My Portobello Affair

I have a confession. I am totally cheating on the Thames Estuary with the North Sea. Right now. Today. It’s my day off and I needed to get out of the city to realign my noggin so me and the gals hopped on a bus down to Portobello and after 20 minutes of jiggling here we are. The beach. As I walked down the hill, eyeing up the big bad blue-grey of the indomitable seething waves, I couldn’t even pretend I was going to behave myself. There it was. The irresistible sea. I can’t figure out if temporarily switching affection from home to exotic waters is that bad. In one way it feels like having an affair with your beau’s fit uncle. The one that works out. Naughty. But in another, less mental scenario it feels like you’re loyally exploring your lover. The waters of the world all link up, don’t they. So really it’s like I’m just visiting another side of my partner. A day trip to another part, paying my respects to a lesser seen facet. Really, my Portobello affair is like a couple’s retreat. One where you fall into natural appreciative contemplation of each other, your life together. Not one of those expensive ones where you get to air your differences with a counsellorwho encourages you to bash each other with polystyrene bats though.

 

Is it strange to feel loyal to a thing that’s not a person? I feel loyal to our little strip of Estuary. It’s like a person to me. A tumultuous lover, a steadfast friend, a welcoming aunt, a projection of my father, a swirl of everyone and everything. A dipping pool of everything you need. I’ve lost count of the number of times the 7.4 or whatever mile stretch of seafront has sorted my head out. It’s always there. It stays in your blood when you’ve grown up by the sea. You can almost feel your body angling itself towards it. The sea is the North in my compass. I’m always pointing that way. You feel a bit hemmed in when you go inland. Where’s the water? It’s not right somehow. And coming home, the first sighting of the water is when you really know you’re home. That’s when your insides settle and your traveler’s equilibrium is righted.

 

I can’t believe this is the first time in ten years of doing the Edinburgh festival that I have thought to come down here and have a spot of sea goodness to clear my head. You fall into a groove that becomes a rut easily up here. Pacing the same streets to get to the same places, your schedule rotating around four or five points. Theatre and bars and restaurants and Tesco and your temporary home.

 

But not this year. I needed to get out. So Portobello it is. Smooth yellow sand, very unScottish sunshine. The sea looks so full it could spill out; drip down and out of the sky, wash towards you with the excitement of a waggy-tailed wetly-greeting dog.

 

I’m going to go for a paddle. I’m going to take off my shoes, roll up my jeans, and go and stand and wince in the water. Feel the lower degrees of the ocean coldness, the kinder tendrils of the killing cold of the deep, still brusquer than the chill of the Thames. Feel the roughness of it. The shifting sands, gurgling and gushing away, never the same thing twice. The frantic assault of the toes. Be righted by it for now, a tonic, a day’s affair, a rough kiss. Finish the festival. Then come back to the familiarity of home. 

 

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Pramkicker: It Started In A Café…

Back in the distant yorey days of 2014 my friend Sarah and I were in a café. I was ploughing on with a triple shot Americano even though I’m a bit allergic, & Sarah was staring at me wondering why I didn’t just order tea. While we smalltalked a stream of mothers filled the cafe with their exuberant offspring and their high-tech perambulators. We smiled & nodded hullo. I crossed my eyes and did fish-face at a toddler who stood staring at me with a swollen nappy bum. As the hubbub in the cafe grew louder Sarah and I spoke a little louder to try & continue our Very Important Power Business Meeting (or VIPBM if you like anagrams that sound like virus software), which no doubt involved our dreams and aspirations for the next ten years, our relentless charity work for worthwhile causes, or what to have for lunch that very day.

Then Sarah got elbowed in the head by a mother who didn’t even turn round let alone apologise. Then I picked up a toy that was hurled at my feet – a little fleecy lamb, tired at the eyes from too much washing – to be met with a glare as though I was the leader of an international paedophile ring out and about scouting for talent. My cheeks flushed. Because I am not the leader of an international paedophile ring, people. I can just about manage my own menstrual cycle (it tends to work best when left to its own devices; you can’t lasso the moon) let alone operate on a highly criminal, covert, and morally reprehensible basis. We eventually felt so uncomfortable, so invisible and surplus to requirements that we left to find another cafe somewhere else, maybe in a neighbourhood known for more knife crime and fewer mother and baby groups, even though we knew more coffee would probably make my cheeks go pink and my throat go all constricty like I was being strangled in a cartoon where the tongue bursts out of the mouth like a party blower. JUST ORDER TEA, HASLER, YOU NITWIT.

