What is lost, and what comes of it

For reasons of trying to focus a (tentatively planned) short story collection I wondered recently what it is that drives my writing these days. What theme binds it all together? I mused over the possibilities: anger, frustration, class, the north. And realised with a shock that it seems to be loss.

Given what kind of a year 2018 was it shouldn’t have been so surprising, and maybe it’s the 2018 hangover that’s making me view some of this with a loss-filter, but if I want to make that the theme of a collection it’s there.

Loss of family members and pets, naturally. Loss of youth. Loss of opportunity. Loss of friends and social networks. Loss of memory, vocabulary, personality, identity. Loss of dialect. Loss of places, buildings, green spaces. Loss of the past, of a different way of life.

I am without a doubt inclined to melancholy, and there are deaths that remain raw no matter the passage of years and will crop up in my writing forever, I’m sure. However, there are new kinds of losses that come with age or injury, or with a failed attempt to reconnect with friends or relatives whose paths diverged from yours along the way somewhere. Things you don’t realise the importance of until they’re gone.

Take the village of my early childhood, which my mum’s family had already called home for a hundred and fifty years before my birth (and even then, they’d only moved a mile up the road). It seemed perfectly natural (not to mention eternal) when I was young that scattered across the place were relatives’ current and former workplaces, and the houses of cousins, uncles, multi-generational family friends, and my paternal grandparents. Four generations of my family lived in their end-terrace for seventy years and more, and now there’s a stranger’s tarmac drive where once my grandparents’ rose garden was admired and tended and enjoyed. The older generations have died, and for the most part the younger have moved away (I for one live nearly twenty miles away). New houses (and blocks of flats, unthinkable in my childhood) stand where horses grazed and on mill and factory sites that closed down as I grew older. I wrote a story called Worth a Mint? about returning to old haunts, memories, identity (and death) which is partly set there, but as it’s well over 8,000 words it’s been hard to find magazines to submit it to. That story is a major reason why I want to put a (non-genre) collection together in the first place.

It’s not rose-tinted nostalgia, I appreciate having a phone and central heating (and broadband, and the ability to listen later to a BBC radio programme I missed) and I’d hate to go back in a time machine to the mid-eighties. For one thing I’d have to play the dried-pea game at New Year, in which younger members of the family were given a saucer and a drinking straw and told to transfer (with hands behind their back) as many dried peas from a tray to the saucer in a fixed time (“This was entertainment?” my cousin’s daughter asked at the start of 2019 as she played on her smartphone, to which we had to explain that yes, it seemed like it at the time). However, I do seem to set a fair few stories in the eighties and nineties, if only because I have more of a grasp on what life was like then. Ditching the TV at the start of 2002 I lost my grasp on popular culture (some might say I never had much of one anyway) and certainly now with no smartphone and not being on Whatsapp or Facebook I feel disconnected from the majority experience. I’m even starting to be baffled by some of the allusions on Radio 4’s News Quiz. Oh dear.

Which, I guess brings me back to the loss of youth and all that goes with it. The midlife crises in my stories, the attempts at reinvention, and regrets over the path not taken. As well as many a death of a parent or beloved aunt, or the disorientation of their dementia. All of these, and the loss of dialect, accent, roots, chip away at identity until eventually that can be lost too. There’s plenty of scope for writing about all these facets and I keep revisiting different angles.

Loss is universal, even if we lose different people and places and abilities we are all still experiencing similar aches and regrets. I’ll leave you with a link to Word Factory apprentice Sharon Telfer’s gorgeous flash fiction My Father Comforts Me in the Form of Birds which has stayed with me since I first read it last year. (Though in case anyone is concerned, I’ll reassure you that both mine and OneMonkey’s dads are fine).

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2018 via a stack of books

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A selection of books I read in 2018

Those of you who’ve been around a while know this year (for me) has been mixed to say the least, yet I still apparently managed to read 47 books, some of which I piled on the living room floor and took a photo of so you can approve/despair of my taste, a bit like I did for 2016.

Despite taking weeks and weeks to get through River of Gods I was surprised to note that 27 of those 47 books were fiction (at least a dozen speculative fiction). 13 of the remaining 20 were, as you might expect, covering history, the north, class, or a combination thereof.

I read 38 physical books and 9 e-books (hence the Kobo in the photo – it’s displaying The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad). Shockingly I only read 5 library books (2 of them were e-books) in 2018, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t borrow others and give up on them. I also borrowed 2 books from The Library of Mum and Dad, read 4 out-of-copyright e-books (the Conrad, an Anthony Trollope, Wordsworth’s guide to the Lakes, and a history of Hinduism and Buddhism from 1921), 13 books I’d either received as a present or won, one review copy from The Bookbag, 15 I bought second-hand, and a paltry 7 that I bought new. And all of the new books were bought with book tokens or Waterstones/Kobo vouchers that people had given me as presents – does that actually make it 20 of the year’s 47 that were presents and prizes?

I only wrote a review of a few books I read this year, but to quickly run through a few others…

River of Gods by Ian McDonald is Indian-set sci-fi with strong AI themes, which will probably appeal to Alastair Reynolds fans. It has a large cast of characters, some of whom come together in the manner of a traditional multi-protagonist epic, others (if I recall correctly) skim by each other, more in the mode of Pulp Fiction. If this sounds appealing, I reviewed a fantastic sci-fi noir by Alastair Reynolds, and another Ian McDonald book (Brasyl).

Creation by Steve Grand is from nearly 20 years ago so artificial intelligence has come on since then, but OneMonkey (having read it back then and remembering it was still in the bookcase) recommended it to me around the time I started reading River of Gods and it was a fascinating and thought-provoking (non-fiction) read. My grasp of biology is pretty shaky but I have a strong programming background: some combination of those is probably useful to get the most out of it, but there’s a lot of pure thought in there (philosophy, if you will).

The Lost Words was our Christmas present from friend T, and is just beautiful. If you haven’t come across it (and if you haven’t, where have you been?) it’s a response to various nature words being removed from a new edition of a children’s dictionary. Those words have been gorgeously illustrated by Jackie Morris, and it’s aimed at children (they won’t appreciate it – get it for yourself).

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi is sci-fi set in Thailand; climate change, genetic modification, rampant capitalism, it’s got the lot. I hadn’t heard of the author, I picked it up in a charity shop BOGOF and I’m so glad I did. The setting was unusual (I believe the author is American) and it was brilliantly written and suitably tense. There are some pretty nasty bits in it though.

The Tempest Tales by well-known crime author Walter Mosley (whose Easy Rawlins books I’ve enjoyed but never, it appears, reviewed) was an unusual novella. A man is mistakenly killed by the police in Harlem and St Peter decides he’s not allowed into heaven. The man argues that he’s not a sinner, he’s only ever done the best he, as a black man on a low income in the place and time he lives, could do – there follows a loosely connected novella/story collection showing episodes in his life as he tries to persuade the angel that’s been sent back to earth with him to let him into heaven. Humour, philosophy, and some good characters.

Finally, Kate Atkinson’s Emotionally Weird was an odd but great book that I raced through. The bulk of it is set at Dundee University in the 70s and has more than a hint of Tom Sharpe about it (I used to love his farces set in higher education). However, this being Kate Atkinson there’s a big family mystery wrapping the whole thing up, which I think will particularly appeal if you enjoyed Behind the Scenes at the Museum.

I hope you enjoyed some great books in 2018, and that your To Read shelf is looking as enticing as mine. In the spirit of admitting my limitations I’m intending only to blog once a month in 2019 so hopefully I’ll see you here on the last Sunday of January.

Happy New Year!

 

Writing another gender

Recently, I overheard a woman express surprise that a male writer had written a novel from the point of view of a female character. She wasn’t disapproving, merely commenting on what she saw as an interesting choice. There is often an assumption that men can’t write convincing female characters (there may also be assertions I haven’t read, about women not writing convincing men) but it made me think about the assumptions that underpin that.

I’ve written from both male and female perspectives depending on what the story demanded at the time, and where I’ve written a short piece where the first-person narrator’s gender isn’t specified, I’ve had some people read it as male and some female, and both sets of readers seemed satisfied. If I stuck to writing my own gender, there’d be a whole host of common female experiences I might want to give my main characters that I have never had, affecting everything from everyday detail to major plot points and motivation:

  • I don’t wear a bra, underskirt, pop socks, tummy-control pants, and no doubt a whole list of things I don’t even know exist. I do feel like I’m in that episode of Father Ted whenever I venture into a lingerie department
  • I don’t wear high heels; the odd pair of cuban-heeled boots in the past but mainly it’s Doc Martens, Converse, and imitations thereof.
  • I’ve never worn, nor had any desire for, an engagement ring or a wedding dress
  • I’ve never planned a wedding, gone gooey over someone else’s wedding photos or engagement ring, or been on a hen night
  • I haven’t been a bridesmaid since I was seven
  • I’ve never found out I was pregnant, had a miscarriage or abortion, or used the morning-after pill
  • I’ve never been on maternity leave, or felt like I was being torn in two by the conflicting demands of children and career
  • I’ve never changed a nappy
  • I’ve never run for a bus and felt like my chest had a life of its own
  • I don’t wear make-up, and beyond lipstick and mascara (which I did wear at my gothiest) it’s all a bit of a mystery
  • Since I only have one ear pierced, I’ve never worn a discreet pair of matching earrings
  • I’ve never been to Weightwatchers, memorised the calorie content of common foods, or jumped on a new diet bandwagon
  • I’ve never worn false nails or false eyelashes, had highlights or a fancy hairdo
  • I’ve never thought about breast enhancements or agonised over cellulite
  • I’ve never been to be waxed, plucked, massaged or caked in mud in the name of beauty
  • I’ve never had a girls’ night in
  • I don’t see a baby and make strange noises and ask to hold it
  • I’ve never declared myself a feminist or had any interest in how many women are in senior positions at work
  • I don’t read women’s lifestyle magazines, keep up with fashion or enjoy clothes shopping
  • Despite having two sisters and a couple of close female friends I’ve never had the kind of conversations about sex and shopping that feature so heavily in the flicks

For any of these I (like the men who were being derided on social media for even attempting the exercise) would have to observe other people’s behaviour, ask a friend, or read up on it. People have such individual experiences of life that surely we all of us (writers, I mean) have to use empathy and imagination all the time in order to offer a range of believable characters. Gender is probably the broadest category out there, so to expect women to automatically have a better handle on female characters than men seems ludicrous. I suspect the men who fail to write female characters are also not much good at male characters unless they’re heavily based on themselves, and that’s got nothing to do with gender, it’s just a gap in their writing ability.

Audiobooks: do they count as reading?

The answer, as with most things worth thinking about is ‘it depends’. It depends on the person and their intention, and it probably depends on the book.

This topic seems to keep flaring up on social media and it gets quite heated. Accusations of laziness on one side, snobbery on the other, and all manner of unpleasantries in between. I don’t understand why anyone thinks there’s a blanket judgement to be made (or indeed why it matters, outside of education where a reading assignment might have a particular intention to do with recognising words).

For the sake of a straightforward look at this, let’s say we’re only talking about comfortable adult readers (or confident teens), not anyone who’s still developing their reading skills. And we’re only talking about unabridged versions of the books.

Many years ago my Nana’s cousin went blind and I remember her huge talking book machine with its chunky buttons, and tapes (easily the size of video cassettes) that she’d get in the post regularly from the RNIB. She would sit in her armchair in the same way she used to sit and read a paperback, and devote her entire attention to the novel being read to her, using her imagination in just the same way. I would class that as her reading a book – if you asked her afterwards about plot and characters or a host of other questions about the novel, she’d be just as able to answer them as she would if she’d sat down ten years earlier and read the words from the page herself.

On the other hand I listen to audiobooks all the time and I don’t call my experience reading at all. My local library uses Borrowbox, so you can borrow ebooks and audiobooks if you have the app on your phone or tablet. If I was sitting down to concentrate on a book I’d read it for myself because that’s a pastime I enjoy, which means audiobooks are always an added extra – I’m washing up, I’m doing stretches for my back, I’m eating my tea. My attention isn’t fully on the text. And unlike with a book where I would realise I was distracted (or perhaps hadn’t fully understood something) and read the paragraph again, I rarely rewind the playback on the tablet. I know I’ve missed bits, sometimes crucial bits, but perhaps because it feels like I’m listening to the radio and therefore just have to put up with a response drowned out by a neighbour’s excited dog, I shrug and continue.

Often, OneMonkey and I will put an audiobook on if we’re finding it hard to fall asleep, too many things buzzing round the brain on a Sunday night, for instance. The idea is we focus on the book instead of the distracting thoughts, but if it does its job really well, we fall asleep before the reading ends (Borrowbox has a handy timer for just such a situation). Do we rewind the next time we listen? No, of course we don’t. We’ll pick it up eventually, we think, and often if it’s fiction we’re right – the plot might still make sense even if we’ve missed some subtle twists and turns. If it’s non-fiction we’ve likely just missed a chunk and we’ll never know what it was. In either case we have of course missed out on some particular phrasing or use of language that the author worked hard on, so in the same way that I personally wouldn’t say I’d read a book if I’d skipped a chapter, I wouldn’t say I’d read any of these books either.

