Musical statues

Statue of a child, peeling paint

Image : Pixabay

 

The volume on the radio grows the moment Mum and Dad close the kitchen door. A big band sound, the swing of brass so loud the loose pane of glass in the window rattles. Another day Dad would grab Mum’s hand, pull her close as she laughed, pretended to fight him off, as her head tipped back and the rhythm reached her feet.

But not on Friday.

Friday is pay day. Friday is Dad going to the The Punch and Judy with a full wage packet and leaving with it slim and crumpled. Friday’s the radio getting louder and louder as Mum washes up, dishes slamming, as it grows dark outside and Jack swings on the front gate, waiting, watching for Dad, his easy stride, the plod of dusty boots. Now Dad’s home and he’s using the dresser to help him stand.

Jack tries to think of it like a game, like musical statues in reverse. He stays still as long as the radio plays, heart pumping, pulse loud in his ears. Listening. The moment the radio clicks off and the kitchen door creaks open, he reaches for a toy car, makes fat burbling engine noises, smiles up at his Dad – a wide smile that feels like it stretches to his ears. The smile has to be big enough to reach from his face to Dad’s, from Dad’s to Mum’s.

And sometimes it is.

 

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More things I’ve overheard on the bus

Eiffel Tower and carousel

Image: Pixabay

 

If everyone could fly, no one would be afraid of heights.

(Young boy to his dad. Overheard on the number 90 bus one early Bristol morning.)

***********

Think about this one. I can’t make my mind up whether this is sweetly naive or the deepest, most insightful comment I’ve ever overheard. What do you think?

 

Overcoming your writing fears: How you can learn from an eleven year old

Image: Pixabay

Image: Pixabay

My son started ‘Big School’ a few weeks ago.

For those of you unacquainted with the education system in the UK, what we do to our youngest members of society is this.

The wee ones start at primary school at about three or four years old, where they find softly spoken teachers, brightly coloured crayons and sandpits. They spend a few years making handprint paintings  and musical instruments out of yoghurt pots and dried peas – and probably glitter. There’s a lot of glitter at primary school.

They gradually work their way up the school, learning a bit more, keeping just one teacher a year who takes them for all subjects, staying in the same classroom, so everything is warm and safe and familiar. My son’s old school (along with many primary schools here) was an old Victorian building with Gothic overtones (it had a turret and crenellations, for goodness sake!). Cosy.

Physical education seems to involve country dancing and balancing bean bags on your head and sport’s day wasn’t particularly competitive, but about ‘sharing’ and ‘supporting’ each other to do well.

They had Nativity plays – tinsel haloes, kids stuck all over with Pritt stick and cotton wool pretending to be sheep, silver paper stars, the lot.

Most rooms had a quiet corner with cushions and a comfy seat where kids could read or just think. Idyllic.

Now he’s at secondary school.

He’s gone from being one of the oldest in a population of around 400 to the youngest in a population of over 1,200. The school resembles the flagship office for a multinational financier – all strip lighting and floor to ceiling windows. Pupils have to move to a new class and new teacher with each lesson (carrying their own body weight in books, pens, calculators each time) in a baffling maze of stairs and corridors that a well-trained Griever* would find confusing.

My son has already experienced some low level bullying and had something stolen from him.

BUT …

Tough though it is and though he’s had a few rocky moments, he says he loves the place. He loves his teachers, he loves most of his subjects (except drama – he doesn’t like pretending to be a tree, apparently) and he loves being more independent.

What the chuff has this got to do with writing, I hear you cry? Well, I’ll tell you.

You may be reading this as a new writer, all dewy fresh behind the ears with that just-out-of-the-packet smell. You might have spent years dreaming of writing, but were just too busy with work and family and macramé and the private lives of the Kardashians to attempt it. But now you’re ready. You’re dipping your raw, pink toe into the sea of scribbling and wondering how cold the water is.

On the other hand, you may be a more experienced writer.

