Thursday, 17 July 2014

Stranger than fiction

I was recently tagged on Facebook to post a photograph every day for five days so I looked out ones taken when I was in China in 2011. When I came back from my trip I wrote some articles but had no success in having them published (clearly I should stick to fiction). But I will tell you here about the strangest evening I have ever spent because I couldn’t have made it up. 

You will be, my daughter kindly informed me, the oldest westerner to visit Ningxian. 
She went there, to the south-east corner of Gansu Province, China, in August 2010 to teach English for a year and the following April my sister and I found ourselves on a country bus driving through China’s driest province to the dusty little town my daughter called home. She and her fellow gap-year teacher lived on the school campus – the object of much friendly curiosity as the only two westerners most of the town had ever seen.
Now there were two more.
Within minutes of our arriving, pupils jumped up and down to look through the window and some came in to see us close up. Fortunately, no words of ye ancient western wisdom seemed to be required from the oldest one or her sister – all we had to do was pose for what turned out to be the first of (very) many photo sessions.

During the next six days we were privileged to be asked out by generous and genuine people to restaurants, and to private homes, to sample the region’s delicious noodle-based and surprisingly spicy food. 

But one invitation appeared to have its own agenda.
We met our hostess (an English teacher who spoke very little English), and her husband who ‘works for the government’, outside the school gate at 5.30 but it wasn’t until 9 o' clock that we sat down to eat in a hot-pot restaurant, the only kind that stays open that late. (Hot-pot is a kind of individual fondue arrangement where tofu and raw meat and vegetables are dropped to cook in a pot of boiling soup.) For three and half hours we had to sing for our supper.
First of all, we were startled to be ushered into a large, newly built, empty hotel belonging, as it turned out, to friends of our hosts, escorted upstairs to a bedroom and photographed  – perhaps, we later speculated, to appear in promotional material as their international clientele …
We – the party now including the hoteliers – were then driven about ten miles away ‘to see a valley where there are beautiful flowers’. On the way we passed dozens of cave dwellings, some definitely still occupied (I saw a line of washing high on the hillside) but our hostess denied this and was keen to show us ‘the new countryside’ and the houses recently built for the farmers. 

When we stopped to look at the ‘beautiful flowers’ carloads of more of their friends arrived to check out the westerners, add them to their photograph albums, and follow them as they drove on.
Our next stop was a primary school where, at seven o’ clock in a smoky staffroom, teachers were marking homework. 

We were invited to have a look round in the company of one of the teachers, a cigarette tucked behind his ear.  The school was built in the 1950s and not much changed. A board on the wall had Chinese writing with an English (?) translation underneath: 

All the teachers trooped outside to be photographed in the playground with us and our entourage plus three children who had appeared from nowhere. As we departed, waving royally, my sister, a primary-school head in rural Scotland, tried and failed to imagine a similar scene back home.
Finally (in the dark) we had to inspect a poly-tunnel which apparently was very eco-friendly.

 We were conducted around it by a smiley man to whom, like all the other followers we acquired that evening, we were never actually introduced. 

He turned up at the hot-pot restaurant (above, left) and as a finale to the night was revealed to be, not the gardener of the poly-tunnel as we’d vaguely assumed, but ‘he runs TV station’. Another line-up. Another camera. Would we appear on Chinese TV? When I looked in the mirror back in the hotel and saw the havoc wrought by leaning over the steamy, spicy hot-pot I could only hope not.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Six in June

I read six books in June.

Every Contact Leaves a Trace by Elanor Dymott. (Christian Aid Book Sale buy) Alex tries to find out who killed his wife, Rachel, in the grounds of the Oxford College they’d both attended. I liked the complicated structure, very clever. Perhaps less of a whodunit than a whydunnit – the ending was vaguely disappointing. Plus I couldn’t help thinking that even if she hadn’t died the marriage wouldn’t have lasted between solitary, dull dog Alex and beautiful, bratty, manipulative Rachel.

