A New Blogging Policy

Earlier this year I completed 52 weeks of blogging At the Quill as part of a year-long blogging challenge (#Blogg52). It was a good exercise and a good discipline, and I have transferred the effort to my new blog about travel, Stops and Stories. However, although it is possible – just about – to blog once a week without much forward planning, there is always the stress of trying to find a topic and writing about it in time and the results are not always satisfactory. Clearly I need to be better organised.

Now, one of my fellow Blogg52-ers, Anna Hellqvist, is using her blog to present aspects of good practice for other bloggers. She has written some very good articles over the weeks. I don’t always agree with her as I feel her perspective on blogging is rather skewed towards the commercial, and for me that tends to devalue what she writes. Also, as someone who has been blogging on and off for about 14 years I have a residual feeling that I know it all – even though I patently do not.

I know that I don’t know it all not only because I get into such a sweat when I haven’t planned ahead, not only because I am disappointed more often than satisfied with the blog entries that I write, but also because a number of Anna’s tips have been valuable reminders of things I’d forgotten. And occasionally she has taught me things that were quite new to me.

So, I decided to swallow my pride and smother my resistance to being told what to do and try to follow some of her advice. My hope is that it will help me blog more frequently, both here and on Stops and Stories, and perhaps improve the consistency of my blog entries.

To begin with I have been looking at Anna’s blog entries for Blogg52 from June this year. As Anna’s blog is in Swedish (Blogg52 is a Swedish challenge and at present I’m the only person following it who’s writing in English), I thought I could give a summary of the steps I’ve taken so far to organise myself better. Below is my plan for Stops and Stories.

I can say that while most of the points in the plan come from Anna’s suggestions I have added one or two of my own.

Depending on how successfully I can follow the plan for the next couple of months I may post an adaptation of this on the Stops and Stories website. Just at the moment though, because Stops and Stories is about travel while At the Quill is about writing, it seems appropriate to discuss this here rather than there. If you’re interested, I’ll be revisiting this in future articles here At the Quill.

What is the purpose of Stops and Stories?

  • A record of my travels now I am based in Brussels.
  • An exploration and expansion of my ability to write about travel.
  • Foundations for (a) future travel book(s).
  • A cross-platform link with Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud, (Freesound), (YouTube), TripAdvisor, (GoodReads), Ello…
  • Development of a network of readers (and listeners).
  • An archive that future readers will be able to explore.

Who is your target audience? Who are you writing for?

  • Myself and…
  • Literate adult readers interested in travel who either travel themselves or are armchair travellers.
  • Literate adult readers interested in travel writing – in (fictional/semi-fictional) stories about, and (“true”) accounts of, travels both contemporary and historical.

Who is your inspiration?
Patrick Leigh Fermor (http://patrickleighfermor.org/)
Jonathan Raban (http://jonathanraban.com/)

(I expect to be extending this list.)

What are your goals?

  • To write an illustrated text – if possible including a sound recording of the same – once a week for at least a year.
  • To attract readers and returning readers/listeners. The initial target is to build up from the handful each week who read my texts at present to 100+/week.
  • To enter into a conversation with readers/listeners either in the comments section of the blog or on social media.

What are you going to write about?

  • Places visited
  • Stories heard and overheard
  • writing (reviews)
  • The urban and rural landscapes
  • Seascapes
  • Soundscapes
  • Scents and smells
  • Photography
  • Modes of transport
  • Maps and guidebooks
  • Art and architecture
  • Food and drink
  • History and future visions
  • Museums and exhibitions
  • Events and celebrations
  • Action and adventure
  • Poetry and literature related to travel
  • Memory and memoires
  • Philosophy and meditation
  • Humour

How often and when will you publish?

  • I aim to publish at least one article a least once a week, hopefully including a sound recording published on Soundcloud.
  • The day of publication will be Wednesday.

In order to publish on Wednesday I need to organise myself as follows:

  • On Thursday or Friday brainstorm articles for Stops and Stories – choose one or two. (By choosing a couple of articles each week I hope to build up a bank of articles so that, as time goes by, the process I’m describing here will not be quite so hand to mouth.)
  • Over the weekend carry out research for the articles, take photos, record ambient sound and make notes.
  • On Monday choose one article for publication.
  • On Tuesday draft the article.
  • On Wednesday, edit the article, illustrate it, record it, publish it.
  • If it wasn’t possible on Wednesday, on Thursday publish the recording on Soundcloud.
  • Begin again

The Blogg52 challenge

This is my 52nd entry At the Quill tagged #Blogg52 and want to spend a little time meditating on this blog challenge and the value of blog challenges generally.

