Quote Of The Day

One of the cool things about being a writer is that you have a legitimate reason for eavesdropping. Or at least, overhearing. And people do say the most incredible things …

I am just recovering from a very full-on woolly weekend which was full of other people’s conversations, passing comments and the general buzz of appreciation and amazement.

First, I went to Woolfest – the original festival of celebrating British wool, which has now been taking place for over ten years. It is a wonderland of fibres, yarns, looms and wheels, as well as live sheep and other creatures, usually attended by thousands of happy crafters, all keen to see the colours, feel the textures and hand over their money in gleeful anticipation.

It always used to land on the middle weekend of Wimbledon, making it a very hard decision for me about where my priorities lay. But these days, with the new extended grass court season, I can go to Woolfest – only just north of where I live – and be back in plenty of time to have my knitting ready for the Grand Slam. My perfect summer holiday.

This visit held as much promise as usual, with the added benefit for me of a little extra cash, saved up for something else which fell through. This year, I might even get to buy something!

I made my way steadily round the first half of the stallholders, checking against my list of possible speakers for the Guild (I’m currently part of the Programme Team), but systematically working my route to land at, in my opinion, the best stall of all: an indie hand-dyer from Wales, trading under the name of HillTop Cloud.

Having purchased fibres from her online, I was keen to see the goods displayed for real, in all their splendour. I was not disappointed. The magnificence of the array of colours greeting me, left me speechless, stunned and completely unable to choose what to buy since I couldn’t afford everything! How wonderful!

As I stood in the middle of the square-shaped display, ogling the fabulous display of colours and fibres on offer, I heard someone say, ‘Of course, you know that choice is bad for you.‘ What?!

The voice continued. ‘Apparently, Tesco have decided that too much choice in their store is not good. Their rivals only have a couple of options available at a time, and are making more sales. If there are too many choices, people get overwhelmed and end up not buying anything …

I remained speechless – now for entirely different reasons. I felt a blog coming on, but decided instead to concentrate my efforts on making glorious choices from the proud panorama facing me, hoping that such fiendish logic would never infect the world of warps, wefts, and wraps per inch.

Feeling suitably sated, I turned up the following day at our Guild’s own exhibition, part of a local Arts and Crafts Trail. I had volunteered to demonstrate some spinning. I entered a busy school hall, hung around with splendid exhibits from our members, and interested visitors wanting to ask how? what with? and can I have a go?

Of course, when I first joined the Guild, we could let people take a turn on our spinning wheels. I distinctly remember our first request for a Risk Assessment, when we were invited to take part in a day of country pursuits at a venue in the Lake District. We were included alongside activities such as charcoal-burning and apple-bobbing.

Somewhere along the line, someone had decided that the risk to the public from actively engaging with spinning wheels was too great, and we should no longer offer this option. How we had all survived so long was a mystery. I remember the feverish discussion about what we should enter on the paperwork. The biggest vote was to explain that if you pricked your finger, you might fall asleep for a hundred years …

Anyway, I digress, as usual. The point is, these days we only demonstrate, but we are geared up for talking coherently about what we are doing. I unpacked my wheel in a quiet corner, where there was room for a small crowd to congregate if necessary, fluffed up my Blue-Faced Leicester and began to spin.

It wasn’t long before interested people gathered both to watch and question. ‘So how do you get it to stay together?’ ‘How do you make it into yarn?’ ‘What will you do to it next?’ ‘What will you use it for?’

I found myself in a conversation with a lady who seemed genuinely interested in the process, and I was just explaining to her what I was doing – letting the twist run down into the fibre, using a short-forward draw, making a ‘singles’ thread – and she was asking what happened next to make it into a usable yarn.

As I spoke, telling her there were a number of ways to ply it, and explaining that the simplest was to create two bobbins and twist them together, when she suddenly said, in a tone of utter disgust: ‘Nothing’s ever easy, is it?‘ and marched away.

