Entirely self-indulgent writing about books

I mention Cleopatra… so you’ve got a picture of a pyramid. It’s only a few thousand years older… Saqqara, Egypt, January 2016

There are many types of book. Some are written well, others are not. Some are compelling, others you put down, lose and eventually uncover again to repeat the whole procedure until at some eventual end you pass the book onto someone else, hopefully someone with a stronger desire to learn about the topic and fewer qualms about the author’s voice. Some books have sat on my bookshelf for years unread.

The Memoirs of Cleopatra by Margaret George, which looks like it might be seven or eight hundred pages has been waiting to be finished for many years. It’s neither badly written nor lacking a compelling element. Indeed, I once spent a good three hours in the bath reading it without any awareness of the hour. You might ask why years later it remains unfinished? I didn’t want dear Cleo to die.

When I glance up at my bookshelves, organized by whether the books have been read or not, one thing stands out. I’m much more likely to finish a shorter book. And I don’t just mean by page length but also page height. Which suggests to me that I need to limit my buying to paperbacks only a little taller than my hand span.

In addition to the books that line my shelves are those that I read electronically. Maybe Anna Karenina or The Brothers Karamazov would have presented more of a challenge in paperback. My ebook reader is 174g. When I read Anna Karenina, I naively had no idea of the book’s true volume and worried greatly that the story might, at any moment, end. These worries began in Germany after only a few hundred pages and continued through Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, until in Finland I accepted that Tolstoy wasn’t going to let me down.

And because I adore the annotation function when reading electronically, I’ve been led to misdemeanours with real books. Not only do I fold over the corner of the page as a bookmark (how sinful), but I also engage in marginalia. When I don’t understand a word, I’m bound to scribble the definition on the page.

If the writer wants to write ‘effulgent’ I feel compelled to add ‘! Shiny’. I have a lexical notebook for actually transcribing these words and improving my vocabulary, but most of the time it’s somewhere else and I’m just annoyed at having had to pull out my phone or a dictionary to find the meaning. My notebooks are full of words and definitions I’ll never learn. This electronic reading has the benefit of having a built-in dictionary, except I find that I seemingly read books with words that can’t be found within its normal dictionary.

If it were not for books, I’m not sure how I would manage to remain sane. Books are where I turn when life presents itself to me in a fashion I simply cannot comprehend. When I’m overwhelmed, I hide in a book. When I need help, I turn to a book. When I’m sad, I seek comfort from books. And when I’m angry I hide in books knowing that with my head in a book I am more likely to keep my mouth shut.

And that, in itself, is one good reason to read.

Hiding my truths within a fiction based on a truth

Sailing along the Nile… in a land of make believe.

At dinner last night* the father had all these questions about my novel. That’s my third novel for anyone who’s keeping count (probably only my father), which is a prequel to my second novel (which currently exists as two chapters – the first and the last – but was once 100,000 words long) and is nothing to do with my first novel which once had a youth orchestra play a piece composed for it. None of these novels is published of course. None of them have ever got to a point where anyone who isn’t my father might believe them finished.

This third novel is not quite like anything that I’ve written before.

It’s not like the first novel

The first novel was set in space. It was told through the eyes of a journalist because I was trying to get some space between me and my characters. I named my protagonist after a girl I’d disliked in primary school and made her a very reluctant hero. She spent the first half of the book trying not to be involved with the story line. The real main character was of course an intergalactic princess. My sister suggested that maybe she was too rebelious.

The father – my number one fan – read the book in tears on a transatlantic flight, and although he might well now deny it, had one critique. He said it lacked sex.

He was right

So much of human motivation stems from our need to have romantic relationships, or at least get a physical kick from being with someone. However, and this is quite a large however, sex is hard to write into a book at a stage in your life when you haven’t ever had a real boyfriend. And I don’t mean real as in not imaginary, I mean real in this context as someone you have a relationship with and don’t just label with the word because it’s convenient when it comes to surviving the hostile world of the school playground.

For the second book I came back down to Earth

I wrote it in my final year at university when I ought to have been mathematically modelling solar flares. It’s set in Ancient Egypt. My father read it of course. He loved it. He thought that I should quickly get it finished, published and make lots of money from it. He has great faith in my writing. (He’s an excellent father and amateur literary critic.) And at least that was my impression of his opinion. The sex, however, he said made him uncomfortable.

You really can’t win when you’re a daughter writing a book read by your father but I believe it serves him right for embarrassing me the first novel round.

So, the third book

I haven’t let my father read it. In fact, I have been avoiding writing it. When I’m writing a novel I get consumed by it. My mindneeds a huge amount of space to write, and it hasn’t exactly felt spacious recently.

