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Friday, 21 July 2017

Anyone for a Creative's Head?

I make a few flippant remarks about writers being bonkers.  Not all are (obvs) but it does take a certain kind of person to take joy from sitting in a room all day, alone, conjuring stuff out of their heads from memory boxes or absolutely nowhere.  Our brains are our powerhouses (give or take a heart).  We sit there typing away at a keyboard, tears rolling down our cheeks at the powerful words we write sometimes, or cheering as one of our characters exact revenge – so real are these fictional worlds to us (obviously I refer to the fiction writers here and not those who write cooking manuals).  ‘What if’ is our mantra.  We spend a lot of time wondering ‘what if this happened to her’ ‘what if that happened to him.’  Anxiety sufferers in the non-book world are crippled by ‘what ifs’.  They are beaten with unrelenting sticks of ‘what ifs’ from which they long to escape whilst writers stand there with signposts on our chests directing ‘what if’ traffic towards them.  It’s no wonder that writers are prone to anxiety.

Anxiety isn’t depression. Depression is far worse: a black cloud that eats up hope and energy, a terrible thing to have – the worst.  Anxiety is exhausting but it creates the energy it needs to feed from. You become hypersensitive to everything around you and what threat is poses. I’ve had it on and off for years, it’s become part of my way of life.  It’s usually my friends who tell me when my worries are exceeding ‘normal’ levels.  Being a mum of two teenage lads and ailing parents – plus chuck in the menopause - brings what I call those ‘normal’ worries.  It is normal to worry that my cocky man-child will not kill himself on a jet ski when he’s off to Ibiza with his equally cocky men-children mates. Normal to worry that my octogenarian parent still thinks she’s able to climb up on a ladder to dust the top of the curtain rails. But when I lie in bed and worry that the ceiling might fall on my head in the middle of the night, for absolutely no reason at all, I know that the red button in my head has started flashing danger.

 I know how to manage it. There’s no shame in admitting I need some non-addictive chemical intervention occasionally; something to help me sleep and keep me asleep.  I’m sure that the new wave of mindfulness might help, except I can’t sit still long enough to meditate. My mouth would be saying ‘Om mani padme hum’ but my head would be thinking ‘Oh shit, I’ve just thought of a plot hole in chapter 5’.  Plus I haven’t managed the Lotus position since 1975.

Those periods where I am at my most manic, where my brain is spinning like a top, are my most creative times. I am in writer’s heaven.  I’m at my worst and my best all at once.  That is the curse of anxiety for me, it is the conjoined twin of my imagination. Anxiety opens doors to chambers in my head that only it has the key to. It nudges me awake at three in the morning with the best ideas.  Without it, I wouldn’t be a writer. Or, at least, I’d be one that had enough writer’s blocks to build a mansion with.

I’m not alone, I know.  Loads of creatives are fruitcakes with added sultanas, we are renowned for it.  Renowned for our excesses and our greed and ambition, renowned for our insecurities, yet we are drawn to the most insecure jobs on the planet.  Anxiety is part of my life and my world and so I cannot deny it entry but, like a demanding relative who has stayed too long at Christmas, there comes a time when I am too tired to entertain it.  I need uninterrupted sleep.  I need to walk down the road without thinking that a car is going to plough into the back of me.  So it is forcefully shown the door, until I realise that I miss its company and the inspiration it brings and ask it to pop back for a cuppa, but it always arrives with its suitcase, and so the cycle begins again.  We are old enemies and old friends, anxiety and I. I am at my most clear-thinking in my work when I am at my most chaotic away from the desk. Take it or leave it, that’s the unnegotiable deal it puts on the table. 

I take it.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

A Smashing Launch

I would love to thank everyone who came to my launch and made it such a sterling success.  The Staniforth's cakes were up to standard - sorry, that's a lie - they were the BEST YET.

Here we have the calm before the storm

My other half and myself spent the day before stocking the bags with Walkers Shortbread, Balhsen Biscuits and My Trusty oils.
The girls were hard at work in the back making a buffet fit for a queen!  And boy did they pull it off!
Mum was first in on the night.

