Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Taxing resources and testing times, Mr Hart-Davis

Yes, I know, I know I didn't blog last week:

(a) Elder son with Science GCSEs and deep-seated aversion to revision. Those of you in the same boat will know exactly what sort of conversations were held and in what tone, and will understand the massive levels of will and determination needed to counteract adolescent inertia.

(b) Trying to book a holiday property in France: yet another instance of how the internet, wonderful resource that it is, is a total black hole swallowing up hours of fruitless clicking from site to site. Overwhelmed with information and possibilities, you end up worried that if you don't click onto that site, that link, you might be missing something better than what you've just found. There's always something better just a click away ... and you look up and find six hours of your life have passed, your neck is irredeemably cricked and you've lost the use of your legs. Two solid weekends I've spent at this and we have found something - but yes, I am worried that there was something better, some perfect beachside blue-shuttered property with cool airy rooms, a superfluity of bathrooms and the ideal pool, with gorgeous views of the Med, with seclusion and calm, yet only two minutes from shops and restaurants, a retreat, a hideaway, yet convenient for the airport ... Holidays are like romantic love: a search for a composite of Willoughby and Colonel Brandon.

(c) Tax. End of January approaching. Need I say more. And note to Mr Adam Hart-Davis: you're a lovely man and I so enjoyed you scurrying about demonstrating what previous generations did for us, and no one can explain a Roman land-surveying system better than you, but you're wrong, Mr Hart-Davis, so wrong, as you trot across the sands of time in that hugely irritating Inland Revenue advert/harassment. Tax does, by its nature, have to be taxing. Bloody taxing.

You may never hear from me again. Remember me kindly.

Friday, 11 January 2008

Councils, Balls and Humbug

Apparently the National Year of Reading was launched by the government this week. Three cheers, eh? Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, said literacy is 'one of the best anti-poverty, deprivation and crime policies we can think of' and called for every employer, school, library, college and local authority to be involved. This is pretty rich: I refer you once more to Susan Hill's blog about libraries on Jan 2 (see links to the right).

Meanwhile, the British Council is going to disband its film, visual arts, drama, dance, design and literature departments, which serve to promote British culture worldwide and increase dialogue and cross-fertilisation, surely important in this global village of ours, and is now telling staff to focus on 'Progressive Facilitation', 'Market Intelligence Network', 'Knowledge Transfer Function' and so on. And no, I didn't make up any of that empty jargon.

To put the tin lid on it all, the Arts Council is reducing or removing grants to many worthwhile projects, including small independent publishers such as Anvil Press, Dedalus and Arcadia. Even so well-established a poetry imprint as Bloodaxe is, in the words of MD Neil Astley, 'scared stiff; you can't plan.' At least Tindall Street Press are OK - just as well, given that their first time author Catherine O'Flynn, won the Costa First Novel Prize with 'What Was Lost' (and it was also longlisted for the Booker). And why is the Arts Council being so mean with organisations for whom a few thousand pounds either way mean the difference between survival and going to the wall? It's because all those grants can go off to something so much more worthwhile. The Olympics. Yup. That cash-starved behemoth out in Docklands. Dontcha just wish we hadn't won that gig?

Monday, 7 January 2008

My new blog

As reigning Mistress of Displacement, I thought I'd let you all know that I wasted a happy hour creating a new blog, PoemRelish, on Saturday, where I'm going to post my favourite poems and why I like them, and a less than happy hour after that trying to upload a photo onto it. Can't seem to do it. My photos are all on my Olympus Master section and Blogger just didn't seem able to recognise them, even when I saved said photo as a Word document and then as a Powerpoint slide - it dithered and dithered and then said no can do, by which my bloodpressure was considerably elevated.

If anyone has any advice on this, please let me know. And by the way, I would really appreciate it this year if more of you do go as far as creating a Google account so you can comment on the blog: it's really easy. Remember, if I can do it, anybody can. I enjoy it when there's dialogue - makes me feel less like I'm spouting to the empty ether.

To find out more about PoemRelish, which will be an occasional blog when the spirit moves me, go to : http://PoemRelish.blogspot.com

Hope you enjoy it.

Friday, 4 January 2008

Happy New Year

Now, I know this post is three days late, but what with visits, clearing up, supervising children's thank you letters and cajoling elder son to do GCSE coursework (after the major challenge of getting him to rise from his bed before midday each day), be grateful that I've made it at all. I hope you all had a wonderful Hogmanay and New Year's Day and I wish you all a happy and successful 2008.

