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Book as baby

When I was in labour with my first daughter, everything progressed quite quickly. And then it all sort of stopped. Looking back, and with the hindsight of a second pretty quick labour and delivery, I know what happened the first time around: I got scared. My anxious and ever-cogitating mind overrode my body, which pretty much ‘knew’ what it was doing, and seized everything up. Eighteen hours later, the baby was dragged out of me. She didn’t cry, because she wasn’t breathing.

In the end all was well, but there was an anxious wait. Of course, if the umbilical cord had been left attached it would have been less so, because the baby would have still been receiving an oxygenated blood supply (at least that’s how I think it works). But in these days of quick, quick, quick, the cord is severed in short order. It left me traumatised. It definitely affected the baby too.

As I stall deep into the second draft of my first ‘book’, I realise that what has stopped the motor running is, once again, fear. Fear of the material, of not being good enough, of letting people down, of living with pain to deliver a book that won’t breathe. What I must remember is that this is labour and there’s no going back. There are no guarantees in going forward either, bringing anything into the world is always a risky business.

I know this all might sound a touch dramatic. It’s not meant to read that way. I can only speak as I find, and that’s how it is, right now. All I really know is: there’s no going back.

Manhattan Skyline by E. P.

Manhattan Skyline by E. P.

So far this week: two lovely things and a not so lovely one

Firstly, the bad and ugly in one hit: the bike was stolen from work whilst I was teaching an evening class on Monday night.  I must admit I blinked into the darkness at the gap where the bike should have been when I came out of the building.  In point of fact, I may have looked rather like a mole.  I am sure I left it there, I thought to myself.  Confirmation that I had indeed left it there came on closer inspection, which revealed my cycle helmet lying on the floor alongside the lock that had been cut clean through with bolt cutters or some such.

Honestly?  I am surprised a bike has not been nicked from me before now.  There is a Recycle Bike shop in the town, supported by the council, so I will be off there as soon as I am able to see if they have got some derelict bone-shaker that needs a home.

The good: yesterday a beautiful book arrived in the post featuring a picture I took about two and half years ago.  The theme of the book was the window and, amongst the photography, there are also poems by James Joyce (who knew), Robert Frost and another favourite Rainer Maria Rilke, as well as the window in art.  Predictably, there’s rather a lot of those Edward Hopper scenes with a woman and a window, of which I am not fond, preferring his gas stations or bars.  But there is also this.

Master’s Bedroom by Andrew Wyeth

And that image is such a lovely thing in itself that I’ll leave the other until tomorrow.

Just because lovely things come along like buses, doesn’t mean you have to be in a big rush about it…


There are lots of people, who may or may not check into this blog from time to time, who have been massively encouraging and supportive of my latest project that involves transatlantic flight and I just want all of you to know that you are much appreciated, perhaps more than I let on. I have been sent books, and other contraband, lent a rucksack, been given pep talks and other deeply sensible practical advice, all of which helps me out, means a lot and sustains me.

Today, I just wanted to share this beautiful and unique trip log that that I have been given by the lovely Reform in her bookbinding persona. I don’t quite trust the tinternet technology at times, so this is going to be really helpful, along with all the other kindnesses I feel I don’t quite deserve but am blessed to receive. Thank you all, truly.




@ The Library

The library is all RFID ed up now, which basically translates as the punter does all the work, badly. This results in long queues at the Information Desk, where we wait humbly in line to find out:

  • Why when we have paid our fines, they appear unpaid
  • Why our reserved book is still not available
  • Why we are setting the alarm off on the way out
  • If they will unlock the deposit box where we have accidentally deposited books before officially returning them
  • And so on… including the meek, the halt and the lame who can’t make head nor tail of the new fanglement.

Those behind the desk have a worrying tendency to be both uninformed and unhelpful with a distinct reluctance to leave the power zone of the Information Desk. Even though they are largely neither use nor ornament. It’s probably not their fault, they are cheap labour with no clue.

I have found ways to circumvent some of these annoyances. Firstly, where possible I buy crappy old books that are ex-library stock. Secondly, I return my books through the library letterbox on the street, marked BOOKS. This orifice appears to be officially shut, but I have found a way of prying it open to deposit my books without resorting to the RFID terminal.

This post is just a small mark of protest in the sea of technology swamping the human exchange. Still, there remain things that even machines can’t do: retrieve my renegade returns from the letter box and paint a picture of a racehorse.

Thank goodness for that. Here’s a picture from a book I bought at the library this week, called ‘Racehorses in Art’. A few pages have been torn out and there are some childish scribbles saying ‘I love…’ indecipherable.

Catching the winter virus, mechanisation of the human experience, all of these outrages can be soothed with a picture of a nice horse.

