Expecting?

IMG_0703

Babies love knitwear…

I’ve never been pregnant, never tried to conceive a child. I’m at the age when friends and colleagues are having babies left, right and centre, but the furthest I’ve got down the road to furthering the species is to get married and agree that my husband and I want them ‘at some point’. Although I feel a lot more ready for the thought of bringing a child into the world than I did ten years ago – when the thought was ‘shit, having a baby would be the worst thing that could happen to me right now’ – I’m now at the ‘if it happened, we could cope’, but not yet at ‘shit, NOT having a baby would be worst thing that could happen.’ I’m a godmother to a dear girl, the daughter of a friend from school, and an inveterate ‘knitting auntie’, knocking up hats, mittens, bootees and jackets for each new arrival. But actually a mum myself? No, not yet.

Part of the reason for my lack of enthusiasm for the baby project is a lack of understanding about how it might make me think and feel, anxiety about how it might change the very me-ness of me. Sure, there are also the massive practical considerations of work and lifestyle and cost (has anyone ever told you how shitty parental pay and leave are in the UK?) but at least there’s some support from the state, and we both have jobs and savings and four grandparents-in-waiting. We have friends who have done it and so can tell us ‘don’t worry, it’s perfectly normal’ and who wouldn’t mind being howled at down the phone at silly o’clock. The species needs to do it and, after all, all of us have already been through it, albeit on the other end of things.

But a big stumbling block to overcome before I take the plunge is to try and work out how this massive life-changing thing could affect me. Not just physically – though there is that too – but how I think and feel and cope with the world. I guess that, in part, this is futile; people always tell me that you can’t imagine what it’s like until it’s happening to you. But I still want to try and work it out, and it’s almost impossible to do because there’s barely a book on the subject that isn’t just a handbook advice on folic acid, maternity pads and pelvic girdle pain. Did those words make you shiver? If so, you’re not alone – they made my skin prickle, and that just shows how culturally conditioned we are to finding the whole pregnancy and motherhood thing a little bit disgusting, something that we just don’t talk about before we’re on that giddy journey ourselves, hurtling into the future with nary a clue about what’s to come. Preparing for this journey I don’t want a car manual, I want a story about the place that I’m going to which reassures and excites and makes me feel like I could cope with the brave new world ahead.

ExpectingThank God for Chitra Ramaswamy. Her brand new book Expecting: The Inner Life of Pregnancy (Saraband, April 2016) is a magical yet practical and beautifully written monologue on pregnancy, from the pre-conception jitters to the miraculous but traumatic moment of birth. Each chapter follows a month of her own pregnancy but against a background of cultural and literary references from Sylvia Plath to Tolstoy. In fact, those two sources are pretty important, because there simply aren’t that many books, poems, plays, films or works of art which actually depict this most awesome and fundamental of human processes. As Ramaswamy questions:

‘What, then, is the riddle of pregnancy? How are we even to begin to understand it? To find the right metaphors? Or perhaps even to abandon them: to crack open the jar and spill the contents?’

Ramaswamy’s a journalist and the training shows: her research is thorough and wide-reaching, turning up gems in places we wouldn’t have looked as well as those we thought we knew. Some of the works she cites are obviously about childbearing: Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Kate Clanchy’s Newborn and Sharon Old’s poem ‘The Language of the Brag’ all take the stage. But others are more unexpected: Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain (1977) isn’t a book about pregnancy at all, but in it Ramaswamy finds surprising parallels between Shepherd’s mountain explorations and her own journey to motherhood. Take Shepherd’s description of water on the hills:

‘I have seen its birth […] and the more I gaze at that sure and remitting surge of water at the very top of the mountain, the more I am baffled.’

Ramaswamy feels the same about the miniature miracle occurring in the very midst of herself.

