Tag Archive: writing


My head is awash with thoughts and ideas -partly due to the fact that I’ve only had about 6 hours sleep in the last 48 hours, but partly due to being back in the mad melting pot of Dubai.

The journey from hell actually turned out to be not so bad – as in nothing went disasterously wrong. But blimey it was long.

I left Belfast at 5.30am and arrived (in real time) in Dubai at, I think around 11pm – but I’m not really sure to be honest. I had gone through two times zones, eaten a breakfast in Dublin, a lunch in Amsterdam and had dinner somewhere over Saudi Arabia. Flights were delayed and time began to concertina up and down in that way it does when you are exhausted, and when clocks cannot be relied apon. To complete the cultural overload, I watched The Great Gatsby on the plane. I was disappointed in the film, but it’s portrayal of times of excess and huge wealth – and the winners and losers – made me see another angle to my novel, The Game. In the post-conflict Iraq and Afghanistan of 2003/4, the booming economy generated by aid and contract wealth contrasted sharply with the searing poverty faced by everyday Iraqis and Afghans.

So finally I arrived at Dubai and handed my hotel booking sheet (with map) to an uncomprehending taxi driver, who shook his head and said he did not know it. Is it just me, or is it not the job of a taxi drivers to find the places you want to go? (Although because I’d booked the hotel dirt cheap on the internet, part of me was worried it actually didn’t exist.)

Eventually we got there and it became apparent why it was so cheap. The lobby, at 12.30am Dubai time, was throbbing with music and full of single men. It’s clearly not the place single western women stay.

But the staff were so sweet.

When I begged for a room away from the nightclub the receptionist gave me one on the 7th floor and said “I give you a very good room. I think you will find it the best room in the hotel, insh’allah.”

And it was fine, and I did get some sleep.

But in the morning things nearly went wrong, when I hit the wrong button on my mobile and silenced the alarm. My exhausted body lost consciousness until I resurfaced at  7.30am, time I was supposed to be leaving the hotel. So I missed breakfast and had to throw on my clothes, but I arrived at the airport with time enough for a cup of tea.

 

And there I sat and people-watched and marvelled anew at the differences and similarities in our multi-cultural world. Next to me sat a woman, clad from head to foot in black – the hijab (head covering), the full black cloak/dress, called an abaya, and a face-veil – niqab. She had with her two small children – a boy of about 5 and a girl of about 3. Both had been given huge sticky lollies to occupy them, while she sat engrossed in her ipad. Eventually a bit of the boy’s lolly broke off and fell on the floor and he picked it up, ready to put it back in his mouth.

“La! La! La! La!” she barked in Arabic – “No!” – and pointed at the bin. He then stood, out of her reach, and held the piece up to his mouth, sticking his tongue out, almost touching the piece of lolly,  watching her face as she grimaced and called “La!” again. It could have been any airport, anywhere in the world.

But as she sat, swathed in black, her little girl scampered around, dressed in the disturbingly sexualised clothes of a western child – a tiny flounced skirt, short enough to reveal a glimpse of her matching nappy knickers underneath. Eventually she wanted her mother’s attention and stood next to her saying:  ”Mama? Mama?”

When she got no response she stamped her foot – “Mama!” until her mother looked up.  On another seat a tiny girl began to have a tantrum, screaming, until her father pulled her onto his knee and began comforting her. And I wondered when do the lives of these girl children change, when do they cease to be able to express how they feel, and what they want.

And then I marvelled at the arrogance of that thought – as if in my culture women are not constrained.

Last night when I arrived at that hotel, I looked every inch the exhausted 45 year old woman. I was wearing my oldest most shapeless jeans and a loose t-shirt. I had no make-up on and my lank hair was pinned up.  Yet why do I even feel the need to be attractive? Because even in my culture, one of the most liberal in the world, women are still required to be decorative.

