Saturday, May 31, 2014


Sorry Mr Bailey, but I think you’re wrong. Perhaps you have never looked at the world through your own eyes (how else?) and thought about how strange it is to be you and no one else in the whole world. How everything around you is literally around you. Not around anyone else in exactly the same way.  How you can’t even see yourself properly in it without a mirror. And how very odd it all is.

What Bernard Bailey apparently said was that “when they discover the centre of the universe, a lot of people will be disappointed to discover they are not it.” But you know what? We are it. We are each at the centre of our own special universe. This thought has lurked in the attic of my head all my life. Not up front and waving a flag, but popping in now and then to remind me how amazing it is.

I’ve occasionally introduced the idea to other people – as you do, when for example the conversation flags over the dinner table.  (True, as conversational starters go, it doesn’t come close to one of AJ’s memorable ones when he looked down at his pink leather tie and said “how do you like my tie? It’s been hand-pricked with a pin” but it isn’t too bad.)  Most don’t get it and give me funny looks. 

However, surely writers would get it. Most writers must be aware that their universe is not the same as other people’s. They make up stories. They invent people, and places for them to live, and things for them to do. Sometimes the people are ordinary, coping with real life, and generally can be perceived as regular human beings. Sometimes however they are aliens, weird and out of this world-ish, and might even live on other planets.

But whoever they are and whatever they do, they are not real. Before they appear on paper they have existed only in the writer’s mind. The writer has imagined them and perceived a world which they might inhabit. Even non-fiction writers – especially those who write histories and biographies – try to inhabit the minds of the people they are writing about and see their worlds through their eyes. To do that they must shift perspective from their own view to someone else’s, real or imagined.

I go along with Sir Winston Churchill who wouldn’t have agreed with Bernard Bailey either. Sir Winston thought that we each create our own universe as we go along. Makes more sense to me.


Sunday, May 25, 2014


 Recently someone asked me what my favourite city in the world was. Without thinking, I said “London”.  But since then I’ve thought more deeply about this question and realise that it’s loaded with ifs, buts and maybes.

London probably was once my favourite city.  I lived there happily for a couple of years, on and off, in my twenties and then more briefly in my thirties. But cities change, and one’s attachment to them is affected by other factors such as people, events and connections.  AJ, a Londoner born and bred, returned briefly a decade ago and found it changed so profoundly that he felt a stranger in his home town. And with time to think, I, with no home town at all, would no longer put London at the top of my list either.

Sydney would be up there somewhere. I lived there as a child and have visited often since. It has of course changed over time, but somehow has always been familiar and accessible, lively but unthreatening, friendly and explorable. The humidity, however, is diabolical and I could never live there.  Is that what a favourite city is – the place you want to be above all others?  One you admire or enjoy visiting? One where you feel truly at home?

There’s a nostalgic element in the mix. There are cities I would like to see again, not because they were impressive or beautiful or exciting but because I lived there: Teheran or Rangoon for example. These cities too will have changed, in most cases out of recognition – not only as a result of progress but also because of wars and revolutions.  Interesting to revisit them – but they wouldn’t be the same, and memories are often best left undisturbed. 

There are cities I would like to have known but seen only in pictures. Obvious ones, like Paris and Rome, Madrid and New York.  Impressive ones like St Petersburg, Beijing and Prague – the most beautiful city in the world according to a cousin who has been everywhere.  Exciting ones like Tel Aviv, Algiers, Rio de Janeiro or New Orleans. And mysterious ones like Petra, the “rose-red city half as old as time”.  Cities I’ve lived in but was too young to remember: Dairen, Yokohama, Tokyo. Cities that my ancestral family made their own, like Shanghai, so that I could “place” them there in my mind.

In the end – no favourite city at all. Shallow-rooted people like me develop no home-town bonds and smile a Mona Lisa smile when asked where we come from. “Nowhere,” we say. “Nowhere.”

Monday, May 19, 2014


Following on from the previous blogpost, with its ruminations about kitchen drawers and writers’ minds – no sooner had I posted it than I came across a quotation that I had harvested in case it came in handy one day but which I had forgotten.  That is often the way with writers’ minds.

Landscape (detail)
However, these gems do surface from time to time.  Especially if I remember to go through the computer files occasionally because that’s what they’re there for.  In the quotations folder was this comment by Thomas Edison: “To invent you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.” And for a writer, the junk is always at hand. It used to be in the bottom drawer of the desk – the one where the failures languished, where the page ones of all the stories which petered out found themselves, where the brilliant idea for a novel was hurled and the drawer kicked shut behind it.  Nowadays there is probably a folder on the computer labelled “possibles” which contains scraps that didn’t seem possible at all but can’t be discarded permanently – just in case.

But there’s still hope.  Sometimes it comes unexpectedly. What was once a stumbling attempt at a short story can be re-worked and become a poem, and vice versa. The ugly duckling can be transformed into the beautiful swan it was meant to be. Maybe not so beautiful, but serviceable, acceptable, usable. And there are many opportunities to find homes of one sort or another for those false starts.

