Loneliness of Failure

February 22, 2021 — 2 Comments

I’ve said in the past, I might even have written it, that writing is a lonely business. I was wrong.

Writing is solitary, not lonely. When I sit at my computer, or even pick up a pen, I am transported somewhere, whether in time or place. Sometimes I cry as I type, sometimes I laugh, always I am engaged. The characters become real – their loves, their lives, their dreams, their idiosyncrasies. The hours fly by and, if I am in the house on my own, I might miss coffee, lunch and tea though, it must be said, rarely do I miss a glass of wine. But by that time the sun has set and I am nudged to rejoin the real world by the arrival of darkness and sometimes Bonnie, our deaf cat, yowling to be fed.

My solitariness is a privilege. Granted with grace by my husband as I spend day after day in my imagination and on my computer. And when the first draft is complete, I go back and attempt to fill the pages with SPICE. An acronym coined by my first publisher, Jo Parfitt of Summertime Publishing http://www.summertimepublishing.com. SPICE is what fills the writing with Specifics, Place, Incident, Characters and that most important of condiments, Emotion. SPICE is what makes the reader want, need, to turn the page – to read until dawn.

Initial edits are then made and, as the wait for comments from Beta readers stretches into weeks, I begin another story. I put that new world down to return to the novel that has filled my life for months and months. A rewrite follows, which is never a chore because I am once again embroiled in the lives of my characters. I delete. I add. I edit. I tweak until even I recognize it is time to let go. For now.

Filled with hope, I think of the words of Iranian-American young adult author, Tahereh Mafi, “Hope. It’s a fresh rain, a whispered promise, a cloudless sky, the perfect punctuation mark at the end of a sentence,” then I send the manuscript out in its search for a literary agent. That in itself is a job. 

Each agent requires systematic analysis into their likes and dislikes, their ‘wants’ and not ‘interested ins’. As I troll through pages of names I recognize my many flaws. No, I am not drawing on a tragic background as I weave my tales. No, I’m not part of the LGBTQ community. No, I’m not black, though a large part of my life has been spent in Africa. No, I’m not brown, though another chunk of years was spent in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. No, technically I don’t live in England, though it is my birth country and my father was British and part of my heart is embedded in the rolling Dorset hills, and in pre-COVID days I travelled there regularly. No, I don’t live in Australia but I spent seven years at boarding school in Armidale, New South Wales, and my mother was Australian …. and a large part of my heart is there too – but I’ve left slivers of heart in all the places I have lived. No, technically I’m not American though I am a citizen. No, I’m not from the Caribbean but I currently live there. Yes, I write English English but hey, I can adapt.

The pundits say write what you know. 

So what am I? What do I know?

I am a global nomad. I know the joys and challenges of relocating around the world. Of the isolation, tinged with excitement, of being the new arrival, again. Of living a sometimes disconnected life. And of feeling the agonies of guilt when we aren’t present for final moments, or weddings or births and birthdays. Of knowing the importance of saying good goodbyes in order to welcome the hello, the ‘mahnin, the sawadee-ka, the selemat pagi of a new country. Those are the emotions I draw on, those elements of spice that come from living and working in different countries and cultures, of learning new histories. That combined with a wondering, and wandering, imagination is what goes into my writing.

Novelist W. Somerset Maugham said, “There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” I suppose the closest thing to a rule is the axiom most writers live by – ‘show, don’t tell’. But aren’t rules made to be broken? There really are times when ‘tell’ is the only option, and please excuse the following example, but sometimes an apple is just an apple. Sure, there are variations in colour, size and texture but there seems little need to describe the orb that falls from trees.

Christian Nestell Bovee, C N, to his pals, was an epigrammatic New York City writer who said, “There is probably no hell for authors in the next world – they suffer so much from critics and publishers in this one.” 

Whilst I don’t suffer from writing, and nor do I consider it a lonely occupation, I can state that waiting for agent responses is harrowing. And believe me when I say, once received, rejection is the loneliest business. Sympathy, and sometimes empathy, from friends and fellow writers eases the sting of rejection and, despite agent’s letters assuring hope may be found elsewhere but ‘this book is not for me,’ the failure is a most lonely affair. 

It is a jolt to the heart, a dart speared into the imagination, and all we can do is wallow for a sentence, maybe a paragraph then write on and think of Sylvia Plath’s admonition, “The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”

Hope once again accompanies our solitary days.

