The Reading Life

GUEST POST: “Who will win when the lore of the Borneo jungle takes on the law of the white man?” by Bill Colegrave

A warm welcome to my guest, the legendary Bill Colegrave,

who has collected and been inspired by travel books for more than four decades. He was the owner and publisher of the Cadogan Guides travel series.
And now over to Bill…

 

The unforeseen complications of a one-night stand

are the foundations of this tale and the adventure that ensues. Benjie, a Chinese Malaysian Doctor is quickly diverted by his new assistant, a tattooed Iban, an indigenous Bornean; once hooked, he remains on the line. The more he discovers of her history, the deeper he becomes embroiled.

Children tattoo children to ensure the art never dies.

Debut novelist, Ivy Ngeow is Malaysian and international and she uses all her multicultural skills to explore the interaction of her character cast of Chinese, Malay, Scottish and Iban. The latter are the catalysts for the drama.

“A man or a woman without tattoos is invisible to the gods.” – Iban proverb

Elderly Sea Dayak woman of Borneo with thigh, feet and hands tattoo

Everyone has heard of Borneo, but most can’t place it on the map.

That is because Borneo is the name of an island, which is not a country; 75% of it is the Indonesian province of Kalimantan, the rest is the Malaysian outposts of Sabah and Sarawak plus the tiny but powerfully oil-rich Kingdom of Brunei. The Borneo of Cry is Sarawak, the home of the Iban.

The story engaged my attention but I was also learning about the Iban,

and learning to admire the Iban. Marriage, we learn, should be considered in practical terms:

“Every boy should look to marry a girl that is top class at weaving…..Boys want girls that are good at weaving, because it is a tough, tough life in the jungle. The girls, they weave to make clothes for war and for every day. They weave pua and the blankets make you dream well. In Iban, dreams are the most important gift from the Gods.”

Traditional Sarawak weaving of Pua Kumbu

A traditional Borneo longhouse

Central to the tale are the two Iban boys, Minos and Watan, who are taken under the wing of a English pastor, who has not understood that the 19th century ended a few years ago and that he is not helping anyone by trying to convert Iban to Christianity. But what he can offer is attractive to the eager Iban. Minos complains that there is no TV.

“Ingland says no. If plentymoney says No, it means No. But Pastor says Yes. Someone from the church give a TV. It is only the size of a chicken.”

I hope I remember to use that splendid simile when I am next buying a TV. Let me also remember Minos’ advice about mushroom gathering:

“….if all rotten and covered in worms, means OK to eat. If fresh and untouched, means poisonous.”

Ex-convicts pray.

Cry of the Flying Rhino is charming as well as compelling

as a story, partly because the author creates her own moral code, as a result of which almost all crimes committed by her characters can be forgiven, so long as they can be held to be avenging a greater wrong.

The charm of the book and its insights into the ways of the jungle people of Borneo have drawn me to the island.

When I get there I will be thanking Ivy and two other writers:

  1. My friend Robin Hanbury Tenison, whose Finding Eden – A Journey into the Heart of Borneo, has just been published. It tells the story of his time leading the Royal Geographical Society expedition to the same area in 1977 and starts with his chance meeting with Nayapun, a Penan tribesman:

“The Penan have a quality of stillness….They melt into the shadows and that is their life”.

2. and the American, CS Godshalk, whose novel Kalimantaan, brought back to vivid but fictional life the time of Rajah Brooke, the Briton who became an effective Rajah of Sarawak in the mid 19th Century.

2018 All Rights Reserved © Bill Colegrave

 

“When we affect to condemn savages, we should remember that by doing so we asperse our own progenitors; for they were savages also. Who can swear that among the naked British barbarians sent to Rome to be stared at more than 1500 years ago, the ancestor of Bacon might not have been found?–Why, among the very Thugs of India, or the bloody Dyaks of Borneo, exists the germ of all that is intellectually elevated and grand. We are all of us–Anglo-Saxons, Dyaks and Indians–sprung from one head and made in one image.” – Herman Melville

Have you been to Borneo and have you met an Iban before? If you have enjoyed this blog post, please share, join my mailing list or email me with your comments and feedback. We would love to hear from you.

Ivy Ngeow lives in London. Cry of the Flying Rhino is a debut award-winning novel set in Malaysia and Borneo. Her second novel Heart of Glass is published by Unbound in 2018. Find me at www.writengeow.com, tweet me @ivyngeow, or write to me here: ivy_ngeow at yahoo dot com

Bill Colegrave is a travel writer and explorer. He was publisher of Cadogan Guides, which he bought in 1989, and also a Director of Everyman’s Library. His book Halfway House to Heaven (Benefactum, 2011) tells the story of his expedition to find the source of the River Oxus in the Wakhan Corridor and Pamir Mountains of Afghanistan. He is also co-creator of Not The Times, a parody of The Times during its year-long strike. He has an extensive travel book library and has travelled to 110 countries and counting. He has three grown children and one grandchild, and lives in London. Scraps of Wool was published by Unbound on 16 November 2017. Write to him here: scrapsofwool at gmail dot com

 

 

 

 

 

PHOTO CREDITS:

Map of Borneo: drawn by © Ivy Ngeow 2018 All Rights Reserved 

Sarawak weaver: photo credit: papayatreelimited 7 Nancy Ngali at her loom, Rumah Garie, Sarawak via photopin (license)

Rainforest mushrooms: photo credit: The eclectic Oneironaut dry rainforests via photopin (license)

Desperate prayer: photo credit: mathieujarryphoto desperate.prayer via photopin (license)

Sarawak rainforest: photo credit: LukePricePhotography Jungle. Sarawak, Borneo. Malaysia via photopin (license)

The Renaissance Woman: Truth or Lie?

