Monday, August 30, 2010

A Monday morning sort of post...

I’ve been missing the gym; not as in yearning for it but as in skipping it, avoiding it. Not ‘skipping’ as it turns out. I only managed one session last week due to a combination of lingering tummy ache and preparing to move apartments. (I am trying to sort out some of the shambolic mess in which I live.)

Yesterday I was leaving the apartment to go out and pick up some fabric I wanted for cushions (with this move I’m feeling the need to nest.) When the lift arrived there was already another tenant inside from one of the floors above.

‘Morning,’ we both said and smiled.

I looked at him and I felt a stab of guilt. He was dressed in trainers, shorts and a t-shirt and was clutching a bottle of water. The light to floor six was illuminated. Bugger it. I jabbed the ground floor button. ‘Oh,’ I said. ‘You’re going to the gym…’

‘I am.’ He looked pleased and pulled a small towel from the crook of his arm and dabbed his forehead in anticipation of his sweating.

I wanted to be sick. It’s proving so hard to get the fitness back since I was away in the summer and these two weeks weren’t going to make it any easier. Then I realized…

‘Oh yes,’ I said, triumphant; ‘I’m also going to the Jim. I’m going to the Jim Thompson fabric shop; do you think that’ll have the same effect?’

Friday, August 27, 2010

A review: Without Alice by DJ Kirkby

Who doesn’t love a secret?

In DJ Kirkby’s book, Without Alice, Stephen has a secret. “One so important that it feels as if it will tear you in two.”

Without Alice opens with a tantalizing prologue of three couples in three southern cities/towns in July 1977. All of them are in the process of pregnancy, labour or early motherhood. There's a strong sense of the fatalistic about the prologue: that the conception and birth of these offspring to these couples will set in motion the chain of events that would make Without Alice.

Part One begins with Jennie, one of the offspring from the prologue who is in the throes of her own labour. DJ’s birth scenes are graphic but they paint a realistic picture (in my experience) of the range of emotions that come with having a first baby. We are dropped right into the minutiae of Jennie's thoughts: the fearfulness mixed with the joy. A birth - even when it's happened - is a great way to put characters under stress and show how they each deal with the tensions it brings. As readers we see the dynamics and the underlying issues between Stephen and Jennie where the characters themselves can’t or won’t see.  DJ weaves the present, full of tension and anxiety, with flashbacks to allow us to experience the whole story. 

But what, I wanted to know, about Alice?

She’s Stephen’s secret so you have to be patient. Part two begins to explain…

My favourite scene in Without Alice is the picnic scene. I felt I was there at the picnic in the local park with these mums and our children. I’ve said here before that I like realism in a novel and just as I thought things couldn’t be resolved, out of nowhere DJ moves the story on another leap. I can’t tell you anything else about the picnic scene for fear of spoilers but you know what? You’ll just have to read it.

Without Alice is DJ’s debut novel and it’s being published this October but you can obtain a book already via her publishers, Punked Books. DJ’s website is here. There’s a fascinating interview here on Casdok’s blog with DJ Kirkby. And if you like a laugh you have to visit DJ’s blog for the Wordless Wednesday photographs: they are priceless. 

Thursday, August 26, 2010

In praise of women

Today I come simply to give a shout out to women friends. I have lunched, had tea and emailed just four of them in the last 24 hours. This isn’t just for them though because there are so many others out there. It’s taken me years to work out that women friends are great. Maybe it’s taken me the shock of real adult life (working in a dull job, the being at home with children, the going off to study while trying to be a full time mum, the challenges of raising children, moving 6000 miles away from home) to work out just how wonderful women friends are.

I look back at my adult life and it’s sprinkled with women friends who have meant something to me: they made me understand something, made me laugh  or were just there. These friendships haven’t always lasted. I remember my relationship with one woman grew only out of the fact that our offices were next door to each other. When York was cut off by snow from Hull she took me home with her and gave me macaroni cheese and a bed for the night. I looked at her photos: I was newly married and I would be her in twelve or fifteen years.

Then there was T. I had my second dose of post-natal depression when our eyes met over a piece of bright plastic gym equipment for toddlers. She’d had PND too and was further ahead in her recovery. Then L when I first came to Bangkok….

Women friends are brilliant.