You may have been blogging for years, reaching out across the ephemeral fingers of the virtual world to build a fan base and meet your people. You’ve made a comfortable niche for yourself. You may have written a tranche of short stories and you may have had some success too, had some published, maybe won a comp or several. But there’s something niggling at you – a bigger dream you’re yearning for, a longer form of self-expression. But you’re nervous. How will you transfer your short story skills to a novel – how do you plot, create believable, rounded characters. How do you write so many damn words?

Fear not, dear souls. If the anxiety inside you is building as you contemplate your new writing goal, if your fear of failure and rejection is holding you back –

think of my son and step bravely forward.

Like him, you’ll find the going a challenge – don’t fool yourself it’ll all be easy, because it won’t. You’ll have some stresses, some worries, some moments where you don’t think you’ll make it. And you may even get something nicked along the way.

But arm yourself well. Read advice, read books – lots. Watch TV and films (within reason – a twenty four hour marathon of Storage Hunters does not count as research for anything). Go places, meet people.

Then sit your bum on a chair and write and keep writing. Don’t let doubt or fear of the unknown stop you from doing something you really want to do and if that’s writing a blog post, a short story or novel, just throw yourself in and do it. And do some more and some more.

And eventually, you won’t be the newest kid on the block, you’ll be an old hand and you’ll have created something amazing that’s yours.

And you’ll love it.


*A animal / machine hybrid killer from the The Maze Runner. Very good at negotiating mazes!

Books in the Blood # 10: The Diary of Anne Frank

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I remember being a very self-righteous teenager. I believed that on many subjects, and despite their obvious advantage of years and experience, my parents had no idea what they were talking about – ever.

They didn’t understand how I felt about school. They didn’t get my lack of motivation, or why I became disruptive, abusive to teachers and somnolent in class after being such a hard worker until the start of my O Levels. (For those of you too young to know, that’s what GCSEs were called before they passed through the fiery furnace of Educational Restructuring and were reincarnated into their present, much-maligned form.)

To be fair, I don’t think I really understood why I became such a revolting specimen of smoking, drinking, lazy insolence either. I’d like to say I’d entered the chrysalis of my teen years and would emerge transformed into a colourful adult butterfly. But I’ve never felt like a beautiful butterfly, so that’s codswallop. I’ve occasionally felt like a caterpillar, and on really bad days a slug – but never a butterfly. Oh, and I was once convinced I was made of glass  – but that’s a story for another day.

My parents didn’t understand my relationships either. I had a best friend – a local beauty queen no less – who was the epitome of self-confidence, tall with a waist small enough to meet your fingers around, while I was shorter and wider and preferred to grovel in her shadow whilst simultaneously harbouring a slight resentment for all the attention she absorbed. She was smiley and ballsy and she used her assets to full advantage and my mum didn’t understand why I was happier to grow – mushroom-like – in her peaty shade.

But on a certain level, my friend ‘got me’ – she understood my moods and my sense of humour and my loves and loathings and being understood when you feel like an alien changeling in vaguely human form is not to be underestimated.

When my parents gave me advice, I’d shrug it off and make my own mistakes anyway. Maybe with hindsight they were right, but hindsight has been a long time coming – thirty years or so – so a little too late to be of any practical use.

My stepmother once told me

‘Youth is wasted on the young.’

She may have been right, but

‘glib clichés are also wasted on the young’,

so my only response was over-dramatic eye rolling. Although, inadvertently she taught me one thing – never tell a young person how lucky they are to be their age, how they should make the most of it and enjoy their youth. Maybe they should, but telling them won’t make them climb Kilimanjaro or go and build schools in war-torn areas of the world if they’d rather be playing Halo.

I was self-obsessed as a teen, filtering the world through my own experience. The only way to judge phenomena was on how it impacted on me. ‘Why is she such a bitch when I’ve been such a good friend to her?’ ‘How could he talk to me like that? What have I done?’

