Category Archives: Books and Walking

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney

Manhattan – the last time I was there was in 1969. It was so unfamiliar to me when I picked up this novel that I had to relearn the names and order of the Avenues, and look up the position of some of the most famous landmarks. I also had to use a Google map to follow Lillian Boxfish’s path through the city. I am not surprised that Daunt Books published this, as a bookseller Daunt’s is associated with travel books and the novel is so strongly set in the city of New York. 

I remember New York as a lively city, full of excitement and strangeness. It was noisy and dirty and I imagined I would be back soon. This was my return. And it was such fun. Lillian Boxfish was an ideal walking companion, a flâneuse with class.

This is the 49th novel in the series championing older women in fiction in order to make them more visible. You can find the complete list of reviews and suggested books in the series here.

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk

The book is set in 1984/5 beginning on New Year’s Eve. Finding herself alone on an evening which is typically celebrated in company, Lillian decides to take a walk. She has lived in Manhattan since 1921 and so now she walks first to her usual Italian restaurant, then to another in south Manhattan, then to a party in Chelsea and finally home. On the way she passes some landmarks of her life and we learn about her history.

The plot is tightly focused on Manhattan. Lillian does not stray further north than 42nd Street. The city has changed since she moved there in the 1920s: muggers, skyscrapers, the new World Trade Towers, loft conversions, Korean-run bodegas and so forth. We also get to reflect on how the city has continued to change since then.

Lillian Boxfish

Lillian is 84/5 and inspired by the real life Margaret Fishback. Like her inspiration,  Lillian has worked as a copywriter for Macy’s store, becoming rich and successful as a result of her poetic sales pitches. She also wrote books of guidance for young women and verse, often humorous, including for greetings cards when she lost her job at Macy’s. She was successful, she was well paid and had a lively social life. Unlike her contemporaries did not want to get married. But Lillian fell in love and married Max, and later became pregnant. 

Of course she lost her job when she became pregnant. This was the late 1930s. Her husband, being Italian-speaking, spent the war years away, and their lives were not the same on his return. They became less happy together and he was unfaithful. She descended into alcoholism, and an attempted suicide before being sent to a sanatorium and receiving electric shock treatment. 

By the time of this walk Max, her husband, had been dead for many years. His second wife is dying and her son Johnny lives with his own family away from the city in Maine. Her best friend also died a few years earlier. Her new friend is welcoming, but their shared interests are limited. She has no-one to share her New Year’s meal with.

Despite her isolation Lillian is a very sociable person, speaking to many strangers on her perambulation. She is also not your stereotypical elder, not scared of the city, even at night. When she meets a group of three muggers as she returns home, she stands up to them and a curious and successful bargain is struck. The incident reminds us of a conversation with her son early in the novel. He requested that she should not walk on the streets and reminded her about the Subway Vigilante who shot four young muggers when they asked him for five dollars. What if she had taken her grandsons on the subway? The people of New York are idolising him, she says.

‘I walk everywhere dearest,’ I say. And it’s true: I like the exercise, and the subway cars are graffitied with so much text it’s like being screamed at, like the voices inside my head and everyone else’s have manifested their yelling outside, ill-spelled with spray paint. ‘And we weren’t on that train. And he isn’t shooting elderly ladies and adorable tots.’
‘But guys like the guys he shot are everywhere. Hoods. Gangs. Toughs. Whatever you want to call them.’
‘I would not resist if young thugs approached me for money,’ I say. ‘I would acquiesce. I agree with Governor Cuomo that a vigilante spirit is dangerous. Rude, too.’
‘Rude?’ he says.
‘Yes Gian. Incivility is not incivility’s antidote. […] New Year is bigger than any mugger, the way it makes people feel. Being old is depressing. The Subway Vigilante is depressing. But I love it here, this big rotten apple. I’m near my old haunts, my sycamore trees, my trusty R.H. Macy’s.’ (11-12)

We can see she is a woman of considerable spirit, although her breakdown which we learn about half way through was so serious she needed shock treatment to recover. And we learn at the end of the book, she did not acquiesce to the muggers, but together they struck their own bargain. She’s a lively creature, who maintains her standards, especially of honesty and of engaging respectfully with others. 

The extract above also illustrates a feature of this book. The reader is given insight into her thoughts, which are often witty ripostes or reflections on the world as she sees it. We notice by this means the rich inner life she has cultivated for herself, that she has not been diminished by her experiences or by her age. She has loved many aspects of her life, and been as much in charge of it as she could be.  

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney published in 2017. UK publisher is Daunt Books. 277pp

Recent posts in the Older Women in Fiction Series

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout.

Frangipani House by Beryl Gilroy

The Old Woman and the River by Ismail Fahd Ismail

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Refugee Tales III

It’s Refugee Week 15th – 21st June 2020 and I am launching my Crossing 25 Bridges challenge to highlight the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group (GDWG) who since 2015 have been making an annual walk

in solidarity with refugees, asylum seekers and detainees.

In the manner of the Canterbury Tales, as they walk they tell stories, which are collected and published. Some refugees tell their own stories, and some are retold by accomplished writers. 

