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Archive for December, 2011

This Is Almost As Bad As Suddenly Discovering You’re A Tory.

I mean, it’s not as if I have anything against greetings cards in the abstract. I even quite enjoy choosing them sometimes – especially for birthdays. My personal taste runs towards deliberately incorrect age-milestones and the ones with the kind of joke you don’t want to have to explain to your children. But I’m also quite fond of cards with arty pictures and no words on the front (and the ones with no words on the inside either are a godsend for those chilling 3am oh-shit-it’s-TOMORROW-and-I-FORGOT-to-buy-a-CARD moments of clarity). I also like the ones that have glitter and ribbon and buttons – so cute! So crafty! So nicely made! And if you get me drunk and trap me in a corner, I’ll probably confess to really quite liking the ones where cute animals are wearing hats, sitting in things, or wearing hats while sitting in things.

Christmas cards, on the other hand, I struggle with. In a good year, I get it together enough to send them to the people I love, but know I have no chance of seeing in the two-month window on either side of the milestone. In an average one, I’ll remember to buy a box of cards for the kids to send laborious greetings to their classmates. But cards for people I’m going to actually see on Christmas Day? Maybe not so much.

If they all looked like this I could probably get into it more.

I felt this way for all of my life until I met my husband, and until I met my husband it never occurred to me that anyone else would feel differently. And then I was introduced to a whole other way of doing cards. I got my first inkling of this when our first wedding anniversary rolled around, and to my amazement, we got an anniversary card…from his parents.

This was a total shock to me. In my family, wedding anniversaries are marked by the following ritual: some time towards the end of September, my mum and dad will look at each other in the kitchen and one of them will say, “Wasn’t it our wedding anniversary last week?” And the other one will say, “Yeah, I think it might have been actually,” and they have an amiable argument about whether they got married in 1970 or 1971, and what date it had taken place on, and whether this corresponded to last Tuesday or last Thursday, before moving onto more important things, like whether it’s too late in the evening to make a cup of tea.

Do you see what I’m saying here? I was raised in a household where the notion of remembering to buy a card that commemorates the day you, yourself, married the personal love of your life was considered a bit of a challenge. The notion of remembering to send a card to mark the day someone else did it was simply unimaginable. And then, out of the blue…an anniversary card from my husband’s parents. Clearly I had married into a family where these things were done differently. In this family, cards mattered. It was time I started shaping up and taking notice.

I lack the critical judgement needed to tell whether or not this is worthy of mockery.

And then I started to notice other little signs. Signs that maybe the matter of Card Specialness wasn’t just confined to personal milestones. Like the way that, even before our children were old enough to make cards at playgroup, my husband always bought me a Christmas card from each of them and got them to put a bit of pre-literate scribble in them. Or the fact that the Christmas cards we received from his parents had, at the appropriate times, morphed from “To Our Son And His Girlfriend” through “To Our Son And His Fiancee” to “To Our Son And His Wife”. Also, the fact that (rather than cards with double-entendre jokes and stupid pictures of ducks favoured in my family), these cards tended to be several pages long, and to have a great deal of printed text included in them. Finally, the Apocalypse; a conversation with my mother-in-law about Christmas cards.

We’d gone round for a Christmas Eve dinner, and she and I were having one of those kitchen conferences you always have after a big event, and she mentioned how much the cards we’d given them mattered to her. “All those special words,” she told me. “I’m not bothered about presents at all, it’s lovely of people to remember but I wouldn’t mind a bit if they hadn’t – but the cards are what makes it really special. I get all choked up reading the verses inside them, and knowing you’ve chosen those words just for us.”

Reader, I almost expired on the spot with shame, because (and I’m not proud of this. In fact I’m mortified) the only time I ever read the verses written in greetings-cards is so I can laugh at them. It was actually possible I might have had a little chuckle at some of the more florid greetings in front of my mother-in-law. I felt like I’d just been to church and openly laughed at the sermon – except that even in my most fiercely unbelieving moments, I’ve never sunk that low. Or as if, after watching a friend leave the steak I’d just served her and laughing at her fussy eating habits, I’d realised several years after she finally stopped coming round that she was, and had always been, a vegetarian. Or as if I’d just got into my late thirties and only just discovered it actually wasn’t okay to go to work in just your underwear.

I feel his pain.

Christmas cards for people you’re going to see on Christmas Day. I just don’t get it, and I never have. Thing is, now I know I’m the weird one here. As a result, my Christmas-cards-for-near-relatives obliviousness has been replaced with Christmas-cards-for-near-relatives blind panic. I spend hours worrying about cards, and looking at cards, and buying cards, and writing cards, and watching cards being opened, and scrutinising the reactions to see if I’ve got it right. I suspect I’m madly over-compensating, but that’s because I have no internal compass telling me where to draw the line. I once actually cried in WHSmiths because I couldn’t find a card whose front featured the correct conjunction of the words “Granny”, “Grandad” and “Grand-daughter” for my (pre-literate) child to present to my in-laws.

