The May Queen by Helen Irene Young

Helen Irene Young’s The May Queen is a gently profound novel which explores secrets, love and family ties against the backdrop of a Gloucestershire village and London during the Blitz. It isn’t your typical Second World War romance novel, though; it’s a more literary novel showing the coming-of-age of its narrator, May Thomas. If you’re not expecting the dramatic twists and turns and heightened emotions that often feature in Second World War romances, and prepare yourself for a more gently-paced, reflective novel which ultimately delivers more value, I think you’ll find this one to savour.

Although The May Queen opens immediately to a scene of conflict and tension – May’s sister Sophie has brought shame on the family by getting pregnant out of wedlock – the world Young introduces us to seems idyllic and innocent. May’s life in the country village of Fairford revolves around trips to the Big House to visit her father who’s the gardener, making her costume for the village fair, and cycling around on her bicycle delivering goods from the village shop. As her name suggests, May feels an affinity with nature – she’s awarded the accolade of The May Queen at the fair – and her love of being in the water recurs as a motif throughout the novel.

After Sophie disappears to have her daughter, Honor, May becomes attracted to the son of the occupants of the Big House, Christopher, despite the class difference between them. When May’s parents catch on to her closeness with Christopher, they fear she is going the same way as her sister; this leads May to have suspicions about who Honor’s father might be – but she still can’t quite bring herself to avoid the charming Christopher. The first half of the novel is slow, but there are quiet secrets bubbling under the surface, a sense that something isn’t quite right. Before these secrets can rise to the surface, though, we’re thrown into the midst of another conflict: the Second World War breaks out and May moves to London to become a Wren.

The contrast between the two halves of the novel is effective. While the first half is quiet, gentle and picturesque, the London section is noisy, frantic and dangerous. May trades in her bicycle for a motorcycle, roaring around the streets of London to deliver dispatches with bombs falling around her. I didn’t know much about the Wrens so enjoyed learning more about how women served during the war (which was very inspiring). As the bombs fall May loses people close to her, but Young recreates the Blitz spirit: May picks herself up and gets on with life, revealing a quiet inner strength. She attracts the attention of a sailor, John, but never feels able to fully commit to the relationship – John’s character seems distant, but it feels like an intentional projection of May’s feelings towards him – and the memory of her relationship with Christopher never leaves her. May eventually returns to Fairford and Sophie’s secret resurfaces at the end of the novel, which has an ambiguous ending with a note of hope I appreciated. Real life doesn’t have neat resolutions, after all.

In its exploration of a misunderstanding which disrupts an outwardly idyllic world and reverberates through the years that follow, The May Queen reminded me a little of McEwan’s Atonement, especially with its gently reflective literary tone. I loved Young’s voice, which captures May’s dialect not just in her dialogue but in the way she thinks and observes the world around her. Young also uses some particularly beautiful and unusual turns of phrase which I had to re-read. I enjoyed the fact the novel takes a different approach to the war, using it as a backdrop for May’s emotional journey rather than the focal point. This is an elegant debut and I’m looking forward to seeing more from the author!

The May Queen is published by Crooked Cat Books – support the indies! More information here: http://www.crookedcatbooks.com/product/the-may-queen/ 

Emma’s 2017 adventures, part three: Cyprus

I’m making good progress towards my new year’s resolution to visit four new countries in 2017. I’ve just visited my third: Cyprus. And it’s only April!

I hadn’t planned on going to Cyprus, but the opportunity arose and, unless I’m totally broke, I’ll never say no to visiting a new country. Cyprus hadn’t been on my hit list either, because to be honest I’d always associated it with the kind of beach-and-clubbing holiday I would actually find less enjoyable than being at work. I’m glad I went, though, because Cyprus has so much more to offer than just Ayia Napa.

My friend and I had decided that this was going to be one of those holidays without a packed itinerary; in fact, we had a strong anti-itinerary agenda. We didn’t even want to plan what time we woke up each morning: a day without an alarm set on my phone is the ultimate luxury for me. When the weather wasn’t great on our first day in Cyprus, we didn’t stress out, but took the opportunity to hang out on the balcony of our house with a guitar and write songs about vegetables. Yes, that’s right. I won’t tell you why we did this but needless to say genius happened.

