Saturday, 26 December 2009

Letter from Australia 1

Pressing my nose to the window, I took a breath. I was here - transported half a world away from home by a humongous blimp-like Qantas AirBus. I was circling over the brightest city in the southern hemisphere. Night-time Sydney lay below me, sparkling in the darkness of the vast outback like the Promised Land. And I swore I could see Christmas lights blinking in the suburbs.

Day One found Rose and I walking the coastal path past sublime beaches with names such as Bronte and Clovelly, plucked straight from the Old World, interspersed with native Coogee and Tamarama. We didn't wear sunhats because we didn't want hat-hair. Big mistake. In between trying to spot which one was Heath Ledger's house on the cliffs above Bronte beach to insisting on going as far as the headland so we could gaze at Bondi in all its white-wave, white-sand sweeping bonanza, we spent far too long in the sun. Mad dogs and English women? Later, swimming in the sheltered seaweed-streamed lagoon-like waters of Clovelly I was clobbered again by the Sydney sun and paid for it with a day in bed with heatstroke. Heatstroke? But Santa Claus was coming to town!

Christmas Eve found me in better shape, and a trip to the suburb of Matraville where houses in a Ramsay-esque Street compete to Olympic levels to display the flashiest, trashiest of festive lights, from roofline to garden gate. And, streuth, does it draw the crowds. Some families settle for a cruise-by to stare at the spectacle; others stroll amid the chattering, good-spirited mayhem of excited rug rats and indulgent parents in shorts, thongs and t-shirts. How incongruous it felt as tropical winds ripped at the jacaranda trees in the humid dusk, threatening to uproot a big-blow-up Santa emerging from inside a big-blow-up chimney anchored to someone's lawn. It was a fairyland of tackiness where silver reindeer and fake snowmen were there to prompt us - if indeed we had forgotten: Do We Know It's Christmas Time At All?

Christmas morning roused me with chirping cicadas sounding like rice shaken in a cup, and the on-off shriek of a parakeet dawn chorus under balmy skies. I remembered the years I woke as a child in a cold, dark bedroom with brother or sister or even the cat at the foot of the bed but never a wily cockroach zipping about across the floorboards. I was half a world away.

And I remembered my flight in. It must have been the gaudy lights of Matraville I'd seen from the plane, like a great landing strip. It must be impossible for Santa to take a wrong turn Down Under.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Some nice things happened on the way to the Forum

Someone told me: the first thing you do when you get to Naples… is leave. A bit harsh, I thought. Yes, it’s as hot as hell there in June: smelly, dirty and the traffic is awful [the advice being: just walk with confidence across the road, and they won’t run you down].
Yes, I agree, it’s all a bit of a shock to the senses. But once I was sat in the shade, up a narrow side street in the old town, eating the most divine pasta outside a non-assuming little restaurant, the bad side of this enigmatic city drifted away. And I relaxed then, as soon as I looked up the Italian for: Can I have the bill please?What a chattering, noisy, moped-menaced labyrinth Naples is. An intriguing, maze-like medley of streets unravelled before us: ancient, crumbling walls, balcony upon balcony above tight alleyways that revealed hidden bars and cake shops: the best coffee, the best pasta. And there was always time for ice cream.
We took a boat across the huge sweeping bay towards Sorrento, around the rocky and ruggedly beautiful Amalfi coast, watched, as always, by sleeping Vesuvius presiding grumpily over the entire populace. We headed up the giddy heights of Capri where the scent of flowers reached us on warm, silent air and we stared down vertigo-provoking cliffs, far above the azure waves, way above the circling seagulls.
And, next, to Pompeii, which was miraculously devoid of hoards of tourists. We were lucky: it was almost as if we had the place to ourselves. We walked the hushed, eerie streets, and unearthed the way of life of these ancient, ordinary, obliterated people: their order, their law, their desire for bathing, shopping, marketing, theatre and living the high life. They had shops for olive oil, shops for wine. They even had a – very well organised, I must say – brothel. Yes, the Pompeiians had needs, too.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

The lazy blog - it's the 8 Things thing

8 Things I Like
Talking bunnies, cats and baby birds with Amy and Charlotte.
Ritter Sport chocolate. Scrub that, all chocolate.
Cycling through the Chess valley – sublimely beautiful – even when a fly goes up my nose.
Curry with Jane, Terry and Kane.
Planting my garden.
Sharing wine with friends and family.
Coming home.
Waking up from a good deep sleep with Noodle next to me.

