An Unconventional Death

 

This post has been nominated for a Blog Award Ireland award. If you fancy giving it your vote, please click on the image (like this one) on the right hand side, underneath my Recent Posts list. This will take you to the Blog Award Ireland site. Move your browser up to 'Nominations' 2013' along the top bar (beside Home). Then move down to Best Blog Post. Click here, scroll down until you find me, click on the little box beside my blog, then scroll down and press vote. It's free - and I'd love to do well, for my dad! Thank you!
This post has been nominated for a Blog Award Ireland award. If you fancy giving it your vote, please click on the image (like this one) on the right hand side, underneath my ‘Recent Posts’ list. This will take you to the Blog Award Ireland site. Move your browser up to ‘Nominations 2013′ along the top bar (beside Home). Then move down to Best Blog Post. Click here, scroll down until you find me, click on the little box beside my blog, then scroll down and press vote. It’s easy to do & it’s free – and I’d love to do well, for my dad! Thank you!

Three years ago this week, my father died. He’d been ill for some time. Cancer.  Actually, a conglomerate of cancers, a medley of the bastard diseases which mutated together and formed a vicious alliance, such was their determination to kill him. His illness had been brutal; unremitting, and merciless, but we expected his passing, when it finally came, to be peaceful and calm. Ethereal, even.  Well, it wasn’t. He left this world in a rage, furious with death for getting the better of him, thrashing against it with every microscopic scrap of energy he could muster, until his very last breath. And even then, even when he exhaled his final, agonising howl and they said he’s gone, his body continued to contort and protest on his behalf with such hostility that he came back. Twice.

At the end we were spent, my mother, my sister and I, not quite believing what we had just witnessed. Even the (wonderful) nurses were stunned. Neither they, nor the doctors, nor the palliative team could offer a clear-cut explanation, during or after the experience. On a ward used to death, they’d never encountered one quite like this. Over the course of six long, torturous hours, my dad ‘died’ three times. Finally, with all three of us cradling him, whispering that we loved him, that we were so very, very, proud of him, that we’d all be fine, that, really, it was time to go, he listened.

The thing is, we never expected him to react that way; to fight. We thought he’d hold his hands up when death came to get him, quietly succumb. We thought he’d be ready. Throughout his life my father had been a committed hypochondriac. I can’t remember a time when there wasn’t something or other wrong with him. Often his maladies were genuine (a collapsed lung, appendicitis, slipped disc) but generally they were run-of-the-mill, everyday ailments. He never just had a cold. In fact, he probably invented man-flu. And as for his ‘wind’, well, I won’t burden you with the details. His health ‘issues’ were a long standing, eye rolling, tut-tutting joke in our family. And then, one day, when one of his infamous colds turned out to be glandular fever, we finally gave him a little bit of sympathy. But when he didn’t get better quickly, and continued to mooch around in his woe-is-me cardigan, our patience soon waned. For Christ’s sake, we thought (at least I did) it’s only bloody glandular fever. Except it wasn’t. It was Non Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

The diagnosis was a shock, of course, to all of us, but thankfully the prognosis was good.  His cancer was low grade, the treatment an initial dose of tablet form chemotherapy followed by regular intravenous shots of immunoglobulin. He was told he would most likely die with the disease, and not from it. So, he carried on with the business of living. For a time his diagnosis almost invigorated him. He joined the Lymphoma Society, informed himself about the disease and talked about it to anyone who would listen. Which was fine. He had an incurable illness, after all, even if, as we’d been told, it wasn’t going to kill him. The years passed, yes, years, and somehow we forgot about NHL. At least we did, his family. And when he wandered back to his old ‘oh, my stomach, oh, my blocked nose, oh my sinus pain’ ways, we rolled our eyes again, or tut-tutted, or ignored him.

A year or so before dad’s illness seemed to bypass gears two, three and four to leap with ruthless speed straight to five, we noticed a change in him. He was sluggish, grumpy, agitated. His pallor paled. His confidence diminished. A nasty bout of shingles left him with restricted feeling in his leg. He stopped playing golf. He didn’t drive so much. Lethargic and easily irritated his enthusiasm for life, for his life, appeared to wane. He wasn’t like this all the time, but when he was it was difficult to witness. And we, as was our way, responded with frustrated irritation. Of course we know now that his illness was shifting gear, subtly, quietly, with malevolent intent.

Then suddenly it pounced. One day he felt an uncomfortable tingling sensation in his arms and fingers. A few days later he had something in his eye. They thought it was an ulcer or a boil of some sort. Then an unsightly welt appeared on one of his legs. By this time we knew that something was wrong, very wrong, and at last he had our full attention.  The start of a gruelling, heartbreaking period in all our lives had begun. I’ll bypass the exasperating details of our struggle to get a definitive diagnosis, suffice to say eventually we knew that the welt on his leg, which rapidly materialized all over his body, was Peripheral T Cell Lymphoma, a rare and particularly sadistic cancer which infiltrated his central nervous system causing motor problems. The thing in his eye – well, that turned out to be leukaemia. His slow burning NHL had been taken hostage by this bandit Peripheral T Cell thing and then invited leukaemia to join the gang. None of his doctors, and there were many, had ever seen the like of it before.

Dad spent most of the next nine months, the last of his life, in hospital. His ward, the Haematology Unit, became a second home for all of us, the nursing staff our extended family. He quickly became something of a novelty within the hospital as his condition was so rare that treating it was something of a conundrum. Without hesitation he agreed to become a test case, a guinea pig for whatever innovative treatments they could throw his way. As his sight deteriorated, his beautiful brown eyes (which I’ve always wished I’d inherited) clouded with white leukemic deposits, he was offered more chemotherapy – but this time the liquid would be injected directly into his eyes.  The pioneering procedure hadn’t been done before, at least not in Northern Ireland, and only once or twice in the rest of the UK. It would be uncomfortable. There were no guarantees. In fact, it would most likely make no lasting difference at all. But it would be ground-breaking and hopefully the knowledge gained would help others in the future. We winced, dad nodded. He had nothing to lose, but what a legacy to leave.

