Did you like my novel?

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‘I like your novel. I enjoyed it.’ She says this plainly, a mere fact, but there’s no mistaking the rising inflexion making joy into a query… a statement of surprise.

‘I’m reading your novel.’ Nothing more. Just what should be a reassuring statement. But what does it mean? Has she finished the first chapter, where’s she up to? She doesn’t say.

‘I loved your novel,’ with a notable circumflex. But that’s over the top and you don’t believe her. It’s gushy, can’t be true. And a noted circumflex indicates there’s more to be said, but she says nothing more. What is it she won’t say?

Then there’s the silent friend, who came to the launch and never mentions your novel, ever again. Her silence more potent even than a notable circumflex or rising inflexion.

‘I liked your novel.’ The past tense. You feel robbed somehow. Only liked it.

Then a good friend goes on Goodreads and gives your novel four stars. You’re delighted and then you think… why not five stars? You check other books they gave five stars to. You try not to feel aggrieved. Now the distance between four and five stars becomes the distance between friends.

At last, a critic. You pay careful attention. Someone who read your novel and didn’t like it. They tear it apart skilfully, piece by piece, analyse its flaws. The flaws you already knew about and hoped no one would notice. You are riveted, you read every terrifying thing they write, not once, not twice, but over and over and over. You become greedy and Google your own novel become convinced that none of your friends know half as much as this really negative woman on Amazon. It feels good, you know you deserve this.

Praise is overrated.

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The simplest words

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For Christmas, I bought myself a copy of Alex Miller’s memoir ‘The Simplest Words’, a series of sometimes quite short personal essays. I’m only part way into reading them but was struck to the core by his essay about the death of his elderly mother. He begins with a low-key description of a week they spent together when she was 86 years old. Indeed, he points out, that she pointed out, that this was the first time the two of them had ever spent a week alone together. He lives in Australia and left home aged sixteen to follow his Antipodean dream, and then became a writer. This essay-vignette, one week, ends with Alex and his mother walking home arm in arm from a pub after polishing off a bottle of Spanish wine, ‘Bulls Blood’.

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I was reading this sitting at a café overlooking our beautiful local bay. The water unusually calm, one person swimming, a grandmother towelling down her granddaughter, and a motor boat noiselessly edging towards the beach. A woman beside me was talking loudly on her mobile. I frowned first and then decided I would eavesdrop (I’m a writer), but she stopped before anything useful was uttered. I returned to Alex Miller.

Tragically, after spending this memorable week with his mother, a few weeks later when she was dying, he had to choose between returning to the United Kingdom to see her or his commitment to a new job at La Trobe University, Melbourne, teaching creative writing. He explains that he chose to stay with his students who had given him the gift of their unpolished first drafts – and to abandon them would be to betray that trust. He then goes on to say that it took six weeks for his elderly mother to die and when he returned some time later and caught up with his sister, she told him that his mother had been waiting for him to come. It’s quite brutal to read as her death was horrible, her spirit fighting to hang in beyond her physical pain. The sister tells him “It’s all right, you know, Mum understood that writing meant everything to you.”

It revived my own memories of my mother’s death. I was living in Sydney at the time and my aunt phoned to tell me my mother had suffered a heart attack and was in hospital. I’d just moved to a new flat on the North Shore and gone through an emotional romantic break-up. I stayed put. My Aunt phoned again three days later telling me I should come quickly. Reluctantly, I packed up my flat and job in one day and flew home. It took my mother a couple of weeks to die. She wasn’t in a lot of pain as far as I know, but she was very tired. A few years earlier my eldest brother had committed suicide. The last time I saw her, a nurse urged me to stay, but I had a bus to catch and a dinner date, so I said I had to go. I know now that the nurse knew my mother was dying, but she didn’t tell me. I made my dinner date and my mother passed away less than an hour after I said a cheerful goodbye to her. I often revisit this moment and wish the nurse had told me but too, I regret my own callow youth – I was impatient with her – she’d disrupted my adventures, I was anxious to be on my way.

So now there was just my Dad and me. One sibling was dead and the other was missing. As the hearse pulled up outside our modest Jerry-built post war weatherboard house – I was standing in the hallway with a view through the open front door – the phone rang and it was the missing child – not in a position to attend the funeral. I was used to life being askew, and this was just another permutation. We were a small team, my Dad and I and my Aunt and it took me motherhood, teenagers and becoming a grandmother to really know what happened that day. My grief came in unexpected moments over the years, tinged with regrets, and I was grateful, when my father died, that I was encouraged by the hospital to stay close, to sit still, to be there, and I was.

Working in the Sixties

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I recently had a poem published in ‘Typewriter’ an on-line journal for emerging poets edited by the delightful Elizabeth Welsh, a poet and passionate supporter of other poets.

The poem is about my first job really, as a shorthand typist with the Post Office in Nelson.    That’s quite some time ago now.   But it’s got me thinking about those times and how it was I ended up there and what it felt like.    You have to cast your mind back a bit to the 60’s when girls like me had to choose between being streamed ‘professional’ where you could study French and German and go on to become perhaps, well, ah… usually a nurse, or a teacher.   And then, if you wanted to learn to type, you had to choose ‘commercial’ and never the twain shall meet.

