Monday, 21 March 2011

Conference in honour of Peter Northeast 1930-2009

On the 19th March, Suffolk Local History Council held the first in a series of biennial conferences in honour of the late Peter Northeast, an amateur local historian who evidently had a massive influence on the accumulation and cataloguing of Suffolk historical data. His most solid achievement would appear to have been the transcribing and translating of 15,000 (!!) medieval wills. But, from what I gathered from hearing the tributes of his colleagues last Saturday in Blackbourne Hall, Elmswell, his more enduring gift to the study of local history is the encouragement he gave to students at all levels, from Primary school to Ph.D. He led by his example as an ultra-conscientious researcher whose aim was to unselfishly share everything he found. A fund has been established in his name to create and house an archive of documents gathered throughout his long life.

I wish I had known the man and not just his publications, useful as they have been to me personally. The glamorous sharks of the history world may partly be where they are today because of their voracious appetites for fame. But their world views have been informed by thousands of “Bob Norwiches” relentlessly plugging away, noting and editing obscure local records that form the basis of any broader analysis of our past. For all the Starkeys and Schamas, I know who speak to me best of our collective histories – the more democratic Keith Wrightson, Eamon Duffy and Michael Woods, whose studies of Terling, Morebath and Kibworth must be founded on their debt to local historians such as Peter Northeast of Rattlesden, Suffolk.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Article submitted to "Spotlight on Stowmarket"

The value of books

With Suffolk’s public libraries under threats of cutbacks or even closure, the public have been forced to consider the value of books in everyday life. Access to the traditional printed word in general is under threat from electronic books and newspapers on such gadgets as iPads and Kindles. These new toys may have their uses, lightening your load as you jet off on holiday or as you squeeze into a crowded commuter train. But, as one author said, during BBC TV’s recent ‘books’ season, you can’t really take them in the bath. And you can’t swat a fly with an electronic newspaper! But that is another argument, really. The important thing is that even techno-books require someone to have written them in the first place.

Haughley Reading Group recently joined World Book Night’s campaign to stimulate a passion for reading by giving away 48 free copies of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas at the King’s Arms in the village on March 5th. You may wonder how giving away books is going to encourage people to read more, or value what they read. Well, the point of World Book Night was not just to hand out free novels, but to ask that, once read, the book be passed on to someone else – it’s called BookCrossing [ ] and basically involves giving a book a ‘tag’ number that can be registered and tracked around the globe.

At the Trafalgar Square launch of World Book Night on March 4th Margaret Attwood declared that a book is inert until someone reads it, and then it begins to speak. So whether you buy your books at a charity shop, a supermarket or a bookshop, whether you borrow from a friend or a library, make the effort to read widely and you’ll find that you are educating yourself. And you will be connecting to the rest of the human race.

Join or start a Reading Group: we did in Haughley. Our books come from Stowmarket Library so reading costs us nothing but our time. Reading and then talking about it with friends is like pollination of the little grey cells. Buzz from book to book and ensure the fertility of human understanding – that’s the real value of books.

---just in case the magazine never publishes this!

Friday, 11 March 2011

World Book Night: mission accomplished!

                                                        (c) East Anglian Daily Times

Given the blanket coverage on BBC2 during the evening of March 5th, no-one can say they haven't heard of World Book Night now, even if they're not exactly sure what it means. For our Reading Group it meant a kind of 'coming out' – a celebration of our own existence as well as a celebration of reading for a wider audience.

There was a variety of different ways to give: one woman in Diss was going to literally take to the streets and hand out books – risky, I thought! I learned from the WBN website that others were having themed events relating to the title they had chosen: for example 'Tea & Toast' for Nigel Slater's book. We simply gathered at the pub where we have met for the past 3 years. This in itself was poignant as it was to be the last Saturday that the landlords, Jackie and Mick, would be there. New tenants take over on Wednesday while Jackie and her husband set off for a 'new' life running a bar in Lanzarote. Anyhow, our choice of venue meant a busy afternoon's trade at the King's Arms as guests and Saturday lunchtime regulars mingled, drank and talked. An iPad was produced and some discussion followed about the merits of electronic books (see my earlier post about Literary Luddites).

I was not unpleasantly nervous as the hour approached to finally convert words into actions. On reflection I had spent countless hours in front of my laptop, starting with my initial application last December to give away 48 copies of Cloud Atlas. World Book Night's website has been a fascinating and flawed creation, but they have staggered towards perfection and almost achieved it. Since March 4th it has metamorphosed into a multi-faceted social networking site for the nation's readers and, fingers crossed, will soon be tracking the progress of individual volumes as they are read and then passed on. Who knows where that will end? We at Reading Group know at least that one book will be shortly on its way to a bar in the Canary Isles!

