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Off-grid: Greg Rook’s paintings of a post-apocalyptic Good Life

Off-grid paintings by Greg Rook

What would life look like stripped of technology, in a possible post-disaster future? That’s the question posed by Greg Rook in his atmospheric and rather ominous Off-grid series of paintings, which you can see at the Aldridge theatre in Farnham till 10 December.

One of Greg’s inspirations for these paintings was The Good Life, first broadcast in 1975, which seemed to embody the ideals of making-do and self-reliance, and suggest a possible future in which these values would triumph. Or would it? He describes the Off-grid series as ‘mock heroic paintings of our past potential futures’. They’re a reinvention of 1970s ideas of what might lie ahead, but also draw on off-grid movements and communes of today and of the past.

Apparently prepping stores (where you can get everything you need to survive an apocalypse) are commonplace in the US and are on their way over here. Is this the kind of future their client base is imagining?

Greg Rook's Off-grid paintings

Eagle-eyed readers of this blog will remember that I once went to an earlier exhibition of Greg’s work on this theme – his Survivors paintings. I asked him what he thought he might end up doing if he lived in the kind of commune he had portrayed. He said he thought he’d probably be a terrible survivor, and went on to predict that men in particular would fall prey to strange new post-apocalyptic schools of thought: ‘I worry about men’s tendency to get lost in beliefs and self-importance and I predict that women would carry the burden of providing following a collapse. I imagine factions, sects, conspiracies and theories occupying the men’s time.’

The good life, by Greg Rook

So would the people pictured in these paintings survive? ‘Ultimately we are adaptable and our happiness is relative to our circumstances. If our expectations become limited then our aspirations shrink to fit, and what we require to survive adapts accordingly.’

Here’s my Q&A about Greg’s work, covering influences, process (what does he listen to?) and research – and what it is that ‘makes his hands itch with wanting to paint’.

You can find out more from Greg’s website.

Off-grid-evite3

Regular readers of this blog will know that at the end of October I went to North Cornwall Book Festival and was put up with a number of authors in a farmhouse at St Endellion. If apocalypse had struck and left us stranded there, who knows, we might have all had to turn our hands to agrarian living…

At least we’d have had Patrick Gale to teach us about farming. And perhaps Neel Mukherjee’s experience of scything would have had a practical application in addition to its literary effectiveness (it was undertaken as research for the brilliant scene where Supratik, the revolutionary in The Lives of Others, struggles to learn the technique and keep going in the brutal heat. As Neel explained in conversation with Patricia Duncker at NCBF, he found it extraordinarily difficult and exhausting too…)

My time at North Cornwall Book Festival: a feast of books, music, conversation… and cake

Photo: Dan Hall
Photo: Dan Hall

I usually go to litfests to sit in the audience, not on the stage, so my recent trip to North Cornwall Book Festival was a little nerve-racking – though as it turned out there was nothing to fear, and everything to enjoy. I was involved in two events: first off I talked about my books to bestselling novelist and tirelessly hospitable festival host Patrick Gale, and then I hosted his talk about his latest book, A Place Called Winter. I also taught my first ever creative writing workshop.

I’m left with a blur of impressions: a marqueeful of primary school children laughing themselves silly at Christopher William Hill; sitting round the table at the farmhouse where most of us authors were staying, eating the most delicious poached pears; the moon rising over St Endellion Church, where we gathered for evening music of surprising and non-ecclesiastical kinds; lounging round in sudden sunlight on Sunday lunchtime when my workshop was done (you can see a photo of me with Patrick Gale and Neel Mukherjee at this point in this blog post about NCBF by BD Hawkey.)

There was a super-speedy blogging team from Falmouth Uni headquartered in the farmhouse – they wrote lots of great posts about the various author events and I’ve linked to several of them below – their NCBF blog is a really good whistle-stop tour of the whole experience.  There are also loads more brilliant pics (thank you Dan Hall) on the NCBF FB page.

