Masterclass

I’d missed Breakfast Club last week as I had booked a masterclass with VG Lee. I had the first public reading of my work at Polari Literary Salon approaching. I wanted, and needed, to immerse in Val’s advice and expertise.

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There had been one snag, and manoeuvring around it was not going to be pain-free. I’d forgotten to validate my non-attendance with Lil and had to call her to excuse myself, and as it transpired, beg forgiveness.

‘What do you mean, you forgot to mention it?’ asked a belligerent, which I interpreted as disappointed, Lil.

‘I got my weeks mixed up Lil,’ I added as much humility as I could muster.

‘I don’t understand why you need to go to hers on a Thursday. It’s very inconvenient. I’m an incredibly busy woman myself, but manage to make time for Breakfast Club.’

The line went quiet for a few moments. I was lost for words to assist in smoothing these choppy waters.

Lil was in no humour to wait for my response and continued, ‘I guess we’ll have to get along without you, but could you please make sure this doesn’t happen again Wayne.’

Having the last word, which wasn’t out of the ordinary, seemed to restore Lil’s inner peace and harmony.

I’d sent a text to Armando who’d asked no questions and replied in a civilised way. We usually shared a couple of texts every week, but I have to confess I hadn’t been as proactive in starting conversations since Lil’s crush theory. I’m sure she was mistaken, but equally I didn’t want to deliver false hope.

The café door was propped open as we were in the middle of a heat wave. The two small tables outside were occupied by patrons looking as if they wished it were cooler. I’m not going to moan about the heat, as I love it, however, we are not equipped to deal with it in the UK – there is no escape. I’m not suggesting for one moment that we should invest in environmentally unfriendly air-conditioning units at home for the few unbearably hot days and nights we have each year. It’s similar to those who bemoan the country grinding to a halt in the snow and make comparisons with Canada (who spend most of the winter feet-deep in the white stuff). We have a few days of extreme weather each season and should grin and bear with our upper lips stiff and intact.

Lil was at our table with Gisela – Armando was nowhere to be seen. I walked across the café, which was mostly empty. I greeted them both with a gentle kiss on the cheek.

‘Armando.’ Lil shouted at the kitchen wall, ‘he’s turned up this week. Breakfast Club is in session.’

‘I’m sorry I missed last week. How have you been? And nice to see Gisela too,’ I said.

‘Guten Morgan,’ said Gisela in a firm tone. I couldn’t work out if this was irritation or a formal Germanic timbre.

‘Yes, fine thank you Wayne. The world does continue to spin in your absence,’ said Lil and roared with laughter. Gisela tittered too. Armando arrived with a beautiful 1950s large family teapot decorated with a dandelion design and four cups on a simple wooden tray.

Judith followed Armando to take our order. Lil’s appetite hadn’t been suppressed by her irritation as she ordered a full English, Gisela pain au chocolat and I followed suit. Armando settled for a blueberry muffin.

‘Gone all continental have we Boulevardier?’ said Lil.

‘I ordered the same as Gisela,’ I said.

‘I thought it might be because you’re spending all that extra time closer to France – in Hastings,’ said Lil. Gisela and Armando sniggered. Lil was on fire and I hoped that we were bantering and joking. I decided to play along.

‘Val sends her regards Lil,’ I said.

‘Who?’ said Lil. She knew exactly who I meant.

‘Val, VG Lee,’ I answered and smiled directly at her.

‘Does she indeed. How very jolly of her…’ Lil compressed her lips in disapproval. I wasn’t done with her yet.

‘How are you getting on with her novel, you know, the one she signed for you.’

‘I’ve only read a couple of chapters and it’s annoyingly good,’ said Lil and cackled appropriately.

‘Is this conversation only for two people?’ asked Gisela.

‘Usually,’ said Armando.

I waved my white flag symbolically and lifted the enormous yet delicate teapot and filled the expectant cups with refreshing and pacifying fluid.

‘I guess I should be well-mannered and ask if you had a productive day with her?’ said Lil.