To say I was speechless, for the second time in as many days, would be something of an understatement. I wondered what she had been expecting, what she hoped I would say, why she wanted the process to be easy … Doesn’t it always take some effort to get to somewhere worthwhile?

I guess the gain to me is that I now have plenty of new material to ponder on, several interesting characters to explore, and some fascinating scenery to use. But I’ve saved the best ’til last.

On my way around the vast surroundings of Woolfest, peering at my Guide and trying to get my bearings, two women walked past me. I wondered whether they had mysteriously arrived from outer space, beamed into the heart of an unknown location, as one commented to the other, apparently in surprise: ‘There’s an awful lot of arty-crafty people here.


How To Turn A Simple Task Into An Extravaganza

The things about necessary tasks is that they tend behave exponentially, if you don’t keep a careful eye on them. Even if things go to plan, the chores and errands one needs to accomplish within a single day, can easily expand to fill the time allotted to them, and then some. In my life, things rarely go to plan.

But all good stories must start somewhere, and it is in the unravelling of the tale, that a writer earns their keep. Take for example, my offer to water my friend’s plants while she went on holiday …

This was supposed to be a minimal task. Perhaps calling at the house a couple of times over the course of the fortnight to give a quick spray around with the hosepipe. See – not even a watering-can affair. How difficult could that be? How could that possibly interfere with my serious routine of writing and tennis-watching?

Neither of us anticipated a heat-wave. So hot, I haven’t dared venture out of the house for much of the last four days – except, of course, to water those plants.

The thing is, I haven’t actually used a hosepipe before. I’ve seen other people using them, and thought how nice it would be to have one, perhaps for the allotment (if only I could afford it/get round to it/find somewhere to store it), but I’ve never actually picked one up and used the spray gun. Until a couple of days ago.

Things started well. I found the plants … sitting in their containers. I found the hose … attached to the wall and connected to a tap. I turned said tap on, moved confidently towards the first container, pressed the control button and nearly blew the container over!

At that stage, I still had the sense to let go, which immediately switched the water off. Sensible. I returned to the wall, and turned the tap down. Also, sensible. What I hadn’t realised was that the force of the water had loosened the joint between the hose and the gun …

I merrily continued down the garden, spraying a little bit here, a dollop there, and a good dowsing over there, every so often discovering that the hose wasn’t coming with me, giving it a bit of a tug to chivy it along and returning to the patio when it managed to get itself wrapped around a plant pot and wasn’t budging. I even managed to diagnose a blockage – a kink in the pipe – when the supply diminished into a dribble and tried to give up.

It was when I had reached the end of the garden, and was trying to water a rather large ‘tree’, which I couldn’t reach and had to stretch for, that the pipe and the gun finally parted company. Water sprayed everywhere! Mostly over me, missing the tree completely. My dog, who had been quietly sniffing her way around the garden up to that point, swiftly ran into the kitchen as the heavens opened above her.

It shouldn’t have been a disaster. But the one thing my friend had imprinted in my brain was the necessity NOT to flood next door’s garden. Such an incident was spelled out to me as the worst kind of doom.

On receipt of the vision of an overflowing watery cataclysm, something in my brain took a shortcut, and told me the quickest way to stop the water was to put my thumb over the now open end of the hosepipe. How stupid can one be?!!!

Whatever I was thinking about my superhuman strength and ability to enact my own personal version of King Canute, I cannot now begin to imagine.

I am fortunate in having a fairly flexible brain these days, and on discovering that I was now dripping from head to toe (first time I’d been cool all day), and trying to constrain something akin to a whirling dervish crossed with a dancing cobra in my hand, I realised that the sensible solution was to put the monster down, run back to the wall and turn the tap off.

I won’t bore you with the details of how many times I had to refit the spray gun before I could get it to stay connected to the end of the pipe, nor how many times I had to go back and check the tap was turned off before I could bring myself to go home. But I believed I had finally cracked the procedure when I made a second visit a few days later, and this time, only watered my feet.

The best thing about being a writer – the stories!

La Decima!

What a weekend. Those of you who know me, even in the slightest, must be expecting a tennis-based blog today. For those of you whose universe passes through a different dimension, on Sunday, Rafa (otherwise known as Rafael Nadal) accomplished the unheard-of: a tenth Roland Garros title!

No other player in the open era has ever won ten of the same Grand Slam titles. His win was celebrated by the presentation of a special replica trophy, engraved with his ten successes on the red clay.

Rafa is very special to me. Not least because his wins are not always easily come by but are always beautifully executed. He is someone who has learned the power of connecting mind and heart in order to achieve excellence.

Beyond excellence, actually. There were shots during his last two matches this year that defied physics. They were not just unbelievable; they were – in the ‘normal’ world – impossible. His opponents, as well as the spectators, could only stand and applaud. Even the commentators were heard to say: ‘I have no words.’

I have found Rafa personally inspiring since the very first time I saw him play. That was back in 2005 when he won his first French Open title. I’d never seen clay-court tennis before. It wasn’t generally accessible on Freeview TV and I’d only heard about it on the radio. I grew up watching Wimbledon – in black and white on the BBC.

My tennis experience (and, I hasten to add, as a spectator only – I’m rubbish at playing it) was entirely grass-based, with competitors wearing pristine white clothing, hitting the ball ‘politely’ over the net and rallies lasting three or four shots , if you were lucky. All nicely contained and ‘proper’.

Suddenly, I was confronted by two youngsters, wearing bright colours, sleeveless T-shirts and ‘capri’ pants. My recollection is of them ‘scrapping it out’ on the court, extended rallies of twenty or more shots – and they were sliding! They were treating the place like a playground.

Not only that but the umpire kept getting out of his chair;  every time a line call was dubious, he would climb down and visit the spot to view the mark the ball had made, while the crowd boo-ed and whistled. This was not something I could ever imagine tennis could be. And I was exhilarated by it.

It was also Rafa’s first attempt at Roland Garros. At the age of 19, (he had his birthday on the day of the semi-final with Federer!) he won his first Grand Slam. He has only ever lost twice at the French since then, and on both occasions, he was injured but played on in deference to his opponent.

And this is something else I love about him. His complete and utter respect for whoever is on the other side of the net. Regardless of their ranking, Rafa brings the best game he has to each occasion.

Actually, he brings it to each point. He never plays a point without the intensity and concentration he would give to a match point. He never backs off, or takes it easy, or plays as if he can’t be bothered. He never goes into a despair-tantrum or stops trying or gives up.

If he makes a mistake, if a ball goes out or misses its mark, he merely registers that as a brief disappointment and lets it go. Next point, new opportunity. As simple as that. Always in the moment. Always present.

These are glorious qualities, made all the more remarkable by the history of breaks he’s had to take from his career due to injury. This latest achievement follows a withdrawal from last year’s Roland Garros where Rafa left in tears due to a wrist injury, and the press querying whether he would ever play at his best again. The last time they said that, he returned to win three Grand Slams in a row, ending the year as world no.1.

He carries within him a true warrior archetype, and I think this was what spoke to me the first time I watched him play. He bore a remarkable resemblance to the Sioux Indians I used to side with in old westerns. I was slowly recovering from nearly a decade of chronic illness, and his fighting spirit ignited something inside me which eventually resulted in a return to college and a second career.

In the interim, I have seen him accomplish greater and greater goals but never losing touch with his humanity or his humility in the process. And each time, I feel inspired to re-examine my own life and see where I might do the same. To become more of myself.

Three years ago, after a devastating year of loss and tragedy, I was trying to turn my life around again, when Rafa won his last Roland Garros. On that occasion, he had to beat Djokovic who was playing at his finest, and who was attempting to complete his own personal set of all four Grand Slam titles. Djokovic had never won the French. No-one other than Rafa had for the previous decade – except Federer, once.

At the time, I was contemplating taking up writing seriously. I had been going to a Creative Writing class since the autumn and found I loved writing fiction. Just as Rafa won his ninth French victory, we were challenged in the class to compose a traditional sonnet. Fourteen lines, classical rhyming pattern, iambic pentameter! That was another point at which Rafa’s determination and willingness to ‘go there’, inspired me.