Night Music by Jojo Moyes. (Christian Aid Book Sale buy) An early JM. As usual, great characters and dynamics between them.

A Woman Unknown by Frances Brody. This is in an excellent series about Kate Shackleton, a war widow and amateur sleuth, set in Yorkshire just after the First World War.

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith. Well, by JK Rowling really. And I thought it was cracking, kept me awake for several nights and the conclusion was very satisfying. Really liked Cormoran Strike and his assistant Robin and can’t wait to read the follow-up The Silkworm.

The Other Miss Perkin by Lorna Hill. (Christian Aid Book Sale buy) This is set in the 50s, was first published in the 70s and republished in 2010 and is Lorna Hill’s only adult novel (she’s best known for her children’s books especially her ballet ones). I’m a Lorna Hill fan but I’m afraid I thought this was feeble – a downtrodden spinster (ancient apparently at the age of 44) wins a prize trip to the States and snags a millionaire. Written in a telling not showing way – ‘as we have seen’ etc. There was a really beautiful description though of the Grand Canyon; she is very good on scenery.

Loving Susie by Jenny Harper. First book I read on my newly acquired first Kindle. This is Jenny’s second novel following Face the Wind and Fly. Is the story of Susie Wallace MSP (member of the Scottish Parliament) and the devastating secret she discovers about her own background and the impact it has on herself and her family. Jenny is married to a former MSP so well-placed to set a heroine in this world. The story is told through her eyes and that of her husband and family and plays out Jenny’s tagline – she writes about ‘Strong women under pressure’.

 I am enjoying the Kindle – it is so easy (and usually cheaper) to acquire books in this way, and there are some titles that are only available in e-form. And, yes, it is terrific if you’re on the move. But it is frustrating to know that you can’t pass on a book to friends and family if you think they’ll like it too – you can recommend it of course but there’s no saying they’ll get round to buying it, and not everyone has an e-reader.

I fervently believe that books do ‘furnish a room’. The books on my shelves are part of my life in a way that words on an e-reader, however wonderful, can never be. There’s so much pleasure to be had in looking at other people's bookshelves and in spending time in a good (new or second-hand) bookshop.

And – you know who you are – if you keep nodding off and dropping your Kindle on the floor it is expensive to replace …

Six in May

I read six books in May.

A Spy by Nature by Charles Cumming. Much enjoyed his A Foreign Country was keen to read more; was not disappointed. Good, old-fashioned (in the best sense of the description) spy thriller.

Homeland and other stories by Barbara Kingsolver. (Christian Aid Book Sale buy) I love Barbara Kinsolver’s novels but her essays and short stories even more. Highly recommended as a masterclass in short story writing.

An English Woman in New York by Ann Marie Casey. (Christian Aid Book Sale buy) Love reading about New York, love reading about people who move to live somewhere completely different. Excellent.

Girls will be Girls by Arthur Marshall. (Christian Aid Book Sale buy) For many years, from the 30s to the 50s, broadcaster Arthur Marshall was asked to give a round-up of the year’s new books for girls and this is a compilation of them along with other of his musings, on such subjects as his schooldays and his horror of compulsory games. Gently hilarious if you like that sort of thing, which I must say I do.

The Red House by Mark Haddon. (Christian Aid Book Sale buy)  I wouldn’t like to be related, necessarily, to his characters or live next door to them but his writing can take your breath away – the kind where you re-read sentences and wish you could write like that.

A Lesson in Secrets by Jacqueline Winspear. (Christian Aid Book Sale buy) In the Maisie Dobbs private investigator series and well up to the usual standard.

I won’t name it but I started another book and didn’t get very far because the heroine irritated me so much and I found the writing banal (although from a big publishing house and covered in plaudits). I used to feel I had to plough on to the end once I’d started but not now – so many books to read, so little time.

Do you always continue once you've started – or have you ever hurled a book across the room?