Monday, 26 November 2012


It takes an extraordinarily long time to realise some things, half a lifetime, in some cases. Here is the momentous thing I realised on the bus today:

I don't like parties.

(It is curious: I like my friends. I like drinking. I like smoking. I like meeting new people. I like music and sometimes dancing. I like talking to people. I like dressing up. Somehow, put these things in combination and I'm in hell.)

I feel relieved at the thought that I'm never going to go to another party for as long as I live.

A vignette from another lifetime, when I still didn't like parties but hadn't discovered it yet.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Hunger Games vs Twilight

Not long after I started at the library, I had a challenge which I failed utterly miserably.

A tall, shy, pretty teenage girl came up to me and said
"Can you recommend a book?"
She waved her hand at the shelf of teen fiction. At this time we were operating a temporary library with only a quarter of the stock whilst the library was being remodelled. But I still didn't recognise any of the books or authors, except for Neil Gaiman's Coraline, which looked a bit young for her.

What was I reading as a teenager? I don't recall any such thing as a teen section when I was her age, there were kids' books and adult books and not much in between. I never used to  have problems choosing myself a book, either, that's one of the pleasures of libraries, or of fiction. Just diving right in.  It was distressing to think that she'd got to that age, 14, without knowing how to choose a book for herself. But at least she'd asked.  I didn't know what to recommend her. I failed her. This will haunt me...

But now I do! I read all the Hunger Games books and they are properly amazing. It is rare to come across something like this in fiction - page-turning, thrilling, popular, with massive crossover appeal, but also beautifully written, substantial and having some real weight and thought and meaning...  If we'd have read about Katniss, this inspiring,three dimensional heroine when we were kids, and less of Little Women, who knows where we'd be now?

Suzanne Collins was famously inspired by channel-hopping between reality shows and news reports about war, as well as the Theseus and the Minotaur story, and imagined a post-apocalyptic world in which teens are drawn from a lottery to compete in war games to the death. This chimes with how most teenagers see the world, in satisfyingly gloomy, apocalyptic terms (I know every story I wrote in English between the age of 14 and 16 was heavily inspired by 1984 and usually featured someone being tortured to death for their political beliefs.)

But the detail in the writing, the subtlety, the grasp of politics, both personal and in the wider sense... I was blown away by it.   The author's father was a soldier. My father was career Air Force and was also a Vietnam veteran. He was in Vietnam the year I was six. But beyond that, he was a doctor of political science, he was a military specialist, he was very well educated. And he talked about war with us from very early on. It was very important to him that we understood things, I think because of both what he did and what he had experienced.If you went to a battlefield with him you didn't just stand there. You would hear what led up to this war and to this particular battle, what transpired there, and what the fallout was. It wasn't like, there's a field. It would be, here's a story.

And the books keep getting better, as the first one focuses on Katniss' own story, the next one moves on to look at the wider society and the last one to all-out war and it grows more powerful and significant until you realise she's done something quite astounding with a series of children's books.  On the surface it seems like a page-turning thriller, and along the way she's got you to think about heavy-weight issues like class and economics, media spin, media manipulation and propaganda, loyalty, family, self-determination, strategy, politics and war ...

I am not going to diss Twilight (though clearly it is not in the same league.) I gave the book a go after getting reluctantly hooked on the movies but won't be reading the sequels, because Bella the narrator is, quite frankly, very tedious. Especially after reading about Katniss. You realise that it's one of those bad-books-that-make-a-better-film, like the Bridges of Madison County, and it's only the charm of the actors that breathes life into these 2D people.

Stephenie Meyer is clever in her own way though, it is the super potent teenage fantasy in another way from the Hunger Games - the idea of being the outsider, yet also of being the most popular girl in the school, of having a cast-iron reason for hollow-cheeked teenage angst (you can never be with your true beloved because he's a vampire who wants to suck your blood) and - come on - of having TWO extremely hot boys fighting over you. Oh and your vampire boyfriend being immensely wealthy and ten times cooler than everyone else in school and having a lovely fast car and living in this amazing house (actually I can't blame her for the house, have you seen the house?)

Bella is passive in this book and forced to suppress her own desires towards her vampire in case he gets all over-excited and BITES HER TO DEATH. This has excited the ire of feminists. But anybody getting up in arms about the twisted messages encoded in this book clearly hasn't read any Virginia Andrews, whose incest-rape-murder-body-horror shlock-fests were considered light reading for teens in the 80s and were enough to make you swear eternal chastity for life.

So, yes, Katniss beats Bella, no contest. But I do like the Twilight films, I can't help it. They are so emo, and everyone is so absurdly good-looking. I do wonder about the mummy vampire of the vampire family though. The daddy is a doctor at the local hospital. But what can she do all day as an immortal, seeing as nobody eats and she doesn't need to cook? And does anybody else find the idea of eternity with one person rather worrying, rather than romantic?

UPDATE: Interesting - Ruth Jamieson's Modern Day Marketing Fairytale in the Guardian - on Hollywood waking up to the teenage girl demographic

Wednesday, 14 November 2012


My Canadian cousin visited in the summer.  My Canadian cousin is the daughter of my aunt, my dad's sister who emigrated to Canada in her twenties, got married, got pregnant, was diagnosed with breast cancer and died soon after her baby daughter was born.

My cousin visited London for the first time ever and had a little East End tour with my dad and his other sister. He hauled out all the old family photos for her, including ones of his parents, which  I had never seen before. I hadn't ever seen pictures of my grandparents, they died before I was born, so I made him get them out to show me.

Here is one I discovered, Teh Photo of Awesomeness, it is of his grandparents, my great-grandparents, looking like Mother Russia. Like something out of Chekhov. If you could hear them speaking, they would be saying something like "I dress in black to match my life, Alexei Petrovich."

I especially like the lady on the right, my great-grandmother.  

Tuesday, 13 November 2012


I'm on my way home on the W15 when the 'I Don't Like You' lady gets on the bus. The seat next to me is empty & I sigh inside. The 'I Don't Like You' lady is in her sixties, somewhat bent over, wearing an incongruous fluffy pink hat and fluffy pink scarf and gloves. She sits down next to me and is silent for a moment, I think maybe she's not too bad. But then...

"I don't like you! I don't like people! Nobody talk to me! I don't want to talk to you!' explodes out of her.

People look around, astonished. Some people don't, they've heard it before. She nudges me with her elbow a couple of times, to make her point, and tries to whack the poor boy sitting across the aisle from her a few times.

After a while she quietens down, but then when new passengers get on the bus, she has to make her point again. One quite tall, heavily built man gets a special treatment "I HATE THAT MAN! I HATE HIM!'
A dad holding the hand of his cute little 2 year old, all big eyes and hair in bunches, the vision of sweetness and innocence, gets on the bus. "I don't like you, and I especially don't like you." she says, pointing at the two year old.

People start to snigger. Eventually it comes to her stop and she gets off, not before reminding the bus driver that she doesn't like him.

Everybody on the bus starts smiling and laughing and talking about her. 'I missed my stop - I couldn't get off in case she hit me' says a girl sitting near her.

The atmosphere on the bus is suddenly more friendly than usual, people are talking and laughing with each other. I begin to wonder whether the 'I don't like you' lady isn't just a random nut, but actually some kind of clever Situationist comedian or social experimenter in disguise.

Friday, 9 November 2012


This is the first time since I was a kid that I'm looking forward to Christmas. Because I will have two whole days off in a row, hurrah! Bring it on!

It's just the present buying that is a thorn in my side.Specifically, buying presents for my dad, thinking of two things (as his birthday is near Christmas.) Women are easy to buy for. Men are hard. I've asked my stepmother for help every year and every year she says vaguely 'oh get him some socks.'

Men, what do you want?

Monday, 5 November 2012

Look what I found...

So I have been doing a class in letterpress at the beautiful St Brides' Foundation. It was set up as a social centre and library for printers in the heart of Fleet Street back in 1895, when Fleet St was the centre of the printing trade, and is still going strong today.

The library is the best in the world on typography, graphic design, printing and book arts, and only fairly recently they've set up a studio housing old printing presses that would otherwise be gathering dust or (horrors) be on the scrapheap.
Do you believe in karma? I found a lovely 1950s typesetting manual in the Oxfam bookshop and offered it to my tutor as a library donation. The director came down and shook my hand, and was all pleased with it and I felt a warm glow.

And then later on in the class as I was looking through the scrap paper drawer for paper to print on, I came across this...

 I would have loved it anyway, but it is by Stanley Donwood, who sometimes uses the studio.

Stanley Donwood.

STANLEY DONWOOD. The artist who works with Radiohead.  I love his prints but they always sell out in a nanosecond, and I couldn't afford him anyway. (This is an unsigned proof, but unmistakeable.)

"This was in the scrap drawer, Helen! It can't be in the scrap drawer!"
"Well well, Stanley Donwood. I think you should take it home..."