Can I share something with you?

I’ll be honest with you (I can’t lie to you, I like you too much). I’m not much of a sharer.

I don’t mean this in an, ‘I’m going to eat all the biscuits and leave none for you,’ kind of way. You can have all the biscuits and all the crisps if you like, just don’t touch my Double Deckers.

I’m talking about sharing in a social media type way.

Oh yes – that old chestnut. You may or may not have read my post from a week or two ago (don’t worry if you didn’t – I know how busy you were that week).

https://annielyons.com/2015/08/31/my-love-hate-relationship-with-social-media/

Social-media-frenzy

It was all about my love/hate relationship with social media and how I feel that we all need to step away from the keyboard/tablet/phone from time to time and just be. I received a big reaction to this post and we were mostly in agreement. You need to find that ‘off’ button every now and then.

About a week ago, I heard a story on the radio reporting that psychologists had discovered that, ‘the need to be constantly available and respond 24/7 on social media accounts can cause depression, anxiety and decrease sleep quality for teenagers.’ 

Apart from winning my own personal award for, ’least surprising fact ever,’ it made me wonder how we’ve allowed this to happen because actually, this is the monster we’ve created.

We have developed this innate desire to share every tiny detail of our lives, possibly because it’s so easy to do. Click a button, load a photo, make a comment and you’re done. However and this however is the size of Mars by the way.

Sometimes there is nothing to share.

At least not for me.

I may win my own award for, ‘most boring life in the world,’ but my day mostly consists of school runs, chores, staring out of the window trying to think of something to write and writing. That’s it. When I set up the author pages for my Twitter and Facebook accounts, I was painfully aware that often I had nothing of interest to tweet or share.

That was part of the reason I started to blog and at the start of the year I set myself the challenge of writing a post a week. I have managed it so far, apart from one week during the Easter holidays when I had to resort to a photograph of a squirrel eating an ice-cream but then, it was a squirrel eating an ice-cream.

I haven’t met a person yet who doesn’t want to see that.

Still, I can’t help but feel that we sometimes put ourselves under too much pressure to share.

Twenty years ago if we had a piece of important information, we would have picked up the phone or even, dare I suggest it, written a letter. To one person.

Ten years ago, it was all about e-mail. Usually to one person but occasionally to a group.

Now it has to be done immediately, preferably in fewer than 140 characters and to the whole world. Invariably on at least three different platforms.

That is pressure.

sharing ecard

I know this and you know this because we remember a time when this world didn’t exist. However, today’s teenagers with their snapchats, instagrams (I appreciate I sound like a doddery old dear here but I rather like it) and whatever else has been invented this week, are bearing the brunt. They have grown up with touch screens, are puzzled by CDs and don’t even know what a cassette is. It’s a brave new world but it’s an exhausting and pressured one too.

I also think that this generation of teenagers have the rawest deal. They are paving the way for my children and I’m grateful for that. The biggest question has to be, ‘do I need to share that?’ and moreover, ‘what will happen if I do?’ You see I get the feeling that people feel so pressured to have something to share or to be part of a discussion (not judging here, we all need to belong) that they create dramas or exaggerate and before long, they’re sharing opinions or images which will in all seriousness, haunt them for the rest of their lives.

For my part, I shall encourage my children to find the ‘off’ button and use their common sense when they’re sharing online. I think my rule is going to be, ‘never share anything that you wouldn’t share with Grandma.’ I know my children may rebel against me at some stage but they would never want to disappoint my Mum.

As for me, I expect I shall continue to have little to share and I’m fine with that. I won’t feel the pressure – there’s enough pictures of baby pandas and grumpy cats without me adding to them but just in case you did miss it…

Squirrel

Now that’s quite enough sharing for one day – who wants a biscuit?

A Difference of Opinion

The advantage of being married to the same person for thirteen years is that you usually agree on the big stuff. Indeed, this is probably why you stay married to this person for that length of time – disagreements on issues such as, ‘where should we live,’ and, ‘should we have children/a dog/a cat/a time-share in Magalouf’, are all key issues which require mutual accord.

My husband and I have managed to achieve agreement on most of the key decisions over the years, although there was a moment very early on during our first ever trip to Ikea. I think it was excessive stress due to being unable to find the tills or a person to ask about the location of said tills (I wanted to find a person, he just wanted to leave), but we were young and carefree and had no idea what real stress was. That came later with mortgages, marriage and small people.

Then there was the time when we were trying to decide where to live and having visited a very expensive and very unpleasant flat above an Undertakers in Tooting, he made the following wide-eyed suggestion.

