Author Archives: Catherine

Objects in the distance

Far-fetched.

If you say it over and over you become Danish, or olde-English. Sophisticated people prefer to say ‘implausible’ or maybe more vaguely ‘troubling’. It sounds a bit gauche to say ‘far fetched’. It’s the kind of thing a ten year old, revelling in a newly developed skepticism, might say to a younger sibling about the plotline of a Lassie film. They turn and pull a new kind of face. A smile both disappointed and jubilant. Like they’ve just seen through a magic trick. ‘As if!’ They say with peculiar vehemence. The sentence apparently requiring no more than that. ‘He’s just a dog’ They point out. ‘That is so far-fetched.’

You can’t just fetch something from afar and expect it to wash. Here. In this place. Look at it. It’s falling apart. How far have you dragged it?

But it’s so exotic. I thought you’d like it. I thought it would brighten things up.

Well it’s done the opposite. It’s made everything look tawdry.

Maybe you should have cast further afield for the rest of this bilge.

Far-fetched. There’s something beautiful about it though.

Fine Dining

I’m not terribly discriminating about food. I can taste the difference between exceptional and mediocre food, but the impact of that difference is rarely devastating. My day has never been ruined by an indifferent fondant.

I’m not sure that this lack of discrimination is a particular drawback.  I’m discriminating in other areas of my life and it’s not always that much fun. It makes for a lot of unfinished books, dissatisfying cinema visits and disappointing albums. Maybe it would be nice sometimes to turn the television on and think ‘Splendid! James May and Oz Clarke. I like them no better and no less than any other presenters.’ Perhaps the urge to develop discriminating tastes is just the urge to become less happy.

So I find restaurant critics a curious breed. Food is such a central part of all our lives  and yet for them it is so often fraught with disappointment and anger. Sometimes the things they put in their mouth do not taste as they would ideally like and this upsets them.  Sometimes the service they receive is not up to their expectations and then comes the incredulity and rage. Eating out is difficult for them and yet it is their job.

Difficult not just because of the disappointment, but also the pain and hassle of searching for places to eat. Their abhorrence of the High Street means they are all too often forced to eat in hard to find restaurants way off the beaten track – Cotswold villages, country hotels, down at heel seaside towns. Whilst a music critic might review a new Coldplay album, or a film critic cover the latest Scorcese film, a restaurant critic simply cannot write about the new Harvester menu – it’s too ghastly to contemplate. Future historians will plough through the millions and millions of words produced by restaurant critics and have no idea at all about the general experience of eating out in this country.

I quite like eating in chain restaurants. If you’re somebody who ‘quite likes’ things, then chain restaurants are for you. Nothing to get carried away about. Easy, familiar, usually edible, fairly cheap. Sometimes, if you’re lucky enough to have the money,  it’s good to go out and have exquisitely prepared food, made from the highest quality ingredients and served with real care. Often though it’s equally good to go out, eat something entirely unremarkable and enjoy the delights that chain restaurants have to offer.

My favourite chain restaurants are the ‘traditional English’ style. These are defined not by serving exclusively English food (whatever you imagine that might be) – there may be a Belgian waffle, there will certainly be a vegetable lasagne –  but rather by not serving exclusively non-English food. They are further defined by carpet. Carpeting, it seems, is very English. For me, a key part of the charm of these places is their invisibility. Critics don’t review them and we quite often, simply don’t see them. The four or so interchangeable and uncarpeted High St ‘Italian’ pizza chains are relatively visible. They often occupy prime locations, their branding is recognisable and effective. But for ‘trad-Eng’ restaurants, mediocrity, familiarity, a lack of contemporary styling and perhaps even carpeting, ensure that they don’t really register on our consciousness at all. Glimpsed from the window of a passing car, a typical A-road carvery or steak house is so unremarkable as to be invisible – no more noticeable than a pylon or a pigeon.

