Archive for February, 2017

The Drama of Storms

February 18, 2017

So the rain came down.

After two weeks of suffocating, sittingonyourchestinthemiddleofthenight heat so that you almost can’t breathe, the rain came down.

For days I have watched, and willed, hulking clouds nearer, pleading with them to bulk up blackly. And every evening they dissolved on my horizons and left just whispers of white against a cornflower blue. And the heat grew.

But last night the rain came. Here, in the Outpost, it comes with pomp and ceremony, no timid drizzles, no bashful shower. Here it announces its arrival with an orchestra of sound and light, thunder crashes as cymbals I can’t see and the lightening which is as a searing strobe illuminates my room as hot phosphorous and neon that burns my eyelids open, and then it’s gone and I’m plunged to inkdark again. Briefly.

And then the rain comes and you will it to stay so that dust may settle and heat may dissipate, for a few days at least, and you hope this is not all show no go.

I listen to fat drops fall on the tin roof, a clamour of applause and I feel the cool envelop the room and I smell Africa quenching her thirst.

And later I hear the storm move on, I picture a busty opera singer, a diva, bouncing from the stage to her dressing room, all bossy instructions and high notes that fade as she moves down a corridor to a place I can no longer see or hear her.

With sun up I skip out onto wet, wet grass in bare feet and lift the rain gauge to see what was delivered: an inch, a whole glorious dust laying, heat stealing, promising inch.

The Beast is Back

February 16, 2017

I can sense it tiptoeing. It’s close. If I turn my head quickly, I think I can see a flash of its shape dart darkly behind shadows. I can definitely hear it, its silence roars and I can feel its cold breath on the back of neck, as dread.

Depression’s descent is stealthy. And then sudden. It begins with the odd tears which you try to explain away, which still fall lightly enough that distraction works. Then comes its brief tangibility as a Real Illness: a day in bed, ‘I feel sick’, says Mum, huddling beneath the covers, ‘I have been up all night feeling sick’. So I fuss and I fret and I go to and fro with plates of toast and mugs of weak tea. I even scour the internet and consult Dr Google for ‘early morning nausea among the elderly’. I see the word Depression but I fail to put two and two together. Or I don’t want to. I want to believe this is a symptom of Gastroesophageal reflux disease for how easy that would be to fix. By comparison. I even write to a pharmacist friend with mum’s prescription to inquire what I can add into the mix to quell stomach acid.

But by the next morning, there’s no avoiding the reality: Depression is back. How! How? Where did it get in? I kept windows open to bright gardens and sunshine, doors wide to friendly voices, to laughter, to a stream of affectionate animals. I kept her engaged and tried, in the face of so much loss, half of her sight, most of her memory, all of her ability to read, to make sure she was busy.

To no avail.

For years, many, many years, Depression’s return always felt like a failing – mine usually. Perhaps that’s because I’m the eldest – so the mantle of responsibility naturally fell to me and especially after Dad died? Perhaps because I had awkward years as a teen – so naturally I was at the centre of my own world, even the bad bits revolved about me – did I cause her too much anxiety, I worried later, by which time it was too late because she had been admitted to a psych ward. I fretted: is she sick again because of the things I have done or the things I have failed to do.

But age and experience and years of bumping up against this monster more times than I can count and I know it’s not my fault. It’s not mum’s fault. It just is; Mum’s own peculiar madness is a part of her normalcy.

I don’t know how long it will stay this time. Some visits are fleeting, some last for months, years. In the absence of the opportunity to escape, to find solace, respite, in books, Mum will feel this episode more acutely.

And so, by extension, will those of us that love her. Tomorrow morning, as today, I will bang determinedly on her door and she will ignore me. But I am persistent, I never give up, I will continue to bang, at intervals, until finally, gracelessly, she will open it and try to stumble back to bed, growing and scowling and tearful, and I will stand over her and tell her she must get up and she must eat the toast I proffer and she must drink tea, even though she is still adamant this illness is Real, ‘I do really feel most unwell’, she will say (because it’s hard to tell herself that which she knows? because she is still hopeful TLC and Gaviscon will mend her) but her protestations will grow fainter as the day progresses and by evening she will acknowledge what I know, that Depression, ‘the bane of my bloody life’ she says, is back. And we will make a pact: ‘you must get up when you wake up, Mum so we can drink tea and walk in the garden’. She nods her commitment.  I do not know why Depression is worse in the morning and nor do I understand why forcing herself up despite the yoke of this deadening sickness’s weight is better than lying in bed, experience has just taught me this is so. And she will promise me, on her life, on mine, on all that is good and true and hopeful, that she will be up and dressed as I ask.

