Being Accountable #2 Feb 2021

I started the year making a series of pledges to myself. Not a New Year resolution, more of a map of where I’d like to be heading. I made my manifesto public, and now I’m holding myself to account. January went pretty well, let’s have a look at February’s progress.

More than ever, the last year has shown us we need to expect the unexpected. Well, the unexpected came with a rather debilitating stomach bug which meant I had a few days of not straying too far from the domestic personal facilities. Sadly, this coincided with some time off work and mine and Nicky’s birthdays. All better now and eating strongly again! It curtailed my running a bit but my reading and writing barely noticed the interruption.

Writing – Submissions

I’m going to submit a minimum of one piece of writing to a literary journal every single week during 2021.

On it!

A total of seven pieces of flash fiction, poetry and even my first ever non-fiction submission are all in the hands of various magazines or literary journals. It was lovely to hear one of my poems being read out by the mellow tones of Kristen, the editor-in-chief at Unpublishable Zine. I also entered a 500 word flash fiction piece into a weekly competition (and no, I didn’t win). Whether these get accepted (or indeed win) isn’t really the point, I’m challenging myself to invite critical comment and becoming more comfortable with knowing complete strangers are reading my words.

What about my novel?

My target is 2500 words a week of the first draft. This should comfortably complete the draft by the end of 2021

Lots of news. It is amazing where inspiration can be found. Where shall I start? Firstly I’ve re-joined the great Writers HQ. They promote themselves as a writers tool box for those of us short of time and money. Tick. They have a regular Couch To 5k month but for words rather than running. A daily email offers prompts, hopes, exercises and reassurance. They have a good old online forum (in the real world I guess this would be a reading group). This has definitely given me a boost. With my notebook and the typed pages on the laptop I’ve written around 12,000 words. Some have already been discarded, others have morphed into a separate story. Even if they all end up being rewritten, I feel good about where my writing is.

I’ve also found a new podcast, Unsound Methods. Two writers who write ‘literary fiction’ interview other authors (generally from the less commercial areas of writing) about their craft and methods. I found the podcast via the author David Keenan (more of him later).

And As For The Blog

I made quite a pledge for this:

I’m going to email at least one ‘trail running character’ every 14 days to see if they fancy being featured. I’m going to add new content to the blog. Every Single Week. I’m going to review at least one book a month.

So, my series about Trail Running Characters hhhhmmmmm, I’ve now got 7 outstanding invitations (plus one who declined the offer, “not for us mate”. So I think I’m going to drop that particular pledge and concentrate on my book blogs and anything else which piques my interest.

In February, I’ve managed to post 4 book reviews, including one of the afore mentioned David Keenan’s This Memorial Device. This book has contributed so much to my reading and writing. To describe it as quirky would be underselling it. Experimental? Maybe. Individual, definitely.

So in March I’ll be changing my blogging goals to a simpler “at least one post a week“.

The Journal (and other scribblings)

I shall write in my journal. Every. Single. Day. Just thoughts. Observations. Even a note to say nothing of noteNever dismiss a thought – it will end up being used somewhere.

This is going really well. I use my journal every single day. Just for very basic notes on how life is that day plus any thoughts, however small on ideas for my writing. This is particularly handy when I’m on a break at work (or even in between deliveries if I really don’t want to forget something.)

What About My Reading?

Well, seeing as you asked:

I’m going to buy one book a month from an independent publisher, by an author I haven’t read before. And I’m going to read a minimum of 6 books during 2021 which were published at least ten years ago.

Some independently produced poetry keeps me amused on a break

This is going along nicely. Check out my reading list for 2021 which is up to 14 books so far.

If you are looking for some short fiction, poetry or creative non fiction to read, you could do worse than try some of these online beauties: Dodging The Rain, Open Page and Moxy Magazine. If any of my work were to be accepted by one of them I be a proud bunny.

I had a lovely package from Galley Beggar Press arrive, a free short story and a couple of off-the-wall postcards accompanied the book I’d ordered. So, alongside some independently published poetry, this satisfies my pledge to buy from independent publishers.

As for older books, I read We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, whose originally publication was a hundred years ago! So that box is ticked too.

And Not Forgetting My Running Of Course

I’m still tackling The Goat 2 (run elevation gain equivalent to that of the SW Coast Path in Devon and Cornwall in 4 months). My elevation climbed in 2021 is up to 65,000ft, so there’s still about 45,000 feet to go, but I’m ahead of target. This is despite having nearly a week out with a rather disruptive stomach bug! You can see in my chart which week that is. All my running had been pretty local in line with current guidance. That hasn’t stopped me and Nicky continuing our adventures on the trails we’re lucky enough to have accessible to us.