‘Why don’t we go and live in a house-boat on the Thames?’

We were both working in publishing at the time, both with company cars, travelling to customers the length and breadth of the country. I gave him a look, which was quite new and unpractised back then but which is pretty skilled now. At first, he didn’t understand the look and we had a heated debate about the relative merits of living on a boat, whilst trying to maintain a professional lifestyle or merely stay warm, dry and happy. He was quite passionate about it whilst I was violently opposed. To paraphrase the late Brian Clough, we talked about it for twenty minutes and then decided I was right.

I wouldn’t want you to misunderstand me, reader friends.  I don’t always get my way and my husband is categorically not a pushover. He’s actually as stubborn as a mule wearing a pair of mules, who got straight As in ‘won’t budge, ‘can’t make me,’ and ‘what are you going to do about it?’.

Unfortunately so am I.

Recently we had a conversation about the pros and cons of summer and autumn, and it became immediately apparent that we are in entirely opposite camps. It went something like this:

Me: I love autumn. I love cold, crisp mornings and falling leaves turning orange and red. It’s the most beautiful time of year.

Husband: There’s always dog poo in piles of leaves. Leaves are not to be trusted.

autumn leaves 2

Me (ignoring this): But it’s such a refreshing season. It’s like nature’s way of clearing away the old plants and getting the earth ready for next spring.

Husband: Everything dies.

Me (ploughing on regardless): The evenings draw in and you can cosy up, nestle under a blanket and watch great television like Strictly for instance.

Husband (with eyebrows raised): I don’t like Strictly.

Me (casting around for a positive): You like Claudia Winkleman. And the music, you like the music. And Ola Jordan.

Husband (nodding): I guess

Me (thinking I’m on to a winner here): And the football season has started. Liverpool are on almost every weekend.

Husband (frowning): They lost last weekend.

Me: Yes but-

Husband (on a downward spiral): And the weekend before.

Me (in slight desperation): What about roast dinners?

Husband (slightly more cheerful): Yeah, roasts are good.

Me: And then there’s Fireworks night and Christmas.

Husband (pedantically): That’s winter, not autumn.

Me (through clenched teeth): True, but what about misty mornings and cold but sunny days, apples on the trees and my home-made parkin.

Husband (nodding): I do like parkin.

Me (smiling and putting an arm around his shoulder): See? Autumn is great isn’t it?

Husband (smiling at me before planting a kiss on my cheek and moving to the safety of the doorway): It is but summer’s still better.

He grins at me before darting from the room, fearing a punch on the arm. I sigh and fold my arms. I could come back with a retort but I’m playing the long game here and I know exactly how to resolve it.

I head to the kitchen and set about taking out the ingredients needed to make parkin. I will be victorious and I will use cake to achieve my victory because everyone knows that cake is the trump card that wins every time.

Photo pics dowloaded Nov 2014 1166

My top five ‘light-bulb’ locations

Regular readers of this blog will know how much I love a list. This week finds me working on my next book and this in itself has started me thinking about where I am when I have my best ideas.

I have therefore decided to unite the two in beauteous harmony. Here are my top five ‘light-bulb’ locations.

 

The Shower

It is a source of great joy and huge frustration that I probably have my very best ideas whilst I’m washing my hair. I’m thinking that perhaps the massaging of my scalp is kick-starting a neurological ideas-fest in my head. Sadly, I can rarely remember them by the time I am dry and next to a notebook. I currently have a patent-pending on the waterproof notebook and pen and firmly expect it to make me millions.

Whilst driving

A close second to the shower but not always so productive as there is often a small person demanding a tissue, some food or replies to questions such as, ‘do you believe in God?’ At 8.27 in the morning? I can barely remember my name. Still, if the ideas don’t flow then the dialogue for scenes can often be found. Again, as with the shower, the lack of ability to write stuff down can be a problem. I have been known to repeat an idea over and over so that I don’t forget it but only if I’m on my own, when it is perfectly acceptable to act like a crazy lady.

 

Whilst sitting in a coffee shop

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, staring out of the window at the blue sky whilst listening to the cheeping of small birds doesn’t give me ideas. It makes me long for a nap. When the ideas start to dwindle and I need to remind myself what humans look like, I head for the nearest coffee shop. Fortunately I am very nosy but quite good at appearing to do something else. It doesn’t always end up in a book but it’s very useful for stimulating the imagination.

Whilst cleaning the house

I am a reluctant cleaner. It is repetitive and boring. However, the mindlessness of the job means that your brain is effectively empty and I find that random ideas often pop into my mind and take root. The best type of cleaning for this is dusting or wiping surfaces. Nothing will pop into your brain whilst cleaning the toilet apart from, ‘I bloody hate cleaning toilets. I wish I could afford a cleaner or at least train the children to do this.’

