Thursday 29 April 2010

words and music

I was wondering today whether I am the only person whose mood can be totally transformed by either music or wonderful words. I know I am lucky in that a deep depression (to me) can be lifted by an unexpected piece of music or perfect phrase that can float into my mind and push the dark clouds away.
I have always wanted my life to have a sound track to it just like a film. Luckily where I live when I visit the city often there are buskers playing and they provide me with my own personal sound track.
 I watched a programme this morning based around what Soweto Strings do and their amazing work with some of the children. It took a heavy heart and lifted it to the top of the world where I was reminded what a difference music can make.
But I don't believe it is just music, it can be words, art, or dance to name just a few. They all have their moments when they can lift a person. Obviously with the focus of my PhD it is the thought of the power that words can have. The difference just a few well placed sentences can make to someone who is in need of reassurance, understanding or even just a bit of escapism is enough to make you want to sit in front of your computer screen and create some magic.
When I get to the office I will put a clip in of the music they play so beautifully. It is very frustrating that my computer at home won't let me do it.

Tuesday 27 April 2010

loneliness or solitude

Loneliness can be so destructive. It can happen at strange times, for example, you can be in a room full of people and have never felt so lonely or ever felt more loved . No one can know because it is all on the inside and doesn't come through the facade that we all put up. Writers are particularly good at that, partly I think because we have so many worlds going on in our heads that maybe we don't actually know who we are at any particular moment.
In the last eight months my world has been turned upside down by various events that mean I have been that person - relishing in the solitude or dying on the inside from loneliness. But throughout I have had my writing, a place to escape, a bubble to live in. I don't think I hurt anyone by doing that and possibly understand my writing more because of it. But it is not always tolerated. There are certain expectations and I don't seem capable of meeting them. I am me and not who people think I should be.
Throughout this time the other saving grace has been reading. A chance to escape into another world created by someone else who has lived every moment as they painstakingly wrote each word on the page. I have found answers in these pages and for me it further highlighted the importance of my PhD and the need to write about contentious subjects in young adult fiction so that like me teenagers can escape into worlds and look for answers.

Saturday 24 April 2010


I have just had the most wonderful day and the type of day I never thought I would be able to achieve. I have just written for ten solid hours on my novel. No interruptions, no clock watching, just writing. And it was absolute bliss. It was easy to become totally involved in the story and it could take me where ever it wanted to. I had the time to dedicate to it and to listen to what the story wanted to do.
I rewrote one chapter and wrote a totally new chapter. I am not saying that everything I wrote today is brilliant. I am sure I will need to edit, but it was that chance to just let the words flow out of the end of your fingers. It is a rare opportunity and one that needs to be savoured like a beautiful bottle of wine, full of flavour and life.
I also felt like a writer today. I wasn't trying to fit my writing in around a million other things. I could dedicate all my time to one activity. It has probably been one of the most satisfying days of my life. If someone had asked me what I did - today I would have answered - I am a writer!

Friday 23 April 2010

critical vs creative

As my PhD is a creative writing one I have the choice in any one day as to whether I am going to work on the creative piece or the critical. I love this as I love both aspects of writing. I like the doing and I like the analysing- the exploring of processes. Andrew Melrose calls it being creatively critical and critically creative.
Instead of focusing on one I tend to end up doing a bit of both. The one that I am finding the easiest at a particular moment is the one I will work on the most. I am so lucky to be able to do this and to have these sort of choices. The ultimate aim is supposed to be to be published but actually even if I never get published I will just keep writing. I can't not. The choice isn't there. Writing is my life.
This week I had the glorious experience of meeting other like minded people. Thanks to a very gracious ex husband I was able to go to the London Book Fair. Something I have never experienced before. There I met up with a fair few people that I knew from Facebook. That in itself was weird because you felt like you knew these people really well but had never actually met them. Some were published authors and some where aspiring like me but they were all the most delightful and inspirational people. They helped make my first trip out in this 'new' me life a wonderful experience. Another reason to feel very lucky. And a big thank you to the Guerrilla Authors (see Candy Gourlay's blog

