Wednesday, February 13, 2019

The art of the rejection

My new book is ready, and two weeks ago I emailed four literary agents to try to entice them to read it. I knew when I did this that the chances of success were infinitesimal, not because I can't write, and not because you guys aren't going to enjoy reading the book, but because the novel is not sexy in marketing terms.

Yesterday I had my first rejection. Rejections are two a penny and I know the format now. A short paragraph of guff, and then a sign off, wishing you luck. I've always hated the paragraph of guff, wondering why they bother. And when I open an email from an agent I've approached, I immediately skip to the last line to save my nerves. I knew yesterday's was a rejection because the last line said 'We wish you all the best for the future.' But this rejection didn't have a paragraph of softening guff above it, there was only one line: 'Many thanks for your email and material but I'm afraid we're going to pass.'

And I felt dismissed. It's that phrase: 'we're going to pass' that pissed me off. It's so trivialising. It sounds as if they're responding to an offer of a biscuit. I now recognise the value of guff. Give me guff. I want guff! 

By the way, the two last readers of the novel loved it, so I know you will too. When I've got all my rejections in, Dave's going to format it for me and then I'll publish it. I have no hopes of getting a publishing deal, but there are worse things happening in the world than a mid-list author having to self-publish her novel.

And Spring is knocking on the door.

Saturday, February 09, 2019

McCullin and me

The celebrated photographer Don McCullin has an exhibition on at Tate Britain. He is 83 and the exhibition covers his lifetime's work - the last 60 years. It is stupendous.

 McCullin  is a photographer with a social conscience and has photographed homeless, poor and downtrodden people in London and the north of England, but is better known for his photographs of wars all over the world. 

This may sound dreary to you, and I, myself, was dithering over whether I should go to the exhibition. I worried that as a visual person I might find some of the images too horrific, and that they would stay in my memory and haunt me. But on the other hand, there I was in London and the exhibition seemed important, covering as it does the main conflicts that have happened in my life (including the Troubles in Northern Ireland), as well as disasters like the famine in Biafra and the aids epidemic in South Africa. 

There are too many subject areas to list here, so here is a plan of the exhibition to give you some idea:

So many of these things were happening when I was a teenager and unconcerned, or when I was busy with work and children and I hadn't the time I have now to keep up with the news. (It's ironic that now I do have the time, I find the news too bad to read. Was it always this way?)

So I went, and I am glad I did. It knocked me out. I would go and see it again tomorrow if I lived in London. 

Yes, there was horror and heartache, but there was humanity and intense observation and let's not forget - beautiful photography. It seemed to me that the other visitors in the gallery were quieter than is usually the case in art exhibitions. No-one was talking. We were all gripped by the power of the images and what lay behind them. 

McCullin's words:

and here's a statement he made about neutrality:

I made my way along the walls, gallery to gallery, concentrating, and was some way in when I came to a photo of a dead Vietnamese soldier, his small possessions scattered in front of him, and was brought to tears by McCullin's caption underneath:

This was early on in his career. 

When we came to the room with the famine photographs, there was this caption:

His photos of people living in poverty were as striking, moving and powerful as those of people dying in poverty.

Since the 1980s McCullin has engaged in still life and landscape photography to escape his memories of the horrors of war. The photographers among you might like these photos. I am not a fan of black and white landscape photography, though I fully accept the arguments for it in photojournalism. 

Something puzzled me while I was at the exhibition. The other time I was moved to tears was at the photo of an Irish teenager, jubilant after throwing stones at soldiers in the British Army, inexpertly rendered here, secondhand:

with apologies to McCullin for the poor copy
After thinking about it on the journey home, I understood my reaction. First let me say that that I am not taking sides with the British Army, nor am I condemning the teenager's actions. And also, this is my personal reaction, in the moment, and of course others would react differently. 

Why I was upset was....Having spent time engrossed in images of war and it's aftermath, to see a young man embarking on it with enthusiasm made the whole idea of the peaceful solving of conflicts seem an impossible dream to a pacifist like me. There will always be wars. And there will always be people who like to fight in them. 

The McCullin exhibition is an education. I shall be thinking about it for a long, long time. 

The exhibition is on at Tate Britain until May 6th. If you want to know more about McCullin there's a documentary about him called Looking for England currently available on BBC iPlayer.

