Tuesday, November 05, 2013

A moment of inattention

Yesterday on the Place de la Victoire at 4.15 pm. The sky threatens more rain. A moment's hesitation: walk home or take the tram? Walk. A few seconds later a scream. A young woman's scream. I turn back. The tram is stopped. A man runs towards it. I gawp from a distance, knowing that something dreadful has happened. The contrast between that knowledge and the sight of passengers streaming from the now-open doors of the tram, swarming across the tracks, already finding alternative ways to their destinations. A few crouch down to look underneath the tram. I start out again for home, eavesdropping on a woman's telephone conversation. "J'ai juste vu ses jambes. Elle était coincée sous le tram." The sound of sirens coming from several directions.
The young woman was killed. How could it have been otherwise?
I'm writing this down here simply because I want to let go of the memory of it.

Monday, March 11, 2013

In Andalucia

I'm in Andalucia for a week with the kids and my mum (long story, don't ask). Mostly we've been eating olive oil with added ingredients. And drinking manzanilla. Here are some things I've seen so far.
Resolutely monolingual guides smoking in the foyer of an historic monument.
My children trying to flee a tiny, harmless dog on an enormous beach
A man with long, dirty white hair sing snatches of flamenco.
A waitress catch up with us ten minutes after we'd left her restaurant to tell us we hadn't paid. We had.
Several cartoon-like baby girls festooned in pale pink flounces.
The brown waves of the Guadalquivir.
Sheep with long, dirty white fleece being herded by a man on a horse-cum-donkey.
These oranges.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Basque escapade

Towards the end of the Christmas holiday, we spent a few days with friends in the Basque Country. The weather was mild and we managed a visit to the Musée Basque in Bayonne, a couple of hikes in the rolling hills around Biriatou and Espelette as well as a quick boat trip into Spain. It's just as lovely a part of the world in winter as in summer. Here's a quick slideshow of some of the pictures I took.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Back and Forward


On the first of January, I walked across the new bridge that spans the Garonne along with the children, their friend and 40 000 other Bordelais. The contrast between the ultra modern vertical lift bridge and the more central Napoleonic "pont de pierre" is striking — the new bridge is unfamiliar, sleek and shiny, the old bridge ancient and honey-coloured. Another nice contrast is provided between the bridge's official name, "le pont Chaban Delmas" for the long-time mayor of Bordeaux, and the name most people seem to be using "le pont Baba" from Bacalan-Bastide, the two quartiers that it links.
     I'm sure I could extract some significance from this ritual crossing: something along the lines of making new connections; the new link between left and right bank and their social make-ups; a city coming together to celebrate the river that runs through it, the passage from one year into the next, the old one so much water under the, er, bridge.  To be honest, however, people were subdued, there was no sense of symbolism or celebration and for most it was manifestly simply pleasurable to be out in the fresh air after such a short night. But then most of weren't actually going anywhere, we were crossing over just to come straight back again.


(This is one of those panorama photos from my iPhone, the bridge isn't really bent in the middle)

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Happy New Year


Bye bye 2012. Fun was had.
I seem to have messed up that photo mosaic since the first two photographs are also the last two. Never mind. I also notice that my favourite photographs are mostly taken during the holidays and at weekends; not so surprising perhaps since the highlights of the year are rarely the humdrum moments spent at work, cooking dinner, folding laundry, catching the tram, looking for lost belongings, shopping. I wish you all a very happy new year of highlights thrown into perspective by lowlights.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Reading Part 3


After that short interlude for Christmas festivities and the eating of wild boar in the Dordogne, here is the final part of my reading list. I hope that you are all having seasonal fun and that you were given lots of excellent reading matter.

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and DisappearedJonasson, Jonas
Deadpan Scandinavian comedy about a very old man and a band of criminal misfits.

Landfall, Helen Gordon
I bought this book as a present for my mum, read the first chapter and was hooked. It's about a young woman's return to her parents suburban home and the accompanying accidie.
Around her the quiet mysteries of suburbia were in the perfumed thickness of the silently lighted houses, the thickness of so many private lives together and separated. The mysteries were in the almost-countryside. They were in the dark alleyways, quiet railway bridges, empty cul-de-sacs, chained, railed parks at night-time. 
Scott-land: The Man Who Invented a Nation, Stuart Kelly
Everything you ever wanted to know about Walter Scott in short, snappy chapters.

Drown, Junot Diaz
Short stories about young Dominican men. 

