Non Fiction November: On the Art of Communication

It’s now Week 3 of Nonfiction November and we have a new host. Julie @ JulzReads has set a topic about sharing knowledge and expertise.

I don’t claim to be “an expert” on anything. But I do happen to know a lot about the practice of communications having been in that field for more than 30 years (gulp). I’m going to offer you a selection of books on different aspects of communication.

Presentations

Think back to the last time you were in an audience where the speaker used Powerpoint slides.  Give yourself a point if you experienced any of the following:

  • Slide after slide crammed with so much information you couldn’t tell what was important
  • Text so small you can’t read it even when in the front row and wearing you latest prescription glasses
  • Graphics you’d seen used in a million other presentations. They weren’t even that funny the first time around
  • The Jackson Pollock treatment. Every colour and type face available in the software programme had been applied.
  • Capital letters everywhere so it felt like the slides were shouting at you
  • You’d had enough by slide 5. Then you saw there were 20 more to come.

Over the last 20 years or so we’ve become so dependent on Powerpoint slides, It’s rare to be at any kind of meeting where there isn’t at least one speaker using this programme or something similar.

Most of them are deadly dull.

Powerpoint has been around for decades yet i think we’re getting worse at using it, not better.

If you want to make sure your presentation stands out from the crowd and actually gets your message across, you need this book.

powerpoint presentations

Why Most PowerPoint Presentations Suck…and how you can make them better is  packed with practical ideas such as:

  • about how to cut down on the amount of text per slide.
  • how to use photos and images more creatively and
  • how to avoid a jumble of font sizes and colours.

There are also some very useful templates to download from Rick Altman’s website.

Even if you don’t think you need a copy yourself, do yourself a favour. Buy a few copies for your company/school/department. If they take the hint you need never sit through one of their excruciating deliveries ever again.

Speaking in Public 

You’ve been asked to deliver an update on a project/ or share your knowledge on a specific topic. You’ve done your homework. Your slides and notes are in good shape.  But now comes the moment that millions of people dread: the moment when you have to get up there and deliver those words of wisdom. The heart starts racing, your throat is suddenly so dry you don’t think you can croak out even a few words. And your memory has become completely blank.

Being a competent public speaker can put you on the pathway to success, whether you’re looking to teach, inform, persuade, or defend an idea.

But it’s just like any other skill. You have to learn how to do it and then you have to practice. Even the greatest orators started somewhere. Winston Churchill for example, whose speeches gave confidence to the people of Britain in the darkest days, wasn’t born a naturally gifted orator. He became one through dedicated effort. He learned how to use rhythm and cadence. He also practised delivery – rehearsing every one of his major speeches before he delivered them.

The Art of Public Speaking: Lessons from the Greatest Speeches In History is an excellent audio guide that uses some of the most famous speeches in history to show what makes a difference between a good speaker and a mediocre one.  This is available in print form but I think its best to actually hear the examples rather than just read about them. They were after all intended to be delivered aloud, not read in silence

Lessons from the masters

 

Communicating big ideas 

If you’ve ever been given the lead role on a project to implement a significant change, you’ll know how hard it can be to persuade people that this change is the right thing to do.  No matter how much you emphasise the benefits, they just don’t buy the idea.

You need to up your game in the art of persuasion.

Words at Work by Frank Luntz looks at the power of words to communicate big ideas and change opinion, affecting how people vote and what they buy.

frank-luntz-words-that-work

Luntz  talks through his 10 Rules of Effective Language (Simplicity, Brevity, Credibility, Consistency, Novelty, Sound, Aspiration, Visualization, Asking Questions and Context / Relevance) and shows them in use in the worlds of politics and business.   He also has a chapter for those of us who are unlikely to ever become Presidential candidates –  “Personal Language for Personal Scenarios,”  recommends the best language for apologizing, requesting a pay increase avoiding a traffic ticket, and other everyday situations.


