Monday, 4 December 2017

Christmas is on the way

I was in Cork city doing a bit of shopping (a very little bit, I might add) and I can tell you that Christmas is well on its way there. Nearly every shop I passed was full of people checking out jewellery, watches, bed linen, furniture, TV sets and mobile phones. The clothes shops were having a field day and there was hardly room to squeeze past those racks with special pre-Christmas offers.

It was a cold afternoon with bright sunshine - ideal for that festive season feel. I have to admit that I bought a few things on the spur of the moment and didn't buy what I actually came for, which was a pair of walking shoes. But it was all fun. In another few weeks, when Christmas is almost here, it will be a different story for a lot of people. Panic will have set in and wild buying sprees will be the order of the day.

What if? I asked myself as I sidestepped a harassed husband whose wife was trying on dresses and trying to elicit an opinion from him of what suited her best. What if we all calmed down, didn't get distracted by all those advertisements portraying snow covered streets, adorable children, roast turkey with all the trimmings, Santa Claus and his reindeer and a family wreathed in smiles of joy?  What if we said not this year, not like that and set out to relax and enjoy rather than running around and trying to ensure that everyone was having Christmas fun? Just supposing we bought all our food ready to eat from the supermarket instead of basting the turkey, glazing the ham and peeling Brussels sprouts on Christmas morning? What if we just heated it all up while we lazed around drinking mulled wine or champagne and chatting to family and friends? What if we said no presents this Christmas? Instead we'll have some family time, play board games? What if we went to church and sang all those half forgotten Christmas carols?

I, for one, am not brave enough but it is what I genuinely would like to do. Christmas time is family time for me and in all the preparations and fuss leading up to it, I sometimes forget that. But if I tried to implement even a quarter of the suggestions in the above paragraph, I am convinced that,courtesy of my family, I would end up in the International Court of Human Rights or be mentioned dishonourably in an Amnesty International bulletin. So I'll be in the thick of it this year as every year. And I will enjoy it. But a little piece of my heart will be saying ever so softly slow down, take it easy, enjoy the spirit of Christmas without all that glitz.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Spending the proverbial penny

 I am one of those unfortunate individuals who have what is sometimes called a "weak bladder". I think that with me at any rate this is partly psychological because if I find myself anywhere where there is no easy access to a toilet, I immediately want to "go" and get into a panic. The knowledge that there are a lot of people like me is cold comfort when I am struggling along the street of an evening when shops are shut and there is no public toilet in sight. So many eateries have those big scary signs which say "for patrons only" and well, when a girl's gotta wee, she's gotta wee somehow or other, even if she doesn't want to buy a coffee which will only make her want to wee again in an hour's time.

I was therefore intrigued to learn what the city of Bremen in North Germany is doing in this regard.  They have a scheme entitled "Nette Toilette" which translated roughly means "nice toilet" and you can use the rest rooms of any restaurant or cafe which has a sticker to this effect in the window. You are not obliged to buy anything. Wow! I wish more cities had this feature, it would save me many a frantic search. Participating restaurants and cafes get paid between €50 and €100 a month for providing this facility. A spokesperson for the city said that Bremen saves around €450,000 per year on the scheme compared to the upkeep of public toilets which were not always as clean as could be desired. From the point of view of the restaurants and cafes, it does direct more traffic to their premises even if not everyone actually sits down for a meal or a coffee. You can even download an app with a map of all the locations! That's what I call public service.

Click here if you understand German or simply want to view the map of free toilets in Bremen.

Bremen's free toilets (in German)
If you scroll down you will find a map giving the locations of the free toilets Nette Toilette.

This would be such a boon to me when I embark on my Christmas shopping next month. It's all psychological, I guess, but the knowledge that there are toilets easily reachable would be one of the main comforts to all that trekking around the shops!

This post is adapted from my original blog post entitled The Smallest Room - Facilitating the Facilities on my blog 

Friday, 3 November 2017

Are You Listening?

