Dear Travel Journal

It’s day three and I’m not sure future generations will ever believe my record of commuting in 2018. Travel is supposed to broaden the mind but it’s just making me lose mine.

Today is typical. I drove to catch the 6:45am train and I came across a group or (to use the proper collective noun) ‘murder’ of crows in the middle of the country road. One which was too idle to take off in time met its maker at 60 mph, showering my car in sinister feathers. My question is: if I’ve murdered a crow in a murder of crows am I a double murderer?

Somewhat rattled, I got to the station in time but to no avail. I know I live in the country but it’s still absurd when your train has been cancelled due to bird strike on the driver’s window. And that bird was a pheasant.

The 6.45 being out of action, the next departure was also delayed because, according to a weary announcement, there were ‘two lads who are refusing to pay for their tickets and until we get them off the train, we’re not leaving.’ Wherever the excitement was, it wasn’t in my carriage and despite everyone craning over each other to look out of the window, we never saw the miscreants being hauled off which was a shame as it would have livened things up. Perhaps it was no wonder that after that, when we finally got moving, the person in charge of the train wasn’t sure where we were. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, this train will shortly be arriving at …….’ Very long pause…Eventually an automated tannoy announcement came on. I wasn’t really listening to the destination list until it said ‘next station Axminster’ which is in the wrong direction. No one else in the carriage seemed to notice (probably, like me, busy trying to get the free wifi to connect). I looked up and the information doodah screen definitely said the next station was Andover. I spent the next half an hour in a state of mild anxiety but eventually Andover rolled into view. After that, they seemed to have changed the tape.

I got a drink from the trolley to calm my nerves, took a swig of tea and discovered it was coffee. Yuk. The next unpleasant thing was realising someone in the carriage was constantly but silently breaking wind and knowing they might be doing it all the way to London. Luckily, he seemed to get off at the next stop, or else just ran out of methane. But when I got up to put my tea, or rather, coffee container in the bin, I got back to witness an otherwise attractive young man picking his nose. He then ate it. Perhaps he considered it to be breakfast.

A bit later, a glamorous young woman got on. She started by fixing her enormous pseudo beehive with hairspray. Yes. In the carriage full of people. Shortly after that, she sharpened her talons with an emery board. It sounds like nails on blackboard and bits of shavings went everywhere.

I averted my eyes to the view out of the window but when at the next stop, a man sat next to me and started crocheting, I ended up mesmerised by his creation. So I was still looking when he put the wool down and started scrawling a list instead. It appeared to say:

  1. Cheese
  2. Fluffy PJs
  3. Bedsocks
  4. Pillows
  5. Travel rabbit

Now, I’m fairly sure that the last item was travel tablets scribed in bad handwriting, but you never know. I wonder (apart from anything obvious) what a travel rabbit could be. I may have to write a story.

Oh but the joys of an early morning commute in midwinter. The squelchy sneezes, the coughs full of enough catarrh to coat the back of a spoon, the sniffs, all the germs joyfully mingling when it turned out the train was three carriages short and the virus laden bodies were crammed up against each other in a proximity British people abhor unless newly in love. Ah the joys of finding the train journey will take an extra 40 mins due to a sick person in another train at Clapham Junction. I mean why? What could we do about it?

And then the journey stopped completely due to signalling problems. Apparently trains were being signalled through one by one by hand. I am not sure what this means but had visions of The Railway Children waving a petticoat. I suppose it can’t be the same as the average modern petticoat is too flimsy to re-direct a train.

So that was then. Somewhere in between there was a day at work (same old same old) and then I started home.

I was slightly worried to start with because the announcer on the train sounded French. Initially I wondered if I had been transported, without noticing, from London to Paris or, in fact, to the other Waterloo? (Is the other Waterloo French speaking? Quick internet search…. Yes I think it is). Anyway, I was ALMOST sure I heard Salisbury being mentioned as a destination, so I thought I should be safe. Bit of a shame really, I wouldn’t mind finding myself in Belgium instead and from thence, after a bit of sight-seeing, on a south-bound train to the Côte d’Azur.

At the beginning of the journey, I sat next to a dainty looking young woman who turned out to be eating a burger bigger than her head. It was a bit grim to watch and worse to smell but I managed to move across the aisle to give her elbow room while she shoved it down. I thought her jaw might dislocate at one point. Meanwhile some loud man was holding forth about politics. He sounded like someone from a thirties gangster movie and was trying to get the postal address and photo of another passenger who managed to escape at the next stop (and I have a feeling he didn’t even really want to get off there). As the train pulled off again, the burger-girl dropped the last bits of fast food on her black trousers. I was so glad I’d moved. My dress wouldn’t have been improved by ground beef, ketchup and mayo.