How much does this stuff matter? I don’t know. Everyone else in my family knows; but I don’t. Is it a huge deal, to get a card printed with the word “Grannie” instead of “Granny”? Is it worse to get a card which spells their title wrong, or is it worse to jib out altogether and opt for “To my grandparents at Christmas”? And, when inspecting the verses inside, what exactly am I looking for? How do I assess the poetry of the Christmas-card? Is it better to have one that rhymes, or is blank verse preferable? What sort of themes should I look for? How do I grade the ones that go on and on over several pages, with each section of text separated from the rest by pretty golden ellipses? And how about the font – is the font important?

I have absolutely no idea. I am Christmas-card blind; I am deaf to the music of their meaning. I am a freak and an outsider and a social klutz. All I know is that half my family see things in these cards that I just don’t, and getting the right card matters.

Which gets me on to the point of this post, which is what you’re supposed to do with the damn things afterwards. Clearly these cards matter, but how much? Am I allowed to put them in the recycling, or is that as crass as cutting up my wedding-dress for dishcloths? And how far down the family tree am I expected to go? Do I have to keep cards from relatives I couldn’t even pick out of a police line-up?

I’ll say it again; I have absolutely no idea. And, in a pathetic over-compensation for my total absence of social knowledge on this question, I keep all of them. Every single last one.

This is not a consequence-free decision. Because of my inability to instinctively know what to do about cards, we have an entire antique wooden chest that lives on our landing, looks pretty nice until you open it up, and mostly contains cards. Am I getting this right? I have no idea. When we both die and our kids have to clear out the house, will they find the card archive and nod wisely and say, Ah. This is where she kept them, and then take them away to store them somewhere else? Or will they merely wonder what the hell I was thinking?

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I have to confess that I actually don’t have any words to explain how amazing this feels. Just a huge, enormous grin that can probably be seen from space. 😀

Oh oh oh – and the links to buy it, of course! It’s available direct from the Salt website, and also for pre-order from Amazon.

Wishing everyone a wonderful Christmas. xxx

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Here’s a lovely piece of Point Of Sale that really adds value to the lives of today’s young adults:

“The best reading for teens”. That’s quite a bold claim, but, okay, we’ll go with it.

Ready for the payoff?

Let’s all just contemplate the significance of that for a minute, shall we?

“The best reading for teens is a genre that posits sexual relationships as a physically dangerous transaction between impossibly powerful male predators and passive, helpless female prey. In this genre, sexual fulfilment is entirely within the gift of the male, to be awarded or withheld entirely as he sees fit; and the great physical beauty of the protagonists is the sole, entire basis for any romantic relationship.

As the poster-child for this genre, we will pick the series where a delusional and possibly even mentally-ill heroine is stalked by a moody control-freak who climbs in through her window every night to count her eyelashes while she sleeps. Furthermore, we won’t even pick the good one of the series, where there is at least some narrative drive and a semblance of romantic entanglement. Instead, we’ll pick the one where the heroine gets married at eighteen instead of going to college, the hero gives the heroine a C-section with his teeth and the second male lead falls in love with a pre-verbal toddler.

Definitely the best reading for teens. Yeah.”

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All Christmas Gift Dilemmas Are Now Solved.

THIS is what I want for Christmas. Nothing else. Just this.

This, and possibly the materials needed to make a start on the first of 55 marvellous, magical…Christmas Balls.

Christmas Balls. When I have fifty-five of them, my life will be as perfect as Arne and Carlos’s life is already. That’s definitely worth a little hard work and knitting yarn.

The more I look at this book, the more I love absolutely everything about it. I like its hardback, durable nature (this, like the 55 Knitted Balls, will clearly become an important heirloom). I like the high-quality paper the publishers have clearly insisted on. I like how big it is. And I especially like how much the cover photo says about Arne and Carlos’s relationship;

Carlos looks shyly pleased with their accomplishment, as if, with the publication of “55 Christmas Balls To Knit”, everything he had ever hoped for has now come to pass. Arne, on the other hand, has the wild-eyed sadness of a man who is trapped and drowning in loneliness. On the surface, he and Carlos seem like any other Christmas-ball-knitting couple; content, happy, well-matched. But inside his head, Arne screams silently for someone – anyone – to ride over the horizon and rescue him.

But nobody ever comes.