Monday 19 April 2010

Batting ideas about

All that is needed to break down brick walls is a metaphorical game of tennis. A chance to bat ideas around with someone who is aware of the process and maybe even the proposed story.
It has to be someone who is not going to pat you on the head, saying sweetly, 'that's lovely.' They have to challenge you to justify your ideas, to offer alternatives, in other words forcing you to think your way through the brick wall. You come out the other not dusty and battered but invigorated and energised, again just like a really good game of tennis.
This post may give you a clue that I have had just such a game and now my brick wall has dissolved in front of me and I am writing again. The trouble is I knew the answer but just didn't believe myself. I could have saved a lot of time if I just had faith in myself. Maybe that comes with time and experience...or maybe not.
Am off to the London Book Fair tomorrow, just to explore and see what it is like. It is apparently very quiet due to the world being traumatised and shut down by volcanic ash. That might mean that all of these publishers have lots of time to talk to me and I can go back to University with gems of information that I can share with my students about the publishing industry. It is also research for the critical piece of my PhD so I can talk with confidence about the YAF market as it stands at the moment.
I am off to start writing now that my tennis match has resolved my blockage! Good thing I have a Director of Studies to play tennis with who tolerates my eccentricities.

Sunday 18 April 2010

One more brick in the wall

I have hit a brick wall with my writing. I am trying to decide where to introduce Saba, the Afghan girl. Do I introduce her fairly early on or let the others have a couple of adventures first before they find her. Maybe with just glimpses of her as a tantalising taster of things to come. The trouble is my brain is full of the dilemma and I can't think of anything else or move on in the book in the hope of letting the answer come to me whilst writing.
Oh the decisions a writer has to make. I can agonise for hours on a name. It can make all the difference to a character and if you pick the wrong one it can be a disaster. If anyone says to me writing is easy I think I may throttle them at the moment (yes I am sure that is an academic term). Barthes says 'the author is dead', I would like to tell him how wrong I think he is though they might wish they were when they are struggling as much as I am. The author is definitely alive and kicking and bringing their cultural moment to their writing ready to be interpreted by the reader and their own personal cultural moment.
Writing can be painful when it is not flowing. It fills every waking moment as you try and work your way through it. It becomes an obsession as you try out several versions in your head but nothing seems to work. But then suddenly (and hopefully) this amazing solution will come to you and you start thinking why didn't I think of that before. It is so simple.
Am not there yet with Saba but hopefully I will be soon. (If any of you have any bright ideas for speeding the process along, please let me know)

Friday 16 April 2010

My PhD

Michael Rosen in a post on my facebook page asked me to tell you about my PhD. Perfect, any excuse to go on....and on...and on....about my thesis. I love talking about it. And you can't not do what a former Children's Laureate says can you?! So Michael you may regret saying that but thank you for giving me the excuse ;-))

My PhD is a creative writing one. This means that I am writing a novel and supporting that with a critical piece that explores the processes. The title of my thesis is 'Problems of representation/representing sex, drugs and alcohol in British young adult fiction since 1996'. It is fun watching people's reactions when you say that, their ears always prick up when they hear the words 'sex and drugs'. what this thesis is not is a rant on how dreadful it is that sex and drugs and alcohol are portrayed in young adult fiction. I am a great believer that if it is dealt with well then it is a good place for teenagers to find out about it in a safe environment. As Melvin Burgess has previously stated 'children can deal with anything if it is in context'. Neither is it a sermon on how bad drugs etc are for you. It can't be I have users in my family which was the driving force behind the project.

The novel is a piece of YAF. It is the story of four disparate students on a school trip to the Normandy Beaches. Much to their disgust they are forced to share rooms and work together though this becomes the basis of an unlikely alliance. They all have separate issues and believe they are far more hard done by than any of the others. Ben is the main protagonist, he is disruptive and disagreeable, but with good reason. However, the history teacher, Mr Cooke, did not want him on this trip and makes it very obvious that he is looking for an excuse to send him back and prove that he was right.
It is Ben that first spots the panacea to all their ills - a 12 year old girl from Afghanistan who was escaping with her mother after her father is killed. When her mother dies on the journey leaving Saba on her own and at the mercy of the traffickers who force her into the sex trade. When Saba escapes it is Ben and his unusual companions that find her and keep her safe with the help of a Normandy veteran they meet called Finley McLinley.
The novel is the journey the group take where they learn through the past to live in the present and how to have the future they want.

