Sometimes it’s best to be unprepared.

Like when I was a child, I’m still learning lessons from my parents. The difference is that now, it’s because I learn from their mistakes rather than because I assume they are paragons of correct behaviour. For example, I think I’ve learnt an important lesson from my dad: although it’s good to be prepared, it’s also possible to be too prepared. I’ll give an example to illustrate this (can I just say in case he ever reads this, I do love you, Dad. In fact, I love you even more for the fact you are an endless source of comedy, and would be very sad if you abandoned all these little quirks of yours).

My family and I were watching a TV program together. I can’t remember what it was, but it was something we all enjoyed and had been looking forward to watching. About fifteen minutes before the end, Dad got up and left. I assumed he was going to the toilet, but he was gone about ten minutes, and returned in his dressing gown smelling suspiciously minty.

‘Dad,’ I said. ‘Did you just clean your teeth?’

‘Yes.’

‘But you just missed ten minutes of the program! Why didn’t you wait until afterwards?’

‘Because I want to go to bed straight after it finishes, and there’ll be a rush to the bathroom afterwards.’

To which I could only respond with an exasperated sigh. I wanted to point out to him that

  1. The program finished at 9 o’ clock, and no one else between the ages of ten and seventy goes to bed at this time
  2. Even if the entire family were to decide to throw in the towel before the watershed, there are only four of us. This hardly constitutes what I would describe as a ‘rush’
  3. The worst case scenario would be that he had to wait five minutes longer while everyone else cleaned their teeth. I doubt this would cause him to faint from exhaustion the next day

but I knew that there was no point saying these things. Dad likes to be prepared to a ridiculous extent. He frequently does things like put toothpaste on his toothbrush and then leave it next to the sink overnight in order to save himself about ten seconds the next morning. Not only is this ridiculous, it is actually quite gross, because the toothpaste must congeal. Just now I noticed that he had laid out his breakfast bowl on the kitchen counter with a spoon in it, which irked me so much that I have replaced the spoon with a fork just to screw with his head.

He is obsessed with what he calls the Rush, and as he says, Beating the Rush. I believe there’s a Michael Mcintyre joke along these lines about ‘Friday traffic’. The joke is that people are always adamant you shouldn’t travel on a Friday because the traffic is a nightmare – why is this? Is there a group of people who wait until Friday and then leap into their cars for the sole purpose of blocking the roads? Well, that’s also what the Rush is. Whenever the Goode family has to get somewhere, a mysterious society of people determined to make us late will rev up their engines, sniggering like Dick Dastardly and Muttley, and all at once start driving to exactly the same place as slowly as possible. In order to outwit these people, we must leave half an hour too early, whether we are ready or not. This cunning counter-plot usually ends in us sitting in the restaurant half an hour before our reservation, loitering in the theatre foyer for half an hour, or shivering on a train platform for an hour because it turns out our train was actually delayed. ‘Well, at least we Beat the Rush,’ says Dad every time.

I’ve probably inherited something of this trait from Dad. I’m usually the first person to turn up to anything, because I turn up on time and everyone else is late. I have learnt, however, that when someone says 10 they actually mean 10.15, which means that they actually mean 10.30, and have adapted my behaviour accordingly. Dad never learns. If he is expecting someone to turn up at our house at 10, he will be at the window at 9.45, gazing mournfully out onto the street like a doggy who misses his owner, his ears pricking every time he hears a car engine. He frequently has a go at me because when he picks me up from a friend’s house I emerge two minutes later than the scheduled time. Apparently getting me home is an operation that must be executed with military precision, and it doesn’t matter if it’s rude to dash out the door when my friend is halfway through a sentence.

The point I’m trying to make is that Dad is so concerned with preparing for the future that he actually misses out on the here-and-now. He’s never living for the moment because he’s always thinking about the next one. The TV incident is a small scale example of this, but the problem is much more harmful on a wider scale. I know I’m guilty of it myself. I’m always either worrying or getting excited about the next stage of my life, but when that stage arrives I don’t appreciate it because I’m already thinking about the next stage. I’ve been thinking about moving to London and doing my MA all summer, and because of that I don’t think I’ve enjoyed this summer to the full – and it will probably be my last summer before full-time employment. I’m always thinking, ‘I can’t wait until this week is over,’ or ‘I can’t wait until this term is over,’ and because of that I spend all my time wishing away my life. I need to start enjoying every single moment. There’s a passage in the Bible that always reminds me of this:

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. (James 4: 13-14)

And in Matthew:

Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has trouble enough of its own. (Matthew 6: 34)

Even if you’re not religious you can take something from that. Relax, slow down, leave a little later. If you get caught in the Rush, so be it – just turn on the radio and have a little singsong. Stop trying to prepare yourself for every possibility, and just see where life takes you. Who knows, maybe you’ll find yourself eating your cereal with a fork. And you might just love it.

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Richard III at the Old Vic

I need to learn to start thinking for myself. I went to see Kevin Spacey in Richard III at the Old Vic on Tuesday, and I did what I usually do when I write a review: got out my little notebook and hunched over in my seat like Gollum, scribbling down my immediate thoughts in the disjointed, meandering hand of seven-year-old because it was dark and I was trying to divide my attention between the stage (which I know should have my full attention) and not writing on my own legs. The book is full of my own ideas and thoughts, uninfluenced by anyone else. Sometimes I call it my ‘commonplace book’, so that I can pretend I’m a genius like John Milton and that they’re going to find it in someone’s attic in 400 years’ time and sell it in Sotheby’s for ten squillion holospacebucks or whatever currency they’re using then.

Then, I made my usual mistake. I went home and looked up reviews online to make sure the proper critics didn’t disagree with what I’d written. I feel like I’m not a proper critic, just someone trying to sound smart on a blog, and I need someone who’s doing exactly the same thing as me except for money to hold my hand and tell me I’m a clever girl. In this case, the critics did disagree with me. Why? Because apparently they were ‘blown away’ by Spacey’s Richard. As I read the reviews, I thought, ‘Hmm, it was pretty good actually…’ and was tempted to write another dazzling review. But what’s the point in parroting what everyone else has already said? No, I’m going to stick to my guns on this one and put my opinion out there: I enjoyed Richard III, but I wasn’t ‘blown away’.

Before I start: this play is the final installment of Sam Mendes’ (director of American Beauty) Bridge Project. What actually is the Bridge Project? I’m not sure. Sifting my way through the obnoxious garble in the programme about ‘transatlantic collaboration’, the ‘global context’ and a ‘theatrical touring phenomenon’, I think it’s an attempt to prove that English and American actors can act together in the same play without killing one another before opening night. Its only effect was me being very confused about why everyone in the play had a different accent. Apparently, Mendes’ experiment is ‘crazy’ and ‘slightly unhinged’. Why? I don’t get it. If anyone could explain this to me I would be very grateful.

Moving on to the play itself. The opening is strong, with Kevin Spacey slumped in an armchair in front of the TV in the middle of a gloomy grey stage, dressed in a paper crown and blowing ironically on a party blower like your grumpy scrooge of an uncle hungover after the family Christmas gathering. The famous opening speech is clear, strong and aggressive, and those are the words I’d use to describe the rest of the play – clear, strong, and very, very aggressive. Spacey’s Richard is bitter, ferocious, hideously deformed and very obviously evil. In his review in The Guardian Michael Billington writes that, ‘What is impressive about Spacey is that he acts with every fibre of his being. His voice has acquired a rougher, darker edge. With his left leg encased in a calliper splint, he still bustles about the stage with ferocious energy,’ and he describes Richard as ‘an autocratic archetype’. He’s both funny and disturbing in the way he throws out sinister offside comments about, for example, murdering the two young princes in a blasé tone, an afterthought to his long, rhetorically brilliant public speeches.

