Thursday, July 31, 2008

Assessing July

July's first post was all about a ghastly work meeting and the Harrods sale. It seems like they both took place a lifetime ago. I suppose that's what it is like when the most recent events in our lives are so unexpected they make those which were duly planned fade into a little cloud of nothingness. July was much more than I expected; it brought, not only William's £ 1800 hospital stunt, but also the promise of a proper agent.

It's a funny one this. Day-dreaming about getting the attention of an agent in the past usually brought fist-pumping visions of foreshadowed success to my absinthe-infused mind. I realised then, as I do now, that proceeding with caution is the best course of action on this (and many other) life development, so much so that, when I received an email indicating that, yes, I may well be with my toes through an agent's door, I was left wondering whether it was a joke and if it is a joke where is the punchline?

My potential agent wrote to me last week telling me not to rush to send her anything further, since she is off judging a literary prize and then on hols for two weeks. It worked out better this way; I just cannot imagine having been able to write anything other than mails about William during these past, emotionally over-the-top, five days. Now that the boy is recuperating, and another two rejection letters have fallen through the door, I think it is time to re-focus on what would be the greatest birthday present ever: not a stick-like figure after all, but a bona fide agent.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008


So he's home. His belly looks like a snapshot of Frankenstein's creature, all stitches keeping him together and all the bruising showing through the clipped coat. But at least he is here, getting comfy on his own bed and surrounded by those who love him, including Victoria whom, I must admit, I thought would need psychological rehab, had he stayed away a few more days. They showed me what they extracted and I was very nearly unable to comment. The radiator cap was so frigging big, I even wondered whether he had absorbed it through his skin somehow. There is no way I would be able to swallow that thing if I were paid to do it and my esophagus is far bigger than his. The immediate trauma is over; I should be able to re-gain my wits by the end of today.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


When the going gets tough, the tough go mellow. At least this is one of my experiences. Even though I've now heard slightly reassuring news regarding William and his operation, I still feel like I am sitting on pins. Not only am I sitting on them; I can feel them through my head, a bit like this. But it is important to think positive when negative events befall us and so today seemed like a good day to have a rummage through the stash, just to see where we are at. And this is where:

Those of you who are familiar with this daily drivel will recognise this from here. Yet, what you see above is not the same picture I posted in May. This stash has grown since then. It was originally only ten skeins of Debbie Bliss Cashmerino DK, while it is now thirty. Because I've been so busy with that flipping lace scarf I had to re-do what felt like a zillion thrillion times, the crochet blanket has lingered in the rattan trunk all wound up in colourful balls. In fact, it's rather nice to call it the crochet blanket since it's really nothing more than balls and balls of wool right now. I may as well call it the Kaffe Fassett Fair Isle cardigan or the Batman rainbow wooly cape and nobody would be any wiser.

However, I am not one of those people that just 'stashes'. My stash is all carefully sorted, with the above going towards a fabulous crochet ripple blanket, the green variegated Misti Alpaca towards a scarf, the variegated pink merino towards a crochet scarf and so on and so forth. Many say that stash is like shit, it just happens. I suppose that's true, except we cannot prevent shit from happening, but we can prevent stash. I am currently operating under the misguided pre-conception that my stash isn't really a stash at all but is all a giant trunk of balls-in-progress projects, even though they haven't made it to the needles or hooks yet. I know what you're thinking but I swear this is no intellectual masturbation of mine; because every single skein of everything is already allocated to its own designated project, I can go out into the open and buy more patterns and more balls because I only have six scarves, one blanket, one capelet and one shrug on the go. It makes perfect sense here.

Which brings me to my next point, Rowan Magazine 44. Because I am a girly girl, 44 speaks to everything that defines me as a person. It speaks to the side of me that is nostalgic about an era I really cannot be nostalgic about because I never experienced it; it speaks to the part of me that would like to be able to wear empire-line dresses and jumpers without looking six months pregnant; it speaks to the part of me that is longing to be able to try some of Kaffe's truly hair-raising Fair Isle-cum-intarsia-and-vice-versa knitted beauties. It also speaks to the repressed writer within me that loathes sloppy writing. As I cracked it open today, I almost had to reach for the oxygen mask. Who on earth has edited this stuff? I could make ten examples from page six alone, but I will limit myself to only one because it's so bad it becomes good (and in this respect, it reminds me of Dirty Dancing):

"Sasha Kagan, has now had six wonderful knitting books published".

People, honestly, I thought that 'writers' that stick a comma after a subject and before a verb were a plague of the distant past, when people had to set characters by hand, one-by-bloody-one before a book went into print. In the day of writers, agents, sub-editors, proof-readers and editors, nobody spotted that offensive comma right there? I am sorry but this sort of sloppiness is one I do not tolerate. The whole mag is full of such crap.

Still from the same page (sorry, I know I said I'll only show you one but...), I would like to show you an example that demonstrates that the road to writing hell is paved with adjectives and adverbs:

"Intriguingly many of Rowan's designers joined over 20 years ago and remain strikingly loyal".

If we close both eyes on the lack of suitable punctuation and just look at the two adverbs here, intriguingly and strikingly, anyone with good sense and good hearing can tell that, just because you can stick -gly to every adjective doesn't mean you should. Intriguingly? Does this 'writer' ever re-reads her own writing out loud, just to ensure it sounds as good in real life as it does in her head? Who writes this stuff? Who edits it? I'll tell you who: Elizabeth Fayling-Cork and Kate Buller. Buller says in her 'Editor's Letter':

"Here at Rowan all the team are feeling very nostalgic [...]"

Jeepers creepers woman! Get yourself a grammar book, they don't bite! The above should read:

"Here at Rowan, the team is feeling very nostalgic [...]"

This is because, no matter how much illiterate people try it, the verb that accompanies a neutral noun referring to multiple individuals is the third person singular, not the third person plural. This is the difference between the grammatical number and the natural one. I could go on but I just cannot be asked.

The mag redeems itself in what are, in my very humble and un-educated knitting opinion, lovely pieces which I would not hesitate knitting and wearing (well, ok, maybe not the empire-line things). As I clamp the lid shut on the current balls-in-progress stash, I feel a surge of inspiration in the shape of adorable little cardigans, pretty vintage berets, long lady gloves and fabulous Kaffe Fassett, tapestry-like creations. You have to love the man, I know I do. I am rolling down a hill of wooly fabulousness, crashing all the way down into the impossible-to-by-pass Stash Valley. I think it may be true after all that stash cannot be helped. It really is like shit, just ask William (or indeed Rowan).

Monday, July 28, 2008

Ghastly Part II

After some truly fitful sleep, I made my way to the vet with William as soon as they found a spot for us at a local clinic. The poor boy didn't even need his seat-belt; he flopped on the seat next to mine and didn't move until I parked up, edged him out of the car and walked into the practice. Upon examination, the vet identified a rather large foreign object lodged in the upper belly. Because the rest of his organs felt normal, he was certain that this thing would be the one causing the upheaval. He told me to immediately drive him to hospital which he would call while we were on our way.

Once we got there, I opened the waterworks. I was so scared to lose him that I could not even talk straight, in fact, it's a bit of a miracle they even understood what I was saying. As I placed him on the examination table, he didn't even try to stand up. He just laid there, his eyes barely open and his sack-like skinny body unable to move. It's a miracle I managed to drive home without crashing into anything (I did take my precautions; I didn't change from second gear...).

