Sunday, January 30, 2011

Philip Pullman, Alexandria and the democracy of libraries.

Philip Pullman delivered an impassioned speech on January 20 defending the Oxfordshire libraries in the UK - nearly half of them are under threat of closure due to funding cuts. In it he recalled what libraries had meant to him
"I still remember the first library ticket I ever had. It must have been about 1957. My mother took me to the public library just off Battersea Park Road and enrolled me. I was thrilled. All those books, and I was allowed to borrow whichever I wanted! And I remember some of the first books I borrowed and fell in love with: the Moomin books by Tove Jansson; a French novel for children called A Hundred Million Francs; why did I like that? Why did I read it over and over again, and borrow it many times? I don’t know. But what a gift to give a child, this chance to discover that you can love a book and the characters in it, you can become their friend and share their adventures in your own imagination.
And the secrecy of it! The blessed privacy! No-one else can get in the way, no-one else can invade it, no-one else even knows what’s going on in that wonderful space that opens up between the reader and the book. That open democratic space full of thrills, full of excitement and fear, full of astonishment, where your own emotions and ideas are given back to you clarified, magnified, purified, valued. You’re a citizen of that great democratic space that opens up between you and the book. And the body that gave it to you is the public library. Can I possibly convey the magnitude of that gift?
Somewhere in Blackbird Leys, somewhere in Berinsfield, somewhere in Botley, somewhere in Benson or in Bampton, to name only the communities beginning with B whose libraries are going to be abolished, somewhere in each of them there is a child right now, there are children, just like me at that age in Battersea, children who only need to make that discovery to learn that they too are citizens of the republic of reading. Only the public library can give them that gift.
A little later, when we were living in north Wales, there was a mobile library that used to travel around the villages and came to us once a fortnight. I suppose I would have been about sixteen. One day I saw a novel whose cover intrigued me, so I took it out, knowing nothing of the author. It was called Balthazar, by Lawrence Durrell. The Alexandria Quartet – we’re back to Alexandria again – was very big at that time; highly praised, made much fuss of. It’s less highly regarded now, but I’m not in the habit of dissing what I once loved, and I fell for this book and the others, Justine, Mountolive, Clea, which I hastened to read after it. I adored these stories of wealthy cosmopolitan bohemian people having affairs and talking about life and art and things in that beautiful city. Another great gift from the public library."

The whole speech is here.

I was also enrolled in a library by my mother - this one in Karori. A dark narrow place with high shelves, or so they seemed, and that smell of stacked paper.  I must have been 4 or 5. Mum was a librarian and treated libraries as others treat churches. We would each take a pile of books. Mum would get through hers in a week and go back for more. There were never any fines.

I read the Alexandria Quartet in London courtesy of Shoe Lane Library. It was in the same street where I worked. I didn't have a lot of money for buying books (my preferred option) and the library was right there, so one day I walked in. The books! And yes, Faber's Alexandria Quartet, which I had not met until that moment. I borrowed it book by book and read them every day on the tube. And after I finished, what? I'm not sure. I might have quit the Shoe Lane job at that point and moved to Athens, where I joined the British Embassy library. But that's another story.

The point is, although I buy books now (and thanks to my son I have copies of the Quartet), libraries made me a citizen of the republic of reading, and my mother handed me the key.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Can't teach an old popcorn machine... and my Best Books 2010

I had 8.5 minutes on National Radio to barrel through my Best Books for 2010, and barrel I did - despite my best intentions to go for the unhurried conversational pace of the lovely Graham Beattie who offered up his Best Books yesterday.

I have so much I want to say to do justice to the chosen books, and although I try to cull some of my thoughts to - you know - take a breath, they just come popping out unbidden and unstoppable like popcorn from a popcorn machine.

The great thing is I said most of what I wanted to say. Eight and a half minutes is a good amount of time for the review slot (Graham managed manfully on just over five), so I was lucky. And host Kathryn Ryan is a good sort, batting at the flying popcorn with a grin on her face, chomping on the odd one, and licking the butter off her fingers.

