Tuesday, September 25, 2012


My daughter ordered a special pen, white enamel, with a thin silver nib that clicks in and out, and special custom cartridges in a tiny cardboard box. The pen was shipped from Hong Kong.  She tracked its passage across the globe - and when it arrived the unwrapping was almost ceremonial.

"Feel how beautifully it writes," she said.  As I felt the weight of the pen in my hand and wrote my signature across an empty page, I felt the satisfaction of nip pressed to paper,  the delicate  flow of letters inking whiteness. It made the act of writing, the physical act, into a sensual experience, holding me in the moment.  Wonder, not just of creativity but at the physical writing of words.  Wow.  Look what I wrote with this pen!

I'm old enough to remember when all grade school students, at least in England, wrote with fountain pens.  Our wooden desks at Claremont School had inkwells in their corners - small neat holes in the top right corner of the desk, under which there were little bottles of blue or black ink.  When our pens ran out, we would dip into those inkwells and open the narrow metal lever on our pens to draw the ink inside.

That brings me to blotting paper.  This too was an important part of the writing life.  If your pen was too full of ink it made blots - so you had to try the pen out against a piece of blotting paper - and later, since your ink was wet after writing, you laid a piece across your composition paper to dry it.  Ink stains on our school uniforms - on our school ties and clean white blouses were common, especially for the more messy students among us.

Then came pens with cartridges.   I used one of those for years. I remember once writing exams at Wroxton College in Banbury. When I ran out of ink half way through an exam, the proctor noted that most people used disposable pens nowadays.  I was a throwback.

But now a throwback - as in the case of my daughter - feels more like an early adopter.  Rozzie thinks it worthwhile to have a pen that will last. Disposable pens are wasteful, she believes. That's why she purchased this beautiful pen on line - and had it shipped all the way from Hong Kong - along with a special leather case with a zip, in which she will keep the pen, and which will look sweeter the older it gets, nestling in her handbag.

Over the years various people have given me pens.  When I left a job at NBC my colleagues gave me the parting gift of a Waterman pen and pencil set, with a little NBC logo. I kept that set for years, but somewhere between Caracas and Buenos Aires, it was lost.

Then later, my sister in law Kate gave me a blue enamel fountain pen for Christmas. In spite of its beauty, it felt too thick in my hand.  I used it for a while, tried it out for old time's sake, but then I stopped, and then it too was lost.

More recently, my beloved Freddy Bonnart, a retired British colonel who I befriended in Brussels, gave me a silver Waterman pen for my birthday. How did I lose track of it?   Come to think of it, that pen didn't use cartridges but was a ballpoint with refills - and the pressure of its nib on the paper was not particularly special.  It was more the shaft of the pen that lent it pedigree.  It's probably somewhere around the house - in a bedside table drawer perhaps, or in one of the little wooden drawers on this desk. Little drawers behind the computer screen. Drawers I never look inside.

Now I use disposable pens, Sharpies with very thin nibs, in colors that range from purple to rust to emerald green.  Every time I use those pens, or even when I look at them, they remind me of the pleasure that comes from hand writing - the pleasure of drawing instruments too - something I've treasured since  my sister Claudia and I would go down to WH Smiths in Surbiton and purchase boxes of Craypas oil pastels - or colored pencils in long cardboard boxes.  Those writing instruments, especially when they were new, conveyed a special luxury.  It was a sense of expectation - the promise of all the wonderful things we might one day draw with them, or the stories we would write with them, now that we had such beautiful materials in hand.

Sunday, September 16, 2012


A few days ago Rozzie and Atli, Ben and I went to Dumbarton Oaks and wandered round the gardens.  This place has been among our favorites for the last twenty years.  We used to go there when the children were little, so now Rozzie wanted to share it with Atli, who had never been to Washington.

Each garden, terraced down the hillside, forms a different room. There are ponds and fountains, a rose garden, small patios and woodland stretches, and a wide sweep of lawn in front of the house which reminds me of Henry James.  I always imagine Isabel Archer sitting here drinking tea in the opening scene of Portrait of a Lady.

We climbed the brick steps, lined with boxwood, the scent of it perfuming the air.  And every view down every path invited the imagination to explore new vistas. Not overwhelming ones on a grand scale, but contained vistas which seemed somehow achievable.

We sat on a little stone patio.  "This is where I'm going to live," I said. 

"Yes," said Rozzie. "It's decided."  And she took this picture of me and Atli.

I haven't been writing lately.  Haven't been working on stories much. This week I half-heartedly worked on a book review, dabbled a bit with changes in a couple of pieces I'm writing, but mostly I've been teaching and hanging out with Rozzie and Atli while they are visiting from England. We sat outside drinking kir royale, while Ben cooked chicken on the grill, and we watched the dogs race round the garden and talked about everything under the sun.

It's important to nourish the soul. We say that a lot, I know, and it sounds cliche.  But really, it's vital to be kind to yourself. To lift up your head and pause in your work and see what other people are up to, different beautiful work - at the National Portrait Gallery where Ben and I went last week, for instance, or the gallery opening we all attended of painter and friend Sheep Jones. You can't do your own work all of the time; you need to make time for inspiration.

