Not Writing

Recently, it’s felt like my life isn’t really my own. For various reasons, the usual things that fill up the gaps between work (and are the places where I feel my living really happens) have disappeared. Not to say that it’s all been bad. Much more time with family has made me appreciate them, and time spent looking after myself without piling on expectations can’t be a bad thing. It’s just been rather odd to face the lack of things I consider to be ‘progress.’ No drumming rehearsals have meant I haven’t got any better (and undoubtedly got worse). No French lessons, no running, all the things that I usually count up over the week and use as a measure of success. And worst of all, no writing. In times where I am struggling to hold onto my frail identity as a writer, I often open up a sticky note on my laptop that counts words completed per day. If nothing else, it means I can do a tally at the end of the week, count up the syllables of success. For a month, this has dwindled to zero.

Even these musings are being done on a train, on the way to do something else. When something has been taken away, you realise how much it meant to you. I wrote an article recently for Wander magazine (check it out if you haven’t yet, beautiful and eclectic magazine). In that, I was mostly concerned with origins, perceptions, nationality, all of the things that are commonly associated with your sense of where you fit in the world. What I’m coming to realise is that my sense of self is incredibly closely tied to my actions. Or inactions. I’ve been feeling adrift, lost in a sea of things outside my control, forced to do the bare minimum of things.

It makes me look at what writing actually gives me. Not financial gain, not fame, but perhaps something more important than I’d given it credit. I started my novel when I did a Masters. I was miserable in my job, had always wanted to write a book, and decided that now was as good a time as any. More an exercise in seeing what I could do than anything else, I wasn’t expecting to have the creation of stories become something so integral, so personal. Without losing myself in a sea of words, things feel greyer. Without imagining new people, places, their thoughts, their feelings, searching for ways to express the pictures in my head, I feel a little less. Reduced, as if the mundane acts of feeding and caring for myself are actions to keep me going, not things to keep me alive.

Writing is hard. On days when I’m tired it feels impossible to create anything. Sitting on the bus, I’d much rather read a book, the news, listen to a podcast, passively absorb something someone else created. But it’s dawning on me that the seeming sacrifice is not the hardship I’ve built it up to be. Or rather, denying myself the thing that seems like a massive effort might just be costing me more than I realise.

Sometimes you forget why you started doing something in the first place. It’s so easy for things to become routine. Even those that started out as fun can end up feeling like a chore, just another thing to do on the list, another thing to make you tired. The briefest of breaks can make large the things you found small, lend an importance and urgency to activities you moaned about doing before.

Some people lack the free time for any of the things I enjoy. Responsibilities, ill health, finances, there are innumerable conditions that keep you from your desires.

No matter how tired, I want to remember how privileged I am to have the time and space to do things. And when that time and space is taken from me, to remember to find tiny cracks within which to wedge those things that are precious when lost.

Making Creativity

You can’t make creativity, but you can make cake.

I have two days a week to write. Two glorious, empty, indulgent, frustrating days. Sometimes, the word count is high. My fingers are flying over the keys, I get to the end of it and bask in the glory of my beautiful sentences.

Other times, I write pretty much nothing, then hastily dash out a blog, or do some Tweedecking (like DJing, but way less cool) in a desperate attempt to have something to show for an eight-hour stretch.

The other week, things got even worse thanks to Snotgate, whereupon starting my day, I could barely breathe, had a drumming headache, and the most creative thought in my head was planning the shortest route to the supermarket to stock up on soup/decongestant/something to cheer me up.

I also had a birthday to prepare for. When I was younger, my mum would make the most delicious and elaborate cakes for us. Each year it was based on a different interest or hobby, with everything from a fairytale castle to a ski slope (it had a log cabin made out of chocolate fingers).

Lacking offspring, I’ve decided to carry this tradition on anyway, and set myself the task of creating an otter-themed lemon drizzle cake.

How I grunted and huffed at the thought of completing another chore. It was a rare evening without commitments, an opportunity to put pen to paper, to make up for Monday’s congested failure of a day.

Once I got going, all that fell away. My headache loosened its grip on my temples, the whiny little voice at the back of my head shut up, and I got completely lost in the task at hand.

