Can Creative Writing Be Taught?

March 28th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Last week, writer Hanif Kureishi caused a media storm in the UK when he said that creative writing courses are ‘a waste of time’ and that 99.9 percent of his students are without talent. He went on to say that a story is ‘a difficult thing to do and it’s a great skill to have. Can you teach that? I don’t think you can.’

Kureishi’s comment is made all the more stranger by the fact that he teaches creative writing at Kingston University, apparently ineffectually. In response to his statements, some of the UK’s leading writers and creative writing teachers joined the argument to prove that writing is a craft and like any craft, can be taught.

Philip Hensher is professor of creative writing at Bath Spa University. In 2003 he was included on Granta’s Best Young Writers List and his 2008 novel, The Northern Clemency, was nominated for the Man Booker Prize.

He says good writing is a mixture of the ‘calculated and the instinctual,’ and he is flabbergasted by Kureishi’s criticism of creative writing students. He says, ‘what lies, or ought to lie, beneath the growth of creative writing as a subject is the conviction that a good deal of the best writing derives from conscious craft, if not all of it.’

He acknowledges that bad creative classes exist and they’re typically the courses where students are not encouraged to constructively criticise each other’s work, which means they miss out on the valuable lesson of editing. As the writer C. J. Cherryh says, ‘it is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly.’

In writer’s circles, it’s common knowledge that first and second drafts are typically ‘garbage,’ but it’s the craft of editing that turn them into potentially award-winning novels. The Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami writes at least five drafts of his novels, while British novelist, Jeanette Winterson, throws her work in the fire if she feels it’s not up to scratch.

Hensher points out that anyone who sits down to write a story will confront questions of technique and craft quite quickly. Though he admits that he is self-taught, today, when he looks at his first three novels, he can see that they lack an understanding of technique.

He says the explosion in the number of creative writing courses now available in universities and online is part of the changing publishing world that deprives even established writers of the chance to earn a decent living from writing alone.

So while it’s true that many writers have become teachers out of financial necessity, it’s unfair to think they’re not passing on hard-earned experience and invaluable tips on honing technique.

In Hensher’s classes he encourages his students to observe people, to watch their body language, how they build gesture into conversation. He says this exercise quickly teaches students that their vocabulary of gestures – ‘he shrugged, she grinned, he frowned, she shook her head, he rolled his eyes, she sighed – is totally inadequate.’

He also reviews works of classic and contemporary fiction and impresses on students how fundamental it is to be avid readers, and up to date with the current trends on the publishing world. This is critically important when students begin the process of trying to find a publisher, as they have to know where their own work fits in the market.

Winterson, who is professor of creative writing at the University of Manchester, takes the practice of reading one step further by encouraging her students to read texts that they don’t know or don’t like.

She says, ‘My classes use texts I am pretty sure [students] won’t know because I want them to see how wide is the world of books and thought and imagination. I am trying to reposition them in relation to, in response to, language.’ However, she advises that no one should take classes with a writer who hasn’t published a significant body of work.

Rachel Cusk is professor of writing at Kingston University and she aims to stop her students thinking in terms of persona. She gets her students to focus on the world of objects and encourages them to add an unusual object to their stories. She says, ‘the more alien [the object] is to their subjective processes the better.’

Joyce Carol Oates defends the integrity of writers on writing courses by saying, ‘students in graduate writing programmes are already seriously committed writers by the time they enrol for a workshop; prospective students must apply, and only a small number are selected.’ She describes her classes as ‘intensely focused editing sessions.’

Blake Morrison who teaches on the MA at Goldsmith’s University says that his classes focus on building techniques such as point of view and narrative pace. He says that ‘workshop exercises have the same end in sight – to help aspirant writers find the right form for the story they want to tell.’ And he believes that even students who don’t find acclaim as writers learn a valuable lesson: how to put ‘writing at the centre of their lives.’

Why Do Writers Drink?

October 21st, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

A new book by Olivia Laing called The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink explores the mysterious and murderous relationship between American writers and drinking.

Although there are numerous writers who would qualify for inclusion in this book, Laing focuses on six: John Cheever, Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver, John Berryman, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Tennessee Williams.

American literature is littered with hard drinkers such as Poe, Faulkner, Hart Crane, Truman Capote, Dorothy Parker (“I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy”), Ring Lardner, Raymond Chandler, O Henry, Jack London, Delmore Schwartz, Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski, Anne Sexton and Patricia Highsmith to name a few.

Laing’s book which is part travel log, part memoir as well an exploration of the link between whisky and literature was inspired by her love of these writers and the affect alcoholism had on her own family.

She takes her title from a line in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, where one of the characters says “I’m takin’ a little short trip to Echo Spring” – his nickname for the drinks cabinet and the brand of bourbon it contains.

Laing travels across America, bringing to life the backwater towns and watering holes that these writers frequented. In the process she describes their lives and how alcohol both shaped and destroyed their relationships with friends, families, lovers and work.