X-rays identified the foreign object the vet had felt early in the morning. This looked like a peach stone or something like it. Its placement within the abdomen meant that liquid was filling up the stomach, which explains why William suddenly looked round in the middle while the rest of him was sticks and bones. They went ahead with the operation soon after the drip they attached him to had the opportunity to pump some liquids into him. The incision in the intestine allowed them to extract a walnut-like object they were unable to precisely identify, while one in the stomach removed a small radiator cap. Why do I write odes to the Dyson when I have a dog that can do its job? Why do I even have a vacuum cleaner of the electrical sort? Heck, the Dyson doesn't pick up walnuts or radiator caps.

Later in the afternoon, the surgeon called again to reassure me that he was waking up and that the drips would keep him stable and as pain-free as possible. Luckily, with his epilepsy being so stable since November 2005, when I recorded his last seizure, this was not a major concern. Now I just have to pray that he will survive this stunt and that he will be able to come home soon. Meanwhile, I am shattered. I presume a very early night is in order...

Sunday, July 27, 2008


I've had a truly ghastly Sunday. It tends to happen when the temperature rises high above my comfort zone, a mere 20C. Today my bedroom shattered the 28C ceiling and it is still boiling. More importantly, my dog William is poorly. I called the vet and agreed on watching him overnight and take him in tomorrow morning. It's not looking good.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

And Cherries

I've made this one up. Although I do have an anorexic cherry tree at the back, my cherries don't come up. Can you imagine having a garden that yields these beauties? Well, I can.

I can because, when I was a child, I used to spend insane amounts of time at my aunt's farm, where cherry trees were as ubiquitous to the gently rolling hills behind the house as dandelions are to my own back garden. After dinner, I would often sneak out to the trees for a fruity dessert, picking straight from the branches and often taking handful of leaves down with the cherries as I could not reach properly. I think this is when my love affair with cherries began, one that was devoid of hair-raising £ 5.99 price tags as if they were an exotic delicacy. I can, and often do, eat £ 5.99 worth of cherries in one sitting, indulging in them would cost me hundreds of pounds per month at the rate prices are soaring.

At the same time, I used to tag behind my dad as he was sorting out his allotment. My dad is a Virgo and I can tell you that his precision-making was reflected in his green pursuits as much as in his perfectly stored hardware. The tall plants of green beans like vegetable soldiers would cross leafy fingers with the tomato plants and then the zucchini with their gigantic orange flowers mum used to deep fry and the salads, the redheads and the greenheads. If dad and I were pottering around the allotment before dinner, it was a sure way for me not to oblige once sat at the table; that's because I used to pick tomatoes and peas straight from the plants and eat them there and then, my dad picking the discarded shells I left in my eating wake. When I think of those days, I always think that you do not become a vegetarian, you are born that way.

Friday, July 25, 2008

And Roses

I've got anemones coming up the rubble and rambling roses too. Despite not having pruned for six years, mainly because I don't know what to prune and what to leave in peace, I am always flabbergasted to find flowers in the weed maze. Every year they persist on bringing unexpected colour solace when I am certain they won't make it. I really ought to be grateful, no?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Coming Up Anemones

Not long ago, a very kind reader of mine informed me that what I had been growing was an anemone. A pink and slightly flaked out anemone. It turns out that I have not just been growing one but many, somehow all planted near one another so to form a living bunch. Look at this:

I know that this image looks grossly doctored but I swear to you, it isn't. These little guys really are as fluorescent pinky purple as you see them above. It must have something to do with them having just this morning opened, or perhaps with what was a mix of grey and blue light as the sun had only just broken through. Or perhaps I just was too close. I cannot say that their presence alone is going to spur me to get rid of all of the weeds in my garden in order to create anemone trenches any time soon but... it's a start. And who knows where this may lead, perhaps to the give-away of some rare orchid bulb?

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

This Dark Knight Is Oh So Serious

In Canto XII of Dante's The Divine Comedy: Inferno, the poet writes:

'[...] I thought the universe felt love, by which, as some believe, the world has many times been turned into chaos.'

Dante refers, perhaps with great philosophical irrelevance, to Empedocles' doctrine about the material world being in order due to the discord of the elements; when brought into harmony by love, the world loses its variety and the result is chaos. In other words, bring The Batman into the grand scheme of things and the result is anarchy.

There is method behind this apparent madness, for it is not by a super-human leap of the imagination that I can latch Christopher Nolan's vision of political apocalypse to Dante's still unparalleled system of hell. Batman the Minotaur (still Canto XII) bursting with rage as he gnaws himself is the turning axis of a brutal world where Everyman is a self-righteous, double-faced back-stabber who needs a smile on his face, where every fraudster is fending off for himself and where the notion of heroism, like perfection, remains a continuously ever-changing target whose gauge escapes categorisation as necessity commands.

Substitute Empedocles's love, as referred to above, with justice, or indeed with love for justice, and the result is an attempt at re-defining ethical standards which leaves us strung us up by our feet as we swing high above the chasm of a one-way journey into hell. Because it's all part of the plan, and because politics and the politics of power are smoldered in plans, Batman is more of a Foucault's pendulum than the vigilante he is often referred to as; he appears as the leading man of action while it is Gotham itself in all its guises (the mob and the criminals and the Joker and Two Face, but also the police force, Harvey Dent, Gordon, Rachel) that leads the celebratory dance of violence. All that remains is that, if there is something you can do well, you should not do it for free.

Gone are the days when comic book super-hero movies were pop-corn fuelled, lycra-clad extravaganzas consigned to the depths of cartoon-like memory so very fitting to the mood of the nineties. The Caped Crusader has become oh so serious this doom can only get worse but, of course, it's all for the better.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Knitting Give-Away

The day has come to officially celebrate my first, fully-fledged knitting success, the silk lace scarf. I have been so excited and so very happy about it that I thought the give-away should suitably reflect the good time I've had knitting it (or trying to when I got particularly angry) and the support that I received on- and offline. And so here is the give-away, a handful of gorgeousness in the shape of a set of Addi Lace Needles 100cm - 3.5 mm and five hand-made in South Africa cupcake buttons which are completely and utterly to die for (or to knit something for).

To enter: leave your name and location in the comments in this thread. If you post a link to this give-away from your own blog, add that to your comment. It means that I will add your name to the competition hat three times as opposed to one. I will publish the result on here on August 1st, so make sure to check back. The winner will need to email me the address so that the prize can be safely despatched. Closing date July 31st UK time and I am sorry gals, but if you know me in person, you cannot enter the give-away. Let's give some far flung friend a chance, shall we? Not to blow my own Generosity Trumpet but the value of this give-away is in the region of $ 30, so get entering!

*This draw is now closed, thanks for entering.*

Monday, July 21, 2008

Cautious Optimism

When I read the news and come across cautious optimism splashed across the screen, I always snort. I snort because I think that you're either an optimist or a pessimist and that you cannot be a cautious optimist. Why is it that we never hear of cautious pessimism? 'There is cautious pessimism about the current state of the economy' never ever makes it into print, even if what it means is exactly the same as cautious optimism. It means people, we just don't know.

And so it was for me until this morning, when I received an email that I had to re-read fifteen times in an attempt at making sense of. This read:

"Dear Steph,

Thank you for sending us a proposal and sample writing of your book which we have now read. We’ll be pleased to read more of it if available (the complete book or 2-3 full chapters). Please send the material to the address below.

Best wishes."

You will agree that this is most defintely not a rejection. I do not read any no, either on the lines or between them. Neither do I read any sorry, or any but, or any did not love it enough or any not for us or any best luck elsewhere. Because all of the above means no in real life, one is safe to assume that whatever does not use one of the above expressions or combination thereof means yes. Or, does it? And here is where I felt a surge of cautious optimism frothing up from my stomach all the way to my mouth and was prompted to fire a rabid email to my friend Paul the editor who replied with:

"It means, why are you not at the post box delivering the letter to its innards as at now?"

