Bright Lights, Big City!

 

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I want to wake up in that city
That never sleeps

-Frank Sinatra

OK, ask anyone and they will tell you that I have been really lucky with holidays this year. Following on from a wonderful trip to Inverness (see previous post here) I hot-footed it onto a flight to New York to celebrate my dad’s 60th birthday. It came as a complete surprise to him as my mum and I had been planning the holiday for over a year – sneaking off to book trips and pay balances. I thought he’d suspect something sooner but when we told him, he was genuinely shocked. I can’t believe we managed to keep our mouths shut! My dad has always wanted to go to New York and we wanted to do something special for such a landmark birthday.

Day One.

We stayed in the New Yorker hotel in Midtown, not far from the vibrant and bustling Times Square, but luckily we were situated on the 35th floor so we didn’t really have to worry about The City That Never Sleeps preventing us from getting any shut-eye. My country bumpkin parents are not used to the siren-lullaby of big cities and I’ve become accustomed to the silence of the shire, so we were all pretty chuffed. Not to mention the views were stunning. We could see all the way to the Hudson which glistened under the summer sun. The only snag was that my hair curlers wouldn’t work which meant natural looking hair aka. massive frizzy barnet.

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A room with a view!

We were pretty exhausted that evening so spent a few hours bumbling around Central Park in complete awe, before grabbing an early dinner in the diner underneath our hotel and then heading straight to bed where – according to my mum – I apparently snored like a “devil-child.”

Day Two.

The next day we decided to be proper tourists. I whipped out the guidebook first thing and we chatted about where we most wanted to see and how we’d fit it all in over tasty bagels smeared with cream cheese and fruit salad (I still hadn’t worked my way up to pancakes for breakfast yet, although I was dribbling over the big plate of blueberry pancakes and maple syrup the fella in the neighbouring booth was scoffing!)

The weather was beautiful and stepping out on to the street was like walking onto a film set. The sun shone off the skyscrapers towering overhead and the street bustled with people, taxis and life. It was amazing and I was excited to be back in a city. I hadn’t realised how much I’d missed it and I can’t wait to spend more time in cities next year.

We headed for Times Square and took in all the large scale billboards and lights. I don’t even want to think about the electricity bill for TS or NYC itself! My family has the strange obsession with Planet Hollywood even thought the food is sort of overpriced, but ever since a trip to Florida when I was a child, its become a bit of “a thing.” We spotted the NYC one and decided that would be the place we’d go for dinner that evening.

 

Next on the agenda was Fifth Avenue and the Rockerfeller Centre. We practically stumbled down fifth avenue, mouths like fish, because of all the ridiculously ornate buildings and big name shops. It was strange to be stood outside Tiffany’s, a shop I’d seen in many films, and it looked every bit as stunning (although I certainly didn’t come home with any diamonds!). We decided not to go shopping, although Magpie Mum took some convincing, as there was far too much to still see and do. Instead we headed to the Rockerfeller Centre first (above) and stopped for a drink nearby, admiring the beautiful building and its blingytatsic statues (above).

Up next was Grand Central Station. We got sort of lost but luckily stumbled across this beautiful statue of “The Weeping Fireman” which serves as a stark reminder of the sad legacy that permeates the city.

I’ve been a bit obsessed with Grand Central Station for a while. I mean, Lex Luther had a lair underneath the terminal – that’s pretty cool – and its always popping up in films, looking all grand. It wasn’t as big as I thought it would be, although I wasn’t disappointed. It was stunning. We looked around for a bit and admired the beautiful ceiling, but there was another (more pressing) reason why I wanted to visit the station….CAKE. Not just any cake though. Cake that is supposed to be THE best cake in New York. I located he Magnolia Bakery in the enormous food court (although I was a little disappointed by this as I really thought it would be some cute little sit-in café) and set about choosing our cake which was pretty impossible considering they all looked incredibly yummy. I opted for a red velvet cupcake and an ice coffee (which was fast becoming my fave drink) and promptly shoved both into my gob.