When I was at school we had to study an essay by Charles Lamb entitled The Two Races of Men. He reckoned that humankind could be divided into two categories: the men who borrow and the men who lend. I remember that I really enjoyed his sense of humour and his remarks on the "despoilers of shelves" and on other borrowers who made notes in the margins so that the book came back with added value.
When it comes to conversation and listening to other people, I am inclined to think that there are two kinds: those who listen and those who do not.
We all know people who listen to what we have to say, are interested in it and in what has been happening to us since we last met. In our turn, we listen to them in the same way. Which means we belong to Those Who Listen. If we don't recognise ourselves in that description, it might be time to analyse our conversations with others.
The art of listening is a major advantage to us writers, because everyone has a story and everyone is interesting. Yes, there are people who will tell you the same thing every time you meet them or who will moan persistently about just everything, but even they can be entertaining if you learn to expect it and not be impatient. Personally, I try heading them off at the pass whenever I see an old story coming down the path at me. Sometimes it works, sometimes I just smile and listen. Mostly, though, I find other people fascinating, even those little quirks which can be irritating at times.
There are others of our acquaintance who if you were to say that you had just received the Breaking News that the moon is in fact just a large chunk of Cheddar cheese, proven by a bunch of renowned scientists, they would merely nod and say "yes, I know" without batting an eyelid and go on to tell you something about a rare cheese they discovered the other day. They are just not going to be surprised because they have most likely only heard "cheese" in what you said.
We all know people who don't wait for you to finish what you are saying because they want to jump right in there with their story. And there are the people who think they know what you are going to say so don't need to listen to you at all and are then amazed when, later on, they discover that you didn't in fact say that you bumped into Mick Jagger fifty years ago.  What you actually said was that you almost bumped into a Mick Jagger lookalike last week and you'd always thought no one made of flesh and blood could ever look like him.....
Humans are so diverse, irritating and likeable at the same time, that I guess we have to take everyone as we find them, mentally earmark the ones worthy telling a story to, and just enjoy everyone's conversation listeners and non-listeners alike.

Friday, 20 October 2017

Getting What You Want - Memories of My Time in Dublin

I came back from Germany on Tuesday this week and took the airport link bus to the train station. Passing through once-familiar streets and catching sight of the Custom House, brought back lots of memories of the time I spent in Dublin. I had to smile when I remembered my struggle to buy contact lenses.

A long time ago, just before Noah beached the Ark, there was a slogan (of sorts) which went "guys don't make passes at girls who wear glasses".  Nowadays, this would elicit little more than a snort of derision, but this was long before laser operations, nifty easy-to-wear contact lenses and female self-confidence which said "I'm wearing specs, so what?". And even longer before guys making passes would be blown out of the water by the feminists.

