There’s An Unexpected Item in my Bagging Area

unexpected item in the bagging areaI want to talk to you about shopping, those tiny exchanges conducted under strip light.

Buying stuff is the coal-face of human material desire,  the location of our drama about value and fairness.  It’s a simple and ancient idea, the swapping of one thing of value for another of (what we deem to be) equal value.

Buddha and lots of other enlightened beings tell us not to do it, but most of us do; we buy shizzle. We buy shizzle we don’t need. Singing fish, unwearable hats, items that go from gift to thrift store in days.

There’s the ‘necessary’ shopping, for food and pants, and then there’s ‘trigger shopping’ (for me, books, can’t resist the buggers). Then there’s what I call ‘human’ shopping where we’re telling stories with our purchases:  the new suit that reveals the first job interview in 10 years; the size 10 dress indicating small victories in the gym; the pots and pans for the kid who has just left home; the newly weds sheets; the funeral flowers; the fresh set of acrylics that give away a creative surge.

One of my favourite jobs was working in a health shop that smelled of patchouli and lemongrass. People would wander in like walking wounded and all with stories. Shell-shocked new dads looking for something to stop the wife crying, old men and their goiters, a lot of beleaguered eczema. 

So, it will come as no surprise to discover that I hate self-service tills. To me, they sum up the cold, hard, robotic vision of the future predicted in the 1950s. The self-service process offers no warmth, no humanity – for heaven’s sake, human experience is not binary.

Self-service scales are more sensitive and spiky  than a dopey end-of-season wasp. The SKU codes on items are unreadable, and loud accusatory alarms go off if you try to purchase a bottle of wine or condoms. Then, there it goes, “There’s an unexpected item in the bagging area”. Except there isn’t.

You shuffle your skin-thin plastic bag around a bit, as if re-jigging your items will somehow calm the hissy-fitting machine. You try talking to the till, escalating from reasonable to exasperated within thirty seconds. You wait to be rescued by someone in polyester, but help is busy manually inputting the SKU code for a fellow customer’s kumquats. 

I think perhaps it is the Ghost of Redundant Shop Assistants Past setting off those scales. Or an incumbent fly.  More likely however, is that the unexpected item in my bagging area is simply the unbearable weight of words unsaid, pleasantries unshared. 

Once you have extracted the lottery of coins from the obscurely-positioned change tray and fended off the vomiting of vouchers, you may think as I do,  “Fuck you Robo-Till and your cold, steel heart.”

I just want someone to chat about the weather with.  I want someone to say… ‘Oooh I love these too .. I ate them when I was pregnant with my first’ as they pass my jar of gherkins through the scanner. 

I want snippets of lives freely offered and freshly packed. I want a mutual exchange.

Give me a human, give me a human story any day.

Writer & Stand-Up Viv Groskop: Laughter Lines

Catching The Comet'sTailThis week, Catching the Comet’s Tail features writer and stand-up Viv Groskop. Her memoir ‘I Laughed I Cried: How One Woman Took on Stand-Up and (Almost) Ruined Her Life’ is based on the diaries she kept during a marathon run of 100 stand-up gigs in 100 nights. The story of Groskop’s whirlwind entrance into the world of stand-up comedy  is also a moving and inspiring tale of motherhood, mid-life, following your dreams and the addictive qualities of Diet Coke. Viv is taking a live version of the book to the Edinburgh Fringe in August and if you get a chance to see her perform, you’ll be witnessing one of the rising stars of British stand-up. Also, she’s one of the few people on the planet capable of recounting the entire history of feminism in rap form.

Viv_GroskopViv on creativity

“I know this is really pathetic but I am slightly embarrassed by the grandiosity of words like “creativity” and “muse”. And I generally take a step back from someone who defines themselves as an “artist”. Unless they are Salvador Dali. I think sometimes these terms can put people off making stuff up and getting the job done (which is all “creativity” really is). That said, I am going to say something truly and massively pretentious: the root of the word “creative” comes from the Latin “believe” (“creo”). And if you want to create anything – if you want to do anything at all, really — it helps if you believe in yourself and in what you are doing. Now please excuse me whilst I go and take a call on my lobster telephone.”

 Was creativity encouraged in you as a child and who were your early literary and comedy influences?