Human Rights?

The UK is the only country in Europe  that detains people indefinitely under immigration rules. For all kinds of reasons this is wrong. One reason is that it is contrary to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

Article 9

No one shall be subjected to arbitrart arrest, detention or exile.
[Universal Declaration of Human Rights]

Refugee Tales III 

In the third volume of Refugee Tales, six stories are told by individual refugees in their own voice and 13 more are presented ‘as told to’ some notable authors such as Monica Ali, Roma Tearne, Patrick Gale, Ian Samson, Bernardine Evaristo, Gillian Slovo.

Tales are told by the stateless person, the orphan, the foster child, the father and the son and more. The people are identified by activities that we can all understand. 

A terrible picture emerges. Each person’s story has a brutal start in their country of origin. These stories are individual, often violent and involving betrayal, torture and always fear.

Once the refugees have arrived in the UK the themes coalesce into a horrific story of the obstacles to being granted asylum. They all involve indefinite detention.

For a moment pause and consider what it might mean to have left your country, often your family, your identity, your language, culture, food and history. There is likely to be trauma in that story. You arrive, looking for safety and find yourself met with a wall of disbelief, distrust, cruel and labyrinthine administrative and legal processes, and ever-changing personnel. And imprisonment, without apparent reason, often removed when signing on as required, and often released again with as little apparent cause. 

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, or detention?

But more significant perhaps than the transgression of the UN Declaration is the inhumane aspects of this policy. Most people are aware of the Hostile Environment initiated by Theresa May when she was Home Secretary, in 2012. Fewer people are aware that it involves indefinite detention. More people need to be aware that refugees have few rights to benefits, or a job, and only to meagre accommodation and, until very recently only £5 a day to live off. The current Home Secretary raised it to £5.26p in early June.

Responding to Refugee Tales

I cried a lot, and then I got angry and then I decided to do something.

Here are some things to do:

• Buy and read one of the three collections of the Refugee Tales.

• Listen to what refugees have to say

You are not really going to listen. No one listens
You’re not really going to hear. No one hears.
But I will tell you my story anyway. I will tell you my story because you have asked to hear my story.
But that is all. You want my story from me. I do not want anything from you. […]
Now you have my story. And I still have nothing.
[From The Fisherman’s Tale as told to Ian Sansom]

  • Hear what refugees have to say, be a witness, enter the community that acknowledges these stories and these lives.

So I ask him, why does he want me or anyone else, to tell his story? Wouldn’t it be more powerful coming directly from him? His response is that he needs someone else to hear, a person outside the immediate experience, to acknowledge and record what happened to him and to those whose sufferings he heard and saw. He wants me to be his witness, not because his narrative requires verification, but because of the fact of hearing itself; because it signifies that in a world that so often seeks to deny and disbelieve such accounts, his story has been absorbed by a listening heart.
[From The Erased Person’s Tale as told to Jonathan Wittenberg]

  • Be a vigilant witness against evil and heartlessness and stand up for solidarity, beyond all seeming borders or nationality and creed. Jonathan Wittenberg knows the importance of this from researching the history of his own parents who were refugees from Nazism.

As I listen and record, I become a companion in defiance against the silence in which vicious regimes try to bury the knowledge of the crimes they have committed against the dead and disavow the living trauma of those who manage to survive them.
S needs me, us, to be allies. [From The Erased Person’s Tale as told to Jonathan Wittenberg]

  • Support my lockdown walk over 25 bridges in support of retelling the stories of flight and detention and the work of the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group.
  • Join in the weekend of online events with Refugee Tales –  3rd – 5th July – details on their website.

My Lockdown Walk with Refugee Tales

Staverton Bridge, Devon.

My walk this month will, as far as possible, cross 25 bridges. Some may be crossed twice. I hope to walk with friends and family, including remotely. The bridges will be photographed and I’ll put them on Twitter, Facebook and my Just Giving page.

You can donate to the Just Giving page  and the  here:

https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/caro-lodge

Anything from £1 to £100 will be welcome towards my target of £400

Refugee Tales III, Eds: David Herd & Anna Pincus (2019), published by Comma Press. 201pp

Other connected pages

Refugee TalesEds: David Herd & Anna Pincus: a post in February 2017 on Bookword about the first collection of tales. I was raising money for Freedom from Torture at the time.

Refugee Tales 2, Eds: David Herd & Anna Pincus: a post in April 2018 on Bookword about the second collection. 

Refugee Tales

Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group

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The Salt Path by Raynor Winn

You cannot have escaped the good reception this book has had, perhaps you’ve been told about it by someone who has read it, or noted it in a shortlist for a prize. It has some alluring ingredients: resilience in the face of bad fortune; it is set in that liminal seashore zone; betrayal, illness, walking, wild camping, beautiful landscapes and wildlife. 

With such ingredients it was sure to be successful and bring pleasure to many. My book group read it in September and discussed it a couple of weeks ago. It provoked lively discussion, which is our criterion for a good book. If you haven’t read it I can assure you that you will find something to please you in it.

