Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Margaret Forster - a very private life

Saddened yesterday to learn of the death of Cumbrian author Margaret Forster.  She had been looking cancer in the eye for more than forty years, after being diagnosed with breast cancer as a young mother. Although Margaret kept the diagnosis strictly private, the subject found its way, as writers' lives do, into her novels.  'Is there anything you want?'  is the story of a group of very different women who meet at a cancer clinic in a northern hospital that closely resembles the old Cumberland Infirmary in Carlisle.  She didn't tell the full story, publicly, until her most recent book, a memoir, 'My Life in Houses', written when secondary cancer had already invaded her spine.


Margaret had no time for euphemisms.  A spade was very definitely a spade, and her honesty sometimes terrified other people.  No talk of 'passing away', or 'kicking the bucket' -  'What's wrong with the word "dead"?' Margaret asked.   And she ridiculed those who talked about her brave 'battle' with cancer.  'There is no fighting that can be done,'  she observed.  'and being positive not only has no proven effect but it creates another psychological burden for the patient.'  She saw the illness as a 'touch of woodworm, or dry rot' in the house of the body - an insidious invasion that might never properly be eradicated.  It takes courage to see things with such ruthless clarity.

It was a novel, a film, a musical and a hit single!
Born and brought up in Cumbria, not far from where I was born, Margaret belonged to an older generation and her work was inspirational for younger writers.  'Georgy Girl' was a huge hit, both as a novel and a film.  It was a big influence - I even have a daughter called Meredith Jones!   Margaret and her husband Hunter Davies were, like myself, like Melvyn Bragg and many others, the product of a state education system that gave scholarships to working class children and enabled them to go on to university and enter the careers they dreamed of.  Margaret's parents lived in a council house in one of the poorer areas of Carlisle.  But she went to Oxford and became one of the UK's most successful novelists.

Margaret refused to compromise.  Her life revolved around her family and her writing.  She wasn't interested in the trappings of literary fame, though she did enjoy the financial benefits it brought. Publishers resigned themselves to the fact that she wouldn't go to literary festivals to promote her books.  A little radio, magazine and newspaper articles, some photo-shoots and that had to be enough. Margaret didn't do literary dinner parties either and many thought her sharp-tongued and reclusive.  As a new, rather self-conscious writer, I was terrified of her reputation.  I remember being struck dumb on a public platform where I was supposed to be giving a talk, because someone told me that Margaret was sitting in the back row of the audience.  When I actually met her, on another occasion, I was so tongue-tied I could barely stammer 'hello'.  She must have thought me a complete idiot.

But the friends who knew her well loved her incisive mind (Hunter Davies says that she was the most intelligent woman he had ever known) and she was extraordinarily generous.  I certainly found her so.  She gave my book 'A Passionate Sisterhood' such a rave review, I still blush when I read it. When I asked for permission to re-write the short critical biography I had originally been commissioned by the Arts Council to write, to bring it up to date, she gave me unqualified permission and her only worry was that it might cost me money, since she wasn't a sufficiently famous author (in her eyes) to merit such a work. But it wasn't a question of money, more of recognition for a Cumbrian writer I had always believed to be critically under-rated.


Her best work, in my opinion, is her memoir writing - Hidden Lives and Precious Lives - the stories of her own family. They reveal, more expertly than anything else I have ever read, the difficulties and tragedies, and the sheer waste of talent, of what used to be called 'the servant class' in the days before the welfare state, when women in particular were at the mercy of unscrupulous employers.   As we slide towards social inequality once more, books like this are worth reading as an awful reminder of what happens when we lose health care and education as a basic human right.

Margaret Forster will be much mourned by family, friends and readers alike.  Our thoughts go out to her husband, Hunter Davies - a partnership both literary and personal that has lasted for more than 50 years - and to her three children.


Margaret Forster:  A Life in Books
is published by The Book Mill



Thursday, 4 February 2016

Technical Hitches and Other Glitches

Jonah Jones does it again!  No sooner do I arrive in Italy than the gas boiler takes one look at me and expires.  4 days without heating or hot water.  I managed to endure that with reasonable fortitude (okay so I swore and used a lot of deodorant), but when I switched my computer on and it refused to obey, it was a major incident.  Writers are dependent on technology;  needing to work, committed to a monthly blog for Authors Electric, I was reduced to the basic communications of my mobile phone. I missed a couple of deadlines, but there was nothing I could do.  Rural Italy is not the world centre of IT.  It wasn't all doom and gloom though.  Neil's exhibition looked wonderful and the opening party was spectacular. The President of the Commune made a speech and called him Maestro Ferber, celebrating a lifetime of skill and knowledge.



