Wednesday, 28 November 2012

The mother of all careers

Women and work. It has never been an easy coupling when you throw children into the mix. Those of us choosing to stay at home are now domestic chief executive officers, according to The Sunday Times

Women who handle the family finances, childcare, school schedules, interior design, etc, etc, are no longer content to be called a housewife. I can understand why - it has become a demeaning label. However, to clothe maternal duties in corporate-speak is perhaps a ploy to satisfy our own vanity, or to convince our menfolk that we fulfill a vital role. It smacks of insecurity.

Unlike our mothers, our generation has been brought up to expect and foster a career. I have just finished reading The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe - the 1950s' answer to Sex and the City. What struck me was the tentative idea that women could actually choose a career over waiting for a marriage proposal. The main character Caroline Bender muses:

"It was good to be able to care so much about work. It must be something like the way men feel... except that men have to worry so much about the money. For her the thrill was in the competition and in the achievement."

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Maasai dreams

It is not every day that you open your front door to find a Maasai teacher on your doorstep. About a month ago my friend Janine brought round a guest to meet me: Metui, a visiting teacher from Monduli in northern Tanzania. 
Maasai students at Eluwai Primary school, Tanzania
Metui's students at Eluwai Primary School   Credit: Josi Hollis

It was pouring with rain and Metui, tall and lean against the grey sky, stood wrapped in layers of colourful shuka cloth. He looked overwhelmed by our very British deluge. Juggling our umbrellas, we shook hands and set off to visit a local primary school.

Metui had come to the UK on a grant to learn about British teaching methods. His own school in Tanzania - the Eluwai Primary School - caters to 400 children with a staff of just seven teachers. He and his colleagues drew lots to come on a visit to the UK. Metui won.

So chance brought him to a wet schoolyard in Henley-on-Thames on a Thursday lunchtime. The school secretary showed us around, pointing out elaborate artwork by the children, lunch menus, a bank of computers and a science laboratory. An encounter with some of the children in the library finally broke through Metui's reserve. His eyes alight, he joked with them and answered their stream of questions.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Mummy grows up

Mummies become more confident

I have noticed a new phenomenon over the past few months: the emergence of a woman called Mummy. Everywhere you look online, there are mummies coming out of the closet.

I did a quick scan of my Twitter follows/ers - lots of the women describe themselves as a 'mum', 'mummy' or 'mom'. There is something significant about using the word mummy as opposed to mother - it implies (and publicises) a more intimate relation with your children.

Even those who don't choose to brand themselves as mummies employ descriptions such as 'bedtime-story reader' (again proof of maternal intimacy) or proudly list their children by name. 
In this age of information, Twitter asks us to define ourselves in a capsule and all of these woman see motherhood  - or mummyhood - as an important part of their public identity.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Perspectives on Bali

Bali: Gao Gajah
Gao Gajah: water for purifying yourself before entering the temple
 Back in the late 1970s, when my parents lived in Jakarta, we used to fly to Bali for a bit of R&R. Lush vegetation, clear seawater and hunting turtle eggs on the beach form some of my earliest memories. 

Last week I returned to Bali for the first time in over thirty years. What I found was far more complex and baffling than the childish idyll I had carried around for so long. Bali is an island of contrasts: bikinis versus traditional batik, tourist tat versus Hindu shrines, Seminyak's breeze blocks versus paddy fields and temples deep in the jungle. It seems I can only get a handle on the place by seeing it through a series of juxtapositions.

Bali: Ubud market
Ubud market: a warren of a place, built like a multistorey carpark
Coming from Singapore, with all its slick efficiency and cultivated greenery, my arrival in Denpasar was a culture shock. Just a walk outside our villa involved tripping over uneven paving, dodging motorbikes to cross the street and shrugging off cries to buy t-shirts, sarongs, DVDs and petrol stored in vodka bottles.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Why I like Twitter

Twitter logo

Earlier this year I joined Twitter. One of my first followers (a friend) welcomed me to the site and dropped #twitteramateur into her tweet. I barely noticed, being the novice I was. Fast-forward a few months, and most of my tweets carry a liberal sprinkling of hashtags - all in the hope of picking up a few more followers. 