For the next half hour our carriage was invaded by a loud group who had been chucked, effing and blinding out of the ‘quiet’ carriage. The loudest one yelled ‘I’m gonna complain to the train company! What’s the point of quiet carriages? Who wants to be quiet on a train?’ It sums up the average Briton’s sang-froid (or distaste for confrontation) that despite the fact everyone else was thinking ‘me – I want to be quiet’, all anyone did was tut and roll eyes at each other.

Meanwhile, burger-girl was replaced by a series of quiet but revolting people. Taking her place across the aisle was someone scratching and scraping flakes of skin onto the seat next to him. Someone somewhere else was breaking wind. Then a small man sat down beside me and stuck his elbows out. Shortly thereafter, he ate crisps and a ripe egg mayo sandwich loudly WITH HIS MOUTH OPEN and drank tea with slurps worthy of a drain clearing machine. The phantom farter upped his or her game and this added to the effluence of the egg sarnies. I would have been sick, but there wasn’t enough room. When the passengers thinned out, the mouth-open-slurper did go off to another seat, but not before kicking most of his rubbish onto the floor. Lovely.

I might have relaxed then but was busy restraining myself from standing up, leaning over the seat behind and telling the girl sitting there that if she persisted in saying “like” every third word I might have to kill her. I imagined that if I did, she’d just say “so I’m just like sitting here and you’re like being so like aggressive and like I think like killing me is like illegal or like something”. And it was all too exhausting, so I didn’t.

And now, with just 40 minutes to go, the train has just stopped in middle of nowhere. Apparently there is a cow on the line. We have to wait while a railway manager with herding experience gets her back into the field and stands guard at the side of the railway to keep her from being turned into mincemeat. Although quite possible burger-girl would lick the tracks.

Dear Travel Journal. As I say, no-one would ever believe this. I think I may have to change your function and turn you into a fantasy novel in which all the heroine wants to do is get home and is thwarted in every chapter by almost insurmountable challenges and drooling monsters.

It would probably seem more plausible than anything that’s happened today.

IMG_3079

Words and photograph copyright 2018 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

If you want to read the story I wrote about ‘The Travel Rabbit’ you’ll have to check out this book!

Advertisements

Where Be Dragons?

dragons

 

Words copyright 2018 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Background from Photoshop Elements 2012.

Finding the Plot – Venturing Out part two

What an experience my first writing collaboration has been.

We started on 19th January thinking we’d be finished by the end of March but we got carried away and the last words of just under 54k were written yesterday (10th February) at 5pm.

The Case of the Black Tulips’  is now closed. The protagonists are having a day off in the sun. Liz Hedgecock and I are putting our feet up having toasted each other in a virtual sense from opposite ends of the country.

We started with a series of messages and a woolly idea. I sent Liz a photograph of some notes I’d scribbled on the back of something else (see scrawl below) and she still wanted to continue. We both work on the ‘write first, research as you go along’ principle which meant that periodically one of us would disappear down a research rabbit hole and pop back up not necessarily with a rabbit but something else entirely to drop into the stew.

Our book starts in 1890 or thereabouts, so there was a lot of background detail to investigate and I’ve put some links below which may or may not be included in the book but certainly kept us entertained, amazed and sometimes shocked.

Still, our protagonists are not women who let conventions get in the way of adventure, and perhaps in a different sort of way neither did we.

I presume that script-writers etc who work together on projects usually actually tell each other what they’re planning to do next. We took another approach. We weren’t going to spoil the fun with common sense when we could have shenanigans instead.

I wrote chapter one and Liz wrote chapter two and so on. Given the pace we were writing at (at least one chapter a day each) and the fact that boring things like work and family kept getting in the way, there wasn’t a lot of time to tell the other what we were planning to do next. Consequently in chapter nine I introduced an object, planning to utilise it in chapter eleven but then Liz ‘lost’ it in chapter ten. Liz introduced a character in chapter twenty but in chapter twenty-three I… nope, not telling you any more, you’ll have to read it to find out.

If you’re wondering why there’s a photograph of people rushing about, it’s because on Tuesday 6th February, I had been writing that day’s chapter on the morning train and hadn’t quite finished it. Liz was waiting. Before I disappeared into the underground on the way to work, I sat in the concourse of Waterloo, sat on a bench outside WH Smiths, frantically wrote the last words and emailed them off. It’s been that kind of experience.

