Hazel McHaffie

Shakespeare

Festival time

Chair in Chatlotte SquareSo far we’ve had a humorous take on Shakespeare (a World War II version of the classic play, All’s Well that Ends Well); an intriguing and delightful performance around the Tudor queens (by an American troupe!); a clever skit where Sherlock Holmes and his associate Watson, vie with each other to solve a crime in which Holmes himself is the supposed killer; an exploration of the issues of entrapment and abuse through a dark re-imagining of the infamous Grimm’s fairytale Rapunzel. Our teenage granddaughters, with their own cascades of beautiful hair, proving themselves observant, insightful critics and excellent company. Still to come: a wartime tear-jerker, a drama (paying homage to CS Lewis) exploring life and death decisions, a contemporary musical storytelling about the life of John the apostle viewed from his prison, a costumed Austentatious, and an adaptation of Pilgrim’s Progress. Good times.

But for me personally the highlight of my week was a special session at the Book Festival under the banner: Staying Well,  which incidentally also explored the concept of entrapment. Male suicide has increased significantly over the last twenty years and statistics for self harm in the UK are the highest in Europe. My current novel revolves around mental health issues, so this one: Stepping Away from the Edge, was a definite must.

Two of the three speakers have themselves suffered from severe depression. Debi Gliori is a writer-illustrator of children’s books and she has created a wonderful collection of pictures which portray how she feels while depressed – feelings which can’t be captured in words, she says. Her talk was illustrated with these magical drawings. Author Matt Haig has captured the horrors of severe mental illness in words. His book, Reasons to Stay Alive, is receiving widespread acclaim. In the Garden Theatre Tent, he also relied on words and his own palpable emotion to speak about his suicidal experiences. The third speaker was psychologist Rory O’Connor who heads a team at Glasgow University specialising in suicide, and his talk gave the stark statistics and facts and latest thinking about both self harm and suicide.

It was fantastic to see the importance given to mental illness at this international book event – an excellent line-up of speakers from both sides of the couch; an extra long slot (90 minutes instead of the usual 60); a large audience listening sympathetically and contributing sensitively; a team of specialists available afterwards in the Imagination Lab for anyone with specific issues or questions (a steady stream of people headed in that direction in spite of the late hour).

Festival city at night

As I stood admiring the magnificence of Edinburgh at night I couldn’t help but be glad that it was this city that had been the setting for another step towards equality between physical and mental illness.

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Boosting brain power

What are you reading at the moment? Nothing trashy I hope! As if!

Pride and PrejudiceMaybe it’s a spot of Jane Austen, as this week we’re celebrating 200 years since she published Pride and Prejudice, surely one of the best loved classics of all time. And certainly a great favourite with me.

But hey, did you know that perusing classical writing such as Shakespeare, TS Eliot and Wordsworth (the unabridged genuine article, I mean, none of your noddy versions) can give your grey cells a rocket-boost? Research has shown it’s so. And remember … in these dark days of economic austerity, somebody somewhere forked out good money – lots of it – to fund this study. (No sniffing on the back row.) Anyway, academics at Liverpool University with yards of degrees used up-to-the-minute technology with MRI brain scanners to study this phenomenon, so who am I to argue? The beneficial effect apparently comes when the reader happens upon unusual words, surprising phrases or difficult sentence structures. Bits of the brain light up, and the brain shifts into a higher gear which primes the mind to attend more closely and encourages further reading and self-reflection.

Try reading one of the test passages from King Lear yourself:King Lear

‘A father and a gracious aged man: him have you madded.’  Did you light up?

Now substitute a modern word: ‘A father and a gracious aged man: him have you enraged’. Feel the difference?

Apparently the former is better for you. Roll on enlightenment, huh?

D’you reckon that’s why 7,000 copies of the erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey were left behind in Travelodges last year? Not enough brain-buzz?

Has anyone seen my copy of Notes upon some of the obscure Passages in Shakespeare’s Plays; with Remarks upon the Explanations and Amendments of the Commentators in the Editions of 1785, 1790, 1793? If you were the guilty party wot borrowed it, please return it forthwith.

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Kindle conversion

I feel like a kid at Christmas-time!

OK, I know. I admit it. I’ve been living in the dark ages as far as electronic books are concerned.  Positively antediluvian, in fact.