Whisking, melting the drizzle, spreading the buttercream, missing together the different colours of fondant, rolling it out; basically creating a big lump of sweet food, where before there had just been a muddle of ingredients. Best of all, I fashioned two otters out of fondant. I’m not sure if it counts as a skill (can I put it on my CV?) but I seem to be a dab hand at creating cute animals out of marzipan and sugar paste. We all have our niche.

With my little creation finished off, I steeped myself (and my rattly chest) in a lovely warm bath, reading the National Geographic. Rested and with a real sense of accomplishment, I settled myself into bed.

And then something strange happened. Instead of my usual cataloguing of the day ahead, little nuggets of ideas started to germinate in my relaxed brain. I had to get up, find a pad and paper and scribble them down so they didn’t get washed away by sleep. After that, I was heading into my next writing day with a slew of ideas, notes, first steps, before I’d even begun.

So what made the difference? For one thing, apparently, being tired actually helps to boost creativity . That little filter in your brain that takes out the things you don’t need to worry about right now is switched off, so it allows all the weird and wonderful ideas out from behind your sensible fence.

While I’m sure that’s a factor, I reckon there’s something to be said for the cake (it looked pretty awesome in my opinion – see below). It was a also a physical activity. I was so focused on creating it that it blocked out all negativity. What’s more, it had a tangible outcome. All too often with writing, I might spend hours, days, even years, working on something, and not have anything that you can hold in your hands (and have even more editing to do). With a simple crafted thing (I’m sure it could work for knitting, colouring, sewing, drawing) I had something physical I could look at – a product of my efforts.

So, the next time I’m staring at the screen and the words simply won’t come, I’m going to step away from the desk. Go for a run, draw a picture, make some biscuits, anything that can allow my mind to readjust itself to a physical task with a tangible outcome.

Hopefully, it will relieve stress, boost creativity, and result in a whole lot of writing being done in 2017.

Plus, of course, there’ll also be more cake.

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Femspreading

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Genderspecs – changing gendered perspectives, one blog at a time.

It’s always a joyous moment when I receive an email telling me that the next podcast episode of ‘The Guilty Feminist’ is out. This time the theme was ‘Taking Up Space,’ and how women don’t tend to do it quite as much as men.

I’ve suffered from bad shoulders for years. Part of it is the curse of the writer/student I became in later life – carrying my laptop about on my back like a tortoise with a portable office. Running doesn’t help. WhenI get tired, I start to hunch over, my shoulders creep up and I find I’m tensing, without thinking about it. But the other culprit, which I’ve only just discovered, is the way I walk.

My ‘normal’ stance is weird – I hunch my shoulders, my head is down, and my arms tucked in. Part of this could just be crap posture, but there’s something else going on. It’s a way of carrying my body that makes the smallest physical impact on the world around me.

So today, buoyed up by the challenges on the podcast (if you’re not listening to it yet, please do!) I tried something different. I dropped my shoulders, let my arms swing and held my head up.

I felt enormous. I felt like I was taking up too much space, impeding on others. It also felt great. There’s a theory, based on the observation of chimps in the wild, that adopting powerful physical poses can have an impact on your sense of power and importance. Simply standing in a way that makes you look confident can lead to more assertive behaviour and boost your self-belief.

So why did walking like that feel uncomfortable for me? It’s no big shocker to discover that, statistically, men take up more space than women. From manspreading on the train to dominating conversation in the pub, men are far more likely to demand attention and physical space. It’s something that girls and boys are taught from a young age, especially if we look at notions of what is considered ‘ladylike’ or ‘manly.’

In relation to this, an interesting phenomenon is the way people move out of the way (or don’t) on the pavement. Next time you’re out and about, take note. As Deborah Frances-White discovered in her challenge, it doesn’t take very long to notice a pattern. More often than not, women move out of the way for each other and for men, while men are far more likely to stay their course, irrespective of whether someone is approaching from the other direction or not. And this stuff matters. As Sofie Hagen pointed out, feeling ‘invisible’ in the world impacts of feelings of self-worth, value and confidence.

So I tried it out. Along with my new, confident walking stance, I decided that I would play a bit of ‘pavement chicken,’ and see if I could stand my ground. Focusing on a point behind the person walking towards me, I kept my head up and strode purposefully, and took note about how others responded. Invariably, if I was a woman, she moved out of the way (I didn’t adopt this strategy for people with prams or who looked a bit unsteady on their feet).