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bloggers @charlottemsabin and @beakheads

North Cornwall Book Festival: authors and music galore

Moray Laing busy booksigning Photo: Dan Hall
Moray Laing signing autographs
Photo: Dan Hall

These are the events I went to:

At my event, I learned that Patrick Gale and I are both childhood fans of Mary Stewart, and talked about genre (one of the themes of the weekend) – here’s a bit more about it. As for Patrick, well, he must be the world’s easiest interviewee.

Patrick Gale
Patrick Gale
Photo: Dan Hall

The music at St Endellion Church was a revelation. I had to work seriously hard not to blub when Tom Hickox sang The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face (a song with associations and let’s face it, it’s a weep-inducer.)

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St Endellion Church

Wild Willy Barrett’s French Connection was irresistibly foot-tapping and got me in the mood for a hoedown. Missed my old cowgirl hat…

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My workshop: handling romance in fiction

At my workshop we talked about the archetype of the hero’s journey, with Cinderella as an example.

the hero(ine)'s journey

We also looked at three key scenes from stories about love, and discussed how love stories are always also about something else: whatever it is that is coming between the lovers and creating dramatic tension in the story (and is the reason for the story to exist). These are the novels we looked at:

  • Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  • A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale
workshop
Photo: Dan Hall

These are the books I recommended on storytelling, writing and becoming a writer:

  • The Writer’s Journey – Christopher Vogler
  • Negotiating with the Dead – Margaret Atwood
  • On Writing – Stephen King
  • On Becoming a Novelist, The Art of Fiction – John Gardner
  • The Writer’s Voice – Al Alvarez
  • Wild Mary – Patrick Marnham

And here are some of the characters and places we came up with for our meet cute exercise, just in case someone wants to give it a go (five minutes, take two characters and a place and write their meeting). It’s amazing what it’s possible to come up with in such a short space of time and reading what you’ve written out loud is always useful (turns out Patrick Gale does this a lot when he’s working on a new book).

Characters

  • Lottery winner
  • Someone who missed last train
  • Ex-boyfriend
  • Single parent on benefits
  • Soldier with PTSD
  • Coffee barista
  • Dog
  • Santa (someone dressed as)
  • Ex-vicar
  • Bailiff
  • Make-up artist
  • Policewoman
  • Depressed Hollywood star
  • Antiques dealer
  • American yoga teacher
  • Bank robber
  • Weather forecaster

Places

  • Fancy dress party
  • Camping site in the rain
  • Traffic jam
  • The moor at dawn
  • Edge of a cliff
  • Therapist’s waiting room
  • Manhattan rooftop
  • Village pub
  • Launderette
  • Smoking shelter
  • Ferry to a Greek island
  • Billiard table (full-size)
  • Purgatory

All good things must come to an end (till next time), and come Monday morning I was spirited away from the magic of NCBF to the much more familiar (but suddenly novel) magic of home. It was lovely to get back and have a big group hug, but the festival has stayed with me and so it will remain through the winter as this treasure trove sees me through the dark, the fog and the gloom:

books from North Cornwall Book Festival

If you’re in Cornwall next October half-term – do go! It will set you up for the winter. Oh, and did I mention the pasties and the cakes? No? A terrible omission. NCBF is a feast of all kinds, as you’ll see when you get there.

Thanks to the festival team for exemplary organisation, Patrick Gale for inviting me and Neel Mukherjee for suggesting me.

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the flowers in each author’s room

Litfest events I have loved

Polly Samson and Patrick Gale: seduction, loss, land and longing

Polly Samson's The Kindness and Patrick Gale's A Place Called WinterOutside was a preposterously beautiful, Technicolour autumn day, all blue skies and trees turning the colours of fire. If you’d used it in a film it would have been for heartbreak and parting, a belated outpouring of summer made all the more vivid because it is nearly time to say goodbye. Inside the grand but compact chamber of Henley’s Town Hall it was unseasonably warm; with five minutes to go there were only two seats left, and I took one of them. ‘Not much knee space. We’re rather close,’ somebody said as I squeezed in and arranged myself.

We were a packed and anticipant roomful of mostly women, book lovers and therefore by definition fond of the essentially private pastime of reading, though we were there not to read but to listen and to ask questions, to experience fiction as a public event. Instead of words on a page or a screen, we were going to see the writers who had drawn us there and hear their voices. We wanted stories, but more than that, we hoped for a glimpse into how and why they were told.

