Wednesday, 23 December 2015

The DOCTOR Who Saved Christmas

Around this time of year I always think back over my various family Christmases during the years. It was especially moving to see a recent programme on TV about Christmas in past decades - starting with the very austere wartime years of the 1940s and moving on through the 1950s and 60s of my childhood and youth. I have to say, the homes featured in those two parts of the documentary were a lot more upmarket than I, or any of my friends, lived in during those decades! But otherwise they were reasonably accurate and it made me feel quite nostalgic about the 'old days' when we were content without just one or two presents, and when almost everyone I knew went to church at Christmas. Most people didn't overeat or drink to excess, even at Christmas. There really wasn't the money to spare. No TV, no phones, no internet: the family played board games. But that doesn't mean it was perfect, of course - life never is.

There are some lovely Christmases among my memories. The one in 1966, for instance, when I'd just met a new boyfriend at a Christmas dance, had a date with him on Christmas Eve and was wondering whether it was going to last. Four years later we were married and next year it will be 50 years since that meeting. Then there was the first Christmas, in 1975, with our first baby girl, 5 months old when we celebrated Christmas as a little family of our own at last. A year later she was a chatty little toddler and I was about to give birth to her sister, born on 29 December. And another two years on, our third daughter was born on Boxing Day. There were Christmases when my brother and his family were home from Australia, another one when we'd just moved to a bigger family home on 20 December, and recent lovely Christmases with our grandchildren - now six of them - all in the perfect age group for Christmas, still believing in Santa Claus, eyes still wide with the wonder and excitement of it all. And then, of course, there were the ones clouded by not-such-good memories.

Well, we all have them, don't we? Christmas arguments - like most families, we've had a few. And Christmases at sad times, particularly the one that came only a month or so after we lost my dad at the age of just 61. I felt guilty for even trying to enjoy myself, but Mum put on a brave face throughout, bless her. I missed her terribly the first year she wasn't with us either. There were Christmases when it snowed. One when the boiler broke down. One when the cooker died on me, halfway through cooking the turkey. One when I forgot to buy the vegetables. And several when somebody was ill. That would often be tonsillitis with one of the children when they were young, or chest infections, or the all-too-seasonal colds and tummy bugs. But the worst was six years ago when our middle daughter was rushed into hospital.

She'd had major abdominal surgery some years earlier, and that Christmas morning when her problems recurred, her baby boy, our first grandchild, was three months old and we were all looking forward to his first Christmas with us. The rest of the family was gathered at our house, and then came the phone call from my son-in-law. Our daughter was in terrible pain and being very sick. He'd phoned the hospital and needed to take her straight there. Could we possibly come over and collect the baby?

I was so frightened as we drove the 20 miles to their home, I couldn't even speak. It was awful to see my lovely girl in such a bad way. Our son-in-law carried her out to his car and sped off to the hospital, leaving us to take charge of baby Noah. I was pretty sure our daughter would need further surgery, and suddenly Christmas had completely lost its importance as I tried to face the rest of the family without collapsing in tears. We ate the dinner which other family members had finished preparing in our absence, unwrapped presents, played with the baby, constantly wondering what was happening at the hospital. Finally, our son-in-law called, relief evident in his voice. A wonderful doctor had apparently given her a massive anti-inflammatory injection, to be followed by oral anti-inflammatories, and had told them that this was the correct way to deal quickly with her condition rather than leaving it (as had happened that first time, at a different hospital) for days, to escalate to such a life-threatening stage that drastic surgery had been the only option. She was now exhausted but OK, and they were on their way!

Her recovery took time. She spent Christmas Day lying on our sofa, and had little more than soup. But thanks to that doctor's approach, surgery had been avoided and, thank God, has not been needed since. As I've already mentioned, we've had other hiccups at Christmases since, but as a mother I don't think anything could ever match that one for scariness. So having spent a large part of this year going on and on (as we authors do) about my book 'The Cat Who Saved Christmas,' I'd now like to dedicate this blog post to that unknown hospital doctor who, for our family on one special Christmas Day, was 'The Doctor Who Saved Christmas.'  Maybe we'll raise a glass or two to him this year! And may all your Christmases be happy and healthy ones.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

The sum of my difficulties.

I recently read a very interesting feature in one of the national papers. It was about dyscalculia - a condition described as a specific learning difficulty for mathematics, or, more appropriately, arithmetic. 'Recognition at last,' I thought - because although everyone these days knows about dyslexia, very little is acknowledged about those of us who have similar problems with maths. And, as the author of the feature said, whereas dyslexia elicits sympathy and (usually, I hope, these days), understanding - if you mention being useless at maths it normally just seems to make people snigger.

