Place Nostalgia

It's the nostalgia, I decide as I walk through the town I grew up in, that makes my relationship with it feel like a failed romance. I love it here, but it’s a can’t-live-with-it-can’t-live-without-it kind of deal. To live here all the time would be like living in a permanent state of teenage love-sickness.

First there are the memories, deposited around the town like bin bags left out for collection. I trip over them, kicking their contents across the pavement and making my shoes sticky. These are memories I don’t even know I have until I arrive here and find them lurking around corners and spilling out of windows.

Then there’s how much it’s changed. The shops, the bars, the cafes, the atmosphere: it’s all changed. What it was hangs around my neck like a locket but what it is now is impossible to avoid. Conflict’s good for stories but it’s awkward in real life. It makes you feel displaced.

I love this place more than anywhere else but it hurts to be here sometimes, to know that it carries on without me.

Image by Seyed Mustafa Zamani


Gazpacho and Orange Trees

There was gazpacho on leafy terraces and chilled red wine; there were scorching walks past cave-dwellings and orange trees; a lizard with a turquoise tail and pomegranates in the bushes; cold beers in iced glasses; shopping beneath the shade of colourful throws; fourteenth century Moorish architecture framed by archways and running water... I’ve been in Granada: finally a good reason for my internet absence.

I’m no travel writer but any place that can be described with such a combination of rich and colourful words could hardly fail to impress. I’m back now, gearing myself up to a few weeks of summer writing while school is shut. Life couldn’t be much better. Unless I was sitting on a sunny terrace with a bowl of gazpacho and a glass of red wine...


Hippo in a Leotard

I’m reading Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle at the moment, and there’s a lovely section about the narrator as a plump and clumsy child, sent to ballet classes by her mother in one of many attempts to make her fit in. I couldn’t help but be reminded of my own experience of dance class... and in the absence of alternative subject-matter, I thought I’d write about it.

I don’t remember how I came to be learning ballet, but I’m pretty certain it was my own decision. I, like many a young girl, had aspirations to be as beautiful and graceful as the principle dancers I’d seen on stage in white tutus and satin shoes. I don’t think I was ever under any illusion: I knew there was nothing graceful about me. I was big and clumsy and I had the coordination of a hippo. But it was nice to dream.

I went to a dance school above a toy shop, a mirrored studio with a bar running round the edge of the room. There was a piano in the corner, played every Saturday by a woman whose face I don’t remember, but who would occasionally rise from her stool and demonstrate positions with the aid of a wooden doll with movable limbs. My dance teacher, Miss D, was ancient and formidable. She wore mid-length skirts in navy blue and her bunions bulged out the side of black ballet pumps. She would prowl the room behind us while we stood at the mirrors practising our plié, barking at us to strand straighter or hold our tummies in. She would press our stomachs in and turn our thighs out, her fingers firm and fearless on our leotards. We were constantly reminded about the turn-out, told to hold bits of ourselves in and point other bits out. The most important lesson I learned from the Saturdays I spent in that room was that ballet was not glamorous.

Most of the pupils at Miss D’s dance school were children: girls who would never be professional dancers. Miss D’s job was to make sure we all knew that. It was her job to teach us how much discipline and commitment was needed, how much pain and hard work. She did a wonderful job. At the age of ten, I was terrified of her; she was strict beyond reason. I think now that she was an excellent dance teacher. She taught discipline and skill, and she gave us the intuition to weed ourselves out before it became something we couldn’t cope with.

There was a small group of older girls, the special few who’d made it through those early stages. I think of them collectively now as ‘The Joannas’. I suppose they must have been about sixteen; in my mind they were some kind of special breed of girl-woman, all grace and beauty and supple limbs. These were the girls with potential, the ones with commitment. At least two of them were called Joanna, and they played the lead roles in all the dance shows. They would sit in their own area of the changing rooms, their chairs arranged in an exclusive corner that blocked off the rows of hopefuls. They had legwarmers and wraparound cardigans to wear over their leotards; they wore white tights and ivory-pink ballet slippers with blocks in the end and ribbons up the calves. Oh how I wanted those shoes! All I wanted was to be allowed to go ‘en pointe’. Miss D was so strict, so measured, that none of us who weren’t going to be at least semi-serious ever got that far. That may have been the kindest thing she did for us.

Every year, we would do a production at the local theatre, always called Dance Flash, and always following the same format: a dance from each of the classes followed by a standard finale. Although I only learnt ballet, Miss D also taught tap, jazz and modern dance, so the show was diverse. The costumes – of the little girls at least – were stitched by committed mothers and we spent many a weekend in rehearsal. At the end of each of these shows, there would be a grand finale, in which – every year – Handel’s Arrival of the Queen of Sheba would play and we would walk, straight-backed, as gracefully as possible, down the aisle and filter onto the stage from both sides to perform our curtsey. We all wore our black leotards for this, with a coloured belt to mark our level. The audience applauded steadily, and then The Joannas would arrive to cheers and whistles, followed by Miss D, in a sequinned jumper, her smile wide and her white hair curled tightly. The music recalls that memory so vividly for me now that I’m a child again, the thrill and the fear of the stage bubbling up inside me.

I didn’t realise how vivid this memory was until I read that passage this morning. One of my very favourite things about reading is how it can find hidden corners in you and shine a torch up to things you thought you’d forgotten.

Image by Keitei


Sea Set

This time last year I was working on the first draft of a novel in sea-side isolation. It was wonderful. And I came away with a complete first draft (give or take a few thousand words) and a head full of good intentions for the year to come.

Since then we’ve moved house and gone through a year of normal-life routines. And I’m still working, ever-so-slowly, on my second draft. Luckily, I’ve come far enough in this project not to give up; luckily, I still believe in this idea. And so this Easter holiday I’ve crammed all my distracting household jobs into the first couple of days, and I’m readying myself to plough through the next stage of redrafts.

I will try to remember how timeless life became last Easter with its incredible sunsets and roaring coastline. I will close my door and remember the sound of the sea against the garden wall. I will write.



 I’m not the most efficient writer I know. I find it very hard to achieve a lot of work in an evening. But I do try. My evenings are planned and timetabled week by week: there’s a certain amount of work I aim to get done.  I might waste a lot of time staring at my computer screen or reading Twitter (which is where the inefficiency comes in) but generally by the end of the week, I’ve met my target one way or another.

I refer to this process as ‘work’. It’s misleading. I don’t get paid for it; no one makes me do it. It’s work that I’ve chosen to do for no reason other than that I want to ‘be’ a writer. Which is a hard thing to explain to the average non-writer.

Occasionally I get asked to do extra work at school in the evenings and I find it difficult to turn it down. I’m one of the few support staff without children and therefore a solid reason why I absolutely can’t do anything else in the evening... so I’m often an early point of call when cover is needed.

When I do extra paid work, my writing time suffers but I find it hard to justify my writing as being ‘work’. Indeed there’s no payoff to speak of and it’s very difficult to explain why I think it’s important to maintain my commitment... particularly when someone’s stuck and needs support to cover an absence.

If I had another paid job in the evenings, I would have to turn things down more regularly than I currently feel able to. Is it really any different, I wonder? Is a commitment made for oneself less of a commitment than the ones made to other people?

Image by Ildar Sagdejev.


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