Vertigo

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Yesterday I climbed the mountain Beinn Eighe, and it was breathtaking. I get a bit of vertigo; when there’s a drop by the path I have to lean away from it and not look down or else my legs crumble and my head spins. As I laid in bed last night, my muscles humming with tiredness and pleasure, sleep came upon me as a drop, my head spun and I kicked out.

We’re staying on a small island, accessed by a footbridge. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to. Like, ridiculously stunning. Photographs can’t capture it. Today, G and I were digging out a campsite in the rocky earth of a smaller island that joins this one, and we paused to watch a pod of seals swim by. But I’ve also felt uneasy since we’ve been here, with all those annoying physical symptoms I experience—from hardcore heartburn to a twitching eye—and I’ve been trying to analyse why.

island

It’s because I’m feeling a little unmoored, and it’s a difficult feeling for me to embrace, though I’m aware that’s partly the point of (long term) travel. I feel very ‘in-between’ things, despite the fact that I do have projects on the go, being at the point of editing one, and spreading the word about another. I’ve also started researching a novel over here, but the idea is large and only slowly taking shape (the plot, the characters, what it’s ‘about’), and I’m incredibly impatient. I want to start writing it properly, but there’s a period coming up where we’ll be staying with relatives and I know I can’t be at the beginning stages of a novel then. I want to spend quality time with my relatives and thinking about the novel even more than I already am might impede that.

What we’re trying to make happen is a month after November where both G and I can just write. But we don’t really have the dough. We’re only able to travel for so long because we’ve been working, and working for board, and staying with very kind rellos, and we’ll have to continue in that vein. Of course, that has been amazing, and I am not underestimating the wealth of knowledge we’ve gained, not just the places and characters and gestures that writers can’t help collecting, but identifying birds, digging holes and making paths, ironing sheets (!), how to run a B&B, what to wear on long walks in the rain, what pleases a seven-year-old, how to make Banoffee, the best Speyside whiskies, the geology of a mountain, fables and histories, how to pronounce ‘Eilean’, and many other items.

I guess my problem is staying present, and trusting that I haven’t gone ‘off the path’. I was fine in Speyside, on our last Workaway assignment, probably because I had a firm routine. And this makes me laugh at myself. Because when I’m ‘stuck’ in a routine, at home, all I want to do is bust out of it. Writing this out is helping, though.

An added layer is that my 29th birthday has just passed. There was so much I thought I’d do before 30, and now that’s only a year away. I’ve been mentally readjusting my goals for a while now, taking in reality and everything that crops up, but… it’s pretty ingrained. Mostly ambition is pretty positive—the dreaming drives me—but the flip side (focusing on ‘failures’, disappointment, whatever) makes you see everything through a fog.

It’d be great to just feel ecstatic about everything I have going on right now: a long working holiday, two forthcoming books with my name on them, an incredible relationship… Yes. Let’s stop there.

I climbed a mountain yesterday. Sometimes I got dizzy. Occasionally I wandered off the path. Sometimes I struggled to see the next marker. But I always found my way back.

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‘I’m Holbeck Ghyll’

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in The Trip (2010)

First published on the Stoffers blog.

You have to allow yourself one indulgence while travelling: one wild night, one big purchase, two nights at a five star hotel… I just had my one indulgence for this trip. And it relates to a 2010 TV series (that was also turned into a film) called The Trip, starring Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan.

In The Trip, Brydon and Coogs play themselves on a restaurant tour of the north of England. Coogs was meant to go with his girlfriend, but she has gone to the US and he (reluctantly) takes his friend/colleague/competitor Brydon instead. They bicker, they tease, they do impressions, they eat and drink (a lot) and both annoy and charm the viewer.

I’m obsessed with it.

So the other day I did the nerdiest thing. I visited one of the locations in the show which also happens to be a very classy restaurant and accommodation called Holbeck Ghyll.

Holbeck Ghyll

Holbeck Ghyll is a former hunting lodge, built in the late 19th century. The taxi took us up a steep driveway and emerged on a hilltop with a stunning view of the surrounding Cumbrian countryside.

