Archive for the ‘musings’ Category

One Hundred Years of Solitude

The UK formally went into lockdown on 23 March 2020. Which wasn’t actually a hundred years ago. It just feels like a hundred years.

In July and August things started to open up again – pubs and restaurants, shops, hair and beauty salons, sports centres and gyms. In August, when the government messaging changed from ‘work from home if you can’ to ‘go back to the office if you can’, our office in Westminster opened up again (albeit briefly), and we were taking it in shifts go in, one or two days a week. There were only ever a handful of us in at one time, and things were a bit strange, but it did feel like a shift back to normality. But then the government message changed once more, and the office closed again. We were told that we should go back to working from home again, and be prepared to do so for perhaps another six months. But we had the ‘rule of six’ at that point, which meant people could meet in groups of no more than six indoors or outdoors, and that meant we could start running round-the-table D&D games again with some extra safety precautions (individually wrapped snacks, for instance, instead of everyone dipping into the same big bowl).

But now England has a ‘3-tier’ system depending on the number of cases in an area, and from today all of London is in Tier 2, which means you can’t have anyone in your house who doesn’t live there, and you can’t meet your friends in a pub or restaurant. or anywhere indoors. Some parts of the north of England are in Tier 3, which has further restrictions, and in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, all of the rules are different again.

It’s all very confusing, and as well as no more D&D games this means I will no longer be able to go out for dinner with friends to celebrate my birthday next weekend, as I was planning to. The only person I am now allowed to go to a restaurant with is my husband, since we live together. So I guess it’s going to have to be just him and me celebrating.

Over the last six months of lockdown, there are a few things I have learned about myself.

  1. I don’t really like working from home. It was OK for a couple of weeks, and it would still be OK if it were one or two days a week, but five days a week with no face to face contact with anyone I find really isolating. It’s making me seriously question this lifelong ambition I always had to be a full-time writer. It won’t suit me. It’s too lonely. Which leads to…
  2. I am not an introvert. I always assumed I was, since I spent a lot of time alone when I was young, but this was mostly because I had trouble making friends. Truth be told, I like talking to people. Being alone I find exhausting. Over the years I’ve attended many conventions and gatherings alone because I couldn’t find anyone to go with me, and if it was something I really wanted to do I would just go, confident that once I got there I would find plenty of people to talk to. And I have made friends that way, so I would recommend it.
  3. I really like swimming. I have a love/hate relationship with exercise of all forms, but since the pools opened up again I have been swimming three mornings a week and it has greatly improved my mental health. Swimming is actually the only form of exercise I do enjoy, and I hadn’t realised how much until I wasn’t allowed to do it.
  4. I am really struggling to write during this crisis. Particularly horror. I am working on a sequel to OUTPOST H311, but I’m finding it really difficult to write an apocalyptic book when it feels like we’re in the middle of a real-life apocalypse. I think perhaps I am not alone in this – there seems to be a collective anxiety about the coronavirus crisis that is affecting creativity for a lot of people.
  5. I don’t like surprises. I like to plan. I did already know this about myself. I set myself up at the start of the working day with a list of things to do, and another list of things to achieve by the end of the week. I like to put conventions, and gigs, and weekends away, in the calendar. I like to know what I am doing tomorrow, and next week and next month, and even this time next year. Covid-19 has taken all that away. All the things we had planned for this year have been cancelled. We can’t plan any trips away, or even an overnight stay in the UK because everything is changing so fast and we don’t know where we’ll be this time next months, or even next week. The move from Tier 1 to Tier 2 in London was announced with just over 24 hours’ notice. There is still talk of Tier 3 if Tier 2 doesn’t work, or even another ‘circuit breaker’ full lockdown for a couple of weeks when the schools break up. How can one make plans to do anything, under all of this?

In an attempt to find some balance, I am now going to try and list some positives that have come out of the last six months:

  1. We are saving a lot of money by not having to pay for train fares every day.
  2. We are both getting more sleep, since going into London for work required getting up a lot earlier.
  3. Hubby and I are actually having conversations with each other during the day, whereas when we were both in the office all day, we’d just communicate via email. We are also getting to eat lunch together every day, which is sort of nice.
  4. I have actually learned to cook. A bit. Although I am still largely hopeless, there are now a couple of recipes I can make for dinner, and they actually turn out quite well. I just have to make sure I make a point of buying the ingredients in my weekly shop, if I’m planning on making one of these recipes.
  5. I still have a job. A lot of people I know haven’t any more, and every day it seems there’s someone else in my social media sadly announcing they’ve been made redundant, so maybe I need to be grateful about the fact I am still earning a regular wage.

