Tuesday 28 February 2017

Portable Magic: Which writers get your free "I'll read anything by them" pass?

Hello you. Can we talk about our favourite authors? 

Or, if not strictly your 'favourites', then at least the ones that we return to with a sense of safety; ones we'll blindly trust to have written something decent when picking up their latest title.   

Let me explain what's got me thinking about this ...   

When I'm in the bathroom, (let's not dwell on what I'm doing in there), with the door open, (again, no need to give this more thought than it deserves ...), my eyes regularly glide up and down the spines of all the, as yet, unread books in the little white bookcase on the landing.

And, just as regularly, I tell myself that - That's it! I'm not borrowing any more library books until I've read the books I've actually paid for. Which creates its own problem in return.

Because taking back my current library books means going into the library. And - like some bookish take on Newton's Third Law of motion - the action of me going into the library with books ... always seems to lead to me also having books on me when going back out of the library too.

I can't help myself, they just leap up and cling to me on the way out. Like orphaned kittens. How can I resist?

And it's hard enough to leave empty-handed at the best of times but earlier this month when I spotted The Laughing Monsters (2014), the latest novel by Denis Johnson, on the shelf, I only needed to cast the briefest of glimpses over it to know that - despite having a dozen (at least) books already on the 'To Read' shelf ... this one was definitely coming home with me.  

Here's where my admiration for the author came in to the equation:

  • Until the moment my eyes landed on that particular title on the 'J' shelf, I didn't know this book existed;
  • I'd never heard of it or read a review;
  • And I didn't know what it was about before I slid it out, turned it in my hands, and read the back cover blurb.
But the thing is ... even when I did learn about its subject matter, and I realised it was so very far removed from anything I would normally turn to - I still held on to it.

An African-set tale of ex-soldiers who are spying and scheming with varying and unclear motives by almost any other author would not have made it off the shelf and into my bag.

(For evidence of my 'difficult' relationship with espionage-themed stories I just asked James for an example of the typical things I say while watching spy films/TV, to which he's offered up: "Who's that? What's he doing? I don't understand." So ... yeah ... spy stories are not really my strong suit.)

But this one was by Denis Johnson, the writer of one of my favourite ever passages, this from his 2012 novella Train Dreams

“I don’t get my gears turning smooth til it’s over a hundred. I worked on a peak outside Bisbee, Arizona, where we were only eleven or twelve miles from the sun. It was a hundred and sixteen degrees on the thermometer, and every degree was a foot long. And that was in the shade. And there wasn’t no shade.”

And it's that charismatic tone, the ability to instantly create atmosphere and his simply awe-inspiring word wrangling that meant I unquestioningly gave the book a chance. Whatever else the story was going to turn out to be, however else the plot might twist and turn and leave me standing, I knew the quality of the writing would see me through.

I flipped to the opening lines ... just to check ...
Yep. That'll do me. I'm in.

And the rest of the book didn't disappoint; it's scattered with sparkling little moments of description , and even the tiniest moments can thrill a word lover like me; such this where he describes the character's nose as 'brief':
'Brief'. Not small, not short: but brief. Delicious.

Word choice matters to me ... and Johnson chooses so very well. And that line about not being able to describe Michael's lips because "You'd have to follow him for days to get a look at his mouth in repose" is just a delight.

Even his renditions of scenes straight from hard-boiled noir central-casting had me smiling at their lightness of touch, like this exchange between the protagonist Nair and an interrogator:

Prior to this one I'd only read two of Johnson's other novels:
  • Train Dreams, as I've mentioned (which I actually started to read while on a train, because I'm that literal)
  • and 1991's Resusitation of a Hanged Man
... so it's not exactly that I've been an avid fan, champing at the bit for his new releases (although, I think I might now be leaning that way), but I knew, and enjoyed, enough about his previous works to know I was in safe hands with The Laughing Monsters.

And it's had me thinking about who else can I say that about?

As I tend to read a lot of library books, I find that more often than not I end up reading books I've never heard of, often by writers who are new to me. It's the luxury gifted to us by public libraries;  having books available for free, means there's no risk involved in choosing an unknown. 

However, there are several writers - alongside Denis Johnson - whose work I will give that additional chance. Currently, of the top of my head, that includes writers such as;
  • Ali Smith,
  • Andrew Miller,
  • Alan Hollinghurst,
  • Sarah Perry,
  • Jane Austen, ... although there are probably more.

But now I'd like to ask you the same question ... 

  • Who, in your reading world, gets a free pass?
  • Who are you likely to trust enough to give their next title, or indeed one from way back in their back-catalogue, a chance without question?
  • Whose style sits so easily in your head, or whose stories keep you so gripped, or whose characters come alive so vividly, that you don't need to know anything more about the book than they were the one who wrote it?
Do share your list in the comments ... it'll be interesting to see if any of the names crop up more than once among all our preferences!

Meanwhile I'll be ploughing my way through to get a few library books finished so I can take them back and make a start on clearing the To Be Read shelf. Maybe. Unless another library book clings on to my ankle on my way out ...

Don't forget to share your favourites!


