Ten books that changed my life

So, in the summer of 2018, a friend of mine wondered if I had time to do this thing on Facebook where you talk about books that changed your life. I found the time, because I loved how it forced me to think about books every day, and then to write about them, too.

In doing this, friends and (on Instagram) strangers opened up about their own favourite books, and about their love of the books I was writing about. I discovered how people had been hanging on to the same version of The Bell Jar as me; how my schoolfriends had loved the Enid Blyton boarding school books as much as I did. The posts encouraged people to read some of the books (a few people decided to finally read Catcher in the Rye;  one friend went out and bought As I Lay Dying on the day I wrote about it). It sparked conversation, and no one told me my choices were wrong. Everyone who read the posts understood that these were the books that had changed my life. Everyone respected what I was revealing about myself. And that was enough.

Here are my top ten, in the order I posted about them, but in no other particular order. I’ve made some changes to the text, but the essence of what I originally typed onto my Facebook wall, and then reproduced on my Instagram feed when the sun was shining all those months ago, remains.

Fires Were Started: British Cinema and Thatcherism edited by Lester D. Friedman

This book did more than change my life. I truly believe it saved my life. It got me out of a teaching career that was starting to smother me. It was the first book I ever edited and it showed me I was born for the job. It brought several people into my life who, years later, have had me at their weddings, celebrated big birthdays with me, travelled with me, loaned books to me. It reminded me that I knew my shit. It made my mum proud.

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

It’s 1986. I am heading into my second year of A Level English Literature. We are studying this. At that time, it was probably the strangest book I had ever read. There’s a chapter that is only one line; another narrated by a dead woman, halfway through her journey to her burial place. Layer by layer, each character is developed as they narrate their chapters to us. I am soaked in the language, the imagery. It opened my eyes to what American literature could do. It sent me to second-hand bookshops to buy all the Faulkner I could. This copy of As I Lay Dying accompanied me into my A Level exam, its underlined passages and tiny essay plans seeing me through. I re-read it for the first time in over 30 years last year. Luckily those pencil marks had faded, so I had little distraction from the beauty of every sentence, every chapter, every character.

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

This book. THIS BOOK. In February 1979, my dad died. I was 10. It broke my picture of the world. At the end of that year, my brother gave me a double album of Beatles’ love songs for Christmas. Less weird once I had worked out it was meant for someone else who was no longer around. I listened and I fell in love with it and the Beatles. A year later. December 1980. John Lennon was killed. His killer cited this book. I was intrigued. A few years later, as an angsty mid-teen, I read it. I can’t remember what I thought of it then, but clearly enough to make me re-read it, at another point of emotional crisis, in my mid-20s. That second reading made it clear to me that I hadn’t got it before. This book was funny. Really funny. In between those readings I had read everything Salinger wrote that was available in book form, so something must have stuck. Last year I re-read it again. And it broke me. Still funny, yes, sure. But I had forgotten that it is a book about grief and loss and depression. Is that why I turn to it at certain stages in my life? Maybe. I can think of several books, massive doorstops of books, that I adore and that speak to me as if written for me personally. The Lacuna. The Goldfinch. The Blind Assassin. But this. This skinny wretch of a book that puts me into a world and a life and a character so seemingly different to mine showed me how art and literature work to transcend those differences and speak to every tiny part of us. This book. This book is the one.

The Woman’s Travel Guide to New York by Josie Barnard

I was 28 before I went abroad. I know! (I’d been on a plane, but only to Jersey in the Channel Islands.) When I was a kid, we went to Ramsgate as a family. Bed, breakfast and evening meal. Donuts. Punch and Judy on the beach. After my dad died, it was a week in a caravan with my mum, aunts and cousins in Cornwall. I had nothing to complain about. It was lovely. There was no money for foreign holidays then, or as I moved through my teens and student days. And, if I’m honest, I didn’t really feel like it. I seemed to have little interest. I have no idea why. Parts of Europe were close and cheap enough, but even when I started work there just didn’t seem like enough money or time or impetus to go. Crazy. Utterly incomprehensible. Then I had my heart broken and for the first time in years – since I was born actually – I ended up living alone. I’d possibly been unconsciously craving it because I know it was partly my inaction that led me there (he says it was all his fault). Maybe I needed a bit of wing-spreading. Whatever. Seven months later I was on a plane to New York. With this book. My mum, whose key experience of the city came from NYPD Blue, was terrified. She needn’t have worried. Armed with this book, I navigated the city alone. I went to Macy’s and the movies. I did the Circle Line ferry tour. I went up the Empire State Building. I listened to the original recording of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds in the TV and Radio museum. I walked across 110th street. I stood crying in front of Van Gogh’s Starry Night in the Museum of Modern Art. I pounded the streets all day, stopping to gaze up at buildings that were so familiar from films and TV shows, and to eat giant slices of pizza. When a rain storm flooded the subway line I needed to get back to my cheap room, I worked out – by myself – how to get there (it helps that Manhattan is a grid). That journey took me past Central Park and some projects, in the dark and pouring rain, but I grew up on council estates and refused to let NYPD Blue dominate my thoughts, so I was ok. I had the best 5 days. So this book opened up the world to me. I was back in the city less than a year later with the heartbreaker and his first son, proudly negotiating the subway like a pro. And for as long as I’ve had enough money I’ve been away. Sometimes alone, sometimes with friends or boyfriends or colleagues. Sometimes in the UK, more often to the US, or Canada, or Europe, or Asia. This year I’m heading to the west coast of America alone and then making my first trip to Rome with some friends. I owe it all to this book.*

* Since first publishing this on Facebook, I have indeed travelled to San Francisco, Portland and Seattle alone, and made that pilgrimage to Rome with four friends. Nothing held me back.