After the uncertainty of the first chapter, those first few weeks before most women even know they are pregnant, the references to other people’s experiences come thick and fast: Sylvia Plath’s 1959 poem ‘Metaphors’ (‘I’m a riddle in nine syllables’), Marcel Proust, Susan Sontag’s 1978 Illness as Metaphor, Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, Alison Watt’s and Louise Bourgeois’ sculptures, Gustave Coubert’s 1866 painting The Origin of the World, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Hélène Cixous’ The Laugh of the Medusa, John Muir, Toni Morrison, Kathleen Jamie’s Jizzen, Voltaire, George Mackay Brown, Frida Kahlo, David Hume – it may be a daunting list, but Ramaswamy handles it with skillful lightness, marking each jolt of her journey with a fingerpost provided by someone else who has traversed humanity’s trail ahead of her. The very life-and-death-ness of her journey binds her to more than just other pregnant women, it also brings her into contact with people, places and narratives she hasn’t considered before.

There is also the quotidian normality, even familiarity, of this rarely-written-about subject. From the movements of the baby in her stomach to the contractions of birth, the feeling of joyous wellbeing in her sixth month to the protective nesting sensation she often experiences, the refrain is the same: ‘the most surprising part of all this was how unsurprising it felt’. For Ramaswamy discovers that her body is wiser and better prepared than her head, that this most primeval of functions is hard-wired into her very being. It doesn’t take her away from herself, it make her more herself, part of the humanity of humanity.

I cannot recommend Expecting highly enough. As someone who may take the path to motherhood in the coming years, it feels like a life-raft in a sea of uncertainty about pregnancy, helpful yet humorous, intimate yet universal. Not a car manual, but a true friend of a book, one that any person with the remotest to connection to the miracle of life could turn to again and again. I have no hesitation in placing on my personal ‘handbooks for life’ shelf, alongside Gwyneth Lewis’ Sunbathing in the Rain and Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun, Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book and Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie. All books to gladden my heart, steady my footsteps, and remind me to keep looking at the world with new eyes.

Mapping literary landscapes

litlong

Lit Long map page

Today’s post is just a brief one – up to my eyeballs in work-related reading, which no doubt will get distilled into a post or two once I’ve had time to think and digest. Getting my head round all of Edinburgh’s literary history is no small task, but I have a found a wonderful thing to help: Lit Long.

As part of the Palimpsest project, the universities of Edinburgh and Aberdeen have created a huge literary database of place-name mentions from books set in Edinburgh, visually mapping this onto the city: in their words: ‘you can walk your own path through the resonant locations of literary Edinburgh.’ Click on the link to have a go – it is fascinating, particularly for those who love Edinburgh and her literature.

I’ve not come across a literature-centred project like this before, only historical ones like Locating London’s Past or decorative ones like Geoff Sawers’ Literary Map of Great Britain (which is beautiful and unowned as yet by me…just sayin’!) and its little sister, Literary London. I find it fascinating to bring together the written word with the phsyical space, making the psychogeography of places visually apparent.

Literary London

Literary London

Does anyone else know of projects elsewhere which directly connected specific locations with their geographic counterparts? I can think of a few more locations ripe for the mapping: Grasmere and the central Lake District (one for you I think, Wordsworth Trust), Paris, Norwich… any other suggestions?

Sherlock, Invictus and pirates galore

Having finally settled in to the flat, unpacked the last box and had our first guests round for dinner, the time has come for a little literary update on my new surroundings. On Sunday the husband and I decided to go on a walking tour of literary Edinburgh, partly to get our cultural bearings and also because I had a job interview with UNESCO City of Literature Trust on Tuesday.

Edinburgh's iconic streets

Edinburgh’s iconic streets

Nothing like a bit of interview prep that can be done whilst having a sunny city stroll! The tour was a fascinating 90 minutes of anecdote threaded through the city’s south side, and galloped through the life and works of Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ian Rankin, J.K. Rowling – with a fair sprinkling of bookshops and publishers to boot.

