pontificating

#Bookaday, volume the third

I’ll make this the last outing for #bookaday and I’ll cherry-pick, in a vain attempt to avoid boredom. So, where were we..?

BOOKADAY_JuneAt the risk of sounding pretentious (I know, not like me at all) I can’t believe more people haven’t read Remembrance of Things Past. Lots of people have heard of Proust, they may even use the word Proustian in relation to sensation-triggered memories, but I’ve yet to find anyone else who admits to having made it past the first part (if you have, leave a comment and end my solitude). Maybe the fact that I read epic fantasy novels conditioned me for it, but I loved the total immersion and also the ability to (if I remember correctly) write a few thousand pages without actually naming your main character. It’s one of the few novels I’ve read twice (see number 29, below) and it’s left such vivid images in my mind that I can step into the setting of the novel at will. Marvellous stuff.

If I say I’m moving on to number 19 now, I guess regulars will groan, and chorus The Uses of Literacy by Richard Hoggart. It might get overtaken by The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressel at some point, but I haven’t finished reading that yet. What can I say? I get fired up about inequality, education, working class opportunities and any mixture thereof.

I’ve got a lot of out of print books, that’s part of the fun of second-hand bookshops.

23 and 25 kind of go hand in hand. Any book we were made to read at school, I’m unlikely to have finished. I definitely didn’t finish Jane Eyre, Far From the Madding Crowd or a world war 2 book which may have been The Machine-Gunners by Robert Westall. I vaguely remember asking friend T what happened in The Lord of the Flies so I suspect I didn’t get to the end of that one either. I probably finished Animal Farm because it was George Orwell, and I know I read The Hobbit but I’m pretty sure I’d already done so before it was flung at us in the classroom. As you might guess, 23 and 24 are diametrically opposed. Thankfully I was enthused about reading long before school started to try and spoil it, and my earliest memory isn’t early enough to capture it (though Spot the Dog will have been part of it, so a brief nod to his creator Eric Hill, who died recently).

Should have sold more copies? Clearly that’s The Little Book of Northern Women by JY Saville, a rewarding collection of short stories that’s not just for girls, and a snip at only 99p…

I’m not going to admit here which bookload of characters I’d want to be among (although I probably have done already, there’s a lot of posts on this blog now). Those who know me, in real life or through long readership, could probably have a good guess. Answers on a postcard (or a comment box, if you feel like it).

Which brings me to re-reading. A few years ago I explained why I rarely re-read books (I do re-read blog posts, and you can do the same here), so I’m not sure there are any books (except children’s books, books I’ve written, or books I’ve proof-read for other people) that I’ve read more than twice. Big Brother reads A Christmas Carol every festive season (Dickens and I don’t get on, so I had a hard enough time getting through it the once). I know someone who rarely reads anything but Jane Austen and has to buy new copies as the old ones wear out. Honestly, my most-read book is almost certainly A Bear Called Paddington. If you’ve ever seen me in a situation where a hard stare is called for, that might explain a lot.

Part 2 of #Bookaday

Time for the second instalment of my responses to this:
BOOKADAY_June
I’d got as far as number 8 last time, so let me think of something film or TV related. Obviously there are masses of books on the shelves that have been made into films or TV series, or indeed vice versa (like some of the early Doctor Who novels). However, the one I’m going to pick is a boxed set of 3 paperbacks from the Michael Palin travel programmes: Around the World in 80 Days, Pole to Pole, and Full Circle. The paperbacks don’t have all the photos that the big coffee-table versions had, and I probably saw less than half the episodes on TV, but Michael Palin’s gentle enthusiasm for foreign parts forms the core of my (very much armchair-based) interest in far-flung places.