I am reaching a bit here, because on the whole I am waking up in a rather dark mood every morning and struggling to find reasons to be cheerful. With everything I was looking forward to this year cancelled, and not able to book anything for next year because of uncertainty, there’s nothing to look forward to.

I also hate this time of year, because I hate the dark and the cold weather and I really struggle with depression in the winter. I brought my anti-SAD lamp home from the office and I start each morning at my home working desk under its very bright light for two hours. It does seem to help for a while – until I start thinking about the state of the world again.

At the moment shops and retail service providers are still open, I am still able to go swimming, and if Hubby and I fancy a night out we can still book to go to a local restaurant, as long as we follow their Covid-19 rules. So I guess we should be making the most of these things while we can, as we may well go into full lockdown again with everything closed at some point.

But by God, I can’t wait for this year to be over. There has to be an end to all this eventually. I struggle to see that far ahead, but I guess all any of us can do is get through this terrible year as best we can, and hope that better times will eventually come.

Public Information Films

In the days before mobile phones, the Internet, and even 24-hour TV channels, even very young kids used to spend a lot of time outside, unsupervised, playing in places it wasn’t advisable to play. The adults decided the best way to stop kids from playing in dangerous places was to employ scare tactics – thus the age of the Public Information Film was born.

Anyone who was a kid in Britain in the 1970s will remember these. As far as I am aware they were a uniquely British phenomena. They were all pretty scary, but the one that traumatised me most was a film called ‘The Finishing Line‘, that was all about the dangers of playing on railway lines.

The film in its entirety doesn’t seem to be available on YouTube. The full film is 20 minutes long and starts with a young boy fantasising about what might happen if his school sports day featured fun activities like running across a railway line, throwing rocks at moving trains and so on. It was commissioned by British Rail, since apparently vandalising trains and kids playing on railway lines and being hit by trains was a big problem in the 1970s. The video below is the first five minutes or so. Beyond the retro images of 1970s fashions, you might notice the nurses lining up a bunch of stretchers. In the first ‘game’ – involving running across the tracks into the path of a moving train – there is one casualty, which the nurses bundle into one of stretchers. The film goes on with other ‘games’, each one producing more casualties, and at the end of the film, pretty much all the kids are dead.

It was released in 1977 – at which point I was seven years old – and it was broadcast several times on TV, and taken into schools.

I remember a retired train driver coming to our junior school (in those days junior school was for kids age 7-11, and was between primary and secondary school), and showing us slides of damage to trains, and the injuries he suffered to his face when someone threw a rock at his train and the glass from the shattered window got into his eyes. He also told us about the kids he ran when he was driving his train, and how many pieces they got cut into. He told us he wasn’t going to show us those slides – that was for the older children.

As I recollect I didn’t see ‘The Finishing Line’ at school on that day. My memory is that I watched it on TV, where it was shown to an audience of kids and there was a televised discussion afterwards. Right after the film one young boy felt so sick he had to be taken out of the room.

The scene that really traumatised me – and this is the one I can’t find anywhere on the Internet – was the final ‘game’, where all the school kids have a race through a train tunnel, and they get hit by a train. All the dead and bloodied kids are lined up on the tracks in the final scene. There’s a long range shot of that on the film poster on the IMDb entry.

There’s no doubt that the ‘scare them silly’ tactic employed in the 1970s to deter kids from hanging around places where they might get hurt was effective. After nearly 30 years of commuting by train to work, I still worry about standing too close to the edge of the platform when waiting for my train. But every once in a while I also lie awake at night thinking about this film and remembering the trauma of watching it. Given that it’s been over 40 years since I saw it, the tactic was clearly a bit heavy-handed. Apparently I’m not the only one to think so – the film was so controversial, and caused so many kids distress, it was banned in 1979 and replaced by a less gruesome film called ‘Robbie’.

Hopefully we have slightly more subtle ways of discouraging kids from playing on the railway lines these days, and subsequent generations don’t carry around the psychological trauma we Generation X-ers do from growing up with Public Information Films.

Lockdown

Well, what a strange world we currently find ourselves in. In the UK we are now in the seventh week of lockdown. I think. Sometimes it’s hard to remember what day or even what month it is.

The beginning of March started ordinarily enough. Covid-19 (which I refer to as the C-virus) was in the news every day, but no one seemed particularly worried about it. On 7 March we flew off to Argentina for what was going to be an amazing two-week holiday. It was amazing, but we had to cut it short. For about a week or so everyone in Argentina was incredibly relaxed about the C-virus, and they are a very tactile people, with men and women alike greeting each other with hugs and cheek kisses. But then, on Sunday 15 March, we got an email from the airline to say our flight the following Thursday was cancelled. We somehow managed to get seats on the last flight to London from Buenos Aires the following day. There’s a lot more to this story and I will save it for another blog post. The day we left Buenos Aires, I noticed that the locals were no longer greeting each other with cheek kisses – they were using elbow bumps instead.

