Camp Bestival – a long blog post

It’s Sunday evening and I’m just back from a weekend away in Lancaster, seeing friends. I’ve a huge pile of ironing to do for the week, bedclothes to change and some general tidying to achieve before I can relax with Guy Garvey on 6 Music. I have, however, chosen now to tell you about Camp Bestival, where I spent last weekend campaigning with Oxfam.

I’ve been to festivals before but always as a paying member of the public. I volunteered for Oxfam in a fit of despondency at work last March. I was tired and depressed and sick of hearing how much good we were doing with our work. I just couldn’t see it myself. So I volunteered for Oxfam as a campaigner.

All I knew of Camp Bestival before I got there was that it was a family festival. But someone told me that there were 24,000 people attending and 15,000 of them were children. I don’t know if that’s true but it certainly felt true. And, while the twenty-something me would have screamed and run away, the thirty-something me discovered something.

I don’t have much to do with children on a regular basis. I don’t have any myself yet, my family and friends with children don’t really live near me and I don’t often encounter them at work. So I’m pretty certain I’m stating what other people already know but it was only at Camp Bestival that I realised how few positive images and portrayals of children there are in modern Britain. Perhaps it was because there were so many of them that I couldn’t help notice that they have the capacity to be really kind, thoughtful and funny. We should celebrate this more. Miserable bloody country.

Anyway, we were charged with talking to people and collecting signatures to support Oxfam’s new campaign (GROW) – the quality of the conversation was more important than the quantity of signatures. Each group of 3 campaigners had a large hand placard and a bucket of green paint and were to tell people to “Get their hands dirty” as a sign of support for the campaign. Of course, in a festival of 15,000 children anyone appearing with green poster paint soon gets mobbed. Green hands, green faces, green legs, green paint everywhere. We finished the first day a little despondent having hardly spoken to anyone except to reassure them that the paint would wash off. Oxfam’s new creche service, open near you.

Saturday and a change of plan. No paint except at the tent which would be set out like a campaign stall. We would walk and talk. And it worked! People recognised us from the paint and it gave us an “in” to start a conversation.

I haven’t done any campaigning before, for Oxfam or anyone, and was pretty nervous. But my fellow group members were a bit nervous too so it was either plunge in or we wouldn’t get anything done. In an effort to remember some facts about the campaign I’d brought the 74 page GROW report with me and read up a bit (I’ll be honest, I didn’t finish it…) The nice thing about talking for Oxfam is that the focus on quality of conversation means you can engage and challenge people’s arguments, which is something I’m not allowed to do at work. This is where, once full of confidence, I can excel. So while my fellow volunteers talked to other people in a group, I took on the chap who stated that famines were the best way of controlling the population and that perhaps we should think about enforced sterilisation.

By the end of the festival our small group felt we’d really developed, we’d had some great convewrsations plus we’d collected a lot of signatures. We’d had a man exclaim “But that’s really exciting!” when we told him of the campaign, we’d had little girls run up to us with green paint on their faces to tell us that “We’re supporting you!” But my enduring memory of the festival was, walking up through the public campsite and seeing 3/4 small children run towards us, looking overjoyed to see us, just wanting to high five our big hand placard.

I’m off to campaign again at Summer Sundae this week and it will be very different. But I’ll carry the mental picture of those children with me in case anyone else wants to argue eugenics.

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Winning, and an odd bit of litter

Two things happened today. The first was a little odd, the second was just unexpected.

I walk to work, as many of you know, and this morning was ambling down Mansfield Road when I spotted something lying on the pavement. “Hang on,” I thought. “That’s a pregnancy test!” Now I couldn’t just walk on by – I had to know what it said. Apparently some people think that’s odd. But I just had loads of questions about it.

  • Who is she?
  • What does it say?
  • How did it get there? Did she drop it in a rush to tell someone else the result? Or did she fling it out the window in a rage?
  • If positive, is she happy or terrified or furious or just massively confused?
  • If negative, is she sad or relieved or a bit of both?

