Sunday 12 December 2010

Twelve Days to Christmas

Twelve days to Christmas and here's a Parakeet in a Pear Tree!

Green parakeets arrived in my area during the year and have made themselves at home.

Happy Christmas!

Sunday 31 October 2010

Reading to help recovery.

If you’re reading this, it’s a fair guess that you are a reader who actively seeks out things to read. You enjoy reading, you learn from your reading, you develop your world views through reading. But what would you do if you could no longer read? Perhaps you would listen instead. We are fortunate to have a wide variety of books now on CD - often beautifully read by actors, sometimes by the author. But what would you do if you now found it difficult to understand language - that the reading was too fast, or that you recognised words but couldn’t make sense of them?

People who have aphasia - also known as dysphasia - are in that position. Aphasia is an acquired language disorder associated with strokes. The degree of aphasia can be extremely variable, from very mild to so severe that it makes language utterly incomprehensible. Imagine yourself in a country where you know not one word of the language and no-one there knows one word of yours. You might mange a little basic communication through gesture and facial expression; you might manage to obtain a cup of coffee, a meal, a bed for the night, but would you be able to explain what you thought about life, what you believed in, could you tell someone your story? Could you correct them when they misunderstood you?

You would still have your thoughts, feelings, your knowledge of the world and your history but you wouldn’t be able to express them. You would still have a love for the written word, you just couldn’t access it. But as soon as you came home, you would once again understand the language around you.

So imagine if you were aphasic. This loss of communication would have a devastating effect on you. It wouldn’t automatically get better when you came home. You would still be you, but your difficulty in expressing opinions and decisions and following what someone else was saying, would sadly lead to some people no longer seeing you as a thinking, feeling person.

Even when verbal language is not too badly affected, aphasic people are often unable to read or write and this interaction with the written word is yet another loss, but perhaps if someone were to read to them it would help. As children we were read to - we could understand narratives that we could not have read for ourselves. It opened up our world, it gave reign to our imagination. It was stimulating, soothing. It was magic.

So perhaps for adults who have become dysphasic someone reading to them could do the same. If the reader read slowly, with plenty of expression and gesture, and if they read paragraphs, poems or short stories it could help rebuild their listener’s relationship to the written word. Hearing familiar passages can help foster confidence to understand something that once required no effort, but now requires more effort than climbing Everest.

Having a stroke is a frightening, bewildering event, no matter how kind and efficient the medical staff, however effective the treatment and therapy, and however supportive one’s family and friends. The relaxation through reading, which so many of us turn to in times of stress is denied. But for some people in this situation fortunately there are readers. The InterAct Reading Service is a charity that employs and trains actors to go into hospitals, day centres and clubs for those who have had stokes to read to people who cannot read for themselves. It brings their world alive and provides a valuable link from their familiar old life to a new frightening one. It stimulates and soothes. It enables them to once again to enjoy the written word. It helps them to get better. It is magic.

For more information please see

(For Annabel an InterAct reader)

Saturday 18 September 2010

Literary Pudding - in praise of books that don't win prizes.

It’s often said that writers must be readers. If the amount of reading one manages equals the quality of writing one produces then I should be a pretty good writer…

I’ve been a reader ever since I could get past sentences more adventurous than those about obese felines perched on a small floor covering. For me reading is as essential as eating, and like eating it should be varied. Just as I wouldn’t choose the same meals every day, I don’t always choose the same kinds of books.

Good reading is rather like a good meal: something light but interesting to stimulate the reading appetite as a starter; a substantial main course with plenty of bite, and then something frothy, and even a bit bad for you, for pudding.

I’m wary of readers who read only the main courses; books that have at least been short-listed for the Man Booker or have won the Nobel Prize for Literature. While such readers occasionally deign to read a starter, they dismiss dessert as beneath contempt. (Or do they secretly read racy thrillers tucked inside the latest prize winning tome?)

