Tuesday, 26 April 2011

The Happy Meal

I had always imagined that my blog would be a place where I would mainly post pieces of short fiction, and perhaps a poem or two. Well, like a lot of creative endeavours, it seems to have taken on a life of its own, and become a place for my musings on writing, music, art and life generally. 

Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, and I am enjoying it all immensely. But I thought it was high time that I started posting the occasional piece of short fiction, and that's what I'm here to do today. 

'The Happy Meal' came about as a result of a casual remark I heard on the radio, which made me reflect on the huge potential for melancholy of the humble Happy Meal. This was one of those happy occasions when something just clicked, and I sat down and wrote the first draft of the piece almost on automatic pilot - a fabulous, if elusive, sensation which comes highly recommended!  

The Happy Meal

As if a flabby hamburger and a plastic dinosaur could possibly nourish body or soul, he muses sadly as he watches his son across the table. The colourful cardboard box promises much, but delivers little. A bit like life, he thinks, before he has time to stop himself.

How can a ‘Happy Meal’ ever mend the damage that’s been done? I’m a useless father. She was right. He’ll never be able to forgive me. It’s me he’ll blame, not her. Probably for the rest of his life.

He stares, awe-struck, at his little boy, and marvels at his innocent perfection: the unblemished softness of his rosy cheeks, the neat back-to-school haircut, the fingers with their clipped nails, sinking into the burger bun. And the love that surges through him promises to break his heart, and he wonders if he hasn’t been punished enough already.

He picks up the plastic toy between finger and thumb, and prowls it across the table, trying to distract himself from the tears prickling at him. Deep breath. Triceratops. He remembers it from his own childhood, his fascination with these strange creatures, his need to learn the long names, to list, to categorise. Just like his son.

The boy watches as the dinosaur furtively approaches his bag of chips. The hint of a smile plays across his lips, moist with grease from the burger. He picks out a chip, twists it in his tub of ketchup, and holds it to the dinosaur’s open mouth, his beautiful fresh face level with the monster’s.

‘He’s a herbivore. So he likes chips. But not hamburgers.’

The man smiles. He makes the sort of low, satisfied growling noise he imagines a triceratops might make, in demolishing its favourite meal of French fries doused in ketchup.


‘Yes, love?’

The little boy fixes him with big blue eyes as clear as a sunny winter’s morning.

‘Dad, what’s the matter?’

‘… Oh look. He’s covered in ketchup now.’

But the boy just gazes at him.

‘How d’you mean? Nothing. Nothing’s the matter.’

He takes another deep breath, ragged this time, not quite within his control. He picks up a paper napkin and busies himself in wiping the sticky tomato sauce from the dinosaur’s vacant face.

‘You look sad.’

Oh, no. He’s noticed. No. Every other weekend. That’s all you have. You promised yourself you’d make the most of it. You promised. And you’ve screwed it up. Loser.

‘I’m a bit… tired, that’s all. I’m… I’m sorry.’

He tries a smile, but is unconvinced by it himself. Then he tries a yawn instead, grabbing at the opportunity to rub his eyes as well.



The little boy frowns and bites his lip.

‘… What is it, son?’

‘We will always do things together, won’t we? You will always want to?’

The sweet, sharp unexpectedness of the question catches at his breath.

He suddenly feels the need to blow his nose. He reaches into one jacket pocket, then another, but there’s no handkerchief there – he knows there isn’t, and the reason why: he hasn’t done his ironing. She told him he was hopeless, the day she left. Maybe she was right.

He is aware of his son watching him, concerned, his sweet head tilted slightly to one side. He dares to meet his eye. But he doesn’t find what he’s expecting there - no derision, no intolerance, no bitter, crushing disillusionment. Because he’s nothing like his mother. Those wise blue eyes are gleaming at him, understanding him better, more deeply, than they should ever have been allowed to do. Loving him.

The boy licks ketchup from his fingers and gently hands his father a fresh paper napkin. The man swallows hard, takes the napkin as calmly as he can and blows his nose into it.

‘I hope so. I’d like to. That’d be great, wouldn’t it?’

His son seems relieved, as if an unbearable weight has been lifted from his tiny shoulders, and he beams at him, a big, sunny life-raft of a smile. 

‘Now. I think I could eat some ice-cream. How about you?’

Wednesday, 20 April 2011


I was delighted - no, let's say 'stunned' - this week to be awarded first place in Newcastle Theatre Royal's 2011 Creative Writing competition. The brief was to write about a favourite Shakespeare character, in prose, poetry or script form.

I decided to write about Ariel, after he has been released from servitude by his master, Prospero. I began with prose, but quickly found that I couldn't say what I wanted to say in that form. I found myself channelled towards poetry instead - against my will, I might add, because I don't regard myself as a poet at all, and feel very self-conscious about the whole process!

This was a bit of a lesson in the gritting-of-teeth-and-just-getting-on-with-it. With two days to go before the deadline, and feeling disheartened and lacking in confidence, my choice was clear: did I give up and let myself down, or did I just chip away at it until I'd got something I could submit? I chose the latter option. I hope you enjoy the result!


