A-Z Challenge – Yes

This was the hardest of the Challenges – most were plotted  a week or more in advance, but I’d updated  Wedding Fever on my blog before the post arrived and finally gave me my Y.

I’ve spontaneously said yes a lot of times in my life when I should have put a lot more thought into my answer.   Some of the questions were frankly rhetorical, some would have had a different answer if I’d only known then what I know now, some have never been regretted.

Do you want a baby brother or sister? Definitely rhetorical.
Want to try a cigarette? Oh, if I had only said no.
May I buy you a drink? Unlike the above, this didn’t lead to a long-term addiction. As a pick-up line, though, it was asked a lot.  Sometimes yes was the wrong answer.
Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?  In retrospect, I could have said yes a few more times to the many variations of that question.  And one yes, with the 20-20 vision of hindsight, should have been a no.
Will you marry me? Three times I said yes .
Do you take this man in holy matrimony? Other huge questions also asked only once – would you move to Scotland for your job?  Would you consider buying instead of renting?

At the start of this month I put my CV back on the market and on Friday the post brought a letter offering me a good job, well paid, with hours that will work well with my part-time life. It has been quite a while since the last time I had this kind of decision to make. All the experience gained over all the years, and it turns out I still have no idea whether this is a big yes, one that will change the rest of my life, or a little yes that will affect a year or two at most.  On balance, though, the ayes have it.


A-Z challenge – X-ray disappointment

My A-Z autobiography in this blog switches from the life overview to peering very specifically at a point on my anatomy – my knee. From the time I was nine, I’ve had an interesting knee. Until I was nine it was pretty standard issue – bony, jointed, occasionally scabbed. One day a pony I was riding went under a low branch in a quite deliberate attempt to sweep me from its back – ponies having a fairly unsophisticated sense of humour – and I ducked down, my knee stuck out, and I was impaled briefly on a snag of tree trunk.  Fairly standard stuff for a nine-year-old, and another nice little scab to pick at. Within months, though, it stopped working properly – folding under me at unexpected intervals – and eventually I went into surgery, and emerged several hours later with a refurbished joint, an artificial kneecap, a plaster cast that would be replaced frequently for the next year, and a truly impressive scar. It was one of the first operations of that type ever performed and for a few years I had to resign myself to showing my doctors my knee before whatever ailment had actually brought me into their consulting rooms would be treated.  Time and surgical brilliance moved on and the work done became commonplace, then outdated, and finally forgotten by everyone but me.

About five months ago I tripped over the dog and fell, landing squarely on the bad knee, which made quite a fuss about the whole thing. My doctor sent me for x-rays, as excited about seeing the ancient work as an archaeologist would have been about unearthing an artifact. Guess what?  The artificial one has been almost totally absorbed by natural bone regrowth. The body’s ability to regenerate is apparently virtually limitless and my lasting claim to fame is no more –  still got the scar, though. That’s something.

Yes I know this a boring blog. Considering the general theme is autobiography, and X is quite a challenge, I thought it was at least fractionally more interesting than the x-rays of my teeth, or the time I punched a would-be mugger on the jaw and the hospital nurse insisted I had to open my hand and stretch out my fingers for the x-ray. If I could do that, I tried to explain, I wouldn’t be here for x-rays. Life is a learning curve. Don’t punch bone, whatever the provocation. Don’t ride close to trees. Keep your knees tucked in at all times. And try not to trip over the dog.

A-Z Challenge – wedding fever

My daughter is getting married in almost exactly a year – the Ides of March. Fortunately she’s insisting on arranging everything herself, although she did come to Edinburgh for us to find a dress (which is absolutely beautiful, and neatly sorts out my contribution to the whole shebang).  All I have to do now is find myself a mother-of-the-bride outfit.

