“Born to Sing: No Plan B”

 

van-the-manI’m a life-long Van – ‘The Man’ – Morrison fan, and his current album, due for release on October 1st, doesn’t look like changing that, with its classy mix of Soul/R&B/Jazz.  What first caught my attention, before I heard a single track, was the title.

George Ivan Morrison, now OBE for services to music, was bought his first guitar at 11 and by 12 was performing in groups.  At 14 he persuaded his dad to buy him a sax and started taking lessons in that and how to read music.  Although he took a job as a window cleaner, on leaving school – largely because it was ‘expected’- he was still playing in bands, and at 17 toured Europe with the International Monarchs.  After the group disbanded he was hired as a blues singer with The Wheels. From there a steady gig at The Maritime Hotel with the Gamblers led to the formation of Them, and the rest as they say is history.  Definitely ‘Born to Sing: no plan B’!

For us mere mortals ‘No Plan B’ can seem like a reckless concept: we school our children to have  ‘back-up’; we encourage them to have not only ‘Plan B’s’ but often Plan C’s as well.  We ditch on their dreams before they’ve even got started.  This often happens with the creative industries where jobs are few and competition stiff, but it happens with other choices as well: the young girl who wants to be an astronaut, the children who want to be pilots or politicians.

Thankfully there are plenty of parents who encourage their children to do exactly what they want to in life.  They support them as they follow their passions and improve their skills.  I have friends whose son wanted to be an actor.  I’m sure they had plenty of chats about how hard a profession it can be, but that wasn’t their focus.  They did everything to encourage and support him in his aspirations.  Darryl is a fine young man, and also a professional actor.  He’s living his dream.  I have other friends who have raised talented and artistic young people, and they too are supporting them to follow their dreams, currently with places on art, music and drama courses, and in dancing.

We all want to support our young people to get out there in ‘the big wide world’, yet sometimes this means we actively discourage them from doing what they love, what they are passionate about and good at.  We force them into a ‘Plan B’, where they struggle with the skill set and the enthusiasm, without ever having had a shot at ‘Plan A’.  It’s a sure recipe for disillusionment at worse, and boredom at best.

I always wanted to be a writer, from as far back as I can remember.  For my working-class parents ‘writer’ wasn’t a ‘real job’.  It’s not that they discouraged me as such, they simply didn’t support me to follow my dreams and desires.  I am grateful that they contributed to my higher education, but find it sad that there was no belief or encouragement.  My dad is an immigrant to this country.  He left school at 14 and took a job as a tailor with Burtons so he could pay his way.  He became a professional footballer, a master colour matcher, a trade unionist and a manager.  I suspect his dream was to be a pro’ footballer and the fact is he achieved that; he lived the dream, albeit for a short time, due to injury.

Don’t misunderstand me.  I’m not saying our young people don’t need the skills to follow a multiplicity of options – they do; and the more rounded they are, the more equipped they will be in a world where no job is for life and they will probably end up with at least three of four major jobs in their working lives.  What I am saying is there’s plenty of time for ‘Plan B’.  Life will have enough knocks and disappointments along the way.  We need to build passion and resilience in our young people, so that they keep pressing on, in spite of the knock backs; so that they aim for that which they aspire to.

I’ve talked a lot about the creative industries, but it could be anything.  Young people’s dreams are as varied as they are.  Your daughter may want to be an army commander or a scientist, your young person may want to be a farmer or a hairdresser, it doesn’t matter.  There are always avenues to pursue that will take them closer to their goals.  We need people in this world that are passionate about what they do, whatever that may be.

And how about you?  If you’re like me, you’re probably on ‘Plan F’ by now, never mind, ‘Plan B’.  Maybe there’s no plan at all and you’re drifting through life, or you could be steaming along, head down, energies focused on earning a living.  In our society money is king, and it can be hard to get off the treadmill of a job we hate, but that pays the bills: hard, yes; impossible, no.  Due to difficult circumstances my life was turned upside down.  I took the opportunity to get out of a well-paid, but ultimately unfulfilling job, and re-train.  I’ve spent over a decade in the voluntary sector doing jobs I’ve loved.  In a way it was still a kind of ‘Plan B’, but a move to a remote location and a glimpse of how short life can be motivated me to shift track and try for my original ‘Plan A’, being a writer.  I’m not making a living from my writing.  Other income streams and a the kind indulgence of my partner, are what’s keeping the wheels in motion, but the point is that I’ve made a conscious decision to write and am following that particular passion.  It’s ‘Plan A’ in process, and it’s taken me 30 years to have the confidence and self-belief to follow that path.

