Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sunday Salon: Cloning Benefits

The month of October has been full of talks (by me in support of my own book) and launches of other people's, so I have had little time to pick up a physical book. Fortunately, however, I joined Audible several months ago and have hugely enjoyed listening to audio books. At the moment I have just a few chapters left of Murakami's Dance, Dance, Dance. I am eking it out because the deal is that I get one a month, and so my next fix is not going to be until mid November.

I do tend to listen to books when I am walking around or on a train, so today, since I am doing neither, I am reading a real book: The Ancient Guide to Modern Life by Natalie Haynes, but I can say little more about it since I was sent it by the publisher and see on the accompanying press release that it is embargoed until publication date which is the 4th November, so I guess I better keep quiet about it until then.

I have also got a couple of books lent to me by friends that I am dying to read: A History of the World in 10.5 Chapters by Julian Barnes (been meaning to read this book for years); and China Road by Rob Gifford. Then I have novels written by people I know: Sue Guiney's Clash of Innocents; Elizabeth Baines's Birth Machine and Gladys Mary Coles's Clay. I want to read them all, at once... and then, of course, there is my own writing that I want to do.

An editor told me recently that he needs to clone himself - and at the moment I feel like that too. I need a clone to do my reading, another to do my writing, another for the housework, another to do the socialising and visiting, another to do the talks, and then another to do the exercise to keep the rest of the clones fit. Then, once in a while, the clones could get together in a special decloning device and all the benefits shared. There would be a really vibrant, toned and balanced individual - ready to be cloned all over again.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Medicinal Inspiration

Writing, for me, does not come out of thin air, it comes from reading other people's work. I like to carry on reading even when I am writing. I never have trouble with someone else's voice contaminating my own; in fact I welcome it. At the moment I am injecting myself with more Murakami. I have Dance, Dance, Dance on my ipod and wherever I go it feels as if connected to my earphones are two fine hollow needles that painlessly insert the Murakami magic straight into my brain. I find it difficult to say why I like it so much; I just do. And I can't get enough of it.

So, over the last couple of days, Murakami has been accompanying me on my travels. Yesterday he spoke to me as I made the two and a half mile walk into town to meet a writer friend, and then I listened again as I took the train to Elizabeth Baines's book launch of The Birth Machine in Manchester.

Salt has reissued Elizabeth's book that was originally published in 1982, but published in the format that Elizabeth originally intended. Elizabeth outlined how she has changed it back, and it sounds very interesting. It is about a woman having her birth induced by a machine, I believe, and the process initiates memories and stories.

Then today I made another journey into town with Murakami. This time to hear Professor Alan Wall give a talk about medicine and literature. He chose examples ranging from Shakespeare to Dannie Absie and ended reading some examples from his recently published book Dr Placebo.

Dr Placebo is a wonderfully witty book; a series of poems written about the life of a Dr Placebo who diagnoses illnesses such as 'a pathogenic metaphor...'
'...'Which has taken over your life.
'It's all you'll ever see now
'Even with the curtains drawn and your eyes closed.'

and I have to report that 'One of the Doctor's Favourites' is also one of mine, dealing as it does, with lenses, and the weird fact that:
'Staring into the glass he saw
The Milky Way (unspeakably vast)
Through another lens he saw a flea
Its armadillo armour articulating
Movements through a microcosmic world.'

Wonderful stuff, ending with a consideration of the last lens that Spinoza ever ground (he sees God)
'With only the mildest hint
Of chromatic diffraction.'

As with all the best talks it made me think, in particular how medicine is so often a great source of literature, which brings me back to Elizabeth's book, and also the visit to the optician's I had to make soon afterwards (having idiotically left my glasses behind in Waterstones the previous evening).

As well as all the usual tests (spotting a bright light in various positions while looking straight ahead, reading out letters from a chart and having puffs of air blown at my eye ball) my optician took a photo of my retinas. They were like two suns, the surface tabby-striped and the blind spot exhibiting the crescent of the short-sighted. It is a good idea to keep these on record to detect changes, I was told, and thought of John Dolland who founded this particular business, and what he would make of it now. The son of a Huguenot silk weaver from Spitalfields in London he 'inherited' his interest in optical instruments from his eldest son, and went on to find a way of making a lens which reduces the colour defects (or chromatic aberration) formerly observed through a telescope. Something, no doubt, Spinoza (and Dr Placebo) would appreciate.

