T-bar sandals, stretchy hairband and an anorak – my outfit screams the Swinging Sixties!
This is an old post that I am re-sharing today. In fact it’s a life writing piece, based on my memories of my ‘auntie’ Zonya. So it’s not a fictional piece, though I might not be remembering it exactly! When we look back on a memory we add layers of our accumulated experience onto the memory, and of course the passage of time means that all too often we look back and remember the colours far brighter, the events far happier than they perhaps really were.
But Auntie Zonya was a unique and wonderful lady. Her real name was Doris, but she had been, many years earlier, a dancer and had changed her name to sound more in keeping with her exotic stage life. I only knew that later. At the time–we’re talking about 1964 or so until around 1974, I knew her only as Auntie Zonya. She was tiny, she was plump, she had the reddest of red hair–again only later did I realise this was not a natural red, but out of a bottle.
A Georgian house, similar to ours in the street where we used to live.
She turned up living in a room across the corridor from my mum and me where we lived in a lovely old Georgian villa that had been converted into cheap bedsits. She was older than my mum by about thirty years, so she kind of became a big sister/surrogate mum to my mum, and a very loving aunt to me.
Anyway, one day she was ‘babysitting’ me and we went shopping. For knickers. Here’s what happened:
Thinking back to when I was a child, I remember once being in a department store, in Tunbridge Wells, England, in the mid-1960s. I can picture the scene as if I were an onlooker.
I’m buying big knickers with Auntie Zonya. It’s a lesson in economy versus quality. I am wearing a skirt my mother made me and a jumper. My hair is in a long dark-brown plait down my back as always, and I’m probably wearing either a frock my mother made me or stretchy leggings and a home-knitted jumper.
I mean, they’re huge, right? And making a comeback!
They look the same—same size, shape, style and colour, yet these knickers are less than half the price of those others. I’m learning the difference between branded goods and their cheaper, store’s own label counterparts. Zonya, in other ways so stylish and chic for an older woman, favoured the larger undie. Knickers built like modern cycle shorts—up to the waist, down to the knees—and incredibly, sometimes even with a pocket in the waistband. Crimson, stretchy cotton with a little line of black lace trim at the waist and knee.
I can’t imagine wearing anything so huge. By comparison, my underwear at age six or seven or whatever I am is really quite skimpy and small.
We are in BHS or somewhere like that, comparing their own brand of cheap-and-cheerfuls with a far more expensive generic brand-name knicker. Seeing my doubtful looks, she assures me these are warm, comfortable and very, very durable. I’m not convinced. Maybe they will swallow me whole. And the colour! Red like holly berries or Zonya’s lipstick or red like a London bus or a pillar box. Really, really red.
We snap the elastic a few times experimentally. It seems sufficiently sturdy and reliable and so economy wins out and the cheapy knickers are purchased.
I remember it as a fun, ordinary outing, one of the few memories I have of shopping when I was small. I realise now never did ask her how she got on with them.
Sorry it’s a bit grainy. This is Zonya and I at London Zoo, 1965.
I know I say this every year, but for me, it is not Spring, but Autumn and Winter that form my season of creativity. I have no idea why this is. I don’t know why, but for me, autumn is not the season for rest and consolidation, but of flights of imagination taking wings. I get quite excited about the approach of autumn and winter. Maybe it’s the cuddly jumpers, I don’t know.
It seems as though the rest of the world is full of new life in the Spring. Is it because I’m an October baby, my lifecycle naturally goes from Autumn onwards? Or because when we lived in Brisbane, October was in the Spring? But how can five years there undo the habits of the other fifty-six years I’ve lived in the Northern Hemisphere? Or maybe it’s because for parents everywhere in the UK, Autumn is when the children go back to school and you at last get two minutes to sit in silence and just enjoy hearing – nothing. Ah, bliss!
New ideas are taking shape, even before the old ideas have been put to bed. I’m thinking about what I want to say in a new story. I’m having a wonderful time creating book covers, and though I’m struggling to come up with new titles, I have some ideas to mull over.
I’m always drawn to old stuff, I’m drawn backwards into the past. I’m thinking of long print frocks, ladies in beads, feathers in their hair, tea-dances, afternoon picnics on wide sweeping lawns, croquet. I’m thinking of couples dancing on a veranda under the stars, the doors open to let out the soft lamplight and the music from the gramophone. The music is softened by distance and the soft evening breeze ruffles hair.