That afternoon, we hopped on the subway and headed for Chelsea which is a bit like Shoreditch in East London except slightly prettier. I loved it but the rents were a bit sceptical about being dragged off to some random part of New York. We went to Chelsea Market which is less market, more hipster-style-shopping centre. There were lots of fresh food shops such as a huge fish and seafood market that – if I hadn’t been with the woman most afraid of shellfish in the world – I would have loved to have a nose around. Instead, we hit the wine shop (typical) and bookstore.

After the market, we stopped off at a Mexican bar for a little sustenance, by which I obviously mean frozen margaritas. I was sensible in the heat (it was scorching and I developed a lovely bit of trucker arm even though I’d basted myself with factor 30) and also snaffled a large plate of the best guacamole I have ever munched and a huge portion of tortilla chips.

We then took a walk down to the new Chelsea Pier and walked along the Hudson and back to our hotel.

I pretty much fell in love with Chelsea there and then and decided I want to live there should I ever with the lottery. Failing that, there’s a hostel in the area so during the American portion of my Great Big Trip next year and I can at least spend a few more nights exploring the area. I also really want to explore Brooklyn.

After a bit of a respite for the rents, we dressed up in our glad rags and headed to Times Square for dinner. We were exhausted and barely managed to eat dinner so Planet Hollywood was less fun than we usually make it, but the walk around Time Square afterwards soon woke me up. I have never seen so many lights!

Day Three.

We woke up early because it was my Dad’s birthday and we were all excited. After opening cards (and getting “60” confetti everywhere), we headed for breakfast at the Diner where Pops and I had Birthday Eggs (eggs benedict – but you don’t feel like a greedy piggy scoffing down all that buttery sauce when its birthday times) before planning our next move: The Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and an intriguing bar which apparently has bras hanging from the ceiling.

The ferry docked from Battery Park in the Financial District. It wasn’t the best day weather wise – it was far colder and gloomy – but it was brilliant in terms of not having to queue for a ferry or to get into either of the attractions. The journey over to Liberty Island was incredibly windy but the views were stunning. As we got further away from the city, the skyscrapers and buildings look less real, like a huge cardboard cut out. We took a load of photos where I look like Medusa because my hair has gone cray and my mum looks a bit green from the swooshing of the boat.

The Statue of Liberty was a bit disappointing. I’d always imagined it to be so much bigger, taller, but it’s actually not as big as I thought. We also couldn’t get tickets to go up the statue, rather we could only walk around the grounds. I’m glad we went and took a look – the view of the city from the island were beautiful and the gift shop was pretty cool – but I was more of an Ellis Island fan.

When we took the fez over to Ellis Island, the sun finally came out – HURRAH! We spent a while in the museum, reading all the stories about who came through the port and how they processed thousands and thousands of people looking for a new life. Obviously they weren’t all happy tales, or stories to be proud of, but it was a really interesting exhibit.

The afternoon was spent wandering around the Financial District. The buildings were amazing, even if Wall Street was pretty uninspiring. Just look at the amazing building that looks like it’s barely there, or a mirror. Hard to believe people will work in there! We were all feeling super tired so we didn’t get to go the bra pub. Instead, we went back to the pub near our hotel, drank some red wines, and ordered a pizza to scoff in the room.

Happy 60th Birthday, Pops!!

Day Four.

Day Four was actually my dads “official” birthday (much like the queen he had two this year, well actually he had three because I took him for dinner!) as we’d arranged for a couple of tours before we’d left and this was the only available time slot.

First up: The Empire State Building.

I was SUPER nervous about the ESB. I am not the best when it comes to dealing with heights and have been known to go a little nutty at high altitudes. We didn’t have to queue again (luck was really with us this holiday) and were ushered straight into the lift and up to the 86th floor before I could even recognise the feeling of nausea. When we finally arrived at the top, I felt a little silly for being so frightened. Everything was far too BIG for me to be scared, and again, it just didn’t look real.

My Dad loved it and instantly took on the role of family photographer.

As Official Gift Shop Perusers, I can honestly say that ESB as the BEST array of mugs, t-shirts and key rings, and we came out with a good haul, complete with cheesy family snap superimposed onto a background of generic New York Skyline.

Next up was a guided tour of the 911 Memorial Site.