So now you get the picture. Girls were supposed to have good eyesight among all the other attributes. I was short-sighted and hated wearing glasses. Most of the time, I didn't wear my specs. After getting on the wrong bus several times, missing a date simply because I couldn't see him in the crowd under Clerys clock (a favourite meeting place in Dublin in those days!) I came to a decision. Although I could not afford it, I had to have contact lenses, and I had to find a way to pay for them. I worked in the civil service at the time and the pay wasn't anything to write home about even if you could afford the stamp.
I started looking for a part time job. I applied for a job serving teas at a greyhound racing stadium. The lady who interviewed me smiled politely, told me that as an office worker, I wouldn't be able for all the standing around, hauling heavy teapots and fending off unwelcome attention by some of the punters. I did get a job working in the bar area of a classy restaurant without anyone querying my ability to stay on my feet all night. It was a busy place but I might have coped except for two things: I didn't have a clue about alcoholic drinks and my mental arithmetic was abysmal. The barman poured the drinks and put them on my tray. He also rattled off the prices and took the money the customer had given me, handing me back the change. Half the time I couldn't hear what he said, so gave the customers the wrong change which they were understandably not too happy about, unless it was in their favour. As well as that, I sometimes had difficulty in deciphering what they'd ordered - I can't even recall all the strange orders I got, except that one old guy asked for "a bottle of Guinness with a collar on it" - the barman didn't know what he wanted either! I didn't last long there, as you can imagine.
 I had holidays coming up so went to stay with an aunt in London and applied for a temporary job with an agency in the West End. What could I do for two short weeks, they asked? I could type I assured them and I could read bad handwriting. The reason I said that was to save myself having to take shorthand or trying to decipher an English accent on the dictaphone - yes, I know, these skills are obsolete nowadays. My luck was in, they told me. That very morning a firm of solicitors had inquired about engaging the services of a typist who could read atrocious handwriting - they'd tried a number of typists who had all given up. Of course I jumped at the chance - did I have a choice if I wanted to pay for contact lenses? I remember that the offices were in one of those venerable old buildings off Piccadilly. The job entailed typing up a thesis on newspapers which the owner's son had to submit for a PhD the following week. I was given an office of my own and reams of notepaper covered with the hieroglyphics of this young man. This was where my writer's imagination came in handy because although I couldn't read everything, I managed to make an educated guess and spun a story around the theme. Bless the young man's heart, he was impressed!  We worked hard but time was speeding by at a great rate. The deadline approached and we still were not finished so he asked me if I would mind working late, I'd get paid double the hourly rate. With visions of myself in those contact lenses, looking like Mata Hari and Marilyn Monroe all in one, I didn't raise one single objection. We worked and worked. At around one a.m, he raided the bar in his father's office and we both drank a few glasses of excellent brandy. Bashing away on the typewriter, I was so tired I didn't know if I was seeing double or not, but we did finally finish at around three in the morning. I arrived home to my aunt, who had kindly waited up for me, smelling of alcohol and telling her I'd been working. I think she doubted the truth of my story and thought I'd become a fallen woman although she kept her opinion to herself.

By now I nearly had enough money. Back in Dublin I took on my last part time work. While walking down Grafton Street to put my hard-earned money onto my bank account, I ran into a student friend who came from India and who worked as a waiter in an Indian restaurant. The owner was Irish and had lived in India for long enough to learn how to make curry. They were short of a washer-upper, he told me and promised to put in a good word for me with the boss. I felt I couldn't really go wrong washing plates and glasses. It was hard work, let me tell you. I ended up being potato peeler as well as dishwasher. But the money was good and I was at last able to buy the all-important contact lenses. The improvement in my eyesight had one big advantage for the restaurant. They closed around one a.m. (in those far off days, diners came in around 9.30 or 10p.m. and weren't in any hurry to go home) but no one had a watch or a timepiece of any sort so we were never sure when to shut the doors. There was a laneway visible from the kitchen if you stood on a chair and at the end of this laneway was a laundry with a clock over its entrance. Every night I climbed onto the chair in order to see if we could close up for the night. I can still see that clock with its startling white face and thick black hands although both it and the laundry are long gone.

Writing this reminds me of how much things have changed. Two years ago my daughter lost a contact lens while we were on holiday and she simply went to a drugstore and bought a replacement set to tide her over until she got her prescription ones. No saving up and counting the pennies to be able to afford it. And it was easy to get part time work, too. In London I simply had to walk into an employment office and explain what I could do and how long I was able to work. No work permit needed – they didn’t even ask for references. Hard to imagine now, isn’t it?
Looking back, I have to say that in addition to buying the coveted contact lenses, I learned a lot from my sortie into part time work and met a lot of interesting people into the bargain. That’s grist to the mill for an author!