The short version is, we got back into London the morning of Tuesday 17 March. Since that day, our house has not been empty. The UK wasn’t in lockdown at that point, and we had not been told to self-isolate having been out of the country, but we tried to stay home as much as we could. We did have to go out foraging for supplies. Panic buying was in full swing. There was no toilet paper to be had anywhere, no fresh fruit or veg, and most places had sold out of bread. Over the course of three days, with the two of us taking it in turns to visit as many grocery stores as we could get to, we managed to find enough food to keep us going for a week or so.

I was in contact with my colleagues, who had heard about Argentina going into lockdown and worried we got stuck there. I reassured them I was safely back in the UK. Initially I was going to go into the office to pick up my laptop so I could start working from home the following week. Things were changing so quickly it was soon decided to courier my laptop to me so I wouldn’t have to go in.

Hubby’s office had already decided to close down their London office, and he keeps a laptop at home anyway, for home working. So the week of 23 March saw us both setting up work spaces at home. He was working from the dining room table. I moved my personal laptop out of my writing den and set up my work laptop there, on the strength that I had a desk and proper chair in there, and I know from experience that if I spend hours working on a laptop on a stool or dining chair, I get backache. And so, ever since then, this has been the arrangement. It has taken some getting used to. This is a new way of life.

There are some positives. I am not on the train every day to work so I don’t have to get up so early, and I am saving a lot of money by not having to buy rail passes every month. Hubby and I have actual conversations during the day when we have lunch and tea breaks together. In pre-lockdown life we would largely communicate by email during the day. We are both still working, and largely able to carry on our jobs from home, although adjustments have been necessary. A lot of people are out of work. There are two of us, and we have a four-bedroom house so there is plenty of space for us both to be able to work without disturbing each other. We are spending less money, because there’s nowhere to go to spend it.

But on the whole, it’s been difficult to adjust. I miss not being able to go out and meet friends in a restaurant or a bar for a meal or a nice glass of wine. All the things I was looking forward to this year – weekends away; gigs; open mic nights; conventions – have been cancelled. Although we were lucky enough to get our holiday to Argentina, or most of it – a lot of people have lost their holiday completely and are still struggling to get the money back.

I am particularly missing my swimming. I had a good routine going, and I had finally found an exercise routine I could stick to. I am probably eating too many cakes and drinking too much wine because these are the only pleasures I seem to have left in lockdown.

It’s been over two months now since I was last in the office and I am finally starting to get used to this new routine. I am going out for a walk on a daily basis. We go grocery shopping once a week, and put up with the socially distanced line that is necessary in order to get into the supermarket. Generally it’s me that goes to the grocery store while Hubby cleans and vacuums the house. I am OK with this arrangement. I hate grocery shopping, but I hate cleaning the bathroom more. We are buying a lot more food. In our pre C-virus life we generally both ate breakfast at lunch at work, so the only meal we’d have at home was dinner.

But as well as struggling to maintain physical health, mental health is a struggle as well. I found this article from the Harvard Business Review online in the first week, and it helped me realise that the feelings I was struggling with were a form of grief. Mourning for the life I used to have, that is probably gone for ever. I’ve also been having a lot of really weird dreams. Apparently this is common amongst people trying to cope with lockdown as well. It’s our brains trying to deal with the general anxiety of the situation. Some days I end up feeling really down and crying for no particular reason. Some days I am OK. This week, I feel I should add, I have been largely OK.

But the writing has been non-existent. In the first week of lockdown I got up at 6:30am and attempted an hour and a half writing session. I managed less than 700 words in that time, and each one was a painful struggle to get down on the page. I’ve been avoiding writing ever since. Six weeks now, and I haven’t written a word. And that really bothers me.

The government in the UK is now talking about ending the lockdown. We need to be cautious, no matter how desperate we all are to regain some semblance of normal life. It’s going to be a long time until places like bars and concert venues will be able to open again, and there is no doubt that even when we achieve some degree of normality, life will not be as it was. I will certainly be continuing to work from home for the foreseeable future, as our Chief Executive has already informed us all that she expects it to be ‘several weeks, if not months’ before the office can open again. It’s the getting to the office that is problem – most people in the London office travel by train or tube, and you can’t social distance when you are in a carriage so crowded your nose is in someone’s armpit. And I really can’t see a solution to that any time soon.

