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Be More Dog and whatever that means…

I’ve always been a cat person as anyone who remembers the irreplaceable Mr Fing (I still dream about that cat and I’m always so happy to see him when he turns up in my sleep) will know. Cats are easy. You can go away for a weekend and not worry about a cat. They sleep A LOT. They’re there when you need them and fuck off when you don’t. They are independent. They are emotionally self-contained. They’ll love you for just as long as everything is fine and if they feel things aren’t working out then they’re off before you know it, sitting on someone else’s lap. I have cat running through me like a seaside town through rock.

Six months ago today I got a dog. ( I know, I’ve barely mentioned it right?). I figured it was time to try a pet that required more commitment, that would get me out of the house a few times a day, make me grow up, that kind of thing. My aim was to get a very small dog, a cross-breed puppy that I could take everywhere with me, including tubes and trains, and he would be my buddy. A dog that came with a clean slate. Easy.

But then I saw Ted on a rescue website and that was that. He was my dog.

I’ve never been a ‘share your weaknesses’ person (ten years of boarding school will do that to you;-)) and I afford Ted the same respect, and therefore the Internet only sees the comedy highlights of Ted-life. Don’t get me wrong, he is to all intents and purposes a cheeky, brilliant little chap. But man, he had problems when he arrived. He didn’t leave the house. He would panic at the sight of a car. He was not happy at all about other people and would snap and snarl and skitter away if anyone tried to to touch him. He hid from towels. The sound of traffic outside would distress him. He didn’t like men walking behind him. He was full of fear and anxiety. Having googled ‘street dogs in Romania’ I can see why.

Have all those problems gone away? Hell no. I don’t think Ted will ever jump off a train into Euston unphased by noise and people. The tube will most likely never happen. (I’m totally going to have to buy a car, aren’t I?). He still won’t let most of the other dog-walkers in the park pet him. My dad – who Ted has decided he adores – waved a jacket at him the other day like a bull fighter and Ted ran and hid behind my legs. So yes, he’s a happy chap but under the surface it’s all still there.

Who knows what happened to him on his time on the streets before someone stitched him up and sent him to England? I don’t. I never will. But I know he’s a gentle soul and those things that terrified him will stay with him. Dogs and people may not be so different in that respect. We hold onto our baggage. If someone hurts us we remember it. But maybe how we deal with that is different. Maybe that’s where Ted is teaching me what ‘Be More Dog’ really means. It’s not as far as I can see, as the adverts would have us believe, about bouncing around with the sheer joy of the world as if you’re on two love doves in some early-90s rave. I think it’s something better than that.

You can treat a dog like absolute shit and they will still have hope in the good. They may be wary, but they are determined to love someone new. A simple act of kindness and they will give it all another go. We could be more dog like that. We could have that hope.

Bad shit happens and we carry that with us forever. It happens on small levels and big. Someone breaks your heart, someone steals from you, or hits you. Someone blows up a plane, a building. Someone drives a car onto a pavement to kill people. Someone chooses to hurt and kill teenage girls to make a fucked up point. Bad shit changes us. It makes us afraid. That fear maybe makes us have unkind and unpleasant thoughts about different people, different religions, different places. It maybe makes us into people we don’t want to be.

The shit that happened to Ted? That could have made him a bad dog. But he’s not. As a man in the park said to me a while back, as he raced around playing, ‘He’s just a bloody good dog. That’s all there is to it.’ As the dog trainer said, ‘He wants to like people and have them like him. He’s just not sure how to go about it. But it’s clear he’s really trying.’

Ted’s always going to have baggage. He’s always going to have a slightly blighted view of the world from the bad things that happened. But he is a little dog with a lot of hope. He’s always looking for the good. Being more dog is about that. You’re allowed be hurt, afraid, damaged. We all are. But look for the good and believe in it. Have absolute hope that other people are better.

Be more dog.

The Road from Damascus….

Small dry oranges. Rubbery leaves. The scent of citrus in the garden. Smells I can’t quite describe except in terms of emotion. The scent of a happy childhood, I guess, sentimental as that sounds. What can I say about Damascus, except that it was home? I remember sacks of sugared almonds in the souk. I remember standing in the street one December when I was maybe six or seven years old and being absolutely SURE I saw Santa and his sleigh in the sky. I remember the man who used to come round selling corn on the cob, sweet and hot and stored in the metal canisters on either side of his donkey. I remember the Syrian nightwatchman who used to piggyback me up and down the hall of the Embassy reception and then make me sweet Arabic tea. I remember the restaurant with hummus that had an inch of olive oil on the surface, and no hummus has ever tasted as good since. I remember the pillars of Palmyra. The dusty earth filled with history. I remember Abu Shahir and his shop next door where I’d spend my fifty piastres pocket money once a week. I remember when it snowed for the first time in years. I remember my mum sieving weevils out of the flour she bought. I remember dried milk was the only milk. I remember Tang Orange mix. I remember learning to swim in the freezing Andalus pool. I remember the little baby tortoises in the garden. I remember the arabic boy next door whose garden had the empty swimming pool and me and my sister would share the chunks of cucumber we used to snack on with him.

