Monthly Archives: March 2014

Day twenty-four … the café, the camel and the big society

9.45 am. I’m running late. I’ve checked the emails. Done the paperwork. I’ve made a few calls and sorted out some work for my student who’ll be online at 5. He’s from Eastern Europe. Working 70 hours a week on minimum wage for a well-known hotel chain. He lives on energy drinks and struggles to keep his eyes open as we discuss the finer points of English grammar on Skype. So, what exactly is a phrasal verb again? Why do we say ‘fast food’ and not ‘quick food’? I’m in awe of his dedication.

I steam out of the front door. Grab my apron and two freshly-baked cakes as I go. Oven off? Check. Laptop unplugged? Check. Hair straighteners? Didn’t use them today. I’m late. Should have left half an hour ago. The bay windows crane their necks all down the road. I fret. Anne won’t say she’s not happy. You can’t nag volunteers about timekeeping. It’s just that I hate letting people down.

She waves her knife when I arrive. She’s dicing sweet potato for the soup. Anne’s a human dynamo. Defying arthritis. Osteoporosis. Chronic chest infections. She’s the driving force behind the community café. Her vision and energy leave me breathless. John hugs me and hands me coffee. He’s smiling so I guess his chronic back pain isn’t so bad today. When I met him two years ago he was so depressed he couldn’t even look at me, never mind hug me. Sally ties her apron strings and brushes back her hair. She’s brisk and beautiful. Well on in recovery now. Still as brittle as the blue glass Bambi I was given as a child. She rules the front of house with such precision. I couldn’t work with her at first. I’ve changed a lot.

Alice is out of breath. She’s like a little bird. Gets smaller every time I see her. She’s not in recovery. Not even close. Her abusive partner’s in prison. Probably for beating her senseless. Again. She’s never said. A plague of louts has colonised her home since he’s been gone. They beg and steal to pay for the facilities. Including Alice. They look no more than children. All sliding down the slope to where she is. Still cocky enough to think they won’t end up there. They strut in. Demand food as if we owe it to them. I told one last week he’d do best to be polite if he’s going to make a lifestyle out of blagging. He said sorry, like I was his Nan. Alice is paper-white. She didn’t make it yesterday. Slept all day. Forgot her methadone. She’s starving. Quite literally. She works with the ferocity of pure survival. Eats anything on offer. She’s no idea where her next meal is coming from.

The café fills with mums and toddlers. Grannies taking kids out for a treat. Alan proposes to Anne across the counter. He does it every morning. Then tells me, sotto voce, we’re on for a hot date tonight. Last week he called Anne and told her he wanted to take his life. Ray grumbles about his ne’er-do-well son. Always borrowing money. He’s just waiting for me to pop my clogs so he can have the house. He asks for a sandwich and a salad. With plenty of onions. Val makes sure we’ve got her jacket potato in, then potters to the shops.

We’re well into the toasties when the Food Bank staff arrive. Jane limps to the counter. We joke about the ginger cake. It’s not spicy enough, she says. Jane and husband Eric are well into their 70s. The Food Bank’s mushroomed in the time they’ve been here. They were serving half a dozen people on a Friday when I arrived. These days the place is heaving. Families on minimum wages. Recovering addicts. People with learning difficulties. Refugees. All referred by professionals who know they won’t be eating otherwise. Mostly they’re quietly grateful. A few are more demanding. Some aggressive. Shame does strange things to the human psyche.

I came here to be near my family. A woman pushing 60 who’s spent her best years caring doesn’t get a lot of job offers. Not when there are 120 younger, fitter people in the queue. I claimed JSA for 10 months. Volunteered in the Café, and at One25. My adviser at the Job Centre told me to keep the volunteering quiet. It made me ‘unavailable for work’. I’d have jumped at work if any had been offered. As it was, I think I was a cracking bargain at £71 a week. I worked a minimum of 30 hours. Not including baking cakes. I talked to isolated mums. Made tea for lonely pensioners. Unblocked toilets. Calmed agitated addicts. Signposted homeless men to local services. Discussed botched domestic repairs. Thwarted thieves. Made sandwiches and salads. Shared experiences with frustrated claimants. Washed dishes. Endlessly. Persuaded more than one that staying alive was worth it after all.

When David Cameron first talked about ‘The Big Society‘ I envisaged a revival of Victorian philanthropy. Wealthy do-gooders distributing alms. Ladies-who-lunch foregoing canapés to serve nourishing soups to the poor. Those who have everything giving something back to the community. Anyone who works with volunteers will tell you it’s not like that at all.

I took a friend to the community café a few weeks back. He’s lived abroad for many years. He had some high ideals about the church’s role in social welfare. We sat down to lunch around the time the food bank opened. The café was so short-staffed I almost had to nail myself to the chair. Anne was having a bad day. She was visibly in pain. Two of the staff were refugees. They spoke almost no English. The fourth member of the team was a gap year student. They were working flat out. I felt so guilty I could barely swallow my tea.

As we ate, the room began to fill with hungry people. Single mums with sanctioned benefits. The family of a woman with dementia. Homeless men. People with disabilities and mental health issues. The food bank staff swung into action. Three of them are over 70. A couple are students. They dealt with a steady stream of human misery. Dispensing cheerfulness and grace with cereal and teabags. My friend began to understand.

