reading

The Joy of a Random Segue and of Reading at Odd Moments at Work

On Music

I’ve said I’m back working. Just for a bit, hopefully, as I realise I am genetically unsuited to it. However, as into each life a little rain must fall, so too does every cloud have its silver lining.

In the hour long drive at each end of the day, I’m enjoying listening to my playlist again. Ever since I owned a car and had audio fitted – a twenty-five quid diy job for my first car, I remember – I’ve always loved listening to music while driving. At the start, it was tape cassettes; a fiddly process at the best of times and always a risk of the machine chewing up your favourite recording. Thank Apollo! for digital and the invention of the USB memory stick, a thing half the size of a thumb which holds 750+ songs and that’s only half its capacity. I plug it in the car’s audio and request “Shuffle” and it plays my favourite songs in a random order.

I could make my own playlists, as I did with cassettes. The problem with this, for a perfectionist like me, is getting the segues right so that the mood of the music flows. This is not as simple as it sounds and it’s a good reason to leave it up to the mindless machine. However, even the uncultured gadget occasionally delivers beautiful segues and makes me think, I must make a note of that. But I never do. I haven’t worked out how to make notes while driving along.


On Reading

I’ve also started to grab an odd moment at work to read. This might mean the last ten or fifteen minutes at the end of lunch. It’s easy to think, ah, ’tisn’t worth getting out the book, or tablet, for such a short time, but I’ve found it is.

Reading at different times of the day and in different environments is surprisingly a different experience to normal, I find. Habitually, I tend to read last thing at night. Contrary to what experts say about reading off an illuminated tablet, I don’t find it induces insomnia. I actually find I’m nodding off and though I’m following the text, there’s a point when I’m not taking anything in. This isn’t really a good way to read at all but, in a busy day, it’s the only time regularly available.

At work, I find these moments where there isn’t much else to do. It’s not time to get back to the grindstone but lunch is eaten and I’ve done all my personal chores like checking my finances, answering personal emails, and shopping. It may be just ten minutes but out comes the iPad and I kick back and read a few paragraphs, and I realise it’s a different kind of joy. And whatever it is I’ve read stays firm in my mind, which is what it’s all about, isn’t it?


image of person reading by Blaz Photo via Unsplash.com

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Six Books for a Desert Island #3

I’m a bit of a nature boy at heart even though my knowledge might not be as deep as I’d like. As a little kid living in the boring suburbs, I treasured knowing the whereabouts of ponds. These were mainly artificial: created as obstacles on a golf course, or for coarse fishing clubs, or a rare dew pond made by a farmer long ago on the few remaining fields not yet swallowed up by the advance of metro-land. We would go pond dipping and bring home our zoological bounty in jam jars. One Christmas, I asked and got an optical microscope to see the tiniest of the pond’s inhabitants in a droplet of water: amoeba, daphnia, hydra, and the cyclops.

Later, I could have become a botanist. Exploring woods as a teen, I found a fascination in their prehistoric flora. The strange sights of various ferns, and mosses which, up close, looked like swathes of forests on a reduced scale.

Insects, birds and wild animals, all found their way into my heart too, a joy to see and study.

A Kestrel for a Knave (Barry Hines).

This was a set book on the English Literature syllabus at school. It was a rare good choice, I think: modern, accessible and appealing. The way literature was studied at school was to sample passages rather than begin at the beginning and read it through as the author intended. So, once I left school and chose to read for pleasure, this was one of the novels I picked out to read properly.

It’s also a “kitchen sink” story, a contemporary social commentary of working class life. The protagonist, Billy Casper, is poor, practically friendless, and in an unsupportive family. He has acquired a disdain for formal education, an unnecessarily harsh and systemically failing system. He takes solace in acquiring a fledgling kestrel which he sets out to train. He succeeds, with the help of a book on falconry he steals, and this comes to the attention of a kindly teacher who is the only person to take an interest in Billy’s life. It’s a great story and, like all good fiction, carries much truth.

Excellent alternative reads, all non-fiction;

The Peregrine by JA Baker.

Beautifully written accounts of bird observations in an estuary in the east of England, on an author’s search to discover falcons in the wild.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald.

More hawk training. A goshawk this time, a bird notoriously difficult to master.

A Sting in the Tail by Dave Goulson.