How Does My Garden Grow?

February 8, 2021 — 14 Comments

My mother’s gardens around the world bloomed in abundance. The five-acre garden in the centre of Kuala Lumper, where the Twin Towers now loom over the city, is the one I remember best. Huge rain trees under one of which a King Cobra could often be found, much to human and canine consternation. A mangosteen grove, home to all manner of frightening things that I knew must lurk behind coarse trunks and amongst decaying leaves and fruit on the ground, led to the perimeter fence where I rarely ventured. But oh, the fruit, juice dripping from the plump, white flesh hidden deep beneath a thick purple skin, was heavenly and worth the risk of who knows what. And row upon row upon of my mother’s pride – orchids – purple vandas, striped yellow tigers, whites and pinks. Red hibiscus – bunga ray – the national flower of Malaysia, and canna, boisterous in their yellow and orange and red finery but also home to snakes who relished the damp ground. And frangipanis. 

Mum had two and half gardeners to help her. One permanently pushed a mower, one helped with the garden itself and the half came in each afternoon to help tend the hundreds of pot plants. I showed no interest in the mechanics of gardening but loved the beauty.

My foray into horticulture did not take place until, as an adult, I was again in the tropics. We lived in Bangkok, on Soi Attawimon. The garden was an expanse of grass which bordered one edge of a fishpond. An ornate wat, high on a pedestal placed in the corner was, morning and night, adorned with joss sticks and offerings to the temple gods by Es, our house girl. Cannas and crotons rimmed the house. 

Frangipani trees have always been a favourite, perhaps because their many-forked branches invited climbing, despite my irate mother shouting at me to get down. I don’t think Mum was concerned about a broken arm or leg, rather more the imminent snapping of her tree. Whatever the reason, I like both the delicacy of the flowers, whether white, pink, or yellow, and their fragrance.

And so I decided to plant a frangipani. Bangkok used to be known as the Venice of the East. Klongs, canals, threaded their way through the city before many were filled in and tarred over. The knock-on effect, apart from dreadful traffic jams, was a severe flooding problem. Each tropical deluge merged our pond with the garden, snakes and koi, swimming freely. The upshot of this flooding was a dense red clay below the topsoil. Heavy digging.

The Chatuchak weekend market provided the tree, about three foot tall. I can’t remember why I didn’t wait for the man who mowed the lawn to dig the hole. Most likely my normal impatience. Whatever the reason, I regretted it. 

“Madam?” Es, her voice hesitant, looked at me from the shade of the veranda, concern etched across her smooth face. “Madam, not good.”

I glanced up. “What?”

“Not good.” 

Es had a green thumb for herbs, and I expected a horticultural lesson.

“Cannot plant.”

I looked at the hole, painstakingly dug. “Why not?”

“Tree for wat, not house.” Her tone was adamant.

“Why?” I asked, sweat dripped from my face to my drenched tee shirt.

“Call lân tom. Sad flower. By wat,” she repeated.

I looked at her gentle face and all arguments fled. Who was I to ignore a cultural taboo?

I waited until the mower man came and he dug the next hole. By Es’ wat.

Thereafter, in various countries around the world, I have asked before digging. Each time we have moved on, I have been sad to leave my garden and I wonder how my gardens grow.

Thirty-five years later, on an island in the Caribbean, I have a garden I’m not leaving.

From a tan-tan and coralita jungle over which two coconut palms presided, emerged a quarry of  rotten rock, glass and Chaney, the shards of crockery from bygone eras. From that has come, with a lot of sweat, some blood but no tears, a garden that offers respite, calm and abundant pleasure.

Loathe to remove the palms, sanctuary to wasps, bananaquits and iguanas, I agreed to their removal after my husband’s magic words, “falling coconuts on grandchildren’s heads”. I missed the sound of the fronds in the trade winds, I did not miss the downward thump of nuts landing. 

We had a plan. The garden we have is nothing like the plan. Rather it has evolved. Our only hard and fast proviso demanded a garden for birds, butterflies and bees. We have all three, and even on occasion play host to a gluttonous night heron who, with great patience and stealth, steals fish from the pond.