The author of the feature was  a woman - a professional writer - who had difficulties with numbers herself, although she mentioned that she had managed to get a GCSE in maths at school, which I could never have done in a million years. I know this for a fact because at my (very academic) grammar school, I was deservedly placed in a small exclusive group for those considered such no-hopers in maths that we weren't even allowed to attempt 'O' level. Instead, we were all given a 'basic arithmetic' test which was supposed to give us a mediocre kind of qualification that at least proved we could weigh our cookery ingredients and make curtains. Although this kind of sexism was still rife in the 1960s, I have to say my school was generally not like this at all, encouraging us girls to aim for university and 'careers', (albeit there were fewer career choices available for us than there have been for girls in more recent decades, and certainly less pay than for boys!).  However, the maths teaching staff must have decided my little group of remedial maths girls deserved nothing better than curtain making and cooking from recipes - neither of which I've ever particularly enjoyed, to this day.

I tried my best with that test, honestly I did, but even those questions I knew how to work out took me so long, I got less than halfway through the paper in the time. My result was a miserable 29% and nobody was particularly surprised. I knew I wasn't stupid, because I'd always been very good at English, and reasonably good at foreign languages - I got A levels in English and French. I'd passed the 11-plus, so I must have got a fair proportion of the arithmetic questions right at that time, but I can still remember that it was at about this age I began to have panic attacks in the classroom when doing 'mental arithmetic', and particularly 'problems' (involving a bewildering combination of words and numbers concerning, for instance, how many men it might take to mow a lawn of a certain size, or how long it might take a train to get from A to B if it stopped at 15 stations).

So I can say with some degree of certainty that my maths ability is about that of a 10 to 11 year old. From that age on, it was all downhill, Long division is still a mystery to me, sums involving pounds shillings and pence used to bring me out in hot sweats, (thank God for decimalisation), and how anyone can add two numbers together without using 'carrying figures', I fail to understand.

In some ways I do manage better now I'm older. For one thing, I thank God I was forcibly made to learn my 'times tables'. I never have to work out what 12 times 12 is, for instance, because it's glued into my memory. And in the same way, over the years I've learned that, again for instance, half of 50 is 25, half of 100 is 50, and so on, so I don't have to wonder how to work these things out. So I'm not completely useless with everyday money situations, although larger amounts still remain difficult. I have to count their digits to work them out.

I've never been allowed to forget one occasion when my friends rather foolishly allowed me to take control of 'doing' the bill after a night out in a restaurant. We'd all had a few drinks and nobody wanted to do it, but I must have had the most to drink or I'd never have agreed. I couldn't make the amount right, no matter how many times I tried - I didn't have enough, and had to ask everyone to put in some more money, and then some more again. Nobody seemed to mind, and finally I seemed to have the bill and the tip covered. I felt quite proud of myself. It wasn't till the middle of the night when I woke up with a sudden shock, that I realised why I'd been short - I hadn't paid for my own meal!

Of course, in today's world we maths dunces are lucky - we have calculators, we have Excel spreadsheets, we don't have to do the hard stuff in our heads. Perhaps I do genuinely have dyscalculia and deserve more sympathy. Or perhaps it's simply that the 'Language' part of my brain is much more developed than the 'Numbers' part. Or it might be because of the flashbacks to my schooldays, the feeling of dread on days when we had double maths lessons, the humiliation of never knowing how to do the wretched calculations, the shaky, panicky feeling when it was my turn to have a question fired at me in class. Whatever the reason, I've never lost my horror of having to deal with sums. Just looking at a page of numbers gives me the creeps. Doing my tax return - even though in the logical part of my brain I know it isn't actually very difficult to do, on-line - is an ordeal every year.

So all I can say to the taxman is: if we self-employed people are going to be expected to do our returns four times a year in future, shouldn't there be some concession for people like me? I'd be spending half my life worrying and putting off looking at all those figures. How about, on medical grounds, 'prescribing' an accountant's services for all dyscalculics? Not too much to ask, is it ... but then again, how much is too much? I wouldn't know!

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Public humiliation : Been there, done that!

Some of my writing friends and I, at a recent function, were talking about giving talks. More specifically, we were talking about the humiliation of giving talks when hardly anyone - or even no-one at all - turns up. It was a hilarious conversation, and afterwards I found myself thinking how nice it is that with fellow authors, we're able to laugh off these humiliations and not feel shamed or depressed about them. And then I thought: what if it happened the very first time you did an author event? Would you realise it's actually something that most of us experience, and accept it as just another disappointment along the road of disappointments that often make up much of a writing career - or would you be devastated and feel like giving up?

