Everything but the Fuchsia

IMG_3344Only fuchsias are worth saving.

At a recent workshop run by my friend Nina she offered several sentences taken from gardening books as the prompt for a spell of writing.  While many of the sentences were amusing, in fact so deliciously amusing that we were a little at risk of spending too much time enjoying them, or wondering at their out of context profundity, than writing our own new words….. If you keep chicken you’re ahead of the game; spend as much as you can afford; this linguistic dithering is offensive and ought to be straightened out…… 

For me there was only one obvious choice.  Only fuchsias are worth saving.  It has a certain gnomic potency, a rule to live by……. something straight out of the screenplay for Being There.  It did however also generate an immediate picture in my head, and it was a picture of this fuchsia.  It’s a bold, rather brassy shrub, with large double purple and red flowers, ballerinas with full skirts, dancing in great troupes all summer long.  I now have a half written short story for which this was the jumping off point.

The weather this summer has been perfect for prolific flowers, and now I’ve overcome my childhood habit of popping the buds between my thumb and forefinger before they were ready, they are blooming in their own time.

Isn’t ‘fuchsia’ an interesting word?  It was only when I was writing this that I realised I didn’t know how to spell it.  According to one entry I found online (when I was checking) it is frequently misspelt fushcia, presumably by people like me, who sort of know the letters that are in there and try to arrange them so that they reflect the usual pronunciation.  And we’re all wrong.  But now, I think, I’ll remember it.  Maybe.

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It’s All Material

IMG00767-20130215-1405There are some experiences which are simply easier to cope with, if, while they’re going on, I think about how they are raw material, which I shall be able to use one day.  It is by no means always clear how I might be able to use them, in fact it frequently seems highly unlikely, but that doesn’t stop the thought process from being extremely helpful, especially when the experience in question has exercise in futility written all over it.

This all started when, for reasons that are far too dull to bore you with, I needed to take a reading off the water meter for my flat.  Now I’ve lived in the same flat for several years, and I pay for my water with regular monthly direct debits, and a couple of times a year I receive a bill, which, so long as, using that age old auditor’s trick, it looks much like the one for the previous year, I’ve never thought twice about.

According to these six monthly bills, they are calculated according to an accurate reading from a meter; so someone must come periodically to take the reading.   But where from?

Just outside, and around the corner, there are four manhole covers, down which I was promised I would find my meter.  Trouble was, no-one knew down which of the four it would be, nor which of the 8 dials in each hole would be mine.  I have a 16 digit alpha numerical identification code, but embossed plastic when down a five foot deep wet hole become encrusted with mud very easily.

I was lucky to have help from S, who came equipped with a crowbar to lever up the manhole covers, and the thick gloves necessary to operate this sophisticated tool; and thankfully, most usefully of all, he was prepared to lie full length on the muddy turf beside the hole to try to decipher which meter was which.  When this revealed nothing other than the installation appeared to be in a random order, I ran inside and sent a morse code message through the pipes by way of turning the kitchen tap on and off at 10 second intervals.

Ta da!  Finally it was identified.  It has left me with the lingering doubt that I have ever received a bill for the right supply, but, more importantly, I’ve seen down the hole, and through into an underground world where confusion reigns.

On a Circular Roll

IMG_2911Not obviously photogenic circular things have been attracting my attention over the last couple of days.

This weekend, a friend brought a box of tea cakes to our writing group, and immediately we were thrown back on memories of childhood.  For those of you not familiar with a Tunnock’s Tea Cake, they are a biscuit topped with s sort of soft white marshmallow all covered in a thing layer of chocolate.  They are manufactured in a factory on the outskirts of Glasgow somewhere, and they are an intrinsic part of nostalgic memories for many Scots.

There is absolutely nothing nutritious about them, and they disappear in your mouth as soon as you take the first bite.  But there is something delicious about the first taste, while at the same time a box of six might be just a bit too much to eat alone.  The fact that they are wrapped in silver paper is important too; the unwrapping is a vital part of the ritual.  It wouldn’t be the same if someone else had unwrapped them first.

 I suspect they will last forever, so I’ve put them to the top of the cupboard in the hope that I won’t be tempted to eat them all at once.

