My new nook

To call it an office or writing space or den doesn’t do justice to a space where I meditate, read, daydream, write and connect with the world through my laptop. I’ve also grown weary of the ‘room of her own’ cliché. Simply put, a writer needs a space to create and get on with the job of writing. Over the years, I’ve integrated my writing space with my meditation space, realising that I need mindfulness to think, thinking to write and writing to practice mindfulness.

When we moved house a few months ago we decided to use space in a creative and more utilitarian way. What was referred to as bedroom one, the second largest room next to the dining/living room, became my office. Bedroom three, also referred to by the estate agent as ‘dining room’ as it was connected to the conservatory, became our bedroom. Bedroom three may have been a tight fit for our bed, but since it was a room only used for sleeping and marital recreation, this made sense. I was blessed with the big room looking out over the front garden, our quiet street and in the distance the West Tower of Ely Cathedral. A writer’s dream.

But you can’t dream, or even daydream very well, if you can’t sleep. Our new bedroom may have been at the back of the house, but it was lit up at night by a streetlight from a private carpark. The conservatory glass doors, windows and ceiling made sure of that. On the other side of the equation was my new office, which needed to double as a dressing room with wardrobe and dresser, and it needed to ‘triple’ (new verb) as an exercise room for me with my yoga matt and hand-held weights (David uses the living room). To top it off, this dream office shared a wall with David’s African-themed office, which meant that he could hear me talking to colleagues in Zoom and waffling in French during online sessions of ‘Le Book Club.’ After a couple of months of light sleeping and working around each other, following other renovations that had to come first (functioning kitchen and bathroom), we did the big switch.

In the larger bedroom with the wardrobe, dresser and space for the yoga matt, we are both sleeping more easily, and we no longer need to squeeze around the bed. My new office is smaller than my last office but has the quiet and privacy I need to meditate to think to be mindful. Looking through the conservatory doors and windows into the garden, I’m writing this from my office nook.

Dalton Trumbo wrote in his bathroom.
Patricia Highsmith in her nook.

Writing in the New Year

I’ve kept journals for years but sporadically, going through stretches of daily journal writing when I lived overseas to once every couple of weeks when I was in the throes of a writing assignment, squeezing in the odd journal entry to capture an idea before it flew away. For this New Year, I thought I’d try something different by vowing to write in my journal every day for the whole of 2021.

While I write nearly every day anyhow, this is a different type of writing. When I was in South Korea and Oman writing in a journal every day was easy as there was plenty to write about – different cultures, languages, new people and problems with being a foreigner. A daily journal at this stage in my life – when so many things seem pointless – is both a challenge and (my reason for doing this) a much-needed form of therapy, woven into a writing exercise. I’m following the advice of the master diarist Virginia Woolf, who once said, ‘the habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments.’

Ultimately, this is about writing. It brings to mind too the words of Joan Didion, writing some years ago for London Magazine on why she writes. She describes the moment when she realised that she was a writer:

‘By which I mean not a “good” writer or a “bad” writer but simply a writer, a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper…. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.’

The challenge lies in the practice of doing this every single day. I do have other daily routines that require some discipline – I meditate, exercise and do something in French and/or Italian every day without thinking about it, and more importantly, I feel a sense of being out-of-sorts until I have done these things. I’ve been doing this typing version of scribbling in this daily journal for seven days now. So far, so good, but I am still at a point of having to remind myself to do it.

I don’t know what all of this journal writing will bring. It could lead me in the direction of Virginia Woolf, who like me was an erratic, undisciplined journal writer until she turned 33 (okay, younger than me now), when she took up journaling and continued until four days before her death.

I’ll close with a sample, proof that I’m really doing this. In future, I won’t be directly sharing these journal entries with you, dear reader, as that would take away their magic powers.

7 January 2021

Trump supporters have finally had the day that they have lived for – armed and angry, they’ve stormed the capitol and attempted a coup on the US government. They were talking this way long before Trump came on the scene. Now, they’re headlining the news and might even make it into the history books. As remarkable and unbelievable as this all seems, it was predictable, the stuff of dinnertime conversations with friends over the past four years. Shock and expectation entangled – the mind is more complicated than we give it credit for.

Best wishes for the New Year. Keep reading, keep writing.

Samson’s A Theatre for Dreamers

Set on the Greek island of Hydra in the 1960s when it was a writers and artists’ colony, Polly Samson’s A Theatre for Dreamers has been my lockdown escapist’s treat.  The writing is delicious, a full-sensory experience of seeing the purple bougainvillea, inhaling the fragrance of the sea air and tasting the icy liquorice of the raki.