Other Fitness And Health Pledges

BUT, I will pledge this: I will, every single day, do either some conditioning work, strength exercises, stretches or other body maintenance.

I can’t lie, I’ve slacked. The month started well and ended well but the lurgy I had took my mojo, which is only now coming back. I have got myself a really good all over conditioning and stretching routine which only takes about 30 minutes, so I’ll be back doing that three times a week in March. And I’ll be getting that plank duration extended. Oh yes I will…..

And Lastly, The Dreaded Food Pledge

So, I am going to not snack at work. I’m going to only snack during evenings after big (as in 2 hours plus) training days. Puddings will still be the law after roast dinners of course. 

February is ending on a Sunday, just like January did. So once again I say “At the time of writing, a rather delicious GU Zillionaire Cheesecake is settling on top of my roast dinner! So I’m keeping that up…..”

Still the law!

Actually, I’m not doing too bad with this. Having a bad stomach certainly helped curtail my urges to snack. There have been a few ‘comfort’ lapses, but on the whole I’m where I’d like to be with food. Without really trying to, I’ve also lost weight and to be honest, I probably needed to shed a pound or 10. The fact that this has been an almost accidental by product of trying to be healthier is great.

We step into March tomorrow, always a challenging month for me, with too many sad anniversaries and birthdays we no longer celebrate. I’m determined to create a positive vibe out of it all though.

Good things are coming………

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

I posted a picture of this book on social media recently prompting a good friend to remark that he read it 50 (fifty!) years ago. And it was already nearly 50 years old by then. Written originally in Zamyatin’s native Russian in the 1920’s, it wouldn’t appear in print in his homeland until the 1980’s. There have been various translations over the lifetime of the book. My copy is the 1996 Clarence Brown translation, which seems to be universally acknowledged as faithful to the original.

Often, probably too often, We is referred to as the book which inspired George Orwell’s 1984. I don’t dispute the comparison, and the timing is certainly right, I’m looking forward to re-reading the Orwell classic to make my own mind up about this. As an aside, Aldus Huxley is rumoured to have been unlikely to have had a chance to read We before publishing Brave New World.

None of that mattered once I’d sat down with the book, it is a fine piece of stand alone literature. I’m a sucker for a good dystopia, but this is so much more than that. It’s more of an anti-utopia I reckon.

Set in One State, a world where nature and the ancient ways are excluded by a green wall. One State is ruled by The Benefactor, to whom all humans now both worship and service. It is narrated in the first person, by way of a series of written records to be carried to other worlds, by our protagonist, D-503 (people all have code numbers instead of names).

It is an intense read, it doesn’t have the grand gestures or jingoism of other dystopian fiction. The narrator gives us the story of rebellion and glimpses of past worlds (as well as the life still happening outside the wall) with a very personal, intimate and increasingly emotional delivery.

Like 1984’s Winston, D-503 is drawn into becoming involved with anti-One State thoughts by a woman. I-330, as she is known, is a corrupter, seducer but more, she is a leader, capable of influencing even the most loyal minds to follow her rebellion.

Often the prose is, to use modern slang, quite ‘naval gazing’ and, like I say, very personal to D-503. His mental health deteriorates and improves in waves as his loyalties are drawn from side to side. I sometimes found the abstract telling of his thoughts quite challenging and there was a bit of re-reading as I tried to uncover his motives.

I imagine generations of people have read We and used the story to hold a mirror to the fears of whichever time it was being read in. That the masses actually felt that One State was utopia, perhaps echoes the fears of what is sometimes imagined to be socialism, certainly communism. But, conversely, the tables could be turned and fears of a fascist state with a leader who can’t be removed are also here.

It would be churlish of me to expand further and spoil the plot. We is a powerful and deeply thought provoking book which does require the reader to get involved in order to enjoy its full impact. Don’t expect a racy, pacey, hard hitting dystopia, but do expect to be challenged and maybe need to look away occasionally as the text provokes your own reactions.

If I’m going to be ever able to say “I read We fifty years ago” I will need to live to an unlikely age…….

ambition

For some inexplicable reason, I get Frankie Goes To Hollywood giving my inner ear a tick when I hear the word ‘ambition’. “Whaaaat is it good for…..?” Well…….