The St Clare’s and Malory Towers books by Enid Blyton

I was going to say, “from the sublime to the ridiculous”, but if a certain kind of book gets you reading, it’s not ridiculous. As a small child, there was a period where I got a Ladybird book a week. Beauty and the Beast. Snow White and Rose Red. The Princess and the Pea. Rapunzel. And so on. Lots of fairy tales. Lots of girls being rescued. Lots of girls whose resourcefulness – such  as it was –  relied on being beautiful. Lots of girls whose beauty got them into trouble. It would have been my mum and dad who first bought me the first books in the series of which you see some examples here. And then two childhood friends who, courtesy of their much-loved, now much-missed mum, filled in the gaps at Christmas and on my birthday. Then I’d spend my pocket money on the rest. Enid Blyton’s boarding school books –  the St.Clare’s and Malory Towers series – brought clever and spirited girls into my reading life, like the many clever and spirited girls I knew in real life at that time. I don’t doubt that if I re-read these books they would reveal a privilege, racism and snobbery that passed me by when I was around 8 to 10 years old. But they were the first books I started buying for myself and the first books that brought female friendship and solidarity into my reading life; the first books to show me that girls could be pretty and clever, plain and clever, good at sports and maths and writing, in a way that reflected my real life in a state junior school in Pitsea in the 1970s. For that, I remain grateful.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Having popped my book-buying cherry on Enid Blyton’s boarding school series, there came a time when I needed more. I have no idea how I knew who Oscar Wilde was –  we weren’t an especially literary household –  but something must have sparked in me when I spotted this book on a second hand book stall in Basildon market at some point in the middle of my secondary school years. I would have been about 14. It was the first grown up novel I bought and the first I read outside of enforced school study (I was an avid library user though; libraries and school were my sources of more grown-up books). I remember being engrossed and bewitched, so deep into the plot, so enamoured of the style. The ending floored me, and even now, when someone mentions that I look a bit younger than my years (ahem), my standard reply is “You should see the portrait in my attic”. It’s a concept from literature that has entered common parlance. A second reading last year showed a more forced wit and style than I recall, but I still loved my re-reading of it. It showed me how literature could be grown up and gripping, and completely accessible to someone from such a different world. In the summer of 2017, on a work trip to Chicago, I was lucky enough to see the revolting portrait from the first film version up close, in the Art Institute of Chicago. The problem with the painting, as shown in the film, is that it can never be what we imagine, what we thought it would look like. Because we all have a portrait in our attic, and none of our portraits are the same.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

This is the book that made me realise that there could be someone out there who would write something for me; hold my hand through the tricky bits. This book made me feel less alone as a teenager. At university, when I casually mentioned how much I identified with Esther Greenwood, how much I felt that this book was written for me, a friend said, “So does every even slightly neurotic young woman.” Maybe that’s true. But the glittering gems of each line of this book, hard and sparkling as diamonds, are for me; its humour, its sadness, all for me. This book gives a woman the kind of deep and authentic interior life that I hadn’t really read before. A few years ago, I was staying in Haworth, and I made the pilgrimage to Hebden Bridge, and up to Heptonstall to find Sylvia’s grave. After spending some time in the wrong cemetery, I walked through a gate, worked my way to the middle (as I had been guided by a friend) and there she was. I was surprised at how tiny her grave was, almost like a child’s. The inscription on the headstone made me cry. The slightness of the grave itself made me cry. The flowers lying across where her belly must have been made me cry. I silently thanked her for everything she had given me: the poetry, this novel, and an idea of what it might mean for a woman to be a writer.

Praxis by Fay Weldon

I studied this during the second year of my degree, as part of my ‘minor’ subject, Modern English Literature. I went for English Lit as it seemed safe; I’d studied it before, and the addition of ‘modern’ meant I could avoid Chaucer. Looking back, I wish I’d done Modern European Literature instead, but then I would have missed out on this book. It made such an impact on me when I read it ahead of that second year that I used it as a loose (very loose) basis for my drama graduation production. The novel is written in the first and third person, a structural device that can be seen as a conversation between the younger and older versions of the same character as we follow her life story. She starts poor and neglected, marries, divorces, gets a job, a career, and ends up in prison for committing an act that many see as the worst a woman could commit. It’s a kind of everywoman story, almost accidentally – but not quite accidentally – feminist. There was a period where if you were female and I was buying you a birthday present, it was this book. It didn’t hold up as well on a second reading last year, but at the time I adored it, and I needed it; it spoke to something in me. I loved the structure, and the life and mind of this woman, Praxis. In psychology, praxis means the process by which a theory or lesson becomes part of lived experience through a cycle of action-reflection-action; in Feminist theory, praxis is the act of putting theory into practice, theory in action. The character of Praxis has many names throughout the novel, but it is her birth name that she returns to as she reflects on her lived experience. At the time I first read this novel, I had been a feminist, and a Jacqueline, Jackie, Jack, and Jacks, for as long as I could remember. I guess this was the first book to really make me reflect on that, on how women are handed identities by others, and on my own lived experience as I returned to the name I call myself when I write, the name I was given at birth.

Stations edited by Cherry Potts

Having rewritten the Ladybird stories in the back of the books, read my childish compositions to the headmaster, and bled my ideas out during English exams at secondary school, I started writing short stories with a vengeance in 2005. I picked at them over the years, and then I did a short story writing workshop in 2009. Whilst it didn’t offer me the collegiate nature of collaboration and support I had hoped for (I got that 3 years later, at the Bookseller Crow on the Hill, where I swam in support and guidance, and made friends that I am still close to), it did at least give me some good tips. As a result, I got some of my stories accepted for online and print magazines, and also got some readings at storytelling events. These events were usually themed, and I found myself digging out an existing story, shoehorning the theme into it, and hoping for the best. I still do this now, at times. But then it felt like all I could do – rework something that existed rather than write something new. “I can’t write to order,” I would say. Not in a diva-ish way; just sadly, because I knew this was a real shortcoming of mine.

In 2010, I got involved in a fundraising campaign to help the fight for the return of the cinema to Crystal Palace. The organiser read some of my stuff and asked me to write something to read at the event. She wanted “something Victorian. A bit Edgar Allan Poe”.

Did she not know I could not write to order?

Soon after I received this brief, I was in Germany, staying with friends. In the time it took them and their baby and their cats to have an afternoon nap, I had the idea for a new story: a ghost story, set now and in Victorian times, in Crystal Palace, with a cinema theme. I think you’ll find I more than ticked all the boxes there.

I read the result at the aforementioned fundraising event to an audience who had been denied their dessert in order to spare me the scraping of spoons on plates as I moved amongst the tables performing my story. They hid their annoyance well on the whole.

And then I found out about a new press, based in nearby Brockley, who were publishing a book of stories covering every station on the Highbury & Islington to Crystal Palace/West Croydon line. I had something that fitted the bill perfectly. Almost perfectly. You know what I did, don’t you? Yes, I shoehorned a scene with the character on an overground train into my existing story. You can’t see the join.

So, this book is the first anthology I ever appeared in, and it represents an example of me doing what I know I can do – I’ve called it shoehorning, but some may call it editing – as well as doing something else. This book contains a story that I wrote, from a brief, a commission, from scratch, from my imagination, while two adults, a baby and some cats napped in a nearby room.