House Pains

There is only one type of husband that is worse than the DIY-inapt type and that is the DIY-inapt that thinks of himself as apt. My life is cursed with such presence and although I realise that some of you will think I am lucky just on the basis of having someone around who cares enough about the house in order to suggest a Sunday trip to B&Q, believe me it does not feel this way when that rare occurrence takes place.

If you want to ruin my day, you take me to B&Q. Even in my very best, most enthusiastic, Elle Decoration-wielding moments, my happiness fritters away as soon as my nostrils catch even a faint whiff of B&Q smell. Going around it with a cart whose wheels are permanently stuck (why? I don't know, they just always are) just adds to the unnecessary stress. Today was such a day, when the afternoon was well and truly spoilt by half an hour in this most hateful place, where only metallic paint tins are remotely interesting and where some truly sad people (like my dad) seems to get truly excited like they have just hit the Harrods sale. Now that the paint has made it home, we shall have to see what the DIY-inapt-that-thinks-of-himself-as-apt is going to do with it.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Love Is The Answer

At the beginning of Monty's The Man Who Listens To Horses there is a dedication that reads:

"I could think of no other choice than to dedicate this book to EQUUS: THE FLIGHT ANIMAL. It is my opinion that we owe this species an apology for causing it to endure our lack of understanding for thousands of years. Equus has been my teacher, my friend and my provider."

When I first read this a year ago, it struck me as the most poignant statement about horses ever made and it was something that has bounced around my mind many times over, especially when coming across those sort of people who mistake fearful submission for successfull partnership. Seeing Mark Rashid at Kingswood Equestrian Centre today reminded me of the above statement by Monty. Rashid is internationally known as one of the greatest living horse trainers. He is well known for solving apparently difficult problems via good communication, rather than force.

He gave plenty such examples today, when he demonstrated to owners with seemingly difficult horses that clear communication is a sure way to engaging one's horse while speaking its own language. I am not experiencing any of the problems highlighted today, but this is down to having a really well-trained horse rather than to my own prowess as a horsewoman. I cannot imagine what would have happened to me, had I found myself in the situation of some of the riders I saw today. I am lucky enough to be supported by capable (and friendly) people where I keep Merv and Merv himself is... well... a great guy to learn on.

A few weeks back he went for a scan on his poorly leg. I did not post about it because the day before I had succeeded in upsetting myself so much just by thinking about it that I was driving with eyes veiled with tears, worried as I was that the vet may say his quality of life would deteriorate and... well... you can imagine the rest. In actual fact, I was being my paranoid self; the vet said that, while he did manage to injure himself properly this time, he has a 50% chance of recovery. Still, we have to wait until late October and see. Currently, he is happily grazing in the field with his new girlfriend nearby and only the other day he run up to me as he saw me passing with a feed bucket.

The more I think about it, which I try not to do, and the more I am absolutely adamant that I want to keep Merv, no matter his ability to be ridden. If I cannot ride him anymore, I will just become... an internationally known clicker-trainer, my horse doing tail-stands as I click, click, click away and wave a little flag around. To think that one does not get attached to a field animal, just because he doesn't sleep on the sofa like a cat, is a great fallacy. There is just no way that because we have only been together a year I could easily get rid of him (by which I mean to a companion home, as has been suggested by my best horsey friend) and be able to live with it.

I cannot imagine to walk up to the fields and not find him there, at least not until his time comes to hoof it up to the big paddock in the sky. I cannot know what motivates Mark Rashid, Kelly Marks, Monty Roberts or all the other fine horse trainers that we read about and go and see. I also do not know what motivates all other horse people that fill up the horsey world. It is only for myself that I can speak with certitude. In such a short span of time Merv has been a teacher and a friend and I can tell you that as far as this supposed horsewoman is concerned, only love is the answer.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Secret

I read in the news that one of the suspects in Madeleine's disappearance has been awarded £ 600,000 in libel damages by a string of tabloids that have accused him of crimes he apparently did not commit. Wow people. Just wow. This guy has been awarded over half a million pounds for what is, effectively, nothing, other than perhaps having been in the right place at the right time, but this hardly qualifies as doing in my book. And if he did do something, double-wow, he gets awarded half a million pounds for it which, given the circumstances, is pretty good going! Tell me, what is it about this money-making business? It is obviously a secret I haven't been let in on.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

And Finally... She Makes It

It's a given of creative life that the better the people in your circles, the better they make you at your craft, if only by osmotic process. My knitting group meets in a place that stimulates one's senses and creativity with a lot of sickly sweet cuteness, such as this:


Or indeed this:

I am not ashamed to say that I find myself completely at ease with the cute and the girlie and the pretty. I am, after all, one of those people that breaks out into a cold sweat at images of minimalist leather sofas that look like a hybrid cross between the psychoanalytic couch and the lethal injection gurney.

I tend to view people that shop for furniture at Habitat with the same eye-narrowing suspicion as the ones who proclaim they do not like chocolate. I just know I can't trust people who relax on a Lego brick-like sofa, drink wheatgrass juice through a bamboo straw and 'touch base over sushi'. Luckily, I have managed to carefully unpick such nits off my hair as time went by, and these days I only hang around people who inspire me to raise my crafting game, if only off the floor where it usually lies. And so, thanks to inspiration and support and patch-up jobs, I have finally finished the lace scarf that I talked about some time ago.

Isn't it absolutely lovely? I am completely thrilled it is off my needles; after all, it did take me twenty-three froggings (after which I lost count) and six repair jobs (two by a very skilled and patient friend and four by myself) to get it to this stage of perfect hand-made normality. A bit of blocking is next, after which I will carefully wrap it and ship it to ma' who will be just as impressed that I managed to see the project to the end. Time for a celebratory cup of tea and a related blog give-away. Watch this space for more details coming soon.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Thank You For Reading (Or Not)

Unless you’ve come across one of her books; unless you tread bookstores with the same hunger and thirst a revolutionary Parisian used to raid a bakery; unless you think of your life as an introspective journey that has taken you around the ages while still being sat at the same table in the same old cafe, it is unlikely that you will know who Dubravka Ugrešić is. I can tick of all of the figurative boxes above, yet, I didn’t find Dubravka’s work by word of mouth or printed matter, I found her because of a very peculiar book.

I recall when our encounter took place. It was during my slow and painful return to work after my sick leave years ago, when I could browse bookstores in the afternoon, mid-week, without the lunchtime sword of Damocles hovering above me like Mancunian thundering clouds. I was in Waterstone’s Deansgate, where a table was neatly stacked up with the latest Shakespearian edition, next to this intriguing title, Thank You For Not Reading. I had yet to start approaching agents at the time. I lived an uncracked clean state of optimism and ignorance which, usually, go hand-in-hand insofar as the working life (or life in general) is concerned. Still, those five little words framed under the vintage, good-looking lady, somehow rang prophetic bells in my then empty head, clear as it was of the preconceptions of so many agents being surplus morons and of the publishing world being sales-, and not quality-, driven.

Dubravka can be defined as an academic writer, where academic means a thinker who does not limit herself to skimming issues (that’s what most journalists are for these days). She deconstructs the sub-text(s) and re-assembles the parts in ways often surprising and always spot-on. Using academic as a description of anything often raises eyebrows, especially so among those whose eyebrows don't sit very high to begin with.

It’s academic... I have heard this hateful expression in a multitude of instances in the business world. Middle managers and senior managers relish in the opportunity of pulling this out of the drawer and throwing it onto the meeting table with the same quiet pride and countenance of a poker player laying down the winning hand. I suppose in their minds saying ‘yes, but, all of this is academic’ highlights their supposed great thinking skills high and above the debate in order to be able to solve it.

The sub-text of ‘it’s academic’ is that the academia only ever debates, it never provides suggestions or solutions to the debates that rage within itself. It is easy (and simplistic) to think in this misguided manner, for few people realise that the greatness of studying philosophy, for example, resides in the knowledge that this provides of the understanding of mankind’s evolution. One needs a greatly analytical mind in order to be able to grasp, understand, de-construct and utilise the meanings of works as old as mankind itself. Except a philosophy graduate is currently considered an un-employable opium-filled dreamer who is about as useful to the working environment as a painter or a writer. And here enters Dubravka in what I like to view as an excellent defence of the gift of creativity.

“While one person’s self-esteem wanes, another’s grows. That is, presumably, how the commercial world is arranged. I say ‘presumably” because I don’t know much about it. But I do know something about my own kind, about writers. If a writer isn’t sure that he or she is a writer (and real writers never are), then the sense of his or her own profession isn’t real either. So how can such writers charge money for their literary efforts? With difficulty. So the publishing industry profits from the low self-confidence of its producers.

“What do you do for a living?”
“I’m a writer.”
“I don’t mean that... we’re all writers in some ways! I’m asking what you do, how do you pay the bills?”

A real writer always has problems with low self-confidence, is always consumed by doubt, even when he or she is publicly acknowledged. By winning the Nobel Prize, for instance. Especially then. I once met just such a Nobel laureate, so I know what I’m talking about. Someone with low self-esteem is like a punching bag that anyone can use; whoever passes by gives it a punch. A real writer feels guilty and thinks that what he’s doing is unimportant, or useless, or privileged (although he’s not paid for it), while other serious people work. Such writers are always in awe of physicists, carpenters and surgeons, and can always be crushed with the greatest of ease, like a worm or a fly”.

So what do you do in order to be less wavering in your quest for high self-esteem? You seek agents. I do not think writers seek agents because, first and foremost, they want publishing deals. Writers seek agents because individuals depend on one another for self-validation throughout life. Think about this: I could be the most self-sufficient and self-confident of writers with the deepest understanding of the publishing industry there is. I am likely to still be the same confident person after ten rejections from agents. I may even be the same after thirty. But some very fine lines may start to appear on my conviction around rejection number fifty. Or number one hundred. Or, if I am a true stoic, around rejection three hundred.

I defy even the most capable professional out there not to start even a fleeting introspective questioning once three hundred people act like he isn’t as good as he thinks he is. Because we depend on others to define ourselves as individuals, the work of the writer is one that can easily be relegated to the bottom end of the hobby pile. Yet, it is worth hanging in there and fending off the paranoia because:

“In the world of the jet set, wealthy party-givers, socialites, star-editors, star-agents, star-publishers; in the world of the media conglomerates, where publishing itself is only an incidental business which doesn’t make much money; in the world where the one-time fee of a catering-artist (a cook) exceeds the advance of a serious writer several times over; int he world of TV stars; in the world where the memoirs of Monica Lewinsky get a thousand times more publicity than the collected works of Marcel Proust; in the world of the powerful, in other words, things happen differently. Exactly how, I wouldn’t know, I haven’t been there.


Some time ago , I found an agent with a PhD in classics from Yale. Encouraged by his references, I sent him my manuscript. After a while, a letter arrived:

I have read your manuscript. It is an elegant, unusual, and unconventional work. In other words, it would be hard to find American publishers who would buy such an essentially “European” work. As a lover of European literature, it is hard for me to acknowledge that the battle against the resistance of American publishers (and readers) to European prose is in vain. There are exceptions, of course, but they are rare. I would like to be of more help and to be able to respond more optimistically.
With great respect, cordially yours,

At the same time, a letter arrived from a French agent:

I have not read your manuscript, but I do not doubt that it is an exceptional literary work. However, it would be hard to sell it at this time to any West European publisher. East Europeans are no longer the trend, which is of course sad, but true. If Solzhenitsyn has problems finding a publisher, there there is nothing we can do but wait for happier times.
With warn greetings,

At the same time, a letter arrived from my former Croatian publisher:

Hey, you’ve been on the blacklist for ten years, it’s natural that your readers have forgotten you! Not more than a dozen people would buy one of your books together. No one reads local writers anymore. They hate anti-regime writers, while regime writers make them sick. Books are expensive. It comes to the same thing, one way or another. Only the Croatian edition of Mein Kampf has sold really well. So there you are.

Am I being all doom-and-gloom these days? Will this place soon turn into Domestic Mess - A Bitter and Sour Slice Of Life? No it won’t. No it isn’t. My readership has grown from zero a month back in January to almost ten thousand a month. You may not have noticed this, but there is a little counter at the bottom of this page telling you how many people have visited since I installed it for all to see, on June 23rd.

Out of these (almost) ten thousand visits, many of them will be knitting and crocheting people, others will be people interested only in food and cooking, others are real-life friends who can now gain an insight much more accurate than any afternoon spent with me could provide them with. And then... others will be writers who are well-read and well-educated, who know what they are doing and where they are going, except their self-esteem is non-existent.

When I wrote this, I didn’t write it in order to have a dig at agents. If I wanted to have a dig at anything or anyone, there would be venom dripping off your screen because a certain type of criticism is fun to read and even more fun to write, yet, it is not subtle nor long-lasting. I wrote The Agent Fairy in order to encourage and, yes, even inspire creative people to have more faith in their capabilities before those three hundred rejections come through the door. And if you still have to ask yourself why your work is so little valued, why your gift of creativity is unrecognised and scorned, or why everything is shit, do not waste your time with this (although it will give you yet another example of shit itself), read this instead:

“ [...] “While the price of gold is more or less stable, the price of shit has seen astronomical growth in the last thirty years. And it’s still rising” [...] The transmutation of shit into gold is nevertheless no simple thing, for if it were we would all be rich. You need institutions, galleries, media, a market, publicity, interpreters (those who will explain the meaning of the artistic gesture), promoters, art dealers, critics, and, of course, consumers.


There is, presumably, something in the very nature of shit that makes it so loooooved. And however much the theoreticians of popular culture try to explain why shit ought to be loved, the most attractive aspect of shit is nevertheless its availability. Shit is accessible to everyone, shit is what unites us, we can stumble across shit at every moment, step into it, slip on it, shit follows us wherever we go, shit waits patiently on our doorstep [...]. So who wouldn’t love it! And love alone is the magic formula that turns shit into gold”.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Welcome To The Jungle

There is a place in Cheshire where a perfectly respectable house is inhabited by garden slobs who wistfully survey weeds and grass gone to seed from the bedroom window, cup of tea in hand, rampaging dogs at large. I am entirely certain that some of my neighbours find the Jag parked on the sunken-in drive infested by weeds mind-boggling and completely at odds with the garden mess. Cheshire is, after all, the place that is considered (erroneously and strangely, considering how much rain it gets) the Florida of Britain (by wishful-thinking people who have obviously never been to Florida) and where the working classes live under the misguided assumption that the mega-mansion will take them up a few notches into the land of the upper classes. News flash Ruuuunay: it doesn’t.

You can take the boy out of the working class, but you cannot take the working class out of the boy and this alone is a reason to be thrilled to be living in England, where class preoccupations are alive and well and where class is defined by a number of complicated variables, none of them including income. This is near inexplicable to our cousins the Yanks who rather simple-mindedly move people up and down the class ladder depending on income changes. I say this in the fondest and most endearing way; I personally love the black-and-white (trash) American class views. Life is much simpler there than in good old England, but the intricacies of interpersonal skills are far less subtle also.

Despite the jungle-like aspect of my front, and especially back, gardens, I rather like sitting on my lone deckchair to knit or read and not long ago I insisted on planting bulbs that were three months past their planting range. No bother of mine. The other day I spotted a flower coming up through the carefully tended rubble. Problem is: I don’t know what I planted. So if you know what this thing is, please let me know.

It goes to show that nature (and human nature) is a resilient thing, despite the adverse conditions. If I repeat Florida to myself enough times, I may actually turn the jungle into a garden you know.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Allons Enfants!

There is only one national anthem that I can sing beginning to end, the French one. I learnt it when I was eleven and it has stayed with me all this time, as clear, and just as loved, as the Spider-man theme. Today is Bastille Day and while I am pottering around the house (although I should really do so around the garden, more on this another day perhaps), I am thinking of the nation at play, the people cracking champagne glasses against champagne glasses, puffing on their now banned fags, fireworks in the distance, summer rightly ushered in. Well, I can dream. Meanwhile, the sky here is steel-like, with a baffling temperature of 20 degrees Celsius that feel as comfortable as the inside of a vacuum cleaner. Just ask Merv and those blasted, fat horse flies.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Pasta For Cats

In the days when I was not a vegetarian, I used to eat tuna. Once the transition took place, I realised that much of what I was eating (tuna, yes, but also chicken) passed my lips out of ingrained habit, not because I liked it, or, let alone, loved it. I took to calling tuna ‘cat food’, especially so because of its tinned connotations. Yet, I have a secret recipe for the non-vegetarians out there that involves tuna and that is completely to die for. And even if you hate capers, you must must must try this one.

A jar of good quality tuna in olive oil
25g of capers in brine
160g spaghetti

Serves two

Place a large pan of water to boil, with some sea salt for good measure. Throw in the spaghetti once it is boiling nice and fast.

Mince the capers with a mezzaluna or similar implement until they are turned into a paste. Now put the tuna with all of its oil in a frying pan on medium heat. Add the minced capers and slowly warm up. Stir a couple of times but then leave this alone; you don’t want to destroy the tuna, you want nice big flakes for your pasta.

Drain well the pasta once ready (and please, please, please, do not overcook pasta, there is nothing more disgusting, except, perhaps, porridge), throw it in the pan with the tuna in order to coat well, and serve. No Parmesan on this one; it doesn’t go with fish but I ain’t gonna give you a hard time if you admit to it...

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Ode To The Dyson

You know how they say that the people you love are like electricity, you realise they are important when you don't have them anymore? It doesn't work with people for me, it works with my most loyal and beloved piece of equipment I own. The Dyson.

It had been ponging up the place for a couple of days already, despite a good filter clean and an internal wipe down. I went to bed alarmed last night, very much like I do when a pet is not well. My first thought this morning was to call the Dyson A&E who asked a couple of questions and indicated that a Dyson GP may need to pay us a visit. I still hung on, sort of in denial, hoping that it may just be a dead leaf caught up in its throat. And so I persisted and re-plugged it in later until it almost choked to death, vomited soot and stunk up the place to high heaven. I rolled it away, and I am now expecting the GP on Tuesday. Meanwhile, troubled that it may be something much more serious than a passing flu, I penned my Ode To The Dyson.


Item of dusts and mellow hairyness
Close bosomed-fiend of the dusting wretch;
Conspiring with pets how to fill and mess
With hairs the walls that round the squared ranch;
To suck with strength the floored-stress
And discard all trash with clicks of core;
To swell the cylinder, and fill the filter
With the sour pong; to set filling more,
And still to so bored, later whirrs for all the rooms
Until they think dirty days will loom
For Steph has o'er-brimmed thy filthy kilter.


Who hath not bought thee oft amid the store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting upright on laminated floors,
Thy cable tight-wound by the untrained kind;
Or on a half-ripped bag sound-filled
Drowsed with the fumes of the bathrooms, while they hook
Spares the next wrath and all its screaming puffs
And sometimes like a cleaner thou dost riled
Steady by laden handle across thy nook;
Or by a cylinder-suck, with patient instruction book,
Thou functionest the last oozings swipe by swipe.


Where is the Hoover? Aye, where is it?
Think not of it; thou hast thy whirring too-
While barred fluffs mar soft-drying rugs,
And touch the stubbed-legs with carpet goo;
Then in a waiful romp the small rats squeak
Among the floorboad creaks, borne aloft
Or sucked in as the button presses and de-press;
And full-grown kids loud sigh from teak;
Hedge hair sinks; and now with treble soft
The reddened plug from a converted loft;
And running spiders gasp in thy chest.

Friday, July 11, 2008

A Thing Of Beauty

John Keats, one of those guys that makes my heart quiver with excitement and awe at the sole mention of his name, wrote in Endymion that a thing of beauty is a joy forever. Too true. I was digitally leafing through my pictures today and came across something that I consider extremely beautiful, yet, I stumbled across it somewhere that did not look anywhere near as beautiful as the thing of beauty itself. Do you know where I took this picture? Answers in the comments please. And while you’re at it, where have you found unexpected beauty?

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Mash Me To Heaven

Sometimes the British summer is so depressingly non-existent that even in July one craves soup, hot chocolate, pumpkins, potatoes and, crucially, fat. I do not mean to brag on this one but my own mashed potatoes are the tastiest I’ve ever had anywhere or anytime.

1kg of Desiree potatoes cut into quarters
100g unsalted butter
100ml sour cream
grated Parmesan

Peel the potatoes, cut them into quarters and place to boil in a large saucepan. Add a handful of sea salt to the boiling water as well. Once way soft, drain well and mash with your chosen method. I find that a vegetable mill, something that comes with a spinning handle and has a metal cutter at the bottom, is the very best way to ensure that your potatoes are mashed to perfection and stay dry. However, a classic hand-held ricer is also a viable option. Make sure that potatoes are extra cooked if you use this method and that your mashing bowl is warm. You want absolutely no lumps and a warm mash at the end of the process.

When you are half-way through the mashing, add the butter in spoons. Mash some more and now add the sour cream. Continue to mash until it is perfectly smooth. At this stage it makes sense to fold in a very generous helping of grated Parmesan (if you are not a vegetarian... Parmesan is not a vegetarian cheese). Crack some pepper if you must and enjoy.

What? No pic today? Sorry, I was too busy (and too fast) eating.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Veggie Protein

A protein-based meal is not easy to pull off if you are a vegetarian. For clarity’s (and my sanity’s) sake, I will specify that a vegetarian does not eat fish of any sort. In fact, there is no such thing as a fish-eating vegetarian because a fish-eating vegetarian is not a vegetarian but a pescetarian. A fish-eating vegetarian is an oxymoron, much like 'loving hate'. As a vegetarian that has been offered salmon as the 'vegetarian option' in restaurants as if salmon were planted in winter to sprout in the fields in the summer, I can tell you that this fish-eating vegetarian thing is a real nuisance.

Proteins are a little hard to harness if you don't do fish and meat but doing the Hypoxi is spurring me to be more creative than I usually am. Because after treatment I should eat a protenin-based meal, I have ended up rustling something up that is not as sugar-laden as I would like. This is one for grilled tofu, soya scrambled eggs, kidney beans, nuts, asparagus and no fat yogurt (the only sugar you can throw into this mix). The recipe is not really a recipe but an indication of what to use and how to quickly prepare it. We are re-defining 'express' with this one...

Cut the tofu in thin strips, sprinkle with black pepper, spray with soy sauce and place under a very hot grill until all water has evaporated. Turn off and set aside.

Crack three eggs in a jug, add salt and pepper (pepper if you like... I obviously do) and a good splash of soya milk. Whip and set aside, as you dry-fry a handful of nuts of your choice. Mine are pinenuts and peanuts.

Once you start to smell them and they are well bronzed but not black, add a drop of olive oil to the pan and the eggs. Scramble to your heart’s content and serve with the tofu, the kidney beans and a teaspoon of yogurt.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Nut Cracker

Some years ago, I read in British Glamour that Kylie Minogue could crack walnuts with her bum cheeks. A blend of perplexity and amusement stirred inside of me as I slammed the tea on the table and re-read her personal trainer’s statement through stained pages. Was he joking? Was he serious? I could not tell. Was it even humanly possible to crack nuts with one’s own bum cheeks? Would that apply to all nuts? I could only presume that really small nuts, paradoxically, presented more of a challenge.

I pondered on this last point for a long time, lips creased into a smiling grimace crowned by a forehead scrunched up hard, trying to picture this cracking. I proceeded to my bedroom, pulled my dress up and strained my neck, looking down and sideways at my own bum. Wrapped up in reasonably expensive black lace, I was not looking at two perfectly formed little peaches, inviting, juicy and deserving of those knickers. The knickers were defaced by their own contents, more kitchen foil strained over over-sized turkey than Agent Provocateur tease adorning the wonders of nature.

Two gigantic pomegranates past their best stretched the lace to its maximum give, every dip and dimply curve cruelly highlighted by the overhead light I since got rid of. I turned around some more and started clenching and releasing my bumcheeks, clench, release, clench, release, over and over. I could feel the burning pull from deep inside my back-side but the reflection did not seem to budge despite the great effort. At a push, at a very strong push, I could barely detect the lace collapsing in places as some more deep dimples embroidered my skin, like large, uneven waves on a vast, corrugated sea. I stopped and stared, holding the squeeze and then releasing it once more. Was I really in such denial as to think that good underwear alone could turn me from enormously bottomed Venus De Milo cast-off into dinky and tasty, à la Dita Von Teese? I rearranged my dress as Laura Ashley intended and returned to the kitchen.

Up until then, I had always been aware of my very undesirable backside. Yet, it is thanks to that seminal article that I am now grateful it is behind me, so that I never ever run the risk of catching another glimpse of it. It was evident then, as it is now, that this bum was no nutcracker, it was a dog’s bed. Like a favourite cushion, it was lucky to get the occasional plump-up, usually with a body brush and hurriedly under the shower, only to be squashed back into submission within minutes. My bum was a built-in Linus’s blanket; if there were any muscles in there, they had been flattened into threadbare submission by a lifetime of sedentary activities.

Merv has been out of action for two months. I keep slobbing it on the hateful exercise bike. I haven’t been near the pink pants. My birthday is fast approaching. Enters the artillery.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Cats and Dogs

I don’t know what is the best bit about sharing one’s life with animals. I don’t know whether it is their soft fur or feathers, whether it is their voices, their bodies, their looks, their anti-stress properties or what else. While I cannot write for the whole world of animal lovers I can speak for myself. The best bit about owning animals is their goofiness. I have seen birds, horses, dogs, cats and fish displaying various degrees of goofiness (not necessarily proportionate to their sizes either), and when I think of my dog William, a meek smile and a resigned head-shake are automatic reactions to his symmetrically spotted face materialising itself before my very eyes.

I have had William for nine years and, good grief, he has given me enough goofs to fill an encyclopedia. From falling off a balcony to eating horse poo, William is one hell of a dal. Two of his favourite, life-defying stunts involve the patio doors that open onto the back garden. These have been the scene of the crime on more than one occasion. One day early on in our history at this address, when the lounge was not a lounge at all, but a semi-empty room with a table and a chair where I would occasionally sit to do some writing, William had gone out through the back door which, from the kitchen leads to the garden via a porch. I was observing him running around and sniffing the grass, feeling one with nature and, strangely for me I must admit, I was at peace with the world.

I waved at him through the glass, lifting my hand high above my head so that he could really see me. I even smiled knowing well that a smile invites particularly intelligent pets to respond to their owners. And he did respond. He immediately sprinted towards the house, quickening his pace as he reached the three steps that lead up to the door where I was sitting. For a nano-micron of a split second, I wondered why he had sped up, but even that fleeting thought came an instant too late. Next thing I knew, he was buckling backwards, his pink tongue clasped between his lips and only miraculously un-severed by his teeth upon impact on the glass. I wanted to jump to my feet flabbergasted at what I saw; instead I jumped to my feet, slid the door open and run to his rescue, ready to perform a doggie mouth-to-mouth. His head still in one elongated piece, he shook the impact off, looked at me as if he had just seen me for the first time, and went back to sniffing the grass, if only a tad wearily so for a while.

It is no fallacy that the killer always returns to the scene of the crime. In order to ensure no more potential head-butts into the treble-glazing, later that summer I kept the doors wide open, with only the metal blind pulled down in order to provide some shade. One afternoon, I let William out through the back door as per usual. It was above the swooshing and clattering of the washing up that I snapped back to life via a mighty crash from the lounge. I don’t know what I thought exactly if not that a piece of ceiling had finally given in and collapsed.

But it was not plaster that I found when I entered the room; it was a dog trapped between the crumpled slats of the blind, head and front paws through, rest of body somewhere at the back, suspended in mid-air. Unpicking the mess was not easy and became increasingly less easy on all of the subsequent occasions when he made his way back into the house through this most unorthodox entryway, slats snapping back to their righteous shape with less oomph with every crash.

I eventually got rid of the blind and the sliding doors; French doors with Georgian bars (and no blind) have provided much safer for William. So much safer in fact that he now darts pass them to paw hard on the back door even when I am standing right there calling him in, door wide open, gusts of November rain lashing into the lounge behind me.

I was recently delighted to discover that it is not just my dog that lives, should we say, in his own world. Cats too have their glorious moments of idiocy. Listen to this:

"Finally he nodded off to sleep and his head dropped forward so that the top of his head faced the bars of the fire.

At least, that's how it looked from where we were sitting. I think his fur must have been actually touching the bars.
We really weren’t paying that much attention. Lorraine had just said ‘Can you smell something burning?’ when suddenly, with a noise like a great puff of air, Brum’s whole head burst into flames.

It’s hard to explain the impact of seeing something like that. You just don't expect a cat’s head to do that. It was like he’d beed thinking too hard and his brain had just given up and exploded.
Luckily the bathroom is next to the lounge and there was a full tub of cooling water in there. Brum had gone mad and I just grabbed him, run full blast into the bathroom and thrust his head under the water.

He went off with a great his of steam. He seemed so stunned that he forgot to attack me for a moment."

This Brum cat has skimmed new heights of health and safety that even William has yet to reach. Now consider this, it will sound familiar:

"One summer day, Brum came sprinting from dustbin to fence to flat roof in an amazingly agile way (‘amazingly agile’ had he been a moose) and didn’t break stride at all upon spotting me at the window and heading straight for me.

I didn’t register alarm at first. I do seem to remember that in the last moments before impact I wondered why Brum appeared to be rapidly gaining pace. Only as he connected did I realise he has no intention of stopping. [...] The window simply disintegrated. I jumped backwards in shock as glass rained down around me. The noise was deafening - glass shattered and smashed everywhere; the room was instantly transformed into a sea of broken shards.

When the thundering pandemonium subsided, a lone cat stood picturesquely bordered by an empty wooden window frame."

Tempted to read more? I am not surprised. A Cat Called Birmingham and You Can Take The Cat Out Of Slough... both by the excellent Chris Pascoe. Enjoy.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Gift Cupcakes

I've poured enough sourness over these pages as of late, hence I would think the time has come for a bit of gifted sweetness. These are my favourite cupcakes, are easy to whip up, even when you are flitting between kitchen and Wimbledon's final, and fall well within the 'gift' theme I feel coming (I am reading The Gift: How The Creative Spirit Transforms The World, more on this in the next few days). Decorate them with this scruptious cream cheese topping if you must, but they are just as delicious on their own.

200g plain flour
200g very soft unsalted butter
2 eggs
1 tbsp vanilla extract
3/4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp bicarb of soda
100g dark chocolate
1 tbsp cocoa
142ml sour cream
1/2 tsp salt

12 muffin cases
muffin tin

Warm oven at 180C and line the muffin tin with the paper cases. Get your dark chocolate to melt in a double-boiler or in the microwave. Set aside to cool.

Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, bicarb of soda and salt in a bowl, then add the soft butter with a mixer until it is well incorporated.

In another bowl, whisk together the eggs, sour cream, vanilla extract and cocoa powder. Pour into the first bowl and combine well until it looks reasonably smooth. Now also add the melted chocolate and combine again, until it is lump-free and airy. Divide among the 12 muffin cases (2/3 full tops) and stick into the oven for 30 minutes.

Take the cupcakes out and let them rest for ten minutes before moving them from their tin to a cooling rack. Leave them there for a good couple of hours. Then, start preparing the cream cheese topping. You will need:

150g of cream cheese (full fat yes)
75ml double cream
75g icing sugar

Place the cream cheese in a bowl, add the cream and stir in order to break the cream cheese down. Now sieve the icing sugar over this and stir well until all incorporated. Proceed to drop a dollop of this on each cupcake or, if you have the time, the inclination and the tools, pipe it over. If you go for the piping, make double the amount of icing. If you are a good a piper as I am, half of it sticks to the bag anyway.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Building Platforms

Today was all about building platforms. Not these platforms,

but these.

Paul, an editor I've known for years, is quite possibly the only person that knows all of the ins-and-outs of my writing and my work aspirations. I told him that three months into the search for an agent, I still have not found one.

'So?', he says.
'What do you mean?', I say.
'I mean, so? A-aaand?', now he stares.

I am swallowing hard, already hating myself for having steered what was a perfectly pleasant discussion about horses and rain down the sore path of proposals and sample chapters.

'Well, so, I was... wondering... if... when...'
'What were you wondering about?', he keeps on staring, while I say nothing, just sit opposite him, wondering why I am feeling so hormonal about absolutely everything.

'How many rejections have you got so far?'
'So you counted them? Did you keep them?'
'I didn't count them, I keep track of them in a spreadie, with dates and things and everything. I keep them so that when I get The Deal I can frame them and put them all up in the dining room'.
'Sounds good. Out of these sixteen, how many were sent to unsuitable agents?'
'Like? Agents that?'
'Agents that do not take lifestyle non-fiction, that's what you write, right?'
'Lifestyle narrative non-fiction yes. Humorous lifestyle narrative non-fiction', I specify.

'So how many do not take this stuff out of these sixteen?'
'I am not sure, it's hard to tell when they reject your stuff on the basis of a letter alone sometimes'.
'A-ha, that's the best indication! If they bin you at the letter, then they are usually the wrong type of agent. So how many?'
'I think six.'
'So that makes only ten rejections so far, that's not many you know'.

'Well yes, no, it's not many but... how about the agents that called me and talked to me and then rejected the prop and the sample? The work isn't crap I swear, I know that'.

He stares, waiting for more, waiting for what, I am afraid to say, is the truth.

'They talk about platforms or lack thereof more like. I haven't got one because I'm not on the tellie, I am not a WAG or I haven't been on Big Brother and I ain't gonna go any time soon...'
'Steph you're a moron'
'You've got a blog?'
'Right, yes, I have'
'What do you talk about in there?'
'My animals, knitting... stuff... work... life you know'
'That's why you're a moron'
'You should write about work. More about work'
'But I do'
'But not controversially about work, am I right?'
'Well no. I just talk about... about not liking it very much.'

'Start bad-mouthing people. Trash them in the blog. Tell everyone what it is that makes you miserable about it. It's not just the work, surely? It's usually the assholes associated with work. Spare people the violins, the way you feel about work. Tell them the shit, that's what they like to hear'.
'But... that's unethical. I cannot do that'.
'And that's why you are a moron and you haven't got an agent and you haven't got a platform. How did all the other shits out there get really good publishing deals when they were also keeping blogs? By talking about work in certain ways. Or about sex'.
'Well, that's even worse, I ain't got a porn-like sex life you know'.
'Nobody does, these people make it up. And they sell. Build your platform! Generate fucking scandal around yourself! Who is gonna care otherwise? They want you all packaged, you, the work and the platform!'

I left Starbee with leaded legs, defeated, offended, a sackful of rattling snakes flapping in my stomach. I pit-stopped at Waterstone's in order to cheer myself up with a little something (by Umberto Eco this time). On nearby shelves, I came across trash by Jordan and shit by Jade Goody. It's bad enough to see 'autobiographies' of mediocre footballers, but I can tell you that, with an almost finished PhD on my shelf, seeing 'works' by a dim slut and an ignorant maggot as I try to secure my own work is somewhat... surreal, even when I know these books have been ghost-written or co-edited, which, really, are elegant ways to say they weren't written by their supposed authors. I know these are books written by people who can't write for people who can't read but the substance remains: these in the shops, my proposal still doing the rounds.

Good job I didn't think about mentioning them when I was with Paul, else he would have cracked his mug on the table and gone: 'Ex-aaa-ctly' in trumpet-blowing splashes of self-validation for his own argument. And that's why I am a moron and Jordan and Jade are not.

Friday, July 4, 2008

The Third Place

In the You've Got Mail DVD, director/writer Nora Ephron discusses in passing Starbucks as a place that is neither home nor office but that surged on its own wings to the heights of a location that so many people consider familiar and use for activities that were once exclusively relegated to either the home or the office. Starbucks as a Third Place, as she says.

This applies to me entirely, even though I find that the coffee shop, be this Starbucks, Costa, Nero, Republic, or your local one that doesn't know what an espresso is and pours lukewarm watery instant from an old glass carafe, usually works very well in concentrating the mind of many people. While I often see business people out for meetings at Starbucks, I equally often see creative people drawing and writing in their journals. I am one of those that uses Starbee Time, as a call it, to get myself into a trance where I right all of my working wrongs, and where the Concentration Muse descends upon me as soon as I put the caramel macchiato down and sit at the table. This is another reason why I usually prefer to go to Starbucks unaccompanied; my brain is hard-wired into it being a place of writing work and I cannot work if I am to entertain company.

Twyla Tharp refers to such a place in The Creative Habit, where she talks about rituals that get the creative habit into gear:

" In the end, there is no ideal condition for creativity. What works for one person is useless for another. The only criterion is this: make it easy on yourself. Find a working environment where the prospect of wrestling with your muse doesn't scare you, doesn't shut you down. It should make you want to be there and once you find it, stick with it. To get the creative habit, you need a working environment that's habit-forming.

All preferred working states, no matter how eccentric, have one thing in common: when you enter into them, they impel you to get started. [...] It's Pavlovian: follow the routine, get a creative payoff."

That's it. Starbucks it is for me. The weird thing is that when I first read Twyla's book some time ago, I wistfully sighed, wishing for my very own creative ritual, for a third place that automatically instills concentration and the creative trance as soon as I flip the switch. I already had it and did not even know. We cannot force ourselves to find the third place that naturally becomes our creative place, the locus of work that is automatic, spontaneous and trance-like, but we can experiment during our quest for it.

I certainly tried to create routines for myself over the years and found that the conscious effort never paid off. I was struggling to concentrate and once concentrated, I was struggling to stay that way. Take my study for example, a room that I have furnished and painted with the sole purpose of promoting intellectual pursuits and relaxation, usually a combo that yields good writing results, at least as far as I am concerned. I cannot work in the study. I loathe the place (as I already mentioned here).

Yet, I don't have rational reasons to hate it. It just works that way. Similarly, I have no particular reasons to fall into a trance at Starbucks, it just happens. Significantly, it doesn't happen in all coffee shops I visit. The one in Wilmslow is the one that I consider my creative hole. And I'll tell you something peculiar about this: most of these posts I have made over the past few months were all drafted in my mind while at the Third Place, thoughts and ideas rampaging in my head as people were coming and going with their java and I did not even notice them. It just works. What's your third place?

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Stifling Creativity

I am currently reading a marvellous book by Danny Gregory, The Creative License: Giving Yourself Permission to Be The Artist You Truly Are. I have hinted before at my interest in the creative process, one that is by no means exclusively related to my writing pursuits but to all arts and all creative processes associated with them. The Creative License may revolve around drawing and keeping a pictorial journal but I dare any creative person not to relate to this book on many levels, particularly in its first few pages, where the author discusses what happens when you stifle creativity.

"The ability and the need to be creative are hard-wired into all of us. I speak to so many people who tell me they make things (drawings, souffles, jewelry, movies, pop songs) because they just have to. They can't help it. It's a basic urge, an irrepressible impulse.

Yet an awful lot of people are able to suppress it. They trudge back and forth in a rut, never reinventing a single day. They jump to conclusions about themselves and their abilities and their obligations that they think will help them avoid conflict. They make certain choices that they think will prevent others from being disappointed, shocked or angry.

But deep inside them, a little ember flickers. That ember is their dream, the thing they would really like to do, if only. If only they had the time, the talent, the education, the tools, the money, the support, the freedom. But because they have decided long ago that they can't, they lock that little spark in a big steel box, hoping to suffocate it once and for all, and then they rush on with their chores and obligations. But the ember won't go out. Instead it heats up the steel box, and they start to feel that need again. It gets hotter and the feeling turns to pain. So they reach for an anaesthetic.

Our society is full of anesthetics - drugs, booze, television, mass culture, destructive behaviors, anger, defensiveness, selfishness - all are ways to take us away from experiencing the here and now, from being in touch with our true nature.

When we continue to deny who we truly are and suppress our ability to create, we become crippled and shut down. [...]

Ironically, our society tends to portray artists as dreamers. But those who suppress their creativity are actually the ones living in a dream. An artist is someone who feels and sees reality very intensely. Creativity doesn't mean just making things up out of thin air. It means seeing and feeling the world so vividly that you can put together connections and patterns that help to explain reality. It means you see the beauty in the world rather than trying to hide from it."

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

My Me Me Mee Me Mee Mo

Crash, boom, bang, I have been tagged. Gosh, I didn't even know chain letters existed for blogs but there you go, I should get out of the writing-sphere sometimes and find out what others do with their blogs. Either way, Brittunia of Brittknit (argh, why don't I have such great inclinations for names and titles?!) tagged me the other day so here it goes...

The Rules: each player answers the questions. At the end of the post, the player then tags 5 or 6 people and posts their names, then goes to their blogs and leaves them a comment, letting them know they’ve been tagged and asking them to read your blog. Let the person who tagged you know when you’ve posted your answer.

1. What I was doing 10 years ago:

I was holidaying in the south of France as per normal, getting what is to date my last sunburn before I went very pale but not very interesting.

2. What 5 things are on on my to-do list for today (in no particular order):

One hour on the exercise bike;
Hmm... do people really put together to-do lists?

3. Snacks I enjoy:

Cornflakes with soya milk;
Rye crisps with Marmite and Philly extra light;

4. Things I would do if I was a billionaire:

Get rid of the house and the car;
Move to a hotel;
Get a driver with his own car;
Think about what to do next.

5. Places I have lived in:

Milan, Italy;
Cannes, France;
Nice, France;
Lancaster, England;
Manchester; England (not on a sliding scale thank you very much).

Now the fun part... I read so few blogs (and not even regularly) I am almost ashamed to go and tell these people that I have kindly tagged them (and I double-underline the kindly here, even though I expect at least some abuse). But here they are anyway: FrenchKnots, Helena, Paris Knit, Fragole Infinite, Projekt Leiterin, MsWalsh.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

There Is Only One Sale

I know many people do not particularly like to travel by train. As far as I am concerned, it beats the car and the plane by miles. If I am in the car, then I am the one driving, and the best I can do is either talk to a travelling companion (if I have one, which does not happen very often), talk to myself (which I do often) or sing (regardless of whether I can do so decently or not, very democratic). If I am travelling by plane, I cannot take the knitting in case I stab someone with the needles, I cannot take the tweezers in case I tweeze someone to death, I cannot take a selection of books in case they are too heavy for hand-luggage, I have to turn up hours before for flights that are usually delayed by hours and sometimes I even have to fight the hordes of 10p a seat holiday-makers that clog the airport-sphere. Crickey, if you really can only spend 10p per flight (and £ 150 tax on top of it), should you really be going on holiday in the first place? Oh, to have lived when travelling by plane was the privilege of the white linen-suited few instead of the plastic flip-flopped many. When I take the train, time and landscape live with me, they are not dragged around by the car or suspended to the point of non-existence in the plane. Today was an absolutely lovely day to zoom down the countryside on the way to London.

Only snag was the work meeting I mentioned yesterday. It was not half as painful as I had expected it to be, and this is probably because I had brainwashed myself with knitting beforehand and with the idea of a hop to the Harrods sale afterwards. I wanted to conduct an effective meeting so that I could escape quickly and continue the day doing something valuable, keeping the economy going.

Still, by the time I left the office at midday, my heart heavy in my chest and my eyes welling with repressed tears, all I really wanted to do was sitting somewhere in trance and going absent without leave until my face too would eventually flash on SkyNews, even though I am not half as interesting, young or pretty as an abducted child. Even the people I know would probably hold back the reins on the search team on the grounds that the disappearance would actually be one of my many stunts. I recall once coming home at almost 11 pm after an 8-hour stint with horses, a little hurt that Rick had not even called to check if I was ok. He justified himself by saying that he had expected I would sleep out with horses eventually, he just thought the day had finally come, and why was I home so early anyway?

So where was I? Ah yes, the heart heavy in my chest and all that... For a moment I even contemplated coming back home but then refuted the idiocy, hopped on the tube and emerged shortly afterwards at Harrods. There is something funny about Harrods (and indeed Harvey Nichols and Selfridges). You know when you read the magazines or the online news, when you turn on the TV and are blasted with the doom and gloom of the downturn in the economy? When you go to these places you really do not believe it exists. Even I feel in possession of a bottomless AmEx, my sensible 'I am only going to browse', replaced by the equally sensible 'it would be a crime not to get this, it's so cheap'. And so I went and got myself a couple of essentials. I also came back with copious amounts of La Maison Du Chocolat chocs and Ladurée macaroons (vanilla, chocolate, coffee and caramel if you must know) which, really, are also essentials, especially when one feels down for whatever reason. And you know how the old adage goes... those who say that money cannot buy happiness, do not know where to shop.
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