8 Things I Did Yesterday
Went for my twice weekly session with my shrink. Hey, analyse that.
Went to local hardware store – love the smell – for drain cleaner.
Bought some fresh crusty bread from the bakers. Yes, really - I know it sounds like Miss Marple.
Phoned the cycle shop about a much-needed new tyres for my bike.
Ate some strawberries.
Popped into DIY store to browse for garden benches, and found a good offer on some box plants.
Wrote 1,500 words of novel number two, Tides of the Moon. We're getting there.
Shooed the neighbour’s cat out of my house - twice.

8 Things I Wish I Could Do
Sing (and I think everyone else wishes I could do this too).
Stop worrying.
Run further.
Not be quite so addicted to Earl Grey.
Not have to have the house spotlessly clean before I can start writing.
Know a little bit more about computers.

8 Things I Don’t Like
Losing my mojo.
People treading on the back of my flip-flops while I’m walking – how close do they want to get?
Bad service in restaurants and pubs.
Smelly commuters.
Big hairy spiders.
Running out of tea.
Not getting any post.
Jumpers slung casually around shoulders.

Tuesday, 31 March 2009

The sound of the suburbs

I heard the cheerfully innocent tune from an ice cream van today – the first of the year. And it hit me with a juggernaut of memories: of summer in the suburbs when avenues were leafy, when people had front gardens instead of concrete parking bays and we could still play tennis up and down the road because there were hardly any cars. I was Sue Barker, my best friend was Chris Evert. What can I say? She was the sporty one. We’d spend all day up the park making dens in the bushes or flying so hard and high on the French swing that our skulls would creak. There was hopscotch on the tarmac and jacks on the pavement, and I’d ride pillion on the back of my best friend’s bike, both of us clad head to toe in denim. The parky would tell us when it was time to go home for tea.
Nowadays, there is no parky, and any man who watches children play from the doorway of his hut under the trees would most certainly be arrested.
So am I bemoaning the loss of childhood halcyon days? Of course I am, but I also feel that my generation is to blame for all this. We’re responsible for a fast and furious trajectory into a modern age so mind boggingly alien to those balmy days back in the seventies/eighties that it beggars belief. I’m talkin ’bout those of us in our early 40s.
We never had it so good, but then, we wanted it even better. Along the way, granted, we had a lot to put up with. We were the ones who had a computer plonked on the desk at work, circa 1988, and told to get on with it. (RSI was poo-pooed and thrown out of court). We were the ones who had to replace our entire vinyl LP collection with CDs, and throw away our cassette players, only to have to upload it all, within a mere decade it seems, onto a laptop. {I bet you there many of us who still have those back-breakingly heavy LP boxes in the attic stuffed with the first Madonna album, some Big Country and a complete set of Police singles in blue vinyl.}
But we all wanted the new stuff, we all wanted a car -although how I was able to run my Fiat Panda on £4,175 per annum is anyone’s guess. We became three-car families. It was the late 80s and we wanted the latest thing cos MTV drummed it into us. And so the front lawns were cemented over, ready meals were invented and it all went wrong from there.
Oh well, never mind. I think the ice cream van’s just come back round the block and I want a ninety nine.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Probably the worse temp in the world

