My sister asked the other day, regarding career choices, ‘Do you ever feel you might have backed the wrong horse?’
It was a philosophical moment, of which she has many. Jane is an actress and this Zen theory was prompted by an interview she’d just been to where she thought she might have been a bit hysterical. It had been that sort of day. We are both longstanding freelancers. Rejection is our bread and butter, the kind that lands butter side down and gets grit in it.
Freelance, as a word, started out meaning exactly what it says, you were a free lance, owing allegiance to no Lord or Fiefdom. You were a freelance, or possibly a mercenary. I’m not sure what the difference is, you’re both in it for the cash. Freelance meant you were able to choose who you fought for in the lists. Can you see me desperately trying to big this up? This ‘gig economy’ that myself and my sister have been part of all our working lives. I never realised I was so hipster.
The wrong horse? Let’s take a look at the runners and riders shall we? I’ve had other ‘proper’ jobs and they were all terrible. I have worked as a temp and that involved stints at a plant hire firm, a vasectomy clinic, and for the CID at Bath police station on one short lived occasion. I worked in the British Gas typing pool filling out court reports. In the typing pool at Wiltshire Council I spent a considerable part of my time typing and retyping and retyping a tender document for a council catering contract that ran to about 500 pages of utter, heartkilling boredom.
One of my bosses, who shall remain nameless, used to ring me and say ‘Bring the diary’. This was, I hasten to add, the early 90s and email and mobile phones did not yet exist. I had only been promoted to this ‘gig’ because I’d complained to my temp agency that I knew how to use a computer so why didn’t I get sent to the computer jobs? Their response was to send me on a course in Holborn to be ‘trained’ to use a word processor their way. Word processor? It’s what we called a computer back then. Yes, I am Stegosaurus. Anyway. My reward was this boss and his diary.
In order to ‘bring the diary’ to his office I had to walk down three staircases and along approximately half a mile of Art Deco corridor. I would invariably reach his office, open the diary, click my pen and my manager would say ‘I’m in today’. Cue another pleasant stroll along that half mile of corridor. The consolation was that in those days there was a tea trolley loaded with cheese scones and a tea urn, which rolled around the building at regular intervals. Civilised. I can’t fault the cheese scones.
I’ve worked in the library service. It is quite physical, the library. Also no cheese scones. Everyone assumes you just look over your spectacles and read books. That you like a bit of quiet and lurk in archives with magical and forbidden texts. You’re probably good at puzzles. Probably. Not in my libraries. I did like the quiet and I liked interacting with people, not something that you get a great deal of in writing. I liked being able, on a few small occasions, to make someone feel better, to help them out by wiping out a library fine or to let them talk about their dog dying.
But I always had my eye on the slow hand of the clock.
Never look up from the writing. Clocks don’t exist. I’ve spent days writing when I’ve only looked up to notice that it was time to pick up the kids from school. You vanish. You exist in another time and space amongst other people, the people who live in your head.
Nothing comes close to writing, not even when I don’t get paid and don’t get paid is the default setting for a freelance writer. This setting is even more fixed in the new, shiny digital age. There has been talk of late about the free trade and exploitation issues in modern publishing and the fact that the writer, if they’re not bestselling, list-topping or indeed JK Rowling, is usually on a terrible deal that Oliver Twist might think exploitative. This is true. Freelance has much more emphasis on the ‘free’ aspect these days. In my recent experience (see blog in fact) people, the punters, the paying public actually don’t want to pay anymore. People want their digital entertainment for free and so the levels and layers of publishing are being stripped away and thinned out. Why do you need an agent? A middleman between you and the publisher? You don’t. Not these days. You are the gatekeeper. Put yourself out there. The risk used to be financial, that of the publisher trusting in your work to make them money, now the risk is all yours. Take it. Fly. Be free.
I’m too old and stuck in my ways to alter my course now. Plus I find that I can’t actually stop writing. It is soaked into my blood. It just goes round and round, passing through my heart, feeding my muscles. Even at the library, in the duller moments where there was no one to accost and I’d shelved all the books, I would whip out my notebook and scribble away, breaking off if someone needed the key to the disabled toilet or an emergency Val McDermid.
Now, in the digital age I am thankful. I don’t have to wait for a publishers approval, I can put my own stuff out there and I do so. It is a freedom that I appreciate. I’m not famous. I’m not bestselling. I earn tuppence ha’penny, I am a writer.
It’s a wild horse, unfettered and unruly, but I’ve got my buttocks firmly clenched in that creaky old saddle and yes, tally ho.
