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.
Psychogeography. It might be said that this is a term coined for my experience at secondary school when the geography teacher, Mr Map we’ll call him to protect his identity, took against me and aside from blanking me out of every lesson also started to mark my work with grades such as ‘7F’ and ‘9G’, grades which didn’t exist in the strictly A-D 1-4 grade scheme at my school. I looked at my work and thought ‘I am really bad at geography’. I was a shy kid, avoided confrontation and so I toiled onwards with my cardboard contour 3d project (a particular 10H grade for that green painted, corrugated epic) with my learning of the workings of the Severn Bore and the quest for extracting aluminium from Bauxite in some godforsaken desert somewhere. Definitely an 8Z for that sticking in my memory.
In those days (the 70s! Did you guess?) kids did not show up to Parents Evening. Instead this was an opportunity for the grown ups to talk about you behind your back. My mum and dad headed off to quiz Mr Map on my lack of geography skills. As they put it, I had no idea what I was doing wrong, could he enlighten them?
“She gets A’s in everything else. I thought it would make a change for her.”
My mum and dad, non-confrontational beings themselves, nodded sagely. They were also teachers. On their return home they suggested I write off geography as, clearly, Mr Map was mad as a box of frogs. It was bullying but we didn’t report it. I didn’t care about geography, at least, not in the way that Mr Map taught it.
Because the land is not thin as paper and cannot be captured there.
Psychogeography is about the contours of the hill that hide a castle from view until you are at just ‘that’ tipping point and the land falls away like a magical illusion to reveal the hidden fortress. It is about the feeling you get that this wood you’ve wandered into is a bad place. That the trees here are darker and thinner and more hostile, that the paths through it will maze you, the brambles snatch at you. Psychogeography is about looking up and seeing the dragonshead waterspout, or knowing that there is a little lane just here, Red Hat Lane, that will cut you through town and no one else ever goes there. It’s knowing that if you drop down from the canal path you can pick up the river path and you’re on the edges.
Psychogeography is feeling the land. It is knowing your place because, in a moment, you have let your contemporary digital guard down and your mind, your heart, I’m going to say it, your soul, the most primal parts of you, have reached out to check on the lie of the land. There are places where we fit. There are places where we don’t. These instances do not require thought, they yell at you. The trick to enjoying this experience is to listen to them. When the hairs on the back of your neck prickle, don’t simply comb your hair down.
This experience extends outside your own country too.
On our honeymoon to the West Coast of America we travelled extensively, even venturing into Utah and Arizona to see the Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon. Along the way we stopped off, one afternoon, at Zion National Park.
We set off on a hike bound for a waterfall. The day was warm and bright and the landscape beautiful. We walked a fair way, through orange red rock to a place where the river that had been thin and brisk, widened out into a shallow pool closed in on all sides by the soft surfaces of the rising cliffs. This place was greener, shaded by slender trees that crowded near the water. The sunlight, the heat, the rock, the water, the closed in sense of the valley floor where the river had eaten through, ought to have been stunning, manna for the passing tourist. There was nothing dark, only the dappled shadows of the sunlight broken by the canopy of trees. There were lots of people, many of them ankle deep already, walking through the water towards the other end of the small canyon and the rest of the walk.
We didn’t go any further. A few steps into the water and I suddenly felt dreadful, that unexplained sense of things not being right but being unable to explain why I felt that. There were no sudden drops or the blackness of deep water to cause concern,quite the opposite, it was green, sunlit.
This is where psychogeography kicks in. I was feeling bad, really wanted to turn back but my husband, a hiking sort of bloke, had looked forward to this walk. He is also a scientist by qualifications and is a genuine sceptic. He’s what you’d call level headed so I kept my misgivings to myself. He was walking slightly ahead of me, armed with his camera but, I noted, taking no pictures. I said nothing but in a second he turned to me suddenly and, taking my hand, said ‘Let’s go back’. We were silent, hurried even, as we walked back along the path, passed by the stream of people in primary coloured shorts and hot weather gear headed to the pool.
It was only back at the car, safe in the air conditioned space that he confessed how bad the place felt, a sensation strong enough to persuade him we must leave. Now. My husband said he had felt that we just shouldn’t be there, that it was wrong.
You might say that in going no further we missed out on an epic tourist experience of further waterfalls and emerald pools. We didn’t miss anything, we might have been the only people that day who were privileged to have the deepest experience possible, not that of the tourist looking blindly out through the lens of a camera. Instead the land spoke to us, and we listened.
photo from visitutah.com. Seriously, visit.
Last weekend my husband and I opted to have a wander around Penarth, a Victorian seaside resort outside Cardiff. On the cliff top walk we encountered a papiermache folkloric Head of Bran being rolled down the hill to the pier alongside the spectral sheet and skull ensemble that is the traditional Marie Llwyd. There was much Welsh, much singing and a certain otherworldly sense was brought to the white painted lobby of the Pier. It was unusual and intriguing and gave a certain piquancy to the day. I mean, how often do you see singing schoolchildren rolling a giant’s head down a cliff top?
We enjoyed the cliff walk which offers the twin pursuits of coastal nature and house-gawping. I love to nosey at other people’s property, especially that built at the seaside. I’m always very jealous of anyone that has a deck overlooking the sea. There were, it must be said, some truly awful examples of housebuilding, awful that is, to my eyes. You can pretty much keep your ultra-modern glasshouse with its innovative or post modern boxiness, clad in zinz of course and with Kevin McCloud no doubt drooling on the doorstep. Instead come on over to my place.
Old. Victorian. Or Georgian. Or anything vaguely cobwebbed, darkly Gothic or misshapen. I like steps and tall windows. Castles are good of course, especially the bleaker ones on a coastal hilltop. Ornate porching, several stories, a good view through to your kitchen helps and leaving your curtains/blinds open at night so that I can have a really good nosey in always pleases.
An abandoned house breaks my heart and Penarth delivered. On one turn off, as we walked towards the Turner House Ffotogallery, I spotted a truly abandoned relic of a place. The building had once been some Victorian coal barons home, a sizeable detached Victorian villa called ‘Normandy’. There would have been red velvet and gaslight, a scullery maid to red raddle the step and possibly a cook. Chaise longue here, piano there. Now, there is no roof, only timbers. Windows are knocked out and blank, a forest of buddleia grows in the eaves so that the house looks as if it has hair, balding and patchy. Oh be still my aching chest pump. I was busy at once snapping pictures, missing the shot where the jackdaws, who are now chief residents, all rose as one out of the triangled remnants of the roofline. We moved further along the pavement and my other half suggested crossing the road would offer a few different angles and better views of this poor wreck of a place.
What we got a better view of was the house next door, Ashdene Manor, an even bigger and more beautiful wreck. Ornate ironwork overhung the long defunct verandah and porch. It rose out of the wilderness of garden and spoke to me.
Doesn’t happen to you? No? Perhaps you aren’t listening. This house spoke out loud, as clearly as if I had once lived there, in another time and another space. Ghosts looked from the windows, called to each other down the crumbling and darkened halls.
There were cars driving by, no one gave the old girl a second glance as the brickwork flickered with all the lives ever lived there, the cold winters, the hot summers, the spilt milk and scalded porridge of a flickerbook of lives.