Then, as I talked to the optician, I learnt something else: next week Dolland and Aitchison is to be merged with Boots and will trade as Boots Opticians. I hope they keep the name - it has such a great history.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Proposing a Motion in the Chester Debating Society

Tonight I proposed the following motion in the Chester Debating Society (founded 1902):

'The book is mightier than the film, the play or the website.'

'I wish to propose the motion the book is mightier than the film, the play or the website.

The last time we went to see a play my husband sat next to a blind man who, as soon the lights dropped, slouched against my husband's shoulder. A few seconds later he was fast asleep. While my husband was concentrating on his accidental supporting role, I was trying my best not to accost the man sitting to my left. He had clearly come to the theatre simply in order to eat. As soon as he sat down he brought out a big plastic bag full of sweets and crisps, each one apparently wrapped in the most brittle cellophane available. Even before the curtains rose he'd started: clearly these sweets were difficult to access. A long period of unwrapping was followed by noisy mastication, accompanied by the aroma of caramel, mint, chocolate, and once, banana. I wanted him to stop. But I am British, so I didn't say anything. Instead I gave him pained looks to indicate my irritation, but he was enjoying himself too much to take any notice. I began fantasising about his coming across a particularly sticky piece of toffee that would clamp his teeth firmly together until the end. While I squirmed in my seat so my husband sat, no more relaxed, in his: the blind man was now snoring, and dribbling onto my husband's shoulder. By the time the interval came we decided we'd had enough and left.

You could say we were not engaged. Although this is an extreme example it illustrates why live performances like these are inferior to the experience of reading a book. You are forced to sit next to irritating strangers. But this is not the whole problem. The medium of the stage and the film cannot convince like a book. It has to tell too much. It has scenery, props, a set. A film tries to be as realistic as possible. It depicts rather than evokes, and can leave little to the imagination.

Reading, in contrast, requires effort, and this is the reason that reading is thought to stave off dementia. The brain is kept lithe through exercise; a diet of film-watching, in contrast, cause brain-flabbiness. By the time I am through a few pages of a book I have invested so much effort that I now have a vested interest in making the rest of the book work. I have suspended disbelief and been drawn in, as the saying goes. I have entered a private world and I feel privileged. Later, when I have finished, I can compare the experience to others that have read it and feel part of a club. So when I read I am not troubled by distractions. I can sit in the nosiest carriage of a train and still be engrossed. I can be taken to other planets, other times, other dimensions. I can enter the main character's head in a way I cannot in a film or the theatre. Because I am so involved I am happy to be fed information and learn a lot about other countries, other ideas and other lifestyles. A book can be just as much a window to another real world as it is to a fantastic one.

A film or play has to tell its story more quickly. An audiobook lasts around fifteen hours at least; a film or play just three. There is more opportunity for detail, explanation and expansion in a book, which is impossible in film or in a play. A play or film has to be faster paced than a novel, but a novel can be more leisured; it can afford to take its time and play around with ideas, language and character, voice, metaphor and simile - all of which increase the depth of the experience. For all these reasons people are often disappointed with the film of the book; they have developed their own response to the characters. It is a unique thing - different in each reader.

Last week I was on a train reading a book. I was, of course, not disturbing anyone. However, I soon became aware of an irritating tinny sound of canned laughter and discovered the person next to me was watching a film on a small piece of plastic. She had not bothered with earphones since that would no doubt detract from her experience, and interfere with inalienable right to be entertained exactly as she wished. The rest of us would just have to put up with it or complain. As we were all British we of course contented ourselves with contemptuous looks and tutting, and waited for the guard to say something, but he disappointed us all and didn't. Disconsolately I turned back to my book and cheered myself with thoughts about its superiority. Maybe soon her battery would give out; but my book would still be going strong. That is another benefit of a book: unlike a website or a film it requires no power or special equipment or anything else. With brail it can have universal appeal. It is self-contained and easily stored. It can be read in private, even in secret, and is small enough, quite often to be secreted anywhere. Unlike watching a play or a film, even with earphones, it disturbs no one.

