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Sunday, 20 February 2011

Pass The Brandy!

I attended the launch of Ways Of Falling on Saturday. This is an anthology by Earlyworks Press and one of my stories is in it. The launch was at the Calder Theatre Bookshop in Southwark and was a lovely, happy event with lots of nice writerly people. My husband, an avid reader of either very long novels or non-fiction (the total opposite of what I read and write), really enjoyed himself. He couldn't wait to get home and finish reading one of the stories, an excerpt of which was read out at the launch, pausing at a cliffhanger moment.

Several of the authors elected to read. I loved listening to them. Since these stories come from the soul, they all read from there. They knew the perfect times to pause, to soften or raise the volume, to accelerate or calm the pace. It was such a pleasure to sit there and soak it all in, especially after the hellishly long drive through thick traffic in the pouring rain.

My regret was that I chose not to read and wished that I had. It was just like all those times at school, when I longed to raise my hand and volunteer to read aloud in class. But something always held me back. I knew I could read well. I had a loud and clear voice. I didn't stumble over difficult words. English was my passion. Reading was my main interest. I knew I could read better than the girls who always chose to do it. I read aloud in my bedroom all the time. I read to my mother while she did the housework at weekends. I read her every Malory Towers book and a couple of John Wyndham, one of which reduced her to tears.

So why wouldn't I read in class? I guess it was pure shyness. But it was a shame. I came out of those lessons feeling disappointed in myself. I felt the same on Saturday. It wasn't a case of not wanting to read. I just let myself back out of it. Maybe it was because my narrator in this story has an accent. But I can do that accent, because I've read the story aloud at home. Millions of times.

I was once interviewed for radio and was very happy to read some stories then. I didn't want to stop, in fact. I could have rambled on all day. So maybe it's having people in the room watching, as well as listening, that I find difficult. Not being able to see the audience, I could pretend to be speaking just to myself, I suppose.

When I took my finals at uni, the prospect of the oral exam, conducted entirely in German and lasting a thousand years, worried me enormously. There was to be a panel of three external examiners. I pictured them all staring without smiling. And I envisaged myself, shaking and stammering. I have to confess that, come the day, I allowed a fellow-student to talk me into drinking three glasses of brandy (I didn't need much convincing) just before I went in.

I stumbled through the door, catching the loop of my tie-belt on the handle. This pinged me back out of the room again. After extricating myself, which took some time, I made a second entrance. I was smiling so broadly by then that I'd stopped feeling nervous. It's impossible to be too hard on yourself if you're smiling. And, wonder of wonders, the panel was smiling back at me! I don't know if they could see me that well through the brandy fumes. I expect I smelt quite memorable though.

I sailed through the oral after that. They couldn't shut me up. I prattled about the year I spent in Germany, answered questions with gushing enthusiasm, virtually had to be prised from my seat and shown the door at the end.

Remembering that, I'm determined to read if I ever get the chance again. I know I can do it really. Even without the brandy.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Being Yourself

I visited my aunt and cousins on Saturday, having not seen them properly for many years, except at weddings and funerals. This was a proper old-fashioned visit, with high tea and shared memories and old photographs being passed around. Their clearest recollection of me as a child was significant. They remember me with books.

I brought books with me whenever we went to their house, sat and read during the conversations. I only talked animatedly about the latest Enid Blyton. I was shy and quiet all the rest of the time. But their memory of me, this dull, solid little bookworm wearing impossibly thick glasses, was clearly a fond one. And that was the real me. And so was the young language-student I became later, head still in a book, loving words more than anything else in the world.

Why I don't know, but I drifted away from all that I was passionate about and took jobs that I couldn't really excel at. I was hopeless, although I kept on trying. A colleague once asked why I had chosen a path I clearly was not destined to tread happily. I suppose it comes down to money. It has to be earned. But I wish I could have discovered writing sooner and clung to what I understood best. It suits me to be cloistered in a room with nothing but my imagination. But I guess it wouldn't have paid all the bills. It still doesn't. But I am me again now. But to my aunt and cousins, I had never changed from the child who loved the company of words more than anything else. So they were delighted and not at all surprised to learn I had become a writer.

Apart from during games of Let's Pretend, we are more likely to be natural and honest about who we are when we are very young. The adult years muddy our waters, often from necessity. We have to go out into the world and make our mark, pay our way. We are also expected to be more sociable than we can get away with as children.

So I feel very lucky to have come full circle and be in a position to be me again. A loner with my head in another realm a lot of the time. And confident enough not to care what other people think of that. Even when the lady in our village shop said with a sort of sneer, "So you just sit at home writing little stories, do you?", I agreed, joyfully, that she was absolutely right.

I think my aunt and cousins helped me realise how good it is to be yourself.