Three tips to survive the Gulf heat

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Heat has enveloped the city. We are caught in its embrace.  The children I teach insist on cool blasts of air-con, non-stop during class. Donning skinny jeans and retro trainers, they hide in hoodies like adolescents anywhere. Except that here midday hits 40 degrees with ease and not a soul walks down the street.

By the time I step into the light after work, I am shivering from the fridge-like indoors. The steering wheel of my car has all the appeal of gripping a burning torch and I realise it may be possible to brew a cup of tea with the water inside the bottle on the passenger side.

So while Muscat’s barometers have sent even the mosquitoes packing, I have decided not to flee to the UK this summer. My survival strategy for the extreme heat follows:

*As I can no longer exercise outside (read: barely walk out of the front door), I have joined a gym. It’s cool inside and  I get to hear the PTs putting people through their pre-Ramadan paces.

*Driving is improved by a) parking in the shade whenever possible b) Tinted windows (which might look gangsta but help) c) Wearing sandals and cotton (which don’t look gangsta but help) .

*Deciding to enjoy what is. In this part of the world, as well as searing temperatures, May/June means date season: nature’s sticky cakes with a stone are fab with a cup of tea, a few minutes of sunshine, when I can bear it, almost feels refreshing after so much time spent indoors.

Occasionally, in the early morning as I close the front door and leave for work, the faintest scent of the sea reaches the air, birds caw, the heat hasn’t yet found the day. For a moment at least, I’ve forgotten it’s there.

Live somewhere hot? What are your recommendations to survive the summer?

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King Fu Dining

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You have to go in first, then give me five minutes and I’ll follow.’ 

My husband’s plan sounds complicated.

There’s a small takeaway, it looks ordinary but to the right is a door. Ask if you can enter. You’ll see some creaky stairs. Head for the upper storey.’

In a city of large malls and chain stores we are entering somewhere unusual. Chinese restaurants are rare in Muscat and this one, more like a living room for those in the know. I sit alone waiting for my husband. Dressed in Omani gear he is concerned they won’t let him in.

‘That’s ridiculous,’ I protest, but as I look around the underwhelming interior I notice that I am the only person who is not Chinese.

I am reminded of capital cities in the West with their exclusive nightclubs and restaurants, doormen and pass codes. Strangely, subtly this restaurant seems to be doing the same. It’s hidden behind the facade of a take away. As the woman who owns the place hands me a menu I feel a frisson of apprehension.

Muscat houses neither Dubai’s glitz nor Abu Dhabi’s up and coming status. It has beautiful scenery, easygoing people and a cautious political neutrality. Muscat’s social scene is far from exclusive.

I choose some dishes. Listen for creaks on the stair. What if my husband isn’t allowed in? The waiter brings steaming won ton soup, dim sum. I start to tuck in. Am transported to a country I have never visited by the vowels and chatter from the tables nearby.

Dishes arrive from the hands of the owner and when my husband eventually makes it up the secret staircase it seems that he and the owner already know one another. She had worked in the Chinese restaurant of a palatial hotel located in the mountains and quit when the management changed hands.

There is care in the way she describes dishes, handles her customers, the type of knowing which comes from learning the business then setting up from scratch. It’s wonderful to be part of a culinary secret but something tells me it won’t stay that way for long.

Kung Fu “Authentic Chinese Restaurant” is located next to Fun Zone in Al Qurum Street, Muscat 

(Be prepared to use the secret door…)

Anyone in Muscat have unusual restaurant recommendations?  Feel free to post below…




The ink of ideas: is ‘showing up’ enough?


‘I’m against schedules. Write when you feel excited by the prospect.’ (Rick Moody)

‘Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.’ (Isabel Allende)


Who are we to believe? Those who make a muse of ‘inspiration’  or the grafters who turn up at the writing desk, rain or shine, like bank clerks to their counters?

Last year when I began work on my novel I joined the write-whether-you-feel-inspired-or-not school of thought, believing that if I waited for inspiration each day, I may never write at all. At least if I ‘showed up’ and didn’t like what I wrote, I could cut it later.

Sometimes ideas need to be caught before they fly off again, as Elizabeth Gilbert describes in this wonderful part of her TED talk: here (Thanks Mari for the reminder).

‘Showing up’ is the commitment necessary to make inspiration real. Without the grounding nature of routine, ideas, in my experience, stay floating, like untethered balloons. Last year, working on my novel occasionally felt dull or really difficult, sometimes both (!) but as long as I still cared enough about my initial idea, it fueled what I wrote each day.

