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Archive for January, 2012

One for Sorrow?

A magpie

Hello Mr or Mrs Magpie, what a comely lady or fine fellow of a magpie you are...

I’m always seeing single magpies. It’s a good job I’m not superstitious, I’d be forever saying Hello Mr Magpie, what a fine fellow of a magpie you are while hoping I wasn’t doubling the sorrow by offending a female magpie.

So on Friday, when I saw a lone magpie on my way to my last class with David Kershaw (one of the best teachers I’ve ever had), I didn’t think anything of it. And when the auxiliary drive belt broke on what is laughingly referred to as my ‘car’, stranding me outside my ex-husband’s house for two and a half hours on a cold Friday evening, I didn’t immediately blame my bad luck on the magpie. Because, let’s face it, that would be irrational. However, after a couple of hours I was beginning to wonder.

Aside: I am being charitable in assuming my ex didn’t know I was shivering, bored and miserable outside his house. If he did know, the fact that he didn’t even come out to see if I was OK, let alone offer me a cup of tea or the use of his loo, would definitely lower my opinion of him…

Berries

Reds spotted on the way to the bus: beautiful berries, warm walls, and a garish garage door

I eventually got home over 3 hours after I’d expected to, and drank a very large glass of wine. My ‘car’ had been abandoned at Halfords and a very nice AA man drove me home. All the work I’d planned to do that evening hadn’t been done, and I was fed up. On Saturday I woke early, got the bus (with a long-ish walk at each end) to Halfords, handed over the ‘car’ key, and settled down in Starbucks (horrible horrible) to do lots of work on my laptop in the four hours it took the mechanics to not only replace the auxiliary drive belt but to inform me all the tyres were bald and then replace them too. Along with all the other stuff like balancing the wheels, checking alignment, twiddling the eigenfarbel, changing the squatzer on the squintledong…

Birds

What are these birds looking at?

All this farting around meant I didn’t have time to go home before the Nottingham Poetry Society AGM, so I turned up in my scruffy clothes and gave something resembling a coherent Secretary’s Report. I even managed to take sensible minutes. While I was there I collected a set of Nottingham Poetry Society monthly magazines dating back as far as 1946, which I will be scanning in and putting on the NPS website – can’t wait to start reading through them!

Of course, it’ll have to wait… I’ve got so much on these days I barely have time to think, let alone sleep or eat or breathe. I have started playing badminton again though, which is giving me a bit more energy and is helping the weight-loss project.

Two things that made me smile yesterday were (1) the bright orange printed down the sides of my bus ticket, and (2) the damage that Royal Mail somehow managed to perpetrate on a booklet that arrived in the post.

NCT bus ticket

I don't look a bit like that rather blokey image on the top right, but the orange down the sides is very pretty.

Damage done by Royal Mail

I think this is a work of art!

So, although this weekend has been more than usually frustrating, and it’s now Sunday evening and I have about a fortnight’s worth of work to do in the next couple of days, I’m generally a Happy Pip.

I think that’s two for joy, don’t you?

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Yesterday I went to Manchester. It was wet.

Manchester

Manchester


‘Why, Pip, did you go to Manchester?’ I hear you ask.

Well, dear reader, I went to a seminar about ebook production, where Nigel Marsh (Publishing Operations Director for Faber & Faber) told us everything there is to know. I was going to write a long blog post about ebooks… but then I changed my mind. I might do something like that later, but for now I’m just going to show you some pretty pictures.

Chorlton Mill

Chorlton Mill, home of the International Anthony Burgess Foundation

The seminar was held at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation. This is a strange beast. I’m not sure what it eats, or how it spends its time (perhaps it is a vegetarian, and simply grazes on the buddleia which is rampant on the nearby wasteland). It lives in Chorlton Mill, which has evidently been done up as offices and/or living spaces, and is an imposing building.

A ceiling made of bricks

A ceiling made of bricks

While in the belly of the beast listening to Mr Marsh’s wise words, I was occasionally distracted by my surroundings. In particular, the ceiling. Who in their right mind would make a ceiling from bricks? It must have been a nightmare to build, and you’d have to be damn sure the mortar is strong enough to keep the bricks (which, I would remind you, are reasonably heavy, and would cause quite a dent in one’s skull were they to descend upon one’s head from a great height) in place. It’d only take one of them to wriggle free and you could have a hole in your ceiling and a dead person on your floor.