Ren′aissance wom′an

n.

awomanwhohasacquiredprofoundknowledgeorproficiencyinmore thanonefield.
I dreaded forcing myself and my eyes to look up the term Renaissance woman and read the definition because although I suspect I already knew what it meant I wanted it confirmed, like bad news.
Being proficient at many things was something I saw as a negative aspect to my character especially as I am only greeted with shock and fear: “I didn’t know you are a …” insert whatever. “Is there anything you can’t do?” “What else are you doing?” “Why do you do all these things?” “When do you do all these things?” It is because of that terrible saying Jack of All Trades and Master of None. Also, that ridiculous term ‘juggling’ is often bandied about. I have no reply to these kind of questions because they are rhetorical questions and leave me speechless.
So really, I have to face the music. It’s time to give you the facts.

1/ Renaissance Woman does not like to be asked ‘Is there anything you can’t or don’t do’

Of course there are my dear. How can I do more than 4 things at once? I really only do architecture, writing, sewing and play musical instruments. I don’t do pole dancing, sports, any sports, plastering, electrical work, plumbing, maintenance or fixing of any mechanical or electrical item such as motors, anything involving a solenoid or AC supply, valves, anything medical, ice skating, skiing, did I already mention sports, spreadsheets, databases, accounts. There are too many. Do you really think that all skills belong to all?

2/ Renaissance woman always tries her best

Doesn’t matter what it is or if she is terrible at it. “If you want something done, ask a busy person.” (have you heard this saying?) This is actually the motto of the Renaissance woman. Giving it your best shot. You have one life. Make every moment count. This is the moment. This is the day. etc. You have heard it all before. They are all cliches. Even things I am terrible at: housework, cooking, baking, ballet – I do a thorough job of it, or not at all.

3/ Renaissance woman is not a Wonder Woman, Superhuman or any fantasy character

She fights colds, craves sugar and feels fed up like everybody else. And one day when she is dead she hopes some admin staff will still be running this page or at least a page that says Error 404 Page Not Found, so that you will know that everybody eventually dies, even the Renaissance woman, because after all she is not a superhuman nor immortal. The house is always dirty or messy because one cannot do it all. Something’s gotta give and it’s not Hollywood.

4/ Renaissance woman is hardworking

There is no question about it. You have do do time.
Architecture – 30,000 to 60,000 hours as I have only been doing it since Uni, and I say only but because of how long ago since I qualified in it and practised in it, it has clocked up that number of hours. I can’t understand people who (obviously don’t know me) ask me ‘How do/did you do it?’ I am a professional! Time is how you do it.
Piano – 40,000 hours. I have been playing since early childhood, was also in a band which involved severe serious practising all the time, every day for many years.
Writing – 25,000 hours. I have been writing since I could write.
Sewing – 10,000 hours. I have been sewing with my grandmother and aunts since I was a child. The moment I could hold a needle without stabbing myself or someone else, I was given tasks.
If you spent at least 10,000 hours playing tennis since childhood you would be a tennis champion.
There is no magic. If people think you are born with God-given talent and then suddenly you’re a whizz at everything at an adult age, they must be crazy and must be subjected themselves to 10,000 hours’ training in something.

5/ Renaissance woman must have hobbies

Naturally, being a busy, hardworking person, mother, wife, worker, writer, architect, seamstress and musician and having spent 10,000 hours on the main things, one cannot be expected to not enjoy one’s downtime with hobbies. The Renaissance woman has lesser activities in order to relax. These usually have nothing to do with the main courses. These are just snacks or desserts for example ballet, makeup art, decluttering, re-organization of rooms, cardio exercises and the aforementioned items in 2/ which she is not so good at. For example I only very recently started cardio, guitar and ballet, therefore I am still terrible at them and totally not proficient.
Cardio: 240 hours
Ballet: 100 hours
Guitar: 800 hours

Conclusion

You may have multiple streams of income, you may not. You may have professions, hobbies, sidelines, main courses, snacks. Whatever your flow, go forth and multiply your interests. You will not regret it. The worst that can happen is you spent 10 hours on it not 10,000. Even so it is not a failure. Learning does not exhaust the mind, it grows the mind. Anyway, so what if I fail, I have failed and I will fail and fail again, I will fail better each time!
We all have so many talents and gifts, we may have just suppressed them because of the way we have been conditioned and brought up. You have no idea of the power of the human mind and humanity. You have time. We all do. In fact, time is all we have on earth.
This beautiful and inspirational quote from the maestro of the Renaissance himself reminds us:
“Time abides long enough for those who make use of it.” – Leonardo da Vinci

Are you a Renaissance Woman or Man? What do you think of multiple interests and multi-tasking? If you have enjoyed this blog post, please share, join my mailing list or email me with your comments and feedback. As usual I would love to hear from you.