Let me take you back to a time when it was okay to wear jacquard jumpers with shoulder pads, pencil skirts made out of sweatshirt material and navy ribbed tights with flatties… yes, that’s right: January 1988.
Nine months before I was due to start at journalism college I recklessly gave up my job as a secretary at the Beeb to try my hand at temping. The masterplan was to secure a variety of exciting jobs at magazines and newspapers to get an insight into the world of print media before I started my course. I ended up at Bovis, a construction company in South Harrow.
Working for one of the directors – straight to the top, impressive huh? – I found myself in a deathly quiet, deathly boring office with glass partitions and beige carpet, reminiscent of David Brent’s but without the stapler captured in jelly.
Within the first hour I knew I’d not be counting the days, nor the hours, or the minutes until I could leave - but the actual milli-seconds. During my first lunch break, I dashed out to a phone box on the corner to call my old boss and beg for my job back.
Back at Bovis, when I had finished taking shorthand dictation, I had to ask the director (a very patient, very nice man, actually) if he’d say it all over again, only this time more slowly. My typing was good, however, as I had been taught to touch-type at the BBC and can do it with my eyes closed. And perhaps for this reason, I ended up working at Bovis for a four painfully long weeks (killing time until I could slope back to the Beeb with my tail between my legs).
Someone must have taken a shine to me. My money is on one of the bosses who crept up behind me one day as I was bashing away on my electric typewriter and massaged my neck – I don’t think sexual harrassment was so much of a buzz word in the late 80s.
In the meantime, I made coffee – in time-honoured secretarial fashion - for some Very Important visitors and was so nervous that my hand shook as I spooned coffee grains into the perculating machine, scattering grains all over the formica. I walked in to the conference room with the tray like Mrs Overall in Acorn Antiques. I was advised, once the visitors had gone, that I really should have used the fine china from the special cupboard and not the plastic cups from the vending machine.
My parting shot was to take a telephone message from a client of Bovis last thing on the Friday before I scuttled off into night. The message was simply nothing more and nothing less than this: "Terence Conran is hopping mad." [This strikes a cord with me now as I work on Homes & Gardens magazine, the pages of which are dripping with Conran products. Back then, Sir Terence must have been building his empire of restaurants and shops with the assistance of Bovis Construction.]
What on earth could have befallen Sir Terence to make him so cross? A Very Important report mis-typed perhaps, leading to a vertiable catalogue of disasters? Perhaps I did have my eyes closed after all.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Nurse! The screens!

Back in 2001 I contracted bacterial pneumonia. This is what happened…

My husband wanted to go to Leeds to watch the football so we planned a weekend trip north. Fare enough, I thought, I fancy hitting the shops in the city centre.

The night before we left, in the small hours, I had a stomach upset. Rather annoying I thought, but I’ll get over it. And then I felt cold, so intensely cold that extra socks, jumper and another duvet would not stop the shivering – the chill was coming from my core. A sharp pain deepened under my shoulder blade. In the morning I thought, oh, I’ve got a bad back and I’m sick but I’ll get over it. We can’t miss the football match. At least I can rest at the posh hotel.

While he packed the car I tried to eat some cereal, but unsuccessfully: I could not hold my head up, I had to prop up my head with my hand, resting my elbow on the table. I lay down on the back seat for the 250-mile journey and then bedded down in linen sheets at the hotel to sleep it off. I had no idea I was desperately ill.

It was a different story the next morning when I could barely breath and began to cough up blood. My husband called a GP to the hotel – at great expense – and he said I must go to A&E. Now.

Inside the cubicle I overheard the doctor on the phone to a cardiac specialist. He thought I was having a heart attack. ‘Where did that come from?’ I thought, ‘I’m only 35.’ They gave me oxygen. A nurse tried to take blood from an artery deep in my wrist – ineffectively – I hit the ceiling. Then the doctor tried. They had to hold me down. Such was his expertise, I didn’t feel a thing. And yet the pain in my chest intensified. There was not enough oxygen in my body. The minutes were ticking down to kick off. Three o’clock came and went.

After long stretches of time, waiting for x-rays, a full body CT scan, and sitting next to the token Saturday night drunk, I wondered why I was in a wheel chair hooked up to a drip. Then I realised: I could not walk.