‘It was great thanks. Hard work as always but I’ve shortlisted the pieces I’m going to read at Polari Literary Salon at the Southbank next month.’

‘It’s not all mini-Battenbergs then?’ asked Lil with a little more banter in her tone.

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‘No, we did however have a cake break, and the best part of a couple of bottles of wine with dinner,’ I said and started to laugh. Armando started to laugh too but we were both stopped mid-titter.

‘Are you telling me that you went to Hastings to “work” and ended up getting drunk?  What a pair of bloody lushes,’ said Lil. I suspected friendly conversation had expired, which was confirmed when an enormous and earthquake-creating tut followed. Gisela’s tut echoed.

‘I’m disappointed Wayne. I wrote a couple of children’s books and you don’t ask me for advice,’ added Lil. Gisela and Armando were silent.

Breakfasts arrived which provided a welcome break in the conversation.

‘Come on Lil, that was in the 50s and Val is my friend too.’ Goodness Lil was ridiculously possessive sometimes and she’d sulked so much, and to the point of making me cross. I picked up my croissant and deliberately tore a corner dramatically and thrust it in my mouth and only then looked across the table.

Lil hadn’t picked up her knife and fork and looked a little watery around the eyes. I didn’t know why I’d let her rile me and mirrored in response. I assume it’s because I care and don’t like to upset her. However, I had to remember that she was an elderly lady who’d recently gone through some traumatic events.

‘Don’t let it get cold Lil. You’ll need your strength for next week’s celebrations,’ I said and reached over and put my hand across hers.

‘You remembered,’ Lil said and picked up her cutlery and started urgently slicing through a chunky pink rasher.

‘Yes, and don’t forget it’s a birthday picnic in the park,’ said Armando, ‘Gisela has promised some authentic kuchen.’

Gisela nodded and MMmm’ed through the chocolate centre of her pastry.

‘Is Filippe coming Armando?’ asked Lil.

‘Who’s Filippe?’ I asked.

‘Armando has a new fella Wayne. You shouldn’t miss Breakfast Club and you might not be out of date,’ sparred Lil.

She had a point.

‘No he can’t make it, he’s a-working,’ said Armando.

‘What does he do?’ I asked casually trying to subtlety bring myself up to speed.

‘He’s a window cleaner,’ answered Armando.

I nodded my support that Armando was moving on from Jason.

Gisela’s remaining piece of pastry was causing her some difficulty and ‘scheisse’ was declared as the chocolate shot out from the side of her mouth and into Lil’s cup.

This was to be a long Breakfast Club.

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Easter Escapades

Lil was on her own as I entered the café the week after Easter. I hoped that all was well as Bill should have been back from an Easter visit to his family. Armando was not in sight.

I greeted Lil with a kiss on her rosy cheek. She was wearing a rather glamorous sparkling grey sweater. The pink of her hair was fading.

‘How was your Easter Lil?’ I asked.

‘It was satisfactory,’ Lil said without emotion.

‘How’s Bill?’

‘Still at his daughters. He decided to extend the visit. I don’t mind. I’ve quite enjoyed the peace and quiet. If you don’t expect anything from anyone then they can’t disappoint you.’ Lil pursed her lips and I knew it would not be wise to pursue this topic of conversation.

Armando appeared and explained that he wouldn’t be able to join us today as the main oven was on the blink, or rather ‘in the blink’ as he said. Don’t you just love it when those who don’t have English as their first language pick up little phrases and then get a word or two wrong?

‘Did you enjoy your chocolate Easter Bunny Lil that Armando and I got you?’

‘Ooooo yes thanks, I ate it on Sunday. In fact I ate it all. It left me feeling queasy. I forgot to ask whether you and Michael have a good time in Hastings? Did you go and see that author friend of yours again?’

‘Yes it was great. Shall we order breakfast and then I’ll tell you all about it?’

‘I suppose so,’ Lil answered. I was starting to get the impression that she hadn’t had a good Easter, but there was no real reason why. Armando had invited her to eat at the café which she declined, and her Age Group also had lots of pre-arranged Easter activities.

