(This was first published as my contribution to the Authors Electric blog for the month of June 2021)
Yesterday our usually human-oriented, friendly cat spent eight hours lurking under the sofa bed in my ‘den’ (or writing space), which doubles, with the sofa in its bed pose, as a guest bedroom. For him, ‘lockdown’ was most definitely over: a small fast-moving human creature, whom he had forgotten about, was again whooping and shouting around the house…
I could agree with the cat. Lockdown provided a quiet routine life, when writing could be fitted into the daily round of on-line shopping, exercise classes, meetings and chat. Ever since my husband’s office sent everyone off to work from home (16 March 2020) this routine has given our cat ‘sit-on time’ around 10.00am, as we three met up for our tea and biscuits morning break, and again around 4.45pm for tea and a slice of toast (the cat of course had cat kibble, if hungry, but the specialness of these times isn’t food (forhim), it’s that he can sit on a lap, one of his very favourite things).
In fact, lockdown has given our cat a new interest: observing and researching human life. He finds all of it extremely diverting, if mysterious. He’s an eager participant (or tries to be) at Zoom/Teams meetings (along with other cats), watches a cultural television programme with deep concentration and puzzlement, and always turns up hoping to join my weekly on-line Yoga sessions… but enough of cats, except to say that having hunted all over the house for him, I discovered him under the sofa bed, having squashed himself flat, and beaten the record of the Lakeland cat which Beatrix Potter observed as having sat on the lid of a basket for five hours. After such a feat, he was extremely hungry, and ate two suppers while I began preparing ours.
My observation meanwhile was to feel like taking off my hat to my younger self: during this last lockdown, we’d discovered, lurking in some box in the attic, a collection of about ten short stories written by that younger self. Some printed by our first, dot-matrix, printer, on recycled paper bought from one of the then-new ‘fair trade’ catalogues, now yellowed with age. These were from that now-taught-as-history-in-schools date of 1989 — remember what you were doing then? Although I know women who write now while raising a family, as Mum to three children, then aged 12, 8, and 8 (twins), I wondered where they find the time? Making supper for two, I recalled cooking meals for 6 (including my mother who was living with us) back in the 1980s.
Whatever, the discovery has kicked off a lockdown project: to edit and publish my stories from 1989 to just the very beginning of the 2000s as a collection, a historical looking-back through the last 20 years of the 20th century, when life was simpler.
All the elements which drive my present writing and interests are strongly present in those stories, but with a different, more innocent slant. Back then, I’d had a few articles published but hadn’t even thought of writing a novel, or had any ambition about ‘writing’. The articles concerned, at a non-specialist level, socio-political attitudes. But in the stories, characters swirl through a world of their own personal discovery based around their relationships, mostly heterosexual, mostly concerned with a spot of romance, dreams broken or dreams achieved — mostly lessons learned, sometimes strangely magical. They chronicle the background of the world of my University years, dotted all over with the friends I moved among: artists (I’d hang around their studios, envying them the apparent freedom studying Fine Art), or medics (how on earth had they known to apply for this so-adult subject, what was it like to be on the wards discovering the realities and responsibilities of clinical medicine? Like me, they were barely into their 20s). One story at least points forwards to my first novel Baby, Baby, which takes look at the ethics of artificial reproduction.
The early stories point to a then-unrevealed future: soon after (1992) I went back to academic study, and took a certificate course in Social and Political Science, ending up specialising a bit in medical sociology, widening and probably liberalising my knowledge. Through that time, more stories evolved. Where did the time come from? We had reading, and essays, and there were now pre-teens and teens in the household!
Now this discovery has spawned a new project: edit and publish them. Western Europe was still moving through days before urban terrorism, “Brexit” and the pandemic. What considerations governed decision-making in ‘normal life’? The news has uncovered sex abuse and corruption, campaigning has brought to light so many diverse communities and issues purposely hidden away by past generations — LGBTQ+, same-sex weddings, Black Lives Matter, anti-Colonialism, the Windrush scandal, the climate crisis, the Grenfell Tower… the list is far longer. For readers, novels as well as non-fiction abound to devour, and to inform. For writers, such rich seams of information, discussion and opinions offer an invitation to juggle (seriously) with the controversial, to inform or appeal to the public imagination. Normal life — without a pandemic — isn’t normal any more (if ever it was).
If the cat could understand, what would he choose? I’ll take my hat off to all today’s fiction writers who try and achieve writing seriously while raising a family. Today it is exhausting to be a Granny and to attempt to write a novel.