We met our tour guide, Deb, outside St Paul’s Church. A life-long New Yorker, she began the tour with telling us where she was on that day. Turns out, she should have been working at One World Trade Centre but had jury duty that day. I am a bigger believer in fate, and believe that all the twists and turns and coincidences that make up our lives are not random.

Anyway, she took us around the church, which acted as a sort of refuge for service men and rescue personnel, not only during that day, but the weeks months and years following. It was incredibly moving to see all the shrines to lost ones and messages of hope, support and admiration from other churches, stations and states. We took a seat to let it all sink in when a choir began to sing. It was so beautiful and moved me to tears. The most impressive thing was that these children were not part of the church choir, rather they were on a school trip and wanted to pay their respect somehow.

Next up we were taken around the new development and shown the plans for the new buildings. They were very impressive and testament to a city that is, as Deb says, “stronger and better than ever.” Its true what they say about New-Yorkers, they are tough cookies! Knock them down and they get back up, twice as hard and more determined. Deb also explained and told stories, individual to each company and building, tales of heroes such as The Red Bandana Man and people who worked for business that gave their all, and their lives, to save their colleagues. It was incredibly moving and very close to home. It felt very important to be told these stories and to keep telling them. Deb also reminded us that people continue to be affected by the tragedy years on, both psychologically – how can you forget witnessing such horrors or losing a loved one in such a way – and physically, for example, those who helped in the aftermath and ingested harmful materials resulting in illness years down the line.

The tour ended at the memorial site. It truly is stunning and not at all what I was expecting. There was a huge brass plate running the length of the fire station wall dedicated to the service personnel who lost their lives, and just opposite is the official NYC memorial to victims of 911. A huge water-fall type construction, with every single victims name engraved in the side. These people were grouped not alphabetically, or in terms of company, rather who-was-friends-with-who, which is testament to how much work and time has gone into this beautiful commemoration.

We decided to head home after this and get ready for a nice meal. What better way to commemorate the day than have a wonderful dinner with the people you love?

Day Five.

The sun was shining on day five, so much so that we decided to spend the day in Central Park. I don’t think we realised how big it was. There’s loads to do in this incredibly well kept city Eden: a pond full of turtles, a zoo, a castle, a carousel and plenty of space to run if exercise is your bag.

It really is a stunning park with lots to see and do. I’d been looking forward to heading to the Boathouse for drinks with my parents and it was brilliant, well, that is until some slightly grouchy waitress started her shift and decided good customer service wasn’t something she possessed.

The evening was spent back in Times Square for the last supper. We all felt incredibly blue and were not looking forward to the next day, or the flight home.

I really loved New York. It was great to be back in a city and I found it incredibly exciting and a bit nuts, and I really can’t wait to go back next year. I’m definitely checking out the night life next time!

Have you been anywhere recently that you fell in love with at first sight?

 

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An Ode to Moniack Mhor

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“You can make anything by writing.”
― C.S. Lewis

Take fifteen writery types, a cupboard, fridge and shed load of booze (including all of the Processco ever made in the world ever), a house in the Scottish Highlands, no work/phones/interruptions/jobs, and a variety of differing – yet incredibly silly and like minded people – and what do you get? A recipe for absolute mayhem, hilarity and incredible writing.

I’ve just spent a week in Inverness. In absolute honesty, I really didn’t want to come home, or at least go back to reality. I’d been suffering for a couple of weeks with a horrible case of self-doubt – Would I ever finish the novel? Will anyone read the novel? Would anyone want to read the novel? – and I’d completely forgotten what it was all about.

I love writing. I love everything about it. I love shutting myself away and creating worlds that only exist in my head, characters I’ve thought up and brought to life on the page, and snatches of dialogue I imagine throughout the day, but lately I’d become disillusioned, and wonder how I can incorporate writing into my life. The easy answer would be as a career but unfortunately I am yet to be so lucky. The closest I get in my current job is creating blog posts and marketing materials. I’m lucky that I’ve decided to take a year out next year so will have plenty of time to write and think as I travel.