The Salt Path

Raynor Winn and her husband Moth are in their 50s and have been living in Wales for many years on a freehold small farm. Their children have grown up, the farm and its land are taken from them in a court case which is presented as both unfair (the judgement) and a betrayal (by a former friend). They have no means, no financial security at all. And then Moth is diagnosed with a degenerative and terminal illness: CBD. What are they to do?

They decide to walk the South West coast path, from Minehead to Portland, and to camp along the way. The choice is pretty near random, based on a book: The South West Coast Path: From Minehead to South Haven Pointby Paddy Dillon, complete with OS maps and a waterproof cover. The choice of guidebook also determined the direct of their walk, even though it meant doing the toughest part first.

So they set out in late summer of 2013 and with a break in the winter living in a shed they were renovating they walked 600 miles in the next 10 months. They slept wild and ate as cheaply as possible, and therefore badly. And they hoped that by walking they would find a solution to their homelessness, their lack of income and the pressing problem of living with an approaching death. Walking is known to help clear the mind, but these two had such difficult daily experiences from the challenges of their walk that they were not able to spend much time thinking about or discussing their imponderable future. 

But they met these challenges with stamina, endurance, resilience and mutual support despite being preoccupied with the daily pursuit of food, a safe place to sleep and an occasional wash. They were resourceful in the face of having so little cash. A scene that gives real pleasure was set in St  Ives, and out of cash as usual Moth begins a loud recitation of Beowulf in Seamus Heaney’s translation and Raynor takes round the hat. They earn £28.03.

Other people cross their path or walk with them for a while. Few are aiming to go so far or are rough sleeping. Some are welcome company, a few are not. Some are generous too with warmth or food or a welcome. The landscape, especially the northern coast of Cornwall is impressive while also providing severe challenges. Early mornings, before many people are around, and while the shore birds are still feeding, and the air is fresh and clear, these are the good times.

They encounter strong prejudice against homeless people, and experience urban homelessness briefly in Plymouth and note the contrast with their coastal path existence.  

And they find that their love for each other is a strong as ever having been severely tested by the circumstances of their walk. They meet good luck and generosity having arrived at some decisions about their futures, and find permanent accommodation as easily a pretty feather or a pebble. 

What did the book group think?

All members of the group had enjoyed going on the emotional journey of The Salt Path with the writer. Some felt angry about what had happened to them and respected the couple’s positive response to such a dreadful position.

Much of the time while I was reading this book I wondered why we were being asked to applaud bonkers behaviour. Why on earth were they walking the coastal path? But in my book group it was suggested that a better question would be – why not? They had nothing better to do. 

And because we live close to the South West coastal path, and have all walked parts of it, we set to again to discuss what we had enjoyed about this compelling and moving book. One reader suggested that the best writing described the walking and the landscape and she was not so keen on the insertion of bits of local history. Another remarked that it was the author’s story, not so much the couple’s.

We all agreed on the pleasures of walking in the south west, and that walking is good for you and makes you feel good.

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn published in 2018 by Penguin. 275pp

The Sunday Times bestseller, Winner of the Royal Society of Literature Christopher Bland Prize & shortlisted for the 2018 Costa Biography Award & Wainwright Golden Beer Book Prize 2018

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Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

I was right. This was the ideal book to take on a train journey. Sadly my return journey was delayed by four hours, and I had finished the book before my train finally arrived. For anyone who is interested in train services, I had been walking with a very good friend in the woods and along the escarpment north of Pewsey. Trains from Pewsey back to the South West were all either severely delayed or, more alarmingly, cancelled. A lovely walk, a great book, but waiting for hours on Pewsey station was not good.

Ghost Wallby Sarah Moss

It is the 80s. A family is spending their summer holiday re-enacting an Iron Age camp in Northumberland, along with a professor and three students. The story is narrated by 17-year-old Silvie (also called Sil). The holiday is the idea of Sil’s father, an autodidact and Iron Age enthusiast. It emerges that he has a rather simplistic idea of ancient history, seeing any invaders from the Romans onwards as pollutants of the pure British race. In other words he is more than a little xenophobic. Her father is a bus driver, and a very controlling man with a filthy temper if he thinks he is being mocked or patronised for his lack of formal education. He beats both wife and daughter. 

The re-enactors must consider what is authentic and how to manage an authentic Iron Age life in the 1980s.For example, they must forage for their food but can take a book with them to check for possible nourishment. They also catch skin and eat rabbits and fish. The local Spar store secretly provides more alluring foods.

Sylvia, the narrator, has a healthy response to the idea of authenticity and how history is created in the interests of those who retell it, such as her father. She is aware that history will always reflect the power structures and the concerns of the present. How, she wonders, did Iron Age women and girls manage their periods. 

The professor and Silvie’s father seek what they believe to be ever more authentic experiences and come up with the idea of the ghost wall. This is thought to have been a defensive wall with skulls of enemies on top to put fear into the hearts of any attackers. They make their own wall and use skulls they have found, such as from a cow or sheep, and the rabbit skulls.

And then they decide to re-enact the human sacrifice that is known about from the well-preserved remains of people in peat bogs. We have learned about a girl’s sacrifice in the novel’s prologue. According to the professor, the idea is to sacrifice something that is very precious.  Sil is aware of what her father will choose and as things begin to unravel the story moves towards its terrible climax.

