Thursday, October 31, 2013

A lull in inspiration

It happens now and then, doesn't it? Much as I love my blog, I sometimes run out of the inspiration to write anything. It's odd because I've got plenty to write about: books I've read, places been, work done - I mean I've even been go-karting for the first time ever, for heaven's sake - at my age! And yet when I think of writing about it, them, whatever, it just feels like one big shrug. So what to do?

I'm a writer, aren't I? I don't mean as in a career novelist or some such, but it's what I've always done at work to pay the rent. After all, when I'm not writing  as a hobby, I spend my days teaching groups of poor souls how to do it too. Leaping up and down with excitement in the classroom over the difference between a dependent clause and a subordinating phrase is what keeps food on the table. Believe it or not, I do still manage to get excited about it, which is just as well as I'm the only one who does.

One thing I've come to realise though is that I instill all these rules about sentence structure and 'the perfect clause' in my academic writing students, but then promptly break them all myself in the interests of my own style. I feel guilty about it sometimes. The thing is it makes me almost schizophrenic as a writer. On the one side, I'm expostulating about proper academic structure, coherence and style, but allowing all sorts of other 'low importance' errors (e.g. wrong verb forms and word forms abound without too much comment). In academic writing, perfect grammar and punctuation are not considered of primary importance, see. It's the development of the critical discussion and final argument that counts. But then I come to a class of business communication students, and for this, faultless spelling and grammar are essential for a professional image. However, in the business world, the focus on information flow and critical approach are not deemed as important as being concise and to the point. At least that's what I learned in my former guise as a marketing and communications writer. It's all about persuasive messages, these (I find) often being at odds with critical thinking.

And then I get home and put on another hat. I move into my creative and narrative writing persona, which is different again. Grammar, spelling and punctuation become my personal editing nemeses (if such a thing is possible in plural), but lovely, juicy sentence fragments are part of my creative toolbox. In fact I break most of the academic writing rules in creative writing, but have to cross all sorts of other 't's and dot different 'i's. And what's worse, my students start googling me, buy my books and see me hacking all those rules I've been giving them to pieces.

So here we are. All three of me. Wondering which persona I use when writing my blog.

But now I remember. I had nothing to write about, didn't I? Ah well, I seem to have overcome this particular writing block just by writing about not writing right - or something.

Does anyone else ever suffer from these inspiration freezes?

Here's a photo that I just love for no particular reason

PS But I suppose this just proves there's always something to tap out in the end...

Friday, October 25, 2013

A very English Weekend

Last weekend I was in England for just a few days. I was visiting a friend who is not in the best of health, so it was a sort of morale boosting mission. For that reason alone, I was glad to be there to lend an ear, shoulder or hand when she needed it. This friend lives on a narrowboat, which made it even more of a pleasure for me, so although neither the weather nor her health were good enough to go out 'faring', we did have some lovely walks along the towpath.

The countryside in the area of Rugby is very pretty with its gentle hills and patchwork fields, and there are some beautiful cross country footpaths where you can crest a hill and see a panorama of what makes England so special spread out before you. Living in the flatlands as I do now, it is wonderful to climb hills and see the shadow plays across the valleys. Another thing I miss in the Netherlands is the hedgerows. I love the way they define the fields, and I think this might even be unique to Britain.

The canals themselves are an enchanting parallel world but I was surprised at how busy they still are even in school term times. Of course although it was very wet much of the time, it is not cold and so the intrepid keep going. The other advantage on the English canals is that you can stop quite easily and wait out the weather if you have the time. That isn't possible over here as moorings are strictly designated and the canals are too big anyway. It all seems very relaxed and easy going on the English canals. I imagine that as long as you aren't in a hurry and can deal with the shenannigans of the hire boat party goers (of which I believe there are many), then there is not much to worry about.

My friend, who has also lived on a barge here in Rotterdam, says it is totally different and much easier to do your own thing in England - one of the reasons she prefers it there. You don't have to worry about commercial traffic at all.

I have posted a number of photos on Facebook, but I have added a few here for my non Facebook friends to see. It was, as the saying goes, most enjoyable!

Monday, October 14, 2013

Boating bits and bobs

Well, the weather has changed dramatically and we've just had a weekend of violent wind and rain, so no further spuddles have been possible, which put me in a bit of a hump. I hope it won't get too cold now as I'd dearly like to be able to go out again on the boat, but I'm unashamed about saying I'm a strictly fair weather farer. Without a wheelhouse, there's no way I'm going to stand at the back of the boat and get either frozen or soaked - for fun.

