Category Archives: Sophie is reminiscing

Sea life

When I was twenty-one, I was bitten by a turtle.

It was the first summer of the new millennium, and we were in the middle of an incredible family holiday in the Seychelles. I was standing in a natural lagoon where the sea met the shore, watching with wonder as turtles swam around me. There were plenty of other people there too, but the turtles seemed quite happy as long as they were left undisturbed. I remember being conscious of wanting to make my presence as unobtrusive as possible, standing stock still so as not to disrupt the sand or cause ripples in the water. And then I felt a sharp pain in my calf, and looking at my leg saw two little dribbles of blood. I had been bitten.

Apparently, this just didn’t happen. The locals were as surprised as me, but once I’d got over the initial shock of it we laughed it off as just one of those things. We were, after all, in the turtles’ habitat – it was perhaps not that strange that they might get curious eventually about these unusual tree trunks in their midst.

It certainly didn’t put me off feeling that in some way the sea was my territory, too. It has always mesmerised me – to be near to it, floating on it, swimming in it, is the closest I get to perfect happiness. For many years that pleasure was reserved for holidays: the excited glimpse of blue from a car windscreen or aeroplane window, that gulp of fresh, salty air, that feeling of cool water on skin. I dreamt of living by the ocean, with windows overlooking the waves and a desk for writing.

It’s always a little odd to remember that when I’m sat here, writing at my desk overlooking the sea.

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When we first moved to Brixham six years ago a new goal manifested itself: to be one of those people who swam through the winter. Each year, as spring turned to summer, I would relish the first swim of the season, that sharp intake of breath as the cold water engulfed me, washing the winter away with every stroke I took. But when it came to autumn I would falter.

This winter, though, something changed. I didn’t stop swimming as the days got cooler, found that as long as I went in at least once a week I didn’t experience that sharp intake of breath and the increasingly icy dips brought a sense of summertime even to the dullest days.

Hence why I found myself, in the middle of January, swimming in the sea with a lovely group of new aquatic friends, clad in a tankini with socks and gloves and hat for warmth – not forgetting my trusty swimming shoes.

We were almost back at Breakwater beach after a bumpy swim across to Ladybird cove when something grabbed my calf. It felt exactly like a large hand. Disconcerted, I looked behind me to see if one of my companions had reached out – but they were all ahead. My mind briefly considered divers, until my eyes widened as I realised the more likely explanation. Trying not to panic, I kicked my feet to scare the creature away and quickly swam the few metres into shore, grateful to feel the familiar stones as I stood and stumbled up the beach.

Looking down at my leg, I saw dribbles of blood running down my calf. Something had bitten me. Our spotters on the beach, realising what had happened as my fellow swimmers gathered around me, confirmed that a large seal had been following us.

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My leg didn’t hurt – in fact I was more concerned about the fact that I’d lost a shoe! Until I looked at the remaining one and realised that its mottled grey and green design quite possibly looked an awful lot like a mackerel meandering in the water behind me. I am very, very glad that the seal did not go in for a bigger bite.

My companions cleaned me up, and sent me home with strict instructions to get it checked out – seals carry all sorts of interesting diseases apparently. Cue an evening at A&E on my GP’s advice, resulting in several intrigued and amused medics and a hefty dose of antibiotics.

Having spoken to some other wild swimming friends this is, you’ll be glad to hear, not something that happens very often. Maybe once a year, amongst the whole community of sea swimmers in this part of South Devon. Once again (now that the adrenaline has died down) I can write it off as just one of those things. Even if I am getting a little worried that I might exude a  peculiar allure to sea creatures!

I am not going to stop my swims – the winter sun outside the window is reflecting off the waves as I write this, and I know it won’t be long before I’m in again. I might just be a little more mindful of the animals I share my element with the next time though…

What History of Art A-level meant to me

I have got used to shaking my head in disbelief when the government’s latest education initiatives are announced, but when I read this week that A-level History of Art had been removed from the options lists forever it hit me harder than I was expecting.

This is not the only subject to have been made a relic by the Tories after all – the full list of opportunities that are no longer available to our young people filled me with fury. But twenty-two years ago History of Art succeeded in saving the dying dregs of interest in academia from the apathy of my sixteen year old self – and it is no exaggeration to say that without it my life could have turned out very differently.

I moved from Birmingham to London for my sixth form studies. I didn’t want to at the time – nothing against London per se, but my mental health was fragile and I couldn’t see a way forwards without my small but trusted circle of friends by my side.

