Bah Humbug Apostrophes

Season’s greetings and all that crap. It’s not actually Christmas yet, so let’s get down to business. Apostrophes. Come on, people! It’s pretty simple really. I’m not going to explain it to you, as it’ll just fall on deaf ears. It would be far more effective, I thought, to just give you punctuation-abusers out there some examples you might remember. OK, like hell you’re going to remember, but at least I can get it off my chest and enjoy my mulled wine unburdened. So pay attention.

• You’re eating a lot of mince pies, you greedy bastard. (You’re = you are.)
• Your festive jumper isn’t ironic, it’s annoying. (The festive jumper belongs to you, hence your – not you’re. If you say you’re festive jumper, you might as well be saying, “You like jump up and down at Christmas time?”
• It’s fucking freezing out there. (It’s = it is.)
• The sodding tree has pissed all its needles all over the floor. (Its not it’s. I can’t be bothered to explain why. Just ask yourself would the tree piss all it is needles? That doesn’t make sense, so restrain yourself and don’t stick an apostrophe in here.)
• Have you done all your Christmas shopping yet? (Your – not you’re. If I say you’re Christmas shopping, I’m stating that you are Christmas shopping, as in right now, when in fact you’re probably lying on your backside eating more mince pies.)
• Thanks for the leg-warmers, Auntie Cynthia. They’re so 1980s. (NOT 1980’s for crying out loud. Get it right.) (Don’t get me started on they’re, there, their. On second thoughts, I’ll come to that in a minute.)
• Don’t even think of putting that Christmas compilation album on again. (Don’t = Do not.)
• Do they know it’s Christmas time again? (According to The Guardian, they do. And they also probably know there’s an apostrophe in it’s in this instance – unlike you.)
OK, deep breath. Count to 10. Time for the big one.

• There were six mince pies in this packet. Now they’re all gone. Whoever stuffed them down their pie-hole is going to get their arse kicked.

OK. I think that’s enough for now. (That’s = that is. There’s no such word as thats.) Happy Yuletide. (Yule not you’ll.) May the new year bring you peace, happiness and a deeper appreciation of apostrophes. (Apostrophes, not apostrophe’s.)

Sun, sea and my desert island books

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I love listening to Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, and have often thought about which books and pieces of music I would choose to be marooned with. You could argue that, stuck on a desert island, it would make sense to choose a book that you haven’t read yet. But we all know the rules! In a twist on the radio show format, I’m choosing eight books, rather than discs, that I’ve never forgotten – books that made a real impact on me at different stages in my life, books that I’d love to read again one day. The kind of books that, when you finish them, make you go ‘into the zone’ for at least three days until you feel the fog has lifted enough to start something new.

So, in no particular order…

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome

I was probably 10 years old when I read this, and I was engrossed. I can’t remember much about it other than there were two groups of kids, a lot of sailing, swimming, camping and rivalry. So I’d love to read it again to rediscover the magic escapism this book gave me the first time around.

Stranger With My Face by Lois Duncan

I was about 12 when I discovered this author, and what a find! It wasn’t long before my friends and I were spending our school lunch hours discussing all her books, plots and characters. Stranger With My Face was the first one I read and it was unputdownable: a girl’s life starts to spin out of control when her boyfriend claims he’s seen her with another guy and strange things start happening to her friends. The supernatural element – there’s a bit of astral projection going on – had me hooked, and night after night I felt compelled to try projecting my soul out of my body.
“Any joy?” I would ask my friends at school each day.
“Nope. You?”
“Not yet…”

Terms of Endearment by Larry McMurtry

I must’ve been about 13 when I read this. I took it on a family holiday and boy did it stop me from getting bored! It was the first grown-up novel I’d read and I think I borrowed it from my mum – or I’m not sure how else I would’ve come across it. It was full of emotional drama, swearing and scenes of a sexual nature. I was transfixed! I suppose my mum thought it would be educational for me, and might make me look at our mother-daughter relationship from a more mature perspective. It certainly did raise a few questions…not all of which I felt comfortable putting to my mum though.

