Ten years ago we saw in the new millennium on a boat on the Thames, with the whole gang – friends and family. Moored directly beneath the Houses of Parliament, our little boat appeared on the front page of The Daily Mail the next morning, along with a few others! I’ll never forget the fireworks. The blackened faces of the men on the barges setting them off – looking like something from a Dickens film. The noise! How we couldn’t even hear Big Ben, towering over our heads, for the yells and screams of the crowd. And good old human nature – the snipes about the ‘river of fire’ the next day. How ‘poor’ it had been. Well I was IN it and it looked fairly spectacular to me.
I wasn’t even thinking about writing back then. I would have to wait another four years before I started writing, after reading W G Sebald’s Austerlitz. His obit is HERE, together with a great account of his ethos as a writer. That is what I was responding to... That was like a thunderbolt – I could do this. Here was a writer talking directly to me – telling me this was exciting, the ‘rules’ could be broken, and that a story could hold the reader suspended out of their world for while, if it was good enough. I wanted to do that. I could do that.
An aborted course at University led to me working online with another maverick for eighteen months, on and off. On and off because this was the hardest thing I had done, ever. I didn’t realise quite how hard. If there is one thing I have learned in this game it is that you have to work at writing if you want it to be any good, and that ‘good’ does not necessarily equate with publications and money. If it does then you have also been lucky.
I have had a little of that luck, and found myself in the right place at the right time now and again. It’s unnecessary to list the achievements as they are sitting there, my two books, soon to be joined by a third thanks to the marvellous Salt Publishing. Now I am teaching this thing I love, at workshops, lit fests, schools, now at university level. And the best bit? I am still learning myself, still finding it frustrating, annoying, marvellous.
I have learned a bit too about the world of writing. How most writers I’ve met are wonderful, interesting, fun, passionnate and generous both with their knowledge and their engagement with the work of others. I’ve learned that sometimes, generosity is not obvious and reveals itself a lot later. And that sometimes, people don a generosity outfit, but it’s cheaper than the genuine article, and after a while, the seams always give way.
High spots on the journey have to begin with the first publication. That first acceptance is such a milestone for any writer and mine will never be forgotten. David and Zoe King accepted a story called ‘Stinker and the Taff Vale Railroaders’ for his online magazine, Buzzwords. And here it is in Buzzwords archive, originally published there in May 2004, I think!
And allied to that, the generosity of the tutor (Alex Keegan) who worked with me for hours and hours on that story, for absolutely nothing - to show me how to deepen the story thematically, as well as how to sharpen it craftwise, turning Stinker into Spike, the main character in ‘Cactus Man’ (now anthologised three times). I will not forget that, either. Nor will I forget the numbers of other writers who write him off as a poor teacher, just because he bruised their egos. Mine too – and a lot else. But he taught me to write well. More than that, he made me see that you never ‘get there’ and if you think you have, you’re absolutely finished - I am eternally grateful.
The numbers of lovely writers I’ve met and who I am privileged to call my friends are too many to list. But I will mention Tania Hershman whose writing I have loved ever since I read a flash called Plaits back in 2006. I will also mention Julia Bohanna, who, without knowing it, has taught me one helluva lot and I am privileged to know her. And Andrew G Marshall, whose steadiness, support and friendship I value greatly. (Check out his forthcoming book.)
I have also come across a few writers who seemed great, but who eventually and sadly, showed their colours. One colleague stole work and was later found to have stolen from other friends. That episode underlined how very important it is to be careful with whom you work. Ten years ago, I couldn’t use a computer, let alone the Internet – now I know it is an amazing thing, a wonderful resource, enabling positive fast communication. But it is also an enabler for less pleasant habits.
Back to nicer ground! Ten years ago I did not know I had four full blood sisters. I now do, and have met three, and the fourth is pending. Exciting. See HERE for more. Finding out who your birth family is at my age is amazing. For a writer to be given this gift is mind-blowing. Not that it will get written, directly. But everything feeds you.
On the boat on the Thames ten years ago, was my eldest son, then aged 21 and his girlfriend. They are now married, he has his own business, and is doing fine. My youngest son was 7 years old. He is now getting offers from Universities to study marketing and business. My father was 84. He is still living in his own house. My husband was working, and planning to carry on for years and years – the best laid plans - he retired in late 2008, and we’ve lost a lot of his pension in this recession. We are a LOT poorer than we were ten years ago, than we have ever been.
But hey! I’m still going, busier than ever and working at doing something I love. A year ago, said husband and I went on the best holiday we’ve had. Booked and paid for before he retired – it now seems totally mad – but we went to Antarctica via New Year in Buenos Aires and visited the Falklands, South Georgia, and bits of Argentina and Chile– a dream we’d both had ever since we married, 33 years ago.
I saw calving glaciers and endless icebergs, whales swam round the ship and we walked in colonies of penguins that stretched as far as the eye could see. The world is beautiful.
What a way to go, eh!
The best book I’ve read in the last decade? Aaaagh. There are so many. But W G Sebald’s Austerlitz has to be the very best, for many reasons. And I’ve recently discovered William Golding again. Lord of the Flies is fine… but Pincher Martin and The Inheritors have to beat it hollow.
Here’s to the next decade. I wish you health and happiness and if you are a writer, I wish you staying power if not wealth. I like to be realistic. Cheers!