 

In the middle of the night

I used to be a really good sleeper. I could sleep for twelve hours at a stretch, have an afternoon nap and then do another twelve the night after. Since I hit forty, my brain seems to like to wake me up around four with a brilliant idea for a blog or a book or just to worry about the leak in the kitchen. Sometimes I want to remove my brain, have a sharp word with it and threaten to remove its TV privileges unless it goes back to sleep immediately. However, I often get up and start writing. I came up for the entire concept for my second book during one sleep-deprived night so it does work, even if it leaves me feeling as grumpy as a badger.

 

So there you have it – my top five light-bulb locations. Let me know what yours are and I’ll be sure to send you a waterproof notebook and pen once it hits the shelves.

lightbulb moment

 

My new job

Regular readers of my blog may remember that we moved last year to a house which my husband and I lovingly refer to as ‘the money-pit.’ It makes me think of George and Mary’s house in, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’. For the uninitiated, there’s a scene in the film when George arrives home on the evening after their wedding and it’s raining both inside and outside the house.  It reminds me of the money-pit because for the past year, we have been trying to fix leaks of one kind or another.

We have had leaky gutters (causing damp), a leaking dishwasher (which had to be replaced), a leaking shower, tap, windows, conservatory roof and most recently, a leaking fridge. There are times when I have wondered if I should re-define my occupation from, ‘writer’ to ‘woman who attempts to prevent water coming into the house’. Less catchy but you get the gist.

The other thing you may know if you’ve read this blog before is that despite being reasonably intelligent people, my husband and I are somewhat lacking when it comes to the more practical side of life (see my earlier post about the day we changed a lightbulb for evidence).

So, when we finally realised that the fridge was not only leaking but also failing to keep anything inside it cool or (perhaps in a more potentially life-threatening way) frozen, we decided to take action. By action I mean that we did what any right-thinking middle-class people do and bought the cheapest replacement from John Lewis.

The fridge was delivered a week or so later by a couple of cheery giants. They took the old one away, set the new one up and told me to leave it for four to six hours before using. I thanked them and returned to the kitchen to admire our new shiny white beauty. I took a step back to get a better look and a worrying thought whispered in my brain.

It looks smaller than the last fridge.

I shook my head. I must be imagining it.

We wouldn’t have bought a smaller fridge.

Would we?

 

I opened the door and tried to put the bottle shelf from the old fridge inside. It wouldn’t fit. It was far too big. My heart sank. I opened the freezer compartment. It looked quite big but then it was completely empty and everything looks big when it’s empty. I called my daughter for back-up. She is ten and always says the right thing.

‘What do you think of the new fridge?’ I asked her, trying to dismiss the panic from my voice.

She screwed up her face. ‘It’s nice?’ she offered.

‘What about the size?’ I asked. A leading question I know but hey, I needed answers fast.

‘Yeah, it’s slim isn’t it? Did you mean to buy a smaller one this time?’

‘No,’ I sighed, starting to feel sick. ‘No, I did not.’

It was then that I found the instruction booklet for both the new and old fridges. I turned to the pages that no-one ever looks at, which deal with ‘specifications’. I noted with interest that there was a ‘capacity’ category. I noted with tears in my eyes that the capacity figure for the new fridge was smaller than the old fridge’s. Hindsight is a marvellous but profoundly irritating thing.

By the time my husband came home that evening, I had a plan.

‘You’ll have to phone John Lewis and tell them we made a mistake.’

‘Why me?’

‘Because I am the woman who attempts to prevent water coming into the house. You are the man who orders the new fridges.’

‘O-kay,’ he sighed.

Ten minutes later, he came off the phone, his face bright and triumphant. ‘John Lewis are great,’ he beamed.

A week later, two different cheery giants arrived to take away the old-new fridge and replace it with a much bigger new-new fridge. It’s so tall, I need a step to reach the top shelf and it beeps in protest if you accidentally leave the door open. Best of all, it doesn’t leak.

Now all I need to do is get the guttering fixed and work out where that water in the kitchen is coming from.

The work of a WWATPWCITH is never done.

 

My love/hate relationship with social media

Two years ago as I made the exciting step from, ‘person who scribbles words onto a page’ to, ‘published author’ (basically the same thing except someone is willing to pay you to do it), my editor suggested that I have a go at social media.

As a woman who hadn’t updated her Facebook status since joining in 2003, I felt a flutter of panic when she handed me a document all about the best channels for authors to erm, channel.