Why? Because I read somewhere that using Twitter was a good way to build up readership for a new novel. My own interest in Twitter, however, has gone beyond shameless self-publicity. In the process of exploiting it, I came to see why millions were hooked. Those hashtags became my calling cards - they linked me up with like-minded people.

I realise of course that I am no early-adopter, but by the same token there are still many people out there who don't yet understand Twitter or its influence.

In the last few weeks, Twitter has led me to all sorts of gems: Hilary Mantel's sumptous description of a Kate Moss perfume, the story of a teenage motherQueen Victoria's letters about childbirth and Eton's self-conscious parody of Gangnam Style

Twitter is a unique conduit: it delivers a wealth of material handpicked by the people you choose to follow. In a sense, it becomes a personalised newswire.

There are still a few tedious tweets to wade through and a fair amount of celebrity eavesdropping - but if you are discriminating, it is amazing what you can uncover. Perhaps, however, I don't need to tell you that - you probably knew already.

Emma Clark Lam is the author of A Sister for Margot

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

A Sister for Margot: Opening Scene

  A Sister for Margot

On a beautiful, sunny day in Ibiza some years back, I started to compose my first novel on a Palm Pilot with an impossibly small screen and a plug-in keyboard. Several computers (and two children) later, I finished A Sister for Margot.  

One of my new followers on Twitter recently advised me: "Go publish girl!" So that is what I shall do. The book will be available on Amazon's Kindle store in November 2012

Today I am posting the prologue - my opening scene - as a taster. Have a read and let me know what you think (be gentle).

I would like to thank the talented photographer Eileen Unwin for designing the cover.

Update: the book is now available on Amazon!