“I initially wanted to be a nurse. Then I wanted to be a teacher. But then around the age of six I started watching a lot of television and reading a lot of books and suddenly I wanted to perform or write. This is fortunate as I would have been an “angel of death” nurse and a “why are you so stupid?” teacher. There’s a whole section in I Laughed, I Cried about watching Doris Schwartz (Valerie Landsburg) in Fame. She was the geeky one who wasn’t pretty enough to be an actress so decided to become a stand-up. I was obsessed with her in the early 1980s. Doris downgraded from actress to stand-up. I downgraded from stand-up to writer. Because even writing seemed like an impossible thing for me to do. I really had no idea how to go about doing any of these things. Which is probably why it has taken me until the age of forty to start a lot of the stuff I should have started a long time ago.”

How long did it take to put together I Laughed, I Cried

“I had an impulse to do 100 gigs in 100 nights long before I decided that I wanted to write about it. And even after I had done it, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to put it out there as a story in a book. I had found myself in a strange and unique position in my mid thirties: I could change direction in my life if I wanted to (because I’m freelance as a writer) without completely up-ending my life. Once I realised that, I started to perform comedy because I did not have an excuse not to. My progress was agonisingly slow, though, because life was always getting in the way. I needed a push and a fixed time frame to push me up to 100 gigs. I didn’t want to feel that I had to write about it. And I didn’t know if I would want to write about it, especially if it failed and (spoiler alert) I didn’t get to the end of the 100 gigs. I got a deal to write the book (through a literary agent) about six months after I finished the 100 gigs and I wrote the book in the next nine months, based on extensive diaries I had written during the process.

I still don’t know if I should have written about it. As the book doesn’t make me across as (a) a very nice person or (b) a very good stand-up. In my defence it all happened in 2011 and I can pretend that was a very long time ago.”

Who, what or where always inspires your creativity and what is guaranteed to kill it?

“The internet both kills and inspires everything. I waste millions of hours on Twitter, Facebook and aimless Google searches. I had to go to a library with no Wifi in order to get the book finished. I’m always researching these “block-your-social-media” apps you can put on your computer. But I know it would be pointless as I get most of my ideas and my information from the internet as well as all the distraction and wasted time. I think it’s a pretty good trade-off, to be honest. I’m constantly collecting ideas and chasing stories without having any idea whether they will lead to anything. They might turn into a phrase in a joke or a magazine article or the germ of another book or an idea that I can pass on to someone else who could make something better out of it than I can.”

What do you do when you feel blocked creatively?

“I find that I get less blocked the more things I work on. I have a lot of things on the go at once and usually they require different skills. I do a lot of book reviewing and that means sorting through books and ideas and publication dates. I perform at a lot of events and that means rehearsing and memorising stuff. And I’m putting together the programme for next year’s Independent Bath Literature Festival which means coming up with original and exciting ideas and getting people together who don’t necessarily want to leave their room. If I’m not making much progress in one area, I just move to another for a while. By the time I get back to what I started on, I can see it with fresh eyes. (Also I pay for childcare by the hour and this is extremely motivating.)”

Is there a collaborative element to your work or do you prefer to work alone?

“I hated working with other people for many years. I nearly killed people when I worked in magazine and newspaper offices in my mid twenties. I am a born freelancer. In recent years, though, I’ve changed. I am marginally less childish and more curious. I love performing improv and that has really changed how I relate to other people. In improv you have to say “yes, and…” to everything. You can’t block the other person or shout them down or contradict their ideas. (Which would be my natural inclination in most situations. Like I said, I am a really nice person.) After about three years of performing improv, I find that I am genuinely interested in what other people think, often especially if I disagree with them.”

Please talk a bit about the environment you like to be in to create…

Viv Groskop workspace“I do most of my writing on a MacBook Air sitting on my bed or at the kitchen table. I lost my “office” to a child’s room a long time ago. There is no such thing as an ideal writing environment and seeking it out only wastes time which you could use to write. I write on the Notes function on my phone. I write on receipts. I have written on train tickets, on my hand and on toilet paper (Soviet toilet paper is particularly effective). If you have a good idea or a turn of phrase, write it down and put it somewhere. It might come in handy. (Also, you might lose it. But that doesn’t matter. If it’s really important, it will find a way back to you.) Maybe I would be a better writer if I had the perfect room or silence or many more hours of childcare paid for by a wealthy benefactor. But things are how they are and you have to work around them. If you waited for the ideal conditions, you wouldn’t do anything at all.”

Do you have a daily routine when you are writing? 

