On Going Stealth

For a little while I have been thinking about Katherine Soper, who won the Bruntwood prize for her play; how much was made of the fact that  she worked behind a perfume counter. As if she came from nowhere. As if – indeed – working in a shop or a cafe might as well be ‘nowhere’; the assumption that nobody would be doing that job if they had anything else going on in their lives. That nobody with stuff going on in their lives chooses to do that job.

I work in a deli now. I do it because it helps me write my novel. Recently I told somebody (a near-stranger) that this is what I’m doing, and he explained to me very kindly and knowledgeably that I’d never get anywhere with it. And yes, of course I smiled and moved on, because I know that being behind a counter makes all of my other qualities invisible.

I chose this, but even so I find it mentally quite tough not to be chasing a traditional career, and I hesitate when people ask me what I do. I expect them to tell me I am wrong. Being on that MA gave me fabulous authority, hanging out with Kazuo Ishiguro and Margaret Atwood, being Proper. I could tell people and they would be impressed, yes, she is doing a Real Thing, that is definitely legit. Now I have finished studying, and serve coffee instead, my authority is more or less stripped from me: my writing is pie-in-the-sky at best.

I have done minimum-waged customer-facing jobs for many years – I’ve written about it before – and so often come across people who assume that because I am in a uniform I am worth nothing. Quite a few year ago, when I worked in museums, one visitor’s contempt and aggression reduced me to tears: my colleague – who, without his lanyard, was an extremely well-respected poet – took me by the shoulders and said, he doesn’t know you. He doesn’t know who you are. And I held onto that for a long time. When people were rude to me, I buttoned my lip and thought, they would not be treating me like this if they knew me, if they knew what I was doing. And they wouldn’t, of course; I have met that sort of person since, in other situations, and they think I’m the cat’s whiskers. A lovely white middle-class girl writer, how charming. But that isn’t really good enough. They shouldn’t make such assumptions about anybody. There are a million reasons people do jobs like mine, not least because the British economy is service-based  and these are the jobs that are going. The arts don’t pay. These low-skilled public-facing jobs are how the makers of the future manage to make anything at all.

But I am a bit tired of going stealth. And as we all know, writing is not really a spectator sport. know that I have written eighty-thousand decent words, but to the person on the other side of the till I am the machine that pours their latte. know that writing makes me tick, makes me most myself right now, but I do it alone at the dining-room table and nobody else is there to see it. What they see me do is Dettox the cheese-cutter.

I get better at smiling and moving on because I know that even if I end up successful as a writer (nb my definition of ‘writing success’ is not the same as the layman’s definition, which is JK Rowling or bust), I might always be stealth. I’ll always have to do jobs like this one to support the stuff I really care about.

So I am trying to adopt a double-pronged approach, which goes thusly:

  • Declare myself to as many customers as possible. Let them know I am a writer, an intelligent person probably like the ones their promising kids go to uni with. Tell them about my life and what I do. Let them see that writers can be waitresses, and waitresses can be writers.
  • If they assume I’m a moron, don’t sweat it. Just smile and repeat in my head:
    Eighty thousand words and counting
    MA with distinction
    Malcolm Bradbury Scholarship
    Curtis Brown Dissertation Prize
    Shortlisted for the MsLexia First Novel Prize 2015 (winner TBC).



For the Sake of this Novel

For the sake of this novel, I go to work all weekend, every weekend. No more big nights out with my friends or lazy Saturday mornings with the papers and a fried breakfast and the person I love. I fight so hard for just one Sunday with my sister. I must reject out of hand the thought of a weekend with beloved friends in another city: however much I miss them, I’ll never get the holiday. I cannot love people the way I wish I could. No big birthday presents, no spontaneous trips to the seaside.

For the sake of this novel, I cannot love my partner the way I want to either. I dream of a holiday together. It’s a coup to get away at all, and we have never been abroad, but I am determined: I join The Sun for theme park vouchers; I volunteer us for Work Away and take him along while I do support work in a caravan on the coast. Sometimes we house-sit down the road, and that’s nearly a holiday. I consider us lucky, lucky, lucky to get these breaks. I do. I will always fight to win these moments for us.

For the sake of this novel I work flexible temp jobs who do not pay me on time, and internships who never pay me at all. All I can think is that the work I do is not worth their respect, and in return I must be craven: ‘has there perhaps been a misunderstanding?’ I ask, or, ‘what a nightmare – thanks so much for looking into it for me!’ I cannot afford to show my anger. I cannot afford for them not to hire me again.