With breakfast ordered – a full English for Lil and porridge with blackberries for me – we settled.

‘We arrived mid-afternoon Friday and went straight to the front to get a late lunch. We were desperate for fish and chips. What is it about arriving at the seaside, hearing the rush of the tide and the vile gulls and needing to satisfy a need for fish and chips irrespective of the time of day?’

I laughed at my comment, which I thought was quite funny. Lil looked down and stirred her tea. I wasn’t being silenced that easily.

‘I think it’s because you hope the fish was caught minutes before it’s fried. It’s almost an involuntary action. Although it was quite funny when I visited my aunt in Norfolk a couple of years back and we went for fish and chips on the front to find a sign informing us that the ‘fresh sustainable fish’ was ‘from Iceland.’’

‘They only sell frozen fish in Iceland,’ said Lil with a smirk. She was toying with me and I’d play along.

‘The country not the shop you ninny.’

Lil cackled.

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‘We then drove up to the West Hill and went for a lovely walk across its expanse and the neighbouring streets.’

Lil made a ‘hmmm’ sound, and while she wasn’t encouraging me to continue she was at least listening and so on I went.

‘The people are so friendly and everyone says “hello” and shares a little story – ’

‘What do you mean?’ interrupted Lil.

‘Well for instance there was an unusual display in a big bay window along St Mary’s Terrace and Michael and I were pondering whether it was a shop, a home or something else. A lady appeared from next door and explained that the residents liked to have a big display window at the front of the house for passers-by to appreciate. She also said that it used to be a pub, hence the large display window at the front. We wished each other a happy Easter and carried on our walk.’

‘Hmmmm. I see,’ said Li. I’m not sure Lil was enjoying my story much as it didn’t involve her. Her face changed and she looked happier as her breakfast arrived.

‘Shall I continue?’ I asked. Lil nodded, head down as she salted her steaming plate.

‘We then went to Val’s house.’

‘Is she the author?’ asked Lil.

‘Yes, and she lives on the West Hill. We enjoyed drinks and a vegetarian feast.’

‘With a sausage?’ Lil asked and let out an enormous cackle.

‘No sausages Lil thank you very much. After a fine night’s sleep we left Val and took the West Hill Funicular down to the Old Town and walked along the seafront to St Leonards. There is a massive block of flats on the front called Marine Court which is built to look like a ship from the beach. We walked onto the beach and I asked Michael if he thought it looked like a ship and he said “no” and that was that.

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St Leonards has a very upandcoming young artist vibe, perhaps akin to Dalston about ten years ago. We had coffee in a delightful small gallery.

“Two Americanos please. Do you have skimmed milk?” I’d asked.

“No we don’t, sorry,” the young server dressed like a Hackney boy with a chequered quilted jacket and floppy hair had answered.

“Semi-skimmed then.”

“We don’t have that either.”

After I’d said that full milk would have to do the server had exclaimed “Oh no.” and had clutched his hands over his mouth.

“Please don’t tell me you’ve no milk,” I’d asked.

“I’ve got milk, but I just realised the guy I just served asked for soya milk and I gave him normal milk. What if he’s allergic?” the server continued.

“Well at least you have some milk,” I’d said. The server hadn’t looked best pleased at my lack of compassion for the poor man who was probably lying in the street clutching his throat.’

‘Well you could have shown a little more empathy Boulevardier,’ said Lil and chortled with a subterranean tone.

‘Hmmmm.’ I moved on with my story. ‘The curiosity and antique shops are amazing Lil. Think of Camden Lock Market 15 years ago. I actually said so to one of the owners and she’d said it was what they were going for. Despite this she didn’t have a decent antique gravy boat and my hunt continues.

We checked into the Swan House, a beautiful Bed and Breakfast in the Old Town and after resting, and looking in more Curiosity Shops, despite Michael suggesting that I’d looked in plenty, we went to Webbes, a fish restaurant on the front with Val for dinner –‘

‘Why did you meet her again? I thought you’d seen her the previous day,’ Lil said as she put down her cutlery with a clank.

