Clap for Our Authors

Lockdown really was alright for a few minutes there, wasn’t it? Obviously the looming spectre of a potentially deadly virus hanging over our every move wasn’t (and still isn’t) ideal, but those first few weeks of ‘working from home’ i.e. lazing around in the sun-soaked garden while making a serious dent in my ‘to-read’ pile was ideal. Even my literature-hating husband, delighted at the prospect of three whole weeks on furlough (how naive we were), was happily spending whole afternoons with his nose in a book. But somewhere within that strange, increasingly unsettling cycle of ‘Groundhog Day’, reading, for me anyway, became less of a relaxing indulgence and more of a survival technique.

It’s a truth which is universally acknowledged that the more you do something, the less enjoyment you will ultimately take from it; I cite the great vomiting incident of 2008 as a prime example – when a six hour turbulent plane journey became the first and last time I ever chain-ate Oreos. Anyway, somewhere around mid-May, when I had exhausted all of my flour-free baking recipes and was even starting to find the ‘Tiger King’ memes less and less funny, I became increasingly reliant on books to pass the endless hours; binge reading anything I could get my hands on until I found myself at the bottom of my reading pile and experiencing what can only be described as withdrawals.

With the bookshops closed, I wiped the dust off my Kindle (never an adequate substitute for the real thing, but it always comes through for me in times of crisis) and spent hours trawling through Amazon in desperate search of a story which I could get excited about. Unfortunately, as with clothing and life partners, if you go searching for something with pre-existing standards in mind, you’ll never be able to find the ‘right one’. So, by June I was reading what can only be politely described as ‘any old rubbish’. As has been made abundantly clear by the general content of this blog, the only thing which excites me as much as reading books is writing about books; but, I’m also a firm believer that if you don’t have anything nice to say, you shouldn’t say anything at all – especially on the already-cruel place that is the Internet. I would never name and shame books that I didn’t enjoy, not least because it’s just not very nice, but also just because one person doesn’t ‘get’ someone’s writing, I find, generally has no bearing on whether anyone else will; so what would the point be in being rude?

Having said that, even when I was in a lockdown-induced rut of reading things that weren’t really exciting me, books remained the perfect escapism. Obviously, us book-nerds knew that already, but in the midst of new film releases being postponed and production of new TV shows or series being halted, books became one of the few joys which hadn’t been cancelled. I may have missed out on travelling for my honeymoon this year (for the second time, thanks Covid AND Thomas Cook), but no pandemic or financial crisis could stop me from flipping through the pages of a book and allowing the author to take me into another world. We’ve clapped for our key workers (rightly so) for keeping us safe, praised (and subsequently cursed) Joe Wicks for making us realise how unfit we all are and praised the TV networks for uploading our favourite throwbacks (yes, I binged ‘My Family’ and ‘Big Brother’s Best Bits’ because I love a bit of nostalgia). But, at no point do we seem to have acknowledged our authors. Books have remained a constant; their releases have still largely gone ahead (albeit without signings), and well-written stories will always continue to be there to take us away from all the horribleness and transport us to somewhere new and exciting. So, to the world’s authors, I just want to say thank you – for continuing to create inspirational characters, thrilling plots and enchanting settings from within your lockdown workspaces, which are always there to whisk us away from the awfulness to somewhere wonderful, with the simple ease of turning a page.

Why Does Writing Make Me Feel Naked?

Obviously, writing is something that I generally enjoy; I wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of setting up a blog if I didn’t (although, as always, I’ve neglected it for the first two months of this year – we’ll come back to that). However, recently, writing has become like every relationship I had when I was a teenager in that it has swung like a pendulum between being the best thing in the world, the only thing I want to focus on for entire days and nights at a time, and simultaneously the worst thing ever and something which I deeply regret ever starting. I think that is probably something which everyone has experienced at some point in their life; we’ve all had that one hideously long job application form or academic project (I’m looking at you, dissertation which I still wince at the sight of), but frig me, creative writing is another beast entirely. I’ve probably said it before, but will most definitely be saying it again, full time writers do not get enough credit.

So, as you’ve probably now guessed, the main reason for having recently ghosted this blog is not because I didn’t feel like writing – quite the opposite. No, I’m not going to discuss it on here because said project which has consumed the last two months of my life is probably totally rubbish anyway and will never come to anything. But, in completing it, I had to put myself through the hideous experience of actually allowing other people to read something which I had written. Again, full time writers do not get enough credit. Unfortunately, reading and writing have a weird, dichotomous relationship. Much like the chicken and the egg, the existence of one implies the other, and so the completion of any writing project is, although satisfying, terrifying because it brings the inevitable necessity of having to let someone else read it. As an anxiety-riddled introvert, this is basically my nightmare.