Who cares about technology when there's wine and music?  And friends.   The first diagnosis on the computer was that it was the boot drive - the screen flickered for a couple of seconds when I pressed the start button but then went blank.  Nothing worked.  There didn't seem to be a way to get into anything to even do a diagnostic test.  I normally work on 'the cloud' so all my files were safe, but there's always a lot of things, mainly photographs, that you haven't backed up. I resigned myself to the loss. The culprit turned out to be a Windows update which had failed to load properly and corrupted the hard drive.  Windows 10 is a nightmare - you have no control over what happens. It's Thursday night now (almost a week) and I'm back in the UK and up and running again, thanks to a partner who is not just a gifted sculptor, but a computer geek as well.  Thank you Neil!

Neil and I before the hordes arrived, plus wine, minus computer.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

In Search of the Sun

The ground floor of the Mill is currently humming with de-humidifiers.  In my bedroom overhead, it's like sleeping in the cargo hold of a jumbo jet. But I'm not complaining!  Every pulse gets the place drier and drier - or it would if the jet stream wasn't dumping storm after storm across Cumbria. The panic you feel whenever the river surges towards the doorstep is exhausting - and it seems to happen at least twice a week.
River creeping under back door on Tuesday night.  Fortunately only made it up a couple of steps!
Tonight the wind is howling over the roof and the rain is pelting down above my head as I'm typing this up in my attic room. But I don't care.  Tomorrow I'm off to Italy for a few days in search of the sun and some much needed R & R.  The river can do what it likes!

An invitation to celebrate ten years of chipping marble into shapes like this.
The excuse is that Neil has been given an exhibition by the Commune of Pietrasanta, in a gallery on the corner of the Piazza.  He's been very busy for the past couple of weeks, polishing and painting and constructing stands and lugging heavy bits of marble down the main street on a barrow. Saturday night is the official opening and I can't not be there to celebrate with him. So, tomorrow evening (storms permitting) I will be on a plane to Italy with  my best frock in a suitcase.
An exhibition under construction.

The floods and their financial knock-on effects have been life-changing for us and there's a feeling that nothing is secure now.  What we need is some art-loving millionaire to turn up with a blank cheque!!!





 


Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Tuesday Poem: Norman MacCaig - Aunt Julia

Aunt Julia spoke Gaelic
very loud and very fast.
I could not answer her —
I could not understand her.

She wore men's boots
when she wore any.
— I can see her strong foot,
stained with peat,
paddling with the treadle of the spinning-wheel
while her right hand drew yarn
marvellously out of the air.

Hers was the only house
where I've lain at night
in the absolute darkness
of a box bed, listening to
crickets being friendly.

She was buckets
and water flouncing into them.
She was winds pouring wetly
round house-ends.
She was brown eggs, black skirts
and a keeper of threepennybits
in a teapot.

Aunt Julia spoke Gaelic
very loud and very fast.
By the time I had learned
a little, she lay
silenced in the absolute black
of a sandy grave
at Luskentyre. But I hear her still, welcoming me
with a seagull's voice
across a hundred yards
of peatscrapes and lazybeds
and getting angry, getting angry
with so many questions
unanswered.


© the estate of Norman MacCaig

from The Scottish Poetry Library 

This week is the twentieth anniversary of the death of Norman MacCaig, one of Scotland's foremost poets, so I thought it was fitting to have one of his poems to celebrate the life and work of a poet whose poetry is gradually slipping out of view beyond the Scottish borders.    'Aunt Julia' is one of my favourites partly because it depicts such a wonderful character, (I can see her strong foot/stained with peat)  and partly because it identifies one of the most tragic aspects of Scottish history.

Norman MacCaig's Aunt Julia, like his mother, came from the Isle of Harris and had Gaelic as a first language.  Norman, like the majority of his generation, spoke English.  It is one of the clearest examples of the cultural colonialism practised within the British Empire.  Stamping out the language was a deliberate attempt to wipe out the culture and with it the connections to communities and landscapes.  It has left a huge gap in people's lives that still has social implications.

One of the readers who nominated Norman's poem for the Poetry Archive commented that -  "I too have often felt isolated from my own heritage. As I don't speak the native language of my homeland, I can only learn about the origins of my culture from what I can see. Language is so integral to culture that it almost impossible to understand a culture without understanding the language – especially when that culture is based upon an oral tradition."

