The Drowning of Arthur Braxton by Caroline Smailes

Completely off the wall, a sliver of magic realism, a stunningly original voice, Caroline Smailes The Drowning of Arthur Braxton is the best work of fiction I have read so far this year.

Arthur BraxtonRight from the beginning it hooked me and I couldn’t wait to get back to it every time I put it down, because I could not guess what the author was going to do next and somehow she made me very interested to want to know.

I’m still not quite sure how she managed that, but at a guess I would say it is a combination of an incredible imagination and a very close observance of reality. That might sound hypocritical, and that those two things should really negate each other, however she uses a sprinkle of magic realism firmly rooted in the mundane world, just as Eowyn Ivey did in The Snow Child, making the reader question whether they are reading fantasy or realistic fiction without alienating them in the process.

The protagonist Arthur Braxton can’t quite make out what is going on either and we are right there with him, going back for more to try and make the unexplained logical – and to find out more about that girl in the pool.

Arthur Braxton lives in a town in the North of England, so if you have never been there or known any young people from up that way, be warned about the vernacular and remember he is a teenager, so many of the things he says and does are appropriate to his age and the area he comes from. I don’t know whether that makes him authentic, but it makes his voice unique and his story compelling to read.

Victoria Baths

Victoria Baths, Manchester

Arthur’s Mum left he and his father for another bloke and neither of them have heard from her since, although she continues to support them financially, so they’re not making a fuss, on the contrary they are keeping a very low profile. Arthur’s Dad isn’t taking it all very well, so Arthur is parenting himself and almost at his wit’s end when he is drawn towards the old abandoned swimming baths, fenced off and due for demolition. And what he finds there keeps drawing him back repeatedly. If you choose to read the book, you’ll also be intrigued to follow him and find out.

“And that’s why I’m now pushing a shopping trolley, with my dad in it, up the hill and away from the sea front in the twatting rain. Dad’s huffing and puffing, like he’s a fucked-up steam train, and I don’t know why ’cause it’s me breaking my back trying to get the fucker up the hill. The wind’s not helping, the rain’s not helping and mainly I’m wondering what the fuck I was thinking. I mean, like owt can cure my dad. I’ve told him I’m taking him to his doctor’s appointment, he has to have a review every couple of months to see if he’s still ill. Usually the doctor takes one look at him and then, no shit, Sherlock, says that Dad’s unfit for work. Dad never even has to speak, which mainly pisses me off, ’cause I can’t remember the last time I heard him talk. I miss his voice.”

I am happy to know there is a bit of a backlist, that Caroline Smailes has written other novels and though some deal with dark subjects, her writing has an allure and originality that I am keen to explore further.

At the end of the book, the author mentions that the inspiration for this novel started with a place – Victoria Baths in Manchester, opened in 1906 and a proud icon of that city and its people. The council decided to close it in 1993 and a campaign to prevent its closure ‘Friends of Victoria Baths’ became a charitable trust and managed to save and restore the building, a venue all the public can visit today, though it does not look like any swimming takes place there.

Victoria Baths

Victoria Baths

Looking at their website today, I discovered serendipitously that this weekend 13 – 15 September 2013 the pool is open and for the first time in many years, full of water to mark the 10th anniversary since the Victoria Baths won the BBC Restoration Project.  Since then more than £5m has been spent restoring the front of the building, stained glass windows and the roof of the gala pool.

A well-known synchronised swimming group Aquabatix entertained the supportive crowd with a spectacular performance Arthur Braxton would have been proud of! Learn more at www.victoriabaths.org.uk

An Interesting Fact: The pools were divided up for first class males, second class males and females. Men in the first class pool had the pleasure of swimming in the water first before it would be drained into the other two pools.

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The Magic of Water

Note: Thank you The Friday Project, an imprint of Harper Collins for sending me a copy of the book.

Champ Harmonique MP2013

This poetic musical installation, entitled Harmonic Fields in English, came to my attention three months ago when I was searching for something interesting to write in the ‘To Do’ section of the destination guide on Marseilles I (used to) write for a magazine.

