The Magical Art of List Making

Following on from yesterday’s review of Maggie Nelson, I thought I’d apply a similar list-making technique to give you an update of all that is happening in my life at the moment. A little self-indulgent, but you will be spared such things in the future, as I won’t have the time.

Jobless, homeless no more

  1. A year since coming back to the UK, cocksure and blind, so confident that I would easily find a new permanent job in HR. So scratch, scrabble and scrape in the post-referendum landscape, with my gentle, constructivist Learning & Development topic, when all companies are looking for is Immigration and Payroll Specialists.
  2. My heart was not in the job hunt, that’s true. Hip hip hurrah for my freelance life, being able to take my book deliveries directly from the postman, taking time off during the children’s holidays, working a few days per month and then having enough time to write. Hip flask to hand.
  3. I know you are all green with envy by this point.
  4. It was the perfect lifestyle, except for one thing. The bank. I couldn’t take the mortgage in my sole name with such an uncertain financial track record, with no idea when the next job would come in (and companies keep changing their minds or postponing or cancelling their training courses). So hip flask got thrown when the bailiffs come knocking at the door, or rather, my soon to be ex (STBX) threatening that I would have to sell the house and give him his share.
  5. Now watch him parade around in a rented house that is too big for him, with his all-new furniture and all-new giant TV and Amazon Alexa the Echo, even-tempered slave girl, and expensive holidays, while moaning that he cannot afford child maintenance. Cue many sleepless nights. But a few pills and Talking Therapy sessions later, I’ve learnt to meditate and relax my muscles and turn a blind eye to the unavoidable. Still we pirouette around the financial pot, each side claiming greater overall contributions or greater need.
  6. So I potter around on French property websites, remarking how easily I could get a maison de maitre property in Aquitaine for my share of the house sale minus mortgage, instead of reading the hundredth rejection email starting: ‘We value your application, however, on this occasion we will not be progressing you to the next stage. Other candidates more closely fitted our requirements. We would like to thank you for your interest and encourage you to sign up for job alerts to hear about future vacancies. Please fill in the survey below to tell us about your recruitment experience.’ 
  7. Feeling too old, too past it (I would be the grandmother intern if I were to move into publishing – and I certainly couldn’t survive on those starter salaries!), diminished, unwanted, in the wrong field, regretting all my past choices. The ones that seemed the perfect fit were the ones that hurt the most. Especially when they claimed to like you and your lateral skills, that they weren’t discriminating on the basis of age, praised your achievements and qualifications. You almost believed them… until you see the dewy faces and minimalist experience of the people they did pick for the job.
  8. If it’s that difficult for me, an able-bodied woman (White Other on census forms), with a few degrees from the UK as well as elsewhere, to find a job in publishing because of my age, can you imagine if I were POC or without a degree or disabled? Diversity in publishing indeed! Obviously, everyone above the age of 40 stops reading…
  9. So it was back to the corporate treadmill, one I’d refused to run on for many years, one that I’d stopped believing in, but teenagers are more expensive than cats. They eat all the time and grow an inch per month.
  10. Let no one tell you that you can follow your passion. My career and choices in life have been determined by geography, accident of birth, nationality, age, history, family situation etc. And many, many other people have had their choices far more severely curtailed!
  11. Then I calculate how many more years I have to stay in a UK which has become strangely frightening and all too recognisable (from living in countries where political incorrectness reigns). Seven more years until my children leave the house to go to the university, ten until the younger one finishes university – although I suspect they may want to study abroad.
  12. But avast, avast, stop preparing an escape route and stop hauling myself over the coals, for suddenly interviews materialised! Over the summer I was wanted for job interviews, even managed to convince some people that I didn’t mind being overqualified for the work I would be doing. (I really don’t, I just need to pay the bills and see my kids in real life rather than on Google Hangouts). Yes, all of them were short-term contracts or very, very part-time. All paying slightly less than the salary I had 18 years ago in full-time employment, back in the days when I had a small house and no children and a husband earning roughly the same as me.
  13. About equality of pay. Since then, STBX’s salary has increased slowly but surely ever year, while I have had peaks and troughs. In 2003 I was on 2.5 times his salary, but since I had my (our) first son in 2003 it has gone into free fall. Never mind the fact that most of it went on childcare.
  14. So I bide my time and try not to jump at the first desperate opportunity. The less promising ones offer me the job, while the certainties bail out. And I start to feel very foolish.
  15. I took the bait. A permanent position in London, an interesting job (in HR, rather than publishing) in the university sector. It is not perfect, but it will keep me and the children off the streets. My friends are delighted for me, but I’m not quite ready to pop the champagne open. It’s not a new career doing something I feel passionate about. It’s not living the dream at this late stage in life. It’s more of the same, without the flexibility I’d grown used to in the past 8 years.
  16. Still, reasons for celebrating! It means I can stop hearing my STBX scolding or pitying or alleging that I could earn much more than him if only I put my mind to it. No one ever asked you to give up your career to follow me around. You could have got an au pair. All right, if you were worried about me having an affair with the au pair, you should have got a male au pair. What do you mean, there weren’t any of them in Geneva? But Pablo’s family had one? Oh, because he was Spanish and couldn’t find employment in Spain? Oh, and he left after 4 months all of a sudden when he did get a job in Madrid? Never mind, it just proves my point, that there are some men au pairs around. I think you didn’t want to work. You just wanted to sit at home with the cat and write and I’ve had to support you while you have written three novels.’ It means I can now start the formal divorce proceedings and wash that man right out of my hair.
  17. Photo by Kevin Bauman.