Did I say all? This could be the death of me. I have to look so glamorous that the ex-in-laws won’t be nudging each other and remarking that my ex-husband had a lucky escape. I have to be able to wear the thing during a ceremony and a formal dinner, then dance in it. It has to stand up to eight hours of being on show – and it has to be comfortable.  I’m very tempted by a silken trouser-suit, absolutely simple, with gold trim on sleeves and breast, but it’s only available in black or white. I haven’t been to a wedding in years, is it still a bit frowned on to wear either of those colours to a wedding?  I know I still have a year (nearly) but already I can feel the first seeds of panic.  Any advice?  I have to wear either trousers or a mid-calf skirt, as I have a scarred knee, and I look perfectly ridiculous in frills, so it will have to be something with fairly clean lines, but that won’t crease.

Without your help I may end up giving up and watching the whole thing on CCTV.

A-Z Challenge – V for Victorians, and how our era will be remembered

Once a year, in the small town where I live, there is a Victorian Fair.  Handcrafted sweets, cakes and biscuits made to traditional recipes are sold by stallholders in Victorian mobcaps (alas, at modern prices).   There is a man on stilts who rides a bike on stilts – extraordinary – and a Victorian carousel, and an organ grinder (no monkey), and a great many people in Victorian clothes, or at the very least wearing the kilt. (And thank you Prince Albert for that.)  Every year I go (for the cakes and sweets) and every year I’m afraid it will be twee but it remains very charming and because the streets are closed to traffic, it almost is a step back in time.

It does make me wonder, though, how this royal era will be celebrated in a hundred years. In Victoria’s day the British empire was so vast there was always a part of it bathed in sunlight (except of course the home counties).  It was a time of growth, expansion, trade, and inventions.  Yet if you want to look Victorian, you put on a mobcap, or a top hat.

For that matter, if you want to dress for the first Elizabethan age, the Tudors, put on a neck ruff.  One of those pointed hats with a floating veil at the pointy end is pretty evocative, too. Fashions must have changed rapidly in Elizabeth I’s famously fashionable and glittering court, even more so in the earlier years when women dressed to catch the eye of her volatile father (or, later, to avoid it) but it is the ruff and the slashed doublet, the pointed hat and jousting armour, that evoke the whole Tudor period.

So what will be the visual signature of this reign? Punk? The mini skirt? Holding a mobile phone, perhaps – in a hundred years they will probably be organically grafted into our bodies, and children will gaze round-eyed and silenced at the very concept of ‘holding’ one. Television, definitely – the first huge boom in television sales was for the coronation. Everest was climbed, for the first time. A Pope resigned, for the first time in living history. Maggie Thatcher’s bird-like cartoon may feature, she’ll always be the first female prime minister. All races, colours and creeds became equal, and atheism has become the new way of boring people very much indeed. Those who still feel passionately about religion are eyed nervously – they are statistically likely to turn violent. Has there ever historically been so much terrorism? From the IRA to the Taliban, the era, speeded up through speakers, would feature a lot of booms, and the tears of women. Lots of wars, too – crash, clatter, boom and more tears. In the same period women themselves have gone from stay-home wives and mothers who smacked their children when they were naughty,  to tattooed body-pierced single mothers who swear at their children but never punish them, and take on any critics using language that would make a coronation-period stevedore blush.  The Woman’s Liberation Movement changed the face of family and the workplace for ever.

The early years will also be evoked by the space race, and the Moon landing.  Most of us have lived all our lives in this one royal reign.  What do you think will, in time, immediately identify the last sixty years so that the casual visitor, coming across a small town historical fair, will know instantly which era is being celebrated?

A-Z Challenge – untold story behind apartheid

I have tried to keep the following cool and unbiased, presenting just the points. I grew up in the system, voted for its abolition, and struggle to understand it in context. This blog may raise more questions than it answers – it did for me.

colored only

Apart from a brief period during the latter part of the 2nd world war, when the USSR became one of our Glorious Allies, the Western world’s attitude to Communist Russia was one of deepest suspicion and alarm. The Glorious Alliance didn’t last long, and the Cold War started in 1947. It would last until 1991.

The USSR was the world’s largest supplier of gold, diamonds and minerals – which are all needed for industrial purposes. Whatever the cost, the Western world’s biggest source of gold, diamonds and minerals at that time – South Africa – had to be kept capitalist.