I agree mostly with Billington’s comments, but here’s the thinking for myself part: I thought the play was a bit too angry. I wondered when Spacey was going to stop shouting his lines, but he ended up just shouting them all the way through, occasionally with balled fists and a spray of accompanying spit. The seduction scene between Richard and Lady Anne was a Jeremy Kyle-style shouting match that was quite painful to my ears. Occasionally, Spacey shouted so much that he slipped into an American accent. His performance lacks the subtle delight in the malicious manipulation of words that, for me, is what makes Richard’s character brilliantly seductive despite his chilling amorality. Here, he’s just evil, so obviously evil that none of other characters seem to buy anything he says. Why would anyone be so moronic as to believe his lies and follow him? Maybe that’s the point Mendes is trying to make, though. The programme compares Richard to modern dictators like Gaddafi, and the play’s modern setting emphasises the toadying, besuited political spin doctors who surround Richard, following him only because they know he’ll kill them if they don’t. This is best illustrated by Mendes’ funny reworking of the scene in which Richard is persuaded to be king by Buckingham. As the slick suited Buckingham shouts at the audience through a microphone like a tackly TV evangelist, Richard’s face appears on a huge plasma screen, distorted into a range of exaggerated facial expressions as he is surprised during a prayer session with two phoney priests. The audience were roaring with laughter here. In this and a few other scenes Spacey stops being angry long enough to be fun.

The set is bleak and grey, with a row of doors running down each side of the stage, which are clearly symbolic of power and control. At the play’s opening, Richard is illuminated by a harsh block of light from an open door; when he seduces Anne he pins her up against a door, and Clarence is stabbed in the same position; when each of Richard’s victims are picked off, Margaret – here portrayed as a truly sinister, otherwordly presence rather than an incoherent screeching harpy – walked grimly onstage and drew an ‘X’ on one of the doors, before the dead man exited through that door. I liked the symbolism, which isn’t so obscure that only English graduates like myself will understand, but not the implication that Margaret’s witchcraft is actually in control of who lives and who dies. Shakespeare himself wouldn’t have dared to suggest that Richard wasn’t entirely responsible for his own downfall! When Richard is killed (ooh, historical spoiler alert!), lo and behold, all the doors swing open. Political freedom, innit. The stage lacks a certain atmosphere, but this is compensated for in other places, for example the wonderful, almost nightmarish coronation scene, with its use of hysterical pounding drums as the stage is elongated and Richard staggers his way towards his throne and the huge dictator portrait of himself behind it.

Almost all the women in the play are good. The Duchess of York is tired and careworn, Haydn Gwynne is perfect as Elizabeth, making her utter revulsion of Richard clear without overacting it, and Margaret is compelling, introducing a more primal, pagan note amongst the play’s modern elements, although her role in events is overemphasised. I didn’t like Anne, who’s shouty and boring and just got on my nerves. She shuts up when she marries Richard, though, and sits in expressionaless silence while he discusses her murder in front of her face, emphasising her powerlessness in comparsion to the three stronger women. This was a good production, which made the play’s incredibly confusing plot coherent, but I’m not going to jump on the critical bandwagon and wax lyrical about it. It’s angry and bitter and disturbing, but not subtle enough – and for me, subtlety is the defining characteristic of Shakespeare’s Richard.

Growing up with books

One day during my internship in a publishing office, a group of local primary school kids visited to see what working in an office was like. The kids were part of a really good scheme the company does called reading partners, where employees go into the school every couple of weeks to read with the kids. After showing them around and watching them shout across the office at one another pretending to be on the phone (‘Hello? YOU’RE FIRED, HA HA HA!’) we took them into the board room for biscuits, orange juice and a question and answer session. I asked the boy next to me if he had any questions. He looked rather bewildered, and after thinking for a minute managed to come up with one:

‘Do you have a TV?’

I meant questions about publishing, but since I wasn’t sure any of the kids really understood what publishing was, I decided to go with this line of questioning. ‘Um, yes,’ I said. ‘Why do you ask?’

‘Because she doesn’t,’ the boy replied, pointing to the woman who was his usual reading partner. She rolled her eyes in exasperation, and he giggled. Obviously they’d had this conversation many times before.

‘I don’t need a TV to have fun!’ the woman said.

This idea was so shocking that the boy almost spat out his mouthful of jaffa cake. ‘But, but… What do you do?’ he said, eyes popping.

‘Well… I read books.’

‘But – why would you want to read a book?

I was flabbergasted, and also very sad, that he’d ask that question – but thinking about it, it is a difficult one to answer. Why would you want to read a book? What’s the appeal of thousands of lines of ink on a wad of paper when there are Xboxes and Playstations and Wiis and Nintendos, computer games and Facebook and Twitter, brightly-coloured hyperactive cartoon shows and movies with big explosions and toilet humour to keep children occupied? Buy a TV licence and you’re sorted: you don’t have to spend £7.99 every time your child finishes a book and wants a new one. I completely understand it, but it’s a real shame. That little boy’s attitude represents an endemic: kids just aren’t reading as much anymore, and it’s largely because their parents aren’t reading with them. On the train home from London one day this summer, I read this article in the Evening Standard, which revealed that apparently one in five parents in London aren’t confident enough readers to read to their children. I can’t vouch for how reliable those statistics are, but if that’s anything like the truth, it’s disturbing. If the parents can’t read properly, their children barely stand a chance – and they’re missing out on something incredible. It’s like having Narnia at the back of your cupboard but never bothering to open the doors and find out.

This isn’t going to be a rant about the failure of the education system, because I don’t know enough about that. I just want to explain, or rather describe, why I feel so sad when I meet a child who doesn’t like reading, or who doesn’t realise that any books exist outside of Harry Potter and Twilight (though at least they’re a start). When I think of my childhood, the first thing I think of is reading. The books I read as a child made me who I am now, and I don’t just mean that they made me want to study English and work in publishing: they formed my personality, my opinions, my hopes and desires, the way I think, act and speak. Maybe some of the books I read gave me unrealistic expectations about life, and maybe reading so much made me a little too fond of my own company. Certainly reading has destroyed my vision. But books also taught me literacy; they taught me about history, geography and other cultures, about the world outside of my own privileged little sphere of life, about growing up; they fired my imagination and inspired me to write myself; in short, they filled my childhood with magic. I was never bored if there was a pen and some paper nearby, and I didn’t need expensive games consoles to entertain me. Even a rock in my garden could become the magical object of a quest, a dragon’s egg or a precious jewel, and reading is what taught me to think in that way.