The view from Holbeck Ghyll, taken by Stoffers Abroad

Inside the building we were greeted as ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’, and treated immediately to pre-lunch cocktails, breadsticks and a cream cheese and truffle dip. My choice was a martini (shaken not stirred).

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We ordered our lunch and were then taken through to a table near the window, almost exactly where Brydon and Coogan sat in the show. Perhaps it was our Aussie accents that got us such a good table.

I sat facing the window and was able to watch robins attending a bird feeder in the garden, as well as a dog nosing about (England is SO dog-friendly, they’re everywhere).

We ate scallops, ham hock and beef, we drank white and red wine (‘farewell to the white wine, hello to our old friend the red’), and whisky too. We forgot to care about the bill (I’m sure that’s why cocktails are offered first). And then we finished with the most incredible cheese we’ve ever tasted.

ALL the cheese.

ALL the cheese.

We were treated so well. The restaurant is out of our usual budget range, yes, but it’s not snooty. There were some ‘moneyed’ customers (you can tell by cars, fabrics and conversation) and then others dressed casually in shorts. We did overhear a couple of guys quoting from The Trip, as we were, and then overheard another couple on the bus the next day as we drove past. It’s a phenomenon.

We acted out all the classic parts of the episode, taking note of the salt, which is arranged like a line of cocaine (‘bit weird, Rob’), saying ‘come ‘ere with a cracker’ to the cheese, and acting out the part where the restaurant is name checked:

‘I’m Holbeck Ghyll. You might remember me from Follyfoot. I’m here to tell you about a wonderful new walk-in bath. And softly softly.’

Before we left, and the large hole in our wallets was revealed, I made sure to lather on as much as I could of the expensive hand cream in the loos. It was worth it—for the meta-restaurant experience,  imitating the imitators, and because of the incredible food (the portions were real-sized, too). We had to go take a nap afterwards.

‘I’m Holbeck Ghyll. Goodnight.’

Travel update

Shakespeare's Birthplace @ Stratford-upon-Avon

Shakespeare’s Birthplace @ Stratford-upon-Avon

A ‘working holiday’ is kind of how we’re describing it, though it’s hard to explain to strangers the work I’m doing: preparing for a book festival, writing occasional travel blog posts (many of which I can re- or cross-post here), editing an anthology and writing a chapbook. Not to mention the research I want to undertake now that we’re here in Scotland. Luckily we have a bit more space in our AirBnB places in Edinburgh. Hostels and staying with people have been fine (and great!) but it’s been very hard to sneak away and work.

Yes, we’re here! I love Scotland. As soon as we crossed the border on the train my mind seemed to shift into a state of literary inspiration, filled with worlds and characters and plots.

Tomorrow the book festival starts here in Edinburgh and I’m going to see Salman Rushdie first. I have no doubt I’ll be inspired this month, but it’ll probably be a matter of working (hard) and absorbing what I can, then letting it unfold when we’re up in the Highlands doing an entirely different kind of work in September and October: at guesthouses and restaurants.

But England was great, despite feeling stressed about my workload. We went to Stratford-upon-Avon, and walked on the floor where young Shakespeare walked. We went to Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage in Grasmere. I’m a nerd for literary and cultural tourism. I like to see the places that shaped these minds, and inspired them. Much is known about Wordsworth’s house, garden and lifestyle due to his sister Dorothy, who kept a journal—with all the requisite Romantic references to nature, and emotive writing. Of course, because she was a woman, the needlework unfortunately took precedence over writing. But to her brother she was very inspiring. Like a later inhabitant of Dove Cottage, Thomas De Quincey, Dorothy had quite a fondness for laudanum… I enjoyed learning about her.

We were told about how Coleridge moved to Keswick to be close to Wordsworth in Grasmere, and how the two men would walk across this stunning landscape to visit each other (it would be a very long walk). Sometimes Coleridge would arrive past midnight and Dorothy would make some food for him, and the two men would sit up all night talking and sharing new work. One time Coleridge showed up extremely distressed and carrying a branch as he’d been attacked by a cow on the way over!