You know those internet ‘chain letter’ things that people send to say someone loves you/thinks you’re beautiful/wants to thank you? I know they’re cheesy and schmaltzy. And yes, sometimes I do open them with a smirk because if they’d been physical letters, they’d have been written on perfumed pink paper with sparkly bits. Sometimes I can’t bring myself to send them on because they are just so gushing and the uptight English woman in me struggles to say those things out loud. But I do appreciate them. I’m grateful to know that I mean something to you too.

Today though I want to shout out for women friends: permanent or temporary, physical or cyber, here or far away, in my past, present or future. I think you’re brilliant.

Monday, August 23, 2010

I'm really on my own...

I’ve mentioned a few times here about my newish gym habit. I’ve been going down to the gym in our apartment block since about April but what I haven’t confessed to here is that I’ve been doing it with the help of a personal trainer. I’m sorry but when it comes to the gym I am the idlest woman ever; I would so much rather lie on my sofa reading a good book than go to any gym. God, even a bad book would be better than exercise!

Most apartment blocks here have gyms but when we drew up a shopping list for our new home, it was still one of the things I emphasised to Husband. The new apartment needs a decent gym, I said. Gawd knows it’s tough enough to take the lift 19 floors to get to the 6th floor gym… If you’re asking me to leave the building… well, I couldn’t be sure I could achieve that!

So, the new apartment has a gym downstairs. Not a room with some equipment in but a branch of a membership/paying gym and we get membership with our rental. And I was a happy bunny because I knew this gym is the one that my trainer uses for her own personal sessions so it would be convenient for her too.

However, at our session on Friday morning it transpired that we were not on the same wavelength at all. She broke the news to me that the gym doesn’t allow anyone but their own staff to take personal training sessions. That’s when I went ‘arrrrghhhh.’ She thought I was worried about our training relationship coming to an end and tried to let me know that it was okay. Of course I felt bad that I hadn’t realized we couldn’t still work together but actually, selfishly, I was worried about being on my own…

I spent all weekend panicking and worrying. It still astonishes me that I wouldn’t dream of messing my trainer about by cancelling sessions – barring illness or disaster – but I will let myself down. Eventually I thought back to why I started all this; that I’d realized that I am on my own. No-one else can do this for me. I’ll just have to stand on my own two feet (while wearing trainers and attractive, stretchy gym clothes) earlier than I expected.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

A Room of One's Own

We gave our landlords notice on our apartment several months ago because we could have been moving to the UK.

When we finally knew we were staying in Bangkok we could have changed our minds and stayed but we decided we wanted to move. This is a gorgeous apartment but it’s expensive and we don’t use all the facilities. (Here is a picture of our present  apartment's garden. It's from my office; I’m sorry I couldn’t be bothered to go downstairs. The tennis courts are part of our garden – I’ve never so much set food on them – and the garden itself: with a playground, a seating area and a grassy bit that's out of sight. All the facilities for which people with small kids and dogs pay a premium. I probably haven’t been down there for two years. Why? Because it’s hot people. Remember, our three seasons are ‘hot,’ ‘really hot’ and ‘hot and wet.’)

But back to the present… I was in the UK; I couldn’t look for accommodation. So I told Husband he had total power to choose an apartment. Gulp. Husband’s quite good at house/condo hunting. I reckoned I could trust him to find us a nice place to live – a nice enough place anyway.

He kept in touch, telling me what he’d seen and where they were. In the end he chose one from the short list and stumped up some money so that they took it off the market…so…you know, there wasn’t any going back. Eeek.

I went to see it this week. Gulp. Our agent was nervous because he thought I might march in and say ‘I hate it. This won’t do.’ I’d never do that. I might think it but I gave all the power to Husband so if I loathed it…well, I was going to have to keep buttoned, wasn’t I? 

I already knew the area pretty well. It’s on the green route (back roads) we use to access our current home. I even knew which building it was… I knew that there was plenty of space inside for me to have my own office (OMG *trembling with excitement*) but I had also clocked that there was going to be a disagreement with our children about who’d have the better of the two bedrooms… This was already being played out in our home and they hadn’t even seen the rooms yet!