Even though a significant portion of my ‘day job’ involves writing really long reports and recommendations which get scrutinised by lots of other people, anticipating feedback on any of those has never felt half as daunting as it did to allow someone to read something which I’d made up in my head without any prior instruction. Honestly, the whole thing had me feeling a bit exposed; every word of this project had existed somewhere in my subconscience and was transmitted onto paper (or Microsoft Word, this is 2020 after all) through the filters of my brain and personality, so allowing someone else to cast an opinion over it felt like I was about to appear on ‘Naked Attraction’. And, just when I was getting semi-comfortable with the idea of strangers reading it, I then found myself in the hideously awkward position of needing a close friend to fact check it and give feedback. Again, somehow it felt even more excruciatingly awkward having a friend see it rather than a total stranger; much like being on ‘Naked Attraction’. For the record, I have never been on that programme and have no intention of ever participating; I also don’t actively watch it except when it makes an appearance on ‘Gogglebox’ (which I watch religiously), but if I ever found myself in a stituation where I had to be naked in front of people where it wasn’t medically necessary, I think it would probably be easier to do so in the presence of total strangers whom I would likely never see again, rather than someone I already knew, which would most likely lead to a lifetime of uncomfortable eye contact and avoidance of each other at social gatherings.

Basically, writing on a blog is fairly painless, since I don’t usually know who has or hasn’t read it, and if people do, then they generally seem to keep their opinions to themselves, which is preferred; but writing something which needs to be seen by other people, is really scary and made me feel completely exposed. To make matters worse, I had to leave said project with my friend so that she has time to read it; cue at least a week of heightened anxiety through fretting over what she’s thinking as she reads it. I often say that I would love to be a full time writer, but if this experience is anything to go by, I might need a thicker skin before I attempt it, because the idea of something I wrote being readily available for other people (including my friends and family) to judge, has me feeling like I’m in that horrible dream where you turn up to school with no clothes on. Forget charging into burning buildings or fighting crime, introverted writers are the real brave ones; and I don’t know how any of you do it.

‘Dark Angel’ – Why it’s ‘sometimes’ Understandable to Kill Your Husband

Dead and rotten though she may be, Mary Ann Cotton remains a fundamental figure in North East history. I live within the parish where she was christened, used to live in a flat which stood on the site of her former workplace and have had the privilege of entering the archives of Beamish Museum to see what is alleged to be the infamous teapot. Whilst I cannot ever condone poisoning one’s husband(s) and children, or poisoning anyone for that matter, I recently re-watched ‘Dark Angel’ on ITV (an excellent dramatisation and possibly the best true crime series ever created), which does always leave me feeling sorry for her and wondering whether, when all things are considered, she really had much of a choice.

It is apt that I watched this series (for the third time, seriously cannot get enough of it), on the same day where I had had a conversation with a work colleague about how infuriatingly useless men can be, and the frustration she was feeling at her partner failing to understand how difficult it is for her to juggle full time work, childcare, housework, cooking, laundry, paying bills and something of a social life whilst he works away. Of course, this is not the case for everyone – even in the North East which still has clearly marked working men’s clubs in which women are not welcome; contains women such as my mother in law who refer to hoovering as ‘women’s work’ and judge people on how strongly their house smells of Zooflora; I’m sure there are many stay at home dads, single dads and combinations of parents consisting of all genders and sexualities who don’t conform to the North East ‘ideal’ of the male coal miner and his loving wife who has his slippers on the fire and tea on the table every evening. And, I’m sure there are many heterosexual, ‘typical’, nuclear families who have a perfectly even division of household labour, but it did get me thinking about how much things have actually changed for women.

In a news week where a woman finally had her conviction quashed for killing an abusive husband in self defense and police have suggested replacing knives with blunt blades is a viable solution to protect domestic violence victims, taking place well over a hundred years after Mary Ann Cotton’s era, this did heighten my curiosity about the kind of life she lived. No, we aren’t giving birth in coal dust, gathering water from a pump at the end of the street and catching smallpox at regular intervals any more, but the majority of women I know who are in long term, heterosexual relationships spend a lot of time feeling bloody stressed out, especially when children are thrown into the mix. And this is in a time of free healthcare, accessible contraception, maternity leave and child benefit – so living a life of being perpetually pregnant, existing in absolute poverty, having no understanding of mental health issues and living in a time where domestic violence and rape perpetrated by your husband was perfectly legal, must have been absolutely horrendous.

