Thursday, 24 February 2011

Book Club meets Fight Club

I'm not a natural when it comes to full-contact fighting. It's something about the stress of being attacked, the guilt of punching another person, and the physical pain.

"Sure, but how about the adrenaline - don't you find that once you're in the ring, it's such a thrill?" an ex-boyfriend asked me after my first (and last) term of taekwando at university. The university was in tropical Singapore, so on top of the physical pain, there was the perspiration factor.

"No," I said. "I just find it kind of unpleasant."

Years later, I went to watch a Thai boxing tournament on the island of Koh Pha Ngang. It was during a yoga retreat: oddly enough, the yoga centre, which radiated with inner peace, was right next to a Thai boxing school where perfectly normal, nice guys beat the crap out of each other. I went along to the tournament to cheer on one of the nice guys; he got knocked out within minutes. I decided that fighting, whether as a passive spectator or an active punching bag, was not for me.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I was asked to judge this event: "Writers get violent", which combines boxing with literary criticism (Au Chat Noir in eastern Paris, Thursday March 3). Apparently writers will read from their work, criticise each other, then fight.

"Well, my next book is going to be about pacifists in the 1930s, so I'm not sure I'm the best person to judge a fight," I said to Alberto, the organiser.

"All the better! You can give points to those who throw the fewest punches."

"I guess so. The others on the panel can be normal judges, and I'll be the weird pacifist judge." I agreed to do it. After all, how violent could it be? I vaguely knew some of the contenders and they were all friendly, peaceful. Not exactly Rocky types.

"There's not going to be any actual violence, right? It's just a symbolical thing where they wear boxing gloves," I said, just to confirm. The image I had was not so much Hemingway as Woody Allen sitting on a chair, reading a short story and occasionally waving a boxing glove at the audience.

"Well..." Alberto hesitated. "I thought so, too, but then I went to see one of the practice rounds and they were really at it. I'm trying to get [a mutual friend] to come along and be our emergency doctor, just in case."

"Oh. You mean, they're really beating each other up?"

"Let's put it that way: after I left, they went out to buy mouth guards."

Expect a detailed match report in the next post.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Housewife, 49

I'm reading "Nella Last's War - The Second World War Diaries of Housewife, 49" as part of my research for novel number two, and am enjoying it so much that I have to keep telling myself to put it down and get back to writing. Here's an extract from 29 November, 1939:

My next-door neighbour has every religious service on at all hours, and finds comfort in it. I wish I could do so - I would only find irritation at the loud noise. She says she prays God strike Hitler dead. Cannot help thinking if God wanted to do that he would not have waited till Mrs. Helm asked him to do so.

And another, dated May 1940, on visiting her elderly but somewhat difficult Aunt Eliza, who has just had her equally elderly and difficult spaniel put down:

She begged me to come round to see her if she missed coming in for longer than a few days, as she felt she would not be here much longer. I said, 'Well ducks, we have all got to go and you have had a hard life. Cracker will be waiting for you.' It seemed to be the right thing to say, for she steadied up and I made her a strong cup of tea and gave her an aspirin.

Nella Last was 49 when she signed up to Mass-Observation, a project set up by a poet and an anthropologist to record the voice of the masses by asking ordinary people to keep regular diaries. Her diary begins with the outbreak of World War Two in September 1939 and covers Dunkirk, the Blitz, rationing - all from the perspective of an intelligent and perceptive housewife in the northern town of Barrow-in-Furness.

As wonderful as the book is, there is an underlying sadness to her story; not just the sadness of the war, but the sadness of a life that was perhaps not lived to its full potential. Reading Nella Last's entries, I felt torn between feeling grateful that the Mass-Observation Project provided an outlet for her talent as a writer, and feeling angry because that talent went mostly unrecognised. She describes how she used to dream of writing, exploring and travelling: "when I was younger I used to be nearly wild with the longing to be off and away...the sound of a ship's siren as she moved down Walney Channel has, at times, changed a busy capable housewife into a wild caged thing who could have set off without a backward glance - BUT there was always my two boys."
There was also her husband, who did not like to travel, or indeed leave the house, and who forced Nella to stay at home with him and put up with his moods.

On a more uplifting note, the diaries show that it's never too late to change one's life (emboldened by her war effort, Nella eventually tells her husband to stop his tantrums) and that it's never too late to become a writer: Nella Last continued to keep her diary for 30 years.