Friday, January 29, 2010

It's Crude to be Rude

I wrote this post over a year ago, but the unfortunate trend of customers harassing staff still continues.

I was motivated to write this in reaction to something I witnessed today at my local Tesco's at Notting Hill Gate. In fact, I've witnessed similar incidents more than once: Customers deriding the staff who are only doing their jobs. It's dreadful to watch and, as a former member of the service industry, makes me very, very angry. In my previous part-time job, I was told to 'shut up', called 'stupid', and had my accent insulted. But I'm an educated woman with plenty of other options. I didn't need that job and could just laugh it off.

Most of the people who work at my Tesco's branch are immigrants. They probably don't have a lot of other choices available, and they likely don't make much money. They can speak English (at least all the ones I have encountered over my many visits there for the past five years). Yes, they do have bit of an accent. But it's not exactly a hindrance to scanning a grapefruit. Yet the number of times I have seen customers mock their accents or speak in loud patronising tones is cringe-worthy. And I'm certain those being mocked don't find it as easy to laugh off as I did when it happened to me.

I was standing in the queue with my £3 bottle of wine (among other things) when two men entered the store -- a big guy and his side-kick (possibly his son, but if so that's really messed up). Big Man jumps the queue -- a sin comparable to serial murder in British society -- and heads straight for the middle-aged Asian woman behind the till.

'Why couldn't 'e buy them cigarettes?' Big Man asks loudly in a strong East-End accent. He points toward Side Kick who's busy examining the floor.

The woman explains quietly and politely that it's Tesco store policy not to sell cigarettes to anyone unless they can prove they're over 18. I steal a glance at Side Kick, who looks about 16 max.

'I can't understand a word she's saying,' Big Man shouts back to Side Kick. Side Kick shrugs and the woman, now red-faced, repeats her explanation. The queue, by this time, has now grown exponentially and of course everyone is desperately trying not to look at the scene unfolding in front of us.

Big Man shakes his head. 'Nope, still don't get it.'

It's like a scene straight from 'Little Britain'. By this time the poor woman looks like she's about to burst into tears, and I'm about to clunk the idiot over the head with my wine. I don't want to break it, though.

'She said: HE CAN'T BUY CIGARETTES UNLESS HE CAN PROVE HE'S OVER 18!' I say loudly and clearly to Big Man before I can stop myself.

Big Man swivels to face me. He stares for a second then shouts over to Side Kick:

'Why does everyone in this bloody store have an accent?'

Thursday, January 28, 2010

'So what do you do?'

Still in Paris, scoffing down pain au chocolat at the speed of light! It's a tough job...

Here's a post from about a year ago. I still hate this question!

I dread when people ask me what I do for a living. It's everyone's favourite cocktail party question, enabling the 'asker' to correctly place the 'askee' into the pigeon-hole of choice.

I used to answer with no problem. 'I'm a teacher,' I'd say, kicking off a whole debate about the dangers of teaching in UK secondary schools. It was a guaranteed conversation-starter. Now, though, it's a different scenario.

'I'm a writer,' I mumble, always feeling fraudulent. Hey, I've written three novels, I say to myself to prop up my self-esteem. But the next question always brings me back to reality.

'Oh!' The 'asker' perks up, looking at me with renewed interest. 'What have you published? Anything I might have read?'

'Nope and I've been rejected by about twenty agents and counting.' I always give it to them in one go, then take a sip of the (alcoholic) drink in my hand to allow them time to formulate their response.

It can go either one of two ways:

1. The sympathic/ patronising response. 'Oh, don't worry, it'll happen. Just keep trying. It's so great you're going for your dream!' All of this will be accompanied by a pitying look in the eye that reads: Poor, naive dreamer. You'll be sitting on your arse in ten years time still slogging away.

Maybe I will. But at least I'll be enjoying it!

2. The 'I write, too!' response. I never realised so many people want to write a novel of their own. It's like confessing my own writing ambitions has opened the floodgates. It's nice to hear that my postman wants to write a book. But I have to admit, I cringe at being put into the 'general public' basket of writers. Is that wrong? After all, I'm not published either. But I am serious about my writing, unlike those who consider composing a text message taxing but still want to write a book.