It isn’t just the books themselves that I remember with such fondness. It was the whole experience of reading that exhilarated me. My mum would take me shopping, and I’d beg to go in the bookshop: please, please, please can I have a new book? I’d beeline to the children’s section at the back of the shop, with the rocking horse and the big saggy chair and the rows and rows of brightly coloured spines along the shelves, the tables with books piled up in jagged mountains, some of the covers shiny, some of them tactile, some that changed in the light when you tilted the book from side to side. I’d read blurb after blurb, torn by the fact I was only allowed three, usually picking the ones that sounded the most adventurous and fantastical. After an hour I would emerge from the shop beaming, having been treated to a big stack of new books. New book smell was my favourite smell (it has now been usurped by old book smell, though it’s a close competition between the two). I couldn’t wait until I got home; I’d start reading one in the car home, which would inevitably make me carsick.  I remember once I actually was sick when I got out of the car – then I went up to my room and continued reading.

I’d read for hours and hours on end, and finish each book in a matter of days, sometimes a single day. When I finished one book in a series, I’d want the next one, and the next and the next, and once I’d finished the series I’d feel momentarily lost, as if all my friends had suddenly packed up and moved to Australia. Then I’d find another series, and my imaginative world would be repopulated with new friends. Of course, books are expensive, and my parents could never have afforded to fuel my reading habit if it weren’t for the library. The weekly trip there, usually on a Saturday morning, was just as exciting as my forays to the bookshop. The hushed atmosphere gave it an almost sacred feel which I never dared to violate: if the parent I was with so much as breathed too loudly, I’d press my finger to my lips with an exaggerated, ‘Shhhhhhh! We’re in a library!’ I have a fetish about owning books now, but then I didn’t care that I couldn’t keep them; in fact, I loved looking at the stamps in the front cover because it told me how many other people I’d shared the adventure with. Our library had a reward system for children, so that once you’d taken out enough books you got a prize, and I quickly built up a formidable collection of little keyring-notebooks, plastic toys, bookmarks and pencils. I don’t think libraries do that anymore. Many public libraries are being closed down now (The Bookseller has a Fight for Libraries campaign if you’re interested).

Reading was such a special activity for me that I had to find special places to do it. It became more exciting if it felt like a secret, forbidden activity, as if the book were a friend I had smuggled into my house unbeknowst to my parents and was feeding my leftovers from dinner. I’d read under my duvet with a torch after I’d gone to bed, because that’s what kids do in the cartoons, even though my parents wouldn’t have cared that I was staying up reading – they were never strict about bedtime. I’d build a fortress out of clothes horses, sheets and blankets, then I’d crawl inside with my pillow, my cuddly toys, a bowl of sweets and of course a book. I’d nestle in the warm, dark space under my bed, or I’d sit on the windowsill and draw the curtain like Jane Eyre, and in the summer I’d go to the wendy house at the end of the garden and read in there until the sight of a huge spider sent me running back to the house.

What did I read? To be honest, I don’t remember more than half the books I read, and a lot of them were probably poorly written trash. When you’re that age, you don’t care about the quality of the writing. You don’t want great literature, and you don’t want to struggle through thousands of pages of dense writing, analysing and searching for social commentary and finding phallic imagery in absolutely everything. You just want a good story, one that you can devour and dispose of and then move onto the next book, to be transported from one world to another, and for a short time to be fully involved in each one of these endless worlds. Some books do stand out in my memory, though. I loved stories about animals: my favourite was a book about a boy who had a telepathic connection with an escaped panther roaming the Yorkshire moors. I ploughed my way through the Animal Ark series to the point where they started to run out of titles and become ridiculous (Koala in the Kitchen – okay then. Giraffe in the Garage – getting a bit dubious. African Wolf Spider in the Airing Cupboard…) I wanted to be a member of the Babysitters Club, and I was incredibly impressed by the fact they had their own phone line. I absolutely adored Enid Blyton: Famous Five, Secret Seven, Malory Towers, and best of all the Faraway Tree (though now I think about it, she must have been a bit stoned when she wrote that. Every time I try and explain the character of Moon-Face to someone else I get a look as if they suspect I just made it up). Then there were the enduring classics: Black Beauty, Anne of Green Gables, Alice in Wonderland, What Katy Did, Heidi, Little Women, The Railway Children, The Wind in the Willows, The Secret Garden, Winnie the Pooh, anything by Roald Dahl, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe… They don’t make ‘em like that anymore. When I got older, I moved onto the Jacqueline Wilsons, the Louise Rennisons, His Dark Materials, Artemis Fowl, Ella Enchanted, The Princess Diaries, and a wonderful and sadly underrated series called Tales of the Otori by Lian Hearn, which I reread recently and still adored. Listing all these books is making me want to reread them. Listing these books is making me want to write a children’s book – and I may do, one day.

The first ‘grown-up’ book I read was Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. I was about ten or eleven, and didn’t understand most of what was going on, but loved it and was so proud of myself when I finished it. I then moved onto Jane Eyre. Since then, I’ve never gone back. I still devour books, but it’s not the same anymore. I have to make time for reading, on the train or before I go to bed: I don’t have time to curl up in bed and read for a whole day without getting out of my pajamas as I used to. There’s always pressure to read things that are ‘great’, and to slog through them even if I’m not enjoying them. But I still have moments when I feel transported; when a description is so beautiful I have to read it over and over again, savouring it like a posh chocolate from a selection box; when I read the last sentence of a book, close the book, put it down in front of me and stare at the wall, thinking… wow. Just wow. I’m going to make sure my children, if they ever exist, don’t miss out on that experience. I just hope the bookshops, the libraries, and the talented writers are still around to allow me to do that.

Writing prompts

I’ve been ridiculously busy since leaving uni. It’s a good thing, because it means I’m not dwelling on the fact I’m unemployed, thousands of pounds in debt and living with my parents again. I’ve been commuting to and from my publishing work experience in London; I never get back before 7, and I have to go to bed early because I’m permanently knackered, so I barely have any time to myself in the evenings.

Strangely enough, though, I’ve been doing a lot of ‘self-improvement’-type things: reading, writing, planning my novel, playing the piano, catching up with friends. I think when you’re busy you somehow find more time to pack in meaningful activities, because you want to make the most of every spare moment. When you’re slobbing around all day, you don’t appreciate freedom. You think you’ve got endless amounts of time to tick off all the things on your formidable To Do list, so you end up watching TV all day and not actually doing any of those things.

Even if I just have an hour in the evenings, I manage to do a bit of writing. My mum bought me a book of writing prompts called The 3am Epiphany, after I complained that I always want to write but can’t think of a single thing to write about. In spite of its name, the book smashes the romantic perception of many wannabe writers that they have to wait for a flash of sudden inspiration before they can write: if you want to be a good writer you have to work hard it at, and it’s not always fun. So I’ve started forcing myself to write whenever I have time, taking one of the prompts from the book. It’s full of exercises designed to shake up the way you think about writing (for example, write a short story without using the letter ‘e’). Even if what you produce is utter crap, the author maintains, you learn by producing it. And you might reread what you’ve written a couple of weeks later and decide that, actually, there’s something there. That’s what I’m hoping anyway.

I’m going to start posting some of the things I write here, since this is supposed to be a writing blog. I’ve always been terrified of sharing my writing with anyone who knows me in real life, so this will be a good exercise for me (I finally linked this blog on my Facebook, so no more anonymity. Hello, stalkers). I’ll start with this one:

Exercise #2: Imperative

The task was to write a fragment of a story made up entirely of imperative commands.

When I felt stressed out by university, I had this romantic dream of ‘breaking free’ by skipping my seminars and getting on a train to a random destination instead. I also wrote an awful, flowery piece of prose called ‘Train Story’ about such a journey. Thinking about it now, it was a stupid idea and would have been a waste of time and money. I would inevitably have been disappointed by where I ended up. That’s the message of this piece – everyday life may be stressful, but we just have to get on with it.

