Reading wildly

One of the sessions I attended at Wordstock last week was to hear Andy Miller speak about his year of reading dangerously. Picking up and actually finishing books he’d once claimed to read but hadn’t. Books that people consider difficult to read. Books like Moby Dick and Anna Karenina.

There was lots that struck me in his empassioned presentation, but one that chimed true is what he said about the books we have read recently. How they are limited, and for a large part, chosen for us.

Bookshelf full of classics
Books are there for reading

If you still have a bookshop, the fiction section is largely dominated by the top ten hardback or paperback titles, pushed forward by the major publishing companies. Unless it’s a very large, independent or particularly quirky place, there’s little space for anything outside the popular in all genres and the well known classics. And so, those of us who read, get a narrowing choice of the new, and we all pick up “We need to talk about Kevin” or “Wolf Hall’.

Ah, and there’s the other thing that Andy spoke about. If you start a book, you should finish it. And I haven’t finished Wolf Hall. It isn’t very often that I fail to finish a book, but Wolf Hall I put aside after giving it a really good try, with that standard excuse of “Life’s too short to read something I’m not enjoying.”

And yet where would I be if I hadn’t persisted with difficult books? As a student, I toughed it out through the Faerie Queene, various medieval texts and far more impenetrable stuff. I stuck with Dickens Our Mutual Friend, which, quite frankly, really takes some time to get going, but does pay off.

The Japanese have a word for a pile of books waiting to be read – it’s Tsundoku.  I’ve managed to keep mine manageable this year, by virtue of not acquiring new books, until I’ve read the ones I already have. I currently have four in waiting, including two non-fiction titles, but I’m prepared to put them to one side a little longer to take up a challenge to read outside my usual range. To finish books I’ve started, to read some older stuff I may have missed.

I am starting with John Buchan’s 39 Steps, which I don’t expect to be a difficult read, but I prepared to be challenged. This is a rich time for my reading list, with a birthday and Christmas approaching. So I’m asking you to recommend some titles and until the end of January, I’ll read a little more dangerously.

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Wordstock 2015 – a festival of words and creative fun

Wordstock, the annual gathering of members of 26 is a place where words bubble up into a rich and fragrant stew; where the tick of time inspires the tock of activity. Where we celebrate creativity, learn, laugh and fire up new writing projects for the next 12 months.

I arrived a little late at the Free Word Centre in Farringdon, so missed the opening celebrations of projects that 26 writers have taken part in during 2015, including 26 Pairs of Eyes, 26 Under a Northern Sky and 26 Children’s Winters.

Think like a poet
Thinking poetically

But I was there for the launch of the latest, which I’m also involved in. Over the next 26 weeks, 26 postcodes will reveal a sestude inspired by a postcode together with the story behind it. Gillian Colhoun kicked things off by reading her piece, based on the Gaelic football ground where Seamus Heaney played. My own contribution, based on Dove Cottage, the Lake District home of William and Dorothy Wordworth, will appear next year.

The day was split into a series of sessions, with a choice of workshops in the morning and afternoon. I first opted for Rishi Dastidar‘s session. As head of verbal identity at BrandPie and a published poet, he’s a mash up of Don Draper and Byron and showed us four ways to use poetry techniques in copywriting.

A packed session, full of useful content and some speedy writing. And I’ve already used one of the techniques to inspire a new brand name. Who says you can’t measure the value of inspiration?

Next up, more poetry from spoken word artist and Barnes’ answer to Eminem Charlie Du Pre. He serenaded us on ukulele, and left us wondering why we’ve never heard rhymes like:  ‘I engage with lots of faces pretty much on a daily basis’, before. Fast-paced, funny and rapping genius.

I spent the afternoon session with independent copywriter, author and trainer, Roger Horberry who loves alliteration even more than I do. He demonstrated that the forms of rhetoric pack a punch in modern marketing. And, for this writer at least, brought back memories of studying Spenser, Donne and Pope at university.

Images of the number 26
Celebrating the best in writing at 26

Self-styled biblio-fundamentalist Andy Miller was next, sharing his experience of actually reading the books that he always wanted to and some he even pretended he had. He finished by ‘persuading’ a handful of 26ers to commit to reading their own choice of books. For my part, I’ve signed up to read John Buchan’s 39 Steps, spurred on by another conversation I had during the day.

