A Five Year Sentence by Bernice Rubens

A couple of weeks ago I was a bit early to meet a friend for an afternoon cup of tea.  I started sifting through the basket of books outside one of the charity shops in Muswell Hill and came across a slim volume A Five Year Sentence by Bernice Rubens.

I was drawn in by the first paragraph:

‘Miss Hawkins looked at her watch.  It was two thirty.  If everything went according to schedule, she could safely reckon to be dead by six o’clock.’

As first lines go, it’s pretty intriguing and so I paid the 25p necessary to secure the book.

It’s an odd little story, and I went through phases of enjoying it followed by ones in which I found its humour a little too bleak for my mood.  It’s not laugh out loud funny, but it is definitely comic, from the initial set up to its unexpected conclusion.

Miss Hawkins has spent her life doing as she was told, from her days in a strictly run orphanage, through her employment at a sweet factory to which she was passed by the cruel Matron.  Facing her retirement, with no further instructions to follow, she plans to end her life just as soon as her leaving party is over.

But that was before her colleagues gave her a five year diary as a parting gift.  Conditioned by her life of obedience she cannot die before the diary is completed.

In that respect it reminded me a little of the start of the Jean Rhys story (I think it’s After Leaving Mr Mackenzie) in which the heroine contemplating suicide, delays it because she has paid her rent to the end of the week, and wouldn’t want to waste the money.

But it take Miss Hawkins a good deal longer to feel anything other than terrible resignation over her five year sentence.  To start with she records the banal daily non events of her life, but then comes upon the idea of writing about something that had not yet happened, and then treating that as an instruction to herself.  Thus she starts on an increasingly bold set of adventures, the instructions for which she sometimes forgets having written in the book.

Still rather lonely and isolated Miss Hawkins creates a companion for herself by painting a moustache on the mirror above her dining table, which when she holds her head at a particular angle reflects back the image of Maurice.  Maurice becomes both her confidant and her conscience, and when she becomes bolder in her ambitions and the tasks she sets herself, he has to be banished to under the bed until he no longer disapproves.

And there is plenty to upset Maurice after Miss Hawkins meets Brian at the library and starts to experience exciting  new aspects of life that Matron had warned her so vehemently against.

Originally published in 1978, it is a bit of a period piece now, and at moments a bit bleak, but if you like your humour oblique it’s worth a look.

Sabotage and excellent peripheral vision

At my most recent visit to the optician, in addition to the usual examination, I was subjected to a test of my peripheral vision.  Looking at a red dot on one point of the screen, I had to count green dots in another area.

It turns out my peripheral vision is excellent – proof, some might say, of what some of my former work colleagues had long suspected, even if I don’t actually have eyes in the back of my head.

It has however occurred to me recently that this may not always work to my advantage.  So aware am I of things going on around me that sometimes I don’t focus on what is directly in front.  When I should be concentrating on the screen and the words I should be producing, out of the corner of my eye I am constantly checking to see if the little red light on my blackberry is flashing.

I’ve tried putting the phone out of my sight altogether, behind me, in my bag, in another room; but that is worse because then I have to stand up and check it.  At the moment, I actively want to be interrupted.

This will change, and tomorrow it may not be true, but for today, I feel like I am waiting for something, even though I am expecting nothing.  And waiting for electronic communication is worse than waiting for the kettle to boil, paint to dry, toasters to toast or trains to arrive.

In an era when the common complaint is against the tiresome noisiness of the digital world, that all one’s time is sucked away in dealing with emails and instant messaging, when tweets and facebook have to be checked regularly, it feels like a shocking confession.

It shocks me.  When I was working in my last job I found it very easy to put off checking email or answering the phone; neither of them usually provided good news.  It was easy to turn everything off overnight and for the weekend; I felt no urge to consult the gadgets as soon as I woke up, or in the middle of lunch.

Instant communication seemed to require instant response and I rebelled against it, refusing to bow to its tyranny.

Even though I am trying to keep working while I’m waiting I keep checking out of the corner of my eye.  Was that just the sun catching the reflective surface of the phone, or is the red light flashing?  It’s a new form of self sabotage for me.


Along the line it made me think of Dorothy Wordsworth, William’s sister.  Some years ago, enthused by a visit to Dove Cottage in Grasmere and on learning how William relied on (or exploited, depending on your point of view) the two women in his life, I read some of Dorothy’s Grasmere Journals.

She wrote them while William was away courting the woman he intended to marry.  Dorothy was unusually devoted to her brother and while she tried to occupy herself with domestic activity while he was gone, she wrote to him regularly.