I’ve read a number of those prize winning main courses and have thoroughly enjoyed some and appreciated their contribution to the literary canon, but others have left me wondering ‘Why this one?’ Was the panel made up of the winning author’s friends? Did nobody actually bother to read the entries and the panel drew lots? Or were the panel members trying to out-do each other in showing off their mental supremacy and so voted for the most pointless contender. Do they think ‘no-one will get why this book won so they will think we understood something that they are too dim to appreciate?’ I am obviously one of the ‘too dim to appreciate it’ group - a reader of very little brain, (but one who read Winnie the Pooh in her early years.)

It’s like going to a restaurant that has a triple Michelin star and being served a meal of rare ingredients artfully arranged on the plate only to find it has no taste and gives you indigestion.

Once a book has won that prestigious Man Booker, the heavy brigade will delight in reading it in order to air their views on it (often with a copy of the Guardian review close to hand in case they missed some meaningful insight.) Many thousand more copies will grace book-shelves of people who like to think they are reading the right books, but I can guarantee that a number of these will bear evidence of reading on only the first few pages while the rest remain pristine. Yet there they will linger in the book-shelf that visitors can see rather than the one in the bedroom where the murder mysteries, the thrillers and the chick-lit live, the copies bent and thumbed from having been read, re-read, and lent to friends.

I like good literature, I like books to open up my world, telling me about places and times I know little about, I like books to challenge my thinking, and I’m quite happy to learn new words from sesquipedalian writers and even keep a dictionary by my bedside for that eventuality but sometimes dessert, a formulaic romantic comedy or a thrilling page-turner is balm to the soul.

Sometimes reading needs just to be fun, an escape, a soothing emotional massage in a hectic, troubled world. There are plenty of excellent writers whose work fulfils this role, giving millions of people pleasure and reassurance in difficult times, and perhaps opening up a reading world to those who are not greatly experienced readers, yet the literary snobs tear their offerings to shreds - figuratively if not literally. Just as I never warm to anyone who constantly refuses pudding, I cannot warm to those who shudder at literary dessert.

If I ever get one of my novels published, I’d love it to win a prize. I’d be thrilled. I’ll never be the kind of writer who wins a Nobel prize, but if it was a choice between a prize for the sort of book people bought to look good on the living room shelf, but didn’t actually read, or a Thumping Good Read Award, I’d prefer the latter. I’d want people to like my book, to enjoy it, to re-read it, to lend it to friends, (or better still, to buy each of their friends a new copy every year). I’d be very happy for my book to live on the bedroom bookshelf, to be literary dessert with extra whipped cream.

Friday 6 August 2010

When can you call yourself a writer?

At what point does the aspiring writer tell people they are a writer? Articles exhort us to declare ourselves as writers, but knowing the first question one would be asked is ‘what have you published?’ it seems premature to talk about being a writer before someone, somewhere has printed something we have written.

Of course the Internet and blogs such as this have changed things radically. Anyone can publish anything. And, it has to be said, they often do. 

I first told people I was a writer when I was on holiday. I reasoned that none of my fellow travellers would ever see me again so I had nothing to lose if I didn‘t get a million pound book deal within the next year. At least I could truthfully reply when inevitably asked what I had published, that I had published two non-fiction articles in a professional magazine, had a flash fiction in a popular women’s magazine and had co-written a column for another. 

A bit of prodding would have made me confess the two articles were for small magazines desperate for copy and none too bothered about the quality of writing, and one article had been edited so shockingly I wasn’t sure I wanted to own it. The flash fiction was in the reader’s corner (but I was paid the princely sum of £10.00), while the column, which had actually earned me respectable money was written in conjunction with colleagues where we answered readers' letters about complementary medicine. There were so few genuine letters we had to write the questions as well. Our names did not appear but knowing our subjects thoroughly, we had the satisfaction of knowing that the advice we gave was honest and sound, and we were very happy with the cheques. Fifty quid per letter/answer that we could knock out in a tea-break. 

I obeyed the articles on writing and plodded on: racking up rejection letters, taking writing classes, receiving support and criticism in equal measure and, I like to think, honing my writing skills. With fiction in particular, you soon learn that you cannot please everyone. The story that had everyone in the writing class laughing appreciatively will receive stark criticism for its lack of humour on a critiquing website where the contributors call themselves names like Inkyfingers and Novelideas and adopt a Simon Cowell approach. 