Our planting, to a true horticulturalist, might seem haphazard but it works. Portlandia rubs shoulders with lemon grass and duranta. Natal plum nestles next to gardenia. Lantana (a weed to my Australian friends) plays nicely with ixora. Plumbago and jasmine share purple and white space. Cuban palms reach skywards, their trunks adorned with orchids. Hamelia and snow-on-the-mountain nudge the fence line with Ginger Thomas, the national flower of the Virgin Islands. A few we’ve bought – one, a bottle brush, in a nod to my Australian heritage. Some plants were in the garden – a China rose hibiscus, milk and honey lilies, mother-in-laws tongue although, it must be said, my MIL’s words were never sharp.

Plant sharing is a way of life on St Croix and so, as I wander from the patio to the pergola to the perch on the peak, I am reminded each step of the way of friendships made. Parakeet flowers, poor man’s orchid, hibiscus and gingers from Emy, cacti from Pat, orchids from Susan, all manner of unnamed seedlings from Rosalie, jatropha from Don, and from Toni and Isabel respectively a yellow and crimson frangipani.

How does my garden grow, the one I won’t be leaving? Very well, thank you!

Not Much Cheer!

December 23, 2020 — 8 Comments

Despite retail outlets starting their holiday season earlier and earlier, sometimes now even before Thanksgiving, it has always been The Nutcracker that heralded the start of Christmas for my family. Our dancer daughter was unable to stand still, so busy were her feet as she went through the various stages of the ballet to the sound of Spanish and Arabian dancers, mirlitons and sugar plum fairies in her head, and ours.

After Kate had flown away to start her own adventures I still went to the ballet. It wasn’t Christmas without Herr Stahlbaum, and his friend, the local councilman and magician, Herr Drosselmyer, giving Clara and her friends toys. One a magic nutcracker. And so, last night, a mere three days before December 25th, I wondered why I really wasn’t getting into the spirit of things, and didn’t realize why until my husband slipped Tchaikovsky into the CD player. 

And now it’s Christmas. A very different and distanced Christmas, and for many people around the world a horribly sad one as families have empty chairs around their table, and an aching heart from unexpected deaths that have riven their lives.

Lockdowns have sent people into a miserable frenzy of recriminations against their governments, but spare a thought for politicians – not something I am usually wont to do. Those in power – the ones who give a damn – are doomed to be vilified whatever option they choose. Raged at for not locking down, raged at for locking down. I imagine the best place to be, as a politician at the moment, is in opposition. It’s always easier to point fingers. 

If we were to carry The Nutcracker theme through, we could call Covid-19 the Mouse King and the reaching viral tentacles, his mice minions. The myriad of healthcare workers battling against them, globally, are of course the toy soldiers. 

My thoughts this Christmas are with them. Their exhaustion and despair, not just at the deaths to which they are witness but at the common stupidity of many fellow citizens who appear unable to self-regulate their actions. And to those others on the front lines of this pandemic who are supporting us, whether through keeping shops open, delivering packages and generally making our lives a little easier.

My thoughts this Christmas are with those in shanty towns, slums, favelas. Whatever name a country gives the areas where the impoverished eke out a livelihood, people are living in a crush of humanity, not knowing who is a Covid-carrier, who might be the next in the family to succumb, who might be dead in a few days. 

My thoughts this Christmas are with those who are isolated. Quite literally on their own. Whether young or old. Locked in small apartments. Empty streets echoing back their loneliness. Kept inside not only by a virulent pandemic but also the weather. Unable to share a glass of cheer, or a hug with a loved one, or even a stranger in the same position. 

My thoughts this Christmas are with those who might be locked in with violent partners, who are terrified a spouse or parent might, in an angry drunken rage, lash out at the children, or them.

And yes, my thoughts this Christmas are also with those disappointed by thwarted plans. But if you are not alone, whether you are with your immediate family or friends, or in a house shared with disparate people, you have someone with whom to share some cheer, even if it is muted.

A photograph, doing the rounds on social media, taken at Christmas 1914 shows the muddy trenches of World War I filled with weary soldiers. Not gingerbread or tin soldiers as in The Nutcracker but flesh and blood. They did not go home at Christmas, many never went home again. It puts disappointment at changed plans into perspective.

Perspective is something we need at the moment. Though it is not always easy to achieve particularly in the face of the flagrant disregard of some for the health of others. It astounds me that people seem unable to grasp the simple fact that masks help. If you don’t want to protect yourself, how about protecting others – grandparents, parents, children, your neighbour, your postman? 