It was very nice: older but just as much area and quite light. We have more rooms in the new place but they are all a little smaller than the present place. The minute I saw the two rooms for the kids I knew it was a no brainer. Sure, the nicer room shares the balcony with the living room but the other bedroom – OMG - had a walk in closet. Daughter has always wanted one of those…

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

How I Met Your Mother

I read this lovely story on Green Ink a few days ago about how Phil and her fiancé met.

It’s such a great story: a sort of Sliding Doors meets Richard Curtis movie. Romance isn’t my favourite genre but I do love it. There is something perennially hopeful about love stories – I guess that explains the success of romance books and films.

Anyway, it made me think of how Husband and I met. And I thought to myself ‘gosh, is that a story I’ve never told my blog?’ I think it is.

The polite, unrevealing account is that Husband and I met at university.

You might need to brace yourself for the more accurate version. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Here it is:

When I went to university I moved into a hall of residence. I was on the top floor of a three story block. My immediate neighbour was another first year girl, L. Opposite L and I were three final year students: two chemists and a mathematician. Not Yet Husband (Not Bloody Ever Husband had I known this story!) lived in the block next door.

During the first week NYH approached his friends, the three third year students on my corridor and said ‘I hear you’ve got two fit girlies on your corridor. Which one do you recommend I try first?’ (I am resisting the urge to punch that twenty year old version of him.)

‘Ah,’ the three third years said, ‘L’s got a boyfriend at home. You’d best try Jenny first…’


It’s not quite the romance of Green Ink Girl’s anecdote is it? But it is my story. And to give him his credit he’s stopped calling women ‘girlies’ and as a direct result we have been married 19 years…

Monday, August 16, 2010

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark

I’ve been away from my desk for a long time. It’s seven weeks that I've been physically away from it but longer if I count the emotional distance brought about by the difficulties of not knowing about our contract, GCSEs and political activities back in May/June time.

I couldn’t wait to get back to my desk. I can work anywhere but I love my mad space. In my imagination getting back here would be dreamy. I could get my head down and get my novel to the next stage.

But something's rotten in the state of my desk and office. The piles of papers, letters, print outs of reference material, magazine clippings that I keep because they may become useful have all been breeding while I’ve been away. It no longer feels a haven. I may be engulfed.

It’s essential therefore to clear up.

And my office deserves it. My family bought me the most amazing present for (Thai) mother’s day. Something I had been internalizing and rejecting for months as being too decadent. I never breathed a word so embarrassed was I that I wanted one. But Son thought of it.


My very own mini-fridge. My bottom may weld to the chair now I never need to move again.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

I could've kicked sand in my own face...

Just before we leave Koh Samui behind, I've got one last post for you.

When he was planning the trip, Husband asked me if I'd heard any recommendations for resorts in Samui. Stupid as I am I didn't give it much thought and told him no... which was a real shame; if only I'd done a bit of homework my memory would have been jogged by the name of a hotel that HAD been recommended to me in the dim and distant past.

After a short walk on Chaweng Beach we came across it (and trespassed over it, while taking photos.) Honestly, I could've kicked sand in my own face.

Please look at these photos of the resort, The Library on Koh Samui and tell me - could I have found a more apt place?

The page numbers on the grass relate to the room numbers, index or content I think was the reception area and I can't recall what the bookmark one was.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Warning: Another lizardy-thing

This jumped out in front of me yesterday - nearly giving me a heart attack. I thought in that first second it was a snake. I'm not scared of snakes as a species but it strikes me as jolly sensible to avoid something that's poisonous or liable to squeeze me to death. Anyway, once I'd established it was marginally more scared of me than I was of it... I took some photos.

Since I haven't bought my reference book yet, Boonsong can you help identify this one please?

I spent the rest of the day jumping at leaves brushing my shoulders and frogs smaller than my thumbnail jumping in the dark. What a wuss.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Ka-plunk and Ka-pow

A couple of days ago I had my first Thai massage…ever. It was sort of by accident.

For those that don’t know a Thai massage is different from an oil massage and it’s because of this distinction that I’ve always done my best to avoid them. In Thai massage the person giving the massage moves your body around into different poses and exerts pressure or pulls muscles or pushes their elbows, finger into your muscles; hell, they may even walk on your back. You are stretched; your body might go ‘click’ and ‘clunk;’ it might hurt, it might be relaxing but it will probably be a mixture of both.

