Friday, 29 July 2011

Poetry in motion

Poetry's got a bad name. At least it has where I come from, which I can sort of understand because local poetry's pretty terrible. Not just poetry local to my home town but poetry local to anywhere. It's always amateurish, and usually about kittens and how this were all fields once but now is full of drugs and guns. I always feel bad criticising local poetry, when I find it printed in local papers next to the letters page. I feel like I'm poking fun at something a bit rubbish but essentially well-meaning, like the cheap market-stall trainers worn by a good but unstylish teacher on school non-uniform days. People who write this poorly scanning, self-consciously rhyming doggerel really value it. So I try not to be a snot about it.

I fail, though, every time. It's not personal. I don't have a crusade against middle-aged men and elderly women in local writers' groups, expressing themselves, getting the brief thrill of seeing their stuff in print. It's because I'm a perfectionist. I hate my own stuff, too. I pick it over, time and again, pulling apart lines, beating myself up over words, hoping that one day, by a sudden miracle, I'll wake up and find I've turned into Ivy Compton-Burnett or Alan Bennett. It hasn't yet, needless to say.

Plus, I love poetry in itself. It started with studying Hughes and Heaney at GCSE. I devoured everything of theirs I could, including their collection The Rattle Bag, which opened the door to WB Yeats, Elizabeth Bishop, Federico Garcia Lorca - the works. I read that stuff and I poured myself into it so much that I memorised so much of it. Through the hell of school (yes, you knew it, school was hell) I kept this stuff near me, like a Bible in the pocket of a Tommy in the trenches. I turned to it time and again, to make sense of the stuff that happened to me in my life, when so little of life seemed to make sense at all. I learnt to lean on that. You've got to have something to lean on, at least.

The thing is, like I say, poetry's out of fashion. I feel so old-fashioned. When my peers are there running to Rihanna, quoting Adele, when they need something, there's me, clutching on to a slim volume of Housman or Eliot. It's like a foreign culture - a huge, complexity of stuff that sits behind my experience, simultaneously soothing me and cutting me off from most of the other people I know. Take what you want and pay for it, says God.

Which is why I adored the poetry-loving eccentric Hector in The History Boys, who has something wondreful to say about reading: " The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - that you'd thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you've never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it's as if a hand has come out, and taken yours."

A hundred per cent, Hector. A hundred per cent.

Friday, 15 July 2011

New short story available for free!

I have a free short story available for download! My new short piece, BEFORE YOU LEAP, is available online entirely free.

Please go and download it and tell me what you think!

Monday, 11 July 2011

Scarlet woman, or Why I don't read magazines

I'm a girl. Bring me impractically foot-crippling, fugly, orthopaedic-looking high-heeled shoes in a range of migraine-inducing colours. Bring me nauseating "statement" bags with tassels on them. I can't live without the latest 'sleb news n' pics. Abbey Clancy in her bikini, showing off a rack of ribs that would do credit to a xylophone. Is JenAn wearing sunglasses to hide her tears at yet another doomed relationship? (They'll print her picture next to one of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie looking uxoriously smug, just to ram the point home.) And articles about the latest obscure Amazonian "superfood" said to be relied on by Victoria Beckham, a woman who has made a career out of being a smartly-dressed, blank-faced twig.

Really. Give it all to me. I can't get enough of anodyne daytime TV presenters, empty-headed reality TV "stars" and the girlfriends of oafish, lumpen footballers - all hovering on the edges of fame, waiting for the divorce sacndal or the sex tape that will catapult them into genuine D-list status. I can't get enough of the guilting to starve to fit into the clothes these substandard loo-roll mags tell me I should want to wear, the horrible, creeping feeling that somehow people who happen to have two X chromosomes will have the same three interests in common.

This is why, for years, I avoided magazines more or less completely, bar the occasional peek at Wired or Pick Me Up, providing that the latter had a banner headline about somebody "accidentally" impaling a rusty nail through their penis or finding love in the frozen-vegetable section of Jack Fulton's. And then, I discovered Scarlet magazine.

Scarlet magazine featured nothing on diets or fashions and the people they interviewed were successful businesswomen talking about their fascinating careers, rather than Christine Bleakley flashing an engagement ring and simpering. Sex formed a large part of the topics under discussion - as something you were free to enjoy however you pleased, rather than to be alluded to with the kind of arch tee-hee that is old by the time you leave puberty. I loved Scarlet. And it went under.

That's right. Somebody produced an intelligent, relevant, interesting magazine for women, and it went under. Due to the failure of the distributors, but still, doesn't that sound bad?

Nothing will replace Scarlet in my affections. Nothing. Certainly not Cosmopolitan, that depressing archive where "aspirational" means "guilting you about the fact that you don't have a high-powered career, a cordon bleu in cookery, a small number of well-groomed designer-clad children and an Oxford blue for sexual intercourse." I gave up trying to be perfect long ago, it was far too knackering. And not Good Housekeeping. I haven't got time to launder my dishcloths freshly with angels' tears or tenderise duck breast through the medium of interpretative dance. So what am I to do?

Back to Wired, I suppose. But wouldn't it be nice to find a fulfilling read on the women's shelf?

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Murder redux

News broke this week that a skull unearthed in David Attenborough's garden has resolved the infamous Kate Webster murder case. Naturally this is a matter of extreme interest to me, as a student of Victorian crime. Because if you want to know anything - anything at all - about the Victorian mindset, then study this case. It's Victoriana in microcosm. All the fears, anxieties, emotions and relationships between domestic servants and their employers can be found in the Kate Webster case.
Kate Webster was one of the many women who lived their lives on the blurry line between domestic service and criminality. She was a heavy drinker, often violent and a habitual thief. These habits cost her most of her occasional forays into gainful employment - and on the final occasion, came together in a terrifying synthesis.
Middle-aged Kate secured a job as a cook with a widow, Julia Thomas - known for having a vicious way with words. In the days when an employer was free to treat a servant with appalling conditions of privation and hard labour, Mrs Thomas was well known to be unable to keep a servant for any length of time. Had this not been the case, she would no doubt have been able to engage someone better than Kate to cook for her. But she couldn't.
Inevitably, the two women clashed. There was a row. Kate later confessed that she threw her employer down the stairs and strangled her. Panicking, she dismembered and boiled the body, disposing of the head, selling the fat off as "best dripping" and carrying the remains around with her concealed in a large carpet bag. Meanwhile, she tried to sell off the furniture. The suspicions this aroused led to Kate's arrest. She was hanged for Mrs Thomas' murder, but without the head, the body could never be officially identified and the case was never closed...until the skull of Mrs Thomas was discovered during excavations in David Attenborough's garden this week, one hundred and thirty years after Kate buried it.
The case received record coverage in the Victorian press. The relationship between servants and employers was ambivalent in the extreme. Horrified employers followed the ghoulish case with terrified fascination, and, I like to think, were that little bit nicer to their maids thereafter. A servant knew the ins and outs of the house; they could choose to pilfer, or to abet thieves from the outside. Employers were vulnerable to their servants then in ways we often find hard to understand now. Looking at the Kate Webster case gives us a uniue insight into the complex, fearful ties between two classes of people who are far less common now than they were. It's a pause for thought.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Middle-aged teenager