Not birds but bumblebees. A fascinating and entertaining read nevertheless. For a scientist, Goulson is a very accessible writer without too much dumbing down. Bumblebees, probably the most essential creature of the lot.

Six Books for a Desert Island #2

I don’t know if I’m going to make a series of these but a second book was already in my mind.

The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner (Daniel Defoe)

It may seem odd to chose this title for a desert island, or it might be seen as practical. Having read it a few times, I don’t think it would be of much practical resource other than to kindle a distress-call bonfire in the event of a passing ship. This is not to say it isn’t a great read; I find it very entertaining in a “ripping yarn” sort of way.

Some have it as the original novel, where novels all began; I can’t quite see that but it might explain the enormous title. Of course, being fiction, though possibly based on the real life castaway, Alexander Selkirk, it’s all made up but two things about the account are more implausible then the rest; after 28 years, mostly alone – the native he names “Friday” only turns up towards the end – he doesn’t go completely insane, and some time after his eventual rescue, the fool decides to go back!

I picked my old copy up many moons ago, together with Gulliver’s Travels – which also has a ridiculously long title (see below) – in nice, mock antique cover, pocket-sized editions, though the font size is so small it would probably give me a headache now. But you can pick it up on ebook for nothing as it’s so old there’s no copyright. Not much good for a desert island, perhaps.

excellent related reads;

Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, In Four Parts, By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships, by Jonathan Swift

This quite timeless satirical look at mankind and its peculiarities needs no more elaboration from me. I haven’t read it for a while but I expect there’s a relevant piece comparable to our dear “Brexit” and “Will-of-the-people” referendums in there somewhere. If not, we can revisit the controversy surrounding the little-endians and the big-endians instead.

An Island To Oneself by Tom Neale

Growing up in our house, we weren’t a bookish family. There was a shelf of books which mainly held a Pears Encyclopaedia, The Guinness Book of Records, The AA Book of the Road, a few recipe books, and several of my Beano and Dandy annuals. I did have regular subscriptions to several children’s encyclopaedic magazines, paid for by my grandfather, and very occasionally “found” books made their way into our home.

My mum was given this one at work and passed it straight on to me. It is a fascinating account of a man volunteering to spend six years on a desert island, living by his wits. Now, this would be of immense practical use if this exercise wasn’t actually hypothetical. Having said that, I remember he once repaired a leaky boat by pouring paint into the cracks. Hmm, it sounded convincing at the time…

I don’t know what happened to my copy but I don’t have it, and as if to rub salt in the wound, it is out-of-print and I’ve seen copies on sale at prices as high as £160. This kind of thing just makes me want to read it more.

Rorschach Test

a flash-fiction piece

“To me, this image represents our excesses, our gluttony and greed. It’s chaotic, unconstrained, undisciplined. Disrespectful. It is a metaphor of the state of the world as I see it today…”

He separated the notes he intermittently made on Patient P’s interpretations of Card X with a vertical line down the page. On the right hand side he wrote, “tomatoes, beetroot, string beans, avocado”. Then, on the left hand side, “vivid, politicised, abstraction”. He thought for a while, sucking on his pen, and then added, “carrots”. Then he wondered how well off he was for bananas. She liked bananas, he recalled, but he wasn’t sure how much he liked them himself.

“Clearly, it’s a fat lady wearing a blue bra and not much else,” smirked Patient F. “Apart from yellow gloves! She has long, curly, violently red hair…green stockings…”

He wrote down Martha’s number, just to see if he could remember it. It didn’t look right so he scratched it out and tried a different combination. This too looked odd. He wondered if Martha was still single after their split. She wasn’t the dating kind; they’d met in unusual circumstances, by pure chance; an accident, or coincidence, one might say. Though she wasn’t shy. She had been adventurous, full of surprises, sometimes shockingly so…but he really missed sharing the intimacy.

“An aquarium. See, tropical fish, coral, hermit crabs, a bit of a weed, bladderwrack..”

“What?” he said, his attention coming suddenly back to the test.

“Bladderwrack,” reiterated Patient W, “a bit of a weed.”

He wrote it down and gestured for the patient to continue. As the voice drifted further back into his conscious awareness, he began doodling in the margin: a desert island with a palm tree protruding dead centre, and little waves lapping around. They met on the sands of a lonely beach. He was taking photographs, she was sunbathing. He had been shocked to come across her, quite nude, while he was changing lenses: a wide angle for a zoom, the very longest. He fumbled clumsily, she squinted up at him through the bright sunlight, he coughed, and she laughed, without a shred of embarrassment. Propping herself up on one side, she offered him a drink from an open can, and he found he had a thirst he needed to quench.

