Friday, April 29, 2016

A Venn diagram of my family

I just got back from a wonderful five day break in Wensleydale with my four siblings. The dale was looking lovely despite the lack of leaves and the lack of water in Aysgarth Falls.

But there were more sheep and lambs in the fields than any of us had ever seen before. Kath and I saw a newborn, it's afterbirth smeared on the grass and its mother licking it clean in the biting wind.

When I told my co-author of Plotting for Beginners, Jane Linfoot, that I was up in the Dales on holiday with the sibs, she said it would make a brilliant sitcom. That's true. But I'm not going to risk it. Although... I could draw an illuminating Venn diagram of some of the differences and similarities between us.

Here are a few superficial ones for starters...

Four sibs are keen ornithologists. One sees a bird that's been pointed out to them, and thinks: "Yes. And?"

One objects to a milk carton on the breakfast table, two think that coming down to breakfast in pyjamas is a capital crime, and the others are baffled by the strictures (although two protest at an electric kettle left on the table.) It's complicated.

Four like background music. One prefers silence.

Four are technophiles. One's a technophobe.

Four sibs are tough stoics. One is a wuss.

Three have cats, one prefers dogs, and one has hens and brought eggs for us all. 

Two think Mrs Brown's Boys is funny. Two think Mrs Brown's Boys is beyond the pale. I forgot to ask the other one.

Three are foodies. Two consider cooking to be a tedious necessity.

Two are monarchists. Three are republicans. (N.B. the lower case r.)

Two sit in bed in the morning reading the news on their iPads and fuming about the current government. The others don't, but are nevertheless prone to the fuming bit. 

I suspect that Venn diagrams drawn up by my sibs would highlight different things.

Our undisputed commonalities would be our love of Wensleydale and our love for each other. Priceless.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Victoria Wood

I always do this, don't I? Say I'm taking a break and then pop up on Thursday with something I just have to tell you?

I can't let the week pass without saying how hugely sad I am that the funniest woman I've come across has died. 

Victoria Wood was a brilliant writer, composer, musician, actor and comedian. I have loved her work since she burst onto the telly in the 1980s. But I'm not going to do what they do on telly when they have a "tribute to" programme and have a lot of talking heads say why they liked someone's work. The work speaks for itself. I'm just going to give you some links to three of my favourite sketches. But there are so many more. No blog post is long enough.

VW's take on Brief Encounter here.

VW's cafe conversation here.

VW's shoeshop encounter here.

Having said that, the best appreciation of Victoria Wood I have come across is here.

Monday, April 18, 2016

"The sun rises in spite of everything"

Dear friends, I am short of energy at the moment and need to conserve what I have, so I'm taking this week off from the blog. 

I hope you're enjoying the spring, and those of you in the southern hemisphere, the autumn.

Here's a photo I took last week on a bike ride - fresh green leaves on a hawthorn, up on Longstone Edge:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

T S Eliot

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Are you as nice as you think you are?

Take this quiz and find out.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

In the eye of the beholder

This is a rather more up to date photo of Jen and me. It's actually 7 years old, but it's the only one for which I have clearance from Jen to use.

When I first got a copy, I emailed the photo to Isaac (son) and Wendy (daughter-in-law) in the US and they responded thus…
Wendy: Look at you two babes! Hot mamas on the road, watch out!
Isaac: Lovely picture. You look a lot like gran!
I think it’s clear why I am so fond of my daughter-in-law.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Sibling rivalry

I had a wonderfully entertaining and cheering hour-long phone conversation with my little sister yesterday, in which critiques of The Archers and Neighbours played only a part. There were a lot of laughs, and various bits of personal stuff. The things I can divulge are... we both think the present Tony Archer is even wetter than the one they had before, and we agree that Kyle should not have flown off to Germany with Georgia, and why on earth did he take the dog? 

Back to basics. 

The chat started something like this:

JEN: Hello. How are you?

ME:  I'm OK. I'm trying to be a stoic like you and Ma.

JEN: What have you got to be stoical about?

ME: I'm OK. I'm fine. Tell me how you are.