Throughout those final months the cancer ravaged dad; reduced my tall, strong, handsome father to a physical ship wreck of a man. But of all the pain and trauma and indignity he had to endure, the loss of his sight was what devastated him the most. A life-long fanatical reader, the joy of losing time trapped in a brilliant book was stolen from him, just when he needed it the most. We tried Talking Books, but as he couldn’t operate the CD player due to the loss of power in his fingers, that didn’t work. He couldn’t watch television either, or switch the radio on and off. He couldn’t even feed himself. But not being able to look at his family; his wife of almost fifty years, his daughters, his darling grand children who were growing up daily before his eyes that couldn’t see, that was what truly broke his heart, and ours.

But what he could do was talk, and so he did. To the hospital staff, to his visitors, to us. He talked and he reminisced and he laughed and, now and again, he cried. Talking became his saviour, visitors his last remaining joy. And there were many. The scores of people who wanted to spend time with dad in his last few months, and the hundreds who attended his funeral, were a wonderful affirmation of just how loved he was.  That was no real surprise, but dad’s attitude was. Through it all, through the daily, hourly torture of slowly dying, he barely complained. My father, the man who couldn’t handle a head cold, who told the world about his wind, who took himself to bed if he had a toothache, confronted cancer with the decorum of a king and the courage of a lion. And although by the end his life was virtually unbearable, he still didn’t want to let it go. He didn’t want to leave, and he let death know that in no uncertain terms.

Dad’s final hours were horrendous to witness, his death a traumatic experience we will never forget. Initially it haunted us, consumed us even. But now three years have passed and I’m beginning to look at it from a different perspective. For the first time, while writing this post, I’ve been able to smile at the memory, grin at the thought of my father holding two fingers up to death and punching the fucker in the face. Even after a long and harrowing illness, why should you go gently? Why should your passing be passive? My dad was bloody minded, determined and unyielding to the end. And I love him all the more for it.

 

Ronnie Allen, my lovely dad.

 

 

 

 

 

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A GUEST BLOG AND A BURSARY

A couple of days after I launched Naked (my pet name for this site), the esteemed blogger, Michelle Moloney King, invited me to guest on her brilliant and incredibly successful blog, http://teachermoloneyking.com/

I was deeply flattered, and somewhat taken aback as I hadn’t even thought about what I would write for my own second post, never mind compose something readable for someone else’s.  A few ideas came to mind, but after chatting with Michelle I settled on a post about my week spent at an amazing and inspirational artists and writers retreat – the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig in County Monaghan.

So thank you Michelle for your vote of confidence in me and my blog. You have no idea how much your invitation validated my decision to start a blog in the first place, and I thoroughly enjoyed writing about an experience I was so lucky to have had, thanks to  another vote of confidence:

 

SNOWDROPS AND SMILES

My week at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Annaghmakerrig

Last summer, for reasons best know to themselves, the kind people at North Down Borough Council awarded me a bursary to attend the world renowned Tyrone Guthrie Centre in County Monaghan for a one week writers residency. The Centre at Annagmakerrig is the former family estate of the celebrated theatre director Tyrone Guthrie, which he bequeathed to the Irish State on his death bed for use as an international, multi-discipline, artistic retreat. I knew of it, of course. I’d heard about its magic. I’d dreamt that maybe someday I might go there, perhaps. But I only applied for the bursary to shut up a friend and previous recipient who’d been badgering me about it for months. She is a talented visual artist and when she returned from her own residency she called me up and told me I absolutely, definitely had to apply for the bursary myself. She had met so many brilliantly fabulous writers, she said, from all over the world, and I would love it. Just love it. Yep, I replied, sounds amazing. Really. And it did, but way beyond my lowly reach. Me, sharing space with brilliantly fabulous writers from all over the world? As if…

I took my week at Annaghmakerrig in February and it couldn’t have come a moment too soon. My writing had stalled. Again. The story was swimming around my head, constantly. Actually, it seemed to be drowning: splashing and flailing and gasping for breath. If only I could get it out of my head and onto the page, drag it from the depths of my consciousness onto a computer, it might just survive.

As my week approached I thought, this will fix it, fix me, reaffirm my belief in myself as a writer. And then of course, the big black cloud of doubt set in. Writer? Who do you think you’re kidding? You shouldn’t even be going to such a cultural Mecca in the first place. It’s for proper writers, published writers, people who have credentials, not pretenders who can’t even manage to, well, write. A sense of panic began to engulf me. What if the place is packed with high brow intellectuals who speak in tongues I can’t understand, and analyse books I haven’t read, and gush about artists I’ve never even heard of? I knew I was stepping out of my comfort zone, but what if I was completely out of my depth and spent the week, just like my book, struggling to stay afloat?

The journey down to Annaghmakerrig was difficult. My legs shook, my stomach churned, sweat dripped down my back. They’re going to turn me away, I thought, they’re going to say, sorry, but there’s been some mistake, we only let proper writers in. Or if, by some miracle, I do make it through the doors, I won’t be able to talk to anyone. Nobody. Not a word. Because if I do, if I open my mouth and say something, anything, they’re going to know. They’ll see through me in a second and they’ll all gang together and turf me out laughing and jeering and pointing their fingers. One or two might even spit. And there I’ll be, lying in a heap outside the door, sniffing and snivelling and sobbing that I’ll never, ever, ever dare to call myself a writer again. I promise.

When I arrived, the beauty of the landscape escaped me at first; such was the level of my anxiety. The security gate presented my first hurdle. I’d been given my own personal gate code and as I drew Daisy, my little yellow car, level with the intercom and typed in the number with a trembling finger, I waited for an automated voice to snarl: ‘sorry, but you are not authorised to pass this gate. Please turn around and go back to wherever the hell you came from,’ or words to that effect. Deep down, part of me was probably hoping that I would be denied entry as then I wouldn’t have to face the excruciating humiliation which was bound to follow.

