Monday, 28 December 2009

The Snowman

It wouldn't be Christmas without seeing the film of The Snowman at least once. When it snowed heavily last week, Neil and I made a snowman. It was nearly midnight and the air was crowded with enormous floating flakes. The children had been trying to build a snowman all week. They had managed to produce several small, scrappy specimens, but nothing resembling the kind of snowman you might want to come to life. When Neil and I realised how much snow was falling, we pulled on coats and gloves and dashed outside to the front garden. We started to build. We thought that we would just keep going until the snowman reached a decent height - slightly bigger than the children's previous efforts. But once we started, it was hard to stop. The snowman got bigger and bigger. Neighbours, looking out of their windows at the snow before going to bed, noticed us in the garden and waved enthusiastically. We waved back and carried on building. Eventually our snowman was big enough. We found him a hat and a scarf. We found him some eyes, a nose and a smile and he was finally complete. He was the first proper snowman I have ever made and I was so pleased that I ran upstairs to wake the children. It was still snowing heavily.
'Who wants to come outside and play in the snow?' I asked them, thinking that they would undoubtedly jump at the opportunity to fling on their wellies and cavort in the garden in the middle of the night.
Four, very cross, sleepy children refused my offer and stumbled back to bed. Two of them deigned to look out of the window at the snowman before burying themselves under their duvets. 'Look,' I said. 'He looks just like The Snowman. Do you think he might come to life?' The snowman stood expectantly, smiling up at us, a lone figure in the unfamiliar, white landscape. The children stared at me for a moment and then exchanged a she's-completely-bonkers-let's-go-back-to-sleep look. I went back downstairs feeling disappointed. I sat in the study and watched the snowman for a while. He really looked to me as if he might come to life - well, if we had made him some legs it might have helped, but his arms and face had possibilities, it seemed. One of the wonderful things about childhood was imagining inanimate objects coming to life: imagining how fabulous it would be to be surprised. The surprises of adulthood tend not to be so fabulous - 'there's how much in my bank account?' - 'there's biro all over the new sofa?' - 'traffic wardens are about on bank holidays?' 
The Snowman contains the best of childhood fantasies: parents who don't wake up - no matter how much noise you make, an inanimate object coming to life, a personal party with Father Christmas and, most wonderful of all, flying. But perhaps the reason why we enjoy these fantasies so much is because they are just that. It's cold in the snow and most children, as I discovered, don't want to get up in the middle of the night to have adventures. They would rather dream about them instead.

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Negotiating with the Dead

In her book about writing, Negotiating with the Dead, Margaret Atwood writes, ‘you have never met the author of the book you have just read because too much time has elapsed between composition and publication’ (p.32). She goes on to remind the reader that ‘writer and audience are invisible to each other; the only visible thing is the book, and a reader may get hold of a book long after the writer is dead’ (p.43).

Last winter I read a book by Carol Shields. I read it by accident. It had been sitting on my bookshelf for some time, as part of a collection of books that I had bought from a discount retailer and never got around to reading. After I had finished the first chapter I told anyone who would listen that it was already the best book I had ever read. When I reached the end of the book I felt dazed. I tracked back and read my favourite passages again. Then I went on line to find out everything I could about Carol Shields. I discovered that, like me, she had five children, that in addition to novels she wrote short fiction and biography and that she had been dead for five years.

The Stone Diaries tells the life story of Daisy Goodwill, an ordinary woman, except of course, there is no such thing as an ordinary woman. It follows Daisy from her birth to her death and records her triumphs and disasters, which are all of the kind that you or I might expect to experience. Shields is quoted in this review as saying, 'none of the novels I read seemed to have anything to do with my life. So that was the kind of novel I tried to write - the novel I couldn't find.' The Stone Diaries is full of real things - lists, menus, recipes, newspaper clippings, fragments of overheard conversation, photographs, the opinions and theories of Daisy's friends and so much more. It is like a literary patchwork of life.

When The Stone Diaries was published in 1993, I was doing my A levels. When Shields died in 2003 I was pregnant with my fifth child. When I read The Stone Diaries in 2008, I was finishing my BA. I wanted to write and thank her for The Stone Diaries, for writing the kind of novel that had something to do with my life. Discovering that she had died was upsetting - I wished that I had read the book sooner, so that I could tell her how much I enjoyed it.