And tomorrow morning I will encounter still-drawn curtains and locked doors and my pleas will fall on deaf ears

Bad Memories

February 13, 2017

I prompt mum.

‘You remember? You remember…’

And I cite an occasion, a place, a person.

Often she looks blank but then, so as not to disappoint me because, apparently, judging by my insistence, the way I nudge her arm and fix my gaze upon her, it’s important to her daughter that she remember, she says ‘Yes’, obligingly, obediently, but her brow is creased with a question mark.

I know when she really does remember and when she does not.

And so sometimes, if her humour is good, if she is well rested, if I am confident that pressing harder will not cause distress, and if the remembering is important to the tale I am recounting so that we can indulge in some continuum to the story, I add more detail, to the occasion, the place, the person. I hope that in colouring the picture in, I may throw it into sharper relief so she really will remember.

And then, sometimes, as I accentuate my description with detail, delight floods her expression, ‘oh yes!’, she exclaims and then I know she really does remember.

And then it feels like a small, delicious victory.


Mum and I are walking, we are talking about things that have been.

‘You remember Mum? You remember …’

She thinks then tilts her head and smiles, ‘Sometimes’, she says, ‘sometimes I don’t remember everything and sometimes I think that’s a good thing; I think I have forgotten some of the things that used to make me sad’.

And I laugh. ‘That’s good, Mum; bad memories aren’t worth hanging onto.’

The Imperatives of Useful Occupation

February 12, 2017

I encounter Mum in the garden. She is pacing, a hanky in her hand, red-eyed.

You ok Ma?

No, she says, not really.

What’s up Ma?

Oh I don’t know; I just feel so bloody useless. I can’t do anything.

And her eyes fill and spill.

When my mum cries I feel afraid; I associate her tears with months and months and months of deepdarkdespair where she is quite lost to our reach. My mum has rarely articulated normal sadness – the transient kind, the kind that comes and overwhelms and then goes. Even when my dad died my mum carried on in her dry-eyed, straight-backed stoic way, making necessary decisions, making sure we were all ok. Because she was well.

When my mum is sad, somebody tiptoes across my grave and my hackles rise for I fear a sickness, her sickness, is approaching with stealth.

When mum had her stroke I asked her neuro, ‘does this mean, does this huge trauma to her brain mean she will not suffer from Depression again?’ I was sure that a strike substantial enough to rob her of an ability to read would also steal away melancholy.

No’, he said, ‘different part of the brain’, he said.

But Mum has been well since her stroke. A paradox. Thin, frail, confused in the early months but essentially well – better, certainly, than she had been in the preceding two years when Depression had gnawed away at mind, body, soul so that her eyes were enormous and afraid in a thin face, so that she had to use a safety pin to secure trousers which sank at her waist.

I take Mum’s arm and guide her around the garden.

Why do you feel useless, Mum? I ask (as if I need to: she can no longer navigate a book easily, or her iPad or the remote control, cannot remember much, can no longer drive, manage her own money, most days she cannot recall the name of the places she has lived and where she lives now).

Because, she says, I can’t even write a letter.

Sometimes, sometimes, on days like this I cannot know which is worse: my mum who is so lost she mostly does not know where she is – other than with me, in the place I live so that I can be relied on to remind her where she lives – or my mum, with her sharpasatack intellect swallowed by such wretchedness all she could do was read – and read she did, losing herself in fat tomes that lent brief respite from desolation. There is no great genius without some touch of madness, said Aristotle.

Mum misses her words and her books. She misses them terribly.

And she can no longer touch type – which she once did with such haste her keyboard clattered a tune of happy occupation, because the connection between her fingers, her eyes and her brain is more tangled now so that it all becomes an exercise in tearful frustration. For a while we tried to dictate letters to the screen but as an entirely alien entity to her, it was even more difficult to learn to use than the Wretched iPad. In the end we settled upon hand written notes, my mother has always written in a beautiful measured hand, which I photograph and send as emailed attachments to whomever it is she would like to communicate with. It’s a system that mostly works well. Until she comes upon a letter she has written, re-reads it and stomps around the garden enraged and weeping, ‘because I wrote such bloody rubbish that he/she will think I am quite stupid’. Because she has repeated a phrase, misspelt a word. When she was first admitted to hospital writing her name was a challenge and drawing a clock face rendered a neat numbered roundness to something abstract and Picasso ish. It is hard to make her understand how far she has come because all she knows is that she is still not back at the point from where she fell, she won’t ever be.

Nobody thinks that Mum, I say quietly. But not being able to read with the instinctive ease with which she once did – now it is an exercise in labour, not love – and not being able to write with confidence and grace and eloquence as she once did is further evidence to herself that she is Useless.

