Literary life

After four days in beautiful Bantry, things are sadly back to normal. The West Cork Literary Festival was a lot of fun and really inspirational; as Richard Scarsbrook says, there was a great bunch of people, a wonderful atmosphere and plenty of Guinness. The Fish Anthology is an amazing collection of writing and I’m still stunned to be a part of it.

It’s tempting to think that last week’s experience is what being a writer is about: swimming in the hotel pool before a big cooked breakfast. Spending all day listening to authors reading out their work. Chatting about writing and publication. Being recognised in the street and asked about poetry. Really, it could go to your head.

I think perhaps this is the picture people have of What a Writer Does. Mixed in with maybe a little manic late-night hammering on an old-fashioned typewriter, or a touch of dreamy wandering long-skirted through a dew-drenched garden, fountain pen and notebook in hand.

I’m guilty of a little romanticism myself. I keep thinking about the writer’s shed I’ll have when we move house. Watching the deer run across the lawn and listening to the birds sing, surely I’ll never be short of inspiration?

In reality, of course, the wildlife will have been terrorised away after one encounter with my city children wielding brightly coloured plastic toys. I’ll have let the laptop run out of charge and left the power cable somewhere in the house. I’ll have run out of tea and won’t be bothered to drive to the distant shop to get some, so I’ll end up scribbling angry caffeine-deprived verse in crayon on the back of an envelope.

I’d plan to quit while I’m ahead, but thoughts of fame and Guinness lure me on (not necessarily in that order). See you next year, Bantry?

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Mine’s a pint

I’m starting to get nervous. This week I’m off to Bantry for the West Cork Literary Festival; a type of event I have exactly no experience of.

If it was an oil industry conference I could talk seismic data processing with the best of them… well, actually my knowledge is completely out of date by now, but at least if I joined a conversation about fold and gathers, I wouldn’t embarrass myself by asking who’d taken up origami. Okay, lame geophysics joke over, you can keep reading. Hello? Hello? Oh, just the paper-folding wiggle-pickers left, is it? Never mind. At least you’ll appreciate the reference I just made to plot folding. No, of course I know it’s all done on screen these days. So, as I was saying…

If it was a conference about being a parent (they have those, right?) I’d be totally in my element. I could talk about kids’ TV, or how much fun small children can have riding their scooters. Yep, total parenting expert, me.

In fact, it’s a festival about writing. A poem I wrote made it to the top ten of the 2011 Fish Poetry Competition. Aside from this incredible fluke, my credentials as a writer are:

  • taking a Creative Writing course with the Open University, roughly equivalent to one sixth of a degree. Which I can’t assume I’ve even passed, since the results aren’t released until August. (Of course I passed. I wrote two poems about fossils for the final assignment. How could I not pass?)
  • reading The Ode Less Travelled, Stephen Fry’s excellent book on poetry, while chortling a lot and completely failing to learn the difference between an anapaest and a dactyl.

I suppose what I’m worried about is; I was a geophysicist for ten years, I’ve been a parent for five, and now I’m calling myself a poet after, well, six months. Unless this festival is full of shameless blaggers who’ve turned up mostly to neck pints of Guinness, I’m way out of my depth. I’ll let you know.

(No, I won’t let them know. My mum’s babysitting for four days while I swan off to… discuss serious literature, very seriously. Shhh, and hand me that pint of Guinness.)

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Picture (im)perfect

Éila has developed an unsightly and contagious skin condition this week, which means it must be time for school photos.

Last time we had an appointment at a photo studio, Cian showed up sporting a lovely grazed nose.

It could have been worse. The original injury really wasn’t pretty.

The airbrushing guys would have earned their money with that one. You see, parents needn’t settle for anything less than perfection in their kids’ appearance these days; when we arrived to proof the pictures, Cian’s grazes had all been edited out. We got some strange looks when we asked for the scrapes to be left in – but Cian wouldn’t be Cian without some kind of bump or bruise (aww, bless his clumsy little cotton socks).

Plus, my childhood photos could fill an entire scrapbook with shots of unfortunate haircuts, gawky metal-covered teeth and shiny, pimply adolescent skin. Why should he get off so lightly?

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One barn conversion, sunny side up

I like the way the real estate market works in Texas. It’s a lot like fast food. If you have a sudden craving for a Midtown Craftsman, you can call up and order a viewing with thirty minutes notice. All the vital information is listed, menu-like, in the seller’s disclosure, and as soon as you make your decision to buy, the chef throws it on the grill and you’re committed. Unless you suddenly discover that the kitchen walls are chock full of mould, in which case you can walk away. Quickly, before the owner keys your car since he’ll never be able to sell it now. Ahem. This may or may not have happened.

Buying a house in England is more like eating in a pretentious restaurant. You book weeks in advance just to get inside the door, then if you fail the dress code they throw you straight back out. (We met one estate agent who apparently decided we wouldn’t be able to afford the house he was showing. He looked down his nose at us like a French waiter for the whole tour, then said he was busy and drove away, leaving us to explore the garden on our own. He probably did something horrible to the brochure before he gave it to us. In fact, judging by his walk, he’d stored a whole bunch of them up his arse, just in case.)

