WHY I WRITE
Looking back, I can see very clearly now that my life can be divided into creative parts and by that I really do mean creative. In this particular instance I am talking about the need to write, to try and place one word after another with the precision of a master mathematician; to create a picture with words the equal to any painter or musician. Aspiration is a thing to be greatly admired speaking as it does of determination, an uplifting of the will and spirit; actual realisation of one’s aspirations is doubtless as rare as the proverbial unicorn.
When I was young, between the ages of fifteen and twenty and living in London, along with my guitar, I carried everywhere in my trusty duffel bag, a hard covered notebook such as a University student might use. I was forever writing in it, telling myself I was one day going to be famed as the greatest poet since Milton. I thought I was writing about everything, and in a way that had never been done before. Everything I saw and heard was something to be written about.
For a period of three years I went around with a smug feeling of superiority that no matter how much better someone played the guitar than I, or sang better (and in my day I was a pretty mean Blues and Folk singer) no one could write like I did. And of course I was right. No one did. Because I wrote like every poet I had ever read; plagiarised Keats, Shelley, Byron and obscure English poets whose names I cannot remember. But to me, at the time, I was a demi-god in the making.
I do not know the precise day I stopped writing this mad, derivative, pretentious drivel. Was it when I got my first real job working for Jennifer Sitwell at OTMA in Russell Square, the only female boss I have ever truly admired? Was it before or after I was nearly crushed to death on a tube train that was stranded for hours and people panicked? Was it before or after I had a nervous breakdown and was dragged home by my anxious and still loving parents? Was it when I found I was pregnant and faced the stark choice of marrying an American I thought was wonderful and going to the other side of the world or remaining the single, independent female I had always thought I was but apparently was not?
In any event, at some point I stopped. I didn’t see this stuff again for many, many years, when my daughter found it packed in some cardboard box whose contents had not seen the light of day in at least two lifetimes. She immediately made off with it to my intense and acute embarrassment. I haven’t seen it since.
I don’t know if she has read it and laughed until she has cried, if she has not even opened it, or if she has read some of it and somewhere, somehow I may have struck a nerve. She has certainly struck one with me. I do not dare to ask or enquire. The answer might be too devastating; the more so as I have always brought her up to be completely honest in her assessments of literature and that must have worked because she is now a Professor of Art History, a degree gained at great cost and with great talent and aptitude and convoluted though this sentence is, I must here take the time to say I am so immensely proud of her achievements that the supreme accolade I can pay her is to say simply that I could never have done what she has done.
My sojourn in America was the only time in my life (and the only country) I can truthfully say I did not write a single thing except maybe endless cards which the Americans ‘God Bless Em’ seem determined to find a reason for doing on every day of the year.
Even as a child in Africa the last two or three years before I came back to Britain, I and my friends Joanah and Magdalena, were writing small plays and performing them for our willing (or unwilling) audience which consisted of other friends, various assorted parents and sometimes even passersby whom we would drag in.
As some of these were houseboys and servants of native African extraction it is unlikely they understood a word, whether we performed them in English or Afrikaans. I can safely say however, that they were the ones who clapped the most, who cheered the most and who smiled the most. No doubt if I wished to be cynical I could say this was because while they were engaged in play watching they were not being made to work. This would be a wrong conclusion. Of all the people in the world, Africans are the most joyous, the most play and perform at the drop of a hat; the most engaging, entrancing, drag –you-in to become part of the act; understanding of the concept of ‘performance art’ and the best performers of it that I have ever met.
Having tried and failed to make a marriage not made in heaven work both in England and America, I once more returned to the United Kingdom with two small children in tow and no money. I spent an inordinate amount of time between London and the provinces of Buckinghamshire, singing, running folk clubs and again, recording for posterity as I thought at the time, in yet another hard covered notebook, every folk song old and new, in my terribly twee handwriting.
I did this for some years only ceasing this non-stop project when I was offered a sweet deal of a recording contract (a choice between going to America yet again and leaving my children in someone else’s care) or finally settling down and trying to make a proper life for them. I chose the latter. Some would say I gave up the chance of a lifetime for my children. Some might be right and I myself have sometimes said this in a round -about sort of way.
