Thursday, 29 March 2012

A Real Character: Me

After my last blog post exploring whether we consciously manufacture personalities for social media like Twitter, I was interested to read Isabel Costello’s piece about creating characters for fiction. She then (very bravely) set out to bring herself to life on the page by writing about various aspects of her own character and experiences. Susan Elliot Wright followed suit, and #realcharacter was born.
Here is my rendition of myself. If you’d like to take part in #realcharacter, just blog about yourself as we have, then tweet a link, using the #realcharacter hashtag. You’ll be found and retweeted.

Recommended reading for onlies
I’m an only child, born to parents who had experienced the agony of a stillbirth son a few years earlier. So feel free to throw all those usual adjectives – spoilt, over-protected, selfish – at me. I’m old enough now to acknowledge the (relative) truth of them, although this upbringing also means I’m a loyal friend, honest to a fault, and can spell really well.

My Mum’s family were well-off Dorset farmers whom she defied to marry a young army chef from Walsall. They relented the day before the wedding, and Dad was accepted, with reservations, into the fold. The upside was he could fuel his car from the farm's petrol pump. But in return he was expected to help out occasionally with the harvest and other tasks. I remember him coming home later than expected one evening from visiting an aged uncle. He was a little pale and dishevelled: he’d had to assist in a calf’s breech birth.
I have 21 cousins on my Dorset side, all but two female. Our last get-together was when our grandmother reached 90; the Reads are a gratifyingly long-lived bunch. This was some years ago, but it was obvious we had all inherited the pear-shape gene.
I escaped from the country as soon as I could, moving to London at 18 to work in Harrods and live in a hostel run by The Girls’ Friendly Society (yes, really). Back then London was fun, as long you had a job to pay for going out. I loved the theatre, the cinema, the shopping. In my twenties I was, I admit it, a Yuppie who (whisper it) did pretty well under Mrs Thatcher, buying and selling several flats for profit. But at 30, given the chance to move to Nottinghamshire with my job at Boots, I ended up living in a tiny village. My rural roots were dragging me back. Which is probably why I now live in the Scottish Borders, sharing my life with 19 chickens, 3 dogs and a geriatric cat. I’m also on my second husband, and as he’s Scottish we won’t be moving south any time soon.
As a typical only child I’m rubbish at team games and until a few years ago never found physical exercise at all tempting, except for walking and then only with a dog. But at 50 I joined a gym and discovered weight-training. I go two or three times a week, and although I’m not muscled up a la Madonna, my core fitness has improved to the extent that I now feel worse if I don’t work out. I can’t see the point of cigarettes, excessive alcohol or drugs, and have a pretty low tolerance of those who do. However, I love chocolate, smoked salmon and the occasional glass of champagne.

Monument Valley, Arizona

Despite hating to fly (it’s that rare combination of scary and boring) I love visiting America, especially the wide-open bits like Montana and Arizona. I also adore travelling by train and hope to take my husband to Paris one day.
Do I need to say that my favourite habit is reading?

Despite, or perhaps because of, my father suffering from depression all his adult life, I am infuriatingly cheerful most of the time. I enjoy my life and appreciate how lucky I am to be able to write every day. I’ve also realised I am an autodidact: I revel in teaching myself new things. Hence starting a degree course at Edinburgh when I was 40 and now completing it via the Open University. And of course writing is one long lesson . . .
I consider myself sociable but am sometimes intimidated by large groups of people and prefer to chat one-to-one. At a recent dinner party I was told by someone I had only just met that I am ‘aggressively nice’. She meant it as a compliment, so I have taken it as such.
Being childless, I am probably living proof of the alleged need we all have to ‘mother’ something. At one point I had 6 cats, now I indulge myself with chickens.
Skills (or otherwise)
Aside from the word-manipulation abilities I possess, I don’t shine at much, especially not physical skills. However, when my husband started working for himself as a stonemason, before he could afford an employee I used to restore the outside walls of houses with him. I was hardly gazelle-like climbing up the scaffold, but once there I showed a talent for chipping out the old mortar and repointing the joints. We both look back fondly on those days.

One of the walls I worked on, waiting to be repointed

And one more thing . . .
About ten years ago I met someone who had a profound influence on my ambition to be a professional writer. Her name was Sylvian Hamilton and she had three books, the Chronicles of the Bone Pedlar, published when she was in her 60s. She lived in a tiny cottage not far from here, with her husband and two Siamese cats.
We met when my husband did some work for her and mentioned I wanted to be a writer. ‘She must come for tea,’ Sylvian said, and I subsequently spent many happy visits talking about books and writing. She taught me that you can write at any age, and that dreams can come true even to those of us who lead humdrum lives in rural Scotland. Sadly, Sylvian died from breast cancer in 2005. She didn’t want a funeral so I planted a tree on our front lawn in her memory. She was in my life for far too short a time, but she inspired me so much I’ll always be grateful to her.


  1. Great post, Janet - what a fascinating life story, and so vividly told. Sylvian sounds really interesting, and it must have been a joy to have her as a friend for a time - it's a shame that we often have such a short amount of time with these wonderful people.

    Thank you so much for posting your #realcharacter

    1. Thanks, Susan, for giving me the impetus to write this.

  2. Really moving, Janet, especially the last part. Sylvian sounds amazing. You have a talent for summing things up without losing fascination, I think. Wotalotof cousins!

    1. Thanks for visiting and the kind words. *blushes*

  3. I really enjoyed your contribution to #realcharacter, Janet and I like the way you write. I love America too, that awe-inspiring scenery... The part about Sylvian really touched me as today I visited a wonderful friend who is very sick who has really inspired me. We all need people like those along the road to becoming a writer.

    1. Thanks, Isabel, for starting off such an interesting trend - I was pleased to join in. You're right about needing encouragement and inspiration: being published can seem an impossible dream otherwise.

  4. Wow, this is beautiful. You have a lovely voice and an enviable way with words! I found myself feeling a range of emotions as I read this--powerful stuff. Thanks so much for this!

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Monica, and being so complimentary. When you start blogging it's hard to believe anyone will read the posts let alone enjoy them.

  5. Hi Janet, I'm so glad I've met you through #realcharacter. This is a truly lovely post. I will look forward to reading both your blog and published works and, speaking of mentors, it seems like you would be a rather wonderful one.

    1. Thanks, Kristin, for such kind words. It's been a rewarding experience doing #realcharacter, not least because it's put me in touch with lots of new people, like yourself.

  6. Hi again Janet,

    I hope you don't mind but I've tagged you in the Lucky Seven meme
    No pressure to take part - it intrigued me though.

  7. Janet, I really enjoyed your post, you write so well, and the little details of your life make fascinating reading.

    I am also taking an OU course (writing); I live in East Lothian and am far too easily distracted by beaches and tea shops (and my Siamese cats...)

    I have been wondering about blogging - your point about thinking no-one will ever read what you write struck a chord, but certainly doesn't apply to you.

    Thanks again for such an enjoyable read.


  8. Extremely interesting, especially the comments about life as an only child, almost all of which I empathise with!