How to measure happiness

 

Happiness used to be measured by the size of the ice cream I held, by the ribbons of raspberry sauce looped over the top, the chocolate flake pressed into the middle. By watching the toy ballerina in a jewellery box twirl, imagining myself wearing the same pink tulle, spinning like a dainty top on pointed toes. It used to be Tiswas and squashing Jelly Tots together to make burgers and colouring in my poster of hot air balloons, keeping within the lines.

Now I know more.

I know sugar should not bring me happiness (though it still often does), I know I will never wear pink tulle and that the Royal Ballet rarely accept clumsy forty eight year old dancers with knock knees. I know Tiswas wasn’t as good as I thought it was and that keeping within the lines in life will not necessarily bring me the rewards I think it should.

The weight of all this should bear down on me, should press the happiness from my cynic’s heart.

But it doesn’t.

I am happy with what I have, with who I am and with the people who love me and who I love. And that’s enough. That’s everything.


To understand the nonsense that were Jelly Tots and Tiswas, see here and here.

 

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.

 

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?

 

How fundamentalism has helped a children’s classic to the screen

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Image:Pixabay

Why is children’s and YA fiction so underrated?

It still seems to me that the general populace are under the delusion that writing for young people is somehow easier than writing for adults.

I guess I can see why to some extent.

Often in the past, the word counts have been shorter than adult books, which translates to many as less effort from the author (though this has changed over time – Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking books are chunky enough to hammer plasterboard into place). And some of the subject matter hasn’t helped as much is genre – fantasy, sci-fi, horror etc. And as we all know, ‘genre’ – whether in books or on the screen – often translates with reviewers as populist-not-really-serious-just-aiming-for-the-big-bucks rather than writing something-worthy-where-nothing-happens-apart-from-the-protagonists-growing-slightly-older-literary-fiction.

This preconception is not altogether true, of course.

Yes, there’s a fair bit of sparkly vampire nonsense out there and who could fail to notice the number of black-covered, fang-themed knock-offs cramming the bookshop shelves after the huge success of Twilight? As you also must have seen the grey simulacrums that stuffed the same shelves when E. L James was at her mucky masochistic height.

(On a side note, how quickly must publishers churn this stuff out when they spot a mega hit? It takes big publishers up to two years to get a book out in normal circumstances, yet Ninety Shades of Grey, Seventy Shades of Off-White and 101 Unhygienic Things To Do With a Handwhisk were chugging through the tills before most of us had agreed on a ‘safe word’.)*

Anyway, I digress.

A lot of serious subjects are tackled in the world of kids’ fiction. Apart from approaching heavyweight subjects such as mental illness, sexuality, suicide, the individual’s fight against totalitarianism, many are at least as well written as most ‘adult’ fiction.

Take the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman. Yep, they’re classed as kids books, but if you haven’t read them, please don’t let this put you off. They are well written, layered, dealing with more complex issues than 90% of the ‘2 for 1’ paperbacks in your local Tesco.

The Amber Spyglass was the first children’s book nominated for the prestigious Booker Prize – that’s how well written this stuff is.

Problem is, movie makers in their wisdom, thought it would be a good idea to take this knotty, beautiful trilogy and turn it into popcorn-multiplex fodder, as you may have witnessed in 2007’s The Golden Compass, reducing the subtle etchings of the first book into a one-note plot-driven piece (complete with new-Bond Daniel Craig) and skewing the public’s perception of the works in the process.

After lobbying from Christian fundamentalists in the States, the film had a disappointing box office and the sequels went unmade.

However, thanks to our beloved BBC, all is not lost – at least for those of us living in good old Blighty. For Auntie Beeb has commissioned a series based on the trilogy. So over several hours, we can hope to see something closer to Pullman’s original idea realised.

So, hurray for Pullman! Hurray for the Beeb! And hurray for intolerance!

For if there had been no anti-Golden Compass lobby, all three books may have been made into less than adequate films, thus making another adaptation redundant.