I found this in Hobbycraft, and spent a good ten minutes pointing and laughing before finally putting it on the floor so I could take a photo. Meanwhile, my mother-in-law (who is lovely. Have I mentioned before that she is lovely? I’m sure I must have done somewhere. Ah, yes, here we are) waited patiently for me to stop making a show of myself so we could go back to obsessing about felt and sewing boxes. However, if you don’t have a Hobbycraft nearby, you can also get it on Amazon, where it will cost you £9.09, plus a large portion of your street-cred if anyone ever finds out that you own it. Fortunately I think we can all agree that it’s worth it.

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So as it turns out, I have a short story accepted for this month’s issue of Beat Magazine. I didn’t even know in advance that this one was coming*, so it was a lovely surprise when it flashed up on my husband’s Google alerts**.

A lot of you will already know that November is National Novel Writing Month, a.k.a. NaNoWriMo. The idea is to write 50,000 words in a month, which in theory will then give you the germ of the Next Big Thing in novels. (In theory. I have also seen December referred to as “NaNoReMo”, or “National Novel Rejection Month”, in which agents and publishers have to clear their slush-piles of all the badly-written first drafts sent in at the end of November.)

I’ll admit that when it comes to NaNo, I have yet to come to terms with my fear and desire. Part of me wants to do it, because I hate turning down writing challenges. Even the gorgeous little writing seeds that appear like small, magical presents on the #amwriting hashtag make me feel guilty when I don’t act on them. The guilt of not taking up the challenge of producing fifty thousand words in a month and validating them on the NaNo website can make me break out in a cold sweat.

I actually did NaNo once, and I even hit the 50k target. Unfortunately, the words I wrote were so utterly horrible that I managed to almost destroy an idea I’d been gently nurturing into existence for about two years. So great was the train-wreck that was my NaNo project, it’s taken me another two years to go back to it and start work again. This involves binning off every single word of the original manuscript, and re-writing the entire thing from scratch at a more sensible speed. From this, I have taken the painful lesson that, as a writing tool, NaNo does not work for me.

But then you get to November and it feels like the whole world’s doing it, and they’re all working insanely hard, hitting their daily targets, while you plod slowly through the editing of one novel and rack up another few thousand words on another, and feel a vague sense of non-achievement and failure to participate in the prevailing zeitgeist, and…you know?

This year, I managed to find a compromise. I didn’t do NaNo. But I did find a writing buddy on Twitter (his name is Ed Fraser and his pleasingly eclectic blog is here). We decided that instead of one novel, we’d go for a target of six short stories.

Sometimes, every word of a story is about as hard to get out of your brain as your teeth are to get out of your jaw. Your characters won’t talk to you and your setting doesn’t look right and nothing about it turns out the way you want it to. Sometimes it actually feels as though you are physically wrestling with the text, rather than just attempting to get it down on paper.

Sometimes, you conceive the belief that your words are actually fighting with you. They are not your friend; they do not want to play nicely. Instead, they would much prefer you to go away and leave them alone and get on with something dull but useful, like folding washing or something, while they lie on the sofa and watch cartoons with their mouths open. (I think I’m still talking about words here. It’s possible I’m now getting them confused with “my children”.)

Sometimes it’s like that. And sometimes, it just…happens. The only limit on how fast you can turn your story into reality is how fast your fingers can move. Stephen King has found the perfect image for this in the title story of his brilliant collection, “Everything’s Eventual“; he calls it the “river of fire in your head”. That’s exactly how it feels. The river of fire is rare. Most of the time, you’re writing without the help of the river of fire; most of the time, you have to make do with hard graft and bloody-minded stubbornness instead. But when you get one of those days, nothing beats it. The river of fire is what writers pray for.

“Shaggy Bear Story” was the first of my collection of six. One more is finished, one more is in the works, and three more are little more than vague floaty ideas that I am attempting to pin down, so I think it’s fair to say I am going to crash and burn in a fairly drastic fashion on my six-in-a-month target.

But on the other hand, NaNo finished on 30th November. The new issue of Beat Magazine, complete with “Shaggy Dog Story”, hit the virtual stands on 1st December. So maybe just for once, I am being a little bit efficient after all?

* Of course I was aware of having submitted to Beat, and was very very keen to be accepted – I just didn’t know in advance that they’d decided to go with my submission. Definitely the very best sort of surprise.
** This is the traditional way for me to find out anything. All marriages have their own unique dynamics and traditions: in our house, the rule is, I always know stuff second. Also, he is in charge of putting the bins out.

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War Is Peace. Freedom Is Slavery. This Customer Service Centre Is Terrifying.

Thing is, the East Riding is a pretty rural county. Unlike Londoners – who live in densely-packed proximity to each other and are perfectly happy to spend an hour each morning with their heads wedged in each others’ armpits – we Yorkshire folk like to spread out a little, and give ourselves room to breathe.

