Insincerity, a personal bugbear

Many years ago as a newly arrived student I got asked to a lot of parties. Back in the 80s, it was as much a part of student life as it is now. I remember one party in particular because of how it started.

The Lark Lane area of Liverpool used to be quite an artsy sort of area and it was considered the coolest place to get digs when you moved out of hall. Needless to say, I ended up with a flat in Wavertree, miles away. Cool I have never managed to be, unless you count those summer days when the wind is too fresh to be comfortable. The party was being hosted by some medical students I knew vaguely through either the Christian Union or the Chaplaincy. I don’t even remember who invited me; I may have tagged along on a general invite. That fits the memory now.

My little group arrived before things had warmed up, both literally and metaphorically. The house was a total ice box with damp running down the walls. Heating was minimal and in mid November, I think there was already a heavy frost outside, so getting in out of the cold was only a relative thing. Nothing much was going on yet so we sat down and waited. Even the music was quite subdued at this stage. I also wasn’t drinking at this point; that went quite soon.

Soon more students arrived and it began to slowly get going. I got singled out by a new arrival who made a very pointed attempt to chat me up. He made a very, very bad move early on in the conversation which is why I have no memory now of his name: he complimented me on my clothes and remarked(quite insane now I think of it) that my father must be very rich for me to dress the way I did. I looked him in the eye to see if he was taking the Mickey and he was dead serious: not a twinkle of humour or sarcasm or even a gentle jest.

I wanted to ask, “Do I look like a fool?” but instead I escaped to the kitchen and avoided him for the rest of the evening. I was a bit timid about hurting people’s feelings back then.

You see, first of all, I am the sort of person who could put on a Gucci dress and make it look like I dragged it off the bargain rail at Oxfam. I’m naturally scruffy. In this case, I hadn’t made any sort of effort because I’d only been told about the party ten or so minutes before I was called for by my friends. So I was in old jeans and sweatshirt with pen on it. At the best of times, I don’t pay a great deal of attention to clothes; as long as they’re clean and in good repair and the colour doesn’t make me look too much like a zombie flesheater, that’s OK.  And no, my father isn’t rich either.

It was so obviously a ploy to try and get something going. There’s a rumour that plain girls are more grateful. It isn’t true. We like to be liked for our sense of humour, our personality or our witty repartee: clothes are simply not part of the equation. It’s like saying you liked the dreadfully ugly present because the wrapping paper was pretty.

I also dislike quite intensely being taken for a fool. I have a good radar for insincere compliments. I can tell the difference between a true compliment and a faked one, whether it’s addressed to me or not. My mother always said if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything, but she’d also say, as long as it’s actually true. She once peered into the pram being pushed by a former school mate of mine and faced with possibly the ugliest(not to mention heavily jaundiced) baby she’d ever seen, she blurted out, “What a nice yellow blanket!” Thankfully the girl was aware and unconcerned that others might not consider her baby Best in Show and put my mum as ease by agreeing how nicely the baby matched her covers!

Generally speaking, I’m not vain about my looks, because as I said, I am a natural scruff and a plain girl, so when people do compliment me(and they do) it’s all relative. “You look nice today!” is actually a good thing to hear, though I do usually think afterwards, “And I didn’t last time you saw me?” When it comes to what I write, I can also tell how sincere someone is. I know I am not Viriginia Woolf, or Ernest Hemingway or (God forbid!) Stephanie Meyer or JK Rowling but I do know I write well. I’m not the greatest writer of them all and nor am I more than an intermittantly good poet. I know where I stand. I have a realistic view of where that is: somewhere at the top end of the middle of writers who might one day be considered great. It is all subjective after all.

In my book a sincere compliment is worth a hell of a lot more than one that is intended to play some sort of mind games(like the guy at uni) even if it is clumsily phrased. A compliment that is heartfelt but without agenda is something to be treasured and accepted with the same spirit of kindness and generosity that it is given.

But believe me, I know the difference between fools’ gold and the real thing….

Admitting ignorance

I was back teaching this morning; I get first day nerves every time I get a new class. This is partly because I like to be prepared for anything and everything and when new students come in, I usually know almost nothing of use about them.