I came to Blogg52 after an invitation from Susan Casserfelt, one of the two curators (the other being Anna Hellqvist). It wasn’t a personal invitation, I think Susan sent it out to all the members of Egenutgivarna, but it came at just the right time. I was looking for something to give me a reason to blog on a regular basis, but the Blogg100 challenge that some of my friends were taking part in seemed far too demanding. Blogg100 encourages participants to post blog entries one a day for a hundred days; by contrast Blogg52 calls for one blog entry a week over a year.

I started blogging with the hashtag Blogg52 in March last year (here’s my first entry). Clearly I didn’t quite manage one blog entry every week or I’d have finished in March 2015. However, counting backward from today this is my 52nd entry.

On balance, I’ve enjoyed participating and the discipline has been very good for me. I’ve tried to follow the rules set out on Anna H’s website and have read, I think, the majority of all the entries that everyone taking part in the challenge has posted. I’ve also managed to comment on at least one – and often more than one – blog entry every week, though as I’ve been reading many of them on my mobile phone it’s often been easier to post comments on Facebook rather than on people’s blog sites.

It has to be said that I haven’t found all of the entries interesting – some have been written on subjects about which I am indifferent others have just not caught my attention – but many have been interesting and most weeks I think I have learnt things. And I’ve certainly been entertained.

I’ve also “met” some really nice people here – people whose comments on my own writing I have looked forward to receiving.

From the beginning I was aware that, as the only person blogging in English in a Swedish challenge, I was putting up a barrier between my writing and potential readers that went beyond subject matter and style. I know from personal experience in the reverse situation that, however good my receptive skills in Swedish may be, reading longer texts – especially more literary ones – requires a greater effort and I remain “tone deaf” to many of the nuances and references. I presume this is the same for Swedish speakers coming to my efforts. Yet I have been delighted to see (with the help of Google analytics and WordPress statistics) that many people have come to my blog posts over the months, even if not so many have been motivated to leave comments on the website or Facebook. (For links to the most popular entries see below the bar at the bottom of this entry.)

Of course, I greatly appreciate the comments I’ve received from everyone who’s made the effort, but especially from my more regular commentators: Kim, Eva and Pernilla.

In fact, at the very beginning, I was concerned enough at the thought that other Blogg52ers might think I was an English-language imperialist muscling in where I was not wanted that I actually asked the curators if it was okay for me to join in as an English-language blogger. I’m grateful that they were so welcoming.
#blogg52
I’ve already mentioned discipline as one of the most important values I think taking part in a blog challenge has. Even though I missed a number of weeks on a couple of different occasions throughout the year – mostly when real-life intruded – just knowing that on Wednesday I was going to try to publish a blog entry, that some people would be looking out for it and that I might disappoint them if I didn’t manage were powerful motivators.

Some days – as today – I have found myself composing the entry actually on publication day. More often, recently, I have managed to plan my entry a couple of days in advance and draft the entry beforehand. Even today’s piece I’ve actually been turning over in my mind for a couple of days now, though as I write this sentence it is 12:59.

Along with the discipline, motivation and planning, following a blog challenge has also helped me to better compose my entries.

I had an idea at the beginning that I should restrict myself to a maximum of 800 words. It was Kim who asked me, Why? And as I had no good answer I gave up that idea. Instead I find myself writing pieces that run naturally to about 1200 words – sometimes a couple of hundred more, sometimes two or three hundred less. Within this length I’m learning how to pace myself – to tell a story when I’m telling a story, or to present an idea when that’s what I have to share – so that there is a rhythm to my writing. I try to compose a good introduction, something to hook a reader’s interest. I follow it with a couple of higher and lower points along the way and a solid conclusion. I know I haven’t achieved this with every piece that I’ve written, and I know that some weeks I have been considerably more successful than others, but it’s my impression that I have become a better writer (if only of blog entries 🙂 ) as the challenge has gone on.

So where do I go from here? I see two ways forward.

First, I’m going to start looking for English language blog challenges and if possible find something which has a similar pace to Blogg52. Once a week for a year, or once a week for a quarter for example. I still don’t think I’m up to attempting a blog entry a day. Blog challenges are not so easy to find in the great Ocean of the Internet – it looks like I need to be a member of a writers’ group – but if any readers out there would like to recommend something, please do so!