The truth is, wealthy do-gooders are mythical as unicorns. Ladies-who-lunch are certainly alive and well. But those who want to hand out soup are rare as hens’ teeth. The government’s hard-working people have neither the time nor the energy to volunteer. That’s all been eaten up by overtime. Be grateful for it. You’re lucky to have a job at all these days. Those left to plug the yawning gaps in social care provision are often as poor and broken as the people we serve. Sometimes more so.

When I came home to Bristol I thought I was coming here to give. I expected nothing back. How wrong I was. Aside from four cooked meals a week (no small thing when you’re eking out your JSA) I found more love and friendship than I knew what to do with. Two years down the line I can barely open my front door without seeing a friendly face. I thought I was coming here to serve soup.  I’ve received far more than I could ever give. Right down to the confidence to stick two fingers up at the system that tells me I’m no use. And employ myself.

David Cameron quoted the Bible to us all last Christmas.  It is more blessed to give than to receive. I can’t help but wonder why he isn’t giving more. Doesn’t he believe in what he says? Surely he wants to be blessed? His government’s presiding over the worst assault on giving in the history of the welfare state. Church leaders are horrified by the consequences of ‘austerity’. Doesn’t he care what he’s doing to people? Alarmingly, the evidence suggests perhaps he doesn’t. An article by Brian Alexander quotes studies that suggest the rich really are different, and not in a good way: Their life experience makes them less empathetic, less altruistic, and generally more selfish. And clearly not averse to quoting the greatest altruist to walk the earth in support of their own ends.

And somehow I’m reminded the altruist once said ‘it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God’. I think he may have had a point.



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Day twenty-three … empathy and fox-hunting on the coalface

If pushed for my most fundamental core belief I’d have to say it’s that every human being is of equal value in the eyes of God. Straightforward, you’d think. Although we may fall out over the ‘God’ part. Self evident, I believe the US Constitution puts it. The more so, you’d imagine, for those with claim to religion or spirituality. But I’ll leave that one for later. Yet even a cursory glance at the world will tell you how far short we fall of this ideal.

On a global scale, income inequality is increasing. The richest 67 people in the world own as much wealth between them as 3.5 billion of their poorer fellow beings. Here in the UK, cuts in provision for the poor and vulnerable have resulted in an escalation in the use of food banks, accompanied by a backlash from the the political elite, who seem to hold the poor responsible for the economic crisis in its entirety.

Inequality isn’t only about wealth. Gender and sexuality are major issues. Intolerance toward those who don’t conform to sexual ‘norms’ is alive and kicking. Literally in Uganda. Gender inequality is so endemic we’re almost blind to it. Laura Bates, originator of the Everyday Sexism website, makes the point in today’s Guardian. She cites the casual misogyny of men who see nothing wrong in intimidating a woman in the street. Then call her ‘frigid’ when she objects. We live in a nation where less than a quarter of MPs, and only 4 out of 22 cabinet members, are women. This should tell us something. On average, two women every week die at the hands of their abusers. Yet a report this week cites ‘alarming and unacceptable’ weaknesses in the police approach to domestic abuse. How can we lay claim to equality?

I’ve been working at St Mark’s Community Café, as well as One25, for almost two years. Until recently I thought that any politician worth their salt should spend six months in a place like this. It’s the coalface. The front line. The harsh reality of life. The place the addicted, broken, dispossessed queue up for bacon rolls. It should change your life. Maybe I was over-optimistic. Over-estimated the capacity of the elite for empathy. There’s hard evidence to suggest the rich really are less emotionally intelligent, or empathetic, than the poor. Or as someone put it to me this morning. Anyone who wants to reinstate fox-hunting – who derives pleasure from watching a live animal being torn to pieces – isn’t going to care much about his fellow human beings.

I’ve spent most of my life caring. I’ve been a mother. A foster carer. A youth worker. A long-term carer. A learning mentor. A live-in carer. I’m now a crazy volunteer. This is where my heart is. I’ve learned the hard way that it doesn’t make you rich. Or even financially secure. In a society where money matters most, looking after the vulnerable doesn’t count for much. If you want to get rich – ditch the love. Or as David Graeber’s headline in the Guardian this week says Caring too much. That’s the curse of the Working Classes.

So for the next few days the blog will be making a whistle-stop tour of a very small part of the world of human inequalities. Please come with me. Feel free to comment. To encourage or to disagree. And if you’d like to support an organisation that’s making a real difference to real lives, please have a look at One25’s website or at my fund raising page. Thank you.




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Day twenty-one … garbled messages and Pot Noodles

Any other writer out there hate the sound of her own voice? I think I’m beginning to. Nothing I write feels quite good enough to post on the blog. I haven’t finished anything substantial in the last four or five days. I feel as if I’m talking to someone’s voicemail. Leaving one of those awful, garbled messages where you realise half way through that you sound like an idiot. Then you get tongue-tied and end up sounding even worse. Afterwards you discover you’d called the wrong person anyway. So you have to leave another message for the right person. That one’s even worse. At the end of it all two people are left thinking you’ve lost the plot. Not including yourself of course. Because you knew all along that you never had it in the first place.