Margaret Atwood describes the way writers are split in two, she writes: 'the authorial part, the part that is out there in the world, the only part that may survive death - is not flesh and blood, not a real human being' (p.39). Atwood is right, of course, no-one is immortal, and yet, the very best writers create whole worlds that do survive death and while Daisy Goodwill is not flesh and blood, not a real human being, the words which Shields has used to conjure her, project a life that is as real, and full, and true as any you might watch unfolding or experience yourself.

Friday, 25 December 2009

Christmas Day

The problem with a research project on the Booker Prize is that you end up reading reviews of hundreds of books which you have never read: it's like watching a party through an outside window. I read Marilynne Robinson's Home after it was mentioned in passing in a Booker review (although it was an Orange Prize winner, not a Booker Prize winner). After that experience, I wanted to at least read the 2009 Booker shortlist -  I thought that perhaps I might find a new favourite among them. Luckily for me, Father Christmas gave me all six books this morning. Now I just have to try and squeeze my life around reading them all - I'm going to the office for a while and may be some time...

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Dread Letter Day

I've been anxiously awaiting the arrival of the best Christmas book I read as a little girl. Every time the postman comes I hope he will be carrying a padded envelope containing Morris's Disappearing Bag.

The weather probably hasn't helped. This morning Alice, Jo and I spent an hour shovelling snow and ice off our driveway and the pavement in front of the house. This afternoon Sam, Alice and I spent another couple of hours trying to clear our neighbours' driveways. Having made the postman's life so much easier, it seemed only fair that he should deliver Morris's Disappearing Bag, but he didn't.

I did receive something today, though. Something I had been expecting, but not until the New Year: my first short story rejection letter. Having spent 10 years out of education before returning to complete my BA, I know there is wisdom in the triteness of if at first you don't succeed, try, try, try again etc. However, just for this evening, I'm going to say bah humbug and open the box of luxury chocolate biscuits a couple of days early. And maybe if I clear a bit more snow in the morning, the postman might, in appreciation, or perhaps in consolation, deliver my padded envelope of Christmas nostalgia.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

When you wish upon a cake

Every year my mum made the Christmas cake in October half term and every year we all got the chance to stir the mixture. As we stirred the dark, fruity, gloop we were told to make a wish. This was the best thing about the Christmas cake, better than eating it or smelling it baking on a long autumn afternoon. Every year my Christmas cake wish came true. In retrospect, this was probably because I wished for things which were already likely to happen, in order to maintain the magic, but still, it seemed to work.

This year I had two helpers as I made our cake. I had to pick the egg shells out of the mixture before it went in the oven. I told both children to make a wish as they held the bowl and stirred. They both struggled to think of anything. I’m not sure that either of them actually did it. In fact I strongly suspect that one of them closed his eyes and counted to five in order to shut me up!

When I opened the Christmas cake up this evening to begin the icing process, I was thinking about wishes. It’s interesting how a wish has to be made. You don’t imagine a wish, or think it or feel it or contemplate it; you make it. The word make implies a degree of creation, formulation, construction. Maybe next year I’ll give the children more than a few seconds warning before the recipie requires their wishes. Perhaps they will compose something magical, given the time. And my wishes as I made our Christmas cake this year? I didn’t make any, it’s been a good year and I’m just hoping that the cake tastes as good as it smells.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

All is calm, all is bright

By mid-morning there had been two car crashes outside our house. In both instances a driver misjudged the stopping distance in the icy conditions and slammed into another vehicle. Initially, I peered out of the curtains with a degree of subtlety, but once the children realised what was going on there was a scramble for the best view and four hot faces ogled the drivers and misted the windows.

As the road was so slippery, we abandoned plans to drive somewhere in pursuit of deeper snow and walked instead, relishing the powdery crunches as we stepped. It was quiet on the Moss. It was as if the snow had surprised everything into silence. We didn't see anyone else as we passed the orchard and followed the lanes into the open farm land. The scene opened like a pause, an inhalation.

