Friday, March 31, 2006

With my mission to order bedroom furniture for our newly revamped house, the Giri dropped me in Herne Bay at 8:30am on Wednesday. Turned out the recommended shop didn't open until 10:00am, and Herne Bay is one of those tiny seaside towns where not much opens or happens at that hour in the morning ("Vryheid by die See" for those South Africans out there...).

I wandered down to the beachfront and was fairly gobsmacked. I'd forgotten: a wind farm has recently sprung up just off the Kent coast and it is fascinating to watch. Silent and majestic, at least two miles out, I'd have thought. I counted 29 turbines, although the light out there kept changing and making some of them disappear periodically in the grey of sea and sky mixing on the horizon. Visible amongst them were the remainders of the World War II posts from which the coast was protected (imagine being posted out there - so bleak!), and just beyond, the international shipping lane with vast container ships sliding by. I have a fascination with cranes and such. Wind turbines merit the same treatment, but even so, only so much time can be occupied gawping at them.

Glancing vaguely to my right I spied the fabulous old ruins of the towers of Reculver off in the distance down the coast. Nothing else to I started strolling. The beach angled at a fairly steep 45 degrees, made of pebbles and shingle, the water a mucky brown. Beautiful in a stark way, although I did wonder how comfortable it would be to spread a towel and picnic in the summer? The "boardwalk" (actually concrete) eventually peeled steeply off onto a path along the cliff tops, part of the Saxon Shore Way. By this time, I was determined to make it to the ruins if it killed me, but what looked like just around the corner, was quite a bit further than I thought - that sense of cresting a mountainside expecting to find the summit and realizing instead that it keeps going up! The stereotype of unfriendly, reserved Brits does not apply to dogwalkers and outdoor types by the way - not only did people say hello, but many stopped to chat (including a delightful 20 minutes on the experiences of raising rescued greyhound racers, who were gambolling around us as we spoke!).

Reculver exudes oldness (despite the somewhat unfortunate crowding around of mobile homes and caravans). The Romans landed here in 43AD, and the fort they built was at that time 2 kilometres from the sea. But the force of the waves on this part of the Kentish coast is relentless eroding at 1-2 metres a year, and today the sea has not only reached the fort, but erased two thirds of it - all that still stands are some of the outer walls. Also built on the site, in 669AD was the Saxon church of St. Mary's - the towers added in the twelfth century are about all that remains today. These were bought by a shipping company and shored up when the rest of the building was demolished because it became unstable, as a waymarker for ships at sea - you really can see it from miles around. An eerie place, but well worth the tramp down the coast - a 6 mile/10km roundtrip (yeah! score one for my new retirement exercise plan!)

Later in the day when I returned home, I popped into Canterbury Cathedral, where the remnants of the medieval Reculver Cross are on display (when they're not on loan to an exhibition! I shall have to come back and see them later); and in the cathedral crypt are two of the columns from Reculver, found in an orchard and a farm field respectively in the 1800s and brought to the Cathedral for safekeeping. Eroded, they seem out of place in the soaring spaces of the cathedral. I often attend evensong here - it is amazing to think that daily (without a break, despite the various wars) evensong has been sung here for over 1400 years. Puts things in a little perspective.


Friday, March 24, 2006

Yesterday I worked away from home, and since the commute was a combined seven hour trip, I had plenty of reading time (arguably the only advantage to the long commute concept)! After working my way through the day's papers and doing a sudoku or two, I picked up a book I've been meaning to read for ages, COMING HOME TO EAT: the pleasures and politics of local foods by Gary Paul Nabhan.

I do believe that something has gone wrong with our global food supply chain. When local farmers in Kent have fields groaning with a vegetable or fruit (let's say apples, for example) and yet all the local supermarkets' fruit aisles are bulging with the same fruit, but imported from South Africa, Israel, Argentina, Spain, the USA or wherever, there is clearly something not quite right. In the past few years we have tried to be a little more conscious of where and what we buy, preferring to go to the local farmers' market first and then only to the supermarket for the things on the list that we can't find there. Of course, this still doesn't really work if you are not cooking seasonally, and we have a LONG way to go to get this right. A few weeks ago I read an article (sorry - can't remember which paper or who by) which called us "greens lite"! At first I felt slightly injured - we are making some effort after all - then I realized the author was correct. Unless we radically change our eating habits and eat completely seasonally, are we really serious about addressing the issue? Strawberries are available in Sainsburys all year round, and very nice too (usually from Spain), but Kent strawberries from the farmer down the road in season are absolutely amazing!

