Favourite things: Book chat

This time last year, I spent a couple of hours reading – and sheltering – inside a large marquee at the Royal Geographic Society for the inaugural Emerald Street Literary Festival. In spite of the damp and dreary weather, I had a lovely time – so much so that as soon as I saw the promotion for this year’s event, I snapped up some earlybird tickets.

In stark contrast, yesterday’s sun cast its benevolent warmth over the RGS marquee as it fizzed with London’s literati enjoying Festival number two. The rooms and theatres played host to author panels, discussions on themes like race, travel writing and witchcraft, and freebies. The Map Room had an Aperol Spritz waiting for each attendee and in the marquee, Headline Publishing were offering a choice of one of six paperbacks for those who’d booked multiple sessions – like me.

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My free book – The House of Birds – thanks to Headline Publishing

After checking out the lay of the land and collecting my book, I headed to the theatre for the first of the four sessions I’d booked for the afternoon. Here’s how it all went down.

1. Why do we love to talk about books?

The winner of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction was announced this week and this panel was the last of the Prize’s official events. It comprised Kate Mosse – author, Prize co-founder and honorary director – Naomi Alderman – winner of this year’s Prize with The Power (it’s a great read) – and Ayobami Adebayo – whose first novel, Stay With Me, was on this year’s short-list. The trio took to the stage to chat about their own reading and writing and to explore the question: Why do we love to talk about books?

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L to R: Naomi Alderman, Ayobami Adebayo and Kate Mosse

Over the next 45 minutes, these three authors talked about their writing, the rollercoaster of confidence that comes with it and whether/what they actually read when they are writing something. (For each it depended on the draft number but the general consensus was don’t read the same genre as you are writing.)  There was also a really interesting discussion on criticism and I liked the way that Naomi answered this: There’s enormous value in paid-for constructive criticism, ignore the ‘abuse’ at the other end of the spectrum and remember that reader reviews e.g. Goodreads, Amazon etc. are ‘not really for us [the authors]’ but rather for other readers. Ayobami also loved that she’d discovered the mute conversation option on Twitter.

And what about the question at hand – why do we love talking about books? Well, Naomi likened it to finding this amazing new cafe and then telling everyone they should go. She also shared an observation about the personal affront you feel when someone doesn’t really love a book that you did. The chat about this swayed from jokes about ‘we can’t be friends any more’ (Ayobami) and the overwhelming urge to defend and re-sell [them] on your choice of reading material to feeling utterly shocked and deflated (Naomi). Haven’t we all been there!

2. Telling true stories: Explaining narrative journalism

This was a fascinating peek into the world of long-form journalism with Clare Longrigg, deputy editor of The Guardian’s Long Read, and Sophie Elmhirst, a journalist who’s written pieces for The New Yorker, Harper’s Bazaar and The Guardian (just to name a few.)

They chatted first about the difference between a long read and a longer celebrity profile – Sophie particularly talked about the greater amount of time invested in a long read piece to explore whatever the subject matter is (and she’s written on everything from water to Robin Wright). When a person is the subject of her article, she tries to see them at home or do something with them, and also talks to others in that world to get a range of angles to draw from. She mentioned that it’s often the innocuous thing that someone says that breathes life into the piece. For example, did you know that when Richard Dawkins‘ can’t sleep, he goes through the alphabet and assigns mammals to each letter? Well thanks to Sophie, you do now.

3. Essex Girls, Serpents and Writing a Best Seller

Sarah Perry‘s second novel, The Essex Serpent, was on the Prize shortlist in 2016 but at the time, I thought it sounded too primly Victorian to be my cup of tea. How wrong I was on both counts – it was far from prim and I absolutely loved it. So to hear Perry chat with Lucy Mangan – I have been a fan of Mangan’s column in Stylist magazine for a while – was something I was really looking forward to.

I was completely charmed by Sarah. She talked about her unorthodox upbringing, the way she has always like her eccentricity, her curious mind that ‘needed nourishment’ and her drive to explore themes in her writing to make it a worthwhile pursuit.

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Lucy Mangan (L) listens as Sarah Perry (R) reads from The Essex Serpent

Sarah spoke about exploring different sorts of love in her writing – except romantic love. She professed to being bored by exploring this as a writer and as a reader in light of her own smooth path to love and marriage – “I just found a nice man and married him.” She also talked about how her first novel, After Me Comes The Flood was published: After 19 rejection letters, her agent left the firm…and became her publisher.

Sarah’s passion, curiosity and unusual viewpoint made for a delightful 45 minutes – she’s interested in so much and for me, it’s what made her so interesting to listen to.

4. Emerald Street Presents Robin Dalton

I had never heard of Robin Dalton before the festival but she’s 96, grew up in Australia before moving to London in 1946 and has been a literary agent, TV personality, film producer and spy for the Thai government so I figured that it had to be interesting. She was promoting her memoir, One Leg Over, and read a few pages to get things started…

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Kat Poole (L) listens as Robin Dalton (R) reads from One Leg Over

She spoke of her gallivanting during the war years and her lack of ‘ambition’, preferring to live in the moment and see what happened from that rather than making any plans. And she’s had some moments – her society divorce kicked war from the front pages and her reading included anecdotes of time spent with the likes of John F Kennedy and Noel Coward.