So, to make up for it a little, I've read another couple of boaty books - this time they are both about narrowboating in England (I can always dream, can't I?), so here's my impressions of them. The first one is called The Narrowboat Lad By Daniel Mark Brown.

I downloaded it on my Kindle and read it in one sitting, so I don't think it's all that long as I'm not a fast reader. Still, I enjoyed it very much. The author is a young man who decided to buy a narrowboat when he realised he'd never be able to afford to buy or even rent a house that he would enjoy living in. Quite a loner already, Daniel loves the country and did a great deal of cycling and walking before he decided this was the way for him to go. When he buys his thirty foot home, he has never set foot on a boat before and certainly never 'driven' one, so the story of his hundred-odd mile trip from the marina where he found the boat, to his home town in Shropshire is a huge essay in trial and error, punctuated by occasional heart stopping dramas. Daniel writes in an accessible style and reading the book was very easy to 'down in one'. He obviously self published, so it lacks editing and fine tuning, but for all that, it's a thoroughly enjoyable, honest and sometimes hair-raising read. A goodie for the Kindle.

The other book is called Narrow Margins by Marie Browne. Also about novice narrowboaters, this is a very funny account of how a young family deal with the effects of the economic crisis and the collapse of their business by selling their house and buying a narrowboat. 

After months of searching, they finally find Happy go Lucky, buy it and only then find out that neither of them has a clue about how to steer or manoeuvre a boat, each believing the other has had past experience. Their learning curve is also enacted on a long journey to their new home and I have laughed out loud (as promised) at some of Marie's antics. She writes very well and clearly has a great sense of humour. I haven't finished it yet, but so far, I am loving it and can recommend it strongly. I'll definitely be after the sequel, Narrow Minds. The only, and minor, objection I have is that there's a bit too much trivia about how they keep their young son entertained. It's part of the story, I agree, but I feel she could have cut out some of the unimportant details. That said I might even buy the paperback of this one.

Reading aside, I am going well with the editing on my sequel to Watery Ways. It's working title is Harbour Ways and it might stay as that since the main thrust of the book is about how I convert the Vereeniging from an empty hull into a home. The 'Ways' part is now becoming the theme of my memoir series (sounds good to have 'A Series', doesn't it?), so I'll have to keep that, but I'm not sure yet about the 'Harbour' bit. I'm a bit stuck there, so any suggestions will be welcome. 

I also need a certain tall Dutch man to draw some illustration diagrams or doodles for me… 

Monday, October 07, 2013

Seven Wonders of the (northern) European Waterways

Just recently, my Facebook and Twitter friend, Colin of posted his choice of the seven wonders of the British waterways. I really enjoyed his post and it showed me features of the British waterways I hadn't seen before, many of which are remarkable engineering achievements and very lovely. So I thought it would be nice to do my own blog post about my choice of 'wonders' but this time in northern Europe. Many of these are within a day's drive from here, so I decided I would start with home base, which is to me my absolute number one wonder!

1.  The Oude Haven and the historic harbour complex in Rotterdam: Our harbour is the oldest  harbour in Rotterdam and both the first and the largest historic harbour in the country. It is home to a large fleet of traditional Dutch barges and the harbour is part of the whole haven Museum complex which includes the Maritime museum as well. It's also where my Vereeniging is moored, making it even more special of course!

the Oude Haven with its lovely array of historic barges

A traditional tug boat 
2. The beautiful old boat lifts at La Louviere in Wallonia, Belgium: There are four of these, each one lifting boats up about fourteen metres. The big basins that carry the barges can hold boats of around forty metres in length and over five metres wide. They are similar to the Anderton boat lift in England, and they work on a counter-weight system. They are very beautiful with their lacy ironwork, and I've been lucky enough to hitch a ride on a barge going up one of them.

Old boat lifts at La Louvière

3. Still in Wallonia and very close to the old boat lifts is the new and amazing boat lift at Strèpy Thieu. This replaces the four old lifts and is a huge double lift that rises seventy two metres high. It can also take much larger barges as it was built to current commercial dimensions and standards. It was opened in 2001. I have to say it is phenomenal. Standing at the top of the hill and looking down, it is hard to believe these lifts carry basins full of water and barge up so high.

