Monday, 29 November 2010

The Big Freeze!

If I've been very quiet here it's because I have no internet access. Probably because of the weather, my router, my broadband filter and my broadband connection have all been trashed!    I'm posting this quickly at work in a gap left by a student cancellation.   We have a lot of snow here, though not as much as east of the Pennines, and there have been electric storms with thunder and lightning mixed in too.  I made it to Wendy's book launch (lovely party!)  but then woke up to six inches of snow and eveything frozen solid.  It took two hours to dig the car out because we live down a lane at the bottom of a steep hill which doesn't get used by anyone else.  Since then I've left the car on the main road.
On Saturday I managed to get to a literature festival event where I was booked to do a talk on Katherine Mansfield, but had to abandon the car at one point and walk the last three quarters of a mile on streets like ice-slides.  Driving back (very carefully) the temperature plummeted to -11 degrees.  It's rather like living in Scandinavia, though at the moment it's a bit warmer over there.   Hot water bottles, furry slippers, scarves, gloves, thermal underwear - you name it, I'm using it!  Even the cat is curled up on a cushion next to the radiator with his nose under his tail.  If I look at him he opens one eye as if to say 'If you think I'm moving, you must be mad!'
Hope to have the internet up and running again tomorrow when I've solved the mysteries of network connections and ISP addresses.  

Thursday, 25 November 2010

The First Snow of Winter

Woke up to a dusting of snow and more crumbling out of the sky like pieces of bread.   Outside it's bone-achingly cold;  well below freezing.  I took a photograph of the snow on the tree trunk that was delivered to the river-bank by last week's floods.   It makes an interesting addition to the garden seat!

The days are very short now - I took this photograph about 1.30pm but the sun is already below the tree-tops and only about 2 hours away from setting.  In another 3 weeks it won't get above the tree line at all and the days will be very short and dark.  This is one of the drawbacks of living so far north.

Meanwhile - a fifteen hundred miles or more further south, Neil is knocking olives out of the trees in sunshine and showers and temperatures of 16 degrees.  Just as I was doing this time last year.   So, feeling a bit sad.  Sad too for the families of the lost miners in New Zealand.  Greymouth is such a beautiful place and such a small, close-knit commmunity.  It's had more than its fair share of disasters, including an earthquake in 1968 which did a lot of damage.   I do wonder whether the seismic shifting that's been going on underground due to the 2010 Canterbury quake (not that far away) had anything to do with the catastrophic gas leak in the mine.

Tonight I'm off  over the Pennines, weather permitting, for the book launch of The Romancer by my good friend Wendy Roberston.  If the snow gates are open I'll be driving across Stainmore Pass - a name that strikes fear into the hearts of winter travellers, but there's no other way and I'm nothing if not intrepid!  Even so, I'll be taking a shovel, some mountain gear and a flask of hot coffee.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Do we need a Monarchy?

You may not have noticed but there was a wedding announcement in Britain this week. Two extremely rich and privileged young people have decided to get married and the news upstaged a political summit, an economic crisis and a flood disaster. The announcement was only eclipsed by the father of the groom shocking the public by telling an American journalist that his wife (a divorcee!!) will probably one day be Queen.

Yes, I’m talking about the Royals - an increasingly endangered species living in a luxurious, media infested, cage. Kate Middleton, the future HRH Princess William of Wales has just said goodbye to freedom and all the things we ordinary mortals take for granted - she can no longer pop out to the Co-op for a loaf of bread, drop into Harvey Nicks for a latte and she will have to drive around with an armed member of the secret service in the passenger seat of her car. Kate will also have to put up with tabloid newspapers criticising her hair, her choice of clothes, her relatives and the amount of money she and her husband spend.  Even her wedding isn't really her own to plan.  And the image of the groom's mother, Princess Diana, who died in a car crash while being pursued by photographers, will cast a big shadow over what should be a very happy, personal event.

Personally I think the caged Royals should be released into the wild. They have personal fortunes large enough to ensure their survival and they could lead normal celebrity lives, have normal opinions and make normal mistakes without the general public getting on their tabloid horses and complaining that the Royals should live on some unrealistically high moral planet because they are paying for it.

There is no logical place in a modern democracy for any kind of hereditary power. Make no mistake - the Queen still possesses a lot of constitutional powers - the fact that she doesn’t make much use of them is not the point. A lot of her powers are exercised by the government of the day without reference to parliament in a very undemocratic way. When I hear that legislation has been passed ‘By Order in Council’ (the Queen’s privy council) it sends a chill down my spine.  The Queen has wisely chosen not to meddle personally in politics, but her successor might make a different decision and there is nothing in the constitution to stop them. The consequences could be disastrous.  Look at it this way, with a President you can vote a new one in every few years - with a monarch you might have to wait 50.

When I was in New Zealand, the Prime Minister stated that when the Queen died, NZ would become a republic. He thought the Queen was quite a nice person, but didn’t like ‘the rude old Duke’ or the prospect of Prince Charles, who was always making gaffes . Australia has also indicated it wants to go the same way.

One of the main arguments for monarchy in this country is that it brings in loads of money for tourism, but not having a royal family hasn’t stopped countries such as Russia or France making a mint out of their empty palaces and royal art collections. Wouldn’t people pay more to see around Buck House if they could see all of it?

I’ve nothing against the Royals at all - I just want them to be happy and I think they’d be a lot happier let loose in Celebrity Land. The queen could spend time with her horses - the real love of her life - the Duke could be rude to whoever he wanted to without causing a political storm - Charles could spout his mouth off about architecture and eco systems and no one would make any kind of fuss. They could all spend millions on booze and betting (as the Queen Mother apparently did) and it wouldn’t be anyone else’s business.

And, best of all, two young people could get married just as they want to and have a life of their own without us peering at them through the cage bars.  Does anyone out there agree with me?

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Tuesday Poem: Emily Dickinson

One need not be a Chamber - to be Haunted -
One need not be a House -
The Brain has Corridors - surpassing
Material Place -

Far safer, of a Midnight Meeting
External Ghost
Than its interior Confronting -
That Cooler Host.

Far safer, through an Abbey gallop
The Stones a'chase -
Than Unarmed one's self encounter -
In lonesome Place -

Ourself behind ourself, concealed -
Should startle most -
Assassin hid in our Apartment
Be Horror's least.

The Body - borrows a Revolver -
He bolts the Door -
O'erlooking a superior spectre -
Or More -

Emily Dickinson, 1863

Having just read 'Lives like Loaded Guns:  Emily Dickinson and her Family's Feuds', by Lyndall Gordon,  it just had to be Emily Dickinson this week.  This is one of my favourite poems and one of her most profound.   Reading the biography has sent me back to the poetry, reading it with new eyes now that I know what was going on in the context of her life - her brother's adulterous relationship and her own ill health.  What comes over most strongly in the biography was how little control women (particularly middle class women)  had over their lives in those days, being financially dependent on men and forced to conform to the strict public standards demanded of them by society.   Working class women were expected to work all their lives and less was expected of them morally.   Emily Dickinson's servants were, in a way, freer than she was.

For more poetry visit the Tuesday Poem blog

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Galaxy National Book Awards

Book awards are increasingly seen as part of the necessary publicity launch-platform for authors.  Winning one can transform you from a mid-list hopeful to an international sensation over-night -  that is providing your publisher can afford the fees to get you onto the list.  Some of the big prizes require back-up funding that runs into thousands and is beyond the reach of all but the biggest publishers who are unlikely to splurge on new or less well known authors.
Books for the Galaxy awards are apparently nominated by 'around 50 carefully-selected individuals from the Galaxy National Book Awards Academy, who are drawn from retailer chain buyers, independent booksellers, wholesalers and trade press columnists'.   The exact process is rather vague, but the impression is one of democracy and you feel that it should produce a varied list that allows the small fry to swim with the big fish.
So why did I feel so depressed after I'd watched the awards?  Why did I feel that I'd seen it all before?  There didn't seem to be anything fresh or original at all.  (Martin Amis, Stephen Fry, Jonathon Frantzen, Terry Pratchett ...........) And hardly any women at all - though there were loads on the shortlists.  But awards were only given to Hilary Mantel,  and children's writer Julia Donaldson who shared her award with co-author Alex Scheffler.
I thought the biography short list was particularly apalling - celebrity memoirs and diaries by Alan Sugar, Tony Blair, the Duchess of Devonshire, Stephen Fry, and Chris Mullin MP - the one biography on it, Justine Picardie's account of the life of Coco Chanel didn't get anywhere.

One interesting new writer who made it to the shortlist is Katherine Webb, who wrote 7 unpublished novels before The Legacy came to the notice of Orion through the on-line writing site ''.   It's a peer criticism site where the top ten voted authors are read by an agent or publisher.  Orion are currently giving The Legacy the full treatment and I feel very glad for Katherine who deserves her success for persevering as well as the quality of her writing!

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Thinking about Peace on Armistice Day

Today is Armistice Day in Britain, when those who were killed in our many wars are publicly remembered.  As  a pacifist, one who believes that most wars are unnecessary, I spent the day remembering all those who have suffered - civilian and military - in our most recent conflicts.   Particularly Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia - and of course the Middle East.  
I always feel guilty that, apart from joining the occasional Amnesty International demonstration,  or signing petitions, I do very little personally that is constructive for the cause of world peace.   Someone who  does much more is the Israeli Jazz musician Gilad Atzmon.  He raises the question of peace, particularly in the middle east, in almost every concert that he gives - most recently at the London Jazz Festival.  His band, the Orient House Ensemble, features Palestinian and european musicians  - Christians, Jews and Muslims - playing side by side, and he campaigns relentlessly for a resolution of the Palestinian question.    This high-profile opposition to the official Israeli political position has made him a target - something he often jokes about.  Jazz of course, is the devil's own music, and is traditionally subversive!  His latest anti-war performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall can be viewed on this link.

And this is a profile of Gilad.


Monday, 8 November 2010

Tuesday Poem: How to Pour Madness into a Teacup

How to Pour Madness into a Teacup

She hangs her tears at the front of the house
cuts the rain in half and puts time
in the hot black kettle. She sits in the kitchen
reading the teacup full of small dark tears;

it’s foretold the man in the wood
hovers in the dark rain above the winding path.
The man is talking to her in moons,
she is laughing to hide her tears

and with little time, she secretly
plants the moons in the dark brown bed.
She shivers, thinks the man is watching
as the jokes of the child dance

on the roof of the house. Tidying,
she carefully puts hot rain in the teacup,
sings as she hangs her tears on a string
and watching the dance, thinks herself mad.

Abegail Morley
in collection How to Pour Madness into a Teacup, 2009 Cinnamon Press

This is surreal – like madness. I like the image of putting ‘time in the hot black kettle’, of reading tears in a teacup like tea-leaves. I like the fact that I don’t know, entirely, what the poem means. There’s the curious juxtaposition of tears, dark and rain, the man and the child and the moons. It reminds me of that quote from Anne Sexton – ‘the walk from breakfast to madness’ which so perfectly illustrates the invisible line between domestic normality and a state of unreality.  Perhaps madness is simply a different, extraordinary, way of looking at the ordinary.  The poem is actually part of a sequence and you probably have to read the whole of it. You can read the rest at

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Good News

Katherine Mansfield
So it’s all agreed. Edinburgh University Press are going to publish The Story-teller. They are moving very fast and hope to have the book available before Christmas. It appears to be (fingers crossed!) the happy ending of a long and complicated story. But it’s also a tale of serendipity. I was invited to do a small book signing at an event at New Zealand House; the editor came up to talk to me about the biography and that’s when it all began. I gave her a book to take away and three days later she came back with an offer.
Now I’m busy with all the copy edits and other alternations I want to make before it goes to the printer next week. However hard you try, there are always errors and in this case, a number of typos which slipped through the proof reading process of the 1st edition, including a photograph with the wrong person’s name underneath. And people keep approaching me with new information, which is very exciting, but has, somehow to be accommodated. I’m hoping that the EUP version will be as accurate as it’s possible to make it.

I can’t believe how things can change so rapidly in the space of a week. And on Monday Neil is coming home for a few days, so I will have my best mate back :-) No wonder I’m smiling!

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Women in the Middle East

The twin cases of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani and Rashanah Chowdury have been occupying my mind for the last few days; one condemned to death for supposedly committing adultery, the other radicalised to the extent of attempting to murder an MP.
I lived in the middle east during the nineteen seventies - working for some of the time in English broadcasting - programmes for the Qatar Broadcasting Corporation as well as freelance pieces for the BBC UK and world service. I worked alongside educated, relatively liberated Palestinian and Kuwaiti women.
In the middle east as a whole I witnessed a horrific lack of human rights - particularly for women. I sat next to heavily pregnant 11 year old girls in the maternity clinic - and was once invited to attend the wedding of one of the Sheikh’s 10 year old daughters. I talked to women doctors working in the hospitals about the terrible consequences of female circumcision - still widely practised. Over the border in Saudi Arabia women a number of women were executed for infidelity either by stoning or beheading.

For myself I was generally treated with courtesy and friendliness, but towards the end of my stay became aware of a shift in attitude and an increasing radicalisation. One day, driving into town with my two young children in the back of the vehicle I was chased by a group of youths in a car who were obviously offended by the sight of a woman at the wheel . They repeatedly rammed me from behind in an attempt to drive me off the road and eventually succeeded. As they approached the car - one with a rock in his hand, presumably to smash the windscreen - I was rescued by a Qatari lorry driver who stopped beside the car. The attack left me shaken and wary.

I visited Iran during my time in the Middle East and was blown over by the beauty of the country, their long history of culture and the friendliness of the people. I was equally appalled by the extremes of poverty and wealth that confronted me. At one end of the scale were people so poor they could barely exist, and at the other people so rich they could afford to shop in Paris, take winter holidays in Val D’Aosta and Florida.
From what I could see there was no middle class as we would recognise it in Europe and no social or educational system for people in the lower classes to rise up the scale and better themselves.
The educated women I met were feisty, articulate and ambitious and occupied prominent positions. Women in the poorer classes walked behind their husbands and remained silent. They barely owned a couple of lengths of cloth to cover themselves with, a few cooking pots and bedding.

In Tehran I visited the display of crown jewels under the National Bank. There in glass cases was an obscene Aladdin’s cave of wealth - dozens of trays of loose diamonds, rubies, emeralds and sapphires, as well as heaps of uncut stones more than a foot high.  Jewel encrusted furniture. In other cases crowns and coronets set with gems the size of hens’ eggs, bejewelled and ermined court costumes, cloaks and trains - all of which made our own crown jewels look like something from Woolworths. It reminded me of Russian Tsarist excesses.  Outside people begged in the street and students demonstrated. It was obvious that the Shah’s regime couldn’t last much longer - a few months after my visit he left.

The medieval attitudes to women (which are comparable to our own in the middle ages) can’t entirely be separated from middle eastern politics generally. While Europe and the West are seen as The Enemy, western attitudes to women and western values are never going to be adopted. And there can be no resolution or modernisation in the Middle East until the Palestinian question is resolved. It is the catalyst for radicalisation and recruitment among young men in the middle east and, evidently, young women too.

But despite the restrictions, women feminists are making their voices heard. Iran has a growing number of female film directors. One in particular, Samira Makhmalbaf, has made some fascinating films - ‘Blackboards’ is about the trials of two itinerant teachers who travel the tribal areas with blackboards on their backs to give remote villages some experience of education. In ‘At Five in the Afternoon’ she follows the experience of two young women living under the Taliban in Afghanistan. And there are several more women film makers managing to find a way through the restrictions in order to show us their view of the society they live in.  If they come your way (they're on DVD with Artificial Eye films) please watch.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Tuesday Poem: Afraid of the Dark

Best not to walk
these woods
in darkness.

The mind projects
its own horrors
on the blank screen
of the night.

A rapist crouches
fingering his garotte
or kitchen knife
promising the fate
worse than death

and monsters with yellow
eyes that burn -
the worm
who flies by night
and sucks your soul

out of your skull
and leaves the husk
to wander
as a mindless zombie.

Watch your back
as the dusk
begins to smudge the trees,
drifting across
the river bank like smoke.

I've always been afraid of the dark, since I was a small child living in a house without electricity and with too much imagination! We took candles to bed and the shapes and images the flickering flames made and the shadowy corners of the rooms were always peopled with terrors. I'm still afraid of the dark, though logically I know I'm safe, particularly in the country where there are only the wild animals in the fields and woods.

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