My husband has spent much of the last five years working in the Geosciences Building on Drummond Street and was amazed to discover from our guide that not only had it once been a hospital but that W.E. Henley had spent nearly three years of his life there under the watchful eye of a certain Joseph Lister. Now, when we first heard the name Henley neither of us recognised it, but the guide soon brought it to our attention that this was the man behind the poem ‘Invictus’:

Henley had had his leg amputated as part of his treatment for TB, and together with his beard and crutch was the inspiration for literature’s most famous pirate, Long John Silver – Stevenson had apparently carried an armchair on his head through the streets of Edinburgh to sit at his friend’s bedside. But he wasn’t the only member of his family to be immortalised in literature: his daughter Margaret, who died at the tragically young age of five, was the self-anointed ‘Fwendy-Wendy’ to a certain J.M. Barrie – and thereby Peter Pan’s ‘little mother’ was born. We couldn’t believe that there wasn’t more made by of these connections by the university – how great would it be to have ‘I am the master of my fate/ I am the captain of my soul’ emblazoned on the gates of the building that hundreds of students and staff use every day?

Behind the Geosciences school lie the Old Infirmary buildings, ranging round a quiet and almost entirely hidden courtyard providing little more than bicycle storage for today’s university students. But 150 years ago this had been the haunt of Dr Joseph Bell, the renowned surgeon and medical lecturer – and was the alma mater of a certain Arthur Conan Doyle, who (like Stevenson) took direct inspiration for his fictional characters from the people he saw in that corner of Edinburgh. Sherlock Holmes, his characteristic coat and hat and his incisive diagnostic skill, were based on Conan Doyle’s old lecturer.

At the end of the Drummond Street we come to two further literary links: the bar Hispaniola (named after the barque in Treasure Island), which until recently traded under the name Rutherford’s Bar, and had done so since at least 1836. Just over the road from Edinburgh University Law School, it provided a handy watering hole for such eminent alumni as RLS (him again!), Conan Doyle (and him), and Walter Scott.

And then on to J.K. Rowling, William Topaz McGonagall, Alexander McCall Smith, Paperback Books: it seems like every corner of Edinburgh teems with literary life past and present. The tour is a great romp through Auld Reekie’s history, but it really only has time to scratch the surface: what of Burns, Ferguson, and those Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine boys?

And, just so you know, I got the job – so that’s a pretty good recommendation for the effectiveness of the tour!

Bens Lomond and Ledi, Weirs Molly and Tommy

From the summit of Ben Lomond

From the summit of Ben Lomond

This weekend I doubled my tally of Munros summited. Ok, so it was only my second 3000-footer: but it really was a doubling from my previous total of just Ben Wyvis! Ben Lomond was my second, all 3195 feet of it, and it was a glorious sunny spring day as we made our way up, along with hundreds and hundreds of others, all sweating and swearing and stopping to look at the beautiful views of the sunny loch with its sparkly surface and perfect little islands. The main path on the south ridge was heaving with folk all the way up, but once we’d reached the top and started down the Ptarmigan ridge they thinned out almost to nothing, and we had a lovely stroll down this subsidiary flank in the late afternoon sunshine. We’d already pitched camp at the Forestry Commission campsite in Sallochy in the morning, so hurried back home in the evening light to make dinner on our little camp ‘kitchen’. The evening was beauteous and the shoreline sparkled with campfires glimmering in the gloaming – we hadn’t sorted out anything to burn ourselves, so walked along the shore amid the woodsmoke to keep warm before burrowing into sleeping bags and blankets for a sound night’s sleep.

Ben Ledi before me

Ben Ledi before me

The next morning dawned bright and sunny again, so we consulted the map and headed for Ben Ledi – 30 feet short of true Munro status, but a big walk none the less. We parked by the roaring motorbikes on the road between Callander and Strathyre, and set off up the unpleasantly named Stank Glen: fortunately it did not live up to its name and instead was a sunny and fairly open cleft, with plenty of forestry trails crossing the valley and some long twin-force falls at the centre. Once we’d popped up above the corrie, we skirted just to the south of the Lochan nan Corp – tarn of the bodies! Keen not to add ours to it, battling on upwards in ever-increasing wind, barely staying long enough for a summit photograph before heading for a rocky outcrop to hide behind and eat our summit snack. As with the day before, the descent was much quieter and we swiftly made out way back down, and within an hour and half were back in Edinburgh.