Though it soon filled up - panic though as my two helpers The Hunter Sisters were stuck in traffic and we would have had to cancel everything if they hadn't arrived... but luckily for us all - there they are in the front row!

The cakes were sitting pretty in the next room... with the buffet to outshine all other buffets!

And the cakes that people brought as prizes!!!
These by my lovely friend Cakes by Christina!

I got to take a smaller version of this home as the baker had made me one.  It was gorgeous!

They were just too nice to eat!
This was about half the raffle prizes!
Here is the winner of the Rob Royd Hamper - a joint star prize with the £50 Spencers Arms voucher for a slap up meal in Cawthorne.
 Every year Sandra and Caroline have come up trumps - and this was the best launch yet.
...possibly something to do with my good luck emblem on my cake.

Next year we will be doing something, not quite sure what yet, but there will be a celebration.
Thank you to everyone for supporting me.  We raised £1500 for charity - split between Yorkshire Cat Rescue and The Well.  And I think everyone went home with a full tum and - if not a raffle prize - at least a stuffed goody bag and a big hunk of cake.

Lots of love

Milly xxx

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Our Big Dog

In addition to the dedication in my book - this is the full story of our Big Dog.

People associate Yorkshiremen with flat caps and whippets.  Not so my grandfather, who might have favoured the headgear, but he was never without a Chow at his side.  He had a succession of them, shipped to him from all over the country during his lifetime. Leonine fluffballs of one-man dogs which were totally devoted to him but still endured my cuddles as a child. My sons were as desperate for a dog as I was as a child, but I knew who would be lumbered with all the daily walks so I bought them a kitten each instead.  Then I thought sod it, and we got a dog as well.

My initial choice was a familiar Chow.  I don’t know how or when I fell upon Eurasiers, a relatively new breed, a mingle of Chow and Spitz, bred for their teddy bear looks and friendly devotion to their whole family, but I was sold.  Teddy came to us just after Christmas 2008.  We had to drive down to Southampton for him one foggy, snowy January night.  He slept the whole way, give or take half an hour when my younger son sang Little Donkey to him to soothe his distress.  He was a huge fox-red pup and we named him Teddy because he looked like a living teddy bear.  He loved everyone and everything, although my cats firmly put him in his place of bottom of the pecking order. Puppy-training classes were fun if embarrassing, because Ted was so terrified of the instructor, he opened his bladder and bowels as soon as he saw him.  But eventually, after the world’s longest apprenticeship, Ted learned to be obedient – albeit when he wanted to be. He grew into an all-mouth-and-trousers lad.  Strangers to the house were terrified of his deep bass bark never knowing that he wouldn’t have harmed a fly.  Little children on the school either ran to him for a cuddle or increased their grip on their mothers’ hands because of the ‘lion’ walking towards them.  And that’s what he looked like, as if God had designed a dog that was half-lion, half-bear and then stuck a huge smile on his face. He was such a magnificent boy we were asked to breed from him.  A bitch in season came to visit, Ted was useless.  He was more interested in sitting beside her in the sunshine and showing off his toys.  When the bitch mounted him as if trying to show him what to do, we shook our heads and realised this was not to be.  But I wanted him to have a line of succession so much, in case the day came when he was no longer with us and maybe we could have one of his own boys, to keep us connected.  It never happened.  Teddy was as rubbish at mating as he was at being a hardman.

He accepted the presence of new pets – rescue cats, a rabbit we found hopping about on the road with grace and resigned sighs.  He was with us constantly.  When we all dressed up to watch England play in the Euros, Ted was there on the sofa in his England shirt too.  He loved to ride in the back of the car because that meant he was with us.  He slept at the side of my bed, he sat at the side of the bath when I was in it.  If the boys went into the garden to have a kick-around, he was there with them.  

When we left him to go to the supermarket, he greeted us as if we’d been away for twenty years.  He sat by my side in my office everyday when I wrote, he sat on my feet when I watched TV at night. We thought we’d have him forever.  When he was seven last year, the thought hit me that he might be halfway through his life and I didn’t even want to think about that. If only he had been.

