My book Greedy List

A book-buying binge

I’ve had a lovely (generous) book token – a Christmas present from my fellow book-loving mother-in-law – burning a hole through the lining of my wallet and, finally, today, I flipped back to the Greedy List I made when I was shopping for presents before Christmas. 

I had a sort of one-for-one list going while I was browsing – one for her…ooh, one for me (for later); one for him…ooh, two for me (alas, for later)… I’m not sure if my personal restraint came from some higher-minded sense that I was supposed to be lovingly thinking of others rather than spending money on myself at Christmas, or whether I was holding out in the hope that some items from of my list might appear in my Christmas stocking. But let’s draw a veil …

Anyway, I decided I needed some more books (to add to the already significant TBR).  Maybe it’s a security thing, like being terrified of running out of loo roll, or jigsaws in a lockdown.  Actually, I know exactly what it was – I did a “Watch at Home” from the Perth Festival in WA, featuring Kate Grenville talking about her latest novel A Room Made of Leaves – Grenville resists the term “historical fiction” – that explores Elizabeth Macarthur, wife of wool baron John Macarther in the earliest days of Sydney.

Kate Grenville. Pic: Darren James

That’s a glib description; the book mines several more profound depths than that, and explores contemporary issues around the impact of suppressed voices, and secrets and lies, so I want to buy it, obvs. And Kate Grenville was seated, during this streamed interview, in front of a bookcase (of course) on which I could see a copy of Mick: A Life of Randolph Stow, reminding me I’ve been intending to buy …

But where to buy online where I can use my tokens? Those who know me well know that I eschew the rapacious Jeff Bezos emporium – so I wouldn’t go there, even if they did take tokens, which they don’t.  But I was delighted to find which links to independent bookshops across the UK. You identify the affiliated bookshop you want to shop from – mine was The Grove in Ilkley – and that shop receives the profit from the sales.  If you don’t identify a shop then the profits go into a pool that is distributed across the affiliated stores. How fabulous.

I also found (not for book tokens) Better World Books, where I bought several used Randolph Stows. The company was founded in America in 2003 by three students from the University of Notre Dame Indiana, and its UK website was launched in 2010 (how come I’ve never found it before?). It’s a “global e-retailer that collects and sells new and used books online matching each purchase with a book donation, Book-for-Book. Each sale generates funds for literacy and education initiatives in the UK, US, and around the world.” My online research seems to suggest it’s ethical and genuine. I got a cheery email from them saying my purchases meant that three books had been donated to literacy causes.

So – an afternoon of guilt-free shopping and several hefty parcels to look forward to.

Do you know of any other examples of online ethical book trading?

On the subject of writing, I was intrigued – and depressed – to read in this week’s Guardian that after a year in lock-down writers are still struggling to write – largely because they are missing the stimulation and inspiration that being out in the world gives them. They speak of being stultified, of pandemic fatigue.  Shortly after the start of the pandemic writers were struggling largely because of anxiety, finding it hard to concentrate or find the space to write – which I explored in an earlier blog.

Why did I choose to tell you I eschew a few paragraphs ago?  Because it’s an old-fashioned word I like.  And last weekend, when I was reading the piece on Writers’ Blockdown, I was taken off, in that wonderful way that online browsing allows, as you click through, link to link, rather in the way we might once have browsed a thesaurus and ended up miles away from our original reference, to a 2015 piece on writers’ favourite lost words. I’ll leave you with it.  Enjoy.

The unfortunate gentleman had expired

…and some ethical dilemmas

In my last two posts I introduced you to my explorer great-grandfather, Victor Streich, on whose life story I am working, and I described my growing interest in the amateur online genealogy craze.  This third and final post about Victor explains exactly how he got me hooked…

The Streichs were already more “real” to me, more three-dimensional, than other branches of my family tree because I had grown up amongst them. I already had some first-hand family stories, even if very few of them concerned Victor. 

When I decided that afternoon to see what else I could find about my Streich ancestors, I started with Victor because he was the shadowiest of the figures I knew about.  And because he was “famous”, I simply banged his name into Google.  That took me straight to the Australian National Library’s massive Trove project, and their digitized newspaper collections, which I hadn’t known about till then.  The first thing I read that afternoon was a newspaper account of Victor’s death.  (So many good stories start with a death!)

