Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Holiday Photos

This is the little resort of Bosa Marina. Quite unspoilt, just a couple of restaurants and cafes, no sunbeds for hire. Warm, clean sea, and a huge arc of sand - this photo shows about a quarter of the beach. Look for the palm tree in the middle of the photo, our apartment is the one just above and to the right, on the top floor, with the long balcony.

This is a sunset view, taken from the balcony.

A 2 km walk up the Temo river (the only navigable river in Sardinia) brought us to the pretty mediaeval town of Bosa.

There were lots of lizards, they mostly disappeared with a tail-flick, but this one was cheeky!

And another sunset. I couldn't resist them - you're lucky I only posted two pics!

Grey mornings in the Midlands just aren't the same... sigh...

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Of Smuggness

Dear Reader, I am feeling very Smugg. So Smugg that a small 's' and one 'g' cannot convey the level of my Smuggitude.

The reasons for this are twofold. First, I have just had an utterly lovely holiday in unspoiled north-west Sardinia: snorkelling with sardines in clear warm sea (beats dolphins - more appetising), eating pizzas the size of cartwheels, reading book after book after book, gawping open-mouthed at stunning sunsets and frescoes, chatting happily with my travelling companion, and writing rather a lot of words too (5000 new ones plus 2500 lifted from a previous draft and edited).

Second, during my holiday I got the third report from my lovely mentor Debi. She had quite a lot to say, and was a bit worried that I might develop homicidal tendencies as a result, and dismiss her as an evil hatchet woman. Although I regularly seek and use feedback on my writing, it is true that my first reaction to receiving feedback is often to feel defensive, upset, and cross. I usually get past that fairly quickly without the need to inflict it on the giver of feedback. But this time there wasn't a shred of anything other than illumination and gratitude. I'm hoping to apply the lessons learned to the current 'chunk', and to have that ready to send to Debi sometime this week. Paid work is in rather short supply just now, but the upside of that is more time for writing, so I intend to make as much use of it as I can.

I will of course be popping round to visit you all in the next couple of days. Holiday snaps to follow.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Fabulous Friday

Look at my word counter! Just look! Over there, on the right, headed 'Rewrite In Progress'. See? One-third done! Yep, the latest chunk of 10,000 words went off to Debi this morning. I even managed to write 500 words on Wednesday - and, speaking of Wednesday, thank you so much to everyone who responded to my last post. Your kindness really helped me through a very difficult day.

Today is differently difficult, in that I have rather too much to do for the time available. And the time available is shrinking rapidly, because at 4.45 pm I am leaving to catch a train to Birmingham Airport, where I will meet a girlfriend for a night in a hotel before an early check-in to catch the plane to Sardinia!!!!! We're staying in the mediaeval town of Bosa, in an apartment which looks amazing. The weather looks fab too - around 27 degrees in the daytime and 18 at night, perfect!

I've never been to Sardinia before, and neither has my friend. She is escaping from her husband and two children and her demanding job, so she's looking forward to the break. I will of course take my laptop and intend to write as much, or as little, as I feel like writing. I don't expect to have Internet access, so I'll tell you all about it after I get back (next weekend). There may even be photos!

Have a great week, everyone. Byeeeeeee!!!

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

My 20th Wedding Anniversary

Dave and I met in 1985 when we were both volunteers at Centrepoint Night Shelter in central London, which offered overnight accommodation, food and advice to homeless teenagers. We hit it off from the start and soon became friends, often going out with other groups of volunteers.

After a couple of years Dave asked me out on a date. I was surprised, but then I thought, why not? We had a great time and soon became an item. He told me, on that first date, that he wanted to marry me. I told him 'no chance.'

So we got married on 16th September 1989. I'd never seen myself as the marrying type, but he went on and on about it until in the end I thought well, we're living together, I love him, if it'll shut him up we might as well. I wanted to get married in jeans and t-shirts with a couple of people off the street for witnesses. Dave wanted the whole enchilada, but luckily we were too skint for that. We settled on a low-key, registry office wedding, with a bring-a-bottle reception at his brother's house.

