELL ENOUGH TO DO US ANY GOOD. IRONY IS AN ART AND IF YOU GET IT WRONG YOU CAN DO FURTHER DAMAGE OR AT LEAST LIMIT CHANGE.

I look at heels and think “why?”, as often as I look at heels and think “I wish I was sassier and wore heels.”

Sometimes lipstick makes me feel strong and open. Sometimes it makes me feel weak and exposed.

I feel a bit sad every time I have a period and I look down and think what might have been.

I feel FUCKING RELIEVED every time I have a period and crap myself about what might have been.

I had an abortion and I’m so happy I had the choice, the chance – and know that I should be able to say it here or anywhere, minus all irrelevant personal specifics, without shame.

I worry I am so busy trying to do other stuff that I might not figure out if I want to be a mum in time to be a mum.

I sometimes worry that if I don’t decide to become a mum, I will mother the entire fucking world.

Where does all that ‘motherly’ shit inside go if you don’t have kids? Will you be properly happy channelling it into other things, other people?

I feel guilty for not valuing women more when I was in my teens & twenties. I think learning to value & love women is one of the most important things I have ever done.

You can never really feel alone or despairing when you have good women in your life.

The only loves in my life whom I know without doubt will still be as constant in my heart when I die as today, are women.

Sometimes, so busy in missing my father, I am not as thankful as I should be to my mum.

I used to think being declamatory about anything female was ugly and unnecessary. I now step up its importance a little every day.

Being a woman gets better the more you are proud of all the things that make us different.

Being a woman is as wonderful as you let it.

For the first 30 years of my life I felt safe if a man was in the room. Now I feel a greater, more natural peace with just my gals.

Try EVERYTHING you want to try, and some things you don’t. It’s how you will be able to trust who you are later.

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Life’s Sticky Fingers

I was sad to find that I’d had a complaint over a previous column I wrote about a drunken night out. The naughty part of me felt cool for a second. But I am not terribly naughty and certainly not cool, so I mostly wanted to make reparations. The person sounded nice. I like nice people; I don’t mind saying I want them to like me too.

The complainant said that people with profile should not write in a way that could encourage impressionable teenagers to drink unwisely and get in dangerous states. I absolutely agree. I do not encourage that in any way.

However, I feel there is more to say beyond that.

I think columns reflect life in a way that reportage can (and must) not. I think columns have a bit more freedom to be human, and thus imperfect.

Here’s something I don’t think I’ve written about in my columns. I have been co-Head of English in an Alternative Education centre, have taught kids who have been moved out of mainstream education because it does not work for them, nor they for it. I love these kids. I know their lives and I worry for their futures.

Because of who and where and why they are, these ‘kids’ need a different tack to the one you have to take in mainstream schools. They are not curriculum kids, they are more real than that and won’t be lied to, nor hustled in directions they don’t want to go. They like honesty. They may seem rude and unreceptive to outsiders, but they are dying to respect someone. However, role models to these kids are not those attempting to be perfect. These kids would play up, play games if you tried to suggest they learn from someone whiter than white, (and they would win). For those who do not patronise them, who respect them enough to be real in front of them, they’ll turn up, they’ll open doors, more importantly they’ll do their work and understand that what work they do now might impact on their entire lives. They did not do this at school. I feel for school teachers who are not free to get the response they want from the kids they are losing.

Kids see life all around them. Life does not hide itself anymore. They don’t have to go out into the big wide world to see it, the big wide world comes streaming into their lives at indefatigable speeds. It doesn’t need doors or cables anymore. It is glowing in their palms at all times. They could not stop it if they wanted to. Parents cannot stop it, teachers cannot stop it. We would be doing them a disservice to not prepare them for it.

There is a connection I feel between what I do here and what I did there, between ‘influence’ in the press and in education. School is like the reportage; the restrained good examples, the dry facts. Alt-ed is like the columns; a more personal comment on life.

Some of the best teachers I have known have had colourful pasts; drugs, alcohol, violence, even prison. Some of the best adults I have known anywhere are those who occasionally mess up yet who talk about their lives honestly, with humility and remorse, and who pass on any wisdom they have picked up along the way because they have truly learned it, first hand, gloves off, fingers sticky from the mess of life.

No one is perfect. I occasionally do silly things, like get drunk and write about it. I learn new things all the time. But I know that kids learn more from people like this – they find life less daunting if they feel you are with them, and so do most adults.