I’m thinking rural, villagey, fields, water, trees. I’m thinking of sorrow and haunting, of deeds never talked of, of the guilty secrets of the past. I’m thinking of shame and sacrifice, I’m humming old pastoral songs and rhymes, Scarborough Fair, children’s songs and folk songs, ‘Bobby Shafto(e) Went To Sea, He’ll Come Back And Marry me… Bonny Bobby Shafto(e).’ Or the old folk song and pop hit from the 70s, Whiskey in the Jar – ‘When I was going over/the Cork and Kerry mountains…I saw Captain Farrell and his money he was counting…’’
I’m remembering the duplicitous nature of the minstrel, wandering, legitimately able to plant one foot in each camp, never on any side but his own. A useful means for conveying information, often ill-gotten. And he can sing out in public everyone’s secrets, and how can you stop a man doing that?
I’m thinking of myths and legends, hillsides cloaked in mist, an unseen bird calling in the gloom, of the soft insinuating sound of the wind, like a sigh, like a breath, or like a dragon’s terrible approach. I’m thinking about the returning home of the prodigal, how we carry the past with us, inside, even when we are looking forward and moving on, something draws us ever back.
I am thinking, staring at the falling leaves, driven across the grass by a pushing wind, I’m lost in my thoughts. I am thinking of long ago, of people who may not have existed, but who could come into being in my imagination. I see images in my mind, people, objects, places, and weave stories about these imaginary characters.
I am thinking of a man at a window staring out, his mind working on things he cannot put into words. What should he do? Has the time for action finally arrived?
I’m thinking of a woman, always waiting, wringing her hands in front of the window, her own shadow cast out across the lamplit stones of the yard. When will he return? Will he ever return? The waiting woman. The unspeaking man.
I’m thinking of a boy coming over the hill. Of grass, green, long, dewy. Of the sun, soft, golden, gentle as a mother’s hand, just touching his hair, his shoulder of his white cotton shirt. How long has he been away? How much has changed? Will anything ever change?
If I never have another new idea, I’ve already got enough to keep me writing for the next twenty years. I only hope that’s possible.
‘Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,/And all the air a solemn stillness holds.’ Thomas Gray’s Elegy.
I often talk about sitting in cafes, notebook and pen in front of me, along with a cappuccino and – ooh, naughty – a bit of cake. It’s my favourite thing.
Yes, I know we have coffee at home. And even – occasionally, cake, or I could buy a supermarket cake and eat a slice at home for a fraction of the cost of a cafe. Or, I could bake a cake of my very own – it could be any size, shape or colour. I could have any flavour I like, and it could be a tray-bake, a torte, a good solid fruit cake with cherries on top, a long sugary loaf oozing with bananas or dates. It could be a sponge with ganache or cream or even just jam in the middle. It could have nuts on the top, or frosting, or strawberries in a creamy heap.
There are just two problems with that: 1. I’m a terrible cook. And 2, that wouldn’t inspire me to write. Which is, after all, the whole point of this exercise.
I love to go to cafes with my family, singly or en masse. But those are occasions for talking and laughing, not times for me to be alone with my thoughts. And as we know, ‘You can’t write if you’re never alone.’ (It was Winifred Watson who said that. She was a very successful author in the 1930s who gave up writing once she married and had children. Her book Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day was made into a film starring Ciaran Hinds and Frances McDormand and I highly recommend it.)
Also, I love people-watching. Sitting in a cafe is a bit like sitting in a theatre, with the play going on around you. For around £6 or £8 you can get a lovely piece of cake, a gorgeous big cup of frothy coffee (and not have to wash up the dishes afterwards) and a stage-side seat to LIFE. Just make sure you’ve got plenty of paper and a couple of spare pens.
TIP: Never, ever tap people on the arm, ask them to repeat what they’ve just said so you have more time to write it down, don’t ask them how to spell their auntie’s dog’s name, and never, ever say out loud, ‘Wow, he’s a moron, you should dump him’ or ‘How dare she say that to you!’ or that kind of thing. People don’t mind you watching them discreetly, just don’t make it too obvious.
I’m often asked where I get my ideas. But inspiration comes not from one, but from many different places. It’s more that ideas come looking for me than I go looking for them. I’m incredibly nosy about other people, and I am an incurable people-watcher. This fuels my imagination and leads me to ask myself questions, develop scenarios until… ooh, look, a chapter from a story!
I don’t advocate, as a writing tutor in Brisbane once told a group of creative writing students, that you should actually follow people to get ideas for your story or to experience what it’s like to ‘shadow’ someone a la detective fiction. BUT I must admit I do covertly eavesdrop and watch people, especially in a coffee-shop situation. I don’t actually record conversations or film people, though it is SOOOO tempting.