 Lynwood Palmer: The Duke of Portland's Six Stallions - detail of St Simon (foreground) and St Serf 1900

Lynwood Palmer: The Duke of Portland’s Six Stallions – detail of St Simon (foreground) and St Serf 1900

Letting go

of an ideal of perfection is equally and concurrently liberating and scary

but the older I get the more I see the possibilities contained within the mistaken, the broken, the misshapen and the downright ugly

maybe because I have to

nonetheless, in the mess and the lack of punctuation, under the dust and dog hair, in the grit and the mud and the blush and the sweat of it and the tumbling incoherent words of everything

and all of it

so, (and) you should never start a sentence with that word, don’t you know?

so, today I may have taught a class with all of the above. And ketchup round my mouth.

and teeth on loan like overdue library books

Breathtaking Landscapes from Old Books by Guy Laramee

The Book is Dead. Long Live the Book!

What we find in books is like the fire in our hearths. We fetch it from our neighbours, we kindle it at home, we communicate it to others, and it becomes the property of all.


I’ve been reading on the Kindle for PC for a while, but have been upgraded to a Kindle, before Kindle upgrades itself again – to include colour graphics – which the Kindle for PC offered anyway.

There’s no doubt it’s a complicated business. I’ve been disappointed there’s no backlight on the Kindle, which of course the Kindle for PC does have but, overall, reading from the Kindle itself is a lot more user-friendly than reading from a screen: less tiring on the eyes.

And actually, it’s the way forward isn’t it? I am not some burn-the-books fanatic, but spreading the word is a lot easier, a lot more cost-effective and a lot more democratic via electronic devices than through print press.

There’s a sadness about that too though. Print creates jobs, but it also uses up resources, so to take the sustainable view, using Kindle and suchlike to read your basic ‘print’ matter must be better in the long run surely? But tell that to those people involved in the publishing, printing, distribution and book retail sectors and see what they say.

People say: oh, I love books. The 3Dness of it, the tactile nature of the experience, the smell, the sense of where I am in it all when I turn the pages. I can lose myself in a book. Equally, I hear the same said of the Kindle. Well I hear people say – I love my Kindle. There doesn’t seem to be quite the range of kinaesthetic experiences available to someone kindling their way through a novel.

On the other hand you can store so much matter on a Kindle. Now I know there are many people who love books enough to keep everything they ever read: I come from a family of bibliophiles who, if they happen to read this (and I kind of hope they don’t), will be gnashing their very teeth at the heresy of this kind of post. Bibliophiles have shelves and shelves of books and that’s lovely, if you’ve got the space. But what if you don’t? And what if you are living with a bibliophobe – someone who finds books untrustworthy at best, and oppressive at worst. Well, a bibliophile will say that the phobe needs correcting in the error of their ways. And I agree that to not enjoy reading is to miss out on one of life’s great pleasures. However, if you want someone to try something out perhaps a handheld gadget is less threatening than a 300 page book, or twenty. It’s a thought. Maybe there’s an aphorism to be had in all of this conflict: that to be well-read these days does not have to mean you have to keep lots of books.

Perhaps, if I try some premembering here, a book will become a luxury item, only warranting a print run for the production of beautiful images and text, or leather-bound collector’s limited editions, or a vanity publishing project, which is where the whole shebang started after all. In fact now, as people can self-publish straight to ebook, we are returning full circle to writers using print to self-publish to reach a wider audience: William Blake, Virginia Woolf, Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau to name but a few…

Books are desirable, but they also need to be accessible, sustainable and available when you want them. The Kindle is a great device for all those reasons, but it’s still not a book. Rather than entertain the notion that a Kindle’s subtext is about tossing paperbacks on the bonfire, I prefer to think of it as wholly in the spirit of the Voltaire quote this post started with. The differences between the two media are a cause for celebration, not a reason to start a fight.

Malcolm X’s mother

I caught an excerpt from a compelling new book on the radio this morning. Manning Marable’s ‘Malcolm X – A Life of Reinvention’ can be listened to again here. My ears pricked up when the announcer said that the author had died shortly after it was completed. Well, it must have taken some writing then I thought, but the truth is he died of sarcoidosis in April this year.

The book is an attempt to rewrite the legend of Malcolm X and I understand it has attracted some criticism on that account, being described as an ‘abomination’ and containing ‘serious errors’. And this is where it becomes fascinating. Marable, a Professor at Columbia University, is writing what he believes to be true about his subject. This may not tally with his subject’s truth in his autobiography, or that of all the subsequent biographers, but the veracity, or otherwise, is not what especially interests me. It is what Marable believed happened and the differences between his view and that of others that is engaging in itself.

In the first episode for example, Marable writes about Malcolm X’s mother, Louise Little. The mother of 7 children with Earl Little, Malcom’s father (Malcom was the fourth child), Louise’s story was terrible to hear as Marable writes it.

After Earl is killed, officially in a streetcar accident although rumour persisted that it was at the hands of racists, Louise survives with her 7 children in penury. She becomes pregnant and, after giving birth to her eighth child, loses her mind and is committed to a mental institution for 24 years.

