Sunday, January 30, 2011

Project 365: January

I've managed to take a photograph every day in January. I know there's one day left but 31 is such an inconvenient number for making even-sided squares.
It hasn't been too difficult but I have occasionally forgotten until the very last minute hence the photographs of bedtime reading, and dirty dishes and tv screens. Other than that, there's a bit of everything, sausages and skulls, House (Dr.) and hearth, supermarkets and soup.
It's been fun, so I'm going to continue, and who knows perhaps there will be a little more sun in February.

(Individual photos are clickable. Isn't that clever?)

Monday, January 24, 2011

Self Absorption

Teach us to Sit Still, Tim Parks's most recent book is not a self-help book but it is a book about self-help that says some very helpful things — about mindfulness and connections between the body and one's background and cultural references, and about standing up straight. It is also a strikingly honest book. It is honest about pissing, the perineum, and weary-looking tackle — but women who have gone through the business of having babies are usually inured to that sort of honest detail. It is also, and more impressively, honest about the discreditable thoughts that go on in Tim Parks's head: that never-ending inner monologue that we (all?) indulge in, made up of the obsessive composition of self-aggrandizing declarations; mental manoeuvering and negotiation; infuriated silent shouting. None of it very worthy and the very opposite of the helpful and healing Noble Silence.

It is then a book about the author's self-help but the self that imposes itself on the experience is my own self; the book engages my own inner hubris. I read the memoir in a night and a morning. When I take a break during the morning for a shower, I find myself putting words together that I might work up into a review of the book: a review that will show me in the best possible light; an unusually insightful review that might even attract the attention of the author who will, of course, be impressed by the connections I have made; my comprehension of his work; my underexercised talent. He will think well of me. I know that this is woefully like Parks's own mental composition of his modest — and in the end unnecessary — Booker acceptance speech: subtly calculated to impress without seeming to do so. It is an unworthy mental exercise but it chimes with me, because this is all still all about me and my incessant, rarely aired, calculated inner monologue. I recognise too his need to be of interest: the most knowledgeable and articulate patient a doctor has ever had; the most composed family member an undertaker has ever met; the most accommodating caller a customer helpline has ever had to deal with.

There are some real, if tenuous, connections. Parks's life is lived out in two languages - like mine. The words that come to me in the shower are sometimes French words that just seem more apt. I remember snippets from the other books by Parks that I have read and the word that comes to me is bribes (snatches). I knew before reading this book that Parks was supersensitive to noise, he told us so in an essay I read a couple of years ago. Goodness know which essay, goodness know in what context he offered this information, goodness know why my memory has chosen to give it space. This in turn calls up a bribe of information from a biography of Carlyle (or was it Jane Carlyle?) that I must have read more than twenty years ago: his sensitivity to and fury at the noise made by the hens in somebody else's back garden behind their house in Chelsea. Poor Jane had to deal with it.

Families. I become distracted by the life rather than the work which is perhaps not so surprising given the autobiographical nature of much of Parks's writing. Thinking about my own relationship with French, I call to mind a factoid from one of the earliest books, An Italian Education I think, which I must have read a good fifteen years ago. Parks laments that although he speaks English to his little son, however fluent his son is, he still has that giveaway Italian pronounciation at the end of words. I identify with and retrospectively share his disappointment. I'm intrigued too by his wife, a graceful but waning presence in all of his books, until this one in which she seems to regain some importance. "How we have hurt each other", he says in this towards the end of Teach Us to Sit Still. Perhaps the decline set in with the novel Destiny which with hindsight I think was probably about the impossibility of an entirely happy marriage when two people are thinking in different languages.

Connections continue to tumble around as I shower and I think of a film I have just seen, Copie Conforme. It is the story of a French woman (Juliette Binoche) and an Englishman in Tuscany and their impossible relationship. "Multilayered" is a word that is used often in internet reviews of the film (that and "pretentious"). Multilayered like the layers of glistening tissue the surgeon would like to cut through to get to the possible nexus of Parks's pain. Perhaps the Italian ex-mistress in Europa could be played by Binoche. Europa tells the story of a group of university teachers who travel to Brussels to deliver a petition — the background story was told to me by one of the real-life protagonists long before the book appeared: a Scot who wore a linen jacket rather like that worn by the erudite Englishman in Copie Conforme, and by Tim Parks on the inside cover of this book. See, more connections .... to me.

And even when there is no real connection between my own experience and that of Parks, I like to think that there might be one.His problem is pelvic pain, probably the result of long periods of sitting. I sit for long periods in front of a computer too, so surely I too will develop pelvic pain. For the moment, however, it seems that the site of my own incipient dis-ease is my neck where I am sure can feel the tension dissolve as I shadow the relaxation exercises described in the book. Similarly, I can only relate to Parks's discovery of meditaton through my own experience of Xi Gong classes. Every Friday evening I sit in a dojo with around thirty other people and feel superior to them even as we execute the same movements. I am better than them because only I am canny enough to take the benefit of the soothing physical experience while filtering out the ridiculous pseudo-Oriental mumbo jumbo. The difference is that Parks learned to stop the derisive internal monologue and gained relief from shutting it up.