Kalgoorlie Western Argus, Tuesday 21 March 1905. On Saturday afternoon arrived in Coolgardie by express from Perth Mr. Victor Streich, accompanied by Mr. C. Collins. Mr Streich had been in Perth for some days and had placed himself under the care of Dr. Leschan, as he was suffering from nervous prostration. His business calling him to the fields, Dr. Leschan arranged that Mr C. Collins should accompany him as he was a man manifestly unfit to take care of himself.  During the train journey Mr. Streich suffered much and it was found needful from the first to supply him with stimulant at short intervals. On arrival in Coolgardie Mr. Streich and Mr. Collins drove at once to the Royal Hotel and Mr. Streich immediately went to bed.

He was supplied with some nourishment which he refused, but asked for a glass of  shandy”. This was given him and he apparently went to sleep. Every precaution was taken to ensure quietness, and although he was evidently sick and very weak it was not deemed requisite to call medical aid. At about 3.30 pm Mr. Collins went upstairs to see how Mr. Streich was faring, and found that he was, if not dead, at the last gasp. Dr. OMeara was at once sent for, but before he arrived the unfortunate gentleman had expired. The body was at once moved to the morgue, and instructions given for a post-mortem examination to be held, as a result of which the cause of death was ascribed to heart failure. Mr. Streich was only 41 years old.

Then there was a brief history of his life and career as a geologist and mineralogist since arriving in Australia from Stuttgart in 1889, and an explanation that Victor was in Coolgardie to return to a mining claim he’d staked the previous year for the Western Exploration Company.   

The find which he named Darna Varna was said to be of exceptional quality, and after securing reward leases etc., Mr. Streich, and the company he represented, put it into shares and steps were taken for working the property. The present journey was with the object of going out with camels to see if water was available, and Mr. Streich had arranged to go to Burbanks today to obtain four government camels and others he had left there last year…Mr. Streich was a man of much repute in the mining and scientific world…and of high attainments. He leaves a wife and three children in Adelaide who are said to be fairly well provided for. 

So – some new facts. How he died. It was dramatic and, satisfyingly, newsworthy. And so sad. I was captivated by the historical reportage. I read it over and over again. The unfortunate gentleman had expired. And I was a bit outraged that the writer had seen fit to report on the material fortunes of Clara and their children!

But most of all, I loved how easy it had been to find. Here was information I would until recently have had to travel across Australia, to several libraries, town halls, museums and graveyards, to find. What else was there in that treasure, Trove?

Well, there was plenty. The more I read, the more questions I had, and I suddenly saw that the writing project I had been looking for was now staring me in the face.  Victor, his life, and the things that impacted on him, had become irresistible. 

Partly this was because I was also growing uneasy; some of the things I was reading didn’t sit at all squarely with the family stories.  Victor’s professional life seemed to be mired in controversy and conflict, and I was discovering that his reputation was not universally positive.  Was I beginning to stumble on things that no one in the family had known? Did the digitization of all those newspapers mean something that my great-grandfather, and perhaps those closest to him, had kept concealed was now being exposed?

Victor Streich, standing, centre, and some of his Elder Expedition colleagues, 1891

I was beginning to wonder whether Victor was all I had been told he was, or whether he was just a bit flawed.  I liked to think he was a man of deep professional honour, highly competent, a great scientist, and I wanted to defend him. But if he was those things, did they have a flip side? Was he also arrogant? Intractable?  Irascible? Difficult, in the tough conditions that demanded so much of explorers already?  

And what had been the effect of all of this on Clara and his children?  

And what about the wider picture? How did Victor’s life reflect the social history of the time, including indigenous affairs and the story of early German settlement?

And if my delving didn’t turn out well, what would I do?  Keep my discoveries to myself?  Debunk him? And how would I square all this with my siblings and cousins?

Dilemmas!  All I knew was that I needed to push on and see where Victor led me…

The red suitcase

Family history becomes family stories…

In my last post I introduced my great-grandfather, Victor Streich, a not-very-well-developed figure in my childhood, who nevertheless was someone I knew I was supposed to feel proud of simply because my mother and grandmother told me he had been famous.

Having realised in adulthood that I had been an uninquiring child, and having finally acquired some curiosity about the world and the people around me, I developed an interest in my family history. At first, before the advent of the internet, I revisited the small red suitcase in my mother’s wardrobe, in which were the photographs I had often seen as a child. Back then, I had only been interested in the photographs of people I recognised – my parents, my aunts and uncles and cousins, and my grandparents-as-adults. But now, I discovered all sorts of treasures: sepia photographs mounted on board, taken in studios at the turn of the 19th-into-the-20th century, of women with impossibly small waists standing stiffly in set-piece gardens; I began to ask my mother who these people were. She didn’t always know.

