Archive for July, 2011

Writing for the Holidays – 8 Ideas Just for You

July 26, 2011

 Away we go now, on the plane, train, in the car or just poodling around the back-yard, off  for our sumer holidays, far-far away from work. So, here are some writing things to do for any sort of holiday, no matter budget, family constraints or  if it’s a fortnight or a month.

1. Write some lists – to do, to be, to have, to love, to listen to, to read, to see, to visit. Lists are lovely things, find the number you vibrate to and go for it. 7 things to read, 6 things to bake, 5 things to visit in this place. The satisfaction of lists is you can tick or cross out as you complete tasks and it gives you a wonderful sense of achievement – as if you’ve actually done something useful this holiday. You can also create lists for characters – their favourite books, films, food; what they love; what they hate; what they’re frightened of. Yes, you’ve guessed it, the possibilities are endless, so get started now, this week, not next, or the holiday will be gone before you know it.

2. Watch people – wether you end up in Paris, Corfu, Cornwall or Orpington. Sit somewhere public and watch, but subtly. Make notes – physical characteristics, clothing, mannerisms; who they are with, how they speak to each other; what they are doing – pets? Then speculate – who are these people, what sort of life might they have, what sort of story could you fabricate about them?

3. Visit a new (or old) place with eyes wide open. Similar to people watching, you must very deliberately take in all you see, all you smell, all that is happening in this place. You can make bullet points, write a couple of paragraphs, even sketch the place. But you must look closely, every detail, feel the place, touch the place: know it. And then ask yourself some questions: what might have happened here in the past, was it always like this – peaceful, beautiful, battered, shabby? Who has lived here, who will live here? Indeed, what sort of story lies beneath the surface of this place? Has it happened, or is it yet to happen?

4. Collect some post-cards of where you are. 1. Write to several special people in your life, tell them something extra-ordinary about the place that they didn’t know – but write as beautifully and as descriptively as you can – perhaps a poem? 2. Alternatively, write a series of one sided postcards from someone you’ve observed to someone imagined in their life and tell a story through the sequence of cards.

5. Find a beautiful, special spot. Close your eyes, listen to the world ebbing around you, drift away. What comes to your mind, what can you see, feel, hear, smell? Is there anything there – a poem, a feeling, a thread that you should note down and keep for later? Have your note-book with you, just in case.

6. Write that story/novel you’ve had half started for years. Put aside 1-2 hours a day and just do it. Don’t worry if it’s crap, just write it all down and when you’ve finished then you can make it a work of art.

7. Find a writing competition and make it your goal to complete a well crafted piece in time to enter (and win??). The holiday, no matter where you are, equipped with pen and paper, PC or Mac, is the space you need to have a go.

8. Take loads of photos and write funny/serious/true/fabricated snippets to go with them – so a photo-story – something a bit different to up-load to Facebook for your friends to wonder about – or for you to enjoy for years to come!

Is there something there for you? The holidays provide a nice space for our minds to relax, free themselves of the nonsense of work, so we can let our creativity and our imaginations back in. Do as much or as little as you want, but try and do something. Be the writer you believe you are, if only for this time of the year.

Education only happens in school, does it??

July 25, 2011

Education only happens in school, does it??

Oh joy, oh bliss, it’s the northern hemisphere summer holidays. Well the joy is not universally felt, tis true. There are some Scrooge-like individuals who would have school holidays, if not banned, then severely limited. Michael Gove, surprise, surprise is one of them.

Like one of those old familiar songs that some people love and others just can’t bear to hear anymore, we have the refrain of holidays go on too long, are detrimental to the economy, to student learning; what are parents expected to do and teachers have too much time off – why should they be out and about for the summer? Well, in this part of the world it will most likely not be that hot anyway, and the economic arguments swings around wildly. We should also be aware that the summer holiday varies in length around the world and there are no hard and fast rules about how long the school year or the school day for that matter, should last. Check out the Wikipedia list of the varieties in summer vacation across the globe.

But there are some compelling reasons why students need a decent break – oh, yes and teachers too.

1. Institutional education – that is, education in school – is a pretty intense thing. Students spend their day being quite restricted, in terms of physical movement and activity. They have to sit in desks, concentrate, follow instructions, co-operate, think, problem solve, answer things, write answers/essays, read, discuss, engage, behave. They have about an hour for break and lunch altogether and the PE allocation for the week is about 2 hours – give or take, depending on the school. They are then expected to do homework – 1-3 hours a night depending on school and age; and there’s often after school classes, commitments etc. The normal educational week is a bit full. If you’re a student who’s doing it right, there’s not a lot of time to just be, to hang out, do what you might like to do.