Now, what does this have to do with biography, you may be thinking? Apart from being a snapshot of my life, it is part of my experiment to live fully in Scotland and immerse myself in as many parts of it as possible: geographical, cultural, musical, political. I so want to enjoy my time here and want to tread in the footsteps of writers and walkers like Nan Shepherd, exploring those psychogeographical relations between places and people. So for each excursion I make into the wilds, I am going to be reading a book by a Scottish author with a connection to that place.

I love a view with my reading

I love a view with my reading

So, what was I reading this weekend? The actor Molly Weir’s Trilogy of Scottish Childhood. Hardly the obvious companion for a hill walk, but it definitely enhanced my enjoyment of being there. It was pure chance that a lovely friend of mine had bestowed on me a copy of this memoir just the day before, after I had begun to read it at her house, and that as soon as we arrived at Balmaha I spotted the new statue of her brother, the writer and climber Tom Weir, leaning brazenly in a red woolly hat placed boldly on his head by a visiting pilgrim. I have not yet seen any of the Weir siblings’ broadcasts – something to rectify – but I was so pleased that the book and the place were connected in this small way.

The Trilogy is pure 20th century memoir: it bursts with little stories of life growing up in Glasgow’s tenements and its humour and tone are warm and understated. Molly Weir was born in 1910, Tom four years later, and as children lived with their mother and grandmother in what seems like grinding poverty. The narrative follows Molly’s success at school and as a shorthand typist, and then covers her early years of life as an actor. Glaswegian Scots was the children’s first tongue, and the humour of that Springburn community is familiar to anyone who has seen Billy Connolly or Frankie Boyle: tinged with darkness, full-blooded and self-deprecating. Our narrator bounces and bubbles along beside us, bringing the Co-operative shops and the trams and the tenements back to life beside us, with a terrific ear for a smart turn of phrase or a detail of domestic life. Anyone who believes Hallowe’en as an recent American invention cannot fail to notice how important a part it played in the life of these Glasgow families at the turn of the last century – its roots are deep in Scottish culture, and it provides a platform for the performances musical, rhythmical and spoken which are such an intrinsic part of Scotland’s life. Molly WeirSomething I was amazed at when I first moved to Ayr a few years ago was how everyone I worked with seemed to have a party piece – or several! Singing, dancing, playing the fiddle or flute, telling stories, putting on a party: these talents were shared at Burns Suppers and house-warming parties alike, and I loved that these folk performances were embedded into people’s social lives. Admittedly we were working at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, so perhaps it attracted a higher than average number of performers, but the standard was superb and I wished that English folk culture was still a much greater part of people’s lives.

Storytelling is a much more prominent part of Scottish culture than it is in England. The Scottish Storytelling Centre sits proudly on the Royal Mile, and there are storytelling festivals up and down the country. Storytelling is at the heart of life-writing, but I’ve always felt a little uncomfortable at the overly folksy associations that ‘storytelling’ sometimes has: vague middle-aged women drifting about in tie-dyed dresses warbling tales of birds and beasts getting damp-eyed over rescued birds and brave bold boys. Building and transmitting interesting narratives is such an important part of everything most of us do every day – being it persuading people to buy, invest or donate money, shaping partnerships for new projects, helping people find the resources which best fit their needs, whether those be physical, financial or cultural – that the skills of storytelling should belong to everyone. And no-one who has ever sat through a school lesson, university lecture or staff training day will underestimate the importance of someone who can make the story of their subject matter interesting, whether it be the life cycle of the frog, Middle English poetry or the importance of maintain accurate accounts!

