Friday, 10 October 2014

'Dans la rue': a few thoughts on Patrick Modiano

Like many, I had not heard of Patrick Modiano when he was announced yesterday as the 2014 winner of the Nobel Literature prize.  He sounds like a lovely man, overwhelmed by the news. I listened to a short interview here in French and this illuminating discussion in English. He was walking in the Jardin du Luxembourg when he got the call he'd won.  I love that he was 'dans la rue' when he heard the news. 'Dans la rue' is one of the first, most simple phrases you learn in  French and  Patrick Mondiano is 'dans la rue' when he hears his words have just won him the Nobel prize for literature. I also love - from a writer's perspective -  that his work fuses autobiography and fiction and his books are only 100 pages, shorter than the length of the typical publishing house model - probably that is why he has not (yet) been widely translated into English.

I can still read French novels - slowly, slowly - if they are not too taxing. I downloaded a Kindle sample of Modiano's Pour que tu ne perdes pas dans le quartier yesterday but it will most likely be on the virtual shelf for a good wee while with all the other samples. (I started reading  Véronique Olmi's Bord de mer in paperback a couple of years ago but it was too bleak to finish.  I may go back though.)

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I was living in France 32 years ago, exactly, I'd just started my year abroad, the third year of my joint Honours French and English degree. I was ill from the start, I'd gone off to France, not knowing I had picked up the Coxsackie B4 virus (there had been an outbreak of this enterovirus at home in the west of Scotland). The rest, as they say, is history. I just  hope the next 32 years bring some real hope to people with  ME. I believe that if I had not spent the first decade fighting my illness, pushing myself, I would be more recovered than I am today. I didn't do GET, it was not yet invented, and I would have refused to do it, but I did do real damage by 'forcing' myself better even when I was clearly still very ill. So, please, can I say again if you have classic ME, rest, rest, rest, do not go near GET, the bizarre therapy peddled by those bizarre medics. They don't know what they are talking about. Listen to the doctors who *do* know, the informed ones, the educated ones.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Colm Toibin & Hanif Kureishi & Bach

This is just perfect from Colm Tóibín, a five minute film on writing generally, and specifically on fictionalising family trauma. I agree with him about having to write the loss: using fiction to fix it and 'get it back'. A kind of rearranging, putting things back in place. I strongly feel my own writing of fiction is a response to catastrophe. I also love his comment about being able to go back to a piece of writing ten years later (what I'm currently doing, my progress is a just faster than glacial but I'm happy with the words I'm getting down). And I've been listening to Hanif Kureishi snippets on Radio 3's 'Essential Classics' - he always has gems. He says that in a world of 'lies and silence', we need art and music and novels - especially novels - to tell us the truth (1 hr and 45 mins in). I've fallen in love with this Bach piece - Prelude in B minor - from the same program (1 hr and 38 mins in). And writing this I have realised I have something in common with both these writers: like Colm Tóibín I lost my father at a young age (though I was younger), and like Hanif Kureishi I have a Pakistani father. I don't think, though, I have anything in common with Bach.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Five days after the morning after

It seems like months ago we voted to stay or go - I had a tear in the polling booth, it felt like destiny was weighing on you -  a real chance to make a fairer country - but not even a week has passed since the Scottish referendum. Last Thursday night, it felt like Hogmanay, but you didn't know when the bells would be, or if there would even be bells. I sat up 'til just after midnight but had to go to bed, woke up at six, so nervous, saw a FB message from a friend in Australia, saying, I don't understand all these Nos, my heart sank, and I turned on television to see that No had just won. Alex Salmond made a speech. I wept. My mother - I was staying with her for a few days while my stepdad was in respite care -  knew before me - she'd been up during the night. Friday was a day like no other I have experienced: a tangible grief being felt by 1.6 million people in Scotland, while 2 million others were celebrating, or, if they'd voted No out of fear, thanking their lucky stars. Worth noting, again, I think, that many of us who voted Yes - I think almost half - are not nationalists We simply want a better country, a better everything.

But there was  an 85% turnout, which is, in itself, a wonderful thing. Most of my family voted Yes, half of my friends voted No. There were interesting discussions to be had, certainly, but no one fell out.