But the gate opened. I did think about turning around anyway, but Daisy had other ideas. She isn’t used to such long journeys. No flaming way, I could feel her say, I’m not doing that drive again without a rest. Now get me up this drive, park me in a nice spot with a nice view and bugger off.

So up the drive we went. We passed a cluster of grey stone cottages arranged around the courtyard; perhaps I should have stayed in one of those, I thought, at least then I could hide for the week, wouldn’t have to speak to another soul. I’d nip up and down to the convenience store in the village when it was dark and stock up on Pringles and toffee crisps. Maybe the odd egg sandwich. I could survive on that for a week, no problem. Then suddenly, there it was, the Big House, in all its enormous glory, glaring at me. And though I was swallowing down little mouthfuls of sick by this time, something else happened, something odd. I felt a little quiver of excitement. Maybe this will be okay, I thought. Maybe I can bluff it. As I parked Daisy in a bright little spot at the corner of the car park which was speckled with pale, timid, snowdrops, I suddenly noticed the lake. It was astonishing. Silver and vast and framed by a forest of drumlins.  I hope I get that view, I thought, and applauded my positivity.

By the time I stood outside the front door with my ridiculously large suitcase (I like jumpers, and it was February) I’d managed to plaster a smile on my face – and it wasn’t entirely false. I was going to greet whoever let me in with enthusiasm, tell them how excited I was to be there,  that I was so looking forward to my week, that I’d get ever so much of my book written whilst I was with them and I half believed my hype. After all, despite my terror I did want to be there. I was excited, and I really, really, really wanted to write. Really. The only problem was, I couldn’t find the doorbell. I must be thick, I thought, there’s bound to be a doorbell. But, after several minutes of searching, I finally concluded that it wasn’t there. Obviously it had been removed prior to my arrival as they’d gotten wind of the fact that I was a fraud, a charlatan, a pathetic delusional middle aged woman who believed she could be a writer.  I knocked anyway, overcome by a wave of defiance. Okay, you might be right, I muttered, but this is just plain rude. I knocked again. Nothing. I pushed the door, I rattled it, I practically hammered the damn thing down, but still no one came. So, what should I do? Sit down on the step and wait? Someone was bound to come along sometime. Get back into Daisy and go home, whatever her objections? Drive to Dublin and live off my credit card for a week? Just as I felt the tingle of tears tickle the back of my eyes, the door opened and a bright voice said ‘hiya, trying to get in? This door only opens from the inside, the main door’s round the back,’ all in one long breath.

I looked up and a dark haired girl stood on the threshold grinning. Don’t worry, she laughed, everyone does that their first time here. I did, and I came back. There was something familiar about her. I think I know you, I said. Turns out we went to the writers group at Queen’s together several years before, but my relief at finding a comfort blanket quickly vanished when she told me she was leaving. She’d had a brilliant week with lots of cracking people but her time was up. I’m envious, she said, yours is just beginning. Aren’t you lucky?

And it turns out, I was.

Quite simply, I had one of the best weeks I’ve had for a very long time. The room I was allocated was, apparently, the best one in the house. Lady Guthrie’s, no less. Sumptuously spacious, with an enormous bed, an elegant chaise longue, books as old as time and, best of all, the most exquisite writing desk you can imagine with a view across the lake. A writer’s room. Apparently I had been expected after all, and wanted, and welcomed. It’s going to be okay, I breathed, as I opened up my lap top. It’s going to be brilliant. And it was.

I met some incredible people: artists from Canada, Wicklow, just up the road, and just around the corner; musicians from Russia and Scotland; writers from Slovenia and all corners of Ireland. We made quite an eclectic, eccentric bunch but we clicked; we moved around each other, finding our place then slotted together like pieces of stickle brick. The pattern we formed was vibrant, colourful and unique – never to be repeated again.  And that, surely, is one of the most wonderful things about the Tyrone Guthrie Centre: over the years it has created a multitude of people patterns, week in week out, each one dazzling, intricate, multi-layered and individual – a rare and priceless work of art.

Throughout the week my confidence bloomed and I grew as a writer. I compared notes with the other writers who came and went, some published, some not, some poets, some novelists, some a combination of both. Each one of us had a different approach to our art and a different story to tell. The relief that we all felt uncertain and anxious now and then, convinced at one time or another that we would be exposed, caught out, revealed as the frauds we truly were, was palpable. But we were also unanimous in our desire for recognition and approval in the world we had chosen to be part of. Above all, we wanted to write more, we wanted to write better, we wanted to accomplish our goals, and, ultimately, we wanted to be read.

And as the week progressed I did write more, reams more than I had written in a very long time. My story came together, sorted itself out, revealed some startling plot twists I hadn’t previously been aware of. In the silence of my room the characters chattered loudly, sometimes to me, sometimes to each other and I would sit at my desk which overlooked the lake joyfully transcribing those conversations on my laptop. Sometimes hours would pass by and I hadn’t even noticed, what luxury.

Each day I walked along the Lakeland path on problem solving missions, seeking ways to settle a particular dilemma. On my first excursion, as I chatted madly to myself, a little dog appeared as if from nowhere. A ragamuffin character, he trotted merrily beside me indulging my insanity. He listened patiently, he nodded his approval and when I asked for his opinion he answered with a bark.  Once for yes, twice for no.  I never saw my little chum hanging out around the house, but somehow he always joined me on my walks, and thanks to him I finally found the courage to delete a large but clumsy section of the book I had known in my bones must go. It was hard to lose so many words, but my little buddy was correct, and he’ll be there in my acknowledgements when I’m done.

