Friday, 20 March 2020

The growiing significance of Audio reading in modern literary life.

Like many other writers I have an abiding passion for books. In my long life I have read many hundreds of   thousands books for the purposes of pleasure, for research, for information, and for inspiration. Then there is the added ultimate pleasure of meeting like minds through words on a page written many years ago.

In my long life as a writer the books I have read have   been my model - in informing in various ways the direction and the spread of my own writing. For me life without books would be a vacuum, a desert. Without the books in my life I would never have dared to write my own stories and allow them to be shared with strangers. Perhaps like my mother and her four sisters I would have been stuck with telling the stories round the tea table, the children listening eagerly underneath the table.*

So far so good.

However, all this reading appears to have wreaked havoc on my eyes, rendering one of them only usable by default and the other occasionally giving up the ghost. Medical intervention has helped to a degree but the days of reading quickly, skimming and scanning for information has lurched to a stop.

I can still read, but not for long periods of time and not – as was mostly the case – at speed. All that skimming and scanning was that had been so useful for research and context has rather petered out.

And then – as I said in the earlier post - along came Kindle, bringing new possibilities – not least the possibility of enlarging print for ease of definition. It has proved useful for research and exploring new titles. My reading on Kindle very much reflected and endorsed my established reading choices.

“But it’s not the same!” So many people say. Me too! I have to say. For me reading books has always been a sensual experience – the bright artwork on the covers; the smell of new paper; the crisp feeling as I flick through the pages of a new book.

These days I do still read books - somewhat slowly I admit. But I do mourn my regular encounter with the new titles in paper, between covers. These days I tend to read poetry. With poems one can absorb a whole concept or story in a much shorter space – just one or two, sometimes three pages. These encounters are both bracing and inspiring. In recent times I’ve been revisiting the ineffable poet American Robert Hass whose poems of walk through his life and mine; and Maya Angelou whose poems are songs reflecting the light and dark 20th century history. And I am rediscovering the dark nature of poet Ted Hughes and the hearing the magical rhythms of William Butler Yeats. As well as this I have loved reading the new work of my friend Avril Joy – inspired literary insights into diverse modern experience.

And yet in all this I miss the regular encounters with new books and savouring the anticipation the pile of books waiting the bedside table.

My favourite mantra in these challenging days is ‘in every problem there lies a possible solution.’ In my case this problem of reading in substantive quantities has been solved by my discovering and embracing reading in audiobook form.

Eureka! By this means I am now reading as much and as   quickly and as widely as ever I have. It is worth noting here that this activity engages the sense not mentioned as yet - the crucial sense of hearing.

Such a delight.

Interestingly, in enthusing about all this I have met more than a degree of literary snobbery. In the air is the vague suggestion that this – listening on earphones to someone reading a great writer’s work – doesn’t count as “reading”. One might even infer from certain comments that this way of reading is to some degree lazy, even inferior.

So I have decided to “come out” as an audio reader and boldly to say “I am reading Hilary Mantel’s new novel The Mirror and the Light. So brilliant. I don’t say listening to. And I say ‘I’m reading John Banville writing as Benjamin Black -all those high literary skills bringing subtle life to novels one might pin night down as psychological/ detective/philosophical narratives.’

So it is that in the last year or so I have read many novels.   I counted them up this morning and it seems I have read 49 long novels. In his seminal book On Writing, Stephen King, in adding up his annual consumption of books included all the books he had read on audio; I think his list came to 80 something.

There is something else. I feel now that one should recognise that audio books actually offer added value to readers in the skills and nature of the person who narrates the story. This is a very high skill and makes a crucial difference in the way that one reads a book. The voice of the narrator can make or break your own reading of the book.  In some cases I have to admit that for me some of the narrations can lessen the impact of the book. But the novel can only be enhanced by the talent of a narrator whose skills allow the writer’s voice to come through richly, clear and true.

