09 +00002014-05-31T18:59:34+00:0031 2012 § 10 Comments
At Easter, I took a short break on the east coast of North Yorkshire and have been meaning to write about it ever since! It’s a region that we know well as a family: my husband spent many holidays in Filey as a child and, when we were first married, some friends owned a house at Robin Hood’s Bay, at which we spent several wonderful long weekends. Built in the seventeenth century, this was the house that stands nearest the sea, adjacent to the ‘quarterdeck’, or man-made apron for viewing the bay, and, on stormy nights, the waves broke right over it and the whole building shook. (It’s next door to what was the Leeds University/Sheffield University Marine Laboratory from 1912 to 1982 and now, rebuilt, a National Trust visitor centre.) The house is still there, though no longer owned by our friends. During its time, it has been several times hired by authors wanting a quiet place in which to write without disturbance (though when I visited the house its plumbing system was so eccentric that a great deal of time had to be deployed in pumping out sewage and clearing the drains!). Robin Hood’s Bay itself is the setting of the Bramblewick novels, by Leo Walmsley.
No visit to the East coast is complete without a visit to this mediaeval fishing village. However, this year, my husband and I headed a little further north, to Port Mulgrave, a hamlet near Staithes. Bleaker and more desolate than ‘the Bay’, this place really could have been at the end of the world.
One of the most magnificent things about this stretch of Yorkshire coast is that visiting it is like stepping back into the past, but in an unpretentious way (quite unlike, for example, the self-conscious ‘olde-worlde’ well-preserved streets of towns such as Harrogate). The house in which we stayed was a massive building that dated from the period when ironstone was mined there during the nineteenth century. I’m not sure what the purpose of this building was originally: it may simply have been a dwelling for the ironstone workers, or it may have been part dwelling, part factory. Today it has been divided into several cottages, one of which was our holiday house. Intriguingly, the end cottage was burned down some time ago, without any damage having been caused to the rest of the building. Its owner still visits regularly to tend the garden and the empty space where the cottage once stood.
I hadn’t heard of Port Mulgrave before. When I came to look it up, I discovered that the Mulgrave Estate covers a massive area at the centre of which lies Whitby. By chance, on this holiday, we also happened to pass the estate office in Sandsend.
Although it was Easter, we managed to avoid the crowds, apart from an ill-advised foray into Whitby – another favourite haunt – on Good Friday. On Easter Saturday, we walked from Robin Hood’s Bay
to Ravenscar and climbed the cliff that leads to the golf links and the Raven Hall Hotel, where we bought a sandwich lunch and sat outside to soak up the sunshine.
We stumbled upon several plump seal pups at the boulder-strewn end of the beach, just before the start of the climb up the cliff. One of them growled menacingly at our dog, clearly more than a match for him (He’s a very mild-mannered dog, and certainly wouldn’t have hurt it; he stood timidly several feet away and looked in wonderment at it!). Almost full-grown, they were evidently awaiting the return of the parent seals with more food.
I’d never been as close as this to seals before and had no idea how beautiful they are. Glistening and glossy, each was a different colour. Some were dappled like horses.
I admit it, I wrote this post largely as an excuse to share with my readers their beauty and that of this magnificent coastline! Also, some Twitter friends have wondered about my promotion of Yorkshire seafood, especially crab. Now you know! I love this place and everything it has to offer.
[Text and photographs © Christina James 2014]
09 +00002014-05-28T15:09:14+00:0031 2012 § 4 Comments
Monday May 19th was a sweltering hot day and I was in St John’s Wood. I’d travelled there to visit Lord’s Cricket Ground, where a seminar on Open Access, sponsored by the publisher Taylor & Francis, was taking place. It’s the nearest that I’m likely to get to a cricket pitch while I’m able to exercise free will, as cricket is a game that has always mystified and bored me in equal measures of profundity. I had been a guest at a Lord’s hospitality suite once before, in the late 1990s, when I worked at Waterstones. Unusually for me, I can’t remember the exact purpose of this earlier meeting. I therefore conclude that it was probably about something quite unpleasant – such as redundancies, budgetary shortfall or the like – and that, accordingly, I’ve edited it from memory.
