THIS IS THE VOICE OF AMERICA.


My love affair with the Radio continues.

As I lay in bed, alternately groaning and cursing during a  bout of gastric ‘flu, my feeble hand managed to grasp my Samsung Galaxy tablet, and started fiddling with the icon marked BBC Radio. I have to say, I think that small action improved  my health  more than all the ginger tea, Probiotics, and other remedies combined.

I spent a happy time discovering a weird variety of  stations ; one  poured out Bangladeshi Classical music; another pumped out jolly  accordion/organ sing-a-long tunes from the Nederlands. Radio Venice offering baroque music. A station in Sweden broadcasting in Farsi. I’m still trying to work that one out. And,  no, I don’t speak Farsi. Radio Mediterranean offered a heady mix of Armenian, Arabic, Italian, French, Greek music. There were umpteen Polish stations promoting music from hip-hop, to acid jazz, to urban funk, lounge, and salsa. Fabulous! Almost worth being sick. Almost, but not quite.

Long ago, when I was a misunderstood teenager, I was given a portable radio – battery powered, of course, I’m speaking of the pre-electronic age, a.k.a. The Olden Days. It  had short, long and medium wave reception. I think it was a Phillips radio, in a smart cream and chocolate plastic casing. I absolutely loved it, and would spend hours twiddling the dial, fighting the dreadful static and the waning battery power, straining my ears for the tiniest snatch of LM Radio’s weekly Hit Parade, or trolling through foreign language stations, listening to streams of exotic sounding languages, and desperately wishing I could understand some of it.

But the one station that was always amazingly clear, was the Voice of America. You knew immediately when you hit it, because out poured a stream of jazz, or  Benny Goodman’s band, playing a swing tune. Just knowing that I was listening to someone or something from half-way across the globe gave me such a thrill. It still does. Over and out!

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MAKING SOUP & CONTEMPLATING LIFE


 

Because I’m currently reading, no : absorbing – or trying to – Mary Paterson’s book “The Monks and Me”, I’m paying careful attention to peeling carrots, the rasp of the peeler, and plop  of the peel landing in the bin. Next comes the peeler over the cylindrical shape of the sweet potato – no rasping this time – just the thin purple peel dropping silently into the bin; noting the myriad little indentations still clad in skin. Taking the washed  potato to the old yellow and white chopping board; the cool,wet pressure against my left hand as I grip it firmly, the pressure of the knife handle in my right hand, the effort to force the knife through the thick object. Then the crisp chop-chop-chop sound of the knife as I slice the potato into batons. The creamy white flesh against the bright yellow tea-kettle design on my antique chopping board. Paying attention.

How much attention do we pay to our daily lives? In my case – very little. Whilst I may be multi-tasking  all day long, for how much of this time am I really present with my actions? Not much. I know I spend 90% of my time preoccupied with plans, thoughts, ideas, reminders, rehearsing speeches, more plans , the occasional  memory fragment, more plans … and so it goes, all day long. Mary Paterson went on a 40-day silent retreat at Plum Village in France, the monastery of renowned Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hahn. She diligently followed the routine, the schedule, the meditation periods, the Noble Silence, the instruction on Mindfulness (be here now!  as Ram Das so succinctly said, so long ago).  And it paid off. As she puts it, “she returned Home” to a peaceful place within.  The book is very readable, in short chapters, one for every day of her retreat. So: if you’re feeling beleaguered by pressures of modern life, read this book! And start  paying attention.  Slowing down.  It works.

Another writer who is  currently receiving a lot of attention, is the Norwegian writer, Karl Ove Knausgaard, with his mammoth exploration of his life titled in Norwegian ‘Min Kamp’ – yes, that’s right, ‘Mein Kampf” in German and in English : My Struggle. It was Socrates who proclaimed : . An unexamined life is not worth living. The unexamined life is not the life for man. KOK has certainly taken this dictum to heart.

One Goodreads writer sourly recorded that it had been too much of a struggle, and she’d abandoned the book. Others lavished 5-star reviews, while others wondered why the trivial minutiae in his daily life was of any interest or importance to his readers. I saw him  being interviewed by Razia Iqbal on BBC arts & culture programme, Talking Books,  recorded at the Hay Book Festival this year, and was smitten by his Viking good looks – those blue eyes and that silver hair! However, I’m not sure that I’m up for a 3 000+ page exposition of his life, some of which appears to be sordid and difficult e.g. the aftermath of the death of his alcoholic father. Not only this, but the account of Knausgaard’s life is not a memoir, says the author, it’s a novel, despite being a blisteringly true account of current events within his own family. Some of whom are now not speaking to him. No, really, he cannot have it both ways. Either it’s a memoir, or it’s fiction. And if it’s a factual account of events and people in his life, including himself, then surely its ….  Oh I don’t know. Life’s too short. Go figure.

