A(nother) Rambling: A New String to My Bow

Taking a break from reviewing a book this week – to talk about my favourite topic outside of books.
(Me)
I did something new yesterday, something a little bit nerve-wracking, but ultimately fun. It’s also what stopped me from reading, at least stopped me from reading anything new – hence no review.
(I do like the word hence. Makes me feel posh)
At WHSmith, we’ve been working on erasing stigma around mental health. The company has done shitloads (that’s the technical word) to raise awareness within the company, as well as this year doing huge amounts of fundraising for – along with Cancer Research – Mind.
As part of our activities, last year Bryony Gordon came to Swindon for a Q&A session – hosted by publicity goddess George Moore.
It went down so well, we arranged another one for Matt Haig – to coincide with the launch of his new book (How To Stop Time – read it!) and to get a male perspective on the challenges faced by those who suffer from poor mental health.
I know what you’re thinking – How come he’s not talking about himself yet?! Give the people what they want!
Ok, ok!
Well, guess what mug offered to step in and host the thing – with absolutely no prior experience of having done something like that?
You guessed it. This guy.
I spent the last week reminding myself of the events of How To Stop Time, I re-read Reasons to Stay Alive, and I monitored Matt’s tweets closely to see if they would raise any questions I wanted to ask.
Then. I got up on the stage, sat opposite Matt – and introduced us both to what felt like an enormous crowd, but was in reality closer to 30.
How to stop time indeed.
Matt had the hard job – he had to talk for twenty seven out of the thirty minutes – I just had to sit there and listen to him, and make sure I didn’t ask a question he’d just answered.
But boy was it hard – I didn’t know where to look. Did I look at the audience like a loon? Matt was (NOT like a loon, I hasten to add), but then he was talking to them. I would just be grinning inanely at them.
Should I instead just ignore them? But that felt rude, and besides if I didn’t look, how did I know if they were still awake – or even there?
At least I know why Graham Norton drinks now.
In the end, it went ok. Neither myself or Matt said anything stupid, I had some positive feedback from people afterwards (not that I believed them of course), and we all learnt a little bit more about mental health (and turtles) as well as hearing about a great book!
What’s the point of me telling you all this? I have a new skill! I can interview people – so let me tell you now, Graham had better watch out.
He’s ahead in the interviewer-skills race (for now) – but I can match him drink for drink.

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Moving by Jenny Eclair

A few months ago I was listening to Graham Norton’s Saturday morning radio show and his guest was Jenny Eclair who was talking about her new novel: Moving.

 

The interview was a bit of hard work for a casual listener doing his housework as Jenny didn’t let her natural, bubbly personality be restrained by the medium of radio. She was loud, quick, jumping from topic to topic – and generally very funny.

When talking about the book – about an older woman going from room to room in her house as she prepares to sell it, and reminiscing about the history of each room – she talked about how she had become fascinated by buildings and the history they contained.

The novel, if I’m honest, sounded to me like there wouldn’t be much plot, and I assumed that it would be more of a series of comedic essays and tales, anecdotes and stories weaved into one through the shared history of one house. So I didn’t rush out to get a copy.

When one passed by my desk, however, my curiosity was piqued enough to slip it in my bag and take it home for a read.

Celebrity novelists as far as I’m concerned face one danger when writing their books. Namely placing themselves as the main character in their story, or by writing in the stand-up voice which is the reason I struggled with Dawn French’s books. It’s difficult to engage with a fictional character that is obviously based on a real person.

The only way it would be possible is if it’s so true to life you could believe that the events being described had actually happened to that person. So, when Dawn French’s voice came out of a sixteen year old girl on page one of her novel, I couldn’t invest in what was happening and I soon gave up.

Eclair deftly manages to avoid this trap, by simply writing about a character that is so obviously not based on herself. Of course, when Edwina pulls herself out of the bath on page one and looks at the tiny silver-haired woman in the mirror, the reader is thinking of Jenny Eclair, the name they’ve just seen displayed larger than the title on the front cover.

But the writing is of such a quality and the characterisation is so spot on that the fact that Jenny Eclair wrote this book is quickly forgotten.

Thoughts instead, turn to how long the premise can last. Edwina, despite her advancing age, rattles through the rooms of the relatively large house, that the reader is left wondering just how many rooms there will turn out to be – or indeed if the slightly senile Edwina will simply just do two or three tours of the building.

The book, though, is actually split into three sections, Edwina’s forgetful meandering, Fern’s 1980’s education and Lucas’ present day return to the city, Moving is in itself is like construction of a house.

Edwina’s tour of her crumbling town house is simply the foundation for the bricks and mortar of Fern’s experiences in Manchester and Lucas’s tales of the past are simply the furnishings of the house that is Charlie.

Charlie is the character around whom the story revolves, despite the fact that he is absent for much of it. Our three main characters define him with their tales of his life.

Mother.

Lover.

Brother.

It is only through all of them that we get a complete understanding of who Charlie was, what his story was.

The end of the book returns to Edwina to provide a coda to the story, to put a lock on the front door and leave Charlie’s story told, and then in the final few pages we learn that while it may seem over, it was simply the foundation for another story.

I enjoyed Moving much more than I thought I would, because it was well written, revealed enough to keep you satisfied, but not too much that you didn’t keep going and it made me think.

In short, Moving was moving.

(Oh, come on, you didn’t think I could resist that, did you?)