G and I could relate to this as we had a very long walk around Lake Windermere in the pouring rain and at one point had an intimidating passage through a herd of cows, some of whom seemed to have escaped from behind a fence. ‘Surely they don’t attack,’ I said to G, but was anxious. They were baying and mooing at us. We realised soon that we were lost and had to pass them again. I’m glad I hadn’t heard the story about Coleridge before that…

David Bowie is

It was a two-hour wait in the sunshine and then, inside, among statues, pillars and carved gates for the David Bowie is… exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (soon to travel to Canada and—updated August 2014—ACMI in Melbourne).

Waiting in line for David Bowie is...

Waiting in line for David Bowie is…

David Bowie is a singular, metamorphosing musical figure and artist (I’ve written about my love for him before). But what’s fascinating about this exhibition is how it shows that genius is not outside of context, that Bowie’s work is (and his ‘characters’ are) a product of time, place, taste and influence, from mime to Marlene Dietrich, to Metropolis and man on the moon. The exhibition is a kind of ‘making of’ David Bowie, and continues to put his work in context throughout the different periods, from London to Berlin to New York, from Space Oddity to The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and all the way through to The Next Day.

Marlene_Dietrich_in_No_Highway_(1951)_(Cropped)But it is also a spine-tingling celebration of his work, characters and Bowie himself, and of his collaborators, too (in music, video, costume, film, stage sets, and so much more). Some of the highlights, for me, were a lipstick-stained tissue, the synth used on Low and the other Berlin albums, a stage set design model from the Diamond Dogs tour, a cocaine spoon from 1974 (so strange to know that spoon was partly responsible for Station to Station, Bowie eating raw eggs and that Dick Cavett interview), and the huge original cover art for Scary Monsters (and I’m not even sure why it affected me so).

scary monstersThe item that made my heart leap most was the pastel blue suit Bowie wore in the ‘Life on Mars’ video. Other visitors will have other favourite exhibits, among the many outfits, pictures, letters, drafted and cut-up lyrics (the process behind these famous songs, before our eyes, hand-written and with scribbles and corrections!), abandoned songs, diary entries, album covers, rare photographs and videos. If you are a Bowie fan, like me, you may never want to leave.

life on marsThe outfits show you how lean he is, though you know that from the videos and if you’ve seen him live. Lean, and taller than I remembered, from seeing him on stage. G thought he seemed shorter, though. We create our own Bowie myths.

Relatedly, there was quite a ‘death of the author’ focus on Bowie’s work being up to the audience to interpret, that the story shifts for each listener/viewer, and perhaps for each song and album, and then on each listen. But then there seems such confidence or just knowingness or planning (though not calculation, in a cold sense) behind Bowie’s works, from the albums to concerts to characters and even the way he engages with the public, that he manages, I think, to have a certain control over how he is overall perceived. Do you think maybe it is a little bit calculated? It’s something I admire, nonetheless. But it is true, and Bowie knows (as above), that alone in his or her bedroom the listener will interpret each track in a variety of ways which will produce a variety of emotional, intellectual, even creative responses. Or nothing at all.

The exhibition was busy, of course, but the layout worked well, a snaking design peppered with 3D ‘concert’ hubs, which had music mixed with info and often interview footage. The sound aspect was amazing. The headphones tuned into the sounds associated with the nearest exhibit. Looking around, I saw people tapping their feet or nodding, and sometimes I would sync in with them and share a nod or smile.

Just before the end there’s a large room with giant projections of live footage and, if you’re patient, many of Bowie’s costumes will peep out from behind the screen. They’re a little hard to see, and I think this was the only flaw with the exhibition. But you could hang out in that room all day, and many people were lolling about, bopping their heads and smiling.

