Atul Gawande and Being Mortal; and a Remembrance Poppy Badge

Atul Gawande‘s Being Mortal – which I wrote about here in the context of his 2014 Reith Lectures – is extraordinary for its courageous and honest confrontation of our failure to confront how we want to die. Or, as Atul Gawande would say, from a surgeon doctor’s point of view:

We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine. We think our job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being. And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive. .. . Wherever serious sickness or injury strikes and your body or mind breaks down, the vital questions are the same: What is your understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes? What are your fears and what are your hopes? What are the trade-offs you are willing to make and not willing to make? And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding?

In other words it’s all about how we want to live out our final days or weeks or months, or even years, if that’s what our final disease allows. It’s all about perspective. And if our doctors ask us the questions that allow us to face what’s coming and how we’d like to face it then we can remain the authors of the stories of our lives until the very end (as opposed to having a structure and a routine imposed on us as so often happens in nursing homes where what happens is organised to suit the staff rather than the residents: it takes an elderly infirm person much longer to dress him or herself and so staff will hurry her or him along which results in a loss of autonomy and often a resigned giving-up). Whereas in the original assisted living idea residents can lock their doors and be in charge of their medicines and their lives (with help near at hand). And, as Being Mortal shows, residents in such homes, or who have hospice care at home which is tailored to the way they’d like to live to the very end, these people live more fulfilled lives right to the end.

And the thing I would like to have made in a parallel universe where time is infinite and anything is possible is The Royal Hospital Chelsea (London)’s poppy brooch. So many people have commented on it this Remembrance Week and it really does look beautiful and, more importantly, it makes you notice it and so it makes you think about all those young men (and they still are mostly men) who’ve died in conflict. And it lasts and lasts and lasts. Lest we Forget.

Posted in Death and Dying, Psychology, Storytelling, Things I'd Love to Have Made | Leave a comment

Chaos & Creativity; and Beautiful Bookshops

I dislike hate chaos. Very much. Who doesn’t? But it’s an essential state if you want to write fiction. Messiness of the mind is the sine qua non for writers. But, when a piece is finished, it looks so orderly that we – when we first dream of becoming writers – think the process must also be orderly. We have no idea about what happens before that book is neatly printed and bound and settled in its right place, waiting to be to read.

Malcolm Gladwell – he of The Tipping Point and The Power of Thinking Without Thinking – says creative people have messy brains (here’s an illustration of mine: a noticeboard in my study):
And, of course, writing and all creative work is the making of order from chaos. But it’s such an uncomfortable vile feeling that I resist it every day. It’s why I procrastinate. I don’t want to feel that churning, frightening, I’ll-never-make-any-sense-of-this feeling. I don’t want to fail to make order. I hate looking at all the notes I make when I’m not at my desk (conversely I love making them) in their higgledy pile because I don’t know how I’m going to make a story from them. It’s why, on the worst, days, I wish I had a job at a check-out: it would be so very simple (and orderly). But the joy, the indescribable joy, of pulling something through the chaos, finding there really is a working story and a story that works, that joy, that sense of fulfilment, is worth a great deal of uncomfortable chaos. So finding a way to live with acute discomfort of the psyche is essential.

Malcolm Gladwell suggests we creative folk embrace the chaos. Because, he says, if you’re selling soap you have to focus on selling soap and throw every irrelevant thought or idea out, otherwise you won’t be a very good soap-seller. But in the creative world the opposite applies: we gather everything and anything, anything that appeals, anything that sparks an idea or that might work in a story, anything that might become an essential key to a character. But then, naturally, we end up with a pile of chaotically disconnected ideas.

I was talking to a friend the other day – just after the funeral of another friend, so we were in sad and thoughtful mood – and she asked me if I ever felt a sense of chaos when I was writing. I said, ‘Often.’ And as soon as I said it I realised I’d never said it to a single soul before. And so we started talking and thinking and now here are a few more thoughts. And a few conclusions: find a way to embrace/accept/not-run-from the (inevitable) chaos. Know that it will lead somewhere, eventually. Know that it is an essential part of the process. Know that without it, creation cannot happen. Trust the chaos … .

And the thing I would love to have made in a parallel universe where time is infinite and anything is possible, is a beautiful bookshop. At the end of August, Literary Hub published an article about the most beautiful bookshops in the world. Have a look. There are several illustrations, including this bookshop, in Maastricht:

Boekhandel Dominicanen, Maastricht

Doesn’t it make you want to go there immediately?

Posted in Artists, Bookshops, Creativity, Fiction, Psychology, Writers, Writing | Leave a comment

Rejection is a rite of passage for writers, and the Raw Chocolate Company

One of the things that a writer takes a while truly to believe (it’s taken me a while) is that rejection is part of the process: it’s necessary, inevitable and makes our work better. It’s a rite of passage.But the thing is, no piece of writing is born fully formed, just as no child is born able to walk, talk or do calculus (no, I’ve no idea where calculus came from either). But accepting this incontrovertible fact isn’t easy. The pieces we write are our babies. They’re precious and – almost always – have taken so long to write that the idea of rewriting, of changing a thing, is anathema. But if, when the rejections come (and they surely will) there’s the smallest hint of a suggestion about how to improve the piece, value it as if it were a piece of delicious chocolate (see below) and digest it. Stephen King got this rejection once:

Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck.

It changed the way he wrote forever.

Susan Sontag, said this:

I don’t write easily or rapidly. My first draft usually has only a few elements worth keeping. I have to find what those are and build from them and throw out what doesn’t work, or what simply is not alive.

