It’s six-o-five, still dark, and I am sitting by an open window at the dining table of our New York apartment. The city is waking, cars, which never quite stop moving, are gathering force, a man walks by with a small backpack on. Across the street is a school advertising ‘college access for all’ in which I see ghostly figures moving past its many windows. A garbage truck hisses to a stop at the end of the street and someone honks. We arrived!
Which in itself is a miracle.
Our flight was at nine-forty on Saturday morning. We wanted to be at the airport at seven-forty, it’s an hour and a half drive from our house, and we had to park in a long-stay, so planned to leave at five-thirty. I set the alarm for four. I usually don’t sleep much the night before a trip, so I was rather surprised when I heard Dave say, ‘Eryl… I think we over-slept,’ and looked at the time to find it was six-thirty-eight. We had overslept by two-and-a-half hours. I seriously doubted we’d make it, but jumped into action anyway to wash, dress, and pack the last few remaining things. We drove away at about seven.
And then everything went incredibly smoothly. We found the car-park without a problem, parked, got on the shuttle, checked in – there was no queue – and had time for coffee and a bun. The flight was an hour late, but we arrived in Newark at the exact time we were meant to. I was a bit nervous about entering the US as a brown person, but the two customs officials we engaged with were as friendly as the were efficient, and suddenly our suitcase was on the carousel, and suddenly my son was standing in front of me, smiling.
An accident on one of the bridges meant our Uber had to take a much longer route to our apartment. The result? We got a tour of the city. There was the New York Times building; there was the new World Trade Centre; there was the Empire State. Then the river; then Brooklyn; then four flights of stairs and our book-filled apartment. I haven’t taken any pictures of it yet, but here are some of the things we’ve experienced so far:
I wrote this post over a week ago. Since then we’ve been to the met to see the Cézannes; walked over the Brooklyn bridge; eaten the best Indian food imaginable at Vatan; walked through Central park; moved on to West Chester, a small town just west of Philadelphia, where we stayed with my son’s in-laws for three days; and arrived in Pittsburgh where we’ll stay for the next two weeks.
Yesterday we saw a chipmunk, and ate the best Pizza ever at Driftwood; but I’ll leave all that for another post.
I should be packing – which means finishing the ironing I began yesterday. I should be cleaning the house so our return won’t be too gruesome. I should be going to the Post Office to bank the cheque that arrived this morning, so I have money when I get back. I should be at least thinking about what to make for supper tonight. I should be doing the last load of laundry, so I can pack my dressing gown and pyjamas before the day is out. We leave the house tomorrow at five-thirty AM, and it will be a much nicer awakening if all I have left to do is throw my wash-bag into the case, zip it up, and go.
But, instead, I’m still in my pyjamas, though I’ve been up for six hours, doing this.
In a minute I’ll put some old clothes on, fire up the iron, and get on. I’ve only got ten hours left of the day, but surely it’s enough. Maybe ironing now is bonkers, everything will get crushed in the case and have to be done again? Anyway, regardless of all that, my next post will come from somewhere in America.
I’m in the throes of preparation for our imminent trip to America. Which means I spend hours frantically making lists; trying on various combinations of my clothing (it’s amazing what you can do with half-a-dozen shirts; three pairs of jeans; two pairs of trainers, and a fishing hat); cleaning random parts of the house; and googling what’s on view at the Met (Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire, 1902-1906, hurrah!). And then I collapse, pick up a book, read the same sentence fifty times, give up and go to bed.
But last evening I went to the website of my favourite radio show and listened to this Toni Morrison tribute, an interview from 2009 in which she discusses her novel A Mercy with the wonderful Michael Silverblatt.
Dave’s daughter won a bell tent, and other stuff, in a competition run by Badger Beer, which required her to go to Dorset and pick them up. The tent was pitched at Rosewall Campsite in Osmington Mills, just outside Weymouth, and the prize included three nights stay there. She was unable to make the trip, so asked Badger Beer if we could go instead, and they said yes. Thus, last Thursday we packed the car and headed down the road to stay with Dave’s sister in south Wales for a night, before going on to Dorset the following morning. Apart from the heat – 37ºc in a car with no air conditioning – and a minor, accidental diversion into Monmouth, the journey was uneventful and mostly pleasant.