I don't know how long it will take before I can proudly say 'I'm a writer.' Hopefully sooner rather than later. Until then, I'll continue to dread the deadly 'What do you do?' question.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Mind the Bowtie

I'm off to Paris today to see my brother-in-law defend his PhD at the Sorbonne... and to eat a lot, in the name of research. So over the next few days, I'll be posting some of my favourites from the past year or so.

This is a piece I wrote back in March for the Writing Adventure Group:

I sip my strong coffee as the unfamiliar sun caresses my head. No gloves, no coat - it feels like freedom after the gloominess of a London winter. Lionel Richie floats through the mild air from a nearby old-school ghetto blaster. The street is slowly stretching its Sunday morning arms. Ahhhhhhh...

'Am I annoying you?'

Hunh? My eyes fly open. At the next table, a middle-aged posh-looking man has settled into the chair next to a complete stranger.

'No, you're alright, mate,' the stranger says, engrossed in his newspaper.

'I smoked seven grams of cocaine and had six hookers last night,' says Posh Man, swaying slightly in his chair.

Stranger barely looks up. 'Sounds like a messy night,' he says in a typically understated British way.

Posh Man looks offended. 'No, not messy. Not messy at all. I'm just coming down. I smoked seven grams of cocaine and had six hookers last night,' he repeats, louder, in case any of us have missed it.

Stranger continues with his newpaper. Silence falls.

'I'm the best film maker on this street. Too bad my wife has left me. Man, she was hot.' He points to Stranger. 'Now, if she was with you, I'd be impressed. You're rich. Not as rich as me. I have a Rolex that used to be owned by Frank Sinatra. I'm the best film maker on this street.'

Stranger folds his paper now, giving up. 'No, no, I'm not rich.'

'You are!' Posh Man protests. 'You have a Patek Philippe watch.'

At this, I have to steal a glance at Stranger's watch. I have only heard about Patek Philippe in Vogue, and even I know they're worth thousands of pounds.

Stranger doesn't deny it. He puts his paper under his arm and gets up. Silence descends again, until another couple nab the table where Posh Man is sitting. Posh Man looks their way.

'I smoked seven grams of cocaine and had six hookers last night,' he says, delighted to have a new audience.

And it goes on. The Man and I get up to leave, stifling our laughter.

'He's a nutter!' The Man says.

'But he looked so posh...'

'He's wearing a bow-tie,' The Man responds assuredly. 'The mad ones always wear bow-ties.'

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Me and Mr Freud

I got a postcard in the post today. But while the address was correct, the recipient was not: it was addressed to Lucian Freud, the grandson of Sigmund and a famous painter in his own right (according to Wikipedia, in May 2008 one of his paintings was sold for $33.6 million!).

Did Lucian ever reside at my address? Unlikely -- our downstairs neighbours have been here since the 1960s and, as history professors, would be sure to have mentioned it to us. More interesting was the content (and yes, I admit to reading it; I was fascinated to see what someone would write to someone like him!). The front of the card was a sculpture by Rodin, and on the back the sender assured Lucian a current exhibition of Rodin artworks at an undisclosed location would more his taste. And that was it.

Lucian will never get his postcard, unfortunately. But the small peek into the world of a great artist made my day!

I'm off to Paris from tomorrow until next week. But I've scrounged up some of my favourite posts from the past to fill the gap. Hope you enjoy them!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Running and Writing

On my (almost) almost daily jog through the park last weekend, I couldn't help but think how similar writing is to running.

It's always a struggle for me to leave my warm flat and go out into the wind and rain. But once I have the gear on and I'm outside, I'm usually glad I've gone. There are some days I fly: my legs feel light and I could go on forever. Other times, though, I feel like lead and my chest burns. Sometimes it gets better as the run progresses, sometimes not. When other joggers burn by me, I often feel slow, slow, slooooooow.

It's the same as writing. My mind usually balks at the thought of getting into the chair, but once I've managed to maneuver myself into it (usually using the lure of the Internet) and I get down to the business of words on paper, I'm happy to be there. There are days when the words pour out. There are days when it's a struggle. And there are times when, comparing myself with other published writers, I wonder if I'll ever get there.

But the bottom line is this: I like to run. I love to write. But that doesn't necessarily mean it's easy.

Then again, who said it should be?

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Help Me (x 100)!

