I’m giving my age away, but that’s not something that bothers me much these days.  I was a teenager in the sixties. Living in Aberdeen, being well brought up, and attending the High School for Girls, I somehow missed out on hallucinogenic drugs and the wilder shores of the permissive age, but I did know the world was changing.  The safe, austere monochrome world of the fifties vanished with Mrs Dale’s Diary on the Home Service and liberty bodices to keep you warm, no central heating, and the leftover sense of having just come out of war.  When I was little I had looked at faded black and white photographs of my mother as a child, in her pinafore and black stockings, and referred to that time as ‘the olden days’, and I went on thinking the second world war an age away.

Now, from this distance, it seems it wasn’t so long in the past so no wonder my parents were taken aback by the psychedelic sixties, the huge social changes sweeping the world.  For us, it was a time of hope.  We believed the dark ages had gone, that life was – of course – going to get better for everyone.  We were moving into a fairer, more equitable and prosperous world.

For a while at least, it did seem like that.  The sun shone. We wore bell bottom jeans and everyone grew their hair long.

The year I graduated, we had the three day week and were plunged into darkness again.  Still, that was only a blip, we were going to keep going forward.

I managed to keep that belief alive even through the worst of the Thatcher years.  The world would re-balance itself, right would prevail.  Now, for the first time, as this punitive, regressive, wicked government grinds on, I no longer believe in the inevitability of progress.  Or only of a kind – the kind you can’t deny, the progress of science, though even that, when you look at what happens within huge pharmaceutical companies for example, seems tainted.

They have managed to make that wonderful optimistic word ‘reform’ seem bleak: welfare ‘reform’ now means punishment; penal reform now means less hope, fewer opportunities for prisoners themselves to reform; education reform means every school and its values, every detail of the curriculum is at the mercy of an illiberal and small-minded Gradgrind of an Education Secretary.  Thank God I live in Scotland, I used to think, when I worked in Education myself, thank goodness for the Curriculum for Excellence, though I knew fine many teachers grumbled about it, not liking too much change at the best of times.  Well, this is no longer the best of times.

Right, that’s enough misery!  What can we do about it?  Il faut cultivier son jardin, certainly, love one another, fine, but perhaps that’s not enough.  Vote or not vote?  Of course we must vote, you might not like any of the parties, but you can vote for the Greens, or the Save the Vole Party, you can at least strike a protest out there without choosing racism and zenophobia.

I don’t quite know what else, but I’m open to suggestions, legal preferably, non-violent certainly. It seems to me that for the first time since the sixties blossomed (and they weren’t perfect, I do know that) we have global social media, we can communicate, we can change the world.

Shelfie below, now that I’ve worked out how to insert photographs!

By the way, I’ve solved the crow problem.  Very expensive squirrel proof feeders are keeping the wee birds happy and the crows come now and again and peck away at what’s fallen on the grass below.  Success!

 

Image

 

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Inspired by the Matisse exhibition, I cut out a bird shape from a black plastic bin liner. This was not a work of art in progress, but a desperate attempt to deter the crows, arriving in gangs daily to eat all the seed and frighten away the little birds.  This pretend crow, flapping with unnerving realism among the branches, has not fooled the real crows one bit.  The thing that works (temporarily) is rushing outside and yelling ‘Go away!’  They do usually fly off when they see my shape in the kitchen window, so perhaps what I need is a Matisse cut-out of me, pasted onto the glass, a stratagem Sherlock Holmes used once to fool Moriarty.  Was Moriarty of the corvid species I wonder? He had the same ruthlessness and jaunty air.

Where have these crows come from? I’ve never been troubled by them before this Spring. They’re cunning as well as determined: they post a lookout in the top branches of the plane tree, a spy who watches me fill the feeders before signalling to his pals to join him as soon as I’ve gone indoors.  I can’t afford to go on like this – bird food is too expensive!  My sister advised me to ask The Internet for advice – so I typed ‘I want to frighten the crows away from bird feeders’ into Google and discovered I am not alone – pages of advice, none of which (apart from shooting them, which I’m not at all likely to do) seems to be any use.

In the future, no-one is going to ask their mother for advice about anything; they’ll just ask the Great God of the Ether, The Internet, type in their question, and benefit (or not) from screeds of other people’s experiences.  There is a spurious sense of connectedness, as if all these others are potential friends with whom  you might now converse on terms of great intimacy, without ever meeting them or indeed knowing what they look like or how they behave.

