August, 2015

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It’s over – time for a reboot

So, the Book Festival is over. I had to take one last quick picture after my last event this year – lovely to see the gardens still so full after two weeks. Only fifty weeks till we get to do it all again!

Book festival

I suppose that means we have to return to real life. And to the serious business of writing.

I tried taking a break (it was called holiday) from writing, which was great until it came to getting back into a rhythm again. I prefer to think of it as a rhythm rather than a routine, if only because my association with routine is not a happy one. It’s what I dread the most because I have no patience for repetition. I saw a great video the other day of a contraption which launched a tennis ball down a hallway for a dog to fetch. The clever part was that the dog had learned to reload the machine, knowing that if it did it correctly, the ball would shoot back out again seconds later. I am fairly sure that the dog could have done it all day, or until it realised how hungry it was, or it just ran out of energy. But repetition and routine are not for me. I just get bored too easily.

And then I realised that I have a pretty structured running plan which has never come close to being boring. So maybe I was being too black and white when it came to finding an equivalent plan for my writing time.

The keys to my running plan are:

– being realistic about what you can do in a given week. Three runs a day might work if running is your job. For me, five times a week is about right.

– running flat out every time you go out is a recipe for disaster. I had to learn this by getting wrong, thinking I had to push myself every time I went out. It doesn’t work (and it’s not fun). Your body needs recovery, and the recovery allows it to come back stronger. Over time, it makes a big difference and recovery is as part of the overall plan as pushing yourself on other days. So I have only two hard sessions a week – one long run, one speed session. Add on a recovery run (more like a slow jog) after each of the hard days and a medium length easy run and you have yourself a plan.

– Vary the sessions. Each time I go out, I have to check and see what it is I am to run that day. I have the overall rhythm of the training week in my head, but not what exactly I’m to do on a given day. That gives me a lot of variety and different challenges every week.

So I decided to replicate this (to some extent at least) with a writing schedule. So I have one day a week when I will write for a long time, another where I will just write quickly and not think too much about it (my speed session), a couple of days of balancing reading and writing (recovery days), and others where I just have to sit down for 45-60 minutes and write. Then I’m done for the day. And one day when I focus on my characters revealing themselves. I’ve tried to work this around the evenings that I know I will be sitting outside a dance studio while the girls are working hard, and I will leave behind anything that can connect to the internet, which I think should be renamed the distractanet, and take only my beloved Neo. On which I can do only one thing – write.

So far, I’m only a few days into this so I’m not getting too carried away yet, but it’s helping to get into what I hope will become a rhythm with some focus on the time I do have available.

I view this a a slightly more positive way of recognising the need for a balance of hard work and recovery than is perhaps suggested by Hannah Arendt’s somewhat more existential perspective:

‘There is no lasting happiness outside outside the prescribed cycle of painful exhaustion and pleasurable regeneration, and whatever throws this cycle out of balance … ruins the elemental happiness that comes from being alive.’

Festival Time!

The Festival(s) programmes are simply getting too big. At the rate they are going, we will need people to spend a day just going through them and filtering them to a manageable number of offerings that might interest us. Every year when the Book Festival (yes, I know it’s the ‘Edinburgh International Book Festival’ just as the Simpson’s was the ‘Simpson Memorial Maternity Pavilion’ but really, not every time I want to mention it and see, now I’ve lost my train of thought) … oh yes, whenever the Book Festival programme arrives, I have this sinking feeling when I have a cursory look and immediately think there is nothing of real interest to me. I then pick it up again on the following weekend and discover that there is in fact a huge variety, and this year was no exception. This year, though, I also went to a number of events in the Fringe, the programme for which really does require several hours of searching.

Unsurprisingly, we saw a few dance shows, starting with a combination of ballet and juggling where timing seemed to be everything, and was executed brilliantly. There is always something about seeing two art forms combined and what is then created. Balletronic was a Cuban dance troupe with a small orchestra (I’m sure there is a technical term for it, but the inclusion of electric guitars and drums might complicate that), a singer, and music which wouldn’t normally be associated with ballet. The dancing itself reflected the energy and pace of the music but still managed to look effortless.