For some reason, whilst chopping veg for my soup (and obviously not paying attention to what I was doing  – yet again!) I recalled reading a book by Marilyn Robinson titled Gilead*, which is narrated by an old minister, living in a small American town, at the end of his life,  and the reader is privy to his reflections about his life. This remarkably short book was a masterpiece of simplicity and clarity, humility and wisdom. I think I’ll buy a copy of Gilead  and forgo the task of enduing the Norwegian saga.
*Marilynne Robinson’s second novel, Gilead (2004), won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Ambassador Book Award. Gilead takes the form of a letter from an ageing Iowa preacher to his seven-year-old son. Written in simple and sparse prose, it is an uplifting meditation on life. http://contemporarylit.about.com/

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RECENT READS: The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared – Jonas Jonasson. (translated from Swedish)


 

 

Definitely the jolliest Swedish book I’ve ever read! Somehow Swedish novels – and  I must confess I’ve only read Swedish crime novels – tend to be heavy and dark.

The novel is a surreal comedy, a sort of Charlie Chaplin (i.e. the 100 year old Allan,) on steroids; a tall story, a funny story, and actually a very skilful exposition about the utter futility of politics and war.

There are parallel strands : 100 year old Allan Carlsson – an explosives expert, who really enjoys a drink or two, escapes from the Old Age Home on his 100th birthday. He escapes slowly and ineptly, but en route manages to get tangled up with criminals, has a huge adventure, makes new friends, and gets married for the first time at age 101. The second strand is alternate chapter flashbacks to Allan Carlsson’s remarkable life, which takes the reader through the decades. The mild Allan meets every world leader of note (Stalin, Mao, Harry Truman, to mention a few) and plays a part in world events. Along the way Jonasson points out the weaknesses of all the “isms’” that his hero encounters. Actually, to be accurate, the mild Allan is more of an anti-hero, than a hero. It’s an engaging read, with the daring insertion of a live adult elephant , yes, a real, live elephant, into the Swedish countryside!

The novel was greatly acclaimed; rightly so. It’s fresh and inventive and belongs in the Mann Booker Nomination Lists.

 

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REFLECTIONS ON MY FIRST JOB


 

My first job, when I left school aged 17, was with  a firm of lawyers who came straight out of a Charles Dickens novel:  Calderwood, Bryce Hendrie, Smith & Abercrombie.  The year may have been 1959, the town may have been Bulawayo, the country may have been Rhodesia but the atmosphere was definitely mid-Victorian.  We had to wear stockings to the office, and only dresses or skirt and blouse; trousers?  No, no, no! Not permitted.

I was hired as a Junior Shorthand Typist. The typewriters were manual Underwoods, weighed a ton, and left your fingers sore at day’s end from pounding those keys.    Typex hadn’t been invented, neither had the photocopier – it was carbon paper copies and no erasures allowed!

 

If a Senior Staff member passed you in the corridor you were expected to flatten yourself against the wall and wait until they had swept past.

Every Thursday the entire office received cake at tea-time, Mr Bryce-Hendrie having left a specific bequest in his Will with the proviso that  his favourite, Fly Cemetry slices from Downings Bakery , be served. In case you’re wondering about the disgusting name, the cake consists of a hard biscuit top and bottom with a sticky mixture of minced cake fruit sandwiching the two together. Very more-ish, despite the awful popular name.

Because I was a bright little button they decided to shift me from the Debt Collections Dept and teach me the glories of Property Conveyancing .  Debt collection might have been squalid, but at least it wasn’t boring.  Conveyancing, I soon discovered, was stultifyingly boring.  So after six months of hard labour, for the princely sum of Seventeen Pounds per month (approx ZAR34-00 : can you believe it, & on this I paid rent at the Girls’ Hostel, as well as daily running costs i.e. cigarettes, toiletries etc ). I left this Dickensian style salt-mine  – freedom at last! but it was short-lived, my next job was in the office of a textile weaving mill: deafeningly noisy, underpaid, and baffling  – terrible working conditions – I lasted two months there. The only bright spot was a devastatingly handsome Portuguese factory Manager who gave me lessons in Portuguese; confined alas to the language, because he had a fierce, buxom Portuguese girlfriend . My Portuguese never progressed much beyond polite greetings, plus a scattering of words which I already  knew  from one of Nyasaland’s native languages, Chinyanja, which I spoke fluently in those years. So I knew useful things like the Portuguese words for hat and shoes, but not much else.

