Saturday, May 31, 2008

Assessing May

I don't know why I wrote Assessing January. It was ok at the time, but then I persisted in giving out a lame account of each and every month's exploits ever since, despite little reason to do so. Now I have started, I cannot stop. I have been waiting to write this post for thirty days. May is one of those months that seem to drag on forever; next one to dread is July. Riding-wise it was a very lame month; I went on my first course, which was really good, but didn't get much riding with my trusty steed. He is still lame and I will have to wait in the sidelines for a little longer. However, I decided to go for Wilf and see where that takes me. I heard he is very good on the lunge and I am sure I can get a (supervised) ride on him. This coming week will be ideal since I am pretty much off work, bar some (also lame) training, and if the weather holds, I should be able to do something unencumbered by persistent rain.

May has been good in this respect. Spring has blossomed and my very tall grass has already gone to seed. The front garden is in its usual messy state, while the back has been duly tended to. Sage, mint and rosemary are beautiful and fragrant and just looking at them makes me want to start cooking something other than boiled veggies. But I need to watch it; I need to fit back into my silk pants by my birthday (that's three months tomorrow) and considering how quickly the year has passed so far, I do not regard three months as a very long time. Or as a long time even. The pressures of being female... I have to knock out a piece for the agent that requested it and for a couple of others that I have identified will be interested in my chosen genre. So I suppose that, despite the sourness of having left my current work project, this slow-down will probably assist me in knocking out a fair amount of writing I usually have to split over multiple evenings. I am off to London at the weekend and to a Bon Jovi concert at the end of the month. I am not enamoured with June, but at least there is something to look forward to. Sorry, no pic today.

Friday, May 30, 2008

A Sweet And Sour Slice Of Life

Today was one of those days. I left the project I joined last autumn among plentiful gasps from colleagues that just did not expect me to move on at this point, when there is still a lot of work to do. I have yet to speak to the project manager to see whether he has anything in mind, but for the moment, I went quietly, gathering my teaPigs, the Starbee travel mug (which I never used) and the sack of computer cables that follow me everywhere. It was very sour. I don't know why it feels this way. It didn't use to be like this before my sick leave. Now that I cannot take roles away from home, I feel like I am offloaded from project to project, which is very different from moving from project to project. Dean accompanied me to the carpark and once again I had proof that you do not go and seek friendship, you do not look for it, you do not scour places in its search, you don't find it; it finds you. It finds you in the most unexpected and hostile of environments, when you close your eyes in the morning and brainwash yourself into believing that you'll soon hit evening and you will hardly have noticed. It finds you when you flap like a fish out of water until an unknown hand puts you back where you belong and so you can swim again. I had to fight as we talked. I fought hard. I could feel that hateful tremor that only ever erupts inside of me when I am in the presence of those that allow me to drop the mask and be the real me. It's a miracle I didn't burst into tears to a symphony of it's not fair.

I arrived home to the one thing on earth that without fail manages to cheer me up every time. The latest VOGUE. I had my first flick and my heart fluttered in excitement at two little words: pre Fall. How fabulous. Pre-Fall. Pre-Autumn. Autumn. Then I bulked at the very narrow silhouettes; fantastic tweed pencil skirts that will hardly fit a real pencil, let alone my enormous bottom. And so I cooked on the lean side for dinner (all boiled), as I have done for the past three days, not that I can detect a change, other than greater hunger. But it's Saturday tomorrow, and seeing that Merv is lame, I will hit the bike in the morning instead. But for now, it's bed and VOGUE.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Cast On, Off and Away

Oh utter joy. Just about all my friends know that I knit and crochet. What they do not know is how truly unskilled I am at both of these. Or I should say they did not know how truly unskilled at both of these I was. Last night I graduated to my first decent piece of lace after twenty-two attempts and now I feel up there in the Olympus of all exquisite things, up there in the Olympus of Lace Knitting. Not many people know that lace can be tatted, knitted or crocheted. I love it all, especially so when it is done with a slightly hairy fibre that gives the item a hazy aura. I have seen fabulous pictures of lace items in One Skein Wonders and I now feel ready, willing and able to attempt something more complex once this scarf is done. I am knitting this for Ma'. I am using Addi Turbos in 4 mm, the pattern is from Debbie Bliss Pure Silk Collection but I am using Louisa Harding Mulberry silk (in rose) because I find it is a better silk than Debbie's. It is not as slippery and doesn't split as easily.

As I was working at it earlier today, scenes from Cast Away re-played in my mind. Chuck trying to make fire, Chuck pulling his tooth out, Chuck leaving the island trying to save himself, Chuck returning to the life he once knew, except life does not recognise him. And I thought about a deserted island and about what I would do, or whether I would even survive. People often say they would like to escape the everyday rut by migrating to a deserted island. Much as I detest most of my necessary routines, I would never want to spend time on a deserted island (unless I had a plane and a dashing pilot with me), not even if I could cast on and off at will in order to pass time. What would I knit anyway? For I start it would take me months to strip bark off trees and then I would need to knot it together and then I would need to make wooden knitting needles. You know what, that's too much trouble for anyone, alone or otherwise. It's funny that I say so, because when I think of the good times in my life, I was actually alone in all of them. I like to be alone very much. Being alone does not mean being lonely, I just happen to be a very independent person who likes her company very much, without being une misanthrope. In fact, I'll tell you more, if my friends knew half of what I have written on here they would be flabbergasted to the ninth. Every time I speak to Dean, he is surprised to acquire some new bit of information. The other day he told me that I lead three parallel lives and maybe he is right. He would love to read the My Dimension Jump post if only I revealed my blog's address to him. I challenged him to find out by himself which, really, is as easy as being a cast away for four years and then finding his way back to civilisation by drifting off for 500 miles on a raft he himself put together. But who knows, he may make it. This is for you Dean; tomorrow I'll bring you the scarf you heard so much about, so that you can see that it was worth all of the effort and all of the swearing.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Hope Of Deliverance

I returned home drained. Not even my feel good shoes saved me. I spent the day on a wretched financial spreadsheet that quickly got me seeing static instead of rows and rows and rows and rows of nasty little figures. When I reached for a Starbee in desperation, I didn’t even feel like drinking it and that’s saying something. My role on this project is coming to a close this week. My tasks have trickled into nothingness, the daily meetings progressively shrinking until they were no more. I cannot say I am sad, were it not for the need to find another role preferably before the whole pyramid starts fretting in order to shuffle me about into some other capacity. Onto the next crap! I am so spaced out that even brushing my teeth will be too much effort.

Meanwhile, I received a mail from an agent I had forgotten I had written to. S/he (you cannot really tell what they are when they call themselves RECEPTION) requests three chapters together with the proposal. Damn. I have the proposal, all 5,000 words of it, and that’s what my spec letter was plugging, but I don’t quite have three chapters. I have one. And a bit. For now.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Sydney Pollack Dies

I read today that Sydney Pollack died. To me, he was not the Oscar-winning director, the man behind Out of Africa, The Way We Were, The Firm or many others. To me he was George Fields, Michael’s agent from the effervescent Tootsie. Tootsie is very often referred to as a run-of-the-mill comedy about a man in drag. Those who think of Tootsie in this way flabbergast me, because to reduce this movie to a comedy about a man in drag is, quite frankly, as appropriate as referring to Port as ‘yet another red wine’ or to Michelangelo as ‘a sculptor that was also good with a paintbrush’. Only a philistine would do this but judging by Amazon’s reviews, there are many philistines out there. Amazon’s reviews make for quite a depressing read actually; to think that barely literate people consider themselves capable of a review is mind-blowing, but this is a dangerous veer off topic for which I must apologise.

Tootsie is rife with multiple sub-texts; unfulfilment, performance anxiety, sexism, creativity, and the gambles one needs to take in order to answer to a greater call. It just happens to be extremely funny as well, with superb acting, writing, photography, comic timing and directing. I first watched Tootsie many years ago, when I didn’t even comprehend the difference between a job and a vocation. In fact, I didn’t even know a difference existed. Now, if for whatever reason I am mulling over what happens or, as is often the case, what does not happen in my life, I play Tootsie and finish the day smirking to myself, with that deep knowledge of self-validation stirred inside of me like only the movies that speak to your creative abilities can stir, like only I and George and Michael know that secret. When I wrote my piece about agents, those of you familiar with Tootsie will have detected a self-conscious nod to it. The scene between Michael, enraged because George hasn’t put him forward for a job, and George, who tries to defend his decision on the basis that no-one wants to hire troublesome Michael, is one of my favourite moments of movie entertainment. I am reproducing it here as a homage to Sydney Pollack who has created so much unforgettable magic in his life, and who has gifted me personally with my favourite movie moment ever. Don’t just read it; go and watch it and learn the secret.

