First Confession

I’m an ex Catholic.  Catholicism is like herpes.  You can disavow it, shake it off, take strong medication, but it still pops up to remind you that you’re still Going to Hell.

First time I felt guilty I was seven years old and about to go to Confession.  Born with Original Sin which washed off in Baptism, but since then I’d racked up a load of venial sins (less bad than mortal sins but my catechism said we should ‘shrink in horror from the venial sin like a slug’)  But what exactly was a venial sin?  Swearing . . .wishing somebody ill . . . not obeying my parents immediately . . .it was impossible to get through the day without committing any kind of sin.  And what happened if you were forgiven and went out and did the same thing again?  ‘Well you have to try very hard not to,’ said mum fiercely.  ‘Because God is EVERYWHERE.’  That must be why mum always lowered her voice when she was describing that girl in my school as a ‘big fat heap.’  Just in case God’s ears were flapping.

The red light went on and I stumbled inside the Confessional.  It was pitch black.  ‘This way,’ said a tired voice and I spun round banging my shin on the pew.  ‘Bless me Father for I have sinned.’  Had I?  I’d made a list in my head and now every single sin fled my brain.  I wore NHS specs in a lurid pink and mum was going through a phase of trimming my hair with bacon scissors so it wasn’t vanity.  I was shy and swotty at school so not pride either.  I hadn’t even pinched my baby sister and that time she fell off the sofa really was an accident.  Lying about a sin – was that worse than committing one?  I could feel the Priest shifting about behind the grille.  ‘Erm I wished my friend at school would fall off a cliff,’ I said suddenly. ‘But she’s always saying mean things to me and then when I tell her to go away she cries.  I don’t know what to do.’  The Priest gave me two Hail Mary’s  as my penance and told me to try not to wish for her death again.  Easy!

I left feeling nicely sinless until next time.  On the way home I asked mum about Limbo which was where the babies born out-of-wedlock went to live.  She said it was like living in a very nice room and only seeing God behind a curtain.  ‘A thin curtain?’ I asked, ‘or the velvet ones we have?’  (They were velveteen.  The idea of God having velveteen curtain – the big tightwad).

‘But what happens if you really haven’t committed any sins?’ I asked mum.

‘That’s the sin of pride, she said.


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My sister and I once saw our dad chatting on the phone to his friend. Their conversation seemed to consist of a mental bodily scan of their combined ailments from the top down.  ‘How’s the auld liver?’  ‘Ah sure it’s not too bad.’  Pause.  ‘And how about the leg?  Is it still giving you trouble?’  ‘Only in winter.  And spring.  Summer too.’  Another pause.  ‘And me feet are giving me gyp.’

A few weeks later we took dad to A&E in Margate because his blood thinning tablets had caused Quentin Tarantino-esque nosebleed.  We sat in the hospital while poor dad literally filled a bucket with blood.  He walked up and down slopping blood everywhere.   ‘It’s ok,’ said a brisk nurse, whisking by and nearly slipping in it.  ‘You can lose about three quarters of your blood before we get a bit worried.’

I sat on the cold plastic seat, exhausted, yet jaggedly awake and thought of all the times I had dialled 999.  Each time, there was an element of farce.  The first time standing in the kitchen holding my new-born son in my arms, listening to Neneh Cherry’s ‘Seven’ when I felt sudden wetness, looked down and saw dark blood pooling on the white tiles.  This was in 1994 before I had a mobile, and my husband was out.  The phone was in the living room which was (curses) carpeted in pale grey.  The blood was really gushing now so I laid the baby on the bathroom mat, grabbed a towel and shoved it down my pants.  At that moment husband returned home, gasped and phoned the doctor.  ‘She’s pouring blood,’ I heard him say followed by a silence.  Then, ‘No – next Thursday is not going to work.’ He slammed the phone down and dialled 999.  It was mid-afternoon and they arrived within ten minutes.

I was hunched on the lavatory apologising for ‘bothering them’.  ‘Having a bit of a bad day?’ said one.  ‘Bloody hell,’ said the woman.  ‘Literally.’  ‘Are you pregnant?’  I realised I still had a towel stuffed down my pants.

The second time was during the summer of 2016 which you can read about here.