It’s All Material

IMG00665-20121019-0948Ailsa suggested circles as a theme for this week, and I thought of this photo I took a month or so ago.  It’s probably a little bit odd to take a photograph of other people’s detritus in the first place, and then to post it and relate it to the rather lovely shots of fountains, flowers and architecture published by other people, is even odder.  Maybe it’s because Costa is in the news this week, largely on the basis that’s not Starbucks which is currently the subject of attention because of its tax affairs. (I can feel my fingers itching to write something on that topic whenever I read one of the more confused and under informed articles that are everywhere at the moment, but I’m not sure you’d be as interested in that as I am.)  But for whatever reason, that’s the way it is this week.

The cup of coffee’s mine, but the empty sugar sachets and cigarette butts were already there when I got to the table.  It’s a phenomenon I’ve noticed, since the introduction of the ban on smoking inside any public building: the area outside, and any tables there, are dominated and occupied by people smoking.  I understand why, but it’s a topsy turvy kind of thing that the atmosphere can smell cleaner inside a coffee shop than outside.

But I suppose I was more interested in what the little pile of rubbish could tell me about the characters who left it there.  It’s one of the things that story tellers have in common, probably, that they look at things, ordinary as well as peculiar, and wonder what narrative led there, and what manner of people have left their traces behind.

So, who takes that much sugar in their coffee?  Did they try to arrange the empty packets in a pile which has been disturbed by the wind? Or were they untidy and left the paper where it fell?  Were they the types who shake the sugar sachets vigorously before tearing the ends off and then stir their coffee for longer than is really necessary?  Or were they simply slapdash?  How many people were there?One with a bad cold, perhaps, who tried to leave everything tidy, but who was foiled by his companions?

Was the smoker one of those who stubs out their cigarettes with little stabbing actions, or a deliberate twisting and pressing grinding into the ashtray?  Stub ends always look like they’ve been subjected to violence, but then, without the smoking, the techniques they tried to teach him at the anger management course are even more useless and ineffective.

Or maybe the table should have been cleared hours ago, but the shop was just a bit short staffed because a member of staff hasn’t arrived yet because of the black eye he sustained when he walked into a door by accident last night.  Or at least he’s going to tell them it was an accident.

Word for the Day

During his talk a few days ago, Richard Ford used the word fricative.  I don’t think I’d ever heard it before, but, from the sound of it, I felt that I knew straightaway what it meant.  It had to be something to do with the percussive sounds of consonants blown through with air, if the principles of onomatopoeia are worth anything.

Finally, yesterday I got round to looking it up in the dictionary, my parents’ well battered volume of the Oxford English, which does sterling service in support of checking spelling for their weekly crossword marathons, and just assisted me in the writing of onomatopoeia when the spellchecker let me down so woefully!

So, here you are: fricative, adjective denoting a type of consonant made by the friction of breath in a narrow opening, producing a turbulent air flow; noun, a consonant made in this way e.g. f and the.

Richard Ford used the word in the context of describing how he constructed what, for him, were the right sentences.  He reads out his work to hear the sound of it, to know that the flow has the rhythm and cadence he wants, and so that the fricatives are doing their work harmoniously.

But with the dictionary open, it was hard to resist the other words on the page.  Fricative comes after fricassee (a dish of stewed or fried pieces of meat served in a thick white sauce), and before friction (the resistance that one surface or object encounters when moving over another)….. and my favourites: fribble (noun, informal, a frivolous or foolish person), and friar’s balsam (a solution containing benzoin in alcohol, used chiefly as an inhalant), and Freudian slip (an unintentional error regarded as revealing subconscious feelings).

Now, to try and write a paragraph containing all of them…… any suggestions?

The Telling Detail

At least for this, its inaugural week, I’m participating in the WordPress writing challenge, which is to pick the most mundane thing I did in the last couple of days and make a story out of it.  That’s often what I do anyway, pick on some small detail in something not very remarkable and recount the story that attaches to it; and so many things have little stories that come with them, don’t they?

I cleaned the oven a couple of days ago, spurred into activity by the shame of spending so much time on the sofa watching the Olympics on the television.