George: Hang on. Michael, will you wait outside? I'm talking to the Coast.

Michael: This is a coast too George. New York’s a coast too.

George: Oh, boy. Sy, are you--God-- Look what you-- Margaret? Get him back. I cut myself off. What is it, Michael?

Michael: Terry Bishop's doing Iceman Cometh on Broadway. You promised to send me up for that. You told me I'd get a reading for that. Aren't you my agent?

George: Stuart Pressman wants a name.

Michael: Terry Bishop is a name?

George: No, Michael Dorsey is a name, when you want to send a steak back. Wait, wait, wait! You always do this to me. It was a rotten thing to say. Let me start again. Terry Bishop is on a soap. Millions watch him every day.

Michael: That qualifies him to ruin Iceman Cometh? I can act circles around him. I played that part in Minneapolis.

George: lf he wants a name, that's his affair. People are in this business to make money Michael.

Michael: I'm in it to make money too George!

George: Really? The Harlem Theatre for the Blind? The People's Workshop at Syracuse?

Michael: Wait a minute. I did nine plays up at Syracuse. I got great reviews from the critics. Not that that's why I did it.

George: God forbid you should lose your standing as a cult failure.

Michael: You think I'm a failure?

George: I will not get sucked into this conversation. I will not.

Michael: I sent you my roommate's play to read. It had a great part in it for me.

George: Where do you come off sending me a play for you to star in? I'm not your mother., I’m your agent, I don't find plays for you to star in. I feel offers. That's what I do!

Michael: Feel offers? Who told you that, the agent fairy? I could be terrific in that part.

George: Nobody's going to do that play.

Michael: Why?

George: Because it's a downer about a couple that move back to Love Canal.

Michael: But that actually happened.

George: Who gives a shit?! Nobody wants to watch people living next to chemical waste! They can see that in New Jersey.

Michael: I don't want to argue about it. I'll raise $ 8,000 and will produce Jeff’s play. Send me up for anything. I don't care. I'll do dog commercials. I'll do radio voice-overs.

George: I can't put you up for that.

Michael: Why not?

George: Because no one will hire you.

Michael: I bust my ass to get a part right!

George: And you bust everybody else's ass too! Who wants to argue about whether Tolstoy can...walk when he's dying or walk when he's talking--?

Michael: That was two years ago and that guy's an idiot!

George: They can't all be idiots Michael. You argue with everybody! You've got one of the worst
reputations in this town. Nobody will hire you.

Michael: Are you saying that nobody in New York will work with me?

George: No, I am saying nobody in Hollywood will hire you either. I can't even get you a commercial. You played a tomato and they went two days over schedule because you wouldn't sit down.

Michael: Yes, it wasn't logical.

George: You were a tomato! A tomato doesn't have logic! It can't move!

Michael: So if he can't move, how's he going to sit down George? I was a stand-up tomato. A juicy, sexy, beefsteak tomato! Nobody does vegetables like me! I did vegetables off-Broadway! I did the best tomato, the best cucumber! I did an endive salad that knocked the critics on their ass!

George: I'm trying to stay calm here. You are a wonderful actor.

Michael: Thank you.

George: But you're too much trouble. Get some therapy.

Michael: Okay, thanks. I'm gonna raise $ 8,000 and I am gonna do Jeff's play.

George: Michael, you're not gonna raise 25 cents. No-one will hire you.

Michael: Oh, yeah?

Oh pants...!

Unwanted weight approaches slowly yet determined from afar, like debt or a pushy relative on Christmas Eve. It bursts into your life with that same SURPRISE factor and elicits the same eye-narrowing scepticism of the credit card bill and of the relative. But while you can scan transactions for fraud or you can try and slam the door in the face of the scrounger, resisting the surprise, the shock and the self-loathing that follow weight gain is a much harder, if not completely impossible, task to muster. I know that while I have successfully identified fraud and I have successfully refuted scroungers, I have also stood in front of the mirror, mouth aghast, forehead scrunched up, hands pulling hard against two wretched bits of fabric that would just not come together. I use one particular pair of trousers as my benchmark for fatness and perhaps this itself sets me up for failure.

As every woman knows, there is much more levee in a skirt than in a pair of pants, but this is exactly why success resounds so much louder when the zipper pulls up with ease on the drainpipes, rather than on the pencil. I can guarantee that within ten days my currently slightly tight narrow skirt will fit like it did a few months back. The silk trousers are an entirely different challenge. I bought these bits of fabulousness in early 2002, just before my first trip to New York. I can leaf through old pics and see myself wearing them everywhere. The Empire State Building, Fifth Avenue, the plane, the Waldorf. I inspect my face for signs of fat; it surely did look rounder then. Could it be that now I am approaching 30 I simply look haggard in the face and fat in the ass? Is that the difference between early and late twenties? I also recall wearing them on the way to work, standing on the Farringdon platform, denim jacket on top, huge fringed John Galliano wrap carefully thrown on my shoulders (there is no such thing as effortlessly done dahhhlin’, remember that). I recall wearing them for lunch with a friend in early 2006 and catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror. They were loose, loose like they had never been before. At the time I was returning to work on a part-time basis, which allowed for twenty hours of exercise to take place religiously, Monday to Friday, at my local fitness centre. I was trying to strengthen my back, what I got into the bargain was not a weight loss, as testified by the scales receipts that insist on reading the same over a period of three months, but a de-puffing and toning up that I have not experienced since. And fact is, I want it back.

Friends are currently doing liquid diets, the sort that deflate you before you go on holiday, and that move you back to the land of the fatties as soon as you stop the shakes and go back to solids. Much as I’d love to be a stick, I love solid food more. I cannot exercise twenty (or more) hours per week because I cannot fit so much into my schedule any longer. I am up early to go to the office, not to walk to David Lloyd for a workout. When I return in the evening, I am too hungry to contemplate a 3-hour sweat-out. In fact, the thought of it makes me queasy. And of course Merv having been off the radar for the past three weeks hasn’t helped either. One thing is to potter around him and quite another to go for a two-hour trotting hack. Even then, I recently noticed that I do not get as tired (read, as pumped up) any longer, probably because the work on the exercise bike with a view to increase my horsey stamina has started to pay off. And yes the exercise bike. I cannot think of anything more boring than a stationary bike (lie, I can, Gangs of New York), yet it has proved invaluable at a time when Merv was lame and I really wanted a proper sweat-out. However, I have the peculiar habit of pedalling with a Nigella or Jamie DVD playing in the Mac and I can tell you that if this helps the workout to fly by (or very nearly), it most certainly does not help its aftermath.

So I resolved to cut-back with a low-fat diet devoid of just about everything. I began last night by preparing a wrap with paprika flageolet beans and Philadelphia extra light. I also threw a low-fat, low-calorie soya dessert into the bag and already felt thinner just by placing it in the fridge ready to go this morning. Except I drove to work and left it at home. Since I was in extra early, and was so very angry for having forgotten the food, I had a grande (skinny) caramel macchiato at Starbee. Believe it or not, even a cup the size of a vase laced up with caramel sauce only has 120 calories provided you ask for skimmed milk. I am beginning to wonder whether Starbee at large may be part of the problem. Since I started work at this client, with a Starbee in the building, I seem to have gotten… well… fatter. I hate even typing that. I plead on here, right now, to stop the vicious circle. I will prepare my own food at home, I will remember to take it with me, I will stop the snacking at 3 pm and I will reduce the number of Starbees (to… maybe… just xx a day). And I will fit back into those bastard pants if that’s the last thing I do before my birthday in September.