Click here for the review with Kathryn.

Here are my Best Books:

1. Katherine Mansfield The Storyteller by Kathleen Jones (Penguin NZ)
2. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (4th Estate)
3. Ephraim's Eyes by Brian Walpert (Rose Pewter Press)
4. How the Land Lies by Pat White (VUP)
5. These I Have Loved edited by Harvey McQueen (Steele Roberts)

And if you have trouble with the link to the review, I've had a listen back and fleshed out my notes so you can read at your leisure....

Best Books 2010: Nine to Noon 

1.    Katherine Mansfield The Storyteller by Kathleen Jones (Penguin - biography)
This book took ten years to write and is meticulously researched using new material in public domain.

I met Kathleen, a UK writer, when she visited NZ last year. She reached into her pocket and produced a brooch which had belonged to Katherine Mansfield, and was a gift from an elderly woman who’d known KM and Ida Baker. It was a gesture of thanks to the author for her sympathetic and sensitive approach to Mansfield's life. It is sympathetic writing - a story tenderly told in the language of a poet, which Kathleen Jones is. 

Most biographies have an elegiac tone in looking back over  a life - this bio has a sense of real time, of events unfolding in front of us. Two reasons: the precise details of KM’s life are given every step of the way as we follow her moving around different houses and countries, seeking a place to settle down and write, and later a cure; the structure is unusual - going back and forward in time, including on into John Middleton Murry’s life and marriages after Katherine. 

2.    Freedom by Jonathan Franzen [4th Estate - novel]

Like his hit novel Corrections, Freedom is one of those old time literary novels - the Epic. 

It's the story of an American middle class mid-western American family in turmoil : late 70s to today (Patty & Walter Berglund and their two children). It looks at the impact of modern life on their lives and the impact of their lives on the planet. There are dollops of familial love & hate, lust and betrayal, and the book is packed with political and environmental issues e.g. over-consumption/over-population/loss of birds/Iraq war. 

Freedom is hectic, funny, erudite, intensely psychological with precise, layered characters that are beyond being hateful or loveable – they just are.

3.    Ephraim’s Eyes by Bryan Walpert (Pewter Rose Press – short stories, available at Unity, Bruce McKenzie's and other independent bookstores, or online e.g. Book Depository)

Bryan Walpert is an American who lives in NZ, an academic and poet. 
Like Franzen, his characters are pitch-perfect with authentic lives, but there's nothing hectic or epic about these stories. They are what I call Black Diamonds: crafted, polished, cerebral, compact with a dark undertow – and cleverly linked.

Brian won the Manhire Science Prize for  one of the stories; he often uses prism of science and philosophy to explain life’s vicissitudes. He believes the way to the heart is through the head. Their impact reminds of Charlotte Grimshaw’s story collections. 

Each story contains someone’s grief - man damaged by war who owns a magic shop and finds himself teaching tricks to a needy boy, a man whose job is to check billboards for damage but who is taken up with checking the perceived wreck of his own life, a woman with a secret needs a new cupboard, and gets a mycologist in as a flatmate to help pay for it.

Now two other New Zealanders whose work has had an impact on me this year: 

4.    How the Land Lies by Pat White [VUP - memoir/essays]
This book charts the life of a man who felt the odd one out in a West Coast family. Sensitive, intellectual and vulnerable, he was drawn to art and poetry rather than farming. He writes of how he lived on the land down South and ended up in the Wairarapa growing olives. This book is also a contemplation on the healing and overarching power of nature – and of the need for people to slow down and take care of and enjoy what is god-given.

There are two outstanding chapters on the kahu/falcon and the power to be had in walking, and a  tender evocation of the Wairarapa and of farming there. 

5. These I Have Loved ed. By Harvey McQueen [Steele Roberts - anthology]
The last book by poet, educationalist, and ground-breaking anthologist Harvey McQueen who sadly died on Christmas Day. This is an anthology of a 100 NZ poems Harvey loved. A great range from old classics like Milking Before Dawn by Ruth Dallas to James K Baxter to Jenny Borndholdt to Mark Pirie’s poke at NZ nature poems.