Shocking to think that it’s 30 years since Michael Hart dreamed up Project Gutenberg, at the time a seemingly eccentric and idealistic scheme to copy the texts of tens of thousands of books into electronic form and distribute them freely. A scheme which spearheaded the ebook revolution. And I’m only now catching on to it. OK, I’m hanging my head in shame.

But since Hart died this month perhaps this blog can serve as a tribute as well as a confession. My very resistance to ‘his’ technology means I  owe him space and respect today at the very least.

It all started in 1971 – before Microsoft, before PCs. Indeed, when Hart had a vision of a world ‘where you can walk into a public library and get 90 percent of the information you need copied on a disk that you don’t have to return’, computers were vast machines with huge tapes attended by men in white lab coats. I remember them well! My first university post required me to use those cumbersome appliances.

This was in the days prior to scanning machines too. Hart spent twenty years in obscurity laboriously typing away by hand. He copied 313 books (vast tomes like the works of Shakespeare, the Bible, the American Constitution included). He met with both ridicule and scepticism. But as all things electronic changed, his scheme gathered momentum and credibility, others latched onto his coat-tails, and this year Project Gutenberg boasts more than 36,000 items in its collection, written in 60 different languages, with an average of 50 new ebooks being added each week. Mind blowing, eh?My bookshelvesSo who was I to be so sceptical? Oh but I do so love ‘real’ books – the ones you hold in your hand, and recognise from their covers, and collect on your shelves. Their smell, their heft, their feel. The way they change with use and loving. Everything about them really.

And my prejudice has been stoked by the twin threats of diminishing royalties and piracy which hover over writers and publishers who venture down the electronic route. Not to mention the ongoing challenge of ever-changing technology.

But I do try not to be a troglodyte. Honestly, I do. And gradually, almost imperceptibly, I’ve come to grudgingly recognise the inducements of ebook publishing. Indeed I’m seriously considering it for myself. Hang it, I even went to an all-day conference on the subject run by the Society of Authors in Scotland on Saturday! And I’ve just discovered Lin Anderson’s blog devoted to it. Wahey! Positively steaming into the 21st century!

And of course, I do see the potential advantages of dozens of books accompanying me on my travels without risking a huge airport baggage charge or a complete spinal breakdown.

Anyway, back to my story … one day at a family gathering recently, I rashly admitted that I was thinking of investing in a Kindle … maybe … some day … soonish perhaps. Ears pricked. Eyes brightened. Number One Son (who’s a big fan) grabbed the iron while it was about 90 degrees and said he’d buy me one for my birthday and Christmas gift.

Wowwa. Steady on. I need to be sure … It’d be a waste of good money if …

Quick as a flash he boomerangs back: Borrow mine to see how you get on.

My aging brain couldn’t think of a single reason why not … unless … surely, he’d be bereft without it?

A KindleNext thing I know I’m sitting here with a Kindle in my hands. And I’m shamefacedly clawing back all my reservations and provisos and caveats. Absolutely loving the experience.

Fair does, my son did give the experiment a sporting chance – he downloaded two books high on my wish-list into the machine: Sing You Home by Jodi Picoult which is about surrogate pregnancy, and Annabel by Kathleen Winter which centres around a kiddie with ambiguous gender issues. Very much my bag. But even so. I expected a less than enjoyable experience. Instead I’ve been forced to eat a giant slice of humble pie and furthermore, I’ve become an actively zealous new convert.

I love that the text is so clear. I love the way that the page is always totally flat, no twisting to see the inside margins or fearing breaking the spine. And the compactness that slips in a bag or pocket so easily. And the automatic switch off if you’re inactive for any length of time. No worries about weight or damage or … well, anything.

Just so that I don’t forget my first impressions, however, I should note a couple of minor quibbles. It’s not so easy to check where the next break in text comes, just to see if I’ve got time to finish this section before my bus is due; you can’t just stick a finger in and flick real pages. There’s no back cover to give you a hook into the story, either. Or lovely appealing covers like these hard copy versions. And I’m not sure how you’d go about referencing a quote when the page numbers aren’t shown. But, like I say, small fry stuff in the big scheme of things.

So I’m a reformed character. Secretly I’m chanting, Roll on my birthday next month! And my next holiday in the sun. Let me see, just how many books will I take?

Yes, I salute you, Michael Hart.

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