JEN: I can't complain.

Me and Jen 

She and me and Pete and Kath are going up to stay in Wensleydale soon. Jonty lives there and we'll see him, too. I am so excited! Five go camping! Well, OK, five stay in a holiday cottage which is a converted barn on the farm where our grandfather, great grandfather and great great grandfather lived. Cool, or what?


Friday, April 08, 2016

Holiday week

I did something I don't usually do on Tuesday. I sat on a squishy leather sofa in a country hotel and had a cuppa and a chat with my writer friend, Chrissie. We never usually meet in the morning, because that's when we write. I 'd just been telling her that I was having a week off from writing, a holiday at home, when the barman came to take our cups away and asked what we were going to do now, and I said without thinking "I'm going back to work." Just like that. It slipped out. I think it's because it's so firmly fixed in my mind that the mornings are for writing.

I'm having a week off because I've been working hard since the end of January on the sitcom, even drafting one episode in Colorado on snowy days when the girls were at school. I've got five episodes under my belt. Then last weekend I was a tangle of anxiety. 

I had episode 1 of the sitcom all lined up, ready to submit to the BBC (closing date for submissions 5 p.m. on Monday). I also had the required paragraph about my writing and synopses for episodes 2-6 of Series 1. That's what I understood from the website was required. But then when I logged on, and reached the submission screen, I was asked for a logline. You remember the logline?  I hadn't got one!

The logline is one or two sentences that say what the sitcom is about. I logged off and spent the next 24 hours working out my logline. Then I started worrying about how it works if you submit a blind copy of your script (as asked for) with no name or identifiers on it. If they decided they liked what you'd sent, how would they know it was yours? Monday morning, I sent it off anyway. I was a heap of jelly by that time -  a result of hard, concentrated work, mild depression, and terror that this was my last chance. My very last chance. What if nothing came of it? What if the person who read my script was the kind of person who likes Mrs Brown's Boys, and not Hancock, As Time Goes By and Blackadder Goes Forth.

Since then I've been: 

getting up late in the mornings because I've been gripped by a book about brain surgery called Do No Harm

knitting a cardigan for a great niece

belting out Nights in White Satin on my sax

and trying to make it to the top of Longstone Edge without getting off my bike. I cycle up a quiet lane on which the only living things I meet are highland cattle, which so far have not minded when I've sidled past them to get across the cattle grid. I took my camera yesterday but they weren't there, so here's a pic of Liz's - imagine them standing, barring my way, and without the mist:

I had to walk the last fifty yards of the hill. Next time maybe I'll make it. If not, I'll keep trying, if only for the endorphins.

And next week I'll write episode 6.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Optimist meets pessimist - not many dead

This piece I found in my archives may amuse you. (Regular readers will notice how my voice has changed since I wrote it.)

An optimist and a pessimist have nothing to discuss, or else they have too much – assuming that they recognise each other.

When Dave and I met at university, oh so long ago, there were some warning signs but we didn’t read them right. If the dyed-in-the-wool optimist and the dead-in-the-water pessimist had known the truth, we might have taken flight. We might have missed the years of temperamental challenge that have proved so stimulating and so fruitful.

I do remember noticing the poster on his bedsit wall, with the quote from Heine -
Gut is der Schlaf, der Tod ist besser,
Das Beste wäre nie geboren sein.
But when he translated it – Sleep is good, death is better, The best of all would be never to have been born – it didn’t occur to me that anyone could actually agree with such a gloomy sentiment. I assumed it was an existential student pose, and as I had liked him at first handshake I decided to ignore this affectation. And when he quoted from his classics lecturer “There is nothing so invigorating as a hearty dose of pessimism,” I thought it was a joke.

No doubt he had his reasons for ignoring my Pollyanna views, that he considered “charming but unfeasible.” After all, he was an eighteen year old male, with rather more basic pre-occupations than the colour of a girl’s philosophy: perhaps he wanted to test my belief that “You can achieve anything if you just set your mind to it.”