My academic record was strong, but the ‘A’ grades hid a complete lack of interest in my studies – and a complete lack of confidence in my self. I selected my next raft of subjects pretty randomly – A-levels in History, English and Biology, and AS level in French. I wasn’t much more inspired by these than any of the other, mainly traditional, offers on the table, but I figured I’d be able to see them through.

Then in my first week at my new school, and my very first lesson with my new French class, I mustered up the confidence to speak and was laughed at by the stranger who was my teacher because of my (admittedly pretty dodgy) French accent. I walked out of the lesson through a blur of tears, and after a brief conversation with the administrators switched to an A-level in History of Art – one of the few subjects still with space, and something that piqued my interest with its novelty.

It was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

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Our class was small – there were six of us I think, meaning that in today’s cash-strapped educational climate the course probably wouldn’t have run at all. I couldn’t be invisible in that room though – not like my other classes where I often slept behind a carefully placed hand propped on the desk.

I learnt so much more than was contained within the confines of the subject. I learnt how to plan an essay – techniques which I applied to great success in all of my A-level subjects and have used endlessly since as a student and as a teacher. I learnt how to revise, and how to organise my time. I learnt that it was ok to be interested in something that not many people saw the value of – and that in fact sometimes the most obtuse pursuits can bring the most personal reward.

The subject itself, it turned out, was so much more than I could have ever hoped for.

There was an interplay between art and science, which appealed to the way my brain works: I never have been very good at putting things in boxes. This was particularly true with our study of the history of architecture, with the exploration of classical forms bringing mathematical certainty into the sometimes nebulous analysis of artistic endeavours, and the ways generations of architects riffed around them giving me concrete examples of how creativity evolves.

Understanding how buildings and towns were designed made me think, too, about the way our society is structured – something which we also discussed animatedly when we looked at the work of artists who protested explicitly against the societies they worked within, comparing that in turn with those who played by the rules to fit into the canon. Generally I learnt loads about our culture, and that of other countries. We went on a group trip to Paris (where finally I got to work on that French accent) and wherever else I travelled then and since I found myself looking at the world through a new pair of eyes.

Beyond the studies, my personal self was developing too. I had found my first intellectual tribe – a very necessary counterpoint to my emerging new social group who whilst they would go on to include lifelong friends did not encourage the healthiest of pursuits.

Weekends of clubbing, house parties and festivals meant that (at least) the start of each week often passed in a blur – but I could not let myself let things slip entirely because I didn’t want to sacrifice the learning and the community that my History of Art lessons gave.

This motivation, and the skills I learnt as a result of it, carried me through to another surprisingly good set of grades, and from there on to university – to study History of Art, along with Philosophy.

My History of Art A-level taught me that I am on a fundamental level an intellectual, but that the intellectual study I enjoy is one firmly rooted in society. It taught me that I respect those who know when to play by the rules, and when to break them. It gave me the confidence to express my opinions about the world around me and the people who inhabit it: that even if my opinions are not the same as those shared by others my ability to explain them is more important than just fitting in.

I’m not saying that every teenager would respond the way I did to this particular subject, but I honestly think that the fact that it was not as ‘pure’ as the other subjects I was studying, not quite so epic in its scope, made it easier to delve deeper into it, to create links for myself rather than having to regurgitate the views which were expected of me. It gave me an outlet for my stifled creativity, and the confidence to think.

Studying History of Art gave me the skills to collaborate with a friend to put on art exhibitions, to develop my photography, to teach Media and Film. It enriched my analysis of literature, and ultimately gave me the confidence to put pen to paper myself and give voice to the stories in my head.

It makes me so sad that because besuited politicians in Westminster cannot see the value in this subject future generations of teenagers might not have the opportunity to ignite the spark that might propel them along an unexpected path.

Like so many of the educational reforms that make me angry, this reduction in options seems to be driven by a misplaced certainty in what our society needs. What we really want is the space to make that decision for ourselves.

 

Writing Bubble

Lido love

I have loved to swim outdoors for as long as I can remember.

I didn’t often, when I was growing up: my first seven years were spent in the middle of the Welsh countryside, and after that, Birmingham. My over-riding memories of swimming during my childhood were the nights spent coughing with an aching head and burning eyes after spending the afternoon at our local leisure centre, contrasted starkly with the freedom of swimming outdoors on holiday – in outdoor pools, the sea, lakes – it didn’t matter, just as long as I could escape the cloying claustrophobia of chlorine-filled air.

I moved to London aged sixteen, and soon after discovered the Oasis sports centre in Covent Garden. It was a bit of a revelation. As often as I could, I would step off the grey and dusty streets and into its little outdoor pool – it was surrounded by tower blocks, but up above there was a rectangle of sky, and that made all the difference.