There’s one section with five film clips playing and five corresponding carpet squares where you can move in and out of different songs. ‘Let’s Dance’ is pretty hard to resist.

let's danceLet’s hope the exhibition makes its way to Australia… I want to go again!

[August 2014 update: David Bowie Is... coming to ACMI in Melbourne in 2015.]

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2013

interestingsI’ll be brief as I’m on the road and very busy, but hopefully will write soon to tell you about going to the V&A in London to see the Bowie exhibition, and visiting Stratford-upon-Avon—Shakespeare’s birthplace and grave!

I just wanted to put up the panels/interviews I’m hosting at the Edinburgh International Book Festival this year, for which I’m busy preparing and am very excited about. I love Edinburgh but haven’t yet been to the festival. It’s wonderful to be involved. If you happen to be going to the book festival, I hope to see you there. To my friends in Melbourne, I hope you enjoy the MWF this year. I’m sure it will be amazing, given Lisa Dempster is at the helm. The two literary cities, and the two festivals, have a great relationship. And I’ll be trying to report back as much as I can around my festival duties and other work.

Here are the panels/interviews I’m hosting and their official blurbs:

Meg Wolitzer
13 August, 10:15, The Guardian Spiegeltent

Meg Wolitzer is one of America’s foremost contemporary novelists; she has been writing for 30 years and is often compared to the likes of Franzen and Eugenides. Her new book, The Interestings, documents the lives of six friends from Nixon’s America to the age of Obama. An astute and perceptive novel, it asks what happens to ambition, creativity and desire as time passes and times change.

Doug Johnstone & Laura Lippman

15 August, 18:45, Peppers Theatre

Two cracking thrillers from either side of the Atlantic provide the material for this event in which parents look after their young children while dealing with some nasty goings-on. Doug Johnstone discusses his heart-stopping novel Gone Again, about missing Portobello mum Lauren, while New York Times bestselling author Laura Lippman presents And When She Was Good, about a suburban American mother with a secret life.

Sam Byers & Angela Jackson

16 August, 19:00, Baillie Gifford Corner Theatre

With his debut, Sam Byers has become one of the most talked-about young writers in Britain, garnering a place on this year’s Waterstones 11 list of promising novelists with his first novel Idiopathy. Also today, Edinburgh-based Angela Jackson presents her debut novel The Emergence of Judy Taylor. Both books tell hilarious and heartbreaking stories of characters living through a kind of social Armageddon.

Robert Newman

18 August, 21:30, Baillie Gifford Main Theatre

Did you know that the Mayflower was once an Ottoman slave ship? Or that there was an occupation of St Paul’s Cathedral in the early reign of King James? These are historical nuggets unearthed by Robert Newman, author of The Trade Secret. Formerly a comedy partner of David Baddiel, Newman’s alternative career as a novelist continues in this story set in the early days of capitalism.

See the website for the (massive) full program. More soon…

The books of life: By the Book by Ramona Koval

By the Book Ramona KovalThis feature interview was first published in The Big Issue no. 421.


Text Publishing
9781922079060
November 2012 (buy hardcover, ebook)

Ramona Koval’s enthusiastic explorations of literature would be familiar not only to those who enjoyed her long-running ABC Radio National program, The Book Show, but also to audiences at writers’ festivals around the world. As an interviewer, she is informed, curious and bold, coaxing a multitude of insights from her subjects. In By the Book, Koval swings the spotlight on herself and asks how a life of books has informed her as a person.

Central to Koval’s development, growing up in St Kilda and North Balwyn in Melbourne, was her mother, a Polish Jew with an amazing story of her own. Koval opens By the Book with an image of her mother, stretched out on the divan, lost in a book. Koval’s mother read in multiple languages and had a fondness for banned books. She would regularly take her young daughter to a mobile library, which ‘introduced her to a different world’. This was important, Koval writes, because as a child she ‘didn’t exactly have wide horizons to survey’. Books provided those.