Having spent the morning chatting over breakfast, and playing with my favourite dog in the whole world, we arrived at the site at about three o’clock. I’ve camped in a tent only twice before: once in Guernsey in 1979 (our first night was the night of the Fastnet disaster, the tent blew away and my boyfriend at the time, Paul, had to chase it round the field in torrential rain wearing only his underpants); the other time was in Gatehouse of Fleet for one night, again it rained. Which means I have no expectations regarding campsites, and nothing to compare this one to, so I’ll just mention a few things about it and let you make up your own minds.
The location is spectacular; everyone was very friendly; the shop sold all sorts of useful stuff; and the loos were clean, never ran out of loo paper, soap, or paper towels, and had handy sockets for charging phones (as well as the usual sort for plugging in hairdryers and the like). The place was packed with tents of all sorts and sizes, from gigantic multi-roomed tunnel-like things, to just about big enough for a sleeping bag tiny. Happy families cooked sausages on portable barbecues; Cheery couples chatted over drinks after hiking over cliffs; groups of friends lounged with beer. There was a Badger Beer bar beside our pitch (you can see it in the photo of the site above), but it ran out of draft beer before we had a chance to try it. The only thing I found irritating was that the showers had push knobs that released only about twenty seconds of water, meaning you had to keep pressing. I found I could just lean my back against the knob for the most part, which at least allowed me to rinse the shampoo out of my hair properly, though this didn’t work when it came to other areas. Actually, another irritation was that there was nowhere to put your stuff while showering: no shelf for soap and shampoo, and nothing to keep your clothes and towel from getting damp. There were hooks on the door to hang clothes, but they were right in the line of spray. I took to draping mine over the top of the door, which helped.
The first night was not good. We had wandered down to the coast – five minutes walk – after sorting out our beds and organising the space, and I promptly slipped trying to walk down a too steep path in unsuitable shoes (trainers, no grip) and pulled a muscle in my left thigh which hurt like hell and stopped me from sleeping. This added to the general disturbance factor for Dave. He’s not used to noise, and the site was noisy with kids running around and people generally having a good time until midnight at least. So that, and my being unable to settle, meant he didn’t sleep either.
That made Saturday a bit of a trial, so much so that Dave was all for giving up and booking into a hotel. Luckily we were too tired to look, so we stayed, and slept like babies that night. I’m not sure that camping is for us, but it did turn out to be an enjoyable experience on the whole. And all those people have given me a lot of material!
Part of the prize was fifty quid’s worth of vouchers to spend in The Smuggler’s Inn (see header image), so we dropped in for supper on the first night, and ate burgers outside in the sunshine. They were delicious. We also had supper there on Sunday. I can’t remember what Dave had, though I do remember him eulogising, but I had the best Chicken Caesar Salad ever, and I’ve had a lot of those in my life. Also, the white wine spritzer I had was perfect. I highly recommend the place.
Although a friend lent us a single ring gas burner with a tiny kettle for morning tea/coffee, we didn’t take anything to cook with. This meant breakfast would have to come from some external source. I don’t have to eat the minute I wake, so that was unlikely to be a problem for me. Dave, on the other hand, needs to eat every half hour (or so it seems) so I was slightly anxious, especially as we woke early (I was in the shower by six each morning). Would we have to drive round looking for a truck stop? No, as it turned out, because the campsite shop had freshly baked croissants and pains au chocolat delivered every morning. Still warm. That was one of the highlights of the trip for me: sitting in the early morning sun covered in the shed flakes of a yeasted pastry; cows glazed by light on the ridge; the sea glinting below; sleep-hazed fellow campers heading for the loos in faintly crumpled Boden pyjamas. I felt like a character in a Helen Dunmore novel.