Among these I would list Peter Forbes reading the novels of Peter May, James Buchanan reading Ian Rankin, Gerry O’Brien reading of Galway writer Ken Bruen. Then there is John Keating reading Benjamin Black/John Banville. And Ben Miles reading Hilary Mantel. I also really admire Ann Dover’s reading of some of my own novels; she tackles the north-east intonations with insight and subtlety - no easy thing.

Looking at this I think perhaps I might be accused of some bias towards the Celtic voice – which might, I suppose, reflect some of my own deep heritage. But there is musicality there which doesn’t resort to flat actorish Received Pronunciation.

Audio reading is blossoming all over the place these days, edging its way into long car and bus journeys, into long afternoons in the garden, into the boredom of hospital waiting rooms. And now we have the enforced isolation engendered by the epidemic I feel it will broaden its appeal even further.

Self-isolation may not be such a deep punishment when we can add to our list of books read ad infinitum; we can track the work of certain writers we love and find writers who may illuminate our confined lives. Audio reading is great for fiction but in my experience is also great for disciplines like philosophy, sociology and psychology.  Even writing from the classical world is available in this form.

For some people, probably like myself, for whom book reading has become more difficult, audio reading adds to and intensifies the traditional benefits of having all those books on your bedside table. I can see that in this time isolation, even confinement, that audio reading could very much facilitate online reading groups or WhatsApp discussion groups.

So, in this time of crisis, whatever the state of our eyes, in addition to our singing, painting, jigsawing, and reading actual paperbacks, we can explore and extend our enhanced and enriched literary range by reading in Audio, whether we do it on our own or as a member an online group.

Our aim for the duration of this crisis has to be that we spend time rather than just pass it till things get better. Which they will.

*I have posted here a while ago about ways of reading, focusing more on social class and reading – a theme which is becoming fashionable these days,

You will find useful information about  acquiring Audio Books on this site. 

Thursday, 16 January 2020

Kaleidoscope. A creative view of the literary connection between memoir and fiction.

The final version – a certain kind of writer’s magic!

I have just printed off the final master copy of my new short story collection Kaleidoscope – inspired by a series of well received workshops I offered last spring on the crucial connection between memoir and the short story.  This master copy will go to my third highly informed and insightful reader whose views I will welcome.
The title – Kaleidoscope – Stories From The Frontier – and also the nature of these short stories – was inspired by a good deal of reading, especially the work of Diana Athill and Jean Rhys.

I was particularly engaged by Diana Athill’s insightful comment on the late work of Jean Rhys, with whom she worked in the last 15 years of Rhys’s long life. Athill remarked on Rhys’s writing ‘from the ‘frontiers of old age’ as being of her very best,

I realised recently the degree to which my mind and imagination is a storehouse of experiences of my whole life – perceptions, sensual reactions, pleasures and pains. These elements are like the tiny bits of glitter in a kaleidoscope – each bit existing in its own right. Each time I shake my kaleidoscope I make a unique pattern, a unique story, reflecting of elements my life in different times and different places.

After much thought I have come to the conclusion that all memory is best transmuted through fiction and that all fiction is a vehicle for memoir. My Kaleidoscope collection here echoes these ideas and, I hope, reflects the intimate literary relationship between memoir, fiction and the short story,

Kaleidoscope will be published in the spring. I’m looking forward to that. My life is there on the page. I hope Kaleidoscope will resonate with a wide range of writers and readers interested in this complex connection between memoir and fiction.    

My heartfelt hope is that Kaleidoscope will resonate with a wide range of writers and readers interested in this complex and intriguing connection between memoir and fiction.

Ah! Titles! 
The titles of the short stories here are part of the essential truth of the life they reflect – the meat on the bones, as it were...

Kaleidoscope – Stories from the Frontier

 Keong Sak.
I do enjoy Singapore, very much.’   Tim Rice
 Watching and Feeling. ‘Blake said the body was the soul’s prison unless the five senses are fully developed and open.’ Jim Morrison.