At one end of the room was a small and empty stage with three important-looking chairs, which were throne-like but in the manner of an English town hall and therefore designed for the comfortable sitting-out of long meetings as well as to be imposing. I imagine all sorts of practical things have been discussed in that room over the years: the price of corn or parking, the collection of refuse, the balancing of books and the taking of votes.

We weren’t there for any of that. We were there for semen and baby shoes, tales of a psychopathic rapist or a leech-like friend, families divided by wars and continents and the brutal convictions of an era, the tragedy of failed reconciliations and the power of impossible loves. And that was what we got, but as if that wasn’t enough, we also got to find out a little bit about what it takes to make all that stuff up and write it down.

Secrets uncovered: the prelude to post-lunch erotica

Windows were opened; the noises of outside – traffic, the market – drifted in along with the stirring of cooler air. A frisson ran round the room as our writers came in and went up to the little stage and took their places. We were on our way.

I’m sorry not to have a picture of them: they were a glamorous pairing. Patrick Gale is a dazzlingly charming silver fox, with a voice you could listen to forever – I think I’m right in saying he wanted to be an actor when he was younger and he has that gift that some actors have of making an instant connection with other people, a sort of receptivity that both gives and holds attention. I’m onto my fifth Patrick Gale novel now and am a committed member of his fan club, or would be if he formally had one. If you haven’t read any, and you have a space in your reading life for a writer who will draw you in, make you care, make you laugh and break your heart, then go get started.

Patrick Gale's novels

Polly Samson was new to me. There’s something otherworldly about her which makes it not quite right to describe her in worldly terms. She’s beautiful, poised, measured, with the kind of cool intelligence and self-possession that suggest heat under the surface. She’s also kind of rock’n’roll. She’s a lyricist as well as a novelist; her other half is David Gilmour from Pink Floyd and when she’s working on a book she reads what she’s written each day out loud to him in the evening.

Our hour with Patrick and Polly was hosted by Lucy Cavendish, who mentioned that Polly hadn’t eaten any lunch while Patrick had got through two chocolate brownies. If he was skittish, so were we. Off we went with a discussion about how both authors’ latest books had drawn life from their family history and secrets. Patrick told us about Harry Cane, his mother’s mysterious cowboy grandpa who emigrated to Canada under something of a cloud. Patrick set out to tell a story that would explain both what had happened to him and the way the family spoke about him, ‘a story that the women of the family wouldn’t have been told, but that might have been true’: ‘my nefarious scheme of gaying my great-grandfather.’ (I think that might be my favourite PG line from the session, along with the description of the readings as ‘post-lunch erotica’.)

Polly relayed a story from her own family history, a tormenting love triangle in which paternity was at stake. A couple who could not have a baby asked a friend to father a child for them, which he duly did before emigrating to the US, with the understanding that future contact between them would be minimal. But then war broke out and the husband sent his wife and child to their biological father in the US for safety, remaining in Paris to sort out paperwork… and ended up interned and separated from them for years, after which time his wife had decided that their child only needed one father, and was already living with him. A terrible story which culminated in the husband’s suicide.

This fed into Polly’s new novel The Kindness, though transplanted into a different time and place. Polly’s own complicated parentage also provided fuel for the story, and she told us about the father figure with whom she had lost contact, who she later learned had kept her baby shoes close by all his life.

A lesson in how to breathe and a cloudy offering

Both writers read aloud from their novels. Both read scenes that involved seduction, of one kind or another. Polly’s had a specimen jar, innocence yielding to scientific curiosity and a braless milkmaid, the examination of a cloudy offering. Patrick’s had a therapist who teaches a young man to breathe, then introduces him to sex on a bed so narrow that one of them must always be on top of the other. Clients visit in the morning, but the young man is invited to return in the afternoons: ‘You can just wait in the bed.’

We laughed and fanned ourselves with the useful cards explaining who had sponsored the event. They had us. We were sold. Now we wanted to find out how they had managed it. And this is what we learned.