Second, as I really don’t want to give up my contact with my Blogg52 friends, and as it seems as though the Blogg52 challenge is rolling on, I’m looking forward to continuing here. However I think I need to change gear somehow. Unless there are howls of protest, from next week I’m going to respond to the challenge from more than one of my websites. Specifically, I’ll keep on writing an occasional piece about writing At the Quill, but I want to introduce you to my new website of travel writing, Stops and Stories. I mentioned it in an earlier entry and it’s just about ready to go public so I hope that next week’s Blogg52 contribution will be on that website.

So, there we have it, just about 1200 words and my fifty-second Blogg52 entry. Thank you for reading.


These are the ten most popular posts At the Quill tagged #Blogg52.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Bibliomania in the family

My grandfather was a bibliomaniac. This is my mother’s father, Charlie – Charles Bradlaugh Warwick. My grandmother threw him out sometime in 1939, just around the start of the war, and although my mother met him once more during the war and there were family sightings of him to the 50s, by the time I was born we’d lost contact and I never met him. However I heard a lot about him, growing up.

He had a number of habits and qualities, some of which were positive, but overall the stories tended to dwell on the negative ones. His philandering, his ego, his bibliomania.

One story has him coming home to the cottage at Wilmslow on the outskirts of Manchester, where my grandmother and he lived in the late 20s and early 30s, opening his coat and taking out the two or three books he had stolen from bookshops on his way home.

Charlie worked as an accountant for various employers, but as a committed socialist and paid-up member of the Communist Party of Great Britain he may not have kept his jobs very long as he was always agitating for workers’ rights. His political convictions may also have helped him justify his book thefts.

According to Mum – and to my grandmother because she told this story as well – Grandma was always nervous about Charlie’s thefts, fearing he would be caught and arrested.

Debbie, Charlie and Elsa in 1925
Debbie, Charlie and Elsa (Mum) in 1925.

My grandmother, Debbie, was born Jewish in Odessa which is now in Ukraine but between the wars was a part of the Soviet Union. Her parents brought her with her elder two brothers to England at the turn-of-the-century, fleeing poverty and the pogroms. Grandma always insisted that she had been taken to see Queen Victoria’s funeral cortege, so I place their immigration sometime around 1900 as the old Queen died in 1901. I suspect though that they were illegals as I’ve been unable to find them in the 1901 Census.

As a Russian immigrant, Debbie was always worried about the police showing up on her doorstep. A marriage certificate with a British citizen was a fair security to have – but how would it be if he was a convicted criminal? I believe she went through a second residency legalisation after 1941 (when Britain and the Soviet Union found themselves on the same side in the war).

I don’t really know whether Charlie ever stole more than two or three books. Perhaps one theft was enough to generate the story, but I suppose it’s more likely that it was a habit. In a way, I hope he was a bibliomaniac and did steal books on regular basis because only stealing two or three would put him on about the same level as me. Oh, don’t worry, I haven’t done it for a long time, but when I was a poverty stricken student and reading matter was not nearly as easily available as it is today, when books I needed to read were all borrowed out from the library and bookshops were more common and far less security conscious than today, I stole my share.

I never told Mum or Grandma of course. That would have only provoked a retelling of the Charlie stories and accusations of incipient bibliomania, which I already had a reputation for with all the library books I had overdue.

Grandma didn’t throw Charlie out because of his bibliomania but because of his philandering. As a 1920s Communist Charlie believed in “Free Love” and would have been perfectly happy not to lock himself into a “bourgeois relationship” (marriage), but he got Debbie pregnant and with the help of his parents she shamed him into marrying her. Not the best start perhaps.

Charlie full lengthIt didn’t stop Charlie continuing to act on his convictions, however, and for fifteen years or so he seems to have taken up annually with one new sweet young thing after another. My grandparents lived in or near Manchester, but when Charlie was having an affair, Debbie used to take my mother and move home to her parents’ in the East End of London. After Charlie’s affair had burned itself out, he would come down to London, plead with her to come back and they would all return to Manchester together.

This went on until Debbie got a job of her own. She became the warden of the Ivinghoe Youth Hostel just north-west of London in about 1937. According to my mother Charlie settled down for a year or so, but then took a shine to a guest at the hostel with whom he left. Later, he came back as in previous years to plead with Debbie, but now she had a degree of independence and she refused to take him back, so he returned to Manchester alone.

As I mentioned earlier, Mum did meet him once more during the war. She was in the WAAC (Women’s Auxiliary Air Corps) and apparently he tracked her down and wrote to her commanding officer asking if she could be given permission to come and visit him. She was then about 22. So she travelled to Manchester by train and went home to the address she’d been given. Her abiding memory of that visit is the books. Charlie was uninterested in spending money on bookshelves and had simply constructed walls of books – a row standing upright on the floor, a row lying down on top, a row standing upright on top of them, and so on right up to the ceiling. They were also good insulation, he said.

