Nicola Monaghan's news, events and general thoughts about life and writing.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Epidurals and Carol Ann Duffy

Yes, these are not subjects that appear to be connected on first pass so please bear with me. After all, this is my second blog post in one day, and you gotta hand it to me for that.

Yesterday, I accidentally clicked something on my iGoogle home page and downloaded some gadgets to my desktop. It could have been a disaster but it turned out to be pretty cool. I now have a little clock, a slideshow of pictures randomly selected from my hard drive and a stream of news that I can personalise if I want to. I've not done that yet. I've left it random to see what comes up.

What came up today was a link to the Daily Mail (a paper that winds me up so much I would never usually read it) about a local (male) midwife and his opinions on epidurals. As I said when I posted this to Facebook and Twitter; only a man could come up with this one.

"maternity units should abandon routine pain relief" Hmm... As a blogging friend of mine so eloquantly put it, he 'should really have a go at shitting a bowling ball' and see if he feels the same way after that.

"Dr Walsh said the NHS was too quick to give in to requests for pain killing injections." Not the experience of anyone I've ever spoken to on this topic. In fact, certainly concerning epidurals, the opposite appears to be the case, the doctors and midwives working hard to be as discouraging as possible, right up to the point where they say 'Oh well, it's too late now. Might as well just get on with it now he/she will be here in a minute'. A friend of mine was even told 'you'll still have to push, you know' when she requested an epi, as if her unreasonable insistence on pain relief was all down to being a bit of a lazy cow who couldn't be bothered to try harder to get her baby out.

His final pearl of wisdom was that 'A large number of women want to avoid pain. More should be prepared to withstand it. Pain in labour is a purposeful, useful thing, which has a number of benefits, such as preparing a mother for the responsibility of nurturing a newborn baby.'

A large number of women want to avoid pain. No shit Sherlock. An aversion to pain is inbuilt in the human psyche. Jesus H C that's the entire point of pain, to be something we want to avoid! Human beings made a good decision, in general, to stand up and free our hands for other things and we've evolved well on that, the only problem is that it's meant childbirth for our species is painful and dangerous. Left completely to nature, a large number of women and children would die in the process of childbirth. I don't imagine for a second that this man believes intervention to ensure the safety of patients is a bad thing. Why does he feel that women should go through all the unnecessary pain? This kind of outdated thinking is what holds our society back from progress. It makes my flesh crawl to think that this man is involved with women at such a vulnerable time in their lives and I think it's no coincidence at all that most of the women I know have chosen to give birth at the other hospital in my city for their second baby onwards.

I also can't help wondering that, if we need this pain to prepare us, what is it that readies the male of our species for the responsibility of nurturing their children? Should we all give the men in our lives a nice big kick in the balls while they hold their new baby just to make sure they understand what nurturing their child is about? What a pile of steaming hogwash. Seriously. Does this sadist really believe the best start in life for a baby is to make sure their mother is totally stressed and in agony as he or she comes into the world to make sure they understand the implications of looking after their bundle of joy? On what scientific basis is he suggesting this to be the case?

Now, I'm not anti men. In fact, I rather like the creatures. However, on this one topic I really cannot be anything but Millie Tant and say that the first man to deliver a baby through his own vagina can also be the first to comment whether or not pain relief is necessary. Yes, there are risks associated with epidurals but, as my mum pointed out years ago, if men were the ones who gave birth there'd be pain relief developed by now that was much more effective and safe than what is currently available to women giving birth. They'd have damn well made sure of it.

It did remind me of a Carol Ann Duffy poem. It's from her collection The World's Wife, my favourite poetry book and one I was lucky enough to hear her read from on Friday. I was double favoured, as I booked the tickets on the spur of the moment and only found out on the night that it was her first official reading as Poet Laureate. I was thrilled. I've heard differing reviews of how well she reads and connects with an audience but on Friday she was fabulous.

