Tuesday, March 20, 2012

To live in Amsterdam

Today, I went to Amsterdam. I do this now and then as I teach courses for the university there, but because these are mostly online, my visits are fairly sporadic.

I like Amsterdam very much. I don't have any desire to live there, but it's very beautiful and has an atmosphere that's uniquely its own. It is particularly lovely along the grachten and my walk to the university takes me along these peaceful, inner city canals. As I stroll, I can see the houseboats and 'woonarken', which are actually floating houses rather than boats. They're all a bit shabby, but you can bet they cost a fortune if you want to buy one. Especially there.

The houses that line the canals are also lovely. Tall, narrow and elegant, I've often mused how pleasant it might be to have a room or apartment in one of them. But in fact, that's not really true. These beautiful town houses that were built aeons ago are uncomfortable and hopelessly impractical. I do actually know this because I lived in one. Not in Amsterdam, but in Rotterdam, and I still suffer the effects to this day.

The reality is that every floor has impossibly high ceilings and beautiful, tall, gracious windows. Aesthetically, they are unbeatable - the last thing in dignity and class. Practically, though, this means trouble, For instance, let's take the stairs. They are unbelievably steep. They are also very narrow so as to fit in with the equally narrow buildings, and the treads are totally lethal: tiny, slippery and spiralling at the same time. Worst of all, there's an awful lot of them because of...well, yes, you've guessed it...those very high ceilings. The result is that almost everyone who lives in them has had bruised or broken ribs at some time or another as a consequence of having normal sized feet that do not fit onto said tiny treads. And even one of the five flights is a long way to fall. As I said, I am still suffering.

Then let's go back to those high ceilings. In my mind's eye, I see summer days with the long beautifully proportioned windows open and filmy curtains floating lazily on the breeze. But what about the winter? There is central heating for sure, but where does all that heat go? I suppose if you can levitate and hover in an uncertain state somewhere close to the picture rails, you might just manage to stay warm, but otherwise, life becomes some kind of constant battle of wits with the thermostat.

And then there are the mosquitos. I don't know who it was who told me that mozzies don't like heights, but they lied.

Dutch mosquitos are acrobatic high fliers and even if you cram yourself into the 'zolder' up between the eaves of the building, they'll seek you out in their lust for your blood.  This is of course due to the canals, which while beautifully calm to look upon, do not actually move adequately. They lack flow, in fact, and are thus perfect breeding grounds for positive legions of the flying, biting, stinging, whining, chewing, blood-sucking kamikazi beasts.

The other ludicrous thing about these houses is that the washing machine 'aansluiting' (connection) is almost always in the attic. Sorry, I meant the 'zolder.' Now we all know how heavy a standard washing machine is. I've just looked it up and I see that the average weight is around seventy kilos. That's a lot of kit to be carrying up five of these flights of unbelievably narrow, slippery stairs. Of course, it's true that you can always hoist them up from outside. There's generally a hoisting hook at the top of the facade of these old houses for just this purpose. But then you still need to to organise cranes and traffic cops and a meeting with the council just to be able to watch your washing machine floating skywards until it reaches the attic window. At this point, you still need some hired heavies to arrest it in mid flight and haul it through the gap left by the window that you've had to remove because the machine is too big to fit through it. Are you beginning to get the idea that there's just a teensy bit of cost involved in all this?

Lastly, if this hasn't already been enough, there is the inevitable battle of the bikes. Now everyone in Amsterdam knows that if you leave your bike outside for any length of time, it will definitely be stolen. There's no way of avoiding this - unless you put your bike inside the front door at the bottom of the stairs, that is. The snag here is that because the hallway is just not long enough for a standard omafiets, the front wheel has to sit at an angle. But then, the hallway, like the stairs, is very narrow.

I will finish this tale by leaving you with a thought. Someone is coming down the stairs with a baby buggy. Your bike is at the bottom with its front wheel blocking off most of the bottom step. There's no way back and no way forwards. Now tell me if you would like to live in one of these tall, narrow, gracious and elegant houses.

I thought not.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Anne Marie Klein's Behind Blue Eyes

Twitter is really a great place for writers to promote both themselves and other writers. That's my discovery of the year. I stayed away from it for ages, not really knowing what it was for or about, but I've realised that the value of Twitter for a writer is not the tweets themselves, but the links writers make to their blogs. Seeing that I am now tweeting with the best of them, it's clear I am moving in the same direction and away from the much more socially oriented Facbook, which I've never really liked. For me, Twitter serves as a link to this, my blog, and also to my books, and that's what I find really useful. I've always loved blogging, and now I realise Twitter can help me with that too.

Having said that, I also think Twitter is a great way for me to do my very small bit to help other writers with their promotions, so this week, I thought I would do a quick review of Anne Marie Klein's novel, Behind Blue Eyes.