Tip: If you sit in a cafe or restaurant with your notebook open in front of you and your pen tapping on your chin as you ponder, I guarantee staff will panic-tidy the whole area near you, smile and ask if you’re well, and possibly ask if there’s anything else they can get you – even in self-service cafes. At first I didn’t know why that was, now I’ve realised it’s because they think I am a food critic! Once I made the mistake of saying that I was a writer, and got a look that was half eye-roll and half disgusted sneer. They left me alone immediately.
And so that’s why I go to cafes and eat cake. What’s your excuse?
There’s a surprisingly large amount of theory about colour. Colours have meanings, they create feelings and emotions in us. So much so, you can have colour therapy, where you sit in a room (white I assume, or maybe completely dark) and they bombard you with light in the colour you require to produce the effect needed. I quite like that idea. Maybe I’ll try it sometime.
Picasso had his Blue Period, then his Rose Period, where these colours dominated his work in a range of hues.
I don’t know if other artists, or writers, have times of colour. I see it in my life from time to time, a particular colour seems to draw me, or mean more, or stand out or in some way influence me. This year my colour is green.
When I was a teenager, wanting to wear teenager-black all the time, my mother nagged me out of it. She associated the colour black with depression, grief and mourning, with oppression and poverty. So I can understand why she hated to see me swathed neck to ankle in black. But it’s a colour people–especially teenagers–wear when they are still trying to find their identity, or when they are part of a crowd of others who all wear black, it ‘goes’ with that mind-set of searching earnestness.
And of course we always say black is a slimming colour, and if you are a larger lady like me, you’ll find huge chunks of a retailer’s range of clothes are only available in black. It’s also the colour of formality so you find loads of people wearing black in offices, you see everywhere the ladies in their black trousers with a shirt or jumper or a jacket and slinky top. I used ot have a ton of black ‘work’ trousers. I think it’s also a practical colour, again in clothes, seeming to show the passage of time less noticeably than other colours and going with pretty much everything, and suiting pretty much every complexion.
Red is the colour of guts and courage, of anger, of ‘Stop!’ and ‘Attention’. Red used to be associated with masculinity, no doubt due to its use in military uniforms, of blood, of bravery. For this reason, (I’m talking about 120 years ago) pinkwas the accepted normal colour for baby boys as a kind of watered down red suitable for little men. Yep. Pink was for boys, blue was for girls.
Why? Well as we all know females are at constant risk of madness and hysteria due to their female body parts, and therefore have to be swathed in blue from earliest babyhood to calm them down. Blue is a calming colour!
I think it was a member of the royal household around the 1910s who first defied convention and clothes her daughters in pink – and thus a new convention was born. Now, as soon as we see a baby in pink, we know it’s a little girl.
I can remember when my daughter was very small, and clothed (partially at least) in pink, an elderly lady said to me ‘what a beautiful baby, what’s his name?’ And I smiled and replied, all the while thinking silently to myself, ‘mad old bat, clearly she’s a girl, look at all the pink!’
Yellow is another colour I love, but depending on the shade, doesn’t always suit me. Yellow is believed to promote higher thinking, creativity, reasoning and logic. It’s also a happy uplifting colour, as we know when we get a lift every time we catch sight of a patch of daffodils after the dreariness of winter.
For a long time, I’ve been wearing black, grey and blue (jeans mainly), with white or occasionally burgundy accents.
but for the last few weeks, I’ve been craving green. I’ve dusted off my existing green tee-shirt, and bought another one. And I’m enjoying looking at greenery in pictures. I’m not looking at beach scenes (blue & sort of sandy brown), it’s the green of leaves and grass etc that appeals ot me. I get a kind of little ‘bong’ in my chest when I see them (Remember Lovejoy and the sensation he used to get in his chest when he ‘divvied’ a true antique?)
So I’m giving in to my green period – a time of rebirth, perhaps, or of tranquil moments, rest and recovery. or a time of peace and a return to nature? Who knows? I just know that this is what is feeding my soul at the moment.
Of course green is also the colour of jealousy – the ‘green-ey’d monster’ of Shakespeare’s Othello. Or of inexperience and innocence – also Shakespeare, (Anthony and Cleopatra) ‘My salad days. When I was green in Judgement.’
But I’m ignoring that side, I don’t think I’m particularly a jealous person. And I’m too old to be inexperienced, although I love to learn new things. So I’ll just embrace the restorative and peaceful nature of Green. Have you found the colour that fills you with joy?
Here are a few quotations about ‘green’:
‘Green is the prime color of the world, and that from which its loveliness arises.‘
Pedro Calderon de la Barca (17th century Spanish dramatist)
‘The garden of love is green without limit and yields many fruits other than sorrow or joy. Love is beyond either condition: without spring, without autumn, it is always fresh.’
Rumi (Persian poet from 13th century)
‘When the green woods laugh with the voice of joy, And the dimpling stream runs laughing by; When the air does laugh with our merry wit, And the green hill laughs with the noise of it.’