Robin also told us that the eyebrow-raising title of the book was not intended to be salacious but rather, it captures a moment – the moment when she’s getting out of the bath, has managed to get one leg over the side and thinks to herself “that’s one leg over”.

So that was the formal part of the day. In between I found a lovely wodge of time to read – in the marquee over lunch and then later in a quiet sunny spot on the steps with a deliciously large slice of coffee and walnut cake – and indulge in a chat or two with some of my fellow bookworms.

Books, cake and glorious sunshine – what a great way to spend a Saturday!

Inspired by: Girl power

Last week I attended Ancient Worlds, a conversation-slash-debate between historians Bettany Hughes and and Michael Scott at the Royal Institute of Great Britain. It was an hour and a half of expert perspectives and audience questions on the state of politics and its relationship with the ‘truths’ about history that we think we know.

One of the things that particularly piqued my interest was Dr Scott’s mention of OECD’s PISA – Programme for International Student Assessment. This is designed to sit outside the boundaries of school curricula to determine how well the world is preparing the next generation of 15-year-olds for global citizenship. Whilst I’m not a fan of the current levels of academic testing particularly in early school years, I do think that something that takes a global view – both a omnipresent look and a cross-cultural sampling – is important. I was also encouraged by the website’s claim that the tests are

“designed to assess to what extent students at the end of compulsory education, can apply their knowledge to real-life situations and be equipped for full participation in society.”

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to be a part of a similarly forward-looking approach at a local secondary school. Presentation Matters! was a half day programme for more than 200 Year 9 students designed to help them articulate their ideas and present themselves in life – from addressing larger groups and performing well in job interviews right through to talking with friends and peers.

In groups of 4-5 , the students were asked to come up with a two minute presentation aimed at Year 6 students and their parents to inspire them to attend the school. There were a couple of formal talks on presentation structure, content and delivery but in between, the girls were despatched to compile, practice and present their story – in a Semi-Final round – in their form groups. The best group – voted by their peers – went into the Final which meant presenting to all of the Year 9 students, teachers…and us.

I was one of 21 business volunteers who worked with the form groups coaching, encouraging and keeping things to time. I’ve worked with adults in this capacity before but never teenagers and I found the prospect of working with the 27 teenage girls in the form, let alone the 200-odd in the wider group, just a little terrifying. (Seriously, my props to teachers!) And whilst I wouldn’t say that I felt entirely comfortable at any point, our little team of three muddled our way through the morning and managed to conduct a Semi-Final with a) everyone in the form presenting and b) to a pretty good standard. (Boast Note: We worked with the form group that produced the winning team presentation in the Final. Not that I’m at all competitive…)

Back in the hall, in watching the seven finalists, I was struck by what an amazing opportunity this was for these young women. And they responded in kind – showing both great courage in presenting in front of such a large group and commitment to doing it well – with some pretty impressive presentations. It seems that despite the absence of political leadership over the last few weeks, the willingness to step forward, to give your best and to represent others lives on.

Girlpower past and present

London’s nod to girl power past and present: (left) Statue of Emmeline Pankhurst – leader of the suffragette movement – at the entrance to Victoria Tower Gardens, near the Houses of Parliament and (right) the Memorial to Amy Winehouse –  a unique female voice in modern times – at Camden Lock Market

I was also struck by the generous (and rather raucous) encouragement from all of the girls – there was a real sense of camaraderie, even girl power, in the room and I just loved the fact that I’d gotten the opportunity to play a small part in it all.

So on an historic morning in June – when, through democratic process, the nation charged government with the task of leaving the European Union – I felt inspired. Perhaps we need to give the next generation some credit as a pretty capable set of hands in which to place the future, whatever it may hold.

February: Firsts, facts and fine things

I know. It’s almost a week into March but I promised in January to review each month’s gadding about and February has been every bit as jam-packed as January. So hold on tight and here we go…

There have been a few firsts this month. I’ve already posted about my first filling and my first visit to the British Library. I also attended my first Monash University Alumni event. It’s only taken 24 years and a move across the world to do this and I did turn up wondering what this Global Leaders Network was all about. I had a great evening hearing about the university’s plans for alumni engagement around the world and sharing expat stories with like-minded Australians. How nice it was to enjoy some straight-talking Aussie banter, the room humming with that laconic Aussie twang.

Speaking of university, I have a psychology degree from Monash so I’m really interested in the mindfulness conversation that’s happening at the moment. I saw Ruby Wax interviewed on Sunday Brunch and so went to see her show, Sane New World. Not only is she a comedian but is qualified in psychotherapy and has recently completed a Masters in Mindfulness-based Cognitive Behavioural Therapy at Oxford. Her show was a frank and funny look at our pace of life, mental illness and how our bodies – and in particular our hormones – are trying to cope. I really admire her philosophy in getting ‘off your a**e and doing the work’ – she’s set up free mental health walk-in sessions throughout the run of her shows with the aim of creating a network of walk-in centres across the UK.