It is time to come clean. The truth is I was too afraid.
I stood on the threshold of being too old to dare as once came as naturally as breathing, and being too young not to give a damn at the thought of total failure. There is nothing and no one to blame for that choice other than my own faltering, no longer confident self.
Again, I do not remember exactly when I no longer found it worthwhile to record other people’s creations and, unlike the poetry, I have never seen it again. Perhaps it lies in some dusty corner of some yet unopened box or crate; perhaps some one will find it one day and ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ over it. Then again, perhaps I simply threw it away, or gave it to an unenvied third party to continue the heroic effort. Whatever happened to it is really of little consequence for I know for a fact (because I knew many of them) that there are literally hundreds of collectors of such songs and thank goodness for them.
I am constantly amazed, delighted and full of admiration for the many and varied collectors of things that people dedicate their time, energy and sometimes their whole lives to. However would we manage without them? What would we do if we want to find some obscure bug; look up the flag of Norway; find out how many frogs are hurled in competition; and thousands of other similar but utterly absorbing trivia if someone out there did not find such a preoccupation so rewarding? The joys, wonder and sometimes terrifying power of the internet makes known to us now these formerly unknown warriors waging miniature battles of their own on a daily basis in the varied fields and groves of that misty land - Creation.
Settling down to serious motherhood meant having a serious job. And so I did.
As secretary to the most handsome, most fearsomely daunting, most snobbish man I have ever worked for who I'll call John Smith, of Robert Brett & Son. For the times he was the most generous of bosses and in another time would have made a splendid hero for a late Victorian novel. He was advanced for the period in which he lived in many ways and I suffered only one disillusion towards the end of the time I toiled in his vineyards and that was when I discovered that ‘female equality’ only went so far and no further.
However, looking back I cannot blame him entirely. He was ‘old school’ and it must have been terribly difficult for him to deal with the concept, having spent half his life before that time in a time when ‘women knew their place’. To then have to deal with women who had begun to think – and what was worse to say – that their place was now every place, every place that any man aspired to – including his – was more than he could stomach and with the precision of a deadly enemy he ensured that I ‘never worked again in this town!’
Despite having an incredibly generous salary for those days, being a one- parent family my income was not enough and so, once again, I turned to writing. This was one of the two most incredibly prolific writing times of my life. It seemed easy to me. I was forced to spend most of my time at home in the evenings having little money for babysitters and my parents residing a too awkward journey away to sit for my children other than occasionally.
Television! It was a wondrous machine to me, capable of taking you anywhere, (even if the pictures did flickers from time to time and lose cohesion), showing you anything, letting you be anyone - the greatest magic box of the greatest magician ever.
I thought ‘I can do that’. And so I did. I wrote and I wrote, script after script after script. I even wrote directions for lighting, expression, camera movements. I thought I wrote some of the greatest television plays in the world. I acted every single one of them out aloud, with my two children constantly participating as both audience and characters.
They were eleven and twelve at the time and for the next two years they gained as much education at home as they did at school. And I didn’t care or censor whatever there was in the way of content and so they dealt with themes of homosexuality; unrequited love; murder; horror; mayhem and mystery; seduction; old age; the fairly of the body; life in all its many aspects both beautiful and terrible.
I would like to say here that I knew what I was doing; that I intended that they should learn from all this; that I was a Bohemian in the best sense of the word, dedicated to bringing an enlightened childhood to my offspring. Again, I cannot in all conscience, say this, especially here where I am endeavouring to place the truth of every thought however large or small on the page without fear. I simply wanted an audience. Any audience. I didn’t care.
All this crap that people say - that they don’t care if they reach an audience, that they do it just for the joy of it – it’s crap – through and through. It is the thing a creative artist of any kind cares about more than anything in the world, more than life itself; to reach an audience, the larger the better and anyone who tells you this is not the case – that for them the purity of the art is enough, is lying.
And you should tell them so. Lying is almost the greatest sin in the world and to lie to oneself is as unpardonable as murder.
Anyway, despite all this effort I received endless rejections. I do have to say that everywhere I sent any scripts to I always received a polite letter, sometimes even minimally encouraging and offering advice, usually personally signed from every department of the BBC, ITV, Granada companies and the like.