Anne Marie is a long time blog friend. We really got to know each other through the blogging world and have supported each other's writing for nigh on six years now.

A couple of months ago, Anne Marie launched the first of a trilogy of novels through Lulu.com in the same way as I did with my first books. Inspired by, but not about, the Who of great rock music fame, her Behind Blue Eyes trilogy begins with Love Reign O'er Me, a full and complete novel in itself with some action packed 390 odd pages.

I have just finished re-reading it. The first time I read it was a few years ago as instalments on her blog, and it's been fun to read it again as I had really forgotten so much of it that although I remembered things as I went along, I honestly didn't know what was going to happen next. It felt fresh and new, which was great.

I think it's true to say that Love Reign O'er Me is like reading rather than watching your favourite TV series. There is so much action and dialogue, you can see whole scenes in your mind's eye. You learn about the characters through what they say and do and not from what they are thinking - and quite often what they do is very much in line with the culture of the 1970's - lots of smoking, drinking and plenty of racy sex  - pretty authentic for the time I would say. In fact, I think the whole style makes it ideal material for a TV series. It really is like reading a script only much easier because the story truly romps along and is a real page turner.

As I've said in my review on Lulu.com: "The characters draw you in, the dialogue is vivid and pacey. It's full of everything that makes an absorbing, exciting and satisfying read. One to keep you up at night, entertained on holiday and wrapped in another world while you're on the bus to work. I can highly recommend it."

Still, it's not all light hearted. Anne Marie also portrays in Ian, her main character, a very striking and sometimes disturbing study of a psychologically troubled soul. There are times when you want to cry for him, but others when you would like to shake him, and even dislike him. In the end, though, you find yourself sharing his life in such a way that you are willing him to succeed in fighting his demons. Whether he succeeds or not, however, is for you to find out for yourselves!

Well done, Anne Marie. I'm sure this is the first of what is going to be an immensely successful trilogy once people get to know about it. For my part, I'll share this review on Twitter and hope it gains you just a wee bit of attention from my meagre following. The best thing is if some of the other, more dedicated Tweeters, pass it on. I'll hold thumbs for you and for that!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Short stories? I've got plenty in store and in mind

A few months ago, I wrote a humorous story about a woman who realises she has to join the social media circus or else risk losing touch with her entire family. It was called the 21st Century Family and I published it here on my blog. This was not my first idea, however. The original story I was going to write was much darker, much more sombre, but I felt it would be too depressing for a blog post. The trouble is, I keep thinking about it and I really want to write it. Maybe I should just do it!

Anyhow, I had another idea for a story a few days ago, so maybe I will write that first. It starts with a girl standing at the traffic lights waiting to cross over. As the cars sweep past her, she notices a man in one of them. In that flash of a second, she captures a vivid image of him, which sets the story in motion. But that's all I'm going to tell you so I'll leave you to wonder what you think is going to happen next...

Something else that has excited me again is that I found a radio play I wrote years ago when I was in South Africa. It's called Cellular Fear. I don't know if it's any good at all as a play, but I thought I might turn that into a short story too, and then there's the play I wrote about two girls who meet on a train in South Africa and start talking. Eventually, they discover they grew up at the same time on the same farm: one of them the privileged daughter of the farmer himself and the other the daughter of one of the farm workers. Their memories of life are totally different, but the world around them was the same. Maybe I'll re-write that one too. Then one other story I wrote that I also found recently is one about a priest who rescues stray cats. It's kind of predictably sweet, but I really like it as a story. Seems I've got the makings of a bit of a collection here, doesn't it? At least by writing this post I won't forget the ideas I've had, which is always a risk with someone of my advancing years...

Now I've just got to have the time to write more! Roll on the summer!

Sunday, March 04, 2012

The Skipper's Child: Education or Entertainment?

In the recent months since the Skipper's Child, my first venture into fiction, was published, I've spent some moments wondering about whether I had any intention of making it educational when I wrote it. The answer is, actually, well...no.

Still, judging by the response I've had recently, and to the reviews my friend, Anne Marie, and another reader have written, it seems to come across as having some kind of educational value. When I first read the reviews, I was surprised, and now, I am even rather pleased. Even though I never set out to make it so.

As many of my friends and blogger pals will know already, the story just sort of emerged out of my fascination with Koos's childhood. He was the example on whom the adventures of Arie were built, and the Kornet family are, in a sense, Koos's father, mother and two sisters. The story itself is pure fiction, the product of what my mother used to call my over active imagination, but the setting in the early 1960's, the barge life, the route the family take from Zelzate in Belgium through to Lille in France, these are all real.

