A cure for the shopping habit

I doubt I’ll ever buy another thing. The price of accumulating stuff is a periodic clear-out, and if that means another car boot sale, the aversion therapy has worked.1181530_at_the_flea_market crop

Car boot sales mean getting up ridiculously early.  At 6.45am the venue was already buzzing. We’d barely opened the tailgate when people started poking around, helpfully extracting our stuff from boxes and baskets.  They drifted off when they realised we had no vinyls, military badges or priceless artwork going for a song.

We did have clothes, books and general bric-a-brac.  One man spent ages doing and undoing every zip on a rucksack.  He returned half an hour later to do it all again before buying it.

Some had a specific mission: football club badges, trousers for work, king-sized bed-linen.  For others it was a day out.  One young woman sipped from a trendy Mason jar drinker as she strolled around.  I looked for the cameraman, sure that she was on a shoot.

When we weren’t helping folks try on suits (‘It’s a 42” chest’ I reminded the XXL man who was trying to pour himself into a pinstripe jacket), there was always people-watching.  Ankle socks and high heels were the favoured footwear for women.   One woman walked around with Chihuahuas stuffed down her front.  Her puppies?  I’ve no idea.  

chihuahuas cropThere were lots of kids, not always supervised.  A toddler bashed a wooden train to pieces on the concrete. His parents ignored him in favour of bargaining over a laundry bag.  Many people had brought their dogs.  A spaniel cocked his leg against a tyre.  A man with two boxers asked about a picture-frame.  When I said it was 50p (about 75 US cents), the man said he’d go away and think about it.

Some people can’t resist the lure of towels they don’t need and books they don’t want. One woman picked up every book on our table, from Angels and Demons to Weaning Your Baby, then shrugged and told me she didn’t read.

The weather turned windy and cool, but I could take my pick of warm clothes off our cheapo clothes rail.  By now the rail had toppled over several times.  Here it is lashed to the car with a printer cable.car boot sale

Nobody bought the printer anyway.  Seems there’s not much call for elderly printers with empty cartridges. Who’d have thought?

We had to keep our eyes open or things could go walkies, but there were sales to make.  At £8-£10 each (about $13-$16), the suits went fast. ‘Looks great on you’ said my husband as another punter tried on a jacket, checking his reflection in a car window.

For those of you who’ve never done a car boot sale, you can buy or sell almost anything there: bikes, baby clothes, furniture, you name it.  It’s a bit like a flea market, minus the fleas.

Though, come to think of it, I’ve been itching quite a bit since.

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What’s in a name, by George?

So it’s George Alexander Louis. Altogether more regal than, say, Clive or Keith, though I think it’s a shame William and Kate didn’t choose College. We’ve never had a monarch called King College Cambridge.KCC cropped

Baby Cambridge’s name doesn’t need to be hip and happening because it will set the trend for years to come.  He may grow up liking his first name (as most Georges seem to) or not.  A slew of given names brings the luxury of choice, though this is the first time in about 100 years that a Royal baby has had only three names instead of four.

Parents sometimes goof, as with the handle aired a while back on ITV’s This Morning.  Presenters Phil and Fern couldn’t contain themselves.  Who could, with a Hugh Janus?

When I was considering names for my own sons, I turned to the pages of the Financial Times for inspiration.  Perhaps names like Julian, James, Henry or Anthony would give them a leg-up on the ladder to success (I’ll get back to you).

Parents have to settle on only a handful of names for their own children, while writers get to dream up many more.  It’s fun, and if someone suggests something better, you can change it with just a few keystrokes.

In fiction, names can give away a person’s character.  You just know Dr Legg is going to be an orthopaedic surgeon, and Professor Sir Benjamin Bigpurse is coining it from his private practice.  Cruella De Vil is a prime example of a villain’s name, though Voldemort and Captain Hook are great too.

Reading To The Lighthouse, it’s obvious that Augustus Carmichael is a poet’s moniker and that Lily Briscoe is as complicated as hell, though perhaps the more obvious clue lies in the author’s name. Personally I’m still mystified by Seymour Glass, JD Salinger’s memorable if not wholly transparent choice.

As has been observed, even the naming of cats is a difficult matter. I’ve stuck to fruits for my own cats. Thus we’ve had Bananas, Peaches, and Cherries.

future's orange cropped

The current incumbent is Mishmish, meaning apricot in Arabic and Hebrew.  But did we miss a trick when we overlooked Paw-paws?

‘Am I in your book then?’

If you’re rash enough to tell your friends you’re working on a novel, they’ll be dying to know if they’re in it.bookshelf crop

If? What am I saying! Of course you’ve told them. Blabbing about work in progress may stifle the muse, but the people in your life need to know why you stay in every night with your laptop and a bag of Doritos, thumbing through old Lands’ End catalogues in the vain hope of overcoming writer’s block.

So back to that pesky question. ‘Am I in your book?’

Of course they’re not. Yet no matter how many times you reply that it’s fiction, goddammit, they expect a cameo role, minimum.

If you don’t shoehorn them in, they’ll assume you don’t find them interesting enough. So they dangle tempting revelations. ‘You do know I was George Clooney’s girlfriend/chauffeur/manicurist? And did I tell you about the time I wrestled three KGB men under water?’

I usually reply ‘Cool. But it’s not that kind of book.’

Some people plead to be put into prose. Even non-fiction. Does Michele really want to end up in the chapter on personality disorder? Now that’s serious attention-seeking.

