Saturday, 27 February 2010

The latest arrival!

Say hello to Isabela - 5 lbs 12oz, born at 3am on Thursday morning. If you’ve been wondering why I’ve been quiet on the blog for a while - she is the reason.
A certain amount of trauma surrounded her birth and it all ended in an emergency caesarian in a theatre full of obstetricians, paediatricians, anaethetists and midwives, but both mother and baby are now doing well.
It’s the first time I’ve been present at a birth (apart from my own children) and it was a very emotional experience. There were two of us - my daughter’s best friend was also present - and in the early stages we played medical scrabble (I won the triple point bonus with vagina!) and card games. Salsa music and some hip swinging definitely helped the process along.
When everything went critical, I went into theatre with my daughter and held her hand during the caesarian and was the first to see Isabela as she was hauled off to the special care baby unit by the paediatricians. Fortunately she was quickly reunited with Mum.
These last few days have given me an inside view of the N.H.S and the conclusion we have all come to is that the health service in England is stretched to breaking point.
This west London hospital is an ageing nineteen sixties building, draughty, leaky, and crumbling. It has a welcome message in the hall in twelve languages. When I attended an anti-natal clinic with my daughter, it was running 3 hours behind schedule. My daughter and a young Irish woman were the only women in the waiting room who didn’t need a translator and we counted fourteen or fifteen different nationalities from eastern Europe through the middle east, Asia, Africa and China. The staff were coping as best they could, with considerable patience.
The maternity unit where my daughter gave birth was similarly over-subscribed. It was the second night in a row that the staff had worked through a 12 hour shift without a meal break. Most of the staff confessed to being exhausted and several said they wanted to leave. It doesn’t make a happy ship and it doesn’t ensure good patient care (more of this later). Individual members of staff are really nice, but they are worked off their feet - one told my daughter (who was linked up to tubes and drips and should have been in a high-dependency unit) that they simply couldn’t give her the support she needed because they didn’t have enough staff.
Fortunately her best friend and myself have been able to operate a shift system to look after her and the baby. We were awed by the quality and compassion of the people who worked there, but shocked by the conditions they are expected to work under. I’ll be writing more about it later, but now I’ve got to go back and do a bit of baby-gazing!
I thought this was an interesting bit of creative signage. Penal Dialysis sounds painful though.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Self publishing and the London Writers' Club

Living in the north of England means that I don’t get to writers’ events in London very often. It seems unfair that so much of the networking and socialising happens there when so many of us live somewhere else. It can feel a bit like being the only girl not invited to the party! So I thought that I’d take advantage of being in London to do some catching up, and I’ve just come back from a very interesting evening at the London Writers’ Club, which meets in the basement of a bistro called Tibits just off Regent Street. It’s an interesting mix of authors, agents and publishers and the atmosphere is friendly and welcoming. The speaker was author Miranda Glover who writes contemporary women’s fiction and she was talking about the uncertain future for writers and the benefits of self-publishing. Miranda’s novels are published by Transworld, but she has just set up Queen Bee Press with a small group of fellow women authors and they’ve published their first joint collection of short stories called The Leap Year. There are twelve stories, each one set in a different country and each story features a woman going through some kind of transition. Apparently the book has done very well - reaching number 4 on the Amazon chart for short fiction. But it does help if you can get a quote by Kathy Lette on the cover! Networking, Miranda stressed, really does work.
With so many authors now without a contract, or writing the kind of books their publishers don’t like, self-publishing seems a very attractive option, especially now that it’s so easy to market a book electronically. It was a fascinating evening - and the wine was good too!

Sunday, 21 February 2010

A Single Man - Christopher Isherwood

As a treat my daughter and I went to the cinema on an Orange 2 for 1 ticket deal. As it was my shout, I got to choose the film. A Single Man didn’t disappoint. Colin Firth was brilliant as Isherwood’s grieving hero and the Tom Ford production was beautiful to watch. Not only were there some great suits (Armani is so last year!) there were some stunning visual sequences. Sometimes I felt that the director lingered just a few seconds too long over a shot, but the slow pace delivered the feel of the novel more accurately than I’d expected. This is definitely a film I’d watch again and I’m also going to re-read the novel - which is just a faint memory of a seventies affair with Isherwood’s writing. He was a great fan of Katherine Mansfield, and stole one of her sayings ‘I am a camera’ for the title of a story that later became a play.

