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A pause over Palmyra

OF COURSE people matter more, but that fact that IS are in charge of Palmyra is something that makes me hold my breath today, waiting to hear what will happen to it. We were lucky enough to go there in March 2011, and I wonder sometimes if we were one of the last tourists to get there and marvel over it.

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It’s not just buildings, it’s the complete and utter wonder at how such a symbol of ancient civilisation has survived for so long.
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And the contrast with the desert around it just makes it seem more of a miracle.
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The fragility – and yet obvious strength – of it.
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You feel that with one flick of a finger the whole thing will come tumbling down (oh how I hope not).
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And all the time we were walking around, my heart was beating at how extraordinary those ancient builders and engineers were, how ambitious, how much meaning there was in the designs, and how humbling it was to be walking amongst the ruins. Suddenly the whole world and my petty worries flew into perspective. We are all so small in the scheme of things, so why not just do our best, do good things and enjoy it. And what a relief that is. It’s why places like Palymra matter.

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Joyful play and Don’t try this at home…

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Perhaps the title is a give away about how much joy this book is going to bring…

I’ve been an enthusiastic ‘supporter’ of & Other Stories Publishing ever since I heard about their model of relying on subscriptions so they could publish ‘the types of stories most publishers consider too risky to take on.’ In fact, I haven’t had a book from them yet I haven’t been glad to read – I’m very proud to have my name amongst the subscribers in the back.

And when I got Angela Readman’s book of short stories, Don’t Try This At Home, through the post I was even more happy, because two years ago I interviewed Angela for a Mslexia piece I was writing about the need to play. This is what I said about her in that article:

To give herself a break from editing her first poetry collection Angela Readman made a deliberate attempt to play. ‘One of the things that makes me laugh most is being bad at something – bowling, a game of pool that lasts an hour, attempting (and failing miserably) to ballroom dance with my husband.’

She believes, by giving herself permission not to be perfect, her writing has taken a new direction. ‘Everyone who had heard of me thought of me as a poet, ‘ she explains. ‘Oddly, my stories were rather different to my poems. Some were magical, and fun, and just plain weird.’ To begin with, she didn’t write the stories for publication, but when she started to share them, the reaction surprised her. She won the National Flash Fiction Day Competition with one of the first sent out. Others have won significant competitions and been placed in anthologies. ‘I was just playing around. It was joyful,’ she recalls.

Isn’t that wonderful? Those playful stories – ‘magical, fun, just plain weird’ – have now found their way into a collection that is one of the most exciting things I’ve read this year.

Just look at the starts of these two stories and tell me you wouldn’t want to read on…

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Now Angela Readman is a talented, imaginative and – as anyone who follows her on Facebook will know – very generous writer, but it’s a huge reminder to all of us that sometimes beautiful things can come when we give ourselves….

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On NOT taking photographs…

Perhaps it was the woman at the next table who was explaining her holiday photographs one by one to her friend. Sometimes she couldn’t even remember where they were taken but that didn’t stop her going through all the possibilities…

Or it was the new notebook I’ve found that exactly fits my hand, and is small and light enough to whip out when needed. Not only that but the new pen clip means I never have to search for a pen…

And then there’s all the exercises I’ve been doing with my writing group recently, encouraging them to jot down notes, record memories, senses, senses, senses…

But whatever, I didn’t take photographs during my recent trip to Berlin. Instead I drew images with words, as best I could. Stumbling a little to begin with as always, and then finding more and more things to jot down until I almost had to stop myself – the sound of teenagers walking over the metal faces in Menashe Kadisman’s ‘Fallen Leaves’ sculpture, the red paper apples scribbled with wishes hanging from a tree, five new televisions being delivered to a house, a family negotiation on the steps of Dunkin Donuts – one donut = one more museum, Max Beckmann’s painting entitled ‘Small Death Scene’…

Coming back on the plane and reading through my notes, I’m not surprised to see that many don’t make much sense BUT I am astonished to find I’ve written two poems, with a possible short story. Not just the ideas of them, but the things themselves… and they’re not dreadful.

Now I’m wondering if this is connected with putting my camera away – have I sometimes satisfied my creative urge to capture something with the click of the shutter? So rather than ‘taking notes’ of it (as I sometimes think about photographs), I’ve actually ticked it off in my mind?

Of course, I’ve no record of my trip to put on Facebook or Twitter. So did I actually go?

What can you buy for 99p these days?

ME!

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Or GETTING THE PICTURE at least.

I’m delighted that my novel is in the Amazon Kindle deal this month, currently edging up the bestselling charts for Ageing (No 6) and Personal Health (No 34). Although hopefully it’s a bit funnier and a bit more interesting that that sounds!

In the meantime, here are some reviews I treasure so much, I’ll bring them out again and again. I know you’ve seen them before, you’ll probably see them again too.. BUT HONESTLY… ONLY 99p!!