Doing it again? I really hope so. It’s been great fun and I hope readers will enjoy the end result.

The painful part (editing) is yet to come, but the characters are itching to get their sleeves rolled up and sort out another mystery. Who knows what they’ll be up against next.

I can see some more research rabbit holes opening up as I type.

Better get my notebook out.

Why were women employed in the Victorian civil service? Small fingers, brains and lower pay…

Interactive map of gas lamps still in London

What did the creation of sewing machines mean to women?

How much could you earn as a servant in a big country house in 1890?

Women’s cycling – a revolution

A Victorian list of do’s & don’t’s for women cyclists!

Lighting in the Victorian home

Venturing Out

Put Down The Embroidery, We’re Going In

 

Words and photograph copyright 2018 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Venturing Out

Often wondered how scriptwriters and comedians work on scripts together? Me too. Who gets to decide whose joke or line goes where and has an equal voice?

I think I was six years old the last time I collaborated creatively outside work.

Two of us drew a mouse. We decided to do half each. This way we could be proud of our part yet share in the glory of the overall effect. I drew a lustrous tail and beautiful furry haunches. He got the eyes and whiskers. Or maybe it was the other way round. Either way, no one could see the join (although if that mouse had ever come to life there might have been trouble).

Well that was a long time ago and I never expected to collaborate creatively outside work again.

Then I met other writers on Facebook and a strange thing happened. I started to discuss writing with people I’ve never met and share ideas which up till then were hidden in my head.

One day, during a message exchange, one of them mentioned collaboration.

Liz Hedgecock is author of a number of mysteries, many set in Victorian London. I love her stories and was flattered to be approached.

Both of us work and have families. We live a fair distance apart. A hazy plan to do something in Autumn 2017 came apart when we both decided to do NaNoWriMo in November. With the best will in the world we realised it was impossible to start something new before Christmas.

Nevertheless, we sketched out via messenger and email two unlikely Victorian female detectives: young women determined not to let the restrictions of corsets and decorum stop them from solving a crime.

We set a date to discuss the logistics on 19th January. If this all sounds very formal, it’s because we’ve never actually met in person. I shuddered at the thought of a video call, but fortunately so did Liz.

So we talked via cyberspace and plotted.

I had been nervous. What if we didn’t get on?

But it was fine. We were chatting like old friends in no time.

With a working title of The Case of The Black Tulips, our story was born.

So how are we collaborating? We decided on an approach which gives us equal input and voice. We have a character each and tell the story through ‘our’ person alone. It is like a very complex game of consequences, especially when Liz changes tack and I have to alter direction myself. Are we mad? Probably, but it is tremendous fun.

We’ve got so caught up in it that we are nearly half way through the first draft already with ideas of sequels forming. Watch this space if you like mysteries and feisty female leads because we hope to publish later this year.

I often tell people that I started writing stories because I wanted to have adventures like children in books and it was the only way to do it. I’m still writing for the same reason. My new character has found a friend and is having a wonderful adventure.

And the same is true for me.

Finding the Plot – Venturing Out part two

Put Down The Embroidery, We’re Going In

bloomers-1

Words copyright 2018 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

Another Step

New Year’s Day. What resolutions have you made?

Yesterday, I resolved not to make any. Yet today, as I chewed my nails (must stop doing that) I realised I would have to revisit one of last year’s: tidy the loft.

There are three reasons for this:

  1. I was looking for something this time last year. Now I am looking for two things. Neither are terribly important, but I want them.
  2. The household ghost has gone very quiet, and this is either because he’s hiding from all the Christmas and New Year friends and relations or because he’s got stuck between all the additional boxes which have appeared in the last twelve months.
  3. The loft is now more chaotic than it was last year for reasons which defy explanation and despite my untidy genes, it is doing my head in.

Our home is, as I might have said before, something of a ‘house that Jack built’. It started as a bungalow and had various parts added at various times since the 1950s and we have yet to find a right angle. Anyway, all that aside, one of the previous owners must have had plans to turn the loft into another room because they put a window in one of the gable ends. They didn’t quite finish the job – you can still see breeze blocks and there is no sill – but the point is, subject to building regulations, an additional staircase and a chunk of cash, if I could only clear it out, we could have a loft room.

