We Need to Talk about Miscarriage

grief

I had a miscarriage in November. It was “early”, which meant it left me feeling completely devastated but also oddly undeserving of my own grief; I had barely been pregnant before it was all over, but we had already told our parents and siblings.

I’m not writing about this because I want attention or sympathy, although some might cite my chronic tendency to over-share, or my love of medical statistics (and they’d be right – pregnancy is fascinating, but reliable, non-anecdotal advice can be hard to find, so I’ve become obsessed with seeking out good sources of information). The reason I’m writing about it now is that the only thing that made me feel better afterwards was hearing other women’s stories of their own losses, or talking to people whose partners had had miscarriages, and being reassured that a loss is a loss, no matter how early. I want this account to exist so that others can read it and (I hope) feel a little bit better.

My first instinct was to mourn; my second instinct was to feel guilty about mourning, because other people had reached eight, nine, twelve weeks, eight months, even, and I had only reached five weeks. How could I be sad when I’d suffered so much less? I also wept with fury when I received, exactly a month after my own miscarriage, a pregnancy announcement from close friends. It wasn’t their fault; they had no idea. But I raged, and sobbed, and was a mess. B was disappointed with me: weren’t we their friends? Shouldn’t I be nicer? How could I react like that when I should be happy for them? I tried to explain that yes, I was happy for them, thrilled even – or at least I knew I would be, soon; just not at that particular moment.

It’s a tired trope of the time we live in, but it’s worth repeating: your feelings are real. They might be selfish, or inappropriate, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Allow yourself to be sad if you need to be sad.

***

I knew I was pregnant long enough to construct a potential person in my head, a really clever, charming child with funny mannerisms who liked being taken to the Ashmolean Museum and then for cake in the cafe downstairs. Until November I had only been interested in girls’ names, but as soon as we found out, I felt like I was pregnant with a boy (although studies show that when women claim to “just know” the sex of their child, they’re right at about the same rate as chance: 50% of the time). We wandered around an exhibition of Venetian drawings and talked happily about the fact that there was just one name, that name, and it was perfect. It was so perfect that I couldn’t imagine it being a girl any more. My lack of symptoms worried me a little, though. It didn’t quite feel real.

I began bleeding a couple of days later, painlessly. It was the weekend, so I rang 111, which is the UK non-emergency number, and asked what I should do. They told me that painless light bleeding in early pregnancy was nothing to worry about, but that I should call again immediately if I experienced strong cramping, or began to lose large blood clots. They scheduled me in for a scan at a nearby hospital two days later. At about 3.30am on the morning I was due to go in, I woke up in a lot of pain, barely able to speak, and knew exactly what was happening. I followed the other, grimmer instructions they’d given me: save any tissue you lose, put it in a clean container, bring it in to your appointment for analysis. “We need to know if you have an infection,” they’d said. “Oh, I’ll be fine,” I’d responded cheerfully, trying to push my fright back down my throat.

I could barely look at it when it did come out. It was just a sort of dark red sac. At that stage the embryo inside was still effectively just a blastocyst, barely even an embryo, the size of a small red lentil. All I could do was say oh my god, oh my god, over and over. B put it in a tiny tupperware box, swaddled in the white tissue I’d caught it in, and put it in the fridge as we’d been instructed, which seemed so horribly sensible. The next morning I put it in my handbag, unable to decide whether or not to treat this thing as something, or just a medical object like a urine sample. I was alone; B was in rehearsals all day. I took a cab to the hospital, but there was a terrible traffic jam near the entrance and I had to walk what seemed like miles to get to the place where they’d scheduled my scan. My back ached.

When I got there, I walked through a large waiting room full of very pregnant women, looking tired but content, and eventually reached my destination: a smaller, silent waiting room. There were two couples sitting in it. The women were crying quietly; neither was visibly pregnant. The men sat holding their hands, or trying to get them to agree to coffee. I had a couple of bananas in my bag and offered them up; the women jumped at them. They’d been sitting there for some time, they said, and were starving, but their partners didn’t feel they could leave their wives to go and get food in case their wives were called in while they weren’t there. Sharing food is an extraordinary thing, even if it’s just bananas. Suddenly we were all friends, tenuously, in spite of the fact that we were all very close to tears. Everyone talked about their pregnancies, their bleeding, their hope that in fact it was probably ok, even though everyone knew it wasn’t. We expressed optimism for each other. I think we all meant it.

I was called in; they did a pregnancy test on the urine sample I’d been asked to bring in. It came back negative; my hCG (pregnancy hormone) levels were so low that my body didn’t even think I was pregnant any more, but I’d known this would happen; since the bleeding had started I’d been obsessively taking cheap pregnancy tests, and they had all been negative. The worst part was having to sign a”release of foetal tissue” form. I cried a lot. The nurse explained to be quietly that since the pregnancy test was negative, they wouldn’t be doing a scan; there was no point. I was definitively not pregnant any more.

The doctor I spoke to later that morning was compassionate but matter-of-fact: “I know it probably doesn’t help to tell you this, but miscarriage at this stage is extremely common,” she said. “Go home and eat some iron-rich foods: spinach and steak. And have some orange juice to help you absorb the iron. And try again as soon as you feel ready. I’d be delighted if you conceived in the next cycle.” She gave me a leaflet from the miscarriage association. I went off to teach someone conversational English, then had tea with a priest. I told them both, which was probably inappropriate. They both expressed horror at the fact that I was going on with my day as planned instead of being at home in bed. I went home, reading my leaflet on the bus. It was comforting at first, but when I got to the part about “commemorating your baby”, I started crying again. It was too much. I put the leaflet firmly away in a dark corner of my handbag and read political commentary with fierce concentration until I forgot what had happened.

That night B brought home the most expensive steak he could find, and a really nice bottle of red wine. He also brought a friend who was staying the night on her way home because of bad weather. She did some Reiki on me, which made me cry a lot more, and made up Bach flower remedies which I took on tour. I wasn’t sure if it had made a difference, but the utter compassion of her actions was overwhelming. I was getting tired of crying, though.

The next morning I had to go on tour. I cried for eight hours on a delayed train to Edinburgh, feeling like something had been stolen from me. I spent a lot of the next month crying.

***

The thing that is supposed to make you feel better is that, if something goes wrong at five or six weeks, that potential person you spent so much time imagining was never viable in the first place. A lot of people told me that this miscarriage was my body “getting ready for the real thing”, which helped, and then made me angry. Why shouldn’t it work the first time?

Early losses are categorised as such if they occur before twelve weeks, and most are due to chromosomal abnormalities, in which case there is absolutely nothing you can do to stop the body rejecting something that wouldn’t have survived anyway. Behaving moderately “badly”, i.e. behaving as if you weren’t pregnant before you knew you were, probably won’t have an impact, so feelings of guilt about an accidental glass of wine at four weeks can be assuaged. As Emily Oster points out in her excellent book “Expecting Better”, at that stage of development, if a cell is killed off because you drank three glasses of wine at a party, it will simply be replaced by another cell, with no damage to the blastocyst. If a much larger number of cells die, there is no pregnancy: it’s an all-or-nothing situation, but at that early stage you probably wouldn’t have known you were pregnant unless you were trying. To kill off enough cells to actually end a pregnancy at this very early stage, you would have to binge-drink, or use a lot of recreational drugs.