That ‘personally’ is an important word. I wouldn’t say I’d read a non-fiction book with a lot of graphs in it, if I’d skipped over all the graphs. Someone else, who doesn’t get as much out of graphs as I do, may well do, and that’s fine. Some people skim-read as a matter of course. Someone with better concentration than me (or who thinks to use the rewind facility) might have fully savoured and imagined every fiction audiobook they’ve ever listened to and properly considered all the non-fiction ones, in which case they could participate in discussions with other people who’d read them and no-one would know they hadn’t literally sat and turned the pages themselves, unless they happened to mention it.

Maybe that’s what it comes down to, for me – what did the reader/listener get out of the experience? Half the time when I listen to an audiobook (or a podcast) I’m looking for background noise, and if I absorb a bit of a story or some information it’s an added bonus, more akin to flicking through magazines in a waiting room than actually sitting down with a book. On the other hand if the book is your focus then it doesn’t matter whether you’re reading a paper copy and bending the page corners over, swiping your way through an ebook, listening to a mellifluous reading by a well-known actor, or having it transmitted directly to the brain via some neural connection that’s bound to be along in a few years. No one method is definitively better* than the others, it comes down to personal preference.

*as in a better experience for the individual, not level of word recall or any other quantitative aspects people have no doubt researched.

Life’s spanners and NaNoWriMo: getting back on the writing horse

It’s fair to say I haven’t been keeping up with this blog lately, missing weeks, publishing posts I wrote ages ago for fallow times, or republishing old posts. You may recall about six months ago I began a new day job (completely unrelated to writing) after eighteen months of trying to write full-time, and I acknowledged that I’d have less time to write, and it would take time to form new habits and routines. However, I hadn’t taken on board that shorter lunchbreaks than in my last job meant I could no longer get to the library at lunchtime to write (I’m working about 100 yards away from my old office), and I hadn’t realised how reluctant I’d be to sit at a computer on an evening when I was spending seven hours in front of a screen during the day, rather than the old blend of screen, paper, and time away from a desk. I certainly hadn’t anticipated the succession of spanners life was about to chuck in the works.

In the last six months OneMonkey and I have encountered bereavement, health problems in the family involving long periods of waiting, disruption and upset and general stress which looks set to continue for the foreseeable future. Plus we both turned forty and celebrated (dancing alone to our playlist) our twentieth anniversary. There has been much reflection on life and direction, priorities and what’s truly important.

For me, writing is definitely one of the important things, but such has been the effect of the past six months I’ve barely written anything. The writing community on Twitter is another one, but I’ve largely withdrawn from that partly due to squeezed time, partly because I don’t have the energy to be social. Those of you who’ve been around here a while or know me in real life know I’ve usually got a book in my hand (or I’ve just put it down for five minutes to make a cup of tea). I’ve been reading River of Gods by Ian McDonald for so long I’ve kind of forgotten what’s going on, I’m almost reading each chapter as a stand-alone story that sets off echoes of something else I once read, a long time ago. Clearly these are unusual times.

So, in part this stands as an apology for those of you who enjoy my blog and have been left wanting lately, and those of you who feel I’m neglecting you on Twitter, whose stories I haven’t read and whose successes I haven’t celebrated. In part (upbeat ending alert…) it serves as encouragement to keep trying – I’m aiming to take part in NaNoWriMo again this year.

Some people see NaNo as a competition, a thing to win, and if you haven’t written 50,000 words by midnight on November 30th you’ve failed. I see it as a cattle prod. There’s this writing you want to do, and it’s easy to lose it among the day to day. For one month NaNo and the other writers taking part will be saying come on, keep going, just write a bit more. And for one month you can tell yourself you can postpone this other thing or not spend as much time on that, and carve yourself out a writing niche. If you write 500 words during November when you didn’t think you’d manage any, then that’s an achievement. I certainly won’t be aiming at 50,000 words of the semi-rural fantasy, for one thing I reckon I only need another 30,000 to finish the draft, but I’ll try and write some, which is more than I’ve managed in a while.

Best of luck to anyone else doing NaNoWriMo this year, and I’ll let you know how I get on. Eventually.

Grayson Perry on masculinity

I knew very little about Grayson Perry (other than that I wasn’t keen on his art) before I happened to catch part of his Reith lectures, ‘Playing to the Gallery’ in 2013. I sought out the rest on catch-up, read something he’d written in the paper when he made a TV programme about men and maleness, and added his 2016 book The Descent of Man to my To Read list as soon as I heard he’d written it. Having finally got it out of the library in January, I read it quickly and with great interest, and I’d recommend it to anyone interested in the thorny topic of gender in the modern age as well as anyone interested more broadly in contemporary politics and society. I don’t have to agree with him on everything to applaud the kind of book he’s written and the approach he’s taken, though I think I do agree with his assertion that “I think we like the idea that gender is in our genes because it is convenient, it lets us off the hook.”

I’d like to think gender was irrelevant in modern Britain and I’ve refused to join women-only groups in everything from the Institute of Physics to the local branch of the Labour Party, so I’m not a habitual reader of gender-focused texts. I don’t, for that reason, know if The Descent of Man is a good example of its kind, but for the general reader like me it seemed a thought-provoking introduction to the topic. The tone of the book was none too serious, which helped. His comments on the parents of Islington made me laugh for instance, how they undoubtedly claim to bring up their sons as tender and gentle, away from gender stereotype, “I’m sure they do, and the young men in question are probably delightful,… and I’m pretty sure their mothers still do most of the childcare and housework or employ other women to do it.”

I thought Perry’s identification of Default Man was interesting, the white middle-class heterosexual male who is (as a broad group) at the head of all things, from banks and universities to media outlets and politics. Everyone else is measured against them – neutral means what Default Man uses, does, wears, like the uniform of the sober suit with a tie (colourful clothes are suspect), and anything else is automatically Other. Once you look at society with Default Man in mind, lots of things start to make more sense. As well as Default Man we have the Department of Masculinity, a member of which provides the voice in your head telling you not to be a “sissy”. Which, he argues, leads to confusion and aggression and worrying about what other people think. Or in other words Toxic Masculinity and its detrimental effects on mental health.

We need more public intellectuals if you ask me, we’re losing the art of debate and the ability (maybe even the desire) to question things. They might not cover a topic from all angles and they will bring bias with them, consciously or otherwise. They haven’t always found solutions, even if they think they have, but they’ve thought about it, asked some good questions, and made us think about it too. So hurrah for a potter with no qualification other than that of being a man himself, daring to provoke us into thinking and talking about what it means to be a man in modern Britain.

David Crystal and English pronunciation

Yesterday afternoon OneMonkey and I enjoyed a highly entertaining talk at the Ilkley Literature Festival by David Crystal the well-known linguist. His latest book is Sounds Appealing: The Passionate Story of English Pronunciation, which covers a wide range of topics under that heading, so he concentrated his three-quarters of an hour on regional accents.

You probably know how interested I am in accents and attitudes to accents, and you may also have picked up that Geordie OneMonkey and I have quite different accents (slowly morphing into one another until, we often joke, one day we’ll both sound like we’re from Middlesborough) so we had plenty to talk about afterwards. As Prof Crystal said, accents and differences in pronunciation provoke strong feelings: there are two aspects to pronunciation, intelligibility (can people understand you?) and identity, and clearly it’s the identity aspect that stirs people up.

Because people move around so much or (as with OneMonkey and I) settle down with someone from a different place, it’s harder to pin down someone’s origins from their accents than it once was. However, apparently on average the accent changes every twenty-five miles in England (possibly in the whole UK, I forget which he said), which is fascinating. It also makes me wonder how ‘the Yorkshire accent’ can be seen as the third-nicest accent in the UK when Yorkshire is a massive place encompassing such different accents as Hull and Huddersfield (both of which I dislike), Sheffield, Whitby and Bradford. Do they all sound broadly similar to people from further afield, I wonder? In the same way that I say someone sounds southern, but unless they sound like Phil from Time Team (Somerset?) I’m unlikely to be more specific.

David Crystal obviously knows his stuff and was a witty and engaging speaker, full of anecdotes and facts, and not averse to doing impressions of the Queen. If his books are half as entertaining they should be well worth a read and I intend to seek some out at the library soon. I’m only amazed I’ve never read any of them before.