Vladimir Nabokov, this:

I have rewritten—often several times—every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.

And Colette, this:

Put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.

All quotes (and more) from an Atlantic Daily article here.

I had a wonderfully productive conversation with an agent in August about my third novel. (It was she who wrote that rejection is a rite of passage for writers.) She loves the idea, says I write beautifully, but has several worries about the way the novel is written. We talked for about an hour and now I’m rewriting. I hope very much that as she reads my rewrites she’ll feel the novel is heading in the right direction. I know I must hang on to my courage, take risks, get things wrong before I get them right and throw out what doesn’t work as I go … then the novel will have a chance of becoming its best self. As Ernest Hemingway said:

The only kind of writing is rewriting.

PS Calculus is (I’ve just looked it up in case you, like me, have never really known what it is): the mathematical study of continuous change. Now there’s a metaphor: writing as calculus.

And the thing I would love to have invented, in a parallel universe where all things are possible and time is infinite, is the Raw Chocolate Company. I love hot chocolate and have been making it with Raw Chocolate’s raw cacao for a while. They sell many delicious chocolatey things which are all certified vegan, vegetarian, organic and whose ingredients are simple. They don’t use cane sugar but Xylitol (meaning ‘tree-sweetness’) made from Finnish birch trees. Xylitol has a tenth of the glycemic index of standard cane sugar and is great for those who want to avoid sugar altogether … so what, as they say, is not to like? 

 

Posted in Creativity, Fiction, Rejection, Rewriting, Things I'd Love to Have Made, Third Novel, Writers, Writing | Comments Off on Rejection is a rite of passage for writers, and the Raw Chocolate Company

A very small trawl through a few less well-known news sites

This month – perhaps because it’s the silly season when news tends towards the frivolous because the House of Commons is in recess and us ordinary folk go on holiday – I thought I’d have a little light trawl through a few lesser-known news outlets. Obviously not these:

I found one called KarmaTube whose aim is to:

bring inspirational stories to light, using the power of video and the internet to multiply acts of kindness, beauty, and generosity.

And I did find an inspiring video from Jane Goodall about how her mother was responsible for her scientific nature: she never told her off when she took earthworms to bed or disappeared for hours in the chicken shed (to see exactly where eggs came from). The video is a delight (as are many others on KarmaTube). 

I found The Canary which states that it:

remains completely independent of any advertisers, funders, companies, political organisations, or political parties.

It’s left of centre and pro-remain, unafraid to say what it thinks and has pomposity-bursting satirical section called Off the Perch.

Then, I found (wishing I hadn’t) the terrifying Trump Real(?) News channel. One Kayleigh McEnany who, until 5 August, worked for CNN, now presents the ‘news‘ for this, erm, channel. Let’s hope it has as short a working life as many of Trump’s staff. Or, that it’s very soon mistaken for an amateur version of Off the Perch (see above).

Then, I found the HuffPost’s Weird news site (you never knew you wanted to know about kilted yoga, did you? Or the odd things people do in the shower that have nothing to do with washing and no … it doesn’t include that).

And then I remembered how very much I love Prospect and how I still haven’t finished the July issue, let alone the August one, so I stopped my tiny trawl and retired to read it.

Happy summer.

Posted in Creativity, News, News Outlets, Science | 2 Comments

Blurt It Out and Instead of a Card

I’m submitting the manuscript of my third novel to literary agents. It’s a process that requires much patience, a certain amount of luck and, most importantly, the ability to pitch my work well to the right agent at the right agency at the right time. (I’ll post the result when there is one.) Recently I pitched on Twitter which is both terrifying (is it really possible to describe the essence of a novel in 140 characters? – yes, and it’s an extremely useful process: you find out if you really know what your novel’s about) and exciting (if an agent likes your Tweet that’s the signal to send the synopsis and opening extract direct to that agent).

In the process I saw that an agent had tweeted about Blurt It Out, an organisation dedicated to increasing awareness and understanding of depression. The link between Blurt It Out and me, my novel submission and the agent’s tweet is nothing more than the fact that I saw it on her twitter feed. But for many people the link between their depression and its cause is hazy or entirely unknown. But talking helps, even though it can feel terrifying as Blurt It Out say:

Telling people is tough, and not everyone will understand. We’ve compiled a library of resources to help you understand depression and what it means for you.

Blurt It Out are dedicated to helping people with depression in all kinds of ways, including a lovely idea: you can sign up for occasional freebies-and-kindness emails (about half way down this page).

And the thing I’d like to have invented in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible, is Candlestick Press’s Instead of a Card. Instead of a card you can send one of their (many) poetry pamphlets (collections of ten poems). They cost just under a fiver and aren’t much fatter than a card, but they mean much more and last far longer. Here’s one to inspire you:

Posted in Creativity, Fiction, Mental Health in Fiction, Things I'd Love to Have Made, Third Novel, Writing | 2 Comments

Words on Writing, and Pass on a Poem

There are hundreds of thousands of words written about writing fiction: how to write, why we write, what to do when we can’t write and on and on so that, sometimes, I feel as if I’m adrift on a sea of advice. 

But at other times wise words become the lifeboat that takes me safely back to my story. Image result for wooden dinghyHere are a few that have done that recently (some of the authors’ names link directly to the source of the quote. Others link directly to the author):

Hold out your hand and the stories will come. John Steinbeck

We restore order with imagination. We instill hope, again and again and again. Walt Disney

Grief is love with nowhere to go. Anonymous

It’s not the subject matter, but what you do with it that counts. Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie

Plot is what happens. Story is how the characters feel about what happens. Neil Landau

If you make your characters properly they will simply do what is within them, they’ll act out the nature you have given them, and there – you’ll find – you have your plot. Hilary Mantel

My life would be more possible with the women’s movement existing and no running water than the other way around. Naomi Alderman in her acceptance speech for The Power‘s 2017 Baileys Women’s Prize win.