Monday, May 26, 2008

The Short Of It

Oh holy Jesus. It's Tuesday tomorrow and I suppose that is the only good thing about it. It will feel like Monday but it will already be Tuesday. I have been off work for the past few days and it has been great. In fact, great is a great understatement. I have been intellectually and physically active and I feel fabulous for it. The thought of getting into the car tomorrow morning to mindlessly drive somewhere I have little reason to be is, quite frankly, mind-numbing. To think that I will have to sit at my desk, struggling to concentrate on the ins-and-outs of a piece of code that is so bugged it needs disinfestation makes me physically sick. I had such a fantastic time as of late; reading, writing, taking pictures, making plans, expanding my intellectual horizons. Tomorrow I will have to sit down for nine hours of mental martyrdom when I could be home doing something of value instead. Such as beginning a diet. I thought I did today, and sprinkled a long walk on it as well, but then I think I may have spoilt it all with tea and biscuits. There's always tomorrow... If all else fails, and it will, my currently un-zippable Escada pants should give me something interesting to focus on.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Sunday Cooking

It is a truth universally acknowledged that even those who have never read anything by Jane Austen know of this sentence ‘it is a truth universally acknowledged’. It is a truth universally acknowledged that writers, would-be writers, bloggers, journalists and just about everyone who has ever written anything will find a moment in life when a universally acknowledged truth will come to mind and will be paired up in the most improbable manner with just about anything, from lying politicians to overflowing wheelie bins. The universally acknowledged truth that came to mind today is that a Bank Holiday must be in want of lousy weather. So lousy that I did not even venture out of the house, but spent the day drifting from book to hook and, as is often the case, from bedroom to kitchen. The kitchen yielded a minty asparagus frittata.

500g medium stemmed asparagus
6 whole eggs
a splash of milk
10 leaves of mint, chopped up
a drop of olive oil
200g of feta, in cubes
one clove of garlic, skin on
a pinch of salt
soy sauce

Drop some olive oil in the frying pan and sizzle the mint and the clove of garlic. Add the cut asparagus and continue to sizzle. Add the soy sauce and cover on low heat so that the asparagus can become tender but not cooked throughout. Meanwhile, crack the eggs in a jug, beat quickly, add a splash of milk, a good grounding of black pepper and a pinch of salt. Throw the feta in the frying pan, remove the garlic, quickly stir and level (and I do this with a good whacking on the side) and finally pour the eggs over. Put back on a medium heat until firm. If, like me, you cannot flip a frittata without having to wash the floor afterwards, place it under the grill until it’s cooked through. If you can flip successfully, go for it! This is particularly good when left in the fridge overnight and eaten between two slices of bread the day after. Not that it happens often at my place...

I didn't just eat today, I also started practising the pattern for the crochet blanket I spoke of yesterday. Because it is a truth universally acknowledged that a happy hooker in possession of a good stash must be in want of a work in progress.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

I've Got Stash

My aversion for spring-summer is well documented in my circles. Yet, there are things that I love about the warmer seasons. Mainly these:


and these

I know that the yarn does not quite follow on from the first two; it’s not like it only grows in these colours at this time of year. It doesn’t, but my penchant for candy colours only surfaces around about April, like my longing for yet another escape to Paris, like a broodiness that creeps up on me as soon as the last few daffs shrivel and die. Come my birthday I will want to envelope myself into everything brown, gold, rusty, earthy; come spring I want to metaphorically throw strawberry and cream (or strawberry and Pimm’s) all over my living space, from the lounge and dining room which have been decorated with Christmas in mind (dragon’s blood walls and gold everywhere) to the study, which, in order to promote concentration and intellectual prowess, is all Venetian blue. I wonder why it is then that I cannot work in that room to save my life. I have got computers there (surely, they are part of their problem, even though I must admit that the Mac does not feel half as threatening as the PC), I have got sharpened pencils in all colours, lovely books, a soothing lamp and a creaky white wooden floor. Yet, I never manage to do anything in the study, other than fritter time away. I’ll tell you what, the places that really concentrate my mind are always outside of the house. Coffee places are ideal. There are people that need absolute silence to get to work; I am the opposite. Lock me up at home and I start fretting that life may be happening out there and that I am missing it all in here. In fact, I am writing this away from home. Proof? So there:

I never have coffee somewhere other than Starbee, unless, that is, I am somewhere where Starbee is too small and one cannot work in there without being knocked off the table multiple times. So I decamp at Costa, where there is more space, or at least there is in this one. Today I went out with the sole purpose to get some yarn for a chevron blanket. I found a pattern in Vintage Crochet, in fact it’s fair to say that I bought Vintage Crochet and decided to learn on the basis of chevron (or ripple or zig-zag or wavy, call them what you will) blankets alone. Of course, I feel entirely accomplished on the basis of having the pattern and the yarn and the hook... I am sure the skill will come. Just sitting next to the kit should be enough to let me imbibe the skills from the air, little particles floating up to me and getting into my brain kindly of an osmotic process still unknown to mankind at large.

I figured out that the £ 50 till receipt for the yarn (and that is for one third of the blanket, let me add) should be enough to kick me into action. That and the burning desire to turn up at the knitting group on a Thursday evening and being able to nod slowly and knowingly at the right opportunity and go: ‘aaah yes, rippppple blankets, aren’t theeeey looooovely’ just before whipping my masterpiece out of the bag on cue, all 87 shades of it, balls scattering all over, whoops and cheers and gasps reaching for the sky left and right like the watery walls of the Red Sea. ‘Steph, I didn’t know you were doing a blanket?! Last time I saw you, you couldn’t cast on!!!’. My false modesty in full gear, I would let rip of a little smirk like I am this great, meek thinker capable of so, so, so much more than I let in. ‘Yeah... well...’ eyebrow coyly arched, ‘I only just started it’. Meanwhile I am fingering the balls, re-arranging them in vases, on the side, on the table, in the bookcase, in the bowl. I mean, they don’t look that bad like this, right? Who says that I have to use them?

Friday, May 23, 2008

My Creative Autobiography

What is the first creative moment you remember?
I was at primary school and was required to draw a picture of a food I liked. I decided to draw a plate of polenta which, really, did not look like polenta at all.

Was there anyone there to witness or appreciate it?
My teacher and she did not appreciate it. She shouted that I should have coloured it in. When I told her what it was, she said she couldn’t even tell, so she wiped my plate of polenta off the page and drew her own. It looked very beautiful to me, but as I was enveloped in her powdery scent as she leaned over from behind my chair and drew, I felt offended that she felt the need to wipe my drawing out and replace it with her own. It was my notebook after all and even though she smelt nice, I thought she was awful. I cried at home.

What is the best idea you’ve ever had?
To become critically self-sufficient in my creative pursuits.

What made it great in your mind?
I felt liberated from that depending feeling of self-validation through other people’s views and opinions.

What is the dumbest idea?
To apply for a corporate job in order to finance my PhD.

What made it stupid?
Dedicating all my time towards a pursuit that impairs my creativity and imagination. In fact, it drains it.

Can you connect the dots that led you to this idea?
To the best idea I’ve ever had? No, I can’t. But I can connect the dots that led me to the worst one.

What is your creative ambition?
To write for a living.

What are the obstacles to your ambition?
Everything is an obstacle, but I can only see them when I take my eyes off my target.

What are the vital steps to achieving this ambition?
Practice, competence and mental stamina. I am my own fiercest critic and greatest fan.

How do you being your day?
Woken up by dogs.

What are your habits? What patterns do you repeat?
I spend one hour every morning getting ready to face the world. This involves making up and washing and styling my hair every single day. It doesn’t matter that I may not be going out that day. I used to do this even when I was off work on sick leave and nobody outside of my four walls would come into contact with me. I take the day off with the make-up remover and by brushing my teeth. I never go to sleep without having done these two things. Never, ever.

Describe your first successful creative act.
Drawing horses with long necks. In my early years I used to draw them with little heads attached to their thick, oval bodies. But one day I figured out that they didn't really look like that, so I freed my trembling hand, elongated the neck and, finally, I had a proper horse. I used to call them all Pegasus. This seems very unimaginative to me now but considering that I was a very small child of 3 or 4 years of age, I have to wonder how I knew that Pegasus was a horse in the first place.

Describe your second successful creative act.
I completed a short novel for teenagers. I wrote it the space of a few weeks during one very hot summer. This happened much later than my first creative act, but it felt like a seminal moment to me.

Compare them.
I used to sketch all of my gameplay. I wouldn’t pick up Barbies and play with them, I would storyboard it all in my notebooks and then get the Barbies out and act it out. So it was normal for me to sketch all the time. I used to sketch for friends as well, but hated colouring in. All my sketches were done in pen, mostly black or blue. It later seemed like I could expand on the sketches with words. I loved to write out what I had sketched. The activities seem therefore connected to me, but I didn’t think so at the time. It was either sketching or writing.