So it proved for what began as a character study loosely based on a long-gone maiden aunt. I found “Edith” in the possibles folder; three paragraphs of discarded, garbled junk. Coincidentally I became aware of an on-line flash-fiction magazine offering to publish very short stories – 250 words or less.  No money changes hands – and normally I bridle at the idea of writing for nothing. (Why should writers work for nothing, no one else does?)  But I dusted Edith off, cobbled a story around her, and sent her off. Amazingly, “Edith’s World” was published.

Heady stuff for a non-fiction writer like me.  But dabbling in an unfamiliar genre – especially a not-too-daunting field like flash-fiction – can be a worthwhile exercise for any writer. Since then I’ve turned two more fragments and a poem into 250s – so much for a pile of junk.


Friday, May 9, 2014


I’m in a “what’s all this stuff?” mood.  I’ve already climbed up to inspect the cupboards over the wardrobes – fine old junkyard they turned out to be.  In the “office”, empty lever-arch files practically  fell out onto the floor and were immediately photographed and placed on the Freecycle website, together with a couple of old mouse-pads. There was a mountain of old but pristine foolscap paper. Printers nowadays are not familiar with foolscap and usually stop, bewildered, at A4 level. I have never been able to resist hoarding stationery, especially paper, but I was firm and consigned the lot to the recycle bin.

Green Jug
Then I needed to find a place for a tiny torch/pen/keyring combo that I had no use for but would surely come in handy one day. Ah, the kitchen drawer!

Everyone has one. It might not be in the kitchen, but somewhere there’s a holding pen for things that you don’t know what to do with. Mine is the kitchen drawer, and it’s rather like a writer’s mind: full of things that might be useful some day but not just now. I opened the drawer and muttered “what’s all this stuff?”  

What indeed. Jam jar covers and seals for preserving jars – it’s years since I bottled peaches or made jam.  Matches, screwdriver, travelling clock, kitchen timer, plastic jar with spare curtain thingies because they are always breaking or slipping off the ends of the rods and you can never find replacements when you want them. Upholstery brushes and gadgets for removing cat hair and lint from the chairs, labels for shrubs, labels for the freezer, a box with rubber bands and another with instructions for various gadgets, plastic containers with skewers, clothes pegs, door stops, feline worm tablets, bottle stoppers, sun-glasses, corks, a clothes brush. And two more torches.

I have a kitchen drawer of the mind where I store stuff. It’s untidy and disorganised, and contains items that are bound to come in useful one day. Contents are so familiar that sometimes it’s hard to remember whether I have only thought about them, had fleeting Eureka! moments about them that came and went before they could take root, or already used them in stories, poems and essays.

Unlike the contents of the kitchen drawer, however, I don’t propose discarding any of them, even if I could, because it’s the stuff of a writer’s mind. The scrappiest of items can turn into something else given enough time and that strange, magical fermenting process that occurs when ideas swirl and evolve, hide and reappear in another guise.  Even that tiny torch was useful after all.

Saturday, May 3, 2014


The trouble with aphorisms like this is that they seem to be bracing and encouraging but don’t always bear scrutiny.  This one leapt out at me recently – it seemed to hit the spot on a day that everything felt flat and aimless. Yes! I thought, that’s what I have to do: think about what’s important and do something about it.  Not that easy, as it turned out.

At what point should one take this advice – age six?  Perhaps that’s a little early – how wise is a six year old anyway? Then again perhaps not.  At six, little girls who want to be ballet dancers, for example, are probably already swooping around in leotards or clutching a barre and pointing their little toes at the ceiling.  But six-year olds planning to be astronauts generally evolve into toolmakers or teachers or accountants – and just as well, otherwise there would by now be an almighty traffic jam thoughout the solar system. All the budding firemen and engine drivers and film stars and TV presenters change their tiny minds a dozen times between six and sixteen, when they should be starting to think seriously about what is really important to them and how to build their lives around it.

Had I taken this advice at different times of my life I could have been a singer, an actress, a horse-wrangler, a doctor, an accountant, a lawyer or a spy. And that’s just off the top of my head. I don’t remember thinking that I wanted to be a secretary or bookkeeper or work in a bookshop or manage offices or write or paint, but those are what I actually ended up doing. Oh, and be a wife and mother and housekeeper and all that. Not by planning, but by stumbling into things along the way.

At what point do we know enough about ourselves to make decisions this weighty? Or think things out properly?  And even if we did, the importance or otherwise of things change all the time. Priorities shift, even from day to day. Pressures mount and subside. Plans fall through. Emergencies arise. Dreams fade and others take their place. It wouldn’t have made a scrap of difference if I had thought about some grand plan at six or even sixteen – real life would have got in the way as usual.

As for that flat and aimless day which started all this – at least I got a blogpost about the problem.