2018 All Rights Reserved © Ivy Ngeow

SCRAPS OF WOOL by Bill Colegrave: On Memory and Experience in 5 Places

Like all great travellers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen. – Benjamin Disraeli

Memory decides our journeys long before we do. It is the narrative drive of our travels and forms the organisation of our experience.

Bill Colegrave has collected and been inspired by travel books for more than four decades. He was the owner and publisher of the Cadogan Guides travel series. I was fortunate to meet Bill at the bar in Charlotte Street Hotel in London a year ago with other fellow authors. 

All reading and writing helps us travel to somewhere else. The escape alone is part of what drives my memory, experience and curiosity. Scraps of Wool is about choices, about discovery, about life on the road, about dreams. Bill was 8 when he first crossed the Channel. A few years later, his father took him and his twin sister on a boat called Braemar Castle from London’s Tilbury Docks to Gibraltar, Genoa. He wrote:

I had fallen in love with abroad. I still am.

The 5 top places which inspired Scraps of Wool are:

1. The Oxus River, Afghanistan

fascinated Bill when he was a teenager inspired by the epic poem Sohrab and Rustum by Mathew Arnold written in 1853:

AND the first grey of morning fill’d the east,
And the fog rose out of the Oxus stream.
But all the Tartar camp along the stream
Was hush’d, and still the men were plunged in sleep;
Sohrab alone, he slept not; all night long
He had lain wakeful, tossing on his bed;
But when the grey dawn stole into his tent,
He rose, and clad himself, and girt his sword,
And took his horseman’s cloak, and left his tent,
And went abroad into the cold wet fog,
Through the dim camp to Peran-Wisa’s tent.

Oxus River and Pamir Mountains

Bill’s interest in Central Asia began when he read a copy of Wilfred Thesiger’s The Marsh Arabs, mentioned in his previous book Halfway House to Heaven (2011) which tells of his journey up the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan to find the source of the Oxus River in the High Pamirs. Bill first went to Afghanistan in 1990. He explored the Oxus and Pamirs in 2007 when he was 59. But aged 17, he was lying one evening in a bunk in a yacht club in Cowes, Isle of Wight, with “wind-blown rain on the porthole windows” when he read Chapter 16 of The Marsh Arabs.

I had left in the last week of July 1952 and it was not an early afternoon in February. Seven months later; it seemed longer. In that time I had crossed high passes through the snows of the Hindu Kush to the cold blue lake of Korombar where the Chitral river rises; I had looked out over Wakand from the Borogil Pass and seen in the distance a glint that was the Oxus; I had slept on the glaciers at the foot of Tirich Mir, and in dark, verminous houses among mulberry orchards, where the last of the Black Kafirs lived on the borders of Nuristan.

Marsh Arabs of the Euphrates

The Marsh Arabs AKA the Maʻdān or shroog (derogatory terms) – are inhabitants of the Tigris-Euphrates marshlands in the south and east of Iraq and along the Iranian border. During the years he spent among the Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq, Wilfred Thesiger came to understand, admire and share a way of life that had endured for many centuries. Bill at the time did not know of these places but he at once was bitten by the travel bug. His dream was to find these places.

2. Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Jon Swain’s River of Time (1996) took Bill to Cambodia. Here it is all about love, love, love. The unforgettable experience, memory, the eternal quest, the eternal question of falling in love with Indo-China.

Colonial architecture of Phnom Penh

I felt I had entered a beautiful garden… I forgot about Paris and began a love affair with Indo-China, to which I have been faithful ever since… I stepped into an enchanting world of tropical scents, the evening silence broken only by a bevy of girls in the cyclos who crowded round offering to pass the night with us. ‘Indo-China is like a beautiful woman; she overwhelms you and you never quite understand why,’ his companion said with unashamed tenderness. ‘Sometimes a man can lose his heart to a place, one that lured him back again and again.’

It was also a place of memories… of opium:

In those hard-bitten days, a number of us smoked opium. It seemed natural to do so after a day at the front. Opium had been legal in Indo-China just a few years before, and while it was now officialy prohibited, was still widely smoked among the French colonels. The most famous fumerie in Phnom Penh was Madame Chum’s. Madame Chum, a one-time mistress of a former president oft he national assembly, was Cambodia’s Opium Queen. She ran the fumerie for more than thirty years until her death in September 1970, aged 67, and earned a small fortune from the pipe-dreams of others.

3. The Karakorums

Karakorum Mountain Range

The Heart of a Continent (1896) by Francis Younghusband crossing the Mustagh took Bill to the Karakorums. The Karakoram, or Karakorum is a large mountain range spanning the borders of Pakistan, India, and China, with the northwest extremity of the range extending to Afghanistan and Tajikistan. It is located in the regions of Gilgit–Baltistan(Pakistan), Ladakh (India), and southern Xinjiang (China), and reaches the Wakhan Corridor (Afghanistan).

