spring in the city.

Thursday, May 16

I went for a walk around the west end of Glasgow yesterday and had to keep stopping to take pictures (on my phone, would you believe. The iPhone does have a terrific camera). I wandered. I went to Charlie Rocks for breakfast. I read my book*. I wrote a little bit. I looked round the Oxfam bookshop, and bought some old postcards. Lovely.

(*I aspire to be the sort of person that can casually, comfortably read novels in coffee shops. At the moment, it takes me at least a quarter of an hour to stop being self-conscious. There are all sorts of questions that need to be answered... like how to hold the book. Do I rest it on the table? Put it on my lap? Hold it in front of me with one hand, and hold the tea cup in the other? Prop it up against the sugar bowl? I don't know. Small questions. Real worries. I'm eternally awkward.)

I'm away to America on Monday with my sister (I'm so very excited! I have lots of notebooks to jot down interesting things. I'm especially excited about people-watching in the airport, watching a film on the plane, and chatting to the nice family we're going to visit). I'll post some other-side-of-the-ocean noticings once I get back.

a veil of quietness

Tuesday, May 14

I thought I’d post up a recent article I wrote about the novel Unless by Carol Shields (probably the author that has had the most influence on my development as a writer over the past few years. My mum found her, quite serendipitously in our local library about eight years ago; often the best things are stumbled upon by accident). 

The article came as part of a series in the arts section of the paper, where different writers wrote about their ‘essential read’ each issue. It’s not so much a review, as a reflection... so have a read, if y'like.


Essential Book: Unless by Carol Shields
(From the Strathclyde Telegraph. Edition 6. May 2013)

When I first read Unless – the little-known, but quietly powerful last novel of Canadian author, Carol Shields – I was sixteen and realised, almost straight away, that this wasn’t like most other books I’d come across. It wasn’t just ‘a good story’ or ‘an interesting idea’. It wasn’t simply escapism, or a nice alternative to television-watching. This wasn’t going to be the sort of book that would slip in and out of my life, hardly leaving a trace. No. Before I was even halfway through, I knew that this was one of those rare novels that (to borrow a phrase from Pablo Neruda) would somehow, softly, ‘befriend my existence’.

Unless tells the story of Reta Winters – writer, mother, translator, wife – who finds the rhythm of her life disrupted when her nineteen year-old daughter, Norah, drops out of university without warning, choosing instead to sit cross legged on a street corner wearing a sign that reads: ‘goodness’. Norah’s withdrawal from normal life distresses and perplexes Reta, and the narrative follows her attempts to come to terms with the new shape her life has taken, and her struggles over how to live now.

Muted, reflective, and often lyrical, the novel engages with a number of powerful ideas; the notion of ‘goodness’, for example, comes up repeatedly. ‘I don’t know what that word really means,’ Reta writes in the first chapter, and finding out becomes a preoccupation for her, leading her to question how ‘goodness’ compares to the notion of ‘greatness’, an ideal more commonly sought after in society. As well as an exploration of this word, the novel also meditates on themes such as the life of a writer, the loss of innocence, and women’s place in society, a society which seems determined to treat them as if they are invisible.

While the themes in the novel may sound heavy, the book is never pretentious or ‘preachy’. Instead, Shield’s deceptively light, and often very funny, prose is honest, at times even wise. What I love about Shields’ writing is the subtle way it affirms, without sentimentality, the value of ‘ordinary’ experience. So much of her writing – both here and elsewhere in her fiction – is about ordinary people doing ‘ordinary’ things: going to the library, buying a scarf, taking the train, going out for dinner. All seemingly small activities, and not very ‘literary’ perhaps, but Shields’ treats these subjects with an element of quiet dignity. It is through her focus on ‘the everyday’ that she reveals what is important in her characters’ lives, and here that she touches on truths about what it means to be human.

While Reta openly admits that she is ‘going through a period of great unhappiness and loss’, her voice never rises to the pitch of gushy self-pity, nor drops into cold cynicism. Instead, her tone throughout is muted, hushed, honest, even hopeful. The novel seems to acknowledge the idea that unhappiness is not a ‘thing’ set apart from everyday life; instead, it is something which happens in the midst of it and Reta’s reflections on this, and her continued engagement with the ordinary details of her life that make her such an engaging and authentic character, one with streak of gentle courage.

One word, one thought, I keep coming back to when trying to capture the essence of Unless is: ‘quietness’. It is a quiet novel, one that causes a veil of quietness to fall over you while you are reading. The title itself – ‘unless’ – seems to whisper, to hold its breath. ‘It flies like a moth around the ear,’ Reta writes, reflecting on the word, ‘you hardly hear it, and yet everything depends on its breathy presence’. I have read Unless numerous times now, and each time I come away feeling a sense of renewal. Unlike other novels where, after putting them down, I find myself wishing I was living a different life – one that was a little bit more thrilling, a little bit more wild or romantic – after reading this book, I find myself more attentive, more thoughtful, more curious about the life I am already living. It is a beautiful book, one that deeply resonates; if that isn’t the definition of an essential read then I don’t know what is. 

(Pictures: various snapshots from around my bedroom recently)

"a romantic wee ballet"

Monday, May 6

Last Thursday, my sister and I met up in Glasgow in the evening for an impromptu trip to see the Scottish Ballet’s performance of Matthew Bourne’s Highland FlingIt was fantastic: funny, rock and roll, beautiful, horrible, clever, engaging, very tartan (a whole bundle of adjectives all at once). I always like going to the theatre (expensive though it may be) and over the past few years (and really since forever... since reading Noel Streatfeild) I’ve become particularly enraptured with ballet. 

Not the old fashioned sort (i.e. the ballets full of stiff tutus and tight tights, punctuated by lots of look-we’re-very-clever-because-we-can-do-twenty-piroutettes-in-one-go moments). I’m more interested in ballets which use dance as a story-telling medium; the ones which let slip prettiness for expressiveness, precision for fluidity, tradition for narrative drive. The ones I love are less like self-conscious dancing and more like plays without words

My favourites so far have been the Scottish Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet, Alice, and Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty (which we went to see for my Mum’s birthday in February, and I think it’s probably one of the best things I’ve ever seen in a theatre. Full stop. So beautiful... and exciting).

(Picture from: here)

I think that possibly maybe I'm falling for you

Monday, May 6

While I was waiting for my sister on Thursday (we were going to see a ballet), I had some dinner in the window seat of a fish and chip shop down the street from the theatre. What with the rain-soaked pavements, and the diner-type restaurant, and the fact I was alone with my book and my yellow mug of tea... it really would have been the ideal opportunity for a passerby to walk past the window and – a pause, an intake of breath, a meeting of eyes – fall in love with me

He would have walked past the window a few times, fighting with himself, with his natural shyness – hardly noticing how wet he was getting from the sudden deluge – until – ‘What have I got to lose?’ – he’d have run into the cafe – the bell on the door jingling – and walked over to my table – me looking up, wide eyed, surprised – and, in a half-whisper: ‘I don’t even know your name – but - it's just - I just had to say...’

Of course, this didn’t happen. And as far as I recall, the door didn’t even have a jingly bell on it, and it wasn’t really pouring with rain: just drizzling. And actually, if someone did decide to run up to me when I was by myself, I’d be absolutely terrified and incredibly suspicious and would probably shout for help.

But it was a nice thought. 

(Post title from: this song)
by mlekoshi