There are varying statistics on the likelihood of miscarriage at various points in pregnancy, but it is useful to know that while about 25-30% of pregnancies end in miscarriage, the vast majority of losses happen before twelve weeks; and of those, most happen at around the time mine did, at five to six weeks. A friend with a robust six-month-old baby told me she took great comfort in this website while she was pregnant, which gives the daily odds of miscarriage from three weeks and zero days onwards. Watching the numbers drop so steeply was reassuring, she said. At three weeks, the risk is 33%. Almost no one knows they’re pregnant at three weeks; that’s a whole week before a missed period. By five weeks, the risk has dropped to 17.3%, and by seven it’s a glorious 3.9%, and thereafter it drops rapidly to 2%, where it stays for the duration of the pregnancy.

***

Some things I wish I had been told before I started trying to get pregnant:

  • Often, if you’ve been on the pill for a long time, your first pregnancy will end in an early miscarriage.
  • The rate of miscarriage at five weeks is higher than you might think, somewhere between 17% and 30%.
  • Having had one miscarriage, or even two, probably has no impact on your likelihood of having another one (although there is disagreement on this; some studies suggest having had one miscarriage actually decreases your chances of a second one, and some suggest the opposite).
  • Twelve weeks is not a magical cut-off point; the likelihood of miscarriage drops rapidly, but in a smooth curve, up to the twelve-week mark. There is no perfect time to break the news of a pregnancy; there is no “safe zone”. Stillbirths (much later miscarriages) still happen, although they are rare.
  • Some people have “missed miscarriages”, in which the foetus dies without the mother’s knowledge, often after an early scan at which things appear to be developing normally. Because this sort of miscarriage is not accompanied by dramatic bleeding, the mother may go several weeks until finding out.
  • An anecdotal fact: almost everyone I talked to who had children had also had a miscarriage, sometimes with their first pregnancy, but often in between healthy pregnancies. Before twelve weeks, chromosomal abnormalities are the overwhelming cause of miscarriage, and there is nothing you can do about them.
  • Molar pregnancies and ectopic pregnancies are rare, but scary. They can result in positive pregnancy tests. They never end well.
  • Miscarriage will knock you out emotionally and physically in a way you’ve never experienced before. You might not be a very nice person for a while. You may just want to stay in bed for a week. You may become clinically depressed.
  • Probably related: having a miscarriage raises the likelihood of divorce.

***

In a way, I was lucky: it was early. A friend recently miscarried at five and a half months, and when I found out, I couldn’t stop crying: for her, for her husband, for the idea they had built, for the utter cruelty of it. They were so far past the “danger zone”, the socially agreed-upon 12-week mark at which announcing a pregnancy is considered “safe”. She might have felt that baby kick. I have no idea what the circumstances were, but she would have had, in some sense, to give birth. What happened to me was at least quick: waking up in agony in the middle of the night, unable to speak except to wake my husband up and say “pain“, knowing exactly what was about to happen, running to the bathroom, and then losing something that was definitely something, but wasn’t in any way recognisable as a baby.

There’s another way in which we are overwhelmingly lucky. As I write this, I’m just over seven weeks pregnant. My life has become dominated by nausea, and I can’t seem to get anything done except write, and read, and pick half-heartedly at crackers and omelettes. I’ve become obsessed with sorbet ice lollies (mango flavoured ones are a winner). Even looking at my phone makes me feel sick, but that’s reassuring: only about 5% of women with nausea miscarry in the first trimester, compared to around 30% of women without nausea. The statistics are on our side this time. At seven weeks and one day, the likelihood of miscarriage has now dropped to about 3.5%. This is so close to the 2% risk at 12 weeks that I feel able to share the news openly. Also, I’m tired of feeling sick all the time and not being able to complain.

***

I conceived again just six weeks after I lost the first pregnancy. They told me this would be likely to happen; after a miscarriage, your body is in “fertility overdrive”, and conception is even more likely than it would be in normal circumstances, where even under ideal conditions the chances are about 32% the day before ovulation.

The traditional advice used to be to wait until six months after a miscarriage before trying to get pregnant again, but new evidence says the opposite: in fact, the likelihood of a second miscarriage actually rises after six months of waiting.

A week ago, looking for a pregnancy vitamin that isn’t the size of a horse pill (my gag reflex, already strong, has gone into overdrive), the man in the shop asked me if I was pregnant.

“Yes,” I said. “Six weeks.”

He looked at me sideways. “Hmm. Don’t people normally keep it quiet until three months?”

I took a breath. “Yes, but I had a miscarriage in November, so I’m telling people about this one. I want to enjoy it while it lasts. And I want to tell people so that if it happens again, I’ll have their support. But everyone’s different. Some people are happier not saying anything so they don’t have to give bad news after they’ve given good news. Anyway, the rate of miscarriage risk drops really dramatically between five and twelve weeks.” I swept my finger downwards in the air, drawing an invisible graph. “Currently I’m at about 7%.” I beamed at him.

“Right. So how many months would your baby have been now? You know, the first one.”

I froze, staring at the shelf of pregnancy vitamins. He had surely meant it as a harmless question, but to me this was a monstrous thing to ask, a reminder of something I’d very deliberately avoided thinking about now that I’d moved into my second pregnancy. I didn’t want to be one of those women who kept track in their heads of how old their baby would be, or dreaded the original due date, even though I knew some of that was inevitable. Couldn’t I be allowed to let go of the first pregnancy and just be happy in the current one? Had I brought this on myself by admitting to a previous miscarriage and opening up the topic? What gave him the right to poke at my grief just as it was starting to fade?

“I don’t know,” I said slowly. “I was due in July, last time. With this one I’m due in late September.” I paid for some ginger candy to quell the nausea, and left.

***

B can’t stop telling everyone he sees at work, especially his colleagues who have children. It feels real to him, too – my queasiness is affecting what we eat, my previous enthusiasm for complicated cooking reduced to a strange fervour for antacid tablets and leftover cold porridge, and a pathological fear of all cooking smells, particularly spices. And the people he tells have been so delighted and helpful that I think he wants to keep hearing their reassurance: That’s so brilliant! Congratulations! Don’t worry, people much poorer than you have managed to raise perfectly fine children. 

I can’t stop telling people either (and this post constitutes the Big Reveal, far ahead of socially acceptable schedule). It feels so sunny and exciting to be pregnant again. My due date is the 24th of September, the (Catholic) feast day of Our Lady of Walsingham. Sound.

***

For many people, miscarriage is an intensely private experience, but I found it isolating and disturbing to keep it secret, so I began telling people, one by one. First my family, then my friends. I wanted them to understand why I was so wretched, why I might not want to hear about pregnancy announcements or births for a month or two. The support that followed the revelation was overwhelming and immensely touching, and I’m glad I told people. Every time I told someone I felt I was healing a little bit; every expression of sympathy and concern was like a dab of ointment on a raging wound.