This chapter is a gripping adventure story:

We reached the bottom of the cliff without accident, and then found ourselves at the head of a long ice-slope extending down to the glacier below. Protruding through the ice were three pieces of rock, which would serve us as successive halting-places, and we determined upon taking a line which led by them. We had brought with us every scrap of rope that could be spared from the ponies’ gear, and we tied these and all the men’s turbans and waist-clothes together into one long rope, by which we let a man down the ice-slope on to the first projecting rock. As he went down the steps, and when he had reached the rock we tied the upper end of the rope firmly onto rock above, and then one by one we can down the slope, hanging on to the rope and making use of the steps which had been cut.

4. The Maghreb

The citadel in Essaouira, Morocco, the Maghreb

I have fond memories of this word “Maghreb”. Before I knew anything of the world, as a child of 5, I had already heard of “Maghreb” because I had grown up in a Muslim country, Malaysia. In Arabic it means ‘the West’. Usually at tea time or my dinner time as a child in Segamat, Johor, I remember my favourite Merry Melodies or Hekyll and Jekyll cartoons on TV being interrupted by the Waktu Maghreb or Time of the West muezzin’s call to prayer. Incidentally, Segamat is also the setting for Cry of the Flying RhinoThe Maghrib prayer (Arabic: صلاة المغرب‎ ṣalāt al-maġrib, “West prayer“) is the prayer time which is prayed just after sunset. It is the fourth of five obligatory daily prayers (salat) performed by practicing Muslims. I was very interested in this cross-dressing aristocratic heiress Isabelle Eberhardt in Chapter 17 which took Bill to the Maghreb. The Maghreb is a region of northern Africa that consists primarily of the countries AlgeriaMorocco, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania. It is considered the Western region of the Arabic world.

Isabelle Eberhardt cross dressed as a sailor boy while working in the docks of Marseille to earn enough money to escape

Isabelle Eberhardt, penniless author of The Oblivion Seekers (1906), was only 27 when she drowned in a flash flood at Ain Sefra Algeria in 1904. She was 22 years old when she left an unhappy “sedentary” life in Switzerland, became a Sufi Muslim, and dressed as the male Arab she saw herself as. She explored the kif smoking dens of Kenadsa, then part of Morocco, subsequently absorbed into Algeria. She was supposedly a writer, a spy, an agitator and a sexual libertine.

Born in Geneva to an aristocratic mother and the family tutor—an ex-priest turned anarchist named Alexandre Trofimovsky—Isabelle Eberhardt was fluent in six languages, including Arabic, as a 16-year old. By the age of 20 she had converted to Islam. In the late 1890s both her parents died suddenly. Despite her family’s wealth, Eberhardt was an illegitimate baby and therefore not eligible for an inheritance. She had to earn passage to Algeria using her wits.  Disguising herself as a boy—something she’d been doing from an early age with the encouragement of her father—she worked as a Marseille dockhand until she could afford the ferry crossing. 

The kif dens are places of shelters “for Moroccan vagabonds, for nomads, and for every sort of person of dubious intent and questionable appearance.” As I understand, kif is cannabis, smoked til it produced a drowsy effect:

The seekers of oblivion sing and clap their hand lazily; their dream-voices ring out late into the night, in the dim light of the mica-paned lantern. Then little by little the voices fall, grow muffled, the words are slower. Finally the smokers are quiet, and merely stare at the flowers in ecstasy.

5. The Hunza

Some facts: People are often surprised when they learn that the citizens of Hunza (also known as Burusho people) usually live up to the age 120. They can easily conceive even after 60 years and it is very rare for them to get tumors. They are also descendants of Alexander the Great. They bathe in glacier water. Cancer does not exist in the Hunza. Curious?

Batura Glacier in the Hunza

In George Curzon’s The Pamirs and the Source of the Oxus (1996), he claims that the “ice cave found there was the source of the river. It was there, almost exactly as he had described it, a river emerging in full flow from the confluence of three glaciers. No one who has had the good fortune to visit the astonishing Hunza Valley would quarrel with Curzon’s florid opening description.”

Bill’s last trip was to South America – the conjunction of Peru, Colombia and Brazil where the Amazon is already 5 km across. He is now working on Scraps 2

Scraps of Wool is an enjoyable read and an even more enjoyable blog post for me to write. It is a remarkable and moving compilation.Bill’s narrative is charming, tender and humorous and it never stops to examine the humanity in places, time and the characters Bill has encountered. It is also illuminating in that all our moments are to be treasured, each a jewel, a story. Each place is stunning in its own right. In fact, they are such fairytale fantasy settings, these places which beggar belief, still continue not only to exist but to shine like gems as they had always done, through the terrible world that we live in, with its despair, sad state of global destruction and political problems. Scraps of Wool gives hope that the world we live in is so ugly and yet so beautiful. 

Afghani mountains

 

Do you think travel has shaped your experiences or do you think your experiences have been shaped by travel? If you have enjoyed this blog post, please share, join my mailing list or email me with your comments and feedback. As usual I would love to hear from you.