A cursory glance at a dictionary (or indeed, Dr Google) finds definitions such as “A strong desire to do or achieve something” and “Desire and determination to achieve success.” 

And dotted around this piece you’ll see a selection of quotes from friends and allies. I used that there social media to ask “what does ambition mean to you, in one sentence?” 

So, where am I with the word?

As is so often the case with my navel gazing, soul searching inner dialogue, it seems to go back to… duh duh duuuuuh… my childhood. It’s almost nauseating how corny that sounds, but that genuinely is where my thoughts arrive from. 

Yup.

A traditional upbringing I was offered. Stable home, stable schooling, stable this, stable that. Which is ironic considering my first memory of ‘running away’ was when my sister bailed out of the family home. She was protesting the fact that putting an actual horse on your letter to Santa was overly, er, ambitious.

We were encouraged to lock in ‘stability’ as an ambition. Do well at school (but university isn’t for ‘people like us’) then get a good steady, stable job. Maybe get a few steady promotions over the next 50 years. Meet a suitable, stable partner for life, a good stable wife/husband. Have 3 or 4 suitable and stable cars and/or children.

Sadly (or not, actually), I was more interested in hearing what John Peel had to offer me when I was a teenager, sampling local cider and mastering rolling a fag whilst cycling were the limits of my ambition.

There was always going to be a clash of cultures……..

But honestly, as an adult, what have my ambitions been?

I never thought I’d find true love for a start, so that was never an ambition. But what do you know, ta daaaaaa, here I am!

Without realising it, I think my main ambition was to never have a proper career. TICK.

But I have *always* wanted to be a writer, a musician, an artist, a poet. I suppose I formed my ambitions based on anything which has a genuine impact on me. Words and music, words and music. 

As it turned out, we can add love to the list.

Does this make my ambition “words, music and love”?

Sort of, but that’s not really the story here. Take love out of the equation – even though I wake up every single day and pinch myself that I get to share another day with the most wonderful human being I’ve ever met. No, love was never an ‘ambition’, it was more like winning the lottery with a ticket I hadn’t realised I’d bought. 

Music and words. Are they ‘ambitions’ though? Not really. I achieved things I never thought I would; played in a band, played my own songs in a band, heard other people sing my songs, I’ve written for magazines (and even started one back in the day), I’ve written for various fanzines (football and music), I had a piece published by Metal Hammer magazine once. 

And in more recent times there’s been so much happening with my writing that I’m extremely proud of. But what makes me really proud. I can’t measure this success, there’s no end game. I can’t see there being any “right, now I’ve achieved that, there’s nothing else to work towards” moments. Because I don’t set any goals. So maybe I don’t have ambition at all. As one popular running podcast puts it, I simply enjoy the process.

Ah yes, running. But what about running? Surely I’ve got running ambitions?

Well yes, for a while back there I was setting myself goals (ambitions?) to run a certain distance in a certain time or finish in a particular position in a race or beat this or that person. And when I achieved any of this, was I satisfied? Of course not, there’s always a different time to beat, a new distance to run, a new person to chase. 

There is a scene in the film Chariots Of Fire where Harold Abrahams has won his gold medal and sits, almost forlorn, in the locker room. When the team quiz each other, they conclude that “he’s won” was the best explanation. His whole ambition had been to win that medal. Having achieved it, the journey was over, finished. What would he do the next day?

Ambition is different for everyone. People are more ambitious or less ambitious. They might be ambitious in some areas of life but not in others. We’re all different and that’s what makes life so interesting. 

I decided to have some checklists for myself this year, so I guess that qualifies as ambitions? Simply a set of ways I’d like to live my life, something to hold myself to account with. Have a gander.

In the mean time, here’s to fair winds as we chase our dreams……..

This Is Memorial Device by David Keenan

What can I say? I read it in a couple of days, despite work etc, so I must have loved it! 

Let’s set the scene – a novel about the post-punk music scene in Airdrie (think early 1980s). But it’s entirely fictional. But told as a sort of documentary. But a documentary collated and curated by two (fictional of course) non-journalistic types. It is wonderfully chaotic.

Through conversations, interviews, letters and memories, the short life span of the band, This Is Memorial Device, is pieced together. There is no ordered chronology which seems to be pitched perfectly for the book. The level of detail in here kept me having to remind myself that it is indeed fiction. This includes a discography as one appendix, with a list of all the bands and derivatives, in Airdrie, during the period the book covers in another.