The next day was gloriously sunny, so we headed out to see the sights. We were staying in Limassol, which isn’t one of the beach resort areas, but it’s easy to drive anywhere on the island within a couple of hours. Lovelier than the beaches, in my opinion, are the Troodos mountains in the centre of the island, which we explored on our first ‘proper’ day. We drove up into the mountains – just enjoying cruising past the beautiful, Game-of-Thronesy views as I called them – until we stopped at the start of the Caledonia falls walking trail. Strolling through the dappled light of a forest and clambering over rocks beside tumbling waters was the perfect antidote to the London commuter life I’d been desperate to escape for weeks.

20170409_130435
The Caledonia Falls

There are also dozens of beautiful monasteries nestled in the mountains, though you’re not allowed to go inside many of them; we walked around the grounds of one, until our explorations were cut short by a miniature disaster: a mosquito-bite-gone-wrong, an eyelid so swollen children cowered in the supermarket as we desperately searched for antihistamines, and an impromptu trip to the hospital. I won’t treat you to a picture of that one. It was an adventure, to say the least, though not the kind we were expecting!

We’d had a good dose of nature, so the next day was culture’s turn. A short drive from Limassol is the Kourian archaeological site, well worth the visit if you’re in the area. During the Roman period Kourion was an important coastal city in Cyprus; it was destroyed by several devastating earthquakes, rebuilt in the 5th century, but then raided by Arabs in the 7th century and completely obliterated. It was interesting to see the ruins of a house destroyed by the earthquakes, where the bones of a family plus their horse were found, and where you can still see the horse’s stone trough torn in two by the force of the quake. You can also see the remains of a palace, the Agora, a theatre, the gladiators’ barracks and baths. Once we were ruined out (I’m going to say it: most ruins look the same after a while) we had lunch on the beach nearby: halloumi, iced coffee, views of the Mediterranean and a side helping of smugness.

After lunch we hit the road again and headed somewhere that I hoped would be close to heaven for me: St Nicholas Monastery of the Cats, a monastery surrounded by hundreds of cats, supposedly brought over from Egypt to rid the island of snakes. I’m not sure if my readers know the full extent of my feelings towards cats, but let’s just say I shout ‘cat!’ and point like a five-year-old every time I see one – which in Cyprus was a lot. I only saw about twelve, and they all refused to be fussed over or take selfies with me, which was disappointing. It’s a tranquil monastery, but I’d say that unless you like cats as much as the loser pictured below, you’d probably prefer to spend your time elsewhere.

20170410_155602
CATS CATS CATS

Our final tourist stop that day was Kolossi Castle, a small castle on the outskirts of Limassol containing odd, uncontextualized art installations which blew my mind with their profundity. It has an interesting history – built by the Hospitallers as a Crusader stronghold – and is a pleasant forty-five minute stop. We loved the herb gardens surrounding the castle; rosemary bushes gave the air a sweet fragrance which made just sitting in the sunshine with our eyes closed breathing a deeply therapeutic thing. We finished off the day chilling out on the beach with books and a guitar, though we decided not to blow the minds of the general public with our extreme jealously-invoking talent for composing vegetable-related ditties.

We loved the Troodos mountains so much that we went back the next day for an even longer walk. If you really love nature and inadequate toilet facilities, you could spend several days camping there (can you tell I’m not a camping fan?). This time we tackled the Artemis nature trail, a 2.5 hour circular walk around the top of Mount Olympus, through black pine forests and across rocky precipices that made me feel, just briefly, as if I were on some epic Lord of the Rings-style quest. Who would’ve thought it, there was snow too – you can even go skiing in Cyprus. The walk was breathtakingly beautiful, although our main memory of it is getting terribly lost and me getting heatstroke. It took my friend bursting out of the trees and running into the road, flailing her arms to stop a passing car, for us to discover that we were actually a fifteen-minute walk from where we’d parked our car… nailed it. Definitely do the walk, but definitely don’t get lost.

20170411_123605
The Artemis trail in the Troodos mountains

After our traumatic fight-for-survival in the wilderness we felt we deserved a treat, and so instead of cooking we went for dinner in Limassol Marina that evening. The Marina, with its yachts moored in the glassy water and its luxury flats, bars and restaurants – including a KFC that almost managed to look posh – is a world of its own, and a cool, lively place to spend an evening drinking cocktails and eating fancy seafood. It was the ideal way for us to see off our last full day in Cyprus, and to relax after a holiday that featured several unexpected adventures!