From the Slopes of Olympus to the Banks of the Lea edited by Matt Haynes and Jude Rogers

Oh, this book REALLY changed my life. How much, remains to be seen. It’s not as obvious or straightforward as some of the other books, so settle down – this could take a while. Matt Haynes rejected the first story I submitted to Smoke: A London Peculiar, the magazine he had co-founded with Jude Rogers. His reasons for doing so rankled a bit. But I let it go. Then a year or so later I submitted another story, and this time he published it in the magazine. As a result, he and Jude asked if I would submit something to the first Smoke book, about the London 2012 Olympics. I could only do this because I’d had a kind of almost religious conversion at the end of the games, when I held one of the torches in a cupcake cafe in Crystal Palace, a couple of friends in attendance. And because I could now “write to order” (see previous entry). I found myself writing a love story that started out cynically and ended up romantically. A bit like my own relationship with the Olympics. As a result of this book, I was asked to contribute to another Smoke book, this time on London water. I had nothing. I did not want to write about the Thames. Then the internet told me that Dirk Bogarde, one of my favourite actors, had filmed scenes from a film on the boating lake in Crystal Palace Park in 1966. And my story was born. The book didn’t get published in the end, but the story ended up on the Smoke website. As a result of that (I warned you this was going to take a while), I made a new film producer friend on Facebook via a very longstanding real-life one. The film producer encouraged me to write a film version of the Dirk story. And so I did. Four years and many drafts later, we have something that might go somewhere. So, in a roundabout way, this book brought a whole bunch of interesting and funny people into my life, and if the film gets made and a few red carpets are brought into my life, I won’t be at all upset about that. Whatever happens, I have those people and I have this screenplay. All because of this book.

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2017: My year of rereads and new non-fiction

2017

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D.Salinger (reread)

The Hours by Michael Cunningham (reread)

Frightmares: A History of British Horror Cinema by Ian Cooper (new non-fiction)

The Secret History by Donna Tartt (reread)

My Old Man edited by Ted Kessler (new non-fiction)

My Salinger Year by Joanna Kosoff (new non-fiction)

Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger (reread)

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (reread)

In the Cut by Susanna Moore (reread)

For Esmé, With Love and Squalor (published originally as Nine Stories) by J.D. Salinger (reread)

For the Time Being by Dirk Bogarde (new non-fiction)

American Pastoral by Philip Roth (reread)

Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters/Seymour – An Introduction by J.D. Salinger (reread)

Animal Farm by George Orwell (reread)

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (reread)

Seinfeldia by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong (new non-fiction)

Praxis by Fay Weldon (reread)

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing (new non-fiction)

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner (reread)

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon (reread)

British Film Makers: Michael Reeves by Benjamin Halligan (new non-fiction)

If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor (reread)

Strange Labyrinth by Will Ashon (new non-fiction)

Giving up the Ghost by Hilary Mantel (new non-fiction)

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (reread)

If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This by Robin Black (reread)

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (new non-fiction)

Out of Time by Miranda Sawyer (new non-fiction)

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver (reread)

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (reread)

The Birds and Other Stories by Daphne Du Maurier (reread)

Don’t Look Now and Other Stories by Daphne Du Maurier (reread)

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (new non-fiction)

The Progress of Love by Alice Munro (reread)

Must You Go? by Antonia Fraser (new non-fiction)

How to Breathe Underwater by Julie Orringer (reread)

Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion (new non-fiction)

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro (reread)

The White Album by Joan Didion (new non-fiction)

After Henry by Joan Didion (new non-fiction)

The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher (new non-fiction)

After my accidental reading challenge of 2016, I decided to set a new one for 2017.

I don’t reread books – it feels like such a luxury when there are so many that I’ve never read. The only exception is The Catcher in the Rye (more on that later), and when I’ve had to reread something for exams (and more of that later, too).

In order to ease the guilt I thought I might experience if I just reread books, I decided to mix in some new (to me, at least) writing – and as I don’t read as much non-fiction as I’d like, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to offset the fiction rereads with new material.

But I started the year with The Catcher in the Rye – my third reading. I read it in my mid-teens, a few years after it came to my attention as a result of the murder of John Lennon. I remember liking it, but it was clear to me on my second reading, in my late-20s, that I hadn’t really got it first time round. In that second reading, the book revealed itself as sharp and funny in a way I hadn’t registered before. By this third reading, aged 48, I found it devastating – still funny, yes – but also unbearably sad. I found Holden lingering in my imagination for days afterwards, worrying about him, wondering if things turned out ok for him. When friends scoffed at him as a petulant, whinging teenager, I reminded them of this: his brother has died. This is a boy who is grieving, bereaved. It’s a book about death and depression, and I love it so.

After The Hours, a book I loved as much as on my first reading, I turned to my first non-fiction of the year. Frightmares is written by one of my oldest friends (and I even get a thank you in the acknowledgements) and published by another friend. In its discussion and analysis of a number of British horror films, it’s as obsessive, thorough and idiosyncratic as its author, and I whizzed through this whistlestop tour.

The Secret History accompanied me to Antwerp on my first work trip of the year, and on a non-work related train journey to Bruges. I first read it in 1998, and loved it. I was less enamoured of it this time around, and it took me a while to get back into its rhythms and to engage with the characters. Nonetheless, its meandering melancholy still hit the spot.

I finally got around to reading something I’d contributed to – My Old Man: Tales of our Fathers. In December 2014, Ted Kessler published a piece I wrote about my dad on his website, My Old Man. That piece was taken down when Ted decided he wanted to include it in the book version, amongst a few other pieces from the website, and a raft of new stories of fathers told by their famous offspring. So I found myself nestled between Shaun Ryder and Nathan McGough, and sharing book space with musicians, artists and writers.

I’ve known John since I entered the world of publishing, in 2006 (and he is the publisher behind the aforementioned Frightmares). Until recently, I only knew of his wife, Kathy, from her witty additions to his Facebook wall. Then she came to work for the company I work for. Her stint was short, but in that time we realised we had a shared humour and an adoration of books. Our regular treat was lunch and a full dissection of what we’d been reading. Even now when we meet, we bring lists so we don’t forget to cover everything; most recently, Kathy brought a PHOTO – a photo! – to ensure nothing was forgotten from our discussion. I told you we had stuff in common. Because I’d reread Catcher in the Rye, Kathy loaned me My Salinger Year, albeit not entirely without doubts. Like Kathy, I found its evocation of a particular period of New York publishing interesting and engaging; also, like Kathy, I wondered why editorial assistants don’t just make a sandwich instead of buying lunch EVERY DAY and then moaning about not having any money. On the whole, a missed opportunity but I was grateful for this tiny glimpse into Salinger.

I interspersed my re-reading of Salinger’s Franny and Zooey and For Esmé, With Love and Squalor, with two dark women-led novels: The Bell Jar and In the Cut. The former was funnier than I remembered from my first reading as a neurotic early 20-something (although I don’t think this proves a reduction in my neuroses), and the writing sang off the page – such beautifully constructed, delicate sentences. The latter held up to my memory of it – a short, savage, brutal little piece; dirty and dark.

I read For the Time Being next – a collection of Dirk Bogarde’s journalism. He covered a range of reviews, character sketches and opinion pieces in a voice that was waspish and smart, his wit delivered with a curled lip.

American Pastoral disappointed this time round, where on my first reading I had loved it; I felt I really got Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters/ Seymour – An Introduction for the first time on this reread. Seymour Glass is so present in all of the Glass stories – and yet so absent, as we know him almost entirely through the eyes of others.

