Sunday, 29 September 2013

I'm trying to learn Spanish

Well, the nights are drawing in, and, as some of you know, I'm looking towards my winter trip. To Cuba.

And this time I'm trying to do something about my linguistic ineptitude. I'm trying to teach myself Spanish. I have a book and a CD and have found websites to help with pronunciation.

It's a slow process. I'm not naturally good at languages (well, I like to think I'm good at English, but you know what I mean). I can, now ask someone how she is (though who know why I might want to do this before I buy my bus ticket, I'm not sure). I can tell them I have four daughters and four grandchildren (though words can never quite capture how wonderful they all are). I can ask the way to the bus station - though think it unlikely I'll ever understand the reply. And I can order a beer.

Yet there are many questions which aren't included in my basic Spanish - questions which, in my experience, are vital to know when you're a tourist. Such as:

There is no toilet paper in my room.

I think I am on the wrong bus.

Is that spider poisonous?

I shall happily play with your children but will not take them home with me.

No, I will not marry you just so you can get a visa.

Is there a collective noun for cockroaches?

I know I'm white-skinned, but the war in Iraq is not my fault.

Some years ago, when I was in Spain, I sent a text to a daughter, then teaching in Caracas, needing the Spanish for cake. (She understood cake emergencies). She now has three small children. Is it stretching her good will too far to contact her in the middle of the night to ask for the Spanish for, 'A rat has eaten my rucksack'?

When you're on  your travels, have you come across phrases you need translated, urgently, and cannot possibly mime?

Wednesday, 25 September 2013


This follows from my autumnal thoughts on Monday.

(Goodness, I never thought I'd be blogging about vests!!)

I can only speak for myself here (though I shall be curious to see how many of you recognise this process). I was made to wear vests as a child. In winter they kept me warm, and in summer - well, it was polite. It's what girls did. Presumably to mask any hint of development for as long as possible. A hangover from Victorian morality where layers of clothing was seen as an essential deterrent to any predatory male (or, presumably, female).

Oh how I longed to ditch my vests! I abandoned them at every opportunity, hid them at the back of the wardrobe and crumpled them, put them in the washing at reliable intervals in the hope that no one noticed that I would not wear them. Imagine, being out with a lad, and he was fumbling up your shirt (you knew it wasn't allowed and you shouldn't let him, but surely a five-minute fumble wouldn't matter?) and he found a vest!! You'd want to die, wouldn't you? You'd never emerge into mixed society again for he was bound to have told everyone in the whole wide world and they would all know this terrible thing about you - you wore a vest. So I didn't.

For years, even in the depths if freezing winters, I'd not wear a vest. I'd pile on jumpers and fleeces and shiver by the fire but no, I'd not be seen dead in a vest.

But then, when I took the decision not to buy a car but to use public transport, I knew I'd have to be equipped for stations and bus stops in the cold and if I wasn't to freeze I'd need Serious Clothes. That's when I bought a drawer-full of thermals - vests (both long- and short-sleeved), socks, and long johns. Some are almost pretty - and all are functional. They do what they claim they do. While they can't keep out the most determined Arctic wind, I have rarely been driven inside by the cold. I can stand at bus stops beside people who are stamping their feet and rubbing their hands and be - not hot, but warm enough. Which they clearly aren't.

But what, I hear you asking, about the man who might want an exploratory fumble? Pah - if he's going to mark me out of ten for wearing a vest on a cold day, then I'm really not interested.

Is this what they mean by grown-up?

Sunday, 22 September 2013

The year is turning.

As promised, I'm not blogging about voice any more. But there's an interesting discussion in the comments after my last post for anyone wanting to see Trish Nicholson and I grappling with it.

And now, on to lighter things.

It seems we've had our summer. All those lovely warm days, sitting in the garden with the hum of bees for company, skin smothered with sun block, book on my knee. For once we had some real weather - and wonderful it was too.

But now the lights are on before seven in the evening. My sandals are back in the wardrobe. T-shirts are hidden under fleeces and cardigans excavated from the dust in my drawers. Firewood for my woodburner is heaped by the back door. The garden is looking ragged - it needs me to take serious secateurs to the bushes, even a saw to the bigger shrubs. The man who wields the loppers will visit and my compost will overflow. (I no longer do anything that involves standing on ladders in the garden. I've been stuck in a shrub once - it was funny the first time...) I'll stand by the incinerator for a few hours and come back to the house smelling as I used to after visiting the protesters at Greenham Common.

The house is chilly - for now I'll turn to vests and fleeces but before long I'll give in and turn the heating on. The radiators will click and the rooms will warm and I'll close the curtains against the cold and the rain and the dark. I'll light the woodburner - and there is comfort in the flames.

And then - I'll turn to my Lonely Planets. For this is the time of year when my thoughts turn towards your freezing days of January. My flight to Cuba is booked. I have a hotel in Havana for the first few nights. I shall read Dervla Murphy and Graham Greene and, as my fire flickers and the wind howls, my mind will be in the warmth, the sunshine, and my body will sway to the music. There are worse ways to hibernate.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

My last post about voices (last, as in I won't write about it again).

