Monthly Archives: April 2014

Honeysuckle and houseplants

I think my view of the writer’s life may have been a little over-romantic in the past. I had wild thoughts of a cottage in the country. The scent of honeysuckle wafting through the perpetually-open front door. A weed-free garden where the sun always shone. Self-polishing antique furniture. A dark green Aga. Kettle singing quietly. Bread baking. A dog slumbering at my feet. A cat curled in the rocking chair. And a steady stream of words flowing onto the page in exactly the right order. No need to edit. No interruptions from phones. Emails. Facebook. No need to work. Eat. Sleep. Go to the toilet …

I imagine it’s like that if you’ve written a couple of bestsellers. Apart from the physical necessities of course. But I’ve plunged into this after more than 50 years’ procrastination. The picture is a little different. It’s more one-bedroom flat. The scent of washing powder wafting from the perpetually-drying laundry. A forest of house plants in need of constant maintenance. I once read that having plants in the room makes you more creative. Does it matter whether they’re alive or not? Dilapidated second-hand furniture. White cooker. Electric kettle … And pets on the second floor? It really isn’t practical. As for the effortless flow of words. Forget it.

The past few days have been the most difficult so far. I’ve come within a whisker of giving up giving up not being a writer. My hand twitches every time I see the TV remote. The armchair’s never looked so good. I’m heading into the Guinness Book of Records for coffee consumption. Everything in me screams that this is a really stupid idea. Who am I trying to kid? I’m too old. It’s far too late to give up not being a writer … I should be in bed for heaven’s sake.

The One25 drop-in was short-staffed this afternoon. I offered to do an extra shift. Drop-in’s an amazing place. I’ll do a longer piece one day, to do it justice. I want to sketch today as a reminder. For myself as much as anyone. After all, it’s the reason I’m sitting here at midnight, bashing away at a keyboard instead of sleeping. In the drop-in, you can get hot food. Home-made cake. A hug. Clean clothes. A shower. A smile. And time to be yourself. It’s an oasis of normal for women whose lives are anything but. A safe space for those who have no safety on the street.

Today we dished up roast chicken. Roast potatoes. Vegetables. Pineapple pudding. We ate together. Discussed the need for more green space in cities. The calming effects of colouring. Some women were sewing. Making curtains. Working on the patchwork quilts they’re making. Fired up with plans to raise money for a new sewing machine. So much creativity and enthusiasm. Some aren’t ready for all that yet of course. But they were there. That’s the first step.

Somehow this afternoon made all the late nights, the existential angst worthwhile. I might never be the next big thing in literary novels. But I spent today with some incredible women. Strong. Determined. Fighting back. Reclaiming their lives. Against the odds.  In the end, that’s what really matters.


I’m blogging to raise funds for One25, a charity close to my heart. I’ve given up NOT being a writer for 125 days in support of their work with vulnerable women in Bristol. If you’ve enjoyed reading this, you can find out more about what I’m doing by visiting One25’s website at You can also support them by visiting my fund raising page at where you can make a donation and suggest an idea for a short story or a post on the blog. Thank you.


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Six things I probably shouldn’t feel guilty about … but I will anyway

I don’t know about you. I seem to wake up every morning with a vague sense of having done something wrong. Or not done something right. Even before my feet hit the floor I’m fretting about the text I didn’t send last night. The email I didn’t reply to. That phone call I should have made. And have I got everything in my diary? Or am I going to forget something vital again today? Actually it’s hardly ever happened. But in my head I do it several times a day.

Studies suggest that women may actually feel more guilt than men. Guilt, it’s suggested, is an ‘other-focused’ emotion. We’re brought up to consider ourselves responsible for the welfare of others to a greater extent than men. Thus we’re more likely to experience unreasonable levels of guilt. So, in the interest of redressing the balance, here are a few things I know I shouldn’t feel guilty about. But I do.


Getting up later than I plan to. For some reason I feel guilty about this every single morning. Even when I get up at the right time. I suspect if I set my alarm for 4am and leapt out of bed the moment it went off I’d still manage to find a reason to feel guilty about it. But I’m not planning to test the theory.


Spending money. It’s probably good to be cautious about this in my precarious financial state. But, as anyone who’s been broke for the best part of a lifetime will tell you, feeling bad about money all the time has a flipside. It’s the oh-sod-it-I’m-going-to-feel-bad-whatever-I-do-so-I-might-as-well-go-ahead-and-do-it-anyway effect. This can be lethal in the wrong hands. Mine, for example.


Living in a tip. When I was a little over three years old, my little brothers were born. For a short time after my mother brought them home from hospital we had a home help. She came on Tuesday afternoons. I remember with startling clarity. I sat on the bottom of the stairs after lunch and watched my mother scream round the house like a thing possessed.

“Couldn’t the home help do that?” I ventured at last.

She hurtled by like Roadrunner on speed. Duster in one hand. Carpet sweeper in the other. The hoover was no good. It would have woken the babies. She shot me a withering glance as she passed.

“Of course not, dear. I can’t let her see the house in this state.”

It was my first introduction to housework as performance art.