She wrote daily of her hope of a letter in return from him.  She walked from Grasmere into Ambleside, something over 4 miles, in the hope of receiving something;  a round trip of near on 9 miles for nothing: ‘No news from W today.’

The desire to communicate and to hear news was as great then as it is now, but they had fewer technological options.  How much worse was it to have to wait then?  Dorothy’s expectation that she would have to wait was probably greater than mine.

She also knew that once she had returned home there was no hope for news until she returned to Ambleside the following day, so she could possibly turn her mind to other things in the house and garden in the interim.  But I feel a terrible sympathy for that constant need to go each day to check, because her disappointment, even though you have to read between the lines of her journal to see it, was deep and painful.

Writing, lichen and highland cattle

I’ve spent the last few days at Cove Park, writing and watching the view.  The weather has been changeable as ever and it’s not quite matched the still clearness of the shot at the top of this blog, but it still demands my attention.

I have taken so many photos of it, but, inevitably none of them quite capture it.

Telephone and radio reception here is variable because of the topography.  Last time I was here I discovered that I could get mobile phone reception on the terrace just outside the French windows. This has encouraged me in the eccentric habit of sticking my arm out of the window to check for emails; this involves wrapping my hand and phone in a plastic bag when the rain is particularly inclement.  Practical yet peculiar, I freely admit.  But then the radio will only work when the phone is off and neither my laptop nor my iPod docking station are plugged into the mains.

Half way up a hillside overlooking Loch Long, sitting in a converted freight container, you learn not to question these technical quirks.

As well as sitting in my Cube in front of my computer, I’ve been making the daily

trek up the hill in order to log onto the internet.  I enjoy the walk even when it’s raining; it’s not long, but it is quite steep.  I love the smell of the damp earth underfoot and the brackish aroma of the air.  This is a wet place and there are tussocky mounds of moss in the grass, and lichen growing on all the tree boughs still bare of leaves since autumn.  The sound of water running fills the air; every burn is at full tilt, every little waterfall, a tumble of flashing light.

This is West of Scotland countryside, so I thought I’d share some of the local wildlife sights with you.

Cove Park has half a dozen or so Highland cattle which roam the area.  They are superbly disinterested in you when you walk up to them.  They look up when they hear you approach and then slowly turn their heads away and back to chewing as you are beneath their interest.  I know that the truth is that they are very short sighted and anyway the long hair that keeps the flies out of their eyes stops them seeing anything very much, but they have such a slow, stubborn sort of dignity that anthropomorphism just creeps up on me every time.

Then there are the ducks which apparently only ever come here during the Spring.  A very busy lot they are too; a squadron swooping down and landing together before chasing each other around the pond and then taking off again filling the air with splashing and flapping.

There are also a prodigious number of frogs.  More frogs than I ever thought I would see; more even than in the final scene of ‘Magnolia’, but here they are alive, and evidently somewhat frisky as when the evening comes the path is full of courting couples; care is required to avoid stepping on them.  On sunny afternoons they bob around in the pond when the ducks aren’t there.  But you’ll have to take my word for it as every time I try to take a photo they hide under water.

And just before you write this down as a lost backwater here is the last but by no means least local speciality –Trident.  Loch Long is one of the deepest waterways in Britain and the submarines are based here.  There’s nothing quite as black as the skin of a stealth predator.

And here, just a quick juxtaposition of MOD and nature……

If you have 5 minutes check out the Cove Park short film made last summer.

All in the name of art

I read an article this morning about artist Wafaa Bilal who has had a camera bolted to the back of his head for his latest piece of work.  Not surprisingly the bolts have caused an infection and so he has had to have it removed temporarily, and in the meantime has the camera strapped in place.

This seems extraordinary to me for a number of reasons.

Clearly bolting something to your body is an extreme step to take under any circumstances, but to do it voluntarily, is something it would take me a long time to understand.  Evidently as no medical practitioner would do it for him, a body piercer did it; so it’s like an extreme version of one of those screw nuts that can be attached to an eyebrow.

Fastening it in that way, I suppose meant that he couldn’t take it off at whim; maybe he was worried about a headband irritating his skin?  Nevertheless there remains a relentless masochistic cruelty about it to my eye.

It’s also pointing backwards; he has said this was to stop himself from trying to frame the photos, which he would be tempted to do if the camera were facing forward.

It will take a shot every minute, of essentially things that he himself does not see.  I can only imagine that quite a few of the pictures will be of people staring and wondering why that guy’s got a camera attached to the back of his head.

