Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Deeply embarrassed

Truly madly deeply embarrassed; the typo in the previous post has made me so ashamed and conjured up Mr. Coule my primary school teacher, leather strap (government issue) in hand ready to belt out any mistaken apostrophe. So, I am not editing the title as it will sit there as a reminder to always, always check my posts before posting.
Cavalier Scot that I am, I don't always check. So do I do a spellcheck? But how is a computer, or programmers, to know how to spell Burns?
For that errant apostrophe, I humbly apologise.

Which leads me to the next topic. As I was researching material for book 5 --The Low Road --I was remembering the exams we sat at the end of primary school. Known as the Eleven Plus, these exams would decide if a select few would make it to the Academy ( a grammar school in England).
I passed, and my education at Inverness Royal Academy was excellent if a trifle marred by a sadistic Latin master.
On the internet I found a sample 11+ exam paper. The question is, would I pass today?
Now bearing in mind this was a timed exam for eleven year olds, naturally I thought I would sail through. Blimey, it was really hard!

Is it that nowadays education places less emphasis on grammar? Or on times tables - if these are still taught? Or perhaps the Scottish education system, which we boast is  more thorough than other countries, really is better? Don't know. But I do know that many from the academy system would be in all sorts of trouble had we made the obvious mistake with the apostrophe that I made in the previous post.
"Hold out you hand girl!" And I would receive six of the best.

Aa' the best.

PS. The essay component of the 11+ was tough. You had to write a longish original essay on a completely boring topic e.g. My School Holidays, in a short period of time. That was the section of the exam that I loved, and excelled at. So why oh why I didn't discover writing until I was in my sixties I'll never know.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Burn's Night

Done. Finished. Sent. As much as any manuscript can ever be, but I can do no more, so the manuscript for the new novel The Low Road has been delivered.

Appropriately it was sent on Rabbie Burn's birthday. He is, and always will be is an inspiration for me and countless others. The sheer humanity of the man, the mesmerising, heartbreaking poetry.

Ayrshire, where he hailed from, is a county I can't claim to know well, but I do have memories of tramping the moorlands above Kilmarnock, building a wee fire by a burn to brew up gunpowder tea in a billy-can. And of the station bar in Kilmarnock drinking draft Bass, trying to avoid stiring up the cloudy lees, lest the hops become too overpowering. I had a first boyfriend from there. He had two brothers. All of them, even the sixteen year old were political, were musicians and had a love of early blues and folk and Trotsky. And, naturally, Burns.
I remember the park in Kilmarnock with the stature of Rabbie Burns, and always always I will love that county that produced that genius, that treasure, our national and universal poet.

I remember a small man, a former coal miner, John was his name, from Darvel in Ayrshire. I went to his wedding. He introduced me to On the Road by Jack Kerouac. And John had a monkey, a vicious mischievous monkey that would hang out on the clothes pulley and pee on you.

I remember Largs where the train from Glasgow would disgorge passengers for the ferry to Millport on the island of Cumbrae. There was a great Italian cafe in Largs. Still there I see. And doubtless still great.

I remember, I remember - and naturally enough I have mined those memories and used them and they are in the new book. Not John, not the brothers, not the monkey, not the home made emerald green dress I wore to the wedding,  but the smell of the county, Ayrshire, the green fields with many cows, the skies above the flat high deep-heather silent moorland, the train, the ferry, a summer in Millport, these memories imbue my writing as I sit at my computer, in my cottage by the river, in the fishing village in Viet Nam, hearing, but not listening to, the ducks, the Party announcements on the loudspeaker, the neighbours quarrelling, the children playing with a football against a wall.

"A man's a man for a' that...
That Man to Man the world o'er
Shall brothers be for a' that."

Aa' the best.

To read the full poem see  www.robertburns.org/

Sunday, December 8, 2013


It was a salutary jolt to read my self description, penned less than three years ago, as a writer with few as few possessions as possible.
Now, taking stock, I realise I am surrounded - indeed weighed down by an accumulation of possessions. Whilst still much less than most Westerners, compared to my neighbours, it is a veritable  Aladdin's cave of stuff, stuffed into my wee river cottage.

So, clear out time. And good timing ~ New Year coming up. And Tet.

Computer, yes, iPad likewise. Phone yes. But what about all those leads? That tangle of wires belong to something or other like perhaps an internet thingy? Or is it a modern thingy? Or are they the same thing? Or thingy? And I just know that if I chuck them out, one will be an essential thingy unobtainable in Vietnam. Or even obsolete altogether but essential for .... something or other.

Motorbike, essential. But those spare helmets that are either too heavy or the visor is impossible to see through at night or the strap hurts, but other than that are fine? And those half tins/bottles/jam jars of oil? And the straps, chords, bags, and wee bits of string to tie something or other to the handlebars? then there is the rain trousers, the summer weight, the winter weight, the in-between weight? And four rain capes? Hmmm.

Furniture? too much. Chairs? too many. Rugs? Too many? ~ Nah, can never have too many kilims.

