Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

The week that was …

March 8, 2008

Monday: Hat has acquired a guitar. She wants lessons. There isn’t a music academy in Outpost. There isn’t, as far as I am aware, a music teacher.

She grows increasingly distraught: 

– But I’ve got a guitar now, and I shall never, ever learn how to play it and it will just sit here being useless, she sobs.

I have a rare light bulb moment and write a letter to our landlords at the Anglican diocese next door. The church band practices regularly outside tiny St Stephen’s at the end of our road. I see them as I drive past: strumming or drumming or fingering a keyboard beneath the shade of a mango tree, an electric cord snaking through the dust to add power and amplification to various instruments. Perhaps one of the players would be able to help?

Shortly after dispatching my letter a besuited gentleman, who introduces himself as Christopher, appears. He has found, he tells me, a guitar playing member of the band who is prepared to teach Hat. Hat, who has rushed eagerly out to greet our visitor, does a small jig to show how pleased she is.

– He can come on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, says Christopher.

– Gosh, I say, what’s his fee?– 25,000/- (about $20)

– Gosh, I say (again), that’s quite a lot for a lesson (do the math: it’s almost 400 bucks a month).

– No, no, no, not per lesson, Christopher assures me, that’s the total fee for teaching your daughter everything he knows about music and the guitar.

Either our new teacher, who is called George, does not appreciate how much Hat has to learn or he has little in the way of knowledge to impart.

Later, when we drive to the duka, Hat notices the band practicing. She leans far out of the car window, grinning and waving. A tall man, holding a guitar, waves back.

– Do you think that’s him, Mum, do you think that’s George?

– Perhaps, I say.

– Will he recognise me on Monday?

Probably. Given that she’s the only European child hankering for guitar lessons in a several hundred kilometer radius.

Tuesday: I receive the editorial report on my book. It is 14 pages long. It says that providing I’m prepared to do the work recommended (which is considerable), I could, possibly, with a kinder market (not one that favours the autobiographies of footballers wives) and a lot of luck, be in with the smallest hint of a chance at publication. 

What do you think? Shelve it or give it a bash?

Wednesday: Husband returns from a day in the field with smallholders. He met, he says, a delightful old boy who did not know his age but remembers he was a young teenager at the start of World War I. We calculate he must be well over 100.  Fit with it, observed husband: ”he walked with a stick and his teeth were falling out but he was all there and his hearing was perfect”.

I’d like to spend a day beneath a tree with him, drinking tea and listening to his stories. He must have a few.

Thursday: Hat and I walk the dogs. Hat is wearing a skirt and for reasons unknown suddenly drops a curtsey in the dust.

– did you have to do that, Mum, she asks.

– what?

– curtsey, when you were little?

I’m not that old I tell her. I’m not 108 like the old boy her father met yesterday. Even if I sometimes look it.

Friday: Hat watches a movie on the telly, Harriet the Spy. It prods a long buried memory to shuffle to the forefront of my addled brain: her older siblings and I watched the same film in a cinema in England as I awaited her birth. It’s why she’s called what she is: I hadn’t considered the name until then.  It is about a girl of 11 who wants to be a writer. Like Hat: an eleven year old aspirant author. It’s why my own Harriet now wants a typewriter. A computer simply wouldn’t be the same.

– typewriters are a bit old fashioned, I tell her, it might be hard to fine one.

– but the Outpost is old fashioned, Mum …

What to say to that? It is. We’re in a time warp here. Dragging our feet in the dust, decades behind the rest of much racier well-heeled Tanzania.

– but why do you want a typewriter, I ask?

– I’d like to listen to the sound of the keys clacking.

The encouraging tune that accompanies writerly imagination.Perhaps that’s what I need …

Saturday: husband leaps out of bed very early to help a colleague butcher a pig they have purchased together. (This is an outpost, remember that: we don’t have the luxury of a selection of vacuumed packed meatcuts to choose from in the supermarket). He arrives home some hours later with kilos of pork including, I am thrilled to hear, the animal’s head. So that I can ”make brawn” apparently.

I wrinkle my nose at the suggestion so that husband knows exactly what I think of the idea.

I am definitely getting a typewriter. In hope that hearing the sound of my (pretence at) working as busy, important author will dissuade husband from making suggestions that I should occupy myself in kitchen in manner of 1920’s housewife.

– have you got a recipe then, for brawn?

And he begins to dig about my kitchen.

– Delia will have one, wont’ she?

– Delia is too young I tell him.  Try Mrs Beeton.

He pulls Isabella Beeton’s tome on being domestic goddess down from shelf. Several families of cockroaches vacate the pages.

– they know it’s a good place to hide, observes husband sagely.

