That all important short list…

As the holidays approach, my attention is focussed on what music and books to take. My elder daughter has fervently promised to load all the music I could possibly desire onto my i-pod, in return for ‘borrowing’ it for the last couple of years, so that’s taken care of ( what a dream to simply say to a technically accomplished teenager: OK give me Schubert’s symphony in C major, Bach’s Unaccompanied Cello Suites …………..oh, and some Michael Jackson, Bobby Womack, Amy Winehouse, Duffy and a couple of Mariza’s greatest Fado ballads etc etc ) leaving me only with the pure fun of whittling my list of holiday books down to a manageable short list.

Working on the assumption that eight-ten books are probably enough for fourteen days, given that I usually end up borrowing/reading a few books taken by fellow holiday makers, here are the early contenders for the two week trip.

In no particular order, we have:

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfield
The Time of our Singing by Richard Powers
The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen
Palestinian Walks: notes on a vanishing landscape by Raja Shehadeh
How Fiction Works by James Wood
The Classical World, an epic history from Homer to Hadrian by Robin Lane Fox
Brodeck’s report by Philippe Claudel
Home by Marilynne Robinson
An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser
Why Arendt Matters by Elisabeth Young-Bruehl
Rebecca West: a Life by Victoria Glendinning
Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West
Burnt Shadows by Kamilla Shamsie

The advantage to getting a short list established this early is that my sub conscious can start mulling over the must-have’s versus the could-possibly-leave-till-later’s. A couple of these are re-reads so will probably go, late in the day. To balance that, there will last minute additions, such as the almost inevitable quick-before-we-dash-to-the-gate purchase at some soulless airport bookshop.

A final consideration: weight. A batch of slim paperbacks will always beat a massive hardback, especially given the slim possibility that the latter remains unread and has to be transported there and back for nothing. What a waste!

Graft and craft.

Last Thursday, I was invited to dinner with a book group in London – the hundredth meeting of this group as it happened- in order to discuss my novel One of Us. I sat, under a small but persistent IKEA style spotlight, at the centre of a long table groaning with food, for about two hours, while pertinent, persistent and often quite challenging questions were fired at me from all directions which I tried to answer intelligently while attempting to chew falafel and salad with a degree of elegance, probably the hardest task of the evening.

At the same time, I was forced to reflect on the detail of why and how I write. Sometimes my own answers surprised me, such as the comment I heard issuing from my mouth that ‘ I put the words down on the page first of all – splat! – it’s almost a physical process – and then I look at them later. If they don’t live, they have to go! Out!’

Of course, that is one reason why it takes me so long to write anything, including a recent short story that I drafted last year while on holiday and decided to polish up this spring, for entry for a competition. That process of ‘polishing up’ took virtually five weeks, full time, and I think it fair to say that by the end not a single sentence from the original remained.

At another point, at this book group supper, I remember curving and hunching my shoulders, an attempt at a physical representation of what it feels like like to carry a whole story or set of stories around in my head, often for years at a time. I told the table that I muttered while I walked, because my hour’s daily walk at lunchtime is often when I do some of my best thinking.

So, I was pleased to see a piece by Jenny Diski in the Guardian on the Saturday after entitled ‘ Advice for young writers-to-be‘ that expressed some of what I feel about the role of editing in good writing and the sheer hard work of writing as a craft. Her advice seems stringent, her tone severe but I think she is right.

Breaking through the silence

Please come to a special event, Breaking Through the Silence, put on by the English PEN Writers in Prison Committee and JAM, an organisation set up to nurture, promote and perform new music in the UK, in support of imprisoned and persecuted writers throughout the world, but particularly highlighting the situation of Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of resistance to Burma, who will be 64 on Friday, June 19th.

The event is to held at St Margaret’s Church, Westminster Abbey, on Thursday 9th July, 7.30pm. Tickets from English PEN.

Whatever happened to Holland Park?

People often ask me what my old school, Holland Park comprehensive, was like and what it is like now. For the moment, I will direct people to Michele Hanson’s excellent article in The Guardian about the school in recent years. Enough said.

I will be returning to this subject again, in this, Holland Park’s fiftieth year.

Today’s news.

As for the election results, these are deeply depressing and frightening – in terms of fascist gains – if predictable. Whether Brown stays or goes, New Labour has clearly failed to change Britain as it once promised to do. This, combined with the recession has opened us up to new right scare mongering from the BNP and new right opportunism from the Tories. Awful to hear George Osborne sounding so pleased with himself on the Today programme.

Meanwhile the gigantic and increasingly irrelevant power struggle between the Blairites and Brownites has reached epic proportions – and what an interesting ever tricky role that Mandelson has played! – but now threatens to wipe out the Labour party for a generation. The irony and the tragedy of it is that these two factions do not even disagree on policy.

They will not give up easily. As a key new Labour anti Brown figure said yesterday, ‘ How do we continue to pursue the New Labour model; economic efficiency and social justice?’ Need it be said: deregulation and the sanction of greed destroyed that dream of ‘economic efficiency’ and there has been insufficient social change for the millions who needed it, some of whom have turned to the BNP.

The expenses crisis is just the icing on the cake of that deep disappointment. Harriet Harman was right this morning; people are angrier with Labour not because Labour MP’s behaved particularly badly on the expenses front compared to the other parties, but because so many expected so much more, in terms of fairness, from a Labour government.

And now, of course, the Tories offer up a diluted and clearly opportunist version of the same firm but fair agenda.

Of course, Blair and Brown did – and I would argue, still do – represent a slightly different emphasis within that economic efficiency/social justice paradigm. Blair was clearly all for the aspirational, individualist dream whereas Brown is, I’ve no doubt, more committed to collective solutions, viz, his current promise to provide more social housing.