In this piece I like the tension between the man’s journey as an attempt to ‘break free’ and the fact he is actually following the imperative commands of the narrator, who leads him into a miserable and inconvenient situation. There is tension between the hopes and expectations contained in the commands, and the reality that fails to live up to such hopes.  

When you get to the office, keep on walking. You will not go to work today. Do not object, do not try to phone in sick, and most importantly, do not worry. Take the next left: you’re going to the train station. Don’t ask where you’re going, it doesn’t matter. Look up and take in the kind of day it is. Notice what you didn’t when you left the house with your briefcase in one hand and a piece of toast in the other, your tired eyes screwed up against the early morning light: the pale, marbled clouds, their wispy peaks and ridges, the speckles of rain on the pavement. Take a deep breath. Feel the misty rain settle in miniscule beads on your eyelashes.

When you get to the station, do not buy a ticket. Go to the platform and sit in the waiting room with the commuters. Note the way they do not make eye contact with anyone else, but stare at the whitewashed wall or at their polished shoes or at the board of departures and arrivals. Watch them as they raise their coffee cups mechanically to their lips. Watch them intently until they feel uncomfortable and would rather stand on the platform in the rain. When the next train arrives, get up and leave your suitcase in the waiting room. Do not feel disappointed when the commuters give you puzzled looks but do not call after you – its contents do not matter. Get on the train. Do not look at its destination; it is the train to anywhere, and you will ride it until its final stop.

You will try to ride it until its final stop. When the guard asks to check your ticket, you will argue with him. Tell him that you must have dropped it, refuse to buy another one, throw outraged glances at the commuters who watch you with vacant expressions but turn their faces to the window when you look at them. Cause a scene when the guard tries to throw you off at the next stop, but do not scuffle with him. Accept that this is where you are supposed to get off. Exit the station and wander around the unknown town. Look for a park, a river, a water fountain, a museum. Ignore the now heavy rain. Don’t let the cold wind, the grey office blocks or the shabby convenience store with its display of bruised fruit make you miserable.

When your suit jacket is soaked through, look for somewhere to buy a cup of tea. Realise at the counter that you left your wallet in your briefcase. Realise that your phone is in there too, and that your wife will worry when your boss calls to find out where you are. Stand on a street corner and ask passers by for money. Try to make eye contact as they quicken their pace and block you out with their umbrellas. Feel humiliated. Wish you were at work where the tea is free.  When someone finally takes pity, return to the station. Look at the board and get on the train home. Listen to the man opposite call home to say he will be back soon and ask with a tired smile what’s for dinner. Decide that home is a better destination than anywhere.

Much Ado About Nothing

The summer before I started my degree, I saw David Tennant as Hamlet for my ‘well done for getting into uni!’ treat. Yesterday, I went to see David as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing at Wyndham’s Theatre as my ‘well done for finishing uni!’ treat. David Tennant has thus framed my degree (something I meant to tell him when I waited at the stage door afterwards, except that I couldn’t get anywhere near the front and was far too polite to push – foiled by my own Englishness!).

Hamlet was amazing. I’d never seen or read the play before that point, and Tennant made me both laugh out loud and cry, two things I almost never do; I’d say his performance made me love Shakespeare.  I suppose I was expecting Much Ado to give me a similar reaction. I was probably expecting too much from a production that, as the sole emphasis on Tennant and his co-star Catherine Tate on all the advertisements exemplifies – pretends to be nothing more than populist Shakespeare for the Doctor Who-loving masses. And after all, what’s wrong with populist Shakespeare? Shakespeare was incredibly popular in his time, and he wrote his plays to earn a living, not to establish himself as a literary genius who would be on almost every school and university’s English syllabus in 400 years’ time. Josie Rourke’s production, set in Gibraltar in the 1980s, is colourful, vibrant, engaging and hilarious, and essentially that’s what Shakespeare’s comedies should be. It did entertain me, but I couldn’t help but feel disappointed by the sense of shallowness surrounding it all. One reviewer writes that Shakespeare purists will doubtless ‘baulk’ at this production. I don’t want to be the stiff-backed, snobbish Shakespeare purist who sits frowning and overanalysing every scene in the play while everyone around her simply laughs and enjoys it, but I can’t help it – that’s what three years of an English degree have done to me.

Let’s start with the positives, though. People who know little to nothing about Shakespeare and have simply come to see Tennant and Tate will walk away pleasantly surprised at how funny Shakespeare can be. I thought the play worked well in the 1980s Gibraltar setting: it’s an update of the carnivalesque setting Shakespeare so frequently includes in his plays, but one that is recognisable to modern audiences. The program describes the eighties as the decade in which ‘Britain began to remake itself as a more confident, dynamic, outward-looking, multi-racial and multicultural nation… [when] culture began often painfully to liberalise, open up and enlarge with new possibilities.’ The tacky disco music, cheesy dancing, garish costumes (tutus and puffball skirts, sequins and headbands, crisp white military uniforms, and even a bit of cross-dressing) combined with the bright and sunny set, and the fact that every character has either a drink or a cigarette in his or her hand almost constantly, all help to create this atmosphere of hedonism and fun. The men’s naval uniforms are a reminder that the characters do have responsibilities, but briefly in the the world of the play these are forgotten in favour of the heady and almost desperate pursuit of love. Hero’s supposed liaison with Borachio is rendered as a drunken hen-night shag against a pillar, which was quite effective. The only problem was that, in this tacky and supposedly morally liberal climate, the men’s outrage at Hero’s infidelity in the aborted marriage scene seems like a huge overreaction, and thus the scene felt rather disingenuous for me.

What I will call the ‘pillar scenes’, the two scenes in which Beatrice and Benedick hide behind pillars and hear the other characters loudly discussing Beatrice’s supposed love for Benedick and vice versa, were wonderfully choreographed and had the audience roaring with laughter. Rourke exploits the full comic potential of the scenes, with Tennant smearing paint all over his face and Tate dangling helplessly from a pulley. Shakespeare’s plays aren’t meant to be static words on a page – they’re meant to come to life through interpretation – and it’s good to see a director having so much fun with them, and not taking things too seriously. I couldn’t help but feel that the pillar scenes (and the play in general) were a bit too silly and slapstick, though, at the total expense of the language. Much Ado is a pretty prosaic play, and the language isn’t as beautiful or the rhetoric as clever as in some other of Shakespeare’s plays, but the farce here was so extreme that I doubt anyone listened to a word the characters were saying. The women could have been reciting the periodic table while Tate crawled across the stage under a dust sheet and I don’t think anyone would have noticed, myself included. In fact, in the interval I had to explain the plot to my mum because she didn’t quite understand what was going on, and I think Much Ado is a pretty simple play to follow. Don’t get me wrong, my mum’s very intelligent – she was just distracted by all the stage spectacle, and I don’t blame her.