In the street we began a conversation about motherhood and kids, dodging prams as we went. Sarah has often said she feels belittled by people who think she’s selfish for choosing to remain child free. She maintains that it’s selfish to have children if you aren’t sure you want them. I reissued my regular mantra that I haven’t a ruddy clue about anything; whether I want kids or not; that I sometimes have a pang, but not much. Not enough of one. Yet. I have received no bugle call and thus am at leisure to continue my wafty existence.

But. But I am 35, and aware that inside my tiniest parts – deep inside the intricate folds of my reproductive system, a work of genius I can take no credit for – is a clock, at some point at my prime wound tight and ready to burst its cogs, that will – at a time never to be properly administrated by myself, the me up here in my cerebral offices – start slowing down, slowing down, slowing down, until eventually it stops. Tick tock, tiiiiick toooock, til the rest is silence. My baby-making days over.

It’s not often that an ordinary morning spurs you to go home and write about it, but that day, in that cafe, a chord was struck that echoed. Very shortly afterwards I began writing my new play, Pramkicker, which became something of a melting pot for all the thoughts I had about All That Stuff, and a lot of thoughts I’d heard voiced by other women I know. It felt like a mess of conflicting concerns in my head that I needed to untangle – time and love and the human body and prospects and career and fulfilment and cherishing life and the possibilities and difficulties of all that – and writing is the only way I know how to go about trying to untangle anything. Writing is the way I process life, it’s how I understand, and more often now how I participate. Writing is what I do while and after I think and before I act. If I act.

I don’t normally talk about things I’m writing because I’m not very eloquent at saying what it is. I get all flustered and say ridiculous things like “It’s about a kind of story but I don’t know what yet.” And then people just stare at me as though they think I should probably take up watching telly instead. Most of the time I completely agree with them.

But what has been lovely with Pramkicker is that I’ve been talking about it lots. With lots of people. Men and women. Because I’ve wanted to know what other people think and feel about it all. And lots of people have been starting conversations with me about it too, and as always I have been reminded how lovely it is to share things with people. I’ve received so many messages from people who have things to say about motherhood; confessions or open comment about having kids, or not having them. About quandaries, about regrets. About sad things the human body throws at us, about the ticking of the biological clock. About knowing and not knowing. About how different humans go about filling their lives with different kinds of love in that strange vainglorious beautiful doomed pursuit of finding permanent happiness in an impermanent life, that cruel instinct that humans have that bumps alongside the behemoth business of merest survival. And while thinking, talking, or even writing about ‘all this baby stuff’ hasn’t made me any clearer on the matter, it makes me realise that whatever happens, with kids or without, I won’t be alone. None of us ever are if we choose to talk to each other.
Let’s just not try to do it all together in the same café, eh.

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Spat On In A Bookshop

Bookshop. Morning.

The shopgirl wipes the spittle from her face as a man in a long black coat beflecks her with the bitty remains of his Full Monty breakfast.

“No. Sorry, sir. Still no date on the new Game of Thrones book.”

“Well, can’t you have a word?”

“With George R R Martin, the author?”

“Yes.”

“No, sir. We don’t do that. We try and leave the authors to it.”

Long pause.

“Are you sure?”

A shorter pause.

“Yes. George expressly told us to stop calling. It was putting him off.”

“Oh.”

Bookshop girl awkwardly sidles out sideways grinning like a cardboard cut-out, then scurries off into a safe corner of Crime.

This is my other life. My bookshop life. I’ve worked part-time on and off in the same bookshop for eight years. It feels like home and I love it dearly, but like all homes it can get on your wick sometimes.