“That was an odd meeting,” Mum says, “I never knew what it was he wanted. I have a sort of feeling there was someone else there, one of his women, and that he was meeting me because she wanted him to.”

Many years later, quite recently in fact, Mum learnt that Charlie remarried (bigamously as he never divorced Debbie) and had a son. Mum’s new interpretation of her strange meeting is that Charlie had got the invisible woman pregnant, was going to get married (history repeating itself) and that the woman had twisted his arm to get him to try to reconcile himself with his first family. That didn’t happen.

Having learnt about the existence of her half-brother, Mum tried to get in touch with him. She wrote and then as he didn’t reply she eventually phoned him. They talked and she learnt a little bit more about him, but he was “not interested” as she says.

I’m not at all surprised. The poor fellow must be in his early 70s and this crazy old woman writes to him out of the blue and then phones him to tell him she’s his sister and that his father – now long dead – was a bigamist and he’s a bastard. It wouldn’t surprise me if Mum also told him about Charlie’s bibliomania. In his position, I doubt very much that I would be interested in pursuing a relationship, but Mum gets a little tearful about it now. She says she would have liked to have had a brother.


Another slice of family history this week, gleaned from my ongoing interviews with my mother (see here). The title of last week’s entry – Bibliophile – set me off thinking about bibliomania and the the only (if putative) bibliomaniac in the family.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Bibliophile

Over the last seven days, following my last entry for Blogg52, I’ve run a bibliophile’s — a book lover’s — questionnaire. One question a day here At the Quill, and on Facebook and Twitter. I come out of the experience with a slightly increased respect for all those people who create “click bait” questionnaires on the social networks. It’s not quite as easy as it looks. (Which isn’t to excuse the poverty of effort put into some of those Facebook questionnaires.) Anyway, having got to the end of my seven days it seems appropriate to sum things up.

First of all I should thank all the people who took time out of their days to respond to some or all of my questions. Thank you Agneta, Aleks, Anna, Eva, Kate, Lena, Miranda, Monica, Pernilla and Silia. The overall average of your response suggests you are all delightful, well-balanced people who are nevertheless passionate about books. Not an entirely surprising result.

If your responses say something about how you feel about books, the questions — and the way the alternative answers were formulated — gave you pointers towards my feelings. To be sure, I was trying to be light-hearted, but I think there are undercurrents.

I tried to strike a balance between questions about the physical object and the content of books. For good or ill, I am — as it seems all of you are — still wedded to the book as a collection of printed pages bound up between covers.

My first question had to do with books on shelves – the space available, the decorative quality, the dust trap they constitute, the challenge from the e-reader. “You sit in your sofa and look at your shelves and think…” No one chose E, my fifth alternative response: “Now all my books are on my e-reader I have much more space for my collection of porcelain plates with pictures of kittens.” Because, after all, you’re book lovers – not Dolores Umbridge. The results here were 7 As, 8 Bs, 1 C, 2 Ds. What I didn’t do was identify the sense in which people looking at their shelves were thinking: “So many books, and so many I’ve not yet read” (B). I hope it was an expression of delight and anticipation.

The second question was to do with giving away books you have enjoyed. It seems we’ve all done it and that none of us are unaffected. I clearly share the experience of waking in the middle of the night crying “Oh, no! What have I done?” And going on-line to replace the books I’ve given away. However none of you seem to have sunk to the level – as I have – of going to the charity shop and trying to buy back the books you’ve given them. (I didn’t succeed – someone else was ahead of me.)

Question 3, on Friday, had to do with our reactions when we see people reading books on public transport. Six out of seven of us find ourselves trying to identify the book by squinting at the cover or casually leaning over the reader’s shoulder. The seventh, it seems, is happy to actually ask, “What are you reading?” And strike up a conversation. In reply to some comments on Facebook I reminisced that for a period of time I was taking photographs of people reading books in public – till I saw a cartoon in our local paper in Gothenburg where a man reading a book on a park bench was surrounded by people taking photographs of him with their mobile phones. I decided my photographing of readers was a cliché, and stopped.

