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.


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.


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.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Summer reads and varifocals

Today, I have varifocals, it is strange and not strange. Apparently, high myopes adjust more easily because we are so used anyway to turning our heads to see. I remember getting my first glasses - NHS pale blue plastic - in 1975, aged ten. The optician's was also a jeweller's, I got my ears pierced there, aged fourteen (I think that  scene is fictionalised in The State of Me). I have no idea where my high myopia comes from. My Scottish side are bastards, they have eyes like hawks, and my Asian side, to the best of my knowledge, have minus five, tops.

I am minus eleven.

High myopia is fine and dandy, it can easily be corrected, but I have had all the fun of the fair: retinal tears in both eyes, which I had lasered in San Francisco in early-mid nineties,  one of the scariest events in my life (I fictionalised this in a Chapman short story in late nineties, 'Out Vile Jelly!'); then bilateral uveitis in 2009 - even scarier than laser surgery - with high IOP too - which I am sure my ME was implicated in, though I think also more common in high myopes. I still have regular checks at eye hospital.


Back in May, I read The Qualities of Wood, the debut novel of  Mary Vensel White, which I have just reviewed here, a fine summer read.

Last week, I stopped reading Anita Desai's In Custody, in order to read Chef by Jaspreet Singh, which I'd seen in the library. Am two thirds of the way through. Chef is quirky - reminds me in tone of  Mohammed Hanif's, A Case of Exploding Mangoes - but the points of view change and merge in a way that I find that a little hard to follow. I love that Siachen means 'place where wild roses grow' in Balti.

I am enjoying In Custody - and will go back -  but not as much as her earlier novel Clear Light of Day. Though I love the quote:  'He realised that he loved poetry not because it made things immediate but because it removed them to a position where they became bearable'.

I also got the Impac 2014 award-winning The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez from the library  because Kamila Shamsie recommended on Twitter and said it could be about Pakistan (I'm reading mainly reading South Asian fiction just now). I doubt I will manage to read Juan before he is due back, but my (reading) intentions are always good.

Also been reading great things about Meatspace by Nikesh Shukla, out with The Friday Project today. I did not even know  what meatspace meant 'til a few months ago. Not just varifocals that point to being fifty, my lack of urban slang too.

And I am rather pleased to have tickets for seeing Karl Ove Knausgaard at the book festival.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Books, glorious books, and a moth that looks embroidered

In the last week, the postman has brought three classy books.

I won a copy of Maggie Gee's  Virginia Woolf in Manhattan on Twitter  (Saqi Books asked which woman writer we would most like to meet, I said Ismat Chughtai). Lovely to have this gorgeous hardback to add to my bookshelves. And I very much look forward to reading (though my TBR pile is simply scary).

My publisher, The Friday Project, sent me up Charles Lambert's wonderfully titled With a Zero at its Heart. It's getting great reviews. Though as I am in the fragile process of fictionalising childhood and fathers - at such a snail's place it feels like slow motion, but I will get there, fingers crossed -  that I may hold off on reading it. This meticulously constructed book of fragmented, themed memories is very different to my novella-in-progress - but you don't necessarily want another writer's (brilliant) words to be in your head when you are writing. Though I won't be able to resist and will dip in. It's a beautiful book to touch too.

And I ordered the second edition of Dr Melvin Ramsay's 1986 book on ME: Postviral Fatigue Syndrome: The saga of Royal Free Disease from the ME Association. My original copy from the mid-80s is worn out so I wanted to update. This is such an important, informative and honest text - I just wish more doctors and health editors and journalists would read it and educate themselves. And the references to Professor Behan and Coxsackie virus in west of Scotland in 80s, obviously resonate for me.

And last but not least, I love this moth, it looks embroidered.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Six years on, still getting lovely feedback on novel

Almost six  years on, lovely to get feedback from readers of The State of Me: this from Merry Speece in Ohio:

I just finished reading The State of Me and wanted to tell you how much I liked it. I particularly admire your intelligence and sense of humor and your commitment to advocacy. I enjoyed the story (you are a born novelist), and you did a good job explaining the illness ME. I have been ill for more than 45 years. My mother was also ill; I have no memory of her as well.

Full comment is here.

I see that Merry writes poetry and prose.

And on subject of poetry, I came across Rosemary Tonks in an article last week, fascinating woman, I must look up her work.