February has also been a month for some of the finer things in life.

I attended a talk at the V&A Museum where Francesca Cartier Brickell, granddaughter of Jean-Jacques Cartier, took us on an enthralling journey through the Cartier family history introducing us to the three brothers – Louis, Pierre and Jacq – who started it all and their commitment to innovating whilst maintaining the essence of Cartier design. She also shared many personal anecdotes, one of these about finding the Cartier history in an old suitcase full of letters in her grandfather’s wine cellar. The many family moments she shared made this talk more intimate – less like a lecture and more like a lovely conversation albeit with more than a hundred of us in the room.

It also inspired me to visit The William and Judith Bollinger Gallery at the museum. We were herded briskly through this collection of stunning jewellery on the way to the auditorium and a couple of weeks later, I turned up early for a V&A book club evening to have a wander through. However, it transpired that the gallery was only open during the day so I killed the time I had by visiting the delightful stained glass gallery nearby and also enjoyed a meander through the just re-opened Europe galleries once book club was finished.

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The V&A Museum on a drizzly winter evening; killing time in stained glass

I also attended a book launch at the Institute of Directors. Peter Frankopan is director of the Centre for Byzantine Research at Oxford and over coffee and croissants he talked about his new book, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World. His contention is that we are taught about history through the lens of a very small number of countries and believes that we have a lot to learn through the stories of other cultures and regions, particularly Russia and Iran, the latter having been the wellspring for language and religion more than a thousand years ago. I left unsure as to what these regions could offer but it did make me realise how uneducated I am about these areas of the world. I’m now waiting for the paperback version of the book to come out (ever tried to read a hardback on the tube?) so that I can broaden my historic horizons.

And speaking of fine things, I also saw Ralph Fiennes in Henrik Ibsen‘s The Master Builder at The Old Vic. Being able to see actors that I’ve loved on screen performing on stage is one of the absolute joys of living in London and despite being in the vertiginous cheap seats, the power of the performance still remained. It’s the second Ibsen play I’ve seen – the first being A Doll’s House which I studied at high school – and there is something fascinating about the way he explores the roles of women and how they use their personal power in a male-dominated society.

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The view from the cheap seats at the fabulously refurbished Old Vic theatre in London

Personal power also underpinned the speaker themes at the opening session of the TED2016 conference which was live-streamed into cinemas on February 16th. Whether it was 10-year-old Ishita Katyal’s opening talk, the performance from musical phenomenon AR Rahman or Riccardo Sabatini‘s vision for personalised medicine (my favourite talk of the night), it was an inspiring and thought-provoking evening and all for the price of a cinema ticket.

February also had me moved by music. My annual pilgrimage to the Flamenco Festival at Sadler’s Wells was a testosterone-fuelled performance by brothers Farraquito and Farruco which had me on my feet at its conclusion. Over at Kings Place, the Brodsky Quartet’s performance of George Gershwin’s little-known Lullaby for Strings was exquisite.

And with all of that going on, I found some time to imbibe in a well-deserved drink

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A couple of new watering holes near Holborn Station to add to my ‘let’s meet up’ list. L: The Princess Louise  R: The Ship Tavern

So that was February, filled to the brim with firsts, facts and fine things.

Phew!

Now for March…

Finding Wonderland

It was wet and grey in London yesterday and if it hadn’t been for some existing plans I would have been perfectly happy to curl up at Gidday HQ on the comfy couch. But the British Library beckoned and so just after lunch, friend Aussie-K and I stepped out for some literary loitering.

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It was our first visit to the library. Yours truly has been here twelve years and until yesterday, had only managed a passing acquaintance last year by way of a talk at the conference centre next door. Given how much I love literature and reading, I am delighted to have ticked this visit off my London bucket list and to have moved from ‘I must’ to ‘I have’ at long last.

And what, I hear you ask, made me get off my backside and go?

Well, Wonderland of course!

2015 was the 150th anniversary of the publication of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. It’s a story that’s been told in a myriad of formats and iterations over the years, its other-worldly characters and trippy plot making it the subject of much interpretation and debate. I saw Robert Douglas-Fairhurst interviewed about his biography on Carroll – The Story of Alice – last year (which I am currently reading) and the Library has been running a temporary free exhibition which closes in April. So we entered the fray and hustled – with what felt like hundreds of half-term families – along the cabinets and displays.

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The front part of the exhibit was taken up with a series of twelve (or was it thirteen?) decorated mirrors featuring quotes from Alice in Wonderland whilst in a rather cramped section at the rear, there was an opportunity to learn about the author himself, his real-life Alice (who happened to be a brunette rather than the blonde we’ve come to know and love) and see the ways in which this famous story has been communicated over the last 150 years. It was interesting – however the area was poorly-lit with little opportunity to linger and I found it difficult to read all of the information and look at the details of the books and manuscripts on display. I’m not sorry that I spent the time to shuffle through and see it but it’s just as well it was free otherwise I might have been a little put out!

It seemed a shame to leave after such a short visit and as it was still raining outside, we meandered across to the Library’s permanent exhibition, Treasures of the British Library.