I returned to my mid-teens next, and two classics that I’d loved on the first reading and still liked enormously this time around. I bought Animal Farm in W.H. Smiths in Basildon on the day I came home after my final ‘O’ Level exam (History) on 17 June 1985 (I know! I recall this day clearly, and yet I cannot remember why I went into the kitchen). A colleague was reading The Picture of Dorian Gray at the same time as me, and our lunchtime Skype messages demonstrate the depth of our mutual literary analysis:

Me: Have you got to the bit where [insert particularly obnoxious scene]? Dorian Gray is a prick.

H: [laughing face emojis] Oh my God, total prick.

An ex-boyfriend and fellow Seinfeld enthusiast gave me his copy of Seinfeldia because he didn’t see the need to hang on to it. He clearly knew that I would feel the same, giving me permission to donate it to a charity shop when I had finished. I don’t know how I got through it, but I managed. It’s astonishing that so dull a book could have been written about so brilliant a show. I haven’t followed its progress from the shelf of the charity shop it ended up in. It might still be there.

My third year graduation project was loosely inspired by Praxis (very loosely indeed, unrecognisably so, copyright lawyers) – a book that once meant so much to me that it was my gift of choice to feminist friends back in the early ’90s, after I studied it on my degree. Its impact didn’t quite remain but I can see how 21-year-old me fell for it, and there is still a piece of my heart in there somewhere.

I discovered Olivia Laing last year, and now have read all of her published book-length non-fiction. The Lonely City, like her previous works, is a gorgeous gem. For me, no one quite gets the loneliness of modern life like Laing, and no one can expand on the deeply personal so that her voice attaches itself to art, culture, a wider sense of life, with honesty and insight. Her thoughts are expressed in sentences that glitter and shimmer. I’m gutted that I can’t read her debut novel, because of my stupid, stupid rule-making.

I’ve wanted to reread As I Lay Dying for years. As an A Level student, it knocked me sideways; I’d never read anything like it. But as an A Level student, I also had a propensity for terribly unhelpful notes, and no one wants to see – thirty years later – sentences underlined, with the word ‘metaphor’ neatly and thoughtfully spelled out in the margin. And don’t get me started on the dozen or so tiny essay plans, for all exam eventualities. Luckily, with time, the pencil marks had faded, and ­the fractured narrative worked its charm all over again.

Amanda bought me The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay for my 40th birthday, because it’s one of her favourite novels. First time, it took me a while to get into it, although I remember liking it. Second time I plunged in and devoured it, as it devoured my heart in turn. I simply loved it.

I’d just had some terrible news when I travelled off to York for a writing break in May, so maybe that influenced by dislike of British Film Makers: Michael Reeves. I tired very quickly of the speculative nature of it; how Reeves ‘would probably have read this’ or ‘probably have seen that’. It felt trashy and desperate; ill-fitting of a fascinating filmmaker.

In the summer of 2003, I sat up all night in a hotel bathroom in Oslo, reading If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things (I didn’t want to disturb my friend Alex, who was sleeping off sun-induced vomiting and a lupus flare up). This year I could barely get through it, finding the text and structure ponderous and schematic on this second reading.

Will Ashon was interviewed by Max Porter at my wonderful local independent bookshop, and I bought the former’s Strange Labyrinth, a funny, intimate, swirling account of Epping Forest. I followed this with Hilary Mantel’s memoir, Giving up the Ghost, on loan from my friend Katy. More accessible than I imagine her fiction to be (I’ve never read anything beyond a couple of short stories) it did make me want to head to her award-winning novels. But I can’t, because I am playing by the rules.

Two rereads followed. To Kill a Mockingbird, described by Kathy as ‘line by line the greatest novel I’ve ever read’ enchanted me even more on this second reading. If there’s a greater, more delightful and moving entrance into literature than that of Boo Radley, I’ve yet to read it. Then, in Chicago, staying on after a work trip in July, I reread Robin Black’s If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, a wonderful collection of short stories recommended to me by my friend Andrew, and first read years ago. I’d been burned during my year of reading women by Black’s debut novel, which felt clunky and clichéd. But the short stories still demonstrated Black’s ability to render loss and love and life so truthfully as to be almost surgically accurate and transcendent.

I also started When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi during the Chicago trip, on loan from Kathy. And whilst it feels churlish and unkind to be critical of someone whose memoirs were published posthumously, I didn’t feel that the writing style of this account of the author’s cancer diagnosis and treatment revealed any great insights into the illness. I appreciated the honesty and openness, and the book was not without its interesting passages, but for me it was not the work of genius the cover and some of the reviews had led me to believe. Kalanithi was clearly an incredible surgeon, and a great husband, son, and father. But I didn’t feel that he was a great writer.

I’ve grown up with Miranda Sawyer: we’re a similar age; she wrote for Select magazine when I was reading it; I’ve seen her early attempts at television presenting and interviewing develop and improve; and when I read her writing in the Observer about growing up, not being able to afford a house, whether that really matters, I felt stabs of recognition. I read her book Out of Time whilst on holiday in Singapore and Malaysia. Every sentence struck a chord. It has become my bible – somewhere to turn for advice and support from someone whose style feels like she is speaking to me.

I wanted to get stuck into a novel after the short stories and two consecutive non-fiction reads, and The Lacuna was the obvious choice. I loved this on my first reading (another example of weeping at my desk over the last few pages). There are passages of this book – about art, writing, creativity, identity – that resonate so strongly that it feels written for me alone. In my view, it’s a masterpiece of storytelling, and its structure, characterisation and plot show a writer at the height of her powers.

I was unexpectedly moved by my rereading of The Great Gatsby – maybe I just understood it more this time around; maybe as I get older the melancholic sense of loss, and the loneliness at the heart of the characters strikes harder. Whatever the reasons, I loved this. I enjoyed revisiting Daphne Du Maurier’s short stories across two collections. The two stories that have been turned into films (‘The Birds’ and ‘Don’t Look Now’) still stand out for me.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was another science-based work loaned to me by Kathy. I liked the style, was impressed by the research and dedication that informed the writing, found that I could keep up with the clever stuff, and felt smarter by the time I got to the end of it.

The Progress of Love was one of two Alice Munro short story collections I read this year (the other being Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage). There’s nothing I can say about Munro and her short story writing. She just knows how to do it, and she’s simply one of the best.

I studied Pinter at school, and have periodically returned to him over the years via performances of his plays and interviews with him. In the last few years I have written a screenplay in which he features, and I decided it was time to read Must You Go?, Antonia Fraser’s memoir of their meeting, relationship and marriage. It’s a love story told, of necessity, from Fraser’s point of view. So, as romantic and heartfelt as it is, I also had to try to read with a critical eye. But that aside, it’s full of wit and love, and Pinter comes over as irascible and funny as I had imagined (and as I had indeed written his character myself, based on my interpretation of his character from interviews and other people’s opinions). Just lovely.