However, there were some that just didn’t move. One in particular springs to mind. A large guy, tall and wide, who had clearly spent his whole life expecting others to get out of his way. I stayed strong. Keeping my path absolutely straight, I resisted the urge to move to one side, flinch or apologise. He didn’t move either. We got closer and closer together – neither altering our course. At the very last moment, he almost jumped to one side, looking rather surprised. Others smacked straight into my shoulder, a little grumble coming out for daring to intrude on their personal space. It was starting to get enjoyable.

I decided to take it to the tube, and do a bit of femspreading. After all, good ventilation is important to guard against yeast infections, so why should men get all the crotch space? I have to say, it felt pretty weird. I felt exposed, as if someone was going to sit down and tut at me. I felt unladylike, as if I was resisting every urge to be ‘neat’ and ‘modest,’ and other such terms that only get trotted out when talking about women. Perhaps if more of us took this awareness of the physical space we take up and acted upon it, we could start to make an impact on the way male and female space is perceived, along with giving ourselves a well-needed boost of confidence.

But there are other spaces we need to claim for our own. Multiple studies have shown the prevalence of men interrupting women, men dominating conversation in mixed gender groups, as well as the infamous ‘mansplaining’ phenomenon. Many’s the time when, after trying and failing to enter a conversation, I’ve slapped on my -oh-how-very-interesting face, inserted a few ‘hmms’ for good measure, and got on with thinking about a lesson plan or a plot point I’ve been working on, as I’ve admitted defeat at ever getting a word in edgeways.

There are a few techniques that can work, perhaps after I’ve been striding down the road and bashing into people, when I’ve decided that I simply won’t be left out. One is to just keep talking. Just continue the flow of your talk as if nothing has been said, and they will usually stutter and fall quiet, once they’ve got the hint. Another is to wait for the interruption to finish, and then simply pick up from where you left off, as if nothing had been said. A final possibility is to make it clear to everyone else – and him – that it’s happening. A simple, ‘actually, I haven’t finished’ might make people feel awfully uncomfortable (especially in the hyper-polite culture that is the UK) but by drawing attention to it, perhaps making eye contact with other people when you say it, hopefully they feel like enough of an idiot to shut up. Of course, there will always be some men that will not respond to any of this. Possible alternatives include changing jobs, wearing a wig and fake moustache to your meeting, or perhaps taking some sort of ‘interruption buzzer’ around with you, to be used whenever someone feels the need to cut you off.

So let’s make femspreading a thing – making our bodies and voices more prominent in society, in order to lead to a more positive future for girls everywhere.

Being Nasty

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There’s something pretty uplifting about meeting a hundred thousand people who share your views, even if you just walk down a road together making ‘woo’ noises every now and again. Or perhaps that makes it even better.

When I attended the Women’s March in London, after a slew of thoroughly depressing news articles read under the duvet (yes, this cold still won’t go away) there was undeniable hope and power in the footsteps of thousands who are feeling out of step with the way the world is.

And of course, there’s the placards. I’m not exactly a specialist (it was my first) but there’s nothing like other people to remind you that your rhetoric isn’t up to scratch. Orange Is The New Bollocks, Get Your Hands Off My Rights, Grab Them By The Patriarchy, We Shall Overcomb. Just a sample of the array of puns that people put together. Bonus points if you employed some sort of collage technique or glitter was involved in any way. My highlights have to be the papier maché Trump and the simple yet powerful ‘It Takes A Lot To Get Me Off The Couch.’

My slogan of choice; ‘Nasty Women Unite,’ was picked out by a few people for a photo, which made me feel better about my lack of punning. It encompassed the feeling that’s been blooming in me as I’ve witnessed a series of political decisions in which I don’t see myself, or anything close to fairness, justice or equality. I’m angry, I’m pissed off. I don’t want to be a simpering, smiling feminine cliché that pleases others. I want to do something about it.

On the escalator, on the way to the protest, a man asked me what my sign meant. I explained the backstory to it. He shuddered a little. “Oh, not too nasty, I hope,” he said.

And there it is. Those soft-bodied women, getting feisty again. Or possible sassy. Certainly not something we want to encourage, right? If women’s nastiness was equal to the injustices done to them against their rights and their bodies, they’d be the nasty equivalent of Gengis Khan after his horse got sick and his entire army took the wrong turn at a mountain pass. Heads would roll. Of course, the escalator had taken me away by then, so it was a bit late for a witty or thoughtful comeback.