But, as with pylons and pigeons, once picked out from the general background hum of the urban landscape, a certain strangeness is revealed. I find the décor of my local carvery restaurant fascinating. The interior is themed and the theme appears to be some idiosyncratic rendering of England or Englishness. This would be less remarkable if the restaurant was in Kazakhstan or Shenzhen, but in Birmingham, it strikes me as a little strange. A kind of doublethink is required: I recognise the theme as Englishness only by acknowledging that the restaurant looks nothing like any other restaurant I might find in England. I step through the doors and am transported from England to ‘England’. ‘England’ is cheeky, slapstick and oppressive: saucy seaside postcards, stills of Mr Bean and Eric and Ernie, The Beatles larking about on a railway platform. There’s something quite dreamlike and disorienting about eating a mediocre English roast dinner, in a mediocre English restaurant whilst being bombarded with random images of this mythical place called ‘England’.

Another thing I enjoy about the chain experience is the menu text. As with décor, more select restaurants tend toward a less is more ethos. Menus may offer little more than a basic listing of ingredients with the odd arcane culinary verb. In chains however they really go to town with the adjectives. I have invented a fun game to play whilst waiting for your food, it’s called ‘Bottomless Jug’. One player reads out the menu item, the other has to make a stab at the accompanying text. You get disturbingly good at this in a very short time. If you’re dealt a sorbet, the best cards to play are ‘refreshing’ or ‘tangy’. Chocolate is often best parried simply with a ‘chocolatey’, but this is a risky area, rife with exuberance. Only an extremely advanced player could arrive at the audacious ‘chocolatissimo!’ The basic rule is to try and imagine how you might describe the item if you’d been trapped in a cave without food or water for days… and then inject more longing. Occasionally the text will veer away from these florid descriptions to include some other, always useful or reassuring information, for example to inform you that your menu choice is ‘great any day of the week’. It’s Wednesday, it’s only 4.30pm, but it’s ok, no one is judging you.

Mom’s the word

I should clear something up. It’s cropped up a few times. Here’s an example. An Amazon review (in its entirety) of my second novel.

‘A book about Britain by a British author – so why use ‘Mom’ instead of ‘Mum’ throughout? So annoying!!’

It is annoying!! British people all use the same words. British people say ‘mum’. Who are these pretend British people in the West Midlands who annoyingly say ‘Mom’? And the weirdos in Wales, Northern Ireland and large parts of the north of England who say ‘Mam’? And you know… the others who say…other wrong words?

What would be helpful is if books written by authors who come from these non-British parts of Britain where all the weird and annoying people live, could carry labels to identify them. That way readers in proper Britain wouldn’t have to endure such flagrant provocations.

Suspect Communities

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Birmingham pub bombings. It’s doubtless an overstatement to say the effects were felt by everyone in the city, but many people felt some connection to the events of that evening.

They were out in town that night.

They were a friend of a friend.

They were held up in traffic when the roads were closed.

They noticed a man leaving the cinema before the film started.

The usual multiplicity of connections and coincidences that collective traumas reveal.

My family were affected in two small ways. The first was that my eldest sister was one of the many people who felt they’d had a lucky escape. She customarily met her best friend in the Tavern in the Town pub every Thursday, but didn’t that night due to illness. The second ocurred the following night when the phone rang and someone told my dad that there was a bomb on our doorstep.

My parents had lived in Birmingham for over thirty years in 1974, but they had Irish names and Irish accents. In common with many of the Irish population of the city, the bombings impacted upon them both as potential victims and suspects.

The parallels between what the Irish in Birmingham experienced in the mid-70s and what the Muslim community in Birmingham has experienced since various high profile ‘terror trials’ over the last ten years are marked. Aside from the similarities in tone and language in local and national press coverage, I’m struck particularly by hearing the very same neighbourhoods cropping up again and again: Sparkhill, Alum Rock, Balsall Heath – these are the places where immigrants settle – once Irish, then Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Polish, Somali…

I wanted to explore these parallels and the experience of being part of a suspect community. I wrote a short story for Writers at Liberty called Project Champion – inspired by the real life police operation of the same name. It features a schoolboy named Mo who misunderstands why security cameras have appeared in his neighbourhood. Within a few months of writing it, the alleged ‘Trojan Horse’ plot in Birmingham schools dominated TV and newspaper headlines. In the light of that hysteria, I think it’s safe to say now that there isn’t a Muslim boy or girl in the city who could ever share Mo’s naivety.

