From Tolstoy to Twitter

Edinburgh is just the place for thrifty, book-loving odd-balls.

Many areas, like Bruntsfield, Marchmont and Waverly sound like settings that Jane Austen has fabricated.

There is even a Bingham Park and, while I’ve yet to come across a Darcy Drive or a Wickham Way, it’s only a matter of time before mindful town planners restore the literary balance.

I suspect the city was designed by a brilliant, absent-minded professor of literature, who approached the task like the writing of an essay.

There are examples of sublime beauty, like the Balmoral hotel, the Walter Scott monument and of course Edinburgh castle, but they are clumsily linked by several hills, which pepper the city indiscriminately. The effect is similar to the reward felt by a reader who huffs and puffs their way through stodgy prose, wondering where it is all going, only to stumble suddenly on something quite profound.

Edinburgh

Edinburgh

On Thursday, I stumbled across the St John’s charity bookshop in Stockbridge. A poster in the window said “Clearance! Everything 50 pence” and I was inside as fast as my little legs could carry me.

It was cluttered and reassuringly musty. Bookish types sporting oversized anoraks and tufty hair browsed stealthily, building discerning piles of poetry, murder mysteries and natural history.

While I prowled the store, several dismayed customers asked the elderly couple behind the counter why everything must go.

“We haven’t got enough volunteers to keep it going,” said the man.

“Now where am I going to go for my books?” asked one lady and sighed. “If only I’d known, I would’ve given up a few hours,” said an English man, who blinked a lot and bought the collected works of Oscar Wilde.

“Well, get stocking up,” said the old lady. “Anything that isn’t sold will go into recycling.”

I didn’t need to be told twice. Some of the titles I had been perusing were so promising that the thought of them condemned to shredding alongside household bills and letters from the bank sent a shiver coursing down my spine.

I was tragically limited by the confines (56 x 45 x 25cm including wheels) of my hand baggage allowance. Nevertheless, I managed to add six books to my collection. It only set me back £3, which is about the cost of a glossy magazine offering to make me beautiful and thin.

I am now the proud owner of: The Personality of Animals by the appropriately named H Munro Fox, The Childhood of Animals by Sir Peter Chalmers Mitchell, Know Your Own IQ by H.J. Eyesenck, The Common Reader by Virginia Woolf, The Hill of Devi by E.M. Forster and most promisingly of all: The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism Volume 2 by Bernard Shaw.

I opened the most humble-sounding of them, Virginia Woolf’s The Common Reader on the plane earlier. I kept it open on the bus and then on the underground and even brought it to bed with me.

Roger Fry's painting of Virginia Woolf Image source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Roger_Fry_-_Virginia_Woolf.jpg

Roger Fry’s painting of Virginia Woolf Image source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Roger_Fry_-_Virginia_Woolf.jpg

We travelled well together. Ms Woolf seemed to understand the dilemmas of contemporary blogging as early as 1925.

In her chapter “Modern Fiction,” she asks what about and why and how we should be writing. Baffling questions that the amateur blogger faces every day.

Sometimes I steal snatches of conversations I’ve had and slap them onto the blogosphere. Other times I talk about love or meat or peeing audibly.

Occasionally I think about weighty things like politics or God and think I should write about these things too, yet I can find nothing more to say.

And then there are the times I dream of invention. I wonder whether my paltry life experience could ever be transformed and trapped within the dusty covers of a big fat book.

It’s worth remembering that unless you’re an academic, Woolf’s chapter title doesn’t age well. “Modern fiction” is by nature a relative term. But what she says about the dilemmas of writing may apply to anything from Tolstoy to Twitter. She asks us to:

Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions — trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance came not here but there; so that, if a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style, and perhaps not a single button sewn on as the Bond Street tailors would have it. Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.

Sometimes I get stuck inside the semi-transparent envelope. I know I’m there when words fail me, or I lose the desire to write. It takes a hilly city, with rough cobble-stoned streets, place names that make me feel like I am Elizabeth Bennet and charitable book-sellers to break the seal.

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“You’re not thinking of marriage, no?” asked Frau Bienkowski.

“So we have a new pope,” Frau Bienkowski said, as I handed her the bag of medium-sized apples and two packets of sugar-free sweets she’d ordered.

“He could have been a black man,” she continued. “It wouldn’t have mattered.”