‘I’ve just joined Twitter and it’s quite good fun,’ she said with smiling encouragement.

‘Great,’ I replied with false cheer. ‘I’ll give it a go.’

And give it a go I did. After an exhausting morning setting up an author page on Facebook, I was spent.

I know.

Ridiculous.

I’m not sure if it was the fact that the exercise involved finding a decent photograph of my face (there are only three pictures of myself in existence that I actually like and I have used them all for author material) or writing something interesting about myself. It just felt like such a chore.

I am by nature self-deprecating (you will know this if you’ve read any of my other blog posts) and prone to outbursts of juvenile humour when faced with a) a compliment or b) the need to promote myself and my books.

But the days of people pottering in bookshops and finding my novels by joyful accident are long gone. I was an eBook author (I am now in print too) so online was the way to go.  You’ve got to sell it and sell it hard (sorry, just made myself giggle there) so I knew that I couldn’t stop with Facebook.

After a much-needed fish finger sandwich and a joyous half hour reading Nora Ephron, my sanity was restored. I was ready to face Twitter. Nora Ephron was behind me. She would have owned Twitter in her heyday. So would Jane Austen. And Dorothy Parker. I could do this. I resolved to be more positive and less like a grumpy teenager. Actually, it wasn’t too bad. I already had material from my Facebook page and there’s a reason Bill Gates invented ‘copy & paste.’ I’m not going to argue with Bill.

And Twitter is fun. There’s always something going on; an interesting article to read or an engaging person with whom to chat (plus the occasional weirdo chucked in for good measure). It has its own culture and etiquette and for the most part, people are kind and generous. If you are kind and generous in return, the rewards are there. It’s a souped-up version of real life; vibrant and alive and full of ideas (and weirdos).

But it can quickly become all-consuming. I’ve spent too much time reading something and nothing on social media, searching for goodness knows what when actually, I could have been offline reading (or indeed writing) a good book.

I’ve also read exchanges on Twitter and Facebook, where the conversation has become heated very quickly, where people deliberately seek to wind-up, annoy and ultimately hurt others. In some instances it’s plain trolling but in others, it’s normally rational people saying things they don’t mean as if they’ve taken leave of their senses. Frankly, it’s terrifying. This social media world isn’t for me. It’s too much.

I often wonder why people don’t just walk away and press the ‘off’ button in these instances. This kind of social media seems like an increasingly harmful addiction.

People’s brains are continuously active but not actually doing and we’re rapidly forgetting how to just be. We seem to constantly need to interact but not in person. We seem to need to communicate but not with individuals. We want to talk to the whole world at once but what happens if the whole world starts shouting back at us?

Nothing is private, nothing is off the agenda; everything is revealed, discussed and dissected. It’s exhausting and often damaging.

This was part of the inspiration for my new book, Life or Something Like It. My main character, Cat Nightingale has an impressive career in PR, is single, childless and blissfully happy. Social media is the foundation to everything she does and she can’t recall a life before it. Everything changes when a PR launch goes disastrously wrong and Cat has to take an enforced career break. This coincides with her brother needing someone to look after his two children over the summer. Suddenly, Cat has to look at life beyond the iPhone and it changes her forever.

So for me, social media is a big (mostly fun) party. But I don’t always want to be at a party.

Sometimes I want to just be, with my family, with my friends or in my brain. I want to press the ‘off’ button and see what happens. I want to watch Britain’s Got Talent with my kids without having to comment on Amanda Holden’s hair or watch the new series of Modern Family with my husband without having to declare whether it’s better than the last. I want to stare out of the window and dream up an idea for my next book.

I love going to parties but I love staying at home too. It’s the best of both worlds; social media is always there but so is the ‘off’ button. You’ve just got to learn to press it sometimes.

My beach hut heaven

There is a place as familiar to me as home, where I go every year with my family. I’ve been visiting the seaside town of Southwold in Suffolk on and off for my entire life.

My parents used to take us there for family holidays. I can remember the car journey, which seemed to last at least a year to my small person self. There would be a toilet stop at the Happy Eater (remember those?) and we knew we were getting closer when we drove over the Orwell bridge.

My father would sigh, ‘Or-well’. Every single time.

As the A-roads gave way to winding country roads and the landscape became flat and open, he would cry, ‘First one to see the lighthouse! First one to see the water tower!’

You couldn’t actually see the lighthouse from the road but you could spot the gigantic water tower on the common. Inevitably either my brother or I (usually my brother – he’s eight years older than me and at that time about three foot taller) would reply,

‘Seen it! I win.’