Then Dave began to lose interest. I realised, much too late, that he'd been trying to replace his mother who had died in a tragic accident when he was a young teenager. We had lots of good times, but he became increasingly difficult to live with. He was terrible with money and had no scruples about taking and spending mine as well as his. He could be enormously compassionate and loving, and at other times incredibly selfish. If I accused him of selfishness he would think for a moment, then say with disarming honesty 'yes, you're right,' which would have been endearing if it had been accompanied by any change in behaviour. He was emotionally literate, and taught me a lot about managing my own emotions, but like so many people, he wasn't as good at managing his own. At times he would stay up all night for nights on end, either out clubbing with friends or at home listening to music and writing poems. At other times he'd stay in bed all day, or droop around the house, for weeks. I think now that he may have had bipolar disorder but I didn't know enough, then, to seek information or help.

Our marriage lasted for six years. I tried to hold it together, but I couldn't make a marriage on my own. We were both sad when it ended, but we went back to being friends; we were always best at that. We had a great divorce. On the day our decree nisi came through, Dave took me out for dinner at a Mexican restaurant in Clapham. We were ordering aperitifs and starters and more drinks and main courses, and the waiter asked what we were celebrating. We told him. He rolled his eyes, said 'I get all the nutters on my tables,' and walked off. Dave and I laughed till our tears fell.

After a while I got together with my Paramour and Dave got together with Mandy. Dave and my Paramour got on well, and after I left London, Dave came to stay with us a few times. I also went to stay with Dave and Mandy. I liked Mandy, a kind young woman, although she had a lot of emotional problems and phobias and was quite fragile. I think Dave saw himself as her rescuer/protector, and perhaps she saw him like that too.

Then he hit another manic phase. He was preparing workshops that he thought would change people's lives. I asked questions about how he intended to manage the practicalities, which annoyed him, and we fell out. We'd had many arguments before and got past them, and several mutual friends were also finding him particularly hard work, so I didn't worry about it too much; I figured he'd get back in touch when he was ready, we'd both say 'sorry' and carry on as usual.

In November 2003 my Paramour and I came home to find a message from Dave's brother John on the answerphone, saying 'ring me.' I hadn't heard from John in years, so I rang immediately, full of foreboding. He told me that Dave had been attacked on the street in Brixton, near the flat he shared with Mandy; he was on life support; he wasn't going to make it.

The police didn't release Dave's body until mid-January. They never found out who killed him. The funeral was at the end of January and his family created and ran the service themselves. It was a lovely funeral, yet I found it bizarre for three reasons. First, they didn't mention me or our marriage. Second, Mandy read one of Dave's poems; a love poem; one that she said he'd often read to her. We were all given a copy of the original, in his handwriting. It was clearly dated 1993, and I remembered it well; he'd written it for me. Third, at the reception, I realised that Dave and Mandy had been so reclusive that most of Dave's old friends had never met Mandy. I realised this because they were all treating me as the grieving widow. I was grieving, for sure, but it was Mandy who needed to be in that role. I tried to direct people to her but they held back, reluctant, because they didn't know her.

I was, and am, grieving for my friend. My infuriating, funny, loving, clever, selfish, charming friend. I miss him most when a new gadget comes on the market, especially if it has anything to do with music. He loved technology and would have adored iPods, Spotify, Wii, all that kind of thing. I miss him right now, too, because he would have understood how I feel about today, probably better than I understand it myself.

I wish I didn't have a retentive memory for dates. Today is my 20th wedding anniversary, and I want to celebrate, and cry, and get through the day, and I'm really not sure how. I don't think anyone else I know remembers the significance of this date; if anyone does, they've never said. Nobody mentions Dave these days. I guess they don't want to upset me. I wish I could spend the day with people who knew him, and who remember, and we could talk about him, and cry a little, and laugh a lot, and eat and drink and take comfort in each other's company. But that's not going to happen. So I'll find another way, starting with this blog post.