The third time was two weeks last Friday.  I had been working on the laptop and on finishing, felt wiped out.  Lara was in her room skyping her best friend.  My boyfriend had gone to a concert and was uncontactable having lost his mobile.  Lara’s dad was abroad on work.  I lay down on the bed and tried to ignore the rising tide of nausea.  Half an hour later I staggered to the lavatory and threw up.  And up and up.  The pain in my abdomen grew worse as though someone had punched me.  I drew a bath, hoping the hot water would soothe it.  It didn’t.  I threw up foam (you see this is why I find restaurant foams so horrible)  Lara appeared offering water, hugs, sympathy.  I was too sick to pretend.  ‘I have to phone the hospital,’ She froze.

Later she told me that her skype friend was terrified.  Lara suddenly disappeared and the next thing her friend could hear was ambulance sirens.

Through a haze of pain the 999 operator told me to gather my bag and any medicines and leave the door open.  Lara rushed around getting my bag, leaving a note for my boyfriend, making sure her phone was charged.  Ten minutes later, I heard a wail of sirens and Lara was leading in two cheerful parameds, one man and one woman.  (Seriously do they all go to Chuckle Camp or is it a way of coping with a daily torrent of pain and misery?)  ‘Having a bad day?’ was the first thing I heard.

In the ambulance, I sat with a cardboard bowl and continued retching, doubled over in pain.  ‘So what is it you do for a living?’ said the woman cheerfully.  I knew she was trying to distract me but the pain was so bad, it was front, centre, and wraparound.  There was nothing else.  I was desperate for pain relief.  They gave me an anti-emetic but nothing for the pain.  Lara phoned her dad who spoke to the paramedic woman about looking after Lara as well as me.  ‘She’s in our care’ said the woman.  And she was.  As I was wheeled into A&E, Lara was placed between both paramedics and neither let her out of their sight for a minute.

I sat on the floor and rocked back and forth.  I was dimly aware of a man standing next to me who bent down and touched me gently on the shoulder looking concerned.  Doctors walked by and glanced at me with indifference.  Lara’s phone beeped and rang and beeped.  I was cold and shivery.  A hundred years went by and then I was wheeled into a room.   Lara said her auntie was arriving.  ‘I’ll go and find her round the front.’  I refused to let her go.  ‘No.  Stay Here.  You do not go wandering round. I want to see her in here.’  Black spots danced in front of my eyes.

Lovely auntie showed up and said she would take Lara home. So that was good.  The paramedics wished me luck and left.  I rolled around back and forth.  A nurse came in and fixed an IV.  ‘Buscopan’ she said cheerfully.  I grabbed her hand.  ‘Please please get me some painkillers.  Anything.  Breaking a chair over my head would do.’

The second she left my room, another doctor asked her to get something else.  A million years went by and I dragged myself out to the reception desk.  Nobody even glanced at me.  Patients and nursing staff were milling about.  ‘Get me some painkillers’ I shrieked.  ‘Please.’

My dear friend Stephanie once firmly said that being quiet and well-mannered does not get you better treatment and she was right.  A minute later, the nice nurse appeared with a syringe full of something.  She seemed almost furtive.  ‘Morphine’ she said. I could have kissed her.  I think I did.

Ten minutes later the pain was gone. I lay back and breathed.  In and out.  Without pain.  Heaven.  I glanced at my notes.  ‘Perforated bowel?’ it said.  I fell asleep.

They sent me for an X-ray and found nothing.  Which on the one hand was good but on the other left me with a terrible fear of it returning.  My boyfriend arrived home, found the note and drove to the hospital.  ‘You look so pale.’

I was brought up Catholic, where torture and death is integral to their belief system.  Christ dying a terrible death for ‘our sin.’  People suffering horrible deaths for their faith.  Offering up our pain for Christ’s pain.  And young women in the Lives of the Saints books I would guzzle as a child, women who clearly had mental health issues but were held up as shining examples of femininity, precisely because they rejected their femaleness, their curves and hips – so closely aligned to lust, instead starving and torturing themselves, reducing the body to skin and bone.  No wonder anorexia is rooted in religion.

There is nothing noble about pain.

