Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Shopping List of Essential Items for China.

Here, according to the DK China Guide, is what I shall need:

1. Business cards.
2. Wet wipes, soap and hand disinfectant.
3. Non-breakable mug and tea.
4. Flip flops for shower.
5. Suncream, hat and sunglasses.
6. First Aid kit.
7. Pain killers.
8. Travel sickness pills.
9. Prescription medicines.
10. Anti-fungal ointment.
11. Antiseptic.
12. Plasters and bandages.
13. Scissors.
14. Tweezers.
15. Insect repellent.
16. Antihistamines.
17. Imodium.
18. Water purification drops and plastic bottle
19. Disposable syringes.
20. Blood transfusion kit.
21. Oral rehydration solution.
22. Thermometer.
23. Supply of antibiotics.
24. Circulation socks for plane.
25. Universal adapter.

Friday, September 25, 2009

More Reading for China.

The Michel Thomas course concentrates exclusively on the spoken language of Mandarin, which is the official language of China. However, for many people this is not their first language. For instance, in Shanghai they speak Shanghaiese. I am not sure how different these languages are from each other (or indeed if they are more correctly classified as dialects), but one thing that links them all is the written word.

I remember reading about this a couple of years ago, when I went to the First Emperor exhibition in the British Museum in London. More than 2000 years ago Chinese writing was standardised and, since then, it has been understood throughout this vast empire.

So, since I shall be travelling around China on my own, and there are likely to be no handy signs in English (or even, perhaps the Roman-letter version of Mandarin, Pinyin), I thought I'd better attempt to learn a little written Chinese. I think I may have left it a little late - but this book Learning Chinese Characters will give me a good start, I hope.

My other essential reading is China A to Z: Chinese Customs and Culture. I'm planning to read a little everyday.

So...I have to read the Illustrated History, the culture guide and at the same time learn a few written and spoken words each day. I have a lot to do before I set off and have only three weeks to go now. Gulp.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Absent Hands

It is an unfortunate side-effect of our genes that sometimes one person you love reminds you overwhelmingly of another. Four years ago there were times I'd stumble around, and sometimes at the end of the corridor I'd encounter my younger son's hand. In the haze of those days I'd confuse it, just for a few seconds, with my brother's. They had the same build, the same yielding nature, and sometimes being a big sister feels very much like being a mother.

But now Hodmandod Minor is going off to university, and of course I'm glad for him, but in a way it seems like there's two people leaving, not just one.

He'll be back, I keep telling myself, in a couple of weeks...and I know he'll love it, but selfishly I wish he were not going at all.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A Taste of Living Differently

Today the Michel Thomas Advanced Mandarin Chinese Course arrived. It follows on from the Foundation one I'm learning at the moment. I've just finished CD 5 out of 8 and want to keep going until I get to China because if I were to stop all that I've learnt will start drift out of my mind. If I manage to get through the Advanced course I intend to go on to the last one in the series: the 'Vocabulary Extension' course.

I am finding Mandarin Chinese very interesting, strange and 'too good' (the phrase the Chinese use for wonderful). I like the musicality of the sound. There are four main tones: a rising note like a question ('blue finger up'); a tone that falls then rises ('red v for victory'); a short note down ('black finger down') and a steady note, rather like the ringing of a bell ('green thumb out'). There is also one that is just a sound with no tone ('closed fist').

Each tone is introduced by the teacher, Harold Goodman, with an associated hand action and colour to anchor it in the brain, and alongside this he tells a vivid story incorporating the word. This helps it to stick as well. I have no aptitude for languages but even I find it a surprisingly easy, entertaining and quick way to learn. I've already used the method (with the late Michel Thomas himself) to learn German and Spanish just a couple of days before departing on a trip, and each time found it gave me a useful working knowledge in just 8 hours. This time I'm taking it more slowly in the hope that more goes in - and stays in.

Mandarin is completely different from Western languages: word order is important, but in (big) compensation there are no feminine or masculine forms or verb endings. I think it is because it is so different that I am enjoying it so much. I have to think in an entirely new way and the experience is invigorating and liberating.

I have this pleasurable feeling of discovery in everything I come across about China. For instance, I have just finished reading 'What Does China Think?' and again I find myself considering the world in an entirely new way. The Chinese, Mark Leonard says, believe in the strength of the meritocracy and question that democracy is necessarily 'a good thing'.

There was one analogy in the book which I liked enormously: Fang Ning of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences says that in China it is as if the chef is fixed and the customers choose from an á la carte menu; whereas in western democracies the chef is chosen but he brings with him a fixed menu of ideas and policies.

Some parts of China are experimenting with new social decision methods involving referendums, think tanks and surveys. In cities like Chongqing (population 30 million) the people are asked to vote in their choice of public legislation from a 'menu' of possibilities.

Another prevalent idea is that economic reform should come before political reform and they believe that all such reform should be incremental.

They also believe in the sovereignty of state and do not made trade and aid conditional on humanitarian reform. This makes them very popular with non-democratic developing countries.

It is such an alien world; in a way I feel I am already seeing and investigating a new landscape without moving from my desk. I keep having to think again about things that I thought I knew. Now I want to investigate how these ideas came about - and for this I need to do a little delving into history...

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Here they are: my recent acquisitions.

And I still haven't read the recent acquisitions or the ones before that and the guilt is piling up in thick ugly layers, and I think that maybe what I need to do after I have gone to China is just go away somewhere and not do anything else but read and read and read and sometimes I think I am not going to live long enough to read all my books, in fact I think it is a good bet that I shan't live long enough to read all my books because I am sure they are going to come into this house faster than I can read them and yet I still love them, and rip the small brown jiffy bags open with the same Christmas zeal I've always had, and get that strange thrill of anticipation at seeing all that print, all those pictures, all those words and the promise of yet more worlds that no one else will know because a book is a fusion between the world written and the world read - an imperfect overlap producing something new again.

And tonight then, I read. Two short chap books I've bought from Nicholas Royle's Nightjar Press: What Happens when you Wake Up in the Middle of the Night by Michael Marshall Smith and The Safe Children by Tom Fletcher - both such wonderfully strange stories and disturbing visions of adjacent worlds that could be but luckily aren't.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Chopsticks and Good Advice.