The reason that I have done my damnedest to avoid them is because of a seventeen-year relationship with physios, osteopaths and chiropractors. This connection began only a few months into my first pregnancy when my lower back went ‘kaplunk’ and produced all kinds of hideous pains. During pregnancy chemicals are sent around the body to loosen up joints, ligaments etc to facilitate birth. To someone with hyper mobile joints (me) this can be a problem: flibberty flobberty body parts (the technical term.) A physio at the maternity unit was my first port of call.

I love physios and osteopaths: I rate them highly. BUT, I’m nearly always in pain when I go to see them. So, I’m nervous of Thai massage on three counts: I associate being manipulated with said pain. Two, I’m afraid that they may not be as trained as they should be and what with my wibbly wobbly joints I might end up in pain after the session. And three I have an old shoulder injury and a present hip issue: Gosh, I really am a specimen of good health and fitness. Not.

So that’s how it came to be that Husband and I pottered up the road to a massage place (infinitely more affordable than in our hotel) for a Thai massage for him and foot massage for me. However because the foot massage only lasts for one hour she did a sort of Thai massage on me for the remaining thirty minutes.

I don’t think I can be an easy candidate for such things; I don’t switch off easily. I'm cautious that she’ll do something that will hurt and my brain goes careering off but that can be useful for all sorts of inspiration. But by the time I was turned over onto my back I’d totally lost the use of my arms and legs; they were leaden.

Pretty damn incredible it was.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


We have a little pet in our villa garden.

He (we'll assume) comes out to say hello whenever we get back to our villa or go out into the garden. He appears on the other side of the window to watch me write. He is very tolerant of my camera, posing for long periods until one of us gets bored.

I've labelled his picture 'lizardy thing' but does anyone know what he is? Iguana? Chameleon? I must need a new reference book.

Monday, August 09, 2010

The Green Tinged Witch from Wicked

I’ve seen a lot of dawn hours this week. I’ve lain in our gorgeous, palatial holiday bed, looking up at the fairy tale mosquito net thinking bad thoughts. I am not a good person without my sleep. It was unfair that my family should have to bring that woman on holiday. I stared long into the night at the green tinge cast by the air con control unit, cussing and thinking murderous thoughts. Poor Husband; what a risk he takes in sleeping next to me.

I thought I’d done really well with the jetlag the weekend I got back. My only remedy for this evil condition is to keep busy so I should have known that going on holiday immediately wouldn’t be good for it.

And it really wasn’t.

On Monday night and Tuesday night I spent three hours gazing around the villa. Wednesday night between midnight and three am I also endured a migraine. Eventually tormented by the smell of the mosquito netting (don’t ask, a hyper sensitive sense of smell appears to be something to do with migraine) I got up, paced about and then settled on a chair. Draped in a towel and a pink pashmina for warmth, I spent five hours blissfully asleep.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

All Quiet on the Eastern Front

Sorry that it’s been so quiet here.

When I got back to Bangkok I had a friend to stay. She’d been working in Phuket for a month and came up to see us before transferring to Bali to meet her family. She was the very first person I called after Husband dropped me the ‘I’ve been offered a promotion in Bangkok’ bombshell. She was (and continues to be) a source of great wisdom about expat life. I met her at our kids’ primary school when she returned from many years living in SE Asia and we’ve been trying and failing to meet up in Bangkok since we got here.

As she made her way to Bali, so we were on our way to Koh Samui.

That’s where we are now. Husband’s colleague said ‘Two weeks in Samui? OMG; you’ll be so bored.” But we wanted a do nothing holiday… I’ve got ten books to read and my own novel to re-write. How can I get bored?

I had planned to pelt through my reading list but the mood took me to start rewriting so that’s what I’m doing in the mornings and reading with whatever time is left over. So far I’ve enjoyed reading/am reading:

• Dad's Life by Dave Hill
• Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby
Turning The Tide by Christine Stovell

And I’m 9% through reordering my manuscript. Happily, there isn’t nearly as much mess as I’d anticipated.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

‘Stick to the roads; steer clear of the moors.’ Part Two

I was led to believe that Moniack Mhor would be basic but comfortable. I found it considerably more than basic and every bit as comfortable. It used to be a farm stead but to me the stone walls, dark wood floors combined with an arched mirror brought simple chapels to mind. Maybe it was the passion for writing and reading that I found inside. It was filled with books and posters and had soft, comfortable sofas where the attendees accumulated during the first afternoon over mugs of tea and glasses of wine.