They’re like characters in novels, but less predictable.  We enter their lives briefly and they enter ours – or seem to.  Sometimes this is entirely positive. When I looked up a medical condition to find out more there was a long trail of comments and contributions from friendly, helpful young women, sharing their experiences without inhibition, generously reassuring others.  This was in stark contrast to the crow-scarers, some of whom, let’s face it, did not take the problem entirely seriously. (Crows are intelligent, and deserve to be fed! Put poison down!  Don’t feed any birds! Shoot them! I’ll come and shoot them, just provide the bullets and a beer for me afterwards….) The internet also has a strange compulsion to take you to Amazon. A search for any implement, tool, furniture, clothing etc. leads you straight back to Amazon, like Alice Through the Looking Glass, not realising the world has been completely reversed, her feet inevitably carrying her up the garden path and back into the house, instead of out to the beautiful garden.

Despite these caveats, I’m considering referring all my problems to the internet from now on.  At least there’s the reassurance someone else is suffering just as you are.  Years ago, at a very low ebb, I read a novel by Michael Collins called ‘Lost Souls’.  The main character was having an even worse time than I was, and this was a great comfort.  I like the seeming connectedness of the internet, since it gives that same reassurance – someone else out there has suffered this too.  We can have all the solitude we want, yet never be alone.

You’re never alone with a bird feeder, though.  Miss Popularity, that’s me, in the Crow world.

 

 

I did not mean this blog to be political, but even someone like me who has no history of direct action at all, has to speak up at some point.

This is that point.

New rules introduced by the justice secretary ban anyone sending in books to prisoners. From now on, any man, woman or child in prison will not be able to receive a book from outside. This is part of an increasingly irrational punishment regime orchestrated by Chris Grayling.

http://www.politics.co.uk/comment-analysis/2014/03/23/comment-why-has-grayling-banned-prisoners-being-sent-books

Many years ago I was an English teacher in a Young Offenders’ Institution, working three mornings a week while my son was at school and my daughter at play group.  It was a high security modern prison, filled with young men, aged between 17 and 21, who had committed serious crimes.

It wasn’t the hardest teaching I ever did. That was in a ropy school in Newcastle, with no discipline but harsh words, and no respect shown to the pupils by the staff, so accordingly, none shown to staff by pupils.  In HMYOI Castington, I taught small groups (up to 12) in a class with windows onto a corridor where a prison officer patrolled regularly.  I felt safe and I had students who were, most of them, keen to learn.  It wasn’t hard for them to see that education could be their way out of living as a criminal and that it could offer them a secure future.  Of course, our influence ended as soon as they went beyond the prison gates, either to move to an adult prison, or to be released.  I used to worry about how they would get on once they were back in their home communities.

It could be very demanding teaching: if there had been an incident on the wing during the night they came to the education block excited, voluble and unable to settle to work.  You just had to go with it, be patient, let them talk it out, then bring them gently but firmly back to the work you were there to ensure was carried out.

When I say I loved those lads – the armed robbers, rapists, manslaughterers and murderers –  it sounds soft, as if I condoned their crimes.  That’s not how it was.  There, more than in any school or college I taught in, I learned the immense value of education, and understood its transformative power. So I loved them, not what they had done, with the disinterested love which a good teacher has for her students.  There is nothing soft about wanting people to do well, giving them the means to learn and being delighted when they do.

When I say that one of the highlights of my time there was teaching Hamlet, that might be a surprise to Chris Grayling, the latest member of this snobbish, patronising and mean-spirited government to show his true nature.  His view of prison and prisoners ought not to unexpected I suppose, but oh dear, we are still utterly dismayed by this latest inanity.

Hamlet became a huge success with my class when I hit on the idea of holding a trial of Claudius, giving them all parts to play, and letting them get on with it.  They all knew about trials: they knew about evidence and arguing a case, and how defendants can sometimes go free when they’re guilty.  By this time they also knew the play inside out, and the trial which I thought might last half an hour or so, took up a whole morning and spilled over into the next session too.  It was not so easy with the so called ‘Basic Education’ class, where the students struggled with reading and had little stamina for learning.  All the more important to inspire them, provide them with good reading material, and help them acquire the confidence and sense of self-worth that comes with being fully literate.

Sandstone Press is proud to have begun as a publisher of adult literacy texts, the Vista series, short books for adults who find reading a challenge, and who need accessible, attractive texts to help them progress.

Books have always been integral and vital to my life. The idea that they should be rationed, withheld or seen as an unnecessary luxury, is abhorrent to all the writers and decent people protesting the absurd new rule.

You can do something too – sign the Change.org petition:

http://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/rt-hon-chris-grayling-mp-please-urgently-review-and-amend-your-new-rules-which-restrict-prisoners-access-to-books-and-family-items-in-particular-from-children-rules-which-are-inconsistently-applied-in-any-event

or tweet your shelfie and a supportive message to @MoJGovUK in support of books for prisoners.

I’ve also written directly to Chris Grayling.  Have I had a reply?  Not yet, but it’s hardly likely to reassure me if it does come.

All this week, I’ve been thinking again about the lads I taught so many years ago.  They needed books.