Borrowing from the true life stories of Hydra’s bohemian inhabits, the main story revolves around the narrator Erica, a new arrival to the island. Following the death of her mother, Erica, who’s in her late teens, and her slightly older brother have escaped England and their brutal dictatorial father. While her brother pursues the artist’s life, along with plenty of sun, sex and sand, Erica dabbles in writing and in her boyfriend. But she’s really on the island to talk to Australian writer Charmian Clift, who knew Erica’s mother. Charmian becomes something of a reluctant mentor to young Erica, scolding her for supporting her boyfriend’s creative aspirations over her own. In time Charmian recognises herself in this as she plays muse and literary coach to her husband George Johnson. Their real-life turbulent literary partnership is well documented.

A titillating subplot weaves its way through the narrative, involving a young Leonard Cohen at a point when he falls in love with Marianne Ihlen, who was on again and off again, though eventually separated from the artist Axel Jensen. Cohen and Ihlen’s relationship lasted many years, unlike most on this island of free-love, and has been immortalised by some of Cohen’s own poems and more recently by the Netflix documentary Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love.

Sidebar: I’m not a Leonard Cohen fan. Can I say that without getting trolled? I like some of his songs and his poems even more, but I simply do not understand the cult-like adoration.

Back to Samson’s exhilarating and beautiful book. Ultimately, it is a meditation on creativity and relationships, showing how together they can take form, crack and break.

For writers interested in biography or fictions based on true lives, the acknowledgements at the end are worth reading. The author gathered materials from interviews, some on radio and TV, some of her own, pieced together with memoirs and other artefacts. Some of the characters’ dialogue comes from their actual words.

For you Cohen fans, I close on Cohen’s description of life in Hydra: ‘There is nowhere in the world where you can live like you can in Hydra, and that includes Hydra.’

Leonard Cohen with Marianne et al
Leonard Cohen, Marianne Ehlen (and her son), George Johnson and Charmian Clift. Photo by James Burke

 

 

Corona Writing Corona

One of the downsides of being a writer at the moment comes from receiving emails for writers. Since the Covid-19 lockdown, literary magazines, writers’ competitions and writers’ organisations have taken it upon themselves to provide a service by coaxing us into writing during the lockdown.  Whether it’s corona-themed issues, creative writing competitions for our suddenly increased output or sharing our dryly humorous lockdown stories, we writers should all be writing right now.

This unearths several problems.

First of all, lockdown does not equal free time. My academic and professional writing life, which involves mostly confinement with my laptop, has not changed at all. Student assignments are still coming in and writing deadlines are still looming. My non-work time has been filled, in addition to the usual jogging/walking, news and fiction reading and language studying, with Zoom calls to friends and colleagues and with standing in long queues outside of supermarkets. Finding the time for creative writing involves breaking some laws of physics.

Second, thinking is a big part of creative writing. The thinking part of my brain (I believe my brain also emotes and reacts without thinking) has been rather pre-occupied. If I were to etch out some time, probably from the one-subject-only newspaper reading, my thought space would be filled with the enormity of this all. Sometimes my head wheels are turning over the different approaches to the spread of the virus across different countries, and I suspect Britain is not doing the right thing, but I don’t know what the right thing is. Other times, my thoughts are wallowing in the sadness of what is happening, the loss of so many lives and the stories of some of those lives. I do express these thoughts, as I am now, but mostly in my journal, where I have the privacy to convey ideas in their raw form without having to find the bon mot.

This brings me to the third problem. You can’t turn creativity off and on like a tap. I find that my fountain of creativity is not only unpredictable at the best of times, but runs dry when I’m sad about something (which is different from being inexplicably depressed, where writing can be therapeutic – another time, another blog). I admire the war poets who could compose the most beautiful verses in the face of such fear and sorrow. Does the sadness I’m experiencing need to be explained or explored? We’re all experiencing it. When I experience it, I recoil from creative writing. In recent weeks, I’ve spoken to other writers about this and I know I’m not alone.

Fourth, other writers, mainly journalist, are writing about the virus. Whether it’s reportage on the science, analysis of what governments are doing or not doing, or those who tell us how the lockdown is affecting our lives, there are plenty of writers kept in work by Covid-19. I ask myself, what could I possibly add to the public discourse on this virus that hasn’t already been said? The real challenge for writers – journalists, non-fiction and fiction writers – is to not write about Covid-19 and get published.

