Today is the first time since 11th August 1999 that the UK will see a solar eclipse. It is also the day that Antonia’s brother, Joshua, is getting married. On one hand, this wedding has been a bit of a whirlwind – Josh and Penny only got engaged at Christmas – but on the other it’s been a long time coming, considering that they’ve lived together for the last twenty-one months with their three and a half children (Lucy and Russell from Penny’s first marriage; baby Sebastian; and the one on the way), and were once, many years ago, childhood sweethearts. Of course, there were a couple of disasters at the eleventh hour: Penny falling and twisting her ankle last week on Friday the 13th; and then yesterday the mother, father and youngest sister of the bridegroom almost didn’t make it home in time from Fuerteventura after their plane was redirected… By the time this post is let loose in cyberspace, I’ll hopefully be in the Sudbury town hall watching the lovers tie the knot. This is only the second (full) wedding I’ve ever been invited to. The first was Sophie and Tracy’s seven and a half years ago, although we weren’t allowed to call it a wedding back then. I was one of two ‘best women’. If I ever have a wedding I’d like it to be a vegan one. Antonia agrees. I suppose it’s easy saying that when you have a vegan partner. But then I’ve talked to other vegan couples and they’ve said that they wanted a vegan wedding too but their families objected. When I say vegan wedding, I do just mean the food. Obviously, if I was going to wear a kilt then I’d want it to be a non-wooly one with a sporran that was made from something other than dead animal, but I certainly wouldn’t insist that all my guests had to be wearing faux leather apparel (unless I was paying for the outfits) because that would be a wee bit intolerant. I also wouldn’t say to my omnivrous or vegetarian friends ‘oh sorry, you had a cheese toastie yesterday so that means you cannae come’. Anyway, I may never get wed. And not just because of the vegan thing. Because even though it’s legal for gay couples to marry now in the UK, I still have my reservations. Mostly, I worry about disappointing my parents: a) because I’m never going to be that a traditional bride in a meringue (or any) dress; and b) because my mother has made it abundantly clear over the years that she would prefer it if I were to marry a man. So, of course, I worry about inviting my parents to the wedding. And I worry about not inviting them. I don’t know what would be worse: if my mother were to decline an invite, or for her to appear with her face tripping her all day long. And if I didn’t invite her, how could I invite my dad and my sister? I suppose we could always elope. But then I’d miss the wedding waltz and a golden opportunity to buy a snazzy new suit. I may not be one for traditional customs but I do like formal-wear; and I’ve always fancied myself in a crisp white morning suit with a matching waistcoat and tie… Anyway, this is supposed to be about Josh and Penny… I hope they both have a really wonderful day. I’m sure they will… unless Penny goes into early labour in the middle of the ceremony… but that would make for quite a good story!
Two weeks ago, I finished reading ‘More Than This’, a young adult novel written by two-time Carnegie medal-winner Patrick Ness. And even though, I was initially quite dissatisfied with the ending to this book (I also didn’t love it quite as much as his ‘Chaos Walking’ trilogy), I have been haunted by it ever since.
The story opens with a boy drowning in the sea. He is sixteen, nearly seventeen, we’re told. We are reeled into the narrative with him, towards his inevitable and excruciating death; we witness his last choking breaths and the obliteration of his skull as it crashes against rocks. And then he wakes up. In hell. Or at least he thinks he’s in hell. He’s in his old house. In his old hometown. In England. A country he left for America eight years before. A place he hates. Except that it’s not the England he remembers, because it looks like several years have past. And the streets are deserted. And the landscape dilapidated. In fact, it’s much worse.
Reading this book made me think about my own mortality, and about the town where I grew up. I never really liked living in Renfrew (for various reasons), but if I was trapped there on my own for all eternity I could feel happy in the knowledge that the local library has an impressive number of brand new YA and fantasty fiction novels that I haven’t perused yet, so at least I’d be OK for reading matter for a couple of years. There would also be no roving drug addicts eyeballing me whenever I left the house. Because of course they’d all be dead in this post-apocalyptic purgatory or hell or whatever I was in. (I’ve obviously not got the most vivid of imaginations, because the most hellish place I can imagine at the moment is one where I don’t have anything to read.)
None of Ness’ characters in this novel are clear cut heroes nor are they villians. They are simply people who have found life too hard to cope with. Through Seth, his teenage protagonist, he shows us a retrospective world populated by messed up teenagers with equally messed up parents and he poses questions such as ‘why is the world such a messed up place?’, and ‘why do people use and abuse and hurt others?’, and most importantly: ‘is there more to life than this?’ Then he nudges us towards discovering our own answers.
