WHYS AND WHEREFORES: On blogging

 

First question: why blog?

Because writing a book is like cooking a 5-course dinner-party, and really, sometimes, all you want to do is shove a bit of bread and cheese under the grill. It may be – indeed it should be – the most perfectly crafted toasted cheese, with granary bread just the right side of chewy enough to give your jaws a work-out, Cornish Quartz cheddar, a liberal sprinkling of freshly ground black pepper, and be served with cress and tomato on the side. It may be splished and spiced up with Worcester sauce; or before it even meets the bread, the cheese may have been boosted with a little beer or cider – the point is, it’s the kind of thing you can put together on impulse, a small piece of perfection attainable in fifteen spontaneous minutes or so. No tablecloth, no side plates – desire satisfied, guilt-free indulgence experienced, lips smacked, and then on you go with your day. That’s what this blog will be – impulsive and tasty. Tidbits, snacklets and bonne bouche.

But a blog is the saddest thing in the world without readers. Second question : why might you give your time to read this one? What’s going to be on the menu?

Well, there will be plenty musings on food, for a start, because food, like sex, is a thing we have to do, but the gods have so arranged it that we would do it for pleasure anyway. There will be investigations of Zen and the art of slow cooking. There will be philosophical reflections on everything from ice-cream to the perfect pretzel; from soup to nuts.

There will of course be books – the special ones, the ones you never forget; and those still to be cracked open to release their new-book smell. There will be much thinking on the subject of smell, in fact, from that of a Cornish rockpool to that of the first cup of coffee of the day.

There will be cats – mine, yours, and all those in-between. There will be animal life of every description. There will be the shocking manners of Thames waterfowl, and the utter perfidy of wasps. There will be life as a writer, in all its unexpected weirdness, all its paranoias and all its peculiar delights.

There will be big skies and running, and the horrors of being tortured down the gym; there will be TV, and rants about bloody silly adverts on TV, and Tottenham Hotspur (God help me). There will be spirits of place from the Isle of Dogs to the Isle St-Louis. There will be Samuel Pepys. There will be graveyards and echoes and fog.

There will be movies. And museums. And lifting the curtain on what goes on behind the scenes at museums, and what went on behind the scenes in them fifty, or one hundred, or two hundred years ago. There will be the British Library. There will be the buggritts of life, and the manifold buggritts of tech in particular, and of haircuts and bras and all the ills that female flesh is heir to. And there will be meditations on the small and precious joys – new tights fresh out the packet, lying in a hot bath in the dark, eyeliner that stays where you flippin’ well put it, vodka martinis (oh, there will certainly be booze), and new notebooks, just waiting for the pencil.

In other words, the random thoughts of a random redhead. Welcome to the inside of my head.

 

 

DAISY’S DIRY

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Dear World Outside

The Hooman has at last left Inside, wearing her bouncy big-shoes (the ones where you have to watch your tail), so Bird and me are going to try to write our first diry entry. Or at least Bird tells me she is going to be the writer, like Hooman, and I am going to bong and bing the letters out as best I can. I asked why it had to be she who was writer and me and my nose who had to bong and bing, and Bird said it is because she is older and bigger than me, and everyone knows black cats are the smartest. From each according to their ability, says Bird, that is what Soshlists believe; and I am but little sister whose tail is on the wrong way round. Also without Plittikal Wareness.

The reason for the diry is that we think Something Odd is going on out there, and Bird says it is important we record it for Cats of Posterity.  And we think this because Hooman is most unexpeck most unecks is always here. There is no more going off after our breakfast to the Libree, there is no coming home with treats, she is just always here, here, here. Oh says Bird, for the days when she was left in peace with great thoughts and I was left in peace with Mousie and Toy Box. Hooman is now not only always here but seems to be unable to walk past either of us without picking us up for cuddle. What happened to Kitty Quiet Time, Hooman? I don’t think I got more than four uninterrupted naps this morning!