Today’s big surprise: they are Belgian, not French as I had been led to expect. They were all between 15 and 18 and very quiet and a bit shy. Well, that suits me for first morning, because I then don’t have to worry at all about discipline.

At the end of the lesson, I gave them a short quiz about England and the English and for the last 15 minutes, I said they could return the favour and ask me a question each about my background knowledge of their nation. My score? 3/10. They roared with laughter when I got the name of their king wrong, giggled when I didn’t know exactly how many languages were spoken in Belgium and were delighted I didn’t know the name of their national anthem. In short, I knew almost nothing about where they came from. The only things I knew about them was the name of a famous Belgian beer, what foodstuffs Belgium is famous for and the city where the royal family makes its home. I did actually know the family name of their royal family but only after it was said (it’s the same family OUR prince Albert came from). All the rest I simply guessed at.

It’s actually pretty good for a teacher to admit they don’t know something; it sets you on a better footing with students. But as a human being, it’s vital to realise that what I know is tiny compared with what I don’t know. It doens’t make me any less for saying “I don’t know” to a question. I have colleagues and friends who would rather make up an answer than admit they don’t know, so they don’t appear stupid. Me, I simply don’t care.

I know a lot more about Belgium now than I did yesterday but I don’t make an assumption that I know everything. That, like many subjects, would be the work of a lifetime. I know a fair bit about a lot of things but since my Bigger Fish incident, I’ve been a lot more cautious about flaunting that knowledge.

Now where’s that Stella Artois? (yes, that’s Belgian!)

Facing Fear

I’ve always been scared of heights. Even as a small child, I remember having a great deal of anxiety walking down the narrow cliff path from the hotel in Wales my family stayed at a few times. It was the only way to the beach and so several times a day I had to endure it.

The thing about this sort of fear is that it goes deep and it goes beyond logic. I thought I had mostly overcome it some years back when I found myself able to stand on the roof of a carpark without wanting to hug the ground, and later to walk around the summit of Glastonbury Tor without getting vertigo. Or being able to go to the top of mountains and not feel unwell.

But at times it returns as if it had never been away. I had a bad attack of vertigo at Tintgael Castle in Cornwall some years ago and on occasions since.

So you can understand why I was reluctant to tackle the Eiffel Tower. I’d evaded it last time I was in Paris because one kid was too unwell to go up so I stayed firmly on the ground. This time, I made the decision I would get as far as the second level and then decide if I were going to the very top.

Now the Eiffel Tower is over 300m high. That’s ludicrously high.

I went up in the lift to the second level with my eyes shut and my body shaking. I felt dizzy and sick when we walked around. But I decided that how much worse could it be to go right to the top? So into the little final lift I went, along with some of the kids and up we went…. My eyes were shut tight and I was trying not to hyperventilate. At the top, it’s all enclosed by glass which makes it feel a lot better than the middle section which is only enclosed by wire mesh and the breeze comes in.

So I relaxed a little and took photos:

As you can see, it’s very high!

Then we made our way down again in the lift. It takes rather a long time but we were back to the second level again. I was feeling a bit sick, but then the group I was with decided to walk down from the second level to the ground and that for me was when the trouble started.

It wasn’t so bad with someone immediately in front of me but pretty soon the kids lost me and I was faced with the stairs ahead of me. One foot in front of the other, but there are over 1600 steps…and it’s open to the air. You can’t hurl yourself off it; but it still feels as if you might slip and plummet to your death. Every time I loosened my grip on the handrail my body thought it was the rail giving way and I felt a massive surge of fear shoot through me. It takes at least 20 minutes to walk down. I think it took me half and hour. The group were waiting for me at the bottom and I smothered the urge to throw up in the nearest bin. I was shaking for the next half an hour, and I had a thumping headache too.

But despite being completely shit-scared (excuse my French) I’d done it. No one can take that away from me. And next time, I know I can do it again if I have to. I can choose not to, but I know that it’s not because I am being controlled by my fears. I’ll be back in Paris in late May but I haven’t a clue yet about my itinerary. If it includes the Eiffel Tower, I will be OK with that.

If I could only manage to cope like that with my other fears, I’d be unstoppable….