Photo pics dowloaded Nov 2014 843

There’s one road in and one road out of Southwold. There are no traffic lights and up until about ten years ago, there were no high street shops apart from a couple of banks and an ancient Gateway (remember those?). From the horse-drawn carts that used to deliver the locally brewed beer to the dozen or so pubs around the town, to the multi-coloured beach-huts, which still populate the promenade, the town has an air of a place which never quite left the 1950s.

And it is to these huts every year that I go with my family. True, they are basically sheds by the sea and yes, one year after a particularly bad autumnal storm, our beach hut disappeared into the North Sea but it’s my favourite place in the world.

20150221_121435

For this is the place where I stop, where I still my mind and learn to just be again. We have enjoyed breakfast, lunch and dinner here, we have read books, played some very competitive games of Scrabble and solved the crossword every day. We have soaked up the sun and peered out at the rain, snug under beach towels.

There is no-where else in the world I get to do this and it feels like a precious treat every year.

This is where I sent Cat Nightingale in Life Or Something Like It, when I wanted her to take a step back and look at her life from a different angle. With no phone signal and nothing urgent to do, she starts to see what she really needs to make her happy. It’s not what she expects either.

20150221_121735

So I’ll be sitting in the beach-hut again this year with my book, games, newspaper and family, watching the world go by, allowing my mind to rest and unwind.

I can’t wait for my little slice of beach-hut heaven.

Three cheers for aunts and uncles!

When I was a child, we would visit my Auntie Emily and Uncle Alfred in their house in London Colney. I used to think the place sounded rather exotic because it had two names (I was born in Sidcup so my exoticness scale was limited). I also thought that its origins might have something to do with coal, because of the relative similarity of the words ‘Colney’ and ‘coal’.

Neither one of these statements was correct.

In actual fact, Auntie Emily was my father’s aunt and she and Uncle Alfred were childless, although they did have a large, bad-tempered cat named Old Boy.

I remember these visits as intriguing because of the lack of other children or indeed any items that might be of interest or stimulation to a young child. There was a draught excluder shaped like a dachshund that I would try to hug before receiving a warning glance from my Aunt.

There was a gold coin, which hung on the fir tree at the end of the garden. I was never invited into the garden. I’m not sure why, but I always suspected that Uncle Alfred didn’t want me to have that gold coin or possibly cause any damage to his prize dahlias.

Sometimes I would sneak off in search of Old Boy and often find him curled up on the counterpane, which covered my Aunt and Uncles’ bed. I can remember holding out a hand to stroke him one day and receiving a neat scratch for my troubles.

My aunt was a proud woman. She had worked in service as a cook and always laid on an extravagant meal, designed to impress. She had not reckoned on my five-year-old self when she served dessert one day. She introduced us to her, ‘Pear Condé’ with clutched-bosom pride. I took one mouthful and declared,

‘This is cold rice pudding!’

My mother squeezed my hand under the table with a mixture of silencing embarrassment and maternal pride.

I particularly remember having to kiss my aunt on arrival and departure – her pursed lips and round face with hair sprouting from her chin, as well as the electric shock I always received, made it a dreaded experience.

I had other aunties as I was growing up – friends of my mother who were christened ‘auntie’ but who weren’t relations. I loved these aunties. My mother’s best friend and her daughter were my favourites. They were my godmothers too. It always seemed rather cool to have a godmother who was only fifteen or so years older than me. She used to take me shopping or meet me and my mother for lunch during a break from her exciting job in fashion at Marks and Spencer’s head office. She always wore lovely clothes and smelt wonderful.

My children have a whole raft of aunties both related and unrelated and they love them all. Auntie Becs is amazing because she’s a doctor and not just a doctor but a consultant who does operations and everything. Auntie Sarah knows A LOT about Greek myths, which makes her a particular hit with my daughter. Auntie Marianne is pure magic with springy curly hair and according to my son, the best laugh ever.

They have uncles too. Uncle Nick is a bit edgy and takes the mickey out of their Mum. Uncle Pants is called Uncles Pants so that’s just about perfect. Uncle Cheese (so-called because my son couldn’t pronounce ‘Steve’ as a baby) will play any game at any time for as long as you want and never gets bored or have to do the washing-up, unlike Mum and Dad.

When I wrote Life or Something Like It, I wanted to give a little shout of joy to the aunties and uncles. Mums and Dads are all very well and vital, but aunties and uncles have the capacity to be something akin to super-heroes.

Cat Nightingale is no super-hero to start with. She’s not quite as bad as Auntie Emily but she has no idea how to be around children. When she is thrown into Charlie and Ellie’s world, she is what my children term, ‘an epic fail.’