Tennant pulls off his role better than Tate; he demonstrates his range, while she adopts the same character we’re used to seeing on The Catherine Tate Show, putting on silly voices and pulling silly faces to the level of sketch-show hyperbole (though in her defence, it’s exactly what most of the audience have paid to see, and she delivers). Tennant makes Benedick’s transition from rakish bachelor to love-struck gallant natural and believeable. Tate, on the other hand, jumps from being a blunt-tongued, bum-scratching ladette in dungarees to donning a girly dress and shrieking hysterically the moment she believes that Benedick loves her. If we’re meant to see their cross-dressing at a party scene as an empowering reversal of gender roles – Beatrice has bested Benedick with her wit – I think Tate destroys these nuances with her over-the-top performance. Although, the ‘darker side’ of Much Ado is that, for all its strong females, it’s not really that kind to women: taking the Shakespearean double-meaning of ‘nothing’ as a woman’s vagina, the play’s title is dismissive of female sexual power. Why do men get so worked up about something so worthless? And, as is comic convention, the play ends in the marriages of both Hero and Beatrice (sorry for the spoilers. I’d think it should be obvious). The former agrees to marry a man who’s displayed no trust in her and humiliated her at the altar; the latter breaks all her resolutions to remain single, realising that she is better off with a husband after all. Both women have their moment of wit and power, however, and I suppose that’s good enough by sixteenth-century standards.

One performance I’d like to quickly mention is Elliot Levey as Don John, who I thought was understated but brilliant. Don John is a cardboard cut-out villain, a walking plot device with no particular reason for being evil, but Levey really makes a proper character of him. I actually felt a bit sorry for him. He’s played as a socially awkward repressed homosexual, unable to break out of his rigid naval stance, who wants to be spoil everyone else’s fun because he feels unable to join in with it himself. He’s the outsider, totally out of place in the prurient island setting; this made him stand out in every scene he was in, even when he was silent and brooding in the background. Don John’s absence at the end of the play is telling to me. ‘We’ll deal with him later,’ Benedick basically says – a reminder that the fun has to end at some point.  This darker side is overshadowed by the production’s hyperactivity, but perhaps Rourke’s aim – an aim she certainly achieves – is to transport us away from the darker side of life for an evening. I’d give the production three stars.

My university journey

Well, that’s it – I’ve left university for good. I’m now the proud owner of a first class honours degree in English Literature from the University of Warwick. I am not just Emma Goode, I am Emma Goode BA (hons). I am now a proper person, or at least I will be once I don a silly hat and robes, shake a few hands, and receive a piece of paper that says so.

I’ve packed up my things, transported them all back home, and attempted to fit them into my bedroom, which my mum secretly redecorated for me as an end-of-university surprise (I screamed when I walked in.) Yesterday I spent twelve hours clearing out my room, ruthlessly discarding things I’ve had since I was about seven (including my sentimental childhood collection of those sticky-feet bugs people put on their car bonnets, which I bought every time I went on a school trip anywhere – that was difficult to part with). I made just about enough room to accommodate the towering mountains of crap I managed to accumulate over university. Now I’m the occupant of possibly the tidiest and most organised bedroom in England, and it feels brilliant – something fresh, rather than simply a return to the same-old-same-old of pre-university life. In fact, I’m so proud of it that I’d like to include a picture here. I’d show you a picture of my super-organised, compartmentalised wardrobe too, but feel that would be too much of an intrusion into my private life:

My new room is appropriate for a new start, since things have changed a lot in three years, and I’m not the same person anymore. Now, I’m not usually fan of all that ‘journey of self-discovery’ crap – you are whoever you are at any given point in time, and there isn’t a secret inner self you need to unlock – but I’m interested in looking at how I’ve changed over the three years of my degree. It’s been an epic journey (not quite an odyssey, but close), and an incredibly expensive one too, but it was worth every penny. There have been extreme highs and extreme lows, but even the lowest of my low moments has helped me to develop as a person, and I wouldn’t change a single moment. If you’re thinking of going to university, allow me to guide you through what you can expect. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

It begins the night before you move in for the first time. You’ve got a new haircut, possibly bought some new clothes, with the intention of ‘reinventing’ yourself, and you’re full of resolutions: I’m going to be more confident, I’m going to be more spontaneous, I’m going to take up six new hobbies, I’m going to learn to cook and do my own ironing, I’m going to fall in love. It’s a more extreme version of the start of every school year, when your mum buys you a new pair of Kickers shoes (with a slightly higher, more risqué heel), a new schoolbag (the shabby rucksack is discarded in favour of the cooler Nike drawstring bag, impractical and uncomfortable), and a new pencilcase full of freshly sharpened pencils and an array of scented gel pens. Now, because you’re moving away from home, you’ve naïvely purchased even more pointless junk you will never use, including an egg timer, a steamer, a recipe book, a colour-coordinated stationery set, a desk organiser, and most preposterously, a bottle of fabric conditioner and an iron (get real). It will only take about a week before you realise that students slouch around in clothes that look like crumpled paper bags and smell slightly damp, eat baked beans and pasta out of the saucepan (taking it in turns to use the kitchen’s only fork), and use no stationery other than the leaky biro lurking somewhere underneath the nest of unread handouts creating a wildlife habitat on their desks. Your unused purchases will eventually be sold for ten pence each at a car boot sale. Incidentally, guess what I’m doing next Sunday?

You don’t sleep the night before the big move, excited but also bed-wettingly terrified as you try to imagine what you’ll be doing this time tomorrow night. When your parents drive you up, dump you in your boxy new room with the psychadelic trippy carpet and vomit-coloured curtains, and then swan off home to have a glass of wine and celebrate the prospect of having to wash up one less plate every night, you possibly shed a few tears, in spite of all your resolutions to be grown up about it. You have to hide this from your new corridor friends, despite the fact they are all doing the same thing behind closed doors. Once all the parents are gone, you all mooch out into the shared kitchen or common room, and the embarrassed socialising begins. Oh, the embarrassed socialising. ‘What’s your name?’ ‘Where are you from?’ ‘What are you studying?’ are the three questions issued robotically from your mouth every time you meet anyone else, and you find yourself speaking in a ridiculously exaggerated version of your own accent in order to assert your national identity. Once this initial ground has been covered, you realise you have nothing left to talk about – so the freshers’ t-shirts are donned, the Tesco Value vodka comes out, and the first excruciatingly awkward night out in the union commences. Everyone says freshers’ week is the best week of student life, but it’s really not. It’s weird and surreal. You stand in a circle in a dark, sweaty room with a load of vritual strangers, many of whom you would never have chosen to befriend had you not been thrown together in a corridor, and you are suddenly painfullyaware of how bad your dance moves are. Everyone gets horribly drunk to convince themselves they are having fun; the barriers are broken down when you stumble home at 3am and someone projectile vomits all over the kitchen table. (In my freshers’ week it was a lot worse – someone two corridors below got so drunk he smeared his own poo all over the walls of the corridor. My innocent fresher self believed this was going to be a regular occurrence, and that living in student halls was going to be similar to living in a monkey enclosure. Luckily it was a one-off.)