And they were just the first questions I thought of. I looked about, saw there were people coming, browsed casually in a shop window till they’d gone past and then had a good look. It had a pink handle and there was a line in the round window, not the square window. A trip to Boots beckoned – I had to know what it meant.

By the time I’d got to town I’d thought up all kinds of possible scenarios for her. I was quite nervous really. To Boots.

First Response do pink tipped tests. It looks like it was negative. This has, of course, only answered a couple of questions and clearly I’m doomed never to know the answers to the rest. I hope she isn’t too sad. Or too relieved for that matter. A bit of regret’s good for you.

So, daily distraction over! When I got home there were two parcels waiting for me. One was a replacement Mooncup after I melted my first one sterilising it (don’t ask). The other was a surprise! I’d entered a competition at Writers Cafe a few weeks ago – they’d given a number of prompts and asked for entries. And I am a winner! So it’s not the Booker but I feel just as excited by winning. This is the first thing I’ve entered in any kind of competitive judging respect so it’s a big deal for me.

In case you wanted to read the winning entry then you might like to visit the Writers Cafe website!

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She Writes blog post

The following blog post appeared on She Writes beautifully revamped website this morning. I thought I’d post it here as well.

I got a ticket to this year’s Glastonbury late this year. I missed out on the first round of sales and got mine in April. For a while I was trying to reconcile myself to not going, thinking, “It’s just 5 days, you’ve been before, what’s the problem?” Remembering all the people who say they’re content to watch on TV and avoid the mud. But no, there was a slight desperation, a frantic desire to go this year and I didn’t know why that was until I was there.

This last year has been tough. My husband has been at university pursuing a career change so our income has dropped, he’s been hard at work and with a part time job at weekends, we’ve barely seen each other. My job has been in a state of flux as the organisation changes – the work has been unfulfilling, vague and boring. My office colleagues, while all being very nice people, have very little in common with me. I find myself at work either not able to join in conversations for hours at a time or feeling like I have to apologise for believing what I believe, liking what I like and having the skills I have. I have some friends in the city but I don’t see them often, most of them are at the babies and settling down stage.

Outside all of that, this year I’ve written a novel. It’s my first one and was written essentially to “see if I could”. So now I know I can.

It’s not a good novel and is only a piece of fluffy crime fiction. But I learnt so much about writing, about my strengths and weaknesses while writing it, about what works for me and what I need ot work on that I am very fond of it. I won’t seek to get it published – I know it’s not good enough.

Standing in a muddy field, sleep deprived, dirty, surrounded by strangers (I go to Glastonbury more or less alone – no-one I know really wants to come with me) I suddenly felt a sense of relief. I remembered why I was there, what I gain most. Yes it’s great to forget responsiblilities for a few days, yes it’s great to break your routine, yes it’s definitely great to watch some artists at the top of their game. But mainly I get fed there. I’m not alone. I don’t have to apologise for being different. I don’t have to apologise for wanting more stimulation, more creative opportunities, more time. I don’t have to dampen down my politics and stand by accepting that some things are unjust. I can laugh, I can cry, I can shout, scream and dance. And most importantly, I can do all of those things with other people who feel the same way, whether I know them or not.

Coming back home I’ve been so inspired. I’ve got so many ideas for writing spinning round my head I don’t know how to deal with them, where to start or what to do. I’ve got notes of things to look up and research, snippets and phrases that have come to me and been scribbled down on scraps, piles of stuff lying about and whirling round my brain.

I watched some great artists this year and, while I think there’s a possibility that you can feel overawed by watching someone like BB King or Paul Simon, someone truly great, I just felt inspired. I can do better than the little novel I’ve written so far. I can write better quality sentences, better characters. I don’t mean to say that I think I am anywhere near as good as either of the artists I mentioned above – I know my limits – but I know that so far I’ve sold myself short.

I don’t want to sound self pitying and lonely. Writing is, after all, something to do if you’re good at being alone, which I am. But it’s such a hard weary path to tread. She Writes is a great resource and I read a lot more on here than I write and comment on (sorry – I must do better I know) but once in a while face to face contact, joint experiences are what you need. Modern life, certainly in these hard times, seems to be so set on driving people down, on stamping on creativity and expression, on just “getting through it” that I despair. It took 5 days in a field to restire my equilibrium; now all I have to do is keep that going now I’m back in the real world.