The final session was a fascinating insight into storytelling from John Yorke, former Eastenders script editor and head of drama at BBC and Channel 4. I love a good bit of story-theory and this so much fired up my interest that I’ve been looking for the mid points and reversals of fortune in every TV drama I’ve watched since.

I learned something new too. Did you know that the acts in Shakespeare plays were determined by the length of time it took to burn a candle?

Last time I came to Wordstock, I was introduced to the music of Nick Drake and on the journey home, sparked the idea that became 26 Under A Northern Sky along with co-conspirator Sandy Wilkie. This time we collaborated again and have put forward another idea that we both hope will be adopted as another creative brief.

I really couldn’t have asked more from a packed day of words, writers and mind-blowing creativity. The train journey north wasn’t nearly enough time to process it all. And the pile of books on my reading list has grown by at least 3 volumes. If you can make it next year, I heartily recommend it.

Seeking inspiration

In the world of business writing you’ll find plenty of objectives, measures and rationale. Sometimes they even sit alongside insights, research and objectives. And they always come with deadlines. But I’ve rarely found much creative inspiration.

Little wonder really when you think about how hard it is to measure and quantify. What’s the ROI of a book? How much value did watching that film bring to the project? What’s the cost per idea ratio?

Creative inspiration can’t be easily quantified and defies attempts to render it into the boxes of a spreadsheet.

And yet, it’s that spark, that different way of looking at things, that new metaphor that my marketing customers are searching for and hope that creative teams will supply.

As a writer, its almost as hard for me to quantify its importance in terms of how it makes me feel or inspires me to think and write. Except to say that it is.

Performers at the Edinburgh Fringe festival
Performers at the Edinburgh Fringe festival

And that’s why I make an effort to seek it out, enjoy it and expect nothing from it. Yet it’s proved its worth beyond measure.

My yearly trips to the Edinburgh Book Festival are a liberal dousing of inspiration. The speakers, events and readings a rich seam, along with travelling there to take in the sights, sounds and general hullaballoo of the fringe – a huge outpouring of creative energy.

Art, theatre, cinema, music, travel, nature – these have all supplied inspiration in their time. And when all else fails I’ll read. Stories will never fail me.

On Sunday, I went to hear Simon Armitage at the Durham Book festival. He was talking about and reading from his latest prose work, based on walking part of the South West coast, relying on strangers for food and lodging and giving poetry readings at his stopping points. Themes of journey and return. Of language and experience. Of travelling in the landscape, encountering strangers. Of simultaneously craving company and wanting to be alone.

I filled a page of my notebook with phrases and filled my head with even more thoughts and ideas which may spark and grow. What will become of them, it’s too early to say. Even when I write I may not realise that’s where the idea came from.

But I was able to thank Simon Armitage for helping me find a way in to a piece of personal writing. I first encountered his poem ‘Not the Furniture Game’ http://www.simonarmitage.com/kid.html on a Dark Angels course. It’s a striking, harsh and rich piece in its own right, and when  used as a loose framework for our own creative writing, produced deep, emotional responses. It’s an exercise I’ve repeated on subsequent courses, with different objects, and it’s always bubbled up beautiful, touching and expressive images.

It helped me find a way into a personal piece I was finding impossible to write. When draft after draft nothing fit, everything sounded trite and cliched, I used the structure and exercise to unlock a way in. Sometimes that’s all it takes – a nudge in the right direction.

This weekend I’m off to Wordstock for another dose of inspiration. A journey, the fellowship of fellow writers, and a chance to listen and enjoy a range of different talks and sessions. Last time, it inspired the amazing 26 Under a Northern Sky collection.

Where do you find your creative inspiration?

Indian summer

I’ve been pondering the Indian summer. What can I say? I’m British. The weather is practically an obsession. But where does the phrase come from? And which Indians does it refer to – Native Americans, or people of the vast land in South Asia?

As ever, that other British institution, the BBC, offers an excellent explanation of its meteorological and social history.

Walking barefoot on the beach
Walking barefoot on the beach

Indian summer refers to a spell of fine autumn weather. It seems to have been commonly used in the USA from the late 1700s, and gained popularity in the UK from the 1950s, presumably as we experienced some spells of warm autumn weather.

