A funny thing happened on the way to the story

People have told stories since once upon a time. We know that from prehistoric cave paintings and sculpture. There may have been stories before there were words – through body language, perhaps. We know all societies create some form of music and that stories were told through music before they were written down. Homer’s epics (if Homer existed) were told to a musical accompaniment, for instance.

We tell stories to tiny children to comfort, entertain, process and explain (those who don’t, should). As adults, we call news scoops “big stories” and those who can afford it tell therapists our stories, retelling and reframing until with help from the therapist we arrive at the kernel within. More universally and informally, women recount what matters to them to their friends, and in healthy societies men do too. Was there ever anything less healthy than the requirement for British men to keep a stiff upper lip?

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In the days when there was more to training teachers than phonics and test scores, I was in an audience of education professionals addressed by Dr Richard Stone, a member of the MacPherson Inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence. His anger simmered, as he recounted policing failures after this innocent young black man’s life ended so violently at a London bus stop. But his delivery was controlled, starting something like this: Let me tell you a story. Humans need stories. By sharing what happened in story form, we can make sense and learn from it. At times during his two hour talk, he stopped, silenced by the horror of what he had to say, and then with a deep breath, would repeat like a mantra: back to the story; humans need stories. He was a good public speaker so the repetition reassured us, and every now and then he threw in a witticism, to relax us with a relieved burst of laughter. That fortified us for the next onslaught. Because he told us the facts in story form, they’re still in my memory after eighteen years.

Youth murders in London have increased since then. Few get Stephen Lawrence’s column inches and anniversary documentaries. Little Damilola Taylor, 10 years old, was one who did, and Stephen Kelman based his funny, tragic book Pigeon English around a similar story. Other difficult situations lead us to storytelling too: Mary Smith cared for her father with dementia and fashions elegant, moving, funny anecdotes from what must have been painful experiences on her blog, My Dad is a Goldfish. It’s not uncommon for people suffering from mental ill health or illnesses such as anorexia, alcoholism or cancer to turn to blogging their experiences, and almost always they manage to turn them into self contained episodes – I am continually amazed by the skill of human beings to craft misfortune into stories we can all learn from and in a peculiar (cathartic?) way, enjoy. Memoir writing courses are increasingly popular: in today’s weeping world, do we need stories even more?

 

Scheherazade told stories to save her life, but it doesn’t happen only in fiction. This 1941 article, still astonishing now, tells of theatre, cabarets and even comedy performed by Jewish inmates of Dachau and Buchenwald.

The extremely daring Compère…introduced the show as follows:

“My friends, you are lucky to be here this afternoon. Here, in Buchenwald, we have the best art and the best artists in the whole of Germany. Here you can actually laugh out loud at our jokes. Here is the freest theatre in the Reich. In the theatres outside, the actors and the audience are frightened because they fear that they may end up in a concentration camp. That’s something we don’t have to worry about.”

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Professionals and amateurs often use the episodic story form to make sense of tragedy: an example in mainstream media was Rebecca Armstrong‘s four year series about life after her husband’s serious car accident. Comedians can wring laughs and, crucially, empathy, from the darkest situations: Lou Conran made a stand up show from her experience of giving birth to a stillborn baby. “The upsetting bits are cushioned” she says, by the comedy. Conran “got hundreds of messages from people thanking me, sharing their stories. One lady in her 60s had told her adult children [about her own similar experience] and grieved for the first time.”  The Daily Annagram is a lacerating, hilarious, VERY sweary blog by a stand up comedian and writer called Anna. It’s mostly about the mess she and others have made of her life, and the way she pummels each fresh punchball of pain into anecdote is a master class in storytelling as survival skill. You cannot but wish her well.

Last week I was lucky enough to see comedian Mark Thomas with Palestinian colleagues in Showtime from the Frontline at Stratford Theatre Royal, London. Thomas and his colleague Sam Beale who teaches comedy impro ran a comedy workshop in the refugee city of Jenin, Palestine. Participants ranged from complete beginners to professional actors (“My dad insisted: Son, I want you to be a lawyer, an engineer, a doctor or a scientist!” “Dad,” I answered, “If I become an actor I can be all of those!” HIGNFY and Mock the Week please note: the class managed a better gender balance than you do, yes, in Palestine.) The compère at the graduation show was “the most depressed man in Palestine”; the Palestinian-Israeli founder of the theatre hosting the workshop had been murdered; most course participants had no chance of touring the UK with Thomas and their classmates. The audience fell spontaneously silent for a young man seen on video talking about how he’d like to play Romeo – but he was fatally shot before he could do so. You’d not think it promising ground for laughs…

…so of course the humour contained bleak moments. But comedy conventions like three elements (first element sets up a situation; second element reinforces/develops it; third element subverts it), clownish expressions and timing that held the audience in a trance made it first side splitting, then shocking, moving, funny again. An irony: it was similar to so much Jewish humour I have heard all my life, and indeed to humour from all over the world. At the post show discussion Faisal Abu Alhayjaa said : “You know, you Brits, you laugh at the same things we do, just in a quieter way.” Comedy is universal, even if we all have individual preferences. Asked about comedy in Palestine, Faisal said, “You know, we do not so much have a comedy tradition. But we have a very strong storytelling tradition, stronger than yours. And many of those stories have many funny bits inside.”