Now THIS was my Wonderland and I spent quite some time poring over…

…drawings & notes from Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo…

…musical scores from as early as 1050 and from geniuses like Mozart, Debussy, Chopin, Beethoven, Bach (just to name a few) as well as a page of Puccini’s scribbled stage directions for his opera Madame Butterfly and a touch from the modern era, a burst of scrawled lyrics for The Beatles’ hit ‘Help’…

…pages and pages of penmanship from literary giants: 16th century greats like Shakespeare, Marlowe and Jonson, acknowledged classics like Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles and even a little something from Ian Fleming, the man behind James Bond – who you could argue is one of the 20th century’s most iconic literary creations – and his short story, The Living Daylights…

…sacred texts, beautifully illustrated, from as early as the 4th century and from a  variety of religions including Judaism, Hinduism, Islam and Buddism…

…and one of the four Magna Carta documents dating back to 1215 which was sitting right alongside the original papal bull that annulled it just 10 weeks later.

It was absolutely awesome – in the true sense of the word – and these were just the highlights.

And after such a deluge of inspirational history, it was time to venture back out into the real weather, make a damp and concerted dash past St Pancras Station…

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…and around to the YumChaa Cafe in Granary Square for a warming hot chocolate and a slice of apple and apricot loaf…

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All in all, it turned out to be the perfect way to spend an inclement February afternoon in London.

The wall

Last September I ventured below London’s bustling surface to visit the site of a 4th century Roman bath and house. Back then the Museum of London were opening these archaeological sites as a trial to see if there as enough interest from the public in  getting up close and somewhat personal with London’s history.

There are now a whole raft of opportunities listed on the museum’s website so it would appear that the answer was yes.

Yesterday I spent an hour visiting another site from Roman London, the ruins of the fort lying underneath the busy city street of London Wall that runs outside the museum itself. I had seen this view from Bastion High Walk on previous museum visits…

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…but had never dreamed that there was any more to see. After spending an hour with Museum of London guide Mike, I was proved wrong.

Here’s what happened.

We started up on Bastion High Walk just near the museum entrance with an overview of the site. This is Mike…IMAG4093 (360x640)

…and here are a couple of pictures from our handout. The left-hand picture shows the fort at the top left within the wall surrounding the City of London. The right-hand picture is the layout of the fort itself – the area we explored is in the middle of the outside left wall.

We headed down the stairs and along the slip road to examine things more closely. I love how these old sites are tucked in between London’s more modern buildings. IMAG4096 (640x360)

Up close we could see more of the detail – the soot blackened walls, the wear on the steps from the boots of the soldiers.IMAG4097 (640x360)

Mike pointed out this line of Kentish ragstone running along the front. This is the oldest part of the structure dating from the 4th century AD.
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Can you see the two parts of the ragstone wall? The lighter-coloured part at the front would have been built first with the darker grey section added afterwards for additional fortification.

The rest of the site dates from about the 14th century when, in typical London fashion, new buildings were simply built over the top of what was already there, the previous city being abandoned at the beginning of the 5th century. I wonder what will be built on top of us?

We then headed through a non-descript door next to the London Wall car park to visit the fort remains that are kept under ‘lock and key’ by the museum. Here’s a model of what this site – the West Gate of the Roman fort – would have looked like in its ‘hey-day’.

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Mike explained that this gate was probably more administrative than military. Gates around the wall – Bishopsgate, Cripplegate, Aldgate to name a few – aside from being defensive usually served as revenue-raisers, collecting taxes from those passing through. That this gate was un-named suggests it was less likely to support such functions.

Here are a couple of photos of the site discovered by William Grimes in 1956.

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North turret and guard room.

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The north gate

The area we visited covered only the left-hand section of model I showed previously – the guardroom and north turret, and the north gate – from the 14th century. Mike spent about 15 minutes helping us visualise the way the site would have looked, pointing out various details which archaeologists have used as the basis of their assumptions about life at the fort hundreds of years ago.

The official tour drew to a close after about 40 minutes but there was more to come. Mike mentioned that there was a piece of 4th century wall in the public car park next door that we could take a look at. I envisaged something quite small but after a brisk 10 minute walk, I was absolutely astonished to see this.

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The detail was extraordinary. You can see in the photo how the wall has been constructed for strength, stepping inwards with each row of levelling tiles (these tiles are the red lines you can see). You can also see the difference between the dressed stone on the outside and the rougher packed stone behind it.

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In London, archaeological sites are the responsibility of the land owner. Rather than being owned (and looked after) by the Museum of London, the car park is owned by the Corporation of London. It is a public space and so this historic site is at the mercy of exhaust fumes, human hands and unsympathetic modern additions.

I was really delighted to be able to see such an amazing piece of history up close (although at Mike’s request, we did not touch it – after all it is 1600 years old). But I felt irritated by its casual treatment.