These first hours are always a little odd. We went round and around our incomplete group checking out each other’s names. 

Gillian Philip and Erica Munro, our tutors, both local (ish) arrived to join us. The Director of Moniack Mhor gave us a talk on the building and the ethos of Arvon in so far as it affected us. Students are expected to cook (in teams of four) one evening meal during their stay. The menu and all ingredients are provided. Lunches and breakfasts are on a ‘help yourself’ arrangement, which means there is also a ‘tidy up after yourself’ deal. There are always people who do more than their share, as well as those who do less than their share. I suspect this can be a source of tension in some groups.

Classes were held in the morning and one-to-one sessions in the afternoon. Every evening something was planned, usually readings: our own work, an author’s work we admire, our tutors’ work etc. On the Wednesday night we had a visit from literary agent Geraldine Cooke.

My aim for the week was to dive into my manuscript and work out the new and improved structure; what needs to go where to tell the best story? I didn’t exactly achieve that but did accomplish something else. Back in March of this year I couldn’t see how to edit or what to cut but now I can. I’ve lost the fear for the mess that will ensue once I start moving bits of story around. And I got some faith back – this might sound mad – I believe that I will know in spite of the muddle what needs to be moved. I believe in my intuition again. I have it; I just need to listen.

There are so many wonderful things about Arvon courses: the dedicated time to write, to think about writing, to spend time with other writers and the experts – the tutors and the guests – who will answer all those questions that you have but haven’t known who to ask.

I’ve come away determined. I’m going to finish my novel and start subbing it to agents. I’ve got an idea for a radio play and I’m going to prepare and sub an idea for a non-fiction book I’ve been contemplating for several years.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

‘Stick to the roads; steer clear of the moors.’

I’ve always wanted to do an Arvon writing course but every time I looked at their website, the courses were often already full. Attendees go back again and again which says it all, doesn’t it?

You can go to a taught course or a retreat – tutored or untutored - at one of four centres in the UK: Yorkshire, Shropshire, Devon and Inverness. In the interest of research I have plans to go to each one now, oh yes I do. (If you can’t afford a course you can apply for assistance. This isn’t something they say and then don’t follow through on; they absolutely do put their money where their mouths are –you can find out how at their website.)

This year I got my act together and booked a course, Writing Mainstream, at Moniack Mhor, near Inverness in Scotland. I was almost more excited by the sleeper train I’d booked than the course. In my head I appeared in a tailored, post war suit talking in the clipped English tones of the 1950s. Pigments faded into black and white… a dark handsome stranger emerged to help me with something I’d got in my eye. Ahhh, shades of Brief Encounter… but no, it wasn’t quite like that.

The sleeper cabin was wee, as I’d imagined they’d say in Scotland and sadly there was no sign anywhere of a stranger. A strapping lass going home to Inverness had booked the top bunk. I woke around thirty-four times in the night at the strange swaying motion and morning tea appeared in a paper cup and not bone china stamped with the Orient Express; hmmm, I was getting my media metaphors mixed…  But it was all compensated for by the remote and hilly landscape I saw when I nipped out of the cabin first thing; it couldn't have been more different from Bangkok.

I couldn’t arrive at Moniack Mhor until the afternoon so I dumped my bags at left luggage and after a quick look at the town I went around the corner to spend the day at Inverness library. I left around 4pm to get a taxi from the station. I gave him the address.

‘Are you going to the writers’ place?’

He went off to check with his colleague how to find it and so began our wild goose chase. Some miles outside Inverness, we went up lanes, through tracks and tiny roads with passing points. The taxi man stopped and made ‘phone calls to the centre while I admired the views of vast open countryside and then we’d set off again following our new instructions. A man with a dog set us on the right route eventually but we drove mile after mile where it should only have been a few.  A car coming in the opposite direction slowed, stopping level with our window and my hopes soared for a local who’d spotted us driving in circles.

‘Excuse me,’ the woman said, ‘I wonder if you can help me. My sat nav isn’t finding my destination. I’m trying to find Moniack Mhor…’

This was the first sighting of one of my writing peers; that afternoon and evening the other thirteen assembled…

To be continued.