At 1am I was admitted to an enormous old-fashioned ward full of the cries of the elderly and a teenage delinquent who kept getting out of bed. The charge nurse, a stout man, was in control but I did not feel safe. I woke in the morning to the sight of the yellow fluid oozing from the catheter of the man in the bed next to mine. My chest felt as if all my ribs were broken, caving in, stabbing me. I cried out; tried to get someone’s attention. I screamed with the pain. Inexplicably, a nurse offered me ibruprofen but was mercifully over-ruled by the charge nurse who gave me some pink pills. The ward began to change shape: it lengthened, it widened. I saw kaleidoscopes of colour. I might have even giggled.

The consultant swooped round the ward followed by a posse of students. Pneumonia, he told me, and I was pushed up to a respiratory ward - all elderly patients, bedpans and phlegm pots. The rattle of the drugs trolley coming round was enough to make me sit up in expectation of more pain control. An antibiotic drip was administered every 12 hours, but my veins kept breaking and the liquid oozed under my flesh, so that I could not bend my swollen arms. My tongue was green, my skin was yellow and blotched with red, but the pain began to fade and, a nurse commented, my face was not so twisted in agony.

And then, the low point. The doctor pulled the screen round the bed and told me to lean over the table so he could extract the pint of pus that had collected in my pleural cavity. The local anaesthetic did not work the first time the needle went through my ribs. I tried to put myself in a different place while I listened to whatever had invaded my body sluicing into a bucket.
But then I turned a corner. It was someone’s birthday on the ward and eating my slice of cake was an incredibly new and beautiful sensation. At night, nurses like silent angels, continued to find unbroken veins where they could inject me with the antibiotics that were saving my life. I got better.

Released into a fresh, bright world after ten days of confinement I was shocked, weak and humbled. What strange and cathartic places hospitals are. Fifty years ago, I would have been dead. And I never did find out who won the football.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner

I am a Londoner. Yes I am. Not in the gor blimey, strike a light sense of the word for I wasn’t born within the sound of the bells of St Mary-le-Bow, but within the sound of the bells of St Mary’s, Harrow-on-the-Hill. Even so, the city is my home. I will always return. I never grow tired of it, just like Samuel Johnson used to say, even though I commute every working day. Don’t get me wrong: sometimes it’s vile: the tube, the smells, the jostling, the back packs. But at those rare times when I’m free of work and off somewhere nice, I relax and greet London like a well-known friend (who I know like the back of me 'and).
I love it, whether I’m turning my ankle on the cobbles of Borough Market, or sitting in the back of a cab at dusk being driven up Piccadilly (I once changed out of a skirt and into trousers in the back of a cab going past Buckingham Palace. It was dark, I was very quick and the cabbie didn’t notice). I love it when I’m walking north of Bond Street past stupendous West End mansions, or glimpsing inside a lamp-light gentleman’s club on Pall Mall. I enjoy the many faces of London. I walk a few paces north of St Paul’s to get lost in the shadows of the alleyways that lead to eerily Medieval Charterhouse and Smithfield. Or I step off the kerb on Bishopsgate, leave the City behind and enter the confined, contrasting, emigre world of the East End.
I’ve certainly been in less savoury places: chucking out time after gigs at the Mean Fiddler, Harlesden, or Brixton Academy (even good old Wembley Arena) but have never felt threatened, or frightened. London is my friend. The obvious places go without saying: the rose gardens of Regent’s Park in June, Hampstead heath on an autumn morning and Highgate cemetary during a crisp December dusk. I’ve even been known to find a fleeting slice of happiness on the terraces at White Hart Lane.
But my favourite place? Now there’s a question. How about crossing Waterloo Bridge, heading north and taking in the panorama of the slick city of London to my right and the golden city of Westminster to my left. There they sit, both hugging the great curve of that grey, murky river. There they precide, both silent and unbreakable.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

What is it about the smell of… local hardware store? Must be something to do with all the rubber hoses, the furniture polish and the beeswax. Breathing deeply on it, I love rummaging among screws in little compartments, the cleaning materials, the mop heads and bristly brooms, to find things I don’t think I want, but know I need. Last week, I bought a tightly wound ball of string for the hell of it, thinking I’ve got to support the little shop where the man in the brown apron knows exactly where to find the thingummy for the whatsit in the depths of the store that will make my house an even lovlier place to live. You don’t get that at Wilkinsons: the service, or the smell.

