September, 2016

now browsing by month


The literary spectrum

One of the more controversial events I went to at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival was a debate about YA fiction. For example, what is ‘Young Adult,’ as it potentially seems to go from before early teen to early twenties. Among the highlights were the assertions that ’90% of all books are c**p,’ ‘Nobody over 20 should ever be reading YA novels,’ and ‘Nobody should read John Greene books.’ Light-hearted, then.

My starting point for all this is that much of it is subjective. What you like I might not, and vice versa. And there are enough books that I’ve hated when I was younger, then rediscovered later and really enjoyed.

You might have noticed that James Patterson (and whoever he is collaborating with this time) is pulling a book based on Stephen King being killed, or at least someone trying to do that. James Patterson has sold more books that anyone else on the planet and Stephen King is quite something as a writer. But King said a few years ago that Patterson is ‘a terrible writer but he’s very successful.’ He also said that YA writer Stephenie Meyer – you’ll know her from the Twilight series – ‘can’t write worth a darn. She’s not very good.’


And of course Stephen King has written a book about writing. You don’t have to agree with everything he says, but you had probably better pay attention and not dismiss that much experience and talent. And he clearly has strong views on what is good and what is not.

Something that has plagued me from my school English days is the notion that some books are more worthy than others. The book I have the most vivid memories of from those classes? Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. The worst thing I had ever had to read. Out loud in the class in most lessons, I remember that as well. But it was considered to have more literary merit than the countless other books I chose to read, none of which ever came up in English.

There is a spectrum of styles of books, from the impenetrable novels with forgettable characters who do very little, but are described in exquisite detail, using beautiful language. And there is James Patterson towards the other end of the spectrum, with a style which you really cannot stop reading. I know this having read three of his in two days, one just to see how he dealt with a particular structural issue I was grappling with. There is a reason he sells more books than anyone else, but you wouldn’t think of his books as pushing the boundaries of what the novel can ‘do’ (I heard that more than a few times at the Book Festival, apparently it’s what we should be doing.)

I’ll be honest. The books the literary critics love tend to be the ones I often struggle with, and am never quite sure they were worth the effort in the end. Sometimes I’m told they are books you have to read twice. I think, if I didn’t like it the first time round, why would I do it all again when I could read something else instead? Fine, so I’m probably a literary Philistine. I can live with that. There are exceptions, of course, but I’ve always been much more drawn to the interesting characters and the compelling stories than to the use of words. It’s not that I can’t appreciate the latter, it’s just that it can be too much, and get in the way of the story (= cardinal sin for me as a reader). For me, in the end, novels are storytelling, and that’s where you can’t teach the James Pattersons and Stephen Kings of the world very much, even though their books are completely different in style and theme.

I am still making sure that I do read a wide range of books. You can’t subsist on James Patterson alone if you want to learn more about writing, but equally, Tolstoi and Dostoyevsky (who, according to the ‘nobody over 20 should be reading YA’ contributor we should be reading instead) are probably never going to make it onto my reading list.

So, on the YA point, why do I think it’s perfectly fine for me to read YA novels, and that I should not be restricting myself to the literary end of the market?

The obvious answer is that I will read them as part of a wide range of books. Yes, they can be pretty derivative. Dystopian world, boy meets girl, repeat. I would be concerned for my mental wellbeing if all I read – or wanted to read – were those kinds of books but, if nothing else, they are good for a break, a change of style and pace, and a story that trots along happily.

I think novels serve a wide range of ‘purposes.’ One of them – a good one, in my view – is to entertain. A life of constant challenge, forcing myself to get through books because they are supposed to be ‘good’ for me leads to reading less, and that can never be a good thing. I don’t read Twilight (yes, I was reading them well before they became famous) to see how language can be used differently, I read them for the fun story that I can zip through. And then I’ll pick up something set in Victorian England and experience what life might have been like for a young woman on her own. Different experiences for sure. I like the variety.

I have daughters who read these YA books. It’s nice to be able to talk about the books with them, in the same way it’s nice to watch some films with them that I wouldn’t personally gravitate towards. I’ve introduced the girls to the concept of ‘proper’ films and books, as opposed to lightweight but fun ones, and we try to vary what we watch and read. Balance is usually a good thing. Having conversations with your children is also a good thing, and talking about books is a great thing to be able to do. Even if one of them is about 2/3 of the way through War and Peace and I’m with Woody Allen on that one (I’ve told her this) – ‘I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.’

There are many different ways of telling a story. I find that seeing as many as possible can only be a good thing as a writer because we can learn from every other author. Even if it’s only just what never, ever, to do (yup, there are some dreadful books out there, but remember that it’s subjective, others seem to have enjoyed the same book I found appalling – wonderful!).

