Every century is a 10

Have you read Doomsday Book by Connie Willis? It is based around time travel, with the protagonist preparing for the dangers of a past century, but ending up in a different century that faces different dangers. In the meantime, the present-day world is threatened by yet another danger. The conclusion is reached that if scored for danger on a scale of 1 to 10, every century is a 10. Every century faces its own dangers, its own fears, the threat of its own form of destruction.

A few decades ago, I would lie awake at night terrified, whenever I heard a dog barking, that the country was about to be overcome with rabid dogs.

There was also the looming threat of nuclear war.

Recently I scoffed at my younger self, who was so worried about these possible disasters.

And now we have the current state of the world, particularly the politics in the US and now the imminent departure of my country from the EU. And again I find myself struggling with the fears and anxiety.

So I cling to the thought that every century is a 10. Every generation has its fears. We can either learn to live with them, or drown. And if there’s nothing we can do to influence things, what’s the point in worry?

All I can do is vow to do what I can to create the sort of world I want to live in, free from fear and conflict. And remember that the world will go on, whether or not we’re here. Whether or not I’m here.

And in a few years’ time all these fears will seem pointless.

Of course, they’ll probably be replaced by a new set of fears, but hey, variety is the spice of life, right?



I’ve always loved the idea of a treehouse. I almost cried when the family in the Oxford Reading Tree moved into a house with a beautiful treehouse that then blew down in the first storm (and that was when my children were learning to read!).

One particular memory comes to mind when I think of treehouses.

I’ve mentioned before that when I was 7 I spent the last few weeks of infant school staying with my dad’s family as his mother was at the end of her life and he was there to help nurse her. While I was there, I attended the local infant school for the last few weeks of term. I remember a few incidents staying there (I’ve written about my public lambasting for lack of effort in class, for example). Another incident involved a school trip.

I don’t remember exactly where this place was or why we were going there, apart from it being a big house with a big garden, but I do remember being sick in the outside toilet at my aunt’s house in the morning before I went to school. Mum decided it was just nerves and sent me to school anyway.

I threw up on the way to school. I threw up on the coach on the way to this house we were visiting. I threw up partway round the tour of the house. After the first time, the teachers were ready with plastic bags for me.

But by lunchtime I felt better. We had our picnic lunch in the grounds of this place, where there was an area created as a massive adventure playground, probably the first time I’d ever been at a place more adventurous than the local playpark. I think there was a maze. There was certainly a huge tree with a huge treehouse. You had to climb up a rope ladder and then onto the platform.

This proved very popular with all of us, and a queue formed, with staff supervising to make sure we climbed safely. Unfortunately, despite this precaution, the girl in front of me couldn’t get onto the platform and panicked, having to be rescued, and at that point the staff decided it was unsafe and banned the rest of us from playing on it.

So of course I missed my turn.

I’ve held a grudge against that girl ever since. I remember nothing else about her apart from the fact that her inability to climb meant I lost my chance to even try, and was stuck on the boring equipment instead.

And if I ever get the chance, I’m having my own treehouse. Which I’ll have to climb to access. And others will enter only with permission.


Thanks, teacher?

notebookA few months after I turned 7, it must have been around May-time, my grandma (my father’s mother) grew ill. She was staying at my uncle’s house, and my parents packed our things and took me to stay with them so they could help nurse her through her final days. My siblings being so much older, I guess they stayed on their own. I don’t remember details like that.

I only remember being taken out of school and being put in a school up there, with no one I knew, while at home my friends played and studied and learned about the junior school we would all be transferring to in the September.

We spent seven weeks up there, the last seven weeks of the summer term. I spent those weeks living in a house where everyone tiptoed around, respectful of the old lady dying in the front room, and spending my days in a school where everyone was new to me.

I have many memories of those seven weeks – probably more than of my entire school time elsewhere – but one particular memory stands out. One of our lessons included writing our “news”, which meant drawing a line across the middle of the page, drawing a picture in the top half and writing about it in the bottom half. And one day, I got carried away chatting to the child next to me.

In assembly that day – because assembly there was held mid-morning, not at the start of the day as I was used to – the teacher held up a book with no writing, no picture, but a single line ruled across it, and gave a lecture about laziness, and how this child had managed to produce nothing all morning except to draw a line. Yes, she was talking about me.