Gordon Brown once quoted from one of Norman's poems 'Praise of a Man' in a eulogy he gave for a friend.  The last lines could serve equally as a eulogy for the poet.

'He's gone:
but you can see
his tracks still, in the snow of the world.'


Norman MacCaig; 1910 -1996   
Scottish Poetry Library  




Sunday, 24 January 2016

A Parade of Presidents by Alexander Murray

Egypt's Thousand Days of Revolution

January 25th is the anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution during the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011, so it seems the perfect day to blog about a book telling the inside story of a sequence of revolutions and a ‘Parade of Presidents’.

Since his first visit to Egypt in 1981, Alexander Murray has been spending a lot of time in the country. He was there when Sadat was publicly gunned down; he witnessed the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, the election and arrest of President Mursi and the rise and rise of General - now President - Sisi. Throughout this time he has taken daily photographs and kept a journal recording the lives of ordinary Egyptians trying to live and work through these turbulent events. The book reveals intense beauty and extreme poverty.  If you want an insight into what it is like to live in a country torn apart by political and religious extremes, then this is a must-read. It’s written as extracts from Alexander’s journal accompanied by lots of photographs, so it’s also an easy read.

Recent events, including the bombing of a Russian passenger jet from Sharm al Sheikh, make this a very contemporary book. My own time spent in the Middle East made it of particular interest to me.  I worked in English broadcasting under tight censorship, so the criminalisation of journalists trying to report the truth came as no surprise.  Truth is the first casualty of conflict. Alexander Murray risks his own freedom of movement in this account of what it feels like to walk the streets of Cairo and Alexandria under a series of repressive regimes. It's a brave book.  I asked Alexander about the process of writing it.


Q. 1. What is it about Egypt that you love so much?

It's a place of miracles - the great Nile bringing its life-giving force to a desert land, the vision behind the creation of the temples and pyramids, the indomitability of its inhabitants under all kinds of oppression - whether it be the sun or political regimes of different colours throughout the millennia.  It's also the place that first inspired me to travel as a young man and experience, for myself, things that seemed so impossibly out of reach when I was a teenager. I became a man in getting there and being there - you don't forget such things.
Tahrir Square, Cairo

Q.2.  What gave you the idea of writing a book about your Egyptian experiences?

I've always kept a journal when I've travelled and it was no different when chance or synchronicity took me back to Cairo regularly, starting not long after the 25th January 2011 revolution. A good friend commented that my writing seemed to 'catch fire' when I was there and this coupled with the fact that my visits coincided with nearly all the pivotal moments in the country's recent history plus the fact that I had taken street-level photographs every day made me think that there was something unique and worth sharing.

Q.3.  Tell me about the process of turning your journals into a book.

It was more challenging than I thought!  The raw material tends to flow easily in my experience; the preparation for publication bringing all aspects of the writer's craft to bear is harder . . . but essential!  First of all, I wanted to check that the quality of the writing was of a professional and publishable standard so I worked with a literary editor to give me straight feedback on the manuscript.  I have remained extremely faithful to the original entries but many needed polishing to ensure consistency of tone and clarity of meaning. The tooth-comb revision necessary to make the whole read smoothly was painstaking and time consuming but what joy when I could read whole passages without finding anything that jarred, like a word repeated too soon after its previous use.

I found my best editing environment was a bookshop-cafe around the block from where I live.  The owner was delighted to know why I was spending so many hours at one of his tables (I bought a very credible amount of coffees and sandwiches to justify my presence!) and he introduced me to other published writers who gave me encouragement throughout, often stopping at my table and putting a hand on my shoulder.

As I followed the indie route, I also had to set myself up as a publisher under the local tax regime and then recruit a team of book designers, proof readers, photo editors and illustrators.  I worked with them virtually using time differences to keep the production preparation rolling. One of the biggest challenges was to pick up my energy when sometimes things went into a lull. I set myself deadlines and the most useful thing of all that I did was to declare to all my friends and colleagues that I was going to publish a book. Having gone public there was no way I was going to fail!


Q.4.  Given the political situation in Egypt and the imprisoning of journalists and bloggers throughout the Middle East at the moment, did you feel that you were taking a big risk to publish this book now?