Like the other day, with The Sci-Fi Spittler: “I bet Caitlin Moran doesn’t have to put up with this shit”, I found myself thinking as I answered the same question for the thousandth time. “I bet Caitlin Moran doesn’t have to make excuses for lazy bestselling authors at tillpoint. I wish that George Reginald Ronnie Whatever would pull his bloody finger out.”

But Caitlin Moran doesn’t have to keep anti-bacterial wipes in her pockets in case of close-up face-flecking, because Caitlin Moran’s a proper writer and doesn’t have to sell books about dragons to elf-haired dribblers to keep her in cardigans. Because Caitlin Moran’s…well, good.

It’s hard to try and think of yourself as a proper writer when you work part-time in a bookshop. All those books, all those words. Not even one of them yours – not even one of the small rubbish ones that don’t sell. I mean, you could use all of those words if you wanted to, they belong to everyone – but the fact is you haven’t used them, not in that order, not to that end. You are not George R R Martin. No one’s coming in off the street literally (LITERALLY) every five minutes to be belligerent with a bespectacled Converse-wearing bookseller for your latest literary profferings.

Every now and then I allow myself to think I might be getting there. Getting to ‘be a proper writer’.

There are little props that help. Nice pencils and notebooks, naturally. Pockets stuffed full of half-written notes of ideas I jot down blindly inbetween book queries. Halfway through a line about some facet of human nature, when…

From nowhere a Benson & Hedges wheeze…

“‘Scuse. Has Jordan got a new fing. I might have seen it in Heat. Something about love in a car. It’s a book. Do you have those? I dunno. Anyway, where is it?”

“Katie Price doesn’t have another one lined up for a while, sorry. Maybe she’s between ghost writers. (Private bookseller chuckle.) No – no madam, don’t choke – she’s not dead. I meant… I’m sure she’ll write another one soon.”

Madam leaves looking like I have just asked her to recite Pi. I pick a scab and wonder what Zadie Smith’s up to.

There is the odd success to make you feel like you’re getting there; ‘Being a writer’. Getting funding to do your plays in Edinburgh. Getting close to the end of a book that’s driven you half-mad that you might try and find a literary agent for at some point, if only you can stop faffing and let it go. Getting asked to contribute to an exciting new magazine. Getting nominated for a columnist of the year award. But it’s easy to not let it feel real when you’re surrounded by the work of others, writers much better than yourself. (And much worse; most of Towie have slender tomes out and I’ve a feeling none of them will be making any shortlists soon – unless it’s an overlong guest list for Sugar Hut or wherever it is they go to totter about with their tits out. But that’s just the men. The women are secretly reading Naomi Wolf in the lavs.) You have to let yourself actually enjoy your successes inbetween feeling like you’re being terribly silly trying in the first place.

I’m lucky, though, in that I love my bookshop. And I love my bookshop friends. Who wouldn’t want to be surrounded by nice bookish people and thousands of books and all their endless inspiration and resources for a couple of days a week? Far more talented people than I are working less fun day jobs while also slogging at their less remunerative ambitions. Some of those day jobs are well paid. Some of them are not. None of these people would choose to keep their day jobs if their other careers took off. Most recently I’ve been speaking to musician friends – amazing wonderful songwriters – all working ridiculous hours to make it happen, to keep it all ticking over. Photographers and artists and writers and composers and designers and actors and illustrators too. None of them quite free to do what they feel in their souls that they should be doing with their time. We’re all doing five million things at once, feeling utterly stretched and schizophrenic, and almost none of us are without money worries. An artistic life is a gamble with few wins. There’s certainly strength to be found in talking to each other, if not much money forthcoming. Our riches come from other things, not least each others’ understanding.

I guess it’s what keeps everyone humble. And hungry. And productive.
And on occasion a teeny bit mischievous…

A customer walks in.

“When’s the…”

“New Game of Thrones book out? George just called actually. It’s not good news I’m afraid. There’s no easy way of saying this, but……..(deep intake of breath for effect) he got bored and is going to leave it there. Said something about having a great idea for a taut political thriller set in one office with a shortage of mythical creatures. I’m sorry. Er. Would you like to wipe your nose on this new Katie Price?”

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