Living in a Cultural Void, or Whither Public Transport?

Looking at job listings on the Arts Council website the other day, I was struck by how many were in London. To save time wading through all those distant vacancies I thought about filtering so that only Yorkshire listings were shown, then I saw jobs in Hull and Rotherham (East and South Yorkshire respectively, whereas I’m in West) and I wondered if I needed to look at North West as well, since Manchester is probably easier for me (no car) to get to than either of those. Lucky Londoners, I thought, all those theatres, museums, galleries and the like right on their doorstep. Then I remembered a friend who used to live in Enfield (about 10 miles north of where I as an outsider think of as London, all those famous buildings by the Thames) saying he rarely went in to the city itself as it was quite a trek, and decided maybe I was doing many Londoners a disservice. They might be in no better position than I am, ten minutes’ walk from a train station, not so far from Bradford and Leeds. Armed with the measuring function on Google maps, and the journey planners for National Rail, Transport for London, and West Yorkshire Metro I had a bit of a look.

Starting with London, Enfield is about 8.5-12 miles as the crow flies from places I recognise on a map as having venues you’d want to visit for concerts, theatre, exhibitions etc. Because of London’s joined-up public transport system (particularly the Underground) that means it takes about 20 minutes to cover the 10 miles to the Tate Modern art gallery, half an hour to the Victoria and Albert Museum or the Barbican, and about 40 minutes to the distant Shepherd’s Bush Empire, a gig venue that’s stuck in my mind from many lists of tour dates I’ve heard read out on the radio over the years.

I’m lucky to live on the outskirts of a small town with its own literature festival, and we get the odd national tour in our concert hall too (Billy Bragg was here last year). Beyond that though, it’s about 6 miles (as the crow flies from my local station, half an hour on the train) to the Hockney gallery at Saltaire, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and worth a visit anyway. Then you’re into the same sort of distances as from Enfield to central London: 9 miles to Bradford (theatres, galleries, the National Media Museum, the Bradford literature festival) or to Haworth for the Bronte pilgrimage, 11.5 miles to Harrogate for the Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. Here’s where we differ though, it takes half an hour by train into the centre of Bradford, then easily another quarter of an hour to walk to the Alhambra or Media Museum, or to the university venues for the literature festival. Haworth has a railway station, but only for steam trains so from here you’d have to get a bus, and the journey planner reckons on just over an hour. Harrogate also has a station, but from here you have to go into Leeds and back out again so it’s marginally quicker by bus, again about an hour.

It’s not all bad news though because Leeds, 13.5 miles as the crow flies, is only half an hour away by train. Of course you’ve then got a 15-20 minute walk to the Royal Armouries, the Tetley, the West Yorkshire Playhouse or the Grand Theatre, and many Leeds-based events actually happen in the student-dominated area of Headingley (just less than 12 miles from here, but as you have to go into Leeds and back out again by train, it’s quicker by bus. 50 minutes this time) but it still counts as our nearest big cultural centre. It’s where we go to gigs, anyway.

For that job in Rotherham (just under 40 miles away) it would take me about 2 hours on the train. On the plus side Hull, UK City of Culture 2017, is also 2 hours away by train even though it’s just over 60 miles from here. Wakefield, for the Hepworth gallery, is just over 20 miles away and an hour by train. York (National Railway Museum, theatres and concerts, as well as general historical loveliness) is nearly 30 miles away but only an hour and a quarter by train, not much different from Manchester with its various galleries and museums at a distance of 35 miles (hour and a half by train). Newcastle, more than 70 miles away, begins to seem reasonable at two and a quarter hours by train plus a bit of a walk to the Theatre Royal, the Sage, the Baltic, the Laing Art Gallery and various museums. I’m still not tempted by the bargain time of three and a quarter hours for the 180 miles from here to the British Library though, and I wouldn’t live in London for the world.

It’s worth noting that I haven’t looked at costs for any of these journeys, though national rail travel is likely to be more expensive than local bus or (at a guess) London Underground. Buses will take longer than the timetable says, some days are worse than others, and if you start feeling sick after more than about half an hour on a bus (like OneMonkey or I) you’re even more limited. I took midweek, 9.30am onwards, as my sample, and I haven’t considered that for some of the places you might want to visit there are only 2 or 3 trains a day, or no public transport in the evening (which might be a pain if you’re trying to get to the theatre).

Week 11: The weather outside is frightful

We have had snow this week but not much of it and it didn’t last long (and I was indoors, all cosy with a book). We’ve also had wisps of low cloud like sagging cobwebs over the valley, and proper murk where the close yellowish grey mist looks like nicotine-stained net curtains. I love the low light, the way the damp foliage changes colour compared to dry days, and the shifting glimpses of the moor way over there across the unseen river.

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View across the valley

I’m fine-tuning the first three chapters of the semi-rural fantasy at the moment, before sending them off with my application to the Northern Writers’ Awards. I’ll never be properly satisfied with my entry but I’m aiming to reach ‘good enough to send’ by sometime next week. It’s making me re-focus on the essence of the book, and I’ve been enjoying quite a bit of background reading related to it.