Garnethill and Sanctum by Denise Mina. I met Denise Mina at a conference in Spain last October and discovered that she had lots of interesting things to say about women writers (and readers), the Scottish school of detective writing dubbed tartan noir, academia and popular literature. She's an excellent writer too.
The light in Scotland is low in the autumn, gracing even the most mundane objects with dramatic chiaroscuro.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott

Great book. Lamott has a very distinctive voice. Here's a funny quote:
then went to the library and said, “Do you have any other really funny books about cancer?” And they looked at me like, Yeah, they’re right over there by the comedies about spina bifida.
And here's a random quote I agree with completely, totally and utterly:
I have girlfriends who had their babies through natural childbirth—no drugs, no spinal, no nothing—and they secretly think they had a more honest birth experience, but I think the epidural is right up there with the most important breakthroughs in the West, like the Salk polio vaccine and salad bars in supermarkets.
Mortality, Christopher Hitchens
Great writing; melancholy subject. 

Sweet Tooth, Ian McEwan
This was an enjoyable novel but I think I may have read it too quickly because I can't remember much about it beyond: attractive woman, MI5, writer husband, duplicity, lots of wine drinking.

All Made Up, Janice Galloway
This is a fabulous, fabulous memoir. I grew up in a similar place at a similar time as Janice Galloway but in very different circumstances. Despite the ambiguous title, it all rang true.

Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace, D. T. Max
The first biography of David Foster Wallace. It's very factual and somehow I liked the writer less after I'd finished it.

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, Geoff Dyer
Two books in one - both about crumbling, watery cities. Excellent.

Mother Country, Jeremy Harding
I came to this memoir via Harding's writing for the LRB (he occasionally writes about Bordeaux where he has lived). It's the sensitive story of his search for his birth mother and the revelation of his adoptive mother's past.

The Moment, Douglas Kennedy
Absorbing novel set in Berlin when the wall was still standing. 

Death in Bordeaux, Allan Massie
I'd never read anything by Massie before (I don't particularly like his conservative brand of Scotsman journalism), but the title of this novel was too close to home to resist. It's a competent detective novel set in wartime Bordeaux; apparently the first of a planned trilogy. You'd think the publisher would have people able to use Google maps to check the street names though.

Emma Hearts LA, Keris Stainton
I followed Keris and Stella on their adventures in LA as Keris did the research for this YA novel. It's a fun book and I'll be recommending it to E just as soon as she's old enough to read about boys and romance (ie. when she's 20)(kidding).

Visiting Mrs. Nabokov: And Other Excursions, Martin Amis
This is a 1994 book and I'm not sure how I came to be reading it in 2012. Amis is easy and amusing. I guffawed at his descriptions of Elton John "looking more like Big Ears than usual", wearing a "Billy Bunter suit", then a "Humpty Dumpty outfit". He's good on Updike's upfrontness too:
Yet the case of Updike is unquestionably extreme. The textural contrast between your first and second wife’s pubic hair, for instance, is something that most writers feel their readers can get along without.
The Stranger's Child, Alan Hollinghurst
An erudite novel. This passage could serve as an epigraph to this series of posts on books:
Sometimes a book persisted as a coloured shadow at the edge of sight, as vague and unrecapturable as something seen in the rain from a passing vehicle: looked at directly it vanished altogether. Sometimes there were atmospheres, even the rudiments of a scene: a man in an office looking over Regent’s Park, rain in the streets outside – a little blurred etching of a situation she would never, could never, trace back to its source in a novel she had read some time, she thought, in the past thirty years.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Reading Part 2



Born to Run, Christopher McDougall
I read this while I was learning to run last year, before I wimped out because that pesky plantar fasciitis turned my heels into spurs of fire. Unfortunately the man it is about has died (while out on a run) since I read it.

You and I know how good running feels because we’ve made a habit of it. But lose the habit, and the loudest voice in your ear is your ancient survival instinct urging you to relax.
Silver: Return to Treasure Island, Andrew Motion
A follow-up to Treasure Island starring Jim Hawkins' daughter. Not bad. My favourite line:
I found a low-ceilinged, smoke-filled den where everything was brown as a kipper: chairs, tables, floorboards, hands and faces.
The Stranger in the Mirror, Jane Shilling
This is a book about realising that you are middle-aged. Did I tell you that I turned 50 this year? Traumatic doesn't cover it.
Unlike successful pregnancies which, in their neatly contained drama of three trimesters, essentially resemble one another, the narratives of menopause are diffuse and hard to categorise. Each middle-aged woman is menopausal in her own way.
The Professor and Other Writings, Terry Castle
I loved this book. The essays are full of quotable lines but I'll limit myself to these two on this somewhat familiar realisation:
I am chastened, subdued. Despite fifty years of walking and talking on my own, I realize I’m already starting to devolve, to morph back, as if inexorably, into that hungry, unkempt, much-loathed thing: My Mother’s Daughter.
And during a shopping trip to museum shops in Santa Fe with the aforementioned mother, the realisation that they share: 
the lower-middle-class family mania—seemingly inbred in both of us—for talking endlessly and anxiously about what things are “nice” or “not nice.
The Missing Shade Of Blue, Jennie Erdal
A friend recommended this book, and it turns out that he has a cameo part in it. It's another one set in Edinburgh and the story intertwines the themes of translation, Scottish academia, David Hume, buddhism and failing relationships. What's not to like?

Sightlines, Kathleen Jamie
This is a book about nature and landscapes. It is wonderful.
For days after I felt different, looser of limb, thrilled because the world had thrown me a gift and said, ‘Catch!
The Lost Child, an Mother's Story
Julie Myerson. A real Guardian reader's book. You may remember hearing about the middle-class parents who threw their 17-year-old son out of the house because of his unacceptable behaviour (and all the while his mum was writing a book about it).  I don't think I've ever read anything else that made me think "this is only one half of the story" more often. There's a historical side story too but it's skippable.

Almost French: Love and a New Life in ParisSarah Turnbull. 
I'm a sucker for all of these "new life in France" books and this one is better than most.

Working the Room, Geoff Dyer
Geoff Dyer can do no wrong, this is a fabulous book of essays (although he is a bit boasty about his beautiful wife.)

The Out of Office Girl, Nicola Doherty. 
Not being young, to put it bluntly, I'm pretty sure that I am not part of the target demographic for this novel, but I enjoyed it all the same. Who wouldn't  enjoy a good love story set in Italy? (Thank you Nicola for sending it to me and by the way, I think it would make a great film.)

On Writing, Stephen King. 
Really more about Stephen King and his modest beginnings than writing, and all the more enjoyable for it.

How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing, Paul J. Silvia. 
I can sum this book up in one sentence for you and save you the money: write for two solid hours every single day.

Treasure Island!!!, Sara Levine. 
This is a first novel about a young woman who becomes obsessed with the Treasure Island, notably adopting a parrot. She is very difficult to like but there are some very funny passages. 

La cité des jarres, Arnaldur Indridason. 
P. is a big fan of Icelandic crime fiction. Me not so much.

Imperial Bedrooms, Bret Easton Ellis. 
Unpleasant people in unpleasant surroundings.

To be continued.

What I've been reading

Picking up my reading list where I left off a year and a half ago.




Waiting for Sunrise, William Boyd
You always get good value for money from William Boyd: a good story and a new theme every time. I think I'd have got more out of this one if I'd known a bit more about the history of psychoanalysis.

The Lantern Bearers, Ronald Frame. 
This is a novel based around the essay of the same title by Robert Louis Stevenson.  I found it difficult to get into the skin of the teenage boy protagonist, but enjoyed the evocation of 1960s South-West Scotland. 

The Distant Echo, Val McDermid. 
I had never read anything by Val McDermid and this was a good introduction. Small town Scotland at its best and worst.

Lonely Planet By the Seat of My Pants (Anthology), Don George (ed)
Stories of travel mishaps; sometimes a bit like being submitted to someone's holiday slideshow with "witty" titles.

The Testament of Gideon Mack, James Robertson.

An ambitious and enjoyable book.
'But I do like Scotland. I like the miserable weather. I like the miserable people, the fatalism, the negativity, the violence that’s always just below the surface. And I like the way you deal with religion. One century you’re up to your lugs in it, the next you’re trading the whole apparatus in for Sunday superstores. Praise the Lord and thrash the bairns. Ask and ye shall have the door shut in your face. Blessed are they that shop on the Sabbath, for they shall get the best bargains. Oh, yes, this is a very fine country.’
La carte de Guido : Un pélerinage européen, Kenneth White. Essays of travel with companions living and literary. White gets less and less challenging as he gets older and that may be a good thing.

Starter for Ten, Dave Nicholls. Laugh out loud funny. I liked this passage:
Why is it that the posher people are, the colder their house? And it's not just the cold, it's the dirt too: the dog hair, the dusty books, the muddy boots, the fridges that reek of sour milk and putrescent cheese and decaying kitchen-garden vegetables.
The Confession, John Grisham. I'm not a big Grisham fan and this book-length plea against the death penalty didn't convert me (to Grisham, obviously, anti-death-penaltyism already had me).

Killing Floor and Worth Dying For,  Lee Child. Both Jack Reacher novels. By the time I got to the end of the second one I thought that Jack was just far too pleased with himself and his mad military skills.

Dragon Bones: Two Years Beneath the Skin of a Himalayan Kingdom, Murray Gunn. A badly written book about Bhutan and how being a house-husband in a foreign land can make you a little whiny.

One Day, David Nicholls. You've all read this one right? Mushy.

And the Land Lay Still, James Robertson. A fabulous book -  large cast of characters reflecting many facets of Scottish life (and nationalism) over the past fifty years or so.

At Home: A short history of private life, Bill Bryson. 
How does Bryson produce these encyclopaedic books? Does he have a bright idea for a framing concept then appoint an army of researchers who present him with amusing nuggets that he then weaves together? And why do I forget all of those fascinating facts as soon as I put the book down?

Mary Ann in Autumn, Armistead Maupin. 
I loved the Tales of the City novels when I first read them  - now the characters are much older, and so am I. Perhaps we're a little bored with each other.

To be continued ...

Sunday, July 15, 2012

More English as she is spoke

While we are on the subject of real-life grammar that doesn't follow the rules, here's something else I've been noticing recently: the use of the present perfect in narratives about past events. Now the present perfect is a notoriously difficult tense for French speakers to master and I usually stick to some very simple rules when I'm teaching it. Basically, I tell my students that the present perfect is used to talk about the unfinished past (I have lived in Bordeaux for a long time); something that happened in the past but has an effect now (I have put on several kilos); and to talk about experience (I have never been to Kefalonica). [I'm being deliberately unimaginative. I've often thought that the example sentences I come up with spontaneously in the classroom could be used as a sort of free-association psychological test with very disturbing and perhaps incriminating results]. 
However, I know that many Americans don't use the present perfect in instances where we Brits would expect it; and now it appears that Brits are using it to recount stories that I would normally expect be told using the simple past. So that instead of: 
"He was walking down the road with his pitbull, and suddenly a puma appeared from nowhere and mauled them both."
you might hear:
"He's been walking down the road with his pitbull and suddenly a puma has appeared and it's mauled them both." 
     I think this might be more of a North of England thing, but I'm not sure and I also suspect that it is a way of making the narrative more immediate and real — much like the use of the present tense to recount past events. But I'm not sure. Any ideas? Any whacky example sentences for us to judge you by?

PS. Oh, and if by any chance you're one of my students, sorry I fibbed about those rules being hard and fast but I'll still take off marks if you write a a narrative essay using the present perfect.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Why do they do that?



I'm just back from a flying visit to Scotland made possible by a cheap Easyjet return flight. I'm not all that often in contact with English as she is spoke in natural environments and sometimes I'm struck by how the grammar I teach my students is much more prescriptive than authentic usage (teaching the distinction between less and few, for example, seems to me to be a waste of time since in real life the majority of English speakers don't care/know about the difference). Take this announcement made on the way out by a member of the cabin staff:
We do have a selection of duty-free goods available for sale on today's flight. Bla bla bla. We do have several fragrances from the Givenchy line and we do also have the new Lancôme mascara. Please don't hesitate to stop us as we do come through the cabin with the trolley.
Okay, I'm quoting from memory and I can't remember what the exact products were, but there really were all of those extraneous "do"s. What is that all about? I teach my students that "do" is only used in questions, negative statements and for emphasis. Yet, if any of my students had been on that flight they would instantly have observed that in the wild, "do" is used in affirmative sentences that require no emphasis.  I wish I had recorded the announcement on the flight over, and I actually got my iPhone out ready to do so on the way back but there was none. I really don't know what's going on: the speaker was a native speaker of English and appeared to be ad-libbing from a no-doubt memorized script. Perhaps the "do"s are supposed to make the announcement more formal, or more exciting? Any explanations gratefully received.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Commonplace notes

I"ve been tidying up my office-space this week and have uncovered numerous notebooks half-filled with notes from conferences, classes and meetings; shopping lists; to-do lists; words I intended to look up later; quotes of uncertain provenance, as well as the frankly undecipherable. Here are a few choice pickings.
  • "He is Edinburgh's knight in a shiny donkey jacket." [Hero of a detective novel, I think.]
  • "The future is nothing; but the past is myself, my own history, the seed of my present thoughts, the mould of my present disposition." (Robert Louis Stevenson)
  • "Il y a plus affaire à interpréter les interprétations qu'à interpréter les choses, et plus de livres sur les livres que sur autre sujet : nous ne faisons que nous entregloser." (Michel de Montaigne) 
  • fissiparous 
  • Blackbird / Dragonfly / Rose Branch. But also explicit objects. [something to do with Jacobitism. But what?]
  • thaumaturgy  
  • Learned that an Anglican priest took part in the beginning of the Basque movement. Can't remember name but initials are W. W. [after visiting the Basque museum in Bayonne] 
  • Me llamo Lesley. Soy de origen escocesa. Vivo en Burdeos. [Notes from Spanish lessons]  
  • nested wet clutch = embrayage à bain d'huile encastré [Notes taken during an interpreting job] 
  • Passive pushing v. active pushing?  [Notes taken during presentation by student midwives] 
  • Novels are often "loose, baggy monsters" dixit Henry James. 
All right, that's enough. I'm off to do some shredding.