Ms Duffy wrote a poem called 'from Mrs Tiresias'. For those who don't know the story of Mr Tiresias, he was a greek mortal who was transformed by the gods into a woman for seven years, as a punishment (!) for killing a pair of copulating snakes he'd been offended by. I think the idea is that he was disgusted by their copulation, rather than that one of them had called him a name, but really, none of that is so vital to my point. The thing you need to know is that he was a man and Hera, a goddess, turned him into woman. There were lots of laughs during Carol Ann's readings from The Worlds Wife, but this line, from 'from Mrs Tiresias' possibly was the most well received.

Then he started his period (dramatic pause and knowing look into the audience by Ms Duffy)
One week in bed.
Two doctors in.
Three painkillers four times a day.

And later
a letter
to the powers-that-be
demanding full paid menstrual leave twelve weeks per

Personally, I'm going to have a word with Hera myself. See if she can turn that trick for me just one more time. I have a target in mind. A certain member of the medical profession who works down the road from where I live. I'd like him, live on TV, legs in stirrups, shitting out said bowling ball to repeat the wise words from his latest report. Or admit that he was wrong. If he did the latter then, maybe then, I'd give him his epidural. Though I might make him beg first. That, after all, is what he is suggesting NHS doctors and midwives do to the women in their care.

Strange dreams

I've had some very unusual and vivid dreams recently.

In the first, someone bought me a bag of 'bushtucker trials' for a present. Now, I don't watch that jungle celebrity show, but I am aware of the concept, clearly. I remember Germaine Greer on some morning breakfast show and her credibility slipping out the window behind her as she complained about cruelty to insects and the crowding of the poor things in the dessert dishes they used on this show. Maybe Germain has never seen a hive of bees or nest of ants, bless her bleeding heart. She makes some good points in this article, but it wasn't how she came across on the telly. Anyway... I digress.

In the dream, my bushtucker present was wrapped in a big, brown sack, made of that fine but itchy woven material I believe is called sackcloth or hessian, though that's not important. It claimed on the label that there was some for 'now' and some for 'later'. I opened the sack to have a peep inside. Immediately insects swarmed out; electric blue flying creatures that darted as they flew, like hornets or small dragonflies. They were followed by tiny birds, also bright blue. I was with someone in my dream, one of those undisclosed people you get in dreams who have no face and body, or even an identity, but are a presence, watching or doing something with you. We both balked at the idea that anyone might try to eat these creatures and laughed at the idea that whoever had bought me this present thought that I might. In the centre of the sack there were a load of maggots and caterpillars, wriggling against each other and looking full of life. I'm not at all surprised that I dreamed about insects and larvae. My fiction is full of them, and I have a complete fascination with their lifecycle that I wasn't fully aware of until I started writing and it all came out.

My second dream was about a friend. A real friend, not a faceless presence, but one I won't name here for reasons that will become obvious. In this dream, the friend was having an affair and me and a bunch of mutual acquaintances were standing outside his flat talking loudly about it. We hadn't even considered the consequences of this until a friend of his partner popped her head out of the window and asked us to explain. I was straight in there, covering for him. 'Oh it's all past tense. It's the affairs she already knows about.'

The bloke concerned isn't, as far as I am aware, having an affair. In fact, there were some in his past but he did fess up and he and partner patched their life back together. I'm fairly sure he's been good since. I have no idea why any of this came into my dreams.

I like dreams. I have vivid ones, and lucid dreams too sometimes. I can often control what happens next and often replay a dream I didn't like and change the ending. I used to do this with fiction, when I was younger. If I didn't like the way a story finished, I would sit back and close my eyes and imagine something else, rewrite it for myself to something more satisfactory. I guess this was an early sign of the path my life would take.

I am dreaming loads at the moment, and also getting down the words. I'm working on a rewrite, so it's not all new material, but on good days I'm managing to get through ten thousand words or more. I think the two things are connected but I have no idea which drives the process.

It reminds me of a question I'm asked a lot at author events, a famous one that all writers hate only because it's so hard to answer. 'Where do you get your ideas from?' For me, they come from the writing. That probably sounds strange as, if the ideas come from the writing, how do you do any writing to begin with? I don't have an answer to this question. It's all a bit chicken versus egg.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Word of Mouth 8th July

If you are around Nottingham on 8th July (that's tomorrow) and free for the evening, then come along to the event below. Lots of the coolest Nottingham writers, like me, of course lol, and a free glass of wine with your ticket. What more could you want? Hope to see you there...