I’m also nearing the finish line on my entry to Hometown Tales, which is supposed to unearth writers from under-represented regions. Is West Yorkshire under-represented? We have David Peace and Alan Bennett (have they both moved elsewhere?), and Joanne Harris of course. Possibly I’m over-thinking this, and what the publishers really mean is ‘writers from outside London’.

Staggering revelation of the week (apart from ‘all my friends are turning 40 this year’, although strictly it’s only most of them) is that there are women out there who arrive at well-established adulthood without ever having worn men’s clothes. I feel this will end up in a story at some point. Imagine only ever wearing shirts that have darts in, pulling them in to some shape that doesn’t represent most people’s reality! Never reaching into your inside pocket for a wallet! Never having anywhere to put your keys unless you carry a bag! Possibly I am generalising, and there are hitherto unknown women’s clothes that don’t follow this trend (and, it must be said, I wear women’s clothes a fair bit even though they have little or nothing in the way of pockets). Still, food for thought.

As ever, a varied week. Feel free to comment about your own, particularly in the vein of staggering revelations…

Come to York for stories and songs

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Artwork courtesy of Jess Wallace

Tickets are now on sale via eventbrite for the storytelling evening I told you about back in November. It’s on March 8th and it’s part of the York International Women’s Festival – you can look at the full festival programme here, it’s got health and fitness events, open mic poetry, music, activism, history walks, all sorts of eclectic stuff.

Alice Courvoisier and I (the usual storytelling duo you’re used to hearing about round here) will be joined by Alice’s friends Cath and Julie, with appropriate songs from the marvellously named Barberellas in between.

The eagle-eyed will notice that this is the first time we’ve charged for entry to this kind of thing. I mentioned before that there are hidden costs like time off paid work to rehearse, and travel costs. For the York Festival of Ideas we were given a venue by the university, whereas for this festival we’ve had to hire our own, and of course once you start collecting money you need to cover eventbrite fees as well. It’s a wonder anyone ever bothers putting this kind of event on.

Of course it’s good fun, which is what tips the balance. Hopefully some of you devoted readers (maybe not the ones overseas) will come along and enjoy the evening too. See you there.

Week 10: Return of the back (problem)

Hurrah for the Kobo Mini, small and light enough for me to pace around the flat with as I try to get some muscles working, and to hold above my face as I lie down and take the pressure off my errant spine. Believe me, it’s not nearly so easy with a thick paperback.

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That got me thinking about buying books, and I realised that apart from half a dozen bought as Christmas presents for friends and family, OneMonkey and I didn’t buy a single brand new physical book in 2016. Between us we bought 7 or 8 ebooks, having received Kobo vouchers for Christmas 2015, and we definitely bought a few books from charity shops for ourselves (and a selection of second-hand books for other people), but mainly we’ve been reading either library books (including ebooks), or books we’ve been given. Disloyalty to the book trade?

With the help of a laptop on a plastic crate that doesn’t wobble too much, placed on a kitchen worktop by OneMonkey, I’ve been able to finish writing a rumination on what it is about the north that inspires me, which I hope to be able to point you at a link to fairly soon. One thing my dayjob did have, a sit-stand desk so I could crank it up to standing height when I couldn’t bear to sit in a chair any longer. It occurs to me I could do with something similar at home. The kitchen worktop is wonderfully distraction free (if you don’t count the kettle and the tea-caddy) but sometimes it’s useful to have the computer in a room the wi-fi signal reaches.

The first story submission of 2017 was made this week, organisation continues for the Chapel FM Writing on Air festival (specifically the writing workshop we’re hosting at Seacroft library at the end of the month), and at the start of the week I wrote a few midweek blog posts, the first of which you’ve already had (thankfully, I’d scheduled it). Oh, and I finally read Pride and Prejudice since it was lurking on the Kobo and I had a lot of reading time on my hands. It was alright actually, quite amusing in places – maybe I should go lie down again.

Reading my way through 2016

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As far as number of books goes, my reading hit a bit of a dip in 2016 and most of those books I read because of writing. There’s the how-to books about writing, of which I read two this year and re-read a third. Then there’s the nine books Sue at the Bookbag kindly posted to me, to read and review. All of them this year I think were previously unknown to me before I picked them from a list of available books, so in that sense they were read for writing purposes (for the most part I’m very glad I did read them and as a whole batch I enjoyed them enormously, all I mean is that at the outset they were on my reading pile for a reason). I read two history books as background to my contribution to the Dangerous Women Project and another non-fiction book that I’m not sure how to categorise (environmental mindfulness?), as background for a potential future project with Alice Courvoisier. And I read four novels, and abandoned a few others partway through, so I could review female-authored SF for Luna Station Quarterly.

When I first signed up for reviewing at LSQ I did notice that I hadn’t read much female-authored SF in the previous couple of years, but I thought apart from anything it would be a useful way to redress the balance. How hard can it be to find four SF books a year written by women, when you have the whole of the local library and charity shops to go at? Maybe it’s the skew of the collection in my local library (and maybe this is why I hadn’t read much female-authored SF for a while) but I found myself pulling book after book off the shelf and dismissing it. Teenage vampires. Cliché-ridden steampunk. Sounds OK but it’s book 4 of the series. It got so that every time I went to the library I was scouring the fantasy and sci-fi shelves for female authors rather than books that grabbed my attention, and I started reading quite a few that sounded ok but were quickly abandoned when it became clear this was yet another book with a main character who was ‘feisty’ (incredibly feminine but with laddish behaviour as a way of proving something tiresome) or, particularly in urban fantasy ‘quirky’ (hey I have green hair and I might kiss other girls) and that was its main point.

I’m as happy as the next curmudgeon for there to be a romantic sub-plot to an epic fantasy (Tad Williams throws them in as main plots, for heaven’s sake – look at Bobby Dollar) but I don’t like mushy and I don’t like sentimental. I also don’t think female characters are shocking or even particularly interesting just because they don’t fit some kind of narrow old-fashioned ideal of heterosexual womanhood (meek and weak, with a skirt, a handbag, make-up and a glossy pony-tail). Ursula Le Guin and CJ Cherryh seem to have cottoned onto that a generation ago, so I’m not sure what went wrong since. Like I said, maybe we just don’t get much good stuff round here. Anyway, I quit reviewing for LSQ a couple of months ago.

I did read some fabulous books in 2016, including a couple more in Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series (police procedurals in a fantasy-overlaid London) and some Anthony Trollope novels, after my self-imposed Trollope fast in 2015. A few I read out of curiosity and was surprised at my immense enjoyment:  Morrissey’s autobiography for instance, as well as the slightly cynical fantasy novel The Magician King by Lev Grossman, Mobius Dick by Andrew Crumey (which I haven’t posted the review of yet – keep your eyes peeled) and The Blackbird Singularity the breathtaking debut from Matt Wilven in which a man full of grief and hope loses his mind. The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan was every bit as fabulous a fantasy novel as it sounded and The Devil’s Feast by MJ Carter was a richly imagined historical crime novel with real chef Alexis Soyer as one of the main characters.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of my reading year, but I’d love to hear what anyone else has enjoyed reading in 2016, or if you agree/disagree with any of my comments.

Week 9: Research and the art of getting sidetracked

The week between Christmas and New Year – Twixtmas, as I’ve heard it referred to rather delightfully – is an odd time of suspended normality. OneMonkey and I had nothing particular to do, nowhere to be, I was full of cold most of the week and the weather wasn’t enticing us onto the moor much. What to do in those circumstances? Why, read, of course.

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As well as the end of a fantasy novel and the start of an intriguing crime novel (set in Mumbai, probably to be reviewed here later) I’ve read acres of newsprint. Online, naturally.

The trouble I always find with (historical) research is that I find everything fascinating: grain prices, shipping reports, court circulars. I start out quite innocently with a Bradford Observer from the mid-nineteenth century and before I know it I’ve hopped to the trials of a new steam coach (1837) and thence to 1812 where I ricochet between Luddite riots (and their associated trials), the assassination of the Prime Minister, a short account of the largest sheep a local butcher had ever slaughtered, and the abandonment of the leather tax (when the government, joined up as ever, realised it would be paying most of it on military equipment). Every single one of these articles (plus the inspection of militia regiments, the tragic death by fire of a small child, and a spate of highway robberies outside Wakefield) sparks story ideas and a whole series of questions. I start to forget what I was researching in the first place.

Amazingly I have found time this week to work on the semi-rural fantasy novel (now over 22,000 words), look back on the year in reading (probably to follow in its own post) and write some shorter pieces. I also ate the last mince pie of the season.

I hereby raise my mug of Earl Grey to all of you and to the coming year, may the two have a harmonious coexistence.

The gate to storyland

Some objects are full of stories. Take this small wooden gate:

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Earlier this year I spotted it on a shelf in a local charity shop and couldn’t resist. Not unreasonably, OneMonkey asked why on earth I wanted it and what I was going to do with it. I just do, I said, and I’m going to put it somewhere and look at it – what else?

The truth is, it was the story behind the wooden gate that appealed to me. It’s the sort of thing my dad might make as trackside scenery for a model train (he builds the kind that actually run on coal, outdoors) but it’s an odd scale, the base-board is about a foot long. There was nothing similar on nearby shelves, it was in good condition and the gate opens, so: what did it get made for, and why did someone get rid of it? There’s the mundane explanation that it could have been a test piece for learning a particular woodwork technique, and once made it was just taking up valuable house room. That’s a bit boring though, and I’ve thought of lots of better ones in idle moments, but I assumed it was only me who was interested in it.

Sister Number One noticed at Christmas that I’d added the hedgehog and the mouse which have lived on my bookcase for many years. Big Brother then suggested I get a suitably sized rucksack and sit it on the stile, perhaps with a walking stick propped against it. And a pair of boots, he added. Boots? Yes, then we’ll wonder where the walker’s gone and what’s through the gate. And we all sat and looked at a second-hand model gate, and wondered.