A group of young skateboarders were gathered right next to it and several times I saw them lean on the wall, with some actually running into the wall itself. Granted they probably don’t understand the historical importance of this pile of stones or even if they do, appreciate it. When I think about my fascination with history, I realise that I’ve become more awestruck and humbled by it – in equal meaures – over the years. This is probably a result of my own ‘maturing’ in combination with moving to London from Australia (with its relatively shallow roots in European history) over a decade ago.

However, there was no excuse for the rubbish strewn around it by car park users and seeing the steel girder that had been inserted left me both sad and horrified.

To this end, I posted…okay, had a little rant on Instagram as I was reflecting over a post-tour coffee back at the museum. Paying for the tour itself (£5 is pretty amazing value given the expertise people like Mike provide), buying a book at the museum shop afterwards and even my new Friend membership feels like a tiny drop in an enormous ocean. Hopefully as I continue to explore what the museum offers, I will find more ways to support their work.

In the meantime, all I can think to do is to encourage you to visit these extraordinary sites – if not in London then wherever you are – to reflect on the history of humanity, how our society has evolved and perhaps consider how the story of our time might appear to the future generations.

Re-engaging

I’ve been a bit of a slacker since moving to the new giddayfromtheuk.com site at the start of this year. Being a less busy year on the travelling-for-work front, I had anticipated a renewed burst of blogging but my frequency has dropped to fortnightly and I seem to have lost that flow of seeing things that inspire me and then tap-tap-tapping away to get my thoughts out into the blogosphere.

Is it because I am not inspired or have nothing to say?

Not likely.

I got a bit of a boost this week when I attended a master class called Secrets of Successful Blogging. Touted as talking about professional blogging ie. making money from it all, at first I wasn’t sure what I would get out of it as I’ve been a bit reticent to plaster ads all over my baby blog. But on the night all three bloggers talked about the writing opportunities that had come from their blogging exploits and that’s something that really interests me.

I also think that having a little digital savvy could set me apart from others in my field (marketing strategy and innovation) from a professional point of view. The people I work with are generally not on Twitter and when I mention that I write a blog, I’m met with a mix of fascination and curiosity, plenty of questions and a few requests for a link to read it so continuing to build ‘muscle’ in this area can only be a good thing.

Aside from the inspiration of getting back into posting weekly that I was hoping for, I learnt a few ‘technical’ things that have inspired me to get moving again – here are my first two.

1. Use Instagram

Given I am always taking photos of things and posting them on my personal newsfeed on Facebook, this seemed an easy addition to make. I’ve had a bit of a go this week and I must say it’s been pretty painless to post something each day. It also means that with just one share, I can be on three social media channels: Instagram, Twitter – both as GiddayfromtheUK – and Facebook. This was my opening gambit…

View over the Thames at sunrise from Whitehall Gardens

View over the Thames at sunrise from Whitehall Gardens

And today I was inspired to post closer to home…

Inspired by this splash of gorgeous Autumn colour against the red bricks in my street.

Inspired by this splash of gorgeous Autumn colour against the red brick houses in my street

And there was a literary foray and some wise words from the local florist on the way.

Having a Kindle, I don't see book covers all that often but this one was so fabulous I actually bought a book!

Having a Kindle, I don’t see book covers all that often but this one was so fabulous I actually bought a book!

Needless to say I love flowers...

Needless to say I love flowers…

I just have to remember to start with Instagram and share from there…old habits die hard you know.

2. Transfer my old site posts across to the new website.

*groan*

I have heard some absolute horror stories about doing this so had gotten around this (so I thought) by back linking to posts on Gidday from the UK’s old blogger site. But some advice from @eatlikeagirl Niamh Shields on the benefits of using all of that past content for up-ping my Google presence has convinced me that I should take my whole 5+ years of witterings and get them over here.

The better news is that apparently for a reasonable price I can get someone to do it for me…

*relief*

So stay tuned peeps., thanks for your patience during my ‘spotty’ phase and if anyone has any good advice on blogging, technical or otherwise, I’d love to hear it!

A contract of invention

In a few weeks time, this year’s Man Booker Prize winner will be announced.

The last two years have seen the prize awarded to antipodean writers with epic tales: New Zealander Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries in 2013 and Australia’s Richard Flanagan with The Narrow Road to the Deep North the following year. It is the latter who will pass the winner’s baton to Marlon James, Tom McCarthy, Anne Tyler, Hanya Yanagihara, Chiozi Obioma or Sunjeev Sahota on 13th October.

I have not read any of this year’s books so cannot offer a view as to who my ‘vote’ would go to, although I have been an on and off fan of Tyler since reading Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant as part of my high school English curriculum. And dipping into prior short lists for reading inspiration in recent years has given me the beautiful prose of Tan Twan Eng (The Garden of Evening Mists was short-listed in 2012 and I then discovered The Gift of Rain) and sent me back to 1982’s winner, Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark, following my visit to Krakow some 30 years after.

But I will say this: the 2015 winner will have big shoes to fill.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North is one of the most extraordinary books I’ve read in a long while. It’s a story that cuts right to the heart of what it is to be human and left me profoundly moved. So I was thrilled to come across an opportunity to see Flanagan interviewed last week as part of The Guardian Book Club.