It’s often the getting started that’s hard, and not because I have writer’s block – that thing is alien to me thank goodness – but because to write it I have to read it and to read it means I’m confronted by what I’ve written. And it’s not just a case of lacking self-confidence.

I’ve tended to pour myself into writing it at points over the last couple of years where my mind has desperately needed to expel thoughts and feelings but was too ashamed to put them straight into my diary. This does not lead to a tidy, structured novel, and restructuring and cutting has been an ordeal. That said, those horrible moments, now rewritten, make up the backbone of the novel I wanted to write  and proved uncuttable.

To write the third book I had to switch to the third person. I couldn’t write in the first person. I couldn’t put myself though such an agony. And all the things I wanted to write, I couldn’t have made happen to one character. I feel it’s much too much feeling to believe from one character, even if all the character’s feelings do in fact stem from me.

And the sex? Well. Not too surprisingly I’m not currently the biggest fan of sex. Although since it’s a book set in the royal courts in Ancient Egypt sex is hardly something I can just skip. I’m sure there were some asexual people in Ancient Egypt, but this isn’t a novel about them.

At dinner last night the father kept asking when he gets to read it

I read it myself at the beginning of this week and have been writing it obsessively ever since. He’s noticed and become excited that it may, finally, be finished. Meanwhile I keep wondering what he’s going to think of it all. I wince when I’m reading it, and I wrote it. I know what’s coming up.

But one of those cliche phrases points out that you should write what you know, and I’ve come to know things I would’t want to read. And yet maybe the reason I write this novel and these characters is because they can house much stuff that people shy away from, yet make it a bit more palatable. It’s a story about people keeping secrets and holding themselves in shame. It’s a book about not talking, not trusting, and the power of one human being over another.

It’s not autobiographical, yet it is a reflection of what I know.

And yet, all that ‘stuff’ is part of me. If it’s not seen, if these feeling aren’t recognised and accepted, then I’m not either. Which is why, eventually, I’ll have to let it be read.

*I wrote this post a week or so ago.

Do you write, and if so, why?

How your attitude dictates your travel experience (unexpected delights of Egypt)

In a hotel lobby at the red sea resort of Hurgarda terrorists stabbed three tourists. At the Great Pyramids in Giza two policemen were shot dead. A few days earlier, gunmen had fired on Israeli tourists as they boarded a bus.

Maybe I should have been frightened.

Cairo, Egypt

Egypt is not like England. People discard litter on the streets. Boys cycle along potholed roads with trays of fresh pitta breads balanced on their heads. They have satellite television and mobile internet and children steering donkeys down the highway.

There’s a mosque in every direction you look and five times a day you’re swallowed by the echoing layers of the call to prayer as they bounce off apartment blocks and chime together.

The air is thick; factories pour pollutants into the air that are outlawed in the European Union.

The traffic is reckless. There are few crossings, few rules and seat belts for backseat passengers are an optional extra. It was with genuine gratitude and relief I held hands with a friend to cross the road.

But I boarded a flight to Luxor alone. My friend and his family in Cairo had warned me to be careful in the south. The people, they said, would not be so nice. I thought of this warning a few days later when the owner of a roof-top café warned me that the people in Aswan weren’t like the people in Luxor. Be careful everyone else is dangerous. I leant back in my chair, felt the warmth of the sun on my face and sipped my coffee. We chatted a while.

It was a peaceful morning. An occasional felucca drifted along the Nile. Three men on the river bank pounded a boat’s rudder in some sort of repair job while children played at the water’s edge.

El Karnak, Luxor, Egypt

Maybe, for a young woman, who speaks three words of Arabic and whose face is the colour of printer paper, it’s not a good idea to befriend the locals. Lying about my family, saying they were waiting nearby, became the norm. My phone, with its Egyptian SIM and cheap mobile internet, was used with an uncharacteristic frequency to send reassuring texts, pictures, emails and instant messages back home. I wasn’t taking the risk that my mother would be worrying why she hadn’t heard from me.

But what about my actual experience?

Hathor Temple, Dendara, Egypt

Like the temples with their powerful images of striding kings smiting their enemies on the outside, and the carvings of sweet calves trotting alongside their mothers on the inside, the Egyptian people are not to be understood through only the media’s outpouring of fear.

The students in Cairo were enthusiastic and encouraging in their futile attempts to teach me to belly dance. When I beat an Egyptian man at a game of pool, he pouted, laughed and took it with grace. And what about those pesky tomb guards in the Valley of the Kings, well they swapped their mint tea for a few squares of my chocolate and we chatted for a while about the disastrous state of tourism in Egypt and laughed at the improbability of Leicester City’s footballing success.

Meanwhile those tourists with tense shoulders and a bark of ‘la shok-run’ (no thank you), who refused to listen or appreciate the commerce and artistry around them, they saw only what they expected to see.