We’re big fans of Timothy West and Prunella Scales ‘Great Canal Journeys’ in our house, I hope you are in yours. The programme is a joy, serene and informative and also funny. We love it so much we were inspired to actually hire a canal boat for a recent holiday.
Thing is, TV is a liar. When Tim and Pru are aboard there is some lock keeping where Pru wields a windlass as if it’s a feather duster. Sometimes there’s a little light tunnel navigation a brief history of the engineering of the brickwork or the haunted spot in the middle where some poor navvy drowned. After they emerge into daylight they moor up at some idyllic spot and there’s a glass or two of wine already chilled, a crossword open, pencils sharpened. It’s appealing. You always feel as if you are sitting with them, relaxed and in the company of old friends.
What Tim and Pru never reveal is the hard graft that is a canal boat holiday. It is, in every sense, an adventure.
Possibly the dice were loaded against us for this escapade. We had both had a flat out flu the previous week, sweating profusely and aching as if our bones were being used by the Devil for his very own xylophone. Perhaps you had that flu too, it was going around. Anyway, we had stopped sniffing just enough on the Thursday to look forward to heading up to Trevor basin on the Friday and picking up our craft for the week, the estimable narrowboat ‘The Golden Lark’. We imagined that it would be relaxing, recuperative.
Here’s your first problem. A canal narrowboat is really a big empty workhorse of a boat. It is not a pleasure cruiser by nature. In its heyday it was loaded with coal and china and pig iron and trundled up and down the intricate web of the waterways of Britain. I have always loved canals and their history ever since Mr Pennington started waffling on about it during my secondary school history lessons. I loved the idea of these secret and hidden paths through the hearts of our post-industrial cities. You’d be surprised how many canals you’ve driven over, walked by or passed unawares. They skulk and lurk under bridges and dual carriageways and they were the M6 of their time. In its heart, a canal boat is the Georgian equivalent of an articulated lorry, built for trade and industry. This, you might think is not an issue. You would be wrong.
Also the ‘narrow’ in the moniker ‘narrowboat’ gives away the other slight issue. They are quite spacious, just in a long thin sort of way. We didn’t mind the dimensions of the galley and cabin seating area or the rather snazzy James Bond villain chairs it was equipped with. I might have mentioned it before but my husband and I are bred from Welsh pit pony and Irish bare knuckle boxing potato farmers. We’re not large in dimension.
The canal boat cabin bed wasn’t large either. A Great Dane or Wolfhound might have curled up comfortably. I balanced on the port edge, my husband snored on the starboard side, his back chilled by the side panelling of the boat. I had thought ahead, drilled by camping trips, and brought extra blankets and sleeping bags.
This was a wise move because it turned out that Putin had plans and sent a further Beast from the East. On Sunday morning we woke up to find a foot of snow on the boat and surrounding countryside.
This was, at first, one of the seven wonders of the canal world. They are the secret slipways and through routes that allow you to chug along and see the backsides of things, the untidy and the private. You are, as Celtic myth would have it, between the worlds of land and water, you are riding the borderlands. The whiteout was dotted with wild trees and wilder geese, brought down by the storm. The sky lowered above us a glorious bronze grey, heavy with the promise of further flakes.
We had all our clothes on. That didn’t come out quite how I wanted to write it. It makes it sound as if there was some sort of naked orgy previously, what I actually mean is, it was so cold we had to wear ALL OUR CLOTHES. I personally, on the Monday morning, was wearing leggings under my trousers, a long sleeved t-shirt, two dresses, three heavy duty cardigans, a tweed jacket, my faithful fleecy lined raincoat, my survival poncho, four scarves and a hat.
The thing is that a canal boat holiday is just that. You are on board and you have to chug along the, well, canal, for several hours a day. The reasons for this are twofold; if you don’t chug along you don’t get anywhere and b. if you don’t keep the engine running for 5-6 hours you don’t have any power in the evening and have to run the engine at your mooring. This is not great. Firstly the engine lends a waft of diesel to all the proceedings within the narrowboat (crouching, scrunching, bending mostly). Secondly it is noisy, for you and whoever might be moored up beside or behind you.
We chugged along in the bitter and biting wind, the exact one Masefield was thinking of in his poem ‘Sea Fever’.
There was no escape. Also that biting wind simply pushes the narrowboat around like a paper boat on a park lake. The lovely gentlemen who gave us the introductory tour of the boat and its workings did warn us ‘The wind is not your friend.’ It is quite disturbing to see your front end drifting sideways so that you are, essentially tacking up the narrow waterway. Narrowboats are long, canals are not wide, it’s a dodgy equation. That’s why they give you a grappling hook and a big, giant pole to shove yourself away from the bank. The tiller swings this way and that, the boat is slow but steady and deadly. There is no real margin for error.