Which book reminds me of someone I love? Quicker to list the ones that don’t. Among the many given to me by friend T there’s Girl With a Pearl Earring, which set me off on Tracy Chevalier. There are the ones that used to belong to my dad’s late uncle, unashamedly intellectual with a dreadful line in puns (much like my dad, in fact). The one I’m going with though is a book I’ve only got an electronic copy of, having first read Big Brother’s paperback many years ago: The Condition of the Working Class in England, by Friedrich Engels. Inextricably bound up with Big Brother, his outlook and influence. For better or worse (make your own mind up), he’s a big reason I am who I am today.

Ah, the pull of secondhand bookshops. Even now I have to make a big effort to walk past an open charity shop, and I have great memories of exploring the ever-expanding labyrinth of Michael Moon’s cornucopia of books in Whitehaven as a child. The majority of my books, and the ones in the Library of Mum and Dad are second hand, many of them with irritatingly limpet-like price stickers from the now defunct Roblyns in Huddersfield, regular haunt of my dad in the late 80s. One wonderful day in the early 90s, friend T and I were taken round every bookshop in some small Pennine town by her dad and had a fab time unearthing treasures. We once had a family day out to the old station bookshop at Alnwick. Can you see why picking one gem might be tricky? How about William Cobbett’s Cottage Economy, bought from a second hand bookshop at Pitlochry station moments before our train pulled in?

I’m not sure I always pretended to have read the books I was supposed to read at school, and outside of that the question doesn’t make sense so I’ll move on to laughter. Humour’s a tricky one to pull off, much harder to write than you might think (believe me, I’ve tried) so I have great respect for those authors who manage it consistently. Do they make me laugh though, really? Is it more of a smile to myself as I pass over the page? Strongest contenders could well be from the likes of Terry Pratchett, Robert Rankin, Jasper Fforde or the broader realms of comic fantasy. I’ve read a lot of comic fantasy (which you might not expect if you came across me in one of my more serious moods), I’ve written a fair bit too and most of it’s not very good. Except All the Room in the World which made it into Bards and Sages Quarterly a few years ago.

Phew, this is getting long so 14 is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, ’nuff said. Calvin’s dad from Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes cartoons gets my vote for top fictional father, though I read the first couple of chapters of Pride and Prejudice a while ago and Mr Bennet’s long-suffering wit reminded me of my dad and therefore deserves a mention.

Back to the books…

Jumping on the #Bookaday bandwagon

The last few days, I’ve kept seeing people on Twitter flash up this picture:

BOOKADAY_JuneSince it doesn’t seem to be trying to sell me anything I figured I may as well join in, and some of the categories beg a bit of discussion so I’ll do it here where I can waffle more than 140 characters allows.

Favourite book from childhood ties in nicely with the YouGov poll of favourite children’s books from the other day, which I would have blogged about earlier in the week if I’d had time. Maybe another day. Childhood covers a long period though, from Meg and Mog to Biggles Flies Again, via Little Women and The School at the Chalet (as with the poll of favourites, most of my reading material seems to have been from long before I was born). My favourite book aged 4 would be quite different from my favourite aged 11, and the ones I look back on with fondness now may not have been my favourites at the time. I still love (and quote regularly) both Winnie the Pooh and Paddington, but I’m going to choose a book called Dragon in Danger, by Rosemary Manning, which was from a series about a little girl who befriends an old (and as I recall, most polite) dragon. I suspect it had quite a profound effect on my later reading habits. (As an aside, I just searched for the author’s surname online as I could only get as far as Rosemary unaided, then realised if I’d wheeled my desk chair 3 feet to the right I could have stuck my head out of the study to read the spine of the book on one of the hall bookcases. Modern life, eh?)

The one that’s springing to mind as a bargain is Poverty: A Study of Town Life by Seebohm Rowntree, I can’t even remember how much it was but certainly less than half an hour’s pay at the shop I worked at around that time. Not the first (1901) edition, I think it’s from 1909 but I was delighted with it then and I’m happy to own it now. It had a blue cover I think, too (that one’s in the bookcase on the other leg of the L-shaped hall. It would require getting up and walking).