Today I've been trying to use chopsticks. It turned out to be a frustrating business, and after studying and experimenting came up with the following 'style'. I succeeded in picking up some cheese, but it made my hand ache after a few minutes and I can't help feeling this is not the correct method.

I also spoke to a doctor who has been to China several times. It was he who advised me to become acquainted with the chopsticks. He also reassured me about something that has been bothering me for a while - getting something safe to drink apart from bottled water. The answer seems to be jasmine tea. Apparently boiling water is readily available (with churns at the end of railway carriages for instance) and so if you take your own cup and tea you can get yourself a safe and refreshing drink.

He also advised me to try the street stalls - as long as I can see the food being cooked before me - and recommended I try some little breakfast dumplings which I'd see being steamed on bamboo platforms.

Travellers cheques in American dollars are welcome most places, as are American dollars themselves, and he gave me a quick resume about the currency. The main currency is the Kwai of which there are about ten to a pound. Then in each Kwai there are 10 Mao and in each Mao 10 'pen' (I think). If I really want to buy something (other than food) I should prepare to barter, with my first offer about 20% of what I think it's worth - and if I get a price I am prepared to pay I should buy it. I also need to learn the phrase 'That's too expensive!'

Anyway, it was all useful stuff, and very reassuring. He'd always felt safe in China, he said.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams at Theatr Clwyd.

Tom and Laura live with their mother in St Louis. The father is absent - not because he's died or even gone missing - but because he simply ran off (and sent a post card saying 'Hello and Good-bye' postmarked Mexico). This abandonment has become a sort of presence: the knowledge of it is always there, colouring everything with a dirty pallor. Maybe it is because he ran away that the mother still hankers after him, and nothing in her life has pleased her since. Her son clearly intends to abandon her too; while her daughter is preoccupied by her glass menagerie of animals and the phonograph her father left, which she plays endlessly. Laura has neither job nor husband, and her mother decides that what is needed is a 'gentleman caller', but the thought of this makes Laura ill.

(Set of The Glass Menagerie)

The play is based on the life of Tennessee Williams. Reading the programme I discovered that his sister, like Laura in the play, was subject to hysteria, and his real-life sister was eventually lobotomised because of it. Tennessee Williams too was plagued by depression, and attributed the success of his play to the genius of one of the first actors - who in turn was plagued by alcoholism. It is a play borne out of mental turmoil, then, and is suitably intense - a courting scene leads quickly into another rancorous scene between mother and son with the hapless Laura caught in between - and there is a constant unhappy tension.

(Underground entrance to Theatr Clwyd)

I enjoyed all of it, but it was the narrator's speech at the end which impressed me the most. He talks about seeing glass in a shop window. By then he has followed his father and run away from his controlling mother and 'crippled' sister. He imagines he's free of them but then he comes upon glass - twinkling and glowing in the lights of the window. It is then that he feels his sister's tap on his shoulder, and as he turns he realises he has not truly escaped, and that he never shall. His sister's menagerie, maybe symbolising all the experiences that form us, will always be with him - just as the memory of this play, perhaps more than many I have seen, will always be with me too.

(View of Clwydian hills from Theatr Clwyd).

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

An Interview with Keith Scales

A short while ago I had the great pleasure of reading The Cloverleaf Development in Roast Book's 'Great Little Reads'. I'd also read another one of Keith Scales's stories in 'Little Roasts' - an anthology of short stories - and been most impressed. Both of these stories take place in a town called 'Overlook', and in the interview below Keith Scales has been kind enough to tell me a little more about his fictional town, and how he came to invent it.

(Photo: Rebecca J. Becker)


Born in London, Keith Scales has been a merchant seaman, laboratory assistant, bartender, labourer in factories and a quarry and a few other things he would rather not elaborate upon. In 1970 he settled in Oregon, working as an actor and director, where he performed in over 200 plays and directed nearly 100, receiving many awards. His play, What Mad Pursuit, was a finalist for the Oregon Literary Arts Award for Drama. From 1993 to 2009 he was artistic director of the Classic Greek Theatre of Oregon. He has now moved to Arkansas to direct a new company, Shakespeare in the Ozarks, and write.

Interview About the Overlook Stories.
CD: How long have you been writing about Overlook? Where did the name come from and how did the concept of the town evolve?

KS: I started with a story called “Cairns” in 1998. I had been travelling around Oregon and Washington giving Chautauqua lectures about W.B.Yeats and Shakespeare. I would see piles of stones in fields with no purpose that was apparent to me. While they were probably the debris from land-clearing they reminded me of prehistoric cromlechs or dolmens. So as I drove I started to imagine an old Irishman “without the full shilling” who hauled rocks across the land into piles, without knowing why. One day he and his wife go missing and their disappearance is investigated by the local sheriff, who is not a lot brighter than the Irishman. That imaginary incident developed into a story about a small town in which everybody knew each other and in order to get along with each other tended to overlook each other’s foibles and quirks and, when it was convenient, the truth. Another image that stuck with me was that of a person on horseback leaning down to talk to some one in the cab of a truck– time seemed to be suspended, or rather, all happening at once. Overlook City is similarly out of time, by being in many times. That makes sense, doesn’t it?

I have worked in the theatre – mainly period and modern classics – for nearly forty years, and have an abiding interest in mythology. Studying the lives and works of the great dramatic writers, as an actor and director, was inspiring but intimidating. One day William Stafford (now gone from us but at that time the poet laureate of Oregon) told me that his advice to students who were too critical of their own work was “lower your sights.” So instead of continuing to try to be James Joyce or Euripides, I turned to short stories and genre fiction, and immediately felt comfortable enough to write for my own amusement. Overlook was the unexpected result and first fruits of many years spent looking for what I wanted to write. I’ve also written a couple of novels, a couple of plays, a couple of screenplays, English versions of fifteen ancient Greek plays and many other short stories – but I always come back to Overlook.