William Blake (UK Poet/Artist 1700s-1800s)
‘All theory, dear friend, is gray, but the golden tree of life springs ever green.’
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (German author/poet 1700s-1800s)
Believe it or not, behind that silk-covered chair is a silk-covered door which houses a stunning ‘secret’ bathroom built specially for King George V in 1925, and never used by him, because his visit was cancelled.
When is a door not a door?
Ok I know we all know that old joke. But when I was walking around a beautiful country house recently, I was struck (not literally) by all the different styles of door, and I thought about what they could mean.
(I should just quickly add that I was completely convinced I’d written a previous blog post about doors/portals, but after wasting half an hour trying to find it, I’m now convinced it must have been a dream…???)
A rather scary back door at Calke Abbey. For the use of staff, obvs, no posh people here.
Doors. The thing is, a door is an everyday piece of equipment, if I can put it like that, and yet it contains the power to take us from one place, from the present, to a different place, the future. We know that when we open a door, we can move from one space to another. Sometimes it’s as if we were moving into another world. In fantasy literature, doors are seen as portals or magical spaces of transition.
But even in a country house, the door takes us from one sphere of life to a completely different one, say, from the sumptuous drawing room into a back hallway used purely for the convenience of staff, or from a dusty, intriguing library out into a beautiful garden.
Sometimes a door won’t open because it’s not a real door. This one is just to make the room appear symmetrical, and doesn’t open, as it’s just a bit of wood stuck onto a solid wall.
Doors are ordinary, and yet special. In books, or TV shows, or films etc, doors have the power to transform our lives purely because they exist. All the time you and I are on this side of the door, and the door is closed, we can’t be absolutely certain what we will find if we open the door. It might be that we will find dinner is ready and on the table, or we might find a fairytale castle perched on a precarious mountain-top. A bit like Schrodinger’s Cat, we can’t be sure until we open the door which of the alternatives are actually before us.
A beautiful curved door to fit a curved wall. This is at Kedleston Hall.
What if we can’t even open the door?
What if we find something unexpected, even unwelcome, on the other side of the door?
We won’t know until we open it. And by then, it could be too late.
In real life, we will open the door and find the washing machine has finished our towels, but in literature, in the country of our imagination, we could be anywhere.
Sometimes doors show you not just the next room, but the one after that and the one after that. You are looking through them all at once as if they are a series of views, of points of interest on a tour.
So literature has a lot to tell us about doors, it seems. I’ve only shared a small number of door-related quotes here, if you are desperate, I’m sure you will find more. Or maybe you’ll catch yourself watching a little more closely as the characters in your current reading material or viewing material each have their entrances and their exits, and move on the stage of your imagination. Like me you might be struck by just how often a character moves through a door and ‘something’ happens.
And lastly, I hope you won’t mind me adding my own work into this illustrious company:
Gary Cooper in a gloomy mood ever since reading his first novel again after ten years.
I read a blog post elsewhere this week, in which a writer talked about rereading a book he had written and published years earlier, and his reaction to it. That set me thinking.
How do I react to reading my own work after a break?
I think it’s a bit like looking at baby photos of yourself, or making a special cake or a meal for a particular occasion. Or indeed whenever any of us do anything creative or out of the norm. Maybe you’re not like me, but I know a lot of people are just like me: a bit inclined to only see their faults, to see the wonky bits, the bits that had to be patched up at the last minute, the crooked hem of the new dress or the edge where the cake got stuck in the tin and you had to put a bit extra icing on there to disguise it. We tend to be overly self-critical, which is sometimes a good thing: we strive that little bit harder to improve and to do well, but on the other hand, it makes it hard to feel proud of our achievements or to accept praise from others.
When I read things I wrote years ago, I feel quite uncomfortable. I am sometimes pleasantly surprised and think, ‘ah, this isn’t as bad as I expected’, but there are definitely times when I groan to myself and wonder what on earth I was thinking. I cringe at some of the laboured metaphors, the overly descriptive passages and my almost fanatical use of The Three: I tend to group my descriptions in threes. In fact if you browse, read or peruse any of my works, writings or output, you will definitely, absolutely, surely notice, observe and see that a lot of what I write is grouped into threes! Who knew?
I’ll just quickly fix this bit. Oh, and this bit. Oh now that bit doesn’t work, oh well, I’ll just…
Well, I did for one, although not until someone pointed it out to me. I try to weed some of them out, unless I am deliberately emphasising a point, and keep them to a minimum. But years ago… No, they are there in all their triplicated glory.
As is my terrible grammar – I just never really know, what, to do with those, commas,.