Who’s my favourite author today? That’s the question I’d need to answer before I could pick my least favourite book by them. I read reviews, I take notice of other people I know who like the author, so I tend not to bother with the books I don’t think I’ll take to, hence even my least favourite is one I’ll probably have enjoyed. Maskerade by Terry Pratchett’s a contender, though.

Most books in the world don’t belong to me. The library book I’m halfway through (Red Planet Blues by Robert J Sawyer) for instance. There are some books in the house that were bought for OneMonkey, and some I’ve borrowed from my dad, but since both fall under the ‘what’s yours is mine’ heading, I don’t think that counts.

Now number 6 really perplexed me: The book you always give as a gift. As though there are books that simply everyone will enjoy. I can’t think of any book that I’ve bought more than one person as a gift except possibly OneMonkey and The Nephew, and even then it might have been my sister that bought it for OneMonkey. Isn’t part of the joy of giving and receiving books the personalisation behind it? I read this synopsis and thought of you. Or I read this book and knew you’d enjoy it so I’m passing it on. Maybe there are lots of people out there with whole swathes of friends and family with similar tastes in literature. Though if that’s the case, why are they not sharing?

I’ll get ahead a couple of days by being equally perplexed at number 7 (why wouldn’t I know the contents of my bookshelves intimately? Good grief!), and confessing that there is one Terry Pratchett novel that got overlooked when OneMonkey and I amalgamated our books many years ago and removed the duplicates. Somehow we’ve never quite got round to ditching that second copy of Witches Abroad.

So there you go, a ‘fascinating’ (maybe if you squint) romp through a week and a bit of book-related wittering. I would love to know anyone else’s responses, to all or a selected few of the prompts themselves, or indeed to my answers. But don’t let it distract you from your reading time.

In defence of Luddites

I saw an article this week that suggested the meaning and history behind Bonfire Night is being lost, and because of that and the proximity to Halloween, the two may gradually merge. Whatever you think about burning effigies of violent political protesters from times long past, it does seem sad to lose the meaning behind a tradition. It also strikes me as worrying when people start doing or saying something without knowing why – one of the least serious consequences of this is mixed metaphors and misplaced words.

Luddite. What does it make you think? Someone who doesn’t understand technology? A backward peasant, perhaps? I’m guessing that if that’s the case you don’t have a deep-rooted family connection to the textile industries of the West Riding. Some of my relatives were probably Luddites (it’s hardly something that gets officially recorded. Unless they got caught) so I’d like to nudge you away from using the word in that modern sense. I might not agree with their methods, but the Luddites were protesting against the introduction of labour-saving machinery that would take away their jobs. Far from not understanding the new technology, they understood only too well what it would mean for them and their families when the mill-owners needed to employ fewer workers. It’s a bit like supermarket checkout staff smashing self-service tills, or library assistants taking a hammer to the automatic book-sorter. Ultimately futile and likely to get them in trouble, but a heartfelt response to the prospect of unemployment. And in the early 19th century they didn’t have Jobseeker’s Allowance.

Why does it matter? Well, apart from a spot of pedantry, and not wanting dead relatives to be misunderstood, we need to hold onto history. Without remembering, we can’t learn from past mistakes, and considering how many there are, we have the potential to learn an awful lot.

The Uses of Literacy, by Richard Hoggart

In the early 1950s, 30-year-old university lecturer Richard Hoggart (father of Simon, brilliant political sketch-writer from The Guardian) started writing a book rooted in his ‘northern urban working-class’ childhood (in Leeds), that he thought about calling The Abuses of Literacy. He changed it to The Uses of Literacy so as to sound less confrontational, and had to change parts of the contents so as to avoid possible libel charges. However, the result was published in 1957 and 54 years later I read it, appreciated it, and marvelled at how much is still relevant.