I knew it wouldn’t be too hard to find something spectacular, as Marseilles has been designated cultural capital of Europe for 2013, a prestigious event on the cultural calendar and one that has resulted in much-needed expenditure giving this seaside city something of a facelift.

I will save the wondrous changes in the city for another post, but yesterday my children and I drove into Marseilles and along the corniche to Les Goudes. I do love that word corniche , the English equivalent doesn’t evoke quite the same warm, exciting, air of anticipation feeling as corniche.

The village of Les Goudes, Marseilles

The village of Les Goudes, Marseilles

The corniche (roughly translated as ledge, more naturally translated as cliff road or coast road) winds its way from the centre of Marseilles, La Vieux Port past all the beaches and seaside restaurants, beach parks, cafes, cliff-front residences, joggers, sun-seekers and finishes in Les Goudes, which signals the beginning of Les Calanques, huge limestone cliff faces which make it nearly impossible to access the coastline between Marseilles and Cassis, except by boat or on foot. But the rewards for doing so are spectacular.

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The beginning of Les Calanques

Champ Harmonique is the brainchild of Pierre Sauvageot, inspired by the wind and natural instruments of Indonesia, which require no player but the wind and can hang from trees or be placed in nature, allowing her to be playful, moody or melodramatic.

The coastline of Marseilles in the region of Provence could not be more perfect, natures favourite elements here are the sun and the wind, the one we know best from the north-east is the Mistral, but there are many others and yesterday we had a less dramatic, more playful wind, speeding up, then slowing down, her presence never more known and her subtleties never more appreciated than when given something like this spectacular installation to play with.

Nature gets to play here with cellos, drum shakers, glockenspiels, bamboo poles that sing, spinning music boxes, and a lot of other things I can’t even begin to translate like hélices-sirènesépouvantails balinais, tepees chromatiques, graals pentatoniques, arcs sonores, arbres à flûtes, cannes à pêche à lacrotale… 500 instruments in total.

It is a poetic symphony to experience and cannot (and should not says Pierre Sauvageot) be captured easily on film, but the stunning environment must be shared and if you have the occasion to visit the south of France during 2013, this is merely a taste of the events happening during the Marseilles Provence cultural capital celebrations.

CIMG3841Champ Harmonique is open until the 28th April in Les Goudes, Marseilles. It’s free to enter and the installation is supervised on Thursday, Friday and Saturdays and although it is open and accessible at all other times, some of the instruments are disabled during the unattended periods.

In true French style, (a sit down leisurely lunch remains a significant priority here for all), the installation is closed every day from 12–2pm.

And there will be a special open air concert on the evening of the 25th, the night of the full moon!

To imagine what the experience might have felt like and to see the view, here’s a three minute video, captured during the time it was open.

NW, life’s passage via the Kilburn High Road

The back cover of Zadie Smith’s novel NW, recently long-listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013 mentions This Is The Story Of A City, the north-west corner of city, however that’s not how I think of it. London is something else, as is The City of London.

NW is a community, a fluid changing community, one of London’s many pulses; for some it is a stepping stone to the next stage, for others it is home. It has been a thoroughfare into London since the days of the Romans and in more recent times, the resting place for Irish immigrants fleeing their country for one reason or another, sometimes dramatic, sometimes not. And following the Irish are the many other groups who found NW their starting point to a life in London, that city of promise and unending challenge. NW is the same, the faces that pass through it, indicative of the era we are living within.

NWNW the novel is experimental, its structure changes with each section and after starting the second part which focuses on Felix, I realised that the narrative voice was being used as a metaphor for the state of mind of the character, a brave step or a risk on the authors part by commencing with Leah, who thoughts are all over the place and is suffering from that anxiety of a young, married woman with a successful career and a husband who loves her, who doesn’t understand why she is not content, or why she can’t admit that she isn’t ready to start a family.