Molly Weir’s autobiography will probably never rate among the literary greats, but it is a perfect example of punchy Scottish storytelling and is fascinating even if you know nothing about Molly Weir. It is peppered with the dialect of Glasgow – again, living in Ayr had helped me ‘get my ear in’ to those west coast vowels – and its central characters are engaging and strong, from Grannie with her insistence on hard work and perfect manners, to Mother with her busy life at the rail works and love of dancing. The stereotyped Scot is often dour, but nothing could be further from the reader’s mind as she steps back a hundred years into those lively and rambunctious Glasgow streets alongside her curly-headed ‘Flying Scotswoman’, racing everywhere and meeting everyone and soaking it all in.

IMG_1478

Edinburgh’s Union Canal at night

 

Longing to Name the Sea

I have always been slightly obsessed with the Nordic countries – indeed, my choice of (serious) partner has always mirrored this to a ridiculous degree: my first boyfriend is a marine engineer for ice-class ships in Finland and my husband is a glaciologist who spends months of his life camping out next to the Greenland ice sheet.

Lofoten beach

Some scenic book reading on the Lofoten islands

At university I spent a summer railing and sailing round Scandinavia, taking the boat from Newcastle to Norway and racing the summer sun up and down the gulf of Bothnia and along the Arctic circle. I rode a bicycle across the Lofoten islands and took the sleeper train to Helsinki, and spent a storm-tossed crossing from Denmark to Germany drinking whisky on a boat train full of German students.

Iceland Hesteyri

An unexpected pancake house at Hesteyri

A few years later I flew to Iceland, the mid-Atlantic meeting point between Greenland and England, wild camping on the remote Hornstrandir nature reserve and slipping down into a crack in the earth’s crust to bath in its heated waters. Even as a child I poured over my best friend’s mother’s beautiful Carl Larsson books, imagining what it must be like to fish for crayfish in streams and eat picnics at midnight in birch forests (and live in a beautiful wooden house decorated by my artist-partner!) My family’s three-generation fascination with Tove Jansson’s books (detailed here) fed into this too – how marvellous to have one’s own miniature island to spend the summer on! You get the picture.

I love wool on a cover, so I do

I do love some wool on a book cover

So when I chanced upon a book which told the story of one English family who moved to Iceland only a few years ago I was always going to fall on it like a hawk upon prey. Sarah Moss shared my obsession with all things Nordic, but has the wherewithal (and academic career) to make this dream of Scandi-living into reality. (My only experiences of the realities of this are occasional shopping trips to Ikea, where my husband scorns the Daim bars and I spend the whole time thinking about the meatballs.)

Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland (2012) is not a fluffy nostalgia-ridden account of time spent gazing at the northern lights from the steamy sides of a geothermal spa. It tells the real difficulties faced by people who are not Icelandic living in Iceland. First, there are the practical problems: ‘You can’t do anything without a clan, not without spending insane amounts of money.’ Iceland has virtually no immigrant population, and hardly a single second hand shop. The two are not unrelated: as Moss finds out, people are part of small tight-knit clans who are used to looking out for each other and therefore would not think of buying second-hand from a stranger.

The all-defining sea

The all-defining sea

People from útlond – the outsider’s land – are not easily assimilated into these groups, but fortunately Moss has friends at the university who seek out fridges, washing machines and high-chairs from their familial networks. But the way she is referred to as an útlendingur (foreigner) also jars – and this I can easily understand, because when I lived in Japan it felt very strange to be called a gaijin (literally ‘outside person’), and always appreciated it when people used the more friendly gaikokujin – an ‘outside language speaking person’.

Then there is the omnipresence of the Edda, Iceland’s unique record of its own history: ‘Many Icelanders can quote the sagas in the way that 17th century Puritans quoted the Bible.’ Moss finds these gnomic utterances cropping up everywhere – and it unsettles her, because of the assumed unthinking way that they are treated as a true and semi-sacred text. It is the anxiety of influence and the English professor – I have to say, I rather like that literary heritage is so interwoven into people’s lives and speech. Of course, it is true in English too – but this seems to be restricted to smaller phrases which no-one can quite be certain of their origin (my friend SiAB has done a brilliant quiz to test your knowledge on this here.)