So, January. My least favourite month. The desire to hibernate my way through it strong. I long for light to return and energy levels to rise, and I get very Scrooge-like when I go downtown, read the newspapers, watch the review-of-the-past-year programmes on the TV. All these exhortations to make fresh starts. God. Humbug! Paul Mckenna promises to make us thin, tobacco free, confident and wealthy. Humbug. Boots the chemist offers a choice of healthy challenges that they will caringly help us with. Humbug. Horoscopes aver that with Pluto departing after a ten year dominance of the heavens (had you noticed?), this year will be the year for Capricorns, Pisceans, .... all 12 signs, apparently. Goody.

However, January was named after Janus the double-headed Roman god of doorways and it is a time for looking forward and back, so here goes. I feel I should contribute to the plethora of 'books of the year' judgements which the newspapers have been boring us with - always the same old, same old. As I review what I bought last year and what I read (and figure A is always larger than figure B), certain books delighted me, and some were disappointments. Much of my reading was teaching-related, or was research for what I'm writing, so I won't go into that. Exciting and brain-tiring, is what I'll say. Here's a selection from the rest:

Good novels:

Jane Smiley: A Thousand Acres (reworking of the King Lear story)
Julie Hearn; Follow Me Down, Eva Ibbotson: Journey to the River Sea, Marcus Sedgwick: My Swordhand is Singing, Michelle Paver: Outcast, Geraldine McCoughrean: The White Darkness - all excellent children's books. Some of the children's fiction I read was less inspiring, but I'll protect the guilty in case they were published by some of the publishers I'm approaching at present!
C.J. Sansom: Dark Fire, Dissolution. (Tudor mysteries - I'm saving Sovereign for the summer holidays)
Hilary Mantel: Beyond Black
Kate Atkinson: One Good Turn
Stef Penney: The Tenderness of Wolves

Not so ...:

Mo Hayder: Pig Island ( I love her Tokyo, but this one seemed to suffer from the pressure publishers put on successful authors to roll out a book a year - or less. Don't they know that stories need time to mature? This one had its moments but became too grand guignol absurd plus it was all too easy to guess who was responsible for the Bad Stuff)
Jason Goodwin: The Janissary Tree (this was like Boris Akunin's work. I tried to like it but couldn't - lots of wit and historical detail but nothing convincing about it. Nice, though, that the hero was a eunuch but could still romp like James Bond with Russian countesses!)
Marisha Pessl: Special Topics in Calamity Physics (This one was a trial. Embedded in it was an interesting murder mystery, but the layers of reference, sidetrack, anecdote and diversion buried that at somewhere around the depth of the Cretaceous era. There's no doubt she's a clever and witty writer but every phrase had to be wisecrackey, every image developed at extraordinary length, nothing could be left to be common or garden. It was extremely wearing: I kept throwing my hands up and crying 'Enough already!')

Now no doubt some of you are spluttering indignantly 'She liked that?' 'She was bored by that?' It's all a matter of personal taste. What I do appreciate - and any of you out there who are writers or would-be writers will also appreciate - is that each and every one of those authors put one word behind another on the page, page after page, chapter after chapter, on and on to the bitter or sweet or slightly flat end - and then, even more miraculously, they got themselves published. So more than three cheers for that.

Looking ahead, I know that Book Trade Madness will go on (by the way, would you like to know who was the most pictured author in The Bookseller in 2007? J.K. Rowling? Ian McEwan? Nope and nope. Jordan aka Katie Price, that's who. I don't need to say more).

We will grind our teeth at celebrity madness, at the blindness of agents and editors, at a culture which devalues literacy and literature (take a look at Susan Hill's brilliant blogpost of Jan 2 - see link to her blog at right - where she lambasts Ed Balls and the Labour government for what is being done to libraries). We will, nevertheless, go on loving and hating books, searching for and pouncing on stories that cast a spell, and some of us will go on dreaming of writing our own stories and maybe, just maybe, selling them.

As for me - well, last year I was full of fine-sounding resolutions. All I can say at present is that I'm continuing to maintain Hopeful Author Stance (see my post back in June. Yes, June.) Keep tightening those abdominals.