Yesterday I got home from the shops with a right royal rant in mind. I was no more than three sentences in when The Editor arrived. She sat down at the keyboard. Elbowed me aside. Not so much as an apology for being late. You can’t rant when The Editor’s in charge. Ranting’s uncontrolled. The Editor’s a control freak. She excises adverbs. Pares sentences to the bone. Questions hyperbole. OK, I threatened to decapitate the owner of that dog. Was it really so unreasonable? It took twenty minutes to clean the sh*t off my shoe.

The Editor’s really good at taking the steam out of my sails. The sting out of my tale. The purple out of my prose. She also hates clichés. So have some of that. I was all ready to rant about social justice. Or the lack of it. I ended up sounding like a slightly bored Anglican vicar. No offence to any Anglican vicar. It’s just that preaching in the same church for forty years tends to leave you a little short of inspiration. At least I imagine it must. I’ve never tried it.

The Editor is a perfectionist. A tyrant of the first order. She’s been through all this more than once already. Nit-picking. She trawls my work in search of minute flaws. When she finds one she pounces. There you are. You’re rubbish. Why don’t you quit? Now. Give up giving up. Put the telly on. And while you’re about it, get a proper job. Stacking shelves in Tesco’s. Well away from the wine section. Who are you trying to kid? There’s better prose in the instructions for a Pot Noodle. At least I assume there is. I’ve never read them.

The Editor clock-watches. Does word counts. Spell checks. Drinks endless cups of coffee. Pokes my achy shoulder. Looks at Facebook. Finds a fascinating news item. Needs the loo. Wonders if she’ll sleep after all that caffeine. Reads everything I write out loud. Again. Boils the kettle. Deletes a paragraph. Re-inserts it. Forgets to make the coffee. Thinks she should drink something else. Makes coffee anyway. She frets about what people will think of my writing. Tells me not to worry. No-one’s going to read it anyway. Then seizes on a sloppily-constructed sentence and tears it to shreds. If all else fails, she’ll start thinking in poetry. Then I know I’m doomed.

But sometimes. Just once in a blue moon … Get off. I’m having that one. Leave my clichés alone, dammit … She’ll come up with something rather wonderful. Something that leaves my unruly, ranting butterfly-brain open mouthed in awe. And I suppose … yes, I’m having this cliché as well … that’s what makes the rest of it worthwhile.



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Day nineteen … the pen is mightier than the keyboard

The blog’s been quiet, but the pen has been active. Well, the keyboard really, but ‘pen’ worked so much better in that sentence … I have several pieces of work on the go at the moment. None of them quite ready to face the world. Tonight’s post is by way of letting you know I haven’t given up giving up. And I haven’t thrown the laptop out of the window. Yet.

In all the excitement of writing, I’ve forgotten to add links to my fund raising page on some of my posts. Tonight I’m taking time out from some of the serious writing to remind myself (and you, of course) why I’m putting myself through this. Making myself write 500 words a day is my way of giving up ‘not being a writer’ for 125 days. I’m doing this to raise money for One25, the amazing charity that helps street sex workers in Bristol to step away from the streets. My night on the outreach van last night reminded me yet again how valuable their work is.  If you’d like to support me, please take a look at my fund raising page.

I’m also asking people to suggest ideas for articles or titles for short stories. I’ve had a couple of suggestions so far. The first was to write about my experience of working with One25. You can read my response on this blog. I’m not sure I’m up to writing a full doctoral thesis on The Concept of a Moral Judgement, so I’m quite relieved it wasn’t a serious suggestion. At least I hope it wasn’t. But it may inspire something, sometime in the next 106 days. You never know.

If you’ve got an idea for a topic, or a title for a short story, please leave a suggestion on my fund raising page. I can’t promise I’ll have time to write something for every suggestion. To be honest, I’m kind of hoping I’ll be trampled in the rush. But I’ll do the best I can.

Meanwhile, I’m exploring ideas for an anthology about becoming an older woman. Seems appropriate, somehow.  The first story is The Invisible Woman. There’s a second story in progress. I’m also finding lots of ideas in the news at the moment. Sometimes this crazy world makes me laugh and cry all at once. I hope I can bring some of that to this blog. Thank you for supporting me along the way.



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Confessions of a social media addict … day seventeen

My name is Jean. It’s been five minutes since my last post on Facebook …

I never imagined it could come to this. Ten years ago I’d never heard of Facebook. I was blissfully unaware of the word ‘blog’. If someone said ‘google’ I had confused thoughts of cricket. ‘Tweet’ was what a carton bird did. And ‘retweet’? Well who on earth came up with that one anyway? Halcyon days. But I was already on the slippery slope. I’d graduated from the occasional email after supper to Friends Reunited. I’d started surfing the world wide web at night. Wide-eyed. Innocent. Teetering. It only took a chance remark to push me over the brink. My daughter had decided to go to Australia for a year. If you were on Facebook it would be so much easier to keep in touch, Mum. That was it. I signed up on 2nd September 2007.

Within days, I was uploading photos. Posting status updates. In the third person. Jean was wishing she was somewhere else on 12th September. I’ve no idea where she actually was. But she was alive and kicking the following day. By October 2008 she was trying to fathom the meaning of life. She went through a phase of throwing sheep at people. Anyone else remember Superpoke? It didn’t stop there. She started ‘liking’ pages. Doing quizzes. Posting aphorisms. Sharing news articles. Collecting friends … and losing them again. Possibly because of her dubious activities with sheep.

