All posts by AJ Mason

About AJ Mason

Author, curious child and geek.

Können Sie das bitte wiederholen?

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I have recently started learning to speak German. Now, I will freely admit that I’m useless at languages. I had to take my French and Latin GCSE twice to get a decent mark, and to this day I could swear that the very patient professor at my University, tasked to try and teach me Ancient Greek, retired back to Oxford to avoid a fourth year of torture.

Still, having spent a large part of Christmas in Berlin with my better half and her family, it had become more and more apparent that I was going to have to try. Whether it was the rather fixed smile of yet another shop assistant apparently politely asking me if I required any other service, only to receive embarrassed silence in return; or my girlfriend’s father tugging me towards a local park to show it off, only for our conversation to falter after a few words because neither of us know the other’s language. It was time to really bite the bullet, stop making excuses and start learning the language properly.

I had already made a little start using Duolingo (other language apps are available of course). I have no complaints about it, in fact I think the way it tries to teach you is rather neat. It even tests you on your speaking skills. However, it lacks the one thing I really need, rigor. I have no willpower and found lots of excuses to leave it to one side. So now I have signed up at my local college for a beginners evening class.

It was with some trepidation that I turned up for my first lesson. I got off to a good start by failing to even find the right room.  However, I eventually found it and quickly realised I had landed on my feet.  The lecturer looked straight at me and explained with a deadpan face that she was running a class in Russian. She almost had me going, and it was only when another of the newbies rescued me that I caught up.

I immediately started to relax. Here, I surmised, was one of life’s eccentrics and I was going to spend the next twenty weeks being taught by her. This is my idea of heaven. I am always at my most relaxed around fellow quirky types. Especially if they have a good sense of humour. Being around me usually requires it.

I haven’t been proved wrong. She throws balls at us, makes us chant answers back as a ‘choir’, and went speedily through most of the slides of the interminable official induction PowerPoint going ‘blah, blah, blah.’ This week we were learning everyday objects, and I don’t think “Das ist ein Apfel…stupido!” is, strictly speaking, the way the books deal with it. However, it made us all laugh. Laughing while you learn takes all the stress out of it. I wish my language teachers at school had realised that. She cheerfully tells us to learn with our ears, stop worrying about tenses and cases and all that boring stuff. Just to listen, repeat learn and yes, laugh. And I am learning, faster than ever before.

Laughter is also a good antidote for the malaise that falls upon me at this time of year. Endless dank days. Wet roads, grey skies and a damp cold that gets into your bones. It slowly saps all my energy, until I find myself floating through the waking hours, waiting to go back to sleep again.

This is the danger time for me. I have a stressful job at times, and it is easy to develop a tunnel vision, with the rest of my life taking a back seat. Unchallenged, it is a path that will eventually lead to me shutting down altogether. However, with the patient help of a really good psychologist, I have learnt to recognise the signs before things go too far. I was able to observe that I had stopped writing, had stopped engaging with people around me more than I had to.

Reaching out again beyond the tunnel walls is the hardest thing to do. It involves a mental effort that you simply do not feel capable of. However, it is always worth it. For the hours of weary effort it took to persuade myself and enrol on the course, I got rewarded with feeling wonderfully buoyed. I found myself talking excitedly about how it had gone and actively looking forward to the next lesson. My girlfriend is coaching me on the side (taking I might add an inordinate pleasure in correcting all my many mistakes!), and that also brings a valuable injection of laughter and pleasure to my life. It has also given me the energy I needed to reconnect in other areas of my life. This weekend I have my book club, next week perhaps a chance to go boardgaming with friends at my local pub, and of course I am writing this blog.

This winter will continue to drag on, but now I have a bit of sunshine inside myself to counter the worst of it with.

Old and New

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I love waking up in Berlin. An obvious part of that is that I am waking up in bed with the woman I love. However, there is more to it. Berlin is a city that I am coming to love more and more. 

Travelling into the centre of the city yesterday, I was struck once again by the fusion of architecture. Grand red-brick buildings sitting easily side by side with modern, often zanily coloured, structures. In London, this mishmash of styles seems to clash, to jar on the senses. In Berlin it just works. 