In the crowds, it was easy to feel powerful. Buoyed up by the shouts, the singing, the chanting, the beeps of passing cars, there was an overwhelming feeling that anything was possible. Angry at a world that not even tolerates but encourages hateful opinions, and makes the most vulnerable more weak and afraid than ever before. The feeling that we could make a difference.

Even afterwards, there was also something emboldening about taking my sign home on the train. People read it, people nudged each other, darted their eyes from me when I looked over. I had power. But once I got home, unstuck the piece of laminate floor edging that served as a stick, it wasn’t as easy to be strong.

In the wake of Brexit, after a campaign fuelled with lies, it seemed incredibly possible to challenge the legitimacy of a marginal vote, when no-one really knew what they were voting for, and had been lied to about what they were going to get anyway. Somehow, this has translated to a country that seems fine with leaving the single market, and all we care about is the texture of the Brexit, not whether it will happen at all. Where did all that power of protest go? We need to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen this time.

As a woman, I am often invisible, or at least prized more highly for my decorative purposes than my intellect. Yet as a straight, white woman, I also enjoy privileges other women or femme-identifying individuals don’t have access to. And the terrible truth is, I’m not really that nasty. I apologise when someone steps on my foot. I don’t like phoning for a takeaway. I avoid making decisions. But I need to find some strength, if I am to live a conscionable life.

Now is the time to test how truly nasty we can be. In the aftermath of this glorious wave of protests, I want to use my voice, and my privilege, to carry that feeling I had when the sign was in my hand. To speak out for others who don’t recognise themselves in an ever-shifting political landscape, where the elite continue to thrive, and the disadvantaged continue to be bulldozed in the name of progress.

Now is the most testing of times. Will you be nasty with me?

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Books to Build a Person

In the middle bedroom of my mum’s house is a treasure trove. A collection of the books that me and my two sisters read when we were growing up. Oh, the adventures to be found. In one place is What-A-Mess, the Afghan hound who always ended up in a state, despite the purity of his breeding. In another is Mildred Hubble, the Worst Witch, who was perpetually disorganised, had her hair undone, was late for lessons, had her socks round her ankles and never quite got her spells right.

Each time I stay in that middle room, I pull another book out. Perhaps a tale of Narnia, the putting on of rings in an attic that takes the wearers to a strange pool, or a girl who goes to a party and picks all the jelly sweets and cream off the top of a trifle.

Something familiar joins these stories. A girl, who isn’t quite sure of herself. Perhaps it’s her general organisation, or her desire to look outside the limitations of the world around her. A girl who is fascinated by anything and everything, even if she isn’t always organised enough to put the right sock on her feet in the morning.

Yes, that’s me. While I was reading these books, clearly I was finding characters in which I found a mirror of myself. In the mornings, my mum would despair at getting me out of the door on time. At school, my teachers would despair at my lack of pencil, pen, homework, the general paraphernalia that always ended up a bit outside my capabilities. Most of it was because I was too distracted by a book, or the TV, or an idea I had, forever in the muddle of my ideas. These books helped me to identify my place in the world, and to get a sense of worth. Arriety and Mildred always had wonderful adventures.

What it also led me to discover was the power of the books I read when I was young. The top three books were there: Paddington, The Borrowers and Narnia. Not just one book, but anthologies, three collections of books that I read over and over, absorbing myself in the worlds that took my behind the clock with Arriety, into the home of the Browns with Paddington, and into another world with Polly and Digory.

There’s something strange about reading those same words, the ones I turned to so often when I was a child. For starters, it makes me feel bloody old. All too often, I don’t really think as myself as particularly grown up, but there’s nothing like a childhood book to remind you it was over twenty-five years since you last read a book. At the same time, it’s comforting. Snuggling down under a duvet, I can pretend I’m still in that place, sheltered by a secret world, where, at least for that moment, it felt like it only existed for me.

The magic of my childhood resided in books. I was also lucky enough to grow up with books; Steven King making my teenage years even more scary than they were anyway, and the Discworld providing light relief from teenage angst. In fact, I went on to write my dissertation about Terry Pratchett, so his influence stretched beyond spots and hormones.

Now, as a (sort of) adult, I continue to drown myself in words. Sometimes it’s the classics that I really should have read by now, other times it’s new fiction that’s just been released, or just random stuff recommended to me by other people. I find that I look more and more for people different to myself, to allow me to explore through books, rather than find solace in recognising something familiar.