Tennessee Williams won three Pulitzer Prizes for A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Night of the Iguana, but he died in February 1983 in a small New York hotel, lonely, unhappy and with his best writing years far behind him.

He suffered from depression for most of his life and drinking eased his anxiety. A diary entry from 1957 reads: “Two Scotches at bar. 3 drinks in morning. A daiquiri at Dirty Dick’s, 3 glasses of red wine at lunch and 3 of wine at dinner. Also two seconals so far, and a green tranquillizer whose name I do not know and a yellow one I think is called reserpine or something like that.” He was in rehab at the time.

When his long-term partner, Frank Merlo, died in 1963, Williams’ already fragile life, nosedived. Somehow he survived for another two decades on a daily diet of black coffee, alcohol and barbiturates. Each year he put on a new play and each year, it failed.

He was interviewed in the Paris Review a few years before he died and he said, “American writers nearly all have problems with alcohol because there’s a great deal of tension involved in writing, you know that. And it’s all right up to a certain age, and then you begin to need a little nervous support that you get from drinking.”

From Berryman’s Dream Songs to Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night and Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, there exist dozens of works of art in which an alcoholic writer reflects on their own disease and tries to uncover its mechanics as well as its effects.

Probably one of the most telling lines ever written about alcoholism comes from the play, Cat On a Hot Tin Roof when Big Daddy asks Brick why he drinks. Brick says he drinks until he hears “the click…This click that I get in my head that makes me peaceful. I got to drink till I get it.”

Is this what Williams and the others were chasing, the click, the peace? There is no question that the creation of art, in whatever form, forces the creator to delve into the depths of their conscious in order to reveal the truth of the human condition. But creating art also demands mental agility.

“A short story can be written on a bottle,” Fitzgerald told his editor Max Perkins, “but for a novel you need the mental speed that enables you to keep the whole pattern in your head and ruthlessly sacrifice the sideshows.”

As with Williams, all of these writers, who continued to drink, suffered physically and creatively because of it. Fitzgerald was sacked from MGM and took to writing stories for Esquire magazine about a small-time hack, which is pretty much what he’d become.

Both writers and alcoholics have to be good at lying in order to survive and many of these writers told themselves a clever lie: that they needed the drink in order to create. Hemingway was famous for this and regarded his ability to drink and write as a sign of his manhood; although he did also say, “write drunk, edit sober.”

By the time Hemingway had reached sixty, his liver was so swollen it protruded through his skin, an embittered internal organ, straining to escape the man that had poisoned it. In the end, Hemingway put an end to his misery when he put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. John Berryman went to a bridge and jumped off.

Only two of these men, Raymond Carver and John Cheever, managed to dry out in later life. These two men met for the first time in 1973 while teaching at Iowa and recognising a madness in each other, became drinking buddies.

Carver had his last drink in 1977, moved away from his family, the source of much of his problems and moved on to a sober life. He fell in love with the poet Tess Gallagher and built a stable life with her, one that enabled him to continue writing, proving the old adage, a writer writes, and the real writer can do it just as well without alcohol.

When Carver was interviewed in the Paris Review, he said, “if you want the truth, I’m prouder of that, that I’ve quit drinking, than I am of anything in my life. I’m a recovered alcoholic. I’ll always be an alcoholic, but I’m no longer a practising alcoholic.”

Is There Any Shame in the Selfie?

October 21st, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

If you think it’s just your annoying friend and Rihanna that are constantly posting selfies online, think again. At the moment, there are around 90 million selfies on Instagram. Yes, 90 million! Facebook, Flickr and Twitter are awash with the selfie too.

Head tilted, lips pouted, hair flicked and camera held at arm’s length is the classic selfie pose that’s been popularized by stars like Kim Kardashian, Kelly Brook and Tyra Banks. Rihanna takes the art of the selfie to another level by posting pics of her buttocks or of herself with two huge joints in her mouth.

But then Rihanna wouldn’t be Rihanna if she didn’t take things to another level. For the vast majority of selfie-image makers, it’s not about pushing the boundaries on social mores. Instead, it’s simple a way to record a moment in time and share it with family and friends.

Katie, a student from Birmingham, posts a selfie a few times a week on Twitter. ‘I like it because my family live far away and I can show them what I’m up to. I also use it before I go out, to ask friends if they like what I’m wearing. If I get positive feedback, I feel a bit more confident going out.’

There’s no doubt that this is part of the lure of the selfie: the ability to take a photo of yourself, control how you look, share it instantly with the world and garner approval that makes you feel good.

The term ‘selfie’ was first coined in a ‘how-to’ photography guide by the photographer, Richard Krause. He wrote, ‘The guesswork that goes into selfies often results in serendipitous photographic surprises.’

In February 2007 the photo-sharing site Flickr created a group called ‘selfie shots,’ defining the selfie as: ‘A photograph of oneself in an arm-extended posture. Not to be confused with a photo of oneself in a mirror or other reflected surface.’