A book is also flexible. When I put it aside on the train for a cup of coffee it was easy to pick up again and follow the thread. This can be repeated as often as the reader desires. I have found that I can put a book away for quite a few days or months and still pick up the thread by flicking through a few pages that I've read to remind myself of the gist. This is more difficult with the website and the film - and impossible for a play. Furthermore I have discovered that even when I put a book aside it can keep living with me. I find myself thinking about the characters and the setting and wondering what will happen next. By reading slowly and pausing frequently to put the book aside, I can make this pleasure last for days. I can also expand this process by looking things up and seeking further explanation. A hyperlink serves the same purpose of course but this can interrupt the flow and is in any case imposed. There are other things I can do too, which cannot so easily done with a film or a play. I can appreciate the language by reading and rereading. I can commit it to memory. I can refer to it later and tell others. I can underline for them to see exactly what I mean. I can even give them the book to keep as a gift. With a film or a play this is more difficult.

Furthermore a book is cheap, but can easily be made more valuable and exclusive. A second-hand book can range from something disposable to be read once and given away, to a collector's item. In either case it has value. Films, plays and websites are more expensive - and, generally, less sought-after and desirable. Some of my books are my most treasured items. At least a couple are heirlooms, passed through at least five generations with the names inscribed on the flyleaf. A book is a physical thing that can be shared at leisure. A name plate can be added and it can make an attractive and traditional gift. It has many forms : hardback, paperback, ribboned, end pages decorated, ends of the book marbled, leather bound, limited edition, acid-free paper, a rare and sought after cover - the possibilities are numerous. Not so the play or film. A novelty book, like a pop-up book, can be one of the most cherished items of childhood, the infant's dentition preserved in the cover. It can be put on display in a way that a play or a film cannot. This brings me to another point. Books can tell the world a little about you, an aspect of your personality, just as much as your choice of clothing, and in a much more finely-tuned way than a film or a play. Maybe you like romance, but not Mills and Boon romances, but sweeping epics; or maybe you like adventure books set in the Arctic and in the nineteenth century, written by Americans. Your book becomes like a badge of a very select sect. And once you have established your taste you can join others who have a similar taste and compare recommendations. You can find yourself part of a world-wide group of science-fiction lovers, and from that find companionship and conversation. There is conversation to be gleaned from watching films and plays too - but it is not as wide-ranging or intense. It also has less scope.

So a book can be a badge, an heirloom, a gift, and a way of passing the time; but most of all, for me, it is a way of entering another world: a world of greater depth and scope than any offered on the stage or film. It is complete immersion, and one from which even the nosiest sweet-wrapper cannot disturb me.'

I'd never done this sort of thing before, or even been to a debate, and although I won, Diana Morgan, who was opposing me, was so convincing and passionate that if I had been able to vote I think I would have voted for her. The people on the floor made some excellent points too.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Monday...and another event

Another day, another talk - this time in Chester at lunch-time. There was a good audience, including several people I didn't know, and much appreciated seeing them, together with my friends who kindly came to give me some moral support.

Yesterday's discussion on 'place' in Manchester Literature Festival went very well too thanks to the expert chairmanship of Nicholas Royle. Jenn Ashworth's work was a good contrast to mine (set in places in the northwest of England), and I'm looking forward to reading her new book Cold Light when it comes out next year. Her reading, about a teenager forced to act as look-out, sounded excellent.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Saturday Readings.

It is the Chester Literature Festival at the moment and as part of this two groups that I used to belong to performed in the Wesley Methodist Church as part of a day of community activities.