Like I say, it really is chaotic – a cacophony of random noise and an entourage of bizarre narrators, each offering their mostly psychedelic  takes on the music, the relationships and the band itself. These voices are friends, family members, lovers, members of other bands and the curators themselves. If you find yourself irritated by a narrator, fear not, there’ll be another one along in a minute. And then another, and then another……

Having briefly been in a band and enjoyed the interplay between the characters, I found myself smiling at some of the ensuing carnage. But this carnage is at a whole new level. As is the prose, this book will never be criticised for ‘descriptive’!

Pretty much all of the voices are a step removed from the physicality of what they are describing. There is so much psychological wandering with dreamy and figurative metaphor. Apart from the sex! The ‘cocks’, ‘scrotums’ and ‘tits’ are described in admirable detail. 

Honestly, I’ve never read anything like it. I bought into the story completely and devoured it in a couple of days. But you need to want to read it, you can’t just fall into it. I’m just glad my life has none of the random unpredictability the book describes.

If you’re looking for something new and completely different to challenge your reading brain, and maybe are of a certain age to appreciate some of the reference points in the book, I’d recommend giving this a whirl.

Reasons To Stay Alive by Matt Haig

Matt Haig has cemented his place firmly in the nation’s hearts. Last year’s The Midnight Library was a huge best seller and a quite glorious read. I heard him recently on Radio 4’s Open Book talking passionately and eloquently about libraries which have featured in great literature. As I have discovered with Reasons To Stay Alive, Haig’s journey to revered author has been rocky to say the least.

I stepped back to 2015 and soaked up this clever, poignant and quite frankly, important book. Part memoir, part pocket guide, Reasons To Stay Alive is oozing honesty and charm. So much of what we read holds a mirror to our minds or guides us to a view through the open window. This does both.

. That’s a mirror I mostly avoid. As he points out repeatedly, it is good to remind yourself where you’ve been.

But I also found myself nodding and smiling, sharing with the author a passion for those great medicines for our minds – the outdoors, exercise, loving, reading and, of course, writing.

As Matt Haig himself explains, often authors explore their relationships with themselves, the world around them and their own mental through works of fiction. He cites his own novel, The Humans, as an example of this. But with Reasons To Stay Alive, the story is ruthlessly personal. That Haig can achieve this without any sense of ‘woe’ or self pity is testament to the quality of his writing.

The book is written in easily digested passages, switching between his own story, pointers to surviving our times and a series of checklists. The shifts in focus feel effortless as you move through the book. In fact, the brief snippets are clever antidotes to the tougher memoir passages. My favourite has to be the list entitled “Things that have happened to me that have generated more sympathy than depression”

Reasons To Stay Alive is readable and relatable without ever being bossy. Yet it is full of great advice and nudges us towards accepting our own minds and their workings.

It should be a lazy cliche to describe it as ‘important’, but as an open and gentle guide to living life alongside our mental health, I reckon it really is.

It is a quick read and a ‘pocket sized’ book, but one that’s worth keeping to hand as one of our tools for navigating our way through life.

DOMINICANA by Angie Cruz

The sticker on the front of Angie Cruz’s 3rd novel informs me that it was shortlisted for The Women’s Prize For Fiction in 2020. Have a look, it is in fine company. I’m proud to have matured enough as a reader to no longer naively believe these female author’s books are aimed solely at women readers. Sometimes publishers can mislead with the colour schemes or cover art but, for me, a book is a book.

So what did I find when I turned back the cover to start Dominicana. Nicky (my gorgeous lady) had already had a great time getting lost in this book, so she was looking forward to seeing how I enjoyed it.

From the outset the story feels personal. Cruz drew on the experiences of her own Mother and other families to inform and inspire the tale. A fifteen year old girl in the Dominican Republic is found she is left with no choice but to say yes to a marriage proposal and head to New York. Ana, the main character, is hardly taken with Juan (her now husband), nor indeed with the prospect of life in New York, but she is fulfilling her whole family’s dream of immigration.

From the off, Angie Cruz shows Ana’s voice as tender and innocent to the greater world. The writing is crisp, direct and has a marvellous dark humour bubbling underneath it. Ana sees her sister fall in love and has her heart (and body) set on a tender local boy who seems set on loving her. These moments are dealt with brevity but also left me with a deep understanding of Ana’s heart as she prepares to leave.

The story of Ana’s life in New York, her marriage and her encounters as she finds her way is riveting. For a reader like me who enjoys a modern New York story it is a revealing insight into how the racial make up of the city evolved. it is set to the back drop of a civil war back home in the Dominican Republic and the aftermath of the killing of Malcom X which happened in the very street where Ana ends up living.