The sonnet I produced is not brilliant but it captures something of what I felt on seeing him perform, More importantly, it confirmed for me where my future lay. It was at that point that I made the decision to turn my scribblings into my first novel and become a writer. I reproduce it here in deep gratitude and loving respect for my ‘mentor’.

In midst of heat and dust, two warriors came

Each bent on shaping history in their wake

The Serb with three Grand titles to his name

But never this, the red at which men quake

The Matador who’d lost but once in France

And more than sixty conquests since his start

With gutted weapons they began their dance

A fierce perfection driving on their art

They played with architectural loops and serves

Ferocious spins at thousands rpm

With graceful arcs and unrelenting curves

They bent the laws of time and space – and then

Bent double, reaching for his breath, his play,

His gut, his heart, his win. The King Of Clay


You Have The Conn …

I’m very tired today, so this blog is a spontaneous meandering of uncontrolled thoughts, and as such will refresh places no other blog can reach …

I’ve been doing a lot of pondering this week about ‘control’. I seem to keep bumping into the concept all over the place, and it always makes me shudder, so I thought I would spend some time considering why I think we are mistaken as a society to believe that having control is a good thing.

I’m coming to this from within a personal context. Having control of anything in my own life is not an idea I pursue any more. I don’t think it’s good for my health. So I’m quite interested in what others mean when they talk about control as if it’s something desirable.

I notice that often people talk about having control over someone, or something, else. Which makes me think they believe it has something to do with power. Clearly, if this is the case, they are interested in having power over someone else.  And I find this intriguing. Why would they think that this is either ethical, or beneficial?

Let me be clear: I take the Star Trek view on this. Prime Directive and all that. When meeting an unfamiliar sentient species, your stance should definitely be one of respect and non-interference. So when I hear people talking about having control, for instance, over their dogs, I wonder what kind of relationship they are developing.

And now I’ve encountered the dreaded word within the world of spinning – that is, spinning fibres on a spinning wheel, nothing to do with bikes, you understand. Apparently, I’m supposed to have control over my spinning in order to produce the yarn I want.

This is the same kind of thinking that tells me to have control of my characters and my storyline, in order to be a successful writer. It is quite mistaken.

If I act as if my prime directive is to gain control – of anything – I’m going to miss the point. I’m not going to experience the true nature of whatever it is I’m about to encounter. If I’m focusing my energies solely on staying in charge, being on top or forcing my agenda, then I’ll completely overlook the opportunity to learn something new or to connect deeply with whatever, or whoever, is in front of me.

The only kind of control I think is appropriate is self-control, and even that can be dodgy, if used wrongly. As far as writing goes, I expect to use my self-control to exercise a discipline where I turn up to write every day, but I don’t try to control what happens when I sit down to write, because I’m entering into a beautiful world of unknowns which will only reveal themselves if I tread quietly.

It’s the same approach I take with my dogs and my spinning, and it involves a lot of listening, negotiating and understanding a different viewpoint. (Sounds like a good recipe for a politician … Whoops! Sorry, didn’t mean to go electioneering.)

I cannot control a lot of elements within my life, nor should I. It is in respecting that distance from control that wonderful things are allowed to happen. For example, I now find I have seven 5-star reviews on Amazon for my first novel The White And Silver Shore, and, as of yesterday morning, I have moved up the rankings by approximately 200,000 places since I published two months ago. That’s astonishing – and I have absolutely no control over it at all. Which makes it all the more exciting.

What I do have control over is taking some time to learn about sales and marketing, and deciding which strategies feel okay to me, and which don’t. And even then, I can’t make people buy my book, though to hear some advisers speak you would think that was possible. I can only look after my end, and be content and honest within that.

Enough rambling for one week. One final thought: if I behaved as though controlling my dog was more important than discovering who she is, I would never have discovered that dogs smell better for dead fish guts – apparently!