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Fairytale of New York

My first glimpse of the city, from the back of a yellow cab, was of the Empire State building lit in Christmas colours of red and green. The Hudson shimmered with reflected sykscrapers and I knew the instant we crossed the bridge that I was a city girl, an urban animal, and that the bustle and noise of this place would take a bite from my heart.

Movie scenes met us on every corner, in this unreal place where we cricked our necks looking higher, higher, the spires of St Patrick’s reaching for a sky filling with snow. Even the steam from the drains, the litter and the sirens had a kind of grimy glamour. I was falling in love.

Two years and a week later, the same man who showed me my city, via helicopter, boat and foot, proposed to me as the ball dropped and ticker tape rained down.

A little under ten years on, he was back in Central Park, where we had skated and fallen, marrying someone else.
Our small son stood between them, wearing a waistcoat for the very first time.

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He’s always a legend to me: in praise of Billy Joel

There’s a scene in classic rom-com Love Actually when Bad Harry teases his wife for still listening to Joni Mitchell. She replies, ‘I love her. And true love lasts a lifetime.’ It always makes me smile and think of me and Billy: an (admittedly one-sided) love that’s coming up for 30 years and shows no sign of abating. I recently saw him perform live for the 8th time, and it caused me to reflect on where this love originated and what it’s meant in my life.


Giddy as you like in September

Getting ready for the Wembley Stadium concert last September, which I suspected might be the last time I’d see him (although I’ve been wrong before, so here’s hoping), I thought it would be fun to dig out my teenage diary from 21st May 1990 – the date of my first Billy Joel concert.

In a manner to be expected of a nearly-14-year-old, I (1) talk more about the minibus journey from Bolton to London and back (arriving home at 4.33AM Tuesday morning – responsible behaviour from the teachers who took us?!) than the concert itself, and (2) employ mainly generic superlatives e.g. ‘fantastic, wonderful, unbelievable’. A flick through the pages preceding the gig is revealing, featuring countdowns to the big night, and Billy’s birthday (9th May) duly noted (was I planning to send him a card, I wonder?).

How and when did the obsession (which was not a normal one, to be honest, in the days when most girls my age were attaching Grolsch bottle tops to their shoes and swooning over those blonde twins, oh and The Other One that Smash Hits called Ken) begin? As with so many of these stories, there was a boy, of course. A boy I had a crush on made me a mix tape (for younger readers, this is what we had before playlists. They were ace and we would search them frantically for romantic meaning, of which there was usually none. For further illustration of this, see Avenue Q, below, which spookily enough references Billy Joel*).

I became hooked on the same things I love today: his melodies, his piano playing, the sheer variety of his music, which ranged from jazz to pop to rock through classical and blues, and probably above all (being a bit of a fan of the words even then) his lyrics. I thought he was just a brilliant writer. I liked the way he used songs to tell stories; and those stories were about ordinary people, who, although they were usually from another continent, were people I could recognise, people I might know. He wrote about working class (or lower middle class), ordinary people.

I fell in love with Brenda and Eddie (see Scenes from an Italian Restaurant, best song ever, by anyone, yes ever), Anthony who worked in the grocery store, Bobby, who was driving through the city in a hot new rent-a-car, and Virginia with her much-coveted, well, virginity. I fantasised about the places: it was no coincidence that, later, New York would become my favourite place in the world. It was a kind of pilgrimage for me: while other people’s ‘must see’ lists were headed by the Empire State building and the Statue of Liberty, I sought out the Staten Island Ferry, Mulberry St, Sullivan St, and thrilled when I found them, humming to myself in a triumphant, dreamy way.

Now, it will probably come as no surprise to hear that the 14-year-old me was a full-on geek (and geekdom was not cool then, as it is now). Evidence: we did a kind of ‘show and tell’ in an English lesson, which was really just a ‘tell’, when we all had to get up and talk about something we really, really liked. I talked about Billy. I read out THE ENTIRE LYRICS to Goodnight Saigon (it’s a seven minute song, folks, and it includes the lines: We came in spastic / like tameless horses / We left in plastic / as numbered corpses). It’s fair to say the room fell into stunned silence. Not just a geek, a socially-conscious, earnest geek at that.

Then there was another boy. I wanted to kiss him so I made him sit on my sofa and watch the entire ‘Russia concert’ (again, see Avenue Q) and waited for a slow track (Baby Grand, I still remember it – not particularly conducive to smooching, being a love song to, well, a piano) during which to make my move. It wasn’t the last time I tried to enforce a Billy initiation as a precursor to romance; I can’t say it’s always been successful. I soon came to realise that not everyone would understand Billy as I did; and no-one, no-one, could love him as I did.