She meets Finn, uncle to Ellie’s best friend Daisy. He is pretty much the perfect uncle – funny, fun and completely devoted to Daisy. Cat hates him on sight.

Cat thinks she can win the children round by treating their care like a PR exercise, by wowing them with grand gestures and showing them the world. She doesn’t realise that it’s the children who are about to show her the world and it’s a messy chaotic one, which she resists at first.

It’s her holiday with the children, Finn and Daisy that turns everything on its head and shows Cat what it’s like to be a proper auntie.

So I would like to raise a cheer for Auntie Cat, Uncle Finn and all those other aunts and uncles who make children’s lives that little bit more magical, who smooth down the edges for their parents and in the case of Auntie Emily, serve cold rice pudding to five-year-olds.

Downloading my brain with Cat Nightingale

As I limped, like a Duracell bunny whose batteries have finally expired, over the finishing line known as ‘the last day of term’, I realised that I was feeling a bit tired. We all get tired, right? We all feel a little run down and in need of a rest. Everyone craves a prolonged stretch lying down in a darkened room, preferably asleep.

The problem was, I hadn’t quite realised just how tired I was. I thought I could carry on doing a bit of social media here, a bit of writing there. It was my husband who put me straight.

‘You need a break. From everything.’

He was right. Apart from writing, I have my children, my ageing parents and all the other ‘stuff of life’ to sort. I sometimes feel like a computer whose memory is too full.

‘No space available’.

I needed to download.

A week later we went to Cornwall. I had the good sense once upon a time to marry a Cornishman so we go to the south-west quite a bit. We stayed with my mother-in-law (a good one in case you’re wondering) for three nights before heading further west to camp on a farm in Sennen, near to Land’s End.

IMG_0184

One of the things I like most about camping is the way it forces you to just be in the moment. That and the fact no-one expects you to wash. Or brush your hair. It’s like the early days of motherhood.

IMG_0201

Anyway, I like to try to be ‘in the moment’ if I can.  I’m not very good at that mindful stuff. I need a lot of practice. I get distracted by thoughts of what we’re having for tea or if I remembered to lock the back door. Still, it’s good to try. Actually, I think it’s quite important for your soul.

It’s also one of the themes I explored in my l latest book, Life or Something Like It. The main character Cat, is forced to step down from her high-powered job for a while and ends up looking after her brother’s two children over the summer. On a holiday to Suffolk, where the phone signal is patchy, she has to slow down and learn how to just be again.

Time slows down on a campsite, there’s nothing to rush for. Admittedly a few star jumps during the early evening will keep you warm as the air grows cold but apart from that, you’re on a go-slow. No hurrying allowed.

IMG_0163 (1)

I also didn’t see a single person with a phone, apart from for photographing purposes. There were no children playing on iPads. Instead I noticed several small boys sitting together, each with a snail balanced on the top of one hand, happily chatting to their new pets. I saw older children riding bikes or kicking footballs. I was startled by a small girl as I returned from the loo one evening who held up her clasped hands to me and squeaked, ‘I caught a cricket!’ Her face was a picture. She reminded me of Ellie from Life or Something Like It, and it made me smile.

So we sat outside our tent, watching the sun rise and fall behind a perfect slice of blue sea, we ate weird but delicious ‘codge-ups’ of food, we followed the secret path towards the magical promise of beach below, we clambered over the rocks, we ate pasties on the sand and mussels in the sea-front pub at Sennen.

IMG_0181

Of course, I have to insert a caveat here. Had it been a) raining b) two degrees cooler or c) noisy, I would have enjoyed it a good deal less but it wasn’t.

It was wonderful and the perfect place to download my brain and just be for a while. Cat Nightingale has taught me well.IMG_0188

 

To be or not to be – a mother

When I ask my ten-year-old daughter if she might want to have children one day, the answer is swift and uncompromising.

‘No way. It’s completely disgusting and babies are really annoying.’

Fair enough. I have only recently told her about the facts of life and let’s face it, the biological aspects can be pretty jaw-dropping and a tad chucklesome.

I tried to keep it together when the book explained that testicles are often called ‘nuts’ and ‘balls’ due to their approximation in size to walnuts and er, balls during a boy’s development but ended up snorting with uncontrollable laughter. My daughter gave me the Paddington bear stare for which she is known in our family and said, ‘It’s okay, Mum. Just take a moment if you need it.’ Yup, I clocked the role reversal there too.

