Sunday, 13 April 2014

Well, Easter is nearly here.

I know, that's stating the obvious. You can't move in the shops for eggs and chocolate rabbits and hot cross buns. The children are home from school - and fill the streets with scooters and bikes and laughter. The town's noticeboards are full of invitations to Easter fĂȘtes and bonnet-making and suchlike.

Easter means different things to different people. For some it is much more than a holiday - it has spiritual significance that goes far beyond the razzmatazz of parades and bonnets. Like Christmas, your celebrations seem to be drowned in all the glitz. I hope you find the peace you need for your reflections.

For me - it's a holiday. Time to doss about, play, sit in the garden, maybe drink a little wine. Friends and family will call. If the sun shines I might walk a little. If it's cold and wet, I've a woodburner and books. And so I'm taking a short blog-break - just a week or two. Battery-recharging time.

But when I come back - I might have News. After all, I've not been idle since I got home from Cuba. And that manuscript is beginning to fester ...

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Today I shall buy books!!

Today I shall buy books.

Not such as a surprise, surely?

But our lovely independent bookshop has been closed for three weeks. The owner retired, though he hung on for long enough to make sure it was taken over by someone who would keep it as a bookshop. So it closed, and there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth, and bitten nails as we wait for the-look shop. A skip appeared outside, and four men and one woman lugged stuff out and threw it away. Then lorries arrived, and four men and one woman lugged more stuff in.

Everyday people would peer through the doorway - watching the far end of the shop was opened up; as ceiling and walls were painted; as shelves filled, as if by magic, with books.

And today a woman who works there waved me in, so I could have a quick look. Oh how wonderful it is. Lighter, brighter, and extended to give more shelf-space. Still a place for children to sit on the floor and read. And that lovely smell of new paper.

What's more, it's still independent. No profits disappearing into corporate coffers. A local independent bookshop to respond to local reading needs. They'll still do good deals for local book groups (they give a 10% discount off our book group books); they'll still find anything, order anything; and get to know their customers by name.

So - what am I doing today? I'm off to the White Horse Bookshop, in Marlborough High Street.

I might be a little while.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

The spring is sprung, the grass is riz ...

The spring is sprung
The grass is riz
I wonder where
The birdies is?

(Attributed to Ogden Nash, to Spike Milligan, and to Anon!)

My mother used to recite this every year - it was a sort of annual ridiculousness. And irrelevant, really, as we had plenty of sparrows and starlings in our garden nibbling on the goodies she put out for them. (Those that weren't eaten by my brother, that is - who often refused his breakfast only to be found eating bread put out for the birds. A long-ago story.)

I, too, have a bird feeder. And I live near a forest, so my garden should be full of them. In the past, as well as the usual blackbirds, robins and tits, I've had nuthatches and woodpeckers. Plus some I don't recognise. It's one of life's pleasures, standing by my back door and watching birds squabble.

So where are they all? My garden, this April, is unnaturally quiet. The nuts grow soggy for lack of attention. The seeds fall to the ground and wait for passing pigeons.

I blame the mayhem out there over the winter - the fallen tree and decimated shrubs. It was a mess. It's cleared now but still looks a bit surprised. Maybe the birds haven't forgiven me for allowing their hiding places to disintegrate like that.

But yesterday I learned of another reason. For everyone around me is complaining that the birds have abandoned them - so it's not just me. It seems the birds are all staying in the forest. Which, when you think about it, is where they should be - and where, after our mild winter, there is plenty of food. Insects already out and about. Berries unscarred by late frosts.

They've no need to venture into gardens where there is a risk of cats, or in full view of the red kites and sparrowhawks. Far better to hide in the forest than take a risk like that.

I get that - I miss them, of course, and there's a corner of me that still feels a twinge of abandonment. My bird food isn't good enough, that sort of thing.

But the birds are doing what they need to do. They'll feed their babies in greater safety.

Last week the woman who runs my Life Writing group left to take a sabbatical. She, too, is doing what she needs to do. I wish her well, too.

Sometimes, however much we may prepare a feast, birds (and people) need to eat at a different table.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Distracted by Sarahan dust.

Yesterday I drafted a reflective post about writers and book groups - but today I've been distracted by the Sarahan dust. (There's a sentence you won't see repeated too often!)

For those of you living far away English towns and villages, I'll tell you what's happening. Apparently it's natural for dust from the Sahara to be blown high into the atmosphere and fall almost anywhere in the world. It replenishes minerals in the Atlantic Ocean, and even performs some vital function that I don't understand in the Amazon rainforest. (A salutary reminder of the interconnectedness of our weather systems, and how vital it is that we think in global terms, meteorologically.)

Well, the wind is now blowing northerly, bringing with it not only dust from the desert but also pollution particles from the continent (those pesky French who insist on driving their cars, I presume), and making the air quality in the south of England - well, unpleasant. I can taste it. If I try to hurry I wheeze more than I ought. Those with lung or heart conditions are instructed to stay indoors; the pollution is serious enough to cause breathing problems.

I'm not bothered about dust on the cars, or on the windows. But my concern today is for people who are not simply uncomfortable, but whose lives are affected by it, such as:

Postmen with asthma - who may struggle to breathe but still lug bags of letters to our doors.

Farmers, busy lambing. Lambing sheds tend to be dusty anyway, with all that straw - today it must be thick with it.

Anyone in construction, who has to cope with brick dust as well and anything blown in from the south.

Teachers, and those on playground duty - who must stand and keep children safe while they play.

Gardeners, tree surgeons, groundsmen at cricket venues getting ready for the summer.

Mothers who have children with asthma. How do you persuade a six-year old that he or she cannot run around because there is dust from the Saraha in the air and it might make them ill? (One mother in particular, with three small boys - one of whom has asthma and might need sitting on to keep him still.)