What are your attitudes toward: money, power, praise, rivals, work, play?
Money: a necessary evil.
Power: something I shy away from.
Praise: it flatters me.
Rivals: farewell, may God be with you. They leave me unfazed. Or they would leave me unfazed if I had any.
Work: it doesn’t exist so long as I write.
Play: it’s my whole life.

Which artists do you admire the most?
Michelangelo, Leonardo, Foucault, Keats, Shelley, Wilde.

Why are they your role models?
Because they gave me something that endures and interests me and moves me and spurs me to explore my own creativity every time I think of them. Just their names make me smile.

What do you and your role models have in common?
Michelangelo: we both force ourselves to work through something we dislike because we have to.
Leonardo: we both shoot off in multiple directions, fired up by improbable ideas, enthusiastic about everything.
Foucault: we both write about difficult topics in a non-patronising, accessible manner.
Keats: we both love and pursue beauty.
Shelley: we are both unafraid of passion.
Wilde: we are both effervescent and equipped with poisonous nibs.

Does anyone in your life regularly inspire you?
Myself. To stay focused and to do better. I can always do better.

What is your muse?
Michelangelo’s Moses. He is god-like, strong and awesome. When I think of inspiration, especially when I lack it, I think of this man. In my mind, he often breaks through the marble, walks up to me and talks, but what he says, of course, is private.

Define muse.
He who inspires me, shelters me and spurs me on.

When confronted with superior intelligence or talent, how do you respond?
I learn.

When faced with stupidity, hostility, intransigence, laziness, or indifference, how do you respond?
Stupidity: I get angry.
Hostility: I walk away.
Intransigence: I stick to my own guns.
Laziness: I get up and do something myself.
Indifference: I turn the page.

When faced with impending success or the threat of failure, how do you respond?
I get fired up.

When you work, do you love the process or the result?
The result only slightly more than the process, but only just. That’s because I really, really, really, really like to re-read my work. I edit it all the time. It never ends. It’s never finished.

At what moment do you feel your reach exceeds your grasp?
All the time.

What is your ideal creative activity?

What is your greatest fear?
To lose the ability to crystallise ideas into coherent sentences.

What is the likelihood of either of the answers to the previous two questions happening?
Well... writing already happens. It happens all the time, just not for a living at the moment. But I am certain that it ain’t far off. As for losing the ability to write... I suppose the likelihood of it happening is minute.

Which of your answers would you most like to change?
The answer to the first question. I wish I had no memory of having been put down (and almost out) because I did not colour in a stupid drawing.

What is your idea of mastery?
To dispense with a proof-reader and an editor. I work at it all the time. I want to be self-sufficient.

What is your greatest dream?
To live well and inspire young people to turn inspiration into reality.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Love Your Food And Your Food Will Love You Back

When I was at uni and used to share my flat with the most adorable Japanese girl ever, I thought that only really boring people, or indeed she, would be interested in food. This girl was a handful of years older than me and completely passionate about cooking. When I would stumble into the kitchen late at night, frazzled by fencing practice, scoffing vile biscuits purchased at the shop on the corner, she would be sizzling vegetables in a wok, ebony hair scraped back, white bathrobe impeccable despite the sprouting stove. I never thought I would turn into her but fact is, I have. It started during my leave from work when attempting some baking seemed like a good way to do something other than physiotherapy or reading in bed, sore back permitting. It all rapidly escalated into an ever-expanding food library and a collection of kitchen gadgets I am desperately trying to find a reason to use. It delighted me that Pixar's latest, Ratatouille, was not simply about someone whose pre-determined path forbade wild dreams, but that it was also about food.

Tonight, when I surveyed my slightly depressing fridge, as it always is towards the end of the week, I found an half-empty can of coconut milk and a jar of French mustard. I love all mustard you see, but the French one gets my vote. I just cannot get enough of its paint-stripping quality as it raises from my palate to my nose and there it explodes, turning me into a sniffling, but very happy, culinary wreck. I thought of Remy and of his description of putting together two tastes to create something new, fireworks dancing on one's tastebuds as new flavours are released.

I wish I had taken a pic of my flageolet noix de coco mutarde, a mix of hot flageolet beans dressed in French mustard with a dash of coconut milk. I absolutely loved it as Anton Ego would say. Stiff food critic Ego is a professed food-lover, even though a touch too thin for someone that really loves food (never trust a thin cook and all that...), yet he dispenses words of wisdom we can all do with. 'I don't like food, I love it. If I don't love it, I don't swallow'.

I think we should all apply this philosophy. These words often ring in my ears as I aimlessly scour the offerings at the canteen, ogling the limp beets and tasteless pickles. How can a pickle of all things be tasteless? Trust me, the canteen at work manages it. Since I first watched Ratatouille, I made Ego's words my lunchtime mantra, and I say lunchtime because this is the meal I consume away from home; I would be insane to cook food I do not love to eat, but when one has no control over the ingredients and their combination, less than exciting tasting experiences abound. Thinking about Ego has drastically cut down the number of so-and-so meals I have had. I don't grab any longer the anaemic hummus wrap or the soap-like mozzarella or the slimy avocado salad. I have reduced my meals to grapes and water or whatever I have had the time to prepare the night before in a fit of super-organisation. And guess what, I feel better for it. I am certain I would even trim down slightly if I only ever ate food I love. Playing just ten minutes of Ratatouille lifts my spirits when I feel not so great. It inspires me to get creative even when the fridge is empty. It is one of those stories that reminds me all the time that really great movies have an elusive quality to their core that makes them wonderful and timeless. It cannot be explained. To paraphrase Jack Black, if you don't get it, I am afraid you're a cinematic idiot, and I feel sorry for you.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Agent Fairy

Today I heard that a friend of a friend, an already published children's author, is ditching her agent. As she was talking, I spaced out, the three little words 'ditching her agent' hopping from ears to brain to eyes where they stuck, like blinkers, as I cut all else out. What did she mean 'ditching her agent'? It means nothing to me. Authors look for agents, write to agents, talk to agents, long for agents, pray for agents, beg for agents, they do not ditch agents, right? This is the stuff of oxymorons, as available as a reliable plumber or a tall Tom Cruise; as real as Beverly Hills without cocaine or beauty adverts without digital imagery. Yet it's all true, I heard of a published author who is ditching her agent. Said agent, a supposedly reputable one going by the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook and make of that what you will, has exhausted all of her contacts in the chick lit arena, a grand total of nine. When I short-listed my agents I crossed out very many; I write lifestyle narrative non-fiction which can mean one permutation of very many different styles. Not all non-fiction agents represent this type of non-fiction, even when they supposedly represent all non-fiction. There just cannot be one agent that represents ALL non-fiction, you'd think an agent should know that's impossible? But, as usual, I digress.

This author I am speaking of is writing chick lit and her agent has a total of nine contacts in the business. Blimey, chick lit is not lifestyle narrative non-fiction. Heck, it is not 2nd century Bulgarian religious poetry. Surely there must be more publishers to tackle for chick lit than nine? As I was driving through the countryside on the way to horsey, I reflected on this point. I thought about the market and its requirements. You'll find agents that tell you it's difficult to publish your book in the current climate, but judging by what I see in Waterstone's I would say it's not that hard to publish anything at all these days, for anything goes, from supposedly inspirational diaries to memoirs of misery. I thought about the dumbing-down of popular culture in general, something that I feel super-qualified to bring into the picture as I am finishing a PhD on it, but then I always defend popular culture, for I appreciate its potency and know that it cannot be reduced to mere idiocy. I also thought of the agent as signifier of success, as the speed-lane to a profession that most of us regard as the Holy Grail of all professions, the profession that so perfectly fits the old adage 'find a job you enjoy and you'll never have to work one day in your life' (thanks Mr Confucius), at least for me. This is what I thought an agent was, and was for, until I started contacting a few. Immediately life appeared in front of me as seen through the lens of clarity, my own preconceptions about agents distorted and burlesque to begin with.