I know that my memories of time in Syria are born out of privilege – as much as I hate the accusatory nature of that word as bandied about the Internet. I was a child there. I was ignorant to the politics and the hardships.Yes, there were signs, even then, that not all was well. I remember the day that hundreds of pink flyers were dropped from planes overhead, covered in Arabic that I could speak a tiny bit of but couldn’t read other than the numbers. It seemed like magic for a seven year old, that confetti from the sky. I remember the six months off school because of the cholera outbreak.

But until I was eight years old Damascus was my home. I was happy there. I loved my school. I loved the warmth. I loved the people. I loved the hundred different smells that there are times I wish I could smell again. I loved the hubbub of the streets. The crazy busyness of it all. The guttural sound of the language. The call to prayer. Even the time I stroked some weird cactus and had tiny spines stuck in my hands for days. I remember the tiles under my bare feet in our flat. I remember my home.

I remember coming back to England at eight years old and going to boarding school in what felt in many ways like an alien land. I remember missing the sunshine and the dust and the freedom of my jeans and T-shirts. England didn’t feel very much like home. It was a new place, grey and dark and cold.

I’ve grown up since then. I’m now a middle-aged, middle-class, very English woman. Sometimes I think that part of my heart is still in that dusty earth, but it’s not my home now. Now I’m a Londoner. It’s a different world. It has different problems. The Damascus I knew and loved is gone – for now at least.  But I think of the child I was who was so happy in Syria and then I think of how wonderful it would be if a Syrian child could be as happy here.

Because when you’re five, all home needs to be is safe. And warm. And welcoming. At five the politics don’t matter. Maybe we should all stay five years old. Maybe the world would be a better place that way. You can’t kill the love for a place you had when you were five years old, however much the world might want to influence you with facts and figures and fears. Love is hardy. It won’t be swayed.

I can’t be five years old again. But for now, I’m hoping that maybe a child from Damascus will get the chance to feel about England the way I felt about Syria. Happy. Safe. Loved.

And maybe the world will be a better place for it, that sharing of home. Because the earth is the earth is the earth, as the line from the poem goes. It’s all of our home. I can budge up a little, if you can. There’s space right here.

Now that the dust has settled . . .

I love humour. I think the ability to laugh at ourselves, each other and the world around us is the last stand we have against insanity. Intelligent humour. Gallows humour. The black humour of policemen at terrible crime scenes. The uncontained snorts of giggles of school kids standing outside the Head teacher’s office knowing that they’re about to be expelled and deep shit is heading their way. Often, looking out at the world, to be able to laugh at it, to laugh in the face of it, is the best way to try and understand the often pointless mess we live in. Humour often saves us from rage. I don’t have the energy for raging. Laughter is better for the soul and the brain.

When it comes to getting me into bed, I don’t care about looks, I don’t care about money… just make me laugh. I’m not alone in that. It’s how technically ugly men can have beautiful wives. Humour goes straight to the heart and soul of us. I value nothing better than a good joke.

There have been plenty of evenings however, when, while clutching my sides in laughter with friends, talking about some farce exploding on the Internet, whatever issue Twitter is hashtagging or over-reacting to, I’ve quipped something WAY over the line, barbed – cruel even – but still INCREDIBLY funny obviously. When the giggles have died down, there’s normally a sigh, followed up with, ‘Well, that’s not one for sharing on Twitter!’ And I never do. Because I don’t want the horde coming for me, even if the joke perhaps has a valid point at its core. I don’t want to feel the rage at my back. I like an easy life.

And that is why, come the terrible events of January 7, 2015, I did not, on any social media platform, write the words: #jesuischarlie.

I understand the sentiment. The need to stand together, to wave candles in the wind. To show support. But I am NOT Charlie. I’m not even brave enough to put an edgy pointed joke on Twitter for fear of reprisal. If those jokes were to make people come after me with with repeated death threats and guns? HELL, NO.