2018 All Rights Reserved © Ivy Ngeow

Bill Colegrave is a travel writer and explorer. He was publisher of Cadogan Guides, which he bought in 1989, and also a Director of Everyman’s Library. His book Halfway House to Heaven (Benefactum, 2011) tells the story of his expedition to find the source of the River Oxus in the Wakhan Corridor and Pamir Mountains of Afghanistan. He is also co-creator of Not The Times, a parody of The Times during its year-long strike. He has an extensive travel book library and has travelled to 110 countries and counting. He has three grown children and one grandchild, and lives in London. Scraps of Wool was published recently by Unbound and shares the same publication date as my debut – 16 November 2017.

Ivy Ngeow is third generation Chinese and was born and raised in Johor Bahru, Malaysia. She is of mixed parentage of the nomadic Hakka tribe and Hokkien from the Fujian province. She lives in London. Cry of the Flying Rhino is a debut award-winning novel set in Malaysia and Borneo. Her second novel Heart of Glass is published by Unbound in 2018.

 

Photo credits:
OXUS RIVER AND PAMIR MOUNTAINS
photo credit: Ricardo’s Photography (Thanks to all the fans!!!) Afghanistan via photopin (license)
MARSH ARABS
photo credit: D-Stanley Marsh Arab Canoes via photopin (license)
KARAKORUMS
photo credit: 10b travelling / Carsten ten Brink Karakoram landscape via photopin (license)
GLACIER LAKE THE HUNZAS
photo credit: Fahad Murtaza Batura glacial lake via photopin (license)
PHNOM PENH ARCHITECTURE
photo credit: mariusz kluzniak colonial architecture of phnom penh via photopin (license)
OPIUM PIPE
photo credit: a-md via photopin (license)
MAGHREB PORT – ESSAOUIRA
photo credit: HerryB 1572 VILLA de l’Ô, Essaouira via photopin (license)
MAGHREB – CITADEL ESSAOUIRA
photo credit: HerryB 1590 via photopin (license)
AFGHANI MOUNTAINS
photo credit: mgilberg87 Afghan Mountains via photopin (license)

 

NEWSFLASH: I will reading @BRIXTON BOOK JAM, Monday 5 March 2018 @Hootananny, LONDON

bbj-Mar5th-a6-front copy

South London, are we ready? I am coming straight out of my garret to read from my new award-winning debut, CRY OF THE FLYING RHINO, at the Brixton Book Jam, on Monday 5 March 2018 7:30pm at The Hootananny. (95 Effra Road, London SW2 1DF) – a large pub with a performance space that can hold 600 people. It also provides cooked food. The closest tube station is Brixton (Victoria line) and buses 2, 3, 415, 432 and 196 will transport you very near to the venue. Guess what, it’s FREE to attend!

This will be the FIRST TIME that I am reading aloud from this book and answering any burning questions you may have about it or about me.

Check out the exciting line-up of authors:

Tony White,
Guy Gunaratne,
Stevyn Colgan,
Chris Chalmers,
Zelda Rhiando,
Mark Hill,
Julia Bell,
Sarah Robertson,
The Deserter
Noo Saro-Wiwa

and of course Yours Truly.

During the intervals, resident DJ Andy Carstairs will spin melodic stylings from his hard drive. Check out The Hootananny. See Brixton Book Jam for detailed biogs of each author and his/her book description.

A cartoon by @willmcphail4. Follow @newyorkercartoons for more #TNYcartoons.

A post shared by The New Yorker (@newyorkermag) on

Can You Learn “How to Write Like Tolstoy” from a Book?

 

Somerset Maugham famously said that there are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.

How to Write Like Tolstoy by Richard Cohen

should be read with caution. It is, like all other writing books, a How To book that is a How Not To, which means it shows and not tells you via anecdotes and countless examples of great literature, broken down into a structured and systematic analysis what is essentially the magical and unknown journeys we take when we read and when we write. It is a tour de force of all your favourite books in one and why they are. The content page alone is proof that editor and author Richard Cohen has attempted to turn the business of creative writing into practical advice.

Reading about the writing business is an illness that you already know too well, like flu or cold symptoms. For me, it is also a secret and guilty passion because in my heart, I know that you will never know what a great book is until it is a great book so how can this magic, this art be unravelled?

Beginnings

You recognise the symptoms of the infection straightaway. When you start reading a book about writing, they all tell you the same thing, and that is, all books begin in the same way:

“the opening paragraph, the whole question of starting off right. Thereafter the chapters are roughly organized according to the creative process. How characters are created seems paramount – most often, a character will stay with us long after the particular story has faded away – but how does one give them life? What names does one bestow, how much of a back story should be included?”

Can you teach creative writing?

The question is raised in the preface. Hanif Kureishi in the Guardian on 4 March 2014 famously said you can’t. “Creative writing courses are a waste of time,” he said.

“A lot of them [students] don’t really understand,” said Kureishi. “It’s the story that really helps you. They worry about the writing and the prose and you think: ‘Fuck the prose, no one’s going to read your book for the writing, all they want to do is find out what happens in the story next.’ “

He also says that 99.9% of his students are not talented and the little bit who are left are. If skill comes with talent, then the skill can be taught and improved but the original talent still has to be present. That is why when all else fails, writing is referred to as a craft, akin to knitting a jumper or wood-whittling. If it is crude and wrongly-made, that’s just tough. You have to make it again and again until proportionally, structurally and aesthetically it is just right. There is no magic in it.