For years, this was my dream. I yearned for a place where I could hide away from the family and write, beyond the playstation, the kitchen, the washing machine, the TV. But it wasn’t financially feasible, so I turned my attention to the corner of the garden which had foundations from an old shed and longed for a new one. Not a dusty wooden box but a fancy garden-room: a place where I could hide away from the family and write, beyond the playstation, the kitchen, blah-blah-blah. The trouble was, even if I’d been able to find the money, I had better things to spend it on.

In the end, one day in Autumn 2015, I decided that it wasn’t the lack of a silent room of my own which was holding me back. It was myself. A year later, having got used to writing on my lap, on trains, in the kitchen, in whatever quietish corner I could find, I published ‘Kindling’.

What has any of this to do with New Year?

Well I still want to clear the loft, or at least get it organised. But the need to convert it, or have a garden-room is pretty much gone. My children are eighteen and sixteen. In a year or two, I will have more empty rooms and more quiet than I will know what to do with.

Now I feel slightly richer for the things I haven’t got because I’ve realised I didn’t need them in the first place. Ask me what I want for my birthday – go on ask me… I want nothing but a nice day out to make memories. I am fortunate enough to have the material things I need and the things I’d like for myself and others: health, world peace, freedom from anger, grief and fear cannot be purchased no matter how rich you are.

The only thing that I do lack is determination and you can’t buy me that either. I have to find it myself and I am inspired by others who, with much bigger things to worry about, demonstrate it.

Last year, I wept for many friends. For some of them, 2017 was the continuation of previous miserable years. For others, sickness, bereavement or betrayal came out of nowhere as the year unfolded. And then there were those who suffer ongoing chronic pain and/or fatigue. I know some of you will read this. I want to say to you – be proud of yourself, I am in awe of you.

You did amazing things: a writing group was started in the face of resistance; despite physical pain and exhaustion, a joyous wedding was prepared and celebrated; some of you are still bruised and damaged from your own childhoods, yet you are determined history will not repeat itself as you pour out love and provide guidance to your own children.

I know you are looking at another year and wondering how to keep going. I hope it helps a little to know that your true friends have cheered each tiny step you’ve taken against the odds and are urging you onward.

So yes, I do have plans for this year. Some of them are writing plans, some of them are not. Some of them involve getting fitter (yes, I know, I say this every year). All of them require determination. And of course, I don’t know what may happen which may make one or all of them difficult or impossible.

A tip I saw recently on Facebook (a tip which appears to have been doing the rounds since 2008) is to have a jar and inside it drop a note of each positive thing that happens whether it’s something big like the passing of an exam or simply the only thing you could find that day to make you smile or give you hope: the sun on a flower, the glow of the moon, a small kindness. This way, at the end of the year, you have a jar of happiness to read through and rejoice in.

So those are my resolutions: clear the loft, get fitter, note down every little joy which comes my way. I am determined to do at least the last one.

So whatever you plan for 2018, whatever the barriers you face, I hope you find the determination you need and can celebrate each triumph, big or small as it appears so that this time next year, you can open a jar of happiness…

fullsizeoutput_6e

 

Photograph is from the inside of Somerset House.

Words and photograph copyright 2018 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

 

 

Music

My husband and I don’t quite see eye to eye on music.

It’s not so much about taste. We like a lot of the same stuff. There’s this theory that if you want to target an advertisement at a particular generation, you pick backing music from when they were 16-18. I think they’re probably right. Anything with music from the 80s will get our interest whether it’s to wallow in nostalgia and memories of slender waists (both of us), white jeans (him), permed hair (me) and that general restlessness and energy of youth is briefly remembered as we slob on the sofa with a glass of wine.

‘I used to dance for hours in shoes like those,’ I’ll say, ‘but I never quite had the nerve to wear the ra-ra skirt and my hair reverted to straight in two minutes.’

We sigh until the kids come in and ask what rubbish we’re watching now. 

On the other hand, if advertisers use a song we both love for something stupid (naming no high street banks here) we will both mutter and grumble. Fortunately for the bank, it already has our money. (Well, we put our salaries into it, then the money drains out on mortgage, bills and shopping, but you know what I mean.)

No the difference we have about music is volume and venue. My husband loves to turn up music loud in the house. As loud as he can get it. I can’t bear it. If for any reason, I can’t bear it to the extent that I’ll say so, he puts earphones in and blasts his ears to a volume that I can nevertheless still hear.

If I’m writing, I can’t stand this. I can’t tune into whatever wavelength my creativity plays through if there is music of any description in the background. If there are lyrics, they get into my words, if there is a rhythm, it’ll interfere with the rhythm of what I’m writing. One particularly difficult afternoon, I had not only my husband playing music, but my daughter playing (a totally different) music and my son playing online video games which seems to involve a lot of shouting. My son eventually hooked me up to a natural sounds website and I head-phoned into that, turned up the thunder and rainforest frogs, got back into my writing and became so lost in what I was doing that I kept looking up surprised to see no rain even though my ears could hear a positive downpour.