For the sake of this novel I coast from one paycheque to another, never trusting when the next one will come in or how much of it will be swallowed up by overdraft fees before I even get to it. I plan out a week’s worth of meals, everything priced up in the back of my notebook. I am lucky to have a deli job that lets me take food home at the end of the day (Remember those austerity recipes Jamie Oliver was ridiculed for, teaching poor people how to use up stale sourdough? That’s me.). I hoard the last £5 note in the back of my wallet just in case something goes wrong. I can spend nothing for a week if I have to. Two weeks. That note still sits there.

For the sake of this novel I am tense, weepy and full of shame: who do I owe money? Whose birthday have I missed? Will they take my lack of payment, my no-show, as lack of care? I care terribly, but I can barely speak about it. I don’t know how to take other people’s generosity: a lift, a bottle of wine, a gig ticket. It makes me embarrassed but I couldn’t spend time with them otherwise. I cannot have new clothes. I cannot have a haircut. I cannot shave my legs, if I can’t afford the razors. I cannot love myself the way I wish I could.

I have lived this way nearly all my adult life, usually well under the poverty line, and mostly it’s OK. I know how to retain my pride. I worked out ages ago that by putting in time one can achieve a lot of the same things that one would by putting in money. Walking to the veg market on a day off; trawling charity shops; doing my own DIY and planting my own garden. I get nice stuff, just more slowly. But some days, days like today when I am forced to pretend that late payment is no biggie, that two months’ late payment is no biggie – ugh, it does get old. Being poor gets really really old.

My friends say they just couldn’t do this, that I am brave. Actually I don’t think that’s the word for it at all. At best I’m stubborn. To be honest, as much as the alternative – jacking it all in tomorrow for a comfy salary – is appealing on days like today, when I really think seriously about it I feel a bit cold, a bit sick. I prefer this version of myself, and I think my poor darling partner prefers it too: a girl who sticks to her guns, who creates, who works so bloody hard.

This feverish writing, this is an act of self-love. It is the most selfish thing I ever did. I am refusing to give up the space for it in my life: I choose to spend the day in the library and not the office; I choose this tiny box room instead of a flat and a cat with my partner; I choose to build my life around my writing and not around my socialising, even when it breaks my heart.

This year is even more important than my MA year was. This year is the year I finish my novel; this might be the year I sell it too. And it’s not like after that happens I’ll be on the pig’s back, but it will have paid off all the same, because I’ll have finished something really worthwhile. I’m doing all this because I know that I can do it, and I am going to damn well make sure I do it. Perhaps after this year I’ll get myself a permanent nine-to-five Monday-to-Friday, and a flat with my boyfriend, and a holiday. But most of all I’ll have a really really good book to show for it. It is my baby. It is me. I’ve worked harder for it and sacrificed more than I have for anything else in my life, and I do not doubt for one single moment that it is worth doing. Because what I do for the sake of this novel I do for my own sake; I do out of total love.

Shin Tokyo Hakkei

I’m so delighted to publish my first very mini article at PockoTimes.com: it’s about a collection of prints, ‘100 Views of New Tokyo’, which were made by a collective of eight Japanese artists in the late 20s and early 30s. I’ve loved this collection for years but there isn’t much written specifically about it in English (when I approached the British Museum for source texts, they suggested quite a lot of books in Japanese!), so perhaps somebody more equipped will do a little more research. Anyway they are gorgeous and more people should see them.

Read my article here: http://www.pocko.com/100-views-new-tokyo/

and in the meantime, enjoy:

NEW TOKYO-8A_087_1932_Fukazawa Fukagawa Garbage Incinerator (#96), 11/1/1930, by Suwa Kanenori NEW TOKYO-8A_044_1930_Henmi

NEW TOKYO-8A_047_1931_HenmiNEW TOKYO-8A_042_1930_Henmi NEW TOKYO-8A_051_1929-32_HenmiThe Kabuki Theatre at Night (#19), 6/1/1930, by Fujimori ShizuoRising Sun Shell, Showa Street (#84), 6/1/1930, by Fukazawa SakuImperial Hotel (#45), 10/1/1930, Henmi TakashiHibiya Open Air Music Hall (#33), 11/1/1930, by Onchi KoshiroAsakusa (#94), 5/1/1930, by Suwa KanenoriSakurada Gate (#93), 2/1/1930, Suwa Kanenori, printmakerNEW TOKYO-8A_042_1930_Henmi

Six Things I Learnt on my Creative Writing MA

I’m sure you’ve heard the argument that good writing can’t be taught, and this is absolutely valid at least in as far as you can’t implant talent into a person. You can always work up a skill, though, so it’s perplexing that people object so strongly to creative writing courses when they do not object to art school or marathon training. We rarely expect to excel in any area equipped with only raw and natural talent, so why should writing be the exception?