Say, what?

At the end of his project he will have a vast compilation of photos that will be like a reverse record of his year, which, even though he has not orchestrated it per se, will reveal something about his experiences during that period.

Part of his motivation is to reflect upon how heavily we are observed now; that we live in surveillance societies where so many CCTV cameras track our movements through public places.

I am often caught by surprise when I see the top of my own head relayed from a camera to a screen by the exit to my local Tube station, and I wonder about all the other images there must be of me that I don’t know about.  And once I start on that train of thought, I know ‘they’ can track my movements through the usage of my London Transport Oystercard, the location of my mobile telephone, when and where I use my bank and credit cards, sites I visit on the internet.

It’s impossible not to leave a trail behind me.

There may also no be a million miles between the random images that Wafaa Bilal is collecting and my effort to produce a post every day for a year.  I don’t know what it will show but it will be an accumulation of something capable of interpretation and reinterpretation.

Drink to me with thine eyes

A few years ago I recall watching a documentary about Minette Walters, the thriller writer.

It showed her at various stages of the writing, editing and publishing of one of her novels.  While we spied on meetings she had with her agent and editor, she also did pieces direct to the camera on her own.  During every one of these soliloquies she had a glass of red wine in her hand.

I assumed, not that she drank while she was writing, but that each time she had a break from writing, she had a quick drink.

Now I think if I had a touch of wine every time I fancied a break from the keyboard I’d never return to it; I don’t have enough self control.

There is, though, a connection between writing and wine, it seems to me; it is a feature on every writing course or retreat I’ve ever been on.

On the very first Arvon course I attended, the uproarious drinking on the last night went on well into the early morning hours, although I bailed out long before the end and retired with my earplugs in place and my head under my pillow; I couldn’t contemplate the prospect of the long journey home from Inverness with a hangover.

When I did my MACW at Birkbeck, University of London, we all repaired to a bar after our classes so as to complete the evening.

At Wellspring House it was easy to get into the habit of popping along the road to the gas station for a bottle of zinfandel and a carton of Ben and Jerry’s, to share with the other writers in residence; but only as a reward for a day’s hard writing, you understand!

When I am working on my own, I try to avoid the siren lure of a glass of wine before the requisite number of words have been produced.  Instead, these days I indulge in frequent cups of coffee before lunch, and numerous cups of herbal tea or hot water after lunch;  the ritual of the preparation and the walk from my desk to the kitchen being as important as the drink itself.

After many false starts with hideous herbal concoctions called ridiculous names like ‘love’ and ‘peace’; or specially wrapped tea bags with little homilies (‘a kind word is a salve to an injured soul’ you know the kind of thing) on each tag, I’ve found the right combination of mint and camomile.

When I used to travel extensively for work, I frequently took a travel kettle and coffee and tea bags with me so that I could always have a decent hot drink in my room; it’s enough to make a hotel ‘homey’ for me.

I went on a weekend break in Italy with a friend and remember her mocking incredulity when I took the kettle, somewhat Mary Poppins like, from my bag.  It didn’t take long for her to be an enthusiastic convert, and she soon surpassed me, by some margin, in her attachment to the concept of the travel kettle, and is now a great proponent of the art.

When more recently we travelled together in Japan, I was prepared to take a chance that the hotels in which we were to stay would have kettles, as they did when I had made an earlier trip for work; she wasn’t and came equipped not only with the kettle, but also with her own rather startling pink plastic mug.

The daftest occasion has to be the time we took the kettle into the Peruvian jungle, not realising that the lodge where we were to stay had no electricity.

Off to put the kettle on…..

Spinning and Weaving

Where is the best place to generate ideas?

And if I can identify it, shouldn’t I spend all my time there?

My friend Gillian says a particular set of traffic lights does it for her.

To my horror, I’ve recently noticed that I’ve been getting ideas for these blog posts while I’ve been sweating and peddling through my spinning classes at the gym.

So let’s get it clear straight away, there is no way I am going to increase my level of participation in what, on the timetable, the gym calls ‘group cycling’; it’s far too much like hard work.

I’m sure there’s some physiological theory that would cite the increase in blood flow to that little bit of my brain that deals with creativity, as the fuel for the ideas; but it’s hard to believe at those moments mid class when I feel particularly oxygen deprived, and bombarded by the percussive volume of the thumping music that accompanies the class.

