Reliance – by Stuart

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As mentioned previously we try and come up with some of our own stuff at the Boys Book Club for our yearly trip away and this time in Barcelona we had the theme of Reliance to get our teeth into.  I’ve already put Phil’s marvellous Roll of Honour but here’s a different style from Stuart.  We all read our own pieces out on the night and this was delivered with some cracking intensity:

RELIANCE

History never repeats, but it rhymes
Memories are not read only files
They are torn pages rebound with emotion
“You’re a grown fucking man.”
Rely on nothing
No thing
Rely on the silence that allows the words
Surrender to the space you occupy

Barcelona and the Boys Book Club

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This year’s annual boys book club weekend away saw us continue the search for a bit of autumnal warmth by heading to Barcelona.  Our trips follow the routine that I wrote about in last years Palma post and Barcelona would be no exception, no grand plan just wander around taking the temperature of the city and it’s culture as we meander, perhaps with a bit of architecture or art thrown in for good measure.  We would of course be reviewing this months book, The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, and discussing some of our own work as we had set ourselves the theme of Reliance and were tasked with coming up with something creative around that theme.  We also had a couple of new members this year who had not been away with us before so that was also going to be interesting to see how the dynamic might be affected.

Much as I’m not a fan of getting up early in the morning, the forced early start does enable you to make the most of a weekend away as we were sat with a cold beer in our hands in a lovely little plaza by lunchtime with the day before us.  We’d actually stumbled upon a historic weekend to be in Barcelona as all 881 mayors of the various towns and villages of Catalonia were in town to discuss whether they should collectively sign a memorandum calling for the right to be able to hold a referendum on independence.  As a result there were TV crews around, demonstrators and a general feeling of excitement that something was afoot heightened by incredibly loud firecrackers being let off.  Yellow badges were being handed out that it was explained to us were not necessarily signifying that the Catalans wanted independence but that they wanted the right to a referendum to decide their own fate  Echoes of course of what we have recently gone through with Scotland and what might happen with Europe.  Much as I fully support the principle of national self determination I can’t help feel that globalisation is causing communities and nations to encircle the wagons somewhat and wrap those wagons in a national flag which has potentially dangerous undercurrents.

One thing that has definitely changed, even in the short few years we’ve been doing this, is technology.  Photos can be quickly snapped on phones (in the early days a couple of the lads used to rock up with some serious proper camera gear) and of course city maps, places of interest, where to eat / drink etc can be summoned up instantly.  There are many advantages to this but at the same time it can add a bit of tension for those who want to experience things in the moment and not second hand through the glow of a screen or someone else’s recommendation.  The same is also true of the books, do you read it with no prior knowledge or do you use the easily available information to find out more ?  In our book club it is very much frowned upon to do research around the book / author but for some this is a very difficult temptation to resist

Friday’s wanderings saw us drift down through the Gothic quarter mazing our way away from the crowds down through Bareloneta to the beach before thinking about eating (we did a lot of both thinking about it and doing it over the weekend).  A few people had said to me before the trip that you’ll get stung in Barcelona, really expensive.  This was of course true if you couldn’t be bothered to walk a couple of streets away from the honey traps.  If you could then you could (and we did) eat and drink like kings for staggeringly reasonable prices – much cheaper and better quality than Leeds that’s for sure.  Walking away from the seafront area saw us adopt the method for the weekend, a simple neighbourhood bar with a few tables outside and a tapas board delivered fantastic quality and value both from a drink and food perspective every time.  As in every other Spanish city the vast majority of places to eat and drink are small, independents which makes such a refreshing change from the branded sameness of much of the UK these days

We lazily headed back towards the centre of town keeping our eyes open for somewhere good to eat in the evening and popping our heads into anything that looked interesting, which included me joining some lively looking locals for a game of street table tennis.  Before heading out for the evening we had a very quick turnaround at the hotel before regrouping at a local pinchos bar to discuss our own work.  This is always an interesting and eye opening part of the weekend and we started doing it partly as an experiment but also we spend a lot of time critiquing ‘professional’ writers so what does it feel like to have a go yourself and open yourself up to a bit of peer reviewing.  This year we had some great interpretations on the theme, from a Haiku to poetry and short stories, some funny others reflective and some genuinely moving.  I think it really adds something to the weekend and it also proved to me that no matter what we do for our day jobs there is some hidden talent and creativity amongst the group.  Hopefully with the author’s permission I’ll post a couple of the pieces on here.  After more wandering, eating and drinking we turned in after covering a good ten miles during the day, which we would do again on the Saturday.