(Warning: there are some spoilers in what follows, though I’ve tried to keep them to a minimum, but if you absolutely hate spoilers, you should go and read the books first. If, like me, you are undisciplined and sometimes even peek at the end of a story before you get there, you won’t care.)

The novel you end up writing may be quite different, in form at least, from the one you set out to write.

This was a bit of a revelation to me as I thought it was only me that did this and everybody else just put together their card indexes or flow charts or whatever and wrote the damn things, but no.

Patrick set out to write a very simple book, drawing on EM Forster and boys’ adventure stories, starting at the beginning and rattling on to the end: wrote it, and then set about chopping it up, both to tease the reader through the narrative and to break up the sadness in it. So the novel is a bit like a thriller, in that you learn early on that Harry has killed someone and that there are loves he can’t speak about.

Polly’s last book was a collection of interlinked short stories, and she set out to write this one as a series of stories but then restructured it so that she had two main voices followed by a third voice. She had been surprised by comments that it was like a thriller, and hadn’t set out to write a novel with twists and turns, but there they were. This meant she’d had ‘the joy of writing from two perspectives’ – she gave as an example an assignation in a Paris hotel described from the point of view of both the male and female lover, a fantasy made real for one and a seedy compromise for the other.

The story will be brought to life by the happy accident of characters who make their own way in.

Patrick told the story of Troels Munck, the antagonist to Harry Cane’s hero and, for my money, one of the most terrifying and convincing villains in all of literature. (A Place Called Winter is revelatory about evil, and how people try to survive it and can be destroyed by it.) The name was given by a real-life someone who had won an auction for it to be included. Patrick described the email exchange that followed: (PG): ‘Is it all right if I turn you into a psychopathic rapist?’ [LONG TUMBLEWEED EMAIL SILENCE] (TM): ‘OK, as long as he is hot.’

Is Troels hot? He’s a bully and a brute, but a compelling one – and he’s real, which is testament to the truthfulness with which he has been created. God save us all from encounters with the likes of Troels – outside of the pages of a book.

Polly spoke about Katie, the leech-like friend who was meant to be just a line in The Kindness but kept turning up. She also described the intense absorption of writing, how her children would come back from school and talk to her about their days and she would find herself not really taking it in, still caught up in the world of her characters. (I know that particular daze.) But she’d read Elena Ferrante while she was working on The Kindness – four years of close work, twenty years of gestation in all – and had found that Ferrante’s characters were as real to her as the ones she had invented herself and was carrying round with her. (Now I have to decide what to read next, The Kindness or Ferrante.)

Polly commented on how characters seem to turn up fully-formed. Patrick agreed: ‘They have to be, or they don’t work on the page.’

But what about planning? Patrick said he plans meticulously, but then ignores the plan. ‘It’s like getting ready for a play – I need to know about the characters and feel confident about who they are.’

The land you put into your book will shape it.

Patrick explained how as he worked on the book he had got increasingly angry about what had been done in Canada, but had wanted to show that in an elliptical way, without tub-thumping about imperialism. It’s there in the tragedy of Ursula. Also, as he explored the landscape and the history of the settlements, he became increasingly aware of how dangerous it was, and how vulnerable his characters were. Hence Troels.

Here’s a surprise nugget for you: there were no starlings in Canada till 1934, as a Canadian friend of Patrick’s told him after reading an early draft. Starlings follow agriculture and it took till then for them to arrive. So you won’t find them in Winter.

Patrick talked about his road trip to find his grandfather’s lot, and asked Polly if the house and garden in The Kindess were based on a real place: ‘I really wanted to go weeding there.’ Polly said the garden was a mixture of gardens she had loved.
Inevitably, your research will shape your book. Are there starlings, or not? Polly’s novel opens with a hawking scene. What size are the baby mice fed to a hawk?

Children in stories – yearned for or lost – exert a special power.

Harry Cane is a father, separated from his child by both distance and disgrace, and the plot of The Kindness hinges on the fathering of a child. Patrick said he felt that the male yearning to be a father is not much written about, and I think this is true; as he said, most stories that touch on this cast the father as the reluctant figure and the mother as longing for a child. (There is a weird nexus of cultural confusion around this, a mixture of blind spot and acute sensitivity – writers, take note: when that happens, there’s something to dig for.)