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Books & Pants: Q&A with Jenny Eclair

Jenny Eclair is known for many things. Comedy aficionados know her as the first woman to win the legendary Perrier Award in 1995. Telly-watchers know her from assorted larks such as Loose Women, Celebrity Masterchef, and The Apprentice. Radio listeners have had her dulcet tones dipped in their ears from all angles, and the stage production of TV show Grumpy Old Women played to houses packed with cackling females all with one thing in common; they wished they’d brought spare knickers.

Amid all this it could be quite easy to have missed that she is also an author. She packs a lot in, our Jenny. Upon hearing she will be coming to my local Book Festival to read from her latest, ‘Life, Death, and Vanilla Slices’, I swooped in to lovingly interrogate her with the curiosity of a writer who dreams of one day being published…

Ok, Jen. Let’s get the important stuff out of the way. My editor told me not to mention my pants. What pants are you wearing?
M & S, size 14, from a ten pound triple pack. White(ish) – proper stout walking pant.

Thanks. Ok. Life, Death, and Vanilla Slices. You’re a Saturday girl in Waterstone’s. Sell it to me.
If I was a Saturday girl in Waterstone’s I’d probably be saying, “What, sorry, no, we’ve not got that in stock!”
When LDVS came out I was fighting against the tide of 50 Shades, which Waterstone’s were piling to the rafters – they didn’t have much room for anything else. Fortunately the reviews on Amazon have done most for sales and I’m incredibly grateful to everyone who’s bothered to do that.

I love the title. Two massively serious things offset by something sweet. Was it always that title in your head or did you have others?
The folder on my computer was titled ‘Sisters’. At one point we toyed with ‘Mothers and Sisters’. I also quite liked ‘Look Right, Look Left, Look Back’. I find titles a nightmare.

The book seems to be peppered with little nods to real life, like the sons’s puke on the glass roof – do you get a mischievous glee from including real things?
There’s a lot of real life in there, but novels create their own real life too. Many of the places are real, most of the incidents aren’t.

Can fiction ever just be fiction, without our own lives peeking out from behind the characters’ furniture?
It’s difficult not to let your own experience slip in. I really admire writers who can create a world they’ve never inhabited; I tend to suck on my own bones

I’m only halfway through, but I’ve got a terrible feeling it’s going to make me snot. What response would you most like from your readers, if not snot?
There should be plenty of snot, I snotted three times when I did the audio record. My daughter howled when she finished it. I could hear her and I sat downstairs rocking with laughter.

Do you go bonkers when writing your books, or do you enter a nice, reflective state?
A mixture. Getting going is the hard part – it’s like walking up a really big hill. Once you’re halfway and you just have to walk down again it’s not so bad. In fact usually when you’re close to the end you don’t want to ever finish.

Writing a book is pretty awesome. Did you ever think you would write three novels, you big brainbox?
It was always something I wanted to do before I hit forty and I managed it – just. I’d written a comedy book in my thirties, ‘The Book of Bad Behaviour’, but I knew I wanted to write a proper book and there were other comics doing it who I didn’t believe cared about fiction as much as I do. I am a reader, I love books. It’s a massive relief to love books – it means you can never really be bored.

Which book by another author would you love to have written?
In some respects it would be great to do a Donna Tartt and write something like ‘The Secret History’ which everyone will admire forever, but I also think that that could cripple you creatively for years after. The other trick is to write the book that becomes the film. We all have that dream.

God, yes. I’d steal The Secret History for myself too, if I could. In terms of your comedy, was it lonely being one of only a few successful women in the industry at the time of your Perrier award win, or did you secretly quite like it?
Of course I secretly loved it, but I did feel under enormous pressure too and spent a lot of time crying in corners and feeling guilty. Typical female response to even a tiny bit of success.

How do you think we might best go about putting the ‘Are Women Funny’ debate to bed? Can we; should we?
I think it’s still an important question. I’m bored of the chit-chat around it, but I do think it’s a fascinating debate. Once upon a time there was such an incredible imbalance. It’s changing, and it must be changing for a reason, and those reasons are socially interesting. Because of my age and experience, dismissing the question’s existence makes me cross – it was quite tough thirty years ago and without harping on about it, I think everyone needs to acknowledge this fact.

Amen, sister. *Clicks fingers sassily* Do you remember ever having a fork in your life where you might have chosen something else?
No, I knew I was going to be a performer – I just didn’t know stand-up existed for girls (I was born in 1960). I thought I would have to be an actress. It’s a good job stand-up did exist – I wasn’t a very successful actress, though I still like to dabble.

