Thursday, 28 February 2013

A Book to read about travelling

Posted by Jenny

A few years ago, when we were still young and beautiful, my now husband/then boyfriend (NH/TB) and I went travelling for a year. We spend two months in India, three months and a bit in South East Asia, approximately three months in Australia, two weeks in Fiji, a week in the States, a month in Mexico and Belize. I think it’s safe to say that following a year of laissez faire and sunshine, it took us the best part of a year to settle back in a routine at home.

It was an amazing experience. Travelling certainly has the potential to broaden the mind. It was also quite lovely to be tanned for a while. My skin tone is sallow, which after having lived in Ireland for roughly 12 years, tends to look green due to the lack of sun (I’m not referring to daylight hours!). It was also interesting to see my NH/TB change colour nearly on a daily basis. He would go from white, to pink, to red, to red-and-blistered, to pealing and back to white. It took him at least six months to get a sort of base tan (dark white).  

During my year before adulthood struck, I did all the unthinkables: I stepped barefoot on a fat cockroach in the dark in Bangkok when I got up at night to go to the toilet. The wet crunching noise was one I worked hard on blocking from my mind. I kissed my NH/TB after he ate a fried scorpion in Phnom Penn. I learned to haggle in India over a bottle of water. I asked a lovely Indonesian woman in Bali if she was pregnant. She told me that she was just fat. I overheard some ehm… interesting conversations on the Greyhound bus from LA to Dallas between men with mullets and moustaches, wearing lumberjack shirts and red baseball caps. I managed to refrain from taking a picture of a “cop” in the same police car as they have in the movies! I’ve done the food poisoning, the mosquito bites and the taking photographs of locals while pretending to snap pictures of buildings.

In Sydney we bought a van to “do” the East coast of Australia that continued to break down and couldn’t drive faster than 60 km/hour. In hindsight (which is a great thing) we realized that the slightly older couple who sold us the van were painfully aware that they were selling us a dud. The woman gave us a parting gift of a huge bag full of chocolates and muesli bars. We were so taken aback by that lovely gesture before excitedly driving off with our new van and unshaken trust in the human nature being good in essence. Eventually we realized that she must have felt really guilty for selling that dud to two travelling youngsters who paid for it with their own cash! I sold Italian silk ties for six weeks as a door to door sales girl for that cash!

My NH/TB used to hold his two fingers at the ready every time a car overtook us while making lewd road rage type gestures at us. Driving at a constant low speed involved some serious vigilance on my behalf as my NH/TB used to speed up unconsciously when hearing certain songs on the radio. I remember a certain Nickelback song being responsible for near engine blow-ups.

Oh the memories… Absolutely delightful! Would I do it again? Absolutely not! After a year of living out of a backpack, smelling like a backpack and being told things like “Keep the bathroom door closed because rats will climb out of the sewer at night.” I think I have earned my right to a little luxury when I go away for a few days. To this day, luxury for me still is: an ensuite bathroom and hot water. There is nothing like the simple pleasure of a hot shower after a long day. Don’t care what the temperature outside is!

Reading the Camper Van Coast by Martin Dorey triggered this. I have fond memories of proudly producing culinary delights on a shoestring budget in the van. Plain pasta with a scoop of pesto out of a jar can look very impressive in the right circumstances!

Martin means business though! This book contains a chapter on camping in winter! I’m more of a fire, couch, hot chocolate inside-the-house-while-it’s-raining-outside kind of girl. During my year of freedom I got my advanced Padi cert. I was even convinced I would dive off the coast of the West of Ireland! Amazing, the deceptive power of the mind…. Tried it once! During summer time I might add. Hmmm, fire, hot chocolate and couch can be very appealing during an Irish summer as well….

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

A Book to Read on the Train Home after a Great Weekend in the Big Smoke.

Posted by Daisy
THE last time I went to Dublin, my ex-boyfriend forgot his wallet and encouraged me to pay for everything. The time before that, my car broke down and it took me a month of driving my little brother's ancient Polo (without power steering) before I had a chance to collect it. This weekend I took the train and had great fun.

On Friday night, we stayed in and ate tapas with my friend Dee and her fiancé.
On Saturday, we went to a nearby spa and indulged in mini-facials and hot stone massages.

On Saturday night, we had dinner and cocktails with Matilda (from this blog) at Fade St Social.
Fade St Social: Where a big-haired model girl in a short red skater skirt and see-through tutu dines with her friends, silver haired men chat to forty-something blonds in the bar upstairs, a girl in corduroy shorts, black tights and a glint in her eye stands casually at the bar watching the barman  pour cocktails before swiping one off the counter, where the doorman is lanky and interesting-looking and one of the waiters looks like Smith from ‘Sex and the City’.