Even after you find a place you like, the buying process is not straightforward. No money changes hands for a very long time, during which period you can decide you’re fed up waiting and just walk out – or someone else can stroll in at the last moment and whisk your meal right out from under your salivating chin. At least by then you’re too drunk on pre-dinner cocktails to care. Oh wait, that was a different time… Sorry, got caught up in the "real estate as restaurant" metaphor for a moment.

Frankly, drinks should be provided. Getting to the stage of signing final paperwork for the sale of our house in Houston and the purchase of one in England is even less fun than trying to calm the hysterics of two hungry children in a restaurant with no crayons and waiters who obviously hate anyone under the age of twenty. Where the kids’ food is last to be served. And when it arrives it’s red hot and by the time it’s been reduced to eating temperature I’m faint from hunger and hyperventilation and my meal has congealed on the plate. And then we discover that they’ve run out of ice-cream. You get the picture. Cheers!


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No sentiment included

Éila just had a joint fifth birthday party with a friend from school. The other birthday girl and her mom had filled a suitcase with supplies from Party City and Target on their last trip to the US so we had a ton of great party stuff.

(Target, how I miss you. Sniff.)

So, as Éila and I were writing thank you notes, one detail of the boys’ pirate cards caught my eye. They look like this:

Front of pirate card

And the back of the packaging – reads “No Sentiment Included”

Packaging of pirate thank you card, reads "No Sentiment Included"

Now, I know this is just a way for the manufacturer to say “there’s no message printed inside this card. You’ll have to get off your lazy ass and write your own”; but in my sugar-addled state (I had done my bit for the environment by eating up a fair bit of the leftover birthday cake), that laconic insert really spoke to me. In a voice something like James Earl Jones’.

“Hey, this is a card with pirates on the front,” (it said). “It’s for boys. Please don’t get all sentimental. Just say, ‘thanks for the gift, man,’ and get out. If we wanted you to add sloppy kisses or say ‘ooh, I loved my gift soooo much,’ we would have printed a big-eyed princess on the front and a cutesy message inside.”

Front of Tangled thank you card

Inside card: "You helped make my party a dream come true"

Don’t worry, all the cards turned out pretty normal in the end. The Force is strong in this one.

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Creeping Tom

This morning, I got home to find my neighbour (we’ll call him Tom) loitering outside the house, waiting for me. With absolutely no preamble, he asked me whether I had perhaps been taking a shower at around 7.30?

I expect my eyes glazed over slightly in panic as I replayed the morning’s events in my head:

6.13 Woken by daughter

6.50 Switched on news and weather in attempt to distract daughter from ongoing monologue about last night’s dreams (Playball and pirates. Possibly pirates playing ball. Or even a ball at which pirates were playing. You try paying attention to an almost-five-year-old’s account of her dreams when you’re half awake).

6.55 Joined by son, wielding plastic dinosaurs and making "Grrrr!" noises.

7.05 Having learned that my daughter would probably faint with delight if her sports teacher ever dressed up as a pirate; it should be warm and sunny later; and dinosaurs are not good bedfellows, especially when they shout "Grrrr!" in your ear and poke you in the ribs with their pointy plastic tails, I got up and made porridge.

7.30 To rejoin the original purpose of this post (Hooray!). I took a shower. Did not first accidentally open all the curtains and yell out the window. Did not forget to get dressed afterwards.

It turns out that my neighbour’s basement excavation was inundated with water from my side of the party wall at around 7.30 this morning. His builder thinks there’s a problem with our main drain. I think thank goodness I’m living in a rental.

I’m also relieved not to have to run and check for peepholes drilled into our bathroom from next door. But despite the eventual explanation, the whole thing has left me feeling more than a bit creeped out. Like I need to take another shower. But until the drain issue is fixed, every time I take a shower, my neighbour will know. Please don’t mention it if I start to smell a little? And please, if you ever have to discuss drainage issues with a neighbour, don’t open the conversation by asking what time they like to get naked and soapy at.

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Getting your own way

It’s all change. The old blog wasn’t working – no matter how hard I tried to graft on comment boxes and RSS feed apps, it just didn’t do what I wanted it to. I spent a while – okay, quite a while – trying to teach myself a new content management system and completely redesign the site, before giving in gracefully and switching to WordPress like the rest of the blogging world.

Okay, okay. It might actually have gone something like this:

Niall: "Do you want to be a web developer?"

Me: "Well, no."

Niall: "And what’s wrong with the software everyone else uses? You know, the one you don’t have to spend weeks learning, so you can use your time writing instead?"

Me: Mumbling something about invalid html and search engine optimisation

Niall: "Oh, for feck’s sake, stop being such a code snob and start blogging again."

So here I am, and to mark the occasion I’ll let you in on a secret: the failsafe way to get a seat on a packed London underground train at rush hour.

It’s quite simple; just start crying. Between sobs, repeat "But I wanted a seat!". Look pathetic. All around you, people will be squeezing their way to their feet to offer you a place to sit.

Oh, and it helps if you’re three years old and cute. You knew that, right? I may have caved in and switched to a generic blogging tool, but I’m not ready to cry to get a seat on the Tube. (Yet.)

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