The first was Words and Biscuits featuring Irene, Jan, Anthea, Jane, Dilys and Elizabeth. As usual this was an excellent selection of prose (humorous from Irene, prize-winning from Jan, a rather wonderful piece about a childish visitor from Anthea, Jane read out some of her evocative poems about the view from her window, Dilys told us some fascinating childhood reminiscences, while Elizabeth read out her highly entertaining poetry about thanking people.

After a story-telling session it was the turn of Chester Writers, which I introduced. I'd spent some time assembling the programme so it alternated prose and poetry, and I'm pleased to say the readings went very well indeed.

Tomorrow I have the Manchester Literature Festival - discussing the use of 'place' in fiction with authors Nicholas Royle and Jenn Ashworth, so I have to find a suitable reading from my book. This may take some time.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Visiting Denbigh Library

Denbigh is a medieval town, high on a hill

with its own stock

and cross where people used to stand to be hired, and butchers sharpened their knives.

The library, where I gave my talk to the Denbigh Reading Group (a large one, of over 20 people) yesterday, was once the town hall.

I was a little early so I walked on: up another steep hill

to the medieval town wall

with views of a bright sky and Clwydian hills.

Then up again, past the Earl of Leicester's thwarted ambitions for a sixteenth century cathedral

to the castle.

I've been to Denbigh library to give talks before and there is always a warm welcome with cakes, and everyone clutching a copy of my book - because Denbighshire Libraries have bought a reading group set. So thank you Denbighshire Libraries!

How to get a copy of my book worldwide

A couple of people in the US have told me they have had trouble getting hold of my book from

I've no idea why that is, but as far as I can see bookseller called the Book Depository is selling my book at a competitive price and offers to deliver free world wide. Their page for A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees is here. I've used The Book Depository several times in the past, and think their service is excellent.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

An evening in Holyhead

There is a point along the A55 heading west that I love. It is during the descent of a steep mountain that I have barely noticed climbing. The view suddenly opens up and there is Wales; the start of the Snowdonian Mountain range and the promise of Anglesey. When I was 17 I went to Anglesey on a field trip. We had a wild time with a set of teachers almost as young as we were and even more uninhibited. What we did then - fooling around with the minibus on a beach with the back doors open, stripping the sheets off the beds and marching around in the black of night pretending to be druids, and one our number giving such a convincing rendition of a sacrificial scream on a set of standing stones - that one of the people in charge of us was, reportedly, marched into the headmaster's office on our return and given a warning. Our school was liberal and progressive - but not that liberal and progressive.

Anyway, on this field trip we did work as well as lark about, and one of the things I remember most vividly was pausing while collecting specimens on Aberffraw beach, looking up and noticing that I was probably in the most beautiful place in the world. In front of me was a magnificent sandy beach, then a small strip of sea, but beyond that Snowdonia. I have been around the world a bit since, and never seen anything I like better. So I am always glad to return to Anglesey, even though I have rarely returned to Aberffraw beach.

Last night I made the 200 mile round trip to Holyhead. Looking on a map I realised that I had travelled half the way to Ireland, Holyhead being on one of the most westerly points of Wales, and the site of the ferry terminal. I'd not been to Holyhead before. Like most places in Wales it turned out to have grey, austere buildings, particularly rich in dour non-conformist chapels with names like Bethel and Yr Tabernacl.

The place I was going to, the Canolfan Ucheldre, also had the greyness of the local stone, but also had the grandiosity of a more ancient religion.

There was a statue outside of a pole vaulter indicating its change of use to an arts centre, and I discovered that it had been the church of a Roman Catholic convent, and the people going to it had had to cover the windows of their carriages to hide the fact they were papists in this land of enthusiastic non-conformists.

I liked this statue very much.

It seemed to move as I walked round it.

Inside I met Mike Gould (and another depiction of a leaping man - a coincidence, Mike said). Mike had come to Anglesey first as a young man in the RAF, and having met his future wife there decided to stay. Later they opened this very attractive and welcoming arts centre.

But when Mike was first stationed here, Anglesey was like another country: the roads were unmetalled, and everyone spoke Welsh. Even the weather and light is different in Anglesey. The skies tend to be clearer, and as the entire countryside is raised, as if on a rocky platform, there is a great expanse of sky, especially on the western side. Holyhead itself is actually on its own island, Holy Island, which is off the main island, and on the way back I drove along a causeway joining the two - a long stretch of road skimming the sea.