That’s not to say I don’t like loud music. I do. But I like it in the car when I’m driving to or from work or the station. I tune into a vibe or a memory or a mood and somehow the things that are worrying me lift for the journey. I actually feel a little put out if I have to share my journey to work with someone I actually have to talk to.

But a word to anyone who needs to know: if I make a point of going for a drive with loud music playing when I have no reason to go out, or I have music playing loudly in the house, it’s not a good sign. It’s because I am very very low. I’m still tuning into a vibe or a memory or a mood, but it’s not a good one. If I feel the need to do it at home, which is my safe little nest, there’s something wrong.

The music may be the same in both instances. It’s how I respond which is different. I’m either defiant or defeated. The words (and I love good lyrics, often more than the music itself) either resonate or betray.

My father had been told by a teacher that as he was tone deaf, he’d never appreciate music. He spent the rest of his life building up a taste so eclectic it’s impossible to categorise. I grew up listening to The Goons, Beethoven, Bach, Grieg, Louis Armstrong, Lonnie Donnegan, Val Doonican, musical soundtracks from ‘The Sound of Music’ and ‘Oliver’ etc, Hawkwind and Mike Oldfield. We just never ever listened to whatever was popular at the time and it took me a while to catch up. The first pop song I heard (on a funny little radio a sort of relation had made for me) was ‘It’s a Rich Man’s World’ by Abba, after which I didn’t look back.

But otherwise, what songs am I talking about? OK so this is the divisive part, so sorry if I’ll now make you squirm, but these are the songs which still resonate no matter how many years have passed.

My first boyfriend introduced me to Genesis when I was sixteen. I probably couldn’t have been more square if I’d tried but I loved songs which seemed to have a hidden story in them like ‘Carpet Creepers’, ‘Trick of the Tail’. ‘Abacab’ takes me back to driving across the heathlands of the Gower on summer evenings.

A few years later, single, I sang along to ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ by Bonnie Tyler as clearly ‘the best of all the years had gone by.’ I was twenty. Sigh. It was very real then.

A particularly bad period in my life some twenty years after that, had a soundtrack all of its own. One day I came home from work a little early. I was working part-time and it wasn’t quite time to pick the children up from school. I thought of going home to my chaotic home, the laundry, the housework, the cooking, the trying to get the children to eat something healthy and drove round and round with the CD player blasting at full volume. The songs which at that point seemed to sum up what was going on in my head were:
‘Cappucino Girls’ – Nia ‘Talking Far too loud, laughing with each other, like the days before we were someone else’s mother’
‘Another Place to Fall’ – KT Tunstall (one section of lyrics translated themselves as ‘find yourself another place to fall; bang your head against another brick wall’)
‘Crazy’ – Gnarls Barkley (the title speaks for itself)
I still can’t quite hear any of them without remembering that utter despair at a life which seemed to have run away and left me behind not knowing quite who I was or what I was for.

When my Dad died, he had set down everything he wanted for his funeral except what to play as the coffin was going up the aisle in the crematorium. Asked what to play by the funeral director, my mind went totally blank. All I could hear going through my head was ‘Right Said Fred, Better Get a Move on.’ Dad would probably have appreciated it, but I’m not sure anyone else would have. I left it to the Funeral Director and now couldn’t tell you what was played. I realised two weeks later that I’d wanted ‘You Raise Me Up’ (Secret Garden).

Well time has passed since either of those periods of awful misery. A lot of tears, some heartbreak and a great deal of talking later, I am in a different place. I still love older songs, I find new songs all the time. But here are some of the older ones which make me smile or dream whether I’m high or low.

‘Songbird’ – Fleetwood Mac
‘Fields of Gold’ – (Sting) – sung by Eva Cassidy
‘Fix You’ – Coldplay
‘How Long Will I Love You’ – Ellie Goulding
‘Perfect Day’ – Lou Reed
‘Solsbury Hill’ – Peter Gabriel

And there is a song ‘Ride On’ by Christy Moore which reminds me of sitting in the kitchen with my husband on Sunday afternoons, soon after we were married. It is on an album of Celtic Music and one day, one day, I am going to write the story it sparked in my subconscious. It’s not quite there yet, but it will be.