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‘We did but we were also having dinner on the Saturday evening too. The restaurant is lovely – ’

‘How old is she again?’ interrupted Lil.

‘Early sixties I think. Why?’

‘I don’t understand why you had to go away at Easter…’ Lil faded away.

I’d pushed my stories too far. I did have something for Lil and I’d left it too long in presenting her with it. I reached into my manbag and pulled out a copy of VG Lee’s Always You Edina and pushed it across the table.

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‘Val asked me to give you a copy of her latest novel Lil.’

Lil picked up the book and looked at the cover. She looked up at me and asked ‘How does she know who I am?’

‘She reads my blog Lil.’

‘Then she doesn’t really know as you have a tendency to extend the truth.’

‘Michael always says I exaggerate stories,’ I said.

‘He sounds sensible. Perhaps I’ll meet him,’ said Lil.

Lil pursed her lips, put the book down and took out her reading glasses. She opened the first couple of pages and read a few lines and smiled. She then immediately put the book down again, but carefully, by the side of her bag and looked at me.

‘What is that silly flouncy item around your neck?’

‘It’s a spring scarf,’ I said.

‘Is it new?’

‘Yes, I got it in Hastings. Don’t you like it?’

‘Humph! Did VG help you choose it?’

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

We are not amused

As I walked along the seafront I noticed a couple hurrying into an amusement arcade. She clutched her handbag tightly along with her husband’s arm as they entered the almost empty funhouse. They wore desperate faces and shabby clothes and not in a chic way. It was mid-summer. Where was everyone else?

I glanced deeper in from a safe distance and saw a handful of living bodies pumping coins into slots. Why are these establishments called Amusement arcades? No one appeared to be having any fun. I wondered whether I should call the trade descriptions police.

Amusement arcades have been part of the English seaside for as long as I can remember. As a child I wiled away the hours on holiday deftly slotting 1p and 2p coins into shove ha’penny (or Penny Falls dependent upon your preference) hoping that my coin would be the catalyst to push hundreds of others from their precarious ledge and into my tray.

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That was amusement, and maybe it’s because I was younger and less aware, but the places bustled and everyone seemed to be having fun. I checked with my mother and she thinks enjoyment at arcades is age dependent! Apparently my parents used to ‘enjoy’ watching me having fun but didn’t enjoy the noise, heat, flashing lights and claustrophobia. Mum averred that enjoyment dissipates with increasing years.

The entire front of the buildings are always wall less to provide maximum entry opportunities, and to entice customers with bright flashing lights, electronic beeps and sometimes if you’re lucky the Grease Megamix blasting at you.

As I grew into my childhood I loved the holiday arcades more. I am not sure my parents appreciated the constant request for money. The digital age was moving forward apace, and I wanted to play Asteriods, Pacland, and Star Wars costing more per turn that the penny arcades. I remember climbing into an X wing fighter with Obi Wan Kenobi telling me to ‘Use the Force Luke’. I didn’t really pay attention to the fruit or slot machines. The only slot I played was with my parents. The house rarely won and I often hit the jackpot!

Awareness increases with age and maturity and I started to see another side, perhaps the more sinister one. People were alive, but acted as zombies as they hit the ‘spin’ button to win the elusive jackpot. Rarely did their clothing or demeanour say they had the spare funds to commit so much to chance. Their faces yearned and willed the win. Would it release their trancelike state?

Is there a sinister element? I am not sure but I still feel something odd when I approach and enter.

In every arcade without fail is a change booth. This booth, often caged, is invariably staffed by an unhappy looking employee who hadn’t yet been on a customer service course, and didn’t yet deal in pleasantries.

A request would be made. ‘50ps worth of 2s please.’

The cashier would push keys on their till and 25 2p pieces excitedly hurtled down the slide into the tray at the front. The sound was remarkably like a jackpot hitting the winnings tray. Anticipation raised. Clever marketing really.