It's like reading one of my mother's well-thumbed anthologies for its comfortableness. Harvey mentioned one of them: 'Other Men's Flowers' by Lord Wavell as an inspiration. 

Wonderful introductions to each section giving the reader a taste of what one of Harvey’s students said was – ‘the best poetry teacher I ever had’. They put poets and poems in context and give them each  Harvey's personal stamp of approval. This is the same unhurried, erudite, thoughtful writing as This Piece of Earth, Harvey’s wonderful memoir of life in his garden which bids us all to take more time to reconnect with the earth.      

Harvey McQueen's Memorial Service is 11 am tomorrow Friday January 28 at Old St Paul's Mulgrave Street, Wellington. 

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Graham Beattie - master bookman

Bookman Beattie and books
Graham Beattie
Photo by Harvey Benge
A terrific 'Best Books of 2010' review on National Radio this morning delivered by a master: Graham Beattie, he of the masterful book blog, one time Managing Director of Penguin NZ, and an all round lovely guy.

Quite frankly, we NZ writers don't know what we'd do without Graham - he publicises our work and our awards and our blogs and our doings with unmatchable generosity and enthusiasm - and throws together the cream of the literary action overseas too to keep us (and his huge overseas readership) informed. He tells me he can spend up to eight hours a day on Beattie's Book Blog and he does it for the love of it, not a cent crosses his palm. Amazing.

Go here  to listen to his review, and you'd be strong-minded to be able to resist any of the three recommendations. He speaks so unhurriedly, so personally, so warmly - erudite without being snobbish, informative without being condescending, and is so 110% in love with books, one is beguiled.

I am doing my 'best of' tomorrow at 10.30 am, available streamed or as a download (from around 11) on Tip from Graham to remember: less is more. I usually try to cram too much in.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Tuesday Poem: Clarity

for artist, claire beynon

she's writing, sleeveless 
in slanted sunlight, a
picture of clarity 
she folds paper boats
she folds paper boats, say it
she folds paper boats
somehow they float
kelp and other detritus
the marks they make 
on shiny sand - she bends
in slanted sunlight
captures them 
how often glass and water
and ice figure, the way 
they hold light, store light, 
hold you, store you, melt,
crack, fling it, fling you
the boats are stacked and taken
south where the ice is, let go
to journey there, like sleep, 
like dreams, like dream boats
she's painting, sleeveless
in slanted sunlight, there's
light, there's glass, there's
paper, there's an excellent
chance she'll float

                                     mary mccallum

This poem is about my co-curator at Tuesday Poem, Claire Beynon. I have only met her once for an hour or so, but feel I know her well enough to call her a friend through our internet connection and especially our Tuesday Poem project. It is a strange feeling, though, like being friends with a less 'substantial' being.

An angel image comes to mind because Claire is often drawn to paint the fall of light in the natural world, because her imagination - in her art and her poetry - is surreal in its breadth, because her heart is enormous, because today she texted me today to say all was well with the post for the Tuesday Poem hub this week because she was working on it in a slant of sunshine. 

I tried to imagine that. I don't know her home, I barely know how she does things day to day, but I could call up her outline, the light - like an old painting, like one of her paintings - falling on her blonde hair, her slight shoulders. And all of her would be concentrated on the task at hand (despite the needling, light-draining, cries of a thousand other tasks and needs) and doing her best by it for the sake of the poet, the poem, Tuesday Poem, Tuesday Poets, Tuesday Poem readers, all poems the world over, all readers the world over, me. Because that's Claire.

Check out her work , especially her folded boats (made, I confess, with bamboo not paper) and a mesmerising movie of them under the Antarctic ice; then visit her blog, and the Tuesday Poem with her selection this week. There are links there to 30 Tuesday Poets.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Moomintrolls and the art of keeping and discovering secrets

Two gorgeous secrets discovered today.