Germinal by Emile Zola

I didn’t read this by choice. It was on my reading list for 19th Century French literature, part of my French degree. I can’t say I felt that switched on by any of the other books in that module, but Germinal had me gripped – I couldn’t put it down. A mining town community living in extreme poverty. A young couple falling in love for the first time amidst a climate of starvation, anger and violence. It got made into a film with Gerard Depardieu, but trust me – the film doesn’t compare to the book. A nail-biting read that made up for some of the other duller tomes I had to get through. (And no I didn’t read them in French or else I’d never have made it to le fin.)

Wild Swans by Jung Chang

When I was in my early twenties, my elderly French great aunt pressed a £10 note into my hand and urged me to go and buy Wild Swans. Having fallen out of love with reading at university, it was tempting to spend the tenner on a bottle of wine and a Marie Claire. However, knowing that I’d eventually have to report back what I thought of the book, I reluctantly went and bought it. Holy Cow. What an epic read! Not one dull moment. A lesson in history, culture, and how the other half lived, all rolled into one. It’s the true story of three generations of women in one family in China, from the turn of the last century, through the revolution and beyond. A jaw-dropping read. Major respect to my late great aunt for that recommendation. (And for making it to 92 years old as a chain-smoking carnivore – she sure had some gene genies going on there.)

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

I read this while backpacking around Asia with my now husband and devouring books on a speedier-than-usual turnover. For some reason I didn’t read the blurb properly and assumed Arthur Golden was the person the geisha told her story to – a ghostwriter or translator. I was about two thirds of the way through before I realised it was a novel rather than a true story. I couldn’t believe how the drama in this woman’s life was so timely – just like an epic novel! Oh. Hang on… it is an epic novel. Right. That’ll teach me not to dive in without studying the back cover and acknowledgements first! Anyway, bloody brilliant. Left me desperate to visit Japan and name my first child Chiyo. (Husband refused.)

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

I read this about four or five years ago after another hiatus in my reading life (children, this time – hence no energy to read more than the ingredients on the back of a jar of pasta sauce). A twisty-turny tale set in Victorian England. An orphan grows up with a family of thieves, and ends up becoming a maid at a mansion where she meets another orphan who lives a mysterious life with a wealthy but sinister uncle. The plot of this story didn’t let up the pace at any point. You get so sucked in to the world that Sarah Waters has painted, you feel like you’re living inside a Victorian snow globe. Great storytelling.

The Right To Write by Julia Cameron

I don’t read a lot of non-fiction. But back in my twenties, I went through a phase of reading a lot of it – mainly because I was finding life hard and so I sought out guidance. So I read a lot of self-help books, with a fair few that focused on writing and creativity. This book in particular helped me to believe that I was a writer, that writers weren’t some exclusive group I wasn’t qualified to join. Every page is littered with nuggets of wisdom that I’ve underlined in order to programme them into my brain. I owe a lot to this book and its insightful author, and every now and again I skim through it, reminding myself of truths I’ve forgotten.

Music and a luxury item?

As with the Radio 4 show, I also get to take a piece of music and a luxury item. So I would choose Say Hello, Wave Goodbye by Soft Cell, which I would sing passionately from the top of my lungs into a twig and an imaginary camera. And for my luxury item, it’s got to be an enormous note book and pen. Wait – does that count as two items? Ok, well it’s one of those notebooks that comes with a pen attached. Sorted. Bon voyage!

Please, please, tell me now!

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The bedtime routine. What should be a blissful hour of giggles in the bathtub, reading aloud a much-loved classic to an enraptured audience, followed by kisses and cuddles goodnight, is often a chaotic last hurdle to jump over before collapsing on the sofa with a large glass of wine and the next episode of Borgen.

When you’re tired, surrounded by mess, and you have to repeat the same instruction five times like a malfunctioning robot – “Have you done your teeth yet?” – it’s a real challenge not to skip bedtime stories and let them spend half an hour playing on their Kindles instead. Or, if I read them a story, I’m often yawning so much they can’t understand a word I’m saying anyway.