So thanks, teacher. You had responsibility for a child who was completely out of her familiar surroundings, struggled to get on with new people at the best of times, was living in a house of grief, missing her friends, and who still somehow managed to make enough of a friend to chat to her. Your support for that child was to completely humiliate and shame her in front of the whole school for being sociable.

Actually, looking back I’m quite proud of the way I coped with those seven weeks. But maybe that experience has a lot to do with the way that I struggle to put down roots and get on with new people. And I still remember returning home at the start of the summer holidays, where I didn’t see my friends over the break, and then walking into the playground of the junior school on my first day there having missed out on all the chances to learn where to go and what to do, or what teacher I would have, or any of the other experiences my friends had had to help them settle.

And the memory of the humiliation from that teacher got in the way of me settling back in and talking to my friends in class.


The Beauty of “What happens next?”

Back in junior school, I remember having a student teacher for a few weeks. She would occasionally take lessons for our class, and one in particular sticks out.

She read part of the opening of The Silver Chair, by C.S. Lewis, one of the Narnia books. It starts with two children running away, and leads up to them standing at the top of a cliff. There’s a struggle on the cliff edge, and one of the children loses his balance and goes “hurtling to the depths.”

The exercise was to write what happens next in the story.

Of course, being ten-year-old kids, we came up with a wild variety of answers, and none of them were particularly close to the original story. But that didn’t matter. What mattered was that we’d taken the story and continued it in our own way.

I’ve never forgotten that exercise, or the sense of excitement that it brought. That suited the way my mind works – I love to take a part-story and spin my own version of the rest of it. Ask me to think of an original story, and I stare blankly. Tell me an opening and ask me to continue it, and I’ll keep going all day on different versions.

I guess that’s why, although I’m complaining loudly that the TV series Lucifer has taken a two-week break, I’m also excited: that extra time gives my imagination time to try to figure out what will happen next.

We had a previous break of the same size, and in that break I took the spoilers and synopsis of the next episode and wrote my own version of it. I’m seriously considering doing the same thing again. On top of the creativity and the fun, it’s really fascinating to take a situation and try to carry it forward, and then see how the professional writers do it. I learned a lot from trying to do the same job they do, and from comparing how I would imagine it on screen to how I need to write it on story version.

One of the beauties of Lucifer is that it is very much character-driven, with the case story filling a character need, which means it suits the way I write. Compare Lucifer with something like Castle, where there is an on-going character arc, but the case is the main arc in each episode. In Lucifer, the case always ties into the current state of the characters.

So I’ll get through the next 20 or so days the best I can, and hope that my imagination and creativity will make the time pass faster. And I’ll continue to play the game of “what happens next?” in my writing.

And as long as I’m actively writing, it makes it so much easier to take on board everything I’m studying about the craft of writing, and to work on my skill.



Never enough

(This is my attempt to understand and rationalise my reaction to Christmas, so please forgive if it ends up ranting or whinging. Just consider it my pressure valve.)

It would start around September. Despite any alleged shortage of money, my mother would start buying anything she saw that “xxx might like”. If xxx was easy to buy for, lucky them – there was very little attempt to plan this out, to buy evenly, to ensure that people had the same number of parcels or the same value of presents – it was just pure chance if it worked out well.

This went on until the shops were shut and there was no more time to buy, all against a background of constant worrying that she hadn’t got enough.

And then we came to the day itself. With older siblings long gone from the house, that left only me to provide the appropriate responses to the pile of presents, and to keep my mother happy. My father, meanwhile, would stack his up and just watch others. When we forced him to open one of his, there would be an unemotional, “oh, lovely,” as he looked at it and set it aside.

After that, as they often both worked nights, they would disappear to their separate bedrooms, leaving me on my own, bored and lonely. That’s if they didn’t start squabbling.

Then the next day, my birthday, would become a better version of Christmas day, when my sister and her family would visit and provide all the feedback that I’d failed to provide the day before.

And so is it any surprise that the mere mention of the C word makes me stiffen uncomfortably? That I can’t bear the thought of trying to sort out presents? That I basically leave my wonderful hubby to do most of the work while I disappear under a rock for as long as I can?