Just after Christmas, I noticed that when he went out into the garden for a quick wee, his whole body crunched over and locked for too long. An exploratory procedure at the vets revealed that he had a tumour in his bladder.  Inoperable and terminal.  Bladder cancer is sly and wicked, it takes up residence, beds itself in and then announces its presence with a ‘Hi, I’m here, staying and growing and there’s nothing you can do about it.’  Medicine that had a slim chance of sending the cancer into remission made Ted very sick and miserable and we had to make the decision to give him quality of the life he had left.  We cancelled any holidays we had planned, scrubbed the diary clean of anything that wasn’t essential and prepared ourselves.  I couldn’t turn off the tears until my other half told me that I had to stop mourning him before he had gone.  We were lost and we needed to plough our energies somewhere.  As Ted loved being outside in the garden, that’s where we started.

We designed a pergola so he could sit outside sheltered from the rain and let the breezes ruffle his thick fur.  Then we had a summer house built to be a happy place where we could remember him, have friends round and fill with company or I could get away from it all and be alone and write.  As a four we painted it inside and out – whilst Ted sat on the lawn and supervised us.  We had the mad idea of making it look like an American diner.  Of calling it Big Dogs, after Ted, of having his image printed on mugs and serviettes, of it being a place stamped with his big dog personality, and filled with his essence.  Somewhere he would always be part of.

I was also writing The Queen of Wishful Thinking at the time.  Ted slipped onto the pages as he slept in my office because I knew this was the last book I would ever write with him at my side.  All the emotion I felt coursed from my heart, down my arm, through the keyboard, onto the screen. My dog became an integral part of the story, as he had been an integral part of my life.  And I have never had a book that flowed so easily from me.  And that is why he is on the back cover - because he is weaved into the fabric of my story.

Ted loved the local park.  My other half Pete and I made sure he went there every day for a bounce around.  One day I was feeling particularly tender as it was just me and Ted and being alone with my thoughts wasn’t doing me any good. As he took a wee and his whole body crunched over, I felt a woman on a scooter behind me, watching him.  ‘Aren’t you going to pick that up?’ she snapped at me, when we started to move off.  ‘He hasn’t done anything,’ I replied.  She gave me a look of such disgust that I screamed at her that he had bladder cancer and that’s why he took ages.  ‘Oh.  Poor thing,’ she relented as I shook two handfuls of black bags at her, like a loon.  The tears were streaming down my face and they didn’t stop for weeks. I went on anti-depressants and they didn’t even make a hole in my sadness.

The cancer was growing in Teddy’s big beautiful body.  He became more and more incontinent, leaking like a rusty tap and constantly needed towelling dry.  We had a rainbow over the house and the carpets weren’t even fit for the skip.  Every night I put down four double sheets for him to sleep on, every morning I washed them. Sometimes he had good walks, sometimes his bladder refused to tell his brain it had emptied and he was crunched over in discomfort until we found a way to distract him.  Sometimes he looked so tired that we thought we would wake up in the morning to find him gone, only to find him pert and bright and ready for the park. His appetite was decreasing and the vet put him on steroids to make him hungry. But the days of dog food were long gone.  He wasn’t interested in his normal diet at all and our days were defined by trying to get him to eat anything to keep up his strength, which consisted of everything that he shouldn’t eat.  He took a liking to fried fish, then he developed a passion for bacon.  Then tins of Pek chopped pork, then kippers, then chicken goujons but only with a sprinkle of Mexican spices.  Then it was cream doughnuts, then sirloin steak.  For a month he had two griddled sirloins per day but only if he was hand-fed them chunk by chunk.  Then the only way he would eat them was if my partner Pete balanced a piece on his foot and pretended to give it to him but telling him to leave it, then snatched it away at the last minute – at which point Ted would dive on it.  It was exhausting. Often there were five or more choices of food in various plates for him because it was a constant guessing game what his tastebuds demanded on the day.  Then they began to demand nothing at all and we were reduced to mixing up powdered ‘Complan for dogs’ and feeding it to him via a syringe, which he hated.  I only had to pick up the whisk and he’d run up the stairs out of the way, but it was keeping him alive so we had to persist.  He was running on almost empty and getting so thin, but he was like an ox and continued to race around the park, taking a surprising interest in finding conkers like the young boy he was.