Back to Nabhan's book; I am in early stages (first fifty pages) so can't give you a definite yea or nay about said book, but am certainly finding it thought-provoking. There is an encounter he describes which I thought was just so wonderful that I have to reproduce it here (indulge me!). I think it resonates in me because I live in permanent voluntary exile myself. To contextualize: Nabhan (an American) is visiting Lebanon to meet his Lebanese extended family for the first time. The first night in Beirut he is taken by friends to dine at the much praised Club Du Lubnan, where they dine in posh surroundings on French champagne, Caspian Sea caviar, Californian shrimp, Sicilian capers, and Argentine beef, all washed down by French and Italian wines, topped off by a smoke of Cuban cigars - a meal fit for a prince.

"The next afternoon we drove over the snowcapped mountains in to the Bekaa Valley. With two carloads of cousins we passed through several roadblocks of Shiite Muslim militia, Syrian and Lebanese forces, Hezbollah guerillas, and local police. Crossing the ancient croplands of the Fertile Crescent, the Bekaa's orchards, vineyards, grainfields, vegetable gardens, and pastures - I grew more and more heartened.

Suddenly our cousins' beat-up old cars careered around a curve into a side canyon where a cluster of cobblestone and concrete houses filled the canyon bottom. They glittered in the sun beneath eroded limestone slopes stippled with fig and olive trees. I could hardly absorb what the Kfar Sibad landscape felt like, for the cars were slowing to enter a street swelling with kinfolk. 'You really have no idea how long they have been waiting for you,' our cousin Shibley explained.

It went into slow motion then: I had never seen so many people with the same bulging eyes and beaked noses as me, my brothers, uncles, and aunts. They mobbed the street under a banner proclaiming WELCOME HOME NABHANS. As we tumbled out of our cars, our cousins engulfed us, wrapping us in hugs and in camel hair abeyas, the robes of princes. Aunts, uncles, cousins kissed us on the tops of our heads, on our cheeks, on our mouths. They held onto us as if they finally had us back - back from some unimaginable placeless exile where each of us had become the muhajjar, 'the ones that had been forced to depart.' But now we had returned to the ancestral home, ca biladna, back in the safety of the family haven, our laji. Older women began trilling the zalgrita, keening the song of homecoming as they accompanied us indoors.

We came across the threshold into a home emanating the warmth of jovial men bringing out their home-distilled arak and women warming up foods shaped all day by their own hands. We were conjoined in a feast a world apart from the one we had been offered in the Club Du Lubnan. It exuded the aroma of our aunts' and cousins' hands, the musk of goats and sheep grazed on the slopes above us, the salt and bitter herbal bite of the alkaline earth itself. We were given a meal I shall never forget, for ever since I have carried it homeward, into every one of my body's cells." (Nabhan, 2002, pp.23-24)


Wednesday, March 22, 2006

It is a sad day when you realize that your 90-year-old grandmother is in better shape than you are! I found I was increasingly involuntarily groaning as I rose from my chair (not a good sign when so much of my day is spent seated editing and writing). The tipping point came when I could no longer stand upright after rising, and hobbled like a little old lady (excluding grandmother, who still hikes up the Rockies at the drop of a hat), or the sort of witch-with-stick I imagined as a child in Hansel and Gretel, but without stick. So I have spent the past few weeks being crunched by a diminutive Australian osteopath and subsequently recovering from said crunchings. She looked me straight in the eye and said "Why have you taken so long to come in?!" with some fierceness. I had the grace to look slightly ashamed, as I have put the dreaded hour off for some considerable time, hence the total degeneration. Just like going to the dentist, it is really not so bad once you get there, and I am beginning to come out the other side (no more involuntary grunts!).

Bought Vikas Swarup's Q&A today, although as gift, not for myself. I also have not read it yet which is not a sound basis on which to gift a book. I have an unwritten (although now broken) rule not to give books I haven't read myself. The idea being to know what you are giving. This doesn't mean I only give books I like, because sometimes I don't like a book, but am fairly sure someone else will. Nor does it mean that all the books I give are successes, because you never know how someone will react. I well remember the first time this happened to me on a substantial scale - I inhaled Annie Proulx's Shipping News, gave it to a bunch of friends, and gradually the feedback filtered through, with mixed reviews. I had loved it, finding it hopeful in its ending, others found it entirely depressing. If you were one of the latter, I apologize. Anyway, it is a birthday today and Q&A sounds perfect for the intended, let's just hope it is. I shall have to read it in a few months time when my local library catches up to it (sigh).