We continue to walk and it occurs to me that gardening does not need reading or writing, it needs only sight and interest and perhaps a packet of seeds and a pair of secateurs. If I, I wonder, create for her, a small potting shed where she can watch lavender grow, witness the new green buds pop from cuttings of bougainvillea and geranium and the gorgeous shrub whose name I don’t know and which sits deadly, disinterested and uninteresting all day only to begin to spill the most glorious perfume at precisely 7.45 every evening, if I create for her a small space surrounded by greenness that needs tending and nurturing and encouragement, will she then feel less Bloody Useless.

This is the tragic, unkind irony of advancing age: the fierce human want to remain engaged and vital and helpful and useful and the appalling despair that comes with losing the ability to do all the things that you once did unthinkingly: reading a book, writing a letter.

kwäləfəˈkāSH(ə)n/ or, How Meaningful Are Degrees, Really? or, Why I’m not eligible for an MA in Creative Writing

February 8, 2017

The following is an essay I am about to submit by way of arguing my way onto an MA.

Qualification. It’s a lofty word. Imperious. A mouthful; five whole syllables: qual·i·fi·ca·tion. What does it mean? The dictionary defines it, lumpenly, as ‘a quality or accomplishment that makes someone suitable for a particular job or activity’. My Roget’s Thesaurus spits out a long list of colourful synonyms: adequacy, competence, experience, skill, what it takes.

My son, MSc BEng (Hons), has a qualification as an environmental engineer, as described on his degree from Imperial College London. My signature wears no post-nominal letters , I have no pieces of paper framed upon my walls, winking glassy encouragement on sunlit mornings. But I am a mostly, hopefully, reasonably adequate, competent – mother. I certainly have the experience – 25 1/2 years and I’ve definitely got what it takes: three children. Does that render me qualified. Certainly.  As Just a Mum. My eldest daughter, MA (Hons) Cantab, is always irked by the ‘just’; ‘don’t diminish what you do, what you’ve achieved, with that silly little word, just’, she says crossly, ‘say I’m a Mum’.

Once, a long time ago, when I was young, less belligerent (like Dame Helen I wish I’d told more people to Fuck Off when I was 25 Mirren, at fifty I do), less confident, I minded that I didn’t have a documented qualification.  I thought it meant I was smaller, hadn’t tried hard enough, accomplished much. Oddly – or perhaps not so oddly, perhaps bloody-mindedly – it meant I was determined on two counts: to make sure my children – all my children, but especially my daughters – could always say they were something else, had been something else, somebody else, before they were mothers. If, indeed, they ever choose to equip themselves with the necessary accessories to be parents and then put in the gruelling hours that qualify them to be called Mum. And to busily prove myself. As something. somebody.  Somebody other than Just a Mum.

So I began to write. Whilst the children were at school, I wrote. I wrote a lot. And I set my bar high. I will write for The Times, I told myself. I had no idea how to approach such an ambition. Naturally I did it wrong, with gauche naiveté.  Happily – and very luckily – for me, my email landed on the desk of a female editor who, whilst she saw no merit in my advance (too wordy, too purple, too many exclamation marks, far too long for a busy editor on one of the UK’s most widely-read newspapers), she did spot the teeniest hint of value in my story idea. So she commissioned me. She daringly commissioned me; the measure of a real editor, bravely putting her neck on the line for new, raw voices.  Over a year she coached me, usually quite crossly, always impatiently. I learned not to smart at her terse ticking offs. I learned, instead, to write, to pitch, to sniff out a news peg upon which to hang my ideas. And I have continued to write, my words number in the thousands now, hundreds of thousands. They’ve appeared in all the UK broadsheets, several fat glossies (my words perfumed with Chanel samples and L’Oreal shampoo sachets), across the pond in the Washington Post and in the ether at the Huff Post; I wrote to Arianna Huffington to get that gig; the submissions desk kept ignoring me. Ms Huffington wrote back directly and within days I was launching my own blog on the site.

I didn’t write to her – or anybody else – out of a sense of entitlement or arrogance and certainly not because I thought I had a special talent. I did it because I had a story to tell, because I loved playing with the language, putting a word in and then plucking it out when I found a better one, building a necklace of precisely the right colour and length.  Because I had things to prove. What? That I had a brain? That I could fashion an identity all of my own, other than A’s Wife, B’s Mother? But mostly because I understood, somewhere, between the necessarily insistent demands of my children, school runs, eternal feeding and shopping, school plays, cricket matches, homework that one day there would be no happy – and sometimes unhappy – clamouring for my attentions, that one day my nest would be tipped empty and silent. I knew I had to – have to – sculpt another dimension to myself.   And words were the tools I had to hand.