I want that network if it happens again, which is why we’re not keeping it a secret this time. But the main thing I’ve learned is how different it is for each person, just as every pregnancy is vastly different; grief affects people in different ways. And none of your feelings, if you have experienced a loss, are wrong or inappropriate: anger, jealousy, disbelief, sadness, exhaustion – these are all real, and allowed. Keep it secret if it hurts to talk about it. Share it if that’s what you want; there will be sympathy and support from kind people when you need it.

We shouldn’t treat miscarriage as though it is shameful or embarrassing. In any other situation, if someone is ill or bereaved, they let people know, and they allow people to help, or at least to understand why they’re not available any more, or why they’re not themselves. A miscarriage is essentially an illness and a bereavement wrapped up together, making it doubly hard to recover. And yet when I had my own miscarriage, I did feel somewhat ashamed of it, in spite of my strong beliefs about openness, that sharing information and demystifying these things makes our society more compassionate. The only thing that helped was to talk. It’s a painful subject, but if nobody talks about it, newly-pregnant women won’t be prepared when it happens to them – and it will. Let’s keep talking.

 

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That Is Not Your Office! (A Brief Rant)

Venice-Basilica-di-San-Marco

Yes, I know San Marco probably has office staff. But that’s not the point. 

This is a short one. But it’s something that’s been bothering me for a long time. It’s mostly about musicians, and isn’t meant to cause offence.

So: my pet peeve of 2015 is when someone posts a picture of a gorgeous cathedral or concert hall and says “My office for the day!” or equivalent. It makes me crazy.

I used to have a 9-6 job at a research firm, and I’ve never felt more psychologically and spiritually downtrodden in my life than I did during those few months – because I wasn’t cut out for it. That’s why I became a singer, to get away from what my brain reacted to as crushing monotony.

Some people are cut out for those jobs, though, and they love them. They do meaningful, crucial things like working on dictionaries (shoutout to my friends at OUP), and cancer research; they teach (I can’t even begin to say how important teachers are, and how undervalued); they do freight theft investigations; they write for websites that help women talk to each other about Stuff (shoutout to Eleanor); they run construction companies; they respond to pleas for help from constituents, or refugees, or people at the other end of a suicide hotline; they translate. Some of them do things that would seem really boring to other people, things that are still incredibly important. People in these jobs are really lucky to have benefits and a regular income, and the freedom to see their families and loved ones every day, because they’re not on the friggin’ road all the time.

But creatives are lucky too, because we’re able to make a living doing the thing that we love, even though it periodically makes us tired and miserable just like everyone else who does a job. We have freedom of movement and a regular change of scenery. And we make music, or art, or words at a high level on a regular basis, things that move people and change their lives or the way they think.

But musicians shouldn’t pretend that a cathedral is an office, because it’s an appallingly self-regarding kind of humble brag that belittles people who work in regular jobs: “Oh look, poor me, off to the daily grind in the Leipzig Gewandhaus/Bath Abbey/Insert Name Of Stunning Building Here etc! It’s just like any other job, haha! #soblessed #sohumbled.”

It just makes me feel a little sick every time someone does it. Acknowledge how lucky you are, take a picture, be a little smug that you got to see the back end/vestry/whatever bit of the place the public normally wouldn’t get to poke their noses into — but don’t call it an office. People who actually work in offices might love seeing those pictures and hearing about your exploits, but they might also be dying inside, just a tiny bit, because they wish it was them doing that job. Maybe they’re the version of you, in a parallel universe, that stayed in a full-time job because you couldn’t afford music college or art school, or didn’t have family who were willing to let you live at home until you’d made it in the arts.

That is not your office. Please stop it.

And finally, I know that nobody who does this is doing it maliciously. I’m overreacting SO MUCH. Apologies.

 

 

 

Review: The Ecliptic (with big spoilers)

I originally intended for this review to appear on Quadrapheme. I left their staff recently for reasons of social conscience a couple of months ago. This review should have appeared on the website in September but got lost; so I thought it would be best to publish it here, since we were parting ways in any case.

So here it is, with apologies to Benjamin Wood for tardiness. I got my copy of the novel after the launch party, which I want to say was sometime in late summer this year, so the review should have appeared a long time ago. But perhaps it’s a good thing it hasn’t gone up sooner; it contains very significant spoilers.

The Ecliptic, by Benjamin Wood

ecliptic

SPOILER ALERT: this review contains important plot details that will absolutely, unequivocally spoil the main thrust of the novel, and ruin a very satisfying surprise at the end. It’s a brilliant, gripping read, so you’ll burn right through it. If you’re at all interested in it, I suggest you pick up a copy before reading this review. 

The Ecliptic, Benjamin Wood’s second novel, is set on Portmantle, a Turkish island retreat for creative types who have lost their ability to make art. Knell, the narrator and protagonist, is a painter who specialises in large-scale murals. In the first third of the book, she spends her days socialising in a desultory kind of way with her long-term inmate friends (an architect, a novelist, and a playwright): gossiping, eating, playing games for trinkets (they are not allowed to bring anything onto the island beyond the barest of personal effects), and sniping at the “short-termers”. Nothing much happens, apart from the arrival of a teenager whose artform is uncertain, and who seems intent on causing problems.  

Then, just as the first part of the book ends, Knell shifts the setting dramatically: we are plunged into her own past. Suddenly the pace picks up; we discover that she is in fact called Elspeth (all Portmantle residents must adopt pseudonyms to free them from the pressures of their original identities), a diamond-in-the-rough Glaswegian painter with a shining future and an eclectic, disturbing style. After she leaves art school, she works in London as a dogsbody to Jim Culvers, a moderately famous (and more than moderately alcoholic) painter with whom she is unrequitedly in love. She is more talented than he is, and is quickly discovered by one of Jim’s supporters and drawn into the toxic postwar London art scene.

One of Elspeth’s first sexual encounters is with an art critic who rapes her, and this results in a pregnancy which ends in a dramatic miscarriage onboard a ship bound for New York. Following the trauma, unable to fully process her experiences, her ability to paint uncanny, original work diminishes, and she sinks into depression. While on medication, she is at least able to work steadily, churning out “collectible” pieces that she despises, but she becomes increasingly dissatisfied with her work, and yearns to recapture the obsessive fugue-states that brought about her most meaningful paintings.

Eventually, given total freedom to produce her largest commission to date, a huge mural for an observatory, she is defeated by the problem of how to depict the “Ecliptic”, which is the imaginary path of the sun across the heavens as perceived from earth (we are well into the second half of the book by the time the concept that takes the novel’s title, as it were, wanders onstage, jazz hands akimbo). Having failed to finish the painting and retreated to Scotland to attend her first mentor’s funeral, she stumbles across the long-lost Jim, who disappeared years ago just at the moment when Elspeth began experiencing commercial success. They begin living together in a quasi-romantic relationship, and she watches him paint while obsessing over the possibility that he might abandon her again. His paintings are somehow more vivid, more meaningful than his earlier work, and he tells her that he recovered his ability to create by going to a mysterious place called Portmantle. By this stage Elspeth is in a state of psychological collapse, and Jim insists that she should go to Portmantle herself in order to rehabilitate her talent. We pick up where we left off, with Elspeth/Knell back on the island many years later, and the tragic events that closed part one begin unfolding towards a shocking conclusion.