The consensus is that without an agent, one cannot get a book published. Aspiring authors re-focus from publication to representation and leave the quest for the publishing deal to the agent. Books, articles, forums, writing groups are all adequate sources of information regarding the 'how to approach an agent' issue. Yet, reading through the checklists often left me wondering whether agents were a different breed of professionals, professionals one should approach with water-marked, headed parchment, laser-printed DO NOT BEND envelopes and Smythson business cards, professionals impressed both by style and substance. I have both (and modesty, as you can tell) and have recently begun a ride that has prompted me to post this, hoping that it will help new writers to re-evaluate themselves and their work. Stick with me to the end and you'll see why.

What does rejection mean? The word rejection goes hand-in-hand with writer as much as 'pop/stop/Pringles' or 'love/hate/Marmite'. Do a little bit of research and you will find that even classics have been rejected countless times. I find that starting on this can be both depressing and re-assuring. This is because zooming in on agents' (and publishers') ineptitude at recognizing quality in its rough state is a worrying prospect, yet, at the same time, it makes authors feel like they are in good company and we all know that a trouble shared is a trouble halved, right? Wrong.

Wrong because the sub-text of rejection is that there must be something awry with the submission itself. Writers beat themselves up about this all the time when, effectively, they are blindfolded in a darkened room, trying to put together a jigsaw they can find no pieces of.

I got a rejection letter but I don't know what I need to change in the proposal…

I got a rejection letter but it didn't say very much…

I got a 'with compliments' rejection slip and that was that, so I am re-writing my introduction now…

I didn't even get a reply which, really, is a mute rejection. So I am re-writing the spec letter…

And so on forever. What articles, books, forums and countless other outlets always do is looking at the rejection from a bottom-up point of view, where the author is a quivering, fearful and often shy wreck waiting to be slashed into by the agent's knife. Often, one ends up reading rather entertaining stuff sent in by writers and divulged by agents. I am not entirely sure what the agents' purpose is on this one, if not showing what a hard, gripping life they do lead, leafing through crap for a living. So I recently chose to look at the problem from the top-down, for a rejection is more likely to tell me something about the agent, and not so much about my proposal or my letter.

Consider the rejection that came from the agent who wrote:

'The proposal you mentioned was not included in the letter, but I can tell you that it would not be something that I can represent anyway'.

This is an agent who cannot distinguish a speculative letter asking whether the agent would like to see the proposal, from an offer to read an enclosed proposal. Next!

Consider the rejection that came from the agent who wrote, following promising phone conversation:

'I am afraid this is not really for us. I hate to disappoint you and I really hope I am proven wrong'.

Come on, are you kidding me? Why would someone hope to be proven wrong when turning down an author? So that they could later kick themselves silly when said author is doing really well at racking them while represented by someone else? This is one of the many agents out there who does not even catch the contradiction within a stock-reply that they really ought not to give. If you find an agent who uses clichés in rejection letters, or any letter, be grateful it is not your agent. Next!

Consider the rejection that came from the agent who compared a popular culture critical work to the Dummies guides. Does this agent not grasp the difference between TIME magazine and Heat? Would he compare Umberto Eco to Dan Brown? Does he even know the difference? Next!

Consider the rejection that came from the agent who thought said popular culture critical work was a health title and that on that basis he could not represent it. Next!

Consider the rejection that came from the agent who was interested in a book about an English king and later copped out with:

'I found it really interesting but I am afraid I just cannot get my head round historical fiction'. Next!

Or how about the agent who rejected an 'autobiography' of someone who has been dead for 556 years on the grounds that the agency only represents fiction writers? Who did she think wrote the book? Next!

Or the rejection of an historical novel whose ending was deemed as 'too sad' and should have been changed, throwing historical accuracy out of the window in favor of a happily-ever-after scenario? Next! Next! Next!

I am not suggesting that an author should become a nuisance to an agent who does not, for any reason, feel passionately about the writer's work; that would be career suicide. But I do take exception to agents who place themselves on the proverbial soap-box when they only have nine contacts. I take exception to agents who want a perfectly packaged work from the word 'Dear' and who are not prepared to work with the author as it was customary years ago. I take exception to agents who do not even read perfectly presented material and return it without a word because they are the only busy people at work. I take exception to agents who do not take leaps yet seem quite comfortable representing mediocre work on the basis of a friend's recommendation. I take exception to a lot of other agents, and I am certain you have your own reasons to take exception to lots of them as well.

Fact is, we need to take ownership of our work. We need to know better. We need to be able to make the judgment on our own writing. We need to let go of the misguided assumption that The Agent Knows Best, that the advisory service knows best. Recently, a friend submitted a sample to two services; one recommended one course of action, the other recommended exactly the opposite. This is symptomatic of a great disease: when writing, we are treading into the eggshell-covered no man's land of subjectivity where one person can say all and its opposite and still make sense of it. It is of paramount importance that we, writers, can make that judgment unaided, for only this will be our salvation.

This quest does a disservice to us all, but especially so to the less experienced writers who write and talk about agents as if they were the be-all and end-all of the writing profession, as if they had more understanding of writing or of how the world spins around than you or I have. Remember that there are agents (and editors of course, but first, agents) who allow 'the huge monk' or 'the fact that' to go into print. While I personally would not write a work off because of these two lapses in judgment, I would expect, require and demand a capable agent to work with the writer in order to ensure that s/he becomes a better one. By the same token, an agent should be willing to receive new submissions, never too busy for a new proposal. This would equate to being too busy to expand one's horizons, to learn about new trends and perspectives; it would equate to a refusal for personal growth that I, as a person, would never be able to live with. I certainly would have little faith in an agent who can live with the refusal of intellectual stimulation and curiosity.

I do not operate under the ill-advised supposition that there is a lot of talent out there. Actually, there is not. There is an awful lot of trash piled high on agents' desks. But while there is not a lot of talent from the writers' side, I can tell you there is even less talent from the agents' one. Out of the seventy I should tackle for my work of non-fiction there are probably five or less who could take it on and successfully land a deal for it. Whatever you do, do not let your work and your self-respect be crushed into doubtful resignation by an agent's rejection that indicates s/he cannot distinguish a letter from a proposal or fiction from non-fiction. To elevate such a person above yourself would pay a disservice to intellectual development at large. If you are the writer whose output needs a lot of re-work, by all means re-work it until you're at the stage of being able to suss yourself by yourself.

In his ebook about the query letter (which I cannot recommend enough, although I would advise you, as a writer, to know the difference between 'it's' and 'its'), agent Noah Lukeman writes that 'Writers will think of — and try — anything, and for that, I salute them. I salute their creativity, their ingenuity, their energy, and most of all, their optimism'. It seems a good time to salute agents. I salute their ignorance, their thoughtlessness, their incompetence and, most of all, their self-importance.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Ugly But So Very Tasty

There's a type of Italian biscuit known as the brutti ma buoni, which means the ugly, but nice (tasty) ones. I have never made these, primarily because I like to make cakes, biscuits not so much, but the other day I made a cake that looks indeed ugly but that is very, very tasty. As you can see, it looks like a black brick, but appearances are deceiving, for this is neither burnt, nor heavy. It is damp and airy and as you will see from the ingredients below, not too bad for you either, provided you can stop at one slice.

Chocolate Loaf Cake

225g soft unsalted butter
375g dark muscovado sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
50g cocoa powder
200g flour
1 tsp bicarb of soda
250ml milk

Loaf tin, lined

Pre-heat the oven at 190C and stick the lining into your tin.

Cream the butter and sugar, then add the lightly beaten eggs and the vanilla extract. In another bowl, mix the cocoa powder, the flour and the bicarb of soda. Now incorporate the flour (and cocoa and soda, as above) into the creamed sugar a bit at a time, helping yourself with the milk. You don't want anything too dry and crumbly and certainly nothing too watery. So proceed with caution beating well, either by hand or with an electric mixer. Once you have done this, you will be left with a batter that is rather wet. Now pour it into the lined tin and bake for 45 minutes. Once you take it out, leave it to sink in the tin and don't be alarmed by its wobbly look and decidedly not cooked (yet burnt-looking ) exterior. Take it out of the tin a good couple of hours later and cut it into much later still. It will be deliciously damp yet airy inside, with a slightly crackly top due to the sugar.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Memory Definitely Full

When I stopped at Waitrose yesterday the Mail caught my eye. It was giving away Paul McCartney's Memory Almost Full. I had been thinking about getting some new music as of late, and £ 1.50 beat even the cheapest of iTunes downloads. So I paid for the CD and threw away (in the recycling box...) the wad of paper. I played the CD this morning on the way to work and had a musical epiphany. I think I had not listened to anything by Paul in many years. Strangely, I never equated Paul with the Beatles or with Hey Jude (who does not know that song I wonder?) but with My Brave Face. This was the most catchy single to come out of Flowers In The Dirt, Paul's album from 1989. Even typing that date makes me feel removed from reality, as much as 1066 or 1776 does. Was I really around in 1989? That is just short of twenty years ago! I was around alright; I used to spend lengthy afternoons in the company of a friend, playing Flowers In The Dirt ad nauseam, until the tape crinkled into papery crackles only to return to intelligible music just before the end of side A. We loved My Brave Face; it was our soundtrack to secondary school, when we used to study music and play the flute, when we used to call strangers in France in order to practise our French and when we had only just started to buy Marie Claire which, at barely £ 1.50 a copy, seemed wildly expensive and incredibly sophisticated.

