Thursday, 26 January 2012


Not my garden, sadly.

Like a wasp at the bins of an amusement park cafe who can see a can of Raid on the windowsill, I buzz but don't dive in.

The research assistant position is mine. It involves interviewing eleven students for an hour apiece and then transcribing those interviews. Having worked in recruitment for a number of years the first part shouldn't be too difficult once I've dealt with the rust. The second part, one of my bosses was at pains to point out, will be arduous. Hours of listening, rewinding, straining, and typing. But he gave me some tips and I expect it will be fine once I get used to it. Time consuming but rather interesting. Next week I'll do a practice interview on a willing student, and then begin in earnest. So I have a week of utter freedom.

From my list of 'really want to dos' I'm at liberty to choose. But which one?

I would like to tackle my manuscript and begin the rewrite. I've been itching to do this for a while, but I know I'll need absolute isolation. If I do this I will do nothing else. I'll have to be able to utterly immerse myself in the task, and I fear a week won't be long enough. Time enough to read the thing and make a few notes, though. Should I do that, make a start?

I'd also like to get on with my Burma Book. Dig out the notes I made when visiting my aunt last summer, make the dishes she taught me, take photos, write more notes, before it all becomes a haze. Also, I'd like to have a mini version done by the end of May for a particular purpose I can't tell about just incase a particular person reads this.

And I'd like to work on my photographic post-processing skills – or lack thereof – in Lightroom. I'd also like to read the dozen or so books that have piled up on my kindle. And bake a coffee cake. And finish the few small jobs left in the bathroom (I still haven't chosen flooring, and there's a bit of grouting that needs to be seen to).

The garden needs some attention. The kitchen floor is crying out for a fresh coat of paint. This room is beginning to resemble a junk-shop again.

Ice-cream, cheeseburger, ketchup coated chips, jelly tots, iced bun, chocolate coated melting moment...

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

The Shrinking of the List

Today I completed the last of my 'for other people' tasks. Teaching over, I provided feedback on the last student story, and emailed it to her immediately, before I felt compelled to read it again and add to my comments. Jobs like this could go on indefinitely if I allowed them to.

And I, finally, finished editing the images from an overlarge, overindulgent, photo shoot.

Our local blacksmith plans to clean up the front portion of his workshop and turn it into a showroom for the stoves he sells. So he asked me, through Stevie, if I'd take some photos before he does so. Yes, I said, I'd love to. The place is astonishing, filled with all sorts of tools and boxes, old signs and crates. Buried amongst the drill bits I was sure I'd find the very story of blacksmithing. How could I say no?

But I'm no professional photographer, I'm just a woman with a camera who likes stories, so off I went with my non-professional camera, a tripod, and one light, and snapped away for about three or four hours. It wasn't until I uploaded the shots to my computer and looked at them that I thought, 'shit!'

It's taken me over a month to go through them all and decide on which ones to give him and which to discard. I'm crap at post production, photoshop fills me with dread, so apart from a little cropping and lightening/darkening if a photo isn't any good when it comes off the camera there's nothing I can do to save it. The other problem is I worry that the story in my head, and that comes out in my shots, isn't the same as the story in anyone else's. I worry that the photos I take will be boring for everyone else. So one of the reasons it took me so long to edit this batch was that I spent hours staring at each one wondering if this is what he, the customer wants. That I haven't asked for anything in return, let alone money, doesn't render an affirmative answer to that question any less important. I really don't want to give him a pile of disappointing images. But what can I do, the photos I took are the photos I took?

Now my 'other people' tasks are done I am free to do my 'me' tasks. Though tomorrow (actually today now I see the time) I have a meeting at the university about a research assistant position that has come up. If they feel I can do it, and I feel I can do it this free time will be short. While it lasts I'll come and read as many of your blogs as I possibly can, and finish my book (that's the one I'm reading, not the one I'm writing which will have to wait a little longer).

P.S. Did you hear that Pure by Andrew Miller, which I read during my book a day challenge (see last post) and loved, has just won the Costa?

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Wordly Wallow

Early last week I stumbled upon Goodreads, a website dedicated to reading. I suppose it's a bit like Facebook in that it's a bit social, a bit networky, only its purpose is more particular. I haven't fully explored it yet, and I probably never will, but I've joined and begun the ride. It appealed to me because I can never remember what I've read and, thus, have a tendency to buy the same books twice, or even three times. I'll start reading and think: "this seems familiar." And Goodreads allows you to see, once you've input them, all the books you have read, and all the ones you want to read. I could, in theory, do that anyway by a) looking at my shelves or kindle, and b) writing out a list, but lists get misplaced and, well, it takes more than a glance at my shelves to show me what I've read. So I joined Goodreads for no other reason than to keep track of my reading.