‘Plan A’ will never be easy, but that’s not a good reason not to ‘go for it’.  Life can be pretty tough whatever course we take.  Isn’t it better to aim high, to dream, to follow our passions rather than consign ourselves and others to automatic second options, ‘Plan B’s and Plan C’s?  You will fail.  Your children will fail.  That’s a given.  In my view ‘failing’ trying to do something you love is better than succeeding at something you hate.

Whether it’s a job, or some other aspect of your life, remove the safety net and start flying high.  You might be surprised how achievable it can be if you believe in yourself and put your efforts into something you feel passionate about.  Don’t regret ‘Plan B, but it’s never too late to re-discover your original dream.

I’m glad Van pursued his musical career rather than his windowing cleaning one – image what the world would have missed out on. So, be a ‘Plan A’ kind of person and pursue your obsession: no ‘Plan B’.

The Great British Breakfast

wp_20160319_001Or not.  At its best a morning repast in the UK can be something sublime.  At its worse, well, it’s a disgrace quite frankly.  I’ve stayed in B&B’s up and down the UK and generally have some great experiences.  My preference is to stay in a B&B rather than a hotel as you generally get better service, ‘vfm’, and the personal touch that is lacking in many larger establishments.  Travelling in Scotland over the last 30 years I’ve had some fab breakfasts – and some dreadful ones.

Let’s do a bit of myth busting: no 1.  The price you pay is no indication of the quality of the breakfast you will receive.  I’ve stayed in some fairly pricey places and had mediocre meals.  The converse is also true.  No 2. Just because someone is serving ‘local produce’ does not mean that they can cook it!  I’ve had some lovely fresh local food with exceptional provenance which was ruined by careless cooking.  You know the sort of thing – bouncy eggs, burnt sausages, dried out beans.

If you’re paying to stay somewhere overnight and having a breakfast, then the establishment should be judged on the quality of that meal.  It’s 50% of the equation after all, yet standard tourist board ratings take no account of this.  You get points for facilities and matching furniture, but if you serve bouncy battery eggs, it doesn’t seem to have an impact.  The fact that somewhere has a hairdryer and Wi-Fi seems to carry more importance than whether they provide a decent breakfast.  Frankly if I’m staying away from home I’m interested in starting the day off with something I can actually eat.

I’ve stayed in two establishments recently, out of necessity; one was a fabulous house with a large bedroom with a balcony and many luxury features.  The host was friendly and helpful, but none of these things mitigated the fact that she couldn’t cook and was using poor ingredients.  If you’re running a B&B shouldn’t you at least be able to cook an egg?  The bread was a cheap frozen supermarket loss-leader and so dry that I couldn’t eat it.  As a semi-vegetarian I am frequently disappointed with the breakfast offerings at most accommodation and usually rely on an egg or bread to get me through, so when that fails to be edible I do get somewhat antsy.

How hard can it be to provide a creative vegetarian option?  Mushroom pancakes, stuffed mushrooms, cheesy tomatoes, would a daring huevos rancheros be too much to ask?  Clearly it is.  How about a nice loaf of homemade soda bread or some Scotch pancakes?  I could cope with that.  If there is a vegetarian option – and generally there isn’t – it consists of Quorn Sausages or their equivalent.  Now I know I’m fussy.  Some people love these sausage substitutes.  Not me.  I don’t eat sausages or bacon and don’t need something that has the flavour or texture of them on my plate in the morning as it’s likely to make me boke.  Make a Glamorgan sausage and freeze them or I’ll give you the recipe for my chestnut sausages, which cook from frozen.  These options are cheap and easy and there really is no excuse not to do something for those of us who represent between 7 and 10% of the population.

There are glimmers of light.  A recent stay in a small B&B before getting the ferry to the Western Isles delivered up a well-cooked breakfast using local ingredients, including her own hens’ eggs.  OK, there were no veggie options, but the eggs were good and the bread was a nice seedy grainy offering. I’m not asking for the world here, just a bit of thought and a bit of care about what you’re doing.

A friend of mine opened her own B&B earlier this year and has made a point of serving vegetarian and vegan options.  She kindly indulged me by asking for my recipes for various things, and by all accounts the veggie options are proving very popular.  It can be done.  It takes a bit of thought, a bit of effort, but if this is your business, your source of income, wouldn’t you want to do it well?  It can actually be a selling point, especially when there are so few places serving decent vegetarian breakfasts.