2. Social life and interactions at school can also be intense. Children learn how to become adults at school (as well as at home, we hope) through forming friendships with peers, working in groups and teams in class, and getting on with their teachers and other adults in the school. But friendships are very tricky things – bullying is endemic in many schools and all some children want is to be away from school and their ‘friends’ for as long as possible – being free of them on a daily basis can help students to be free in the social net-working sphere too (can’t see them, can’t worry about them or feel the need to check out what’s being said). The long break gives children the opportunity to hang out with other kids, family members; kids who have the same interests as them but not at the same school – mercifully. Time away from a group that is not on your side is very necessary for the child to regain their sense of self, bolster their defences and enable them to return to school empowered to ignore those who seek to damage them and enable them to make new friends.

3. There is more family time. Even if mum and/or dad are still at work, then the compulsion for homework is not there – evenings can be more family oriented, as can weekends. Small trips can happen, even if a big holiday can’t. There’s no excuse not to have dinner together, or to stack the dishwasher, or to cook. Domestic skills can be learnt – cleaning, mowing, sewing, cooking. People can learn how to talk to each other, how to interact on topics other than homework or detentions, or GCSE’s! Take school out of the equation for a while and a lot of family tension evaporates. Families need this, especially for the key years of GCSE’s and A levels, when teenage hormones are at their worst.

4. Students can read and read and read. They can read books that have nothing to do with subjects at school. This is central to my mind, in terms of broadening the mind, knowing more, being able to make connections and learn more. The school year is so busy and crammed with the need to assess and prepare for exams that there is precious little time for recreational reading, reading that truly enriches a student’s life and the chance to talk about books for the joy of it, not so we understand them to write an essay on them or refer to in the exam. No, summer should be for reading, widely, eclectically and just for pleasure. And yes, for watching interesting and well made films, as well as going to performances.

5.  Students can indulge their interests in other areas. This is where music and art and other special interests can be indulged through the range of courses on offer around the place. Here students can play with people as interested as them in making better music, in increasing their mastery of the piano, the saxophone, the flute – they can spend a whole day, a week even, just playing music. Or doing Art. Or going on a sporting camp. I guess, the equivalent of the US Summer Camp idea. Longer holidays allow for intense explorations of areas of interest and passion that normal term time and short breaks do not allow.

6. Travel, of course, for those lucky enough to be able to take off. A long holiday means you can go anywhere. In Australia it means you can get to Europe and justify the horrendous price of the air-fares by spending 5-6 weeks on the Continent. It means you can camp, back-pack; stay somewhere as a traveler, not a tourist, and get to know the place. You get to learn about the place, the people as well as yourself. And traveling with others. It is one of the truths of life – travel broadens the mind. You learn when traveling – all sorts of amazing and interesting and incidental things.

7. Work. The long vacations are ideal times for students – usually at the end of high school, or on the way through if need be – to work and make some money, either to help out at home, to buy themselves something special, to travel or to save for Uni. Real work, be it at Maccas, picking fruit, working in someone’s office, is real education. You can’t substitute the work place for teaching young people what the expectations about presentation, punctuality, following instructions, doing the work as set.

8. Re-charge your own batteries. Holidays are about relaxing, recreation and re-charging so you are ready to face the rigours of the new year, of the next step up in expectations. Students need time to clear out their head from the old year, get rid of the rubbish that was collected along the way. Then lock in what was good and prepare the field for the new sewing, for the new seeds of wisdom for the coming year. In order to grow children need to rest as well as play.  We all learn at different paces, we find different things to be important; we learn in different ways. We all need to play, to be unrestricted and unfettered by the school day. For some that means being physical, for some social, for some intellectual, for most teenagers, it means a great deal of sleep.

So perhaps, what falls away in the long break is some of the silliness learnt in school? Perhaps what slips into the child on their long – not so idle – break is the wonder of the world, of education and learning outside the rigid four walls of a school? And then we ruin it all by expecting them to remember things that they’ll only ever use at school, anyway.

We kid ourselves if we believe the only things worth learning are learnt at school. That takes away from the wonder of the world, of us all being teachers, of children being their own teachers; of the rest of us pursuing learning long after school is over. To believe we only learn in school is to give ridiculous amounts of power to teachers, and to discredit the individual’s own journey to knowledge and understanding about themselves and the world, and what is worth knowing.