I can understand that this gives our local council some headaches to deal with. Since we’re inconsiderately scattered all over the place, providing public transport usable by more than three people at a time is a nightmare. Our bin lorries have to travel many, many miles further than the bin lorries of other, more compact, administrative areas. We complain when our small local hospital doesn’t have all the latest equipment and services, and then we complain when you consolidate all our hospital services into one big regional centre.

When buses go past our house, I get the kids to stand outside and point in open-mouthed wonder

I can even believe (damn, I’m good) that some of us living in the East Riding have no phone, no internet access, and no friends with phones or internet access. I don’t know how many of us there might be in this position. But I’m willing to believe that there are at least some. And clearly, the numbers are sufficiently big to merit a whole new access-your-Council-services solution. This must be the case, or they wouldn’t have gone and built it. (Would they?)

I’m just not quite convinced they’ve got it 100% right this time. I feel that using it would be a disturbing experience, not conducive to a sense of well-being. There are one or two things about this proposition that I would tweak. Just saying.

In case it’s not clear from the photograph, this is a small, locked hut which sits by the side of the main street of Holme-On-Spalding-Moor, which is one of the many small rural villages in the East Riding. As it happens, Holme-On-Spalding-Moor is a very nice example of the genre, and is well worth a visit if you happen to be passing. Sadly, my mental picture of it will from now on consist entirely of the building pictured above.

No-one is inside this locked hut. But outside it there is a sign:

It was the word “CitizenLink” that really caught my attention when I first drove past. The word “citizen” worries me far more than it should. It makes me think of “1984” and “V for Vendetta” – something I’ll happily admit is my own personal problem, rather than the world’s.

My cultural reference point for the word "citizen". I know, I know.

I’m aware that most people are unlikely to be all that freaked out by the simple inclusion of the word “citizen” in the context of a piece of Council signage. I get this; I really do.

However, I really don’t feel I’m going out on too much of a limb by taking a dislike to the notion of a “member of staff on screen”.

“Member of staff on screen.”

“MEMBER OF STAFF ON SCREEN.”

Let’s just all take a moment to contemplate that thought, shall we?

Okay, you’re right. I’m over-reacting here. (I’m blaming the word “citizen”. You know how some people run out of the room with their coat over their head if they hear the word “gusset”? Yeah? Yeah.) Our council are nothing like a Nineteen-Eighty -Four oligarchy. However cross it might make us when the bins aren’t collected on time, that’s really nothing like living under the ruthless pressure of a monolithic and oppressive regime. “1984” – while remaining a brilliant, powerful piece of writing – tells us more about the long shadow of Totalitarianism in the nineteen-forties than it does about the way we live now.

There’s nothing to be afraid of here.

Nothing at all. It’s all absolutely – holy shit, what’s that I can see through the doorway?

Is that – could that be – is it possible we’re looking at a telescreen?

In the interests of journalistic enquiry (and also because I had been hanging around and taking pictures for a good ten minutes, and the locals were starting to look at me funny) I thought this would be a good moment to conquer my fears, and try and access some council services via the CitizenLink.

This is how you get in:

Totally the access button for a Bond Villain's lair.

At this point, I evolved an alternative explanation for the locked CitizenLink Hut. I admit Holme-On-Spalding-Moor is an unlikely choice for a Supervillain to base his lair in, but, you know, there are only so many inhabitable semi-dormant volcanoes to go around, right?

Reader, I pressed that button. I was fully prepared to go inside that Customer Service Centre. But instead of the door opening, all that happened was that an alarm went off. It was quite loud and frightening and it was coming from the intercom beneath the button. And by now, a couple of Holme-On-Spalding-Moor citizens (that word!) were quite openly watching me over their garden fence, in a way that was starting to make me think of the word “henchmen”. And I just couldn’t shake the conviction that if I stuck with the programme and went into the Customer Service Centre, I might get sucked down into a nightmarish underground complex of tunnels and shark-pools and bald men with grey suits and British accents, and I would never be seen ever, ever again.

So, yeah; I ran away. I’m not proud of this. But at least I’m still alive to tell the tale.

I think he's more disappointed than angry.

Independent of my frivolous fantasies, I have so many, many questions about this Customer Service Centre. Is this the only one of it, or are there more of them? Have any of them ever been used? Is there a special member of staff whose entire function is to sit in a locked room somewhere, waiting for The Call That Never Comes, or are East Riding staff members expected to fit in their remote-control-supervillain duties into their normal working day? And why is this one on the main street of Holme-On-Spalding-Moor?

Maybe there are some questions we’re just not meant to know the answers to.

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