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Posted on: Saturday, 20 October 2012

At the grand age of 29 in the year of 2012, I've discovered Meetup. I know: I'm always late to the party

So yes, last week, I joined Meetup. 

I'll explain the basic concept. Every major city seems to have a Meetup site for people who are new to the area/looking for something different to do. In a place like Brussels where the expat community is so transient (we've been to two leaving parties already), Meetup is invaluable. 

If I'd taken the fancy, I could have gone beer-tasting. Or card-folding. But I went on the 77 Pencils of Brussels run. And it was ACE. 

Everyone was uber-smiley and welcoming. And I (somehow) ran 15k. And now, wherever I go in Brussels, I see pencils. Batman Pencils. Angry Pencils. Indiana Jones Pencils. Sexy Pencils. Window Pencils. Pencils EVERYWHERE. 

source and source and source 

There is graffiti everywhere in Brussels - and lots of it is artistically decent, interesting stuff rather than inexpertly sprayed teenage tags. It's inspired me to go on a Brussels Graffiti tour and take photos aplenty.

Have a good weekend. 

Advice for Writers

Posted on: Tuesday, 16 October 2012

It is Book Week at school, people. Cue my moaning on Twitter about having to find a literature-related fancy dress costume for Friday (I'm toying with plaits and a sign hanging around my neck reading THIS GIRL TELLS LIES). 

I could get a bit evangelical here, but I won't - suffice to say that it's a real pleasure to work in a school that sincerely values reading as opposed to to tagging it onto the bottom of a whole-school agenda to satiate an Ofsted inspector who's been told to look out for some literacy. Oo, a poster with a book on it! In a room that used to be a library but is now full of computers! Ahem. 

Liz Lochhead was the surprise guest speaker today for Key Stage 5 students. Needless to say they were studious and thoughtful and appreciative and asked some intelligent questions.

One boy who asked if she'd written her poetry with the intention of twenty students in a classroom somewhere poring over every detail of it. "Och, no!" she said. "I didn't write it to mek you suffer!" Cue laughter. But then she said, "I wrote it because some people might like it. Some people won't. And you have to find something that you like in whatever you're studying and enjoy. Within the constraints of exam board requirements and all that crap." Cue more laughter. 

She read some of her poems and talked about them. She started with Bairnsang and the male patriarchy in Literature ("The way it had to be said/was as if you were posh, grown-up, male, English and dead.") and finished on patriarchy, too, with Men Talk ("Women natter, women nag/women niggle niggle niggle") - which I didn't realise she'd written after reading a book by Dale Spender.

And I was in heaven. And she signed my book (nerd). 

And then she gave out some advice for writers. It's reproduced below. 

This woman speaks the truth. Enjoy. 


All the good advice about writing is very simple.

So straightforward it's all been said before, but it's probably worth reminding ourselves of. I know I have to tell myself all this, and I have to do this every time I get going on something new.

1. Write what really interests you, not what you think you ought to be interested in.

2. The old five senses. See it, touch it, taste it, smell it, hear it. Turn yourself into it, said Ted Hughes, and the words will look after themselves. Well, certainly I have to turn all my censors, inhibitors and ego, and false sense of myself as a writer, and certainly any attempts at cleverness off - in the first draft at least.

See, it's only when you read back what you have written down, tasting and testing the words as words and sounds you can see where you have captured a bit of life in the language, an image, a wee detail - and that won't necessarily be in the bit that felt like it flowed or had the fancy words, but often in the bit that you struggled over and in the end, och, just put down what would have to do for now....

3. Throw away all the bits that don't have bits of life in them, keep these surprisingly honest and vivid bits, the bits that, to tell the truth, surprised you - mibbe by their simplicity - and start again with them.

4. Don't explain. You don't have to give the reasons for going there or the co-ordinates on a map. Consider cutting off the beginning and the end paragraph or stanza of what you have written - and do this once you think it's finished and cut down to the bone already. No 'vamping till ready', no summing up. Just trust your reader to be right there with you in the middle of the place you are writing about. Get in, get out and don't linger said Raymond Carver. 

5. Don't try and describe your feelings. An emotion named is an emotion obliterated from any text. Stick to those five sound senses, stick to objects and actions, what's done, what's said. Get this right and all the feeling in the world will be in this. 

6. It's all in the details, in the particular. Small things. Plain words, probably, But which ones? Ah, I said the advice was simple, I didn't say it was easy...

7. Enjoy yourself. Struggle with not enjoying yourself until you begin to, very much. 

(If I can't, or won't, it's usually because I'm not obeying Rule Number One.) 


Posted on: Saturday, 13 October 2012

Autumn has arrived. In fact, it's been here for a couple of weeks - but it's been dry and crisp and bright. Today, though, has been a wet ol' day. I've spent the majority of the day in my pyjamas reading*. And maybe had a cherry beer. 

Not before we went down to Flagey, however, to have a look-see in Le Petit Coin for an open-backed bookcase/cool rug/something we vaguely 'needed'** for the apartment. 

They didn't have anything under those headings. They had a beautiful chest of drawers, though. 

We did not need a chest of drawers. We did not get an agenda about a chest of drawers. 

But it was so bloody cute we had to buy it. 

Apologies for crappy focus. Trust me, it's beautifully yellowy wood in real-life. Dark day + broken lightbulb = iPhoto editing overload. Lighten, lighten, enhance, enhance!

Last Le Petit Coin Purchase: these hooks. We need a drill to put them up, though.

I'm glad this place only opens when the lady who owns it feels like it/isn't skiing in Aspen. Otherwise, I might be a pauper. 