The short-lived Brendan Behan (1923-64) described himself as a “drinker with a writing problem”.

“He was invited by a prestigious American university to deliver an afternoon lecture about his craft. Behan’s reputation as boozer and rabble-rouser meant that the lecture hall was filled to capacity with students standing at the back and perched in the aisles, but the appointed hour came and went, with still no sign of the great man. Time laboured on; the stage remained empty. After forty-five minutes or so, a more than usually dishevelled Behan stumbled in, and the audience waited, in equal parts expectant, curious and alarmed. “Good afternoon,” he crooned. “Now hands up all of you who want to be writers.” Nearly everyone raised an arm. Behan viewed this forest with disgust. “Well, then,” said he. “Go on back home and frickin’ write.” With that, he reeled off the stage.”

Kurt Vonnegut who for many years was on the faculty of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, also believed that one could not make writers. He said he himself was like a golf pro who could at best “take a few shots off someone’s game”.

Hemingway said what must be a classic truism by now: the only way for a writer to learn his craft was to go away and write. Despite hours of tutorials from Gertrude Stein, Hemingway had to write to her: “Isn’t writing a hard job though? It used to be easy before I met you. I certainly was bad. Gosh, I’m awfully bad now but it’s a different kind of bad.”

This different kind of bad confirms that the teaching of the craft only highlights how difficult it is to stand out or be original. Once you become a writer aware, you become writer beware. Although teaching writing and publishing is a big business now, with creative writing Masters programme costing thousands of dollars or pounds of fees, it always comes down to: but Dickens didn’t do an MA, neither did Hemingway, Atwood, Orwell, nor J K Rowling. In reality, no one did because it was only recently (in the last 20 years) that creative writing courses came to exist. There was no such thing before. Either you were a writer or you weren’t.

My MA in Writing at Middlesex University

From a personal viewpoint, I became a “professional” when I did my MA in Writing at Middlesex University. I was already a writer. Doing the course did not make me a writer (I had been writing since I could write i.e. from the age of 8 or 9). But it turned my writing from a noun into a verb. Before there was such a thing as MA in Writing, I attended a writing group, the City Lit Writers’ Club in the late 1990s. Being “taught” creative writing was the best thing that ever happened to me as a writer. I am a very small person physically and socially, so I feel I need to be part of a big organisation. It gave me confidence that more than one person (i.e. myself) liked my work. I know that writing is like fine arts, a self-taught interest/hobby/profession/career but I still believe that I need to be self-taught in a group. Most recently, I attended the London Lit Lab’s weekend workshop (a story in a weekend). I am still working on that same story now, editing and perfecting it. However, I would not have written 3000 words in a day had not been for the workshop where I was being “taught” to start writing from scratch after a long period of not writing.

Any university course aims to give you skills or to improve your skills, even more so a Writing MA. Cry of the Flying Rhino was born at Middlesex. Yes! It’s actually a North Londoner! Without having attended the MA at Middlesex, I could not have written the book I wanted to write, nor been granted the opportunity to say what I wanted to say, free of constraints, fear, guilt, grammar, market desirability and proverbial voices over the shoulder, free of boundaries of race, language, culture. A book that experimented with patois, multiple voices, a book that is pure literature. A book that ultimately, after 12 years of dormancy on my hard drive, was submitted for an international literary prize and won. Now that I have written two books and am writing my third, I would not hesitate to say that I was “taught” something: that an MA in Writing is the most freedom you will ever get as a writer.

What about George Orwell?

What about him? He is one of my literary heroes. Perhaps what I liked about his honesty and his writing was what he “taught” me, which is not to aim for popularity but to say what you want to say but make it clear:

“Perhaps one did not want to be loved so much as to be understood.”

He began his career as a clumsy writer. At the age of 24 he moved into cheap lodgings in London, and was befriended by the distinguished poet Ruth Pitter. The two would go for long walks along the Embankment discussing his stories, or meet for dinner of a bottle of red plonk when she would give him unsparing criticism and therefore taught him to compose those stories even though the original gift for storytelling was in fact his own.

Plot

is formula, a template. The titular Leo Tolstoy once said all great literature is one of two stories. A man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.

Naturally this is sexist and I shall avert my eyes. Man is generic. It could be a child or woman or a living thing. Sexism aside, it is not so simple. If it were, then there would not be so many narratives available.

Carlo Gozzi, an Italian playwright of the 18th century said there were 36 plots. 2004’s bestselling Seven Basic Plots won approval of many writers. Oxford philosopher Roger Scruton called it “a brilliant summary of storytelling.”

Overcoming Monster
Rags to Riches
The Quest
Voyage and Return
Comedy
Tragedy
Rebirth
These are just nonsensical hashtags in my view. If there are only 7 then how come all the greatest books have all of the above?

Sex

Naturally I turned to this chapter first being someone who can’t, won’t and doesn’t write about sex. As it happens this is a very interesting chapter. It is not about erotica or pornography. “It’s nearly always best to avoid detailed descriptions or elaborate imagery” which is how one turns the writing about sex into erotica or pornography.