However, on this particular Monday, the sun was shining, which always puts me in a good mood. I was also pleased to have arrived in London early enough to explore a bit of St. John’s Wood en route. It’s not an area of London with which I’m familiar, but as lovers of late Victorian and Edwardian fiction will know, it was created to serve the semi-honourable purposes of aristocratic males who ‘played away’ by installing longstanding mistresses in bijou, affordable little houses not too far distant from the male clubs and the West End. St. John’s Wood thus became safe and ‘respectable’, at least on the surface, but was at the same time too humble and modest to attract dangerous interest from aristocratic wives and their friends. I’ve therefore always imagined that it would be smart and slightly exotic, with a hint of raffishness… and so it might have been a hundred years ago. Today, it has a slightly run-down air. Nevertheless, the pretty little houses are now obviously occupied by people with some means, as the expensive boutiques and upmarket coffee shops that throng the main street bear witness. I amused myself by sitting outside one of the latter, sipping a cappuccino and listening to a very young Yummy Mummy, with a designer baby on her hip, recounting the rigours of her day to two adoring older women. It was with reluctance that I tore myself away from eavesdropping on their conversation and pressed on to the cricket ground itself.
By mid-day, the conference was going well. The air conditioning was very efficient, which meant that spending the lunchtime break inside would have been a good soft option. But I knew I could not miss this rare opportunity to explore Lord’s, considered by ‘foreigners’ to be as much a national treasure as Madame Tussaud’s or the Tower of London. I therefore made the valiant effort to venture into the heat of the noonday sun (not quite a mad dog nor, clearly, an Englishman) to try to capture some of its venerated atmosphere.
I soon discovered that those who have renovated and re-designed the cricket ground in recent years have cunningly made it almost impossible for non-patrons to sneak in and spectate illicitly. Given my total failure to appreciate the charms of cricket, this didn’t worry me in the slightest, though it did mean that the only photographs I could take were extremely long shots of the pitch. I quickly also found that, although the day was perfect for snoozing in the stands, the match in progress had attracted somewhere between fifty and a hundred spectators – certainly no more. Tier upon tier of seats were standing empty.
From this (rightly or wrongly!), I deduce that the great majority of the population feels roughly the same about cricket as I do and I suppose that the winter’s utter humiliation of the national side down under hasn’t helped to put bums on seats. How, then, does the game manage to perpetuate itself? I looked around me. Not only are there several hospitality suites at Lord’s, in the grandest of which my conference was taking place, but there are also some very chic bars and cafés, a shop selling ‘artisan’ ice-creams and another selling Lord’s souvenirs. It’s clearly one of those places you go to in order to be seen and say that you’ve been, and incidentally spend a significant amount of money in the process. This must be how the fine old institution of Lord’s not only survives but thrives, financially speaking. The cricket itself to me seems incidental, a charmingly eccentric pastime engaged in by a few aficionados and the equally stalwart cognoscenti who constitute their fans.
And so the quintessential Britishness of the Lord’s experience is preserved for posterity. It’s a kind of double standard, not unlike the double standard operated by those not-quite-caddish gentlemen who ‘protected’ their mistresses in St. John’s Wood whilst ensuring that they caused their wives no distress or embarrassment by letting them loose in Kensington or Belgravia. (A less generous approach, if you’ll forgive me, wouldn’t have been ‘cricket’.) How fitting that this suburb’s now old-fashioned charms should still be home to a national game that does not quite seem to have kept pace with the times.
09 +00002014-05-22T12:39:51+00:0031 2012 § 6 Comments
The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak
I know I am the latest in a very long line of people to say this, or something like it, but here goes: The Book Thief is a monumental yet delicate and extraordinarily beautiful novel. It is the sort of novel that stays with your forever once you’ve read it; the sort of novel that you know you’ll want to read again. (For me, very few novels make it into this category.)