We persevered to a place called Prees Junction where we thought we might moor for the night. The landscape, draped in ice and snow became more and more mystical. There were the Meres by Ellesmere, lakes scooped out by the ice age and eerily quiet, bereft even of the hardiest dog walker. Our only companions were the crows, flapping like black pirate flags from tree branch to bare bough.
Prees Junction. On that windbitten afternoon this place looked like a set for a horror film. There was an empty building, barren and dishwatery canals in two directions, distant malevolent looking lift bridges to block our way, windlass or not. And then the wind whirled us, around, angled us again, around, shoved us towards the distant bank. Shoved us back here, over there, until the movement of the tiller was like our sword in a duel with the element itself. The engine growled in reverse and my husband said at last ‘That’s it. We’re going back to Ellesmere for a curry.’
We had fun. Don’t misunderstand. We were lucky in that we had most of the canal to ourselves. Just as well considering the terrible steering and the whim of the weather. We saw the arse end of Shropshire at its most pagan, white and ancient with snow. But each morning the necessity of dropping down into the engine pit to check water, oil and turn the stern greaser was stressful. Yes. A stern greaser. We have no real idea what it did, just that it was vital. It was also, for 48 hours of our trip, frozen.
There was the night the electricity failed because we’d only been chugging for three hours that day. We had moored at Chirk and made the two mile escape to the castle instead, finding that the world sways a little when you leave the water. There was the fact that the door was not a sealed unit and so, at night you could watch the snow drifting in through the gap at the top as the wind hammered to be let in. Well he would wouldn’t he? It was cold outside.
To sum up the trip. It was very different from anything we’ve ever done. Atmospheric. Yes. Wild. Yes. Primitive. Yes. We even had to take on fresh water daily, seeking out the black and white hydrants to fill the tank.
Did I mention the toilet? No? Probably just as well.
I think a hot flush might be something that you get in poker involving kings and knaves. I’m not certain but I suspect gunslingers and cardsharps the world over are having hot flushes all through history and even right about now most likely, what with time being a big elastic band ball of matter and anti-matter and interstitial universes.
Right now my reading glasses are steaming up because I am having a Hot Flash. This is also something that they sell at the Chicken Shack takeaway in town and it involves wings and industrial amounts of chilli powder. However, it is also, as any woman over the age of about 50 knows, a side effect of your body deciding to mothball your womb and its attendant plumbing and pipes.
It’s a bit inconvenient because my hot flashes last quite a while, sometimes as long as twenty minutes or even an hour. During this time I can’t read I can only perform tasks that are slightly further away so unfortunately there’s no excuse not to do the vacuuming.
I was listening to Woman’s Hour the other day about various ways of tackling menopause. One lady suggested being mindful rather than embarrassed by Hot Flashing. I assume, in this instance she was talking about menopause and not just about awkward park situations involving raincoats.
Actually can you even buy a raincoat anymore? I’ve just thought, it must be hard work being a flasher these days. Apart from anything else there are a million and one ‘dick pics’ being sent so you’re sort of flooding the market. I mean in my young day, when we still wore skinny rib jumpers, no one had even seen a penis save for those crudely scratched into the surface of the wooden desks or pencilled in and popping out of the pages of a maths topic book. These markings were, thankfully, few and far between. Nowadays is anyone at all shocked? Plus cagoules and waterproof jackets tend to finish at the waist. No one has time or inclination for a full length, old school Mackintosh.
Anyway, mind wandering off, whistle it back. Phwrrrrrrrrrh.
Back to being mindful about hot flashing instead of embarrassed. I’m not embarrassed. I’m uncomfortable and not in a social sense but in an overheated sense. I spend most of my days and nights slicked in sweat. The heat begins to radiate out from a small incendiary space in my neck and chest. I mean heat too, it begins as a scorch and builds to a sort of isotopic thrum. As a writer I’ve tried to observe it and I have come to an odd conclusion. It’s like magic. Mother Nature decided on a firework display to mark the end of an era.
This has been brewing in my messed up menopausal head for some time but the mindfulness lady on Woman’s Hour pinned it. She suggested looking at it as a lovely natural process and trying to think calm thoughts because adrenalin only makes it worse.
Stuff calm thoughts. I’ve started to think of it as a superpower. The thermic energy is so overwhelming I have to keep turning the thermostat down so, on the plus side, this household is making a saving on the heating. When I feel the spark light up I greet it and wonder how much heat I am actually generating. I can probably boil the kettle with a finger. At last, the true meaning of Girl Power.