As you can see, my entry into the workplace was varied, un-enjoyable, and driven by economic necessity. Pretty much the story of the remainder of my working life, I regret to say. Job satisfaction and career didn’t feature much in my working life, but keeping a roof over my head and food on the table was Numero Uno for many years. I assume there’s a moral in it somewhere – darned if I know what it might have been!

 

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BINGEING AT THE LIT FEST


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The weather is autumn perfect. Leaves are red and gold. The encircling mountains are chocolate-box blue. So is the sunny sky.  Gardens are bright with flowers, apricot hibiscus bushes are lush. Broekie lace trims verandahs, paintwork is fresh, verges are clipped green mats. It’s got to be Franschoek in May. It’s the annual Franschoek Literary Festival.

Everybody’s here: the literati and the glitterati; the bookworms and the browsers; the wannabe writers and the published stars; the critics and the columnists; the nervous new panellists and the blasé old stalwarts.  Biographers trade secrets in coffee lounge corners, while the blue rinse brigade congregate in wine bars and brag about their literary dinner parties. The Hospice book sale is in full swing, and the elderly ladies down the road in the rambling second-hand store have dusted off their smiles along with their calculators. The impeccable owner of Africana and First Editions sits magisterially at his burnished desk and welcomes patrons into what he describes as an extension of his private library . And it is indeed meticulously arranged, the books are slip-covered in library film, categorised to the last decimal point. It seems crass to disturb the gleaming displays by actually purchasing a volume. However, the prices are so rich and rare (like everything else in Franschoek) that this impecunious blogger scuttles away, suitably chastened.

A more affordable option is the chocolate shop – it reeks of chocolate, and is crammed with sinfully enticing merchandise wherever you look, and I succumb. My willpower can resist only so much temptation, and then I crumble. But it was worth it – oh! that  chocolate marzipan, flavoured with orange peel … one of life’s little pleasures and indulgences.

A quick pit-stop at the coffee wagon, and then on to happy hours of panel discussions, interviews, debates. The only downside is my backside, when forced to sit on bone-achingly hard pews in a church, which serves as one of the venues. But a quick sprint through the streets to the next venue,  helps to ease the aching a little.

I listen to academics expound; poets are surprisingly hard-nosed about sales figures; book review columnists ask awkward questions; publishers get technical; new writers gush enthusiastically or mutter unhappily; successful novelists toss bon mots to the adoring audience. And, I regret to say, several writers speak in condemnatory tones about bloggers who dare to write reviews of their work. Hey! Come on guys! Us bloggers are not out to crucify you! And not all Lit Bloggers are ignorant yahoos from the murky electronic depths – in fact, I have read many deeply erudite book reviews on Literary Blog sites. Just because we don’t have an MA in Creative  Writing doesn’t automatically consign us to the ignoramus section – we’re writers too, and more importantly most of us are your readers, or your prospective target market. A little fellowship here would be appreciated.

That said, it was a grand event, and I can’t wait for next year’s Franschoek Literary Festival.

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TO TWEET OR NOT TO TWEET ….


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To tweet or not to tweet …. that is the question. A thoroughly 21st century question it is too. Are we going to Twitter or are we not going to Twitter?

It became glaringly apparent at the Franschoek Literary Festival, that if you’re an author who’s looking to widen your readership and boost your book sales, then you’d better be out there Twittering briskly on your Smartphone and diving boldly into the Twitterverse. Or whatever it’s called. One wit told us that an amalgam of the predominant social media titles leaves you with the tag  Twitface … Do I want to be a Twitface? Do I need to be a Twitface? I’m already Facebooking and that’s time consuming enough. Will I land up with thumb sprain if I tweet as well?

I’m no Luddite, I’m all for electronica, but  somehow Twitter is a byte too far for me. When do the Twits find time to do anything else? Like write, and work on their books, for instance?  Or cook a meal/play with the cat/commune with their significant other? And do I want 4 000 followers eagerly awaiting my latest pronouncement on what I ate for breakfast, or some other equally vitally info-byte?

Two speakers at the Lit Fest compared Twitter to having a huge, noisy cocktail party yammnering constantly in their heads. No thank you. Not for me. I have enough trouble dealing with my own plethora of mental debris let alone time and headspace to take on other people’s Twitter Trivia.

I recall a very old children’s rhyme that said:


The Wise Owl

The wise old owl
Sat in an oak.
The more he saw,
The less he spoke.
The less he spoke,
The more he heard.
Why can’t we be like
That wise old bird?

‘Nuff said.