I was too egotistical to realise that the world spun on its own axis, not mine.

I was lucky. I had people who loved me and I didn’t get into the kind of trouble that killed or maimed me or changed the course of my life towards some scary, dark alleyway filled with dead cats and bin bags filled with bio waste. I may not be a high flyer, but I survived.

And there was a book that punctured my self-obsession just a little.

Today’s Book in the Blood is:

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank.

I’m sure many of you have read this, probably when you were a similar age to Anne. It’s the diary of a Jewish girl, kept whilst she, her family and four others were in hiding in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam during World War II.

The main thing I remember about the book is that in many ways, its preoccupations weren’t with the war, or even being discovered. Anne’s main concerns were her relationships with her parents and her sister Margot, the practicalities and irritations of living with other people. She talked of movie stars and her own developing sexuality, of falling in love – with Peter, the son of the other family in the house – and becoming a writer.

I guess I identified with her on some level.

You know from the first page there is no happy ending, that the families will not be saved, that of the eight people in hiding in that space behind the bookcase, only one – Anne’s father Otto – will survive the concentration camps.

Anne was  a normal girl caught up and eventually destroyed by global events and because of that, this book should never be allowed to go out of print.

When we watch the news and the real life horrors unfolding across the globe, we should remember that each of those victims is an Anne, a Margot or a Peter and each had plans for the future which were denied them through other peoples’ actions.

Books in the Blood #7: Misty Comic

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Can you trace your adult obsessions back to the quirks of your childhood?

Did your love of Space Invaders and Pacman translate into a forty-hour-week asking customers ‘have you tried turning it off and on again’?

Did a toddler fixation with your Granny’s dentures – the pop and thud as she opens and closes her mouth, the fact they looked like they were stolen from someone with a MUCH bigger face ‒ lead you to six years at dentistry college and a lifetime of looking down in the mouth? (Credit to my eleven-year-old for that solid-gold gag).

Although the confident, graceful, well-adjusted adult I am now is unrecognisable from the cripplingly self-conscious, moon-faced kid I was – well, in a good light ‒ I can see the silver thread of interests that link myself and that snot-nosed little dweeb.

Okay, so I don’t eat soil anymore. Or coins. Or dog biscuits. But then, I don’t have pets, so going to the shop with the sole purpose of buying them for myself would perhaps warrant an episode of Freaky Eaters or some kind of therapy. Though I did have a VERY glossy coat and a nice wet nose throughout my childhood, so there’s something to be said for my pre-teen consumption of marrowbone jelly.

I also no longer chew on spent fag butts, or wee in the corner of my bedroom at night rather than visit the loo for fear the Toilet Monster will eat me if I do.

Yeah, probably habits best left behind.

But I do recognise the love of all things historical which was there from primary school – I remember a particularly stunning project I did about Queen Victoria with my best mate Sandesh. There was a lovely, wonky drawing of the monarch with a tinfoil crown, as I recall. Queen Piglet features looked like she’d had a stroke, but apart from that … 

Of course, there’s my love of books and reading. And also present were the subjects I read.

I’ve pointed out before that I love the ghostly, the other worldly, something with a kink in its fender (I don’t know if that’s an expression, but it is now!) and I’ve been trying to work out when this interest began.

Whilst diving and delving through the deep, dank potholes of my memory for this very thread, whilst compiling a patchy and in no way complete list of my childhood reading landmarks, I realised I’d made a glaring and terrible omission. An omission that puts my interest in the OTHER back at least two years earlier than I had thought.

You can imagine my amazement. This realisation was akin to finding the Queens of the Stone Age  album Songs for the Deaf buried alongside a flint hand axe, an antler plough and a pair of granite leggings. In other words … in the Stone Age.

This rare, sparkling jewel of excavated reading matter memory was Misty Comic.