I couldn’t work out why at first, both cities are well established and cosmopolitan after all. After some thought I reached the conclusion that the difference is Berlin’s recent history. It is a city that has been torn apart, and then sewn back together again. Walking around, there is a sense of old Germany and new. Whilst there are tensions and problems, mostly there is a cheerful tolerance. London shares that tolerance of change, but it has grown fat and complacent, even about its own denizens. Its new architecture is born of wealth and the pursuit of more wealth. Mirrored buildings rising high, their steel structures exclusive and discouraging to the ordinary passerby. We gape briefly at them, but there is no comfort there, no sense of ownership. 

In Berlin, new buildings have been born of necessity. First from the destruction of a terrible war, and then from the re-unification of the city split asunder by grasping superpowers. Small train stations are now shiny transport hubs connecting the city back to the country. Office buildings, hotels and apartments nestle against each other, all built at different times and in different styles and colours.

History has been preserved. The beautiful dome, broken by bombs. The sky tower built to spy. The quiet tiled train station, once use to transport people to their death, now preserved to remind and educate. A section of the wall, once a place of despair and death, is now a gallery of art. Oh yes, the art. It seems that any small corner of space left around the city is filled with it. Walls everywhere are emblazoned with colours and images. Even the graffiti on the trains work in Berlin, they communicate its indomitable spirit. 

I saw a street sign on my way from the airport, ‘Königin-Elisabeth-Straße’. I thought I understood, but had to confirm the dreadful idea. Yes, there was indeed a street in the middle of the capital of Germany named after my monarch. We were in what had been the British Sector, and many streets had been renamed in this way. But this is Berlin, so not only had the name stayed, but the buildings along it celebrate by calling themselves ‘Queens’ this and that. It somehow summed up the city. Berliners just get on with the changing of the times.

History is not forgotten in Berlin, but it is a city that is reaching for the future. People are truly living in Berlin, rebuilding it from the ground up, and you can feel it around you. There is hope, determination and creativity in the air, and I love waking up and breathing it in.

Blue

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Blue was the colour of the sky above the boat as it bobbed up and down, waves slapping noisily against its sides, just off the tip of Cape Cod. At least, in its most basic sense. I have tried since I got back from Provincetown to try to express what I saw that day, and failed miserably. You see, the sky went on forever, the blue searing my eyes. The sun glinted off the sea, the few fluffy clouds that there were, seemed to bob so low that at one point I imagined we were sailing above them. How do you explain that to someone who wasn’t there? Even the photos I took can’t fully convey what filled my eyes. 

Turquoise blue was the colour of the whale that I was watching, languidly basking just below the surface. It was a Fin whale. I know that because the marine biologist on board filled us all in, slipping in casually that it was the second largest mammal on the planet after the blue whale. This whale, I will call it a she because that’s what I felt rather than knew, had just returned from a dive in the rich feeding grounds of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. I supposed, looking at her lazily moving her huge tail, as she contemplated rising to take another deep breath, that she must have eaten well this time. She had dived far faster the last couple of times. As if sensing the excitement of her two-legged groupies, she surfaced briefly, rewarding us with a view of her beautiful head. Then she let out her breath and sank into the deeps, leaving us forlorn behind.

I was on my last full day in Provincetown. I thought I would have all week to do the trip out to sea, but a storm midweek had forced the ships to remain in port. Ours was the first boat to venture out. I had been tantalised in the meantime with sightings of dolphins and Humpback whales from seasoned whale watching campaigners who had already been out to look for them. However this lovely lady and one of her relatives were all that we saw. I didn’t feel cheated. Watching the arch of their backs, the green-blue silhouette of their bodies underwater, touched me deep inside. I left a little bit of my soul out in those waters that day, and I hope one day to return.

Vibrant blue was the colour of the busy dashboard display on our hire car. I think I mentioned in my last blog that part of the adventure was going to be the drive from the airport to the hotel. I thought I had anticipated everything, but being given a hybrid automatic wasn’t on the list. The dashboard would have shamed the Starship Enterprise. After fruitlessly trying to get the thing going, I sent my better half to fetch help. The nice gentleman rushed over, and then broke the news as diplomatically as he could. The reason I couldn’t hear the engine was because it was electric. Shouting thanks, I drove away quickly, clutching what was left of my dignity. We drove up through the Cape in darkness. The night hid the wonderful colours that would hypnotise us on the drive back. Massachusetts in autumn lives up to its billing. 