Again, I feel a need to disclaim that serial murder is never justifiable, but it is my personal belief that people are a product of their surroundings, and nurture is far more important than nature when it comes to understanding people; this is a woman whose own father’s dead body was brought to her house in a bag marked ‘property of Hetton colliery’ when she was barely out if nappies, it was bloody tough going in the 1800’s! I have seen in my academic and professional background that you can never really know how someone will react to being pushed to their absolute limits of survival until they are tested and what pure desperation can do to even the most level-headed of people. I do think Mary Ann’s story is a testament to just how extreme the situation was for working class women at the time, and although it’s generally accepted by Criminologists and Historians that she became motivated by pure greed and lust by the end of her criminal career, when you consider the perfect storm of depression, constant bereavement, living in squalor, not knowing where your or your children’s next meals are coming from, being unable to afford basic healthcare and being totally dependent on a husband to pay to have your basic needs met, although not excusable, it isn’t surprising to see how quickly things escalated. Wanting love and stability is probably a fundamental desire for the majority of people, especially women, and when faced with such limited options, specifically, the possibility of going to the workhouse or dying of starvation in a filthy alleyway because your husband is unable to work, I can see what she was trying to achieve, despite disagreeing with her choice of method on every level.

“I wanted more. More than coal dust, childbirth and men who think saying ‘I love you’ is enough” 

Joanne Froggatt as Mary Ann Cotton, ‘Dark Angel’ (ITV, 2016)

It is worth noting at this point that despite Mary Ann Cotton being widely accepted as the UK’s first serial killer, and the first serious female offender, she was actually only ever convicted of one murder, which she steadfastly denied into the grave. I love a grizzly true crime story and a local history legend – I’ve had the ‘privilege’ of seeing up close what was Durham Gaol inside the prison and can confirm it is every bit as haunting and creepy as it probably was for Mary Ann Cotton when she walked her final steps to face the noose, so it’s no surprise really that I find her story fascinating. However, if you’re not familiar with it I strongly recommend watching ‘Dark Angel’ or reading the book by Professor David Wilson on which it is based, and inevitably forming your own theory – was she a desperate pauper doing what she could to survive, or the greedy black widow the nursery rhyme portrays?

Worst Bride Ever

Cynicism is part of who I am. I’m fairly sure I came out of the womb mid-eye roll. My sense of humour has earned me the prestigious title at work of  “worst bride ever” due to my general pessimism towards my wedding day and utter lack of patience with the whole organisation process. Most of the time, it’s met with a (usually jovial) “at least you’re getting married” or “at least you’re not single” over the water cooler. Let me be clear on that one for a minute; I feel incredibly lucky to be getting married in the way I am. I am fortunate enough to be in a relationship which is healthy, stable and (for the most part), happy. I am fortunate enough to be legally allowed to marry the person I want to, doing so without any stigma attached to it, and I am so lucky to be financially stable enough to have the wedding that myself and my fiance want. This does not however, come with a God-given duty to be exponentially happy about it for every second of every day.

There’s a growing trend on social media amongst parents, particularly mums, in which they’re supporting each other and sharing the times when they don’t quite get it right or the moments when they panic and think they’re the worst parent in the world. Now, I’m not a parent, so I don’t profess to understand anything about being an “un-mumsy mum”, or why anyone would care whether your baby gets its milk from a boob or a bottle, but from what I’ve seen – surely it isn’t a bad thing to be honest about how you’re feeling. Giovanna Fletcher, an author I love, is a really big advocate of this and is always raising the point that just because she may have moments of struggle or self-doubt, it doesn’t nullify her feeling of being lucky to be a parent. Again, I’m not a parent and I don’t believe for a second that planning a big lavish party for yourself and your spouse is in any way as difficult or emotionally challenging as keeping an actual human being alive, but I do know it’s really effing stressful; and not something I should have to endure in silence because I “should be glad I’ve got the ring”.

The idea for this post came to me ages ago and I’ve gone back and forth over whether to write it, for fear of looking ungrateful about the fact that I’m planning this seemingly perfect wedding and marrying my school sweetheart. But, somewhere around one a.m. yesterday when I was fighting back tears and trying to slow my breathing down so I could get some sleep ahead of my busy day at work, and trying to switch off the video of the empty ceremony room which was playing on a loop in my head; it occurred to me that other people might feel like this, and might also be telling themselves “I have no right to feel overwhelmed by this because it’s what I’ve always dreamed of”. I realise that sounds completely dramatic, but unfortunately that’s where I was at that night, and not for the first time.