First up, this quote by Moomintroll author Tove Jansson - much needed as my children's novel nears completion. I have been reading other children's books (9-11 age group) to brush up on what makes a children's book really tick, and then I discovered this:
"Every children's book should have a path in it where the writer stops and the child goes on. A threat or a delight that can never be explained. A face never completely revealed." (Tove Jansson)
Yes, of course. Of course.  Oh I love those Moomins.

And the other secret is an artistic version of Jansson's statement - an artist who uses lines that hide as much as they reveal. I've known Helen Reynolds for a while (she and her husband bought our last house and we nod in the street), although I haven't properly engaged with her work until now.

I met Helen outside the dairy today and instead of nodding, we talked about how to be a creative person one needs to be a selfish person - something we (with five children between us) find hard to do.

I left vowing to check out her blog. And I did and well, wow. Helen Reynold's art uses topography and landscape to create works that are sensual and muscular and bounding with energy. That are as interior as they are exterior. One made me think immediately of my poem Notorious Veins with its knotted interior landscape, and this - the latest image up - seems to evoke the sensuous landscape in my Tuesday Poem this week: After Reading Auden.

I have put a link to Helen's blog in the sidebar to be alert to her daily images. It reminds me of the excitement I felt when I used to have a link to Nasa images.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Tuesday Poem: After Reading Auden

The river we swim
fresh from the horses, under
the sun he calls ‘incurious’,
becomes a man’s body reclining –
its current, muscular,
its translucent depths, flesh.
And we are in deep, held tight
at the shoulders, hips, wrists,
wrapped by arms yielding and
not yielding.

From the very first coming down
into the new valley, we felt the force
of the river’s intimacy, its deep
soundless need – not sour,
not shiftless, but lucid, expressive,
sweet. The leaping light from the cliffs,
the unexpected greenness of trees,
the harrier on thermal air, broom pods
popping in the heat, and we, the girls and I,

At last, we pull away, God knows how,
and climb up through the truffle-dark
horses and yellow broom to the hill-top,
and we pause there and look
back at the river stretching its limbs,
arching its back, its mouth
a soundless ‘o’ of green ecstasy.
And slowly,
             so slowly, limb by limb,
we dry the water from our faithless skin.

                                                     Mary McCallum

All of the above is true. It happened in our summer break over the hill in a place of exceptional rivers. The Penguin Poets' volume of Auden's selected poetry I bought for a couple of dollars from a book fair. Rediscovering him in this worn and slender book that can fit in a pocket or a palm has been a delight; discovering this particular river valley, a thrill. 

Do click on the Tuesday Poem quill in my sidebar to find this week's hub poem by Seattle poet T. Clear. It is my selection as editor this week, and should not be missed. After that check out my fellow Tuesday Poets in the live blog roll. Wonderful stuff there always.

POSTSCRIPT- In April, this poem won the inaugural International Caselberg Poetry Prize 2011, and as part of that was published in the May edition of Landfall 2011. 

Sunday, January 16, 2011

This Seagull Heart of Mine

Cover of ListenerAn extract of my novel This Seagull Heart of Mine was published in last week's NZ Listener (Jan 8-14) as part of Summer Reading. I was hoping it would be put online this week so I could share it - but it's not to be. A copy can always be ordered via the website, I guess, or read in the library.

I found the publication - and the interest and care shown by Arts Editor Guy Somerset - hugely encouraging. Over the summer break, I headed back into my children's novel to finish it - it's almost there - and when that's done, I'll be able to attack Seagull with renewed vigour.

Here's a snippet of it...

This Seagull Heart of Mine [short extract]
By Mary McCallum © 2010

I first saw her in the scoop of a digger, naked. Or that’s what I tell her. There were half a dozen times before that she doesn’t need to know about which I keep to myself. For the purposes of our friendship, it was the digger that brought her to me, like Venus on the half shell.

