Don’t Go Empty Handed

‘Don’t Go Empty Handed’: this was one of my English Grandma’s oft-repeated phrases when we would stay at her house as children. We would eat in the large sitting/dining room, where there was space to accommodate us all: Grandma, Grandad, Dad, Mum, my brother, and eventually my little sister, too.

MugsIt was a principle of ergonomic activity my Grandma was urging. We were eating in a different room from where the food was prepared, and then at the end of the meal we needed to transport dishes, leftovers and condiments, to be put away in cupboards and the fridge, and the washing up done. If any of us got up to fetch something from the kitchen – an extra knife, or a forgotten sauce – this would be the refrain. Take something on your way through. It was also a reminder of the labour of domestic work, the to-and-fro of daily meals.

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Brexit and the Cultural Sector

Brexit and the Cultural SectorI’ve written a piece in a volume published by Berlin’s The Literary Field Kaleidoscope and the Centre for British Studies at Humboldt-Universität, It’s not just the Economy, Stupid! Brexit and the Cultural Sector, edited by Sandra van Lente and Gesa Stedman.

My piece is called ‘Haud Oan to Europe’, and was inspired by Scottish textile artist Jane Hunter‘s work on the day after the EU Referendum. It also takes some inspiration from Innerpeffray Library in Perthshire, and the work that University of Stirling PhD researcher Jill Dye is undertaking there. The volume includes work from politicians, writers and academics, including Ali Smith, Ben Bradshaw, and Rachel Seiffert.

The volume is accessible via The Literary Field Kaleidoscope’s post here, with direct links to an EPUB version here (Dropbox link), and to a pdf here.

Passing Place

This week I’ve been on writing retreat, at the beautiful Moniack Mhor. I’m working on the beginning of a sequel (and consequently thinking about some of the changes that might need to be made to the first!). I’ve got a few, tentative words on the page, when not staring out of the window at the view…

PassingPlace2But while here I became intrigued by the number of PASSING PLACE signs (which, I later saw, illustrate the ‘Work at Moniack Mhor’ page – none currently available, I’m afraid). These diamond-shaped signs reminded me of a couple of other recent journeys, in Cumbria, Perthshire, and Shetland. The signs dot the landscape as the roads narrow down to single track, some faded, some only 50 metres away from the next, some a little further away.

I like passing places – they require a bit of negotiation between you and the oncoming car. Both must slow down, as one draws into the passing place. A wave of thanks goes between the drivers. Occasionally, on a sunny day with the windows open, a few words are exchanged. On a long straight road, the passing places are bulges on either side, pregnant ripenings along the way. At a few parts of the rail network trains, and their passengers, must also be patient. Recently, I saw a northbound train its southbound counterpart before it could proceed on the single track. One of the passengers called over to the platform, wondering how long he had to wait, perhaps wanting to sneak a cigarette in before the journey began again. Continue reading

Philip Pullman and The Book of Dust

fullsizerenderPhilip Pullman announced this week that he’ll be publishing the first in a new trilogy of novels based in the worlds of His Dark Materials this autumn. I wrote about the announcement in The Conversation, thinking in particular about the expansion of existing fictional worlds by both fans and authors, and also the contemporary political resonances.

I wrote a reader’s guide to Pullman’s trilogy in 2002, and a longer critical book on Pullman – Philip Pullman, Master Storyteller: A Guide to the Worlds of His Dark Materials – in 2006. The cover of my book was a design by a fan.

Like many other fans, I’m keen to see what he writes next!

On (Re)reading The Handmaid’s Tale

fullsizerenderInspired by the sales spike of certain books in the wake of Trump’s inauguration, I went over to my bookshelf. Not to pull off George Orwell’s 1984 (one of the books with a new urgency to it) but to find, nestled among piles of other Virago titles, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The novel’s 1985 dystopian vision of the Republic of Gilead, in which women are forced to breed for the theocratic ruling class, has found new resonance as a US president who has openly and repeatedly demonstrated his misogyny takes office. Atwood’s book is shortly to be released as a TV mini-series, and was plugged (along with several other adverts which seemingly expressed values in opposition to Trump’s) during the 2017 Super Bowl.