Quite simply, if you can’t cope with rejection, don’t write. If you can, then carry on. I’m still racking up rejection letters but happily there have been a few acceptances too, some even with modest, very modest, cheques. I’m still waiting for that million pound book deal though.

Saturday 19 June 2010

What was the last book you read?

What was the last book you read? The last newspaper? Where do you read? In a comfy chair at home, on the train to work, lying on a beach on holiday, in bed? We read anywhere and everywhere - because in our society we can. We are surrounded by reading material: books, magazines, newspapers, leaflets and letters have been joined in recent years by text messages, e-mails, on-line blogs and e-zines. Reading material of our choosing is affordable; we can buy books and magazines and we are blessed with libraries that lend us books free of charge. On September 8th we celebrate International Literacy Day. But this is not so much about literacy as illiteracy.

UNESCO estimates that some 750 million of the world’s adults lack basic literacy skills. This translates to 1 in 5 adults as illiterate, two thirds of whom are women. 5 million children currently receive no schooling. Some studies suggest the figures are even higher at 1 in 4 illiterate. It is these people who need literacy support and to that end four prizes will be awarded on September 8th by UNESCO for innovative literacy projects in Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, India and the Philippines.

‘Literacy is the best remedy’ is UNESCO’s message. Literacy is at the heart of modern education. Education is the key to empowerment, personal and social development. Education is the key to personal and social health. In many countries the mortality rate of children under five of mothers who have received even basic secondary education is half that of mothers without. A doctor working with Aboriginal women in Australia claimed that every year of education given to a mother added four extra years of life expectancy for her children. Similar claims have been made in African countries. Literally, literacy for life! The UNESCO prize winning literacy projects all aim at improving health and providing a tool for empowerment and social development.

Social change also depends on literacy. A study in 18 African countries found education to be the most important factor determining levels of support for democracy and rejection of non-democratic alternatives. Investing in literacy is more important than bank handouts and charity project funding, beneficial as these may be.

The actual figures vary slightly depending upon source of information but all agree that the countries with the lowest literacy rates are mostly in sub-Saharan Africa with Burkina Faso and Mali generally the lowest at 23-24%. Somalia and Afghanistan are also amongst the lowest. In all of these countries the women have lower literacy levels than men, with Somalia’s women achieving the lowest literacy at only 14%. Being unable to read reduces an individual’s chances of employment and development in an increasingly literate world. Countries with more than 95% literacy earn a minimum of 20 times more per capita than those with less than 50% literacy.

Literacy and education relies not only on being able to read but having access to reading material. Many countries are struggling to provide reading material in local languages. In Mali for example, children may speak any of 50 languages, 13 of which are considered ‘national languages’. Formal education relies mostly on written material in French, so Malian children must first learn French in order to achieve literacy.

This Tuareg school in Mali is a hut woven from palms propped up by wooden stakes. The blackboard was donated by tourists like myself. Only the older children have books - the younger ones write on slates with chalk. We gave them several new ones when we visited, for which they thanked us by singing a song. The younger children have no desks and sit on the floor. We observed a French lesson in progress with children of all ages taking part. The class was made up of equal numbers of boys and girls.

However we in the developed world should not be complacent. Studies claim that 100 million adults in developed countries remain functionally illiterate. Many such countries no longer keep statistics on their literacy rates so in world ratings it is generally estimated at 99%. Depending on the source of information Cuba, Estonia and Poland claim the highest literacy at 99.8%.

Cuba may boast the highest literacy rate but its citizens are restricted in what they may read. Under Fidel Castro’s regime Cubans could not read any foreign books, magazines or newspapers (or watch or listen to foreign TV and radio) unless it was material approved by the government. Copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were burned. Since Raul Castro succeeded his brother in February 2008 there has been a relaxation in censorship, and mobile phones and the Internet are now available to Cubans - although the latter is still limited. As so few Cubans were able to travel outside their country they relied on literature to inform themselves about the world.