Also, Hooman has been doing squeaky thing, and when she picked me up yesterday in middle of squeaky thing, she was being leaky too – eeugh! Aaargh! Apparently the thing that had upset her and made her squeaky was news that Monster is Stuck In MERICA For MONTHS. We are quite fond of Monster, Bird and me, as he means Double Laps, and Four-Handed Stroking, mmmmmm, but he also means we all have to share Bed. We are happy to share Bed with Hooman, but Monster takes up too much room and means Bird and I end up on Sofa. So him being Stuck In MERICA For MONTHS seems like Not Bad Thing to us, especially as CatGod knows, it looks like there will be plenty of naps we have to catch up on. I appreciate that Monster matters to Hooman at least almost half as much as we do, but was it really necessary to kiss me so hard my top whiskers not only got wet, but bent as well?

So far as we can tell, all this is due to fact that Outside there is now thing called Bloody Carniverus. What Bloody Carniverus might be we have no idea (sort of Dog, maybe?), but Bird says she thinks he/it/they is reason why no Monster, and also why no Kitty Quiet Time, so is clearly Very Bad Thing. So it is a bit worrying when Hooman is out there in same place as it, even if she does have bouncy big-shoes on, to run away. Without her, who will serve up Crunchies, and whose head will I sleep on? Also Hooman is a bit off her cushion today, like me when I have had too much Nip, as she gave us extra treats before she went out without remembering we’d had them already. To each according to her needs said Bird, but my need is for Hooman to do chin rubs and find Mousie when Mousie has got stuck under Chair and what if Hooman gets lost too, because out there is HUGE. And now I need to pee.

Oh meow! Hooman has returned! She came running into bathroom while I was still in litter-box to wash hand-things. Excuse me, Hooman! ‘It’s like Twenty-Eights Days Later out there,’ she said, (which is? What cat can tell?) as I did my best to ignore her and finish pee with dignity. ‘Only without the zombies. Everyone’s in masks like Hannibal Lecter.’ (Again, we have no idea.) She had brought big bottle back with her, which went into fridge. ‘There may be no loo-roll,’ she declared, seizing Bird and bending Bird’s top whiskers for a change, ‘there may be no pasta, but as long as we have pinot grigio, we’ll survive, little ladies won’t we? Now, who hasn’t had any treats yet this morning?’

ME! we both said, at once. I’m telling you, completely off her cushion. Eeeps!

TO BE CONTINUED….

 

FABULOUS FINN On meeting a hero

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I’ve met the odd celeb in my time, and I have to say, in general, doing so has been a mistake. With the exception of the actor Rutger Hauer, spotted walking incognito across a piazza in Venice and looking every bit as tall and as well-put-together as he does in the original Blade Runner, male celebs always turn out to be a good foot shorter than you had them in your head, and female celebs, older, and far, far more disillusioned-looking. If offered the chance to meet one of my human idols these days, as a cynical lady d’un certain age, I’m not sure I would say ‘Yes’. You grow older, your illusions become more precious, not less, and I’d sooner keep the few I still have intact. But Finn – Fabulous Finn – is an exception for me as he is for every soul lucky enough to have him lie down obediently before them, and modestly turn the best side of his muzzle to the click and whirr of the camera-phone.

Finn is the police dog who made Simon Cowell cry. Finn is the (now retired) police dog who saved the life of his handler, Dave Wardell, when they were threatened by a knife-wielding robber, and who was almost killed in doing so. Finn is the inspiration behind Finn’s Law, Parts 1. #FinnsLawPart2 will mean that anyone who harms or abuses any animal will face up to 5 years in jail, and would be law already if it weren’t for the idiocies of Brexit and the hiccup of the last general election. The second 2nd vote on Finn’s Law Part 2 is now taking place this summer, which means that Finn (and Dave) are still canvassing support. Which is why I found myself recently standing outside Westminster Hall, on one of those soft grey wet afternoons that can’t make up its mind if it’s spring yet or winter still, with about 40 different MPS of every kind of political stamp, all waiting to be photographed with the four-legged hero of the hour.