So, like everyone else, I am doing what I can to get through lockdown. We are spending our evenings watching a lot of films and TV shows. We are looking for fantasy and escapism; we have discovered that right now we can’t deal with anything that features a dystopian world (like The Walking Dead, for instance). Last week we went through the entire Lord of the Rings extended DVD trilogy (that’s nine hours of viewing). Video chats with friends on Zoom and other forms of video calls are really helping. I can’t meet my friends for a glass of wine, but we can talk to each other while we drink wine at home. We are even running our D&D games using video calls – not ideal, and you have to shout a lot at the screen to make sure everyone hears, but it’s better than not playing at all. And everyone needs the escapism of being in a fantasy world for a while.

I’ve also been wasting a lot of time on social media, enjoying the rather ingenious lockdown videos created by people with far too much time on their hands. I leave you with this rather ingenious stop motion Lego creation, to the tune of Abba’s ‘The Day Before You Came’.

This, too, will pass, and one day we will all be able to see each other again. But until then, stay safe, friends.

Year in Review: 2019

Another year has gone by, and it’s time to look back at the goals I set at the end of 2018 and see how well I did.

With regard to the exercise and healthy eating, that has gone reasonably well. I am still doing my personal training session, 25 minutes once a week. I still don’t enjoy it, but I do it, and I am now seeing the benefits. I have more strength in my upper body, my arthritic knee doesn’t hurt as much, and I have more flexibility in my body generally. I am also still doing the swimming, and I can now swim 40 lengths (which is 1km) in 30 minutes. I’ve never been a big fan of exercise, but I am starting 2020 fitter than I’ve ever been before.

I’ve been following Weight Watchers since June last year. Progress is slow. The system has changed again, and although it is slightly easier to follow, it’s a lot harder to lose weight now I’m older than it used to be. The last time I was on Weight Watchers, I was back into the size 12 clothes after six months. I am not anywhere near getting into the size 12s now, although the size 14s fit a bit better than they did when I started.

Of course I haven’t weighed myself for about three weeks now, with all of the Christmas chocolate and such around. On Monday I have to go back to the Weight Watchers meeting and face up to just how many pounds I’ve gained over the Christmas period.

I also pledged to keep in touch with friends. I haven’t done as well on this as I was hoping. There are still people I wanted to see last year that I didn’t. But there were some that I did, and most I have at least made contact with, so this is a work in progress.

I have not done so well on the writing either. I made a start on the sequel to OUTPOST H311, but I didn’t plot it first. I got about 15,000 words in, realised what I had wasn’t working and gave up. That will teach me not to plot. But I haven’t managed to get a handle on the plotting either, so that book has gone nowhere.

The fourth Shara Summers novel sits on my laptop, about 35,000 words into the first draft. The third Shara Summers novel does not currently have a publisher, so I stopped writing that series to work on OUTPOST H311, which does have a publisher. But since I’m struggling with the sequel, maybe I should just go back to the Shara series. Just to be writing something.

So, here are my goals for 2020:

1. Get back to a regular writing routine, aiming for 3000 words a week. What I write isn’t important, as long as I’m writing something.

2. Keep up the exercise routine. Aim to have improved my personal best of swimming 1km in 30 minutes by the end of the year. It would also be nice to fit into those size 12 clothes by the end of the year as well, but those menopausal hormones do keep making it very difficult to lose weight.

3. Aim to declutter. I have a house full of stuff, everywhere, and I never throw anything away. This year I want to go through things, bit by bit, to tidy up my personal space. And if I can learn to organise my brain as well (which is also full of stuff, flitting from one thing to another at record speed), all the better.

It seems appropriate to finish with an image from the table-top game Cyberpunk, which we played a lot of in the early 1990s and which was set in 2020. Let’s hope it doesn’t turn out to be too prophetic.

Happy New Year, everyone. Hope you achieve your goals for the year.

End of a Decade

There’s a thing going around social media at the moment inviting people to summarise what they’ve achieved in the last 10 years, as we approach the end of the 2010s and get ready to move into the 2020s.

When I thought about this I decided it warranted a blog post, as it’s actually too big a topic for a

Misty & Misha – 1996-2012/13

tweet.

So, here we go. Here are the things that have happened in my life since 2010.