This morning I got up and chose carefully my Afghan dress – loose trousers, a new shalwar and matching headscarf. The hotel staff admired my outfit, and at the airport, as he checked my ticket, one of the security staff smiled and said: “You are very Asian dress.” Was that a compliment or not? I wasn’t sure. While in the queue to put our baggage through the scanner a woman with her hair bound under her head-scarf openly looked me up and down.

As a white woman wearing Asian or Middle-eastern dress you are in quandary; you don’t know whether people think you look ridiculous, or attractive, or too showy  and the whole experience took me right back. I spent most of the time when I lived in Afghanistan before having a constant internal debate about whether I should or should not be wearing a headscarf.  This morning brought all that back. I don’t have to dress like this, but I do out of respect for the country I am going to. Yet I don’t agree with the way that country treats women. And I don’t agree with women having to cover their hair, so why don’t I challenge that?

But my overriding feeling,  as I regarded the women of Dubai, was joy – joy at seeing the impossibility of disguising women’s beauty, no matter how hard repressive regimes try. As I waited in the queue at passport control, the only parts of the woman clerk examining my passport showing were her hands and her face. She was dark-skinned, almost African looking – maybe a Somali Muslim. I watched as she looked down at my passport, and her long eyelashes lay on her cheeks. She was wearing no makeup, she had no adornment on her abaya, but she was beautiful.

I’m in London – always stressful at the best of times I find – but I have (almost) finally got my Afghan visa. Today I trekked from the farthest reaches of the Northern Line to the grand residences of South Kensington and the Afghan embassy. It may be one of the most prestigious areas of one of the planet’s wealthiest cities, but the the peeling paintwork and scuffed walls of the embassy were a reminder that Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world. There I met the industrious woman who has been helping me apply for the visa, and handed over my passport. Now I have to go back on Thursday and then I am legal to go.

But even though I may not yet be physically on the road,  I am already feeling the culture lag. Last week I sat waiting for my appointment with the nurse at my doctor’s, in order for her to update my injections, and protect me against polio, tetanus, Hepititus A and Typhoid.  All of these injections were entirely free, despite the fact I have chosen to make this trip. And of course, they were all just topping up protection that I have already had all my life.

In Afghanistan, which still has one of the highest rates of child mortality in the world, one in 10 children dies before the age of five.

As I waited I flicked through the usual women’s magazines in the waiting room. My eye was caught by an article about a new beauty treatment – for your vagina. Apparently now you can have your labia ‘polished’ after waxing – for a handsome price of course.

In Afghanistan,  1 in 50 women will die during pregnancy or childbirth—one every 2 hours – more than almost any other country in the world. Nine out of ten women are illiterate, and life expectancy is 44, one of the lowest in the world.  Some of the women I will be meeting for the writing project will be lying to their families about what they are doing – because to write, for a woman, is shameful.

But somehow, in looking at the contrasts between their lives and ours, I’m more shocked by ours. The hedonism of spending the equivalent of a month’s salary in Kabul to make your vagina look like that of a child’s is, on so many levels, outrageous.

Of course, many women in the Uk and Ireland do not have the money for such luxuries. But I am starting to remember, when you visit places where the basic necessities of life, and basic rights we enjoy in the west, do not exist, just how much it teaches you about your own culture.

 

 

 

 

The creative zone chez Paul – where no one can hear you scream…

It’s a funny old thing, but when you are convinced you’ve always wanted to do something, and then you actually get to do it, sometimes the experience may not be quite what you expected. I hate that phrase – ‘Be careful what you wish for’, but like most hateful phrases, it has more than a grain of truth.

Could I be talking about writing a novel, I hear you cry? Well, maybe.