For me, it’s a phrase that conjures up memories of forcing my feet into stiff new school shoes after a summer of going barefoot, or wearing sandals and trainers, and never having to bother with insufferable socks. I saw no need to change my clothing while the sun still shone and would stubbornly stick out in short sleeves until I couldn’t escape the goosebumps and the dreaded cardigan any longer.

In searching for the meaning and etymology of Indian summer, I looked for its use in literature. First stop was a poem by William Wilfred Campbell that begins:

Along the line of smoky hills
The crimson forest stands,
And all the day the blue-jay calls
Throughout the autumn lands.

I’m not familiar with Campbell’s poems, but it seems nature, the seasons and landscape are common themes. I imagine Wordworth transplanted from the English Lakes to Canada.

Then, via Wikipedia I find a glimpse of an Indian poet Jayanta Mahapatra writing about an Indian summer:

Over the soughing of the sombre wind
Priests chant louder than ever.
The mouth of India opens:
Crocodiles move into deeper waters.

I’m intruiged, but can find little more than this excerpt and a reference to the poem’s theme of ‘suffering woman’.

Indian summer can also refer to a period of happiness, success and contentment later in life. Maybe that’s what pulls me to the phrase. Dorothy Parker gives this idea her own inimitable twist in her poem ‘Indian Summer’

In youth, it was a way I had
To do my best to please,
And change, with every passing lad,
To suit his theories.

But now I know the things I know,
And do the things I do;
And if you do not like me so,
To hell, my love, with you

Good old Dorothy Parker – always raising an eyebrow and a smile.

For me this year, an Indian summer has offered the simple pleasure of the sun on my face as I walk along the sand, seeking out a spot to sit with my book, or watch the waves. Barefoot, naturally.

Great North Run 2015 coming soon

Today I ran my 7th Great North Run. It was, as always, an amazing and surprising experience. It wasn’t my fastest or slowest, but probably one of the ones I’ve most enjoyed.

I usually try and write my blog on the day of the run, but tonight I need to rest and recover, and that means letting my brain wind down from all the sights, sounds and sensations of a brilliant day to.

So I will be back. I will tell the story of a great day, and I do have some tales to tell.

Festival inspiration

I spent a couple of days in Edinburgh recently, enjoying the Book and Fringe Festival. It’s become a regular part of my summer to spend a couple of days there, and I always wish I could stay longer and see more.

I picked some wonderful events at the Book Festival this year. There was an event I was interested in just about every day, but I cherry-picked those that would allow me to travel there and back in a day and made the most of the days I was there.

Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh
Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh

Phillipa Gregory, who writes historical fiction, and is most well known for The Other Boleyn Girl was an interesting and intelligent speaker. She immerses herself in history, taking around a year to research each novel.

Listening to her made me reflect how much of my own knowledge of history comes from reading fiction, rather than academic works. I reckon Jane Austen taught me as much about Regency England and its manners as Charles Dickens educated me about social inequalities in Victorian London.

These places and time periods become very real to me through the fictions of the time. And that continues into the modern day, with writers like Ian Rankin showing contemporary Scotland through the eyes of Rebus and Malcom Fox.

Philippa Gregory admitted that she didn’t read historical fiction, saying “I read history, so you don’t have to.” Her work has certainly helped me understand the Wars of the Roses better than any text book ever did. She also revealed how inspiration for her book The Other Boleyn Girl came from reading about Tudor shipbuilding and finding a reference to a ship called the Mary Boleyn. Proving that no research is ever wasted, she finally got to write about those Tudor ships in her latest book.

But my trip wasn’t all history and fiction. I spent a very educational hour in the tent with David Crystal. David is a linguist and well known for his many books on the English language. His text books formed the core of my English Language studies at University.

We would be a much poorer culture had those wayfarers not persisted in going beyond the next horizon.
Poster in Charlotte Square

He was talking about accent and dialect and some of the wonderful lost dialect words in the English language. As with most people who are enthusiastic and really know their subject well, he was amusing, entertaining and taught his audience something new. He was assisted by his son, Ben, an actor, and together, discussing accents, they made a great comic double act.

