Thursday, 31 May 2012

It's summer. Which means you must BUY...

 Hurrah! It's summer!

But when summer arrives, we all have responsibilities. Especially if we are planning to wear summer clothes. I love it that Boots is supporting us through this difficult time, and is giving us so much generous help. God forbid that we should embarrass ourselves by not living up to society's high standards.

We all know that if you are a woman, you have a duty to be:

- entirely hairless (except for head-hair, see below).
- bronzed.
- sweet-smelling (ideally of something edible, because that means the Men In Our Lives will find us mouth-wateringly attractive).
- smooth-skinned.
- smooth-footed (those pesky rough bits on our feet can really rub against his virilely hairy legs in bed).
- bright-eyed (those vitamins are really important for our appearance).
- glossy-haired (except for body hair, see above).
- beautifully made-up (but take it off at night, girls, otherwise you might get spots).
- young (the rest of us will have to fake it).
- wearing something strapless, backless and skimpy (ideally, of course, naked).
- dazzling (or as Boots puts it, "outshining the sun". Let's gloss over the slight logical problem there, and just take note that, as we're doing the dazzling, sunglasses aren't included. Those are for the men).

So go out, girls, and BUY BUY BUY! "Say 'YES'." How life-affirming. God forbid you should say 'NO'. Then you might end up ugly and no one will like you. Let alone fancy you, which is (after all) the Purpose Of Our Lives. Not fancying, being fancied.

If you're a man, you have a duty to be:

Oh, no. Wait.

Thanks, Boots. And FUCK OFF.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Stories, truth and ourselves.

I've been thinking a lot recently about truth, and honesty, and reality, and the relationships between them. I like to think of it as a Truth Detox. Not that I want to be honest all the time, you understand (I'm not quite ready for that yet, and I'm not sure if I ever will be) - it's more about being aware of the ways I lie and elude and fudge things to myself. One of the things that has dawned on me over the last few months is that lying to other people is morally grey, in the sense that you can judge each lie on a case-by-case basis, dependent on context: but lying to yourself is always, always wrong, because it means you automatically pass that on to other people. Once you stop being honest with yourself, there's no choice involved.

That is one of those things that when you write it down looks about a hundred times less profound than when you thought of it. Phooey.

But aaaaanyway. Thinking about truth is particularly interesting if the way you earn your living is all about fiction. Because, at its best, fiction is truthful. It's the big Defense of Poesie, isn't it, that by creating something that isn't real you can find a space to say something that is enlightening and recognisable and, well, you know... spot on. We've all had those moments, when you read a novel and think: yes. Yes, absolutely yes. The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - that you'd thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you've never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it's as if a hand has come out and taken yours. Yes, the past does come back and haunt us exactly the way it does in The Ghost of Thomas Kempe. Yes, misery does make me lean against walls for no apparent reason, like in I Capture The Castle; yes, memory does run the risk of driving us mad, like in Funes, His Memory. And yes, the important thing in this life is not aunts but the courage with which you face them.*

But it's not that simple. The big problem a lot of people have with trashy writing (mentioning no naTwilightmes, of course) is that it just doesn't ring true. Or worse, it provides people with a narrative that is simultaneously dishonest and seductive - which means that not only is it not edifying (and I use that in the deepest, most liberal sense, which is nothing to do with "improving" literature) it is actually really problematic. Like it or not, books rehearse the world for us: they teach us how to think about ourselves, our relationships, our bodies. They work in the same way that advertising does. We need to think carefully about the narratives we give people, because narratives are powerful.

Which is not to say that there isn't a place for trashy books, in the same way that there is sometimes a place for conscious lying - or self-indulgent dreaming, or any kind of activity which takes us out of ourselves. Actually - yes, that's a good phrase. Things that take us out of ourselves are fine - good, in fact - as long as we can put ourselves back afterwards. Lying - or buying into someone else's lie - is defensible as long as you know it's a lie.