How to Breathe Underwater was next. My friend Jane had suggested I buy this a few years ago. I’d never heard of Julie Orringer but I am glad she was brought into my life. Like Robin Black, she crafts her sentences with such care and truthfulness, gets inside her characters, and articulates loss and the pain of growing up like few others writing today, in my view.

I ended the year sprinkling some Joan Didion throughout these final rereads. Amanda bought me a book containing Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The White Album and After Henry, and between them I discovered some of the best non-fiction writing I’ve read. If there’s a more economical and insightful explanation of why a certain kind of Californian woman might have an affair, I’ve yet to read it: “a place where little is bright or graceful, where it is routine to misplace the future and easy to start looking for it in bed.”

I ended the year with a book borrowed from my friend Daisy, a book for which I had very high hopes, but which ultimately disappointed me. I wanted to love Carrie Fisher’s The Princess Diarist, as much as I love Carrie Fisher. I wanted it to be as smart and clever and funny as her. Because I miss her, and I wanted her to live again on the page. And to an extent, she did. But the overwhelming effect for me was of a flimsy tale, padded out, unedited, in need of another going over with sharper eyes. It isn’t the book she deserved; in my view, it doesn’t do her justice.

Reading challenge 2018 will see me tackle authors I’ve never read. I’m excited about visiting some gaps in my classic literature background (and I might have to finally get beyond the first few pages of Wuthering Heights), and discovering some new writers.

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2016: My Year of Reading Women

2016

Ripley Under Water by Patricia Highsmith

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

The Cry of the Owl by Patricia Highsmith

Bodies of Light by Sarah Moss

The Crime Writer by Jill Dawson

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe

The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud

Collected Stories by Grace Paley

Pop! by Jude Rogers and Alex Farebrother-Naylor

I Love Dick by Chris Kraus

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

Body of Evidence by Patricia Cornwall

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

To the River by Olivia Laing

Life Drawing by Robin Black

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante

The Past by Tessa Hadley

The Trip to Echo Spring – On Writers and Drinking by Olivia Laing

The Bricks that Built the Houses by Kate Tempest

A Vision of Loveliness by Louise Levene

A Cleaning Manual for Women by Lucia Berlin

The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx by Elaine Showalter

A Boy of Good Breeding by Miriam Toews

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter by Diana Athill

 

It’s been well documented that 2016 was a fucker of a year, taking some of the best from the world of the arts. For me, the first death of note wasn’t Bowie (although that hit me hard), but my friend Isabelle. The cancer that had been diagnosed in September 2014 let her see in the New Year with her husband, twin daughters, and her parents, and then took her on 3 January.

I’d already started the final of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley quintet, and I threw myself into it, following it up with a doorstop of a novel – Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins. I needed something to get lost in, and I always find it easy to immerse myself in Atkinson’s narratives, as they move between times and characters. It was just what I needed.

In February, as I set about my second, slender Highsmith of the year, I realised that I’d only read women writers and I decided to keep that up for the entire year. It wasn’t some kind of Bechdel Test,* as my penchant for Highsmith testifies. I wasn’t against that, of course, but this was just about reading more women writers, by deliberately keeping up with something that had started by accident.

I closed down my Highsmith obsession (for now) with a proof copy of Jill Dawson’s Highsmith novel, The Crime Writer, which reimagines Highsmith as a character from one of her own novels, a cunning killer, loose in the English countryside. Another ending came for me with the final three novels in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet. I read the penultimate book – Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay – whilst on holiday in Split, alternating between that, the news reports coming in from the UK, and the despair shown by many of my friends on social media as the referendum results showed that a slim majority of the country had voted to leave the European Union. The irony of the book title and the place in which I was reading it, was not lost on me.

Several new writers came my way this year, all of them women introduced to me by women. Amanda suggested Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train would be perfect for the airport, and she was right. As I waited for my delayed early morning flight, the book was the ideal travelling companion – undemanding but oddly gripping, a useful distraction from the delay. Sarah loaned me her copy of Sarah Moss’s haunting Bodies of Light; one of my writing group friends, Kirsten, gifted me Lucia Berlin and Louise Levene, the latter offering a sharp evocation of a certain 1960s’ experience, and the former a collection of sharp, insightful prose. Kathy brooked convention by giving me a present when she left the company that we both worked for, the wonderful Olive Kitteridge. And as Jane prepared to return to Australia, she left me with Tessa Hadley’s The Past, and with a novel by a woman I’d never heard of – Dorothy B. Hughes. Hughes’ The Expendable Man is a taut, twisty noir, and this hidden gem was one of the highlights of my reading year.

I’d read Elaine Showalter’s criticism in the past, but her fascinating and comprehensive journey into American writers was new to me. I found it on my desk when I first went into work after my birthday; a gift from my friend John (a man! I know!). I’m sure it is designed to be dipped in and out of, in between other books, but I couldn’t bear to put it down.

The Bricks That Built the House, Kate Tempest’s debut novel, was also a gift, from Daisy and Gavin. It seemed like it would be perfect for me, but I didn’t love it. There’s a poetic, ‘needs to be spoken aloud’ quality to some of the writing, which swept me up, but ultimately I just felt that I wasn’t the audience. Maybe if I was thirty years younger, and into performance poetry, I’d have felt differently. But the plot felt like someone writing with one eye on the TV adaptation. It didn’t ring quite true for me. It also made me wonder if I’m just getting old.

I took the opportunity to revisit women that I had read before. I won Robin Black’s Life Drawing at the Liars’ League interval quiz at their Work and Play event in August. I’d loved Black’s short story collection, If I Loved You I Would Tell You This, back in 2012, but this book was a huge disappointment for me: cliche-ridden, plodding prose; lacking the insight it so clearly thought it was conveying through its thin characterisation and plot. It did, however,  serve to remind me that not everyone has a novel in them, and that’s ok. I finally got around to Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (having read and loved On Beauty a couple of years ago), and was as dazzled by it as everyone else had been when it was first published. I hadn’t much liked the TV adaptation. I just thought it wasn’t for me, even though it was about class and gender and London. Things I Am Interested In. It turns out that the book was very much for me. Late to the Smith party, but glad to have arrived. Having been bored senseless by Mansfield Park during my A Levels, I finally pulled Sense and Sensibility off my shelf, and devoured its wit and truthfulness. I hadn’t expected to laugh out loud, or to think ‘I’ve felt exactly that way about a boy.’ And as much as I had loved The Lacuna, I had always thought that The Poisonwood Bible sounded like a bore. My friend Kathy insisted I was wrong, and loaned me her copy. I loved proving her right as I adored another of Barbara Kingsolver’s sweeping yet intimate narratives, populated by characters that seem to be like real people, funny and heartbreaking. Perfect. A long read that didn’t seem like it.

The book that took me the shortest time to read was written by friends – Pop! is a children’s book about pop music, and one Saturday morning I read through my hangover to the son of one of the authors.