The key is clearly to be absorbed in something that is not oneself, something that is not words, in nothingness even. Be still my self-centred attention-seeking mind!

Monday, January 17, 2011

How to write about Bordeaux

...or old wine in a new bottle.

The past few years have seen a slew of articles in the travel sections of newspapers describing the "renaissance" of the city of Bordeaux. Since their offerings all seem to come out sounding more than a little formulaic in any case, I'd like to save future visiting journalists the trouble of actually leaving their hotel rooms before dusk, by providing this short guide to writing an article about Bordeaux.

1. Think of as many wine puns as possible and attempt to include them all — there should be at least one in your title. Here are a few that have already been used : "Bordeaux uncorks itself", "a richer Bordeaux", "Tasting Notes", "Bordeaux is smooth and elegant", "an intoxicating mix".

2. Get in at least one mention of Bordeaux's moniker la belle endormie. Then suggest that the city has now been awoken.

3. Exaggerate the rags to riches angle out of all proportion. Persuade some "anonymous residents" to describe a nightmarish past with phrases such as "I remember [when] ... nobody would go out after dark. We all stayed among ourselves. But now ...." or "Not long ago, such public joie de vivre would have been unthinkable here." Don't raise the possibility that this might be utter bollocks.

4. You don't have to go looking for any hidden signs of urban renewal - just use the tram system as a symbol of the new Bordeaux. Say it's clean, sleek, and modern. If you like you can even add some spurious comment about it being a great social leveller.

5. Suggested adjectives for the Bordeaux of old: seedy, dowdy, staid, grimy, lifeless, bland. Suggested adjectives for new improved Bordeaux: stellar, futuristic, upscale, sparkling, elegant, transformed.

6. Refer liberally to "les Bordelais" but only really mean the richest 2% who come from old wine money.

7. Portray the mayor of Bordeaux as a man with a driving vision. Do not under any circumstances mention his political purgatory or the fact that he was rewarded for his visionary town-planning by not being elected as the Bordeaux constituency MP.

8. Illustration: use a subtly symbolic image of young people frolicking in the miroir d'eau with the tram whizzing towards a promising future in the background.

9. Spend all of your travelling expenses on food and wine in Bordeaux's excellent restaurants and pad the rest of the article out with your tasting notes.

10. For variations on the theme see: The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Independent, The Guardian, le Courrier International (translated from the Sunday Times).

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A Winter's Walk


Last Sunday we went for a walk around a wetlands site not far south of Bordeaux called la Lagune du Gât Mort. After weeks of relative festive inactivity, it was lovely to stretch our legs on a brisk stroll round the site and expose our faces to some winter sun. Unfortunately there were no birds to be seen from the very handsome hides, but I amused myself by taking copious photographs of luminous silver birch bark, the patterns made by interesting twigs, assorted pine cones, and sundry sticks. Apparently the lagoon is a paradise for dragonflies so we must go back in the spring.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Books, books, books

This is what I read this year. I suspect that the list is a little bit shorter than last year: that's what happens when you take your Macbook to bed on a regular basis..

A Quiet Belief in Angels, R.J. Ellory. I'm reading this at the moment. The writing is generally good, but I think that there's something slightly disturbing, perhaps even obscene, about making the deaths of little girls into something interesting enought to hold a reader's attention for a whole novel.

La carte et le territoire, Michel Houellebecq
My first Houllebecq and I was expecting something a bit more provocative. As someone says on p. 142: "Je m'attendais en vous rencontrant à quelque chose... enfin, disons, de plus difficile."

Noah's Compass, Anne Tyler
Not her best but still very readable. The main character is a man cheerful in the face of disappointment.

The Romantic Poets and Their Circle, Richard Holmes
Good for one page character sketches. What a dysfunctional lot they were.

Little Bird of Heaven
, Joyce Carol Oates
Takes place in '80s America but there's a definite '50s feel about it.

Inherent Vice
, Thomas Pynchon. This was a gift and I thought it would make better viewing than reading.

Outside in: Selected Prose, Alastair Reid
Inside Out: Selected Poetry and Translations Alastair Reid

I bought these two because I love Alastair Reid but unfortunately it turned out that I had read most of the contents already in other publications. Here's a wee taster of his poetry. This is originally a translation of a poem by the Mexican José Emilio Pachedo, but it's such a good rendering that it is Reid's voice one hears, and Scotland one imagines as the country.
I do not love my country. Its abstract lustre
is beyond my grasp.
But (although it sounds bad) I would give my life
for ten places in it, for certain people,
seaports, pinewoods, fortresses,
a run-down city, gray, grotesque,
various figures from its history
mountains
(and three or four rivers).
Walnut Wine and Truffle Groves: Culinary Adventures in the Dordogne , Kimberley Lovato. I was very pleased to get a copy of this book via This French Life. Beautifully illustrated with photographs of food, people and places in the Dordogne.