Since then a lot of life has happened, but nothing to change our different points of view. My optimism did take a severe beating when we lost all the contents of our family home in a fire. I saw the world, temporarily, through his eyes and we clung to the same piece of wreckage. But somehow my optimism bounced back, dented but still roundish and pink and bobbing on the choppy waters of life. I learned to entertain the possibility of unhappy endings; it’s just that deep in my heart I do still hope for happy ones.

After the fire there came the second blow of breast cancer. When we heard the diagnosis, he asked me solicitously how I felt, and was incredulous that I was just “a bit fed up.”

“A bit fed up ? A bit fed up is when you have too much homework or your soufflé sinks.”

But that’s all I was. After all, my mother had had a mastectomy sixteen years before and she was still fighting fit. Why shouldn’t I do the same ? It never crossed my mind that I might die. And anyway, I knew that Eeyore would be there, supporting me through it all, even as he was ‘secretly’ thinking that the diagnosis was my death warrant. But I did understand his fears, because his mother had died from breast cancer.

Twenty years later I am still here to torment him. I add my survival to the list of other happy outcomes that I use to challenge his morbid point of view.

So we jog along – him appalled at my high expectations, me creased up at the blackness of his outlook.

“Do you want to write to someone on Death Row?” I asked him, after seeing an advert in The Big Issue.
“We’re all on Death Row. It’s just that some of us aren’t in cages,” he said.
Another time after watching a documentary, I asked him:
“What’s the answer to all this inner-city deprivation?”
“Well, ultimately pestilence, disease and famine will thin out the population. That will make things easier.”

We take delight in taunting each other with relevant research reported in the press. Last summer I accosted him with the findings that optimists have longer lives. “What an excellent reason for not being an optimist,” he said. In the autumn he read me evidence that defensive pessimists – who make contingency plans to cover everything that might go wrong - suffer less stress.

But although we both read the news, we read different stories. Every breakfast he gives a ghoulish recital of headlines that Thomas Hardy could have based a novel on – “Children die in house fire caused by advent candle,” “Couple die from gas poisoning while wrapping Christmas presents.” Meanwhile I will alight on “Kitten rescued after travelling under bonnet of car” and “Woman survives being run over by tractor.”

For every proof there is a riposte. If he drops his toast on the floor butter side up and I say he’s lucky, he will say that he must have buttered it on the wrong side.

He can be sickened by my syrupy perceptions. Sometimes I want to sock him in the jaw. When things are going badly and the troubles are mounting up and I ask him “Do you think everything’s going to be all right ?” and he says “No,” I wish he lie. Just occasionally. Just for me.

We each find comfort in our respective points of view. His pessimism protects him from disappointment. If I felt like him I’d want to slit my wrists. Shenagh Pugh’s poem Sometimes speaks for me, and this time she can have the final word:
Sometimes things don’t go, after all,
from bad to worse…………
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen: may it happen for you.

Saturday, April 02, 2016

Facts of life

Lux (5) was explaining to Cecilia (3) how everything moves on and everything dies:  "Even I will be dead and gone one day, Cecilia. And all the things that are past are in the memory box. Like my memories of when I was four. That was a happy time. And now I'm five, I have to understand more things and it's harder."

I'm 66 and I feel just the same. But I would like to be five again and get out of bed in the morning and walk downstairs for breakfast without being aware of my body in any way. 

It needs focused, concentrated effort to ignore all the twinges that signal its deterioration, as well as cultivating positivity and hope in the face of the current state of the world. That's why having something that absorbs me completely - playing with the children, writing a sitcom, or trying to cycle to the top of Longstone Edge without getting off my bike - is such a blessing.

This isn't meant to be another whinging post, more a recognition of what's involved in being a cheerful older person. I told a friend recently that I was looking forward to being 70 because I'd feel able to sit by the fire and knit or read on a biting afternoon and not feel compelled to do anything more creative or energetic. But actually, I don't think that will be possible because of my mother's genes. I remember ringing her up one teatime when she was ninety and she said she felt awfully guilty because all she had done that afternoon was light the fire, read the paper, and do the codewords.

And now, for no reason at all, except that I adore it: