Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Pinning time down

Every week at Welsh class we spend a few minutes talking about what we have been doing in the previous week. It's amazing how often I struggle to remember and yet my life is full and rewarding and happy.  Maybe it is the famous line about "happiness writes white", attributed to the French novelist Henry de Montherland, suggesting that it is easier to write about pain, suffering, conflict and struggle.  A contented life contains thousands of happy repetitions.  "These weeks keep coming round," my father in law would say happily in his nineties when he lived out his last years with us.  He was one of the happiest men I know.  Indeed he had developed a barrier against unhappiness so strong that it sometimes seemed he lived in an impermeable rainbow hued bubble.  Sometimes it drove me nuts but I would freely admit that enjoying your weekly round is a good recipe for a happy life.

So here are the highlights of the last couple of weeks, pinned down briefly on the page so you can see where time goes.

I made chutney.  I have experimented with all sorts of recipes and this is my best, loosely based on Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall's "Glutney" recipe.  It works because it is endlessly flexible and adaptable to whatever you have to hand.

You need two kilos of the fruit or vegetables you are going to chutney, ideally two different kinds.  I used courgettes and tomatoes for this chutney but you can use apples, plums, marrows, squash, whatever you have most of.  If you live in the country you not only have the gluts thrown up by your own garden to contend with but the kindness of neighbours and friends either directly passing their surplus produce around the village or surreptitiously leaving bags full of produce on your doorstep.

You also need 500g of onions, peeled and chopped.  Plums should be stoned and chopped, apples peeled and chopped.  Courgettes and tomatoes can just be chopped.  It takes ages to do it by hand but it is pleasantly meditative if you are in the right mood with something interesting to listen to on the radio.  It takes no time to do it in a food processor but I hate the noise.  Chop everything and put it in a big preserving pan.

Add 500grams of soft brown sugar, 500grams of sultanas and 750mils of cider vinegar made up to a litre with cold water.  Add about a teaspoon of chilli flakes and a teaspoon of salt.

The most important element of a chutney in terms of its final flavour is the spice bag.  I tie mine into a piece of muslin but any fine material will do.  Even the toe of a clean pair of tights works fine!  Into this put a chopped piece of root ginger, about three centimetres long, ten or so cloves, ten or so black peppercorns, a spoonful of coriander seeds, a spoonful of mustard seeds and a couple of bay leaves.

Bring it slowly to the boil, stirring to melt all the sugar and then let it simmer until the chutney is so thick that a wooden spoon dragged across the bottom of the pan leaves a distinct trail.  This takes ages.  I have seen all sorts of chutney recipes, some suggesting that the mixture will be ready in forty minutes or so.  I have never made good chutney in less than four hours so don't start it unless you have plenty of time!  If you do have time it is a lovely activity for a rainy day.  The kitchen smells warm and vinegary and there is lots of time to potter about doing other things as the chutney slowly cooks down. 

When it is thick and ready, fish out the spice bag and put the chutney into heated jars.  I sterilise mine by leaving them in a low oven for ten minutes or so.  This makes about ten jars.

What else have we done?

We went to Prague where we drank fabulous Czech beer

and visited one of the most extraordinary places I have ever seen: the ossuary at Sedlec, about an hour's journey from Prague.  This is a church within the monastery at Sedlec which contains the bones of forty thousand people, carefully arranged by a nineteenth century monk.

It sounds macabre and I see from my pictures that it looks macabre.  It is indeed strange, unsettling, disturbing and yet somehow peaceful and even beautiful.  There are simply so many bones that eventually your mind begins to see shapes rather than bodies.  There is also a profound sense that the place has been made with reverence and respect and, like many places which have been places of prayer for generations, there is an atmosphere of calm and peace.  I still can't pin down exactly how it made me feel and what it made it made me think but it was truly an extraordinary experience.

We returned to Prague and had another beer.  It seemed like the best thing to do.  Life is short.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Valedemoses Yoga retreat

My first ever yoga retreat started in the week I turned sixty two.  I found yoga about five years ago, roughly at the same time that I gave up my frantic London job.  Probably not coincidence.  I had tried it a couple of times in my thirties and forties but it was always too slow or too hard.  I would lie there, surrounded by people apparently relaxing, my head whizzing with work and home and my juggling, plate-spinning life.  So no surprise perhaps that at the same time that I decided to step back from that life, to downsize and to spend my time and energy on different things I found a great yoga teacher and a great anchoring class.  Yoga was part of what kept me steady in the heaving seas of the last couple of years as my parents died.  I can't imagine life without it now but I am very, very new to it and very stiff.

I think the idea of a retreat emerged in January when I was musing about reflection and adventure being the themes for the year.  A yoga retreat abroad with a good friend sounded as though it could be one of those rare things which would hit reflection and adventure at the same time.  Found one at Valedemoses, booked it for September, forgot about it, sort of.

And then a couple of weeks ago it was nearly upon me.  I needed to pack light for six days in the Portuguese mountains followed by three days in Lisbon.  I like travelling light so packing was easily done into a small rucksack that would go as hand luggage and that I could manage myself in airports and on buses and trains.  It was good to have that little rucksack.  We have accumulated so much stuff.   Our house and outbuildings are drowningly full of it.   I liked the sense that all that I needed for the next ten days was on my back.

Arriving in ValedeMoses is like a more extreme version of coming home here.  There is that same sense of getting further away and higher but in Portugal everything about the experience is more extreme.  The hills are mountains, covered in pine, eucalyptus and cork trees.  Everything is higher, steeper, wilder and more remote.  Valedemoses sits on the side of a mountain, the valley falling away to what is a river in winter but now, at the end of a long dry summer, mainly just stones and dried up river bed.  My room is simple but comfortable and my window looks out over that valley.

There are around twenty of us on the retreat, ranging in age from mid twenties up to me, I think,  the oldest,  but split fairly evenly into the under and over fifties.  That's a bit of a relief.  If we had been surrounded by an entire group of flexible twenty five year olds it would have been a challenge, delightful though the girls in their twenties are.  The food for the week is vegetarian and it feels odd on that first evening that there is no wine to lubricate conversation with all these new people, but the food is good and the people friendly.  Evenings finish early here and by nine o' clock I am in my bed.  I read for a while.  It takes me a long time to go to sleep but when I do I sleep deeply until morning.

Day 1:  it is hot, over forty degrees, unseasonably and unusually hot.  I don't feel well.  My brain is fuzzy with heat.  My body feels weighed down by it.  Morning yoga starts at 8.30 and to begin with it is fine but as the day starts to warm up it is too much.  One or two other people leave the yoga room, the Shala, and I do too.  It's too hard, it's too fast, I feel rubbish and hopelessly adrift.  I go to my room and lie on the bed.  Maybe I shouldn't have come.  Never mind.  It is a beautiful place and if I lie on the bed and read for a week that won't be the end of the world.  Breakfast is delicious but I am too hot to eat much and my body feels all out of kilter with the timing of meals: breakfast at 10.30, lunch at 2.00, dinner at 7.00.  It takes a while to settle, I tell myself.  It's supposed to be different.  And then the day turns on a sixpence.  I have an hour and a half of treatments from the lovely Pete: half an hour's talk, half an hour of Tuina massage and half an hour of acupuncture.  I know I have been carrying the world on my shoulders over the last few years and they are often stiff and sore.  When he begins to massage my shoulders I feel as if he might break his thumbs on the block of wood which has taken over the base of my neck.  But by the time he has finished my head feels loose and light and I feel six inches taller.  It is amazing and I immediately book another session on Friday.  As I go to bed I think that if that massage is the one thing to come out of the retreat it will have been worth it.

Day 2: I wake knowing that my guts are not happy.  This is the Irritable Bowel Syndrome which plagues the first couple of hours of my day.  It is pretty well under control at home where I am in control of what I eat.  I am trying here to avoid the things I know set it off but that is not easy when someone else is cooking.  I am determined that I will do what I want to do and the IBS will just have to come along too.  Sure enough by nine thirty I am feeling ok again but the yoga class has been going for ages and it is another very hot day.  I decide I will do some simple stretches in my room, read and maybe go for a stroll in the shade.  The day passes away gently and hotly and I go to the late afternoon yoga session.  Today I am more comfortable with just setting my own pace, dipping in and out of what is being done, accepting that I will choose when to stop and start.  Evening, the temperature falls, the breeze comes up and food and conversation are plentiful.  Again it takes me a long time to fall asleep but the dark and the quiet are comfortable and familiar.  This is what the nights are like at home.

Day 3 onward:  And then the days fall into a rhythm.  The temperature comes down to the high twenties but with a gentle mountain breeze.  Yoga at 8.30, breakfast at 10.30, a quiet time in my room or a chat with my friend or some new friends, lunch at 2.00, maybe a walk or a swim, more yoga at 5.00, dinner at 7.00 and bed by 9.00.  One day I walk with a guide who lives in the village and a couple from Canada.  It is a beautiful place and sad to see how many houses have been deserted as people head to the cities for work.  The mountains smell of pine and eucalyptus. 

Another day we have a talk from the Spanish chef, Raul, about his recipes and his food.  The food is marvellous.  At no time do I miss meat, although I think about my more commitedly carnivore husband and sons and imagine that they would, and after that one day my IBS settles down and becomes much as it as home.  I love the colour and vibrancy of the food.

I come home determined to explore more vegetarian food although I do not intend to give up either meat or fish, just to eat less of them.  The one thing I did miss was eggs!

On the last day I have another massage, Thai this time, alongside a further Tuina massage for my shoulders.  If I could do this every week I think I might be six foot two.  We go for a swim in a huge river and finish the week with a visit to a local village and food and wine.

On the last morning we are not leaving until noon so I spend some time in the Shala by myself.  To my astonishment I find that I have done my own practice for about forty five minutes.  At home I find it close to impossible to practise on my own and invariably run out of things to do after fifteen minutes or so. 

So how was it?  I loved it.  Like many things which are rewarding it was not all easy.  Did my yoga improve?  A little.  What was the best bit?  Well it is hard to say: the company, the food, the yoga, the sense of being taken out of your life and the astonishingly good massages were all part of the experience and take any one of them out and the week would not have been the same.  Would I go again?  Yes.  I ended the week feeling as if I had been ironed out.

And ten days after coming home, have I carried anything with me into my ordinary life?  It is hard to answer this honestly because ordinary life is so different.  I do not have four hours of yoga on tap or someone cooking me delicious vegetarian food.  Ordinary life has television and wi fi and glasses of wine in it.  It has the delightful demands of the people you love.   But I am trying to hold to that sense of peace and I am trying paradoxically both to do more and to take more time to myself.  It is easy for time to pass away in looking after other people and in frittering it on the internet and on reading and television.  There is nothing wrong with any of those things but my week made me feel that I should challenge myself more, particularly physically, and look after myself more both in mind and body.  I am trying to fit more yoga into my week.  I am trying to cook more vegetarian food and if that comes out at only one more meal a week that's ok.  Most of all I am trying to nourish myself. 

And I am thinking about balance.  How do you achieve balance in your life?  I would love to talk about it with you.

Saturday, 3 September 2016

The year of being sixty two: health, strength, energy and the ageing body

Here is the September extract from the longer pieces I am writing about the experience of getting older.  I am a bit self conscious about this one.  It feels a bit "showy offy" to talk about going to the gym somehow.  It is not about that.  It is about trying to engage more with what the body can do than with what it looks like.  Easier said than done.  I love to hear what you think so please tell me!

Let’s face it, the aging body is not a pretty thing:  wrinkled knees and elbows, the saggy skin which hangs on your arms, turtle necks, veined legs.  But it is not just what the body looks like, it is also what it can do.  For the last few years of his life my father in law lived with us.  He made it to ninety five and was always remarkably, even relentlessly cheerful.  As a young man and right through middle age and beyond he had been strong.  He missed that strength when it disappeared on him as old age took hold.  He would not have said so directly.  That would have been complaining and complaining by his lights was not allowed.  It was almost a joke “If it wasn’t for my elbow” he would say “ you could push my wristwatch right the way up to my shoulder.  All my muscles have gone.”  And he was right.  His forearms remained masculine and hairy but above the elbow his arm was thin and pale, veined with blue, a mottled pipe cleaner.  

My husband too has always been strong, tall and powerful with broad shoulders and strong forearms.  At sixty five he is still strong.  He can still lift things which are immovable rocks to me with apparent ease.  I worry sometimes about how he will manage the loss of that strength, when it comes.  Will he still feel like himself?

I have never been strong.  I am on the small side.  I used to be slight but now I am blurred around the middle.  I am perhaps ten pounds or so overweight and all that weight clings determinedly around my waist with a soft bulge of stomach just below, like a kangaroo pouch.  I have decided that I will join a gym and see if I can build some muscle, not Miss Universe, weight lifting muscle, just seeing if I can gain a little more strength.  The idea makes me feel both intrigued and uncomfortable.

I go and look at a small gym which is part of a local hotel.  What wins me over is that there is nobody there.  “It’s always very quiet in the day” says the woman who shows me round.  She is old too, at least as old as I am and considerably fatter.  I had thought I would be surrounded by beautiful young and fit bodies but at the moment the little gym is entirely empty.  It’s cheap too. 

I sign up for a six week trial before I lose my nerve.  What can I wear?  My yoga clothes will have to do.  I have no shoes so I buy a pair of trainers for £6 from Tescos.  I book an induction.  I wonder if I will feel and look very stupid.

I turn up for my induction in my yoga clothes and cheap trainers, holding my glasses and my phone.  The tiny gym is empty again but it is hard to avoid looking at yourself in the mirrors which line the walls.  I don’t look silly but I do look a bit wrong.  There are illustrations on the walls, line drawings of young strong men showing how to do different exercises with weights.  You never see posters like these which use  a five foot four, sixty one year old woman in a turquoise t shirt and black yoga pants to demonstrate technique.

The trainer is late, nearly half an hour late.  I have just decided with some relief that when the clock shows three thirty I can go when she breezes in, all apology.  She is tall and slim, dressed in lycra and bouncing with energy.  She sits me down and takes me through a questionnaire.  She takes my blood pressure and talks about the importance of starting slowly and doing a little frequently rather than a lot once a week.  Then she takes me through some exercises on the exercise bike and the treadmill and gets me doing press ups and squats against the wall using a large exercise ball.  This is a bit tricky because it feels like not enough.  I try to tell her that I would like something a bit more challenging.  I am not fit.  I know I am not.  But I do live up a hill and I do walk and go to yoga.  She looks at me as if I might explode if I do too much.  

"Just take it slowly for two or three weeks and then we will look at your programme again."

So I do.  For three weeks I come three or four times a week and  gradually sneak in some exercises with light weights, carefully following the posters of the strong young men.  I used to go to a gym for a few years when I was in my thirties so it doesn't feel entirely strange.  I like it when the gym is empty so I experiment to find out when it is quietest.  I don't much like the showers and the changing rooms, not that there is anything wrong with them but I like the privacy of my shower at home.  And slowly I discover that I like working with weights.  I like feeling stronger.  I like doing another set of bicep curls or lunges.  Is it transforming my body?  No, not really.  Maybe it is a tiny bit less soft. Now here I am at the end of my six week trial needing to decide whether to continue.  

Will I carry on?   Yes I think I will.  I haven't done it for long enough for the pattern of going to become embedded in my week so I think I will commit myself to do another two months and see how I feel at the end of that.  There is so much that I want to do which needs health and strength and energy.  It is hard to shed the obsession with what you look like, living in a society which is focussed relentlessly on image.  But if I focus on what my body can do I find the idea that I am a little stronger than I was six weeks ago really pleasing.

And the second time I see the trainer she treats me less like an unexploded bomb and more like someone who would like to be fitter and stronger.  Do I still look a bit out of place?  Yes I suppose I do.  I have decided not to care.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

The Manor at Hemingford Grey. You might know it as Green Knowe.

Some books shape your childhood.  They catch at the imagination and become a part of you.  Alan Garner's "The Moon of Gomrath" and "The Owl Service", C. S. Lewis's "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe", Susan Cooper's "The Dark is Rising", Arthur Ransome's "Swallows and Amazons", Katharine Hull and Pamela Whitlock's "The Far Distant Oxus" were all books that I read again and again, trying to leave just long enough between rereadings so that they regained just a little of their magical strangeness or their ability to surprise.  One of these books which made me was Lucy M. Boston's "The Children of Green Knowe".  Around ten years or so ago I read somewhere that Hemingford Grey Manor was the inspiration for Green Knowe and that it was possible to arrange to visit.  The idea hung around on the edge of my consciousness.  Hemingford Grey is near Huntingdon in the East of England.  We live way over in the west in Wales.  It seemed unlikely to happen unless we made a special visit but I always thought it might one day.  And last week the day came.

It was a quiet sunny day in the village of Hemingford Grey.  There were no signs to the Manor that we could see but I knew from the books that the house was by the river. We walked through the drowsy streets following signs for the river and the church, meeting only a cat sunning itself on a wall.  There: a sign.  An empty road with large modern houses, another sign and a long shaded drive and suddenly we came out into sunlight and there it was.  The garden exploded in colour around it.  A man was working in the borders but it was sunny and silent.  We had been told to come to the front door at half past two for our tour of the house so we had a few minutes to wander around.  Everywhere there were sights that jolted the memory: the statue of St Christopher who carried Tolly over the flood; the topiary crowns, the huge yew tree and the hidden garden.

We assemble by the front step, three couples, together with a man and his seven year old daughter who prove to be part of the wider family of Lucy Boston.  Diana is Lucy's daughter in law and it is she who takes us round the house.  In through the front door, over the threshold which Tolly had approached by boat when the house sat surrounded by flood water. 

Like Lucy, Diana is a storyteller, weaving the story of the house with the story of Lucy, her son Peter and with the story of the books which sprang from Lucy's deep connection with the house.  Diana has been sharing her house with people in this generous and informal way for twenty years.  How many people has she invited into her house?  How many times has she told the story of Lucy's musical evenings in the second world war when the oldest room in the house was packed with airmen from the local RAF base?  It all feels fresh and funny and new.  That is a true artistry.

Every spot in the music room was used for seating on those wartime evenings, two lucky people sitting right in the fireplace.

Everywhere you look there are things of beauty and interest.  The light streams in.

I love the idea that this nine hundred year old room was crowded with young servicemen listening to records before they launched themselves into the skies of World War 2.

But it is the room at the top of the house that makes you feel that you have fallen into the books.

Here is the rocking horse which Tolly heard riding away into the night.

In the toybox are Toby's sword, Linnet's doll and Alexander's flute.

And on the chest of drawers sits the little wooden mouse which Tolly took to bed with him and which slept under his pillow.

It is an extraordinary house and an extraordinary family have lived in it since Lucy Boston bought it in 1939.  You don't need to know the Green Knowe books to spend a fascinating hour or two here.  Ian hasn't yet read them but he too loved the house, the complexity of its story and the layers of history which surrounded you as you walked through.  One room is full of the stunning patchwork quilts which Lucy made by hand right into her nineties.  On the walls hang many beautiful pictures, some by the artist Elisabeth Vellacott who lodged with Lucy during the war years, some the illustrations for the Green Knowe books by Lucy's son, Peter.

Spending some time in Green Knowe is like listening to music, reading a poem or watching a play.  I felt as though I had looked into another world, the light was brighter, sound was little keener.  It was a privilege to share it for a short time.  Go if you can.

Saturday, 6 August 2016

The year of being sixty two

So here is the first slice of the longer piece I want to write, in fact this is what I wrote on my second day at The Hurst on the Arvon course in that sudden rush of realisation of what I wanted to say.  I don't intend to blog the whole thing, even assuming I can write it, but I thought I would try to put an extract on every month and this is August's.  I hope that the discipline of committing myself to do that will keep me writing and I also hope that you will tell me what you think.  I love feedback although I think that too much might make me too self conscious so with luck this will be a balance that works for me.  I hope it works for you too.

The year of being sixty two.

Ageing isn’t linear.  It happens in sudden leaps and swoops.  One day you look in the mirror and your chin has gone.   Your chin which has been with you all your life has suddenly disappeared and in its place is a soft fleshy decline from your head to your neck.  You never even realised that you liked your chin, it was just there at the bottom of your face, but now it has gone you miss it.  Hands are another one.  For years you have quite liked your hands with their narrow palms and long fingers.  Then one day you are drying them after washing the dishes and you see with a start that they have become the hands of an old lady.  The veins and the tendons stand up too sharply.  The skin is finely wrinkled and quite incapable of bouncing back.  They are your mother’s hands.
There is nothing you can do about any of this and in a way you don’t want to.  What would be the use of a long Canute-like battle against the incoming tide of ageing? Better to put your towel down on the beach and feel the sun seep into your bones or to paddle in the warm edge of the sea.  But it is odd nevertheless.  Your body has developed a life of its own.
I have never understood it when you see pensioners on the television insisting with a giggle that they don’t feel a day over seventeen.  I recognise the person I was at seventeen, just.  I think she has something to do with me but it is like looking at another life.  How naive I was, how self obsessed, how self conscious.  How little I knew about what I could cope with.  How little I had loved, learnt, suffered, enjoyed.  If I still felt like that girl after more than forty years of living I think I would have been wasting my time.  But I do recognise the disconnect between the outside and the inside, between the body and the mind.  The body is gently and inexorably moving into the later stages of life even while the mind insists that nothing has changed. 
It must have been like this for generations.  Perhaps every generation has always arrived in the foothills of age with the same start of surprise.  Perhaps no one is ever ready.  But I wonder if those of us born in the fifties and sixties are not particularly at sea.  Unlike my grandmother’s generation we can expect at least another twenty years when we reach sixty, probably more.  Her generation took to its perms and sensible shoes and corsets at the age of fifty or so.  I remember my own grandmother vividly when she must have been about fifty and she hardly changed at all in the way she looked and dressed until she died at seventy one.   Expectations have shifted since then both in terms of how long we might live and what we might look like as we do so.
The media can’t quite decide how to categorise us.   For a while Joan Collins was the only older woman who you might expect to see in newspapers and magazines.  Now it is Helen Mirren.  Both are offered as evidence that is possible to be attractive and desirable at around seventy.  I am really not sold on that one.  Most of us never looked like Helen Mirren in the first place and do we really want desirability to be the measure of our worth?  I think I might have had enough of that when I was younger. 
So here we are.  What are our sixties and seventies going to look like?  Most of us have worked outside the home.  Many of us have had interesting and demanding professional lives denied to our mothers and grandmothers.  Many of us are fortunate to be financially secure.  When I look at my friends I see political passion and environmental commitment.  I see women who take deep pleasure in their grandchildren and who also want to travel in Asia.  I see women who have devoted their lives to their families finding time and energy for themselves, starting businesses, writing novels, taking great satisfaction from the traditional female domestic crafts or deciding to work until they are seventy for the sheer pleasure of it.  Of course we are privileged, women like me, immensely privileged compared to most older women throughout the world, and privileged even in comparison to those in our own country who struggle with lack of money or ill health.  But I don’t see our lives represented in newspapers and magazines or even in fiction.  Too old to be a heroine, too young to be a crone, we seem to be invisible.  Does this happen to men of our generation too I wonder?  Perhaps not as overwhelmingly since men are still much more visible in the workplace and in the media and politics and anyway I could not speak for them even if I wished to.  But I can speak for myself and thus perhaps for women of my generation.
So here it is, a year of being sixty two, with its pleasures, its pains, its freedoms and its frustrations.  It would not be honest to write this without looking at ageing and mortality but neither would it be true to ignore the opportunities and happinesses of the last quarter of life.  I would not put the clock back.  To be here is a pleasure  and a privilege.  But where to next?

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

An Arvon Foundation Writing Course

I have been wanting to do an Arvon writing course for years.  When I had the time I simply did not have the money.  When the money was not a problem it was because I was working so hard that I could not imagine giving a week of my hard earned holiday to something that did not involve the rest of my family.  But suddenly earlier this year I realised that I could do it.  I had the time.  I had the money.  Ian was going trekking with some friends in Norway.  There was not even the faint residual guilt of going away and leaving him looking after everything.  We would both go away.  Nobody would look after anything at all.

I knew I wanted to write non fiction and when I found that a course on creative non fiction was offered in one of the weeks when Ian was going to be away it seemed entirely meant.  After years of writing with ease and pleasure, I have been struggling with writing the blog since my father died.  Maybe it would give me a kick up the pants.  Maybe it would set me going again.  I booked it quickly one night before I could change my mind.  And then I forgot about it, nearly.