“I don’t really believe in routine. When you have the chance to work, work. I do find that if I can get up really early, I can get loads done in the hours before anyone else is awake and before there is much going on internet-wise. Sadly, I am hopeless at getting up early so this is not a great solution.”

How did becoming a parent affect your creativity? 

“Being a parent really changed everything for me and made me much more proactive and efficient at everything. It’s partly the practical side of things: if you’re going to pay someone else to look after your kids so that you can work, then you had better bloody well do some work. But it’s partly a more nebulous, kick-ass thing. I began to think, “You brought these children into the world. You better show them what it’s like to live life to the full. Otherwise what’s the point?” I am still reticent about a lot of things and scared of a lot of things. But having children has meant that I really care a lot less about the things that don’t matter. (Like what “other people” think about you — who are they anyway?) Without my children and my husband, I would never have done stand-up, I would never have discovered improv and I would be some kind of weird, alcoholic, depressed and repressed hack from hell. Having a miscarriage between my second and third child was probably the best thing that ever happened to me: it made me realise that life is short and precious and you’re not in control of anything.”

Please share a photo of an object that connects with your creative process and tell us about it. 

Viv Groskops fish“This is an “articulated fish” which belonged to my grandma, Vera. She made a real point of referring to it as an “articulated fish”. (Its scales actually move so that it wiggles when you touch it.) There was a vogue for them in the 1970s and my grandma used to wear one on a long pendant over a stripy boatneck sweater with nylon “slacks”. I always associate it with her. She had an incredible enthusiasm for life and was a real one for just keeping going no matter what. I don’t wear it all the time but sometimes I put it on just so that I can feel like I’ve got a bit of her about me. It’s not magic but it’s nice and wiggly and sometimes you just need a bit of a wiggle.”

Which other creative art form outside the one you are known for do you wish you could master? 

“I love acting, I love clowning, I love singing, I love trying to find out about what makes audiences fall under the spell of what’s happening in front of them. I used to play the piano as a child and I miss that. If I could start all over again there’s so much I would do. I would train my voice. I’d learn to do accents properly. I would go to RADA, darling. Instead I read a lot of books about the Meisner technique (it’s an acting thing, a bit like method acting) and I’m a member of the Actors’ Centre. I occasionally go to auditions for roles which require “plus size” ladies. (I’m not joking, it’s a whole genre. I almost got a really big role for a diabetes medication commercial.)”

What are you working on next?

“I’ve got a work-in-progress show of the book, I Laughed, I Cried, at the Funny Women Pop-Up Fringe in Edinburgh on August 18 and 19. I still haven’t worked out if there’s a way of talking about stand-up in the context of a comedy show. I guess I’ll find out on those two nights. We’re also taking Upstairs Downton: The Improvised Episode to The Hive at Edinburgh with Heroes of the Free Fringe. It’s a Downton Abbey spoof in full period costume. All the people in it are amazing and come up with the most extraordinary things. It’s going to be the most fun. In the autumn I’ve got more shows based on the book across the UK. And there’s the small matter of about 180 events to put together for the Independent Bath Literature Festival 2014. I’d better get in some extra Diet Coke.”

I laughed I cried cover Viv Groskop’s book I Laughed, I Cried: How One Woman Took on Stand-Up and (Almost) Ruined Her Life is out now published by Orion. You can follow Viv on Twitter, Facebook or visit her website. You can book tickets to see I Laughed, I Cried in Edinburgh 18 and 19 August: 10.40pm or to see Upstairs Downton in Edinburgh, 1-25 August, 5pm at The Hive, click here

 

Let’s Get Naked

Sara Bran Running Free

I’m totally about to run naked and free… honest.

Let’s get naked.

These words, at one time, would not have caused me too much fuss. I have lived in California baby, oh yes, and experienced my fair share of communal hot tubs. (The story of the hot tub, the floating cucumber and the Elvis glasses is a whole other blog post). But these days, the way I feel about getting naked or even wearing a swim suit is quite similar to how I would feel if someone offered me some pins to stick in my eyes.

When, oh when did this happen?  Okay, so I resemble a clove-pitted ham in my M&S briefs, but I call myself a feminist for flip’s sake. Moi sans clothing just ain’t what it used to be, but mind you, nor is Radio One. Why aren’t I walking my big fat talk? My own poor sense of body image irritates the hell out of me, so I have been in search of a remedy for a condition I call Noddy Horror.