It was a fleeting visit to Cyprus, and I certainly could have stayed longer had I not had a wedding to get back to England for. There was plenty we didn’t get around to doing – more ruins to ramble, more cats to harass, more beaches to lounge on, more mezze to eat – and Troodos alone could have kept me happy for several days. And of course, since I’ll be 30 in the not-too-distant future, I’d better squeeze in that Ayia Napa clubbing package holiday before I’m totally past it.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Never have I emerged from a play feeling physically battered, but that’s how I felt after seeing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Harold Pinter theatre on Saturday (battered in a good way, if that’s possible). Admittedly I was feeling more tender than usual due to having just been on a 5.5 hour wine tasting course where there was no spittoon, but in a way that helped me to relate to the play’s characters, who knock back an astounding number of drinks over the course of the action.

The play takes place in the early hours of the morning in the home of George and Martha, a history professor and his wife, the daughter of the president of the college. They’ve just returned from a faculty party and have invited a younger couple, Nick and Honey, a professor in the biology department and his ‘mousey’ wife, to continue the party at theirs. Nick and Honey are sucked into George and Martha’s toxic relationship; as more drinks are consumed the couples grow increasingly disordered, the arguments escalate and both marriages unravel. The entire play takes place in the living room, a drab, pistachio-coloured incubator for bitterness, resentment and disappointment. Yes, it’s a heavy play, but the dialogue is so full of wit and energy that it’s never a drag.

I loved this production. What astounded me most is how the characters’ conversations flow so naturally – exactly the way you’d imagine an increasingly drunken conversation at a party would unfold – in a way that reveals everything you need to know about the characters, their relationships and their pasts, without being clunky. For this writer, it was a masterclass in dialogue. It builds towards the climax – the revelation about George and Martha’s absent son, who always hovers awkwardly on the edge of conversation – with a sense of inevitability. Remember those times you’ve stayed later than you should have done at a party, long after the fun has departed, watching a friend (or yourself) getting drunker, knowing humiliation is coming but doing nothing to stop it? That.

Imelda Staunton plays Martha, and it would be easy to say she steals the show, swerving between vivaciousness and charm, Medusa-like seductiveness, banshee-screeching and child-like vulnerability – but she was perfectly matched by Conleth Hill as George. He is a cantankerous old history professor on steroids: from the get-go he eviscerates Nick, who threatens him as a representation of science and progress as opposed to George’s fusty old world of history. Martha, on the other hand, he treats with ironic scorn, knowing exactly how to get under her skin. Just when you feel he’s being too cruel, she retaliates with an attack so brutal he’s again reduced to a tweedy, ineffectual object of pity. Their toxicity infects Nick and Honey, who begin as an immaculately dressed golden couple glowing with youth and end looking as if they’ve gone through several rounds in a boxing ring. The actors playing Nick and Honey play it fairly safe, but perhaps that’s what makes them the perfect foil for George and Martha.

Nick and Honey aren’t merely victims: their marriage has its own fatal flaws which are brought out of the woodwork by their night with Martha and George, and in a twisted way I felt as if the older couple were doing them a favour by sparing them years of simmering resentment. As the younger couple stagger home and dawn light streams in through the window, you get the sense that Martha and George have thrashed their way towards a stark truth, where delusions have been shattered and a bitter cycle has finally been broken. It’s not exactly a hopeful ending, but it is resolution.

There’s not much to dislike about this production. It’s an astonishingly well-written play starring four strong actors, staged in a simple way which allows these elements to come to the forefront: what could have gone wrong? The play is running until the end of May and you should see it, though I wouldn’t recommend trying thirteen glasses of wine beforehand if you don’t want to come out feeling emotionally in shreds!

Writing update: owning it, and second draft torture

I get embarrassed talking about writing. When people ask me how my novel’s going, I assume they’re just being polite, blush and mumble and change the subject, or I downplay things: ‘Yeah, it’s coming along OK, but it might not go anywhere so I’m trying to just enjoy writing for its own sake…’ I’m afraid people will think I’m arrogant and pretentious, or just a bore (‘Oh, you’re writing a novel? You haven’t mentioned that before!’). Most of all, I’m afraid of setting myself up for an embarrassing failure. I’ve been talking about writing for years. If I don’t get published people will think I must be really bad and, even worse, pitiably deluded about my ability to string a sentence together.