 
  1. We said goodbye to our two cats Misty and Misha, and took on two rescue kitties Alia and Cassie. Three of those four were named after characters in various D&D campaigns.
  2. I became a published novelist. This is actually a huge deal, as it achieves a goal I set my sights on in childhood. In the last 10 years I have had five novels (three horror, two crime) and one short story collection published. I feel very confident that as far as achievements go, this decade of my life will always come out on top. And because I can’t let this moment go without a blatant plug, here are the Amazon links to my books (UK and US).
  3. I started learning to play the bass guitar.
  4. We met a lot of role players. Hubby and I met playing D&D and it’s always been a big part of our life, but for quite a long time we were gaming with the same crowd. We now have three different groups on the go. Hubby runs the game for all of the groups, and I am a player in them all. Two of the groups have more women than men. Two of the groups consist of players around our age, and one of them consists entirely of people under the age of 35. We try and play once a month with each group, so we do a lot of gaming these days, but each game has a different atmosphere and we always have a lot of fun. And it’s good to have met so many new friends through gaming.
  5. We moved house once, from a three-bedroom 1970s terraced house to a 100-year-old four-bedroom semi detached house. I have to admit I am totally in love with this house. We have spent a lot of money on improvements since moving in, seven years ago. Every time I walk through the door it makes me happy, and it feels like home.
  6. Another one of my life ambitions since childhood has been to travel. We have taken some amazing holidays in the last ten years. Places we have travelled to include: Fiji; Berlin; Borneo; Vietnam; Bali; Mauritius; Guam; New York; Thailand; Cambodia.
  7. On a sadder note, two close family members have passed away: my father-in-law, and my stepfather. We have also had to grieve a couple of friends.
  8. I started the decade a size 12, after following a weight loss plan. I finish it a size 14, once more following a weight loss plan. The whole weight loss thing has been a lifelong struggle, to be honest. I am far too fond of sugary treats, and harbour a dislike of healthy food and exercise. I have spent most of my adult life trying to lose weight, only to have it all come back again. However, thanks to a personal trainer (who I have now been seeing for a year) and a regular swimming routine, I feel I am finishing this decade fitter than I’ve ever been, despite the weight loss struggle, and despite the fact that when one gets older, it becomes much harder to lose weight.
Alia and Cassie at 12 weeks old – June 2013
Guam, March 2019

Since I was born at the end of a decade, as each one ends I celebrate a Big Birthday. Hence, this year has marked the end of my being a 40-something, and I move into the 2020s as a 50-something. Sometimes when I think about that it seems painfully old. But one can’t stop the passage of time, and writing this blog post has made me look at the achievements of the past decade, and realise there was a lot to celebrate.

None of us know what the future holds, but I am hopeful that at the end of the next decade I will still be here to highlight more things to celebrate.

Halong Bay, Vietnam – 2011
Bali – 2014

 

Turning Fifty

When I turned 40, I embraced it. I felt good. I was a lot more confident and ‘together’ than I’d ever been before, I had a novel coming out, and I felt ready to face the world.

2009 Sara

Me in 2009

That was 10 years ago. In a few days I hit 50, and I don’t feel quite so enamoured about that number.

The main difference between 40 and 50 is the reality of having to face my own mortality. I always looked to my grandparents as the genetic marker of how long I had, biologically, to live on this earth. They all lived well into their 80s, but none of them made it 90. In addition, I am not aware of anyone in my family who lived long enough to get that birthday card from the Queen. So logic would dictate that I now have more years behind me than I have in front of me, and that’s a somewhat sobering thought. There is also the unescapable fact that age does tend to catch up with you. Every time I look in the mirror I see more grey hairs and more lines on my face. I have arthritis in my knees, and when it’s cold and damp they ache. I am firmly in the midst of the perimenopause, a life stage that royally sucks and I really wish there was more discussion around this, instead of it being hidden away as a taboo subject.

Being 50 seems to mark a significant life change. I am most definitely middle-aged. I move into the age range for Saga holidays and the ‘over 50s’ funeral plans, the ones with the appallingly patronising adverts on TV with Michael Parkinson. But I am unable to stop time from marching on and this birthday will arrive whether I like it or not.

There are some significant changes I’ve made over the last couple of years to try and deal with impending old age. One of them is to start an exercise routine that involves a personal trainer. Exercise and me are not friends, as I’ve often said. But one of the undisputable facts of getting older is that you get to a stage in life when your body starts punishing you for not looking after it properly. Exercise – like vegetables – is necessary for good health, and I endeavour to tolerate both. But apart from swimming, which I do try to do on a regular basis, I hate all forms of exercise and find any excuse not to do any. So now I have a weekly 25-minute one-to-one session with a personal trainer, and I have to go because she’s expecting me. I still don’t enjoy it, but it’s only 25 minutes. And I have to say after nearly a year in, I am seeing some benefits. My knees don’t hurt quite so much. I am able to take stairs a lot easier. I have a bit more flexibiity – something as simple as doing up a dress with a back zip I used to struggle with, and now I find I can reach behind my own back in a way I couldn’t before.

2019 Sara

Me in 2019

I am also once more on the Weight Watchers plan, in an attempt to lose a few of those excess pounds. My sweet tooth is most definitely my downfall, and sometimes I feel like I’ve been playing ‘hide and seek’ with the same twenty pounds all of my adult life. I successfully lose those pounds. Then somehow I slip back into the old habits and they find me again. So I get on the wagon once more and lose them. Well, you get the idea. Since re-joining WW in the summer, I am down about ten pounds. So roughly halfway there. I have to say, it’s taking a lot longer than it used to to lose the weight this time, and not just because the Weight Watchers plan has changed – that’s another consequence of my changing middle-aged body.

