Yes, it's true. I have been super slack in my postings of late. This is partly because the circumstances of my life have rendered me mute and partly because I've been busy. But I'm tired of being mute. I've found some weird and wonderful things recently and I've decided to change this blog to something called 'Find of the Week'. It means I need to update weekly, which is pushing it, but I'll try.
So without further ado, find of the week this week is..... a multi-award winning website called, 'The Man in Seat 61'. The awards imply other people have found it before, but to me it was new new new. Does it still count?
I think so.
I came across this stroke of genius because I was thinking of visiting my cousin in Rome this summer, and seeing as I left it way too late to get a cheap flight, and also because I fancied a bit of an overland adventure, I thought about getting a train. I Googled 'Train to Rome from London' and lo and behold, found this utter gem. A man called Mark Smith has put the whole thing together alone and has obviously put his heart and soul into it, as well as a vast number of manhours. Not only does it tell you how to get from London to Rome (and a load of other places), it outlines individual train times for e.g. the Eurostar to optimise connection times in Paris (so you get to the next place in time for tea/the next train/breakfast), tells you which compartment you'd need to sit in and which seat number (!) to be able to plug your laptop into the power switch, and gives alternative routes, times and ideas. It has maps, links to other sites and, I've just noticed, now covers Asia and Africa too.
I now plan to go from London to Paris, have breakfast, take a train to Zurich to see the Alps from my window, sleep in Zurich a night, get a train to Milan and have an espresso in the beautiful station, and get the train to Rome. I'm so much more excited about it than getting on a budget plane from Stanstead and getting out after 2.5 hours with the colour orange or yellow/blue staining my vision like bright light blindness every time I blink. It's not any cheaper going by train, mind you - it's about the same as the plane would cost booking this late and for the summer - but it's not much more expensive either. About the same price as far as I can make out. I haven't booked yet, so that might change things. But I have time and I can always take a flight back home if I pull my finger out and book soon.
I just love that someone did all this to make train travel logistically easy peasy and cared about my low laptop battery. So Yay for Mark Smith, Yay for trains to Rome through the Alps and Yippee for finding sites like this as you meander through your day.
- Location:United Kingdom, London
I haven't been able to bring myself to say it for a long while. But I'm having my first book published. Yay!
It's strange because I've often wondered how I would react if that were to ever happen. Would I scream and whoop? Cry with relief and fall to my knees? Throw a huge party?
I had a minor heart attack when I read the email saying, 'we really want to publish your book!' I guess it's one of those times you'll always remember where you were when you heard the news, like when 9/11 happened. I was on jury service that week. I'd just left the Old Bailey and went to Cafe Nero to get a post-court soy latte. I read the email on my phone as I waited for my order. The breath left my lungs in a whoosh. I said 'Oh my gosh. Look at this!' and showed my two fellow jurors the email. And then on the way home, I couldn't stop smiling. I felt like someone had put a cushion of air under my feet instead of the grey pavement. But I couldn't tell anyone except my close family because what if the publishers change their minds? What if they said the next day, 'Actually, nah. Sorry.' It's a bit like not telling anyone you're pregnant for the first three months in case something untoward happens.
Solitary elation is a weird thing.
I was jittery for days afterwards. I couldn't write. I held my breath when they emailed the terms of the contract, when I spoke to a couple of agents for advice on the terms and negotiations, when the publishers emailed me the draft contract and even when the real contract came through the post. It's signed now. Half of the advance is in the bank. It's going to happen. My book will come out in Spring 2014, please God. I don't have an agent; I didn't go down the usual pathway, but hey. And yay.
Spring 2014 is aaages away. Aeons. But I'm starting to understand why it takes so long now. Arranging meetings about possible illustrations takes time. Waiting for the date of the arranged meeting to arrive takes time. Publishing houses restructure and employ new editors, one of which will be assigned to you, which takes time. Summer holidays turn up and the two people you need to meet with go away at different times, and then you will go away. Months later, you still haven't met your editor. The publisher is lovely and responsive and perfect in every way, but busy for a long while. You go greyer. The earth tilts. Syria has a civil war. But life has changed forever. You have a publisher! And an editor!