This Working Life. Nothing will work unless you do. Maya Angelou
‘The door is inscribed in gold Gothic lettering. Miss Hogarth: Principal…’ R.E

Patchouli. There is nothing automatic about political change, about liberation.   Gloria Steinem.
1963. ‘So, how’s your love life?’ Amanda’s small, round face examines me, top to toe, her eyes shrewd…’ R.E

Bandages. No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. C S Lewis
‘The man, his coxcomb of silver hair bobbing, walks with a spring in his step down the hospital corridor …’ R.E

 Ruthie’s Rant. Even though I was shy, I found I would get onstage of I had a new identity. David Bowie.

 Brown Velvet.
I think  writers are, at best, outsiders to the society they inhabit.   John Irving.

Educating Tegger
The only person who is educated is the one who has learned how to learn …and change.  Carl Rogers

Governess… it is the duty of the poet to obtain citizenship for an increasing horde of nameless emotions…Ágnes Nemes Nagy

Going By Train.
‘I have learned how faces fall to bone,
how under the eyelids terror lurks…Anna Akhmatova, 1957

The Fox House.
 Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. EM Forster

Story Teller’s Apprentice.  My daughter is one of my greatest inspirations… Every day she surprises me and teaches my something. Patti Smith.

White Frost on Grass .Parts One, Two &7 Three
 The first lie in fiction is that the author gives some order to the chaos of life. Isabel Allende.

Big Issue; Esme’s Story.
Now I know what a ghost is. Unfinished business, that's what.’
Salman Rushdie.  

Tiananmen. Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving. Albert Einstein.

Saturday, 23 November 2019

Finding Myself in My Books,

About Finding Myself In My Books.

The following poem, Finding Myself in My Books , was inspired by the task of organising all of my books as part of the creation of an Archive of all my work
including my notebooks, my novels, and my other published works.

This mammoth task is being spearheaded by the truly Doctor Donna Maynard, a  literary authority on the works of George Elliot, Lewis Carroll and  Charles Kinglsey.  And me now, perhaps.

My contribution to this task has been to survey and organise all the books on all of my shelves. In its turn this exercise has inspired the following short line poem, Finding Myself In My Books. You might be interested to know that this was first drafted while I was waiting in hospital for an eye injection

Finding Myself In My Books will be included in my newest collection of stories, called Kaleidoscope –A View from the FrontierThe short stories in this collection have emerged  from shaking my own life-kaleidoscope and being surprised by the special patterns which have emerged from the virtually random elements locked up in my life-storehouse. This has liberated unique stories to spring out of elements in different times in different places, finally fused  together through the art of fiction - viewed from what  the inimitable Diana Athill called the Frontier of Older Age. 

Here goes 

Finding Myself In My Books.

I am here at the frontier, reorganising
and encouraging my reading self
to revisit all of my books – a lifetime’s
books borrowed, bought and stolen if.
Some, acquired for research, have
driven me to dive into time and power
in order to colonise people, language and places.
Some contain  esoteric matter –
magic, ritual, ghosts, exotic plants
the mysterious powers
of the natural world.
Some explore ways of growing children –
their language and their secret inner selves.

The books remind me of myself, pondering
on society with its inexplicable shifts,
its organic twists and bizarre beliefs, which
out-play solid facts and  iron-clad ideas,
rendering them fluid –identity,
class, perversions, norms –
making imperative the changes
fundamental to our new millennium.

Then there are the stories, written in a lighter fashion
now dusty and dated - yesterday’s dramas.
Alongside these work of great poets and writers
resists the depredations of time;
refreshing me with every reading.

Weighing heavy on the shelves are books laden with
the phenomenally detailed minutiae of war –
gruesome images and experiences laid bare
to enable us to learn anew all about
the horrors perpetuated on our behalf
in the name of nationality at the behest of greed.

And there in the corner stand two cases filled with
my own writing. The books still looking bright and new
despite their long existence. They wait  patiently for me
to open the pages and rediscover some new things
about myself –  things I thought, things I felt, things I thought
I knew and really didn’t know.