And now, I'm about to shake off the shackles of an unproductive day and go out for dinner. There might be lipstick involved.

* Disclaimer: This would NEVER have happened en Angleterre. 
** 'Needed' is very relative, I know. I am a very lucky girl. We are all lucky girls/boys. 

Beauty Incarnate.

Posted on: Thursday, 11 October 2012

My dad. My nephew. Beauty incarnate.

And at this point, that sound you can hear is me sobbing. From Belgium. 


Posted on: Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Often, when I talked about moving abroad, people would say, 'Oo, aren't you brave?'

I feel like saying - well, no, not really.

I feel like saying my dad moved to London from Ireland when he was sixteen, you know. All he'd ever known were fields and bicycles and priests and Sunday mass and confession and wedding receptions with jelly and custard and Granddad singing Galway Bay. 

Suddenly he was in a city of millions and money. 

He'd gone off to a place of temptation, my grandmother said. Nothing but smog and sin in that auld town, she sniffed. 

It was the 1960s. Boarding houses still displayed signs in the windows: 'No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish.' The Rolling Stones were singing Satisfaction, but he preferred dance halls and Jim Reeves (still does). He didn't have a certificate to his name - he can't even remember if he sat the Junior Cert. He could ride a bicycle and cut turf. He had nothing but his wits and his hands and a smile. 

And, you know, a drink or two. To help you hold onto the smile. 


My mum married my dad at eighteen and a half. Eighteen's an age where half years are still appropriate,  I think.

That's brave, for a start. 

I look at the photos taken on her wedding morning. She smiles stiffly against the backdrop of the pea-green kitchen. The gas cooker. I try to read the look in her eyes. She looks like a little girl. She was. 

She grew up all over - in London, in the West of Ireland, in Leicester, back to London again. She remembers starting primary school after primary school without ever cementing the basics. 

We've done that already, we've moved on. You'll have to catch up. 

Granddad was a rambler and a gambler, as the song goes. He had a pub, a landline and a sister who covered for him. A half-brother emerged in Wales - red-eyed, liked a beer - in Mum's 50s. 

Grandma struggled with her nerves and had a doctor who was fond of writing prescriptions. 

Noel, a brother, was left in a boarding school in Ireland on a scholarship for months. Paul got onto a degree course but Granddad wouldn't fill out the income assessment form. They ended up in a council maisonette in Camden Town. 

Maybe getting married wasn't just being brave, or being in love. Maybe it was a way out. 

She had two unfaltering obsessions: to own her own house, and for her children to go to University. 

She did it. 


I've moved to Brussels with a clutch of qualifications and certificates. I have enough money to pay for French lessons. I go running and eat sushi and I have a job that keeps my hands soft. That's not brave at all. 


We've been doing some work on Slam Poetry in school at the minute. You should really watch this video. And I defy you not to think about where you come from and how lucky you are. 

Africa Museum, Tervuren

Posted on: Saturday, 6 October 2012

In our mission to visit as many different tourist attractions with as many of our visitors as possible, we took a trip out to Tervuren last weekend. 

Next door to my new school, there is a museum dedicated to Belgium's colonial past; specifically, in the Congo. It boasts an enormous taxidermy display and rooms filled with instruments, weapons and Picassoesque masks. Leopold II commissioned the building of the museum - take a look below, it's a pretty grand place - to house his growing collection of African artefacts and show them off to the Belgian populace. 

In the entrance hall there are several gilt statues of African children with swollen bellies kneeling at the feet of wealthy Belgian benefactors. It takes that kind of angle. The circa-1900 angle. 

He was quite the boyo, Leopold. Museum already in mind, he headed out to the Congo for a shooting trip with his pals every so often with the intention of recreating the African savannah in several dozen glass cases. He was like a mad Noah, killing a male and female of every creature he could get within 20 feet of. 

He even shipped out a number of natives, built African-style huts in the carefully-pruned gardens of the museum and invited visitors to view his 'human zoo'. 

Along with the spoils of Belgium's spree, there's also a (much smaller) interactive section with gory photos of plantation workers holding the severed hands of other Africans who raised voices against the brutal exploitation of the country, the random acts of violence executed by authorities and the rubber trade. 

The guidebook explains that the Museum will close for a refurbishment at some point in the next year, and the new-and-improved Afrika Museum will place more emphasis on the darker side of Belgium's past, and the emergence of Zaire and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The intention is to redress the balance between the awe inspired by viewing the extensive collection of artefacts and set it more firmly against the exploitative means used to acquire it. 

Meanwhile, I'm taking my Year 10 class there in a couple of weeks for a creative writing exercise. I think the grinning toothy skulls will really bring something special out of them...

The Simple Things

Posted on: Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Sometimes, it's the simple things.

Like being so ridiculously excited to teach a lesson because you've managed to squeeze some Irish Republicanism in there along with a visual treat in the form of Cillian Murphy.


And so tomorrow my Year 12s will watch this film trailer as a precursor to the question 'So what do you already know about the Irish Civil War?'

(not much, I fear. But I'm prepared to be proven wrong.)
And, in the process, I've been reminded of what a brilliant film it is. And the beauty of Cillian Murphy.
Strange things happen when you google 'The Beauty of Cillian Murphy'. Including this. Scroll down until you see the puppet. With a leading statement like that, how can you resist?
I have been away. Sozzatronic. But I have some photos and some book recommendations and things to share as soon as things get a bit quieter. Hopefully, a calmer period is around the corner.
Oh, how I long to sit in my pyjamas and watch The Thick of It! Roll on this weekend.

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