And Pass on a Poem is the thing I’d like to have invented in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible. Small groups of people meet from time to time to read poems they love to each other (any poem, except their own). They meet in various parts of the country at various times. Pass on a Poem is owned by the wonderful Reader Organisation who run shared reading groups across the UK and who’ve discovered that shared reading not only brings communities together but that it enhances empathy, as Jane Davis, founder and director, writes. (I wrote about the organisation here, too.)

Poem Clip Art

And here’s a link to Helen Dunmore‘s wonderfully empathetic poem about death, Hold Out Your Arms, written on 25 May, just eleven days before she died, on 5 June. It likens death to a mother holding out her arms to a shy child. Read it, weep and wonder at what the imagination can do.

Posted in Artists, Creativity, Death and Dying, Fiction, Literary Prizes, Things I'd Love to Have Made, Women, Writers, Writing | Comments Off on Words on Writing, and Pass on a Poem

Auditioning to become a WI Speaker, and ‘Born Baffled: Musings on a Writing Life’

In March I auditioned to become a WI speaker. The WI, you say? Don’t they just make jam, sing Jerusalem and talk a lot? Yes to all three, but no to JUST. There are 6,300 WIs in this country with 220,000 members and their community interests and campaigns have a long reach and are extremely varied. They campaign for equal pay and climate change, to fill gaps in the midwifery workforce and to save the honey bee. They also provide a focal point for women in rural (and urban) communities and if you know nothing else about the WI you surely know about the Calendar Girls Campaign for Bloodwise (to raise money for leukaemia and lymphoma research with what might be called a stripped-down campaign …). They’re a very effective bunch, they take their talking seriously so I was nervous.

image from http://brucemctague.com/tag/being-nervous-can-be-good

So nervous that it took me half an hour to set up my projector, laptop etc., because my right hand was shaking which meant I failed to plug the scart cable securely into my laptop and the slide image kept disappearing. By the time I was (shakily) guiding the mouse to cancel the image for what felt like the fiftieth time, I had to hold my right wrist with my left hand and when one of the (very kind) organisers suggested I was taking rather a long time (I had half-an-hour to set up, do a snapshot of my talk and take down) I shook all the more! Happily I was the first to audition so I’d begun my set-up half an hour before I was due on. If I’d been second or anywhere else in the audition list I’d have spent the whole time (shakily) setting up and they’d never have heard a word.

Image result for not hearing from someone

Sorry, what was that dear?

The introduction to Surrey Federation WI Members at that particular Speaker Selection Day included the fact that WIs are often asked for recommendations for speakers by other organisations. The Members were advised to think carefully and to choose wisely. I reckoned they wouldn’t be choosing me: they’d already seen me struggling with my extension lead, microphone, laptop, projector, images … and the fact that the table wasn’t high enough for the beam from my projector to hit the screen on the stage above it. Until I and another kind organiser (they were all kind, but they must have been wondering who on earth they’d invited) found a milk crate to put the projector on.

I’d projected neither a careful nor a wise image of myself but – with a millisecond to go – I was ready. And, dear reader, it did go well. Thanks to the WI Members kind attention and the courage of two particular people, an aristocrat and an able seaman, who helped twenty-six others in Lifeboat Number 8 on the night Titanic sank. So now my talk is about to be included in the WI Speakers Year Book and I’ve already had twelve bookings which just goes to show that nerves really can be a good thing, in the end.

And the words I’d like to have written in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible are these wise ones about writing. They come from a much longer article by Parker J Palmer, syndicated from couragerenewal.org at The Daily Good a blog I love (I wrote about here).

Care more about the process than the outcome.
Be generous in order for luck to play its part.

And, my favourite:

Dive deep, dwell in the dark, and value beginner’s mind no matter how loudly your ego protests.

Posted in Psychology, Talks, Things I'd Love to Have Made, Titanic, Women, Writers, Writing | 3 Comments

Spring in London, and The Kid Stays in the Picture

Spring in London is an astonishing thing: blossom among the grey buildings and pavements; green and blue and pink and white making us look up at it and then at each other and smile, us Londoners who spend most of our time walking around looking at the pavement (or the now-ubiquitous technology in our hands), making us open our mouths and say something to a stranger about the beauty all around us. The postman said, this morning, ‘It’s lovely isn’t it, all this sun? All this flowery stuff?’ Outside a city it would sound ridiculous. Outside a city the seasons still govern life’s rhythms. But inside a city we’re insulated, interior, isolated from the natural. Spring makes us look up and out and reminds us that: 

The Earth is like a child that knows many poems.
Rainer Maria Rilke in his Sonnets to Orpheus


And the thing I would love to have made in a world where everything is possible and time is infinite is Simon McBurney’s The Kid Stays in the Picture. It’s technically brilliant and breathtaking as Michael Billington’s review says here, and I who, unlike Billington, knew nothing about Robert Evans (the subject of the play and head of production at Paramount Pictures which gave us, among many, The Godfather, Love Story and Chinatown) thought it had everything to add to the story of Robert Evans’ life. It’s a play that’s, in the words of one of the folk I went to see it with, ‘Eight-dimensional’. And the actors take on several roles each, all brilliantly. The run has just finished but if you spot it on anywhere go and see it and be amazed at what theatre about film can do.