If you know of any other books on communications that you’ve found particularly helpful, please let me know. I’m often asked for recommendations by former colleagues so its good to know what else is around.

 

Bookends #10 Oct 2018

This week’s Bookends post features an author whose books about a fictitious community in Quebec, Canada have become a favourite. I’m also giving you a challenge to name which author you would choose if you could read only one author for the rest of your life.

Book: Kingdom of the Blind by Louise Penny

Louise PennyI’ve posted multiple times in the last few years about Louise Penny and how much I enjoy her series featuring Armand Gamache, Head of Homicide at the Sûreté du Québec.  There is another Gamache novel due out from Little Brown on November 27.

Kingdom of the Blind takes us back to the community of Three Pines, a village so small it barely features on a map. Gamache is called to an abandoned farmhouse outside the village where he discovers that an elderly woman, a stranger, has named him as an executor of her will. The bequests are so wildly unlikely that he suspects the woman must have been delusional – until a body is found, and the terms of the bizarre document suddenly seem far more menacing

But it isn’t the only menace Gamache is facing. In the last novel Glass Houses he was suspended from his role as Chief Superintendent of the Sûreté du Québec, pending an investigation. That investigation has dragged on, and Armand is taking increasingly desperate measures to rectify previous actions.

One thing you can be sure of with  Louise Penny is that this novel will have a strong plot. What interests me far more than that however is the way she has developed the character of her protagonist. He’s a very thoughtful man with a good understanding of human nature (how many other detectives do you find quoting Marcus Aurelius?). He makes mistakes but also has the humility to accept when he is wrong.

Blog Post: Which author could you read for the rest of your life

I wish I could get to the book club meetings that Anne at Cafe Society talks about on her blog because they have such interesting and thought-provoking discussions. In one recent meeting she says “someone asked whom we would choose if we could only read the works of one author for the rest of our lives.” Some choices were inevitable: Dickens and Trollope.

In her recent post, Anne reflected on the criteria for her own selection.

I’ve been thinking about this on and off since I saw her post. It’s not an easy question at all. I have many authors I consider favourites but if they were the only author I could read, would they be enough to sustain me? I’m coming around to putting Emile Zola as my choice – his novels are strong on plot but they are even stronger on ideas. There are 20 of them in his Rougon-Macquart series covering multiple aspects of life in 19th century France – from alcoholism, prostitution, industrial disputes and poverty to the birth of the department store. Plenty of variety to keep me engaged.

Now my challenge to you all – what would your choice be? And of course, why?

Article: Facing down a book Goliath

A couple of days ago I heard of a rumpus involving Abe Books which is an online book re-seller owned by Amazon. Apparently Abe decided it would no longer list booksellers from the Czech Republic, South Korea, Hungary and Russia. The company didn’t really explain its decision beyond the fact it was changing to a new payment service provider.

What they never anticipated was the reaction. Hundreds of secondhand booksellers around the world united in a flash strike against Amazon. More than 400 booksellers in 26 countries not affected by the decision retaliated by marking any of their stock listed on Abe as being “temporarily unavailable”.

Such was the strength of opposition that Abe has now backed down. I suspect that the senior management at Amazon stepped in when they saw what was happening.

Read about the issue here and  here . 

What struck me about this scenario was that it was all completely unnecessary. The objectors didn’t question the right of Abe to make a commercial decision about how to operate its business. But they did object to the way this was implemented. Little warning given to the booksellers who would, as a consequence, see their business severely impacted. Little consideration given to the fact this would mean a loss of jobs.

If Abe had been less high-handed and insensitive they would not have faced a protest that has damaged their reputation.

It’s a lesson that all big companies need to understand. Treat your customers and business partners with respect and they will remain loyal. Disregard them at your peril.

 

And so that’s a wrap for this episode of Bookends. Have you found anything new exciting and to read this week that might entice me?

Non-Fiction November: perfect couples

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For Nonfiction November this week we’re looking at pairing up a work of fiction with a work of non fiction.