And there was my grandmother, not as the adult I had known, but as a young girl, with her brothers, on donkeys on a beach, with a grim-faced woman standing beside them in the most extraordinary confection of headwear.

The Cawkell family – Jack, Charles, Kitty (my maternal grandmother who married into the Streich family) and their mother Charlotte (nee Rochford)

At this stage I was simply gathering facts. Who was who, who was related to whom, what were their salient ages? How did they die?  I started drawing up crude family trees – did I have a photo of everyone?  I was collecting The Set, still obsessively gathering information; I loved the photographs as objects but I still wasn’t curious about the subjects – their stories, or how they lived their lives.

But, slowly, I found myself working my way up the knowledge hierarchy. Facts became information, information became knowledge, the knowledge made me want to understand some more, and with some understanding came the glimmerings of insight. And real curiosity. I began reading the letters, trawling through old passports, sifting through various bits of memorabilia that had, till now, lain ignored at the bottom the The Red Suitcase, under the photographs. Slowly, the sepia figures stepped out of their frames. I talked to my mother about the Streichs but she didn’t have much to impart about Victor, other than that he had been “the geologist on the Elder Expedition”.  There was a story about him having found a seam of gold, and refusing to tell anyone where it was because he was a principled man; he had found it for someone else and he wasn’t going to do anything that might lead to other people stealing it. I found that a bit thrilling, but had no idea how important that fragment was to become to me, and how it would inform a fundamental research question into Victor’s character for the biography I was going to attempt decades later.

I also talked to her about her mother’s families, the Rochfords and the Cawkells, and the family she had married into, the Wrights.

By the early noughties I was doing basic research on-line as historic collections became digitised. I was part of the amateur genealogy craze. I was buying magazines called things like Discover Your Family’s History (still not “stories”, I now see) and I was learning how unreliable and misleading and incomplete the official records were. I was turning detective, tussling away for hours at some problem set of dates, or missing information. I started guessing at what was going on in the gaps. I started wondering whether people had been happy, or unhappy, thinking about them against the social and political background of the times they lived in; reading bald documents like census records or BDM certificates as a basis for bigger stories.

Something was happening in the collision between my developing interest in where I had come from, the explosion of interest in genealogy that was happening around me, and the emergence of digital online resources.

Actually, I wasn’t working particularly hard on the Streichs. I thought I knew them. My mother had fled the marriage she should never have made in England, and gone home to Australia to her mother and the house she had grown up in, her three young children in tow. I had grown up surrounded by my Streich cousins, in the family home, surrounded by their things. I thought I was steeped in all things Streich.

One day I hit a genealogy brick wall. I had gone as far as I could, for the moment, with the Rochfords and Cawkells. The Luton hat-manufacturing Wrights seemed a bit too dry and dusty that afternoon.  I thought I might as well tool around for a couple of hours seeing if there was anything more to be discovered about the Streichs, and sort what material I had into some kind of order. I approached it as an exercise rather than a something I really wanted to do.

I didn’t know that Victor was waiting for me.

Meet Victor

Part 1

Lower him down, softly there, matey,

Though little he’ll heed a rough journey.

This is thy last trip, Victor, beneath earth’s surface,

And eight unwilling hands are lowering thee.[1]

“Victor” was my great-grandfather – Franz Paul Victor Streich. I’m working on a biography of him, and thought I’d introduce him to you.

I had grown up being told that my great-grandfather was an Important Man in Australian History. I knew that he was a scientist, that he had been “the geologist on the Elder Expedition” and that a mountain was named after him somewhere out in the desert. If I got a particular atlas down from the bookshelf behind the winged armchair in the sitting room – the only bookshelf in the house apart from a low, dusty shelf under the louvre windows in the sleep-out, to where my grandfather’s medical text books had been relegated – I could sit on the floor in the space between the shelf and the chair and open it to the page where, in tiny text, surrounded by a little ring of lines, were the words Streich Mound. The numbers beside it meant nothing to the ten-year-old me. But, full of smugness – the Streich name was in the atlas! – I imagined this to be a big mountain, solemnly named by some fat men in a wood-panelled room somewhere, because they knew my great-grandfather to be Important.

There was piece of silver on a table in the corner of the sitting room, on which was engraved “To Clara and Victor” and some other words that I can’t remember. I can’t remember what the object was, either; it may have been a wedding present. I don’t know where it is now; whether it’s still in the house where my brother lives, among other family things passed down, or whether it’s with one of my Streich cousins. I’d like to know, for sentiment sake, now; I’d like to see it again. I’d like to know so much that I didn’t know then.