A little Nordic shrine at home

A little Nordic shrine at home

Moss certainly doesn’t seem her time in Iceland through rose-tinted spectacles. I’m not likely to move to a new country anytime soon (the thought of choosing and transporting books alone holds fresh dread after the recent move), but I am going to continue my love affair with all things Nordic, as there is the Northern Streams festival of all music Scandi-Scottish here in Edinburgh in a few weeks and I quite fancy getting my fiddle out, or at the very least singing some new songs…

Contemplating my first Munro, Ben Wyvis

April: Memory and Desire

Apologies for the prolonged break in blogging: leaving one job, moving house, attending two hen parties, one birthday and three weddings have all been occupying spare moments over the last few weeks and months. But now I have a little more time on my hands, here is my first post of 2015!

Stove in the new flat: not a real woodburner, but at least that saves lugging logs up three flights of stairs

Stove in the new flat: not a real woodburner, but at least that saves lugging logs up three flights of stairs

As T.S. Eliot famously averred, April can indeed be the cruellest month. I’ve never been much of a fan of spring, with its unpredictable weather disappointing my expectations of sunshine, gambolling lambs and a profusion of flowers. I know it is a necessary transition, and I long for bright summer days and long warm evenings, but I much prefer autumn as a season of change. At that time of year everyone expects rain, storms and shortening days, so every bright spell is a lovely surprise and cause for unexpected celebrations.

Beautiful Victorian fireplace in the new flat

Beautiful Victorian fireplace in the new flat

But this spring is not so cruel: I am happy to have my memories and desires mixed this year. For it promises a new start: a move to a new flat in Edinburgh (complete with wood-burner style stove, beautiful fireplaces and lovely views), the chance to research and write about a writer whom I admire (details still hush-hush but I will be keeping you posted if this develops!), and who knows yet what else.

The summit of my first Munro, Ben Wyvis

The summit of my first Munro, Ben Wyvis

Something I am committing to now is writing more. Together with my friend over at Melissa’s Compass I am promising to write every day – if we don’t write, how can we be writers? I have always struggled to maintain a balance between work, research and creativity, but after reading this soul-strengthening interview with biographer Jenny Uglow I am aiming to make sure I spend some time writing, researching and working every week – and continuing all the other lovely things I do with my time too! Having scaled my first Munro in September, I am keen to make it a round 100 over the next 18 months: only 99 to go…

Whistlestop Scotland

Tomorrow I’m off on a whistlestop tour of Scotland, from Edinburgh to Inverness via Blairdrummond and Aberdeen. I’m highly excited – mainly because it means I don’t have to be at work for a whole week, having only had three days off since 27 August. That’s 25 days at work and 3 days off. No wonder I’m a tad tired!

It is also a brilliant opportunity to buy books and read books. My Wednesday afternoon will be dedicated to trawling Edinburgh’s many excellent bookshops, before meeting an old university friend (and fellow English graduate and lifelong book nut – she’s the first person I met who double-stacked their books) for some homebrew and long overdue lunacy. And now she produces books herself! She is the person whom I have to thank for working in museums, and also who kept me sane at university by being an excellent co-giggling fishwife and being my ‘running-away partner’ when it all got a bit much. [We usually just ran to the nearest country pub, a favourite of which was The Chequers.] Last night I also dreamed that her boyfriend was a Hobbit who spoke in riddles, so I’m looking forward to ascertaining if this is true.

Blogging will not be happening here whilst I’m away – but I have already written guest posts for the following two blogs, so keep a weather eye on them to see if my wise words pop up in the interim:

http://wordsworth.org.uk/blog/

http://museumdevelopmentnorthwest.wordpress.com/

And if they don’t, there are plenty of interesting things on them by other, more brilliant people to keep you occupied!