Habits set in childhood can be very hard to break. Ingrained emotional reactions can be hard to overcome. And after all, it’s only once a year, right?



A visit to the movies

Yesterday eldest son took me to the local cinema. I haven’t been there for years, as we’ve been going to the big multi-screen cinema, so it was really nice to stay local for a change. The movie we went to see was the new My Little Pony movie. It might seem an odd choice, but I’ve mentioned before that My Little Pony is actually really big among a particular set of young adult males, known as bronies, and my son was eager to see the new movie.

I went along partly to support him, because I could imagine it’s not easy for him to walk into a cinema for a movie that’s aimed at young girls, but I also went along to enjoy the movie – I like MLP as well, and find that it usually does carry a message far beyond the pretty kiddie story you might expect.

So yes, I really enjoyed the movie, and I enjoyed the experience of the local cinema, which was rather empty – not quite a personal showing, but we were one of about four groups in there (and the only one without small girls).

But there was something else as well. As we watched the adverts, I found myself relaxing and thinking nostalgically of the time when I, too, played with playdoh or other children’s creative toys. I found myself really missing those days when I could just focus on doing something fun without feeling guilty about the time spent on it, or feeling pressured into making something “good”. When and why did we lose that simple pleasure of being able to just sit and play?

The movie itself was good, with the characters carried into peril and learning messages on the way, and I appreciated the inside knowledge my son provided, looking out for the subtle differences in the software used for the animation as well as enjoying the music and story. MLP carries such important messages about friendship and learning to trust each other, and being loyal and kind, that I found myself wondering whether the younger members of the audience were actually mature enough to really understand them.

Or is that when they are most able to take them in? When life is still new to them, when they don’t have experiences that try to tell them otherwise?

Whatever the truth is, I think life might be better if we could all sometimes just sit, relax, do something for fun and watch a kiddie movie.

Not entirely sure about the short cartoon shown before though! Although, if you start looking closely, that carried some pretty big messages too: sometimes a bit of fun can go too far and get dangerous. Sometimes we have to face danger to rescue those we love. Sometimes the danger can prove to be a lot less than we feared. And don’t forget to enjoy yourself and have fun. So maybe it was well placed after all. Let’s just say it beat a cat trying to catch a mouse who runs rings round him…


Rest in Peace, Robert Hardy

Robert Hardy was in Harry Potter. That’s what a lot of young people will remember him for.

But I will forever remember Sunday evenings, and Siegfried Farnon.

Sunday evenings were unmissable. I used to spend a lot of time with elderly next door neighbours (I’ve spoken about them before), and when I first knew them, they had only an old radiogram to listen to the Archers on. Then they got themselves a black and white TV, and All Creatures Great and Small became a regular part of the Sunday ritual – round there around 3pm, playing board games, dinner with them, and then watching TV before I headed back home.

The programme had an extra impact on me because it was about that time that I came across the books as well. Our teacher at school, in what would now be year 6, the year before moving to secondary school, would read us bits of All Creatures Great and Small, and I remember getting very upset because a boy in class had his own copy of If Only They Could Talk, the first book in the series, and I desperately wanted to read it. These were among the first books written for adults that I’d come across in my own reading.

I picked them up years later and looked at them, considering whether to share them with my children, and was astounded to see just how grown-up they were – no thought of reading something like that to 10 and 11 year olds these days!

So Siegfried Farnon, and Tristran Farnon and James Herriot, were all part of my childhood. Rest in Peace, Robert Hardy, and thank you for bringing Siegfried to us.


Always the bridesmaid, never the bride

I was cute when I was younger. I was a bridesmaid a total of four times, although for the first – for an aunt – I was too young to remember.

I did eventually have my own turn as bride, but nevertheless the phrase has haunted me: always the bridesmaid, never the bride.

It feels as though the phrase describes my life: all those around me are signing up for races, and completing marathons. I signed up for a marathon, but never got there; injury stopped me before training had even started properly. And yet it felt as it was meant to be that way. That while others achieve, it’s my role only to cheer on the sidelines.

It’s the same with writing. While I work on my own projects, it still feels as though my role in the writing business is to help others with their projects. I edit, proofread, format, even help with structure, while my own projects never reach that final stage.