This morning, playing Paul made me feel like a child again, even though these songs are new, and made me wonder whether anyone would release this sort of music if it were not by Paul McCartney (and I say this in the kindest of ways, mind you). They say that once you hit 40, life starts speeding up exponentially. I cannot even imagine it. I cannot imagine time whirring past me any faster than it already does. I feel like my hard-drive is definitely full, with not an Mb of space for the smallest of experiences, the shortest of books, the tiniest of disappointments. I don't know what is wrong with me but usually, when I think of my past, I always think of regret. I do not have anything to regret in the standard sense. What I mourn is the passing of time itself, this feeling of memory getting full, even though we can all always save an extra file somewhere. There is always a way to deconstruct the memory and to defragment it, to re-arrange its contents, to compress and zip and shuffle them around so that, magically, a sliver of space appears out of nowhere, a little space that will hold another surprise, another disappointment, another death, another joy. I cannot imagine what being 60 or 80 or older must be like. Perhaps we all get an upgrade when we hit 40 so that we can save more without this sense of hopelessness, without this feeling of saving stuff we really do not need to save. Maybe that's what happens with age and wisdom; we only save the important things and direct the pointless ones to the trashcan. At the moment, it certainly feels like I am saving a lot fit for the trash but perhaps that is what it is like to be young.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

In Domestic Goddess Mode (And Mood)

Today was a special day for our farm. We planted trees, interred some of our departed horses and took some time out to raise a glass to the lovely animals that made our lives special. I was lucky because I had no-one to mourn as such, but I must admit that I felt a wobble when I saw Gemma’s casket. To think that such a big horse is now reduced to a handful of ashes made me reflect upon life and on how petty disputes seem so pointless when, in a second, we can go like indeed ashes in the wind. But it was also a good horsey time, for I provided some minor catering consisting of strawberries in wine with Greek yogurt, chocolate slices and Pimm’s and a good time was had by all. I had one of the chocolate slices and I found myself wondering why on earth I don’t make them more often. I have been so busy as of late that cooking and baking have, quite frankly, passed me by. These chocolate slices are always appealing and even if you do not like peanut butter, make these anyway. Eat them and die happy.

Peanut Butter and Chocolate Slices

400g dark chocolate
260g white chocolate
140g smooth peanut butter

Melt the dark and white chocolate in separate double boilers, then remove from heat once melted. Keep an eye on white chocolate, for it has a penchant for curdling quickly. Add the peanut butter to the white chocolate and stir until smooth. Line a baking tray (mine is approximately 20 cm X 15 cm) with baking parchment and spread a thick layer of melted dark chocolate on the bottom. Then add some of the white chocolate and swirl. Now add some of the dark chocolate and swirl. Continue until you have exhausted both. Now grab a fork or similar and swirl it around. Place in the fridge for a minimum of 3 hours to set and cut into slices when you're ready to eat.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Home Working

A few years ago, when I happened to be on leave from my job due to health reasons, I used to receive condolences from friends and acquaintances alike, all so deeply troubled by my ailments as to comment: ‘poor you, you must be so bored at home’. I often wondered at the time what prompted them to condole me about being at home. Never mind that I was actually ill and that perhaps pain may have been the crux of the problem. Oh no, I was hard done by because I was at home. If I take the sick part out of the leave, I can certainly tell you that I had a good time at home and could never quite grasp why others saw the 'not going to work' as the problem. Today I was working from home which in itself has great advantages. I do not have to drive to and from the office and instead of puncturing the day with random Starbucks drop-ins, I can actually take meaningful breaks, such as putting the washer on, making the bed, washing the kitchen floor or sipping my tea as I wander around the garden, to see what’s new. I start work earlier, finish earlier and do not feel like I am chained to my desk even when I do not have anything pressing to do. In fact, if I could, I’d probably pay to be able to work at home (or heck, not to work at all if possible!) and enjoy the beauty and surprises that life brings without the constant need to validate them, and myself, against a set of unwritten workplace-rules. I would be quite happy to write, do the housework and ride in the evening, although I suppose that this probably wouldn't make me feminist enough or avant-garde enough. To some, this is a big issue. Still, I don't think I would care. I'd be happy to spend all of my time with my trusty steed whom, you will agree, currently looks a bit of a skinny minnie to me. I wish I responded to diets as well, or indeed as quickly, as he does...

Monday, May 12, 2008

Work Matters

I lead a good life, valuable, entertaining. I share it with lovely people and adorable animals; I spend it trying to enrich myself with every book I read, place I visit, even food I eat. It may be a small life to some, but I think it's a good one still. Yet, there is something that bothers me about it, and bothers me all the time, incessantly, and has done so for many years already. I really dislike my job.

I am no idiot and know well that without a job there would be no life as such. Without a job I couldn't have a place where to live, food to eat, clothes to wear, car to drive, horse to have fun with and so on and so forth, but as I am now in my late twenties, I have started to reflect upon this dislike more and more. I do not believe in those people that say 'it's only a job' when I get upset by it, or when I am so bored that I fear I may die of it. I don't believe in those people because I have rapidly calculated that, even though 'it's only a job', I actually spend more time at work or working than anywhere else or doing anything else. There are 120 hours to the working week. On average, I spend 45 of these 120 at the office or in front of the office laptop doing office work. If you consider that out of the remaining 75 hours, I sleep for 50, this leaves only 25 hours a week for something other than sleep or work. I can get more precise (and depressing, if you will) than that. I spend 3 hours a day getting ready for work and travelling to and from the office. That's another 15 hours that can be added to the working time tally. So, in a working week, I spend 41% of my time sleeping and 50% of my time working. If you consider that, no matter what life brings, I would still sleep for 41% of the working week because I need to (and because I'll never have kids), and can therefore take that 41% out of the equation, 85% of my time is taken up by work. No other activity occupies me more or more often than work, not even sleep. Now you can see why, when someone blurts out 'it's only a job' or 'it's only work', I usually grind my teeth and smile feebly, as that oft-calculated 85% flashes before my eyes in incremental neon lights like
S T A R D U S T on the Las Vegas skyline. If 85% of my week is spent at work, how can I kid myself with 'it's only a job, nothing worth thinking about'?

Others that tick me off are those who reduce my wish for a different direction to a desire for a new challenge. Why do most people always equate one with the other? And why do so many think that work is about challenge? I am not suggesting that it should be mind-numbing (hey, this is the reason why I want to change my direction in the first place!), but neither am I seeking something that is supposed to make me break into the sweat of uncertainty every morning. In fact, working in the area of my PhD seems to me like the ideal deal, since I am an expert and feel and know that I can make a difference to the field.