Twitter remained a mystery for much longer. The whole idea seemed crazy. What would I want with mundane details of my favourite celebrity’s life? Why would I even have a favourite celebrity? @bluesinateacup was born more of curiosity than anything else. Sorry. Did you say something about cats …? She observed the flurry of feathers with quiet confusion for a while. Then she fluffed herself up. Spread her wings. Opened her beak. What was that about cats again? These days I’m responsible for three Twitter accounts. There’s my business account (@eflimagine). An account for St Mark’s Community Café (@StMarksCafe). And @bluesinateacup of course. Thanks to Outset Bristol, I’ve mastered HootSuite. Now I can retweet my own tweets. No really. I can.

It wasn’t always this way. There was a time when I used to have real conversations. With real people. I know all you people out there are real too. But I can’t see you. Can’t hear the nuances of your voices. I don’t know how you’re feeling. At least, I’ve only got your electronic word for it. I can’t give you a hug when we both need one. OK, I could give you any number of virtual hugs. Throw sheep at you if that’s your thing. But it’s not the same.

My guess is not many of you remember the 1979 General Election. The dreadful day Margaret Thatcher was elected. I moved house that day, so it’s etched on my mind for ever. I sat among the packing boxes and wept as the results came in. The house we moved into was on an estate in a small Wiltshire town. As we settled in, the neighbours started knocking on the door. They brought tea and biscuits. Invited us round for coffee. Gave us sandwiches. Advised on decorating and childcare. Helped us strip the ghastly polystyrene tiles from the kitchen ceiling. They asked who we were. Where we came from. Who we were related to. Pure nosiness of course. Fuel for gossip. But they cared enough to ask. For better or worse, we became part of a community. We supported each other. Our children played together in the street. Scraped their knees. Fought. Forgave. Ran freely in and out of one another’s houses. We adults exchanged DIY tools. Shared surplus produce from the garden. If there was a birth, a marriage or a death we all chipped in 50p for a gift. I didn’t know it then, but we were the last family to be accepted into a close-knit group whose days were already numbered.

I don’t remember where the rot set in. Was it all the cars on the school run? You can’t strike up a conversation from a sealed tin box on wheels. Perhaps it was the rising expectations. Second-hand was second class. Sharing was scrounging. We all worked longer hours. No time for idle chat. After all, there was no such thing as society now. It was every woman for herself. The children came in from the street. Played computer games instead. Safe. Sanitary. Separate. I moved out twenty-six years on. I didn’t know my next-door neighbours’ names.

I live alone these days. I’m not the only one. The percentage of single occupancy households almost doubled between 1971 and 2011. I’ve got used to it. I’m not sure I could share my living space these days. No fighting for the remote control. I don’t have to cook unless I want to. And no-one eats the ice cream while I’m out. I’m free from all the messiness at last. But it’s a lonely business if I’m honest. A world without community can be a soulless place.

So we build community again. Safely. On social media. No scraped knees. We create a persona. The way we think we ought to be. We don’t have to make eye contact. Get our hands dirty. Deal with smell. Bodily functions. Inexplicable mood swings. We can each sit secure in our own little bubble. Tweet chirpily. Post statuses with hints of deeper meaning. Throw in a hand grenade from time to time, and watch the reaction from a safe distance. Take off our make-up. Pretend it makes a difference. And if we don’t agree with something someone says, we can block. Unfriend. Unfollow. We never have to deal with them again. Simple. So seductive. So very-nearly-real. And if we get sick of it, we can always play Candy-bubble-saga-ville instead.

But the community we build has another side to it. That’s what gives me hope. I’ve reconnected with friends I’d more or less lost until I bumped into them here. Others I’ve grown close to, though we’ve never really met. I see updates in a dozen different languages. Follow people from all around the globe. I read newspapers. Use social media to educate myself. To express my opinions. My community’s grown way beyond the confines of one street. My personal perspective, changed beyond belief. We human souls are just not built for solitude. We need each other. We may not share garden produce any more. Instead we share corny jokes and cartoon kittens. We may not exchange DIY tools, but we still exchange links. Opinions. Photographs. And gossip. On a global scale. It seems the human spirit’s irrepressible after all.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a sudden urge to throw a sheep at someone …



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Day sixteen … the cliche, the Facebook post and becoming a writer

It’s a strange feeling starting a blog post with absolutely no idea what I’m going to write. Just the knowledge that it’s now twenty past nine and I have to produce 500 words before I can go to bed, or pay the ultimate penalty. Well … £12.50 actually … but as I don’t think I can reasonably claim to have written 500 words yesterday, the fines are beginning to mount up.

For those who missed the news, I spent the weekend in Paignton. My room was beyond the reach of the hotel’s wifi, so I decided to reconnect with real paper. I’d forgotten how different the writing experience is when you’re working with a pink A4 notepad and a plastic tube of ink. Crossing things out. Drawing arrows and brackets instead of cutting and pasting. Re-writing entire paragraphs, because more annotation will render the original illegible.

