Saturday, November 29, 2008

If you don't ask, you don't get ....

One of my many pleasures of 2008 has listening again and again to mixed CDs made by friends (at least three of whom I know sometimes check in on this blog). They've introduced me to new music, reminded me of old, and have been instrumental in denting my bank balance as I've gone out and bought other CDs and downloads as a result.

BUT, being completely shameless, I WANT MORE.

This January, I'm going back to the wonderful, magical, everyone-should-go VCCA for a residency and I want to take good music with me. There are two gaps on my ipod that need filling ...

a) Alice and I are driving to Virginia from New York just before New Year, so we're looking for Writerly Road Trip music, or

b) Songs I can write with when I'm in my little cabin in the woods and hopefully not being as homesick as last time but quite probably so.

And in return for your CD, I will let you have first-read of the piece I write along to your musical soundtrack. Fair deal?

Friday, November 28, 2008

This chocolate has my name on it it...

Well, except it doesn't, of course, because I'm actually called Sarah but you know what I mean. Oh fuck it, where's that chocolate....

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Growing geese

I've been asked more than a few times why I'm doing a garden history course. For me, the answer is simple - it's not just because I love gardens, or because it's an interest I shared with my mother, or I think gardens are a way to help us understand wider social and economic themes. No, it's because of all the stories and the characters I can find and enjoy.

Yesterday's class threw up a great example of this. We were looking at Gerard's 16th century Herbal.

One of the plants recorded is a tree that had branches that opened to reveal .... er .... geese.

Gerard wrote: "...there is a small llande in Lancashire called the Pile of Foulders...whereon is found a certaine spume or froth, that in time breedeth unto certaine shels." These mussel-shaped shells would grow until they split open, revealing "the legs of the Birde hanging out...til at length it is all come foorth." The bird would hang by its bill until fully mature, then would drop into the sea "where it gathereth feathers, and groweth to a foule, bigger than a Mallard, and lesser than a Goose."

The myth had apparently been uncovered as a falsehood many years before, but our tutor said that one of the arguments as to why it might have remained in Gerard's herbal is that if geese were thought to be from a plant, then they could be eaten on days when meat shouldn't be consumed.

So there you are. If you hate brussell sprouts you can enjoy your Christmas goose instead, after all one vegetable is just the same as another vegetable!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Putting it all in proportion

OK, OK, all this fuss I'm making over where I fit into memories and then I read this* ... it's a statement by Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and Professor of cosmology and astrophysics at Cambridge when asked what single idea he wished was more generally understood:

I'd like to widen people's awareness of the tremendous timespan lying ahead - for our planet and for life itself. Most educated people are aware that we're the outcome of nearly 4bn years of Darwinian selection, but many tend to think that humans are somehow the culmination. Our sun, however, is less than halfway through its lifespan. It will not be humans who watch the sun's demise, 6bn years from now. Any creatures that then exist will be as different from us as we are from bacteria or amoebae.

I'm strangely comforted. And surprised because, yes, of course this is true. We really aren't that important.

*Also in Julian Barnes's Nothing to Be Frightened Of. I've been a bit obsessed by this book recently, to the extent that when I looked at my blog the other day to answer a comment, I clicked off thinking I'd got on to Julian Barnes's blog by mistake. It was the fact I put up a larger picture of him than me, I suppose. Mind you, at least I'm not like the ever-watchful Debi Alper who flagged her own blog up for objectionable content by mistake. Thats still making me laugh.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


Reasons why the tube isn't quite so bad ... there's a man in Japan who has just been arrested for releasing hundreds of live worms near female passengers.


"I wanted to see women get scared and shake their legs," police quoted 35-year-old Manabu Mizuta as saying.

I'm exaggerating now so you'll get to know me faster.
Amy Hempel

Still remembering...

I'm reading Julian Barnes's book, Nothing to be Frightened Of at the moment. It's a mostly fascinating meditation about death and dying, and I'm realising how little I think of death compared to, obviously, some people. BUT I'm also interested in what Julian Barnes writes about memories.

I went to an academic conference about autobiographical writing a couple of years ago, and heard a brother and sister presenting their life story. They compared the process of coming up with shared memories to archeology. I like this image, making completely sure of understanding one layer of memory before delving down into the next. And also not taking anything for granted. Evidence is needed for every memory.