Time, then, for me to re-read the book. I have an ulterior motive, too – the book I’ve been writing displays a perhaps not-too subtle influence from Atwood’s novel (my alternate world features cloaked women and constraints – including on reading and procreation – placed upon particular sectors of society). My mum, commenting on an early draft, recognised the influence immediately.

Before starting to reread, I thought back to when I read the book, in the 6th form at school. I remembered lending the copy to a friend, who returned it with an apology and a coffee stain. More precious about my books then than I am now (perhaps because I owned fewer of them), I was cross. I checked, and the stain is still there, running along the top edge of the pages.

fullsizerender-2I opened it up, and saw the teddy bear bookplate: ‘I can’t bear to be without my books’. This childish hangover marked that I’d got the book on my 18th birthday. I suspect I chose the book myself, though I can’t remember. By that time, I’d already read several other of Atwood’s books after being introduced to Surfacing by a forward-thinking A-level English Literature teacher. We’d made collages in class to represent the psychological landscape of the protagonist of Atwood’s second novel; its wild world of madness, nationalism and feminism. The same teacher also set us Tony Harrison’s V, a long poem written after the author had found graffiti on his parents’ Yorkshire gravestones. Its obscene language – ‘fuck’, ‘cunt’, ‘nigger’ – caused great controversy when it was televised in 1987 for Channel 4, and was still creating debate when recorded for BBC Radio 4 in 2013. Thinking back, I was lucky to have a teacher so keen to teach us very contemporary, and political, literature.

I’ve written elsewhere about traces of reading I’ve found in my Famous Five books. This copy of The Handmaid’s Tale revealed another history to me – the address of a young man, Laurie, who I’d met on the train home from an interview for a place at Oxford. He’d also been for an interview, and was heading back to Scarborough, I to Lincolnshire. I seem to remember I must have written to him, and we spoke on the phone after we had found out about our offers. In the age before mobile phones and social media, this was done self-consciously from the hallway of the family home.

I’d applied to one of the oldest and most traditional of colleges (mainly because I liked the buildings), and didn’t enjoy my interviews: one with an older tutor interrogated my understanding of a poem I was given to look at on the spot, and found baffling; and a second with two younger men who sat to either side of me so I couldn’t see them both at once. They’d asked me what I was reading outside of my set texts, so I mentioned The Handmaid’s Tale, which I’d been reading on the train on the way down. They also seemed keener on getting a particular response from me to the text (that Gilead is the former United States, and Canada an escape route) than hearing about my opinions about the book, which I anyway hadn’t yet finished. Dissuaded by these men and their desire for me to utter a pre-determined answer to their literary questions, I chose instead to go to university in York, where my female interviewer seemed happily to listen to my appreciative description of the weather in Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native and its objective correlative role in character creation.

Life turns on such decisions, but the heat of their moment lessens as time goes on. Physical copies of books sometimes retain that heat within their pages, unfolding a previous life as the pages are turned once more. It’s one of the reasons why bookish people like to surround themselves with shelves of books, even if we know, rationally, we’re unlikely to read a particular copy again.

And yet today, though, I’m starting to re-read The Handmaid’s Tale:

I remember that yearning, of something that was always about to happen and was never the same as the hands that were on us there and then, in the small of the back, or out back, in the parking lot, or in the television room with the sound turned down and only the pictures flickering over lifting flesh.

We yearned for the future.

 

 

 

 

I went out EU leafleting…

IMG_0731I went out EU referendum campaigning today, in my adopted home city of Glasgow.

I’m a passionate and instinctive Europhile (hard not to be, when one of your parents is French, aka an ‘immigrant’). I’m also convinced by the vast majority of factual argument, most of the conjecture about the future, and all of the socio-cultural claims (of which we’ve not heard enough) for remaining in the EU.

But I live in a bit of a bubble – in surveys, c90% of staff in academia, and c80% in publishing, intend to vote to stay in the EU. (Though seriously – if you’re one of those 10% or 20%, could we have a chat before Thursday, please?!). Like many, I’m profoundly depressed by the level of political rhetoric, and general knowledge of what the EU is and does, and the all-too real possibility that the UK might vote to leave on Thursday (even if Scotland does not).

So with just a few days to go I decided I had to do a bit more than speak within my very largely pro-EU circle of friends and colleagues. I headed out onto the streets, leafleting with Stronger in Europe. My afternoon started off in Sauchiehall Street (the city centre), then onto Byres Road in the West End. Continue reading