Word of Mouth – Wed 8th July 2009, 7.15pm in The Len Maynard Suite, (upstairs) The Royal Centre, Nottingham.

Curated by Michael Eaton, Word of Mouth promises to be a very special event, with readers including: Jon McGregor, Nicola Monaghan, Mike Wilson, David Belbin and John Lucas, covering a variety of forms from Newspaper interviews (James Urquart’s Lobster Lunch with Kazuo Ishiguro) to Ann Featherstone’s extracts from the journals of a Nottinghamshire Edwardian Lad, besides poetry, short fiction and critique. Tickets from RCH Box Office: £4 NWS Members/£5 other includes glass of wine/soft drink.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Lowdham and space time

The same thing seems to happen to me every time I arrive at Lowdham Book Festival. I walk into the main hall and find Ross (one of the organisers) and Jon McGregor chewing the cud near the main door, along with various people I've known over the years from the MA and the first punters of the day perusing the book stalls. I really love this about the Lowdham festival; that the writers and readers mix like this and there is none of this fake separation between the 'talent' and those who pay the wages. It feels very down to earth.

This year when I saw Jon, and Ross, and the people from various previous Trent MA intakes, I was struck down with a very strong sense of deja vu. My very first Lowdham came to mind, freshly published, a double act with Jon. His relaxed style and gentle sense of humour put me at ease completely and the day was a lot of fun. There's something about Lowdham that throws me back, though, further than that. Back to when I was a student.

The thing that's weird about that is that the Lowdham I'm thrown back to was one I didn't even go to. It was the day I started to write The Killing Jar. I was at the end of my first year on the MA course. It was a lovely summer Friday and a bunch of us met for a drink and ended up at a Warehouse party. I'd been thinking about the Broxtowe Estate for a while, about the sense of anarchy I felt being around there. I was staying with my sister at the time, just outside the estate the other side of Strelley Island, and my bus stop into town was the one I wrote about Kerrie Ann waiting at, more than once. I'd been watching from there; remembering what it was like on the estate and how it had felt to be part of back in the 70s and early 80s. I'd also done an writing exercise in class that had led me right back to the close I used to live on, and to the long hot summer of 76, ladybirds and butterflies. The warehouse party was the last piece of the puzzle.

The next morning, almost everyone from the course was heading to Lowdham for the book festival. I had crashed at one of my Uni mate's houses, and was considering going with them, but I had a strong urge to write that morning and I couldn't ignore it. I left St Ann's and went into town, found the nearest Starbucks, sat down and wrote the first scene of The Killing Jar. Kerrie Ann's voice came to me strong and clear, like possession. In hindsight, I am very glad to have missed that Lowdham and, at the same time, it has given that festival final Saturday a special place in my heart.

Being back there on Saturday and seeing Jon and Ross by the door, walking around town, nipping into The Ship for a quick drink, it brought to mind so many times I'd had in that village. Getting drunk last year with Clare Littleford and her partner after launching the Okinawa Dragon (really quite appropriate for that book, I'd say) and her book, The Quarry, and doing very bad impressions of Goldie Looking Chain. Launches for both The Killing Jar and Starfishing, kindly hosted by Jane at the Bookcase. Good times.

The whole thing made me think about spacetime. It made me wonder; can a place and time be so connected in your mind they almost become the same thing? Because I can't help walking into Lowdham and feeling like I'm walking into various previous chapters of my life, and one of my first novel. It's strange.

It reminded me of a phrase, one I've used a few times in my current work in progress, which has a good deal of action in Pere Lachaise cemetery. 'Someone walked over my grave.' It's a phrase I really like because, for me, it gives a sense of a fourth dimension somehow more fluid and malliable than we usually see it, a dimension that can be traversed in both directions, like the others we know. I love the idea it gives of a future that's connected to now, just like you can draw a line from that bus stop at Broxtowe all the way to Lowdham.