So we start with the staccato stream of conscious thoughts of a woman who would benefit from therapy and/or meditation to still that rampant inner chatter, planting the reader in the midst of prose that is challenging for some and uneasy for those listening to the audio version. Not when chapter 7 is shaped like a tree, though that is one of the least challenging pages, one of beauty in fact.

But once we get to Felix’s section, things calm down, Felix’s major life troubles are behind him, the reading is easy and the pace picks up.  Although he’s not entirely immune to temptation, he seems to have moved on from his more despondent days, he’s been clean for 2 years and plans to stay that way. To me, he is the only character who shows real signs of moving on, however he has not moved out of NW,  his mistake perhaps is in staying and trying to convert those around him.

The other female character Keisha, changes her name to Natalie when she becomes a lawyer, an attempt to outgrow her past; she marries and has two children. She and Leah have been friends since their school days and their connection provides the one strong thread throughout the novel. Natalie, like Leah has risen above her past, but can’t seem to resist undermining it, with her strange behaviour, in what was for me, one of the least believable parts of the novel, in part because the author keeps us from knowing exactly what Natalie is up to online and offline, before she gets caught and flips out. I was hoping she might be more influenced by the role model of  Theodora Lewis-Lane, who tries to advise her.

“The first lesson is: turn yourself down. One notch. Two. Because this is not neutral.”  She passed a hand over her neat frame from her head to her lap, like a scanner. “This is never neutral.”

NW6For me personally, it was in part a nostalgic read, Zadie Smith’s writing comes alive when she evokes place and it is a neighbourhood I lived in and around for many years, NW is the most complete and yet complex character of all, embracing so much diversity, inviting everyone in without prejudice and yet claiming some in the harshest terms possible. There are as many reasons to hate it as there are to love it and anyone who has lived there will likely never forget it.

NW is a melancholic novel about four characters trying to escape their past and leaves the reader with few signs of hope for the future, or at least that future is left for us to imagine. Those who focus on the uniqueness of the writing or who have some experience of /interest in these communities may enjoy it, while those looking for the traditional transformation of character, or any kind of escape may be disappointed.

Despondency is the norm and we will not be rescued from it, it merely lessens with time if we survive.

Episode 10: The Move Down Under and a Shocking Diagnosis

Thinking that a move would give us more family time and offer a less stressful lifestyle, we left London behind and travelled half way around the planet to New Zealand, where most of my family still live today. I had been away for many years and hadn’t expected to return, however now that I was back, everything looked and felt familiar and it wasn’t long before we had moved into a house in the city and I had found a full-time job.

Not quite that large an island, Allia’s interpretation of somewhere very far away.
Putting New Zealand on the Map!

Initially we spent time staying at my parent’s home on the sheep farm they had lived for twenty years. It was wonderful to be there with Allia, for her to spend time around her grandparents and for them to get to know and love her.

Being a long way from the nearest town and a very windy road to get in and out, the forced isolation was a little more difficult for my husband to endure, but he was fascinated by the workings of the farm and in particular the shearing shed when it was in full working motion. Not so for me, years of spending school holidays working in that intense, stinking, hot and competitive environment (shearers get paid per sheep shorn, not by the hour) sweeping away wool, dags (sheep shit) and the occasional maggot were something I felt no nostalgia for at all.

It seemed to be good timing to have returned at this time as my mother was unwell, so I was able to go with her to her appointments and provide support. Good timing was an under-statement; she had lost a lot of weight and was having problems with her balance. She was only 59-years-old but seemed to have entered what looked like old age in an awful hurry.

Of course it wasn’t old age. By the time it was understood that it also wasn’t asthma or some diet related weight loss and she had been for a follow-up MRI scan, we found ourselves sitting in an office, opposite an oncologist who mumbled something that sounded like “three weeks”.

“Excuse me”, what did you say? I blurted out.

“The cancer is in the lungs, but it has spread to the kidneys and other organs and those lumps in the neck and brain are tumours. In the state that your mother is in now, I would say that three weeks is being optimistic.”