I’m still haunted by a book idea I had thirty years ago. It was a valid non-fiction book idea. I started out researching it. And then someone else published it. The book I was planning to write. How silly I was to think I could do it myself! (why is it so silly, though?)

In life generally, I seem to fall into that support role. Even while playing World of Warcraft, I heal, enabling others to do their jobs better without worrying about their health. I love the healing role, but it means that once again I’m following others around and helping them, while they charge in and get things done.

Sometimes it feels like my role in life is as a support act for others. When do I get to take a main role? Or am I doomed to always stand on the sidelines cheering the rest?

I guess it’s not so bad. We can’t all be huge successes, at the top of our field. And I’ve a sneaking suspicion that a lot of my problem is self-sabotage.

But still, I’d really like my turn at some point.


I didn’t run the marathon

At some point last year, a load of friends from a Facebook running group were signing up for the Brighton Marathon. I can do this, I thought. I can be part of the crowd. I don’t want to feel left out. I want to run a marathon.

And so I paid a silly amount of money and put my name down for the race.

Then we got to September/October, when I ran a couple of 10k races within a couple of weeks, and my left knee started hurting. It hasn’t really stopped since. I’ve been attending physiotherapy, I’ve just started with an osteopath, I’ve run parkrun twice and ended up hobbling again each time, and with the knowledge that I could barely walk 5k, let alone run 42k, I finally deferred from the marathon.

So yesterday when a load of those friends were running, or attending to cheer the others on Рsome  nursing their own injuries that forced them to withdraw РI was doing other things around my home town.

I had a dream last night. I was in full military uniform (but that’s another story) on an assault course. We came to one of those obstacles that’s huge and needs a team of people to get you up. I looked at the others who were there with me, and I said I would boost them up. That’s great, they said, and then we’ll help you up.

And then they managed to get up, with my help and with the help of those already at the top, and they went on, leaving me at the bottom. And I just shrugged, because that’s the way it always is.

This disturbs me, more than I’d like to admit. Why does it always feel that my role is to support and help others, not to be helped myself? Is it just the result of being the much younger sibling, always left behind or dragged along reluctantly, trying to keep up? Or is it more than that?

Am I holding myself back, when I let it happen and don’t scream and kick up a fuss?

Am I truly destined to be the one left behind?

Or do I need to learn to say it’s my turn, I need help now. I’ll help you, but I expect help in return as well?

I’ve now got the link to sign up to Brighton again, with a massive 20% off the price as I deferred from this year. I won’t be signing up. I think I bit off more than I can chew, and there’s no point in spending a fortune when I’m not even back running again yet, and don’t know when or even if I’ll be fit enough.

But I think I need to figure out what other obstacles I’m trying to get over, who can help me and whether I need to shout and scream over it.


Diving in

I remember little of my time at school, but one incident stands out. We had an outdoor swimming pool at my school. It was always freezing cold, and I would always spend the first five minutes or so lowering myself gently into the water at the shallow end, trying to get used to the temperature. As a result, when the teacher spread the class out, with the confident swimmers at the deep end and the non-swimmers or poor swimmers at the shallow end, I was always in the poorer swimmer group, and I’m sure the teacher thought I couldn’t swim properly.

This particular lesson I remember, I think I’d been swimming at the public swimming pool in the days before – not a common occurrence, but I had enjoyed my time in the warmer pool and practised all the shallow, racing dives I’d seen the confident swimmers¬†learning in class.

Then, on the Friday morning, I realised that my piano lesson coincided with this last swimming lesson of the term. Piano lessons were taken individually, missing lessons, and there were strict rules on which lessons you were supposed to miss. PE lessons were considered fair game.

My twelve-year-old brain couldn’t cope with this. I had so been looking forward to the swimming lesson, with all this extra practice I’d put in! I ended up in a toilet cubicle crying my eyes out.

I have no idea how this happened, but there was a knock on the door from someone I barely knew, saying that she would swap her piano lesson with me so I could still go to swimming lesson. I didn’t even know anyone knew I was there, or why I was upset, but there was this solution presented to me.

So I gratefully accepted, and at swimming lesson time I got straight into the deep end, without any of my usual prevarication, and showed off all lesson, with my racing dives and lengths. My teacher was suitably surprised and impressed and I’ve been forever grateful to whoever not only noticed that I was upset, but managed to come up with a solution.