The most recent breakfast faux pas was not a B&B but a local establishment specialising in local produce and offering a Sunday breakfast until lunchtime.  My partner and I thought we’d treat ourselves whilst on an errand.  It turned out not to be too much of a treat.  Bacon so hard and melded together it was inedible, over-cooked eggs and microwaved black pudding.  All in all, not a success.  Needless to say we won’t be going back there.

The only experience I’ve had which was worse was in a B&B in the Lakes which offered ‘speciality breakfasts’.  I’m still not sure what the ‘speciality’ was, possibly how terrible the breakfasts were. The breakfast room was locked and guests were only allowed in at the appointed hour.  The ‘speciality’ changed every day.  One the first day it was oatcakes and on the second day it was boiled eggs.  Hard.  Without toast.  There were no options; you got what you were given.  I was so outraged I actually complained to the tourist board.  As the business was being sold on they felt disinclined to do anything.  Maybe the owners were disillusioned with the B&B business.  I was certainly disillusioned with my Cumbrian breakfast.

I’ve not ‘named and shamed’ here, but I confess I am sorely tempted.

I suppose there should be some balance. I’ve had some great breakfast in some great places: a lady in Shetland that makes her own yoghurt and muesli, a couple of guys on Skye who make their own bread and jam, and serve generous well-cooked portions of local salmon, eggs, sausages and bacon.  It can be done.  It should be done.

Breakfast can be a fantastic meal, so here’s a plea to all the B&B owners in the UK to put the ‘Great’ back into the British breakfast.  Please.

 

 

Bracarina House is run by the lovely Heather and Robert Forbes.  They pride themselves on the quality of their home and serve delicious vegan and veggie breakfast.

Vatersay House is run by amazing hosts Brian and Andy.  The breakfasts, which include many homemade elements, are fantastic.

Sick of Superheroes

 

 superheroes-1560256_1920 (1)

Really.  I’ve had enough of them.  There’s a never-ending stream of boys in spandex, or metal – cape optional – with the odd girl thrown in for sex appeal; although let’s face it, it’s mostly boys: Batman, Iron Man, Spiderman, Captain America, Ant Man, The Hulk, Thor, Blade, Ghost Rider, Dr Strange, Black Panther and Nick Fury.  Are you bored already or shall I go on?

I’m no expert.  I have no idea how many superheroes there are and I’m not about to do a Google search to find out.  Actually, I’ve just done a Google search, and the results are staggering.  The list goes on for pages and pages: fan clubs, games, Lego, costumes, films, TV, and merchandise.

Marvel has defined the superhero in contemporary culture. Marvel’s own modern incarnation was in 1960’s comics in the USA, although the brand had other manifestations prior to that.  The comics transferred to TV in 1966 and the brand was bought by Disney in 2009, and as you’d expect, a continuous excretion of films, games and attendant merchandising, raking up billions, has followed.

These superheroes do not live in a vacuum.  There are the requisite villains, of course, super-villains who always get defeated and yet always rise up in some new incarnation bigger, meaner, stronger.  That’s one of the things about superheroes; they need villains to be able to ‘do their thing’.  And we all know what that is: the fights and explosions.  Except what used to be ‘Bing!’ ‘Bang!’ And ‘Kapow!’ has turned into increasingly realistic special effects which are less and less comic style.  With the violence bigged-up on screen, there is often massive destruction in its wake and these ‘good guys’ often kill as many civilians as they save.

In an ideal world with power comes responsibility, but seemingly not if you wear a costume and a have a super-ego to match your super-powers.  Oh no, then you get carte blanche to cause as much death and destruction as Mr Villain.  Superheroes, supposedly a fighting-for-good patriotic bunch, seem to be enjoying a punch up for the hell of it as much as for anything more noble.  Though unintended, it’s a neat metaphor for a country that wades in all over the world picking fights with villains of their own definition, often for less than moral causes. Superheroes create super-villains and war monger create wars and rebels.

OK, so I don’t need to see another superhero film.  I can let my partner get on with it and pass.  The fact is, I will still be bombarded with this stuff: in trailers, in the media, on- line, in kid’s games, in adverts, and in merchandising.  You can’t avoid it.  It’s in the ether and the psyche.  And it’s depressing.

We all know life isn’t as simple as good guy/bad guy, but these stereotypes stick.  Look at the female superheroes.  Surely we have more in our armoury than sex appeal?  And let’s face it, girls don’t get out of bed in the morning with point perfect makeup and no bed hair.  We do not all have figures like Scarlett Johansson.  But as long as guys are making the movies…

Best not get me started on those topics though, I can feel another rant coming on!

