Thursday, October 29, 2009

Library memories

Libraries have always been my most favourite place in the world. I remember going to the British Council Library in Dar es Salaam with my dad when I was 7 or 8 years old and wanting very desperately to live there. I might be mistaken, but the library might not have been big enough to have a separate children’s section, or I was too young to have my own membership – either way, what it meant was that my dad had to check a book out on his card for me. I went through a series of “coloured” collections of fairy tales by Andrew Lang (and no, I didn’t know what his name was until I googled the book titles some time back) – the Red Fairy Book, the Blue Fairy Book, the green, the lilac, the pink, and so on. I remember trying to greedily read as much as I could while my dad made his selection, because I knew I could only take one book at a time… and then I would have to wait till the next time my dad returned to the library before I could get another. (For those who want to read the fairy tales, they are all *hip hip hurrah* online here. Isnt the Internet absolutely the most FABULOUS invention?)

I didn’t get my own membership at the British Council Library till we settled in Madras. It was a long trip to get to Mount Road from where I lived, involving two bus changes on really crowded routes... and only one or two bus services with which I was familiar stopped right outside the lane that led to the library. So it was a very hit and miss affair, and quite often I would have to walk all the way back from the Quaid-e-Millath College bus stop. I was more than willing to take all this in stride, as it were, and did - but all that effort for just 3 books at a time seemed unfair. We were also only allowed to keep them for 2 weeks - I think. (It might have been 3.) That didn’t matter to me, in any case, as I was usually back there in a couple of days, having finished reading my measly quota in no time.

Membership at the British Council was not free, and every year it got more and more expensive. I couldn't afford a one-time lifetime payment, so it was a yearly renewal. And yet I couldn’t bear to not continue with it, because the alternative – the American Consulate library – was such a poor fish in contrast. Membership there was free, so naturally I went there as well to borrow books. But the selection there was narrow-minded in the extreme. I mean, they only stocked classic novels and plays by classic American authors. (Yeah I know, it was the library at the American Consulate – but so what? The BCL, despite being part of the British Embassy, had books by writers from all countries... including America!)

My objection here was not so much to the classics (which I read anyway) as to the fact that there wasn’t any popular contemporary fiction at all. Not even by American authors! Not that it stopped me – some of my favourite authors happen to be American, like Mark Twain. And I also loved the books they had on journalism and editing. (I read them like storybooks – they were funny and sarcastic with their examples of editing errors... and the sections on reporters and reporting were pretty far removed from my personal experience of reporters - most, not all - and their reporting techniques. They were good for a giggle.)

But getting back to the BCL, as a student of English Literature, I felt it incumbent upon myself to watch the BBC dramatisations of Shakespeare’s plays. I pretended to do it for the sake of my college education, but usually I chose plays that appealed to me, not necessarily the ones we were “doing” in class. It was quite difficult to get a chance to watch the videos as there were only 3 or 4 TVs per three or four dozen members who wanted to watch something or the other at any given time. So on the rare occasions that I managed to get one of those coveted seats, I made it my business to not move my butt until I’d got through an entire play at a time – three or four hours of relentless watching, with the attendant who changed the video tape for us occasionally saying somewhat hopelessly “Adhuththa dharam paarkalamey ma” (“You can watch it the next time, dear”). Watch it the next time? Hah! No way I was going to give up my turn halfway through a play, especially after a long wait, and with no idea when the “aduththa dharam” would happen!

My biggest grouse with the BCL was the limit on books, though. When my sister, after moving to the US, called to say that library membership there was free and she could take as many books as she wanted, every single time, my envy knew no bounds. That seemed the very ideal of heaven... and much as I tried to douse the flames of envy by telling myself that the downside was that she probably got to read ONLY American authors, that sour grapes attitude didn’t really work.

So when I got a job in Singapore, and discovered that I could take an unlimited number of books from the library, from whichever branch I happened to be closest to, and return them the same way without ever having to go through a librarian for either service (you checked out your own books and dropped them down a chute when returning them) – believe me, I was in hog heaven! It was definitely one of the biggest perks of living in that country.