That brings me to a solution to these problems, at least for now.  As an avid diarist, I’ve been writing most days in my journals. Only the subject matter has changed to the topic of the day – as it’s stuck in my head – details of the ways our town has changed, the joys of more birdlife around us and feelings about my existence/mortality and that of those around me (spiritually if not physically these days). Someday, as with a lot of my journal writing, these thoughts will find their way to a public readership, but in some other form – a story, a novel, an essay. Something will be created out of these recorded memories, but with the assistance of hindsight and reflection.

 

Some things I learned in 2019

Please forgive this listacle – at least it’s not another top 10 of this or that. As I try to sum up 2019 in a way that doesn’t sound as bleak as the way it ended, I offer these thoughts of some of the year’s more enlightened  moments.

  • Are Alain de Botton and Slavoj Zizek really philosophers of our time? I’ve learned more this past year from Kenan Malik of the Guardian/Observer and Hasan Minhaj on Netflix.
  • I’ve learned a great expression in French – la poudre de perlimpinpin. Great, largely because of the way it sounds, ending /pɛʁ lɛ̃ pɛ̃ pɛ̃/. I’m told it’s onomatopoeic and meant to sound like abracadabra.   It’s the French equivalent of snake oil. I was talking to a French person about Trump and Johnson at the time.
  • Unconscious bias – it’s become a buzzword. Like many, I’ve had awareness training through my employer. It’s made me more aware of myself, especially the myopia of my younger self, and gives me a handy phrase that sounds less caustic when describing the ways of others. Yet, I’m still left flummoxed at the receiving end. That is, I can’t stop it from happening to me. But this year I’ve learned to expect it and acknowledge that I can’t change it.
  • With the help of YouTube, I’ve learned how to remove a car battery without getting electrocuted, how to take in trouser legs and the difference between Italian R’s and Spanish RRRR’s.
  • Before this year, when it came to politics, I would have said that some people are ignorant and latch on to any populist that comes along. As 2019 appears in the corner of my screen for the last time, I now believe that those people aren’t ignorant, but they are politically lazy, wanting someone else to think for them and not bothering to fact check. Unfortunately, for the rest of us, these people have just as much a right to vote as we do.
  • Selling a collection of short stories is more difficult than I had imagined. It might even be harder than the research, soul-searching and writing and rewriting that went into the stories in the first place. I’m reminded of Salman Rushdie’s words of advice to Milan Kundera when he said that 50% of writing is strategy. Saving Spike and other stories is available at Amazon.

During 2019, there were loads of other things that I learned – surely, I must have –given my daily consumption of newspapers, magazine articles and books and other things I’ve probably gleaned from television, radio and conversation. And then there’s writing – I’ve learned, as I always have from writing. Apart from my obsessive journaling, I couldn’t write without an audience in mind. Thank you, readers, for being that audience during 2019. Best wishes to you for 2020.

 

Not Writing About Brexit

You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t been writing about Brexit of late. My last Brexit tagged blog was in early May, and you have to go back to March to find Brexit in the title. Unlike a lot of people in the UK, I can’t with hand on heart say that I’m tired of Brexit. The topic is complex and multi-layered. It can be looked at from the standpoints of trade and economics, climate change and the environment, human rights, shared research or cultural exchange. Brexit can be seen as a phenomenon of voter and media manipulation or as the catalyst to end party politics as we’ve know it in Britain. That is, for someone like me who enjoys reading and problem-solving through deconstruction, Brexit has been the gift that keeps on giving.

Writing about it has become another matter altogether. As soon as I get an idea for another Brexit blog, I read about it in a newspaper or magazine or hear that a book has come out with the same thesis. Among my favourite Brexit writers – I think this is a start of a genre – are Andrew Rawnsley, Nick Cohen and Will Hutton from The Observer, Polly Toynbee from The Guardian, Stephanie Baker from Bloomberg News and Steve Richards of The Independent and The New European.

Only a few days ago, I stumbled across the perfect quote for what I was going to write about in this blog – another failed attempt. Roger Cohen of the New York Times wrote: ‘The fantasy voted for in 2016 is not the reality of 2019… Democracies are exercises in constant reassessment. The core reason nobody has been able to deliver Brexit is that it makes no sense.’

It’s hard to improve on that.

All I can offer are a few reports gathered from my academic life. I’ve been hearing directly from researchers based at UK universities (many of them not British themselves) who have been excluded from funding applications because Brexit makes them ‘too risky.’ In another case, an academic organisation has changed its plans to have a British university host an international conference over worries that EU27 citizens might need visas to enter the UK. Underlying these examples, as with all changes to our lives brought on by Brexit is a sense of anxiety – sometimes it’s about the unknown, and at other times it’s about losing the good things that we do know have come from our EU membership.