As a result of my extensive research, I can offer the following to you, my fellow dreader-of-the-beach:

1. Be honest, do you really want to work that hard?

It has been good to realise that most of my friends who look holy-moly-awesome-fab in the body department work hard at it. Like, really hard. Like, more than I would ever want to work hard at anything except perhaps my marriage to Ryan Gosling. They have also not had children, and are wealthy or time rich, or both.  They prioritise fitness, I prioritise observing the fitness of others (mainly the male tennis players at Wimbledon).

2. Make a note of the practical benefits

I now consider it useful that I can keep spare change in the cavernous crevices of my cellulite. I for one will never find myself without £1 for the parking meter, no siree!  Also, if I am on a large ship and we hit an iceberg and are plunged into unforgiving freezing waters, I’m far more likely to survive due to my padding. Also, my breasts will totes help me float. Others may even be able to use me as some sort of raft thus making me actually quite heroic.

3. Get some perspective

I have stopped looking at magazines/TV/adverts that suggest I need to ‘get my beach body ready’ and begun to appreciate the fact that I have two arms, two legs and a functioning brain. Seriously, what right do I have to bemoan my wibbles when I a) can’t be arsed to do more than a paltry sun salute every now and then and b) am lucky enough to still have all my bits and wits?

4. Take a look at the real people

The greatest antidote to Noddy Horror is to go to your local swimming pool and take a look around, take a long, cold, hard look around. See the normal people? See the pitted, chthonian, Jabba-mass of humanity and remember, it’s not us, it’s them. It’s the freak show going on in the halls of Conde Nast that is ugly; them with their airbrushes and their banquets of lettuce, cocaine and Camel Lights.

So, you know, let’s run free, run naked, let’s let it all hang out this summer people.  Please don’t leave me alone in this or I’ll be arrested.

Tribal Motherhood: The Day I Realised I am a Wanker Mum

Campervan

Organic Camper Van Mum Tribe: Fully Paid Member

The playground is the most tribal place I have ever been, and I’m not talking about the children. The first time you enter a school yard as an adult, you may feel naked and small all over again just like you did as a child. Perhaps, like me, you will come over all foetal and experience flashbacks,  huddling up on a bench, hiding and snotting yourself into the nylon sleeve of a kindly dinner lady while Goliath-sized boys play football two inches from your face.

The thing we don’t anticipate about school when we become parents is that we have to learn, all over again, how to navigate the disorienting waters of playground politics, staffroom statesmanship and results-oriented hysteria. But here’s the thing; it is all much easier if you are part of a clique team. Therefore, all parents are advised to find a playground tribe. These are parents paddling the same kind of canoe in roughly the same direction on vaguely the same river as you.

After a few weeks in the playground, you will start to notice other parents who clearly drink the same amount of caffeine and who are in a similar state of disarray/grooming as you. This is the first sign that they may be a kindred soul. An affinity will develop. You will start to chat and find that you share the same thoughts on what time it is ok to have a V&T (7pm if you must know) and you will begin to rely on each other for support and practical help. Others will join and you will feel that you have found a kind of tribe bonded by shared experience, this journey with your children that lasts for years. It is only in retrospect you will learn that it is more akin to being on a submarine with a bunch of people who, like you, are ever-so-slightly doomed to never resurface. Nevertheless, if you find a parental tribe, however small, cling to them, cling to them like badly flipped pancakes on a suburban kitchen ceiling.

There is an assumed ‘tribe of motherhood’, but actually, there are so many variations, interpretations and individual experiences of bringing children into and up in the world, that giving birth in itself is not a unifying experience. Perhaps the huge disparity between mothering styles and expectations is one of the reasons we still command so little political power. Nowhere are the differences between us more apparent than the playground, the first place you see a lot of mothers in one place after the labour ward if, like me, you studiously avoided hell ‘mother/toddler’ groups.

Hovering near the limescale-ridden playground drinks fountain which acts as an equivalent of the water-cooler at work, you can get a sense of the extraordinary scope of mum tribes. Like a binocularless playground twitcher, you’ll catch sightings of No Stains Mums (aka. OCD mums), Rock n‘ Roll Mums (who miraculously still seem to go out in the evenings), Overly-Attached Mums (child wrapped around each leg, usually on the verge of tears), No Boundaries Mums (their children wrapped around other people’s legs, other people in tears), Organic Camper Van Mums  (weirdly calm – possibly on valium), Perpetually More Exhausted Than Anyone Else Mums (husbands do even less than yours),  On the Verge Mums (their volcanic anger festers like an abscess) and the scariest of all, The Four Mothers of the Apocalypse aka Judgmental Mums (these are the ones you bump into just as you give your child a blue ice cream as a bribe to stop them shouting “cock” at everyone).  You won’t even catch a glimpse of the Mysterious Mums except at the Christmas fair. Sighting of these mothers is rare; they’re like endangered and magnificent snow leopards. They not only work full-time, but are statistically likely to still be doing more housework than their partners.  The list of parent tribes is endless and this doesn’t even include the religious, gender-based and cultural subsets such as Freelance Meedyah Dads, Vicar Flirts and The Women of the Sad Eyes whose  private histories are hidden beneath their many skirts.