Clothing? Clothing ~ far, far too much. Shoes the same, far far too many pairs for a place like Vietnam. I mean what with riding a motorbike, tramping along unpaved roads, wading through mud, sand and the occasional flood all I really need are the Crocs. Shock horror, I who took taxis in London to preserve my green suede  Manolo's now wear Crocs. Sad sad day.

But some garments are a memory of dancing, and laughter, and journeys, and Hugh.

What to do? What to do? I know, forget about it and keep writing.

Aa' the best.

PS Buddha stays.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Valentine's Day - 22nd November

1950s Valentine Card

There was a scene in a recent episode of
Downton Abbey where Valentine cards, sent and received, were the subject of much heartache between the valets and the kitchen maids. I know the feeling.

Awaiting notes from my editor is like that - never knowing if you will receive the card (email) of approval, of love. It is a Valentine's days of joy when she likes the book.
 "I really like this book" --sends me into an adolescent fervour of gratitude and relief and sheer joy that the past six to seven months of concentration, frustration, misery and elation have all come together to produce a book that has my editor's approval.
 I've say this often, and it does not lose it's aptness, but if one was not bi-polar before becoming an author, then it is certainly a condition you becomes familiar with.

Of course there is much more to do to make this manuscript sing.
Naturally there are parts that need amplifying, parts need cutting, and the beginning and end are rushed and need slowing down or further explained; but overall, the story works.
Now I can sleep. Then wake up and work steadily through the manuscript, a chapter at a time and with a deadline to meet.
Then it is off to the copy editor for another go. Then a final printers proof. Then, then, the next one, book 6 in the series.
Can't wait.

Aa' the best.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Walking Back to Happiness

Walking Back to Happiness - Helen Shapiro version - I know, I know, that really dates me. then again, I'm proud to be a still strong older woman. Beats the alternative.

So, to return to the subject - walking. Now my formative walking years were tramping the mountains and glens of the Scottish Highlands, particularly the Grampians above Aviemore. Then there were the hill climbs on a Munro or three, trudging up the steeps slopes above Lochaber or Ullapool or Applecross. Magical walks everyone.

 But now, in the city, with the weather turned to cool autumn early winter, it is the city streets that I walk. Or to attempt to walk, dodging traffic, stumbling over street stalls, stopping for tea, or a shoeshine, or just a chat. All year round, social life, family life, is conducted on pavements in Hanoi.
I sat on a plastic stool with my friend Cuong recently. We caught up on the well-being of our families, we drank fresh fruit juice, we had our shoes shined. With only Vietnamese sitting, drinking, chatting, we watched the backpackers with their overweight rucksacks, determinedly purposeful, hurrying to somewhere, a place between pages in a guidebook, never looking to left, or right, or up, or down, missing the cafe with the wee plastic stools, and me, and Cuong, and our companions. 
Good to be so invisible.

Hanoi Old Quarter

Then there are the lakes. Right in the heart of the city is the legendary Hoan Kiem lake. When we first arrived in Hanoi we lived about 100 metres from here. Early morning walks, six am circumnavigating the lake dodging the locals doing Tai Chi, Calisthenics, stretches, or badminton, stumbling over tree roots, and in the early morning quiet breathing in the mist and freshness - magic. Evenings, sitting on benches, eating ice-cream, chatting watching enjoying, quickly it became clear to us strangers that this was the spiritual heart, the soul of the city. And not much has changed in the fifteen and a half years since I first walked around it. More traffic for sure, but the sense of its soul? Same as ever.

Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi.

There is sure to be someone out there, don't know because I didn't Google it, who has written a book, a tract, maybe a PHD thesis, on the Art of Walking. Walking in the Moment? Walking therapy? Zen Walking? Power Walking? Me, I'll take -

Walking back to Happiness...Oom Pa Oh Yea Yea...

Thanks Helen Shapiro.
PS Loved the Big Hair.

Aa' the best.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Kindness of Friends - old and new.

Kindness - it seems such a lightweight word to use for the deep and soul-strengthening love and warmth I've been experiencing this last week; from friends, from acquaintances, from  strangers these last weeks have been a lesson in love and letting go of former loves.

Perhaps it is the lot of writers, those that are deeply interested in people and in making connection with others that we feel keenly. Or is perhaps feel too keenly but then stand back and use the observations as material. Writers as psychic vampires? Hmmm, a little close to the bone that one.

So, kindness, or at least one story out of the multiple kindnesses shown to me these past days.

First, Tram Meo, a beautiful young woman, said, "Come to my garden house. Meet my mother and grandmother. It's in the countryside, not far."

We set off midmorning on a radiant Hanoi autumn day. For once the pollution had lessened and a weak sun was shining through the tall trees lining the streets of the French Quarter. In golden light, the old French era villas and the packed chaotic shop-fronts, set in what were the gardens, seemed like a setting for an art film.

Out through the suburbs, past the frantic building sites of the expanding capital, out over the new bridges spanning the Red River, our taxi bobbed in the flotsam of new cars, ancient trucks, swarms of motorbikes, and southwards we drove. After turning west, within five hundred metres we were back in real rural Vietnam. Another fifteen minutes, a left turn and we were in a village in timeless Vietnam.