I’m feeling generous this week (it’s probably all those endorphins floating around after my session in the gym this morning) so am going to offer you not one, but two pairings. In a week that we will mark the end of one of the worst conflicts in history, I thought it was fitting that both are on the theme of war.

Couple #1: World War 1

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks follows two characters who live at different times. One is Stephen Wraysford, a British soldier on the front line in Amiens during the First World War.  The other is his granddaughter, Elizabeth Benson, who more than fifty years later discovers his journals from World War I and seeks to learns about his experiences at Marne, Verdun and the Somme.

Faulks said that he wrote the novel partly because he felt that the First World War had not been discussed enough in both literary and historical contexts.

I’m not sure whether he thinks that has now changed. We’ve certainly seen “The Great War” feature more prominently in the UK school curriculum in the last few years and the 100th anniversary of the Armistice this weekend is appropriately being marked around the country.

Unfortunately so many of the people who returned from that conflict are no longer with us to share their memories and experiences. We do however have the archives of the Imperial War Museum who recorded thousands of soldiers, the families they left behind and people who survived the war. The results are available in The Forgotten Voices series of books. The one I read, the Forgotten Voices of the Great War contained some tremendously moving testimonies that helped me appreciate what my great grandfather experienced ( he was one of the lucky ones who returned home to his family). Highly recommended reading if you have anyone in your family who served in the war or even if you didn’t but want to understand more about the war that was meant to end all wars.

 Couple #2: World War 2 

 

Oskar Schindler saved the lives of more than 1,000 Jewish people during World War 2. His actions were brought to public attention through the book Schindler’s List (sold as Schindler’s Ark outside the United States) by Keneally. The book, which Keneally labelled a novel, won him the Booker Prize in 1982. The film version directed by Steven Spielberg, won seven Academy Awards.

But none of this would have happened it it had not been for chance encounter in Beverley Hills, Los Angeles between Keneally and Poldek Pfefferberg, a Holocaust survivor. Pfefferberg had tried for years to interest writers and film makers about the story of Schindler but it was only when Thomas Keneally walked into his shop that he got the response he wanted.

The story of that meeting and the visits the two men made to Poland, to talk to people whose lives Schindler saved, are recorded in Searching for Schindler.  It’s worth reading this to understand some of the challenges Keneally encountered when he came to write his novel and the even bigger challenge of creating the film script. Here’s my review.

 

 

Non-Fiction November: favourite reads

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I’ve taken the plunge and joined Nonfiction November which is an annual challenge to read, critique and discuss non-fiction books for a month. There are five hosts who will take turns to post a topic for discussion each week.

This week’s topic comes from Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness is all about reflecting on the year so far via four questions.

What was your favourite nonfiction read of the year?

Do No Harm

This is a toss up between two books with vastly different styles and topics.  Do No Harm by Henry Marsh is the no-holds-barred memoir of a neurological surgeon in which he discusses some of the challenges of working with one of the most complex systems in the body. The Wicked Boyby Kate Summerscale is a hybrid of biography/real life crime that focuses on the case in 1895 of a young boy who killed his mother and was sentenced to spend an indefinite period in Broadmoor high security psychiatric hospital.  On balance I’m going to settle for Do No Harm, largely because it was so different from anything I have read previously.

Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year?

poppy

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Armistice, the end of World War 1. The Royal British Legion in the UK has been marking that event by asking people to remember people who were killed while serving in the conflict. I’m trying to do my bit by researching the 22 men from the Commonwealth who share my maiden name and posting information about them on line. It’s meant I’ve spent a fair amount of time reading the war diaries; a day by day account; completed by commanding officers of battalions in the field. They can be uncomfortable reading at times – today for example I discovered one battalion lost more than 400 men in one attack in the final year of the war. I’ve also been dipping into a number of books which deal with different aspects of the war..