And finally, at my funeral, I want them to play ‘I Hope You Dance’ by Lee Ann Womack. Read the lyrics – it sums up everything I hope for everyone.

 

DSC_0164

Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

Just a Number

This is my mother dabbing.

If you want to mortify my daughter (always very tempting), dab.

This mortifies her even if I do it in the privacy of our own home when there’s no-one to see. If I really want to mortify her, I do it when one of her friends will see me doing it. Double mortification is when her dad joins in.

‘You and your mates dab,’ I say.

‘Yes but we’re doing it ironically,’ she says, as if I do it with the seriousness required of a U.N. security meeting.

Dabbing, in case you didn’t know (and are getting worried) is what is being demonstrated by my mother in the photograph below and I’d explain its origins except that the wikipedia article is a bit too long to summarise. It started in 2015 as a youth thing. Nowadays, according to my nearly-seventeen-year-old daughter, you only do it if you’re a kid (e.g. from her perspective, anyone under fourteen) or being ironic. You do not do it if you’re a parent.

I read a blog post about the meaning of ‘old’ (link below). When does one become old? Is it an age or an attitude? Part of the author’s aim was to raise awareness of fiction aimed at or written by people over forty and whose characters are older than, say thirty-five and who yet have adventures, fall in love, exist in the real world without needing slippers and a cup of tea.

There is a prevalent attitude in western society that youth is king and that getting older means no longer being switched on to the modern world or able to keep up. It’s total nonsense.

I am sure, if you’re beyond forty-nine and watch ‘The Apprentice’, you shout at the television when the candidates are asked to market things at the over fifties and start assuming a complete IT incompetence and general out-of-touchedness, despite the fact that the IT revolution was started by people now in their seventies or eighties. I’m in my fifties and surprise, not only do I know how to use a mobile phone and various computer programmes but am working in a digital modernisation project. At this precise moment, my husband is helping my mother with her laptop (see – she’s eighty and has a laptop). In reciprocation, if I need help with photoshop, I ask Mum, because she’s an expert. It’s all relative.

The generation gap is quite different now to what it once was. When I was a teenager my parents watched ‘Top of the Pops’ in despair, complaining about hair length, make-up, high pitched screeching (and that was just the boy singers). Nowadays my children and I enjoy the same music without anyone (generally) criticising the other’s taste. I don’t care about anyone’s hair length or who’s wearing make-up or what anyone’s gender identity is. I envy the clothes my daughter wears but won’t copy her. I don’t want to look mutton dressed as lamb and anyway, ripped jeans would give me cold legs. But we do share sweaters and coats sometimes (although they’re just a tiny bit looser on her). Any suggestion that ripped jeans and perfect, identical eyebrows will one day be looked back on with derision is met with the confident assertion that this year’s fashion is different and classic and eternal. I have learnt to keep silent, having grown up through the 70s and 80s with the terrible photos to prove it.

Sometimes I feel younger now than I did when I was in my twenties. I was out with colleagues last week, all but two of whom were over forty. We felt that we are lighter hearted now. We may be more … cynical… realistic… (call it what you will) than the two twenty somethings who possibly wondered why they’d come out with a bunch of giggling middle-aged people, but we know we’re more inclined to laugh at ourselves, not to mention forgive ourselves than we once were. We know that life won’t be roses all the way, we’ve seen enough change to know that there is nothing new under the sun whether it’s an appraisal system or a theory or a plan or a political crisis.

I know I am very fortunate to have been born at a time and in a place where I have had access to free healthcare since birth, in a place where efforts to reduce pollution and limit artificial additives in foods have meant that my environment is better than many. I had parents who were able to physically, mentally and emotionally nurture me. All of those things mean that my life expectancy is better than huge numbers of people round the world, particularly other women. Believe me I don’t take that for granted.

Anyway, the point is that while my body is starting to send out little signals that I’m getting older, inside, I’m still a girl, just a grown-up girl who knows that I can make a fool of myself without the world ending. All being well, one day my daughter will jump over the invisible generation gap and take a simple delight in embarrassing the generation below hers and maybe we’ll high five or whatever the equivalent will be then.

Right now, I’ll keep looking for characters of my age in books and writing them too. The book I’m working on now is set in AD190 and has two women who have somehow, against the odds lived to their early sixties. One is deliciously nasty and the other delightfully wise. I have a teenage girl character too, who naturally thinks these ‘old ladies’ know absolutely nothing about anything. I think I need to make one of them mortify her.

Back in the 21st Century, I am sure you can imagine my daughter’s horror at being asked to show her grandmother to dab so that I could take a photograph and put it on my website.