William F Buckley liked to recall a dinner with Vladimir Nabokov who told him that he was smiling because he polished off his OSS in that afternoon’s writing session.

What’s an OSS? asked Buckley.

Nabokov explained. Obligatory sex scene.

A depressing scenario is when writers put in a sex scene, badly-written because they hope it will boost sales, or win them popularity or whatever. Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris has a section for erotica and it is aptly called L’Enfer. Hell.

Shirley Conran, bonkbuster bestseller, subcontracts her erotic scenes to Celia Brayfield. Detachment from the characters is still a great way to get attached to them. The irony. Summary about writing about sex?

Writing about sex is a fine ambition but difficult to carry off successfully. Try, but be ready to junk the pages.

The Song of Songs, a long erotic poem, in the Old Testament has been described as the single most instructive example of how to write effectively about physical love. The second most successful love scene is John Donne’s “To His Mistress Going to Bed”:

Now off with those shoes: and then safely tread

In this love’s hallow’d temple, this soft bed…

By this these Angles from an evil sprite,

Those set out hairs, but these our flesh upright.

Licence my roving hands, and let them go

Before, behind, between, above, below.

O, my America! My new-found-land,

My kingdom, safeliest when with one man mann’d…

To enter in these bonds, is to be free;

Then where my hand is set, my seal shall be.

Full nakedness! All joys are due to thee.

The advice in a nutshell is to use poetic licence. Language is still language. Do not describe body parts. Less is more. End of scene.

Endings

There is no need to recap or to sum up with a great statement of “wearisome” arguments already made. “When you have said what you want to say,

Stop.”

Thanks for reading this blog post! If you like South-east Asian and vintage arts and cultures, you will love my award-winning novel Cry of the Flying Rhino set in Malaysia and Borneo in the 1990s. It is dark, macabre and thrilling, it has received a handful of five-star reviews already. And of course, it is stylish like you and I.

 

REVIEW: BBC’s “Chinese Burn” appalling script, racial stereotypes, human detritus not diversity

Did anybody catch this on the BBC over the weekend? A terrible TV film about three Chinese girls in London called CHINESE BURN. The script is so shocking and racist I can’t believe it was made.
One has a permanent cleaver looking at little dogs to chop up and eat.
One is an out-of-work actress who auditions for endless prostitute or cleaner roles with kungfu thrown in.
One is a failed sommelier walking around as a human signboard for bubble tea, who gets molested by her Chinese boss but ends up giving him a hand job.
Very poor. None were empowered or normalised or fit into society as they were terrible cliches and stereotypes of people who don’t even exist, like pulling their eyes into slits. It’s like the writers went: “Hey I know! Why challenge stereotypes when we can reinforce them? This is a great idea. Let’s call it diversity, heh heh! Just throwing that word in for luck. Let’s create hideous characters, the dregs of humanity. Not an ounce of delight or warmth. Let’s call them Chinese girls.”

chineseburn
OK that is my TV review. Apparently it’s a comedy too but it’s not funny at all. Will black people or white people find this funny? I am a very humorous person too – people tell me I am a funny girl. But this show is stupid and not funny.
How are we supposed to move forward when we are moving back all the time? We as in everybody, not just Chinese girls. We as in scriptwriters, writers, thinkers, workers, doers, the Beeb. I am waiting for something clever and funny. Not asking a lot, you see, just some eye candy while ironing.

READ Cry of the Flying Rhino FOR FREE: Now at Southfields Library, South London

Calling SOUTHFIELDS or WANDSWORTH residents/library members/mums/friends/neighbours! What are you waiting for?!!! READ MY BOOK FOR FREE!!! Support local libraries and read for free. If you don’t, they will shut down. We don’t know how lucky we are. When I was growing up I had to read really torn, vandalised or simply extremely old and falling apart books in the Sultan Ismail Public Library in my home town of Johor Bahru. I frequently did not know the ending, the beginning or the middle because of the damage done to them. I moment I could read, I read, and I could not stop. I treasured each book more than anything in the world.
I am next to Helen Dunmore. That is all. My book is in #southfields #library. This is a little local library I have been going to for about 20 years or something like that. #wandsworth #wandsworthlibraries #southlondon #macabre #dark and #literary #crime #fiction #bookstagram. #tattoos#borneo #tribal #story #diy #author #writer #novel #plottwist #cryoftheflyingrhino #ivyngeow #writersofinstagram #onlocation #helendunmore @ Southfields Librarysouthfieldlibrary2Southfieldlibrary1

Lulu Allison: The Relevance of Art in Literature

“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” – Edgar Degas

-COVER smlLulu Allison is a Brighton-based artist and writer. Before she started writing she had already been an established artist.

Author photo smaller

Twice the Speed of Dark
is told from the viewpoint of Caitlin, killed by violent boyfriend Ryan. Ten years on, her mother Anna is still burdened by suppressed grief. Dismayed by the indifference in the news to people who die in distant war and terror, Anna writes portraits of the victims, trying to understand the real impact of their deaths. It is only through these acts of love for strangers that she can allow herself an emotional connection to the world. Anna’s uneasy equilibrium is disrupted when Ryan is released from prison. As her anger rises will Anna act on her desire for revenge, or will she find freedom at last from the terrible weight of grief? And will Caitlin reclaim herself from the brutality that killed her?

