December Reflections 22: I said goodbye to…


… my brilliant colleague Hazel, who has returned to Wales for a job with a less ridiculous commute. We are missing her and her uncanny ability to make her daily slice of cake last the entire afternoon. She is an excellent person with whom to talk Doctor Who, industrial archaeology, trains, birds, and interesting craft.

She lent me her wheelie suitcase for the great InterRail adventure, and passed this wonderful felt fox scarf on to me; it’s a lovely thing to remember her by.

Learning, past, present and future: judging the UNISON writing competition


Last month I had the very great privilege of announcing the winner of UNISON’s first-ever creative writing competition at National Delegate Conference in Brighton.

I’d never judged anything before, and this was an enjoyable, if intimidating, place to start. We’d asked entrants to work with the theme of ‘Learning: past, present, and future’. My fellow judges were Genevieve Clarke, from The Reading Agency, Andrew Jennison, UNISON learning rep at De Montfort University and mastermind of the #DMUReads scheme, and Kirsi Kekki, Policy Officer for English and maths learning at Unionlearn.

Reading through all the entries was a very pleasant way to spend an afternoon, and rereading and deliberating over my choices occupied my mind for the next couple of weeks. Names were removed, along with other identifying information, before the entries were passed to the judges. There were also a couple of genuinely anonymous entries, which we couldn’t consider. I took a look at those, too, out of interest, and I think one of them might have made the final six if it had only been sent in with a name attached. The moral of that is: be brave!

Interestingly enough, deciding on the winner was easy. There was only one entry that all four of us had on our own personal shortlists. It was agreeing on the rest of the shortlist that was difficult. Some of us had firm favourites that didn’t appear at all on others’ lists. And I certainly looked at a couple of other lists, saw entries that I hadn’t included, and said, ‘Yeah, good point…’ Writing is such a subjective thing to judge; readers’ tastes vary so much. At least, ours did!

What made the winning entry stand out from the rest of the field? In a word, consistency. Conservative Party Conference 2050 started strongly, with an attention-grabbing burst of onomatopoeia, and it never faltered. It built on that with a rousing testament to the power of learning, and finished with a twist that had more than one of us laughing out loud. There isn’t a weak word in it.

As for the rest of the shortlist, we tended to favour pieces that took risks, or that went in a slightly different direction from the obvious. Petrichor, for example, was the only entry that had a narrator who wasn’t human.

Three personal accounts of learning made it into the final shortlist, reflecting a heavy weighting of entries with that theme. However, one of those, A Teacher Prepares, was written from a teacher’s point of view rather than a student’s, and another, Learning: a love story, drew the theme of learning into all aspects of the writer’s life with rueful, self-deprecating humour.

With all that said, There, Inside Of Me didn’t try anything fancy, just told the poet’s own learning story in a few well-chosen words. And we had a few submissions involving post-apocalyptic visions of education; of these, A Different Class stood out because of its strong worldbuilding and bleak humour.

I got to announce the shortlist and the winner. My colleague Clair got to read the winning entry out, and had far too much fun pretending to be a Tory MP.

I very much enjoyed being a judge, although it did tie up more of my work time than I’d expected. Out of curiosity, I went Googling to see how the real pros do it. This is what one of the 2014 Man Booker Prize judges said:

All six judges read 156 books submitted by 94 publishing imprints, and argued about them. That sentence makes this part sound rather breezy. For just over six months, I read a novel a day.

Whew. Reading that, I’m very glad that we imposed a 1500 word limit on our competition.

Expanding the Comfort Zone

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the idea of expanding one’s comfort zone from within, as opposed to stepping out of it (useful posts here from Havi Brooks and Jem Bloomfield), in the context of singing – purely because I spend a lot of my spare time doing it.

I estimated a couple of months ago that I’ve averaged two hours of choral singing a week over the past decade. There have, of course, been lighter patches (2007, of which I spent a third in Spain and Germany not singing much at all, and my second and third years at university, when I decided that the need of the serving team was greater than the need of the chapel choir), but they are balanced out by the five years I spent in the choir at Holy Trinity, Guildford. During term time we did two services every Sunday, with a half hour or forty-five minute rehearsal before each one, and an hour’s practice every Thursday. As a result I know a lot of the standard church music repertoire inside out and back to front: if we assume that each piece was sung twice a year, once during a morning service and once at an evensong, then I’ve performed most of them ten times.