Then I discovered that it has the facility to allow you to set yourself a challenge to read a certain number of books a year. I've never, ever, considered how many books I read in a year. I know only that some years I read a lot, and other years I read bugger all. But I'm trying to take myself in hand and live with a bit more purpose. It's all very well being spontaneous. Lovely, in fact, when one is young and has all the time in the world. However it gets less lovely when one reaches my age and finds the most spontaneous thing one manages, on a regular basis, is to have an extra biscuit with a cup of tea. So I set my challenge to read a hundred books this year. If I – spontaneously – read more, all well and good.

Last Wednesday I, rather spontaneously, decided to try and read a book a day for a week. I'd read of the death of George Whitman, owner of  the luscious Shakespeare and Company in Paris, and remembered the story about how he takes in aspiring writers who need a place to stay. They can live in the shop, sleeping on makeshift beds amongst the books, as long as they read a book a day. When I first read about that I thought it impossible. I couldn't imagine being able to do anything else if I was to try and read a whole book every single day. But on Wednesday I wondered if it was more a skill that with practise one could hone. Why not give it a go? I thought. So I did. I only sort of managed it.

On Wednesday I read

without too much trouble, though having not begun until 10 o'clock I didn't finish it till about 4 o'clock on Thursday morning. 

On Thursday I intended to read


arrived in the post. I didn't actually order if for myself, it's a gift, but I read it anyway. In about ten minutes. I began Pure at my usual time of much too bloody late, and when at about half past four on Friday morning I was still only half way through I convinced myself that having read the Michael Rosen I had done my reading duty for that day and went to bed.

On Friday we went to a concert, and I did mean to come home early and finish the Miller. But that didn't happen. I got back at about 2am and, although I did pick up my Kindle, switch it on, and stare at the words, I couldn't focus. So I went to bed. This meant on Saturday I was under a bit of pressure, not to mention tired and faintly hungover (the concert had ended in the pub). But by dedicating the entire day to reading (I didn't even get dressed) I did finish Pure and immediately begin

which I didn't finish that night. 

On Sunday I had to rethink: I hadn't read a book a day but could I save myself from utter failure? I finished the Joan and picked up 

which I did finish before going to bed. Hurrah! On Monday I read

Couldn't find a good sized picture of this one.

which was lovely. And, finally, on Tuesday I read

which was quite a lesson. 

So I didn't manage to read a book a day – so much for spontaneity! – but did read seven books in a week. Whether that means I failed is, I suppose, a matter of perspective. 

Did I enjoy this week of wallowing in literature? Yes, but I don't think I'll do it again. When I read I often stop and stare into space for a while, and it's not for some time after reading a book that I begin to know what it was all about. Reading one book after another robbed me of the space to process those books. The time to stop and let the images come alive. I could tell you, sketchily, what they were about but not much more. It was more like racing than reading, more about the challenge than the books, and I'll probably have to read them all again if I want to really know them. From now on I'll try for two books a week.

Because I'd already read three books this year I'm now ahead of schedule with regard my target, which is slightly worrying. There is nothing more likely to scupper target reaching than complacency, and nothing more likely to instill complacency than being ahead. Whenever I feel I can do something I relax, often to such a degree that I fail to accomplish it. So we'll see. I have a book a friend lent me that I haven't got round to reading yet, the pressure to return it to her is building up, so I'll start that tonight.

Goodreads, then, I like it so far and recommend it to those of you who, like me, could do with a bit of bookish organization.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Mandolin and Guitar, Picasso

Music, argued Nietzsche, is the purest form of art. I think I've read something similar from Picasso and a number of other artists: they would make music, they say, if they could. But they don't have the talent so they paint, write, sculpt. Why "purest"?

No doubt theorists have discussed this to death. I don't want to join them here: research definitions of art and postulate dryly. I just want to feel it. I have seen paintings that stir something physical and make me feel more alive, but music is the only art form that makes me want to dance. I love it, yet I rarely listen to it because when I do I can't concentrate on anything else.

I can't hold a conversation when there's music playing; I can't cook, or read, or write. I can clean the house, so when I remember I put my iPod in a pocket and attach headphones. I can run to music so I do get to listen, and move, to it for an hour most days. On the whole, though, I live a fairly musicless existence. Or did.

