Monday, 24 November 2008

The Dark...

I hate waking up in the dark. Not hate as in ‘with venom’: that kind of hate – like the hate you have for injustice or stupid cruelty – I can cope with, get my teeth into, be passionate about. No, my hatred of waking in the dark – well, of anything in the dark really – is composed more of a cold fear in the pit of my stomach, an atavistic dread seeping through me, a physical teetering on the edge of sanity, if sanity is the ability to remember that most of my life is lived in the light, that it is good, and not be overwhelmed by negativity and despair.

Often, when asked about my favourite time of the year, I say I dislike winter but I don’t, actually. I mean, winter’s got a lot going for it – frost, wonderful light, snow, better stuff on the telly, comfort food. And the clothes - I much prefer winter clothes to summer ones. It’s something to do with the absence of doubt about whether you’re going to be warm enough (constant for me in British ‘summers’), about not having to slap sun screen on for a ten minute think in the garden and not having to sit in people’s gardens as the midges bite and we eat rapildy cooling barbecued food while I lose touch with my extremities...
And I love the lights of winter – Christmas lights on the high street, fairy lights in people’s windows, open fires, candles…

No, it’s the dark I hate and I’m quite capable of hating it in the summer too, it’s just that there’s so much more of it in the winter. Like when you wake up, which is where we came in…

We get up at 6.30 in our house, like lots of people, I guess, to get us all through the shower and a staggered breakfast before leaving for school, work or – in my case – a before-writing walk. Though I’m not the biggest morning person in the world, I’m ok at getting up when it’s light out. I actually resent having to sleep (at all) pretty thoroughly, so getting up and getting on seems like a good plan. But when it’s dark everything in me screams that this is not natural, that we should be being woken up by the sun when the day’s properly beginning, not by a little beepy noise which says ‘I know it’s dark, I know you hate and fear it, but tough, open your eyes and get up.’

I think the light box that the Bassist and I huddle in front of every morning for six months of the year has got to migrate upstairs in the evenings, so that I can flick it on as soon as the alarm goes. I covet one of those dawn-light thingies which simulates sunrise but that’ll have to wait until we’re rich/the boys are through university…

And the point of all this maundering?
I think fear of the dark is, at some quite fundamental level, why I write at all.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

The Bassist and his Bass

The Bassist, who was 17 on Friday, has added to his Bass-player credibility by making his own bass. Yes, from scratch,with wood and stuff. It was his Dad's idea - he thinks that you can do anything as long as you've got a book telling you how. Sadly, he's often right.

This is the result.

For those of you who know about these things, it was going to have a through neck but something warped and the strings lay too low on the fretboard (there's a technical term for this but I've forgotten it and, as the B is at school and the UFF is still in bed as befits a gap-year student, you will have to remain in ignorance. Or not if you know about these things.). So he had to buy a ready-made neck and attach it which was a bit sad but the bass plays beautifully. Apparently, not varnishing it gives it better low tone... he might wax it but then again, it sounds so good as it is he might not want to block up any spaces in the wood... Hmmm.

There are technical details about bridges, pickups etc which I can supply on request if readers of this blog are remotely interested, but only when the Bassist comes home.

I am amazingly impressed - at his age I could barely make toast...

Monday, 17 November 2008

Two Booker books

I’ve just read two books which had a similar feel – one was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize last year and the other won this year. As long as you know that this year’s winner was The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga and have even a passing acquaintance with last year’s list, you’ll probably guess that the other one was Mosin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

Why the similar feel? Well, Adiga’s novel is set in India, Hamid’s in Pakistan (though much of the action takes place in New York) so there’s the subcontinental resemblance, but that’s not it.
Both are first-person narratives detailing the dramatic changes in one person’s circumstances as they move away from the place they have grown up to seek their fortune elsewhere. But that’s not it either.

No, the thing which gives these very different books such a spookily similar feel is the fact that they are both constructed as stories which are being told to an audience of one.

Balram Halawi, a sweet-maker by caste and a cut above those around him by his own estimation, describes himself as a social entrepreneur. At the beginning of the book he is in his incongruously chandelier-lit office in Bangalore late at night, waiting for his ‘start up’ business to come alive as the call centre workers begin to trickle home. He is, improbably, speaking to Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, who is supposedly making a visit to Bangalore. Balram knows what Mr Wen will be shown on his visit and he wants to tell him what India is really like. So he tells him his own life story, the story of the one-in-a-generation phenomenon, the white tiger.

Mr Wen, he knows, will be shown the upside of modern India, the technology companies, the businesses ‘outsourced’ from Europe and North America, the shiny malls, the extensive building projects, the rising entrepreneur class which is going to propel India into the forefront of twentyfirst century economies.
What Balram Halawi wants Mr Wen – and, of course, us – to understand is that this dynamic modern India is an insubstantial urban mirage accessible only to the rich, the successful, the privileged; that the other ninety nine point nine percent of Indian society exists, in some sense, to service this mirage.
Balram’s India is a place where ruthlessness and not merit is a guarantor of success, where corruption is not simply common but necessary, where the vast majority of the populace are content to live in what he calls ‘the Rooster Coop’, unaware that they can break out, flap away and live a different sort of life. He presents an India where, despite the modern veneer, the caste system is as predictive of one’s chances of success as the feudal system was of the villein’s. In other words, if you’re born poor, don’t expect to be rich any time soon.
In Balram’s India the family structure – far from being the supportive, wisdom-imparting social network which we all mourn the loss of in the west – is a leech on a man’s talent and a bar to his ambition.