To this day, my flat only gets a really good going over within an hour of the anticipated arrival of visitors. The rest of the time? Let’s face it. I’m the only person who’s inconvenienced these days by my constant inability to remember where I’ve left anything. I can live with it. Life’s too short for compulsive tidiness. As the sign on the wall in an old friend’s kitchen said, a tidy house is a sign of a wasted life.


Not going to the gym. Confession time. I once belonged to a gym for almost two years. I think I went there on more than one occasion during each of those years. This means I did a lot better than the around 80 % of Americans with gym memberships in a 2009 study. They never actually used the gym at all. I imagine statistics for the UK are similar. Worse still, one study found that 13% of the participants regularly lied, claiming to go to the gym when they were actually somewhere else. Probably somewhere far more interesting.

The truth is I find the gym boring. All that metal and vinyl do nothing for me. And who on earth chooses the music? Any country footpath or city pavement knocks spots off a treadmill. Costs nothing. And you’re actually going to arrive somewhere at the end of it all. I know what you’re thinking. Yes. I could do with a good workout once in a while. But there has to be a better way. More time on the allotment perhaps. Get the bike fixed up. Run to the swimming pool. Join a green gym maybe. My daughter’s a member of GoodGym in Bristol. They run to community projects around the city and help out. A workout with a purpose. As for a conventional gym. I refer you to my previous comment. Life’s too short.


Writing a six-things-I-probably-shouldn’t-feel-guilty-about list for the blog. It’s been a long day. I’d feel really bad if I didn’t manage to write 500 words. Writing to a high literary standard wasn’t part of the deal. There are people out there who actually get paid to write stuff like this. Ergo, my conscience is clear. Well almost …


Drinking red wine. Right now I’d love to be able to wallow about this one. Heaven knows, my parents weren’t teetotal for all those years without teaching me a thing or two about alcohol-related guilt … but I finished the bottle last night. Guess it’s a quick decaff and off to bed then.




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Security blankets, or five of the six impossible things we have to believe before breakfast

I can’t believe that!” said Alice.

Can’t you?” the Queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.”

Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said. “One can’t believe impossible things.”

I dare say you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast! There goes the shawl again.”

Lewis Carroll – Through the Looking Glass

I once knew a man who thought God was a slot machine. All you had to do was keep your nose clean, insert the right prayer and you’d get whatever you wanted. Your bank account of good behaviour had to be in credit, of course. And you had to have enough ‘faith’, which in his world, seemed to me to be a kind of grit-toothed determination to believe things that were blatantly untrue. You could ‘have faith’ for a Rolls Royce. A million pounds. A bungalow in Clacton. You could claim it right now. In fact, it was already yours. You just couldn’t see it. Because you didn’t have enough faith. Or you were harbouring a secret sin. Or maybe because it wasn’t really there …

Now for all I know, the guy’s flying over my head at this very moment in his private jet, en route from his Caribbean island to his mansion in Belgravia. Maybe he did have enough faith after all. In which case, all I can say is, I’m sorry. You were right. I was wrong. And I didn’t want that chateau in the south of France anyway. No, really. I didn’t.

All that was a good few years ago. I like to think he got what he wanted in the end. Whatever it was. Even now, I have to confess to a sneaking admiration for his doggedness. The sheer determination to hold on to a belief that flew in the face of all reason. That has to be some feat. I don’t think I’ve got that level of blinkered persistence. Sheer stubbornness. At least I like to think not. After all, I’m an educated woman. I have more than half a brain. Although there are some who’d argue that point. I learn from my experiences. Quite slowly. But I get there in the end. I don’t have to believe six impossible things before breakfast to stop my world from falling apart. I don’t need that kind of security blanket.

I had no internet connection a while back. I won’t bore you with the details. The events that left me with no income for three weeks are not part of this story. There was a time when I’d have thrown the few toys I had left out of the pram. Ranted about injustice. I need my internet connection. I can’t work without it. Don’t Sky understand that for heaven’s sake? One of my all-time favourite security blankets is the belief that no-one understands how terrible my life has been. Anyone else dragging that one around too? No, I knew you wouldn’t be. I told you so. Nobody understands …

The blanket’s a tad threadbare these days. To be honest it’s worn down to the last few sticky strands twiddled around my thumb. The world’s full of injustice. On a scale of one to really minor, my troubles don’t even put in an appearance. I have a roof over my head. Food in my stomach. An internet connection … most of the time. And nobody hits me, shouts at me or threatens my life these days. Compared to say a Syrian refugee, an AIDS orphan in Uganda, a street sex worker in Bristol my life’s pretty good. It all depends on your point of comparison.

Now this next bit would work so much better if I had a ten pound note … or a twenty … if I grit my teeth and pray … no? Oh well. Not enough faith I guess … I’ll have to do it from memory instead.

‘I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of …’ Hmm. So, what exactly does that mean? Where’s my ten pounds? Does it actually exist? Can I see it, please? And if I could, what would it look like?

I’m led to believe that once upon a time there was a real, shiny gold bar in a vault somewhere that equated to my crumpled tenner. Well, my non-existent tenner … maybe if I grit my teeth a little bit harder …? These days, there isn’t even that. My ten pounds exists purely because we all believe it does. Like the Rolls Royce. The million quid. That bungalow in Clacton. Maybe I shouldn’t have given up on the chateau quite so easily.