As the 'official' giver I had planned quite precisely how I wanted the event to proceed. I arrived at the pub at 1 pm, my husband carrying the books which were quite heavy as you can imagine – we had picked one of the lengthier titles on offer from WBN. Reading Group members began to gather, and very shortly we had decorated the bar with posters and stacked all the Cloud Atlases on the very table where we hold our monthly meetings. I had spent the previous day laboriously inserting tracking data inside 48 back covers as requested by WBN to facilitate BookCrossing. Now Geoffrey and Brigit sat down and affixed his specially created Reading Group bookplates in the front of each book! We know that WBN is going to follow the 'journey' of each free book, but we as a group are also anxious to know where David Mitchell's novel travels and how it is received.

No sooner had we begun to arrange books in piles than the Bury Free Press photographer, a friendly young woman called Mischa, arrived and asked us to back-track for the sake of her pictures. Soon she had recorded some 'mock' giveaways and group photos, then she was on her way to a similar event at Waterstone's bookshop in Bury St Edmunds. Once order had been restored and each Reading Group giver allocated their copies there was little to do but drink and chat until the appointed hour of 2 pm. Lo and behold, just as I was about to open proceedings with some well-chosen words, yet another press photographer turned up, this time Phil from the East Anglian Daily Times. This gave us hope of some genuine action shots. Sadly the resulting press coverage was a little disappointing, the Bury Free Press containing nothing this Friday, and the EADT squeezing us into a small place at the foot of a massive article about threatened library closures. Oh well...

But on the day we cared little. I welcomed everyone, explained a bit about World Book Night, going on to briefly summarise Cloud Atlas and say why we had chosen it to share. Sally gave us a quick 'sketch' of her experiences at the Trafalgar Square launch the previous evening, although she had already been regaling all who would listen with tales of poor old Alan Bennett's cold fingers, of naughty Graham Norton, and the variety of authors on stage reading from their own work, as well as showing off her exclusive Antony Gormley T-shirt! The first book was presented to our host, Jackie, with our appreciation for putting up with noisy group meetings – we do hope the new tenants are open to a little literary culture in their future plans for the King's Arms. The next recipient, a Stowupland High School 6th former, also received 10 copies for some of their English Literature students. After that it was the turn of group members to distribute volumes to their chosen recipients. Suddenly it was all over, and more quickly than I had anticipated. Naturally people lingered and had a laugh or two, and then I dragged myself home at about 4 pm.

So, what happens now? Well, Cloud Atlas is not an overnight read, so we don't expect to hear any responses for just a while. World Book Night intends to repeat the exercise next year and, although we are registered as inaugural givers, I don't expect we will win the chance to give away books a second time. It was suggested that the Reading Group raises its own funds, in the way that rural enterprises can do, to acquire books to give away at an event to coincide with whatever WBN dreams up for 2012. Having seen, via TV and internet, how other giveaways were organised it would be lovely if we could come up with something original and attention-catching that might merit better publicity than it seems we got this time around! One thing is sure, Reading Group will continue to meet and argue and drink and explore a variety of books, deepening our understanding of world literature and each other.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Past talents

This one is for my children, who probably never knew that their mother could draw once!
If they think hard they may even recognise the sitter...

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

I have a book token to spend...

Should I go to Bury and spend it in Waterstone's, getting a cup of coffee while I'm there? Or shall I go to my local bookshop and order my new book, then wait? And go to the coffee shop down the street... The book I want, the latest Oxford Companion to Eng. Lit., I can get cheaper online. Going to my 'shop around the corner' means I have to order it and wait, so probably no different from Amazon for instance. I just don't know - the ladies at the bookshop are so worthy, but do little to draw in new customers. Their shelves are sparsely populated, but then they have little capital outlay. I have just collected my 48 FREE copies of Cloud Atlas for World Book Night from them, which made me feel kind of guilty. Yet they would never have sold 48 copies of that book I'm betting. It was the guilt that finally drove me to order the book through them, but will their business still be there the next time I make this agonising decision?

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

I hate pantomimes!

Oh, no, you don't!
Oh yes, I do!!
Even as a child I struggled to see the humourous side of this traditional entertainment. I know it's only a manifestation of the human urge to prick bubbles, to indulge in the carnivalesque. I'm not entirely sure why a panto doesn't make me laugh since I have a well-developed sense of the absurd. Not laughing at Dames and Principal Boys must come from an ingraained dislike of letting go, of wanting to control events. I find the humour too crude, too clunky, the costumes too garish - oh yes, I expect the fault lies within me! I'm more a fan of sophisticated witticisms.

And yet I have recently sat through our annual village panto. No, I didn't laugh all that much, and only joined in the time-honoured responses in a very quiet voice. I suspect the cast and their families had a fabulous time - and very good luck to them, doing something together that they all clearly love. My reason for going was to do with village solidarity. So the Am Dram Society's version of Snow White and the 7 (quite large) Dwarves achieved its purpose, and raised some badly needed funds into the bargain.

In centuries past I expect I would have been one of those know-it-all problem women who would have been plonked backwards on a donkey and driven through the streets to the sound of jeering, or strapped into a cucking-stool and dunked unceremoniously in a nearby stream. As it is, all I had to suffer was joining in a little with some booing and hissing, and a ribald version of English Country Garden...

Roll on next year!