Being entirely occupied with challenges of survival seems to allow my mind to wander.  Maybe it’s similar to thinking about something else to overcome the frustration of not being able to remember the word or name that I’m trying to find.

A further challenge, after coming up with an idea, is to retain it until I’ve got home and have the wherewithal to write it down, as, because of my aversion to locker rooms, the only things I take with me are a bottle of water and my house keys.

Not every idea is a good one, but I need as many as I can garner in order to meet the postaday2011 challenge; so I’m slowly developing a system of writing a headline as soon as I can, and then when I sit down to write a post I expand and embroider the ones that appeal at that moment.

Sometimes I stay on the track I originally had in mind; sometimes I wander right off piste, and it’s a relief that either outcome is fine for the moment.

Still no clue, though, as to how to handle my pavlovian reaction to one of the spinning music tracks creeping up on me in restaurants and bars.

Three characters in search of a story

I used to travel into central London early each morning during the working week.  Setting off before the main rush hour shortened the Tube journey time and gave me more time to sit over my coffee in Starbucks or Costa, watching the world, before dragging myself to the office.

For those of you who have never experienced it, New Oxford Street can be quiet at 7:45 am.  But I was not the only one with an early morning routine.

Most days I would pass middle aged twins walking in the opposite direction, at approximately the same spot outside the umbrella shop, at approximately the same time.

I know they were twins because they were both petite and neat, with their bleach blonde hair styled in the same style short at the back with a  curly back-combed fringe.  They wore identical tight stonewashed jeans with sparkly appliqué down the seams which glinted as they clipped along in their black stiletto boots.  And their faces were indistinguishable from each other.

Every time I saw them and our eyes met briefly I would wonder where they were going, where they’d been, and especially why two adult women would voluntarily dress exactly the same as each other all the time.

I would say to myself,  there must be a story there.  And then the moment later, I must be able to make one up.  I’ve tried, but so far I’ve managed nothing more than a few unsatisfactory paragraphs .  The twins intrigued me, but somehow not enough to come up with a story for them.

After passing the women, I would sit in the window in Starbucks and watch as the morning activity in the street multiplied, as the deliveries arrived and the queue for coffees grew.

Among the ebb and flow of the crowd I noticed the street sweeper, carefully running his broom along the edge of the pavement making small piles of dirt and cigarette butts spaced evenly in the roadside for his return to gather them up.

I noticed him because of  his methodical approach to his work and for his pristine appearance: his overalls and gloves were clean, his baseball cap was clean and white; and he was listening to something through earphones.

Not only did I want to know his story, how it was possible to keep his clothes so clean while doing such a dirty job; why would he choose such a job?  Was he driven by the desire for cleanliness to endlessly sweep the midden that is the bottom end of Tottenham Court Road? And most of all what was he listening to?  Radio 4 or hiphop?  Opera or pop?

I wish I knew.

I have a lingering sense of failure.  Maybe one day I’ll find their story; in the meantime, maybe you have one?

Getting the words out

I went to see ‘The King’s Speech’ at the cinema last week.  Leaving aside the excellence of the performances, the film set me thinking about how many ways it is possible to get stuck while trying to communicate.

I don’t know very much about what can cause a stutter; but the implications of the movie were that there are both psychological and physical aspects, which are most likely different for each sufferer.

To be honest, I wasn’t much interested in the cod  psychological explanations for George VI’s problem that were offered by the film; it was sufficiently clear that standing over him and shouting ‘Spit it out, boy,’ wasn’t going to help him speak fluently, nor indeed would cigarette smoke relax his throat.

The interesting thing about the story was the relationship as portrayed between King and therapist, and the apparent silliness of some of the exercises used in the therapy.

What was very striking, and moving, was that even at the end of all the speech therapy sessions, the King was not cured; instead all that had been achieved was that he had been equipped with techniques to overcome the worst of the barriers that afflicted him.  Along with all the fresh air and breathing exercises he learnt ways to trick himself into enunciating problematic consonants, singing some phrases, leaping into the K of king from a springboard of a short a before it; thus, a-king.

There are surely parallels in trying  to force out written words when you feel constrained or fearful that it’s not going to go well.  Maybe I have to trick myself by finding the right little springboard.  The blank page requires a first sentence, by applying the pressure of thinking that first sentence has to make exactly the right impact I can render myself incapable; maybe the best place to start is in the middle, and write around the centre from there.

So I started drafting this blog post here.

In a different life, some years ago, I had to attend a course in process management.  The only thing I remember about it was a quick case study illustrated with comical little sketches.