As Saturday was a bit of a washout for us, it having been preceded by the night from hell, we were back at the site by late afternoon, and really didn’t fancy the thought of trying to spruce up and go out for supper somewhere. But Rosewall came to the rescue again. At about five-thirty a stall of cheery hipsters popped up near the shower block, with a portable wood-fired oven, and made pizzas to order for ten quid a pop. I’d have preferred mine a little crisper, but the topping – the usual tomato, Serrano ham, and chilli oil – was great. (We did have a very nice brunch earlier in a place in Dorchester, but I can remember nothing else about it.)
Sunday was a much better day, we slept from about half-past eight on Saturday and woke at about half-past five with eager palates, and were ready to go adventuring before the shop opened. Thus we didn’t bother with croissants and headed straight for Lulworth cove. We arrived so early that nothing was yet open, except for a shack (see photo above) right by the beach that did take-away food, and Lavazza coffee. It was doing a roaring trade, but its card machine was broken and one needed cash to buy. We, so used now to not carrying cash, had eleven pounds between us (it was all Dave’s, I’d left mine in the shorts I’d worn the day before). Not all the prices were detailed, so we couldn’t work out what we could afford. Thus we told the woman behind the counter, who I assume owned the joint, of our predicament. She asked us what we wanted, we told her, she gave us the price. It was two pounds more than we had.
Now, there was a cash machine in the visitor’s centre, but that didn’t open for another two hours. ‘Give me what you’ve got,’ the woman said, ‘and if you bring the rest later, great, if you don’t, you don’t.’ So I had this:
We returned later, with the two quid, and a rather lovely fossil as a thank you gift. While we were there we had lunch: spicy bean-burger for D, which he declared fantastic, and a crab and lobster burger for me, which was another highlight of the trip. It was moist and crumbly, with lots of salad and a marvellously delicate pink sauce. Marie Rose?
At some point during our ramblings we get a craving for ice-cream. There were plenty of options, half a dozen places we could get it from, but we chose a café called Jake’s. D had Rum & Raisin, and Mango (two huge scoops), and I had Coconut, and Chocolate (ditto). I often regret having ordered chocolate ice-cream as it can be a bit feeble. More sugar than cocoa. But this was lush with cocoa solids: dense, dark, and creamy. And perfect with the coconut. Bloody yum!
We did mean to have a Dorset Cream tea at some point, but didn’t get round to it, though at a beach shack at Abbotsford (on Saturday) D had a tiny pot of strawberry and cream ice-cream made by a Dorset firm, which he felt ticked that box to his satisfaction.
The Wow of the Land
Lulworth cove is my new favourite place. It has everything I like: a beach; cliffs; amazing light; lots of places to eat; and people with buckets and spades. We spent all Sunday there wandering and browsing, and passed this millpond several times:
We also took a boat trip to the Durdle Door, where we were told about the geology of the Jurassic coast.
This turned out to be rather more exciting than expected. A wind got up, rocked us like an over-zealous nanny, and gave us all a good splash. I had a ball.
The day before we’d visited Chesil Beach
but I was so tired after that aforementioned sleepless night I could have been anywhere and, when, later, we went to Portland Bill – where the limestone for St Paul’s Cathedral came from, I didn’t even get out of the car. But I’d say both these places are well worth a visit, and hope to go back when I’ve had a good night’s sleep.
We were hoping to see adders and the Lulworth Skipper, we didn’t, but we did see a Marbled White, which got Dave very excited.
In fact, while lounging on top of a cliff at Lulworth, we saw hundreds of butterflies, and at some point a dragonfly the size of a haggis flew by.
If I Had to Choose One Thing
I wouldn’t know where to start. How do you choose between a crab & lobster burger; Thomas Hardy’s cottage;
warm pains au chocolat for breakfast; spectacular scenery; and a fossil shop? It’s impossible.
But on reflection I’d probably say the people. The volunteers at Hardy’s cottage were incredibly warm, enthusiastic, and knowledgeable. We chatted with one woman about his writing for ages, stopping only to give the people who came in behind us a chance. And, of course, the woman behind the counter at the Lulworth Cove food-shack (I don’t know if it has a name). Our experience of Dorset would have been much poorer were it not for her, and we’d probably have had to leave Lulworth to find an ATM, and not returned. So, yeah, she is my choice for highlight of the trip.