The time has come to seek professional help. I want -- need -- to learn more about the process of novel writing. Writers' groups are great for feedback on individual passages, crit partners are good for overall feedback; paid readers are useful, too. But there comes a point (at least for me) where I need someone to tie it all together for me. I want to get better, and I need help.

So I'm applying to a part-time MA programme in Creative Writing at University College London (UCL). It's the best fit for me, as it focuses specifically on novel writing and it's only two nights a week. The aim, by the end of two years, is to have a novel of publishable standard. Along the way, there are talks by contemporary writers as well as agents. Sounds perfect!

One catch: there's only room for 12 to 14 people. When I heard that, I felt like banging my head against my desk and screaming: 'No! Please don't send me a rejection letter! That's the reason I'm applying - to have a chance at escaping the dreaded letter!'

But whatever the chances, I'm throwing my hat in the ring (rather than throwing myself out my office window...). Part of the application process is to write a personal statement: in 200 words, describe why the course would be beneficial to you. I was severely tempted to write Help Me! one hundred times. Surely that would convey just how much I wanted to be in the programme!

Stay tuned to see if I encounter rejection once more...

Friday, January 22, 2010

Let Their Bee Lite

Over at The Oatmeal, you can see some hilarious examples teaching the spelling (and meaning) of common problem words. My own pet peeve: it's versus its. People, please! Get it right!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Announcement Day!

Since I'm too lazy to write a new post, I thought I'd do an announcement round-up today. Happy Thursday, everyone!

* Buy a book and help Haiti at the same time - until the end of January, 20 per cent of all online sales from Prospera Publishing's website will go to Oxfam in support of Haiti.

* Want to write a review for Amazon? Fellow author Nicky Schmidt has five copies of her rollicking chick lit novel 'Naked in Knightsbridge' in exchange of a review on Amazon. She's got five copies to send anywhere in the world: the only catch is you must have an Amazon account and take five minutes to write a few sentences about the book. If you're interested, email me at or leave a comment below.

* Interested in learning more about how to get published? Prospera Publishing has started a really informative newsletter called 'Getting Published' - email to subscribe. Here's a taster:

Before you start writing, it's vital that you consider who will eventually read your book.The following is not a complete guide to every aspect an author should address, but it gives you an idea of how to begin writing a novel.

1. Think carefully through your 'novel' idea. Who is it aimed at? Kids, men, girls who read voraciously on the tube to work?
2. Is your idea unique? If so, how unique? So unique that it is too weird to be taken seriously? A serious literary work about an alien encounter in a dream is less likely to become a blockbuster than, say, the poignant, fast-moving story of a girl growing up without a father in Afghanistan.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Hidden London: Marylebone Parish Churchyard

Wintry view of the churchyard from Marylebone Blog.

Like many spots in London, the St Marylebone Parish Churchyard is not exactly hidden. But if you didn't know it was there, you could easily miss it. Just off busy, traffic-clogged Marylebone Road, you only need to scoot ten feet from the pavement and you leave the noise of the cars far behind.

The parish church -- for which the surrounding area is named -- is where Robert Browning married Elizabeth Barrett in 1846. Nearby resident Charles Dickens also had his son baptised here. But for me, it's the rounded churchyard that's the real drawing card -- particularly on Saturdays, when the Cabbages and Frocks market is on. Circle the yard for a selection of jewellery, shoes and food. The Man and I once bought a very potent and extremely tasty Jamaican rum cake here, narrowly missing out on spotting the wonderful Alan Rickman.

But the best time to visit this little patch of land is just when dusk is falling, with rush-hour at its height. Sinking down on a bench and listening to the distant horns of impatient drivers, it's pretty easy to feel that everything's perfect in your world at that moment.

Nearby recommendations: Just a little way down Marylebone High Street is Providores, a warm and welcoming Spanish restaurant with plenty of tapas and wine. And check out Daunt Books, also on Marylebone High Street.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Brainpower on Low

With 24 Hours Paris almost done (for now, anyway), I've been using the extra time to edit Novel Number 4, as I've blogged about previously. To be honest, a more fitting word would be 'slash and hack', as I've now axed over 20,000 words and I'm busily changing sentence structures and tense. It's exhausting, but reading back over the nine chapters I've managed to rework, it's getting there -- slowly.

That said, I don't have much to write today since my brain is tired of plodding through text, but I'll be back tomorrow with a Hidden London post. And keep watching this space for news of 24 Hours London and 24 Hours Paris iPhone applications, to be launched in the next few weeks!