The first thing my course has taught me is that I have spent the last 38 odd years consuming books like fast food. When I used to travel for a living, I could read an average size novel in a day – a day of 14 hours of assorted aircraft journeys and endless queuing you understand. But even when my life settled down to a living-in-one-place, pile-of-books-by-the-bed type of existance I would still canter through novels. I would read anything and everything, seeing it as a challenge if I didn’t like a book. I’ve relaxed it now, because life’s too short, but for years I had a rule that if I started a book I had to finish it, no matter how long it took. And I truly believed that this huge consumption made me a literary expert. I’d read so much, I’d forgotten more books than most people had read.

But I’ve been brought up short.

Being asked to dissect passages of prose, not the themes mind, but the technique of the writing – and then asked what effect it has – has totally stumped me on more than one occasion. I’ve found myself mumbling like a fifteen year old English Lit pupil, “Erm, dunno, I just like it, like.” Suddenly, reading quickly and voraciously is not the skill I thought it was. Because while I have enjoyed probably 90 per cent of the books I have read, in my reading of every one of those books, I have been totally bewitched by the author. I am a novelist’s dream reader. I trust the narrative voice; I never question the way I’m being led through the novel, or what I’m being encouraged to think. Basically, a book has to be truly badly written before I even notice the way it’s written (any guesses?)

And when I talk about the way a book is written I don’t just mean the clever metaphors/ narrative voice/ passages of beautiful description type of thing - I mean things like the way the prose looks on the page. I mean the punctuation. I mean the typeface! Did you know that a novelist can choose to use single or double inverted commas to show speech? I thought there were rules to govern these type of things. But no, these are also ‘creative decisions’. Blimey.

So, while I knew writing would be hard work, and something one could be easily distracted from (hello blog) I had no idea I would be stumped by the mechanics. But really what did I expect? If it was easy I’d have done it by now. All these years that I’ve been saying ‘I will do it’, now I have to actually learn how to.

And the other strange thing? On some level, I don’t want to. I don’t want to unscrew all the nuts and bolts and take the back off and look at the workings. I remember when I started working in television and I learned the tricks of the trade when it came to filming and editing. Now when I watch some amazing footage I think ‘How did they get that shot?’ And in some ways I don’t want to unravel the mystic around the novel.

But, let’s face it, I am far from having to worry about that! The second big lesson from the course is to just get it down on the page – and keep on doing it – you can sort it all out later – but don’t even stop for a minute to think about later – just keep going. For the minute, that’s what I’m trying to do…

A new beginning

As the excellent political analyst Alan In Belfast asks,  http://alaninbelfast.blogspot.co.uk/  - does the world really need another blog? The answer to that is that it most definitely does need one like his, but it probably doesn’t need one like this quite so much!

However, that’s not going to stop me I’m afraid!

Having spent the last twenty years as a journalist, I have taken redundancy from my job with the BBC and made the mid-life-crisis like decision to return to university. But I’m not just studying any old course. Oh No. I am testing the life-long belief that all journalists have that they can write a novel, and I am studying towards an MA in Creative Writing.

This move has changed my life – and my buying habits – considerably. It’s an adventure, it’s a challenge, but it’s also something that I feel could decend very easily into cliche – a bit like my writing. However, although I am lucky enough to have chosen this, rather than to have had it thrust apon me, I suspect that the kinds of changes I am having to make will resonate with a lot of people. Whatever your circumstances I will bet that your life is not the same as it was two years ago. And increasingly I hear from people who still have the ability to make a choice, that they no longer want to live in the same way. So maybe these posts will have some relevance to others. I hope so.

But for now, let me entertain you with my experiences of being a student again! Although I am by no means the eldest in my classes, I am certainly among the oldest, and that includes the tutors. This was brought home to me forcibly when, during Freshers Week, I was handed  a free condom by a young woman advertising a night at a bar. Mutley, as my partner shall be known here, said, “Just the one? That’s not going to be much of a night…” But after I had chortled, it gave me a pang. If the university experience is about experimenting with sex, drugs and rock’n’roll – where does that leave you when you’re happily settled in a relationship, and can no longer drink more than a couple of glasses of wine??

Well, watch this space…

 

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