Family Relationships

Sil’s family is toxic. Her father is abusive and violent, and both mother and child suffer from his whims and from his reaction to being humiliated or defied. The outcomes of his patriarchal attitudes are dark and dangerous.

Sil’s mother should make an effort to protect her, but she has given up any resistance. It is one of the students, Molly, who befriends and stands up for Sil. Molly represents the freedom that Sil anticipates when she leaves home. 

Silvie herself has all the self-consciousness of a young girl who has been kept apart from the world. In this passage she is explaining her name to the students on the first day.

So, said Dan, Silvie, what, short for Sylvia? Sulevia, I said. I was about to say, as I had been doing since I first started school, she was an Ancient British goddess, my dad chose it, but they were already exchanging glances. Sulevia’s a local deity, said Dan. Jim was talking about her the other day. Northumbrian goddess of springs and pools, co-opted by the Romans, said Molly.  […] Yeah, she said, OK but your dad’s not a historian, right, how did he know about her if you’re not local? I could feel myself turning red. He’s a bus driver, I said, history’s just a hobby, he wanted me to have a proper native British name. I saw glances again.  (18-9)

Reading this book

As I say, it is a short book, but written powerfully. The quotation above illustrates the momentum of the prose, uninterrupted by speech marks or line gaps. Maggie O’Farrell refers to this forward drive and is quoted on the front cover saying,

Ghost Wall  requires you to put your life on hold while you finish it. 

Sarah Moss has already shown her ability to tell the story of a young woman frightened from her own imagination and trapped where she can see no escape. I’m referring to Night Waking, published in 2011. A young woman spends the summer on an island with her two small children and finds herself deprived of sleep and immersed in the story of a dead baby and its mother. You can find my review of that novel here. Also recommended. 

Sarah Moss writes so well. Ghost Wall  made the long-list for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, but many readers were disappointed that it did not appear on the short-list. You can find both lists (and all previous winners) here.

I recommend it highly. 

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, published in 2018 by Granta. 152pp

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River by Esther Kinsky

River is a novel with very little narrative. A woman comes to live in London. She was born by the Rhine, but while staying in Hackney she explores the River Lea. This novel is about location, where poverty and migration are characteristic features and feature the changing patterns of the riverbanks, the paths, the marshes, unspecified marginal areas. Location is the emphasis of this novel.

I read River for two reasons. First it was recommended by a writer friend, who always makes interesting recommendations. And second, it is about the River Lea that I knew well for 25 years as it bordered my home territory, provided places to walk and a place t mingle with the mixed population. There is a peculiar pleasure in knowing this location, the shops (EGG store), Springfield Park, Hackney Marshes and Abney Road Cemetery. Esther Kinsky sees them as she passes through, they illustrated my life while I lived in London.

Translated from the German by Iain Galbraith

River  by Esther Kinsky

The novel is made up of 37 chapters, all linked in some way to a river, not all the Lea, several in other parts of the world: Germany, Canada, India. Some readers, including me, are reminded of WG Sebald. It is not just the walking, although it is that, or the long sentences, that too, but the meditative quality in the content, the narration of incidents on or near the river. There are even grainy photographs in the text, which may or may not relate to the chapter.

The narrator, a woman, moves to a room in north London. She is escaping or evading something unspecified and spends her days walking the River Lea. This brings to mind other rivers, the Rhine, which she grew up beside, and rivers in Canada and India as well as Europe.

It seems her life is perpetually on the move, nothing resolved, no focus, only scraps of contacts with people who are marginal and ignored like herself, and she views things from the river, and from the edges of London.

I returned on the path that looped around the filter beds and led back to the river between open terrain and the electricity pylons standing by as ever like lost, harmless giants frozen to the flat land, slender, immobile and delicate, their six arms splayed out to no conceivable purpose underlining their defencelessness, or their perplexity over the question of which way they should go next. The more familiar I became with this flat world in the milky winter light, the more I thought of the pylons as parts of the landscape that by some strange quirk of nature had surged out of the ground featherless, hairless and leafless in time immemorial, honest custodians of this intermediate realm between firm ground and a deceptive alluvial flood plain that was underwashed by countless waters; they were fine-boned guardians of the void uttering nothing but their spidery buzz and hum, a rarefied, highly-pitched song that was only audible in pauses between clattering trains, and which attempted again and again to subvert the city beyond the Lea whenever it drew a deep breath to roar. (162)

I draw your attention to a feature of this paragraph – it contains only two sentences. And its subject matter is electricity pylons.

The chapter describing the narrator’s experiences on the Hooghly River, a distributary of the Ganges, is one of the most vivid of the book. Perhaps this is because there is more of a narrative than elsewhere in the book. Some of the novel is fantasy, like the craters that appear, and other episodes may well be based on events such as the narrator’s meeting with the gypsy woman.  But mostly the reader accompanies the narrator as she observes the uneventful, storyless lives, people waiting, just getting through the day: the man at the charity shop door, the woman in the EGG store, the King making his ritual flights with the birds, passers-by, people leaving only the slightest indications of being here.