But failing to read bedtime stories to children just adds to the constant trickle of everyday parental guilt. (Five-a-day? Erm…not today.) So when my children were younger (they’re currently 10 and eight), I tried to solve this problem by reading them stories while they ate their tea or lay in the bath. That way, I could tick the story box and get ahead of the game, perhaps enjoying a little extra time to myself starting a little earlier in the evening…

As if. My children are smart. While I’d ticked the story box ahead of schedule, my children had a new box waiting for me: the Tell Me Something.

Every night, as I tucked them into bed, they’d beg: “Tell me something! Tell me something now – please!” Apparently, this ‘something’ had to be a true story from my childhood. Such as the time I stole my best friend’s purple stone and ended up confessing, unable to look her in the eyes – or display it in my own precious stone collection for fear of being rumbled. Or the time, aged six, I wet my knickers while standing up reading Roger Red Hat in front of the whole class. You get the gist – anything with a good dose of guilt, humiliation or general ‘epic fail’.

And when I’d run out of those, they’d demand a true story from someone else’s childhood. Such as the time their dad, at the age of nine, locked his little sister in the cupboard under the stairs after farting in it. Or the time he flicked a peanut and it landed in his sleeping father’s open mouth. (He often tells them these stories himself, as I only know so many of his childhood anecdotes.)

When I’d struggle to think of true anecdotes, they’d up the ante even more by demanding a made-up story instead. So what do you say when your head is empty, you can hardly keep your eyes open and you’re not even sure you’ve got the energy to watch the next episode of Game of Thrones? You say the first thing that comes into your head: “There once was a girl called Fartina Gasratilova…who suffered from an unfortunate condition…that kept landing her in lots of trouble…”

It’s actually quite satisfying to see what you can rummage out of the depths of your depleted imagination – especially when you’re one glass of wine away from being asleep yourself. And watching your kids’ faces light up as they picture the story you’re telling is a true delight.

Of course, that triumphant feeling didn’t last long, as they started demanding a new Fartina story every night. Eventually, having kept up with my children’s demands for weeks on end, I had enough material to put together a little ebook. I polished the stories up, persuaded the husband to knock up some illustrations, and changed her name to Fartella just in case…you know…the book became so huge, I got a letter from Martina Navratilova’s lawyers. (Well, what do you expect from a woman with a depleted imagination?)

These days the bedtime routine is a little simpler. My eldest is happy to read to herself and my youngest is, too – provided she has a book she’s happy with (my current challenge). I still read to my youngest, although more often, she likes to read to me. I’m still thrown a request for a Tell Me Something from time to time. But nowadays, it’s usually on a long car journey just as I’m getting stuck into a favourite album or Desert Island Discs. So what do you say? You say: “There once was a girl called Thirsty Kirsty, who lived on a desert island surrounded by sharks, and was only allowed to take three luxury items with her…”

Are you feeling shelf-conscious?

A work in progress

A work in progress

Since I got sucked into the trend of writers posting their #shelfies on Twitter, I’ve been forced to take a closer look at my bookshelves. They are sadly lacking and don’t reflect my reading habits at all. But that’s just it: I haven’t paid much attention to my bookshelves in years – not since a male friend put the revolutionary suggestion to me of having a damn good clear-out, followed by a new policy – only keeping the occasional book you really, really loved reading.

I had, until that suggestion was made, pretty much kept every book I’d ever read since the age of about 18. But as I was rapidly running out of shelf space at the time, had a partner whose art book collection seemed to take an unspoken prominence in our living room, and with a baby on the way, I thought this was sensible advice.…until more recently.

When I wanted to thrust a book at my husband to read the other day (not that he was likely to read it but every now and again I like to thrust some fiction at him as a dare) I was galled to find it was no longer on my shelves. I’d loved it so much I’d forced it upon an unsuspecting friend almost immediately after reading it. Damn! Now I had to go and buy it again, because whether the husband read it or not, I suddenly regretted giving it away. (The book in question was Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns.)

