Monday, 11 April 2016

She Who Dares Writes: Waxing Lyrical with Ruby

She Who Dares Writes: Waxing Lyrical with Ruby: The Cambridge Literature Festival has blossomed and grown, there's now a supply of live music and champagne outside the union and the o...

Waxing Lyrical with Ruby

The Cambridge Literature Festival has blossomed and grown, there's now a supply of live music and champagne outside the union and the one in, one out author timetable reflects its popularity. It's given me the opportunity to see writers, thinkers and actors close at hand - Clive James, Ali Smith, Bill Nighy and now one of my favourite comedians and all round people - Ruby Wax.

Inside, the chamber is packed. We are pitched in rows as if for battle, our attention drawn by the entrance of a small woman who takes her seat on stage. When she speaks it's scatter-gun with purpose, like the voice of an MGM cartoon character with the wisdom of Aristotle. You can't help but listen. She's dynamic, effervescent, a pocket rocket, a firecracker exclamation of black hair and red lips. I could go on with a ready supply of attempts at fronted adverbial's, but it turns out Ruby is just like the rest of us - Frazzled. Hence the name of her new book born out of research into mindfulness and the achievement of a Masters in mindfulness based cognitive therapy at Oxford Univeristy (The Cambridge Dons in the audience wince). The study was born out of the desire to understand and control the depression that was hounding her with its black dog ways. The process seems to have been successful, her work on mental health awareness gained her an OBE a few years back.

Why Frazzled? 'It's in my veins, and they say, write about something you know.... so I thought, lets build a career on that.' There is a rush of laughter around the chamber, we know she's only half joking. She was drawn to mindfulness because of the science behind it's effects. 'There's a plague of slight hysteria everywhere. Not everyone, there are people who live out of this, somewhere in Oxfordshire, milking their chickens, but the rest of us battle with overload in our reactive culture. We have to accept that stress is not a badge of honour, it breaks down your immune defence, its a disease and its reaching epidemic proportions.'

I know Ruby Wax from her comedy persona, appearing in Girls On Top alongside Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, then there was the writing and her documentary work. She wanted to be noticed, she created this character, this loud, American stereotype; People started treating her like that,

'I was running on non-stop adrenaline, I'd be doing stand up for the milkman.' Ruby explains how we have yet to evolve beyond our stress response, 'You're always, 'on' we haven't evolved to have a handbrake for this stress, we don't have an off switch, now the fear is invisible' It's not a sabre tooth tiger lurking round the corner.

She ask us not to judge ourselves for the flow of negative thoughts, we haven't done anything wrong, 'Four out of our five thoughts are negative, we have to counterbalance that.' and then she gives the audience a few exercise to try, and we are quiet, reflective, listening to her instruction, focusing on the senses. I feel it would be good to try this with a fractious class and stressed staff in the school where I work.

It's not a cure all, it won't work for everybody, but 'Mindfulness is good practice, (it won't replace medication, if you're ill you need to take the medication, she says) thoughts can lose their solidity, minds can be scrambled, it's like watching a thunderstorm from under an umbrella. You have to get ready for when the shit hits the fan.

So armed, I buy a copy of her book and get her to sign it for my teenage daughter, but I'll read it first.

Monday, 15 February 2016

She Who Dares Writes: Nothing to Say

She Who Dares Writes: Nothing to Say: Far too much time has elapsed since I ventured into the blogosphere. Injury and illness led to extended housebound periods and a long lapse...

Nothing to Say

Far too much time has elapsed since I ventured into the blogosphere. Injury and illness led to extended housebound periods and a long lapse into reflection. I could read, and read I did, but to write evaded me. As the poet, Nan Shepherd, said:

'One reaches these dumb places in life. I suppose there's nothing for it but to go on living , Speech may come. Or it may not. And if it doesn't I suppose one just hasd to be content to be dumb. At least not shout for the mere sake of making a noise.'

Some new ventures were suspended as I gently found my way back into the world and other new ventures launched. I'm working and writing again, the fiction is on hold while I complete a project for the Story Terrace,

A biography for a client who is neither celebrity nor star, but an ordinary life with extraordinary moments. We all have a story to tell. I've been re-reading biographies, the excellent, verbose Clive James, Unreliable Memoirs, and the moving M Train by Patti Smith,
the latter being especially comforting over this period. I feel I've found a new friend. So I shall try to write the best story deserving of a man who has lived a life of 80 years and send my words into the world again.