As I struggle to find words to describe this anxiety – a vapid and overused word – I appear to be not writing about Brexit again.

ledby donkeys

Throwaway Thoughts on Politics and Religion

They say you should never talk politics or religion in polite company. As blogs are the antithesis of polite company, I can share a passage that struck me from Alan Johnson’s memoir In My Life:

‘Mine is a privileged generation. Not only have we prospered from the postwar rise in living standards, the creation of the NHS, significant advances in science and technology, the virtual eradication of diseases such as polio and diphtheria and the absence of world wars, we have also witnessed a transformation in public attitudes away from the casual barbarity of previous decades towards ethnic minorities, the disabled, the mentally ill, homosexuals and single mothers. Ironically, as the country has become less Christian in its adherence to religion, it has become more Christian in its way of life.’

This sound observation is one that we can see in other countries in recent decades, where the inverse has happened and more religious governments have stripped away peoples’ freedoms and equalities. I’m thinking about countries like Iran, which I remember being more liberal and women having more rights before the revolution and the religious state that followed.

Yet, the correlation between the dwindling numbers engaged in formal religions and the increase in liberalism isn’t as straightforward as this or as Alan Johnson would like us to believe. The advances in science and technology, which Johnson mentions,  and the accessibility of education, which he doesn’t,  are more likely contributors to marginalising religion while at the same time replacing intolerance and discrimination with acceptance and equality. When Nelson Mandela said, ‘Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world,’ he was talking about making the world fairer and less impoverished.

Where Johnson writes of a ‘more Christian in its way of life,’ he is referring more generally to society and the laws that protect ethnic minorities, the disabled etc. I accept this generalisation, but at the same time I despair at all of the present-day laws that work to the detriment of women. (Dear Reader, please read Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, if you haven’t already.)

To be fair to Alan Johnson, what I have quoted was probably not intended to be dissected like this. A passage of deep thought in an otherwise light romp through the former politician’s childhood, these lines give the book more weight and texture. Perhaps too, I don’t want to be too hard on any writer who names each volume of his memoir after a Beatles song.

Malala
Malala’s version of the Mandela quote.

Atlas Shrugged and I Sighed

An advantage of writing a blog over a book review is that I don’t have to finish the book to write about it. Such is the case with Ayn Rand’s classic Atlas Shrugged. This philosophical/sci-fi/thriller/romantic fiction, written in 1957, is over 1000 pages. I got as far as approximately 300 pages (I was reading a Kindle edition) when I decided to press the home button and find another book.

With all the talk these days about Libertarianism, the name of Ayn Rand often comes up. The Russian-American philosopher developed the theory of Objectivism, which has influence the brand of right Libertarianism having some currency in the US. Rather than go on a philosophical tangent, I offer this image from the Objectivists’ website:

objectivism summarised

The other popular book by her is The Fountainhead, said to be a favourite of MP Sajid Javid (now Chancellor of the Exchequer), former US Representative Paul Ryan and – I know it’s hard to imagine him reading – Donald Tr**p.  All well-embedded in right-wing capitalism. I thought it best to stay away from that one given the current political climate – just another thing to get me angry.

In brief, Atlas Shugged is about the expansion of American industry, involving railways, metal mining, and steel production, to name a few. This is going on within plots straight out of romance fiction and thrillers, with a bit of a mysterious element to it. The science fiction label for this novel comes from the sense that this is in the not too distant future (for a 1950s readership). The enemy in this story is the government and its regulations on businesses.

I didn’t find the book particularly engaging at first. The prose is rather dry and the dialogue artificial at times, in the vein of 1930s film noir. But there was something a bit quirky about it that kept me going. The phrase ‘Who is John Galt?’ would pop up anytime a character was exhausted from talking about the state of the world. It clearly placed the novel in another time when idiomatic language has changed. I’ve discovered from reading proper book reviews by people who finished the book, I’d like to think, that John Galt becomes a main character two-thirds into the novel. Speaking of characters, I also liked that the main female character is a brilliant engineer and business woman named Dagny.

But even she wasn’t enough. My enthusiasm waned further when it became too obvious that this is one of these works of fiction which tries to espouse a certain philosophy. It explores reasoning and capitalism at the expense of good fiction writing. Too often characters engaged in speech-making and philosophising in otherwise casual conversational settings. It’s the old ‘show and don’t tell’ adage of writing. By contrast, some of the best philosophical works I have read have also been great works of fiction – Camus’ The Stranger, Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist and Clarke’s Childhood’s End come to mind.

Perhaps this is just a third of a book review, but as a full blog its intention – or warning – is to inform writers on one way to lose their reader.

Thinking about Wolves

One of the most enjoyable reading experiences I’ve had of late comes from a short book with a ridiculously long title – One Clear, Ice-Cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-first Century by Roland Schimmelpfennig.

The premise is a simple one – during a snow storm on the Polish-German border, a wolf is spotted heading towards Berlin. A motorist stranded in traffic takes a photo that soon goes viral. Written in a clear precise prose, reminiscent of Raymond Carver, the narrative is a patchwork of interlocking stories, the lives of characters who have seen or hear about the wolf.  This excerpt from a scene with a minor character shows the power of the narrative:

It was three o’clock in the morning when the woman on the balcony in Lychener Strasse stopped burning her mother’s diaries. She was standing in her coat and scarf on the balcony of her apartment. The two children hadn’t come back.

Then, down below, where Lychener Strasse ended abruptly with a fence, she saw a large dog, or as it seemed to her, a wolf.

Wolves in literature have had a mixed-treatment. In children’s tales, they represent evilness, consume children and grandmothers and where they are anthropomorphised, they are cunning. In other literary forms, such as Native American stories, wolves are seen as guardians, known for their loyalty to the humans, but who are ultimately savage and best kept at a distance. These characteristics have given wolves a cult status, emerging in kitsch posters and tattoos.Wolf 2

In Schimmelpfennig’s novel, which is more about people than wolves, the wolf is a solitary figure who comes into scenes of people’s lives, often at turning-points, touches them briefly and moves on. Is he a guardian? Or something that makes these characters think outside of themselves? At times, he is a camera lens of sorts, a narrator without a voice, taking the reader into the part of the story we need to discover next.

While the filmic structure of the storytelling and the appearance of the wolf lend themselves to parables, and indeed make this an enjoyable read, there is something deeper going on. That rests in the honesty of the narrator and the nature of the stories themselves – immigrants, runaways, characters broken by relationships and alcohol. To say more risks being a spoiler. I honour this short gem of a book with a short review.

Light reading

I don’t do light reading very well. I’ve preferred challenging reads with engaging characters and creative (though not purple) prose for years.  As a teenager, I once picked up an Agatha Christie novel – I still recall the cover with an old-fashioned typewriter on it – hoping that it would be as good as some of the film adaptions I had already grown to love (I was a teen after all). About five pages in, I was bored rigid. It was simply too simple – the characters two-dimensional, the language too straight forward.

That incident was followed by decades of John Updike, A.S. Byatt, William Faulkner and the occasional dip into James Joyce. Added to this were some hefty works in translation from Dostoyevsky, Fuentes and Eco, to name a few.

A glutton for punishment? Quite the opposite. There’s an intense feeling of satisfaction that comes from working to understand a text – learning new words, decrypting the symbolism – while being entertained and moved by the story.

I’ve tried to lighten up over the years. When I was in the grips of insomnia, the doctor advised some light reading before bedtime. After I explained about Agatha Christie, John Updike etc., the good doctor offered a compromise with Jane Austen – reading that for modern audiences isn’t particularly light, and with well-developed characters, but which is more-or-less predictable, especially given the umpteen screen adaptations of each novel. It did help send me off to sleep. These days, I often have a non-fiction book by my bedside, such as travel writing or memoirs, that I can read in small bits without getting hooked into a red-eyed readathon.

To add to my light-reading credentials, I’ve read a lot of Marc Levy, described by many as a light read. The French call his books ‘romans des gares,’ train station novels, or ‘airport books’ for anglophiles. Levy’s works are light, but not simplistic. There are twists and turns and interesting sympathetic characters, but his books do read like rom-coms or thrillers, often with a dose of magical realism. Fine by me. But I probably wouldn’t be reading them in their English translations. Yes, dear reader, I tackle these light reads in French, which make them not such light reads after all, especially with the profuse colloquialism in the dialogues. I guess I can’t escape a challenge after all.

Of course, what’s ‘light’ for some might be ‘serious’ reading for others. There’s an element of subjectivity to consider. Or not – why even discuss the lightness or seriousness of books? This blog is usually about politics, literature, feminism, art and society. As I’m in the middle of several academic marking assignments and writing projects, perhaps I needed to convince myself that I could still engage in light writing.