I spent last summer almost entirely away from home. It all began with our wedding at St Abbs, took in our honeymoon on the Isle of Lewis and two family get togethers in the south of England, before concluding with a three week house-sit in London. That was a great summer, probably our best yet. And I thought there wasn’t a spud in a chip shop’s chance of this one getting close. I had hoped to get some funding for a visit to a small Scottish island to do the research my novel needs, but that was as far as my hopes went, then our children jumped in.
First up, a package arrived from my son, Bob, in the US. Inside was an apron and two notes, one on a vintage looking postcard from Glacier National Park, the other on a slip of paper. The postcard note wished me happy birthday and explained the apron. It’s from Bob and his wife Reg’s favourite breakfast spot, where they go most weekends with a group of friends they met on a trip to a comedy festival in Canada. The note said that they all have the aprons, and now I can be part of the gang. You’d think it couldn’t get better, but the second note said that as this was the year of our ‘Paper’ anniversary they thought they’d get us paper tickets to visit. Thus, at the end of August, Dave and I are going to America for three weeks!
Secondly, Dave’s daughter, Jo, won a weekend glamping trip to Weymouth, but with two small children – one just over a year old – couldn’t go. Actually, she hoped to be able to go with Dave, but couldn’t get that particular weekend off work. So she asked Badger Beer (the prize givers) if it could be transferred to us, and it could! So at the end of July we are off to stay in a bell tent at a place called Rosewall.
The things I always want to do when I go somewhere new are: eat good, local food; find out a little bit about the culture and history; see as much art as possible; and experience the landscape and its nature (Dave tells me Dorset’s a good place for butterflies, and this is a good butterfly year). I like to just absorb a place, feel it, smell it, taste it, walk, clamber, and sit perfectly still in it.
I’ll be googling like mad over the next few weeks, especially for America, a country I know only from movies and books, but a little bit about Weymouth too. For instance I’m anxious to find out where I can get a cup of good coffee in the morning, and the best place for an authentic Dorset Cream Tea.
Mostly I want to spend my time there pootling around rock-pools and staring out to sea, though I do want to visit Hardy’s cottage. Thomas Hardy was the writer who opened the door to classic English Literature for me, I read everything of his I could get my hands on in my late teens, and I still love him. It will be marvellous to be in the place he wrote Far From the Madding Crowd, and, possibly, return imbued with some of his inspirations.
When it comes to food, apart from the iconic Cream Tea, I’m hoping for the freshest, tastiest fish. So if anyone can recommend a good fish restaurant in the Weymouth area, please do. And a farmers’ market, I don’t plan to do any cooking, no camping stove, but browsing food stalls is one of my favourite activities, so if you know of a good one…
Part of our prize is a voucher (£50) to spend in the Smugglers’ Arms which, the literature says, is a short walk from the campsite. It looks pretty gorgeous, but I’ll let you know once we’ve been. I expect we’ll want to eat there on our first night.
Now, when it comes to America I hope to try both traditional regional dishes, and updated ones. Bob has already promised to take us to Vatan where, he says, they keep bringing you food until you tell them to stop. Dave loves Indian food, and is a vegetarian (or flexitarian, he’ll eat the odd sausage or haggis), so this will be a big treat for him. I’ll be interested to see if the food is as good as my mother’s (she grew up in Burma with Indian cooks), and to taste what they say is authentic Gujarati fare. But what else?
I want to try authentic New York Jewish food, and to eat in the kind of Italian restaurant Serpico would have. And New York isn’t the only place we’re going, and I haven’t even started on all the other things I want to explore; I need to make a list…
Header image granddaughter, Charlotte, and me in St Abbs: Dave Dick (otherwise known as Husband)
Last week saw me running my first afternoon of regular, weekly creative writing sessions at the newly opened Peter Pan Moat Brae, Scotland’s National Centre for Children’s Literature & Storytelling. Which isn’t only for people under a certain age. We all need to free our inner child from time to time, and that’s what my two sessions are all about.