“Well, it’s just a load of ink randomly splattered on a bit of card, then someone’s obviously folded it down the middle and opened it out again. It’s meaningless. Utterly meaningless. I could tell you it was the man in the moon. I could say pie in the sky. I could say it was two lovers in love, making love, but it would be ridiculous to do so.”

He didn’t know what to write now. No one had yet not played along. He looked into the eyes of Patient X and was bewitched by their clarity. Almond shaped and blue, sitting in absolute symmetry within the freshest of complexions, framed with auburn curls. She smiled at his dumb gaze, her plump lips parting ever so slightly revealing the edges of straight lines of pearly teeth. He wondered how unethical it would be to ask her out for a date.

“Shall I go on?” she asked, not breaking the spell.

“Yes, please do,” he said, putting down the blank clipboard.

(545 words)


written for Mindlovemisery’s Menagerie Sunday writing prompt – “Rorschach Test”

image: Rorschach Test, card X – the final test card.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then, I’ll begin…

Apps on my iPad update in the background. It’s something I accept without being too interested in what or why it happens; as long as it remains usable, I’m okay with it.

With some app updates, it’s obvious as there’s an altered appearance. The more considerate ones will open with a new welcome page, presenting the changes. Others just change subtly without fuss.

I don’t know how long it’s been there but I’ve just noticed the Kindle app this morning has a small headphones icon in the bottom corner, when reducing the pages for the menu. Curiously, I clicked it and, as expected, a voice started an audio reading of the book. I closed it down quickly.

While there’s nothing wrong with the idea of audiobooks, to me it’s nothing to do with reading, anymore than the sound of sizzling bacon is anything like biting into a bacon sandwich. What’s really wrong with it is the inflections in the actor’s voice. Reading is essentially a relationship between an author and a reader and I don’t welcome this third party influence.

Mind you, it took a while for me to come over to the idea of the ebook in preference to the paperback. Maybe in the next life…


Are you sitting comfortably? (Julia Lang)

image: voice actor, penguin random house.

Talking to Strangers

Thanks to umanbn (Mark Hodgson) – whose drawings blog I follow – for highlighting the Humans of New York project, which is fascinating. Brandon Stanton is a photographer who explains the project in his “About” page;

“Humans of New York began as a photography project in 2010. The initial goal was to photograph 10,000 New Yorkers on the street, and create an exhaustive catalogue of the city’s inhabitants.”

In essence, he takes someone’s portrait in the street and gets them to tell their story, a little bit about themselves, and transcribes it below their picture. I see some of those guys are really keen to talk. They must feel a need to tell their story. It’s probably a good deal.

What began in NY has now extended beyond the US; I’ve been reading a few pieces from within Europe. People from all over, happily talking to a stranger with a camera.

I don’t know if he’s approached any Londoners. It’s been a while since I thought about myself being a Londoner but casting my thoughts back, I’m not sure many would easily reveal their personal history to a complete stranger. We hardly dare make eye contact. London is a busy, crowded place and you have to create a kind of privacy within.

It reminded me of a time in my youth when I had to use the public bus to get to work. Normally, you’d look for two empty seats together so you sat alone; if there wasn’t any, you might prefer to stand in the aisle rather than take a seat beside a stranger. But sometimes you’d take a chance, especially if the journey was long.

So I sat down besides this guy, a very vocal, slightly drunk, probably, middle-aged Irishman, and he immediately began telling me his life story. When he felt he’d exhausted that subject, he went on to tell me my own life expectations – even though he didn’t know me from Adam! He invented all kinds of bollocks, all of it implausible. I mean, I ought to be famous by now, as rich as Croesus, and a great political statesman to boot. It was excruciating at the time – but funny afterwards.


I’ve just remembered, our BBC have done a similar thing with The Listening Project, a series of short interlude pieces recorded for radio. I think they set up a recording booth in a chosen place and people go in, often in pairs, to talk about themselves.

The whole world wants an opportunity to talk, it seems. They ought to start a blog.


Humans of New York

The Listening Project (BBC)

image of two people on bench in Osaka, Japan, by Andrew Leu via Unsplash.com

Is it okay to be in love with your protagonist?