Lulu Allison’s self-discovery
unexpectedly made her transition from visual artist to a writer as an indirect result of the Boston Marathon Bombing in 2013. It was triggered by her curiosity for why the news offered reasons to care about victims of the Boston bombing when the names of those who died in Iraq or Afghanistan were not released. Why were some victims unseen and others offered up for public grieving? Lulu began what she thought of as an art project, writing portraits of the nameless victims in the news. It became clear that writing offered a means of expression that didn’t exist in art. She expanded the portrait writing; the result was her first novel, Twice the Speed of Dark.

Art by Lulu Allison

in a gallery in Cardiff, from her pre-writing days. They are site-specific installations, newspaper and bamboo structures, part of a series called Vagabond Palaces because they are made of waste newsprint.

“I liked the idea that waste becomes something valuable because something is removed from it (the cut holes) and I thought too that it is a vagabond material, transient, overlooked.”

vagabond palace 1

Vagabond Palace 1

vagabond palace 4

Vagabond Palace 4

There are three types of art in literature:

1/ art for art’s sake
Is the purest form of art. There is no one best to represent this than Shakespeare whose literature was to entertain, and not just the esoteric few, but the masses. Shakespeare’s plays were exercises in realism. There was no intention to reform or to revolt against the evils of society or the ruling party. Yet being a true artist, his insights and portrayal of the human condition and the conflicts in his tragedies, histories or comedies are true to character and filled with empathy.

2/ art for social purposes
is for spreading or instilling social ideas. In poor countries, with corrupt, inept governments, art is used as a device through which social ideas are spread, through billboards, public art, printed material such as leaflets. Keats, Tennyson, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and Edgar Allan Poe are of the view that society is influenced by propaganda, which is when artistic licence is taken to spread social ideas.

3/ art for morality
is the positive end of art for social purposes. Dickens, Bernard Shaw, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck, Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert, Victor Hugo; Goethe; Cervantes; Tolstoy, Gogol, Dostoevsky speak the truth through their fiction: the truth being their despair and opposition of oppression, fatalism, passivity, and submission to the societal flaws. Twice the Speed of Dark by Lulu Allison is a novel which comes into this third category as there are themes of grief, domestic violence and disorder which ultimately examine the moral and emotional conscience.

This is another example of Lou’s site-specific non-gallery based art from a series called Entropy: Value-Added.

“Again, it was thinking about value, and I loved the bombastic idea that I was adding value to decay. There is something beautiful in that for me. This is essentially street art, but I called it feral, because I felt it had escaped from the studio back into the wild. I guess it suits Anna’s interest in the accidental too.”

entropy value added

Entropy: Value Added

Anna, the grieving mother in Twice the Speed of Dark seeks solace in the viewing of public art at the Tate, but makes the weary re-discovery that her “passion for art has gone” and that “Twentieth-century art… looks tired, more tired than her even.” Yet she stands back, passive, she feels she has outgrown that passion and is unmoved by the passion invoked by one of the trustees, energetic Eva, of the arts organisation.

Also in the same chapter, we see from the viewpoint of the late Caitlin bonding with her mother Anna in a flashback.

“It was easy to absorb her joyfulness, and soon Dad and I were as elevated as she… Today’s happy evening was brought to you by the colour purple.”

Caitlin describes her pride for her mother being an art history lecturer, who

“spent her life looking at paintings, artworks, filling her eyes with arrangements that had been created, if not inevitably to please the eye to fill it.Little_Chittenden_Wood_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1861070

“…But she did offer the chance to share in her looking. Look, Caitlin how beautiful it is! It might be a distant view… it might be something I couldn’t spot at all.”

These scenes in Chapter 4 are firstly symbolic of art which bring people, in this case, family together. It is something that grows up and grows old with us. Secondly, these scenes depict also that in literature, art becomes a habit, a theme, an inspiration both for memory and storytelling.

Author’s Biography:

Lulu Allison has spent most of her life as a visual artist. She attended Central St Martin’s School of Art then spent a number of years travelling and living abroad. Amongst the bar-tending and cleaning jobs, highlights of these years include: in New Zealand, playing drums for King Loser and bass for Dimmer. In Germany, making spectacle hinges in a small factory. In Amsterdam painting a landmark mural on a four storey squat and nearly designing the new Smurfs. In Fiji and California, teaching scuba diving. After a decade of wandering, she returned to the UK, where she had two children and focused on art. She completed a fine art MA and exhibited her lens-based work and site-specific installations in group and solo shows. In 2013 what began as an art project took her into writing and she unexpectedly discovered what she should have been doing all along. Twice the Speed of Dark is her first book, published by Unbound. She is currently writing a second novel, called Wetlands.

You can find Lulu Allison here. Check out her new novel Twice the Speed of Dark paperback version here and the kindle version here. Check out my new paperback award-winning novel Cry of the Flying Rhino here, kindle version here.