Saturday, 17 May 2014

Mary Stewart, and things connected

I was sad to hear of the death of novelist Mary Stewart. Her novels were part of my early introduction to fiction, because my mother not only read them, but in a sense embodied them for me, with her tales of life lived before motherhood; she was a Wren in Gibraltar during WW2, working as a signals officer in the dripping, cold tunnel systems, deep under the Rock. On rare days off - and with only £2 as her currency allowance - she and her sister-officers would gallivant over to Spain on day-trips, to buy silk to make dresses for the endless cocktail parties, which the very few women present in that very masculine world were more or less commanded to attend - getting tiddly 'for the war effort'.

As she told these stories, her face would change and she'd become again the 20-something in a pretty hand-sewn frock, smoking a Players cigarette, absolutely equal to her situation. In later life, her intrepid nature was called upon to cope with all kinds of economic and practical challenges, abroad and at home, and she met them with great spirit. Even in her final couple of years - when her memory for day to day things was gone - her voice and posture would change as she talked, glass of whisky in one hand, cigarette in the other, white hair, brown skin, glamorous red lipstick, and I could see the heroine emerge again, ready for anything.

This is a poem I wrote about that life, and how it progressed, and it refers to the Mary Stewart influences (though I think I got the novel reference wrong - it was surely Airs Above The Ground I was thinking of, with the great car leaping up a snowy mountainside.)

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

What is #WoMentoring and why am I doing it?

On April 15th the WoMentoringProject was launched "to offer free mentoring by professional literary women to talented up and coming female writers who would otherwise find it difficult to access similar opportunities." 

I'm glad to be part of it.

Why? About ten weeks ago, I saw a tweet by writer Kerry Hudson, (whose idea this is) asking for volunteers, and instinct led me to say yes immediately. Instinct is a powerful thing - I didn't really need to think about it. The concept - women helping other women - is something I've believed in quite strongly since I can remember.

Why do I use the phrase 'believed in'? I'm not sure I 'believe' in anything strongly... not in religious doctrines, or even absolute moralities (with some vital exceptions). Writing fiction for many years has taught me something about certainties; the more I write, the fewer I have.

But I digress.

Perhaps it's possible to believe in an ideal, when you've had sufficient proof that others share it. (See projects like EverdaySexism and VIDA if you need further proof of why this sorority is needed.)

So - I will offer some time and experience to other women who write (probably one at a time!) for a while, because it feels right to me. It's a thing I've already been doing, stealthily, here and there, and a gift I've received from some brilliant and generous women writers I've been lucky enough to encounter; women not always older than me, but further along their paths, and able to point out a few puddles and potholes and tripwires, and hold out a hand when I've got lost (I've got lost a lot), and brush dried twigs and mud off my face, and set me going again.

(There are male writers who've been handy with j-cloths and getting grit out of your shoe, too, and I gladly acknowledge their help.)

I have no idea who, if anyone, will ask for my help. If they do, I hope it will be because they have read some stuff I've written, and liked what I write about, or how I wrote it; but also from a sense of how I view the important things about human relationships and individual choices and how to fall down and get up - because that's what's I know, a little, and that's what's being offered. 

Here's the FAQ about WoMentoring - read carefully before applying - and good luck to all involved.

More writers, more stories...? 
Yes. Let all the flowers bloom.

Monday, 6 January 2014

in stitches

sewing susan & her sinister sisters
It's been a while since I sewed with any regularity (or any great flexibility of the fingers) but I used to do so a lot. 

A friend recently reminded me of the skirt she'd asked me to make her, twenty years ago, from an old pattern. She came round to try it on, admired herself in it, in a variety of poses, then asked for it to be tightened and narrowed to a truly pencil-slim shape, insistent that was the look she I did as requested until it was a tube of light grey flannel so hobbling she couldn't sit down in it or walk to the bus.

She maintains to this day that it was a fine piece of work.

With more success, I used to make myself capri pants out of 1950s jumble-sale fabrics, mainly bathroom curtains covered in blue-green-grey-black designs of fish and seaweed and sea-urchins, based on a very simple 'slacks' pattern I'd found in some charity shop. It was the dressing-up era, and I had time on my hands, and Edinburgh's older generation were tossing out so many wonderful clothes and objects I spent each weekday trawling through the rails of charity shops, finding new things to wear, or sell, or give to friends. Steptoe rather than Stepford, moi.

Before she had children - and then again, much later, when we were out of her environment - my mother used to make her own clothes. When she was a Wren in Gibraltar, she was able to buy silk in Spain (where they were allowed to go on day trips, with no more than £2, I think, as spending allowance) and in her free time (i.e. time not employed in drinking tea or gin with handsome naval officers) made some really pretty dresses, most of which she omitted to save (still annoyed about that) for her daughters (in fairness, she didn't know yet she'd have us). Later, when she was in her late 60s, she picked up the habit again, taking apart shapeless tent-like skirts and fitting them onto old lace collars and yokes to make nightdresses. I loved the optimism of that continued attempt to make things that were useful and beautiful.

I don't know how I learned to sew, but it was probably via my mother - and she would have learned from hers. There was an obligatory element in secondary school, where I remember being under instruction to make an apron (standard girly stuff), and later, aged about thirteen, I constructed a ghastly a-line dress out of purple corduroy (and was so proud of myself, but wonder now if I didn't look like a Jackie magazine disaster).  At fifteen or so, I began to play with appliqué and embroidery, probably as a kind of fantastical escape from unappealing reality. Clothes and escape, discuss. There are still skeins of coloured silk thread bundled into boxes, and buttons and fabrics collected for clothes I'll probably never make, unless I head more determinedly towards the eccentric style-choices of Edith Sitwell.

Perhaps in recent years words have become the embroidery, or words are the clothing itself, a textual way to deal with reality.

Between now and May, I'll be thinking in terms of needlework - and the adornment, flattery or disguise of the body - quite a lot, because I'm participating in a group writing project called Bespoke(n) - initiated and curated by Newcastle-based word-tailor Helen Limon

"Bespoke(n) is a (partly) Arts Council-funded group writing project that includes nine writers from all over the UK, an east-end tailor, film maker and a visual artist. Almost half those involved in the project are young creatives under twenty five." 

For a modest 'pledge' - see the Bespoken Crowd-Funding page for all the details - you can peer over the project's shoulders, hang on its coat tails, tug on its sleeve, sneak your hand into its pockets, seize it by the lapels, pick fluff off its cuffs... (I'm sure you can think of other metaphors to add to that lot). For a less modest pledge, you could receive a limited edition artists' book, or - you lucky person - have a coat made for you, yes, made for YOU. A bespoke coat!

To sharpen your needle-like wits on the topic, here's a sample writing prompt by Viccy Adams

For more ideas, info, and links, follow @BespokenProject