What makes this more interesting is that it's not only bad writing that helps us lie to ourselves. I originally started thinking about this post because of something I remembered from a long time ago, when I was in a messy love-triangle-relationship-thingy, and happened to go and see the film of The End of the Affair. I still remember, very clearly, walking out of the cinema, feeling suddenly very passionate about my lover. Not because of anything about him, you understand, but because the story had resonated with me, because the tragedy and romance of it made me think of my own situation - in the same way that seeing an advert for a perfume you already wear can, briefly, make you feel more glamorous than just wearing the perfume does. This, I said to myself, is my story. Like those characters, I am having an affair. Therefore, like those characters, I am tragic and lovable and romantic... It's dangerous. And yet, the ability of narratives to validate our own experience is part of its wonder. It just has to be confronted honestly.

Not sure what point, if any, I am trying to make here. Maybe that, when it comes down to it, real people are more important than fictional characters. Life is more important than art. Lying can be good as long as it's done knowingly, in the context of the truth.

Not, perhaps, terribly profound. (OK, that "perhaps" is there to salve my pride. But I'm going to leave it there anyway.) But - I like to think - for a writer, it's a good thing to get clear in my head.

* Jokes, of course, have to pinpoint something that's simultaneously an exaggeration and absolutely true, otherwise they're not funny.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

I'm back!

So, it turns out that the slightly valedictory tone of my previous post might have been a little bit histrionic, as I did, in fact, survive the flights to and from Qatar. (Without getting too nervous, as well, which was nice.) Not to mention the conference itself.

Me (in blue) in a workshop led by the wonderful Zeinab Mobarak 
But "survive" isn't quite the word. The conference was brilliant. I loved it. It's been a long time since I've spent three days with such interesting, intelligent, amusing, warm people - even if the conversation was so unrelenting well-informed and incisive that I had to resist an urge to lower the tone. ("Revolution in Egypt?! Has there been a revolution in Egypt? Why wasn't it in Hello! magazine?") As a translation conference, it was probably always going to attract clever, open-minded people with a heightened awareness of international affairs - but honestly, it was so high-powered it was verging on the ridiculous... And yet no one made me feel like an impostor, despite my lack of any relevant expertise (when people asked me whether I was a delegate I always said, 'Who, me? No, no, I'm only an author.'). The speeches and workshops were stimulating, everyone seemed to talk to everyone - and immediately cut to the chase about things that mattered, rather than, you know, accommodation or the weather or how long our flights were - and, to cap it all, with careful planning you could eat five meals a day. I felt exhilarated and privileged to be part of it.*

And the place was pretty amazing too. The photo on the left is of the Doha skyline, taken from a courtyard at the Museum of Islamic Art, which is itself an astonishing building (think halfway between a modern mosque and the National Theatre, but with an incredible austerity and grace). There's not much that's old in Doha, as far as I could tell, but the architecture is varied and energetic and really exciting. (On the whole. Our bus did drive past a derelict-ish apartment block, half boarded up and half just falling down, with a helpful facade claiming that it was "VERSAILLES". But I didn't have my camera that day.)  

I would also add a photo of my hotel room, because it was far too good for the likes of me, but there are levels of smugness to which even I will not sink.

I got back yesterday and am still recovering after not going to bed for 32 hours, so I'm not going to go on raving about what a lovely time I had. (Also I am running out of adjectives, and Roget's is in the other room.) I will just leave you with my favourite photo of all. Yes. It's a watermelon. But not any old watermelon. This is a Faberge watermelon. There were others, actually. But this one was the best.

Strangely enough, one of the keynote speeches was the great Daniel Hahn talking about his translation (or was it? well, it's funny you should ask that - what is a translation, anyway?) of a picture book called Happiness Is A Watermelon On Your Head*** (or as the Amazon web address puts it, with a certain threatening terseness: "happiness - watermelon - your head"). Which made me feel that this picture was particularly appropriate.

And now back to real life. And rain. And work.****

But any more invitations are welcome...

* Note to any British Council readers: is this enough, or should I lay it on a bit thicker? I do want those "expenses"... **

** This is a joke. I am actually deadly serious about all of the paragraph above.

*** It is an odd and wonderful book. Buy it. In English.

**** Or should I say, back to good intentions scuppered by the World Snooker Championships? Somehow I know today, at least, is going to be a dead loss. But that's OK. Maybe one day I'll write a book about daytime television, and it will all have been worthwhile.)