I thought I vacillated between the Camper Van and On the Verge tribes until one day,  I realised I am part of a whole other mummy tribe…

It was a beautiful autumn morning; a gorgeous low sun filtered through the trees of my local park where I was walking. The occasional horse chestnut descended into the leaves with a thud, cobwebs glistened, busy London squirrels made winter plans. A pregnant friend called me on my mobile. She was having a serious wobble about the huge life-change ahead of her. “I mean…” she sobbed down the phone. “I mean, I just can’t bear to become one of those middle-class wanker mums pushing their baby around the park in a Bugaboo wearing Birkenstocks, sipping lattes and spending all day pureeing organic vegetables. I mean… I just can’t bear it.”

“Er…no… that won’t happen to you, you’ll be fine,” I said reassuringly, looking down at my powder-blue Birkenstocks. I dropped my mobile back into my handbag which dangled off the handles of an orange Bugaboo, a monstrous four-wheel-drive type of pram that cost more than our car (it was a gift I might add).  I decided not to pop into Gail’s for a latte after all. Instead, I pulled an organic apple from my ‘I Love Kensal Rise’ reusable shopping bag and crunched into it ruefully. So that’s it, I thought, I am a Wanker Mum.

Author Ben Hatch: Cheese, Marriage and Qwerty Keyboards

CatchingTheCometsTailI’m delighted to welcome author Ben Hatch to Catching the Comet’s Tail.  Ben is a master of the kind of acute observation of family life that has you pondering the deeper significance of  the type of breakfast cereal your spouse prefers. His last book, Are We Nearly There Yet? about a family trip around Britain in a Vauxhall Astra, was wonderfully funny and incredibly poignant. The sequel, The Road to Rouen,  takes us on another Hatch family trip, this time around France. Along the way, Ben’s marriage, life and love of fromage are put in equal jeopardy. I think of him as a kind John Cleese/Gerald Durrell hybrid, only featuring cars and condiments instead of animals. If you haven’t put him on your summer reading list, do!

Author Ben HatchBen Hatch on creativity…

“My creative process simply involves sitting cross-legged on the cheese-stained swivel chair in my study for long enough to write something that’s not so dreadful the next day when I come to read it back I have the will power to try and build on it. As unromantic as it sounds, it’s a bit like bashing the end of a near empty bottle of ketchup, the ketchup bottle being my head, the ketchup itself is the words and the plate’s the screen. Hopefully (and I might be stretching this ketchup analogy way too far now) amongst the unusable, thin, red spray of relish they’ll be one salvageable dollop worth dipping a chip in.”

Was creativity encouraged in you as a child and who were your early literary influences?

“The only way I can talk about creativity in my childhood is through an analogy using Coleman’s Mustard. That’s a lie. I was pretending after the ketchup thing to be obsessed with different relishes. I’m not obsessed by different relishes. My father was in the Cambridge Footlights and a contemporary of The Goodies and half of what would become the Monty Python team but creativity wasn’t actively encouraged in our house. The ability to play sport was however, although unfortunately I was so ungainly I couldn’t work the swing in our back garden until I was about 9 and I am still unable to do a forward roll. My grandmother on my dad’s side and my mum’s sister were both excellent painters as is my sister. I desperately wanted to take after them and I remember the day I showed my dad a picture of the life-cycle of the butterfly I’d completed in 2b pencil. I’d drawn a chrysalis, a caterpillar and a cabbage white butterfly in such extraordinary detail it was attached to the fridge by my mum. Just as it was starting to be acknowledged I’d inherited my family’s artistic streak I was caught tracing a hippopotamus through greaseproof paper and exposed as a fraud. My only creative trigger has been the need to impress my father. I remember the first time I made him laugh. We were on a family holiday eating out. The joke I made was about how my sister had eaten such a lot of crab she’d probably walk out of the restaurant sideways. It’s not that funny but I was 12 and my dad was Head of Light Entertainment at BBC Radio and he seemed thrilled by the idea of “Benjy’s first joke”. From then on all I ever wanted to do was make my dad laugh. I wrote derivative Monty Python comedy sketches for a while then I tried to become an comic actor but I was hopelessly wooden. I fixed on writing books after I fell in love with Catcher in the Rye. Before I’d read this I had no idea books were capable of being funny and moving at the same time. Minus a brief period when I wanted to be a professional snooker player and became obsessed with Tony Meo that I don’t want to go into, that’s all I ever wanted to be.”