I used adverbs liberally too (haha, like that!) but I’m not quite so obsessive about those. I don’t mind the odd one, whereas many authors absolutely scour their pages and destroy them without mercy. I like the odd adverb. Sometimes an active verb can be a bit too much, especially if the writer uses loads of them. I’d rather read ‘she said hastily’ than ‘she gabbled’ or ‘rattled’.
Stop authorsplaining and let me read your damn book!
What I don’t like is a ton of adjectives. You know when you read something like, ‘The old sprawling ramshackle creeper-covered house had a battered and pitted, badly-fitting oak door and four tiny grimy windows that peeped out from beneath an elderly ragged thatched roof in much need of repair.’ Just tell me it’s an old house in poor repair, I can furnish the rest from my own imagination. I just haven’t got the energy to read through tons of adjectives. the same with character descriptions or the characters’ clothes. I don’t really care if their shoes are hand-made in Italy from the finest, most supple leather and stitched by angels from their own hair. Just tell me they cost a fortune, I’ll get it.
It needs a bit of work…
The other problem with old work is that it can have you itching to reach for a pen and begin ‘improving’ or ‘correcting’ it. But is that a good idea?
One of the advantages of self-publishing is that you can tweak your books if you need to, with little disruption to the reading public, to stock availability and relatively negligible damage to your finances. Not so the trad-pubbed, of course. There a revision might cost a packet both in cash terms and in terms of reprinting, delays, supply hiccups etc, and will only be undertaken if absolutely necessary. But an Indie book is not too difficult to fix if there are issues with it that are likely to lead to poor reviews, which might have a knock-on effect on sales.
You can’t go through history deleting all the anoraks and t-bar sandals. Sadly.
So I don’t think it’s a problem if you correct an annoying typo or an inconsistency that is mentioned a few times in reviews. That’s just courtesy. But if you give into the urge to revise, it can be quite hard to stop tinkering, and then before you know it you’ve changed the book so much it could be a whole new project, or you can actually break it, leaving gaping plot holes and chapters that no longer hang together.
I think when it comes down to it, with earlier work, you just have to accept it for what and how it is, like your wonky teeth in that old photo. Acceptance is not always easy, and to leave your old book alone is sometimes the hardest decision to make.
As a champion-level over-thinker, I’ve been thinking lately about settings for murder. In fact I spend most of my time thinking of places that might be the perfect setting for a dastardly deed. In recent months I’ve looked at village life generally, and of course, that evergreen setting, the country house. And I’ve pondered the usefulness of cities for carrying out or concealing a crime, and even thought about alternative settings to the country house as a destination that might prove a bit too final for some people.
This week I’ve come up with a slight variation on that theme. I’ve been thinking about events in a village or small town and decided that nothing affords more opportunities for almost any kind of shenanigans than a Fair.
A fair afforded everyone opportunities to escape the humdrum everyday world and experience a bit of well-earned fun. There were new goods to browse, your own goods to sell, the pleasurable clinking of coins into a leather purse. Women meeting up to gossip and exchange recipes, family history and perhaps even husbands. Men getting together to drink, to laugh, to commiserate on a bad harvest or celebrate a good one, to buy and sell livestock. Kids running around and getting into mischief with other kids – for once able to forget about the hardships of life and enjoy the noise, the spectacle, and the edible treats.
The fair had so much to offer, and it was a place and a time when normal rules no longer seemed to apply. You were away from your everyday responsibilities, and had a bit of money in your pocket, and lots of novel things to look at. There was the opportunity for freedom for youngsters looking for love – and not just the young. Everything was new and everything was different. It was the most exciting thing to happen in your village for at least six months, and maybe the whole year, so you’d put on your finest clothes and get there as early as you could.
I was thinking of a medieval fair (which might last for several days) ratherthan a modern village fete type of event. This is what I came up with:
Hurrying to the fair. Exciting, new. It’s been a long time since the fair came to town. The usual marketplace is heaving with crowds. They watch the jugglers, the tumblers, maybe dancers. There could be a performing animal of some kind, or a fire-eater, the children’s favourite.
The air is heavy with smoke from the torches and the fires. Whole hogs are roasting over the coals, and chickens too. Apples are dipped in hot sugary toffee and scorch greedy lips; potatoes are hot from the ashes and wrapped in wool, warming the fingers nipped by a light early frost. All this heat creates wavering streams in the air all around.
The sun sets, but the revelry continues, occasionally disturbed by an ale-fuelled brawl that is quickly interrupted by friends keen to prevent blood-shed and ill-temper that will linger long after the fair has moved on.
Lovers quake at the chance glimpse of the objects of their affection, and placid matrons leave go the hands of the dragging children, who run, leaving the mothers in peace to gossip with the neighbours. A dog may bark, or geese squabble.