 

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RE-DISCOVERING TREASURES ON MY BOOKSHELVES


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Sometimes events have unexpected side effects.  For instance: I recently had my house re-carpeted. This meant I had to pack away all loose items, my collection of cat memorabilia, and oh woe – the bookshelves. The Carpet Man took one look at the overloaded shelves, shook his head, and said We can’t move those – too heavy. You’ll have to pack them away and then we’ll move the empty bookcases. Fair enough – I knew how heavy they were. Amazing how sheets of paper within cardboard covers have such a cumulative dead weight. But they do.

So: Clement came into my life. His day job is working for the window cleaners who come once a month to clean my windows (note: I don’t wash windows or cars; I’m too short to reach. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.I engaged him to come and help pack the books. He’s a skinny little Malawian, who works all the hours/days that he can, in order to send money back to his family in Malawi; speaks beautiful English and works with vigour. In a couple of hours the job was done, the boxes stored in the spare bedroom, and every flat surface covered in towering stacks of books. We ran out of boxes, so we got on to Plan B. Just love Plan B.  I noticed Clement eyeing the books with interest, and offered to lend him a novel, which he took with alacrity.

New carpeting duly installed, I arranged for Clement to help unpack the books, which we speedily did. We pretty much just shoved them into shelves, and left it at that. Since then I have had a delightful time re-arranging them into themed shelves –  novels, travel, poetry, cookery books (I discovered a brand new Jamie Oliver which I don’t appear to have even opened let alone read or cooked from; I have a vague memory that I won the book in a competition). My Tarot books have been packed into suitcases and banished under the spare room bed. Right now I’m not in the mood.

My Buddhist books have returned to their previous shelf in the bedroom. I’ve made a mammoth pile of fat, oversized books and stacked them on top of the case, behind the bedroom door. What’s there? Dombey & Son  (I keep meaning to …) . The Gary Snyder Reader (wilderness, eco-Buddhism) Shantaram , Collected Short Stories of the World – 2 vols,  IQ84 ( a Murakami triumph) The Collected Saki  (that bitter twisted wit) a Georgette Heyer Omnibus (comfort reading when I’m in bed with ‘flu) The Alexandria Quartet (I really DO want to re-read this). And so on. I tend to be put off by very thick books, but usually enjoy myself once I pluck up the courage. A good case in point is The Swan Thieves  by Elizabeth Kostova, a historical mystery/romance, featuring the French Impressionists – I couldn’t put it down, and read ‘til I was cross-eyed.

I chucked more books into the Diabetes SA Donations Box. They’ve done well out of my recent housekeeping efforts. The comic novels I dusted off and stacked together. I have a weakness for them, for which I make no apology. We all need to laugh a great deal more often.

Then there was a big, dusty pile of magazines with the word ‘KEEP’ scrawled on the covers. Sorting through those I came upon a trove of The Lady .  I paged through one after breakfast this morning, and enjoyed the wide variety of articles that are seldom found in other mags, which tend to focus on health, beauty and self-improvement. At one point I subscribed to The Lady, because I so enjoyed the cosy time-warp feel and look of the mag, it was like being back in the late 50s to mid 60s. And then the mag appointed a new, young, hot-shot MALE editor (big mistake!) who revamped the format and image, gave it a bright new look and turned it into a facsimile of every other magazine on the market, missing the point entirely. The whole point aboutThe Lady  was the fact that it wasn’t trendy, that it had a lot of black and white pics and illustrations, that it was old-fashioned.  So I cancelled my sub and went off in a huff. As a wise man I know often says, in his Tennessee twang: “If it ain’t broke, don’t tinker with it.”  Too right.

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AMERICA PACIFICA by Anna North


Gripping dystopian novel about survivors from the next Ice Age. The plot is straight forward – no particular surprises there, but the book excelled in creating a horribly credible  picture of poverty in a survivor society and exposing human greed, capitalistic class structure systems, the failure of a visionary scheme, in the face of an entrenched status quo. The under classes subsist in miserable slums, and mainly eat processed jellyfish and seaweed that is mass produced into a simulacrum of fast food – yuck! At the end of the novel I felt it would have been preferable to have been frozen by the encroaching ice rather than struggle in the hot, rainy filthy, hungry desperate underbelly of a new society on an overcrowded island. Uggh!  Bladerunner cubed! Steven Spielberg’s recent futuristic TV series Terra Nova portrayed a positively paradisiacal world, by way of contrast, and Terra Nova was no picnic …. Nothing like a grim dystopian novel to make one’s current circumstances seem excellent, despite our economic, criminal, political urban South African woes. Not to mention global warming.