How long did it take to write The Road to Rouen and can you recall the first spark of inspiration?

“The Road to Rouen took about five months to write. The inspiration came from the tight deadline. To finish the book I had to get up at 4am every day including weekends for several months. The book is not at all as I imagined it would be. While it’s mainly light-hearted in tone I somehow ended up dissecting my marriage too which I put in jeopardy on the trip by doing some very silly things one of which included almost being gored and another saw me almost get murdered. I know rewriting a book is finished when I start taking sections out and then reinstating them before removing the day after. At that point you’re fiddling and it’s time to let it go.”

Who, what or where always inspires your creativity, no matter what and what, if anything, is guaranteed to kill it?

“I’m not aware of ever feeling inspired although some days it’s easier to write well than others. But that can often be misleading. Often when I think I’ve written something particularly good, I read it back and realise it’s rubbish but then it works the other way too. That’s why I never throw anything away. My computer is filled with abandoned chapters and scenes that one day I’m hoping to revisit and find some merit in. Seeing and experiencing new things obviously helps the creative process, especially if it’s a situation I feel uncomfortable in. In fact there’s a constant and very annoying tension in my life between avoiding things I don’t want to do because they scare me and the realisation that if I do them it’ll make good material. In an ideal world I’d get inspiration from being sat on the sofa watching telly with a bag of mixed nuts and raisons and a glass of wine by my side but that’s not the way it works unfortunately.”

Do you ever feel that creating new things is a chore and what do you do when you feel blocked creatively?

“I’d much rather be rewriting than writing something new. It’s not a chore in the same way working on an Icelandic trawler at 3am reeling in a herring net is a chore, but it’s the hardest part of the job. That’s because you know 90 per cent of what you’re writing won’t survive in the final draft. There can’t be many jobs that are this unproductive. If you worked in any other profession, say as a doctor or teacher, and wasted 90 per cent of your time you’d be fired. In terms of writer’s block, I don’t believe in it. I know this because I once spent seven years writing the same book. That happened because I decided I wanted the novel out of contract. A terrible mistake. A writer with writer’s block is a writer in need of a deadline.”

Please talk a bit about the environment you like to be in to write. 

Ben Hatch Creative Space

“As long as I have a qwerty keyboard I don’t mind where I work although I like to be near a kettle, a toaster and a sizeable lump of cheese to gnaw on like a rat. I like to play music in the background and I often loop a particular song. I can play the same track 456 times over without getting in the slightest bit bored of it. However, I work alongside my wife (about 20cm from her in fact. She’s a freelance travel journalist and we share a study) and this tends to drive her crazy so on the whole I work in silence apart from every now and again like just now when she leant over and showed me a picture of a Victorian tap online that she thought we should have in the bathroom because there was a picture of a similar one in the Sunday Times style section at the weekend.”

Do you have a daily routine when you are writing? 

“I like to start early before my kids wake up, before anyone is on twitter or emailing and also so I can act like a weary martyr in the evening when my wife asks me to do something trivial such get up and put the latest Friday Night Lights disc in the DVD player. “Can you? (pained face) I did get up at 5am.” I don’t have a set word count like most authors. Instead I give myself a time limit to complete a chapter.”

Is there a collaborative element to your work? 

“I’ve always wanted to work collaboratively. It’s the way they put together American sitcoms and often I’ve pictured myself firing off ideas sat around a table with other writers but in reality the chances are I’d probably not contribute anything under this system because I’d be too shy or diffident and instead I’d merely laugh at everyone else’s stuff feeling disgruntled and intimidated. I don’t like to show anyone anything until right at the end. In the past I’ve shown my wife something too early and it’s always counter productive because if she dislikes it, it’s disheartening and if she likes it, it’s always the bit that you later feel has to be cut but now as she liked it, you’re resistant to this idea, and the whole process slows down.”