Friday, 9 October 2015

haven't a leg to stand on

Everyone has something to say about our beloved NHS, now more than ever. My first job out of Uni was as a medical personnel Officer for our local health authority, I went out with a nurse, I lived in nurses homes, I worked for the NHS,it was management and admin heavy, a cacophony of activity, one hand never knowing what the other was doing. The means of communication is now better, but not much has changed, there's still a lot of people running round like headless chickens.

I love it though, all babies born on the NHS should be stamped with product of NHS on their bottom, like a quality kite mark, it's something we should really be proud of in Britain, something we should fight for.

At the tail end of September I had one of those days planned when you know you've taken on too much, but you do it anyway - a drive cross county to run through an assault course activity with She Who Dares, followed by a trip into London to meet a friend, cocktails at Callooh' Callahay and curry at Dishoon. I had a funny feeling when I woke up that perhaps it would all be too much, but I just went for it. I really should learn to listen to my instinct.
On the third activity at Nuclear Games assault course, I reached out to hang onto a monkey ring and swing across a scaffolding frame aver the forest floor, then the fates intervened. I fell. I fell not far, but badly, as I landed there was an almighty crack and I yelled, 'I've broken my leg'. The instructor yelled, 'She has as well', everybody yelled.

Splayed out on the forest floor in agony my mind started to compensate, the girls held me, held my legs, held my hand, wiped my brow, kept me going, what amazing creatures we are, what capacity for compassion and care, I wasn't being brave, I was reduced to the dependency level of an infant, and these were my mothers, I'd do anything they told me if it would take the pain away. Helpless, I was tended by paramedics, helped into an off road buggy for a slow ride under the tree canopy to the waiting ambulance. Thank god I was outside, and could look at the softly waving foliage and the blue sky as a sign of hope, I'd be OK, I'd be OK. For the next week I've never felt so Human, and the Killers 'are we human, or are we dancer, has been playing on a loop in my head. I've been over emotional, pathetic, brave, insane, drugged out, wasted, hysterical, run the gaumont through a soup of emotion. Through it all I've had fantastic care from the nurses and doctors in the NHS, inspirational advice, help and love from my friends and family. I'm lucky to have them, thank you. And at the back of my mind - the thought that - well - this could all be experience to feed your writing.

While slumped in a hospital bed for five nights with the leg elevated (dislocated and fractured ankle, broken tibia and fibia) a numb immobility descends that's more than physical. The body, in shock, shuts down the creative spark, I couldn't even read, I'd just stare, thought or predication was hard, staring was easy. I could stare and watch, stuck under powdered light, longing to see the outside world. Across the way I could hear Martha's* (name change) soft scouse mumbles, I act as her interpreter, the youngest of six, trained to be a nurse at Alder Hey. I believe her because she told me, but she couldn't remember where she was, she wanted to go home, didn't we all, and thought I was her niece. I was on Martha guard duty at night, understaffed, she was left to sleep, but she would swing her legs over the side of the bed and start to shuffle off with her broken shoulder, pressing my buzzer, shouting, 'Martha's on the move again.' she looked daggers at me, I'd betrayed her. I wonder how far she would have got without me. Nurse came and went, changed shifts, took obs, bloods, changed bed pans, brought food. I dreamed of being able to have a shower, of using a toilet. My neighbour longed for ice cream, the Lithuanian lady by the window, also with Alzheimers, sang folk songs and shouted at us when she was hungry, 'Yum, Yum!' most of the time.

An evening shift change (12 hours with half hour break, three days on the trot, few hours off before nights)and the nurse asks Martha,
'Have they been good to you today.'
Martha - 'I'm thinking about it.'

I've thought about it, they have, the NHS has been good to us, we ought to be good to it back.

Friday, 11 September 2015

Don't be Afraid to Be Afraid - Meg Rosoff

It's helpful to take inspiration from those involved in writing life, so I was delighted to attend the 2015 Phillipa Pearce lecture at Homerton College, Cambridge, especially as it was to be given by a "Young Adult" writer of verve and clarity - Meg Rosoff.