Death stalks us all

July 25, 2011

It was a weekend of death and while my heart goes out to the lost of Norway, I’m afraid it was Amy Winehouse’s passing that stopped me in my tracks. Why does the death of one 27 year old whom I’ve never met, but read a great deal about, hit harder than the needless killing of 92 innocent people several hundred miles away? The British papers may speculate about the hierarchy of death but it comes down to personal things, doesn’t it; and the fact that we feel we somehow know Amy, means that this singular death has more impact. Well in the UK, I guess.

Death is an intriguing matter. Across the world on a too regular basis massacres such as that in Oslo occur. We read of Americans going mad and shooting up their schools; the Horn of Africa is gripped by drought and famine – how many are dead there? In other parts of Africa the murdering and raping of the people thunders on like a relentless juggernaut. How much do we care about those deaths? How much can we care about those deaths? The personal stories of these events are what makes us react, makes us feel something. It was Bob Geldof’s personal experiences in Africa over twenty-five years ago that caused him to act.

But this week, it is the death of one famous person that makes me pause. Amy Winehouse, now immortalised as one of the ‘famous 27’ according to the papers, now keeping company with the likes of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain. I was too young for the deaths of the first 3 to hit and I was only so-so into Nirvana anyway, but Amy, who lived her life on the front of every English newspaper, who had such potential, such palpable talent, who you could see was not going to make old bones – well you do feel it. The news breaks, you stop to listen. You feel it. A sadness, an overwhelming sadness for the waste, for the state of mind and loneliness that left her dead at 27.

Yes, there is that sense of loss for the young people of Norway, who also had potential and so much ahead of them too. But your emotional reaction is different; you feel angry and mystified; more perplexed by the madness of individuals who take guns and callously kill random strangers, who ruin so many more lives through their insanity. People ask how can this happen in our society, in our civilised country? But madmen exist the world over. I remember when Martin Bryant strolled out one morning in April, 1996 and casually and callously shot 35 people and injured many more, for no real reason. Lives ruined, a place with a dark history of brutality (Port Arthur, home to some of the worst convicts transported from England) now reeking of death and madness once more. People were horrified, mystified; how can this happen here? But it did and it does and these people walk amongst us every day.

It was Heath Ledger’s death three years ago that stopped me too; that really quite upset me actually. There on the front of the Metro as I went to work: dead. Suddenly, for no good reason. He was 28, also full of potential, and immense talent, yet to fully unfold. If he could do Brokeback Mountain in his 20s, what could he do as he grew and evolved as an actor? Amy Winehouse the same – what could she have done? It is the waste, not just of life, as with the Oslo and Port Arthur massacres, but of talent, of true ability. That’s what we mourn most. The waste of such gifts.

No-one should die violently, young or before their time. No-one should die alone. We care about the deaths of people like Amy Winehouse and Heath Ledger because they live in our living rooms. They are on our screens, our radios, are in the papers; they are central to celebrity culture, to the way we make sense of our place in the world. We ‘know’ them, we care about them; follow their triumphs and disasters, worry about them; connect with them on a personal level – the tattoos, the terrible husband, the struggles with drink and drugs, trying to get clean. If famous people struggle with all their talent (and money) then it’s okay if I do too – I’m not so alone or useless. Remember Jade Goody – she lived and died in front of us too? No talent, no skills, no real waste in her death, except she was too young, had children and didn’t deserve to die either.

Death stalks us all. Innocent, famous – deserving or not. The tragedy of the weekend is that no-one in Norway needed to die and neither did Amy. But who was looking? Someone knew the gun-man in Oslo wasn’t ‘right’. Amy Winehouse has been on a date with death for the past three years. No, the lesson from the weekend is that we all need to take better care of each other. Watch for the signs, take care of your vulnerable friends, family. Report the nutters: don’t take chances. Look after those you love.

What kids need – at school and at home

July 17, 2011

Decent education is not about fads, or throw backs to the 50s. It should be accessible and equitable for all. It should be a simple thing to deliver, surely? But with private education, faith schools, grammar schools, comprehensives, free schools and academies where are we? It’s a mess and yet again too many children will suffer. Not the well off, not those with parents who understand the centrality of a good education to a life full of choices and independence. No, those who will suffer, as they have always done, are the poor, the reluctant and disinclined learner who can so easily escape the clutches of a system in constant change. As it is now.