Several years after that, having gravitated towards East London, I found the lido on London Fields. It had only recently re-opened, and I was instantly won over by the brightly coloured poolside changing rooms and the trees peering over from the park. It was a relief from the city heat in summer, but it was in the winter it really came into its own: stripping off the mummifying layers to swim lengths between the warm water and crisp, cold air. It made me feel so alive, clawing my soul back from the S.A.D. that threatened to engulf it every year as the darkness crept in.

It’s not surprising, really, that I have found myself so consumed by Shoalstone since I moved to my new house by the sea.

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There is, after all, a narrative to continue: but it was only by listening to inspirational writers, artists, campaigners and fellow lido lovers speak at the first ever National Lido Conference last weekend that I realised it had always been there.

It felt a strange thing to be doing as I headed up to Portishead on the train and the bus: two whole days discussing outdoor pools. I mean, I loved my local lido, but I was always a little self-conscious about how much it meant to me – I’d never quite been able to put my finger on the reasons why.

And then as people began to speak I realised that there was a whole tribe here to which I very much belonged. This wasn’t just about pools. It wasn’t even just about swimming. It was about community, about equality, about inspiration, about freedom. It was about finding meaning in the chaos, about connecting with people and with nature, about the very essence of what it is to be alive.

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I had gone to the conference with a very specific and practical hat on: that of local councillor and chairperson of Shoalstone Pool. That persona, which sometimes feels accidental, is almost entirely separate to my writerly one, however much my town has begun to inspire my writing.

It soon became clear though that my other hat was just as welcome here – the one that dreams of better worlds, and tries to make sense of this one through carefully crafted words on a page. More than that, the weekend helped me to make sense of my entire self – the self that I’ve become – and to see how it has been woven out of the strands of my past that I thought I had long since left behind.

I realise that all sounds a bit bonkers. Maybe the euphoria was simply the result of that age-old therapy of immersion in water. As part of our weekend there was of course the chance to swim – in Portishead Lido, and in the nearby Clevedon Marine Lake.

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Both were wonderful, in their very different ways – as was bobbing along next to almost-strangers, deep in conversation about this love we shared and how it might shape our futures and that of the pools we have taken guardianship over.

I know I have returned with a new passion for making Shoalstone the best that it can be, and with a sense of being part of a community that I never really knew existed. But I have also returned with a stronger sense of myself as a writer, of someone with stories to tell and a bubbling desire to get them out into the world.

Not bad for a day and a half of lido chat – and even better for the fact that all it will take to reignite this passion if ever it begins to fade is to slip beneath the waters of one of the many outdoor pools we have at our disposal in this country. First stop: Kings Cross Pond this afternoon, and hopefully Parliament Hill Lido tomorrow too.

Arthur and I are on our way up to London on a far less exciting mission than seeking outdoor swimming opportunities, but one other thing last weekend has taught me is that they are never far away – and I intend to take advantage of them whenever (and wherever) I can.

 

Writing Bubble

Solitude

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For a long time my greatest fear was being alone.

I’m not sure when it started. Possibly around the time that I stopped believing in the fairies at the bottom of my garden and realised how mean people could be.

Often I would feel lonely even in a crowd. Especially then.

It took me forever to shake that gnawing teenage angst that no-one really understood me – or even wanted to. I had friends. Some really great friends, I can see that now. But at the time my paranoia wouldn’t let me appreciate them as much as I should have.

As you can probably imagine this didn’t bode terribly well for functional relationships. In my twenties I pinballed between variously inappropriate men: some lovely, some not so lovely, but none the right person to fill that chasm in my soul, however much I tried to convince myself that they were.

I began to think I should maybe look elsewhere, and decided to give internet dating a shot. It wasn’t really my thing, but I convinced myself I was being old-fashioned. I knew an increasing number of people who had found their soul-mate online after all.

One evening, after a couple of glasses of wine, I settled down to fill in the (rather lengthy) questionnaire which would give me access to one of these internet dating sites. As I made my way through the questions, responding as honestly as I could, I couldn’t help but begin to feel excited. This site was building such a detailed profile of me that it promised to only show up ‘deeply compatible’ potential partners. Whatever idiosyncrasies I feared I may have, well, they would have them too! No more trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, so to speak. This was it: my chance to find the perfect partner.

And then the results came back.

They started by saying they were very sorry, that this didn’t happen often. Well, ever actually.

But in their database of over three million people they did not, in fact, have a match for me.

This really makes me giggle when I think about it now. And it did then too, once I’d got over the initial shock. No wonder I’d had trouble finding love, had never been able to shake that niggling feeling of being alone – there simply wasn’t anyone out there who I was compatible with!