I come from a line of women proud of their homes, women who keep them tidy and clean, for whom the idea of dust is a personal afront, and for whom there appeared to be some satisfaction in the endeavour.

I am not one of those women.  My home is relatively tidy, but as I sit here typing I can see dust bunnies under the furniture and streaks on the windows.  It’ll be a while before these things bother me enough to make me change them.

I can’t remember the last time I cleaned the oven, but it was well over due, and some weeks ago, or it could even be months, I spent a while in the cleaning products aisle at the supermarket to select the best, most powerful solutions to blitz the job. My grandmother would never have used these strong chemicals, she would never have needed them; washing up liquid, elbow grease and, in an extreme situation, a brillo pad were her tools.

As I forced my hands into my yellow rubber gloves, I recalled visits to my grandmother’s house when I was a child.  It may have been only one visit, but somehow, in memory, I have decided that every time I visited on my own, she was washing the stove.

It was quite a big deal for me to be allowed to cycle from home to her house when I was young; it was about 3 miles, along a hedge lined road.  I was so apprehensive of the cars passing by, that sometimes I would ride so close into the edge that the hedge would scratch my arms.  And when I arrived at her bungalow, I’d take my bike round the back to lean against the wall, and go in through the kitchen door wanting a bit of sympathy.  She’d be by the sink, the iron grids from the tops of the stove would be in the sink and she’d be scrubbing them.

The other thing you need to know about my grandmother, is that she had a parrot, which rarely spent any time in its cage.  It would perch on various bits of furniture, or, its favourite position, on my grandmother’s shoulder.  I was a bit afraid of the parrot, so I’d wait by the kitchen door until it had been put back in its cage.

After she’d finished her cleaning, grandmother would give me a teacake, one of those chocolate covered meringue ones, wrapped in silver paper, and try to show me that there was nothing to fear from the parrot by doing ‘This little piggy went to market’ with the bird’s claws.  The parrot would hold its foot out and spread its claws for each talon to be shaken gently, and then at the climax, it would be the one to cry ‘weee weee weee all the way home’.

The Power of a Deadline

I have been forced, in the last couple of days, to confront and to question what makes me actually sit down and write, to reflect on the compelling power of a deadline, and to wonder what is special about a promise given to someone else, rather than one made to myself.

I’m working on the first draft of my second novel.  In contrast with my first, which started with a character in a particular environment around whom a plot developed, this one began with an idea born of an observation that in a group of three people there is always one on the outside.  It’s taken me a while to develop the characters and I still don’t have a fully formed idea of the plot, although I have a list nearly as long as my arm of the situations through which I plan to put the protagonists.

To help me along the way, and to put me in a situation where I would be forced to formulate my ideas coherently so that I, at a minimum, knew where I was heading, I decided to have some mentoring sessions.  The other main objective of pre arranged meetings was to set a deadline by which my mentor would have expected me to send her some of my new work so that we could discuss progress, as, until then, the rate at which I was producing new words was achingly slow.

For my two first mentoring sessions I was a good student, I worked on and off during the available time and produced something that wasn’t a polished final version of what might or might not be the opening chapters, but was well advanced from a clunky first draft.  And then last week arrived.

With the meeting scheduled for Wednesday morning I had to send some work, something chunky enough to make talking about it worthwhile, by Monday evening.  I had little in my diary for Saturday and Sunday other than a space cleared for writing time, and yet I managed to produce only a sad little trickle of words amounting to no more that a page.  It was only at lunchtime on Monday, the real risk of shame in a failure to meet the agreed deadline approaching like a raring high speed train, that I finally sat down and concentrated.

I had a fantasy in my head that by the end of the day I would have several pages of typescript, and the feeble hope that it would appear without my being fully aware of where it came from.  And bizarrely, that is exactly what happened.  At noon when I started I had the 400 or so words that had been eked out over two days, by 5 o’clock when I had to leave for my evening class I had just over 3,500, and by midnight, after another hour of work, post class, I had nearly 4,400.

It reminded me of all those three hour exams I had to do at school, university and for my accounting qualification.  I walked into the room with no idea about what I would be required to do, but the adrenalin, the pressure and the knowledge that I had a limited time to impress, gave me total concentration.