What nonfiction book have you recommended the most?

Do No Harm is the book I’ve talked most about this year. But my recommendation always comes with a caveat that this book does go into a lot of detail about surgical procedures. So if you are at all squeamish then this book is not for you.

What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

The number of books of fiction I read each year far outweighs the number for non fiction. So I’m hoping that Nonfiction November will give me a bit of a nudge to get reading with the many books I have on the shelves. A lot of them are history related but I also have some about literature and culture.

Hay on Wye: past its sell-by date?

On our return from an anniversary celebration we made a detour to Hay- on- Wye. It’s years since I had a good mooch around the place that labels itself the “Town of Books”. I don’t count the years when I’ve been to the  literary festival since I spent almost all my time at the site rather than the town.

I knew Hay has seen a drop in the number of bookshops but I wasn’t expecting the decline to be quite so evident. Yes there are still more used book outlets than in any other place I’ve ever been but I’d say there are about half the number there were when I first visited about 15 years ago.

Richard Booth bookshopRichard Booth’s bookshop is still going strong as is the Hay Cinema Bookshop at the opposite end of town. Some of the specialists outlets like Mostly Maps (antiquarian items from around the world; the Poetry Bookshop and Murder and Mayhem are still in business.

But the days when you could walk out of one, and turn immediately into another in the adjacent premises, are no more. In their place have come boutiques and shops selling overpriced scarves, candles and knick-knacks for the home.

I appreciate  why this has happened. Business rates in the UK have risen so steeply in the last couple of years that it’s put a huge strain on most small businesses. Coupled with that is the continuing growth of on line shopping. I heard a statement just this week that online shoppers in the UK spend more per household than consumers in any other country.  Some of those big outlets (no names but you know who I mean) have ginormous premises yet don’t get burdened with the same business rate bill. No wonder the small shopkeeper can’t compete.

Some of them in Hay have  decided that if you can’t beat them, you should join them. So they’ve closed the shop and now trade exclusively on-line.  Good for them but not so good for people who like to browse before they buy. But maybe that was also part of the problem – too many browsers and not enough buyers?

Haye-on-Wye has become what is now apparently called a “destination town”; a place where visitors from far afield head for a leisurely afternoon with lunch and a stroll through picturesque streets or along the river.  Hence the large number of cafes now in the town.

I understand the appeal. But if you are a book lover, then  Hay-on-Wye no longer has the same appeal it once held. It was actually a very disappointing experience even apart from the reduced number of outlets.

Those that do remain were – with a few notable exceptions – jumbled to the say the least. It was hard to find anything because so often the books were shelved completely randomly or just stacked in piles on the floor (multiple trip hazards).  I tried five shops but none of them could deliver up even a single title by Winifred Holtby or Penelope Lively; Olivia Manning I found in one place but it wasn’t in a good condition. And where were the Virago green spines? Nowhere to be seen…..

Added to this I thought the prices were pretty high. I know the owners have to make a living but £4.00 for a very slim novella in not very good condition didn’t feel reasonable given it’s original selling price of £7.99.

I didn’t come away completely empty handed but didn’t buy anything until the very last shop. I added two titles, both from the Library of Wales collection, rather than the armful I was anticipating bringing home.  If you’ve never been to Hay-on-Wye it’s still worth a visit but I fear for me, this is a lady that is now past her best.

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner [book review]

The Mars RoomShould I be so unfortunate to find myself  detained in one of Her Majesty’s prisons, I will at least, thanks to Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room, have several survival strategies at my fingertips.

I will know for example that it’s possible to smuggle pills by using peanut butter to attach them to the roof of your mouth.

I’ll know how to send and receive contraband through the air vents and toilet system (making sure of course to wrap everything tightly in plastic).

And, to make up for the absence of real alcohol, I will be able to brew hooch from ketchup sachets, fruit juice cartons and a sock stuffed with bread (necessary to create the yeast) even if the result does look and smell like vomit. The secret is that  “… you got to double decant it ….. It’s got to breathe.”