Christmas is going to be different for many of us but let’s look to the future – look to the scientists whose achievements this year have been remarkable – then line up in our form-fitting, smile-hiding masks and have a vaccination, keep our distance a little longer and we too shall be able to join in the joyous party that takes place in The Land of Sweets. Where candies from around the world and Mother Ginger and her children, the Polichinelles, dance in jubilation that the Mouse King did not win the war.

There might not be much to cheer about at the moment but I’m going to listen to The Nutcracker again, and again, and again because good will triumph over evil, medicine will triumph over a pandemic, and we will share the magic of Christmas with our families – just not this year.

Cheers to a safe, distanced and subdued Christmas!

but phuck you!

My respect for the office of president is intact. There have been presidents since I was honoured to become an American citizen who might not have been my choice, who might not have believed as strongly as I on certain issues but they have garnered my respect if not my approbation. My respect for the man who currently holds the presidency has never been lower.

I am a hybrid. The product of an English father and an Australian mother. My parents met in Malaya and my childhood did nothing to stop their wanderlust. Thank goodness. Dad had stayed in Pakistan after Partition in 1947, one of a handful of British army officers charged with helping form a new army for a new country. Mum was a pragmatic woman, a nurse who experienced the horrors of World War II in both Singapore and Papua New Guinea. I was their only child. 

Discipline for minor infractions was meted out by my mother – after extreme provocation a slap across the thigh with a floppy slipper would be forthcoming. I remember it being red silk with delicate embroidery, beautiful and gave a decent sting.

Rarely can I remember my father being involved in non-compliance issues. And he never slapped me. But nearly sixty years after the event I vividly recall being sat down at the dining table and given one of the sternest lectures of my life. We lived in Nigeria which means I would have been no older than six.

The reason? I had cheeked Ali. I don’t remember how, or why but I have never forgotten the lesson I learnt that evening before my bedtime story.

Ali was our cook. Originally from Sudan and proud, whenever guests or a camera came into view, to change into white trousers and tunic over which he tied a broad red cummerbund. He would also don a red fez with a black tassel and, lastly, he would pin his medals across his chest attesting to his service in the East Africa Campaign whilst in the Sudan Defence Force. 

Any man who visited out home and who he deemed worthy was saluted. He knew to keep my father’s glass topped up. If Ali didn’t like a guest he would, to my mother’s chagrin, ignore an empty glass and parched throat. He was though a gentle man who adored my mother despite her propensity to gather orphan animals, and for whom he would cut up papaya and pineapple each morning. Something I’m sure wasn’t in his original job description. And Ali loved me, and I him.

It was a long time ago so I can’t remember the exact words my father used after my transgression and he would not have raised his voice but I do still remember the shame. His words would have been measured and along the lines of, “Ali is a dignified man who works to make our lives easier. Particularly yours. Who are you, a child, to dare speak to him in such a manner?”

I do remember being dismissed. I ran to Ali’s domain where I sat on the kitchen step with his arm around me and, crying, gave him my apology. It was probably the first truly sincere apology I had given. 

It is people like Ali, and Sam, our houseboy and others in other countries who worked for my parents, and later others who worked for me and my own family who have made our lives infinitely happier. Without a doubt easier and, once I reached the age of employing people myself, have given me insights into different cultures and countries that I might not have had without their kind guidance. A true privilege.

So why the title of this little story? Because the president of the United States has proven with his craven behaviours toward those who work to make his life easier, and certainly safer, that there is no moral line he will not cross.

I’m not talking about the political animals who serve in his administration – those in front of the cameras, those used to speaking the words people want to hear, those scrabbling to pacify the man’s every perceived slight, to temper his tantrums. I couldn’t care less about them. 

I am thinking of men and women who have worked in the White House, some I’m sure for many years and through many administrations. The men and women who change the sheets, who cook the meals, who dust the furniture and hoover the carpets. The men and women in the background who make sure the wheels of arguably the best-known home in America turn without a single crunch of a pebble. And while I’m at it, the men and women charged with literally taking a bullet for the president. What right does he have to disregard their health?

To flaunt his power by belittling those who are cognisant of the dangers of a virus that is devouring the country with rampant disregard to who it infects. To flout the mandates of mask wearing and spew his vitriol over those nearby. His braggadocio knows no bounds.

By all accounts his arrogance and hubris, his complete disregard for others are behaviours learnt from his father.