Most of my recipe books are: where once (whilst still hell bent on becoming DG) I cooked often (and badly and too hastily) the pages are splashed with cake mixture and tomato sauce and lemon pips. Infrequent forays into new culinary adventures, however, means recipe books rarely get an airing.

Or cockroaches, clearly, evacuation.   

My Week in Media

January 23, 2008

I’ve been tagged! I’ve been tagged! (Sorry, I’m just not cool enough to be blase about any kind of recognition). And by a proper, grown-up, does it for real journalist in Africa too, South of West (as opposed to wife, mother of three, pretending-to-be-journalist so she has something interesting to say at parties even though recent geography means there aren’t any to go to: hangups linger long). Thank you Mr Crilly.

And because of that I am obliged to tell you what I’ve read, watched, listened to and surfed in the past few days. Which really will go to show I’m not a proper journalist because my reading, viewing, listening and surfing aren’t nearly lofty enough to qualify for that. I only pretend to read the Spectator to impress people, in the hope they will be seduced into believing I’m alot cleverer than I am. When all I do in actuality, apart from tossing it nonchalantly onto the coffee table so that it’s seen, is alternate between salivating and giggling at Deborah Ross’s restaurant reviews.

So. To what I’ve read:

Deborah Ross. The Week (when I can find it). Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (and I had a job finding that last night too, so deeply buried was it beneath unread copies of the Spectator), ”what the bloody hell are you doing?” asked husband crossly. ”Trying to find my book” I replied just as crossly. ”Why don’t you leave it on your bedside table like normal people do?” I didn’t have an answer for that so continued to dig and finally unearthed it along with several dusty cuttings from the Sunday Times which have been lingering for months and which I still haven’t got round to reading. If I hadn’t found Salmon Fishing … I’d have picked up where I left off with Robert Guest in The Shackled Continent. ”Why do you have so many books beside your bloody bed, anway” asks irritated husband. Because, I tell him, in pompous voice I use when addressing him as the journalist I sometimes pretend I am, ”some are for relaxation, some are for research; Guest is research, for when I write my own bestseller on Africa”.

”And what’s the Spectator for then?”

”So that I know which restaurants to avoid. In the unlikely event I ever get near any of them”.

What I’ve Watched

Hannah Montana. Alot. Hat likes it and so if I find myself anywhere in the vicinity of her and the telly early evening, it’s Hannah she watches whilst I pretend not to. Because I’m too busy writing.

But it’s fine darling, you can still watch, it won’t distract me.

Are you sure Mum

Quite sure.

Then why can’t I hear you typing.

I also watch Sky, BBC World and, like South of West, BBC Food; Hat and I watch that together. And drool. Why can’t we make things like that to eat, Mum, she says, we ought to cook more. Being desperately hopeless housewife and failed DG I remind her (with sigh of relief as I count lucky stars, not something I do often on account of where I live) that Kaidi’s local duka does not sell mozarella or mascarpone or flaked almonds or pecan nuts. If it’s packet creme caramel you’re after, that’s great. If not, tough.

Last night I watched dire Romantic Comedy (I ought to know better: when is romance ever comical? really?) starring Richard Gere (who was once apparently famous for his association with a gerbil and more recently with Shilpa Shetty). Why do I do it? Waste 120 minutes in front of mindless drivel? Because, I suspect, I can’t decide what to read?

 If it’s Sunday, I watch Carte Blanche which usually reminds me what a desperate place Africa often is.

OK – what I’ve listened to:

BBC World Service, if I can get to the controls on the satellite radio beside husband’s bed first. TalkSport it not.

My ipod. Very loudly. Skipping the ghastly stuff eldest daughter uploaded onto it and replaying endlessly the stuff I did. It helps me to concentrate whilst writing. Mainly because it helps to distract me from Hannah Montana if I happen to be pretending to write in same room as Hat whilst she’s watching telly …

And finally what I’ve surfed

The Times, most days, and the Daily Mail. The Times because I aspire to be serious journalist. The Daily Mail because there is something deeply satisfying in knowing celebs don’t sport the looks they do because of luck or genes or macrobiotic diets.

This week surfing has been dictated by three commissions (no really, I’m not just saying that) – one on tobacco growing in Africa (big serious grown up piece), one on eating disorders (sadly on the up, a backlash to the antiobesity message?) and the third a contentious investigation into whether or not dads ought be encouraged into the delivery room or not.

I’ve also spent alot of time on the BBC’s learning sites in an effort to make Hat’s science lessons more interesting for her and less overwhelming for me. Never a scientist anyway, I am defeated by circuits, simple machines and that whole solid, liquid, gas thing. And whilst so doing I have stumbled across the BBC’s ingenious GCSE Bitesize revision pages . I told my son who sits his exams in four months about my find. He didn’t sound as thrilled as I’d hoped he might.