I still subscribe to this routine although – I imagine, like anyone who makes things –   I can only ‘show up’ if I already have an idea, not a plan of the minutiae of everyday writing but a bigger concept which carries the work through. (Short of a big idea, I’ll do something else for a while.)  For when inspiration arrives, it becomes like a flock of birds moving in formation. The job, then, is to get that divine pattern down on paper, typing daily until it’s done (‘show up, show up!’)

Ideas are writing’s ink, its flow, the breath which supports movement. If there is ink in the well, the pen will find a way to keep on writing.

What part do ideas and ‘showing up’ play in your creative life? Please feel free to comment below…

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I will write about this one day


‘Beginnings are difficult,’ I remember some years ago a friend from Bavaria trying to cheer me up. I was battling at the start of a secondary school teaching post. It did get better, mainly because I learnt to don invisible armour each morning along with my sword of triple-strength coffee and shield of practiced one-liners.

Beginnings are difficult but so are endings. I just finished reading the wonderful Me before You by Jo Jo Moyes and was dawdling so long on the final pages that my kindle almost switched itself off.

I’m reaching the end of editing my first novel. The final process has felt like fashioning a table from wood, carving each detail, then flinging it via mortar to the stars. The publishing world can be brutal. Agents take on few authors each year. Many publishers won’t accept manuscripts without an agent involved. ‘Have you thought of self-publishing?’ a writer-relative asked me recently. We exchanged a series of emails confirming that I will probably persist with the traditional route.

After the first three chapters have been sent, they say that waiting can be the trickiest part. ‘Start working on something else!’ chorus the writer blogs.

Elizabeth Gilbert in her book, Big Magic describes how she thinks up new stories. Her view is that ideas are floating about looking for someone to grab them and commit them to language. I’m not sure I would give them this level of agency but her attitude to making novels is life-affirming and contagious.

And if an idea doesn’t come soon? There is always the writer Clive James’ approach (again from Gilbert’s book, abridged):

Following a commercial failure in the West End…

James’ young daughters[ …]asked him if he would please do something to make their shabby old secondhand bicycles look nicer[…], he hauled himself up off the couch and took on the project….The girls grew impatient for him to finish but James found that he could not stop painting stars [on the bikes]. It was incredibly satisfying work. When at last he was done, his daughters pedaled off on their magical new bikes, thrilled with the effect…The next day, his daughters brought home another little girl from the neighbourhood, who asked if Mr James might please paint stars on her bicycle…as he did so, something was coming back to life. Clive James at last had this thought, I will write about this one day. And in that moment he was free, failure had departed, the creator had returned.

I love Elizabeth Gilbert’s assertion that in doing something else we are freeing up the channels of creativity because the pressure is off. ‘Einstein called this tactic “combinatory play” – the act of opening up one mental channel by dabbling in another.’ Beginnings are still difficult, but somehow less so when starting out is couched as play.

Is creativity its own reward? What is your experience of writing/making art/music and posting it off for publication? I’d love to hear from you below...

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A coffee morning confession



‘Thank you’

‘What’s your name?’

I told her.

‘What do you do?’

‘I’m writing my first novel,’

She looked interested, told me she used to write short stories, articles, longer pieces and then she had stopped.

We were chatting over tea and chocolatey pastries at the weekly Women’s Guild coffee morning. I hadn’t been for months, life had intervened. The atmosphere was lively, I was talking to another writer.

‘It all became too personal,‘ she said. ‘I didn’t want to share that much of myself in my writing so I stopped.’

I  was intrigued to hear the sentiment from someone else. Over Christmas I had been thinking the same thing, had even asked a friend, ‘When you read a novel do you ever wonder where the author found her material?‘ My friend had looked genuinely surprised. ‘No I just get into the story.’

When I read, I often think of the person who wrote the book. What prompted her to choose the setting, dream up particular characters, then balance their life on the novel’s premise.  However disguised, the narrative must come from somewhere.

It may emerge like a patchwork or a word-for-word transcription of real events. It may take place miles from the writer’s place of residence, be told as comedy when what originally occurred was not funny at all but if it is to have any integrity its essence will reflect what the writer knows in herself to be true.

It is the rawness of this, I think, which informed my coffee companion’s unwillingness to pick up the pen again. It can sometimes feel too exposing, to real to set thoughts down.