Flanagan talked thoughtfully and easily for about 90 minutes, answering a myriad of questions with his antipodean twang and laconic Aussie style. I was struck by his open-ness in answering, whether it was his views on books vs movies (thumbs up for books) or research vs invention (the creativity in ‘making it up’ is what he loves).

(Actually, now I think about it, he’d make a great dinner party guest.)

Despite his father’s experiences in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during World War II and his coming face-to-face with his father’s captors during a recent trip to Japan, Flanagan was at pains to say that this was not a researched book and certainly not based on his father’s particular experiences. He talked about daydreaming, imagining the horror of the death railway or catching the moment when the sun caresses a lover’s shoulder as he sat at his table and then setting out to describe what he was seeing in his mind rather than telling the reader what to see or think.

A novel is an invention of the human spirit….a contract between the writer and the soul of the reader who connects to give the story its meaning and depth.

Flanagan described the book as something he tried to escape writing, likening it to ‘a boulder on his chest’ that made it difficult for him to write anything else…since its completion, he mentioned the writing being ‘released’ and that he has a couple of projects in the pipeline.

It was difficult to write that last sentence without making it sound like some melodramatic realisation on Flanagan’s part. I’m not sure I succeeded but it didn’t come across that way at all – it was understated and sincere and I was left with a quiet feeling of admiration for this articulate Australian…and maybe just a little bit of national pride.

There is nothing left for me to say except that in The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan has created a story that is poignant, unyielding and richly-drawn.

Read it – it will touch your soul.

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The window

Let me start this by saying I had an awesome Saturday last weekend. It was filled with some of the things I love best – literature, history, discovery and most of all, London.

I had spent a fascinating hour at the old Roman House and Bath on Lower Thames Street right opposite the Billingsgate Fish Market. The City of London is an area I’ve explored over the last few years through walking tours (In Shardlake’s Shoes) but it’s not on my way to any frequent haunt so adventures tend to be a result of turning left instead of right, peering around unbidden corners and just venturing into open doors.

With some time to kill before heading to the Kings Place Festival, rather than head directly back to Monument Station, I let myself meander aimlessly along cobbled lanes admiring the architectural mix of old next to new.

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I had ambled up St-Mary-At-Hill toward Eastcheap when I saw this off to my right.

The window (small)

Intrigued, I headed towards it, the street silent and shaded against the warm afternoon sun. As I drew closer, I looked up and spied a steeple chalked against the blue of the sky.

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The sunlit window beckoned and as the cobbles turned left into Idol Lane, it became part of something much bigger. The tower in front of me rising up to unite the disparate parts of steeple and window into one glorious whole.

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St-Dunstan-in-the-East – all sweeping curves and delicate green. A little piece of history tucked just a few steps back from the dust and traffic on Lower Thames Street. I smiled and I could feel the warm anticipation of discovery growing inside me. The black iron gate was open so I edged through, curious and quiet, as though not to disturb the peace of the garden.

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I wandered along the leafy paths drinking in the beauty of this patch of nature and history entwined. Each turn revealed a stunning view, each door a different aspect to behold.

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The delicate shapes of the old walls reached up amidst the modern cut of the City, softening its edges and somehow showcasing the modern skyline. There’s a mix of old and new that I love about London – the way that each seems to compliment, even enhance, the other. I don’t think anywhere does it better.

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My breath caught over and over again as I gazed around me. I was moved, wanting to absorb each moment and imprint it into my mind. At the same time, I wanted to share the fullness of it. I found myself retracing steps, phone in hand hoping somehow to capture a fragment of what I was feeling in order to pass it on.

I typed my first draft of this post an hour later, sitting on the floor of Kings Place waiting for the event I’ve booked in for to start. It was a download I couldn’t stem, a rambling deluge of words and feelings for such a short space of time that had become so large and urgent in my memory.

Now I reshape it, ordering it, adding the photos which speak to my heart the most. There’s joy in revisiting the photos I took. They return me to places I stood – the central garden where the wiry black boughs framed by gothic arches were misted with emerald leaves, the far reaches of the path where I could see the red piped curves reaching from the bricked corner of the building next door – and the things that I felt – the warm sun on my face, the cool sweat on my back that made my t-shirt cling to the place that my backpack had been.

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And I smile again. It feels like the same smile as when I first set eyes on that black iron gate. And I feel grateful – for the moment, for the discovery and for the opportunity to live in this magnificent city I am lucky to call home.

To my mind, that’s not bad for a Saturday.

Not bad at all.

4 days in Stockholm: Changing the world

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This is the Nobel Museum, housed in the old Stock Exchange building right in the shadow of Storkyrkan‘s baroque steeple. It is right in the heart of Gamla Stan, looking out over the cobbles of Stortorget just a short walk up the dappled lanes from Vasterlangaarten. In the bright morning light of my last day in Stockholm, it stood still in the quiet of the square, understated with hardly a hint of the inspiration within.

I entered the cool dark hall, the gentle flow of past laureates above my head and glowing pillars forming a gentle arc around the atrium to honour this year’s winners. Come November they will join the parade of banners overhead to be replaced with a new batch of those deemed to have made the most significant difference over the last twelve months.