The story of Polly’s baby shoe lingered with us. (It made me think of the design for the hardback cover of Julie Cohen’s Dear Thing, which featured baby shoes, and which prompted a brilliant baby-shoe-shopping scene in the final version of the book.) At the end of the session, when I was chatting with my neighbours in the audience, one of them mentioned Ernest Hemingway’s potent six-word story: ‘For sale: baby shoes, nearly worn.’

And finally…

Patrick was asked whether he had a favourite out of his books. And yes – he does: they are the ones he wrote during the happiest times of his life: Notes from an Exhibition, Rough Music, Little Bits of Baby. ‘I’m always very protective of the most recent one, it’s like a child that’s just started school.’

And then we were done. We shifted and stretched, murmured to each other about how good it had been, formed an orderly line for books and signing, began to slip away.

Sooner or later we will start to read. We will hear those stories again, not in the august surroundings of Henley Town Hall but wherever we are – on a lunch break, in an armchair on a winter’s night, in the doctor’s waiting room. And once more we will allow those voices to take us somewhere else.

Polly Samson and Patrick Gale were speaking at Henley Literary Festival, in conversation with Lucy Cavendish, at an event sponsored by HW Fisher & Company.

‘Food and money and sex and crime’: how to be popular

IMG_1303‘… We acknowledged what many journalists were at that time anxious to forget – that the basic interests of the human race are not in philosophy, economics or brass-rubbing but in things like food and money and sex and crime, football and TV. But we did not deal with these things to the exclusion of all others.’ (Larry Lamb, Sunrise)

In 1969 Rupert Murdoch relaunched the Sun and turned it into the bestselling newspaper in the English language. How was it done? Larry Lamb, who was the first editor of the paper under Murdoch, tells the story in Sunrise.

Published in 1989, it’s also a pithy account of how to be popular. The success of the paper was driven by editorial gut instinct rather than data – helped along by an awful lot of marketing (giveaway knickers were the favourite. Graham King, who ran the promotions department, was writing a book about Emile Zola in his spare time.)

Here are some choice quotes:

(On the previous incarnation of The Sun, owned by IPC and given an overhaul by IPC’s then editorial director Hugh Cudlipp): ‘… The newspaper he produced, based so firmly upon the market research, was, like most such products in publishing, so smooth, so laid-back, so iffy and butty, as to be totally devoid of character.’

(On the brief conversation LL had about his contract with Rupert Murdoch after the long dinner that got him hired as editor): ‘The only thing I tried to insist upon was that I would be responsible only to the Chairman. I had seen too many editors struggling vainly to please managing directors who knew little or nothing of the creative process.’

(On the team they put together to relaunch the Sun): ‘We recruited… a handful of Fleet Street’s chronic unemployed, some of whose drinking habits had made them almost unemployable. We needed them as much as they needed us. On the whole, they did not let us down.’

‘…We could not, initially, write a Page One headline with more than three letter Es because in the largest size available that was all we had. There were many stores at that time about Europe, and the EEC. Neither the word nor the initial were popular with me. Both have two Es, leaving only one to play with…’

‘Apart from smelling better, it seems to me, women tend to work harder. They are often more receptive to change. And they are not short of stamina. Women who can handle a couple of toddlers efficiently cannot be short on stamina. Women who can handle a couple of toddlers and a demanding second job are nothing short of miracle-workers.’

(Of Val Hudson, who was taken on to write about prices and quality but then also wrote about her attempts to get pregnant): ‘capable of fine humorous writing – a rare quality…’

‘Most journalists are in the business because they like to feel they have a message of some kind. But it isn’t the slightest use having a message unless one has an audience.’

(Page One opinion, The Sun, June 1970): ‘The time has come, and The Sun would vote Labour. Not because the Government has been a scintillating success. It hasn’t. But because, all things considered, we believe Harold Wilson has the better team. Not only the better team, but a team which is more concerned about ordinary people. Concerned, too, about things like social justice, equality of opportunity, and the quality of living. These are things The Sun cares about. The Sun believes that Edward Heath cares about them, too. But we feel they are more likely to be lost sight of under a Tory administration. For Mr Heath is not the Tory party. And The Sun is not convinced that the Tory leopard has changed his spots.’