‘Getting The Picture astutely probes the quotidian eeriness of that other planet that is old age and a life recollected. Marvelous.’ William Gibson

‘The best novels seduce the reader, so allow the wonderful chorus of voices in Sarah Salway’s Getting The Picture to do just that. Let them whisper secrets, plans and mysteries; of the past, of the present. Let their possible futures come into focus for a celebratory final picture. This novel is uplifting, sinister and beautiful.’ Tiffany Murray

‘One of the smartest, wittiest writers of present times, and I recommend anything by her. Getting The Picture is just great. I couldn’t get through a page without smiling or laughing aloud… there is one photography session where an old man and woman meet with a camera between them that is riveting; Salway adds layers to it in the retelling, so that the poignancy of the event overtakes the humor. I can’t stop thinking about the state of mind of the 79 year old woman who lowers her shirt for the camera. All these old people still want to be seen, and to reveal themselves. Salway is a wonder at detail – small moments from all her books are permanently embedded in my mind. Don’t know how she does it, but it’s marvelous.’ Alice Elliott Dark

‘Sarah Salway is an astonishingly smart writer. Her fiction is always beautifully structured, touching and clever. She manages the trick of creating characters you care about in stories you admire. I can’t wait to see what she does next.’ Neil Gaiman.

A Quiet Inquisition

Death’s on my mind at the moment, not least because of a funeral later this week. It’ll be a joyful celebration of a funeral (hopefully) for a life well-lived and well-loved where we’ve been instructed to come in bright colours and wellies and to carry daffodils as we meet up in the forest where she will be buried.

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But last night, I came up against another sort of death. The documentary, A Quiet Inquisition, is about the challenges faced by doctors in the public hospitals in Nicaragua now that even therapeutic abortions have been banned. Do they try to save the mother, or obey the law to the letter and refuse to ‘interrupt’ an unhealthy pregnancy, even when both mother and child will then be at risk?

The film was quiet only in the respect it showed to the patients and doctors it portrayed. We saw them opening up to each other in a way that made me think the directing was masterly. At no stage did you feel the camera was intruding even in this very private moment, although obviously all those portrayed had given their permission to be filmed. Which was important, given that in some cases, they could be prosecuted. Part of the problem is that the girls – some we saw were as young as thirteen – had tried to end their pregnancies, but were too scared to tell the doctors because it was illegal. How could the doctors then know what to do to save their lives? The doctor above, Dr Carla Ceratto, was definitely the star of the film. Faced sometimes with up to 60 patients a day, she remained personal and open to what they were going through. And it’s important to remember that the women coming to her were emergency cases; she wasn’t looking after normal healthy pregnancies. Her vocation is truly one of love. She wasn’t against the government at all, in fact we heard how she could only become a doctor at all because of the revolution in 1979 and the subsequent government by the Sandinista National Liberation Front. Times change though, and Dr Ceratto has treated women both when abortion was legal, and now it is not. It was wonderful to see such a brave, caring and altogether human doctor on screen, and yet also chilling to see how political decisions can affect lives so clearly. Obviously we know they do – look at our NHS – but the lack of emotion over the consequences to ordinary people really hit home when I watched a thirteen year old pregnant girl on screen try to hide her fear over what might happen to her.

And she’s not alone. Here are some figures from the Pulitzer Centre: In Nicaragua the number of girls between the ages of 10 and 14 who give birth has risen by 48 percent since 2000, according to government statistics. One in every four births here is to a girl between the ages of 15 and 19. It is young women, especially those in poor rural regions, who suffer most under this law.

Throughout the film, the focus was not on whether abortion was right or wrong, but instead how the medical profession copes when they have to bring in legal issues to their calling of saving lives. I left thinking of both the individuals in the film and also the wider issue of law and medicine.

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The film is directed by Holen Sabrina Kahn and Alessandra Zeka, both seen in the middle above during the Q&A. It is truly a work of love as I can testify – having been with Holen WAY BACK in 2006 when she got the call that they had received their first chunk of funding. Now, nearly ten years later, the film can be seen. It’s on tonight, Thursday 26th March, at the Ritzy Brixton as part of the Human Rights Film Festival – tickets here, but will also be available more publicly from the end of April. You can follow the website for more information.

And on the way to the screening, another look at death. This time the wall of tributes to those who have died saving the lives of others at the Postman’s Park, near St Pauls. I’ve been so often, I now have my favourite. Here he is, not forgotten.

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I cannot write a novel today because….

I cannot write a novel today because… my friend is writing poetry for gerbils and I need to watch the letter box for the manuscript, small and brown… the towels in my airing cupboard cry out to be arranged not just by size and colour, but fluffiness, fraying and the frisson of pleasure they give…Continue Reading

What every writer wants….

Please excuse the brief boasting, but I’ve been so happy to see the reviews for my novel, Getting the Picture on Amazon. Such as this one: This book was not the cosy love-in-an-old-people’s-home tale i was expecting. It was far richer, odder and more sinister than that, weaving in a story of decades of love…Continue Reading

Armchair exploring, part 2 – Czech Republic and Norway

Who on earth arranged this travel itinerary??? Geez, you could almost believe I didn’t do very well at geography in school. 1. First stop on this whizz-bang tour is The Czech Republic. HOW I CAME TO KNOW FISH by Ota Pavel. There’s a great interview with Ota Pavel here which gives a clear description of…Continue Reading