Did I do any research? Absolutely. I spent quite some time reading about what was happening in the news at the time. I also researched the building of the Gent 'ringvaart', the canal that was being built around Gent to stop all the shipping congestion I describe in the city centre. Koos and I walked the route the Kornets took through the city, so I knew what was there, then and now. And of course, all this time, Koos was filling me in with anecdotes and snippets about what life was really like for a child on a commercial barge - boring, routine, cold in winter, hot in summer, and nowhere, just nowhere for a child to run and play.

The mother's deafness was real too, as was the loss of not one, but two siblings to drowning before Koos was born. This was a common occurrence among skippers' families. Children had a tough time in many respects, as only the very brightest stayed at school longer than was necessary - all hands were needed on deck, and if there were too many children - well, it was quite accepted for skippers to offer a spare child to other short-handed skippers, pass them over mid-stream, wave goodbye and sail on. A solution they simply regarded as being practical, not abusive.

So, yes, in hindsight, the Skipper's Child might be said to be educational. It is based on a very real lifestyle that has everything to do with being Dutch. It's even true to say that practically everyone you speak to in the Netherlands has some connection with the skippers' world somewhere in their family - so you could call it historically relevant too.

For myself, I wrote it because I loved the stories and wanted some way of recording them, but while I wrote it, I got caught up in Arie's world myself. It was a tale I had so much fun writing that I hope that's what really comes through when people read it. And if it has some value in the classroom or library, well I'm very happy about that too. For now, though, I am busy dreaming up his next adventure. The activity in my imagination has never stopped. I just need more time to write it all down!

Friday, March 02, 2012

Black and White ain’t Outa sight

Someone mentioned on a rather well known, social media website recently that the only real photography was black and white. This, I decided, was quite a statement.

Still, judging by the flurry of comments said statement received, there seem to be plenty out there who would agree with this.

So,  I started giving it some thought.

In years gone by, and in fact, when I was still a teenager myself, black and white was all that was available unless you were one of those enviable souls who had enough money to make colour transparencies. In those days, colour was a luxury in photography. People who made colour slides, as they were known, were so thrilled with the results, they showed them off at parties. They set up projectors in darkened rooms. They invited friends and family to view a feast of photos and all were in awe at the beauty of these rare, and coloured, images.

Black and white? Well that was normal - boring even.

When I went to art college, then, black and white was still the only medium available. This was in the late 1970's. My photography course was designed to teach me to make beautiful studio photos. I wasn't very good at it, actually. In fact, I was rather ignominiously thrown off the course.

The thing was I had a real problem with dark rooms. I've always kind of figured that if we were meant to do things in the dark, he who designed us would have given us a few helpers - like built-in night vision, or some such - but no such luck. I for one seemed to have less aptitude than most when it came to working blind. It was awful. We had to fumble around putting sensitive 6 x 4.5 sheets of film in these flimsy holders ready to go in the back of the camera. All in the dark. The trouble was, I couldn't feel whether I'd only got one sheet or more, and dark was really dark, so seeing anything was impossible. When on one occasion I succeeded in putting four sheets of expensive film in a holder meant for one, and then getting it jammed in the school’s best camera, my long suffering tutor propelled me none too gently from the class and suggested, even less gently, that I should find some other pursuit that didn't involve using anything more expensive than a pencil.

I hasten to add this had nothing to do with my artistic and creative abilities. I was merely, how can I say, technologically challenged.

The point is, though, no one thought of black and white photography as being particularly arty or special because that was all there was. For sure, photography students did wonderfully arty things with photos, and because of the lack of colour, they played with grain and shadows and depth of field to make these potentially boring photos more interesting (okay, strike me dead now for my blasphemy).

So what about today? Well, now it seems that if you want to be taken seriously as an artist in phtogoraphy, you absolutely, totally, and without any doubt have to do it in black and white. What I want to know is - why?

The thing is, I've watched a photographer or two at work. I happen to spend rather a lot of time with a particularly talented one. One of my first serious relationships was also with a photographer, so I’ve had a bit of time to observe these things. From what I can see, the real skill is in getting that perfect colour shot. It seems to be incredibly challenging to find the right balance of darks and lights, blues, reds and other hues. I watch in awe as Koos checks his histograms carefully to make sure his settings are just right for that best of colour shots. And judging by the response he receives, most people think he's pretty good at it.

But sometimes it doesn't work. Sometimes, the colours just aren't right, or they're all the same. Sometimes, these photos are a failure. The image is good, but the colour is bad and what's worse, there's that dreaded enemy of the digital photographer. Noise.

So what to do? Well, I know... and I suspect you do too. Now. The great solution that covers a multitude of sins and mistakes. Make it black and white. The histograms drop neatly into an almost straight blue line, the noise looks interestingly grainy and the imperfections are all instantly erased. Brilliant.

But what does this say about art? Not a lot really, and even less about the skill needed for great artistic photos.

Indeed, in the end, the message of this story is simple: if the colour ain't right, make it black and white.

Now tell me what the only real photography is...