Of course, the extra powers promised - aka the vow/bribe made to Scotland by a sleekit, panicked Westminster galloping up north when it thought Yes might just win - were instantly clipped onto wider constitutional reform - the question of only English MPs voting on English issues - when Cameron made his victory speech early on Friday morning. When - if at all - we will see those extra powers remains to be seen. I'm not holding my breath. As Lesley Riddoch said, we've been put to the back of the constitutional queue.

I read so much before and after the 18th, it has all blurred into one, but I thought this was a good article by Jonathan Freedland, the day after.  Also enjoyed this yesterday, by Iain Macwhirter.  I am gutted we didn't get independence, but the referendum was a fascinating event to live through and I will keep my polling card forever. I do believe that politics in the UK will never be the same again. SNP membership has doubled since the result on Friday. The Greens and Scottish Socialist Party are enjoying increases too. Labour is standing in the corner in disgrace for its part in joining with Team Tory to scare the bejesus out of us if we voted Yes.

My stepdad came home from respite on Monday and my mother asked him what he thought of the referendum  results. He replied, What referendum?  Knocking his forehead with his knuckles, he said to me: My brain is mud. My intelligence is still here, but my memory is not. He had a postal vote, but has no recollection.  Later, as he poured himself a wee whisky, he shouted through from the kitchen, Where is Arran?

I've had a *horrible* few days of illness, classic ME, and was mostly in bed for three days (tweeting from my pillow). Thirty years on, this is beyond a fucking joke. Still, on Monday I had an hour in my parents' garden reading, an Indian summer indeed (though it's dark now by half seven).

The article in the photo is from The Sunday Herald - the only newspaper to back independence - well worth reading, by Paul Hutcheon. And I ordered 'Autobiography of an Unknown Indian' by  Nirad C Chaudhuri after reading Ian Jack's very interesting pre-Indyref article last week: Is This the End of Britishness?  Personally,  while I love some things about Britain - our precious NHS - increasingly under threat - is a gem of gems - I've never felt particularly British. I feel Scottish, emotionally and psychologically, though my outlook by default is international. My mother is Scottish, my late father was an Indian-born Pakistani (I'm slowly exploring my Pakistani side, such as it is, in my current writing project). My stepfather is Danish, my sister-in-law is German. My most meaningful longterm relationship has been with someone not from UK. Moreover, the referendum to me was not about Britishness or Scottishness, or anti-Englishness - the worst accusation slung around by media - it was about fairness and social justice. I knew we weren't going to wake up in Norway, but a Yes vote would have surely given us the template for a more equal society.
 *
I'm home now and desperately hoping the baby squirrels haven't been hurt by the ever-present, prowling gangster neighbourhood cats. And I just love the poem 'The Morning After' by Christine de Luca: here it is being recited by Scottish 16 and 17-year-olds, first-time voters. Indeed, 'there are dragons to slay whatever happens'.

And here are the results in full. But, as Jonathan Freedland above said, 'When close to half the population of a nation inside a union wants to break away, the state of that union is not strong. It is fragile'.

There are, for sure, interesting times ahead.

*Update And this by Gerry Hassan worth reading too.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

The Istanbul Review: Issue 5

Delighted that the gorgeous The Istanbul Review Issue 5 is now on sale in Looking Glass Books, a wonderful indie book store in Edinburgh. I have flash fiction in this one. This issue also has writing by Elif Shafak and Lesley Glaister. And the stunning cover artwork - and art within - is by Canan  Berber. The Istanbul Review gives 2.5% of its profits to NGOs across the world promoting literacy.


Monday, 18 August 2014

Fact is stranger than fiction (you never know who's on your train)

The weather up north was terrible, but the scenery is always sublime,  Loch Morlich is a gem.



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In Rothiemurcus, my nephews caught a rainbow trout, my mother baked it with dill and garlic.  One lunchtime, my stepdad got stuck in the bath, pure sitcom territory, if you didn't laugh you would never stop crying, he is going deeper and deeper into his own twilight, his world of vascular dementia. Though, one night, he made a joke about  'indypandence', should Tian Tian the panda at Edinburgh Zoo give birth. Somewhere in his brain, puns still work. My 9-year-old nephew made me a loom band. My 12-year-old nephew told me the worst swear word he knows. My sister-in-law gave me a gorgeous painting of a green and blue cat, a belated 50th gift, she has been working on it for almost nine months, loving it and hating it, painting over it. It's just like writing, I said, at some point it has to be finished. You have to stop. I took the boys to the nearby cinema - we have a yearly trip -  to see Guardians of the Galaxy. There was a fire alarm - false alarm -  half an hour in, both boys left carrying their popcorn. I left mine on the floor.