So let’s keep telling those stories. Some of us are bestselling professionals (a story I tell myself); some of us are just starting out, and some of us are still listening on our mother’s knees (I hope). But we are a storytelling species and if we can keep the storytelling going we may have a happy ending.

©Jessica Norrie 2018

 

 

Six degrees of separation

I found this book game on Janet Emson’s blog Fromfirstpagetolast.*  The idea is to start with a book and then see what other book it leads to and so on for six books. They don’t all have to be linked, only each subsequent one.

35529108Lying on my coffee table is Don’t Panic I’m Islamic. I’d heard of this first on Linda Hill‘s blog. Shortly afterwards, I was visiting my son at Goldsmiths, and came across “The Word” bookshop, New Cross Road. I took him inside to show him the joy of browsing in an independent bookshop – his politics are admirable but he doesn’t read enough books. Immediately, in this small one room shop, I found several things I wanted to buy. Yet in Waterstones I frequently come out empty handed, bemused by the vast choice…Has anyone else found this? I believe there’s a theory about it.

Dowd 17Anyway, Don’t Panic, I’m Islamic… It belongs on the coffee table (or in the loo) because it’s a book to dip into. Very funny, in parts. Sad in others, cheeky, angry too. There are poems, cartoons, colouring pages and paintings as well as essays, commissioned in response to President Trump’s travel ban on Muslims. Most contributors are Muslim, though I’m not sure about Carol Ann Duffy or Chris Riddell. My favourite essay was instructions on how to get through US immigration if you’re a gay mixed race man who’s visited Lebanon and Libya that year (the successful strategy will surprise you). It wasn’t the only article on being Muslim and gay, and it struck chords with Queer and Catholic that I reviewed recently. The Word bookshop didn’t have Don’t Panic... (small shops can’t stock everything) but they ordered it which was a good ruse for getting Rob back in there to pick it up for me.

61twx2rf9vlOne they did have, which Don’t Panic… had reminded me of, was The Good Immigrant – which I reviewed here. It also contains references to barriers for BAME travellers at US customs, a sore point well before Trump’s ban. Both The Good Immigrant, a bestseller essay collection last year, and Don’t Panic… offer timely reminders that Muslims (and Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, agnostics and atheists…etc) can be clever, dense, witty, irritating, funny, peculiar, maddening, thoughtful, cruel, compassionate, generous, devout, autistic, dyslexic, able bodied, queer, unhealthy, scientifically-minded, parents, violent, twee…etc…but only a miniscule minority of Muslims (and Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, agnostics and atheists…etc) are likely to be terrorists.

9780008191153The bookshop assistant (owner?) and I chatted about recent lively, polemical books as I placed the order, which reminded me to ask for Attack of the 50ft Women, which I want to give my son for Christmas. (I think it will be a surprise: he doesn’t read my blog. If it isn’t a surprise, this description of how/why women are STILL not truly equal will fit well with his sociology/media/critical theory/history courses anyway.) 32938157As the Sunday Express review said, “Buy it for yourself, your husband or partner. Most importantly, buy it for your children.” But much as I love them, it’s not out in the cheaper paperback until January – so I browsed other books on what I assume was the minorities/women’s table, and found Words from Wise, Witty and Wonderful Women, a compendium of extracts from Woman’s Hour interviews over the past 70 years. I can’t tell you anything about it, except that it’s another dip-into coffee table/loo book, because on the way home I remembered my friend’s birthday, stopped for paper, sellotape and a card, and took it to her. (There was something cosy and appropriate about being saved from forgetting to buy a birthday present by Woman’s Hour.)

51kykr2uvxlThe same display table yielded Rachel Cusk’s Transit, which I’ve already written about at admiring length here, and the paperback of Jane Austen, the Secret Radical. When I got home I realised I’d been given (and not yet read) the hardback last Christmas, so Oxfam did well out of me that day too. I’ve started reading it today, and so far I’m thinking: blimey, this is not the Jane Austen of wet shirted Mr Darcy or gently clopping pony traps! Freud must be rubbing his hands vigorously in his grave (at least I hope it’s his hands) at how Helena Kelly interprets the thoughts of Austen’s Catherine Morland. The Women’s Equality Party could quote her in their manifesto; and Momentum members would enjoy Kelly’s interpretation of Austen’s views on wealth distribution.

32441705So there they are: six – no, dammit, seven – books, tenuously linked. Who’d have thought reading (without panicking) about Islamic drag queens and a Beirut bus driver’s thoughts on Donald Trump’s hair, could lead to Jane Austen?

My choices suggest a penchant for political, radical, left of centre sociology. They make me look like a great reader of nonfiction, but usually I read novels. So I’m tempted to start the game again, with one I read recently, Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End. If any of you have read that, I wonder where it led you? I bet you can’t guess where it took me…but I’ll leave that for a future blog post.

*Janet Emson found the game on three other blogs. If we add mine, that makes five blogs. Would you like to add yours, and then we’ll have six (or more) book blogs separated only by a link, all playing Six Degrees of Separation with the books they’re reading! What would your six (or more) books be?

©Jessica Norrie 2017

Writing about NOISE!