What I’ve also come to realise is that, while my days are often shaped around reading (on the bus, before sleep, a sneaky few chapters over lunch) I have also been shaped by the books I read. My sense of adventure, encouraged by Arriety’s desire to see what was outside the door. My desire to create, boosted by Paddington’s stubborn insistence on getting to the end of whatever he was doing, no matter the outcome. There’s politics and social codes in there too. I’ve seen the world through the eyes of wizards, witches, homosexuals, Islamic fundamentalists, young children, old people, and perhaps most importantly, people from cultures I have never visited. I will never know what it’s like to be a Korean living in the US, or a Nigerian, or a Chinese person in the UK, but all of these voices have been experienced by my little lump of grey matter. Now that’s a powerful thing.

Reading goes far beyond providing a simple way to kill a few hours. It cannot match up to a film or a game, simply because, only in reading, are you active in constructing the meaning, shaping the world in your imagination that the words suggest to you.

That’s why, sorry everyone, I will continue to buy every most people I know a book for Christmas (I do hope you’re enjoying reading them!), because I want them, too, to be able to touch the spine of a treasured item, and recall the times that paper, ink and glue took them to places they never imagined.

Taking Time Out

December is upon us. While apparently the idea that time goes quicker as you get older is a myth (it’s just because you’ve seen more actual time, apparently) it still seems that the years are stacking up at a rate that I can’t quite keep up with. Every hour, day, week, month, I get to the end and sometimes it feels like all I have is a list of things I didn’t manage to do. People I didn’t see, projects I didn’t finish, marking I didn’t do, films I didn’t see, phone calls I didn’t make. It can be more than a little overwhelming.

Last weekend, I made a bold decision. I left the city. Abandoned my beautiful newly-bought flat (6 months and a lot of DIY) and headed out to the wilds of Surrey, to hang out with my Mum and Dad. While it hasn’t exactly ticked off a huge number of things on the List of Doom, it’s certainly offered a nice bit of perspective.

For starters, writing. I’m lucky enough to have two whole days a week that are scheduled for private writing time. While the mornings tend to be pretty productive (2,000 word average, I can live with that) the afternoons end up as so much faffing about. Washing, tidying, then I have guilt that I’m at home but not exercising, so I usually end up in the gym or going for a run. But that ends up being another day that I get to the end of and think – what did I do today?

So I cashed it all in. It was the last weekend before the end of the year that I actually had nothing on (sorry, Batala) and I decided to have a self-enforced writing retreat. The results? It’s bloody lovely.

While I can’t claim to have done no house-related things at all (I’m pretty sure cooking dinner is in order considering I’m getting free room and board) there was that wonderful freedom of not actually being able to do anything. Sure, I should probably have put another coat of paint on the wardrobes, or put a wash on, but I physically couldn’t. Funnily enough, my afternoons ended up far more productive than my mornings.

There were little annoying things I’d been meaning to do for ages, like making a spreadsheet of literary magazines to send out to (yes, the creative and the nerd go surprisingly well together) as well as catching up on my social media stuff. The word count was pretty good. I managed 10,000 words in 3 days, which is certainly an improvement, and I also found myself having random ideas for new stories, which is something that rarely happens to me.

But you know what, there was something else. Over and above the loveliness of simply being able to wander upstairs and write whenever I liked, there was something I don’t give myself nearly enough of. Time. I am a terrible ‘should’ person. Constantly barraging myself with guilt about something that didn’t get done, or something that seemed like a ‘waste’ of time. It’s the times that you stop, do nothing, that you remember what makes you smile. On Sunday afternoon, me and Mum sang ‘Climb Every Mountain’ while doing a few bits in the kitchen. I grew up with that musical, with singing. It’s something I almost never do anymore.

But I digress. The thing that I really discovered last weekend? The power of time. That when you take yourself away from the treadmill of your life, you feel more relaxed, more calm, more productive, more creative, than you ever thought possible. I’m not a massive fan of resolutions, as they always seem to imply goals and charts and yet another way of disappointing my own expectations, but if there’s one thing I want to give myself next year, it’s the space to feel like this in my own home.