Monday, 14 September 2009

It's Going Swimmingly

This mentoring business is the business. I had my second lot of feedback from Debi last week, and I was delighted to find that I'm meeting my aim of improving my writing as I go along. Now, as I write, I have a frequent voice popping up in my head saying things like 'Debi wouldn't like that adjective,' 'Debi would say you need an internal reaction here from that character,' and, most frequently, 'Debi would delete that bit.'

Debi is very good at deleting things, at least with my writing. I'm sure she doesn't take the slash-and-burn approach to everyone's work, because not everyone will need it, but I certainly do. As a result I've revised my target word count from 80k to 90k, because then I might end up with 80k that's made it past Debi's machete!

I've been on a writing roll over the weekend and am now halfway towards the next 10k. I hope to get there by the end of the week as I'm away next week. It would be nice to go away with one-third of the draft behind me, although I'm so into the swing of it now that I expect I'll still be writing while I'm away. At this rate, if I can continue to turn out 5000 words a week, I could have a full draft by the end of the year. I'm not setting that as a target, because if my paid work gets busier I'll have to slow down on the writing - but as things stand at present, it is possible, and it would be a great Xmas present to myself.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Ethical Mobile Phones

I've just come to the end of my current contract with Vodafone, and decided to try investigating ethical options. This was partly prompted by a flyer from the Phone Co-op which has been sitting on my desk for several weeks. All our landline business is with the Phone Co-op, who are not the cheapest but are definitely the most ethical; that's why we're with them, so surely it would make sense to transfer my mobile business too.

I've been with Vodafone for several years and have got used to their system of having a new handset 'free' with each new contract. I need a new handset; my current one keeps crashing. The fact that I'd have to pay £199 for my new handset, with the Phone Co-op, was initially a shock.

Then I started doing some sums. The Phone Co-op do offer 'bundle' packages of minutes and texts for a set monthly amount, but they point out that a lot of people have bigger 'bundles' than they need, and therefore end up paying more per minute/text they actually use than they realise. For example, if your 'bundle' includes 800 minutes per month, but you only use 200, each minute effectively costs four times as much as you think. Everyone's usage is different, which is why it's hard to work out what constitutes a good deal when it comes to mobile phones. But the Phone Co-op recommend their pay-for-what-you-use system, which starts at 4p/minute for calls and 6p/text, with a flat rate line rental of £1.70/month. They suggest that this works out cheaper for most people, in the end - and my sums seemed to bear that out.

So far, so good. Then I started looking into the ethics of handsets. Boy oh boy, what a minefield! We're getting used to thinking about ethical issues when it comes to shopping for food or clothes. Electronic goods are a different thing altogether. When a single component can have a supply chain of a dozen companies, it's really REALLY hard to establish anything definite about the ethical credentials of a finished product. Also, several mobile phone companies are good in some areas but bad in others. For example, Nokia score highly on environmental issues, but low on social issues because they have told newly recruited workers in India not to join unions, and most of their manufacturing is based in China which prohibits unions. Research carried out in 2006 found that staff of handset factories in China, India, Thailand and the Philippines worked up to 72 hours a week with compulsory overtime, insecure employment contracts, unsafe factories, inadequate protection when working with hazardous materials, wages below the subsistence level, suppression of union rights and degrading treatment.

I can't buy an ethical mobile phone. It's not possible to get one made locally by a craftsman. It's also not realistic to go back to life without one. My clients expect me to have a mobile phone and I can't afford to lose business.

So I'm going to bite the Phone Co-op bullet. My reasoning is, if I pay upfront and separately for my handset, I'm more likely to take care of it and keep it for longer, which offers more respect to the poorly paid people who have worked in lousy conditions to produce it for me. Also, I will recycle my old phone through a charity. But I still feel as if I'm in bed with the enemy.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

The Joy Of Mentoring

This writing business is hard, isn't it? While anyone who is literate can arrange words on a page, actually creating an effective piece of writing, whether it's a poem or a brochure, a novel or an email, is really very difficult.