Along narrow alleyways lined with high brick walls, at the end of a short steep drive to a garden compound set below a high wooded hillside with an enormous Buddha atop, we stopped. A few steps through high gates and we were into a garden courtyard. And into paradise. And there, for a too short day, in the company of four generations of women - Tram Meo, her daughter, her mother, her grandmother, and with Tu Huong, an artist friend and neighbour, I reconnected with nature, with kindness, and with the old Vietnam, the Vietnam that keeps me here.

Over a lunch of simple traditional food, the ingredients from the garden, the conversation was in three languages, all spoken badly, all said with such sincerity it didn't matter. Tram sometimes translated but often we all juggled sentences between English, French and Vietnamese.
"Excusey-moi, Chi ting Viet, a little." And for emphases, gestures and laughter and smiles.

And at that table, in the golden light penetrating the fruit trees, the tall hardwood trees, shining on the terracotta tiles, with the old timbers of the traditional wooden house radiating warmth, a magic spell overtook us and out hearts opened and out friendships were formed.
We spoke of loss - the recent loss of Tram's father, the four years since loss of my husband. We spoke of our work - their art, my writing. We spoke of the pain of separation, fears for our children and again we spoke of art, of painting, of painting with brushes, of painting with words, of making pictures in lacquer - Huong is one of the foremost lacquer artists in the country - and then it was mid afternoon and still we were spellbound by the light and the place and the love. Yes, love. Total strangers, yet a connection as deep as the history of this country held us in an enchantment that will never leave me.

And there was more to come. "Please visit my garden studio," Huong said.

So once again in the little taxi, we set off, Tram, her mother, Huong and myself. Huong and I are of the same generation. As an artist, she has a dedication that astounds me. Abandoning her comfortable city life she lives simply, and she sits and breathes in her garden - a wild garden, a garden with a mind of it's own, and she draws, she paints, exquisite art that collectors vie for.
And she sells as little as possible. When she needs money to live she will reluctantly let an art gallery takes a few pieces. And when she receives a grand commission for a lacquer piece ( which can take a year to execute) she works at it, puts everything into it, but she prefers to just sit, observe the sun and the rain and the seasons of the  flowers.

Huong wanted to give me a painting. I was so surprised. So thrilled. And I accepted.
There was no feeling of, "No I couldn't possibly..." Such a silly, false convention to employ when a gift is given freely, in friendship. "It is better to give than receive" Come on! How can you give when the person will not receive with joy and true gratitude?

This work, on mulberry paper, is a more a meditation than a painting. The flowers seem suspended in a veil of early morning mist. They shimmer in an almost abstract dance. There are strokes in charcoal, blushes of colour in paint, and a top finish of white hand ground seashells normally used in lacquer works. the whole is translucent. And spare. The flowers on first look are flowers, then butterflies, then spirits; the spirit of the artist, the spirits of women, the spirit of my beloved Vietnam.

Thank you Tram Meo. Thank you Dang Tu Huong. Thank you Tran's mum, grandmother, daughter. Indomitable spirits all.

Monday, November 4, 2013

I am so overcome with grief I have run away to the city to be with friends, to have massages, haircut, do a yoga class, cycle around the lake, go to art galleries, to concerts - live the big city life.

Something, anything, is vital to distract from the depression that overwhelms me when I finish a manuscript. The end of 6 months of intense concentration, 6 months of living and breathing and dreaming the story arrives and although I know the condition and try to be careful, this time, more than most, I am shattered.

When writing a series the characters stay with you. They change, they develop, in the way friendships do. So saying farewell, even to characters that appear for just one book, hurts. Killing anyone off, even a baddie, hurts.

On this new book, The Low Road, writing the penultimate chapter, work that would normally take 3 or 4 days, took two weeks; not because I didn't know how it would all end, but because I couldn't bring myself to go there, to be there, in that place, in that scene. Dredging up the images was vivid and real and terrifying. I was crying as I typed, tears dropping into the keyboard. And I am the person who creates this. So how come?

When I hit the send button and the script left for the USA, the first two days were exhilarating. There comes a huge sense of "I've done it!" Then came the loss. Loss of routine. Loss of daily conversations with my dear friends on the Highland Gazette, friends from the town, the glens, friends met, friends yet to meet. The song says "The hills are alive..." For me, the glens are alive. Alive with stories.

This all coincided with the loss of real friends - or perhaps not. Certainly the loss of an old friendship. But if a friend cannot understand how fragile one is when writing, how temporarily neglectful of friends in the realm of this world, then there is nothing I can explain. Conversations with other writers, with artists, with composers, reminds me that this is the price one sometimes pays.

I understand Virginia Woolf. The idea of walking into a river seems an option.
But thankfully, with a huge mental effort, and the love of real friends, it dissipates.
So with love, and meditation, and massage, and sleep, you slowly recover.

Until next time.

Aa' the best.