I hear this, all the time. Everyone knows everyone else, and if you don’t, you know their mum. There’s an essential noseyness in the blood. I like that. It means you can walk through town anytime and see a familiar face (or their mum’s).
I went to Liverpool author Amanda Brooke’s launch party for The Missing Husband, her brand new novel, on Thursday last at Waterstones in Liverpool ONE. As ever, because it’s Liverpool, I end up talking to people I know, lots of them.
Ahh! You’re here too!
None of them writing people, just folk I know. It’s a joy. A grand evening of wine and words.
I stumbled onto the wonder that is Fleabay, online classifieds. The working class equivalent of vintage, no recycled or pre-loved monikers to soften the blow, no Saturday morning traipse around the charity shops. Fleabay is second hand – or die trying. It sells everything. A collection of shoes, sizes three to nine (how many people are in your family, exactly? And why so many feet?), drum kit (“played once”), One Direction duvet set (“daughter scared of it”).
On Fleabay, I see a Superwoman dress. It’s in my size.
A noisy thing, primary colours shouting, Superwoman logo printed on plasticky cloth, belt drawn on, it has a suspicious shine. It’s a second skin, clinging over breasts, hips and bottom, no cute nipping in at the waist, no flared skirt to hide a pot belly. A squeeze-into frock with hem mid-thigh on the shortest of women (a knicker-skimmer on me) – and like Fleabay, irony free. I just know the belt will ride up, printed on belts never stay where they’re meant to, inching northwards with every breath. I know it will look awful on me, unflattering, and yet…
A few months ago I read Shelley Harris’ magnificent novel Vigilante. Harris’ heroine, ignored by her family and husband and the world, fashions herself a superhero costume, goes out at night and fights crime. It’s the best feminist novel I’ve read since Nina De La Mer’s Layla.
While I read it, I was like, “every woman needs to read this”.
“Ok,” said my husband, not listening. “I will, sometime.”
“Hell, that’s an idea! Every MAN needs to read this!”
The idea of a woman gone invisible to the world restoring justice and her sense of self is fucking brilliant. So now, post-Vigilante, I’m looking at this dress on Fleabay and I‘m wondering, dreaming.
The dress is only a fiver. I could hang it in the wardrobe and look at it. I’ll know it’s there, just in case. In case I need to wear it and sort out the world. I like this, the way I’m thinking now.
But the dress has no cape. Super heroines need a cape. Everybody knows that. A super heroine without a cape won’t fly.
I eye up the curtains in the spare bedroom and wonder what could be.
It’s a Saturday morning and I’m in the library. The library of now, it’s like a reverse library from when I was a kid. Instead of dusty old books are nice new ones, loads of them, and in the place of people there’s empty spaces.
The librarians of now chit-chatter from behind the desk about speed reading. It’s not for them, all agree; they have a point. I don’t like speed reading either, it defeats the object of reading really. I just wish they’d keep the noise down.
SHHHHH! I want to say but won’t, because the sky will come crashing down or so I reckon. Libraries haven’t changed that bloody much. Librarians, they still have the power, no matter how old you are.
A homeless dude is sitting by the magazine rack in the corner, out of the way. He rests his chin on his chest and he’s got copies of the NME and The Lady opened at random pages on the table in front of him. The best effort I’ve ever seen in my life of pretending to read whilst snatching some solid zzzz’s, he’s covering all bases, every audience. There’s no way the librarians will budge him now, if you’re reading The Lady you’re posh, an eccentric millionaire maybe. He’s got them on lock down. Good for him. I like to think every now and then he opens his eyes and checks out an indie band or two, and idles over a recipe for fancy cake.
The night before, I’m talking to a mate in the pub. I say I’m going to the library in the morning, she asks ‘Why?’, and pulls her face.
We go through the whole rigmarole, the same conversation I’ve had with so many people. Yep, I know I can download books for nothing, but I don’t want to.
The library’s minging (it isn’t, it smells of Lemon Pledge and books), I haven’t got time (she has), it’s too far (the house of books is NOT that far), the library is for povs (hmmm), I used to go when the kids were little but..., and I’m so busy…
Her list of reasons not to go is endless. It never stops. Seems to me, on paper I have fewer reasons to go than she has not to, and that makes me feel sad.
I don’t know how to sex up the library for her. I think that’s what she wants. But if it was sexy, homeless dude might not be welcome, and that’s not good; bloody hell, the odds are I wouldn’t fit in either. Still, if the library was sexed up my mate might go, once in a while. How do you sex up a library? Add some celebrity zing, maybe? Because that’s what we’re all after, yes?
Dressing up as your favourite character from a book is a tricky business this World Book Day judging by the endless stream of princesses I saw going into my local primary school this morning. I saw princesses, lots of them; but spied no books.
I started to wonder, what do poor kids do on World Book Day? The ones from families who are skint? Poverty clings to poor kids like a smell, it follows you wherever you go. As a former poor kid, I confirm this is true. It is obvious to your teachers, the other kids in class, their parents (especially them), all your neighbours; every single curtain twitching one, that you are poor. As a poor kid, you don’t anything new, or for spare. You live a life of hand me downs and free school dinners.
And everybody knows.
So on World Book Day, what’s the script for the poor kid? She hasn’t got fancy dress left over from Hallowe’en, and the whole wear-a-sheet-and-pretend-to-be-a-ghost thing doesn’t work if you’re poor. A homemade robot made out of a cardboard box is fine if it’s common knowledge your mam and dad have a nice car and you go on hols to Dubai every summer. If they know you walk to school no matter the density of the pissing rain and a day out in Southport seems exotic to you because it’s so rare, then that fucking robot underlines your poverty; a child may as well have a neon sign above her head saying “I’m a pov”.
