I was tidying up the hard drive on my laptop the other day, as one is wont to do at this time of year, when I came across a document I had completely forgotten about. I had titled it ‘the virgin diaries’ and it is a diary that begins right after I first had the idea for my book. Back when this blog wasn’t even a twinkle in my eye.
For some reason, and as you will see, I had got it into my head that I couldn’t tell a single living soul about my book writing plans at work. Because otherwise they would sack me. They wouldn’t, but try telling me that at the time. I was quite possessed by my idea and nothing, but nothing was going to stand in my way. Ironic really that just as I had the idea for my book, my bosses asked me to manage the office move. For anyone who’s ever moved an office full of people from one location in London to another, you will be feeling my pain right now. Somehow though, in between juggling floor plans, handymen and contracts, I managed to source my first interviewees, experience all sorts of self-doubt and drive to Cornwall to interview the brilliant 93-year-old Edna.
I’d also forgotten what a major challenge it was to step out of my comfort zone and do my own thing for the first time. It’s a brilliant reminder, at a prescient time of the year, that the best things we do are often the biggest leaps of faith. I had never written a book before. I had no idea what I was doing but I felt compelled to try all the same.
The story starts a few weeks after I have first had ‘the big idea’.
30 Sept 2005
My bosses are making noises about moving offices. If we do, I will be project managing the move. You have to laugh. I am 37 years old and I have just discovered what it is that I want to do with my life and my bosses want me to put it on hold and move office. Of course that is pure conjecture, they know nothing of my plans to write a book and my job is my job and must be done. I just don’t want to hold back at this stage. I am on the cusp of committing myself to something in a way I never have done before. I know that deep down; nothing will stop me if I really want to do it.
17 Jan 2006
Crikey, I have got such a bee in my bonnet. Having had to stop work on the book for 6 weeks while I project managed the office move, and now starting up again…I’ve got a fire in me and it’s burning me up!
During the move I found time to sew little seeds here and there. Phone calls, emails, the odd dinner with someone I thought would make a good ‘connector’*, so that when I had finished with the move to St John Street, I would have laid some solid ground work for the next phase. And I have. But people saying they want to take part and actually doing it are two different things. It’s not like I’m asking them to discuss their favourite foods, I’m asking them to share some of the most intimate memories of their lives. So I have to go at their pace. I am an Aries and this pace doesn’t suit me.
I get an overwhelming feeling sometimes – there is so much to do – that I don’t know which way to turn first. What about all the Muslims I need to talk to, the Jewish people, Buddhists and Sikhs. There are 1.8 million Muslims living in Great Britain today and I need to speak to at least ten of them. I find myself standing in the queue at the post office in Farringdon, looking at the girls behind the counters in their headscarves and seriously considering slipping a synopsis of my book along with my cash and asking them to please call me when they have read it. Would they think I was weird?
*I began sourcing my interviewees via friend’s networks and some of them were incredibly adept (not to mention helpful) at fixing me up with interesting people to talk to. I came to think of these people as ‘connectors’.
24 Jan 2006
Bonus! Just got a call from Nancy’s 19-year-old-babysitter. She wants to be interviewed for my book and what’s more, so does her boyfriend. She also has two other friends she can bring along as well. I have to hold her at arms length for a moment here. Two is enough I tell her, if there’s four of you it will take too long so come with your boyfriend and lets see how it goes. I’m really pleased. But nervous. More so than with the older interviewees and I don’t know why. Young people have been really hard to pin down.
27 Jan 2006
I hit the read symbol on my phone to read the text that has just popped up. It is from Nancy’s sitter. ‘Sorry Kate, I can’t do it, I just don’t feel comfortable with it, sorry to let you down’. Bummer. Well at least she let me know.
1 Feb 2006
I went out for an ‘appraisal’ lunch with one of my bosses today. It’s just a catch up and we go to the Souvlaki bar in St John Street. I love it. The smell of chargrilled meat that hits you as you walk in is completely fabulous.
We chatted about work for a bit. On the back of the successful office move they have offered me a new role. And then he catches me off guard with something that he has asked before. ‘But what is it that you really want to do Kate?’
‘Well I think this new role will be great, a new direction within the company is just what I need’
‘No, what is it that you really, really want to do with your life Kate?’
I am dumbstruck by his perceptiveness and I struggle, not for the first time - but now for a different reason - for a reply. I begin to wonder if he knows what I am doing outside of work. I end up fumbling around for some half assed answer about always working within creative industries, getting frustrated and wanting to do something creative myself.
‘Well’, he says, ‘you better hurry up and do it, because you’ll be thirty, (I don’t remind him at this point that I am about to hit 38), you’ll be forty, you’ll be fifty even, and your life will be over’.
Again, I cannot think what to say. It almost kills me not to tell him, that I am working on something, that its taking up pretty much all of my brain space, that I think about little else, that I am, in fact, possessed.
But I can’t. In that moment my mind winds forward and I wonder if I would be compromising my position further down the line even though – spookily - he assures me that if I were working on something outside of work, he wouldn’t mind, as long as I wasn’t coming to work and ‘falling asleep on my desk’.
