Striking the right note…

I’ve heard there’s this nasty bug going around… No, that’s too trivialising. EVERYONE’S GOING TO DIE! Alarmist, untrue. All things must pass: cliched but almost certainly correct. How are you all, blog followers (unless you’ve dropped out for which I wouldn’t blame you)? I haven’t posted for months, partly due to a second glaucoma operation (fitted in just in time) and partly now due to, well, this bug that’s going around. It’s high time I checked you’re all ok out there, and shared some positives from how I’m passing the locked down time.

This is normally a books and writing blog. books for blog 2Reading does help, it’s true. I’ve finished the latest Philip Pullman – very entertaining, very dark, perhaps a few too many meetings of the Magisterium to hold my interest and I’m not sure he’s quite as secure writing the young woman Lyra as he was writing the child – but as always brilliantly inventive, perceptive, unpatronising, chilling. I needed a complete change after that, so am in the middle of Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women. Just as chilling, in its way. Women are 47% more likely to die in car accidents, because safety trials use male dummies as default. Female pianists are 87% more likely to suffer from RSI due to the size of a standard keyboard. A male investor, faced with a business plan for an  innovative breast pump that outclassed the commonly used standard US models, recoiled in disgust. It’s wittily written, informative, and just as you’re despairing, it has messages of hope. Books for blog 2.4 (2)Then when I’m ready to return to fiction, my pile is not for the faint-hearted. Just as well we’re in lockdown.

I finished the 3rd edit of Novel 3 and sent it back to Agent X. Agent X expressed irritation the other day because authors were clamouring along the lines of “you must have loads of time for reading now”. So I won’t nag Agent X, but y’know, if I don’t have a publishing deal by midsummer, I’ll…I’ll…well, I’m not sure what I’ll do.

Still with an eye to words and writing, I signed up for the Curtis Brown Creative Weekly Writing Workout, if only because I have absolutely no idea how to follow Novel 3 and some of their ideas may help. I’m playing online Scrabble with old friends and relations – this site is marvellous because you can swap tiles, use outlandish dictionaries no one else has ever heard of, search for bingos and definitions…It’s more about placement and less about your own skill than the traditional board game, and there are no adverts to distract you, with unlimited games, languages and combinations all for $15 a year.

walk for blog (2)Every day we go for a walk. Sometimes in countryside within walking distance, sometimes through streets. We seem to be noticing more, and valuing it. Here is a garden in the next road, complete with sculptures and cowslips. On our walks I surreptitiously break off cuttings of overhanging plants, as I was all set to order for empty spaces in our garden when what one choirmaster calls “The Great Adjournment” began.

The ex infant teacher in me is lapping up the online ideas posted to help (or pressurise) parents trying to homeschool their children. As soon as we finish the next plastic milk carton, I’m going to make an Elmer. I don’t happen to have a stock of coloured tissue paper, but there’s wrapping paper, old magazines to cut up, my partner’s clothes…I may unearth my neglected mosaics kit, perhaps when I’ve exhausted the puzzle I bought in Kyoto art gallery (those were the days). Simple pleasures: a jigsaw, a good cup of coffee, and Jenni Murray’s rich, reassuring voice on BBC Woman’s Hour.

91432836_1380921938767158_3145435933633937408_n
Credit for the Elmer design goes to Amy Trow from https://www.facebook.com/groups/houseboundwithkids/

The days start with my home made version of yoga and stretches and then I practise my piano, fortuitously delivered just before lockdown. That means it hasn’t had its inaugural tune, but the friend with whom I swap 5 minute recordings of what we’ve managed today hasn’t complained so far. I’m not posting a recording here as I do have some pride, but the regular, extra time will surely result in a better technique and wider repertoire by the time lockdown ends – won’t it?

I’m very sad there’ll be no Wimbledon and no Dartington this year. I’m apprehensive about catching the virus. I’m concerned for people who were vulnerable before any of this even started – refugees, domestic violence victims, the mentally ill and the disabled. I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t like to see my children, friends and Hackney Singers in real life rather than on Zoom, but otherwise the piano (2)simple life is rather appealing to me. I’m hoping we’ll all reset our values and habits as a result of this episode. Perhaps we’ll value home cooking more, and fashion that lasts, the company of our partners and our own company. Perhaps wildlife will thrive with less polluting traffic, and have you seen how clear the sky is without aircraft? Maybe our government will at last resource our NHS as it deserves and recognise how much low paid and low prestige workers contribute to society. In the West, at least, some of us had become decadent and spoilt. Perhaps as a species we’ll learn some timely lessons.

I don’t underestimate the difficulties, and I do sincerely hope you all come through unscathed. Take care, wash your hands, stay at home, count your blessings, and if you are a key worker of any kind, I particularly thank you and wish you well.

jigsaw (2)

©Jessica Norrie 2020

 

Easter Eggheads – a literary quiz

Eggs 7It’s Easter Bank Holiday so what better time for a quiz – questions are in rough chronological order of publication. I hope you’ll recognise our sacrifice here at Blogger Towers, where although our waistlines had decided against Easter eggs and Simnel cake we’ve now bought them purely for illustration purposes. I’ll post the answers next week, if anyone cares:

  1. Who printed a story in which a “good wyf” from Southern England thought a merchant from the North was speaking French, because he asked for eggys which she knew as eyren?
  2. Who shouts: “What, you egg! […] Young fry of treachery!” and what is he doing to whom as he shouts it?
  3. Which Shakespearean hero shares his name with a famous egg dish?
  4. Who rode westward on Good Friday 1613?
  5. Who met Mephistopheles when on an Easter walk with Wagner?
  6. At the beginning of which children’s story from 1854 is the King of Paflagonia so absorbed in a letter from the King of Crim Tartary “that he allows his eggs to get cold, and leaves his august muffins untasted“?Eggs 4
  7. Which Victorian artist was described by his friend Charles Dickens as “sweet-tempered, humorous, conscientious, thoroughly good, and thoroughly beloved“?
  8. What was the name of Raffles’ sidekick?
  9. Who told Alice in Wonderland “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean“?
  10. Which decadent hero lived in West Egg?
  11. Which seminal moment in Irish history forms the subject matter for Sean O’Casey’s play “The Plough and the Stars”?
  12. Who “came down to breakfast one morning, lifted the first cover he saw, said ‘Eggs! Eggs! Eggs! Damn all eggs!’ in an overwrought sort of voice, and instantly legged it for France, never to return to the bosom of his family?”
  13. In which novel by Agatha Christie is there a character called Egg?
  14. Who liked “a speckled brown egg from a French Marans hen, boiled for exactly three and a third minutes” for breakfast?
  15. Which very sad black comedy originally starred Albert Finney and has been revived since with Clive Owen, Eddie Izzard and Miriam Margoyles among others in its cast?
  16. When could you next hope to see the Oberammergau Passion Play?
  17. What colour were Sam-I-am’s eggs?
  18. Who wrote the original story and script for “The Long Good Friday”?
  19. What hatched at the beginning of a story from an egg lying on a moonlit leaf?
  20. Who made the assorted sweets from which if you were very unlucky, you might pick out a rotten egg flavoured one?

Eggs 3

Happy Easter! Thank you to all those who commented on last week’s giveaways post. I’ve replied to the comments of the four who won a book or a critique. Please check your name there to see if you have won anything and how to claim it.

©Jessica Norrie 2017

Slog, blog, stop, sing!

blogger-recognition-award-badge1Yesterday I had the lovely surprise of a Blogger Recognition Award from a fellow blogger at Fabulous Fusions. I’ll post about it and make my own nominations in a couple of weeks as it will fit well with my Blogiversary. In April I’ll have blogged a whole year and I’ve learnt some new jargon (Blogiversary?) but I still haven’t changed the world. Must try harder…

HS rehearsal Gill carole Keiko
Before rehearsal at Holy Trinity, Sloane Street

This week it’s been not blog but slog. Slogging over that tricky second novel, editing the first draft, chucking/retrieving words, phrases, chapters, trying to animate my flatter characters, stuff events into my barely existent plot, realise my undefined location and tighten my narrative arc, aka narrative droop. It’s time for a break, and once a week I have the ideal solution when I sing top sop with the Hackney Singers (btw there’d be a loud cheer here if the blog had sound effects, and what follows are my personal views of why we deserve it). Another btw: “top sop” doesn’t mean best sop, it just means the soprano part with the highest notes. Narrative droop or no narrative droop, this artiste likes to aim high.

We’re a community choir, so we don’t audition, yet we manage challenging classical works. Some of us don’t read music; some read music in a confused way; some are musically highly literate. Some have singing lessons and know what to do with their diaphragms; others pitch up once a week and open their mouths.

HS scores

For me it’s a relief not to be working alone but with others, and not to be editing my own work but, having learnt the basics, to be at the finessing stage of someone else’s – in this case, Dan Ludford Thomas‘s conducting of Bach’s B Minor Mass. He makes the decisions; I just try and do as he says. Our excellent music team exert all their expertise, goodwill and grace to help us and so far on the day of performance their guidance has always helped us rise to the occasion. I’ve been in many choirs, but Hackney’s the most enjoyable, because Dan, Andy, James and co accentuate the positive, building on what we can do rather than criticising what we can’t (although you learn to read between the lines. When the conductor says brightly: “Hackney Singers are good at loud!”, that means: “But this bit is supposed to be soft.”)

So we’re always learning, but the music team’s hard work and amiable but firm refusal to reduce their expectations produce results that at best take our audiences by storm, moving and exciting as any live music performance by professionals. Often there’s wine too!

HS bparalympics backstage
Backstage at the Paralympics, 2012

All the choirs I’ve sung in have something in common: sopranos shriek unless lovingly preened, altos can be too subtle for their own good; tenors are an endangered species to be protected from raids by rival choirs; and basses boom along the bottom a bit behind the beat. Hackney sorts all this out with a relaxed attitude and emphasis on enjoyment. For concerts women don’t wear long black skirts and the men don’t wear DJs and bow ties. We weren’t too proud to take part in the recent Sainsbury’s TV adverts. “Yum, yum, yum! Yum, yum, yum!” we sang, grasping all six notes and words with admirable speed in an hour’s recording session. (We’re open to similar bookings, for a contribution to choir funds.)

HS yum yum chaps
Yum, yum,yum at the Urchin studios, 2016

Members have sung Handel on the stage of English National Opera, sung Mozart and Handel at the Festival Hall, sung with Sir Tom Jones and Paloma Faith at the BBC Music awards, and recorded the soundtrack for a Susan Boyle film at the Air Studios in Hampstead. Groups of us have sung at weddings, funerals and for the Mayor of Hackney. A highlight was singing at the Paralympics Opening Ceremony in 2012, wearing Mao suits and such huge cellophane stars on our shoulders that we couldn’t turn round without shouting a warning.

So please come to our next concert, at the Festival Hall on Monday 27th March. The Bach B Minor Mass has grand airs and pretty tunes; poignant sadness and glorious celebration. It’s a big ask even by our standards, and greater choirs than ours have found it one to grapple with. It’s long, complex, requires all the muscular stamina some of us thought we could manage without, has innumerable “runs” (series of fast notes that look like knitting stitches on the page – drop one and you’re lost! You have to gasp – not visibly or audibly – and pick up the thread again wherever you can.) But we won’t be Baching up the wrong tree because as well as Dan and team, we’re singing with wonderful professional soloists and an impressive orchestra, The London Mozart Players. You’ll hear their oboes and flutes “having a party” as Dan puts it, their trumpets fanfaring a huge choral entry, their strings doubling our voices and their bass section duelling with ours.We also have the not inconsiderable help (they would probably put this the other way round; maybe they have a blogger in their ranks who will do so) of one of Dan’s other choirs, The Lewisham Choral Society Bach mass

Why not join us? Next term we’re singing Orff’s Carmina Burana. We particularly welcome tenors and basses, younger singers (younger being an elastic term) and more singers who represent the ethnic diversity of Hackney (but you don’t have to fit any of those categories or even to live in Hackney). Check out our website for vacancy and waiting list details – remember, there’s no audition and you don’t have to read music! You will have to attend regularly and practise, because this music does take some learning. In return you get a leisure activity to bring joy for the rest of your life.

HS flyers

Now I’d better get back to my editing, before the narrative arc flops as flat as a top sop on a sudden top B… I hope to see you in the audience on Monday 27th!

©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

 

In the same class as Shakespeare

Some of you have said you’re impatient  for more news of my heroine, but she had to sit in the waiting room for a few days last week while I went on a trip of my own. Reviewing a guide to Shakespeare recently reminded me he’d rather left my stage, having played a lead role at other times.So off we went to Stratford-upon-Avon (proofreader’s nightmare, that, since the district council differ from the official tourist website and call it Stratford-on-Avon. And I only set out to check if it has hyphens. Still, inconsistent usage is in the Shakespearian tradition.)

We did things in the right chronological order. This was inadvertent, but I do recommend it to give a sense of his life: childhood, education, maturity, creativity and legacy. It’s all easily walkable. Shakespeare’s birthplace has been much tarted up lately – (whoever knew they had an early form of wallpaper? It’s oilcloth, designed to keep out draughts.) We moved on to his school, then to New Place which he bought as a successful playwright, next to his daughter’s home Hall’s Croft, and finally to an acclaimed production of “The Tempest“.

 

Actors are on hand at each property: one played Shylock. His most famous speech should be played on a loop in these times of Trumpian intolerance and Brexit braggadaccio (substitute any faith/orientation/race /characteristic you like):

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is?

If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison
us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? 

shakespeaare-actress
Appropriately, this actor was performing excerpts from “The Winter’s Tale”. “Shylock” is behind her, in the grey cloak.

All the Shakespeare properties were fascinating in different ways, but as a retired teacher (I can’t say that word often enough!) I was most struck by Shakespeare’s school. When last summer I blogged If Shakespeare had sat SATs, I didn’t know I was soon to sit where he sat. Warning: exclamation mark deluge ahead. It’s still part of a school! In the morning before the building opens to visitors, King Edward VI Grammar School uses it for registration and sixth form assembly! So supposing your son passed the 11+ (it’s a state school but fair to say, not that easy to get into) or your daughter was in the sixth form, s/he could learn/daydream/mess about* in the very same classroom as Shakespeare! Sitting on replica benches, at right angles to the teacher as he would have done, and as K.E.S students do every morning, we watched a video in which boys from the school play a scene showing Shakespeare and his classmates learning to translate Latin poetry. It was humorous, instructive, evocative. I can’t get over the clever obviousness of using Stratford schoolboys to dramatize the schooldays of their dramatist old boy. I bet the Drama teachers there don’t have to worry about their department being axed.

Another actor, the schoolmaster, offered to test our Latin and despite my partner’s Classics degrees, he declined. He’d had no reason to return to a classroom since his own school days, and found himself fearful of possible ridicule or the consequences of wrongdoing. My son and his father – a left hander who’d been made to work with the “right” hand at primary school – had the same reaction when we went to the Victorian Ragged School in Bow, London. Such fear is strong enough in children to remain with them even as successful adults, and as teachers we should always remember it. (Oh, but I’ve just remembered I’m retired. Hooray!)shakespeare-school-bill

In the replica Georgian classroom next door, we wrote with a quill pen and tried on a scholar’s cap. A gentler volunteer praised our efforts and we quietly glowed. (That’s how I’d do it. If I wasn’t retired.) There is a more information about these historic school buildings here. It’s a long time since the stage of my career when I taught Shakespeare to secondary school pupils, but I would have used it to help bring him alive. (Too late now: I’m reti….)

These museums didn’t feel like museums, they felt like homes and workplaces. (I learnt a lot about glove manufacture too – John Shakespeare was a glover.) I think it was because such care was taken with the special effects. Shakespeare himself used the latest special effects whenever he could, as did the RSC at The Tempest that night. Arial really was a magical sprite, his avatar seen and heard simultaneously on several different parts of the set. Thus the isle was indeed full of voices. Yet at the very end, the effects bonanza quietened and Simon Russell Beale held the audience more simply, still and alone on the stage, letting the words cast their magic in his beautiful, diffident baritone. To a younger audience than in London, I noticed.

inside-rsc
After the storm

Do go to Stratford if you get the chance, out of season if you can (did I mention I was r……?). I may even take my heroine if she’s not too busy fighting to remain in the UK.

*I may be maligning them here. I never saw such well behaved home time bus queues as in Stratford.

©Jessica Norrie 2017

Losing the plot

Six weeks ago I was in Japan, loving it so much I thought I could teach English there if I ran low on funds. I also have plans for Iceland, Cuba, India, Sri Lanka….

On Wednesday 2nd Nov, my horizons narrow. It’s a beautiful autumn day. Trees glow, low sun brushes everything gold. I drive to Epping Forest for a walk. The forest is almost luminous on this shining day. Most trees still have most leaves, but there’s already a crisp carpet of brown, red and yellow on the forest floor. Shuffling through is as fun now as it was in childhood, but we walk fast: it’s only 10am and the temperature is invigorating.

14680485_1416565278371060_438455255249072383_n
Connaught Water, Epping Forest. Photo by Nikkii Barnett.

It’s the end of the year but the springtime of my ideas: the novel to which I’ve been doggedly adding 1000 words a day for the past month is taking good shape. Striking details and major plot threads form in my mind as I pace along the paths. Part of me can’t wait to get home and start putting them down – black for phrases to be added to my draft, red for ideas to be developed later.

Under the coating of leaves my foot hits a stump and over I swoop in an arc too fast to correct. My chin and nose make contact with the wooden edge of a footbridge and I’m sitting dazed on the floor with blood pouring from my mouth and nostrils. People pass tissues, but my shaking hands drop them on the dirt and others are soaked immediately. A lady with a pushchair offers baby wipes which sting my mouth clean. Somebody strokes my back, moaning “Oh Lord, oh my dear Lord“.

Behind me: “You’ll be on soup for the next few days, Jessica!” and “I knew a woman who fell that way and cracked a rib.” (OH Lord, oh my dear Lo…ord.) A third: “You need to sit in a long hot bath.” I love long hot baths but I think if I sat in one now I might faint and never get out.

I’m pulled to my feet and it feels more normal to be vertical. As I walk shakily along I only want to look at the ground. I’m aware of people staring but if I concentrate on small talk with my kind companion – who turns out to have been battling serious illness, bless her – then I’ll get back to the car park for the next decision.

Meanwhile I think, if I could get ice on this now….oh goodness what does my face look like..have I broken my nose? is that tooth in the right place? have I bitten through my lip? Blood drips on the top I bought at Tokyo airport (why am I wearing that?) I drive home followed by a volunteer, cautious as on my test.

I make hot sweet tea but can’t fit my lips round the mug. The wine sleeve I find in the freezer and hold against my face warms too fast (no wonder the Chablis is never cold enough). I try a huge packet of frozen peas wrapped in a tea towel and the immediate numbness is a swipe of relief. I want to be left alone to mourn my face, the ruin of my day and all those ideas for the novel that seem to have trickled away with the lost blood. I lie with another old towel to protect the new cushions of the new sofa in the sunlit bay window in blissful agony enjoying the quiet hiatus.

B. arrives. He can’t believe our local hospital.What a maze of potholed paths, temporary huts, hulking arches, the derelict nurses home sulking in a corner. It was boarded up at least ten years ago. Somewhere in the mess is A & E, though it’s not where it was last time I visited, with my teenage son after he was mugged, and that location was different to the time before, when as a toddler he stuck a bead up his nose.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

At poor beleaguered Whipps Cross pedestrians have to watch their footing and the buildings have always looked sinister. But the staff delivered my children safely and have always come through in an emergency, despite funding that always goes elsewhere, reports of submerged morale, closure threats that ebb and flow and an ever increasing  patient pool.

whipps-nurses-home-2
The nurses’ home

whipps-nurses-home-door

At reception they say: “Gosh, you’ve made a mess of yourself!” which is gratifying as it means we’re not time wasters.I’m number 297; it’s midday and crowded. Most people are patient (sorry) and quiet. A couple with a two year old give her juice and crisps which she spills on the floor. She gathers them up with care and returns them to the packet. She is noisy, through boredom. They look at their phones and erupt about the wait: “For fuck’s sake!”

I’m called in. “How are you?” Well, obviously, I’ve been better. I’ll need stitches, preceded by the same injections given before Botox. Now I know for sure I’ll never have Botox: they’re as unpleasant as I was warned they’d be. I grip the metal bar of the couch and squirm and the surgeon who is kind but brisk says, Well done, well done.

Eat sweet cereal for glucose, she says. Then sleep. Don’t clean your teeth. Use a salt water rinse even if it stings. Oh, you’d better have a tetanus jab. I stand as though I’ve been punished in a corner of the empty room waiting for the nurse with the jab. I’m so cold I can’t control my shivers. See your dentist, they say. As we leave, about 2pm,  they call number 430.

whipps-a-e
A & E

Thursday. I haven’t looked in the mirror yet. The ends of my hair are stuck together with blood but I don’t try washing it. I make tea and drink it lukewarm through a straw. I’m still cold. The dentist says I’m lucky – no nerve damage, no tooth damage and I could easily have cracked my jaw. I hide at home for the rest of the day dozing and watching Andy Murray’s downs and ups in Paris.

Friday. I sell my ticket for “The Nose” at Covent Garden. I have my own nose story, it’s pale grey and swollen. I pass time meandering round facebook and the internet. Somebody posts she can’t get down to writing her blog post and I challenge us both to finish one by 5pm. Getting it done feels like a step back to normality.

Saturday. I wash my hair! I clean my teeth! I’m tired and triumphant but it’s still only 10am. A nurse friend comes for coffee and advises Vaseline which makes my dry cracked mouth much better. My nose and cheekbones are yellow. B. takes me to South London for a change of scene and I watch a firework display from his top window. We eat very tender boeuf bourguignon and I try a small glass of wine. The food is delicious but the numbness the wine brings doesn’t feel right. I fear doing something clumsy to my stitches without noticing.

whipps-medicationSunday. A walk round the streets, hood pulled low. How awful if anyone thinks B.’s done this to me. On return my skin feels taut but he says it’s just the cold wind. A high point of Sunday is coming home on the Woolwich Ferry, not the horrible Blackwall Tunnel. We sit in the queue and contemplate the lights over the Thames. It’s a far cry from our night walk along the river in Kyoto. I sneeze several times and am perversely disappointed to find it doesn’t result in bleeding or particular pain.

Monday. My French pupil comes, a retired gentleman with a house in France. He doesn’t realise I have stitches until I tell him, so the wound must be looking better. But after teaching I lie on the sunlit sofa under a blanket and sleep for two hours. My nose is dark grey today but the bruise is smaller. In the local shop I don’t make eye contact with anyone. I’m ashamed of my battered face and cross with the beautiful autumn forest for betraying me when I just wanted exercise and fresh air. When did I last look at my novel?

Tuesday. My nose and left cheek are yellow again but the black gash on my lips is smaller.  I return unharmed from a daring long walk for a newspaper.Outside the world is worrying: Trump? Not Trump, surely. I decide to see if I can remember the ideas I had for the novel, and open the file for the first time for a week. But I’ve lost the plot, somewhere in the forest among the blood and the golden leaves.

Wednesday. Stop press: plot retrieved courtesy of Donald Trump. The horror of his triumph sends me back to the novel, because in it I’ve put people from different races, religions and belief systems living, learning and working together. Someone said this morning the only thing to do now is, each in our own way, to speak out against his values. What’s Trump done for me? Well, he’s directed me back to the outside world and he’s made me realise there are more serious matters than my face. Which in any case is almost back to normal now, thanks to the efficiency of the staff of poor old Whipps Cross hospital and the dentist. Thank you, NHS, and thanks to those decent politicians who created it.

whipps-is-old
The proud Victorian arches are still beautiful in a sinister way.

© Jessica Norrie 2016

Inspired by Miss Happiness and Miss Flower

This writing blog got diverted and may seem more like a travel blog, so let me, Japanese fashion, impose some order. (Travelling followers picked up recently, please do stay on board: I think our interests coincide.) Hiroshima was so striking I wanted to deal with it first, but now back to what I read to complement my trip.

Why did I go to Japan? My fascination arose from childhood, and a book called Miss Happiness and Miss Flower by Rumer Godden. A small girl receives a present of two Japanese dolls, and her cousin models a house for them to live in.

Of course it’s dated now. Girls may design and work with wood as much as boys; children, sadly, no longer go to the high street by themselves to find information at the bookshop (so few local bookshops remain, for one thing). But nevertheless it was a delight to reread, thirty or more years later, the night before leaving for Japan.

geisha-dance-2-2
Geiko dancers on stage in Kyoto

Rumer Godden deals, with a light touch, on culture shock and homesickness and efforts by both sides to integrate. The children Nona and Tom understand the dolls need a home different from British homes, where the walls slide and discrete areas may be screened or opened up according to temporary considerations. Everything must be polite and ordered, and there is beauty in small, humble moments – one flower in a tiny vase, a scrap of silk for a pillow. The dolls have very human characteristics; Miss Happiness is optimistic and can accept hardship;  Miss Flower is nervous, can’t believe a foreigner can understand her and is so grateful and gracious when the foreigner attempts to do so. In a bonus for those with a talent for carpentry, the book includes instructions on how to make a Japanese doll’s house.

Dolls and puppets are important in Japanese culture, and feature in the next novel I read. Junichiro Tanizaki is a classic Japanese author, and Some Prefer Nettles was published in 1928. I returned to Tanizaki after another absence of thirty years, having as a teenager adored his epic The Makioka Sisters, about a family of sisters living in Osaka (It’s comparable, perhaps, with Lorca’s House of Bernarda Alba, Chekhov’s Three Sisters and any number of green spined Virago Modern Classics. Or even Jane Austen). 51jqirzmz2l

I wasn’t disappointed. Here again was the clear prose; the economical, poetic images conveying in one line as much as a page of Western description; psychology rendered through gestures, clothing, or choices of food and drink. Tanizaki’s characters think carefully about the design of every object they use, in order to enhance the experience in anticipation, during use, and and in memory. It’s a centuries old Japanese trait that continues today- think of Japanese technology, or think of a Zen garden.

In Some Prefer Nettles, a couple are preparing for divorce. There is no animosity between Kaname and Misako, they are simply tired of each other, but they have a child and an elderly father to consider. And so they proceed with care, with resignation, almost hoping to be denied the pleasure they seek, if it will help diminish the shock to the order of things. Meanwhile there are doll festivals and puppet theatre outings in which their situation is reflected through age old Japanese culture. (The puppets are life size and operated by up to three puppet masters at a time: I saw the one below at the theatre in Kyoto.)

puppet-2-2

The husband, Kaname, was brought up in old Tokyo “before the earthquake” (of 1923) and harks increasingly towards tradition; the wife seeks modernity but remains adept at selecting his kimonos and arranging  flowers for the shrine. “He looked down on her, a sort of mute regret rising in him, without fear of meeting her eyes…..The early cherries were just coming into bloom.” It’s a beautiful, elegiac portrait of a society and a marriage, with a surprising number of echos for the contemporary Western reader.

41uvfhb2pslI considered reading Murakami, having found the same simple, limpid prose quality in Norwegian Wood, but felt I should explore a wider range of Japanese novelists and discovered Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami. Where Tanizaki told a story of modern marriage in a traditional society, this book, set in contemporary Tokyo, tells of timeless romance under modern conditions. A youngish woman meets her old teacher by chance, and he’s now retired and a widower. As with Tanizaki, you can open any page at random and be sure of finding elegiac, gentle prose, a yearning quality: the teacher’s name is Sensei and the narrator murmurs and repeats it just for the joy in the sound of the name. There’s the design commitment again: practical details investing everyday items with a touch of poetry. “The hot spiciness of the crackers really did go quite well with saké…I heard a faint chirping and then the sound of the leaves on the branches rustling for a moment, and then it was quiet again.” I suspect this simple beauty is a quality of the Japanese language, or it may be something that happens in the interface when Japanese is translated into English. But both novels – in which not a huge amount happens – are immensely clear, readable, universal and moving despite the significant cultural differences between us.

I read these two novels on my return. While I was in Japan, I read Motions and Moments, the third essay collection by Michael Pronko, an American professor who has made his home in Tokyo. At first I found these illuminating: as we moved around Tokyo I recognised quirks that he (affectionately) identifies. I was helped to understand certain customs through his intermediary insights; I enjoyed his descriptions of Japanese gardening (they use tiny secateurs like nail scissors to clip their shrubs with minute precision) and understood what he meant by getting lost in Tokyo “vertically as well as horizontally”. The first two parts of the book (Surfaces and Miniatures) were well written, witty and informative. Part 3, Constructs, could have used some editorial help with, er, construction (and I’m aware he acknowledges the help of Newsweek editors at the end). Perhaps by then I was too immersed in the spare beauty of Japanese expression to enjoy American verbosity and repetition. But it’s worth a read if you are going to Tokyo.

tokyo-street-scne-5
Tokyo street scene

© Jessica Norrie 2016

 

Serving a narrative ace

Some writers are fascinated by football (Albert Camus, Julian Barnes, Nick Hornby). For others the temptation is tennis (Vladimir Nabokov, Martin Amis, David Foster Wallace – described here in the Guardian). I’m an unseeded member of the second group. The grass court tennis season is underway! And each match tells a story.

Tennis ball

Where Foster Wallace loved the geometry of the court, and could manipulate intelligent victories through mathematical strategies, as a very poor player and mathematician I’m more attracted by the structure of the narrative. Even the language is the same – where writers have three act or five act structures, in tennis three or five sets build from an introductory warm up through a steady start to maximum tension at the finale of each. A perfectly crafted two set victory is  a short story, polished in itself but with glimpses of many layered possibilities. A five set titanic battle is the War and Peace of the court: adversaries counter, bludgeon, outwit each other, decimate lovingly nurtured territory with their scurries and stampedes, proceed fast or painfully to the final match point and strut the grass in triumphant panache. The boundaries of the court contain the action within strict conventions which players must find ever new ways to exploit. Our short or long chapters translate into their love games or those with multiple deuces; the tie-break’s a mid point climax, and the final set swift and clinical or an epic struggle with an abrupt denouement. The scoring system is in itself an attractive narrative structure: what spectator hasn’t played with the maths of games won and lost, as a reader doodles in the margin?

tennis player 2Tennis has character arcs too. Whether grumpy, cheerful, languorous, spoilt, gay, straight, multilingual, corrupt or joyous, players all start a match wanting to win (we assume). They deploy their individual armouries – a thumping serve, backspin and topspin, devious lobs or an emphatic smash – to gain the upper hand. They may start at a  disadvantage or pride may come before a fall. The exhilaration of an ace swerves into a spate of double faults: they crow and they mope and they skid and recover. Sometimes they understand what’s happening to them, or they’re disbelieving, of the umpire, of the gods, of themselves. Through their moments of inspiration, exhaustion, disillusionment, calm, the spectators greedily lament their weaknesses and salute their highs, agog to read the next episode.

What a cast! There are stars and character actors, heavyweights and also-rans, newcomers and clowns, the modish and classic, the familiar and outlandish. Each has a back story to guess at and dig out. Some become more fascinating and complex with time; others should have been cut from the plot long ago. The post match interviews aren’t very illuminating (bland platitudes, massive overuse of the word “unbelievable”) but then that’s not what the players are there for. Their gifts are physical, mathematical, strategic and emotional and they tell their stories not through words but actions: tics, triumphs and all.

I got a bit stuck myself here. But – C’mon! Regroup, and off we go again:

Tennis ballTennis makes clever use of the apparently trivial the same way writers use small details to embellish their stories. Check out the perfect manicures and classy French plaits. The number of variations on a simple white tennis dress fashion designers can achieve is nothing short of remarkable (almost nothing and short being the operative words). This year graceful diaphanous tunics, half Greek goddess, half baby doll pyjama are a foil to the toned muscular aggression they just about cover.  How do some of these structures stay in place? In this context, the woman who wears shorts is making a massive statement. The men too have achieved multiple variations on a simple outfit, from the wincingly tight tailoring of the 1970s through Rafa’s early pirate style to the drawstring comfort of today. Who needs adjectives when you can delineate a character just by dressing her in Ginny Hilfiger?

The umpire is the main supporting cast member, with the ball boys and girls more appealing extras than the portly line judges whose insignificant looks belie the influence of their decisions. Recently Hawkeye has taken on increasing importance, capricious Zeus of the mortal world. The coaches chew and mouth intensities. And of course the crowd can take over with a Mexican wave or the spotlight may fall on a dexterous individual catching a wayward ball. But what of the matches with no crowd, no Hawkeye, no ball girls? Our heroes and heroines struggle on with or without us, circumnavigating the globe, accruing debt and displacement, age, injuries and disappointment. There’s an epic novel in that alone.

tennis ilouettes 2

 

Before I leave the court, I’ll add that I’ve been experimenting with ways to illustrate my blog posts. Unseeded as a writer, I’m even further down the rankings as an illustrator, so I’ll award a (notional) trophy to anyone who can identify the subject of my silhouettes and drawing. Meanwhile if you want to see another match, Trip Fiction has a pretty good list of tennis related novels. Thank you for watching.

© Jessica Norrie 2016