Beware the spike between the eyes

Sunrise is a vivid conjuring up of a time gone by, when it was possible for a newspaper sub-editor to lean down to get cigarettes out of a desk drawer and inadvertently spike himself between the eyes (as LL once did, before his editorship of The Sun, when working at the Daily Mail in 1957).

The spike was just that – a long, thin bit of metal for holding unwanted bits of paper. I never saw one in use, but this occasionally dangerous item gave the business of journalism a term that lives on – nobody wants their copy to be spiked.

Smoking in newspaper offices lingered on much longer. When I did work experience at News International in the early 90s, the cuttings library, which was stuffed with old bits of paper, had till very recently been regarded as a good place to go for a quiet smoke.

I also met a somewhat flushed old hack whose name I forget, who reminisced about the good old days when it was possible to down a bottle or two of claret before being dispatched onto a plane to do a story without the foggiest idea of where you were going or what you were meant to be writing about. The Martini-swilling ad men of Mad Men had nothing on the lunchtime boozers of Fleet Street in their heyday.

A few years earlier, in the late 80s, when I was 16 and on work experience at the Reading Chronicle, I was taken to see a printing press running full throttle, churning out copies of the paper. It was an awe-inspiring sight – and sound: power in action. It made a big impression on me, and it’s part of the reason why the newspaper industry in the last decades of the last century is going to form part of the backdrop to the new novel I’m starting work on (hence Sunrise: research).

Adventures on the wrong side of the law

In the late 80s (through to the 90s) journalists still used typewriters and the work experience’s job was usually to count the words in the copy. The court reporter at the Reading Chronicle kindly took me to court with him to give me something more interesting to do. A woman was up for shoplifting, though what she had nicked wasn’t worth much; someone else was in trouble because he’d got drunk and sat in the middle of the road with a traffic cone on his head.

They both looked crushed and thoroughly sheepish, though by then it was too late for regret. I realised how easy it can be to find yourself on the wrong side of the law, and my new novel will touch on that, too.

Food and money and sex and crime… these things are the lifeblood of newspapers then as now. And of fiction, too.

Naturally, there’s a place for animals as well. The chance to win a pet was one of The Sun’s most successful promotions in the 1970s, alongside football stamps (and giveaway knickers). These days, everybody loves a cat on the internet, right?

Yes, there are new ways of finding and reading and watching what interests us. Times change, and the past really is another country. But a good story will always catch the eye, draw us in and get us to turn the page, whether or not it’s on paper.

Beautiful games: my autistic son at play

IMG_0773When he was younger, he’d line up rows of straws and twiddle them in turn between his hands; now he loves nothing more than to have his toys taken apart (or dismantle them himself) and see what’s inside. Sometimes he even puts them back together.

IMG_1041Over the years, my son Tom, who has autism and is now eight, has gone through different phases with his toys, like any child. He’s always been fond of things that light up and he likes squidgy sensory toys and mechanical toys – things with wind-up mechanisms or motors and axles and cogs. I never would have thought that he’d learn to comment on whether toy cars are pull-back or friction-powered – but he does.

IMG_0758Some things he was once terrified of now fascinate him, such as fans and bubble machines. He also likes to arrange his toys or their constituent parts – maybe it’s a fond maternal eye, but I do love to see these arrangements. It seems to me that sometimes there’s an artistic (or scientific? Or both?) sensitivity and precision to them. Sometimes, though, it all turns into a crazy tangle! I thought I’d put together some of the pictures I’ve taken of his games down the years.

Sometimes he pimps his toys, like these creations – wheels and axles from one kind of toy, bodies from something else.

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Here he is with another creation – a spinner.

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Lining things up is good, especially with the help of a suitable wall.

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The line below is of robot vacuum cleaners. Or he was pretending they were, anyway.

my autistic son's toys

Not sure what these sensory animal toys make of the morass of other stuff they’re warily eyeing up.