I was not at all confident when I joined. All my life I’ve been close to people who have more singing experience than I do and, while they have been nothing but supportive, I’ve always been able to see that their sightreading was better than mine, that they were more confident than I was, that they could hold a line against all comers and I couldn’t. Fortunately, when I joined Holy Trinity, there were plenty of other altos to follow.

I’ve joined two new choirs over the past year, and I’m still singing less than I was at Holy Trinity. They have both proved the expansion of my comfort zone, in very different ways.

The first one was one of the several choirs that run out of my parish church. The workload is considerably less: we sing one, maybe two, services every month, with an hour’s rehearsal beforehand, and a rehearsal on the preceding Friday. This is very much flying by the seat of the pants: a lot of sightreading, and no guarantee that there’ll be anyone else on your part to prop you up.

And that doesn’t scare me any more. Once upon a time I would have been too terrified even to consider joining this choir, but my comfort zone has expanded to encompass this method too.

Granted, some of this is stuff I already know from Holy Trinity. On Easter Sunday I was the only alto at evensong. That was fine: we did Blessed be the God and Father, which I have sung every Easter since 2008. On the other hand, I was the only alto at the previous evensong, and I was sightreading an anthem… I can’t remember what it was, only that I’d never seen it before in my life, and that the alto line contained several top Gs. The very first piece that I did with the new choir was Herbert Howells’ Requiem; that, thank goodness, had rather more rehearsal time dedicated to it.

The other choir is pretty much the complete opposite. In this choir, ten weeks to learn three pieces is presented as a frighteningly tight timescale. This is the workplace choir, set up by the social club and the excellent Workplace Choir Company. Its basic assumption is that nobody has sung anything since they were at school, when they were probably told by a teacher that they couldn’t. This seemed to be about right at my workplace. There was a question early on: who was in a choir already? I was one of perhaps three people who raised their hands. Three out of sixty, and the only one in the first altos.

There was the solo. (But I’ve done solos before, in front of people who would know exactly where I’d gone wrong.) There was the fact that I was doing the solo with a microphone. (That was new territory.) There was the responsibility. At one point the Director of the Executive Office told me, ‘You’re our leader’. I’m not even sure that she was joking. (I have never before in my life been the most experienced member of a large choir.) There was the assuring of everybody that everything was going to be fine.

And somehow I was able to meet it all with a general attitude of ‘Bring it on!’ Solo? Bring it on! Microphone? Bring it on! Teaching a tricky snippet to the rest of my section without reference to a piano? Bring it on! It’s being filmed? Wait, what? Er, bring it on! Thank you, comfort zone, expanding yourself while I wasn’t even looking.

I managed to appear calm through the performance, although it wasn’t until last week, when the high-quality video was made available, that I was able to see whether or not I’d cocked it up. I never know how a solo has gone after the event. I’d like to think that’s because I’m so absorbed in the music that I’ve no space left in my head to remember it, but it’s happened before when I’ve lost a bar in the middle of it.

Anyway, it turns out it wasn’t too bad, all things considered. Here’s the result. I’m the tallest soloist, in the green shirt, singing the alto part in the second verse. Me and my expanded comfort zone.

August Moon: day 10

How will you make time work for you?

I think I accidentally answered this one yesterday – which is helpful, because I’m not sure I’m up to a very detailed post today. How to reconcile making a decent fist of the day job and doing all the other things I want to do. How to not end up, the first day of holiday when I don’t actually have to do anything, spending most of the day in bed with an epic sore throat and no energy.

I talked about the nine-day fortnight yesterday: one day off every two weeks, with the house to myself. The downside to that arrangement is of course that each work day is forty-five minutes longer.

I’ve also mentioned the advantages of a long commute: reading time and writing time. I do at least reclaim a little bit of my day that way.