There was a time when I was a regular clubber. We lived in Glasgow for a while and there were lots of places a person who likes to dance could go. So I did. I went with a friend, she had different reasons for going to clubs, but that was fine. She would get on with her thing and I would make my way to the dance floor and stay there till the lights came on. Then I'd go home, my friend having long since found what she thought she was looking for and left. For the next few days my life as a young housewife and mother would seem less mundane. My head would be clearer. I'd feel brighter. That was twenty years ago, and it's been a long time now since I've danced regulalry. I'm not sure if that's to do with age or living in the country, there are no clubs here, no dancing opportunities. But if I lived in a city would I still go?

Three Dancers, Picasso

Probably not. In a place full of twenty-somethings I'd feel inappropriate, and as for those over forty nights my experience has been that they're full of desperate men:

"Can I buy you a drink?"
"No thank you."
"Oh go on, it's just a drink."
"It is, but I don't want one."
"You've been dancing for ages, you must be thirsty."
"It's very kind of you, but, no, I'm not."
"Are you a lesbian or something?"
"I don't think so. Do lesbians not get thirsty?"
"Don't get smart with me!"
"Do apologise."
"Come on, let me buy you a drink. Where are you going?"
"To dance."
"One drink?"
"Look," I say, waving my left hand.
"Well, what the fuck are you doing in here?"
"You're leading people on."
"A woman on her own. Where's you're husband?"
"He's at home."
"Does he know where you are?"
"Of course."
"Is he an idiot?"
"Oh, for god's sake! I came here to dance, because I like it. Dance, not drink, not chat. Now, go away."
"Fucking lesbian."
Why does a certain type of man think that's an insult? They seem to be saying: "you want to have sex with the same type of people I do, you freak!"

I do feel I'm being unfair because, in truth, those places aren't about music but about coupling, and being already coupled I don't belong. My clubbing, and thus dancing, days are over. My days of rising with music, though, aren't over at all.

I have found that being in the presence of live music, played by talented musicians who love it, utterly vivifying. I can sit still, listen, watch, and become myself. I've known this for a while but haven't had access.

A few years ago a couple of local musicians started practising on a Thursday night in one of the town's pubs. Word got round and others joined them. They gained an audience. Now on any given Thursday evening the Black Bull jumps. Musicians from far and wide come to join in, sometimes you can't get in to the room because there are so many people with instruments. Guitars, fiddles, accordions, pipes and whistles, last Thursday there was a chap with a double bass. It was fab.

I popped in after our writing class with a couple of my students, we sat in the back-room because there were no seats in the main one and one of us (let's call her Ingrid) can't stand for long. As we chatted I tried to zone out the music so it wouldn't distract me for fear of seeming rude. But once or twice I was grabbed by the sound and had to jump up and go to watch. And when I went to get more drinks I hung about listening for a little longer than was probably polite. When I went out for a fag, ditto. Then Ingrid left so Rosie and I, happy to stand, went into the main room to enjoy the full experience. She knows everyone so we chatted to a few people, but mostly we just listened, and watched. And I wondered if watching a painter paint would be just as enlivening. I'm pretty sure watching a writer write wouldn't.

At one point one of the guitar players walked past with a couple of CDs, and as I'd heard he and his musical partner had just released one, I quizzed him. And then, panning for pounds in the coppery soil of my purse, managed to scrape up the eight quid to pay for the joy of bringing their sound back to my house.

Later, when everyone had left, and I was getting my coat on, the last in the bar, Dave, who I'd bought the disc from came in and said: "Eryl, are you coming?" I thought he meant they wanted to lock up, so I wrapped my scarf around me and followed.

There was a whole crowd outside, and as I emerged they started to move off. I could see Rosie up ahead. I must have looked puzzled because a nice chap came and walked beside me and talked about the evening. On we went up one road and then another before turning into my own.
"Here it is." Said the friendly man.
There was Rosie: "I'm just going to get a CD, he didn't have any more on him."

That made sense. Dave, whose house it was came to the door: "Ah, come in!"
I hesitated, as I had no instrument, like the man who walked beside me, and I already had my CD.
"Eryl, come in."
So  I went in, and there was the double bass in the hall, and there was the double bass player making a mug of tea. And there was someone else rummaging in the freezer for vodka. And there was a glass of red wine pressed into my hand. And there was a chair by a bookcase, and a gesture made to sit.

So I sat, and for the next few hours listened to them play, and discovered what Nietzsche meant.  