“Reading is a form of travel,” says cultural critique Yoani Sanchez. “Given the limitations that we Cubans face travelling outside our country, discovering another reality through the pages of a book is a good inducement. Thanks to literature we manage to travel to a bunch of places without the immigration officer being able to say a word.” Cubans still crave books, and some operate small lending libraries with books donated by tourists.

Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, published in 1953, depicts a hedonistic society where individualism and critical thought along with reading is banned, and books are routinely burned. As a result book lovers, desperate to keep their literary legacy, learn and memorize their favourite books and pass literature on through on oral tradition to like minded citizens.

Book burning as a form of censorship is nothing new - it has been evident for over 2,000 years. Emperor Qin Shi Huang of China ordered philosophy books to be burned in 231 BC. Since then this ritual has been repeated many times in many countries. In recent history the infamous Nazi book burnings of the 1930s claimed over 18,000 titles culminating in 20,000 books being destroyed in Berlin by Nazi youth groups on May 10th 1933. Books by Jewish authors and other ‘degenerates’ were consumed by the flames, along with works by Karl Marx, and H.G. Wells.

In the year that Fahrenheit 451 was published, America’s Senator McCarthy ordered pro-communism books to be removed from libraries and burned, and critics interpreted Bradbury’s book as a direct comment on this but Bradbury claimed his novel was not actually about censorship, as it might appear, but was about how television viewing destroyed interest in literature, leading to a perception that intelligence was merely a knowledge of facts, without the ability to understand and process information. His book was itself banned in 1998 by a school in Mississippi on the suggestion of a parent!

During China’s Cultural revolution between 1966 and 1976 Mao Zedong’s Red Guards destroyed thousands of books and other artefacts including paintings. During this time education was virtually brought to a halt leading to rising illiteracy for an entire generation. Reading material was allowed - providing it was Mao’s Quotations, better known in the West as The Little Red Book. It is estimated that this is the most printed book with between 5 and 6.5 billion copies produced. Education and literacy did not regain ground in China until 1979 and the following decade.

More recently here in Britain, 1988 saw radical Islamists burning Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, and in some parts of America even one of the most popular of children’s books, the Harry Potter series, has not escaped the flames. Throughout the world books and other literature are still being banned on grounds of politics, religion and less frequently grounds of obscenity or sexual explicitness. Some Americans have instigated Banned Books Week from 26th September to 3rd October 2009 when they are holding events to inform people claiming that “Censorship cannot eliminate evil. It can only kill freedom.”

When Azar Nafisi, who now lives and works in America, was removed from her teaching post at the University of Tehran during Iran’s Islamic Revolution, she was assigned to another university, but eventually chose to resign and set up her own underground reading group for selected women students. In her own home she and her students studied forbidden Western texts at considerable risk to themselves. Reading Lolita in Tehran illustrates their desperate need to do what we in Britain can do without a thought: read what we wish.

Lolita is one of numerous books that we can find in our bookshops or on our library shelves that has been banned at one time or another. You may be aware of the following dozen: 1984, Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies, Brave New World, Madame Bovary, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Heart of Darkness, The Great Gatsby, Of Mice and Men, Ulysses, Things Fall Apart, To Kill a Mockingbird….the list goes on. However you may be surprised to learn that Alice in Wonderland has been banned too. The province of Hunan in China banned it in 1931 for its portrayal of anthropomorphised animals.

So celebrate International Literacy Day. Take your books to your favourite reading place: read by the fireside, read on the train, the plane, read in bed. Read your children bedtime stories and expand their world. Read the poems on the Underground. Enjoy flipping through a magazine at the hairdresser or the dentist. And the next time someone asks you what book you are reading, or what your favourite book is, spare a thought for those who cannot tell you because they have never had the opportunity to find out.

Lindsay Bamfield
This article was first published in The Greenacre Times no 12 Autumn 2009

The 75 word challenge.

Paragraph Planet is a great way to hone tightening up your prose. Every day the website publishes a 75 word paragrah (including the title, which must be no more than 10 words). Subject matter is wide open.
Check it out.