Socialising is a very odd experience in freshers’ week. You meet more people than you can remember the names of, and for a few days you feel like the most popular person in the universe. The explosion of new adds on your Facebook page attests to this. You join almost every obscure student society going – windsurfing, juggling, mah jong, paintball, curry appreciation, improvised theatre, bell ringing – because ‘that sounds interesting’, and you’re convinced you’ll be able to maintain them all. You’ll maintain one if any, mainly because you discover you’re crap at almost everything, but also because anyone who founds and regularly attends a society based around a board game is, let’s face it, a bit sad and unlikely to become your best friend. Unfortunately, freshers’ week is not reality; you simply can’t sustain such a high level of social interaction. Some people you meet will go on to be your best friends, even friends for life (often, it’s the people you least expect – don’t trust first impressions). As for the others – give it a month and you will be averting your eyes as you shuffle past one another on campus, refusing to acknowledge that singular night when you drunkenly swapped shoes on a rooftop at 4am. After six months one of you will silently cull the other on Facebook, and you’ll both be glad not to have to read the other’s inane, irritating status updates anymore. Then, there’s the other downside of meeting so many strangers: the inevitable freshers’ flu. You simply don’t know where people have been. You suffer from an almost permanent sniffle throughout the year, which often escalates into a more full-blown illness, often conveniently when you have an essay deadline or a seminar you don’t fancy attending. The other kind of sickness is homesickness, which sets in once the craziness of freshers’ week has subsided into the more humdrum existence of life without your mum to bring you a cup of tea and a digestive whenever you get stressed. Hopefully, your hall friends will become your substitute family – but rather than cheering you up by letting you come to Sainsbury’s and use the bleepy scanner to buy posh food, they will distract you from your sadness with sheer silliness.

And the silliness is very, very silly. In first year, you forget that you are supposed to be a civilised human being who has come to university to receive an advanced education. You are too occupied with throwing each others’ mattresses out of top floor windows, having roly-poly races down the corridor, building giant fortresses in the kitchen, battering down the door while someone else is in the shower, and throwing eggs at one another whilst wearing kitchen utensils as armour (these are all things we did). Humour becomes incredibly puerile. On my first snow day at uni, I opened my curtains to see a giant penis artistically drawn in the snow on the tennis court below. It was beautiful. I was dared to put my foot in the toilet and flush it, and to lick mayonnaise off someone’s face. The boys got points for doing wees with the toilet door open and not getting caught, bonus points if they did it on another corridor, and points if they caught someone else in the act (‘danger weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!’). I look back on these things with nostalgia, but I’d never do them now – we’ve all grown up a lot since then, and penises no longer draw so much as a stifled titter from anyone. With all the silliness going on in halls, you forget that you’re supposed to be doing work, but it doesn’t matter because nothing counts in first year. If you get more than five books out of the library over the course of the entire year, you’re considered a sickening keeno; if your bedroom door is shut, it is assumed you are either out or dead, as it’s not possible that you could actually be writing an essay. Your marks are unfailingly mediocre, and you start to wonder if maybe you’re stupid and not cut out for university, especially when you compare yourself to the pretentious guy in the beret who has somehow managed to end up in all of your seminars and who accuses you of having a ‘bourgeois attitude’ whenever you make a placefiller comment to prove you’re not asleep. This guy is, luckily, an anomaly, and probably talking a load of rubbish. Later you’ll realise that you’re not stupid, and that you were simply a lazy arse in first year.

That’s why second year can come as a bit of a shock: you suddenly have to be a lot more responsible. The novelty of moving from the cushy world of halls into a rented student house wears off when it dawns on you that Maureen the cleaner isn’t there to clean up the broken eggs left all over the kitchen floor after last night’s rousing egg-throwing battle (I laugh as I write this. She was not happy about that, poor Maureen). You also realise that your student house, as ‘cute’ as it looks from the outside, is in fact on the verge of collapsing: it has a creepy slug-infested dungeon/basement where people were probably tortured in the past, the kitchen and bathroom are mouldy, you have to light the stove with a match, the cupboard door falls off in your hand every time you open it, and even if the heating had any effect, everyone is too stingy to want to turn it on. Instead, you wander around with a hot water bottle stuffed under your three jumpers, and sit hunched over your laptop attempting to write an essay in fingerless gloves and a hat as the freezing wind shakes the rotten window-frame (is this Soviet Russia or something?). If the boiler doesn’t explode, and the internet doesn’t go down after rats chew through the cable, the toaster will probably cause the entire electric system to blow, leaving you shivering in the dark like someone from a Second World War documentary. Still, there are many benefits to living in a house: house parties, for example. A spontaneous house party, where only the elite are invited, is always better than the student union’s pitiful attempts to organise fun – and if a dodgy song comes on, you simply change the track. Unfortunately, you can only have about two parties before the non-student neighbours despise you, post angry notes through your letter box, complain about the weeds in your front garden and glare at you from their window every time you walk past. The presence of neighbours reminds you that now you have to live in the real world.

Living in the real world also involves doing work, because now, things actually count towards your degree. You start to spend more and more time in the library, largely because it’s actually warm in there, but your finances are seriously run down by the fact you take about three coffee breaks an hour. In fact, the library is more of a social experience than a place of work. Coffee, lunch, afternoon tea, a quick walk around campus? Sure, why not! The essays and assignments do get finished, however, and when the marks come back you discover that when you put work into something, you’re actually quite clever. You now know things: very esoteric, course-specific things that have no practical use in the real world, true, but things nonetheless. When you go home and your relations ask you what you’ve been learning, you’re officially allowed to attempt to explain in baby language before giving up and concluding, ‘It’s a bit complicated for you, really,’ in a patronising voice. You slip words like dialogism and carnivalesque, orientalism and gnomic into your everyday conversation, seemingly unaware of the baffled looks you receive. You’ve become that guy with the beret in your seminar, but now the shoe is on the other foot you’re loving it. However clever you sound, however, by the time it gets to third term – the dreaded exam term – you suddenly realise that you know nothing, and sheer panic sets in. Exam term turns you into a monstrous stress beast: your skin breaks out from stress, your fridge contains nothing but pizza and microwave meals, you wander around with purple circles under your eyes making faint moaning noises like something that has just emerged from the grave. The lead falling out of your pencil is enough to trigger a fit of hysterical tears, and everything your housemates do makes you want to scream – but because everyone’s under the same pressure, no one actually falls out in earnest. Before you know it, exams are over, and if you’ve put in the work then you will probably do quite well. But you’re two-thirds of the way through your degree, and you have no idea how it went by so quickly; before you know it, summer has gone and you’re a finalist, the university equivalent of an old-age pensioner.

By the time you reach third year, you’ve grown up. You’ve realised who your true friends are, and it’s not just the people who have stuck by you since freshers’ week: you’ve made some surprising new friends too. That guy with the beret? He’s actually pretty cool once you get to know him. The things you did in first year seem like a senseless blur. Did you really stay up almost until dawn every night? Now, you’re in bed by ten o’ clock with a mug of hot milk, Classic FM and a nice book to send you to sleep; you just can’t hack more than the occasional crazy night out nowadays. Did you really throw eggs at your friends whilst wearing a colander on your head? Tsh, that would be a nightmare to get out of the upholstery. When did you find time to do work? Right now you’ve got two essays and a presentation to write. And how could you eat pasta and pesto for dinner almost every night? That doesn’t sound very nutritional. You’ve finally learnt how to cook, and you’re practically a michelin-starred chef now, wrapping chicken breasts in pancetta and oven-roasting sweet potato chips with a sprinkle of paprika and marinading a nice fillet of salmon in a bit of soy sauce with some ginger. In fact, you’re starting to wish you hadn’t sold that electric whisk for ten pence at a car boot sale last summer, because you really fancy whipping up a batch of orange and polenta muffins to take along to your next revision session.