Part of the problem is that we define education so rigidly – or more to the point in the UK it is measured so rigidly. 5 A-C GCSE’s and you’re passport to a good life is assured. Really? Do you think so? Yes, we add in CVA to show how much a school has done for children entering secondary education at appallingly low levels but what has the child learnt about anything practical, or useful? What do they know at 16 that they didn’t at 11, that will enable them to live a productive and useful and hopefully happy life?

Naturally able and smart students succeed no matter where they are, what sort of teaching they have. Of course the better the school they attend, with the better peer group, the better off they will be. But good students don’t need a lot of extraneous guff to get on with learning, with doing what they need to do to get where they’re going. By the time they get to school smart kids have an idea of what they can do well, what they’re not that hot at, what they might do with their life and how they’re going to get there. Essentially they have a pretty good sense of themselves as people with a purpose. Sometimes these kiddies lose the plot and drop out but usually they opt back in and finish school, get to uni and are successful.

These kids don’t need heavy structure and expectations, rigour and consistency – they already have it. But most kids do. They need it at home and they must have it at school, especially when it’s lacking at home. By the time students get to high school they have had many years of low expectations, of not doing what they’ve been asked, of not complying with rules, expectations, anything. At home there may be nothing to rail against because no-one gives a shit, or they have perfected the art of non-compliance to such a state through tantrums and violence that no parent can withstand the onslaught when bed time comes or eating vegetables. Primary school continues the trend and they arrive at high school and no-one is going to tell them anything, ever.

Parents and carers need to commit early to structure and discipline. If you can’t get your two year old to do what you ask, how do you think you’ll get your fourteen year old to co-operate? The hard yards must happen early. Parents must be clear about bed-time, dinner time rituals (yes, you do need to eat together as a family and turn the bloody telly and computer off); responsibility, manners, completing homework, helping around the house, respecting others and their things. Children need to be taught how to cope with disappointment, with not getting their own way; not to bite or scream or expect the world when they demand it.

Parents must understand that this is love. Teaching your child boundaries and consequences, rules and rituals is about making them into decent human beings, accepted and loved, by friends and society. They need to be sent to bed early if they cross the line. They need to be grounded and yes, sometimes they need a good slap. (Which is not a beating or abuse. But a well timed slap does wonders for slowing the child determined on destruction or danger.) Children need to learn paradoxically that they are special and uniquely loved and that they are not the only person on the planet and that they need to get on with others and be aware of the world around them and its expectations if they are to fit into it.

Sadly for too many impoverished children there is not this type of love to be had. There is precious little anything for them to hold onto in this world. They come from extreme situations – abuse – substance and physical; neglect of all types, no food, no place to sleep, no-one to bath them or wash their clothes, and they bring all their anger, lawlessness, ego-centricity and arrogance to school and somehow learning is meant to take place!

Schools who have taken on the ‘no excuses’ cry are making head-way with such students. Structures that are consistent and fair, with discipline that is tough but compassionate is the only way. But schools can only do so much and there is so much more that these students need than 5 A-C GCSE’s. They are not all destined for university – especially not with the outrageous hike in student fees, but could make decent tradespeople. (Why is there such a focus in the UK on University to the exclusion of trades or other ways to decent work? Am I missing something here?)

Despite their protestations students appreciate consistency in rules and expectations but they also want it in staffing. Disadvantaged students need consistency in staff more than most. Home is often a mess; absent parents, drug addled parents, violent afflicted parents. School is safe, it is predictable, regular. To meet the same faces for the 5 years you are at high school is greatly reassuring. Here are people who know you, who have a relationship with you. Sure, they may shout at you from time to time and get cross, but it’s usually because you haven’t done the right thing and they care about you. They have watched you grow and change; they have helped you learn about more than just your subjects; and they have listened to you, believed in you.

Being a teenager is bloody hard. Home can make or break you. Friends can be the best or worst thing about your life. School can be heaven or it can be hell. If two of these things are off kilter but one is stable a child can make it through the treacherous teenage waters. If all three are off, chances are the child will be lost to drugs, alcohol, gangs, self harm or suicide. For disadvantaged students home is often a terrible place. Friends can let you down, turn on you for no reason, but school can save the day. A kind face you know and trust, a calm voice who doesn’t lie to you, who makes you believe in yourself; a classroom where order and learning pervade – these are the things that Ofsted can’t measure. These are the things that make the difference, that get kids through school and enable them to have a decent life.