Happy Friday!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Human Kindness

It was snowing and the streets of London were covered in a thin film of slush. But the household needed some vitals, so off I trudged into the late grey afternoon towards my first stop, Starbucks. While we're not giant fans of the chain, The Man and I both love the Columbian blend, which we buy in bags to make at home. Mission accomplished, I headed back out and onto my next stop, Tesco.

I set down my Starbucks bag for a second to take a closer look at the red wine (our supplies are low after the Christmas period). And when I turned back... the bag was gone. Now, I confess that I am often very absent-minded. I set things down and sometimes spend hours looking for them again. But I was quite sure I'd put the bag right beside my feet. And now that little parcel of coffee bean joy was nowhere to be found.

I ran through the aisles, my heart beating fast, scanning all the shoppers for any sign of my Starbucks bag. But after a futile search, I had to admit that it was over. I was coffee-less once more.

Feeling bereft, I paid for my remaining groceries that hadn't yet been stolen and walked back out into the cold. There are times, like when people steal your coffee, that I really missed my homeland. I could be wearing my rose-coloured glasses, but I was pretty sure that no-one in Nova Scotia would steal my Starbucks coffee. In fact, if memory served me correctly, a few years ago people in the Maritimes were proven to be the most likely to return a lost wallet to its rightful owner -- with nothing missing. Oh to be home again.

I couldn't go home without coffee (the thought of working all day without my shot of caffeine was, quite frankly, terrifying), so I retraced my steps back to Starbucks.

'You must like coffee!' the server said as I handed him my second bag.

I explained my plight as he ground my second batch of beans. He gave it back to me in a bag identical to the one I'd just lost.

'It's on the house,' he said, when I waved my Barclays card in the air.

I smiled as I walked away. Yes, there were days I missed home, but London wasn't so bad after all.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

5 Minutes of Procrastination

Thanks to everyone who dropped by from Nicola's blog party! It was great to read all the comments.

I'm in the throes of editing right now, and after a particularly trying night spent blocking out The Man's increasingly weird-sounding snores, my attention was not what it should have been. I was up, I was down, I was eating... you get the picture.

A typical five minutes in my mind this afternoon went something like this:

OK. Right. (Sitting down in the chair). Oh, this is uncomfortable. Gosh, maybe I should fix the chair. (Fiddles with knobs on chair, thus making it even more uncomfortable). It's been a minute. I should check my Twitter account. Nothing. Maybe my email? Oooh, someone commented on a Facebook photo; let me check.

I must get back to the editing. (Fixes one sentence.) Hm, I feel a bit hungry. Maybe some bread. (Heads to the kitchen to get a slice and goes back to computer.) Well, I can't write while I'm eating, so I'll just check my GoogleReader. (One minute later.) That bread has made me thirsty. Maybe some orange juice. (Heads to kitchen to get juice.)

...and so on. Oh, the torture!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Monday, Monday

Happy Monday! It's been dusk-dark all day here, the perfect day for settling down to my edits.

Today, fellow Canadian Luanne has posted a review of 24 Hours London and a few quick questions and answers with me on her blog. Hop on over to read what she has to say!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Editing Errors

Not much time to write today as I have a load of editing to do this morning before trekking off to the wilds of Wimbledon for a spot of meat-eating (i.e, burgers with a fellow Canadian expat).

But I wanted to do a quick post in honour of Nicola Morgan's first blog birthday. As you may recall, back in November when my book launched Nicola was kind enough to host me on her blog, talking about my journey to publication on which she had been a tremendous help. I've also used her Pen2Publication service, and I have to say her critique was head and shoulders above other reading services I'd used -- highly recommended!

As I'm engaged in a lot of editing these days (very persnickety details, such as opening hours and admission prices - blergh), I've been thinking about editing errors. You know, those pesky mistakes that just don't get noticed and creep by into publication, mortifying and sometimes highly embarrassing.

One of the worst examples I've seen of this is a PR person describing herself on paper as being 'highly experienced in pubic relations.' Ouch.

What are some editing errors that you've seen (or made, if you dare admit it!)?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Writing in the Big Freeze

I've got nothing but a mind full of blankness today, so I thought I'd share this hilarious post with you, by writer Alison Wells. It addresses the challenges of writing at this frozen time -- you know, blankets, frozen fingers and such.