Friday, 23 January 2009

The name of the rose

Readers of my first novel A Season of Leaves will know that the main thrust of the story is based on my great auntie Ginge’s extraordinary experiences during and after the Second World War. (She met a Czech soldier while working as a Land Girl and followed him to Prague once peace was declared, only to escape from the Communist regime within a few years.)
But during the writing of the novel, I was also inspired by another story, that of Eva Melichar, a Czech lady who also escaped Prague with her husband and child in the late forties. She told me how they put their trust in a complete stranger they were told to meet on the edge of wood, who would lead them through the vast countryside, and across the border. They lived in a series of refugee camps before finally coming to settle in the safety of England.
I interviewed Eva in the summer of 2006, to hear her amazing story: how, while still in Prague, her husband disappeared one day while he was fixing their door bell; how he was imprisoned and tortured; how his foot was broken by Red Guards stamping on it and how they eventually released him.
In A Season of Leaves I based my character Rose’s lover Krystof’s experience on this traumatic episode, and Eva helped me with the Czech language that I used in the book; the translation of Rose’s name into Ruzena.
Last week, I had the sad news of Eva’s death, at the age of 86. Her daughter described her as quietly courageous, curious and enthusiastic about the world, and I’d like to express my gratitude to Eva once more for the time she spent with me, her kindness and her hospitality. And her enthusiasm for my little project, which eventually became the realisation of my dream.
It was only when I heard that she’d died that I learned that her full name was Ruzena Eva Melichar; her name was Rose. It seems so fitting that this dignified lady had let the co-incidence drift by as just one more of those wonderfully wistful but thought-provoking mysteries of life.

Back in the room

It’s been a while. During the dark days of December and January I may have been hibernating – and neglecting my blog – but I have been productive in other ways. Apart from completing my tax return (or having my accountant do it: note to self, I owe Alistair Darling 94 pence), I have finished my second novel.
They’re right about "second album/novel" syndrome. Yes, Tides of the Moon (working title) has been harder to write, because expectations are that much higher all round.
However, let me get three things straight: this second novel is not:
a) a sequel to A Season of Leaves (although it is also set during the Second World War; there is so much scope for drama, I find, in a time of crisis).
b) autobiographical (although, one would argue, all that angst must come from somewhere and my therapist would certainly agree).
c) a walk in the park (in fact, completing it has been one of the hardest things I have ever done).

The story is darker than A Season of Leaves, perhaps more personal to me. And there are certainly some moments where the only way for my characters has to be up.
When I am writing a low period for my characters, when they are experiencing a traumatic episode, I tend to set these chapters in the winter time. This happens unconsciously, naturally, almost without me realising. But when their fortunes improve, and they emerge from depression or general muddle, it happens as spring unfolds and summer is opening out before them.

Ever the optimist, I am now looking for the black mornings to lighten by degrees and am waiting eagerly for my indoor hyacinths to release their perfume. I am wondering how matted my long-haired fluffy cat’s winter coat will become before I can take him to the vet for a clipping. Last year he emerged looking a little bit like a poodle. I can’t wait for birdsong, and the new buds that poke out miraculously from seemingly dead wood on the grapevine outside my back door. Now is the time to sweep up the metaphoric fallen leaves from last year, use them as a nourishing mulch and start afresh. I can’t wait for inspiration to strike. I’m waiting….

Novel number three is lurking in there somewhere. And when the characters walk out of the dark and introduce themselves to me, when the story begins to turn corners in my mind, it’s like greeting a long lost friend. So watch this blog.