I discovered Olivia Laing this year. I never expected to be quite so beguiled by a memoir of a recently heartbroken woman walking the length of the River Ouse. I knew I’d be interested in a book about writers and alcoholism, and again, Laing’s style made me love every word on the page, every story she had to tell.

As I decided that 2017 would be the year of re-reading fiction and balancing that out with new non-fiction, Diana Athill’s joyous and sensible memoir, Alive, Alive Oh!, provided me with the perfect bridge from women writers to the realm of non-fiction and the vibrancy of true stories.

* The Bechdel test asks whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man.

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2015: Books I read

2015

Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys by Viv Albertine

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl by Wendy Jones

Londoners by Craig Taylor

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Do No Harm by Henry Marsh

Ridley Walker by Russell Hoban

Snakes and Ladders by Dirk Bogarde

Truman Capote by George Plimpton

Cathedral by Raymond Carver

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver

Will You Please Be Quiet, Please by Raymond Carver

Joseph Losey: A Revenge on Life by David Caute

Touching from a Distance by Deborah Curtis

Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

Possession by A S Byatt

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Your Father Sends His Love by Stuart Evers

Our Mother’s House by Julian Gloag

Alfred Hitchcock by Peter Ackroyd

Reds by Ted Morgan

Carol (AKA The Price of Salt) by Patricia Highsmith

The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

Irma Voth by Miriam Toews

Ripley Underground by Patricia Highsmith

The Shaking Woman by Siri Hustvedt

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

Seven Miles Out by Carol Morley

Reckless by Chrissie Hynde

Le Pigeonnier by Dirk Bogarde

The Yellow Wallpaper (and 2 other stories) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Miss Brill (and 2 other stories) by Katherine Mansfield

My Dearest Father by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

The Robber Bridegroom (and others) by The Brothers Grimm

As Kingfishers Catch Fire (and other writings) by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime by Oscar Wilde

Wailing Ghosts (and other stories) by Pu Songling

Traffic and The Roots of Honour by John Ruskin

A Slip Under the Microscope and The Door in the Wall by H G Wells

Of Street Pieman (and others) by Henry Mayhew

Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith by Andrew Wilson

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride

At Hawthorn Time by Melissa Harrison

Ripley’s Game by Patricia Highsmith

The Boy Who Followed Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

Cockfosters by Helen Simpson

The Blunderer by Patricia Highsmith

Suspension of Mercy by Patricia Highsmith

My friend Lucy bought me the book that ended one year and started the next, and she had it signed by the author, with an accompanying sprig of holly denoting its status as a Christmas gift.

I started the year with a hideous bout of flu followed by dumping the Steven Mosby fan, though not for his love of Mosby. As a result of these two events, I read a lot in January – including Londoners, bought for me by the ex (we were together when I read it; exes soon after). He had also loaned me Ridley Walker, a book that was hard to read, hard to love, but worth persevering with. My friend Elaine bought me another hard to read, hard to love book for my birthday: A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, which she inscribed with the words ‘You told me you would never be able to read this. Go on, challenge yourself.’ I made it. I didn’t hate it.

Four books on the list from this year (the two Bogardes, the Losey biog and the Gloag) speak of a new writing venture: a screenplay about an imaginary event in the life of Dirk Bogarde, based on a story of mine.

Rock biogs feature too. Aside from the brilliant, life-affirming Albertine book, I read Reckless and Touching from a Distance, both loaned to me by Jude, the former after she had reviewed it for the Guardian. Jude also bought me a bunch of Penguin Little Black Classics for my birthday, which accounts for several of the shorter reads in Autumn.

Finally, I crossed Reds and the Capote biog, both started in previous years, off my list.

I met Miriam Toews at the Bookseller Crow and bought All My Puny Sorrows, which I read, loved and found strikingly, deeply moving and helpful. It led me to Irma Voth, but AMPS remains my favourite. The filmmaker Carol Morley and I became Facebook friends after an inspiring interview she gave to Miranda Sawyer at Foyles on the publication of her first novel, and the chat we had as she signed my copy. The suicide of her father formed the basis for Seven Miles Out. She wrote this in my book: ‘Dearest Jackie! You are lovely! Sorry you “lost” your dad too.” She ended by wishing me luck with my writing. I treasure the memory of that night, from my tears as she read the opening pages about her father to the honesty of her answers to Sawyer’s questions and the obviously personal conversation I felt able to have with her. Her words – both spoken and written – had made me feel that I was in the company of a friend.

Todd Haynes is probably my favourite contemporary American filmmaker (it looks like he has taken over from Jim Jarmusch but I am behind on my Jarmusch films so there is still a chance that Jim will regain his place). When I discovered he was making a film version of Carol I decided I should read the book first. The Bookseller Crow ordered it for me. It started an obsession with Highsmith that saw me get through four of the five Ripley books, a Highsmith biography and several other of her novels before the year was out.

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2014: Books I read

As I typed out lists of books read, starting below with 2014 and copied from yearly diaries, I realised how many memories were attached to them – to most of them anyway. More than music, it struck me that reading was richly evocative of friendships, relationships, events and obsessions.

2014

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Paradoxical Undressing by Kristin Hersh

Hiroshima by John Hersey

Ragtime by E. L Doctorow

How to Breathe Underwater by Julie Orringer

Perfect Lives by Polly Samson

The Examined Life by Stephen Gross

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

I Don’t Need You Anymore by Arthur Miller

The Fall by Albert Camus

Ten Stories About Smoking by Stuart Evers

Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

After the Fire, A Still Small Voice by Evie Wyld

The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

Serpico by Peter Maas

Collected Stories by James Salter

Desperate Characters by Paula Fox

By Blood by Ellen Ullman

The Paying Guest by Sarah Walters

Bad Behaviour by Mary Gaitskill

An Amorous Discourse in the Suburbs of Hell by Deborah Levy

Pollard by Laura Beatty

Black Flowers by Steven Mosby

Larry’s Party by Carol Shields

I remember crying at my desk in the office I worked in as I finished The Goldfinch. It had been loaned to me by a colleague – a sweet, smart and funny boy. He walked in one morning to see me with my head in my hands, tears sliding down my face. ‘Have you finished The Goldfinch?’ he asked.

I bought Paradoxical Undressing at my local independent bookshop, the marvellous Bookseller Crow on the Hill, run and owned by Justine Crow and Jonathan Main. It was at an event with the author, Kristin Hersh, at the publication of a new book and some music. She played guitar and sang; the shop was packed out, every inch of floor space crammed. It was clear that fans had come from far and wide; I felt oddly territorial, like I wanted to question newcomers. “Can you name three shops on Westow Street? No? Then piss off.” Kristin signed my book and let me take some photos with her; we discussed a mutual friend, Vicky – the first new friend I made at university and someone I saw for the first time since graduation in February of this year, in Grasmere, when she picked me up from a mini writing break and took me to stay overnight at her place in Hornby Castle. Yes, she lived in an actual castle. Well, a house adjacent to it.