The most ancient evidence we have of our social interaction with animals is of interaction with a dog. I say ‘social interaction’ because as an historian you’re meant to be objective and analytical, but really, what that evidence displays is a relationship so modern, yet so timeless, and so bound into our human ideals of trust and love and companionship that to try to present it as anything other than human-animal owner and animal-animal pet is ridiculous. If you’re one of the readers of my last book, The Animal’s Companion, then you’ll know this already: the evidence I’m talking about comes from what was the muddy floor of a cave in France, and comes in the now-fossilized form of a track of twinned foot and paw-prints from 26,000 years ago. The footprints belonged to a little boy, maybe nine or ten years old, and the paw-prints belonged to his dog; and the little boy had taken his dog with him into the cave because caves are dark and scary places and a dog (and a torch, from which we can carbon-date their adventure) is the basic human survival kit. Just as it was for Constable Dave Wardell.

Our two-legged human instincts have been pretty much screwed over the ages by the two-legged human brain. We ascribe all sorts of virtues to human beauty, for example, seeing good in what is merely good-looking over and over again – hence my rapturous delight in spotting one of my favourite heartthrobs in Venice all those years ago. I was taking it absolutely for granted that anyone who looked that good must be that good – a premium member of my species, in other words. But animal instincts, dog instincts in particular, remain instincts worth having. What we would call Finn’s bravery and heroism in saving his handler was no such thing to Finn himself, it was simply innate in him to protect, because a threat to one of them was a threat to both of them – to the human-animal unit of which Finn sees himself as being part. He read the intention, saw the knife, (first, says Dave – way before Dave himself realized what it was), and did exactly what the dog in the cave would have done all those thousands of years ago had some threat come out of the darkness there – he leapt to the defence.

Now we too do this, some of us, sometimes. In us it’s called altruism, selflessness, courage, all very good things, and all the tip of human behaviour at its most virtuous and evolved. And right now there are any number of animals out there that need that behaviour from us, and need laws that will safeguard them from its opposite. But we need that behaviour and those laws as well, because we’re at the point where there really has to be a step-change in the way we think of and relate to the animal world.

Here we sit, all of us, every one, worldwide, waiting to find out if Covid 19 is going to become a pandemic; and where did Covid 19 come from? A food-market in China, where live animals, wild and domestic, are kept in the nastiest and most uncaring of conditions until they are butchered and sold for food. And while they are so kept, unsurprisingly, they get sick, and the pathogens making them sick then merely have to slide from fur and snout and blood to hand to mouth to get into us as well. The same thing may well have happened in France in 1918, where a strain of the H1N1 flu virus managed to jump from the slaughterhouses needed to feed the troops to the troops themselves.  That was the Spanish flu; maybe 50 million of us died of it. Maybe twice that number. If we treat the animal world and its inhabitants badly, it comes back to bite us every single time. You really would think we’d have learned that by now. And Finn’s Law matters not only because it’s a piece of legislation that should have been in place long ago, it matters because it’s symbolic of the step-change we so desperately need, because what harms an animal harms us, too. But what safeguards them makes the world a better place for every creature in it – us included.

 

 

 

 

 

HEY NONNY? NO! On misbehaving wildlife

Despite all that Ciara and Dennis could come up with between them, the wildlife in E14 has heard the call of Spring, and once heard, never forgotten. No matter that the waves on the dock outside my front window have whitecaps, that the spiders who live on the window have all huddled in the corners of the frames, that the trees in the garden are almost horizontal in the wind; furred or feathered, one and all, they know what season it is, and what they are meant to be getting up to in it.

It all makes for some truly shocking public misbehavior.

