Thursday, June 28, 2012

Thursday extracts: reduce reuse recycle

I found this poem on the latest (and possibly the last - see below*) Poems in the Waiting Room leaflet. Imagine my delight when I discovered that the author lives about 10 miles from me!


Ours was passed round the family on parcels
and never cut, only teased
of its obstinate knots - one good reason
to stop biting your nails.

It kept well in a dresser jug - door end
by the garage key with its bent metal tag;
coiled, the end rolled, tucked in, made fast
in ways you picked up without thinking.

Like so much:
brown paper (flattened under a cushion);
stamp edging (hoarded in a purse);
paperclips (shining in a toffee tin).
All the things you couldn't buy,
even if you'd thought of it.
I never knew you could buy string.

D A Prince. From Nearly the Happy Hour, 2008. Happenstance Publishing.

* OK so listen up. Just as I've introduced you to the wonders of Poems in the Waiting Room, they've announced that they can't afford to keep doing it. Nobody has agreed to fund it. If you want your local surgery to receive the leaflets you need to support them.  As far as I can tell they can do it for £25 a year. I plan to send them a cheque - because these little cards give me so much pleasure during my regular doctor trips. Contact Michael Lee at PO Box 488 Richmond TW9 4SW or email 
pitwr(at )blueyonder(dot)co(dot)uk

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Book review: Portobello

TV adaptations of Ruth Rendell's works have always given me a lot of pleasure, so I assumed her novels would do the same. Portobello is the first of her books I have read, but I shall be reluctant to try another.

It was not her characterisation that irritated me: all life is here from the petty criminal to the GP, to the art dealer, to the murderous thug. With a couple of genuine madmen thrown in for good measure, the cast was fine. All well described and fully-rounded, as were the descriptions of the Portobello area of London that gave the book its title.

What really annoyed me was the complete lack of research into a major plot point, which is unforgivable. For some inexplicable reason Ms Rendell decided to make one of her key characters addicted to sugar-free sweets. Well, not inexplicable from the plot's point of view. The man wanted to lose some weight and thought, as many people do, that sugar-free is the same as calorie free. It isn't, but that's not the main problem.

The guy, at the height of his craving, is consuming about two packs a day of the chocolate-orange flavoured lozenges. Now, if Ms Rendell had gone to a chemist's shop and bought two or three packets, as the character did, she would have made a discovery.

Sugar-free sweets come with a health warning, printed on the side of the pack and pointed out to you by the pharmacist whenever you buy them. She would have realised that the addiction would have removed the character from the rest of the novel, owing to the fact that he'd have been trapped in the bathroom by the sweets' side effect.

It's described on packs as 'may have a laxative effect'. Two packs a day will incapacitate you severely. Any diabetic woud tell you that. We've all thought we were immune, but it's inescapable. His doctor girlfriend would certainly have uncovered his secret a lot sooner because she would have been rushing him off to hospital with griping stomach pains and liquid diahorrea. He would not have been staring idly out of the window at the right time of day to see something that later becomes a key plot point, he'd have been too ill.

Coupled with Rendell's tendency to switch from thread to thread in the narrative within a handful of paragraphs (I suspect she writes for television automatically) this basic inaccuracy meant that Portobello was a deep disappointment.

Ruth Rendell. Portobello. Hutchinson. 2008

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Thursday extracts: Midsummer

Sumer is ycomen in,
Loude sing cuckou!
Groweth seed and bloweth meed,
And springth the wode anow.
Sing cuckou!
Ewe bleteth after lamb,
Loweth after calve cow,
Bulloc sterteth, bucke verteth,
Merye sing cuckou!
Cuckou, cuckou,
Wel singest thou cuckou:
Ne swik thou never now!

Anon. Middle English

Bright Solstice Blessings to one and all!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012


“There’s no such thing as bad weather. Only the wrong kind of clothing.”

We all turned to look at Nigel as he spoke the words, various expressions of disbelief on our faces.