The words inside these covers
Differentiate between who I am now
and who I was then.
November 2019

Saturday, 28 September 2019

Plundering Memory. A Writer's Odyssey

I am thoroughly relishing the work on my new short story collection called Kaleidoscope – Stories from the Frontier. I am now writing the sixteenth of what will be twenty short stories. Perhaps you read one of them on my last blog post - Patchouli?
One of the most exciting things in this new project has been to focus my mind on the whole notion of memory and how it works for a writer.

In the process I have asked myself questions. What is my memory? Is it objective? Is it all I remember? Is it, perhaps, what I have forgotten? Is it all that I’ve been told of what has happened to me? Is it what I have dreamt? Is it these buried subconscious memories that are meat-and-drink in popular articles on crime and its solutions?

Do I as a writer of fiction, plunder my own memory and the memories of others? In surveying my longish list of various kinds of publication I feel certain that I do this – not just in character, content, and narrative - but in those embedded memories of the language and syntax of storytelling – crucial inner memories of the senses, the feelings, the fugitive memories of pain of delight. 

From these I have created and recreated original characters in my fiction. And I have even borrowed others’ memories as though they are our own, and projected memories harvested from my reading. I reinvent lives as essentially original inventions and end up believing that that is what really happened.

The joy and privilege of being part of an oral as well as a written culture is that somehow we inherit memory as part of our acknowledgement of  our membership first of the human clan, and then the human race. This has been reinforced and strengthened throughout the millennia by the sharing of stories in family and social groups, allowing us to develop a shared heritage of collective memory, sensitivity and consciousness as human beings.  Modern discussions of genetic memory perhaps reflect this.  

A writer’s instinct is ultimately to express universalities which will link with our readers' own experience and world-view. Thereby hangs worldly success, after all. Perhaps this particularly might be said to be more purposely focused in novels attached to genres such as espionage, crime, romance or war.  But even in these fields the narratives and the characters should be unique and idiosyncratic to save the work from suffering from an uninspired sameness.

As novelists and storytellers  from the house of our own memory we invent characters with their own histories and conflicts and we use them as psychic dwellings for our own dense complex experiences.

 Each one of us, with our unique baggage of complex memory picks up our pen and then asks the writer’s question What if…?  This is what I have been doing as I am writing Kaleidoscope. Stories from the Frontier.  My theory is that our writing is fuelled and developed from our embedded and continuing memory, whether intended or not. So in the end – as I have found in working on Kaleidoscope -it’s quite exciting to do this with a greater degree of consciousness than ever before.

Thursday, 26 September 2019

Patchouli The first story from the frontier,

I'm working on this collection of short stories to be called Kaleidoscope –-Stories from the Frontier. In a way what we produce in our writing is the fulfilment of ourselves and our social functions as writer. As I said in my last blog , I was particularly engaged by Diana Athill’s insightful comment on the late work of Jean Rhys, with whom she worked with as editor in the last 15 years of Rhys’s long life. Athill remarked on Rhys’s writing ‘from the ‘frontiers of old age’ as being of her very best.

Here is one story which I hope will entertain you.


‘So, how’s your love life?’ Amanda’s  small round face examines me, top to toe, her eyes shrewd. She pours a glass of wine from as hand-thrown clay jug and puts it in my hand, closing her fingers around mine.
Amanda and I are not as close friends as this greeting would suggest. I stand here in my black suede trouser suit in her sitting room  which smells of patchouli, sweet cigarette smoke, and garlic. The room is crowded with people in tie-dyed shirts and fringed shawls. The record player in the corner clicks from disk to disk, playing modern jazz.  Dave Brubeck. Take Five.
I met Amanda a month ago. I am in the city one day a week, to attend a professional course at the University. I noticed this poster advertising a meeting about women’s rights. So, having decided to give this meeting a try, I stayed on when the lectures had finished. Amanda was in a small lecture room pouring coffee for a group of women - all shapes and sizes, but young. No-one here was over thirty. That was the evening when I learned that we woman were in the business of raising our consciousness; we were participating in the beginning of the revolution which will go on well into the next century.
To be honest, my mind was already suffused with much of what was said here. None of it was news to me. As the third child of a single mother of formidable character, I had lived alongside much of this rhetoric all my life. But even so I was excited by these posh female voices putting their distinctly feminist point of you. I think some of the women, including Amanda, took to me, with my local accent and my working class demeanour, wearing me like a badge of solidarity.
And after a few meetings I came away with my consciousness well and truly raised in a very modern way. It was after one of these meetings that I removed my wedding ring, seeing now that it was a clear symbol of submission to the patriarchy.
The following Monday in my school staffroom my ringless state was remarked on. Glancing at my naked hand, Julia - my head of department shuddered. ‘If I didn’t wear my ring, Ruth, I’d feel as though I didn’t belong to anybody.’
‘Well,’ I grinned at her. ‘I don’t belong to anyone. Never have. That’s why I’m not wearing it.’