Whatever the cost.

Never let anyone tell you that your government didn’t know about, or support, apartheid.  It was an unofficial social policy in many countries in the world in the late 40s and in some countries remained so into the 60s. (The sign used is, as can be seen by the spelling, American.) Jan Smuts, who led the country through WW2, was set to create a strong black middle class, entrenching capitalism and financial empowerment so thoroughly that when the entire population did start voting, the country wouldn’t be turned into the latest state of the USSR.  As it happened, his party lost the next election and the National Party took power in South Africa in 1948, promptly turning apartheid from social policy into law.  It is possible there was relief in the international corridors of power – the Nats may have hated the English with a passion that dated back to the atrocities of the concentration camps of the Boer war, but they had no hostility to the other western powers and were profoundly right wing. Communism would get no foothold, it was safe to believe, while they were in control.

They stayed in power until 1994. Just give a second ‘s thought, here, wherever you live, to what it would be like to have the same political party in power for 46 years.  No left wing vs right wing shifts in policies. No bowing to political winds of change. No campaign promises broken after election. The press reporting that all was well. One strong party, voted in every four years with a safe majority by a trusting population.  Remarkably little corruption, under what must have been tempting circumstances, if compared to the corruption rife in governments that last less than a quarter of that time.  Six leaders, in 46 years.  One steady, even fatherly, government which was leading South Africa ever onward into prosperity and success.

The prosperity and success was largely white.  By the late 1950s observers were increasingly concerned to see that far from steady empowerment, the black section of the population was no further forward than it had been.  Other races in SA were thriving, and bang on track, and the country itself was doing very well. Employment was high, everyone was housed, fed, basically educated, morale was good, progress was – not.  It was the height of the Cold War. Western world governments needed South Africa  to remain capitalist, but also needed to be seen to be protesting for more progress. Pressure had to be seen to be applied. The Nats took South Africa out of the Commonwealth in 1961.

Black activist groups were using Russian weapons and equipment in growing urban terrorism. The SA communist party, along with other fledgling parties that wanted majority rule, were banned. Nelson Mandela, high profile urban terrorist, deputy leader of the ANC and co-founder of the militant Umkhonto we Sizwe, who had been nicknamed the ‘Black Pimpernel’  and had evaded capture for years,  was finally caught. He was tried for arranging fatal bombings on civilian targets, and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1962. It didn’t stop the terrorism, but harsh controls drove it further underground.

By 1970 apartheid, even as a social policy, was phased out of Western society, and activists were turning their attention outside their own countries.  In South Africa progress took another huge step backward, with the abolishing of non-white representation and the creation of ‘homelands’ – meaning most black citizens lost their South African citizenship, retaining only the rights of migrant workers. It was an ultimately unsuccessful first attempt to end white-only voting, by removing the majority of black voters. Membership of any banned party was treasonable and martial law was frequently invoked.

Looked at now, with cool hindsight, it seems incredible that the Nats, representing barely 10% of the country’s population, were still backed by the majority of the voters. To put it into perspective – the country was thriving, employment was high, and countries that were telling South Africa what to do were in worse shape themselves.  Immigrants were, in fact, flooding in, from other countries in Africa, and also from the strike-torn faltering UK.  The immigrants couldn’t vote, but they could stay and find work in a thriving economy.

When a man is employed, fed, and housed, the urgent desire to vote, to use a lavatory or a hospital or a school marked ‘whites only’ when there is another nearby marked ‘blacks only’, to potentially  improve things for his children but only at extreme personal risk, isn’t that urgent.  Indignation is powerful, but when to protest is a threat to life and liberty, it usually dies into resentful resignation.  The Western governments knew that nothing could change while things were bearable under the status quo. By now under serious public pressure to counteract a situation created nearly 30 years earlier under a hidden agenda, they called for sanctions, which started to bite deeper and deeper.  International companies started pulling out of South Africa – banks, car manufacturers, major employers. Unemployment rose dramatically, and brought suffering, crime and social unrest.