Friday, 19 February 2010

London as a Foreign City

London is strange. Living either in the north of England or in Italy I don’t come here often and when I do it’s like arriving in a foreign city. Getting off the Gatwick Express at Victoria to be met by a wall of people and literally having to fight your way through the crowds waiting for trains routinely delayed or cancelled is overwhelming; queuing six deep just to get down the steps into the tube station, then letting tube trains go because you can’t squeeze yourself or your luggage through the door is frightening. I find myself thinking “What would happen if something went wrong?” So many bodies packed together, there’s no room for panic. But when I fall over on the escalator struggling to control two suitcases, a young Chinese man picks me up with great kindness and I’m not trampled underfoot.
It’s the contrasts I notice most in London. On the Piccadilly line there’s a homeless guy who rides the line with his belongings in bin liners. He’s usually drunk, asleep on the seats. He smells like a fusion of the Rat and Parrot after a bad night, and the gents at Paddington. Everyone leaves him alone, stepping gingerly over the pool of amber liquid gradually seeping out across the floor.
Then you get off the tube and within minutes you’re in one of the Cathedrals of Capitalism. If you judge a shopping mall by the flower arrangements in the ladies loo, then this one is definitely five star.

I window-shopped in Prada and looked at a beautiful leather bag that would have been perfect for lap-top, books, junk. The price tag was £1,125.00. Neil has never paid as much as that for a car! There’s enough stock just on the front shelf to fund the Piccadilly Man for a year, and it’s hard not to think about the morality of that, even as I’m drooling over the Perfect Bag and fantasising about winning the Lottery.

But even though the human politics disturb me there’s a definite buzz here. I sit in cafes and watch people. I love being anonymous. I feel I’m eavesdropping on other people’s lives - part of a live reality TV show scrolling past the window. My favourite cafe has books stacked between the tables and comfy chairs you can read - or even write - in.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

An Insider's View of the Book Trade

I spent yesterday evening drinking tea and eating some very yummy M & S cake with friends - a young literary agent, a publisher’s editor and someone in the retail book trade. So, inevitably, we discussed books. What else is there? Conversation centred around a well respected author who has sold a lot of books, but whose most recent novel has been turned down - and the author is understandably furious and puzzled.
But the reasons are very clear. X has been writing the same kind of books for years - all around a theme that was very new and exciting in the beginning, but the market is now saturated and the readers somewhat jaded. It’s time for something new and fresh, which X simply hasn’t registered. And that wasn’t the only reason for the refusal. X, negotiating on past reputation rather than future potential, is expensive at a time when book sales are falling. The clincher was that X is guilty of the D-Words - ‘Difficult and Demanding’ - both of which are Death for any author who isn’t a million seller international star.
It was quite interesting, from an author’s point of view, listening to this conversation. We, as author’s, obviously have to keep an eye on the market - there’s no God-given right to be published, however many volumes you already have on the shelf - our fifth book has to be as saleable as the first. And we owe it to the people who are delivering our Darlings to the public, to be as considerate and pleasant as possible. Being a Diva, a Dragon, or a Drama-queen, can be Deadly.
Today, I had lunch with my Agent, who told me much the same thing. The Book industry is still very fragile and there is likely to be more carnage before it all settles down. Those whose books sell astronomically are safe, but for the rest of us - it pays to be flexible and well behaved!

Monday, 15 February 2010

Alternative Valentines

I love getting flowers and chocolates as much as the next person, but I’m as happy to get them on the 14th December as the 14th February and equally convinced of the affection of the person giving them to me. This is useful, since I live with someone who is often not aware of the month, or the day of the week, never mind the date!
In a city like London, you can’t help but be reminded of Valentine’s Day. There are glittering red hearts everywhere and you trip over buckets of red roses in cafes, supermarkets, tube stations, in the street – anywhere someone thinks they might be able to sell them to you. They are also twice as expensive as they were last week, but anyone who forgets to send the cards and the flowers, or take their loved one out to lunch/dinner, is likely to be labelled Unromantic for the rest of the year.
I guess that’s me because I haven’t sent anything. If my Loved One doesn’t know he’s loved by now, then a card isn’t going to fix it!
I hate this commercialisation of love, this stereotyping of affection. Millions of people love each other in millions of different ways. A kiss or a hug costs nothing. And we shouldn’t be expected to pay money to prove it.
Now, just to prove that I am, after all, a Closet Romantic, here’s a poem from an author who once won the Nobel Prize for Literature but has recently fallen out of favour.

On the Nature of Love
Rabindranath Tagore
Written on a boat journey in 1896

The night is black and the forest has no end;
A million people thread it in a million ways.
We have trysts to keep in the darkness, but where
Or with whom, of that we are unaware.
But we have this faith, that a lifetime of bliss
Will appear any minute, with a smile upon its lips.
Scents, touches, sounds, snatches of songs
Brush us, pass us, give us delightful shocks.
Then peradventure there is a flash of lightning;
Whomever I see that instant I fall in love with.
I call that person and cry: ‘This life is blest!
For your sake such miles have I traversed!’
All those others who came close and moved off
In the darkness, I don’t know if they exist or not.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

