Tuesday, 30 November 2010


Seeing the seagulls in the garden reminded me of a poem I wrote years ago, after a visit to New Brighton in Merseyside, where, amidst the crying wheeling gulls, an old man in a navy guernsey and jeans was standing on the shore, staring out to sea with his faded eyes like stone-washed denim. I wove in birth, decay, evolution, the impartial ebb and flow of every tide. It was only years later, on re-reading it, that I noticed every line rhymes, or half-rhymes, with another one somewhere in the poem. That was completely unintentional, and quite amazed me.


What have you left to come come to, old man?
Have you felt the turn of the tide in your lungs
And the dawn's thin blood draining your day?

Old man, what have you left to come home?
There, you had the tide at the height of its leap
Tearing down the white sail of the moon
While here, the chimneypots keel over
In a wind raging with your salt weather
And a sky snowing with seagulls.

Wife by the hearth, would you wake from your sleep
For a captain with cap made of downy white feathers,
Bringing nothing but blessings you've never heard sung?
Would you rise from your fire to a violent noon,
Wild wind slapping the sails in the bay
And watch him sit up with his eyes full of pearls?

Yet both of you once had the sea for a lover,
With nothing left now but a thin line of foam
To mark where your intricate voyage began.


The gulls were hungry this morning and came swooping down after the bread I'd put out for the garden birds. Their keening cries made me feel I was at the seaside.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Writing Styles 2

I was lying in bed last night (again - I think my brain only functions creatively when I'm warm, and bed is the only place where I am truly toasty in this freezing, draughty house; just glanced at the thermometer in room I'm typing this in and even with the heating on, it's barely 42 degrees F!), when I thought of an important category that I had forgotten. The cliche user.

I was at the library on Friday, pulled an interesting looking book off the shelf, opened it random and as soon as I spotted two words, I snapped it shut and put it back. They were 'flame-haired'. Seems like every tabloid describes someone or other as 'flame-haired', or even 'flame-haired temptress'. Huge, clanging cliche!

It's a lazy writer who bungs in the first thing that leaps to mind, which is usually a cliche. I have been guilty of it myself. It's far easier to do than to expend the mental effort to think up a more original way of saying something. Yet one has only to look out of the window, or even around the home, to spot other words that could be used to help describe red hair. Kitchen: cinnamon, terracotta, Le Creuset; geranium, fire extinguisher, apple. Yet, at the end of the day, nothing is wrong with saying 'red hair' and leaving it at that. It took me a long time to leave out the torrent of adjectives that sprang from my fingertips.

A major omission from yesterday's post was the good writing styles. The sentences that flow, the dialogue that isn't broken by colons and semicolons (nobody speaks in semicolons, do they?), the humour and wit, the bouncy, the young, the fresh, the confident, the elegant. There is just as much good writing about as there is bad, I'm happy to say, so, to those who tried to slot themselves into yesterday's categories, try the ones mentioned in this paragraph instead!

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Writing Styles

I spent yesterday afternoon working on a book I am editing. It's wonderful. I'm thoroughly enjoying it. But no sooner had I gone to bed and my brain had gone into free-floating mode than wodges of prose from the past started swirling in.

I began work as fiction editor on IPC's Loving Magazine in 1984. By then, I had already had three romantic novels published and quite a few short stories, but I by no means regarded myself as an expert in writing and editing. Almost three decades on, though, I think I am allowed to call myself experienced in the field. I progressed to editor of that magazine whilst continuing to carve out my own career as a writer and when I was made redundant, I continued to write, and also joined up with a couple of agencies who critique and edit manuscripts for writers who are hoping to get published.

Millions of words have sped through my eyes and my brain. No wonder some of them have stuck in odd corners and continue to haunt me. I recall titles, phrases, images, characters - and, most of all, styles.

There was a man whose style was labelled 'chicken-pecking' by my chief fiction sub-editor. By this, she meant that each sentence ran for a few words, then was brought up short by a full stop. There was. No flow. It just happened. Like that.

Then there were the over-wordy, who never used one word when five would do, and who described their hero or heroine's every action in minute detail: She picked up the pink toothbrush, being careful not to touch the blue one next to it for fear her germ-obsessed sister might scream at her for polluting its bristles, rinsed it in cold water, squeezed out just a centimeter of paste - the striped one - and raised the brush to her mouth. She opened her lips... Well, you get the picture. The reader is desperate to find out if she will finally get together with the boy of her dreams at the school end of year party that evening, but there is so much boring detail to wade through first that, with a hiss of exasperation, Dear Reader gives up and flicks to the next story.

