Blogging and memoirs

Blogging is really good for any would-be writers. I don’t do it to be read as I imagine everything goes into a large cyber vacuum. I don’t really mind if nobody reads and I forget to check the stats until a young friend reminds me. I blog for myself. It’s an extension of journaling,something I’ve done for as long as I can remember. I have notebooks and diaries stashed all over the house. I don’t subscribe to daily event recording, just interesting thoughts, quotes and observations. In my 20s, 30s, 40s my diaries were filled with ‘woe me’ stuff. About the trials of bringing up children, juggling priorities and running a business in a competitive world. If anyone ever reads them after I’ve gone they’ll say ‘Oh she didn’t seem like a depressive, did she?’ I found that once I’d reflected on something it often dissolved in importance. And it’s very therapeutic to reread what you wrote later. You realise that most of the things you were anxious about were not important, or at least not now. I used to record conversations with my husband that went nowhere and frustrated me. I’d write them in French so he couldn’t find them and read them. Again I smile when I imagine people might say ‘Oh they always seemed such a happy couple…’ So you can’t trust memoirs. But I’d still like to have a go…

The great Brian Sewell and his horse

I’d like to be a cross between Alan Bennett and Diana Athill, with a bit of Nigel Slater, Brian Sewell and Nora Ephron thrown in. Writing with humour is for me the essential ingredient. I once went on a memoir writing course during which humour was sadly lacking. I was well out of my comfort zone, despite attending with a friend. The course was run by a criminal. A guy who looked, sounded and had been a Guardian journalist, not at all what I was expecting. Anything but ‘well ‘ard’. No tattoos nor scars. I hadn’t read his stuff before I went along. Fortunately. Else I might not have bothered. It didn’t matter anyway cos he read extracts aloud. It was all classic mis-lit stuff: abuse, neglect, stabbings, prostitution, knifings… And it set the tone for the group. We were a strange mix of ages and types. From the young lad who wanted to write and earn millions to retired folk who just believed they had a story to tell. The process was input from the tutor, followed by a period of writing, sharing what we had written and then feedback. The last part didn’t work because the tutor didn’t set it up properly and people weren’t honest. Which made it less than useful. I wasn’t there for ego massage.

From the outset I realised that everyone was competing in the misery stakes. Adultery, abortion, abuse … were the common themes. All read aloud with the upmost seriousness. Sometimes tears and arms round shoulders. Like a therapy group. Maybe that’s the sort of people who are attracted to this kind of thing. I wanted to laugh. Except during my friend’s readings as I was enthralled hearing stuff I didn’t know, and she is a gifted writer. The rest I got tired of. Submerged in a tide of desperation and unhappiness. What’s more we were in the glorious Devon countryside that seemed devoid of colour. The tutor didn’t know how to cope so he just let it roll on.

I couldn’t compete it in the misery stakes so I decided to write about funny ordinary things – like my family. My Dad, who looked like the Pope but shared a birthday with Saddam Hussein – with whom he had more in common. And my beautiful raven-haired mother who tried, vainly, to improve the appearance of her dowdy teenage daughter with red lipstick and high heels. (It needed more than that!) Look, now, all these years on, bare lips and flat shoes!

So blogging is a preparation for memoir writing – but my way (as Frank would say!)

Publish your own book

20110914-215058.jpgIt’s easier than you might think to publish your own book. And again ideal for an occasion. When Susie was 21 we struggled to know what to do that might be special. But she loves children’s books – still has a collection of Beanos – and so we decided to create a book


. The idea came from a holiday in Corfu where we’d seen a poor dog attached to a zip wire as we walked to the beach. The dog became the inspiration for the book.

We imagined that he might have had adventures unbeknown to us. And as at the time Alex was living in Italy Corfu was transposed there. Neither of us had much time to compose is gift so we recognise we


could do better. But Susie loves it – as we hoped she would.

A friend of ours will be having one of those ‘start of a new decade’ birthdays soon. She writes poems and we hope that one of her family will decide to create a book for her. It could be accompanied by family photos. You don’t have to wait to be discovered today to get published. Do it yourself. See the last blog for tips on how to put. Book together.



Picture books

One of the best gifts I was given at 60 was a book of my life. Composed by my daughters and with contributions from family and friends, it is a compilation of some of the events in my life. There are poems, quotes, stories, even a song. For the first few nights after my birthday I took it to bed with me. In the event of a fire it would be the first inanimate object I would grab. When I feel a bit low I look at it and think I can’t be that bad. I did the same for my friend, Ann, for her 60th last month. She loved it. You have to be canny, mind, getting hold of people’s details. Whilst Ann was abroad with her son and family in Australia she emailed her friends, including me, which meant I captured loads of addresses at once. It’s important to guide contributors, even a title helps. We used ‘what Ann means to me’ as a theme. People often say that they are not creative. It’s not true; everyone is. These books prove it. We have done them for special holidays and for Christmas of course. I find that Io don’t always look at photos. And with digital don’t always have them printed. With picture books you do take them off the shelf and relive the memories. There’s also a place to create them when someone close to you dies. When my own mother died 21 years ago, one of my first actions was to out together a physical memory book. I used photos, written words and paste. Susie did a book of memorials for one of her uni projects. This particular one features ‘ghost bikes’ and roadside memorials. Dedicated to the memory of individuals who have been involved in road accidents. You see them all the time.