Meanwhile Big Dogs was taking shape in the garden.  We took mental respite in searching for things on the internet to decorate it with: metal wall signs, old pictures of 50s film stars eating, a sofa, a chair, chequered flooring, a bubble gum machine.  We wanted to complete it for my son’s 18th birthday celebrations, always hoping that Ted would be there with us to see it.  With Ted trotting at our side from house to summer house, we filled it with balloons, bunting, decorations.  We set the popcorn machine going, filled the giant ice bucket with Bud, switched the retro radiator on full and had an amazing fun-filled, warm, family celebration with Ted in the middle of the festivities, just as he always had been.

Then the next morning we took him to his favourite place – the park – and he bounced around like a pup, chasing a ball that didn’t belong to him – something he rarely did.  Then suddenly he looked exhausted.  He stood on top of the hill and Pete and I watched him just survey the whole vista and I thought ‘he’s saying goodbye to everything he loves here.’  I didn’t say it aloud because it sounded mawkish and dramatically sentimental.  Then we got to the car and Pete, who is grounded and sensible, said ‘did you see the way he looked at everything?  It was as if he was saying goodbye to the park.’  And we knew we were coming to the end.

The next day – dad’s 84th birthday (Ted loved dad as much as he loved Ted)  Ted was very tired.  For the first time, after visiting my parents, we had to lift him into the car when we left.  All we had ever wanted was to know was when the time was right to let him go, and we knew without any doubt that he’d had enough.  He was very sick, very limp and yet when the postman arrived at the door, he still leapt up to bark, to guard the family he loved from a possible intruder.  We slept on the floor with him that night.  We told him that it was okay to leave us before the pain really set in, but he wouldn’t desert us.  His young heart kept pumping, kept him with us. He’d hung around for the grand unveiling of Big Dogs – the place we’d built with him, for him.   The hours of the clock crawled around to the time when we knew we’d have to say goodbye.  It was the worst kind of torture. It is a terrible responsibility to free something you love from suffering, a right thing but so very painful.  But we were all in no doubt that the time had come.  At least we had that comfort.

There was no way that when we let him go that it wouldn’t be in his home.  He was weak in his basket when the vet came (eventually after the silly woman on the reception desk gave him the wrong address miles away, which I can’t forgive, and I just can’t go back there) and it took barely no anaesthetic at all to send him on his way.  He flopped backwards into my arms and there his head grew heavy and yet still his lungs seemed to try to pull in breaths, determined not let us down and go.  He lay in my arms soft and warm and huge like the great big teddy bear he was. 

The man from the pet crematorium took him away when he was still warm because I couldn’t bear to feel him grow cold.  It took both him and Pete to carry Ted to his van in a lovely big basket.  He was kindness itself, gentle, reverent – I’d recommend him to anyone.  His ashes came back to us the next day, they weighed a ton. They are at the side of my bed and there they'll stay.  One day when I'm sprinkled to a breeze, he'll be with me.

Don't do what I did at the beginning and grieve your pets before they've gone or you'll lose them many times - and once is enough.

The more you love something, the deeper the crater they leave and my Big Dog scooped out my innards and left me hollow. We will move on, because we have to, because this is life and it is its nature to end and those of us who are left, grieve and attempt to rebuild. But I miss everything about him.  I miss the ways his ears pricked up when the word ‘Park’ or ‘Ride’ was mentioned.  I miss how he squeezed out of the front door when we opened it to force us not to leave him behind.  I miss how he pressed himself into you when you wanted some love and how his bottom sashayed like Marilyn Monroe’s when he trotted over grass as he searched for things to urinate upon – his favourite hobby. I miss his night patrols when I would sense his nose near mine, sniffing my breath to make sure I was still alive.  I miss how he rushed at us to greet us when we returned home, smiling, happy that we were safely back in his territory.  I miss his bulk on my feet as he lay down with us in the evenings around the TV and the way his big brown eyes looked at me as if I was the most special person that God had ever made. A new pup is on its way, but he will be his own man - not a replacement, because Ted is irreplaceable. But we are rebuilding, around the shape of him that he has left in our lives, because our beautiful daft lad, our big dog is – and will always remain – part of us. His family.