Anyone I'm not sorry for:

Bankers. Who might get a little light dust on their city suits. It would be great if they could realise that dust falls on all of us. But I don't suppose they will.

Politicians; ditto.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

I went to the Oxford Literature Festival, and here's what I learned ...

It was a lovely day. The sun shone on the daffodils; the scent of hyacinths hung in the breeze; the streets were full of people clutching books.

I need to add that nearly all those people were white - so, in spite of the wonderful multicultural soupness of our society it's not a cross section that makes it to literature festivals. Since I;m certain that a love of books is spread across cultures, I believe this is something that needs thinking about ... I've done far more thinking than those few dots would suggest ... I don't have solutions, but do think it needs addressing.

I was in Oxford for just one day (not long enough - going to Oxford always feels like going home. It's not my student days I ache for, but the vibrancy of the city). I went to three events - which gave me thinking time - thinking is often as much fun as the events themselves.

First - a debate on the whys and wherefores of genre fiction, and whether that is distinct from literary fiction. The speakers were all writers of different genres, each determined to champion her (they were all women) own interests. They were erudite, played with ideas and metaphors, and more or less agreed that 'genre' isn't a useful concept; that whether a book is 'good' or 'bad' (not defined) is the point, not the genre it's slotted into. I suspect that agents and publishers would have argued the alternative with much more vigour than these respectable women.

Then - I went to see a short story writer I'd not heard of. How else am I to discover new thinking unless I take risks and go to see people I don't know? But not many others had the same idea - there were just six of us in the audience, and one was a friend and the other a cousin who hadn't seen the writer for thirty years. I suspect there was a long family story behind that and would have loved the two of them to take centre stage and tease that out. Instead the young interviewer took the opportunity to pick the brains of an established writer. But maybe that didn't matter, with so few people there. I admired the writer for ploughing on regardless and not suggesting we all adjourn to the cafe and chat over tea and cake.

Finally, I saw the Orhan Pamuk interview - at the Sheldonian theatre. There were hundreds to hear him, which isn't surprising. And he was fascinating - though this, too, wasn't without its challenges. I was sitting up in the gods, with my coat to soften the wooden benches but nothing to keep the temperature down. The sound system muffled his speech a bit by the time words reach the rafters; and though Pamuk speaks fluent English I had to listen very carefully to decipher his accent. That said, he was full of ideas and inspiration and enthusiasm. If I have any 'criticism' (too strong a word, really, for who dares to criticise a Nobel prizewinner) - I wish he had developed fewer ideas in more depth. So I'd have liked him to stick to identity, or politics, or Turkey, or religion - it's clear that he has profound and well-thought-out views on all of them, and I'd have liked to hear more about one rather than skimming over them all. But that's trivial - it was a great interview.

Phew. I was knackered after that. So I retreated to a restaurant for a meal before I went home (great food, shame about the noise. If anyone knows a quiet restaurant with good food on a Saturday night, in Oxford, do let me know.)

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Literature Festivals time again.

Yes, spring is springing, and the festival season has begun. I'm off to Oxford on Saturday, to hang about in colleges and listen to wonderful writers talk about wonderful books. And I'll probably buy more than I intend - but what the hell, that's what literature festivals are for, isn't it?

Wait a minute. That's not what the organisers tell us they're for. They want booky people and booky writers to mingle, enjoy time together, celebrate being generally bookish. There are even parties and dinners to celebrate their bookishness.

Wait a minute. That's not what the marketing people tell us they're for. It's all very well for writers to be charming, to mingle with the hoi polloi, to blush and be graciously grateful for all the accolades heaped on them. Accolades - pah! The marketing men want sales. How else can they measure success?

Wait a minute. Those, like me, who pour over programmes and wrestle with decisions over who to see, who not to see, can I really afford to go to all these events - what do we want? Here I can only speak for myself. I want to learn, but I also want to be entertained. I've invested, not in a hard sell, but in an hour in which to get to know the writer and his or her work better. Of all the people I've seen at festivals, two stand out: AL Kennedy and Anne Enright. I bought books I'd not planned on buying, not because they spent an hour telling me how wonderful their books were, but because they came across as real people who were as interested in the audience as we were in them. And I figured that if they could do that, then they'd write great characters that would also interest me.

And the writers - what do they want? Sales, of course. Seeing someone walk down the street with My Book tucked under an arm is enough to send me reaching for the champagne. (Well, the prosecco, if you want to be picky). And maybe time away from the computer, time to mingle with people and talk about words rather than fight with them (the words, not the people). But it's more complicated than that. Literature festivals are not really time off, for the writer cannot arrive in his or her slippers. There are protocols, a dress code, trappings of respectability to be observed if anyone is to take you seriously. All of which is enough to send some writers hiding under the duvet. Who can blame them, with so many different expectations sitting on their shoulders.

And you - what takes you to literature festivals? And how can you tell if it's met your expectations?

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Yet again, I'm here and there.

I have a regular blog spot with Authors Electric on the 24th of each month - and I suppose it's no surprise that, when it fell on a Monday in February, we should be in the same position in March.

So, if you are interested in my thinking about the ethics of writing about people you meet when travelling, then you can find me here.

On the other hand, if that all feels a bit heavy ... then I'm sorry, because I've another serious link for you. A week or so ago I blogged about poverty tourism. Jenny Woolf (some of you may know her - she's a wonderful English Travel Writer) signposted a website devoted to promoting ethical tourism, including a petition to put an end to tourists traipsing around orphanages. I'll not tell you more - for you can head across there and find out for yourself. Welcome to Tourism Concern.

Or if it's one of those days when you really can't think beyond looking at pictures, I've put a few more photographs from Cuba on my website here.

I think that's enough for a Monday morning.