I have so many thoughtful comments to my last post about writers' voices that I've come back to it - I've obviously stuck a chord.

I hadn't realised that the concept of 'voice' is used across the arts - so sculptors, photographers, knitters, are all encouraged to think about what makes them distinctive - to look at the way their work reflects them and what they are trying to say. (Thank you, Mark - I never knew that.) I'd not thought of it in terms of 'voice' but I can recognise a Henry Moore or a Barbara Hepworth, a Modigliani or an Ansell Adams, and will go out of my way to see them. They have a distinctive way of expressing themselves that speaks to me - and I'm not sure I can put that into words except to say that they make me feel good; they are satisfying on a deep level (if that makes any sense).

But in writing - does this familiarity extend to writing? I take Carol's point about Dickens (thank you, Carol) - his work is instantly recognisable. But modern writers - Bring Up the Bodies and Wolf Hall could only have been written by Hilary Mantel. But Beyond Black - that's a completely different book, written in a different style and with a different use of language, with no hint of drowning in wonderful historical detail, and also written by Hilary Mantel. Crime writers have their pet detectives - but they, too, spread their writing wings from time to time. I've not read Kate Atkinson's Life after Life but understand that the contrast with her crime novels couldn't be stronger.

I'm probably thinking round in circles - I'm not sure I'm any closer to a definition than I was three weeks ago, when I decided 'voice' is something to do with the dialogue between what we are trying to say and the medium (whether that is words or paint or plaster) we use to tell it.

And then I wonder - and this might be a heretical idea so please, those of you who know better, do shout me down - maybe the concept of 'voice' is an academic construct, used to promote discussion among students and give them headaches when they have essays to write, but of limited use to anyone with a blank screen in front of them, or paintbrush in hand. What do you think?

(It's hard work, all this thinking - I think it's time to go and burn soup!)

Sunday, 15 September 2013

On hearing voices on the page.

I'm following on, from sockpuppets, to talking to myself (my last two posts), to ... writing. And the thorny topic of 'voice.' There is a logic, I think - something about being heard.

I never offer writing advice - there are many far more qualified than I to do that. (And many unqualified who also put in their five-pennyworth, but let's not talk about that.) I'm in the learning game, and can only talk about what seems to work for me. So this is definitely not about 'finding one's writing voice'. Instead it is a tentative exploration of how I think of it.

Writing, for me, is not the same as talking to myself on paper. For a start, in my mutterings while stirring the soup I rarely use complete sentences; I might throw in a little blasphemy, call myself a prat for burning it again (yes, I burn soup; and occasionally indulge in a little gratuitous swearing).

If I'm writing, incomplete sentences are deliberate. Words with no main verb just for emphasis. A passing swear word is deliberate, used sparingly and with thought for the reader. I hear the rhythm of a sentence - playing with word order until there is a music to it. Even when I write dialogue, I try to keep myself quiet and let the character express him/herself.

And then I read it aloud. Clunky bits are obvious when you read them to the plants (plants are a great audience. They can't answer back, nor run away). Tedious bits are obvious - because you race through them, skip over useless words. It is in the reading aloud that I 'hear' my own writing voice - and begin to explore the conversation between what I think I'm trying to say and the words I'm using to say it.

So that, for me, is what I mean by a 'writer's voice' - the rhythm of the words and their relation to meaning. But, as I said, that's my understanding of the term. What's yours?

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

On talking to myself.

On Monday I blogged about sock puppetry - which is effectively talking to oneself online in order to appear popular, or to whip up some sort of storm to rubbish other people. If you missed it, you can find the post here (or scroll down). And there were lovely comments from people agreeing with me.

But it's got me thinking - for (is this a shameful admission?) I talk to myself at home. In the privacy of my own kitchen, I have lengthy conversations. They can be about anything, from what I'm about to do next (along the lines of 'what did I come in here for?') to rants about something on the news (if only politicians could hear me, there'd be no war, no poverty, no discrimination - come to think of it, no politicians ...). I talk to my plants (why aren't you flowering, like every other plant in the universe - I give you water, what more do you want?). I talk to my cooking (oh heck, burnt again; what have I done wrong this time?).

I argue with myself. What do I think about this, about that? The great thing about discussions like this that I am always right. I'll present opposite opinions knowing I can demolish them. I can be rewarding, when you get the hang of it.

Talking to oneself, they used to say, is the first sign of madness. In which case I'm totally bonkers.

I live alone. I have friends and family - so it's not as if there's never anyone else to talk to. But I do spend hours alone and am happy with that. But if there were no voices in that silence - well, that would feel too quiet. I speak, therefore I am alive, and I matter, and I have a voice, even if I'm the only person who can hear it.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Sock puppetry

I thought the hoo-ha about this had died down, but came across it on a forum the other day.