Here in the UK, membership is free at my local library and I am officially allowed a maximum of 10 books at a time. I say officially, because apart from one curmudgeonly man who is inflexible on the “rules”, enforcing them like a petty dictator, most of the library staff turn a blind eye to my taking up to 15 books. They know me (and why wouldn’t they, I’m there every week!), they like that I enjoy reading so much, and they don’t mind bending the rules a little for such an enthusiastic user. After all, I don’t damage books, I pay any fines that crop up from time to time, I pay the reservation charges even before I collect the books... and if a library isn’t there to lend books to members (even if *shock horror* it’s over the official limit), what else is it there for?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Pillow-talk, redefined

Scene: The executive suite of the Brooks Hotel in Dublin.

Pete, arms possessively clasping a couple of super-soft squashy pillows, face half-buried in another mound of down-filled pillows, murmurs something I can’t hear.

Me (at the mirror): Pete, what did you say?

Pete: (mumbles)

Me: Sorry, what? I couldn’t hear you.

Pete: (more tender, indistinct mumbles)

Me (turning around somewhat impatiently): Pete, you’re talking into the pillows. I honestly couldn’t hear you, could you say that again please?

Pete (lifts his head up briefly): I was talking to the pillows. I missed them. (resumes endearments)

Me: (giggles)

Friday, October 23, 2009

Sunday Scribblings - "Junk"

Lee Evans is one of my favourite British comedians. This didn’t happen rightaway, but once you get past his nervous mannerisms and self-conscious laughter, he really does bring to the fore a lot of everyday niggles and annoyances – the kind that happen to you, and (let’s face it) the kind that YOU are to other people – and makes you laugh out loud. He is amazingly skinny and agile and his physical comedy is unsurpassed because his timing is impeccable.

What’s he got to do with junk, you ask? Well, you know the sort of crap that gets crammed in your postbox every day – junk leaflets and advertisements and free credit card approvals and the like? Lee Evans, in a moment of inspired genius, demonstrated his way of getting back at the junk mailers - by substituting the contents of their envelopes with some crap of his own. The way he depicted this had me laughing out loud – and really, isn’t it tat for tat? (Send me your sh*t, will you? Here’s some of MINE in return! See if you like what you get any more than I like what I get.)

I haven’t yet followed through on that example, to be fair... but I’m tempted to do so every single day.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A blues concert to remember

Yesterday, after work, Pete and I drove down (or up, or sideways – whichever) to Crewe for a concert at “Club M” by a musician called Walter Trout. Pete had discovered him by some accidental arcane process some time ago, and promptly fallen in love with his blues music, playing him incessantly for a while thereafter. I took a little time to be converted (mainly because I was in the throes of first love with Joe Bonamassa) but once I really listened to Trout, I couldn’t help but fall for his fantastic guitar work. If I’ve described David Gilmour’s music as an enveloping cascade, well, Walter Trout’s music is an absolute avalanche. You cannot help but be involved headlong in it.

Trout (after meeting him at yesterday’s concert, I keep wanting to refer to him as “Mr Trout” – he was such a nice old guy!) is one of the world’s most accomplished guitarists, ranked at No 5. I was reluctant to admit that he could be better than David Gilmour, but after yesterday, I’m afraid I have to concede that point. I carry my torch high for Gilmour, though – he has a sexier voice than Mr Trout and nobody’s going to convince me otherwise! :)

Club M is big for a club, but fairly small and intimate for a concert. The sound system was fantastic – even I as an amateur could tell that, and Pete as the semi-pro was all praise for it. I’ve decided that small intimate concerts are the way to go... no ostentatiously pompous security guards ordering people about, no regimented seating, you can walk right up to the stage to watch the musicians, you can see their faces and expressions without requiring binoculars - and Mr Trout was kind enough to come right up to the edge of the stage and play his guitar so that his admiring fans could watch his fantastic flying fingers. He was just SO good... and he exhibited hardly any of the posturing and bending and wriggling and twisting that so many guitarists and violinists seem inclined to do, probably to demonstrate just how involved they are with their performance.

Well, Mr Trout was living proof of my conviction that the best musicians and artists (and footballers as well) do not need to resort to grandstanding to convince people of their talent and dedication. Virtuosity will out, without any acting. I have to mention the drummer, too – a man-mountain sent probably by the angels to earth so that he could play for Mr Trout. Half the time he had his eyes closed while doing the most intricate drumming... which I thought was amazing, but Pete just laughed and pointed out that he probably knew where all his drums and cymbals were.

Hm. Quite.

But he was fabulously good.