On the research side my starting point is Melvin Burgess's Junk published to great acclaim in 1996. This was the first book to deal openly with drug taking. I have been looking to see if issues have become normalised. Things have changed in that cannabis has just become part of the plot as it is no longer used to illustrate drug use, cocaine is and sex has very definitely come out from under the covers. it is no longer implied instead it is often graphic - not always gratuitously either.Whilst alcohol is often portrayed as the solution to stress.... What I would like to suggest is that they are not normalised but have been narritivised where they are presented as if they are part of every day life for a young person and a term introduced to me by Prof Jen Webb.
I am also looking at the creative process and the importance of the 'other' hence my recent obsession with Baudrillard, Boudieu and Foucault. These are the areas I have been and will be concentrating on in my blog from now onwards. Consequently I will not go into great depth now.
I hope it all makes sense now and that you can see why I am so passionate about my PhD. And Michael, I hope you like the sound of it.

Thursday 15 April 2010


This blog was meant to be about my PhD but it seems to have been hijacked recently by life. Having said that it could be argued that my PhD is my life, my raison d'etre, so maybe I am not going that far off topic. As you will have seen from my previous post my Mummy lost her fight to live. And yes we were expected to call her Mummy as Mum was common, as was watching Magpie and having a Barbie doll. (do me a favour though, don't ask my daughter about Baby Born - she still hasn't forgiven me). This has left a huge hole in my life as for everyone except for me it isn't just the hole of a mother who has left. I have lost the person I cared for. Towards the end she even started calling me 'Mummy' which I found unbelievably difficult. I would cook for her - again the term cook is in the loosest sense of the term as she only like ready meals from Marks and Spencers or Waitrose but apparently when I eventually had to give in and have carers do her lunch for her as I was working she told me I was the only one who presented the food properly. Plus they didn't give her a glass of wine...

I would do all her shopping for her. Nothing would delight her more than me walking in with a cornucopia of bags for her to look through. We were pathetic and called it 'hopping', I have no idea how it started but it made her laugh. Even on the last morning when my sister and I walked into the ward with a bag of drinks for her, this very frail voice said, 'You've been hopping.' She then winked at me. She did a lot of winking at the end, it was her way of letting us know she heard and agreed with what we said when it was too much effort to talk.

I did all her washing, ironing and cleaning for her but never as well as she could which she wouldn't hesitate in telling me. She wasn't being nasty just being my mother. In the same way that when my sisters and brother would all come and stay with her to give me a break...but she would wait until I got there to ask for something. Her ability to be tactful definitely left in the last few months. She could have a vicious tongue on her which we have all felt at times. It would be like a verbal slapping.

I suppose what I am trying to say, and taking a long time to get to, is that my life for the past so many years has been spent clock watching and planning everything around her. As a great friend pointed out she was like my life partner. And suddenly I don't have to think about her. I have freedom. Those who are all very close to me are saying now is your time to live, which is true and wonderful. But what if I don't do it properly and I waste that time? Worst of all what if I let people down by not being what they think I should be. Bit of a confession here, in case you hadn't worked it out, I think I am a little scared.

The picture above is me in my Icarus moment as I fly free(though hopefully I won't fly too close to the sun) and in a way a thank you to two of the many friends who have been very kind and there for me but who will recognise the link immediately. They keep me close to the three intellectual reprobates in my life that keep me focused on my PhD - Messrs Baudriallrd, Bourdieu and Foucault. I love you all.

Monday 12 April 2010

Memories with music

This is the woman who gave me life and lost her own fight for life on Saturday 10th April.

I have added this again as I started it so long ago I couldn't get it to come up where I wanted it to.

She was a strong character with a sharp brain. When she was tiny she was given a live baby penguin for Christmas. She came from a family who built a lot of Croyden and had a mother who worked for the speaker of the House of Commons. She danced almost from the moment she walked. She was sent to school in Belgium to stop her wanting to be an actress...she never stopped wanting that.