My normal modus operandi is to put a few sentences on paper, to get the feel of what I’m creating. I then graduate to the screen so I can see what I’m doing. Unless I’m writing poetry. Then I use pencil right up to the line. No good asking. I have no idea why. This weekend has left me with pages of indecipherable, scribbled-over scrawl. And a far better understanding of why my literary forbears were so verbose. It’s going to be several days before I can make head of tail of what I’ve written, never mind air the first draft here.

One of my pet hates is the miserable cliché ‘genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration‘. This more than likely because, in a past life, it was often quoted at me by someone who never perspired over anything. Unless the central heating was turned up. The quote is loosely attributed to Thomas Alva Edison. Who might have annoyed me just as much, but in a very different way. Unfortunately for my personal prejudices, the last few days have proved that there’s a kernel of truth in the idea after all. In fact, I’ve begun to realise it’s perfectly possible for perspiration to drag inspiration in its wake, rather than the other way around. If you force yourself to sit down and write, words will appear on the page. They have no choice. They may be drivel. But drivel’s better than nothing. You can work with drivel. Drivel can be honed. Nothing is … well, nothing.

I’m in the process of rethinking the whole idea of inspiration. I’d always thought it other-worldly. Ethereal. Uncontrollable. I’m not so sure now. The obligation to find 500 words a day is changing my perspective. I knew something weird was going on when I checked in to Facebook shortly after arriving at the hotel on Saturday. Within minutes I’d dug out my pen and notepad and started work on a short story. I almost missed dinner. So, what produced this flurry of creativity? An incredible tale of human endeavour? A heart-warming love story? An inspiring news item perhaps? Not even a picture of a cute kitten? No. It was a misspelled, ungrammatical, vaguely misogynistic joke. It was posted by a friend-of-a-friend. I’ve never met him. To be honest, I wouldn’t want to if he thinks that was funny. So why didn’t I do what any intelligent woman would, and unfriend him at once? Well, I couldn’t, could I? He might post something else I can use.

Does this mean I’m becoming a writer at last …?



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The Invisible Woman … day the thirteenth

Today’s post is the first draft of a short story.  I’ll be forced to neglect the blog for the next two days, as I’m going away and I won’t have an internet connection.  I’m planning to spend some remembering how it feels to write with a real pen and paper instead …

The Invisible Woman

I think I may be invisible now. The fog doesn’t help, mind. I haven’t seen fog like this since the last smog in London. Thick and acrid. Catching in your throat. We walked to school with scarves over our mouths. Made all the difference. I remember mine. Red. With white stripes. Mum knitted it while I was having my tonsils out. Her words rang in our ears as the cold stung them. Keep your scarf over your mouth. This isn’t just fog, it’s smog, you know. It can kill people. Will it kill me? No dear, just old people. I’m old myself now. They don’t tell you it’s pollution of course. Mother earth’s last gasp. They don’t want to worry you. Keep things fuzzy. Like the headlights on the passing cars.

The supermarket lights pull things into focus. Make you want to buy them. I slip past the security guard. A stealth mission. To buy a pair of slippers. The girl in the shoe aisle can’t see me. She’s talking to her friend. Tidying the slippers. Very slowly. I wait for her to move. She carries on. Oblivious. Rabbiting about what she did last night. The other girl’s not doing anything at all. Does she get paid for that?

I used to imagine I had a cloak of invisibility. The things I could get up to if no-one could see me. Mum was never fooled by it. Stop daydreaming. Do something useful. She’d get me peeling potatoes or polishing the silver-plated spoons. I so wanted it to be real in those days.

I give up on slippers. I’ll get the rest of the shopping. Supper. Fish pie? There might be something nice in the reduced section. There’s a man heading straight at me. One little girl standing in the trolley. Another in the child seat. Screaming her head off. I want sweeeeets! I want sweeeeets! I step aside. He doesn’t even glance at me. The screams echo all down the aisle.

I’m not sure when I started to fade. Men used to wolf-whistle once upon a time. I was glad when that stopped. People used to stop and talk in the street. It could take half an hour to walk to the corner shop. Then younger women started giving up their seats on the bus. As recently as last year, a couple carried my bags up the stairs at the station.

I still can’t grasp paying four pounds for a ready-made fish pie for one. Extortion. I head for the wine section. At least I know what I want and where it is. Passing the fresh fish counter, a girl coming the other way wrinkles her nose at the smell. What was that programme called? The one where she wiggled her nose. Bewitched. That was it. I loved that programme. She used to make things happen. Much better than being invisible turned out to be.

The man in the wine aisle is right in my way. All I want is a bottle of half-price Shiraz. He’s scrutinising the shelf above. Can’t see me. Naturally. I’ve walked the length of this supermarket and my trolley’s still empty. I’m not leaving till I’ve got that bottle of wine. I’ll stand my ground. Wait for him to move. What’s taking him so long anyway? My nose is itching. I flare my nostrils. I swear that bottle moved. Twitch again. No doubt this time. A full-blown wiggle. A bottle of expensive Champagne edges its way along the shelf and crashes to the floor at my feet. The man turns sharply. Almost drops the bottle in his hand. The next one flies across the aisle and smashes into the Lambrusco. The third performs an elegant pirouette and makes a dive for the BOGOF beer. I’m getting the hang of this. Staff come running. The man shakes his head. Shrugs. Gesticulates. Bottles and wine boxes fly in all directions.

