Sunday, 22 July 2012

The best laid plans

There I was, wondering where to go next - well I've a rough idea, actually, as I've only been to Africa once and that was with a tour group, so I was beginning to play with plans to go on my own. To mull over which country to visit, taking on board general thoughts about safety and ease of travel etc. (For anyone wandering the same path, the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree forum is wonderful.)
   And then, as I woke one morning with the screech of exotic birds and roar of lions in my dreams - I turned over - and knackered my knee. (Knackered, you will appreciate, is a generic medical term for doing something extremely painful but you don't know what.) It is, now, funny - but last week I struggled with the 'How did you damage your knee?' questions, kindly though they were. It took time before I could stand apart from myself and watch me coming downstairs on my bottom, walking into town clinging to the railings, and almost giving up when faced with the step onto the bus - and see that this might be a bit comic.
    But time passed, I grumbled, took painkillers, the pain eased after a few days and I look back at that discomfort in disbelief that it was quite that painful. In fact recovery was so swift that, within four days, I danced the night away at a wedding - and wasn't even stiff the next morning.
    Which should be the end of it? Except that I know I have arthritis in my knees - I had arthroscopies on both knees about ten years ago (it's like a D and C of the knees) and have been warned that the day will come when I'll need more surgery.
   But I want to go to Africa. Last week, I could not have carried a rucksack. I could not have walked the corridors to the boarding gate at the airport. I could not have curled into a seat on a plane for a long flight and ever uncurled again. This week, I can sing, dance, and generally prance about like a puppy.
   So - what to do? If I go to the doctor, get into the system - the referral to specialists and the whole waiting-game - it means the whole knee-thing will take over for a while and travelling go on the back burner until it's sorted. Which could take months. Doesn't sound too inviting to me. The alternative - live for today. Go anyway, and hope I don't turn over in bed and have spend a few days days hobbling somewhere hot.
   It's a close call - what would you do?

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Digging Holes

Many years ago (it feels like another lifetime now), when I was a Probation Officer, I worked with a lad (I'll call him Tom) who had just come out of a juvenile correctional facility (posh name, dreadful place) and asked what he did all day.
   'Diggin' holes,' Tom said. 'They called it gardening, but it was diggin' holes.'
   His pulling himself together had nothing to do with hole-digging and everything to do with an imaginative youth officer who set him to help younger kids at risk of going wrong. Last heard of, he had a wife and family and he'd never seen the inside of a prison.
   Two weeks ago - I noticed a water leak in the road near my house. (There is a connection - bear with me!). A water-person came a drew blue arrows on the road, pointing to the leak. I can only assume that the leak-mending people needed help to identify water bubbling up in the middle of the road. But they came anyway, and dug a big hole - which filled up with water and spilled all over everywhere generally adding to the mud and debris scattered all over the road. Then they filled the hole in again - and even more water spilled through its cracks and crevices and the only thing we had to be grateful for was it not being icy.
   Today - they have returned, and are digging the hole up again. Will they mend the leak this time? Or will they peer into their hole and scratch their stubble (yes, they are all men - no women with beards) and agree, yes, there is a leak? Who knows?
   But it seems, from my ignorant standpoint, that this hole-digging is as pointless as Tom's 'gardening'.

Which only goes to show how little I know - because Tom worked things out in the end, my water leak will be mended eventually, and maybe they know something I don't know. Is there is treasure to be found at the bottom of their holes? There might be an intrinsic joy in hole-digging that has simply passed me by. It might be a secret, magical process, the gateway to Nirvana?
   Maybe it doesn't matter. Some processes make more sense than others. Does everything has to have a reason? Is there no space for digging holes just for the joy of it? I am sure there are many who regard the pleasure I take from cricket in the same light!

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Murder in Saigon.

A few people have asked me why I ended Over the Hill and Far Away where I did. Without giving the game away, I can see that there might be some curiosity about what happened next.

Well, I wandered on around Cambodia and Vietnam - and here is a street scene from Vietnam to tempt you:

Saigon, of course, was much busier than this.

Here is a little tale about Saigon that I wrote when I came back, and was published last year in Domestic Cherry.


I stayed with friends in Saigon, and, on my last night, asked if I could treat them to dinner. We’ll show you how things are done here, Lydie agreed. And so they took me to a rooftop restaurant in the middle of the city.
We climbed the red-carpeted stairs, passed an elegant restaurant on the first floor, and emerged onto a flat roof with steam and rich smells from the kitchen to our right, and a space to our left that was packed with tables and people and food. Chatter, echoing from a corrugated iron roof, was deafening. Waiters in red jackets somehow managed to weave between the tables, yell instructions at each other, move chairs and people to fit in yet more diners, produce sparklers for a birthday party and stop to join in the singing of 'Happy Birthday to you.' We squeezed ourselves by the wall next to the doorway, and eventually attracted attention.
We were finally given a corner table, where it was almost quiet enough to hear each other above the general cacophony. It was a round table, with a calor gas bottle below and jets with a metal plate above: we were, we realised, going to cook our own food. No problem. The prawns are good, Lydie suggested.
Prawns, grey and unremarkable, still smelling of the sea, duly arrived. Onto the hotplate they went. And then came the 'oh sh*t' moment: their little antennae waved at us; their little legs scrambled as if trying to find a footing. They were still alive.
Now I don’t eat meat; and I pride myself on general kindness to living things.  But, given that these sizzling prawns already had a thin wooden skewer up their bums their life expectancy was obviously limited, and so grabbing them from the heat and racing through the chaotic streets of the city to throw them back in the river seemed a little futile. All we could do was push them to the centre of the hotplate and watch as they were cremated. Painfully.
And yes - they tasted wonderful: the flesh pink and sweet, with a brisk hint of chili from the oil.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Higgs Boson, and other strange names.