I left feeling just as excited about their non fiction work as I did about the piles of fictional books I longed to take home from the bookshop. Since I came back, I’ve always had a book on the go, and find myself seeking out time to return to their pages.

As always, I was inspired by my visit to Edinburgh. I think that’s important, to have people and places that encourage me to look beyond my every day experience and to fire up an interest in learning more. Reading provides fuel for the brain and in Edinburgh at the book festival I am surrounded by fellow readers and inspired by writers. It feels like I am with my tribe.

Memories of a visit to Hiroshima

Memories of a visit to Hiroshima, paying respect to the past and being welcomed to a thriving, and peaceful city

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the first atomic bomb dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.

Hiroshima. A place name that can stop you dead. As dead as the watch whose hands forever point to 8:15 – the precise moment when the atomic bomb shattered thousands of lives and changed history.

A-bomb dome, Hiroshima
The A-bomb dome, Hiroshima

I first visited Japan in the spring of 2007. On the train to Hiroshima, a young man smiled and approached with his hand held out. Nestled in his palm was an origami crane and over the course of our journey, he showed us how to make one.

Taking a pad of patterned paper from his back pack, he began to fold it into shape, slowly, deliberately, taking great care of the creases. He introduced himself as Tsetsuo and thanked us for allowing him to practice his English.

When we got off the train, he walked us over to a tram stop and made sure we reached our destination.

The A-Bomb dome, the building that marks the epicentre of the bomb blast remains a ruined shell. Damaged, but still standing. A marker that held its ground as everything else around it was atomised into dust. Its distinctive shape casts a shadow on the skyline.

It stands at the entrance to the Peace Park, gardens, memorial and the Peace Museum. The museum tells the history of the city and its people, describing the worldwide events that lead to the bomb through a series of panels depicting letters, documents and photographs from world leaders at the time.

The initial blast killed 700,000 people, but in the following weeks and years many more would die from the effects of radiation, from being crushed in damaged buildings, trapped by fire, or simply desperately, desperately thirsty, with only black irradiated water to drink.

A model shows the city before and after the blast. Figures show the desperate human suffering. Eyewitness statements speak of a blinding white flash and then searing pain like hot needles as the shock wave ripped through buildings and bodies.

Memorial in the Peace Park, Hiroshima
Memorial in the Peace Park, Hiroshima

There were only five photographs taken in Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. They were taken by newspaper photographer Yoshito Matsushige, who was a couple of miles away from the centre of the blast. He later wrote: “I fought with myself for 30 minutes before I could take the first picture. After taking the first, I grew strangely calm and wanted to get closer. I took about ten steps forwards and tried to snap another, but the scenes I saw were so gruesome, my viewfinder clouded with tears.”

That phrase, “My viewfinder clouded with tears” has stuck with me. More powerful than any photograph.

The final section of the museum displays objects recovered from the debris. Beside them sit museum cards with details of who they belonged to, where they were at the time of the blast and what they were doing on that day.

A twisted metal lunch box, a tattered uniform, a child’s tricycle. I found these objects and their stories almost unbearably moving. They brought the unimaginable destruction of a thriving city back to a human scale.

There’s a special space for the story of Sadako Sasaki, a girl who died from leukaemia, caused by the radiation 10 years after the bomb. She folded thousands of paper cranes in the hope she would get well. The tradition continues with a monument in the park where children hang colourful paper cranes in a message of peace.

It’s not unusual for westerners in Japan to encounter great kindness. I have heard many travellers tell of being given directions, or even taken to where they wanted to go by local people. As a visitor, you are a most honoured guest, in a country which sets great cultural value on respect.

Japanese garden
Japanese garden in Hiroshima

But I think that Tsetsuo, who showed us how to make the paper cranes, was acknowledging more than the usual Japanese hospitality. When we told him we were visiting the Peace Museum, he said his grandfather was one of the many thousands killed in the atom bomb blast.

He knew his city was a hard place to visit. And that was why he took such care to welcome us. To honour our interest in his home town and help us see beyond its sad history.

As we learned in the museum, only a few days after the bomb obliterated the city, the trams began to run again. And despite all the fears that nothing would ever grow again in that irradiated earth, lilies bloomed between the tracks.

Hiroshima now offers a peaceful and friendly face, whilst paying respect to and remembering the past.