Why is it so amazing? The publisher’s blurb gives almost nothing away: Liesel, a nine-year-old girl, is living with a foster family on Himmel Street. Her parents have been taken away to a concentration camp. Liesel steals books. This is her story and the story of the inhabitants of her street when the bombs begin to fall. This sounds intriguing, but conventional. Yet another tale about the Second World War, you might think, made slightly unusual (but not unique) by being told from the point of view of a German child.
Some of the narrative is indeed presented from Liesel’s weltanschauung; the remainder, from the viewpoint of an altogether more shadowy and amorphous character, Death himself (or herself – Zusak is not sexist about this, so we don’t actually find out whether Death has a gender). Strangely, given Liesel’s tragic background (she watches her little brother die during a train journey and shortly afterwards is brutally separated from her mother, her father having already ‘disappeared’) and Death’s status, one of the most striking things about this novel is that every sentence is written with love. Death itself loves his or her victims and reflects ruefully on the absurdities that have put them in his / her way. The far-from-perfect characters are all drawn with love, so that the reader is made to appreciate the best in them: Rosa Hubermann, Liesel’s fat, irascible and scatological foster-mother; Frau Holtzapfel, the niggardly neighbour who pays Liesel with increasingly scarce groceries to read to her; Max Vandenburg, the rather cowardly Jewish refugee taken in by the Hubermanns at great personal risk to themselves and the mayor’s wife who owns a large library and whose mind has been permanently impaired by the loss of her son during the First World War – all are drawn by the author with love. The greatest of this authorial love is lavished on Rudy Steiner, Liesel’s playmate and would-be childish boyfriend, and Hans Hubermann, her stepfather. But even Hitler is portrayed with sidelong glints of love.
The author himself seems to be as much a painter as a poet. He writes more emotively about colour than any other writer I’ve encountered. Not only does he assign unexpected colours to things both animate and inanimate, but he seems to attach values to them. Hans Hubermann’s repeatedly described silver eyes are full of sterling worth; black is the colour of incomprehension and confusion; the rights of white to be considered a colour are tenaciously asserted. Colours are even turned into verbs: “The sky was beginning to charcoal.”
Of the many paradoxes that make up The Book Thief, the greatest is that it is an overtly moral tale that neither preaches nor follows an accepted moral code. It achieves this both despite and because of the small moralising paragraphs, always presented in bold, that on one level resemble parodies of the ‘lessons’ in Victorian morality tales, on another set in shorthand the tone of the next scene: “A Portrait of Pfiffikus. He was a delicate frame. He was white hair. He was a black raincoat, brown pants, decomposing shoes, and a mouth – and what a mouth it was.”
The contradictoriness of morality that the book captures throughout is displayed in the title. Liesel is herself the eponymous Book Thief, yet the reader never believes that her theft of eight selected books one by one at longish intervals during her childhood is immoral. In some ways each theft is life-affirming, though ironically the first is of a gravedigger’s manual, stolen for comfort before Liesel is able to read and therefore understand its contents. Hans subsequently teaches her to read by ploughing through this book with her during the long nights when her nightmares drive away sleep, because he refuses to leave her to suffer them on her own: so the act of reading, celebrated throughout the novel as the great life-affirming skill that is also often Liesel’s saviour, grows out of a damp tome of death and a young girl’s horrific sense of loss. Each book that she steals teaches Liesel more about life – not always because of its contents: sometimes it is because of the circumstances in which the book is acquired – so that each theft marks a milestone in the process of her growing-up, her loss of innocence. Finally, she receives as a birthday present a book that has been written especially for her, a hymn to her goodness concealed within an ironical yet harrowing account of the rise and rise of ‘the Fuehrer’.
