Tripping up

Things go wrong in life sometimes just to remind you to find the humour

Today I walked in the woods. This is a common occurrence, the setting of my work-in-progress is wooded so I get to call it a research trip. Though I haven’t actually worked on it or made progress for quite sometime, getting out in nature was calling to me. So in the interest of research, -or just indulging my passion for the best season, Autumn– I have been out and about amongst the trees again.

I took a shot of a fairy door, the oaks twisted me around so I got a little lost and there were acorn galore to crunch on..so far, so perfect. And then, the puddles starting to seep through my trainers, I decided to make my way back another way. Winding through soggy earth to spot footholds I made it back to the main path. But my way was not clear, the path was flooded but I couldn’t face going back on myself. Instead I performed a spectacular leap across the path in a bid to jump over a pond-like puddle. Rather than fly effortlessly to the other side, I landed in it, cracking my knee and getting water all the way up my leg. All the way. I might as well walked back along the river.

The worst thing about falling over as an adult is you are not supposed to cry but laugh it off. Alone,there was noone to pull me up, noone to hear me gamely laugh along. Actually, that may be the best thing today. Looking around, I had got away with it. Not a soul to see my fall or more importantly how pathetic my leap had been. I managed an awkward limp along until I established my legs were working alright. I got back mainly unseen in very muddy clothes, stripped off at the door and found a dramatic scraped knee but little else to show.

But you have got to laugh. And I did at myself for being a clutz. And also because I think scraped knees are supposed to be something that happens to children and if I hadn’t been taking pleasure in nature for the sake of it, this wouldn’t have happened to me. I remember someone who read a scene about my main character said to me “I think she’s quite witty.” A compliment, for sure. But also because seeing adults doing childlike things there has to be some comedy there.

When I do something ridiculous (which happens more than it should) I think I can “use this” in my work. Not necessarily to write comedy, but because if life isn’t tripping your characters up then what are they even doing in the woods in the first place?

REVIEW: Among the Trees

Hayward Gallery, London

What a strange and perfect first foray into London after six months, an exhibition about trees at the Southbank Centre. In truth I chose an event at the Southbank because it is just one train to get there for me, reducing the time out in a mask. Like testing the water, a place I know so not too far out of my comfort zone. I have written before about my anxieties in the City which always go hand-in-hand with the child-like buzz of excitement I get to be there.

So in town again, amongst not too many people, I am also at an exhibition designed for me, it seems, called Among the Trees. It is a collection of artwork from the last fifty years that captures trees and importantly human’s interactions with them. A time span chosen to reflect the modern environmentalist movement. With this in mind, the centre piece upstairs at the exhibition is a tree of life-size proportions with a leaves of colourful plastic bags. A little on the nose, it is a bright moment in quite a dark exhibition.

My favourite piece another large installation is Forêt Palatine – a cardboard forest. What is great that climbing the stairs I got a view of the whole exhibition space, everyone mercifully spread out, and a glimpse of the forest. The detail on it, made you want to touch but you can’t. A tale for now, indeed.

I loved the Rachel Sussman photographs too, she has travelled the world for a decade finding the oldest things on the planet, like the underground forest in South Africa that has been in the ground for 13,000 years. Nothing like living through a pandemic for an existential crisis. But isn’t this the perfect place to be. The two video installations of trees begging us to just stop and stare. They anchor us and challenge our ideas about longevity.

The final gallery speaks more to human interaction with trees, photos of New York trees with metal fencing growing through them and a British painter, George Shaw displaying rubbish around an old tree. These artworks, rather than venerate the old trees, remark on how we encroach on natural life. These and Sussmann’s work in stark contrast where an ancient tree is in a open landscape, a pillar of ancient in a sparse world.

I think this was a great way back to the museum. The exhibition has a simple message but one that speaks to us if we just take a moment to reflect on the way we have been forced to slow down. Where was the one place we spent our daily exercise during lockdown, why local woods of course. And I’m always happiest among the trees.

Has anyone else braved museums in these new-normal times?

Writing to music

Is there a best way to concentrate, I find I need a soundtrack but choosing one is hard.

It seems like a simple thing, to set up a soundtrack and be whisked away somewhere else. Particularly while I am working with distractions in the background. But when I am more mindful, it is amazing to see how much of a distraction my music can be. Within beats of a song, my mood shifts and I have been transported elsewhere. Listening to music I find my mind has wandered to so many places

Paying attention more, I notice that the boy band song sweeps over me with an irritation. It’s only as I explore the emotion, I realise that I have been harbouring resentment from 20 years ago. I was invited, then uninvited to a concert by some mean girls at school. This has left me finding this particularly saccharine pop extra unpalatable. I had forgotten this slight and I suspect that the truth was there was no room in the car. Or I had no-one to take me or we didn’t have money in time for the tickets. All of which are perfectly reasonable reasons that invite was rescinded, but still a bittersweet taste. I didn’t like them then, still don’t, their pop a little too dull for even my abysmal tastes, but a hurt unrested.

I will be trying to complete the housework with a playlist and wonder why I suddenly feel despondent, only to realise the song I am listening to is morose. There was a particular time of day when I was working at the shop where I would slow in my tidying jobs, down-hearted at the continuous tasks of straightening, round and round the store. It took me nearly a year to recognise that my blood sugar was dipping and my mood was brought down by the repetitive strains of “Are we out of the woods yet, are we out of the woods?” Something about Taylor Swift’s pleas tugged at my emotions that I would be effected at roughly the same time each day.

(Not me!)