A lost child might weep as he wanders a little too far, until some kind, burly farmer hoists him to his shoulder to scan the crowds for the wearer of that familiar apron.
It is the village in festival. The men lean on fences or trestles and talk of crops or hunting. Children run in and out of the groups. Everywhere there is noise, chatter and laughter.
The lost little boy is reunited with his mother who hugs and scolds in equal measure, relieved beyond words. She turns to thank the farmer; sees in his face signs of a boy she once knew. When he raises his hat and is gone, she tells her neighbours that once he had been tall and skinny and had blushed when she smiled at him.
She wonders what he saw. She looks down at her ample, matronly form, no longer the slender darting little thing she had once been.
‘Time changes us all,’ she thinks and turning, sees him glancing back at her, still smiling.
It’s made me want to write something bitter-sweet and set amidst the smoking fires of the dark ages. If this has made you want to read a mystery set at a fair or fete, can I suggest one of the following:
St Peter’s Fair by Ellis Peters (set in 1139, the only ‘old’ one here)
The Burry Man’s Day by Catriona McPherson
Dead Man’s Folly by Agatha Christie
A Fete Worse Than Death by Dolores Gordon-Smith (I love a pun) (in fact a couple of authors have books with this title)
Murder At The Village Fete by Catherine Coles
(slightly interesting note: Sean Pertwee starred as Sir George Stubbs in the TV series Agatha Christie’s Poirot episode called Dead Man’s Folly and also played the role of Hugh Beringar in the Cadfael TV series including the episode of St Peter’s Fair.)
A few weeks ago I posted a blog about how deceptively innocent country houses and small villages appear, and I offered tips on how to avoid the obvious traps for victims of a murder mystery of the genre we laughingly call ‘cosy’ (or cozy, depending where you hail from).
Because If we think about it, there’s nothing cosy/cozy about murder in the real world. Hercule Poirot, arguably one of the most murder-dependent salary earners in the world, famously said ‘I do not approve of murder’. And yet we humans are fascinated by fictional death. Perhaps because it is so awful, so wicked in real life, we have to discuss it, read it, and plot and plan, as a way of dealing with the unthinkable. Anyway…
If I left you with the idea that a hapless character in a murder mystery might be safer in the city, let me quickly put you right there.
The city is vast and highly-populated. You might think there’s safety in numbers. But for all that, it’s not a safe haven for the timid person trying to avoid falling foul of a really determined villain. Here are a few of the pitfalls yo will find when trying to lose yourself in the city:
Firstly, even cities sleep. Kind of. You might be safe amongst the crowds during daylight hours (or are you?) but as soon as it gets dark, beware!
Have you noticed that most cities are situated on water? In fact I can’t think of a single British city (someone help me here, please) that isn’t either: on the coast, on a river, or a canal (which I know is kind of the same thing really).
Now we can see how this came about, historically. Access to fishing and shipping meant a high density of the population was established around watering holes where there was a) water to transport goods in and out of the country, or b) water for industrial purposes (ie power for mills etc), or c) fish (vom–sorry, not a fish eater) or d) that’s where the Vikings/Normans/Saxons/Whoever-they-weres all landed and thought, ‘You know what, this is quite nice’, and so that’s where they stayed. I suppose this isn’t a surprise, I mean, we’re an island, so we’re going to be surrounded by oceans (literally) of water. In fact, if you think about it, we’re all islands, aren’t we? Some are just very very very big. But these many coasts and riverbanks provided harbour, dwelling places and easy access back to the aunties and uncles across the water.
Have you ever noticed how often innocent people minding their own business get lured to deserted docks, riverbanks, canalsides, and the like? Okay I admit we usually discover they are not so innocent after all. No one goes ‘innocently’ to a deserted dock at midnight to pay blackmailers. But my point still stands – these are dangerous areas and offer life-threatening situations to people who really should have stayed at home.
To begin with, there’s the water – deep, cold and swiftly moving.
And then there’s the innumerable hiding places that can conceal your villain.
Andthen, there’s all the weird heavy duty iron and steel items left randomly about the place to furnish your attacker with a handy weapon.
If that’s not enough, these daytime-busy places are just totally deserted at night. There is NO ONE to hear your scream. NO ONE.
TOP TIP: Let’s avoid the docks etc, and try to find somewhere nice and safe to live that is in the middle of the land, miles from any water.
The next danger the urban environment contains is this:
Now these are essentially just the docks all over again but without the water. Miles of crumbling dark buildings, harbouring criminals, twisty-turny corridors, and hundreds of decaying staircases. Why don’t the local governments rip them down and – I don’t know – put up nice little houses with roses in the gardens? I know they get a massive income from renting the space out to Scandi-noir film-makers, or those TV shows where people try to hide from German Shepherds. But come on, let’s think about the safety of your murder victims here.
