Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year!

Ah, almost 2011 already - just as I'd got used to writing 2010 I now have to cope with another digit.

I suppose it is time to look back, and the best I can say about the year is that it was a lot less traumatising than recent years, and thanks to my self-inflicted humiliation-feste (aka 'Grand Tour of Welsh Waterstones'), I got to see a lot of Wales - which I liked, very much. I also got to give my talk in various places and met a lot of interesting people, which was also good.

I have also read lots and lots of excellent books. I suppose I should pick out some of my favourites, but really there have been so many that I don't really know where to start - so I shan't. (Heh) However, I shall mention that I have finished the year with a very good selection: 'The History of the World in Ten-a-Half-Chapters' by Julian Barnes (which I have been meaning to read for years, and have been finally forced into it by a friend who lent me his copy),

finished the utterly wonderful 'A Wild Sheep Chase' by Haruki Murakami

and have now started his 'Norwegian Wood' on audiobooks.

I am also finishing 'China Road' by Rob Gifford in print, which has gripped me like a novel and made me want to return to China to see more of the north-west. This last book was also lent to me by a friend (a couple of months ago now, so I felt embarrassed enough to make sure I read it over Christmas).

I also caught a couple of films of books over Christmas (in a TV schedule that otherwise had little to recommend it) viz 'Atonement' by Ian McEwan

and 'Toast' by Nigel Slater - which were both very good in different ways.

I suppose I should now attempt to make some new year resolutions, but I guess they'll just be the usual: write more, move around more, get out more - and eat less...and generally be a kinder and less self-centred human-being. I give them less than a week.

Anyway, I hope for anyone reading this that 2011 turns out to be a particularly good one for you.

Added next morning: a link to London's sensational fireworks display on the BBC News website.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Christmas in Chester 2010

It is not very often that the Dee freezes

but this Christmas day the ducks and swans slithered on a new unwelcome thoroughfare.

People, dispelled from the streets as if by the cold,

took to the hills with sleds, outside the walls.

And we walked back, counting footsteps

to my favourite present.

Monday, December 20, 2010

A Patricia Duncker Interlude.

After a bit of a search around the house I have assembled a little Patricia Duncker tower - all the books of hers that I have in chronological order. I notice I am missing two: The Strange Case of the Composer and the Judge which came out this year in hardback, and Monsieur Shoushana's Lemon Trees.

I've just finished Miss Webster and Chérif which features an elderly woman, Miss Elizabeth Webster, as heroine. She is cantankerous and Duncker gives her some hilarious lines. There are some equally funny descriptions: 'She arranged an expression of sympathetic tragedy and held it up in front of her face.' Apart from being a lightly written mystery, it is also an exploration of the western view of the Iraqi conflict, and found myself considering, for the first time, the toppling of Saddam Hussein from a completely alien view-point.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Dr Grump's exercises for cold weather

The best exercise in these circumstances is a little weight-lifting: something the size of a wine-glass, lifted not too far, and very gently: up to the lips, hold, and down again. Eight repeats or so.

This may be followed by the book curl: lie on the floor and, propped up on one elbow, position book in front and hold.

She also recommends the Thorntons jaw revitaliser: using a pincher movement with preferred hand grasp either an Alpini or Diplomat chocolate (or, for those requiring a high-impact workout, a finger-sized piece of special toffee). With a slow steady movement bring chocolate to mouth, place in mouth and chew. Proceed until box is empty.

If this regime is closely observed during the entire festive season Dr Grump guarantees a much augmented figure.

Friday, December 17, 2010

What I want for Christmas... a new bookshelf.

This is just some of the 'problem'. There are similar piles elsewhere, and bookshelves taking over walls. Sometimes, I am not sure if they are part of a fortress or a means of escape.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The one phrase paragraph

Reading through an article on a certain popular news website I realised that there is something I really dislike: the very short, one-phrase paragraph.

I'm trying to work out why, and I think it is because it is too easy. I believe a journalist's job is to make an impact with how things are described not the way the words are physically arranged on the page. If a phrase has a paragraph to itself it immediately stands out. It is a gimmick, and like all gimmicks it is interesting at first but becomes irritating with overuse. The one phrase paragraph is pretentious.

So stop it.

(And that is a message to myself too)

Monday, December 13, 2010

Removing a label's sticky residue from a book cover

I spotted this after a search on google, and to my surprise it works really well.

1. Remove as much of the paper label as possible;
2. Smear on a little peanut butter on a paper towel;
3. Leave it for a few seconds;
4. Remove the residue with a piece of clean paper towel;
5. Repeat 2-5 as necessary;
6. If it smells a little peanutty, put a tiny amount of washing up liquid on another piece of paper towel and wipe off.

I just did this on the cover of a paperback and there is now no trace - so I'm very impressed.

The chemist in me found this interesting -I'd guess that the peanut oil weakens the bond between the glue and the surface of the cover, and the ground up peanuts act as abrasive to remove the scraps of paper and polymer. Then the detergent picks up and removes the traces of oil. It would be quite interesting to analyse a little further.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Christmas Book Fair

Today I did my 26th (and last (yay!)) event for 2010 - a Christmas Book Fair at Deganwy near Llandudno, north Wales in the splendid Quay Hotel.

I've not taken part in a book fair before, and was impressed at the efforts of some of the other authors and booksellers. Whereas I just had the end of a cardboard box hastily decorated the night before (and my trusty laptop with film of course), others had leaflets, bookmarks, huge displays on screens, and even, in one case, a natty T-shirt.

At lunchtime there was a male voice choir,

and immediately afterwards I gave my talk to a small but enthusiastic audience. Thanks to Jean Mead (author of the Widow Makers) for organising it.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

Chongjin people going to work in early morning - North Korea
Originally uploaded by Eric Lafforgue

Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick has left a big impression on me; not only has it left me with a much better understanding of the recent history of north east Asia, but also presents a series of fascinating human stories. It is based on a series of interviews with former North Koreans all of whom managed to escape to the south (usually via China or Mongolia). They came from a town called Chongjin which is near the northern border of Korea, close to where it meets Russia and China. It is engagingly written, and I feel it to be one of the most important books I've read this year.

I looked up Chongjin on Google images to see if there was any footage of this place, and there is a little including this video by Eric Lafforgue. This footage seem to lend substance to the dismal tales told in the book - stories of starvation and a political regime strongly reminiscent of the novel by George Orwell, 1984.

Apart from the staged pictures of children singing in brightly coloured costumes and a disturbing amount of make-up, there is footage of a middle-aged man walking along a grass verge with a plastic bag, stooping now and again to pick whatever he finds there to put it in the bag. It seems an innocent-enough activity; he could, after all, be just a street cleaner - a respectable occupation in any society. But I now realise after reading the accounts in this book that this man was probably foraging for food. He appears to be tearing up handfuls of grass, and this will be used to bulk out whatever else he has managed to find to eat.

The interviewees in Nothing to Envy tell of a state ruled by fear and a system of community spies. This encourages an Orwellian double-talk: the leader was and is 'beloved' even as sons, husbands and parents are starving to death. The blame for the suffering is levelled at the capitalists to the south and their allies, although no one seems quite sure why. This message is first conveyed in infancy, reinforced frequently and is therefore very effective. 'We have nothing to envy...' they are taught to sing, because their beloved father, the Marshall, will look out for them. He assumes the stature of a god, and the rest of the world is the devil. When that god suddenly dies, there was a spontaneous outpouring of grief. A lot of it appears to have been genuine. Some committed suicide. It takes a strong personality to break free and escape.

In the 1960s, buoyed up by aid from Russia, North Korea presented such a successful face to the world that many ethnic Koreans living in China and Japan were enticed to emigrate. North Korea was a Utopian dream, everything provided by the state. Wages were low because there was nothing to buy, every necessity of life distributed on presentation of a token. Any luxuries were shared; if a family managed to acquire a TV they would keep their flat door open when they watched so neighbours could come in and see the state run TV programming too.

But this dream turned out to be a sham. When the Russian aid and subsidies were withdrawn the factories could no longer operate, the workers weren't paid, and it became clear that North Korea couldn't support its people. The rations became smaller then stopped. People died of malnourishment: the elderly and then the rest of the adults who gave what ever food they had to their children; these orphans then became like starlings swooping a in flock to places like stations where they could steal and beg for food.

How quickly things change. How quickly a nation can be brought to its knees from a state of apparent affluence if its economy is based on nothing but promises. As I think about this I wonder how so many parts of the world rely on ethereal deals and loans for their wealth, and produce nothing of substance. It is like building an empire of stone on a cloud, and sometimes, as I look around me now I sometimes think I see trails of glory dissipating in the wind.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Korean Facts

Interesting points from Nothing to Envy.

History of Korea:

Up to 600 AD - 3 kingdoms vying for power .
ca. 600AD - 1910 Chosun dynasty (one of the longest-lived monarchy in the world).
Strong caste system with different dress. Noblemen wore white shirts and top-knots inspired by Confucius and horse hair hat. Slaves wore wooden label around their necks.
1910- 1945 Japanese rule
Post 1945 arbitrary split along the 38th parallel. Korea a buffer state thought to prevent the USSR getting too strong a foothold near to Japan.
1950 Korean war. 3 years fighting and 3 million lives later old border re-established.

1953 Purges - of competitors and then ordinary people.
Each person had eight background checks to provide a song-bun in a survey to assess loyalty.
A new caste system established with Kim Il-sung as 'emperor' and 3 broad classes: core, wavering and hostile.
The hostile included kisaeng (similar to geisha) and mudung (shaman), Christians, Buddhists, and people politically suspect including landowners and people suspected of being pro US or pro-Japan.

Joining the Workers' Party meant best jobs and locations but closely watched by neighbours.

- 'people's group' co-operative of 20 or so families whose job is to keep tabs on each other and organise neighbourhood. Elected leader is a middle-aged woman who reports anything suspicious to higher authorities.

- 'tainted blood' permanent, immutable and heredity.

buk nyeo, nam nam
. northern women, southern men.

homeless children, swallows

North Korean women do not take their husband's surnames, but retain their own names.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Korean Reading

Things I have learnt (directly and indirectly) through reading Modern Korean Fiction edited by Bruce Fulton and Youngmin Kwon.

1. Calling someone 'Older brother' etc is a term of endearment and familiarity.

2. Walls are made of paper.

3. Shoes are left outside.

4. Eyes encrusted, weeping and inflamed are considered a sign of poverty.

5. There are shamans. To become a shaman the person (usually a woman) has to undergo physical and mental pain which can only be relieved by curing someone. It can be a calling or it can be inherited.

6. The whole body is treated in Traditional Korean medicine.

7. There is a book called Donguibogam written by a sixteenth century doctor called Heo Jun which is still the bible for Tradition Korean Medicine today, and was last year added to the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. In it there are listed medicines which confer invisibility, the ability to see ghosts, and turn a female foetus into a male one. It has not yet been translated in English, but I heard from Park Dongchui, the President of the Korean Sericultural Association, at the Silk conference in Hangzhou last year that Heo Jun's work has caused the medicinal properties of silkworms and mulberries to be investigated. The result of this is that in Korea silkworms are reared not to produce silk but as vessels for the fungus cordyceps (Dongchunghacho) which allegedly cures cancer and strengthens the immune system.

8.There was a widespread curfew at midnight.

9. High class men wore a hat made out of horse hair, silk and fine bamboo, which looked like a shallow top hat and was used to go over the top-knot.

The stories were generally excellent and very interesting. I preferred the modern to the more traditional, and thought they seemed closer to modern western style than the older ones seemed closer to early twentienth century style.

My particular favourites were 'When the Buckwheat Blooms' by Yi Hyosok which was about an unfortunate itinerant seller discovering he had a son, 'Knifeblade' by Cho Sehui, about an encounter involving a dwarf and a tap, 'Another Man's Room' by Ch'oe Inho an allergorical tale about the transformation from traditional society to dehumanising modern, 'Mother's Hitching Post' by Pak Wanso in which the traditional clashes with recent modern history, 'The Old Hatter' by Yi Munyol, which is about the decline of tradition and could be a metaphor for much in today's world, ' Wayfarer' by O Chonghui, about a woman's return from a period in a mental hospital, The Gray Snowman by Ch'oe Yun about a woman's involvement with a clandestine left wing organisation and unrequited love, and 'Lizard' by Kim Yongha which a Freudian erotic tale in which a young woman's past plays a part in her present.

All in all I found Modern Korean Fiction well worth reading, although I didn't really find a 'Korean voice'. But maybe that was as ridiculous an aspiration as say finding a British voice in an anthology of Modern British Fiction. There was, though, an alien feel to many of the earlier stories, which I much appreciated, since I think reading outside normal experience increases creativity.

Since the last story was written in 1997 I now find I want to read more contemporary material, and have just downloaded Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick on my Kindle. These are tales of lives in North Korea, and I think they were complement what I've just been reading very well.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

The Cold

Yesterday, our newish boiler gurgled a couple of times and emitted something half way between a roar and a groan. Its blue light flashed. 'I am close to death,' it said, 'forcing me to operate in these Siberian winds was frankly ridiculous.' Then it expired. I tried to resuscitate but its spark had gone. I phoned our heating engineer and left a message, and today left another one. I expect he's busy, and I'm wondering if other people's boilers have suddenly given up the ghost too.

So today I curl up by the fire and catch up with my reading (Modern Korean Fiction edited by Bruce Fulton and Youngmin Kwon) because it is too cold to do anything else. I have cancelled everything. It was -2 last night, and -5 tonight - the coldest days of the year so far - the chill compensated a little by the clarity of the sky and a brightly lit day of long shadows.