Which is sad, because the Egyptians are a fascinating people who want to hear stories of places like England. Places they’ll likely never afford to visit.

Donkey in market, Luxor, Egypt

It’s true, at times the uniqueness of being a solo European woman seemed overwhelming. Were the Egyptians more interested in my face than the obelisks and colossal statues? I’d expected the attraction to be to my purse, but only one man became grouchy about my refusal to get out my money in the three weeks I was there. Despite me being a tight-fisted Yorkshire lass.

Sometimes, the thought appeared in my mind that I should be more cautious. At the insistence of the train driver, I drove the little train that winds down from the Valley of the Kings. There were no other passengers. It was a short journey. I could have said no and sat in one of the carriages. However, when I searched his face for a motive, I realised he was probably just bored and wanted someone to talk to and entertain. We parked the train outside the ticket office, him smiling widely, me laughing.

He looked quite abashed as he asked for a selfie.

Luxor Temple, Luxor, Egypt

He wasn’t the only person wanting a photo with me. Groups of teenage girls, and their highly embarrassed and apologetic fathers, wanted me to smile at their smartphones. Each girl separately. I smiled. I laughed. I told the fathers it wasn’t a problem. It wasn’t.

After a long day at the Valley of the Kings, I climbed up on to the horse carriage, next to the guy who’d kindly brought me to the sites. Children ran out into the street to wave as we passed through their villages. Young men called out as you might expect, but so did their grandmothers.

We stopped at the local shop for chocolate and cartons of mango juice.

And when the road was clear, I got to take the reins.

Remembering the honour of seeing an Egypt composed of kindness.

Egypt: a land of many colours.

People were out in the streets selling fruit at 4am on New Year’s Day.

It took me by surprise.

As did how Christian families wore red and gave each other gifts in their celebration of the New Year, rather than waiting a few days for Christmas on the 7th. Despite the Christian population of Egypt being just 10%, Santa was everywhere.

People were selling Santa hats on the streets

It was Christmas eve that was the big deal. With everyone bustling into church for a late night mass.

I spent Christmas day in Cairo’s antiquities museum, wandering quietly amongst the mummies. These were people who had believed themselves gods – kings in life and death. They were people who had worshipped the sun and the river. Their anamorphic gods enjoyed simple every day pleasures like measuring fields and writing (Seshat and Thoth respectively).

And these kings and their devoted subjects wrote love poetry that was simple and sweet.

The Flower Song (Excerpt)
To hear your voice is pomegranate wine to me:
I draw life from hearing it.
Could I see you with every glance,
It would be better for me
Than to eat or to drink.

Translated by M.V. Fox

The ancient gods blended together over time

They amalgamated from ‘Amun’ and ‘Re’ to ‘Amun-Re’ as time passed and needs changed.

It was a religion that both stood still through time – with Cleopatra performing rituals and using imagery of the Pyramid builders who had lived thousands of years before – and changed as the society integrated with its neighbours.

Every society has rules to guide you towards a good life

The book of life (or the book of death as it’s more accurately translated) told you what you shouldn’t do. It was a guide to leading your life in harmony with others. Don’t sleep with someone else’s wife. Don’t kill. Leave your neighbour’s donkey well alone.


In the Catholic church, I was told off for crossing my legs

I cross my legs out of habit. But in today’s Egyptian culture, it’s seen as insubordinate. And being defiant in front of Jesus and God, is not seen as good manners. To not cross my legs, in front of everyone who was higher up in the hierarchy by age or status, was a constant challenge.

I know the rules of my own culture, but in Egypt I was often taken by surprise.

In Cairo, they’d built one Orthodox church on top of another Orthodox church

They were separate but for a shared foyer and simultaneous services. A young woman ushered me into the women’s part of the upper church, she had been given my hand mere moments before by a mutual, male friend. The rest of the family I was with had disappeared into the lower church.

“You have a phone?”


“Be careful nobody steals it.”

They welcomed me in, and put me to use…

And when it came to communion I helped to clear the aisle of the extra chairs that had been brought out. We needed the chairs moved, because it was body against body in the great movement to be blessed. There might have been two churches, but the congregation could have filled four.  Amid it all, I held tight to my phone and tried to take chairs from beneath the bottoms of elderly ladies.

Persuading someone who has difficulty standing, to stand is difficult at the best of times. And I don’t speak Arabic.

All these memories flooded back to me today

Little things, like the way people knelt in the street when the song for prayer started echoing around the city. The generosity of almost everyone I met. The kindness of Christian and Muslim alike – the sharing of tea and chocolate.

It made me, who has no religion, open my eyes. And when individuals commit atrocities, it’s important to remember that fear is not all that lives in these ancient lands.