I enjoyed giving my talk. The audience was enthusiastic about Patagonia, and some of them had already read Susan Wilkinson's excellent book on the Mimosa, so they were ready to hear more. I spoke behind a huge screen, and even the music on my computer was amplified. It was definitely the most technologically sophisticated and successful talk I've ever given - all this in what felt like the British Isles' furthest outposts, and one of most favourite places on the planet.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Reprint!

I heard a month or two ago that my book was to be reprinted, and this weekend my publisher, Seren, kindly sent me a couple of copies. I'm pleased to say it looks pretty much the same as the original, except for a couple of quotes - one on the front

and one on the back

and I am delighted with it, of course!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Sunday Salon: They Shoot Horses, Don't They? by Horace McCoy

Two classic books arrived yesterday from Serpent's Tail: The Piano Teacher and They Shoot Horses Don't They?

I picked up They Shoot Horses Don't They? this morning and just finished it. The book was first published in 1935 during the depression, and so it makes particularly interesting reading now. People are poor, and Gloria and the narrator of the book see their salvation in films (i.e. celebrity) just as many people do today. Their version of the X Factor is the dance marathon. For the dancers time comes in two hour slots, the last ten minutes of which are spent resting. They have to learn to sleep while dancing, and eat while having their legs massaged.

The reader learns at the beginning that the narrator has ended up being found guilty of murdering Gloria, and this fact, and the desire to find out how and why this happened, drives the reader forward. From the beginning, then, their dance has a desperation and tragedy. It is a tango for the exhausted, an dirge-like endurance test in which the dance-organisers are always thinking up a new twist to torment hapless participants. There is a 'Derby' and a run; and then a cynical wedding. Their entire world becomes the dance-hall on the pier, and the most powerful part for me was the narrator's accumulating sense of imprisonment. He begins to yearn for the sun and appreciates the small glimpses of the outside with an increasing yearning. It reminded me of the claustrophobic sense I get from reading good SF novels; the need to be in an alien world in order to be able to adequately comment about the real world we share.

It's a mesmerising tale; one that becomes more mesmerising as I read and I can quite see why Sidney Pollack felt moved enough to convert it into a film.

I have already seen the Piano Teacher as a film and remember it as moody and startling; just flicking through the pages I think the book looks at least as good as the film so looking forward to reading this one too.

Apart from that I have been continuing to read Cousin Bette on my Kindle - and very much entertained by the way Balzac imposes his views on the world as narrator. He comes from an age in which it is perfectly okay to generalise about race in both disparaging and enthusiastic terms, which I find amusing. He also has a lot to say about the art world and the idea that some (second-rate) artistes seem to consider it to be far more important to have the trappings and lifestyle rather than the true artiste who is driven quietly to create, and considers the socialising and the celebrity to be an irritating distraction. I suspect Balzac would not be on twitter or facebook, and would probably view blogging as something to be avoided at all costs.

Meanwhile, on my ipod, I have been listening to the audiobook Trespass by Rose Tremaine narrated by Juliet Stephenson. This is a splendid production from both the writer and the narrator and I am enjoying every word. Silkworms have more than a walk-on role so this makes me especially happy.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Book Spoils from Athens

I have to report that our visit to Athens was magnificent. Even Hodmandod Senior loved it and he doesn't usually travel well. I shall no doubt go into more detail later, but for now I shall just exhibit my spoils: a tour guide (the same one as I have on my Kindle)

a book on Delphi

another on Kerameikos

a book on the monuments of ancient Greece

which overlay what the buildings used to be like

on top of what can be seen today

and then, when I came home, this (rather weirdly) was waiting for me - which tells about practices in the ancient world and explores the contemporary parallels.