After clearing our heads – how nice it is to be able to do this sat in a nice plaza with a fresh coffee and orange juice – we decided to have a wander up to the Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece.  Historically of course cathedrals did often take hundreds of years to complete but it feels slightly surreal that this is still the case today – I think 2026 is the anticipated finishing date to coincide with the 100 year anniversary of Gaudi’s death, but I have my doubts.  It’s a very difficult building to describe but it is undoubtedly one of the most staggering pieces or architecture (or works of art?) that I’ve come across.  Of course there is plenty more of Gaudi’s work dotted about the city that you will come across from the astonishing to the mundane as he designed some of the paving you will be walking on and, as I’ve written about previously, I think you can tell a lot about a city from it’s paving.

After another stunningly good value pavement lunch we wandered down to the Museum of Contemporary Art which had a real mixed bag of a collection in it, a great exhibition called Nitrate by Xavier Ribas contrasted sharply to me against a couple of floors of impenetrable offerings and several surreal items including songs by the Housemartins and the Smiths ?  We all needed something to drink after wandering round the museum before we gathered ourselves for the evening meal and a debate on The Moonstone.  Despite a valiant attempt by one member to point out the relevance of the book it’s fair to say it was universally not enjoyed and I doubt very much if it will enter the reckoning for our book of the year awards in December.

Although we had the odd focal point what I enjoyed most about the weekend was the aimless wandering, the randomness of the conversation and getting to know the other members more.  As we wandered about you would find yourself drifting in and out of different conversations as you walked next to a different person or sat next to someone different at the next bar, these moments are for me what makes the boys book club such a wonderfully rich and rewarding experience.

The photos on this post are a mixture of mine, Phil’s and Andrew’s taken over the weekend.

Crossing The River

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Unfortunately I couldn’t be at the last book  club in person, so as our rules dictate, I submitted a written review. Sometimes a written review can produce a more lucid and passionate take on the book as there are no influencing factors or in my case, I don’t get too carried away with the emotion of a meeting.

I actually like the process of putting my thoughts into writing for book club and often wish I did it more often as I feel my written reviews have more gravitas and eloquence (especially when read out by a BBC trained voice like Andrew’s)…

Crossing The River by Caryl Philips 

Score 8 out of 10

Slavery is one of those subject matters that elicits a complex response from me. As a child I remember clearly the TV mini series Roots adapted from Arthur Haley’s book, it was a powerful and I’m sure relatively sanitized take on slavery and its impact on generations of people. I recall the powerful feelings of loss and overwhelming guilt, thankful that I was never to be put in a situation like that.

The fact that our country was instrumental in facilitating the slavery trade had been conveniently glossed over for me growing up and it was only on digging deeper that I discovered the inconvenient truths of slavery as close to home as Harewood House — built on slave money.

I would really liked to have seen Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave as a companion piece to this book too: an unwaveringly brutal depiction of slavery in film seemed like a good counterpoint to this subtle and delicate book.

Right, on with the book.

First question: Is this a novel or a collection of short stories? The link between the stories was there, albeit tenuous, particularly in the final story, but nevertheless provided a central thread around which the stories could be woven.

The Pagan Coast was a heartbreaking story, full of melancholy pathos and desolation. I thought it was really interesting to explore the little known fact (at least to me) that when slaves had done their time they were ‘freed’ back to their ‘homeland’. That this freedom turned into a form of cruelty worse than slavery itself was deeply, sadly ironic. As the story unfolded through the correspondence of the child like Nash Williams and his moving story of his father seemingly turning his back on him, the sense of loss was palpable culminating in his loss of faith in both his father and God and ultimately death.

The big question for me here is just how did the Christians of that time balance their faith with the concept and reality of slavery?