Loft-style living may be the trendiest aspirational lifestyle, but with few neighbours, eerie parking in the depths of the earth, capacious but very slow-moving lifts that even a sloth could enter when in motion, and huge echoey rooms, this is not self-preservation at its best.
Speaking of German Shepherds, don’t become a recluse and as Bridget Jones said, get murdered but lay undiscovered, and half-eaten by German Shepherds. (okay she didn’t quite say that). (anyway, in my experience, German Shepherds tend to hide behind their owners, or even their owners children at the slightest unusual sound or threatening situation. We had to carry one of ours home once from a long walk, it was too tired. Another one used to be terrified of those bins attached to lamp-posts and also those shopping bags on wheels old ladies like me have.)
It occurs to me now that most modern victims are likely to be eaten by their house-cat, house-rabbit, or even designer miniature house-pig. If you’ve been dead for weeks and half-eaten when you’re discovered, it doesn’t matter how cute the pet that ate you is, you’re still definitely not a pretty sight. Come on, people, don’t become recluses.
Oh yes. Er…
New housing developments can also be strangely appealing to would-be murderers, and undesirably quiet at night. What was that French murder series a few years ago about the dead bodies all sitting around the table in a newly-built house? Anyway, it was a remarkably dramatic setting, but if you’re the victim, no consolation! Keep away from new-builds – by definition there are few neighbours to turn to in times of crisis.
In fact there are only a small number of places you should go if you are required to meet a blackmailer (or any villain) late at night:
These are perfect for a rendezvous that could turn nasty.
TOP TIP: Obviously if we’ve learned anything from fictional victims of crime, it’s to make sure and always tell someone where you’re going and who you’re meeting, there’s no need to be coy about being blackmailed, it can happen to the best of us.
If you can’t do that, take a seat at the bar, and say to the landlord/barman or landlady/barmaid that you are meeting a dodgy blackmailer shortly, and would they mind just popping over every couple of minutes just to make sure you’re still alive. I’m sure that won’t be a problem.
Maybe just don’t go anywhere or do anything. Just sit in front of your TV or curl up with a book, and hope that your German Shepherd/miniature designer pig is one of the aggressive brave sort who will see off intruders, not the scared kind who try to sit on your lap and whine pitifully whilst surreptitiously checking your sofa for tasty snacks.
This week I thought I’d dig out a short story I wrote a few years ago, inspired by a writing prompt from Morgen Bailey on her site. A very short story. I was really into Flash Fiction at the time, although this one was special for me and I have often been tempted to write more about this character. This story was included in a compilation of work that was briefly available (it wasn’t popular!) under the title (I think it was partly the title that killed it 🙂 ) of The Commuter’s Friend. So here it is, I hope you like it.
The Blue Dress
“They’ve found something, sir.” A young policeman addressed him through the car window. Inspector Smith heaved himself forward on the seat and got out of the car. Seemed like these days he was always tired. Time to quit, go fishing, get away from all this. He’d given them thirty-five years, they’d had enough.
“Is he still alive?” he asked the constable. He looked too young to be a copper. Looked like he should still be in the Scouts. They all did, with their degrees in Criminology or Psychology, and their fresh faces, still with acne, some of them. The constable shrugged.
“The paramedics are still working on him. It doesn’t look too good, sir.”
Inside the funeral parlour, the assistant who had raised the alarm watched as a couple of paramedics laboured over the undertaker. The scrawny white chest was bared for the use of the defibrillator. Smith turned away, the image frozen, a moment in time, imprinted on his mind—a few greying hairs in the middle of the chest, the prominent ribs supporting the pale skin.
“How did you know this wasn’t just a routine call?” The constable was at his side, and the question was a welcome distraction. As Smith responded, they turned about and headed for the rear door. “I mean, we were called out to a robbery gone wrong, and straightaway, you knew. It was like magic, sir.”
Smith halted in the doorway and looked at the youngster.
“There’s no magic in this game, son. As soon as we went into the flat upstairs, I saw the dress.”
“I saw it too, sir, but it didn’t ring any warning bells with me.”
Smith looked at him. “You didn’t find it a bit odd that an elderly bachelor should have a blue dress hanging on a mannequin in his bedroom? A blue dress that clearly dated from the 1950s, and was the size of a girl of about 12 to 14 years of age? It didn’t make you wonder if the undertaker had a secret? You didn’t find any of that at all unusual, constable?”