Just act normal

The writer James Hannah has placed a curse upon me. Apparently I have to participate in something described as ‘Blog Tour’ answering questions on the theme of ‘My Writing Process’ and if I don’t do this I will die. He didn’t actually make the death threat explicitly, no, he’s too smart for that, it was all very nice and ‘only if you want to’ and ‘no obligation at all’ and similarly intimidating language. Clearly my life was in danger.

Anyway, you can see James’s apparently thoughtful and menace-free answers here.

I think I’m supposed to infect someone else now by tapping them with my virtual finger. Instead though I’d prefer it if someone volunteered to be a carrier. If you fancy posting answers to the following four questions on your blog, let me know and I’ll retrospectively point in your direction.

Here is what I gave up under interrogation:

 What am I working on?

This is a question I ask myself a lot and it’s not often that I have a good answer.

The occasions on which I’m embarked on a tangible project, when I have a clear idea of what I’m doing are pretty rare and precious. To be more specific, here’s my impression of my working life averaged out over a few years:

Writing – 15%

Concertedly thinking about what I might write – 15%

Feeling bad that something I thought I might write has not worked out – 15%

Feeling bad that I have no clear idea of what I want to write – 30%

Revisiting unfinished projects/pieces/chapters in vain hope they might come to life – 25%

 

When you write you are your own boss. This is not great if the kind of boss you are is basically a demotivating, despairing colossal catastrophe-monger.

What I’ve learnt to do is to protect the boss from the truth. The boss needs to believe I’m working on something all the time so now I let her think that. In the past, if I had an idea for something I tended to interrogate it under fluorescent strip lights for half a day until it cracked and revealed itself to be weak then I’d run and tell the boss. Now I go gentler, I let the idea be, I don’t look at it too closely or too soon. When the boss comes by I shout inanely positive statements whilst punching the air. I even try and high-five her as she passes but she leaves me hanging. When she’s gone, the idea and I exchange a look and breathe a sigh of relief. Of course the day comes when the idea really does have to be tested and stretched and poked, but I try and postpone that until another idea has come along to either reinforce or replace the original one. The boss is basically a baby that needs to be pacified.

Returning to the original question, as it happens, I am in the golden 15% zone at the moment. I’m writing a short story to commission. It’s quite an unusual commission. The West Midlands Readers’ Network pairs writers with reading groups. The reading groups then commission the writer to write something to their specification or at least they suggest some possible ideas for content.

It’s been a little while since I’ve written any fiction (see protracted explanation above) and so I quite liked the idea of someone else coming up with the ideas, but of course I was also horrified at the thought of someone else coming up with the ideas. As I’ve already detailed, there’s a high body-count of ideas in my writing process. What hope would someone else’s ideas have? And what if they had too many ideas, or their ideas conflicted with each other, or they were simply terrible?

Well, the results are unveiled at this event.

I’m grateful to the members of the Lichfield reading group for providing some respite from the boss.

 

How does my work differ from others?

Less good.

Better.

More people and places I recognise.

 

 

Why do I write what I do?

I feel a connection with an idea or a place or a character. I’m not sure what the connection or attraction is, I’m not clear what it is that has its hooks in me. So my urge to write starts off with an impenetrable, but somehow enticing knot. When I write, if I write well, it feels as if I’m unravelling the knot, opening it out and laying out the pieces.

Also there’s some sense of guilt or responsibility. Writing makes me stop and think and take the time to look at things. When I’m not writing (ie most of the time) I’m letting the world glide past me, I’m not noticing. It feels as if I’m wasting life, whereas when I write it feels as if I’m according my life the respect it deserves.

And sometimes I just write for laughs.

 

How does my writing process work?

Can we grace it with the title ‘process’? Does it work? To me it seems more like a haystack or a skip, which fiercely resists any attempts at overhaul.

I go through phases of keeping a journal or taking notes and phases where I don’t. The notes or journal entries I do keep are scattered across any number of notebooks, computers, phones and occasionally this blog – there’s no organising principle or system. The concept of having one exercise book in which I jot down my thoughts would seem to be a simple one, but is a far beyond my grasp as the moon.

