Monday 30 December 2019

Musical Interlude: Stereo Hearts

Had a really rough weekend but difficult times make you realise how amazing your friends are. My friend Jo and her eight-year-old daughter came to my rescue and drove me home to Kigali. Her daughter took control of the playlist and put this on. Lifted my spirits as we drove towards the bright lights of the city. You can get through anything with good friends and good music.

Sunday 29 December 2019

How to Stop Time

Probably the last book review of the year.

I absolutely loved this. Picked it up in an Audible sale and had no idea what it was about. Fell in love with it almost instantly.

How to Stop Time tells a love story across the ages—and for the ages—about a man lost in time, the woman who could save him, and the lifetimes it can take to learn how to live. It is a bighearted, wildly original novel about losing and finding yourself, the inevitability of change, and how with enough time to learn, we just might find happiness.

This surprised me, because I'm not a big time travel fan, although I am a long-life fan. I like vampire stories for that reason, and The Children of Lir is entirely about what happens if you outlive all those you love - which this is also about. So it resonated. 

The main character, Tom Hazard, has a genetic condition called anageria, which means he ages extremely slowly. He's around four-hundred years old but only appears to be in middle age. I liked this, because it's almost plausible. There are genetic conditions such as progeria, which affects Adalia Rose, and causes her to age extremely quickly, and Brooke Megan Greenberg who completely stopped ageing. There have been other cases of 'syndrome X'.

It's not beyond the realms of possibility. 

The story itself is gentle yet fascinating. One of those reads that really opens your mind to the 'what if...' What if you lived so long that the memories gave you a headache?

...all we can ever be is faithful to our memories of reality rather than the reality itself, which is something closely related, but never precisely the same thing.


It is all right if you know you only have another thirty or forty years. You can afford to think small. You can find it easy to imagine that you are a fixed thing, inside a fixed nation, with a fixed flag, and a fixed outlook. You can imagine that these things mean something.

The longer you live, the more you realise that nothing is fixed. Everyone will become a refugee if they live long enough. Everyone would realise their nationality means little in the long run. Everyone would see their worldviews challenged and disproved. Everyone would realise that the thing that defines a human being is being a human being.


I had been to sea before, but being at sea no longer felt like being at sea. The progress of humanity seemed to be measured in the distance we placed between ourselves and nature. We could now be in the middle of the Atlantic, on a steam ship such as the Etruria, and feel as if we were sitting in a restaurant in Mayfair.


And [the tree] has stayed there, calmly in its spot, growing slowly, producing leaves, losing leaves, producing more, as those mammoths became extinct, as Homer wrote The Odyssey, as Cleopatra reigned, as Jesus was nailed to a cross, as Siddhartha Gautama left his palace to weep for his suffering subjects, as the Roman Empire declined and fell, as Carthage was captured, as water buffalo were domesticated in China, as the Incas built cities, as I leaned over the well with Rose, as America fought with itself, as world wars happened, as Facebook was invented, as millions of humans and other animals lived and fought and procreated and went, bewildered, to their fast graves, the tree had always been the tree. That was the familiar lesson of time. 

There were some lovely similes and metaphors: 'I stand like a vertical headache,' 'I'm a crowd in one body.' The idea that people don't learn from history and that the 21st century might just be a bad cover version of the 20th. Plus some important lessons on life, which I should probably heed:

You have to stop flicking ahead and just concentrate on the page you're on.

Also, some nice wordplay, such as this poem:

The Way
That when you
On their side
Look like
A long way
Made out

And the idea that social media emojis mean that language is evolving into a new form of hieroglyphics.

There's too much in this to bundle up into a blog post, so do go pick up a copy. The Audible narration by Mark Meadows was spot on and matched the story perfectly. 

Just a really interesting, unique read.

Tuesday 17 December 2019

Goma Plane Crash

News Photograph

Writing with some sad news. 

I'm part of a piano-building project in Kigali. A couple of weeks back, a plane crashed in a residential area of Goma, which is a city just over the border in DRC. 

Unfortunately, one of the houses it landed on belonged to the brother of our chief piano carpenter, Paulin. His brother was at church at the time, but the crash wiped out his brother's wife and their children. He has just returned from DRC and we are holding a collection for his family.

If you would like to contribute, you can do so through our website. Put the name Paulin in the PayPal note and we'll make sure he gets it, or contact me for mobile money details.

Paulin, left, last year.

Sunday 15 December 2019

Girl, Woman, Other

I recently read Girl, Woman Other, the Booker Prize winner by Bernardine Evaristo. She is the first black woman to win the prize, which is why I picked it up. A historic piece of literature.

Teeming with life and crackling with energy - a love song to modern Britain, to black womanhood, to the ever-changing heart of London

Girl, Woman, Other follows the lives and struggles of twelve very different characters. Mostly women, black and British, they tell the stories of their families, friends and lovers, across the country and through the years.

Joyfully polyphonic and vibrantly contemporary, this is a gloriously new kind of history, a novel of our times: celebratory, ever-dynamic and utterly irresistible.

It did take me a while to get into it, just because it's heavily UK-centric and I have a bit of an ambivalent attitude towards my birth country nowadays. I rarely read much that touches on contemporary Britain, whereas Rivers of London, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street and other fantasy titles that pull me away from politics and the true day-to-day of people are more appealing. I think I would have fallen into it quicker when I was younger. I was a drama school luvvie and the book opens amidst the rich art culture of London, whereas I now live in a country that doesn't have a theatre, so it's harder to remember what that was like. 