This is a novel about locations and lives that move away from the mainstream, often ignored, forgotten, in inconvenient places.

Every river is a border; that was one of the lessons of my childhood. It informs our view of what is other, forcing us to stop in our tracks and take in the opposite side. (171)

Esther Kinsky

She was born in Germany in 1956, and lived for a while in London. She is a linguist and has made a living as a translator.

River  by Esther Kinsky, first published in German as Am Fluss in 2014, and in English by Fitzcarraldo in 2018. 359pp

Translated from the German by Iain Galbraith. Winner of an English Pen Award.

A completely different novel set in Dalston, Hackney, is Mr Loverman by Bernadine Evaristo.

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Into the Mountain by Charlotte Peacock

Not many weeks ago I blogged about The Living Mountain  by Nan Shepherd. This was a book I had wanted to read for sometime. Then our book group decided to read this biography of Nan Shepherd for our November meeting. I imagined she was an intrepid and relentless walker and explorer of hills before I read the story of her life. I was glad to find out that she was this and so much more.

Into the Mountain: a life of Nan Shepherd  by Charlotte Peacock

She lived a long life: born in 1893 and dying in 1981. Her life was an interesting one, not least because she lived near Aberdeen all that time. She travelled and had friends in other places, especially in Scotland. By using bus and rail she ranged widely from her home in Cults. When her parents first moved there it was a village, but it is now a suburb of Aberdeen.

She was educated during the First World War at Aberdeen University, and went on to teach literature at the Teacher Training Centre. Her life was much involved with writing, and with Scottish writing in particular. She wrote three novels all set in northeast Scotland.

  • The Quarry Wood (1928)
  • The Weatherhouse (1930) and
  • A Pass in the Grampians (1933)

She also wrote poetry, publishing a collection called In the Cairngorms  in 1934. She corresponded and spent time with many Scottish literary figures, and was herself considered an influential modernist writer of the Scottish renaissance.

Towards the end of the Second World War she completed The Living Mountain, her description of her explorations of the Cairngorms. She sought advice, and approached one or two publishers, but it was not considered saleable, and it was not published until 1977 when the public mood had changed. Recent success has been attributed to Robert Macfarlane’s responses to the book in The Wild Places  (2012).

Nan Shepherd was a feminist. She is known to have been the lover of the philosopher John Macmurray, who married one of her school friends. She lived with her parents until they died, and never married. She adopted a daughter, Sheila.

Writing the biography

This was a tough book to read. The subject and the impending Book Group discussion kept me at it. But it was hard.

In part the book was a prisoner of too much research. Every possible connection seems to have been traced. One can admire this, but would like a little discrimination in the use of the research. It also contained 1112 endnotes, and (a bit of a bugbear this) while some of them were simply references, others contained information such as the disputes about the resurrection of Scots language and dialect. There was no way to tell which was which from the body of the text, and no way I was going to check 1112 notes.

Even more, it lacked a good dose of hard editing. If Charlotte Peacock had been writing in my university class I would have written SO WHAT? frequently on her drafts. We were served up with lots of information, but the connection to Nan Shepherd was not always clear.

For example the opening paragraph of the chapter 1936-43 begins with an announcement of the abdication, and a recording a visit to Aberdeen by the new King where he left his duties to his brother in favour of meeting Mrs Wallis Simpson. The connection to Nan Shepherd is not made.

Another example: the opening chapter is called 1941. It concerns a meeting with another writer on a train. But why this episode was used as the introductory chapter is not clear.

And the lack of explanation was especially true of the many references to the many people in her life. It was hard to know the significance of the person unless reminded by the author.

And further, her personal life was hardly revealed by this long biography. Instead the writer has used the characters from her novels to presume Nan Shepherd’s reactions. Adopting a child, losing a brother, her attitude to the First and Second World Wars, none of this made its way into the text. She was indeed a private person, and perhaps this information is not available.

Despite all this the subject is important. She has been recognised in Scotland by her appearance on the £5 note.

And, according to Erland Clouston, who knew her when he was a child and is her literary executor, she teaches us to see what we haven’t noticed before. This is a valuable skill for a writer.

Into the Mountain: a life of Nan Shepherd by Charlotte Peacock. Published in2017 by Galileo Publishers. 393pp

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The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd

About half a century ago I went skiing during the school holidays in the newly opened resort of Aviemore in the Cairngorms in the highlands of Scotland. I was with a group of young friends and my brother heroically drove our Bedford van the whole way from South Wales. I chiefly remember the bitter cold in the newly erected dormitories. Was there any heating in that building? And relentless damp fog. And the nightlife, which was boozy and fun. Of the Cairngorms I saw almost nothing. I have never been skiing again.

I have learned more about the Cairngorms from Nan Shepherd’s short book, The Living Mountain, than I did on that visit long ago. She writes about the fog, the mist, and the cold. And she writes about discovering the mountains at other times of year and in other weathers. And in other ways. She loved them.