Look, what about the ordinary people?  My superheroes are all real people who have fought against the odds, the Mandela’s and the Malala’s of this world, the Paralympians, the ordinary people who are less than perfect but are standing up for what they believe in against hostility or persecution.  And what about the ordinary people who have superpowers?  The peacemakers and leaders, those with quiet perseverance?  I’m with Bowie – ‘we can be heroes’ if we believe our ordinary lives matter, and other ordinary lives matter: black lives, LGBT lives, disabled lives, immigrant lives.

I bet you haven’t heard of Jessica Jones.  She’s an original Marvel character, a private-eye who prefers to use her brain to her brawn.  She’s a superhero in a much looser sense: foul-mouthed, hard drinking, and not a stitch of spandex in sight.  Now she is someone I could get to like, but as yet she has made no appearance on the big screen.

So, as I say, I’m sick of superheroes.  Sick of the fighting and destruction and posturing. There’s only so much escapism this girl can take. We need a new breed of superhero, modelled in our own image, so that real courage and stickability, and standing up for truth are the superpowers we encourage and admire.  For now, if I don’t see another superhero in my lifetime it will still be too soon!

 

 

A Writing Life

Pro writer

I’ve been meaning to write something about writing for a long time, but every time I start I’m crippled by gnawing self-doubt: what do I have to say about writing?  I mean, I’m not really a writer am I?  I don’t make a living from my writing – odd payments for articles, the odd competition prize, they don’t count – and realistically, probably never will. However, the fact is that I have been writing for over 40 years.  I’ve edited a community newsletter and I’ve had bits and bobs published by a real bone fide publishing people.  I’ve been actively writing a blog since 2009 and have completed a short story for children. One of my short stories is about to be published as part of a local collaboration, and I’m half way through writing my first novel. Isn’t it time I started thinking of myself as a writer; calling myself a writer?

The dictionary definition of a writer is ‘someone who has written something’ so by that count I certainly qualify!  I suppose what I often mean when I say I’m not a writer is that I’m not a ‘real’ writer:  I’m not famous; I don’t have a book deal or an agent.  I refer myself – and you- to my previous point: a writer is one who writes.  And it is only by writing that we will ever become the writers we mean to be.

I count myself as fortunate to know a lot of writers, many of them professional: people who have been writing for years, who have been published and made money from books.  Let me tell you a secret, which I’m sure they won’t mind me sharing, many of them don’t feel like ‘real’ writers either!  Some feel like frauds; that sometime someone is going to find them out, like their success is a big mistake.  The thing is it takes courage to be a writer, to be a creative of any kind.  Putting yourself ‘out there’ in any form is always going to be scary, but don’t worry, that’s part of the creative experience.  Take it from people who know, if you won’t take it from me.

I can’t emphasise this enough.  The ONLY thing that makes you a writer is writing. Thinking about writing is not being a writer; reading a book on how to write is not being a writer; attending a literary festival or a workshop is not being a writer.  Picking up a pen, or tapping on the keyboard, and churning out words is what makes you a writer.  It might not make you a famous writer, or even a ‘good’ writer, but it does make you a writer.  Writing is a craft and like any craft you have to work at it.

I have a friend who said she always wanted to be a writer.  The funny thing is, she always has been a writer!  She’s been writing for as long as I have, although it’s only in the last eighteen months or so that she’s taken herself seriously enough; given herself the permission to write and then actually taken the time to work at it.  She’s started her own blog, won a local competition, and is now putting together her first anthology of short stories.  The desire was there for decades, but it’s only been in taking time to work at her craft, edit her work and share it, that she has made good on her dream.  And she now calls herself a writer.

So, as a writer, the most important thing for me, and for many people, is making the time to write.  If you want to achieve something you have to make time for it.  It’s no good wanting to learn how to play chess and never allowing yourself the time to attend a club, or have a game with a mate.  It’s not rocket science.  If you want to do anything you have to allow yourself the time to do it.

Some people have very specific times that they write – first thing in the morning or last thing at night, for example.  There is no magic formula.  Ignore anyone that tells you there is and that it’s what they do, say writing at 3pm in the afternoon or someone who insists you need to sit in front of a laptop from dawn till dusk.  Only you know what is going to work for you; and if you don’t, experiment.  Be realistic.  If you work full-time and have a family the chances are you are not going to manage anything in the working day.  Can you snatch 20 minutes before work if you’re an early-riser, and don’t have a young family to get organised?  Can you grab half an hour in the evening a couple of times a week when everyone’s in bed, if you’re a night-owl?  Or at a lunchtime? Can your partner, or a friend, entertain the children while you grab an hour at the weekend?  Can you do some flex-time or take a half-day break to give yourself a start?  The busier your life is the more creative you will need to be.  If there’s something you are desperate to write, you will find a time to write it.