Money has such incredible power over all our lives. Power of life and death. But at the end of the day it really ain’t worth the paper it’s written on. It doesn’t exist. Literally. And I don’t mean figuratively, for anyone who’s using the insane new browser plug-in designed to eradicate incorrect use of the word ‘literally’.

We all collude in the belief that money is real. It takes on a life of its own. One that radically affects our planet. The lives of seven billion people and counting. The quality of life of every sentient being in creation. Children die of hunger or preventable diseases. Why? Because ‘there isn’t enough money’. Hundreds of species of plants and animals become extinct every year. Why? Because someone can make more money if they’re not there. Nothing is sacred before the great god mammon. I know the analogy is hopelessly inadequate, but I can’t help being reminded of the scene where Peter Pan asks all the children to clap if they believe in fairies. The children do as they’re asked. Tinker Bell lives on to fight another day. Maybe it’s our applause that actually keeps the money god alive.

The truth is, money is our security blanket. It’s five of the six impossible things we have to believe before breakfast every morning to stop the world as we know it from falling apart. To that extent it works for all of us. But it’s a blanket that knits up a whole lot better for Mark Carney or Rupert Murdoch than it does for me or you. A Bolivian street kid. A worker in a Bangladeshi garment factory. A child soldier in the Congo. Perhaps we just don’t have quite enough faith …

So what if we all stopped believing? If we refused to clap our hands? Saw it for the cruel farce it really is? Started to believe that people matter more … Who knows where that might lead?  

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one …


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My Beautiful Earth

Today has been Earth Day. Not that you’d have noticed it unless you’d been looking. The media here in the UK have been strangely silent. Google made a token gesture in its graphic. A stylised animation of ‘Rufous Hummingbird’. He wished you a ‘Happy Earth Day’ if you could be bothered to click on him. There was also a hashtag #MyBeautifulEarth, where Google users could share photos.

All in all Earth Day ain’t exactly been headline news. No more has the revelation that David Cameron’s constituency office resorted to calling the police to sort out the Bishop of Oxford, who appeared at a pre-arranged time to present an open letter about food poverty. The news was reported by Aljazeera two days ago, but the British press have been oddly slow on the uptake. At the time of writing it seems the Independent is the only national newspaper to report the incident. It’s taken a bit of research to discover that it took place six days ago, on 16th April. But there. It wouldn’t do much for Mr Cameron’s new image as a Prime Minister who ‘does do God’ if news like that were to get out …

I don’t suppose his eco-warrior image was helped much either, when the head of the ‘greenest government ever’ was overheard throwing a tantrum about ‘green crap’ last autumn. The garbage you have to pretend to believe to get people to vote for you, huh?

I’m a city dweller. I love the city I’ve chosen to live in with a passion. But for the sake of my soul I need to escape from it from time to time. To find green space. Silence. Distant horizons. Places where the trees outnumber the buildings. Preferably by at least 100 to 1. Luce Irigaray says ‘people long to breathe in green open spaces’. The pollution of our air, she says is ‘a crime against humanity’. I can’t help but agree with her. All the more as I grow older. I look back and see what we’ve already done to this beautiful planet of ours. And I grieve. Not so much for my own loss, but for the way we’re robbing our children. Our grandchildren. All in the name of the great god mammon.


I’m fortunate. I live in a part of the city where there’s still green space. Allotments. A City Farm. Small areas of woodland. We had to fight developers off one of the allotments last year. There’s a campaign going on right now to stop buildings from going up on Terrace Wood. It seems no ‘undeveloped’ land is safe. All the more so since the government began to explore biodiversity offsetting. In essence, this is the slightly crazy notion that you can compensate for the loss of an ancient and well-established natural habitat by creating a totally different one somewhere else. No? It didn’t make sense to me either.

Despite any appearances to the contrary, I’m always willing to believe the best about anyone. Even our present government. Until they prove beyond doubt that there is no best to believe. Of all the reading and research I’ve done in the last 40+ days, this article by George Monbiot has come closest to undoing my belief. In a nutshell, developers are keen to build a motorway service station on Smithy Wood, an ancient site near Sheffield. They’re offering to plant 16 hectares of new woodland to replace it. ‘Well, that’s OK’, I hear you say. ‘They’ll never get away with it. After all, the government set up Natural England specifically to conserve places like this.’ If only. Its chairman, Andrew Sells, made his fortune from housebuilding. An industry with nothing to lose by biodiversity offsetting. And everything to gain. Its deputy chair? David Hill. Who also chairs Environment Bank, a private company set up to broker biodiversity offsetting agreements for both developers and landowners. Bye bye Smithy Wood.

We live in a brave, new world. The world of my nightmares. Everything has its price. A price derived solely from its economic usefulness. We, and the environment we live in, have become mere units of production after all. Intangibles such as beauty. Spirituality. Quality of life. Even clean air and the right to breathe it. All these have ceased to be part of the equation. Trampled underfoot in the onslaught of greed.