The week before the course started I looked it in the face again.  Why had I done this?  There was no wi fi, mobile signal, tv or radio.  I was squeezing out once a month blog posts with huge difficulty.  There was no way I could call myself a writer.  It seemed a joke, a self indulgence, a bit of pretention.  I wandered around the house kicking myself and muttering.  Then I got a grip.  Never mind, it was done and paid for.  I was going to The Hurst, once the country house of the playwright John Osborne.  It is near Clun in that beautiful hidden country which is neither England nor Wales.  I would go, of course I would.  If I hated it I could always go and sit in a cafe in Clun and drink tea.  I could even get in the car and drive home.

We arrive in time for an evening meal.  After dinner sixteen of us, fourteen women and two men, are sitting with two tutors around the edges of a large lounge.   I am not the oldest.  There are a couple of people who look older than me.  Not all the participants are from the UK.  There is a journalist from Belgium and a quiet, beautiful American girl who has flown in from Dubai.  There is a young Muslim girl from the Caucasus, now studying in London.  Some are employed and juggling jobs and families.  Some are self employed.  Some are not working or taking a break with the deliberate intention of writing a book.  Some are confident, some diffident.  People have many different reasons for coming on the course but most have something that they want to write.   I seem to be the only person who is here because I cannot write.  The tutors are clever, funny, encouraging, sympathetic.

Upstairs we each have a room with a single bed and a writing desk.  It is simple but comfortable, not quite a monastic cell but functional as a private space to write.  I go to bed having had one glass of wine too many.  It looks like it will be ok.

The following morning is spent with the tutors, Alexander Masters and Andrea Stuart, around a huge table in the study room.  The pace is fast and furious, the atmosphere frank, funny and supportive.  We are given exercises to do as well discussions to have and each time we take away an exercise for twenty minutes or so and return to share the results, or not, as we choose.  It becomes very clear that I have no difficulty at all in writing to order about anything that is thrown at me.  That is a bit of a revelation.

I have decided to have my first tutorial at the earliest possible chance, 2.30 on Wednesday afternoon.  This means that I have to leave some work to be looked at by 4pm on Tuesday.  For much of Tuesday afternoon I wrestle with reducing a piece I wrote about my father, which you will have seen because it was my tribute to him here, to around one thousand words.  This is hard and not entirely successful.

When that is finished I sit at the laptop and write another piece for my other tutorial in a glorious freeing rush.  It seems that I know what I want to write about: aging, mortality, the experience of being sixty one, not to be morbid, not to be deaf and blind to growing older but to look it in the face in all its complicated glory, to look it in the face and be glad to be alive.  When I read it again before delivering it to the shelf of work for review my piece makes me smile.

How was it then, the whole experience?  Clearly it gave me my kick up the pants.  It was phenomenally hard work, intense, exhausting, exhilarating.  I lost a day to feeling dreadful with IBS, not what I meant by a glorious freeing rush.  The tutors were brilliant: challenging and supportive in perfect balance.  The other people on the course were as mixed and interesting a group as you could imagine and included some whose writing made me want to weep or shout with joy.  The single best thing about the week was that everyone from tutors to all the other participants treated you seriously as a writer.  There was none of that pussy footing which you engage in so as not to seem to be a poser.  "Of course I am not really a writer, I only do this or that or nothing at all."  There was no apologising or explaining or belittling oneself or anyone else.  So we talked about writing.  We asked each other about what we were doing and how it was going.  We took it for granted that we were writers and that learning more about that craft was why we were there.

Being in that environment and without the distractions of home made it easy to write.  After all, there was nothing else to do.  There was nothing to procrastinate with, no one to look after, no list of jobs in the house and garden calling insistently.  There was just a morning workshop and an afternoon in your room writing away and an evening listening or talking.  It was a shock to come home and I was glad that I had a couple of days entirely by myself to adjust again.  It has taken me some time to decide what to do with the experience.  Do I want to write a book and try to find an agent and do something very different from writing a blog?  I like my blog.  Finding my voice on my blog again was the reason I went on the course in the first place.  So after a couple of weeks of mulling and knitting and walking and not thinking about it in any sort of active way I have come to the conclusion that I will try to write a sustained piece of writing.  It might not work and I hereby give myself full permission to give up if it doesn't.  But I would like it somehow to be part of the blog as well so once a month I will post an extract from what I am writing and I would be immensely grateful if you could let me know what you think about it and if you would like to read more.  The rest of the time I will blog as I usually do about life, food, books, gardens, family and whatever comes to mind.  At least that is the plan.

And if you have ever wondered about doing a writing course, look at Arvon. It was a great experience.  It might turn you upside down and shake you around but it is worth every bit of your time and money.  I have just about recovered now.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

On being out of touch....

I am trying to reconnect gently.  From Monday to Saturday morning I was living in an unconnected world: no wifi, no television, no radio and only sufficient mobile signal for the odd grudging text message, with no guarantee of reply.  Air silence.

I was at an Arvon course at The Hurst in Shropshire, spending a week with fifteen others and two tutors immersed in creative non-fiction.  I'm still processing that experience and may write about it sometime but right now I am just considering how it was to drop out of the digital world for a few days.

I hadn't noticed the "no wifi" when I booked to go on the course.  Checking what I needed as I packed last week I saw it:  no wifi, poor mobile signal, payphone in the hall.  My heart sank.  I like my connectedness.  Email produces mostly selling these days but every now and then there is something interesting with news or photos from friends or family.  Facebook is much the same.  I don't post very often myself and my daily checks are swift but I do like seeing pictures of friends' babies and walking holidays and having a loose sense of what is happening in their lives.  I love Instagram with its ease and simplicity and succession of snapshots of other people's lives and of course it is a rare week when I don't read at least a couple of the blogs I really like.  And over and above all that there is the sheer usefulness of the damn thing: news, research, instant answers, phone numbers, opening hours, weather forecasts.   How would I manage without it all?  Was it really necessary to abandon it?  Apparently so.

And a bit of me was curious to see what it would be like.  I have wondered sometimes as Ian and I sit by the fire, ipads on our laps, how much time we spend online.  Not a problem, I would have said.  We talk and walk and read and knit and garden and spend time with friends and our children and grandchildren.  It is only a part of life, but an everyday part.  As much a part of our routine as cooking and shopping and brushing our teeth.

Turns out that whether you miss it all depends.  The days were so full with workshops and tutorials and writing exercises and writing time that I missed the social media stuff not at all.  Indeed I couldn't have spent any time engaging with social media and also done all the other things I was trying to do.

At home I am a news junkie, likely to listen to the radio or watch the news at least twice a day.  For most of my life I have been interested in politics and current affairs.  I usually have a week or two off when we go on holiday and I expected this break from tv, radio and newspapers to be just like that.  It's normally good to have a break but after a few days I begin to feel out of touch and I return to my normal news diet refreshed and keen to get engaged again.

Perhaps it was the timing of this break that was different.  After the shock of the UK referendum vote and the sense of chaos that overtook UK political life, I  was punch drunk with news, reeling, sickened with it.  Being without it seemed to free my head to think about other things and to give me a respite from being battered by matters of huge importance about which I could do nothing.  I did feel a leap of guilt on coming out on Saturday and learning of the deaths in Nice, realising that I had not known.  Why guilt? I do not know.  It was as if in not knowing I was not caring.  That is a response which makes no rational sense but clearly demonstrates why I normally follow so avidly.  But a period without news and the analysis of news was oddly calming. 

And all of the other facts and research and usefulness?  I didn't notice their absence at all.  Admittedly I was not living my normal life.  I was mining myself for what to write about.

So the only thing I really missed was talking to people, especially Ian who is away trekking in Norway and not very easily contactable at his end either.  It made me realise how much I use talking to him and to one or two others as a way of examining what is happening to me and making sense of it, the very process of expressing myself to someone who knows me intimately and with whom I don't have to censor myself helping me to understand what I am thinking and feeling.

As I drove home I turned on the radio to listen to the news.  Over the last day or so I have caught up with emails and social media.  No desire at all to remain in purdah.  It has been good to get back in some ways and tonight I shall turn off my brain and gently watch Countryfile on the TV and that will be a relief and a rest after such intensity and hard work.

I don't suppose I learnt anything from the experience that I didn't sort of know already: social media takes up a lot of time; television does the same; watching the news can do your head in.  But it has been a very clear and concrete lesson.  If I want time for writing I can clearly make it by spending less time online and watching TV.  Listening to and, particularly, watching the news can oppress you, especially in times of great turmoil.  Talking to the people you love is a wonderful thing.