*

I always come home from being away feeling battered all over, travelling does this. Post-exertional malaise (PEM) is the hallmark symptom of ME.  I spent 70% of the weekend in bed, resting from the return journey. I still have a lot of muscle pain, but I'm simply used to it. Even a five-day trip up north leaves you feeling 'jet-lagged'. And I spent the first day up there mainly in bed, getting up only to go out for fish and chips in the evening. This is how it is. After more than thirty years, it is utterly normal to my family that I don't join in morning events/activities, no chance, I surface at noon, always needing a couple of hours on waking to ease into the day, just being with everyone is exhausting too, socially. My brother and sister-in-law and nephews went fishing in the morning, back for lunch, swimming in the afternoon, and the next day river tubing, and all I had done was gone for a massage and watched the birds and fed them brown bread, spoiling them, the way I spoil the birds (and squirrels) in Edinburgh. At the back door of the holiday house, I saw blackcaps and rabbits and a wee persistent robin and muckle crows, they look so free-range and muscular, those Highland crows.

*

On my way up north, a week ago, I had to get a bus from Perth, the trains had terminated because of biblical flooding in Kingussie. The information at Edinburgh Waverley train station, on the journey display boards, was there *may* not be buses at Perth for onward journeys. Advice given was to travel the next day instead (with an even worse weather forecast).  I had to ask four different station employees for the truth about onward buses before being told that East Coast passengers would be assured bus transfers from Perth, but Scotrail passengers may not. Luckily, I was East Coast, I was joining the King's Cross train.

From Edinburgh to Perth, a very chatty, older gay man helped pass the time, but I was shattered, my head was shutting down and even when  I closed my eyes, he kept talking. He told me he wintered in Egypt, and Istanbul was one of his favourite cities. I almost told him I have a (very) short story coming out very soon in the beautiful Istanbul Review, but I didn't. I often prefer to listen to others - especially, strangers - talk, rather than talk about myself, part of the armour I've built from being ill for so long. The minute you mention ME, you know they will most likely have read/heard nonsense in the media. In fact, my experience of how ME has been reported over the years has made me cautious about believing *anything* I read. When you see the willingness of health editors to believe all that the Science Media Centre spins, you realise that you can't believe a lot of what you read, in general.

Everything comes down to narrative and who has the most power/sway.

By the time we got to Perth I knew I would not want to sit beside this chatty man on the onward bus - sweet as he was - as I simply could not chat any more.  Though I was relieved when he lifted my case down for me as my arms were like rags. As promised, there were actually buses. A small miracle. One was going directly to Inverness, the other, a  forty-seater minibus, was stopping at the in-between stations. The driver was putting luggage down below and I got stuck behind a guy trying to get his bike on, the driver had to take the front wheel off to fit it in. I was impatient  that I was having to stand, standing is often worse than walking for people with ME. I was thinking maybe I should sit down on my case, but this often ends in the case skating away vertically from underneath you.

I turned round to look for a bench or wall and the man suddenly standing behind me looked very familiar, and it slowly, slowly dawned on me that it was Professor Simon Wessely, though I couldn't be sure. It's harder than you might think to recognise someone you've never met from photos. He wasn't, I don't think, wearing glasses, but it looked very like him. He looked right through me, so I imagine that he didn't recognise me from my blog or Twitter or the BBC Alba documentary (which he may have seen, it re-aired at the beginning of the year,  the  neurologist who diagnosed me with ME in 1984, Professor Peter Behan, also appears). Or maybe he did recognise me, but chose not to speak.  But I simply have no idea if he knew who I was or not. My profile as a writer with ME is far lower than that of the knighted psychiatrist who has done so much since the late eighties to distort the narrative of my illness - Ramsay-defined  ME. 