Question 4 was the question I feel most viscerally about. “You are watching a film and a scene comes up in which books are burned, torn, drowned or thrown. What do you do?” I was a little disappointed that only four people responded, but perhaps that’s indicative of something in itself. (Okay, it might just be indicative of a lack of time on a Saturday for silly questionnaires.) When I wrote this question I was thinking exclusively of my reaction to seeing physical books damaged or destroyed (“Wince, shudder; Cry out.”) Some of the responses reminded me that another perspective is to think about what the books contain and what reasons may be given for the destruction. This was the question I had not thought through as thoroughly as I might. However, I still feel that physical books have a value that may be greater than their contents. Is this rational? I’m just now thinking of that scene in the TV series Homeland where Brody the putative terrorist and traitor, lovingly wraps and then buries his copy of the Koran after his wife has thrown it on the oily floor of his garage. On the one hand this feels emotionally appropriate – the book has been damaged, is dead, and should be buried with respect. On the other hand, burying a book puts it as completely beyond use as burning it, so how is it better?

Question 5 came on Sunday. This one was about book series for young people that have become film series. I think I may have inadvertently skewed part of the response here since one of the series I chose to mention was the Fifty Shades series by EL James. Here’s what I was thinking.

JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series (1997-2007) sparked a phenomenal interest in reading among a generation of young people, and for all the criticism the series received from the literary establishment (the likes of Harold Bloom – “Harry Potter is stupid crap”), both children and teachers were delighted with the series though for different reasons. The children loved the stories and the characters; the teachers said “It’s fantastic how this series has caught young people’s attention and introduced them to the delights of reading.” (Which was also the most popular option in my quiz.)

Harry Potter started out as a series for older children, but grew over the seven episodes to become a Young Adult series, taking up some darker themes not usually seen in books for a younger audience. Susanna Collins’ Hunger Games series (2008-2010) and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series (2005-2008) were both aimed at a Young Adult/New Adult audience. Although both certainly developed their own unique readership, it seems to me that they may well have benefited from the success of Harry Potter and inherited some of that series’ readers as they grew older and started looking for more books that spoke to an adolescent’s spirit of enquiry or resistance, filled the sense-of-wonder/fantasy void and/or confronted awakening sexuality.

How does Fifty Shades (2011-2012) fit into this context? Well, it started life as amateur fiction created within Twilight’s fan base. For all its trappings of explicit sex and rose-coloured BDSM it is a romantic fantasy. I can appreciate that enthusiasts for Potter or Catniss are uncomfortable finding their favourites yoked to what is effectively soft porn, but I think the link holds.

Although none of my respondents ticked the D box (“What? Are they books? I thought they were films!”) it was apparent from the comments that most people are familiar with these series as films rather than books. As all my respondents, “you”, are adults I’m guessing it rather depends on how old the children are you associate with, which series you have met met as printed books.* (Declaration: I read the first five of the Harry Potter series because my niece Caroline was reading them, and the first one of the Hunger Games series because my friend Lena translated it. I’ve seen all the Potter films and the first two Hunger Games films. My knowledge of Twilight and Fifty Shades comes exclusively from YouTube trailers and Wikipedia.)

Let’s move on to Question 6. This was about film adaptations. I was interested to see that while some people were prepared to behave stoically in the face of the compromises (aka butchery) always present when films are adapted from books, others were prepared to admit to outbursts of ranting “to your friends and work colleagues about how the director has ruined the book” and enumerating “in detail in which specific ways the film fails to follow the book.” There’s passion for you!

Finally, Question 7 was to do with the disappointment one feels when a friend’s book recommendation turns out to be less than satisfactory. I’m not sure whether it’s a positive thing that no one admitted that a disappointing book recommendation might lead them to doubt their friend’s judgement and the basis of their friendship. Or perhaps it’s just me who is unhealthy in this respect. Having gone through this once – some years ago now – I’ve schooled myself to try to react according to my A answer (“Toss the book aside and get on with your life”) but it has to be said there is always a sneaking concern, given that the recommendation came from a close friend, that I may be “just too dull to appreciate” the book’s qualities.

Well, there you have it. My questionnaire and its analysis are complete. I promise not to do it again… at least not very soon.


*Hmm. It occurs to me that although you are all adults some of you may still be young enough to have met at least Harry Potter as teenagers. I sometimes forget my own advanced years. 🙂

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Pernilla’s questions

Last week, one of my fellow Blogg52ers, Pernilla who blogs at SVXRT40, was taking part in a chain response to a series of questions about books and reading. She concluded her entry for the week with a set of new questions that she passed on to any readers who felt challenged. I felt challenged.

(Let me just say I’ve made the executive decision to interpret “books” to exclude reference books or history books. Otherwise we might have a much longer text.)