Friday, February 08, 2019


Do you remember that episode of Friends where Phoebe's irritating boyfriend Parker (played by Alec Baldwin) walks around taking imaginary photo after imaginary photo because he's 'making memories'?

Now imagine me in London this week doing the same thing, except I was taking real shots with my phone, jumping about with excitement, zinging with relief to be somewhere different, seeing something different, talking to someone I haven't spoken to for months. Why else would I have skipped down Piccadilly on Tuesday morning taking photos of hackneyed mottos in the windows of Fortnum and Mason's?

....except that they chimed so well with my mood. I was like a child on a trip to the circus with an ice cream in one hand and a candy floss in the other.

I've felt so low through January, and this was the perfect anti-dote to turning-seventy-this-year blues, country-mouse-winter-blues, Tory-government-austerity-blues, and Brexit-blues.

My friend H and I packed a lot into three days. We went to the Bridge Theatre on Monday to see My Name is Lucy Barton, an adaptation of Elizabeth Strout's novel, which we both enjoyed more than the book itself. I loved the writer's novel Olive Kitteridge but had found My Name is Lucy Barton hard going. The play brought it to life for me, and the luminous Laura Linney was brilliant in the title role. It's a ninety minute monologue: impressive. 

On Tuesday we saw the Michelangelo/Bill Viola exhibition at the Royal Academy and wept at Viola's video of the mother giving birth and gasped at his video Tristan's Ascension.

In the evening we went to the Royal Opera House to see the ballet - Asphodel, and Two Pigeons. Pure delight.

There was non-stop talking between all these happenings, and various delicious meals. Here's me revving up for breakfast on Wednesday.

Tomorrow I'll tell you about the Don McCullin exhibition. Wow, oh wow.

Sunday, February 03, 2019

Letter from home

It's been a funny old week.

On two days we had fabulous sunshine on snow that bucked me up hugely, and we went for walks round the village and I said to Dave - 'Imagine if we lived in Boulder and had weather like this all the time instead of the wall-to-wall grey of an English winter - wouldn't it be fabulous?' 

And he said 'No. I don't like the cold.' 

Our lane

In the picture below, you can just see two locals meeting on a path between two walls, having a chat. Zoom in and see. 

And on another day we set out for our constitutional on ice and in thick fog, and the air was so unpleasant we cut the walk short, and the only thing I brought home was this photo:

On another day I decided to tackle a job that's been on my winter to-do list for a couple of years: sort out my father's suitcase of papers. He was a successful agricultural journalist (amongst other things) with a regular column in Farm and Country, and he also wrote poems. My task was to whittle down his papers to a tiny pile, keeping examples of the best of the writing, and then to get rid the ancient suitcase. 

So I went up to the attic to fetch said suitcase and couldn't find it. I went up again. No joy. Dave went up. Nada. It's a puzzle. It's definitely there somewhere, but you wouldn't believe our attic. It's so disgusting there's no way I'm showing you what it looks like. Amongst other things it contains six large packing cases of Isaac's stuff that he left with us when  he emigrated to the USA. That was 2003. Who knows what's in those boxes? I guess he'll find out when we die and he has to clear them out. I couldn't deal with the suitcase, I turned to another winter job: processing wool. I'd already unravelled a home made cardigan and rolled the wool into balls, but I needed to get out the wrinkles, so I wound it all into hanks and then washed it. 

It's good wool - Rowan felted tweed - and I like the colour, and I'm a frugal woman.

Another thing I've done this week is start a list of food to stock up on before we crash out of the EU and the UK becomes an even darker place to live.

Tomorrow I'm going to London to stay with my friend H, and we're packing in the culture - going to the theatre, the ballet, an exhibition of Michelangelo's drawings and the video artist Bill Viola. The theme of the exhibition is birth, life and death. Phew. 

And we'll be talking. That will take up a lot of time.

But I need to fill Wednesday morning before I catch my train home, and I'm dithering about whether or not to see the Don McCullin exhibition. In case you don't know McCullin's work, he's a celebrated photographer, now in his 80s, who has specialised in war photography. I like photographic exhibitions as much as exhibitions of paintings, and McCullin is such an iconic figure, it feels like an exhibition I shouldn't miss. On the other hand, when I am still teetering on the edge of hopelessness, is it a good idea to go? 