I'd recently tweeted this clear-eyed, non-sentimental article in the Telegraph by Naomi Whittingham, who has had very severe ME since the age of 12, a heartbreaking read. Patients in the 25% group such as Naomi have been abominably let down by the psychiatric lobby.  All of us have been let down. I often shudder at how I would have coped if I'd been exposed to this particular school of doctors - known as the Wessely school - when I was at my most ill and most vulnerable. Luckily, this was before their time, and I was referred to the neurology clinic at the Southern General in Glasgow, which in the 1980s was doing research into Ramsay-ME. Naomi also appears in the illuminating documentary Voices from the Shadows. In the Telegraph article, Naomi says she would love to make a cup of tea or go to the sea if she were well enough, just for one day. I wish she could see Loch Morlich. (I've also just read Naomi's own comment on her article, here, in response to others' comments.)

Back to Perth:  I sat halfway up the minibus and realised that Simon was sitting at the front beside a woman who had short, auburn hair and I thought that must be his wife, Dr Clare Gerada, maybe there was a conference on in the Highlands, though it seemed an odd time of year. It was simply surreal and dreamlike to be driving through the Highlands, with Simon Wessely at the front of the bus. I've never written anything on social media I would not say to him in person and this would have been a fine opportunity. But what do you say in this situation? What do you actually say?

I was also struck by the ordinariness of it all. A man and his wife on a bus, with no one but me having a clue about the influence the man has had on the building up of a particularly disruptive - and dangerous - medical narrative. And in front of me, literally, the  juxtaposition of this narrative and the gorgeous Scottish landscape, which is so dear to me, so dear to all of us.

The next day, full of my nephews whom I had not seen since New Year, I decided the whole thing was unlikely, this was a couple who just resembled Simon and Clare, but I checked if there were any medical conferences in Pitlochry, where they had got off  (along with the chatty man). I couldn't find anything. Then, feeling  a little like a detective,  I looked at their tweets, I do not follow either of them on Twitter, though Dr Gerada follows me. I saw that both of them had been tweeting about Scotrail and the Perth-London service. I knew then I had not been mistaken. Fate had thrown me onto a minibus with Simon Wessely for an hour,  but in the end there was just silence.



Tuesday, 29 July 2014

I don't know what to say about Gaza

I don't know what to say about Gaza, writers should have words, but I have no words. I just want to scream with despair and rage and grief when I watch the news (I watch Channel 4 and Al Jazeera's coverage,  have given up on the BBC). I can't go on marches (though how effective marching is, any more, I don't know, though it demonstrates to Gazans that many in the world are aghast at their suffering). I already boycott Israeli produce in my own tiny way, I never buy fruit or vegetables that,  to my knowledge, are grown there. I have donated to this relief agency,  Medical Aid for Palestinians. And I've signed this open letter to David Cameron. But it all, to be honest, feels pointless, Israel goes on killing with impunity, it seems there is no line it can't cross. I feel powerless to help in any real way. I don't know how anyone in Gaza stays sane. I just don't know. The average age of the 1.8 million population is seventeen, approximately a quarter of a million are children under ten. Last night, one news bulletin showed a hospital ward with horribly injured children, and a forlorn paper lantern hung up for Eid celebrations. Such details of trying to have 'normality' in the face of terror and devastation break your heart.

Jon Snow's short film is well worth watching, his reflections on reporting live from there last week.

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I have to look for meaning in other people's words, as I have lost my own words, I feel more numb and uncomprehending than ever. There is much to read. I recommend the following:

Giles Fraser, a priest in South London London: How can journalists be objective when writing about dead children?

Aaron Bady, a post-doc fellow who teaches African Literature at University of Texas: Texas Stands with Gaza.

Tariq Ali in the London Review of Books: Disgrace.

Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif's recent op-ed in the LA Times: Dead Palestinian Children in Gaza Tell Story of Impunity.

And Israeli journalist Gideon Levy in Haaretz:  It's All Hamas' fault, right, Israel?

Friday, 11 July 2014

Beware of giving 2 star reviews, it might get a bit Jeanette Winterson...

The other evening I wrote this review on a book site - the book I am describing is non-fiction, a book about books:

'I realise I am in the minority in feeling underwhelmed by this book, it just did not engage me at all. In the end, I just skimmed it. Was disappointed, after the great reviews I'd seen.'

I rated the book as 2 stars, which corresponds to 'It was okay'. (I have in the past given 2 star reviews to acclaimed novels such as David Vann's 'Legend of a Suicide'. And 1 star to Ian McEwan's 'Solar'. I wasn't specifically damning this one book.)

