Archives for the month of: July, 2014

 When you were a child, over tired and overwrought by the end of the day, your mother probably said, Bed’s the Best Place for You. I’ve come to realise how right my mother was in this as in so much else.  Bed is wonderful when you’re weary, a place to lean back, open your book and try to stay awake for five or six pages at least.  It’s not just the quiet and the reading, it’s the way you feel so welcome.  When did your bed last say ‘Don’t come in here!’?  Only, in my case, when I’ve stripped it in the morning and then completely forgotten to put any clean linen on.  Even with the battle of the duvet cover, I can soon put that right.

Bed is the safe place, the private place we can be alone and ourselves.  Even those of us who share our beds most or all of the time, have spells of being there on our own, to spread out and wriggle toes in the wide space at the bottom, seeking out the hot water bottle or in summer a cool patch.  Here on the bedside cabinet a lamp, a glass of water, spectacles, paper hankies and clock, and on the floor a pile of books: read, unread, probably never going to be read, or left there since Christmas.

Perfect: cat on the rug at the bottom, or banished to the kitchen, depending how how strict you are these days, the curtains drawn, the lamp on, radio there in case of insomnia, warm as toast, or with one burning patch where the hot water bottle has migrated, but at any rate, done for the day.  Peace.

There’s nowhere else such a fine and private place – except as Marvell pointed out, the grave, but we’re not quite ready for that, and not only because none do there embrace.  Now, when we send an email, spell out a text, tweet our thirty two followers or update our status on Facebook, and especially when we pick up the phone, we’re no longer alone.  It’s not private.  Nothing is.  Some of this is entirely our own fault.  We want 1.5m followers, three thousand FB friends, someone to email us back, a full inbox to prove how busy we are, how much we’re needed.

Some of it, though, is the fault of the government, and those who work for it, or who have so much influence they get their own way.  Perhaps soon we’ll have to hide round corners like Winston Smith and find the one tiny place where there’s no possible interference with the signal that takes my voice to yours, my message read only by the person intended to receive it. Simon Jenkins in his Comment piece for the Guardian yesterday wrote a satirical piece in Swiftian vein about the next steps the spymasters will take to see everything we do, as well as read and hear everything we tell.

There’s an opportunity here for code makers.  We need Enigma in reverse, GCHQ for the general public, so that we can keep our secrets.  Most of them, frankly, are hardly worth the government bothering with.  Whichever unfortunate is spying on me (as no doubt they are after my recent tweeting-out of links quite blatantly from the afore-mentioned Guardian and in no friendly spirit towards HMG) will have gleaned the following: the dress I ordered has arrived; my daughter is pleased about that; R was reminded to buy the fish, and if the spies are comprehensive enough they’ll have discovered from a later phone call that Munro’s had sold out of herring by three o’clock and we might have kedgeree instead.

Ok, right, I know they’re not really bothered with all that and will discard the hours and hours of trivia our lives are made up of, but don’t tell me they won’t get distracted.  Hang on, one spy will say (Oh, are they not actually spies?  What then?) ‘I need to find out if she sent him to Tesco instead.  There’s a dangerous tendency in the Highlands to buy from smaller shops instead of the Government-approved ones.’  They’ll be haring down many dead ends as far as the planning and plotting of terrorism is concerned, thus missing what’s really going on.  Just as, demented by the hundred and sixty emails that have appeared since we went away for the weekend in a rash burst of pleasure-seeking, we miss the important ones and spend ages looking at cartoons of cute cats and trawling through Amazon best sellers.

Hey, nothing wrong with Amazon, anyway, I have now decided since they put my fist two novels in their summer sale.  I’ve moved up from one millionth place to something like fifty two thousandth….. I’m almost a best seller!

I’ve got side-tracked here.  Which is just my point.  If we try to respond to everything, we’ll never concentrate on what’s important.



Christine de Luca, new Edinburgh Makar, and me - in a very special wee bookshop.

Christine de Luca, new Edinburgh Makar, and me – in a very special wee bookshop.





For years I set the alarm for 6.20am, giving me ten minutes to wrestle myself from sleep before I had to rise at half past.  I heard the thump of the boiler coming on in the kitchen, tried to catch the atmosphere of the fading dream, always more vivid in the morning, then pushed the covers off and got up.  Now I was into the day, and had to think about work.

I don’t have to set the alarm now and the work is very different.  Yet when I’m not working I feel guilty, and when I am working, I don’t think I’m doing enough.  That’s the trouble with growing up in the north-east of Scotland, you’re stuck with the work ethic, handed down (in my case) through generations of farmers, blacksmiths, innkeepers and other rural folk who had no time to sit about during the day and would have thought you a lazy so-and-so if you did. Hard work never killed anybody, my mother told me, and though of course she was wrong – it often has – I didn’t dare to say so.  That was ‘answering back’, a mere shade away from disrespect.  Life was meant to be useful, and what is more useful than work?

I love work.  A day spent busy and active, a day where you can look back and say ‘I did that, and that and that… ‘ is a good day.

The trouble is, we’re losing the distinction between a good day well spent, and keeping going all the time, blurring the lines between home and work, family and work, leisure and work.  I don’t mind the blurring, I want an integrated life that isn’t parcelled up into separate boxes.  As for the idea of work-life balance – work is life, and if it’s not, what on earth is it? Not an out of body experience, that’s for sure.

What we’ve lost is the dreaming space.

We work, we have holidays, we take care of our houses and gardens and the necessary stuff about paying bills and remembering people’s birthdays.  If we don’t spend our weekends dog walking, climbing hills, going to the gym, dance classes, football matches, etc. etc. it means we’re spending them getting in and out of our cars ferrying children to dance classes, tennis, swimming…. etc. etc.

Now that we have our wee devices, the blank spaces where we wait for the dentist, the doctor, the train, the plane, are all filled up too.  Everywhere people are poking at their phones, frowning at messages, or holding them close, talking, talking, keeping themselves from being alone.  If it’s not texting or email it’s Facebook or Twitter.  It’s as if we’re not real unless we’ve told someone else where we are and what we’re doing, as if we can’t exist in an empty space, in silence.

I’m a big fan of silence, which makes me quite an annoying person to be with if you want to listen to music or watch the TV ads with the sound turned up.  (Why would you?)

Last weekend, on a short weekend break with family, blissfully well looked after in a very good hotel, we parted at 5 and agreed to meet for drinks again at 6.30.  I lay on my bed in the pretty bedroom, put a cushion under my knees to rest my book on, and piled the pillows up behind me.  Suddenly it struck me that there was absolutely nothing I had to do.  No emails to answer, no editing, no discussion needed, no dinner to make or garden to weed.  I didn’t even have to read the book.

What I felt was a relief so dizzyingly unfamiliar it was like the first fizz of alcohol on an empty stomach, rare enough (on both counts!) to be strange and yet exhilarating.

I lay back and closed my eyes.  Nothing.

Slowly into the blank space came wandering the characters I’m just beginning to write about and who might be in a new novel one day.  All I have are fragments, sketchy beginnings of chapters that don’t yet fit together.  And I remembered all over again that if we don’t allow ourselves dreaming space, empty time, nothing original will be created.

Put the smartphone down, turn off the radio, sit quite still, sit in silence.

No, wait.  It won’t be nothing for long.Mr Sparks knows how to do it