I couldn't wait to start reading, but I am not allowed to say any more until after the publication date on November 4th.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Sunday Salon: Hellenic Dreams

We are shortly off to Athens for both a holiday and research for the novel I am writing at the moment (oh, I do so love my 'work'). It always amazes me how time-consuming it is to organise anything like this even if there is not much to apparently 'organise'. Today I have established that there is a museum about the area I am interested in (the ancient cemetery at Kerameikos), the baggage limits for two different European airlines, that it is possible to check-in on-line, and booked a taxi to the airport. I have also discovered that Athens does have its own wine (not quite sure why I needed to know that) and have started reading one of the pile of books I got from the library a week or so ago.

The one I have elected to start is 'The History of Ancient Greece' by Nathaniel Harris mainly because it seems quite short and has lots of pictures.

It starts with the Minoan civilisation on Crete and then goes on to one of the places we're visiting: Mycenae which guarded the southern end of the Greek peninsular; Epidaurus, on the east coast, where there is a spectacular ampitheatre; and Delphi, slightly further north, where some crazed woman chosen from the surrounding countryside was elected 'sybil', made to inhale the gas ethene from a fissure in the rock, and her resulting ramblings reinterpreted as prophecy by priests. I quite fancy having a go at this myself. I think I should be a natural.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Colours in Cambodia and Tahiti.

I went to London again yesterday (second time this week!) to Sue Guiney's book launch. It was a very successful event in the posh 'Asia House' which was in embassy territory. There were masses of people there, and it was great to see Sue's launch (which was also the launch of a new imprint Ward Wood Publishing. As well as listen to Sue's excellent readings it was a pleasure to meet other writers: some of whoms I had met before, for example Sarah Salway and Elizabeth Baines, and some of whom I had only before 'met' on-line: Tania Hershman and of course Sue Guiney herself.

Sue's launch was combined with an exhibition of photographs (which had quite stunning colours) taken by students in Anjali House which takes in street children from Cambodia.

This ties in very well with A Clash of Innocents which is about an American, Deborah, who runs an orphanage in the country.

Now Cambodia, like Korea, is somewhere I know nothing about, but judging from the photographs is a place of wide light skies and tranquil people, so I can understand Sue Guiney's imperative write about the place. Anyway, I love learning about new countries - and great to explore from the comfort of my armchair so I'm looking forward to reading it.

I explored more out of the way places in the Gauguin exhibition which had just opened in the Tate Modern in London. The pictures were thematically displayed, but this worked well because there were some excellent explanations on the wall. All I knew about Gaugin's life was from reading Somerset Maughan's The Moon and Sixpence, a long time ago.

I hadn't realised how innovative Gauguin had been. I had have long had a collection of Gauguin postcards. They seemed strange things, pictures of Breton people in costume looking at two men fighting, one of them with wings. Another showed a cross with a yellow Christ, another showed a Tahiti girl with something that looked half back fox- half human looking over her. This exhibition helped me to understand them. Gauguin was evoking dreams and prayers. He seemed to start this exploration with his children, painting what they might be dreaming, before developing the idea to portray spirituality - both Christian and Heathen.

It also helped me to appreciate Gauguin's use of colours - in both the tropics, which I knew about, but also in more temperate lands like France. There was more explanation about these in an excellent short film outside the gallery which described what Gauguin was trying to do in his own words. I learnt he was poor and lived in obscurity, but that he believed in himself and his art. He went to Tahiti to escape and to commit himself to his art, leaving behind his wife and children, and taking a young Tahiti girl in their place. She had a baby which died soon after birth, and this is painted too. His hedonistic lifestyle did not, unsurprisingly, meet with approval from the priests on the island, and he exhibited his contempt for their religion by carving an entrance to his house proclaiming it to be the house of orgasm, and guests were admitted through this into his bedroom before encountering the rest of his house.

I now feel I have greater understanding and respect for Gauguin, and feel even greater admiration of his art. It is definitely one of the better art exhibitions I have been to for some time.

Also, as part of the deal, was entry to see an exhibition called 'Exposed' which dealt with the art of the Paparazi...and all those sly pictures people take when the subject is unaware. I rather like pictures like these because I think they capture life as it is being lived - a more candid record. Although if I were a famous person I might well feel differently!