Baker Street blues- the secret

I made a throw-away line about a bitter-sweet memory associated with Baker Street and choosing to keep in secret for the time being. A number of people have asked about it and rather than have anyone fretting about it, I thought I might share it now and put you out of your misery(of curiosity).

I liked the song from the moment it came out, when I was about 12 or so, and I always felt the words of the song told a story and like most young people with a creative bent, I made up several stories woven around the lyrics. Back then, a one-night stand was used still more in it’s original context of a single night of a musician playing a gig and then moving on; today it’s used as a term for casual sex, and I guess even then it was moving towards that usage. I have no idea which use Gerry Rafferty meant but being pretty innocent in those days, it was the musical context I took it in.

I don’t even remember the stories I made up back then but in the early 90s when I was in my mid 20s, I was writing quite different stuff. We had also just acquired our very first CD player and were slowly buying music for it; most of our music was still either on vinyl or on tape. I wrote my first adult novel that year, between  summer ’91 when we moved to Nottingham and summer of ’92. I’d never even really considered submitting to publishers before (think about the phrase: does it not sound like an aspectof an S+M game?) but having completed my novel I thought, why not and sent off the first chapter to a number of publishers.

The response over the next few months was enough to knock me off balance. A few rejections trickled in and then, to my shock, I started getting requests to send the entire MS. I say shock, because at this stage, the MS was literally that, handwritten. The first one, from Hodder, sent me into a frenzy of typing up on our computer: it took more than a fortnight. A flurry came in, two via phone calls and I became very excited. The praise in the initial letters was mindblowing. I’d always been sure (in my own modest way) that I had talent but here were people who ought to know, agreeing with me. Even rejections were usually accompanied by a few words scribbled down below the signature, encouraging me.

It was a long while before I realised quite how valuable even these rejections were. For those who are unfamilar with this area, if a publishers’ reader bothers to write something, it means you made an impression, usually a very positive one. Even then they got huge amounts of paper thrown at them. They simply don’t have time or inclination to be kind.

Anyway, the first time a publisher rang me up, I almost fainted. It was one of the big ones and my husband had taken the call. The second time, I had to sit down abruptly and try not to babble inanities. That time it was a smaller independent publisher. He said he’d been blown away by the first chapter and that this alone was an absolute masterpiece. When he and I ended our talk, I went through into the living room where my daughter(then aged about 3) was playing and put on the first tape I found.

It was a Gerry Rafferty album and the first song was Baker Street and dancing(yes, I danced with joy) to that song, with all the delight of someone who had finally made their dreams come true. I was lifted into another dimension of happiness, and since then, hearing the opening bars of that song, I recapture some of that champagne-fizziness and innocent hopefulness.

I said this was a bittersweet memory, didn’t I?

The MS came back a fortnight later. He simply didn’t think it was the right book for him and the middle section didn’t seem to match the start. It was like being told your baby had died in the womb. I wrote back, expressing my disappointment, more because I simply needed to say something to someone. I didn’t whinge. A day or so later, he rang again and talked to me for an hour and a half and the upshot of it was that he wanted me to continue to believe in myself, that I had enormous talent and that I must not give up. He also wanted me to send him whatever else I wrote and he would then introduce me to a friend of his who was an agent.

By the time I wrote my next one, he had ceased taking on new fiction and his friend had retired(or stopped taking on new clients) and I was adift again.

Pretty much the same happened with the other publishers. They liked it, but decided not to take it for whatever reasons. A few years down the line, I had my cerebral event( I blew a blood vessel in my brain) and I stopped writing.

When I began again and tried a second time to get through the traditional route, I did look up the kind publisher but his company was not taking on any new writers and I think he himself had retired or passed on. At this time I got taken for a bit of a ride by an agent who turned out to be no good and even the publishers and agents who liked my work were not willing to take a risk, because of the death of the midlist fiction where most books end up(not bestsellers and not flops but still not big earners)  and I reached the same point of despair again before finding another way.

But there is one more weird twist to this story.

Breese Books, the publisher I had such close dealings with back in the 90s and who forever linked in my mind the soaring saxophone and guitar of Baker Street with the feeling that I had achieved my goals and dreams, did stop publishing fiction for a while and then moved into a niche area. These days they publish books on magic tricks and they also publish a genre of fiction many of you might not even know exists.

In fact Breese Books publish Sherlock Holmes stories written by modern writers.

You really, really could NOT make this up if you wanted to. Baker Street to Baker Street in only 18 years of heartbreak and effort.

How I was almost thrown out of the British Museum…

I’ve had a couple of people ask me about that throwaway sentence about being almost thrown out three times on one afternoon, so it has clearly piqued curiosity a little.