Yes, it would be great to use real characters. There are folks I’d love to transplant wholesale into a book, where they’d take root and flourish. Sadly, I can’t put in any of the wonderful patients I’ve seen over the years, even if it would save my imagination a lot of pointless exertion.

Then there are colleagues past and present: devoted, brilliant, arrogant, disillusioned, or dead drunk. No surprise I’ve got a doctor is in my forthcoming novel. Geoff is burnt out and now, going through a mid-life crisis, he wonders if he really does make people better. I like to think he comes across as authentic. All the same, he’s not real, nor is he based on any one person in particular. And he’s definitely not you, even if you have erectile problems and a cute son with asthma.

If you’ve already written your work of fiction, you’re doomed because family and friends always think they’re in it. What part of the word ‘fiction’ is so hard to get?

Real people don’t go in novels (though there are exceptions, like Princess Margaret in Edward St Aubyn’s Some Hope). Here’s why.

1. When you finally get off your sofa you won’t have any friends left.
2. The UK is the libel capital of the world. For more on what can happen, see John Preston’s recent Sunday Telegraph piece The Murky World of Literary Libel.

Fellow writers, I’d love to hear your views.

The Best Sex Ever

A great sex scene in a novel is like happiness.  When you see it, you know.

But it’s not easy to nail. The Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction award – rightly feted at the In and Out Club in London – was launched in 1993. Infrared’s author Nancy Huston scoped the prize in 2012 with unforgettable imagery like “my sex swimming like a fish in water”. I’m guessing it gets harpooned later.

Mounting often features in sex scenes but Rowan Somerville tweaked the cliché: “like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too-blunt pin he screwed himself into her”. As Somerville said when accepting the award, there’s nothing more English than bad sex.

Just choosing the words is a challenge. Will they be biologically correct, or do you prefer words you don’t want the kids to repeat? Maybe there’ll be some common metaphors, or fancy phrases like Ben Masters’ ‘elfin grot’. Some writers shoehorn in some long words like anaconda, rissorgimento and philately. It makes readers think they’re erudite, or at least that they own a dictionary.

One of my favourite writers is Penelope Lively who does unresolved sexual tension better than anyone I know. Now and then we still get to go all the way. Bliss. Instead of using the whole thesaurus, she uses all the senses, as in The Photograph.

He spreads his coat on the grass, puts her down on it. She kicks off her trousers. It is the most urgent sex he can ever remember, a glorious immediacy, pinned forever in that place – the wind, the smell of crushed grass, some small piping bird, sheep moving about.

Lively doesn’t need to say that the grass is scratchy on the skin.  Why else would Glyn put his coat down?

Not all readers are after the same thing. Sometimes raw and raunchy fit the bill perfectly, as in Mel Sherratt’s Taunting the Dead.

She ran the tip of her tongue up and down his shaft as he held her head in place. Might as well get it over with and then she could be on her way.

Maggie O’Farrell’s After You’d Gone has this study of Alice losing her virginity.

She begins counting the punching thrusts to try to block out the consciousness of this heaving, panting body thrashing about on top of hers. At number seventy-eight, she feels his back arch and at seventy-nine, he does a kind of prolonged rigid shudder and collapses on to her, breathing hard.

That was infinitely sad. For making sex funny, you have to hand it to Howard Jacobson. Here’s a passage from Coming from Behind.

Now that his gown has ridden up his back and hangs over his face, he is as blind as a school photographer, and it is his other end anyway… which confronts the door.

For me, there’s one criterion above all that’s the hallmark of a good sex scene. It’s the one I use in my fiction, and it’s simply this: when you read about the characters having it off, does it turn you on?

I’d love to hear what you look for in a fictional sex scene and who your favourite authors are.

Do you know who you’re marrying?

spray tan cropHere comes the bride in a meringue of a dress, adjusting the tiara and veil across her newly-coiffed head.  She’s weighed down with hairspray and fake lashes, and stuffed to the gunnels with chicken fillets to shore up her assets.

By the time she trips down the aisle as daintily as is possible in white satin shoes that cut off the circulation to the toes, the bride may have spent hundreds of pounds on hair and makeup.

The dress code spreads to the bridesmaids.  They too must spend the day in shiny creations that only stay up thanks to a furlong or so of boob tape.  But it’s hair and make-up that really push the boat out. When it comes to wedding get-ups, the motto is clearly ‘Less is Less’.

Why?

It’s one thing to make the most of your looks.  It’s quite another to blatantly fake it.  I’m currently resisting pressure from friends to have hair extensions that will totally transform my appearance for my wedding.

Plus it’s summer (in Britain we know this because Wimbledon is on TV).  This makes a tan essential.  I absolutely have to turn the rich shade of mahogany that can only be achieved by repeated sprayings in something like creosote.  Another pal adds that I have just enough time to book myself a boob job before the big day.  Do I want the name of a brilliant surgeon she knows?

The hell I do.

873880_wedding_days_3I would quite like my intended to recognise me on the big day, not think he has walked into the wrong registry office.  A wedding day is special, so I’ll forego my favourite Gap jeans and the flip-flops that turn me into Kurt Cobain’s twin sister.  All the same, I plan to look and behave like myself, not a fashion victim who’s deployed every single idea out of Brides Incorporated.

Wouldn’t it be a nice idea to save the money or give it to a worthy cause, and spend the best day of your life looking vaguely like the person your other half wanted to marry?