There are writers somewhere in the middle, who have found a way of dealing with complex themes in a very engaging style. Jodi Picoult always springs to mind. Douglas Kennedy is another favourite of mine and I’m never quite sure why he’s not better known. And Carlos Ruiz Zafon writes beautifully (even in translation) and tells wonderful stories.


There is plenty of space out there for different styles and approaches. I like keeping my mind open to everything that’s out there. And I am very clear that, in my own writing, I gravitate towards what I like reading. But that doesn’t mean I don’t learn a lot from the writers who play with the language in a way that just amazes me. Imagine if we could take the best of all of them. Maybe someone has and I just haven’t found that book yet.

Where fact meets fiction

Two news stories collided this week with a series of memories I have, none of which can be true because I was not alive in the 1840s, and I have never been to the Arctic. However, I wonder what a polygraph would show if I were asked, were you on one of the ships Terror or Erebus when they went in search of the North-west Passage?

One of those ships, Terror, has now been found, nowhere near where it was thought to have lain, and remarkably preserved, not crushed by decades of sea ice expanding, contracting and shifting.

Augustus Peterman stood at the dock at Greenhithe and shivered, not because he was cold: it was May, and the day was warm.

It was the sight of the ship that had set him trembling. The Terror towered over him, wide in the beam, with almost two-foot-square ribs rising out of the water. She was massive, breathtaking, beautiful.

This is the truncated introduction to the Terror in Elizabeth McGregor’s The Ice Child.

It is the story of Sir John Franklin and the expedition which ended in the loss of both ships and both crews, a mystery which is still the subject of speculation today. It is also a modern-day story, a son who is obsessed with finding out what happened to the ships and with the legacy of his father. When he disappears somewhere in the Arctic, another life depends on him being found and persuaded to return to England.

And it is the story of a polar bear. Just last week we heard the story of the Russian scientists whose base had been surrounded by polar bears, their normal source of food diminished because of the effects of global warming. The scientists’ dogs were killed by the bears, and it could have taken several more weeks until any assistance could reach them – in the end, it arrived soon enough. In the novel, we have a very different picture of the polar bear:

The great white bear lifted her head, narrowing her eyes against the driving Arctic snow. She looked back along the rubble ice to the cub that followed her, waiting for him in the white-on-white landscape.

The polar bear raised herself up on her hind legs and, after pausing only for a second, slammed her full nine-hundred-pound bodyweight down. With such force, she was able to break through into seal dens, stealing the pulls before they had ever seen the light, or break through ice to make swimming holes. But neither purpose was fulfilled here, in the white-out of the storm.

She could feel the wreck underneath her, on the sea bed below.

It smelt, even now, even after lying under the ice for a hundred and sixty years, like man. The wooden and iron bulk had left its indissoluble human mark – this sense of unrightness, a kind of dislocation in the frequencies.

Everything is linked in this novel. The polar bear, the Franklin expedition, the story of a present-day family, the fate of a young child.

Of the stories being told in this one book, for me, it was the one about the two ships and their crews which was what made it. We already knew that they would all die at some point, but it is the unfolding of the story that makes the narrative so compelling.

On the very day that they entered Lancaster Sounds, and hailed the whaler Enterprise as they passed, Gus saw a strange expression on Crozier’s face. Crozier hid it well as he came down and passed the boy. He even smiled then, and nodded at Gus, making a show of pulling at his cuffs and wrapping his coat closer around him. He went below, and Gus watched him, worried for the first time, more worried that he had ever been on any ship. For the look in the Captain’s eye had not been any confidence in God’s mercy and grace, or pleasure in the ship, or excitement at the conquests they were about to make. It was less complicated than any of that. It was fear.

That passing of the whaling ship was the last time either ships or crew were ever seen again.

There are various theories about what happened to the ships, and the novel goes with one which the author finds most compelling, based on the current research and what we know from what has been found in the 150 plus years since the expedition came to its end. Over forty expeditions were sent out to try to find out what had become of the original one, such was the Victorian obsession with the fate of the Franklin voyage.

Throughout the book, we have the ongoing mystery of what happened to the crews. Why, when they had provisions for several years, did one of them die of starvation just a few months into the expedition?

We are with the crews as they deal with the movements of ice all around them, have to decide which route to take when none is certain, as they burn coal too fast to feed the gigantic locomotives that break through the ice, and when crew members continue to die.

Everyone had something wrong. Some of the men had the first signs of scurvy – bleeds under the skin and their teeth affected. Most bore it with nonchalance; a few had even lost teeth, on previous voyages, to the illness. Others became breathless before they even had the swellings of the skin and the bruises.

With a few of the men the problem was not physical illness so much as the dark, the winter.

We alternate between hope, that a way out of the ice will be found, that daylight and warmer temperatures will arrive in time, and the sense of the gradual inevitability of their fate.

Worse than the helplessness of not knowing what to do with a body was the fear of what had killed him.

And yet, in the modern day part of the story, as our hopes for the crews of those ships gradually sink, our hope for the future of someone else starts to rise.

To find out what happens in the various sub-stories, you will just have to read the book. And then you will have a sense of what it was like to be on those ships, and the discovery of Terror might mean a lot more to you.



The ballet blog

I really have no business writing a blog about ballet, not after two weeks. But I’m going to anyway, because these are just my first observations, the ones I made before I (hopefully) start to get at least one thing right. And I’m going to start with my comparison with what I know a bit better – running.

Most people, barring medical issues, are able to run. Maybe slowly, maybe a bit faster. And it can be as simple as getting the right basic clothing and something for your feet (or not), going outside and putting one foot in front of the other and repeating. Put that way, it might sound repetitive and boring, but when you start to look around and notice the world you are running by, every run is different and some runs can be close to meditative. On the technique front, there is a lot we can improve, and probably a lot we should improve, to help us go faster without more effort, to keep us injury free, and sometimes just to get us to  a place where we are enjoying running again, but we can also just happily carry on running as we were and nobody is going to mind (or probably even notice).

Not so ballet. It only works properly when you are doing it all correctly. And doing it correctly involves pretty much every muscle in your body, including ones I didn’t even know existed two weeks ago, all working together at the same time and in the right way. When you see a ballet dancer standing there on the stage, that is not relaxed. They have more muscles engaged just to stand properly than you or I probably use in the course of a full day.

Here’s an example of the difference, as measured in my entirely unscientific way:

Time needed to notice sweat building up. Running – 20+ minutes or so. Doing plié (think knee bends) exercises – 2 minutes. Tops. Let me see if I can get this right – shoulders over hips, hips over ankles, legs turned out (from the hip, never the knee), weight on the balls of your feet, neck extended, arms extended, core engaged, head up – and don’t forget to smile. Help! And now you can start to do a plié. Knees need to move in line with the direction of your feet, no leaning back or forward, your body should be going straight up and down. And that’s just how to bend your knees properly. Give me a 15 mile run any day.


The closest you will get to seeing me in tights…

What I’ve noticed immediately is that to perform any individual movement in ballet, so many part of your body have to be working in synch, certainly more than I can keep in my head at one time. And that is before we even start putting anything together in just the most basic of combinations (believe me, they do not feel that basic!) If you watch Strictly Come Dancing/Dance with the Stars, you might remember the judges’ comments on some of the couples (well, the celebrities) who are clearly thinking through the steps still. I have a lot more sympathy now. Just remembering to do a single movement to the front, side and back, with the correct turn-out, in time to the music, and moving only the correct parts of my body… it’s not a pretty sight. And then you have to turn and do it all on the opposite side, by which time I am still trying to work out at what point I lost the plot in the original sequence.

There is a reason that most of the professional ballet dancers you see started young. Dancing is like driving a car. To begin with, that clutch/acceleration combination is close to impossible, then suddenly it starts to work, then you wonder what the problem ever was. Learning to perform all these steps and positions and co-ordinate them is something they learn to do when they are little sponges and don’t care about getting it wrong. And by the time they hit their teenage years, some of them have been doing it for a decade. That is a lot of practice, but not as much as the amount a few will end up doing every day as professionals, in addition to the performances you and I might go to see. The morning after that performance, while we are still talking about what we saw, they will be back practicing their pliés, tendus and battements (see, you get to learn French while learning ballet). It is relentless, but that is what it takes to get to that level. We got to see that earlier in the year when we went on a behind the scenes look at Northern Ballet’s 1984 and at the end were asked if we wanted to watch their morning class. Needless to say we stayed until the last of them had left the stage over an hour later.

And then there is the performance element, the bit that makes one dancer stand out from the rest. They have to have that just to get into the company, never mind progress through the ranks.

The good news is that you will never have to watch me trying to do any of this. However, you might want to watch a few minutes of the Royal Ballet’s daily class instead. Obviously they do more than I do in my class, and they know what they are doing, but at least now I can watch it and think, I know what they are doing, and I can sometimes even see how they are doing it. This is what they do every day. It’s what I’m learning to do (a bit).

In case it wasn’t already obvious, my real reason for taking these classes is to understand a little better what a dancer is doing when we see him or her on the stage so I am able to write (at some future stage, but this is the year I have time for the classes) from the perspective of a dancer, because I realised that this was something which you cannot understand by watching or having it explained to you. You have to experience it, even just a few weeks, and then see the professionals doing it. Only then can you start to see what is really going on, and just how remarkable ballet really is.