The constable flushed, and looked down at his feet. “Well, I suppose…”
They headed into the back garden. There was a concrete area set aside for client parking. Beyond that a tall hedge enclosed a private garden. Some men in plastic all-in-ones had dug up a small patio area surrounded by climbing roses. In any other time or place, it would have been simply a beautiful bower of contemplation. One of the men got to his feet and beckoned the police officers over. He pointed into the shallow pit.
Smith looked. A cold hand clutched momentarily at his heart. He nodded and turned away. The constable was at his elbow like an eager puppy. “Sir? Do you know who it is, sir?”
Smith nodded again. He sighed.
“Jessie Flynn. 13 years of age. Missing since 1958. The owner of that blue dress.”
This is a shamelessly rewritten blog post from a couple of years ago, mainly because it seems very appropriate for how things are right now, and partly because I was stumped for ideas. 😉
A while ago, I blogged about routine and how I think it’s essential to productive creativity. But what do you do if your routine goes to pot and everything is unsettled and out of sync? (Like now!)
Answer: Just go with it.
I’m thinking of that song by Scott Walker about a million years ago, ‘Make It Easy On Yourself.’ That’s just what you should do.
If you allow the stress of being disorganised to get to you, you will become depressed, anxious, you will feel guilty, and become increasingly non-productive, you’ll be snappy and mean to your loved ones, then you’ll get even more deeply depressed and even less productive. So allow yourself the room to just do what you can manage, and don’t sweat it. Do what you can and don’t beat yourself up if you feel you’re not achieving as much as you think you should, or you planned to achieve.
My planner is a mess of crossed out items that I have not achieved, or not within my self-imposed deadline. That used to send me into a bit of a panic – I love to feel in control, that’s my security blanket.
But now I’m learning to accept and adapt. Or at least I’m trying to. To begin with, I found it quite difficult to have first my husband then my daughter at home all day every day. But now I really like it. We’ve spent so much more time together. (I know, not always a good thing, right?) And the house and garden are starting to look a lot neater now I’m not the only one doing it.
And I’ve seen how hard it is for them to get used to having no colleagues for the usual office banter, or just making work-related catch-ups easier. Thank God for Skype, Facetime, etc! (Seriously if you have colleagues who live alone, check in with them – they might be really lonely and finding it hard.)
At home, we have none of the fancy amenities of the corporate office. Our internet is sloooooooooow. We haven’t any of those comfy swizzle chairs that support your back. There’s ALWAYS someone else in the loo when you’re busting for a wee. No oggy van comes to our place. (Hot snacks and confectionery food van) (Non-Brits, Oggy is a slang term for a Cornish Pasty.) (Here’s a link to the Cornish Pasty association, you can find out how to make an authentic pasty, much better than typing up that report!)
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Meetings are more bearable when your bottom half is in your jammies and fuzzy socks, and only your top half has to look work-ready. We have three cats on hand at all times to help with difficult calculations or to open up a line of conversation with a prickly client. You can have your choice of music playing in the background, sit in the sunny garden for lunch, and your commuting time is down to 30 seconds. You NEVER get stuck in traffic! We are saving a small fortune in petrol.
I don’t advocate, as some have suggested, drinking shots every time you read some email that begins ‘In these troubled/challenging/difficult times’. That is not a good plan. I would be off my face by lunchtime.
Once adjustments are made, I can see that a lot of people will come to love this life.
Do what you can, go with the flow, and gradually normality will reassert itself.
If you only write a small amount, remind yourself it’s a step forward from yesterday, and any progress, no matter how small, is good. You may even find, as I am beginning to realise, that it can be a normal part of your creative process.
I usually start strong, like most writers. I have a good idea of where the story is going, I know what it’s about. But for me, again like many writers, the problems arise about halfway or so into the story when suddenly I realise a) I’m useless at writing, b) my story sucks, and c) it’s never going to be ready in time. This is all the more difficult when you can’t give 100% of your concentration to what you’re doing because you’ve suddenly got more people around you and a mad scramble for bandwidth and table space.
Over the years there have been a few times that my routine has been vandalised by circumstances. The first couple of times, I found it too hard, I struggled to keep my usual impetus and as a result, I gave up on the story. But gradually I’ve learned that I can work through the mess, embrace the chaos and finish a book.
This current crisis is a stressful one, and pressures can take their toll. Old anxieties may resurface, undermining your determination and your control of everything in your life. It becomes harder to push them away and carry on. But that’s what I’m going to do. And that’s what you are going to do. Because what choice do we have? Do we want to give up writing? NO!
So now, we will embrace the mess, and work with it, secure in the knowledge that, regardless of our feelings and the muddle that is our so-called routine, we can do this. It might take a longer than expected, and it might be baby steps all the way, but we will get there, and finish our book.