Mavis's Shoe

Author of two novels and a creative memoir.

Friday, 6 April 2018

Lovely Layby Life

Yesterday was a belter of a day for me. After the lengthy but enlivening snow cover, we’ve had a lot of dull, overcast, wet and cold days. And thanks to the BBC weather department I knew in advance that the sun was likely to appear and the temperature rise, but for one day only.

So I set off in the campervan for the hills. Local ones, mind. An overnight still feels out of the question. Having set off, I could see my destination was in fact white with snow, whereas the countryside I was driving through was a rather pale, sleepy green, and mud brown, not forgetting the black arms of trees against the sky seeming to implore the weather god for something better, and soon. I did consider rerouting to greener pastures, but I know and love my chosen layby. Routine saves wasting time on unnecessary decisions, and therefore keeps the focus on writing.

My road into nowhere was only passable because forestry lorries, such a feature of Scottish country life just now, had been up and down all morning. But my layby was full of snow, and another car (shock! horror!) was parked at one side. No matter. I had important things to be getting on with.

So I got in the back and made tea (obviously) and considered my options. The sun was doing its best and where it was breaking through the clouds, the hillside was dazzling. So I decided to chance it and opened the back door, the better to afford a clear view of the hillside opposite, which I think you’ll agree is rather lovely with the snow picking out drainage features, rock structures, fields and enclosures. There was heat in that sun. It seemed wise, if not unavoidable, after my tea, to gather my strength by laying back and having a little snooze. I kid you not. I slept in the sun yesterday.

By the end of the day much of the layby’s snow had thawed to chilly puddles. Also by the end of the day I had written loads of words and more importantly, made numerous decisions about my story, sorted out some inconsistencies and moved it on by a couple of plot points.

As well as all this, and this is one of the real pleasures of layby life, I had three layby encounters, and no, not that kind. The kind where real things are said and no-one has anything to gain by faking it or showing off. First was a woman out walking with (perhaps) her husband. While he wandered on, she stopped to say hello and ask what I was up to. I waved Writing On The Road at her and I gave her a short tour of the van (it’s very small). It turns out she’s a poet. Naturally I offered her all the encouragement to escape and write in laybys as I could muster.

The next was the sheep farmer who works the land around my chosen layby. I’ve been going there for years and only ever seen him fly past on his buggy with his dog in a box (open) on the back. What a pleasure it was to meet him and get to ask about stuff that’s had me wondering for ages. There was also a walker with rather limited manners, but of course, he might appear in the next book. Nothing in layby life is ever wasted.

I'll be on Radio Scotland's Out for the Weekend program later on today (about 3pm) if you want to hear me talk about the joys of solo campervanning, what made me write the book and some of the things that have gone both wrong and right.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Opulence

I have many bodies, professional ones that is, and this weekend I attended the 30th anniversary celebrations for the existence of one of them: Person-Centred Therapy Scotland. When not writing, I work in private practice as a counsellor/psychotherapist. Like writing, it can be a rather lonely occupation, so imagine my delight at being with 70 other counsellors in one giant circle of friendliness.

I find the same comfort at gatherings of writers because I do and feel similar things to both these groups of people. And of course what those two occupations have in common is the need to find the right words and to follow stories in all their glorious or painful detail as accurately and delicately as possible.

Saturday’s celebration was a strange day. The venue was Merchant House, slap bang in the centre of Glasgow. Sitting opposite the extremely grand City Chambers at the other end of George Square, but with a comparatively discreet side entrance on West George Street, the grandeur of the architecture is obvious but dwarfed. It's an ancient organisation of Glasgow merchants, including the tobacco and sugar lords. Its constitution dates from 1605, but it’s been in existence much longer and came to its present accommodation in 1877. The interior of Merchant House lives up to the description in the brochure and is opulent.


It seemed an odd choice for a bunch of counsellor, many of whom deal daily with some of the most disturbed, unhappy or deprived people in our society. Huge dark portraits of well-fed white men hung in gilt frames above our heads. Dark panels lined the lower walls and contained the names and ages of dignitaries who bequeathed ‘100 merks’ or more on their passing in the 17th and 18th centuries. In the dining room there was more gold than paper in the walls. In the Grand Hall, a globe and galleon soared in the highest most central spot above what, in a church, would have been an altar.


Last month was Black History Month. There have been events and exhibitions throughout the country, not least in Glasgow where our slavery history is at last coming to light. Slavery through the centuries and around the globe, including present day slavery, has become the obsession of the writing part of me for the last year. It was difficult, therefore, to view the beautiful scale model of a three-masted sailing ship without thinking of the famous diagram of the Brookes slave ship with hundreds of Africans squeezed together like inanimate cargo.


It was ‘challenging’ to view these benign portraits of men amidst the gold with the empathy required of a counsellor when the writer in me knew that much of their wealth derived from overseas plantations they may never even have visited but which were populated by people who were abducted from their ordinary lives and enslaved. The story is of course more complicated than that and Merchant House continues to do the charitable work around Glasgow it was set up to do. This is to be applauded and encouraged, especially today when banks and badly run capitalist ventures are encouraged in their capricious ways by an equally capricious and irresponsible government.

