A second wind for The Living Library

About a year ago, I thought I had given my final live reading from The Living Library. What a journey it had been: 2 years of working on a personal project, in between writing, researching and training full time was an ordeal. What started as a simple ‘might be nice to do this’ activity after work had mushroomed into a mammoth project spawning blogs and features on my residency, a prologue to my book, over 400 pictures, interviews with dozens of people, over 30,000 words in notes, a book proposal, a couple of live readings and me becoming a volunteer news reader for KR Talking News. In short, Kirklees took a punt on me, and the punt has paid off. It’s been a fruitful relationship, not least because I think the library service relies on my fines to keep the lending library ticking over. Just after I did my last reading, I attended a meeting of the Society of Chief Librarians (Northern region) where we all discussed what we could do with the pile of information I had gathered. We’d been unsuccessful in an Arts Council application, which in a way freed us to be as creative as we wanted with the material. The Chiefs were hungry for something to use, so we thought about producing podcasts from the stories I had gathered. But we needed money to hire the studio and pay the technicians to record them. After doing the equivalent of looking down the back of the sofa for loose change, the Chiefs found some money. It was the tiniest sprinkling of pixie dust sent from the heavens.

Life and my new job took over and, to my shame, I haven’t touched the manuscript since that meeting last December, so the podcasts have taken a back seat. That was until I was invited back as a guest speaker at an annual library event celebrating the contribution young volunteers make to library projects. I shared my experiences of volunteering overseas, as well as extracts from my dusty manuscript, and the brilliant response from the audience, as well as the kindness, humour and support of the library staff reminded me why I started this project in the first place. My daily mantra is: I will finish those podcasts and get them recorded. So now I have a second wind, and I hope it helps me finish what I started. Of course, the real moral of this story is how pixies are so very generous with their dust and how they never lose faith in you.

What happens when you clean up your website...?

...you find some old book reviews that could probably benefit from seeing some daylight. That's right, I've given my website a good spring clean and a makeover (after 3 years!), moving my book reviews and some articles to this blog in the process. This means that all my subscribers are about to be bombarded with old book reviews as I post each one here over the course of this afternoon. I promise to leave you all alone for a while to scroll through it all, and if nothing else, you might rediscover some good oldies. Happy reading people.

World Book Night reading

In less than 3 weeks, I'll be reading from The Living Library, a work in progress. The fabulous bods at Huddersfield Library are busy promoting the event with this lovely poster.

And guess who's going to be there......Michael Stewart, author of the award-winning King Crow, also reading from his book. I'll be giving away books from the World Book Night list too.  Hope to see you there.

“Expect the flu whenever you finish writing anything big.”

At the recent Society of Authors North meeting, we listened to Simon Brett tell us about the activity of Trying To Write. This was interspersed with gems about how a writer can look around the house and pinpoint which work paid for which bit of furniture, and the things you buy when you should have saved for the tax man. Then there was the warning that you will always get the flu whenever you finish something big, and we all nodded in unison. Simon reflected on making the transition from having writing as a hobby to making it your career. When you move your hobby to the centre of your life, this immediately creates a “job vacancy” for interests outside of work, and it’s important that you have other interests that balance your professional life as a writer.

This made me think about what I do outside of “writing” that could be classed as an interest or hobby. Does procrastination count? How about doing some half-hearted yoga whilst watching TV? Or staring at the garden willing fairies to come down and mow it? I’m really struggling to identify some part of my routine that doesn’t involve writing or reading. Can you relate to this?

In the afternoon, we listened to Julia Franklin reading extracts from the Books Are Loud portfolio and, for me, this was the best part of the day. It takes real talent to bring text to life using just your voice, and if you’re a fan of the audio book format, then you’ll know what I mean. Anyway, Julia and her colleagues are expanding their portfolio, so if you want your work read by pros, have a look at their website.

My World Book Day gift to you...

She is razor sharp and insightful. Her precise language captures the essence of what it means to be an award-winning, Croatian writer on the margins of a star-struck industry, and she does this without once gazing at her navel.

She uses Ivana Trump as an example of how anyone can be an author, but authors can’t penetrate other industries in the same way, such as become sports personalities or business leaders. Above all, she offers a cultural commentary on the cogs that make up the publishing industry, as well as a candid peek into the writers’ psyche, weaving in encounters with other writers and agents along the way.

Her name is Dubravka Ugresic, and her critically acclaimed book Thank You For Not Reading is a must read for anyone thinking about earning a living as a writer.

Read it and weep heavy tears onto your next tax return.


Husband: What shall we do for Valentines Day?

Wife: What we always do.

Husband: Which is?

Wife: You know, say we're not doing anything, then rush out to the shops at the last minute to buy each other something - ANYTHING - so it doesn't feel like a normal work day.

Husband: Hmmph. We're not doing that this year.

Wife: Agreed.

Husband: So what shall we do then?

Wife: How about fight about your daily fruit and veg intake?

Husband: Excellent, I'll get the wine. It's made of grapes.

Wife: That's just fruit. What about the veg?

Husband: I'll eat a cabbage after.

Wife: What, a whole one?

Husband: For you, yes.

Wife: I love you.

Husband: I know.

What a year, eh?

Warp speed is an understatement. The prologue and first chapter of my library residency book, entitled THE LIVING LIBRARY (yeah, I am pleased with the title, thanks for asking) are ready! And you can read the prologue here. I’ll also be giving a reading from more bits of the manuscript on National Libraries Day in February, so stay tuned. This year has also been the year of the rush job, i.e. Nilam, can you just rewrite this paper/chapter/module/case study/donor report/exec summary, I need it next week, is that ok?

So now, I’m ready for a break and won’t be looking at the computer screen for a while. Bring on the Christmas boxsets! Happy doodah everyone.

That’s all folks (not really)...

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last two weeks, it’s that library staff know EVERYTHING, and I don’t mean which books to read if you want to do a loft conversion. I mean they pick up on much more than you realise. Not only do they know what you eat and drink when you think they are not looking, they know your reading habits, how often you come in, the time of day they are likely to see you, and the way you walk, talk, behave and smell. This means that if, for some reason, you suddenly disappear, they start asking questions. It means that they care enough to find out what has happened to you – they are a real ‘social service' showing that what they do is sometimes above and beyond the call of duty. How many institutions can say this about their clients? The start of Summer Reading Challenge yesterday marked the end of my formal writing residency, but I’ll be back over the summer to top up my research as I write my manuscript. So you’ll get some more library stories over the coming months. Stay tuned and thanks for reading...

Summer Reading Challenge 2011

Yes, you could spend money on one of the new titles being promoted by the Richard and Judy Children’s Summer Book Club, or...you could sign your children, nieces, nephews and grandchildren up for the Summer Reading Challenge and its Circus Stars reading campaign. I’ve worked out that even with the half-price discount currently being offered for the Richard and Judy books, the price tag, if you chose to buy them all, would be just shy of £50. Thereare 6 books in 3 categories: Read Together (£19.94 for 6 books), Read By Yourself (£14.44), and Fluent Reader (£13.44). I know, I know...you’re not likely to buy all six books at once. Maybe you’ll buy one, as the others aren’t quite right, and wonder where to get something more appropriate. You know where I’m going with this, don't you?

Don't get me wrong, I think that the books being promoted are great, and it’s important that the authors earn a living from their writing. My point is this: why limit the children to just the books being promoted in the shops, especially, when they get the reading bug, they tend to devour books? One book per week may not be enough for the 6-week holiday.

Sitting in the children’s library today, the decibel level was as you would expect for a Saturday, but there was extra excitement amongst the little people about being able to choose LOTS of books to read over the summer. A boy came and sat next to me on the sofa, clutching his chosen books to his chest.

‘I got my books,’ he beamed, and showed me My Family, Trucks, Fire Engines and Alien Tales. His sister walked away with 4 books too, but they each had the freedom to choose up to 15 books. Next was a boy who walked away with 8 books, and I later saw him reading his Harry Potter whilst waiting for his dad to make his choices in the lending library. Another lay prostrate on the floor reading Roald Dahl, and there were plenty more like him. So, even if you decide to buy books recommended by other reading campaigns, please remember to sign your children up to the Summer Reading Challenge - they can never have too much choice when it comes to reading.

A small space

Space is a real issue for libraries: everyone wants a piece. The town and branch libraries use every inch of space for poetry groups, basic reading groups, a PALS (Practice Activity and Leisure Scheme) Art Group, children’s storytime, a birdwatchers group, a visually impaired reading group, school visits, coffee mornings with guest speakers, knitting groups, parents groups, Mumsnet groups, Manga groups, and much more besides. And these are just the groups who meet informally. I have asked organisers where else they could meet, and the answer has always been ‘we couldn’t, not without this place.’

During storytime in the children’s library, a woman asked me if there was any space for some groups she works with to meet at the library. It turns out that one of the local community centres has closed because of spending cuts. This means that 14 separate groups (run for everyone from women and children to asylum seekers) who once had a home, have been turfed out onto the street. Their first port of call for help was the library, in the hope that they would be able to continue offering their services, if only they could find a small space. Many groups already use the library to meet and run informal activities, but an additional few groups may well place a strain on the halls and committee rooms. From my experiences as a writer-in-residence, I know that the library is possibly the one public service organisation that will do all it can to remain inclusive. We are lucky that libraries are so very resourceful and accommodating.

The Little Library That Could

British Asians of my generation had very little freedom growing up. We had pushy parents who wanted us to become doctors, lawyers or accountants, we were definitely NOT allowed boyfriends and girlfriends, and going out with friends involved spinning any number of yarns about studying for tests, just so we could be ‘normal’ and go to a school disco. As our lives revolved around studying, our parents saw the library as the one respectable place that we could be trusted to go to by ourselves. Imagine, then, 22 years later, sitting with a careers adviser at one of the branch libraries today, and discovering that we both went to school in Gosport, a year apart, and spent much of our spare time in Gosport Library.

‘It was a big, smoked-glass building with a massive anchor outside’ he said, still dazed from nostalgia.

It all came back to me in an instant. I went there every Saturday, and began by laying out my books, pens and notes in one of the cubicles, so that it looked like some very serious studying was taking place. Then I’d wander off into town for a couple of hours before returning refreshed and ready to read. I used to borrow tapes of bands that I wasn’t allowed to listen to, and worked my way through all the Agatha Christie books. One afternoon, I saw a crowd of old ladies huddled around a particular set of shelves. I’d seen this phenomenon before, and had paid no notice, but this time I went over. That was my introduction to Mills and Boon.

Reading about Gosport Library now, I see that it was revamped in 2005 to become The Discovery Centre. It’s website states that it is now ‘four floors of books, reference materials, art, local history, museum exhibits, film, music, events and a coffee shop,’ and it sounds fantastic.

I remember it very much as a safe haven from parent and peer pressure. I remember it as a place to hide and to reflect, a place where I could complete my university applications in private, and a place to plan my route to freedom. I hope it continues to give its members the crucial breathing space it once gave me.

Sophie Hannah/Readers Group Book of the Year Event

Sophie Hannah
Sophie Hannah

If you want to learn how to pitch your book to someone, and I mean really hook them in, make time to see Sophie Hannah next time she’s in town. After another intense day at one of the local libraries, I was ready to collapse in front of The Apprentice, but roused myself in time to attend the local Reading Group Book of the Year event, where Sophie Hannah was giving a talk about her writing, and announcing the group’s favourite read of the year. They chose The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver as their winner (one of my favourite reads), and Sophie threw in her two recommendations of Before I Go To Sleep by SJ Watson and The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield for the group to read next year.

Sophie has an annual routine of publishing one book a year, writing for approximately 6 months each year and mainly touring the rest of the time, and she also has a daily routine of writing for around 7 hours each day. She described one way in which her ideas take shape: she likes to take a cliché and twist it, so that it becomes a springboard for her plot. As a crime novelist, she is intrigued by ‘impossible mysteries...if I’m intrigued, then others will be too.’

Sophie is a great speaker; generous with her advice, informative, down to earth and funny. She is a professional, and her status as a best-selling author is well deserved.

A safe haven

A mother comes in with her young daughter, and it looks like an ordinary enough scene: they enter the large, square room that is the Children’sLibrary, the daughter runs to the brightly coloured table and chairs in the centre to do some colouring in, whilst the mother sits at one of the tables in the corner. The mother nods and smiles at the librarian, looks at her phone, then pulls out a text book and reads quietly. After about 30 minutes, the daughter comes to her with a choice of children’s books and they speak a little. The mother puts down her heavy text, picks up one of the brightly coloured books offered to her, and begins to slowly say the words on each page. But something about this scene is different, and it’s only when I see the spine of the mother’s text book that I fully understand. The textbook is English for Beginners, and what I have been witnessing is, every few words, the daughter correcting her mother’s English.

After watching them, I am left with many questions: what is this woman’s story? Why does her daughter know more English than her? Where would they go to do this, if not here? I didn’t approach them, as my blundering attempts to engage would have burst their contemplative bubble. But that scene has stayed with me, and more than that, it’s shown me that this space is a safe haven for people to come and work, in whatever capacity and with whoever they like, without any judgement.

Writer-In-Residence, with a twist...

What started as a rant about World Book Night and library services being cut (see World Library Night Parts 1 and 2) has turned into something quite wonderful for me. I am to be a Writer-In-Residence at Huddersfield Library for the next two weeks. But this is a residency with a twist. Instead of going out to schools and community groups to encourage reading, writing and the take up of library services, I’ll be writing about the experience of using the library and what it means for its members. This has been a personal project of mine for a while and I am in bits with excitement. In one day, I have already caught a glimpse of the herculean lengths to which library staff go in their daily working lives. The general public really do have a staggering range of requests. Add to that the many groups who use the spaces on all four floors throughout the week; this place really is a hub. Over the coming weeks, I’ll also be visiting Birkby, Lindley and Deighton libraries to get a sense of what these smaller centres mean to local residents. And after the two weeks? Why, a book, of course…

What, no Nagra?

I have been wanting my own copies of Look We Have Coming to Dover and The Hole in the Sum of my Parts for a while now, so off I went to the gigantic high street bookstore in Leeds. Three spacious floors of books, with each section given a huge flank of shelves and tables piled with the ‘must reads’ du jour. Imagine my disappointment, then, when the impressive poetry section had no Daljit Nagra or Matt Harvey. As if that wasn’t bad enough, I turned the corner and...wait, what’s this...why, it’s a tiny, puny, itty, bitty eight shelves dedicated to Black and Asian writers. Here they are:

asian shelf
asian shelf
asian shelf2
asian shelf2

I counted the number of authors they put on these shelves: approximately 150 (although it looks a lot less in the photos). They have included Yann Martel as a Black and Asian author. It beggars belief.

So a big fat raspberry to that particular store, but a huge bunch of fair-trade flowers to Foyles on Charing Cross Road (but not Mr Grump who served me), for having the brilliant Look We Have Coming to Dover and The Hole in the Sum of my Parts plus Where Earwigs Dare. Not even the London Review Bookshop could match that.

World Library Night (part 2)

The scrum for books at Huddersfield Library last Saturday for World Book Night highlighted the pivotal role of libraries in the community. Three titles flew off the table amongst a scrum of pensioners, mothers with children, unemployed people coming to use the free computers for job-searches and CV writing, teenagers sheltering from embarrassing parents, shoppers taking a respite to read newspapers without having to queue for expensive coffees, researchers looking up family and local history, students planning their gaps years, police officers in for a break, doctors and nurses making their way to and from shifts, retired couples stocking up for the week, carers exchanging books for their offspring and parents, people picking up leaflets for local events and performances, chess players (boards available at the desk), people using meeting rooms, the widowed, the lonely, and the mildly and wildly eccentric. The massive sections of society that World Book Night (read volunteers) turned away were children, people who needed books in large print, and those relying on audio books for their weekly fix of crime or romance. Luckily for them, all members of society are catered for by their local library. Cut to one of the two Waterstones in Huddersfield later that same afternoon, bursting at the seams, bizarrely, with 3 for 2 offers on the 25 titles being given out freely by World Book Night volunteers, next to a free pile of Fingersmith. No queues, no scrum, no chatting amongst readers or carers or pensioners or the unemployed or the blind. If you join your library, then the books are free all the time, in many formats, not just once a year. No gimmicks, no fuss, and you get to make new friends.

Hello world!

Hello world indeed. Thank you for taking the time to read this.

Over time, you'll find writing on writing (what I'm going through while I work on my novel and short stories), writing on communication for social development and some extracts from my fictional work.