I was wary of mentioning it on my blog because part of me doesn’t want anyone to read it – then I figured I don’t have much influence and few people would find it an interesting topic for their leisure hours so I needn’t worry about a stampede. The reason for my mixed feelings is that in the wrong hands (i.e. those of anyone not born into northern working-class families) it could become a kind of anthropological study of peculiar speech, attitudes and customs, a kind of sneering affirmation of superiority on the part of the reader. When I read it, I found myself thinking ‘that’s a bit harsh’ occasionally, then realising I’d said almost the same thing plenty of times myself, usually for OneMonkey to reply ‘that’s a bit harsh’ – but for me, as for Richard Hoggart, there’s a mixture of exasperation that comes from looking closely from the outside, and affection for and/or understanding of the relatives and family friends looking back.

Hoggart set out to write a textbook about mass culture, by which he seemed to mean newspapers (newly-sensationalised), magazines (with pin-ups and short attention-span), cheap paperbacks (badly-written and full of sex and violence) etc and the habit of reading among a class of people who had more education as a basic background than their predecessors, but didn’t appear to be much better off for it. He then wrote the first half of the book (a summing up of recent or current attitudes in the northern urban working classes) to set his ideas in context. He seems to wander off-topic a fair bit and I must admit I didn’t follow all of his arguments, which is due in part to some of the contemporary references. I can say now a Sun-reader, a Guardian-reader, and conjure up in my own and other (British) people’s minds an idea of the sort of background or attitude I mean by that (it will be stereotypical, and in many instances unfair, but it’s a handy shorthand and a useful generalisation in some contexts, including as advertising targets, which Hoggart also covers) – but I have no idea what The Listener was like or who it was aimed at, I know nothing about any of the radio programmes he mentions (TV hadn’t really taken off at the time) and even the distinction between types of paper-shop is lost on me. However, there is enough of endurance there that I get the general gist.

OneMonkey has noted how many conversations in the last couple of weeks I’ve chipped in with ‘it’s funny you should say that because in this Hoggart book…’ and I do find it fascinating (and also quite depressing) that so little has changed in some areas; in the introduction to the 2009 edition Lynsey Hanley (a politically informed writer a couple of years older than me) says ‘no reader two generations younger than Hoggart should gasp in recognition at his descriptions of growing up…Yet, despite the social and economic transformations that have taken place since its publication in 1957, there are thousands who do.’

Talking to OneMonkey about this book reminds me how different our views are on this kind of thing. OneMonkey sees the worth or value of culture as largely subjective (I’m not sure I agree, but I’d be hard pushed to say where worth lies – see my occasional disparaging comments on Dickens and Shakespeare), and if hard-working people with jobs that give them little satisfaction want to come home and read easy to digest escapism about sex and adventure, who am I to say that’s trash? Not everyone wants to read history textbooks for fun, or even multi-layered novels with complex characters. And anyway, some of the sci-fi and fantasy I read would be seen as trash by those with even greater intellectual snobbery than me. OneMonkey also argues, and here I do agree with him, that it’s not a class divide any more (if it ever was) – the middle classes watch X-Factor just as much as anyone else does, it’s just that they’re more likely to have some kind of hypocritical guilt going on. In the same way, they’re more likely to use the argument ‘at least I read’. Why is it intrinsically more worthy to read a cheap paperback romance than to watch with keen interest a BBC4 programme on human rights, for instance? They read, therefore they don’t have to examine their reading-material or opinions because they’re automatically better than you. Dangerous thinking.

Maybe what it comes down to is a misplaced emphasis, or one that’s no longer relevant. It’s thinking that matters (if, like Richard Hoggart and I, you think any of this matters), not reading, surely. If you never read a book or magazine from one year to the next, but listen to the radio, watch TV or discuss things with friends and colleagues and think matters through for yourself (even if you argue yourself round in the end to the position that everyone else you know holds) isn’t that better (by which I mean more indicative of some hope for humanity) than reading the papers every day, accepting what they say, and parrotting back their opinions when asked for your own (and I’m as guilty on occasion of quoting Private Eye or The Guardian as other people are of quoting papers I’m sniffy about)? Of course you may think that it doesn’t much matter either way, most people have no real say in major aspects of their lives, and deep thought and political awareness just lead to depression and a feeling of hopelessness. But if you’ve reached that position by weighing it all up for yourself, then we’re both happy. In a manner of speaking.