The slave ship captain interlude was relentlessly harrowing. Amidst the tedious descriptions of wind, temperature, tides and day-to-day ship duties was the everyday nature of taking slaves. This was described as such a commonplace event that it chilled me to the bone: lives ruined forever, casual death and the business of slavery, not flashily horrific but routinely normal.

Martha’s story was no less tragic but perhaps more recognisable in the canon of slavery stories. It was again a numbingly tragic story of a life lived, owned and ruined by different people. The author made these feelings real for me and the most moving part was losing her daughter and then spending the rest of her life seeking her out. This was an emotionally raw story told tenderly and I liked how the author chopped the timelines — a common but effective ploy used throughout — to create anticipation and depth. Yet again the story ends in death and there is a palpable sense here that death brings freedom as in the first story.

Joyce’s story felt very different and I was impressed throughout with how the author had created authentic voices across the generations. The physical and emotional austerity of wartime Northern England was perfectly captured in this story. This was an unpalatable layering of hardship, heartbreak, cruelty, determination and tragedy — predictably ending in death.  Interestingly the story raised questions for me around who was the slave and who was free and I really liked that I was asking questions all the time as to who was black in the story, as Joyce never mentions the colour of skin.

So, was Crossing the River a metaphor for death or slavery? I’m not sure—it could be both. I have read somewhere that ‘The River’ was what slaves called the Atlantic. Interesting also to hear the phrase being ‘sold down the river’ or betrayed, being used in its original context as the buying and selling of people.

Ultimately, I found this a harrowing book; the author not afraid to leave things unresolved or introducing stark tragedy at every turn. If the intention is to leave no glimpse of light in the darkness, amidst the desperation of dislocated and shattered lives, then this book is a resounding success.

I’m left with the lingering feeling that there should be no positives whatsoever where this subject matter is concerned and I am convinced that books on slavery should be painful to read by their very nature.

My score does not in any way reflect my enjoyment of this book, but the lucid power of the narrative and the fact that I simply couldn’t look away and not be affected by the stories.

Can we read a comedy next?

The Boys Book Club – 99 Books

In February 2005 I found myself on crutches having broken my foot playing football and tentatively inching my way across snowy pavements in Leeds, heading to a pub to meet some people who I’d never met before.  This would be the first meeting of the Boys Book Club and little did I realise at the time the huge positive part the club and the people in it would play in my life.  I tend to be with Groucho Marx when it comes to clubs, not wanting to join any that would have me as a member, and I’d never given any serious thought to joining a book club.  Yes I read a lot but I enjoyed deciding what book I was going to read next and never felt the need to discuss that with anyone else, good reads would be recommended, bad ones discarded and usually not even finished.  Stepping into a book club might change all this but I guess the stars aligned at the right moment and I thought what the hell I can always leave if I don’t enjoy it.  The fact that as we approach our 8th year I still enjoy it every bit as much as the first meeting tells a lot.

At that first meeting it was clear from the off that we’d all be drawn there to discuss a book and that was what was going to take precedence, who we were and what we did for a living were very much secondary issues.  This was important for me as I detest it when I meet new people and the first question they ask is “what do you do?” as if it’s our only our jobs that define us, make us who we are, not all the other things that we do in life, our interests and passions and let’s be honest some people make judgements based on what job you do – they picture your life, income, class and attempt to place you in a nice little box marked binman, solicitor, teacher, marketing exec etc.  Of course over the years we’ve discussed what we do but it’s not what drives or defines us, the book drives us and through the reading and discussion of the books and the themes contained within them we have learnt huge amounts about who we are as people and what it is that defines us.

The key to why we have all got so much out of the book club is I think rigour, the first rule of book club is Always Read the Book, which sounds simple but there are so many people in book clubs that I know where this does not happen.  The fact that we all invest the time and effort required gives us a shared starting point and there have definitely been books over the years that have been hard to read and very hard to finish, some that if I was reading them outside of the book club I would have discarded after 50 pages or so but I’ve had to knuckle down and do the hard yards.  This effort is then always rewarded by the discussion at the monthly meetings (second rule of book club, you must turn up to meetings and be prepared to discuss the book).  The discussions are for me absolutely the key, each of us takes it in turn and without interruption can talk for as long as we which, which can sometimes be five minutes sometimes half an hour.  After everyone has had their turn a wider discussion takes place on anything that’s been raised.