I had read both positive and negative reviews of this recently-opened restaurant– the complaints were mostly about the food and the snooty waiting staff, but they all seemed very friendly and smiley, and the flatbread pizza’s were nice.
As we were leaving, (and fortified by a few mojitos) I cornered celebrity chef Dylan McGrath on the stairs and asked him about his favourite books – he said (very nicely) ‘I don’t have time to read. I’m actually quite stupid’. I told him that was unlikely, and then the restaurant fire alarm went off. Finally, he said ‘The Day of the Jackal’, and excused himself to sort out the alarm, shouting back at us ‘I liked The Pearl too’ as he ran down the stairs.
Then we had a drink downstairs in Bruxelles and sat quietly beside two older men wearing Anthrax and Ozzy Osbourne t-shirts.
The staff at the trendy Vintage Cocktail Club.
Orla loved Philip Pullman's 'The Golden Compass' as a child, and Paul 'Pablo' the doorman loved 'The Wizard of Oz', The Beano, and The Dandy.
We jumped on a tuk-tuk to the Vintage Cocktail Club (VCC), whooping at every bump as Paulo the Brazilian driver sped around all the cobbled street corners, and Matilda struggled to stay on board with her legs hanging out the side. We eventually found the hidden doorway, and Paul (known as the friendliest doorman in Dublin) answered and led us up the carpeted stairs, where there were gold ceilings, cream-and-white striped wallpaper, soft armchairs, and an extensive cocktail menu. As it was late, the VCC was quiet – I think it would be a lovely spot for a weekend date. We drank three Zombies before jumping back into a tuk-tuk to Café En Seine to meet some friends.
Paulo's favourite book is Robert Kiyosaki's 'Rich Dad, Poor Dad.'

At Café En Seine, we talked to two Moroccan and Kuwaiti medical students, one who won a scholarship to university in Dublin, and was forced to do medicine by his family but who actually wanted to be a teacher or a journalist. I chatted to a homeless man with a red sleeping bag wrapped around his shoulders who he told me that one of his favourite books was Jeffrey Archer’s ‘Kane and Abel’.

At 3:30am, it was time for a taxi home, eat some re-heated chips and jump into bed.

Mildly hungover on the train home to Cork, I happily ate cheese sandwiches and drank tea while reading ‘The Vanishing Point’ by Val McDermid. It's an easy-reading book about a copywriter and a reality TV star, a stalker and a missing child. The similarities in the plot to the life of the late Jade Goody (a British reality TV star who died from cancer three years ago) are discomfiting.  I'm looking forward to finishing this slightly-thrilling thriller, but I know I won't remember it when I'm finished.








Monday, 18 February 2013

Books to Read When You’re a Foreigner

Guest Post 1: Welcome Roisin Meaney!

Irish author Roisin Meaney doesn’t like standing still. About to publish her ninth novel, Meaney has worked, written and played all over the world – and all with a book in hand to suit each location.

Much as I love living in Ireland – despite its, er, interesting weather – I get the urge every now and again to pack my bags and go for a wander somewhere else. I can’t imagine that I’d ever want to call any other place my permanent home, but there’s something about moving for a period of time to another country that’s always given me a bit of a kick.

Is it the freedom that being a stranger bestows, the back story you can concoct for yourself that nobody can contradict? Is it the plethora of new experiences you find, from the different taste of milk to the unfamiliar landline ringtone to the wrong-way-around road markings? Or is it simply the better weather? (I’m always careful to choose places with a heck of a lot more blue skies than home.) Whatever the reason, being a foreigner delights me almost as much as my eventual return to Ireland – and somehow, after every period of exile, there’s a book that I’ll forever associate with that particular place. Let me pick out a few.
When I was twenty-two, much to my parents’ horror I packed in my still-shiny-around-the-edges teaching job and took off for Zimbabwe. For the following two years I taught English to teenage Africans, many of whom had been boy soldiers in that country’s war of independence. One day the entire staff lined up to shake hands with Robert Mugabe, who’d come to officially open our school. I also caught my first fish in Zimbabwe, flew in a six-seater plane over Victoria Falls, took regular bus trips where I was the only white passenger and fell in love properly for the first time. (He was Scottish.)

My bookish memory of Africa? A copy of Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant that a teaching colleague lent me when I was looking for something to read. It kick-started a love affair with her writing that proved a lot more enduring than the one I was conducting with my Scotsman, and to this day it remains my favourite of all her wonderful novels.