Of course I would say this: I am a product of creative writing courses. After writing compulsively and reclusively for years I began evening classes first at Birkbeck and then at City University; thus polished, I got a place on the Creative Writing Prose MA at UEA. One year on, I’ve handed in my dissertation, and am finally in the position to reflect on my MA experience, which, if it didn’t teach me to write, definitely taught me a lot of other stuff. If you are starting a creative writing course, this might be worth taking on board; if you do not believe in creative writing courses, cut out the middle-man and just read these six handy bullet points: Continue reading

The False Memory Archive

I have a thing that human beings need stories because human beings are innately pattern-making. We see patterns where there are none: we find faces in clouds or rocks or wood; we find a message in coincidence. Stories are just a kind of pattern-making, I think, a way of filling in gaps of comprehension or knowledge so that they become whole, however fantastical that whole might be. We are always embroidering on the world. We remember things that have not happened.

So check out AR Hopwood’s very cool project. It’s at the Freud Museum until the 3rd of August.

Here’s their PDF of false memory contributions.

I have one, that I know of. I was a small child at a party in a big room like a school gym or village hall. There were trestle tables with paper tablecloths, pink wafer biscuits. I was introduced to a very shy little boy who didn’t want to play: he was there with a woman who wasn’t his mother. He had lots of small lesions, and later my own mother explained that these had been done by his parents, with lit cigarettes.

I’m told this never happened, and I’m sure it didn’t, at least that my mother would never have disclosed a thing like that to me. But I do wonder whether this stemmed from any actual event, and if so how long afterwards I worked it up into the memory that now feels real to me. Typing it out, for the first time, I was surprised (not surprised) how readily I went to add extra details – how naturally pink wafer biscuits suggested party rings, suggested paper napkins, suggested the soft weight of a slab of bought sponge inside one such paper napkin, the gummy layer of pink jam and buttercream. I’m just collecting up real-life sense-data to create a convincing whole, and it’s OK because I’m a writer of fiction, I’m meant to do that, but I’d be interested to know how often we do this in daily life and never realise.

‘Unconditionally Yours’ – or why the privatisation of museum staffing makes me want to cry

News of the planned privatisation of the National Gallery’s FoH staff is depressing but predictable. This article makes good points about why museums – not just the NG – might be forced into farming out their services, and a lot of these reasons come down to funding cuts. Museums no longer have the government-granted wherewithal they used to: they are unable to pay a living wage to the volume of staff they need, and are under increasing pressure to show that they can turn a profit.

I’ve written before about what a disaster private agency temps are for museum FoH, and my opinion hasn’t changed. I got some interesting responses to my original post, and I was glad that it seemed so relevant in so many parts of the world – hey, it’s been quoted in Serbian! – and although most of the responses I got from museum workers were positive, some also disagreed with some or all of my points. Continue reading

We Deserve Better and We Can Do Better: A Gallery Warder Writes.

Recently an older friend of mine complained on Facebook about her bad experience at the British Museum. The staff on the information desk had not known what she was asking for, she said, and sent her to the wrong gallery (especially difficult for her as she is disabled and the extra walking increased the pain she was in). ‘This is the BM for heavens’ sake,’ she wrote. ‘There must be unemployed history and archaeology graduates who would not sneer at a job on an info desk here’.

Of course my hackles went right up. Still, eight months after leaving the British Museum, the suggestion that the staff are incompetent makes me shake with rage. But I stopped and had a think about it, and came to the conclusion that she is probably right. Some of the staff are incompetent. They are not necessarily stupid or lazy or even ignorant, but they are certainly unable to deliver what visitors expect of a world-class museum, and this is not even slightly surprising, given the current system. I’m writing about the BM because I know it best, but the problems in its Visitor Operations department are surely present in other big museums and galleries, because they are a symptom of a far larger problem. I am not writing this piece out of spite or anger – I feel neither – but because I still love this country’s wealth of museums, I still admire the British Museum, and I want it to thrive.

When I applied for my job in Visitor Ops, there were seven vacancies and seven hundred applicants. It was August 2010, a bad time to work in museums: the coalition government hadn’t been in long, but significant spending cuts were already being made. Many of my university cohort had struggled to find any employment at all, so I was delighted to have paid museum work of any kind. It wasn’t my dream job, but I believed that if I worked hard this could be a stepping-stone to better things. The managers who interviewed me gave the impression that they were looking for people with ambition, who wanted to spend their career in museums, and all seven new employees fitted that profile. We were educated, interested and interesting. We were there because we desperately wanted to be, and I’ve never forgotten the exhilaration and pride I felt as we walked into the Great Court on our first day. Continue reading