The best nights are usually those where the book has split opinion, there have been a few books where some have scored the book 0 and others 10 (we all score the books out of 10 then re-score after all the discussions) and these are generally better than those where we have all thought the book was fantastic.  It’s in your own monologue where the magic of the book club comes alive, you have to decide what you thought and why you thought it, this over the years has opened up windows into who we are as people as you inevitably tend to draw on your own life experiences to illustrate what you thought about the book and how it made you feel.  I don’t think there are many opportunities for a group of blokes to get together and do this and do it with such honesty.  Great art they say holds up a mirror to the soul and this has become self evidence in our discussions over the years.  We are all middle aged men and as a result have been through many of the ups and downs that life throws our way, losing jobs, relationship breakdown, death as well of course huge highs and through all this the monthly discussion takes place, good wine drunk, fierce exchanges of view sometimes take place and deep long lasting friendships formed.

We’ve gone through some changes of personnel over the years and have just got a couple of newbies join up but each time we make a change the dynamic may shift as each person brings their own personality and experience to the table but the rules of the club remain the same.  Read the book, turn up and express your view.  We’ve also had a go at doing some of our own writing which has been rewarding and daunting in equal measure as well as all going abroad for a weekend each year taking in Palma, Valencia, Malaga, Madrid, Rome and Nice as well as donning wetsuits for surfing in the North Sea in January !

Our next meeting takes place next Friday where we will be discussing The Prince by Machiavelli as well as looking back over 2013 to decide on our book of the year, which will be tough as it’s been a good year.  I was doing a look back at all we’ve read, which was the catalyst for this post and realised we’ve read 99 books over the years and I like the thought that the first book we choose this year will be our 100th.  I think that I’ll do a little post at the end of each year with the books that we’ve read during the year but below are all the books we’ve read so far.  I think we’ve covered a reasonable cross section of authors and genres but if you’ve got some ideas on what we should read next, authors or genres we are missing please leave a comment.  Long live the Boys Book Club and all who read in it !

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage

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This year has been another classic year for our book club. As we get to the end of the year, we always take a backwards glance at the year’s books in our annual review and it’s always a delight to go back over the reading material and re-appraise the books—time often provides another filter in which to consider their impact.

We have read some really challenging and stimulating books this year in book club and none mere so than this collection of short stories by Nobel prize winner, Alice Munro. I’ve said many times before, the measure of a great book club book is the conversation it stimulates, the book itself doesn’t have to be amazing: in fact if it is, it’s usually high scores all round and a fairly dull meeting ensues.

I think we’ve only read short stories before on one occasion (Sci Fi as I recall) and we knew we were in safe short story hands with Munro, given her recent Nobel accolade for her literature. Awards are no guarantee of a satisfying book and discussion as we’ve found in the past, but the book ticked a lot of boxes, so in we went.

This book was easy to read, although I found short stories need to be consumed in one sitting, otherwise the characters in different story fuse together. In fact looking back, I feel the themes were far more important across the collection than the characters. Good short stories are impressive feats of writing too—a compelling and believable world has to be created quickly and efficiently with no luxury of 800 pages to flesh it out.

Munro examines the trajectories of lives, criss-crossing, delicately woven together, smashed part, unfolding, unravelling. She tackles the difficult issues of the bargains we make with ourselves to make things work or rationalise in our hearts and heads. She enjoys the untidy nature of life which, as much as we try to keep it in order, can never be mastered. She is a master at portraying the complexity of emotions, the fragility of relationships, unbreakable family ties, duty and responsibility. Furniture is a theme that re-occurs constantly, an analogy I think for the everyday stuff that surrounds us in our lives, physical things that we can move around but never goes away.

The men in her book are hard, unattainable, dutiful, arms length objects of female desire to be lusted after or fearful of. The women are trapped, hemmed in by their duty and loyalty, occupying traditional stereotypes that perhaps speaks more of her Canadian home.