With this in mind, I decided to write this little warning as an 'open letter' to new writers or newly published authors who may be considering starting to give talks and author events. Not to put them off, but on the contrary to welcome them to our world: the world of the survivors of public humiliation!

A few years ago I was given a book as a present which opened my eyes to this phenomenon and at the same time, reassured me. It's called 'Mortification', edited by Robin Robertson, and the sub-title is: 'Writers' Stories of their Public Shame'. It's full of very funny anecdotes by writers about events where they faced empty auditoriums, indifferent organisers, bored audiences and badly advertised events. It was reassuring because it made me realise it happens to far better-known authors than me, and if they can laugh about it, so can I.

                          At a signing of my first published novel, 2003. I sold one or two books!

Don't get me wrong: I've had very successful author events - fortunately, far more of these than the other type! And I love giving talks. I hasten to add that I didn't at first. We writers tend to be better at expressing ourselves in the written word than the spoken word - that's fairly obvious - and like many of us, I found my first few public engagements terrifying. Fortunately the memories of these have dimmed, but I'm pretty sure I wasn't very good. Probably my voice shook, and I mumbled and stumbled and spoke a lot of rubbish. I think the audiences were predictably small, probably boosted by my family, and I'm sure it's a good thing these were library talks so I wasn't charging a fee. But I'd been firmly advised that it was A Good Thing for a new author to Give Talks, so I soldiered on, and I got better at it. 

As my career progressed I had more to talk about, more experience to call upon, and got to know what people liked to hear about. I realised one day that I was actually being paid to chat to people about what I love doing best - can't be bad - and I started to relax and enjoy it. We don't get out a lot, do we, glue to our computers as we tend to be - and it's nice to meet people who are interested in writing and in books and might even want a signed copy at the end of the meeting!

I don't do as many talks or events as some of my writing friends, but I have sometimes spoken to halls so full of people that some were standing at the back. Now, I don't kid myself that I'm that popular - those were meetings of very popular clubs, where the same number of people probably turned up to every meeting! And that's the key, if you don't want the humiliation of empty rows of chairs - offer yourself as guest speaker to clubs and organisations where you have a 'captive audience'. Then you'll only get an empty room if all the members are on holiday or if they all, to a man or woman, genuinely hate books, or talks by authors. Even then, you shouldn't take it personally. The speaker secretary shouldn't book something that their members aren't going to want!

On the other hand, giving a talk in a public venue such as a library, or doing a book signing in a bookshop, for instance, is asking for trouble if you're not very well known. In these circumstances, if you don't fancy humiliation I can only suggest renting your own crowd. Bribe a few friends and relatives to come along and behave enthusiastically, then there's just a chance their presence might attract a few more curious passers-by to hang around. But don't count on it. At a book signing a few years ago I behaved exactly like a stall-holder at Romford market (my native town) - bellowing out in my best barrow-boy tone: 'Come and meet your local author! Get your signed copies here!' One person wandered over, but only to ask where the toilet was. One of my trusty friends stood outside the shop, trying to encourage people in, without a lot of success, and I think I sold a total of three books - one to the friend, and the other two probably to staff of the shop. But I was pathetically grateful that I'd finally got a branch of the major bookseller to let me have a signing. I'd been asking for years. Oh no, I don't mind how long I humiliate myself for!

                                                          At 'that' bookshop signing.

But people won't be persuaded into things if they're not interested. We wouldn't, so why should they? It hurts, when you put yourself out there and try your best - but that's life. Worse things happen. If you can't stand the heat, get out of the ... bookshop! Or the library, as I did recently after waiting 20 minutes in front of the rows of empty chairs arranged there, more in hope than realistic confidence, by the librarian who had already admitted it didn't look like anybody would turn up. I'm past being mortified. It's just sometimes the way it is. It can be just as crushing if someone in the audience falls asleep during your talk - even if they're very elderly, in a warm room, and don't look in the best of health. You could choose to be offended, I suppose - but I prefer to think of it as another little anecdote to laugh about with my writing friends.

At a library Panel Event with fellow authors and good friends Maureen Lee, Fenella Miller
 and Jean Fullerton. Panel events are a good way to share the humiliation!

It might feel good to be able to show off about the big audiences - the applause, the requests to come back, the compliments and sales of books at the end - of course that's what we all want, and it's lovely when it happens. But it's the funny stories about the times you persuade the two or three people who turn up to move forward from the back row so that you can have an informal chat instead of a talk, or when half the elderly audience get up and leave before the end because their bus is due - they're the stories that will make people warm to you, to laugh with you (not at you) - and will allow other writers to welcome you into the charmed circle of the humiliated. Because we've all been there, learned to shrug it off - and lived to tell the tale.