Another style I kept on encountering was the one in which the writer overused the gerund: Fishing in her bag, she found a tissue, applying it to her nose. Rushing, she caught the bus, blushing when realising she was guilty of leaving her pass at home. What these writers don't realise is that the gerund gives a passive feel to the prose. It holds up the flow. In a short story especially, it's best to use the active form of the verb.

Then we come to the famous Purple Prose. Yes, I am guilty of it myself, that overspilling of sentimental detail, the snapshot seen through rose-tinted specs, the affected hyperbole. Purple prose is over-the-top writing. It's complicating something simple. Instead of birds singing in the trees, a myriad of feathered souls are throwing their exotic notes of pure godlike ambrosia to we mere mortals down below.

There are those who score their prose with multiple dashes and those who pebbledash it with ellipses and colons. There are the 'can't spell, won't even bother to look it up' brigade - and those get sent back with a polite suggestion that they go on a writing course.

Then every so often, one comes across a gem like the one I am working on right now. It's not perfect. English is not the author's first language so some of her sentence constructions are back to front, and people look 'on' something - the ground, their shoes - rather than 'at' it. But the sheer lyrical song of the words, the glowing sensitivity of the characterisation, the spare, yet finely observed descriptive detail, is a joy to work with. In my 26 years of editing fiction, I have only found half a dozen manuscripts of this quality, and each time I've encountered one, I have yearned to reinvent myself as a literary agent so as to have the joy of discovering and acting as midwife to a world class author. This is what makes my job worthwhile.

If the current manuscript gets published, I shall tell you what it was. If it doesn't, then I shall truly despair of the publishing industry.

Saturday, 27 November 2010


I felt much better yesterday. My cold was definitely going. After my monthly visit to the chiropractor, I was feeling on top form and all set to buy a few more Christmas items and get some much-needed exercise following three days pent up indoors with my rotten cold.

But malign fate had something different in store for just as I was passing Maplins, my right foot landed on a wonky paving slab that was sloping hard to the right, and I turned my ankle so severely that my anklebone actually made contact with the ground. I managed to keep upright and hobble to WH Smith for some gift tags, but my ankle was so painful that I staggered to the bus stop and was fortunate enough to coincide with Mr G in his car at the bottom of the street.

Arnica and an elastic bandage are helping greatly but it will be a few days yet before my ankle will be fit enough for that exercise... and by then I'll have had my operation. What glorious timing! I think fate is fattening me up for Christmas.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Operation news

Had my pre-op tests yesterday. Felt like death with this awful cold and hacking cough, but dragged myself off to the hospital for a 10.30 am appointment. 'Get there 15 minutes early', the letter said. I arrived at 10.10 but wasn't called in till gone 11, so I was not amused.

I warned the nurse who was checking my blood pressure that I suffer from 'white coat syndrome' and the moment I see the machine, my blood pressure soars. Sure enough, it was a staggering 177 over 88! 'Hmm, that's a bit high,' said the nurse, 'I'll take it again in a few minutes'. She did, and it was down to 129 over 79, which was much better. Weird, isn't it? It's not as if I'm scared of having my blood pressure done. I suppose I'm anxious about being told it's too high and having to go on pills for the rest of my life.

They put me on a heart monitor, which was fine. Then they send me for a blood test. My heart sank. The only way of getting that done quickly is to arrive first thing in the morning when they open. By lunchtime, the waiting room is so full that there are no seats left. When I arrived, the illuminated sign was at No.10, having been round the clock several times that morning already, and the ticket I pulled from the machine was No. 43. So, after a quick chat with a nice lady who was No. 37, I beetled off to the hospital coffee shop and had a very nice coffee and a packet of organic, low-salt crisps and by the time I got back, they were calling for No. 32.

'Be gentle', I told the guy who was taking my blood. 'How much do you need?' 'Four tubes,' he said. I was reminded of the old Tony Hancock blood donor sketch. 'I'll have to look away,' I said, as I can't bear to see my red stuff squirting into the phials. My dad used to faint at the sight of his own blood. I remember my mum trying to take a splinter out of his finger once, and h went spark out on the floor! I'm not that bad; I'm fine so long as I don't have to watch. And the guy was gentle and I only have a tiny bruise and a red mark today.

Finally, I arrived back at the reception desk, where I was handed a letter and told that my operation was scheduled for next Wednesday. NEXT WEDNESDAY!!! OMG! Having had to wait 11 months for a hysterectomy despite having pre-cancerous cells in my cervix, I thought a minor thing like a pile operation would have a waiting list of about a year. Well, the old NHS has certainly speeded up since they whipped out my womb in 1998.

