Poor Kids, A Response to the Film

I watched Jezza Neumann's moving film about child poverty in the UK last week and wrote a response, which was published here,  in The Scottish Review earlier this week. Click on the link, if you'd like to read more. The Scottish Review has an ever widening circulation and the response to this piece has been overwhelmingly positive - it seemed to strike a chord with all kinds of people as the film struck a chord with me and many others. But the overall media response to this film seems to have been fairly muted, which is sad. I do sometimes wonder if writers and artists are culpable too. And I don't exempt myself.
I've written what's known as 'issue based drama' in my day - quite a lot of it - but it sometimes seems to me as though too many poets, novelists and playwrights take a conscious decision to shy away from uncomfortable subjects. Perhaps we recognise that such writing will be hard to sell, hard to place in the current difficult market. And so many of us are struggling anyway. And when all is said and done, you can only write what you feel strongly about at the time. But still, I do sometimes find myself wondering, where is our Dickens? Where, for that matter, is our Robert Burns, writing passionately about poverty and injustice as well as about love?

On Not Writing: Distraction, Disruption, Exhaustion.

I don’t think I’ve ever been quite this distracted before. No matter what else was going on in my life, I’ve always managed to concentrate on writing, often to the exclusion of everything else. When I look at the amount of reasonably successful work I’ve completed and had performed and published, over the years: poems, plays, short stories, non-fiction and, more recently, long and well researched historical novels, I feel an odd mixture of surprise and pride. But for somebody who usually manages to be both easy-going and utterly absorbed in her work, I've recently become aware that - in the immortal words of Joseph - things ain’t going well, hey, things ain't going well.
I’ve sometimes felt in the past that I wasn’t as focussed as I might have been, but that was generally because I had too many writing irons in the fire, rather than too few, too many projects on the go at once. Now, I seem to have far too many non-writing irons in the fire. This state of affairs seems to have crept up on me, for a variety of complicated reasons, but the time has certainly come to call a halt, take stock and do things differently. Which is, of course, far easier said (or blogged!) than done.
For the past couple of months, I’ve been struggling to balance work and finding ways of making an income, (just like most of the rest of the population, old Etonians excepted)  with daily life and the demands of friendship and family, but at the moment, I don’t seem to be managing any of them very well.  An involvement with a local community enterprise has only added to my woes and I’m beginning to think about straws and camel’s backs. Facebook is an additional distraction, even though it’s wonderful for networking and keeping in touch with friends and work colleagues.  And Twitter. And blogging. The garden takes time, even though I know it’s good for me. The house takes time. And then there’s the other job, (not really the day job, since I do most of it online, at night) dealing in antique textiles, which seems to be much less cost effective than it once was, and – although essential from a budgetary point of view  - also needs a bit of a rethink since it’s becoming hugely time consuming for what amounts to very little reward.
The harsh truth is that I'm doing too much unpaid work, and if I'm going to work unpaid, then it ought to be on something I want and need to do, as well as something with the potential to generate a little income in the future. Essentially, I need to be cracking on with new novels, especially given that the possibility of publishing online (and even making some money out of it) now needs to be added into the mix. 
One thing I’m sure of, I’m not alone.  Lots of female friends, professional artists and writers in particular, but others too, seem to be in exactly the same situation as me: all of us, not generally given to self pity, feeling agitated and tired and not working to our full capacity, while struggling desperately to make ends meet.
We seem to have gone straight from being distracted by  the demands of raising a family, and coping with elderly parents, to fending off the assumption that we are winding down towards retirement ourselves.
And it isn’t just that we can’t afford it. It’s that with – hopefully – up to a third of life still ahead – winding down seems ridiculous.
I’ve been reading an excellent book called Transitions by William Bridges, which has helped a bit, and discussions with like-minded friends help too. I’ve made lists and plans, but then I’ve always been a manic list maker. I’ve looked at time management. I'm not short of ideas.  But the harsh truth is that I need to do fewer things in my working day, but do them for longer, do them better, more exclusively, more intensively and with more deliberate and ruthless focus.
In short, I need to become more like a man.
All (reasonable) suggestions for achieving this desirable state of affairs gratefully received!

Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

Just finished reading Gillespie and I, by Jane Harris, which I bought about a week ago, started reading and could not put down. I read it late into the night, woke up looking forward to resuming it and found myself sneaking a sly chapter in the middle of the day when I was meant to be doing other things. It's a big, beautifully written and cleverly constructed read. The research has clearly been meticulous. Historical research, as I know all too well from personal experience, can be a trap for the unwary. The research itself can become so enchanting that one thing leads to another, and you find it hard to make yourself stop and write the novel. But Jane Harris displays an admirable and vivid facility for transporting her readers back in time.

The story is narrated by Harriet Baxter, now an old woman, living in Bloomsbury in 1933, with her pet birds, and her servant, Sarah, for company. She remembers her visit to Glasgow, for the International Exhibition of 1888. Street plans are helpfully provided for readers who, like me, are fascinated by the details of the setting. Young, art-loving, unmarried and of independent means, Harriet meets Elspeth Gillespie, mother of gifted but fairly impoverished artist, Ned Gillespie, (this is the time when the Glasgow Boys were beginning to be in vogue) and recounts how she saved Elspeth's life when the woman was choking on her own false teeth - a typically bizarre event, wrily recounted in Harriet's precise and entertaining tones.

Invited to the Gillespie home in the West End of Glasgow, Harriet realises that she has already met Ned at  an art exhibition in London. She gradually becomes a close friend of the family:  Ned, his talented wife Annie, and their two young children, Sybil and Rose. When unexpected tragedy strikes this loving family, it will affect Harriet herself in unanticipated ways, and change the course of all their lives.

To detail more of the plot would, I think, be to spoil it for the reader. But I'll say this at least, to intrigue you. When you have finished this book, the story will work away like yeast inside your head. And I can practically guarantee that the first thing you will want to do, is to read it all over again. Which is quite an achievement on the part of the writer. Gillespie and I is not just beautifully written and researched, but absorbing, believable, and perhaps more than anything else, quietly terrifying: a haunting, mysterious and deeply disturbing story. It's the best book I have read this year and perhaps for a number of years before that!

Gillespie and I is published by Faber and Faber, 504 pages, price £14.99

Creativity and Wellbeing - A Few More Thoughts

There's an interesting post with reference to my recent Creativity and Wellbeing piece on Chris Fremantle's excellent and insightful blog here
He says: 'If the ambition for the arts to have a wider role in society is still on the table, then perhaps its time for artists to challenge the values that are being ascribed to creativity ...to help sharpen the distinction between creating art and being creative, rather than eliding this distinction in the process of attempting to secure greater economic relevance and power.'
This is a very fair point and a fair distinction to make, but it means that we, as creative writers, artists, and others, have to make our voices heard, otherwise, people will carry on presuming to define our roles for us. And here's an example:
This potentially useful site - which has some excellent case histories - also manages to include statements such as  'The future of the creative industries lies in its leaders.'
Might the whole future of those same creative industries not depend a bit more on the quality of the work? You can lead a horse to water, but if he refuses to drink, he'll keel over and you'll be stuffed.
We find small mention of passion, dedication, exploration, the pain and the joy, the incessant demands of the real creative impulse here. Instead, it's mostly quantified as some straightforward means to an economic end. Which can result in some useful practical advice, I'll not deny. But it's by no means the whole picture and we really have to do something to temper this approach while there's still time.

Creativity and Wellbeing : Should We Be Reclaiming Creativity?

Creativity and wellbeing - I've had a longish essay on this subject published online in the weekend edition of the Scottish Review  It's possibly part of something longer, although when I'll ever get around to writing the whole book I have in mind - provisional title 'Reclaiming Creativity' - I don't know. But as somebody said to me, this is in the nature of a call to arms for writers and artists and other creative people. I'd be interested to see some other responses though. So far, the reaction from creative people themselves has been very positive!