Some people never manage to find the time to write because of the pressure and commitments of hectic lifestyles, and if this is you, don’t guilt trip yourself.  Accept that you can’t squeeze another minute out of the day and you may have to wait until the children are older, or you’re working less hours, or don’t have a caring commitment.  Some people take a sabbatical – 6 months or a year- to complete a specific project, but that is a luxury not all of us can afford.  If you can carve some time out to attend a retreat, or simply give yourself a break from your usual routine then go for it.  Most of us have to work hard to find time within the restrictions of our already busy schedules.  Beware, however.  Don’t use being busy as an excuse.  If you can find 10 minutes to update your Facebook page or Twitter feed or hug that mug of coffee whilst gazing bleary eyed into the distance then you can find the time to write!

Thinking of writing as ‘work’ will help.  Writing is not a fuzzy feel-good activity.  What’s that old adage: 10% inspiration 90% graft? Writing is work; often hard, solitary, laborious, frustrating and unpaid work.  It can also be fulfilling, satisfying, stimulating and highly enjoyable.  If you don’t have the desire and commitment to write, and then put the effort in, you are unlikely to ever get that novel finished.

But don’t be like me and let the fear of not being good enough paralyse you.  Like a lot of people I am my biggest critic.  I am always convinced that what I’ve written isn’t ‘good enough’.  This is really a thinly veiled fear that I am not good enough.  That what I have to say doesn’t matter.  If you want to be a writer you need to take yourself seriously and develop a tough exterior.  You need to take your courage in both hands and share what you are writing with someone.  You can tell yourself that you’re writing ‘just for yourself’, that you don’t care if what you write is published or not, but it isn’t true.  Writing is a form of communication.  It’s meant to be read. What you write can touch people, amuse, instruct, enlighten, inform people.  What some people write changes lives.  Sharing your writing is your opportunity to share something unique that only you can say: nobody else can write what you do.

I’ve recently joined a local writers group.  It’s a new group and some people are novice writers whilst others are more experienced.  We are all a bit nervous about sharing what we’ve written, sharing ourselves in some way, and yet doing so has been a liberating and inspirational.  Having an audience for something you’ve created is affirming.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a paragraph, a short story or a poem, everyone is offering up something that they’ve created to share with the rest of the group.

As a writer, having a people who can offer support, advice and constructive criticism is important.  Some of us are working on existing projects and some of us are wanting inspiration to kick-start the writing process.  Whatever stage of the writing journey you are on, you need someone other than your mum or partner to review your work – to give honest feedback – and a good writing group will do that. However, don’t let this be an opportunity for naysayers and denigrators to offer negative or disparaging comments.  If you’ve made the effort to write something and share it, the least people can do is be supportive of your efforts.  Fulsome praise and flattery is no use to any writer, but unconstructive remarks can be seriously destructive to the confidence of a novice writer, indeed any writer, so chose your critics wisely.

So, you’ve actually started writing.  You’ve been brave enough to share your writing with a friend, or you’ve joined a writing group.  All is hunky-dory.  You’ve got that much needed inspiration, or you’ve started the project you always wanted to write.  Then the muse desserts you.  Writers block descends.  I’m sure ‘real’ writers have written lots about this, provided magical formulae by which you might negotiate your way around this brick-wall.  I have no idea.  What works for me is this: I  keep writing. I write it out.  If I can’t think of anything to write, I describe an object; I write about a photograph; I make up a story about a stranger; I write a ‘to do’ list, a poem. Anything.  If that doesn’t work –although it usually does – I do something else.  Read a book, go for a walk, even write a letter.  The channel will free up again in an hour, a day, a week.  The important thing is not to panic.  Congratulate yourself that you’re experiencing a real writer’s phenomenon and move on.  Over-thinking things will likely prove less helpful than simply accepting you’ve got a momentary blockage.  You’re a writer.  These things will happen.

Keep writing. Keep sharing. Keep creating.  You’ll be amazed what you learn about yourself, what interesting people you meet, and how positive you feel about this whole ‘being human’ experience.  Writing really can shape our thoughts and help us explain our emotions to ourselves and to others.  Writing can be a big deal for some people and a bit of fun for others.  Whatever your style, form and content, get writing and keep writing.  There’s a writer in all of us looking to be unleashed on the world.

Be brave.  Enjoy.