It was not so much the rejection itself I found so hard to live with, it was the inanity of it. For instance I would be told that my plot was too ‘incredible’ only to discover some days later that that same company was happily transmitting a similar programme of even more incredulity; and the reason for this anomaly? It was by an established author.
To become an established author is pretty much the same Catch 22 situation you have as an actor desiring to obtain an Equity card. First you have to have acting credits before you can obtain such a card, but you cannot get acting credits without one!
The same applies to writing generally for television and production staff are reluctant to take risks with their limited budgets on unknown quantities. Up to a point this is understandable. Think about supermarkets. Lots of people prefer to pay a higher price for Heinz Baked Beans rather than a much lower one for an ‘own brand’ product despite the fact that this is often as good, and in some instances, better. It is not quite so horrendous for radio.
Here I simply must say a word for the wonders of radio. Its praises have never been sung enough. It sits in the background providing company without being intrusive. It never outstays its welcome. Because it is non- visual it permits that you put your own faces to voices, your own scenery to descriptions, and your own imagination to soar in a way that television never allows. By its very nature it can afford to take chances a visual medium cannot. Epic plays, dramas and comedies can be transmitted with far lesser cost.
Imagine for example a production of restoration comedy such as ‘She Stoops to Conquer’ or the great dramas such as ‘Hamlet’ or ‘the Scottish Play’. Think of the cost involved in transmitting these visually for every single scene. Radio, on the other hand can do it all with only the cost of brilliant actors’ voices coming out of the ether because you, the audience, supply with your own mind the background to every scene. It is my belief that radio has never blown its own trumpet enough about its stupendous ability to give everyone a chance, not just new writers but also new actors, new comedians, new presenters. It takes far less confidence to perform to the utmost limit of your talent when your audience can’t see you than it does knowing millions can!
Anyway, to get to the point, finally out of the blue I received an offer for one of my plays to be transmitted by the BBC. This filled me with both ecstatic joy and horror! Joy because I never thought it would happen and horror? Well, I happened to think and still do, it was just about the worst play I had ever written. It was an attempt to be honest, to simply entertain my kids and was basically written down to the level of their age. To imagine anyone would want to transmit this (to me) fast food material as a Midweek Theatre presentation was almost beyond my imagination! But apparently they did and I did nothing to dissuade them.
Eventually there I was in Portland Place for the recording. Another world. Originally Dennis Waterman had been touted for the lead role but was unable to do it finally as he was suddenly off filming ‘The Sweeney’. I couldn’t blame him however disappointed I might have been. One tiny, tiny little serendipitous fact sent me into schisms of delight. When I was quite young, between thirteen and fourteen, my father and mother took me every Saturday to the High Wycombe Repertory Theatre to see whatever play was showing. It was a small theatre and as they always do, smelt of musk and damp and old clothes. Heaven! The lead actress nearly every week was the wonderful Betty Hardy and she it was who was to play the lead in my small effort. I have mourned the fact that she has now departed, she died in 1981, but my memories of her are always bright.
I was so naïve about everything (I still am). All of the cast and crew were so tremendous I can only wish for them eventual places in some celestial palace of their choosing. I must have seemed like some excited teenager but their behaviour and patience was something that I have never forgotten. I still have three copies of the actual transmission script (one of which was signed on the back by all and sundry) and of course, a copy of the then Radio Times with all of it in that wonderful medium – print!
I must just add that when I came to write this I decided to Google some of the cast and then decided to Google the play and my name(To avoid confusion I should add that at this time I wrote under the name of Sandra Shippy). To my delight I came up with one entry and discovered this ranked on a website for lost plays for which someone was searching for recordings. I have of course sent an email stating I am the author and have a full script if they wish for one but alas, no actual recording. Being as vain as the next author, I have affixed to this tale here a photocopy of the first page of the script and of the last with all the signatures to at least offer some proof of my minute of fame.
A further miniature delight came a year after this when I received a royalty cheque when the play had apparently, been transmitted in South Africa home of my childhood. Paradise found, however briefly.