The first, which is at 2pm every Wednesday afternoon, is called What’s Your Story, and is for people who would like to be able to write about an aspect of their own lives. This could be as exciting and dramatic as travelling around the globe on a lawn-mower; or as apparently mundane as bringing up four kids on a cleaner’s wage (like my mother had to once my dad died). I asked them to write about a time they had to do something for the first time, and gave them a sheet of questions to act as prompts. They were free to ignore those questions, but everyone made use of them and I was delighted with the results. My favourite line from the session came from Becky: ‘It’s like trying to get blood from a butterfly.’
The second, which runs from 4-6pm, is called The Write Way, and is designed to help with descriptive writing. The format is the same, I give them a sheet of prompting questions, but I also put an object on the table for them to describe:
Once they’d decided what it was, who might own such a thing, where it lives, etc they wrote sumptuous, magical pieces. I say pieces because one participant wrote something akin to abstract art, like a prose poem or a passage from a Neil Gaiman novel, rather than a narrative. I was really impressed by how their imaginations were fired by something that used to hang on my old plum tree in all weathers. It seems true that everyone can write, they just need a little help to loosen their imaginations, and Peter Pan Moat Brae is the perfect place for that.
I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to this afternoon’s sessions…
Now I’m earning a regular wage I’ve been able to buy a new phone. Not brand new, but a year old iPhone 8, quite an upgrade from my old 4s which was apt to randomly switch itself off, and overheated if I tried to use apps such as Instagram. Now I have all the latest apps at my fingertips, so, naturally, I’ve been exploring apps for writers.
As you’ll see from the header image, which is a screenshot taken seconds ago, I’m currently listening to tunes that one might have heard riding in a Mauritanian taxi. Yesterday I was in Mali, and goodness knows where tomorrow will take me. I don’t know why I love this app so much, I only know I do, it has become part of the atmosphere of my writing room. I play it not too loud, so it’s rather like aural wallpaper, and so far I haven’t attempted to write as it plays. But that’s what I’m doing right now, and I don’t think it’s getting in the way.
Yesterday morning I put it on and opened Werdsmith which, every morning at seven, tells me it’s time to write. Until today I’ve ignored it, but having decided I must take myself in hand and focus on writing again I decided to look more closely at it. It appears that to do anything interesting you have to make one, or more, of those irritating ‘in app’ purchases. Unwilling to do that I looked at settings and clicked on ‘Writing Prompts’. This took me to Unblock where I was asked a series of questions* in order to discover what kind of writer I am. What could I do? Reader, I answered them:
Q: What are some topics that interest you? A: Relationships; understanding; how we communicate; behaviour and motivation. Q: What are you knowledgable about? What are you expert in? A: I struggle to say I’m expert in anything, but I know a bit about food; fashion; contemporary art; literature and writing; philosophy; gardening. Q: What topics are you curious about? What do you want to learn more about? A: Why people do what they do: why are some people infinitely kind and others utterly selfish? Why do some people insulate themselves and others lay themselves bare? What does the woman who scowls at everyone want? Why do perfectly decent people turn on others? What are we afraid of, and why? Q: What is something you believe in that most people may not? A: That eudaimonia (human flourishing) is possible: there is enough for everyone, we just need to learn how to share, and that sharing, rather than hoarding, will result in a better life for everyone, even the super rich. Q: What do you want to write? A story? A novel? A screenplay? A: Everything; whatever suits the subject. Q: What kind of genre do you want to write in? A: Whichever one suits the subject I’m writing about. Q: Who are writers that inspire you? A: Lydia Davis; Amy Hempel; Zadie Smith; Virginia Woolf; Sylvia Plath; Gertrude Stein; Kafka; Proust; Samuel Beckett; Saul Bellow; W.G. Sebald; Alice Munro; Bernard MacLaverty; Frank O’Hara; and so many more. Q: What is your favourite piece of writing? Why? A: I’m really interested in the way certain writers use structure and language in a way that adds to the story. I recently read Kafka’s very short story ‘A Visit to the Mine’ and was blown away. How does he do that?! I also can’t get over Proust’s By Way of Swann, as translated by Lydia Davis, because of the clear picture it paints of the place, the family, the man. Q: What kind of stories do you want to tell? A: Stories that help us move towards eudaimonia. Q: Why do you want to write? To tell your story? To make people laugh? A: Writing’s one half of a conversation for me. I want to engage people, entertain them, and make them think. Q: How do you want to make your audience feel? A: Hopeful and bold (free from fear). Q: When will you make the time to write? First thing in the morning? Just before bed? A: First thing in the morning. Q: How long will you spend writing every day? A: Fifteen minutes on work days; two or three hours on non-work days. Q: Who can keep you accountable and make sure you stick to your daily ritual? A: If not me, no one. Q: Who can read your work and give you feedback? A: That’s what I want to know!
