Sunday, 29 September 2013

Friday night at Foyles

The inaugural Spread the Word short story prize was celebrated with a panel, Prosecco and of course readings.

Bidisha and Tania Hershman (two of the three judges) were on the panel, chaired by Paul Sherreard, and they created a really friendly and informative space for the event.

It was interesting that one of the replies to the (impossible) question - what makes a great short story - was that the reader feels an effortlessness by the author. That the story has been told in exactly the right sequence and words - everything that's said is what needs to be said, no more no less - and there is no obvious over-working authorliness.
(That's not a direct quote of course - usually I do take some notes during these sessions, but I was so happy listening, like you are at a good dinner party, that I didn't want to disturb the vibe with my notebook).

So to me the judges' discussion was a similar success, as an honest and informal conversation between articulate champions of the short story form.

I particularly liked the Tania Hershman test of a good story: it has to have an impact; you need to feel like you've ben hit. Maybe not quite left black and blue, but you want to feel like you've gone through something and it stays with you. Again, for me the evening had the same outcome.

Bidisha read an extract of her short story, 'Dust', published in the anthology Too Asian, Not Asian Enough and Tania read 'Her Dirt' from her collection, my mother was an upright piano.

Not sure if there was a deliberate theme there ladies?  But the theme for the short story competition was 'RITUAL'.

Sue Lawther, Director of Spread the Word, arrived late to the event, with a very fine excuse. She'd been at the decision-making discussion selecting the winner of the inaugural Young Poet Laureate, to be announced by Carol Ann Duffy in the Houses of Parliament on National Poetry Day next week. And no, she didn't give anything away. But she arrived to present the winning prize to the very talented and exciting Clare Fisher.

Clare is working on a collection, 'The City in my Head' and the extract of her winning story that we heard was a powerful example of the judges' earlier comments about when it works: the voice is strong and confident from the opening word, and though we didn't get to hear all of it I'm sure that it has the Tania Hershman seal of success.


We'll all be able to buy the anthology of the shortlisted stories when Spread The Word launches their publishing venture. ON SHELVES FOR CHRISTMAS - beautiful print and online editions. (nb. I have no investment in this venture, I just feel strongly about this organisation that does so much for new and emerging writers).

So I met a poet, a playwright, a short story award winner who it turns out I'd seen at several Word Factory events, and thought the sign of a great night was having to be ushered out so that the bookshop could actually close!

Thanks Spread the Word and Foyles for a great night, and congratulations to those who entered and were shortlisted in the competition. It's one for others to look out for next year - dates and details apparently to be released soon.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Friday afternoon - body Self Development System (SDS)

So after last weekend's manuscript development in York, today I was initiated into 'SDS'.

Rune, from Denmark, has temporarily joined my usual massage therapy team [that's Blueline massage - yep, I'll take a discount for that shameless plug] to provide this treatment that was developed in Denmark.

I read that it "combines elements of massage, osteopathy, breath therapy, relaxation techniques and trigger point therapy to provide a whole body therapy".  Cool. I've had Thai massages, acupuncture, and done African yoga, I'm up for this.

You start lying on your back, and Rune was enthusiastic as he commended me for achieving just this. Apparently most clients automatically lie face down as if waiting for their usual massage. Good start Jen. But then I had to work out how to breathe properly. Apparently I wasn't relaxed enough. I like yoga breathing, and find it stills me, but it seems that actually I like control.

So while I was trying to sigh without throwing my breath, various parts of my body were prodded and shaken. At times it felt like one side of me was in a Laos bus that was gathering speed before taking on a hill, with neighbour's hands and suitcases digging in to trigger spots, and I had to try to breathe rather than resort to valium.

But it felt good. Like I imagine an exorcism might, well sort of. Just in the sort of sense of release.

As many of others do, writers spend a lot of time sitting at their desk, and over time this "blocks" our breath from travelling as low as it should. If you're sceptical about these things, I highly recommend reading Teach Us To Sit Still by Tim Parks. So Rune was particularly focused on me opening up my breathing while he released my neck and shoulders. 

I'll never understand how the organs and points throughout our bodies are connected. And I'll probably never feel it quite so profoundly as I just did for an hour. Press a point on my foot and a spot in my abdomen and I'm seeing stars. Roll my hips around and kick my calf out and back and there's a twinge in my gut. It's weird.

And there's so much movement in the session. Not that you flip around or anything, not like the Thai ladies who crawl over you and twist your legs and slap you about - that is what happens to everyone isn't it? - this is lots of shaking, and then stilled firm pressing on points so that it feels like something just progressively penetrates into your shoulder blade or your thigh...and it's amazing.

If I'm not doing a great job at explaining, it's possibly because through most of it, and even now, I felt a little bit stoned. So, surely I was relaxed. Rune checked in regularly to see how I was feeling and apparently a lot of my tingling was my toxins coming to the fore. Now whatever could they be...