Writing a novel involves casting about in those old notebooks, computers and phones for things I’ve written at some point and have incorrectly remembered as remarkable and then forcing myself to sit in my office for long hours that turn into weeks and months and think. When I eventually have some kind of an idea for a story mapped out I write a rough list of all the scenes I need to write to tell the story. I’m fairly disciplined then in sitting down each morning and working my way through the scenes, the only hitch being that I am unable to write them in chronological order. I just write whatever scene I feel I can write on the day – creating a hideous tangle of continuity errors and duplication to sort out later on. I tried very hard not to do this with my third novel. I wrote chapter one, then chapter two and then I stopped writing for almost a year, entirely blocked. One day I waved a white flag and had a go at writing chapter 36, it worked, my writing process had made its point and I toed the line after that. Now we know who’s in charge.

 

 

 

Awake in the middle of the night

I have a regular anxiety scenario: I have been transported back into the nightmare of the past and have to try and explain television or phones or zips to the finest minds of the time. Obviously I can’t do it. I gabble random words and phrases I’ve picked up from Newsround and adverts – they make no sense. I imagine my audience divided between those who think I am a charlatan or a witch and want to burn me and those who believe me, believe in the possibility of the things of which I speak and are all the more furious at my failure to possess a single useful fact. They also want to burn me.

Memory and memoir

I have the honour of being the single worst witness in the history of the British legal system. I was present at the scene of a minor car crash and six months later I was called to give evidence. Before taking the stand I was given my written statement to refresh my memory. It didn’t refresh my memory. It appeared to be my memory turned inside out and upside down. The car had been on the other side of the road, I’d been travelling in the opposite direction. It was so at odds with my own clear recollection of the event that I couldn’t really process it.

‘Funny. It’s all mixed up.’ I thought, without really appreciating the implications of that. My husband seemed alarmed. ‘But you signed it.’ ‘No,’ I said unconcerned, ‘that’s not what happened.’

I can’t really bear to think about my time in the witness box. The prosecution lawyer’s mounting perplexion.  The defendant’s mounting relief. The magistrate’s patient interventions. My husband’s expression of horror. You’ve seen the scene in countless gangster films – the intimidated witness who completely changes their testimony. That was me. Except it wasn’t a mobster trial in Miami, it was a minor collision in Hall Green and I hadn’t been intimidated, I was just an idiot.

One of the unsung advantages of having siblings is the early discovery of the memory’s unreliability. In fact the more siblings you have the quicker and more brutally any faith in your memory is destroyed. If one sibling’s version of a past event differs from your own, you can blithely assume that they’re wrong. If all five of your siblings each have conflicting recollections of the same episode, you might start to question your own idea of the truth.

Elvis Presley was an only child. Maybe he went to his grave believing his mother’s favourite scent was rose water not lavender; that the name of his first dog was Beaker not Bingo; that he’d wanted a bike not a guitar for his eleventh birthday.

But of course, siblings aren’t necessary to make the point. I recently found a journal I kept during 2006. It was a record mainly of anecdotes I’d heard and conversations I’d had whilst at work. It was funny and made me laugh and I wondered who had written it. It was my handwriting, I remembered the job and the people, it all seemed quite plausible but I had no recollection of any of the details. I had to conclude that I probably was the author, that being more likely than the idea of some mysterious agency fabricating and planting false memories in my loft.

False memories – as if there were any other kind.

I suppose it’s easy to imagine that we can forget quotidian details and exchanges (though really, all of them? For a year?) But it’s harder to accept that the big momentous events are just as fogged and unfamiliar. I wonder how many of the people who remember exactly what they were doing when they heard Diana had died, or the first tower fell, have instead conjured up vivid fictions for and of themselves.

My brother and I both think we discovered our father dying. You think we’d be clear on something like that.

I wrote a piece recently for the New York Times. It concerned a childhood incident in which my dad inadvertently boarded up all my favourite toys in the kitchen wall.  I’ve always seen it as a funny story. Funny because of my dad’s abysmal DIY skills. Funny because of the entirely separate worlds occupied by children and adults. Funny because of the one time popularity of plastic fake wood panelling.

After if appeared online it started to attract comments. I braced myself. On British news sites, even the least contentious articles provoke quite staggering levels of fury and indignation in the comments section. As I read through them though, I found that there was no loathing, no snark, nobody appeared to have found the article offensive but more puzzlingly nobody appeared to have found it remotely humorous. Everyone was sad. Or sympathetic. Or horrified.