If you could only have achieved one of your successes, which would it be?
Apart from Phoebe, it would be the ‘Grumpy Old Women Live’ shows – hearing so many women laugh in the same space.

What is the most un-Jenny Eclair thing that you would secretly like to do?
Learn about wildlife. I like flowers and birds but don’t tell anyone. It’s time I was an expert in something; I’m a grown up but I have no adult skills.

Ok. Some quickies: What makes you maddest/saddest/baddest?
At the moment: loan ads on the telly, the cuts in Arts funding, and Pinot Grigio…

Which person in history would you most like to punch in the face?
All the Popes.

What is one of your happiest memories of being a kid?
Kiss chase in the playground. Oh, the terrible excitement!

You can keep only three things in your house. What are they?
My computer, my stand up gig bag, and a framed picture of Geoff and I when we were young.

What is the most ridiculous thing you have ever done?
Panto. It’s mental.

You’re on your deathbed. You’ve got a bit of time to wheeze out some considered last words. What are they?
Why have you brought me to Switzerland?

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The Verb State – Guest Column for ‘Cracking The Kindle’

I was invited to write a guest column for ‘Cracking The Kindle’, a writerly blog by the wonderful Dan Trelfer. Go to http://www.crackingthekindle.com for his word-finery.

One of the things about writing a book is that you don’t want to tell people you’re writing a book because it’s not actually a book yet. Though you feel you should explain your oddness, your sudden receding from social events, the distance that takes over your eyes, you can’t quite bring yourself to say “I am writing a book”. It seems such a ludicrous claim. Not only because presumably a lot of people attempt it and never finish it, or if they do, only end up thrusting it in a drawer, or worse let it languish unprinted in the ether as an email to self or on a reductive memory stick. (People will assume you are one of these at first.) Not only because you feel like a tit saying such a lofty thing, that people will think you’re ‘a bit of a wanker’. But because the word ‘book’ itself is so rife with things that mock you.

It is a noun for a start, implying that what you are doing (requiring a verb; achievable by your own efforts) is instead actually a thing; an object. But where is it? It is a shifting thing on a screen; it is not even there until you open the document and summon the pixelated wisps from the hard drive. Is that a book? It has no pages unless you print it yourself. Is that a book? It’s A4 for Christ’s sake – that’s not a book, it looks crap. It has no spine but for the strength and structure which you attempt, it has no cover but the one you imagine in your most indulgent daydreams. Is it a book if it’s not a book? Do you have a right to hang on the coat-tails of the noun, if you are only really in the verb state; the doing, the trying? It takes a massive hop over the obstacles in your own self-confidence, a blind leap of faith in yourself, over all the hulks of self-loathing you have strewn around your head. What the hell are you doing writing a book, you twit?

One of the other worst things is that once you have ‘finished’ writing the thing (always believed before actually achieved), you have the gargantuan hurdle of trying to get someone to agree with you that it’s worth reading. It is famously hard to get published. You’ve got to get an agent first. That is hard. Then they have to get you a publisher. That is double-hard. The publisher will judge the current tectonics of the industry and see if you fit anywhere in the brusque economics of it all and might reject you even though they ‘love’ your book, even if they think it would be an absolute critical smash. It is really bloody hard. Saying you’ve ‘written a book’ before you’ve even attempted all this extra stuff is like saying you’re a war hero before you’ve even been measured for your uniform.

Despite that…

I am writing a book. There, I’ve said it. I can get that far. I stumble however when I try to explain what it is. (This is where an agent or publisher would dismiss me offhand, straightaway. If you can’t sell it yourself in a compelling line, they certainly can’t be arsed to do it for you.) I shall try here…
Ok, so, it is some true things, some deviations from true things, some made-up things as a necessary escape, some more true things I never realised were true…
There, see; I can’t go much beyond saying I’m trying. I wrote 70 thousand words in one month of madness. That was fifteen months ago. It has been a slow hell of relative sanity since. I’ve written and cut maybe another thirty thousand words and am bobbing around 80 thousand words. It is not what it will be yet. I don’t know if it ever will be. I can see it all, but it’s not there. I yearn to fuck off for a month and ‘get it done’, but what writer doesn’t? Is it a book? I don’t know.