I don’t think I’ve ever written that many words on a creative piece in one day in my life before.  It’s not perfect, there’s a technical issue with the flow of time and the placing of flashback, and it lacks a bit of background time and place description, but it has a definite flow and energy about it, and the infrastructure of what I wanted to convey is there.

I was really surprised when I read it through.  At the risk of sounding pretentious (!), I think what the absolute requirement to produce something did was to make me write without ‘the critic’ in my head holding me back.  It’s  a cliché of writing courses that a writer has to deploy the creative and the critical sides of her brain at different stages of the writing process.  Create a first draft and then critically improve it.

So now the search is on to work out how I can replicate that sense of urgency, that profound concentration, that silences my otherwise over active critic.  And how I can give the same importance to a promise made to myself as to one made to another person.

Quite a Lot of Change

Ever had one of those days when you wonder why your handbag is quite so heavy?  It was Friday last week, for me.

It was like doing one of those exercises to create a fictional character from the contents of their bag or what they habitually carry in their pockets.  I rootled around in the depths of the bag, that even I know is bigger than it needs to be.

I emptied some of the stuff onto the table: a diary, a novel, a notebook,  multiple pens, a phone, a camera, a wad of paperhankies, an umbrella, my travel-card, a couple of catalogues from recent art exhibitions, a lot of scrunched up receipts, a packet of headache pills.  Nothing out of the ordniary that would account for the extra weight I’d been feeling on my shoulder(!).

It was my purse that was the problem.  After a week of buying small items with notes, and then cramming the change into my bag without paying it much attention, I was weighed down with coins.

Charities are always enthusiastically asking us for our small change, even foreign currency bits and pieces, in strategically placed boxes or paper enveloped slipped into the bags with airline headsets; there’s money in them there pennies.  And what a lot of pennies I had.  It’s inevitable when so many things are priced at, say, 1.99 or 2.59.

I recall when I lived in Russia in the 1990s we would just wave away the offer of change; at the time a 100 rouble note was worth less than 1 US cent, so what was the point of a 50 rouble coin?  I saved any coins I wasn’t able to decline in a jam jar, and just before I left the country, I gave the jar and its contents to a man with no legs who frequently begged outside my block on summer weekends.  As it didn’t amount to much, I topped it up with paper money, but was surprised to see how genuinely pleased he seemed to be with the jar.

Another Moscow memory is evoked by the small wooden toy I have, the only charm of which is that I received it instead of the US$2 that the stall holder at the Ismailova craft market owed me.  Similar, I suppose to those pre-Euro times in Italy, when you might be offered a boiled sweet as change where the shopkeeper had no small denomination lira notes.

But who in London would turn away change these days?  Not me.  So I set myself the task to see if I could buy something using the maximum number of coins: a coffee for 1.90.  It was quite tricky, standing in line and capturing all the smallest coins in my hand ready to pay.  In the end, I lightened my load by 23 coins….,fancy trying to work out the combination? *

It reminded me of maths puzzles I faced not long after I started school in the US after my family had moved there when I was six.  We had to make up particular sums of money with the lowest number of coins.  I picked it up pretty quickly, but remember very clearly, the teacher remonstrated with the child sitting next to me who was being less successful with the problem.  ‘Rowena can do it, and she’s not even American.’

*6x20p+4x10p+4x5p+1x2p+8x1p

The Value of Calm Encouragement

Last Sunday I spent the afternoon at a writing workshop run by a friend of mine.

What’s unusual about that, you may be asking.  And I would have to answer, pretty much all of it.  I was a great participator in workshops and on courses when I first started taking my writing seriously, but it’s a few years since I did one, now; over the years I’ve also written in company of friends for timed exercises in coffee shops and pancake joints, but that’s not happened for a while either.

It was a useful reminder that surprising things can come out of writing by hand in a room where other people are also writing, and that others can often see things in your work of which you were not previously concious.

The way any workshop is managed is vital to create the right environment for its success; Sunday was my first experience of one organised following the ideas of the Amherst Writers.  There is a complete structure to the programme for writers at different stages in the development of their work, but the key elements of the workshop on Sunday were that we wrote in the presence of each other, read the work to the group, and then gave and received comments on only those aspects which worked; accentuate the positive and don’t mention the negative.