The original ideas man

Alfred Nobel was born in Sweden in 1833 and had a well-travelled life. He spoke four languages even as a child and throughout his adult life, spent his time most notably in St Petersberg, Stockholm and Paris. He was a descendant of Swedish scientist Olaus Rudbeck and it would appear that invention flowed down the bloodline with Nobel’s father, Immanuel being the inventor of modern plywood and an alumunus of the Royal Swedish Institute of Technology. Alfred himself had a mind that constantly sought solutions and he had 350 international patents awarded in his lifetime, the most famous of these inventions being dynamite (1867), gelignite (1875) and the predecessor to cordite, ballistite (1887).

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His legacy is twofold. He built an international business empire with interests as far-reaching as Australia, Japan and North and South America as well as closer to home in Europe and Russia and it lives on in numerous companies world-wide. (Heard of chemicals giant Akzo Nobel?) Needless to say, Alfred Nobel left a considerable estate upon his death in 1896.

The Nobel Prize was defined and instructed through Alfred Nobel’s last will and testament. His vast fortune was to be held in secure investments and used to fund five prizes each year celebrating…

“…those who, through the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit upon mankind.”

The five prizes, in areas that held the most fascination and interest for Nobel, were to be awarded by the institutions he held in the greatest esteem. The Nobel Prizes for Physics and Chemistry were to be conferred by The Swedish Academy of Sciences, the Nobel Prize for Physiology or medical works by the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, the Nobel Prize for Literature by the Swedish Academy and the Nobel Peace Prize by the Norwegian Storting.

However these organisations were unaware of Nobel’s final wishes and it took the creation of the Nobel Foundation and a further five years before the first prize was awarded in 1901. In 1969, a sixth prize was awarded – the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel – but while conferred by the Swedish Academy of Sciences at the same ceremony as the other prizes, it is funded by Sweden’s central bank and is not deemed a Nobel prize.

Nobel endeavours

I wandered from room to room, watching interviews and footage of just a small number of prize winners. Between 1901 and 2014, 567 prizes have been awarded to 889 laureates who, in leaving their particular legacy, have allowed mankind to continue to fashion its future. The soft click overhead heralds the breathy release of a prize winner’s banner on the cableway –  each glides noiselessly around the ceiling of the exhibition hall before joining the others again. It’s an ingenious way to make sure that every laureate can be honoured here yet with plenty of space for those still to come. A video installation, shrouded in diaphanous white folds, explores the future with 19 laureates – what is their hope? – and the importance of passing something on.

Exploring ideas has laid foundation after foundation for the discoveries of today and underpins our society’s progress and it is an awesome thing – that one man’s passion for ideas and his belief in human creativity more than one hundred years ago lives on in celebrating those who exemplify his credo in their work, their commitment and in the people who inspire them. My two and a half hours here left me feeling humbled and moved by people’s extraordinary-ness and I emerged from the cool semi-lit hall into the afternoon sun quiet and contemplative.

I sat in an outdoor cafe, reading the small booklet about Alfred Nobel that I’d purchased on my way out and as I finished and moved to close the back cover, I noticed the words that lay below the image of that legendary golden medal:

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The Nobel Museum – ideas changing the world

Long may it continue, I thought.

Long may it continue.

If street art ruled the world

Yesterday I went on a street art walking tour through London’s East End.

Inspired by the discovery of Hosier Lane in Melbourne during my visit with loved ones Down Under, I’ve been keen to explore more on this side of the world since my return in January.

At 10am on a lovely sunny Saturday in London, about twenty-five of us met our guide, Dave, at the Goat Statue at Spitalfields market. This is the goat, not Dave…

The Goat Statue

As we meandered towards the church, Dave gave us a bit of an introduction to street art/graffiti and the emergence of London’s street art culture. He also explained that given the temporary nature of street art, the myriad of stickers on lamp posts and other street furniture can serve as a handy guide as to who’s been contributing to the urban art scene in the area at any particular time – a bit like passport control for those in the ‘street art’ know.

The example below shows the iconic winged figure of well-known artist D*face in sticker form in Brushfield Street and then his installation in the Old Truman Brewery Complex.

DfaceWe turned right at the church then took a left into Fashion Street and that’s when things really started to happen…here’s Dave introducing us to three different styles and artists – more on some of these later.

Dave in Fashion Street

I did find the bike image stenciled onto the road particularly amusing in this picture – the urban art scene rails against the things that the establishment tells us we must do (like staying in the bike lane?).

This is probably a good point to address the questions of ‘what is street art’ and ‘how is it different from graffiti’.

According to Dave, the definitions are many and varied but for him, graffiti (below left) is created for the appreciation of the urban art community who can, for example, really appreciate the intricacies of a tag. Street art (below right) is created with a wider audience in mind – Dave told us to “think of images you might consider being on a t-shirt or as a piece of art in your home”.

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Both might consist of painting, stickers, paste ups or other types of ‘installations’  and both can be done with or without permission. But after seeing a few works in progress, I was left with the over-riding premise of street art/graffiti being both temporary and accessible in nature despite permissions granted – check out the works in progress below.