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Thursday 23 February 2017

Vintage Treasure: Edward Cochrane's musical score scrapbook

Hey you. How's things? 

It won't surprise you to know I've been treasure hunting again.

We spent a few hours in a market town last Saturday and there's no better way to aid post-lunch digestion than a good rummage among the racks, shelves and boxes found in charity shops. And yes, of course, a lot of the papery treasures I unearth eventually gets snipped into, cut up, upcycled, recycled, repurposed, and re-loved ...  but some ... some find their way directly to the safety of my 'don't even think about cutting this up' shelf. 

And today's treasure is the latest to do just that. Come and have a look ... 

Vintage music score scrapbook

It's always a thrill. Always.

Like finding grains of gold in a stream when you're really only looking for pebbles.

It's a glimmer of human connection, an instant recognition; an acknowledgement of something that's simultaneously entirely new to you, and yet utterly familiar; it's evidence, a trace, of a real human life ...

It's finding pages of someone's handwriting in a box of printed books.

Vintage music score scrapbook

Flipping through a box of old sheet music booklets I suddenly caught sight of his handwriting and I didn't need to look any further to know his book was coming home with me.

This is generally what happens with me: once I've spotted handwriting I know I'm in for a treat.

I know I'm going to hold and read something quite different to the remainder of the contents of the box. I know I'm going to 'meet' someone across the years. I know I'm likely the first person in a long time - perhaps the first person since the original owner - to look at a tattered old, written-in, book and think "How special! That's mine."

Oh and the 'he' that I connected with in a pile of vintage music books, while crouched on the floor or a charity shop, is Edward Cochrane from Shotton Colliery, County Durham:
Handwriting in vintage book
Pleased to meet you Edward. How'd'you'do? Do I call you Eddie? Shall I put the kettle on?

Once I had a firm grip on Edward's book (you can't be too careful ... how do I know there isn't another avid paper ephemera collector watching over me while I rummage, waiting to swoop in and steal my treasure if I show signs of weakness?) I opened the covers and found that - on the first few pages - he'd stuck down some sheet music pamphlets:
Vintage music scores
It made me wonder if perhaps this journal, with soft covers carefully covered with protective brown paper, started life as Edward's scrapbook where he intended to store the key pieces he needed for a performance:
Vintage violin music scrapbook
But then, those pre-printed booklets come to an end and the remainder of the book is (brace yourself because this made me go a bit dreamy), the remainder of the book is handwritten:
So what happened? Did Edward run out of funds for buying original scores?
Did he instead turn to borrowing what he needed from friends, colleagues, band mates, copying them and returning them? 
And in a time before photocopying, 'copying' was no 20 second task, it meant sitting and transferring each and every note by hand. A task which, judging by how meticulously this appears throughout the book, was one Edward took seriously:
As for what kind of tunes Edward was collecting in his journal:
  • there's a handwritten list on the inside cover listing various 'quadrilles';
  • and there are references to a 'galop' and various barn dances.
So it looks like he was involved in a musical group that accompanied dancing.

And - I think it's not too fantastical to surmise that - living in Shotton Colliery as he did, in the heart of Durham's coal-mining country, he must have been influenced by, if not part of, the tradition of colliery brass bands.  (A quick search online for the address he's written in the front of the book reveals this photo, which shows his street, with a colliery working away in the background.)

And now ... for the foreseeable future, I'm going to look after Edward's old book of dances; I'm going to hang on to the pages that are falling out, to the brown paper peeling away from the cover ... and to the handwriting.

The handwriting that says more than what it spells out ... 

The handwriting that says: "I was here." "I, Edward Cochrane of Shotton Colliery, County Durham, existed."

"I lived in a town where everyone either was a coal miner, or knew a coal miner. And I wrote my initials on the cover of a book I carried around with me; a book of music that I'd carefully hand-copied in pen and ink. And then ... when I sat down, opened my book, and began to play ... 

... people danced." 
And there it is again. Finding handwriting is always a thrill.



And if you just want to leave a comment/get in touch to squeal with excitement over Edward's music journal then please do ... I think he'd be tickled to know that, however many years in the future, his passion for music was still keeping people entertained! 

Julie x

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Tuesday 7 February 2017

Love, marriage ... and handcuffs: a 'snipped tales' collage.

Hello hello. 

Before I begin properly I'm totally taking the opportunity to suggest my book of Snipped Tales as an alternative Valentine's Day gift.

If you order a copy soon, and you're in the UK or Europe, then it should reach you in time for the 14th. (UK 1-2 days / Europe 3-5 and US 5-7 working days. Each copy comes gift-wrapped with a one-of-a-kind gift tag. For the full book details visit here, and for images of the book scroll to the bottom of this post.) 

And I'm not bragging when I say:

  •  giving the gift of a book of thoughtful, funny and sometimes (almost) rude word collages certainly beats flammable red nylon underwear. 
(Now there's a quote for the back of the book.)