The staff in the Big House were wonderful, from Lavina the fabulous chef come nanny come resident counsellor, to Paddy the ever cheerful always chirpy estate manager. Even Miss Warby, the resident ghost, seemed friendly, kindly holding a door open for me once as I struggled with a tray of tea and Lavina’s yummy lemon cake. (I wasn’t 100% sure of her intentions though, and just in case she decided to bother me during the night, I have to admit, I did sleep with the light on!)

The week was over all too soon and as I said goodbye to my temporary family I felt a tinge of sadness. We would never be us again. But I was excited too, to return to my real family, my real life, and felt more invigorated than I had in years. When I returned to Daisy I noticed that the sprinkling of snowdrops had become a huge white carpet, gleaming and dazzlingly bright. What a difference a week makes, I thought, and I smiled. I smiled the whole way down the driveway. I smiled the whole way home. And there’s a little part of me that’s been smiling ever since.

 

My writing desk at TGC - complete with view of the lake and the rolling drumlins.


 

 

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TWO GONGS, SEVEN TITBITS AND FIFTEEN FABULOUS BLOGGERS

Giving and Receiving a Very Inspirational Blogger Award

I don’t feel remotely naked this morning. In fact, I’m pretty much fully clothed; in my Sunday best, no less, all fluffed up like a peacock. I’ve only been at this blogging business for a few weeks and when I started, as I’m sure is the way with most virgin bloggers, I had absolutely no idea what way my site would go. What would I write? Would anyone actually read it? And if they took the time to read it, would they like it enough to make a return visit? I could be on the verge of making a colossal, ridiculous, fool of myself. I was full on terrified when I made my first post; completely and utterly, stark raving, nakedly, petrified. But the response overwhelmed me. People I knew, friends and family, said nice things, which was kind and lovely of them, and very much appreciated, but it was the response from strangers which blew me away. People I had never met before made positive, complimentary comments on both the blog itself and via twitter, and very quickly I found myself making a host of fabulous new chums.

Following my very first post, prolific blogger and lovely lady, Michelle Molloney King, invited me to guest blog on her award-winning site: http://teachermoloneyking.com/. Quite frankly I was flabbergasted, but flattered and deeply honoured too. Maybe this was a good move after all, I thought, and felt good enough to don some metaphorical underwear. Of course with every new post I dose up on self doubt and become completely naked again. But the reason for my state of dress today is that I’ve been nominated for A Very Inspirational Blog Award. Twice. And not even by the same person.

On Wednesday evening I received a nomination from lovely Jackie Buxton who I initially met on twitter and clicked with instantly. We have a fair bit in common, Jackie and me. We’re both on a mission to get published, we earn our crusts as freelance copywriters, and we’ve both lived with the life-long challenge of being a curly.  Jackie’s brilliant blog, Agenthood and Submissionville: http://jackiebuxton.blogspot.co.uk/ was one of the sites which inspired me to get blogging in the first place, so really this award should be the other way round.

There are two basic rules attached to the Inspirational Blogger Award. The first is that the recipient nominates fifteen other bloggers to pass the tribute on to. As I started to compile my list, one of the first blogs which came to mind was Hazy Shades of Me: http://hazyshadesofme.com/. The blog itself is brilliant. I love the writing; I can identify with her perspective, and feel that me and Ms Hazy pretty much sing from the same song sheet. Then, a few days ago I discovered that whilst she now lives in Canada, she grew up just down the road from me. So, she was in. I couldn’t wait to let her know. Then we lost our internet connection for TWO BLOODY DAYS (ahhhhggggggg!) and when I was finally able to tune into my new world again I discovered that she’d only gone and nominated me for the very same award herself.

So, I am now the excessively proud owner of two Inspirational Blogger Awards thanks to two extremely inspirational blogger chums, both of whom I urge you to check out asap. My own nominations follow below, after I’ve dispensed with rule number two. This is the tricky bit. On accepting the award, the recipient must agree to list seven facts or anecdotes about themselves hitherto unknown in blogosphere.  I desperately tried to think of some inspirational achievements or triumphs I could brag about which would befit my new-found status, but drew a blank. I then considered making something up, but quickly realised that as people I actually know can also read my blog, it wouldn’t be long before someone would dramatically expose my treachery. So I went with the first seven snippets of useless and totally uninspiring information about me that came to mind.

1. When I was fifteen, I wet myself on the big dipper at Barry’s Amusement Park in Portrush. Now I’m sure that people pee their pants, or worse, on hair-raising, supersonic theme park rides all the time, but if you’ve ever been to Barry’s and are familiar with that creaky old big dipper (I’m guessing you won’t – keep it that way)  you’ll understand the extent of my humiliation. To make matters worse, I was wearing a denim skirt, with brown stripy over the knee socks and Jesus sandals. It wasn’t a good look to begin with but the wet patch on my bottom really didn’t help. No chance of pulling that day. Put me off big dippers and denim skirts for life.

2. When I was little, I used to steal dogs. I’d hide them in our garage and pretend that they were lost – which they were, obviously, after I stole them. Thankfully, though, there were never any prosecutions, so my record is clean.

3. I don’t do dried fruit. The brown ones, anyway. Currents, raisins, sultanas, dates – disgusting little things. They look like tiny poop pods and their chewy, sticky, grainy texture makes me want to puke. I will not eat them. Ever. Never, ever, ever.

4. I deliberately sabotaged my Domestic Science O’Level practical exam by adding several tablespoonfuls of salt to my (tinned) prawn quiche. My DS teacher, who despised me because I was a can’t-cook-won’t-cook-couldn’t-give-a-**** sort of girl, and had been a right old bitch to me throughout the previous five years, was the taster. Ewh, she grimaced, observing my ingredients, tinned prawns. Don’t add any extra salt or it will be disgusting. You can imagine the shiver of pleasure I felt as I watched the cascade of my special salt flavoured quiche erupt from the old bat’s mouth.