So now tonight I am in Amanda’s house at her invitation, attending more through curiosity than anything else. In a second I know that in my black suede trouser suit, in this suburban house on the edge of this university city, I am truly a fish out of water. You should know that I have these three trouser suits which I wear in turn for school: one in emerald green, one in pearl grey, one in black suede. These suits are my armour for when I’m in the classroom facing boys and girls who are only a few years younger than me and are more knowing and sharper witted than anyone in my own grammar school.
Now I am looking down at Amanda. She is smaller than me but somehow infinitely more power-packed. She is very much the hostess of this colourful house, pouring wine, laughing and joking. Everyone here – men and women - speaks clearly, on broadcast, and the scent of patchouli impregnates the very walls.
Here we have a slice of life in this university city: an island of raised consciousness in this county where pit wheels and factories dominate the consciousness of my world. My husband, standing in the far corner with a glass of beer in his hand in his dark suit and neatly knotted tie, is part of that world too. He has earned his place there with his experience -not in a lecture room but in a factory, where he started his working life on the production lines. Now as a young manager he is used to dealing amicably with both men and women. And here in Amanda’s house he seems quite at ease with the other men who are much more casually dressed than him in jeans and sandals and coloured shirts – some of these also tie-dyed.
Amanda floats away and is replaced by Janine, who lets me know very quickly that she is social worker. She is dark-haired, compact and very beautiful. She shows an interest in the fact that I come from the factory town with its low-rise estates and council housing. She nods. ‘Been across there a few times,’ she says in her London twang. ‘They told me that the Gladstone estate was pretty tough. But I’ve never had any trouble with the people on that estate. I just smile at them, and look them in the eye,’ she says. Then she flashes a brilliant film-star smile. ‘And they say come in! Come in, pet!’
‘They’re very polite. Lovely people,’ I almost growl the words, chilled by her tone. But then it strikes me that I too would do anything for her the moment she knocked on my door in my house and flashed that brilliant smile. Now she slides her eyes over my suede trouser suit and looks up at me. ‘Amanda tells me you’re a teacher in a sink secondary school.’
‘Wouldn’t call it a sink secondary school,’ I say, gritting my teeth. ‘There are some very nice kids there. Nice parents too.’ I wanted to say that I have also met some very nice social workers in my factory town. But I don’t.
She goes on.‘ I suppose there’s a lot of unemployment around there.’   
I shake my head. ‘I wouldn’t say that. There’s still work in some of the pits and plenty of work for women and young people in the factories.’
She frowns slightly. I feel in my bones that she’s not very happy with my answer.
Now Amanda floats across again in a waft of patchouli and refills our glasses with more red wine. Janine nods vigourously at her. Right-on.  ‘Ruth here was telling me about her school, Amanda, and the factory where her husband works.’
I haven’t said anything to her about Richard working in the factory. Amanda must have said.
‘Tell her about the posters,’ says Amanda and floats away again.
‘Yes!’ Janine turns back to me. ‘We’ve made these posters, Ruth. They’re terrific – women’s rights, workers’ rights – all that. We pin them in places for people to read. ’
‘You can pin them up in your school,’ she says. ‘And in your library. Spread the word! Perhaps you could give some to your husband to pin up in his factory.’
I smile. Richard would laugh at the idea and just shrug his shoulders. But I’m not amused. I object to these women wanting me to put their right-on consciousness-raising posters in my old-fashioned school, where male and female teachers even today have separate staff rooms. 
