Another Mini Battenberg?

Life is not a practice run. We press forward living our existence as best we can, chasing our desires, ruing our regrets and missed opportunities.

Last year I became very ill. The fragility of life hit me between the eyes and woke me up.

My creative self had lain dormant for years. I longed to write and sat down at my laptop and started and haven’t stopped since. Distractions get in the way, like the day job and socialising, but I keep coming back to it like never before.

Does our youthful creativity desert us as we hurtle through the years? I remember going to see artists’ studios in the Torpedo Museum in Alexandria, Virginia a few years ago. A number were inhabited by retired or older artists. The pictures were beautiful but lacked innovation, or that excitement you get in the pit of your stomach when looking at new art. I wondered if, while good artists, life had sucked the fire from their bellies?

We still see, fortunately, current ageing artists who never fail to excite – David Bowie for example.

A little closer to home and accessible to me is the award-winning writer V.G. Lee who I am also privileged to call a friend.

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VG, or Val, started writing later in life and in the last 20 years has published four novels and a collection of short stories.

In 2009, to celebrate her 60th year, VG Lee decided to become a stand-up comedian. She set herself a target of 60 performances which grew to 90 and she finished the year as a runner-up in the prestigious Hackney Empire’s New Act of the Year 2010. She has appeared twice at the Edinburgh Festival. In 2013, she performed her one-woman play, Lady of the Wild West Hill to packed audiences as part of the Brighton Fringe Festival.

Val is inspirational and full of stories and experience. I asked her a few months ago if she would allow me to interview her for my blog, looking particularly at pursing a late blooming desire to engage in one’s chosen art.

I met Val at her residence on the West Hill in Hastings. After enjoying a sumptuous lunch of Carrot and Coriander soup, made fresh by Val’s good friend and neighbour Mary, accompanied by delicate slices of fresh sesame seed baguette, we settled on a comfortable settee and prepared to start the interview.

‘I’ve put my M&S aquatically patterned toilet rolls out in the bathroom,’ said Val proudly, adding this extra touch of comfort to her already commodious dwelling.

‘Thanks,’ I replied, wondering whether I should complement her later should I have occasion to sample this luxurious item.

After a couple of tests on my recording equipment we were ready to go.

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What was going on in your life in your early 40s Val?

Absolutely nothing basically. I’d split up with somebody who possibly didn’t even know we were still dating and I was on my own. I went to two classes: gardening and a writing class and the writing stuck. I completed both classes and I still love gardening but writing is what I do best

What made you decide on these two courses?

To be honest I think I was possibly looking for friends because I didn’t have any. I still don’t have many if anyone is reading and is interested…

The interview paused so that I could pick myself off the floor. Val is spontaneously funny and in fact quite popular.

Did you find any friends?

I found a couple of writing buddies that I still know today and I’m still friends with the tutor also.

What was the inspiration to start writing in your 40s and develop further from the class? Were you not ready to start slowing down?

No. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I’d never been particularly good at anything, but I had been able to make people laugh all my life. And I thought I’d write something funny, and people did laugh and that gave me the nudge to keep going.

Did you always have passion for writing?

Absolutely not! I’d never had a passion for anything up until then. I wasn’t good at writing but I was good at art. I was a commercial artist although I don’t do it now and that’s what I did right up to my 40s.

Had you written since school?

Yes. I wrote stories at school but they weren’t very good. I’d tried to mimic Shakespeare on a couple of occasions and I wasn’t quite up to his standards which rather surprised me at the time.   

Again after several minutes of laughter imagining Val as a budding schoolgirl Shakespeare we returned to the interview.

Who do you write for?

I write for me. I have a real interest in the characters, and the characters’ lives. I’m drawn to the lives of very ordinary people. My interest in my characters is fanatical; what happens, why they’re like they are, where they’re going and how they can change.

It’s not clear to me who to write for so that’s really helpful. Some writers who achieve great praise from the writing community don’t necessarily have commercial success and some that can’t really write, do. How can you balance the two?

As far as I am concerned it’s not worth writing if I’m not writing what I want to write. Having always been rubbish at everything up until then, and finding something in my 40s that I was good at, then there would be no point in trying to focus on a certain market. I’d then, and yet again, be doing something for someone else. If my writing wasn’t for me it wouldn’t have a soul and in my view wouldn’t be very good.

Are you going to share how long you’ve been writing or your current age? If indeed it’s appropriate to ask a lady her age.

I’m 63.  

Do you still have a lot of new ideas bubbling forward?

Don’t you want to say anything about me looking much younger than 63?

Yes of course. How remiss of me. 63! Good grief I thought you were 45.

Thank you that’s better. Always good to flatter your interviewees Mr Boulevardier! And yes I’m full of new ideas. I’m currently working towards completing my new novel and I have another unfinished novel. After the publication of my next novel I will publish another book of short stories. Most of the short stories for the collection are in preparation.

Do you want to tell us anything about your new novel?

It’s taken me twenty two years so far but I think we are on the home stretch. It’s very different from my previous work with the main character a man and it’s more comical. At least I hope people are going to find it funny.

If it’s as witty as you are today then I’m sure they will. Now I know you’ve spoken about it on Facebook but how much importance do you put on editing?

I put a huge amount of emphasis on editing. I think when I read people’s work and it hasn’t been edited properly, and I’m not talking about punctuation, I’m talking about extraneous words, phrases out of order, self-indulgence or just the wrong feeling which sometimes writers don’t even know they’re doing because they don’t check their work.

I go over, and over, and over my work. It has to sound good to read good in my opinion. I read my work aloud as many times as it takes to get it right.

One more recent option open to new writers is self-publishing. Do you agree with it?

It’s really growing and a great way of getting published and I’m very pleased that option is now available. However, I am concerned that people aren’t necessarily as careful with what they publish. I’ve seen very small print which isn’t easy to read with dodgy layouts and covers. I wouldn’t want things to become slipshod. At its best it’s an excellent way of getting published.

Conversely then, if you’re a new writer should you start searching for a literary agent?

As a new writer you should focus your energies on your work until it is absolutely finished and polished. You should not think of an agent. You should not think of a bestseller. And just get on and do what you are supposed to be doing which is writing. People often ask after six months, sorry this is a bit of a rant as I do get cross, how they should get an agent or ‘how do I get published’ and haven’t even started writing a bloody book. So write, write and write.

Thanks Val. I wonder if we could move into talking about your books a little and perhaps you could guide us through your inspiration for each.

The Comedienne was published in 2000 and previous to that I lived in North London and I was writing short stories to perform in a cabaret run by me and some friends called ‘All Mouth, no Trousers’. I’d written a story about a young woman living in Birmingham and on this particular evening there was a publisher in the audience who asked me if I had a novel. I didn’t have a novel at the time but I did have a lot of stories and I worked really hard and produced a novel which was accepted. It included older and younger people and I liked having the opportunity to write about different age groups.

Great! So moving along to the Woman in Beige, which is my personal favourite.

The historian Rose Collis was my inspiration. I met her at the poetry café in Betterton Street and I didn’t know what to do with my future and she was so full of life and energy I thought you’ve got to get down to it Val, and the idea of the Woman in Beige came to me and I just started writing it.

That’s interesting; so stepping back between the novels was it difficult to get the inspiration to write another after The Comedienne was published?

Yes I was quite lost for a time. I always write for short spells before I really get going. I was still doing a bit of poetry and lost for what to write story-wise. I started to write a piece about my parents and moved forward into other people’s parents and the Woman in Beige got started.  

The collection of short stories came next. Were these ones you had in the bank you pulled together?

I had them in varying levels of completion from the time when I started writing. There is one story in the book called Behind Glass which was the first short story I’d ever written in my early 40s and I finished it just in time for the collection. I’m always writing stories and I had more than enough for a collection.

My favourite in the collection is Hotel Du Lac and I wondered if you fancied yourself as a bit of an Anita Brookner?

I wanted to do a more cheery and jokey Anita Brookner.

Did you have a similar slump in motivation after that or were you raring to get going on Diary of a Provincial Lesbian?