Here are a few tips for creating a photo book for yourself or a friends.

1. Use Jessops, Photobox or Bob books for a quality job.
2. Ask a young friend to compose the book for you.
3. Decide whether you want just photos or photos and text.
4. Suggest what people might want to contribute and give them ideas for things to write.
5. Add some humour, however sad the theme.
6. Don’t avoid old photos. They add interest and can come out remarkably well.
7. Always set a deadline and make it a week, at least, before the real one, for starting to compose.
8. Add a handwritten dedication at the front. Or get everyone to sign.
9. Get a good speller to proof. You’ll feel annoyed with an error that creeps through.
10. Take a photo of your friend or family member as they open the book and send it to the contributors so they get to share in the moment. Tears and laughter are guaranteed, whatever the occasion!




Wonderful today?

I read my first e-book on the train last week. And because I read fast and didn’t need to retain anything I had it finished in four hours’ travel. Entertaining in a superficial way. Just what you need when you’re tired after a hard day’s work. (I once pulled ‘Hello’ out of my bag  when I was training. ‘Ooh’, someone said, ‘Didn’t think you would read that’. Well I do read rubbish occasionally, like I might watch rubbish TV when I don’t want to have to think.) Anyway the book was ‘Wonderful today’ by Pattie Boyd. And it was a free e-book so I wasn’t wasting money.

If you recognise the name you are probably my generation. She was a model who was also George Harrison’s first wife. In the 60s most female Beatle fans would have an allegiance to a Beatle and his then girlfriend or wife. As mine was Paul I preferred Jane Asher. My friend Eileen liked George so hence I knew a lot about Pattie Boyd. She looked a bit like her, slender and fair. Frail-like. Straight hair, long legs and beautiful clothes. We once appeared in a talent contest at school as The Beatles, wearing black trousers and polo-necks. Well it was a girls’ school. Really we all wanted to be the wife/girl-friend. But that was then.

Reading Pattie’s account of her life with first George and then Eric Clapton you wouldn’t have wanted to be her or them. Drink, drugs and rock n roll wasn’t half as much fun as we might have imagined. Both men seemed to crave the limelight yet were unable to handle the attention it brought. They would host parties and then retreat to their bedrooms ‘strolling a lonely guitar’. Their women were expected to share their men with other women. Within a week of marrying Pattie, whom he had enticed from George, Eric was bedding another woman. ‘It’s sex, not love’ seemed to be the standard response. (Reminds me of the profile of the wife of Dominique Strauss Kahn, profiled in today’s Observer.) The book isn’t well-written.  People are no more than cardboard cut-outs and you don’t learn very much about the inner life of the woman who inspired so many love songs.  It does make you wonder why it’s recently been reported that a third of kids want the lifestyle of the rich and famous.  Not sure Pattie has had such a wonderful life. A quick read though and a first e-book for me. (Easy to customise to your reading habits.  Change the font size and for me two page spread for speed reading!)

The warmth of the heart prevents the body from rusting

A meditation on ageing

I recently celebrated my 60th birthday and now get cheaper theatre tickets, a senior Railcard and free bus travel. But as much as I tell myself that ’60 is the new 40’ and live my life as I always have, little can be done about other people’s perception. I know I look old. Why else would two people have stood up for me on the tube recently? So the ‘Helen Mirren hair colour’ hasn’t worked then! And I was dressed for work, not dressed down. I must look like the woman on the front of the Saga magazine – no, not Twiggy. Joan Collins, pictured on The Times magazine cover last weekend, aged 78, looks amazing. No surgery, Botox or other wizardry, she claims. Night cream, a much younger husband and fewer anxieties are how she explains her youthful looks. Well one out of three won’t do. I need a different strategy.
In her book, ‘The warmth of the heart prevents your body from rusting’, a meditation on the art of growing old, French writer and psychologist Marie de Hennezel states her belief that it is up to our generation to reinvent what it means to be old. She talks about ‘working at growing old’ by preparing ourselves physically, psychologically and spiritually during the post-retirement years for what will be the end of our lives.
Our western world presents us with a dreadful image of what it means to be old. But the reality does not have to be bleak. One of my best friends, John, is almost in his 80th year. He is cheerful and positive, jokes at my expense, sends me funny cards, makes me laugh. He walks briskly every day, cooks and bakes, takes holidays, swims, goes to the theatre, uses the internet and reads widely. An ageless profile.
In a recent study of centenarians two qualities seemed paramount in defining them: resilience ie the ability to withstand whatever life throws at you and conation, a term new to me, meaning the art of intentional effort and energy focussed on accomplishing tasks. That makes sense to me.
Growing older is still an opportunity to grow. To spend more time with family and friends. To recognise that one’s network of connections can increase and become more important. I don’t want ‘Stayed up all night finishing a draft’ as my epitaph but rather ‘Loved her family and had a lot of friends’.