(Keith Scales as 'Da' in the eponymous work by Hugh Leonard. Photo: Rebecca J. Becker)

CD: Is it based on anywhere in particular? Do you have a region in the US in mind?
KS: The Pacific Northwest. Part of the charm of the rural towns in those states is that you feel like you’re in a western movie - cowboys, horses, boardwalks, empty landscapes. When I was growing up in London my mother worked in a second-run cinema and I spent many evenings of my early teens watching black and white movies, many of them westerns. So Overlook has its origins in fantasy and fact – early cowboy movies and modern rural America - and is not particularly faithful to either.

CD: Why did you choose a US town rather than say an English one? What are the basic differences between a small town in the US and one in the UK?
KS: I have lived here for a long time now – almost forty years, and have been exposed to a lot more small towns in the US than in the UK. And when I did live “over there” I was more interested in big city life, or faraway exotic locations. I visit England, infrequently, and have a great love for the villages. My long-time sweetie Rebecca and I recently moved from Oregon to a beautiful little artists colony in Arkansas called Eureka Springs (well worth the Google) which reminds me of nowhere so much as Glastonbury, or somewhere in Cornwall – narrow hilly streets, limestone cliffs, meticulous gardens. But I think if I were to try writing about an English village I would find myself trying to be Agatha Christie. At this point, it’s probably a toss-up where you’d find the most guns.

(Keith Scales in a reading of Shakespeare's sonnets. Photo: Rebecca J. Becker)

CD: What else have you written about Overlook? Do you have an overall plan for a book devoted to Overlook?

KS: I have enough stories for three books: a collection of novella length mysteries, in which the characters have no chance of discovering the truth but the astute reader can; an “Overlook Book of Days” – occasional stories for Christmas, Halloween, Valentines day, etc; and a miscellaneous collection that presents Overlook at various times in the last hundred years, though the characters are always the same and always the same age.

CD: Each story begins with an unusual happening. How much is this based on truth?
KS: Most started with a story I heard, or an image I saw. But when I sat down to write and let the characters loose, reality was left behind. Overlook is the characters who live there. One story starts with a line I heard somewhere: “It’s like this - you ever take a coupla hacksaw blades and draw them one acrost the other?” When I decided who was asking the question, of whom, and where they were, the story took off and became a mystery: The Body in the Boxcar. In southern Oregon I heard a story in a town with two churches, one of which would build a Halloween ghost house for the kids every year. One time a new minister moved into the other, more fundamentalist church and declared Halloween a pagan ceremony and ordered his parishioners to not only ignore it, but to prevent their neighbours from celebrating it, too. The minister was obliged to leave town. That’s the basis for Overlook and the Otherwold, but once the characters started to populate the story… all hell broke loose. I do enjoy a good story, with a beginning and middle and an end and unpredictable events occurring between interesting people – and I find the most fertile seeds are found in the soil of real life.

CD: You seem to have a fondness for the American small town - and yet I gleaned a sense of doom about Overlook - as if its days are numbered. Is this true about towns like Overlook in the US?
KS: Yes – Creeping Mall is everywhere… Overlook, too, is being dragged unwillingly into the present. The stories are ultimately nostalgia, for a past that never happened.

CD: Which other writers of small town America/ UK do you admire and why?
KS: Faulkner, Faulkner and Steinbeck. And in the UK, P.D.James and Dylan Thomas.

(Keith Scales as the Curate in Don Nigro's play "The Curate Shakespeare As You Like It" with Elizabeth Young (left) and Sarah Rea (right). Photo: Rebecca J. Becker)

General Questions

CD: Do you have any connection with snails?
KS: I rhyme. I saw them cooked by the hundreds on simple grills over outdoor fires in the south of France. In Oregon, where it rains all the time, they are as big as pork sausages.

CD: What is your proudest moment?
KS: Giving this interview, of course. Although I received the first Masters Fellowship given by the Oregon Regional Arts and Culture council, based on a body of work, and that was pretty affirmative. And Roastbooks put my first Overlook story to be published into print. (I have the odd fantasy about people I went to school with or fell about in pubs with spotting The Cloverleaf Development on a rack in an airport somewhere and saying, “I know that name…) And I was present at my son’s birth and did not faint.

CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
KS: I lived in a cave on Crete for three months in 1969 – I’ve never been the same since.

CD: What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?
KS: The streets of Bombay. Ex-president Bush’s “shock and awe” bombardment of Bagdad. And the ugliest was his daylight robbery of the presidency from Al Gore in 2000, as a direct result of which we lost eight possibly critical years in the climate change crisis – that’s a crime against the planet.

CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
KS: Talk to myself in funny voices.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Fishermen's Vest: my glamorous wardrobe essential

Even though I shall be taking rucksack on my trip there are lots of things that I shall need to have more readily to hand: my phone, my zoom lens, my moleskin, a pen or two, a map... It seemed a very long list. I obviously needed a lot of pockets and it occurred to me that the fisherman's vest was an ideal way of acquiring them.

So the 'Orvis Clearwater Vest' came this morning and I feel quite pleased with it. I opted for the mesh version because this is supposed to be cooler than the cloth. It is designed for the travelling angler, but I think it will suit the travelling writer equally well. It has twelve pockets including a back pocket for raingear. The only slight problem is that the 'small' size is actually rather too large, but this does mean that it fits (easily) over my fleece too - so I think I might stick with it.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Sunday Salon: A Little China Reading

I have accumulated a small collection of books about China over the last few weeks and I am aiming to read them all before I set off in mid-October.

Today I finished Where Underpants Come From: From Checkout to Cotton Field - Travels Through the New China. This was a hugely entertaining book - a piece of travel writing with a difference. Starting with a pair of underpants he buys, very cheaply, in New Zealand, Joe Bennett sets out to find out where they've come from. At first he lies his way into the country and into factories where the underpants are made, but then, as he repents and becomes more and more fond of the people he encounters, he becomes more thoughtful - and the writing becomes more interesting and humorous as a result.

The bulk of the book deals with China, and he visits the some of the same places as I intend to visit: Shanghai and Guangzhou, and capture the intense heat of the places, as well as the bizarre habits and contradictions of a country that has suddenly become rich. It is an invaluable guide for someone like me: I now feel I know what to expect.

He also visits Thailand - the origin of the rubber in the elasticated waistband - but it is part of the charm of the book that he fails to do this. The people in Thailand are gentle, but also more stubborn than the Chinese, it appears. The nearest he gets is an on-line photograph, an approximate location and a warning:
'You can see the rubber trees along the road and you can take a pix or whatever you want, but do not slit the trees, otherwise your team and you will be killed by the owner. THIS IS SERIOUS!!!

Hope it will be useful for your writing.'
Towards the end of his visit he receives news that his beloved dog has died and this clearly devastates him. He visits a temple and reflects on Buddhism and flies on to Urumqi to find out how the cotton is milled. His descriptions of this place make me want to go there more than ever; but I think it deserves its own special visit.

On the outskirts of Urumqi he finds a cotton mill and the usual band of young workers attracted from the impoverished countryside by the promise of a steady but boring job. As payment he agrees to take one of his guides out to dinner. However, the guide is joined by seven fellow workers, all presumably expecting to be fed by the Joe. He then takes part in a drinking contest (which is hilarious), and this entertains them so much with his antics that they insist on footing his bill themselves.

He finishes the book with some reflections on China and how the journey of his underpants is, to some extent, a metaphor for the development of China in the modern world. It's an unexpectedly interesting book with gentle humour - but also a gratifying depth.

I now have to decide what to read next: either What does China Think? by Mark Leonard or the Cambridge Illustrated History of China by Patricia Buckley Ebrey. But first I must learn a little more Mandarin.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Jabs, millipedes and grainy nylon sheets.

I have now had a jab for hepatitis A in one arm and a booster for diptheria and tetanus in the other. The anticipation was definitely worse than the jabs - they hardly hurt at all - and the anticipated 'stiffness' is negligible.

Looking at the map the nurse and I decided that where I am going is too low risk to warrant anti-malaria treatment (side-effects can be unpleasant, apparently), but have been told to keep myself well-covered with thick clothing and tuck my socks into my trousers if I go into the countryside. I shall also apply a thick layer of a strong insect repellent, and the face net I bought for Greenland might come in handy. Another tip, apparently, is to inspect myself for ticks and bites when I'm back inside the hotel. It's not only malaria, but Lyme disease that might be a problem.

Rabies, apparently, is endemic - so I have been warned to keep clear of animals, and if I am bitten or scratched, or if some animal spit somehow enters my eyes, to go to a large clinic for treatment. I have also been told where to buy needles and syringes 'just in case'.

Apart from that I was warned to avoid stall-sold food, and only eat food that I can see is freshly cooked. I am thinking that some antiseptic wipes might be an excellent idea so that I can maybe give my plates and chopsticks a sly wipe. It is best to stick to fizzy drinks, and no ice-cubes and salad. Usually I like to experience the authentic local food, but I think in China I might have to be a little more cautious.

In 'Where Underpants Come From - From Checkout to Cotton Field- Travels Through the New China', which I am reading at the moment, Joe Bennett entertainingly describes eating shrimps and millipedes that he has to kill himself by dunking into a vat of boiling water at his table in Quanzhou. He says he can find little of the animal to actually ingest.

Hodmandod and I were discussing this eating-of-whole-animal business last night, and he said that something people rarely seem to consider is that the intestinal tract of, say, a millipede might be full, and therefore the 'whole animal' is likely to consist of excreta too. I pointed out that if thoroughly boiled this wouldn't really matter, but he seemed unconvinced.

Apart from the food Joe Bennett describes finding himself in a hotel in a place which doesn't cater for tourists - which sounds much like the description of Yizhou (my destination on 'Day 12'). The sheets, he says, are nylon and 'grainy', and the services of escort girls are advertised on the walls. That, for me, would be worse than the live millipedes - but it would only be for a night, and anyway I've done that already in a certain establishment in Bremerhaven: the towels were navy-blue and stiff, the bed sheets orange brushed nylon, the breakfast cups chipped and, at 1.30 in the morning, I was woken from a doze to hear hammering on the front door of the isolated building - and then the drunken voice of what I presumed was a client of one of the other guests as he stomped up the stairs banging on each hardboard door in turn.

Thinking about it, after Bremerhaven - or even Chester on a Saturday night - China might seem quite civilised.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Paul Stamets: 6 ways mushrooms can save the world

I've just been watching this fascinating talk. It's the sort of thing you watch and feel so inspired by it you want everyone else you know to watch it too.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Margaret Atwood in Manchester Cathedral

Here is a shot of Margaret Atwood reading in Manchester cathedral last week.

It was not the ideal venue and, like most of the audience, I only managed to get a glimpse of the author. However, I am pleased with this photograph (which I obtained in my usual fashion - pointing vaguely in the right direction and hoping).

Monday, September 07, 2009

My Great China Tour

On Saturday morning I sent off my passport and form for a visa for China. I used an agency I often go past on the way to the British Library from Euston station. It was unnecessarily expensive because they demanded payment by postal order which seems an archaic way of paying anyone these days - and the post office demanded payment for that by cash. It was like stepping back a couple of decades. But anyway, it is now done.

Just the final bookings have to be made now. But at the moment my route through China is probably going to look like this:

Day 1: Manchester - Paris. Depart Paris.
Day 2: Arrive in Hong Kong. Hong Kong - Hangzhou
Day 3: Hangzhou
Day 4: Hangzhou
Day 5: Hangzhou
Day 5: Hangzhou - Shanghai.
Day 6: Shanghai
Day 7: Shanghai- Suzhou- Shanghai.
Day 8: Shanghai - Chongqing
Day 9: Chongqing
Day 10: Depart Chongqing (by soft-sleeper)
Day 11: Arrive Yizhou.
Day 12: Yizhou - Guilin
Day 13: Guilin- Guangzhou
Day 14: Guangzhou
Day 15: Guangzhou - HongKong
Day 16: Hong Kong
Day 17: HongKong-Paris-Manchester

I have shown it with black arrows on the map above (starting near the east coast). Yizhou is only an approximate position - in reality it is closer to Guilin than I have drawn it.

Looking at that I wish I were still going to Khotan in the northwest territories, but in order to get there I would have to fly into Urumqi - and there was yet more rioting there over the weekend. So maybe I have made the best decision...but I would have loved to have stepped out onto the Mongolia plains and into a yurt. Urumqi itself looks an amazing city. It is the most inland city in the world, and a photograph I saw of it showed gleaming skyscrapers against a background of glorious high icy mountains.

Instead I shall be heading south towards the South China seas. It is a fertile place, with sub-tropical forest covering the strange isolated peaks of limestone, and then, nearer the sea... more gleaming skyscrapers.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Sunday Salon: 4 books

I've had a weekend away from the computer, but tonight have compiled a few book reviews for Sunday Salon.

The Lure of China by Frances Wood.

This book was sent to me by Yale University Press and I have written about it in a couple of posts before. It's a beautifully presented little book - well-illustrated with small exquisite pictures and this makes it very attractive to read. Starting with Marco Polo Frances Wood works through the sequence of writers that have explored and written about China. It is a fascinating way to glimpse the way China has interacted with the west. Rumours gradually give way to facts and then various details.

Voltaire was inspired by an emperor's poems; a Dutch ambassador called Nieuhoff described how tea was drunk, the 'kowtow' (involving bowing down with head touching the floor three times, then falling on the knees and touching the ground with the head three times)and the way fishermen would use the services of a cormorant to catch fish ( a ring around the neck to prevent the bird from swallowing); Daniel Defoe made up his accounts - including the story of a house made from porcelain; various authors talked about the dustiness of northern China; and Paul Claudel, a diplomat in 1908, described how the houses of foreigners were built on the sites of cemeteries.

In the twentieth century China was used as a fictional setting by André Malreux, Somerset Maughan, Ann Bridge, and Frances Wood describes these before turning to travellers, 'Old Etonians', journalists and wartime visitors. Like JG Ballard, the last author in the book, the British and Americans in China led a life of seclusion - the only integration being between the Chinese nannies ('Amahs') and their young charges. In perhaps the most moving passage in the book Pearl Buck describes how Wang Amah told her small charge how her feet were bound, and showed them to her.
'Gravely she took off her cloth shoes, then her white cloth socks and unwound the strips of white cloth she wore underneath, and so until her feet were bare. She lifted them for my inspection. The toes were still doubled under the soles of her feet, and the flesh was a strange colour. I conceived a distaste for the sight.'
It is a great taster for the history of the country...and my forthcoming visit.

The Other Hand by Chris Cleave.
This book was sent to me by a publicist at Sceptre (my former publisher). It is an accessible book, very well paced - as the Financial Times says 'It would be hard not to romp through it'. The first and last chapters are the strongest ones and these are written in the voice of Little Bee. Little Bee is an illegal immigrant from Nigeria; and has been in a detention centre for two years. The only person she knows in this country is a man she met once on a beach - a journalist married to another journalist, Sarah.

Chris Cleave is a journalist too - and journalism is one of the themes of the book. Sarah is the editor of a woman's magazine, but has always wanted to do more; when she encounters Little Bee she has her chance. As she explains towards the end of the book:
'If we can show that what happened to your village happened to a hundred villages, then the power is on our side. We need to collect stories from people who have been through the same thing as you. We need to make it undeniable. Then we can send the stories to a lawyer, and we'll let the authorities know, if anything happens to you, those stories will go straight to the media.'

Journalism then, according to Sarah, can change the world - and journalists have certainly loved this book.

It is a powerful tale, and there are many dramatic happenings - which I shall not go into for fear of spoiling the story - and it is the plot that drives the book forward. I understand it is to be made into a film and I imagine that it would be the basis of a very good one.

Pale Faces: the masks of anaemia by Charles L Bardes
This is another beautifully presented little book sent to me by the publisher Bellevue Literary Press which is based in the famous hospital of the same name in New York. It is part of the 'Pathographies' series of books - each one based on a different disease or ailment. The result is a highly satisfying blend of science, medicine, philosophy, mythology and literature.

Charles L Bardes is a Professor of clinical medicine in New York and so he is well placed to examine and describe the effects of anaemia not only on the patient but also, very interestingly, from the viewpoint of the doctor. He looks at the symptoms and the diagnosis; the history of the disease and the history of its treatments, all of which is blended with stories from the Greeks and later. Anaemia, in Dr Johnson's time was called 'The Green Sicknesse' and was mainly an affliction of young women. What caused this minor epidemic of the early modern era is still up for debate. He then goes on to look at what causes anaemia; it is he says, a disease of civilisation. It was only when we became farmers that we ceased to have a copious amount of iron in our diets. Nowadays it is often a disease of the developing world caused by parasitic infestation - either from worms, snails or the bites of mosquitoes. It is fatal most often in children.

There is so much to blood; apart from the idea of blood-letting (including my big interest, leeches) Charles Bardes goes on to look at blood transfusions, and the suspicions and controversies that still surround that. After all blood carries diseases that cannot always be detected - the reason why some people ask for blood from the people they know.

The book ends with the Greeks and their viewpoint of blood. The Greeks are the father and the source of Western myths - and of course with Hippocrates came the oath and the start of medicine.

There is a surprising amount packed into these 150 small pages - a fascinating fusion of many disciplines.

The Cloverleaf Development by Keith Scales.
This short novella was sent to me as one of a selection produced by Great Little Reads. I'd read Keith Scales's 'Little Roasts' and thoroughly enjoyed it, and was pleased to see that he continued with the inhabitants Overlook City, particularly Miss Pettygrove, the somewhat frumpy but appealing teacher.

A body is uncovered under old Malarky Mansion by developers and Sheriff Wilmot is presented with a mystery. The inhabitants of Malarky Mansions left in a hurry some years ago, leaving the young son, House, in the care of relatives. House is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, rumours abound, and Sheriff Wilmot has no shortage of offers of help with the investigation. But who is buried; is there in fact one body or two; and why exactly did House's parents and Miss Pettygrove's uncle run away all those years ago?

It is a highly entertaining story with a satisfying twist, excellent characterisation and convincing dialogue. I hope Keith Scales carries on with his stories about Overlook - it seems to be a place with much potential.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

An Interview with John Murray.

Yesterday I reviewed John Murray's book The Legend of Liz and Joe which I thought an excellent novel. John Murray kindly agreed to answer a few questions about the book and writing in general.


John Murray has published eight novels and a book of stories Pleasure. He won the Dylan Thomas Award for short stories in 1988 and his novel Jazz Etc was Booker-longlisted in 2003. He was also founder-editor of the acclaimed fiction magazine Panurge (1984-1996) which he co-edited with David Almond. In 2007 Adam Mars-Jones nominated his satirical novel Radio Activity - A Cumbrian Tale in Five Emissions (1993, reissued 2004 by Flambard) as a neglected classic on Radio 4's Saturday Review. Jonathan Coe has described him in The Observer as 'one of the best comic writers we've got, the only natural heir to Flann O' Brien'.

Questions about 'The legend of Liz and Joe'.

CD: I was most impressed with both your knowledge and use of Cumbrian. Please would you tell me how you researched this aspect of the book. Do you speak it? How incomprehensible is it to someone who speaks standard English? Is it understandable to people who speak Icelandic (which I have heard has remained unchanged for a thousand years)?

JM: I was born in a West Cumbrian pit village in 1950 and grew up speaking broad Cumbrian dialect with my friends while speaking ‘proper’ English at the village school and elsewhere. Effectively I have always been a bilingual, but the dialect wore off as I progressed through the local grammar school and then to Oxford. However I studied Sanskrit and Old Iranian (i.e. Avestan and Old Persian) at Oxford, and daft as it sounds studying classical Oriental languages seemed consistent with having a Scandinavian-sounding dialect from my childhood! So I didn’t need to do any linguistic research, other than occasionally to check the Scandinavian etymological roots of certain Cumbrian dialect words.

As for Cumbrian intelligibility it depends which part of the county you are in. South Cumbrian sounds relatively Lancastrian and is relatively intelligible to outsiders. If ever there’s a telly play set in Cumbria, they usually do an all-purpose Lancastrian accent(as indeed they did in the cult film ‘Withnail’...I don’t know what accent ‘Cumbrian farmer’ Michael Elphick was supposed to be speaking, but it wasn’t any Cumbrian that I recognised). I live in North East Cumbria now, and as that borders with Scotland and Northumbria it is relatively gentle and easy to understand. It is my native West Cumbrian (think of Maryport, Aspatria, Wigton, Cockermouth etc) which is the closest to our old Scandinavian/ Viking roots and which regularly uses archaic Norse words like keav (kick) skop (throw), and laik (play).

With regard to standard English speakers, there are plenty of North and South Cumbrians who can’t understand the broadest West Cumbrian, and who would need a translation from a bilingual like me! I’ve been told that dialect speaking Cumbrians can make themselves understood in rural parts of Norway and Denmark where they probably sound like mediaeval Scandinavians! I’m sure the same is true of Iceland as there are a lot of cognate Icelandic words in Cumbrian dialect.

CD: I really liked the way you gave Joe and Liz desires and ideas that are not commonly associated with the old. How did you research this?

JM: I used imaginative projection! I am 58 years old and Joe and Liz are in their early 70s, so we are only about 15 years apart. To put things in perspective apropos age and senescence, in 2009 Germaine Greer is 70 and John Mayall is 75 and I think Bill Wyman is 73 and they are all going strong (John Mayall was recently giving them all he’d got at Maryport Blues Festival for example)!

The trouble is when you are young you see anyone over 40 as ancient and somehow imagine folk in their 70s don’t have dreams, don’t have passions, don’t have ambitions, don’t have anything to look forward to apart from residential care and dementia and dependence etc. My hunch as a novelist and as a human being, is that whatever they look like on the outside, old people feel absolutely no different on the inside from people in their 20s 30s, 40s etc. So just to prove the point I made Liz embark on her first extramarital affair at the age of 70 and I made Joe blow his legacy on his absurdly idealistic gourmet guesthouse. I wasn’t doing this in the spirit of some wild surreal fantasy but I wanted to turn the stereotypes on their heads and give my old characters some authentic dignity i.e. to make them more anarchic and original and outrageous than many people are in their 20s.

CD : I thought Liz's experience at her first concert with Reverend Wiley and the All Stars was a particularly evocative piece of writing, and found your comments on tribute bands very thought-provoking. Can you tell me a little about your research involving tribute bands. Any interesting anecdotes, perhaps?

JM: I didn’t need to do a vast amount of research on tribute bands if only because it’s worth pointing out here that some of my wildest sounding fictional ideas are based on real people and real events. I happen to know a real regional arts centre manager who really does stuff his programmes with tribute bands and clairvoyants and almost nothing else as he reckons they are the only events that are sure to make a profit! I just remembered one or two conversations we’d had and made the most of them as fictional material.

The other imaginative impetus came when I saw a poster in Alston, Cumbria for an event in Hexham, Northumbria for a tribute band called ‘Jimi Hexham’ i.e. where the town that the tribute band came from also paid tribute to the original musician! I then noticed that the ticket prices for some tribute bands are incredibly expensive...and fantasised that it probably would cost more to see the tribute band in 2009 than it would to see the original on which they are based, assuming the original (let’s say The Troggs or The Searchers) were still performing 40 years on. After that kind of reflection, all that apparently exaggerated stuff about tribute bands wrote itself so to speak!

CD: The descriptions of food are both mouth-watering and expert. Are you as good a cook as Joe Gladstone?

JM: If you can call cookery a manual skill then it is my one and only manual skill, and yes my friends and family tell me that I am a brilliant cook! It’s no false modesty though to say that the genius is the one who wrote the recipes, not the one who follows them. I only follow recipes and as I do a lot of Indian cooking where a single masala might have half a dozen ingredients, I’d be a fool to do otherwise. I’ve never invented a dish or invented a recipe but I don’t mind that. I just feel honoured to have discovered a dozen or so genius cookery writers (Nita Mehta, Diane Seed etc) and I am happy to be working my way through all their recipes!

CD: Joe's reasons for vegetarianism (and those of his guests - especially the passage on the Greek pigs) are among the most powerful in the book. Are these based on experience?

JM: Like Joe I was a meat eater for ages, in my case until I was 32. After that I was mostly veggie but would occasionally crack and eat a bacon or a sausage sandwich and feel ashamed of myself afterwards. The big point of no return for me was the 2001 foot and mouth epidemic which devastated much of Cumbria as well as lots of other places. I remember seeing a small pyramidal mountain of recently shot sheep in a field near the main road about a mile from here...it was the most shocking and unexpected sight... harrowing and affecting to the last degree. That epidemic was a direct and obvious consequence of the way the British meat industry works, cutting corners to get maximum profit by doing more or less whatever it likes to the animals in order to provide this thing called cheap meat. To quote Joe in the novel the meat industry is so heedless and disgusting in the way it operates, the real miracle is we don’t have foot and mouth epidemics breaking out in this country every couple of weeks...

CD: What do you like most about living in Cumbria? Do you ever feel tempted to move to 'Literary London'?

JM: I have to be very specific here and say I like living in North East Cumbria which means I am handy for remarkable places that have barely been discovered by tourism. Another way of putting that is that Cumbria is a massive county with lots of very different bits and that it means all things to all people!

I love the North Pennines, meaning everywhere between Brampton and Alston, and some of which is inside Northumbria. Alston is one of England’s highest towns and surely one of the loveliest, but a lot of people have never heard of it. I’ve been living round here for over 20 years but I’ve only recently discovered that WH Auden had a lifelong attachment to the Alston area.

The South Tyne Valley has a dull and dutiful kind of sound to it, but the parts around Eals and Slaggyford and Lambley are so beautiful and tender and resonant, they feel more like the Hebrides than mainland UK. Likewise we are handy here for the Debatable Lands, meaning that wonderful triangle between Brampton, Longtown and the Scottish Border. Anyone who hasn’t seen the completely unspoilt rural parts around far flung Roadhead and Bewcastle and Roweltown hasn’t lived. But as I say most folk think Cumbria is Keswick and Windermere and the Lake District that’s it...

As for London I really like to visit it but I think it would drive me crazy living there. The one time I did live there in 1974 I was always looking for somewhere to go for a decent walk! But I’m a big jazz fan and the record shops are better there than anywhere else, so I normally spend half a day in a London HMV etc. You would also think that would be true of things like second hand bookshops, but surprisingly it’s not. I looked round a lot of them in London a few years back and their stock was absolutely hopeless compared with shops outside of London. But yes I know what it is I like best about London, the foreign restaurants, especially the Indian ones! And the fact that the food in the London pubs is always cheaper than in the sticks. Pub meals in North Cumbria cost over twice what they do in Camden though the wages are probably at least a third less.

CD: And finally, a trivial question, but I have to ask: Do you wear braces?

JM: No, but again we are talking about mad and improbable anecdotes based on real events! It was my own mother once started an irrational tirade against me aged 10 back in 1961 in West Cumbria. She said that I looked very scruffy with the snake belt I was wearing while out playing football with my pals, and that I ought to be wearing something smarter like braces. I never did wear them though, and I doubt I ever will. But that knockabout childhood memory stayed there and eventually gave me some inspiration that surfaced in a novel 48 years later...

General Questions

CD: Do you have any connection with snails?

JM: The honest response is it makes me think immediately of Portugal where the poor old snails are sometimes served in restaurants. They have signs in the restaurant windows saying ‘Ha Caracois’ which means ‘There Be Snails Here!’(you might have seen ‘Ha Sangria’ instead on your Portuguese holiday?). And of course Caracois is also a surname in Portugal as is Cao(Dog) and Carneiro(Sheep). I think I once saw the name plate of a psychotherapist in a Portuguese town and she was called Ana Caracois(Anna Snail). Good name for a professional like that I reckon...

CD: What is your proudest moment?

JM: When my daughter Ione was born in Carlisle hospital in 1989. I was so overcome with emotion I battered the walls of the delivery room and shouted and burst into tears!

CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?

JM: I have had lots of life changing events or about 50 at any rate! I think meeting my wife Annie was the best one, the one that really mattered. We first went out on Boxing Day 1978 and were married in Wythop Church near Bassenthwaite on 3rd March 1979. We proposed to each other simultaneously in a pub in Leeds about 3rd February 1979. We had just eaten at a dirt cheap Indian restaurant called The Shalimar which I don’t think exists any more. I remember the cauliflower curry was 30p...anyway we were very enflamed by Indian food and decided we must get wed as soon as possible and have been married now for 30 years. But it was all done in such haste my mother and everyone else thought Annie must be pregnant... but no we just knew it was just the right thing to do...

CD: What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?

JM: I’ve heard and seen a lot of sad things in my time but one stands out for all its simplicity. In July1983 we had just moved up to Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria after two years of living in a rough bit of East Oxford. We had a flat on a poorish estate and one sweltering night when we came back from town there was a rather shabby looking mongrel bitch had just given birth in the street to a single pup. There was a crowd of kids on bikes etc watching the mother and the pup and no one was harming or tormenting either of them, but the little pup was looking up at them and us and the hot July sky and the estate and the world around the estate with painfully innocent eyes and with an infinite vulnerability. It was a little homeless nameless mongrel pup in a depressed and deprived town in a vast and bewildered universe and its lack of power was absolute and irremediable. It was really harrowing to see that limitless innocence which was there in its little animal’s big eyes....because it seemed to emblemize the infinite vulnerability of all those in the world, human and animal, who are without any power. It could vanish off the streets tomorrow, that little pup, and no one would have noticed... just as there were lots of human beings, street children etc who were in that identical situation in the Third World in1983...and whose counterparts are still there of course, alive and kicking and more or less still without any power, in 2009.

CD: If there was one thing you’d change about yourself what would it be?

JM: I would forgive everyone everything instead of just forgiving some people some things. It’s no good being a bit kind or a bit unselfish...you have to go the whole hog. That’s a very hard lesson and it’s why Christianity is so unfashionable these days. It asks you to go the whole hog and nobody wants to do that. People prefer glamour religions, and to smile at themselves in the mirror and to suck their thumbs, but the trouble with real religion, the real thing, is it isn’t glamorous. If it were, it wouldn’t be religion.

CD: What is happiness?

JM: Giving to and helping others as much as possible, and having good sociable times with your close friends and your family. I used to think happiness was all about achieving fame and pursuing ambitions, but if you’re still chasing after a mirage like that at 58 you’re an idiot and make no mistake. That said there are people in the public realm in their 60s and 70s who are still chasing after honours and celebrity(see my comments above about old folk being exactly the same as the rest of us). There are writers for example who if they won the Booker Prize tomorrow would also want the Nobel Prize, and if they won that they would also want the Nobel Prize for Physics as well. It’s called wanting the sun as well as the moon, and there’s no satisfying some folk.

CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?

JM: Drink an entire cafetiere of Coop Fairtrade After Dinner coffee on an empty stomach. Though if I don’t feed the cat Anita first she lets me know about it.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The Legend of Joe and Liz by John Murray

A couple of years ago Hodmandod Major gave me this for my birthday:

It is called a dinosaur plant. If you add water it opens up after an hour to give this:

It survives by rolling up in times of drought, rolling away to where there is water, and then unfurling again. The Dinosaur plant is a remnant of an ancient time when there were dinosaurs, and I like to think of it surviving all the catastrophes that wiped everything else out. Age often imparts a wisdom but novels seem to rarely feature the elderly as protagonists, so I was interested to read The Legend of Liz and Joe given to me by the Booker long-listed and highly acclaimed author John Murray.

Joe Gladstone and his wife are in their seventies, and a few years ago Joe's uncle left him a grand old farmhouse and a small fortune which he has squandered on converting the farmhouse to an extremely select guesthouse. Joe is a vegetarian cookery writer of some renown and he treats his guests to sumptuous banquets (described in vivid, mouth-watering detail) but admission to the guesthouse is only by Joe's quirky and rigorous selection process. His guests have to be interesting and share Joe's highbrow tastes.

Joe is also writing a story called 'Galluses Galore' and this is excerpted throughout the book. It is also set in Cumbria (in the extreme northwest of England) and Joe is writing it in response to a challenge by a businessman to write a story in Cumbrian dialect. This gives John Murray the chance to not only demonstrate this dialect to comic effect, but also give some very interesting background information on how it is derived from Norse. Thankfully this is all translated into standard English because it would be difficult to follow if it were not. There is a handsome prize for the winning story of £50 000.

The plot of 'Galluses Galore' is a surreal one: it is set a few years in the future and the wearing of braces has become compulsory. Everyone stupidly complies except for one Fenton Baggrow, who is of mysterious means.

Joe, it soon transpires, is a bitter man. His acidic comments about the world are profound and hilarious in equal measure. Although an exquisite chef, he and his acclaimed cookery books do not make money, and he has had to be supported though his life by Liz who has her own interior-design business. The windfall late in life could have meant that she could have retired at last, but of course the peccadilloes of her irascible husband have prevented this. Instead, after a life-time of faithfulness, she has embarked on an affair with a younger man in his early sixties (but would pass for someone aged 50) - Patrick Garnett.

Liz is over this now, having spent over a week giving Joe her tearful confession which understandably adds to Joe's bitterness, but these passages describing Liz's motivations make weirdly inspiring and mesmerising reading: as Joe points out desires and viewpoint often do not change with age. Soon after this confession, the couple's son, Desmond, comes to stay, but in fact is driven away by his father's vitriol. Desmond has made a living pandering to popular tastes. At the start of his career Desmond made the discovery that in order to attract people to council events he has only to put on an act involving a clairvoyant or a tribute band, and they will come in droves.

The tribute band symbolises what is wrong with Joe's world: they were not only the initial cause of Liz's revelatory moment, but her ex-lover, Patrick Garnett was 'a tribute to himself at fifty; he had become his own best and amazingly life-like homage.' It is also society's preference for celebrity cook-books (another sort of tribute-band) rather than Joe's higher quality brands that has caused his earlier dependency on the income of his wife.

The antagonistic relationship between father and son is very well drawn; and although Liz has always been the preferred parent, even she knows she cannot tell her son about her recent spiritual revelations. Joe enlightens her as to why:

' ...people who only talk their own language, inflexible monoglots like Desmond, are not much help with the larger issues: Sickness, Sanity, Death, Bereavement, Faith, Loss, Love. They can stagger on pretending everything is under control through their forties, fifties, and possibly sixties, but then it all catches up with them. Doesn't it Liz? And by that stage it's become too hard to learn any other language.'

Non-compliance, and the inability of both Joe and Fenton Baggrow (the hero of Joe's story 'Galluses Galore') to comply with society's mores is at the heart of this book. They make their own way, and regard the sheep-like unquestioning following of celebrity (and the fake-celebrity of tribute bands) of the masses with contempt. It is as mindless as obeying a law on trouser-support. Joe likes to consider himself to be above it all, but it takes one of the sheep, Desmond the inflexible monoglot to reveal the truth: ' You would like nothing better in the whole world for me to be a copy-cat but inevitably an inferior version of yourself.' Something that perhaps Joe could do with translating into Cumbrian.

The Legend of Liz and Joe is a profound book. The writing is witty, relevant and there are passages that are strikingly beautiful. This is apparent immediately, but there is more to the book than this. Like the dinosaur plant the ideas took a little while to unfurl in my head. And like the dinosaur plant, I think they will persist.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

New Arrivals.

I am delighted to announce three new arrivals (of books!) at the Hodmandod home: Catching Fire: how cooking made us human by Richard Wrangham which Nigella Lawson says is 'Absolutely fascinating' and just reading through the blurb think I am likely to agree;

Howards End is on the Landing: a year of reading from home by Susan Hill which I have looked inside already and had to close it again very quickly because it was obviously dangerously engrossing and I have other things I must do today;

and finally, just in the nick of time The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood, whose reading performance I am going to go to this afternoon.

It looks like I might be going on several very long train journeys when I am in China, one of which will take 40 hours, so I shall need to pack a little something to read.