As I grew, so did the depth of my own pockets and the available funds to travel. Norfolk was humbled and I was off to Las Vegas. The glitz, the glamour and promises of fortunes surrounded by big name shows, elite shops and trendy pumping bars and clubs.

And there you find casinos rather than amusement arcades. But are they really that different? There are rows of cashiers rather than a single change booth employee but they wear the same expression and exude the same attitude. And yes of course some of the patrons are dripping in diamonds (and that’s just the men) plunging the craps dice down the silky felt of the table, but look a little further out to the sides and rows of fruit machines. There you will find shabby zombies pushing their plastic cups loaded with quarters into the slots. These slots equally promise life changing jackpots.

In Vegas however you can spot the same individuals at the machines when you go to bed as when you get up. They wear the same clothes and expressions. Vegas is happy to help you spend twenty four seven.

I am not sure if it’s just the Boulevardier outside his comfort zone or whether these sinister establishments prey on the weak willed. This applies equally to the multimillion Vegas casinos and shabby seaside arcades…

Either way the house always wins.

TNW

A Few Days Away

Last Sunday I was enjoying a lovely cup of Assam in bed perusing the weather predictions for the next few days, and of course in true UK style it said ‘unsettled’. I had a few days off work and planned to travel to Essex and then the South Coast. I pulled my black leather holdall from atop the wardrobe and went to shower. As Arrow’s Hot Hot Hot blasted from my docking station, I realised that whilst only a few days away, I would need a suitcase and a multitude of outfits, due to the weather. See previous blog regarding packing to understand my thought process here…

With a rather heavy suitcase packed I drove to Sible Hedingham, where I spend a beautiful afternoon and evening with great friends. We caught up over several Tanqueray and tonics and a couple of bottles of wine. The weather was stunning and we sat in the garden right through into the evening.

I had arranged bed and breakfast at a local farm, and walked back there at midnight. Unfortunately a Boulevardier sometimes forgets that outside of London, and particularly in the country, streetlamps don’t light your every step. The vague light of occasional yellow streetlamps provided little assistance along the unknown path.

I made it back unscathed and heard conversation in the lounge, but went straight up the stairs to a beautiful twin room and to bed.

I woke to the sound of cocks crowing. At 5am! I managed to get back to sleep and had planned breakfast at 8.30. The hostess had asked the previous day when I wanted breakfast and I therefore came down as planned. She informed me it would now likely be 8.45am, to coincide with the other residents, as bacon tasted so much better when freshly cooked. I took a turn around the lounge, and was thankful that there was a nip in the air and we were not having breakfast outside, as there was a horrid chicken and three chicks parading in the back garden. This Boulevardier has an absolute and irrational fear of all feathered creatures. And I am not sure why anyone would want them in the back garden in any event!

At 8.45 on the dot breakfast was announced, and I was guided into the kitchen diner and welcomed to the head of the long heavy oak table. There were to be four other guests and we were to have breakfast at the same table. I braced myself for morning conversation with strangers.To the garden side there was not a wall but heavy concertinaed double-glazed glass doors, which were open, and therefore only a few feet between me and the bloody chickens. I tried to not raise too much panic in my voice but left the hostess in no doubt that the doors needed to be closed urgently! She left the bacon and hurriedly sealed my safety while giving me an odd side look. She did not share my fear of would be killers!

I sat and braced myself for the arrival of fellow diners, and first through the door were two teenagers, who from their dishevelled appearance had literally fallen from bed to the table. This did not stop their polite chatter. They were followed by two men. We all introduced ourselves and set out reasons for our trips. The two boys were not brothers but travelling with their respective fathers who were both previously married, divorced and now married to each other. I was pleased to see the ‘New Normal’ family unit so comfortably shared outside the acceptance of the Metropolis.

With a full stomach and some great tunes I donned my Ray Bans and travelled the short distance to Bury St Edmunds to have a lovely long lunch catch up with an old school friend. We had not seen each other for over 20 years, but the years melted away. There was no awkwardness which time apart can sometimes create. We chatted and the hours elapsed all too quickly. With promises of meeting up again soon, I was back in the car and on the longer journey to Hastings.