Just one bottle of Shiraz settles quietly in my trolley. The Champagne corks are starting to pop as I head for the checkout. This invisibility thing’s going to be a lot more fun than I thought.


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The twelfth day and the creative writing course

A while ago, a good friend asked me to write an article for his magazine about my experience of studying creative writing as a mature student. He had already given me a lot of support and encouragement on the road to writing, so I’m ashamed to admit I passed up the opportunity. At the time I didn’t believe I had anything valid to say. After all, I wasn’t a writer was I? But for the next 113 days (at least) I’ve given up ‘not being a writer’. I think the time has come to jump in with both feet.

As a child, I lived story. I was a princess. A detective. The captain of a pirate ship. I was National Velvet, Jill’s Gymkhana and the whole crew of Swallows and Amazons rolled into one. I can’t remember not being able to read or make up stories. I spent my free time bringing my imagination to life. I used makeshift props. A yellow scarf for golden ringlets. My mother’s wedding dress, dyed royal blue. A stuffed sock on a garden cane. A rock that resembled a lamb.

Creative writing was encouraged in schools then. Back in the day, we wrote short stories – aka ‘compositions’ – regularly. In our final year at primary school, my best friend and I got quite competitive. She’d been telling everyone she was going to be a writer for as long as I’d known her. Things came to a head when we were asked to re-render Theseus and the Minotaur. I remember trawling through my mother’s threadbare dictionary for new words. I was determined to win this one. I lived and breathed Greek mythology for a week. I crafted descriptions on the walk to school. Invented plot twists on the bus. I couldn’t think about anything else. I was bereft when the time came to part with my book.

If I told you I could remember the results I’d be lying. I think it was a dead heat. I know we were streets ahead of the rest of the class. It’s possible I won. I know for sure I didn’t lose. If I had, I’d never have put pen to paper again. I imagine my friend’s forgotten the whole thing by now. We haven’t seen each other since we left primary school. But it must’ve left an impression on her. She’s a respected writer these days, specialising in bringing myths and fairytales to life. I suppose nobody told her it wasn’t a good idea. Or to stop daydreaming and do something sensible.

I’ll fast forward the years of ‘something sensible’. In 1999 I made a radical decision. I went back to university. You can call it a mid-life crisis if you like. It certainly wasn’t sensible. I studied English and Creative Writing at Bath Spa. I told myself it was a career move. In truth, after so many years in the wilderness, I just wanted to know if I could still write.

Hanif Kureishi recently dismissed creative writing courses as ‘a waste of time’. On one level, I agree with him. You can apply his argument to any skill. No amount of teaching will help you develop a talent you don’t have in the first place. I scraped maths O-level by the skin of my teeth. My teacher never spoke to me again. She had expected me to fail. She saw making models out of blotting paper during her classes as evidence that I wasn’t trying. She never saw the blood, sweat and tears that went into learning everything by rote, because I simply didn’t understand. I have no aptitude for maths.

Aptitude can’t be taught. Craft can. I’ll never crack a mathematical theorem, but at least I know a bit about Pythagoras. I don’t hear anyone suggesting that painters or sculptors shouldn’t study theur craft. If they’re going to create anything worthwhile, they’ll need to know how to use the tools of their trade. The same applies to writers. Philip Hensher says ‘No one writes through pure dazed inspiration; questions of craft and calculation enter in quite quickly’. It’s great to have a head full of stories. If you want to convey them to anyone else, you might need a few skills as well.

Signing up for a creative writing course was a high-risk strategy for me. I wanted to write more than anything else in the world, but I hadn’t done any serious writing since Miss Maynard trashed my work in Lower 4B. I didn’t know whether I had any aptitude. Any skills I’d had in the past were rusted beyond repair. I had to expose my work to other people. If they hated it as much as Miss M, I could pack up and go home. I had nothing to lose but my self-esteem. My tuition fees. And my job.

So why I didn’t just join a local writers’ group? The idea never even entered my head. I’m quite glad it didn’t. I’m not knocking writers’ groups. They’re brilliant. I’d recommend anyone who’s serious about writing to join one. The problem is, it’s perfectly possible to spend years in a writers’ group and never have anyone challenge you. The stakes aren’t high enough. A university has to award you a degree at the end of the process. If your work’s rubbish your tutor will tell you so, even if your classmates won’t.

Going to Bath Spa was one of the best crazy ideas I ever had. The course confirmed my passion for writing. It gave me the tools to craft a story. I learned how to cut out the all those unnecessarily tortuous, long-winded, time-consuming and ultimately pointless adjectives and adverbs. I was taught to make sure that the sentences I produced in the course of my prognostications were simply and clearly structured and of the shortest conceivable length, with the minimum possible usage of clauses, sub-clauses and other complex and confusing grammatical structures that could serve to distract my audience from any nuances of the plot that I might wish them to focus their attention upon. Show don’t tell. Keep it simple. Dickens is so century-before-last. And, unlike maths, I understood it. Towards the end of the course, a conversation with one of my tutors ran something like this.

At least you can string a sentence together.

I’m in the final year of an English degree. Isn’t that a given?

*weary sigh* You’d be surprised how many of our students can’t.

