writing

Conversations with the past

What would you say to your sixteen-year-old self if you could go back (assuming you’re over 16 as you read this)? My first thought was ‘read Neuromancer’ but when I thought about it, I’m fairly sure I was told about William Gibson at, if not 16, then not much older than that, and I didn’t listen. Or rather, I stored the name at the back of my mind, never happened to see a book by him in a library or second-hand bookshop, told myself for a couple of years that I didn’t read sci-fi, then finally got round to him in my late 20s.

My next thought was ‘don’t feel obliged to keep reading a book you’re not enjoying’ but then I can think of a couple of books I’ve loved, that didn’t impress me during the first few chapters. If I took my older self’s advice too seriously, what might I miss out on?

A fairly safe one would be ‘don’t let the doubts set in about writing’. I used to write stories all the time, and when I was 18 or so and confident of my own undeveloped abilities I even sent a couple off. They were of course rejected, and as I got a little older I experienced the horror of realising I’d sent out some pretty poor material. Instead of using that as a spur to learning the craft, looking at what I thought was wrong and trying to improve it, I decided I’d been presumptious. I wasn’t a writer and never would be, and it was best to admit that, sit back and enjoy reading other (real) authors’ efforts. If I’d kept going, I might have reached the level I’m at now a few years sooner, when I had more time and energy and less in the way of responsibilities and competing activities. But then I wouldn’t have written the stories I have written, and my experiences would have been different. So maybe I should let the sixteen-year-old me get on with it and make the same mistakes I did. I wouldn’t have listened to my older self anyway.

What are libraries for, anyway?

I find it hard to resist a library, even one I’m not a member of – they might have a particularly inspiring reading room, some fabulous old books to flick through, or even (whisper this when OneMonkey isn’t listening) a couple of shelves they’re selling off for 20p a paperback. Love books, love libraries – that’s the way it goes. Or so I always thought. Lately, though, I seem to have read articles, listened to radio programmes, filled in council surveys and signed petitions that imply a strenuous defence of libraries is underway. How sad that we need to defend libraries. And that reading seems to have become synonymous (in the media at least) with buying books.

Last week OneMonkey drew my attention to this Forbes article: Close the libraries and buy everyone an Amazon Kindle Unlimited subscription. The author points out he’s not being wholly serious, but unfortunately policy-makers might skim over that sentence in the rush to implement his ideas as they try to pacify some of the people they’ve riled by closing down so many libraries (The Librarian, for instance, now in a precarious employment situation as well as having her principles trampled on). The idea being that it would be nearly as cheap to pay for a subscription to one company’s currently available ebook list as it would to fund libraries in their current form. And libraries are only about reading books, aren’t they?

Despite more years at university than any sane person would submit to, I’ve had a couple of fairly long stints of unemployment. As I’m sure is the case for many other people who are time-rich and cash-poor (pensioners, for instance), local libraries were invaluable during those times, even when they were only open a few half-days a week. Particularly when I was 21 and skint, buying more than the occasional second-hand book was out of the question, so obviously the local library supplied my reading material but that wasn’t the whole story. There were newspapers and magazines for information, entertainment and job adverts. There was a heated reading room that saved me having to run up a heating bill at home (or have the lights on through a winter afternoon), computers with printers and free internet access.

Going to the library can give you a routine, a reason to leave the house, someone to speak to (of course the Post Office used to do that as well, but they’ve closed most of them down already). They host story time, reading groups, family history workshops, activities to get older children reading a bit over the long summer holiday. They provide council services, from extra garden waste bags to housing advice. Our local GP sends people along the road to the library to access a Reading Well shelf, full of books on how to stop smoking, conquer panic attacks and the like. Oh but those are books again, you could just get those on the Kindle. Assuming they stocked them, and weren’t having a dispute with the publisher at the time.

Leaving aside the fast pace of technology rendering all this investment obsolete in a few years (and who’s buying the hardware, anyway?) and the lack of provision for the poor and the lonely this new arrangement would bring about, what about the serendipity of libraries? Old or locally-relevant curiosities, yes, but also I defy anyone to be as truly random in picking a book online as they can be in a library. You turned left instead of right at the photocopier and you’re in an aisle you didn’t mean to go down, then a book title catches your eye and grabs your interest. I can’t be the only person that happens to, nor can I be the only person who picks up books because of the font, the colours, or because the author with a name nearby in the alphabet wasn’t available. Everyone needs a bit of randomness in their life, and a book you can take home for free is probably one of the least dangerous ways you can get it.

