The Maw of Life

Always good to see a fellow Welsh on the roads in London…

Always good to see a fellow Welsh on the roads in London…

So are wellies the next big thing in cycling gear?

So are wellies the next big thing in cycling gear?

When you’re #riding in the #sleet it’s funny how your vision blurs as the little icy particles give your poor eyeballs a good battering.

When you’re #riding in the #sleet it’s funny how your vision blurs as the little icy particles give your poor eyeballs a good battering.

The sun had long gone but Albert was still shimmering and glimmering on his throne…

The sun had long gone but Albert was still shimmering and glimmering on his throne…

An old classic I’ve had buzzing around in my head since hearing it at the end of the innovative film #Howl, an inspiring portrayal of #Allen_Ginsberg and his ground-breaking poem…For anyone interested in literature a must.

Not the Arctic depicted in “Snowmen” by Mark Sedore but winter in North Wales 2010

The Three Day Novel Contest..could I ever produce anything as impressive as “Snowmen” by Mark Sedore?

As the Three-day-novel contest reared its head on the horizon I began to realise that this competition, which seemed like such a good idea late last year, (I optimistically thought I would have naturally found another, easier way to get published before then) was now actually becoming a real palpable concept, and I wasn’t sure it looked so attractive close up. The contest seemed like a brilliant idea when I’d first heard about it: locking yourself away for three days to write the novel that had been gnawing you from the inside out in its desperation to be written; finding an excuse that would keep your undisciplined self chained to a desk for three solid days doing what your better side had always meant to do. As I said, it was a brilliant competition and one I was eager to embrace whole-heartedly. However here I am, the contest a mere two weeks away, and that novel that should have been fermenting inside my head getting ready to burst on to paper was nowhere in sight. Well I had a few ideas, some of them might do, some of them with the utmost imagination and craft might stick together and form something legible and novel length; or then again should I throw myself in entirely at the deep end with a head as empty as a beer keg after its appearance at a music festival?! I thought there was only one way to find out if any of my approaches might be worth beleaguering the contest judges with my writing: read one of the contest winners. So I bought “Snowmen” by Mark Sedore that won the 32nd contest and was published last year.

Will Mr Sedore send out his fans to beat me black and blue if I rather condescendingly confess: I didn’t expect much from his novel?! I hope not, as I will go on to praise it highly. As I read the synopsis to the novel my initial apprehension began to fade; here was a novel that promised sibling rivalry, sabotage to be overcome, death to be beaten and all of this occurring while the narrator, Charles Perth, is attempting to walk across the Arctic from Canada to Russia. Having read the book I can also add that the synopsis forgot to mention that Sedore also manages to squeeze in romance and suspense too. The synopsis digested I hoped for the sake of my confidence he was a bad writer.

Alas he is not. Sedore had me gripped from the first page as I found myself not only reading a work that flowed well, but sucked me straight into a world about which I knew nothing previously: the arctic and survival at sub-zero temperatures. I was intrigued and interested straight-away, but if I’ve not gone out and avidly read a book on survival at sub-zero conditions before now it’s for good reason, and so in order to keep the interest of an easily distracted reader like myself whose interest may not be held by the wonderfully, white, crisp world of the Arctic then Sedore immediately inserts the hook of curiosity as you ask:  why is Charles walking across this frozen characterless plain? Why did his brother Larry hate him so? Who was Sandy?

Chapter by chapter Sedore skilfully quenches the curiosity he rouses in the reader as he puts together the pieces of an intriguing suspense drenched puzzle to create a complete and satisfying novel. As I progressed into the novel I found Charles to be a likeable character and someone you did actually care for, someone you wanted to see succeed on his mission. Despite his time limitations Sedore still manages to build before us the complex character that is Larry, the difficult, unpredictable brother with as many facets as a well honed diamond; each of these a pleasure to discover even if they do leave you with an unpleasant taste in your mouth. In fact in my opinion Larry is the novel’s best creation, its pinnacle, if it was possible to appreciate a novel like a stretch of rugged landscape. I savoured the sections of the novel when Charles shares memories with the reader of his interaction with Larry and the past they’d shared together which had been entirely dominated by Larry’s illness. Maybe part of my fascination was due to me knowing little about Asperger’s Syndrome, which plagued Larry.