Just some things I did last year

last year
The Nile, Egypt, 2016

Last year I sat on the edge of Horemheb’s tomb – he’s the king that came shortly after Tutankhamun – and I shared tea with three Egyptian men. One invited me to be his third wife, I declined. We laughed about football and he told me about his kids.

Last year I said yes to a young Egyptian man who wanted to buy me coffee. I beat him at pool, and he took me out for dinner. I drove his horse through the villages on the west bank. We saw cows being slaughtered and he bought me chocolate even when I told him not to.

Last year I went to a beautiful club on a boat on the Nile. My dress was the longest dress of all the women. I wore the least makeup and had my shoulder’s covered. In the middle of the dance floor, I belly-danced, for the first time. I was never short of a partner.

Last year I danced on the beach after the sun had set, earphones in, feet bare, not caring who was watching, just because I could.

Last year I spent 9 days in noble silence, doing serious meditation, with more disciplined, more focused and more patience than I had ever imagined.

Last year I woke up early to run up the hill and watch the sun rising on the horizon.

Last year a guy stopped me as I was walking past and apologized for his impropriety, but he just needed to tell me that I was beautiful. I beat him at pool.

Last year I watched my sister stride across the stage, greet her chancellor as an equal and take her degree. No other woman showed such confidence.

Last year I watched my sister fall in love.

Last year I became fitter than I have ever been. I ran up my mountain and swam in the sea. I cycled up a 20% hill and almost fell off my bike at the top.

Last year I created a network of au pairs so that I’d always have someone to have coffee with. I learnt about Italian food, Irish fears of commitment, German heartbreaks, Swedish grit, American religion, philosophy and gynaecologists. We ate chocolate croissants that melted in your mouth.

Last year I ate carrot cake pancakes, and told my secrets. Even the ones that I didn’t want to tell.

Last year I did the grape harvest and made wine.

Last year I caught a black donkey in a dark wood.

Last year I designed, traced, sawed, sanded and painted Christmas lights for the centre of Palermo. I walked beneath them and realized I’d made something real.

Last year I taught nature studies in Catalan, babysat in French (in a really big castle), and did woodwork in Italian.

Last year I read 58 books.

Last year I watched the sun set, orange on a winter’s sky.

Last year I saw the milky way and hunted zombies in the vegetable patch.

Last year I was told thank you by more people, with more sincerity and for more reasons than I could have imagined.

For last year, I am truly grateful.

Pestles and mortars in ancient Egypt

Goddess Mut, Luxor, Food offering

I have a small pestle and mortar that some kind person bought me for a birthday or Christmas. It’s one of my kitchen implements that I’m particularly attached to. My parents pestle has a wooden handle which doesn’t feel as smooth in my hand. Its end is narrower and handle longer. I like mine better.

Occasionally someone makes fun of my pestle and mortar, implying that it’s an unnecessary indulgence and a waste of space. Like it matters how often I grind spices?

Unlike my pestle and mortar, the ancient Egyptian tools were more vital for daily life. While grain was ground into flour on a saddle quern (rotary querns were first introduced in the late or Ptolemaic period) there was a vital step before milling. The husks of the grain had to be removed, and this was most likely done using a pestle and mortar. A helpful splash of water prevented everything leaping out of the mortar as soon as you started pounding. I might actually try this next time I am grinding spices.

The town of Amarna was where 18th dynasty king Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV or, in greek, Amenophis IV) attempted to build his new capital city of Akhetaten. Whilst Akhenaten had some wacky theological and aesthetic ideas, notably manipulating the human figure and annihilating most of the gods, we can probably assume that the baking techniques of the villagers remained unchanged. Here, in the ancient police barracks, and in house 6 of Main Street in the same ancient Egyptian town, small wooden club-like tools were discovered and have been categorised as pestles by clever Egyptologists. They’re just under 10cm in length. A limestone mortar in the corner of a house on West Street, with a rim built of mud and mud brick, alludes to more of the story. As does another on East Street, and another in the servants quarters of a house identified only by a number.

Other such pestles and mortars have been located at the workmen’s village at Deir el Medina where from the early New Kingdom the tomb artisans lived.

The pestle and mortar may well have also been used to extract oil from seeds, tubers or fruit. As it was crushed into a pulp, oil would be released. Consider the process of crushing olives to make olive oil. However, whilst the ancient Egyptians were keen to build little model granaries, and carve detailed baking scenes in their tombs, they’ve demonstrated little enthusiasm for depicting the oil making process. What oils they actually used remains a mystery.

I took the picture above in Luxor Temple last January. It depicts a king, I don’t know which, making an offering to the Goddess Mut. I’m sure the offering table includes something created with a pestle and mortar.