I decided it was time to make peace with myself, to accept my wonderful uniqueness for what it was, to begin to revel in being solitary rather than being afraid of it.

It didn’t last long. A couple of months later I found my future husband (sort of online as it happens) and the rest, as they say, is history.

Whilst I think I had finally got to a place where I was happy on my own, it’s hard to put into words how wonderful it was – and still is – to have found the person I’d been looking for. We have only been together for five years, but in that time we’ve shared so many adventures.

Now that we’ve embarked on this great adventure of parenthood together I’ve pretty much forgotten what it feels like to be alone. And the little person who has shared almost every minute with me since his conception almost three years ago does not care that I’m a bit peculiar. In fact he probably loves me even more because of it.

I admit that nowadays there are even times when I crave a bit of solitude.

But then I look back at how far I’ve come, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I am finally happy in my skin. And whilst it might now be a moot point, I am no longer afraid of being alone.

 

mumturnedmom

Looking back, looking forward

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As the dust begins to settle on 2014 and the humdrum celebrations of Christmas, a very special birthday and New Year that brought it to a close, I’m finally finding time to reflect a little.

And, very handily, Dean from Little Steps has invited me to take part in a New Year’s Tag to give some focus to those reflections. So without further ado…

What was your highlight of 2014?

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It was a pretty incredible year all in – lots of hard work, but lots of adventures to go with it. It’s hard to pick out one particular thing but the summer was one of the best I’ve had for years.

We didn’t venture very far, but the weather was incredible so we really didn’t need to. Arthur had his first proper festival experience at Somersault in North Devon…

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And we spent hours swimming in Shoalstone Pool. Perfect bliss, and right on our doorstep.

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What are you excited for in 2015?

Two of my brothers are getting married this year, so that’s pretty exciting! I’m also quietly excited about where my writing will take me this year. I have lots more work to do, but I have a good feeling about 2015.

Any New Year’s resolutions?

I’m not generally a fan of New Year’s resolutions. Certainly not the type that involve cutting lots of things out that I enjoy: why on earth would I want to do that when it’s so cold and dark outside?

Having said that, there is something I want to work on this year. I have a real tendency to get caught up in what I think other people might be thinking about me and the choices I make. It’s almost paralysing sometimes, and that’s no good for anyone. My underlying confidence has definitely been boosted by becoming a mum, and my perspective has been widened over the last year of blogging, but both of those things have also brought with them more things for me to worry about being judged on!

So this year I resolve to focus less on second guessing how other people might perceive me, and focus more on what I know in my heart to be right. I’m hoping that might free up quite a lot more time for the things that are important, but at the very least it should help to still my soul.

Blogging high?

I’m just happy to be here! But seriously, my blog turned one yesterday, and having started out last January not having the faintest idea what I was doing I am very proud of the collection of posts I have amassed.

I’ve really enjoyed getting to know the huge community of bloggers out there, so many inspiring and supportive people achieving the impossible every single day.

I particularly value the growing network of writers I’ve met through the What I’m Writing linky. It can be a lonely business sometimes, tapping away at the keyboard to breathe life into the worlds inside my head but they have helped to keep me going and served as a valuable reminder of what it’s all for.

Picture of the year?

I’m cheating a bit here, but I love this collection of selfies of me and Arthur just hanging out and having fun. There’s been a lot of that, and for the opportunity to do that I will be always grateful.

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I feel like I’ve just caught the end of this tag so I won’t be passing it forward to anyone in particular. But if you’re still feeling in a reflective mood and would like to join in then please do!

Now you are two

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Dear Arthur,

A year ago today I wrote my very first post on this blog: a letter to you, a week and a day after your first birthday.

Reading back over those words now it is hard to believe that only twelve months have passed – and at the same time I wonder where that time has gone, where my little baby has disappeared to.

You are still my baby of course. I suspect that will be the case for many, many years to come. But there is no denying that you are growing up.

A month or so after that first post you started walking. Unsteady on your feet at first, you soon leapt in confidence. You are so strong and fast now – running around on your tiptoes, a look of glee on your face. You have finally learnt to jump: you worked on that for ages, such determination as you squatted down and pushed upwards, not quite understanding why your feet wouldn’t leave the ground. Gymnastics has taught you to be increasingly comfortable in your body in many ways – walking backwards and sideways, rolling and balancing and climbing. I reckon it’s going to be a pretty active year ahead!

There’s swimming too. You’ve loved the water since you were little, but in your second summer, with the help of your float suit, you began to move yourself around in the pool and the sea. It made me very glad to live where we do, that there were so many opportunities for swimming in the open air feeling the breeze on your skin and the sun on your hair, looking out over our beautiful bay.