Do you ever want to run away from being grown up? I do. I do all the grown-up stuff - I have a Proper Job (with accompanying intensive study course to prove I'm qualified to do it). I rent a pretty spacious flat with magnolia walls and pine bookshelves. I pay the bills on time. I can't wear a short skirt without trying to pull it down over my knees approximately every 1.08 minutes. I get my hair done at the salon very six weeks, instead of roping in a mate for an evening where we dye all the bathroom sinks (and our ears) dark blue.
And yet, every so often, I look at my life, and feel kind of nervous. Don't get me wrong, I'm grateful for all the many good and lovely things in my life, but sometimes I feel that this is all a bit too grown up. A bit too much of the belted three-quarter length office coat, and a bit too little of the hoody thrown on over vest and combats. A bit too much of proper meals eaten at a table, and a bit too little of smoked salmon and fruit eaten straight from the packet while I read. A bit too much getting to bed at a sensible hour, and hardly any of the picnicking in Endcliffe Park at midnight witha bottle of Blavod.
And at those times - maybe it's springtime, I don't know- the sap rises, and I feel like doing silly and quite innocent things, like getting legless on a school night, just to prove that I'm still in control of my own life, not fenced out of my own freedoms somehow. Just to prove that it's still up to me what I do and why. A kind of teenaged instinct, but there you have it. A poor thing, but my own.
I haven't yet done it though. The nearest I've got so far is having one more drink than I think I should when I know I'm at work in the morning, spending stupid amounts of money on beautiful but utterly un-sensible shoes, or staying out too late. But even that I've done with that attitude of "ooh I shouldn't, really" which characterises middle-aged women treating themselves to a verboten tiramisu. God, even my rebellion's middle-aged. There's clearly no hope for me. I'm off to buy some sensible sandals and a beige cardigan, ready for my exhausted slump into the menopause years.
I might take a bottle of Midori and some lip gloss, too.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Unlucky gym

I don't like blogs that are all rants, so this post will be approximately 50% rant.

Do you know what I hate? Gyms. God, they're depressing places, an atmosphere heavy with guilt and misery. Vending machines that only sell bottled water and the kind of muesli bars that are less a snack than an orally-administered punishment. The clientele an even split between people who use it as a religion, spandex saints with all the gear who go at least six days a week and really enjoy it, and women of all ages drearily doing their three times a week gym duty. It's written all over their faces that they'd rather be at home with Hollyoaks and a couple of rounds of toast.

The gym staff meanwhile, came straight out of the Nuremburg second eleven - dead-eyed sadists who hate the customers indiscriminately and whose overall air is "they won't be coming more than a month, so why bother with customer service?" The machines are essentially the tools of the Greek Hades. As Tantalus reached for succulent fruit he couldn't grab, as Sisyphus pushed his boulder up a hill only to have it roll down again just as he reached the top - so the gym is filled with neverending staircases and eternal hills to run up. I don't know why we put ourselves through it.

Nor do I like the packages you get tied into - pay £10 a month for the first three months (minimum membership duration seven years, whether you go or not), a forced "fitness plan" and "personal trainer." I.e., one of the sadists stops texting and picking his feet behind the desk, lollops over to look you up and down, and mutters, "Fifty on the cross trainer, Miss Flabby, until such time as I say STOP" and is silent until you are actually dead of exertion, having ignored your constant protests that every time the handles come back on the infernal machine they hit you in the boobs hard enough to make you bleed. And, between my day job and writing, it's very hard to find the time to gym it the required number of times per week without it beginning to feel like yet another obligation that I must find time for in my already packed life.

So, gyms. You sweat in front of strangers, exert yourself to coronary-causing levels and get ripped off to do it. Sadly, if you take no exercise (always my preferred option) you die of a heart attack at 35. And for the ten years before that, you've been too big to fit into anything other than ugly Bon Marche t-shirts and stirrup leggings.

Now, I want to live, and I don't want to wear stirrup leggings. So, I've started to explore the murky world of home fitness. Im pleased to see that it's moved on since I last did it. GMTV's Mr Motivator has long since hung up his migraine-causing leotard and ceased to shout cheerfully "I CAN SEE YOU FLAGGING THERE!' as you attempt to sneak off to your own goddamn kitchen for an energy-giving biscuit. No, I have found a wonderful thing.

Mini exercise bikes. I bought one. It's beautiful. It cost less than a night out clubbing. It has a calorie counter (for seeing how many hours you have to sweat for to burn off an individual tiramisu). And for the last few nights, I have sat on a dining chair, pedalling frantically with the remote control in my other hand, watching Emmerdale while I lose weight. I've got a set of weights in pretty colours too, but the bike is my first love. It's the way exercise should be - in front of the TV and half a dozen steps away from the shower for when you've finished.

Have I lost weight? Well, the thing is, I got annoyed and threw out my weighing scales, so I've no idea. But this I do know; I'm pedalling fast away from the risk of a future in stirrup pants.