There is a bottling line in a factory; the penultimate step in the process is the placing of a metal cap on each bottle. Every fourth lid comes out of the machine crooked.  What is the best way to address the problem?

Option 1: Assign a man to stand beside the conveyor belt, equip him with a hammer and instruct him to bang each of the crooked tops until it is straight.

Option 2: Stop the machine, find out why it is malfunctioning on every fourth bottle, and fix it.

On the day, you’ll be unsurprised to learn that the correct answer did not involve the man with a hammer.  I’ve often thought of this analogy when I’ve watched people do things in a way that I, from my rather superior vantage point, have thought was particularly  inefficient.

But I am on the verge of discarding it as an appropriate metaphor for writing. Sometimes it might be unhelpful to go back and try to fix everything from the beginning; it might be better to develop a few quick and dirty techniques for dealing with the lumps and bumps in the early drafts, and stop worrying about it.

Either that, or stand back for a moment and admire the crookedness of the caps.

The house with the yellow front door

This is the house that was the Dunn family home for over thirty years, in which I spent my teenage years staring out of the right hand upstairs window hoping there was a world beyond.

It was difficult to take a good photo of the house because the garden sloped steeply down in front of it, so you were always pointing the camera upwards giving the impression that the house is falling over backwards.

It was built of sandstone in the late 1800s, and is like any number of other houses in the town.

In the art class of my first term of secondary school we were required to paint a watercolour picture of our homes (from memory).  My unskilled hands produced an arrangement of splodgy squares and wobbly edged triangles, the largest single element of which was a prominent, and out of proportion, yellow front door.

Subsequently, when my new school friends came round to play, frequently the first thing they would say was ‘I knew it was your house because it’s the only one with a yellow door.’

Yellow would probably not have been the first choice when the exterior of the house was subsequently repainted, but somehow the yellowness of our front door had become part of the fabric of family history and it was retained through every maintenance cycle.

In an odd sort of way the door still dominates the look of the house in my memory, so that when I look at the photo now, the door looks surprisingly small.

I find myself constantly struggling to describe things, both in dredging them up from memory and then finding the right words to illustrate what I see there.  Even people stopping me in the street for directions can develop a glazed look in their eyes as I ramble on.

‘I can’t remember the name of the street you want, but go along here until you get to the building with red awning and the brass doorhandles.  Go past there, then turn left at the traffic lights.’

‘What do I do at the brass awning?’

‘Nothing.  Go straight on.’

When I am writing a description of a place or a character what is the key feature that will set it apart from everything around it, and give it life in the mind of the reader?  How do I make the choice?  Describing every detail is not only impossible, it is likely to alienate or bore a reader; not describing enough may set them off with entirely the wrong picture in their mind.

Context could be key.  There is little point in seeking to distinguish this house from its neighbours by describing it as sandstone and pointy roofed with double bay windows, in a street in which every house looks like that.  But to someone who has never seen what,  in the town’s ‘estate agent speak’,  is ‘a traditional detached villa’, all of these features would help paint a picture in their mind.

In the meantime I’ve no idea what colour the door is now.  I hope the current owners have chosen a colour with their own mythology in mind.

Is there a schedule?

One of my friends from my life in the business world has asked me if I will be posting on line at the same time every day.  If I did, it would make it easier to follow me.  Now that, on the one hand is extremely flattering, that it might be worth scheduling me into a busy diary.  On the other hand, it fills me with anxiety.

Not only would I, a novice blogger, be committed to the postaday2011 challenge, I’d be committing to a daily timetable.  Isn’t the whole point of ‘opting out’ not to have to obey irksome conventional norms?  Can’t I be one those arty types that float about doodling for a bit, being generally flaky about punctuality?

Probably not.

Years of education and professional experience have made me goal orientated – give me a deadline and I’ll meet it.  I am however much less good with promises I make only to myself; I need the risk of someone else’s disappointment to keep me focussed.

I had the great good fortune to be mentored last year by Louise Doughty.  One of the first things she told me was that I had to organise my writing time and commit to it; essentially rephrasing the aphorism about the art of writing being the the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.


I’ll give it a go (at least on weekdays)

And now my mind is racing ahead, writing to do lists and consulting my diary to check next week’s appointments.   One of the consequences of aiming for ‘on time publishing’ is that I will need to build up a little store of drafts, a couple in my back pocket and one behind my ear, which can be brushed up swiftly and posted.  Maybe I’ll need a daily alarm on my phone; writing sessions deep into the night; a Gantt chart to manage the process……Stop!


One day at a time…..

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