Here’s the story:

Back in pre-history, in the 80’s I had a good friend who I met on my Cambridge interview and we kept in touch via long letters almost daily. Neither of us got our desired places at Trinity and in the autum we headed off to our respective places (for the record, he went to Durham, gave up  after a term, started again at Oxford the following year, discovered port and got thrown out after  a year or two. I haven’t heard from him since I was 21)

But during the summer we met up a couple of times in London and went round the museums. The British museum was where the trouble started. You see, while I am not at all a touchy-feely person with people, I am with  objects and immense statues are very attractive to the fingers.

First warning: I reached out a shaking finger to touch the feet of Rameses the Great and a guard materialised behind me(I hadn’t perfected the Miss Piggy karate chop back then) and politely asked me NOT to touch. We fled to the room with all the mummy cases and spent an agreeable few minutes with synchronised jumping to see if we could make the seismographs flicker. Then we returned to the hall of the statues.

Now Stephen could read hieroglyphs and there was a tomb frontage almost complete so he started to decipher the hieroglyphs using a finger as a pointer to show me. Cue the guard, less polite this time. Much less polite actually, quite hostile in fact. We slipped away to the other end of the hall.

There used to be a fabulous Eye of Horus out of basalt (now replaced with a giant scarab) and I couldn’t resist putting a finger out to stroke the smooth stone. That same guard had been following us and made me jump by suddenly declaring, “If  I see you (pesky) kids touching anything one more time, you’ll be out of here and you won’t be coming back in a hurry!” I think I went brilliant red and we fled for the open air at this point.

I do understand why they don’t like you touching but I shall tell you one thing; that was my last visit until I went back almost three years ago and I was nervous that the same guard would spot me and ask me to leave before I came in!

Oh and he probably didn’t say “pesky”. That might be imagination.

Echoes from a Retreat

“You are beautiful but fallen.”

Words echo across more than twenty years; I’d never forgotten them and in fact I have probably seamlessly incorporated them into my personal philosophy. It came up in conversation with J a few nights go, about the idea of a mantra repeated to oneself about liking and approving of oneself. I said I had tried it and it simply didn’t work. It made me sad every time I have tried it because my instant response was simply that it wasn’t true and saying it wouldn’t make it true. I hasten to add that this is purely personal. It works for many people and is a good method. But just as from my teaching experience I know that there are always more than one way to explain something, I also know that since people are unique, one method will not work for all. Indeed, when I consider all the self help books I’ve seen or read, this explains why even successful authors of such books are obliged to write more, putting the same stuff but in a  slightly different way. The cynic in me thinks too that it’s about making even more money out of people’s desire for wholeness and healing but I will give some the benefit of the doubt. One size does not fit all.

Reel back the years then to March 1989 and to the North York moors. Ampleforth Abbey, home to the famous boys’ school where lived Cardinal Basil Hume, then the Abbot and one of the few truly holy men I have ever come across(once in Westminster Abbey for the enthronement of the archbishop of York, and once in a tiny village on the moors where Hume was directing traffic after a massive influx of pilgrims clogged the one main street and left it gridlocked) I went on retreat, seven months pregnant and I remember being about the only woman there , where most of the men were either ordinands(those preparing for ordination) or like my husband, firmly on the way to becoming such. It struck me then as surreal, a heavily pregnant woman at a silent retreat and it still does now.

A silent retreat is pretty much what you think it is; a weekend of silence. After the initial meal, and the first talk and finally Compline, talking was forbidden. The experience was extraordinary. You might imagine that little communication went on and you’d be wrong. People communicated on other levels and by other means and while talking was forbidden, laughing was not, and a lot of laughing went on. For those who needed to talk, we were permitted to talk outside the building. March on the North York moors is cold, and the talkers(I did join them) huddled like the smokers today to exchange a few words  before scuttling back inside. I will never forget someone miming the sequence from Fawlty Towers “Duck’s Off!” during lunch on the Saturday.

I cannot remember the speaker’s name but I remember a lot of what he said but the thing that is relevant to this post is the sentence I started with. “You are beautiful but fallen.” Translate “fallen” in this context and I get, imperfect, incomplete, work in progress, damaged. For me the fact that this mantra starts with the positive and then qualifies it is why I can’t say, “I love and approve of myself”. For me, I can only go so far because I can’t tell myself lies and make them truths. I am beautiful. I know this; it’s my own personal beauty, internal and external. I’ve come to accept it over the years even when at times I reject it because of despair . But I also know that I am far from perfect or even complete and so the two statements are ones  can live with. I live better with duality than I do with singularity; for every night, there is(and must be) a day. Yin and yang. Light and dark.

One day I may be able to say I love and approve of myself but until that time I will say, I am beautiful but fallen.