But the biggest turning point in the rise of the selfie came in 2010 when Apple launched its iPhone 4 which had a front facing camera that enabled users to easily frame and take photos of themselves.

The release of the iPhone 4 coincided with the launched of Instagram, another photo-sharing app that features easy-to-use tools, which can blur and enhance amateur photos. By April 2012, Instagram had more than 100 million active users.

Michael Pritchard is the director general of the Royal Photographic Society and he attributes two factors to the rise of the selfie. Firstly, he says that that the ‘cameras on smartphones are incredibly good.’ The second reason is the increasing number of single people in today’s society.

‘The number of single-occupancy households is rising, more people are divorcing and living single lives and people go on holiday by themselves more and don’t have anyone else to take the picture. That’s one reason I take selfies: because I do actually want to record where I am,’ he explains.

The idea of people wanting to record where they are and what they’re doing is nothing new. Caveman carved on cave walls for this exact reason. Fast forward a few hundred thousand years to the Renaissance and Europe was witness to a huge rise in the popularity of portrait painting.

Wealthy families such as the de Medici’s became infamous because they regularly commissioned up and coming artists of the time to paint their portraits. Many artists also became famous for painting self-portraits. During his lifetime in the seventeenth century, Rembrandt painted more than one hundred self-portraits charting his life over forty years.

Other artists who are well-known for their self-portraits include painters as varied as Albert Durer, Vincent Van Gogh, Gustav Courbet, Frida Kahlo and Andy Warhol.

Isn’t part of the excitement of modern technology is that it allows us all to tap into our inner artists, granting us – to paraphrase Warhol’s famous words – our fifteen minutes of fame?

For celebrities the appeal of selfies is different. It allows them to have a sense of control over their public image, something which crudely snapped shots taken by paparazzi robs them of. That said the key to a great selfie is a veneer of casualness, which masks an intentionally posed shot.

The person in the photo should looked relaxed, equally aware of their own narcissism and vulnerability. We should feel like we’re peering into a private, caught-off-guard moment, even though we know we’re not.

Again Rihanna is the master of this art. Leading PR Mark Borkowski says, ‘every aspect of Rihanna’s life is about her letting people in. Some people are very natural and normal about it and completely comfortable with being ‘on’ and that’s fine. But it becomes unstuck if it’s not real. A selfie has to be ‘the real you’. It works if you can give people a manageable piece of reality which is who you are.’

The verdict? There is no shame in the selfie, as long as you make sure you’re ‘keeping it real.’ Happy self-snapping!


Why One-Night Stands are Old-Fashioned – the Rise of the Fuck Buddy

October 11th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

A recent article in the Huffington Post cited a new report, which claimed that sexual attraction between friends of the opposite sex leads to confusion rather than benefits.

We here at XX News have two things to say in response to this report. Firstly, absolute balderdash. Secondly, what a load of poppycock. (As you can tell we had our thinking hats on when we came up with these responses.)

Who the hell would not want to be attracted to their mates? If you’re not it means your mates are probably dog ugly and who wants a bunch of fugly friends? (Uh, no one ed. Exactly.)

These days, it’s fair to say that ‘friends with benefits’ are all the rage. I mean everyone who’s anyone has done the dirty deed with a good friend and if they’re lucky enough continues to do so on a regular basis with no strings attached. (Do bondage ropes count ed? Duh, no!)

There are many reasons why fuck buddies are so much more preferable to one-night stands and here are just a few of them.

Firstly one-night stands are so 1980s and should be relegated to the back of the time capsule along with Tom Cruise, legwarmers and mullet hairstyles.

Secondly one-night stands usually begin in seedy bars where copious amounts of alcohol have been consumed along with various illegal substances that range from Class A to Class C.

This kind of consumption is guaranteed to lead to 1. beer goggles, 2. beer fear, which basically means 1. you’re attracted to anyone with a pulse and 2. will die of shock when you see who’s in your bed next morning.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that while drink and drugs guarantee a good time in bars and clubs, their effectiveness in the bedroom is debatable. Let’s face it no one wants the embarrassment of droopy dick or the nightmare of unwanted pregnancy; the chances of both happening increase by 50 percent after a night on the Tequila.

Thirdly and most excruciating of all is the moment of departure after the one-night stand. This is particularly painful when you realise in the light of day that under normal circumstances there’s no way in hell you’d let this person stroke your dog, never mind touch your privates.

There are practical reasons too. Having casual sex with someone that you actually know dramatically decreases the chances of that person robbing you blind while you enjoy a post-coital nap.

Also there’s sexual history to consider. You just don’t where a stranger or their genitals have been and if they’re into casual sex, you can pretty much take it for granted that they’ve been around.

Not that the XX News team are suggesting that you go out and bonk all your mates. The rules of attraction still apply and this delicate arrangement will only work with a select few. All we’re saying is that when it does work it beats the hell out of banging random strangers you’ve met in bars.