So am I going to sit down and shut up now? Go with the flow? Accept the status quo? Like hell I am. When I read that article this morning everything in me screamed NO. I may be spitting in a bucke, but I’ll keep on spitting as long and as loudly as I can. It’s an old chestnut I know, especially for those of us who’ve been saying this for years, but it still bears repeating

When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted;

when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize, too late,

that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money.

Sourced from

Let’s not give up just yet.

Happy Earth Day


I’m blogging to raise funds for a charity close to my heart. I’ve given up NOT being a writer for 125 days in support of One25’s work with vulnerable women in Bristol. You can find out more about them by visiting their website at You can also support them by visiting my fund raising page at where you can make a donation and suggest an idea for a short story or a post on the blog. Thank you.

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The evangelist and the Mail On Sunday

There are mornings when I fall out of bed. Stagger to the laptop clutching my coffee. Get lured into reading something that looks vaguely interesting. Click on a link. And end up wanting to crawl back to bed in tears. Today was one of those days. The trouble with incoherent anger is it’s … well, it’s incoherent. So I’m going to need a good deal of grace and self-control in writing today.

It started innocently enough. A group of eminent non-Christians has written a letter to the Daily Telegraph objecting to David Cameron’s declaration that Britain is a Christian country. Don’t go there I thought. The man’s too easy a target for wrath and despair. It’s Bank Holiday. Just finish what you started last night and be done. But you know what they say about curiosity …

I read on. I found myself nodding in agreement. It is surely divisive to declare Britain a ‘Christian country’. In the 2011 census only 59% of the population declared themselves ‘Christian’. A more specific question in a YouGov survey found only 29% of Britons calling themselves ‘religious’. While a recent survey of religion in G7 countries found only 35% of us believing religion to be a positive influence on society, compared to 29% believing it to have a wholly negative impact. All of which suggests that quite a few of those who self-identified as Christian in the census have no more than a nodding acquaintance with faith.

A year or so ago I was almost mown down by three cyclists. They whizzed past me one after the other at high speed. On the pavement. Temporarily pinned to the wall, I glared at the last as he flew past. He turned round and swore at me. That evening, I took to Facebook to declare my frustration. The internal combustion engine is king. I want to empathise with cyclists. I really do. So why can’t they give me a little respect? A friend responded. 90% of the cyclists in Bristol give the rest of us a bad name. It seems to me that David Cameron and his ilk are at risk of becoming the aggressive exponents of Christianity who give the rest of us a bad name.

Sounds harsh? Mr Cameron once declared his faith to be a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns. It sort of comes and goes. Nothing wrong with that. There’s not an honest Christian alive who hasn’t had doubts. Suddenly it seems he wants us to be ‘more evangelical’ about our faith. Odd. He’s at loggerheads with the church, isn’t he? So what’s with the sudden volte face?

People often confuse faith with culture. Nineteenth-century missionaries, complete with pith helmets, famously exported British culture in the name of Christianity. They cleared the ground for a brutal colonial empire. The effects are still being counted around the world today. War. Poverty. Injustice. Genocide. That’s no part of faith in my book. There are modern missionaries who do no better. Exporting the American Dream. Living on a monthly income in excess of the annual wage of those they seek to ‘save’. Driving shiny 4x4s to newly-built churches through streets lined with beggars. This type of evangelism is a witch’s brew of cultural imperialism and overzealous moralism. The kind of mentality that declares ‘we’re right and everyone else is wrong’. It can only end in tears.

On the other hand, there are people who do amazing things because of their faith. Mother Teresa springs to mind. My brother and his wife. They’ve spent more than twenty years transforming the lives of Bolivian street kids. One25 was founded by a Christian. And the Trussell Trust. That nefarious ‘scaremongering’ organisation responsible for undermining the moral fibre of our great nation with its food banks. I have personal experience of all these. Although sadly Mother Teresa was no longer with us by the time I made my only trip to Calcutta. The difference? Simple. These people do what they do out of love. Not because they want to manipulate other people into seeing the world their way.

Here comes the incoherent anger. Call me cynical. A conspiracy theorist. It’s all right. I’ve been called worse. Less than two weeks ago David Cameron held an Easter reception at Downing Street. Among other things, his speech praised faith organisations for setting up food banks. Now, either the man’s had a Damascus road experience or there’s something funny going on …

Enter yesterday’s Mail On Sunday. With a vitriolic attack on food banks.

Now you see why I was spitting nails when I started writing this morning? Talk about manipulation. The people who use food banks are poor beyond the wildest dreams of any Daily Mail reporter. Vulnerable. Desperate. I’m not for one moment suggesting that we’re all saints. Yes. I said ‘we’. I’ve received food from a food bank. I wouldn’t recommend the experience. The gift was given with immense love and grace. I was still reduced to tears of humiliation. I’ve seen a food bank from both sides of the counter. I’m fairly sure one or two of the people who use it are just as dishonest as MPs with their expenses. I’m not condoning the behaviour of the minority. But to rubbish the entire system the way this article does is one of two things. It’s either irredeemably irresponsible journalism. At its absolute worst. Or a cynical attempt by an embattled government to smear its enemy. While carefully trying to appear whiter-than-white. Take your pick.