Obviously, this spurred me on to some frantic renewed effort but all to no avail. I have in my possession possibly some fifty scripts of various lengths and subjects, even including my own take on Richard III and Napoleon. Napoleon especially irritates me. I think the play I did was superb. I have to say this as no one else will at least not while I’m alive. I was told it was too romantic in approach. Some two months later a series of three to four episodes on Napoleon was transmitted with so little historical content and endless bed and romantic scenes that I descended into violent fury. Had I not been extremely poor I am sure I might have sued so blatant did it seem to me and to this day I remain convinced that someone stole my idea and it was utilised by an ‘established’ writer.
It was at this time that I stopped writing again. Disillusionment, weariness and the passage of time conspired to take their toll. Life had moved on and I joined the Police Force and met my soon to be second husband. The children were growing up and beginning lives of their own and it was incumbent on me to do the same.
It was to be some considerable amount of years later before I wrote again. I wanted to. Many times. But I now viewed writing with the same nausea and fear that I looked upon trying to learn to drive in England. I had driven all over America but that was in an automatic. Gears, stick shifts and the like remain a permanent mystery to me. I took endless driving lessons, years of them, and endless tests. Cost and my inability to function when it came to a test drive took their toll until the mere thought of getting behind the wheel made me ill. Not even the Police Force intensive driving course could manage to achieve a pass and they were practically giving it away!
Circumstances and time dictated that my husband retired early from the Police Force on ill health and lack of funds made the decision to buy property in the cheaper North of England not only desirable but also imperative.
County Durham is one of the most beautiful places on earth. There is land and to spare there. Sweeping green fields and non -stop fantastically (European Community funded) built roads enable easy travel from one end of the County to the other with almost no effort. Durham itself is everything one would expect from a now tourist Cathedral City although not even that fact can detract one iota from the glory and the power of the Cathedral itself which seems to look down on all its visitors with the calm complacency of centuries that says’ I have been here before you – I will be here long after you.’
Like great works of art and great works of literature it seems to me impossible that we, modern man with all our technology, can ever build the like of these impassive, soaring, triumphant edifices that seem as if they will last forever. This I know is not true. If we were to cease to exist in five hundred years or less most would be reclaimed by the land. I believe I have heard that only the Sphinx and the Great Pyramids might endure a thousand years or more unattended.
Of course you pay for all the lush greenery with never ending rain, brief summers and freezing winters. I have never anywhere else felt the same marrow killing cold as I did waiting on the corner in Spennymoor at six fifteen in the morning for the coach to come and take me away to Newcastle every day where I worked as a secretary.
The coach came from Bishop Auckland out of an Eskimo type garage where it had stood all the night through, so one could not even sigh with relief when one mounted its high steps. It was if anything, even colder inside than out. By the time one descended at one’s destination the heaters had actually begun to make an impression and you could rest assured that when you made your journey home in the evening the coach would be twice as full and you would swelter in your many layers of clothing under heating that had now been blasting all day and sweat would pour down all over you as if you lay on a tropical beach.
Some two or three years after our settlement here I became seized with the urge to write again so powerfully that I could no longer resist it. I wrote as if the Devil himself demanded it often staying up until two or three in the morning before seeking my bed for a few brief hours of somnolence my only solace before the normal fray of the day’s work.
I became a complete stranger to my husband, someone who he did not understand and whose passion he simply could not share. My husband is the practical, solid enduring rock on which I stand and perform all the tricks I never could without such a secure base. The fact that he puts up with it all for very little in return save for bad tempered snapping when the creative flow is interrupted probably qualifies him for some sort of minor sainthood.
We were never intellectually matched but then I no longer desired that. I was sick to the back teeth of men who ‘had to go and find themselves’ or who ‘needed their own space’. Of course I was, I have been doing all that sort of thing myself all my life so who has the patience to put up with it in a mate?
He does state that over the years I have ‘educated’ him and to some extent this is true. But he has never been a reader of anything other than newspapers and the internet and I know he is bored rigid with having to either read anything I have written, or listen to any of the songs I have composed. That he even does so when I have forced him literally to be my audience, is again a tribute to his infinite patience and, dare I say it after all this time, love.