Kushner displays an impressive knowledge of life inside a women’s correctional facility in California; the strip-searches, shacklings and lock downs and the rules that govern every moment and every aspect of the women’s lives.

There are lists of rules scattered through the book

No orange clothing

No clothing in any shade of blue

No white clothing

No yellow clothing

No beige or khaki clothing

No green clothing

No red clothing

No purple clothing

Wouldn’t it just have been simpler to tell these inmates what they could wear??

There are even rules about rules.

The failure to report a rule violation … is also a rule violation. The failure to report a rule violation of a failure to report a rule violation is another rule violation.

The Mars Room is a powerful indictment of the penal system as seen through a 29-year-old single mother who has been convicted of murder. We first encounter Romy Hall as she is taken by bus to the Stanville correctional facility where she will serve two consecutive life sentences with an additional six years for endangering her young son.

She’s already learned not to cry. Two years earlier on her first night in jail after her arrest she had cried uncontrollably, believing her life was over though hoping desperately that it was all a dream. But now she knows there is no point in looking ahead.

 I don’t plan on living a long life. Or a short life, necessarily. I have no plans at all. The thing is you keep existing whether you have a plan to do so or not. But not having plans doesn’t mean I don’t have regrets.

From this point, the novel moves backwards and forwards in time,  tracing her childhood and early years in the “fog-banked, treeless and bleak” streets of San Francisco. The city she inhabited is one tourists don’t get to see, a city of brothels, dive bars, casinos and strip joints, the seediest of all being The Mars Room where she worked as a lap dancer.  The man she killed was one of the regulars at the club. When he began turning up at her local supermarket and shadowing her home, she did a disappearing act only for him to track her down. The night she killed him her young son was asleep in her arms.

The Mars Room is predominantly Rachel’s story though there are narratives from two men associated with the penal system. One is a corrupt police officer now behind bars who takes pride in the crimes he committed and the other is a bit of an idealist brought in to teach literature in the prison. Neither of these interludes was anywhere as engrossing as Rachel’s own story and her interactions with fellow inmates.

What a fascinating bunch they are: the resident ultra bully Teardrop; Conan, a trans woman who uses woodwork classes to make dildos; the baby-killer Laura Lipp and, on death row, the former model Betty LaFrance,  chief brewer of the ketchup moonshine. When they’re on stage, the book comes alive.

Unfortunately, while there is much to admire in The Mars Room, it’s attraction began to fade for me in the final section. Up until this point we’d been exposed to the injustice at the heart of Romy’s situation. The court never heard how she was terrified by the man she killed because the lawyer appointed to take her case was incompetent. Once convicted she has no recourse for an appeal and no-one willing to help her when her son is taken into care.

Kushner’s narrative gives full exposure to the way the justice system has broken down. There is a wealth of information to explain how her fellow inmates are also victims; nudged into crime as a result of poverty, drugs and abuse. After a while it feels like we’re being beaten over the head until we understand the point. I found myself skipping paragraphs (never a good sign). And then it ends with a moment of epiphany that simply didn’t ring true. What started as a book that impressed me with its directness just seemed to dissolve without reaching any resolution.

I can see why the Booker Prize judges put it on the shortlist but for me it was a book that was good in parts but ultimately didn’t live up to its initial promise.

 

 

 

 

WWWednesday: What Are You Reading? 24 October 2018

It’s a while since I did this meme which involves answering three questions set by Sam at Taking on a World of Words 

 

What are you currently reading?

South Riding

During a recent bout of  “squaring away” (otherwise known as a “tidy up”) I found my copy of Winifred Holtby’s best known novel: South Riding.  It’s set in the world of her upbringing in Yorkshire in which she creates a fictional rural community struggling with the effects of the depression.

Into this community steps a new headmistress with a vision of making changes and putting her school on the map. She needs to win over some of the most powerful local figures including a gentleman farmer whose world is falling apart, Mrs Beddows, the first alderman of the district and Councillor Snaith, a cunning and manipulative fellow  member of the council.

So far this is proving to be a marvellous and engrossing tale.

What did you recently finish reading?

The Mars RoomThe only 2018 Booker contender I managed to read this year was The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner. The title comes from the name of a strip joint where Romy Hall, a young single mother once worked. Now she is in a women’s correctional facility in California, serving two life sentences for murder. The novel, written in an unforgettable, direct voice, is an unflinching indictment of the prison system. It’s not a book that you can really say you ‘enjoy’.

 

What do you think you’ll read next?

Warlight

Usually I find this a difficult question to answer because I don’t like planning ahead. But on this occasion, it couldn’t been easier.  As soon as I heard about Michael Ondaatje’s new novel Warlight, I put in my reservation at the library. It’s just become available but such is the interest from other readers, there’s no chance of renewing the loan. So my default this is my next read though I can honestly say I’m being pushed into this choice.

Now We Shall be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller [book review]

Now we shall be freeNow We Shall be Entirely Free is an atmospheric adventure tale, set at the height of the Napoleonic wars, that won me over right from the opening page.

It begins with an unconscious man travelling by coach through a rain-drenched English countryside. He is Captain John Lacroix, son of a wealthy Somerset family, who has returned home from a disastrous campaign against Napoleon’s forces in Spain. He’d set off for the war full of optimism and splendidly equipped with new (and expensive) leather boots, a pelisse with fur-lined collar and numerous shirts, waistcoats and neckties.

He returns in borrowed and patched clothes, his feet bound with strips of cloth and his hearing damaged. He is a broken man.

Like the clothes he had arrived in, the pack was not his own. … this one had the look of something raked out of the fire. Scorched, filthy. Black with tar or grease, the world’s filth.

He’s nursed from the brink of death by his housekeeper. But he is clearly a man changed physically and mentally by his experience of war.  It’s not until much later in the novel that we discover the cause of his breakdown: an atrocity committed in a quiet mountain village while the British army was in retreat.

When a fellow officer turns up at the house with instructions for John to return to his return, he flees to Scotland. What he doesn’t know is that some time earlier in Spain a military committee held to inquire into the atrocity decided that someone must be held responsible. They determine Lacroix is that someone. So they despatch a British officer called Calley to find and kill him. .

Lacroix’s escape and Calley’s pursuit sets up the dramatic focus of the novel. Will the regiment catch up with Lacroix before Calley? How long can Lacroix survive on his own wits (the signs are not good because almost as soon as he sets foot in Scotland he is robbed and beaten). The suspense is maintained throughout by alternating Lacroix’s narrative with that of Calley and his companion Medina, a Spanish officer.

Miller excels at creating atmosphere and characters. Calley is the most interesting. He’s a man entirely devoid of principles. A man on a mission to kill. He thinks nothing of torturing and beating up the people he believes have information that will help him track down his quarry. He tells one of his victims:

You want to know who I am? I’ll tell you who I am. I am the war. Yes? And today the war has come to you. It has come right into your house and struck you down.

But in one moment of candour he tells how he learned from an early age how to take care of himself. Working as a piecer in a cotton mill as a child, he would crawl underneath the machines to clean them. One slip and he’d lose his fingers or have his arm ripped off.

While Now We Shall be Entirely Free is certainly an adventure story, there is an element of romance. When Lacroix hides out in the Scottish Hebrides he encounters the Fender siblings, a small community of free thinkers.  Lacroix is enthralled by one of the sisters, Emily, accompanying her to Glasgow for a highly risky operation she hopes will restore her failing sight.  Miller fortunately spares us some of the more gruesome details of the procedure.

The budding romance, which is quite touching in its gentleness and innocence provides a lovely counter to the darkness of the war and the theme of culpability.  Early on in the novel a shadowy officer involved in the military query observes that “No ancient and honourable institution is without its ancient and honourable crimes.”   Lacroix himself is pushed by the Fenders, who do not believe in violence, to question his motives for becoming a soldier. He has to admit he had thought more about the uniform than the fact he would be expected to kill.

If he can evade Calley, will his love for Emily enable Lacroix to put aside his memories of the war? The ending of the novel is deliciously ambivalent. I’m not going to spoil other readers’ enjoyment by revealing the details.

Why I read this book

I loved an earlier novel by Andrew Miller – Pure – which is set in Paris and thought it was superb. So I was more than happy to get a copy of his newest novel from Netgalley in return for an honest review

 

The Secret River by Kate Grenville [Book Review]

The Secret RiverBy coincidence I started reading Kate Grenville’s story of a fictional family who were early settlers in Australia, around the same time that I was researching a real life family who left Ireland to make a new life in Australia.

Both families were forced into travelling the thousands of miles to the new world. Grenville’s patriarch was a convict, transported for life for stealing wood; mine was a farmer fleeing from the Irish potato famine.

Though I suspect both the fictional and the real-life families suffered similar difficulties with an unfamiliar climate and terrain, I don’t know whether ‘my’ family experienced the same conflicts with the indigenous population as the convict William Thornhill does when he tries to colonise some land.

Thornhill was born in London into a life of poverty.  He’s not an inherently wicked man  but turns to petty crime because it offers an opportunity to keep body and soul alive. Unfortunately he gets caught and is sentenced to death. Transportation is his escape from the gallows.

With his wife Sal and their children he arrives in New South Wales. Through hard work he is able to earn his freedom and to start afresh. He discovers a plot of land in an inlet of the Hawkesbury River, that he is determined to own and cultivate.

In The Secret River, Grenville shows the effect of a burning desire for ownership and how it changes an otherwise decent, hard working and sensitive man.

Cultivation of the new land is a hard task but what keeps Sal going is the belief that one day they will have enough money to return to her beloved London. But the land and the river have taken grip of William. It’s the one time in his life that he has something that is his. Being a landowner represents dignity and status, and he wants to keep it even if that means conflict with the woman he loves.

… nothing would console him for the loss of that point of land the shape of his thumb. For the light in the mornings, slanting in through the trees. For the radiant cliffs in the sunset and the simple blue of the sky. For the feeling of striding out over ground that was his own. For knowing he was a king, as he would only ever be king in that place.

But he has not reckoned that there is another group who equally believe the land they are the rightful owners of this plot of land.

The mysterious, dark-skinned people who appear and disappear from the forests, seem seem to him no more than naked savages.  Other ex- convicts up river have found a way to accommodate themselves with the Aborigines but not William. He is angered when they steal his crops and incensed to find his son playing with their children. This to him feels like a betrayal.

When violence between Aborigines and the white settlers erupts further along the river, William is shown a way to protect his own family and everything he has worked for in Australia.  But it requires him to accept bloodshed and violence.  It’s hard to read this part of the novel without a sense of dread about the decision William has to make because it’s unlikely to have a happy outcome.

This is a novel about two attitudes to the land (the settlers and the Aborigines) but also about two rivers.

Grenville shows the Thames as a harsh and unforgiving, environment against which William contends when he plies his trade as a boatman. Yet he loves the river:

After a time the mud-choked water and the ships it carried, thick on its back like fleas on a dog, became nothing more than a big room of which every corner was known. He came to love that wide pale light around him out on the river, the falling away of insignificant things in the face of the great radiance of the sky. He would rest on the oars at Hungerford Reach, where the tide could be relied on to sweep him around, and stare along the water at the way the light wrapped itself around every object.

Even when he’s soaked through and his face is reddened and swollen by the cold and rain, he accepts his condition because “it was as pointless to complain about the weather as it was to complain that he had been born … in a dank, stuffy room rather than … with a silver spoon waiting to have his name engraved on it.”

