I'm listening to Bruce Springsteen's latest album as I write this. Not altogether sure I like it. It's an odd mishmash of styles and I think I read that a lot of it was old material that hadn't made it onto other albums. I've also bought the new Suzanne Vega and like that a lot. Anyway, enough of music. I have just returned from a trip back to my hometown of Liverpool. I hadn't been for a couple of years and every time I visit, my Scouser friends try to persuade me to move back permanently. One thing I love about Liverpool, apart from the wit and the creative energy of the city, is the amount of green space. Sefton Park, Calderstones Park, Otterspool and Greenbank Park are all close by in my old area of South Liverpool. In Hillingdon, where I currently live, parks are in short supply. In fact, unless you drive, you can't get anywhere to have a decent walk. There are plenty of recreation grounds, patches of dog-stained land surrounded by flower beds full of crisp packets, beer cans and struggling, scraggy rose bushes. Not terribly enticing.
If I take a bus, I can walk by the Grand Union canal, but once you pass the end of the moored houseboats, it gets a bit desolate and dangerous-feeling. I only walked there alone once and was constantly alert for lurking hoodies with knives and mugging on their mind. Perhaps it's having survived two knife-attacks and one gun-point assault in the past that has made me so nervy, but I can't relax unless I know there are plenty of people around. No walking along gloomy towpaths and sinister city streets for me.
Here's a photo taken in Greenbank Park. My old school playing field was over the road. I think it's been built on now.
Sefton Park houses the famous Palm House: http://www.palmhouse.org.uk/what-we-do-history-and-renovation.php completed in 1896 and surrounded by statues of the famous, including the gardener Le Notre (1630-1700):
and Christopher Columbus, captured in stone as if forever searching for the next New World:
Although I was born and brought up in Liverpool, I had never set foot in the Palm House before last Wednesday and was surprised to find this colourful knitted patchwork giraffe amongst the plants: that's my friend Claire trying to spot its head amongst the foliage:
When I find myself back on the streets which witnessed all the angst of my teenage years (including the time when, aged 17, I decided to end it all, swallowed a bottle of aspirin and ran to the Prom to hurl myself over the railings and drown dramatically in the grey-green waters, only to find the tide was out and my poetic ending would have consisted of being sucked down into the hideous, glutinous mud), something strange and sickly comes over me, a kind of vertiginous nostalgia.
I see myself in shrunk-in-the-bath Levi's and black polo neck; in mini dress and blue patent shoes; in navy gym slip and emerald green school beret. With pigtails, ponytail or waist-length red hair; with horrid, unflattering specs and braces on my front teeth. I see my little, curly-haired sister, hear her laughing; see my father in his tweed jacket and trilby hat, camera round his neck, sucking one of the peppermints that he was never without, and my mother with her softly waved, strawberry blonde hair and freckles, her wonderful blue eyes (why didn't I inherit them?) sparkling as she makes a slightly smutty joke that gets us all groaning, "Oh, Mum!"
Ghosts of myself flicker around every corner like pieces of the jigsaw of my life; like feathers dropped from passing seagulls whose cries take me right back to nights when the booming of ships' sirens in the night would remind me that I was not alone and that soon, dawn would come to remove the monsters from inside the wardrobe. A few weeks after my mother died, the gardener was mowing the lawn when he looked up and saw my mother waving to him from the bedroom window. I wonder if she is still there, haunting our old house? We sold it in 1996 but it's changed hands several times since then and is currently up for rent. There are too many ghosts of my own past in Liverpool. The place calls to me. I feel it in my gut. But I know I must resist.
Going back would not be healthy for me. It would negate all the efforts I made to leave, to hitch-hike down to the Big Smoke (where I soon discovered the streets were paved, not with gold, but with chewing-gum) and make my fortune: well, at least achieve my dream of working in publishing. I must resist the pull of the ghosts, yet, is the lilac tree still there in the back garden, with the vaporous shade of my dad's striped deckchair beneath its boughs? And our old cats, Sandy and Cloudy: do they still haunt the rockery, springing out at the shades of long-dead mice? See what I mean about not being healthy? I would die of nostalgia if I ever went back to live anywhere near my old home. No wonder they call it home-sickness. It's a sob in the soul, a moan in the memory, a tug on the ancestral umbilical cord. And yet...
I live in a place where, it is said, old lags come to hide and grow old and die. Hillingdon is an anonymous, end of the road, out in the sticks place. I don't know who would choose to live here unless they were brought up here, or are studying at Brunel, or working at Heathrow. I have met a few ex crims round here, including Mad Mick the Murderer, someone who used to play chess in gaol with John McVicar and some others who it's safer not to mention. Just last week, a Mafia boss was flushed out who had lived here undetected for twenty years.
It's that kind of place. Nondescript, suburban, where nobody really knows their neighbours. Where every street culminates in a grotty main road full of cheap curry houses, nail bars full of illegal Thai and Vietnamese girls who by night turn tricks in the flat above, and estate agencies that vanish as fast as they have appeared.