I just read an interview with McCullin and another photographer, Giles Duley, who takes pictures of the aftermath of conflict. Giles Duley said their work couldn't stop war, or change the world, but maybe it could inspire other people who could. And he told the story of a letter he received from someone in another country who he'd never met, who was inspired to become a doctor by one of Duley's photos, taken in Afghanistan. The man had a copy of that photo on his wall and would look at it every day to remind himself.

That's a very encouraging thought. We never know what effect we have on other people and thus on the wider world. That's why we need to keep going, following our path, being ourselves, doing our best, even if our efforts seem small and insignificant. 

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Dealing with depression

I posted a very short version of this on Saturday and then took it down. I've added some helpful tips, now, so here it is...

For the first two weeks of January I felt as though I was walking around with a lump of dark grey dread hovering just behind my head. It got worse. It turned to fuzzy-headedness and tears that came out of nowhere. I wasn't clinically depressed. I was on the dark side of 'fed up.' 

I gave up reading the news and I told one or two people how I felt. They were sweet and supportive and said just the right things:
 'I love you,' 'be gentle with yourself,' 'treat yourself,' 'take it easy.'

I took their advice and have felt a bit lighter, more able to cope. I've been out for exercise in the fresh air, even when it's been cold and grey and I've had to force myself to do it. The sunny Wednesday we had was wonderful, but it didn't last. I got the SAD light down from the attic. I'd been trying to manage without it this winter because it's old and huge and ugly.

The thing that helped the most was being told I was loved. I'm not yet back to my normal bouncy self 

but I'm getting there.

In 1820, Sidney Smith, an essayist and clergyman, wrote a letter to a friend who was suffering from depression, and it's very helpful:

Dear Lady Georgiana,
Nobody has suffered more from low spirits than I have done—so I feel for you.
1st. Live as well as you dare.
2nd. Go into the shower-bath with a small quantity of water at a temperature low enough to give you a slight sensation of cold, 75° or 80°.
3rd. Amusing books.
4th. Short views of human life—not further than dinner or tea.
5th. Be as busy as you can.
6th. See as much as you can of those friends who respect and like you.
7th. And of those acquaintances who amuse you.
8th. Make no secret of low spirits to your friends, but talk of them freely—they are always worse for dignified concealment.
9th. Attend to the effects tea and coffee produce upon you.
10th. Compare your lot with that of other people.
11th. Don't expect too much from human life—a sorry business at the best.
12th. Avoid poetry, dramatic representations (except comedy), music, serious novels, melancholy sentimental people, and every thing likely to excite feeling or emotion not ending in active benevolence.
13th. Do good, and endeavour to please everybody of every degree.
14th. Be as much as you can in the open air without fatigue.
15th. Make the room where you commonly sit, gay and pleasant.
16th. Struggle by little and little against idleness.
17th. Don't be too severe upon yourself, or underrate yourself, but do yourself justice.
18th. Keep good blazing fires.
19th. Be firm and constant in the exercise of rational religion.
20th. Believe me, dear Georgiana, your devoted servant, Sydney Smith

I've also come across a letter that Stephen Fry wrote to one of his fans who was suffering from depression, and had asked him for help. Here is some of what he said:

I’ve found that it’s of some help to think of one's moods and feelings about the world as being similar to the weather.

Here are some obvious things about the weather:

It’s real.
You can’t change it by wishing it away.
If it’s dark and rainy it really is dark and rainy and you can’t alter it.
It might be dark and rainy for two weeks in a row.


It will be sunny one day.
It isn’t under one's control as to when the sun sun comes out but come out it will. One day. 
It really is the same with one's moods I think.The wrong approach is to think that they are illusions. They are real. Depression, anxiety, listlessness – these are as real as the weather – and equally NOT UNDER ONE'S CONTROL. Not one’s fault.


They will pass: they really well.

In the same way that one has to accept the weather, so one has to accept how one feels about life sometimes. 'Today is a crap day' is a perfectly realistic approach. It’s all about finding a kind of mental umbrella. 'Hey Ho it’s raining inside: it isn’t my fault and there’s nothing I can do about it, but sit it out. But the sun may well come out tomorrow and when it does, I shall take full advantage.'

A long time ago I wrote a piece when someone I loved was depressed, and at the end I offered a to-do list. I'm posting it now in case someone somewhere needs it.