Right now I’m going to make myself some tea, sit in my writing room, listen to the birds outside and pour out some ideas. In that hotchpotch somewhere will be something I can craft.

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Blog update

Just a quick note to say blog posts will be suspended for a week until I return from Glastonbury.

I leave you with this: It’s very good!


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Author evening with Julie Myerson

I’d met Julie Myerson before Thursday evening’s event at Waterstone’s in Nottingham. A few years back I bumped into her at the Guardian First Book Award party and told her how much I loved her book ‘Something Might Happen’ which also made me cry in public because it was so awful. I had been helping myself to liberal amounts of red wine. She was quite charming and apologised for upsetting me.

On Thursday she was similarly charming. Talking about her most recent novel ‘Then’, she mentioned that she doesn’t like it being described as “post-apocalyptic” but instead preferred “tomorrow”. What if you woke up and everything was different? In this case, she was inspired by stories of the past where British rivers froze over in winter. There were a number of inevitable comparisons with The Road. Someone called it The Road without the redemption. A man in the audience stuck his hand up and told her that “I really enjoyed it, despite it being such a horrific story. It was compelling, right from the beginning.” She was thrilled. I was a little encouraged – clearly my drunken comments all those years ago weren’t that unusual.

What is interesting to me about Myerson is her ability to capture the dark stuff. A friend who has read my book asked for more details about one particular character’s back story and I refused to tell her. Or anyone. At one point this was in the book – I wrote a scene, it sprang from a “what if?” conversation – and then I cut it out. It wasn’t right. But another reason was that I appalled myself in the writing of it, how easily writing like that came to me.

Julie Myerson sat there and said that she was interested in why good people do evil things, about people’s states of mind, how they think, that she looks at the same stories in different ways and that she writes of romantic and maternal love and loss. I felt simultaneously inspired and inadequate. I am too, I want to do all of that, I want to try the same things. She wrote of things that scared her. So I should really take the scene that appalled me and make it into a book.

The evening seemed to turn into a mini book group meeting which I rather enjoyed. It enables you to get down to the nitty gritty bits about writing and reading, and the audience was full of reading group members. Myerson talked about writing in the first person, which she prefers to do but that she sometimes feels that she ought to write in the third person. ‘Something Might Happen’ was written in third person and was sent back by her agent to be rewritten in her usual style.

I’ve been writing in the third person myself but wonder at it sounding stiff. I also found the confessional first person part of my book the easiest to write fully and wrote it fast. So there are things to experiment with here. What stopped me writing more in the first person is that I don’t like reading it very much. Or so I told myself, but thinking about it, some of my favourite novels are in the first person – Jane Eyre, Brother of the More Famous Jack.

I haven’t been to a book event since I stopped running them and I haven’t enjoyed being at a book event for much longer than that. Having gone off reading for a while after I stopped working for Waterstone’s, I’ve come back to it slowly. In the same way, this was a nice reintroduction and I’ve come away full of ideas, so much so that I woke Simon twice last night by getting up to scribble things down before I forgot them. Now to find the time to explore them properly.

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Why Music Matters: Elbow Leaders of the Free World

In 2003 I miscarried a baby. It’s terribly common, to lose a child like this, but it’s not talked about much. It was a late miscarriage, 17 weeks, and involved a short labour process and a tiny but perfectly formed body. It was singularly the worst thing that has ever happened to me.

At the time I was lucky – I had a strong circle of friends nearby, a supportive employer and it was near Christmas so I was able to go home and see my family and best friend for their support too. And I went back to work, got married 9 months later and carried on. I worked to develop my career to be more interesting, found new things to do, places to go.

But the loss stayed with me. And the thoughts of inadequacy stayed with me. And friends moved away, family were 200 miles away and although I was happily married, this was one thing we didn’t talk about very much together. I didn’t want to try again straight away, I wanted to live a bit more.