Prime Minister – later State President – Vorster held his ground, even with an increasingly restive voting population, but from the early 1980s, under PW Botha, progress finally began on the original brief, to encourage the growth of an economically-strong black middle class.  In 1989 FW de Klerk took over as State President, mended some very old fences with Thatcher’s UK, and eventually released Nelson Mandela. He had already lifted the ban on the ANC and other banned parties, including the SA communist party.

In December 1991 the USSR was dissolved, ending the Cold War and largely signalling the end of the threat of communist dominance in the western world.

Only months aftewards de Klerk called for a referendum.  Is it, he asked the white-only voting population, time to give the vote to all?  The answer was an emphatic yes.  At the following election the ANC swept into office with a staggering majority and has stayed in power ever since.

Was the communist threat real? The very possibility changed the lives of millions.

If the Soviets had controlled 90% of the world’s supply of industrial diamonds and minerals for the second half of the twentieth century, would the ‘free world’ be a different place now? In how many ways?

A-Z Challenge – Three Four Knock On My Door

Three-four-finalMy A-Z autobiography …Three Four Knock On My Door

Yes, okay, it’s another plug.  What, 1800 bloggers involved in this challenge and I’m not going to mention my latest book (released 1st April 2013) in my autobiographical challenge? I’ll have you know I have lived, breathed, eaten and drunk with these characters for months, they are a fixed part of my life and will be for ever.

In fact I hate them just a little too.  I need some space.  I write whodunits and sometimes there’s a fleeting temptation to murder the lot and let the reader solve the crime. Agatha Christie did that in “And Then There Were None” and I’m sure she found it extremely satisfying.

Do you find yourself getting annoyed with your characters? It’s the oddest feeling. We invented them, they should do what they’re told instead of dragging their feet, or being stubborn lifeless cut-outs.  I notice it now in other books as well when I’m reading, that wonderful moment when the character stops being a cut-out leaning against the scenery.  They move, they stir, they seem to feel the rush of life along their keel – and I’m probably misquoting, I did a quick search but can’t remember the poet, my apologies.

Until that stirring of life happens in a stubborn character I find comfort in comedian Bill Cosby’s famous threat to his kids, I brought you into this world, I can take you out of it.


A-Z Challenge – schooldays

No autobiography, even a mini A-Z blogged one, could ignore schooldays. I have always been amazed by those who say schooldays, in retrospect, were the best days of their lives. I passionately hated nearly everything about being a schoolgirl and yet – and yet – when I looked up the web link for this autobiographical blog, (originally intending to use it) (changed my mind) I did nostalgically watch a few of the pics flicking by. Oh!  The Quad!  The pool!  The dear (!) old playing fields!  The girls still wore the same uniform (sprigged blue dresses in summer, red pleated skirts and tie in winter)  and the creme de la creme still clumped together with cheesy grins in their honours blazers for annual photos.  There are lots of photos on the school site, and they brought back a flickering montage of memories, too quick to distinguish. Including a photo I scrolled back to, with deep disbelief – Miss Nathan!   She is STILL THERE.

She was going grey – granted, steel-grey – when I was a sullen spotty herberta doing detention every Saturday.  When I became a boarder, she was one of the house mistresses. In fact when I was caught returning from bunking out to a party, with beer fumes and cigarettes still heavy on my breath, it was Miss Nathan and two prefects who were waiting for me. (Tip off from another boarder. Another story.)  It was Miss Nathan who had to tell my father I was gated, when he came to collect me for the every-other-Sunday exeant, and I expect she was one of the teachers  who voted enthusiastically for my expulsion back into the day school.

And there she is. Although the steel grey hair is now pure white she is otherwise unchanged. Suddenly I don’t feel quite so old. Can you really be considered old if a teacher you had in your teens is still teaching?

A-Z Challenge – Queer eye for the straight guy

There are deviants of every sexuality, and they are deeply repugnant, but to call someone automatically perverted because they prefer the company of someone of their own sex is to call everyone living on benefits a Mick Philpott.  Or every father a Josef Fritzl.