Thursday, 5 January 2012

For Weaver

I've lived in rural Scotland for fifteen years, though I hail from grimy semi-urban south-east England. When I first arrived here I thought: "Oh, how lovely, how beautiful, how fresh and green and natural!" And then didn't know what to do. It was a bit like looking at a Constable painting through a steamed-up lens, it didn't do anything, it just sat there looking green and pleasant. So for years I would drive up to Glasgow or Edinburgh on an almost daily basis for all sorts of odd, manufactured reasons. The real reason, that I just needed to stew in some dereliction, felt ungrateful.

Reverse parking into a space two fingers bigger than my car while other drivers sounded their horns impatiently made me feel at home. The acrid smell of the previous night's drinkers' bladder contents drying under a graffitied bridge, ditto. Truth is, beyond admiring its general prettiness, and air untainted by fuming taxis, I couldn't see the point of the countryside. And, anyway, I love the smell of diesel. But then I was paid a visit here in my virtual kitchen by the Weaver of Grass. And, as I was politely brought up, I paid her a visit back, and found myself in deepest Yorkshire.

Weaver is a woman who knows the country intimately, and understands all its layers. She loves it for what it is, and she has shown me, if not quite how to love it, how to appreciate it. How to look at it, listen to it, smell it: see it and feel it in other words. If you haven't done so read this post, in a few short paragraphs it evokes the drama of rural life. Wild, vivid, visceral, it's every bit as grimy and harsh as my beloved run-down city peripheries.

So, anyway, the point of all this is to explain why I'm posting the two following shots. Weaver asked to see more of the paintings (comments, 2 posts back) and this is my way of saying thank you to her.

This first is a painting by my sister-in-law, Sue Shields. It's of Goat Fell on the Isle of Arran (about 25 miles off the Ayrshire coast), and I inherited it.

When my mother-in-law died I was asked to choose anything I'd like from her house, and one of the things I chose was this painting. It had been at the top of the stairs in that house for years and it was always the first thing I noticed when the front door was opened on visits. So I began to associate it with my in-laws' cheery welcomes: the end of long, droning car trips and the start of idle summer breaks. Stuck in traffic on the M6, sweating in my un-airconditioned banger, or inching along the M1 it would seep into my mind like sea air. In fact, we only had to arrange a visit and I would see the painting grinning down at me from its spot on the landing wall. So when it had to vacate that spot I knew I had to take it in. Now it's in my work-room and whenever I glance up at it I am reminded of rolling up tired and hungry, knocking on a glossy green door, and seeing my in-laws beaming with joy at the sight of their grandson (and his parents!) on their doorstep.

This painting is by Bea Last (I think that's her name). I bought it at an open studio event and I think it's called Fire Walk II – though it may be III, and it may be bath. I don't really care what it's called, its title is not what I bought. What I bought is a bit of Bea Last and her dynamic studio. I may not remember her name correctly but I do remember her. Or, at least, her energy and vitality. There was something about her and her workspace that made me feel extra alive. And there was something about the story of the series of paintings this one comes from that made me have to bring one home. Don't ask me what that story is, I can't remember. But whenever I look at the painting I see her with her amazing mane of dark gypsy hair and strong hands walking through fire as if it is no more than a stiff breeze, and I feel a little stronger myself, and able to get on with the damn task. Which is what I have to do now.

I have a pile of exam papers to mark, so I'll be on the quiet side for a few days, but I will be back. This isn't going to be one of those extended breaks I'm prone to.

PS please excuse the fuzziness of both these photographs, it's been so dark today that I just couldn't fully focus.

Update: it's brighter today, so I retook the shots and have had slightly better results, the colours are truer, so I've now replaced the fuzzy ones with brighter ones.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

My friend Katy, a brilliant young writer and philosopher, posted a quote on Facebook this morning and I like it so much I thought I'd share it with you.

Neil Gaiman's New Year Wish:

"I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.

Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You're doing things you've never done before, and more importantly, you're Doing Something.

So that's my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody's ever made before. Don't freeze, don't stop, don't worry that it isn't good enough, or it isn't perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.

Whatever it is you're scared of doing, Do it.

Make your mistakes, next year and forever."

It says what I tried to say in my post yesterday, and so much better.

Christmas kindling

A couple of days ago I looked at the pile of paper sticks I'd made for kindling and thought it looked a bit Christmas treeish, so I placed some pine cones on it (thanks for those, Mary) and plonked a star on top. And it collapsed into a non treeish heap. Not a glorious mistake but, for me, a new one.