I was (however, naturally) seduced by the latest edition of SLIGHTLY FOXED: the real reader's quarterly. How can some publications do this to me?! It somehow found its way into my bag... of course, the consequence is that there will, as usual, be even more books that I shall just have to read (although, now that my commuting days are in the past, I am being slightly better at haunting my local library). I dipped into the new Slightly Foxed over a cup of coffee at my local french cafe, and was delighted by a piece by Charles Elliott, Edit and Be Damned. He writes:

"At the most basic level, line or copy editing, an editor needs a technique for judging and perhaps improving a piece of writing. My own has always been to read slowly, 'listening' for imprecision, wrong words, failure to track properly. This seems to work; a good writer sounds fine, a bad one bumpy or inept. The rhythm is wrong. It is usually pretty simple to identify the rough spots and either fix them or tell the writer to do so. (My predecessor at Life magazine, where I worked many years ago, had a rule of thumb for this - if a caption or a piece of text could be repaired with a pencil, fine; if you had to have recourse to a typewriter to do it, send the piece back to the writer.)"

My hero! Longlive Charles Elliott! Longlive! Can I return my manuscript to my writer now - please?!

Due to shortening the amount of time I sit at a desk, I shall stop for today, but let me recommend a delightful diversion in the website of a woman episcopalian priest-in-training. Most extraordinary are her collections of "angelic kitsch", "holy week kitsch-o-rama" and "stations of the kitsch" - wonderful!


Friday, March 03, 2006

Up to London again on Monday night (I feel somewhat yo-yo like!), this time for our fiction reading group. We discussed The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi which, I have to say, really had something going for it. It is not the sort of book I would normally choose to read, full of ghosts (maybe) and Yoruba mythology, but I have to admit it kept me gasping through to the end and was a truly scary story. If I didn't have ten other books to read and write about for my own book by next Wednesday's meeting with Francofinn, I would read it again straight away. Can't wait for her next two books which allegedly Bloomsbury has already signed the wonder child up for (she was 18 and writing her A levels whilst writing The Icarus Girl, and is now at Cambridge).

CEK's family have a very clever Christmas tradition: from October, you can't buy yourself anything, but you can add it to a Christmas list. From the list - which all friends and family have access to - you may (or may not) receive some gifts. I think it is such an excellent idea, as you do actually get things you want, yet it is still a surprise as you don't know which of the things on the list will appear. Recently I became the lucky beneficiary of just such a list. Asked what I might like as a farewell gift from the Africa Book Centre, I humbly submitted my list of droolsome faves - and got all of them! Woohoo!

On occasion, feeling completely exhausted and having put my back/neck/hip/knee (take your pick!) out, I would hobble around the corner from work to the Walk-in Backrub Centre in Neal's Yard, Covent Garden. Shiatsu massage - you float on air as you leave. So that was one of my presents, which I will make full use of one of these days when I visit London as a tourist rather than for work or study.

In my pursuit of a writing career, I really enjoy the quarterly Mslexia magazine, and their diaries are the best. I've had one of their diaries for two years now, and they just push all the right buttons. Anyway, present part two was a subscription to Mslexia - fantastic! One of those magazine subscriptions you always toy with getting, but can't quite make up your mind...

Present part three is gift vouchers for any three Persephone books (I am SO excited, but how to choose...). Everyone always assumes that booksellers don't want books or book tokens as gifts. WRONG! Why did we become booksellers in the first place, I ask you?! Yes, yes, a love of books of course, but also: discounts! So now that I am no longer a bookseller, this is an extremely precious gift, and I am savouring the Persephone catalogue which dropped through my post slot last week. For those of you who don't know Persephone, I cannot recommend them highly enough. Each book is exquisite to behold, beautifully made with understated grey covers and inside a riot of colour as the endpapers are reproduced fabrics from the period in which the book was written. You even get a matching bookmark! I have read several already, and loved all. I have a small idea percolating quietly on the backburner of starting my own publishing company for African books (maybe a decade hence?) and if I do, I would wish for books like Persephone's. Perfectly produced, top-notch writing.

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