Recently, a friend pointed out that I’m constantly putting myself down in conversation. It’s not just the writing; I’m afraid of admitting that I might be half-decent at anything. Rather than charming people with my modesty, this constant self-denigration is actually more irritating than just owning what I do. What’s more, it can come across as insincere – because I do believe I’m a good writer, regardless of whether I get published or not. Most of my writer friends aren’t published yet, and I don’t consider them ‘not real writers’ because of that: it’s their self-belief and their dedication to the craft that make them writers, not a six-figure book deal. In fact, one could argue that dedicating oneself to something when there’s no immediate payoff – just early mornings, lonely evenings, sleepless nights wrangling with your plot, but above all the sense of fulfillment that comes with expressing your creativity – is the purest, noblest form of writing.

Payoff would be nice too, of course. 

It’s Lent, and this year I’ve decided I’ll try to banish the feelings of embarrassment, shame, self-doubt and fear of failure that constantly attempt to ambush my life (a nebulous resolution, I know). In that spirit, I’m going to tell you about my writing, proudly. So, here’s my latest novel update.

I’m almost at the end of my second draft, although that little almost feels like the last stage of a triathlon I forgot to train for. It feels like I’ll be writing this bloody novel until my teeth start falling out, and have been writing it since the day I learnt my first word (it’s been just over a year, but oh, how I’ve aged…). I write more frequently than ever, and yet it’s still never finished. I’ve never, ever found the writing process this torturous – and I suspect it’s precisely because I’m finding it so torturous now that this novel is the best I’ve ever written. This is the way it’s supposed to be. This is the way it will be again and again and again if I continue to write. It will never get easier; the journey will just be different each time.

Now I know why the previous novels I wrote weren’t good enough. This was my writing process:

  1. Have a vague idea. Think myself very clever.
  2. Plunge headfirst into writing and churn out a few chapters in a frenzy. Read them back and think myself even more clever.
  3. Realise I need a plot and half-heartedly concoct something that I think sounds vaguely plausible.
  4. Write more chapters. Edit each one immediately after finishing until I eventually reach the end. Piece the chapters together and, ta-da, it’s a novel!
  5. Read through novel as a whole. I’ve already edited it, so think the writing is awesome. Tinker with it a bit. There, it’s perfect now!
  6. Put the novel in a drawer. Read it back a year later. Cringe at the disjointed chapters, the inconsistent characters, the lack of a coherent vision or overall narrative structure. Think I’m not very clever at all and will never be a real writer.
  7. Mope for a bit, and then pick myself up and move on.

Picking myself up and moving on was the most important part. For each of those crappy novels, I’m sure I learnt something, even if it was what not to do. For my current novel, largely informed by what I learnt on the Faber course, my process has been very different:

  • Have an idea. Start writing. When I feel it’s actually going to work, take a breather.
  • Write out a detailed plot, divided into a rough number of chapters, with a clear narrative arc, as well as brief profiles of the main characters. (This is not to say I stuck rigidly to this plot; it changed dramatically as I wrote, and had epiphanies while in the shower, so I was constantly editing and updating my plot document.)
  • Write my first draft. Write write write. Keep going. Never look back, however tempting. Churn out reams of crappy prose until I reach the ending.
  • Put it in a drawer. Don’t do any writing; live my life, see friends, cook proper meals, go to the gym… or mostly just end up sleeping. (I left my draft about a month, although some people leave it six months; I can see the value in giving yourself a proper psychological distance, but I’m too impatient!)
  • Self-publish a single copy, so I can read it as if it’s a published novel. (I found this stage painful; I was on a high when I finished the draft, a feeling that was crushed upon reading the crappy words that had seemed ‘raw’ at the time. The draft was pretty terrible, but I could see its potential.)
  • Write out the plot, chapter-by-chapter, in a grid. (In this grid I included the major characters in each scene and the time of year, to make sure characters received equal attention and the seasons changed appropriate… there was an awful lot of ‘pathetic fallacy’ rainfall in my first draft.) Overhaul the grid, making it more coherent and logical.
  • Go through the manuscript and cut, paste and delete to match the new grid. (In this process I cut out about 20,000 words.)
  • This is the stage I’m on now: rewrite. It’s taken months longer than expected, because this isn’t just tinkering: characters have had personality transplants (by which I mean, they now have personalities), new scenes have been written, darlings have been killed. I keep coming across the words INSERT SCENE HERE or MAKE THIS BETTER just when I think I’ve nearly finished another chapter. This can be disheartening when I feel like Sisyphus forever pushing his stone up a hill, but what keeps me going is that it will end – even if it takes three, four or five drafts.