But the signs are that all has not gone to plan. First came news of a Twitter backlash against the Mail On Sunday. A surge in donations to food banks followed. At the time of writing, the Trussell Trust’s Easter appeal stands at £54,953. After the hammering this morning, my faith in human nature is considerably restored. I’m not naïve enough to imagine we’ve won the war today. But I do believe we’ve scored a small victory. For compassion. For caring. For the human race.


I’m blogging to raise funds for a charity close to my heart. I’ve given up NOT being a writer for 125 days in support of One25’s work with vulnerable women in Bristol. You can find out more about them by visiting their website at You can also support them by visiting my fund raising page at where you can make a donation and suggest an idea for a short story or a post on the blog. Thank you.




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An Unspecified Number Of Things You Should Know Before You Decide To Give Up Not Being A Writer For A Hundred And Twenty-Five Days

We are a race obsessed by lists. Nowhere is this more obvious than when trawling the internet for inspiration for a blog post. It seems we’re especially fond of numbered lists. Alongside one single article today I found links to all of the following. 13 Common Words You Are Probably Mixing Up. 11 Things You Should Know About Piercings. 14 Habits of People With A Healthy Relationship To Food. 10 More Realistic Milestones For Your Baby Book. 5 Myths About Caffeine, Busted. You’ll be relieved to know that was the only one I read. Apart from 9 Breakup Texts That Just Might Test Your Faith In Humanity. That one sneaked up while I wasn’t looking. Despite a title cunningly formulated without numbers, the article I actually wanted to read hovered perilously close to list format too. I forgave it, on the grounds that it was quite interesting.

These articles seem to have a few things in common. They often purport to provide useful information. Apart from the breakup texts one. That was almost a total waste of cyberspace. Although one of the nine did make me chuckle … They usually have some kind of ‘angle’. I’m fairly sure the caffeine article was sponsored by a coffee company. Or written by someone with a habit even worse than mine. And from a writer’s perspective, they’re a pretty good way to present a list of loosely-connected factoids without having to sweat blood over editing.

So in the interests of experimentation with different writing genres, I’d like to present my own list. [Insert Number Here] Things You Should Know Before You Decide To Give Up Not Being A Writer For A Hundred And Twenty-Five Days

1. It’s much harder than you might think to type a title where Every Single Word Begins With A Capital Letter. Don’t do it.

2. If you’re writing a list like this you don’t actually need to decide how many items it will contain until you’ve finished. Just so long as you remember to insert the correct number before you post it online.

  1. Your word processing programme will automatically reformat any sentence that begins with a number. Don’t forget to undo the formatting. It’ll be really hard to sort it out later.

  2. See what I mean?

    5. You may think you’ve only given up not being a writer. Mad fool. You’ve actually given up watching telly. Eating cooked meals. Going to bed before midnight. Phoning your friends. Having a social life. Doing anything whatsoever without wondering whether you might be able to work it into a blog post. In fact, you could write another article entitled 107 Things I Gave Up …

  3. There are some words you will never learn to type correctly at the first attempt. Words like theer, inot, socila, and nad are easy to spot because of the red squiggly lines. Your spellcheck isn’t bright enough to know you meant ‘pick’, not ‘prick’. ‘Every’, not ‘very’. ‘Look’, not ‘loo’. It could make all the difference. My all-time personal best typo, a few years back, was the title of a well-known hymn. Come, let us sin …

6. You’ll start out all fresh-faced innocence. You’ll think that writing 500 words every day is a great way to discover your ‘voice’. Don’t be fooled. By Day Forty-Three you’ll be sick of the sound of it.

7. There are two very good reasons not to save every article you write under the number of the day you posted it online. One is you’ll lose track of what day it actually is by Day 25 … or 26 … oh, sorry was it only 24 …? The other is there’s no way on earth you’re going to be able to remember what you wrote about on which day by the end of the first fortnight.

9. You are going to feel exactly the way you did when you were a student. With an imminent essay deadline. And no idea what to write. Continuously. For around four-an-a-half months.

14. No matter how carefully you plan out your time, writing 500 words ALWAYS takes longer than you think it’s going to. And if you’re going to post anything intelligent online you’ll probably run over 500 words anyway.

  1. Giving up not being a writer is one of the craziest things you’ll ever decide to do. But it will be worth every stressed-out minute. Really.

27. All this is to raise funds for a charity close to my heart. I’ve given up NOT being a writer for 125 days in support of One25’s work with vulnerable women in Bristol. You can find out more about them by visiting their website at You can also support them by visiting my fund raising page at where you can make a donation and suggest an idea for a short story or a post on the blog. Thank you.



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Good Friday and the God of the Big Stick

Er … ahem … I’m sorry … My name is Jean and I’m … I’m sorry, I don’t think I can do this … Go on, you’ll feel better when you’ve got it off your chest … I’m … you can do it … *whispers* I’m a Christian.

A few years ago I went back to university as a mature student. The tutor for my weekly seminar in Study of Religions was really hot on academic neutrality. The slightest hint of stereotyping. Ill-informed assumptions. Prejudice. He came down on us like a ton of bricks. After class, six or seven of us used to adjourn to the cafeteria together. A few weeks in and we were getting to know each other fairly well. Then one of the girls dropped a bombshell. She told us, slightly red-faced, that she’d been to church on Sunday. As the initial flurry of feathers calmed, we realised several of us were nodding in sympathy. Of the seven round the table that day, five of us were practising Christians. We’d never had the guts to say so.