In any event, I entered countless competitions for short stories. These always involved a fee of some kind no matter how large or small. I appreciate that this was necessary in order to generate prize money for the few lucky winners but even so, the starving writer in the garret is already starving and wants to actually SELL something in order to keep writing, not to have to pay for the privilege of doing so! I entered so many and did so badly that I almost lost the will to live. I was sick of the sight of A4 paper and A4 envelopes and the endless sound of the then printer I possessed which was the least silent beast I have ever encountered and a perfect model for some minor predator as it often ate the paper giving a whirring belch of satisfaction as it did so.
I was on the point of swearing off writing forever and taking up something less demanding like needlepoint or grouting when I received a communication from a magazine announcing that I had won first prize for my story ‘Into the Web.’ To say that I was dumbfounded would be an understatement.
Once again my pleasure was tainted with the knowledge that, to me at least, this was one of the worst stories I had written. It was in a genre I was not familiar with, had never written in and knew nothing about except as an avid reader when younger. This was what is known nowadays as ‘SciFi.’ I cannot remember now exactly what the prize money was and it is of little consequence. For the first (and so far only) time, I saw something of my own in print.
I was then writing under the name of Isan Stone this being a corruption of my name, Sandra, my mother’s name Ivy and her maiden surname, Stone. I had in my stupidity come to believe that the only way a writer got published was if (a) the writer was male (b) the writer was believed to be male (c) the writer had a snappy bisexual impossible to decide if male or female name. I had decided to qualify on all these points and lo and behold it seemed to work. Again, merely as a sop to my vanity, I am attaching a copy of the contents page – not the story itself. If you want to read it - well maybe I’ll writer another book and let you have it then.
Strangely, this triumph seemed to have the opposite effect than that of my play had had. I felt exhausted, deflated and somewhere in my mind I think I felt that this was as good as it would ever get. During this period where I had produced endless short stories, some of which I actually do like, I had also been working on a novel. This was a crime novel set in America and called ‘A Short Life.’ I can hardly bear to write the title. I had been working on it on and off since the advent of computers and all of it had been written on an Amstrad in Locoscript. These are now completely defunct and as for the floppy discs, well the Lord or the Devil only knows where they are. This all goes to prove what I have always maintained is the first law of writing. KEEP A HARD COPY. I did and indeed still have hard copies of everything I have ever written, some tattered and torn, some stained, and some tired but hard copies they are.
As a relief from story competitions, from time to time, I half- heartedly sent off some of my novel. It was nearly always rejected, most likely unread as ‘slush’ piles are huge and unsolicited work is often tossed unread or simply turned round and sent out the same day in the return envelope provided by the poverty stricken author.
Imagine how I felt when I received the most wonderful letter in the world from the most wonderful Agents in the world, Tara at Darley Anderson in London offering to represent me and try to get my book published if I would only do some rewrites. Fevered conversations followed in which it was obviously revealed I was not male, I promised to do the rewrites and fame and possibly even some income seemed almost guaranteed.
What happened? I can almost hear you all screaming. Ah what indeed. Even now I cannot say for sure.
If I say I was tired beyond all endurance, if I say the thought of re-writing anything became a kind of infection that left me limp and faint, if I say that no matter how I tried (and I did try and to some extent succeeded and did rewrite a great deal) I had lost impetus. I felt as if my heart had been pierced and the blood was slowly draining out. Was it fear? I don’t know. I have never known. Whatever the reason I never completed it, never returned it, never contacted them again and simply stopped.
Nobody to blame but myself.
I did not write again for many years, always telling myself there was time, tomorrow, next week, next year and before you know it, well it was next year, several next years.
When we left England we went to live in France in an isolated area in a small farmhouse with lots of land, fields everywhere and a wonderful lane to walk up and down. For the first year it was paradise. The peace, the quiet, the tranquillity. Surely here I thought I will be able to create. Of course I did.
I did a vast amount of creative work - painting, mowing, digging, fire lighting, cleaning, building, renovating and then….In the second year the peace became a pall, the tranquillity became a kind of suffocation, and I…well I wrote songs. I wrote songs and played the guitar – no doubt in order to be able to hear a voice. Apart from my husband and the occasional farmer passing by on a tractor and ‘Bonjour’ conversation, stimulation, exercise of ‘the little grey cells’ to paraphrase Poirot was minimal.