I think work is always worth thinking about because it always matters, it is part of us, of our emotional and intellectual well-being. I started working hard from primary school onwards, continued throughout college, university and beyond and haven't stopped since. I have almost finished my PhD now and it is fair to say that the only item that cost me more than secondary education is just my house. Yet, I certainly represent the greatest personality/job mismatch I know of. I am a creative person with a deep interest in the arts and humanities, a degree in literature, a PhD in cultural studies on its way; what on earth am I doing in IT? How did I come to be this person sat in a corner, reading atrociously written documents about pieces of code and testing and data and technical solutions? Honestly, it is about as intellectually challenging as translating Japanese without a dictionary (or knowledge of Japanese!). I am desperate to be out of it and have been desperate since the very first day, yet, I do not know which way to turn. There is only one thing I truly want to do, to write, and I have already started on this path. What I am certain of, however, is that publication is extremely unlikely to secure a future, for either myself or my family. I have nothing hot off the press to sell. I have not been on Big Brother to get my tits out. I am not married to a footballer. I am not a talentless git who dabs in all drugs known to mankind and makes the papers every morning. I am certain that I would fast-track to a multi-billion-pound deal if I had neglected my child while on holiday and now cried crocodile tears on every television channel there is. Such is life I suppose. Meanwhile, I can continue to while away 85% of my waking hours with a deep sense of hopelessness and anxiety, fearful of the passing of time, doing something I have no interest in, nor passion for. So much for degrees and common sense.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Green Is The Colour

I think we all like to clutch cameras at this time of year with the noble intent of gaining snippets of colourful reality. Posies and tulips are everywhere and it won't be long before the first few roses blossom too. Yet, I often walk around my own garden looking at leaves. Mostly because I live in the vain hope that, one day, I will be able to recognise a plant by its leaf, but also because I am totally enamoured with the colour green. At this time in particular, it is fluorescent green, especially on those days when the sky is veiled, the light is grey and nature is unashamedly in your face.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

A Wilf of Steel

At work they always say that, as a manager, you are only as good as your team. In principle, I agree, even though I do believe that a good leader is one that raises high above a team that may not be so good after all. In the past few days I have been wondering whether this can be applied to horses as well, and in particular to Merv and I. On Tuesday and Wednesday we had our first clinic together and while I had a fantastic time, I could not take the whole course with Merv because he was lame. On the first day I thought we did quite well, but on the second I could not use him at all and was plonked on Wilfred instead. Wilf is exceptionally good looking and totally rugged. He has a rock n’ roll quality to himself, and is all shaggy feathers, bold walk, head high, and long and rough dark blonde mane. He is the opposite of Syd, a delicate-looking Black Beauty-like guy with long stick legs and, I am sure, a Pegasus-like gallop.

Wilf has been with us for a number of weeks and is here to get thin, get fit and get more schooling. But he is very green and hasn’t worked very much. For someone like me, so used to what could be described as a School Master, straddling Wilf wasn’t the easiest of tasks. For the first time in many, many months, I felt a sordid hum, not unlike an earthquake’s closing in from afar, rising deep inside. If Syd is the suave Frank Sinatra, concealing a touch of wilderness under the perfectly respectable exterior, Wilf is Bon Jovi circa 1988 in the Blaze of Glory days, all fringed leather pants, wild hair and liquid eyes veiling the promise of thrills that go way beyond home.

Wilf has sent me weak at the knees on more than one occasion, especially when he careers up the field to greet me, all wonderful feathers flapping in the wind, the sparkles of his hooves only just clouded by the dry soil. Once mounted, I felt like a dead leaf blu-tacked to his back, my heart racing to the tune of his enthusiastic and elevated pace (certainly elevated compared to Merv’s anyhow). I did not do too ghastly in my lesson, despite being hopelessly distracted by his new thrilling movements but, boy, can I feel my legs and shoulders this morning… If all else fails, my session on him must have provided entertainment value to the spectators and, quite frankly, I do not dislike it when I amuse people. Seriousness is highly over-rated and if one of my gifts is to embarrass myself in spades so that others feel better about their riding prowess, so be it. Deep down, I know that I am not as incapable, or indeed as stupid, as I look.

He zoomed off in a cloud of dust in the field and now all I can think about is him, my senses veiled by the affection for Merv, but also stirred by the lingering attraction to someone that promises excitement, surprises, even danger, if you will, while never quite knowing what to expect. I don’t think I have ever felt like this about a horse. In the beginning, I had no actual reasons to feel excited about riding school horses. Whatever I mistook for excitement was lingering panic flattened into submission by logic. By the time I met Sweet Merv I was worried I would hurt him with an explosive blend of foolishness and inexperience. Every session was spent preoccupied and paranoid about the basest of actions. To the observer, I must have looked like I was dusting a Lladro figurine perched on the edge of a crooked glass shelf in a stranger’s house, rather than brushing an actual cob that can withstand quite a bit more than the trembling prod of my puny little hand. As of late I started thinking about cantering; part of me wondering how on earth I managed to go on hacks as far back as a year ago on horses I did not know and follow (sort of) their canter, and another part of me feeling almost ready to give it a try with Merv. As I broke into a couple of trots on Wilf I wondered about his speed and his great power, undoubtedly magnified by the spur of his young age, the impatience of his playful spirit and my fumbling inexperience. For the moment, it is evident that I am only as good as Merv; if he is lame I too become lame, my spirit hobbling along and nodding to itself, while my heart insists on racing ahead with the same grace and purpose of an eel out of water. Maybe I should start some groundwork with Wilf and who knows where that may lead us. Meanwhile, I watch with reckless abandon from the sidelines, my eyes struggling to take in all this beauty while my mind cannot even comprehend it, equally thrilled and fearful of it.

Monday, May 5, 2008

My Dimension Jump

Soon after I mentioned John Keats in my post about Paris, his presence lodged itself into my brain, awaken from hyper-sleep. It’s not that I haven’t thought of Keats in a long time, it’s just that writing about him as I recalled the days spent in the uni’s library brought back such vivid memories that it prompted me to pick up one of my anthologies and read some of his work. But I did not pick up my usual edition, the Norton Anthology of Poetry (4th edition, for that was the latest one when I started my degree course), but I picked the Oxford Anthology of English Literature, a fabulous volume with commentaries by Kermode, Hollander, Price and Bloom among others. As I stood by the shelf, turning the book in my hands and wondering how it came to be one of my books, the soft pages released a very faint scent. And so there I was, walking through the sharp carpeted corridors of the English Department at Lancaster University, my petite madeleine not a taste in my mouth but an eye-narrowing smell that I knew so very well but that I had not perceived for many years. I was so happy then, yet, I did not know it.

Inside the softback there is a sticker which reads: ‘EX LIBRIS MICHAEL WHEELER’.

Yes of course, Professor Wheeler. I met Professor Wheeler in my first year, when he gave a lecture about Victorian literature, if I am not mistaken, but it was not until my second year, when I took his literature and Christianity course, that I was privileged enough to work with him and witness his kind and persuasive teaching method. This is not to say that he tried to turn us around when we expressed various opinions; but he was always interested enough as to hold our cocooned suggestions in the palm of his hand and turn them into something that could flutter about the room of its own accord, no longer a matchstick with twitching wire antennas but a fully-fledged butterfly. Out of all of the colourful individuals that have started, followed and nurtured my academic career, Professor Wheeler is the one that stands out. I have often thought of him over these many years. He left Lancaster University as I was dabbing into my PhD proposal leaving the Ruskin Library as his greatest legacy. He was interviewed by the BBC over The Da Vinci Code brouhaha a couple of years ago since he is now also canon of Winchester Cathedral. I wonder whether he met Tom Hanks?

Every time I watch Dimension Jump from Red Dwarf series 4, I think of Professor Wheeler. In Dimension Jump, a much improved Arnold Rimmer bursts onto the scene as the heroic nemesis of the weasel-y, back-stabbing-Judas Rimmer as known in the series at large. As the story goes, it turns out that one important decision was taken at some point in the past; one Rimmer went one way and the other went the other in a parallel dimension. One turned into a sour, bitter moron, the other into an all-around super-hero. When I watch Dimension Jump, with all of its goofiness, I think of the day I sat in Professor Wheeler’s office, telling him that I was considering doing my PhD on John Ruskin, and possibly, Oscar Wilde. He grinned widely, rubbed his hands together and told me to ‘have a seat’. You may have guessed that I am the Steph that did not do the PhD on John Ruskin; I am the one who is doing cultural studies and whose work centers on post-modernism, horror and the super-human. I couldn’t have ended up father from Ruskin if I had tried to.

Yet, I am absolutely convinced that on that afternoon in that room , some other Steph, the more successful one, took the opposite decision and went on to spend her foreseeable future handling precious originals in the newly opened Ruskin Library. I wonder where she is at right now, whether she followed Professor Wheeler to Southampton, and then Winchester, whether she is an eminent Ruskin critic, whether she has been to Venice yet, whether she hobnobbed with Tom during filming of The Code. Perhaps she is not even married, doesn’t have a horse or not even dogs, but she sure as hell must have already finished her PhD.