My piddly little collection of most beloved books had shrunk over the years as I’d been too quick to give books away to friends and charity shops. I’d quite liked the idea that I was recycling books and passing on the joy of reading them, and yet at the same time, I’d diddled myself out of a collection of much-loved reads.

Instead, ten years after I’d introduced my new policy, our shelves were heaving with the husband’s art, design and photography books, the husband’s business books, the husband’s autobiography and travel memoir collection and the kids’ books. Whereas I had been SQUEEZED OUT! All I had was a handful of classics from my degree course, a couple of chick lit reads from my early twenties and Wild Swans by Jung Chang (which my late, great aunt forced me to buy and for which I’m eternally grateful.)

So, over the last year or so, I’ve been trying to re-grow my Greatest Reads collection and resist giving books away. Is this because I’d like to one day produce a really impressive #shelfie that speaks volumes about the well-read unsnobbish fiction consumer I am? Not really. (Oh go on, then.) Or is it because it’s high time I claimed back some shelf-territory from the husband and kids? Nope. (I’ve already cleared out a crap-stack of his business books and he hasn’t even noticed.)

I just want to hoard the books that made me laugh, cry, or drew me into a world I didn’t want to leave. Because books that make you feel something are works of art. And treasure is for keeping.

In short, I intend to be more shelfish. (Sorry.)

A warm welcome to author Jon Rance

I’d like to welcome fellow comedy author Jon Rance to my blog this week in celebration of his new novel This Family Life. For anyone who is new to parenthood and in desperate need of some belly laughs, this could be just the tonic you’re after. Over to Jon…

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Firstly a HUGE thank you to Tasha for hosting what is the first stop on my ‘This Family Life Blog Tour’. Over the next few weeks I’m going to be visiting a lot of different blogs and along the way I’m hoping to write a lot of very funny, informative, and thought-provoking blogs on how my new novel ‘This Family Life’ came to be. So with the pleasantries out of the way, let’s crack on.

In this blog I want to talk about how ‘This Family Life’ evolved. If you read the first book in the series ‘This Thirtysomething Life’, you’ll know it was about the slightly useless, immature, thirtysomething Harry Spencer and his wife Emily. When Emily suddenly becomes pregnant, poor Harry has a bit of an emotional breakdown and makes some questionable choices thereafter.

Both ‘This Thirtysomething Life’ and ‘This Family Life’ evolved from my own experiences. Firstly with ‘This Thirtysomething Life’ of going through a pregnancy with my own wife and having a ‘bit of a wobble’ (as we like to call it in my house), and secondly with ‘This Family Life’, of trying to survive the first year of parenthood.

If you have children you’ll know what I’m talking about. The first year can be a proper Tim Burton style nightmare. Babies are terrifying. You’re always waiting for them to either A: Die. B: Injure themselves and then die. C: Get injured by you and then die. Or D: Lull you into a false sense of security and seem really happy and you’ll tell people at parties and friends that actually they’re an ‘easy baby’ and then die. Basically, most of the first year you’re worried they might die. If you aren’t worried about that, you’re worried about how they look. Is their head a funny shape? Why do they have a comb-over hair style? In the book Harry worries constantly about baby William, and yes it’s generally about ridiculous things like, why does his wave look like a Nazi salute? And why does he babble with a Japanese accent?

I think at the heart of the novel it’s about his fears, and I think the fears that most parents feel when they have babies, that they have a life to protect. It’s this fear that I think gives the novel its funniest scenes and also its most heartfelt – just like real parenthood. I think Harry says it best in this scene from the book.

Wednesday 27 February 9.30 p.m.