Again, I wonder does he know? It wouldn’t be impossible for him to find out. And I think, it’s a shame, because I know he would love the idea and I want to tell him.
7 Feb 2006
I am having one of those days. I’ve been off sick from work and I just can’t muster up any enthusiasm about anything. It’s tricky riding the highs and lows sometimes when you’re doing your own thing for the first time. If I don’t do something of a day to push this project along then nothing happens. It’s as simple as that. A lot of times that is quite an exhilarating feeling and others, like today, I feel like a heavy leaden weight is in my brain…37 years of total inertia and all of a sudden I have woken up, had the guts to strike out on my own and not give a monkeys what anyone else thinks about it. It’s a big deal for me.
On the up side, I spoke to a lovely lady called Sherrie. She is 50; she loves the project and wants to get involved. I also spoke to 93-year-old Edna, who I am going to Cornwall to interview on Friday. It was a good chat and I feel more confident about it now.
One of the things that I allowed to do my head in most of today is the frightening thought that I can’t write for peanuts. I want to express myself better but sometimes it just won’t come out. I find myself writing in a way that I think makes me sound more intelligent instead of just letting it flow out more naturally. I spend so much time with my nose in a dictionary these days, hoping that some of the words rub off on me. It’s certainly not for lack of interest.
So, time to lock my inner Hitler away for the night, and hopefully for a bit longer than that. That was spooky. When I typed Hitler in lower case, my Mac automatically changes him to a capital H Hitler. Crikey, even my Mac knows who Hitler is.
8 Feb 2006
My mum calls me to say that 93-year-old Edna rang her this morning and made murmurings about cancelling our trip and therefore, the interview. I think she is worried that she is going to have to entertain us. I am torn between that explanation and the thought that maybe she just has cold feet about opening her heart about her past. She’s ninety-three years old for chrissakes, it’s amazing that she even agreed to it in the first place. I tell myself that neither my mother nor myself have really communicated our plans clearly to her and that when she knows she only has to hang out with us for an hour or two each day she’ll feel better about it. The most crucial part of the whole weekend for me is the 30 minutes that she will talk into my Dictaphone about days gone by. It’s a cornerstone of my project, a bookend, a vital component and I desperately want it.
Its tricky being an impatient type like myself. On the one hand its good because I do everything super fast, on the other its bad because I get cross when things don’t go my way. It’s all very black and white for me. I am learning as I get older to try and see the grey as well, or the rainbow shades as my boyfriend would prefer me to say. To this end I am starting a six-week meditation course after my ski trip. I am hoping to learn to ride the waves in a calmer manner.
I’m on tenterhooks about the ski trip, tenterhooks of happiness that is. Even though its one of the more strenuous sports you can partake in, I find it relaxing for the simple reason that it gives me a break from myself. I don’t have time to think about the next 15 paces when I ski. I can but concentrate on the path immediately ahead of me and nothing else.
12 Feb 2006
Home and dry. I clocked up a solid 8 hours behind the wheel of my Renault 5 today but it’s been worth every butt aching moment. Edna gave a fabulous interview. She was by far the most succinct interviewee so far. Not only that but she has an edgy sense of humour and is as sharp as a tack. With most people I am mentally editing out the parts of the interview that I won’t need but with Edna I found myself thinking ‘how on earth am I going to edit this woman down, its ALL interesting’.
Edna was married to Henry for sixty years. That’s almost unfathomable to me. Though I hardly remember him, I know that he was terrifically popular, kind and handsome. Everybody loved him. He was a bomber pilot in the Second World War. As he left for his nightly trips across the channel into Germany, Edna would count the planes out and then count them back in before the sun rose each morning. It must have been hideously stressful for her. He also suffered with nervous related illness for years after the war because, as Edna said, he was a sensitive man and he would return from his nightly trips across the channel into Germany, troubled by the thought that he may be responsible for the lives of women and children, albeit the enemy’s women and children but lives all the same.
*Edna was indeed a cornerstone of my project. Although I did interview an older lady of 101, it was Edna’s story that made the cut. Six years later, as The Virginity Project became a play, I watched Edna’s words come alive again and everybody loved listening to her.
24 Feb 2006
In between bouts of interviewing and my day job, I left for a ski trip in Italy and it appears, a momentary meltdown. I included this excerpt because, as I point out below, skiing is a brilliant metaphor for life. You do it the best when you lean away from the protection of the mountain. When it goes well, it is risk taking at its most elegant.
Skiing, it seems, is a lot like life. It bloody well has its ups and downs. The weather was vile today. The wind howled like a dog and snow swirled in great swathes around our feet as we attempted to attach our skis to our boots whilst remaining upright at the same time.
The snow, however, was perfect. Perfect enough for us to make our second attempt at a black run. Sure, I was apprehensive but our first foray into black run territory two days previous had been triumphant so I was brimming with confidence. Off we went, curling our way down into the unknown.
It is not necessary to look downwards on a steep slope. In fact to do so is stupid. To this end, I concentrated on moving across the slope and repeated the straightforward corner-turning instructions drummed into my head for the past four days. ‘This is OK’, I thought as we negotiated our way around the upper reaches of black run number 6. ‘I may not be doing this with style and panache but I am doing it’. Down we went. Soft powdery snow, giving my skis something to carve into, something to hold me onto the side of the mountain.
All of a sudden the snow texture changed. My ski’s started making a different noise and I realised I was skiing on ice. On a black run. There was now nothing to grip me to what looked like a vertical drop beneath my skis. I couldn’t remember anything that I had ever been taught about skiing. It was all gone. My mind was a blank page and as I looked down, I realised that I was now sitting down on the slope, arms, skis and legs bent into an angular mess and pretty much as helpless as a new born calf. I struggled to my feet and dropped straight back down again. My mind made me do it. As I looked across to the edge of the slope, I could not contemplate, even for one second, attempting to stand up, moving to turn a corner, my skis facing downhill, closing the turn and surviving. It did not seem possible.
Michele, improbably, had moved from half way down the mountain to my side in a millisecond. ‘Kate, Kate, what is problem? You are good skier. Why? Why? You are not my problem. Henrietta’, he said, pointing rather uncharitably at my ski partner, ‘is my problem. Don’t worry. Michele is here. I will help you’.
I think he could see from my expression that I didn’t believe him so he took my arms and started speaking. To. Me. In. Single. Words. ‘Flatten. Your. Skis. And. Slide. Down. With. Me’, he said. Deep down in the dark recesses of my mind I could hear the words and slowly begin to action them. I did exactly as I was told and we slipped slowly down the mountain, the harsh scratch of our skis against the rigid icyness.
Suddenly we met the soft fluffy snow again and he sensibly pushed me upwards and commanded me to continue my journey down. I hung onto every word he said. Up, up, shoulder, shoulder, shoulder and back down, prepare, prepare, prepare and turn, shoulder down, hold it, hold it and BEND YOUR KNEES!! My composure, like the colour in my face, slowly returned to life. The mountain began to look like a mountain again and not the torture chamber it had appeared to be just moments previously and I wondered to myself, what on earth happened there? Where did I go? Oh, here I am.
2 March 2006
One of those nuts days that you can’t believe will ever work out but somehow it does. I was working on our new press books all day, cutting, pasting, arranging, re-arranging, trying to make some visual sense of all the agency press. My boss is taking them to New York on Monday for an important meeting and she’s super stressed about it. Luckily she was out all day so I was left to my own devices, leaving me free to get away at 6pm sharp to get to an interviewee at 7.30 on the other side of London.
At 5.15pm my boss called me. ‘I’ll be back in the office in 15 minutes’. My heart sank. I know what this means. By the time she has got here and got round to looking at the books it will be gone 6. True to form, she arrived in a flurry, took a long phone call and then sat down for a catch up with someone. The clock ticked by and I was caught in a terrible dilemma. If there is one thing I can’t bear, it’s the look on my bosses face when its after 6pm, she wants me to help her with something and I have someplace else to be, like, er, my life. As predicted, when I told her I needed to leave at 6pm sharp she asked what I had to get to.
In my boss’s mind, it’s a simple request for information. I know she just wants to understand if it is something important. But my ears hear ‘Kate, I am seriously questioning your commitment to this role, perhaps its time to start looking for a new job’.
Anyway I managed to leg it by 6.20 and made it to Teddington against all odds AND via a route I had never taken before, by 7.30 on the dot.
In a sea of ordinary looking houses, Sherrie’s stood out a mile. Hanging by the front door was a huge fluorescent heart. I knocked and waited. I was way too tired to be even slightly nervous. Funny how some houses just seem to suck you in. As I stepped in and looked around I saw that Sherrie had created a labyrinth of a home that involved a lot of bare brick, candles, fairy lights, pets, books, music, food, television, all the things I like the most. I must have looked hungry because I was seated at a table eating an enormous bowl of pasta within two minutes of arriving.
Down to business and Sherrie told me a great story. Like most stories worth telling, it had some fabulous highs and some wretched lows. Once the tape stopped rolling, we continued talking as I knew we would. Frankly, if she had run me a bath and tucked me up in bed I would have gone along with it. She talked a lot of her and her husbands myriad ‘adopted son’s and daughter’s’*and I could see how they had amassed such a collection of interesting young people. She really loves the company of young people and because of her background, she is painfully aware of how tender and vulnerable young people are, more so, she thinks, today than at any other time in recent history.
*I joined Sherrie’s collection of adoptees that day and we’ve been friends ever since. I did however, test this friendship when I asked her to the stage version of my book and forgot to re-iterate to her that her story was actually in it. There is nothing quite like going to the theatre and seeing your own virginity loss story told as a monologue on stage. Good thing I always change names. Sorry Sherrie and thank you, once again, to all my wonderful, creative and generous interviewees and blog contributors - and of course my ex bosses. In the book or not, this project would not exist without you.