The Future According to Grace

Developments in technology move faster than it takes to draw breath, don’t they? This is how it appears, anyway to one who is becoming ancient. A small item in the [on line] paper I read bore the headline ‘How to organise and store your digital photos’. Goodness! A couple of decades ago storing photographs was all about new developments in photo albums and shelving. Do you mourn the loss of photo albums? Or are you delighted to have less dusting and more space in your home? So many technological developments concern scaling down-in some instances to nothing at all.

The same applies to books of course. Myself, I am a convert to digital books-with the great exception of children’s literature, of course. To me the content over-rides any sentimental attachment to paper. I am uncertain, however on the issue of ‘condensed book apps’ which precis novels down into 15 minute reads-this may be carrying minimalism a little too far.

Then there is television. Sets are becoming ever slimmer. Who remembers the enormous sets of the fifties with their tiny, flickering screens inside large, elaborate wooden cabinets? And film-videos seemed like an incredible leap forward in innovation but were soon replaced with the much reduced DVDs then the physical was done away with altogether by downloads. Music has moved in the same direction, with one click replacing the need for record players and records, cassette tapes and ultimately CDs.

Could this happen in the kitchen? It may have already begun. The need for kettles has been negated by taps that produce boiling water and there is more in the pipeline [so to speak] with robotic food preparation and smart this, that and the other.

And while all this minimalising, scaling down and disappearing altogether has been going on, we, the owners [figuratively] of all this technology become bigger and bigger. I wonder then that technological wizardry has not been developed to shrink humans, too. Yes, of course there are gastric bands and so on but these are not guaranteed to be successful or permanent. The idea of shrunken food, however has been tackled in literature. Turn-of-the-century writer Stephen Leacock [http://www.online-literature.com/stephen-leacock/literary-lapses/10/] wrote an amusing short story about a baby who snatched and swallowed a tablet containing 13 Christmas dinners which did not end happily.

The obvious outcome must be that the need for human beings is removed altogether. I imagine there will be developmental stages where man and computer merge. In the beginning the machine will be an appendage such as we see already [think earphones and those weird Bluetooth thingummies fastened to peoples’ ears]. The takeover will progress with insertions into brains, replacement limbs and organs then mobility aids will remove the need for limbs [now think Daleks from Dr Who]. Reduce the jelly-like substance at the heart of the machine and…Bingo! Man disappears from the Earth to be replaced by technology. I just hope the machines make a better job of it all than we have.

Those that can, write, Those that can’t, write too.

                I attend a book club at my local library. It consists of about eight gentile old ladies-[I am including myself in this description although the gentile part is the most inaccurate]. On the whole I love my fellow old ladies. They are smiley, mild mannered, self-deprecating. We talk about a wide variety of subjects-most recently hearing aids, the sights of Rome and foot ailments. Occasionally we come around to discussing the novel we have been allocated by Tracey, the enigmatic librarian. Given that we have all had a month to read said novel we should, by rights have plenty to throw into a discussion about it, however we are almost always as earnest as schoolgirls in our lame excuses.

                ‘I’ve read it but so long ago I can’t remember it’

                ‘I read some of it’

                ‘I couldn’t find it until this morning’-

The Book Club equivalent of ‘the dog ate my homework’.

                The problem lies, I believe with the kind of books Tracey chooses for us [or rather, the set of books that has become available for us]. They are rarely riveting, or if they are, I’ve generally read them already. Hence several recent issues have been, for me unreadable.  

                One of the ladies has literary tastes which are in direct opposition to mine. If there is an odd book that I enjoy I know she is going to declare it ‘rubbish’. One such book was The Great Gatsby, which I had read many years ago and enjoyed rereading. Other tales, such as the very popular ‘One Day’ by David Nichols did nothing for me but gave her much pleasure. You would think, would you not, that such discrepancies in reactions to books would lead to interesting and lively discussion, yet this has still to happen.

                I’m sorry to say I blame Tracey for this lack of debate. Were she to arrive at our table armed with provocative questions the conversation would be sustained and would not veer off on to subjects such as bunions or where to buy fruit teas. We could discuss characters, plot lines, whys and wherefores. We could say why we did or did not get something from the read [or lack of read]. Really there is no excuse, since many novels come ready pressed with the book club questions and stimulants all there at the end of the narrative.

                Just for once though, last week the opinions were unanimous. Everyone was agreed that the novel was one of the very worst we’d ever been given. The book? It was Richard Madely’s ‘Some Day I’ll Find You’.

                Richard Madely is a lightweight journalist and TV presenter who made a name co-presenting a daytime TV chat show with his wife and subsequently as a TV Book Club host. Now I understand completely what makes someone who is interested-even passionate about literature become motivated enough to take up the pen themself. This has happened to me. But the difference between myself and Richard is not associated with writing ability. It is that he, with all his lack of talent has simply thrown into his novel every cliché, formula and hackneyed device he has encountered and produced a tired story which he has not had to send to every literary agent known to man in order to get published. He can sell his boring book on the strength of his name.

It goes to show that reading, whilst useful to aspiring writers does not a writer make. Do I sound jaded? Indeed I am!

