Thursday, 17 February 2011

Friends, bloggers, connoissuers - lend me your expert opinions

                                  Jazz musicians supreme - Polar Bear - at the Westminster Reference Library

I’ve clearly been lucky. This would be my T-shirt slogan for the month of February for many reasons. I found myself thinking this, albeit each time with a different slant, first whilst listening to some live jazz in East London last week; again when I compared my workload for the week with the equivalent week in any year of my life so far (the luck had run out); and again when Lindsey over at The Write Words passed on a stylish blogger award (Thank you!).

I believe that luck is a matter of perception, but the first and third of my lucky-feeling moments also took me back to an issue I first properly grappled with during an undergraduate course on aesthetics. This revolves around ideas of connoisseurship and discernment. David Hume, back in the 1700s, argued that we can only become good judges of art if we combine a certain amount of sensitivity with plenty of experience, or in his words, exercise “strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice.”

Sure, a ‘strong sense’ might be required to be able to discern between standards of coffee, wine, jazz, writing (all relevant for me, anyway!), but it was the ‘perfected by comparison’ bit that I was thinking about when I listened to a quartet of players whilst drinking Chilean merlot far too fast. It was the first time for me that a jazz band I was listening to didn’t quite cut it, and so I set about hazily analysing why I felt underwhelmed.

Was it that the pianist felt a little heavy-handed, even in the midst of a wistful, melodic cadenza? Was it that the saxophonist seemed so terrified of taking his eyes off the sheet music pinned in front of him that he forgot to listen? Maybe I was frustrated that the clearly talented drummer never had a chance to shine, and barely deviated from a foot-tappable rhythm.

I realised somewhere during the second bottle of merlot that it was only comparison with the superlative bands I had seen lately that led me to find fault with the performance. There was some quality, of confidence, idiosyncrasy, the naturalness that only comes with years of practice, that was missing in this young group of players. At some point, I had finally attended enough jazz gigs to begin to discern between truly soul-stirring stuff and the music of those still travelling towards that artistic destination.

It reminded me of a pearl of wisdom passed around at university, that one should never drink expensive wine as it would render one’s usual thirst-quenchers undrinkable by comparison.

I am now challenged to pass on my blog award to 15 recently discovered bloggers. I consider myself a novice in blogging world, especially compared to bloggers like Lindsey, and haven’t spent nearly enough time exploring the words and worlds out there on other people’s blogs. I like to think I’ll spot quality when I look, but in the meantime I am gathering nominations for a stylish blogger award. Engage your connoisseurship, those of you who know better than me, and lead me to pastures new, so I can hone my judgement and discover some great bloggers at the same time!

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Map of me

Maps in books always fascinated me as a child – the hand drawn maps in Winnie the Pooh being a favourite. I used to draw my own of our garden and the school grounds, adding all the imaginary elements that reflected how I played in them with my brother and friends. I have a clear map in my head of the world of my novel, and when I ever get around to building a website for it, I plan to use this as the basis. It will have to be drawn by somebody more skilled with a pencil than me though.

When my father announced he was throwing out his collection of maps, saying he no longer had any use for them, I asked him to post them to me instead.  An email arrived with the ominous warning that I should take a large rucksack to the post office if I had to collect the parcel, and couple of days later a twelve kilo box was sitting in my hallway.

My father also wrote to say it had been a strange experience, going through the collection to package them up, as it represented a map of his life. For him there must have been memories associated with every one, of walks and views, holidays, homes, people and feelings. Spreading them out across the floor, recognising so many places myself but also finding alien territory, felt surprisingly intrusive, as if the maps might reveal far more than physical terrains. They really did represent a familiar person to me, bringing a rush of my own memories of walks as well as imaginings of my father in each place I hadn’t been.