I am somewhat encouraged by the fact that a lot of Actual Authors (oh, what an AA group that would be…in a church hall…all confessional and biscuity) seem to say you must have distance from the work, preferably months not just weeks, before you can do the final touches. I.e., you can’t write a book in a month and consider it ‘done’ without being a total buffoon. This appeases me when I think of all that work I did which every now and then I get out and poke, like an impotent husband who lurches on his wife when his dick becomes randomly charged.

A friend recently had her book published. She had a book launch and everything, and a week after it was published she said she found the whole thing terrifying. That the sales had been great amid all the first flushes of PR but were now trailing off a bit. I said I supposed she must now just ‘let it go’ – let it live the life of a book, let it float like a baby in a moses basket downriver, and run alongside it hoping it’s ok.

Once it’s an actual published printed book, a baby not a glint in the eye, it’s not ours anymore. It is its own thing, with its own fate, not to be guided by our own editorial impulses. Is that what we write it for?

I suppose what we should really concern ourselves with is not what we want to get out of it – a product, money, success, respect, fame, affirmation, reviews, acclaim, nominations, awards – but do we write our books for the love of the act of it? Our lives should be measured in how we choose to spend our time, right? Do you want to spend your time typing alone, splurging, deleting, editing, re-editing, emoting characters who don’t exist, caring for things you created, speaking in voices that aren’t yours, seeing entire worlds and the tiniest subtextual actions when you close your eyes? If you want to give your days up to all this otherworldly stuff, then you are a writer, and whether you have a book of any kind to show for it can become almost irrelevant if you let it; if you embrace the purest driving joy in it all. The writing, not the product. The journey not the destination. The verb and not the noun.

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The Oscars Boob

I sort of feel a bit sorry for Seth MacFarlane. The poor love’s probably not had the nice week he was expecting after his little Academy Awards sing-song. Hosting the Oscars is a tough job, fraught with pressure and demanding skill. The temptation to reduce the whole lauded affair to a cheap joke is probably quite potent. Falling back on bathos in his clearly well-rehearsed Busby Berkeley style nod to breasts was possibly even a way of dealing with any latent feelings of inadequacy in the massively prestigious thing he’d been asked to do. Compound with the fact he has been propelled by his Family Guy success into a sort of alternative commentator on society, with probably more reach to the American public than the politicians themselves, a satirical guru who has earned his licence for irreverence and can say what he darn well likes. BUT BOOBS? REALLY??

Charlize Theron’s face summed it all up perfectly as her name was mentioned in the ditty; a disbelieving grimace directed to her date. I wonder if she felt her months of gruelling work creating the role of rape victim and murderer Eileen Wuornos would be so eminently dignified – years after her deserving Oscar win for Monster (for which her willingness to cast off her natural beauty to get fat and ‘ugly’ was more commented on than her spine-chilling performance) – by a cartoon-colouring chump in a suit.

In looking at the coverage on the official Oscars website, I noticed that the main feature was the red carpet pictorial. Who was the most glamorous? I also noticed (by noticed I mean dedicatedly checked by going through each one) that out of the 70 pictures in the red carpet gallery, 19 were of men, and 9 of those men had a woman standing next to them for good measure.

This may have been because all men were wearing exactly the same thing. Black tux, white shirt, black dickie, black shoes. DULLSVILLE. The Gentleman’s Club uniform may be barely worth snapping, but the gals weren’t afforded the same visual anonymity. One of the ‘main stories’ of the Oscars was Sally Field and Hilary Swank wearing the same dress. To my horror I saw it being debated: ‘who wore it better?’ Celebrity websites giggled about it; said that the women probably spent all night avoiding each other. What? I HOPE THEY STOOD TOGETHER AND HAD A RUDDY GOOD LAUGH ABOUT IT. I HOPE THEY HAD A COSMO AND GIGGLED WHILE SWANK DID IMPRESSIONS OF FORREST GUMP’S MUM. Why should they stand apart, while all the men mingled in the subtlest variations of the same suit?

It seems so ludicrous that the awards go to the female actors who play the hardest parts – the junkies, the victims, the sufferers of violence and madness – but that the Academy itself still encourages the vacuity of the surrounding pomp. They would suffer as a brand if they were to award vacuity in art, but would suffer equally if they were to phase out the glamour of the red carpet outside.

It makes you wonder: how can people like Seth MacFarlane blur the lines effectively, or even metaphorically pee over them, if the lines themselves aren’t even clear?

I have just one wish: that one year, just once, all the ladies of Hollywood get together in secret and decide to wear the same dress. The same simple black dress. Maybe ten years of doing that would make the difference.

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