His words have also pushed me to think about the ways in which my goals and desires have often rendered me an outsider: I always seem to want vastly different things from most of the people I know. I’m vegan, a writer, and I’m gay – and although I didn’t choose my sexuality I certainly made a conscious decision not to keep it a secret. I’ve also always hankered after far more than marriage, kids and a nine-to-five job. And I can’t imagine ever putting my social life ahead of my health and fitness.
Because of these things, I’ve frequently been accused of being selfish, of having unrealistic expectations, and of living in a fantasy world. I choose to ignore those opinions though. Instead, I’d rather see myself as someone who has a lust for life and a hunger for knowledge and new experiences. And I’m not going to change my views on this any time soon nor will I apologise for having the gall to dream.
‘More Than This’ is one of those books that would be ruined if I said too much about the plot. So I won’t. But, if you like intense, thought-provoking and multi-layered narratives with a dollop of intrigue and a smidgeon of humour then I thoroughly recommend you acquire a copy of it, and as Seth would say, ‘go in swinging’.
A couple of weeks ago, Antonia asked what I’d prefer as a Valentines gift: a romantic weekend in Manchester (a place I’ve been wanting to revisit for years) or the red, retro, replica telephone box / display cabinet that I saw in a shop in Long Melford. I chose the telephone box, of course – not only is it a beautiful and jaw-dropping collectible piece of furniture, but it’s the perfect kooky habitatat for the remaining fifty or sixty pocket dragon ornaments I hadn’t yet managed to showcase. Anyway, as a result, we will probably be spending a significant amount of time this weekend under my duvet… with a bowl of salty popcorn / kettle chips / other random tasty vegan snack whilst tuning in to the rest of ‘Last Tango In Halifax’. That’s what we’ve been doing all week actually, and we’ve become so hooked on the show that we’ve already binge-watched two seasons in the last five days!
The BBC one comedy-drama about lost opportunities and second chances, was written by British BAFTA winning writer Sally Wainwright and was inspired by her mother, who gained a new lease of life after she married her second husband. The show follows widowed septuagenarians Alan Buttershaw (Derek Jacobi) and Celia Dawson (Anne Reid) who reconnect on facebook then rekindle a romance which started nearly sixty years before. Alan and Celia’s later-in-life relationship and their live-life-to-the-max attitude is juxtaposed to the modern day mayhem that governs the lives of their respective daughters, Gillian (Nicola Walker), a bed-hopping farmer who works part-time in a supermarket, and Caroline (Sarah Lancashire), an Oxford-educated head mistress of an elite secondary school who, unbeknownst to Celia, has become intimate with a female colleague following the breakdown of her marriage to lovecheat ex, John, the father of her two teenage sons.
To be honest, I only started watching this show because of the lesbian storyline between Caroline and Kate (Nina Sosanya): I’d read the appraisals in Diva magazine regarding Sally Wainwright’s portrayal of the relationship between the two forty-something divorcees, and I was curious to know what was so special about it – well, that and the fact that you rarely see lesbians on tv unless they’re in a prison drama or a fleeting fancy in a soap. And I wasn’t disappointed. Aside from the brilliant dialogue, I was pleased to see that neither Caroline or Kate rushed to define themselves ‘gay’ or ‘bisexual’ (although, interestingly enough, other characters did label them); nor did storylines include any long drawn out coming out scenes which ended in hysteria, or tortured depictions of either woman struggling to accept their sexuality. They were shown as just a normal couple.
So I’m glad that Antonia’s mother lent us the DVDs so we could watch ‘Last Tango’. But not just because of the queer-themes. No, I completely fell in love with Alan’s character, and Celia was particularly inspiring with her gutsy gung-ho adventurous streak – I could almost forgive her homophobic references and the stupid faces she pulled whenever she didn’t get her own way. But more than that, I was pleased to see elderly people being represented on TV as something other than doddering old stay-at-home windbags who criticise and complain about everything.
Now I just have to work out what to give Antonia for Valentines day. I’m thinking, perhaps, a few more shades of red, pink and purple acrylic paint. And maybe a new blank canvas. She likes to work whilst the TV is on in the background and has been manically creating recently. I just hope she doesn’t get too excited during season three and splatter the lot on my bedcovers!
On Sunday I attended the tail end of Noirwich, Norwich’s first crime writing festival. I had never been to Norwich before, and I probably would have gone sooner, if only I had opened my Mslexia magazine when it arrived I’d have discovered that the bloody events kicked off on Wednesday.