Reynard – where in London is there not a Reynard, I ask you? – goes trotting down the quayside of an evening, tail bushed and whiskers twitching; and just in case the fact that this is date-night somehow slips his mind, Mrs Reynard, or Mrs Reynard-to-be, rather, serenades us from the centre of the garden at 1am, sat there on her haunches as if she owned the place, shrieking ‘I want a boyfriend and I want him now!’ Cue the snapping on of lights all over the building, the wailing of children startled from their slumbers, and AirBnBers staggering out onto their balconies, peering down into the darkened garden, trying to identify the spot from which the desperate shrieks and screams are issuing and what on earth it is, down there, that can be producing them. Last time it happened, some newby, uninitiated in the ways of London wildlife, and convinced that somewhere down there in the garden, murder was being done, actually called the police. We all got back to bed at three-ish. Hey ho.

Then there are the seagulls. It’s too windy for them out at sea, so the dock at present is thick with them, squabbling and yawping, and performing the kind of aerial ballet just outside the windows guaranteed to drive a kitty-cat insane. Bird – by far the smarter of my two felines – hunkers down and watches them entranced, nothing moving but the ears; but Daisy (smaller, dumber) goes into a frenzy every time, leaping up onto the arm of the sofa, tail lashing the air, and doing this demented feline machine-gun impersonation – ‘Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-AH!’ – as if shooting the gulls down mid-air. Any one of them would be big enough to carry her off as the giant roc did Sinbad. Seriously, the idea of this cat lasting even five minutes out there on her own is absurd. There’s something about small seems to double-down in the natural world on feisty: shrews pursue each other through the chippings on the flower-beds, sending dusty puffs of bark into the air whenever they meet, like small atomic explosions; whilst the colony of wrens who have taken up residence in our otherwise undistinguished selection of spiky shrubs have territorial sing-offs and joust almost to the death. There are grebes out there on the water, a pair of them doing their springtime disco mirror-dance (head up, head down. Head up, head down. Head bobble, head bobble. Head up, head down. Big fish, little fish, cardboard box); prelude to tiny baby grebes, stripy as toothpaste and streamlined as if extruded from a tube. There are cormorants, too, also bobbing up and down as they fish (‘Guess where I’m, going to surface next! Nope, fooled you!’), then hanging themselves out to dry off like big tattered flags. Why Mother Nature thought there was a place for a non-waterproof diving bird in the grand scheme of things I have no idea, but no corner of the dock is complete without one of them at present, wings extended, baring their all. C’mon ladies, they seem to be saying. Smell me pits.

And then there are the coots. I should preface this by saying that technically, my neighbourhood coots are citizens of Millwall, and then further explain for those not up on English football that for years, the favourite chant from the terraces for any Millwall fan was ‘No-one likes us. No-one likes us. No-one likes us. We don’t care,’ sung to the tune of Rod Stewart’s We Are Sailing. During the worst of the bad old days of football hooliganism, Millwall was synonymous with getting your head kicked in. It’s moot as to how much, even then, Millwall deserved their lousy reputation; but clearly it was something in the water, because the Millwall coots are thugs. They’re bloody awful parents too, apparently, semi-starving their multitudinous broods of chicks until the weakest ones quietly die, but the anti-social behaviour sets in long before that. Let one Millwall coot spot another Millwall coot in the water at this time of year, and the pair of them round on each other, heads lowered, and power forward at ramming speed, like something out of Ben Hur, whilst the cootettes gather in a huddle to the side, squeaking ‘Leave it, Gary, leave it! He’s not wurf it, you know ‘e’s not!’ Not only that, but let any bit of seasonal bovver start up amongst the moorhens, say, or the resident mallards, and every coot on the dock streams toward the aggro at once. I’ve watched one have a go at its own reflection in a floating plastic bag, piling in with those comedy lobed willow-green feet in a slap-fest of fury. The amount of testosterone these daft birds have in their systems in spring-time is absurd. They’re positively fizzing with it, like an out-of-date yoghurt. No flipping wonder that they’re bald!