But, gradually, I am getting there. For the last twenty years I’ve had a ‘thin wardrobe’ (UK size 12) and a ‘fat wardrobe’ (size 14). It’s time to go back on the diet when I struggle to get into size 14 clothes. I am not yet at a point when I can fit into my size 12 dresses, but the size 14s all fit a lot better.

However, despite feeling rather old some days, I am actually hitting my fifties healthier than I’ve probably every been, and I will be celebrating with a big party. Music, dancing and food. And alcohol. Lots of it. If I must enter this decade, I will do so with fanfare.

I bought the party dress back in June, as I found it on sale and decided it was The One. It actually didn’t fit at that point. I tried on the size 16, which was slightly too big, and the size 14 was too small. I bought the size 14 and pledged to myself I would get into it by October. I tried it on the other day and it’s now a perfect fit. This might be a small win, but it’s something else to celebrate.

50 is round the corner. I see it there. I am facing it down and saying, come and get me, then. I am ready for you.

Girl Power

Growing up in the 1970s, I was acutely aware of gender stereotypes. I was a very ‘girly’ girl as a child – fond of dresses and dolls. I didn’t climb trees, I didn’t like getting dirty. Then I moved into the 1980s, and adolescence, and I became more aware of the imbalance between girls and boys. And it seemed unfair. I figured out very early on that I didn’t want to have kids, and I liked doing things that girls weren’t supposed to like doing. I started writing horror stories at age 14. I started playing Dungeons & Dragons at 15. I was the only girl in the group for much of the year, and I have already talked about how all the boys ganged up on me in a previous post.

Fortunately for me, when I want to do something, the fact that other girls don’t do it has never put me off. But this isn’t always the case. A lot of girls are put off pursuing an activity or career they enjoy, because being the only girl can be off-putting, especially if you get picked on, as was the case in my first D&D group.

This is why it’s crucial to have role models, especially for girls. Why are there not more women playing lead guitar, or bass guitar, or driving race cars? Why are there not more women pilots, or women fire fighters? There are, of course, women doing these things, but they are still very much in the minority, and they need to be a lot more visible in order to inspire the next generation of young women to follow in their wake.

My inspiration for playing bass guitar was Suzie Quatro, who I remember seeing on ‘Top of the Pops’ in the 1970s and I thought she was a cool rocking chick. My inspiration for writing horror was Stephen King, who of course is male but he writes sympathetic female characters – something some male writers aren’t able to do – and it never occurred to me, as a teenager, that writing horror was something women weren’t supposed to do. Over the years there have been a number of people who have said to me something along the lines of ‘what’s a nice girl like you doing writing horror stories?’ but it does happen less frequently these days, and I hope people are more enlightened. After all, in the view of many people the first modern horror novel was FRANKENSTEIN – written not only by a woman, but one that was only seventeen years old at the time.

Mary Shelly. Image (c) National Portrait Gallery

I’ve considered myself a feminist since the 1980s. Although we have made some inroads since then, it seems we’ve still got a long way to go. I was touched recently by a news article about four-year-old Esme, who told her mother she needed to be a boy because she wanted to be a fire fighter, and she’d only ever seen male fire fighters in books and she ‘didn’t want to be the only girl.’ This prompted fire crews all over the UK to post tweets and videos from their female fire fighters, to prove to Esme that you can be a fire fighter if you are a girl. The story is encouraging, but also highlights how important it is for female role models to get more coverage.

We also seem to be making some inroads in sports. The women’s football league got national TV coverage on terrestrial TV for the first time this year, and had the best viewing figures ever. And the England team did quite well, I note – getting to the semi-final. I am not a follower of football, but this made even me happy.

I am also happy that there is a series of races for women drivers, again on terrestrial TV, for the first time this year. I have been a fan of Formula 1 for over 25 years, and I’ve been banging on for just as long that there aren’t enough opportunities for women racing drivers. This year we have the Formula W. OK there are only six races, of only half an hour each, which is nowhere near equivalent to Formula 1, but they don’t have anywhere near the investment, and it is a start. If people watch the Formula W races, and support them, they might get more investment and most importantly these young women (and they are all young, but so are the male drivers), will pave the way for little girls who dream of becoming racing drivers to understand that this is a dream within reach.

We need these trailblazers. We need women of courage, battling against the preconception that women can’t do these things to prove that they can, and the fact that they are doing these things needs to be publicised so that young girls can see that they can do these things and they won’t be ‘the only girl’.