“Pain is a pesky part of being human, I’ve learned it feels like a stab wound to the heart, something I wish we could all do without, in our lives here. Pain is a sudden hurt that can’t be escaped. But then I have also learned that because of pain, I can feel the beauty, tenderness, and freedom of healing. Pain feels like a fast stab wound to the heart. But then healing feels like the wind against your face when you are spreading your wings and flying through the air! We may not have wings growing out of our backs, but healing is the closest thing that will give us that wind against our faces.”
― C. JoyBell C.

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Queuing for days to see a dentist

I came across a group of Americans who had queued for two days and nights to get some dental or eye care, in a pop up clinic in Appalachia.  The working poor, who can’t afford the health insurance for their eyes or teeth, and living with pain and headaches for sometimes years.  The clinic is non-profit, funded through private donations, and there is obviously a desperate need for it.   And all the while the Republicans are blithering on about ‘Orwellian’ healthcare.  Watch US television, and marvel at how it seems 80% of the ads are from insurance companies nimbly pronouncing long drug names and the endless side effects.   A woman carrying a huge plate of food addresses the camera: ‘My fibromyalgia muscle pain is REAL.  ‘I’m f***ed.’  (The last bit  was Sarah Haskins.) And who wants the horrifying side effects of being old?  So when I choose drugs for osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia, I choose drugs with dynamic first syllables – like Re-clast.  Because it re-strengthens my bones and makes them re-sistant to fracture.  And I’m re-eally gullible.  There follows a long list of side-effects.  May cause lowered immune system, cardiac failure, low blood pressure, headaches, spinal lumps, achy breaky pelvis, tooth decay, hairy middle, Alzheimer’s, weight gain, weight loss, light-headedness, sudden death . . . .

Back in Blighty, I remember my miserable early dental experiences.  Despite mum thinking that sugar was the devil, I kept needing fillings.  Only years later did I learn that dentists were paid to fill teeth, and after my dentist  fixed a few broken fillings, he cheerfully told me that I never needed them in the first place.   I was, however, novocained up to my eyebrows so could only gloopily manage a ‘grrrr’.  Not free but £50 and yes that’s not a small sum but in the USA, a filling costs between $170 and $200 per filling, and a root canal is about $700.  Considering how much sugar and acid in soft drinks is consumed in the US, you won’t be surprised to hear that 92% of adults have suffered tooth decay.

Earlier this year, I was yanked into hospital with severe abdominal pain and bleeding.   After being attached to an antibiotic drip for a few days, I had what the doctor cheerfully referred to as a ‘top and tail’ or gastroscopy and colonoscopy (another friend calls them The Bottom Inspectors from Viz).   On the day itself, four people were looking after me.  In the US a colonoscopy would cost about $3000 and a gastroscopy, up to $10 000.  Some of the newer cancer drugs can cost up to $60 000 A MONTH.   And that’s just the drugs.  It doesn’t count lab tests, hospital visits, and blood tests.  I’m not surprised to hear that some sufferers choose to die, rather than struggle on in huge debt which will be passed onto their relatives.  If a sudden serious illness costs such big bucks then no wonder US citizens ignore their eyes and teeth.

It hit me hard because a couple of years ago, I woke with a stabbing pain in my right eye.  A contact lens wearer I was conscientious about washing my hands and using disposable lenses but I still managed to get a nasty infection.   Moorfields Eye Hospital found this infection so fascinating, I had doctors sticking their head round the door to have a good look at this Endophthalmitis with fluffy pigmentation which made it sound like something out of the Night Garden instead of a serious fungal infection.  I know!  And in the eye! And I wore daily disposable lenses.  So  after several days of blessed eye heroin and having my eye held open like Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, my eye healed.  It still has a scar and I’m even more myopic in my right eye than my left, but Moorfields saved my eyesight.  I was so grateful I l am leaving them money in my will.

The NHS for all its flaws is one of the very best things in the world.  Nobody should be crippled by debt when they become ill.   Let us fight for it.

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Resting Granny Face

That moment where you see a really bad photo of yourself and think – oh my God do I really look that old/ugly/desiccated/ and the answer is a resounding, ego shattering ‘YES.’

My driving licence ran out and because I’m a foreigner – Irish actually –  it means I can’t sort out a new licence online – I have to send off a filled in form plus photo.   At first I thought I could just get one of those machine ID ones and duly nipped into the photo booth at Paddington.