My point is though, that the question of motherhood hangs over a girl’s head from a very young age. It is jokingly posed through youth but then, when a girl becomes a woman, it’s as if the hourglass of expectation (an expectant expectation you might say) has been turned. The question is now serious. When and if not when, why not?

This was a theme I wanted to explore when I wrote ‘Life or Something Like It.’ My main character, Cat Nightingale has a successful career in PR. She loves her five-star life and is happily single. Above all, she doesn’t want to have children and is unapologetic about this fact. And why shouldn’t she be? It’s her life, her choice and therefore no-one’s business but hers, right?

I think you see where this is going.

At every turn, her life decisions are questioned or worse, an assumption is made. She smiles at a baby on a train and the child’s mother asks her about her children. Her business partner’s wife is incredulous when she asserts that she never wants children. Her brother assumes she is single and childless because her horizons are too narrow. None of these people is unkind, none of them is being mean. They just make assumptions because that’s what people do.

When I was researching the book, I did a straw poll among a cross section of women in their twenties and thirties. I was a little shocked because I always thought that the questions about impending parenthood started mid-thirties; that good old ‘biological clock’ poser – a favourite of elderly relatives who use old age as a handy excuse to be a bit rude. But no, apparently women in their twenties, who are young enough to be my daughter, are being asked the question on an almost weekly basis.

I find this extraordinary. When did we all become so obsessed about the need to reproduce? I mean, I know it’s a basic instinct (and not in a Sharon Stone, no-pants way). I know the human race needs to keep a good supply of humans to avoid extinction but 7 billion and counting? I think we’re fine for now.

I read an interesting article by Rosamund Urwin (see link below) about the cult of parenthood and it made me a little ashamed. I’m a parent but I have never told anyone that they’ll, ‘change their mind’ about having children but then I am in the majority. Have I unwittingly made people feel bad because they didn’t have children? I sincerely hope not and if I did, I am truly sorry. I can only suspect that if parents make the child- and care-free feel bad, it’s mainly because they’re jealous.

In her article, she cited the story of Joel Andresier, who had put a buggy for sale on ebay calling it, ‘the green monster’ because it, ‘signifies everything that ended my happy, care-free, low-cost, child-free life.’ I get this. I absolutely do. When I first had my daughter, I couldn’t quite believe that my old life had gone; the enormity of this fact hit me square in the chops like a well-placed right hook.

And yet no-one admitted it. None of the other parents I knew would talk about it. No-one would say, ‘this is actually a bit boring’ or ‘I’m not sure if I like this’. You’re not allowed to admit it. You are blessed and frankly, you had your twenty minutes (or hour if you’re lying) of fun at the conception. This baby needs you. Get on with it.

So get on with it we do and honestly? The first year of both babies’ lives was intense and hellish, for the first because I hadn’t a clue what I was doing and for the second because I had a baby and a toddler and still no idea what I was doing.

But now? It’s good. It’s really good. I do feel blessed and lucky. My kids make me laugh and cry and shout. Other people do this too. I just don’t love them as much. But this is my world and this is what makes me happy. Parenthood isn’t for everyone and we need to stop pretending it is.

When Cat has to step down from her job for a while and her brother asks her to look after his two children, she is thrown into a world of which she has little or no knowledge. She initially approaches it with her efficient, controlled, PR hat on. Unsurprisingly, it’s not long before the hat slips.

But this isn’t about a woman discovering untapped maternal longing. It’s about both sides and what they can learn from one another. Cat Nightingale is unapologetic about her child-free existence and I am unapologetic about choosing motherhood.

Surely the most important thing is to respect each other’s point of view and keep your nose out.

LOSLI - don't you want children

The Cult of Parenthood – Rosamund Urwin

Location, location, location but the internet is very good too

When I wrote my first book, Not Quite Perfect I did little ‘on the ground’ research. This was the first novel I had ever written and to be frank, I just wanted to have a go and see if I could do it. The settings for Emma and Rachel’s stories were loosely based around my home town, my former workplace and where I grew up. I had a clear picture of these locations in my head and no real desire to deviate from them.

To be honest, I didn’t want to leave the house. I just wanted to write, to get it all down and see if it made sense. I also had a four-year and two-year old at the time and they’re not always over-keen on ‘helping Mummy with research’ unless it involves playing in the park, going to the library or visiting Costa for a massive muffin. Those who have read Not Quite Perfect may remember that the book contains scenes involving all three.

As this book became a Kindle bestseller and many reviewers indicated that they’d enjoyed it, the heady realisation hit me that I was a real writer doing whatever it was that real writers do. I had a little panic that I wasn’t already researching my next book.