Light blue was the colour of my girlfriend’s room. We had called ahead to warn our hosts at the Secret Garden Inn that we were going to be late, very late. Bless them, they waited up without complaint until midnight for us to arrive. We were welcomed with warmth, gorgeous smells of cooking, and blissfully comfortable beds. Our body clocks awry, we both woke at 6am and I popped round to find her enjoying the view from her veranda. We had made it to Provincetown, and it greeted us like the set from Murder She Wrote, lit by a gorgeous sunrise. We both had cushions on our beds with little whales on. I had starfish on my walls, she had fish. Snuggling under her blue blankets, we had truly found our own little corner of heaven.

Corporate blue was the colour of the carpet in Provincetown library. I knew it was corporate because it didn’t mind me spilling my drink on it. I spent a lot of the week in there, listening, observing and talking to my fellow travellers to Women’s Week. I met some wonderful writers and readers, and learnt a great deal as always. I also took the opportunity to get some of my writing done, knowing that the calm of the environment would help bring the words. However I was distracted by the half-size model of a Schooner (yes, a ship) that the Library had decided to house on its second floor, with the children’s books. I used to have a ship in a bottle, and felt a bit aggrieved when one day an expert on TV explained how the magic was done. Somethings are best left to the imagination, and I didn’t ask how they had got the Rose Dorothea into the space. I just looked at it with awe and wonder. What a wonderful space for children to explore the world in!

Finally, inevitably, blue was my mood when I had to leave. I didn’t hide my tears from my girlfriend and she comforted me as best she could. On the drive, and the flight home, I desperately tried to think of the quickest way to return there. To be somewhere where I felt so totally at home;  where it’s ok to hold my girlfriend’s hand and give her a cuddle; where people like to say good morning and chat to you on the street; where I can feel the clean sea breezes on my face. To make things worse, two days later I was ushering my girlfriend onto a plane at Heathrow, knowing I wouldn’t see her for four weeks. On my second day back at work, I found myself crying on the journey, suddenly weighed down by the drudgery, drabness, and unfairness of the world I had been forced to come back to.

I will be back Provincetown, and it won’t be long, I promise!

The countdown has begun…

In seven days time I will be in Provincetown, Massachusetts, for Women’s Week. This annual event celebrates the arts with literary events, film, comedy and much more. I had also not heard of it 18 months ago. Like much of my current life, it wasn’t just on the periphery, it was in another universe. Even once I had been acquainted with the wonderfulness that was P’town, I still contentedly assumed that it was something other people did. Braver, more adventurous people. Now it appears I am about to join their ranks.

I am travelling there with my amazing girlfriend who is far more courageous than me. To paraphrase Queenie from BlackAdder, she might have the demeanour of a meek woman, but she has the stomach of a concrete elephant. She had the trip planned over 18 months ago and was going to go on her own, with only the faint promise that some authors she had met might be there to say hello to. The thought of doing anything like that fills me with horror. It took me weeks to pluck up the courage to go my first board gaming group. I still remember with a shudder, the stomach clenching fear that I felt walking up the stairs in the pub. I might as well have been strapped in on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, on a one way trip to Mars.

Now she is taking me along and I am starting to feel excited. My ESTA is approved, currency ordered, hire car booked. Ah yes, the hire car. My girlfriend had planned to get the bus. I had heard too much for comfort about the ‘Cape Fear’ short hop flight option from Boston Logan to Provincetown airport. So the obvious option was to drive, for the first time, in the US. I have assured her that it will all be fine. After all I hired a car when in Spain earlier this year, and despite a slight false start that necessitated a couple of laps of the airport carpark, and a few hair raising moments which left the local taxi drivers probably needing therapy for PTSD, I made it to the villa unscathed.

I will, however, be leaving the navigation to my girlfriend. I have a terrible track record when it comes to map reading. My best friend still has fond memories of letting me direct her and her husband from the Solway coast back to Lockerbie. By the time I had finished, we were in a cul-de-sac on the outskirts of Dumfries (I only missed one turn honest!). In Malaga this all came back to haunt me again. I carefully added 30 minutes to an evening trip back from Malaga Harbour to our villa, and then led my driver the next day on a hair raising drive round the dirt tracks of the local village. Funnily enough, nobody asked for my help again.