Here, I cannot wear the clothes I used to wear in north London. I can't be myself. I would get stared at and mocked in my beautiful embroidered velvet coat. It has remained in the wardrobe for six months, ever since I last wore it to go to an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. Acceptable clothes here mean duvet jacket, leggings and boots. I can do acceptable, but I'd rather not.
But tonight, I went out loud and proud in my gorgeous velvet coat and purple dress for a pre-birthday meal. I met my friends in a local restaurant where the acoustics were so bad that we had to bellow in order to converse, being drowned out by a table full of twenty teens next to us. Looking round, everyone was in their teens and twenties. We were by far the oldest. But the food and wine were good and I was enjoying myself until...
Until I came back from the loo to find the friend who was treating me to dinner (apart from the £20 I'd thrown in for a second bottle of wine) having a stand-up row over the bill with the waitress, who looked most distressed. After the waitress had departed, I asked what was wrong and was told that my friend had objected to the fact that the card machine automatically added the tip on. I didn't see the problem, but she was irate and it meant we left on a sour note, with the staff, who had been so sweet and so willing, glaring after us.
As usual at weekends, the tubes weren't working and, this being the end of the Metropolitan line, our North London friend, who had borne the brunt of the replacement bus service to get here (two hours door to door from NW to West London), decided to get the express bus to Shepherds Bush. The rest of us planned to go to a music gig at a pub that started at 9 pm. By now it was 10 pm. We nobly agreed to see our friend onto the bus first.
Bus stations aren't beautiful at the best of times. They are places of brutal architecture, of gales blustering round sharp corners, of mumbling winos and slumbering junkies and people who would rather be any place but here. They are like holiday resorts at the end of the season, when sex and heat have gone into hibernation, leaving behind echoing footsteps of desolation and lost lovers and a wind that wraps dead leaves and chip papers round your ankles. They are the hub of shattered dreams, broken sleep and soon-to-be-slit wrists. They are not places to celebrate your birthday in. Yet 35 minutes later, we were still standing there like loonies, waiting for the bus that never came because, when I checked the timetable again with wine goggles that were starting to defog, I discovered that the last express had left at 9 pm.
The non-express came and I got on it, together with the Primrose Hill pal who wouldn't see his bed before midnight. I am now back home, with it having been banged home to me even more forcibly than usual that I am not an end-of-the-line person. I didn't hitch-hike from Liverpool to London in 1967 to end up living in the place where old criminals come to die. Me and my velvet coat have bigger plans than that. Beam me up, Scotty!
First, let me say it's my book I'm talking about here, not my life! I have been working so hard that my muscles are protesting, my wrists aching and I can hardly raise my left arm above my head. I've just passed the 70,000 word point and have, to my surprise, gathered all my main characters together in one room, Poirot-style. I didn't intend it to happen, but, if you're a writer, too, you know how your characters can gang up on you every so often and take over the action!
So now I have to write the showdown - dialogue, emotions, tears and slaps. I am so involved that I am right there in the room with them, dodging the flak. I think this is the only way to produce authentic-sounding fiction. Author as method actor.
I still find writing without the backing of a publisher a scary prospect. Yet, when I recall all the piddly little royalty cheques - only one was every over £1000 and most were considerably less, in fact I think my last one was £27! - I cheer myself up by thinking that even if I only sell 50 books, at least I'll get a larger share of the profits. Some of my early contracts only gave me a 6% royalty. 6%! That meant the publisher kept 94% and I'd done all the hard work. Yes, self-publishing's got to be better than that.
Literary Agent Andrew Lownie publishes this very useful round-up every year, using his personal contacts to get the inside gen on what's hot and what's not. I haven't had time to read it all yet, but I'm hoping somebody, somewhere, might be in the market for my latest offering... *crosses fingers*
Haven't felt inspired to write a new blog entry lately as I have been working flat out on the novel I started six years ago and have suddenly decided to finish. It's the first time in decades that I have written a book with no commission and no publisher lined up, not even an agent to handle it. Gulp!
Anyway, I was reading my daily publishing business newsletter that plops into my inbox and came across this info about a monthly short story competition. The cash prizes aren't great, but hey, anything's better than nothing! I did notice a typo in the website's details - you story' instead of 'your story', which doesn't inspire much confidence. Also, I couldn't read the Terms and Conditions, so who knows what could be lurking there. However, you can read previous winning stories so at least there's some free reading material there!
The March Global Short Story Competition is open for entries.
Begun six years ago, the competition runs every month with a £100 first prize and a £25 prize for highly commended writers.
The competition, which has topped £10,500 in prize money handed out, has had entries from more than 50 countries over the years.
Each month's competition is judged by Fiona Cooper, an author in North-East England, where the competition's organisers Inscribe Media are also based. The competition can be entered at www.inscribemedia.co.uk