My father has been dead for ten years but his words and his actions as I grew up have never left me. Don’t ever forget it is the people, often behind the scenes, who make our lives easier, safer, more pleasant who deserve our utmost and unbridled respect.

So mr president, I repeat, phuck you!

Not long ago, but which in what COVID times seems a far-off galaxy, I lived in a small despotic West African country. It is a country run under harsh measures, with even harsher punishments for those who dare to question the ultimate authority – the president. He, it should be noted, came to rule through murderous machinations that removed his uncle from power.

And power is one way in which he exerted control. Switch the electricity off as the blanket of night falls and it is harder for the ‘common’ people to meet, to plot, to demand greater freedoms. It is a ploy used by many over the years – the plantations worked by the enslaved also used the tactic to lessen the chance of rebellion.

But even if the power was on many did not have the luxury of being able to afford it.

We had moved into an as-yet unfinished apartment. We had doors and windows, a floor and a roof, plumbing and power…. sometimes. I had been promised a generator but that was months away. Days after moving in, I watched the sun drift behind the hills beside us to leave the jungle a jumble of dark greens and greys as the frogs began their nightly chorale.

A movement caught my eye and I saw a flicker from a flashlight and what looked like a very tall man dressed in very little. In the half light of a brief equatorial dusk, it took me a moment to realise his height was unnaturally elongated by the fact he had clambered onto the roof of a dilapidated car that graced the entrance to our mud-baked and overgrown road. He looked to be hanging.

“Stephen!” I called down to our guard, a delightful Ghanaian who had about as much chance of saving us from anything as my dead grandfather, “Stephen, there’s a man on a car by the electricity pole.”

“Oh, madam, he is stealing your power.”

It took a moment to digest this information. And another moment to shrug. This was WAWA at work. West Africa Wins Again. The chap had no chance of getting electricity to his shack, so why not nick it from the house down the road? Good luck to him, I thought as our power winked off, on, then off again. It could have been deliberate, it could have been a malfunction.

Not long ago, but before these COVID times, we were fortunate enough to find another ‘in-need-of-work’ place on St Croix, the largest of the US Virgin Islands. We fell to renovating with a vengeance with the immeasurable assistance of Barry Allaire and his duo of merry men, Mingo and Easy. They made a somewhat daunting task very much easier. 

The plumbing wasn’t too bad but, oh my, the electrics were not good. I spent a lot of time on island by myself and as darkness drifted across the bay silhouetting yacht masts in a melange of pinks and mauves, I would turn on a light only when absolutely necessary, and never more than one at a time. Oftentimes a fizz would accompany the action. We rewired – thank you, Leroy – and my confidence grew.

However my new found belief in power was short lived. I came to understand another acronym, although not nearly as catchy as WAWA. WAPA is our Water and Power Authority. After nearly eight years of intermittent power or brown-outs – those rolling, blinking outages that cause permanent damage to electronics and white appliances despite having surge protection – the phrase “We’ve been WAPAed” has entered the family lexicon.

I fully understand the fragility of power services during hurricanes that are hurled our way at, sadly, more and more regular intervals. What I do not understand is why a power company in America is allowed to function badly, with seeming impunity, through continuing performance failures, compromises to payment and billing systems including the, almost, unbelievable loss of $2.7 million when invoices were paid to a purportedly legitimate vendor. A scam referred to by WAPA as a ‘Business Email Compromise’. I wonder if that scam will be found by the FBI to have been initiated in West Africa. In which case WAPA and WAWA are not so far apart.   

Why are heads not rolling at the continued farrago of an “autonomous agency of the Virgin Island Government” that does not deliver power? To the idle bystander it could be construed that local accountability has gone the way of federal accountability.  

Not too long ago and in these COVID times, in frustration, I posted a comment on social media. It read, “I have lived in 12 countries, a number of them considered 3rd world developing countries. Never, ever, have I had such a poor power service as I get here in the US Virgin Islands”. Comments flooded in. From those known and unknown. Comments like, “Have you lived in Nigeria?” Yes, I have. “Knowing that you’ve lived here in Thailand that is really saying something.” Yup! Closer to home people said, “And at such a high cost” and “The worst”. There were many more such helpful insights.

What they all failed to mention is that I do not now live in a developing country. This is the United States of America. 

Please, WAPA, power to the people!