In my second year at grammar school the RE teacher decided it would be a good idea to read the whole of the Acts of the Apostles out loud. In the King James Version. The National Curriculum hadn’t been invented then. I wrote reams of adolescent poetry in her classes. I wasn’t so sure about poetry at university. I signed up for a course anyway. In for a penny and all that. The tutor walked into the first class, sat down and told us to write something. I was horrified. I came here to be taught how to do it. Not to have you tell me to get on with it. I was paralysed with fear. I’ll never forget his opener in our first tutorial.

If you hate poetry so much, why are you doing this module?

Poetry reaches a part of me no other genre can touch. I resisted because I didn’t feel ready for it. Ready or not, a day or two later my first poem grabbed me by the throat. Charles Saatchi style. Bewildered by the force of it, I fell in love. I’ve never recovered.

A creative writing course was anything but a waste of time for me. It affirmed my aptitude. Taught me the craft of writing. Made me fall in love with poetry. It also enabled me to experiment with genres I hadn’t considered before, such as fantasy, science fiction and writing for children. Above all, it gave me structure and discipline. Arch-enemies of artistic inspiration, you think? Not in the least. It’s amazing how inspiration flows when you’re faced with a deadline. A group of fellow students waiting to workshop your next chapter. Even a pledge to write 500 words a day for 125 days.

For most of my life I thought I was an introvert. No sniggering at the back there, please. After all, writers are basically recluses, aren’t they? All those hours alone in a room, chained to a typewriter. The reclusive author is about as big a cliché as the typewriter. We need people. Where else does inspiration come from? Who else kicks us up the backside when we lose the plot? What’s the point if no-one reads what we write? We’re artists. We need an audience. We need people to encourage, inspire and inform us. To reflect us (and our writing) back to ourselves, warts and all. For me, that’s what doing a creative writing course was all about. I’m never going to make my first million this way, but I’d go back and do an MA tomorrow if my bank manager wasn’t so pernickety. Come to think of it, maths might have been more sensible after all …


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Day eleven … a promise of greater things to come

A big thank you to everyone who enjoyed yesterday’s post, although ‘enjoy’ may be the wrong word. There’s another longish post on a very different theme in the pipeline. I’m amazed to find I’ve notched up over 1000 words today. Maybe this is becoming a habit! Having written 1000 words offline, I’m only going to give a nod and a smile to the blog tonight. I’ll be able to post something more substantial very soon.

Please remember you can encourage me and support One25 by donating at

And if you make a donation, you can also leave a suggestion for a topic or a title for a short story. Thanks again for all the support and encouragement.


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Day ten … an answer to a big question

8 o’clock. I’ve just realised how dark it is out there. I’m buttering bread. Slicing cheese. Wondering what possessed me to think of venturing out at this hour. It’s raining too. Hammering on the kitchen window. Couldn’t I just curl up and watch Supersize vs Superskinny instead?

Cheese sandwiches wrapped and bagged, I’m outside. It’s emptying down. The umbrella’s inside out before I reach the kerb. Come to think of it, I’m not sure these boots are waterproof. I avoid the first puddle, then plunge my left foot straight into the next. I was right about the boots.  I scan the pavement as I weave through the traffic outside one Bristol’s dodgiest pubs. I don’t want to be first to arrive. You’re pretty much invisible in this part of the city, unless you’re obviously well-heeled or up to your neck in something nasty. Happily, I’m neither. I still don’t like waiting outside the building alone though.

I’m quite new to all this. One25’s van has been cruising the city by night since 1996. In that time, they’ve offered care and support to hundreds of street sex workers. Their drop-in has been operating since 1995. I arrived on the scene less than two years ago. I’m part of a dedicated team of around 120 volunteers. I go out on the van about once a month. I also work in the drop-in most weeks.

The rain shows no sign of easing up as we edge the van past a flashy sports car, parked in the narrow lane behind the Grosvenor Centre. The box in the back is stuffed with hats, gloves and scarves. We’re out of umbrellas. You have to be mad to work the street on a night like tonight. Or desperate. Our first stop is not far from the main shopping centre. The girl on the corner ignores us, intent on a potential punter in the park. Another woman gets into the back of the van. She says she’s starving and pleads for socks. Crying with the cold. Her canvas shoes are wet through. There are no socks on board tonight. My co-worker makes hot chocolate. My soggy boot doesn’t seem so bad all of a sudden. Then the first girl rattles the door. The punter’s lost his bottle. She’s stick-thin. I could probably encircle her upper arm with my thumb and index finger. She won’t give a name. Not even a false one. Avoids eye contact. Doesn’t join the conversation. She takes food and melts into the darkness. We don’t see her again.

I lived more than half my life in rural Wiltshire. Inner-city Bristol was a massive culture shock when I arrived. I had coffee with my daughter one day. Back then she was working for a drugs project. The funding for their work with women was about to be axed and she was livid. The big money was going to the men’s work. They’re the ones who push up crime statistics. The women are invisible. Nobody cares. I can still feel the passion in her voice.

But I didn’t get it at first. The school I worked in had a sign outside. Kerb crawlers will be prosecuted. I still didn’t get it. About 8 o’clock one morning I was walking into work. One of the parents – a big man with dreadlocks – ran past me like a bat out of hell. He started effing and blinding at a woman who was getting into a car. She was tiny. A puff of wind could’ve taken her out. I remember she had glasses. Held together with sticky tape. He called her all the names under the sun. It’s always the woman who gets the blame. What was the first thing Adam said when God caught him with that apple? She gave it to me. It’s not my fault. The car drove off.