One final suggestion: go forth and be friendly. ;)



How To Have Your Sex Cake and Eat It!

October 11th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

I read on Twitter the other day that the gay lover of John Travolta says the Pulp Fiction star is insatiable in bed. WTF! I got no problem with people switching sides but John Travolta? That’s defo way left field.

We all know John knows how to live. This is a man who has conquered the silver screen and scientology. He’s an experienced pilot and an ambassador for Qantas. He’s survived near total career death in the 80s and the tragic death of his son, Jett, in 2009.

He’s already quashed the accusations of one anonymous masseuse back in May 2012 who claimed that Travolta sexually assaulted him. It’s not the only accusation of assault in Travolta’s closet.

The thing is, can we imagine that the man who played Tony Manero, Danny Zuko and Vincent Vega might have the sexual appetite of a porn star on Viagra? Damn right we can. In short, Travolta’s got the kudos and the cojones to back up the bogus claims.

And this, ladies and gentlemen is the secret to bedding your sex cake and keeping leftovers for dessert … without spoiling your appetite or your reputation for that matter.

It’s all about ‘front.’ Pauly D would call it ‘swag’ but no matter how many Vegas venues the D Meister plays, he will always look like a slut. The reason why Travolta gets away with it is that he doesn’t play it up. He plays his swagger down which in effect means he gets away with having gay lovers, threesomes and whatever else tickles his wayward fancies.

I mean, is it possible that Travolta is the type of man who gets in from the office every day at seven, has Kelly fetch his slippers and enjoys a nice roast with the kiddles. Sure he does but every day? Very unlikely.

He’s the kind of man that refuses to be pinned down which is why him and Kelly have famously spent a bundle on marriage counselling. Somehow he manages to maintain a butter-wouldn’t-melt public façade while all the clues are there that he lives the life of a maverick sex stud.

According to Travolta’s alleged ‘ex-boyfriend’ the couple spent six years together and JT is the jealous type. Seemingly Travolta admitted that given the choice, he prefers men. Pop prattle or hardcore truth? Only those in the know, know but either way the idea is out there and no one really cares. It’s just another notch on Travolta’s impressive bedpost.

Throughout the heady accusations, JT has kept a low profile. In public Travolta is – dare I say? – demure. Behind closed doors who the hell knows what goes on in his feverish life. Hence, the key to having your sex cake and eating it lies in the ability to maintain an inconspicuous front. As Vincent Vega would say, you gotta be ‘cool.’


Note: Lawyer’s for Mr. J. Travolta dismiss all these ‘gay’ allegations as pulp fiction.





Smoking is the leading cause of Statistics: The History of The Cigarette

January 10th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

In my dreams I smoke. Last night I dreamt that I was sitting at a large kitchen table; I had a cigarette in one hand, a penknife in the other. I was carving the letter u into the wood. The letter f was already there. I was pissed off. I always smoke when I’m pissed off.

Yesterday I sat on the patio of a beautiful hotel, at a corner table in the shade, a light breeze on my back to keep me cool in the afternoon sun. Opposite me sat a gorgeous couple. He had a blonde beard and wore a white linen shirt.

Peep-toe high heels graced her feet; a black pencil skirt and silk red blouse clung to her body. Her hair was scooped back in a slick ponytail. She looked impeccable. She smoked continuously.

She reminded me of a latter day factory girl from Seville; the legendary cigarreras who are the reason that cigarette smoking is considered so goddamn sexy in women.

They were the inspiration for the feisty Carmen, the Spanish gypsy girl who wore her clothes loose, her morals looser and wouldn’t be caught dead without a smoke hanging from her juicy lips.

Carmen and her kind emerged in the days before industrialization when cigar-making was a delicate process that could only be done by nimble hands. Prior to 1829 no women had worked at a Seville cigar factory. That year astute fabrica-owners decided young single women were the answer to production problems and the cigarrera was born.

They worked sitting on factory floors, thousands of girls crammed together in large sheds baking in the hot Seville sun. They worked naked.

There was no other way to cope with the heat in those stultifying conditions. Hence, their reputations as wanton harlots evolved and the idea that women who smoked were wayward took hold across the western world, in much the same way that tobacco addiction itself took hold, like a rampart fever.

Actually, that’s not true. It was the French who were responsible for the fever in the case of the cigarreras. Seville was the birthplace of the cigar in Europe and with it came the whole package of old world romanticism. Cigar smoking was for the machismo, the poetic, the player and the elite.

The cache cigars earned stemmed from their dual appeal to aristocrats at one end of the social ladder and the bandoleros at the other. The bandoleros were smugglers who, like today’s hash smugglers, hid tobacco up their bums; the more they could carry, the more man they were.

Funny how men can dismiss their homophobic fears when it comes to breaking the law. Needs must. ¡Vamonos. Arriba!