Ramona Koval

Ramona Koval

Koval describes the books we keep close as presenting an ‘archaeology of interests’, and says those she selected for discussion in her own book were ‘the ones that were crucial milestones for me in some kind of way’. From the works of French novelist Colette to books on polar exploration, European and absurd literature, language books, feminist books, and the poetry of science, Koval’s reading interests have been broad. In her reflections on reading, she wonders about whether there is a ‘right time’ to encounter a certain work while arguing that books can, undeniably, shape you. Koval felt this acutely while gripped by Elizabeth Harrower’s The Watchtower just this year, and believes if she’d read the novel at a young age, it might have changed the course of her life. ‘I saw several episodes in my own life mirrored in its pages,’ she writes.

On the other hand, Koval admits that worth classics she’s interested in reading—such as the Sagas of Iceland—have sometimes failed to draw her in. ‘You’ve got limited time,’ she says. ‘I always think that if you give a book a while and then you don’t fall into it, you just have to put it away and come to it another time, or not come to it at all.’

Along with genuine insights on reading itself, Koval’s book is personal. We learn about the author’s young life, her passion for science, and her adventures (and disappointments) in love. We also get to travel with her, through her own experiences and through associated literature. One such adventure is going dog-sledding in the Algonquin State Park, three hours north of Toronto. Koval also shares some of her encounters with authors, such as Grace Paley and Oliver Sacks.

She acknowledges the privileges her career as a broadcaster has afforded her. ‘It has been fantastic; my own Open University,’ she says. ‘You can learn a lot of things by reading books, but for some books I think you do need to have a tutor—some fantastic person who can say to you “look at this” or “this means that”’.

Koval herself has opened up worlds for others in her years as a broadcaster. She admits that her reading choices have mainly been governed by whatever happened to interest her personally, ‘whether it was a book about sand or some short stories from Romania’.

It’s a formula that seems to have worked. ‘It turned out that other people loved [these works] too,’ Koval says. ‘Many people sidled up to me and said, you know, “your program was my education. I never would have read those books if I hadn’t heard about them”’. Koval always enjoyed this aspect of her work. ‘It’s not like you’re powerful; it’s more like you’ve got something to share that’s valuable. People are enriched by it.’

Koval is now working on, and planning, multiple projects that will make the most of her enthusiasm and talents. And she continues to be a great reader, keeping up on reviews in various publications. ‘Reviews are so hard, aren’t they?’ she says. ‘Because you have to trust the reviewer, and even then you’ve got to know a little bit of backstory about why they feel that way about that book, or whether they’ve got an axe to grind in some way.’

There are still many books on Koval’s shelves and in her ereader that she’d love to get to. ‘Sometimes you feel like: I’m actually gorging on books and I’m going to be sick if I don’t stop it,’ she laughs. ‘You know, you can have too much ice cream.’ But reading, for Koval, is a unique pleasure; something she describes in By the Book as ‘private and reverential’. It’s an activity that can transport us ‘from our prosaic lives to anywhere we care to imagine’. She writes: ‘While our world looks small on the outside, it’s huge on the inside, in the magical spaces between the page and our absorption.’

New York, Noo Yawk for Killings

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I wrote a piece for Killings (the blog of literary magazine Kill Your Darlings) on my eventful trip to New York City. It begins:

Like Loco, Pola and Schatze I was drawn to New York City to find a millionaire playboy. Wait, that’s not right. But in my nine days in NYC I did sometimes feel that I was acting a part in a movie. The island of Manhattan itself feels elevated somehow, surreal. In my photographs taken from the Brooklyn Bridge the city has a certain cardboard cut-out effect. I ran into the cultural ghosts of Ninja Turtles in Chinatown, Dana Barrett on Central Park West, King Kong on top of the Empire State Building, and Joe Buck next to a neon sign.

But the city is not elevated, isolated, a movie set. While I was there, very real events were occurring, and had occurred. People were affected by these, not just in New York, but around the world. So the city to me was both a hyperreal version of itself (and a trip often glosses over like a dream afterwards, too) and a place where, of course, people breathe and bleed.

I hope you’ll enjoy the rest by clicking here.