‘That is a very sad story. Did your parents ever acknowledge what they did to you that day?’

Some really had it in for my mom and dad.

‘Boy, that’s sadistic. I hope that they still aren’t around to terrorize you or others. Horrible.’

For some it brought back past traumas.

‘My parents drowned every puppy or kitten I ever had in the lake behind our house, and on the Halloween I was 9, threw all my dolls in the same lake.’

So now I wonder:

Was the loss of my toys funny or tragic?

If my parents were alive what would their versions be?

Did it even happen?

Is there a definitive version?

I mean is anybody REALLY paying attention?

Has somebody pressed RECORD?

 

Autumn evenings

Mr Lynch’s Holiday came out in the UK at the start of August. I probably should have mentioned that, you know, on this author website – it seems pertinent really. But then again, it’s not out in the US till October, so whilst I’m lax and quite useless in the UK, I’m way ahead of the game in America.

Anyway I’ll be talking about the book and quite possibly other things at the following locations and times:

Birmingham Literature Festival

October 11, 7.30pm, Ikon Gallery, Oozells Square, Birmingham

Manchester Literature Festival

October 19, 5.30pm, Waterstones, Deansgate, Manchester

If you’re thinking of coming along, or considering buying the book but want someone other than me to tell you a bit more about it – I’ve gathered together some reviews here.

 

 

On publishing a book

It was in another country. It was a ‘lunch event’. Six authors, various publishing company people and a wodge of journalists and media types. The venue was a private dining room at a contemporary art gallery. Round tables with place names.  Like a wedding where I knew no one and no one was talking about love.

The idea was that the authors would shift along a table with each course. There were two menus at each place setting: a real one that listed the food choices and then a second menu that pretended the authors were dishes. So for example on the first table I was sat at, ‘Catherine O’Flynn – The News Where You Are’ was listed under appetizers. On the second table I was listed under ‘Mains’ – etc – you get the gist. The previous day I’d been told by the head of marketing at the publishing company’s office that my job at the lunch was to sell. Now I was being presented as something to eat. It was confusing. I was a self-selling sandwich.

The whole concept of the lunch – ie. that the authors would somehow be so charming, intriguing and sparkling that the journalists would be captivated and well disposed to them and their offerings – seemed both misguided and terrifying. To have this concept really spelled out by being presented as a tasty dish for everyone on the table to pick over didn’t lessen the anxiety at all. I think I pretty much failed as an appetizer. The woman on my left had a polite nibble, but the other two journalists didn’t appear to be remotely peckish. Who could blame them? They just wanted to chat and catch up with each other and had what I would consider a fairly natural aversion to calling across the table to a stranger. I felt kind of sorry for the publicist sat with us as she attempted various excruciating opening gambits– like ‘One reason that I really love Catherine’s book is…’ or ‘Catherine writes so movingly about…’ to a fairly blank wall of indifference. I was a piss-watery sorbet that singularly failed to register on the palate.

There was someone from the publishing company at every table. I guess this was to act as some kind of social lubricant, but also to police our comments and prevent us self-harming or flicking any of our piquant emulsion at the journalists. In my role as main course I was on the same table as one of the publisher’s key marketing staff. One of the journalists there (who were a little more game than the previous table and at least were pretending that they might want to eat me) asked me what the book was about. I gave my very snappiest synopsis of both theme and plot. After I’d finished there was a beat and then the marketing woman said to the table:

‘That is not what her book is about. Let me tell you what her book is about.’

It was about roots apparently, and not forgetting where you came from and hanging onto something or other. To be honest they didn’t look anymore impressed by her synopsis than by mine.

By the time I was the dessert I could no longer fail to notice that the author who was always a course ahead of me, who I will call Bob, was clearly the tastiest dish anyone had ever sampled. After I was rapidly bumped from the main course table for my woeful synopsis, I moved over to where I would be served as dessert, only to find them all still chomping on old Bob the main course. The publishing company staffer said ‘Oh he’s in the middle of a particularly interesting anecdote’ so I had to hover behind him, like a really appalling looking blancmange about to destroy the taste of the delicious main course.

As far as I’m aware not a single line in print about the book resulted from the lunch. It cost the publishers a ton of money – the flights, the accommodation, the posh venue, the fine dining menu. I still feel bad for all the expense and the palpable failure, but worse than that is the  unsettling empathy I feel with those easily overlooked, unspectacular items on every restaurant menu. Carrot and coriander soup I think, that’s me.

Carbon on the valves

Last night I encountered my Holy Grail – I watched a film I’ve been waiting over thirty years to see.

One evening when I was eleven years old, this same film was scheduled to show on BBC1 after the Nine O’Clock News. My brother, who would have been twenty at that point, saw it listed in the Birmingham Evening Mail. He told me that it was a very funny film and that I had to watch it.

My brother was much given to impassioned recommendations. He inherited some kind of secular evangelical gene that bypassed the rest of his siblings. Everyone in the family remembers those long years he spent trying to convert someone, anyone to Pink Floyd, to Brian Eno, to John Martyn – forcing whichever one of his four older sisters happened to be in the living room at the time to listen to a particular lyric or chord change, to just acknowledge the self-evident genius. His attempts were entirely unsuccessful, ending usually with the captive audience fleeing to their rooms, often with Nicholas following close on their heels continuing to outline especially fine and noteworthy elements of the recording as they firmly closed their doors on him.

I, however, as his one younger sibling, absorbed it all.  I would sit obediently and watch the films, read the books, eat the food and listen to the music which filled him with such wonder. Sometimes, try as I might, I could not share his enthusisasm (I never, I’m sorry to say, got into John Martyn) and even I at times found his critiques a little hyperbolic. (Eg. of a piece of trout cooked in newspaper: ‘This is the best thing you will ever taste in your life.’)

So by the time I was eleven I had developed something of an antenna for differentiating genuine, passionate recommendations from some of the more exaggerated, not to say optimistic, claims. The film though seemed definitely the former. Nicholas told me I would probably never see anything funnier and such was his conviction, I was inclined to believe him. We sat through the Nine O’Clock News in a state of great anticipation, but as the film was announced, my Dad who had not been party to the day long pre-screening buzz, expressed his doubt that a film shown after the news would be suitable viewing for me.

My brother and I reacted differently. My brother pleaded my case, lobbying for the film, insisting on its brilliance, its appropriacy and suitability. I on the other hand, whilst desperately keen to see it, had already developed that awful adolescent terror of sitting through any kind of ‘adult’ material with either of my parents in attendance. I would rather poke myself in the eye than endure an excrutiating few seconds of a ‘bedroom scene’ with my dad in the room. I would, it transpired, rather gather my things together and retire to bed missing perhaps the funniest film in the world and lie awake for the next hour and a half listening to my father and brother’s laughter filtering up through the floorboards.

I’ve often thought of the film since then. It never appeared again, to my knowledge on a tv schedule, it is not available on DVD, or on Netflix or anywhere I have ever tried whenever I have searched for it. No one I have ever asked has either seen or heard of it. It is a phantom.

Last week was my 43rd birthday and a few days afterwards I received a package from Spain. I didn’t recognise the handwriting on the jiffy bag and inside there was a DVD but no delivery note, or message, or clue of any sort. The film was evidently a Spanish edition of an American film. The title was Corazon Verde – which I recognised neither in the Spanish original or the English translation. The film starred Walter Matthau, which is always a good thing, and as my fondness for him is fairly well known, I thought perhaps this was a present from a friend in Barcelona. It wasn’t until I looked again at the cover that I saw tucked away at the bottom of the small print, the original US release title:

‘A New Leaf’.

My brother had tracked down the Holy Grail.

So last night, I sat down to watch ‘A New Leaf’ only thirty two years since I’d last attempted to do the same thing. It’s a wonderful film, funny but with beautifully restrained performances and a dry, understated script. It was written and directed by Elaine May and though she was reportedly very unhappy with the cuts made by the studio, it remains a small masterpiece.

My brother was right – there was nothing unsuitable for an eleven year old and my life could only have been richer to have experienced Walter Matthau calmly repeating ‘You’ve got your head through the arm hole’ while attempting to disentangle his hapless bride from her Grecian nighgown, a full thirty years before I finally did…but there’s something miraculous in finding something that could withstand such anticipation and vanquishing the tediously permanent adult state of disappointment.