The story is intimate and at times torturous, a marriage of agreement played out in a city coming to terms with its changing demographic. The pains and betrayals are so cleverly portrayed through Ana’s eyes. I kept having to remind myself that those eyes were a mere 15 years old.

Beyond the small victories and defeats of Ana’s day to day existence in the 6th floor apartment lie the greater issues of family, of loyalty and of the lengths people will go to at the expense of others’ feelings. The story is set some 56 years ago but feels vibrant, fresh and important.

That Cruz has delved so deep into her own family’s history comes through in the narration, and the dialogue. Every word, every thought and emotion, are all so delicately paced in the text. I don’t doubt, as absorbed as I was in the book, I wore a slightly furrowed brow as Ana’s world became occasionally unbearable.

A fine book made even better for me (as an aspiring novelist) by the thorough list of acknowledgements and the history offered in the back. These give a great insight into the amount of work which goes into producing such a belting piece of fiction.

Honestly, have a read.

If you’ve enjoyed my review of Dominicana, why not spread the word?

See all my other book reviews and lists of what I read in 2020 and so far in 2021.

Being Accountable #1 Jan 2021

I started the year making a series of pledges to myself. Not a New Year resolution, more of a map of where I’d like to be heading. I made my manifesto public, and now I’m holding myself to account.

January has been and gone, let’s see what targets I’ve kept to.

Writing – Submissions

I’m going to submit a minimum of one piece of writing to a literary journal every single week during 2021.

Technically I’ve fallen short, but I have submitted a total of 5 pieces during January, so my average is still good. Amazingly, I’ve had one poem accepted already by Unpublishable Zine and they are going to feature a reading of it on an upcoming podcast. I’ve got another poem and a piece of creative non-fiction which I’m building up the courage to submit, so February is already looking strong.

What about my novel?

My target is 2500 words a week of the first draft. This should comfortably complete the draft by the end of 2021

I’m behind with this, I can’t lie. Although I have put plenty of work into the plot and the characters. My previously written chapters have been scrapped as I’ve decided to change the narrator. I’ve written about 7000 words of the re workings of those chapters and have the basis of the plot and timeline coming together nicely.

My running buddy, my inspiration, my first reader and my complete world.
(The lady in yellow is pretty special too!)

I’ve also had a meeting with my first reader, editorial advisor, plot hole filler who just happens to be my rather gorgeous wife. I say meeting, she patiently listened to me reeling off my ideas for the direction of the book on one of our long dog walks. This was such a valuable exercise and the change of narrator came from this brain storming session.

So no, I haven’t written 2,500 words a week, but I have moved the project on dramatically. I’m actually using some of the free resources from the excellent Writers HQ to help me with the plot and characters. I’ve also got a great book, The Creative Writing Course Book, which I picked up the last time we went in an actual bookshop, nearly a year ago.

And As For The Blog

I made quite a pledge for this:

I’m going to email at least one ‘trail running character’ every 14 days to see if they fancy being featured. I’m going to add new content to the blog. Every Single Week. I’m going to review at least one book a month.

So, my series about Trail Running Characters was always going to be a long term project. I have 3 people who I’ve emailed who are up for being involved and will reply as and when time allows. I’ve also had somebody decline the invitation!

I’ve written two Book Reviews and published them during January in a total of 5 new posts. These included a personal piece about how much Nicky and I love a book or ten.

The Journal (and other scribblings)

I shall write in my journal. Every. Single. Day. Just thoughts. Observations. Even a note to say nothing of noteNever dismiss a thought – it will end up being used somewhere.

Yup. All over this. I keep a complete record of my writing, reading, submitting progress every day. As I do with my running and anything else I feel is noteworthy. This is already paying off – a major ‘scene’ in the book came from taking the time to write some detail down before I forgot it. I have quite a few ideas while driving the van, I do wonder what customers think I’m scribbling when I’m sat outside their houses. Without the journal, I’m absolutely sure these thoughts would have been lost to an unreliable memory.

In Other News

I’ve upped the game with my Instagram presence. Why? Well, through the medium of Twitter, I become friends with a guy who has just published his debut novel. He invited me to be part of the ‘blog tour’ which will accompany the launch of the paper back version of Let In The Light. So I have been the lucky reciprocate of an advance copy of the book. I’m so pleased because I couldn’t put it down, it really is excellent. As I sit here typing, Nicky is opposite me already half way through the book herself. I can’t wait to write a full review.