One of the scariest places in the city is underneath the motorway. It’s full of shadows. You could hide a body under here for weeks. No-one would know. We pull up sharply. The driver’s been doing this for years. The rest of us didn’t even see the woman. She makes conversation while I make tea.

Aren’t you scared out here at this time of night?

Scared? We’re in a secure metal box. You’re out there all alone.

She points out the description of her most recent assailant on the ‘Ugly Mugs’ board. She’s quite matter-of-fact. Makes it sound as if it’s normal to be beaten, raped and robbed. I guess it is in the world she’s inhabiting at the moment. I used to think it was normal to be shouted at morning, noon and night. If you didn’t wind me up so much I wouldn’t be like this. ‘Normal’ doesn’t mean ‘okay’.

Blaming women runs deep in the psyche of our culture. Not long after the ranting-parent incident, a colleague was driving me to a meeting. It was rush hour. He knew all the rat runs. In a narrow back street we met another car head-on. I’ll never forget the girl in the passenger seat. Thin face. Dark hair scraped back. She was cringed against the door. As far from him as she could get. Her whole body screamed that she didn’t want to be there. He was old enough to be her father. Grandfather even. I was horrified. My colleague was disgusted. He muttered under his breath as we drove off.

Scabby prostitute.

If it wasn’t for scabby men, there wouldn’t be any.

The response came, clear and unbidden, from a place deep inside me. He looked at me. Startled.

I’d never thought of it that way before.

The woman in the red coat’s drinking Special Brew through a straw. There’s a strict no-alcohol policy, so she leaves the can on the step of the van. The booze keeps her warm she says. Gives her the courage to do what she has to. I’ve not seen her before. She says she used to be a regular. She’s clean now. Got her kids back and everything. But it’s tough living on benefits, and now she’s been sanctioned. She’s doing this to buy Christmas presents for the kids.

Across the road, another woman gets into a car. To be honest, seeing that is still a step too real for me. I struggle with the men in this equation. Not the punters so much, although they’re bad enough. It’s the partners. I can’t get my head around a man who’s willing to sell the woman he says he loves. I used to think ‘pimp’. But the word implies distance and detachment. At least to me. There’s a kind of fierce co-dependence on the street. A woman got on the van a few months ago, not far from where we are now. She had a can in her hand. Refused point blank to part with it.

No. I’m not leaving it. He’ll have it if I do.


My bloke. He’s over there. Keeping an eye on me. He cares about me. Really he does.

How sweet. Do I believe he was there out of concern for her welfare? The hell he was. He was worried she’d run off with the money. You can’t trust anyone out here. Especially if they say they love you.

If it’s a grim picture I’m painting so far, I’m sorry. But it’s real. In a society that chooses to criminalise addiction, instead of dealing with the pain that causes it, this is the inevitable result. To add insult to injury, we blame the women for surviving by the only means open to them. 99% of the women working the streets of Bristol are addicted to Class A drugs or alcohol. Or both. 100% of those receiving intensive casework support from One25 were abused as children. If it were all sunshine and roses there’d be no need for One25. I could watch Supersize vs Superskinny every night. I could be blissfully ignorant. But I don’t want to give the impression it’s a hopeless situation. That every woman who works the streets is a hapless victim and there’s nothing to be done about it. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is possible to get free. To ‘step away from the streets’. In 2012 / 2013, thirty-nine women did just that with the support of One25.

We’re heading back towards the shopping centre on our third or fourth circuit when I see something that breaks me. I thought I’d caught a glimpse of her earlier, but she faded into the shadows before I could be sure. I hoped I was wrong. There’s no doubt this time. She struts in front of the van. High head. High heels. Red lipstick. Yesterday we were stacking cupboards in the drop-in together. Discussing her progress in recovery. Tonight she’s back on the street. She won’t come onto the van. I’m having a bad day, is all she’ll say.

The quality of heartbreak that comes from seeing somebody you care about relapse is like no other. For a split second I’m back with a man I love. Watching him neck three bottles of red wine. I’ll cry myself to sleep when I get home. In the morning, something strange will happen. The thing I’ll remember will be the sheer attitude with which she stepped out of the shadows. This woman has been to hell and back. Lived nightmares most of us never even have to dream. In the face of all this she can still stand up and defy those who’ve used her. I wish I had half the guts she has. Three months from now all this will be forgotten. She and I will be walking on fire to raise money for One25. So will the woman who cried because there were no socks. We don’t know that yet. All we have is hope.

I fled my second abuser nearly seven years ago. One of the things that led me home to Bristol, after a five-year exile, was watching The Secret Millionaire. I saw One25 in action. I remembered that conversation over coffee so many years before. I thought I might make a difference for someone who’d suffered far worse than I had. I could become a kind of Lady Bountiful. Dispensing wisdom and charity to those in need. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Instead, One25 has been crucial to my own recovery. I’ve met, and grown to love, so many amazing women. They’ve helped me to face the truth about my own demons. Some of us are still struggling. Some are on the way. Some are further along the path. But we’re in it together. And it’s only by the grace of God that I’m the one sitting inside this van tonight.



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