During the war she was a naughty WRN, thrown over fences when she was back after curfew amongst other things. Handed out sweets and cigarettes to all the soldiers the night before the D Day landings. She saw things people shouldn't see. She refused to marry someone because he was too high class. But then married someone she loved dearly and her parents didn't approve of. She acted in a film with Laurence Olivier briefly. She and my father knew how to party with a variety of people some famous, some not so but all good friends to them. On her 60th birthday she and my father decided to go to Brighton Nudist beach, just because they could and because they had never done anything like that before. Good thing her birthday was in July. These are just a mere taster of the things my mother got up to.

She did her bit to populate the world as there are five of us, fifteen grandchildren, six great grand children and three step great grand children. She was a very special woman to us all and we will miss her but we do have to make sure our lives are as full as hers was.

Here are a selection of her favourite pieces of music. She loved singing.

Not just favourite songs but favourite films too

another two, one that was very much of her time and one that epitomises how she felt about music.

and one of her favourite hymns

Thursday 1 April 2010

Research and truths

I have been researching the back story of one of my characters today. She comes from Afghanistan. I have learnt a lot including watching a brilliant programme from BBC 3 which Alan Gibbons recommended entitled Women, Weddings, War and Me. Well worth watching as it makes you realise quite how lucky we are.
The most important thing about research is that it doesn't scream at you from the book but instead you know the narrative is informed by it. It can provide the depth and credibility that all good stories need. I love doing research but often find it takes me to places that I don't expect to go and opens my eyes to things I hadn't considered. Things that I take for granted. For example I was thinking about the noises of war and fear at which point an army Chinook helicopter flew low over the house making the whole place shake. This is not a strange occurrence and my children have grown up seeing numerous helicopters flying low over us and soldiers appearing in the road. It is just the way it has always been. But what if instead of being comforting as it is for us those are sights and sounds of fear. The low swooping vibrating thud of the helicopter as an intro to death and overwhelming panic. No giggling and waving at the soldiers. They may not be friends. They may not have time to ask what your name is or who you are. They are as afraid as you are. Run, run, run...not to catch the helicopter when it lands in the field close by, but run away from the one that lands in a cloud of dust. Hide, wait for silence. There are some children in this world for whom that is an everyday occurrence.
As a woman I have choices, I can be who I want to be, I can lecture, I can write and to a certain extent I can say what I want. I don't have to make sure men don't see me or that I don't look them in the eye. I am free and I naively believed that the majority of women were too. I was wrong. On a daily basis women are being beaten, forced into unwanted marriages, sold for the sex trade, treated as sub human beings. I thought we lived we an enlightened society in the 21st century following my research I am not so sure. I know I spoke about this in a previous blog so at the risk of repeating myself these are things which need to be spoken about so they can be stopped. Is this where stories can come in to play. I think so.
I will continue to research and find my truths for my story and if at the end of the day the novel touches one person's soul then I will be a very happy person.

Boxes full of moments

I have been thinking about boxes. Not boxes as in cardboard - though I have to confess despite having lived in this house for three years there are still a lot of things in boxes - but boxes as in moments in time, memories - both good and bad, feelings and desires that are pushed into metaphoric boxes, often sealed and then tucked neatly away in either your head or heart depending on the contents. Do writers have more boxes than others or are we just more willing to acknowledge them and even considering exploring them?

Boxes in the head tend to contain things that you don't want to remember. They sit in the corner collecting cobwebs of fear and paranoia as you do your best never to go near them. But sometimes a memory, a piece of music, a tone of voice even can cause them to explode open and their destructive contents flow out tainting everything they touch. You have to fight to get them back where they belong. It is like sitting on a bulging box trying to seal it up again before anything else escapes.

Whilst boxes in the heart tend to be cared for. They are polished with love and the knowledge no one will ever know what's in them. They are stacked neatly and protectively. Their contents are not nasty they are emotions and desires that can never be acknowledged openly. They are things that other people don't need to know often because it will cause someone else pain. Boxes in the heart don't like to hurt people.

I think boxes make writers and writers make boxes. Life would be very quiet without them as they are never silent, they do like you to know they are there. Waiting, biding their time, just in case they are allowed to fly free as a bird.

I like boxes. particularly the ones in the heart with their golden moments. But rest assured no one will every know what my boxes contain. Ssshh, they're a secret ;-)