Fantastic academics

A while ago, as I mentioned at the time, I read (some of) the Oxford book of fantasy. Because I’m nerdy like that, I read the weighty introduction as well and it amazed me, first because there are apparently academics out there who study sword and sorcery, and second because even while arguing that fantasy as a genre is worth studying, they still seem to dismiss it. With friends like that, etc.

Plenty of fantasy stories are what I would class as mawkish trash (even some that I’ve enjoyed as a guilty pleasure), but then I have similar views on Dickens and thankfully for the heterogeneity of the literary world many people think differently. I’ve never been entirely convinced that studying literature at universities is a worthwhile occupation, but if you’re going to do it then I don’t see what’s wrong with studying fantasy – popular entertainment, particularly when it’s revealing what people dream about when they’ve got totally free rein, detached from reality, has got to tell you something interesting about the collective psyche. The problem of defining fantasy came up as it always does, but the phrase ‘known to be impossible’ struck me as breath-takingly arrogant: there are plenty of things ‘known to be impossible’ a while ago which have turned out not to be, from remote communities to scientific advances.

Another one that got me was ‘I suspect that few if any people now believe in dragons, vampires…’ – fair enough, I’ve never met anyone over the age of about 6 who believed in dragons, but I’ve crossed paths with people who believed (or wanted to believe) in vampires, and here’s a quote from Private Eye just before Christmas 2009: “There are at least 1000 people in the vampire community in New York City alone” – Michelle Belanger, author and former head of the International Society of Vampires. The author of the introduction seemed to find belief in demons, God and the Devil far more acceptable, but I honestly can’t see much of a difference between believing in demons and believing in vampires (both equally incomprehensible to my scientifically-trained atheistic mind). Mind you, he also seemed to see sword and sorcery as the continual triumph of brute force over intelligence, and it didn’t horrify him that such a state of affairs should be put forward as the natural order of things; clearly his mind works in a very different way to mine.

Odd days

For a while there it almost looked like I was posting these things regularly…

Normality, or what passes for it in these parts, is now resumed – infrequent ramblings, even more infrequent fictional output. Today I’ve made my first submission in four weeks, so while this year’s submission total is definitely going to be the best yet, at this rate most of them will have been in January. I keep thinking that if only I submitted more, even if my success rate stayed the same, in absolute numbers I’d get more acceptances which is presumably the point. Rational arguments with myself rarely work though, and I let my good intentions drift and fall away, until I get some jolt that makes me focus on achievements. Like seeing my grey hairs in the mirror.

I had high hopes for creativity this weekend: no pubs, clubs or supermarkets to sap my will; no pressing need to do anything in particular. Of course OneMonkey and I decided to go walking in the Peak District, and relying on public transport as we do, it really had to be Saturday. Which was very windy. And we’re both out of condition, having last been walking before Christmas. I was asleep by 9.30 with the cat curled on my feet, and all I’d managed to do since arriving home was strip my muddy walking gear off and drink some tea. This is the kind of thing I have to overcome to get writing, which probably explains a lot.

In search of lost time

So we’ve established by now that I am a time-waster, a faffer, a pontificating dawdler. And verbose. It’s not that I’m not an organised person, far from it, it’s more that my organising energies are directed badly: list-writing, calendar-marking, CD-arranging, labelling, cataloguing, in short anything that could probably safely be left until I’ve run out of all other occupations except breathing. I also get side-tracked very easily, so right in the middle of importantly tidying a stack of books (I have nowhere near enough shelves, or space to put them), I’ll remember the item I forgot to write on the shopping list earlier when I got halfway to the fridge door and decided to alphabetise the recipe books (all under V for Vegetarian).