Libraries are important, as repositories of knowledge and champions of ideas, the stirrers of young imaginations, and I don’t know what else. Love learning, love libraries? Love communities, love libraries? The idea of what libraries are for is just as vague (but just as important to think about, and get right) as the idea of what universities are for. And you don’t want to get me started on that.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon

Yiddish Policemen's Union

Imagine a world where Israel didn’t become a state in 1948, and where the largest Jewish community is a North American backwater tolerated (mostly) by the local Tlingit people on the understanding that it’s purely a temporary measure. Now imagine an unidentified Jewish junkie is found dead in his room in the same fleapit hotel that the area’s premier homicide detective currently calls home, on the eve of mass eviction. You have the beginnings of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, an unusual novel that I enjoyed a great deal.

Sitka, in Michael Chabon’s world, is a small Yiddish-speaking homeland in the heart of Alaska on a 60-year lease starting in 1948. It’s now autumn 2007, 2 months from Reversion when the population of displaced European Jews and their descendents will be displaced again, this time by their American landlords. The novel apparently comes from the author having found a Yiddish travellers’ phrase-book from the 1950s and imagined what kind of place it might be useful, and heard about a failed 1940s plan to resettle displaced European Jews in Alaska. Laced with ornately mournful humour, the book was reminiscent of Malcolm Pryce’s Aberystwyth noir  in its alternate history and almost surreal setting, though it seemed less tongue in cheek (then again, I’ve never been to Alaska or a Jewish enclave, so I could have missed the overtly silly parts).

Meyer Landsman, a middle-aged alcoholic detective who’s falling apart at the seams, is nevertheless a sympathetic main character. I was rooting for him, I warmed to him, and I felt for him. First and foremost he is a policeman, and when Reversion comes the Sitka police force will be disbanded. What then? And what will happen to his neighbours, friends and family? There is an interesting theme of chess throughout the story – the ritual of playing it, the shame of not enjoying it when everyone else does, its puzzles as an allegory of life.

Chabon has written such lyrical prose that despite the relatively short chapters and the tension of the murder investigation (not to mention the headlong flight towards Reversion), I found myself putting the novel aside frequently to savour the images. At one point he described Landsman as walking ‘with a kink in his back and an ache in his head and a sharp throbbing pain in his dignity’. It was a book that deserved to be read slowly.

Fans of the hard-boiled detective story might need to be patient with this novel, it’s probably not as spare as they’re used to. If you’re not a detective fan, don’t be put off – like the rugby in This Sporting Life it’s a key part of the setting but not the only point to the story. I would recommend this widely to lovers of lyrical literature of wide open country, like The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx.

Anniversaries and remembrance of things past

WordPress sent me a cheery anniversary message today, 6 years of blissful blogging. Apart from making me shudder (as anniversaries tend to do) at the speed with which life seems to slither past, it made me think about anniversaries and reading.

The centenary of the outbreak of the first world war burst upon us this week in a cloud of poppies and subdued pride (yes, some people did some brave and amazing things but wouldn’t it have been marvellous if they’d never been in that situation in the first place) and it’s been nudging me towards re-reading Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves, or more likely digging out my battered old hardback Wilfred Owen. Aside from poetry, which doesn’t seem to count in the re-reading stakes, I’d rather turn up books from or about the war that I haven’t already read (what with life slithering past at an alarming rate and there being only so many books a person can fit in) so if anyone has any recommendations, let me know. In Pale Battalions by Robert Goddard was a good one I read and reviewed recently.

Undoubtedly there are many people reading around world war one this year, but what about other anniversaries or major events? Do you have a book you re-read every birthday, or on the anniversary of some treaty or battle, or the day you left school? I’ve said before that Big Brother reads A Christmas Carol every December, but I don’t have anything similar (except a couple of cartoon books) since I rarely re-read books (though I have been revisiting Psmith these last couple of weeks, via the pages of PG Wodehouse, and most glad I am about it. First borrowed in paperback from BB over 20 years ago and now freely available for e-readers, hurrah).

So the question is, I suppose – should I? Are there any books I should build into my year, leave a free weekend for or dip into to revive memories (my own or other people’s)? Even as I typed that I got a sudden flash of a book I read a few times as a child and haven’t seen or probably thought about for nearly 20 years, An Inch of Candle by Alison Leonard. It’s set in world war one but beyond the possibility that the girl scandalously rides a bike, I can’t remember a thing (and a quick google makes me none the wiser). I wouldn’t want to remind myself any further by actually reading bits of it, it might not be as good as the memory. Which I think answers my question: remember the old, but use the occasion to find something new. There’s a whole world of books waiting.

Tension over tenses? Why worry?

A man walks into a bar… Hang on, if I know that then it must have already happened so maybe it should be ‘a man walked into a bar’. Does that sound right though? It’s like I’m telling the story at one remove so is it as easy for you to picture the scene? Actually I can’t remember the joke now, never mind.