Please share a photo of an object that connects with your creative process.

Ben Hatch Lucky Heather“I have two things I keep connected to my work. One is this piece of heather. (Left) I bought it from a gypsy woman in Ben Hatch's Letter Leicester Square for £1 just hoping for luck just before I went into the Curtis Brown literary agency in 1997. The second is this letter my dad wrote to me when I started living back home after university and had been fired from 8 jobs in as many months where he pretty much calls me an oaf.” (Right)

Which other creative art form outside the one you are known for do you wish you could master?

“I’d love to be the sort of person who could sit on a pretty hill in a loose fitting shirt with unbuttoned cuffs and paint a typical English landscape below me in oils maybe in a soft flat hat with a picnic hamper of sandwiches for lunch in a small knapsack between my feet. That would be immensely relaxing, I imagine. I’d also like to be able to play the piano. I took lessons when my daughter started aged 6 but within weeks she was better than me and I lost heart and quit when she criticised my scales.”

How did becoming a parent affect your creativity? 

“What’s the Cyril Connolly quote: “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.” I believed that for many years and it almost stopped me having kids. Then when I had them I discovered it was bollocks. If anything becoming a father helped instil some discipline into my life and writing. Like how football manager’s always want their players to get married and settle down because they focus more on their game, it was the same with me. Every hour spent working has a premium when you have young kids because it’s time you could be spending with them watching Underground Ernie or making a den out of sofa cushions and travel rugs. It means you have to make your hours at the keyboard count and try your best to get off Twitter and websites where there are admittedly quite humorous objects that look like Hitler.”

Please say as much or as little as you’d like about your next book and the stage you are at with it.

“The Road to Rouen, the sequel to Are We Nearly There Yet? has just been published by Headline. It’s about a 10,000 mile drive around France that I completed with my family. I was researching a guidebook. I thought the greatest danger would be the boredom of spending so long in the car although at various points we’re attacked by a donkey, there’s a run-in with a death-cult, a calamitous wedding experience involving a British spy before I almost end up starring in a snuff movie after a near fatal decision to climb into a millionaire’s Chevrolet Blazer. Although actually the book is really about marriage and the up and downs that everyone experiences along this journey. I’m also currently working on a sitcom treatment of my first novel The Lawnmower Celebrity for the BBC as well as researching my next travelogue which will be a road-trip round Italy. I also have a theory about curing the common cold. Seriously. I’m on to something. It involves sneezing, that’s all I’ll say. Watch this space.”

Road to RouenYou can follow @BenHatch on Twitter and his Facebook page is here, although it is, by his own admission, “Fairly rubbish.”

Road to Rouen is published on May 23rd by Headline books. You can order it here.

 

 

Reward Stickers for Adults: Gummy Little Redeemers

The Averys

The Averys

It is time my friends. Time to pay homage to the couple who made the task of modern parenting/teaching/damage limitation possible. The inventor of the self-adhesive sticker, Mr. R Stanton Avery and his wife, Dorothy Durfee.

The Reward Sticker. Oh, how I have come to love these gummy little redeemers. These precious paper wafers, tools of compliance, delicate as gold leaf, and more loaded with meaning than a communion biscuit. Stickers are dispensed to our children like angel’s kisses by teachers, doctors, and parents alike.  Within our children’s adhesive universe, there is a hierarchy of reward, ranging from the simple gold star to the ultimate, much coveted gummy prize; the large, glittery, puffy sticker, enhanced with foam.

My own relationship with self-adhesives runs thus:

1970-1977 ~ Boundless enthusiasm for ‘sticker collections’ equating, over a lifetime, to roughly £2500 worth 0f bubble gum in order to find 100 stickers.

1980-1984 ~ an odd flirtation with Sticky-Back-Plastic (Every. Single. School. Exercise Book.)

1996-1997 ~ a brief, rave-related bindi wearing phase.

2001- yesterday ~ a Post-It-Note based stationary fetish.

Which brings me to now. It was only yesterday, when the Biscuit Thief came home proudly displaying an “I ate all my lunch today” sticker AND a huge, red, glittery, puffy butterfly one for ‘sitting nicely’, that I thought, I want stickers. I bloody want bloody reward stickers.  I want them plastered on my torso each time I complete a yoga class, I want them daubed across my face when I achieve edible meal provision, I want them glued to my weary eyelids when I have, yet again, kept calm and carried on. I want to be agglutinated, affixed, pasted to within a papery inch of my wretched domestic life with stickers that say “WELL DONE!”

