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.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

On not knowing.

I began drafting this post before the disappearance of flight MH370. And that gives not knowing a terrible meaning.

I had planned to remind you what it was like being six, and the teacher asked you something and you thought and thought and knew you should know the answer but somehow you just didn't, so you made it up. At the time it made more sense to get the answer wrong than admit you didn't know.

Too often it feels as of no one has grown up.

When politicians make it up it goes something like this: I can't tell you that right now, but what I can tell you is ...

Newspapers do it differently: eat less butter, eat more butter; working mothers help children be more independent, working mothers impede the development of healthy attachments in small children ... They take a research study, read the conclusions, precis that - because the alternative is suggesting that there is conflicting evidence.

There are cultures in which saying 'I don't know' is shameful - if you are lost and ask the way, it's best to ask three people and go with the majority as it's likely that someone will have made up the directions.

But not knowing - everyday not-knowing - is the cornerstone of curiosity. And without curiosity how can we learn? Without curiosity there are no new ideas. Without curiosity we stagnate.

But not knowing can be uncomfortable. It reminds of us teachers, of everyone looking at us, of not-knowing being the equivalent of ignorance.

I still think that not-knowing is often an opportunity, and that being honest about it is challenging, and can be fun. It can send us rushing to our bookshelves, or to Google.

But then the terrible not-knowing for the friends and family of those on board flight MH370 - their not-knowing is more painful than breathing.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

My Writing Process

Some of you have come across the 'My Writing Process' blog-tour thingy. And Val Poore has passed the baton to me - so now it's my turn to think about it. (You can read her lovely blog here)

1. What am I working on?
I'm trying to unpick a narrative from all the scribbles I made while I was in Cuba. It's a complicated process, and I'm not sure I understand how it works. But somehow just thinking about it all, and maybe writing a bit here and a bit there, enables my 'unconscious' (for want of a better term) to work out the story.
And then - with luck and a following wind - I'll have another ebook in the Over the Hill series.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?
Travel writers come in all shapes and sizes - and so what we see and think about will be different. Young people might write about surfing, or nightclubs, or cars. Some will pay more attention to place - and write poetically about the rhythm of the train on the Trans-Siberian Railway, or negotiating the backwaters of Kerala. Others openly write about themselves in the place - their work becomes a dialogue between memoir and travel; I sit more comfortably in this category.
For every writer brings personal experience. I travel as an older, white, woman - but I'm no Dervla Murphy. I'll never cross the Atlas mountains on a donkey. Instead I bumble about the place, and somehow find stories in the bumbling.

3. Why do I write what I do?
It was all a bit of an accident. I came home from a long trip (I went for a year) thinking I'd weave short stories from my travelling notes. Then I won a place on a mentoring scheme at Exeter University and my mentor persuaded me that I was strongest when I wrote about myself.
So I did. And still do (some of the time. I have been known to play with fiction from time to time.)

4. How does your writing process work?
It's a bit fanciful to describe what I do as a 'process.' 
I'm never far from a notebook. But sometimes I use it more than others. There are days when ideas seem to fall over each other; and other days when I think of nothing more exciting than remembering to buy milk.
I ought to write regularly, every day. In practice, I fit it in with all the other wonderful things I do - playing with grandchildren, singing in a choir, walking in the forest, sitting in the garden drinking wine with a neighbour. Which makes it sound as if writing is an afterthought - and it's not. It's simply part of who I am - I love it. I still get fluttery when I sit at the computer. But there's no rhythm to how I write, no routine.

Not a great example for anyone to follow. But it works for me.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Poverty tourism.

Don't get me wrong - I love travelling. I love immersing myself in the different and mysterious, dipping my toes into waters so unfamiliar they are almost incomprehensible.

And this has taken me to places which the western world labels as 'poor.' Let's get the definition out of the way first: by 'poor' I mean not only people who don't have enough to eat, or shoes for their feet, but also access to education and basic health care (such as antibiotics) that can keep them alive in an emergency.

Poverty is not a lifestyle choice. Poor people do not walk without shoes because they have some romantic notion about being in contact with the earth. They do not eat insects with any ethical objection to a side of beef. Nor does poverty prevent them being creative, kind, intelligent people - and many have welcomed me into their homes with a generosity that is truly humbling.