“No!” I said.

“But there was something irregular about Benedict’s resignation, wasn’t there? Popes don’t just resign!”

I agreed it wasn’t their custom.

“Could you get us some coffee?” she asked, pushing her stroller over to me. “You can put the cups at the front!”

I pushed the Zimmerframe down the corridor and passed three ladies in wheelchairs. One of them had a remarkable face, like a gazelle. They were staring straight ahead. One of them was saying, “You could write a novel about a life, if you just think back to all your encounters. You could write a novel. You really could.”

I placed Frau Bienkowski’s cup in front of her, and she pushed one of her sugar-free sweets towards me.

“So tell me, how has work been this week?”

I told her I’d been busy and that the new pope was creating a lot of work for us.

“It’s good you’ve got work,” Frau Bienkowski said, “especially as you’ve booked flights to see your boyfriend!”

“I couldn’t agree more,” I said.

“You’re not thinking of marriage, no?”

“Well, it would be difficult logistically since we live in different countries,” I said, apologetically.

She nodded. A few weeks ago she’d told me that she thought German president Joachim Gauck really ought to marry his long-term partner, since she travelled with him in an official capacity.

A little later, we got talking about Germany. “We’ll never escape our past,” she said and paused.

“They could have just removed the Jews from official positions. But there were good Jewish doctors, good workers. Sending them to concentration camps, killing them was wrong.”

For the first time, I felt uncomfortable around Frau Bienkowski.

“Of course it was,” I said.

Frau Bienkowski presented me excitedly with a fashion catalogue. “Look what I got in the post!” she said.

We spent some time leafing through the pages and commenting on the clothes.

“I like that,” I’d say, pointing at a blue and white striped cardigan.

“Yes,” she’d reply, “It’s pretty, but look at the pattern on that blouse .. it’s a bit much, isn’t it?”

We looked at a model in high-heeled shoes. “Do you like them?” I asked.

“Oh yes,” she said.

“Did you wear such high shoes when you were younger?”

“Oh yes!”

“And could you walk in them?”

She smiled. “If you wear them, you walk in them!”

We read some more of the story about the cantankerous 100 year-old living in an Irish convent.

I apologised that I wouldn’t be able to see her next week.

“Don’t you worry!” she said. “This should never be an obligation. And tell Andrew I say hello!”

Blogileaks: Kate Katharina rocked by sell-out scandal

If you want to be rich and famous, you should definitely start a blog. It’s the only way to keep up with the Mark Zuckerbergs of this world.

Katekatharina.com is a case in point.

From the beginning, my sober treatment of issues such as my talent for gibberish, my reputation as a creep and my savant boyfriend left readers crying for more.

I had to purchase extra electronic storage to cope with all the fan mail I was getting. I rejected several offers to write for renowned publications on the principle that Katekatharina.com was a more reputable source than say, The New York Times.

After some time, it became impossible to walk the streets of Dublin without being accosted by an admirer of my prose. The effort of gazing at my feet modestly every time a particularly apt turn of phrase was repeated to me by a stranger became too great. I decided to move to Berlin, where I thought I could descend into relative obscurity and focus on my art.

A rare moment of calm from the crowds as I climb a tower in the early days of my time in Berlin.

A rare moment of calm from the crowds as I climb a tower in the early days of my time in Berlin.

But it was not to be. Here too, passengers on the underground tap me nervously on the shoulder and say “If you don’t mind me saying so, you look really like Kate Katharina from Katekatharina.com. Others are more aggressive, pushing through crowds to thrust a pen and a print-out of my latest post into my hands, crying “Bitte, bitte, ein Autogramm fuer mein krankes Kind.”

Yes, my route to fame and fortune has been paved with widgets and clusters of html.

Or possibly, it’s been a bit more like this:

I’ve written over 200 posts here. Sometimes I spend hours writing a serious piece contemplating the meaning of art, or describing a tiny dead mouse whose death still haunts me, while other times I chronicle my developing relationship with a 93 year-old woman or defend pigeons.

The mouse that haunts me still

The mouse that haunts me still

The effort has paid off. Last summer the embassy of a wealthy middle eastern country offered to pay me to write a piece outlining – among other facts – the wisdom of its ruler and the progress the country has made in the areas of human rights and gender equality. When I replied saying that I did not feel I could write an impartial piece given the requirements, they promptly reassured me that I could be “reasonable and objective,” as if I were simply displaying modesty.