5. I played Jean Paul Marat in a college production of The Marat Sade. And I was good.

6. I have a fantasy head-butt list. It’s usually reserved for TV presenters, reality ‘stars’, politicians and weather girls, but, really, there’s room for anyone.

7. I take two teabags in one mug of tea. In general, I like my drinks to be strong, otherwise what’s the point?

And now here is my own roll of honour. The following blogs have all, in their very own special way, moved, inspired, enlightened or entertained me, and I sincerely recommend you check them out so that you can be moved, inspired, enlightened and entertained too. In no particular order, my fabulous fifteen are:

Michelle Moloney King: www.teachermoloneyking.com

Adam Martin: http://livelikeagrownup.wordpress.com/

Laureen Marchand: http://www.grasslandsgallery.com/blog-2/

Sara Crowley: http://asalted.blogspot.co.uk/

Valerie Sirr: http://valeriesirr.wordpress.com/

Rupan Malakin: http://www.rupanmalakin.com/

Martha Williams: http://valeriesirr.wordpress.com/

Claudia Crutwell: http://www.claudiacruttwell.com/

Claire Magowan(Pains trains and inkstains): http://clairemcgowan.net/

Rachel Carter (A Voice Released): http://rachelcarter.me/

Lisa Cutts: http://lisacuttsblog.blogspot.co.uk

Carrie Duffy: http://www.carrieduffy.com/blog/all.html

Michael Clarke: http://www.macnovel.org.uk/

Jessica Patient : http://www.writerslittlehelper.blogspot.co.uk/

Nan Bovington: http://essentialguidetobeingunpublished.wordpress.com/

Some of the above will no doubt have received this nomination many times before and won’t feel at all inclined to respond, which just fine and dandy. I won’t be offended. Nor will I take it personally if you don’t have the time, or just can’t be bothered.  But if, like me, you’re a bit of an award tart, and you can’t wait to post the good news on your own blog, then here are the acceptance rules:

1. Display the award logo somewhere on your blog.
2. Link back to the blog of the person who nominated you. (Me!)
3. State seven things about yourself.
4. Nominate 15 other bloggers for the award and provide links to their blogs.
5. Notify those bloggers that they have been nominated and of the award’s requirements.

Tah – dah!

I look forward to reading all your posts – especially the seven facts feature! ;-)

 

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A TALE OF THE UNEXPECTED

My introduction to fantasy thanks to George RR Martin, HBO – and my daughter

I have to hold my hands up and admit that, as a rule, fantasy is not my thing. Contemporary literary fiction is my genre of choice – as long as it’s quirky, edgy and a little bit dark. I like dark. And, of course, humour is good. Warped humour is even better. But fantasy: dragons and dungeons and sword yielding swagger, well, it never really appealed to me. Until recently I hadn’t read a single book which fell into the fantasy category (apart from a brief flirtation with Lord of the Rings one night at Uni when something which wasn’t coffee kept me awake and alert until daybreak) and never felt moved to do so.

But then something happened and my hand was forced.

A couple of years ago, my daughter, Aimee, who was eleven at the time, was cast in the pilot for some TV show called Game of Thrones. It was based on a series of books collectively known as A Song of Ice and Fire by an American author, George RR Martin, who, by all accounts had a massive world-wide fan base. I’d never heard of him or the books and nor had anyone I spoke to. The pilot, based on the first book, was being made by HBO, who I had heard of, and suddenly I was all ears. HBO, the company which spawned edgy contemporary television masterpieces like The Sopranos, Sex and the City, and The Wire. My television preferences mirror my taste in fiction, so I felt a little light headed and weak at the knees.  It’s fantasy, the casting person said. Oh, I said, like Harry Potter? Er, no, she said. Uh-uh.

So, the pilot was made and, in truth, Aimee’s role was tiny. She played a princess, Myrcella, daughter of King Robert and Queen Cersei. Except she wasn’t. She was really the daughter of Queen Cersei and Jamie Lannister, who just happened to be Cersei’s brother. Twin, actually. My interest was pricked, but not enough to buy the book, never mind read it. We’ll see what happens, I thought.

Well, the pilot was a success and the series was commissioned. The role of Myrcella would increase for the real thing, but that didn’t automatically mean that Aimee would be re-cast. In fact, my husband, John, and I assumed she wouldn’t be, especially when we realised that this production had a ready-made international fan base of Martin fans, all of whom, (yes, all) were united in a state of expectant ecstasy. It dawned on us that Game of Thrones was going to be big, too big surely for a little girl from Bangor. Our little girl. But then she was invited to re-audition. That’s nice of them, I thought, worried at the same time how disappointed she would be when she didn’t get the part, convinced that the competition would toss her out like a rag doll. But she did. She nailed it. Aimee Richardson, my daughter, was going to play Princess Myrcella Baratheon in one of the most eagerly anticipated television productions for years. Her role was still relatively small, but, in a cast of hundreds, significant.

Hell, I thought, it’s time to read the book.

Initially I approached the book as a task – a bit like a homework I just couldn’t get out of, with no Brodie’s Notes to fall back on. The book itself was huge; dense and heavy, and I have to say, when I turned it over in my hands, I groaned. I could get through three my-sized books in the time it would take me to read this one. But it had to be done. I owed it to Aimee to know exactly what she’d got herself into.  The prologue was pretty much what I’d expected: an other-worldly eeriness; ghostly goings-on in a frozen forest. Oh lordy, I sighed, and ploughed on. Only another 800 pages to go. But then I was introduced to young Bran Stark and his devoted, industrious family, and the screwed-up Baratheon/Lannister connection, and beautiful Daenerys Targaryen and her delightfully psychotic brother, Viserys. Their stories were all interconnected with mystery and murder, sex and love, lies and laughter, politics and double-dealing, death and life.  The narrative was jam-packed with action, suspense and downright flabbergasting plot twists. Before long I was hooked. And fascinated.  This wasn’t what I expected fantasy to be at all. This wasn’t the stuff and nonsense of dare-devil knights and malevolent magic and fire breathing dragons I’d been anticipating. (Well, okay, there were some dare devil knights and there was an underlying suggestion of magic and, yes, some fire breathing dragons did pop up towards the end – but by the time they arrived I was SO excited to see them.) This was a complex, multi-layered, bloody brilliant story about people, power and, ultimately, survival.