Doors Open, Ian Rankin. This was not an Edinburgh that I recognized

Queen Amang the Heather: The Life of Belle Stewart, Sheila Stewart. Fascinating peep into the lives of the tinkers — Scotland's travelling people — and their music. I really wished the book had come with a CD but there are online videos of Belle Stewart's singing.

The State of Me, Nasim Marie Jafry. I wrote about Nasim's book here. One of the best things I read this year.

Mother's Milk, Edward St Aubyn. A strange book in which the characters make strange decisions. Maybe I didn't get it because I didn't realise it was a sequel to a trilogy.

Bonnie Prince Charlie: Charles Edward Stuart - Tragedy in Many Acts, F.J. McLynn. I wrote about this book here.

Adultery and Other Diversions,
Tim Parks. I love almost everything that Tim Parks writes (I must read the latest, Teach Us to Sit Still, this year) and this is a great book of essays.

This is How
, M.J. Hyland. I might not have chosen to buy this had I not received it as an early review copy from LibraryThing. I enjoyed it, despite its bleakness. It's a bit like Albert Camus' The Outsider only set in contemporary GB.

Juliet, Naked,
Nick Hornby
Forgettable story of a man who adulates a reclusive rock star and his much cleverer wife.

Sharon Osbourne Extreme: My Autobiography Sharon Osbourne.
I'm not proud of having read this, not proud at all. It was in the bookcase in the villa we rented in Lanzarote and once I'd started reading it I just carried on in dreadful fascination. She really is a throughly unlikable person.

The Children's Book
, A.S. Byatt
I haven't finished this yet. I lost interest about a third of the way through.

True Detectives, Jonathan Kellerman
Forgettable.

Wolf Hall,
Hilary Mantel
You've probably all read this too. I enjoyed it, but not enough I don't think to read the sequel when it comes out.

Kafka sur le Rivage
, Haruki Murakami
I loved the beginning of this novel and immediately raved about it to friends. Unfortunately, at around the halfway mark it went all Japanese magickyrealismy.

Shutter Island
, Dennis Lehane
Haven't seen the film, but the book is worth reading, especially if you're thick enough not to suspect the denouement - which I am.

The Piano Teacher
, Janice Y. K. Lee. About life in Hong Kong for an expat wife during turbulent times.

J. M. Barrie and the Lost Boys: The Real Story Behind Peter Pan
, Andrew Birkin. Fascinating biography of the wee man.

(To reduce the boredom quotient, I've taken out all of the works read for professsional purposes - mostly criticism and biographies of RLS)

So that was the reading year that was. I'd love to hear if you agree or disagree with me.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

The Best of 2010


I quite enjoy the self-imposed task of looking back through the year's photos and selecting the best. It gives me a chance to remember just how many good times were had and reminds me that, not all that long ago, there was sun and warmth and so it will be again. This year we have a couple of photos from Lanzarote which I half thought was going to be a tourist hellhole but turned out to be weirdly volcanic and bleak and wonderful. There's a door in Eauze taken during a very wet Easter weekend in the Gers, and a lovely evening sky from a week in Moliets in the Landes. In the second row there are a couple of photos taken during weekend trips with family and friends - one for a niece's confirmationthingy. I took the new Ryanair flight from Bordeaux to Edinburgh three times during the summer and there's a picture of Z looking out the window somehere over the Charente I think. The double rainbow was taken by P. up a hill by Lochmaben. Then there are three or four photographs taken during a coolish August holiday in the Dordogne. It was much sunnier when we went back to Sarlat for the last week of the summer holiday and spent a lovely day in Corrèze. The children had good times on the beach in Le Moulleau and Sanguinet. The last row shows a view of the quadrangle at the fac during a conference I helped to organise in September. Then there's a street in Alicante. We took a quick break on the Costa Blanca during the Toussaint holiday — I forgot to tell you about that. Then there's our lopsided Christmas tree - this was our first Christmas in France for five years. We round things off with a big bit of sky taken on Boxing Day in Mayac. Yes, all in all it was a busy year full of memorable images.

This year I'm going to try to do the 365 photo-a-day thing and I'll put them on my Flickr photostream. So if you're not already a Flickr contact, roll up, roll up).

(Unfortunately the online photo mosaic maker I use has decapitated the confirmation girl and debottomated the final big sky photo. I'm not sure why. If you could suggest anything more reliable, I would be very grateful.)

Here's to 2011

2010 was an excellent year for me - here's to 2011! I wish you all health, happiness and lots of fun.