I must have been a very uncurious child! I don’t think I had even clocked that Clara was the “Nannie” that my mother used to speak of so often and with such affection. Although she was much mentioned, Nannie seemed to have no other name, and Victor (who I think was simply referred to as “Grandpop’s father”) was only spoken of in reverential tones for what he had done, not who he was or what he was like. He was just someone who had died a long time ago – in Coolgardie, my mother said – and I suppose that was why there weren’t many stories about him like there were about Nannie, whom my mother had known and loved. Victor had just … been. And had been, apparently, Important.

So, I didn’t realise that Clara and Victor were Nannie and the famous explorer, or that Nannie and the man with the mountain named after him were even connected to each other.

Victor and Clara, with their young family, a year or two before Victor’s death. My Grandpop, Carl, is on the right.

I had no idea how little I knew, and had no way of knowing how important Victor’s story – and my own ignorance of it – was going to feel later in life.

My mother and my grandmother liked to set us apart from other families. My mother’s father, “Grandpop”, who had died two years before I was born, had been the much-revered local doctor, with a road named after him and a wing at the hospital. He was still a real presence in our house, the big house full of furniture my grandmother pointedly told me was antique.

There were stories about how my English-born grandmother had had maids back in the day, sometime in the 1920s and 30s – in Kelmscott, then a rural backwater in Western Australia, connected to Perth, 20 miles away, by a gravel road. There was a lot of talk about the Rochford Manor House back in England where rich Uncle Joe lived. My mother sometimes referred to our bathroom, when she wanted to reminded herself of the glory days, as “The Maid’s Room”, because that’s what it had first been used for.

With this as my domestic example, my ignorance didn’t stop me skiting in the playground, “My great grandfather”… did I even know he was my great grandfather? Perhaps I just said, “One of my family was an explorer on the Elder Expedition”.

None of my school friends seemed particularly impressed, actually. Perhaps the Elder Expedition meant as little to them as it did to me. And anyway, no one likes a show-off.

I finally acquired in adulthood some curiosity about the world around me, when I developed an interest in my family history.  I’ll talk more about that in my next post.

[i] Frank Brown. The Sun, Kalgoorlie, Sunday April 23 1905.

Covid block

It’s hard to read or write at the moment

There have been lots of articles and social media posts from avid readers who are finding it difficult, suddenly, to read in these Covid times.  This chimed with me.

Sophie Vershbow, writing in Vogue in April said “Reading is a primary form of self-care, the thing I turn to just as much when I’m happy as when I’m sad. It’s felt like losing a friend in a time when we’ve already lost so much.” 

She quotes research as showing that chronic stress affects the way the front of the brain works: “the area…[that] normally controls our ability to concentrate and switch attention from one thing to another.” So, during something as stressful as living through a global pandemic, “we lose our usual mental flexibility and become highly focused on the source of the threat,” which means it’s difficult to lose ourselves in a book.”

Some people have suggested we should consume less news.  I know I’ve been obsessively watching the news, scouring social media and reading online news sites.  And then I perpetuate the anxiety by sharing articles that impact on me on my social media pages.  It makes sense, then, that BBC journalist Emily Maitliss, in the thick of the news, tweeted:  Ok. An admission. I’m finding it really hard to read at the moment and I usually devour novels. Is anyone else? Is it concentrate span? Twitter? Or as I suspect the plots and problems now seem to belong to a slightly different age. Book tips?’

Constance Grady, in Vox, in May, interviewed Oliver J Robinson, Neurologist and psychologist, about anxiety (and the difference between anxiety and fear).  He said that anxiety is about uncertainty (fear is about the known or visible or understandable) – and with anxiety you don’t know when something is going to end.

“The pandemic that we’re in is the most uncertain thing possible. You don’t know when it’s going to end, whether you’re going to get it. You don’t even know what it is, really. And all of a sudden, everything in your environment is dangerous. Door handles are dangerous. Other people are dangerous…” To this uncertainty I’d add coping with a new normal – working from home, having your partner home all the time, home schooling, on furlough and worrying if your job is safe …

“It’s also completely uncontrollable. But what I can do is seek information. I can go on Twitter, I can go on the internet, I can search nonstop, trying to resolve this uncertainty. The problem is that you’re never going to actually resolve it [yourself].”