Marable paints a pitiful scene: before Christmas she is found barefoot in the street, wandering, clutching her illegitimate baby to her breast…

And, with a little further research the different truths tumble out. Malcolm was ashamed of his mother’s mental illness and rarely visited her, Malcom and his siblings strived to finally gain her freedom after 24 years, Louise treated Malcolm differently because his skin was paler than his siblings (Louise’s father was a white man who raped her mother), Malcolm felt his mother had betrayed his dead father by becoming pregnant by another man. There’s plenty of room for reinvention there alright.

I wonder what Louise Little’s book would have said about it.

Mr & Mrs X

A Gift

I was given an unexpected present on Monday: The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

It is a very beautiful book. The perfect length and structure for a tired brain like mine, and with *deep joy* author illustrations. Thank you to my wise Finnish friend for sharing it with me.

And the story, well it is profound. I need to read it a few times to be certain, but it is about the human condition and the nature of friendship and love; this being partly related through the Little Prince’s taming of a fox and care for a rather difficult rose with four thorns – her only defence against the world.

I suggest the best thing to do would be to read the book, but in the meantime I will share the fox’s secret with you.

He tells the Little Prince: It is only with one’s heart that one can see clearly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.

Being Wrong

This is a good topic for this week. For various reasons. I said recently to students something along the lines of:

How do we learn? By being right? I think not.

I want to be in a classroom where people have equal value no matter what they do or do not know. Where you can ask a question without feeling uncomfortable, where you can express yourself without fear of judgement. Yet this goes against human nature. We like to be right, being wrong can cause us great discomfort. It can cause us to examine our values, our identity, our beliefs. No wonder we all want to be right – it’s so much safer.

I remember Thatcher said “The lady’s not for turning.” A statement for a resolute leader? Yes. A statement for an evolving human being? Maybe not.

So when Kathryn Schulz popped up on Woman’s Hour yesterday with her book “Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error” to discuss the opportunities shrouded in the hot shame of wrongness, I was quite pleased.

I was recently wrong. Well that’s leaving aside Workforce et al. I recently misunderstood Vygotsky’s Theory of Zonal Proximal Development and committed it to paper. I subsequently did not like being wrong. It initially gave me an unpleasant and visceral internal reaction. But when I got over that and looked at it properly I realised I would never be wrong about that again.

I will not hold Vygotsky’s ZPD close to my heart henceforth either, busily being grateful for the theory and my knowledge of it. I will only move on to the next thing that I get wrong and who knows where it will all end, but (and this, I think, is the point) it will definitely be interesting.

In the link to the book, there is a video. I played it to the class. It is interesting how when asked “How often are you wrong?” the respondents batted the question away like a fly. Ha ha, he he he, no problem. But when asked what they had been “Most wrong about?” there were pauses, the language broke down, people started visibly struggling. Wrong as a concept is do-able. Being personally wrong is far, far harder to embrace.

So many books and not enough time

I am having a bit of a crisis of confidence in fiction at the moment having half-read two (good) novels but seemingly having run out of steam to finish them.  Then I was looking at the  Times 100 Best Books of the Decade last weekend and I was intrigued by the one that topped the lot:  “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy.  This story set in a post-apocalyptic landscape follows the journey of a man and his son to the sea.  I like novels about journeys, but I am worried about this one given the seemingly unremittingly bleak subject matter and setting.  I also read one deeply reflective review on Amazon that eventually concluded that, at the conclusion, he wanted to throw the book across the room.  Which kind of sums up my (hopefully temporary) problem of fiction.  It is so aggravating to persevere with a book, to enter someone elses fictional world and engage with the characters and narrative, only to be horribly unrewarded for your effort at the end.  That may sound like I am desperate for some kind of hugely dramatic crescendo or twist in the tale; I promise I am not.  I just want, as the reviewer on Amazon said of “The Road” the story to be more than the “sum of its parts”.  I want it to stay with me, to challenge my thinking, to change my views and to be accessible.  I hate finishing a book only to think – well that was interesting – next! and not ever recalling a word of it thereafter.  I don’t want reading novels to be a transient experience and that is why I am stuck.  I should finish the two I am part way through out of respect to the narrative, but the suspicion I am going to be dissatisfied by the last page is hindering progress.  Time is in such short supply that committing to a novel of 200+ pages is a considerable investment, which is probably a sad reflection on modern life rather than constructive comment on any novel.

Anyway, rather than bleating on further, I have an idea!  Having not read “The Road” I can’t say if this is the best line from it, but when I read it in the paper I thought it was pretty damn profound and made me stop and think for a while.

“He knew only that the child was his warrant.  He said: If he is not the word of God, God never spoke.”

The film of the book is out in January (nice depressing sort of month for it).  No skipping the book for the film for me though; I could not sit through the trailer.

So to help us decide what we really should read, how about a Pecha Kucha approach: twenty slides for twenty seconds on different books to inform the reading public.

Or perhaps I am just a horrible little reductionist who needs to get on and finish those books!

Standing by for maternal guidance on the matter.

Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn in a more upbeat celluloid venture...