Posted in Artists, Creativity, Spring, Theatre, Things I'd Love to Have Made | Comments Off on Spring in London, and The Kid Stays in the Picture

A History of Britain in 21 Women, by Jenni Murray

This is both the thing I’m writing about this month and the thing I’d love to have written, in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible:What an entirely brilliant and inspiring idea. It begins with Boadicea, not Boudicca, because:

To me … she will always be Boadicea because I was ten years old when I came across her, and she became the first woman to make me realise that the designated future of a girl born in 1950 – to be sweet, domesticated, undemanding and super-feminine – did not necessarily have to be the case.

After a bit of a trek round London, Murray’s first visit, she ‘got a little bored with the endless parade of statues which Dad proudly pointed out as REALLY IMPORTANT HISTORICAL FIGURES’, until she saw this:

Boadicea and her Daughters by Thomas Thornycroft

and noticed her carriage, the lethal blades sticking out from the wheels and her massive horses rearing. ‘She’s in complete control.’ And she liked Boadicea because of a love of horses instilled in her by her grandfather at the tender age of two. And so began Murray’s own journey which her education fuelled. She realised, ‘at a wonderful girls’ high school in Barnsley’ that ‘there were women who influenced history and challenged the assumption that a woman’s place was in the home.’

As a child of the Fifties myself I realised, rather later than Murray, that domestic slavery wasn’t the only course open to me, but I always felt it. Always I sensed there wasn’t any difference between women and men when it came to ability and intelligence, ideas and ambition. What was different was education, access and encouragement. What I realised was that, as a woman, I had to be willing to stand out and stand up whether in the domestic or the wider world. The personal is political, as women began to say in the late Sixties. My personal stand was not to marry (I worried I wouldn’t have the strength to ignore the daily chores or ask him to do them so that I could write) and I never have (married). But now that I live with my other half, we live in what what one of my sisters called ‘a very democratic household’ and I do write.

I haven’t led an army, I haven’t stood for Parliament, I wasn’t the first woman to write fiction nor am I a scientist, but I made my own stand in order to write fiction and the burgeoning feminist atmosphere that surrounded me as I grew up helped beyond measure.

Murray’s book is dedicated to ‘All the young people who need to know’. I wish it had existed when I was one of those young people but the fact that it does now, for them, is essential and right. The 21 are: Boadicea, Queen Elizabeth I, Aphra Benn, Caroline Herschel, Fanny Burney, Mary Wollstonecraft, Jane Austen, Mary Somerville, Mary Seacole, Ada Lovelace, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Millicent Garrett Fawcett, Emmeline Pankhurst, Ethel Smyth, Constance Markievicz, Gwen John, Nancy Astor, Barbara Castle, Margaret Thatcher, Mary Quant and Nicola Sturgeon. Murray is eloquent about those she’s left out and why, in her Introduction and, at the front of the chapter about Mary Wollstonecraft and her Vindication of the Rights of Woman is Wollstonecraft’s:

‘I do not want them [women] to have power over men, but over themselves … It is not empire, but equality and friendship which women want.’

As Wollstencraft also wrote, ‘Their [womens’] first duty is to themselves as rational creatures.’ Thank you Jenni Murray for directing our attention to these remarkable women and so to our own remarkable selves.

Posted in Creativity, Psychology, Reviews, Women, Writers | Comments Off on A History of Britain in 21 Women, by Jenni Murray

Anselm Kiefer and Heywood Hill

On the weekend we went to the Anselm Kiefer Exhibition at the White Cube in Bermondsey. It’s just closed, but if there’s any of his work anywhere near you do go and see it. He is the most imaginative of artists. He sees with a keen but compassionate eye: several of his works made me want to weep. There’s one in the just-finished exhibition of an iron bed with leadened coverings and an enormous boulder on the bed that makes it sag. It’s called San Loreto (I don’t know why … ).

San Loreto © Anselm Kiefer. Photo © White Cube (George Darrell)

Either side of the bed’s iron headboard are wings, also made of lead, which saddened me because how could anything fly when weighed down with such a boulder?

There was a long tall thin room with shelves to the ceiling filled with paper, messages, labelled boxes, old machinery, leadened reels of film with film spilling from them, food, books and everything you could imagine. It’s called Arsenal.

Arsenal - Anselm Kiefer - 1983-2016 - 121275

Arsenal © Anselm Kiefer and White Cube

I thought of it as an arsenal of the imagination, a necessary tool for each and every one of us in this often-far-too-utilitarian-and-sometimes-frightening world. And then, at the end of a sombre, sad, darkly desolate corridor lined with iron beds with leadened coverings called Walhalla, was a room filled with light and works of such size and intensity I could have stayed all day. It was as if a shaft of sunlight had pierced the darkness. This one’s called nubes pluant (from the Advent liturgy and meaning ‘Let the clouds rain’).

nubes pluant - Anselm Kiefer - 2016 - 119008

nubes pluant © Anselm Kiefer and White Cube

Go and find them if you possibly can (and thank you to the White Cube, Bermondsey, for permission to reproduce the images).

And the thing I would love to have invented in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible is Heywood Hill’s A Year in Books subscription scheme. It’s a glorious idea. You can buy (or someone can buy for you) a subscription to 6 or 12 books a year, hardback or paperback. But the unique thing is that each book is a surprise. You fill in a form online (or you talk to the lovely people at Heywood Hill) and tell them about your bookish tastes: fiction, non-fiction, authors you love, authors you hate, ideas you’d like to explore or not and then, magically through the post (my first book arrived a couple of weeks ago complete with an elegant January bookmark) comes a book you might never have discovered for yourself. A Valentine’s present perhaps? Bravo Heywood Hill.