I made this collage (which is not from the book) a while ago ... I think it was in response to a Philip Larkin poetry collection I'd read when I used to go to a book club (if I remember rightly it wasn't particularly favourable to marriage/women). And I just wanted to tilt the balance against the old fashioned 'ball and chain' notion: 

And a closer look:
Collage with Snipped Tales
I'm planning to put together paper packs of graph / square / ledger backgrounds (I'll add them to my Etsy shop once they're ready) as they're one of my favourite backdrops to work on for collage.  :
 And - I'm pretty sure that the 'handcuffed' snippet originally came from the same children's story as the one I cut up for 'Ties that Bind' - one of the stories in my Snipped Tales book; the story which led to Kirsty Neale illustrating a pair of handcuffs for me:
Illustration of handcuffs
Which I assume was the first time she'd ever been asked to do that. But, hey, what do I know ...

And here's a closer look at names of the other stories which focus on love/romance and slightly seductive sauciness ...

To read more about, and to buy, the book visit here.

Right then, I'll see you back here soon and every day over on Instagram @withjuliekirk 


Thursday 2 February 2017

How to create a retro party table fit for an 80s kid. (Using vintage books and action figures. Srsly.)

Hello you.

When you cut up and plunder re-purpose as many vintage books as I do you end up being left with an excess of something.  And, no, thank you; it's not 'guilt'.

What you're actually left with, once you've unguiltily torn out and re-purposed the innards of many books, is a glut of book covers.

So, last year, when I was in search of inspiration for a party table-setting - particularly table mats -  my mind turned to all those colourful covers sitting in a big basket on my shelf, and suddenly I had a plan ...

Creating a retro party table fit for an 80s kid.

The table-mats.

So it started by thinking the book covers from retro storybooks and annuals would make perfectly-sized table-mats:
Retro party table setting
And I set them out on top of a bright and cheerful 1980s table cloth that I already owned (because, yes, that is just the kind of thing I already own - it was a charity shop treasure).

In fact, everything I used on the table was pulled together from the random crap we have in our house ... I didn't go out and buy anything especially for the party.
So, after sorting out the table mats, I turned to some smaller book covers to act as coasters: 
Please feel free to rest your drink on Topsy + Tim.
But before we move on, let me clarify ... this wasn't for a children's party, but why should this kind of kitschy fun end when you hit 10? Why? Why?

The place settings.

Once I had the table-mats in place I added individual place settings:
These consisted of: 
  • self-adhesive chalkboard vinyl, die-cut with various label dies;
  • mini glass bottles wrapped with the chalkboard labels;
  • a colourful paper drinking-straw;
  • a lolly or a toffee chew;
  • and a colouring-in sheet ... for after-dinner activities (I supplied the pencils and crayons) And here they are in use: 

The balloon modelling. Yes, there was balloon modelling. What? I YouTubed it.  

Someone had bought James a balloon-modelling kit  and - if ever there was an appropriate occasion to put it to good use - it was on a retro children's party themed table (for adults. Obvs.)

After some YouTube tutorials, a few bursting incidents, and a little bit of deflation (!) I managed to create a balloon flower, a heart, a few dogs:
... and some ... erm ... some ...
Swords. They're swords. Of course they're swords.  Look here they are being swordly. En garde! 

The other characters who came to tea ...

To create different levels and interesting nooks and crannies across the table I stacked up book covers and half-hollowed books and even a tiny little wooden stool to stand various different plates on. Well ... plates plus a few little friends I'd invited along to get people talking.  
I trawled drawers and shelves collecting together a cast of characters to create little scenes such as Harry Potter, practicing his flying car skills: 
Harry Potter Lego on a party table
Han Solo dangling from a crane (see the first and last photo of this post), and even Darth Vader revealing his romantic side:
Darth Vader dancing with a fairy on a party table
As I hoped, people had fun 'playing' with the dolls (sorry, should that be 'action figures? I know some people are far too serious to play with 'dolls' ... ) and creating new scenes of their own such as Darth being 'mother' and pouring the tea:
Darth Vader action figure pouring tea
And Harry testing out an alternative to the Nimbus 2000:

The finished table, complete with the really important stuff: the food! 

Proof that, in amongst the hoard of old books and a cross-over universe of characters we actually made room for food. 
And it was normal 'grown-up' food too. While the decoration may have harked back to a 1980s kid's party table there honestly wasn't a bacon flavour Frazzle or an Iced Gem in sight! 


Now, over to you ... 

  • What would your ideal childhood party style table include? Wagon Wheels? Hot dogs? Lashings of ginger beer? 
  • Which characters would you invite to the table? Or which action figures could you grab right now, from your collection, without having to leave the house?
  • What about the party music? The Kids From Fame soundtrack? (Me and my sister almost wore out our copy). Now That's What I Call Music 7?  
  • Or which books from your childhood would you love to see again (cut up or not)? Or have you kept them all? 
Drop me a line, leave me a comment, tweet, IG, or FB me your retro-inspired-responses. 

I'd love to think this post has grabbed your attention, because, seriously, don't tell me I learned how to balloon-model for nothing??!!! 

How to create a retro party table fit for an 80s kid.

If you enjoyed this post ...

  • Please consider sharing it with someone who might enjoy it too.  I bet there's a child of the 80s in your life who'd revel in the excuse to regress back to being a kid for a while! 
  • Maybe pin the title photo to Pinterest or share it on social media somewhere?:

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