A Writing Life: Autobiography

SOMETIMES it feels as if I wrote before I could even speak. Not true, obviously, but I have always been more comfortable with the written word – so intimate and self-contained – than with the fly-away ephemerality of conversation. Essentially an introvert (with exhibitionist tendencies), I have always found the process of committing thought to paper a soothing one. I write to discover how I feel. And how to live. The words show me the way forward.

Starting out in journalism

A bookish girl, and then an intense adolescent and foreign languages student, it was inevitable that the path ahead would somehow be strewn with writing. The first job I had, as a rookie London journalist, in 1979, was for Paper Magazine, trade journal of the paper making industry. The only bewildered woman amidst a sea of techno savvy male suits! I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, but I knew how to put one word in front of another, and soon discovered how to craft a news story, how to lay out a page, how to proofread, write to deadline, and above all SURVIVE, in the then male-dominated, booze-addled world of (just off) Fleet Street. In other words, I learned my trade.

After a year I left to become a freelance journalist. Paper Magazine was the only full-time job I had ever had – and I’ve never had another one since! Self employment is fraught with danger. Life is always precarious. Permanently on the breadline. Work is unreliable – and the freelancer is always the little fish on the outside of the pool, easily swallowed up by the ambitious career piranhas in the centre. But when you are freelance, you are free. And freedom matters to me. The path less taken.

Joining the young radicals

Life in London in the 1980s was heady and exciting. I wrote for an underground magazine called The Leveller – operating out of a shabby little basement behind Kings Cross, and then in a broken down building by the frontline in Brixton. There were riots. We plotted insurrection. Margaret Thatcher may have been queen – but her subjects were definitely revolting. I wrote all the time. As if my life depended on it. About theatre, books, politics – the women’s movement. My feminism was fierce. The hair was very short. I joined two women’s collectives – Spare Rib and Sheba Feminist Publishers. It was the era of interminable meetings and discussions. Everyone had to agree – and no one ever did. But we had energy and verve and excitement in our blood. We felt we were re-making the world, and maybe, in some small way, we really were…

Books and Arts Editor at Tribune

From 1984 to 1986 I was Books and Arts Editor on Tribune, the newspaper for the left wing of the Labour Movement. Two days a week to create two weekly pages from scratch. It was a challenge, and great fun. “You are sitting in George Orwell’s chair now”, they told me – citing an illustrious predecessor and striking a note of terror deep into the heart. Chris Mullin – now veteran Labour ex MP – was our editor. He ran a tight ship. Not many smiles on press day. Meanwhile, many people who now stalk the corridors of power, used to drift through my door, taking books to review, missing deadlines, running over word length, taking liberties…

City Limits Magazine and my first book

In the evenings, I was usually at the theatre, reviewing shows, interviewing directors and performers, both for Tribune and for London arts magazine, City Limits. My first book, Flowers in Hell: An Investigation into Women in Crime (Pandora Press) came out in 1987. It should have been plainer sailing from here on in…More features, more books, an established freelance writing career. I was 30. Still a rebel. But not quite as feverish as I had been at the beginning. And then something happened. A fork in the road. I got ill. And then – as rehabilitation – I started to dance (See my Dancing Autobiography page). And that was that. I donned the red shoes, and was off. Starting all over again.

Dancing and Gardening

Dancing was a revelation. Discovering the body after years of living inside my head. I trained full time at the Laban Centre, left journalism behind me, and spent the next decade or so dancing, teaching actors, performing (a little) and moving (a lot). Getting out of my weary mind and into the dancing groove. This is when I met my husband Tim, had my daughter Molly, and moved up north to Leeds. Most of my 40s were spent as carer to my husband, who had a serious cancer, and as mother to a small girl. The dancing became quieter – more T’ai Chi, less boogie woogie. And I started to garden: a deeply pleasurable discovery.

Writing for the Guardian

But beneath it all, bubbling away all along, were the words that I had so defiantly pushed away… In 2005, a year after my husband died, I wrote an article for the Guardian, on the therapeutic power of nature, of letting flowers grow, in the wake of grief and loss, called “Blooming in the Shadows” 

More Guardian features followed – autobiographical pieces on mid-life, about my mother, my father and my dog. Here are a few:

“I am beginning again”

“Our Rescue Dog”

“In Praise of Good Fathers”

“My Gracious Grandmother”

“Family Festival”

“Finding my Mother in the Garden”

Two memoirs: writing from life

Different features for different magazines and newspapers started to appear – in Psychologies Magazine, Femail, even Woman’s Weekly. Then a book in 2007, about how the garden “saved” me: “A Handful of Earth” (John Murray) and another, in 2013, about the therapeutic power of animals: “Old Dog” (Simon and Schuster). And for years I wrote a gardening column for On:Yorkshire Magazine. Now I write book reviews and arts features for the same magazine.

Playwriting at Leeds Playhouse

In 2017/18 I embarked on a playwriting venture – co-writing a short play, called ‘A Horse Called Freedom’, with a woman who lives with dementia, and reflecting on the reality, and the poetry, of her life. It has been a revelation, and has been showcased as part of  THREE short original plays in West Yorkshire Playhouse’s #EveryThirdMinute Festival.

Other People’s Stories

For over a decade I have worked at Leeds Playhouse and out in the community, running Creative Writing sessions, and encouraging people to write their stories: to find the delight in exploring their lives, and their imaginations, in the way that I have done throughout my own life. In 2019 I joined the Performance Ensemble, and have explored the telling of individual stories there, both as a dramaturg, writer and editor. During the Covid 19 crisis, we began assembling stories online, which you can read here, and which will continue to amass as the years go by. I know from all this, that I grow as a writer, through my interactions with other people, as they begin to write. It is a fascinating and enriching process.

Memoir in Progress

In 2019 I started work on a new manuscript, called “Phoenix Rising.” This is a book of the body – its weaknesses and flaws, its great triumphs, its resilience. I am particularly interested in how we recover from illness or injury, also – from loss and bereavement. With every personal challenge, from a broken shoulder to pernicious anaemia, I realise that something new comes from the “fall”. We never stop growing and developing, well into old age. Curiosity is the key. Keep looking!

Writing – the marvellous journey

The writing has changed, it is different now, tempered by age, the sorrows of loss, the simple joys of just being alive. I am less zealous, less certain, than that fiery 20 year old, writing from the barricades, preaching permanent revolution. But my words have more weight – they are written, not just from the inside of my head, but on the body, too. The body of experience. And I cannot say what worth this writing life has for other people – although I do believe in the value of communicating deeply-felt feelings and experiences, as honestly and as powerfully as possible – but I know what it means to me. Everything, really. I write to discover how I fit in the world, who I am. What is of value: and what can be put aside. It is a great privilege, to be able to hold a pen and write down words on paper – letting the energy flow through, and onwards… ever forward. I highly recommend it.

To quote C.P.Cavafy’s “Ithaka”, on the mythic journey that Ulysses made:

“Keep Ithaca always in your mind/Arriving there is what you’re destined for./But don’t hurry the journey at all./Better if it lasts for years, so you’re old by the time you reach the island,/wealthy with what you’ve gained on the way,/not expecting Ithaka to make you rich…..// Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey…”

2 thoughts on “A Writing Life: Autobiography”

  1. Just trying to leave a note to thank you for your generous and imaginative review of my book on George Eliot


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