I work with words. I understand the power of words. But the words are only words if there is nothing behind them. No bravery. No risk. I remember teaching The Crucible to some year tens and they didn’t get it. They just kept saying, ‘But why didn’t he sign his name and live?’ To be fair, it was hard to answer. I would have signed in no time at all. Just like I wouldn’t have worked for Charlie Hebdo no matter how important I think it is that the world has that kind of satire in it.

Every now and then, while work avoiding, I write something on this blog. If this blog was going to get me 50 lashes a week, I can tell you now – faster than you could pour me a glass of white wine or I could drink it – this blog would be GONE.

Those people, those Raif Badawis, John Proctors, and those Charlie Hebdo journalists – they’re a rare breed, and we shouldn’t forget that. We, 99.9% of us, are not those people. We are the people who hashtag #bringbackourgirls for a few weeks and then think we’ve done our bit.

But I’ve thought a lot about these men and women in the past few months. These people who believe in the power of words and images to make the world a better place, to make us better thinkers, to the point that they are prepared to back them with their lives.

And I’ve reached the conclusion that No, Je ne suis pas Charlie. To claim to be so insults their memory.

But I sure as shit can aspire to be Charlie.

I think that serves them better.

Now for fuck’s sake, someone make me laugh;-)

SP x

“This is my simple religion…”

I’ve been thinking a lot about kindness recently. Strange that a trait that is valued so highly is so often under-rated or ignored.

We never want to be defined as ‘kind’. Talented, wild, charismatic, funny, sexy, passionate – all those words that come up on endless Buzzfeed and Facebook ‘Which Game of Thrones/Disney/insertanythinghere personality are you?’ quizzes are what we want to hear about ourselves. Imagine if you procrastinated for ten minutes over (another) one of those life-sucks and it just came back simply as ‘You are kind.’ We’d all slump in our chairs, let the self-loathing take over and wish we were more exciting, talented, wild etc blah, blah.

But kindness, oh it is the best of things. We should all strive to be kinder. Imagine if we lived in a world where we were all kind to each other? If we understood that we each believe different things – whatever it takes to get us through this mad, short ride of life? If every time we watched someone fuck up we just thought, ‘Oh man, they’re going to hate themselves for that later,’ and then let them know it was just a brief moment in time and no one’s going to judge them for it forever, and we’ve ALL been there.

At Loncon, a friend told me how he’d given away two expensive theatre tickets to strangers queueing for returns. When they asked if they could give him any money for them, he said ‘No, just do something nice for a stranger tomorrow.’ It actually made me a bit weepy. (Note: I’m a woman in her forties – lots of things make me weepy) It shouldn’t have made me feel that way – it shouldn’t have seemed such a delicate, beautiful thing. The world should be filled with people doing things like that for each other. One act of kindness. Once a day. It shouldn’t be so hard.

Maybe we are all just too exposed to each other these days. There’s too many of us on this tiny piece of rock hurtling through space and we insist on being connected all the time. There’s no time to reflect or think before we attack each other, or ignore each other, or laugh at something stupid someone else has done, or point out their faults. I sure as shit don’t see a lot of kindness on the news, or on Twitter – not often enough anyway. Perhaps it’s in our base nature as a race to be aggressive and selfish. Perhaps those traits are stronger and in these difficult times they rise more quickly to the surface than the things that make the best of being human. Who knows? Yes, we still love, but love is generally a selfish emotion. It so often requires being loved in return. Kindness – well, that is the purest of traits. Ethereal. Lovely rather than love.

I had a lot of laughs this weekend at Loncon. So much fun with friends new and old. So much laughter. But the things that stuck with me the most were that conversation about the theatre tickets, and another drunken one where an editor and I (both drinking wine out of Martini glasses – we should have been listening to Jazz), talked about happiness and he said some kind things about me that made me feel so much better about myself.

I’m going to aspire to be kinder. I’m going to lay off digging at people who have religion just because I don’t. (Note: Westboro Baptist Church doesn’t count). I’m going to take time out from my ME ME ME existence to look at friends’ faces closely to see if they’re happy or unhappy. I’m going to aim for one kind thing a day as I battle my aggressive and selfish nature.

Because kind people? They rock. They really do. And we can all be kind people. We can all ROCK.

“This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.” Dalai Lama

SP x

Publishers Weekly Interview….

talking about Mayhem and writing from 9mins 50:

When I grow up…

 When I grow up (again) and own my own house (again) then I’m going to have an open fire. One I can fill with scrunched up newspapers and chunks of rough wood. I’ll buy an old, worn rug so I can imagine the long-gone people who’ve sat on it before me. I’ll think of them as I carefully build my fire, and my hands will smell of newsprint when I’m done. I’ll settle back on tingling calves and light a match. The noisy ink-on-paper world will shrivel to forgotten nothing but the wood will blaze and spit and rage.