At the end I was very thirsty, trembling a little, and felt like I couldn't quite control my body. He assured me that it is a very deep therapy, and by stimulating many organs as well as pressure points, your body is, well it's busy in there. There was never quite an 'Uh Oh' moment, but I was conscious of my body reacting, and working, so in that sense it's a far more active experience than a massage. 

I couldn't quite decide how I felt about it at the time. I sat outside in the sun for a few minutes before I walked to the bus stop. I moved slowly. Wasn't worried by the peak hour pace or noise, and I realised I was in the sort of state I often find during yoga, where you're just 'being'. And that's a beautiful way to feel. 

I have just woken up from the best sleep I've had in a very long time. You may not know what to expect, or even quite what's happening during the treatment, but if you can find someone well-qualified I highly recommend giving SDS a go.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Time Out Track - Bristol

It's a slightly tenuous connection for the clip today, but I'll try and stitch it together.

At the Writers' Workshop festival in York last weekend, the panel on Sunday morning was 'New Opportunities for Writers in the Digital Age'.

Tom Abbott described one of the most innovative and interesting 'products' I've heard of, combining different mediums to create a whole new way of storytelling.

These Pages Fall Like Ash

Two cities, each overlapping the other. 

Two people who can no longer remember each other's existence.

Two books.

Two platforms.

A singular reading experience. 

The physical component is a limited edition book with a wooden cover. Handling it I felt like I was in a rare books section of a library, and naturally nervous that my tired/hungover hands might inflict some damage. It's beautiful. It reminded me of how much I treasure 'real' books, hardbacks, second-hand books and second-hand bookshops.

But then there's the digital element. There are hard drives set around Bristol that transmit digital content, and through this the two stories come together.


Despite a career in change management I'm no early adopter, but this is a great way to get me, and other readers I'm sure, to see and feel the potential for the many many new ways writers and readers can come together.

The circumstance team have an exciting portfolio of other collaborations and ideas - hopefully the plan for 'These Pages...' to travel to other cities isn't too far away.

So I was looking for a soundtrack to this idea, trying to find something that might match mood-wise, which is a little tricky because I've only had a few seconds with the content. To keep it Bristol I was looking at local bands, but figured rock wasn't right and neither Massive Attack nor Portisehead need any more promo. So here's a clip from what I gather is a Bristol(ian?) institution...

Friday, 13 September 2013

From Iceland to Canada

Last week I was in Hannah Kent's Iceland. This week I finished the wonderful collection from D W Wilson, 'Once You Break A Knuckle.'

I started reading it a couple of months ago, and knew straight away that this was something to savour.
The line up of names praising the stories on the cover and for several pages inside is absolutely justified.
As usual I'm not going to try to review the stories, you can find plenty of those, but my experience of reading it was the powerful relationships between men, with friends and sons, and their remote Canadian setting.
His novel, Ballistics, is high on my To Read list.

So while we're in Canada, here's a track I thought matched quite nicely.

Gold & Youth are from British Columbia, and though they tend into a more electronic sound than would naturally match D W Wilson's stories, there's something about this pared back version that fits.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

What about the vegan-friendly running snack?

A few weeks ago I started an experiment in eating vegan.

I've been corrected on the terminology - the first time I caught up with a friend and said I'm having a try at being vegan, he nodded whilst clocking my leather shoes and my handbag. You're trying out "eating" vegan he said, a smug hearty carnivore himself.

So I stand corrected, and apologies to anyone with the far more admirable grounds for their lifestyle choice.

It's interesting what you want when you can't have it. Previously I would have eaten pizza maybe once a month, but now? I WANT CHEESE.

And what do you do when you have a hangover? I had a rather decent one the day after I wrote about the experiment. I took the sparkles and the wine, but didn't end up taking the cake with cashew frosting. And I did eat pulled pork, and potato salad lashed in mayonnaise, and pudding. And the next morning I needed eggs. Poached eggs on pesto bagel, my standard weekend brunch. And then I needed pizza. With bacon.

I had it, all, and didn't feel too bad about it because this an experiment. And because I was training for a 10km race, so figured I'd run it all off.

So last Saturday I did the Women's Running London 10km event. I tagged along with the Write This Run crew, who showed their experience by having Prosecco at the finish line and breaking a few PBs.

I'd started the 8 week training programme to make 50mins at week 4, so the time target was probably a little ambitious. The last time I ran a 10km event I clocked just under 60 mins, and that was quite a few years ago.

Anyway, I figured I hadn't had meat or dairy so my body wasn't lugging around all that hard to process stuff - it should all even out.

The course, described as fairly flat on the registration website, had about 200m of flat. There were seven uphills in one lap of the two lap course. I hadn't done any hill running. But I stuck with Lucy, the 50 mins pacer, and at 6km, knowing there was a long hill coming up, raided my stash: jelly babies.

I've always used jelly beans or babies as the hit you need in a run - the sugar goes straight to my legs, and a little to my head, settling the XXX rated inner monologue. But I kept thinking about the tendons, ligaments and bones that had been boiled up to give me my hit. I couldn't think of a vegan substitute, and was too shattered to worry by 7.5km.

So when I came home, and ate a large slice of lentil loaf, I looked for my vegan equivalent.