The idea occurred to me while walking the dogs this morning. Actually, no sooner was this idea given oxygen when it latched itself onto an old idea that all our protagonists are, in essence, autobiographical, just different versions of us. Combined, this asks, how much writing a central character is an act of narcissism?

I’ve just begun reading Montalbano’s First Case, a book of short stories by Andreas Camilleri, a kind of prequel to the Montalbano novels of which he has written many. It’s apparent that Camilleri emphasises Montalbano’s good character: his virtues, his compassion, his good judgement, his wisdom – even when his man goes against the grain, bends the rules and breaks the law, there is an apology and virtuous reasoning. I’d say he is in love with him. But whether Montalbano is secretly Camilleri, I have no way of telling.

Of course, there’s the other idea that our characters are our fictional children, or even that they are our Adams and Eves to which we play God. We simply love our children, whatever they may do.

Going on a Safari, almost

Today’s google safari begins with the word,

Caudle

I discovered this word from an online article about historical birth rituals and customs for our queens and nobility. The article went through some rum goings on. Unbelievably, royal births were not considered private affairs. This apparent tradition lasted until our present Queen Elizabeth II gave birth to Charles. The Home Office minister’s presence was usually required but she put a stop to that nonsense. Earlier years saw a free-for-all when ‘The obstetrician yelled out,

‘The Queen is going to give birth!’ – at which point hundreds of courtiers poured into the room”.

Jaw dropping! However, Caudle, a spiced and alcoholic oatmeal gruel, was once prescribed post partum to queens as a restorative. The word caught my attention specifically because there is a village near here called Caudle Green, and I wonder if there’s a connection (could it be like Soylent Green or possibly drinking it made one feel queasy? But seriously, there may be a reasonable connection).

Royal Birth Traditions: from drinking caudle to audiences of 200

image: detail of a portrait by Franz Winterhalter of Victoria holding Arthur, and probably not being offered caudle, and probably not by the Home Secretary.


Miserden to Caudle Green and Brimpsfield round

Unfortunately, I didn’t get very far with finding the origin of the naming of Caudle Green and became fed up flicking through all the property sales and airbnb adverts in the village. Incidentally, there’s a quaint little Tudor cottage in the village, if you like that kind of thing, but it’s not for sale; I noticed it while out walking some years back.

So, I’m distracted by a google result which happens to be for a detailed 9.6 mile walk taking in Caudle Green. The website turns out to be a true labour of dedication to long walks around the British countryside; there appears to be hundreds of them, from Scotland to Cornwall. Each of the ones I viewed are accompanied by an informative and well-written introduction, then a detailed description of the walk itself, a little map and some useful information on OS maps, parking, refreshment stops etc. What more could you need?

Well, it goes further. Not only are the photos exceptionally well produced but some of the walks have associated videos (via youtube). I suppose if I were to be unnecessarily picky, I might suggest some link to GPS navigation but maybe the authors are old school, like me.

It’s called Walking with the Taxi Driver which I think is intentionally funny-ironic. It looks a great site and I’ll be back.


Walk to Caudle Green

Look at this painting by artist, Janet James, which came up in the search under “images”. It makes me want to put my boots on and walk. I love James’ style with paint: uncomplicated yet evocative. I feel as if I know the subject.

There are many more wonderful paintings at Janet James.co.uk

Google safaris don’t usually end after three items but blog posts do. Well, mine do anyway. Maybe more safari another day.

Picaresque

“When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.”

(Jonathan Swift from “Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting”)

Do you ever go on a Google Safari?

This may look like a conjoining of two popular search engine names but really my meaning is the popular and ubiquitous meaning of the first word and the literal meaning of the second.

So, it may start by recalling a phrase or quotation or, in this instance, a title of a book, and I’m curious as to its origin or context or literal meaning. The book is the only work published by the author, John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces.

This was a book I’d judged by the title back in – whoa! the 1990s, I reckon, when Penguin issued a series of modern classic novels at an introductory bargain price. I wasn’t disappointed.

The phrase used for the title came to mind this morning after reading the news, but in particular the readers’ comments which are invited below many of the news items. I will admit that I have commented on items myself though I hope I haven’t been typical of these commenters. It’s a healthy sign of freedom and democracy that we are allowed to express ourselves publicly even if we wrongly equate our opinion with that of the author’s. A moment’s thought would tell any reasonable person how wrong this is likely to be so they might discard their certainty before going in search of the truth. Yet vanity and pride overwhelm, so generally people will choose ignorance over correcting themselves.