I wouldn’t class myself as a big worrier. A medium worrier maybe, but since William was born all I’ve done is worry. Maybe it’s just how parenthood is. 1% enjoyment, 99% worry. I worry about William all the time. There was a kid at my middle school who couldn’t say ‘cinema’. He pronounced it ‘swinema’. And of course, all the mean kids would make him say it as often as possible. What if William says ‘swinema’ instead of ‘cinema’? What if he breaks a leg, or both legs, and we have to push him around in a wheelchair with him saying ‘swinema’?

Then there’s the now. I wake up most nights and listen to him breathing on the baby monitor, but without fail I decide I can’t hear him, and I go in his room to check on him. Sometimes I lie in bed and tell myself to stop being silly and just go to sleep, but I can’t. I have to check on him. But even this is OK against the bigger worry of when I can’t protect him. When he’s at nursery, or primary school, or secondary school or just at the park without me, and I can’t be there if he needs me. He’s only six and a half months old and already I’m worried about the rest of his life. I just want him to be happy. I just want him to be able to say ‘cinema’ properly. Is that too much to ask?’

This Family Life Synopsis

Things that might happen during your first year of parenthood:

1. You’ll get covered in a ‘nuclear’ poo.

2. You’ll be convinced your son is talking with a Japanese accent.

3. You’ll worry that when your son waves, it looks like a Nazi salute.

Of course, this might just be Harry Spencer.

Taking up where This Thirtysomething Life left off, Harry Spencer and his wife Emily are back and trying to survive their first year of parenthood. It has its ups and downs (and a few bits in the middle), but along the way they begin to understand the true meaning of family and what it takes to be a parent.

Featuring a hilarious cast of extras including Harry’s father-in-law Derek, who has a unique problem with Scotch, Steve and Fiona, the parents from children’s entertainment hell, and a yoga instructor with a prominent camel-toe, This Family Life is the ultimate comedy for anyone who is a parent, has a parent, or is thinking about becoming one.

Writing Process Blog Tour

I’ve been invited by This Thirty Something Life author Jon Rance to answer some questions about my writing as part of a writing process blog tour. You can read his answers to the questions below on his blog. Here are my responses:

What are you currently working on?

I’m actually taking a break from writing for a few months. I wrote two books last year – Blown-Away Man, a comedy drama about a successful ad man who returns to his village for a school reunion only to have a bombshell dropped on him, and The Adventures of Fartella Gasratilova, a collection of humorous short stories for children. While I thoroughly enjoyed writing both books, writing two books at the same time left me feeling a bit burnt out afterwards! For the first time in years, I have no idea what I’m going to write next – and I see that as a positive thing. Saying that, inspiration usually strikes whenever I travel, and I’m off to France soon…

How does your work differ from others of its genre?

All my books are comedy dramas – but they’re all different. Package Deal and Hot Property are set on Greek islands and are written from multi-viewpoints, so you get male as well as female perspectives. Hence those books seem to appeal to men as much as they do women. Pearls, however, is definitely more of a women’s read, and has slightly more depth with its underlying theme of self-love. Then, veering off in a completely different direction, Blown-Away Man is set in London and Lincolnshire and is written from a man’s perspective with a much more humorous tone of voice. To be honest, I don’t know if my books differ greatly from others of their genre. I don’t put pressure on myself to be unique. I can only write the stories that are in me.

Why do you write what you do?

Comedy comes naturally to me. I’ve kept a diary since I was 10. When I was 17 I wrote all about my aunt’s wedding in Dorset. My parents had just split up so it was an emotional time, which wasn’t helped by my mum being given a lot of responsibilities at her sister’s wedding. Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong – from traffic jams to forgotten bouquets to arsey friends of the bride. When we finally got back home, the washing machine had flooded the kitchen, creating a sea of soapy water surrounding a sort of St. Michael’s Mount-shaped object – a ‘welcome home’ turd generously left by our senile cat. By this point, my mother was a nervous wreck. After helping her clear up the mess, I scuttled off to my room to write up all the horrors of the weekend in my diary. As I wrote, the funny side emerged, and I wondered if it’d make her feel better to read what I’d written. To my delight and relief, it made her howl with laughter. It was a wonderful reaction and must have had a profound effect on me, because from that moment on I’ve been unable to write anything without injecting some humour into it.