In 1991 I resigned from teaching for the second time (cue more parental dismay), put a portfolio together and flew to London. For the following eleven months I worked by day as the world’s worst personal assistant in a Japanese Trading Company (poor Mr Koiwai) and wrote begging letters in my spare time to ad agencies. Eventually a sales promotions agency took pity on me and offered to pay me peanuts in return for a copywriter’s desk in their creative department. I wrote ads for Danone, Berol, Uncle Ben’s and Mars (we went on a tour of the factory in Slough and saw naked Maltezers on the assembly line). I shared a house in Hounslow with two Irish pals and wrote a collection of short stories for children in my spare time that every publisher in the UK rejected very politely.

The book I will forever associate with this period is Little Dorrit. As long as I was going to live in London, I had decided that nothing but Dickens would do to settle me in. I read Little Dorrit on the tube every morning, and it made me laugh and cry in roughly equal measure. I’d become so wrapped up in the story that it’s a miracle I got off at the right stop: I think I was on auto-pilot. When the train would pull in at Piccadilly Circus I’d be completely disoriented.

In September 2001 I took yet another plunge (parents by now content with resigned shrugs) and boarded a plane that was going to America. I’d had this daft notion brewing in my head for a while – since London, probably – that I should try writing a proper adult novel, and one of my brothers just happened to live in San Francisco. I arrived three days before four more planes took off, two from Boston, one from Washington and one from New Jersey, and . . . well, you know the rest. During the ten months I lived in the US I took up yoga, dabbled in Buddhism and wrote my first novel.  

Before I left Ireland for my transatlantic adventure, a friend gave me a parting gift of Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Big Country. I guffawed my way across the ocean – he was the perfect read at the perfect time – and when I landed I trawled the bookstores of San Francisco and hunted down his others, and they didn’t disappoint.

I could go on – The Shipping News calls to mind a certain writer’s retreat in Newfoundland; The Remains of the Day will forever take me back to France, and the tiny village with no shop where I read it; The Road I associate with my bedroom in a converted olive mill in Spain, where on one memorable morning I killed a scorpion with a shoe; Saturday belongs in a town in Poland where the only English speakers I could find were the staff in the tourist office.

So many countries, so many memories – and at the heart of all my travels, one constant. Thank goodness for books: in a place where nothing else is familiar they’re the pals you never have to leave at home.
Roisin Meaney's new book, Something In Common, is published in April 2013.




Monday, 11 February 2013

A Book To Read When You're More-Or-Less-Single* near Valentine's Day

Posted By Daisy

FOR A WHILE, I was the go-to single person for the newspaper I write for. I did features on dating events and even went to Galway for a weekend because an American survey said it was the best place for single girls to find a man – it definitely wasn’t.

Below is a piece I wrote about 'Being Single on Valentine's Day' - and yes, I had to get a photo taken of me smiling inanely and holding a flower - I made sure I had a bouncy blowdry and nice make-up, because I could just imagine people saying 'No wonder she's single, look at the state of her.’

THIS Christmas, at the dinner table, my mother jokingly announced that ‘This year, we’re launching a rigorous campaign to find Daisy the man of her dreams’. My siblings and their respective partners sniggered into their turkey, whilst I agreed, laughed, and helped myself to more cranberry sauce.

Single for seven months, I’ve been through the depressive stages of a break-up, the late-night wine-drinking sessions with my flatmates, and the cat-lady predictions of my life ahead. And have emerged, rather surprisingly, happy as hell.

But I really shouldn’t be. According a recent cover of ‘Love It!’ magazine, lots of celebrities are, apparently, ‘Sad, Lonely and Loveless’. By rights, I should be sitting at home on Saturday nights, drinking tea in my shrunken flannel pyjamas reading ‘If I’m So Wonderful, Why Am I Still Single?’ or ‘Living Single: One Day At A Time’ or even, ‘Being Single On Noah’s Ark’.  

But I’m not, and neither are thousands of other singletons out there. We’re actually SALI (Single And Loving It – yes, I can’t believe there’s an acronym for it either) most of the time.

Single 30-something year-old women have two choices – be bubbly or be bitter. Having experienced the bitter type in the form of friends who break out the cigarettes and wine at the announcement of an engagement on Facebook, or cry when given ‘The Cookbook for the Single Woman’ on their birthdays, I decided to opt for bubbly. There’s nothing that confounds the stereotype of a lonely singleton than someone who is active, enthusiastic and loves life.

So what are the benefits of being single? For starters, the weight loss is dramatic. There are far less meals out, no more cosy breakfasts in bed with home-made croissants and hot chocolate made from melted slabs of ‘Green and Blacks’, no more Sunday morning trips to the Farmer’s Market to share a brie-and-bacon baguette, and no more DVD-and-Thai-takeaway’s on Saturday nights.