Yes. I was bolder than those around me, including my wife, but I still had cold-sweat, middle-of-the-night wake up moments. I'll always remember the night I sat on the edge of my bed in pitch darkness in Cairo listening to the 3 am call to prayer coming through our open bedroom window and wondering what the hell I was doing.  I resolved to do a final run through of the manuscript to check for words that were gratuitously harsh or overly assertive that perhaps would unnecessarily provoke the authorities. I spent the rest of the night lying awake in bed revising the text as if on a screen in my mind.  When light came I went straight to my local Cairo cafe and made the required amendments, careful to keep the thrust of the message intact.  It was clear that the push of a publication button could change not just my life but those of my nearest and dearest, and the fairness of that weighed heavily on me. On the other hand, during the church service we attended in Scotland to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, one of the readings called for all of us to courageously speak up against oppression. At that moment, I knew the only route possible was publication.
Curfew - road-block

Q.5.  Why did you decide to ‘Indie’ publish in the end?  This is, after all, a very commercial book.

It was all about topicality of the subject and the foreseen long lead-times through a traditional publisher which, through consultation, seemed to be up to two years.  I wanted to strike while the iron was hot.  I must also say that the degree of self-direction and sense of hands-on creation of the indie route was very satisfying and empowering.

Q.6.   When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer?

Goodness, I can't remember if there was a moment as such but looking back I can trace an underlying, undeniable and on-going motivation.  I still have a school jotter containing compositions I wrote when I was nine.  I clearly remember writing one of them which involved the hero sacrificing himself to save a drowning child from a stormy sea.  The teacher gave it good marks but was concerned about the subject matter which disappointed me a little!  I won the Reid Prize for English in sixth year, due in large part to the creative writing component, and remember long days writing or composing stories in my head as I walked to work in my twenties. And then when I was forty-seven, on top of a very busy full time role as a director of a multinational company, I signed up for an Open University creative writing course that required twenty plus hours of writing per week for nine months. As Maslow wrote, 'what a man can be, he must be' and that seems to be the nature of my relationship with writing. I just wish I had self-directed myself or been encouraged more strongly by others to pursue writing as the main focus of my professional life a lot earlier, before spending five years studying law, for example!
Nile sunset


Q.7.  What kind of books do you like reading?

I love books of poetic prose - Laurie Lee is an early inspiration especially his tales of adventure and self discovery. I also love writers who paint landscapes as if before a canvas, which vividly evoke an era I can never know, like John Fowles in the opening of Daniel Martin.  Books that pivot on the subtlest expression of the deepest of emotions like those by Kazuo Isiguro and Imre Kert├ęzs.  Finally, I love books that sweep through generations highlighting endurance, fortitude and unquenchable spirit. In short, books that touch, inspire and show a way forward. I'm all about adventure, freedom and possibilities and maybe it's not surprising that my reading choices revolve around these themes.

Egypt's Thousand Days of Revolution: A Parade of Presidents
by Alexander Murray

"Not a traditional guide, not a history, but something more pleasing: a journal which reminded me of the style of Stevenson's Travels with a Donkey in its keen observation, its search for understanding, and in the sense that part of the charm is in getting to know the author with all his humour and humanity. When I finished the book I felt as if I'd been there with him, and shared his hopes for the future of a country which could be hugely important in Africa and in the Middle East..."  Amazon Review

Some Reviews:-
"It's a heartbreaking tale, because we hear the stories from the local people Alexander constantly talks to, who are poor, oppressed and frightened, but still hopeful of a decent and fair government."

"Part travelogue, part journalistic endeavour, this should be on the shelf of anyone who wants to understand more about modern-day Egypt and Egyptians. The characters and the stories within these pages stay with you long after you've reluctantly closed the back cover." 







Sunday, 17 January 2016

The Monthly Project

I often go for a walk up the river, but my attention is usually on work related things.  Walking is good for writing, or incubating, and my head is full of stories and words - anything but the landscape I'm walking through. If your mind is elsewhere, then you don't notice the things around you.  So, in November I had the idea of going for a walk on the same day every month, at the same time of day and taking photographs from the same, favourite, spot - really looking at the landscape around me as it changes with the seasons.

I chose a place I love - a small copse of trees on the bank of the River Eden, where you get a good view of the fells and the farmland across the river.  It was late afternoon, with the sun low, illuminating the fields and the distant white-capped hills.

In November it was lush green and the sun had a deep autumn tint to it.  The trees still had some foliage clinging to the branches.  There were little clumps of ice, like crystals, concealed in the fallen leaves.