But - having returned from Cuba, where I was more aware of tour groups than in any other country I've visited, I am beginning to question the ethics of tourist interactions with local people when those people are truly poor.

I've watched as tour groups peered through doorways where a mother was breastfeeding her baby, a pot boiling on a small fire in the corner and bed roll stacked in the corner. I've watched as tour groups go into orphanages and gawp at classrooms and dormitories, and applaud as the children sing their little songs. In Cuba I visited a cigar factory (as many tourists do) and saw rows of men and women sorting leaves, rolling cigars, the air thick with tobacco dust. I was not allowed to speak to them - they had work to do. They performed for me, with less enthusiasm than an animal in a circus.

I like to think I'm a traveller and not a tourist. That I don't come to observe but to engage with people on a more meaningful level - a level on which we can learn from each other.

But as I begin to wonder where to go next, it occurs to me that my sort of travelling is getting more difficult. The big tour companies promise luxuries; they ferry groups from one site to another; and the travel agencies in poor countries - understandably - respond by providing just that. The wealthy and well-shod are taken from village to school to factory where they nod and maybe leave a tip or two but come away with nothing more than a little dust on their shoes.

And the people they visit - where is their dignity? They are paraded because they are poor. That they are also men, women and children with dreams is irrelevant.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

One brave woman

Last week there was a bit of fluttering about my post supporting International Women's Day. So I thought I'd give you a snippet about one brave woman I met when I was in Laos. I met her in a cafe in Luang Prebang; I'd already learned some of the details about the bombing of Laos by American fighters during the Vietnam War.

I am gathering myself to leave the cafe when a small, olive-skinned woman walks across. She has piercing dark eyes and black hair pulled on back of her head.
            ‘Are you a professor?’ she says. It is a strange way to begin a conversation and I’m flummoxed. In my sweeping skirt and shirt that needs ironing I can’t believe I look like an academic.
            ‘I’m Carol. I’m meeting a professor here,’ she says. ‘To help with my research; into the psychology of Buddhism.’
            She has an accent from the west coast of America, and the eyes of someone from south-east Asia. Her voice is so soft I must lean forward to hear her.  She picks up a heavy book. ‘I think there must be something, in the psychology, that helps understand why the Laos are as accepting as they are. Buddhism, you see,’ – she struggles to find a page as if to prove her point – ‘is the only religion that does not sanction war. Which makes what happened here all the more terrible. The most bombed country in the world … and Nixon told us it wasn’t happening.’
It is a relief to meet someone as upset about this as I am. I confess my own struggle to understand why the Lao don’t hate us.
‘They never did. When I was here before – in about 1964, I think it was, at the start of the bombing, I was with a medical unit, doing admin, they were astonishing. We had places to stay, but the things we saw …’ She lets the sentence hang and I wait. ‘There were so many factions. We were at a dinner, with a General. His son loved a girl from another group. Three days later the son was brought into us with gunshot wounds – he was dying and I wanted to sit with him, hold his hand while he died. Like anyone would.’ She looked at me, as if for confirmation that compassion was permitted. ‘I was told to leave him alone; it wasn’t safe. No one knew if it was someone from the General’s side disapproving of the son’s choice of girlfriend, or from the other side wanting to upset him. If it was known I’d befriended him, well, they might have come after me.’ Now her look made sense.
She took a deep breath. Was she working herself up to say something even more difficult? ‘Americans were dying here too,’ she said at last, ‘though they didn’t know that at home. If they died here their families were told they were missing in Vietnam. Even now families don’t know if their loved ones died here.’
We arrange to have supper together before I leave Luang Prabang. We settle in a restaurant and our chatter is inconsequential for a while, but she is easily distracted and I feel sure she has something she needs to say. As our food arrives she leans across the table to whisper to me.
            ‘I read a dreadful thing,’ she says. ‘In my books, talking about the war here. That project, the medical project – it was part of a CIA operation. They never told me.’ Her eyes are wide with the horror of it. ‘I never knew, honestly I never knew. The CIA, here, in Laos, and the bombing.’
            It hangs, her confession, over our curry. She is not hungry and I play with my rice. I have no idea how to reply – or even how to think about it.
            ‘The CIA,’ she says again. It is as if she needs to say it over and over to help herself believe it. ‘I never knew; honestly I never knew. It’s only the reading I’ve done this week – I was young; nobody told me.’
            I have no idea if she needs consoling, or affirming that I believe her (which I do), that it is truly shocking. All of which I want to say but somehow it is so appalling that I can’t find the words.
            Our meal is soon over; we exchange addresses, hug, and go our separate ways, promising to keep in touch. I slip into a bar for a beer; she has given me much to think about. She’s asked about my writing – and knows I’ll tell this story. She has told me much more than the high and mighty of America might want disclosed. She will recognise herself here. The core of this story is as she told it. But I’ve played with her biography; I cannot put her a risk.

