Category Archives: Books

A midwinter ramble

WoodlandThis midwinter, I’m reading Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising, along with the peerless landscape author Robert Macfarlane and thousands of others on Twitter (#TheDarkIsReading if you want to join in).

The children’s novel, which opens in a very English countryside, on the eve of midwinter’s day, is beloved of many but new to me. The opening chapter is a masterpiece of the uncanny, as ten-year-old Will Stanton notices ominous signs creeping into his familiar, domestic sphere.

Animals are suddenly afraid of him; his favourite rabbit startles away. Rooks wheel above him in the sky, a seething and unquiet mass, then swoop down to attack a strange, dishevelled old man. The farmer gives Will a mysterious gift and warns: “Tonight will be bad. And tomorrow will be beyond imagining.” A more chilling sentence is hard to imagine.

As Will’s family gathers for supper, the snow begins to fall. As one commenter on Twitter observed: “The snow settles. Everything else unsettles”.

This midwinter day in London is unsettlingly mild, although the white sky could presage snow in colder temperatures. Before starting work today, I set out to my local woodland, inspired by the book, for a midwinter ramble.

Ivy.jpgSydenham Hill woods was once part of the Great North Wood that covered this part of south London. It’s a domesticated suburban woodland now, but the backbone of the forest is still there; the soaring trunks of oak and hornbeam, straight and dark in the damp air, raising their bare canopies to the skies. Sombre holly hunches beneath (few scarlet berries this year), intertwined with glossy ivy.

I can hear birdsong – warbling blue tits and robins, fizzing starlings, the mournful coo of a wood pigeon.  More exotically, emerald parakeets squawk, newcomers to these English woods. Deeper in, I hear the insistent drill of a woodpecker, although I can’t spot him. The wood is alive with squirrels, bounding across the carpet of dead leaves and scuttling up tree trunks.

Alert for the uncanny, I notice cobwebs in the fissures of oak trunks, sudden showers of water from wet leaves, the soft mist shrouding the spire of St Stephens church, rising above the trees. I’m heading for the place where rooks gather.

They are there, a few of them, quietly perched among the bare branches, or taking a desultory look for worms on the grass verge. No swirling hordes, no swoops, no restless cawing. It’s quiet up here at the top of the hill. Traffic noise is muted, the mist softening the view towards London, where the glass towers of the city sometimes glitter in the morning sunshine.

Rooks

The shortest day, the longest night. There is no sense here of menace, of the rise of the dark. It’s a slightly melancholy day, a dim, muted day for working and reading. Back home, I’m glad to see the white lights on the Christmas tree, promising company and feasting to entice back the sun. Not long now. The dark may be rising, but the light will always return.

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Listening to Refugee Tales

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Rave in the nave, Kingston-on-Thames

I’m in a church in Kingston-on-Thames, dancing to the joyful sound of a steel band playing Bob Marley. The group I’m with laughs and claps, snaking in a conga-line around a politely-seated audience. I met these people only two days ago. How did I get here?

My story is simple: six months ago I saw a tweet about something called Refugee Tales. It sounded interesting; I went to the website and signed up. I more or less forgot about it until it was time to head for Runnymede (site of the signing of the Magna Carta) for the start of a winding walk along the Thames to Westminster.

For many of my fellow-walkers, this walk was part of a much longer journey, which started much further away, on other continents. Many of them had been through barely-imaginable hardships and dangers, and carried with them the grief of losing country, family, friends, the future they had planned. Their treatment on arrival in the UK was in some cases soul-destroying.

Except their souls had not been destroyed. Indeed, their souls were in fine shape, as witnessed by the laughter, singing and dancing all around me in that Kingston church.

Refugee Tales is a walk in solidarity with those held in indefinite detention by UK immigration services, while seeking refuge in this country.

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Reflecting in a garden in Walton-on-Thames

It’s a profound and simple way of offering a welcome and perhaps forging a path through what has become hostile territory, creating our own welcome for those who have been denied that basic human dignity. Some of the walkers were detention visitors; some were people who had themselves been held in detention. Some were supporters of the cause, or people like me who’d simply heard about the event and liked the sound of it.

We walked together along the river Thames, getting to know each other, hearing each others’ stories, enjoying the tranquil surroundings, the freedom that comes from making our way unimpeded, on foot, to our destination. We ate together, and after the evening’s events, unrolled sleeping bags to fall asleep together in church halls offering hospitality.

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Blue-shirted Refugee Walkers on the move

Patron of the charity, writer Ali Smith (one of my favourite authors) puts it beautifully, when she says: “The telling of stories is an act of profound hospitality.” She describes storytelling as an “ancient form of generosity” – and to emphasise the point, when she met us en-route, she read from the Odyssey, one of the oldest of old tales, describing how the lost and weary traveller was met with hospitality when shipwrecked on an island. There are many people shipwrecked on islands these days, including our own. The welcome is not always so generous.

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Ali Smith reads from The Odyssey

One of the many things I learned on the walk was that the UK is the only country in Europe to hold those seeking refuge in indefinite, arbitrary detention. It’s a flagrant denial of their humanity, and one that directly contravenes the rights set out in the 13th century Magna Carta, let alone the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Refugee Tales project is an offshoot of the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, a tireless and dogged charity that visits, supports and campaigns on behalf of people being held at in detention at Gatwick by the immigration service.

As well as organising the walk, Refugee Tales engages writers including Ali Smith, Jackie Kay, Helen Macdonald and Neel Mukherjee to work with detainees to write stories based on their experiences. The stories are collected in two volumes and are wonderful. They are even more electrifying when read aloud, by the writers or by actors, as they were during the evening events.

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Dinner over, time to chat

In Kingston, I had a chat over dinner with a gentle and courteous young man whose story was being told that evening. Later I tried to imagine how he had survived the shocking experiences relayed in his tale, and remained so gentle. The previous night, an amazing young man told us his harrowing life story directly.

Both of these men wanted, above all, to finish their studies and be able to work – one as a social worker, the other as a doctor. The UK is lucky to have people of this calibre in our country. It’s about time we stopped treating them like criminals.

The first step in recognising someone as a human being is to listen to their story. The second, perhaps, is to share your own. Stories break down the barriers between ‘them’ and ‘us’. Before you know it, you’re all part of the same gang, on the same journey.

If anything can save the human world, I think it will be stories.

To find out more about how you can help, see the website http://refugeetales.org/getinvolved/

 

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Take five

January passed in a blur of protests, marches, outrage, petitions and emails. Time to regroup for five bars’ rest, before returning to the fray. Here are five things I’m going to do in February to keep me fresh.

  1. Plant some vegetable seeds. Nothing says “hope” like tomato seedlings growing on the windowsill.P1040212.JPG
  2. Go book-shopping, in an independent book shop. I’m working my way through the excellent long-list for the Wellcome Book Prize, always stuffed with thought-provoking literature.G Heywood Hill window
  3. Explore the vibrant art of the belle of Bloomsbury. Dulwich Picture Gallery hosts the first major retrospective of Vanessa Bell, a pioneer in life and in art. Starts 8 February.
  4. Bake some cake. I’ve had the builders in, re-making the kitchen, since the middle of December, and I’m craving the warm, delicious smell of a cake baking in the oven. Which one? I think I’ll see which page falls open first in my well-used copy of Pam Corbin’s River Cottage Handbook: Cakes.img_02135: Walk by the sea. For a clear head, wide horizon and lungful of breathable air, I’m heading out of polluted old London and down to the Kent coast.
    Dunes

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Hero tips from inspiring publishers

zero-to-heroWhat do you get when you take 11 publishing pioneers and put them in a room full of people who want to know how they did it? The Literary Platform‘s event From Zero To Hero was packed full of hard-won insights, tales of bravery and belief, and innovative ideas.

Held in the hip Rich Mix cultural centre in Shoreditch, the day featured three panel sessions with Q&As afterwards. The first focused on print start-ups, with Miranda West of Do Books, Martin Usborne of Hoxton Mini Press, Kirsty Allison of zine Cold Lips and Valerie Brandes of Jacaranda Books. They represent four completely different businesses, united by masses of passion from their start-up founders.These were my take-home tips:

  • Write (and publish) with one person in mind (MW)
  • It’s about building a community, via social media, events, festivals…(MW)
  • If you’re not sure who your audience is, know yourself – what you enjoy, what you want to read or buy – and have faith that others will love it too (MU)
  • Offer something unique to an under-served audience (VB, KA)
  • Get the production values right for your audience/price point – a punk DIY look is spot on for zines , but high production values establish you as a publisher to be reckoned with.(VB, KA)
  • It’s not cheap and finance is hard to come by. You may need to self-fund or crowd-source funding. Print costs for 3000 copies can be £4000 – and then you have 3000 copies to sell or store. (MU, MW)
  • Cover and title are what sells, so don’t skimp on those.(MU)
  • If you believe in your idea, go for it! (MU)

Finding the right model is crucial, and the “commission book, print 3000 copies, sell book” model is no longer the only game in town. Michael Bhaskar of Canelo talked us through how to “do digital publishing properly,” with lots of love for the mid-list authors so apparently unpopular with the traditional publishers. Anna Jean Hughes of The Pigeonhole talked about moving from publishing new content to providing a service to existing publishers, via their “fitbit for your book” app; and David Cadji-Newby of Lost My Name explained the appeal of the print-on-demand personalised book (stressing that you have to ‘do personalisation properly’).

The final post-lunch session was a dizzying whirl through the world beyond words, with sessions from Anna Gerber and Britt Iversen of Visual Editions, whose work stretches from books in boxes to radio stories; Dorothea Martin from oolipo giving us tantalising glimpses of their yet-to-be-published smartphone projects, and Crystal Mahey-Morgan of Own It! stretching the boundaries of what a story can be – a teeshirt message, animated film, song, a book packaged with all of the above. After all that, it was a relief to hear her tell us: “Don’t let the tech get in the way of the story”.

Stories are the one thing guaranteed to take us all from zeros to heroes, after all.

Image: Charlotte Aston, @cjmaston.

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Desert island books

Bookshelf

Desert Island Shelf

Like many people, I spend way too long contemplating what records I’d pick if I was inexplicably chosen as a guest on Desert Island Discs. But I’ve always thought they had it wrong – eight records and only one book?

There’s no way I could pick just one book to last me from here to eternity. Poetry? A novel? A book of short stories? Or should you just ask for Boat-building for Beginners? And anyway, beach reading is one of the great pleasures in life. How better to while away my time as a castaway?

So I decided to invert the format and choose the books that have built my life in literature. It’s quite a conventional list, but then I’ve had quite a conventional life.

I’d love to hear other people’s choices, too – do make suggestions for your Desert Island Books in the comments section.

Book 1: Five on a Treasure Island, Enid Blyton. The adventures of the five were probably the first books I read for pure pleasure, rather than while learning to read. I’d been given a stack of them by an older cousin. Red linen covers, chunky paper, and a world where adults barely existed, camping was de rigour and girls could call themselves George. I waited anxiously for my ninth birthday, having noted that Ann (the youngest) was nine when they had their first adventure. I firmly expected the same to happen to me.

Book 2: Little Women, Louisa May Alcott. Another tomboy heroine – and one who wrote. Jo March was my first prompt to pick up a pencil and start writing my own stories. My copy was my mother’s, bound in blue leather with gold lettering.  It had such a distinctive smell that I took it away on holiday, instead of a teddy bear, to remind me of home. Little Women is my first memory of weeping over a book – I cried so hard over poor angelic Beth that my father said I should stop reading it. I’ve been over-identifying with literature ever since.

Book 3: The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer. A level English, and what seemed at first to be a completely impenetrable book written in a foreign language. Fortunately, our teacher selected The Wife of Bath’s prologue and The Millers’ Tale for our introduction. Once I’d figured out that speaking the words aloud can unlock the language (especially if you have some schoolgirl German), I was away, revelling in the bawdy, energetic life of the Middle Ages, fart gags and all. Many years later, the Canterbury Tales set me on the path to writing my own first novel.

Book 4: Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, William Blake. These little books of little poems had a profound impact on me at university. The simplicity of the language and the complexity of the dualistic world view they convey means I return to them time and again. Each word, each rhyme and repetition, is there for a purpose. They’re packed full of contradictions, evocations. The Songs were an introduction to the wilder woods of Blake’s prophetic books, in which I wandered and wondered for a while, before returning with relief to these gems.

Book 5: The Color Purple, Alice Walker. It took a while, after university, to find my own taste, after the blitzkrieg survey of English literature I’d been through. Then I found Alice Walker’s searing novel of the American south. It was a lot of things I thought I didn’t like (epistolary, dialect, American). The strength of the voice, the restraint in what you are or are not told, showed me that different stories need different storytelling.

Book 6: Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons. Comic novels have been a comfort to me on many a long, dark night, so I’ll need one for my desert island. I could have picked Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love, or Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim, or any of the Jeeves and Wooster novels, to buck up my spirits while wild beasts circled. But Cold Comfort Farm would reassure me that, no matter what the challenges, a girl with her wits about her can soon make everything neat and comfortable.

Book 7: Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens. Dickens is the quintessential London novelist of the Victorian period, conjuring up the fogs swirling the riverside like no-one else. A few years ago I began re-reading Dickens and filling in the gaps of those I’d missed, and found myself utterly absorbed in this menacing thriller. Dickens’ vivid characters and deep knowledge of the city would have me treading London streets in my mind, while the desert island waters lapped at my bare feet.

Book 8: Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel. Every so often, a new book comes along that changes everything. I found Wolf Hall astonishing. The complete evocation of an unfamiliar world, the up-ending of everything you thought you know about the Tudors, the steely focus on one, utterly-believable point of view. Mantel’s book makes every historical novel before it seem about as authentic as a costumed re-enactment at a National Trust castle.

Record: Iestyn Davies singing Henry Purcell’s Sound The Trumpet.

Luxury: Radio 4. Told you I was conventional.

 

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