I wanted to be a reporter, as I recall, and I knew that I would need shorthand.   I didn’t know anything else and to boot, I had a very glamorous single (maiden or unclaimed treasure as she called herself) aunt, who worked at the Post Office.   It was my aunt who came to our house and tested my shorthand prowess which did reach 120 wpm at one stage.   It was she too, who gave me my first portable Olivetti typewriter to practice on.

Years later, when I was running my own recruitment company in the late 1980’s and the share-market plummeted, I recall meeting young women from private schools whose ambitious parents and teachers had refused them anything so ordinary as learning to type.   Oddly though, at this very point in history, the computer keyboard was becoming integral to most people’s working lives.  Being a touch typist, as I am, is a big advantage to anyone, male or female.

Yes, I learned to type at Waimea College, one of the first co-ed schools in New Zealand.   I sat in the commercial class with a bib over the typewriter keys so that now I can rattle off a book review or a blog without having to look at the keys, or to do the one-finger peck-peck that so many people are reduced to.   At one stage in my illustrious typing career (admittedly on an electric typewriter), I could do 100 wpm typing.   Indeed – I cannot vouch for absolute accuracy at this speed.     On an old manual typewriter, I think the top speed was 60 wpm to pass my Public Service examination.

Back then, in my first job, we sometimes had to type with up to six carbon copies, and that meant if you made a mistake, you had to erase all the copies one by one (Twink I think – I can’t remember) and I often ended up covered in carbon – no long-sleeved white-blouses for me as I stretched across the carbon copies.    I was always glad that I wasn’t a legal typist as they had to type perfect copy without erasures or amendments.

I wasn’t a super-star shorthand-typist because I had a tendency to day-dream.   Back then it was considered a lack of focus and I struggled with this, but now realise that probably I was bored with the content of much of the stuff I had to type and didn’t pay sufficient attention to it.   Yes, back then, I felt somewhat of a failure when I had to do”retypes” and watch my rubbish bin fill to overflowing.   I think I might have even smuggled out some discarded copy under my cardigan to avoid the embarrassment of yet more wasted paper – goodness knows what I did with it, but we did have a coal range at home that Mum cooked dinner on, so perhaps it went in there.

We used to clean our typewriters every Friday in the afternoon before we knocked off.   I had the uncanny knack of dismantling bits and pieces of my typewriter (unintentionally) as I cleaned it.   As I recall, I ended up with several pieces of my typewriter sitting in a basket beside my typewriter – and fortunately back then these old machines were so sturdy, that it continued to function, minus these missing parts.

I also operated the switchboard when it was my shift to do so.

That meant headphones on while typing and stopping mid-flight during a memorandum and transferring calls from outside to inside extensions – the criss-cross of cords as described in my poem – here’s the link.  You could eavesdrop to if you were that sort of girl, but of course I wasn’t!

From memory there was talk back then, that typists pushed the equivalent of ‘tons – tonnes’ per day, with the sheer pressure required to push the old manual keys.  I know our hands were held higher than they are for a modern electronic keyboard and you couldn’t just peck-peck.    Unless you were doing a stencil and you had to be very careful when pushing the letter ‘o’ as if you pushed too hard you cut the ‘o’ completely out and ended up with a black dot on the page instead of the lovely circular letter.

Recently, a librarian responsible for choosing books for the Catholic library service throughout Germany made contact with me.   He’d read a book review I had written for a book he had also reviewed and liked.   He had also read my blog about teaching English to German High School students.  And too, I think because of the Frankfurt book fair and the current interest in New Zealand writing.   I asked him about Catholic libraries and he gave me a very brief history which evidently go back to the second half of the 19th century.   “In those times Catholics were a (huge) minority in the Prussian dominated “Kaiserreich”.  Most of them lived in rural areas, worked as craftsmen and farmers and only a few have had an academic education, most of them were priests. Some of those academics saw the need of education for as many Catholics as possible.”  He said that after World War II, the libraries broadened their scope and now run more or less like any local library with a wide range of contemporary literary fiction, children’s literature, as well as gardening and cook books.

This reminded me of how it was back in the 50’s and 60’s in New Zealand.  I’m only quoting hearsay and legend, but it is said that many private companies wouldn’t hire Catholics and so by default many were in the public service.  My Aunt and two of her brothers worked in the Post Office and it seemed only natural that I would follow in my Aunt’s (to me glamorous) footsteps.   You see she drove an apple green, hand-painted Morris Minor, while we didn’t own a car.  She also earned more than my Dad (he was a carpenter) and she had an amazing wardrobe which included many pairs of stiletto shoes.    What else was there to aspire to?

I never regret the Commercial path that I took.    In the early seventies, I worked in London, Newcastle, Manchester, and Edinburgh as a Temp Secretary – and late in life, I’ve found my feet as a writer – typing has proved a most fortunate and useful skill.   I never did get to be a reporter, but I am now doing book reviews and blogging as well as working on my fourth novel – so yes, typing turned out to be the right thing after all.