Meantime, I have my running to remind me that there are some things I have learned to do better, even if ballet is not (yet) one of them. And it’s fun to be an absolute beginner at something and remember what it’s like to start from nowhere! I am also running differently (yes, including practicing my hand positions on empty country roads – another thing you will never see) because my body is learning to move differently. Anyone for the splits? Ouch.

The one about the actress and the bishop

Did you hear the one about the actress and the bishop?

Believe it or not, I thought of the subject for this blog before I thought of that old cliche of the beginning of a joke, but when I did, I did allow myself a chuckle.

Two things in the news this week caught my attention, one of which Facebook’s algorithms picked up as ‘trending’, the other was buried in a British newspaper and probably went unnoticed by most people who saw the other news item.

Last week, I wrote about perspective, and what can happen when one’s perspective changes. But what happens when the change is more akin to a conversion close to a Damascene level?

Let’s start with Pamela Anderson. To quote the Wall Street Journal, she is a ‘model, author and actress.’ And the reason the WSJ has suddenly shown interest in her is because she has co-authored (with an orthodox rabbi, Shmuley Boteach, so I suppose this could actually be ‘the one about the bishop, the actress and the rabbi) an opinion piece on the dangers of pornography. They say they have ‘often warned’ about this subject, although I confess that this was the first time I had seen her say anything on the subject and a search via Google (yes, you have to be pretty careful what settings you apply for that search) did not yield anything. And of course, this is quite a volte-face for her, given she has made a lot of money from her willingness to be photographed and filmed over several decades in various states of undress, where Baywatch was on the tame side. And of course that has led to the expected questioning of her motives at this stage in her career when it does not seem unreasonable to imagine that her options for that particular line of work must be diminishing, notwithstanding a perhaps final appearance in Playboy only a few months ago. But does that mean she is not sincere in her current view? I can only assume the rabbi believed her to be so before he joined forces with her. And it has generated a good deal of publicity, for which both her fame and previous occupations are to thank – a rabbi writing an article tends not to attract a great deal of interest.

Of course, that changes if the rabbi or another religious leader is disavowing his faith, or saying something which goes against what he ‘should’ be saying. That becomes newsworthy.

The other story this week was the death of David Jenkins, the former Bishop of Durham. He was the first of the ‘barmy bishops’ I became aware of a long time ago, but he was not alone in airing his personal questioning of the traditional Christian accounts in public, with the probably inevitable media furore. Closer to home, Richard Holloway was another bishop (also ‘barmy’) who rose through the ranks of the his church, becoming Bishop of Edinburgh and the presiding bishop of the Scottish Episcopal Church for eight years. He has since become more widely known because of his changing views on God and religion, and his exploration of what faith and morality mean in a world view that does not include, or in some cases, no longer includes, a supernatural deity. He has done this through a good number of books since resigning as bishop, adding to all the works he authored with a more traditional Christian perspective in the many years prior to that. This has led to him being a staple feature at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, usually surrounded by a small group of admirers somewhat older than more common groupies, and he crops up on Radio 4 from time to time. He has also been a consistent advocate of progressive causes, including LGBT inclusion long before that became a more popular position, and we can add chairing the Scottish Arts Council and the BMA’s steering group on Ethics and Genetics to his activities.


So two very different changes in perspective, one appearing to be more of a sudden conversion, the other a decades-long process of challenging and thinking.

At the end of the day, we cannot know what motivates such public changes of viewpoint. I worry that there is often an expectation of consistency of belief and viewpoint, with accusations of U-turns (the standard description applied to politicians) and vacillation when somebody comes to a different conclusion for apparently good reasons, such as new information coming to light, or evidence demonstrating the error of an opinion previously held.

That they are played out at all in the public sphere makes it harder to change an opinion. Most of us can do so in private, perhaps looking sheepish when we realise we have got something very wrong, but usually without any wider publicity of our folly. And when it comes to a slow change of view, or a maturing outlook, the changes can be largely imperceptible, even to ourselves. Why it is not acceptable to say ‘I used to think X because of ABC and now I think Y because of DEF’ escapes me. We teach our children that they should learn from their mistakes, knowing that we have done so ourselves countless times, but a change of viewpoint seems to be used too often to cast doubt on someone’s integrity or competence. I would much rather someone engages with a topic and changes their view as a result rather than stick with ‘this is what I believe’ no matter what.

So, did you hear the one about the actress and the bishop? Both of them had a change in view. We can agree or disagree with the viewpoint, but maybe let’s focus on what they have to say and form our own view on that, rather than worry about their motivation, which none of will ever really know. If nothing else, the publicity might generate some meaningful discussions, and I for one found Richard Holloway’s thinking helpful when I was wrestling with some difficult questions. I might even go  back and re-read them again now. I’m sure to learn something, and I know I will agree with some things and disagree with others. I just can’t remember if they are the same things as last time I read them, but I doubt it. Otherwise I would have stopped thinking.