The first question was Vart läser du helst? – Where do you read for preference?
I like to read in a quiet sitting room with good light and table nearby where I can stand a drink. What I like to read (changing the question) depends a great deal on how I’m feeling at the moment, but I think generally speaking and for entertainment I reach for either detective stories or science-fiction. Joy is finding a book that combines both successfully. I’ve just finished reading China Miéville’s The City and the City, which I picked up when I was in London at the end of March. A wonderful fusion of noir, detection, thriller and existential science-fiction.

Gillar du att prata om böckerna du läser? Do you like to talk about the books you’re reading?
Sometimes I do and sometimes don’t. I’m not a member of any book club, but it’s fun to talk with people I know, if they’ve also read the same book. Just the moment I’m reading The Broken Road, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s final, posthumous account of the walk he took as an eighteen-year-old from London to Constantinople in the early 1930s. In this volume he is crossing Bulgaria. Bulgaria is where my wife and I met. Though fifty years separate Leigh Fermor’s visit and ours, it’s still fun to read out loud his descriptions of places we both know. I hope she’ll want to read the book too and maybe we can talk more about it then.

Vad tycker du om riktigt tjocka böcker?
What I think about really thick books – I think thick paperbacks are a bloody nuisance! Heavy to hold, with spines that are easily broken. There was a time when I thought they were good value – so much packed into them, but then I read a few that weren’t very well written and I came around to the perspective that thickness is no guarantee of a good read. Most of the thick books that I now own are either survivors from my youth or hardback replacements for good, thick books that fell apart (The Lord of the Rings, for example). Or, of course, some of them are reference books or history books — but we’re not talking about them!

Hur vill du ha det runt omkring för att läsningen ska bli trevlig?
I like it to be quiet around me when I’m reading, at least to start with. Once I’m into whatever I’m reading, if it’s caught my attention, I can tolerate music and even conversation around me if it’s not too loud. The most disturbing noise is conversation in English if I’m reading English or conversation in Swedish if I’m reading Swedish. That really disrupts my concentration. I like to be sitting comfortably, but I can read on the tram and I enjoy reading on a train. I’m not very good on long distance buses though. It’s nice to have a cup of tea or coffee to hand (see my answer to the first question), but if I’m really deep into a book I’m likely to forget about the drink and discover it tepid or cold when I eventually emerge.

Hur mycket tid anser du att du behöver ha fri för att börja läsa?
It’s hard to say how much free time I think I need before I start reading. It used to be, I’m almost sure, that my answer would be “None.” Nowadays, though, I’m very conscious that I’m more likely to pick up a smart phone to check news headlines rather than a book to read, if, for example, I have a shorter journey into town or maybe 20 minutes before I have to start making food. Picking up a book to read is far less of a natural spontaneous thing to do than it used to be. I’m not sure when that happened, but I think it must have been in my 30s when work — work that involved a great deal of reading — came to occupy so much more of my attention. In other words, I think I had already lost the spontaneous reading habit even before I became intimately acquainted with the Black Dog. I miss it, which perhaps is a sign I might rediscover it in the future.

När läste du en hel natt senast?
It is a very, very long time since I was so excited by a book that I sat up all night to read it. I don’t think I’ve done that since my student days. Another experience is closer to hand: being unable to sleep and getting up in the middle of the night and sitting with a book, often a book of poetry, and reading for two or three hours or until the dawn comes up.

Vem skulle du vilja ge ett boktips? Vilken bok skulle du tipsa om då? To whom would you like to recommend a book? Which book would you recommend?
I don’t recommend books much, though it happens — usually on the spur of the moment. This week – tomorrow in fact – people in Britain are going to the polls to elect a new parliament. As ever, the new parliament will consist of a mixture of hacks elected for the umpteenth time, career politicians who have climbed the rungs of party politics and now get to play with the big boys and girls, and a small group of individuals who don’t fall into either of these categories but who’ve joined in and campaigned out of the burning conviction that they might be able to make a difference or to protest against the other candidates. I’ve been wondering what book or books I might recommend to this last group.
I’m feeling cynical, so I recommend The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli. Not only is this an admirable guidebook to the practicalities of politics and power, you might also use it to help you spot when you are being manipulated and perhaps help yourself to avoid some of those pitfalls.