At the macro level, The Book Thief symbolises the story of a nation trying to make sense of what happened to it and therefore understand how it managed to lose its way. It is a story of the riches that may be found in poverty, the generosity towards others that may yet be found within the hearts of those in extreme danger, the puzzle that is life itself. It also affirms, strongly yet subtly, pervasively yet unobtrusively, that there is nothing, was nothing and never has been anything inherently ‘bad’ in the German race. Germans, then as now, came in all the myriad colours of morality, just like the members of every other race on the earth.
I’d like to offer my very great thanks to Annika for choosing The Book Thief for me.
09 +00002014-05-16T17:12:08+00:0031 2012 § 12 Comments
Last weekend, I visited the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. We often take our dog for walks there, but last Saturday, although the dog came too, I was on a mission: to visit its latest exhibition, a stunning major show of more than fifty pieces by the American sculptor Ursula Von Rydingsvard.
As her name suggests, she wasn’t born in the USA, but in Germany, to a Polish mother and Ukrainian father, in 1942. After a tough time in various refugee camps, she and her family emigrated to America in 1952. Admirers of her work say that they see the suffering of her childhood rooted in it. She herself says that it may be there, but that no single piece of her work conveys a single message, because that would bore her, and probably bore others, too.
I agree wholeheartedly with this, and was certainly not thinking about her past when I walked, awe-struck, past the pieces in the gardens at YSP and then on to the indoor part of the exhibition which is housed in the spectacular underground studio there. Von Rydingsvard is particularly fascinated by cedar and many of the pieces consist of huge planks of cedar wood that she has sculpted to bring out its innate qualities in more stylised form. Her monumental bronze and synthetic material sculptures also convey the textures of their cedar moulds. One of these, Bronze Bowl with Lace, has a fine, billowing filigree band at the top, based on a real piece of lace; it is astonishing to see how delicate this is. She first talked of achieving this as long ago as 2002 and it is undoubtedly her most ambitious piece so far. It is internally lit with an ember glow and has external base lighting, too, so it transforms itself over a twenty-four hour period.
It was, however, the pieces actually made out of cedar that I liked best. Some of these are huge figures or monuments that tower over the visitor. Others, though still relatively large, are representations of more homely objects, such as spoons and other household utensils. [“I did not play games nearly as much as other children did. When I did play them, they were in a style I recall as being serious. I often played with sticks, wooden balls and other knife-carved wooden objects made with a child’s will and awkward technical skills. I also played with crude domestic objects in bombed-out brick buildings, the ruins of which were layered in ways that for me felt exciting.”] There are also some textiles pieces. There are identifiable ‘periods’ to Von Rydingsvard’s work, but she has remained faithful to cedar, in many different incarnations, for the whole of her career.
Right at the end of the indoor exhibition was a small seating area where visitors could linger to watch a video of Von Rydingsvard describing her work. I was at first surprised at how halting, nervous and at times almost incoherent she seemed in this production. Then I realised how arrogant it was of me to make this observation. Sculpture is her medium, not words, and she has indicated in many interviews that she is uncomfortable with trying to analyse her sculpture too closely or on too simple a level. It’s impossible as well as invidious to try to compare different art forms and I’d challenge any writer to try to convey his or her work in sculpture. Why, therefore, should we expect a sculptor to wish to convey hers in words?
The Ursula Von Rydingsvard exhibition will remain at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park until next spring. If you are interested in sculpture, it is a must-see. If you haven’t visited the YSP before, that in itself is a rare treat!
09 +00002014-05-10T17:49:55+00:0031 2012 § 2 Comments
I was extremely privileged last Wednesday to have been invited to join the first literary festival to be launched at the Priory LSST Academy in Lincoln. It was actually a festival within a festival, arranged by Mrs. Sarah Oliver, the energetic and enthusiastic writer-in-residence at the Academy, with the help of the very talented Sara Bullimore, who is one of the organisers of Lincoln Inspired, the city’s arts and literature festival. My contribution was to offer creative writing students feedback on the work they had submitted for a crime-writing competition, organise and take part in two writing workshops for younger students
and deliver the festival keynote talk later in the afternoon. Members of the public were admitted to the latter.