 

 

 

IMG_0063Do birds get insomnia?  They’re awake with the dawn and singing in the trees in my garden as if they’ve just risen from unbroken sleep.  I’ve been awake since three in the morning, and am feeling it badly as I crawl towards midday.  Sensing I was awake, the indoor cat responded in the distant kitchen by flinging herself at the door mewing piteously to be allowed to join me, convinced it must be breakfast time, so she missed out on sleep too. Somehow she has managed to catch up and shows no sign of stress.

Are human beings the only creatures to lie awake in the night?  I’m pretty sure we’re the only ones to lie awake worrying.  I’ve lately extended the scope of my worrying, moving rapidly from work stuff to my daughter’s impending wedding (how can I make sure everyone likes the arrangements and she has a happy day?); my son’s latest plane-leap, this time to Australia, as he searches for something he doesn’t know the name of yet; the house extension (what if it all goes wrong and I have dry rot or worse?); whether I did the right thing in deciding to change the car; and eventually, what has been niggling away all through this pointless fretting – the funny pins and needles stinging on the ball of my left foot.  Possibly it’s the first sign of a terminal disease.  As the night hours drag on, this seems increasingly likely.

This way madness lies.  Or at any rate snivelling self-pity.

Some years ago, through a very difficult time, I got used to being awake in the night.  If the clock said four or five o’clock, that was bearable, but if it said half past one or two, that was utter dismay.  Hours to get through. Still, I was on my own then, and able to put the lamp on and read, or listen to the World Service or – oh joy, when it began – BBC Radio Seven, now mysteriously renamed BBC Radio 4 Extra. I was wrecked during the day, but I felt wrecked then anyway, and there was an other-worldliness about the night hours which made them private and special and somehow liveable with.

When there’s someone else in the bed, you have to lie awake wondering if it’s worth getting up or if that will disturb him just as much as putting a light on to read.  Then you start drifting off anyway, nice and warm, till the next Worrying Thought presents itself and the whole cycle starts again.  It’s so boring.  I have a friend who whiled away Menopausal Sleeplessness by getting up and doing the ironing, but I have to say that would be the Very Last Resort.

Back to the Yoga DVD, that will sort it.  No, I can’t start on that now – much though there is to say about it.  Saved for the next blog post!

And yet, and yet, while I was still writing the new novel, the wakeful hours were full of my characters talking to each other, and I managed to work out several plot puzzles.  For writers, maybe no hour awake is wasted, after all.

IMG_0064Nothing makes sense for long.  It’s been a more than usually contradictory week.

I read with horror of the treatment being meted out to dolphins by Japanese fishermen – http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jan/21/japanese-fishermen-begin-annual-slaughter-of-hundreds-of-dolphins and the very next day, find out on Twitter that Bottlenose dolphins sleep with one side of their brain at a time so they can still swim to the surface to breathe.  http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/life/Common_Bottlenose_Dolphin   One half of the world is slaughtering the same creatures the other half is protecting, admiring and recognising as intelligent beings.

In the UK couples spend months if not years being approved to adopt one small child, while in Syria thousands of children are killed, injured, watch their parents die, or are herded into refugee camps, orphaned and starving.

There are too many examples of these irreconcilable contradictions. I don’t see how we can make them fit into a pattern or see them as part of a coherent world.  Maybe we have to accept that opposites co-exist and do what little we can to ameliorate the worst excesses of the terrible things that happen day after day.  Our own little lives seem trivial in the face of war and destitution, cruelty and torture.

We persist with them.  Il faut cultivier son jardin, as Voltaire suggests, though not literally right now, since everything out of doors is bleak and greyish brown.  Still, the other day, raking up twigs and other debris from a newly cleared space at the bottom of the garden, I found a brave snowdrop just showing white, and carefully removed dead leaves from around it, giving it breathing room, and an encouraging word.

I did mean my first blog in 2014 (and I do intend to write them a bit more regularly than once a year….) to be something cheerful, but I’ll post some photos soon, at least.  This kind of thing is on my mind particularly just now because my birthday is tomorrow, and there’s another year I’ve never been on a protest march, never signed up to anything much, protested in my head, been upset and disturbed, sent money sometimes, but not often enough, and been indignant only in the kitchen, reading the Guardian or listening to Radio 4 and shouting at the kettle my anger and disbelief.

I bet I’m not the only one, though that’s hardly an excuse.

One thing we can do is sign Change.org petitions. It’s not much but we should put our names to our beliefs at least.   I’ve never sent out anything like this before, but despite the birthday, it’s never too late to start.  https://www.change.org/petitions/taiji-whale-museum-release-the-baby-albino-dolphin-back-into-the-ocean?alert_id=smPqtHfTSK_vOJwckEfue&utm_campaign=46395&utm_medium=email&utm_source=action_alert

Why is it so hard to leave?