Over time my tastes broadened and eventually I could even pretend to be a little bit cool, because I started to like bands other, cooler, people liked (see: Stone Roses, Libertines, Arctic Monkeys. OK, hardly ground-breaking, but a step up for someone who had Genesis and Sting posters on her wall at uni). But I never lost my Billy Joel obsession, although at times I expressed it like a guilty pleasure. I continued to be frustrated by people whose eyes would glaze over and who would then mumble, ‘Uptown Girl, right? Er…that one about the river?’, would continue to suppress the urge to tie them down and perform a kind of inverse Ludovico technique on them, forcing open their ears while they absorbed the full glory of his back catalogue (particularly The Stranger, Turnstiles, and 52nd Street, since you’re asking). Every now and again, I would meet someone who shared The Love; in this crucible were special friendships forged.

Mostly though, as with all the best love affairs, it was just me and Him (yeah that’s right – I just capitalised him). He was with me through all of the growing up, the joys and the disappointments, of teens, twenties, thirties and he’s still with me in this proper adulting bit that’s happening right now. He’s my all-time favourite and that means for all time.

True love lasts a lifetime.

Thanks, Billy. Happy birthday. Don’t take any shit from anybody.


*’Mixtape’ from Avenue Q:




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Proof that Writing is Therapy

“So many books, so little time.” This Frank Zappa quote rang true for all of us on World Book Day. The ladies had all gathered at The Art House Café on Thursday, by eleven o’clock in the morn…

Source: Proof that Writing is Therapy

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Plotting & Scheming- A Writer’s Map

Workshop 2 of so:write women…getting under the skin of POV, and of the things that, well, get under our skin

So:write women

Life’s lessons are so alluring. They’re also complicated, and make you think. They make you think so hard that your head hurts. But, what if you wrote that on paper? Do you feel better? Lighter? If your answer is yes, then do read on, because this post is a testament to everything that writing is- powerful, stunning, therapeutic, creative, and liberating.

The Seminar room at the Southampton Central Library filtered the sun in, while we sprang our Saturday by reading works that the ladies had written over the month. Liz’s moving poem titled ‘I’m not that woman anymore’ gave us all goosebumps as she recited it from memory with incredible passion. The short yet beautiful pieces by Claire including one on something blue that she has and an object that’s close to her heart, Karen’s emotional ‘Theo’ about her grandson, Reem’s tragic-hilarious non-fiction piece set in the 1947 India- Pakistan landscape, Katie’s brilliant ‘Tap, tap’…

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February 20, 2017 · 10:03 pm

Finding our voices

Here’s what we got up to at our first women’s writing workshop at the weekend…a great start!

So:write women

How often do we wake up and say, “Guess what? I’m going to do some writing.” How many of us actually do? That Saturday morning was revelatory, as if Confucius had dropped by on us metaphorically (also in the form of the awesome Chinese dragons show near Guildhall) and said, “It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop.” Eleven women, of different ages, professions, aspirations, achievements and ideologies walked into the upper corner room of the Central library, with a united purpose- Writing.

img_20170124_125311 Such a beautiful day!

As the ladies went around the room introducing themselves, trying to find common and uncommon threads, Joanna already had two writing exercises running in her mind. But, before that we needed to discuss why this group was important. Why do women need this time and space to work out their writing? Why should women write? Why are we having this…

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So why women?

I’m going to start with a potentially career-limiting confession: from January I will be leading a project for which, in many ways, I wish there wasn’t a need. A women’s writing group. I’ve already…

Source: So why women?

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If you don’t climb the mountain, you can’t see the view

Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote a blog post about failure after pulling out in the early stage of a 3 Peaks Challenge. I vowed to return to Ben Nevis (my Ben Nemesis, if you like) to tackle it at my own pace and without the threat of two other effing great mountains at its heels.

‘The mountain isn’t going anywhere,’ I wrote. True, it was still there nearly 12 months later, although they did add a metre to its official height ( Bloody typical.

Mum, a keen walker, wanted to complete the challenge too, so we made our plans, booked guest house, flights, hire car…and soon the week of the walk was upon us. I was nervous. Would the weather, notoriously changeable in the Highlands, thwart us? Would one of us take a tumble and get injured? Would I just be exposed as unprepared and ridiculously unfit? I couldn’t bear the thought of failing again.