Before I go on to describe the day in more detail, I’d just like to pause to say what an amazing place the Priory Academy is. One of the first academies to have been set up after the government announced its support for them, it is situated on a sprawling site with several buildings and many beautifully laid-out gardens, distinguished particularly by their modern sculptures and water features. Students move from one building to another via a series of covered walkways. The academy also has a planetarium, an Olympic-standard running track, an incredibly well-equipped gym and a swimming pool. Although it is a state school, it takes sixth-form boarders (they are usually either students from overseas or from armed services families). Those who attend it are greatly privileged and keenly aware of this. All of the students I met were impeccably polite; several of them told me how passionate they were about the Academy itself.
The sixth-form creative writing course was set up by Sarah Oliver at the beginning of the current academic year; it is voluntary and after school. Many more students wished to take the course than she could accommodate. Eventually fourteen were selected, of whom twelve entered the creative writing competition. They were asked to write the opening chapter of a crime novel (with a 500-word limit) and a synopsis of the whole novel (with a 300-word limit). This in itself was a pretty tall order, but they succeeded admirably. It is no exaggeration to say that I believe that every one of those students could go on to be a successful writer. The prize was for the student who wrote the winning entry to have his or her chapter published in the Lincolnshire Echo and the two runners-up to have theirs published in the online version of the same newspaper.
Choosing the winner was a daunting task. I asked my husband, who also acts as my copy-editor, to help. We decided to evaluate each entry on the following seven attributes: the opening sentence; consistency (did the chapter match the synopsis?); how compelling we found the writing; the quality of the plot; characterisation; the accuracy of the writing; the quality of the writing. It’s of course impossible for me to describe all of the entries in detail here, but to give my readers some idea of the quality of the entries, I’ve listed below a few of the opening sentences from the students’ submissions:
Bryant’s breath condensed in the plastic of his gas mask before fading away, only to be replaced every time he exhaled. It was stifling.
It’s the screech of the tyres that haunts, and the sickening crunch of metal splintering on bone.
Peer pressure. It was always peer pressure to blame when we got caught.
A myriad of birds shot out of the trees as loud sirens blazed past and a blur of blue lights blinded the night sky.
Sally heard the breathing in the darkness. The short gasps of air slowly faded into the inky night as she crouched, frozen, behind a wild hedge.
My job as judge was made more difficult because the opening chapter and synopses that we both considered to be the best ones were not written by the same person. Furthermore, there was a third entrant who, while she wrote neither the best chapter nor the best synopsis, had the best stab at both put together.
The rules of the competition organised by Sarah Oliver in conjunction with the Lincolnshire Echo were clear-cut. The best chapter was undoubtedly written by James, so we awarded the prize to him. Fatmira and Katie therefore became the runners-up.
The constraints of the competition were, however, considerable, and I knew that I wanted to see more of these students’ work. By great good fortune, Jean Roberts, Business Development Director at PrintOnDemandWorldWide, had very generously said that, if the winner wanted to complete his or her novel within a year of entering the competition, she would print ten copies of it free of charge and also put it into legal deposit, PODWW’s distributor channels and its own new online bookselling venture, The Great British Bookshop. I decided that James, Fatmira and Katie all deserved to be eligible for this new prize, so I have now set up a further contest for the three of them. If they can get their completed novels to me by the end of this year, I’ll choose the best of them and send it on to Jean. PrintOnDemandWorldWide also very generously gave all the students a Great British Bookshop notebook, pen and box of Union Jack sweets. Both the students and all those who attended the afternoon keynote also received PODWW’s pamphlet giving advice and writing tips to would-be authors.
I shall write more on this blog at intervals about James, Fatmira and Katie and the progress that they are making. I hope that you will join me in following their journey, perhaps also offering your own support and encouragement along the way. In the meantime, I’d like to celebrate the achievement of all the student writers at the Priory Academy. I’m certain that we shall be hearing more of at least some of them in years to come.