For years I’ve wanted to be able to work at home full time as a writer, editor and publisher.  It was increasingly hard to do that in the evenings and at weekends. What was lost was my own writing, confined to holidays and then cut short every time I went back to work.

I was making a decent salary and my day job was a good one: freedom to develop new projects; a team of talented and committed people to lead; supportive bosses; opportunities to work on key strategies; kudos at Scottish Government level when things went well; some travel and lots of useful contacts.

Leaving, I was overwhelmed by the kindness of colleagues who reflected back to me a person I didn’t altogether realise I was.  Sometimes we look stronger from the outside than we feel inside.  That proved true of my working life. Perhaps that was why it was so  hard to leave it all behind, and to come to terms being no longer involved with work I still cared about and had been instrumental in setting up.

Anyway, I did leave.  I’m on Week 1 of the new life. I make my own timetable. I walk Jenny the next door Labrador for an hour in the woods in the afternoon instead of a rushed round-the-block at seven o’clock when I’m shattered after a day’s work.  I wear my jeans all day changing only from wearinginthehouse jeans to goingoutinpublic jeans to muddyatthebottomdogwalking jeans.  I don’t put on tights and skirt and smart top and jacket stuff.  I don’t wind my watch because I don’t need to wear one.   I make good coffee at 11.00am; I have home-made soup and left over bits of Christmas cake for lunch.  I don’t have to queue in the bakery for indifferent soup or trudge past crossly searching out an alternative on non-veggie soup days.

These are trivial changes.  The momentous change is the quiet.  I hadn’t realised how noisy office life is, and how quiet life at home.  A tractor goes up the road, the postie chucks the letters onto the mat in the front porch and there are children’s voices at school going home time.  None of that interferes with concentration, and there is no-one now putting their head round the door to say ‘Have you got a minute?’ or ‘Can I just ask you…’  or heart-sinkingly,  ‘We’ve got a bit of a problem’.  When I’ve finished marvelling at this, I start to worry that I might get lonely.

Not so far.  But it is only Week 1.  I’m having my first lady-who-lunches outing today, which feels like a skive.  I might even wear a watch.

I’ve been tagged  by fellow writer Zoe Strachan. Zoe is a novelist, short story writer, librettist and playwright. Her most recent novel is the completely absorbing ‘Ever Fallen in Love’ http://ow.ly/gcYIa

I have been invited by Zoe to answer some questions about my current book, and then to tag five other authors about their Next Big Thing. This is about my most recent novel, as my Next Big Thing is at a very early stage indeed!

What is the title of your book?
Tell Me Where You Are http://ow.ly/gcZet

Where did the idea come from for the book?
It was Christmas morning and I had just fetched the turkey from the cold shed in the garden where it had been concealed from the cats all night.  Taking it out of the bag, I suddenly thought how terrible if it turned out not to be completely dead.  It was as if I’d had a dream about that – and maybe I had, but without remembering it.  I got my notepad out and wrote a paragraph which turned out to be the first paragraph of the novel.  In the New Year, I began to write…

What genre does your book fall under?
Literary Fiction.  It’s probably aimed at the middle ground of women’s fiction, but I’ve had appreciate male readers too.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
This is a very nice idea and it’s certainly a filmable book, but so unlikely to happen that I’ve no hesitation in suggesting Meryl Streep (with a credible Scots accent . . .) for Frances, the main character.  No idea yet about any of the other . . .

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
On Christmas Eve, Frances gets a call from Alec, the husband who left her for her sister thirteen years ago: Susan has disappeared, and as one trouble follows another, the family finds that the middle sister is as powerful and disruptive as ever, even when she’s absent.

Is your book self-published or represented by an agency?
Neither.  My first two novels were published by Hodder some years ago; this one is published by Sandstone Press.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
I can’t remember!  It usually takes about a year to complete the first draft of a novel, but it can be years in the thinking before I start writing.  The people are often around in my imagination before I have a story for them.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
I think I’m probably somewhere in the area where Carol Shields and Penelope Lively work – using family life as the context for tensions, secrets and troubles.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I can’t say I’ve ever been ‘inspired’ to write any novel, but reading good writers always sends me back to writing myself – or, given the way my life has been over the last seven or eight years – to wishing I could write again.  Never mind, 2013 is the year I go back to it!  I have a notebook with several short pieces which belong in something new, and I’ll be working again in January, the best month, I believe, to start a novel.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
What do you do when someone disappears and you find out that really, it’s best that she is absent? All she ever did was cause trouble and yet, her daughter, the niece taken away when she was tiny (and now an awkward teenager) cares very much about where her mother has gone.  You have to do something.

Thank you very much to Zoe Strachan for tagging me!

To learn more about Zoe’s writing, visit  www.zoestrachan.com