Now, for those of you who were not adolescent British females during the late 1970s, Misty was a comic aimed specifically at girls and if similarly named comics of the time ‒ Jinty, Tammy, Bunty for example ‒ featured plucky schoolgirls triumphing in testing situations, it was only Misty who would run stories on telekinetic children, tower blocks that could transport you back to the Second World War, Arabian Djinns disguised as ordinary teenagers and toy lions that could kill.

Misty was first published in January 1978 when I was eight and a half years old. I know I bought the first issue, because I remember the bracelet with the blue plastic fish charm that came as a free gift. I was convinced it was mystical, beautiful and would almost certainly activate what I assumed were my as yet dormant magic powers, therefore allowing me Total Power over Space and Time … Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! 

Unfortunately, the only magic powers I had as a child was the ability to do poor Frank Spencer impressions and eat way more Mr Kipling’s French Fancies than was necessary or healthy.

I collected every issue of Misty, every week, for around six months (a lifetime in kid years) until the family moved across the country. I know I packed my collection carefully, but mysteriously, that box ‘vanished’ during the move and my collection along with it.

Were the forces of evil trying to stop me from discovering their wicked ways, disabling my ability to fight the Devil in all his forms? Or could my parents just not be arsed to move that heavy box the few hundred miles from Greater London to Derbyshire? Perhaps we’ll never know.

Unfortunately, Misty herself suffered a similarly terrifying fate – after two years she was cannibalised by the much less interesting Tammy. I had by then moved on to consuming my mysteries in longer form chunks, but I give my thanks to Misty, for filling the smallest of niches and being in the right time and place for me.

Reading was never more magical.


P.S. The comic was personified by Misty, the witch who often appeared from … the mists, to grace the front cover. I think she had a passing resemblance to Lucy Lawless in her Xena days – any thoughts?


Did you have a favourite comic? Did your Mum sell your mint-condition collection, only for you to discover years later that each copy is now worth the price of a flat screen TV?

Wednesday Word Tangle

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When I was growing up there was little exotic about my life.

We didn’t go on foreign holidays and neither did my school friends. I remember we did stay in a caravan for a week once – I think it was in Wales. I slept on the floor with three other children I didn’t know very well and the strongest memory I have of the trip is losing a tooth whilst eating a bowl of cornflakes.

Anyway, my family ate English food – fish and chips on a Friday, roast dinner on Sunday. We were meat-and-two-veg kind of people.

This was in the days before the UK embraced the cuisines of other nations. There were Indian restaurants and Chinese takeaways in cities like London and Birmingham, but I don’t remember seeing any in our little town, let alone eating their food. These days you’d be hard-pressed to find a four-year-old who won’t refuse to eat pasta unless its tossed in pesto and pine nuts or who prefers daal with their chips instead of ketchup. A gross exaggeration on my part, but you know what I mean.

When we moved to Buxton in the late seventies, it was a small town, with a largely white population, many of whose families had lived in Derbyshire for generations. The place is very different now, of course, but at my Catholic senior school there were a fair number of Irish and Italian kids, but only one Asian and one mixed race lad (his dad was Jamaican, his mum half Italian, half German). Our melting pot was pretty low on variety.

It was my dad who brought snippets of the exotic into my life.

Born in Middlesex to Irish Catholics, he wasn’t an obvious channel for the unusual. He’d been an altar boy, learned to box, his dad was a postman, his mum had been a chambermaid and then worked in a brewery – you couldn’t get more white working-class.

But dad had also worked in places like Southall, a part of London with a large South Asian population. He had a sweet tooth and brought back Indian confectionary like barfi, halwa and ladoos, filled with cardamom, rosewater and pistachio nuts. All this in the days when my mum had nothing but a jar of greying mixed herbs in her kitchen cupboard in case she wanted to ‘spice things up a bit.’

As you can imagine tasting these treats blew the metaphorical socks off my taste buds.

Then there was language, though it wasn’t Hindi or Gujarati he brought home with him. As a young man, he’d also worked in the East End of London where he met more immigrants, this time Jewish ones.