What is it in the human psyche that makes us want to climb mountains, anyway? Who first looked up at the Himalayas and thought ‘Let’s get our boots on and have a crack at those’?? (I also often wonder who it was who first looked at a lobster and thought it was a good idea to try to eat it. I salute them, though, I bloody love lobster even if it does require tools). The truth is, there’s no reason to do it. There’s no practical purpose. We climb the mountain because we can, because it’s there (as Mallory said of Everest). There are the physical and psychological benefits of being outside, of exercising, but you can get quite a lot of those on a good long walk somewhere flat. So there must be something about moving upwards – reaching something – getting to a peak, literally and metaphorically.

Now I realise that walking up Ben Nevis is not a particularly outstanding achievement in the grand scheme of things. It’s reasonably common: over 100,000 ascents are made every year, most of them via the Pony Track. Certainly on the day we were there, there seemed to be thousands of us. So I’m not writing this to get any pats on the back (although kudos to my mum, I don’t know how many people in their 60s do it). I just wanted to capture something about the process, and what I learned from it.

Suprisingly, I found the first section the hardest. This is probably physical to a degree – your muscles and joints are warming up, your body getting through the ‘Eh? What are you doing to me? An hour ago we were cosy in bed’ phase – but surely mostly psychological. When you know you’ve got probably 4 hours of climbing ahead of you, and you’ve done, ooh, ten minutes and your knees are hurting, holy shit it feels like this was a bad idea.

What’s more, whereas with some mountains (like Snowdon), you feel like you gain height quickly, with Ben Nevis the zigzag path means that the first third just feels like a slog with very little reward. It’s pretty enough but you’re waiting a long time for the really spectacular views (see picture). Here I am, I thought, on a mountain that feels like a bloody great rock-covered metaphor for life.

Then about 3,000 feet up I had an epiphany (or possibly mild altitude sickness): it’s a metaphor for writing, too, and a good one, not one of those you have to really shoe-horn to make it fit.

See, I’m trying to write a third book (I find I always say ‘I’m trying to write…’ rather than ‘I’m writing…’ What’s that about?). Not really sure if anyone cares if I do or not, but I’ve set myself the challenge and even if not a single soul ever reads it I’m going to write it. Because that’s what I do. (Back to: because it’s there).

And I realised on the mountain that STARTING IS THE HARDEST BIT. You can’t imagine, at the start, that you will ever, ever finish. Be it 80,000 words or 4,000 feet: it just seems too momentous. You can’t think about the end. You can’t even see it (especially if you’re a ‘pantser’ like me and you don’t even know the ending when you start – gulp) – so you just put one foot in front of the other, and keep doing it, because the only way is up.

Over Summer we watched the charming ‘Finding Dory’ and I love her mantra ‘just keep swimming’. So simple and so helpful when things get a bit rough. Just keep walking. Just keep writing. Keep moving forward and sooner or later you’ll see the view.

As for past ‘failures’, I remind myself of Edison saying ‘I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work’. I’ve learned from the last two books and I hope I’m getting better. I found a way to climb Ben Nevis that didn’t work for me and then I found a way that did.

Of course, the peak is a bit of a false ending. It’s momentary joy before you contemplate the less rewarding trudge back down (admittedly the beckoning pint at the Ben Nevis Inn was a good motivator). It’s well-known that most hiking and mountaineering accidents happen on the way down (read or watch Touching the Void for a spectacular example – and for an unforgettably inspiring story). Going down is the real work.

Bear with me if I do, here, get out the shoe-horn while I relate it to writing, but it works for me. The peak is ‘I’ve finished! First draft done! Woo hoo! I have a book!’ Well, that’s great, have your sandwiches and your flask of coffee (laced with a tot of whisky if you’re like us) but then get ready because there’s a hell of a lot of work ahead.

Editing is the downward trudge. Here’s why:

  1. There are no bloody surprises. YOU’VE SEEN ALL THE SCENERY BEFORE.
  2. It uses different muscles and it’s often painfully slow.
  3. You’ll feel good when you get to the end but not quite the delirious ‘I’ve achieved something’ good that you felt at the top. What you’ll feel will be more like relief.

But hell, who cares, because right now I’m still on the ascent. In fact I’ve barely left base. I have very little idea where I’m going, to be honest, but that’s okay.

The point is, I’m going. I’m going and I’ll just put one foot in front of the other.


Last word to George Mallory, writing about Everest:

‘If you  cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the  challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is  the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t  see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life. That is what life means and what life is for.’





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