My girlfriend has requested a book to listen to on the journey, perhaps wisely planning something to calm her nerves. She is big on audio books, as she is dyslexic, and has listened to hundreds over the years. She even runs a website devoted to cataloguing and raising the profile of all the Lesbian Fiction titles out there. However, despite dipping my ears a couple of times, I still haven’t been won over. Instead I offered the compromise of a full cast recording of Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. Thankfully the promise of listening to Benedict Cumberbatch’s dulcet tones was enough to win the day.

So P’town here we come. Whale watching, cake, gelato, dune walking, and maybe even the occasional cultural event are all hopefully going to be sampled over the next couple of weeks. I can’t wait to breath it all in, and even better still, I will have a wonderful woman by my side to share it all with. Happy birthday my love, I will see you very soon…

Sudden left turns

As this is my first proper blog post, I wanted to take the opportunity to explain a little more about myself. However, as I started to think about what to say, I realised that what was really at the front of my mind was the wonderfully surreal nature of the past 14 days.

To explain, a week ago I got an email from the author Robyn Nyx to say that a short story I had written had been accepted. It was to be published as part of an anthology of established and new Lesbian fiction writers. Not so strange you might think, but a week before that the story had not even existed! I had instead been bumbling along as usual, tired from work and excited about going to Germany to see my girlfriend. I was, in short, blissfully unaware that my life was about to take a very sudden left turn.

I live a very ordinary life. I have close family, good friends and a wonderful girlfriend. This writing thing is a relatively new development. I set myself the intellectual challenge of writing a book a year ago. I guess I was fed up with people telling me that I should have a go. I am not daft, I know that writing is tough. So, I invested in the project by going on a writer’s retreat in Malaga with Global Wordsmiths. They carefully explained the craft of writing in terms even I could understand. Then they took apart the 50k words I had got down, and set me the task of doing it all again, armed with the skills they had given me. However publishing remained a very big if for me. The problem is that I love reading science fiction, and I read voraciously. So, inevitably I have read some terrible stuff. My fear was, and still is, that I would join the ranks of terrible sci-if writers myself.

Which brings me to my short story. The call came in out of the blue. Get a 4k word story together in a week and it will be considered. I spent a frantic few days snatching a couple hours after working late. The first draft stank. The second was better, but doubts remained. I sent it off more in hope than expectation. Then it was accepted. I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face.

However my elation was short lived. Robyn explained that I needed to establish a social media profile, and my heart sank. I am not a digital native. When I grew up, the internet didn’t exist. I played Pong on the television and thought it was cool. I went up to University the same year that Yahoo was born. In my first job I was the only one in the office with a dedicated computer. I can remember the singsong connection sound of a 56k dial up modem. 

I love the Internet. I love its anarchy and its power to bring knowledge to everyone, rich or poor. But it sometimes feels scary too, and social media is the scariest part for a shy introvert like myself. The faceless exchanges lead too easily to anxiety on my part. But it goes with the new territory I have found myself in. I need to do my part in advertising the book.

So an author Facebook has been created, a twitter account, and finally this site. On Facebook, I now apparently have over 150 friends, garnered over the course of a week. In real life I don’t actually think I have ever associated with that many people. So who are these people, why do they want to connect to me? Some obviously come from within the ranks of the Lesbian Fiction community. The intent of others is less easy to discern, but I usually accept them, the point of social media is after all to be social. Twitter remains a mystery. I genuinely don’t think I ever usually do anything interesting enough to tweet about. I think a lot of retweeting will be done. As for this site, well I have never written a blog post before. Enough said.

So to conclude, this writing thing is turning out to be a bit surreal. Enjoyable but strange, and I can’t wait to see what sudden left turns come next.

Lesfic Eclectic – Coming Soon!

I am proud to announce that one of my stories will be featured in this exciting anthology alongside work from Robyn Nyx. It features stories from Robyn, Valden Bush, Lise Gold, Emma Nichols, Jeannie Levig, Claire Highton-Stevenson, Jenn Matthews, Jen Silver, Michelle Arnold, Gill McKnight, Brey Willows, E.V. Bancroft, Lee Haven and Carla David.

The anthology will be published in October and it will be free!