It all sounds rather ‘nice’, doesn’t it?  Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of it was how much the opposite of bland it was.

For some reason that I’ve never quite understood, writing in the company of other people who are also writing, and doing it for a specified period, be it 10 minutes or 45, makes me focus my attention and can often generate the first few rough lines of an entirely new idea or an unexpected aspect of something already a work in progress.  It’s something that I have found impossible to replicate on my own in front of my computer, where the cursor can often seem to be blinking at me in a particularly accusing way.

As the giver of feedback all too often it can be tempting to focus on the things which jar or which can be nitpicked to death.  Being deprived of that as an option makes you pay close attention to a piece to identify, and then articulate, a positive response.

As the receiver of the comments, it is fascinating to hear other people’s reactions to even the roughest of drafts: they hear things in it which were not consciously put there and which can be worked on and elaborated subsequently.

The ‘positive comments only’ rule, together with the requirement that all remarks are depersonalised, so that you speak by reference only to ‘the narrator’ or ‘the writing’, rather than ‘you’, contributes to creating a cohesive group out of a collection of strangers very quickly, and was both a challenging and an incredibly encouraging way to spend an afternoon engaged in the process of writing.

Familiar Aromas

I changed my washing powder this week.

Now, before you click away to something more interesting, stay with me, for a couple more sentences, at least.

It wasn’t a plan.  I went to buy the stuff I normally get, but I couldn’t see any, and as there is something in the washing powder aisle in the supermarket that sets my eyes running and my nose to itch, I can’t stay there very long making informed choices.  So I picked the most familiar looking box of non biological cleaner and rolled my trolley round the corner for coffee.

The first time I used it and hung it out to dry my flat was filled with an aroma that was both remarkably familiar but which I knew I hadn’t encountered for a very long time.  It thrust me back to a younger self in a different place.  It was a smell of childhood, and was surprisingly comforting; the smell of fresh sheets on a single bed, and clean pyjamas and big towels that engulfed me after a bath.

Aromas have a great power to trigger memory; they take us back to a time and place.  Sometimes we can’t recall straight away, we just know that it’s familiar.

When I was writing my novel about Rose Fleming’s adventures in Moscow I spent quite  a lot of time thinking about the smells of the city which would augment and shade the portrait of the time and place that I wanted to paint.

But it’s quite tricky to describe aroma isn’t it?  They are so distinctive and for there to be any point to the inclusion of the description it has to capture what is unique about it.

I spent ages trying to find the right way to describe that particular smell of the air just outside the door at Sheremetyevo airport.  The routine at arrival was always that a driver would wait in the bustling melee of the arrivals area, when he had found me we’d walk to just outside the door, and then I would wait with my luggage while the driver went to get his car and pick me up.

This outside waiting area was underneath a huge concrete canopy; every inch of the road and parking area was jammed with cars with their engines running.  As soon as I inhaled the freezing air laden with the fragrance of  unburned petrol and paraffin I knew I was back in Moscow.

I’d been living in the city for a few weeks before I found Stockmann, at the time the only decent supermarket.   I’d tried various ‘retail outlets’ near my flat, but found a bewildering lack of anything I really wanted to buy.

I don’t think I’d ever before spent any time analysing what a supermarket should smell like, but when I first visited the Finnish shop I knew that I had found what I thought of as a ‘proper shop’ simply from the aroma as soon as I stepped through the door.  That mixture of soap powder, cabbage leaves, milk and coffee, somehow promised that I would find things I could buy.

There is a particular scent that, whenever I catch a whiff of it walking past someone in the street, takes me straight back to the office in Nikitsky Pereulok where one of my Russian colleagues wore it, in some quantity.

The problem is, I never liked it, and at first thought it was a Russian product, until I caught a whiff of it in a Paris street.  Then I found out a little more about my young colleague and realised that the most likely reason I wasn’t familiar with it, was that it is very expensive.

Occasionally I think about trying to find out what it is, but how would I describe it?  I think it’s expensive, and it smells a bit sour?  Which one of those over made up assistants in the perfume department is going to help me out with that, do you think?

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