On Stubbornness

…as a mule, goes the saying.  Inflexible, pig-headed, obstinate, a failing in one’s character. Not a compliment. On the other hand, there is sticking-power, resilience, never giving up.  Now those are more positive.

We are a family of stubborn people. If we believe in genetics, it’s mostly my fault.

When my daughter, Anna, was nine, she and I had huge rows about piano practice. She would play her piece once and claimed she was done for the week. I remember screaming at her, ‘If you’re this bad now, what will you be like as a teenager?’ (Actually, much better – her teenage angst came early). We called her stubborn but recognised that one day we would call it strength of character. We do.

Stubbornness leads to the desire for high standards, not to accept second best.  My husband, Tony, is now adept at intercepting burned cakes as they head for then rubbish bin and pans of lumpy custard about to be thrown across the kitchen. (He hates waste, especially where puddings are concerned.) Actually, I don’t need to do everything well. I’m happy to be a poor cyclist and accept I have no sense of direction. But where it matters, it matters.

I have to win at Scrabble. I am a terrible loser. A series of losses (and I admit, they happen) sends me into a serious decline. But I stick at it.

Recently, my ‘resilience’ was tested. Tony and I walked half of the ‘Coast to Coast’ path, from St Bees in Cumbria to Kirkby Stephen. (We’ll complete it next year.)  On the second day, I had a bad fall. I toppled backwards, knocked Tony over and we both rolled off the path for a couple of metres, stopping just short of a stream. It could have been thirty metres and I would not now be telling the story, stubborn or not. I hit my left knee on some rocks but I could walk so nothing was broken. As the pain increased and the knee swelled and stiffened, I realised I was in trouble. The remainder of the day is a blur. This was Day 2 of 7. A long-planned adventure we both wanted to complete. I could not let either of us down and I knew that if I gave up, Tony wouldn’t continue.

My knee was bruised and double its usual size. I dosed myself with ibuprofen and paracetamol and plastered the knee with pain-killing gel.  Stairs were difficult but I was still moving the following morning. Armed with my medications and a hefty dose of bloody-mindedness, I carried on.

By the end of the week, my leg was purple from mid-thigh to my toes. But that only increased the sense of elation when we reached our goal. As we popped the cork on a bottle of champagne, I toasted stubbornness.

One last thought on the subject: while I know the stubborn traits in my family – the children and possibly grandchildren ­– may be due to me, I am not totally responsible. Perhaps stubborn people marry equally stubborn partners. I say no more.

Thank You for the Music! (With apologies to Abba)

I sang in my junior school choir at the age of nine. There were four criteria for selection: a reasonable voice, good behaviour, the ability to learn the words and regular attendance. I managed three out of four and my poor voice hid behind a happy smile. The choir was large so I got away with it but that was the end of my musical career.

It amazes me what a good ear the world has. Almost everyone I know sings or plays an instrument. Doing neither, I feel like an outcast, someone with a missing gene. My parents could sing, not brilliantly, but a song was recognisable, they could both hold a note. My brother sang well. How did I miss out?

It was when I reached senior school that I realised the extent of my misfortune. I remember the dreadful embarrassment I suffered when we were occasionally required to sing alone. There was no pleasure in it. I would rather have given a speech in assembly, written a ten-page essay or run a mile. Anything rather than sing.

What is enjoyable entertainment to others can be a nightmare to me. The word ‘karaoke’ makes me go cold. No amount of alcohol, consumed before, during or afterwards, can improve the experience. Miming is not an option and although everyone says it doesn’t matter how well anyone sings as it’s just ‘a bit of fun’, it matters to me. I’ve heard and cringed at dreadful performances – I realise there are a few others in the world who are unmusical – and don’t want to be one of them.

To compound my problems, I married someone who has an even worse voice. He cannot tell when he is out of tune which, in a way, is fortunate for him. I can hear when I sing badly. Our poor kids were really damned before they opened their mouths. Our youngest son has inherited all our musical talent; his voice is worse than either of ours. He has married the musical daughter of an opera singer and a professional clarinettist. His mother-in-law believes that anyone can sing if they find their pitch. Well, she believed it until she met my son. She is working on him. So far, without success.

I do sing occasionally with the grandchildren. I can manage ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’ when no-one else is about. George, at three, even enjoys it. However, once the grandchildren reach an age when they can tell me to shut up, they usually do.

It’s not that I want to sing brilliantly. Just adequately would do. I’d also love to play an instrument but my mother protected me from such torture. The thrill of playing Scott Joplin on the piano or blasting out a melody on the saxophone will never be mine. I suppose I would always have been out of tune.

But in spite of my failings, there is something I can provide to the world of music; something that all musicians need when they perform. They need an audience. I am consistently good at appreciating others, applauding and cheering. Where would concerts be without folk who enjoy music and are there to listen? I went to the Proms last week – no embarrassment, just pleasure. That is my ongoing contribution to the musical world.

New Year’s Resolution in July!

New Year’s Resolution done with five months to spare!

When my family got together last Christmas, Jessi (my daughter-in-law) said we should decide on our NYRs for 2015. I didn’t have anything specific but knew it had to be about writing. ‘Do more writing’ was too vague, ‘Get my novel published’ too aspirational, ‘Write every day’ too challenging. So she provided me with one. She said I should start a blog. I’ve been deliberating on this ever since. I know it’s what writers do – at a Writing Day I recently attended, I was in the minority being blogless – and I do consider myself a writer.

So what should the blog be about? I decided a good place to start is to write about writing.

I love writing. It’s an addiction. I leave the normal world, go deaf to everything around me, and plink away at my laptop. I prefer to write in the evening – well, late at night to be exact.  I like to sit in my study, at my desk, with darkness coming through the open curtains. My writing paraphernalia surround me: notes, scraps of paper, pens and pencils in an old mug, copies of ‘Writing’ magazine, books and silence. I’m a poor typist but that’s fine as my fingers are not frustrated by my rate of composition. I can no longer write more than a few sentences on paper. I change so much as I go along it becomes illegible within minutes. The joy of ‘cut and paste’ and ‘delete’!

I regret not having turned to writing sooner. I didn’t spend any real time on it until I retired. Although I wrote the first line of a novel in my teens – and then the next few hundred words in my twenties – it never got beyond that. My excuse was lack of time. What rubbish was that! We all have time – it depends on how it is prioritised. I found time to look after the kids, cook, do the washing and ironing, clean the house (well, not much), go to work. Perhaps I could have sacrificed a few dirty clothes and an unironed shirt to the muse! But that’s history and I really have no excuses now.

I’ve also learned that writing is not all about English grammar, spelling and punctuation. I learned all these at school – well-taught in my day – so I assumed that meant I could write. These are the bricks and mortar, but a solid wall is not the same as a beautiful house. So although I have a (deserved) reputation for being nit-picky, I do know that creativity is a skill beyond putting a good sentence together.

And another thing – some of my family and friends may have noticed a distinct thickening of my skin. This is an essential prerequisite for any writer. Rejection is commonplace. I can live with it although would prefer to live without it.

The house is quiet. I think I heard my husband call from upstairs, ‘Do you know what time it is?’ I can see my reflection in the dark window-pane. My coffee has gone cold. But my brain is alive. I’ll pay for it when I can’t get to sleep.

And I’m still not sure if I actually agreed to that New Year’s Resolution!