It had been there for a week, working in a desultory fashion to widen her driveway. Now it was parked just inside the double gate, the massive scoop turned skywards and resting half-way up a freshly dug bank. It was a crèpe de chine day. The air hung in hot heavy folds, and out in the harbour the sea did the same. It wasn’t a day for walking, really, but I wasn’t intending to go far – just around the block to escape the gardening and stretch my legs. I could feel the secateurs in my skirt pocket, and when I moved, I wafted coriander and rosemary. I was my own bouquet garni.           

The avenue of trees that made up her drive was unusual in a street that had once been nothing more than seaside baches, and on a day like this, it caught and held the cooler air in a tantalising fashion. There was a subtlety about the light, too, that contrasted favourably with the grass verges behind which the rest of us lived. From the day I’d moved to Matiu Street, I’d stopped to rest my eyes on that driveway, and had spent some time imagining the house at the end of it. I’d even volunteered to collect for the SPCA so I could go and see it for myself. I hadn’t met her that time, though, let alone known about her; it was the boy who answered the door. Smells Like Teen Spirit was playing then and it was playing now. The voice of that pained and angry man has become familiar to me, and therefore in some way interesting, but back then I dismissed it as teenage music, heavy on bass and angst.                        

Beyond the music, there was the whine of a speedboat in the bay and the small sounds of metal flexing itself on roofs and gutters against the heat of the sun. And something else. It had dropped heavily from one of the trees. My stomach tensed and I leaned back a little as if about to leave, but the light in the avenue quickly shifted, cohered and became muscular. A cat. It stretched and walked towards me, tail high and white fur sprigged with shadow. Then it was gone, gliding through the iron gate, past my legs and out onto the empty street. The combination of the impossible heat of the day, the dappled avenue, the machine-gun music and the white cat, gathered into a feeling I’d had all week: that I was on the cusp of something. 

Friday, January 7, 2011

Harvey McQueen RIP

The first book on my list of hammock reading over summer was This Piece of Earth (Awa Press) by Harvey McQueen - a fellow Tuesday Poet. I started it on Boxing Day, without knowing Harvey had died on Christmas Day, and finished it three days later drunk on its lovely words. This Piece of Earth is a memoir based around Harvey's passion for gardening and food with segues into his other passions: poetry and education.

It’s a book that above all else begs you to take the time to reconnect physically with the planet: listen to the song of the tui, appreciate the chutzpah of the self-sown seedling, observe the wings of the housefly, delight in the brief scent of the violet, share a bowl of green herb soup. It is written in a way that slows you down, calms you, makes you think again - as Harvey's wonderful blog stoatspring did for me on an almost daily basis.
Here's an extract from the May & June chapter of This Piece of Earth:

The tui whirrs daily. Often a pair of fantails fluster beneath him. As winter proceeds the garden looks increasingly forlorn and dilapidated, but the violets, red pineapple sage, polyanthus, alyssum and resident chrysanthemum try to keep a brave face on things. By early June the freesias and ranunculuses are up, and crocuses and daffodils are breaking through. The Lest We Forget rose has one deep-red bloom. I pick it and present it to Anne. She adds it to the vase of violets I gathered yesterday. (p.230)
A day after finishing the book, I heard Harvey had died. I was devastated. It seemed so incredibly strange, too, to have my head full to brimming with his voice and his words when he was no longer on this earth to say them. And yet, I guess … how it should be for a writer, how he would want it to be. The next day I planted my neglected tomato plants – higgledy-piggledy with an ad hoc sort of frame to grow up, but Harvey would say that didn’t matter, nor the fact of all the self-sown calendula flowers in the vegetable bed. The tomatoes are already putting out flowers and some fruit. Every time I water or weed them I think to myself: this is a Harvey moment. I know I’ll think the same the first time I slice one of my tomatoes on a plate and eat it with olive oil and bread and a glass of good wine.

Tuesday Poem has been very lucky to have had Harvey McQueen as a member and we will miss him. I will post a full tribute on Tuesday Poem this coming week January 11. Meanwhile check out the post that went up this week with links to the Last Post on Harvey's blog, and the tributes by Tuesday Poets in the sidebar.

Rest in Peace, Harvey.