People judge weddings, that’s accepted as a fact. We all do it, women probably more so, and I’ve made the catastrophic error of following my photographer and venue on Instagram. So, every time there’s a new wedding of course I’m zooming in on every picture, critiquing every angle of the dress, how the flowers are arranged, the place settings, everything. I know, I need to get a life, and much like Googling your unusual symptoms, it’s a dangerous game which I realised the hard way last week when I fell completely in love with a particular bride. I’m not going to name her and come across as a weird stalker, but she was absolutely unreal. Her wedding was at my venue and, if I’m honest, I don’t think mine is going to top that; plus, after midnight on a school night, my rational faculties of “but everyone’s wedding is unique to that couple, all brides are beautiful” were off the clock. So what did I do? I did what any irrational, tired woman would do, and I stalked her Instagram. I made it as far back as her engagement party when the heart palpitations started. She looked unbelievably happy and sickeningly in love in every shot – not a hair out of place, glowing at her hen party, posting about how much she was enjoying the wedding planning with her beautiful, supportive friends and family, and here I was crying in the middle of the night about how my wedding is going to be a failure which upsets loads of people in the process and that I probably can’t actually afford, for the umpteenth time.

Instagram is a dangerous place and, when I’ve had enough sleep, I know that the vast majority of posts don’t show the whole truth. This bride almost certainly will have cried over her wedding. She will have had vicious rows with her own and her fiance’s families over the guest list, of course she will have worried about money and definitely will have experienced the lingering guilt in the pit of her stomach over not being able to include her great aunt’s cousin once removed, who her parents tell her is very upset and hurt at not getting an invite. I have enjoyed planning my wedding and I am extremely excited for the day itself, but it is absolutely peppered with guilt about spending my own money, asking other people to spend money, worry about who will talk to who and whether people will be comfortable, and total fear and blind panic about what people are going to think about it on the day and what’s being said behind my back. Hopefully other people feel like this too and this doesn’t turn into a viral post in which I’m labelled a ‘bridezilla’ like the woman who asked guests to pay an entry fee to come to the wedding (honestly, once you tot up the final bill – not a terrible idea). As I said at the start, this does not take away from my ability to enjoy other elements of the process, but a friendly word of advice to anyone who finds themselves in the presence of a bride or groom who is struggling with it, the helpful thing to do is to sympathise and/or offer to help; and absolutely does not include saying any of the following*:

“You’re spending HOW much? That’s obscene!”
“You should just elope”
“Divorce is even more expensive, you know.”
“I eloped, it was so much easier”
“I LOVED planning my wedding it was amazing from the second we got engaged”
“Well I don’t feel like I need a ring to justify my relationship but some people need the validation I suppose”
“It’s just an expensive piece of paper”
“Your family sound like a nightmare, I’m so glad mine aren’t like that”
“It’s just so hetero-normative getting married like that”
“I would never take my husband’s name, it’s so pointless, outdated and sexist”
“Do you know how many holidays that could pay for?”
“Couldn’t you do it later in the day? I’ll be so rushed getting ready for that time”
“I know I RSVP’d back in November, but something else has come up…”
*Returning an RSVP with additional names added who were not on the original invite*
“I’m just waiting for my invite in the post hahahaha!”
“I know it’s your day but can’t I just -”
“But you have to do it that way it’s tradition”
“You’re NOT getting married in a Church?”
*Not RSVP-ing at all*
“I don’t know why you’re bothering with chair covers, that’s a pointless expense”
“But I don’t like that song, you have to have music everyone likes”

 

*a non-exhaustive list of things which have been said, directly to my face.

Here goes!

Hello!

Wow, this is intimidating. For someone whose biggest fear is the phrase “now we’ll go round the room and everyone can introduce themselves”, starting a blog is absolutely terrifying. But, writing is something I enjoy so I’ve finally pushed myself to let other people read things that normally remain as notes in my phone before being discarded every 2 years when I upgrade my contract. “So, why now?” I hear you ask, well the honest answer is I don’t know. I’ve blogged on and off over the years (they’ve all now been deleted so don’t bother googling), but I recently found myself out of work for various reasons and so finally had the time to put pen to paper, or, more accurately, qwerty keyboard to Microsoft Word. Now, with some gentle encouragement from friends I’m putting Word to WordPress, and I’m quite scared if I’m honest.

At this point I should probably say a bit about who I am and what this blog is going to be, but unfortunately the answer to both of those topics is that I don’t know. I’m 24, I live in a small village in the North East with my boyfriend, I have a Criminology degree and have had a variety of jobs in the last few years; most of which have involved working with some very twisted criminals so that gave me plenty of funny stories if all other blog topics fail (every cloud and all that). As for the blog, that remains to be seen. A friend who is already an avid blogger, and a very good one come to that, told me to just start writing about what I enjoy and that will help to establish myself, so that’s what I’m going for. I don’t have many posts mapped out yet, but if I’m going by things I enjoy then you can probably expect a nice mixture of books, anecdotes about my dog, left wing feminist rants, Bake Off, the Downton Abbey movie, food and the perils of living with a man. If any of those topics appeal to you, please stay tuned, and if they don’t appeal to you then please just close this tab and we’ll say no more about it.

Here goes!