Sedore rather interestingly chose to set his novel in a world severely affected by the climate change that the scientists have been threatening us with for years. I found it interesting to read how Sedore envisioned climate change might take shape; dare I say I found it reassuring that the changes didn’t appear as heinious as science is currently promising; yes I know it’s fiction but who doesn’t like being reassured? Especially since I find myself reading the book on what was the coldest week of the Summer this year in London, when the temperatures dropped to below 10c in the month of August. As I trudged around the wet, cold streets of London wearing my winter clothes I found my thoughts consistently returned to the novel and the self-pity I was eager to wallow in, as yet again the UK failed to provide me with the Summer weather I craved, was tempered by the thought that it could be worse; it could be sub-zero and snowing.

The only disappointing element of the book for me came in the form of Sandy, the romantic component. I admired the fact Sedore managed to squeeze in some romance, the relationship was well set up and there was even a moment, when an unseen romantic twist was sprung upon me and a tear pricked at my eye!  However, Sandy as a character in herself seemed very hollow. But then again, did she really need more meat as a character when she played only a small part in comparison to Larry? It would have been foolish to give more substance to Sandy when she’s fully functional as she is, serves her purpose and especially given that Sedore only had three days to produce the novel.

Which brings me back to the whole reason for reading the novel in the first place; to answer the question that loomed in my head, what kind of novel could someone feasibly write in just three days? If I base my answer on Sedore’s work alone I can honestly say: a novel that is better than those that some authors take years to produce. However without a shadow of a doubt Sedore had the novel ganwing at his insides before he sat down to write it. He knew his subject well and had done enough research on the impressive topics upon which he touched to ensure the story rang true to the reader. Larry and Charles had been perfectly sculpted in his head before he put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard), and this is what makes the novel. Given that my head is full of butterflies and parrots how will I ever step up to the mark in two weeks time? Maybe I’ll just change my tact and recommend Snowmen to my friends instead; I’m still promoting the fantastic contest that gripped me and the fantastic book it produced too. Or will a story, equally as enthralling as Sedore’s creation overwhelm me before that first weekend in September?

Like a hedgehog London too has chosen to hide its elegance…

Like a hedgehog London too has chosen to hide its elegance…

The Elegance of the hedgehog amidst the crudeness of London

The Elegance of the Hedgehog” by Muriel Barbery; a book with a title that couldn’t fail to warm the heart (who doesn’t like hedgehogs?!), but also a storyline that promises to do the same.  However I wasn’t plunged into the easy comforting read I’d expected, in fact I was surprised to find my brain was called into action immediately when Renee, the concierge, brings the word “incunabulum” into the first chapter and ensures the reader is aware she’s familiar with its meaning. I alas was not and quickly reached for my dictionary. (For those of you as ignorant as myself it refers to a book printed before 1501, or an artifact from an early period.) The tone is thus set for the remainder of the novel; Barbery ensures Renee, the concierge, educates the reader and introduces us to the culture and arts that she devours and rejoices in; or maybe I talk only for myself when I say it was an education.  

We then go on to meet Paloma, the 12 year-old genius that is so unhappy with her life that she concludes the only foreseeable future for her lies in burning down her parents flat  and then committing suicide.

Although I found Renee initially to be somewhat annoying with her insistence that others should see her as simple; as she lets us into her extremely  private intellectual world, and shares her observations and theories with us she slowly eased her way into my heart.

 Whereas with Paloma I warmed to her immediately; she too shared the same somewhat irksomely patronizing tone as Renee, but it seemed more fitting in a 12 year-old child and there was something distinctly more credible about her character. All the more so after the riots that took place in London on the night of Monday 8th August.

