The Year In Brief
If you have limited time to spend with me, or a short attention span, here is my year in terms of firsts. Because firsts always mean you are moving forward (unless they are shit ones… no, even if they are shit ones).
- appearance on Woman’s Hour
- review in the Times Literary Supplement
- poem officially on an ‘A’ Level English Literature syllabus
- drive of an MX5
- flappy-paddle gear experience
- trip to California as an adult
- trip to Ashland, Oregon
- trip to Singapore
- national TV appearance (UK)
- book as editor
- Business Class flights
- stage play in production
- Man Booker Prize party
- dinner with a Booker winner.
Pretty bloody good, as years go.
Happy New Year one and all. And may you, as I have (mostly), conquer your crap so that more of your dreams can come true.
Reasons for Going Silent
Now, for the rest of you, the longer version. The bit above, I wrote last. This was how I began.
When you realise you haven’t posted since May, something must be done. People on my mailing list have had a couple of updates but I’ve been a little neglectful of my blog. Whether I will remedy this next year is hard to say. I can set the intention, but am aware that as New Year approaches I often set multiple intentions and find I only have the time and energy to follow through on a handful.
Trouble is, I’m no longer entirely sure what this blog is for. Gone are the days (and my ‘Shallowlands’ blog) where I would adapt something from my journal for public consumption. The journal still gets written. But I’m only ever sharing my thoughts with myself, and maybe with some far-in-the-future archival researcher, when I am long gone.
Maybe this blog can stand, at least for the time being, as some kind of log of my progress towards those things I dreamed about when I was very young. If so, I should fill in a few gaps. Somewhere in here (not sure when) I found out that a poem of mine (Material) was going to be set on an English Literature ‘A’ Level syllabus by dint of it appearing in Faber’s Poems of the Decade. That’s a first, as the other poem of mine to end up being studied in schools (How to Leave The World That Worships Should) got there through being set as the unseen poem in an exam. Here is the rest of 2015 from the point where I got too busy to post anything.
I recovered my health after a difficult May in which piles of university marking coincided with an out-of-balance thyroid and adrenal fatigue, resulting in hypothermic body temperatures (35C with alarming regularity). When I wasn’t forcing myself to sweat it out in layers of woollens and a thermometer in my mouth, I pressed on with 1000 words a day to finish a non-fiction (Shakespeare) project that now looks unlikely to see the light of day (this decade, and maybe ever). 114,000 words in 9 months. Very proud of it. The bottom drawer is very proud too. Not the first time I’ve had to accept the world isn’t really ready for what I have to share with it. At the end of the month I was part of a team from Goldsmiths who flew to Singapore to validate the MA in Creative Writing at Lasalle College of the Arts. First time in Singapore. First time flying Business Class (bliss!). First time on a fold-flat bed at 30,000 feet. First time I’ve ever said ‘No’ to champagne. Had a Singapore Sling at Raffles in its 100th anniversary year (the cocktail, not the hotel); gazed longingly at the highest swimming pool in the world with a lychee martini in my hand and the lights of Singapore far, far below. Met some lovely people. Got to know my esteemed colleague, poet Maura Dooley, a little better.
Stayed a further four days in Singapore. The last two in a quiet, WiFi-free eco-hotel on Sentosa Island. Found the perfect swimming pool. Salted (not chlorinated) water, perfect temperature, shaped to meander through the jungle like a river: long, empty, surrounded by palm trees and other vegetation, bright birds and butterflies, available loungers and hammocks. When I wasn’t swimming I was reading. Partly entries for the Goldsmiths Prize in my position as sifter, but also some I’d been saving for the holidays. Jim Crace’s Harvest was the highlight. When I got back, and spoke longingly of those book-sodden hammock days when, temperature and perfect pool aside, I could have been anywhere, my husband asked why I had to go away to read in a hammock. Fair point. Thirteen years we’ve lived in my much-loved house with its roof terrace and for some reason I’ve never thought to sling up a hammock. And then I did. Of course once you are lying in a hammock on a roof terrace you’ve made no time to sit out on for two years, you see room for improvement… and the rest of the summer is set. At the end of the month, I sat on the partially restored terrace with Nicola Haydn and Jamie Martin and agreed a rehearsal schedule for staging a one-man version of The Marlowe Papers.