Reading Life

                Reading habits differ as much as tastes in TV or music. There are those who do not read at all, choosing to derive their entertainment from the screen. There are those who eschew books in favour of newspapers, magazines or manuals. There are those who consider fiction beneath them and opt for worthy non-fiction. Then there are issues of class or generation.

Years ago I was quizzed by a gentile, elderly great-aunt-in-law as to what my preferred ‘light’ reading tastes were and I responded with more enthusiasm than prudence, eagerly blurting out a long list that included lurid thrillers, shallow romances, juicy, explicit murder mysteries and science fiction. Her stony faced response was an impressive put-down as she shared her leisure time favourites- Jane Austen, George Eliot-and for more vicarious pleasure, Charles Dickens. I refrained from inquiries about her ‘serious’ reading choices, fearing I may have already become so far out of my depth my feet had floated out from underneath me.

I was a voracious reader as a child; the child who could not be torn from a book for anything, not to help with the dishes, to lift her feet for the vacuum cleaner or for sleep. There were books I longed for, having heard them serialised on the radio [a joy children are deprived of these days]. The Christmas morning I awoke to find that Santa had left a hardback copy of ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ on the end of my bed is my most memorable. I still have it, along with many other beloved childhood novels- Alice in Wonderland, The Wind in the Willows and Eleanor Farjeon’s beautiful take on Cinderella, ‘The Glass Slipper’.

As a teacher of young children I managed to squeeze in enough time to indulge my enjoyment of children’s literature by regular readings of my own favourites as well as theirs-Roald Dahl and Dick King-Smith included. It was gratifying to see them coming in with their own prized copies of these novels, even those whose ability was not quite, yet, up to the task of reading the stories themselves.

Then there are the film versions. I have never been able to shake the compulsion to see a film version of a book despite knowing from experience that it is never going to match the depth and pleasure of its print original.

Even now that I am approaching my dotage I still come across novels that captivate me to a point where I become evangelistic about them, urging others to read them and feeling vastly disappointed if the response does not match my own. D. C. B Pierre’s ‘Vernon God Little’ was one of these. I eulogised ad nauseam over it but found no one to share my enthusiasm. When my frustrations at the dearth of post book analysis became overwhelming I joined a book club, only to find that within the narrow confines of those who enjoy fiction novels there is the same mismatch of tastes.

But whatever is read, one truth remains. The written word is the most wonderful invention known to man!

Literature, Religion and the Other Thing

                We have come to Ireland, just as I am reading Maggie O’Farrell’s ‘Instructions for a Heatwave’. Set in London, against the background of 1976’s long, hot summer it is the story of an Irish family’s struggle with the disappearance of the patriarch, a plot device that serves to bring together the disparate adult children with all their demons including abortion, infidelity and dyslexia. When we travel I like to read a work of fiction that relates to the location I’m in, such as ‘Winter in Madrid’ by C J Sansom, when in Spain last year, although the selection of reading material is sometimes by design but more often by accident.

                The summer of 1976 stands out in my memory as no other for its exceptional heat-wave that seemed to last forever. I was working in Putney, London, in a special school-the best teaching job I ever had. There were 12 children in my class in a purpose built school made almost entirely of glass. The kindly, avuncular head teacher insisted we take our children out on to the grass under the trees each afternoon to avoid overheating so we decamped into the al fresco, where I then acquired the best tan of my life, and all before the holidays.

                It shames me to say I’ve only ever been for a short visit to Dublin before, despite my advanced years and the proximity of the emerald isle, but at least I’ve got around to it now.

                For a small country, Ireland seems to have produced a huge number of literary giants; James Joyce, Edna O’Brien, Maeve Binchy, Samuel Becket and Oscar Wilde, to name a few. It makes me wonder if one’s origins need to be rooted in a country with a strong history of religious conflict, poverty, oppression and hardship in order to be able to achieve success in writing. But perhaps I’m merely using lack of robust historical identity as an excuse for my own shortcomings!

                We spent our first day striding out on the coast path in a warm breeze, along strands of boulder strewn beaches in the company of seabirds. There were few other walkers, except for a couple we passed and exchanged pleasantries with. “Bless St Steven for the good weather”, the woman exhorted, startling me with this first glimpse into the Irish psyche. Later we came to ‘Our Lady Island’ where there was a special well and a shrine. Turning inland I was struck by the plethora of lurid, newly built bungalows, personalised with eccentric faux period features-stone cladding, gable adornments or pretend Georgian windows. A considerable number featured white, plaster columns at the door. Perhaps some salesman with an eye for the main chance had passed that way? Despite their proximity to the coast, none of the bungalows actually faced out to the Irish Sea for a stupendous view, although judging by the number of crumbling stone piles littering the countryside a sea view must once have been a desirable aspect. Tractors outnumbered cars by about five to one here in the lanes.

                Passing through the countryside and the villages sweeps me back in time, as in New Zealand, to my fifties childhood, when there was a village garage, a dairy, a rustic barn of hay bales and an overgrown churchyard, although without the eternal summer!