All I can say is mwah-ha-ha.

DSC_0163

 

Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

When is old not so old

Books for older readers

Swordsman

I am weary.

Who would attack these cliffs? The land is rugged and untameable as if dragons’ scales stud the turf, the castle has erupted from the rocky ground as grey and cruel as winter skies.

And yet we must ever be on guard. Whenever there is something to trade, there is threat.

Behind me the seas boil. Ships come and go: traders, adventurers, thieves, invaders. The kings of Eire and princes of Cymru send envoys with marriage contracts. Strangers from unimaginable lands of heat and drought beach their ships in the icy drizzle, wrapping their silken finery up in woollen cloaks, bringing fine pots and jewellery to trade for tin and silver.

This sword – this sword is weary too.

Is this the sword which was welded in stone? That rose from a lake? That lies in hands slumbering beneath the cold English soil ready for the final battle?

Or is it the sword of the mystical adviser, stained with the blood of unearthly dragons and rusted with subterfuge?

Or is it the sword of the love-lorn betrayer, about to be cast down and exchanged for a hermit’s staff?

I am weary. Behind me is the far west, the wild sea, the setting sun, rumoured lands just beyond the horizon. The wind blows around me and the rain drives or the sun burns but I care not.

Whoever I am, whatever is my sword, I have seen enough to long for peace.

*****

I grew up on King Arthur, both in his usual medieval guises and his perhaps more plausible Romano-British or pre-Roman British personas through books like “The Sword in the Stone”, “The Crystal Cave” and “Earthfasts”. The story is endlessly fascinating, perhaps because like all good stories, with or without any magical element, it is universal. An unlikely king, a mysterious adviser, a duplicitous half-sibling, a treacherous wife, a betraying best friend, civil war, the hope that the wisest, most honourable king sleeps until his people need saving once more. It’s a sad tale but at its heart, with the exception of the last part, quite plausible.

The Arthurian legends are generally portrayed as medieval and despite no evidence of any connection, thanks to the chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth, the sentimental Victorians and subsequently Hollywood, King Arthur is now firmly associated with the chivalric code.

Chivalry. Nowadays we associate it with men opening doors for women and walking on the outside of the pavement. The concept of medieval chivalry however, is hogwash.

There was indeed a chivalric code in the middle ages but it really only applied to nobles and to men. Any obligation for a man to respect a woman had a number of get-out clauses. Her best hope was to be noble and/or very rich and preferably locked up. If a woman was in the wrong place at the wrong time, unprotected, argumentative or simply poor, gentlemanly obligations were lifted. A knight in shining armour might whisk her off, but his motives were unlikely to be romantic.

The chivalric code regarding the poor and the clergy only went as far as it benefitted the knight and his particular aims. Medieval history is littered with examples of sickening cruelty at home and abroad. The crusades for example: while allegedly defending a religion of love and forgiveness, they did everything to demonstrate the worship of money and power. Their brutality resounds down through the centuries leading directly to current affairs. Chivalrous? I don’t think so.

The chivalric code of brotherhood… Well, several hundred years of almost constant civil war and fratricide indicates betrayal for the sake of power was the norm. Chivalrous? I don’t think so.

In fact, almost the only part of the chivalric code which everyone followed was the call to arms. They just had to pick the ‘right’ side.

Now I prefer to think of the real King Arthur, whoever he was, as a Celt defending his realm against the Romans or a Romano-Briton defending it against the invading Anglo-Saxons. No-one will ever really know. Both of those periods of time in my view, however vicious, were marginally preferable to the Middle-ages. At least no-one pretended to be chivalrous.

Still, what has altered since the ancient times when a man with a sword might have stood on this cliff? We think of ourselves as more civilised nowadays, but as long as life is cheap and the cries of the weak unheard in a relentless drive for wealth by the powerful; as long as the ‘right’ side changes with the wind; as long as cruelty can be ‘justified’ by ideology, nothing whatsoever has changed. The once and future king should stay asleep. The final battle will be beyond a sword.

*****

There is a story behind this photograph.

The sky may look blue, but in fact it was full of frozen rain and little shards of ices were pecking my face as I tried to stand straight against the howling wind which was tangling my hair.

The figure may look solitary and lonely. In fact he had just seen off one set of tourists and another set, at the forefront of which was me, toiled up the cliffs towards him. A group of young people overtook me and stood in front of the sculpture before my mother could take a clear photograph of her own. It later transpired, when we looked at Mum’s photographs, that one of the young men had dropped his trousers at exactly the point her shutter had gone off. Chief amongst the many ‘why’ questions was ‘why would you do it when freezing cold rain was blowing horizontally looking for warm flesh to chill and crevices to enter?’