(for more info and a virtual tour, visit: or the wiki site )

Shadow play

The last couple of days have been extradorinarily busy. I started out for Paris at 1.50am on Thursday morning but as I had been unable to fall asleep when I went to bed at 9pm on the Wednesday evening, I got up again at midnight and just pottered quietly around the house. I’d got up at 7am on Wednesday; you need to remember that. There will be a test.

We were driven to our meeting point at a service station on the way into London where we met our coaches and then on to the school. We departed the school at around 6.30am for Dover. I’m not going to talk about the journey much, because it was pretty uneventful. When we finally made it to Paris, we went immediately to the river and embarked on a short cruise with commentary. When this was over, we rejoined the insane Paris traffic and made our way to the hotel. We were running late at this point and it was a rush to get keys given out, bags dumped in rooms and down to dinner. I have a distinct suspicion we ate horse but I really don’t care and I certainly didn’t voice  any thoughts on that score. Now at this point all the kids were tired and really ready to just settle down to bed. It was after 10pm, after all. But no. We then piled back on the coaches for a trip round Paris by night. Very pretty and all that but I was almost dead on my feet. We got back to the hotel at around midnight. I did all the usual things and fell into my less than perfect bed at 12.45. By this stage, I’d been on the go since the previous morning…so over 40 hours without sleep. Let’s just put it like this: be glad I am not a junior houseman at a hospital. I’d have killed someone if I had been, no malice but I just wasn’t thinking straight. Or walking straight for that matter. I was punch-drunk and wired, all at the same time.

My alarm was set for 6.30, and I fell out of bed and got up and ready. By the time we were back on the coaches and en route for the Eiffel Tower, I was awake enough to begin the day. That’s when the trouble started.

I shall write more about the Eiffel Tower another time, but if you’ve read the poem Shadow Puppet, you may have a clue what was happening to me.

I think I was on the mic when it started. I think I was probably talking about Napoleon. You know when you’re in a big crowded room and you have an awareness of there being people behind you, talking in soft voices. You hear your own name mentioned and try as you might, you can’t help listening in. It was a bit like that.  Not literally voices. Just a kind of sound track. On repeat. Talking to me and talking about me. It’s hard to explain.

All the dark thoughts I have ever had seemed to have found a gang to hang out in and exchange ideas and thoughts. Critical words, self doubt, you name it, it was there, whispering away, pouring poison onto me.

I carried on with Napoleon. I metaphorically put my fingers in my ears: “lalalalala….I’m not listening!” But part of me was. Some of it was easier to ignore than other parts. The bits I found hardest were the voices that were telling me I was a fool to even think I could make it as a writer, that everyone was laughing at me secretly for publishing a book. The ones that were telling me I can’t write and no one is interested, they got the deepest blood.

Of course, I had better things to think about that dealing with this shadowy angst, like how in God’s name was I going to get myself up the Eiffel Tower when I am truly terrified of heights. Probably this was what stopped me from giving way to despair at this point. I swallowed down the tears I could feel forming and made myself get on with the day.

But when I woke up on Saturday morning, the house empty and my head pounding with the remnants of tiredness, the voices were there again. I must reiterate, I don’t mean literal voices; I may be slightly less sane than is considered normal but I don’t hear actual voices. I’m going to have to deal with them and I simply do not know how I can. I carry on and ignore the things that go through my head, like a background noise to the narrative of my life.

I can multi-task, for sure, but maybe one day, this task is going to demand more than a quick once-over.

Shadow Puppet


Shadow puppet


The shadows are there

Even when the sun shines

Even when there’s a smile on my face

The shadows are there

Even when everything seems fine

Even when I can see nothing but light

The shadows speak in dusty voices

Soft as the ghosts of feathers

With spines of steel and bones of ice

Cutting to the heart of my dreams

They speak with poison and sugar

With a kindness that kills

The shadows are there

Taking the joy from me

Spoiling the daylight

Thunder clouds on a summer

Threatening me with war

I push them back with patient hands

To the deepest corner of my mind

And let them whisper their dreadful lies

I’ll deal with them another time.











Sea, she




Sea, she


The sea calls me.

Some days I answer,

Worship at the threshold

Like an awed neophyte.