“What a supremely stupid comment, you stupid fart,” came the reply, “Who the hell told you that bit of crap?” The speaker was Alan, by far the sportiest of the gang and probably the most put out by our current state. He could hardly sit still for a couple of minutes, let alone the fifteen we had been trapped inside the hut by the torrential downpour outside.

He shook his head again to try to rid himself of the rivulets running from his thick, curly hair and down his face, but he only succeeded in splattering everyone around him. A chorus of disapproving hails rose up in reaction and he got up and tried to walk off his excess energy. It didn’t work though, because he could only make three strides before he had to turn around and come back to where we were sitting, hunched up near the front and eyeing the waterfall that was cascading off the roof.

“My Dad says that the right sort of clothing can overcome even the worst weather.”

“My Dad.” Heavy with sarcasm. “My Dad! If your dad’s so bloody clever how come you’re just as drenched as the rest of us then?” That was Simmo. Nigel was the last of our lot to have a dad still living at home, and Simmo resented him a bit for it. Simmo’s dad quit home and moved in with the local pub landlady a year ago after the old bloke died of alcohol poisoning. Simmo’s mum reckoned his dad was going the same way and good luck to him. I think her bitterness just rubbed off on him.

Before the argument had chance to take off, Baz stuck his nose in. Literally. He’d taken his glasses off for about the ninth time and he was polishing them on his t-shirt. He’s close to blind without them and the combination of rain outside and us indoors was making the shed kind of steamy so Baz’s specs kept misting over. He leaned forward so he was only a couple of inches from the others, just so he could see them, and said: “Must be good to have a choice of what to wear.” He was somewhere in the middle of eight brothers so he was always lumbered with stuff that didn’t fit the older ones any longer.

That made us all stop for a while and think, or at least shut up, and all you could hear was a roary sort of noise and the splashing just outside the door. We sat like that for ages, just staring at the rain and listening to that engine sound. Looked like it was going to be a long summer.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Thursday extracts: An anniversary

Thursday Extracts is a year old (Well it will be on Saturday. But I can't do it then or it would be a Saturday Extract, wouldn't it?) I wanted to post something about anniversaries, but all the poems I can find seem to be about sad things. And all the prose extracts are about Christmas (which isn't really suitable for midsummer, is it?)

So I turned to Shakespeare, who I assumed would have something to say on the subject of years and time. 
Here's Sonnet XII:

When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls all silver'd o'er with white;
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer's green all girded up in sheaves
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard,
Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow;
And nothing 'gainst Time's scythe can make defence
Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Book Review: My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult

I never saw it coming. Honestly, I've not been that surprised by the ending of a book for a very long time. And yet it was the only way it could have ended, when I reconsider. The book in question is Jodi Picoult's My Sister's Keeper. Now I'm bound to have lots of people laugh and say it was obvious, but not to me, it wasn't.

It's a moving tale of two sisters - not twins, although they have almost identical DNA because younger sister Anna is a designer baby, conceived to provide stem cell treatment for her seriously ill sibling. Kate has a rare form of leukaemia that only regular transplants of platelets, white blood cells, bone marrow and, eventually, a kidney, all donated by Anna, can control.

The story begins when 13-year-old Anna decides to take her parents to court for the right to make future medical decisions for herself. It is a complex plot about ethics, love, hate, and the devastating effects that a terminal illness has on every member of a family.

Alternating between tears and laughter, in the same way that the family copes, the reader is given a tour of the American family court system as well as learning about hospital politics. We also find out a lot about setting light to buildings, as father Brian deals with an arsonist in his work as a firefighter, on top of the pressures at home.

Anna hires a lawyer, who has a few problems of his own that complicate his motives for taking the case. He agrees to work pro-bono, initially because of the kudos that such a high-profile lawsuit will bring him, but becomes increasingly involved with Anna's dilemma. If she goes ahead with the action her sister will die; if she gives in she would lose even more than 13 years of medical procedures have already cost her.

This is another of the books I've read because it was featured on the World Book Night lists. It truly deserved its place there. If you don't already know it - read it.

