Monthly Archives: May 2012

Tough on clever, tough on the causes of clever

It may not surprise you to learn that I was a voracious reader as a kid, with a book addiction far beyond what my pocket-money and the resources of my relatives could support. The kind of child who reacted with delight rather than groans to gifts of book tokens each birthday and Christmas, one who always had a well-maintained ‘to read’ list close at hand.

But we were never mega-rich and – without wanting to recreate the Four Yorkshiremen sketch – birthdays and Christmases didn’t seem to roll around fast enough back then. So the local library saved us. I got enough to read and nobody went bankrupt buying me books. Getting my first library card felt like a huge deal, for the promise it held and perhaps most of all, the freedom it offered. My parents would head towards the grown up books while my brother and I would be left in the kid’s section, where we would usually read a couple of books while we were waiting, eventually whittling down a huge pile into the four we were allowed to take out that week. Mum and Dad would cast an eye over our choices and sometimes make suggestions, but I don’t remember anyone ever telling me what to read. For the clever, bookish kid I was, and hopefully still am, it was a little slice of heaven.

That said, I don’t want to you to think that this is some misty-eyed, far off reminiscence. More recently, when I was saving money to retrain as a teacher and come to Japan, quickly realising that the whole plan would fail unless my bookshop habit was broken, it was Hackney Central Library that came to the rescue. A bit different to the one of my childhood, with its architectural wonder of a building and electronic cards, my inner child still jumped for joy on hearing that you could take out 12 – 12!!! – things at once, including CDs and DVDs. And my outer grown up was incredibly grateful for the ability to renew everything online, especially when having to work late on the day it was all due to be returned. It was a love rekindled.

The final stage of my library romance before I left the UK took place, fittingly you could say, in one of the most beautiful buildings in my home city of Liverpool, the Central Library. I was lucky enough to become a member shortly before it was closed for a major refurbishment, enjoying the atmosphere as much as the books I took home. There has been some disquiet about what the redevelopment plans might mean for the library’s collections as, perhaps inevitably, the focus moves away from the printed word towards providing access to other forms of media. I am inclined to be pragmatic, if that is what is needed to keep the library open, then I am for it.

For it should be clear to all who love borrowing books, even if only as a fond memory, that it faces a grave threat. If today’s children are to have that joy of books revealed to them in the same way, we who love libraries need to join the fight and soon. It seems someone has decided that the handing out of books for free is a luxury from a bygone age that can no longer be afforded. In scenes that call to mind other historical outrages, Brent Council in North London launched a ‘cowardly’ midnight raid on Kensal Rise library, despite a campaign by local residents to save it from closure which made the news as far away as Toronto. Stripping the building of books and furniture, which campaigners say the council had promised to leave behind, as well as removing a plaque commemorating the library’s opening by Mark Twain, are unforgivable acts of cultural vandalism. The forces of stupid have won another victory.

As one commentator on Twitter noted:

I know that you might be thinking that while there are massacres in Syria, police beating protestors in cities from New York to Athens to Cairo, economic meltdowns, actual nuclear meltdowns and a thousand other stories of death and destruction, what difference does it make if some children don’t have access to free books, or pensioners don’t have somewhere to go for a sit down and a chat with friends? Books are the past, baby! Everyone has access to all the libraries of the world via their smartphone, libraries are yesterday’s news.

But no.

The decisions we take today have consequences far beyond what we imagine. At present, with the array of problems – economic, political, environmental, technical – that we face, it is incredibly important that we do not do anything which amps up the stupid any further. We need minds open to discovery, wonder and ideas which break away from the norm. Libraries give us that. Often you find books in libraries which you cannot find anywhere else – as I did when I stumbled across a recent reissue by a long-forgotten Liverpool author and friend of George Orwell, James Hanley, in the Central Library – and crucially, you find things you weren’t expecting when you are looking for something else. That would seem very inconvenient and inefficient to the Google algorithms, I am sure, but I believe that it is essential to human endeavour. The things we discover when we believe we are looking for something else entirely are often the most valuable.

So, join in. Kensal Rise has a ‘Friends of’ group which is seeking to run the library for the benefit of local residents. Perhaps your own local library is also being threatened. Or perhaps it isn’t under threat at all, and is still happily open to the public, but you haven’t visited for ten or twenty years. In which case, I suggest heading down there as soon as is reasonably practical.

You never know what you might find.

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Honest book reviews

From a writer’s point of view, reviews have one purpose. Make people read the damn book and now. But when approaching reviews with my reader’s hat (you should see it, it’s a thing of wonder) on, I have different demands. Tell me: is this book worth a punt, what was the writer trying to do, did they achieve it? Give me enough to go on to decide whether to embark upon reading it, without spoiling the best bits.

By those criteria, Madam Miaow’s excellent dissection of Julia Lovell’s The Opium Wars is more worthy of a read than the tome it is reviewing. I confess to not knowing as much as I perhaps should do of this inglorious period of British history, but Madam Miaow’s review makes me determined to address that, even if it is unlikely I will be starting with Lovell’s book when I do.

Similarly, I am not sure that I am ever going to add the Twilight fan fiction publishing sensation that is 50 Shades of Grey to my ever-expanding reading list. The little I know of Twilight (once half-dozed through the first movie) and 50 Shades… (my high school students are passing it around like my friends and I once shared Judy Blume books) has led me to believe that I won’t get much enjoyment from them. That said, I found plenty to enjoy and ponder in Jennifer Armintrout’s consideration of whether the relationships depicted in these novels are, in fact, abusive.