HARD BODY: On going to the gym

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As a writer, most of your day will be spent hunched over your keyboard, peering from an unhealthily close distance at your screen. Your sustenance will be flagons of coffee in the morning, and gallons of tea in the afternoon. Your lower legs will be knotted around each other in either terror or excitement, depending on how the Muse is behaving today, with your entire body-weight resting in effect on one butt-cheek and one big toe. This will become apparent only when you attempt to stand, when you will realize that all feeling has departed from said toe, possibly never to return, and that the butt-cheek is now busy informing you by every means it can that you need a hip replacement. Your fingers will be bitten; your eyes will be scrunched. Your lower lip will be chewed like a dog-toy, and possibly your upper lip as well.

As the ideal antidote to all of this, you may wish to take yourself down to the gym: unbend, de-knot, stand tall and breathe from the diaphragm. Here is a writerly guide to some of the items of equipment you will encounter if you do.

Cross-Trainer

This is an excellent machine to start with, especially for a writer. The contradiction of trying to pull the handles back toward you whilst your feet advance on an endless trek to nowhere is a perfect metaphor for the writer’s life. It comes complete with graphics of a pounding heart to monitor how close your lifestyle choices have brought you to cardiac wipe-out, and on the more advanced models a TV screen where (since the cat chewed through your ear-buds) you can watch in eerie silence the world you will never be part of again.

The Leg-Press

Do you remember the pose in which the exploded fossilized alien was discovered in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus? That’s the one you want to adopt here. It is an excellent research tool should you ever need to describe the torments of a sandwich trapped in a sandwich-maker.

The Pull-Down

The Pull-Down exercises the latissimus dorsi, the biceps, and a tiny muscle you never knew you had in your right index finger, which will suddenly start screaming like a bitch. It was a favourite with Torquemada.

The Standing Leg Curl

Speaking of Torquemada, you really should try this. It pretends it’s there to strengthen your hamstrings, whereas an acquaintance of mere seconds will be enough to convince you that its true purpose is to bring you to confess every deep-buried shameful secret of your inmost soul, and then to die.

The Half-Rack

Oh please. How graphic does a name have to be?

The Leg Raise Dip

Place your back against the big bit of padding, and let your arms rest on the two smaller pieces. Yes, what, indeed, are you supposed to do with your legs? If the oxymoron in its name isn’t enough to warn you off, the experience of once trying to raise your legs to your chest on this one, in defiance of all the laws of physics in the known universewill certainly do so instead.

The Foam-Roller

This is neither hard enough nor heavy enough to be of any use in putting you out of your misery, no matter how much you beg.

The Ab-Crunch Bench

This is designed to reduce pressure, whilst you crunch, on the back and neck. But since it will already have caused you to push all the major organs out of your body, that’s not really going to be a concern for you, is it?

Kettlebells

These are heavy. They have handles. They lend themselves to being swung at head height. Are you choreographing a murder mystery? Then their usefulness to you should be obvious.

The Preacher Bench

The reason the seasoned gym-goer sitting on this one appears to be judging you as you pass by is because of course they are. If they should begin to denounce you out loud, the proper course of action is to hide in the toilets until the gym closes, leave via the fire exit, and never return.

The Rowing Machine

Think of poor Douglas Adams. Don’t go near it.

The Peck-Deck

This machine exercises the pectoralis major and the deltoids. If your burning ambition is to look as if you are wearing epaulettes even when naked, this is the one for you.

The Leg Abduction Machine

This one abducts your legs and refuses to release them. It opens you up as if you are a book, and your legs are the covers. It is recommended for writers of science fiction in particular, as the position it puts you in is exactly the one your character will be forced to adopt after they have been abducted by aliens: helplessly pinioned with legs akimbo, screaming for rescue. Again, an excellent research tool.

The Hammer Strength Machine

Would you rather be a hammer or a nail? This machine gives you the opportunity to experience the sensations endured by both, simultaneously.