Staying Creative

July 17, 2011

The life of the artist – the creative individual is fraught with mundane necessities. You know: making a living; being reasonable to the people you live with; cleaning your teeth and leaving the house without smelling or with too many holes or stains down the front of your shirt. So, good writers, artists, sewers, knitters, photographers, potters, soap makers, cake makers and decorators; all makers and creators, how do we keep our creative flame burning when the nay-saying winds swirl around us doing all that is possible to snuff out our fires?

1. Keep believing. You must believe in yourself. If you don’t no-one else will.

2. Allow yourself to be. You don’t have to do all the time. Be in the space, the time, the mood. Don’t feel you have to lift a utensil of any type. Just be, let it flow over you, into you and when you’re really ready you can do.

3. Be aware of all that is possible in the world. Everything around you can feed your creative spirit. Read newspapers, trashy magazines, surf the net, watch telly, go to the movies, window shop, have drinks with friends, go somewhere new, do something new. If you accept that all that you do is part of your creative/making spirit then nothing you do is wasted, is taking you away from your need, your desire to create.

4. Keep a note-book. It’s not necessary to take it everywhere! But it is important to keep track of ideas, interesting snippets, visual images. Stick things into it – clippings, pictures, ads, tickets, a leaf, a flower; your own sketches, plans, lists, hopes, character beginnings, the house you will live in one day. As with 3 – keep all sorts of things, just because there’s something, well, just something about them. You never know what will burrow into your brain, what you will find useful. Looking back over these books is pure bliss and something half forgotten, some obscure note, could spark something brilliant.

5. Practise your chosen Art regularly. You won’t get better or keep the creative buzz bubbling if you don’t do it. So, as well as just being – you also have to do. As often as you can. Once a day may be impractical. Even once a week can be too much at times too, but I think that’s what you should aim for. Even if it’s one perfect cup cake, even if it’s just one small blog, a brief sketch of your dog as a dragon, one perfectly composed photo. Schedule yourself some time each week to do what you must do to be you – to be the creative person that keeps you alive. Don’t let the mundanity of life over-whelm you. Give yourself at least an hour a week to do, to make. It’s not that much time really over the whole week, is it now?

6. Share your work. How many ways can you do this? Face-book is the obvious one and so many people post their latest creations and it is a buzz for friends to see how fabulous and clever you are.  Set up your own blog, and even if you’re not a writer, you can post amazing pictures of what you do – get your magic out there. Remember Kevin Coster, in Field of Dreams – ‘if you build it, they will come’? Join groups, clubs, of like minded people. Enter competitions, do a course. Meet others like you, with a passion and desire to be magic and creative; they don’t all want to steal your ideas or criticise you. However, let me caution writers against some on-line sites, where you are invited to post your stories and join in the criticism and rating of other work. It sounds useful, but too often it’s not objective and can become incredibly vitriolic and soul destroying. I think this sort of interaction is better face to face, or with someone you trust, who can give you feedback that is honest and helps you become a better writer.

7. Collaborate. This could be scary, could be the best thing you do; especially as what I’m talking about is cross-field collaboration. This idea links to 3 – that you can find inspiration/creativity anywhere in your life. So, too can you take your work further by working with an artist from a different field to yours. We create different objects in different ways, but often from similar sources. I think the difference is that writers, painters, sculptors, etc see the world differently, experience it differently. It’s rather like foreign films or novels – there are many ways to see and experience life. Other people’s insight, ways of creating and making can only enrich us, make our own creative experiences better and more fun for us to make and for others to share.

I think all of these ideas are useful for the artist, but the golden 3 are – 1. believe in yourself; 2. be; and 3. do. Oh, and share. It does your creative juices the power of good to have some positive feedback.

Light the flame, let it burn bright!

Chocolate – 10 of the best

July 11, 2011

Given this site is meant to be about chocolate as well as assorted other rubbish it’s probably time for a post on chocolate. I do love it. Simple, satisfying pure pleasure. Let me list the ones that are top for me. I’m sure you have your own favourites.

1. Toblerone. The original, not dark chocolate version, not the fruit and nut one – especially not the fruit and nut one – nasty. Oh, how I love the mix of milk chocolate, nuts and nougat – melty and crunchy and sticky in your mouth all at once. I especially love the huge size versions you get for Christmas, no triangle of temptation too big pour moi. This is the Emperor of chocolates, perfect in every way.