On Not Writing in Italy

I’m living in one of the most beautiful places on earth, steeped in history and artistic tradition, so why can’t I write here?
The idea this winter was that while Neil was chipping away at his marble block, I would be tucked up cosily in our borrowed house, free from all the domestic trivia of ‘home’, gazing out of the window at the olive groves and writing like a train. I’ve got several projects in various stages of development and a big story that I’m trying to piece together. Uninterrupted time was, I thought, going to give me a fruitful couple of months or three to work on them.
But it hasn’t happened, and I don’t know why. One of the reasons is space - the only warm room in the house is the kitchen/diner, which has a small stove, but for some reason, although I use the computer there, I can’t write in this room. I seem to need a comfortable, cosy corner to curl up in. I also need privacy - a space where I can shut myself away without fear of interruption.
There’s also the exhaustion factor - I think I’m utterly worn out after the editing of the Mansfield book. But whatever it is, it bothers me, as I see the weeks slipping away and I’ve got nothing to show for the time spent here.
Maybe I’ve simply got to face the fact that I’m the kind of writer who needs her own quiet den to work in, surrounded by her own books and familiar things, without the disruption of travel and new places and faces. It’s stimulating, but not conducive to that quiet, dreamlike state where creative work is incubated and eventually hatched. It’s all input and no output at the moment.
There’s no end in sight yet. I’m off to London tomorrow for a couple of weeks of frenzy. Meetings with agents, and a trawl through the British Library and National Portrait Gallery for illustrations for the biography. Meanwhile, Neil’s sculpture now looks like this.

Monday, 8 February 2010

The Winter Saint

Although the nights have been cool, we’ve just had a succession of warm sunny days - warm enough to sit on the terrace at lunch time without a jumper. The rosemary is flowering - covered in bees - and on the hillside the pink and blue anemone blanda are beginning to flower. It would be easy to be fooled into thinking winter was over in Italy, but it only takes the air flow to reverse and come in from eastern Europe instead of the African continent, to plunge the mountains back into rain and storm again. So we’ve been making the most of the weather, taking our cue from the Italians.
There are holidays every month in Italy, which has more saints’ days on the calendar than almost any other country in the world! We’ve just had the festival of San Biagio, with bunting in the streets, outdoor live music and bars open to midnight (and beyond). This is probably very appropriate, since San Biagio is the patron saint of the throat. If you’re feeling a little hoarse, have a fish bone stuck in your throat, or you’re suffering from mal di gola, he’s your man.
There’s a beautiful church - the Sanctuary of San Biagio - dedicated to him in Montepulciano and another in Venice. Apparently he’s known in Cornwall as St Blaise and is also the patron saint of Dubrovnik. The original Biagio/Blaise lived in a cave and cured animals. Some accounts say that he was starved, tortured and beheaded for his faith in the year 316. He’s usually depicted carrying two long candles in the form of a Greek cross.
I found this poem about him on the Poetry Foundation site.

Friday, 5 February 2010

The Benefits of Failure to an Author

It's easy to be jealous of best selling authors, particularly when they look so glamorous! Hard to imagine that some of them have had their share of failure and rejection. But I was very impressed by the content of JK Rowling's speech to new graduates at Harvard recently. The subtitle was 'the fringe benefits of failure', and it was a very personal account of her own development as an author and as a person. She seems to be someone who is a trying hard to make the world a better place as well as someone who is in a position to do it - they don't always go together. The complete text and video of her speech is available here on the Leaky Cauldron site, or on YouTube in three parts.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Italian Carnival in Viareggio

It’s Carnival time here in the little seaside resort of Viareggio - our nearest proper town. In Italy this carnival is second only to Venice, but I didn’t know exactly what to expect. We arrived half an hour late on the Promenade, after dealing with traffic and finding somewhere to park that wasn’t in a neighbouring country! So I missed the 40 feet high Berlusconi surrounded by twirling lap dancers.

But I was in time to see the ‘Down Jones Index’ - and a lot of bankers falling off ladders with their trousers down.

This is a wonderful family and community event, with most of the revellers in fancy dress. It was perfect for people watching.

Two women in Spanish costume were having a heated argument.

I think this man was posing as a rabbit against his will!

Likewise this very disgruntled child in a gorilla suit.

Most of the floats are four or five stories tall and fully articulated - some of the parts are rotated by people pedalling bicyles inside the structure! During the three hours we were there, we saw about twenty floats go past; each one accompanied by a whole company of dancers and musicians.
The enthusiasm was so infectious, I really wanted to join them and dance in the street!
Among the favourites was the Chinese Dragon float with two dragons and oriental dancers.

Edward Scissor Hands

Michael Jackson.

In between the main floats are smaller acts put together by community groups. I saw Mary Poppins, and even spotted Angela Merkel among the politicians.

My favourite float was the War Machine, fronted by an army of goose-stepping women.

It was getting dark as the last floats rumbled towards us.
One of the last featured two giant swans doing a stately dance, surrounded by babies in lotus flowers. They made an utterly surreal image against the evening sky.
There are another four parades during the next three weeks - I enjoyed myself so much, I will have to go again!