I assumed that after answering these questions the app would tell me what sort of writer I am, or give some indication, but it all just came to an end. Answering the questions hasn’t given me any further insight into my writing-self, I already know all these things having pondered them endlessly over the years, but it doesn’t hurt to go over them again, I guess. At least it gave me a blog post!
I realise now, too, that I forgot another favourite, Lists for Writers, which I had a great deal of fun with when I first installed it. I’ll write about that in another post.
For the last two and a half months I’ve been working for/with a company that runs conferences. I only do three days a week so I still have four days to work on my writing and other aspects of my practice, in theory. In reality I’ve been finding it difficult to get everything else done in those four days, so blogging has taken a dive. No more weekly writing challenge, no more writer opps Wednesday, no more whatever it is I wrote about on Fridays. And I’m beginning to miss the chat. So I thought, while I eat breakfast, before rushing off to the bathroom to get myself into a presentable state to go to the office, I’d just say hello.
Unfortunately, that’s about all I can manage in ten minutes. How do other people manage to do more? How do other people manage to work, some full time, and still write novels? I have a bunch of stories I planned to revise and polish to a shine in order to put out a pamphlet or small collection at the end of the year, but even that’s proving impossible. I even have the prospect of an agent – a writer I met recently liked my writing so much she said if I sent her more stories she’d give them to her agent!!! – but I’ve done bugger all to further that. I need to get my act together, and I think I need your help. Words of encouragement, advice, verbal kicks up the ass…
Header image: a posy Dave bought me at the farmers’ market yesterday. It was our first anniversary last Monday, where has that time gone?
I began this post yesterday, and spent all day trying to format it using a flashy editor called Elementor. I use it for constructing pages, but blimey it was a struggle for a blog post, and I inadvertently published before adding all the text and images. I’ve sorted that now, and will have to keep playing with things to get myself comfortable with this newness. Anyway, for what it’s worth, you’ll find the post here, at the new place. It’s about the myth of the scruffy artist, and how I went out for chia seeds and bought a purple velvet jacket. At least it now contains everything I planned for it.
It would seem moving websites is rather like moving house, I’m still tripping over boxes, faffing about with paint-charts, and trying to find the right nook for my reading chair. My new site is still rather chaotic, the pages sparsely furnished, and probably not yet ready for visitors. I’m between two (virtual) homes. I lived here for two years rather comfortably, but eventually got fed up with its shortcomings and built myself a swish new place. All very well but it feels rather lonely over there, and I rather miss this old place’s comforting foibles and friendly neighbours. So I thought I’d pop over for a chat, and, while I’m here, share some writer opportunities in the form of my regular Wednesday post:
Writer Opps Wednesday aims to bring you six fresh, juicy opportunities each Wednesday. This week we have, 1) a two week residency in Japan for artists of any discipline; 2) an eight week course for artists in Scotland who would like to become full-time freelance creative practitioners; 3) an all expenses paid programme for students (19-25yrs) who’d like to become film critics; 4) a brand new magazine that seems particularly concerned with creative development, and is looking for submissions from students and established writers; 5) A Publisher who Accepts Unsolicited Queries; 6) An invitation from Authors Publish Magazine to pitch articles and ebooks for which they will pay!
Zip over to my new place to see of what those opportunities consist. It would be nice to see you over there as I transition at a snail’s pace.