The Hawkesbury River  fires William’s imagination even more than the Thames. Until he saw the sparkle and dance of light on the water, the way the cliffs tumble into the river through snaking mangroves and the sound of wind rustling through skinny, grey-green trees, he had never realised that a man could fall in love with the land. Or that he could become a different man entirely.

This sky, those cliffs, that river were no longer the means by which he might return to some other place. This was where he was; not just in body but in soul as well.

A man’s heart was a deep pocket he might turn out and be amazed at what he found there.

The is a well-paced novel in the way Grenville shows an escalation of the conflict between Aborigines and some of the white settlers and the conflict within William as he faces his moral dilemma.

Some reviewers have commented that they would have preferred The Secret River to more morally ambiguous. Grenville, they thought, over simplified the portrayal of the  attitudes of the settlers to the Aborigines. Actually I thought her exploration of how people are brought to act against their principles and values,  was far more nuanced than they gave her credit for.

It seems this novel, which won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2006, and was a Booker prize nominee, is the first in a trilogy. I wonder whether the next two titles will have the same level of tension.

 

My challenge with poetry

poet-tree

Can you recite a poem without any notes or prompts?

When was the last time you learned a poem by heart?

For me the answers are:

  • No. I know the starts of many poems and snatches of many others but if I were ever called upon to deliver one in public, I’d be a complete failure
  • I suspect many people will say that they haven’t learned a poem since they were in school (and I don’t mean college; I mean the kind of school you attended before you were 18). My last experience is rather more recent than that but is still a good 10 years back. I was taking an Open University module which included poetry and needed to go into the exam confident I could quote from a good range of poems. So I pushed myself to learn large sections of about six poems.

I’ve since forgotten most of what I learned then.

Poetry, it has to be said, does not figure much in my life. I have some collections at home but can’t remember the last time I took one off the shelf let alone opened the book.

But then alone came National Poetry Day in the UK which resulted in a number of articles and broadcasts about poetry.

One was a feature article about a man called Gary Dexter who walks up to complete strangers in the street or the pub, asks them to name their favourite poem, and then offers to recite it in exchange for a small fee.

He started off with a repertoire of 30 poems (which took him a month to learn) but has now doubled this. He finds that the same requests crop up over and over again. Top of the list is Rudyard Kipling’s If, followed by This be the Verse by Philip Larkin and Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen.

Then there was a broadcast on Radio 4 One in which Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, disclosed she runs through poems to help her sleep. Pretty impressive since she learned these poems at school and she is now 71 years old. She’s backing  a call for the public to learn poetry by heart to stave off “senior moments”. Judi Dench is also on board (astoundingly she can recite the whole of Twelfth Night and Midsummer Night’s Dream without notes!).

So I got to thinking that learning some poems by heart could be a) a good way to help keep my brain working and thus mitigate the potential of dementia and b) a means to encourage me to read more poetry.

I’m not setting myself a target for how many I try to learn or over what period. That would be one way to guarantee I lose interest.

But I’m going to attempt one a month. I don’t just want to learn the poem so I can recite it back; I’d like to be able to discuss its potential meaning and where it fits into the canon of that poet’s work.

But where to begin?

I could just start with the “nation’s favourite poems”, a list of the 30 most requested pieces as documented by Gary Dexter. There are some predictable choices in there – Daffodils by William Wordsworth and Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas.

But I think I’d rather start with poems of which I already know some lines. It’s a wayof easing into the practice.

October is therefore the month that I tackle William Wordsworth. Not Daffodils or any of his Lucy poems but the sonnet Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802. 

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendor, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! The very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

I chose this because it relates to one of my favourite parts of London and unusually for Wordsworth, who was not a great lover of the city, this sonnet shows that he finds beauty in a man-made scene. The rhyme scheme also helps with recalling the lines (yes I wanted an easy option to get me started…)

 

 

 

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