I moved to Hastings from London and I reread Diary of a Provincial Lady by E. M. Delafield which reflects life in the provinces and my life was so different since moving. It was of a much slower pace and I had new and very different neighbours and I decided to have a go at my version. In actual fact it was probably the easiest to write out of all my books because you had definite seasons and celebration times like Easter and Christmas to work with. I really enjoyed writing this book. It was also my quickest book and was complete in a year.

I’m sometimes inspired by what I read and I get an idea of subjects I can deal with.

And onto your most recently published work, Always you Edina.

I started writing the book eight or nine years ago and it came out of short stories which were originally quite strange and bitter. But as my life seemed to improve my mood bettered also. It’s set in Birmingham and I went back to where I had grown up and revisited all my old childhood spots. It’s based on an aunt who is a cruel but charming person and I did have an aunt who was cruel but charming and it’s loosely based on her. A lot of my memories from the 1960s came flooding back. It was a jumble for many years and I have to say thank you to Sarah Walters who went through all the stories, twice, and gave me a good steer on how to pull them together and finally it got published. And I love the book.

I think it’s really interesting that you started writing it so long ago, set it aside, and came back to it. You didn’t feel the need to push on to the bitter end once you’d started?

Absolutely not. I do this continually. If my mood changes or I’m feeling a bit lacklustre or have something else calling me then I give into the call. It does possibly mean I take a long time to get finished but I have a large body of work with lots of in progress pieces.

Do you have any favourite characters from your books?

I have Mrs Botolph from The Comedienne, who was the main character’s mother’s best friend. From Woman in Beige I like Mr Edwards the neighbour who had the giant albino rabbit. I love Deidre in Diary of a Provincial Lesbian, and she is based on an ex friend who is in a number of my stories. Interestingly I don’t have a favourite character in Always you Edina.

So when you were in your 40s and just getting into writing, did you sit down one day and think I’m going to give up my job and write four books?

No. I was working as a self-employed commercial artist doing large signs and murals and I couldn’t give up. I actually have two books which were never published. I used to finish work at 6pm and start writing at 8pm and I would work every evening until 11.30pm, and as I said earlier, I didn’t have friends to distract me and I just worked at it. In actual fact that book never got published but I still love it. I probably spent three years on it 8-11.30pm five or six evenings a week. It was a commitment but I just wanted to write.

At that time how far forward did you plan or dream?

I’ve never planned. I was so enthused to find something that I was good at later in life. I would still like to be famous and have a lot of money but I wouldn’t like to lose what I have.    

Some seem to think that it’s a quick process, knocking out short stories in a day or novels in a month. What do you think about that?

I would say a very structured short story could be written in a day and possibly a novel in a month, but I’m just not confident that it would be as good as it could be. It has taken me between one and twenty years but I don’t think I could do anything in a month. The first short story that is in my collection was not finished until the collection was put together. I put the last line in just before it was sent off for the publishers to look at, because I hadn’t come up with that last line, and I knew the story wasn’t quite right.

It takes as long as it takes and all you get is a first draft if you do it quickly.

Do you title pieces and name characters as you go or wait for inspiration?

I most certainly wait for inspiration.

How do you write? Is there a certain ambience that has to be present?

I write at my best in the mornings and sometimes get a good 3-4 hours in but then when I’m writing something new I will go over it the following day. I prefer to write longhand and then I transfer it onto my computer when I’m happier with it. I do like a fountain pen but I don’t always have enough ink cartridges and I have to revert to a cheap Bic biro. Everywhere in my house are little notebooks where I can jot ideas.

With so many tools at our fingertips: self publication, creative writing courses, an instant society, what advice would you give to new potential writers, me included, who are in their early forties and looking to do something a little different and how to succeed?

I’d certainly recommend a creative writing course. I’m not mad on the MAs as they seem to turn people out very similarly although that is just my opinion. There are fine shorter courses which have been going for around twenty years. In London Morley College, Birkbeck and City Lit all do good courses and a real variety at that. A writing group is also good because your writing friends will move on and up too and you all help each other. And if you are good I do believe you’ll get picked up. A good original voice shines out. You might not be world famous or make loads of money but you will be published.