Thanks, Mum. xx

Lessons from YA Books

Having read several dystopian novels lately (see my thoughts here) I decided to try a YA version, to see how they compared. I was pleasantly surprised. While I’m incredibly wary of genre-specific snobbery, I confess I am subject to a bit of it when it comes to the YA genre. The books that I’ve read tend to be trite, or the emotions overstated, or clichéd, or they simply dealt with an area of human experience that had lost resonance for me. In the case of The Giver, I not only found a genuinely good book, I also thought that the ‘adult’ sphere of novels could learn a few lessons from it.

A great story doesn’t have to be complicated. 

We are in a perfect world. There is no pain, no hunger, no loss, no poverty. But, of course, this comes at a price. In order to live in a society this controlled, feelings must be suppressed. The question the book asks is quite simple – is a world without sorrow, hate or pain worth it, when there is no joy or love?

We follow Jonas, a young boy who meets The Giver, a man who holds the collective memories of humanity. As The Receiver, Jonas must start to take on the memories himself. As a result, he starts to discover a hidden past, along with profound feelings that leave him confused. He comes to realise the flaws in the perfect world around him, and starts to question the nature of the world around him.

But all of this is told in a very simplistic way. We don’t enter into huge philosophical debates, there is no fluffy description or hyperbolising. Often, the most simply stated things are the most moving.

Being simple doesn’t mean you can’t be complex.

Just because the plot and the language seem straightforward, doesn’t mean the questions and metaphors they’re throwing up are basic. The whole world could be a metaphor for censorship or control, and the effects it has on people. By taking things that people assume are ‘perfect’ to the extreme, you could question the very nature of happiness and perfection, and that part of the beauty of humanity is the struggle, the contrast between highs and lows. The ending could be hugely optimistic or depressingly cynical, depending on how you choose to read it. In fact, it is because things are not overtly spelled out, that the book can be open to a myriad of interpretations.

Never underestimate a decent plot. 

People that tell stories well are often undervalued. The great Stephen King, rarely given much credence in terms of ‘literature,’ is masterful at weaving together stories and keeping them pacy and engaging. This, as I’m discovering, is one of the most difficult elements of writing. Take me into another world, make me see it and feel it, use language to make it sound nice – these things are fairly accessible to all writers.

But immerse me in a story, convince me to follow a character through twists and turns, make me unable to tear my eyes away from a page – this has somehow been deemed a lesser skill. Not that I’m advocating reading Dan Brown, but it’s worth remembering that a good plot with tension dropped in at pertinent points is harder than it seems.

Children aren’t stupid.

I think one of the objections people have to reading from the perspectives of children is because they find them a little, well, childish. In fact, the best authors of this genre don’t underestimate the interpretive powers of their young protagonists. One of the criticisms against The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (although I love that book) is that Bruno comes across as just a little too clueless. In this book, Jonas can comprehend the magnitude of what he is seeing, the power he holds, the difference it makes in the world. The way he sees his parents change, and he is forced into an uncomfortable decision. Child narrators allow a writer to pare things down, but also allow for a much richer level of discovery and development.

Novels like The Giver remind us that stories can be simple, written for children, and still beautiful and resonant for readers of all ages.

When Revenge Goes Bad…

Frank Herbert offers us an insight into the darker side of human nature in The White Plague, an apocalyptic tale of revenge.

The cover of the book is very apt – murky fog, a solitary figure, a town shrouded in obscurity. Even if the weather is fine, or we are indoors, this novel revels in the unknown. The words not said, agendas not revealed, or the problems or changes that might be lurking just around the corner. The message is clear: no-one is to be trusted.

In Ireland, a man is visiting with his family. In one push of a button, his life is destroyed. The provisional IRA detonate a bomb, killing his wife and two children. From this, a desperate revenge unfolds. He creates a virus that attacks only women, the worst possible curse he can imagine to harm the nations that have wronged him.

We are offered a fairly universal viewpoint as the book develops, rather than being ‘on the ground’ in one country, as most dystopias tend to be. We shift between Irish, English and US perspectives, with some French and Russian characters thrown in to counterbalance it all. This gives a true sense of the scale of this hypothetical virus, and allows the author to imagine the global conflict and power struggles that would erupt under such conditions.

There are a few questionable plot points, which didn’t gape wide enough to unhinge the story. How, for example, is it possible that one scientist, in a makeshift lab, can disprove theories of molecular DNA? His science also feels overstated, and for that purpose, doesn’t ring quite true, almost as though he’s trying to labour the fact that he’s done his research. Having said that, his prediction of the use of genetics in warfare was pretty spot on, with the book being written in 1982.