“I thought he’d tear me to pieces,” said the girl who’d broken the silence. The ‘he’ was our apparently impartial tutor.

We Christians are our own worst enemies when it comes to PR. I wouldn’t give the time of day to the God my atheist friends (and that embittered tutor) don’t believe in. I don’t blame them. But they must have got their concepts from somewhere. Truth is, there are an awful lot of Christians out here who seem hell-bent on keeping heaven to themselves. By making it appear as unattractive as possible to everyone else.

Not all of us subscribe to the concept of a vengeful God. Seated on a cloud. Clutching a fistful of thunderbolts. Flanked by cowering angels strumming harps. And the half-dozen-or-so smug Christians who’ve actually managed to Get It Right. Sadly, those of us who don’t see God that way are really bad at making our voices heard in the hubbub. Nervous of being tarred with a fairly nasty brush if we label ourselves ‘Christian’, we keep our heads as far below the barricade as possible. Hoping we’ll somehow get our point across by making tea and being nice.

Of course, Jesus wasn’t a Christian. No such thing back in the day. I’m not sure he wanted to start a new religion at all. He wasn’t keen on the religious hierarchy. That’s for sure. The problem with religion is it so often boils down to a set of rules. With the God of the Big Stick, waiting gleefully to beat us as soon as we put a foot wrong. I don’t know why we like that idea so much. Am I the only person on earth who’s never going to get anything one hundred percent right? Every minute detail. Every minute of every hour of every day. For ever and ever. World without end. Amen. Because that’s the gold standard religion aspires to. Absolute perfection. No pick-and-choose. No margin for error. No time off for good behaviour. Rules is rules. There’s no fifty percent pass mark when it comes to obeying rules. Not even ninety percent. It’s all or nothing.

Small wonder I’ve heard the question so often. What’s so good about Good Friday? I tried talking through it with a friend a few years back. God loves us. I said. He knows we’re not perfect. We’re never going to be. And we beat ourselves up when we fail. He sent Jesus to take that burden from us. To show us we’re forgiven. Loved utterly. Absolutely. To the point of death. Even when we hate ourselves. When we can’t forgive ourselves. The cost was immense. Forgiveness isn’t an airy wave of the hand. Don’t worry. It’s fine. If it was, there’d have been no need for the crucifixion … My breathless exposition ran dry at that point. My friend was looking utterly bemused.

“Do you actually believe that?”


My conviction was wavering as much as my voice.

“So why are you Christians so miserable?”


I knew what I was supposed to believe. Trouble was, what I really believed was that God excused minor lapses. Turned a blind eye now and again. After all, I was quite nice really. I’d been a bit wild in the past. But God had probably forgotten all about it by now. All I had to do was get things more-or-less right from here on in. All would be well.

I guess that would be brilliant news for religious people. If it were true. Keep your head down. Keep your nose clean. Well, clean-ish. Don’t actually drive a coach-and-horses through the rule book. And maybe pop a bit extra in the collection plate on Sunday when you do. Everything will be hunky-dory. Not earth-shatteringly wonderful. But OK. On the other hand, it’s really rubbish news for everyone else. What if you don’t know the rules? Or you’ve done something you know darn well God’s never going to forget? And you certainly can’t forget about it. Or you’re poor? Marginalised? Addicted? Homeless? An abuse survivor? The friend I was talking to was all of the above. No wonder he saw through me.

This morning I walked through part of this city I love so much with sixty or so others. We followed two men in white robes, with a makeshift wooden cross. We stopped at various points along the way to pray. Reflect. Sing. One of the stopping points was a place I’ve often visited on the One25 outreach van. We prayed for the city’s vulnerable women. The homeless. The trafficked. The abused. The sex workers. A woman who had once been a regular in the night shelter read from the bible. I stood beside a friend who’s battling demons of addiction and poor mental health. We sang.

Inspired by love and anger, disturbed by need and pain … [John Bell]

I’ve come a long way. Words I spoke to my friend as theory I’ve experienced as truth in the last seven years. The good thing about Good Friday is it really does offer love and forgiveness to everyone. Especially to those who are not rich enough. Not well-educated enough. Not ‘nice’ enough. Not religious enough. Which is pretty much all of us really. Life’s often messy. Painful. Brutal. So was crucifixion. Jesus didn’t have to do it. He chose to. Because he loves us. He wanted to make that crystal clear.

But we continue to muddy the waters with religion. With ‘it’s-all-very-well-buts’. With rules and respectabilities. My friend was right. Why are we Christians so miserable? Because we don’t live what we say we believe. We should be pulling down barricades. Tearing up rule books. Demanding mercy. Living generously. Joyously. Dancing and laughing. Love and forgiving. Just as Jesus lived. That’s the way only way we’re ever going to change the world. And I don’t know about you, but I think it’s about due for a change.





All this writing is to raise funds for a charity close to my heart. I’ve given up NOT being a writer for 125 days in support of One25’s work with vulnerable women in Bristol. You can find out more about them by visiting their website at You can also support them by visiting my fund raising page at where you can make a donation and suggest an idea for a short story or a post on the blog. Thank you.