I'm on the afternoon list. I can have toast at 7.3o and can drink water or black tea or coffee till 10. Then nothing else, not even a sip. As somebody who swigs water constantly, this is going to be a real hardship as I don't have to be at the hospital till 12.30 and probably won't be 'done' till mid afternoon. Hope my cold has gone by then because the letter says if you have one, the op will be postponed. Fingers crossed... or should that be legs?

Ginger plant

My little ginger plant is sprouting quite wondrously. I took this pic this morning. The large sprout is over 3 ins and the shorter one measures an inch. Not sure if I should give it any plant food this time of year, though it is growing vigorously so perhaps it needs some. What do you think?

My orchid, which was given to me five years ago, is flowering for the fourth time. Again, November seems a very odd time to grow and flower. Just two flowers are out so far but once all the buds have opened, it's going to look spectacular. Both plants are on a South-east facing window ledge which is warmish in the daytime but very cold at night as there is no heating in the kitchen where they live. They don't appear to mind, though.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

A nothing day

I meant to upload some photos today and show you how my ginger plant is getting on - the large sprout is now 3 ins long! But I suddenly started sneezing and streaming, my throat hurts and it's clear that I've caught Mr Grumpy's horrible cold that he caught from his friend's kids who he babysat for three hours last Monday. Thank you, kids. How very generous of you to share your germs.

Flad is generous, too. He's shared his fleas. He gets de-flead with Frontline every six weeks and he's got another three weeks to go till his next treatment, but this morning I found a small flea on my hand after I'd stroked him and this evening... I got one down my knickers! It bit me twice, so thanks for that, Flad. I'm going to spray the sofa tomorrow, in case that's where they're hiding. I do love animals, but the one drawback is fleas because they love me, as do mozzies.

Nothing bites Mr Grumpy, of course. They wouldn't dare. Apart from which he, like a lot of older men, has a stubbly hide like a rhinoceros and as his veins run with tea rather than blood, he probably tastes horrible.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Me and Flad

It's true love. He lies like this on me every night! Soppy pair, aren't we?

Monday, 15 November 2010

Bedazzled by the Bum Doc! (Warning: some gruesome and indelicate content)

Well, what an experience! It was straight out of a TV soap. There I was, daintily spread on my side with the token white sheet revealing far more than it covered, while two young male medical students, one Greek and one Italian, plus the handsomest doctor in the world, peered up my bottom! I tell you, Julian Clary would have had a field day.

I arrived half an hour early as the local bus that goes straight to the hospital only runs every half hour and I needed time to find the right clinic in the sprawling building. I'd scarcely read a page of my book when my name was called. I glanced at my watch; still 20 mins to go before my appointment.

I'd better fill in a bit of background now. WARNING: Avert your eyes from this paragraph, all ye who are squeamishly inclined. I have had piles ever since I got pregnant with my daughter in 1969. That's a total of 41 years of lumpy bumness. Every so often, the things would swell up and I'd spend days lying on my side on the sofa with a bag of frozen peas applied to the area. (And no, I didn't eat them afterwards, though someone else might have done!) Once, I was on my way to interview a rock star for the magazine I was working for. He was sending his chauffeur to pick me up from Reading station and I thought I would just pop to the loo first as pre-interview nerves had made me want to 'go'. Next thing I knew, I thought my period had started as the loo was suddenly full of blood. But it wasn't my period, it was the piles. Ugh! I waddled through the afternoon with my knickers stuffed with tissues, any idea of seducing the rock star killed stone dead. Over the last year, with my IBS getting worse, I have had the most evil pain and itching and in the end I visited my GP and told her I was at the end of my tether as the violent itching was waking me at night, and I was bleeding every day even though the lumps themselves weren't that big. Plus, the pain had spread forward so the entire area between back bottom and front bottom hurt like hell.

End of nasty details. The squeamish can continue reading now. So - the nurse called me in and instantly these two young medical students thrust their hands at me and introduced themselves. One was an olive-skinned Greek with dark, wavy hair, very attractive, and the other one was Italian, grinning and geeky. Let's call them Greek and Geek.

Greek was the spokesman for the two. He asked me a series of questions in a slow, unpractised manner while Geek listened and grinned. I think Greek had a better command of spoken English. Then suddenly the inner door burst open and there... gasp!... there stood the movie star specialist. Tall, ice blue eyes, Scandinavian fair hair, slight tan, even white teeth, firm handshake, he introduced himself as Oliver. Long ago, at a different hospital, I had encountered another handsome Oliver, but that's another story.