But when I hear that a writer has stopped writing, I think of the birds who sing so loudly close to my apartment.  I imagine them setting down their song, falling silent and I feel, then, that the world has lost some of its colour. Even when it’s only one bird retiring from the fray.

Writers, what motivates you to write? What keeps you writing? Readers, to what extent do you connect a piece of fiction with the author who wrote it? I would love to hear from you in the comments section below…

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The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins: Book Review


There is something of the revenge tragedy in Paula Hawkins’ novel, The Girl on the Train. A renaissance play, The White Devil, springs to mind. The grim relentlessness of the plot, working like tiny wheels over a dirty track. The constant shifting of how we view the story’s lovers.

You might decide, as I did, that you don’t want to get off at the next station. The doors back into the world may be jammed by the thrill of being held page after page as gripped as The White Devil’s heroes staring at a skull; you simply, morbidly, cannot look away.

I read this novel for my monthly book club. Its rave reviews and bestseller status (over a million copies sold in the UK alone) had ensured I would pick it up at some point but when a book is this hyped (Harry Potter, Dan Brown, 50 shades) I tend to feel a nudge of dread, as though I’m being nagged into submission by an overzealous media.

But in this case, my dread was unfounded. The media have a point.

The Girl on the Train’s greatest strengths are plot and place. There was a brief moment a fifth of the way through when I thought, ‘Oh no, I’ve figured it out,’  but I was joyously wrong. It is in fact, a classic whodunit without a detective in the main frame. The nearest we get is Rachel – appropriately surnamed Watson – not sleuth or formal suspect, like her namesake, she sits on the periphery of the investigation, neither vital nor entirely superfluous.

That she finds herself on the edge of the plot’s platform staring in at the main action for much of the novel is the grist of the book’s emotional centre. For Rachel has cast herself as outsider and though we may read many references to the flutter in her heart, its beating, its racing, it is her mind that has truly taken over, leading her further and further into the very territory from which she has been ousted. Like a child picking at a scab on her knees from a fall, she wants to see what’s underneath. Part of her wanting it to heal and the other, still frozen, in the past, by its cause.

The story goes something like this (look away now if even a plot is a spoiler!): A woman disappears. Another woman (Rachel) who has never met her, gets involved. Rachel sits daily on a train from the suburbs to Euston and allows her mind to play a game of What If.

Rachel is probably the closest we get to empathizing with any of the characters and this, I feel, is only because we know her a little better. As in Webster’s play, Hawkins’ characters are hard to love. Not necessarily a bad thing, in a crime thriller. Better by far than to experience what the novelist Imogen Robertson describes as characters ‘too good to be true.’  No risk of that here.

Hawkins’ trains and platforms, trackside back gardens and fetid underpasses are glorious in their grit and mundane British detail. If setting can be seen as almost another person in the novel’s world, then the writer seems to know this character best of all. It is this sense of place which underpins every sordid action that follows, allows the reader to believe entirely in the premise. Girl comes first in the title but Train is her ever-present co-star with its staring, alienating commuters pushing Rachel further into an exile of her own making.

Like many thrillers, TGOTT is a book about memory. It has echoes of Before I go to Sleep (Watson again. SJ). Recall – or its lack – make us vulnerable, as open as a wound to contamination. But the premise here is very different. Where better to explore its power than with one whose work is almost entirely built on the way we frame the past – a therapist.

The author, Paula Hawkins, is far from straightforward in her handling of Dr Abcic, a character who is both pivotal to the plot and a potential for good. But Hawkins deftly sidesteps the predictable path of moralizing or even redeeming each of her characters’ failings. Every one of them is flawed. They all have a past. A temper even. It’s just a question of degree, or perhaps, circumstance.

It is the women’s voices that we read. The men are seen through female lenses and it is in the subtleties of romantic relationship, the interplays of power, control and their antidote, love, that Hawkins’ writing excels. To be fair, there isn’t much love floating about for, just like in Webster’s work, its innocence is short lived. A darkening plot rolls on occasionally pausing, mainly gathering momentum towards…

Actually, I can’t say where this particular train is heading because that would spoil the suspense. What I will say is that if you happen to be commuting to London, Euston even, from about an hour away, you’ll probably get through it in one return trip.

And if you do see anything from the train window in the rare moments that you look up across the platform and into the houses beyond, please don’t be alarmed if your thoughts get carried away. We need more books like this. Built on the power of imagining, of taking a premise, putting it on a locomotive and seeing how far it can go.

Have you read this novel? Your views as always are welcome…

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