The closet door creaked open very slowly – who remembers Elton John coming out as bisexual, and saying twice as many people waved at him? That was the late 70s, and society was cautiously accepting there were homosexual people, but still hoping a gay man could be cured by the love of a good woman (just as a gay woman was only waiting for the right man). Since then attitudes have changed and when even my mother changed direction completely on her attitude to gay men I assumed the whole world was now okay with alternative sexuality.

Anyway, this is my autobiographical A-Z, so you’re probably wondering when I’ll get to the point.  Actually, it’s my book, again. My characters have different interests, different lifestyles. Donald, who appears late in the first book, is not, how can I put this, overwhelmingly masculine. I was taken aback to be violently criticized by a reader for including ‘disgusting’ elements in my first book without, he said indignantly, any warning.

I’d already made the friends twenty years younger.  I didn’t want them pairing off and turning the books into sloppy romantic whodunits, hence building in anti-romance from the start. Maybe I should scrap the whole grown-up thing and recreate them as pre-teens, I don’t remember Enid Blyton having any of these problems.

And frankly one of the tenets of the whodunit is that it must portray its time frame accurately (see the R post). The character in question is now just a man who never married, can be a bit bitchy, and is suspected, without hostility, of being ‘a bit of a poofter’. Enough?

A-Z Challenge – Polocrosse

A-Z Challenge – Polocrosse

Polocrosse is sometimes, accurately but a little unfairly, called poor man’s polo.  The field is quarter the size of a polo field, so you can play with only one horse – in fact at tournaments you are only allowed one horse – and instead of a hard and potentially lethal ball being hammered along at terrifying speeds, it is played with a soft spongy ball which is flicked from stick to stick.  The sticks themselves are netted, slightly like lacrosse sticks, hence the name.

There are only three players to a section (two sections to a team), and the game is played in 8 minute chukkas as it is in polo.  The main difference is that the 4 polo players making up a team change horses every chukka, whereas polocrosse sections  play alternate chukkas, so can  rest between.  It isn’t as fast as polo, simply because there isn’t as much ground to cover, but we insist that it is far more skilled.

It is also the most fun you can have on a horse, and I’ve been riding since I could first close my chubby fists around a hank of mane.  Gymkhana, pony club, show-jumping, dressage, cross country, drag hunting, been there, loved that, but nothing matches the champagne high of a fast game of polocrosse when the ball smacks into your net, your horse swivels smoothly and gallops towards the far goal, the crowd is shrieking hysterically and coming up at a hard gallop is your scorer, calling for the ball …

Well of course there are the times youpolocrosse cartoon 002 dropped the catch, or fumbled the pass, or your knees have been crushed to a throbbing paste by constant impact after the third game of the tournament.  The dust is blinding, or it is raining, or freezing, the other team is just so much better that you never get to touch the ball – that’s all forgotten in the lure of the next tournament.

I was lucky to learn the game on a horse that took to it like a duck to water.  He wasn’t very fast, but he was fearless and threw his whole heart into the game, watching the ball with an eagle eye, throwing himself so enthusiastically into the pushes, shoulder to shoulder, that if the other horse had stepped away he would have fallen over.  More than once he braked in the galloping melee and turned back in the clouds of dust, the only one to notice the ball had fallen to the ground.  He’d drop his shoulder as I leaned in for the pickup and if I missed, his ears would snap back against his head in irritation at my absolute uselessness.  Humbly apologizing to your horse as well as your team is very depressing, I learned to pick the ball up. We started with a minus 2 handicap and he got me to a plus 2 before he retired (extremely reluctantly) at the age of 20. The new horse pushed my handicap higher and we went on to represent  Gauteng  three times at the National Championships but when I remember polocrosse now, or look at the trophies forever prominent on my shelves, it is those early days I remember, and the fun.   Such fun.

(The drawing is a cheeky adaptation of a Nicholas Courtney polo cartoon) (apologies to NC)