I fancied being a poet when I was eight, but unfortunately my uncle came home to my grandmother’s house, from prisoner of war camp. He didn’t know anything about children, but thought he did about poetry. So he drummed into me rhyme and rhythm and metre and blank verse and I quickly realised that if this was how you had to write poetry, I wasn’t poet material.
He was also the unfeeling brute who, when he found me streaming with tears over one of my grandmother’s Victorian children’s books about a child dying of starvation in the East End, called ‘Froggie’s Little Brother’, said, “well, don’t read it”. (‘Froggie’s Little Brother’ is a hilarious classic for anyone who wants to study minor Victorian horror stories.) But I digress, as they say in Victorian prose!
My writing life didn’t actually begin until I was fourteen, and was obliged to enter a writing competition at school, part of the annual arts festival. I also went into for clay modelling and made a bust of my father, which looked so like Field Marshal Montgomery that I entered it as Monty. But obviously the judges didn’t think so, for Monty was unplaced.
My short story was a different matter. I had an idea, but was terrified people would laugh at me, so I made a bargain with God that if I wrote the story which was about a fictional incident in His Son’s childhood, He must guarantee that I win. God obviously agreed, and kept his side of the bargain, and success was very sweet.
My writing career then went into a period of latency, ‘ my wilderness years’ I suppose you could call them, and it wasn’t until I was 24 and a young captain at the War Office that my talents flourished again! I was part of a team of six lecturers sent out to talk to schools about the army, and we roamed far and wide across the British Isles with a driver who was also a film projectionist.
After each talk we had to write an account of what the head master was like, what the school was like, how receptive the audience and so on, as a guide for the next lecturer in a couple of years. I found my predecessor’s notes so scrappy as to be useless, so conscientiously wrote a full, honest and un- expurgated account of every school and their sometimes objectionable head-masters or bossy head mistresses for my successor.
Shortly before leaving the army to get married, one Friday afternoon as I left a school outside Gloucester, I found to my dismay my colonel from the War Office waiting by my car. I couldn’t get my uniform hat on because I’d had my hair done in a huge bouffant style in order to go to a hunt ball that night, so I was carrying it. I expected trouble: a, because I wasn’t wearing my hat and therefore was improperly dressed, and b, because he was there!
It turned out that he wanted my reports. I immediately went into collapse, and wondered why – I thought I was up to date – what was the problem that he’d come all this way from London to collect them. “Oh,” he said nonchalantly, “they go all round the office – they’re damn funny – the general always reads ‘em, worth a guinea a minute he says, and he wants some more!” I thankfully handed over another batch, completely mystified as to why my serious reports should be so entertaining. He didn’t even notice I wasn’t wearing my hat!
Shortly after this I embarked on a life of penury and drudgery, and discovered quite soon that I was going to have to make some money in order to feed the two children who had arrived so promptly. Realising that I’d better get organised before I was really destitute, I scanned the local South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s main English newspaper. The only things they didn’t have on the women’s pages were recipes, so I cheekily offered them a cookery column. I knew nothing about food, but I liked eating, and they didn’t ask for my credentials.
Writing a cookery column seemed the height of literary achievement to me. Six weeks later, the next literary peak I scaled was to become a temporary feature writer. I became a permanent one, and then eventually Woman’s Editor. But I had never learned to write, and apart from discovering that you had to start with an arresting first paragraph in order to grab your readers, I knew nothing about journalism or writing.
I just had to bluff, and from reading the good women’s pages in the English newspapers, I learned that there was a style of writing for feature pages which was different to writing on news pages. I found it quite hard to write a straight news story because my “voice” or writing style would break through the boring facts, so I always ended up being a columnist and features writer. But none of this taught me anything about writing. I had to work that out for myself.
The one thing I did learn about writing back then, was that it was no good calling on a “muse”. Newspapers aren’t interested in the dramas and vagaries of “muses”. They just want working journalists who can stick to a deadline and just do it. It was wonderful training. I had to write, rain or shine, in sickness and in health, through chronic fatigue syndrome and divorce, children’s chickenpox and school holidays. And so to this day, thanks to this training, I have never had “writers block”. More’s the pity some might say!
Food for Threadbare Gourmets
There was a piece of fresh salmon in the fridge left over from the previous night. It was too big for one, but not enough for two. So I made one of my favourite recipes, quick, simple, and good enough to serve to friends. This time it was just us. Simply melt a generous knob of butter in a pan – I use a frying pan, and add to it a good cupful of cream, and half a cup of finely grated Parmesan cheese. Stir till the cheese is melted. Then just add the chopped up salmon pieces, lots of chopped parsley, salt and freshly ground black pepper, and serve on some pasta, with more Parmesan if wanted. I used tagliatelle .
Food for Thought
Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love. By Don Miguel Ruiz. The First Agreement from his book ‘The Four Agreements’.