The Stability Ball

It’s a ball. By no stretch of the imagination could it ever be described as stable. Don’t be surprised if this is the one you find yourself attempting to balance on, in those dreams where you are trapped in the gym butt naked, and being denounced by the guy on the preacher bench. Second cousin to –

The Wall Ball

This is the one for the end of your workout. Position this securely between your forehead and the wall, and you will be ready to start banging the former upon the latter. Three reps, of 20 concussions each, and don’t forget to stretch.

 

 

ONLY DISCONNECT: On writing

 

THE LIFE OF A WRITER is a strange and wonderful thing. It is, truly. Here I am, a proper serious grown-up with a very serious birthday a scant two years away, and I spend my time in as much of a bubble as if I were a toddler in a playpen. Writing has disconnected me from calendar, salary, and commute. There’s a fabulously creepy movie from 1962 entitled Carnival of Souls, where the female protagonist (to call her the heroine would undo everything the movie does) simply doesn’t know if she is still in this world, or if she is not, and nor does the viewer. Imagine a benign version, with added cat, of that.

It has disconnected me from clock as well. Hands up all those other night-owls out there – my word, we truly are a thing. I didn’t hate getting up at 7 just because I hated getting up at 7 (although I did) – I hated getting up at 7 because my body-clock wanted me to surface at 10, and then still be awake and tapping away at 2 the following morning. At 2 the following morning on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday…. I used to love my weekends. Croissants on the sofa, big mug of coffee made just the way I like it (I don’t care how you make yours, mine is better), weekend papers spread out all around me, Radio 4 burbling away in the background and at some point Spurs either covering themselves in glory or causing one to wonder how come they were ever in the Premier League in the first place. I loved my weekends. I can’t remember when I last had one. There was a point before Christmas (Christmas being one of those moments when even the most demented scribbler really has to pause) where I realized I had been working for 19 days on the trot.  I am the writer who lives by herself, and all days are the same to me.

For some of them, I don’t even unlock the front door. For some of them, (oh the shame) I lever myself from the bed, as the last and the tardiest of my neighbours are running from the building in a panic that they’ll miss the bus; I pull on an old stained sweatshirt or holey jumper over whatever I happen to have been sleeping in, and that’s me, dressed. I used to wear skirts; I used to wear tights; I used to wash my hair every morning; I used to wear heels in the daytime – not any more.

If I do have reason to emerge into the outside world, it’s a different place to the one I knew before. The tube is empty; the pavements ditto. Shop assistants are chatty, the shops themselves populated by gently drifting flotillas of mothers with young children, and OAPs – two tribes I never really had any contact with before, but with some of whom I am now familiar enough locally to share a nod. And not for me, any longer, grabbing something for dinner on the way home. I can take my time. I can food-shop with a mindfulness that would make Madame Maigret proud. All those hours between 9 and 5 have opened like blooms on a tulip-tree. When the fridge died recently, after one of those lingering fridge illnesses whose symptoms include a dreadful rattling wheeze and a tendency to wee all over the floor, the folk at John Lewis who provided its successor were deeply apologetic about the fact that I would have to stay in all morning to take delivery. ‘Sometime between 9 and 1’, they said. ‘We’re sorry, we can’t be more specific than that.’

Not, I assured them, a problem for me.

And people are so damn nice when they learn that you’re a writer. If I ever venture into the world of the thriller, and the plot demands some character has to justify their presence in some place they have no business being, all I will need them to do is utter the three magic words ‘I’m a writer’. Abracadabra – everyone’s your friend. We truly are the animal that tells stories, and Lord how immediately and positively we still respond to those who help us do so.

There’s a saying (you know it, I’m sure) that everyone has a book in them, but God help us if should that be true. A world with nothing but writers in it would fall apart within weeks. We’re only half the story. Writers need readers. When you come down to it, there are only two reasons for disconnecting as I have done: to get something written out of my system and to get it into that of as many other people as I possibly can. Thank you for indulging me.