Cigar smoking’s curious blend of macho chic attracted the French literati to 1830s Seville in their droves. One of those writers was Prosper Mérimée, a prominent figure in the French Romantic movement. When he encountered the factory girls of Seville he was so inspired, he penned Carmen. He and his fellow writers returned to Paris totally enthralled by the cigarreras and their cigarettes, and thus, the most famous word the French have given the world was born.

When they wrote about the cigarette, they always referred to it in the feminine and so a link between smoking and sexuality was forged. Smoking had always been the domain of men. The cigarette changed all that.

The romanticism associated with the cigarette is a far cry from the days when the Spanish Inquisition tortured to death anyone indulging in what they considered to be the satanic practice of smoking. Also a far cry from today when cigarettes smokers are brandished weak victims of an evil vice. The language has changed little in four-hundred years.

If it wasn’t for those factory girls, Marlene or Marilyn or Betty or Rihanna wouldn’t be smokers. If it wasn’t for those factory girls, I or my friends or my mother or my granny would not be smokers. Of course there was also a more virulent machine at work, American tobacco companies, hell bent on global domination.

They did everything to ensure we all smoked from creating unforgettable icons to drugging us. Mention Marlboro, you picture a macho man in a cowboy hat. Those tobacco boys did a good job on us. We were easy prey.

In 1967 it was proved conclusively at the University of Michigan that nicotine was the reason people smoked. The addictive quality of nicotine answered a question that had plagued scientists for centuries: why smoke?

But today we know all this and the question, why smoke has psychological implications that smokers, as a rule, largely ignore. We know it’s bad for us. We know it’s killing us slowly, that we’re utterly dependent. We know it reduces fertility and causes heart disease and lung cancer and yet the tobacco industry is robust.

In times of war, cigarettes and tobacco before them, were doled out to the fighting soldiers. Actually World War I is one of the reasons smoking became such a permanent fixture of twentieth century life. Prior to the war, smoking was loosing its sheen, but the soldiers smoked in such huge numbers that by the time they returned to civilian life, they were guaranteed puffers until their phlegm-filled deathbeds.

While they were fighting they smoked to calm their nerves, feel a bit normal, take a moment to steal away from the horrifying reality that surrounded them. That possibly gives a more precise clue as to why so many people continue to smoke today.

Don’t all of us have days when we need to calm our nerves, feel a bit normal, steal away from the reality that surrounds us?

The beautiful woman opposite lights another cigarette. Her man can’t take his eyes of her. He’s entranced. Me too. She doesn’t mind being a statistic, this proud, sexy, smoking woman. This perfect woman with the heart of a bandolero. I smoke when I’m happy too. In my dreams I smoke.



Man, Are you a Blockhead?

January 10th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink














I have come to the conclusion that there are a significant percentage of men who suffer from a little-documented but widespread affliction called ‘rightitis’ which basically means that no matter how idiotic they are being, they still believe they are right.

On its own, rightitis is not a harmful condition. But when brought into contact with a headstrong female, there is a strong possibility of frustration at best and relationship breakdown at worst.

Abusive language, fists through doors, windows off hinges, broken plates and that kind of thing are not uncommon in these instances.

Sadly there is no known cure for rightitis. The male appears to be born with the clumsy chromosone and try as he might to educate himself, the mind-numbing affliction lays dormant until the day that he feels enough confidence in himself to inflict it on the world.

The symptoms are universal but vary in their extremity from quietly obstinate to downright belligerent.

It doesn’t matter the specific personal circumstances of the male sufferer. He can be a dot com billionaire or a street dwelling bum; both have the power to be utterly deluded, happy to take a podium and blather total shite if randomly provoked.

The saddest outcome of this affliction is that very few males like to suffer it alone. You see they can only truly feel whole when they are lording it over someone else, so it’s likely he has recruited a pack to assert his prowess in any given field.

It occurs to me that here’s how it rolls: amongst men there is a consensus, as long as the bullshit is steeped in jargon it’s true so there isn’t any need for annoying questions.

Men are pretty much unanimously agreed on the suggestion that if there are any annoying questions, they will come from a woman. They don’t like this as it can potentially cause a number of male elements to rise: chiefly blood pressure, anxiety, impatience and voice.

This applies to explanations about off-side rules, car breaks, plumbing, extreme sports, spiritual living, food, wine and about any other God damn topic that has managed to develop a language of jargon in order to validate the worthiness of the activity for the man in question.

When they are forced to explain something, the explanation is accompanied by lots of heavy sighing, face scratching, eye rolling and a look of incredulous disbelief.

Cooking, typically female terrain, provides the perfect example.

For centuries women boiled potatoes, hacked and grilled meat, peeled and stewed vegetables. Meals were hearty and nutritious and people who could afford to eat did so and lived long (ish) lives.

Keen to blunt the impact of Fanny Craddock and Delia, Keith Floyd came along and did everything in his power to create a blaze in the kitchen and on TV screens across the country.