The Living Mountainby Nan Shepherd

Like many people I was made aware of the existence of this book when I read Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places. I wanted to read it from that moment and now the time has arrived. My good friend Jane gave me a copy for my birthday, and my book group will discuss Nan Shepherd’s biography by Charlotte Peacock (Into the Mountain) in a few weeks.

The substance ofThe Living Mountain is twelve chapters each exploring an aspect of the Cairngorms: the plateau, water, mist, sleep, life, the senses and so on. I am amazed that a writer can so fully convey the sense of a place. The writing digs deeply into her love of the Cairngorms and her extensive experience of exploring them. She offers us more than a version of what she knows of the place. She also explains how she came to experience the mountains, how she has learned to be in the living mountain.

The title reveals her sense of the connectedness of all aspects of the mountain. It is a living thing; not just a series of summits to be conquered, not just a host for the fauna, flora and humankind. But also the geology, the topography, the weather and the deep history of the granite range. She was describing an ecosystem before the phrase was coined.

As I have indicated, her precious gift to the reader is that she teaches us that there are other ways to enjoy the mountains than to rush to the summits, or make heroic climbs. Rather, people can perceive the mountains through all their senses, and especially by sleeping and awakening in them.

Respect for the natural world, approaching it with humility and openheartedness, learning to use all the senses, sometimes just being quiet, this is what Nan Shepherd teaches us.

Once, on a night of such clear cold silence, long past midnight, lying awake outside the tent, my eyes on the plateau where an afterwash of light was lingering. I heard in the stillness a soft, an almost imperceptible thud. It was enough to make me turn my head. There on the tent pole a tawny owl stare down at me. I could just discern his shape against the sky. I stared back. He turned his head about, now one eye upon me, now the other, then melted down into the air so silently that had I not been watching him I could not have known he was gone. To have heard the movement of the midnight owl – that was rare, it was a minor triumph. (96-7)

Her writing in this book has a particular quality: it is often in the use of a very sensual and unexpected adjective in her descriptions. ‘clear, cold silence’ and ‘melted down into the air’ in the previous extract. Also::

tang of height (9) a gulf of brightness so profound that the mind stopped (12), water is speaking (22), whips of wind (37), the thin silver singing among the last trees that tell me the tits are there (68).

And it is her philosophical approach that may of her readers find great pleasure. Here is her final paragraph.

I believe that I now understand in some small measure why the Buddhist goes on pilgrimage to a mountain. The journey is itself part of the technique by which the god is sought. It is a journey into Being; for as I penetrate more deeply into the mountain’s life, I penetrate also into my own. For an hour I am beyond desire. It is not ecstasy, that leap out of the self that takes man like a god. I am not out of myself, but in myself. I am. To know Being, this is the final grace accorded from the mountain. (108)

This classic study of the mountains was written at the end of the Second World War but it seems that Nan Shepherd did not believe there was a market for such a book so it was not published until much later – 1977.

Nan Shepherd (1893-1981) was a feminist, who lived all her life in North Deeside, and never married. She did adopt a child. Her life was unconventional. Having graduated from the University of Aberdeen, she taught English Literature at a teacher training college. And she wrote three novels, all based in her home area.

There is a long and very helpful introduction by Robert Macfarlane in the Canongate edition.

The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherdfirst published in 1977. I used the edition from Canongate with an introduction by Robert Macfarlane. 114pp

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Refugee Tales – 2 Edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus

A group of people walk in the manner of the Canterbury Tales. As they walk they tell their stories. The journey, in July 2017, started at Runnymede, where the Magna Carta was signed, and ended in Westminster, the seat of parliamentary democracy.

This is a collection of stories about abuses of Human Rights. The stories are about refugees and indefinite detention.

Real as the walk is, and acutely real as are the experiences presented in the tales, there is a significant sense in which Refugee Tales is also symbolic. What it aims to do, as it crosses the landscape, is to open up a space: a space in which the stories of people who have been detained can be told and heard in a respectful manner. It is out of such a space, as the project imagines, that new forms of language and solidarity can emerge. (115)

Refugee Tales – 2

Last year I read the first volume of Refugee Tales as part of my challenge to walk and blog about refugees, raising money for Freedom from Torture. Since the first walk and publication of the first tales, indefinite detention has become more prevalent. It the focus of the second book of tales, collected for the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group.

These are not exceptional stories, or only in the sense that they have been told to accomplished writers and written down and presented in a collection. Here are the tales of 11 people whose lives are bound up with the UK immigration practices: the student, lover, abandoned person, walker, witness, barrister, voluntary returner, support worker, soldier, mother and smuggled person.

Reading these stories made me ashamed to be a resident in a country where the policy is so mean-spirited and hostile, so lacking in generosity and humanity, which strips away peoples’ sense of self, their dignity and trust. Furthermore temporary indefinite detention can be seen as an abuse of Human Rights as these stories illustrate.

Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law. (Article 6 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948).

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile. (Article 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948).

People are being prevented from making an appearance. They are being hidden, their stories denied. They are being detained indefinitely, and justice is thus abused.

And there are stories of people doing good, doing the right thing, offering assistance and kindness where it is needed. I know who I’d like to be, not on the side of creating ‘here in Britain a really hostile environment for illegal migration’ (words of the then Home Secretary, Theresa May, in 2012). Rather I would support a policy that honours our commitments to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and our obligations towards refugees.