There was an article in The Guardian earlier this week about one Radio 4 chap (John Humphrys) accusing another (Melvyn Bragg) of using the present tense when talking about past events and thus being pretentious and confusing. It’s all a bit of a non-story but maybe we need some light relief given recent world events and it did get me thinking.

I don’t remember being taught much grammar in English at school (plenty in other languages, not that much of it stuck) but I seem to have clung for years to those few rules I remember, and woe betide anyone who falls foul of them in my presence. I might not always recognise a split infinitive but when I do, I pour scorn upon it. Incorrect was-ing and were-ing (unless in a legitimate Yorkshire context) will be pounced on immediately. Or rather (and here the tense does matter) that was the case before I lightened up a bit and started questioning the rules.

Questioning rules normally comes quite naturally so I don’t know why it took me so long with grammar, maybe I just didn’t consider the possibility that they weren’t written in stone. Don’t get me wrong, I still have my language neuroses, I still shout ‘from’ at the radio in response to every ‘different than’ that I hear, but on the whole I figure as long as it’s clear what’s meant, what does it matter? The point that John Humphrys seems to have missed is that context is everything, and the newspaper headlines and the academic discussions he cites aren’t really confusing, he just finds them annoying. If I’m listening to a programme about Shakespeare and someone says ‘he buys a house’ I’m not likely to go ‘hang on though, he died a few years back didn’t he?’. Whereas if I come back from a round the world cruise and someone says ‘your Aunt Ada was a lovely woman’, I might want to go check if I missed a funeral while I was out of the country.

Far from being pretentious, I’ve always taken the historic present (not that I knew that’s what it was called) as an attempt to sound chummy and down to earth. By saying ‘and it’s after this meeting that Matthew Arnold gives his famous speech’ they make it sound like it’s recent, relevant, perhaps someone they know (and the academics on Bragg’s programmes have probably been working on these matters for so long they do feel like they know the people involved, even the ones who died two hundred years ago). It doesn’t sound as dry as relating some fact from the past, it’s more like you’re there with him as he goes through this action. Or so it seems to me.

Perhaps that’s another point about grammar and the like – we all have different views and interpretations. Different pet hates. Partly to do with background, education, age, but also associations (the first time we encountered this phrase was in some book we couldn’t stand, a friend’s irritating ex always made this particular error and now it grates) so maybe we should step back and think about what language is for. At one level it’s about communication and as long as the right message has been conveyed it doesn’t matter so much how it was done. At another it’s about rhythm and imagery, and to be honest I can see even more scope for bending the rules there. So, you know, take it easy, stop trying to score points (half your audience won’t know whether you’re right or wrong and most of the other half won’t care), and marvel at the versatility of language. However, I reserve the right to keep shouting at the radio in private and I’ll understand if you do the same.

Success all round: new story and a litfest connection

I have a new story in a magazine, and some hot off the press litfest news. I can feel the excitement from here.

First of all, I have a long-ish short story in the latest issue of Romance Magazine. Yes, I said romance, though as this is me the heroine’s reawakened passions are for literature and her husband, in that order (though she does nearly get carried away by a holiday friendship). It’s set in the Lake District in the early 1980s and here’s a taster via wordcloud:

ReawakenedPassions

If you enjoyed any or all of The Little Book of Northern Women, you’ll probably like this.

The other news is that the writing group I belong to is going to be appearing at the Ilkley Literature Festival fringe in October. I’ve seen some great stuff at the fringe over the last few years, all for free, so that’s going to be an exciting event to be involved in.

Phew! What with all that and the heat as well I need a bit of a lie down now. By which of course I mean I’m off to put the finishing touches to a couple of stories. Honest…

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a surprisingly short book, for modern fantasy. Or perhaps I just read it particularly fast. I seemed to be completely immersed for a brief moment, then I emerged into the sunlight again and it was all over. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it.

This is a novel about childhood (and myths, and books). The different priorities, different realities, of children and adults. It’s about deeper truths, small pleasures, and what happens as we grow up (or grow older, anyway). The vast majority of the book is told from a seven year old boy’s point of view, as remembered by his middle-aged self; childlike, with a grown-up veneer. It’s a dark fairytale bordering on horror story, with a wonderfully British cosiness round the edges. It’s about a little boy, befriended by the older girl down the lane who claims her family’s duckpond is an ocean.

If you much preferred American Gods to Stardust, then you might not be immediately grabbed by this as it’s closer to the spirit of the latter than the former, I would say. If you’ve never read any Neil Gaiman but enjoyed John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things, or even Lisey’s Story by Stephen King, give The Ocean at the End of the Lane a go. Vivid imagery and a rattling pace, with a poignant core.