“Forget your personal tragedy. We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt use it—don’t cheat with it. Be as faithful to it as a scientist—but don’t think anything is of any importance because it happens to you or anyone belonging to you.”
A month after the publication of his novel Tender Is The Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to his friend Ernest Hemingway to ask for his opinion on the book. The letter he got back is fantastic, passionate, affectionate and full of writerly advice that I am going to try and follow from now on.
Also, I’m going to start saying “goddamn” a whole lot more.
Go read the whole wonderful thing over at Letters of Note.
“A research technician is required to work at the Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects assisting Professor Francis Ratnieks on research projects on honey bees, stingless bees, and ants. Previous experience of working with these types of social insects, in carrying out lab and field research, and a basic ability in speaking Portuguese, are required.”
I never knew honey bees speak Portuguese.
Nor flying ants or any other social insects, though actually it would make sense, these creatures fly far and wide and who’s to say they’ve not visited the continent and picked up some of the local lingo, some of the local colour, so to speak, and if they’ve, for example, been to Lisbon, who’s to say they didn’t fall in love with the city and join a local hive - I don’t know how these things work in the world of bees, hell I don’t even know how these things work in the world of humans, am I right, well anyway - so like I was saying they might move in with the local bees, say hola and cómo estás and gracias and te quiero - but in Portuguese, they would speak Portuguese, I only know Spanish so I wrote some Spanish there, the important phrases right - they might stay a while, hang up their tiny little hats and stay and fall in love with the local cuisine and the music and have little Portuguese grubs, and then come back home only after long months have passed - months are like years for bees I do know that much - and it’ll have been so long they’ll have forgotten their native language, their native tongue, so to speak - bees have very long tongues you know - their English words have flown, have gone, adiós, adiós las palabras - like I said I only speak Spanish so that’ll have to do - and then, when they’ve come home and got comfy in the English hives of the university where they can be cared for and studied and have tiny numbers painted on their furry backs - special paint must be used, I guess, but how do they catch the bees, how do they hold them still - then of course someone has to speak their language, no one can talk to them or understand them unless they speak with the soft, rushing sounds of Portuguese and sing to them the passionate and mournful fados of Lisbon - OK maybe I do know something about Portugal, at least I know of their sad, desperate love songs, I’d like to know their happy songs, you know, their songs of joy, I’ve had enough of the sad songs now - and so they put an advertisement on their website for a researcher who knows about insects that are social and know only how to speak to each other by dancing in circles and singing the Portuguese Fado.
Maybe the job description should have included an intimate knowledge of Portuguese music and broken hearts as well. But what do I know?
“People say to write about what you know. I’m here to tell you, no one wants to read that ‘cause you don’t know anything. So write about something you don’t know. And don’t be scared, ever.”
[ our office; for an hour there has been a constant grinding, whining noise from the room upstairs, a cross between nails on a chalk board and an electric lathe ]
Me: Oh for fuck’s sake.
Me: That noise. Above us.
L: Is it getting on your nerves?
Me: [ growls ]
L: Would it help if you imagined it was them upstairs doing some carving?
L: Yeah. A big carving.
Me: A sculpture.
L: Yeah. A sculpture. Of a massive penis.
Me: A wha..?
L: Just imagine they’re up there, carving a giant, erect penis.
L: There. You feel better already don’t you?
L: Always happy to help.
There I said it.
I know, I know. I spent the better part of a year ignoring you. Going out with Tumblr, holding hands with Flickr on long, quiet walks along the beach, having a brief but torrid fling with Twitter again. See, I thought I didn’t need you. I thought you were just like all the rest, nice enough, funny and smart even, certainly good looking but nothing special, not for me. I convinced myself I wasn’t interested. I convinced myself you weren’t my type, that your filters were the wrong colour, that you didn’t have enough features.
But three weeks ago something happened. Something changed. I don’t know what. It doesn’t matter what. It’s a feeling I have and I know it’s right. I feel good when I’m around you. I feel free. You just seem to “get” me, you know? Do you know what I mean, Insty? Do you feel it too, Insty?
Can I call you Insty, Insty?