Finally any regrets from changing your life course at 42?

No. It has been fantastic. Best opportunity I ever took.        

    

As the interview drew to a close I popped the last bite of the mini Battenberg we relished as we spoke.

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It was a beautifully sunny January afternoon and we wrapped up and took a turn around the West Hill, loitered in the Old Town, had a revitalising glass of Sherry and traditional seaside fare at the aptly named Fagin’s.

I have learnt so much from Val during our acquaintance and hope to learn more and continue sharing our love of Sherry and Battenberg.

Val can be found at:

www.vglee.co.uk

Facebook: Vg Lee

Twitter: @vglee_lee

Or in person at the following upcoming events:

Tuesday 11th February – Have a Word at Latest Music Bar, 14-7 Manchester Street, Brighton, BN21TF – doors open at 7pm

Friday 28th February – Polari at the Southbank ‘Headliner VG Lee offers her unique take on life after sixty.’ Tickets and information www.southbankcentre.co.uk/whatson/polari-280214-80292

Lil and Armando

A couple of weeks ago I popped into my favourite local café in Crouch End and it was virtually empty. It was 10am and Crouch End was still waking up. The New Year had only just passed and it can take a couple of weeks for thriving society to emerge after the excesses of its festivities.

I ordered a large Assam tea, and a raspberry muffin from Armando the Spanish owner and took my book from my new leatherette man bag (an indulgent Christmas present to myself).

‘What you reading?’ came a voice from the corner.

I turned to see an older lady seated at one of the old wooden tables. She was the only other patron and was looking straight at me awaiting my response. She was wearing a woollen pinafore style patchwork dress over a white halter neck sweater. Her pure white curls poked through a silk headscarf. She had a polka dotted shopping trolley by her side with a walking stick jutting out. Her hand shook as she lifted her tea cup from its saucer and raised its steaming contents to her rosy red lips.

‘It’s by Tove Jansen called The Summer Book,’ I responded and smiled back.

‘Never heard of it. Is she English, the writer?’

‘No she’s Finnish.’

Armando appeared from the counter and delivered my tea served in a pot for one with a mismatched vintage cup and saucer, small stainless steel milk jug and spoon. The accompanying muffin also arrived on a 1950s flower-patterned china side plate.

‘Ah that’s why I haven’t heard of her then. Are you reading it in Finnish?’

‘No, it’s a translation. It’s a really good book about a girl, her grandmother and their interactions across a summer on a small Finnish Island.’

Armando stood with his arms folded between us watching this fledgling conversation develop.

The lady nodded and looked rather pensive as she put her cup back onto its saucer, picked up the teaspoon and gave it another stir.

‘The sugar hadn’t completely dissolved’ she said and I nodded my comprehension.

‘I’m Lil by the way.’

‘I’m Wayne,’ I replied with a smile.

‘So what do you do?’

I realised I wasn’t going to get much reading done, so I put my book down, stirred my pot and poured a cup of strong tea.

‘I’m a Sales Director and a part-time writer,’ I said and took a large bite of my freshly-baked muffin while I had the chance.

‘I used to write; children’s stories – just after the war. What do you write?’

‘I’m working on a number of short stories and a novella and I write a weekly blog. A blog is…’

‘I know what a blog is,’ Lil interjected. ‘I might be old but I’m neither senile nor computer illiterate. They taught us how to use the internet at the age group I go to. What’s the blog about?’

‘Well I’ve created this character that is an accentuation of me. It’s called Introspections of a Displaced Boulevardier and it’s about events I go to, and about living in Crouch End and London.’ I felt quite proud as I relayed the details.

‘What’s a Boulevardier?’

‘It’s a man about town, although remember I said displaced.’

Lil’s whole body gently shook with a stifled laugh as she looked me up and down.

‘Man about bloody town,’ she squawked with increased jollity looking both amazed and bemused. She grinned and lifted her teacup rattling the saucer as she did.

I smiled back and shrugged.