How does your writing process work?

My novels begin life as an embryo, a single scene, for example. I let the embryo germinate in the back of my mind for a few months, visiting it every so often to find that it’s sprouted a few more scenes or characters, or even an ending. When it’s grown to a size that can no longer be ignored, I start to sketch it out very roughly. There are still lots of gaps at this point. You can’t necessarily wait for inspiration to fill all the gaps, so I start actively shaping it, plotting out where it’s going. When I start writing, however, things don’t always go as planned. Sometimes the story guides me, sometimes I guide the story. Ultimately – and I know this sounds wacky – I believe the story wants to come out. It wants to be told.

While I’m writing the first draft, I try not to edit. I make notes of issues that need addressing and then deal with them in the second draft. When I’ve done three or four drafts, I send it to my editor. She then makes a list of suggested changes and I then decide which ones I agree with and which I don’t. Then it’s a few more drafts of editing and polishing before reaching the proofreading stage, which I get someone else to do, as I can’t see the wood for the trees by then. As I self-publish, I have the ultimate say on everything, which is as daunting as it is liberating. I’ve had literary agents in the past so I know the book editing process, and I’m a sub-editor by trade, so I’ve got the necessary skills to edit a book myself. But that said, having an editor and proofreader are essential. A writer can’t produce a professional book on their own without some help from people with the right skills.

Many thanks to Jon Rance. I’m now passing these questions on to Starlings author Erinna Mettler who blogs at http://www.erinnamettler.com/ so look out for her answers soon.

From couch potato to box beetroot

Ah, the writer’s life… Sitting at a desk for hours on end, drinking back-to-back coffees and troughing biscuits; lying on the sofa with a laptop balanced on your belly, cat purring at your side, knowing it’s about time you got up and stretched a bit, but if nature isn’t calling, why bother? Those creative cogs whirring away, always pushed to the limit… unlike the rest of your body, which gets to enjoy, ahem, endless relaxation. Ah yes, this is the life for me…

Or so I thought. Two years ago, I turned 40. I was ok with it – I’d already had my freak-out at the tipping point of 37-and-a-half, when the Big Four-Zero was looming, and the threshold into middle age was beckoning. For a while there, it was a tough one to get my head around. Particularly as there was one thing I knew I couldn’t delay dealing with any longer: my lack of fitness.

I’d been suffering from a bad back since the birth of my first child eight years previously. I’d been to osteopaths, sports therapists, acupuncturists and chiropractors. I’d been to my GP and to physio. An MRI scan showed that I had an “eroded disc” between vertebrae L4 and L5 in the lower back. While all my other discs looked like nice, juicy beefburgers, Old L4/5 looked like a CD. I even had a steroid injection to reduce inflammation, but to no avail. My muscles in that area were constantly sore and inflamed, and I regularly experienced shooting pains in my lower back. None of the gentle exercise I’d been doing (walking, pilates and swimming) was making any difference. And living a largely sedentary lifestyle clearly wasn’t helping.

So when I started to wonder how much worse my back could become over the next 40 years, I soon reached a conclusion: I was going to have to change my couch potato ways, get off my arse and put some serious effort into getting fit. No more half-measures. My husband had already joined CrossFit (“a strength and conditioning programme based on constantly varied, high-intensity functional movements”) and the change in his fitness and muscle tone over just six months was unbelievable. And so I decided to sign up, knowing that this was either a very good idea or an extremely bad one.

As a 40-year-old who had undergone two Caesareans, had a dodgy back and couldn’t do a single press-up, I felt extremely nervous when I first arrived at my local CrossFit box (CrossFit Connect) in Hove. (The word ‘box’ was apt: this was more of a garage than a gym.) I felt like a sloth caught in the headlights. What was I doing in this alien environment? Where was Rocky Balboa hiding? There were weights, kettlebells, pull-up bars…and tractor tyres? There were people with actual muscles. People drenched in sweat. People panting, looking like they were in pain – but even more sick and twisted, they looked like they were enjoying it. Before I could turn and run (ok, walk speedily) away, I was welcomed in by a Super-Friendly Coach.