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Sometimes, it all just gets a bit chaotic…

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But sometimes, the effect is rather magical.

autistic son's light-up toys

light-up toys
Soft toys do have their place, too. Well, Blue Bear, Tom’s autism awareness bear, definitely does.

my son with his Autism Awareness bear
The very favourite toy of all is the ipad. When it got broken once, it was necessary to make do with this substitute while it was mended…

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Insides of things are sometimes just as important and interesting as outsides.

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Sometimes it is essential for alien eggs to live on the kitchen table for a while…

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Other times, the best thing is being outside

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checking out nature

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or going somewhere new

IMG_0547like maybe the seaside

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and exploring it with people you love.

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The impossible choice: Kramer vs Kramer

Kramer vs Kramer

Has everybody seen Kramer vs Kramer? I watched it again about a year ago, as part of my research for my (nearly-finished) work-in-progress, which is partly about the aftermath of a custody battle. I was talking about it with a friend in a cafe a week ago when something unusual happened: the guy at the next table chipped in to tell us how that film had changed his life.

I’d just been talking about how I’d gone back to the book on which the film was based, and the case it makes for how, under some circumstances, the father should get primary custody after a split. Our neighbour at the next table was American, about my age – a 1970s child. He told us his parents had split up around the time Kramer vs Kramer came out and he had been about the same age as the boy in the film.

The original plan had been for him to live with his mother when everything was settled, but he had been living with his dad for a few months when his mum came to him and asked him who he wanted to live with: her, or his dad? And he chose his dad.

She’d asked him because she had seen the film and had been so affected by it. ‘A boy needs his father,’ she said.

So how had all this worked out? All right, it seemed – though it had meant the boy had to get on a plane to see his mother, which happened around three times a year.

Looking back from an adult’s perspective, he wondered if he’d understood the question in the way that she had meant it, as a choice between his parents. Perhaps he had really thought she was asking, ‘Do you want to stay here with Dad in the place you’ve got to know, or come with me to a place you’ve never seen?’ and, as children do, had plumped for what seemed most familiar, the least upheaval, at the time.

Stories are powerful things and sometimes they change lives…

ChipLitFest: Reasons to Stay Alive, Richard and Judy and mothers in fiction

IMG_1149As the parent of a child with autism, you mess with routine at your peril – but once in a while you have to try something new. And so, last Saturday, instead of doing the usual things, I went off to Chipping Norton Literary Festival (ChipLitFest) to listen to authors talking about their books.

I also sat outside lovely indie bookshop Jaffe and Neale drinking tea and starspotting (I saw Lee Child! Charisma! Very tall! Nice to his fans! I was too shy to ask him for a photo/autograph though.)

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And I set about filling up my biggest Books Are My Bag bag with signed copies. You can fit a *lot* in a Books Are My Bag bag, and here’s proof – this is what I got into mine:

my book haul from ChipLitFest

All that, *and* a brolly and an outfit change…

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Matt Haig talks to Cathy Rentzenbrick: Reasons to Stay Alive

First off, I went to see Matt Haig, author of The Humans, talking about his book Reasons to Stay Alive, which is about his experience of depression and – well, the title says it all, really. He was being interviewed by Cathy Rentzenbrick, who is associate editor of The Bookseller and has a memoir coming out in July this year about her brother, who was hit by a car on a night out a fortnight before his GCSE results and was left in a permanent vegetative state.

Sombre subject matter, but listening to them was ultimately enlightening and uplifting, far from the ‘double dose of misery and disaster’ that Cathy drily referred to. It was obvious from the questions asked by the audience that Matt’s philosophical frankness about what he’d been through had touched people and connected with their own experiences.

In the end, Matt said, he was grateful for his experience of anxiety and depression. ‘It’s made me appreciate life more, and appreciate pleasure more. When I was younger, it was about extremes. Now I’ve got a thinner skin, I can enjoy going for a walk and being with my children.’ He added: ‘You need to feel the terror to feel the wonder.’

Matt on writing? ‘For me writing is both uplifting and depressing. The actual writing is uplifting; the career aspect is difficult.’