2. Ferrero Rocher. More chocolate and nuts – hazelnuts this time, inside and in the chocolate shell. Even when some evil person said it was just Nutella inside, my passion was not diminished. You simply can’t just have one – you do want the packet. I think the 3 packs are about the right size – some sort of bizarre portion control. Ferrero Rocher and Champagne – perfect twin pack presents and fab to eat in bed watching DVDs with someone special.

3. Guylian chocolate seashells. Now these have to be the smoothest, sexiest shape choccy indulgences around. I love these – rich, silky, great with coffee and any time of the day. Very good for stressful moments at work, oh and always perfect as gifts. I suggest Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day especially.

4. Cadbury blocks – hazelnut, fruit and nut (as it should be) and milk chocolate. Not in that particular order. Good honest chocolate for all occasions. Good to cheer you up, great in front of a fire with a full bodied red wine; excellent for camping, long drives, bribing all sorts of people (especially children). The best thing is that Cadbury blocks now come in such a range of sizes – baby bear – just for you; mama bear – you and a friend; papa bear – the whole family, or for you to hide away and have over the week.

5. Caramello Koalas. Not every day, not for everyone, but they are a special treat. Very caramelly, very-very sweet and entirely created to make a mess all over your fingers, face and clothes as you eat. Not to mention making you feel about 5 years old every time you indulge yourself!

6. Polly Waffles – a lighter chocolate treat. Chocolate wafer tube surrounding all that marshmallow. Just the right balance of textures and sweetness. Very easy to eat, but very satisfying too – marshmallow does fill you up.

7. Kit kat – how can you go wrong? An old favourite from everybody’s childhood. The chunky feels excessive, the fingers feel as if you’re not actually eating all that much chocolate. Almost like having a wafer biscuit really and very cunning to come mostly in the 2 finger pack. So, really, this is guilt free chocolate and you have to love that.

8. Wagon Wheels. I can remember when Wagon Wheels were huge and had an excessive amount of marshmallow pushing through the jam. Now you can buy them in different flavours and in packs of 6. Too moorish by half and definitely not the size they once were. Lovely as an evening snack or treat with coffee. And given the heavy biscuit component here, it ranks with the Kit Kat in terms of guilt free chocolate pleasure.

9. Snickers Bars. I’ve always preferred Snickers to Mars, although I have had periods where Mars held sway. I had a Rowing coach once who believed in Mars bars and Coke before an event. He was mad, it’s true, but it seemed to work. But Snickers (I guess it’s the nuts) have a far more satisfying and filling feel to them. Also not quite as sickly as a Mars Bar can be. Lovely at lunch time, lovely in winter, with coffee; all the time really.

10 The Creme Egg. Yes, I have finally discovered the allure of the Cadbury Creme Egg. They are everything the advertising says – silky, rich, smooth and quite addictive. I don’t find them as rich as the trusty Caramello Koala, and therefore can eat far more than is good for me. Not just for Easter, but for life.

Ten is enough. More than enough. But, which ones are your favourites? Special events, special memories? You can’t get through life without chocolate – well, you could try, but why would you want to?

Some Reading for Writers

July 10, 2011

You hear it often enough, if you don’t read, how can you write? But what should you read? There’s an awful lot of junk out there and some of it is masquerading as classic fiction. Before you compile a reading must-do list, you do need to think about why you read. Are you reading for pleasure, to find out more about the particular genre you want to pursue, are you looking at structure, dialogue, setting, pace, characters?

A bit of research helps. If you want to write about vampires, then you do need to look at the original Dracula by Bram Stoker, then look to Ann Rice, before you even consider the Twilight stuff. Romance, then you should have a visit with Barbara Cartland and you have to read Nora Roberts as she is the current queen of best selling Romantic fiction. Fantasy writers must read Tolkein and CS Lewis. Crime writers, I refer you to The Telegraph’s 50 writers to read before you die  and the CWA competition site-                                                   /

But for a general reading must-do-list who would I recommend?

1. F Scott Fitzgerald. You simply can’t go past The Great Gatsby as the most perfect book. Beautiful people in beautiful places, doing not so beautiful things, but oh so perfectly written. Tender is the Night is also quite wonderful and his short stories are not to be missed – try A Diamond as Big as the Ritz. Fitzgerald’s own tragic story haunts his work and I think is the better for it.

2. Arundhati RoyThe God of Small Things. This is the book to learn about structure and evocative descriptions – both of place, evil characters and evil deeds. This Booker winner will resonate with you for years.