A whole new food vocabulary evolved. Recipes became works of art. Tiny portions and elaborate sauces became the flavour of the day.

Suddenly housewives across the western world were no longer satisfied with their Sunday special of glazed ham and plum sauce. And the kids were demanding sauté vegetables and risotto.

All those years, Delia Smith put into creating simple TV dinners, vanished overnight.

Although she dominated TV kitchen land in the 70s and 80s, no one ever thought to stick her in a real kitchen and have her treat unwilling minions like pig swill until they mastered the fine art of cooking up a feast under inhumane pressure.

But then good old Delia bought a football team. She came on TV and swore like a sailor. Every one was dutifully surprised when it transpired she was more foul-mouthed than Gordon Ramsay.

She should get a new cooking show. I can see it now, Delia and Her Kitchen Devils or Delia’s Wooden Spoons.

But I digress.

Women do that. It’s our wayward brains. Makes it impossible to have a logical conversation with us.

I suppose it helps that men always know what they are talking about and are always right. Makes things so much easier for us gals to understand.



My Dog is a Lush

January 10th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink


529910990_imagesaas_f_improf_1198x897I live in a town called Tarifa. A port town, the transient locals never really feel settled until they own a dog, so the place is infested with them. From Pekinese to German Shepard, every breed is represented. And then there is one special breed of the town’s own making, the Tarifa Dog.

The Tarifa Dog is recognisable for its extreme independence, stubborn manner, excellent survival skills and quick temper should anyone attempt to interfere with its food.

The king of Tarifa Dogs is a mutt called Tafu; skinny, gnarly and father to half of the town’s canine population, Tafu is something of a legend. He is always on the prowl.

But it wasn’t a desire to join the legacy of Tarifa’s canine lore that inspired me to get a dog. My motivations were much more childish. I wanted a Labrador. I had a Golden Retriever when I was younger and was heartbroken when someone stole her.

I searched various pet shops but no waggy tails caught my eye. When a friend said his mongrel had just given birth to nine puppies and some of them looked like Labs, I hot-footed it over there.

They say that an owner never chooses a dog. The dog chooses the owner. When I spotted the nine six-week-old fluffy pups tumbling about on the floor my heart melted. It was impossible to choose one.

We played with them all trying to make out individual personality traits. One pup was particularly friendly and stood out because of her funny nipples. On a second visit, a little golden furball kept following me. When I finally picked her up, I saw it was the funny nipple dog. That was it. I took her home.

That was two and a half years ago.

When I first got her I realised I had entered a whole world of dogginess. First there’s the accessories, the coloured cushioned beds, the collars, the leads, the bowls; a girl could spend an entire afternoon on doggie accessories, but that might be a tad extravagant … also sad. This is the south of Spain not Venice Beach.

Taking her out for a walk was another doggy door-opener. Other dog owners stopped me to ask was it a boy or a girl? How old was she? What mix was she? Then they would ooh and aah over how cute she was. It was a world of doggie fluffiness.

As the years pass I understand more the lure of puppies for seasoned dog owners. It reminds them of a time when their own outsized hairball was cute and manageable. For a moment they remember moments of serenity that don’t involve tearing across fields and beaches in the vain hope of catching said outsized hairball.

My dog grew up fast. Unruly and feisty from the get-go, she quickly became a natural on the streets and a lover of nightlife. By the time she was six-months she was sociable, strong-willed and popular.

From an early age she liked to roam the unknown and the habit has not ceased with age. She relishes every moment free of the leash by racing down the beach at break-neck speed or slipping off into the back alleys of Tarifa.

She is always on a mission, always busy. Sometimes she likes to hook up with the other dogs round town and has her favourites. While some dogs are just good for a quick bum-sniff, others she regards as her fur-bond friends.

She has very little time for male dogs in general. If they bother her too much, she’ll attack. Can dogs be gay?

Despite this intense dislike for the male canine population, there is one mangy mutt whom she adores. I am sure their relationship is platonic because he’s been ‘done.’ He looks somewhere cross between a Spaniel and a Hedgehog.

He’s short, stumpy, shaggy and follows my dog at every opportunity. When they see each other, the two take a running leap at each other, then with my dog taking the lead, they bounce and dash off into the horizon.

This dog is owned by a spinster in her fifties. I have an innate dislike for the word ‘spinster’ with all its Victorian connotations, but there is no other way to describe this woman. Black-rimmed glasses, grey black hair worn in a lank pony-tail, clothes from a depressed era.

She has an epileptic fit every time she sees my dog coming and for good reason. One occasion after an all night bender – when they go they don’t come back till the next morning – her dog arrived back barely able to walk. Most likely a car him so her nervousness is understandable.

I have no idea what they do all night. Sniff out the best bins. Eat out of bins. Hang out with other dogs. Sniff each other’s asses. Sniff other dogs’ asses. Scour the beach for dead carcasses. Play with dead carcasses. No doubt it’s a night of non-stop full on woof madness.