So anyway. I like you. A lot. More than a lot. I like your simplicity. I like the way you look. I like your filters. I like the way you put up with my shit: no editing, take it or leave it. I like the way you just work. All the time. And I like - love - your…blurry focussy thing. I’m sorry! I know that’s terribly forward of me, but I can’t hide it anymore. I’m not a pervert, I promise. I just like a tight focus, OK? It makes me feel…nice.
I feel for you, baby. And after all, I’m just a girl standing in front of an, um, an iPhone, asking a photography/social networking app to love her. If you feel like taking a chance on a shutter-happy goatherd with nothing to her name but a pile of books, a guitar, touchscreen-gentle fingers and a fine pair of socks, meet me at 8:00 in the park by the pond. I’ll be the one lying on the grass counting the stars. Bring cider and an increased depth of field (do you have a big f/number? An f/8 even?).
Tell me I’m not too late, honey. Let’s make beautiful, transient things easily together forever.
[ runs away to the park, heart pounding ]
[ Scene: outside my window just now, two drunk blokes stumbling up the street ]
Bloke 1 (shouting): THE FUCK’S WRONG WITH YOU?
Bloke 2: [ incoherent mumbling ]
B1: YOU TURNED DOWN A GIRL!
B2: [ im ]
B1: BUT A GIRL. YOU TURNED DOWN A GIRL.
B2: [ im ]
B1: YOU TURNED DOWN A GIRL, MAN. A NICE FUCKEN GIRL.
B2: [ im, sound of beer bottle shattering on tarmac ]
B1: SHE WAS. FUCK. A GIRL, MAN. YOU TURNED DOWN A GIRL.
[ continue to fade, exeunt omnes ]
I just spent five seconds looking for a USB port on my typewriter. On my 1950s manual typewriter. Five seconds. Looking up and down its sides, running my fingers across its grey back, testing its corners, sure that the effing thing was there somewhere. I felt confused. For five seconds. It doesn’t sound like a long time, does it? But try it. Get a, I don’t know, a large hardback book. Look at it carefully for five seconds. Just stare at it intently. Five. Long. Seconds. Imagine you’ve spent those five seconds searching for a USB port that does not exist, has never existed, on books or on typewriters, not even in my favourite alternate dimension where I have a prehensile tail, I show my feelings by changing the colour of my eyes and am able to talk to birds and flying squirrels. Old typewriters simply do not have USB ports. They never have. They never will. Anywhere.
And I felt so silly and burst out laughing and that’s the story of how I discovered that five seconds is a very long time.
I’ve drank, drunk, lots of vodka and then some whiskey, sorry, bourbon, at my favourite pub, which happens to specialise in American whiskey, sorry, bourbon (so confused) and local bands. So, on advice from the bar guy, much pondering and beard stroking (from him, not me, I have no beard, really) I had a shot of Makers’ 46 on ice. I think. Anyway, delicious.
But I wanted to tell you about the bus back home. It was full of boys with instruments. Musical instruments. Not, like, surgical instruments, that would be weird, right. So anyway. Guitars! And a mandolin, guys, a bloody mandolin, such a sweet, lovely sound, my brother used to play one, he was good, and there was a banjo and more guitars. And they started playing songs. I’d got a seat at the back and found myself wedged in amongst them, all elbows and cardigans and beards and denim knees and oops sorry no it’s OK and shy smiles we were, except for me in my flowery dress (I will pretend it’s still summer, I will) and goddammit, it would have been rude not to join in the singing, no? So. I sang all the way home on the bus with the boys who had guitars and a mandolin and a banjo and it was so great and they smiled and clapped and called goodbye (really!) when I got up to go etc and stuff and it was so sweet. So sweet. I will never stop smiling. Never.
Soon the swallows will be gone.
September is the month they up and leave for African shores. Calling to each other high and far from soft, red throats they gather in the skies and leave this island. A few stragglers will stay until early October, but most will have left by then. They go journeying far away but always come home, are persistent and beautiful and brave and so I love them, as one must love a thing that is beautiful and brave and does not give up. And that is the why of my swallow tattoo.