Benjamin Wood is obviously interested, as all artists must be, in the mystery and frustrations of the creative process, and one of the great strengths of the novel is that it exposes the unglamorous side of making art. We see Knell sweating for days on end over each painting in her raw, inspired, and hectic early years, surviving until the work is done on canned foods and very little sleep. Wood skewers the art world to great effect, mercilessly caricaturing its insincere gallery-owners, promoters, agents, investors, and collectors.

Possibly the most wonderful thing about Wood’s cynical and clear-eyed portrait of the artist’s life is way he debunks the myth of artistic freedom. Elspeth is at her most productive precisely when she is given limited time to paint or draw, and vice versa. The huge commission for the observatory, with its distant deadline and conceptual freedom, makes her panic about minor details; and on Portmantle, with apparently limitless years ahead of her and no financial strain, she is unable to do anything but obsess over method. I stress this not least because the embrace of limits is crucial to my own writing (see this post for more on that).

[SPOILER AHEAD]

I was smitten by the virtuosity of this novel; its beautiful writing, the moving depiction of the artist’s struggle with imagination and craft and dedication, the search for the elusive muse. But Portmantle itself, which should be the centrepiece of the novel, left me cold, and this dented my appreciation of the book as a whole. To have it revealed as having been all a dream at the end is rather disappointing, but this seems to account for the fact that the descriptions of Portmantle, and its inhabitants, seem thin on first reading. Elspeth’s friends on the island, as well as the provost and the various serving staff, are shadowy figures whose personalities are never fully developed, and this made it difficult to engage with the first part of the book.

The celestial Ecliptic is imaginary, hence Elspeth’s struggle with depicting it; and so, too, is Portmantle. Was Wood struggling to depict that, too, because he knew it didn’t really exist? Or was his depiction deliberately unclear? For me, the great frustration of this novel is in the way Wood plays with the idea of imagination. Has he been unbearably clever and intentionally made an imaginary place difficult to get to grips with so that the reader is neatly set up for the big reveal at the end, and can look back and laugh at how funny it was that Portmantle was hard to believe in? If this was the intention, it seems awfully cynical. Somehow, I doubt it. 

Because of Wood’s obvious craftsmanship and skill, I am sure that Portmantle is exactly as well developed as he intended, but the place as it exists in Elspeth’s mind is simply not the satisfying illusion I needed in order to maintain my interest through that first section of the novel. Going back into Elspeth’s visceral, energetic artistic past in part two, I felt as though I was getting into the real novel; and of course, in a sense, I was being strung along, since Elspeth’s past is the only real story here; everything that predates Portmantle is real, since Portmantle exists only in Elspeth’s mind. Perhaps it seems disappointingly thin on detail, and its principal characters (Elspeth’s companions at the retreat) blur into one because Elspeth herself can’t fully imagine it — and if this was the intention, it’s all terribly clever. But in spite of the gasp of pleasure I let out when I reached the end of the book, realizing that the whole thing had been a mirage, I was left feeling that the joke was ultimately too elaborate. I needed Portmantle to exist fully, if only in Elspeth’s head; it’s every artist’s dream, a beautiful illusion that needed more colour to do it justice. If I had believed in it more fully, its destruction would have been all the more devastating. As it was, this was a novel that moved me only with its central portrait of Elspeth in the real world. It is rare that emotional intensity and virtuosity can coexist at an equally high level; Bach does it, but I can only think of a few writers who do. I look forward to Benjamin Wood’s future work, excited by the promise of The Ecliptic; Elspeth was an exquisitely compelling character – when she was being truthful in her recollections. 

Back to basics: a writer’s guide to remembering you’re a writer

  
In a bizarre reversal of the sunk-cost fallacy, I’ve been nervous about updating this blog; the longer I left it, the more awkward it seemed to start writing again.

I was probably jump-started into action by going to Writers’ Circle last week (also for the first time in ages). Excuses: I’ve been away singing a lot; the novel has taken over; I’ve got a new part-time job as administrator for an Oxford-based orchestra – but I really needed to get back to the aspects of my writing life that gave me the confidence to do novel-related things in the first place. They’re still important. 

If you need a boost, or can’t quite use the word “writer” to introduce yourself at parties because you have another job too, try one or all of the following. In combination, they’ve slowly whittled away at my imposter syndrome. 

1. Start a blog

When people ask me what I write, or where my stuff appears, I always talk about my novel-in-progress, but I mention my blog too as a way of taking the pressure off the novel. I don’t set a particularly good example here (when exactly was the last post?), but having a public blog is a great way of introducing people to the idea of you as a writer. And it keeps your hand in; by maintaining a blog, you can desensitise yourself to the terror of actually showing people what you write. 

2. Start reviewing

I owe a lot to Eleanor over at Elle Thinks – she commissioned my first review for Quadrapheme, and encouraged me to start writing for Shiny New Books. I’m not a regular reviewer, but it’s another small aspect of my writing life that’s public and searchable, and of which I’m enormously proud, especially because reviewing led to feature writing. I’d like to do more. Reading with intention (and attention) the way you need to for reviewing makes you so much more aware of what you think, and makes you question your assessment of other people’s work. Invaluable.

3. Find a writer’s group near you, and join it 

This doesn’t need much explanation, but I want to say two things: first, Meetup is your friend in this scenario (that’s how I found the Oxford Writers’ Circle), and also, meeting up with other people who are on this weird, lonely quest is incredibly reassuring. Which leads me to…

4. Go to a festival for writers, a workshop, a retreat, or a class

Ok, disclaimer: I am about to get very effusive about a particular festival, so bear with me. They haven’t paid me to say these things; in fact, I paid them quite a lot to attend all three days (food and lodging included, which must have been a significant proportion of the cost). But by God, it was worth every penny. 

In September I went to the Festival of Writing in York. It’s hard to describe how surreal it was to arrive on campus at York University and walk up to the conference centre. I have never, ever felt that way except in dreams, just at the point where they become lucid and I realise nothing’s actually there. I was convinced it wasn’t real, even at the point where I was pinning my nametag to my sweater and going into the first seminar. But suddenly I was surrounded by four hundred other writers who wanted to figure out how to give themselves a better shot at publication, and it was all so warm and reassuring that I woke up for the next two mornings with a sense of profound happiness that I’ve rarely experienced before. It helped that I made friends – they say you will, and you don’t believe it, but then you do – and I came second in a best opening chapter competition in the second night, which brought about some good connections that now mean I’m working on my novel with a renewed sense of urgency. Above all, though, I can commend this sort of thing because it means surrounding yourself with people (agents and editors and book doctors) who not only empathise, but are actively interested in finding and fostering talent and helping you get ahead; and it makes the whole endeavour seem utterly real. Not imaginary. Real, and achievable.