But actually the history of slavery is as simple as that. People we were abducted en masse, dehumanised and treated with absolute brutality.


We are horrified by the Holocaust of WW2 and wonder how the Germans could not have known what was going on in their back yard. But we humans are a delusional lot. We compartmentalise. Out of sight, out of mind. A tiny drop of sugar in your tea doesn’t mean you’ve lost control of your diet. A wee dram of rum won’t tip you over the edge of oblivion. You deserve that chocolate because you’ve had a hard day. But the abstinence movement that was popular around the 1790s, the first popular consumer boycott of its kind in Britain at least, when women were engaged in the fight against slavery by, as housekeepers, refusing to use sugar or rum from overseas plantations, was a major blow to the trade in human lives.

Today most of the world’s chocolate is harvested by enslaved children and young people working in conditions identical to those on the North American, South American and Caribbean plantations. Knowing this makes me careful I my choice of brand.
It is often the job of the counsellor to hold the different and conflicting realities of our clients, and indeed ourselves. It is also our job to do this with clarity, including not muddying up the waters with our own issues. At times it was hard on Saturday to listen to the discussions of the counselling group while so aware of the source of the wealth of the accommodation. But it is my job, and for me it is also my philosophy as both counsellor and writer, to see with the greatest clarity possible what is really going on around me, or indeed far away.

The reality of the estimated 27,000,000 people around the world currently living in conditions of slavery is a reality which is extremely difficult to contemplate, and less easy to bear. But to be fully human we must see it and know it and act.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Real Remembrance


As I understand it, the red poppy signifies the blood shed in fields by young men in a war which was unnecessary and should never have happened. It was never about supporting our troops to go out and shed more blood, either their own or that of others, but this seems to be how the meaning of the red poppy badge has evolved: a political statement instead of a remembrance of the tragic and ugly realities of war.

So how about we don’t wear a red poppy this time but instead light a candle in the privacy of our own homes and think about all those young lives that were lost in these wars (and others not mentioned on the Imperial War Museum site from where the following information comes):

First World War, 1914–1918
Russian Civil War, 1917–1922
Irish War of Independence, 1919–1921
Irish Civil War, 1922–1923
Second World War, 1939–1945
Korean War, 1950–1953
Kenya Emergency, 1952–1960
Suez Crisis, 1956
Malayan Emergency, 1948–1960
Aden Emergency, 1963–1967
The Troubles, 1968–1998
Falklands War, 1982
Gulf War, 1990–1991
Bosnian War, 1992–1995
Kosovo War, 1998–1999
Global War on Terrorism, 2001–2013
War in Afghanistan, 2001–2014
The Iraq War and Insurgency, 2003–2011

And let’s also remember all the civilians on the ground, millions of them, who died incidentally in the name of preserving other civilians.

Remembrance of the dead is usually a private thing. Perhaps we should keep it that way.

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Star Struck

This is the Dark Sky Park in Galloway, southern Scotland in broad daylight in late October. It was taken following tea, oatcakes and red Leicester cheese and, before that, an evening in the company of two strangers in the middle of a field in the dark.

Newton Stewart was the only area not covered in cloud on Saturday 22nd October. I was a day late for the peak of the Orionid meteor storm but still hopeful of seeing something, so I alerted the Balloch o’ Dee campsite to the purpose of my journey in advance of my arrival.

Feeling like Susie No-Mates, I hurried down there, hooked up and grilled my fishcakes. The van was glaring white and toute seule in the middle of a (dark) green field below a rise. Along the rise stood a gathering of horses, silhouetted against the twilight sky.
By the time I’d finished eating, Caroline and David, two members of the BoD fraternity, had elected to join me. We stood peering at the cloudy sky shielding our eyes from the light outside the toilet block. Realising our difficulty, David turned off all the lights and soon afterwards the clouds parted and we spent the next four hours gazing upwards at shooting stars, pale or startling, in all directions.

My eyes adjusted completely to the dark, a process that takes roughly 30 minutes all in. It’s a measure of my speedy city lifestyle that I haven’t stood still long enough in the dark for this to have happened in a while. The ocular adaptability made the swash of Milky Way distinct and the continued presence of the horses known. We positioned ourselves facing the area we believed Orion to be, the main area the Orionids would be visible, hence the name, but regularly scanned the 180° our necks could manage. It was an evening of delights and frequent gasping at the many shooting stars. We joked that the action was probably all happening behind us.
Conversation was easy, despite my not having met them before and I’m extremely grateful for their calm companionship. After a while, Caroline drifted home. David stoked a fire he’d made in a pot-bellied open stove and offered me a beer. I was chilled in both senses of the word and also deeply happy.

The fire had meant we could stay out longer, but it also affected our vision and made the sky re-darken, so after David went to his caravan, I circumnavigated the camper several times and tried not to look at the dying fire.