Here’s a thought: maybe, at this early point in the 21st Century, this is as good as it’s going to get? Only an increasingly rapid downhill slope from here? What do you think?

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LOTTO DREAMS


 

What would you do if you won the Lotto? Don’t tell me you haven’t spent the odd moment dreaming about your new life with those infinite millions? I’m sure most people have, whether they admit it or not.

I’ve watched a few episodes of the American TV series How the Lottery Changed my Life. As usual, I’m fascinated by the responses of ordinary people when presented with a LOT OF MONEY. Some of the prizes are beyond grasp: telephone type numbers running into six digits, while other prizes have been a mere 3.5million dollars.

Many of the winners act predictably: a new home or car for their Mum; gifts to immediate family, an upgrade from their modest suburban home to something bigger and much grander – this usually means an explosion of extraordinary bad taste, but each to their own, I suppose.

Some of the men indulge their passion for fast cars – not one, not two, but stables of fast cars. Hello, Lamborghini!  Others – mainly bachelors, but I don’t think they remain bachelors for long! –  buy property that allows them to build huge swimming pools and their own private golf course, and these guys are tanned, and smiling from ear to ear. Golf every day and no work – gotta be good!

And then you get the mavericks. How about the family man who was in a syndicate with workmates – five guys in total. They won.  Four of the men went golfing but Number Five, the family man, continued with his job, which was operating a road-cleaning truck. He upgraded the family home, and explained he still had to put kids through college. I can’t decide whether he’s a shining hero, or an unimaginative idiot.

A farmer in Iowa, struggling to maintain the family farm, spent a fortune on a state of the art combine harvester, and a lovely new tractor. I notice they didn’t interview his wife – I hope she at least got a few new dresses, or something!

A woman living in a trailer with a large family didn’t change her lifestyle at all – just bought plenty of adult toys like quad bikes and motorbikes,  which were shown rusting away on a derelict property, guarded by a pack of dogs, numbering over twenty, or something. She fell into the category that decided: winning the Lotto isn’t going to change my lifestyle – I like it just the way it is.

Lastly, the couple who bought a monster – and I mean a monster – mobile home (I think they call them Winnebago’s in the USA). The vehicle was over forty feet long, and contained as many buttons, switches and gadgets as a NASA space vehicle. The couple took to the roads and were happily exploring America and delighted to be living on the road.

What would you do, I wonder? I’m still working on my wishlist.

 

 

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HAPPY POSTCROSSING!


The Finnish commemorative Postcrossing postage stamp

The Finnish commemorative Postcrossing postage stamp

 

It’s a new phenomenon – postcards whizzing round the world, sent by nearly half a million people in over 200 countries – people who don’t know each other, but are linked by one common factor: they like to get mail! Old fashioned snail mail, stuff in the letterbox mail – for once, not e-mai!

It costs you nothing to join Postcrossing (www.postcrossing.com) but there’s the cost of buying postcards – although some folk make their own. Plus the cost of postage, which in South Africa is quite high, R5-75 per card for airmail  delivery. Apparently the Brits are not big members of Postcrossing, due to the high cost of postage in their country.

Nearly every country in the world has Postcrossing members, barring some miniscule, obscure islands that are not even dots on the map – Cocos & Keeling Islands? – and some countries in West Africa, and on the horn of Africa. Other than this, worldwide, somebody is sending or receiving a postcard this very second. Yes: NOW, right now.

The most enthusiastic joiners are the Russians, followed by the Americans, and then the Chinese.  Male members number 63,539 ; 311,178 females. There are 465,078 registered users in 223 different countries. These stats are from the Postcrossing website, but they change on an almost hourly basis. When I joined last year, South African had just over 400 members, but now, since an article on the phenomenon in Ideas Magazine, the number has more than tripled.

Apparently one of the attractions of Postcrossing is that there’s an entire generation  – electronically connected 24/7, of course – who have never received an item of snailmail! I find this fact quite staggering, but I suppose the cohort  aged 15 – 25 probably falls into this category. So for the electronic generation, a postcard in the mailbox is a brand new experience.

I joined Postcrossing in October last year, and now I’m a complete addict – it’s a lot of fun! I’ve been a letter-writer all my life, but with my increasing eyesight problems, postcards are the perfect solution. I still get mail in my box and the thrill of a card from the most diverse places: from Turkey to the Ukraine, from the USA to Malaysia – who knows where the next card will come from? The only downside to Postcrossing is our very erratic and irregular postal deliveries, but hey! getting seven cards in a bundle from all over the world is okay too.

Finland even issued an official postage stamp in honour of Postcrossing – see my very poor pic up top.

Join: I promise you won’t regret doing so.

 

 

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