A year and a half into this novel, I’ve come to accept that writing isn’t always a passionate, cathartic rush of images and ideas flowing effortlessly from my soul and my fingertips. Most of the time it’s a long, hard endurance test, and I’m determined to keep on running until I pass out. On top of my completed novel, I hope.

Emma’s 2017 adventures, part two: Ireland

Two months, two new countries: I’m doing pretty well so far! (I don’t think I’ll be able to keep this up, sadly.)

My second trip of 2017 was to Dublin. I’ve never been to Ireland before and it seemed a pretty easy fix, so one rainy Thursday morning Omar and I hopped on a plane and crossed the sea to the Emerald Isle – which to be honest looked more grey than emerald as the plane landed, but what can you expect for February? February definitely isn’t peak season for Dublin, since Ireland has a reputation for being drizzly at the best of times, but that worked for us: the less stag and hen parties, the better!

Dublin is very much a city break – don’t go there if you’re expecting rolling green hills covered in shamrocks, leprechaun gold and taverns full of eccentric locals playing the fiddle, and even the city itself felt similar to London, rather than somewhere more picturesque like Edinburgh – but as city breaks go, it’s a fun one. I was particularly impressed by the eating and drinking options. We arrived in the evening, so of course the first thing we wanted to do was eat. We ended up in the excellent Yamamori restaurant, which has great Japanese food and even greater cocktails. Not very typically Irish, so after that we headed over to The Cobblestone pub, a place which didn’t look like much from the outside, but was packed inside – on a night when even Temple Bar was oddly quiet – and was the most ‘Irish-feeling’ place we went. It’s famous for hosting live traditional music every night of the week, though the music isn’t so much a performance as the musicians jamming in the corner while you sip beer and soak up the atmosphere. It’s a little way out from the centre, but definitely worth the trip.

16473746_10101084385225716_5978010222128569051_n
Joycean strolls around Trinity College Dublin

The next day, the sightseeing began with Trinity College, where we paid the obligatory visit to the Book of Kells, an illuminated book of the Gospels produced from the 6th to 9th centuries. There isn’t much to actually see in the exhibition – you get to see the book itself at the end, but mostly it’s information about the book’s journey through history (it seems remarkable we still have it considering all the fires and Viking raids) – but we did spend ten minutes being utterly mesmerised by a video of someone making a book out of vellum using traditional techniques. I also enjoyed reading about perhaps the most famous cat in literature, Pangur Ban.

After that, we mostly just wandered around the surrounding area and St Stephens Green ‘being Joycean’ (Joycean strolls are probably more enjoyable in the sunshine), inhaling some monstrously calorific doughnuts from Aungier Danger before hopping in a taxi to the Dublin Writers Museum. It’s not a huge museum, but if you love literature, you’ll get a lot out of this. It contains the expected display cases dedicated to Joyce, Years, Beckett and Wilde, but also to Irish writers I wasn’t familiar with (and, I’ll admit, writers I didn’t realise were Irish…). From there, it was quite a contrast to go to the Guinness Storehouse, where you can join the shoals of tourists to learn how Guinness is made in an enormous corporate building full of flashy displays, where a peppy man with a microphone teaches you and 70 other people to become a ‘Guinness tasting expert’ in 5 minute slots and you can get a photo of you looking like a chump pulling your own pint (can you tell I wasn’t much of a fan?). It is one of those ‘must-do’ activities, though, and the free pint of Guinness you’re served in a bar overlooking Dublin almost makes it worth the ticket price. Finally, we had dinner in Fallon & Byrne, a food hall, wine basement and restaurant that unsurprisingly serves fantastic wine. It’s pricey, but good if you want to go somewhere a bit more sophisticated before hitting the rather less sophisticated (but more fun) pubs.

16425839_10101084387850456_2506531802419354817_n
I am an expert after drinking this tiny pint of Guinness

The next day we paid a brief visit to Dublin Castle; you can get tours, but if you don’t want to pay to see inside the castle – which we didn’t, though it’s not too pricey – this doesn’t take up a huge amount of time. We walked around, took some nice photos and then headed over to Ulysses Rare Books. Omar and I were planning on buying one another a second-hand book each as a souvenir, but we released each other from this pact when we realised the shop mostly sells first-edition signed books costing 200-500 Euros. Still, it was fun, to manhandle a first edition of Dubliners or a signed copy of Midnight’s Children – though it felt wrong that a greasy-fingered pleb like me was allowed.