I would really like to get involved with more book reviewing, and not just in the ad-hoc manner I currently am.

What About My Reading?

Funny you should ask. Remember, I pledged this:

I’m going to buy one book a month from an independent publisher, by an author I haven’t read before. And I’m going to read a minimum of 6 books during 2021 which were published at least ten years ago.

Not only that, I said I would read at least one poem a day. I’m keeping a record of the poems I read in my journal, I’ve got a couple of great anthologies I select from. I’ve also bought some sublime literary journals and am reading poems (as well as short fiction and creative non-fiction) from those too. Check out Hinterland and Under The Radar yourself.

The are also some great online journals which are mostly free to read. I’ve been enjoying Orange Blush and Book Of Matches amongst others.

I’d be a proud man if my work could feature alongside some of the the great writing on offer in any of the above oublications.

I’ve got a book from Galley Beggar Press on the way and I read W.S. Maugham’s A Painted Veil which is getting on for 100 years old! So I’m doing ok with my reading.

And Not Forgetting My Running Of Course

I do like a bit of mud to run on!

I pledged not to follow a training program but to keep myself as fit as possible whilst not becoming depleted and leaving myself weak if Covid were to strike. I’m tackling two challenges from Bys Vyken (read my piece on the Cornish event organisers here.) namely Lamps On Lockdown (run 50 miles in the hours of darkness over a 4 week period) and The Goat 2 (run elevation gain equivalent to that of the SW Coast Path in Devon and Cornwall in 4 months). I’m nearing the end of my headtorch running and about a third of my way through the hills! These have both kept me focussed and running regularly.

Consistent running to start the year.

Other Fitness And Health Pledges

BUT, I will pledge this: I will, every single day, do either some conditioning work, strength exercises, stretches or other body maintenance.

This is also happening! Nicky and I have a strength routine which we put together ourselves. It can be done indoors and takes 25 minutes or so. We’re both doing this 3 or 4 times a week. On the other days I just do my plank – I got up to 1 min 30 secs quite quickly but haven’t shown any signs that I could better that.

And Lastly, The Dreaded Food Pledge

So, I am going to not snack at work. I’m going to only snack during evenings after big (as in 2 hours plus) training days. Puddings will still be the law after roast dinners of course. 

At the time of writing, a rather delicious GU Zillionaire Cheesecake is settling on top of my roast dinner! So I’m keeping that up…..

Still the law!

Joking aside, this is going rather well. Combined with my consistent running and general fitness (not to mention being relentlessly busy at work). There’s the occasional lapse in the evening, but I’m really pleased to be a bit lighter than the blob I became over Christmas. I even had to get the drill out to put a new hole in my belt!

All in all, despite *everything* I reckon I’ve stayed pretty focussed on the positives in January. We’ve stayed safe and tried to enjoy every spare moment with each other and our music, fitness, writing and books.

Let’s see what February can offers us……

The Real Thing #2

(Even Better Than The Real Thing?)

Look around and you’ll spot something which has become a virtual version of its former self.

Fitness classes performed at home. A screen full of fellow Zumba or Yoga enthusiasts has become common place. In fact, Nicky signing up for a Pilates class has meant that, 10 months after everybody else, we started to do battle with Zoom! Has it been a success? The jury is out! On week two we managed to work out how to enable the instructor to see Nicky as she contorted herself into the unlikely poses. Week three seems to have slipped by without it being mentioned!

Charlie, ever helpful with the piano!

Schooling, of course, is now delivered in multiple ways, and, in my humble opinion, teachers and school staff need bloomin’ medals for the work they’ve done these last ten months or so. Us grown ups too can be schooled via WhatsApp or tested online – Nicky has had dozens of video call piano lessons on her ‘phone and even passed her virtual performance Grade I. That was featured in one of my blogs trying to find the positives from 2020. The rate she’s already progressing, she may well be troubling the scorers for Grade II before you know it.

Job interviews, whole work places even, house viewings, trips to the zoo, literary festivals, so many of us have found, and enjoyed, innovative ways of still experiencing as much of life as possible via the internet.

We’ve already looked at the virtual world of books and book shops, so let’s have a dig into my other hobby and passion, running.

Some things you simply can’t do from home!

You’d think running was something which really can’t be replicated at home, well that isn’t necessarily so…..

Aside from people running marathons in their gardens, climbing Everest on the stairs or completing half marathons on their balconies, there is an (admittedly expensive) way of replicating running challenges without leaving the building. You’ll need a swanky treadmill and a computer and then you can run in the virtual world of Zwift.