Going back to combining different disciplines – how about maths and comedy. Not maths as I remember it though. We didn’t ignite gas to show wave forms, or hold hands to complete a circuit to listen to music, and we certainly didn’t predict the exact time of a baby’s birth by extrapolating from the frequency and duration of contractions. It was probably rare that a bunch of finance guys were the target audience for a Fringe production. My experience is more likely to be that I’m the person walking through Edinburgh (admittedly in a suit sometimes) who nobody offers a flyer to. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

And then there was the Book Festival. You have to be there pretty late to see it like this:



First up was Kate Mosse (note the ‘e’, this was not the other Kate Moss without the ‘e’). I found her thoughts on writing, rather than her books themselves, particularly helpful this year. For example her analogy that when she starts writing a novel, the characters are waiting in the wings, waiting to show themselves. And she has to be patient and not rush them out onto the stage until they are fully ready.

I mentioned Rory MacLean’s brilliant book on Berlin last year. This year he was back with a new, and decidedly more bizarre subject. Transnistria is… well it thinks it’s a country, even though the rest of world doesn’t, and doesn’t recognise the fall of the Soviet Union, even though the rest of the world does. This was going to be strange then. We stood for the Transnistria national anthem. The tune was not memorable. And then he took us into this surreal world of a non-country with a president, a range of ministers, many of whom are young, female, and appear to be in a relationship of sorts with the president. Lenin is a frequent appearance in statutes and pictures. And the country is a refuge for former Red Army generals, KGB officials and ammunition dumps which were left over after the Cold War and have since found themselves in conflict zones around the world. It really is a place you wouldn’t believe could exist today, and yet there it is. And you can get there (and back out again) by bus from Moldova, to which Transnistria legally belongs. Tempted?

If maths geeks were happy with the Fringe show I went to, translations geeks were in their element at a ‘Translation duel’. We all read translations of books where we don’t know the original language, and the work of translation is itself a skill where there is rarely a right or a wrong answer. Understanding the words of the source language is only part of the task. You also want to reflect the rhythm, the register and the overall sense of the original. And then there is the cultural associations. For example, how would you translate cucumber sandwich – if you’re from the UK, you will have an immediate picture of the type of bread, the cucumber slices, the butter, and probably even the types of event where you might expect to see them. We were given the source text (the author of which was also there), and two translations (both translators were also there). And then they discussed how they had translated the text. Well, the first sentence anyway. That took half an hour. It started with ‘why did you put a comma after “During the day”’? There was none in the original. Progress was really only made by stopping before any conclusions were reached. What amazed me most was that the tent was almost full, I was sure I was in the wrong queue for a while because it stretched back so far and I couldn’t believe anyone else would want to sit through an hour of detailed consideration of how to translate a text. But it’s as much more an art form than a technical exercise.

I translated part of a German novel a few years ago for fun when I was wanting some stimulation. It was by Armin Mueller-Stahl and I was surprised that it hadn’t already appeared in English as he is a well known actor. I wasn’t doing it with a view to it ever being used and certainly didn’t get close to finishing it, but it was good to engage with the detail of the two languages for a while. And it still hasn’t been translated into English. No, I’m not going there…

And there’s still another week of events to go… it’s exhausting!

In praise of songwriters

Maybe it was the prospect of hearing Bob Dylan live. Maybe it was just listening to some old favourite songs. It was definitely encouraged by listening to an impromptu live performance at a neighbour’s house at the weekend. And remembering that I really want to (re-)learn to play the guitar again. At some point. Not now.

Anyway, I was struck once again by the power of music. The songs that immediately bring back a memory:

  • The Killer’s ‘Human’ = Christmas a few years ago
  • Roxette’s ‘Fading Like a Flower’ = first student accommodation in Reading
  • The Scorpions’ ‘When the Smoke is Going Down’ = train from Duisburg to Munich after Christmas 1989

And of course that’s only three, and behind each there is a much longer story that the song brings back each time I hear it.

Apparently (aka I read this somewhere. I think) those of us who grew up in the 1980s have a very wide range of music we can appreciate. Not only because the 80s was, of course, the best decade for music to this day. But it does mean that it’s hard to find our children’s music objectionable even though that used to be a prime consideration for a teenager. It also means that what some of us like is probably  looked down upon by those whose taste is more selective. Oh well. Each to his own.

What I am often struck by is the way lines from songs can creep into your head, just as melodies can appear out of nowhere and bug you all day. And it reminded me that songs are another example of the power of words and, particularly, of the impact the right phrase can have. Just as we might cite particular lines in a novel, we can do the same with songs. And it doesn’t have to be in the format of this 960 page, 6Kg (13 1/2 pounds) book of all of Bob Dylan’s lyrics since 1962. Here are just a few that sprung to mind recently.

The first two are lines that I associate with Berlin – the songs have nothing to do with the city of course, but we form our own associations all the time, which is why couples have ‘their song’ and why music can have such an emotional impact on us:

‘This place is the beat of my heart.’ (R.E.M., ‘Oh my Heart’)

‘Your presence still lingers here, and it won’t leave me alone’ (Evanescence, ‘My Immortal’)

And how about this for a perspective:

‘This ain’t comin’ from no prophet, just an ordinary man. When I close my eyes I see the way this world shall be when we all walk hand in hand. When the last child cries for a crust of bread, when the last man dies for just words that he said, when there’s shelter over the poorest head – we shall be free.’ (Garth Brooks, ‘We Shall be Free’ – the whole song lyrics are worth reading/listening to – you can find them here)

Mary Beth Maziarz (please write some more songs!) always makes me smile with this line from ‘Hold On’ –

‘They tell you listen to your heart. Whatever the hell that means.’

And who can forget Taylor Swift’s ‘Darling I’m a nightmare dressed as a daydream’. Love her, although I preferred her Country beginnings.

And let’s finish with this scene setting by Bob Dylan, from Workingman’s Blues # 2 – you have this immediate picture in your head when you hear this:

There’s an evenin’ haze settlin’ over the town

Starlight by the edge of the creek

There is some remarkable writing going on out there – and these people have to think of melodies and harmonies and instruments as well as the words. Quite humbling.

Storytelling all around us

Living in Edinburgh in August, you get a sense of the human need to create. With festivals covering jazz, dance, film, books, theatre, photography, opera and any number of combinations of these individual elements, there is more than just something for everyone. And within the now huge programme for the Fringe events there will be a nice example of a bell curve of quality. But the fact that so many people want to participate – and do so – even if only one or two people end up coming to their performance is testament to a desire to express themselves.

Fringe 2     Fringe 1

I was struck this weekend by the breadth of activities which happen all around us. On Saturday, LoLo and I went on the train to North Berwick, a seaside town south of Edinburgh. The tickets were free, a consequence of a very delayed train last year when I was travelling up to a town north of Aberdeen and ended up arriving there long after all the shops were closed, having spent a cold hour on Aberdeen station en route. We had no particular plan for what to do in North Berwick other than eating fish and chips, but then saw a sign for the North Berwick Highland Games. The immediate reaction was that there would be highland dancing, so we decided to go along and experience what would, for both of us, be our first Highland Games. Ironically in the Lowlands. The dancing was certainly the highlight for LoLo.


For me, it was shared between watching caber tossing and seeing a pipe band whose kilts were all what for me is “McHaffie tartan”, which is really a version of Grant tartan (yes, we are Grants on one side of the family, we can legitimately wear it. I can provide evidence if necessary). This tartan had until Saturday been so obscure that I had never seen it other than on a McHaffie, and that in itself was only because it was the one which we chose for our wedding many years ago and everyone else kindly adopted it. It has the advantage of the family photos looking better. I kept taking pictures of these random men in kilts in what would have appeared to have been me in full tourist mode.



Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay long enough to watch them play, but hearing the various pipe bands practicing around the grounds was impressive enough, even if getting too close made me worry for our long-term hearing.

The reason we had to leave was because LoLo had a ticket for Sylvie Guillem. No, I confess I hadn’t heard of her beforehand either. But within the dance world, she is one its superstars. For example, she joined the Paris Opera Ballet aged 16 and was picked out even in that illustrious company by Rudolf Nureyev. Now 50 years old, this performance in the Festival was part of a final tour programme, and there was no question of LoLo not seeing it. Although I keep referring to it as ballet, it was in fact contemporary dance, an entirely different experience and form of dance expression. And of course the verdict was that there were parts which LoLo enjoyed more than others (as I understand it, if Sylvie was in the piece, it was amazing, if not, it was less so).


I spent the time in an upstairs corner of Starbucks, nursing a huge hot chocolate and reading a book while listening to music. And reflecting that these two, as well as dance and sporting competitions, were more forms of human expression which go back millennia. The technology of how we access and experience them might have changed somewhat over the years with iPods and e-readers now joining the ranks of the more traditional media, but the demand for new “content”, for more storytelling has only increased. And storytelling, through whatever medium, seems to be something which has stayed with us through our evolutionary history, providing us with a way to understand our world, our history, and ourselves. When it all comes together in a few weeks of festivals, the whole of Edinburgh seems to come alive. And walking down the Royal Mile, the whole world appears to have congregated in our little city.

Berlin in pictures

We managed to develop five films yesterday. Well, we (LoLo and I) did two so she could see how it was done, then develop her own one herself, after which she decided it was time for a break and I did the other three. So today, something of Berlin and surroundings (aka Potsdam) as I saw it for a couple of weeks. All black and white of course, part of this year’s photography experiment. There’s another film to come (still in the camera) with some shots I’m already rather excited to see.

Wherever you go in Berlin, history is not far away. The Reichstag, for example, was once burned down by Hitler’s henchmen and has now been redesigned by Norman Foster, with an amazing structure inside the dome covering much of the roof:

Berlin 2 012


And then there’s the Berlin cathedral, with its magnificent organ:

Berlin 1 031


But enough of the tourist traps.

I like shapes and the way they can frame a picture:

Berlin 1 028

Berlin 1 006

Berlin 3 033


There’s a bike theme developing here:

Berlin 4 032

That last one I just found amusing really.

I found that I was seeing shapes and patterns everywhere:

Berlin 3 030

Berlin 2 029

Berlin 3 006

Some of which were entirely more sombre. These are the train tracks where Jews were deported from Berlin in the 1940s:

Berlin 2 037

Potsdam is famous for its palace, modelled on Versailles, but my favourite building is hidden, a few minutes’ walk from the palace and most of the people. I love its geometry and the light and shadows within the same space. At the end of the day, photography is all about light.

Berlin 2 023

Berlin 2 033

And a few from just walking around:




Berlin 3 001 Berlin 3 008


And finally, some of the people, who really do come from all over the world. In some parts of the city, all the signs outside the shops are in English only because of the diversity of the population living there. It’s not unheard of to encounter a native German having to order something in English because the person in a shop speaks no German.

Alexanderplatz is at the heart of the city – we were watching an impromptu show of some description and I turned around and saw this person having a sleep in the middle of the day.

Berlin 1 004


These three were playing some very unusual music which seemed to be trying to blend jazz and hip-hop:

Berlin 4 033


And then one of them came across the road to where were standing waiting to order our burgers (they are very good burgers, even if they are made in what used to be a public toilet, right under a railway track):

Berlin 4 025

It turned out that he was from New York and we got chatting – he was encouraging everyone to get involved with a cause which had something to do with the further evolution of mankind and how mushrooms are the answer. We should, he said, be more like the trees which evolved from mushrooms. I tried to establish what that meant in practice, but then we got onto mushrooms and Chernobyl – “Google it,” he said.

And this musician was playing “The Sound of Silence” when we came by. I suspect he has an interesting life story. And I am always grateful when people are happy for me to take their picture.

Berlin 3 020


And that’s some of what I see when I’m in Berlin.