Then it started to rain. We raced home, wet and cold.

Later on we sang 'Silent Night' with my Gran who goes to Ireland tomorrow to spend Christmas with her family. And I thought about being on the Moss, earlier today in the calm and bright. There's something about Christmas carols and snow that leaves me feeling happy.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

'Home' is where the heart is

My favourite book of 2009 is Marilynne Robinson's Home. It is described in Sarah Churchwell's review as 'one of the saddest books I have ever loved.' I have to agree. Robinson's prose is so gently beautiful, so desperately sad without being sentimental. I finished the book and immediately wrapped it up and posted it to my mum in the Czech Republic. As I sent the parcel on its way, I felt as if I was sending a little piece of my heart the 900 or so miles to her apartment.

Some books change the way you think about things. Some books soften you. Some books have pages like glass and the reflection you see in them leads to an acceptance that reaches beyond fiction and into the sentences of your life.

Friday, 18 December 2009

A Year Without Mary ~ excerpt from a story

Mary died in the kitchen before she put the cherry pie in the oven, which was unfortunate as Rod wasn’t sure what temperature to select, or how long it needed to cook because she never used a recipe book. When he got back from the hospital the pie was sitting on the counter, all raw and pink; the juices had crept through the pastry in his absence. The next morning he could see her finger prints in the pastry. The following day he found a recipe on the internet and cooked the thing. When it was cool he wrapped it in cling film and put it in the fridge. Every time he opened the door he thought about the finger print swirls of Mary that the oven had seared away.

He pretended that Mary was on holiday, told himself she was sleeping in, or tending the garden, but the fist of his heart only allowed momentary relief before it thumped the truth at him. When he poured milk on his cereal he read the use by date. He opened a kitchen cupboard and methodically stacked pasta, flour, rice, tins of peaches, baked beans, soup and custard on the worktop, checking the date on each. The peaches had the greatest longevity – 2 years and they would still be edible, 2 years without Mary and the peaches would remain moistly conserved in their protective coat of syrup. The milk wouldn’t even make it past the funeral, but the peaches would outlive Mary by 24 months, approximately 740 days. He put them back in the cupboard.

The postman slid fat bundles of commiseration through the letter box. Rod opened them - poems, thoughts, wishes, muted pastels and flora. He lined them along the mantel piece, the sideboard, the windowsill and the bookcase. Delivery drivers stood on his doorstep holding spring bouquets. He was a lucky fellow and many happy returns were proffered. The festivity of the lounge disoriented him. A neighbour brought a casserole in a small ceramic bowl. Rod emptied the contents onto a plate and mechanically shovelled the meal into his mouth. Mary wouldn’t approve of eating out of the dish.

When he awoke in the newly bright spring mornings there was a brief moment of consciousness before remembrance revived the membrane of disbelief and nausea. People called and said they knew how he felt, which was more than he did. They buried him in an unwelcome pile of chin-up, time-healing, blessing-counting clichés. He forgot to brush his hair, the silver waves tangled in a nest of neglect. He paced. He made tea for two. He didn’t change his underpants. He watched the news, astonished at its irrelevance.

He called Susie about the funeral.

‘I’m not coming Dad, it’s too expensive, too far.’

He felt a new, cold coil of disappointment unwrap in his already congested chest. Susie’s name used to sway out of his mouth on a smile, but he barely said it anymore. Mary used to type it and wait as it zipped across the world to Santa Cruz in an instant message. Susie’s replies were prefaced by the announcement Susie Said: as if Mary might forget who she was talking to mid conversation. Susie Said: Hi! Mary Said: Hi love and occasionally, Rod Said: Hello Susie. He didn’t feel like this Rod she infrequently wrote to - should he have called himself Dad instead? Sometimes it wasn’t even her, it was one of her boys, Matthew or Michael. There was a photograph of them next to the computer. They were standing on the beach, a pair of straggly, dandelionish boys, sleek and shiny like porpoises in their wetsuits, laughing into the camera. They looked like their father. Rod knew it was one of them when Susie Said: Hi G. They called him G, not Grandad. He felt abbreviated.

He sent Susie an instant message.

Rod Said: Hello Susie.