I thought nothing more of it, I was simply disappointed in a book and probably annoyed I had used energy to go to the library to pick it up, as it did not, in my opinion, live  up to the very good reviews, both in the press, and from readers' sites.

I was, of course, very surprised when the writer - we have never met, I don't know him - got in touch with me the next day to tell me rather abruptly he was disappointed the book didn't engage me, and was 'baffled and frustrated'  that I had 'slated it on the internet', having only skimmed it, and 'skipped chunks'.

I was unsure whether to respond at all, but I tried very hard to pour oil on troubled waters, and sent a very polite response saying it was a gross exaggeration to say I had 'slated it on the internet'. I pointed out I had made it clear I was in the minority in not loving the book, and that I thought it  inappropriate for him to contact me about this, in the first place, it was really a bit silly, but I would take the review down since it had caused him such vexation. But then that would feel like censorship.

He apologised if he had offended me and said he would of course not expect me to censor my comment, but defended his getting in touch with me with: '... we live in an era where, if  you  diminish another writer's work on a public forum ... without doing them the courtesy of reading their book properly, the writer can respond to you directly'.

This made me angry - before, I had been more bemused. It was all feeling a bit Jeanette Winterson. 

I felt forced into telling him that he was missing the point, that I skimmed the book because it didn't engage me, *not* because I didn't read it properly. That's what happens when you don't like a book,  you skim it. Or abandon it. And that is what book review sites are for. A place to be honest. I could have been more negative about the book but chose not to be. I would never deliberately hurt another writer's feelings,  and even with books I don't love I usually try to find something good to say. Surely that is the point? I am also always generous in my appreciation of writing I do love.

I skimmed the book again in case I had  missed something, and was interested to come across the writer in conversation with an old friend. The old friend says to the writer: 'I think you are one of the angriest man I have ever met'.

Maybe that explains it.

And his self-importance over such a short, innocuous review  made *me* angry.

But I took the review down. 

Like I don't have a million more important things to be concerned about.

But a few hours later, I felt  pretty irked that I was censoring myself, why should I?

So I posted a slightly longer review, expanding my initial thoughts, trying very hard not to be misconstrued:

 'I recently got this book from the library after seeing it positively reviewed on Twitter during #bookadayuk last month. Other readers have loved it, and I realise I am in the minority in feeling underwhelmed, but it just did not engage me. I was perhaps exhausted the nights I tried to read it, but in the end, I just skimmed it, I could find no big hook, though it is very much the kind of book you can dip into. Still, I was honestly disappointed, after the great reviews I'd seen.'

It has, though, made me think that when we respond to novels and films now, we are not just responding to the work but the inevitable hype that accompanies everything. Was I more vexed at the glowing reviews (misleading, in my opinion), or the actual book?

When books shortlisted for major prizes are a let-down, are we 'annoyed' at the book, or the reviews?

It's hard to say. Both, probably. 

And of course, writing is subjective, there will always be disagreement.

I wasn't sure whether or not to write this post - I don't do *Twitter/online wars  - who bloody needs it?! - but I was pretty upset yesterday at being challenged, as if I were some kind of thoughtless critic who was being negative without justification. And why was this writer so perturbed, anyway, by my tiny, little informal review, when he's getting mostly wonderful reviews?

It makes no sense.

This man may well be charming in real life, I have no idea, but his getting in touch with me left quite a bad taste in my mouth. A bit controlling for my liking. Of course, no one likes poor reviews, and it is super-frustrating if readers don't get your book.

Of course,  when your book comes out it is the centre of your world - I remember that feeling well! - but is not the centre of everyone else's world. That is a lesson you learn. But this man should know better, he works in publishing, he is well-connected, but perhaps *that* is what this is all about, a sense of entitlement? I think he couldn't accept that another writer would be so cavalier as to skim his book, even although it is not illegal to skim a book that doesn't grab you.

I really did try to like it.

*He tweeted me in the first instance to ask me to please follow him so he could send me a 'polite' DM (direct message), which frankly astonished me. I guess this is 'the era we live in', you ask a stranger to follow you so you can then  message them to berate them about the review they wrote. I never go above following 500 on Twitter, it is my golden rule, so I asked him to email me instead if he wished. Which he did immediately. He has since deleted his (perfectly polite) public tweets to me, so I hope this means he realises the whole getting in touch was a bit silly.