There are some new authors on this list, too – by which I mean new to me. Unbelievably, this was my first ever Julian Barnes novel, although I can’t say it inspired me to want to read more. I read Rachel Kushner because of her appearance at another event at the Bookseller Crow, and Pollard came to me from my friend Jude, a book she loved and wanted to pass on. A boyfriend loaned me Black Flowers. I liked the plot more than the writing; and I didn’t love it anywhere near as much as he did. We didn’t last long; our incompatibilities were not just due to our difference tastes in reading matter. But when we first met, I was reading The Paying Guest. I messaged him the day before our first date to say, “I’ll be the one reading The Paying Guest“. After a couple of drinks he said, “I wasn’t sure how I was going to use that to spot you, seeing as how I don’t know what the book looks like. But I do know what you look like.”

Serpico was clearly the outcome of deciding – briefly – to give the unread books on my shelf a go.

I just had to Google the Paula Fox book, having no memory of reading it, of its subject matter or, seeing as how I don’t own it, who might have loaned it to me. The synopsis rang a bell, but there the story ends for me. I’d love to fill in the blanks.

The last full book I read, Larry’s Party, was a gift from one of my drinking, er, writing group. In 2012, 20 or so people formed the inaugural creative writing workshop at the Bookseller Crow on the Hill. Six of us hit it off and started a splinter group once the workshop had ended. We became friends. We see less of each other now, for writing and fun, but we get together for birthdays and weddings and for a Christmas meal, where we give Secret Santa gifts. There are two caveats to the gift-giving: we must give books and they must be bought from the Bookseller Crow. Kirsten had called up, spoken to Karen (our creative writing teacher, novelist, poet and part-time bookseller) who had recommended the Carol Shields. I had loved her short stories, and Unless, which I had read in 2005. I took Larry’s Party to Liverpool with me for Christmas. Reading it over dinner on Boxing Day, the waiter told me his mum had a copy. We chatted about literature for a bit. He reminded me of an absent friend, an old work colleague who had left his job and gone AWOL from the lives of me and my colleagues.

During the year, I also read some of John Cheever’s stories (ploughing my way intermittently through his collected short stories); some of Ted Morgan’s Reds, which I started reading the year before, inspired by having read both E. L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel, and Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna – two books that have at their centre the Communist witch hunts of the1950s; some of George Plimpton’s Truman Capote biography; and I began reading Viv Albertine’s Clothes, Clothes, Clothes,  Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys, which leads me to ….

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Five years

On 2 October 2011, I pressed my finger on the ‘Publish’ button, and my blog took up its tiny place on the internet.

It was Andrew – someone whose life has taken him out of mine, but who for a short while was significant to me – who suggested I joined him and the thousands – millions – of people for whom the blog had become the modern diary; for many of us it’s no longer possible to have a thought or a feeling or a memory (or a dinner) without sharing it with a world of varying size and interest. My excuse was, I’m a writer now. I must write. And have a home for my words.

I backdated my blog, so that I could include ‘live’ pieces about the scattering of my mum’s ashes which I started in 2009, when she died (The Long Goodbye); of readings at various short story events that had begun with my first ever accepted piece in January 2010 (Short Stories Live and True Storytelling Live); of the first exhilarating steps into publication in March 2010 (Short Stories). And then I added to it, as a way of keeping track of where I had got to, where I wanted to go.

I illustrated it with a photo taken by my friend Sophie in February 2011, to accompany a non-fiction piece I was writing about my fear of poetry, head down, pen in hand, looking like a writer, and I pressed ‘Publish’.

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Five years.

The photo has changed. But the one that currently heads the blog is still a few years old – taken at my desk in an office that I left in May 2014.

And so much has left and changed in the five years since I pressed ‘Publish’.

The leavings: in May 2013, a heartbroken uncle, in his eighties and never the same since the death of his wife (my mum’s beloved sister and my much-loved aunt) in February 2011. In January 2014, shockingly and unexpectedly, my cousin Ron – one of my layer of family – the first of our gang of 17 to die. In the space of three years, the mother, father and only child of this branch of my family were cut from my life.

Then, in August 2014, Jim Hillier left, too. It hit me harder than I would have imagined, as I realised the impact he had had on my life. When I thought about how much he had changed it, what he had opened up for me.

It stopped for a bit, the permanent leaving. I may have left some amazing colleagues when I walked out of that office in May 2014, some of them hanging out of the window shouting after me as I tearfully made my way to a weekend in Leeds with another friend and escapee from that particular job, but the leaving was temporary. They are all still in my life, in one way or another. I attended the weddings of Alice and Kellye in June and August of this year. Only this morning, Dominic shared a memory on Facebook about a particularly hilarious time six of us spent as colleagues in Vilnius. My birthday last week was attended by Roberta (previous attendees Elaine, Tasha and Alice being on holiday or honeymoon; Dom now living in Singapore). As Jane prepares to return to Australia, Catharina will join the rest of us to say goodbye to her. Tasha now lives a few streets away from me, Matthew having accused me of drip-feeding her with propaganda about the area throughout the years we sat together in that office. Meeting for drinks, and parties, to eat food, to talk about life and books – all of these things still keep us together, because for a few years we were a perfect storm of colleagues who really liked each other, made each other laugh, spent riotous nights creating memories and hangovers, helped each other through the hardest of times, and so stayed in touch as one by one we leaked out of the cracks in that office.

But the permanent leavings: they’ve not stopped. We all know 2016 has been a bastard of a year; we all know about the high-profile deaths. But it started for me very early in January, when my friend Isabelle died from the cancer that had been discovered only 14 months before. At Easter, my cousin Ken, not one of the 17 I knew well, but one of the 17 nonetheless, died too.

In between that, Bowie. I liked Bowie. Always had. Not exclusively, not always enthusiastically, but he’d always been there; a backdrop, a soundtrack to every part of my life. I simply wasn’t prepared for the way I pinned all my grief onto him. I wasn’t prepared for the way I would become obsessed with having to hear his voice – not so much singing, but speaking. I downloaded podcasts and old interviews and as I wandered the streets of Limerick and Sligo on a work trip a week or so after his death, I listened to his cracked laugh – surprisingly regular and enlivening – and the sadness that slipped into his voice when he talked about his young daughter, about the possibility of not being there as she grew up.

Of course, when I cried about him, I was crying about Isabelle and the daughters she knew she would leave behind. And I was crying for my own past, for the things that I’d lost, or given up, or not taken better care of.

But then there is change. Good change.

New job. New friends to add to the old. Journeys to new places. New spaces in which to write and think and walk and swim and read. To recover and accept and see.

Ten stories published on websites, three in magazines and three in different fiction and non-fiction anthologies. Over a dozen public readings, including true storytelling revelations. A screenplay. An entire, complete screenplay.

The slow overcoming of the fear of the blank page, the blank screen.