Yes, revision sessions happen, because this is the year you have to pull it out of the bag. It’s the year in which you will probably want to find a graduate job or an MA course, and your results may very well determine whether you’ll succeed or not (you never thought about all this stuff when you were sticking your foot down the toilet and flushing it for giggles). You might as well take your duvet and toothbrush and some dry shampoo with you to the library, because you’ve basically become a permanent fixture in there. You make ‘library buddies’, people who you know because they sit in the same place in the library as you, all day, every day; you nod and smile at these people and exchange knowing looks with them (‘You again, eh? How’s the dissertation going?’) but the unspoken rule is that if you see them outside of the library you are not to acknowledge one another. What happens in the library stays in the library, and once you’re outside and blinking in the sunlight, you don’t want to see anything that reminds you of that awful place with its grey carpet, strip lighting and the fascist beady-eyed library stewards who constantly try and confiscate your coffee (even though you both know you’re going to keep drinking it anyway).

You’re old and wise now, and you like to adopt a cyncial, disillusioned air, referring to your own degree as ‘a joke’, making wisecracks about the avalanche of debt about to crash down on your head, and discarding all the university paraphernalia you bought in an exciteable frenzy during freshers’ week – the hoody, the t-shirt, the mug, the keyring, even (in the case of my university) the ‘undie-graduate’ thong – as all this stuff is now considered overenthusiastic and deeply uncool. While you were an intimidated mute in your first year seminars, you are now best mates with all your lecturers, calling them by their first names, possibly even going to the pub and attempting to get them drunk after seminars, at the same time as bitching about them behind their backs to your friends (be warned if you’re going to do this: the acoustics in those lecture theatres are far too good…). The lecturer’s word is no longer god, and you have started to form your own opinions on things, opinions that might even be valid. Exams come round again, and yes, they’re just as horrible as the last set, if not even more horrible, because if you screw up this time you won’t get a chance to rectify it. Third term before exams is pretty much a realisation of your very worst nightmare, but third term after exams – a period of sheer, unadulterated laziness, entire days in bed watching movies, basking in the sun in the park (sunlight! Fresh air! You forgot what that was like), meeting friends for breakfast, brunch, elevenses, lunch, tea, dinner, drinks and nights out – more than makes up for it. Until you open your purse and discover tumbleweed blowing across a desert wasteland, and you have to start eating odd combinations of tinned sweetcorn mixed with couscous and enough emergency frozen potato wedges to fill an American school canteen in order to use up your food before the end. Life without any structure is actually quite boring, and that’s when you start looking forward to the next stage of your life, whatever that may be.

Then it’s the emotional whirlwind that is graduation ball, results day, and the saying of all your final farewells. You repeatedly experience the awkward moment when you say ‘See you later then!’ knowing full well that you won’t see that person later. ‘Have a nice life,’ is too blunt; ‘See you at the ten-year reunion, when I’ll hopefully be richer, more successful and more youthful than you,’ too optimistic, and so you perform a happy little charade in which you both pretend you’re going to bump into each other in Tesco next Tuesday. But you’ll probably never see either that person or that Tesco again, because – what seems like five minutes after you first unpacked your egg-timer and colour-coordinated stationery in that boxy room with the vomit curtains and then hugged your parents goodbye – your parents have arrived to pick you up, and you’re desperately attempting to bundle all your stuff into the car, wondering whether you hadn’t better call up Eddie Stobart to come and pick up the contents of your wardrobe alone. And that brings you to where I am right now, sitting in my room at home, reminiscing about the amazing three years I’ve had and wondering what’s going to happen next. I’m not as sad about leaving as I thought I’d be; I’m ready to move on, and I’ve got living in London and doing my MA next year to be excited about. I’m a little envious of all those who have what I’ve just described here yet to come, but one day they’ll be in this position too. I’ve had my time. Now, it’s time for adult life to begin, and I’m looking forward to being independent and (hopefully) earning a living, maybe even writing a novel. In one final unnecessary literary simile before I give up my academic career (for now at least): Odysseus has returned to Ithaca, and it’s time to start killing those bloody suitors.

Coaxing out the muse

Now that I’m free from exams, I’ve tried to turn my attention to writing again. As I said in my last post, I feel that time is getting on – I’m twenty-one, which is practically twenty-five, which is practically thirty, which is practically dead – and I really need to write The Novel before the drudgery of nine-to-five work shrivels up my brain and I lose the ability to produce anything beautiful or meaningful. The Novel is like the holy grail, which will save me from the all-consuming black hole of arts graduate unemployment. It will save me from having to make endless cups of tea and tidy cupboards in a grovelling attempt to scrabble my way up the career ladder. The Novel will produce a ten-book deal, a movie franchise and a series of action dolls, and leave me richer than the Queen (though that probably doesn’t require much these days). The problem is that my muse simply refuses to come. Every time I sit down in front of my computer to write, I decide that ‘oh I’m a bit too tired actually’ and end up doing what I always do, which is clicking through recipes I am never going to cook on BBC Good Food and pretending in my head I am eating them. Inspiration simply refuses to come. Hunger, shame and self-doubt, yes, but not inspiration.

My muse is like my cat when he’s got a mouse. Weird simile, I know, but that’s how I imagine it. The cat is my muse, the half-dead mouse is The Novel. I can see him in front of me, the tail hanging out of his mouth, attempting to meow but just going MMMMMMRRROOOOOOOOOOOOOOHHHH like someone who’s just taken an overambitious mouthful of really hot soup, but every time I try to get close enough to extract the poor creature from his jaws he’ll growl and crawl backwards into a bush. Yep, my muse is hiding in a bush, and no matter how hard I shake a tub of Kitbits at it, I can’t get it to come out.

I think the problem is that the atmosphere in my room is all wrong. I need either a completely bare, whitewashed room in a dilapidated apartment somewhere in Victorian London, containing no furniture except a battered desk and chair because I’ve sold everything else to the pawnbroker to fuel my laudanum addiction, and where the wind whistling through the broken window pane exascerbates my rattling, consumptive cough – or else a cluttered, quirky independent coffee shop full of douchebaggy men in polo-neck jumpers pounding away at their netbooks to the sound of atmospheric jazz. There are lots of independent coffee shops here, but I don’t think they’d take too kindly to me squatting in their establishments without actually buying any coffee. Hey, I’m a student. We don’t buy things unless we have vouchers for them.

So I’ve been experimenting with different ways to create the perfect writing atmosphere, and I think I’m slowly starting to find what works for me. Every writer works differently, and everyone has his or her own little quirks that help to coax out that elusive muse. Here’s some of the factors I considered:

Music

Song with words tend to be distracting. I wouldn’t want to produce a beautiful sentence, only to later make the humiliating discovery that it was in fact penned by Lady Gaga (and let’s face it, her lyrics are beautiful – what is the name of this club? So the greatest philosophers have asked for centuries). There may be some situations in which lyrics might be useful, though. If I were writing a bleak, cynical novel about the debasement of modern culture and the death of civilisation but was feeling a bit too cheery, for example, I might turn on Capital FM and listen to the latest fifteen-year-old rap sensation telling me about them sexy bitches getting dirty on the dancefloor, or whoever is the current tweenage spawn of the Disney Channel singing in a nasally voice about how going to the Year Eleven prom with Chad made her feel like a beautiful sparkly princess. This would be enough to make me lose faith in humanity once more.