So? Have I proven myself thus far? What recognition is there for these, my roles. Mother. Writer. My educated, mostly happy, children? The ones I encouraged towards the university endorsements I do not have, could not have for myriad reasons but not because I lacked the resolve or the intellect. Have I demonstrated that I can write? Are by-lines proof? Possibly not given some of the journalists who wear them.  Do commissions from illustrious publications attest to an ability to string a few words together coherently?  Possibly not; journalism is fraught with nepotism, favouritism, plagiarism. All kinds of isms.

So there remains the niggle: I still apparently need that piece of paper. But more, much, much more than that, I need – want – instruction in my art.  I want to learn more than I already know. I want to talk to others in the know about words and how to shape them and how to pull and stretch language so that it fits precisely the gap I am trying to fill.  And sometimes, some bleak days when the words are elusive, beads spilt on the floor escaping my determined clutches to thread them neatly, I need inspiration. A kick up the arse. The desire, a deep burning that sits below my sternum so that I feel it palpably, as heartburn, makes me wonder: could I have borne the passion to learn anything as much as I do now when I was 18?   It is not the yearning for A Piece of Paper, it is the longing for This Piece of Paper. How do I know? Apart from the fact I’ve already demonstrated to myself a passionate commitment to my words, to language, to framing the story? Ten years ago, rattling a little in the void borne of my emptying nest (as children grew up) and my emptying inbox (as commissions dried up) I said to my husband, ‘I think I might do a degree online’. Great, he said. ‘I think I might do a degree in psychology’. Don’t be a cliché, he said. He was right; my aspirations were about sterile, documented qualifications not burning, heartfelt vocations.  Ten years later, last week, I said, I think I might do a degree online’. Great, he said. ‘I think I might do an MA in Creative Writing’. Go for it, he said.

But I face an obstacle. Degrees are like stepping stones it turns out. You cannot plunge to an MA or an MFA or an MSc without neatly navigating a BA or a BSc first.  Those are the rules. You can’t short circuit the system. You cannot Pass Go. Cannot collect £200. You can’t get to D without going obediently via A, B, C. In that order. Which I think is funny (funnyanomalous, not funnyhaha): my mother’s neurologist told me that she would never learn to read again because her brain was too damaged post stroke; ‘messages will no longer route correctly’, he declared. I said, ‘I thought they’d learn to go D A C B?’. Not in the case of your mother, he retorted with finality, and stalked off. He was the expert, with the qualification, he was right. But he wasn’t; my mum can read again. The message got there in the end. It found a new road to take.  And it did that because she refused to accept that rules are there for anything other than to be tested, leant against, bent, sometimes even broken.  And that some rules are just stupid.

So the gatekeepers who stand at the river I am trying to forge, who guard the stepping stones, put a hand out when I rudely stretch ahead of myself in a bid to clamber aboard the rock marked MA Creative Writing. You can’t go there, they say. You need to spend time on rock BA first. I don’t want to, I say. Those are the rules, they insist. But I want to be on the MA, I say.  It is expected that your spoken and written English will be of an adequate standard for postgraduate study. Please see the website for details. But it is, I say. And I have: looked at the website, a dozen times. I have written at The Times, the Telegraph, the Washington Post. In English. I know how to write, how to spell. I even know when to use colour and when to use color. Nobody’s listening. If you do not have a background in creative writing, you are strongly recommended to undertake some preparatory work. I do, I have! The MA in creative writing assumes that a candidate for a master’s degree already has the knowledge and skills usually acquired by pursuing the subject at undergraduate level. Why! Why? Why does an undergraduate degree prove I have an aptitude for this course?  Why does the experience I have gleaned, the lessons I’ve learned, the commitment I’ve shown, the work I’ve already done not count? (Oh, all that stuff you picked up the University of Life you mean? Well yes, if you insist, though I hate the phrase – now there’s a cliché.)  Because, as a friend told me thirty years ago, as I wept into my drink when I didn’t get a job I had applied for simply because I didn’t, don’t, have a degree, ‘you haven’t got documented proof that you can think; you’re never going to make the shortlist’.  This is a module for candidates with experience of writing creatively and not for those who are just starting to write. Oh please, please listen to me: I write. I do. I promise! I have been writing for years, nearly twenty years. I understand the challenge of finding the right word, of testing it out, like a piece in a jigsaw puzzle: will it fit? I know the frustration of tossing it aside when it doesn’t, feel the fat satisfaction when it does. I see language in colours and shapes, there are words, single words, that I love for their vibrancy, their flamboyance, their sheer brilliance, the glorious way they roll from my tongue: onomatopoeia. I know the thrill that comes with reading a phrase that has used language so economically, so cleverly, that every single word bears significance so that a short, unassuming sentence is lent telling weight. The qualification will not offer remedial training for those who have an inappropriate undergraduate degree or inadequate experience. I know that. It’s also why I know this course is exactly right for me: no other course lends the opportunity to explore my passion in my genres: creative non fiction and poetry. No other course affords the indulgence of a sometimes compromised imagination but allows a delight in lyricism. Any such students beginning the qualification do so at their own risk. Is this a risk? If it is, it’s a tiny one. Writing to that very first editor, with my ill formed pitch, with no knowledge of how to interview a subject, no idea of how to navigate a style guide and only knowing I couldn’t ask any of those questions – how do I do that? (anathema for I am an asker of questions) for then I’d definitely prove myself the rookie I was. Now that was a risk.