“But isn’t there anything we can do?”

“Yes, we can start chemotherapy to try to slow down the rapid advance of the cancer and the radiation treatment should be able to remove those tumours so you should actually start feeling better and get your balance back” he said looking at my mother.

We were both stunned. I wanted to protest and say hey that’s not fair, you can’t wait all this time knowing something isn’t quite right, you know it was more than three weeks that we have been worrying about this and we survived that, only to hand out a three-week life card as if you are prescribing community service. This is an unfair sentence being handed out for absolutely no crime!

Completely and utterly helpless, we sat and listened to what would happen in the next few days. I don’t recall much of what he said, but I remember my mother turning to me with that familiar, uncompromising look in her eye and saying, “I’m going to fight this.”

Yes, she would fight death as she had fought life; like every other great challenge that had faced her, she never gave up without a fight. But I looked at the thin frame of a woman she had become and knew that this was a fight she was not going to win. Not this time.

Next Up: in A Silent Education: Our Quiet Challenge in Provence

Episode 11: Adapting to a New Rhythm and Creating Lasting Memories

Previous Episodes

Episode 9: She Speaks the Language of Birds

Apart from mild surprise when reading my mother’s entries in the baby book she kept for me, which lists the number of words I could say at 12 months and various intervals beyond that, I never really noticed too much that Allia didn’t speak words that could be recognised. Because she talked non-stop. She communicated incessantly with much enthusiasm and wasn’t shy.

She spoke a language tongue that we referred to as bird-talk, it was long streams of dialogue that went up and down in intonation which I was just on the verge of understanding if I listened hard enough, I was sure. Like listening to Italian or Arabic, languages that incorporate much body language and expression which communicate mood, tension and excitement without the need to understand their words.  It was very much like listening to the French language on the television or the radio in my early days of living here – somewhat familiar sounds with that feeling that surely if I did listen hard enough, it was just a matter of time before something in my brain clicked and “poof” I would understand everything.

It wasn’t until her brother arrived on the scene a year later and started using recognisable words in his rambled dialogue very early on that the contrast became noticeable – I think he understood the bird-talk because they would chatter away to each other and to us without hesitation. I wondered then if something was perhaps amiss, I say perhaps, because I am against making comparisons between children, they develop at their own pace and depending on what they are working on developing, other aspects can lag behind.

When people started suggesting we video her speaking like this, I realised it really was a little out of the ordinary, it was almost as if she had her own language, something like a twin language – but no twin. Unlike today when making a piece of film footage is child’s play, I wasn’t comfortable filming her as a kind of spectacle, I was more concerned with just interacting with her and giving her the freedom to express herself, waiting for her language to become something like one of the three languages she was hearing at home.

Next Up: in A Silent Education: Our Quiet Challenge in Provence

Episode 10: The Move Down Under and a Shocking Diagnosis

Previous Episodes

Episode 8: Ten Months of Bliss and Facing a Return to Work

Once over that initial hurdle, Allia blossomed and apart from that long scar, there was nothing to indicate there had ever been a problem. She was a happy, contented baby who loved to smile and engage with those around her, especially the band of eight and nine-year-old girls who lived in our apartment building and were frequent visitors.

For the first ten months I was able to stay at home with her, working a little, practicing aromatherapy, however I knew it was going to be necessary to find another full-time job, living in London demands it, all the more so when there is an extra mouth to feed.

Until this precious little girl came into my life, I never really questioned working long hours or weekends and I had thrived on the opportunity to travel with work. Now, I couldn’t think of anything worse – to leave this child behind, absolutely not, she had extinguished my desire to seek out the unknown, I found myself dreaming of safer pastures, the more familiar.

For the first time in eight years of living in London, the city that I thought had become my second home, I thought the unthinkable – maybe it was time to return to New Zealand?

P.S. This is what Allia came up with when I said this episode was about us having 10 months of fun times hanging out together, going to the park etc, I just love this picture, although my husband says that first one isn’t true! But her imagination is brilliant. Enjoy.