For this is what proper writers do, isn’t it? They’re across all aspects of their book, from what the main character had for breakfast on a rainy Tuesday in 2003 to where they first met their true and as yet unrequited love the following Wednesday. It’s all in the detail, my friends and although I jest here (I do that from time to time), a believable and therefore better character tends to be a multi-dimensional one.

When I came to write Life or Something Like It, I had already decided that my main character, Cat Nightingale worked in PR. I have never worked in PR but I know a few people who do. So I interviewed them. This was extraordinary fun. I posed lots of ‘would someone do this?’ and ‘what would happen if?’ type questions. I also did a lot of internet research about PR firms, found key people to follow on Twitter, stalked them in an entirely non-threatening and gleefully nosy way. Why haven’t I done this before, I thought? It’s like being a private detective but without having to actually be a private detective.

I have to take a moment here to thank Sir Tim Berners-Lee on behalf of writers everywhere because the internet is bloody marvellous. You can find out almost any detail without leaving the house. For example, I needed to check when the branch line to Southwold in Suffolk was disbanded. Three clicks and it was done. It was the tiniest detail in one conversation between two main characters but it is correct. Now that has to be progress.

However, I don’t always like doing things the easy way. The internet is fabulous but it makes my eyes water and my back hurt. I also realised that I couldn’t keep setting all my books in the same south-east London town. It may work for Anne Tyler (albeit Baltimore rather than Beckenham) but she’s you know, Anne Tyler.

Also, my PR guru friend had indicated that Cat Nightingale might be more of a Shoreditch House type of girl so I packed my notebook, caught the London Overground line and tried to give off an air of bearded preppy cool. I failed due to my lack of all of the aforementioned. If I sported facial hair, I reckon I could have nailed it.

Photo pics dowloaded Nov 2014 1028

Still, I am of an age where I have finally realised that no-one is looking at me; they’re much too busy staring at their iphones so I can therefore stumble along unnoticed. I can also stop to look at things, take photos and scribble interesting tidbits in my notebook. For me, this is one of the best things about being a writer because I have finally learnt to stop and look around me. I read a fascinating book called ‘Becoming a Writer’ by Dorothea Brande, where she talks about the need to see the world as a child might, through fresh and unfettered eyes. It’s not always possible but when you manage it, it can be very rewarding.

Photo pics dowloaded Nov 2014 1025

So I stopped for a coffee at a place that was neither a bar nor a coffee shop, but a little of both. I ordered a ‘how much?’ coffee and settled down to watch. All the people I observed were cool and together; they were having meetings about concepts and ‘getting the right people’. They knew what they were doing and where they were going, just like Cat. I was in the right town.

Photo pics dowloaded Nov 2014 1024

After my pricey but worth it coffee, I strolled towards Columbia Road, home of the famous flower market. It was like watching social history in action as I moved from the re-designed and re-gentrified to the impoverished and run down and back again. Many pockets of London are like this now but it still surprises me when I move so quickly from one to another.

Photo pics dowloaded Nov 2014 1030

I made my way to Wimbolt Street; a street where I imagined children playing or mothers standing chatting on their front steps in the 1950s. You’d be lucky to buy a two-bedroom house on this road for under £ 1 million these days. This was where I pictured Cat living, in one of the freshly re-rendered brick buildings with lots of natural wood, light and elegant design. I lingered for a while, taking pictures and trying to imagine my heroine returning home here after a hard day dealing with her famous clients, kicking off her heels and mixing a mojito.

Photo pics dowloaded Nov 2014 1034

I took the long route back towards the Tube, absorbing as many of the sights, sounds and smells as I could. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if I was doing this correctly and actually, very little of what I noted down actually ended up in the book.

However. And this is a big however. When I finally started writing the book, I had an entire notebook full of scribblings about Cat’s life. I had snippets and information and a pretty full picture of what she was like, what motivated her, what interested her and most importantly, how she would behave and speak.

Of all the books I have written, she is the character  I know best. I had walked in her shoes (nicer than the ones I can afford) and strolled through her manor. I understood what made her tick. As a result, her story flowed better than any other I’ve written. This is partly due to experience but I think the research was key. It enabled me to breathe life into an idea and make her as real as I possibly could.

It has also taught me that whenever I’m in need of inspiration or more details, all I need to do is grab my notebook, jump on a train and head off to meet my latest character. If I’ve done my homework, I may even bump into them.

It doesn’t get much better than that for a writer. Unless your chosen subject matter is serial killers. Then the internet is very useful and staying at home is probably for the best.

Photo pics dowloaded Nov 2014 1038