I'm digressing more than slightly so I'll get back to the point. I spent the day at Lowdham wandering between tents and book stalls then, it felt, randomly standing up in one talking about my work and reading from it. It was the kind of day when I can't help but love my job, surrounded by writers and readers and love for books. The quality of the readings and speakers was absolutely excellent. There were several things I was considering missing my own reading to attend. (Don't worry, Ross, I never would have done that...)

I was particularly impressed with a new publisher that has launched in Nottingham. They're called Pewter Rose Press, and have been set up by a previous graduate of the Trent MA. They've produced two books so far, short story collections, beautiful books and, what I've read of them so far, beauiful stories. (Watch this space for a review soon...) I actually published Robbie Dewa, one of the writers, many moons ago when I was editing Pulp Net. I really like her writing so it was very pleasing to see her first short story collection in print.

If you're interested in writing and you haven't been to Lowdham yet, you must. Expecially that final Saturday, when it's free. The only good excuse for not going is if you just have to, really need to, are possessed to and can't ignore the call to write the first couple of pages of your first published book.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Book of numbers

The last week has been a bit of a blast from the past, with return visits to Perry Barr for a NAW student showcase, and to Foyle's in London for the launch of their anthology 'Book of Numbers' , as well as a visit to Lowdham Book Festival, which somehow always reminds me of my own days as a writing student, perhaps because there's always such a strong Trent MA presence there.

More about Lowdham later but, for now, I want to talk about the National Academy of Writing. Last year, the anthology was done quickly, to be produced in time for the showcase in June, and as a result I ended up editing myself but that was never the idea. It was always intended that the students should run with this project, as part of their professional development and to give them editorial experience. I'm pleased to say that, this year, this is exactly what happened.

A small team Nick LeMesurier, Roger Noble and Geoff Mills were the main core, with help from Rena Brannan and Eveline Williams. I had the slightly surreal experience of being edited by one of my students. In the end, this wasn't that strange, because I've always workshopped my own writing with students I've taught and am used to the two way feedback. Some people have called me brave for presenting my work to a class of twenty odd people for comment but my opinion was that it was always a perk of the job. How often do you get the chance to get that much informed reader feedback in one go?

The editorial process was definitely good for me, and for the story, and I'm very pleased with the final version that appears in the book. The student team worked hard and were very professional, and they've produced a lovely book. Normally, I'd review it here, except that doesn't really seem appropriate given that one of the stories is mine. I will recommend it, though. I read it cover to cover yesterday and it is full of goodness.

Book of Numbers is the nth anthology I've had a story in (see what I did there?) but the first for which I wrote the story specially instead of just falling back on the folder I have of stuff I've written in the past. I was inspired to do so, because I found the theme very compelling. It may even have inspired my next novel. This made me think, about themes. We had one for our student anthology and I do think they work well when you are asking for submissions. As part of an audience at Lowdham the other day, in a session on short stories, I was asked what I think about themes. So there you go. You have the answer, Anne. I think it possibly makes more of a difference as a writer, rather than a reader and so for an anthology like this a well chosen theme may lead to improved standard of submissions. (More about Pewter Rose later, a very exciting new local publisher.)

It's so lovely seeing something you've worked on come to fruition. It wasn't always easy, working in Birmingham. The journey was hellish, the university kept changing things and I was pulling up a course and an ethos from thin air, based just on what I thought it should look like, although with lots and lots of help from colleagues, I might add. One of the biggest part of my vision was that the students should take control of a large part of the activities, particularly showcases and publications. This wasn't easy to put in place at all. There was resistance from some of the student body, used to more didactic teaching and controlling tutor influences in their pasts, who felt insecure and wanted more staff input. But, in the end, there were enough individuals ready to run with it and it worked and now it's just the normal run of things at the academy.

This year's showcase, just like many previously, was run by Rena Brannan. As ever, she did a fabulous, professional job. I was very glad to see her effort recognised with one of the course prizes this year. The showcase was perfect in that it was an embodiment of the course, with students reading a selection their own work, and actors performing some of the plays written on the Scripting and Staging module. It was a very special night.

I am very proud of what I achieved in Birmingham but prouder still of what the students have done. It was always their course, and I tried to give it to them.