‘My Ariel, chick,
That is thy charge. Then to the elements
Be free, and fare thou well.’

The Tempest, Act 5, Scene 1

You are roused by the sunrise, airy spirit,
curled up snug within a cowslip’s bell,
yawning and stretching, and breathing in
a freedom you have only ever dreamed of.

Blinking awake, you eagerly refresh yourself
from pure, new dewdrops, sweet and
sparkling in the rosy light of dawn,
reflecting back at you your blissful liberation.

Brushing away the pollen grains that
hang about your lustrous skin,
you take to the air on opalescent wings
alive as springtime, dazzling and unseen.

Creature of fire and magic and
mystical music, you flit invisible
through Prospero’s beloved library,
brushing his happy cheek as you pass by.

You swoop and soar with swallows on their journey
north, watching fields and trees surge back to life
beneath your flashing wings, leaving Milan,
Naples, far behind and heading for the sea,

and England, and the Thames, until
you find the special shape you’re searching for.
On whirring wings you spiral round that
legendary Wooden O, your destiny close by.

Backstage, a bearded man sleeps soundly
when he should be working. Quill in hand,
he’s slouched across a ripe, blank page,
waiting for inspiration. Words. A Play.

You have your servant now, quaint Ariel:
Will Shakespeare, here, to do your bidding.
So settle on that noble shoulder,
dainty sprite, and whisper to his dreams.

Tell him of incarceration, slavery, and honest,
faithful servitude, of raising a tempest,
setting aflame the topmast of a ship, and
leaving everyone unharmed, as you were tasked.

Tell him how wrongs were righted,
treacheries revealed and yearned-for freedoms
finally delivered. And watch him stirring in his slumber,
a gentle smile tickling that fine face.

And then, brave Ariel, ask him: ‘Was’t well done?’

Friday, 15 April 2011

Need cheering up? Meet the ox on the roof!

It was always going to be one of those days. I won't bore you with it. Let's just say domestic appliances... dishwasher defunct and surrounded by towels... boiler also defunct... no heating... no hot water. My husband insists these things don't come in threes; I, on the other hand, am bracing myself.

So, I needed cheering up. My usual strategy for achieving this is a long, brisk walk around the lovely woodland near our home. I invariably return refreshed and in a better frame of mind. It works even better if I have my iPod with me, and can put on some really rousing music.

The appeal of music is such a deep-seated, ancient, mysterious thing. I always wonder at its ability to act as a lifter-of-spirits. There are pieces of music I know I can rely on when I'm not in a very good mood, which I trust to have me transformed by the time they've drawn to a conclusion.

This morning, I shared my walk with Darius Milhaud and his 'Le Boeuf sur le Toit' ('The Ox on the Roof'). This lively, joyous piece, a quarter of an hour long, is based on popular Brazilian tunes, and was turned into a ballet by Jean Cocteau, premiering in 1920. It is full of vitality, dance rhythms and delicious, crunchy discords - invigorating and life-affirming.

I returned from my walk, and found that Monsieur Milhaud and his trusty Boeuf had done their job. I listened to the piece again. I danced round the kitchen, managing to avoid the dishwasher in the middle of the room, and warmed up so effectively that it didn't really matter that the heating was broken. Something of a result. 

There are lots of options for sampling this lovely piece on YouTube, but the clip I really like is this one: Michela Chiara Borghese and Sabrina De Carlo in a performance for one piano, four hands and, rather beautifully, two pairs of bare feet.

A word of warning, though. This is catchy! So be careful. If I don't listen to something else soon, to get this tune out of my head so that I stop humming it, it may well be my long-suffering husband who will end up 'sur le toit', and that would never do.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Showing, not telling: Hylas yearns for home

The best five hours I ever spent in the theatre was at a performance by Scottish Opera of Berlioz' 'Les Troyens' at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle. This massive opera is, understandably, rarely performed.

Based on Virgil's Aeneid, it tells the story of the destruction of Troy, and of our hero, Aeneas', destiny as the founder of a new Troy, to be known as 'Rome'. On the way there, the Trojan fleet is waylaid in Carthage and our hero (predictably) falls in love with Dido, Queen of Carthage.

This is terrible, because Aeneas knows full-well that the gods have already decided his future for him, and Dido isn't part of it. In fact, all through the second half, assorted characters from wood nymphs to the ghosts of other Trojan heroes take it in turns to appear to Aeneas, and give him a gentle prod to remind him of his divine duty to history.

Anyway, Act 5 (!) opens the night before the fleet's departure for Italy, and begins with one of the most haunting arias I have ever heard - 'Vallon Sonore'. Hylas, a young Phrygian sailor, leans against the masthead of his ship as it sits in the harbour. The gentle lilting of the music evokes perfectly the lapping of the water around the sides of the vessel.

This is such an intimate piece that we almost feel that Hylas is singing to himself, not to the audience. It is not a grand, noisy proclamation of this character's suffering (the sort which is usually followed with indecent haste by the character's death from a disease which would, in reality, render breathing difficult, let alone a solo aria projected into the back row of a massive auditorium. I digress.)