Her prose is like a delicate filigree, beautifully realising the relentlessly chilly tales. I found many of the stories bereft of emotion, Munro doesn’t flinch from the harshness of life and relationships, as the reader, one gets cold comfort from her elegant, neatly realised writing.

This collection is ultimately a mediation on morality and mortality—each story prodding, poking, picking at the edges of life. There aren’t many answers to be found in her pages, she simply sets out the scenes and asks the reader to decide. As each story unfolds, Munro seems to get bolder, finishing with the powerful Bear came over the mountain, laying out the components of loss: memory, relationships, tragedy and mundanity.

Of course a collection of stories like this got us all hot under the collar and a seriously good discussion ensued. I scored the book highly as this is clearly the work of a great writer and writing this, three weeks after we met, the themes have matured and lurk in the back of my mind, gloomily reminding me that it’s a fine line between happiness and sadness. And it’s a line that we all tread daily.

On Foreign Haircuts (after Montaigne*)

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Submitted by my good mate PB as part of our #boysbookclub writing in Palma

Everyone is marked. Some marks you see, others are invisible. Some are physical scars, others metaphysical indentations. Some marks are chance, some imposed culture, and others are chosen. All these marks help to give us identity and mark us out as individuals or as part of a group. Or both.

I, so far, have largely chosen to avoid bodily marks of permanence, save for a couple of teenage wholes in my left earlobe. However there are other, not so permanent personal accoutrements that can add to the outward identity arsenal including clothes, glasses, and haircuts.

When I was at school a haircut could mark you out as a member of a tribe, or not. There were still some punks left around, and goths, dyed and spiky, there were flickheads with football-terrace-long-fringes and there were mullets which didn’t really act as a ticket into any tribe, but was a workhorse, man for all seasons type cut which looked ridiculous. Since those days I’ve tended to go for a utilitarian, sometimes DIY approach, which keeps things simple.

When I do go to the hairdressers I’m always very glad to leave. I’d rather go to the dentist than the hairdressers. The two professions used to be inextricably linked in medieval times when a barber was a dentist and also a surgeon. You could nip in for a quick limb trim whilst having your molars out and a hair amputation. All at the same time. The bloody rags that accompanied the procedures, (hopefully just the dentistry and the surgery rather than the haircut), were then hung out on a pole, leading to the iconic, macabre, red and white striped barbers.

These days a haircut is a much simpler, sedate affair. But I’m not one for small talk and having someone fiddle with my hair whilst I sit in front of a mirror for quarter of an hour is not something I like to do very often. Would it not be easier to have haircuts on the NHS and have the option of a general anaesthetic? At least having a mouthful of ironmongery at the dentist gives a good excuse not to talk about the weather. That said, despite my preference for the dentist over hairdressers I’d rather go on holiday than go to the dentist, which is why I’ve started to combine the two (holidays and haircuts, not holidays and dentistry).

You hear about people going abroad for all kinds of reasons, holidays, work, cosmetic surgery, assisted suicide, booze cruises. But this haircut tourism is something I’ve wanted to do for a while. It really does kill two (or three) birds with one stone. One, you’re on holiday. Two, you have a haircut. And three, you can comfortably sit there in dumb, non-other-language speaking silence.

I remember hearing Andy Kershaw on one of his superb travelogues he used to do in the 80’s, 90’s having a haircut, somewhere in Turkmenistan, and the barber pulled out a blowtorch and singed the hair off his ears. Seemed like a a great way to get to view a country from a different perspective, and to come home with a metaphysical souvenir that you don’t have to find extra space for in your luggage.

Those were my thoughts pre-haircut tourism, but after two foreign haircuts the jury’s still out. Not sure that I’ve discovered anything specifically different about Spain or Bulgaria by having a trim.

Except the following. In southern Spain, after seeing the astounding palace of Granada with my girlfriend we wondered round the streets looking for some signs of hairdressers. Eventually I found the site of my inaugural foreign cut. It was quite a trendy looking place. Not a blowtorch in site, but possibly the campest hairdressers I’ve ever been in. I’m quite short-sighted so once I’ve taken my glasses off, I can’t see for toffee. However my girlfriend came with me and saw the camp Barbers of Granada flirting outrageously with each other, squeezing each others arses, whilst sorting out my oblivious barnet.