I would like my day to start a tiny bit later. Say half an hour. Say I were to aim for the 0745 rather than the 0715. That would mean getting up at 0615, which would probably leave me feeling a little bit more human. Start work at 0855. Half an hour for lunch (except on Pilates days, when it’s an hour) would mean finishing at 1625 and the 1645 train home. If I were to add forty-five minutes onto the end of the day I’d finish at 1710 and get the 1745 train home. That would get me home at about seven o’clock. That’s later than I want to be. Hmm. Need to think about that. There isn’t enough work at the moment anyway.

Oh yes, and the other thing I was going to do when Pilates stopped being on a Wednesday was to go to the lunchtime communion service at the church over the road. That’s going to kick in mid-September. It will help with the thing where I reclaim lunchtimes for myself, too. I wouldn’t mind cutting lunchtimes the rest of the week down to ‘twenty minutes with a book and a sandwich’.

I wonder if what I really want to do is go part-time. It would be a heck of a financial hit, particularly in terms of travel cost, since I’d still need an annual season ticket, and I feel that it’s probably not an option at the moment. Would I want to, if it were and I could afford it? Probably. Well, that’s a thing to think about.

August Moon: day 9

What about your multiple selves?

Multiple selves: that would be nice. If there were three of me, there’d be seventy-two hours in each day, probably. Eight hours of it would go on earning a living, twenty-four hours of it would go on sleep, and the rest would go on making things and reading.

The question was about earning a living. I think Kat’s point is spot on, so I quote it:

Regardless of whether we’re talking about an overtly “creative” pursuit, it seems to me that putting pressure on your dream life to earn you money can somehow rob it of all its joy. This can become crippling and get in the way of the actual doing i.e. the refining of your craft, the prioritising of your actual goal.

I am incredibly lucky to be in the job I’m in at the moment, working for a not-for-profit organisation whose aims and ideals are broadly in line with my own – and, moreover, comparatively well-paid when you look at the job description. (Which, we note, is not the norm in the not-for-profit sector.) I have a lot of freedom to direct my own work and I have a good sense of its being generally worthwhile.

And yet sometimes I find myself resenting my day job for the proportion of my mind it occupies, for the way it takes up the morning, when my brain is at its best. I miss being a mile away from my office, rather than fifty-five. And knowing I need it in order to be able to pay my half of the rent, the sense of dependency, is frustrating.

I remind myself that this would happen wherever I worked, whatever I did. Even if I worked for myself. Particularly if I worked for myself.

I don’t want to make my bead stuff into a job. The pressure of knowing I have to make so many by this particular time… No, thank you. I don’t really want to make it into a business. Too much hassle. I do want it to pay for itself. Annoyingly, this will mean going through the motions of some form of business, but I’m not quite at the stage of thinking this through yet.

I am getting used to the idea that people might pay me for writing. Art is worth paying for, mine included. Yes. But I really don’t want to become dependent on any money I might make from it. I don’t want to be forced into writing to order.

So. I like my job. And it brings in enough to live on, and it doesn’t drain my brain completely. What I would like to do, when the workload picks up again after the summer, is to look into working a compressed arrangement, where I do ten days’ worth of hours in nine, and have a day off every two weeks. And by ‘day off’ I mean ‘a day to do everything else’.

Does this give me time to be everyone I want to be? Probably not. But I don’t want to be all of them at once. The day’s too short, and life is long enough.

August Moon: day 2

What is it that you do now?

What do I do now?

I have always felt the French expression metro-boulot-dodo sums up a lot, but not all, of my weekday life.

‘Metro’ in my case means a twenty-minute cycle and a fifty-minute train ride each way. Cycling is brilliant. It has to be a very horrible day indeed, knee-deep puddles and obnoxious drivers, for cycling not to cheer me up. I also enjoy the train: it’s very fast and, so long as I get a seat, it’s time to get on with stuff with very few distractions. Metaphorically speaking, I breathe in on the way out and breathe out on the way back. That is, I spend the journey to work reading, or listening to music, and the journey back writing.

My ‘boulot’ is administration for a major trade union. Nine months ago I moved from a regional office to the national office. These days I get to eat in the staff canteen. I also get time to think – largely about how much I like being busy at work. This morning I looked up some email addresses and continued rearranging the electronic filing system: more of a challenge than it sounds, particularly given that I will need to explain what I’ve done and why. I do wonder what on earth I’m going to do with myself when I’ve finished; hence the wish for Another New Opportunity to manifest itself.