My friend the children’s author Trevor Belshaw has a quirky idea. Why, he asks, aren’t kids encouraged to go to the library, take out a book they really like and bring it to school with them on World Book Day? It’s free to borrow books, anyone can do it and we need to boost activity in libraries, so…
Too radical an idea? Controversial?
No, let’s not bother with such bookish craziness; we’ll go for the costume angle instead and, y’know, children can bring a book if they really want to. It’s bound to work, and if it makes the poor kids feel even shittier than they usually do, we’re on to a winner. Well played.
There are two books out this week with my work in them.
On Monday 5th Jan, Sisters Born, Sisters Found (Wordforest) is out via ebook. In paperback already, it carries my feminist essay “You women! You’re such bithes!”. The book is an exploration of sisterhood in all its guises. Thanks to editor Laura McHale Holland from Wordforest for all the hard work she put into producing the book.
On Tuesday 6th Jan, the ebook version of Slim Volume : No Love Lost (Pankhearst) is also released, with the paperback available since December. I help celebrate anti-romance with my flash fiction “Good Times”. Edited by Kate Garrett, the book is a full of beautiful stories and poetry. I read “Good Times” on YouTube:
A (slightly late) launch for No Love Lost takes place in Sheffield on 29th January, details here.
The woman in my writing group she’s buzzing, animated like she’s about to open a birthday present. She’s grinning, all teeth and eyes and flushed cheeks, grasping onto the chapter of my book printed onto three white sheets. This writing group is formal, work emailed for critique a full four days before meetings. Try sending it in later, three days or even two, and you’re out, no messing about. The sheets in the woman’s hand creak and whine she grips so hard, her knuckles turning white, bone joints pushing out stretching the skin. Her smile is fixed and brittle, eyes darker than normal. It hits me. She’s not excited but angry, and her anger is directed at me.
The chapter in the book I’m writing peruses on the grimness of winter. Winter smells of nothing, it observes; not like the summer I love, with its flowers and foliage, the hum of malty pollen and cut grass delighting the senses. If I am honest with myself I suspect I might go on a bit in this chapter and the work needs editing and refining, but this is my first draft of many so there’s time to let it prove, like a good loaf. I got the winter weather idea coming from a pub lunch with friends, a pub with gardens and grounds around it. In the warmer months it’s fresh and green and smells amazing but in January the garden is just damp and dull. I scribbled “no smell” in Olive, my notebook, on the train home. That’s what notebooks like Olive are for, to scribble down your observations and the odd cheeky word for later use.
Back in the writing group the woman is staring. I’m wondering, maybe she doesn’t like my chapter, thinks it’s crap. I hope not because I’m pleased with it.
‘Who wants to go first?’ I say.
Not bothered, shrugs everyone. No one ever wants their work to be examined and critiqued first although we are all friendly enough. Not friends exactly, but cordial companions.
‘We’ll do mine first, then,’ I say.
The woman’s brittle smile flinches, but she grins.
‘Well, what did you think?’ I throw it out to the room and brace myself to hear views on my chapter.
‘I like the thing about the weather,’ says one member. ‘It might need some editing though. To give it more punch.’
Fair enough. I saw that coming. We go around the circle and I’m getting good feedback, some a bit snipey but nothing I can’t take. Then it’s the woman’s turn.
‘Well, what do you reckon?’ I repeat.
She glares and smirks simultaneously. A nervous giggle scratches my throat, and escapes; I can’t help it.
Her features harden. ‘I know where you got this from!’ She stabs the sheets with her finger.
‘Where I got what from?’
‘The thing about winter not smelling of anything!’
I consider whether to tell her about the pub garden. How I came out of the pub with a belly full of veggie lasagne and red wine, dug out Olive and wrote down what I thought. I actually remember writing it down, which is rare because usually Olive just shows me rows of words and random phrases but this I recall noting, it has a thin string of memory attached.
‘Do you?’ I say instead.
‘I said that!’
‘When we came out of that pub, it’s what I said, coming out!’
Oh. The woman had been with us on the pub lunch. I remember that now.
‘I said that!’ She’s hitting the page again.
Had she said it? I don’t remember. But there’s no reason to believe she’s making it up, normally she’s very nice. Not today though.
‘We went to the pub in January. You, me and her!’ She points at another woman who looks terrified.
I recall the lunch with them in January. Olive was with me, skulking in my bag. A writer’s lunch in a pub, the pub with a garden that smelled of nothing.
‘You stole it!’
That’s a bit strong. Still, I start to blush. ‘I can’t remember.’ I’m lying now. The memory is creeping back, readjusting itself in my mind, pushing its way to the front. I’m in the pub garden again and it smells of damp, the bare trees like barcodes against a white-grey sky and I hear the woman’s voice saying “The thing is about winter, it smells of nothing.”
I look down on the printed page of my chapter.
“The thing is about winter, it smells of nothing”.
Oh. My. God.
I brazen it out, but she’s smarting. I feel like a plagiarist, a thief. But I can’t be. Can I? You an’t copyright an idea, a handful of throwaway words. Can you?
‘I’m not going to say anything in front of you anymore.’
I’ve really pissed her off, but can I do? Olive would be bare and blank if I ignore everything round me. What do I write about if I can’t squirrel way words? This has never happened to me before, ever. I think if there was some sort of writer’s disciplinary tribunal she’d have Olive and I in the dock.
The writing group fizzles out soon afterwards and I’m sad in a way, but glad for it. Thief, thief, rings in my ears when I think of this woman now. Word thief, ideas thief. The frisson of fear and shame.