But the biggest steps you’ve taken this year have to be in your language and communication. You had a handful of words by your first birthday, and as you learnt to use them and discovered where they could get you your vocabulary snowballed. I stopped counting back in April as your list of words neared one hundred. Since then you’ve picked up many more from your books and films and conversation and just listening. You can put them together in simple sentences now, ask questions and express your preferences. Your definitely starting to do that rather a lot: I love the clear-minded and strong-willed personality that is emerging.

Your independence takes me by surprise sometimes. You still like your booba, and cuddles in the sling, and the moment in the night when you come and join mummy and daddy in the big bed. But none of these things are stopping you from developing your own sense of self.

You like to sit on your own table at mealtimes now – the blue table with the blue chair. You feed yourself with a fork or spoon, still wolfing down porridge and pasta. You love fruit too, especially bananas and satsumas and pears. And salmon – well, all fish really. Especially if it comes with chips. Though potatoes in general are pretty popular.

We took the side off your cot this week, and you’re very excited about your ‘new bed’. You like to be able to climb in and out. That was the problem with the high cot side in the end – it was a good thing daddy was there to catch you! You haven’t quite mastered staying in your bed when you’re asleep either, but you’re very close to the floor. The last couple of nights, when I’ve come in to check on you, you’ve been fast asleep on the mat we laid out to cushion your fall. I’m sure you’ll get the hang of it, and for now I can’t help but find it super cute, especially since rolling out of bed doesn’t seem to wake you.

If you do wake in the night then more often than not daddy’s songs will soothe you back to sleep. You definitely still love your music – dancing and singing, playing piano and drums and your little ukulele. We actually had to replace that finally last month – it’s taken a bit of a battering with all your enthusiasm. Definitely worth it though.

The other thing you love, more than anything at the moment, is trains. You have a wooden train set which was added to this Christmas and birthday with all sorts of new and exciting bits of track. You could happily sit and play with it for hours. We’re lucky to have the steam train so close – we went on it for your birthday again this year, remembering that life-changing trip two years before when my waters broke at Paignton station. You love to watch trains too – Thomas is becoming a firm favourite, but you’re just as happy with the hours of footage on YouTube of steam trains all over the world, chugging and choo-chooing along with them as you sit on daddy’s knee.

There is so much more than this. Sitting here now trying to capture you at two years old is really quite overwhelming. I know that as this year unfolds you will blossom more and more – finding the words to express all the increasingly complex concepts swimming around your head, growing in strength and dexterity, playing with more and more purpose and absorption as your imagination opens up a whole new world.

And so, just for a moment, I will hold you close and breathe you in, savour the magic and wonder of your existence. And then I will take your hand and let you lead me into the next year of our adventure.

All my love for always, Mummy xxx

 

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A little bit of time travel

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As I’m muddling though with the research stage of novel number three, and characters and plot begin to swim into focus, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the scenes set forty-odd years ago are going to be both the easiest and the hardest to get right.

Easy because the young lovers I am portraying are so vivid in my mind. Every time I stop and think about them more aspects of their personalities and relationship become clear, and I have some very detailed character profiles shaping up.

But hard because the world they live in isn’t this one – and isn’t one I’ve ever experienced first hand. I know there’s nothing unique in that: plenty of novelists set their stories in times and places much more distant than 1970s Brixham. And I know I’m not writing a factual piece – I don’t need to get every little detail spot on. But I still want it to be authentic, to have the air of travelling back in time.

One discovery I’ve made this week is going to help with that. As part of a general organising spree I found a box full of letters from my past – not quite as far back as the period in which the novel is set, I think the earliest ones date from the late 80s. But still reading them through served as a valuable reminder not only of what it really feels like to be a teenager, but also the very different way in which people communicated in a world before the internet. I’m looking forward to creating snippets of my characters’ correspondence, to seeing how their relationship develops when they’re apart as well as when they’re together.

I’m also looking forward to finding a bit more out about my town. I’ve been extending my internet research this week, searching for pictures and stories from the Brixham of 1973 to 1982 (or thereabouts). Actually much of what I’ve found so far suggests that an awful lot has actually stayed the same, though I’m sure were I to ask someone who has lived through the changes they would be able to give me a far more accurate impression of the time I’m travelling to.

So that’s my next step, really: to find some people who knew Brixham in the 70s and pick their brains. If you’re reading this and you think you might be able to help then please get in touch! You can comment below, or email me on sophieblovett@gmail.com. I can’t wait to find out what I might discover…

 

Muddled Manuscript