Oliver 2 said he'd talk to me in a few minutes, and I was sent back outside. Then, bang on my appointment time, to the minute, I went back in for the actual examination. Now, ages ago, I had had the best looking dentist in the world, an Aussie called Brett Elliott. I never needed an injection, just sinking into the ocean of his navy blue eyes and imagining him seducing me on the beach was enough. Unfortunately, I couldn't gaze into Dr Oliver's steely blue ones as my third eye is in the middle of my forehead and not up my Khyber Pass!

With Greek and Geek peering intently at my nethers, Dr Moviestar Oliver stuck up his speculum as I groaned unromantic 'ouches'. Once I was dressed again, I sat opposite him, bathing in his good looks as he asked, "Has anyone ever suggested operating?" I answered, "When I had my hysterectomy done, the surgeon said they were planning to remove them but the op had complications so they didn't have time."

"Huh!" snorted Dr Oliver. "You don't want to let a gynaecologist anywhere near your piles." A touch of professional jealousy, perhaps?

The upshot is that he's putting me in for day surgery. He said it mightn't solve all the problems but at least things should improve. "You'll have a very sore bottom for a few days," he warned. Well, what's new? He was brisk, sharp and informative, and delivered a set of instructions with a steady gaze and a twitch of a grin. No toilet paper, just wet wipes from now on (which I use most of the time anyway), no soap or bath oil, only cotton knickers (never wear any other kind unless I'm on a hot date) and... I'm sure there was something else. Oh, what was it? All I can think about is that golden hair and those ravishing blue eyes. Staring up bottoms all day... what a waste!

As I turned to go, I thanked Dr Oliver and wished Greek and Geek good luck in their exams. As the nurse filled my hands with forms to take to the day surgery admissions desk, I said, "That doctor was just great." I meant his professional approach but she blushed. I think she had a little crush. Or maybe she was embarrassed by me, an oldi(ish) woman fancying a doctor. I think I feel a medical Mills & Boon coming on.

PS: I once had a very funny experience whilst being examined by a gynaecologist. There I was, feet in the stirrups, knees up and feeling the breeze up, when the male gynae (why are you never examined by a female one?) said, "I can see that you play the guitar."

With as much wit as I could muster whilst in such an embarrassing position, I shot back, "Why? Have you found my missing plectrum?" He laughed and explained that he played the guitar, too, so he'd noticed that I had long fingernails on one hand, and short ones on the other, the sure sign of a guitar player. I laughed about that for ages.

The only joke I could have come up with today was that corny old one about the man who accidentally sat on a circular saw. "It sliced off my - " He paused, trying to think of a polite word. "Rectum?" his comic partner enquired, to which the first comedian replied, "Well, it didn't do 'em much good!"

Carrot soup after-effects

Those people who say veggie food is good for you are not always right. I'm still suffering the fall-out from that carrot soup I made last Thursday. I think the onslaught of all that roughage (six carrots' worth) scoured out my delicate insides and inflamed my ulcer and IBS. I have a horrid stomach pain, bloating and wind, keep having to dash to the loo and, to make matters worse, at 2.55 this afternoon I have an appointment to get my piles looked at!

Yes, laugh. I can hear you. My chief worry, of course, is what happens if, when the doctor is peering and prodding, I just have to, er... No, it doesn't bear thinking about. I just hope he or she will be wearing a face mask!

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Ginger sprouts!

I have never known a plant grow as fast as this ginger plant. It grows about 1/4" a day and now look what it's done - put out another sprout. How exciting! I didn't know they could grow at both ends. If anyone else has ever grown one, please tell me what to expect. Hope it's not turning into a triffid!

Friday, 12 November 2010

Carrot soup

The recipe sounded nice and healthy. 800g of carrots, some honey, two leeks and vegetable stock. I didn't have enough carrots so I used just under 600 g but oh, how I wished I'd only used one! The amount of roughage in that soup has had the most ghastly consequences. I am clutching my stomach in pain and can't stop flying to the loo... and I have to make the hour and a half tube journey into London in half an hour's time, to go to the dentist's! Oh woe.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

The trouble with night clothes...

... or sleepwear, as they often called, is that when you put the nightie or PJ's on at night,they feel really, really comfy, but the moment you get into bed, an evil metamorphosis takes place.

Now, I usually wear nighties. Rid your minds this instant of the ruched and rose-sprigged wincyette image from the Damart catalogue. My idea of a nightdress is the long t-shirt type of which I have several, bearing images that range from a snoring zebra (why a zebra? Does anyone know if they snore or is it a growl to deter prowling tigers?), to a slogan that declares' Her Majesty demands her beauty sleep'.

My night-time ritual goes like this. Wash, clean teeth, remove make-up, plaster on moisturiser, then, with nightie hanging loose on body, slink into bed. And that's where the sleepwear demons take over. No sooner am I snuggled under the duvet than a hundred bony fingers start tweaking the nightie this way and that, pulling it tight beneath the armpits, winding it in a corkscrew around my body and hauling it upwards so that my bum is exposed to the chill night air.

I sigh, tug it down, turn over. They cackle, tweak and pull it up again. I toyed with the idea of attaching cords to either side of the hem, which could then be tied around the ankles to keep the thing down, but I knew, just knew, that the sleep demons would end up garroting me with them; either that, or a 3 am sleepy stumble to the loo would end up as a major disaster involving a mop and a change of night attire as I had forgotten about the cords.

So - last night being cold and frosty, I decided to switch to PJ's for the first time in months. Usually I avoid wearing them because there are even more nasty things the sleepwear demons can do with PJ's than with nighties. Now, I had especially bought the pajama bottoms in an XL size, in the hope of outwitting the demons' plan to deliver an impromptu midnight wedgie.

Imagine this. Before getting into bed, I was comfortably attired in a wine-coloured, stretchy, long-sleeved top with a pink star on the front, and unmatching (fiver in a sale) paler wine-coloured PJ bottoms with elasticated waist, trousers that touched the carpet and a crotch that dangled just above my inner knees. What could be cosier and comfier?

Twenty minutes in bed, however, and the sleeves had shrunk up to my elbows and held them tight in a painful vice, the trouser legs had whizzed up to thigh level and had formed themselves into a bulky nappy arrangement (thank God I was still awake or my unconscious mind might have thought I was two years old again!) and the crotch seam had not only performed a pile operation and a clitorectomy, but had, in eyebrow-threading style, painfully robbed me of several pubic hairs.

I sighed, got up, shook everything back down again, got back into bed and... Well, eventually I got to sleep somehow. Tonight it's back to the nightie. With the PJ top worn over it. And knee-length socks. Maybe even knickers. Let's see what the sleepwear demons can do with that lot. I suppose, as a last resort, I shall have to resort to Marilyn Monroe's sleepwear, a dab of Chanel No 5, assisted by a heated duvet, an electric blanket and... oh, to hell with it. A four-poster bed with a fan heater inside. That should do the trick!

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Poor old Flad!

It's some time now since Flad lost one of his fangs in a fight with the big black cat from five doors down. The two keep a respectful distance from one another now.

But then a newcomer arrived on the block - a young, fluffy, swaggering ginger with a sparkly collar. What happens is that they exit through the hedge at the bottom of their own gardens, walk through the farm field, then pop into whichever garden they fancy.

So there was Flad, sitting in his own territory minding his business and suddenly, down his path, this young 'un come strutting. Well, Flad may be 14 now and a trifle arthritic, but nothing's going to stop him defending his patch. I wasn't there when it happened, but I did wonder why he was lying inert on the bed for so many hours. Eventually, he hobbled slowly downstairs and hauled himself onto the sofa with his broken claws, and that's when we noticed his poor nose. Closer examination revealed cuts and scratches on his head and two of his legs, and his coat was very muddy, a sign the two of them had been rolling over in a tangle of fur.

How did I know which cat he'd been fighting? By the chunks of ginger fur caught in his claws, of course! When I got up at 7.3o this morning, he was outside, looking bright-eyed and full of beans again. Something tells me he was the winner.

Green shoot 2

The ginger shoot is growing so fast that you can almost see it happening! The shoot itself is now 2 ins long and would be even longer if it didn't have a bend in it.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Another new cat bed!

There was a pet store next door to Argos, so we went in. They had loads of cat beds. "Ah," said Mr Grumpy, "here's a nice big one. Flad will fit into this, no trouble!" He bought it. He brought it home. I found the tape measure... and, well, you've guessed. It was no bigger than the one he's got already. Flad ignored it for days, then finally decided to try it.

Hmm, what's this? Erm... I'm not sure.

Well, may as well try it. My leg doesn't fit. Damn!

I'll try it this way round. Oh dear.

Ahhhh, that's better. Why didn't I think of curling up before?