As I have tried to explain in this blog’s introduction I find the books I read have an astounding capacity of shedding light on a matter of relevance in my own daily life; and it was the night after witnessing teenagers tearing apart buildings and homes, looting the businesses in their local communities and then setting these alight, for no apparent reason, that I reached the passage in the book where Paloma contemplates what it might be that makes kids want to burn cars…

There was a programme about kids burning cars in the banlieue. When I saw these images I wondered what it is that makes a kid want to burn a car. What is going on in their heads? And then this thought came into my mind: what about me? Why do I want to set fire to the apartment? Journalists talk about unemployment and poverty; I talk about selfishness and duplicity of the family. But these are all hollow phrases. There has always been unemployment and poverty and pathetic families. And yet, people don’t go burning cars and apartments every day of the week. Honestly! I decided that, in the end, they were all false pretexts.”

When I read this passage London was still smoking from the fires that had been blazing the previous night and the protagonists in the pictures released were assumed to be the angry youth from the poorest communities in London. Although Barbery had put this profound thought into the head of 12 year-old Paloma  I was nevertheless curious as to where she intended to take her stream of thought as I, along with thousands of others sat wondering on Tuesday morning, how on earth anything at destructive and disastrous could have fallen upon London. Some people blamed the government, some people blamed the parents, some people blamed the police, some people blamed the economy and others blamed society as a whole. I read on in my book wondering what light it might shed on the mayhem taking place in London and discovered that Paloma, the 12 year-old genius, blamed a lack of culture.

“…maybe the greatest anger and frustration come not from unemployment or poverty or the lack of a future but from the feeling that you have no culture, because you’ve been torn between cultures, between incompatible symbols. How can you exist if you don’t know where you are? What  do you do if your culture will always be that of a Thai fishing village and of Parisian grands bourgeois at the same time? Or if you’re the son of immigrants but also the citizen of an old, conservative nation? So you burn cars, because when you have no culture, you’re no longer a civilized animal, you’re a wild beast. And a wild beast burns and kills and pillages.”

Could the August riots in London be summed up as the work of a group of youth lacking in culture and identity? I discussed the idea with a friend that works in journalism and he thought it hit the nail right on the head; it wasn’t a problem of race, religion, creed or colour but more a problem with the children of today being raised in a world of gossip magazines, computer games and reality TV shows; where people who have actually accomplished a grand sum of nothing, other than earning the title of Z-list celebrity, are nevertheless granted fame, fortune and riches. Why shouldn’t these people think the same was owed them? Who do these children identify with?  The people they see on TV and in magazines that populate their world. All of those destroying their communities were British, but what does being British mean to them? I’m sure most of them wouldn’t know.

As the arrests were made and sentences served to those that had been involved in the riots it transpired it wasn’t just youth that were involved but adults that taught in primary schools too.  Nor was it simply an uneducated strata of society as there were graduates from Britain’s top universities that were caught on camera hurling bricks through police car windows. Nor was it uniquely related to income in that some of those involved come from extensively wealthy backgrounds. Could a lack of culture be the sole unifying factor amongst them all?

Once again I found the book I was reading may not have given me all the answers but it certainly gave me plenty of food for thought. I think it will take many months before anyone can really say what went on in London in early August; from what source was the madness borne; it may never be clear. Maybe the profound thoughts of a 12 year-old character in Barbery’s novel will prove to be accurate. And so back to the book; it certainly wasn’t the feel-good book the Guardian had promised me, but it was a thought provoking journey into the minds of two very different yet very profound and intellectual minds. Barbery herself is clearly an author who is not only comfortable in her own upper intellectual strata; but also possesses a cunning which means she can make these thoughts and ideas palatable to the general public.  Would it be too idealistic or naive to imagine if Barbery started writing for some of those gossip magazine the British populace so loved to devour that we might be one step closer  to ensuring the London riots were an act never to be repeated again?



Today, on my planet, I would most like to visit the place where the wild things are.