I work from 8.20am to 4pm, meaning that I miss most of the crowding on the roads and the trains, and that I get home at about half past five, and so get a decent chunk of evening. If it’s my day to cook, I pick up sundries at the Tesco on the way home. How enthusiastically I go about cooking depends on my mood, my energy, and how much stuff we have to use up. It might take me two hours to make a stir fry. Or I might rustle up two courses and lunch for the next three days. Either way, the mental effort involved has to be deducted from a limited sum available.

Apart from that, my evenings tend to be occupied in writing up whatever I wrote on the train, writing a bit more, making beautiful things (usually with beads, but sometimes sewing) – those still count as boulot – and messing around on the internet (definitely dodo). About twenty minutes of internet time is catching up with friends and reading stuff I genuinely find interesting; the rest is distraction and procrastination.

I would like to reduce my internet time, and exclude mindless meandering around long-dead comments pages that I’m not actually interested in. I’d like to notice when the switch flicks from ‘awake and productive’ to ‘sleepy and unable to disconnect’. And I would like to replace that with actual rest. Lying on the sofa listening to music. Getting an early night. Reading.

Dodo – and so to bed. I feel that any more time I could devote to bed would not be wasted.

August Moon: day 1

Set an intention

Starting at the beginning, and in the middle, and at the end. Spiralling around and around, soothing the hurts and remembering the dreams of the me-that-was, looking ahead, asking advice of the me-who-will-be, who already knows how to do everything I want to. And, more than anything, being here, now.

As luck would have it, I’ve just got to the end of The Artist’s Way and (is this a normal reaction?) been sorely tempted to go straight back to the beginning and work through all the exercises I missed the first time round. I’m going to lay off that for the duration of this fortnight, though, and concentrate on August Moon.

I walked out just now to look at the moon rising over across the river, huge and low and buttery-yellow. I had thought I might not be able to; we have had so much rain today, and great dark clouds to race against. But the rain had stopped and the clouds cleared, and, although the river was high, it was no longer lapping at the grass, and the wind had fallen to a breeze. And the moon was worth looking at.

Here are the four and a half things I am working on at the moment:

– my novel (!) Speak Its Name is, after seven years, as finished as I can get it, and currently out knocking at agents’ doors. Admitting to its existence in so many words, in public, is a new adventure as of this very minute. This is the project I’ve been referring to for ages by oblique references to mermaids. I will probably continue to do this. My intention is to keep faith in this thing, in my work and in the world’s need for it; to refine and direct it so that it breaks the surface and gets out there. Relatedly, poetry. To keep writing and posting it.

– something rather unexpected that’s developed over the past couple of months is a renewed interest in beading and general jewellery making. I’ve signed up for a silversmithing course, beginning in late September, and am considering how I can get this hobby to become self-sustaining. I don’t want this to become a career or an obligation, but I am making more things than I can wear, and spending more money than I can afford (so say the monsters), and I am fairly sure there are people out there who would wear beads depicting clusters of galaxies in polymer clay. This is Operation Silver Ship Strelsau, and my intention is to come up with an actual plan for launching it, however many sails it turns out to have.

– piano lessons! I’ve been promising myself piano lessons since before we moved house. The piano has now been tuned, and I have the contact details for a piano teacher. I need to send an email. My intention here is to remember that I don’t have to be good at everything immediately – which I fear I’ll need to.

– Operation Parisienne en ligne. Long story. My father has a bus – well, three buses. The buses need a website. I have no mechanical skill, but I can write, and my partner is happy to help me get this online. Intention: get this put together and public.

– Operation Another New Opportunity – which is a half-thing, really, as I’ve no control over whether the opportunity opens or not, only whether I jump into it if it does. This is my day job, and the feeling that I have now done absolutely everything that is open to me at my current grade. My intention is to jump, if it opens.

My intention with regard to all of these is perhaps best summed up in the phrase ‘forward! in all directions!’ I do not expect to get everything done in two weeks, particularly since I’ll be on holiday for one of them. However, I do wish to get my head into the space where they seem like things that I will do. Wish me luck!