Other days I resist,

Turn around to woods,

Walk away, fingers in ears

Refuse to hear the siren sound.

I return, of course:

Sit on shingle, skim a stone,

Watch the ever-changing moods

Never the same from one day to the next:

Storms and smiles,

Shimmers and shades.

Natural born killer

Provider of plenty

Endless, mysterious,

Yet fluidly simple.

No wonder they refer

To oceans as She!


Watson and the Flying Birdcage

Watson and the Flying Birdcage


Sometimes an animal touches your life in an unforgetable manner, and within your life their memory takes on the status of legend.

When people say, “I’m a dog person,” or “I’m a cat person” I tend to remain silent. I’m a people person. It doesn’t matter terribly much if the person is wearing human skin, or wearing fur, feathers, scales or shell.

If reincarnation is true, then Watson’s last two lives were probably those of an Anglo-Indian colonel and a  Royal Bengal Tiger and he wasn’t much impressed by his current body. It had limitations he wasn’t used to and it frustrated him enormously.

Arriving with us as a half-wild former stray, he was about five or six months old when the Cats’ Protection League decided we were suitable custodians, and he spent the first two days lurking under furniture, convinced the Fuzzy wuzzies were going to get him. His first interaction with me was to bite right through my hand when I attempted to move him from a bed I was trying to make. I think he was very surprised when he glanced back that my hand was not severed from my body.

After that I think he resigned himself to his new life. Initially we had to show him a lot of things we imagined were instinctive to cats, like climbing. We spent a drunken Sunday afternoon after church demonstrating the art of scrambling out of the walled yard at the back of our two-up, two-down in the back streets of Middlesbrough. He watched us intently for an hour and then had a go. He suddenly realised his current body has certain advantages over the one he was remembering, and effortlessly leaped to the top of the wall and stayed there, master of the back alley till sundown.

Our first Christmas presented a problem. Having only a motorbike meant that the journey from the north east of England to the home of my parents in East Anglia was going to be too long and cold and there’s nowhere on a Superdream for a cat basket. So we chose to take the train. As far as Watson was concerned, he really didn’t see why he had to be in a basket and he sulked with us the whole way, though he did choose to schmooze with anyone who came along and admired him perched in his basket on the table in the middle of the train. Us, he gave the cold shoulder to.

Arriving, we allowed him to explore my parent’s house just as soon as he felt like coming out from under the bed. Clearly this was an outpost of the Fuzzy wuzzies too, and he would leave such mundane matters to the troops(us). Emerging for some light tiffin, he sauntered down the stairs and his hunting instincts were alerted by a chirping sound. Damn, no gun. However, Watson had discovered that his current body needed no firearms to bag some rather impressive kills. He’d dragged in rats half his size before, so a mere budgie was not a concern.

The difficulty was the cage. Henry was suspended about six feet up, in his cage, from a bracket on the wall. Since I have seen Watson leap twelve or more feet in single jump, this wasn’t a problem.

The first we knew of this was a terrible crash, a yowling and a frantic(and triumphant) cheeping sound from Henry. As we made our way down the hall, Watson came streaking out of the living room and back up the stairs to his hideout. In the living room was a mess of bird seed, feathers and grit, but Henry was safe. The cage had separated from its base, as it fell , and much of it had clearly hit Watson. Henry was still on his perch, though the cage was upright and parted from the base, and he was clearly very pleased with himself.

The remainder of our visit Watson was very cautious. Every time he ventured outside and a bird flew overhead, he ducked, covering his head with paws, as if expecting it to come with cage descending. He did return to Henry’s room, sitting on the arm of a chair, calculating angles and velocity, but made no more moves. The following year, we returned, and the silent war of attrition continued, and he made no move. The third year we returned, this time complete with baby and a car, and he was ready. As soon as he was allowed from his basket, he headed straight down to the living room and stalked in.

We hadn’t had the heart to tell him that in the intervening year, his adversary Henry had passed on and had not been replaced. All his plotting was in vain.

By way of compensation, he went out the first night we were there and killed the robin my mum had been feeding. It was a hollow victory after so many years of planning.   

I loved that cat, you know.

© Vivienne Tuffnell 28.1.09