One of the defining memories of my childhood, and an image that pops into my head so frequently it is a bit like a mental screensaver, is of my father’s little fingernail tracing the path on a map that we would take through a wood, or across a moor. I can pan out to see us bent over the rectangle of paper, and think of the associated revelations of how to use contour lines to navigate, or the meaning of cartographer’s symbols. I remember my disappointment on discovering that an indication of ancient ruins on a map would not mean I would find a tumbledown castle over the next ridge, or that a fort would turn out to be no more than a bump in a field.

My father’s maps reveal not just spaces he has inhabited, but a chronology of travel, encoded in their price stickers. The oldest OS maps are marked at 40p, and the prices gradually creep up, past the £1 mark, right up to the more recognisable figure of £7.99. I feel the urge to put them in order on a shelf, but folded in their card covers their beauty and meaning are hidden. There’s enough paper there to wallpaper my entire flat (one room is already half-papered in maps), but somehow reducing them do decoration wouldn’t feel right either.

Perhaps the best way to use them will be for inspiration, like a destination lottery. I might find myself in a long-forgotten landscape from my childhood, and who knows what memories I might also find there. I wish they showed the paths my father did choose when he used them in those places, and I wonder if he would remember. I’ll try this myself on the ones where I know I’ve been, since these are not just maps of my father, but the start of a map of me.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Bedside Books and Beryl Bainbridge

I was hesitating over publishing this post, because in it I planned to admit that I’d failed to fall in love with a Beryl Bainbridge novel. Generally I love Beryl: her working method, the cigarette stitched between her fingers, the driest humour that I had to learn to understand with guidance from another fan, my mother. Then a friend who knows my taste in literature told me that Beryl the ‘Booker bridesmaid’ (surely a phrase she would have disparaged, along with the alliteration) would be awarded posthumously a Booker Best of Beryl award, as voted for by readers from amongst her five previously nominated books.

So, having salved my conscience by voting, I can reveal that Bainbridge’s Another Part of the Wood did not capture my imagination quite as I had hoped, let alone held it hostage while I rampaged furiously from cover to cover, which is my usual response to her work. Perhaps partly because of this disappointment, however, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it while I read other things. The characters I had found a little flat and strange are lurking in my imagination after all, silently summoning me back to find out what happens to them. I will honour this grip of theirs and return to the novel, perhaps when I too am lurking in woodland with inscrutable beings (I’m booked on a rural residential writing course in the spring).

Next in my reading pile was a Raymond Carver short story collection, Beginnings, which I picked up in the hope of a brief, beautiful lesson in concision. It turns out the minimal style for which Carver is famous was largely the result of his editor’s labours, and I had accidentally bought the unedited versions of what became the collection What We talk About When We Talk About Love. The editor was right: for the kinds of stories they are, moments and lessons in life, many of the originals do go on too long. More guilt ensued; how could I think ill of Carver, even unedited?

I gave up again and turned to book three: the Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor. I first discovered O’Connor when providing academic support to a friend studying American literature at university. At the time I felt as though a whole world of incredibly satisfying and wonderful literature had been hidden from me while I shook the dust from English classics, and O’Connor bowled me over with Deep South detail and the horrors of the human soul. Reading these on the commuter train proved tricky though, every page being littered with the word ‘nigger’ so that I was constantly aware of who might be reading over my shoulder without understanding the context. After a while even I wanted a change of theme; the book is by my bed, ready to be dipped into rather than digested in one uncomfortable swallow.

Christmas came and with it much enthusiastic quoting by my mother of Howard Jacobson. She’d read his Kalooki Nights for a book group and I borrowed the copy with her underlinings, first listening to her thoroughly enjoyable analysis of what made this book great for her.

At first I was sceptical. The protagonist-narrator seemed to be preoccupied with giving us back-stories, tangents, and explanatory expositions of the kind of man he thought he was, albeit in a style I rolled around in like a wondrous bed of erudition, wit and complex sentence construction. Once I’d got used to the idea that it was a novel in which not a lot would actually happen between time A and time B, I carried on rolling and laughing, pleased to find a voice so confident in its expression and unafraid of a bit of stylistic showing off. This latter seems to be unfashionable just now, or maybe I’ve been reading the wrong books. Despite an unsatisfactory ending, I gave a hooray for a true master of words and felt inspired once more. I’ve yet to read The Finkler Question, for which Jacobson caught the Booker bouquet, but I’m sure my mother will pass it on complete with notes.