5. Get a notebook you like, and drag it around (with a pen)

Now on to the greatest joy of all – stationery! Just kidding (except I’m not. At all). 

I may be alone in this, but I type too quickly to produce a useful first draft. The act of writing by hand forces me to slow down significantly; although I can still quite happily produce several A5 handwritten pages in a sitting, writing by hand means they’re invariably of higher quality than they’d be if I had bashed them out on my laptop. Also, as irritating as it may be for me to make this point, notebooks don’t need to be charged. They can be dropped without getting wrecked. They can even be dropped in a puddle without getting (completely) wrecked. They can be crammed into a bag quite successfully and live to fight another day. Admittedly, you can’t back them up or upload your content to the cloud without sitting down and typing everything up periodically, but the process of typing up is a brilliant way to self-edit a rough draft without too much effort; you automatically adjust and tweak and improve as you type stuff up. 

The other huge advantage of dragging that notebook around all the time is that it normalises the practice of writing down your thoughts in spare moments, and (crucially) in public. Someone once said writing should never be done in front of other people, likening it to a bodily function, but I disagree. By all means avoid writing in front of people you know (family members, principally), because that’s sort of weird and antisocial and distracting for everybody, but get used to writing in front of strangers and I guarantee you’ll be more productive over time. Ten minutes here, five minutes there. Half an hour on your commute. The more I write in public, the less self-conscious I become, and the more ingrained the daily writing habit. Human brains love habits. Why not develop one that will help you get your novel/screenplay/poetry collection done?

So that’s it (for now). Consider trying some of this stuff. Even if you just start with a notebook, it’ll help get you out of a non-writing rut. I’d advise against those really fancy ones with embossed covers (I’m looking at you, Paperblanks – who thought jewelled covers were a good idea?), because it’s easy to feel paralysed by a high-expectations exterior. But equally, maybe go for something mid-market rather than a flimsy perforated job; you’re in this for the long haul. Sturdy and plain is good.

Don’t just do these things once, either. Keep reminding yourself why you write, and once in a while, reassess your commitment to it. Does it bring you joy? It’s not homework or a chore – it should be a delicious, if somewhat exhausting, escape. 

Practise. You’ll never be perfect, but habits make things easier. Remember, if you don’t actually write, you’re not a writer. Everything else is window-dressing. 

What did I leave out? Let me know in comments what you do to keep yourself on track as a writer, through productive and unproductive periods alike. 

Don’t Let It Burn Down: Parliament Article Over At Quadrapheme

  
About a a week ago I had an article come out at Quadrapheme. It’s on an extremely urgent subject, and the more research I did into it, the more anxious I became about the whole thing. A précis: the Palace of Westminster is in a terrible state, particularly as far as its electrical wiring is concerned. There are a huge number of other problems, but the chief concern is that it could burn down tonight, or next week, or next year. This is not a joke. Refurbishments are long overdue, and will cost more than £7 billion over 25 years if done around an operating Parliament; if everybody moves out, it’ll cost half that amount and take five years. The infuriating thing is that Parliament isn’t due to even vote on what to do until April 2016. 

this is how you should feel about this.

 
I don’t know about you, but I’d rather that the 1,000 years of cultural history housed in that building were saved from catastrophic fire damage than that it be left to chance any longer. They need to deal with this problem now. 

Anyway, here’s the article, which has pretty extensive background on the previous fire in the 19th century that destroyed most of the original mediaeval buildings, as well as information on what can and should be done now to save Barry and Pugin’s masterpiece and its priceless contents. Please re-blog, tweet, and generally share this around as much as you can! 

The Trouble With Writing Retreats

Beth Maiden talked on her blog last week about a great writing retreat she went on recently – It was in a secluded, peaceful place where she could be utterly alone, away from the demands of her business, emails, and social media, and she got lots done – much more than she could have achieved back at home in her “regular” working environment.

That’s the idea, isn’t it? Our lives are so busy (especially freelancers whose attention is inevitably pulled in several directions by things that claim equal time); carving out space for long-term creative projects is imperative lest we keep allowing other things to get in the way. The writing retreat seems like the perfect solution.

Last week I went on my own writing retreat. I normally work very badly in my own house, so I thought that getting away would provide the required jolt of novelty to get a few new chapters done, or at least I’d be able to thoroughly polish chapter 1 to send it in for a festival next month. I called a very dear friend who lives in Yorkshire, organised to stay with him for a week, and trekked up to Settle with my husband.

The plan was to have seven days in Settle, with the middle four spent entirely alone. Just me, a log fire, and my laptop. The first two days I was with my husband and Stephen, who owns the glorious house, but then they went in different directions, leaving me to my own devices.

Inspirational view

I imagined the perfect schedule: up early, a hearty breakfast, perhaps a quick jaunt into town to the butcher’s or greengrocer’s; then three hours of writing, a break for lunch, and a walk in the Dales. Then back home for a few more hours of writing with the wood-burning stove crackling before me, and some nice baroque music on Stephen’s superlative hi-fi. After a simple supper, a glass of wine, and a glance over the astonishingly moving and humorous new work I’d produced that day, I’d be in bed by 10pm.

Ambitious, yes, but I’d say that even compared to a much more reasonable schedule, the week was an unmitigated disaster – I hardly got anything done.

This was entirely my own fault. For the first two days, Mr Č and I hung out with Stephen, went to the farmers’ market, and cooked extravagantly. I thought of the days yawning emptily in front of me and wasn’t worried that I hadn’t done any real work in those first two days. They both left the following morning, very early, and it rained hard all day. I didn’t really know my way into town, so I didn’t leave the house at all. I went on Facebook too much (whatever happened to my once-a-day rule?!), found a series of Buzzfeed videos I liked, did about two hours’ editing, and went to bed outrageously early. Although I didn’t realise it, I’d set the pattern for the rest of the week.

I wrote for maybe three hours on the second day alone, but I was overwhelmed with loneliness by the third, and horribly listless and unproductive. By the fourth day I was actually depressed. I was eating a lot of omelettes, taking a lot of baths, and writing for an hour or two, at most, each day. I wasn’t cooking properly, or writing very much at all.

On the final day, coming home from the grocery store in the rain, I saw somebody who looked like my husband from behind, lost the plot, and called him in tears. I was so lonely that I felt sick. He reminded me that Stephen would be back that night from Walsingham and I’d soon be having a jolly evening, and that I just needed to write a little bit more that afternoon and it would all be over.

So I went home and instead of writing, started baking: first almond and orange zest biscotti, then chocolate brownies, then a whole ham. Large-scale oven-related activities are a pretty good sign that I’m feeling a little manic, or very sad. In any case, it was all delicious, and at least I’d been productive in one way while I was there. And once Stephen got back that night, I was fine. It helped that he really, really liked the brownies.

But I had to admit to myself that the writing retreat had mostly been a failure. I’d achieved barely a fraction of what I’d thought I would.

These experiences aren’t without their uses, though. You have to fail to progress, sometimes, because failing teaches you what doesn’t work – and that knowledge brings you closer to figuring out what does.