I also spend time every day checking out the depression stories delivered to my inbox by Google alerts. Sometimes I read encouraging stories: about new and realistic treatments that are being developed. Sometimes I read impossibly ridiculous ones: doctors who think Botox will cure depression – if a person cannot look depressed (because they cannot frown, say, or look sad),  they will not feel it. There’s educated reason for you. Sometimes, and at the moment in particular, my depression stories are about collapsing markets and global slumps. Which I suppose isn’t so different?

I’m going to tag Potty Mummy, Iota and Primal Sneeze if they can bear it because I think between them they’ll give us a good geographical spread on media: UK, the States and Ireland.

K. Bye now. Off to read the Speccie …

A quiet dawn

December 12, 2007

It amazes me as I sit here, dawn just beginning to nudge the east awake, how quietly it has crept in and mollifed the skies which raged angrily with storm all night: thunder crashed rudley and lightening lit up my bedroom in neon strobes.  Rain battered down down upon the tin roof in rowdy percussion.

By dawn, though, and there is just the faintest patter of the last drops as they drip from the mango trees outside, politely. As if nothing had happened. Tiptoeing to sleep in the sodden soil – I wonder if they will find room there?

A chorus of birds has begun, I cannot see them, only hear their early morning greetings: I imagine them shaking off damp feathers and chatting animatedly to their neighbours about the rain:”what a night!”, they will exclaim to one another.

The thunder has crept off, a distant ominous rumble now, as if complaining as it is asked to leave by a lightening sky, ”you’ve had your say, now push off”.

My brother once remarked to me, ”why use two hundred words when two will do”.

He’d have said simply, ”good rain last night”.

Just as well …

December 11, 2007

Bang on cue, as if to remind me that it’s as well I a) glean some kind of job satisfacation outside of the minimal amount proffered by writing and b) am not entirely responsible for putting all the bread on this particular family’s table, I receive another rejection. Of sorts.

 In September I entered a memoir writing competition at Kingston University. In October, oh joy, my manuscript Refugees of Empire was amongst 15 short listed.

Today I discovered that mine was amongst the five that didn’t get a final mention. That means no winnings (useful for school fees) and no chance of publication (useful for school fees, and when feigning to be a writer).

I’d like to be able to tell myself the subject matter wasn’t sufficiently PC, how could it be: I’m the progeny of bloodycolonials, I’d like to believe a publisher wouldn’t dare take my story on board but alas I fear that it’s a merely a question of the manuscript lacking merit.

No matter.


No point in calling yourself a writer if you can’t take rejection firmly on the chin; it’s par for the course, after all.

But just as well I hadn’t given up the day job eh?

Out of Site

November 17, 2007


Drunk Mummy did it and now Iota’s gone and done it: dropped out of site.

 I completely understand their reasons for blogging off. Blogging, as fabulously escapist as it is, can get in the way of real hard-copy life; it can intrude on what needs to be done, (writing a post or reading somebody else’s is, let’s face it, infinitely more entertaining than doing homework or – in my case – cooking supper).  

And I think that sometimes the urgency to blog dissipates as life takes on a slightly different shape. There’s a little less space in life’s new mould for blogging. And that’s often a good thing: Iota’s taking a break because, after almost a year, she’s found her groove. And that’s cool: I’m glad she’s happy. And I’m glad she’s settled. It’s horrid when the terrain of a new life bumps and jars and is generally pretty uncomfortable. Blogging cushions. Venting into cyberspace is extraordinarily cathartic, that faceless, nameless ranting is good for the soul. And the sympathetic, funny, empathetic responses soul food.

I began to blog because an editor said it’d be good for my profile. What’s that? I wanted to ask, but didn’t because when you’re pretending to be a writer it’s very important to keep up appearances and feign knowledge of the jargon. If he meant blogging would mean more commissions, he was talking nonsense. Somewhere in the gloomy recess of memory, though, I remembered reading that if you’re going to call yourself a writer, as I optimistically do at dinner parties in the hope somebody will think I’m interesting enough to talk to, you need to write. Every day. Even just a little bit. 500 words will do it.

So I began blogging. At a time when my own terrain was a bit bumpy. And people were kind enough to read and this whole relationship was born out of words in cyberspace.

And all that’s great. Until those with whom you have developed an affinity simply on the strength of their words and yours, disappear out of site.

And then you feel a bit sad. It’s not quite like losing touch with a  friend, because – of course – how can you be friends with somebody you’ve never clapped eyes on, never spoken to, don’t even know their real name, but it is a bit like that.