So what instead can I do to listen to music and write. Well, one strategy is to listen to music in another language, Jennifer Lopez’ Spanish albums or I listen to “Coffee and Chill” playlists on Spotofy. Weirdly I still find the hypnotic pull of a Morcheeba album. This was the album that I studied with through A’Levels with and I wonder if my brain has remember what it was like to work really hard with that on in the background.

Do you find music too much of a distraction to work? I wish my busy brain would work in silence but for me I find that is the most distracting thing of all. Will someone please fix that tap…

Keeping up to date

It’s hard not to get bogged down in recent history in contemporary fiction

How do you write in the contemporary space? I have been struggling of late. The huge seismic shift of all-consuming Brexit, the Olympics which unexpectedly filled Brits with optimism, the knock on effects of years of recession and austerity. The impossible thought of presidencies and premierships that could never happen…but did. These things swirl round in the back of the world I write in. And then there is now. Pandemic times

In my mind there are now clear before times. I thought I felt this about the Brexit vote but now I know that was nothing. There is a before. Maybe there will be an after. Landscapes are shifting and changing around us. And I feel there is also great movements in politics which are shaping our world. Too much to write about.

So if you write in the contemporary space you have to take great leaps of faith. Get specific enough about setting and know it well enough that it rings true to that backdrop of the world’s rapidly changing climate. (And climate change too, how can that not be in our narratives).

In 2018 I was lucky enough to listen to Salman Rushdie’s talk “From Midnight’s Children to Trump’s America” at the Southbank Centre. This article reminds me of what he said about writing in the near present,

‘The thing that is weirdest about this book is that, when I started writing it, no one was thinking about Trump. […] When the phenomenon on Trump started, I realised that I had a character who was a corrupt billionaire, […] who liked to have his name very big on buildings and had a much younger Eastern European trophy wife. I thought – what? It’s as if the thing had jumped off the pages from my book into the real world.’

Salman Rushdie

I have been reading Rushdie’s The Golden House this week and thinking about the rifts in America that it addresses, and over here, and everywhere of course. It is a hard novel for me to read, a character with Aspergers is explored but through quite a negative lens which jars with my outlook on neurodiversity. But then, as we become entwined in the Golden family, no-one is particularly likeable. An unreliable narrator on the fringes of their life, it is hardly surprising that Rene, the auteur, does not paint any of the family in a positive light. So far, it is a fascinating depiction of money and power. And yes prescient too.

N-W by Zadie Smith

Alongside this, I have been reading N-W by Zadie Smith , circling around the lives of various people in Northwest London. It is a challenging read, much like I wrote about Girl, Woman, Other it seems almost like a series of vignettes, where you snap away from characters you have invested in to see others around them and many voices and styles of narrative are used. The intention seems to be to offer a “polyphonic” world that reflects the nature of urban life.

The novels tell the series of stories of very different people. (As I found White Teeth when I was studying Rushdie I have always paired these novelists in my head! ) I feel these two urban sagas, though very different, have been playing through my mind that there is a choice to lean in to the politics of the place. The writing then that seems to “jump off the page” into real life, in fact gives us a place to explore and appreciate the fault lines in the worlds they write about.

It’s been fascinating to spend a few months within the space of urban and contemporary fiction although on my reading list now are some fantasy and historical works to balance it all out. After all my current work-in-progress is about escaping to the countryside.

While I ponder which era I best like to read in, I wonder most how this year will end up being written?

It starts with an image…

There are bored people, hanging out in parks and it reminded me so strongly of childhood I started to write…

It is strange to reflect on where inspiration can strike, I wrote last year that prompts are everywhere. But the people doing nothing, freed from lockdown, perhaps still not able to work, stood out to me as I sat and watched. It’s noticeable that more people are in the parks. In this area they have become the saviour of our lockdown lives. Many people with little or no garden rely on this space to see some green. Whether because there are fewer places to go, even now, or because we have remembered the great resource of green space, there always seems to be people just hanging around.

Well, I was hanging around on purpose this week as I was completing the Bored and Brilliant Project. I have been taking the challenges suggested in Manoush Zomorodi in her book in order to unleash my creativity. This has included less time online and taking fewer photos. This week I had to take a holiday from my phone so I deleted the addictive game that had been my go-to distraction. It was a wrench, I certainly notice that the phone is where I go to escape a bit from overcrowded living and work stress.

I had no choice then to take myself out to try some time doing nothing, noticing more around me. First I tried sitting by the river, a treat because I have not been so far afield until this week. I counted forty swans parading under the Thames bridge. But I also had to combat the fear and anxiety of being outside and on a pedestrian thoroughfare which still seems riskier right now that I am comfortable with.

From Seligr on Flickr, not taken by me

Plagued with the anxiety and trying to keep my tears to myself, I decided I needed a quieter spot to try and people-watch. So off to small, local park, where people of all ages lounged in small groups or exercised. Sat on a bench watching others, I had a brainwave and broke the rules. My phone is often where I put snippets of words that come to me and a nostalgia for my home town struck me.

I can still see them sat on the green electricity box, legs swinging, swigging from a bottle.

I don’t know that all the little sentences and phrases and collect have to go anywhere, but it was interesting to see that the bored brain did come up with the germ of an idea.

As far as the challenge goes, I would recommend it as a way of considering the impact of our fast-paced, online lives. The caveat I would make is that this book may not be for you if your anxiety often overwhelms you. I think there is a place for the way that we distract ourselves, particularly if you find your mind doesn’t wander to brilliance but spends time in rumination.

You can read more about my project here, have you tried being bored and brilliant?