For those who don't know (lucky you) it's the creation of false identities, on line, to argue with on forums, or twitter, or put lovely comments on your blog so you can look really popular. Some months ago a writer admitted on radio to using countless sock puppets to develop an internet storm about his books - and there was general agreement that this was cheating.

It still goes on, apparently. (You yawning already?). Which leaves me wondering - why? Am I missing something? Should I, too, have an alter ego who drops by the blog on a regular basis and tells me how clever and witty I am?

Whether I should or not, I'm not going to. I have enough trouble keeping the person I am in order without creating a separate persona. It feels too much like hard work. For instance, when commenting on your own blog, do you write something witty and wonderful and risk someone clicking on the link - and then finding it's you all the time? Or write something tedious and make it look as if you have a following of plonkers? And if you review your own book do you eulogise about its wonderfulness, or remind people of the wonky bit on page 74 that you were secretly hoping nobody would notice? No - it's all far too complicated for me.

But - is it cheating? Really? When it's so easy, and I understand it's common? We beaver away at our own little blogs, and love it when there's a gathering of comments. Everyone must love us. Or does it simply perpetuate an illusion that online popularity matters - when it is really the love of friends and family that keep the world turning, not the number of comments on a blog.

Or am I simply naive?

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Back to school.

I know, many are heaving sighs of relief. The school holidays are done, the little darlings (not so darling in the last weeks of August) are dressed again in uniform grey, or navy, and heaving sacks of books off to school. They will return full of grumbles about Mr So-and-So and how little Johhny up the road never does any homework and gets away with it so why do they have to wrestle with Pythagoras so please, please, please can they have their phones back because they simply have to talk to someone they saw just half an hour ago ...

The days resume a routine, a familiarity. We all know what we're doing. From 8.30 to 9.00 the streets are full of young people, mothers with straggling youngsters, and working men and women relaxing in their shops and offices and building sites knowing that they don't have to worry about the children for a few hours. Phew.

There is another side to this. I'm 'retired' (whatever that means), so there's no going back to work, no resumption of routine. I get up when I feel like it, the same as always. I eat and read and wander round my lovely market town at any time of year.

But the town - ah, that's where the difference tells. No young people in the corners, lads with their trousers round their bottoms (how do they stay up?), women with wonderful bosoms on display. All those tattoos and piercings and telling the world about who did what to whom last night. No children hanging around the cafes licking ice creams. The playground is quiet, the swings still, abandoned. And the toy shop, which has been busy all summer, suddenly quiet. I can move in there and it feels wrong. The woman at the counter shuffles papers and doesn't know what to do with herself.

The streets are now free, for people just like me. Respectable, with careful hair and shopping trolleys. We remember our pleases and our thank yous. We discuss the new shop, have we been in there yet, I wouldn't bother if I were you, oh I thought it was rather good. We wonder if we have time to stop for coffee.

Nobody balances on the kerbstones. Nobody plays 'bears' along the cobbles. Nobody tugs at a sleeve and asks for an ice cream. And I miss them - these children, these young people who have filled the streets with energy and laughter.

Roll on half term.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Harvest time

It's a privilege, living in Wiltshire. Especially at this time of year.

Our huge fields are patterned - combine harvesters have swept up and down, up and down, weaving round trees and over ditches, bringing in the crops. Rabbits and mice and little voles run around like mad things - all protection gone. The air is full of dust, and bits of straw.

Harvesting begins the second the dew dries in the morning and continues long into the night. Headlights, like giant eyes, creep across the hillsides. And you know that some farmer is making the most of sandwiches for he'll be too tired for supper tonight - all to bring in wheat for my bread or barley for my beer.

The street where I live, on the edge of a market town, is lined with parked cars. At this time of year trucks thunder up and down, trailers laden with straw - which scatters across the cars and onto front doorsteps. There's so much straw you can taste it in the air. Children cling to railings as they pass, as they are huge and sometimes it seems that the mountains of straw must topple to the street crushing cars and small children. It's untidy, of course, all these bits of straw - but it's part of the season, part of living where I do, evidence that farmers are doing what farmers have done for centuries.

And sometimes it's truly entertaining - when the combine harvesters try to get down the street. It is the main route from the farms to the combine harvester menders, and so every year we have one or two who must make it between the lines of cars to the garage. The driver sits twenty feet or more in the air. Wheels over six feet high. Barely two inches each side (even less if someone has parked carelessly) for the machine to get through safely. Someone walks in front, waving the driver - an inch this way, an inch that (left hand down a bit, so to speak). The noise is wonderful - the growl of the engine as the machine edges its way, bit by bit down the street. With, of course, an audience - most of us who live here are out there, watching the entertainment. I don't have a car, but those who do bite their nails as it seems impossible their precious heaps of metal might be scratched. Occasionally we gather together to bounce a carelessly-parked car onto the pavement. And I've never seen the combine harvesters scratch a single car. (The big tractors - they've been known to clip a wing mirror or two!)

Are we too easily pleased - if this is our idea of excitement?