There were also some pretty cabinets dotted around the walls of the beast’s belly… presumably to hold its hoard of gold and jewels.

A carved cabinet

A carved cabinet

Another carved cabinet

Another carved cabinet (actually it's the same one, but I couldn't get close enough to any of the others to take photos)

And then on the way back to the station I noticed this bit of wall. It was easy to take a photo as I didn’t have to juggle my umbrella and my camera at the same time – it’s under the railway bridge.

Wall and Cone

Wall and Cone

I think it’s something about the colours in this that particularly appealed to me. And the decay.

On the way home I felt ill. It wasn’t much fun, but I got a bit of work done, and a lot of looking out of the window. It’s a beautiful train journey, across the Peak District. One scene that stuck in my mind was a cemetery, graves neatly laid out in rows, right next to an allotment, plants neatly laid out in rows. There’s a poem in that…

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Last Saturday I went to church. St Mary’s in the Lace Market, to be precise. And not for any kind of worship, but to listen to some lovely choral and orchestral music performed by the East of England Singers and the New Classical Players. While listening to heavenly notes from the likes of Handel, Pachelbel and Britten, I tried to write a poem (not yet a real live poem, but there’s definitely something feebly twitching there) and I looked around at the interior of the church. And… there was some weirdness there…

Creepy Irony

Jesus dying on the cross, looking down on... Jesus's birth...

Directly in front of me was a scene that gave me the creeps. Stop me if I’m wrong, but isn’t it a little odd to represent the saviour at both ends of his life and have both representations of him looking at each other? Perhaps it’s some kind of metaphor for something… I dunno.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then I looked over at the pipe organ – a most beautiful beast, precariously perched high above the floor where the mere mortals walk, held up by only two concrete arms (presumably reinforced by steel girders). And I looked a bit closer, and realised that the blessed thing has a baby set of pipes in its belly, looking for all the world like the pregnant Barbie doll whose tummy you can take off to see the offspring curled up inside.

During the interval I investigated the various memorials – there were some lovely examples, and I couldn’t resist taking photos. These are a couple of my favourites.

Samuel Heywood's memorial

He might have only had a few friends, but they thought a lot of him

Thomas Berdmore's memorial

Not sure why, but this one made me giggle

I couldn’t get a decent photo of my outright favourite, so I’ll transcribe the text for you.

 

Sacred to the memory
of
LIEUTENANT JAMES STILL R.N.
who
in the 22nd year of his age
fell a victim to the ravages of the Yellow Fever
on board His Majesty’s Ship THE PHEASANT
while stationed off SIERRA LEONE
on the 12th of October 1821.
For four successive years
he had been employed in the fatal service
of enforcing obedience
to that sacred Law, which, to the honour of his Country
and in the spirit of Christian Love
forbade
the Traffick in Human Blood.
That he possessed the best feelings of the heart
was manifested in his unwearied watchfulness over those
whose aid he was in sickness
and who
withering like the blighted shoots of Spring
left their blessings upon him.
That he was endued with the spirit of Enterprise
was proved by the testimony of those
who had witnessed his skill and admired his gallantry.
That he was characterized by suavity of temper and prepossesing manners
was apparent from that regard, excited in every breast
which held him forth as an Ornament of Social Life.
How beloved a Son! How endeared a Brother! How esteemed a Friend!
is evidenced
in the poignant grief of his sorrowing Family
in the unfeigned regret
of many who cherish the remembrance of his worth
and in the heartfelt Tribute
of Him
who
dedicates this Tablet
to the Memory of his Virtues.

Plenty of food for thought there.

I just realised. I’ve lived in Nottingham for more than half my increasingly long life now, and have only been inside Nottingham churches four times, and all of those times in the last twelve months. And… three of those times were East of England Singers concerts!

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Resolutions

I’ve been brewing a set of resolutions for a few weeks now. They’re deliberately not New Year resolutions, as I never manage to keep those. These are Friday 13th resolutions – the sort that come at you with a two-handed battleaxe if you so much as think of breaking them. With that in mind, I’ve tried to make sure they’re easy to keep, and I’ve decided to publish them here so there’s a permanent record of my optimism. If you notice me breaking one, feel free to clout me over the head.

1. Submit some poems for publication
Hopefully this one will be easy, as I’m currently doing the Nottingham Poetry Series manuscript preparation course, and part of the coursework is to submit at to least six individual publications and at least one pamphlet competition. The teacher gets very crabby if we don’t do our coursework…

2. Be nice to myself
Especially when I get floods of rejections from poetry journals… Seriously though, I have to start living by the rule “I will be good enough most of the time, better than good enough a lot of the time, and crap some of the time. And that’s OK.” I’ve spent most of my life expecting nothing less than the best I’m capable of at all times, beating myself up when I don’t manage it and not feeling proud of myself when I do. It took a lot of cognitive behaviour therapy for the idiocy of that to sink in.

3. Lose some weight
I’m heavier now than I’ve ever been – even when I was pregnant. That is Not Good. So I’m going to do something about it – eat sensibly and get some exercise. I’m not going on a diet, that doesn’t work for me. I’m just going to make sure I don’t stuff myself with crisps and biscuits when I’m bored (not getting bored might be a good start, I guess). And I’ve just joined the University sports centre, and arranged to play badminton on Sunday afternoon. I know that’s going to hurt. Hopefully it’ll be fun too.

4. Sort my house out
It’s a mess. No, not that sort of mess. A real mess. I have stuff piled up all over the place, and it’s driving me mad. I tend to take up hobbies, get loads of bits and pieces related to those hobbies, and then stop doing them but keep all the bits and pieces just in case. I also have far too many books. YES, I did say I HAVE FAR TOO MANY BOOKS! I am going to throw away, give away or sell anything I no longer need, and make some space in my house where I can work (i.e. not on the collapsing sofa in front of the tv).

5. Spend more time with the hairy brats
They’ll be leaving home soon… (hoorah? sniff sob? can’t decide!)

6. BLOODY RELAX, WOMAN!*
I’m getting horrendous stress headaches once or twice a month at the moment. My back and shoulder and neck muscles tense up like you wouldn’t believe, which leads to the top of my head exploding and shooting pains behind my left eye. This lasts for 3 or 4 days, which is how long it takes me to un-tense myself. #2 hairy brat’s elbows are the only things so far** that can get anywhere near untying the knots. It would be much easier if I didn’t get so tense in the first place – I don’t know why it’s happening, I’m not feeling particularly stressed these days…

* what my ex shouted at me in ante-natal classes when the relaxation exercises weren’t working.

** apart from Laressa Dickey’s massages, but she lives in Portugal.

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Here’s the last installment. And yes, finally, some poetry. I have to admit I don’t read an awful lot of poetry in comparison to fiction – reading is usually pure escapism, I want to dive into another world and totally immerse myself – but when I do dip my mind into the poetic pool I find some mighty fine fishies.

TS Eliot's Four Quartets

TS Eliot's Four Quartets

I’ve been involved in Southwell Poetry Festival for two years now, and it’s been a fantastic experience – inspiring workshops, talks and readings by library staff and poets famous and not-so-famous, poetry pub crawls… but for me the most memorable event was a reading in Southwell Library by the Nottingham Stanza group of the whole of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets. There were 13 of us in four groups, each taking one Quartet and dividing it up into sections. An oboist played at the beginning and end of each Quartet while we shuffled on and off the stage. The whole event lasted over an hour, and it was absolutely amazing. It was the one event I heard people talking about again and again for the rest of the festival, and it was a real privilege to take part. I’d read bits of the Four Quartets previously, and listened to a recording of Burnt Norton, but to hear the whole thing from start to finish in a variety of voices was just… there aren’t the adjectives to describe it.

I read a section from East Coker – the second Quartet, and also coincidentally a village just down the road from where my mother lives in West Dorset. I persuaded her to take us there on a ‘fact-finding mission’ last Easter.

Images of East Coker

Images of East Coker


We’ll hopefully be reading from Paradise Lost this year, in Southwell Minster, which promises to be even more amazing.

Nox by Anne Carson

Nox by Anne Carson

My final favourite book of 2011 is Nox by Anne Carson. This goes back to the theme of books as beautiful objects containing beautiful words. It is a printed version of an elegy she created for her brother. Originally put together in a notebook, the book is printed on one long strip of paper which is concertinaed into folds and presented in a sturdy and gorgeous box. Nox takes Catullus’s poem 101 (an elegy for his brother) as its starting point, and gradually translates it through the document. At the same time she remembers her brother, questions why she needs to memorialise him, and tries to work out how to do it. The words, the pictures, the presentation, everything about this book is stunning.

Nox by Anne Carson

I wanted to fill my elegy with light of all kinds. But death makes us stingy. There is nothing more to be expended on that, we think, he’s dead. Love cannot alter it. Words cannot add to it. No matter how I try to evoke the starry lad he was, it remains a plain, odd history. So I began to think about history.

Nox by Anne Carson

Wow.

Tune in again this time next year* for my pick of 2012’s reading material. I’ve already got 8 books on my list, one of which might make it to my favourites and two of which definitely won’t!

*or you could carry on reading throughout the year to see what mad schemes I get myself involved in, if you like…

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I’m going to be a bit lazy today and cover four books at once, not in quite so much depth as I’ve been doing so far. My excuse is I got 3 hours sleep last night and I’m very very tired…

Reamde by Neal Stephenson

Reamde by Neal Stephenson

I’ll read anything Neal Stephenson writes – he’s so clever, and his novels are BIG in size and scope. Reamde is a departure from his usual speculative fiction in that it’s a thriller, but it is still satisfyingly BIG. It’s based on the possibilities for fraud and extortion presented by online gaming, rapidly descending from geek-talk into seemingly endless violence and mayhem. Basically, a bunch of Chinese hackers create a scam to extort money from T’Rain (think World of Warcraft) players, and they manage to fall foul of the Russian mafia. Then a young woman with connections in the IT industry – i.e. her uncle just happened to be the creative director of the company who built T’Rain – gets pulled into the mess by her idiot boyfriend. Then everyone starts to kill each other in the process of trying to work out what’s going on. Somehow Stephenson manages to maintain an element of fun amongst all the destruction, and although it’s a HUGE book (over 900 pages) it rattles along right to the end. Although I don’t rate it as highly as Cryptonomicon or the Baroque Cycle, it’s a great read, and I felt quite smug that I understood most of the geeky aspects of the book. I’m not sure how readers who aren’t at least aware of World of Warcraft would cope, but luckily you don’t need to know too much about it to ‘get’ the story.

Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts

Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts

Adam Roberts is another speculative fiction author I read obsessively. He’s not as well-known as Stephenson, which I think is unfair. Both have BIG ideas. I loved On – a rite-of-passage novel about Tighe, who lives on a world where gravity runs parallel to the surface of the planet – which is kind of like The Planiverse in that it has to imagine how a world built on completely different premises to ours would work… Anyway, like Reamde, Yellow Blue Tibia is also a departure for the author, and is delightfully bonkers. In 1945 Stalin corrals a group of science fiction writers and orders them to develop an alien invasion scenario which will provide him with a ‘common enemy’ to replace the weakening USA and unite the USSR. He changes his mind after a while and orders the writers to forget about the project on pain of death. Things aren’t that simple though… decades later the scenario appears to start to come true. I’m embarrassed to admit it took me a ridiculously long time to work out what the title is about (I did get CSE grade 1 Russian, after all).

The Night Of The Mi'raj by Zoe Ferraris

The Night Of The Mi'raj by Zoe Ferraris

The Night of the Mi’raj was recommended to me by a friend as an interesting study of women’s life in Saudi Arabia. On that basis, it’s a real eye-opener. I knew the Saudi society is repressive but I find it hard to understand how women can accept living that way (even though the female characters in the book manage to bend the rules just a bit). It’s also a well-written mystery thriller with fascinating characters and a twisting plot that kept me guessing. I’d forgotten why I used to devour detective/mystery stories by the bucketload; and it’s nice to be reminded that there are good crime writers out there. The detective, Nayir, is a devout Muslim, but he’s sufficiently questioning of Saudi culture that I could identify with him. And leaving that aside, he’s an engaging hero who’s not too stupid or too clever, and is willing to do what it takes to get to the truth about the disappearance of a young woman days before her arranged marriage is due to take place. I’m looking forward to reading the second book about Nayir.

The Killing Jar by Nicola Monaghan

The Killing Jar by Nicola Monaghan

I’ve been meaning to read The Killing Jar for a while (Niki is the course leader for the degree I’m doing, and is a Five Leaves author – I’ve just converted The Okinawa Dragon to an e-book). As well as being a shocking yet strangely endearing story, like The Night of the Mi’raj it describes a life I find it difficult to comprehend – this time that of a girl growing up on one of Nottingham’s roughest estates. Kerrie-Ann’s story is told from her point of view and in Nottingham dialect throughout, which takes a little bit of getting into (I’ve only lived in Nottingham for – erk – 27 years) but once you’re there you’re totally there. You feel everything Kerrie-Ann feels as she tries to survive in (and eventually to escape from) a household that becomes increasingly violent as she grows up.

And that’s nearly your lot. I’ll reveal the last two books tomorrow. In the meantime, I’m keeping a proper list of all the books I read this year as I read them, so my ‘Favourite Books of 2012’ list will hopefully not have to be generated by racking my brain and scrabbling around in my bedroom. At the moment I’m reading Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed by Jim Al-Khalili, which won’t make the list even though I’m enjoying it immensely. That’s probably a topic for another day.

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I had never heard of Haruki Murakami before the Nottinghamshire Readers’ Day on Nov 5th last year. I was a volunteer helper on the day, and as such I got a goodie bag, which contained a couple of books, other bits and pieces, and a t-shirt. Everyone else’s t-shirts featured Ian McEwan’s Solar, but for some reason mine simply said 1Q84 with the numbers in white and the Q in red. Then I started hearing about this strange trilogy everywhere, and all of it good, so I thought I’d better give it a go.

1Q84 on the Kindle

1Q84 on the Kindle

As the third book was as yet only available in hardback and the first two (published in one volume) in trade paperback, it proved cheaper to buy all three in Kindle editions. And that just goes to prove that design is totally irrelevant when the words are extraordinary in themselves. I was completely drawn in right from the start when Aomame jumps out of her taxi in the middle of a clogged expressway and climbs down some emergency stairs in her stockinged feet so she doesn’t miss an appointment to kill a man. The storyline alternates between Aomame and Tengo (a maths teacher who also writes fiction) to great effect – even though the relationship between the two threads doesn’t start to become clear until well into the story, it’s obvious they are related somehow. And Murakami writes with such skill and fluidity that you trust him to tell you what’s going on when it’s appropriate to do so, you just go along for the ride and enjoy every moment.

In summary, the story is a perfect example of speculative fiction – what would happen if there were a parallel universe where past events had happened slightly differently, and two people were somehow transferred there, after which everything becomes gradually more complex and surreal.

The year is 1984. Shortly after the murder mentioned above, Aomame realises something’s wrong when she notices policemen carrying guns and is told this is due to a massacre at a cult’s compound a few years previously, which made front page news yet she is sure never happened. Then she notices a second moon in the sky. She christens the year 1Q84 – the Q stands for ‘question’ – and is determined to work out what’s going on. Tengo is thrown into strangeness when he agrees to ghostwrite a ‘fairy story’ originally written by a teenager known as Fuka-Eri so his editor can win a prestigious literary prize. He can’t work out how much of the story is actually true. Somewhat frustratingly, we aren’t told much about this story until very late on in the book, and even then we don’t see much of it… I wonder if Murakami (or his publishers) intend to bring it out as a novella in a year or so…

The main characters are totally engaging and it’s a beautiful story beautifully told. Take this quote (which I highlighted on my Kindle – a stupidly fiddly process – but that’s a post for another day), for example:

There was an inexhaustible source of clouds in some land far to the north. Decisive people, minds fixed on the task, clothed in thick, gray uniforms, working silently from morning to night to make clouds, like bees make honey, spiders make webs, and war makes widows.

Is that not beautiful?

 

1Q84: hardback books 1 & 21Q84: hardback book 3I’ve bought the real books, as I will definitely be reading them again and I want to do it properly next time. These are bloody amazing. Read them. You won’t regret it.

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