These questions make the book feel more like a ‘what if?’ than a genuine scientific possibility. This perhaps impacts on how much we care about outcomes, but it still explores these ideas in an incredibly interesting way.

The later parts of the book are mostly set in Ireland. We follow a tortuous journey through the Irish countryside – devastated as it was one of the first areas hit, with the characters arguing over the long-term problems of Ireland and the possibility of hope and faith in such a world. We follow the man who created the virus (slightly dodgy use of schizophrenia as a plot tool), the man who blew up his family, a priest, and a young boy silenced by the horrors he has seen.

It’s certainly compelling. I found myself unable to put the book down. Each character had enough depth that I cared what happened to them. The setting was very atmospheric and moody, painting a bleak picture of how humanity might behave if it were faced with such problems.

I did find, however, that the rambling conversations of the troupe in Ireland were unnecessarily long. It almost felt like the author had an interest in philosophy, especially in relation to religion, and wanted to debate a series of arguments. In an extreme setting, questions of God and morality are important, but at times it felt laboured.

Of course, what Herbert is really questioning is the extent to which scientific understanding, in the wrong hands, is perhaps the most dangerous knowledge on earth. Which makes for a pretty good book.

Hag-Seed

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A new book by Margaret Atwood! Very exciting. I went along to her talk at the Southbank Centre (proper fan moment) and heard her discuss the book, her life, and her work. She is one interesting lady. She also has good shoes (silver!). There’s something incredibly refreshing about listening to someone like her talk. Intelligent, yes, talented, yes, but there is something fundamentally captivating about a person who is just so interested and passionate about the world. With so much whining about things on social media, here we have a woman of immense literary talent who devotes her time to helping out local libraries, who supports campaigns to help combat global warming, and who writes graphic novels about a part-cat, part-bird superhero called Angel Cat Bird. Now there’s someone I would like to invite to dinner.

And, of course, she talked about her new novel, Hag-Seed. A reinventing of The Tempest, it is the fourth novel in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, following Jeanette Winterson’s retelling of The Winter’s Tale, Howard Jacobson’s of The Merchant of Venice and Anne Tyler’s of The Taming of the Shrew. It’s a tricky thing, as she acknowledged herself, to re-invent such a well-heeled play from such a respected writer as Shakespeare.

Rather than trip around the subject, Atwood tackles this head on, and allows her main character in on the secret – he is perfectly aware that his life is following the structure of the play, and in fact is in the process of trying to put on a performance of it. He even has a daughter called Miranda. This deft layering of story onto story is a little nudge to the reader; we’re all in on it. It allows for both subtle and overt analysis of the play, its characters themes and ideas, as well as making us feel very clever for getting the references.

Our Prospero is played by Felix, a director who has been spurned from the local Festival, usurped by (of course) his evil brother, and shunned by society. He goes to an obscure little hovel to lick his wounds, and is kept company by his visions of a daughter who died at age 3. So far, so familiar. In fact, I found the opening a little ploddy, but it all took off after Felix takes a job working in the Fletcher Correctional Institute. Here, we meet a new cast of characters, in the inmates who provide the acting skills for various Shakespeare plays. His dream is to finally stage his perfect Tempest. Of course, underpinning all of this is Felix’s desire for revenge. One day he will confront his brother and take back what is rightfully his. Best way to do that? Putting on some plays with criminals, apparently. I have to say I was curious as to how this particular plot would play out, but I needn’t have feared. With Atwood, you’re always in safe hands, and she steers the course of the novel deftly towards its climax.

Some reviewers have found the inmates to be lacking depth as characters. Personally, I quite liked that. It allowed for a layering of interpretations and modernisation to be done through them, without needing to know who they are. They almost figuratively played the part of Prospero’s goblins (they do literally too), in that they are a means to an end, rather than characters in themselves. As Felix brings together his plans for The Tempest, we also have a rather important aside – namely the power of literature to educate and engage the incarcerated. It’s an oft-repeated accusation that prisoners have a ‘cushy’ life, and funding for programmes like literature or drama is often cut. Atwood reminds us of the power of performance, and how a sense of pride and a desire for knowledge can be a powerful tool in rehabilitation. Also, it’s great to hear hardened criminals only swearing in Shakespearean. I might use that one in my classes.