Posted in Artists, Creativity, Fiction, Things I'd Love to Have Made | Comments Off on Anselm Kiefer and Heywood Hill

John Berger, Ways of Seeing … and PEN International

John Berger, who died aged 90 on January 2nd, was a critic, novelist, playwright, screenwriter and poet and well-known to many. Occasionally, in his early writings according to this Guardian obituary, Berger’s ‘Marxist dialectic did force him into uncomfortable contortions’, but whenever I heard him or read his fiction I loved his originality and his extraordinary ability to make the complicated simple.

The Guardian obituary includes clips from interviews and a documentary and episode two from his 1972 programme, Ways of Seeing. I read the book, devoured might be a better word, but I never saw the programmes. This episode makes me wish I had.

In it he says:

A woman is always accompanied, even when quite alone and perhaps even then, by her own image of herself. While she is walking across a room or weeping at the death of her father she cannot avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she is taught and persuaded to survey herself continually … because how she appears … and particularly how she appears to men, is of crucial importance to what is normally thought of as the success of her life.

And, a little later, he talks about the difference between being naked which, in Berger’s words is simply to be yourself, and being nude, which is to be an object to be observed. Thus, he says:

The mirror [in paintings of female nudes] became a symbol of the vanity of woman. Yet the male hypocrisy in this is blatant. You paint a naked woman because you enjoy looking at her. You put a mirror in her hand and you call the painting vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you have depicted for your own pleasure.

He goes on to describe paintings that are, ‘As personal as love poems’, by Rembrandt and Rubens and a couple of others, paintings that don’t exploit women but admire and love them. And then there’s a discussion among five women who watched the film. They discuss the interiority of women and the exteriority of men: how women tend to depend on men for a view of themselves; how men are confirmed in themselves by their achievements in the world. And, towards the end (it’s half an hour long) there’s an examination by the women of the difference between being nude and being naked. One of the women talks about a painting by Lorenzetti of a woman in a loose comfortable garment (see below) who is her idea of what a picture of a real woman (not an object) should look like. Interesting, isn’t it, that this painting was made in the fourteenth century but the woman in Ways of Seeing (made in 1972) didn’t – or couldn’t – cite a painting from the twentieth century.

The figure of Peace in The Allegory of Good Government

Depressingly, it seems we haven’t moved on much since 1972 either. Pirelli’s 2017 calendar advertising blurb boasts that its images of women have broken with tradition because the women are dressed. But they’re still objects: they’re not themselves. They are, in the words of the German calendar photographer Peter Lindbergh, ‘Nude while being fully dressed,’ because the camera has ‘stripped them to the very soul’.

How I wish you were still here to argue against that hideous statement, John Berger.

And the thing I’d love to have invented this month, in a world where time is infinite and all things are possible is PEN International, for its campaigns on behalf of persecuted writers worldwide. You can take action or you can donate money to defend freedom of expression and if you’re a writer you can email PEN International here and ask for their list of imprisoned writers and write to one. Imagine yourself being imprisoned simply for something you said or wrote: a letter might offer a little comfort, don’t you think?

Posted in Artists, Equality, Women, Writers | Comments Off on John Berger, Ways of Seeing … and PEN International

Dare Always Dare, and Guerilla Grafters

A friend pointed out to me a week or so ago that this: DARE ALWAYS DARE is written in neon above the foyer entrance to the Old Vic Theatre (no idea why I’d never noticed it before):

And so we should, if only we could, all the time. But I think it’s good enough to DARE SOMETIMES DARE. (Think how exhausting it would be if we dared all the time … .) It was  the founder of the Old Vic, Lilian Bayliss‘s favourite anthem.

And the thing I’d love to have invented, in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible, is guerilla grafting : slide 4

A group of innovative San Franciscans are grafting fruit-bearing branches onto non-fruit bearing, ornamental fruit trees without official permission. There are many fruit trees in San Francisco, and all the world’s cities, but councils often don’t like fruit-bearing trees because the fruit, they say, falls onto pavements and makes a mess that has to be cleared up! But San Francisco’s Guerilla Grafters want free food for San Franciscans and the beauty of their technique is that it’ll be some time before the grafts take and the trees bear fruit and – in the meantime – it’s very difficult for any cruising civic authority to see them! Hurrah for the Guerilla Grafters.

Happy Christmas and 2017.

Posted in Artists, Creativity, Gardening, Things I'd Love to Have Made | Comments Off on Dare Always Dare, and Guerilla Grafters

Third novel, and the Reith Lectures, 2016

This month I finished my third novel. Finished to be interpreted loosely: there will be redrafts when I’m working with an agent and then with an editor. It’s working title is For the Love of Life. Rejoice. At least for now.

But now, while I do all the things I haven’t had time to do (updating my laptop with all those programmes it should have on it and hasn’t, and finding out which organisations might like to hear my Titanic talk – which I developed from my research for my second novel, The Dance of Love – to mention just two, since you ask …) I can’t help wondering about my novel’s fate out there in the big wide world. So many writers liken the writing process to childbirth. Some say the swimilarity (I meant similarity, obviously, but I rather like swimilarity) is in the forgetting of the pain, afterwards; some wonder whether the metaphor is apt if you’ve never given (physical) birth, as I haven’t; some say the two have absolutely nothing in common. But, whatever the parallels (or lack of them) I think this phase, the waiting-to-see-what-its-fate-will-be phase, is both a joyous one (the novel is at last a real, written, tangible piece of work) and an anxious one (for obvious reasons).