And now a blank CD sleeve, courtesy of one of those new friends, a musician who has sent the writers and artists he knows a blank sleeve for his band’s forthcoming new release. All he asks is that we fill it.

And that’s the best thing we can ask of ourselves, of our lives, isn’t it?

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Even amidst fierce flames the golden lotus can be planted

It’s been a strange year. The break up of a relationship for which I had reasonably high hopes. A dose of medication (for a seemingly innocuous nasal complaint) that sent me hurtling into my darkness, brakes off, no handrails. Work pressure and deadlines that kept me awake at night despite the nature of the job itself; certainly no lives were being saved. And worse than any of this – horribly, terrifyingly worse – the news that a friend’s cancer had returned and that her life would be over sooner than any of us – least of all her husband and their young daughters – were expecting.*

But amidst those fierce flames, there was something, planted by my dying friend. The realisation that I need to keep reminding myself that whatever life has thrown at me, I am still here. And the ‘here’ that I inhabit isn’t at all bad.

Sure, I’m not  anybody’s favourite – no one loves me best – but I still have wonderful friends with whom to grab a spontaneous drink, or spend a well-planned evening or short break. Sure, my job can be stressful but it’s interesting, and it pays me pretty well; and because I’m not saving lives, just editing words, I’ve adjusted my reactions to the stresses that the job brings. I try to remember the mantra I have used on and off for years when managing colleagues’ own stresses and worries: Nobody dies.

Instead of retreating to my default position of sadness and self-pity when thinking about parts of my life, I now concentrate on what I do have. It’s simple enough. It’s what many people do every day and yet my tendency to depression has often made this a challenge. But now I make a conscious effort to hoodwink the negative sides of my mental health; I work on reducing the doubts and the sadnesses, acknowledging their existence and then replacing them with an open laptop, a book, music, a film, a play, a gig, and human diversion if it’s possible and available.

So, I cherish my rented flat more than ever, planning ways to make it even nicer than it is. I curl up on the sofa or in my armchair and I read like it’s the last day that books will be on earth.

I visit the park near my home. I’ve done this a lot – it’s on my doorstep and is great for showing off the dinosaurs and the lake and the little zoo to visitors. But I realise that although I look at it, I rarely see it. So of late I have taken to immersing myself in Private Passions or Desert Island Discs or Witness, and walking and running around the park, stopping to see my surroundings, eyes open, head up. If it’s a quiet weekend, I might do this more than once a day. It gives me exercise, fresh air and hope. It takes me out of my head, a place I tend to spend more time than is always good for me.

I go on holidays – alone and with friends, for writing or resting or sightseeing; in July I travelled three times in the space of two weeks. I  went shopping and pub-crawling and walking in Dublin with a friend; swimming and reading alone in Dubrovnik. I ended the month with friends in their village near Dusseldorf, playing with their brilliant and boisterous six-year-old. And in between these trips, at home in London, I wrote the second draft of my screenplay. And then I booked a boutique B&B in Howarth for the day after my September birthday, in readiness for draft three.

‘My producer’ – R – and I met the week before my birthday to go over draft two. I knew I had achieved a lot of what he had suggested during discussions of the previous draft. I’d developed some scenes and characters, clarified the plot. I had formatted the script using the proper software. I was behaving like a Professional Screenwriter. But I had ignored other pieces of advice in favour of my original scenes; I thought I had failed to consider properly some minor elements of structure and the role of some of the characters.

And then there we were, outside Nike Town, Oxford Circus. We hugged hello. Then he gave me another hug, because ‘you have an excellent screenplay. One more pass and it’s ready.’ I was speechless. We went to a nearby bar for celebratory cocktails. I drank a Martini Royale, because it seemed apt for the period in which the film is set – the mid-1960s. He fired up a fancy piece of equipment and we went through his script notes. It was mostly positive: some great women characters; I’m apparently good with voices and have a gift for dialogue; the script is moving and funny.

I allowed myself then, as I do here, a semi-humble glow. Semi-humble because I was and still am genuinely surprised and thrilled, but also really, really pleased to be validated by someone who knows what he’s talking about, and I don’t see why I shouldn’t sing about that.

Whilst contemplating our cocktails we looked over the PDF of the screenplay for his comments, and he developed his criticisms. I have an occasional tendency for clumsy exposition; I’ve written ‘the worst scene header’ he has ever read (I’m oddly proud of that); there are ‘too many scenes of DD in nightclubs’ (what? There can never be enough scenes of DD in nightclubs, in my view). He gave me advice, the kind a writer can really act on – to do a series of different ‘passes’ through the script, reading it for different reasons. I have to do a DD pass (resituating this particular character, an act that will also allow me to develop her relationship with the central character and therefore illuminate more aspects of his life). Then there’s the KA pass, making sure that a previously tricky character, one that I had finally ‘got right’, was serving a significant part of the plot. I must do the DB and AF pass, to check that their relationship is cemented, not by adding extra scenes but by ensuring that what does take place between them tells us what we need to know about their life together, and helps to explain the actions of DB.

There are a couple of structural issues to deal with. I rarely find this kind of thing easy, but this time I have a solid base upon which to work, with a currently successful approach to the interweaving of the current and the past.

And so here I am, in Haworth by way of Leeds and Keighley. I have a view of the Bronte parsonage from my window; the moors upon which I take a morning run and an afternoon walk spread out before me like butter, as far as the eye can see. On my first run I listened to Joan Bakewell’s Desert Island Discs. Harold Pinter makes a brief appearance in my screenplay, so listening to Bakewell discuss her affair with him was useful and interesting. She also spoke with passion about ageing and being open to ‘friendships’ (in response to a question about romantic relationships). I’ve always liked her but she became a beacon to me during the course of the show: smart, wise, sensible; a life of the brain and the emotions, lived fully. Zadie Smith and Andrea Levy accompanied me to and from Hebden Bridge. I took the bus up to Heptonstall with the obvious intention of finding Sylvia Plath’s grave. My first mistake was going into the wrong cemetery. I could have looked it up before I visited, but part of me was cherishing the idea of walking amongst the graves and happening upon Sylvia like a longed-for accident.

Instead of relying on the internet, I spoke to my friend Kellye, who visited the grave earlier this year, and she sent photos to guide me. This led me to the correct location, and from there it was easy to find Sylvia. I gasped a little, let a few tears fall, thought about Sylvia and what drove her to this tiny, overgrown grave, with its long dead bunch of red roses strewn across it, at the position where I imagined her belly would be. I thought about my mum and my dad, the dead in my own life. And I let my hand move over the name and the inscription and I let the words seep into my head.

And I came back to Haworth – and I’ll go back to London – to live again in my writing. And it’s where I’ll stay, because it’s something I will always have. Something permanent amongst the necessary and inevitable temporariness of sylvialife.

 

*Updated on 9 January 2016. Isabelle made it through a low-key but lovely Christmas at home with her husband, their twin girls and her parents. They were all there when Isabelle died on 3 January.

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