How to help someone with depression
·         Encourage them to consult their GP.
·         Don’t forget that depression is an illness, and they cannot help suffering from it.
·         If they will talk to you, listen to what they say.
·         Don’t tell them about all the things they have to be glad about: it doesn’t help.
·         Don’t tell them to pull up their socks and make the best of things.
·         Tell them, on a daily basis, that you care about them.
·         Help to build up their self esteem, by praising minor successes as well as big ones.
·         Encourage them to take exercise, and to eat a balanced diet.
·         Find out about available support services, both local and online.

How to help yourself
·         Remember that even though your support doesn’t seem to help them, it is helping.
·         Accept that no matter how much you care for the person, you are not 100% responsible for them, and you can’t cure them.
·         Make time for yourself and the things that you enjoy. Going out and having your own life is not just OK, it's vital for your well-being.
·         Look after yourself.
·         Don’t live through the depression with them. You would wear yourself out if you were continually moved by their misery, and then you would be no good to them anyway. Depression is very infectious, but don’t succumb to it.
·         Remember that the person isn't seeing things from a normal perspective, so you can't engage with them in the way you normally would.
·         Think twice before getting upset at anything they say: they may be oblivious to the fact  that they can hurt you because they themselves feel so powerless.
·         Confide in a good friend: you need support, too.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

'What fresh hell is this?'

How do you answer your phone? Our landline is ancient and doesn't have caller-ID, so we never know who's on the line. Usually I answer 'Sue Hepworth?' in a rising tone, as I used to do when I worked as a researcher. Sometimes I just say 'Hello?' If I'm in a frivolous mood I say 'Hepworth Towers?'

The husband of a friend of mine - a lovely man who was polite and friendly in person - often worked at home, like her, and if I rang her during the day and he picked up the phone he would say in a tone of undisguised annoyance 'Oh! It's you.' It always creased me up. (However, I once blurted out the same thing to a member of the family when I was expecting an urgent phone call from someone else, and my response did not go down too well.) 

I loved that episode of Friends where Phoebe is trading in stocks and shares and is really hyper and answers her phone: 'Go!'

Dave and I are watching an old TV series on dvd this week in which a particular character, when stressed, answers his office phone by picking it up and barking: 'What?'

It makes me laugh every single time. I really, really want to answer my phone like that, just once. So if you ever ring me and that's how I answer you'll know what's going on.

 A friend just rang me up hoping to hear me say 'What?'
So I told her to ring me back, and slammed down the phone, and she did, and I did. 
I'm so easily amused.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Letter from home

I hope I can write to the end of what I want to say. I lose enthusiasm and energy so quickly at the moment. Yesterday, after watching a quilting programme that Jenetta sent me I was so inspired, I got out my fabrics to think about making something beautiful, and only got as far as this:

before I let out a huge sigh, and slumped and said to Dave, 'I can't do it.' 

But then I noticed the fabrics I used for Lux and Cece's aprons, 


and remembered they've grown out of them and I'd promised to make them new ones. So that's what I'm doing today.

Thank you - so much - to all of you who sent me kind messages after my last post, and for your suggestions about blogs I might like. I need bits and pieces to read when I'm avoiding the news. It's been really interesting seeing how other people present and write their blogs, quite apart from what they have to say. But more than the content and the ideas, the very fact that you responded so sympathetically to my request was wonderful.

I've felt loved by other people too this week, and it's helped.

I've been trying and failing to write a synopsis of the novel to send to agents, and despairing that I will ever get it done. Reducing 90,000 words to 500 and capturing the reader with the style as well as the content is the hardest part of the novelist's job. I've left it until I feel better. 

I've been trying to do nice things instead. 

The sun came out on Wednesday and I went for a walk above the village and loved it. 

There's something very calming and reassuring about being near tall trees in winter.

I went to see Stan and Ollie and that was good. Really good. I still don't find Laurel and Hardy funny but that's beside the point.

I had a sax lesson and was bad tempered and Mel loves me anyway. 

And I managed to stretch the whole of Series 5 of Grace and Frankie out over a week, which is impressive when it's my favourite programme and I've been waiting for it for aeons. 

For those of you who don't know the programme, it's about an odd couple: two women of 80 who live together. This morning I looked on Twitter to see what people are saying about the new series, and was surprised at the suggestion that Grace and Frankie are in love with each other, and that the next series should have them coming out and admitting it. Personally, I think it's a shame if a programme cannot be about a deep friendship without sexuality entering into it.