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Earthworms, food banks and the scandal of 330,000 hungry children

It’s amazing how the internet can change your life. One minute you’re trying to remember why you felt so sad about that earthworm in your San Francisco backyard, back in 2009. The next you’re all over the front page of the Daily Mirror as a symbol of starving children in Britain. And while you’re basking in all that unlooked-for media attention. The children who could actually do with it are being quietly parked back in front of the wide-screen telly. Out of sight, out of mind. Except when someone wants to have a go at their parents for owning a wide-screen telly in the first place.

I have some sympathy for whoever’s responsible for this weird juxtaposition. A tearful Californian child with an article about food banks in the UK. Aside from writing 500+ words a day, one of the most time-consuming aspects of assembling this blog is searching for photos to accompany it. Preferably eye-catching. Hopefully tasteful and appropriate. Containing no images of people who might object. You may have noticed a tendency to fall back on neutral images. Flowers. Trees. Bottles of cheap Shiraz. At least they’re not going to offend anyone. Except maybe an alcoholic with severe hayfever.

It breaks my heart to live in a country where food banks are necessary. Frankly it’s a scandal that 330,000 children are dependent on food handouts in an affluent nation like ours. I’ve been volunteering in a community café for almost two years. The local food bank uses the same premises. Two years ago we were able to co-exist comfortably. These days the café has to close early on a Friday afternoon. There’s not room for our customers once the food bank opens.

Of course, as Michael Gove pointed out last year, they’ve only got themselves to blame. All these families who can’t manage their money. Nothing to do with having no money to manage in the first place. After all, what right do they have to be sick? Disabled? Unemployed? On low incomes? You thought it was the supermarkets who’d priced your local shop out of existence? Think again. Those pernicious food banks and their irresponsible customers. They’re the ones to blame. How dare people need to eat when their benefits have been sanctioned?

Andrew Brown argues that it doesn’t matter whether the photo in today’s Mirror is authentic or not. In a sense he’s right. No photo is going to convey the suffering of 330,000 hungry children. If photos of starving children stirred up compassionate action, global hunger would have been eradicated decades ago. Most of us simply prefer not to see them. The real danger of a sloppy piece of journalism like this is that it actually detracts from the cause it seeks to support. It should have highlighted the scandal of an affluent nation where hunger amongst children is on the increase. Instead, it may well have made us even more wary of believing anything we read in a newspaper. And less likely to respond with empathy in the future.

A year or so back, a weary-looking mum came to the food bank. She’d had no money all week. She and her six-year-old daughter had run out of food. I don’t know the ins and outs of their situation. I do know I came face-to-face with a woman who hadn’t eaten for three days so she could give what she had to her child. We made beans on toast for them. I never saw them again. Tonight’s photo is of the thank you note from that little girl. It doesn’t come from California. It has nothing to do with earthworms. I hope and pray that, wherever Charley is now, she’s no longer one of the 330,000.

All this is to raise funds for a charity close to my heart. I’ve given up NOT being a writer for 125 days in support of One25’s work with vulnerable women in Bristol. You can find out more about them by visiting their website at You can also support them by visiting my fund raising page at where you can make a donation and suggest an idea for a short story or a post on the blog. Thank you.



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Russell Brand, wu-wei and eating from a different tree

I should get a dog. I know. I know. It’s not practical. Vet’s bills. Food. Second-floor flat. Middle of a city. Out too much. And what about holidays? They’re such a tie. Dogs I mean. Not holidays. I know all the rational arguments. But let’s face it. Anyone who’d force me to go for a long walk twice a day can’t be all bad.

This is not some kind of crazy health kick I’m on. Much though I ought to be. It’s just that walking’s so good for the writing process. It doesn’t have be wandering-through-a-host-of-golden-daffodils walking either. Plain putting-one-foot-in-front-of-the-other will do. A section of my regular journey to the supermarket runs (or walks) along a pavement too narrow for two people to pass without one of them stepping off. Busy road one side. High wall on the other. There’s usually a grimy tanker labelled ‘extreme recycling’ parked by the only gate. And a wisp of noxious gas above it. Wordsworth country it is not.

I was stumbling along this very stretch the other day. Bag of shopping in each hand. Shoulders aching. Fingers purple. I found myself thinking of Tom. I miss Tom. Tom was the kind of guy who always had a bee in his bonnet. Often several. His bonnet was more a hive than a piece of headgear. I was chatting to him over after-church coffee one Sunday a few years ago.

“God’s been talking to me,” he said.


He asked me to think about which tree I’m eating from.”

Don’t worry. It didn’t make sense to me either. At least not at first.

I’m not a fan of self-help books. Their didactic tone and veiled suggestion that I could be as wonderful as the author if only [insert behaviour change here] is usually enough to send me screaming for cover. But every now and then, one gets in under the radar. The Artist’s Way for example. It came recommended by a friend whose personal journey leaves me breathless with awe. That’s the only reason I gave it house room. The author, Julia Cameron, talks about synchronicity. Loosely speaking, the way the universe sometimes flows along with our creative decisions. Leap, and the net will appear, she says. Although that should probably come with a government health warning. Don’t try this at home.