3. Douglas Adams – all of the associated Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books. These are such fun, clever, witty, pacey and wry sad characters.

4. John Irving – most of them but especially The World According to Garp, Hotel New Hampshire and Last Night in Twisted River. Great big stories about decent people who get caught up in all sorts of stuff. SIlly things, tragic things, but stories of grandness and scope, about life and love, and an awful lot of death. I guess Irving is the modern but American version of Dickens.

5. Fay Weldon – as many as you can. Like Irving a teller of tales about the modern existence of normal people (very English) trying to make their ways in hostile worlds. Read her for her style, sparse, pared  back, witty, caustic and insightful and her take on the particular insights and indignities of being female. Weldon and Irving were the writers who made me want to write.

6. Michael OndaatjeThe English Patient. Forget the film, this is the most beautiful poetic book I have ever read. It is magic from start to finish. If Weldon and Irving made me want to write, Ondaatje made me feel I was completely inadequate and utterly worthless. This is the book to read for the magic of language, how to describe and leave an impression that lasts forever.

7. Patrick SuskindPerfume. This was his first book- devious, clever, intriguing, great characters. Clever- clever writing – excpet for the bit in the middle, still not sure about that.

8. Peter Carey – does need to be at least one Oz in the list. His earlier stuff is better. Bliss, Oscar and Lucinda, his short stories but most of all Illywhacker – about the 109 year old liar. Again, great sense of place, the feel of darkness in the Australian under-belly. Great story teller, takes you right in with incredible but credible characters and the most unlikely events, but you go with him – the journey to the end of each book is well worth it.

9. Some classic writers you need to experience. Dickens is one, and if you only read on of his let it be Great Expectations– the classic rags to riches story and how you can lose your integrity along the way, not to mention loving the wrong person. The Brontes can’t be over-looked either. Jane Eyre is fine but Wuthering Heights is the jewel. Yes, it’s confusing to start but go with it as it really is one of the best love stories of all time. A bit of Austen too – Pride and Prejudice for my money, but they all follow the same sort of idea – class, love, gossip, duty.  You must read Edgar Allan Poe, the orginator of the short story. Some Steinbeck is also de rigueur – Of Mice & Men is the classic and the shortest, but don’t overlook The Grapes of Wrath. Orwell needs a look in – especially Animal Farm and of course, 1984. I’m also going to suggest EM Forster, any and all, but mostly Howard’s End and A Passage to India. Go to Russia, read Tolstoy – Anna Karenina and War and Peace. Read Death in Venice, by Thomas Mann. 

10. Don’t forget the poets. Robert Frost, Mending Wall, Out Out, The Road not Taken. TS Eliot, The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock. Dylan Thomas, Under Millkwood. Lord Byron, all. Robert Browning – My Last Duchess, The Laboratory. Gwen Harwood, Les Murray, Bruce Dawe.

So, a list that could go forever and is by no means any sort of definitive list. But it’s a start. Read widely, read well, absorb what you read and you will be a better writer.

The 6 F’s of Staying Together

July 9, 2011

Relationships, marriage; same sex or whatever you choose – staying together for the long haul is hard. No, it really is. Staying married for nearly 25 years is the hardest thing I’ve done and I’ve done a few scary things in my time. Why am I still here? Love I hope; certainly the beloved off-spring, not to mention a hideous financial entanglement. Not that I’m claiming transcendental happiness or anything approaching the idyllic married state but I’ve observed a thing or two over the years and I think there are a few key factors, most of them, curiously enough, beginning with F.

1. Fighting/falling out. Once the ‘honeymoon’ is over, when the bliss edges back and the reality of him/her and a future together kicks in you are going to fall out. It’s inevitable. It’s not so much that you fight or disagree (you actually should, otherwise you’re probably a sheep), it’s more about how you fight and how you make up. We all say things in the heat of the moment, we threaten and bluster and cry. But we must not hit – either physically or below the belt. That sort of fighting is corrosive and is what kills the love and respect you need for each other to keep it together.