Susie Said: Hi Dad.

Rod Said: Please come, love.

Susie Said: I’m so sorry I can’t be there - I think mum would understand - r u ok?

Rod Said: I don’t know – I’m woolly. What if I send you the money?

Susie Said: It’s just not a good time, I can’t really afford the time off. The boys need me around – they’re up to all sorts – I need to keep an eye on them. Chris lets them get away with murder, it’s just so far away – I wish I had come at Christmas.

Rod Said: I just want to see you - remind myself that part of her exists in you.

Susie Said: Ah Dad. You should buy a webcam, they’re not that expensive xx.

He tripped over one of Mary’s slippers. He opened one of her drawers then closed it quickly before her aroma could escape. He studied the impossibility of her appointment diary. He found her library book and read the last page. He watered the vegetables she had planted. And a week after the funeral he took the pie out of the fridge, slid it into the bin and prickled at the thudding split as it landed on a bed of sympathetic envelopes...

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Pop goes the book

There’s something magical about pop-up books, particularly Christmas ones. There’s something about intricate, paper staircases that draws your fingers to tiptoe to the top and down again. There’s something about doorways and windows that encourages you to push your face into the folds and admire the layered view. My favourite is the story of The Nutcracker.

You open the pages and out pops another world, it really is like magic. The book was flat and all of a sudden it’s a fan of colour and textures. Sometimes a book like this needs to be read at eye level – suddenly you aren’t spectating , you’re there, in the book meeting the characters and running up their staircases. It's like being in a fairy tale as Tom Thumb or the later Thumbelina, and getting to see life in miniature.

For eleven months of the year my copy of The Nutcracker lives in the loft with the other Christmas books. When it is finally December, a place is cleared on a bookcase and the Christmas books are greeted like old friends. Occasionally there are squabbles over The Nutcracker, occasionally I get hoarse from reading it to each child individually on the same night, occasionally the paper gets damaged and Clara and the others are rescued by fine strands of sticky tape. The book must say something to the children about the magic of Christmas, perhaps something along the lines of: if paper staircases can pop out of books, surely Father Christmas can pop down the chimney?

The story of The Nutcracker doesn't need pop-up pictures in order to captivate an audience: it has adventure, magic, romance, fighting, snow and dancing sweets! I don't write stories about any of these things and I don't use illustrations, which means that the words have to pop off the pages and fold themselves into tiny pictures of life instead: it's just a matter of working out how to do it.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Girl Talk

The pink stinks campaign has got me thinking.

I’ve muddled my way through my three boys' early years without much thought of any damage I might be inflicting, not much consideration of role models or gender stereotyping. One of them adores football, another science fiction and the third is happy to refer to himself as a geek: he declares it with some pride. There appears to be room under the umbrella of masculinity for all three of them and their disparate interests and activities.

But it seems to be different for girls. They are bombarded with frivolity and insubstantial role models in the form of fairies, princesses, queens, angels and the unfortunately proportioned Barbie.

Look at these national literacy magnet sets.

Look at the verbs. The boys get climbing, swinging, running, racing and swimming. The girls, cooking, dancing and skipping. The boys have their imaginations stimulated by monsters, dragons, wizards, dinosaurs, treasure and ghosts. The girls get fairies, magic, princess and angels. While the boys’ list includes the nouns helicopter, aeroplane, tractor, scooter, lawnmower and football, the girls are subjected to clothes, lipstick, glitter, handbags, bunnies and FLUFF. This focus on appearance, on the exterior, sits uncomfortably alongside the fact that almost 50% of girls aged 5-8 want to be slimmer (British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 2005 study).

I have a daughter. Recently, we painted her doll’s house bright pink and I know for a fact that Father Christmas has bought equally pink furniture to ensure a complete refurbishment on December 25th, but that’s not really the issue, not for me at least (although I did suggest that she might prefer to paint it red). I worry about raising her in an environment where her gender is used as an insult: ‘don’t be such a girl’ ‘you big girl’s blouse’ ‘you old woman’ etc. I feel obliged to provide some sort of foil to the version of femininity that is paraded in front of her every time she watches television or sets foot in a supermarket. Her brother Jo used to play tennis, if he played badly his coach would humiliate him by shouting ‘Josephine’ across the court, illustrating to all the children present that failure is feminine; to be compared to a girl is the ultimate humiliation.