Be that as it may. I started to think about Tom’s trees, and whether I could work them into the blog. I was well into the idea by the time I got home. Fingers throbbing. Ice cream melting. In urgent need of tea. And the loo. I dumped the shopping. And checked in to Facebook on my phone. Yes. I really am that hooked. A friend had posted a Russell Brand video. I’m a big fan of Russell Brand. Ever since his incredibly honest documentary about his addiction. My friend had also tagged me in a comment. About wu-wei. Effortless action. In case you’re as uninformed as I was up to that moment.

According to Edward Slingerlandwu-wei is very much like the feeling of being ‘in the zone’ that athletes describe’. It’s that place where everything seems to flow. Without grit-toothed blood, sweat and tears. The idea runs so counter to everything we’re taught to believe. I was fascinated. But I’m a well-trained domestic goddess. I put the shopping away. Sorted out dinner. Sat down and turned on the laptop. That was last Thursday.

Last Thursday was the night of the Great Virus Software Crisis. The laptop went nuts. Any idea of synchronicity went out of the window. And wu-wei. The universe was flowing against me. Action was in no way effortless. Even the internet hated me. My laptop was riddled with viruses. I’d have to stop writing. For ever. What kind of idiot was I to imagine I could be a writer anyway? I couldn’t even manage 125 measly days without something going horribly wrong. I was going down the garden to eat worms. I should have stuck to Supersize vs Superskinny.

Five days on from the tantrum now. I’m definitely older and possibly wiser. Synchronicity is a bit more than everything-going-exactly-the-way-I-want. After all, last Thursday I didn’t know I was going to have an amazing experience of wu-wei on Sunday. While talking about knights on white chargers. Superman. And donkeys. In church.

So what does this have to do with trees? Tom’s trees are the ones Adam and Eve faced in the Garden of Eden. The tree of life. And the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. To cut a longish story short, they chose the second tree. Against the best possible advice. Tom took this as an allegory for the choice we all make minute-by-minute. Life. Or judgement. Love. Or condemnation. Flow. Or effort. Synchronicity. Or struggle. I like his analysis.

We tend to choose the second tree. It’s familiar. Safe. You know where you are with it. Some kind of morality is at the core of everything we do. Black-and-white. Right. And wrong. Not that we’re always in agreement about what ‘morality’ means of course. Wars are fought over the issue. Schoolgirls are shot. Men and women are denied basic human rights. Because they don’t agree with us. Closer to home, David Cameron considers himself on a moral mission to cut welfare benefits. The Archbishop of Westminster considers his mission anything but moral. I know which side of the dispute I’d come down on. But who am I to judge?

Here in the western world we like hard work. We cling to the protestant work ethic. Regardless of its impact on the human psyche. Not to mention the planet. It seems we’re all anxious to buy a piece of heaven. Personalised. Designer label. Red-carpeted with hard work. Effort. Doing our bit. Not rocking the boat. And definitely not asking questions about the point of it all.

We have just the one life. Unless you happen to believe in reincarnation. This isn’t a rehearsal. So why is it a good idea to spend so much time being so miserable? I’m not much given to envy. I’ll wash my mouth out with soap and water when I’ve finished … But I do get the odd twinge when I meet people who’ve found their metier. A way of making a living by doing something they actually love. It’s a gift so many of us miss in the daily grind of paying bills. Making money for people who already have more than we do.

Wu-wei. Synchronicity. Eating from the tree of life. Living outside the box. They go against the grain. Run outside the rut. They bring the beautiful. The spiritual. The life-enhancing. Crashing into the workaday world. Dancing. Laughing. Wait a minute. Wouldn’t we all be happier like this? But we’ve lost any sense that the world ever was. Ever could be other than as it is. We’ve even forgotten there was once a world without iPads. For goodness’ sake. We get scared. Envious. Judgemental. Cover our eyes and hope it will go away. But you know what? I think it’s time a few of us started eating from a different tree. I don’t know about you, but I’m with Tom on this one. Bees. Bonnet. And all.


I’m writing this blog  to raise funds for a charity close to my heart. I’ve given up NOT being a writer for 125 days in support of One25’s work with vulnerable women in Bristol. You can find out more about them by visiting their website at You can also support them by visiting my fund raising page at where you can make a donation and suggest an idea for a short story or a post on the blog. Thank you.




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Procrastination and the distant finish line

Progress for the last couple of days has been frustratingly slow. If procrastination was an Olympic event I’d be a gold medallist. I’ve edited. Shunted words around. Written first paragraphs for three different articles. Done some research. Had in-depth discussions about an article I’m planning. In fact, there’s a bit of a log-jam on the ideas front. Too much material, rather than too little.

Be all that as it may, I thought I should post a few lines to let you know I’m still here.  Still running. Still in the game.  Even though the finish line’s a long way off yet …

All this is to raise funds for a charity close to my heart. I’ve given up NOT being a writer for 125 days in support of One25’s work with vulnerable women in Bristol. You can find out more about them by visiting their website at You can also support them by visiting my fund raising page at where you can make a donation and suggest an idea for a short story or a post on the blog. Thank you.




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