So, I ask: have I proved myself adequate as a writer? Have I demonstrated competence? Do I have experience? Absolutely, yes. Does that mean I bear a qualification – qual·i·fi·ca·tion – the right qualification, the crutch to navigate my way from where I stand to the stone I’ve got my sights on, rudely pushing my way past the first? Depends on who you ask, apparently.

I told my children that their university educations were not a right, and definitely not a rite of passage. They were, I said, a privilege, to be earned, to be cherished, you had to want them, really, really badly, and you had to deserve them.

And I deserve this.

How to Write?

February 4, 2017

Sometimes I wish I were braver. Sometimes I wish I were bold enough to write everything down. Almost everything. Describe every day, every emotion, every challenge, every failing. My diary – handwritten, the scrawl illegible and on a slant so that you must tip the pages of my journal sideways to read – is testament to single days (mind numbing minutea much of it, who said what to whom why) but emotions, challenges, failings feature large. Private anger, concealed melancholy, occasional clandestine blowing of my own tinny trumpet. But here? Here there are people who would be shocked, outraged, saddened, disappointed.

Once, once a long time ago, I articulated my impotent rage at Outpost living. I ranted. Unabridged. Unadulterated. My husband never reads this. But he did that day. And the shock, outrage, sadness, disappointment was etched into his expression that evening; ‘I read your blog today’.

How must writing be to be believable? To register as authentic?

And what of the emotions, the challenges, the failings? My emotions, challenges, failings?

The emotions see-saw, vacillate between one day and the next, sometimes a single hour and the one that follows (a swim helps, a glass of wine, each narrows the gap between feeling wretched and feeling as if it’ll all be ok). The challenges are many. Where does one go in one’s head when one has been cast off in a veritable sea of silent space? So much space that thoughts have room to jangle. And jangle they do. I long to say, ‘there aren’t enough hours in my day’. But there are too many to fill. Tight schedules necessarily demand direction and discipline. If I don’t get out of bed in the morning, it won’t matter much. Most days. And the failings. Those are they that stalk large and cold at 3am. That’s when I wonder, ‘is it too late?’. Is it too late to write with real success? Is it too late to achieve all the things I want to achieve? Have I squandered the time – and I, for my geography and circumstances, have been gifted more than most: time. How careless to waste it.

How honest to be. Where is that fine line that divides a rant, a moan, the cumbersome wearing of hearts on sleeves and writing well with a believable voice, an empathetic tone, lightly about the dark.

And should we write what we know?


February 2, 2017

Why do demons loom so large at 3 in the morning. When the night is depth of dark and still and silent. Then, at that dead hour between the dawn and midnight, worries rear ugly shapes huge and I lie awake, my head full of loud voices and alarming faces. It is too late to sleep deeply and satisfyingly again, too early to rise.

Then, at 4 in the morning, I fret about time slipping by, I worry about not having achieved, I worry about the writing I promise myself I will do and the writing I don’t, I worry about mum, I worry that I am shrinking her world and not expanding it. I worry about aloneness and distance and how many more days I can cope in this peculiar hiatus of faraway living surrounded by walls and fences, tightly sewn up, claustrophobic, whilst Africa sprawls carelessly all around me. I worry about opportunity that has run away. I worry about never being able to catch up with it – with anything – again.

At 4 am I think I may never sleep again.

I do and I dream but my dreams are not peaceful places. Anxiety tiptoes around the edge of them.

I wake again at seven. The demons have receded a little. I can no longer hear them clamouring, no longer see their cruel profiles so sharply drawn.

But their footsteps are there to examine in the smokey grey of breakofday light.

They are big; have left a deep tread.