From the voluntary returner’s tale:

I’m here yet I’m not.

You’ll never know.

That I was here.

Nor that I still am. (65)

From the support worker’s tale:

It means being in but not of the world. Like a shade from the world below, you’re condemned to float outside, looking in on everything you can’t have, everyone you’re not. (74)

From the soldier’s tale:

Salim is relocated to Glasgow. He has to report in person to the local Home Office outpost every two weeks. At any of those visits he is liable to be detained and removed to Italy. He is still suspended in this purgatory, waiting and hoping and dreading. One could diminish a man to nothing, to chaff, to dust, with this; the only weapon you need is time. (89-90)

Read the stories. They are not going away. Migration remains, and is not halted by hostile environments. In fact it is caused by them.

Refugee Tales – 2 Edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus, published in 2017 by Comma Press. 138pp. Proceeds go to Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group and Kent Refugee Help

You can find my post about the first book of stories here. Refugee Tales, edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus. Published by Comma Press in 2016. 150pp Profits go to Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group and Kent Refugee Help

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Imposter Syndrome for Writers

‘It’s only me …’ That’s the first part of imposter syndrome. The second is ‘… and I’m about to be found out.’ This is a recognised psychological syndrome. According to some writing blogs it is especially prevalent in writers. I suspect that’s because they read mostly about writers and their difficulties. It is more likely common everywhere, and in all walks of life, with the possible exception of politicians who often are imposters but have no fears about discovery.

If any group experiences its discomforts more than others I suspect it is women, who, like everyone, suffer from believing they may not be good enough, but have the added experiences of being constantly told that women are not as good.

So there is a lot of it about. What can writers do to mitigate its paralysing effects?

Imposter syndrome and ‘real’ writers

It is clear from a small amount of research that published writers also suffer from imposter syndrome. Maya Angelou was one, despite seven volumes of autobiography, and praise for her poetry. She was asked by President Clinton to recite On the Pulse of Morning at his inauguration in 1993. You can see her performing this poem here. Neil Gaiman is another, but he changed when he met another sufferer – Neil Armstrong – according to his blog.

Imposter Syndrome and less experienced writers

In my writing group recently a member revealed that she wanted to write a book. She said she hesitated to say it in front of ‘real’ writers. And furthermore, when she thought about writing she always found something else to do, had no time available to write in, and no space she could shut herself away in.

Another member of my writing group recalled working for a poet, male, who retreated to his study every morning at 10 and expected to remain undisturbed until lunch was ready. There was some admiration for the man’s discipline and routine, but also the wry acknowledgement that the model was not altogether satisfactory for many women.

And it made me wonder what image of writers, ‘real’ writers, is common in people’s minds. Is it the silence, the closed doors, the removal from the world that our first member seemed to refer to? I mentioned a writer who frequently works in a café, loves the busy-ness of the public place. Perhaps by a ‘real’ writer she had a belief that this is someone who has been published.

A third member of our group reminded us that we can choose to call ourselves writer and that the only thing that makes someone a writer is … that they write.

Since imposter syndrome is not a rational condition, the solution is not to say ‘don’t be so silly, just write,’ but more to acknowledge that to be a writer you need to write.

The first piece of advice is Claim yourself as Writer and it comes from Writing Alone, Writing Together by Judy Reeves (2002).

Claim yourself as Writer.

Until you name yourself Writer, you will never be a writer who writes (and keeps writing).

Most writers I know, especially those who have not published, say, “I want to be a writer.” Or “I’m a [fill in the blank] and I like to write.” Or “I’ve always dreamed of being a writer.” But they don’t actually call themselves a writer. …

If you announce you are a writer, rather than simply mouthing that you want to be or you’d like to be, you may be transformed. Try it. Right now. Speak your name out loud followed by, “I’m a writer.” Let yourself experience the sensations you feel when you sound out the words. (2)

You can probably tell that this is an American text. Nonetheless, the first step is to claim I am a writer. The second step is to show up at the page. And the third step is to write.

And to support all of this claiming and naming, here are some ways to provide infrastructure for writing to substantiate the claim:

  • allocate time,
  • find a place or places to write,
  • budget money to support your writing (eg courses, tools, research activities),
  • invest in the tools you need,
  • socialise with other writers,
  • and read.

Imposter syndrome means being in danger of being found out

Just for a moment, apply some reason to the fear of being exposed. How often does it happen? Do you know people who called themselves writers and you find out that they aren’t? Or people who are bad writers? Actually this does happen. Dan Brown’s novels are frequently criticised for being badly written, publicly, loudly, and yet … You know he’s made a ton of money out of them?

Perhaps the fear is that you are an imperfect writer. This is true, you are. There is no such thing as perfection in writing, and even if your writing is excellent you still have more to learn.

But many, many writers have a fear that their writing will be rejected. The advice about rejection seems to be toughen up and grow a pair. I find this advice sexist and unhelpful. We do have to learn to accept rejection, and it is possible to argue that you learn through the experience. Writing being such a personal activity, in which writers have usually invested a great deal of themselves, it is not comfortable and to be told that your labours have resulted in something that is not wanted. And dispiriting. And discouraging.