Because the characters aren’t fully realised, there are some great things that can be done with them. We have modernised Shakespearean rap, continuations of the story into fanciful places, modern twists and interpretations of characters and actions, and of course (it being Atwood) a high-kicking Miranda who refuses to be anyone’s plaything. At times it is playful and fun, at others a deep commentary on the nature of loss, identity, and how people can learn to trust each other and heal themselves. I particularly liked how much spotlight was given to Caliban, the Hag-Seed himself, whose origins and destiny are scrutinised, especially by the characters that identify with him.

In re-imagining something, the idea is to take the coherent themes and see how they can be manipulated. Having such an overt agenda in this book means that we can join in, something that I found truly engaging. It’s like an English teacher’s dream. The resonance of Shakespeare’s words are always far-reaching, but it seems that Atwood brings that very notion directly to the surface, rather than hiding it beneath a completely different story. I loved the overt references and discussion and hey, who doesn’t like a few goddesses thrown in for good measure?

Atwood, through Shakespeare, reminds us that The Tempest is all about confinement. In many ways, we are all imprisoned. Sometimes by society, or the way others treat us, or perhaps in prisons of our own making. We are reminded that it is self awareness and hope, not desire for revenge, that will ultimately allow us to be free.

The Perils of Being a Reader-Commuter

We’re all busy people. But, if you’re like me, then any space of time can be used as an excuse to read a few pages. From reading on the loo to spilling my lunchtime soup on a few pages (travesty), there’s always a way to get you ticking through your latest book.

As a Londoner, I spend an inordinate amount of time on public transport. It’s bizarre. If someone had asked me, outside London, if I fancied meeting them somewhere that took me over an hour and involved three different types of transport, I’d tell them I probably wouldn’t bother. Here, we cheerfully hop onto tubes in the full knowledge that we won’t even be close to our destination for at least forty minutes.

However, the beauty of that commute? Reading time. No more passive-aggressive shouting at the Audi driver in front of me on the road, I can dedicate all of those tedious minutes spent swaying along on various modes of transport, reading. What a delight. While others play games (yes, I deleted Candy Crush because it was using up too much of my life) or read the substandard freebies that count as ‘news,’ I get to absorb myself in whatever wonderful universe I’m currently wallowing in.

Despite the bonus reading time, there are a few pitfalls.

Other People

Well, Jean-Paul Sartre had a point. Not just when you’re in the queue for a coffee, or when you’re already running a bit late (sorry, everyone I know). Nothing dismays the reader-commuter more than the sight of a packed bus or train. Not that it will stop you reading. No, it will just mean that you spend the rest of your journey wedged up against someone’s armpit with your book jammed between your face and the handbag of the woman that keeps turning round and glaring at you. What? I’m trying to read here!

Getting There

The last time this happened to me I was heading for a bar near Holborn, reading The Portable Veblen. All I had to do was change at Oxford Circus. No problem. Unfortunately, I got so carried away with the squirrel-related antics I completely missed my stop. The next time I looked up, I was almost at Victoria. I swore, leapt off the train, had to go back two stops in the other direction, before then getting my connection. Needless to say, I was more than late. This is also a problem on the commute to work, but more because I’d much rather sit quietly reading a book than go to work.

Appearing Normal

This is a tricky one. Obviously, London is a city full of rich and varied people and experiences, and pretty much anything goes, up to a point. I was reading A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing on the bus, just around the time she heads to a new city, and well, it was all a bit graphic. I became very aware that a nice lady (about my mum’s age) was sat next to me, quite possibly reading every word. I’m pretty sure that even if she couldn’t see the print, the horrified rictus of my face probably communicated that the content wasn’t exactly pleasant. Perhaps try something less provocative if you like meeting new people on the way to work.

Backache

I wouldn’t usually buy the hardback, but it was a Christmas present. And yes, I could have waited until I got home to read the next bit, but I didn’t want to. Lugging Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life around for the best part of the day was not exactly what my shoulders needed. By the time I got back home, Jude had been through some pretty tough times, but so had my muscles.

So, if you haven’t tried the wonders of being a reader-commuter, trust me, it’s worth it. Soon you’ll find your book pile going down much quicker than when you could only squeeze in a few minutes before bedtime. Sure, you might have sore muscles and people will be less likely to sit next to you, but it’s definitely worth it.