Richard and Judy with Julie Cohen

On to Richard and Judy, interviewed by my fellow Transworld author Julie Cohen whose novel Dear Thing was a Richard and Judy Book Club pick. I never actually watched the Richard and Judy TV show… misspent youth! They’re brilliant – what a double act. It’s an art to tag-team the way they do, to be warm and open and personal, to tell anecdotes that work as stories. I was absolutely and completely charmed. It was a cosy venue − Chipping Norton’s lovely and compact Victorian theatre − and it really did feel like being invited into their living-room.

Richard talked about book programmes on TV – his view was that stand-alone book programmes couldn’t work, and that the Richard and Judy book club had been so successful on TV because it was an item on a show that was also about all sorts of other things. He recalled the first book they featured, Star of the Sea by Joseph O’Connor, and how, three days later, the publisher rang up to ask for advance warning if they were to feature another book on the programme, as they had sold out of the entire print run.

Both Richard and Judy discussed their attachment to Cornwall (I can definitely identify with that), which is where Judy’s novels are set. Now I know a bit about Looe Island! They also both spoke very movingly about their memories of their friend Caron Keating, who died in 2004.

Richard and Judy on writing? Both stressed the importance of pressing on and finishing – and both recommended Stephen King’s On Writing (I’m a fan too). And Richard said, ‘I’m a bloke from Romford, Essex, who left grammar school at 16 – if I can do it, anybody can do it.’

Mothers in fiction: Clare Mackintosh, Hannah Beckerman, Rowan Coleman

Next: mothers in fiction, a panel discussion with three novelists.

Clare Mackintosh was the founder of ChipLitFest and her debut novel I Let You Go, a psychological thriller, is out in paperback in May. It’s about a mother who moves to a remote cottage on the Welsh coast in an attempt to start a new life after a tragic accident – but then the past catches up with her. Clare observed about her novel, ‘I think you write books like that, and you read books like that, because ultimately you want to count your blessings.’

Rowan Coleman has written more than twenty books, including The Memory Book, which was a Richard and Judy Book Club pick and is about Claire, a mother whose family help her put together a book of memories after she is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimers. The Memory Book has its fair share of romance – Claire has a lovely husband (Rowan explained during the course of the talk that she didn’t want anybody in this book to be villainous), but it’s also very much an affectionate portrait of a matriarchy, with starring roles for Claire’s mother and daughter.

Hannah Beckerman’s debut novel, The Dead Wife’s Handbook, is about a woman who watches from the afterlife, or a kind of limbo, as her husband and child adjust to life without her – and then her husband meets someone new. Hannah wrote it when she was pregnant with her first child – it was then picked up for publication and she did a thorough rewrite after having her baby, having realised that the emotions her heroine went through didn’t go nearly far enough to reflect the reality of motherhood.

The novelists were asked to name their favourite mothers in fiction, and these are the books they mentioned:

  • Room by Emma Donoghue
  • Dear Thing by Julie Cohen
  • The Girl With All the Gifts by M R Carey

… though the very first fictional mother mentioned was Mrs Bennett, and I have to say she’s the first one I think of too.

Mulling over this later, I found myself thinking about Rachel in Patrick Gale’s Notes from an Exhibition (especially the scene where she gets so absorbed in drawing by the sea that she more or less forgets about her kid – when you read this you are on tenterhooks wondering if he is going to be all right). Also: Moominmamma, and the scene in The Magician’s Hat when she looks into Moomin’s eyes and knows it’s him, even though the magic hat has completely changed his appearance. That’s mother love all right.

To give Rowan Coleman the last word on motherhood: ‘It’s about being there when nobody else will be there. That’s what you know your mum will do, and what you know you will do for your children.’

Writers, Not Writing: an exhibition of photos by Jane Stillwell

Finally I went to see the exhibition of photos of writers not writing, by Jane Stillwell. Cue multiple double takes as the subjects wandered round chatting and swigging champagne while their portraits looked on from the walls… Here’s mine.

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It was a great day – though it was lovely to get home too. My son asked where I’d been: ‘Mummy was invisible,’ he declared after I tried to explain. (Charlie Brown turns invisible in a cartoon he likes.)

I was also glad I made time to sneak away from the hubbub, sit on a bench, take in the scenery and read my book (Rachel Hore’s A Gathering Storm, which features an exceptionally heroic mother.)

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