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146. Booklyn, New York!

It has been a long time since this was anything like a weekly blog, and even monthly went out the window a while ago, but starting from next week, I hope to change all that.

Writing my book took up most of 2015, and after it was published earlier this year studying the complete history of New York (and the USA) in order to start work shortly as a tour guide took up the rest of my time. Essentially, this blog has been book-blocked by the likes of this 1,300page monster:

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But I finally finished it last night, and to celebrate (along with a glass of whiskey), I am getting back into the blogging business, (different from any other kind of business in that I don’t actually make any money from it. Although someone once sent me a proof copy of their new book, which was nice).

This entry is also to tell you one of the many, many things I love about living in Brooklyn: people often leave unwanted books on the pavement, (or ‘sidewalk,’ as I’m now legally obliged to call it).

In ones or twos or a dozen, free-range or in cardboard boxes, and not (always) nonsense books: I’ve picked up a couple of Nobel Prize winners and some classics literally on the corner outside my apartment. Wednesday appears to be a particularly good day for stoop-surfing for books, apparently.

Why do people do this? I have no idea. But, obviously, I’m not complaining…

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Image courtesy of Diamond Valley College

 
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Posted by on August 18, 2016 in BOOKS

 

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142. Why on Hay…

142. Why on Hay…
May 2015 saw me return to my favourite book-hunting reserve, the incredible Hay-on-Wye literature festival, (or, as one comedian present put it, book festival. When challenged that it was actually a literature festival, he asked: “What’s the difference?!” No response was forthcoming…)
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Hay is possibly the largest festival of its kind in the world, and the place I fly to from anywhere in the world to spend two weeks in May any year which doesn’t contain a World Cup.
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I returned to my role as a smiling, ticket-ripping, joke-cracking, child-entertaining, direction-giving, little-sleeping, yellow-jacketed volunteer, and this year I did it whilst camping in a nearby field, to save money on the scarce accommodation in this tiny Welsh village. I have barely camped since I was an 11-year-old boy scout, and was amazed at the new-fangled tents they have invented which turn from the size of a plate into a rain-proof cocoon with the flick of a wrist: it always took us Boy Scouts three hours, several broken tent poles (stop snickering at the back…), and the tents rarely lasted the night. Aaaaahh, technology…
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Anyway, enough reminiscing! This is about BOOKS, and this year’s festival saw me take in 56 events from my privileged position, (from authors to comedians, from actors to musicians from around the world), save hundreds of pounds in entrance fees, and then spend most of those saved pounds in the festival bookshop, (where my bill was surprisingly under £200, thanks to both a propensity for paperbacks this year, and a staff discount).
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2015 was a year of anniversaries, and we were treated to talks on Wellington’s victory over Napoleon at Waterloo (200 years ago this year); the Battle of Agincourt, (a six-century old confrontation between Britain and France which gave us Shakespeare’s ‘band of brothers’ and the famous British V-sign); and a guest appearance by one of the most important pieces of paper in world history, the eight-hundred-year-old Magna Carta, which restricted the powers of British Kings and was admired and adapted around the world, from France to the US Constitution.
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Old favourites are starting to become slightly too regular at Hay, (I was barely shaking when I met Stephen Fry again this year, and I’m starting to nod to journalist and book-machine Jon Ronson as if we’re old friends…although I’m pretty sure he is wondering why some strange guy keeps nodding at him), and the early days were just as much about the special events than the authors.
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Jude Law joining a host of actors to read from Unbound’s wonderful ‘Letters of Note‘ was a highlight, and I finally got to meet poet and comedian extraordinaire Tim Key, (aka Alan Partridge’s new sidekick), at a surreal last-minute comedy event which left the audience partly amused and mainly bemused).
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However, towards the end of the week came a day which could have been arranged just for me: after meeting Kazuo Ishiguro the day before, I had the joy of seeing two events each by two of my favourite authors, the ever-wonderful Neil Gaiman, (whom I later saw whilst invited briefly backstage to the Green Room and used my entire life-supply of willpower to not hassle: seriously, if you want to ask me to do anything, now is the time, I have zero willpower left), and my new Man Crush, David Mitchell.
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As if this wasn’t enough, Neil had brought along his heavily talented and equally heavily pregnant wife, Amanda Palmer, who was promoting her new book on ‘The Art Of Giving.‘ Her session featured several ukulele songs which actually brought me to tears not once but twice, first for its sadness, and in the very next song for its sheer joy.
(I almost cried again when I discovered after the talk that, not only was I sitting behind Mr.Gaiman, I had failed to realise that he was sitting next to Pink Floyd frontman David Gilmour. Mainly because I didn’t know what he looked like).
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Promoting his new book ‘The Bone Clocks,’ David Mitchell gave a fascinating talk in the face of a less-than probing interview, eyes lighting up as he gave the most stirring description of the beauty of language I have ever heard from a writer. His evening event, a midnight reading of an as-yet-unpublished ghost story, (now very much published, ‘Slade House‘), was so late that it gave me and some fellow volunteers (and fans) the chance to monopolise him at the after-event signing, (as we were the only ones who hung around for it).
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We got to reminisce about life in Japan, and my new friend Hannah caused such jealousy with the dedication he had written in her book that we invented a new sport: Competitive Signing, (much approved of by his agent), which saw me buying extra copies which the incredibly affable author was happy to inventively deface for me.
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Take that, Hannah, with your one-line dedication…
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From popular philosophy to sports psychology, ‘young adult‘ fiction to Nobel Prize-winning economics, yet again Hay gave me a reason to lie awake in a freezing field at 4am and to take all the abuse an entitled retired soldier can throw at me for allowing another line to enter a venue thirty seconds before his.
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And, of course, I will be back in 2016…
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Some things I learned, some quotes I heard, and some ideas I wrote down for you at this year’s Festival:
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British National Treasure, new hipster-beard-wearer and philosopher AC Grayling‘s advice for being a good teacher: “Nothing beats the combo of ignorance and enthusiasm!”
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80 people own the same wealth as half of the world, and 1% of the population will own half of the world’s wealth by 2016.
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Classic British girls’ magazine ‘Jackie’ was named after the hugely successful kids’ author Jacqueline Wilson, who was the youngest contributor to it when it was founded.
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Colm Toibín’s stunning short story ‘Mary‘ on the Virgin after the death of her son was originally a play, but when it ended after a few weeks he wanted it to be more permanent.
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Kazuo Ishiguro used to believe that authors peaked in their mid 40’s, the literature equivalent of a football player dropping back to midfield, putting their foot on the ball and pointing a lot. Now he’s older, though, he’s not sure he agrees with the thesis…
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An unforgettable line from Jude Law, during a reading of the war-time letters of lovers from ‘My Dear Bessie‘:  “Ooooooh, I wish I were a brassiere…”
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Author, comedian and political genius Sandy Toksvig’s father used to refer to literary editing as ‘filleting’!
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Toksvig again on the democratic origins of the USA, the Mayflower Compact, signed in 1620  by 41 men…on a boat of 110 people!!
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One more reminiscence from Sandy who informed an infatuated audience of 1,700 people that when at boarding school in Guildford, Surrey, students were allowed to go to the High Street everySaturday…but only to the left-hand side. No further details were provided…
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Rabbi Jonathan Sacks postulated that in Britain, we have removed nationalism as a relevant, acceptable sentiment since the wars, but not replaced it with anything, and hence religion has filled the vacuum. Who has managed to create a valid, modern British patriotism, he asks? Danny Boyle at the Olympic opening ceremony.
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In an early-morning, two-hour lecture on ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ I learned that the lovers share a sonnet in the scene when they first kiss: an alternating dance of lines entwining in poetry their sentiments, ending:
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Juliet: Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.
Romeo: Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take…
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Alice in Wonderland,’ one of my all-time favourites, was revealed to be a story shot through with one of the obsessions of the Victorian times: classifications. “What are you?” Alice is asked so often.
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The same talk yielded this wonderful quote: “They kept a family newspaper, as so many Victorian children did…”
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Cedric Vilani, a real-life French version of Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka, informed his audience that acfordin tot he Wall Street Journal, in both 2009 and 2014 he worked in the number one job field in the world: mathematician.
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Neil Gaiman, promoting his gorgeous Sleeping Beauty sequel ‘The Sleeper And The Spindle,’ illustrated by Chris Riddell, brought the shocking news that not only was Cinderella originally a Chinese tale, (who else cared so much about foot size, as he points out?), it was only when it was imported to France that the original fur slipper, (made of ‘vair’), may have become glass (or ‘verre’).
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Resident comedian Marcus Brigstocke won my award for funniest and simultaneously most offensive comment of the Festival when he announced that “…Australia is just South Africa where the white people won… “
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Former Scottish leader Alex Salmond seemed relieved to be out of politics and to announce with brutal honesty, in response to a question of why British PM David Cameron gave in to so many of his referendum demands: “He’s no very bright… “
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(I also learned from this last day talk that in a referendum it is essential to be on the yes side:  people respond instinctively toto positivity, apparently. Although not quite enough to win Scotland independence.)
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Finally, one of my all-time favourite trivia facts was revealed by the clever elves behind BBC’s wonderful game show QI:  Noah’s ark didn’t actually contain two of all animals, but had seven of all clean (i.e. kosher) animals, and just two of the rest.
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If facts like that don’t make you want to join me next year, I am truly astonished that you made it to the end of this blog!
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Posted by on November 1, 2015 in BOOKS

 

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141. Meeting Gonçalo M.Tavares…

141. Meeting Gonçalo M.Tavares…

Dear Diary,

It has been far too long since I wrote, and checking exactly how long, I find that my monthly Books Bought & Read section appears to be over 6 months out of date. That will all change in the coming months, when I: a) have my book finished and can get back to blogging and b) move to New York for the winter with little to do but make soup, and write.

Before that, though, I have just returned from an overnight visit to the glorious, medieval walled village of Óbidos an hour (exactly, by bus) north of Lisbon, and I wanted to tell you about the things I found there: fantastic accommodation, great music, and one of my modern literary heroes.

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I took two days off work as my favourite living Portuguese writer was attending, and it just so happened that a great Mozambican author and the singer of 2014’s Portuguese album of the year were both going to be present on the same day, so I had little choice in the matter. Finding a room free at the best B&B in the entire region, however, was pure luck. Hosts Sharon and John have the cosiest house right by the train tracks complete with patio, swimming pool, the craziest life stories, and the greatest tea-drawer I have ever seen.

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But I wasn’t in town for tea: I was there to attend the first Folio Literature Festival of Óbidos, and to meet Gonçalo M.Tavares. I had bought a ticket to see him in discussion with someone I had never heard of, not expecting to understand much of anything but simply hoping to meet him afterwards and get one of my books signed: in the end I sat through three sessions with him, and understood more than I’d expected to.

First, a packed standing-room-only 60-minute lesson he offered for free in the village hall based (extremely loosely) on Saramago’sBlindness‘; then the talk, on his work in general; and finally a book launch for his latest work, the wonderfully titled ‘The Torcicologologista, Your Excellency.’

Here are the highlights I took from each:

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On ‘Blindness’:

-There are so many billions of images today, we are always anxious, whatever we see, knowing how many more we are missing.

-There is a character in certain Japanese theatre pieces called ‘The Absent,’ who represents someone/something not there, but stands stage front and centre…and is the best paid of all, for being able to make the audience not see what is right in front of them.

-The talk focussed little on literature, instead showing Tavares‘ impressive breadth of interests: everything from John Cage’s infamous 4min 33seconds (of silence); a video of a man pushing a block of ice through the streets until it disappeared; and the fact that an image can become so commonplace as to be invisible, but there is always a new way to see it, exemplified by this stunning scene from master Russian film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky:

The Talk:

-Words have weight, and different weights for different people. The word ‘Lisbon’ will mean different things depending on a person’s experience of the city.

-‘Fuga,’ or ‘escape,’ has been a common thread in literature since the Greeks: we are all fleeing something, as are most of the characters in his works.

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-If we were immortal, we could watch films until we saw a good one. Mortality means that time and choices weigh heavily on us, (similar to the earlier-mentioned feeling of the anxiety of missing out on all of the images around us)

-When you die, it is not the facts, not: ‘What did you do?” which will be important, but: “How much happiness did you put into, and take out of, the world?”

Gonçalo’s definition of the pleasure to be derived from something as insignificant as playing football: “To do something ‘inútil‘ (useless) and to take pleasure in it is to undertake a revolutionary act”!

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The Book Launch:

Gonçalo’s books are all different, but with this newest one the humour is front and centre: humour is an integral part of playing with language, something which he clearly loves to do.

-He likes the ‘weight’ of words, especially Biblical words, old words: ‘pedra‘ (stone) is intrinsically more appealing than ‘computador‘ (computer). He prefers “words with experience.”

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As you can see, I got to meet the man himself, and am well on my way to completing my collection of his complete works, two of them now signed and ready to be encased in glass if and when, as the great Saramago himself predicted, Mr.Tavares joins him as the second ever Portuguese Nobel Laureate in literature.

I later got to meet Mia Couto, a wonderful Mozambican author whose books I have been reading here and there, and who took the time to confirm for me a rumour I’d heard and which may be my new favourite anecdote on my tours: Mia was once invited to talk at a literary conference for black African women…despite only being African, and in no way either black or a woman!

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As if all that wasn’t enough, the evening was rounded off with a fado performance from Gisela João, one of the hottest modern performers of this most traditional of Portuguese musical styles.

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I leave you with one of the songs she played to end the evening, and wish you sweet Portuguese dreams.

 
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Posted by on October 24, 2015 in BOOKS

 

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