Vilken bok borde alla ha läst? Which book should everyone have read?
That’s a hard question to answer. In Britain a very long-running radio programme called Desert Island Discs asks guests which one book they would take with them to a desert island assuming they already have copies of The Bible and The Complete Works of Shakespeare. This is because most Brits of the sort likely to be invited as guests on Desert Island Discs, if not limited by this proviso, would almost certainly say either The Bible or Shakespeare — which would make for a very predictable list. They’re good choices though. If you’re familiar with The Bible you’re familiar with a significant foundation for Western literature, and if you’re familiar with the works of Shakespeare then you are familiar with a significant foundation for English literature. In both cases you get a huge number of stories as well. But let’s go right the way back, why not? I think everybody should have read The Epic of Gilgamesh, which is the oldest piece of literature in the world, and a cracking good story!

Senaste bok du ångrar att du läste ut? The latest book you regret having read through to the end?
Hmmm, nowadays I rarely regret wasting my time reading to the end books that don’t work for me. If a book hasn’t revealed itself in the first fifty pages or so to be interesting, intriguing, exciting, funny or whatever, I might give it another fifty pages, but usually I give up. In this way I have saved myself from the pain of reading, for example, anything by Dan Brown but the first hundred pages of The Da Vinci Code.

Hur ser du på böcker du lånar ut?
I have a very sad affliction that means I find it hard to lend books. It’s not that I don’t want to encourage other people to read good books, it’s that if I lend a book I expect it to come back – preferably in the same condition I lent it. This just doesn’t happen. Nowadays I try not to lend books, but to give them away. A book given away is not a book one hopes to see again. Sadly this doesn’t always work and I am right now thinking about a copy of Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm — a hardback Folio edition in a slipcase with beautiful illustrations – that I lent more than two years ago. Is it ever going to come back to me? I begin to doubt.


Recent ReadingThanks Pernilla, answering those questions was fun. It’s inspired me to run a similar book lover’s questionnaire and I just spent this morning putting it together. There are seven questions. Rather than present them all here though, I shall publish a separate question each day for the next seven days, both here and on my Facebook page. I’m interested to see what answers I get — if any. I’ll summarise the response in my next Blogg52 entry. (Which consequently may be a day late.)


This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Dr Dolittle

Sometimes when I’m stuck for a story idea, I revisit a series of books I enjoyed as a child. (Also, it seems, when I’m stuck for a blog entry.) The books are the stories of Dr Dolittle.

Dr Dolittle and horseIn several places in the books when the doctor and his “family” are killing time, someone is sure to ask the doctor for a story and he usually says that he can’t think of one, but then turns out his pockets. His pockets are full of all sorts of things that he’s picked up here and there over time and there’s always something he can tell a story about.

It’s a good technique, and you don’t have to fill your pockets with odds and ends. Just look around and let your eye light on something. If you’re at home you might look at the pictures on your walls, the things on your shelves, the furniture or animals in your room, or what you can see out of the window. If you’re out, look at the people passing by or the decorations on the buildings, adverts, snatches of conversation, smells, insects, rubbish. Ask yourself, Does thing this have a story to tell me? Why does it look this way? Who used it? Who threw it away and why? Or did they drop it – is it lost? Who is this person? Where is she going and how do I know?

I’ve even used this technique when I’ve been teaching English conversation as a hook to start people talking, telling stories about themselves or their surroundings.

Dr Dolittle, Jip the dog and Dab-Dab the duck aboard shipIf you search for Dr Dolittle on the Internet, as I’ve just done, the majority of the hits you get take you to the Eddie Murphy films from the turn of the recent century or to the 1967 film with Rex Harrison as the doctor. But Dr Dolittle is much older than that. The author, Hugh Lofting, wrote the germ of his Dr Dolittle stories in letters to his children from trenches and battlefields of the First World War. Of all the writing and pictures to come out of the First World War, surely the illustrated Dr Dolittle stories were the most unlikely.

Hugh Lofting was British but married and resident in the USA when the war broke out. In 1916 he was called up, travelled back to Britain and saw service on the Western Front in 1917 and 1918. His experiences in the trenches were, he said, by turns too horrible or too boring to put into letters home to his young family – his daughter was four years old in 1917, his son two. Besides, his children wanted stories and pictures.

Lofting looked around and his eye lit on the animals that were conscripted to fight in the war alongside the humans. Years later he wrote:

If we made the animals take the same chances we did ourselves, why did we not give them similar attention when wounded? But obviously to develop a horse-surgery as good as that of our Casualty Clearing Stations would necessitate a knowledge of horse language.

And so the idea came to him of a country doctor, disillusioned with human society, who prefers the company of animals and who learns to speak with them in order to be able to take care of them.

The letters written 1917 to 1918 became the basis for Lofting’s first novel The Story of Dr Dolittle. Or, to give it its full title, The Story of Doctor Dolittle: Being the History of His Peculiar Life at Home and Astonishing Adventures in Foreign Parts Never Before Printed.

Dr Dolittle - The End


This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

The illustrations are by Hugh Lofting and taken from the edition of The Story of Dr Dolittle “Digitized for the Microsoft Corporation by Internet Archive in 2007 from New York Public Library”. Hugh Lofting died in 1947, so his works are under copyright in Europe for another two years – but Microsoft claim the book is out of copyright in the USA as it was published in 1923. If anyone from the Estate of Hugh Lofting objects to my using these illustrations, please get in touch and I will remove them. But I hope you won’t.

Revamp

As regular visitors here will notice (I hope), I have carried out a revamp of At the Quill.

I’m in the process of building a new website. (It’s going to be called Stops and Stories and will be a forum of me to write about my travels – more on that later.) Anyway, for the new website I looked at a number of themes and I was rather taken with WP’s in-house theme TwentyFifteen. After I’d decided to use it for the new website, I heard the news that Google are changing the way they choose to display websites in their search results. (Journalists are calling this “Mobilgeddon”.) Apparently Google are going to favour sites that are responsive (adapt to different mobile devices) and that give users an easier viewing experience. Various tech journalists have estimated that “millions” of websites will be downgraded (for example, here).

Well, TwentyFifteen is a nice clean theme and seems to me to be both easy to read and very responsive. (I’ve tried it out on a number of different devices – thank you Gothenburg’s Media Markt and El Giganten.) That’s why I chose it for the new site. But then I got to thinking – in the lurid light of Mobilegeddon – that perhaps At the Quill would benefit from a facelift too. So, that’s what you see!

There’s one drawback with the new theme though – the header text and navigation buttons appear in the column to the left (on a computer screen) and there’s no space for my rotating banners, so I’m going to retire them. Before I say Adios, though, I thought I could give them an article to themselves and say a little about each of them. It also gives me an opportunity to test the responsive photo gallery plug-in I’ve added to the site as well. (Click on the pictures to see what I mean.)

Header- booksLet’s start with this one – as the blog is nominally about reading and writing. This is a photo of some of the books on my bookshelves, taken a good many years ago now. I tried out a single shelf first of all, but I decided having the books at an angle was more dynamic. I also decided that applying a raster effect (the dots) anonymised the books and made them more of an abstraction.

Header - cartoon faceThe second banner – which I think of as the cartoon faces – is a piece of cloth from IKEA that I photographed when it was being used as the wall of a tent. The bearded chap in the glasses, I though, looked a bit like me. To help the one figure stand out from the others, I applied a radial blur in Photoshop.

Header - stone eye This one comes from a series of photos I took of what I suppose is a kind of graffiti. The artist, Joakim Stampe, finds faces in the exposed natural rock beside roads and footpaths. He uses paint, mostly in a monochrome scale, to bring out the faces he finds. You come across his art here and there around Gothenburg. Writers, I believe find stories in all sorts of unexpected places, so it seemed a very appropriate illustration. (Here’s a little gallery of some more of Joakim’s faces.)

Header - horse This is another piece of graffiti – a regular horse coloured in like a Dalecarlian horse. It was on a grey electricity junction box. I’m all for redecorated electricity junction boxes (ugly rectangular things) and I liked the idea of a horse painted orange and patterned.

Header - MusesThis header – the muses – I only used for a short period. It’s a wall painting from the South Bank in London. I really liked the painting – I liked that it was made of words and that it named the muses. However, the only angle at which I was able to photograph it gave great prominence to Urania muse of astronomy and Polyhymnia muse of song. The next one along is “my” muse – Clio muse of history – but it’s difficult to make out her name, so I decided to take this picture out of the cycle. But I’ll let it in here, now, for one last fling.

Header - wavingFinally this is a picture of my waving shadow – together with my wife’s waving shadow. It seems appropriate to end with this as we are now waving goodbye to these banners.

The falling quills – actually a drawing of a goose quill I picked up a couple of years ago – remain as the wallpaper behind the left sidebar (on a computer – on a smart phone they’re in the header). I haven’t decided yet whether to add a logo to the sidebar – and if I do, what it should be. Another stylised goose quill perhaps (as on the banners) or perhaps my SC-in-a-circle logo (which is doing service on some of my other sites). Or something else? Any suggestions?

Henceforth each blog entry here will have it’s own Header image (similar in size to the one gracing this entry). Henceforth until the next revamp, I mean. 🙂


This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.