I don’t know what the answer is, other than to provide a counter to the bubbles and fluff: worms, skeletons, snails, sticks, dirt, conkers and frogs – watch out Alice, they’re coming your way.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

She only likes the red ones

My mum’s mum used to tell a story. I’m a bit sketchy on the details. It involved a sick woman, her frantic husband and a telephone call. The woman would not take the pills which had been prescribed. Her husband called the doctor to express his worry. Presumably the doctor asked the husband why his wife would not take the pills. His reply? She only likes the red ones. (It was only recently that I learned that these lines in fact came from a Carry On film and not a real life story - there's a future post about memory somewhere in there!)

That’s it. That’s the story. It’s short and largely insignificant. Unless you were raised in my family. Unless she only likes the red ones was one of the choruses that punctuated your childhood. Enjoyment of all things red was accompanied by the phrase she only likes the red ones: sweets, apples, ketchup, flowers, jelly – anything red and you waited for the accompaniment of she only likes the red ones.
There were other stories, other choruses. They glued us together, shielded us from outsiders in the way that secrets and private jokes do. But the funny thing about she only likes the red ones is that, in my case, it seems to have stuck. Given a free hand with a paint brush I would smother the walls in red. I’d buy a red sofa and red curtains. I’d buy red dining room chairs and a red range cooker. I’d cover the Christmas tree in red decorations. Fortunately for my family, I’ve only managed the latter (see above). But it really does seem that I only like the red ones.

It makes me wonder about the stories I weave through the fabric of my own children’s lives, will they also contain self-fulfilling prophecies?

Monday, 14 December 2009

Recording Angels

I took my notebook to the school nativity this year. When I pulled it out of my handbag along with a pen, the woman next to me asked, 'what are you doing?' For the first time ever my children’s school has banned photography during performances. Filming is also prohibited. 'I'm recording the performance,' I replied. 'I'm not allowed to take pictures or film it, so I'm going to write about it instead.'

I arrived at the school early so that I could get a good seat. On entering the hall I discovered that the front row was littered with RESERVED signs. Five minutes before the performance began a stream of people, very tall people it seemed, entered the hall and sat down in front of me.

I watched Jo recite a poem. He was supposed to recite the first third, but managed to be subversive by memorising the entire thing and reciting it all. I watched Daniel recite a poem, enunciating every word, with great seriousness. But I was really there to watch Alice. For the first time I was there to watch an angel.

Alice appeared in a white dress, doused with tinsel and smiles. I've watched my boys be innkeepers, shepherds, donkeys, wise men and last year a particularly ferocious Herrod, but this angel thing was new to me. And it got me thinking. Most girls want to be Mary. At my children’s school you can only be Mary if you are in year 2. Alice is in year 1. So what other parts are available to her? Well, there's the part of an angel. There are a couple of slots as an innkeeper’s wife, perhaps even a chance to be a wise man if the school is so inclined, but the possibilities are rather restricted. It occurred to me that the parts for girls are not aspirational. A girl cannot be the mother of god when she grows up and no matter how appealing the idea is to her parents, she will not achieve an immaculate conception. She is also unlikely to be an angel or a man (whether wise or foolish) when she reaches adulthood.

I watched Alice dance angel dances on the staging blocks, squashed by the angel Gabriel, bunches flapping on either side of her tinsel halo, her dimple punctuating every smile. I couldn't write fast enough. I wanted to photograph her earnestness with words. As I scribbled in my notepad, it occurred to me that angels are like writers. They don't play much of a part in the story; they record, announce, summarise and witness. They watch the action unfold from their privileged vantage point, then sing beautiful songs about it. It occurred to me that the job of an angel might not be so bad, after all.

At the conclusion of the nativity we listened to 'One fousand, fousand Christmas lights' - that's what they sang, at least. The head informed us that the school would be filming the performance the following day, presumably to sell to the parents. I wrote a strong protest in my notepad. Then I grabbed my little angel and took a sneaky photograph.