I've been writing for decades, with some small successes: a national competition won, a handful of magazine articles, a very boring non-fiction book, a PhD thesis and three short stories published. For most of that time I've thought I wanted to write a novel. About six weeks ago I changed tack and am now working on a narrative non-fiction memoir, based on events in my life 12-14 years ago.

This has proved to be relatively easy in some ways and surprisingly complicated in others. The easy parts are that I know the characters really well because I know them in real life, and I can lift some scenes from previous pieces of writing so I'm not doing it all from scratch. The hard parts are the new writing, and disentangling threads that were important in my life from the threads that are important for the story.

So what does all this have to do with mentoring, you may ask? It's something I've considered doing before, and I've been very interested in JJ's experiences and those of Shaun Attwood as reported by PI. But I had stern voices in my head saying things like 'you should be past that stage after all these years' and 'you shouldn't spend MORE money on your writing' and 'mentoring is just wussy hand-holding anyway.' Three weeks ago I decided those voices are neither mine nor helpful, so they could shut up and let me get on with my life. Funnily enough they then went all quiet!

Having decided I wanted to dip my toe in the mentoring water, the next question was, who should I approach? I thought of a few possible organisations and individuals but my first choice was Debi Alper, who did such a helpful critique on the last draft of my novel. I wasn't sure whether she did mentoring, so I emailed her to ask how she would feel about taking me on. I was thrilled when she emailed back to say she would be happy to work with me.

I sent her my first 10,000 words, and they came back with suggested amendments and a written report a few days later. Debi's feedback was so useful that, if I had had any lingering doubts about the possible value of her mentoring, they would have been instantly dispelled. In particular, she identified a superfluous character. If I hadn't had her help at the start, I would have written that character right through the book, and it would then have taken much more work to edit him out. Also, she's given me several useful stylistic pointers: for example, I need to be careful not to use too many adjectives, or to overdo descriptions of body language. I'm learning such a lot from her advice, and aiming to put it into practice as I write the next section.

I've just emailed Debi the next 10,000 words and I'm looking forward to her response. She has mastered the art of constructive criticism, not only saying what I need to do but also explaining how to do it. She also seems to have a very thorough understanding of what works, and what doesn't, when it comes to writing and books. I'm so pleased I've finally taken the plunge. If you want to join me, I'd recommend it - it's lovely once you're in!

Monday, 7 September 2009

Moseley Folk Festival

Yes, I know I seem like a 'festival fiend', as one friend put it by email, but I've only been to two this year, it's just that they were on consecutive weekends.

Moseley was a new experience for me: a festival in a city. Actually, that's not entirely true, as I did take my Paramour to Celtic Connections in Glasgow in January 2008. That's different, though, because it goes on for three weeks at a range of venues around the city. Moseley Folk Festival is in a charming little park, just off the High Street, which slopes down towards a lake. The stages were at the bottom of the slope and we all sat on the ground so that everyone could see over the heads of the people in front (until they stood up, of course). The lake was to the right of the stages and it was slightly surreal at times to watch musicians playing for all they were worth and then look a few feet to the left and see swans gliding across the surface of the water.

The festival had all the usual ingredients: annoyingly uncomfortable wristbands, children's activities, retail tents and yummy food options - an artisan boulangerie was a particular favourite, and the falafel and Goan curry stalls were excellent too. The CD stall didn't stock performers' CDs unless the performers had brought some along, which seemed odd and I'm sure meant fewer sales in some cases. Taking your own alcohol on site was forbidden, which was not a problem for most people as there was an excellent beer tent but I can no longer drink real ale as it has undesirable side-effects. Wine was ridiculously expensive at £5 for a small glass so I'm afraid we developed our smuggling skills. However, these were the only quibbles.

The weather was cool and breezy, but dry, apart from a five-minute shower on Sunday. And the music was superb. Vetiver were a new discovery (thanks for the tip-off, Mike); Jim Moray did a great set; I'd been wanting to see Ade Edmondson and the Bad Shepherds for ages, and they were very impressive; Nancy Kerr and James Fagan were delightful; the Demon Barber Roadshow offered astonishing dancing (morris duet, clog trio, and sword quintet) as well as highly competent musicianship; Cara Dillon was excellent; Heidi Talbot turned up as a guest with Drever, McCusker and Woomble, which was a lovely surprise, and they were wonderful. Jethro Tull headlined, Ian Anderson seems to have more energy than most people half his age, they played a storming set, I particularly enjoyed the Bach Bourree.

Walking off the festival site straight into Moseley High Street was a surreal experience, but there is a lot to be said for being ten minutes away from our friends' big warm house with its bathrooms and comfy beds and well-stocked kitchen and two sociable cats. They had three other friends staying, as well as my Paramour and I, and a couple of people lamented the lack of opportunity to stay up all night drinking and playing/listening to music, but I didn't miss that at all. I feel as if I've had a real holiday. If only I didn't have to try to get my brain into work gear, my life would be perfect!

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Environment Rant

I've been a Guardian reader for most of my life, but this week the paper has really annoyed me with its 10:10 campaign. They want everyone to cut their carbon emissions by 10% in the next year. So far, so worthy, I suppose. Then they suggest ways in which people might do this, and those are what have made me spit and snarl with rage.

Colours to mast: I think climate change is a serious problem and I've been working on ways to reduce my impact on the planet for years now. I'm no paragon of eco-virtue: I live in a big old house because I like it, and although my Paramour and I have taken measures to improve its eco-efficiency (insulation, new boiler, wood-burning stove etc) it will never be as efficient as a new house. I'm taking two short-haul flights this year, although I didn't fly in the 12 months before the first of those. We have two cars because, although we both work from home (eco-good), we both have to travel to meetings as our clients dictate and in our rural area public transport services are slooooow and intermittent. I use the shower most days, but I love long hot baths. I choose local/UK food where I can, but I'm not giving up chocolate. So I'm aware, and I work at it, but I'm not setting myself up as some kind of eco-queen.

However, I have serious problems with the Guardian's guidelines. For example, they suggest that you should buy a new fridge, at the highest eco-rating, if yours is more than 4 years old. I'm not scientiffical like some bloggers, but I would like to see the research behind this (if there is any) as I'm not convinced fridge disposal is all that eco-friendly. I know they don't have CFCs in any more, but what happens to them? If they get shipped to China, how many carbon emissions does that cause?

Then the Guardian suggests that you keep electronic devices (computers, mobile phones etc) for a year longer than you otherwise would, which seems to conflict with the previous suggestion. And the next one, which is to switch from a desktop computer to a laptop at home, and recycle the desktop. How can you keep your computer for a year longer than you otherwise would AND swap it for a laptop?

Grow all your own fruit and veg for July-September. And - get rid of your freezer. So in August, when the tomatoes and runner beans and plums are glutting like crazy and you can't give them away because everyone else's are too, you should just throw the surplus on the compost, and then buy freighted veg from October onwards? That's really good for the environment, is it?

I could go on, but I won't, because there's another thing. Even if I do take short-haul flights and long baths, my carbon footprint is very, very small compared to most people's. (Unlike my real footprint of which the less said the better.) Why is my carbon footprint so small? Because I have chosen not to have children.

I know this is an emotive subject. I am absolutely not trying to say people shouldn't have children, full stop. However, it makes me really cross that the Guardian can kick off this whole debate without even mentioning that having children is, in terms of environmental efficiency at least, a very bad idea. The population of the world has more than doubled in my lifetime - from under 3.3 billion in 1964, when I was born, to over 6.7 billion today. That is a fairly terrifying statistic, and has a great deal to do with why we're in this climactic mess.

My own decision not to have children was heavily influenced by learning about Malthus and population increase for A level geography. I remember thinking 'we really don't need any more people on this planet' (and that was in 1980, at just over 4.4 billion). I also remember thinking that if our population was in dangerous decline, I would have felt much more inclined to have children myself. This wasn't the only reason for my decision, but it was a sizeable contributory factor.

I've been pilloried and praised, over the years. Generally I get more praise than censure these days. Interestingly, in recent years, I've been thanked by several mums of teenagers for embodying the alternative to parenthood for their children - not because those parents definitely want their children not to reproduce, but because they want them to know they have a choice.

That seems to me to be the crux of the matter. It's not about saying to people 'don't have children' or 'you shouldn't have children.' It's about helping people understand that it's OK to choose not to have children; that in planetary terms it's actually helpful; that a childfree life can be a happy and fulfilling life. And that's really why I'm so irate with the Guardian, because they're ignoring the whole damn, please forgive the pun, issue.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Shrewsbury Folk Festival

Well, that was one seriously good weekend. It didn't rain much: some light drizzle for an hour or two on Sunday afternoon, and again on Monday. The gigs were terrific. There was so much to see that I missed some great acts (Belshazzar's Feast, The Chair, Faustus) but I caught so many good ones: Seth Lakeman, Megson, The Wilsons, Karine Polwart, Lau, The Darwin Project, Show Of Hands, The Spooky Men's Chorale, and my absolute favourite: Chris Wood, singer/songwriter extraordinaire. If you have time on your hands and reasonable quality speakers on your computer, go to his MySpace page and listen to One In A Million. The clue's in the name. (I love Come Down Jehovah, too. He described it as 'an atheist spiritual' and there aren't many of those around.)

The food was fantastic. Pie and mash and gravy, nachos and burritos, an on-site smokery, wraps of all descriptions (a veggie sausage wrap with lots of fried onions and ketchup nuked a nascent hangover yesterday morning), organic hot chocolate, crepes, full-on veggie fry-ups (and meat ones of course), plus lots of other options as well. There were also lots of good shopping opportunities. I kind of broke my vow of not buying any clothes this year, well, you see, the thing is, there was a lovely bloke called Terry Brown selling good quality hand-made shoes, and I've got difficult feet, and I used to get hand-made boots from a place in Leeds called Made To Last, but they've closed down, and I've been looking for some more (that I can afford) for ages, and they don't come around very often, and I got chatting to Terry and discovered that he's been making shoes since the 1970s, and loves it, and doesn't use the Internet, or take deposits, he just finds out your size and width and writes that down in a notebook with your name and address and phone number, then he sends you some shoes when he gets around to it, and then you send him some money when you get around to it, and this works for him. While we were chatting, a man came up and asked Terry if he'd been at some festival or other ten years ago, and Terry said yes he had, and the man said he'd bought a pair of shoes from him then and had been looking for him since because he'd worn the shoes virtually every day and they still hadn't worn out but could he please have another pair. Anyway, I don't really think I broke my vow, because Terry's boots aren't exactly clothes, more works of art.

The site is compact, flat and accessible (if you fancy doing a festival in this part of the world next year, Hilary, and could find accommodation nearby, I think you'd enjoy it enormously). Not everything was perfect: the wristbands were horrible, the portable toilets vile - although there were loads of plumbed-in ones which were fine - and the wine was ridiculously expensive at £3.50 for a 175 ml bottle. I know beer is the traditional drink at festivals, but although I love real ale it has disastrous effects on my digestive system which are horribly antisocial, particularly inside a zipped-up tent. Luckily I'd had the forethought to take along a few bottles of wine, which saved me a lot of money - but then I went to the CD tent, discovered they took credit cards and promptly wiped out those savings. Oh well!

My favourite sight of the weekend was a boy of about 10, zooming along on a unicycle while playing a guitar and grinning as if life was really delivering for him. I chatted with loads of people - it's a very friendly festival - and really didn't want to come home. I even managed to write 1000 words a day (well, if I'm strictly honest, I wrote 1500 words and edited another 1500 that I nicked from the previous version) and, see my word counter, have now completed 20% of my rewrite!