No, this is contemplative, quiet, and utterly heart-rending. Hylas remembers an echoing vale, with huge trees giving sweet-scented shade from the heat of the day. He recalls his humble cottage, and bidding farewell to his mother. He asks himself, repeatedly, if he will see his homeland again, but he already knows the answer to that question, just as we do.

The nature of this song reminds me of the idea that, as writers, we should show what is happening to our characters, rather than describing it. There is a sense here that we are almost intruding on Hylas' private grief, such is the intimacy of this moment. How much less effective it would be if he were to stand at the front of the stage and tell us how homesick he is!

The song also makes me think about the nature of yearning, so achingly depicted in this music. If we yearn for something which could happen, in time, there is a real sweetness to that sensation - imagine if Hylas knew that he'd get home eventually. But equally, we might yearn for something which we know can never be - a sensation akin to mourning, as I think Berlioz shows perfectly in Hylas' breathtaking aria.

Do click on the link above and have a listen. The aria is sung here, I believe, by the wonderful Toby Spence, on the LSO's award-laden live recording of 2000.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Oh, did I mention I'm sinister?

Pronunciation: /ˈsɪnɪstə/ 
Origin: late Middle English (in the sense ‘malicious, underhand’): from Old French sinistre or Latin sinister 'left' 

I write with my left hand.

It wasn't a conscious decision - I wasn't being bloody-minded, whatever my parents might tell you - that's just the way I was made, in the same way as I have brown hair and brown eyes.

It has never really been a problem, except at school when we moved from using pencils to fountain pens. Fountain pens. Imagine. I had two problems with that instrument-of-torture: the ink would smudge as my hand moved across the page, and the nib would scratch the paper. The teacher told me off, which seems strange now. Had she never encountered a left-handed pupil? It never occurred to me that I was left-handed - why should it?

Anyway, the reason I'm here is not moan about my lot in life. (I'm actually not that left-handed. For instance, while I find my left-handed cheque book - yes, really - much more comfortable to use that a standard one, the idea of left-handed scissors makes my brain hurt: I physically wouldn't know what to do with them.)

No, I'm here, gentle reader, because of something I read recently in the Left Handers Club Newsletter, from the wonderful Anything Left-Handed, a specialist left-handers' website run by Keith and Lauren Milsom. The article discussed the number of everyday words and phrases, the world over, which link left-handedness with everything from clumsiness and poor dancing, to being bad luck and having a sneaky nature.

The list of things we're meant to be guilty of is fascinating. Shall we take a little tour?

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Elliott Erwitt - The Writer's Photographer?

A writer has always to be on the lookout for the unusual, the quirky, and the subject ripe with possibility for development.

I find inspiration coming at me from all sorts of angles – a face in a crowd, a piece of music, a chance remark overheard (or eaves-dropped upon – there, I admit it: I listen to other people’s conversations in cafés and restaurants, and on the bus and the train, and in the queue at the supermarket, and have been known to edge just a little closer to be able to hear more clearly).

Over the past few days, I have been mining some of my husband's photography books for ideas, and I've gravitated particularly to the work of Elliott Erwitt, a favourite documentary photographer. Erwitt is the master of the candid image, and loves to celebrate the bizarre and the absurd. I’m only just beginning to recognise what a gold-mine his photographs might prove to be in the search for inspiration, and the development of character, situation and plot.

For instance, in his book Museum Watching, a wonderfully entertaining collection of images of people visiting or working in museums, there is a photograph of an elegant bronze statue of Eros, aiming an arrow from his bow. Our viewpoint is from behind the statue; further ahead, walking towards us down a corridor, is a man, almost silhouetted against the pale walls and parquet flooring.

The fact that the man exists in the photograph, perhaps as the target for Eros' arrow, gives it a whole rich new layer of meaning. As soon as I saw it, my imagination started reeling. My first thought was, how can I use this? This was followed closely by, how would this story be different if the man had been walking away, rather than towards us?

Something I'm only just beginning to realise is what a lot of patience, determination and sheer hard work must go into these images, which look so natural and effortless. That has made me feel so much better. I'll explain.

I often find that I feel really deflated having seen a brilliantly-scripted film or read a really well-crafted book. The reason? It's because it has been done so well that it's been made to look as if it came simply to the writer, probably instantaneously and fully-formed. I come away believing I could never achieve anything approaching what I've just seen; I assume the writer is a true genius and that he probably threw the whole thing together before breakfast and still had time to walk the dog. This is ludicrous, of course.

Elliott Erwitt's images are deceptively simple, but how long did he have to stand in one spot to capture one image, and how often did he return home after a day’s work with nothing he was satisfied with? How many hours has he practised, over his life-time as a photographer, to achieve such stunning results? A lesson to anyone trying to do anything in a creative field, then: the greatest results will only ever be achieved as a result of hard work and determination.

But patience, practice and sheer hard work aside, Erwitt's real gift is for seeing the world around him in a certain way and being open to its limitless possibilities.

As writers, particularly if we are to be original, this is something we must nurture in our own lives too. We must constantly watch and listen; we must question what we see and hear. And most of all we must be open to the direction, often unpredictable and surprising, in which our observations lead us.