And nights out can also be more fun when you’re single. Whilst most couples are tucked up in bed by 2:30a.m.on a Saturday night, the singletons are in pursuit of more fun. We sit in kitchens talking rubbish to strangers, and creep out of smoky pubs at sunrise, our eyes squinting in the harsh dawn light. Untethered to anyone, we arrive home on a Sunday morning, kick off our diamante studded heels in the hall, and fall asleep smiling.

There are also fewer obligations when you’re single. I can read a book in a coffee shop for hours on end, without having to go to a partner’s family gathering. I can stay in with a pizza and a bottle of wine on a Friday night. I can stick a pin on a globe and head off to exotic destinations every year. I can watch reruns of ‘America’s Next Top Model’ for hours without having to switch over to ‘Dog the Bounty Hunter’ or ‘Bundesliga Football Highlights’. Of course, I don’t tend to take snowy walks in the woods with my girl friends, but I can make a snap decision on a Friday to take off on a girly weekend, without having to check with anyone else.

However, there is a danger that singletons can become selfish. My mother fender-bendered her car recently, and instead of consoling her, I preened myself in the hallway mirror and asked her opinion on my new bouncy blow dry.

I’m not single by choice, but nor am I going to settle for any random man. Like most singletons of my age, I am discerning. I tried internet dating, but had to pull the battery out of my laptop to rapidly shut it down when one guy ‘winked’ (like ‘poking’ on Facebook) at me. Eagerly I clicked on his profile photograph, only to see a wrinkly 65-year-old naked man rising out of a hot tub, his skin glistening with water droplets. However, I currently know of six couples who met via the internet. Just be careful out there. 

Never have the lives of Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte from ‘Sex and The City’ (more re-runs) seemed more relevant to me as they do now. As a single woman in my thirties, their problems have become mine. And their pleasures and achievements have also become mine. I’m far more confident now than I was in my twenties, and have more time now as a singleton to concentrate on pursuing my dream career.

I have more disposable income to buy sequinned tops and expensive night-cream on a whim. I have also become super-independent. I no longer have to put on a cute baby-voice to get what I want from a boyfriend. I just do it myself. Except when changing a punctured tyre on the side of a country road. You definitely need a man for that. Or an AA membership.

And yes, it can get lonely being single, at times. Everyone needs someone to talk to, someone with whom to share the minutiae of their daily life. The thing I miss most about being coupled-up are those early-morning, stuck-in-traffic phone calls on the way to work– who else would call you that early?

And the perceived predatory-aspect of the single women isn’t a plus either. One insecure married friend kept jumping clumsily into the conversation whilst I was talking to her husband at a dinner party. More recently, a drunken friend of mine leaned across the pub table and flicked the wedding ring of the man I was making small-talk with, saying ‘He’s married’. For the first time, I felt uncomfortable and slightly uncouth for being single. I avoided that man for the rest of the night, not because I was chatting him up, but because my best friend had perceived it that way.

And yes, it will be soul-destroying if you go out on a Saturday night actively seeking a man/husband. And men can spot the ‘crazy eyes’ anywhere – the swirling pupils of a bunny-boiler in a disco are like a sharp puff of breath to a dandelion clock. Best avoided. But if your aim is simple to have fun with your friends, then you can't go wrong.
The key to successful single living is to have lots of single friends. There’s nothing like a couple’s dinner party to make you feel slightly uncomfortable in your own skin. Although most of the couples I know are marvellous company. And even some of them have muttered darkly to me that ‘the grass is always greener.’

And sure, there comes a time when buying another ready-meal-for-one becomes a bit tiresome, but just remember, the odds are you probably won’t die alone being eaten by your cat. Singledom is generally not a permanent state. It fluctuates. So you may as well embrace it and quit worrying.

And, at the end of a long day, being single means that I can stretch out fully in my double-bed and not have to stare teeth-bared at someone snoring next to me at 4a.m. I can also go to bed whenever I want.

As for my mother’s/sisters/friends proposed set-up’s – I say ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained.’ I love the excitement of first dates; the dressing-up, the butterflies and the stomach-shuddering potential of it all. And after twenty failed blind dates, at least I’ll know for sure exactly what I don’t want in a man.