A week or so ago, scientists discovered the Higgs Boson. I don't have a picture of it - don't even know what it looks like. I think it's something like this: . only much, much smaller.

No, I don't have the faintest idea what it is. Brian Cox has tried to describe it, but even his smile and reassuring excitement is not enough. I know only that it's important in some way, and future generations will celebrate its discovery. (Professor Jim Al-Khalili does his best to explain it here.)

But I can't get past the name. Higgs Boson sounds, to me, like a character from Dickens. He belongs between leather covers with gold writing on the front. He is a faded sailor, with drinker's nose and a slight stagger when he walks on land. He is a kindly but ineffectual man, who offers sanctuary for a young hero without asking his harridan of a wife - Brunhilde Boson, who has a thick ankles and throws stones at cats.

And now someone tells me it is some sort of particle! What's more it is a tiny particle - and so surely it should have a tiny name. Atoms - they are small, and atom is a small word. So we need an even smaller word than atom - a word like 'miu' or even a 'tom' (since it's part of an atom).

Do names matter? Of course they do - can you see Oliver Twist renames Kevin Ogilvy? Jane Eyre as Esmerelda Pinkington-Smythe? Mr Darcy as Jason Brown?

So, do you think the scientists should rename the Higgs Boson - not to make it comprehensible, but simply to illustrate that it is a very small thing? And, if so, what should it be called?

And what is the name of the waif that ex-Captain Boson takes in, in spite of his Dickensian wife?

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Words v pictures.

Last week I posted a blog entitled 'Do blogs need pictures?' (You can read it here, if you weren't around last week.)

And it caused a little stir. (Only a little one, nothing to frighten the horses.) Comments - on the blog and on facebook - ranged from 'Pictures are wonderful, and essential to break up pages of text' to 'Words are the point of blogs; too many pictures can get in the way.'

So - what is the blogger to do, if she wishes to keep her readers happy and enjoy the whole blogging thing? Alternate? Jump down on one side or the other and hope enough followers will hang in there?

Surely it's about the nature of each post, what you are hoping to achieve, and how you want to communicate. I wonder how many of you found this post on Trish Nicholson's blog. Here are photographs with no words - and I didn't miss them. The images are simply beautiful, all on their own.

Then there are the posts (like most of mine) with no pictures at all. I take the point made in one comment, that pictures can break up very long blogposts. Speaking personally, I am put off by blogposts that take half an hour to read - they have to grab me in the first paragraph to make that time investment. I prefer posts that are short and to the point. In contrast, someone suggested that too many pictures get in the way, meaning you have to scroll on down to find the point the writer is actually trying to make.

So - given that I can't please all the people all of the time, I shall take each post as it comes, and if it needs an illustration I shall try to find one (bearing in mind I'm no photographer). And the rest of the time I'll chunter along, playing with words in my usual haphazard fashion. (Because if I'm not enjoying myself the whole thing is pointless anyway!)

Interestingly (and this is an aside) there are no pictures in Over the Hill and Far Away, even though it is a travel book. And not one critic has suggested that illustrations would have improved it, which hopefully means that the words were enough on their own.

There are brownie points for anyone who can think of a suitable image to illustrate this post!!

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Do blogs need pictures?

I like words. I like the way they come out to play when I'm not looking. I like the music of them, the way they can tangle my tongue.

It's why I write.

There seem to be an increasing number of blogs that are full of pictures. Which is fine in a travel bog, or cookery blog (you can tempt me with cake any day), or a discussion about shoes. I've seen lovely pictures of people's gardens, or the fields behind their houses, or unusual buildings in big cities. I enjoy pictures of flowers and mountains and small animals.

I rarely add pictures - they fit with posts about my travelling, when I've been away and want to include photos of my trip.

The rest of the time I fling words at you - ideas, trivia, a mish-mash of thinking. I play with words and then offer them, like a verbal lucky dip. A compilation of serious thinking and irreverent reflections, all done in words.

But do we need pictures in blogs? Are you more likely to dip into a blog that is illustrated over one that is simply words? (There isn't a right or wrong answer - I am simply curious. And it might make a different to how I approach writing this blog in the future.)

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Writing about people you know.

As some of you know, I've just come back from Ireland - my last post included some photos.

You might conclude, from that post, that I was on my own. Yet I was with a group of friends - ten of us, trooping along the cliff path and rewarding ourselves with guinness at the walk's end. And I haven't mentioned them.

Why not? Because I haven't talked with them about this blog, about the possibility of writing about them, about saying who was the muddiest after the climb up a landslip and who had the greatest capacity for alcohol (no, that wasn't me!). They are friends; the purpose of our being together was not to gather material for a blog, or a short story, or research their histories to weave them into a travel piece. We were together to have fun - it is a good enough reason.

Yes, there are some great characters among us - characters who would be fun to play with in a short story. But I won't use them - that feels, to me, like an abuse of our friendship, taking something from our private relations and waving it at the world for all to see. When I wrote about people in Over the Hill, I either had permission to write about them or - if I couldn't contact them - changed names.

I know - I've read the 'how to create a character' books. Find a friend or member of the family and change her gender, her shoes, her occupation. Then throw a storm at her.

I'm sure it's effective. But I won't do it - my friends and family are precious. I love to write - and I love them even more. Even Anna (some of you will have met my daughter - she pops up from time to time) knows if I'm going to mention her.

Maybe I'm being too precious. Maybe it would be fine to reassemble a friendship in fiction. What do you think?