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Writing my Novel Spate of Violence

 One of my readers asked me the other day if I intended writing a sequel to my novel Spate of Violence. I must admit that I had not intended doing so. It was always meant to be a stand-alone novel. Something I wanted to get out of my system and onto paper. Although it is not based directly on my experiences nor on people I encountered during my voluntary work in a crime victim support organisation, like most writers, I do draw on those experiences to a certain extent. Writing it was a painful process in many ways.
I had the idea in my head for several months before I got down to writing it. Although it is set in a small town in Germany, it could really have played out almost anywhere in the world. Set in Bitterfeld, a fictitious town near Frankfurt, it tells the story of Karen and Sebastian and their two children - a family whose lives are changed forever when they move to Bitterfeld, a town beset by petty crime.
At first they try to establish themselves and make friends but they become slowly aware of the dark undercurrents. The town is divided into those living in the high-rise apartment blocks in what is euphemistically called The Park and the wealthy "what can you expect from them" factions.  Karen becomes involved in a community scheme to assist disadvantaged women much to her husband's disapproval. She cannot know that this will ultimately cause her much heartache. Sebastian is determined not to get involved until their daughter is viciously attacked. He agrees to join the Citizens for Bitterfeld which has vowed to clean up the town. 
As the violence escalates, the ultimate tragedy can no longer be prevented.
Available as a Kindle or in paperback

Product DetailsSpate of Violence

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Stating the Obvious

In every writing course I attended we were told to write clearly and not to use too many fancy words. That wasn't all we were told, of course. Have something to say and write it in such a way that your readers will understand was the message. Sometimes easier said than done but practice makes for reasonable performance.
I was reminded of this the other day when the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge announced they are expecting their third child. Prince Harry was asked by a reporter how he felt and later several newspapers carried the headline "Prince Harry delighted with the news" or words to that effect. I have to ask: did the reporter who asked him how he felt expect him to say "how awful"? And do I really need to see a headline saying he is delighted to learn how he feels?
If I were to write a novel along those lines: main character's brother (or brother-in-law depending on which point of view you want to take) is delighted at prospect of the arrival of third child, I would not have much of a plot. Almost without exception every piece of fiction requires conflict of some kind  to make it interesting to the reader. I wouldn't know what to write if everything was going smoothly in my novels.
We are overloaded with useless - and some useful - information these days. The battle to fill space is a tough one. The news has to be sold instead of being told. 
Having said all that, what can writers learn? What can they avoid? There is so much advice out there for writers that we tend to get lost in it. However, from my own personal experience, I love to read novels which are well-written, have interesting characters that I can relate to, and have a story that grips me from the first page or at least the second chapter at the latest. That's a lot to ask of other writers - and of myself. For me, it means many hours of revision and editing to ensure the story is looking its best. I wouldn't give it up for all the printer ink in the world.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Cherishing Your Books - Dog-ears and Bookmarks and things that might go bump

I recently read a debate about people who dog-ear books they are reading and how some readers (the ones who use book-marks) find this so hard to understand.
I must confess that I do both. I use book-marks but not the kind you buy. Currently I am using an old suburban rail ticket from my last train ride in Germany. At some point it will be discarded because it will simply get too tatty. I don't do this to all my bookmarks. I have a cherished bookmark from my visit to the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague around fifteen years or so ago. It reminds me of that wonderful weekend there with my daughter. She was a little dubious about going there, not being an "art freak" as she put it, but she really loved it. I just use it as a bookmark in books that I cherish - not the novels I read and then give to the charity shop. And every time I see this entrance ticket for the Mauritshuis, I remember that when we arrived in The Hague that morning there had been a power cut, the shops were without lighting and we couldn't get a hot drink anywhere. One of the many "adventures" I shared with my daughter and which will always be precious to me.

So, yes, I am a fan of bookmarks but if I'm travelling, I will usually just dog-ear the page. In fact, when I browse the secondhand bookshops, it can be very interesting to see what has been dog-eared by previous readers. Some novels are marked and abandoned, as you can tell by just one dog-ear, while others have been read all the way through (several dog-eared pages).

But, you know what? It hardly matters, does it? Either you find a book you just love to read or you put it away after a number of chapters as being not your kind of novel. That's the world of variety we enjoy.
I am currently reading John Simpson's "We Chose to Speak of War and Strife - the World of the Foreign Correspondent". It is a fascinating read and yes, I'm using that suburban rail ticket to mark where I left off reading.