At the end of the second year I could bear it no more. Apparently neither could my husband but we had both been loath to say so to each other and spoil ‘the dream’. With the mad, gay abandon of teenagers plans were made and for once, we hit the property market at the right time and by March of the following year we were careering madly in two transit vans (one driven by a friend) filled with all our possessions (apart from the house and garden full we left behind) through endless toll roads into our next country of destination. Spain!
Oh what a difference! Even the very air once one enters the country is alive. Electric. In Barcelona the perfectly English speaking Receptionist in the hotel where we stayed overnight on learning our destination was to be Andalucia said ‘Oh don’t bother learning Spanish then, they don’t speak it down there. They are too lazy.’ I cannot argue with her pronouncement. It is simply true. Catalan would be no use here.
This part of the country belonged to the Moors long after the rest of Spain had seen them off. Moorish influence is everywhere especially in Granada. Buildings, Mosques and Mosques now converted to churches, fountains, wells and the language. Do you know that in Seville there is a Mosque over which and through it is built a great Catholic Cathedral? When you enter you will think you are in a mosque and Muslims still try to pray in there from time to time before being stopped by Security. The architecture is so astonishingly beautiful it would make you cry.
Most Andalucians are regarded by the rest of Spain as Gypsies. Well give me the Gypsies any day of the week. They are the most friendly, helpful, gregarious, loving people I have ever met.
Only thirty years ago Spain had nothing except Franco. Today it is like a toddler trying to be a teenager and stand erect in the world. I want nothing more than to take its hand and help it to walk.
The first year I was here was taken up with building work even though I had sworn as you do ‘never again’. Once this was over I fell into relaxed ‘manyana’ mode and dreamed until the following February when my daughter arrived to live in a cave with a man who was English by birth but had been brought up in Spain so that he was both. I would be forced to the admission that he was very good looking, could be immensely charming and was, as most Spanish males are, completely an MCP and utterly, utterly selfish. Despite all these faults that my lovely daughter could see only too well at the time and still can, she gave up everything for him, simply to be with him. Sometimes I think love or sex or both is the deadliest weapon in the world.
She was followed by my gorgeous granddaughter who came to live with me. She is twenty three and with her long platinum blonde hair she looks like a sort of Xena. She has no ambitions (or so she says) no desire for romance of any kind (or so she says) and no goals (or so she says) other than to go inter railing with one of her many and varied friends both male and female from time to time if she can raise the money.
With all these events, not to mention the daily ones that occur for life here is never, never dull and certainly never, never sleepy, it is almost impossible to obtain a few hours to oneself. I constantly wonder what it would be like if I lived in a City in Spain. Life in a village is so hectic that I think I might burn out at the pace in a City.
I had become so somnolent and laid back that I had ceased, for the first time in my life, to read anything at all. Here I am surrounded in my house with at least two thousand books and I did not read. Unheard of. I simply gorged myself on television or better still, invented endless scenarios in my head. Life was simply beautiful.
And then, (I wonder now if my daughter saw my descent into nothingness and grew scared and thought she must do something) my daughter insisted I read a book. It was Memoirs of Hadrian by Margaret Yourencar. Coming hard on the heels of my favourite television series ROME I was induced to do so. Something happened. It was like being kick started. I wanted to write again. Not because I thought I could do as good a job. I know I could never begin to equal that. Somehow in making me see Hadrian Margaret Yourencar made me see myself again. I couldn’t hide anymore.
And here I am. All of me. Not a great writer, possibly not even a good one. But a writer nonetheless. I can’t help it. I have to do it. I’ve tried so long not to but I give in. All the fantasy, all the fiction in my head are as real as all the things that have ever happened to me. They are a part of who and what I am.
That is why I have decided to include two pieces of fiction in this work. The fiction is as much my identity, maybe more so, as my identity in my ‘real’ life. The only other justification I can offer for including them is that I did write them especially for this book or whatever it is I am creating.
When we create something of ourselves is poured, drained, distilled into the object, the book; the song. We cannot help it. It contains the essence of who and what we are. It shouts our identity, our culture, our time, our upbringing, our nature; the very stuff of which even our physical bodies are made. Matter. Strange don’t you think that we use the same word to describe what everything is made of as we do to say ‘everything matters’?