I’ve noticed that I’m exceptionally productive when I’m given limits: I can write almost a whole chapter in longhand during my commute between Oxford and London – in fact, that’s how most first drafts have been written. Limited time gives me a sense of urgency. So does limited battery life. If I take my laptop to a coffee shop I don’t really waste any of that time, because I know I’ll have no choice but go home in about an hour. Sitting at home, or in someone else’s home, with unlimited time, spells absolute disaster, because there’s always something else to do before you really get started, right? Answering one more email. Watching one more Buzzfeed video. Designing one more version of those business cards you so desperately want to order from Moo.

Atmosphere helps, too: to paraphrase something my Dad once said, being shamed into productivity by the productivity of others around you is the best way to get writing done (and again, this works for me, but it might not work for you). In a cafe, surrounded by coffee smells and the urgent tapping of keyboards (they’re usually owned by earnest, industrious American exchange/grad students), I can get a huge amount accomplished. Peer pressure: sometimes a useful tool.

Ultimately, though, there’s no correct formula for everyone. I’m glad I’ve figured mine out at last: I need people around me, limited time, and an atmosphere that’s pleasant but definitely not holiday-ish. Being alone in a silent house is not for me, because it makes me look for noise and company (if only by watching a lot of YouTube). It does work brilliantly for a lot of people, though, so don’t rule it out if you’re trying to figure out how to finish (or start) your novel. But for me, working in life’s short gaps works best – in the company of others. As long as those others aren’t actually talking to me at the time.

And next time, I’ll be wise enough to know that a visit to Stephen’s glorious house should be an opportunity to drink wine, catch up, and absorb the Dales scenery with him and Mr Č. A place like that, with such fine company, is too good to waste by trying to work – and sometimes you just need to have a holiday.

The Unbroken Hour: Neuroscience And Solitude

From time to time, I go to the neuroscience department of the university and sit on a stool in a soundproof chamber for two hours, with my chin in a chin rest and headphones on, doing multi sensory tasks for the glamorous rate of £8 an hour. I started doing this for the spare cash, but continued because it was fascinating, and apparently quite useful for science: as a musician I (reportedly) am a useful experimental subject, and I’m hanging on in the hope that the researcher will keep me on as a test subject in a future study on synesthesia.

These headphones are significantly fancier than the ones I use when I'm being a Lab Mouse For Science.

These headphones are significantly fancier than the ones I use when I’m being a Lab Mouse For Science.

I get short breaks during the first hour, but the second hour is an experimental run during which I can’t be disturbed by any outside noise for fear of messing up the data, so I’m in total silence for a full hour, alone with my thoughts.

It’s hard to stay awake sometimes, so I bring chocolate and allow myself a square during the thirty-second breaks between every short run. Sometimes I do a little silent dance in the break instead of eating chocolate, because it helps get my blood moving again and wakes me up. I am a very bad dancer. My own amusement at my dancing is just as good at keeping me awake as the dancing itself.

I always start the session feeling fairly upbeat. After all, I am helping with Science, and that’s satisfying. I play little games with the experiment to make it more fun (all I’m required to do is listen and click, and you’ve got to do something): I try to think of a name, in alphabetical order, for every set of acoustic data (they last three seconds or so), or a country, or an animal.

It can get morbid, though. I usually last about six rounds, which is roughly fifteen minutes, before my thoughts start drifting away from the fun distractions and get stuck in the dark, festering corners of my head, working over and over the same worries: inchoate fury about a stupid comment someone made online, despair about my uncomfortable relationship with a distant relative, or guilt that I still don’t speak sufficient Croatian to make conversation with my in-laws without the aid of sign language and my husband’s translation. By the time I come out of the box, I’m often sad, tired, and deeply frustrated.

But sometimes the enforced solitude has amazing potential. A few times, I’ve used the silence to think about plot problems in my novel. Each round lasts maybe three minutes, during which I can’t write anything because I’m clicking the mouse, so I use the test runs to think intensely, and then write down as much as I can in the thirty-second breaks. What I write down is invariably more interesting than what I would’ve thought of if I weren’t in a semi-sleepy fugue state.

Tell me you don't want to go and build one of these right now.

Tell me you don’t want to go and build one of these right now.

And life’s more abstract difficulties can be sorted out too, through intense thinking with no distractions: in one session, I had a piercing moment of clarity towards the middle of the hour, during a continuous stream of thought about whether I could handle the Yawning Chasm Of The Terrifying Unknown, i.e., motherhood. It was one of the strangest brain events I’ve ever experienced, very like watching someone place pieces of brightly-coloured furniture in a doll’s house until it was beautifully coherent, each piece a separate idea that came together with the others to form a reassuring conclusion; or as though someone was saying, with the aid of slides and a pointer, “This is how you’ll feel about this. And this is how you’ll do that. Everything will be fine.” It felt like a kind of accidental meditation, much more clear-headed than just spending half an hour going through daily life while self-doubt nagged in the background.

Various personality-categorisation systems talk about solitude as something craved mainly by introverts, who use it to “recharge”, but don’t we all need quiet sometimes? I’m probably a line-straddler as far as the Myers-Briggs type system goes, being something between an ENTP and INFP, and while I do get energy from socialising on tour, I also crave the sweet escape of the cool, silent, empty hotel room whose door, firmly shutting behind me, represents a barrier that allows me to write or do yoga or just think to my heart’s content. And after the relentless “on” of a two-hour performance, it’s necessary to have that space.

Isn’t she worried about the incoming tide? And is that a bikini top, a piece of string, or just a shadow? Man, clearing your mind is hard.

I met a very wise writer a couple of weeks ago, and during our conversation we talked about being alone, and how essential it is for the creative process. “I became a writer to get away from people,” she said, half joking, because she loves conversation and company – just not too much of it. Writing builds such an intimate connection between reader and author that there’s the phenomenon of being convinced you and your favourite writer would so be best friends if you ever met! – which is a kind of social illusion, I suppose. And of course you have to live in order to be able to write. Even Proust went to his fair share of parties. I write to get away, too, but in certain contexts, singing can be both a solitary and a communal activity – in a choir, listening to your neighbours’ breath and tuning, you are alone on your own line and also held up by everyone around you, swept along in a collaborative wave of sound and emotion and finely-honed craft. A colleague said recently that he feels least alone in a choir, and most alone in a (non-singing) crowd. Though I suppose if you were in a particularly boisterous crowd that happened to be singing, you might feel more alone than you would anywhere else. Particularly if they were singing some sort of Popular Music you happened not to be familiar with (welcome to my adolescence).

Not entirely related, but something I’ve been thinking about: listening to the radio stimulates the mind in a way that’s very similar to the way it’s used when you’re reading a book – in other words, much more than when you watch something on a screen. The mind’s theatre grinds into motion, characters are built and dismantled and re-imagined along with their backdrop. You can do anything in radio, the adage goes, because the sets and costumes and visual effects are all free. I was very moved by a story about radio this morning when, waiting for a train in Durham after last night’s concert, I struck up a conversation with a fellow American who said she listened to the BBC broadcasts during the Second World War, when she was a teenager, because her father’s job had something to do with radios, so they had a huge elaborate set in the living room that picked up transmissions from every country in the world. Often, listening to broadcasts from London, they would hear bombs falling in the background, and they could tell how close they were from the kind of sound they made. Once, the announcer stopped at the sound of a bomb, and, in the horrible three-second silence that meant the bomb was about to hit very close by, cried out, “Goodbye, Mum!”

I don’t know if it was apocryphal or really true, but it did have a violent effect on me. After having a good cry about it on the train platform (to the distress and confusion of my colleagues, who hadn’t heard the story and were rushing off to take their own train to London), I spent the journey thinking about tragedy, and silence, and solitude, and how little time we really have (what a cheery post, I can hear you thinking – sorry). Solitude can mean so many things – space to work, space to reflect, an unwelcome loneliness, or just a place to breathe in between phrases. Music is nothing without silence; relationships are nothing without temporary separation to remind us what we have. A pause can give intense meaning to a sentence; without taking time over poetry, we can’t absorb it. We take retreats from normal life to return to what is essential, to remember who we are, and come back refreshed.

Look at that corn. So wholesome.

Look at that corn. So wholesome.

I hope, wherever you are, you can enjoy some silence today, a little space to think, and be alone, and dream. It aids the creative process, so don’t worry about drifting off sometimes. When I wrote this I was on a train, staring at some rapidly receding sheep. Now I’m home, and the view is lovely.

Bees and Palaces

There comes a time in life when you realise you just have to learn to drive. For some, it’s obvious: sixteen! For me, at the ripe age of twenty-nine, it was this morning — a 2h15min car journey from Oxford to Beaminster is what it would have been, if I’d had a license and a car. But no. First there was a taxi journey to the station at 7.45 (Mr Č will be cross when he reads this, but I would’ve missed my train otherwise), because we live on the wrong side of town for trains. Then a rail replacement bus from Oxford to Didcot Parkway (which quite a few people couldn’t get on because there wasn’t enough space — good work, First Great Western). Then a train from Didcot to Slough. Then another rail replacement bus from Slough to Windsor. At this point I’ll break to give you some pleasing photos of Windsor, as I was picking up a lift from a colleague who lives in the castle. And we passed Stonehenge on the way! I’d never seen it before. I think the traffic jam as we approached it was because everyone was slowing down to take bad photos with their phones (like me). 

   
    

it’s a cloister!

  

the front door of my most excellent colleague, owner of an actual grown-up car

  
 In more domestic news, the garden is exploding. Especially the corn, which is vigorous and tall and reminds me of happy times in Illinois, and the courgette/zucchini, whose floppy yellow flowers are covered in insects (I hope they’re just pollinating it, not eating it). We have tomato plants, too, and my initial scepticism has been mollified by the recent Hot Weather – just like real summer! Everyone told me tomatoes wouldn’t work in England, but they seem to be thriving. And the strawberries are exemplary. 

   

  



All thanks to bees, of course. If you haven’t already, plant some flowers, wherever you are — preferably bee-friendly ones. Very often the label will tell you they’re good for pollinating insects. Even in a window box – anywhere you can. The bees are dying, and that means we’re in serious trouble. Apparently they’re worrying themselves to death, which seems at once funny and tragic. If you want to read about it, this is a good place to start. 

Bees and bee products are trending, it seems. There’s a novel called The Bees that is reportedly rather splendid, and is on my reading pile thanks to Eleanor F of Elle Thinks. I even own a bee-shaped ring, which is cute but catches on everything and seems to cause just as many injuries as it elicits compliments. And honey, of course, is more popular than ever, with all sorts of urban varieties available alongside niche single-origin country ones. 

On Wednesday, the swelteringest day of the year, on my way to a book launch (The Ecliptic, by Ben Wood), I ducked into Hatchard’s. There I was seduced by a window seat and then surprisingly moved several shelves dedicated to Terry Pratchett:

  


And thence into Fortnum’s, to cool down. It was disappointingly warm in there, but the honey display was a thing of beauty.  

  

 

They even built them a little town house! Adorable. The marmalade selection was also very fine.  

  

 

Speaking of palaces and their busy drones, I’m currently doing research for an article about the Houses of Parliament and their state of dilapidation, and what could or should be done about it. I’m going to interview an architectural historian and also feature some non-serious suggestions from a friend whose comic genius was revealed last year in a complaint letter to Eurostar, in response to a hideous experience with the toilets in Gare du Nord… But I digress. I’d like to hear from you on this subject. What do you think should be done about the rat-infested, priceless buildings and their inhabitants? Turn them into a theme park for ravenous tourists? Move the MPs out to Hull temporarily, fix the place up, and then bring them back? Send them to Hull forever? Reply in comments (or to esther.brazil@gmail.com if you’d prefer) and let me know, and I might feature your suggestions in the article (which will be in Quadrapheme fairly soon). 

 

from this distance, not a rat in sight

 
Over and out, people. Remember to plant some flowers if you can. 

Burma-Shave And Other Rhyming Things

Irene Adler (whose previous names include Sjenka and Skuggi and Elphaba) brought in a mouse couple of nights ago. She was under the table thoughtfully hunched over her victim when we found her. As soon as Mr Č said “Kitty” (in italics), she picked it up in her mouth and ran outside, looking appropriately guilty. She hasn’t brought anything in since.

I’m doing research into folk traditions for my novel, so when I heard someone saying part of one on the street the other day it was tempting to make a brief detour in that direction. It had just started raining unexpectedly, and a woman began singing “It’s raining, it’s pouring…” to her granddaughter, but didn’t finish it, and I automatically completed it in my head. 

It’s raining, it’s pouring

The old man is snoring

He bumped his head and went to bed

And didn’t get up in the morning.

Hang on. Does that mean he got a head injury and died? As a child I always assumed he was just tired. 

It’s been said before: nursery rhymes can be deliciously horrible, providing spine-achingly vivid glimpses into specific eras and their accompanying problems (disease, child abuse, domestic abuse, starvation, animal cruelty…). “Ring around the Rosie” or “Ring a Ring o’ Roses” has been claimed to be about the Black Death or the later Great Plague: in a time when people believed smells transmitted disease (not entirely illogical in an era before we understood germs), the supposedly plague-preventing “posies” were scented parcels of dried herbs and spices carried around for protection.  The word “Rosie”, 20th-century folklorists claimed, referred to the red rash that was one of the Plague’s symptoms. But later scholarship (and comparisons with the rhyme in other languages) have discredited this theory. Nevertheless, pleasingly grim. 

What about “It’s Raining, It’s Pouring”? The next line should probably be “this poem is boring”. It seems I remembered it incorrectly: the more accurate version is “he couldn’t get up in the morning”, not “he didn’t” – so presumably the man didn’t actually die. And it only dates from about 1912. Ho-hum. 

Having promised you horrifying poetry, I couldn’t just give you tame examples, so here’s a choice offering from around 1790.

I married a wife on Sunday,

She began to scold on Monday,

Bad was she on Tuesday,

Middling was she on Wednesday,

Worse she was on Thursday,

Dead was she on Friday,

Glad was I on Saturday night,

To bury my wife on Sunday.

— From Tom Tit’s Song Book

And for those of you who can’t stand crying babies (with apologies to new parents), a gem from the Napoleonic Wars: 

Baby, baby, naughty baby,

Hush, you squalling thing, I say.

Peace this moment, peace, or maybe

Bonaparte will pass this way.

Baby, baby, he’s a giant,

Tall and black as Rouen steeple,

And he breakfasts, dines, rely on’t,

Every day on naughty people.

Baby, baby, if he hears you

As he gallops past the house,

Limb from limb at once he’ll tear you,

Just as pussy tears a mouse.

And he’ll beat you, beat you, beat you,

And he’ll beat you into pap,

And he’ll eat you, eat you, eat you,

Every morsel snap, snap, snap.

— From an early Mother Goose lullaby

(I found both of the above at http://bookdirtblog.blogspot.co.uk/)

Rhythmic and jaunty, no? We need more of this sort of thing, though possibly without the infanticide. Unfortunately we have this instead (seen last week in Baker Street tube station). The second line is so painfully awkward. I died a little when I read it, trying over and over to make it scan in my head. And there are so many, so much worse than this, all over London. Could they have not hired some starving but rhythmically capable poet to do the material for this campaign? 

 
Nothing like the old Burma-Shave ads, is it? Burma-Shave, if you’re not yet familiar with its delights, was a mid-century brand of shaving cream sold in America. Their great gimmick was a series of mildly witty one-line signs placed at intervals along U.S. highways in the mid-20th century. Each sign was just a single line of text, so you didn’t get too distracted from your driving (this was good, because you probably weren’t wearing a seatbelt anyway). 

  
Some of the jingles were wickedly funny. On the wondrous burma-shave.org, they have the complete collection – spanning the years 1927-1963 (you can thank me later). Here’s an example: 

He lit a match

To check gas tank

That’s why 

They call him 

Skinless Frank

Burma-Shave 

Can you imagine anything more delightful than that slow reveal, a hundred yards or should between each sign, leading to the irreverent punchline? Some of the jingles are pretty lame, but the good ones make up for it, and the format is perfect, and must have ensured that all those drivers remembered the brand forever. 

Here’s another, because it’s Saturday, and why not? This one’s for my Dad, who first told me about the Burna-Shave poems (and explained targeted advertising to me):

Our fortune is

Your shaven face 

It’s our best

Advertising space 

Burma-Shave 

I hope that this very serious message has given you lots to think about. Please, write more doggerel, everyone! And have a good weekend! 

Dead Birds And Gold Tattoos

Of all my irrational fears, the fear of dead birds comes pretty close to being the worst. I have a cat, and I’m completely sanguine about chasing her out of the room so I can shoo a live bird out from under the sofa and reintroduce it to the Great Outdoors. More grown-up friends tell me that the worst situation is finding an injured bird that’s not quite dead, but [VIGOROUSLY KNOCKS ON WOOD] that hasn’t happened in the Čičić-Brazil household yet. Yet. 

Dead birds, though. My god. 

I do an impression of one when I’m trying to explain The Horror to people: it involves pressing my straight arms to my sides, screwing my eyes shut and my fave into a dead/pained expression, and leaning forward to suggest that ghastly prone position I always find them in, reduced to tiny brown bundles on the floor, mysteriously intact, neat little specimens of recent avian life. With no evidence of mauling, and only a few feathers floating under the dining room table, what did they die of? Surprise? Heart attack? Irene Adler (aforementioned cat) is such a monster. 

 

She’s a cute monster, right?

But she’s not a monster. She’s just doing what cats do, and it’s probably the result of boredom, the urge to bring me presents, and with her long-held passion for killing, a pastime she must enjoy being so good at. “Hey,” she seems to say. “I notice you’ve switched away from the expensive, delicious cat food to the less delicious cat food. You must be having trouble hunting again. Don’t worry – I can help!” 
Ugh. 

Last night I had just gone to bed when I heard the suspiciously smug, long  “Mrrrroooow?” she saves for I’ve-just-brought-an-animal-home! occasions, so I went downstairs to investigate. I cast a queasy glance under the table and saw nothing. I went back to bed in a state of denial. 

I think I knew what was really going on. She doesn’t normally meow like that – when she wants to be fed or she’s saying hi, she sort of chirps at me, more a repetitive squeaking noise than a meow. This morning, sure enough, I found a dead sparrow under one of the dining room chairs. 

I spoke to Itene Adler in very firm tones, hoping that she might understand. “Please take that bird out of my house, NOW,” I said, but she just looked at me fearfully and bolted. She sulked in the garden for about an hour, and then disappeared.

To my credit, I managed to tiptoe around my panic and pretend, temporarily, that the body wasn’t there: I had a shower, and actually got dressed, but then I was stuck, partly because I was now frozen and wretched with The Horror Of It All and party because I had to leave the house and had no shoes on. The corpse stood between me and the shoe cupboard, but I wasn’t abut to step over it. I was supposed to be meeting Mr Č at the airport at 2pm. There had to be a way around this. 

When I took the recycling bin out (wearing slippers), I noticed a delivery man outside, getting into his white van. I had been planning on running shamefacedly to number 9 and begging my nice neighbour to come and pick the bird up for me and put it on the bin (this has happened before; she is a compassionate lady), but now I saw another way out. 

“Hello. I was wondering… do you think you could do me a favour?”

“Yeeessss,” he said, slowly and with deep suspicion.

“How are you with dead birds?”

Very good, as it turned out, and he was happy to help. He seemed to find the situation hilarious, but declined my offer of tea. He was anxious to get away.

I have been reliably informed this week by people of my own age that temporary metallic tattoos are a thing from the 90s and therefore terribly passé, but since the 90s passed me by (I grew up in Asia and attended strict schools where Fun and Pop Culture were hard to find), I was delighted to discover a nice selection in this month’s Birch Box. 

Birch Box is a subscription service that selects beauty-related things for you, puts them in a smallish shoebox, and sends them to you once a month. I don’t know where birches are supposed to come in, but I do like it. I’ve only just started, but I loved the contents of the first box, which came last week: it was full of mini versions of niche/luxury things I wouldn’t have the time or energy to go and search out myself, and it’s silly good value. (In case you were wondering, they did NOT pay me to say this.)

I’ve taken to the temporary tattoos with the enthusiastic abandon of a teenager, much to the chagrin (and — don’t ask me why — amusement) of my friends and husband. Before a concert in Aldeburgh a few nights ago I was threatening to wear one as a “statement necklace” in the gap left by the Monteverdi jacket, a suggestion that was met with such pitying derision that I didn’t follow through. Today, though, off to meet Mr Č at Heathrow and thence to a meet-the-agent writers’ event in London, I thought: yes. I am going to put a gold feather on my wrist. And I will look fey, and super-cool. 

Here is the result. Judge for yourself; but I quite like it. And it made me happy, because it felt like a tribute to the poor dead bird. I hope that, frolicking as it must now be in Bird Heaven, its wings are tipped with gold.