‘Why would I do that?’ I say to this bright-faced, bright-eyed woman.
‘You’re just in the right place to do it,’ she says. ’Get the word out around the county. That’s how things change.’
Amanda returns, glass in hand; without her jug this time. Janine takes off for the other side of the room. Probably, I think, keen to escape. And that’s when Amanda says this thing to me. ‘How’s your love life?’ Her round eyes narrow and her face is now shrewd rather than open.  
‘What makes you say that?’
‘You’re looking very smart,’ she says. ‘And glowing.’
I’m embarrassed by any kind of praise from women. I see it as a kind of bait to hook in some confidence. And I’m buggered if I’m going to rise to this bait from this woman or any woman in this room. Word obviously gets around in the tight confines of this university city which is now my temporary working place. The gossip here is as rife as that in any corner shop. So I won’t tell her about my new acquaintance and the growing friendship which that is making me glow.
I look around for Richard to see him tucked in a corner, a pint glass in his hand, talking quite comfortably to two men. One of them is Amanda’s husband - a gentle quiet man - and the other is a short stout lad who is waving his hands about.
Janine returns with a sheaf of papers and thrusts them into my hands. ‘There you are,’ she says, ‘do your worst!’
I clutch the papers to me and make my way through the crowd to the corner where Richard is sitting with the men. I look him straight in the eye and say, ‘I think I need to go Rick. Feeling a little dizzy.’
Amanda’s husband laughs. ‘My dear wife is too liberal with the wine as always. Makes it herself you know. I’m told it breaks up more parties than it makes.’
As we walk down the path towards our Humber we can hear bells ring through the city, down the narrow streets and along the river. Our car is much newer and shinier the other cars parked there in a random fashion: Richard’s company car, of course. He’s not quite working on the line these days.
I throw the bundle of posters in the bin by the gate, open the door and sit in the car, relieved to be going home to my neat house in my factory town. I fasten my seat belt and turn to Richard as he puts the car into gear. ‘Well then?’ I say. ‘What do you make of that?’
He shrugs. ‘It was all right I suppose. Those lads seemed okay. The young lad writes sports reports for the Advertiser, including local matches, so we could talk about football. And your friend’s husband works in a local radio. Pretty hot on current affairs. Nice enough lads.’
He is easy in this situation. So why am I coming away from that party full of anger? I don’t speak to him on the way home. When we go to bed I brush down my suede suit and hang it by the open window in the bathroom, hoping the night air with blow away the scent of patchouli. Back in the bedroom I take out my pearl grey trouser suit and hang it on the wardrobe door. Its smooth wool feels good beneath my hands.
When I finally climb into bed Richard is asleep, snoring gently. I burrow my head in my pillow and spend a while wondering about the nature of my love life.
The next evening after school I decide to put my wedding ring back on my finger. I search high and low but I can’t find it. Richard, who is watching a match on television, asks me what I’m raking around for. ‘Just some papers from school, ‘I say.  
I have to wait until Saturday to go to the only jewellers in my factory town. Here I buy myself a new, second-hand wedding ring. I pick it out from a box which is closely lined in green velvet. The ring is thick and chunky. I turn it over in my hands; it feels smooth and solid. ‘I’ll take this one,’ I say to the jeweller, handing it to him and searching for my purse in my shoulder bag.
He examines it closely, holding it up to the light. ‘Made in Birmingham, this one. See!’ he says holding it out to me, showing me the hallmark. ‘1903. Been a long marriage that one I reckon. ’
‘I reckon so.’ I nod slowly. A long marriage, I repeat to myself as I slip the ring onto my finger.


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