Saturday, 27 February 2016

History Is Everybody

‘History is everybody’ – not the most inspiring quote, but I was being interviewed today and the interviewer thought it was because she made sure she wrote it down then and there, even though it was being recorded and she could transcribe later. The context: she was interviewing me about ‘My Hidden Mother’, the biography I have written about Mum that, in a nutshell, tells the story of a Jewish girl from a nice middle class family growing up in a world that’s about to implode, ie 1930s and 40s central Europe. The story is all about what happens when a whole group of perfectly ordinary people are dehumanised by the system. They become a label. They are no longer people. They are unwanted, they must be discarded, disappeared. My mother was lucky in that her disappearance meant her survival – for millions of others it meant death. You can read in your history books about Hitler, but you don’t read so much (with the exception of Anne Frank) about people who were not in positions of power, despite the fact that they are the majority by a factor of millions. History is bunk? Certainly is in the text books.

This is changing, slowly. All I remember about history at school was the astonishing fact that Queen Elizabeth I had 2000 dresses. This is a ridiculous factoid. What does it even mean? 2000 dresses at one point? During her entire life? What might be more interesting, is who counted them? Was there really some lady-in-waiting who one night thought, what the hell, why don’t I count how many dresses she really has, then write it down, and a few hundred years time people will be SO grateful I did, because this is what really matters. Put like that, one can see how absurd it is. I want to know how many dresses I might have had if I’d lived then; I want to know what my underwear would have been like, I want to know how I coped with periods and boyfriends. There is one hell of a lot that would be really interesting to know if an ordinary person like me had written it all down, but nobody like me did. I wouldn’t have had sufficient education, wouldn’t have had the level of literacy necessary, probably wouldn’t have had parents who could afford to buy paper, certainly wouldn’t have had access to a publisher.

Different now. I don’t need to be able to afford paper, because I have a computer, and I can write my mother’s story and I can get it published and I can get it out there so that people can read it. And then a student from Greenwich University can come across my book and read it and love it and decide to interview me about it, and maybe she’ll recommend it to others to read, and all the tiny, enormous, everyday and extraordinary facts of my mother’s life will become known beyond the small circle of my expected readership.

We are all history, but if nobody writes it down, after a few generations we disappear.

There is a photograph of my mother with her family. She and her brother are smiling for the camera. Her parents are not. They know what’s coming. I think it’s the most desperately sad picture I have ever seen. We are ALL history.

‘My Hidden Mother’ by Catherine Edmunds

Wednesday, 24 February 2016


You know those days when you’ve been teaching until late and want something quick and tasty? Steak would do nicely, than you very much – but there’s nowt in the freezer so you have to think: what’s filling, doesn’t take too long, tastes great. Store cupboard contains a packet of green lentils, not the big fat ones, but little ones, bit like Puy lentils but not quite. They take an age to cook. Solution? Pressure cooker. So here’s what I did, and when I do lentils I think dhal, so I have no doubt there are culinary experts who can make suggestions on how to improve this recipe, but this is what I did, and it ended up surprisingly tasty.

First of all, I set the lentils going in the pressure cooker with plenty of cold water (I’ve destroyed pressure cookers in the past, and have learnt my lesson). Meanwhile, I sliced up some of onions and set them to fry in a pan with plenty of oil. I threw in some chopped up fresh ginger, plus some cinnamon sticks and a few green cardamoms, couple of cloves. While that was frying away, I ground up (in a pestle and mortar, best way) some coriander and cumin seeds, black peppercorns, dried chilli, fenugreek seeds, along with some paprika and turmeric.

I have this way of doing onions that I learnt from the Curry Club, years ago. When they start going brown, throw in a splash of cold water. This plumps them up, and means you can cook much longer without burning. So I kept on, chucking in some cold water, plumping up, etc etc, until they were rich and brown at which point I threw in the ground spices, boiled away, another splash of cold water, and so on. You need to keep an eye on it – the oil needs to get hot enough to release all the aromatics, but not so hot that the spices burn. By this time the lentils had had ten minutes or so at high pressure, so I turned off the gas and let the pressure cooker come back to ‘normal’ at room temperature. When I opened it, the lentils were still intact, but nearly done, and there was still plenty of liquid so I threw the lot into the pan with the spices and onions, boiled it away for ten minutes or so. At this point I reduced the heat and threw in some full fat Greek yogurt – the real stuff, intensely creamy and delicious. Heated it through.

Ate it, with a glass of Sicilian red left over from the weekend. It was bloody delicious. I’m writing this down, because my ‘throw-it-in-the-pot-and-see-what-happens’ recipes don’t always work, but this one certainly did, so I want to have a record of how I did it.  

Monday, 22 February 2016

Being a Writer

An email out of the blue – a student at Greenwich University asks if I’d be happy for her to interview me regarding ‘My Hidden Mother’, the book I’ve written about Mum surviving the Holocaust. I’m happy to oblige, though I point out I’m a long way from Greenwich. She however is amenable to coming up to Darlington, so we arrange a date. She knows about the book from her grandparents. She gives me their name, but it means little to me, so I ring up Mum who tells me they’re a couple she regularly meets at the bus stop.

This is so random. I was expecting them to be people she’s known for decades.

So next weekend I’m going to be interviewed, and I’m going to have to sound as if I know what I’m talking about as regards writing. I’m going to have to sound like a proper writer. This student is studying creative writing – all I have is an O level in English Language. I wrote stories at school only if they were set by the teacher; never just for the sake of it. I then wrote nothing for decades, didn’t even consider writing until I was in my forties, and then it was purely by chance, and wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t fallen in with some poets in an internet chatroom. I’ve never written a diary and I didn’t spend my teens writing angst-filled poetry. I still don’t write a journal of any kind, which is why my blog entries are so few and far between. When I’m out, I don’t have a notebook with me to jot down ideas. I don’t have paper and pen by my bedside in case I happen to wake up in the middle of the night needing to write down something incredible because I know I’ll forget it by the morning. I was never one of those people who thought they had a novel in them and who were just waiting for the right moment.

The old msn chatrooms were much like facebook today – a right old load of tosh, but with the occasional brilliant conversation. I started jotting down ideas from these conversations, invented characters, threw difficulties at them to see what they would do, and they took off, they flew – and ended up as a novel. Having never written anything longer than three or four sheets of A4 at school, I soon had a manuscript of 96,000 words. In my naivety, I sent it to a few agents. When that got me nowhere, I published with a vanity press – cost me nothing, but I was bombarded with ‘special offers’ to buy my own book at an exorbitant cost, so I sold very few. That book is now thankfully out of print. First novels, eh? Absolute tripe if you don’t know what you’re doing, and I certainly didn’t.

The writing bug had taken hold, however, and within a few years I had learnt the craft properly and had a number of traditionally published books to my name – a poetry collection and three novels.

Did this make me a ‘proper’ writer?

No. When you’re starting out, publication feels like the ultimate goal. Then you realise all you have to do is write something and send it somewhere and someone will eventually publish it. On my website, I used to list all these publications, but I’ve now heavily culled the listings as I’ve realised too many of them are embarrassments. The poetry collection and novels are fine, as they’re out with Circaidy Gregory Press, a very decent indie-press, so I keep them on the list, along with Bridport listings, Pushcart Prize nominations, Butcher’s Dog, Frogmore Papers, etc – but I keep very quiet about some of the others from the distant past before I knew better.

Being published in the right places, however, still didn’t make me a writer, it simply mades me a person who happened to write and who sometimes managed a decent hit.

I mentioned my O level in English Language earlier on. That was slightly disingenuous of me, as it makes me sound as if I haven’t studied writing at all. I have, but I’ve used the internet. I soon realised the chatrooms where people said ‘thank you for sharring’ (sic) were to be avoided at all costs. I drifted instead towards the private, much tougher forums, one of which set me on the right track. I learnt a lot there, but it didn’t make me a writer.

A few years later, I discovered Alex Keegan’s online ‘Bootcamp’, and if you can’t learn how to be a writer there you’re really not trying. I’ve been a ‘bootcamper’ for three years now, and have learnt one hell of a lot – but none of the skills I’ve picked up there make me a writer in themselves.

What makes me a writer is the fact that I’m currently writing every day – averaging around 1000 words – and I’ve been doing this for months now, not even stopping for Christmas Day. When you’re primarily a poet, that’s pretty much impossible, so much of my output at the moment is short stories. They pour out, and they’re initially gibberish, so when they go through the bootcamp mill they’re eviscerated by myself as much as anyone. I fix them if they’re fixable, submit them if they have a chance in one of the better markets or competitions. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t – but the important thing is that I’m writing them, so the idea of a student from London coming up to interview me about my writing no longer seems such a weird idea. This is not a hobby. It’s what I do.