It drew me in, though. Reminded me of one of my favourite films Crash (2004), which was all about a set of individual characters and how their lives intertwined and, quite literally in some cases, crashed into one another. It wasn't always immediately obvious how they were connected, but became so as the film went on. 

This is similar, in that it bounces between countries, people and histories, showing how previous decisions affect characters' futures and how private thoughts affect their public actions. Some parts were extremely touching. I especially liked Shirley, who starts out as an optimistic young teacher, and the way her job and the pupils she encounters slowly twists her into something else. Made me think about some of my old teachers with more empathy. 

It also drew me in with the breadth of sexuality explored. From closet homophobes to the trans community, lesbian encounters to a wonderful generational moment where one girl is trying to come out to her grandmother - such a big thing for the girl, such a private, what-difference-does-it-make, she-is-who-she-is, why-shout-about-it moment for the grandmother.

Dominique guessed her own sexual preferences from puberty, wisely kept them to herself, unsure how her friends or family would react, not wanting to be a social outcast

she tried boys a couple of times

they enjoyed it

she endured it

I did struggle a little with the narration as it was an audiobook. It was very good, but the narrator had a certain cadence which left every sentence dripping with sarcasm. There were twelve characters and after a while they blended into one another if you weren't paying attention. It might have been nice to throw a few other voices in there along the way just to help the listener keep pace. 

Another thing I only noticed when I was looking for the quotes for this review, is that it seems the book is written in freestyle, so without orthodox grammar and punctuation. For that reason, I think it's a book better read than listened to - like David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, which plays as much with written language as with characters. It reminded me of a poem by Benjamine Zephania called According to my Mood, which plays with text formation.

the Marxists demanded they set up a Central Committee of the Workers’ Republic of Freedomia, which was a bit rich, Amma thought, seeing as most of them had taken ‘a principled stand against the running dogs of capitalism’ as an excuse to not work
the hippies suggested they form a commune and share everything, but they were so chilled and laid back, everybody talked over them
the environmentalists wanted to ban aerosols, plastic bags and deodorant, which turned everyone against them, even the punks who weren’t exactly known for smelling minty
the vegetarians demanded a non-meat policy, the vegans wanted it extended to non-dairy, the macrobiotics suggested everyone eat steamed white cabbage for breakfast
the Rastas wanted cannabis legalized, and a reserved plot on the land out back for their Nyabinghi gatherings
the Hari Krishnas wanted everyone to join them that very afternoon banging drums down Oxford Street
the punks wanted permission to play shouty music and were duly shouted down
the gay guys wanted anti-homophobic legislation enshrined into the building’s constitution, to which everyone replied, what constitution?
the radical feminists wanted women-only quarters, self-governed by a co-op
the lesbian radical feminists wanted their own quarters away from the non-lesbian radical feminists, also self-governed by a co-op
the black radical lesbian feminists wanted the same except with the condition that no whiteys of any gender were allowed inside
the anarchists walked out because any form of governance was a betrayal of everything they believed in

I learned some interesting things, such as there having been a bookshop in London between 1978-1993 called Sister Write which only sold books by female authors, that apparently, according to studies, older men go for younger women but both younger and older women go for middle-aged women, and I loved the idea that a non sequitur 'only means that a conversation is free-flowing and intuitive as opposed to following a predictable trajectory.'

And, despite my grudging relationship with Merry Old England, there were a few things I related to strongly. This passage made me think of a friend who went to the UK as a qualified blood technician. He had a very good job working for the biomedical centre in Rwanda, but married a Brit and, on arrival, discovered his degree wasn't recognised and couldn't even get volunteer work.

just as she did not know that when she strode on to the graduation podium in front of hundreds of people to receive her ribboned scroll, and shake hands with the Chancellor of the University, that her first class degree from a Third World country would mean nothing in her new country
I also had a smile on my face as the author dived into a very accurate description of Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire, a place where I spent some of my formative years. Forgive the reproduction, I transcribed and wasn't sure whether to punctuate or not.

Hebden Bridge was a small haven of organic-friendly environmentalist residents and shops of tie chi pilates meditation yoga and holistic healing classes of writers theatre makers film makers casual artists dancers and activists of old fashioned hippies new fashioned non conformists as well as people whose families had lived there for generations and were used to the bohemians who had started arriving in the sixties.

It was also full of useful one-liners for life:

Marrying someone when you're in love with them isn't such a good idea, 'better to wait a few years, ten, twenty, thirty - never, to see whether you're still compatible after the passion has subsided.

And some lovely descriptive, such as a person who had 'a mouth that holds all her misery like a drawstring tightened around a pouch,' and the hello-goodbye sandwich, reserved for people you really don't want to talk to but can't afford to offend. Greet them effusively, depart effusively - not much in between. 

It was a good story. As mentioned above, I'd probably suggest going for the tree version over the audio one. Worth a read. 

Tuesday 10 December 2019

John Richards Retires

(click to enlarge)

Read more in: Do apostrophe's still matter?

"We have done our best but the ignorance and laziness present in modern times has won," the 96-year-old wrote.


But Petelin, like Richards, is a staunch defender of the apostrophe as "the 27th letter of the alphabet", necessary for clear communication. 

I'm a huge fan of the apostrophe and feel there is still a place for it but if you're not sure, do check out this for and against argument regarding spelling and grammar.

Saturday 7 December 2019

Sunspot Literary Journal

Just a little shout out to Sunspot Literary Journal. I'm an advisory board member for this magazine, which publishes voices from around the world. They accept submissions of fiction, poetry, nonfiction, scripts, screenplays, photography and art. You can read more on their website and submit here. You can download previous editions here for a better idea of what they're looking for.