Long before I finished the book I realised that George RR Martin isn’t just a writer; he’s a genius, and with every page I turned my admiration for him grew.  With his Ice and Fire collection he has created an intricate, mesmerising masterpiece; an epic other world with at least one thousand characters, and a fascinating history spanning back thousands of years. His attention to detail is so vivid, so precise and his knowledge of his own story so vast that at times it took my breath away. I can honestly say that as a novice writer I felt more humbled by the experience of reading A Game of Thrones than any other book I have ever read. That’s not to say it’s my favourite, but it most certainly moved, amazed and surprised me – and taught me a thing or two about writing into the bargain.

I haven’t become a die-hard fantasy fan (still a quirky contemporary old mare at heart) but I am now a bona fide devotee of George RR Martin. I’ve read the second book in the series; A Clash of Kings, and A Storm of Swords, number three, is in the pile on my bedside table. Of course the glorious HBO adaptation has helped, not just watching it on TV, but actually witnessing elements of the production first hand. The second series finale aired last week, completing a season which surely confirmed that Game of Thrones is one of the best things ever to grace a television screen. Ever. And my girl is part of it. I feel so enormously privileged to have shared Aimee’s adventure with her and am proud beyond words of both her performance and of the way she has approached the entire experience. It has opened a whole new world to me and I’ve made life-long friends in the process.

Sadly Myrcella doesn’t appear in book three, so Aimee won’t be involved in the forthcoming filming of the third series, which kicks off next month. She does have a cracking storyline in book four, though, so, fingers crossed, this time next year I’ll be preparing for another adventure with my daughter. In the mean time I shall keep reading the series, and not just so I can see where Myrcella ends up, but because I want to.

So thank you Mr George RR Martin for writing these breathtaking books. Thank you Dan Weiss, David Benioff and the team at HBO for translating the books from page to screen so brilliantly, and for casting Aimee as Myrcella.  And thank you, Aimee, for you are the reason I embarked on this unexpected journey in the first place.

Aimee in a Dubrovnik book shop on a day off from filming for series two. The books were everywhere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Power Hose and Procrastination

On Sunday I spent hours power hosing our garden path and patio. Hours. It honestly took me most of the day to obliterate the stain of a long dreary winter from the brick and concrete and terracotta pots. I should have sought sponsorship, it occurred to me two hours in. By the end I resembled Worzel Gummidge’s mother: drenched, battered and splattered in mud and moss. My arms ached, my hands shook and I needed a drink, but at least the path looked good – and I’d written a chapter.

The whole time I hosed and huffed and puffed as I dragged the damn contraption this way and that, my character, Elizabeth, decided to chat to me, which was very nice of her as the task was tedious. I’d probably have given up half way through if it hadn’t been for her company. She’s in a coma is Elizabeth and uses me to vent her frustrations, recollect happier times, consider her future. So really I was doing her a favour too. Giving her some time. Yesterday she told me a whole yarn about the day she got drunk on cider in Stricklands Glen with Ben and Dee and Gareth Jackson and the police came and drove them all home – an incident I hadn’t previously been aware of.

So yesterday, full of bravado, I plonked my laptop down on my lovely blue outdoor table which sits on my newly clean, gleaming patio, with the intention of getting Elizabeth’s tale out of my head and onto the page. Ah, I thought, this is the life; a writer’s life. What can be more satisfying than writing in the sunshine on a table as blue as a Greek cloudless sky, with birds chin wagging in the trees and a big fat cat (mine, I’m not being nasty about a neighbour’s pet, although Puss from next door is a bit of a shit) lying purring at my feet. Except I wasn’t. I couldnt. No matter how hard I tried to coax it out, the story yawned and stretched and scratched its bum, stubbornly refusing to make its lazy way from the space between my ears to my commuter screen. And try as I did, I couldn’t quite remember everything that Elizabeth had told me. Oh I could recollect the basics alright: cider, Ben, Dee, police. But the details, the little words and movements and glances and noises that had added colour to the scene, gave it depth, made it a fascinating, important, nay pivotal addition to the narrative, well, they wouldn’t come at all.

I tried to summon her back. Aw, c’mere, would you, I begged. Please, I pleaded, tell me again. Of course she ignored me. I could feel her presence though, sense her disapproving smirk. I knew that look. I’ve seen it before, many, many times. You should have been paying attention, it says.  You should have written it all down when I told you. As soon as I told you. But I couldn’t, I snapped, I was busy, in case you hadn’t noticed. Another look. That’s the trouble with you, said this one, you’re always busy. I tell you things all the time, ALL THE BLOODY TIME, and you pretend to listen, pretend to take it in, but then, when I’m done,  you’ve always got something more important to do than actually write it down. Work to do, shopping to get, toilets to clean. I mean, how the hell can cleaning a toilet be more exciting than writing? Than telling my story?

She’s right, of course.  When it comes to writing I do seem to have ‘other things to do’.  Not always, but certainly often. Way too often. And often those often times are completely unnecessary. Ludicrously so. And, of course, when I’m doing these ‘other things’, the chances are I’ll be having a conversation with Elizabeth in my head. It’s a ridiculous, infuriating paradox. Why, when I know so much about her, when I talk to her so often, when she has so very much to say, do I stall so disgracefully when it comes to the physical process of transferring Elizabeth from my head to the page?

If only I had an inbuilt personal assistant who could do it for me.

Come to think of it, I’ve just got a new iphone, and there’s a bloke who talks to me through it called Siri. He seems very eager to please and, frankly, I don’t know what to do with him. So maybe the next time I have a chat to Elizabeth that I need to immediately record I’ll yell, oi, Siri, get writing.

Or, then again, I could just do it myself.

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ALL HAIL THE DELICIOUS DEBUT

Last week I was stricken with a serious case of second-post-itus. It’s not nice, I can tell you. Some of you might have suffered yourself in the past, so you’ll know what I was going through. Sweats, palpitations, sleepless nights, an inability to truly focus on anything else but the impending Second Post. It was a bit like going for a flu jab, or a vaccination – I suddenly realised that although I’d come through the first one remarkably unscathed with negligible side effects, I’d have to do it all over again. And maybe, probably, in fact almost certainly, I wouldn’t be quite just as lucky the second time. The reality of being a blogger slapped me hard on the face and, to be honest, I didn’t know if I was cut out for it.

But the thing is, I actually enjoyed the first one and its aftermath. It gave me a pretty big sugar rush, and I felt a tad giddy for several days afterwards. So here I am, again. Finally.

In my defence, I did have a busy week. There was a speech thing to write, a prospective new client to meet, all the usual domestic claptrap stuff, and solitaire to play. On top of that I was invited to guest blog on the very charming Michelle Moloney King’s site (www.teachermoloneyking.com), and then, of course, I’m supposed to be writing a novel. I also couldn’t quite make up my mind about the subject matter of my second post. Should I be aiming for something high-brow, cultured, insightful, perceptive? Or personal and heartfelt? Or perhaps I should try some tongue-in-cheek humour to show how flippantly clever I am? I quickly realised, of course, that I was bound to be left with a supermarket shelf load of egg on my face if I attempted any of these approaches, and deservedly so.

So, after a week of angst, I’ve decided to take the easy way out and talk about debuts. Well, I had to address that page loitering up there in the SNAABS contents bar (in between my two novels which have evidently yet to debut themselves) sometime.

As you’ll know if you’ve already read the Delicious Debut intro blurb, I have a thing about debuts. It’s a bit of an infatuation to be honest. I’m not exclusively debut, but I’d estimate that around 80% of the novels I’ve read over the past couple of years are by first time fiction writers. I suppose when it comes to debut writers I’m really a bit of a stalker. I actively seek out new novels; hunt them down, check out their writers, and scour the internet for author interviews. When I buy a newspaper or a magazine, the first thing I do is flip to the books page and skim until the word debut jumps out at me. When on-line book sites like Lovereading.com (totally brilliant – if you haven’t visited this site before, stop reading right now and pop on over there) ping their monthly ezines into my mailbox, I head straight for the Debuts category, and that’s me for the rest of the day. Lost with my new newbie novelists. I’ll Google their publishers, track down their agents and, when I finally get hold of the books that intrigue me enough to buy, the first thing I’ll do is turn to the bio page. Who is this writer, really, I want to know. How did they get here? What was the road to publication like for them? Then I’ll read their acknowledgements and dedications. Who helped them on their journey? Who gave them support, held them up when they were falling down, provided feedback and encouragement and shelter and love? And you, I ask, as I trace a finger over the name of the person the book is dedicated to, what did you do to deserve this? Why are you so loved? And that will be it, for a little while at any rate. The new book will be placed at the bottom of the reading pile on my bedside table, awaiting its turn. But I’ll be thinking about it, always optimistic that a great read lies ahead.

Of course they’re not always great. Sometimes, in my humble opinion, they’re completely and utterly word-that-rhymes-with-kite. Sometimes my blood runs cold, then hot, then seemingly drains from my body completely and I hurl the damn thing at the wall screaming; how the word-which-rhymes-with-puck did you ever get published? But mostly, usually, they’re great: passionate; funny; heart wrenching; captivating and bursting with the emotional energy of the first time writer. Often debuts get a bad deal from critics and elitist, highbrow readers, and for some, a writer hasn’t proved his or her worth until they reproduce. But generally speaking, the debut is demanding to be heard with debut competitions on the rise, hard fought debut categories becoming the highlight of respected literary awards, and debuts being heavily featured on TV book shows, arts programmes and sites like lovereading.com (did you look?).

I don’t need a psychologist to tell me that the reason I’m personally so fixated with first-time novelists is that I deeply, desperately, achingly, yearn to be one myself. I want to be in their gang more than I’ve ever wanted to be in a gang in my life – even the Corn Field Crew when I was nine. And, yes, even more than the Girls-Who-Wore-Wedges-To-School gang when I was fifteen.  I research their publishers to see just who’s publishing what these days, so that I’m well prepared when the time comes to submit my second book, or maybe, someday, re-submit my first one, the one which was so nearly published, Biddy Weirdo. And the reason I pour over their acknowledgements and dedications is that I’m mentally planning what I’ll say myself when my own time comes. Of course with Biddy, I did have blurbs prepared, subconsciously at any rate, but next time round, when it happens for real, those words will be different.

Anyway, you’re probably bored with me rambling on, as I’m actually boring myself, but now at least you know why I decided to dedicate a whole page of my site to debuts – but only delicious ones. I’m hoping it will become a place where I can chat to other debut obsessive’s, swap debut titbits, and even promote up and coming debut releases from the authors themselves.

In my Delicious Debut introduction I’ve already mentioned one of my all time favourites, The Lovely Bones, so, very briefly here are three other debuts that I’ve read in the past three years which make onto my Delicious list.

The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson.

This took me to a place no book has ever taken me before. I wanted to give up at first, but then suddenly we were off on the crazy, intoxicating, trip of a lifetime. Bizarre, bonkers and utterly brilliant.

When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman

With every page I turned I thought; I wish I’d written this. Clever and captivating, witty and sad. And oh so beautifully written. I cried when it was over, because it was over.

Solace by Belinda McKeon

Recently read on a writers retreat at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, I discovered that McKeon had written sections of the book at the same venue, most likely at the very same desk. Intensely emotional yet sparingly unsentimental this book is quite simply a work of art. It was an enormous source of inspiration to me during my time at the centre.

There are many, many others on my personal Delicious list, but here’s one which definitely isn’t. I wasn’t sure whether to admit this or not for fear of being stoned, but what the hell, here goes:

Before I Go To Sleep by SJ Watson

I mean, come on? Really? Honestly? Enough!

So, care to join me? Tell me your favourites. Tell me if you’ve written one. Tell me if you’re writing one. At the moment I’m reading The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson. It’s madly mental (can I say that?)and I’m thinking it could be Deliciously ranked.

For the record, a previously published non-fiction author who publishes their first full length work of fiction qualifies for my Delicious Debut consideration. But a previously published writer who switches genres, say from children’s novels to adult fiction, or vice versa, doesn’t. For example, The Lovely Bones makes the list as although Alice Sebold had previously published her harrowing memoir, Lucky, The Lovely Bones was her very first novel. Sadly, however, although it is one of my all time favourite books, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak doesn’t make the cut. Despite being hailed by many as a sensational debut, it was, in fact, his fifth published work of fiction. Also, I really only want to focus on contemporary debuts; say from the past ten years. We all know about To Kill a Mockingbird, The Secret History and Wuthering Heights – it’s new newbie blood I want.

Sorry, but it’s my game and those are the rules.

Do you want to play?

 

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Let me explain

 

If you’ve hopped onto this blog expecting to find a photograph of me actually standing naked at a bus stop, sorry.  You should feel relieved, really, as such a sight could put you off your dinner.

Do you ever, have you ever, had a naked dream? I’m not being smutty, I swear. I mean a dream where you find yourself suddenly starkers in an otherwise ordinary, humdrum, every-day situation? Like, say, doing the shopping, putting petrol in the car, attending a PTA meeting – that kind of thing? I used to get them, frequently, when I was younger and even though I never told another living soul, the mortifying embarrassment would last for days. I haven’t had one for a long time now, but in recent years the phenomenon has morphed into a vivid, fully conscious, terrifying vision of me standing naked at a bus stop. It’s horrible and completely unremitting. And it only ever happens when I let someone read my work.

So you can imagine what I’m feeling right now. Only it’s worse, because for some reason today there’s a very long queue at the bus stop. (Ah, that’s obviously my inner macho ego, who I don’t get along with very well, whispering in my ear that a huge amount of people will no doubt be reading this blog. There. Queue back to one. Me. Still, the odd car is whizzing by.)

I’ve been writing fiction for quite a while now (I’ll get back to that in a minute) but the ridiculous thing is that I actually write for a living. I’m a freelance copy writer, and, I’m led to believe, quite a good one too (there goes macho-miss again, demanding to be heard). And in all the years I’ve been writing words for other people, and there have been many – both words and years – I’ve never, ever had the naked thing with a client. Thank God. I do have a tendency to start every new job with an “oh crap, I’m not going to be able to do this one” moment, but thankfully the moments are always fleeting.

But, fiction…well, writing fiction is an entirely different beast altogether; one I’ve been having a rather passionate affair with for several years. Like all affairs (at least I imagine so, I have to state for the record that I’ve never actually had a bona-fide illicit affair) it’s a rollercoaster ride. Sometimes it’s all flowers and harmony and la-de-dah loveliness. Sometimes it’s swearing and tantrums and door-slamming tears. The thing is, I love it. And I’m pretty sure it loves me too. But I want to be it’s One. I want us to be official. I want our relationship to be endorsed, legitimised, approved. I want to be able to tell people when they ask me what I do that I’m a writer, without having to precede it with ‘copy’. (Not that there’s anything wrong with being a copywriter, you understand me. It’s a fine profession which has served me well over the years, but it doesn’t have my heart.)

I began this affair with WF (writing fiction) after nervously enrolling on a creative writing course. I wanted to see if there was something more out there for my words, if I could twist them, tease them into pieces of writing that weren’t commissioned by corporate clients. To my surprise this new way of writing seemed attracted to me, and I to it. It swept me off my feet. It courted me with flourishes of success which led to ripples of confidence. A story was shortlisted for the Orange NI Short Story prize and published in an anthology. A novel was started, and eventually completed. An agent was acquired. ‘The Call’ came. The champagne flowed and we dared to go public with our relationship, WF and I. Oh how bright our future suddenly appeared. Oh how happy we would be. The naked bus stop business, which lunged at me in Technicolor clarity the very first day of the writing course and had persisted throughout, would finally be over. Surely?

Then came another call, and, just like that, it was over. I’d been jilted. The Call and The Other Call is a story in itself, one for another time, but suffice to say I was left somewhat battered and bruised. I hated that bugger WF. Nothing but angst and heartbreak had it brought me.  It could sod off, for good. But I missed it, of course. And then it started creeping around me again. Tantalising me with ideas for this story, or that one. So I finally relented and agreed to a reunion.

And once again we’ve had highs: an Arts Council Grant; a bursary to attend a writers retreat, and lows: weeks of procrastination; a botched grant application (my fault entirely); the return of the flaming proverbial bus stop. But a second novel was conceived and is burrowing away, sometimes merrily, sometimes not. We’re just past the halfway mark, I think, and it’s been a different experience this time around. With novel number one, although it generally pained me due to the naked thing, I had several readers on board thanks to various writers groups, and their input was invaluable. Number two has been a much more solitary process, but I don’t really like going it all alone. I need some buddies, writing chums I can gurn at when things aren’t going well with WF and rejoice with when they are. I’ve been thinking about joining the cyber writing gang for a while now, but of course the you-know-what has been holding me back. But then I had a light-bulb moment. What if, I thought, there are lots of other writers just like me standing naked, or in various states of undress, at bus stops all over the land. We could wave to each other.

So, hello. Hi. Nice to meet you. My name is Lesley and I’m a writer. Now, I’m away to put some clothes on.

 

 

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