Since it amazingly wasn’t raining that day, we decided on an outing to Howth, a fishing village a 30-minute train ride away from Dublin. If you want some fresh air and more picturesque scenery than you’ll find in Dublin, this is highly recommended; there are some beautiful walks, though we didn’t have time for the longer ones, so we strolled along the harbour to the lighthouse, visited the castle grounds and  ate fish and chips in one of the many fish restaurants. It has the wholesome atmosphere of a posh Cornish village, and visiting was a great way to cleanse ourselves before heading back to Dublin for some final-night drinking. We visited the bustling pubs on Dame Lane and then progressed to The Brazen Head, which calls itself the oldest pub in Ireland (and was also hosting live music when we visited, though it was more of the dad-rock variety). Drinking isn’t going to cost you much less in Dublin than it will in London, so prepare yourself for that!

16508955_10101084385784596_211205871471062149_n
Dublin Castle, and a rare sighting of sunshine

The next morning we flew home. I had a great time in Dublin; it’s a perfect place for a weekend, though if we’d had more time we’d have hired a car and driven around the more rural, scenic parts of Ireland. Dublin was less steeped in culture than I was expecting, but the culture is there – you just have to seek it out – and if you’re a foodie (and a drinkie), you’ll be spoilt for choice. Yes, the stag and hen parties can be annoying, and if you’re staying in the centre of town you may not get much sleep, but I was prepared for that and so didn’t let it spoil my experience of the city.

The next new country on my hit list: Poland. That won’t be for a few months, though, so I’ll have to think of something else to talk about in the meantime!

Emma’s 2017 adventures part one: the USA

One of my aims for 2017 is to visit four new countries, and write about all of them. I’ve already ticked off country number one: the USA.

Yes, somehow I’ve never been to the USA before – I suppose I’ve always preferred to travel to places more culturally different to where I live – and I thought I’d better fit it in before January 20 and the dawn of the Trump dystopia. My first visit to the US was not to New York or Washington or San Francisco or anywhere obvious, but Denver, Colorado. I went there for work, not for play, which you might consider cheating, but I promised I’d write about every new place, and so here goes.

I mostly saw Denver by night, since during the days I was at a conference, and when we went out in the evenings we rocketed towards the bars we wanted to go to, because the -17c temperatures and heavy snow didn’t exactly make for pleasant strolling (and as always, I’d dressed for a mild winter’s day in England, unable to conceive of actual extreme temperatures). What I did see, I liked. Denver is great for beer – it hosts a massive beer festival every year – and we visited several tap rooms. I’m not usually a beer person, but in Denver I was, sipping my IPAs and my Ambers, feeling substantially more of a dude than I am. Our favourite was a place called Freshcraft: when we asked the tattooed and prodigiously-bearded server for recommendations, he’d launch into a passionate ten-minute speech which would inevitably end in us going, ‘Yes, that one. That sounds good,’ because ignoring his recommendations would have been like kicking a puppy (and they were always great, anyway).

Having said the USA isn’t that culturally different to England, I did notice some differences. In Denver there’s a very chilled-out vibe, and everyone is extremely friendly, whereas in London everyone you encounter on the street and/or on the underground wants to fake-apologise you to death for accidentally making eye contact with them. (I’m told I’d feel much more at home in New York or Boston.) If a taxi driver tried to talk to me in London, I’d consider opening the door and rolling into the gutter; in Denver, I just went along with it, enjoying my ability to charm people just by saying inane things in my accent. People in shops and restaurants are similarly effusive – I heard ‘you’re so welcome!’ many times when I thanked people for serving me – though I’m not sure to what extent that’s because people rely on tips more. I like to take a positive view of human nature, and so I’m going to say it seemed genuine and a result of everyone being more relaxed and getting more fresh air. 

If you’re planning on visiting Denver, beware of the altitude; perched beside the Rocky Mountains, it’s known as the Mile High City. I’d heard people talking about how the altitude effects your body – someone warned me not to drink too much because my hangovers would be far worse – but I didn’t think I’d notice it. The nosebleed I got when I arrived immediately disillusioned me. As well as giving me worse hangovers (as I discovered on my final day, after trying a few too many beers the night before), the very thin, very dry air meant I was constantly gasping for water, and became a hideous scaled creature with cracked hands and lips that felt like two lumps of wire wool stuck to my face. Slathering my entire face in Vaseline didn’t seem to make much of a difference. 