IN this book, Barnes compares his childhood memories often with his brother, only to find - surprise surprise - they have different takes on the same incident. Often the brother will have forgotten something that supposedly happened to him, an incident Barnes claims total recall of, but then Barnes is the younger brother. I remember things about my siblings too that they have forgotten simply because to be the youngest is to often take the role of watcher. Absorbing information is our special power. My sister and two brothers were like wondrous beings to me, doing things that, maybe one day, way in the future, I might get to do too. So of course I watched closely. And of course they saw it differently. In their view I got to do everything far too early, and far too easily. Or that's how I remember their complaints, anyway!

Here are some of Barnes's thoughts about memory:

Memory in childhood - at least, as I remember it - is rarely a problem. Not just because of the briefer time span between the event and its evocation, but because of the nature of memories then: they appear to the young brain as exact simulacra, rather than processed and coloured-in versions of what has happened. Adulthood brings approximation, fluidity and doubt: and we keep the doubt at bay by retelling that familiar story, with pauses and periods of a calculated effect, pretending that the solidity of narrative is a proof of truth. But the child or adolescent rarely doubts the veracity and precision of the bright, lucid chunks of the past it possesses and celebrates. So at that age it seems logical to think of our memories as sorted in some left-luggage office, available for retrieval when we produce the necessary ticket ... We know to expect the seeming paradox of old age, when we shall start to recall lost segments of our early years, which then become more vivid than our middle ones. But this only seems to confirm that it's all really up there, in some orderly cerebral storage unit, whether we can access it or not.

Later though, Barnes talks about the differences between characters in fiction and real life people. No real person, he says, can be as whole as a fictional character simply because we do not see them from all sides, inside and outside. "In novels (my own included)," writes Barnes, "human beings are represented as having an essentially graspable, if sometimes slippery, character and motivations which are identifiable - to us, if not necessarly to them."

I wonder if this is also part of why our childhood memories are so clear. We see our childhood selves as fictional characters, made partly through retelling our memories, and also looking at photographs - 'ah, that's who I WAS', and also through being told stories too. So what's left in the 'storage unit' hasn't been forgotten but taken down and polished often over the years. Whereas the middle aged us just blunders on, not really wanting to clarify the line between middle age and old age because the end of that narrative takes us somewhere we don't want to go, unlike that between childhood and adulthood.

And there's something else Barnes writes that makes me wonder too about why our memories are so strong of childhood, a time, after all, for creating who we WILL be. He says:

Memory is identity. I have believed this since - oh, since I can remember. You are what you have done; what you have done is in your memory; what you remember defines who you are; when you forget your life you cease to be, even before your death.

I'm not sure why I find this so frightening. I have never forgotten reading a French neurological study of a woman identified only as 'Madame I'. She'd lost her memory and had to keep touching herself continually to prove she still existed.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Keeping memories

There's a paragraph in Scientific American Mind I can't stop thinking about. It's an interview with the neuroscientist Eric Kangel and the last question is: If you were granted one wish, what would it be?
And the answer:

I would like to know how some memories persist forever. How do you remember your first love experience for the rest of your life. Neuroscientist Kausik Si, then a postdoctoral fellow in my lab, and I discovered a protein called CPEB that has the very interesting characteristic of self-perpetuation. That might be a clue to how memory is sustained over long periods. But we don't know for sure yet.

It reminds me of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, one of my favourite films. I'm thinking now of a story about controlling memories. A character pressing his head every time he wants to remember something. The only trouble is, if he gets it wrong, he'll never be able to forget.

Only in England...

I love this sign - somehow I always imagine Mary Poppins as the nanny. Mind you, it was taken in Chelsea so I should think they have nannies just as perfect there, and they don't let the kids climb on rockeries either.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

I love your messages ....

If you haven't already, do take a minute to whizz over to the Your Messages website and have a look at some of the responses that are going up. I think they are really really good, and how Lynne and I are going to pick just one, I just don't know. Luckily she normally agrees with everything I say (hahahahaha)....

Meet our latest addition

So the latest on the bull story. Last Friday, I went to Carlisle to meet my Edinburgh accomplice and we went to see our very own bull. This started last year when we bid at a charity auction for some pedigree bull semen - well, the dinner out for two had gone. Anyway, we're not stupid, we negotiated the birth of the bull as well, and because it was for Cystic Fibrosis, the wonderful Alasdair Houston offered us the chance to come and pick which bull we wanted. This will eventually be sold and all profits will also go to the charity but in the meantime we're calling him ours and are planning to watch him grow up, which is all probably much more more than Alasdair bargained for when he offered the prize to the proper farmers there!

Now the surprising truth is Alison and I don't know much about bulls, apart from how to pose in front of them...

But the bulls we were choosing from are part of the award winning Charalais herd and, let me tell you just in case you ever doubted, they were BEAUTIFUL...

How to choose just one? After five minutes I was seriously contemplating going into cattle breeding...

But luckily we had brought our official advisers with us, who had lists of sensible questions and proper experience...

Also the ability to say a firm NO when I was determined to have one called 'Dracula' because - cue spooky music - that's the book I'm reading at the moment with my book club.

And so meet the handsome Deday. We won't know how he'll turn out for a while but hopefully he'll grow up big and strong and carry on making money for Cystic Fibrosis for many years to come.

We're going back to visit him in three months time so I'll keep you posted. I have to say I've learnt a lot about bulls and breeding over the last few days. Not least NOT to share it all with strangers on trains!

And because we were in Gretna Green, here's a video of the famous starlings just starting to mass. It was just like this. Around five o'clock we could see them coming from all directions and apparently some nights the sky really does turn black.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Paper friends

I have never got over the oddness of loving people on paper and yet knowing I never want to meet them in person. My new stalking object, Hugo Rifkind is like this. I don't know how I know we wouldn't get on, but we wouldn't. Trust me.

Still, I laughed out loud - twice - on the train to Carlisle this weekend as I read his diary column in the Times. The man next to me had already put his newspaper firmly up between us after he'd asked why I was going North and I told him - in less detail than I could have done - about the bull semen. Then a text conversation with Garden Monkey had me giggling too, so in all in all I had a lovely train journey, whereas my poor companion's newspaper trembled away as he wished he had met me on paper only so he could put me down as soon as possible. His destination of Preston must have seemed like a long long way away.

Anyway, here's one of the bits from Hugo Rifkind's diary that had me chuckling...

This is what you might call a generational divide. On the older side we have the vast swaths of the population who don't really know how to work their mobile phones. On the younger we have everybody else, and they have to spend huge swaths of their lives telling the first half how to use their mobile phones, often over the medium of said mobile phones, even though they know that the other half aren't really listening, and are still going to send them a voicemail saying 'hello? Are you there?' on every second day and a text message saying 'HBgUO%?' every third.

Painfully true. Not least because I'm somewhere in the middle as far as technology goes. I feel like a bright young thing every time my dad asks for help with his laptop, but on the other hand, I need a teenager standing close if I am going to watch a DVD these days without crying. We have FOUR remote controls. Give me one good reason I need more than one please, and then I'll stop getting quite so emotionally involved.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Beware the backlash...

Recently I've read several pieces of journalism, blog posts and emails cheering on the end of the 'misery-memoir'. I wonder about this, because, despite the fact that they are so easy to mock, the best-seller shelves in the airport bookshop were still heaving with 'the saddest story you'll read this year' the last time I looked.

Now, I'm not a big fan because I am concerned about the parts of me that find these books curiously addictive. Mostly I flick through in bookshops, looking at the back page blurb and then the end because it's the happy ending I want to read. The triumph over tragedy. But of course you don't get the triumph in these books without the pages and pages of tragedy before. Tragedy that's been expertly marketed.

A small child's face, a teddy bear and the hint of handkerchief seem to be the most popular images for the cover, although knees pay a large part too.

But here I go too.... easy easy to mock.

And that's why I say 'beware the backlash.' Because in dismissing the misery-memoir, many of the writers I've read have been lumping all memoirs into the same category.

As if writing about your own life results in a lesser book somehow than either fiction or biography.

Whereas I find sitting down with a well-crafted memoir such as Vivian Gornick's Fierce Attachments about her relationship with her mother, or The Bromley Boys: The True Story of Supporting the Worst Football Team in Britain by Dave Roberts (now there's a book you should read if you want to know something about pain!) about the most pleasurable reading experience I can have. These are expert books, well crafted and shaped. Often the structure the memoir writer chooses leaves me breathless with admiration because life, as we all know, isn't well shaped at all. Most of us haven't got a clue what's going on. (Well, OK, I'm speaking for myself here.)

In her book, The Situation and the Story - the art of personal narrative, Vivian Gornick writes about how you need to find a 'teller' even for your own story. A part of you, I suppose, that has a distinctive character, but is still engaged with and absorbed into the rest of you. Maureen Lipman described this perfectly on the radio last night when she was talking about the impetus of writing her book, Past Notes. She was telling an anecdote to a group of friends, she said, and watching them laugh, while at the same time thinking about whether this was right because she was also a grieving widow. Should widows make people laugh? It's the watching here that's important - the edge that makes her a successful writer. She's immensely interested in herself, as well as what's going on, and so - most of the time - we get interested too. In fact, most successful memoirs are written by expert watchers - was anyone more closely examined than David Sedaris by David Sedaris, for instance?

In an interview in the new Glimmer Train, Colum McCann discusses the differences between biographical fiction and biography. He says:

Ingmar Bergman said something along the lines that, 'Sometimes I must console myself with the notion that he who tells a lie loves the truth'. In a strange way, you're not talking about the absolute facts of somebody's life, but you're talking more about the texture and feel of somebody's life. ... In Dancer, I wanted to give the feeling that the reader was actually there, on the street with the person.

Now, there's a difference between memoir and biographical fiction but I think the 'texture and feel' is what I'm after in a memoir too. I want to be on the street with the writer, or at least the persona they're using to tell the story. With most misery-memoirs, I never feel I'm in the cellar or the forest - I'm looking in, poking the embers of the misery with a stick to get it to flare up again. And why shouldn't I? It's been packaged for me to do just that. There's a gloss to much of the writing that allows me to feel I'm safely behind glass and therefore don't have to do, feel, anything real.

Which just makes me think, all over again, how wonderful the best memoirs are, particularly when they make us cry real tears.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

On bulls and not trusting writers....

So, this weekend I'm going back to Edinburgh, my almost home. Two exciting events planned, as well as seeing my more than spectacular god-children.

The first is proving harder to explain that I thought. I tried in an email to the normally reliable Garden Monkey. 'Last year I brought some bull semen at an auction,' I wrote, to which s/he suggested that wasn't the best opening line, before offering me a bench book if I did actually dare to try it with strangers. I haven't yet - not even for a book about benches - but if I tell you guys the story, then maybe it will become easier.

So last year, I brought some bull semen at an auction. Along with it I got the loan of a cow and bovine maternity care. So now, on my way up to Edinburgh I'm stopping off at Gretna Green to see my bull (now born). It will look just like one of these - look...

(I'm not sounding peculiar btw, am I? You would let me know.)

And then after lunch with the bull daddy himself I'm hopping back on the train (sans bull which will be sold for charity but I'll take some pics to show you) and on Saturday, I'm reading for the Stolen Stories anthology.

I LOVE the idea behind this anthology. Here's the publicity blurb:

Never, ever trust a writer. They cluck and nod and listen and then three months later they splash your tragedy/foolishness/very embarrassing incident involving a raspberry jelly and a pair of warm curling tongs over the tawdry pages of a literary quarterly. We feel there is no shame in this. Quite the opposite: we believe this ugly fact deserves to be celebrated with all the pomp and hullaballoo we can possibly muster. Therefore we are compiled an anthology of the finest stolen stories, the anecdotes and overheard conversations that simply demand to be told. We feel that it is time to be honest. This is where our ideas come from.

Every story in the book will have a little introduction from the writer about how it first came about. It's going to be so good for teaching - seeing just how different writers gets ideas, and then how they explore them further in the actual stories. My contribution, 'I Would Never Eat a Tapir', felt to me very stolen. I wrote it for Caroline, who was then running Borders books (no pressure then) after Scott gave me five words or phrases I had to include - tapir, tutu, Stockholm, 'look at the sky' and sushi (hmmm....easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy. Absolutely no pressure then). It was strange to write because these words obviously had meaning for her, but none for me. That was probably why it started off feeling very 'stolen' as I wondered if I was using them in the right context, but eventually the story took over. What was amazing was how those words ended up fitting in, taking the story to new places, but never, hopefully, sticking out. You will see how cleverly I inserted one into the title, for example.

I'm a great believer in limits for writers - Twyla Tharp says 'Whom the Gods wish to destroy, they give unlimited resources'. It's an interesting idea.

Anyway, if you are in Edinburgh, do come and see me ...

Saturday November 15th:

Elvis and Shakespeare - 2pm
347 Leith Walk, Edinburgh

Lindsay Bower - frequent contributor to many magazines.
Sarah Salway - novelist with Random House.
Jo Swingler - longlisted for the Bridport Prize and Cinnamon Press First Collection Award.
Nick Holdstock - his work has recently appeared in Stand and the Edinburgh Review.

* live music from Withered Hand – honest, intense, eccentric, bittersweet and very wry anti-folk.
Complimentary Exploading Car Beer!

(I'm particularly liking the idea of 'Withered Hand')

or you can buy the book here.

And if you want some bull semen, er, perhaps don't get in touch... oh no, I'm imagining the google searches already.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

A fisheye view of Tunbridge Wells ...

here and here and here and here ...

I know they're the same link, I'm just throwing you in a goldfish impression for free

... and here...

Friday, November 07, 2008

Some kind of wonderful...

See me, I'm a friend of the band these days.

No, really.

And not just any band either. We're talking about the Blow Monkeys here. I can't tell you how many hours Dr Robert and I spent together in the 80's. It was either him or the Pet Shop Boys. What can I say - once an eighties girl, always capable of raising eyebrows.

Anyway, when I heard the Blow Monkeys were looking for donations for their new album, I was first in line. I knew I'd been right to keep those shoulder pads. And now I have it in my hand ...

Signed by the boys....

And with my name printed somewhere amongst the other dedicated fans. Look at us having a little metaphorical crowd moment here ...

I love it.

Not least because it might mean I finally finally get to make my dreams come true and dance up on stage with the band. Sarah, the rock chick goddess....

Or, as Neil puts it so sweetly ....

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Warning, writer at large...

I used to be a freelancer for the Catholic newspaper, The Universe. Most of the jobs were wonderful, never let it be said that the Catholics don't know how to throw a party, and I got to meet many extraordinary people. My funniest moment though was when I went up to get a quote from a visiting Cardinal. 'I'm Sarah from the Universe', I said and he just stood there looking at me. 'So are we all, dear,' he said eventually. 'So are we all.'

It was clear that he'd never heard of the newspaper and thought I was just announcing my general presence in the world. Ho hum.

But now I'm very proud to say that I really am roaming the universe through my new position as Editor at Large for the very wonderful Canadian style pair, Carrie and Danielle. I want to write more about what they do later because it's very clever and I believe in it, but for now, do look at their website - It's full of good information on personal development, creativity and, well, just being human and having fun really. One of my first articles is up here - it's part of a series of creative writing exercises I'm planning. If you write something from it that you'd like to share, then do leave it in the comments over there. Or indeed here. I'd like to see it.

And it seems like this is my day, because an article I wrote for Pyschologies magazine is on the shelves today. It's about the 29 day giving challenge I took part on earlier in the year. It makes me feel a bit guilty because I actually got far more from the challenge than I think I gave, but if you want to try your own, you can find out more here.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008


It should now of course be President Elect Barack Obama.

Thank you, America.

And another advantage of the election is my daughter and I have discovered a new game. It started when we were watching CNN - lots of shrieking, flashing banners, people rushing round, chances to save the world etc etc - and then turned over to the BBC News. A new Winnie the Pooh drawing had been found. A books expert, so shy he could hardly look up, was being interviewed - very, very slowly, and then the presenter went for a walk in Ashdown Forest. Slowly. We burst out laughing. It was almost as the television was working at half-speed. We switched back to CNN - different people were now still gesturing wildly, piecharts were flying in from every angle, quickquick talking - back to BBC and yep, still walking in Ashdown Forest.

We've tried it several times since and it's works whatever the news. It makes us laugh every time (although I've noticed we both prefer the more peaceful British version. What can I say, we're sssslllllooooowwwww.)

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

On the edge

It feels strange to be a non-American watching the US election today, doesn't it? Rather like we've been reduced to childhood all over again. All we can do is to sit back and wait while others get on with the decision-making, and yet there's no doubt that the result will have an effect on us too. Anyway, I'm wishing hard. In fact, I have everything crossed - although I have to admit I did vote in the Summer, albeit with a corn kernel at the Iowa State Fair (see above). May the result be the same as that one in which Barack Obama's jam jars were filling up nicely.

I don't think I've ever felt so jealous of a country though as I did during Bill Clinton's inauguration when I watched Maya Angelou read the poem she'd been asked to write. At that moment it felt like America had suddenly become fresh again. Hopeful.

Now, I'm just wishing I can feel as jealous again. I spent this lunchtime reading poetry, wondering who Barack Obama might pick, dreading who John McCain might choose - I know it will do no good, it's even a bit melodramatic of me which is perhaps why I kept coming back to this particular poem by the American poet, Kaylin Haught. I love its playfulness and the feeling of acceptance it offers.

God Says Yes to Me
Kaylin Haught

I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic
and she said yes
I asked her if it was okay to be short
and she said it sure is
I asked her if I could wear nail polish
or not wear nail polish
and she said honey
she calls me that sometimes
she said you can do just exactly
what you want to
Thanks God I said
And is it even okay if I don't paragraph
my letters
Sweetcakes God said
who knows where she picked that up
what I'm telling you is
Yes Yes Yes

Saturday, November 01, 2008

So what else is happening in November....

Just in case you are not going to spend the WHOLE month counting words - 30 or 300 - on your fingers, there is lots happening with my fellow Bookarazzi members, see here.

Your messages ....

So we start today. Come and play.