I owned the first 2 Elbow albums at that time and listened to them once in a while. I liked them, I wouldn’t have called myself a massive fan, but I liked them. Then, in 2005, the day before my birthday (for some reason this seems important) ‘Leaders’ was released. Because of the baby, this one clicked for me.

I first heard it at work, someone else played it one morning on an early shift before the shop opened. Guy’s voice called to me from the ceiling speakers. I stopped in my tracks, thought, “Hang on I know that,” and put down my pile of books to go and check out the CD case. Ah yes. Elbow. Familiar. Suddenly I felt like we were friends. I bought it later that day.

I think everyone needs a best friend album. An album that’s the equivalent of giving you a hug and a shoulder to cry on before telling you they love you and to get the hell up and bugger off. This is mine. It immediately comforts, it offers thoughts of home, of love lost and searched for, of friendship and hope and romance in odd situations. As a friend, it sits in the pub with you and puts the world to rights, sings along with the jukebox, cries into its beer and then staggers with you to the taxi rank to get you home safely. I can play it over and over and over again and never be sick of it.

One day following the miscarriage I remember Simon was getting ready for work and came downstairs to find sitting at the table gazing blankly into space. I couldn’t talk to him and other friends were at work or college. So I sat for a long time alone. If this was now, I know I’d have put ‘Leaders’ on until the feeling passed. But for that day, it was just me.

I’m not sure I’m giving quite the right impression about this. It’s not all about bucking people up until they’re ok again. But it’s quite a lot about that. Elbow have a loyal bunch of fans, all of us feeling like we’re mates, hopefully if any of them (fans, I mean) read this they’ll get what I’m trying to say. It is about someone out there knowing how you feel and taking the time to capture that. It is about drinking your worries away. It is about capturing that one moment when everything’s brilliant and not losing sight of that.

I think, for me, this one’s the most personal album I’ve written about which is why I appear to have lost all lucid thought. But if these music posts have anything in common, they do celebrate lyrics, voices and identity. Elbow do all this. Subsequent albums may have given them the success they deserve but this will always be the one that captured my heart. And the one that hugged me and said, I love you, now get the hell up and bugger off.

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Why Music Matters: Tom Waits Closing Time

I first heard Tom Waits in the sixth form at school. My friend Debbie and I were starting to listen to stuff that wasn’t in the charts and she came into the study room one day and said “listen to this”. I can’t remember which song it was, nothing off this album, it was after his voice had been shot down even more. But I hadn’t heard anything like it. Growing up in a family that revered Frank Sinatra, all the swing guys, Bing Crosby and the musicals, the ability to sing and sing well was prized. The idea of singing like you’d just swallowed a brillo pad was new to me and anathema to them. I could just hear my father’s reaction in my mind as I listened.

I didn’t start listening to him a lot then. He stayed on the periphery for a few years. And then I met my husband and when we started seeing each other he lived in a house with 2 other men. The front room was full, overflowing with books and CDS. One night, Simon made dinner and asked me to pick something to play while we ate. I saw this lying on the table and put it on. It’s his first album, and one he’s since distanced himself from (I think).

I loved it though. I left the house the next morning and couldn’t face the idea of not having it with me so I took it. (After payday I went to Fopp, bought it and put it back so if James West or Duffy ever read this, I didn’t steal your Tom Waits, ok?)

It’s a run down, barfly, drinking till dawn album, full of regret and tinged with sadness. You can’t play it while it’s light or when you’re busy. You play it after 11pm on a Friday night when you’re knackered and have had the best part of a bottle of wine. The wine helps explain why you end up in tears at the end of ‘Martha’.

Waits is another storyteller. His later albums are inhabited by all sorts of characters but the bones for them were laid down in this album. You find yourself both charmed and repulsed by the wreckage of their lives, and his voice only highlights this. There’s dark humour here, a black delight running through each song.

But those are for later albums. This one’s less harsh, more downtrodden. Drunk but not yet face down in the gutter. That will come, inevitably.

P.S. Reading back, perhaps it was weird that we used this to soundtrack a romantic dinner?

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