Next Up: in A Silent Education: Our Quiet Challenge in Provence

Episode 9: She Speaks the Language of Birds

Previous Episodes

mslexia – for women who write

I’ve been subscribing to mslexia magazine for a few years now and since it is both a great stimulant to the writing process as well as an excellent source of reading recommendations and a directory of sorts, I thought I’d share a little about it.

Mostly I like it, because it doesn’t feel in any way elitist, this is a kind-hearted, generous resource, contributed to and read by ordinary women who like to write, including many who like me, don’t participate in this activity as a job, but manage to scribble away for a few hours each week – read this and you realise you are part of a large, like-minded community of women who believe in making the impossible possible.

It might be published in the United Kingdom, but it has a very international flavour and inclusive attitude, important when you live outside your country of birth and don’t write in the language of your country of residence and want to participate.

mslexia (ms = woman, lexia =words) is a quarterly publication with feature articles on some aspect of writing (and open to idea submissions), an interview with a published writer, featured short stories or poetry written to the issue theme, or winning entries from the regular competitions they run.

It was Issue 48 in Jan/Feb/Mar 2011 that introduced me to the writer Susan Hill, just as her short novel A Kind Man was being released and I’ve since read three more of her books.

In the latest edition there is a wonderful interview with Diana Athill, what an inspiring woman she is, winning the Costa biography award at 91 with her book Somewhere Towards the End and still writing from her North London residential retirement home.  She says it how it is and cites Jean Rhys’ for teaching her this, she mines her own experiences for a story, and cautions against being cruel to others, “you can be ruthless about yourself, but not when writing about friends” – you can read an extract from the interview here.

athill“I have never understood how many writers moan and groan about how awful writing is. Absolute nonsense.” Diana Athill

Recently, they have been conducting mini-surveys of readers which are then incorporated into the lead articles and some of the smaller snippets of information found throughout the magazine. It is extremely readable, which I put down to the fact that there is a reasonable portion of bite-sized articles, such as letters, extracts from posts, emails, tweets, along with fun and short, contemporary submissions from writers under the headings of rants, raves, a week of tweets, monologue, pen portrait, how I keep going, four lines that rhyme, a poetry or book review. Something for everyone.

Each quarter there is a themed New Writing section, always an excellent writing prompt whether you are interested to submit or not, short narrative or story up to 2,200 words, prose or sometimes poetry, the successful entries appearing in a future edition. I have seen many women being published for the first time through these exercises.

There is an annual poetry and short story competition and in 2012 there was a children’s novel competition for unpublished women novelists.

In addition to all the wonderful information it lays at your fingertips, one of the things I love the most are the short bio’s of contributors, here is one from the 2009 poetry competition in which Pat Simmon’s touching poem ‘Jack discovers impermanence’ was a winner:

PAT SIMMONS, 64, was head of communications for ‘Send a Cow’, an African agricultural organisation, but has since retired. The conviction that whatever she writes will be rubbish stilts her creative progress, but an encouraging family keep her inspired and motivated. Finding writing by hand shackling, she works directly onto her laptop, a practice to which she wishes to dedicate more time. She was Blagdon’s 2005 Apple Wassail Queen – your guess is as good as ours – and on a trip to Rwanda was re-christened Munyanika: ‘As valuable as a cow.’

It is available online, but this is one publication that I like to have the physical magazine to read, there are so many gems and I return to back issues often. Oh and lets not forget the back page, always a delight to conclude with, ‘the bedside table‘, introduces an artist, author, intellectual or well-known personality who shares what’s currently on their nightstand, like gossip for book-lovers.

The next deadline of 18 March 2013 is for Issue 58: The Women’s Short Story Competition for stories up to 2,200 words on any topic. There are prizes for 1st, 2nd and 3rd and three other finalists will also be published in that issue of Mslexia. You don’t have to be   a subscriber to enter, just a woman.  Stories are accepted from any nationality and country.

Happy Writing!