December didn't happen - the river was still too much in flood and covering the land. Walking up the river bank just wasn't possible.  A month later, in January, I was intrigued to see what damage the floods had done.  There were big sections of the river bank washed out and lines of trees lying in the water waiting for the next flood to drift them down to the sea.  But the little copse of trees was unchanged.

Except for the snow covering everything and the eerie light.  It's dark here by four thirty, so at 3.45pm the light is beginning to fade.  Without the snow to reflect the sky, it would have been a very gloomy photograph.

Sheep were scrabbling in the snow to find grass to nibble and there was a raptor calling further up the river - we've had a peregrine around for a few days now.  But otherwise very little was stirring.   Evidence of the flood was everywhere - I loved the way it had woven tapestries on the fences with grass, leaves and twigs.

I don't know where this project is going, but it's certainly making me really look at things rather than just wander in an absent minded way.  It was one of the great French authors who said that a writer should observe passionately - 'Look at a tree,' he commanded, 'until it looks like no other tree you have ever seen.'  So I'm looking.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Silencing an Inconvenient Truth

So you think it isn’t dangerous to be a writer?

Writing seems such a harmless occupation, but if you start looking at international affairs, you begin to realise just how powerful the written word is. I have recently edited a book on the political situation in Egypt, with the proviso that my name did not appear anywhere in relation to the book. Given the way that Egypt has recently been treating journalists, it seemed a wise precaution, though I still felt rather cowardly.

The case of disappearing publishers in Hong Kong has recently focused public attention on the dangers of writing and publishing material that those in power don’t like.  Lee Bo and his four associates  published books that were legal in Hong Kong, but not in China, yet they were ‘spirited away’ across the border in a sinister scenario worthy of a Bond movie.  So, what kind of firebrand publishing business was this?  According to a HK bookseller, their books ‘focus on taboo topics: politics, religion and sex.’

Lee Bo
In many, many countries across the world, freedom of information and opinion is restricted on these three absolutely fundamental subjects.  When I worked in broadcasting in Qatar, these three subjects could not be mentioned and a Ministry of Information censor sat in the corner of the studio ready to pull the plug. Even in the supposedly liberal west, the idea that we have complete freedom in these areas is an illusion, as the arrest of Edward Snowden and others has recently illustrated. If you reveal your government’s duplicity and seek to tell an unwelcome truth, you are regarded as a national traitor and liable to be incarcerated for a very long time.  In the USA you can be murdered for supporting Planned Parenthood.  All over the world you can be murdered for being the wrong kind of Christian or the wrong kind of Muslim.  In Saudi Arabia don’t even mention either the D word (democracy) or Women’s Rights. Critics of Islam have been gunned down in European capital cities, most notably the Charlie Hebdo journalists in Paris. What you write can seriously affect your health.

Palestinian journalist Mohamed al-Qeq is reported to be near death, after a hunger strike protesting against his detention in an Israeli jail without charge for six months.  What he was writing was deemed by Israel to support Hamas.

Hamza Kashgari
The Middle East is one of the most risky areas for a writer, and the case of 23 year old poet and newspaper columnist Hamza Kashgari is particularly sinister.  In 2012 he posted a number of Tweets that could be construed as critical of the prophet Mohammed and supportive of women’s rights. The authorities called for his arrest on charges of ‘apostasy’ which carries the death penalty. Hamza left to seek political asylum in New Zealand, but, despite an injunction against his extradition (Malaysia has no extradition treaty with Saudi Arabia), he was intercepted in the transit lounge of Kuala Lumpur international airport, arrested and put on a private plane to Saudia Arabia.  He spent two years in jail without trial before an international campaign secured his release.  Hamza wrote that;

"I view my actions as part of a process toward freedom. I was demanding my right to practice the most basic human rights—freedom of expression and thought—so nothing was done in vain. I believe I'm just a scapegoat for a larger conflict. There are a lot of people like me in Saudi Arabia who are fighting for their rights."  In his Tweets, he commented on women’s rights by stating that Saudi women "won't go to hell 'because it's impossible to go there twice." He was forced to issue a public apology and has been silent since then.

Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, also arrested in 2012, was sentenced to 1000 lashes and ten years in prison.  Where he remains, in poor health after receiving the first round of lashes, despite being granted political asylum in Canada. He, too, has been effectively silenced.

In the 21st century, with a global internet network, shouldn’t we be moving towards a more liberal information culture? Sadly, it seems not. There is a growing culture of fear in the world of publishing. Only the brave, the committed and - possibly the old with nothing left to lose - are willing to risk their lives to tell an inconvenient truth.