And the thing I’d love to have made and written (even simply to have had the clear intelligence to organise in my mind) – in a parallel universe where all things are possible and time is infinite – is this year’s Reith Lectures. Kwame Anthony Appiah

Image result for 2016 reith lectures

Image and more information from here: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2016/oct/15/this-weeks-best-radio-reith-lectures-incredible-women

Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University, has been an eloquent and thoughtful lecturer on his themes of Creed, Country, Colour and Culture. He said, here:

We live in a world where the language of identity pervades both our public and our private lives. We are Muslim and Christian, so we have religious identities. We are English and Scottish, so we have national identities. We are men and women, and so we have gender identities. And we are black and white, and so we have racial identities. There is much contention about the boundaries of all of these identities. Not everyone accepts that you have to be a man or a woman; or that you can’t be both an Englishman and a Scot. You can claim to be of no religion or gender or race or nation. Perhaps, in each case, someone will believe you. And that is one reason why the way we often talk about these identities can be misleading.

It’s been fascinating and I highly recommend listening again if you missed them.

Next year’s lecturer will be Dame Hilary Mantel. Her subject-matter will, ‘Focus on the nature of writing about history and history’s hold on the imagination.’ Looking forward to those, Dame Hilary.

Posted in Creativity, Equality, Fiction, Things I'd Love to Have Made, Third Novel, Titanic, Writers, Writing | 2 Comments

Rose Tremain’s The Gustav Sonata and Dioni Mazaraki’s silver jewellery

I’ve read all Rose Tremain‘s novels and I love the fact that they fail to fit neatly into any particular category (except the category of beautifully written stories about the way we are and how we become). They’re always and essentially different, one from the next. I read The Gustav Sonata on holiday and, perhaps because the usual daily distractions were absent, the novel struck me as a meditation on life and its horrors and joys; a distillation of the way the choices we make affect not only our own lives but the lives of (sometimes many) others and so, how much sorrow or joy, love or the lack of it, pain and memory we give or take, bestow or inflict, receive or reject. In this novel I was never conscious of something happening and then another thing happening (although much does happen) but more of the effect of what happened. The Gustav Sonata is exactly like a piece of music which, as we listen, gradually reveals its depths. I loved it.
'The Gustav Sonata' coverThe inspiration for The Gustav Sonata is the life of a police chief who commanded one of the Swiss border forces and helped hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Austrian Jews escape the Nazis, but who died deprived of his pension after his dismissal (see The Spectator review here). The effects of this man’s courageous act drip, like poisoned water, through the novel before we even discover what he did or how he did it. Do read it.

And the thing I’d love to have made in a parallel universe where all things are possible and time is infinite, is some beautiful handmade silver jewellery we found, a couple of weeks ago, in Corfu Town. Dioni Mazaraki isn’t just any old jeweller but a wonderfully original designer and maker. We saw her beautiful pieces spilling from the drawers of a small chest, through the window, but because we were in an Ionian town and it was four o’clock in the afternoon, her shop was shut.

So we went to have a cup of coffee and came back at five o’clock, but the shop was still shut. So we went to have a ginger beer (a Corfiot speciality, even though the British Protectorate ended in 1864) and came back at six o’clock, but the shop was still shut. So we went to have an ouzo and came back at 6.45 but the shop was still shut and we had to leave for the airport. But then, as in all the best stories, a man who’d been sitting at the bar diagonally opposite the shop watching us come and go, asked us, in perfect English (shaming my ten words of Greek) if we’d like him to ring the owner because he’d seen us a few times. (Why hadn’t we thought of asking him?) He rang her, she arrived and we bought these:
Corfu silver jewelleryIf you should be in Corfu Town the shop is at 48 Guilford Street (named after this fellow) just south of Theotaki Square (off to the right of this photograph):

Corfu town hall square

photograph courtesy of Corfu Travel Guide here https://atcorfu.com/

and Dioni Mazaraki has called her shop the fourth letter – although it doesn’t say that at the moment. There’s just this:Image result above the red-framed door, at least for now.

Posted in Artists, Creativity, Design, Fiction, Places, Things I'd Love to Have Made, Writers | Comments Off on Rose Tremain’s The Gustav Sonata and Dioni Mazaraki’s silver jewellery

Theresa May, the Queen and Boris Johnson and, more seriously, Kent Haruf

A friend of mine sent me this sometime after the Brexit Bungle:

The real reason Boris was appointed to the Foreign Office.

The real reason Boris was appointed to the Foreign Office

There’s not much else to say, is there?

On a much more serious note (and far wiser, kinder, more compassionate and life-enhancing), I read Kent Haruf (to rhyme with Sheriff)’s Our Souls at Night on holiday recently, on the recommendation of dovegreyreader and, in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible, I would love to have written this exquisitely-beautiful novel. Its insight, wisdom, tenderness, economy of writing, humour and the fundamental understanding that life, loneliness and love; courage, compassion and companionship and other people’s prurient misunderstandings don’t stop in later life. Read it, I urge you.