It is all too easy, isn’t it, to get bogged down in the mire of the everyday, of work and family and routine, and you completely forget to do the things you love. Why? I guess its because we feel guilty. Why am I taking the time away from my friends and family? Why am I spending time in this fictional world rather than the real one?  Why is that person smirking when I tell them I’m staying in to write? You start finding yourself completely ridiculous and your aspirations out of reach. You start to think, “it’ll never happen to me,” or, “I’m wasting my time,” and not be able to put pen to paper. Self-doubt completely sucks.

“And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”
― Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

That’s what is so magical about a writer’s retreat like the one I’ve just been on. Over the course of the week self-doubt slowly gets eroded. Not because you sit around telling each other how amazing you all are (although, turns out this is actually true – the calibre of writing was outstanding. Everyone in that group is a true star) but because you realise you are a writer. Just because you aren’t paid or published, or your smart-arse boss makes light of your ambition, it doesn’t mean you don’t get it, that you haven’t got it.

I hadn’t been to Moniack Mhor for three years, and I hadn’t seen the writer friends who were going for such a long time so I was feeling a little nervous. But, pulling up to the house – with three new friends I’d made at the airport (not randomly, they were on the course!) – I realised I was being silly. It felt like I’d never left and, in a strange way, it felt a little bit like coming home.

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The first day passed by pretty quickly with getting to know new people, eating dinner and drinking, and then early to bed because everyone was knackered from travelling. I tucked myself up in my little single bed, the ever-present light shining through my curtains, and nodded off quick-sharpish. The next morning we had our first workshop and, again, I felt a little nervous about writing something new and reading it. At university I hadn’t thought twice about reading unedited work aloud, but over time I’ve got a little frightened and out of practice. But we all seemed to slip back into it with ease. Its funny how many people said, “oh its awful,” as a disclaimer before reading out work when it actually turned out to be very good. The mornings were always spent like this – Scribbling away. Reading aloud. Listening – and the afternoons were spent free-writing, taking part in other workshops, talking those kind of really great conversations about everything and anything, or exploring the beautiful countryside (dumbass here only packed ballet pumps – it was either hair curlers or another pair of shoes and I stand by my decision – so no long treks for me).

I chose to spent my afternoons writing. I really wanted to get my spark back and what better place to do it than sat at a desk with this view.

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I wrote quite a bit and really enjoyed every minute. There’s something in the air at Moniack Mhor. Its almost magical.

But it wasn’t all serious writerly business. Far from it.

What happens when you put a load of people with over-active imaginations and a slightly warped sense of humour together in the same room?

Amazingness, that’s what.

And when you add booze its like striking a match. My face still aches with laughter caused by games such as Granny’s Knickers, Psychiatrist and my personal favourite, Empires.

The talent at writer’s retreats such as ours is phenomenal. I couldn’t believe that each night such fantastic stories and exerts from novels were being shared. I felt really lucky to be sat in that room listening to such brilliant writers and a little bit in awe. We sat in a little hut called The Hobbit House to give our readings, mine was on the second to last night and I was incredibly nervous, and it felt like being in a completely different world. Outside were the most gorgeous views and it really felt like miles away from my everyday life.

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We spent the last night feeling blue and pouring over a More Maniacs Dictionary we’d made for our tutor, Nicholas Royle, full of in jokes and silliness and tales from that trip and previous ones. It all seemed to make sense to us, the silliness and that love for writing, but when I got home and tried to explain some of the things that happened – and things that I felt – to my family, it was difficult for them to understand and for me to explain. Sat in an extremely loud Costa Coffee in the Birmingham Bull Ring, I kind of gave up explaining my woe and horror at being thrust back into civilization, and just shrugged my shoulders like a surly teenager with a horrendous hangover.

I guess you just had to be there.

Anyway, I am fully inspired to carry on writing now. It was less kick-up-the-arse, and more magical-spell. I can’t wait to keep on writing and I can’t wait to read what the other MMers have come up with (there’s an email going round as I speak full of wonderful words).

I miss the other writers I met and the ones I already knew. Its like some strange little cult but one you have to eventually leave. You end up feeling a little bereft (and over-dramatic) when its all over.