So, discovering the title comes from Jonathan Swift rather than The Holy Bible or Shakespeare, and being happy with that, I find a term I wasn’t familiar with but ought to be: Picaresque.

Essentially, Picaresque is a literary genre which deals with the lovable rogue, in particular someone from the lower orders in society, though in a broader sense anyone swimming against the popular tide. I love this genre and find such persons, whether fictitious or real, interesting.

In human nature, I feel there must be a “gene” which compels us to move with the herd. You can see its possible “evolutionary advantage”, can’t you? The downside is, amongst other things, people are informed by a narrow section of news outlets – somewhat bias driven for cynically commercial reasons, we get hemmed in by “party politics” – mostly self-serving and unrepresentative of ordinary citizen’s needs or views, and a largely out-of-date and devalued education.


The author, John Kennedy Toole’s life story is a sad one. Having written A Confederacy of Dunces – a brilliant and funny debut novel, I thought – he failed to get a publisher interested in it. He suffered depression and took his own life at the age of 31.

It was his mother, an influential figure throughout his life though not always a welcome one, who championed the novel in her son’s memory and eventually had it published. Later, Toole was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It reads like a good story in its own right and although there is a play, I don’t know if anyone’s made or thought of making a film of it.

Though the Safari could’ve gone on, I chose to end it there.

If Our Books Disappear

As a Kindle shopper, I hadn’t been aware of the fate of Microsoft’s ebook store. Apparently, the company have decided to pull the plug on it due to its lack of profitability. If and when this happens, any books purchased through this shop will disappear. It’ll be like a virtual book burning session and there’s nothing those customers can do.

It’s worth some consideration, if you’re an ebook buyer, or whether you buy any virtual product, that what you are actually buying is not an object to own, in perpetuity, but a licence or permit to use that thing, maybe for an unspecified period. As long as you know this, I can’t see much wrong with it; you pay your money and you take your choice.

In the UK, at least, ownership of anything and everything is a relatively new social concept. I remember as a small boy, almost everyone rented their TV and music systems, a lot of household stuff was on hire-purchase (colloquially referred to as the never never because you paid but never owned it). My parents were the first in our extended family to own their home – through a 25 year mortgage deal, mind – and everyone thought they were odd, or even mad. Renting and hiring was the norm.

Getting back to books – and thinking about music, too – there is this idea of owning a collection, something which I had mindlessly fallen into as well. I think the craziness of it first surfaced when a colleague explained how he had fallen out with his partner after commandeering the second bedroom of their small, two-bed apartment and had installed wall to wall, floor to ceiling shelving to house his record collection. He had amassed many thousands, apparently. I asked if he actually listened to them all regularly and he said, of course! I doubted that: knowing my own habits and then doing the maths, there hardly seemed enough hours left in a lifetime to indulge in that level of listening, and that supposes that we won’t be seduced by any later offerings by artists and the industry.

It’s exactly so with books but worse. Reading a book is a lot more demanding, intensive and time consuming than listening to a record. While a favourite album might be on repeat playlist for a year, how many books do we return to that often? Of all the books I have reread, probably fewer than six had retained the impression of the first read. Quite a number had felt diminished, knowing the plot, the characters and the ideas within.

Not wishing to decorate my home with expansive shelves of records and books – I much prefer paintings and other images; and space! Let’s hear it for a clutter free existence – we found most of our unread books and unheard music had been confined to packing boxes under the beds or in closets, out of sight, out of mind. We took the step to cull most of it, offering them to charity shops and other collectors, keeping back a small number which we considered having special qualities, but even these rarely get looked at or listened to.

With music, it’s more convenient to pick something from an online platform, I never feel I have to own it to enjoy it. With books, I often find good literature on offer for less than a couple of quid each. There seems to be no end to these offers and I am in danger of collecting a virtual library of more books than I have time left to read. I’m not expecting it to disappear before I do but if it does, I think I’ve had my money’s worth. Owning stuff is not so important to me now, as long as I have access to books, music and art some other way, that’s fine. I understand the deal.


When this ebook store closes, your books disappear too (BBC News)