And now I'm done. Thank you, dear friends, for keeping on coming back. 

Tuesday, January 22, 2019


I'm feeling very low, and unable to blog. 

I'd love it if you'd suggest some blogs I could read that might cheer me up. The only blogs I have read (apart from Chrissie's) were Megan's 'The Scent of Water' and Lynne's 'I prefer reading' but they both gave up blogging two years ago.

tip: I like to read about the day-to-day.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver, one of my favourite poets, died this week. 

Here she is, reading the poem of hers which I return to again and again - 

Wild Geese.

Friday, January 18, 2019

The flesh is weak

A friend said to me in an email yesterday: Don’t know about you, but endless political turmoil is so very unsettling in almost every aspect of daily life. No matter how much you try to keep it at arm’s length, there’s an underlying agitation. 

That's exactly how I feel this week. I can't settle. 

But let's try to think about something else...

How do you feel about veganism? The only time I've considered it in the past has been when I've heard the cows in the adjacent field crying for their calves. 

Things are different now. We've had a couple of vegans in the family for a year now, and every time I have thought about cooking for them I've felt annoyed. I know, I know, this is most uncivil of me. It's not as though I eat a lot of meat. And it's only a step further than cooking for vegetarians, which I've been doing since 1971.[sic]  It's just...what the hell do you do for flavour when you can't use cheese?

You recall that fruit cake I was having trouble with before Christmas? It was a vegan Christmas cake I was making as a present for said vegans. One liked it, the other could taste the baking powder. I'm going to use chia seeds gloop as the raising agent next time, if there is a next time.

Anyway, two weeks ago I heard a short radio programme about sustainability and saving the planet, and it made such a good case for veganism that I was completely persuaded that it was the right way to eat. I have not become a vegan - come on, I was brought up on a mixed farm in the 50s - but it has made me completely sympathetic to their requirements. I still feel irritated by the things I can't use in recipes, but I don't feel cross with the vegans themselves. I admire them for doing the right thing.

I decided that although I'm not willing to be a vegan myself yet, I would move towards it and cook some vegan meals for myself every week. (I don't cook for Dave. His aspergers makes him graze, and anyway most of his diet consists of yoghurt. And before you ask, I'd rather not answer questions about his diet right now. It's not relevant.) 

I started the new regime by making some beanburgers which were easy to make from store cupboard ingredients, but they were tasteless.

This week I tried again. I saw I had four large flat mushrooms languishing in the fridge salad drawer that needed eating, and I made some mushroom and nut burgers. I made up the recipe. They were amazingly tasty, but then I had found  a small lump of vegan 'parmesan' cheese in the fridge, left there by a vegan at Christmas, and I'd grated that into the mix. I also added soy sauce. They tasted great, and something I might even choose on a menu. 

I was feeling pretty pleased with myself and wondering what I would try to make next, and maybe I could be a vegan one day, when I popped into the Co-op to buy some hummus and came out with said hummus and a ribeye steak. 

I ate it last night. It was delicious. 

But I'm not giving up. I'll try more vegan stuff next week. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

A book for every mood

Guess what? My two readers - one in New Zealand and one in California - have read the latest draft of my novel and said they enjoyed it, it's good, it's done, bar a few minor edits. So I did the tweaks and the edits and that's why my desk looks like this:

I wish I'd taken a 'before' shot on Sunday. You'll just have to trust me that it only looks this bare and this tidy when I've just finished writing a book. Now I have to get one last person to read it, someone who doesn't know me, and who has not seen the book in any of its previous incarnations. 

In the meantime I'm seeking distraction from this week's desperate, nailbiting, wrist-slitting, footchewing politics by reading a gripping novel by Louise Doughty called Apple Tree Yard, which for several years has been sitting waiting for the right moment on the Kindle app on my iPad. Its time has come and I'm hooked.

I have books I read when I'm ill...

And books I read for comfort in the middle of a sleepless night...

And books to read when the 360 degree greyness of a British winter is getting me down...

And books I re-read when I'm ready for a new book, but can't find something that exactly suits my mood...(this pile below is merely a quick selection)...

And I'll admit to you that I do on occasion (every few years?) reread my own books, when I'm feeling very low...

Which books do you return to, over and over?