When you feed yourself with beauty you add to the store of that inspiration. I always think the old adage about 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration takes up the point from the wrong end.  Of course it's hard work to come up with original and well crafted writing. But without that 10% inspiration, you risk a still-born story. And by still-born, I mean a story that while technically perfect, doesn't move the reader with its own inner life.

Stories need to breathe. They need to be inspired.  And if you are inspired, you will put in that 90% hard work and it won't feel as painful as you expect!  You will be buoyed along on the swift currents of inspiration.  I'm talking to myself here, perhaps.  And also to one or two friends who are struggling right now with their work. But that's all right.

Another thought: sometimes writing is rather like cooking.  You put something in the metaphorical oven and it just has to cook for a while. You can't take it out before it's ready or keep worrying while it's cooking.  It will be ready in its own good time.  Then, surprisingly, other work comes easily. You whip it up in seconds flat and somehow it turns out without much fuss.

We all have work to do.  That's not in question.  But we must also pause and marvel at other people's work -their beautiful books and beautiful paintings and beautiful gardens too.  Then we can return to our own work full of new ideas and breaths of fresh air.

Friday, September 7, 2012

You Are the Love of My Life by Susan Richards Shreve

You'll fall in love with Susan Shreve's delightful new novel about Lucy Painter and her closely guarded secrets. It is set in Washington DC and my review (linked below) is currently featured on the Politics and Prose Bookstore website as 'Pick of the Week'. http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/bookreview/you-are-the-love-of-my-life/


The other evening Rozzie phoned our landline.  She and her boyfriend Atli are visiting from the UK, and had just flown out to San Francisco. They were about to have dinner with my sister Steph and her husband Dylan, their boys Oliver and Emmett, and my mother Judy. 

"What are you doing, Mum?"  Rozzie asked.

 "Watching a movie called The Fairy."

"And Daddy?"

"He's asleep."


"Here, it's almost 11:00," I said.

 "Oh. Well, can't you get on Skype?" she asked.  "We were trying to call your cell phone but you wouldn't pick up."

"Because I was watching a movie."

"Get on Skype," she told me. And so, instead of winding down, I paused the movie, and booted up. I dug out my iphone and logged onto Skype and watched the little blinking line connect to a blue and white head and shoulder/space saver. 

I do like Skype. Alex skypes from Sydney Australia, fourteen hours ahead.  Sometimes he's starting Monday morning while our side of the globe is on Sunday afternoon. He skypes from his iphone, so Ben and I are virtually 'carried' by Alex down his street, in front of the beach. We look up at his face, like little Roo in Kanga's pouch, as he sits on the bus.  He holds his phone to the window, so that we can enjoy the waterfront view whizzing past. Other times, he skypes on the way back from a party, or on his way to grab a Banh Mi sandwich for lunch.  These casual interactions do away with distance. It ceases to exist.

That's why, instead of watching a movie in Falls Church Virginia, I was now going to my sister's living room in San Francisco.  "HELLO~!!!" came a chorus of family voices.

"Hi!" I said. "Can you guys see me..."

"We can see you," said Stephanie's voice.

"...because I can't see you."

"Oh no," said Steph. "And now, we can't see you."

"You're frozen," said Rozzie.  Everyone in San Francisco seemed to be talking at once. "Why is it pixilating?....Oh, well wait a bit...There she is...or was..."

"Where's she gone..." asked my mother's voice.

"I'm still here," I replied a little testily. 

There was a loud guffaw.  The entire family was suddenly helpless with laughter.

"What's going on?"  But the laughter continued and died down slightly before gathering new strength.

 "I still can't see you," I told them.

Which only caused more hilarity. I heard my mother's rich cackle. Oliver was laughing so was Dylan, and Atli...

"It keeps freezing!" Rozzie's laughter was long and sonorous, leaping up in trills of joy as other voices joined her.

On my phone I could see myself.  My image connected to the little white head and shoulder space saver.   I was feeling rather annoyed.

"Try this window..." Stephanie's voice instructed.   "Now click on that...."

I should get back to my movie, I thought to myself.  There was another chorus of laughter.  "Are you still there, Mand?"

"Yes," I said boredly.  "I'm still here."

 "Oh dear!" My mother was almost weeping with mirth.

"What is going on?" I cried.

"That is SO funny!" Steph managed, as she and Rozzie went off into fresh gales. Atli was laughing too, and so were my nephews...

"Oh dear! We keep trying to shut down different windows, and in every window there's another frozen image of you.... of your face looking more and more annoyed," said Rozzie.  She broke off. "Oh look, there she is again!"

 They were absolutely creasing themselves.

"Well, from my perspective, I was watching a movie," I put in.  "Then you telephoned, and now the whole family is laughing at me."

They laughed again.  They couldn't help it. "Sorry," they said. "But your face was so funny."

"You kept freezing with a fresh expression of exasperation."

"And the pictures were so tiny!"

"Well, I'm glad you're amused," I said.

 In the end we decided I should go upstairs and log onto the desktop,  where they came in loud and clear. So loud in fact, that Ben got out of bed, put on his robe and sat on the settee joining the fun.  We could see them all together in the yellow living room, the fire going in the background, my nephews dancing in and out of view, different family faces coming in close and retreating into the background.  Sometimes they talked to us, and then they seemed to forget we were there, and turned to talk to each other.  It was just like being in the room.