This is an edited extract from Bombs and Butterflies - there are links to the right of this blog if you want to read more. Or trot across to the website here.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Do we still need International Women's Day?

Next Saturday is International Women's Day. Surely such a concept is outdated, in the twenty-first century?

Oh yes, we still need it.

Not only because there are so few women in the Cabinet, nor are there many with any real political power.
Not only because there are so few women with real authority in business.
Not only because the pay gap between men and women (in the UK) continues to grow, decades after to equal pay act.
Not only because there are so few women on game shows on the BBC.
Not only because a national newspaper feels it appropriate to present pictures of women's breasts and call it 'news'.
Not only because it's easier for men to get their books reviewed than women.
Not only because far greater attention and vitriol is fired at young single mothers than the fathers who left them in that position.
Not only because 30% of women in the UK have some experience of violence within the home.
Not only because 3 women a week are murdered by their partners in the UK.
Not only because the impact of benefit cuts falls unfairly on women.
Not only because statistics suggest that women still do most of the housework, shopping, child care, and general homemaking.

And not only because women struggle all over the world, and not just in the UK. In fact, women here can think themselves lucky:

Over 20% of maternal deaths in childbirth take place in India - a country with more millionaires than America.
It has taken the courage of one young women for the world to realise that so many girls don't go to school.
Rape has been used as a weapon in war.
It has taken a few brave survivors to make people begin to about the abuse that is FGM.
There are too many countries where men dictate what women are allowed to wear, where they can go, if they can drive.

So how will you be celebrating? (If you ask nicely, I'll share my cake.)

Sunday, 2 March 2014

All fall down ...

We know the children's rhyme - Ring-a-ring-a-roses, and at the end a pile of children collapse on the floor giggling, and then bounce up again.

I believe it's derived from the time of The Plague, when one sneeze was enough for sufferers to begin digging their own graves. Not much giggling there.

Well, in all the wind and rain, my fence fell down taking a shrub with it, and the tree from next door fell on the other fence. The result - debris scattered all over the garden, broken shrubs and roses and general muddy miserableness.

But nobody was hurt. No houses were damaged. We were warm and dry and had enough to eat. This is not a post about those who still find themselves under water - but let's pause for a minute to think how that must be, weeks down the line, and your carpets still stinking of mud (and worse).

No, the point is that, bit by bit, the mayhem in my garden is receding. The tree has gone from my lawn. One fence is back up. One little tree - an ornamental hazel - has somehow escaped damage and stands bravely in a rather bald flower bed. My neighbour and I have promised ourselves a trip to a Garden Centre once the other fence is up, to buy plants to replace those that were buried under the mud. The garden is getting used to its new shape. Before long it will be hard to recall the shadows of that lovely apple tree; only the birds will miss the red berries on the pyracantha. We'll sit in it next summer, with wine, and savour the surprises of new plants and flowers.

What has all this got to do with anything? Well, I think my writing-head feels like that garden muddle at times. All bits and twigs and muddiness. What begins as a good idea somehow collapses and become misshapen, trampled, its core buried under the wreckage.

It takes time, dragging each titbit into the daylight and wondering if it is any use or to dump it in the 'delete file'. Sometimes there's a temptation to dump the lot, to begin again, to find a new idea. But that core - the one that fired me in the first place - is generally still there. It takes time to find it. And it might need new narrative contexts in which to flourish. But ideas are precious, and should be cherished. They'll come out to play eventually, if we can give them space to breathe. And clear the rubbish that threatens to overwhelm them.