The tragedy for him, and those of us who lean more to the left, is that this vital emphasis has come too late, at the tail end of a Blairite administration, post Iraq etc. I do not think a Prime Minister of a party that has been in government for twelve years can talk about ‘setting out his vision’ – like a fresh faced new leader – although I understand why he does it. His government is only two years old, has hit the worst recession for decades and faced a newly resurgent Tory Party etc etc.

But can he still do it, even after today’s appalling results, last weeks post-Blairite rebellions, and his own continued lack of an easy public style of communication?

Well, stranger things have happened.

Am I really seeing a glimmer of optimism?!

Flett on Flint

Further to my post yesterday, I think Keith Flett in today’s Guardian has a point, about Gordon Brown, the Guardian -and other papers’ – use of the Flint picture, and what he calls the ‘amalgam technique’ in politics. Below the full text of his letter today:

“As a socialist I have no time for the rightwing New Labour politics of Caroline Flint. But how she chooses to dress and appear is not directly part of that and should be entirely up to her. I understand that a politician like Gordon Brown, who still assesses people by how sober their suit is, doesn’t grasp this. I don’t expect the Guardian to illustrate a front-page article about Flint’s politics with a picture portrait that she did for Observer Woman in a quite different context. The amalgam technique in politics – connecting unconnected things by assertion – is not a helpful way of proceeding.”

Yes, that’s good.

The conundrum of Caroline Flint

For the moment, I am only going to set out a couple of questions currently buzzing round my brain about the Caroline Flint affair, in particular the matter of those photos coupled with her angry comment that Gordon Brown used her and other women in the Cabinet as ‘window dressing.’

Yesterday I had at least two spats with friends and family about whether her agreeing to that Observer photo shoot fatally undermined her political credibility; everyone I spoke to was adamant; of course it did. She draped herself over a chaise longue, showed a lot of leg, put on scarlet lippy etc And then asks to be treated as a serious person!

Personally, I think agreeing to do a photo shoot like that, in scarlet silk Karen Millen and matching lipstick, is a risky thing to do. And, although she could not have known it, the timing could not have been worse from her point of view; those Observer photos were a dream for every single newspaper. Window dressing, what window dressing??

But I still have a question: Why does a woman who chooses to display her beauty and femininity in a national newspaper automatically disqualify herself from serious consideration? Was it perhaps the posing, rather than the clothes, hair, lipstick? The self display? Yes, that may be it. Even so, there is something cheap and tawdry and just too easy about the automatic dismissal of Flint on account of those photos. Isn’t the underlying message of the attacks on/dismissal of Flint that sex/women and politics/seriousness just don’t mix. Also, bear in mind that any woman who ISN’T deemed attractive gets it in the neck as well.

Am I wrong?

Of one thing I am sure; you cannot praise the Prime Minister to the skies in the evening and then launch an all out attack on him the next day. Better to do neither but simply make a decision – stay or leave – and stick by it.

Jaw dropping tales.

The political world may be in free fall but so was I, for a brief moment last week, and here’s something I learned in the process.

Last Wednesday night, when leaving the Orange Prize Party at the Royal Festival Hall. I tripped and fell, taking almost the entire impact on my chin and jaw. ( For this we cannot blame the free Tattinger champagne at the event, of which I had but a glass and a half, but more likely the accoutrements of girly party wear, including higher heels than I would normally wear – about two and a half inches – and a clutch bag, which probably prevented me breaking my fall with my hands.)

I remember very clearly my thoughts as I was about to hit the pavement; God, this is it, the end of relative health and well being; this is going to be the undoing of me. etc etc. Dramatic undoubtedly but I knew already that this was more than an ordinary, embarassing tumble. The jarring was tremendous, the blood quite shocking – to me, at any rate. Then, there were the tell tale concerned and curious expressions on the faces of the small ring of passer-bys, the presence of the police ( whose combined age must have been about forty four, and who rather sweetly started trying to staunch the flow of blood with packets of wet wipes, like a primary school nurse, worried presumably about the risk of possibly infected blood swishing about a public space.)

But the heroes of the hour, apart from fellow writer and friend Gillian Slovo, a rock of authority and caring in my hour of need, were the two paramedics in the ambulance that arrived only a few minutes later. Even in my rather dazed and emotional state, I couldn’t help speculating on the array of shocking scenes they must routinely attend and feeling relieved for them that I wasn’t seriously injured or maimed. ( Yes, I’m a woman!)

They were efficient, funny, friendly. No, they didn’t think my jaw was broken but if it was, it would soon manifest itself, and I might as well go wait at home as sit in hospital poring over the tell tale signs; my blood pressure and pulse were fine. When they cleaned and dressed my wounds they spoke gently of ‘holes and grazes’ in my chin rather than anything more alarming.
Finally, they told me to go away and take some time off work, to which I replied, ‘Oh well, I’ve got an article to write’.
‘For what paper?’ asked the charming male para medic with rock star looks but the steady unself centred gaze of an involved citizen.
‘The Guardian’.
‘Good. Because if you wrote for some of the right wing tabloids, we might have a problem.’ he said jokingly, adding more seriously that they were very unhappy about what these papers said about the NHS.
‘ Don’t worry. You are dealing with a woman who believes in the NHS! ‘ said Gillian Slovo, with only a touch of teasing irony, at my expense.
And so I do, with yet more personal evidence ( see earlier blog) of how well it can work.

( And no, my jaw is not broken, thanks for asking.)
( And Gillian Slovo has just sent me an e-mail to say she passed The Spot Where It Happened last night and that the pavement at that point is seriously rocky and uneven and it was probably nothing to do with my heels after all. Now, if I was more litigious………..)