The final Formula W race takes place at Brands Hatch in the UK next weekend, and I have tickets. I will be there in the stands, cheering on these trailblazing women.

In a small way I hope I am also encouraging a new generation of women bass players. When I have my bass guitar lesson, there is a young girl – maybe about 12 – who watches me through the door for the last few minutes while she waits for her own lesson to start. She seems to genuinely enjoy watching me play, and always gives me a ‘thumbs up’ at the end of my lesson.

I feel that at last we are taking steps towards gender equality. They are very small steps, but at least they are being taken. Which is why it’s so important to support trailblazing women when they come along, forging a path for others to follow in their wake. And it’s why I am so excited about going to Brands Hatch next weekend for the final race in the Formula W series. It doesn’t really matter who wins the championship. In my opinion, all of these women are winners.

I’m finishing this post with a video of the trailblazing woman I still see as an inspiration: Suzie Quatro, performing ‘Devil Gate Drive’ in 1974.

D&D Girls

I started playing Dungeons & Dragons in the mid-1980s. It was September 1984, the beginning of the school year and I had just started Grade 10. There were various announcements at the start of the year about all the clubs that the school ran, and if you were interested you had to turn up to a particular room after school that day. I was persuaded to go along to the first D&D meet by a friend of mine who was keen to try it out. She did not carry on through the year, having been persuaded by her church that anyone who played D&D was doomed to everlasting fire (we had to contend with a lot of that sort of stuff, in those days). But I enjoyed it, and continued playing. The group met in one of the science rooms, and we played once a week, after classes. We were playing version 2, and I rolled up a thief called Tera.

The cover of the Version 2 Player’s Handbook

For most of the year, I was the only girl in this group of teenage boys, who seemed to treat me, on the whole, as some kind of alien species. In the final game of the year, before we all finished school for the long summer break, all the boys in the group decided it would be fun to gang up on the only girl. They attacked my character, intending to kill her so that they could steal her stuff. Fortunately for me, the DM decided that this really wasn’t fair and he stacked the dice rolls allowing my character to escape and run away.

In those days, girls apparently didn’t play D&D. Is it any surprise, frankly, given the way we were treated? Fortunately I am made of sterner stuff. As a teenager I never really bothered too much about what girls were supposed to do and not do. I enjoyed playing this game, and I was going to continue. When the school year started again after the summer break, I joined the D&D club once more. This time I was one of three girls. We decided to break away from the boys and run our own all-female game.

Thirty-four years on, and I’m still playing D&D regularly. In 1989 I met my husband playing D&D. Not only do we still play together, but we now have three different groups. They all feature different players, but he runs them all, and I play them all. We normally manage to play each game once a month. For us, this means we’re playing three out of four weekends a month and I have to remember which character I’m playing. I make notes for each game. It helps me to remember, at the start of each game, where we were for the last one.

In the years since I started playing, things have changed a bit. For starters, it’s apparently now socially acceptable to admit to playing D&D, or at least it is according to this article. In the 80s it was very much the domain of nerds (or sinners, apparently).

It’s also acceptable now to be a woman who plays D&D. Of our three groups, there are two in which women out-number men. One of the female-dominated groups also consists entirely of people under the age of 35 (except for Hubby and I, who bring the average age up quite considerably). This makes me happy, too. The generation that has never known life without computers, mobile phones and social media, are enjoying the interaction of face-to-face tabletop role-playing games, and the unique thrill of rolling dice and recording character stats on a crumpled piece of paper covered in coffee stains.

There are still arseholes out there – mostly online, it seems, hiding behind the anonymity of digital alter egos – who seem to feel the need to give women role-players abuse. But on the whole, I think women who game have an easier time of it than they did when I started playing. And that does make me feel like we’re making a bit of progress.

Year in Review: 2018

(Cross-posted on the WriteClub blog)

This year hasn’t been a particularly good year for me, for various reasons. At the beginning of February I had to have surgery for a vaginal prolapse, and although this is a fairly minor operation, the recovery time took far longer than I was anticipating. It was two months, really, before I felt fully recovered and I had underestimated how much the recovery process would take out of me.

Then, in June, I was hit by a bombshell when I found out I was to lose my job. Having been with the same organisation for nearly 13 years, the prospect of having to go back out into the job market was daunting, to say the least.

The worst part of it all is that since that day in June, when I was faced with this news I haven’t written a single word. Not one.

Initially, all my energy was going into getting my CV up to date and applying for jobs, a process I hadn’t had to do for so long I had forgotten how time consuming it can be. Fortunately I found another job fairly quickly, but after having been so long in one organisation, having to be the ‘new girl’ again and learn everything from the ground up was quite exhausting. And then by the time I’d settled into the new job and felt comfortable in it, I had just been too long away from the writing routine to get back into it.

Hence, my resolution from last year of completing another novel by the end of 2018 remains depressingly unfulfilled.

So all in all, I will be glad to see the back of 2018. 2019 is a New Year, and I am in a new job, but it’s an uncertain time in British politics and I am also acutely aware of the fact that nobody’s job is guaranteed in this day and age.

The wider picture is too overwhelming, so I am starting the new year with a few personal goals to focus on.

  1. Get back into a healthy diet and exercise routine. I always say this every year, but I am currently facing the depressing fact that I can’t fit into half my wardrobe these days. I have already made a start on the exercise routine, because I’ve just commenced sessions with a personal trainer. But I need to stick with it, and I need to be more disciplined with the eating regime. More fruit and veg, less chocolate. Realistically this is not going to start until all the Christmas chocolate is gone.
  2. Make more time for friends. Social media makes it easier to stay in touch with people we don’t see very often, but it doesn’t match face to face contact with friends. There are people in my life I consider good friends, and I haven’t seen nearly enough of them this year (in some cases, not at all). That has to change next year.
  3. And finally, and most importantly, I need to get back into the writing routine. Back to the early-morning writing sessions in a coffee shop before work. Back to regularly scheduled writing time. I am not going to set a goal of finishing a particular manuscript this year, because at the moment that seems too overwhelming. I just need to get back to writing.

So these are the resolutions I am making as we head into 2019.

Happy New Year to all. What are your goals for the forthcoming year?

‘Bunty’ and Ballet

Growing up in the 1970s, comic books for children were very popular, and consisted of a series of comic strips that told a story. Some, like The Beano and The Dandy, which my grandparents kept at their house to entertain their grandchildren, were suitable for boys and girls and generally the stories were humorous. Others were more specifically targeted at boys or girls and the stories were serials, usually more of a drama (or possibly soap opera). From the mid-1970s to the early 1980s I had a weekly subscription to Bunty, which would arrive with the daily newspaper.

bunty-the-book-for-girls-comic-annual-from-1979-E37AAD

Stock photo of the ‘Bunty’ annual for 1979, which I owned

I loved Bunty. When we moved to Canada I objected to the fact it was not available over there (I objected to many things, actually, but this is the one that’s relevant to my story). My dad, back in England, picked up the subscription for a while and would periodically post my Bunty to me in Canada, but I guess he got bored with doing it because I was informed one day I was too old for Bunty and no more would be forthcoming. I was quite aggrieved about that for a while. I always hated things to change.

But the comic book itself changed in time. It ceased publication in 2001, but I remember seeing it on newsagent shelves in the 1990s and it looked like any other teen magazine, advertising articles about make-up and boyfriends, despite being aimed at girls under 14. In my day there was no boyfriend advice in Bunty. It was just full of stories told via comic strip.

I did love reading the comic strips, and would eagerly await the next issue as my favourite stories always ended on a climax. There was always a story about a girl and a horse, and always a story about little ballerinas, because a lot of little girls are into horses and/or ballet. I always preferred the stories about orphans, although I remember one story (‘Melody Lee, a dancer she’ll be’) was about an orphan who was also into ballet.

I might have been more into ballet if I took lessons, but we didn’t have the money for such things. Along with piano lessons and holidays, dance lessons were one of the things I promised myself I would be able to afford when I was older. Well the holidays I have caught up with and then some, the piano lessons became bass guitar lessons when I finally got to a point when I decided as an adult I was going to take music lessons, and I did take dance lessons for a while in the 1990s, run by a girl I knew through my amateur dramatics group. Although I enjoyed the lessons I discovered I have two left feet. I am not a dancer. I lack dexterity and manual co-ordination.

However, having discovered first-hand that dance lessons are really hard, I have an appreciation for those that can dance well, and I have discovered a new love of being a spectator at the ballet in recent years. I think ballet dancers move so gracefully and beautifully, and there is much to admire in the complexity of the choreography. Not to mention the beautiful scores, with all the classic ballets being penned by some of the greatest composers that ever lived.

I have now seen ‘The Nutcracker’ performed as a ballet twice, and each time loved every minute of it. A few days ago we went to see ‘Swan Lake’, which is a ballet I’ve wanted to see for many years. When I got notification earlier in the year that the St Petersburgh ballet company were coming to the London Coliseum to perform ‘Swan Lake’, I nabbed some tickets.

It was a wonderful spectacle, and now I can cross watching ‘Swan Lake’ off my bucket list. I may be a rubbish dancer myself, but I enjoy watching those that are good at it do their thing.

The theme from Swan Lake is one of the my all-time favourite pieces of music. The clip below is a bit boring because there’s no dancing, but it’s the best version of the music I could find on Youtube. It gives me shivers whenever I hear it.