We do have the cycling version here ourselves, as Nicky tries to keep her mileage up. Obviously it’s a bit easier with cycling as you can put your actual bike in a turbo trainer, far less cumbersome, and certainly more portable than a treadmill.

And then there are virtual events. Using apps, links to training programs and websites, smart watches or just good old honesty, we have been able to take part in events with others whilst running alone. As I put together my series of features on running events companies, I’ve been learning just what lengths some have gone to in creating virtual challenges.

Running clubs too are hosting virtual relays and time trial challenges. It not only gives members something to focus their training on, but also keeps people communicating in these anxious and sometimes lonely times.

I get to run my ‘virtual’ miles here!

I listen to a podcast, Running Commentary, presented by two stand up comedians, Rob Deering and Paul Tonkinson. Deering went all in and did the Great North Run virtual event and also the London Marathon. These events had the added technical challenge of everybody running at the same time! His reports on the two events were great episodes. Particularly the marathon, a huge achievement at any time, never mind without the usual London crowds or fellow competitors.

Me?

I’ve found myself clicking the enter now button for distance and elevation challenges. Mostly, it has to be said, from the quirky and quite excellent Bys Vyken. The Cornish event organiser has created a series of challenges during the pandemic, each with a back story related to the region. I’m currently about a third of the way through their GOAT 2 challenge (and three quarters of the way through Lamps On Lockdown too). The combination of these two virtual events means I’m often out running the local hills during the hours of darkness.

Do I miss doing events in the flesh. Oh my yes. Our road trips with our ‘team mate’ Martin are such adventures. The middle aged banter in the car, some coffee and more giggles waiting for the start are so much part of the experience. Bumping into regular faces at the types of trail events we tend to prefer give them a real community feel. Yes, yes, yes, we miss those days.

I’ve avoided any ‘see how fast you can go’ type of virtual event, but I can see the attraction for those who still enjoy training to better their previous times or win the bragging rights over a running nemesis. I’d rather ignore the watch and just keep enjoying my running on the trails we’re lucky enough to have on our doorstep.

The Real Thing #1

(even better than the real thing?)

“I’m downloading it now!”

The response of a good friend on Facebook after I shared my review of the beautiful Donal Ryan novel, Strange Flowers. I imagine the last year has seen many people choosing to add Kindle or other e-book downloads to their To-Be-Read collections. Like so many high street businesses, book shops have struggled with months of closed doors over the last year. With readers unable to get to choose books in the flesh, it is hardly surprising that book downloads are so popular.

That’s not the whole story though, Nielson Bookscan, who provide data to the book industry are reporting rises of over 5% in both volume and value of book sales in 2020. Heart warming to think so many are turning to the written word for comfort – however they decide to enjoy it.

Having regularly sacrificed clothes, and much in the way of holiday paraphernalia, in order to take a healthy pile of books on our adventures – without smashing the weight limit in our suitcase – we can certainly see the attraction of a hand held device with a thousand books inside!

Ultimately, it’s just not for us though. Nicky (my beautiful and beautifully bookish lady wife) has dabbled with a Kindle as a sort of ‘reserve’ if she ran out of books. Actually, I owned one too for a while, but I can honestly say I never read a book on it. No, we are suckers for the feel of a book (embossed covers are almost erotic are they not?) Oh, and the smell of a new ink on paper….

Holiday Packing!

On our last pre-pandemic adventure, we took a Megabus to that there London town and visited Foyles on Charring Cross Road. Oh we revelled in the cathedral like sensation of walking through those doors and just drinking in the potential of a billion words or more. It was a pilgrimage of sorts for Nicky. As a young woman, finding her feet in the city, she spent many an hour running her hand along shelf after shelf of magic in the historic book shop.

We enjoyed our time in that amazing paradise of literature so much, we did the same on day two!

Yup. We do like a book shop. And we do like a book. We are both trying hard to replicate it online, but that sensation of choosing a book after randomly pulling it from the shelves is hard to match – being drawn in by the blurb, the cover and the first page of a book by an author unknown to me is one of reading’s great adventures.

I wonder when we might next find ourselves walking through the doors of a bookshop?

Various ‘lockdown’s and restrictions as well as shielding advice and caution has led us to add to our supplies via the internet over the last ten months or so. We try and support actual book shops rather than that well known internet giant with its gazillionaire owner. We’ve ordered from the two most well known stores (Foyles and Waterstones) as well as independent retailers and, in some cases, directly from small publishers.