To make matters worse, as well as my now-legendary written verbosity, I have a severe case of what my mother refers to (and believe me, it takes one to know one) as verbal diarrhoea, and I don’t seem to be able to talk and do things at the same time – one thing always distracts the other. By the time I’ve zig-zagged my way through seven interleaved activities when I get home from work, it’s just about bedtime; add a phonecall from my mum and a report of the phonecall to the long-suffering OneMonkey, and it’s so far past bedtime I may as well start making breakfast.

What’s that? You mean, if I stopped writing about how I never got round to writing, I might actually write something? Hmm, there’s an idea. Maybe I should try it sometime.

Two buses to Ripon

Far too much of my time is spent on, or waiting for, buses. Until recently, I couldn’t even read on a bus without feeling sick, but somehow I seem to have got round that by closing my eyes when we grind to a halt or go round corners.  I still can’t write on a bus though, which given my pitifully sporadic output is a serious shortcoming. For about five minutes, I toyed with the idea of a pretend phonecall, to allow me to record notes and snippets using the voice function on my MP3 player, then I realised I’d probably sound like less of a nutter if I just got the MP3 player out and started speaking into it. Needless to say, I haven’t yet.

I did try recording ideas and passages while I was washing up, to be typed up later, but with the long pauses and the distracting clink of crockery it wasn’t that successful. My next plan was to record while I was on my exercise bike; usually I either read a book or watch a DVD while I’m cycling, I find it distracts me from the tedium of the static scenery, and the worrying realisation that I’m unfit and nearly 30, never a good combination.  Unfortunately breathlessness, while something of a prerequisite in the sphere of romantic heroines, can be a hindrance for this sort of thing.

Ironing is a peaceful, mindless pastime that lends itself admirably to the contemplation of tangled plots and the honing of polished paragraphs, but if I only worked while I was ironing, I’d be down to a thousand words a decade.  If only I didn’t waste so much time on unnecessary activities, like reading the Education Guardian. Or writing a blog.

Rainy Day Women

On the way to work one sodden morning last week, I saw a woman with a clear dome umbrella; how she could see where she was going is beyond me, it had steamed up enough to obscure her face. Through the exhilirating 20-minute walk in the early morning gloom, as the rain only got heavier and the skies darker, I kept myself distracted from the way my skirt was clinging to my knees as I walked, by contemplating the stories behind that umbrella.

I might not always manage to convey them successfully, but the images in my head and the desire to lift them out and show them to people are always there, and I think always have been. By the time I reached my desk, my hand was so cold and wet it was hard to hold a pen properly (if it had been autumn, I would have worn gloves on a morning like this, but why would I have gloves to hand in summer? Unless of course I’d learned anything from past experience), but I needed to scribble down the ideas chasing round my head, even if most of them would amount to nothing. I almost always have a notebook and pen with me, and at work I have an out-of-date desk diary, mostly blank, that I keep for lunchtime scrawls or early-morning ideas.

Ideas, and snippets of dialogue, are not a problem – like Alan Bennett (one of my inspirations) I keep my ears peeled on the bus, and sometimes I strike gold. My main stumbling block is following an idea through to fruition, or fitting smart dialogue into a reasonable context. I start twenty different stories, some at the beginning and some in the middle, and finish one or two by the end of a year, if I’m lucky. Sometimes I forget where I was going, or my style and taste change so much in the meantime that I abandon a piece, but I might plunder it for one or two particularly good lines or images.

I keep telling myself that if I got down to this properly, if I sat at my keyboard for eight hours every weekend, an hour every evening before bed, I could finish most things I started, get more stories out there, and (statistically, anyway) have a better chance of getting published. As it is, I could faff for Britain, and if I really wanted to concentrate on one story, I’d have to try and ignore all the other ideas that came to me while I was writing it. What if one of them was the queen of them all?