2. Forgiving. You have to learn to forgive each other. Saying sorry helps, but you have to mean it. You have to be able to let go of the argument, the hurt and the upset. It takes time but it has to be let go – genuinely. If not it will just keep on rearing its ugly old head every time you fall out. Accept the weakness and humanity of your lover – you want them to accept yours, after all. Forgiveness means you accept them as they are – weaknesses and foolishness and all –  love them anyway, and are in the midst of an adult relationship that can sustain attacks on its battlements without letting the walls cave in, leaving the edifice to crumble to ruins. But if you can’t forgive, and there are somethings that are unforgivable – different lines in the sand for all of us – you must go; don’t stay and be miserable, infecting your children or your own life. To re-state – forgiveness must be genuine to work.

3. Forgetting. You must do this and not do this. You must forget the hurt and the unkind words from your battles, otherwise they eat away at you and undermine you, and the relationship. Forgive and forget goes together for a reason. You do need to do both – its the twin peaks of starting again after the fury of the fight. But there are things that cannot be forgotten! Yes, birthdays, anniversaries, allergies, favourite colour, dress/shirt size, your song, how you met, etc. These things you must know, commit to memory because they show you care, you’re paying attention, you know what’s important to your lover. Write things down if you’re hopeless at remembering. It’s not worth the distress of your lover if you forget their birthday, your anniversary and then make up with the wrong sort of chocolates, you’ll just end up falling out and finding it very hard to be forgiven!

4. Fucking. Well, yes. It’s central – no matter how old you get, it’s the heart and soul of it all. Do it as much as you want, whenever, but perhaps not where-ever, anymore. Do not read anything about Sting and Trudy Styler ever. Always remember how much you lusted after their body when you were first together, and how nice it is now that you’re not quite as fab as you were that you’re still wanted, still desirable.

5. Friends. Keep your own. Do not immerse yourself so utterly in your lover that you jettison your own mates. Especially don’t get rid of yours and take up his. You need your friends to be your old/true self with, to do things with that you can’t do with your lover. You need your friends when you fight and need someone to help you back to the path of forgiveness, or to tell you when it is really and truly over. You also need to be friends with your lover. Lust and passion fades but friendship endures. Being friends as well as lovers is one of the big secrets to staying together.

6. Finances. What kills relationships? Sex and money. You need enough of both to keep the relationship boat afloat. Being without enough money destroys the passion, kills the love. But what do you do? Shared finances, separate accounts but agreements on shared payments? It’s very tricky, both can work, both can fail. For my money, you need some independence here, you need to agree on big ticket items and you must talk about money on a regular, sensible basis. Once you lock in formally to each other (marry) you carry their financial burdens as yours. Divorce is messy, costly and you will lose. So face up to being an adult and talk about money – preferably after sex, when you’re both chilled and bathed in the glow of love, then you’ll avoid another fight and manage to keep your ship of state steaming ahead out there on those stormy waters.

Helpful? Hope so.

Get writing – 5 writing tasks for this week

July 3, 2011

Feeling a bit stuck, lots going on in your head but can’t quite get started? Want to write but can’t find the way in? Sometimes some simple, easy things to get us moving are the best. Writing every day is not really that feasible but some fun things to do during the week can oil the creative cogs and lead to greater things.

Here are 5 tasks that can be as long or as short, as pared back or as descriptive as you like. Complete in no particular order. Enjoy.

1. Find a new word and use it as often as possible – in some writing; try it out in conversation. Try out – gossamer, irascible, quintessential, pertinent, glowering. See how you go. Can you use all 5 words in the one paragraph or poem, or very short story?

2. Imagine the world if you were three feet high. How would it look from down there? You could be a toddler, an animal, you on your knees!

3. Be your enemy for a day. Yeh, we’re all good people and the world loves us… But there is someone you dislike, avoid, can’t stand, even hate. If not now, then definitely there was someone in your past. Some boy or girl who broke your heart; some bitch at school who hated you for no reason whatsoever; someone at work now who goes out of their way to make your life a misery; some call centre worker there on the end of the line who is never helpful. Write a day in the life for them – do they even think of you?

4. Write a letter (what are they?) or a message to someone you admire. Make it someone you have never told – perhaps someone from long ago who made a deep and lasting impression: your teacher; someone who was kind to you when you needed it; your first crush; someone famous. You don’t have to send it, of course!

5. Describe your perfect place. Close your eyes and let yourself be there. Inhale and relax, feel the wonder of it. Think about how it smells, how it feels, the textures and colours of the landscape. Is there someone else there, or is this just for you? Is this place real, is it somewhere from your past, from a time when you were utterly happy? Is it a room in your house, or your bed? How do you feel here, why do you feel so good here? Your perfect place can be as real or imaginary as you desire. Perhaps you could sketch it too!