While I could see that the publishers would be less than happy with these reviews, for readers I consider them to be invaluable.  If you have any other examples of similarly useful reviews, do please share them in the comments.

Happy reading! (Or not.)

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Carve Magazine – Raymond Carver Short Story Contest

I wasn’t going to mention this as I know there are quite a few talented writers who read ten minutes hate and I thought maybe I could do without the competition!

Reason prevailed though, so it is only fair to let you know that the Carve Magazine Raymond Carver Short Story Competition is now open and I am working on a couple of ideas for it. Last year’s winner is a poignant read featuring a cast of very different women passing through a shopping mall’s bathroom.

I hope I can do it justice. So why not join me and get writing?

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ten minutes hate at The Cat’s Meow

I mention that I have family about to arrive and they are so happy to hear the news, we talk of places my relatives should visit while they are here and it is a relief to turn to a less fraught topic of conversation for a short while.

It seems such a small crumb of comfort to be able to offer when what is needed is a feast.

Fortunately there really was a feast on offer last Friday when I appeared as a guest of The Cat’s Meow at Biscotti Tapas in Tokyo to read extracts from The Teas That Bind, answer questions about writing, tea and earthquakes as well as sign some copies of the book.

Thank you to everyone who organised or attended, it was really great to meet you and I hope you enjoyed the evening as much as I did!

Photo by Uchujin/Adrian Storey

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Going missing

A grey sky, making it too easy to feel miserable. The heel fell off my boot as I walked into work, leaving me limping all day. Over-tired, I had slept too long, veering from one lucid, unsettling dream to another without any pause, so that I found it difficult to escape from the feeling of having disappointed some faceless authority, failed to measure up to what was expected of me and faced down accusatory tones, even after the alarm had intruded.

Days like today it is impossible to fight the urge to go missing for a while, even if it only is in the virtual sense. Turn off the internets, pick up a book, a notebook, a pen. Write letters, listen to music loud enough to have the neighbours cursing your name and hope that tomorrow the sun will shine again. Perhaps that is enough.

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Tsuki magazine out now!

After last week’s sneak preview, here comes the main event. Tsuki magazine is out now to download, priced at 2.99 USD (around 1.80 of your GBP and 23o JPY or so).

So what is Tsuki and why would you want to splash your hard-earned cash on it? Editor Caroline Josephine sets out in her opening letter that it is about:

Creation, evolution, forward motion, movement; it all leads to the future.

Showcasing creators from and based in Japan, with photography from Joanne Yu and Yuuki Honda, darkly comic fiction from Made in DNA and a chilling story by Amanda Taylor, alongside an interview with Baye McNeil – Loco in Yokohama – about his latest book Hi! My Name Is Loco and I Am A Racist.

There is also space for the ‘Self-Publisher’s Declaration of Independence’ by Our Man in Abiko, expanding on his assertion in a recent interview that ‘ebooks are democracy in action’ with a rallying cry for the ebook revolution.

And I have also contributed ‘The Place of Lost Things’, which recalls my last trip to Tohoku, volunteering with It’s Not Just Mud and International Disaster Relief Organization Japan.

More than enough to keep you entertained and well worth the cover price. Get yours today!

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The price of everything

A comment on my post about this week’s book signing event made from the direction of the mortal bath, when added to a Golden Week spent with delightful visitors from back home, has suddenly opened my eyes to a universal truth. Crikey, life in Tokyo is expensive at times.

I realise that I now regularly pay 4,000 yen (slightly over thirty notes) for a night of clubbing without batting a heavily mascara’d eyelash at it, when back in the East London days, a fiver would be all I would need for admittance to some of the city’s finest warehouse raves. A taxi home once the last train has been missed will cost slightly less than four grand, but is still a hefty chunk of cash and remember, no drinks have been bought yet.

Still, payday is approaching and summer fun is on the horizon. Ticket details for the forthcoming Tokyo performance by the xx were released today and I allowed myself a couple of moments of getting over-excited about the prospect of going. I love their sparse beats, plaintive lyrics and am sure that seeing them would be a highlight.

Then reality kicks me in the head. Tickets have been priced at forty-five quid (5,800 yen). I paid about the same to see The National last year, a band who have released five albums and a stack of additional songs and who were on stage for almost three hours. It felt at the time, and still does, like a good return – much as I hate to be measuring my enjoyment of music in such a way. I suppose I should be grateful that I am able to hand over actual cash in return for a ticket at all, when the xx’s London dates have completely sold out, having been released in a ballot.

And yes, I do appreciate that it costs money to run a club and to fly bands and DJs in from overseas. I don’t begrudge anyone making a living from selling their creativity, especially when the use of it results in me having a cracking night out. That said, there are times on the dance floor when wide open spaces loom all around and the thought that it would be better for the room to be full with people paying less is difficult to push away. If everyone is priced out of going clubbing and gigging, where will that leave the respective music scenes in a decade’s time? We will all be the poorer, not just the promoters, if they allow the atrophy to become irreversible.

So, with some reluctance, I will be sitting this one out. Hoping instead to pick up on some smaller, less well-known, less high-priced gigs and nights out over the summer, to enjoy the immediacy of live music without completely breaking the bank. And for now, I will have to content myself with sitting in my room, writing and humming along to the xx as I do.

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