In fact, I pledged in my 2021 Manifesto to keep supporting the smaller stores and publishers wherever possible. The thrill of opening a parcel of books, the pent up fresh paper aroma as the books are pulled from their wrapping, it’s all part of the joy of reading for us.

There are so many ways to get your reading material. Kindle and other e-readers are a brilliant resource and if that’s your bag, read on my friends. If the purse strings are tight, once we venture out again, there are also some great second hand books stores around. Some even remodelled themselves to keep people supplied during 2020 and even more are adding online and telephone ordering to their menu. I enjoyed a great bundle of second hand nonfiction from The Old Curiosity Bookshop back in the summer and I know they have expanded their online offerings in this lockdown.

Once they are open again, libraries are still a wonderful and free resource in the community. We have really enjoyed getting our grandchildren to immerse themselves in books and discovery. The librarians are very patient and so encouraging with the little ones. Have a search locally, some libraries are doing click’n’collect services during the current lockdown.

An internet friend I’ve made through social media reading and writing groups, Gerard Nugent, has his debut novel published this very week. Sadly for me, who no longer even owns an e-reader, it is currently only available in that form. I will give it plug here and patiently wait for it to materialise in paper and ink.

In the meantime, checkout my reading list so far in 2021 as well as last year’s and the occasional book review too.

Happy reading , thank you for taking the time to humour me and my words……. and who knew that #nationalreadingday was even a thing? It seems like a good day to post this!

Strange Flowers by Donal Ryan.

On a day off work, with our exercise, work and dog walking done, we enquire of each other “are we in?“.

Yes we are!

Gentle music on, dog snuggled on the sofa, books out. Interrupted only by the need to eat.

Our two-people-and-a-dog-book-club goes from strength to strength.

We very often end up enjoying the same books. If we time it right, we simply swap as we both close the cover on our latest reads.

Nicky has recently enjoyed Strange Flowers and was fairly certain I would too. “Quite different and exploring so much.” she described it to me. So, as Nicky got stuck into Deborah Orr’s childhood memoir, Motherwell, I set about Donal Ryan’s latest offering, Strange Flowers.

I recently heard the author, Donal Ryan interviewed on Radio 4’s Books And Authors and found him to be engaging, humble and quietly hilarious.

I wasn’t to be disapointed, it is an exquisite read.

If I wrote human beings even a hundredth as beautifully as Donal Ryan, I’d be a proud scribe. Ryan’s characters aren’t just fully formed, they’re multi-dimensional, you can feel them around you. He places them. I experienced the story from all angles, like being sat amongst the most subtle of surround sound systems, every voice pulls your attention in another direction.

Set in rural Ireland, the story starts in 1973 when Moll, the only child of Paddy and Kit, ups and disappears aged 20. The parents lead a simple life which is devastated with the gradual realisation that Moll may be gone forever, her fate unknown.

The pain suffered in the years after Moll’s disappearance, and the toil of Paddy and Kit’s life is deftly articulated. As they toil on through life, never recovering, one day Moll simply walks back through the door.

Where she has been, why she left, and what and who she brings back into the simple, rural life is a master class in plot and story telling. There’s no dramatic revelation, no big, attention grabbing scenes. The lives of those close to the family, the people Moll has been with while away, and those of the rest of the villagers are gently knitted together as beauty, tragedy and realisations ease into the story.

Donal Ryan, who has twice previously been long listed for The Booker Prize, tells of love in layers. He shows love for some can be delicate, fragile, brittle almost. But he also shows love at strongest, combined with loyalties which can suffocate. The way faith is threaded through the relationships and how religion can both dominate and soothe is also carefully and honestly portrayed.

It is a tale of people. In this small family, and those close to it, Ryan has held a mirror up to us readers and let us deal with our own instincts. The complexities of race, of religion, of status, class and ownership, of sexuality, of coming of age and of bravery and fear are all exposed. His telling of the characters gets the reader under the skin of their exchanges. The man knows people, he knows emotion. The novel oozes emotion on every page.

I found I needed to absorb every single word. to me there isn’t a wasted sentence in the book. It’s early in the year but if there’s going to be better reads than this in 2021, I’m going to be feasting on words. When the book ended, which it does with a gorgeous light touch, I found myself nodding and watery eyed but contented and almost wishing to go straight back to page one and devour it again.

I heartily recommend.

Check out what else I’ve been reading in 2021 and the books I enjoyed in 2020 too. If a book has grabbed me and time allows, I tend to write a few words about it.