So to Drunk Mummy and Iota, I wish you all the best in your endeavours. Write a book, tell your readers about it – albeit on briefly resurrected blogs – and those of us too far from a bookstore will buy our copy online at Amazon.

Good luck, girls. I will miss you.

A Day in the Life of the Struggling Writer

September 19, 2007

5.30 am: wake up, try to recall absolutely brilliant, bestselling story idea that popped into head at 2am but fail (research suggests those of us who grandly assume we have a creative streak have our best ideas at the most inconvenient time of day if you like – conventionally – to sleep at night).

5.45 am: get up, make coffee in the hope caffeine will jog memory and release necessary from Ideas Bank. It doesn’t.

6.15 am: turn on computer and check mails in hope that one of the 47 newspaper/magazine editors you wrote to yesterday with marvellous pitch for a feature has replied with a commission.  3 have. You open each message with trembling fingers.

The first reads: “so and so is out of the office until 24 January 2011, in an emergency please contact x” (you’ve contacted x before and know that not much you have to offer will be considered an emergency)

Disappointed, you read the second. “thank you so much for your idea.  It is very interesting and would make a great feature for our pages but unforunately we have a story on precisely the same topic in next month’s edition/we have just covered this”.  (They haven’t; you checked).   I can rest assured my idea will be used. Only it won’t be written up by me. Ideas – I was told by an editor on one of the UK’s broadsheets – are the currency of  newspapers and magazines. Which means I’ve lost quite alot of money.

You read the last message telling yourself third time lucky. Except that it isn’t: ”your idea on insomnia is most interesting and would make a great feature for our magazine” encouraging so far “however we feel that owing to where you live, you are not in a position to write this up for us”. Hellooooo! don’t you think people in Africa suffer from sleeplessness too? What the editor means – of course – is that because I live where I do, I must be badly educated and English a second language.  Whether I live with insomnia has nothing at all to do with it.

Dispirited you drink more coffee and then – because if you call yourself a writer you need to do something to justify lofty title (largely because you’d quite like people to talk to you when you go to parties – especially if you live in an Outpost – which they might not do if you say you are Just A Mum. The general public lives by mistaken belief that those in paid employment have more interesting things to say than those of us who are employed and unpaid at home despite the fact we live life on the front line and have the peace keeping skills of a United Nations negotiator) so you trawl internet for:

freelance markets for writers

you get 1,890,000 hits. Which is encouraging. Until you remember you’ve tried most of them before. (really you have: it’s called Working when you’re a housewife pretending to be a writer).

Then you attempt to unearth Paid Work for Writers.

more than 2,000,000 hits – the top one is looking for writers in Miami. which instinct tells you will be a bit like trying to write up the insomnia story.

By noon this particular writer has written nothing except 107 emails to assorted editors/freelance markets/friends; a shopping list and her signature 26 times on sheet of scrap paper in the hope of one day being asked to sign inside jacket of her book even though she doens’t need the practice: in recent years she’s had to sign so many cheques for school fees she could do it with her eyes closed.

The afternoon hours stretch and relax to nothingness as you gaze out of the window seeking inspiration (not about what to write but whom you haven’t thought of yet to write to). And then you remember that a Real Writer once wrote ”having published my first book, I found I was able to make a substantial living as a freelancer”.

Needless to say, you’ve already written a book. Three actually. You hoik them out of computer archives and dust them off – metaphorically, of course – and wonder who you could resubmit them to, and whether the passage of time since you last submitted is long enough that they might have forgotten what they said. My choices are quite limited – 43 publishers and in most cases the commissioning editors are still alive and well with intellects insufficently eroded by dementia yet to remeber that they said, ”thanks for sending your work in but I regret it doesn’t demonstrate sufficient commercial appeal for our lists’.

It’s only at this point that you notice the time and scramble to your feet to throw supper together. Your husband pours you a drink and asks what you’ve been up to all day.  You sigh dramatically, ”working”, you say, whilst you hastily put a pasta dish together thinking guiltiy that it’s the most useful thing you’ve done since remembering to put clean knickers on at 6 this morning.

Anything? husband asks hopefully – he means any work, proper paying work that comes with pound signs and number on it – nah, nothing, you admit, stirring bolognese furiously.

Never mind. Think of JK Rowling: she worked for years before she made any money.


Why do non-writers always drag JK up for those who pretend to write? Do they really think reference to her fortune makes our lack of success easier to bear? It’s either her or Mary Wesley.

And I don’t want to wait until I’m 70 to make any money out of what I pretend to do, for God’s sake: I need nice shoes now.