‘For instance I wrote about a weekend I spent on a Finnish Island with friends that I was reminded about when I started this book.’

‘You’ll have to give me the link thingie’ Lil said as Armando returned with her full English breakfast.

As Lil picked up her knife and fork and speared a locally grown organic tomato, and I took another bite of my muffin, Armando smiled and walked back towards the kitchen muttering while he fiddled with his apron strings.

‘What was that?’ Lil asked.

‘I said it seems as if you have both made a new friend today,’ Armando asserted.

Lil and I looked up a little unsure and then beamed simultaneously.

‘I think we have.’

‘Yes and he obviously needs some help with his bloody blog, ’ Lil said.

Had the Boulevardier inadvertently set up a new writers’ group? Would Armando let go of the apron strings? Time will tell…

TNW

Collecting in the pursuit of pleasure.

I recently pondered over a magazine article where the writer spoke of a collection of lovely curios. I sat back, with a tasty Oloroso, and wondered whether I should in fact start a collection. I do try to keep chez Boulevardier as minimal as possible and have to fight my urge to retain every item which crosses my threshold and build large piles of everything everywhere.

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Recently discovering the treasure trove that is Of Special Interest in Crouch End hasn’t done much to aid my goal of minimalism. On each and every visit I have returned home with candle holders, boxes for matches and a variety of different heighted cake stands.  I could say I collect items from this labyrinth of beauteous and shiny objects d’art.

What is behind collecting as a hobby? Is it just for the hoarder among us?

There is interestingly a psychology of collecting…

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The monetary value of the collection is rarely the drive and emotional worth surpasses. Collections allow collectors to relive their childhood, connect to historic times, to lessen anxiety of loss of self and to keep the past present.

Some love the adventure of hunting down rare items and treat it as a quest which is unlikely to ever be complete. Accumulating may also provide psychological refuge by replenishing some missed part of self or void of rational explanation.

Is this a modern hobby however? I was all ready for there to be no evidence of contemporary collecting and a leisure pursuit confined to the past overtaken by our instant culture. I considered whether people previously collected for the thrill of the chase with items being harder to attain. Today we have over one and a half billion online pages to shift through. We can navigate to Amazon or eBay and find millions of items for sale and shop worldwide. Had the thrill of the chase been lost? I decided to ask my motley crew of friends on Facebook.

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It seems that my multifarious collection of contributors are still, on the whole, avid collectors with their personal assemblages containing: old foreign coins, theatre tickets, theatre programmes, biscuits, train tickets, Beano annuals, vintage Barbies, black and white postcards (Herb Ritts), Star Wars figurines, pop and rock memorabilia, old unusual teapots, and stamps.

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The less serious collectors mentioned empty wine bottles, excess weight, fleas and political enemies! I’m not certain these held the same motives…

I also thought to check in with Mother who always liked a collection or two and she did not disappoint.

Mum: I do have a collection of glass paperweights, but had to stop as I ran out of room to display them and could see no point in keeping them in boxes.

Me: How many do you have?

Mum: Eight really special ones and another half dozen. I also have my collection of chocolate Labradors.

Me: And how many of those do you have Mum?

Mum: Seven and they are all in different poses and all have different names. I would have more if again I hadn’t run out of space.

Me: What makes you collect Mum?

Mum: Well usually an item takes my fancy and then one is not enough. A random purchase has quite often become a collection for me. Remember all the brass ornaments I had when you were young?

Me: Quite.

Mum: (on a roll now) And Dad has his collection of small China birds. They’re Beswicks and he has twenty one.

It would seem that collecting is in your Boulevardier’s blood, and aside from a half-cocked attempt at stamps when I was a child, this habit has evaded me. I really should collect more than clothes and artistic experience…

I could collect Dolly Mixture or Sherry, but suspect that my enjoyment is much greater in the consumption than the admiring. I did hanker after my lack of gravy boat several days ago and I might therefore try and resurrect the joys of the gravy boat through a collection.

Now if you would please excuse me I need to re-quiff my hair and frequent the local charity shops and vintage flea markets in pursuit of my first gravy boat!

TNW