Posted in Love, Politics, Reviews, Things I'd Love to Have Made, Writers, Writing | Comments Off on Theresa May, the Queen and Boris Johnson and, more seriously, Kent Haruf

How dramatic stories change brain chemistry, and NOT the Booker Prize

Good strong stories, as we all know, transport us to other people’s worlds. So, when we’re reading fiction, even though we know the people we’re reading about aren’t real, if the story has a successful dramatic arc we’ll empathise with those imaginary people and their difficulties as if they were real. And now Paul J Zak, Director of the Centre for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University in California, has worked out, neurologically-speaking, why we do this:

We have identified oxytocin as the neurochemical responsible for empathy and narrative transportation. My lab pioneered the behavioral study of oxytocin and has proven that when the brain synthesizes oxytocin, people are more trustworthy, generous, charitable and compassionate. I have dubbed oxytocin the “moral molecule” … others call it the love hormone. What we know is that oxytocin makes us more sensitive to social cues … . In many situations, social cues motivate us to engage [with] others, particularly if the other person seems to need our help.

Zak’s video also shows what prompts charitable giving which is less germaine to storytelling, but still makes the point about stories and the changes they cause in our brains and so in our behaviour:

And the thing I would love to have invented in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible is Sam Jordison‘s Not the Booker Prize: so many wonderful books that didn’t make that other prize are listed here. If you read the list before 15 August you’ll see the longlist (actually you can still see it). After that, you’ll see the shortlist. Further developments will be announced by Sam Jordison in the Guardian from time to time, including reviews of the six shortlisted books and there’ll be a final vote on 17 October.

Posted in Creativity, Literary Prizes, Mind, Psychology, Things I'd Love to Have Made, Writers, Writing | 2 Comments

The UK Referendum, Brexit, and Meike Ziervogel on the importance of listening to other people’s stories

On 1 July Meike Ziervogel, founder and publisher at Peirene Press, published this:

Translation is Europe’s only common language.
Umberto Eco

It’s a thoughtful and thought-provoking piece about the UK referendum, Brexit, and the importance of listening to other people’s stories. These are Meike’s words, not mine, but they’re published here with her permission. The whole piece set me thinking. I’ve emboldened the parts that make me want to do something and that I wish I’d had the wisdom to work out for myself:

At the beginning of the week [27 June 2016] I was asked by The Society of Authors to reflect on the UK/EU referendum result and the way ahead for translated works. Here is what I wrote for them:

In my weekly blog, The Pain and Passion of a Small Publisher, I have personified Peirene, the ancient Greek Nymph who also lends her name to my publishing house. In the blog entry from the 26th of June I describe what happened in our office the morning after Brexit. Peirene was so upset that she went straight back to bed. I spent the day sitting by her side stroking her head, worrying about her. Would she slide into a depression? Or worse: leave the country? But the next morning her fighting spirits had returned: ‘The referendum has made clear what we’ve always suspected: this country needs to learn to listen to other people’s stories, only then it will change for the better,‘ she told me. She continued: ‘We have an important mission that hasn’t yet been accomplished. We can’t give up half way.’

Needless to say, I agree with Peirene. But I’m also aware that if we are going to succeed, I too have to become better in listening to other people’s stories.

Recently an English novelist friend confessed to me that she doesn’t enjoy reading contemporary foreign literature in translation. She finds that, in comparison to English novels, translated books are often marked by impoverished language and stilted narrative. My friend is not alone. I have heard this argument from other readers before. Moreover, I can see where they are coming from. Because English possesses a larger amount of vocabulary than most other languages, our novels tend to be wordy. And because of the straight forwardness of the basic English syntax – subject, verb, object – English fiction writers are gifted in producing compelling, linear narratives. After all, the syntax influences how we organise reality.

It is therefore no surprise that a stark Finnish drama or a French novella where no word should be taken at face value, can present a challenge, maybe even an unpleasant reading experience. So why should we put ourselves through such ordeals?

Long before the invention of the phonetic alphabet, at a time when we were still hunter-gatherers, we humans developed the skill of ‘reading’ and interpreting the languages of others. And not only of other humans. We knew how to interpret the movement of the clouds in the sky, could read the animal footprints in the forests and understood the bird sounds above our heads. We knew we had to listen to what is outside ourselves – strangers, animals, the environment – telling their stories in their own way – because such engagement was vital to our survival.

Today, in every day life, we mostly consume stories we know and where we can identify personally. This is of course most evident with social media. But it’s also true for the books we read. What sounds strange or unusual to us, we tend to reject and often judge as ‘bad’, ‘uninteresting’, ‘boring’.

I’m guilty of that too. For example, there are no Turkish or Eastern European novels in Peirene’s programme, despite my best efforts to find some. Or so I claim. But no book from any of these countries has so far gripped me. I search for strong imagery, powerful characterization, tight plotting. My judgement draws from an appreciation of Western European prose. I’m more and more aware that I will probably never find anything unless I change my perspective so that I can begin to understand these different literary sensibilities.

The shocking victory of Brexit came about because the campaign tapped into people’s fears of foreigners and strangers. Fear is caused when we feel threatened. And we feel threatened when we don’t understand.

In our increasingly small, overpopulated, environmentally endangered world we need to collaborate to survive. But collaboration requires understanding and this is only possible if we are willing to engage with the narratives of strangers – narratives that might at first jar with what we know and like.

If I – a professional of the ‘story industry’ – resist leaving my comfort zone and only listen and read stories that sound familiar, how can I then expect others to have an open ear to new and strange tales? The Nymph is right, this country needs to learn to listen to other people’s stories, only then will it change. But we – writers, publishers, agents, critics, booksellers – have to be courageous enough to lead by example.

Thank you Meike and Peirene.