They’d found my contact details through a referral to the blog from an article I’d written for The Journal. That particular article paid me handsomely in… exposure (?) and afforded me the pleasure of trawling through a host of comments, most of which misinterpreted my article to conclude I was a Paparazzi fiend.

A more recent success occurred when the Past Pupils Union of my secondary school read a post I had written reminiscing about audible peeing in the school bathroom. They posted it onto their page and my hits rocketed.

I rejected numerous offers from prestigious publications

I rejected numerous offers from prestigious publications

And then recently, someone working on behalf of the company X contacted me, offering me a modest sum in exchange for linking to their site.

I had a drink with my friend, another freelance journalist in Berlin.

“You’ll be compromising yourself,” she said. “And for €80?”

A niggling part of me thought she was right. “But,” I argued, “They said I could write about anything; I just have to link to their site.. I mean I link to sites all the time, many of them happen to be commercial! And Y is not immoral!”

“And,” I continued, ever more desperate. “Every time I want to watch a video showing death and destruction on the BBC website, I first have to watch a stupid ad telling me to ‘invest in reMARKable Indonesia.'”

“I know,” she sighed. “It’s terrible the Beeb does that.”

So, here I am, “selling out” for the first time. The compensation is €80 (I hope!) which will pay for my monthly transport. For the amount of hours I’ve spent thinking about how NOT to make this read like a sponsored post, it’s pittance.

If I were living in a time when people still paid for writing, I’d have earned a couple of hundred for this 800 odd-word piece.

But I’m not. I was born into the digital revolution.

So, for all the would-be bloggers out there, the most important piece of advice I can give you is to take yourself excessively seriously. Just like me.

Otherwise, the attention from the fans can get too much, and you begin to crave the days when your blog had a small, loyal readership and when you deliberated for days over whether to post a link to a website offering to help people see again.

Frau Bienkowski and the Irish Convent

Frau Bienkowski was sitting by an open window, soaking in the sunlight. She gave me a faint smile. It was not her usual welcome. She was in pain.

“Every limb hurts,” she said.

We had been planning to venture outside the moment we got some sun. I asked Frau Bienkowski whether she thought she could manage.

Ten minutes later she was pushing her stroller around the grounds, naming flowers and telling me about the people she knew living in the neighbouring buildings.

Every so often she stopped and sat on the ledge of her stroller.

“Am I slower than you thought?” she asked.

“Not at all,” I said. “I’ve only ever seen you in your armchair.”

We passed two caretakers smoking at a back entrance to the canteen. Frau Bienkowski called over to them. “I was faster last year!” They nodded sympathetically and one of them, a young woman with a scraped-back pony tail and jet black hair said, “oh, the curse of biology.”

Frau Bienkowski told me she remembered what flowers were blooming when the Russians came. “You don’t forget a time like that,” she said.

After our walk we went for coffee. I ordered a latte. “What’s that?” she asked.

I told her it was a mixture of espresso and steamed milk. She said she’d try it next time.

We chatted about parents disapproving of mixed marriages. She said it happened lots after the war and I said that in Ireland in the past, a Catholic-Protestant marriage could divide a family forever.

“You know, you’re only supposed to stay an hour,” Frau Bienkowski said after two.

“Do you have something you need to do?” I asked.

“I don’t want you to feel obliged, that’s all,” she said.

“Frau Bienkowski, we have discussed this before. This is a pleasure.”

“Oh, very well.”

Back upstairs, Frau Bienkowski asked me to read from “Die Pforte zum Himelreich,” the book by Irish writer Una Troy which I brought her last week.

“I started it,” she said. “And it is very good. But my eyes became swimmy and I couldn’t read on.”

The scene I read was a dialogue between an eager 23 year-old upstart journalist and a 100 year-old woman in a convent. She was Ireland’s oldest person and he was vying for the scoop on how she’d managed to live so long. She gave smart-ass, wry responses.

I put on my best crotchety voice for the old woman and an effeminate whine for the young man. Frau Bienkowski laughed out loud three times.

“You should be a professional reader!” she said. “I can completely imagine that nun!”

When I left, Frau Bienkowski said, “You bring me such joy.” This time her smile was real. It made my day.