Do you know Oscar Wilde’s heartbreaking story The Happy Prince? About a swallow and a statue and how they help the suffering people of their city. It is a tale that is beautiful and tragic and deeply moral (God appears at the end but don’t let that put you off if, like me, you are a non-Goddish kind of a person). It is about sacrifice and love, that is all. I will never forget the time my mum read it to me in bed when I was eight. She had just left my dad and his psychosis and taken us, her three young kids, with her to live in a tiny flat. Sitting in the dim light on the edge of my bed she read the story quietly to me. Her voice got fainter and fainter until, about two-thirds of the way through, she burst into tears and closed the book. She caught herself quickly and sat silent for a moment with her hand over her mouth and her long blonde hair over her face, then kissed my forehead and left. I lay in the dark and wiped my wet brow, listened to her crying in the living room. I wanted to go to her and put my arms around her and tell her, Mama, don’t cry, I love you, it will be alright. But I didn’t. So many years have passed and I still feel bad about that.
I may have told you that story before.
Mum was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer two weeks ago. She broke the news to me, in her usual matter of fact way, over the phone. Both she and I have had cancer, and have both beaten it right back to hell too, but when she told me I felt sick, as tiny and helpless as a baby bird. Next week she is having a mastectomy and I will be taking time off work to look after her if she is allowed out of hospital. If she stays in I will stay at her house, wander the little rooms, unearth old childhood stuff, do some pottering around London, write. Wherever she is I will read to her. I will write something for her, on paper. I will make her laugh. I will cook for her. She eats hardly anything at the moment but she loves to see me eat and I love to cook, so I will cook lots and eat lots. I will bake us a Tarte Tatin and dammit if I don’t get her to have a whole slice (if you’ve never tried it, you really should).
These little things of love, a home-cooked meal, a few handwritten words, a gentle touch, can make a difference, I think, sometimes. I hope.
“Justine, I’m perfectly capable. It’ll be fine. Don’t fuss so”, she tells me. I half expect her to go all Monty Python’s Black Knight on me: “Tis but a scratch!” She is a stout-hearted Eastern European socialist who built roads in her native Yugoslavia as a child and prefers to deal with things herself: slaughtering pigs, beating cancer, overthrowing capitalism, that sort of thing. I try not to pester her too much with my concern, for it seems to upset her more than the illness does. But this time I will not let her do it all on her own. This time I will go to her. Though I feel scared and oh so small, I am strong and this time I will go to her and put my arms around her and make sure she is OK.
The swallows will be back next year. And you know what? I am hopeful that my mother will still be here to see them return and that maybe I will be in Africa to wave them goodbye as they leave on their return journey to the UK in the Spring. I’ll stop and watch them and say to my small herd of goats (for I will have some goats by then, oh yes, and maybe a kitten, I would like a kitten), “Look! There they go!” The goats will shake their heads and wonder what I’m on about. They’ve seen it every year, it ain’t nothing special to a goat. I will call to the birds and ask them to say hello to my mother when they arrive. “Tell her I love her. Tell her I will be home soon. Don’t forget!”, and the swallows will rise into the African sky and start their long, perilous journey back to this land.
Bon voyage, little birds. Be safe. Come home to me soon.
I don’t know about you, but when I wake early from a series of bruising nightmares I feel shaky. I feel small and scared and alone. I hold myself and cry. I tell myself that it is OK to cry - because it is - and that there was no brutal murder. There was no blood.
That I didn’t watch the bludgeoning to death of a young girl and then spend long hours trying to wash blood and hair out of clothes, blood that was thick yet thin and that stained my fingernails and would not come out.
That I didn’t fall through the ice, I didn’t plunge silently into the black water while refusing to let go of the heavy thing that dragged me down.
That I didn’t walk amongst a herd of skinny horses who limped along the side of disused train tracks, chunks of flesh ripped from their sides, their legs, their necks, long teeth showing in the sides of jaws, eyes mournful and pleading with me for something, I don’t know what. That those sad, slow, tortured beasts were not real. That none of it was real, though the feelings of horror and sorrow and helplessness remain with me for a while.
It’s OK. These are my feelings. I own them and welcome them as old friends, my old monsters. I let them flow through me and over me like deep water and then I bid them goodbye and turn away from them. I wipe my eyes and breathe deep, stretch out my limbs in the warm bed. I watch the clouds race the starlings through my window and smile at the chuckles of the seagulls as they waddle about on my roof and I stroke the skin of my belly and say to myself it’s alright, I am here and this will pass. I think of sunshine and the open road and a cowboy walking his dun pony along a sandy beach and I know that everything will be alright.
It always is, you know.