WIP

We wandered along Fashion Street, learning about different techniques as we went. Below are some examples of paste-ups – where the artist has completed the image elsewhere prior to pasting it on the walls. The top left image was created using screen printing for the main image with the coloured smoke added in situ.

Paste Ups

You can also see the temporary nature of urban art at work here with the later addition of the ‘cat chariot’ to the bottom of the original piece, a practice we saw a lot throughout the tour. Another common practice is for artists to spread their work in an area to make their mark – we saw two more of the ‘cat chariot’ further along Fashion Street and more scattered along our walking route.

An artist currently distributing himself throughout the area is Gregos. He’s a French sculptor who creates painted molds of his own face. He has installed two batches of these in London so far.

Gregos

We saw these three on our route, ‘stayers’ from his last batch of fifty earlier this year. (Dave assures us that having met Gregos, this really is his face.)

Speaking of sticking things on the wall, there were loads of other things to find if you kept your eyes peeledStuck on

The piggy you can see in the photo top left is part of a series by Love Piepenbrinck. We found them in all sorts of places and while we thought they were cute, it would appear that the urban artists themselves are quite enamoured of this idea. We found a number of works had been created around the little sculpture, leaving the ensconced piggy right where it was – maybe Piepenbrinck’s piggies will mark an era of (semi-) permanence?

The other pictures are just different examples that appealed to me: Eeyore perching gloomily amongst a frenetic background, the mirrored cloud that changed depending on my angle of reflection (pardon the pun –  couldn’t help it!) and the urban tweetie attached to a council sign.

This next image was quite stunning and really struck me with all of its purple and turquoise hues. Dave confirmed here that the artist had been granted permission (by the owner of the wall, not the council) to paint here.

Purple woman

However, what was even more amazing is that this was all painted with spray cans. Can you imagine trying to create this kind of delicate imagery with a set of spray cans? (I probably couldn’t even manage it with a paint brush). It gave me a new appreciation of the talent of these artists. Here are some more ‘girls’ I particularly liked…

Women

One of the elements of street art is the speed and ‘furtiveness’ required as most is completed without permission. One of the techniques used to aid this is stenciling (Banksy is a well-known exponent of this). The image on the right is painted on the door of a barber shop and so whilst the artist had probably obtained permission, this intricate portrait was still created using a whole series of stencils.

We saw some great commemorative art as well. Joe’s Kid (below left) actually runs the coffee shop that owns the wall and Charlie Burns (below right) ran the business whose shutters are right next to his image.

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The Charlie Burns image also embodies the dripping effect evident in much street art – let’s face it, if you’re trying not to get caught, you don’t spend time dabbing at the drips! In this case the artist, Ben Slow has used it to effect on the left hand side of the image and then merged into photo-realism as he moved towards the right.

And the piece below – just off Bethnal Green Road – is by Citizen Kane (CZK) and commemorates the suicide of his son in 2013.

Citizen Kane

Street artists are also known for their strong anti-authority philosophies and these next two are great examples of taking a humorous and well-aimed poke at the establishment.

Ronzo is a German artist and his style is typified by the bulging eyes and the tombstone teeth of his monsters.  We saw the rainbow image earlier in Fashion Street. On the right you can see Crunchy, The Credit Crunch Monster, Ronzo’s mascot for the global financial crisis, in the Old Truman Brewery complex while the City of Ronzo crest was on the railway bridge at the top end of Brick Lane. This guy gets around…

Ronzo

Frenchman Clet Abraham is another exponent of thumbing one’s nose at authority and uses his witty imagery on existing ‘displays of authority’ (street signs) to make his particular mark.

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Nathan Bowen is yet another using his art to make a statement. Using marker pens in his signature style, he makes this plea for peace in Syria below.

Nathan Bowen

Conor Harrington‘s work also appeared in a couple of different places along the way…

Conor Harrington

…and he also worked with U2 on Crystal Ballroom, part of their Songs of Innocence project. (He’s the artist in the video.)

No street art tour – of London anyway – would be complete without Banksy so we snuck through the gates of Shoreditch nightclub Cargo to see this…

Banksy

Yes, it is behind perspex but while not in the temporary and accessible spirit of street art, I’m pretty glad I got to see a real Banksy. And yes, his real identity remains a mystery, even to Dave. (There’s more street art in Cargo – even another Banksy so might be worth popping down to Rivington Street.)

There was so much more on this almost 4 hour tour and it gave me a new appreciation for both this pocket of East London – about which I knew very little – and the urban art scene – about which I knew even less. I didn’t like everything – probably only half of what I saw really appealed to me but it’s interesting how with a little bit of background, the whole genre opened up and became absolutely fascinating.

And let’s face it, if street art ruled the world, there’d be a whole lot more of this…

Coloured walls

…and for my part, that just adds some welcome colour to a day.

If you are in London and fancy a bit of urban art for yourself, check out Shoreditch Street Art Tours – Dave is obviously a guy ‘in the know’ and for just £15, it makes for a pretty cost-effective and entertaining education!