On 4 August, Devotion, my second novel, was published in the UK by Oneworld. I financed a small launch party at Angel House. On 5 August I appeared on Woman’s Hour for the first time, interviewed by Jenni Murray. It went well. Reviews of the book in the FT and the Guardian – and reader responses – were very heartening. We camped for a week in Devon with our daughter and her friend. For the rest of the month, whenever it wasn’t raining, I was working on the roof terrace. Replacing broken trellis, repairing, repotting, repainting: a huge job, as not a lick of paint had been dolloped there for a decade. Sometimes, at the very end of the day, my back close to spasm, I would find half an hour to lie in the hammock and read. There’s no escaping I am an obsessive person, and throw myself wholeheartedly into any project, whether it is writing a book, or DIY. By the time I had finished, the weather was turning. I had a few beautiful evenings under the stars and the party lights that didn’t involved power tools and paintbrushes.
Rehearsals for The Marlowe Papers began. The script got crunched, rewritten, stripped down. When I wasn’t working on that, I was finishing bits on the terrace and writing two talks for my imminent trip to the US. The family car (a Ford Escort convertible) died. Devotion garnered me my first ever review in the TLS (and it was a good one). On the 18th I flew to San Francisco and spent a weekend with an old friend of my father’s from Berkeley, Rudy Wenk, and his family. I finally realised I don’t like cities very much; even San Francisco. But I was more moved than I’d imagined when I revisited my childhood haunts in Berkeley and Lafayette, including Strawberry Canyon pool, where I learnt to swim. I was in the US for 10 days, driving up to Ashland Oregon to give a talk for the Oregon Lifelong Learning Institute and present a paper for the Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship. That little word ‘driving’ you probably just skipped over, but it was the highlight of my trip. Not everybody knows, but I am a huge sportscar enthusiast. I was upgraded at the airport to a beautiful copper-red MX-5 convertible (Miata to my American friends) with flappy-paddle gears. Driving up the 101, meandering through the giant redwoods in the Avenue of the Giants, stopping on the Northern California coast to paddle in the Pacific and winding through the mountains of Southern Oregon, at speed, at dusk, with not another car on the road: three peak experiences right there. Ashland gave me a surprisingly moving Pericles; a snappy Much Ado with an unforgettable Dogberry on a Segway.
Back to Goldsmiths; convening a course for the first time, and teaching on two modules, as well as taking on three new PhD students. National Poetry Day was spent, as it usually is these days, at Claremont Fan Court School in Surrey. With our director having fallen seriously ill and now hospitalised, I had to take a front seat for a while to keep The Marlowe Papers’ stage play project on the rails. I got a couple of academic papers finished. (Three short pieces have been published in Notes and Queries in 2015; a much longer piece will appear in the Journal of Early Modern Studies in April 2016). Thanks to the shortlisting of Marlon James (a stablemate of mine at Oneworld), I attended my first ever Man Booker Prize Party. A pretty exciting night. We watched the announcement with wine in hand and all screamed when he won. Oneworld entered two books, the other being my own humble offering – which, judging from the sheer physical size of the shortlisted books, simply wasn’t long enough to get a look-in. It was a Fat Book Year. As a former poet, what can I say? I like concision. Anyway, I’m always up for a good literary party, even one that’s not about me. And as a consolation I got to have dinner with Marlon, my editor and her husband a couple of weeks later at The Gate in Islington. With a hole in my boot and a wet sock, but that’s the only way for a minor poet and early-career novelist to have dinner with a Man Booker Prize winner.
On 10 November, the Yesterday Channel aired the programme on Marlowe for which I had done some filming earlier in the year. Comments (on my contribution, if not on the programme as a whole) were positive. I still haven’t seen it. We got a new (second hand, always) family car – Saab convertible, undoubtedly the best quality car I’ve ever owned. On 14 November I gave the inaugural annual Christopher Marlowe lecture in the room where Pink Floyd recorded ‘Another Brick In The Wall’. Sunday 22 November was the official launch of the book that kept me off the roof terrace all last summer: 30 Second Shakespeare. I’m not sure you can have a lovelier book launch partner than Mark Rylance, who wrote the Foreword and was there to send it on its way. And all through the month I was spending every hour I could spare (from 6am starts to midnight finishes) putting together something that really excited me.
That thing was not a book, but a website and a set of audios to help people overcome the psychological barriers between them and their goals. These were the key tools that helped me sort out my messed-up self and begin to achieve my own dreams, and it’s important to me to share them. I recorded the audios, initially, for my sister. I hope that many other people will find them useful. I’ll be growing that website throughout 2016… but will try not to neglect this one. Or the novel I am writing (number three). Or the film script I’ll be working on next month.
In 2016 I’ll be writing my next novel. I’ll be appearing with other poets on the Edexcel English Literature ‘A’ level syllabus in front of 800 students and teachers. I’ll be adding to Shakespeare: The Evidence (which has also suffered in the second half of this year). I’ll be teaching, of course. And no doubt there will be all sorts of things I can’t even begin to predict. Hoping champagne, literary parties and foreign travel will be among them. But we’ll see.
Happy New Year. x