There were two other artistes that Mr Trout brought on – one that I termed “The Screamer” because he sang a heavy-metal type song that I simply did not take to. If the entire concert had featured him, I would have had to walk out in the first 10 minutes, in sheer self-defence. Luckily he didn’t do much else. The other performer was an 18-year-old guitarist with whom Mr Trout had a “jamming” session. That was absolutely glorious too. After they had finished to a huge ovation, Mr Trout sighed and remarked “Today’s youth, what are they like. At 18 years I was wallowing in the mud of Woodstock, hallucinating. And look at him!”

Towards the end of the performance, Pete and I went up near the stage so that I could watch Mr Trout from close quarters and see just what a virtuoso he was on the guitar. (I had refused to leave my bar stool earlier for fear of losing it to someone else.) I was standing there mesmerised by the music while Pete took a few photos, when Mr Trout came to the edge of the stage, leaned down and beckoned to me. For a few seconds I just watched him blankly, not realizing that it was me he was gesturing forward. Then the penny dropped and I took a few steps towards him, only to have him hand his guitar “pick” (or plectrum) to me, still warm from his fingers – and possibly from all the friction with the strings! – as a souvenir of the concert. That was really unexpected, and I have to say I was thrilled to be picked out (should that be plectrumed out? * heheheh * sorry) like that.

Afterwards we went out into the lobby where they were selling CDs and t-shirts and Pete bought a souvenir T-shirt for me and the latest Walter Trout CD – which we got autographed by all four band members. We managed to talk for a couple of minutes with Mr Trout, and he was nice enough to remember me (perhaps because I was the only brown-skinned person there?) and say that I had looked so immersed in the music that he felt he should give me his pick. Which I thought very sweet of him. Even nicer, when he asked my name and made out his autograph on the CD to me.

Definitely a concert to remember... and is it any surprise that I am now Mr Trout’s lifetime fan? Not just for the music but also because he turned out to be such an unaffected, nice guy.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Sunday Scribblings - "Bump in the Night"

Have I written about this before? I may well have, but if it’s been long enough for me to have forgotten, it’s a dead certainty that nobody else is likely to remember it. (Scintillating read though it would have been.) Which is good enough reason to take on this week’s Sunday Scribblings on things that go “bump” in the night.

I’m not a believer in the supernatural. (I aim to withhold judgment on this until I’m personally provided proof of the existence of God or any other supernatural being.) I especially don’t believe in supernatural entities of the malignant kind that are traditionally believed to be the cause of unexplained "bumps" in the night. Besides, if there ARE ghosts, I think they'll be around all the time, not just at night. (What are they meant to do in the day? sleep?) So, within the narrow bounds of my first-hand experiences, I’m the only thing that has gone bump in the night, to my knowledge. (It was pretty painful, and very disorientating, I might add.)

This incident happened when we were living in Madras, renting the ground floor of my uncle’s house in Adyar. It was a small house, kind of sunk between the two buildings that flanked it because our neighbours had raised the ground levels and added extra storeys. This effectively ensured that we didn’t get much natural light in the living room and bedroom, even in the blazing summer. (We got all the heat, though.)

Anyway, for some reason I was alone in the house that night. I had opted to sleep on the floor in the living room, to make the most of the stone floor. A power cut woke me in the middle of the night (when the fan stopped, the mosquitoes homed in – the deepest sleeper was guaranteed to awake pretty sharpish, believe me). When I opened my eyes, it was pitch dark. I literally could not see my hand in front of my face. I didn’t have a torch handy and did not even know which direction I was facing.

I tried to grope my way to a wall, the idea being that I would feel my way along the wall to the front door. It was only a small room, dwarfed even more by the furniture in it - all of which seemed malignantly intent on getting in the way of my feet and shins as painfully as possible. It was an utterly weird experience - no matter which way I turned, all I came across was more unyielding furniture and there seemed to be a lot more of it than was spatially possible.

I don’t know how long I would have gone around bumping into things, or even if I would have eventually come across a wall (logic said they were there, after all)… but thankfully the power came back on then, and I could see again by the light of our neighbour’s night lamp. Strangely, the furniture was no longer clustered around my shins, there weren’t more sofas and side tables than usual, and what’s more, they were all in their right places. Odd.

Ok, so this wasn’t exactly breathtakingly adventurous, but it had a lasting impact. I never sleep without a night light handy, and I find the moonlight or reflected streetlight that shines into my bedroom to be quite friendly. Unlike my husband, who likes to shut out all the light. But then he’s never gone bump in the night.