I remember him peppering his speech not only with Cockney rhyming slang (‘apples and pears’, ‘plates of meat’), but also with oddments of Yiddish.

‘Oy vey’*, ‘schmutter,’** ‘schnozzle,’*** were colourful, but not without embarrassment for me, as dad would do a stereotypical Jewish accent as he said them – imagine a mix of the Alec Guinness and Ron Moody versions of Fagin and you’d be pretty close.

My favourite and therefore today’s word was

TUCHUS****.

‘Move your tuchus/ your lazy tuchus/ if you don’t move that tuchus of yours…’

You get the picture.

So, from Irish Catholicism, to the traditions of European Judaism, via the foothills of South Asia, I guess you could say my dad dropped little snatches of the wider world into my brain.


And in case you didn’t know –

* Oy vey- an exclamation.

** Schmutter – clothing or fabric. ‘He wore a nice bit of schmutter.’

*** Schnozzle or schnozz – nose.

**** Tuchus – backside, bum, bottom, butt. Always a fun word when you’re only nine of ten years old.

Stop by Kittykat-bits and bobs to find the inspiration for the Wednesday Words Tangle

Books in the Blood #2

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It’s said all of the cells in our bodies are replaced every seven years, though, if this is the case I don’t see why Mother Nature has to be a cow and replace them with similarly aged cells when she could take the opportunity to give us all a face lift.

Maybe this is why I don’t recognise the younger me as ME. I am literally a different person now.

For instance, despite being plump, awkward and self-conscious, I was also something of a performer, or as I’m sure my parents would have described me – a show off. I loved to make people laugh, loved to flounce around the living room putting on voices, doing impressions. Frank Spencer was a popular one – ‘Ooh, Betty,’ and ‘the cat has done a whoopsy in the carpet’. Tragic. And I leapt at any opportunity to make an idiot of myself on stage.

I was a Wise Man in the school Nativity Play at the age of eight or nine. To have a female Wise Man (or Wise Woman) seems a surprisingly liberal and forward-thinking move on the part of my teachers, as we’re talking the mid-seventies and despite the women’s movement, an age of virulent sexism.

In Secondary School I was the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella* (where I had to ad-lib as my wand broke in mid-spell – ever the trouper), performing poetry and sections of Hobson’s Choice for the Summer Show.

I loved Shakespeare, purchased a second-hand copy of the complete works and read it at home, which as anyone who’s done it knows it NOT the way to foster a love of Shakespeare in a teenage mind. Better off watching a performance –  blokes swordfighting in codpieces may be distracting but can convey the meaning of the words better than staring at the page.

I joined the local youth theatre, though partly because my best friend wanted to join and partly because there was a really fit boy who was already a member. I was only there for one production before I left, having made an utter fool of myself over same heart-throb.

Maybe the humiliation of that experience beat the love of limelights and grease paint out of me, though I’d argue writing is how I now channel my inner actor.

Anyway, before I fell out of love with performing in person and did it safely from behind the barricades of my laptop, I read

The Swish of the Curtain by Pamela Brown.

It’s about a group of terribly nice children, keen as mustard on acting, who have the opportunity to use an empty chapel to set up The Blue Door Theatre Company. All the children are plucky, heroic, middle-class, fighting against the narrowmindedness of adults to win through and fulfill their dreams.

I stayed up all night to finish this book, reading by the light of the street lamp outside so my parents didn’t catch me. To me it was aspirational, inspirational and awfully good fun. Probably a bit dated now, but which ten-year-old, straining at the restrictions of parents and school and their own lack of power, wouldn’t want to read this and imagine themselves part of the company?


Any childhood books you found utterly inspiring? Any make you want to run away from home and set up your own theatre company/ vet practice/ riding stables/ circus?

*You notice I was Wise Man and Fairy Godmother, never Mary or Cinders – I never was Princess material 🙂