When it’s settled I’ll listen to the quiet crackle and snaps. My fire will smell of autumn rain, dry summer and the promise of Christmas. I’ll turn the lights off and sit cross-legged in front of it. I’ll feel the warmth on my face and the cool on my back and I’ll sip red wine from a big bowl glass. Or maybe I’ll stretch out like a cat and purr, contented in the heat and the dancing shadows and the life of the fire. I’ll smile. Maybe talk quietly and laugh about life and work and the magic of the universe.

Sometimes, in the lull, I’ll turn and watch the flames reflected on someone else’s face as they sip their red wine and feed our fire and the warmth will come from somewhere deep inside me and, as we wear the rug down a fraction further, I will think, ‘this is a perfect moment.’ And I won’t tweet it, or instagram it, or joke about, because there will just be the rug and the warmth and the fire and the moment, all blazing and burning out and I’ll know how important it is to savour it all before it’s gone.

Some people are bonfire people. They want to huddle together in big groups. They want to watch a spectacle. They want to be surrounded by so many others all experiencing the same thing. I used to be a bonfire person. I don’t think I am anymore.

Or maybe I’m just growing old…or growing up..;-)

SP x



Let’s hear it for the boys…

There have been some truly terrible stories emerging over the past few weeks about some male behaviour at various conventions in the genre. For anyone -especially women – reading them who doesn’t go to cons, or is considering going to cons, they must think, God, all these men are awful. I’m never attending anything like that. And that would be a shame, because there are some wonderful gents working in the field. Maybe it’s time to share a story or two about them, and big up the brilliant boys a little?

Personally, I can easily think of a few occasions when gents have come to my rescue at cons. At world Fantasy one year I was in a room party talking the the master of splatterpunk John Skipp. We sat down on the bed, and as I did so (this could only happen to me), the strap of my summer dress broke. I was not wearing a bra. Skipp’s eyes did not even glance downwards as my right boob made an appearance but as I grabbed the strap and held it up, he quietly said, ‘wait there,’ vanished for a second, and then came back with two (very cool) badges and repaired my clothes. No fuss, not mention of it to anyone else, and he’s never mentioned it since. 

Second, I give you Graham Joyce. I have two tales of his valour. First, in San Jose, when my room became a crowded party room, and someone spilt a whole bottle of red wine on my cream carpet, and then scarpered. I’d tried to clean it up but there was still a massive stain. Over dinner Graham could see I was quiet and said, ‘you’re worrying about that carpet, aren’t you?’ I nodded. He then spent about 3 hours on his hands and knees scrubbing it with me, and tracked down an industrial carpet cleaner at 1am and cleaned it with that so I didn’t get charged.

Another time in San Diego, when a man went mental at me during the awards ceremony for smoking my e-cig (the awards stopped as he screamed at me in a room of 500 people) Graham got up and very firmly told him to ‘sit the fuck down’ (Got to be heard in his gravelly Coventry accent for full effect) and then spent 15 minutes after the dinner explaining to him why he owed me an apology. Props to Pete Atkins and Myke Cole on that one too.

There are others too – the men who keep an eye out for when you’ve been cornered and are feeling uncomfortable. I remember being at a con in the states – can’t remember which – and a ‘fan’ would not leave me alone. One huge american, who I never got the name of, came over and ‘said, ‘hey man, why don’t we go and track down some more beer? They’ve nearly run out.’ When the weirdo refused and got shitty because ‘I want to talk to Sarah!’ two more men came over and joined the first, and eventually they shuffled him away while I was guarded by Paul Kane and Marie. The next day, he was evicted from the con for unsavoury behaviour towards several women.

I guess my point is that the stories that have emerged are appalling and these men need to be dealt with. But most of the men who go to cons are just lovely and hate the idea of women feeling uncomfortable or sexually threatened. I know that however drunk or ridiculous I get, there will always be someone to walk me back to my hotel (even if they have to do paper, rock, scissors to see who gets the unlucky straw – yes I’m looking at you lot, Kernick, Wignall, Wood and Cleave;-)), and I never get to my hotel room door and think, ‘Oh now this is going to get awkward.’ Because they are gents. And friends. And lovely people.

Let’s not let the few tarnish the many. Got a good story of a gent at a con? Leave it in the comments. 

Let’s big up the boys.