And whilst being single is fabulous, and ‘autonomous happiness’ is a new key word in my vocabulary, I feel obliged to add that if there are any tall, well-mannered and devastatingly attractive fellows out there, my number is 086……………
I’m currently re-reading this book and it’s still excellent.
It also contains one of the most unromantic scenes in a book, and lots of romantic scenes.
Unromantic: When Emma has an affair with Mr Godalming, the middle-aged headmaster of the school she works in, and they spend their afternoons rubbing up against each other on the scratchy carpet in his office.
Romantic: When she finally sees sense, resigns without too much thought, and moves to Paris to become a writer.  Hurray! And of course, her latter scenes with Dexter.
*I say more-or-less-single, as I have had 5 dates with a lovely guy with glasses. More on that soon!

 (Top illustration by Marc Johns



Sunday, 3 February 2013

Another Book to Read While You're Trying to Write

Posted By Daisy

                                               (photo still adapted from Sminky Animation; watch the funny clip here)

MY FEATURE writing isn't going well. I sit here desperately, and think ‘This could’ve been written by a trained monkey. Where’s the beauty of the language? Where’s the pizazz? Where’s the jazz?’ 
I take a break. I smoke a cigarette outside and hope inspiration for a better first paragraph will swoop into my head. I re-read the half-written mess. I wonder if I’ll ever write well again.

I re-read some previous features, to remind myself that I used to be able to write. This helps a bit. If things are really bad, I might open a specific hotmail folder with a few praiseworthy emails from editors, and take heart from the encouragement contained within.

Lastly, I break out my secret weapon. ‘AA Gill is Away’ – a book I will never lend to anyone. I turn to page 232, the chapter about Iceland. And I re-type this sentence into a word document on my laptop.

‘Reykjavik clings by the frozen skin of its teeth to a bay of black pumice, a huddled, head-down, white-knuckle town made of corrugated iron painted in pastel ice-cream tones, the steeply pitched roofs hoarding light and warmth, the streets a slick grey slalom.’

I look at it and think: This is what perfect writing looks like. This is what I need to aspire to.

Gill doesn’t know it, but he helped me to write this introduction for a travel feature on London:

‘But Londoners can people-watch with the best of them; they just hide it better. It's a sort of closed-lidded, quick-glancing, well-hidden curiosity. They study each other from beneath their eyelashes. They read whole chapters of books over fellow-commuters' shoulders, and post hundreds of messages in the 'Lovestruck' column in their free daily London Lite.’

And this one for a feature about Argentina:
‘Renowned as being the first South American snob, BA parades its fur-coated, slightly down-at-the-heel, cigarette-smoking, vintage-lace-cocktail-dress glamour with aplomb. The city borders curl up with a sneer, unwilling to touch the countryside outside. The creamy-skinned ‘portenos’ serve ice-cream with a pout and the handsome bar man dumps my drinks on the bar counter without smiling.’

Pastiching may be frowned upon but it definitely helps when I’m in a writing funk, convinced that I’ve lost any dubious talent I may have had.

 ‘AA Gill is Away’ is a collection of Gills' travel stories, from Sudan, India and Cuba, to the M1 motorway in England.

Gill has said that he wanted to ‘interview places’ - to ' treat a place as if it were a person, to go and listen to it, ask it questions, observe it the way you would interview a politician or a pop star’. He got his big break at the Sunday Times when he was asked to go to Sudan to cover the famine.

AA Gills' travel-writing habits:
Don’t do any research beforehand – you’ll arrive with too many preconceptions and an ‘i-spy list of things to tick off’.

Remember that no-one’s opinion is worth any more than yours.

Don’t spend too long in a place, or you begin to be too familiar with it to write well about it.

Don’t carry a camera or note pad. Don’t write anything down. Instead, collect bits of paper, maps, menus, tickets, newspapers, food wrappers, tourist brochures and receipts.

Don’t start writing immediately. Leave it for 2-4 weeks. Let the over-vivid images settle in your mind for a while. But do talk about your experiences to as many people as possible.

Write in the first person.

Gill is unpopular at times. After the Mary Beard fiasco last year, one journalist called him a vivid,brilliant writer trapped in the body of a hopeless misanthrope.But I only care about his writing.

Here are some more gems from the book:
‘A gaggle of girls walk beside me, straight backs and high breasts. They move with an easy, undulating rhythm……Nobody prepares you for flirting in a famine. While there is life, there is still living. One strides close and does a rolling lumpen imitation of my gait, and her friends bridle and shimmy in peals of laughter.’ The End of the Road, Sudan, May 1998

‘Havana feels like the town where time stood still. There is an uncanny sense of stasis, as if 1960 had stopped mid-stride, the left foot planted, the right caught in mid air.’ Sex and the city, Cuba, March 1999

What weird and wonderful things do you do to remind yourself that you aren’t a terrible writer?