Balram’s India is not a nice place and Balram is not a nice person. He is, the novel asks us to believe, what his life, and India, has made him.

Changez – the considerably more likeable narrator of The Reluctant Fundamentalist – directs his narrative to someone considerably closer at hand, an American whom he has encountered in a restaurant and whom he treats to dinner and his life story. But, like Wen Jiabao, the American remains silent all through the book-long encounter. Though we infer his reactions (nervy, mistrustful, gun-toting) from the comments Changez makes in his slightly stilted, formal English, we never hear him speak, never hear his reactions to the picture Changez paints of a young Pakistani intellectual who goes to Princeton on a full scholarship, falls in love with an American girl (and her country) and then goes on to work as an analyst at a very prestigious firm. It is this business, with its constant insistence that its employees focus on ‘the fundamentals’ (ie the bottom line) which gives the book the reluctance of its title.

Or is it? While the novel shows how Changez grows disenchanted with America’s assumption of superiority in all possible spheres and rejects it in favour of his own country and its more ancient, less brash culture – his rejection of the ‘fundamentals’ of capitalism – I wonder if it’s also trying to suggest that, in rejecting one empire’s assumption of the right to dominate, Changez has made a positive decision for an alternative kind of domination?

The ending of The Reluctant Fundamentalist is ambiguous – at least to me.
As the novel unfolds, it has become clear that the large American is armed and military; given his constant silent watchfulness, it’s hard not to see him as an intelligence-gatherer of some kind. Is Changez’s insistence on taking hours to tell him his life-story an elaborate attempt to keep the American in the restaurant until some plan can be put into place? The final page certainly suggests this, or this possibility.
Has Changez, however reluctantly, abandoned the fundamentals of the capitalist creed only to take up those of another creed altogether?

So, similarities:
Both books ask what individuals will sacrifice to be successful in the world; each comes up with very different answers.
Both books, in very different ways, offer a critique of capitalism which has come adrift from morality.
Both books have narrators who are quite confident that they have seen the truth. In both cases the reader questions this.

I’d recommend both books – though, to be honest, I enjoyed The Reluctant Fundamentalist more as the world it portrayed wasn’t so brutal and its narrator was more engaging – and reading them back-to-back is an interesting exercise in various kinds of comparison.

Monday, 10 November 2008

The hardest thing...

Is it just me, or do other writers have problems getting in to scenes? As in, finding the right words to get the thing in motion, bridge from the last thing and into the next, mark the passage of time or just plain get the reader into the tortured thinking of the central character? I think I spend more time on these jumping off platforms than anywhere else in the book.
Once I’ve climbed up there and looked at the teeny tiny pool I’m aiming for and taken a deep breath and funked it, walked back, breathed again, aimed again and jumped… then, I’m usually OK…after the odd second failure to jump, near miss or weird landing in a different pool altogether.

But getting up there, leaving everything else behind and knowing exactly what you’re aiming for in this next effort – that seems to be the hardest thing for me.

What’s the hardest process thing for the other writers out there? Other than sorting out strained metaphors in other people’s blogs, obviously.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

An auspicious 200th post!

There was a note blu-tacked to the bathroom door this morning. It read ‘Obama won! He is now president elect of the United States!’ The Ultimate Frisbee Freak had stayed up til God knows what hour this morning to watch the coverage and relay this happy news to the rest of his family who have to get up early. This, I have to tell you, is a young man who struggles to remember which party forms the UK government and what the real name of the Tories is. Like so many of his generation, he doesn’t do politics. Just like so many people in the States who have never registered to vote before and yet did just that so that they could vote for Obama didn’t do politics. Just like young Jewish people who watched comedian Sarah Silverman’s Great Schlep video and took her seriously enough to mobilise not only themselves but their grandparents don’t generally do politics.
This was an important election.

I don’t think it was the fact that Barack Obama is of mixed race and therefore that history was about to be made by the first black president that made my son stay up. It wasn’t just that which made me well up and cheer at the news.
I think the emotions evoked by Barack Obama’s victory were the same as those I felt when I watched TV coverage of the first free elections in South Africa – people queuing hours to cast a vote they’d never had before - and Nelson Mandela became the first properly elected president of his country. What we saw then was a good man being chosen to run a newly liberated country and I think that what we are seeing today is a good man preparing to move his family into the White House. I think that’s what motivated the Ultimate Frisbee Freak’s vigil – he wouldn’t have stayed up to watch an African American with, for example, Sarah Palin’s views get elected.

I profoundly hope Barack Obama is the good man he appears to be because the world is in such a mess that the most powerful nation on earth has never been in greater need of a good man as its leader.

Good luck, Barack Obama, from a family that celebrated your victory with a note on their bathroom door.