It's called agar-agar, made by boiling several types of seaweed together. I thought oh yuk, eating boiled seaweed. And then I thought of the hoofs.

I looked for some recipes using this appealing ingredient, BBC Foods came up high in the search list, and I found Ham hock with parsley jelly and pease pudding.


So the best tip I've found is to substitute gels/jelly bs with shelled sunflower seeds and raisins.

I'll be the one training with tupperware. 

At least, like the beans/babies, they'll get stuck in my teeth and give me something to focus on other than pain, fatigue, sitting in my reading chair with a book.

If you have any alternative ideas for keeping the energy levels up on a long run (not including kale chips, roasted chickpeas or Mary's Gone Crackers), I'm really keen to find something I can put in my mini-pocket in my running shorts.

Help greatly appreciated. The experiment continues...with a few minor deviations.

Oh and I made it in 50:59. Should have taken those seeds.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Time out track - Saturday Sun

"...And Saturday's sun has turned to Sunday's rain. So Sunday sat in the Saturday sun and wept for a good day gone by." Nick Drake.

Taking the title of a Nick Drake song for a band name is ambitious, and when I saw these guys I was expecting a driving to surf pop song. Instead, a gorgeous voice, gentle guitars and drum brushing. I don't want to parallel, but they certainly sound worthy of association with the lovely Nick Drake.

EP sold out, new album coming soon. And there's also a hidden track.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Time out track: immersed in Iceland

Following last night's Icelandic evening in Chelsea, I wanted to share some more magic from that country. My music knowledge was limited to Björk, Emilíana Torrini and Sigur Rós, and though I do like all of them, and their very different sounds, I wanted to discover something new.

Last year, at the age of 20, Ásgeir Trausti set the record for the most copies sold by a domestic artist in Iceland.

So perhaps you've already heard of him? But in case you haven't, well here's a track in Icelandic, and one in English that seemed to fit the Icelandic evening.

And if you're interested in more Icelandic music discoveries, there's a fascinating range - including Icelandic reggae - here.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

An Icelandic evening. In Chelsea.

I'd forgotten how aggressive lycra cyclists can be, so it was a relief to turn onto Fulham Road behind a woman in a red dress and high wedges. At Daunt Books I pulled up behind a woman with a crisp bob sitting very upright on a basket-front bike. I wasn't alone riding in a dress, but felt conspicuous wearing a helmet.

Beside the bike stands was a group of almost thirties smoking and comparing stories of their Trans-Siberian railway adventures.


I'd spent the afternoon in my sunny courtyard (in a different seven letter suburb beginning with 'C') reading the last 100 pages of Burial Rites. Another strong contrast - last London summer heat and the last days of Agnes in northern Iceland's January dark.

The Icelandic evening was a discussion between debut author Hannah Kent and novelist, travel writer and academic, Sarah Moss. Both women went to Iceland at a young age, and it had left a powerful impression that clearly hasn't faded.

When she was 19, Sarah was awarded a scholarship to "contemplate natural beauty", and caught a ferry from Aberdeen to Iceland where she and a friend spent six weeks of summer travelling around. It was just a beginning for her, and always wanting to go back the opportunity came up for her and her family to spend 2009-10 in Reykjavik.

Hannah finished school knowing she wanted to be a writer, but unsure of what else she should pursue to supplement this tenuous career choice. She applied for a Rotary exchange, nominating Switzerland, Sweden and Iceland as her countries of choice.
At 17, she had never seen snow.

Though their Icelandic experiences were very different, there was obviously a challenging settling-in time. Sarah, with her husband and two sons, working in a city, depended on strangers to help with the simplest things, like buying a bus ticket. Hannah left Adelaide's 40 degree summer to arrive in a remote village in northern Iceland, trapped by snow and at the mercy of the weather. Where Sarah felt anonymous in a crowd, everyone knew who Hannah was, and the spectacle of being a stranger was disconcerting at first.

I haven't read Names for the Sea, but was interested that she used the form of a novel to get away from  the rigour of thorough truth to fact. She enjoyed the freedom of fiction.

Hannah's "subjective non-fiction" novel is the product of extensive research and the desire to reflect the story of the last executions in Iceland with respect for the people and place.

The synergy between these women's stories is the power of the landscape. Both take on a sort of reverence describing walks in the unending summer light, the bizarreness of volcanic gullies, the mountains, the isolation of an island where weather dictates what you can do each day.

It's as moving listening to the writers speak as it is to read the story of Agnes Magnusdottir.

The May release of Burial Rites was so highly anticipated in Melbourne when I was there in February, that I was desperate to get my hands on it when it was released in the UK. And in the spate of fabulous books I've read lately - I mean it had to follow Stoner - it easily gets 5 stars from me.

And Hannah's next book? Well I didn't get much time to talk to her about that as there was a long queue for signings, but it's set in Ireland, based on a story she's heard about superstition. I'd get ready for another evocative tale.

And if you're looking for a review of Burial Rites, rather than a response to it, Isabelle Costello has literally just posted a wonderful one here.