I used to write exclusively to movie soundtracks (mainly the three Lord of the Rings soundtracks, which are incredible), but I’m starting to find those offputting too. When I’m writing a pretty pedestrian scene about my main character driving down the M25 to visit her mum (not that my novel solely contains scenes of such crippling mundanity) I don’t want to listen to the swelling, screeching crescendo as Shelob chases Sam and Frodo through her cave. Oh, or that bit of music that comes just after Aragorn says ‘friends, you bow to no one‘ and then everyone kneels to the hobbits in the third movie, because then I start crying to myself and it reminds me how I really need to get a life. Classic FM tends to be a good middle ground, though I’ve recently discovered Dinner Jazz on Jazz FM, which somehow sounds even better when I turn out the lights and light a candle. That leads me onto my next category…

Lighting

I like low, romantic lighting when I’m writing: often just fairy lights and a flickering candle. It can’t be good for my eyes, and probably explains why I frequently try to pet the washing basket, eat my soup with a fork, and wave enthusiastically at people who have no idea who I am. It’s worth it for the mood that candlelight creates though – it feels magical and ethereal, as if anything could happen, which of course in the world of a novel it can. Incense and scented candles are very calming, too, and they make writing feel like a sacred ritual. For my room in London next year I’m going to buy an enormous scented Yankee Candle, which will also help with the fact my kitchenette is in the same room as my bed and desk, meaning everything is going to smell of salmon and garlic all the time. That can’t be inducive to creativity.

Food and drink

Caffeine is obviously a must; I am adamant if you don’t drink tea or coffee, you can’t be a writer, because there’s something horribly wrong about trying to produce a literary masterpiece while drinking a glass of squash. I usually lose count of how much tea I’ve drunk when I’m writing, but I try to stop before I start twitching/bouncing off the walls/rushing to the toilet every five minutes. Often, my obsessive caffeine consumption isn’t actually about keeping awake. It’s just comforting to see the mug sitting next to my laptop, emitting a friendly curl of steam to me know it’s there to comfort me if I ever feel the urge to faceplant my keyboard in despair. If I’m feeling particularly quaint, I’ll use proper tea leaves and a teapot, because tea tastes so much better when drunk from china (it’s science, innit).

Now, onto the important issue of food. If you’re an impoverished writer like Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment, starving is a necessary requirement, but since I don’t inhabit a nineteenth-century Russian novel, and am in fact middle-class enough that I can afford to snack on goji berries and organic oat biscuits from Waitrose, it would be silly not to eat. The problem with snacking while writing is that it can be quite dangerous. My fingers, when they fail to produce words, automatically reach for the 2-for-£4 tub of M&S extremely chocolately mini-bites to compensate. Once in my first year of uni I unwittingly ate an entire bag of Percy Pigs whilst trying to write an essay, and before I knew it I was running up and down the corridor like a seven-year-old who has just eaten the entire chocolate cake from Matilda, in the middle of Disneyland, before being informed by messenger owl that she will be attending Hogwarts next year. It took a long time to calm me down.

I would advise, then, that you avoid too much artificial sugar. Fruit and nut mix is brilliant. I remember our art teacher in year ten told us off for chewing gum in her lesson, and said we should carry around a bag of nuts in our pocket instead to ‘nibble on throughout the day’. We all thought she was weird at the time, and any kid who offered around a bag of nuts in the playground at my school would probably have got ‘beats’, but she did have a point. I recently had a few Graze boxes delivered to my house, which are expensive but very exciting, because you never know which healthy snacks they’re going to give you. I definitely get a kick from the element of surprise – that’s how exciting my life is.

Clothing

I believe it was Keats who said he had to get dressed up in his best shirt before he sat down to write. He also usually had to be off his face on drugs, but we won’t go there. Anyway, I understand why Keats had to get dressed up. When I spend an entire day in my dressing gown and slippers with greasy bush hair and yesterday’s makeup smeared all over my face (it doesn’t happen often, okay?) I don’t feel like a proper person. When I get up, get dressed and make an effort, I feel like my writing is work. Comfort is important too, however – I don’t want writing to feel too much like work, or it kills inspiration. I have a weird habit of wearing a hoody with the hood pulled up when I’m writing – it makes me feel cocooned in my own cosy little world where no one can disturb me. I’ve always wondered about themed clothing, too. Next time I’m writing a medieval fantasy action-adventure I might put on a pointy wizard’s hat or some elf ears and see if that helps me to feel fully immersed in my world, like the authorial version of method acting. Become the elf.

Writing materials

It’s the age-old debate: laptop or notepad? I won’t go into it here because it’s been done to death. I tend to opt for the laptop for speed and saving the trees and all that. I bought myself a notebook so that I can be a complete arse and sit alone with it and a latte in Starbucks, in a smarmy ‘I don’t need your company because I’m so absorbed in writing my novel’  kind of way (see the Family Guy ‘watch me type in public!’ sketch). I also cross out things a lot, so my notebooks end up looking very angry. Saying that, sometimes I do get an urge to write by hand – it does make you feel more writerly. In these cases, it is essential to find the perfect pen. A crappy biro that splutters ink all over the page and then runs out halfway through a vital sentence just won’t do. My personal preference is a black stainless steel Zebra pen: it feels sleek and smooth and fast, like an inky ninja in my hand. The perfect weapon for killing off a character…

If you’re writing by hand, getting the perfect notebook is also important. I’m a bit of a notebook hoarder – I buy them but then don’t want to ruin their lovely creamy pages with my second-rate writing. I’m a sucker for the Moleskine notebooks, which I know are a rip-off, but I don’t really care. I’m a mug, and the fact they whack ‘ERNEST HEMINGWAY AND PICASSO!!!’ on the packaging is enough to sell it to me. If I buy one, I’ll be a genius like them, right? Even if I just end up drawing smiley triangles wearing little bowler hats in the margins? Oh, and the lovely soft bendy leather covers… Is it weird that I want to stroke them? I wouldn’t go so far as saying that they turn me on, but, you know…

Writing outside

I thought it would be quite romantic to go out to the park, sit on a picnic blanket and write, but it was quite difficult when I tried. Firstly, I found myself needing the toilet after about five minutes, which meant I had to pack up all my stuff and trudge to the nearest manky public conveniences. Then, the wind picked up, making me regret my unfortunate choice of floaty skirt: it’s difficult to write with the pages blowing about everywhere, when one hand’s holding the pen and the other’s trying to prevent the exposure of my bum to the entire park. Then, I got molested by dogs and ducks, two types of animal I am convinced are pure evil (ever seen a group of ducks marching in  a perfect line with a disconcerting air of purpose? I bet you have. As for dogs, they’re just slobbery, gross, overenthusiastic and far too fond of each others’ excrement). Then, a mother and her screaming child set up camp next to me. The problem with public spaces is precisely the word public. Other people are simply awful, and I should know, because I’ve worked in retail.

It would be nice if I could sit down and write whenever, wherever, in whatever conditions, without having to perform a series of bizarre pointless rituals, but in reality it’s just not possible. Even Shakespeare himself couldn’t have written a hit play whilst at the bus stop in a torrential downpour, or in the middle of a nursery full of wailing children, or (in a more Elizabethan-appropriate situation) languishing from bubonic plague in a rat-infested back alley of London. In every case, a little bit of coaxing is required to get the angry growling muse to drop the mouse – and even if it is a bit mangled and saliva-coated, at least it’s a start.