Dorothea Brande in Becoming a Writer (1934) suggests that every writer goes through a slough of despond. Every thought appears to erode further the writer’s self-confidence. And, she suggests, many writers give up at this point. Only writers who decide to persist manage to crawl out of the other side of the slough, she suggests.

Another classic giver of advice to artists is Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way (1993). Her approach is to practice affirmations, to turn negative thoughts into positive alternatives.

And what do writers say?

In Your Creative Masterclass (2012) Jurgen Woolf includes a helpful chapter on confidence. Checkov advises a version of turn up at the page.

You must once and for all give up being worried about success and failure. Don’t let that concern you. It’s you duty to go on working steadily day by day, quite steadily, to be prepared for mistakes, which are inevitable and for failures. (214)

Joyce Carol Oates, a very prolific writer, reminds us about writers who had to change after failure to become writers of other stuff.

One must be stoic, one must develop a sense of humour. And, after all, there is the example of William Faulkner, who considered himself a failed poet; Henry James returning to prose fiction after the conspicuous failure of his play-writing career; Ring Lardner writing his impeccable American prose because he despaired of writing sentimental popular songs; Hans Christian Andersen perfecting his fairy tales since he was clearly a failure in other genres – poetry, play writing, life. (215-6)

So, what to do?

You may have your own tactics for dealing with that voice saying – it’s only me and I’m about to be found out. We’d love to read them. Meanwhile think on this. What happens when you turn up and write? What happens when you claim it and invest in it? Can you practise persistence and affirmation when it all seems discouraging? Could you read your poems at the next presidential inauguration?

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Photo credit: Maya Angelou at President Clinton’s inauguration by staff photographer, President’s office via WikiCommons.

 

 

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Rebecca Solnit and How to be a Writer

Rebecca Solnit is a writer I admire very much. She writes beautifully and she writes about important things: walking, hope, distortions in public life, feminism, and above all about the importance of having a voice. This theme runs through all her writing. You will find links to several posts that refer to her work at the end of this one.

About a year ago Lithub.com published How to Be Writer: 10 Tips from Rebecca Solnit. In every one of her 10 tips there was some wisdom and wit. If you are a writer you might do no better than read the original: here.

How to be a writer

I like to read books about writing, and books for writers. I like to read the advice of writers I admire, including Rebecca Solnit even if they say the things I have heard before, seen everywhere. Here are my responses to her tips:

Write and read

To be a writer you must write and you must read. Thanks also to Stephen King (1999) On Writing, Anne Lamott (1994) Bird by Bird, Francine Prose (2006) Reading Like a Writer and to many other writers. To write well you must write, write lots, write frequently, write more. And you must read, read recently published books and read from the past, read in your field and outside it, read for pleasure and to critique. Read.

Writing is more than typing

I love Rebecca Solnit’s claim that writing is more than typing because it gives me a reason to walk on Dartmoor or by the sea, to visit places, to talk to people about my writing and to practice my developing skills as a writer.

Remember that writing is not typing. Thinking, researching, contemplating, outlining, composing in your head and in sketches, maybe some typing with revisions as you go and then more revisions, emendations, additions, reflections, setting aside and returning afresh, because a good writer is always a good editor of his or her own work.

All those actions – 12 of them listed above – are necessary. I was involved in all of these this morning as I grappled with redrafting the opening scene of a short story. I related particularly to emendations, additions, reflections, and now the draft sits waiting for the next time I work on it, set aside.

Pay attention to your own feedback

Listen to your own feedback and remember that you move forward through mistakes and stumbles and flawed but aspiring work, not perfect pirouettes performed in the small space in which you originally stood.

Pirouettes indeed! But yes, and this is difficult, learning to listen to your own responses to you writing.

I read the sentence again and note the perfect rhythm of the sentence. And also that it perfectly captures the difference between learning to develop capacity and skill and learning to perform for a test or for popularity.

You need some time, some passion and a little joy

All writers know this, but it’s good to say it out loud, or to write it down:

It [writing] takes time. This means you have to find the time.

And you need to believe in what you are writing, so this requires passion and joy:

If you’re not passionate about writing and about the world and the things in it you’re writing about, then why are you writing?

Good question. And you need to bring the joy to bear when you might not feel up to the writing, when inspiration is lacking, and around you everything is depressing.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, and referring back to the importance of voice she says:

The process of making art is the process of becoming a person with agency.

The artist produces meaning rather than consuming it.

Thank you Rebecca Solnit.

And I shall be I the audience when you visit Bristol on 1st November 2017. Rebecca Solnit will be in more places in the UK around that time.

Some links

How to Be Writer: 10 Tips from Rebecca Solnit on Lithub.com

Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities by Rebecca Solnit in January 2017

The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit

Men Explain Things to Me and other essays by Rebecca Solnit (2014) Granta. I posted on Bookword about this book and mansplaining in May 2015

The Mother of All Questions by Rebecca Solnit, published by Granta, September 2017.

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