I was introduced to exercises I’d heard of but had never done: lunges, squats, V-crunches, pull-ups, etc. I was surrounded by people who’d clearly been taking fitness seriously for years, people who actually looked dignified whilst squatting. Finally I was introduced to the WOD. My husband was always going on about WODs (Workout of the Day) and AMRAPs (As Many Rounds As Possible), gratingly annoying words that, up until then, had meant nothing to me. He reminded me of Chandler from Friends going on about the WENUS. And now here I was, using these silly made-up words, too.

After my first WOD, I was as crimson as a beetroot and my legs were shaking so badly I could barely operate the pedals in my car to drive back home. However, I wasn’t going anywhere as another CrossFitter had blocked me in. I returned to the box on my shaky legs, brain jellified, feeling slightly emotional about my utter lack of fitness. “Oh right, what model car is it?” Super-Friendly Coach asked. It was dark and I hadn’t looked. “Don’t know,” I said, too weak to hobble back and take a closer look. My lip may have wobbled. With the kind of patience normal human beings don’t possess, he went to inspect and returned, calling for the owner of a black Peugeot to come and let me out.

Despite being a sloth AND a muppet, I somehow found the courage to return. I had to: allowing my back to deteriorate further wasn’t an option.

The first few months I found it awkward to speak out and say what I could and couldn’t do. It felt lame saying, “Um, can I not do that, please?” (because I’m going to end up in A&E if I do). But some of the WODs were way beyond my capabilities – even the warm-ups killed me – so the coaches scaled some of the exercises to a level I could manage. I had to be clear about my goals: I was not aiming to enter any weightlifting competitions, or get to the top of the scoreboard. I just wanted to build my strength and be rid of my aching back. That was all. (Oh, and get rid of those bingo wings, shed a few pounds, lose the muffin top, and a long list of other vanity-related stuff.)

On so many occasions, the day after a visit to the box, I’d wake up to find I had a frozen shoulder, a swollen ankle or that my back was stiffer than I’d ever experienced. I was feeling older, not younger! I felt mangled. I ached all over. I decided I’d give it till the end of the year – that’d be four months – and if I was still pulling muscles left, right and centre, perhaps it was time to admit defeat.

One day in late December, I was lying in bed reading when I realised my back wasn’t hurting. MY BACK WASN’T HURTING! For the first time in almost nine years, my back felt how a back should feel – painless. There was no doubt in my mind that this was down to the exercise I’d been doing at CrossFit.

Now, 20 months since I first joined, I’m still opting for the easiest-level WODs (which are not necessarily easy, just easier), but I feel stronger, more confident, and my level of fitness has definitely improved.

Rather than reciting my personal bests, instead let me say this: a basic 15kg bar no longer feels as heavy as it used to. I can do WODS involving rounds of press-ups, sit-ups, squats or whatever, and I no longer wobble away on shaky legs. I can do handstands! I can skip double-unders! I no longer arrive at the box dreading what punishing activities might await me – I enjoy going! (Shocker!) And, bonus: I’ve made some lovely new friends of all ages and levels of fitness.

Now for the even cheesier bit: aside from giving up smoking years ago, making fitness a part of my life (finally) is the single most impressive thing I’ve done for my health.

I’ll always have to be mindful of my troublesome disc, and for that reason I go steady with deadlifts and med-ball cleans, and don’t do burpees. (Even a dodgy disc has its plus points.) But overall, my back’s improved a lot, and – although it’ll never be perfect (eroded discs are irreversible) – I’ve got some core muscles now. We’re not talking ripped abs obviously, FAR from it, but I’m building strength where previously there wasn’t any. And, lo and behold a miracle has taken place in Couch Potatodom: fitness is now bizarrely on a par with writing in my life. If too many days go by with none occurring, it just doesn’t feel right.