Later edit. I've now seen the movie. REALLY - read the book.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Cupboard love

I’ve always been fat. Funny how you never turn to fruit when you’re depressed, isn’t it? Or is that just me, trained over the years to look for sustenance in place of solace. I blame my mother. Food was at the centre of everything in our house: celebrations, commiserations, visitations, confrontations. It was the only way she knew to show love. Or compassion. Or care. Or concern. As long as there was food on the table she was being a good parent. It was her response to every event in our lives.

When I fell and scraped my knee she offered biscuits. After doctor visits it was cake. Boyfriend dumped me? Sausage rolls. Missed the train? Bag of sweets. Feeling down? Cheese on toast. If I did well in exams? Well, that was expected of me and elicited no response. So I would find my own support in comfort food.

Even in my thirties she was hard to please. One particularly impressive promotion triggered no praise, just a strained ‘not before time’. I replaced her missing ‘well done’ with a steak - no, not well done, but rare, like her plaudits.

She’s been gone a decade and I still eat, associating food with everything I do. I am making myself ill in the process; hurrying toward an early grave. Perhaps in eternity she will find the time to applaud me.

I've not been writing much lately so I'm forcing myself to put some words together about any topic that has come up in conversation, on TV, or whatever. I've read a lot of stuff about diet and body image lately. This isn't great - but it's a start.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Thursday extracts: Richard Bach on letting go.

Once there lived a village of creatures along the bottom of a great crystal river. The current of the river swept silently over them all - young and old, rich and poor, good and evil, the current going its own way, knowing only its own crystal self.

Each creature in its own manner clung tighty to the twigs and rocks of the river bottom, for clinging was their way of life, and resisting the current what each had learned from birth.

But one creature said at last, ‘I am tired of clinging. Though I cannot see it with my eyes, I trust that the current knows where it is going. I shall let go, and let it take me where it will. Clinging, I shall die of boredom.’

The other creatures laughed and said, ‘Fool! Let go, and that current you worship will throw you tumbled and smashed across the rocks, and you will die quicker than boredom!’

But the one heeded them not, and taking a breath did let go, and at once was tumbled and smashed by the current across the rocks.

Yet in time, as the creature refused to cling again, the current lifted him free from the bottom, and he was bruised and hurt no more.

And the creatures downstream, to whom he was a stranger, cried, ‘See a miracle! A creature like ourselves, yet he flies! See the Messiah, come to save us all!’

And the one carried in the current said, ‘I am no more Messiah than you. The river delights to lift us free, if only we dare let go. Our true work is this voyage, this adventure.’

But they cried the more, ‘Saviour!’ all the while clinging to the rocks, and when they looked again he was gone, and they were left alone making legends of a Saviour.

Richard Bach, Illusions. 1977. Heinemann


This has been one of my favourite books since the 1970s. I have tried to live by its suggestions, but it has not been easy. Just lately I've been thinking I should read it again, to revise what I've been doing wrong recently. Then fellow blogger Stew posted something about letting go, and I immediately thought of this passage. I could just as easily have selected others from this lovely little book. If you haven't read it, I beg you: please go out and buy a copy now!

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Do you write historical fiction? Probably not.

Scientists in New Hampshire, USA have carried out a study that shows the relationships between writing styles across the ages. They have analysed more than 7,000 works from the Project Gutenberg collection, dating from as early as 1550, and looked at how individual words have been used by authors in the past.

The team, from Dartmouth College in Hanover, have shown how the use of content-free 'joining' words, such as to and that, indicates style most closely.

Mathematician Daniel Rockmore says two different authors would probably use the same nouns to describe similar events, but they 'glue' them together in different ways.

The researchers have used their findings to show that writers are influenced by what they read, but they are most likely to write like their contemporaries.

In the earliest publications, writers contructed their works in very similar fashion. The team expected that, because the writers would have had access to only a small body of literature, which they probably had all read.

More recently, even though writers have works from many different eras to choose from and have probably read a number of classics, they are still most likely to write like their contemporaries. They tend not to write like past authors, even if they are writing historical fiction.