And when she finally arrives home, her routine is always the same. Two full days she spends barely conscious on the couch. Yes folks, she sleeps it off.

The first day she is comatose while I wonder what whirlwind of activity could tire out a dog who otherwise makes the Tasmanian Devil look docile. The second day, she might move, but only because she has to go to the loo. Business done she’s back to the couch.

Some say that a dog assumes the traits of its owner.

I say, no chance! This bitch knows her own mind.

This Is Sailing

January 10th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

“This is sailing,” I thought as I stood behind the helm of the 40ft yacht Sunstar as it cut through choppy Mediterranean waters. It was a fresh morning with a dull sky and the wind was biting with enough force to keel the vessel over to a sixty-degree angle.

Only moments earlier I was white-knuckling the side railings and watching in horror as another crewmember ousted the contents of her stomach all over Sunstar’s upper deck. The chocolate coloured upheaval clung stubbornly to the pristine white fibreglass much to the embarrassment of the up-chucker and the quiet disgust of the rest of the crew.

I was oblivious to the commotion. For the first time since my arrival on the yacht, two days earlier, I felt in control. The force of the wind, the sway of the sea, the power of the boat, all previously perceived as potential threats, now conspired to thrill me. To my left the southern Spanish coastline, to my right Africa and in my hands the means to visit whichever shoreline took our fancy. Such freedom! Now I understood the allure of sailing.

My fascination with sailing began some years previous. Captivated by the BBC’s seasonal series “The World of Yachting” I aspired to race through raging waters on-board one of those graceful sea-challengers. The dream, however, was confined resolutely to my imagination. Up until now.

On the recommendation of a friend, I signed up to an introductory course with a school in Gibraltar, Alfer Sea School. This beginner level course is suitable for those who wish to sample life afloat whilst learning preliminary seamanship skills such as rope-work, sail handling, sailing manoeuvres and the basic joy of sleeping and eating in close quarters with fellow crew.

The date of departure arrived and I met with Fergus, Sunstar’s skipper and qualified yacht-master, in Gibraltar’s marina. His first words of advice were, “Remember, the most important thing is to enjoy yourself.” I smiled nervously, guided my way to the hatch and lowered myself inside. I was immediately impressed by the unexpected comfort of its interior. Dark teak cabins, countertops and table matched with blue velvet soft furnishings invoked a 5-star ambience and quickly dispelled any notions that boat-life compared to camping at sea.

Safely on-board and below deck, introductions to the other crew began. They were four with varying levels of sailing experience. Paul and Jean, a middle-aged couple from the north of England, had taken the same trip three years previous and wanted to brush up their skills. Bruno, a thirty-something Portuguese marketing professional raced laser boats in his hometown of Porto and Toby, a twenty-something graduate from Essex with ambitions to join the navy.

I awoke the first morning to clear blue skies and gentle activity. The cool breeze was perfect for cruising around the bay and literally learning the ropes. “Does anyone know the first rule of sailing,” Fergus piped up in his typically enthusiastic manner. The crew looked at him blankly. “Sail against the wind,” he informed us. “How do we know where the wind is coming from?” he asked. “Lick your finger,” I suggested. He looked at me sympathetically and proceeded to point out a number of features on the yacht which tell us the direction of the wind; tail-flies on the head sail, wind-cock at the top of the mast, flag at the back of the boat.

An onslaught of terminology ensued. It’s akin to learning a new language, but a physical and active language. Standby, mayday, heave-to, about turn, gybe, tack, ahead, astern – each word is a call for action, that by the end of the day all crewmembers could understand.

The following day we were ready to tackle open water. Paul and Toby plotted a course for Sotogrande, 40 kms up the southeast coast of Spain. This trip was however cut short by the unfortunate fate that befell Jean’s stomach. We decided to have lunch on-shore instead and headed directly for the exclusive marina of Sotogrande.

This marina is a unique spot along the Spanish coastline. The 5,000-acre custom-built resort was inspired by the vision of American Joseph McMicking in the 1970s. It offers more than five hundred berths, first-rate facilities and exclusive eateries. But the best part for us was the chance to have a hot shower. That night, after a dinner prepared on board, I sat up on deck enjoying the calm and realised how easily I could get use to this way of life.

The destination point for the next day’s sailing was Ceuta, which involved crossing the Strait of Gibraltar. There are several hurdles to overcome when navigating the Strait such as the wind, the traffic and the unpredictable currents. Managing to avoid all large vessels and blessed with a light easterly breeze, we enjoyed a smooth sailing across and were happy to be greeted at the mouth of Ceuta’s port by a small school of common dolphins rising and dipping at the bow of the yacht.