Posted in Artists, Creativity, Equality, Love, Psychology, Storytelling, Things I'd Love to Have Made, Writing | Comments Off on The UK Referendum, Brexit, and Meike Ziervogel on the importance of listening to other people’s stories

Why Readers Stop Reading; Lisa McInerney’s 2016 Bailey’s win, and Penicillin

An interesting survey on why readers stop reading:

There’s more here. It’s published by Lit World Interviews (I found it on a TLC facebook post.) The conclusions are mostly what you’d expect to put readers off (although I particularly loved Unexpected Sex as a deterrent to reading on). But they’re a salutary reminder to us writers that what we must do, first and foremost and without which we haven’t a hope of beguiling our readers, is to write convincing, enthralling, absorbing stories peopled by characters who behave the way human beings behave, in all our complexity. Obviously, you might say. But reminders are good things. Our language must be the best we can possibly manage and there are always better words than swear words (Shakespeare invented his own: we can too). Our research must never show itself: it must seamlessly underpin the story and a piece is never properly finished without a writer paying serious attention to her editor. It’s also essential that our publishers employ pernickety proofreaders.

Lisa McInerney has just won this year’s Bailey’s Prize for Fiction with
The Glorious Heresies The Glorious Heresies - Lisa McInerneywhich sounds as though it’s done everything the readers’ surveyed above could hope for. Reviews include: ‘A big brassy sexy beast of a book.’ Irish Times and: ‘A spectacular debut . . . a head-spinning, stomach-churning state-of-the-nation novel about a nation falling apart.’ The Daily Telegraph. And it’s already in paperback so I’m buying a copy immediately.

And, finally, the thing I’d like to have invented (discovered) in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible, is penicillin. On Melvyn Bragg’s 9 June In Our Time on BBC Radio 4 I heard this: ‘Life is small pools of order in a universe of disorder. Life has an inside and an outside. And what a bacterium must do – and what we must do – is preserve internal order against an outside disorder … by ingesting and excreting.’ (From What is Life by Erwin Schrödinger (he of the paradox).) One of the things penicillin does, I heard, is to block this in and outflow through the pores in the cell walls, and so inhibit the harmful bacteria. Penicillin was, as of course you know, discovered by accident … just as aspects of character and ways to structure a novel can be, although not, just as happened to Alexander Fleming, until a process of thoughtful examination is already underway.

Posted in Artists, Creativity, Literary Prizes, Storytelling, Things I'd Love to Have Made, Writers, Writing | 2 Comments

brainpickings and mindset

I’ve just discovered a website called brainpickings. I was noodling around on the internet, trying to find out something for one of my characters (what it was escapes me now) but I recommend brainpickings for the heart and for the brain. The articles are written by Maria Popova and they’re about, to quote her:

Art, science, psychology, design, philosophy, history, politics, anthropology and more … . Above all [brainpickings is] about how these different disciplines illuminate one another to glean some insight, directly or indirectly, into that grand question of how to live, and how to live well.

brainpickings has been running for 10 years (I’m late to the party) and if you love what you find there you’re invited to subscribe both virtually and actually.

I discovered mindset at brainpickings. mindset is an idea of Carol Dweck‘s, a Stanford University psychologist whose research focusses on why people succeed and how to foster success (I don’t like the book’s title, subtitle or blurb: I’d never have bought it if I hadn’t read Maria Popova’s article about it). But don’t let the titles put you off. The idea is brilliantly simple and simply brilliant: it applies to every aspect of our lives and the way we live them. According to Carol Dweck the hand we’re dealt at birth is something we either:
believe we’re stuck with:
the fixed mindset
or
something we believe we can cultivate and change through our efforts:
the growth mindset

So, either we’re convinced we can’t change or we believe we can. I know where I hope I exist … .Maria Popova’s article was published in January 2014 but mindset has been around since 2006 (I’m late again!) but it’s never too late to change our attitudes to the hand we were dealt and, in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible, I would love to have invented both brianpickings and mindset. They’re mind- and heart-fulfilling.

Posted in Creativity, Mind, Psychology, Things I'd Love to Have Made | Comments Off on brainpickings and mindset

Do you want Escape or Experience when you read fiction? And: from food desert to food forest

I found this definition of the distinction between genre and literary fiction here:

The main reason for a person to read Genre Fiction is for entertainment, for a riveting story, an escape from reality. Literary Fiction separates itself from Genre because it is not about escaping from reality, instead, it provides a means to better understand the world … [through] real emotional responses.

Reduced to one word I’d say: genre fiction offers an Escape from life; literary fiction offers an Experience of life. Steven Petite’s complete 2014 article for HuffPost Books is here.

Obviously genre and literary fiction overlap and such simplified one-word definitions are, well, too simple. But as a way of distinguishing one from the other, something I often struggle to do, it’s the most useful distinction I’ve found.

And the thing I would like to have dreamed up this month is Ron Finley‘s Can You Dig This? idea.

Finley has been turning a South Central Los Angeles food desert into a food forest. His idea is simple but, at first, it was treated as a crime. He turned the parkway outside his house (the strip of earth between the pavement and the road) into a vegetable garden and was cited by the City of LA for ‘gardening without a permit’. He started a petition to grow food on parkways and the City backed down. He’s turning an area better known for gangs and guns into an area known for its vegetable gardens. As he says:

I put a carrot in the ground and all hell broke lose.
and
If you ain’t a gardener you ain’t a gansta. Be a gangsta gardener: let a shovel be your weapon of choice

He’s given a TED talk about it all.

Even the homeless stop to admire the beauty of the plots springing up: his idea has sparked a food-growing revolution. There’s a film about it all too. Finley’s done remarkable things for awareness of nutrition (and the lack of nutritious food) in the area. He’s an astonishing and astonishingly far-sighted, courageous, innovative man.

Posted in Creativity, Gardening, Things I'd Love to Have Made, Writing | 3 Comments