All that aside however, in case you didn’t know, this sculpture, by Rubin Eynon is on the cliffs of Tintagel. Does it represent Arthur? Is the sword Excalibur? Apparently that’s up to the observer.

And I couldn’t decide either.

DSC_0533

Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

 

Getting to know me

I have been talking to myself for years, so I may as well do a Q & A while I’m doing it!

So, Paula – is writing all you do?

I sometimes wish it was. I sometimes feel as if my primary role is laundress, chief cook and bottle washer and completer of forms for school. I work full time for the civil service (I vowed I would never do this, when I listened to my civil servant mother quoting form numbers over dinner. But here I am veteran of 28 years working for the same organisation after applying for an interim job till the dream one came up. And I can still remember form numbers, though the ones I can remember are irrelevant in my current role.) Apart from this I am married (to someone I met in the office who was also waiting in vain for the dream job) with a son at university and a daughter in her penultimate year at school.

What was your dream job then?

Writer. But I had no idea how to make it work and at the end of the day, had bills to pay. I felt very dissatisfied for a long time, till I just decided to write anyway. The good thing about this was that by that time I had a bit of life experience to put into what I wrote. Husband’s dream job involves not having one but sailing all day instead. I prefer dry land, or at least being moored within swimming distance of it.

When do you write?

Whenever I can find the time. This doesn’t always coincide with inspiration though. If I have the time but not the inclination,  I try to make myself write something, anything, just to keep the creative muscles working. Sometimes this has led to new insights into something I was stuck on. I often write on trains and hope no one is reading over my shoulder. They often are though. Once someone made me scream out loud by commenting from the seat behind and the other day someone started a conversation about notebooks. Just to add though, I was sketching at that point, not writing.

What do you write?

Someone asked me this the other day and I never know how to answer. I write mainly fiction. There may be more or less realism, more or less fantasy, more or less humour. I am finalising two things and working on another. They are all completely different.

How?

Well (1)  I’m formatting a book which I’m hoping to publish in October. It’s a celebration of an eccentric father and is based on real people and some real events but there is also a fantastical element which sneaks in from time to time.  Watch this space…. (2) I’m finalising a short story for a charity anthology. It’s set in an alternative universe, where in a sort of Victorian London, dragons are a source of potential power and potential threat…. (3) I’m on 2nd/3rd draft of a thriller which has no mystical element whatsoever.

How real are your characters to you?

Let’s put it this way, I cried actual tears when someone died, even though I’d made her up and could have written an alternative scene. It’s very hard to explain. I feel the frustration of the main character in the thriller as her opportunities are taken one by one. I wish I had one of the dragons in the short story because he makes me laugh. On the other hand, when writing the one based on real life, I found it hard to describe myself and my sister as children without turning us into a fictional characters. In the end, it’s pretty much what I did and had great fun making my sister naughtier even than she was.

What surprises you about writing?

The way the characters take over and the way themes change. You realise a story which you planned as a love story between persons A and B is actually a story of friendship between persons B and C. It’s wonderful how supportive authors are of each other, rather than competitors. I’m a member of several groups and all anyone wants is for others to do well. Also, it’s quite satisfying killing people off in a story (unless it makes you cry). My husband is disappointed that I’ve even murdered a boat but you know. Had to be done.

Why Downes?

Downes is my maiden name. Always thought I’d write under it but am keeping it for books I’ve planned to write for children.

What are you doing right now?

Right now I’m sitting in a cafe on my lunch break writing this. Am in Croydon, which I visit for work once a week. I can’t wait to get back to Dorset later. I also can’t wait to get home to take my new shoes off. My feet are killing me.

What do you wish people knew about you?

I’m very shy but have learned to cover it up in a veneer of confidence which doesn’t exist. One day I decided to take control of the shyness instead of the other way around. The downside is that people don’t realise when you’re struggling with life.

IMG_0041

September Acrostic

Almost equinox, afternoons dwindle early into dusk.
Under bookshelves and in corners, spiders lurk and scheme.
Term starts, treading well-worn paths towards harvest, bonfires, Diwali, Christmas.
Unpredictable skies loom, but hesitating to store my summer clothes, I think
Maybe there will be an Indian summer” and hope, shivering.
Not quite ready for winter, I leave my coat in the cupboard till October.

DSC_0079

Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission