January, 2015

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Inspiration from childhood

Yesterday was one of those rare days when my training plan called for a long run and I just didn’t feel like it. It had been a hard training week and the last thing I wanted to do was a 16-miler. But I got my sandals on anyway and did it and was glad I did. I think it showed that the training is working, and this week is a lighter week to allow my body to recover before we go into the next phase of the training. One of the reasons I normally love the weekly long run is that it gives me time away from everything when I can just think. Yesterday was particularly good for that because my watch decided to stop finding any satellites after mile 6 so after a brief tantrum I had to gauge my pace by how I was feeling for the rest of the time. That meant no checking of pace or distance for quite a long time.

I found myself thinking about the things I used to do as a child when there seemed to be unlimited time and life was much simpler. My recollection is of reading a lot of books, but the one time that sticks in my mind was when I was determined to read Dick Turpin all the way through before getting out of bed one morning (the book might have changed since but not my idea of a perfect morning!). I remember being thwarted in my attempt at a personal record by being made to get up, but I like to think I’ve got over that experience by now.

I also remember the day I received my first camera. Well, I think I remember it anyway, who knows how much is factually accurate after all these years? I received it as a Christmas present, it was a simple 35mm camera with a fixed lens and I took it everywhere with me, including on several tours of different parts of Germany, burning through film like there was no tomorrow. The approach we took on those tours was not always the most creative, but very practical. We looked at the photos on the postcards from wherever we were, worked out where the photo had been taken from, and went there. In the case of Heidelberg, that required crossing the river and walking up a long hill. But we got a good photo at the end of it. That camera lasted for years and years, never once went wrong, and I have boxes of photos with decades of memories from it.

With the advent of digital, I don’t have new boxes of photos any more. I have hard drives full of pictures which I now realise I should have sorted at the time. Maybe when I’m older…

The photos we have hanging up in our house are in the ratio 2 digital to 9 (alternating) film. This isn’t on some principle, I just like the film ones better. But that’s partly because those are all ones I took my time over, which is greatly aided by the camera being manual everything – focus, exposure, winding. It doesn’t even have a battery because it doesn’t need one. It forces you to stop and think. No zoom lenses either, you have to get yourself in the right place to take the picture. It’s also not the most portable.

For events when there is a lot of action – think school groups, sports – or when being able to whip out a camera from your pocket and take the shot, digital is great. No thinking, just point and shoot. If it doesn’t work, delete it, nothing lost. So I don’t have anything against digital. It’s just different. And I’ve now had a small digital camera in a pocket for several months just in case I see something unexpectedly. And, in case of absolute photo emergency, a phone (which is worryingly good).

I recently read an article which tried to cut through all the technology and issue a photography challenge. The premise was to keep everything very simple and learn the craft of photography by trying things out, learning, and trying again. So the recipe for any long-lasting success. I took from it three rules:

1. Use an old (almost by definition manual) camera. You could really buy a second hand camera, use it for a year and sell it for about the same amount of money these days. It’s pretty much free photography equipment if you want it to be.

2. Use one type of black and white film for a year (film is still really cheap, particularly compared with the depreciation of a digital camera, which is horrific). B&W has the advantage that you can develop it yourself for not very much money and it’s fun. Well, it was the one time I did it many years ago, and I’ve never quite got to the point of doing it at home. But I do have lots of film taking up fridge space, so I might as well get over that particular hurdle. I can also see a Duke of Edinburgh project coming on somewhere in all this.

3. Take photos. 2 to 4 rolls a week was the suggestion. So that’s somewhere between 10 and 20 photos a day. Now that part is hard because it requires time, and the article was aimed really at would be photography students. But the point is that you have to practice and learn.

So I’ve taken that article as new inspiration of going back to what I always loved about photography when I was younger. There was a wonder about it, the uncertainty (and sheer dread when you’ve done the photos for a wedding and you just hope the pictures don’t all come out black, it’s amazing the things you can imagine going wrong) and the amazement that this little box in your hand could capture a moment in time that you could go back to again and again and relive the memory. So something good came of yesterday’s run. And today… is a rest day from running. Wonderful. Time to get out the fifty something year old camera, give it a dust off, get the film back out of the fridge and find that light meter which I know I put somewhere that I would never forget… and then go and read a book. Probably not Dick Turpin though.

What to do?

I’m struggling today.

I’d like to write something about Oxfam’s report projecting that, in 2016, the richest 1% of the world’s population will own more than the other 99% combined. But I don’t know what to do about that. It doesn’t seem right, does it? But I probably need to read at least three of the books on my current reading list before getting any real idea of what could or should be done to change this crazy situation. And I haven’t even got as far as reading the Oxfam report properly yet.


Notwithstanding the best efforts of our media (Fox News excluded from that, although at least this time they apologised), it’s hard to be able to be properly informed on all the big issues facing us today. Just last week, we had terrorist attacks in Europe, more mass kidnappings in the West of Africa, a blogger in Saudi Arabia continuing to face the prospect of regular floggings (in addition to a long prison sentence and fine) for expressing his opinion. And that’s just the stories which spring to mind. There’s also climate change, government surveillance, and who on earth do you vote for these days?

One of the more useful distribution lists I seem to have got myself on is the Guardian Bookshop’s. So when I got an e-mail telling me there was a sale on, I had to have a peek. And when it turned out the books had about 80% off, I gave in to temptation. Some of them represent at least an attempt by me to delve more deeply into some of the big questions out there. I’m not yet sure if Russell Brand’s book is in that category but it should at least be amusing, and that counts for something!


So I’m trying to get through this little pile as well as the ones which have been lyi

Fact and fiction

One of the few benefits of waking up in the middle of the night is that, if you put the radio on in our house, you get the BBC World Service. And as you drift in and out of sleep, you can pick up the most remarkable things. I think they are perhaps even more noteworthy for being mixed up in a brain that doesn’t know if it’s awake or asleep and is still trying to process everything from the previous day. And if you are in the middle of writing a novel, you can really get a screwed up brain because what you’re writing can be as real as what you’ve actually experienced.

If there were more hours in the day, I would try to spend some of the extra ones listening to Radio 4 or the World Service. Where else do you have some of the best minds out there coming together for a discussion about topics you didn’t even know someone was thinking about. Just this morning, I picked up part of a programme while driving back home again. Something to do with Shakespeare, Cromwell, historicity, writing and theatre productions. And there was a couple of minutes of a discussion about facts and fiction.

This is one of the things I’ve been mulling over. I’m writing about people who lived in a certain time in a certain setting, decades ago. I was not there. I don’t remember what life was like in those years and even if I had, it would  have been from a very different perspective. The internet is wonderful for filling in some of those gaps. Pictures, videos, articles, all made available by some altruistic souls (thank you!). But… I have a picture in my head of what it looked like, and it’s never going to be the same as reality. And it turns out there are internet sites devoted to telling you what was ‘wrong’ in books, TV shows, theatre productions. I know this now because I get some of this from the girls on the drive in to school in the mornings, all the details which someone else has got wrong. Do I care about whether the dragon in Harry Potter started off being able to shoot fire out for thirty feet and then later could only manage a small puff (apparently)? No. Some writers (Sarah Waters springs to mind) research and then describe the details meticulously. Will it be perfect? Probably not. And it doesn’t matter to me as a reader . I smiled when Jodi Picoult referred in one of her books to the ‘Scottish National Trust’ instead of the ‘National Trust for Scotland.’ Did it make any difference to either my enjoyment of the book or what I got from it? Not at all.

One of the panel on the radio programme was talking about this problem (his potential issue is worse than mine because he has to create a production in which the audience sees all the detail as he portrays it, I can choose to omit detail that doesn’t add anything to the story). I liked his approach, which is to ask the question ‘is it misleading?’  That works for me. His example was getting the wallpaper pattern right versus turning what was an amicable discussion in (historical) fact into a heated fight. The wallpaper isn’t misleading as to the characters or the essence of what happened in history. The conversation (if treated incorrectly) would be.

So I’m still not going to look at the websites on what isn’t strictly right. Instead, I’m going to focus on trying to create something which feels emotionally real. Last week, I found myself crying for the first time while writing one scene. Of course it was fiction. But it felt real. That’s one scene I intend keeping in. The description of the back seat of a Trabant car probably isn’t going to make the cut.

But while I’m on the subject of getting inconsequential things wrong, I received this in the post this week.


My reaction to the first question was ‘I’d like to work for an employer that knows the difference between ‘its’ and ‘it’s”. But really, I’m not that bothered. I got the point. Still not interested in the job, but not because of a silly mistake that just made me smile.

60 rolls, two book reviews and a new tradition

This week, I’m going to do how poor customer service leads to two book reviews, a new family tradition and how baking bread is good for the soul. It’s all connected.

For many months, we’ve been getting our bread from a local farm we’ve been going to for years. The bakery that supplied them was also local and we loved their bread. Last week, we heard the first rumblings of the bakery maybe no longer existing or supplying them or some other reason for our order not being there. But nobody was quite sure. They would let us know… Yesterday, also no bread, but this time, the bakery had definitely moved and there would be no more bread. ‘Maybe we should have let you know.’ Maybe indeed. So we had no bread.

Intermission for first book review. There is one book I recommend more than any other one to people I work with who are interested in their self-development. Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is the book I return to most often for some often harsh reminders of the things I could choose to do better on. And that element of choice is the basis of the first of his ‘Habits’, our ability to choose our response. What I really appreciate about Covey’s book is that he is very clear throughout that he is not trying to give us a series of ‘if you do these things, great things will happen’ tips or techniques. What I think he’s doing instead is trying to help us to be the kind of person we want to be, or could be. Which is never easy.

So back to the bread. Choice: get annoyed. Or do something about it. By which I don’t mean complain. It was one of those things and nobody could do anything about the bakery moving, and I’m sure the bakery had good reasons for relocating. But even if they didn’t, there was nothing I could do about it. So, while we were in town, we bought some flour, some fresh yeast, and started a new family tradition. Bake bread on Sunday afternoons. There is a recipe I grew up with which makes perfect bread, and involves a magic spell half way through. The magic spell was always very important when we were growing up, and I’m pleased to say that it has been passed on to the next generation successfully.

RollsWe ended up making about 60 rolls, with a significant proportion disappearing within the first hour of them coming out the oven. There’s nothing like fresh bread. And it’s fun to bake (confession – it helps if you have a Kenwood to do the kneading for you.)

I had forgotten that it doesn’t actually take long to bake bread, the vast majority of the time is just waiting while it rises. And that’s an hour to go and write. Everyone’s a winner in this new tradition.

Second intermission, second book. I was reminded of a character in another book which is in my top [insert random number] books. Jodi Picoult is a writer I have loved since before she became really really famous. Many years ago, before most of her books were available in the UK, we were on a family trip to Boston. I checked with the hotel in advance if we could have packages sent to us there, and had every one of Jodi’s books sent to me. It does mean that they look odd on my bookshelf because the US ones are a different size from the UK ones, not to mention the hardbacks.


But after a good few more books by her, my interest started to wane. Each book was beautifully written, everything was right. But they started to become too similar in style for me. I even stopped reading one halfway through and haven’t returned to it. But then came The Storyteller, which retains all the amazing things she can do with her characters and plots, but is somehow written differently. And it’s all the better for it. It’s the story of a woman who bakes bread – hence the association. And it’s the story of her grandmother, who was a Jew in Europe in the Nazi period. The characters are what makes the story. Their doubts, their loves, their fears, and their experiences and what they make of them. Each of them has to make choices and live with the consequences. It’s what we tell our children, isn’t it? You can choose what you do, but you can’t always choose the consequences.

Most of us are unlikely to have to face the kinds of choices people in wartime had to or have to today, but for our own development and for those around us, the choices we make can be just as important. And we do always have the ability to choose how we act. I hope that we’ve turned a relocated bakery and somebody forgetting to tell us into a new family tradition which is also the continuation of the tradition my mum started with us a long long time ago. So long ago that the recipe is in pounds and ounces. The poor man in the supermarket had to ask a colleague when I asked for two ounces of yeast and came back very apologetically to tell me they only sold it in grams. I had to laugh. The youth of today…