I still can't bring myself to yell, 'YAY!!!' from the rooftops. I haven't thrown a party yet - I'll hope to do that when it gets launched. It's still early days. All I'm doing now is waiting to arrange meetings to start working towards its publication. Going greyer. Watching the earth tilt. Reading about Syria's civil war...
But today I have been inspired. The Bradfield program is a wonderful year-long program at the LSJS for female Jewish educators and leaders. Ruth Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Service, came to speak to us on Thursday about her organisation, about women's roles in senior management, about leadership and about the projects her organisation is funding all over the world. And immediately, I thought, "I should be getting involved in this." There are things I feel very strongly about. One of them, quite by chance, distrubed me last night and made it difficult for me to fall asleep.
I didn't know who Ruth as I lay down last night, or what her organisation did (because I didn't read up before the class), but I was plagued with the memory of a nine or ten year old African girl I read about in an article, who had been raped so violently by soldiers that her hip bones were permanently damaged. I really wish I hadn't seen that article or her haunted face because it made me so furious that I want to take a shotgun, fly to Africa and shoot those and all other men who do that to little girls. And now it represents to me the very worst of man's inhumanity to man, and keeps me awake at night.
Today, Ruth explained that their organisation is helping people in many countries in the world, including women and girls in post- war countries where rape has become a weapon of war. It's the women themselves who are taking action, and against all kinds of problems in their communities. Going on sex strike until their husbands listen and do what they need; finding an Imam to go with them to try and stop other women circumcising their daughters; becoming leaders by a being elected as a majority in government, as in Rwanda, and finding ways to educate their children against all odds.
Ruth is inspiring and powerful, and her stories brought tears to my eyes. Now I want to get involved. Now I want to be the kind of woman who has a hand in bringing change. I can do this by flying to Senegal or Liberia, but those projects cost time and money and I have four children I'm responsible for. Instead, I could support the women who are doing something about their problems by donating money, or I could take action about what I feel strongly about in my own community/city/country. Sometimes the edges creep in and you feel the world consists of just the little corner of you orbit. But tonight the world seems vast, varied and amazing again, and everything seems possible.
As Ruth said, many of these women aren't educated; they don't have the privileges, the connections or the advantages we have, and yet they are changing their communites and their world by their actions.
Imagine what we could do with the education we have. Imagine! My suggestion to myself is to take one small step to do something for an issue I feel strongly about. And then another, and then another. And see where it leads.
I refer here not only to Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, whose Diamond Jubilee celebrations are turning the country red, white and blue this week, but also to my mother, Her Majesty Queen Mary of Staines-on-Sea, who is also celebrating a sixtieth (plus five) jubilee of her own. The reign of each monumental matriarch has been long and glorious, and may they both continue to rule for many years to come.
We visited Wells-next-the-sea in Norfolk this weekend, which is a lovely seaside town rather like Southwold in its old-fashionedness, a place full of Aryan English people and thier blonde, Boden-esque children. I'm repeatedly surprised at how non-multi-cultural places outside London are (as we walk around in our headscarves with dark-haired, olive-skinned children) but it was great fun to be away from the city, staying in a beautiful, luxurious house, smelling the sea on the wind, trying to keep the barbeque alight under a thundering umbrella and having a much-needed break. The Wells jubilee mini-flotilla was a little anti-climactic, being about ten boats sailing in a spread-out convoy into the quay, but it was at least dry on Saturday and any effort to celebrate has to be applauded.
When I returned to London, I saw that my next door neighbour had put up some bunting. He's the only one on our road with any bunting and there were no street parties here, which is a bit rubbish. We should have done something. I should have organised it. But I have Queen Mary's party tomorrow to host, organise and cook for, so maybe for the next jubilee. I must say, it's been great fun this jubilee. Long live the Queen.
I've done some weird and wonderful things in my time, but I have to say jury service at the Old Bailey was up there with the best of them.
Hundreds of jurors arrive every Monday morning at the Old Bailey, looking confused, having been plucked from their busy lives and placed in a new environment where for two weeks or more they will be responsible in deciding the fate of complete strangers along with eleven other randomly-picked complete strangers. The jurors' canteen area is too small for hundreds of people, the windows don't open, the air smells of fish and after a swift briefing, names are called in shoals to go off and be sworn onto a trial.
By the time you get called, if you are called (and some do go home after a few long days of waiting around without serving) you bundle in a lift silently with a load of other people who are just as apprehensive as you are, to go down to a court. Once you enter the silent and serious courtroom, some names from the random bunch you're standing with are picked, some are not, and if you're called, you go and take a seat. There is no pre-trial warm-up, no discussion, no hint at the way the law works, no explanation as to how the trial will progress or recommendations or suggestions to take notes or you'll be stuffed later on - no trial guidelines at all. The charges are read out, you gulp in your jurors' chair (if you have a trial like we had) wishing you could leave with the people who weren't called, and once you affirm or swear in, you sit down, still smelling of the street outside, still immersed in the details of your life, and the trial begins, wham.
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It's time. I'm going to start posting again.
I'm just waiting for the rapturous applause to die down before going on.
Up and running is a good title for this post because I've just started running after I don't know how many years of not doing any exercise at all except walking the dog from time to time. And I think I like it. I don't like uneven paving stones, obstacled streets, passers by looking at my red face or yukky weather, so I'm running on a treadmill whilst watching Judge Judy (who gets really boring cases from the two I've seen so far) and Scrubs. I'd watch other things but there isn't much on at 9am, and I have to watch something or put up with Jeremy someone on a larger screen talking to astoundingly idiotic people who are cheating on each other and telling the whole world about it, which is just vile, or listen to pop on a really bad sound system. The treadmill has its own little TV screen and I bring my headphones, which is fabulously hi-tech, except I keep batting the wires with my hands as I run and knocking them out of my ears. Advice needed.
I'd like to redesign those machines for a better entertainment experience: I'd have an extensive menu to choose all kinds of programmes from House to TED lectures; a film menu for long-distance running days, a better touch screen (you have to keep prodding it like someone lobotomised); shiurim (classes in Jewish studies) for spiritual enrichment, and surround sound. But you can't have it all I suppose.
I ran 3 km last week on my second attempt on the treadmill, and nearly 4k today except I did stop three times to walk and catch my breath. I'm the only one in the gym wearing a skirt over my trousers, a long-sleeved top and a headscarf, but I don't care that I have more clothes on than everyone else because I've just learned that there comes this point when you've been running for about twenty minutes that everything starts humming. It was my doctor who told me to do exercise because, he said, it releases natural painkillers and I'm nearly always in killer pain. I'm beginning to like this cocktail of endorphines, natural painkillers and what I'm calling 'The Hum'. I'm now aiming for 5km, and then 8 and then 10. I suppose one day I might run a mini or even a full marathon but a) that's unlikely and b) I'd only consider it if The Hum continues and increases in intensity.
I'm happy to say that today will be included in my memoirs because this was the day I restarted my dusty blog; I discovered The Hum, and I found out that Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, is a woman. I can't believe I never knew that!
I hope tomorrow is equally full of wonder.
Last night I went to Pushkin House, a centre for Russian Cultural Studies in Bloomsbury Square, to a meeting of The Pushkin Club. Set up in 1953 for emigres and lovers of Russian literature, the meetings have been hosted by a number of eminent speakers, poets and writers over the years. I hasten to add that I'm not a frequenter of either The Pushkin Club or Pushkin House, but was there to hear the poet Yvonne Green's interpretations of Semyon Izraelevich Lipkin's poetry, and Robert Chandler read from the 20th Century's greatest unknown Russian novelist and poet, Andrei Platonov. Chandler's excellent translations brought Vasily Grossman to Western audiences and he is now retranslating Platonov's, "Happy Moscow," (Harvill, 2001).
Pushkin House is currently showing an exhibition of iconic art, so after I climbed the cantilevered stone staircase, I entered the reading room, plush with gilt and red velvet chairs, where number of iconic paintings of gold-winged angels and curcifixed martyrs surrounded by pious maidens were on display, setting a pre-revolutionary scene for our journey into Russia's literary past. The nice man at reception told me later that traditionally the Church sanctions all iconic paintings and no one is allowed to paint them without permission, implying the paintings on display - one wall of which, incredibly, were done by children aged between 9 and 14 - were not exactly approved of. No one complained when the exhibition opened, he added, but he seemed a little miffed by it himself. I loved the idea of paintings of angels and religious piousness being illicit and controversial - it seems so implausible.
Robert opened the evening by introducing Yvonne Green who read from her collection, "The Assay" (Smith/Doorstop 2010), her forthcoming novella; "The Old Ladies Club" about a woman who dreams of retiring from her husband, family and job with her best friend; and from her new collection, "After Semyon Izrailevich Lipkin" (Smith Doorstop 2011) which won a Poetry Book Society's (PBS) Recommended Translation Award.
The PBS has just lost its Arts Council Grant and Yvonne articulated the importance of their work to both poets and readers in this country. I have no idea what the future is for literature and the arts but it worries me: in schools the sciences are pushed so much more than literature and increasing numbers of children are moving away from studying English in favour of sciences and social sciences; the programmes on physics on TV have started a wave of applicants for physics degrees, and the technological advances of modern life are so fast-moving, lucrative and impressive, it's no wonder students are more interested in studying gaming than studying literature and poetry. With funding cuts to the arts, who knows what will be in a generation's time. I pondered this as I drank wine with Elaine Feinstein, Eva Hoffman, Emeritus Professor Valentina Polukhina, the poet Eve Grubin and the venerable children's soccer coach, Brian Green, among others.
Robert then read from Platonov, whose humour and unique perspectives clearly influenced the work of his friend Grossman. Men eat meat and grow fur was a sentiment expressed at the end of the reading, where in ruined Moscow, butchers and hairdressers had sprung up but places of culture were absent. Sitting there reflecting on how little Russian literature I'd read and how much I'd like to change that, I realised that with funding being effectively eradicated and interest in the arts waning, London, sadly, doesn't seem far behind.
“Blogs are vile. Blogs are terrible. Blogs will be the death of us all."
Howard Jacobson at ‘The Last Word’, Jewish Book Week, Sunday March 6th 2011.
Sunday night marked the end of Jewish Book Week, and having a Jewish Booker Prize winner is a coup best saved for the finale. ‘The Last Word’ differed from the Nicole Krauss evening on Tuesday: the latter was strictly book centred. The author talked about her inspiration, her writing processes, the characters and why they had to be as they were, her aims, the changes in her life over the course of writing the book and the reason for the title. Great House requires both the characters and the readers to close off the outside world and dive into the confessions of the soul and that, too, was the essence of the talk. In the darkness of the auditorium, the audience closed off the outside world and delved into the book’s soul, and the author’s soul. One audience member dared to ask what it was like living with another successful author (Jonathan Safran Foer) but Krauss is famously guarded about discussing her husband. She and Naomi Alderman veered the conversation politely but firmly back to the novel, as though real life constituted a sordid digression from the fundamentals of fiction.
On Sunday night, the fictional mechanics of ‘The Finkler Question’ were not under scrutiny. There is community-wide pride and delight that a Jewish author won the highest prize for a novel that his mother told him wouldn’t win because it was ‘too Jewish’. But the novel casts a spotlight on the politics, effects and experiences of Anglo Jewry and the anti-Semitism that Jacobson says Jews themselves are best at, so it made sense that the essence of last night’s talk wasn’t a closing off but an opening out.
Questions naturally arose from the themes of book: are modern British Jews still outsiders? How do we react to this week’s Amalekian comments from Galliano and Assange? Or to the Iranians seeing Zion in the Olympic logo; Carol Churchill’s plays or programmes like The Promise? How do we stand up to unacceptable things?
Jonathan Freedland is exceptionally qualified to host a talk like this: he’s informed, articulate and level headed. I was living in Jerusalem, working for a news agency and writing a blog for The Independent when the Gaza war broke out and I have every respect for Freedland because it’s not easy being a journalist when you can neither champion nor condemn what ‘your lot’ are doing but feel acutely pressured from both sides to do so.
The regrettable aftertaste in my mouth as the event and the week drew to a close was that there are Jews who, according to a lady in the audience, are ‘ashamed of being Jews’. I wanted to stand up and say, ‘Lady, you have no idea what you have in your hands.’ But I didn’t. Because I don’t know what context she meant it in, and because war and politics have a way of making beautiful legacies ugly and dignified people feel uncomfortable. She has every right to feel what she feels, but it was still a sour tang I drove home with after such a sweet Booker-flavoured achievement.
The best thing to do in hostile circumstances, I’ve always maintained, is to shut the rest of the world out and dive somewhere nicer, and this would be a flawless solution but for the niggling fact that once we close the book we have to face life. We live here; our children go to schools, take buses home and study in universities rife with hostility. Israel and Middle Eastern politics is right there all the time. To oversimplify it, Krauss-like seclusion lies on one side; Freedland-like world management on the other, and both need to be addressed. ‘Phillip Roth is comfortable in his culture,’ Howard Jacobson said on Sunday,’ but we have a slightly different relationship to British culture.’ He stressed his Englishness: ‘I’m a defender of the English language! I go out like Don Quixote!’, and I think therein lies the answer. Sword aloft, Quixote-like (but preferably less farcically) we have to defend our right to exist, our right to be treated with respect and our right to feel how we feel. And when politics and people get ugly, we have to defend our right to shut the world out and lose ourselves in the good book that's calling from the coffee table.
Jewish Book Week has only just kicked off and I've been to two events already. This is a rare treat but one I aim to expand on both over the course of the week and in general. I don't go to writers' festivals or book weeks, in fact I've never been to either and not because I don't want to. My profession and my soul both demand it, but I either miss them or can't find cover to run the complex corporation known as my house. But this year is special. I am happy.
On Saturday night, I joined poets, musicians and playwrights in an evening called 'Bookniks Salon', a fun soiree I attended because my friend Eve Grubin was reading a selection of her poems there, as was Adam Taylor, poet in residence at the BBC World Service. I love poetry and their poems were inspiring because they were a) funny and b) surprising. I tend to forget that you can do anything you like and poetry doesn't have to be theatrically abstruse. I should have been a poet, I thought, sitting there. I have these thoughts about countless professions; there are numerous careers I think I could have been great at if I'd had more than one life going on at the same time and didn't have to make such limiting choices. I chose not to be a poet because I love prose, but I'm grateful they didn't.
The host was the talented and exuberant Maya Levi who also played keyboard and sang; a playwright and a novelist gave excerpts from their work; a blast of Yiddish East End Kletzmer songs made the Sepharadim among us knot our eyebrows in confusion but tap our toes in accompaniment, and the incredible Farsa Monea made me wish I had enough money to fly them to Jerusalem to play at my son's bar mitzvah. I bought their disc. Not quite the same. They are well worth seeing but more importantly, listening to. In my parallel existence as a music moghul, I'd sign them tomorrow.
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I apologise for the interlude in the Someone's Gotta Do It series, but today, 24th October, was my birthday, and there was no way I wanted to spend it doing what I usually do on Sundays, which is washing uniforms, baking cookies and doing mass homework supervision. So last night I surfed Time Out for things to do on a cold October day with five children of varying ages and degrees of tiredness. What I discovered— apart from that I could walk above sharks at the London Aquarium and browse at the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition— was something far more exciting for me and me alone. Van Morrison, my all-time favourite artist, was playing in London.
You have to understand: Van Morrison’s music has touched my soul since I was a teenager; my dad introduced me after I moved from Rapper’s Delight towards Bob Dylan at sixteen, and we played Van all night every night in the restaurant I managed in Chelsea after I graduated. I play his music when I am high, low, crushed and driving. I want Astral Weeks and Sweet Thing played at my funeral because they are the songs of my life. The entire tour seemed to consist of a gig on Saturday 23rd in Scotland and one Sunday 24th in London. My birthday.
I had to go.
I clicked on ticket site after ticket site: all sold out. It was the night before the gig, of course they were. Some canny entrepreneur on eBay was selling two tickets for £600. At 1.35am Saturday night, I realised I’d missed possibly the last golden opportunity to see the man himself in concert.
Just before I gave up and went to bed devastated, I Googled the Royal Albert Hall site, just to check. The problem with life is that once we have responsibilities, we are surrounded by weight and seriousness and somehow spontaneity and magic seem ingredients of halcyon days of yore. But spontaneity and magic were two of my birthday presents this year: I was amazed to see there were three seats still on sale, and wondering how on earth I’d find a babysitter and if it was actually any fun to go to a gig alone, I bought myself a birthday present.