Click to read!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Revisionist History

Finally, a post about writing! Truth be told, I've been taking it easy on the writing front. My office morphed into the guest room over Christmas, and while I'd love to be one of those writers who can write anywhere... I'm not. After the 24 Hours London launch and finishing Novel Number 5, it was good to have some much needed downtime.

But now the new year is here, and I'm raring to go. Nipping at the heels of my consciousness over the past few weeks were all the changes I wanted to make to Novel Number 4, which I finished last May/June. I'd sent it off to the Romantic Novelists' Association to be read by one of their members, as part of the New Writers' Scheme. (If you're in the UK and you write romance - or anything that has some kind of romance in it - I strongly suggest you join. Membership fees for the scheme are only £90 and you get a free reading in the mix).

A month or so later, I received my manuscript back in post along with a detailed five-page critique full of extremely useful and valuable feedback, presented in a forthright and encouraging way. You never learn the name of the reader, but whoever took the time to digest my MS and write the response -- thank you! (I must add that the reader you get may be down to the luck of the draw, since another writer I know did not have the feedback presented in a very constructive manner).

I had other things on my mind at the time (like getting married that week), so I put the feedback aside with plans to come back to it at a later date. Letting the novel rest for awhile is something I always like to do; I find that when I do return to it I can see its faults much better. Having read through the novel several times last week, I had loads of new ideas for improvement. And on Monday, I started putting them into action!

This time, I'm putting the emphasis on having fun. In the past, I've been much too time conscious, trying to finish the novel so I could move on to the next project. With Novel Number 4, I really feel the 'big idea' is there; now, it's a matter of getting everything else right.

Who knows, this one may end up dusty and yellowed, too. But hey, I'm enjoying the process for once!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Snow's A-Comin'!

I know this blog has veered slightly off writing and more towards the random, and I did have a post lined up today all about writing. But there are just too many good stories out there full of gloom and doom about the impending apocryphal snowstorm.

Bet you didn't know snow could cause such distress and titivation! Well, you wouldn't be in the UK then. Since around the week before Christmas, the whole country has been caught in the grip of an icy weather system straight from Siberia. Some parts of the country have even got down to - gasp - minus 15 Celsius. OK, yes, so there have been respectable amounts of snow (i.e., over 15 cm) in Scotland and Northern regions. But in great swathes of the country, whole transit systems have been brought to a standstill by as little as 10 cm of the white stuff.

And tomorrow comes the mother of all: up to 40 cm are predicted in the South, including London. Even by my cynical Canadian standards, that's quite a bit. Southeastern Rail has already reduced their London timetable - and that's before the flakes have even started falling!

So why can't the UK cope? There's not enough grit (salt), people don't know how to drive on slippery roads, and they don't have winter tires. Snow is a rarity these days in London, as are the freezing temperatures, and we've all forgot (myself included) how to deal with it.

Newspapers are awash with the headlines, so I've rounded up a few for your enjoyment! A little bit of schadenfreude never hurts, does it?

Woman and Turkey Still Stranded 17 Days On
Long Night in Store: Snow Strands Shoppers
Leeds University Students Snowed in for Two Days at Pub
UK Snow Map
No Escape as Snow Heads South-East Dum-Dum-DUMMM!

And finally, my personal favourite... Naked Sledging!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Writing on the Wall

In a city as old as London, it's no surprise that buildings are constantly reincarnated as new businesses take over the premises. One of the most fascinating things is the signs they leave behind -- quite literally.

Strolling up to Notting Hill Gate for our Sunday morning coffee, The Man and I came across two such signs within about 200 metre.

Now an antique shop and a money exchange, this building used to be - you guessed it - a timber merchants. Hard to imagine that nowadays in posh Kensington.

Not sure if this was for an business or if it was an advert, but if you liked the 'finest ever' marmalade then you'd come to the right place.

Hankering after more signs of the times? Derelict London has some great ones on their website.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy New Year!

Photo of last night's London celebrations from the Guardian.

Happy New Year to all! We spent the night in the company of friends at a warm and cozy house party in Clapham/ Brixton, with plenty of good food and lots of great conversation. It was the perfect way to say good-bye to a great 2009 and welcome in 2010. Hope everyone had a great New Year's Eve.