My 16 year old son and I waited outside, enjoying the surprising heat of early September sun, before entering the Mary Allen Building. It was much like a school hall, it smelled of school, Homerton is an education college. My son has been to author talks since he was knee high, David Almond, Eoin Colfer and met Frank Cottrell Boyce, always on the promise that it would be 'good for him', he wasn't convinced. By the end he was engaged, enlivened and actually enjoyed himself, he even asked a question.

Such is the charm of Meg that she can turn an audience who look unlikely to share her maverick sensibilities and possibly controversial views, a Cambridge audience, all white, all middle and older aged, but then who knows what anarchist sensibilities lurk beneath the swish of a calf length pleated skirt.
After all, it was Cambridge where I joined an audience sing along to a version of 'I am an anarchist' by the Sex Pistols, even if it was by The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.

Meg is a small, but powerful figure, commanding the lectern as if she were steering a ship a steady course. Her hair a shock of honey blonde, swinging earrings and ubiquitous writer garb of monochrome and scarf. I find those scarves useful for catching crumbs, and as age advances, for hiding neck wrinkles (I'm with Nora Ephron on that one, I hate my neck too). This is a woman who knows what she wants, I thought, and knows how to get it.

Alongside Meg Rosoff there was a screen with a black and white picture of Phillipa Pearce, her hand resting on a wooden door set in a wall, a door to a secret garden? Her most famous novel was about a garden - Tom's Midnight Garden. Meg talked about her connection to Phillipa, and the importance of children's literature. I wasn't going to argue with that, I took an MA in the subject, led by the inspirational Michael Rosen. As an audience we were immersed in children's literature (Even the event photographer was a children's writer, the lovely Jill Paton Walsh) it is our first books that shape our literary taste and memory. For Meg this was 'The Cat in The Hat' and she recognises she has become this character by telling children to do the 'wrong thing' in her own books, "I am The Cat in The Hat."

Meg writes for a young audience because maybe writers write about the place in their own personal history where they "get stuck" and for her that was adolescence, "When you write for children or young people, you give someone the ability to write their own story." She was 46 when she started writing for children, but I think she'd had writing sensibilities long before then, surely working in advertising is writing fiction? She hadn't read children's fiction herself for over 30 years when she wrote her first book. Who has? Perhaps we should, beyond reading to our offspring, it's good to revisit those books from our childhood, "Most people have a book somewhere in their past that unlocks a world for them." Her first book was a pony book and it was suggested she write for older children, she took the advice, desperate to get out of her advertising job. Her first published novel was How I Live Now - also a film with Saoirse Ronan - and my favourite Meg Rosoff so far, it cuts through literary waffle like a clear stream running on a hot day.


"Literature allows us to think unthinkable thoughts, to embrace lateral thinking." Meg questioned whether it is the responsibility of adults to stick to the facts and illustrated this with a dark, realist telling of Goldilocks and The Three Bears, with a finale where the bears disembowel Goldilocks. (I was reminded of Dahl and Angela Carter)
She endorsed the importance of fairy tales, important because they are fiction, if we don't tell them we succumb to the idea that children's imaginations are dangerous, an idea gaining credence in some education circles. Although children's books, by nature of who they are written for, are always under scrutiny, they always have been. It is our ability to create fiction, to tell stories, that makes us human, "Imagination makes you better at everything, with the possible exception of accountancy, where creativity may land you in Jail."


Meg admitted she seemed to be lacking the fear gene, she had been very lucky, as her first novel was such a succuess she was allowed more grace to do what she wanted, although lacking fear doesn't detract from the importance of embracing it, she admits that we need to treasure our faults, to dare to fail, to take risks and question the status quo, if the system remains the same we are trapped, without fear there is very little motivation for change,

"Think big thoughts, do not be afraid to be afraid."

Her lecture met with rapturous applause, inspiring the pleated skirts of Cambridge and promoting my now fearless son to ask a question. Thank you Meg, long may you write. Next year it's Alan Ahlberg, "bogla bol!"

Monday, 20 July 2015

She Who Dares Writes: YA Short Story set in South Africa

She Who Dares Writes: YA Short Story set in South Africa: I was going to blog about how hard holidays are, having spent a week in lovely Cornwall, where I admired, but was uninspired, by the scenery...