I’m going on too long here, but I couldn’t leave out Philip Roth’s The Humbling This I finished all too quickly, and it is a short book, in two distinct parts. By the end I wondered whether all of the first part – a portrait of an actor who has lost his ‘gift’ – was really necessary to the story, and I’ve pretty much concluded that the answer is yes. Roth does the opposite of explanatory Jacobson, so that the reader has to look at the whole and infer any explanations, or cause and effect relationships between the first and second parts, as they please. The second half would stand alone as a tragic tale of misguided love, but memory of the first part renders the following events even more tragic, and does significant work in justifying the ending.

This was another book that I didn’t expect to stay with me since I read it so fast, barely noticing the words or construction, but I find myself peering back into its painful world with a mixture of dislike and empathy for its deeply flawed protagonist. I realise I’ve given little away, but I recommend you spare a few hours and experience it for yourself.

I’ve stocked up at the second hand shop, and I’m sure another slew of mini reviews will follow. For now I have to get through chapter four of Langford’s Basic Photography before I’m allowed any more novels, but somehow that has ended up on the desk while Updike, Roth and Shields have quietly migrated to the bedside table…

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Bleak beauty

I went quiet last week when, for the first time in my life, my day job genuinely took over. I am still struggling to accept this happening, and to accept that I accepted it. It is often the second order worries about first order concerns that get to me the most.

Instead of boring you with the details, and believe me, they are boring, I dug out the photos I got developed recently. I had set these aside while I got over the usual disappointment, and sure enough, I like them more now I can see them for what they are, as opposed to images unrelated to what I perceived when I took them.

I cannot bear the feeling that I am missing an opportunity, and living in London with a full time job, snow tortures me in this regard. The best I could manage before I sloped off for Christmas was a tramp across Hampstead Heath and then a gloomy tour of the old filter beds by the canal in Leyton/Clapton. There's a spooky atmosphere there at the sunniest of times, but in failing light on a Sunday afternoon in December, everything muffled in Miss Haversham cobwebby white, it was quite unnerving.

The first photo (above) was the only one in which Diana achieved what I hoped she would, loaded with an Ilford XP2 Super 400 film which is supposed to give pale elements in a picture a supernatural glow. Not exactly blinding, I admit, but at least the contrast is there.

That was at lunchtime though. I suppose at close to 4pm my eyes adjusted to the winter gloaming and I stomped around forgetting that Diana needs help to let the right amount of light in. What she gave me, though, is a much truer representation of the atmosphere where I was.

This picture perfectly encapsulates my mind's eye memory of walks around Hackney Marshes and the canal at Leyton: creepy, washed out, low on contrasts, with a pylon in every frame. That's not to say I don't enjoy walking there; there is beauty in all that bleakness if you know where to look.

For once the canal water did look beautiful, black and glowering under the bowers of brightness that hung over it. The stoic flotilla of canal boats was still huddled together by the lock, as if proximity to the pub and human beings would warm their icy bottoms.

Being overwhelmed by my wage-earning work has inevitably led to more and more wild escape fantasies, to the point where even the job of heating a snow-covered barge has become appealing. Instead I intend to load Diana with a colour-saturating, light-loving colour film and take her away to a place where my thumb will be warm enough to wind her on without hurting us both.

Thanks for the destination suggestions in response to my last post; I am now investigating opportunities on www.workaway. info in the hope that I can swap accommodation in a beautiful place for working with nature in some form or other. That, and the chance to plough my mental energies back into writing fiction instead of emails. I will, of course, blog from the wondrous habitat in which I find myself when the time comes.