A PROLOGUE to A Sister for Margot

London, 1943

Stepping through the double doors with their smudged panes, Maud fancied she was crossing some magical threshold. Outside on the pavement, the growling buses and the rap of busy heels had grated on her nerves, but here in the fug of the teashop, she felt insulated and safe. Conscious that he might be inside, watching the door, she moved past the bread counter and slipped off her coat with her eyes cast modestly downwards.
No voice, however, called out from the row of tables to claim her, and after scanning the room for a particular set of uniformed shoulders, she experienced a stab of disappointment. She had counted on him being there. Already her notion of how their reunion would play out had been frustrated. With enforced nonchalance, she sat down at an empty table and picked up the tariff sheet to shield her face from any aimless stares. Then she occupied herself in removing her gloves, finger-by-finger, and laying them carefully on her lap.
While she waited for a nippy to take her order, she studied the brown filigree of tea stains on the tablecloth, resisting the impulse to drum her fingernails. She glanced surreptitiously at her wristwatch, not wishing to give the impression that she was waiting for someone.
“Can I help you, Miss?”
“Oh yes, a large cup of China tea please – it doesn’t matter about the milk – and a Chelsea bun if you have one.”
“Right you are.”
From a table to her side, she sensed the gaze of an elderly couple, intent on everything but themselves. She tossed her head with such defiance that a tortoiseshell comb worked itself loose. Yanking it free, she ploughed it back through her curls. Why was he so blinking late? She looked out of the grimy window, willing him to walk by. The West End looked drab in the slanted light of the afternoon.
A booth behind Maud came free so she decided to swap tables to escape the attention of the elderly couple. In her new spot, she retrieved a handkerchief from her handbag and swept away the crumbs littering the cloth. The nippy returned with the tea, her brow wrinkled in confusion until she spotted Maud’s impatient wave.
“You dropped your gloves, Miss,” she scolded as she set down the teacup.
Then suddenly, he was there, standing before her, looking desperately apologetic. For all her anticipation, it was a shock to see him, flesh and bone. It had been several months since their last meeting. She got up awkwardly to greet him, but the angles of the booth prevented her from straightening her legs. He bent to kiss her on the lips, just briefly.
“I’m so sorry Maud. We sprung a puncture. I thought we would never make it, but we fixed it in the end. I was hopping mad thinking of you here, waiting for me.”
“I was beginning to think you weren’t coming,” she replied. “How much time do you have?”
“About a half hour and then I’ve got to get back before they notice I’m missing.”
The relief of seeing him was beginning to dispel some of her irritation. His presence made her feel both shy and tearful. They held hands under the table. Despite everything that had happened, she experienced a frisson of excitement, sitting so close to him again.
“You are a real beauty, Maudy,” he said, squeezing her hand. “Is that a new blouse?” He studied her closely, his dark eyes appraising her with unconcealed intent. She was delighted that he had noticed her new acquisition.
“Oh do you like it, darling? Daddy let me have his coupons,” she said lightly. “Audrey’s going to be livid when she finds out.” Then, as she finished speaking, her smile fell slack.
“What’s the matter?” he said, sounding concerned. “What was it you so needed to talk to me about?”
“Why don’t you order first and then we’ll talk. There are sardines on toast, if you would like them,” she added, trying to sound composed. For weeks she had planned this encounter. Now she was stalling, reluctant to mar their time together. Absently, she rubbed at the smear of red lipstick soiling the rim of her teacup.
After placing his order, he turned to her, expectant. Something in her manner made him feel apprehensive. “You’re not going to finish with me Maud, are you?” He couldn’t bring himself to look at her in case the expression in her eyes confirmed his fears.
She made a strange, guttural sound, somewhere between a snort and sigh. Just as he was experiencing the first pangs of mortification, she started to tremble.
“Oh I have such bad news. I think… I mean I know I’m… Oh God, I can’t say it.”
He continued to stare at her, his lack of comprehension only too evident. She inhaled deeply and let go of his hand under the table.
“Darling,” she said, sounding more certain this time. “I’m going to have a baby.”
His mouth dropped open in disbelief, giving her a curious feeling of gratification. His thoughts jammed and he couldn’t think of anything worthwhile to say.
“Are you absolutely certain, I mean, is it definitely...”
She nodded her head.
The memory of their time together was still fresh, played over and over in his head like a favourite gramophone record. It had been a night to remember – after all it was not often that he swung from despair to elation in just a few hours. She alone had the capacity to inspire spectacular flights of emotion.
Watching him, Maud knew he was re-living those moments together, unwilling to re-cast them in this negative light. She had also reached back to that memory, before it had become sullied by the shock of her pregnancy. Now, sitting in the cafĂ©, she tried to recall the night, as it was then, without consequences. She had instigated it, goaded him on. It had felt like every nerve in her body hankered after his touch. It wasn’t rational. She had felt tipsy – though she hadn’t consumed a drop – and reckless. “Are you sure, are you sure?” he had asked urgently. As an answer, she had pulled him towards her, clenching his back with her grip.