    One year on, the house is slowly but surely falling apart after 5 years of tenants and a year of my shoddy housekeeping. I was often too overwhelmed and depressed this past year to repair things or keep the house spick and span. Besides, why invest more love and hope in a house I was no longer sure I’d be able to keep? So a professional one-off cleaning is called for before I start work. With the result that I’ve been frantically scrubbing the place in preparation for this. To save my tattered reputation. Some people never learn.

Commuterland and superwoman

London has its pros and cons. The plus side: bookshops, being able to go to cultural events [‘You spend HOW much on books and entertainment?’ my horrified financial advisor said], meeting friends for lunch or drinks. Downside: 2 – 2.5 hour commute each day if the trains aren’t delayed and an annual season ticket somewhere in the region of £3500 per year. Leaving just before the children set off for school and getting back at 7 p.m., just in time to shout at them about their homework over dinner. Having to organise all the orthodontist, haircut, doctor etc. appointments for them on a Saturday or else take a day off. At least they don’t have any clubs or other extra-curricular activities (but oh, the guilt associated with that!). So many other single mothers do precisely that – and it’s worth it to hear my children say: ‘Does that mean we get to keep the house? Then go for it, Mama! We’ll cope.’ They crave a bit of stability and they are so much more loving and helpful now that I am more relaxed and happy without their father around.

Plus, I have the feeling they will relish no ‘Have you done your homework yet?’ mutters in the background every half an hour.

But I must write – how will I write?

  1. If only I had the time to write, instead of travelling like a maniac around the globe! (2012-2013)
  2. Now I have the time, but oh… If only I had the peace of mind to write instead of falling apart/ raging and ranting/ worrying about things/ jobhunting (2014-2017)
  3. Now I have peace of mind but oh… I won’t have any time for writing or blogging or tweeting! (2017-2018)
  4. And so I worry and give up before I even start. Run away rather than fight the impossible fight. There was only one situation where I chose to stand my ground and cling on for dear life. The wrong situation. I chose badly. I stayed way past the expiry date, the food rotted and now I’ll never get the smell out of that fridge.
  5. Last Night of the Proms brought that home to me. That I worry about the things that might happen. But might not.
  6. I could not watch it, because I no longer find the tub-thumping patriotism and Union Jack waving hilarious and endearing. But then I heard that they’d been handing out EU flags and the audience were waving those as well. How many times have I been pleasantly surprised by people’s reactions when I’ve been expecting the worst? Am I letting fear and prejudice cheat  me out of opportunities?
  7. Is the fear of not having time for writing paralysing me? Am I using the guilt over my reduced time with the children to distract me from the hard work that needs to go into writing? Am I content to remain on amateurish turf forevermore, every now and again hitting a lucky shot?
  8. And so on ad nauseam. There is a time for writing, there is a time for ranting, there is a time for logistical acrobatics. Things will be imperfect at first – and may remain imperfect. There will be things I have to miss out on. Another year of not having something quite ready for submission. And yet… Sometimes the most impossible situations produce the best work. I refuse to feel guilty and I refuse to stop writing.
  9. Plus, I can read and write during my commute, right?
  10. If I make it through September, fold my pinnies, cool my forehead, don’t wait for gaps to be filled with leisure, no clemency left in any fibre. I will be a new woman, trying to do several new things at once, such as cycling to the station.
  11. Yet not attempt too strenuous a life of many amputated beginnings and bird flutter under the skin until the very least October. For no respite, no holidays will follow for the new hireling.
  12. Photo by Lennart Wennberg