Unfortunately next year I am going travelling (well, not so unfortunately as it beats sitting in a smelly office every day but you know what I mean) so I wont be able to make it all the way to Scotland unless:

a) I win the lottery

b) I marry a rich man

or c) sell a kidney

as getting in from the US (which is where I will hopefully be) is a bit tricky.

B00000!

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Ah, well. I’m sure we’ll be going to MM until we’re old, grey and nuttier than we already are.

 

 

 

Blog Tour Monday. Hop Hop Hop.

Happy Monday, everyone.

I am pleased to announce that today is the return of Blog Tour Monday – HUZZAULES I hear you all cry!

The fantastic Kerry Hadley has handed me the baton (and unwisely asked me to run with it – we all know how much I like to waffle) for this week. Kerry is an author of incredibly real and dark fiction set in The Black Country (and a fellow person of the Midlands which makes her doubly ace!) I have just spent a week in Inverness with Kerry – and thirteen other writers – getting drunk, eating our body-weight in everything, writing, and playing games like Psychiatrist and Granny’s Knickers.

Kerry was handed the Blog Baton from Mike Clarke, a short story writer, who has had two stories accepted and performed by the Liars’ League, and Lisa Goll invited him to take part in this Blog Hop. She is organiser of the very successful London Writers Café Meetup Group and her entry on this Blog Hop was published a couple of weeks ago. I have met Lisa before after having attended a few of the London Writers Cafe workshops during my stint in London.

Anyhoo, there are three Blog Hop questions for me to answer, and I am going to be talking about LOL, my current novel in progress.

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1. When and where is the story set?

LOL is set in rural England for half of the novel. Alcester, Warwickshire to be precise and it is based – in part – on my own experiences growing up in a sleepy, country, teeny-tiny town. I love the cliquey, stifling nature of small towns and the fact that everyone knows everyone else and their business. I’m also fascinated by small town attitudes to secrets. They don’t get kept for very long and get spread very much like in a game of Chinese Whispers.

The latter part of the novel is set in Manchester where I used to live for nine years. Apparently I like writing about places that I know, and more notably, places where I have lived. I love Manchester. I love everything about it. I wanted to let my main characters free in a city environment so that can see and feel the difference between the two places. I also began writing the novel when I was still living in Manchester which played a huge part in the decision making process.

And the when? Its set in the here and now. In ordinary everyday, snoresville England. It could be happening to someone you know right now.

But would you ever find out?

Would anyone ever tell you?

Who exactly are you living next door to? **Twitches curtains**

2. What can you say about the main characters?

My main character, Andy, is a fifteen year old girl with a secret. Although she doesn’t know what that secret actually is. She lives with her mother and older brother, and briefly speaks to/visits her father who has left the family home and area after a marital breakdown.

So far, so normal modern family.

Right?

Wrong.

There are secrets in every family but these secrets are even more potent, poisonous and pervasive. Everyone in the family is affected by this secret, and their own. This is an entire family in complete and utter deterioration. Andy is naive and young for her age compared to her more streetwise ‘friends’ at school. She keeps plodding through life, a ghost in the school corridors, until she meets Kyle, a popular but very unhappy boy. I can’t say too much about the characters as they are pretty much integral to the plot but I can say that Andy is possibly unreliable as a narrator.

We know who she is, don’t we? Or do we? Does she know who she is?

I will say this though – watch out for the character of Uncle Rob **shudder**

3. What is the main conflict?

There are several conflicts in the novel – between family members, internally, publicly, psychologically – but the main conflict occurs internally in the character of Andy. We experience everything from Andy’s point of view, see everything through her eyes. She is plagued by dreams – or memories – but isn’t sure what they represent.

Can we trust her? Is Andy who she leads us to believe she is? Is she a quiet, good school girl or is she something else entirely? Something far sinister. As the novel is essentially about secrets, conflict is created by the gaping holes in people’s stories – the disparity between truth and lies.

As the novel progresses, Andy begins to learn all these surprising things about who she is, who her family are and exactly how terrifying the skeletons hidden in the family cupboard can be!

 

So that’s me done then! Unfortunately no-one took the bait this week so I don’t have another blogger to pass the baton onto. What I’m going to do is place it firmly in my desk drawer and wait for someone willing to come claim it.