In Bulgaria, on holiday with my daughter, near the Maritsa River, which runs through the second city, Plovdiv, we walked into a small shop looking for a Balkan short back and sides. We’d just been on a three day horse ride in the mountains and today was the last day and I only had a few hours to get the cut. There were a lot of signs that this was a place for a haircut. There were mirrors on the wall, scissors on the shelf and a couple of chairs on the floor, facing the mirrors. It all added up to one thing. It had all the trimmings of being the establishment of a hairdresser.

Two blokes were sat behind a desk. I asked in my best Bulgarian if they could speak English. ‘No’, they replied. In English.

I don’t expect people I meet abroad to speak English, but most of them seem to. I took them at their (English) word and proceeded with the international sign language for a haircut. You know the one, fingers for scissors, chopping over the scalp. They understood, they were men of the world, and they could clearly speak and understand more English than they were letting on. ‘No, not here.’ I looked around the shop. Was it a front? Had we just unwittingly stumbled upon a money laundering or drug gang fronting as a barbers?

I glanced, at the mirror, the scissors, the combs. One of the blokes said. ‘It doesn’t work’. If I had had the capacity of debate in the Bulgarian language then this could have been one of the most in-depth and entertaining conversations I’d ever get the chance to have in a hairdresser. From what I could see the scissors and combs looked perfectly serviceable. And the mirrors definitely worked. No doubt about it. What was he on about? In retrospect the whole episode could have been complicated by the Bulgarian custom of nodding for ‘no’ and a shake of the heads for ‘yes’. However none of the guidebooks mentioned anything about saying no when you mean yes and vice versa. All very confusing. So instead of a haircut, we cut our losses and left.

After taking some advice from the hotel proprietor I obtained the Balkan look in a ladies hair salon with a load of Bulgarian ladies looking somewhat bemused at the incoherent gentleman sitting beside there perms and dyes. But I got what I wanted. An ephemeral reminder, a transient souvenir, a mark.

* Michel de Montaigne was 16th century writer. He’s now considered the first essayist penning such wonderfully titled pieces as On Cannibals, On Smells, On the Custom of Wearing Clothes, That One Man’s Loss is Another Man’s Profit, and On Thumbs.

A Short Story

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Last weekend the BoysBookClub went off to Palma and as well as having a great time with friends and reviewing our latest book, War of the Worlds, we also did some writing.  We’ve done little bits and bobs before when we’ve been away, partly as it gives us a focus on one of the nights out but also to see what it’s like as after all we spend a lot of our time reading, thinking and discussing books so what would it be like to have a crack at writing something ourselves.  This year we did something a bit different, we are soon to be joined by a new member so we got him to come up with a theme and we had to come up with something creative around that theme.  It could have been anything creative so if someone had fancied doing some interpretive mime, kazoo playing or dance then that would have been cool but all of us did some writing in one form or another – poetry, essay, stories were all featured and we swapped them all and spent the Friday night discussing them and the creative process that we’d been through.  We weren’t too harsh on each other, not like we are to proper writers!, but it was really interesting discussing why we came up with what we did and how we found the process.

The theme that we had to work with was Marked and I decided quite early on I wanted to have a go at writing a short story and particularly one with some dialogue in as I’ve never written anything like that before and to be honest had no idea how it worked.  Of course I needed to make sure that I’d read the book before I had a go at doing my own stuff so I was left with two days, the good thing about that was that it left a clear deadline looming where I had to come up with something before I hit send on the email to send it round to the rest of the lads.  That meant not much time for editing and at the end of the day no matter how much time you do or don’t have at some point you have to make a decision on what is good enough and put your ‘pen’ down.  Now it’s one thing, and I must admit a pretty scary thing, sharing your efforts with your mates but it’s quite another putting it on here for anyone to read but that’s what I’ve decided to do (and you might find a few of the other lad’s efforts on here as well over the next week or so).  This is my first effort but I’d genuinely like to get your views, good, bad, indifferent, constructive or not.  (I can’t find a way to put in a first line indent in wordpress so the formatting is slightly odd but hopefully you’ll get the drift).  So here you go Marked – my short story…….. Continue reading