Do watch the BBC adaptation if you can – but read the books first, as a reminder of how great some children’s literature can be. 

***

 

*Don’t search Goodporn for these titles – I made them up. As I made up Goodporn. Or, at least, I hope I did.

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 #16: Why crime pays – medieval style

A funky, chunky monk. Image: Pixabay

A funky, chunky monk.
Image: Pixabay

Policemen are everywhere, aren’t they?

I mean, not in real life, obviously. Bobbies on the beat went the way of Marathon bars and the not-so-smiley smilodon fatalis (what they called a Sabre Toothed Tiger when I was small).

What I mean is, the one place you’ll always find a copper or many coppers (what is the collective noun for policemen? A morose? A renegade? A doughnut?) is on the nearest screen. Film and TV have built season after season, year after year on Peelers and their careers. From Dragnet and Fabian of the Yard through to countless CSIs and the wonderful True Detective, the police drama is the pillar on which viewing is built.

As far as film and programme makers are concerned, crime really does pay.

Of course, crime in the creative arts did not originate on the screen, but in the leathery embrace of books. Edgar Allan Poe – yes, that cheerful rogue  – is credited with creating the first fictional detective, Dupin in The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Later came Sherlock Holmes (though of course not actually a policeman) and from there, the genre went from strength to strength.

Now, I confess, I don’t read many crime novels. My most recent, back in the summer, were The Axeman’s Jazz by Ray Celestin, and The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson though I bought both largely on the grounds of their historical settings (1930s New Orleans and an 18th century debtors’ prison) rather than the fact they featured mangled corpses. And the Axeman features a young Louis Armstrong playing amateur detective, so how could I resist?

For me, the problem with a lot of crime fiction is the gore. I don’t mind the odd death littering my fiction, the odd imagined corpse to step over. But I don’t really like exuberant death scenarios constructed by hyper intelligent, over educated multiple killers, who spend their time finding excuses to cut people up rather than turning their intelligence to something useful such as finding out why socks disappear inside washing machines and why politicians lose all ethics the moment they’re elected.

Because of this, ‘cosy crime’ has always been an attractive sub-genre for me, focussing on the detectives and their characters rather than a dozen interesting ways to flay the human torso.

Enter today’s Books in the Blood offering,

The Cadfael Chronicles by Ellis Peters.

I read a lot of these when I was a teen and loved them.

The books are set in a monastery in medieval Shrewsbury – a town on the English / Welsh border – and one of the big draws is Cadfael himself. A kindly Welshman, he came late to the religious life, having been a soldier, sailor, lover and amateur student of herbalism. His skills with medicines are superlative, he has a romantic streak in him a mile wide, a profound sense of justice and a seaman’s rolling gait.

He has his own garden, where he grows plants for his many remedies and a herbarium, chockablock with sticky bottles and leaky animal skin flasks and bunches of aromatic herbs drying from the beams – a place I was often happy to imagine myself.

The stories are set during the Anarchy – a 12th century English civil war when the crown was disputed by King Stephen and his cousin the Empress Matilda. Peters throws a good dose of real history into the mix, so the books are filled with sieges and battles. Violence is never far away.

In truth, the Cadfael character is a bit too modern to be of his time.

He studied with Arab scholars – no racist then. He loves and respects women. His sense of justice is twentieth century, not medieval – no ducking stools and trial by ordeal for Cadfael, but fair judgements by honest men. He’s practical and devoid of superstition, save the religious beliefs you’d expect from a Benedictine monk – pretty rare I’d imagine, in an age when sin was thought to cause illness and dog-headed men supposedly inhabited the far flung reaches of the world.

I confess, I found Peters’ habit of shoehorning a pair of star-crossed young lovers into every story a little wearing after a few books, but it’s a small complaint really.

I loved the tales for their setting, their atmosphere and for the salty old seadog Cadfael. Finer company you will not find this side of the 12th century.

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?