Although I was working, I feel like I didn’t make the most of my time there. I wished either that I could ski – I’ve never gone skiing but assume I’d spend most of my time falling over or face-planting trees – or that I’d visited Denver in the summer. If I smushed my face against my hotel window at a particular angle, I could just about see the Rockies, and they were stunning. Had it been sunny and warm, I’d have extended my stay and gone hiking in the mountains, and hopefully hung out with some moose (I’m so desperate to see a moose, it’s a bit weird – they just look so badass with their massive antlers!). But I’m sure there will be more trips to the USA to come, and I’ll have a chance to do all of these things. Except face-plant a tree, which I’ll pass on.

That’s all I can really say about my Denver experience. Country number two is already on the cards for the end of this month: Ireland. Yes, I’ve also never been to Ireland before, which is even more disgraceful. I apologise to all my Irish friends and will be righting that wrong soon. This time I’ll be going for play, so should have some more interesting things to say. Until then!

Happy new year!

Well, 2016 is drawing to a close. I won’t join the myriad voices wailing about what a terrible year it has been. Neither will I join those who make the highly original point that personifying a unit of time as a cackling witch who kills off beloved celebrities for fun is meaningless, and that terrible events are likely to continue to occur in 2017, etc. etc. Instead, I will tell you about my resolutions for next year.

People are sometimes surprised that I make resolutions, because they think I am a deeply cynical person and killer of all joy. The truth is, I am sunshine in a bottle. Ha, no. Actually, I just think that since half-hearted attempts at ‘self-improvement’ abound at this time of year, I may as well join in and suffer through January alongside my friends. If I get something out of it as well, fantastic.

Like everyone in the history of forever, I rarely follow through on my resolutions, but I’ve come to embrace this quality in myself. I tell myself it’s because I’m a dilettante: my resolution to take up watercolour painting will come to a crashing halt when I get distracted by ukulele playing (or, um, Netflix). This may seem like a defeatist attitude but I find it helpful to accept that, even if I did achieve my unrealistic goals each new year, I wouldn’t be 100% happy. It’s like buying a shiny new iPhone and discovering there’s no headphone jack. Human nature means we brood over what we don’t have compared to others, and invest all of our happiness in achieving or obtaining things which disappoint us when we realise those things aren’t perfect. This is what I’d do even if I managed to meditate at 5am every morning, virtuously opt for lime-and-sodas at after-work drinks and casually write poems in my lunch break. All of which will never happen.

That’s why this year I am simplifying things. My aim for 2017 is simply to try and worry less (emphasis on try).

Worry seems like a small, trivial thing, but it’s a big deal. I’m always worried about something, from whether I’m dying of an obscure disease to the fact I’m running low on shampoo. I’m an insomniac because I worry about pointless things; when I’m half-asleep, even a lack of shampoo expands to the size of a major life crisis. I worry about minor plot points in my novel, or that my novel will never be published; I worry about an email I need to send at work, or about my entire career and how I’m a failure in comparison to friends. Worry feels like an external force I have no power over, and knowing that’s not true doesn’t always help me to overcome it. In 2017, I’m determined not to let worry win and to have a year where I just enjoy my life, whatever may come, without comparing my experience to anyone else’s.

It seems a hopelessly intangible goal, but I’m going to try some practical measures to achieve it: good sleep hygiene so I don’t worry whilst unable to sleep; keeping myself busy with exercise, singing, writing and friends; avoiding Facebook where possible so I don’t compare my life to the filtered version of anybody else’s; books, candlelight, classical music and, since I don’t have a bath in my flat, really long showers.

Here are a few more specific things I’d like to achieve in 2017:

  • Read more in general – writing has overtaken reading this past year, but they go hand-in-hand – and especially more non-fiction, so I can learn things about the world and become an interesting dinner party conversationalist and person handy to have on a pub quiz team.
  • Finish my novel, by which I mean properly finish it, however many drafts it takes. Put it out there in the world and see what happens; if nothing happens, pick myself up and try again, and again.
  • Travel to four new countries. The US, Ireland and Poland are happening; country number four is a mystery, which excites me even more. Write about them all.
  • Keep up this blog, but try to make it more interesting and eclectic. It’s been going for about five years now, and even though I don’t have hundreds of followers (which was never my aim), I don’t want it to fizzle out now!

Wish me luck, and happy near year!