My hotel choice was somewhere between 2 and 3 star, so I was not expecting luxury. The reception area was pleasant enough, and after checking in and being shown to my room I realised there were no towels! This was quickly remedied after a trip to reception, but really no towels! Pretty fundamental I thought, and hoped this was not a harbinger for my stay.

To assist with recovery I needed some liquid refreshment, and fortune shined upon me as I had arranged to meet the author VG Lee for a rather large gin and tonic on the lovely hotel terrace. There was no Tanqueray but Bombay Sapphire sufficed.

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We then promenaded along the promenade enjoying the evening sun. In fact the unsettled weather wasn’t really unsettled at all. Indeed it had been rather pleasant.

VG recommended a fish restaurant, Webbes. After perusing a vast menu we made our choices, accompanied, obviously, by a good bottle of wine. We both decided on fresh battered haddock and chips. This was served with mushy peas which VG did not want. It was a rather entertaining conversation which ensued with the student waiter.

‘Is there an alternative to mushy peas by any chance?’

‘They only come in a small ceramic pot on the side of the plate.’

‘That’s fine, but I don’t want them. I wondered if there is an alternative.’

Blank look from waiter. I looked at the menu and suggested that there were green beans as a side dish.

‘Yes,’ said VG ‘Could I please have a few green beans in place of the mushy peas?’

‘Green beans are a side dish.’

‘Yes I know. I wondered if I could substitute the mushy peas for a few green beans.’

‘They are a side dish and come in a separate dish, so you would need to order them in addition.’

VG ordered her side dish and the waiter left the table. We both joked at the service, which wasn’t bad, but VG wasn’t asking for gold plate, but a few cheap, regular green beans. Our evening continued in a jolly fashion and we shared many laughs, complemented by delicious fresh food, and a second bottle of wine. I was led astray by VG.

We watched the sun set, and with it the other patrons and tables gradually disappear. Apparently life in Hastings stops at 10pm on a Monday. How quaint I thought while mentally noting that this would not suit a Boulevardier on a regular basis.

We walked back a little tipsy. We passed the ironically named New Town. Ironic as it’s Victorian!

The next morning I went down to breakfast, which was not included in the room rate. There is a 20% breakfast discount to residents which I thought strange as the hotel restaurant and bar is advertised as only being open to residents between 11pm and 12pm. I decided to investigate with the reception.

‘Good morning. Why is there an advertised 20% discount to residents for breakfast?’

‘Good morning. We like to give a special deal to all our guests.’

‘Is breakfast available all day then?’

‘No, only until 11am.’

‘But your sign indicates that only residents are allowed in the restaurant until 12pm’

‘Yes.’

‘Midday?’

‘No, midnight.’

‘But midnight is 12am!’ I did enjoy pointing out in a lovely humble manner.

‘Oh no,’ she laughed ‘we’ve been using that sign for months, and were wondering why the morning trade had fallen off! Thank you so much for pointing it out.’

With a good deed completed before 9am and the sunshine and only a gentle sea breeze I walked out onto the front terrace and ordered a tea (no Assam) and a vegetarian breakfast. I looked out to sea and watched a distant tanker far out at sea and a solitary closer sail boat drift by.

Two other older couples joined me on the terrace. The ones closest to me talked rather loudly, and as I speared a grilled tomato revealed to his companion the level to which his wound was oozing that morning… I do think a Boulevardier should be entitled to his own terrace, so as not to suffer such ear violence.

Before heading back to the sanctity of Crouch End I had one final day catching up with a lovely friend in Goring. The unsettled weather stayed away and we enjoyed a lovely beach walk and afternoon tea with massive cream cakes. I am partial to a cream slice.

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We were Weight Watching, or rather watching our weight increase! Next week I will definitely be enjoying, or enduring, depending on your perspective – lettuce leaves only…

TNW