New, huge boat lift at Strèpy Thieu

4. My number four is the gorgeous village of Giethoorn in Overijssel. It is a unique place in that it has no roads - only canals and footpaths. No cars can enter the village and goods are transported by boat along these charming and extremely picturesque waterways. It's a very popular tourist attraction as visitors can hire small boats and cruise around the village. I made a film about Giethoorn which unbeknown to me became very popular on YouTube when a travel company used it for publicity, and I think it got so many views because people love going there. I can't blame them.

Giethoorn, a village with no roads

5. This just has to be another Belgian marvel, the Inclined Plane at Ronquières: I've posted photos of this before as well, but it's worth listing here as it really is fantastic to see and to watch.  Another engineering marvel, the inclined plane consists of double tracks that carry huge barges up or down a 1500 metre long hill in massive basins of water. The rise is around sixty metres and it takes approximately twenty minutes for these enormous trolleys to go up or down. They work on a counter-weight system like the old boat lifts.

The inclined plane at Ronquières
6: For number six, I've chosen our own great shipping canal in Zeeuws Vlaanderen, the Terneuzen to Ghent sea canal. It really is so impressive, and it has to be almost unique for an inland waterway in this part of the world to go so deep into the country. We see great sea-going vessels creeping past pulled by tugs; we see even larger cargo transporters that seem to manage without tugs and it is an awe-inspiring sight.

The great ship canal from Ternuezen to Ghent

7. And my last European waterways wonder is the beautiful city of Ghent. I have chosen this simply because it is such a surprise to visit a city in northern Europe and find a kind of Venetian town where the waterways seem to be everywhere. In fact there are two important rivers flowing through Ghent: the Scheldt and the Leie, and on a sunny day they are teeming with boats and activity. I just love it!

Waterways in Ghent

 So there you have it. My personal seven wonders of the northern European waterways. All well known to me and all quite close together, relatively speaking. There are many more, of course, and France has a whole collection all by itself, but I have yet to visit most of those. That will be for another time.

If you've seen any of these waterway wonders, do tell me about it!

Friday, October 04, 2013

Print on Demand takes on a new meaning

It's been busy over here in the flatlands, and with the fine weather that's continued to bless us, we've been doing quite a bit of 'boaty' work. Getting the barges, both big and small, prepped for surviving the rigours of winter is quite a job as I've explained in earlier posts. This is one of the reasons I haven't been blogging so much lately. Another is that I've been busy finishing the sequel to Watery Ways while there's a lull in my studies. Waiting for results can be nerve-wracking so immersion in another kind of writing is nicely therapeutic.

In between all this, I've been in communication with a number of people about promoting my books. On 24 September, DutchBuzz radio in the Hague aired a short interview I did with them in July about Watery Ways. It was great to meet Lily-Anne Stroobach, the programme's producer. We had a wonderful time talking about all sorts of things that were not relevant to the interview, because she is a South African and so we had a lot in common. The link to the podcast of the interview is in my sidebar here if anyone interested.

My other upcoming event is still in the planning stages, and this is a book presentation at ABC Treehut in Den Haag. I went to see them to talk about what we could do together a couple of weeks ago, and I met the charming and kind Agnes, who will help me organise things. I also met a lovely gentleman by the name of Jo who was commissioned with demonstrating their fantastic express printing machine.
Jo, standing with justifiable pride before express printing machine

I'd heard about it via DutchBuzz, but I'd never seen anything like it before. This, ladies and gentlemen, is an instant print-on-demand process. If you have written a book, you can take the file to Jo at ABC and have it printed, bound and trimmed in a matter of a few minutes. The results are excellent: very professional and very good quality. The other almost magical feature of the machine is that you can watch it all happening. The casing is glass (or maybe perspex) so the processes are visible. I loved watching it and I could get very excited indeed about using this printer as well. Imagine how quick it would be to get proof copies of a book for sending out to publishers or Beta readers?

The marvellous thing is that you can see what is happening
as the book is being printed.
I am hoping to incorporate a demonstration of the machine into my presentation. I can either offer guests a signed copy of African Ways hot off the press, or use it to demonstrate the printing of first proof copies of Harbour Ways. In any event, I think it's a fabulous concept and a very welcome addition to the POD possibilities.