Orion crept over the horizon, yes, directly behind where we’d sat, distinctive and unmistakable, and I got to watch through my binoculars the rise of an orange half-moon to Orion’s north.

At last I stood staring north, thanking my lucky stars for such good company, for the beautiful place, the dark, the Milky Way and a fabulous way to spend my time, when one last bright shooting star shot from east to west in exactly the area in which I gazed. ‘Wow’ was all I could say, over and over, and over and over again.

Impossible to photograph the dark, but this was the view in the morning:

And here's a panorama of Balloch o' Dee:
And their website: http://www.ballochodee.com/

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Jostling head

I’ve always been a split personality. But I don’t think I’m the only one. In fact, I think we all have different versions of ourselves which come front stage from time to time, or lurk behind the scenes pulling strings, or act as go-between linking your extrovert and introvert selves.

I also happen to think we need all the different parts of ourselves in order to function properly. Whatever. Because so many different things matter to me right now, I’m finding there’s a lot going on in the theatre of my life with lots of ‘characters’ all jostling for space at the podium.

This is possibly not the best way to introduce the fact that, as well as writing novels and memoirs, ghosting for others, editing dissertations for overseas students, facilitating workshops and so on, I have recently returned to my old counselling business. This is an incredibly exciting development for me. Last week I reread the text which made me fall in love with person-centred counselling all those years ago (nearly 20), Person-Centred Counselling in Action, by my old professor, Dave Mearns, and his colleague, Brian Thorne.

It has a boring title and a dull cover, but is an inspiring read and, like the student quoted on page 19, it has always read to me like a recipe for how to offer love (perhaps with a small ‘l’) to another person. ‘It’s about being free to treat other people in a loving way,’ she says. It’s a practical guide, and difficult to do, but I know from past experience that person-centred counselling really does work.

I had also decided to return to my earlier name of Sue Reid in order to keep Sue Reid the counsellor distinct and untainted by the madness that is Sue Reid Sexton, but those social media gremlins that rule the world now are having none of it. Therefore, I come clean: they are one and the same.

Except they’re not. It turns out they’re similar but quite distinct parts of me. For each to function fully they have needs which have to be met. They occupy different but similar spaces in my head. I am each one completely when I am actively functioning as either one or the other, such as tapping the laptop keys or engaging with a counselling client. Clients can rest assured that they have my full attention when I’m with them. With writing I’m in more danger or wandering off piste. It’s when I’m not doing either of those things that the confusion, and even discomfort, starts.

If I’m writing a novel, sometimes characters, situations and sentences float through my mind when I’m doing other things. If something interesting crops up, I jot it down in a notebook and continue with the washing up, still mulling. It’s a bit like sleeping on a problem. The work is going on even when I’m not consciously focussing on it. Likewise, the stories people tell in counselling often linger too. My mind wanders back to them in the days between sessions. Another counsellor once described it as people inadvertently ‘taking up residence in your house of counselling’. You can see how between these two very important activities, counselling and writing, there are a lot of ‘people’ milling about, many needing the attention of a counsellor, others of a writer. The distinction between the two is absolute, but I have only one brain.

While this is slightly overwhelming, it’s also interesting and stimulating. I’m hoping the various parts of my psyche, writer, counsellor, mother, facilitator, driver, editor and beachcomber, for instance, will sit down together and offer each other food for thought.

For more information on counselling click here.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

16 in a Campervan

Earlier this year I attended a wedding in a remote part of Scotland. It was a second time around for both parties. The bride has four daughters, the groom four sons. The wedding took place amidst much hilarity in Kilfinnan Church and Kilfinnan Hotel. The blended, merged, and by all appearances delighted and newly formed family stayed in the giant (obviously) Kilfinnan House (replete with spa bath, sauna, table tennis, table football and pool table) where they all remained for the duration of the holiday/honeymoon.

Another couple and their son also stayed, and two daughters’ boyfriends, and I was invited to park my little campervan beside the house. Sadly, circumstances conspired against me so I only managed the nights before and of the wedding.

(The warmth of this family would make you weep). (Made me weep.)

Being the type of opportunist I am, I decided to break the record for the number of people I’ve had in that Romahome campervan. All eleven children of Applecross Primary once sat in there with ease, and on another occasion but with slightly less comfort, eleven slightly drunk adults from a Paisley book group crammed in there too.

Post wedding, we managed all sixteen of us.

Here are the other fifteen (without me) including the tops only of two heads. In case you don’t believe me, go to this link and you’ll see the bride, then the groom, then the rest of the party leaving the van.
Sadly, Paddy the Irish Wolfhound declined to join in.



Later the pet duck was persuaded to leave her paddling pool and join me in the cab.

How many people can you get into a Romahome or other tiny campervan?

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Absent blogger ...

Oops! I blogged for someone else this time and didn't want to repeat myself here. Instead I'm adding a link about the rest of the trip to France.

(It was fab, btw, and I'd go back in a heartbeat. Unfortunately it would take more like three and a half days.)

The new blog is on the Books From Scotland website and is part of a special newsletter about travel. There's also a great selection of other books on the subject.