How do you write your blogs? Are your subjects meticulously planned out weeks in advance? Book reviewers structure posts by publication date or genre, gardeners by season, travellers by route. Mine are more random, with the proviso to involve words, reading, writing, language. When I taught, we defined four language skills in order of acquisition: listening which comes long before speaking (think of a baby absorbing and imitating sounds), much later reading and a little after that or concurrently, writing. For an adult, those skills may be conflated or even reversed – most adults feel more comfortable reading than trying to speak, although the phonetic way they do it plays havoc with their pronunciation. And many adults can’t listen.

house 16Anyway, recently, I can’t do any of those. I can’t listen to words or music, because of noise from masonry drills and other power tools. A masonry drill works at between 110-147 decibels, depending whose health and safety advice you read (this is from New Zealand, but we have the same anatomy). A builder using such drills should wear ear protection to reduce (not completely prevent) sudden and irreversible hearing loss. A neighbour of a house which is having its chimney breasts removed has no such protection. She can shut the windows but since the house next door now has no back wall, she’s shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted (noise can confuse a writer: there isn’t now and never was a stable).

I can’t speak because there’s no one else here. My daughter who works from home as a translator has gone to head office in despair. If I phone anyone up they go “What? Pardon? Wh…? You’ll have to speak up! Who?”

33870669I can’t  read because although I’m in the middle of the delightful Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes Hallett, it’s hard to concentrate on the construction of a landscape garden in the 17th century when the china is rattling in the cabinet and it feels like tanks are about to roll onto the sofa. Of course, works then must have been just as disruptive to the locals: a right of way was threatened, bogs were turned into lakes, statues rolled in from Italy on rumbling carts with outwalkers to check the axles didn’t collapse. There were no masonry drills but gunpowder may have been used.

I can’t write. Well, yes, I can. I can write objections to planning applications, requests (unanswered) for notice of dates of especially loud work or the erection of scaffolding next to my bedroom window (which was, to be fair, taken down reasonably promptly), and this moan of a blog post.

I had builders when I moved here. The project expanded, because the house was in a worse state, underneath the pebble dash, than the survey had shown.

house 17
In fact the pebble dash had been holding it together.

But we were not extending beyond or above the existing building line. My builders were jocular, working from about 9.30 to 4pm with lunch breaks. One reason they took over a year was because while I was at work they did other jobs for my new neighbours up and down the road. At weekends they gave us all a break. I lived in the house as the work dragged on, available morning and evening to be complained to, but I didn’t have one complaint. Could be I’m complacent, of course. Could be the households around were all full of wax models of me, and their occupants were busy sticking in pins.

I’m afraid I’m intolerant too. I’ve complained about the new toilet and washing machine and dryer that will rumble against a party wall with my living room. I’ve objected to losing light from my ground floor, views from my kitchen and garden, sunlight for my plants. I’ve objected to the building line of the whole terrace being disrupted by an extension pushing into what was coherent green space (we border a conservation area). A new loft will also disrupt the terrace roof line and three new RSJs will bore into my party wall. I have no formal right to object to this or even to refuse access to my land so the building work can be done. (Many other houses already have standard dormer designs. When those lofts were converted there were appropriate planning regulations keeping them to scale and protecting the environment and neighbours. Such guidelines have now been relaxed so permission is automatic.)

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There are an increasing number of policy makers who would simply say, “Well, it’s property development.” Those who would build on green belt land are among them. Property development is, for some, a virtue in itself and any wound to the environment, to local relationships, to neighbours’ health and homes is simply collateral damage. (Oh, there’s that war metaphor again.) Only time will tell whether the objections of people in the firing line were over-reactions.

The planning application for the ground floor extension was rejected, on the grounds of my objections. Hooray! Now it’s been resubmitted. It will stick out 80cm less, otherwise it’s identical. The time consuming stressful rigmarole of objecting begins again. Sooner or later, one of us will lose. I don’t say one of us will win. Relations are sour. My new novel is, broadly speaking, about communities getting on well. I can’t do any revisions in these circumstances and anyway, I’m inclined to think: sod that. Maybe I’ll turn it into a war novel, immersing myself in ambient bangs, booms and thuds while I have the chance.

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Ah me, silence is golden. I wrote about it once. Meanwhile I’ll try watching Wimbledon. As an English (wo)man whose castle (house) is under siege, my assaulted brain can only think in clichés: every cloud has a silver lining. The power tools are very loud, but at least they drown out John Inverdale.

©Jessica Norrie 2017

In praise of beautiful writing

Such an obvious thing and so easy to overlook: stories and books are composed of words so it’s the words that matter most. In these days of unreliable heroines, bodies eviscerated in infinitely revolting ways, and rush-to-the-finish plots, what a refreshing pleasure it is to be greeted by an author who won’t let you pass on by without stopping to admire her words. And having paused, you find yourself re-reading and reciting them to benefit fully from the careful cadences.

25064563This week I’ve been reading Edna O’Brien’s The Little Red Chairs. I haven’t finished it yet, I’m not even half way through. I’m on a walking tour through musical Irish prose and I’m in no hurry for it to end. The plot is important, she makes that quite clear, and so far it has included many different ideas as well as events, with first hints and then revelations of domestic betrayals and terrible, true war crimes. But I’ll consider the plot as a whole when I reach the end. For now I’m lingering in the language.

Note: I started writing this when I’d read about a hundred pages. I read some more this morning, and O’Brien has jolted me back into the plot with a twist more shocking than I’d anticipated. Interestingly, now I’m propelled by events, I’m not finding the language so engaging. Nonetheless for those hundred pages I was enraptured by words as mesmerising as waves breaking onto the shore. Since they’re what I set out to look at, they’re what I’ll continue with for now.

Some of her language is poetic; these lines occur within just four pages:

“Clouds chased each other across the heavens that bright afternoon, when she drove into the hotel car park. It was much further south and the air was balmy. Yes, clouds on a great maraud, up there staging a tournament.”

“…she heard the lilts and hollers of children.”

“From the slant of the hall light she saw the spray of rain on his hair…”

Some is indirect speech, rhythms and phrases caught in the present tense like pinned butterflies:

“Sister Bonaventure is lost for words and also worried about the palpitations. She can hardly believe it. A surprise party and she thinking she was going to the chapel to say the rosary.”

Some is fierce: “As for the bodies, that was a matter for the engineers, hence the zillions of secret graves that litter our land.”

“He is all alone (…) with the frozen lostness of the abandoned.”

Such care taken: active  “clouds on a great maraud” where most would settle for “marauding clouds”; an “also” added to Sister Bonaventure’s worries, mirroring her speech and also echoing the sounds of the word “lost” that preceded it; “zillions” – I thought, is zillions a real number? Is it childhood slang for a massive uncountable amount beyond thinking and reason? Juxtapose “zillions” with engineering projects to create “secret graves” and you see how naivete and carelessness, attractive attributes in childhood, can lead adults to genocide. I’m still only a couple of pages further on, and the pickings are rich. Yes, words on a great maraud, staging a festival between the covers.

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See “Country Girl” for O’Brien’s own account of her writing and her life.

I don’t have the patience to take such care crafting my own prose. I didn’t start writing, like Edna O’Brien, in my late teens and I haven’t nearly reached my late eighties, and even if I’d had her time, it’s unlikely I’d have developed her skill. I do try to write well. I try to construct clear sentences, of varying length for interest, with one appropriate word instead of a blitz of six. I try to make them lead on from the one before, without unnecessary length or repetition or cliché. Unlike O’Brien, I haven’t spent a lifetime listening, adapting, honing and polishing, consorting with Marianne Faithful and Marlon Brando and undergoing therapy with R D Laing, interviewing terrorists and piling up literary prizes in the bulging trophy cupboard. Nonetheless, I – we all – can learn from her.

In this matter of cadence, what makes a beautiful sentence? For O’Brien, her Irish heritage provides a sound (in all senses of the word) foundation. “Lilting Irish” is a cliché, but clichés only come into being because they are true. So much Irish prose, poetry  and song does lilt – but lilting implies lulling and Irish writers inevitably go on to pack in a shock. Think of Yeats’ first lines: “Although I’d lie lapped up in linen”; “I think it better that in times like these”; “On the grey sand beside the shallow stream” – then look up what comes after. Think of Beckett, Molly Keane, Toibin, Boyne, Anne Enright…no, I’ll think of them for another post, on Irish writing, another time.

The Irish are front runners but often the language of a title signposts a book from elsewhere whose language will stop you in your tracks: “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller” (Italo Calvino), (as beguiling in translation as in Italian); “After Leaving Mr MacKenzie” (Jean Rhys)“If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things” (Jon McGregor); “By Grand Central Station I Sat  Down and Wept” (Elizabeth Smart). (Note how many of these titles start with what is now inflexibly labelled a “connective” in school English teaching.) Or the effect could be gained from something as small as a comma: “Cry, the Beloved Country” (Alan Paton). These elegiac titles precede lyrical prose, while economical, clean, precise writing may be heralded by a single powerful word: Persuasion (Jane Austen); Futility (William Gerhardie); Atonement (Ian McKewan).

 

Exposure (Helen Dunmore), which I reviewed here, also has a one-word title announcing gleaming prose. Dunmore is of course a poet as well as a novelist, her words as thoughtfully arranged, selected and refused as in her verse – test any page by reading a paragraph aloud. Another of my favourite writers, Julian Barnes, has written extensively of his debt to Gustave Flaubert. 10746542Nobody took more care with prose than Flaubert, who would spend weeks on a single sentence and coined the term “le mot juste” which ecompasses infinitely more meaning than the translation, “the right word”. In my review of The Noise of Time, I discuss how Barnes uses language to make the reader stop, and think.  Incidentally (but perhaps it’s not incidental) good prose can be more successfully re imagined in other media: the recent film of Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending is concise, clear, meaningful, allowing the reader/viewer space for reflection, as are the successful film versions of McEwan’s novels.

This was a small reflection on words. I could go on, but I’d like to hear examples that you have found beautiful, and we can take a moment to share them. Perhaps as well as the words themselves, space, and silence – the spaces between words, the sounds between the notes – are what make these works so special. I think I’ll look at that next time.

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

Happy Blogiversary to me!

Blogiversay cake 2.3I didn’t know the word “blogiversary” existed last year, and now I’m having one myself! Strictly speaking my first post went up on April 9th 2016, but since then I’ve established a pattern of book and writing related blogging every Friday. This is the closest Friday, so I hope you’ll join my celebration by entering my draw for one of four giveaways:

510glyvrrdlGiveaways 1 & 2!

Two paperback copies of “The Infinity Pool” for the winners of those who comment below (UK only, for postage reasons, sorry).

 

Giveaway 3! This costs me nothing but time and I’m sure I’ll find it interesting. I’m offering a critique of a piece of writing up to 2000 words (open to writers worldwide but note my usage is UK.)

You could submit the opening  of a novel, a short story, an academic essay, a book review, a blog post, a presentation text, a persuasive letter, a memoir – whatever you like. I’ll comment on coherence, structure, readability, style and content (unless it’s academic or technical). I’ll check grammar, usage, punctuation, and spelling. I’ll do this using the tracking programme in Word. It doesn’t have to be something you’ve written already, any time in the next 12 months will do. (I aim to get these critiques done by email within a month of receiving your writing, and I reserve the right not to enter into further discussion afterwards unless we both want to.)

Giveaway 4! I’m offering a similar critique of a piece of writing up to 1000 words.

Blogiversary cake 1.1

What are my credentials? Well, I studied European Literature at Sussex University. As a teacher I marked work  – all ages, right across the curriculum – for 33 years! I wrote articles back in the day for DC Thompson magazines, and I’m a qualified translator. I’ve written successful academic essays and dissertations, and many papers, reports and policies for my teacher training work. I’ve published a novel and a textbook for primary schools. I write this blog, if you want to explore my own writing style further, and I’m working on a second novel.

For Giveaways 1,2,3 and 4 please comment below to win. Please state in your comment whether you’d like the book (UK only) or one of the writing critiques (anywhere). Please comment before midday (UK!) on Friday 14th 2017.

Also – a near Giveaway!The Infinity Pool ebook is on a countdown deal on Amazon UK and US, from Saturday (midnight UK) for 7 days to midnight (UK) on Friday 14th. Your chance to read (and review please?) for only 99p or whatever they decide is the equivalent across the pond.

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So – the blog’s a year old, I’ve written nearly 60 weekly/occasional posts or around 60,000 words, and three weeks ago I was nominated for a Blogger Recognition Award! I’ve saved it for today’s celebration. The lovely blogger who nominated me is Marlena at Fabulous Fusions, who I found when I was researching Punjabi customs for the novel I’m writing at present. She’s in a mixed race marriage with a multilingual child and after my career teaching such families I want to celebrate them as much as she does. I found useful information on her site but also much more – diversity, connectivity, tolerance, open mindedness, the future – everything the UK so badly needs right now. It’s typical of her generosity that she nominated me for my first award. Do visit her blog for yourselves.

Below is the award in the form she gave me (top left), and some of the other forms I’ve found on Google. If someone holds the copyright, let me know! I have tried to find out…

It was appropriate Marlena’s award turned up so close to me completing my first year, as the questions you have to answer (if you decide to take part – nothing’s compulsory) lead you to reflect on why, what, how, who, when, etc. Here goes:

How and why did I start the blog? Kicking and screaming! I’d published The Infinity Pool in July 15 and it had sold quite well, but 10 months in interest was tailing off and I was finding social media time consuming, stressful and random. You have to blog to maintain interest and build an audience, said Amazon. You have to blog, said Goodreads. You have to blog, said Writers and Artists, and the Alliance of Independent Authors, and Books Go Social. Blogging is great, said Book Connectors. More social media, I thought. But maybe I could control the way I used it better if I held some of the cards.

I knew I didn’t want to concentrate on book reviews, because I like to choose what I read and read it at my own pace and I don’t always want to comment on it. I do like to write, but was disheartened: I’d started a few second novels and chucked them at around 10,000 words. I thought a blog might unblock me. Regular, shorter, less intense assignments, snacks rather than a three course dinner. Also, I have opinions and it struck me this was a way of recording them. So I stopped kicking and screaming, and began composing (and deleting).

tennis player 2How’s it going now? I was still teaching until July, and my highest viewings were around May and June for arguments against SATs (won that one this week, it seems!) and discussion of how children learn to read and write. A couple of posts on Shakespeare boosted my ratings, and my posts on a trip to Japan are still being shared 6 months later. I’ve written about narrative, via tennis, mosaics, and packing a suitcase; I’ve written about diversity in teaching, society, literature and my own writing; I’ve begged the UK not to leave Europe (lost that one!) I’ve discussed children’s books and feminist writing, writing in translation and songwriting and I’ve wrestled with the Three Edded Monster.

I take my hat off to those who blog every day. Once a week is more than enough for me. I love the writing part, and sourcing illustrations is really creative. Sometimes I draw them myself, which has revived a pastime I hadn’t tried for decades. Sometimes they involve bizarre montages. I can always think of something to write, even if occasionally an idea only occurs as my Friday deadline hits the letter d. I’ve built a modest audience, I’d like to see it increase but who’d have thought a year ago I’d have one at all?

In particular I’ve made online contact with some incredibly kind and generous people, who regularly comment, sometimes repost, and are always encouraging and interested. I know I don’t return this enough and can only plead lack of time, as the blog has done what I wanted it to do and unblocked the second novel, now well under way.

child writing edited

Advice to new bloggers

Take time to choose a theme, font size and colours that are clear to read. The biggest turn off for me is something I have to peer at to decipher.

Keep posts reasonably short and edit, edit, edit. Break up text with images.

Check copyright on images and words very carefully indeed before you use them. If you keep it original you’ll know you’re safe.

Respond to other bloggers who show an interest. They are the key to increasing your audience! And most of them have very interesting blogs too.

My nominations

I’m nominating these fellow bloggers for the Blogger Recognition Award. Most of the blog titles are self explanatory. I ‘ve tried for a selection of smaller and larger, individual and group blogs. I hope those I have included will be pleased, but if not, just ignore it! If anyone feels unjustly left out, please comment and I’ll link to you in a future post.

blogger-recognition-award1The Daily Annagram – occasionally offensive, always very funny. Anna takes no prisoners!

Crafting Your Novel  …as it says on the tin

blogger-recognition-awardThe Writers Newsletter…this tin says it all too

Pamreader  A book reviewer with more challenges than many

Bookalicious – books and travel from a travelling bookworm

Tanya Cliff: “The Quill That Shatters Glass”

thelearnify-3Books from Dusk till Dawn – see the tin!

Morgan Hazelwood:Writer in progress – as she says

Julie Proudfoot a helpful and stylish Australian writer

 

bloggerrecognitionawardBooksandbeyondreviews.com I especially enjoy his Friday Face Off series comparing different book covers

Cathyreadsbooks Has a number of different angles on working in the book trade, writing, and reading

Olga  Núñez Translator and writer

blogger_recognition_award_1025x853D.G.Kaye US author, traveller and blogger

Annabelle Franklin children’s author

Jude Lennon children’s author and one time classroom colleague of mine!

blogger-recognition-award-badge1Tina Frisco the most positive voice in the blogosphere

Brit Fic Posts by contemporary British authors

Oh dear, that’s 17. Never mind – do check out their blogs. All of them are different, yet all of them very interesting.

If you accept this nomination (you don’t have to):

  • Thank the blogger who nominated you and provide links to their blog.
  • Write a post to show you have the award and attach the logo to your post.
  • Write a brief story of how your blog started.
  • Give a piece of advice to new bloggers.
  • Select 15 other blogs you want to give the award to (I notice some people do fewer than 15, if that seems too many. I thought it was at first but look what happened!)
  • Comment on each blog and let them know you have nominated them. Please don’t be offended if they decide not to mention it on their blog or make any awards of their own as it is entirely up to them what they put on on their blogs and when, and your award may not fit with their plans.

Thank you Marlena one more time for my own nomination – I was very touched.

Congratulations to all new nominees!

Jessica

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

Northern Lights

Here’s a very short book quiz:

  1. In which country is 10% of the population a published author?
  2. In which country did 4 million adults not read a single book for enjoyment in 2013?
  3. And in which of the two above did more than half the country’s population read at least eight books a year, with the most popular Christmas present a book?

The good news, on behalf of the British book trade, readers, non readers, children, adults, English speakers and others, Christmas celebrants and those with other faiths or none, is that the Jolabokaflod Book Campaign aims to learn from Iceland, represented by numbers 1 and 3 with the UK in between. The campaign says: Essentially, we want to inspire people to discover – and rediscover – a love of reading for pleasure.

Last night it was my pleasure to attend their gala party at the Café Royal. First, I learned how to pronounce Jol – a – bok – a – flod, more or less as written, the faster the better. Even in Brexitland familiarity gets our tongues round Djokovic, Pocahontas and tagliatelle bolognese with ease, so I disagreed with the guest who said it was too complicated. Especially once we unpack the meaning which is, roughly, Christmas Book Flood.

jola-bokafold

Icelandic author Hallgrímur Helgason describes the tradition thus: Jolabokaflod … is the nicest of Icelandic traditions. It may always have existed … since we have been saga-nerds for a thousand years, but it acquired its current form in the Post-War Years. When people had little money and even fewer things to buy … locally made books became the perfect Christmas present. Publishers went with the flow, a tradition was born, and ever since, almost all Icelandic fiction and most of the non-fiction is published in the month of November.

For the authors, it’s a bit of a horse race. You can almost hear people calling: ‘Let the games begin!’ and ‘May the best book win!’

“Saga-nerds!” Eat your heart out, Dr Who!

jola-catalogTo quote the website: “every year since 1944, the Icelandic book trade has published a catalogue – called Bókatíðindi (Book Bulletin, in English) – that is sent to every household in the country in mid-November.” (Meanwhile we get flyers from Tesco.) “People use the catalogue to order books to give friends and family for Christmas.…gifts are opened on 24 December and, by tradition, everyone reads the books they have been given straight away, often while drinking hot chocolate or alcohol-free Christmas ale called jólabland.”

Jol(a?) – Yule. Bland – a drink without alcohol. Icelandic’s a doddle. You can practise huddled on your sofa during those Icelandic noir series on BBC4 – Case, or Trapped.

A feature I especially liked is the emphasis on books as a personal gift. In Iceland, when giving a book you give something of yourself, and subsequently it’s expected that you’ll ask how the recipient got on with it. The UK JBC (sorry to abbreviate, my heroine wants me to save my typing strength for the novel) has its work cut out. “Oh, aren’t books lovely! What a shame you can’t really give them as presents!” When I overheard that in Foyles recently, the assistants and fellow customers were all too British and discreet to shout: “Oh yes, you CAN!”

The JBC issues a Book Bulletin, funded through Crowdpatch. You make book recommendations with a donation, and at the same time inform JBC of any URL you wish to promote (for a book, product, service, blog etc). They feature your recommendation and promotion together. You can also start a “patch” to fund any “campaigns that encourage people in communities … to buy books to give to friends and family for reading during a special event...”. The scope reaches way beyond the book trade to education, activism, chaitable and cultural provision and more.My understanding is that it continues year long, not just at Christmas.

jola-chris
Christopher Norris

How did I get involved? Well, book traders have always been networkers. One of first and best was Martyn Goff, Booker Prize administrator and National Book League director, who died in 2015.I went to represent my late father Ian, also a “bookman” as they were once known, at his memorial service, where I met Christopher Norris, who was instrumental in setting up World Book Day and now JBC. Martyn was still networking from beyond the grave, getting me invited as a result to the sort of book trade event he and my father used regularly to attend. (It was a special pleasure to meet Suzanne Collier from Book Careers who remembered them.) Christopher was an efficient, genial and informative host and my agent Bill and I had a wonderful evening for which many thanks are due.

jola-lamp
The Lumio lamp

Drinks flowed and delicious canapés were served in traditional style, but there was also state of the art photography (not my pictures here!) by Christina Jansen, glorious husky singing by Eckoes, and a draw for two extraordinary book lamps by Lumio, JBC’s sponsors. They’re stocked in London at the British Library and the Conran Shop, and I need to write a bestseller fast, because I didn’t win one. (If you have friends in Australia, you could help crowd fund my book lamp by telling them my own first novel The Infinity Pool is on an Amazon monthly deal there until February 28th.You can read about the ups and downs the first time it went on Aussie promotion here.)

Another sponsor, The Cuckoo Club, provided generous hospitality for an after party, but this Cinderella needed to be fresh enough today for blogging and lip service to my demanding heroine-in-progress. She kept me on track last week; that lamp is in my sights.

For the last word, back to Hallgrímur Helgason: Thanks to the Jolabokaflod, books still matter in Iceland, they get read and talked about. Excitement fills the air. Every reading is crowded, every print-run is sold. Being a writer in Iceland you get rewarded all the time: People really do read our books, and they have opinions, they love them or they hate them. At the average Christmas party people push politics and the Kardashians aside and discuss literature. ‘His last book was so boring, but this one’s just great!’

In Iceland book lives matter in every sense of that phrase: The shelf-life of the book, the lives in the book, the life of the writer and the life of the reader. 

 

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

Plus ca change…

So pleasing when a neat link arises between one’s own work (last week’s post about books that made me European), and something rather grander (the recent news of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature).

If the Nobel Committee asked me which songwriters deserved a prize for both literature and peace, I’d say the French (and Belgian) ones. George Brassens, Jacques Brel, Barbara...and which interpreters of them deserved something too, for reaching out and breaking down barriers: Piaf, Juliette Gréco singing the words of Brassens, Aragon, Queneau – and Brel again, who crops up everywhere. The work of these songwriters/poets/singers foretold the work of Dylan decades earlier with just as much brio, panache, joie de vivre and on occasion angst (why are none of those English words?) and, dare I say, it more tunefully too.  Let’s have a look at a few gems of poetry, simple philosophy, politics and music.

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I heard the songs of Brassens as a child, not realising he also wrote poetry and novels. He lived in hiding for five years in Paris after escaping from a German forced labour camp.He was a true European, with a musical Italian mother who was a strict Catholic and a liberal, anti clerical French father. His songs are often jaunty and cheerful, but the lyrics are uncompromising.

Brassens wrote Chanson pour l’Auvergnat in 1954. (For copyright reasons I’ve not reprinted any of the original in this post, but given my own unpolished English summary instead. It’s easy to find both lyrics and performances online, by Brassens himself, Juliette Gréco and relatively recently Manu Dibango among others.)

This song is for you, the Auvergnat who without guile, gave me four sticks of wood, when my life felt cold. You gave me firewood when all the good chattering people had shut the door in my face, only firewood, but it warmed my body, and even now  gives a joyous flame to my soul.

He goes on to praise the hostess who gave him bread, when “there was hunger in my life” and  no one invited him in, and tells how her welcome still warms his heart. Finally the stranger/foreigner (l’étranger means both in French, how UKIP must envy that) who, watching as the police arrested him, gave him an awkward smile of encouragement rather than laughing and clapping with the watching crowd. That sweetness still burns like the sun in his soul.  When you good people die, he says in each chorus, may you go to heaven.

Some parallels here, surely, with the situation of migrants to Europe? Let us hope they meet an Auvergnat…

Piaf sang of the kindness of strangers too, in a song you will all know the tune of – daah, Dah, dah, Daah, dah DAAAHH but whose story you may not have known:

piaf-2

Come in, Milord, sit down. It’s so cold outside but you’ll be comfortable here…Put your feet up!

The singer is a prostitute and her client a English aristocrat. She’s flattered that he’s come to her, she’s seen him go proudly past, a beautiful girl at his side (so beautiful it made her shiver), a silk scarf over his shoulders. Then today the girl left on a ship, threw away his love, broke his heart. How sad love is, and life itself…but you can find new chances for happiness. He’s a great lord and she’s just a woman of the streets, but she can sympathise…(as the the music slows and Piaf speaks in a shocked voice rather than singing) “but you’re crying, milord. …there, there…it’s not so bad…give me a little smile?…that’s it..bravo!“and the music speeds up, they dance,  and the man is comforted, for a while at least. This brilliant song turns social standing on its head: the poor street girl has the generosity and power to comfort the aristocrat in his moment of fragility – and yet she and we know he will probably survive longer and more comfortably than she. The songwriters were Marguerite Monnot and Joseph Mustacchi.

Thirdly, “Barbara”. She was born Monique Serf  in Paris to Jewish parents from Alsace and Odessa.
barbara-3She spent the war in flight from the Nazis, yet her song Göttingen (1965) must surely be the soundtrack to peace and reunion everywhere. She visited the German town and wrote this haunting song about how Göttingen’s parks and schoolchildren and roses were different to those in Paris, but just as beautiful; about how when there is no shared language you can still smile at each other, and about how she fears another war between France and Germany because there are people she loves in Göttingen. She recorded the song in both French and German, and it was quoted by Gerhard Schroeder at the celebrations to mark 40 years of the Elysée Treaty of Reconciliation. Do listen to it – but be warned, it will become a earworm and so it should.

I don’t mean to look only at the past (and I have nothing against Americans or Dylan!) Last week I suggested Books against Brexit and will return to that, but for now I seem to have swung towards a (better) Song for Europe. How about the wider world and the present? Fortuitously, this came onto my facebook page today. It’s good to see the tradition of moving, constructive, poetic song writing in response to power and exclusivity is still going strong: This American Life asked Sara Bareilles to imagine what President Obama might be thinking about this election. She wrote this song, which Leslie Odom Jr. sings. It’s free to download until December 3. Credits at the links given.

Songwriters: Brassens, Georges Published byLyrics © EMI Music Publishing, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.

Monnot & Mustacchi Published byLyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group Barbara:my sheet music ©Les Editions Métropolitaines, 11 rue de Provence 75011 Paris

© Jessica Norrie 2016

I browse eyebrows: adventures with voice recognition software

rhian-eyebrows-1

Once upon a time a poor author decided she was tired of typing so she thought she’d try out the word recognition software on her iPad. She wanted to write a blog post about fairy tales BUT the elves and the shoemaker became the show emailer. Fairies were various, Rapunzel became rap ur seal. The Arabian Nights turned into Radiance Nights (rather lovely, actually), and she has a rather Sheherezade. So the poor author went to bed in a huff.

One stormy evening the poor author tried again.

Maybe it was just her voice wasn’t clear enough. Maybe her ideas needed editing, but somehow or other it didn’t seem to make much sense when she read it back. Then someone suggested making a virtue of necessity: she would write a blog post through voice mail with no corrections and see if anyone could tell what it was about.

So she wrote about reading books instead, and this time she realised you have to say the punctuation. Full stop. Please read on:

Eyebrows. No, I love to 1st books on the wet autumn afternoon, lying on the sofa in my pyjamas without a care in the world. That sounds a bit dubious velocity

Of course what I really meant was biologically. But the timer runs out very quickly with the voice recognition is it software. Someone that means you have to have your ideas more quickly they need to be more six synced and no I meant succinct. Well done softwar

Let’s return to the paragraph for last what I said was I love to browse books on the wet autumn afternoon a wet awesome afternoon no a wet autumn afternoon. But first it came out as I love to pass books on an autumn afternoon no and autumn aftern. Interesting to see what happens when the timer runs out Medford meet word no meat word no mate word no mate M I D word. I don’t know what this voice recognition softt gets the word mate.

sheila-eyebrows-2

Anyway, if we were talking about passing books on a wet autumn afternoon, that was what I thought would be a bit do you BS know do you BS, no NO, do you PS, do you PSPS, do you B. Well what I was trying to say and will go off voice recognition software and I’ll type it was: “Dubious”. Biologically. Do you BS (dubious) to pass books biologically even if you are a bookworm!

Strangely, the software sometimes correct its own mistakes. But then sometimes it makes them worse. That’s how do you BS became do you pierce azin as in earrings or piercings and that’s how past books which was meant to be browns books, no, arouse books, NO, “browse” books became first books. (I don’t know what the word recognition software thought I was trying to say but I reckon some whole new positions for things to do with books have been invented inadvertently. Arouse books, anyone?)

The author gave up! she thought, it may be that even though I suffer from incipient RSI I should go back to typing my next novel. Oddly enough apart from the capital letter at the beginning, that sentence came out perfectly.

See you more clearly next week back here on the block!

rob-eyes-2

© Jessica Norrie 2016 (although who would want to pinch this?)

Phrase book poetry

I took a nostalgic look through some old phrasebooks for the end of the holiday season:

 

Italian phrase bookGood morning! Which island is this? 

How deep is the water?

What does “vietato” mean?

You could have… (friendly form)

Help!

Potuguese phrase bookI like the weather here! I’d like to hire a sunshade. How much per hour?

When will you come to fix the air conditioning? 

HOW much per hour?

I’m (very) hot!

 

Turkish phrase bookWhere are the English books? How much per page? 

I’d like to hire a motorbike.

 The teller machine took my card.

You could ask them for a discount…I am not haggling 

 

Greek phrase booksI’m starving! 

Boiled hen and mixed contours…yellow creamy cheese. I’m on a special diet, I ate sushi.

Enjoy your drinks. How old is this wine?

Where are the facilities?

 

Polish phrase bookDo you want to dance?

What time shall we meet? Where will we meet? Let’s meet at…

That went very well. Yes I do (understand).

Sweet dreams.

 

Japanese phrase bookThe film is stuck. I prefer arthouse films

A bit more off here, please.

This seat is taken, sorry.

I will sit on the floor.

I have my own mattress.

French phrase book

 

The room is dirty.

Is there any mail for me?

Please tell him I called. I don’t know his name.

I’m pregnant.

No I don’t (understand).

 

Goodbye. Sayonara. Au revoir. 

Farewell.

 

After I had “written” this poem, I discovered a much, much, much better one which departs from a similar idea: “Phrase book” by Jo Shapcott.

© Jessica Norrie 2016