The Beach Hut

The Beach Hut

Friday, 30 March 2012

My First Critic

Throughout my working life, whatever my job, I’ve always written; letters, reports, press releases and magazine articles.  In one of my previous jobs I worked for the same organisation, in different roles, for 14 years. I had the same line manager for 12 of those years and until the last year at every performance appraisal, no matter what comments I received for all other aspects of the appraisal system, I could be confident that I would receive an ‘excellent’ for my writing.  I write.  I always have.  It’s something I’ve always been good at.  I’m never going to write great literature or an academic paper and I’m unlikely ever to be famous, but I can write. 

In actual fact I invariably received an ‘excellent’ in 90% of the comments on my performance appraisals, often with particular commendation for my writing.  Imagine, then, how I felt in that last year when I received an ‘acceptable’ for ‘written work’.  Nothing had changed.  I was still me, I’d been in the same job for four years, I had the same line manager but suddenly, without any warning, I was told that I wasn’t such a good writer after all.  I felt as though someone had whipped the chair away just as I was about to sit down, leaving me to fall, not to the floor, but through the floor into the space below, and the space below that and, perhaps even, the space below that.

Being told by someone I had huge respect for that I couldn’t do something I was so confident about made me doubt everything about myself.  Perhaps there were other things I couldn’t do that I thought I was good at.   I thought I was a good listener, good at helping people work through problems, a good trainer, organizer, co-ordinator.  Perhaps I was only ‘acceptable’ in those skills too?  I was devastated.

Since then I’ve joined a writing group, had some work published, in print and online and I’m preparing to write my first novel. 

Critics - do your worst!

Friday, 2 March 2012

The Real Syria

I spent Easter of 2006 in Syria.  Staying in Damascus with my husband and youngest son we spent the days sightseeing and evenings dining in the most exotic restaurants you can imagine, my favourite was on the top floor of a tall building in the old city with views right over the souk and mosque and where we watched men and women dancing and even watched a display of swordsmanship.  As I watch the news night after night showing the death and destruction in this wonderful place I wonder how long it will be before I can return. 

The following piece is something I wrote a couple of years ago for a writing group exercise – I hope it will give my readers a taste of the real Syria.

The Marketplace

The tea was strong and sweet and as I sipped the delicious nectar from the delicate, decorated glass stikaan the sounds of the souk seemed to retreat into the distance and I relaxed in the shade of the fabric shop in the Old City of Damascus.  The shop was part of an old-style Arab house built around a small courtyard complete with a gentle, bubbling fountain in the centre and that is where I sat to savour my refreshment.  Around me the house itself rose on numerous storeys leaving the courtyard in perpetual shade.

I’d arrived at the shop after a long, hot walk along Straight Street.  This was where St Paul was rescued by Ananais after he was blinded by the light on the road to Damascus and Ananias’ house can still be found within sight of the little shop where I was now relaxing.   The city is steeped in history, ancient history and parts seem unchanged from those times long ago.  The street itself is, indeed, very straight and very long, one mile long, stretching across the whole of the old city and leading from the busy Hamadya souk with its labyrinth of narrow passages all under the cover of a steel roof, complete with its many bullet holes showing evidence of the numerous uprisings against the French during the 1940’s. 

The souk in this part of the city is open to bright daylight and the small shop fronts lead back into darkness in the shelter of the ancient Roman-built colonnaded thoroughfare.  Each tiny shop with its own speciality: soap made from local olives or melons cut into square chunks; perfumes selected and mixed before your eyes; tooth-rotting sweets; delicious cakes; handmade toys, delicately woven fabrics and clothes, leather shoes, socks made from the finest silk; ice cream made as you watch – strawberry, vanilla and pistachio and, of course, the spice shops with sacks of whole and ground spices on display – red paprika, yellow turmeric, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, vanilla - the aromas and colours assail your senses and mingle with the scents from the perfume and soap shops and the fruity tobacco of the hubble bubble pipes being smoked in doorways.   In one particular shop I took the opportunity to look at a selection of exquisite wooden furniture; there was a range of pieces from enormous six-drawer sideboards and tall wardrobes to small hexagonal side tables.  Each piece was covered with intricately carved Mother of Pearl flowers telling the story of the Damascus Rose or geometric, Islamic, patterns.  This is where I found what I wanted to take home with me, a small coffee table decorated with delicate flowers. However, I would be travelling home alone and was concerned about dealing with such an item at the airport, so I left it where I found it, tucked away in a dark corner of the shop.

If you take the time to roam the alleyways of the main souk which has grown around the Umyyad Mosque sooner or later you’ll come upon the tomb of the great Saladin, opponent of Richard the Lion heart during the Crusades.  A constant stream of visitors come to pay their respects at the tomb of this respected leader who’s castles dot the landscape further north on Syria’s Mediterranean coast.  In front of the walls of the old city there is a majestic statue of this same Saladin mounted on a rearing horse and waving his sword as though about to charge into battle.

You can listen to stories of his triumphs and bravery in a certain roadside cafe any evening, it’s worth listening to even if you don’t speak Arabic, the storyteller is so passionate and expressive, his actions so meaningful you can’t fail to come away feeling you’ve witnessed a battle with this great military leader. 

The Umyyad Mosque itself is built on the site of a Roman Temple and a later Christian Church, it is here that the head of John the Baptist is buried, it is also here that our own St George has been sighted – I say Our own St George, but he also has a very important place in Syrian history, although if you ask, as I did, you get the same old story about him saving a maiden from a fire-breathing dragon.  This is the largest mosque in the city and during Ramadan 2,000 people break their fast here each evening at sunset, it is quite a sight to see 2,000 places set for dinner on the polished tiles of the open air courtyard, each place prepared carefully with plate, bread and fruit with the rice and meat being served hot to each person. 

While I waited for my second cup of tea to cool, I took a few moments to explore the fabric shop, which had seemed to beckon to me as I passed earlier in the day.  The main room was filled floor to ceiling with shelves and the shelves were filled with neatly folded fabrics of every colour and combination of colours you could think of.  What I needed was a tablecloth large enough for my dining table at home.  It was new and I was anxious to keep it covered to save damaging the smooth, rich colour of the surface.  However it was very large and all my existing cloths had proved to be just an inch or two too short.  The Syrian proprietor, James (for this was the Christian quarter of the City), showed me numerous cloths and I wanted them all but I came away with a hand embroidered navy blue cotton cloth which would compliment my pure white china, and a multi-coloured thick damask day cloth which reflects the colours of the spice market; rich golds, reds, browns, yellows and greens and even now, 4 years later, every day when I come home from work and see my table with the damask cloth I’m briefly transported to that oasis of calm beside a small fountain in a little shop in Damascus.