How does this manifest itself?  “One person might have difficulty remembering things, or difficulty staying on task, or difficulty not focusing on negative things. So it’s very hard to say, ‘This one function is affected by anxiety’.”

Laura Abernethy, in an article in the Metro of 19 May has consultant psychologist Sarah Lewis, Psychologist explaining it like this:

 “When we feel under threat we become more alert to danger, including becoming hyper-vigilant. We are fully focussed on ascertaining the source of the danger. Think of when you have been startled in the night by an unexpected noise. Immediately you think – is someone in the house? Your attention is focussed on to that sound, straining to make sense of it. Then you realise it’s your son knocking over the hall-stand trying to creep in; relief rushes over you…The problem with C-19 is that the resolution of the danger, the flood of relief, doesn’t come.”

Maybe spending more time on screens is changing the way we process information: research from Maryanne Wolf of Tufts University, quoted by Laura Abernethy, tells us that reading is a body/mind process.  Our brains like to get physically involved with what we read. Reading a book (as distinct from a screen) requires a different hand-eye co-ordination, and is a different sensual and tactile experience (the smell of the paper, the feel of turning the page). But “the instant gratification of screens means that we have the ability to take more shortcuts – browsing and scanning rather than steadily reading and absorbing. We lazily skip over text that’s more demanding rather than rereading and checking if we’ve understood.”

I wondered whether it was the same for writers, because when I left my job at the beginning of the year to return to freelancing (and, I said, finally spend some time on that book I’ve been trying to write), I found it impossible to do once Covid-19 hit.  I kept looking for diversionary activity.  I recognised my anxious state, and instead of reading, or writing, and once I’d cleaned out all the cupboards in the house, like so many others I took to gardening and jigsaws. They required something different from my brain, something that I could access.

So I took great comfort from a quote from Kit de Waal in the Guardian in May, who said, “Well, you can’t write because you’re not paying the rent, or you’ve got three kids at home, or you’re lonely. So I would say it’s not the end of the world if you do jigsaws for the next two months. I haven’t written anything since this crisis started, but I know it will come back.”

I hope it does for me, too.  I’ve been trying to exercise my writing muscle – I’ve taken workshops in Italy and in Cornwall and they have been wonderful.  But back at my desk, nothing happens. I’ve had long discussions about writing with my Australian writer/editor friend. And I decided that I needed to reactivate this blog and try to re-generate some sort of writing muscle memory.

Richard Osman, in the same Guardian article, talked about how he carved out a discipline for himself when writing The Thursday Writing Club:  “Give yourself two hours a day to write  – make a deal with yourself”.  This reminded me of an interview I did with Australian writer Olga Master several decades ago.  Olga came late to writing fiction, having raised her seven children while working as a journalist on a country newspaper.  She had no truck with writers’ block:  “Go back to your corner and write”, she said. 

Here’s Kit de Waal again: “There’s a lot to be gained by not writing, but thinking. Not catastrophising, but contemplating a piece of work that you’ve done that maybe doesn’t work or hasn’t worked in the past. Ask yourself, what is wrong with this? Can I talk to someone about why it doesn’t work?

Or as Joe Dunthorne said:  “ Even when I do manage to find some uninterrupted time, editing seems more appealing than writing. I can happily spend an hour moving a few commas around.”  This reminded me that a voraciously-reading former colleague of mine, when tweeting about the loss of reading solace during Covid, said she could re-read, but not tackle anything new.

Cue that debate I always have with myself about whether to just keep writing, anything, to keep the muscle exercised, as all writing teachers will tell you, or give in to the urge to edit and tinker, which exercises some muscle, even if it’s not the critical one (like rehabilitation after being forced to rest because of badly broken ribs, and then discovering actually you need to rebuild your atrophied leg muscles before you can sort out your core…) 

So – back to being unable to read: do we need to create some reading rituals, and stick to them?  Or join a gang (eg a reading group) to help us? Or would the neuroscientists say that simply won’t work?   Maybe there’s a lateral solution? Maybe we should be trying different or shorter forms?  Poetry?  Audio books?  Has any of this worked for you?

Going again …

I’ve found it harder than I thought I would to write

I’m re-launching my neglected blog.  Since leaving my job early this year, ostensibly to have more time to write the book I’ve been working on, and return to freelance work to enable me to manage my time better, I’ve found it harder than I thought it would be to write.  I’ve done workshops (which were wonderful) and I’ve tried various recommended tactics, but none of them are working (or perhaps I should say, I can’t make them work).  I don’t think I’m alone; lots of people have reported finding it difficult to read during the Covid-19 pandemic, and writers have reported finding it difficult to write, for all sorts of reasons.  I’ll explore that further in a new post shortly.

But for now, I’ve re-enacted my blog in the hope that it will help me re-develop a writing muscle of sorts. Give me a framework and a discipline.  Instil some new confidence that I have something to say.  Help me re-find a writing voice. 

So I’ve given everything a fresh new look, and a new name, which feels like a start. I’ve kept, as archival material, some of my older blogs, to help me feel like this isn’t a completely terrifying blank page.  As before, I’ll be blogging on the arts, writing, social history and, occasionally, politics.   

And thanks to Jane Moss and Kath Morgan of The Writing Retreat for their fab blogging workshop that got me re-inspired.

Analogue note-taking

First published 29 April 2013

A couple of months ago, I shuffled a bit further into the 21st century and got myself an iPad.   I’d wanted one for ages, but could never quite justify the outlay. An imminent trip to Australia gave me the excuse…I needed a way of being in touch with my life here that was more manageable, fun and portable than my laptop.

So, it came in the post, all shiny and new, and as I had been warned, I was soon in love.  Such a joy to use!  So responsive!  So much…yes…fun!  Soon, I was carrying it everywhere.

I had lunch with my lovely friend Caroline last week, and we talked about our iPad apps. We were like one of those awful old TV adverts, in which ladies who lunch bang endlessly on about washing powder or diet products. 

We even shared info on apps for dieting.  But Caroline also told me about a couple of her favourite notebook apps.  So, hungry for the next sparkling, exhilarating experience, I rushed home to try them out.  I’ve been looking for a more seamless way of organising my life for a while now.  Since leaving the Arts Council a few  years ago I’d reverted to a paper diary because I haven’t had a portable device that would talk properly to the calendar on my laptop.  Now, suddenly, thanks to iCloud, the iPad does.  Yay!  So I can wean myself off the paper diary again and take a step closer to convergence and seamless management of my life.

I’m also an obsessive note-taker and list-maker, and I cart a notebook with me everywhere.  I jot lists, take notes from meetings,  scribble down phone numbers and passwords, write down ideas that I want to follow up, make sense of my family history research before I commit it to the electronic family tree – all my life is stored in a series of battered notebooks, even more essential now that my middle-aged memory is letting me down.   Since the arrival of the iPad, the current notebook has been tucked into the cover and secured with a band – but, I’ve been wondering, could I find a way to do without the paper notebooks too?

What a lovely seductive thing the notes app is…the facility for task lists. The ability to make several folders for different areas of my life.  A section that lets you write on the virtual pad using luscious virtual ink in several colours, as well as type. Facility for uploading photos and other files as attachments. It can be a notebook, a commonplace book, a journal…

…but I can’t actually settle to using it.  I sat down and constructed a “to do” list on it yesterday, but it felt artificial. Clumsy.  It lacked the spontaneity of a scribbled list.

Today I began some research for a project.  I made some exploratory phone calls.  But I couldn’t make the notes from the calls any way except on paper.  I can’t be doing with the malarky of putting the phone on speaker while I type up my notes.  Ever since I was a journalism student, all those decades ago, research has meant a phone clamped to your ear with one hand, so you could really listen and concentrate, as the other person’s voice is delivered straight into your head, and a pen in your other hand, flying across a piece of paper.  I can’t type quickly enough if I’m taking notes while someone’s talking.  I’ve developed my own idiosyncratic shorthand for my written notes so that I can keep up.   Planning a project involves complicated diagrams, doodles, arrows, circles…I’ve downloaded a really seductive mind-mapping app, too, but it’s so complex it gets in the way of the thinking.

Oh, the disappointment.  I’m a pen and paper girl at heart.  I can happily think at a keyboard when I’m doing a straightforward piece of writing, straight from my head. I have done for decades.  But I can’t think at a keyboard, or on a tablet, when I’m planning something more complex, or have to write quickly to keep pace with someone or explore several strands at once.  The pointing and clicking, and saving, and calling up a secondary screen to add contextual information interrupts the thought processes.

And perhaps most importantly, I now realise, there’s no substitute for the tactile experience of the pen in my hand, the hiss and scratch of the pen on the paper, the smell of the freshly sharpened pencil.  These are essential parts of the process for me.

Should I just accept that in this respect at least, I’m a dinosaur?  That the link between complex thought and note-taking/writing for me essentially involves pen and paper, and that I should stick to what supports my thinking best?

I’ve always fetished stationery, especially beautiful notebooks. I have drawers full of them.  When I get to the final page of one I have to choose another, and I spend ages, touching, gazing at, smelling them to choose just the one I want to have as my next essential life companion.  But oh…those lovely, lovely apps, that I’m desperate to find a use for.  All new, and full of promises they can’t deliver for me.  I so wanted to go completely digital.  Never mind.  I’ll tag and upload this, post it to Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn, then pour another glass of wine, draw the feint-ruled notebook towards me and scribble a few more notes about this project I’m planning.

Been busy…but must blog better

First published 16 February 2013

I’ve been a bit slack with my blogging lately. Must do better.

Meanwhile, the things that are keeping me busy include the two arts boards I’ve joined, at Site Gallery and the Holmfirth Arts Festival.  I also recently had a fabulous weekend at a Guardian Masterclass in Feature Writing, and a really interesting day in Birmingham at a blogging workshop run by Kate Feld.  If you’ve ever considered doing a Guardian Masterclass I’d say, Do It!  I’ve also seen some fab theatre in Northern Broadsides’ Rutherford and Son and the Manchester Royal Exchange’s Accrington Pals. Neither of those two productions, which we saw on two consecutive evenings, is exactly a rollicking, laugh-a-minue night out, but both are must-see pieces of riveting theatre.  And in two weeks time I’m in London for Merrily We Roll Along. Lucky Me

And I’ve added to my family history research, courtesy of distant cousin I’ve just discovered in Australia, and I’ve been rocking in despair at the recent antics of the people who purport to govern us.  But as a staunch supporter of Ed Miliband, I’ve been cheered by Labour’s poll figures, the highest in ten years, and by Ed Miliband’s speech on Thursday on rebuilding the economy. Polly Toynbee and Deborah Orr seem encouraged too.

So, I suppose all this means I’ve been actively engaged in the things I seem to blog most about – writing, the arts, politics, genealogy – rather than writing about them, and I will get back to blogging soon. I must!

Loving Gladly

First published 26 November 2012

No, this piece isn’t, as the title might suggest, about how we should all embrace our fellow human beings with joy and without reservation, especially at this time of the year; it’s in fact a light-hearted skip through the fun to be had from words seeming to mean something other than intended – especially when heard rather than read. There’s the old Christian joke about children thinking that Gladly was an ursine creature with an ocular irregularity, rather than an offer to shoulder the burden for Jesus on his way to Calvary.  

Songs and hymns and prayers, which we learn aurally rather than via books, are great sources for this confusion, and the resulting amusement and apocryphal storytelling.  My mother insists that for her and her class mates at her Catholic boarding school, Jesus suffered under a bunch of violets and was crucified, dead and buried, every morning till they were old enough to read the English version of the Nicene Creed. The fact that the creed was recited in Latin at mass and chanted in English in catechism classes didn’t help, she claimed.  And at my school many a lad beat his breast swearing to “be a cowboy, be a cowboy, be a Mexican cowboy”.   Then of course, there was Hail Mary, full of grapes…..

 Now, these have entered the Christian joke canon along with Gladly, and it’s hard to tell whether children really did make these howlers or had heard the old jokes and gleefully played along with them. Just because something is in “daft things kids say” popular circulation doesn’t mean someone hasn’t actually experienced it for themselves – and sometimes, as the Australian national writing treasure Elizabeth Jolley once said, expressions become clichés or enter the popular lexicon for good reason, and someone said or thought them first.

But some mis-hearings I can vouch for personally. One Advent, mumbling my way through the final line of O Saving Victim, Opening Wide, “In our true native land with thee”,  I was startled to hear Bridget O’Neil beside me declaring “In our time, nature lands with thee”. With a thud, presumably, from the way she was singing it. Mind you, so tortuous is the rhyme and scan of your average hymn that the alternative version makes as much sense as the real one. 

There’s a patriotic Australian song that every primary school child learned to sing in the 1960s. A dreadful thing, in which you had to bellow the last line of the chorus, Australia, Australia, Australia. A few years ago I was on the phone to a very good writer friend and were discussing the title for a novel she was working on, which referenced 1960s Australian childhood quite significantly. This was also a time when, in hot, humid classrooms, we studied the political atlas of the world, spinning the globe to make the colours whirl. When it came to rest, there was the distinctive pink shape of our country – also a continent in its own right, we were told – and above it sat Asia, that vast continent full of countries, in different colours. “So what will you call the novel?” I asked. “Asia Bright”, she replied. “You know, ‘And all above is Asia Bright’.” There was a long silence on the phone while I plucked up the courage to tell my clever and linguistically nimble friend that I was pretty sure the line referred to the deep colour of the vast, blazing space over our own heads. Azure bright, sung in an Australian accent.

Mind you, I’ve always loved her story of how she and her classmates used to wonder who Ray Norverous was, and why the Queen, being happy and glorious, should long to him.

I hope this has got you smiling; and perhaps you have examples of your own – real or apocryphal. I just thought, after months of horrible news and in the midst of atrocious weather, we needed something light-hearted, and I wanted to remember how fond I am of Gladly, the cross-eyed bear.

Getting familiar

First published 7 November 2012

To get myself through another period of chronic insomnia, I’ve been re-reading the American essayist Anne Fadiman, because she’s entertaining/popular enough for middle-of-the-night reading, yet a lovely writer with enough rigour to be satisfying. And the essay form doesn’t require the long-term commitment of a novel so if you do fall asleep again it’s not too disruptive to your reading flow.   

One grey dawn, feeling guilty about my neglected blog, and while my thoughts were perhaps not the most coherent, I got to pondering the relationship between essay writing and blogging. Is blogging, I blearily wondered, creating a new form of essay-writing? Or is that too grandiose a notion? Is in fact, blogging debasing the essay? Perhaps blogging is more akin to commonplacing? There are, certainly, several different forms of the essay genre, all with subtle differences, including critical, descriptive, narrative, personal, the more hard-edged essay form used in philosophy, the dialectic essay… and the one Anne Fadiman claims to prefer, the familiar essay.  

She defines the familiar essay as being a subset of the personal essay, written as though the author were speaking directly to a single reader. Although familiar essays are written from a subjective point of view, they are not just about the writer – they refer to subjects that the reader might be interested in  – that is, familiar topics – and which often require some sort of research.  “They are autobiographical, but also about a subject”.  She says that critical essays employ more brain than heart, personal essays more heart than brain, but familiar essays contain equal measures of both.  

The word “essay” comes from the French, and means “to attempt” or “to try”. So perhaps you can argue that bloggers are trying out their ideas on their readers, just as essay writers explore their subjects? 

I decided to see if I could find any reference to Anne Fadiman’s own views on the relationship between essays and blogging, other than the references in her books to using new technology.  It seemed pretty likely that she had either been asked for her views on this, or explored them herself somewhere. And, in a radio interview on American National Public Radio to promote the publication of her 2007 essay collection At Large and at Small, she was indeed asked by Rebecca Roberts whether, in the light of her view that the familiar essay is an evolving genre, she thought blogging was a form of it.  

Her answer: “I don’t know that it’s a form of familiar essay – but it’s an interesting literary genre… There are a lot of terrible blogs, because they don’t go through the usual filters… But many bloggers write beautifully and there may be some advantages to not being filtered through the editing process…a lot of bloggers I read do just one thing or just the other (ie, ‘regurgitate their innards onto the page’ or just write about the world), but not many combine the two”.  

Ummm. I think I agree with her up to a point. But a lot of the bloggers I read regularly –such as RSA Chief Matthew Taylor, Mark Robinson and his Thinking Practice blog – and Alastair Campbell on a good day – seem to me to combine the personal and the universal very well. Mind you, this interview is about five years old, and Anne Fadiman has been cheerfully self-deprecating in her essays about her tardiness in embracing technology and electronic forms of communication, so maybe she wasn’t terribly immersed in the blogosphere at that time. Or maybe blogs have become more sophisticated in the last few years? Anyway, you can listen to that interview in full here.  

Thinking about this some more over recent days, I have decided that, as I think that some blogging can be a modern form of familiar essay, although it has elements of commonplacing in that the best blogs contain links to electronic references the writer is blogging about, probably it’s Facebook that is the really the modern commonplace book. It’s the place where we are more personal – where we tell the world we’re having a bad day on the train, but just like the commonplace books of old it’s also where we collect and post the links to the articles, quotes, websites, news sources, books and opinions that matter to us, and help define us. (That’s why Facebook is so useful to advertisers.) 

But what about columnists in newspapers and magazines? Are they writing familiar essays too? I think some of them may be, but perhaps that’s a subject for another day.

My sources for this blog have been Anne Fadiman’s two collections of essays, At Large and At Small, Confessions of a Literary Hedonist, Allen Lane, 2007; and Ex Libris, Confessions of a Common Reader, Penguin, 1998,as well as the radio interview embedded in the link above.

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