“But we were careful,” he said wearily, shaking his head, still loath to accept the news.
“Not careful enough!” she said severely, taking a small piece of revenge for the anguish she had suffered alone for so many weeks.
“I just can’t believe this has happened,” his voice faltered as he held his head in his hands, stretching the skin across his forehead. For a fleeting moment, he thought: maybe it’s not mine, maybe she went with someone else. But then he glanced up at the pale, stricken face and felt only guilt for doubting her. With silent remorse, he laid his hand along the side of her face. His chest tightened as she nestled her cheek in his palm.
Then suddenly he was exultant. “We’ll get married!” It was simple, so clear. “We’ll turn this into something to celebrate. We’ll make it alright, Maud, you’ll see.” He was almost gabbling now. “There should only be a month or so before my next leave – ”
She interrupted him. “It doesn’t make a blind bit of difference. My life has already been ruined,” she said in a whisper. Her words deflated him and he knew what was coming next. “What about my work?” she hissed. “You know I don’t want a family, or not yet anyway. And everything is going so well – Harry told me that I could play the lead next month.”
The words tumbled out in spurts, while tears started to roll down her cheeks. He, now feeling unequal to the situation, tried to swab them away with his thumb.
“You don’t understand me at all, do you?” she said, knowing her words would cut him.
If he was entirely honest with himself, he wasn’t sure that he did. He could understand the glamour of the stage and the excitement it afforded her, but didn’t every woman dream about becoming a wife and a mother? It hadn’t taken long to realise that she was the girl for him – only her fierce and unnatural independence had made him wary of broaching the subject of matrimony. But he dismissed these thoughts, concentrating all of his being on soothing her.
“You mustn’t say that. I know it’s hard for you, but it will get better. When this bloody war is over, I’ll finish my degree and get a good job – I’ll have prospects. And then later, you can carry on with your acting.” He looked beseechingly at her and felt enormous relief as she smiled weakly.
“Yes, you’re right,” she managed, her passion spent.
“What are you going to do now? Are you going to go home?” he asked, anxious to settle practical details while she seemed more amenable.
“Well, I’ll carry on working for as long as I can. I’m catching the train home tonight for a few days – I’ll tell my parents that we are engaged to be married – shall I? Mummy would be horrified if she ever found out the truth. I doubt she would ever forgive me. Oh God, I’m so ashamed!” Maud covered her face with her hands.
“Sweetheart, it will be fine,” he said anxiously. “You just tell them that we are going to get married and we’ll have a ring on your finger before anyone knows any different. These things happen all the time, Maud. Would you like me to speak to your father?”
Maud sat up alarmed. “No, no, not yet. I’ll need to talk to him first. Of course they are over the moon at the moment because Audrey’s pregnant again.” She said this with some bitterness.
“Again? Gor blimey, they don’t waste any time!”
“Neither do we, it seems,” Maud replied tartly.
He decided not to risk a smile. Instead, he hung his head, waiting for Maud to set the tone.
“Oh poor darling,” she said, touching his cheek. “I’m so glad I’ve told you now. It felt horrible before when only I knew.” She looked at her wristwatch. “Oh no, you have to go,” she added regretfully.
He snapped upright in his chair as he registered the time. “Will you look after yourself? You have to eat properly Maud!” She looked evasive. “As soon as we have sorted this out, you’ll be allowed orange juice and cod liver oil in your ration.”
“How do you know that?”
“There’s a chap at the barracks and his Missus is pregnant. He says she’s allowed orange juice whenever it’s available.” 
After laying some money down on the table, he reluctantly began to slide out of the booth. On straightening his legs, he reached into his pocket. “Oh, I almost forgot. This is for you.”
He handed her a book in a brown paper bag. She pulled out The Works of Tennyson, bound in brown leather with gold lettering, and read the inscription on the flysheet. “Charm and beauty alone give me more happiness than good poetry.”
“I’ll treasure it,” she said, looking up at him. “When will we see each again?” she added plaintively.
“In less than a month,” he said, with more conviction than he felt.
“What about those rumours that they might be sending you to sea again?”
“I’ve heard nothing definite,” he replied, guarded. “Now you’ll let me know how your parents take the news. And make sure you tell them we’re eager to be married as soon as we can.”
“Yes darling.”
After he had left her, she reached inside her handbag for her compact. Licking her handkerchief, she rubbed away the sooty traces of mascara around her eyes. For a while longer, she sat there, her eyes fixed in thought, her fingers riffling idly through the pages of the book. Then, with sudden resolve, she snapped her compact shut and reached for her gloves. With the book clasped close to her chest, she passed back through the doors at the front of the shop and stepped outside into the smog-thick air.


"I absolutely loved this book and will miss the family that I became so involved with over the past few days. I hope Emma has another book in the pipeline!" 
-- Annabel at CountryWives 

I welcome reviews of my book on Amazon!