In fact, why stop there: I could give my husband stickers too, ones that say things like, “Today, I have been amazing at not mentioning my wife’s ‘tache.” The Teenage Songbird could have ones that say, “I am not on drugs or pregnant. RESULT!”

It was in 1935 that ‘Stan Avery’  invented the machine that made self-sticking labels. His creation saw the light of day thanks to a $50 investment from a woman called Dorothy Durfee, a school teacher, who became Stan’s wife. Together, Stan and Dorothy ran Kum-Kleen Adhesive Products as equal partners. Today, nearly eighty years on,  I shall construct a small altar to them made out of Avery mini labels and give thanks. Won’t you join me? You’ll get a reward sticker if you do.

Top 10 Vegetarian Cookbooks or Why I’m Back on the (Cashew Nut) Sauce

veggiesHere are some things I don’t want to put in my mouth; Blue Peter pets, Bambi, trotters, Shergar. Which is why, after a seven year break, I decided to return to a predominantly vegetarian diet at the beginning of this year. My New Year’s Resolution was of the ‘lets pencil that in’ variety until the whole ‘there’s a pony in your pie’ story exploded and I thought I was going to gag up an equine kidney. Literally.

I first became a veggie in my late teens on the grounds that  I didn’t approve (in the way that only a 15-year-old can ‘not approve’) of the Diet of Diminished Responsibility as I called it. I had the idea that I would only eat what I could kill. Having experienced gut-spewing hours on the water, both lake and and sea, with just my dad, a fishing rod and a thunderous sky for company, fish were totally on my menu. Dad taught me how to reel in the thrashing creatures, unhooking their bloodied mouths before stopping, in a moment of bizarre reverence, to admire the rainbow-beauty of their silvery scales. Dad would gaze at the gasping fish, his eyes moistening, reading the scales like tea leaves before administering a merciful clout to the fishes head. Queasily, I’d watch the perfect silver ring of the fishes eyes retract making way for the wide black pupils of stillness. It felt raw, but somehow natural and oddly ok to skin, gut and cook ‘em up with garlic later that night. But maybe I’d just  read too much Hemmingway.  But so it was that my diet was veggie/pescatarian for some twenty years until the traumatic birth of my second daughter, the Biscuit Thief.

Within hours of the emergency C-section I had undergone, I became desperately anaemic and needed a blood transfusion. I still remember the sensation of a stranger’s blood seeping into my architecture like tar through a straw. It crept into me like a burgundy, life-saving syrup, carrying with it so much heat that I could trace its path around my broken body. Over the next few days, as the anaemia ebbed away, a gnawing started in my belly. My husband came to visit me in hospital and I looked at him like a shark looks at tiddlers.

“I think I…I…I think I need…I need a fucking steak!” I said, horrified.

I was like Alex the Lion in the Madagascar films when he imagines the lemurs and zebras turning into little sirloins such is the intensity of his meat-lust. Since that moment seven years ago, there has been nothing I wouldn’t do for a sausage until recently, the smell of meat, let alone the taste of it, started to make me feel unbelievably squeamish.  Thank fuck I’m not French.

And so I am back;  back to the demanding cooking, back to the endless peeling of root vegetables, back to the exotic adventures with cheese, back to endless reconfigurements of falafels and humous. Unfortunately for a vegetarian/pescatarian, I am not on speaking terms with eggs after a salmonella incident on top of a mountain in Spain where I puked and also pooed in front of a pop star and my new born baby had to sleep in a suitcase ~ but that’s another story. So without eggs, I have to work hard to get my protein.

Having been out of the quinoa-loving lifestyle for some years, I asked Twitter and Facebook for some vegetarian cookbook suggestions and these ones came out top. Enjoy!

TOP 10 VEGETARIAN COOKBOOKS

The Mystic Cookfire by Veronika Robinson

River Cottage Veg Every Day Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

Sundays At Moosewood Restaurant Moosewood Collective

Plenty Yotam Ottolenghi

Gaia’s Kitchen Julia Ponsonby

Rose Elliot’s Vegetarian Cookery Rose Elliot

River Cafe Cookbook Green Rose Grey

The Vegetarian Pantry  Chloe Choker & Jane Montgomery

Paradiso Seasons Denis Cotter

The Accidental Vegetarian Simon Rimmer