    If November doesn’t bring morose companionship on wet flagstones, where would my certainties drain like ink still damp on poor-quality paper?

  13. And if you can’t wait until December to see if my sleight of hand produces a second draft or better poems, why, I’ve wasted my breath and months…
  14. Some people never learn. Some people never know when to give up.
  15. But, as Mary Oliver said, the world has need of dreamers as well as shoemakers.
  16. Never believe anything a writer ever tells you.
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5 Reasons Why ‘The Secret History’ Disappointed Me

Don’t you just love those blog posts that list ‘7 things you have to do before you eat breakfast’ or ‘Top 10 Ways to Leave a Book in a Bathtub’ or ’76 Reasons Why It Would Have Paid You to Answer Our Ad A Few Months Ago’ (this last one is a genuine title)?

The_Secret_History,_front_coverDespite some bold claims that the lists posts are getting tiresome, most search engines and people browsing the internet still seem to love them. Personally, I think they are lazy, overrated… but a great way to summarise and be succinct. Particularly when you are talking about a book that most readers seem to love, but which I personally found rather disappointing. Perhaps it is also a sly response to John Mullan’s article, labelling the book a ‘modern classic’. I am talking, of course, about Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History’.

1)      Main characters are pretentious twats – this comes through despite the main narrator Richard’s biased reporting. Now, I have nothing against campus novels and a bit of elitism myself: my set of friends in Cambridge were possibly viewed with an equal mix of envy and disdain. But I like to think that we had some redeeming features to offset our propensity to quote in foreign languages. Besides, we were quoting in foreign languages because we were in fact foreign, not because we were trying to be glamorous and different.

2)      Too long and repetitive. The book could have done with some serious editing: there was too much waffle, skirting around issues, which had nothing to do with obliqueness and everything to do with inability to get to the point. I found myself longing to skip passages or skim-read them. Yes, there are some passages of outstanding prose and self-deprecating humour. I just wish there had been more of these and less of the self-indulgent ones.

3)      It’s been done before – and much better. Need I mention ‘Brideshead Revisited’, ‘The Dead Poets’ Society’, ‘Crime and Punishment’ or ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’?

4)      No clear vision and story arc . The first part of the novel seemed to be building up towards something, and it certainly is clever to foreshadow the impeding tragedy. But then it just fell to pieces, as if it couldn’t quite decide where it was going. I refuse to believe this was a deliberate stylistic ploy. If it was, then it was a rather suicidal and over-long way of proving a point.

5)      The friendship and deep love of beauty did not sound quite believable. Again, perhaps this was deliberate, showing how these young people were deluding themselves into believing they were special or ‘chosen’, but I could not help feeling that they were shallow in their affections as well as their minds, and that they would not have supported each other in a meaningful way throughout this ordeal. If you compare with the original Greek myths (to whom this book is supposedly so deeply indebted): there is real tragedy, real depth, tough choices, blind fate in there. While in this case, the protagonists have brought their problem upon themselves and the tragedy feels skin-deep. Except for the poor farmer – whatever happened to his family?

Maybe if I’d read it back in 1992, when I was a student, I would have been more kindly disposed towards it? But I think not. Cult books have never quite rocked my boat. Maybe I have never wanted to be part of a cult that will have me…