SP x

I don’t know where to put my feet…

Sometimes time folds in on itself. A picture, a word, a passing scent can trigger a visit to the graveyard of the past. This week, for me, those pictures and words are everywhere. Attached to them are so much advice. So much opinion. It makes me feel strange inside and I want to say, ‘You know what, just shhh. You’re not helping. You’re making her ground more unsteady’.

That thought in turn makes me wonder if all these years on a small part of me still doesn’t always know where to put my feet.

One night when I was 19, at maybe three in the morning, he wrote ‘I love you’ on an empty wine bottle and waited for me to notice it. And there it began. Boy kisses girl. I was wild and free and loved to laugh and dance and stay up all night. He was wild and talented and clever and funny. He was charismatic. He was also put together wrong.

Over the next 18 months he would slowly deconstruct me.

We loved each other very much, I think. At first. Too much. I loved him for the places where the ground was steady. I was too young to know that so much intensity was not necessarily a good thing. I loved his passion. I loved his talent. We could laugh for hours. The sex was great. He was wrapped up in me and I liked that. We were one against the world. And then, after a little while, the world shifted. There was only our world. And the ground was full of cracks that moved suddenly under my feet.

It started with the narrowest of hairline fractures, so small I didn’t see what it would become. Hours of silence and accusations after he’d seen me laughing with an ex-boyfriend on the college campus. The first bottle thrown. Not at me. Not then. But thrown all the same.

I slowly stopped talking to my friends. It was easier than the knot in my stomach that worried he might see me. I loved him. I just wanted him to be happy. I didn’t want to ‘do anything wrong.’

We started living together. The cracks appeared more frequently. I flirted too much. I laughed too much with his friends. I realised things were very badly awry when I got home from college and chucked my cigarettes and lighter down on the table rather then placing them precisely at the right angle. He threw me down on the floor, knelt on my chest and squeezed my eyes into my head while spitting in my face. Afterwards he cried. I tried to make it better.

Of course there was no better. I just learned to put my cigarettes down properly.

The ground is never steady when you live with someone like that. It shifts with the moods. Where to put your feet becomes an OBSESSION. One day he shoved me against the wall by my throat and threw me down the stairs for putting a ribbon in my hair on the first day of a new term. Why? Who is it for? Who do you want looking at you? You’re so ugly and stupid no one would look at you anyway. The next week the problem was that I hadn’t put any make-up on or a short skirt to go to his gig and he wanted everyone to see his gorgeous girlfriend. I learned then that the cracks had no logic.

By the end of a year, watching the ground was all I did. My friends had stopped talking to me and inviting me to things. I only saw his friends and only briefly. If he went out he’d call every hour to check I was still at home. I tied my hair back every time I cooked (yeah, I even cooked back then) just in case one got in the food. I remember being curled up under the bathroom sink while he pressed my face hard into the wall. I can’t even remember what I’d done. The reasons blur. The outcomes don’t.

And then, for a while, it would all be fine. The knots would unfurl. We would laugh all night. I could do no wrong. It was magic that felt all the stronger for the times I got stuck in the cracks. It was love again. For a while.

One night, I was in the bath and didn’t answer the ringing phone. When he got back he pinned me down so hard he broke both our bed and the top rib under my collarbone. I think he even scared himself a little bit then.

At 41, looking back, reading this back, I can’t believe I didn’t get a bag and walk right out. Even some of his friends, young as we all were, had started looking at me searchingly and asking me if things were okay. I can’t even remember why I didn’t. I was worried about the lease on our flat that our parents had guaranteed. I didn’t want to talk to my parents about it – they still hadn’t forgiven me for my ridiculous adventure the previous year. I didn’t want to talk about it AT ALL.

The crunch came about two weeks later when I was on the phone to his mother – his not mine – and he threw a beer bottle at my head. She told me to get out. She told me not to worry about the rent.

And finally, I did. I was young and the young recover quickly and leave their baggage behind. Sometimes it’s too heavy to carry anyway.

Maybe those pictures are Nigella’s phonecall/beerbottle moment. I hope they are. There are lots of ‘yay she’s moved out’ comments in the papers and on the internet.

Still, it all makes me feel very quiet inside. All I can see in my head is a woman sitting in a corner somewhere wishing everyone would just be quiet about it because it’s all her fault and  she doesn’t know where the fuck she’s going to put her feet.

Letter to my teenage self…

I’m behind on the blogging – too much work on and inspiration hasn’t struck, but I had to write a letter to my 16 year old self for the Dear Teen Me website. I guess it’s kind of a blog. You can read it here:


Another week, another book to launch…this week it’s Mayhem! You can read the first three chapters, with lovely page-turning sound effects here: