How to be a Heroine

I’ve just finished reading How to be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis, and my head is so full of it that there’s no point even attempting to blog about anything else. Or, indeed, to do what I ought to be doing and work on my edits for To Have and to Hold – that June publication date which seemed such a long way away is fast approaching, in publishing terms at least.

Ellis’ memoir is of a woman in her thirties reflecting on the books she’s read, from earliest childhood onwards, and on the heroines of these books who have all contributed to making her the person she is. It’s a fabulous idea, and before I started reading it I had to overcome my jealous resentment that someone else had the idea first. Now I’ve finished it I’m having to restrain myself from turning stalker, finding Samantha Ellis, and begging her to be my new best friend. She articulates so brilliantly the feeling I have always had  – that characters from the books I’ve read and loved are real people in my life, with just as much influence as actual friends.

The reviewer on the Domestic Sluttery website was surprised to learn that she wasn’t the only person who’d loved the Emily of New Moon books, L.M. Montgomery’s lesser-known and less conventional heroine. I’d always thought the same, but apparently there’s a whole generation of bookish girls who grew up in the eighties and nineties reading about Emily’s attempts to resist fitting in and to pursue her dream of becoming a writer. Like Ellis, I’m sure that the seeds of my own desire to be a writer were sewn when I read these books.

One of the things I found most interesting was how Ellis’ perceptions of the heroines have changed as she’s re-read the books. Applying her adult feminist sensibilities often leaves her horrified – at, for example, Katy Carr in What Katy Did, or even the March sisters in Little  Women. This kind of literary criticism is right up my street- analysing not just the text itself, but its social and historical context, and the author’s own personal circumstances. When I was doing my English degree in the late nineties and early noughties, the critical theory most in vogue was post-structuralist, with Roland Barthes, declaring ‘the author is dead’, as its poster boy. I just couldn’t get my head round that; for me the author and the context was integral to the book itself, and I couldn’t see how you could hope to understand one without the other.

It’s not as simplistic as that, though. The relationship between reader and character is symbiotic; their story helps to form us, but we also bring our own experiences to bear on them, meaning that a book can be read in entirely different ways depending on your own situation when you read it. As a young teenager I loved Gone With the Wind, and was so wrapped up in the story of Rhett and Scarlett that the fairly horrific portrayal of slavery as a necessary function of a civilised society basically passed me by. It was only when reading To Kill a Mockingbird a few years later that realisation dawned. Not my finest hour, and Gone With the Wind is one of the few books I loved aged 13 which I haven’t re-read as an adult because I still feel an insidious shame that, emotionally speaking, this book placed me on the wrong side of the civil war.

Ellis quotes a former boss who told her, when she was in her early twenties, that she might enjoy white wine, milk chocolate and Shakespeare’s tragedies now, but when she was properly grown up she would love red wine, dark chocolate and the comedies. At thirty-two and fifty-one weeks I still prefer white wine and milk chocolate (although, in extremis, will take them both however they come), but I’ve definitely shifted from a predilection for gothic tragedies to an appreciation of social comedies, typified by my loyalties shifting from Bronte to Austen. Partly I feel it’s because I have more of an appreciation of how difficult life can be and want to shield myself from that by reading something uplifting, but paradoxically it is perhaps also because I have grown to realise that there is usually a lighter side to the darkest situation, and that finding this perspective is the key to retaining our sanity.

One of Ellis’ criticisms of the books she re-reads is that they have a horrible tendency to end with marriage as a full stop, as though that is the ultimate goal for women. Or, in the few cases where the heroine’s story continues to be told after marriage,Ellis sees her as diminished by it, for example Anne Shirley in the later Green Gables books. Ellis explores novels where a woman can remain single, independent and a heroine, and finds them sadly few and far between. Since having my daughter, I’m hungry for books with heroines who are mothers, and who are struggling to combine their role as a parent with their sense of self and individuality. Not easy. There are loads of books in the ‘mum lit’ genre, but they often seem either to focus exclusively on the woman’s role as a mother, sending her off for a facial or manicure in the middle of it as a sop to the idea of her having an independent life, or the children scarcely seem to impinge at all, and you’re left with the feeling that the heroine must have a team of round the clock carers to protect her from the exigencies of day-to-day parenting. Jennifer Weiner manages it in Little Earthquakes and Certain Girls. Lisa Jewell does it in After the Party, showing Jem, the heroine of her first novel, Ralph’s Party, having made a difficult transition from single, carefree girl-about-town to a harassed mother-of-two trying to combine work, childcare and her partner’s desire for a sex life. If Ralph’s Party presents an idealised picture of life as a twenty-something Londoner, then After the Party should probably be prescribed as a contraceptive.

Ellis’ book has sent me headfirst into a lake of introspection, pondering on the heroines who have formed me, and it’s also made me desperate to re-read some of my favourites from my current life perspective. And to look forward with huge excitement to seeing what my daughter makes of these heroines in a few years time, and how they shape her journey into womanhood. And in the shorter term, to compose as list of my top ten literary heroines to go with my my Desert Island Books lists. Who would yours be?

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Stripping and toadstools

This is going to be a fairly short post, because the time I’d allocated to blog (daughter gone round to her friend’s for tea) has been eaten up with trying to source the correct size and shape cake tins to bake a magic fairy toadstool birthday cake, and some fairy figurines to decorate it. Lakeland has (hopefully) provided the cake tins, and I’m seeing them as an investment – surely there’ll be future igloos, ladybirds, hedgehogs etc which will make good use of them? The fairy figures are still elusive, although I am watching a couple of items on Ebay.

As you might have gathered, there’s a certain very important 5th birthday coming up and, although there’s over a month to go, Anna and I are both slightly obsessed with the party. I kid you not, my wedding didn’t take this much planning. I don’t think my husband has had a conversation with either of us in the past week which hasn’t reverted back to it. You see, the thing is, after last year’s party I vowed that this year would be a much simpler affair, a handful of children, at home, blah, blah, blah. Then Anna produced the list of 20 children she wanted to invite. I gulped a little, but decided to go with it. After all, 5 is a bit of a milestone birthday (isn’t it??), and I want to encourage her to make new friends in school, so a largeish party is probably a good thing. If nothing else, organising a 5th birthday extravaganza might divert my thoughts from my own 33rd birthday, which is a mere matter of weeks away.

The thought of 2o children to entertain for two hours caused major hyperventilation, so I decided to outsource that part of it, and have booked an entertainer. Now it’s just the invitations, decorations, food, cake, party bags and general co-ordination to worry about. When my brother and I were little, my mum had a cake decorating book, and before every birthday we were allowed to look through and choose the cake we wanted. She’s a very lovely mum, and this (insanely) generous gesture led to her having to produce, amongst other things, a tractors, a family of butterflies, and an elephant. I really wanted to do the same for my daughter, and so I bought the fab Australian Women’s Weekly book of children’s cakes. Anna has chosen a fairy toadstool. Wish me luck…I’m sure this cake is going to feature here again over coming weeks…

In between imitating Pippa Middleton (Well, kind of.She does party planning, doesn’t she?) I’ve been stripping. Our spare room is covered in fairly hideous woodchip paper which has clearly been there since 1972 and has been painted over several times. I was suddenly seized with an evangelical DIY fervour and decided it must be stripped and painted, and now, after two days of intensive stripping and only approximately 1/6 of the room woodchip free I’m starting to regret my decision slightly. However, it’s gone too far to stop now, so I just have to plough on. Guess that sorts my weekend plans out quite easily. And I’ve borrowed a steam thingie (the technical term) from a very kind friend, and that does make it easier, as well, as she pointed out, as giving me a free facial. Smooth walls and clear pores, it doesn’t get much better than that, surely?

My Walthamstow

Towards the end of last year I posted about Walthamstow and house prices, and my worry that all the things I love about this amazing part of London are going to be eroded by ever increasing house prices meaning that the people who make it amazing will no longer be able to afford to live here. It certainly struck a chord. The link was tweeted and re-tweeted, and I’ve had neighbours or parents at the school gate I know only to say hello to stopping me to talk about the issue.

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been filmed by the Buena Vista Book Club out and about in Walthamstow and Central London talking about Two For Joy and my inspiration for writing. Seeing my local area through the eyes of a film crew who don’t know it at all has filled me with renewed appreciation, and  encouraged me to do a bit of codification of some of the things that are particularly special to me about where I live, and so I’ve come up with the top ten things that make my Walthamstow world.

One: Deli Cafedeli cafe

Deli Cafe on Orford Road is my home from home, the closest thing I have to an office. When asked, I say that I work from home – in theory I do – but it is an odd week which doesn’t see me spending at least two days here writing. The hot chocolates and brownies are far too tasty for my own good, the people who work there are friendly and it’s always busy and lively with a huge mixture of different people.

Two: Walthamstow Parents Facebook Group

I’m sure Walthamstow isn’t the only community with a Facebook group like this, but I can’t believe there are many which are so friendly and informative. Do you need to find out how to care for a child with croup, or discover where to get pictures framed or find ideas for a child’s party? Do you have a detailed question about the school admissions process? Perhaps you need a reliable plumber, or joiner or decorator or roofer, or loft conversion company or lawyer? Or maybe you just want to launch an impassioned polemic against Michael Gove’s education policies and the effect they have on your children. Whatever it is, this is the place to go for support, advice and ideas galore.

Three: Vestry House Museumvestry house

This is a beautiful building in the middle of Walthamstow Village which has been, in its time, the local police station and workhouse. Now it is a local history museum with a gorgeous community garden, and will always be very special to me as this is where we had our wedding reception.

Four: William Morris Gallery and Lloyd Parkwilliam morris

Not exactly a hidden gem, as the William Morris Gallery won Museum of the Year award in 2013, but still a lovely place to be. A fascinating museum, a pretty conservatory cafe with nice cakes, a huge park and brand new playground – what’s not to love? Whenever I go I always wonder why I ever spend time anywhere else.

vintage shop wood st

Photo from starsandbuttons.blogspot.co.uk

Five: Wood Street Market

When I first moved to Walthamstow, just a few years ago, the covered market on Wood Street wasn’t somewhere I would ever consider going. In the last couple of years, however, it’s been extensively revamped without losing any of its original charm, and it is home to several vintage fashion shops, the Mother’s Ruin homemade fruit gin company – a slug of which turns any cheap sparkling wine into a delicious cocktail – a cake decorating shop, a beauty parlour and an artisan cake shop amongst many others.

Six: Eat 17

Again, hardly a hidden gem, but still one of my favourite places. The brothers who own the Eat 17 restaurant and the Spar next door have put Walthamstow on the map with their E17 Bacon Jam, and have also provided many hours of pleasure for me and my family in the form of delicious takeaway pizzas, relaxed family brunches and romantic dinners a deux. 

Seven: Ruby Stablesruby stables

Is it a junk yard? Or an antique shop? Or a garden centre? The answer is yes to all of those questions. One of the quirkiest shops in Walthamstow, this old stables mews off busy Hoe Street is a treasure trove you can easily lose a morning, and yourself, in.

Eight: The Farmers Marketfarmers market

Not something which is entirely unique to Walthamstow, but the Sunday morning farmers market is delightful. Along with the Tuesday-Saturday street market, the East London Sausage Company, Davies Fishmongers and the Organiclea food co-op, this is another place we have to access delicious food from independent growers and suppliers. We enjoy playing farmers market ready steady cook – my husband and daughter head off to the market with £5-10 to spend, and come back with a selection of random seasonal ingredients which I do my best to turn into delicious meals.

Nine: Waterstones

Definitely not unique, but I LOVE that Walthamstow has a proper bookshop. One of my very favourite places to while away a morning, there’s a gorgeous children’s section, well-chosen stock and incredibly friendly, helpful knowledgable staff.

Ten: Eat or Heateat or heat

Eat or Heat is Walthamstow’s food bank – taking its name from the dilemma that sadly many families face daily: whether  they go cold or hungry. With various cafes and shops across Walthamstow acting as food drop off points and innovative community fundraisers, this project symbolises Walthamstow’s enthusiasm for a bit of positive action and political activism. William Morris would be proud.

So there you have it. Not an exhaustive list by any means – but a list of some of the places which make up ‘my’ Walthamstow. I’d love to hear your lists – of either your Walthamstow places, or the places which are special to you where you live.

Only connect

“Only connect” is the epigraph of E.M. Forster’s novel Howards End. It’s also one of the very few quotes I can ever remember, so it is particularly pleasing when I can find a genuine reason for working it in, thereby contributing to my image as someone well-read and erudite. Ahem.

How we connect with others has been very much on my mind today. One of the only disadvantages of being a writer is that it can get lonely. My house suddenly feels very empty when husband has left for work, daughter is at school and the cats have gone off to do whatever cats do when they have a free morning. Today, however, I’ve enjoyed a wide variety of human interaction – some through social media, and some through far more traditional methods.

When I went for my usual walk after school drop-off I bumped into a friend taking her daughter to pre-school and we had a chat. When I got home a local handyman arrived to give me a quote for fitting a cat flap (the kitty cattens are now venturing out, but I’m constantly tensed for the sound of a plaintive miaow at the back door, and it’s driving me mad). I’d got his number from a leaflet pushed through our front door – old-school methodology here.

Then when trawling through the Facebook page for local parents, I spotted a child’s bike for sale for £10. It’s a bit shabby, but we’ve been having a huge debate as to whether it was worth buying Anna as bike yet, or if we should wait until she’s older. This means we can experiment at a reasonable cost. I messaged the seller, another local mum, and am popping round later to collect it.

I exchanged emails with a friend about arranging a meet-up when I’m in Liverpool in February.

And I’m now sitting in my local cafe, surrounded by noise and bustle and babies, exchanged greetings with several other people I know. When I’ve finished this blog post I’m going to phone a clown (as you do), to see if she’s available for a certain 5th birthday party which is fast approaching.

 

So maybe the life of a writer isn’t so isolated after all. Problem is though, the eagle-eyed amongst my readers will have spotted that there hasn’t actually been much writing going on today amidst all the connection…maybe the dilemma continues.

Return to normality

After an absolutely lovely Christmas and New Year period, today has so far seen me doing the school run in the pouring rain, trying (and failing) to unblock the kitchen sink and doing a supermarket shop. Back to reality with a bump.

It would be easy to sink into depression, and wallow in nostalgic longing for the good times we’ve just enjoyed. However, I am going to channel my daughter and focus on the positives. I managed to get out of the most depressing task of the year – taking down the Christmas decorations – yesterday, but my husband reports that Anna spent the entire day sighing contentedly and saying “Isn’t it nice to get the house back to normal?”. And she’s right, getting back to normal should be a positive thing, and I am lucky enough to enjoy my normality most of the time. After all, I chose to call my blog A Life More Ordinary. 

New Year Resolutions have always seemed a peculiar concept to me. Why, in the coldest, darkest month of the year, with Spring still a distant dream but our credit card bill a recurrent nightmare, do we think that we should suddenly resolve to change all the things we weren’t able to manage in warmer, drier, lighter and wealthier times? September is the natural month for initiating positive change in our lives, January is for hunkering, for embracing the normal and everyday. Great expensive blow-out meals are wonderful, but so are meals from leftovers and frugal veggie curries. After a social whirl it’s incredibly satisfying to curl up somewhere warm with all the books you were given for Christmas, and, possibly, a mug of hot chocolate.

There’s a lot of extraordinary to look forward to in 2014 – my second book, To Have and to Hold is being published in June, we’ve got some exciting holiday plans and several of my good friends are expecting babies – but, right now, this afternoon, my chief excitements are going to be rearranging my cookery book shelf to accommodate the new titles I received for Christmas, putting fresh sheets on the bed and inputting all the scribbled info on the back pages of my 2013 diary into my pristine 2014 diary. A life more ordinary. And hopefully I can get the sink unblocked soon as well…