My friend Elaine has been telling me for years that I should try my hand at writing crime fiction. She writes it herself and often asks me to proof read early drafts of her manuscripts because I’m good at spotting red herrings and unravelling literary puzzles – unfortunately the same can’t be said when it comes to TV and film versions, because I often get confused with who’s who when two or more characters of the same ethnicity, gender and approximate age appear on the screen at the same time.
The thing is – aside from trying to avoid the genre because I didn’t want to tarred as just another stereotypical lesbian mystery writer – I don’t actually know that much about crime fiction. I mean, OK, I’ve watched a fair few film noirs (Bound, Brick, Double Indemnity and most movies starring Humphrey Bogart) plus several series’ of Poirot in a row and, I did once attempt to cowrite a dystopian-lesbian-vegan detective script set in Glasgow during a fictitious third world war – but I’ve only ever read one Agatha Christie novel (and that was last month) and until recently not much else.
Elaine is also a retired procurator fiscal with a late husband who was in the CID, so she has connections stretching all the way from the court room to the rest room of her local police precint, whereas I haven’t got a clue about the law (aside from the stories I heard from my ex-students back in the creative writing class in Polmont Young Offenders’ Institution).
Of course, what I’ve realised over the last few weeks, as I’ve been delving into everything from classic pulp fiction to tartan neo-noir, is that I much prefer hardboiled detective novels to police procedurals or cosy murder mysteries; and reading about forensics and post mortems bores me rigid.
So that’s a start I suppose.
At the moment, I’m working on my first assignment of module one, ‘Crime, Mystery And Suspense Writing’ from the distance learning course I’ve signed up to; I’m also trying to figure out who to kill off and who to frame in my novel ‘Kingstreet’ (previously a transgender comedy about a troupe of drag kings who enter a Glaswegian LGBT talent contest), because after seven years of cutting and tweaking and trying to get the story lines right I’ve decided to lose the whole plot and recast my narrator as an accidental amateur detective who just happens to be transsexual.
Personally I think there’s a lot of mileage in using things like false beards and spirit gum. Old Agatha seemed to think so anyway, and she’s still a best seller.
It has been a very exciting week: first of all I managed to buy the first ever edition of ‘Vegan Life’ (a mainstream magazine which promotes cruelty-free living in the UK) in my local WH Smith; then my much-anticipated copy of ‘Out There’ (the first Scottish writing anthology in over twenty years dedicated to showcasing the work of LGBT authors) dropped into my mailbox. Throw in an episode of ‘Wentworth’ season two, and a tasty romantic meal in a Vietnamese restaurant in Colchester where the waiter didn’t even blink at the two thirty-something gay ladies cozied up in the corner sharing their vegetable spring rolls, and life really couldn’t get any better. Or so I thought.
Earlier today, Antonia and I reached the highligh of our week when we took a trip to Cineworld in Ipswich to see ‘Pride’, a movie about a London-based gay and lesbian group who changed history when they campaigned to raise money for the families affected by the Welsh mining strikes in the summer of 1984. Now, I rarely find new films these days that make me laugh out loud, never mind ones that pack an emotional punch that leaves my guts twisting and my eyes watering at the end. But this one did. And I recommend that everyone – gay, straight, in between or undecided – buy a ticket to see this.
I think the part of the film that resonated most with me was when Gwen, an octogenarian Welsh lady played by Menna Trussler, asked the principal female couple if it was true that all lesbians were vegetarians. One of them replied, ‘Actually we’re vegan.’ This prompted a gleeful response from both myself and Antonia, and since then I can’t stop thinking about Portia and Ellen Degeneres and Ellen Page and all the other visible celesbivegans. (The jury’s still out on Anne Hathaway’s bisexuality) Not that I am suggesting that all lesbians have an aversion to animal products. Or that all vegans have a predisposition to gayness. It’s just that in the days before I joined the VEG (Vegan Edinburgh Glasgow) group, the only vegans (or lapsed ones) I’d ever met were queer women (or ‘leaf munchers’ as I like to call them).
Anyway, I remember having this conversation at VEG before, about what can happen when one persecuted minority group meets another persecuted minority group, and I think we all agreed that people who opt for an ‘alternative’ lifestyle are usually more openminded and have more sympathy for others who are in some way marginalised.
Personally, I found coming out as vegan more problematic than coming out as gay. And it was other folk’s attitudes and the scarily aggressive stance they took when they found out I was a meat avoider which hindered me: ‘But it’s not normal,’ they’d say looking terribly offended, or ‘well, I don’t agree with only eating vegetables’; and heaven forbid if I was to suggest dining at a place that didn’t serve steak.
To quote Wentworth’s Nicole Da Silva aka Frankie Doyle: ‘I don’t eat sausage… I’m a vagitarian.’
And I’m bloody proud.