When I returned to Professor Wheeler’s office a few weeks later and told him that I had decided against the PhD on Ruskin after all, he seemed slightly disappointed, for he suggested that such an opportunity, to work on originals, doesn’t come twice in a lifetime, especially so early on in the game. He was packing his books as he was moving out of the uni. He told me to have a look around and take whatever I wanted. What a guy. I picked the two volumes of the Oxford Anthology, one of them currently opened on my lap, its very faint scent a strong yet invisible link to my past and to my other life. This is probably as close as I will ever get to my self from the parallel dimension.

Paris Springs To Mind

Last October I went to Paris in a most unusual and out of season trip, for I never even think about Paris past July or indeed before April. There is something about it that intrinsically pairs it up with spring for me, just as New York is consistently frozen in a memory made up of frigid weather, scarves, down coats and fabulous Godiva chocolate strawberries for Valentine’s Day. Early in life I used to love summer, probably because I was off school and could spend my days reading and writing without the tyranny of classes. I started appreciating autumn when I came across John Keats and when rainy days at Lancaster University were spent day-dreaming in the library, on and off books, intoxicated by the familiar smell of pages, ink, hardbacks and spines.

My year doesn’t begin on 1st Jan, it begins on 1st Sept, not just because I was born on this day, but because I am still deeply bound to academic life, despite the office job, and to the burning desire of it, which my dragging-on PhD is living monument to. So you mention spring and I grow cold and snort. I think slugs in the porch, dogs up at 5 am, never-ending days, early mornings, spiders, never knowing what to wear, hay fever, BBQs that stink up the whole neighbourhood, John Lewis that markets wedding days ad nauseam, balmy nights that are referenced in every mag and catalogue but which just never happen. I could go on. There is just nothing cosy to my spring; when it’s sunny, I sit at the office transfixed and unable to concentrate on anything other than the baby rabbits scuttling across the front field; when it’s rainy, I long for hot chocolate, October, Halloween, Bonfire Night and, ultimately, Christmas. Yet, get one decent day, and this erratic mind of mine wanders by the Seine, wearing a white cotton dress and blue wedges, hopping from postcard to book, treading the Louvre in adoration without a care in the world.

I am really describing my trip of June 2006, when the whole of Europe was sweltering in a heat wave, but Paris was cool, yet sunny. I had combined a business trip to London with a hop on the Eurostar and felt free and unbound like I hadn’t in a very long time. I felt like life as I knew it did not exist, did not even happen, my worries annihilated by the splendid Dying Slave,

my wonton eyes trapped in Psyche’s resplendent curls,

my wings unclipped, flapping at Mercury’s heels, spiralling up and up to Olympus, delivered of the cage of preoccupation.

Now I look at the flowering trees and as I feel the tepid breeze on my face, Paris calls as I struggle to do any work, as I crawl room to room unable to pick up any of my projects, yet so desperate to re-capture the hedonistic bliss that I experienced then. I suggested many times to a single friend of mine to head to Paris for a few days in order to experience a touch of romance. It is not at all unusual for a woman travelling solo to be chatted up in the most charming of manners and even though I was married the last time I went there unaccompanied, I cannot say that the compliments blown my way left me indifferent. Ah l’amour, ah Paris... je suis toujours en train de rechercher le bonheur du temps perdu.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

These Footprints Are Not Made Of Carbon

A year ago or thereabouts, the fashion nation was gripped by Not A Plastic Bag fever. People queued out of shops in the middle of the night for it, and very many exchanged hands on eBay in excess of £ 250, especially in late February, when they still had not hit Sainsbury's nor We Are What We Do. I found the craze entertaining to watch and read about, mainly because I recall the day I was first made aware of the bag itself, pictured in British Vogue at the beginning of the year as it was waxing lyrical about Anya Hindmarch. I thought in passing that it looked nice and that I would maybe get one eventually. There was no eventually about it. If you were seeking a Not A Plastic Bag, you were in for the very long slogging haul of hunting for an FBI most wanted.

Considering my carefree attitude to it all, you may be surprised to hear that I ended up with four, one brown (UK version) and three blue ones (USA version). I kept the brown one, where I currently stash my yarn, and scattered the others on eBay and to my mum. Recently, I noticed that I have pretty much phased out plastic bags, not because I carry one of Anya's green props, but because I make the effort to get the reusable bags out of the car and into the supermarket every time I go. Still, I am 20 years later than my dad, who phased out plastic bags in the eighties, when footprints were something you would leave with your feet and were certainly not made of carbon. Which got me thinking about the phenomenon at large. When I started work at the office after the uni, in 2001, carbon footprint was an unknown, unheard of concept. Global warming had only just started to rear its head in slightly more high-brow magazine, but it certainly wasn't poised like venom on everyone's lips as it is today. I recall old episodes of Ab Fab, with Edina being so deliciously politically in-correct and so deliciously right on every account while extholling the virtues of doing whatever one wants to do. She used to buy cheap Eastern European junk for her shop for little more than peanuts and got the little old woman still attached to it! It was ok to live dangerously at the time; it was ok to leave your computer on standby at night without a vatful of be-spectacled fascists vomiting a pie-chart at you and ranting that you will save yourself enough for half a Starbucks if only you shut down your computer every day of the year. Oh and the planet will also be grateful.

Yes, of course, the planet. I wonder about it sometimes and wonder what it thinks. If I were the planet I would pick up stones and throw them at office buildings, but I would not get upset at the pensioners that decide not to recycle the five tins of cat food they use every week. If I were the planet I would not resent the number of local papers thrown in the general rubbish, but I would probably go ape over the millions and millions and millions of papers that end up in an in-tray that nobody bothers to recycle anyway. The naivety of the We Are What We Do movement is perfectly spectacular and totally irritating. While in principle it is true that very many people doing small actions originate big changes, let me make an example of what really does happen all over the place where these very many people work for example, just to put my own efforts in context. I was training at a very large centre recently with free access to half-liter water bottles. Every table in the room consumed on average 30 bottles a day. Every room on the course consumed on average 180 bottles a day. The entire course consumed on average 1080 bottles a day. They all went into the rubbish. In the regular, bad-for-you, black rubbish bags that exist pretty much the world over. So I ask you, what difference do my very own 3 plastic bottles a week when there is one of many other places in the world that throws out 1080 plastic bottles, and that is for one session of one course over one day only? My mum and dad claim that mine are going to be three plastic bottles less that are clogging up the planet. But does all of this stuff even get recycled properly? And most importantly, has it ever occurred to anyone that rearing a calf for six months uses more energy than my boiling kettle will over a course of ten years?

I come from a family of serial recyclers and I also happen to be a vegetarian. But even I am now getting fed up with the Carbon Footprint Police; it was great to do something good when nobody noticed, now it has become so fashionable that it is irritating. Now it is so cool to recycle that I am almost put off by it. I want to collect plastic bags and be seen everywhere going crinkle crinkle crinkle with lots of bags dangling off my arms. Meanwhile, somewhere in the world and probably not very far from my own house, from this desk, from this very computer, batteries, lightbulbs, cables, mobiles, monitors, plugs are thrown out one hundred a second, maybe much more than that. One only has to reflect upon how much energy is used during a big-scales Hollywood production to be put off recycling for years. One only has to visit India to realise that there is no point in recycling at all. Yet, I personally cannot even take the lift anymore without some over-zealous message stapled by the side of it claiming that my 15 seconds journey up four floors uses enough energy to power the whole of Birmingham. Think before you ride. Wait a minute, I thought I was getting the lift, not a rocket? The office is full of recycling containers; for paper, for foam cups, for plastic bottles. Interestingly though, there is no container for paper cups, yet we have a Starbucks in loco which, yes, you've guessed it, pours drinks in paper cups. There are about one thousand people on my floor only; most people have Starbucks coffee multiple times a day. I have on average forty Starbucks a month and that's I alone. You do the un-recycled maths.

Last year, when I returned to the office after the Christmas break, I found a calendar on each desk. You know the sort, square, propped on a clear, plastic CD case. These were We Are What We Do calendars. Come June, fifty-six of these were piled high in my proximity, their indestructible cases gleaming under the ever-present overhead lights. I emailed We Are What We Do reproaching them for producing desk calendars that come in clear plastic cases, notoriously difficult to get rid of and recycle, and also reproaching them for giving them away on their website on a one-and-one free basis come March. I also offered to collect as many as I could, working my way throughout all floors and dispose of them sensibly, if only they could indicate where CD cases are recycled. They never replied.
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