Alas, I had to listen to barely audible instructions first about how to sit, not to smile, take off glasses, don’t wear a hat.  I then took my specs off and pressed the button, looking up at a blur.  ‘Are you satisfied’? came the voice.  I couldn’t see a thing, so I pressed yes.  Out came four identical photos of me looking droopy faced, and stupendously, shockingly (overwritingly) ugly.  The bottom half of my face sagged!   When did I develop Resting Granny Face?  My hair was beige-ing!  I thought of the dinner I’d had with the ex-head of BBC Comedy the previous week.  She had finally stopped dyeing her very dark hair and had gone a very sexy grey but swishy silky grey in an elegant bob.  Some women look great with silvery fox hair.  My hair was no longer red or auburn but a nasty tobacco stained bleige.  Ah nicotine memories.


Slowly I combed my hair, pulled on my hat, replaced my specs and put on some lipstick, thinking of Bad Photos Over the Years.  I wondered if I might cry.  My First Holy Communion photo where mum had made my dress, an A line number that revealed too much of my skinny legs, as I had a habit of shooting up overnight.  Height wise as opposed to heroin.  Although that particular photo was enough to turn anybody into an addict.  If the pipe cleaner legs weren’t bad enough, the sunlight narrowed my eyes to slits.  I resembled a lizard in a dress.  My early attempts at a fringe which went all Dallas circa 1982 – fluffy wuffy, well it was 1982 but that fringe was terrible.  A particularly bad passport photo which my ex pointed out made me look ‘like a member of the Baader Meinhoff’.  And why did I always blink at the wrong moment so I resembled one of those dead relatives the Victorians would take pictures of?  Not only dead but in an advanced state of rigor mortis.  If only I knew the tricks of looking passably human in photographs.    There’s something to be said for the Selfie Generation – they instinctively understand about turning up the chin, and having the light behind you.

Then I thought about what a ridiculous thing – to go see the First World War Graves and to ‘honour’ the dead by taking a selfie.  Or to walk about with a selfie stick without even feeling stupid.  As though if you haven’t taken a selfie in front of ‘it’ – then ‘it’ doesn’t exist.

I looked at the photo again.  Still looked like shit.  I began to laugh.

At lunch I was telling my friend the story and found myself snorting with laughter again.  She looked at it and just said, ‘Your eyes are closed.’  The waitress came over with parmesan, and still coughing with laughter, I watched as my friend showed this photo to her.   The waitress laughed too.  ‘It’s not a good photo,’ she said kindly.  ‘But you look so nice now.’

It reminded me that faces are lovely in mobility and laughter.  Better keep my face moving then.

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The liberal elite that Republicans are always bitching about will have no say in the US government over the next four years.  Trump won on fear and loathing.  You wanted it – you got it. 


In the opening scene of the movie Downfall, Bruno Ganz as Hitler is shown being kind to Traudl Junge, his new and terrified secretary.  It’s a brilliant scene, reminding us that Hitler the mass murdering monster was also a human being, capable of kindness.  If Donald Trump was a character, a script editor would call him unbelievable and want him rewritten.  Nobody is like that.  Writers learn that villains have to be humanised or they become the other, unreal, inhumane.

It turns out this vain, monstrous man without any seemingly redeeming features is now the most powerful person in the world.  No wonder people are scared. Drain the swamp? He is the swamp.

Like a million other people, I’m trying to make sense of the defeat of the most qualified candidate by the least qualified.   And it wasn’t just angry ground down white people, as 48% of the voters earned more than $250K.  It points to a deeply ingrained misogyny in the US from men and from women.

During the campaign Hillary was told to stop waving her arms about because people found it scary.  She is still being judged for not changing her name over thirty years ago, for being too clever.  When has any man ever been accused of being too clever?  Trump attacked her for having nothing but gender.  She has spent thirty years in public office. She went undercover to report on racism in education.

We’ve all heard about Trump’s bankruptcies, his racism, misogyny, vanity and cruelty.  One story for me, more than anything else, tells us who Trump is.  When his father died, a nephew sued over the distribution of the will.  In revenge, Trump and two siblings deliberately cut off medical aid to the nephew’s baby son who had a life threatening condition.

I had a look at the Facebook page, Women for Trump and asked one woman (very politely) if she’d be happy if her daughter worked for Trump.   Back came the thoughtful reply:

F**k you c***

I tried again on Christians for Trump.  Even more bizarre as one of the few good things about this campaign was the candidates were not trying to Out Jesus each other.  So where did Christians get the idea that Trump was a godly man?  Could it have been that he promised to punish women for getting an abortion?  I asked someone on the forum.  Again I got a brisk response:

God don’t want lisbos.

It’s easy to mock some sections of the US electorate.  Fun too.

But attacks have come from the left too.  Bernie supporters were shouting Bern the witch.  So Hillary is a truly democratic hate figure.  Everyone hates her.  What for?

For keeping her own name

For defending a man accused of raping a 12 year old girl.  She was a public defender.  It was her job.

For saying, during the Gennifer Flowers scandal:  You know, I’m not sitting here – some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette. I’m sitting here because I love him, and I respect him, and I honor what he’s been through and what we’ve been through together.

For having ambition:  I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfil my profession which I entered before my husband was in public life.

As Secretary of State she was personally blamed for the deaths of four US servicemen in Benghazi.

Hilary’s look had to be pared down – approachable, not too glitzy, warm, intelligent . . .but not too much . . . With fashion she can’t win.  Pantsuits mean she’s trying to be a man.  But when she wears more feminine clothes, ugly comments are made about her body.  Page after page is written about her clothes, her hair, her makeup.  Because if you’re not a cosy grandmother and you’re not hot (Trump’s definition of what women should be) then what are you?  A man?

Meanwhile Trump was stomping about mocking the disabled, vomiting racist bilge, openly boasting about sexual assault, and waving his tiny little hands about, a rancid wotsit in a suit.  What was he told to do? How was he ordered to behave?  He won’t even pose in a certain way in case it shows the line in his weave.  In the last week of the campaign, his Twitter account was taken away.  The USA have given the nuclear codes to a man not trusted to run his own twitter account.

Well the government is in Republican hands now, so they can’t whine about Democrats anymore.  The liberal elite they are always complaining about will have no say in the government over the next four years.  You wanted it – you got it.



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Why are we more protective of daughters when our sons are far more likely to be victims of criminal violence?


It’s half term so my daughter (12) and a close friend of hers (13) are both staying with my boyfriend and I in Manchester.  The Girl suggested a trip into town with her friend – let’s call her Molly, and we’ll call my girl, Lara as that’s her name.  When we suggested they might like to go on their own, with some money and maybe have lunch, they were both very pleased.  Had either of them glanced anxiously at each other or us, we would not have pushed them.  Let’s get that clear.  But armed with cash, phones, a map, and the knowledge that both girls get on buses and go to school every day by themselves into a world of weirdoes, pushy adults and misleading road signs, we figured a few hours by themselves in a small city like Manchester would be fine.

So full of pancakes and plans, the girls trotted off to get the train into town.  An hour later while the girls were in a shop, Molly called her mum to say she was having a great time.

Two seconds later, my phone rang and I was treated to a blistering invective from Molly’s mother of how ‘irresponsible’ I was leaving ‘two young girls alone in a city’. Did I have ‘any idea what might happen?’  I was shocked but also bewildered. ‘It’s all right for Lara.  She lives in a city!’ continued the outraged mama.  ‘What do you think is going to happen to them?’ I asked.  ‘They have money and fully charged phones and they really wanted to go.’

But Molly’s mother was scared and furious.  What she meant of course was the fear that roaming gangs of paedophiles on the lookout for young girls would grab Lara and Molly while they were browsing in a store.  This terrible fear that some sort of sexualised attack would happen – some monster crawling out of Starbucks would immediately spot the girls and whisk them off.

Parental terror of sexual attack on their daughters by Someone Out There is totally immune to actual facts.  Such as our sons are far more likely to suffer criminal violence      My son aka The Boy aka Ben, has been attacked twice.  Once aged 15 he and his friends were mugged for their phones.  A year later, he and a friend were chased by a group of lads.  Ben flagged down a car and asked for help.  ‘How did you know the driver would be ok?’ I asked.  He said that the driver was a woman and she had a baby’s car seat in the back so ‘she was less likely to be a psycho.’  Lara travels by bus to school every day (as does Molly) and sooner or later, someone creepy will clumsily chat her up, or say something offensive and I will not be there to rescue her.

Overprotecting your children leaves them anxious, uncertain and a pain in the arse to live with.  I know because I was overprotected.  I was that infuriating roommate who didn’t clean the bath and drank the last of the milk because my parents kept me in a little bubble; such was their fear of the world.  Thanks to my college friends showing their disapproval by saying: ‘Clean the f***ing bath you lazy bint,’ I learned and became much better at communal living.  But my dad in particular was very anxious about the world and what people might think, so whenever I tried to go out with my friends (believe it or not I had a few), he would mutter darkly about ‘wicked people’.  He never told me what these ‘wicked people’ might look like or sound like but assured me they existed.  One one occasion I got horribly drunk on cheap sherry and puked but managed to do so in the sink over the dirty dishes.  In terms of teenage rebellion it was pretty mild, but from my parents reaction you would have thought I’d been caught under a pile of men doing sex AND crack.  And in retrospect, their anger was more about the fact that I had been ‘disobedient’ than indulging in harmful behaviour.  Having learned I couldn’t talk to my parents, I became far more adept at hiding my harmful behaviour.  Overprotective parenting leads to sneaky behaviour.  I couldn’t talk to my parents about the stuff that really bothered me and I knew my dad in particular was concerned about my ‘innocence’ so I learned to lie better.

I grew into an anxious and insecure young woman, unsure of my place in the world, afraid of speaking up, convinced that if I took a small risk, then something terrible would happen.  In fact I was one big Moro reflex.  Even now if my boyfriend suddenly springs something on me, like ‘Let’s go to Reykjavik,’ I instinctively do ‘a Moro’ and immediately freeze, thinking of a million reasons why we couldn’t possibly.

‘Behold the wholly sanitized childhood without skinned knees or the occasional C in history,’ says Psychology Today who recently published a piece arguing that helicopter parents are raising A Nation of Wimps.  Parents are so geared towards academic achievement, they fail to teach their special snowflakes any actual life skills.  Or allow them to fail without rushing in to rescue them.

I met one such parent on University Open Day.   She pointed out most forcefully that her teenage son was a ‘poet’ and would he get some support if he worked on his first collection while continuing his studies?  I asked the boy what kind of poetry he wrote, and crimson faced, he muttered something that sounded like ‘feelings’.  The poor boy – with a mother like that, I’m sure he had plenty of them.

This is why I was determined that both my children would be confident, self-actualised people.  To do this their father and I made sure they went to pre-school to develop their social skills (and yes so I could work) and I’ve tried very hard to make sure that I show my faith in them – that they can do things and if they fail, it’s fine as long as they try.  And I want them both to stride into the world, not tiptoe.  Girls particularly alas, still absorb the message that they must be ‘likeable’, not take up too much space, not shout, or laugh too loudly, not to enjoy their sexuality too much – be sexy, yes but for boys, not for their own pleasure.  So to be this confident adult I believe Lara needs to test herself, to be able to brush off an unwanted approach, to explore on her own, to tell someone if necessary to f*** off or she’ll scream her head off.  ‘I got into some bad situations because I was far too polite,’ I told her.  Don’t put up with some berk sitting next to you and being offensive because you don’t want to be thought of as ‘rude’.  As this piece brutally explains, the overprotective parent is really really messing up their kids.

Take. A step. BACK. You’re damaging your child’s damn brain. Literally. What them young churrins need the most is the chance to be stressed, to be scared, and to be unsure of what’s going to happen next. They need to learn to adapt and grow and most importantly, they need to realize that while something might suck a whole hell of a lot, it’s not going to kill them. They need the opportunity to develop the tough skin that will get them through the black hole of awfulness that is adulthood. Do you want a fierce, self-actualized, confident kid or a floundering, mess of insecurity and self-doubt?

I really didn’t want to.  But on this occasion I had to rush into town and rescue Lara and Molly from having hot chocolate in a café while gleefully going through their purchases.


Posted in Girl and Boy, parenting, Teaching | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

I know how you feel when your work is judged


To my students.  I know how you feel when your work is  judged

This academic year I’m teaching the new Open University MA in Creative Writing.  I’m also doing some critical reading of the script materials.  And like thousands of other writers, I’m trying to get my own work off the ground.  When I wear my OU hat, I try to guide my students, offer support and constructive feedback when they want it.  And sometimes when they don’t.  But as a writer, I’m prepared to believe that the idea I’ve developed and lovingly shaped is complete shite if it’s rejected.  Maybe less so than I used to – sometimes I go through old ideas and surprise myself at how good they are.  I also remind my students that truly brilliant ideas have been turned down again and again by institutions who should know better.  Caitlin Moran’s Raised by Wolves was turned down by the BBC because they apparently had their one sitcom with women in it already.  And in 1974, Fawlty Towers was also turned down by the BBC

Last week, however, I girded my loins and asked for a meeting with a lovely BBC Producer to whom I’d sent some ideas.  It doesn’t matter how many times ideas have been accepted, liked or commissioned. It really doesn’t.  Because all I can ever remember are the ideas that were shot down in flames.  Or even worse on one occasion, I came up with an idea, the producer liked it and asked for a few scenes, so I wrote and sent them and the producer sent them back within a few hours saying she didn’t understand what I was on about and she didn’t like them. And it wasn’t funny.  As if not liking any of the scenes hadn’t convinced me of my worthlessness enough.  I emailed her back saying, thank you for looking at it anyway bitch, before putting my head down on the desk and crying.  That was a bad one.

Since then I’ve had work commissioned, work rejected, and I’ve toughened up.  I still feel that sinking gloom at a rejection and sometimes no contact at all – or – and I’m not sure what’s worse – flattery and faux friendship followed by the wheedling expectation that your work is meant to be free.  To both proposals I say f*** you.  If anyone thinks it’s reasonable for you to work for exposure tell them you’ll do it IF they can persuade your bank/landlord to let this month’s mortgage/rent go and in return they will tell all their friends what a fantastic organisation/landlord they are.  Fair?

The producer I was to meet was having serious last minute casting issues on another play but agreed to see me anyway. We found a coffee house and had one of their medium sized cappuccinos  (roughly the size of the English Channel).  Then she switched off her phone, got out her big notepad and pen and listened.  Horribly aware of the other pressures she was under,  I found myself blundering over a pitch that sounded good on paper but was coming out as what Cady in Mean Girls would describe as Word Vomit.

It’s about this woman . . . who . . oh no .  .hang on . . .what would happen if Mother Theresa was waiting in the green room . . (shit!  Shit!  She’s not laughing.  Or smiling. She hates me. Definitely) and this woman . . bugger . . then what happens?

I took a breath, and pushed the paper with my neatly typed proposals across the table.  Just read this? Please?

She did and she laughed and she liked them and we chatted about what was going to happen next.  Possibly.

But I’m telling this story because I made many silly mistakes and even though it came out ok, it might not have.

Firstly if you email a producer/director with an idea and they get back to you suggesting a meeting, don’t email back going all bleuggghhhh on them.  Which means – your first email is a polite, restrained and professional communication but your second goes all Girl Interrupted and you tell this person you don’t know at all that you have just broken up with your partner because he didn’t understand your writing passion and you were just about to give up and she’s like just saved you.  Stuff that will tempt the producer to close down the email account because the formerly professional writer whose idea sounds interesting has just turned into a crazed stalker.

If you agree to meet at a well known chain of eateries make sure you know exactly which one.  Don’t do as I did which was to arrive early and then wonder if I was at the right branch because there was another one nearby and if the producer emerged from the other side of the tube she might have gone to the other one . . .

. . . and then rush round the corner to see if there was another branch.  There used to be another branch but it had since been turned into a hairdresser.  I raced back to the first one, my table now gone, totally frazzled, so when the producer actually walked in, I was shaky and panting like the aforementioned crazed stalker.

Don’t apologise for taking up said producer’s time at least three times.  (I’m so embarrassed by this)  Instead say it once then shut up.

A meeting with a producer is a bit like a first date.  You want to make a connection but not come over all creepily agreeable like a nodding dog.  The best way to do this is to listen actively.  People who know how to listen are always described as being good conversationalists.

So I’m saying to my students, on the BA and MA course – I know how hard it is and how nakedly fragile you feel when your work is exposed and picked over.  And because I know what it’s like I think it makes me a more empathetic tutor.





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