Ceuta is a Spanish enclave in the northern Moroccan coastline. Its ramshackle appearance belies a colonial heritage dating back to the fifteenth century when it was first taken by the Portuguese and then ceded to the Spanish a couple of centuries later. Crumbling relics of Spanish rule pop up around the small town centre. Yet Ceuta possesses a distinct charm, shaped by its utter lack of pretension. Plus as a duty-free shopping zone with a network of cobbled streets selling a mix of high-street fashions and shoes, this little known treasure is, in fact, any shopaholics paradise.

Our mission for the next day was a night sail in the bay of Algeciras. This turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip. Sailing at night the sea’s texture resembles treacle and a whole new host of challenges appear out of the dark. Strategically placed buoys with coded lighting systems warn against approaching danger. Knowledge of these flashing sequences was reserved for a more advanced sailing course so I was content to enjoy the radiance of the starlit sky.

For our last day, back in the bay of Gibraltar, the skipper decided the weather conditions were perfect for practising a few safety manoeuvres such as man overboard. I learned how to stop the powerful yacht and rescue the poor buoy we had willingly abandoned to the sea for the purpose of the exercise.

I did the manoeuvre twice, perfecting it on my second try. Afterwards we sailed the boat closer to the harbour, let the sails down, switched on the engine and motored to the pontoon where I duly parked the boat.

The Artful Entrepreneur

January 10th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Maria McMenamin is a woman at the top of her game. In seven short years she has defied all expectations and revolutionised the way art is bought and sold in Ireland. She is the tour de force behind the country’s only commercial art fare, the ubiquitous Art Ireland.

Speaking with her on the phone, I imagine a bourgeois art lover, a lady who likes to lunch while dropping the names of her husband’s Golf Club friends. Her refined brogue and reputation are all the evidence I need.

But within seconds of meeting her, my preconceptions are shattered. In person she is easy-going and completely devoid of pretension; rare qualities in an industry that lauds the ability to build up an image and then live up to it.

Disarmed by her youthful looks and radiant smile, I can’t picture her taking the Irish art world by storm. When I tell her so, her response is characteristically animated while her humour is self-depreciating.

“Can you imagine me at twenty-four, twenty-five,” she says, leaning in closer, emphasising the ‘me’ and dramatically pointing to herself, “approaching established art galleries and telling them I wanted to host an art fare. But no, I have no experience, and no, I’ve never done anything like this before. They didn’t even laugh at me, they just ignored me. That made me want to do it more.’

From a young age Maria knew she wanted to run her own business. She went to UCD and completed a degree in Business Studies with that objective in mind. After college she moved to London. It was there that she discovered art markets. Immediately she loved the buzz.

“I’d been to galleries in Dublin and just found them so snotty, completely unapproachable and of course way out of my price range. But in London it wasn’t like that. Here were these huge weekend markets where you could go, talk to the artists and buy affordable but original art.”

She was inspired.

“I thought why don’t we have anything like this is Dublin. It seemed like a huge market opportunity to me.”

From that point on, the lengthy process of finding an exhibition space and filling it began. Quickly she realised that she was on to a good thing. The dismissals she received from the galleries were outweighed by an overwhelming support from artists.

“The artists loved the idea. They were just so happy to have a way to reach the public that circumvented the restrictive process of dealing with a gallery. The vast majority of artists simply cannot afford the 50 percent commission that galleries demand. With Art Ireland their only outlay is in the stand. They are in control and they really appreciate that. Also London galleries were hugely supportive from the beginning. Many of them are still taking exhibition spaces today.”

That first year every spare penny went into promoting the event. She’d convinced the artists to come on board but unless the public came with money in their back pockets, she knew the whole thing would be a pointless exercise.

“I will never forget the doors opening that first year and seeing a queue at the door. What a relief that was!”

For the next three years she continued to work full-time in London, selling software for Iona Technologies and organising the fare during every spare moment.

‘I’d be on my way to a sales meeting for Iona and taking bookings for the fare. I had a few mobiles. I’d be talking to an artist, get to my client’s office, switch off one mobile, set up my presentation and talk software. But Iona was fully aware of what I was doing and had no problem with it.”

This hectic pace continued up until four years ago when she made the decision to move back to Ireland and dedicate all her energy into Art Ireland.

But slowing down is not an option for Maria. Within two years of moving home she got married, expanded Art Ireland to Cork, added an additional date to the Dublin calendar and had a baby boy. And in the two since, she’s had another baby, a girl, and this year sees her launch the show in Galway.

Her success, it would seem, is unstoppable and I wonder why she has succeeded where so many others have failed.

“A few things are important,” she explains, “location for one. That’s why the RDS in Dublin works. There’s parking, catering and public transport, all things, which make it easy for the visitors to come. But the artists have to sell work. If there are no sales, it’s just a pointless exercise for everybody.’

In 2008 her efforts will come full circle when she launches the Dublin Art Fare, an event exclusively for Dublin’s galleries. Now, not even they can snub her hard-earned influence. Just as the success of Art Ireland cannot be overlooked, few can ignore the sheer determination of this skilled business woman or deny that her indomitable entrepreneurial spirit is artful.