Gone To Girona

viatgeresdetall_expoNext time I complain about the lack of space or the – inevitably futile – attempts of the crew to persuade me to buy lottery tickets on my cheap Ryanair flight to Europe, I may reflect on the fact that comfort is a relative term when it comes to travel, and I should be extremely grateful that from Scotland, for less than the price of a return train ticket to London, I can be almost anywhere in Europe within a couple of hours without leaving that (relative) comfort of my own well-padded seat.

Travel also happens to be the subject of a beautiful exhibition right now at the Museu D’Historia here in the heart of Catalonia. ‘Girona Through the Eyes of Women Writers (19th and 20th Centuries)’ is the brainchild of Cristina Ribot, whose study of the same name won her a scholarship from Girona City Council in 2013, and it provides a fascinating insight into the developing image of what is now a popular tourist destination. What makes it unique is that the picture is built up through the literary testimonies of 25 women writers of various nationalities, providing us with a snapshot of their own personal experiences and difficulties in an era when travel was a pastime almost exclusively reserved for men.

typewriterThere were few women writers in the 18th and early 19th centuries, education and writing being largely male privileges which required both support and money. The elite tended to view women’s writing as worthless, and consequently publishers were reluctant to take the risk of publishing them, thus setting up the classic vicious circle which women found hard to break. One exception to this was in the genre of travel writing, though even here books were often published anonymously or under a male pseudonym.The expansion of the railways at the end of the 19th Century had led to a sharp increase in the number of travellers around the world, but it would not be until the 1950s when the concept and the term ‘tourist’ came into the collective consciousness. Up until then it was the preserve of the rich, and the early explorers featuring in the exhibition were no exception. Many titled ladies, particularly French and English, travelled to the Iberian peninsula, usually with massive amounts of luggage and accompanied by several maids. Being aristocrats, leisure was their raison d’etre, and they would travel for months at a time, most often by donkey, mule or horseback.

However, in an era when ‘female modesty’ was also a requirement, the journeys were not without hardship, as some of the voluminous dresses and headgear in the exhibition bear witness. Often the women had to disguise themselves as men, and carried umbrellas, not only to protect themselves from the sun but from unwanted advances and potential robbers. As an extra precaution, many carried pistols in their hand luggage.

The exhibition notes inform us that the women were “easily recognised for their airs of superiority” and that “they arrived in Girona with preconceived ideas about the country….As well as the information these adventurers provide about the monumental city of Girona, their stories also speak of what surprised and shocked them while in the city. They write of vivid memories, intense sensations and powerful emotions; they record ecstatic or unpleasant moments, great friendships or ill-fated loves. The individual experiences may differ, but taken together they for a nostalgic image of the city as it was, while reminding us of the role of these pioneers, who broke the social norms of their times in pursuit of their most personal goals.”

One of these early explorers was a Scottish lady of means, about whom little is recorded, other than that she was a writer and an artist of some note. Lady Sophia Dunbar’s ‘A Family Tour Round the Coasts of Spain and Portugal’  published by William Blackwood in 1862, contains only a passing mention of the city of Girona (its remarkable early-17th Century cathedral), but is much more expansive on the tribulations of the journey from Girona to Barcelona:

“The roads now became execrable, full of holes, heavy clay and mud, through which our mules struggled and plunged. Our diligence (public stagecoach) lurched like a ship at sea and it became darker and darker. We felt very anxious as to our long lone road leading through rivers, mire and mud; at one time we came to a dead stop, caused by eight mules being all down at once. After much confusion and noise, they were got up, and constrained by thrashing and abuse to renew the struggle; for some miles we continued to go on in the same manner, making some tremendous lurches, from which we miraculously recovered our balance; at last fortune deserted us, we lurched, quivered in the air for a second or two, and went over.”

Fortunately, no serious injuries are sustained in the incident, except presumably to the poor abused mules, and Barcelona is eventually reached:

tour“The streets of Barcelona being extremely dirty, we looped up our dresses; this caused the old women to rush out of their houses or shops at us, and pull vigorously at our skirts; it was difficult to appease them, or make them understand that our dresses were purposely worn so. The woollen mantas of Catalonia are very handsome. The men wear these over their shoulder, much as Highlanders do a plaid. They are striped, the colours rich and brilliant, scarlet predominating.”

In the middle of the 19th Century bull-fighting is prevalent across Spain and Portugal and, as you might expect, our traveller has some observations to make on a subject which provokes an emotional response to this day:

“The picadors, or horsemen, the chulos or men on foot, with gay-coloured cloaks, and the matadors or killers, are dressed in gorgeous antique costume, and certainly have an imposing effect; but the poor bull, lately taken from his native pastures, in the prime of his youth and strength, being a four-year-old, is roused, and made to rush into the middle of the arena; here he halts, and stares with bewilderment and surprise at the assembled thousands, who greet his arrival with clapping of hands. From the middle of the arena, the bull was soon provoked to make desperate charges, right and left, at chulos and picadors, the former showing the greatest activity in vaulting over the palisades, or escaping into the narrow side-niches, where the bull cannot follow. The picadors receive the charge of the bull by meeting him with the point of their lance, which is a short knife on the point of a pole about eight-feet long. With this they meet or catch him on the shoulder, which always mitigates, and often completely checks, his charge. The bull sometimes avoids the lance, and it is then he gores the horse, or sends him and his rider sprawling in the dust. Cut and goaded with the lances of the picadors, and exhausted by fruitless charges at the gay cloaks of the chulos, he at last yields to the lords of the creation, and looks out for the entrance through which he had been admitted…”

A Family Tour.…’, one of the 25 works curated for the exhibition, was re-published in 2009. It can also be downloaded free from the Internet Archive by clicking on this link.

If you have the good fortune to be passing through Girona between now and the 27th of September, make sure you visit the exhibition at the Museu D’Historia De Girona, Placeta de l’Institut Vell, 1
17004 GIRONA.

Footnote: In 2010, the Catalan Parliament agreed, by an absolute majority, to ban bullfights involving the death of animals and the use of goads: banderillas, picas, and estoques. The law was passed thanks to a citizen’s legislative initiative (ILP) promoted by the civic associations that obtained hundreds of thousands of signatures in favour of animal rights. However, the approval of the law was strongly criticised in centralist media and political spheres, who considered the ban to be the result of anti-Spanish feeling.

Advertisements

Movellas: Reading and Writing on the Move.

First there were novels. Then there were novellas. So what else would you call an online publishing house, a meeting place for aspiring  young adult writers, dedicated to the writing of extended prose pieces and aimed at the mobile generation? A place where you can pick up the latest writing tips, practise your skills by emulating your writing heroes and share your work with a sympathetic audience? I have written before about the hugely popular, but largely ignored – in educational terms – world of fan fiction (see Harry Potter and the Fan Fiction Factory). Now there’s a new kid on the block in the shape of Movellas, and it is causing quite a stir in the literacy world. Writing in this week’s Guardian newspaper, the editor of book review website Omnivore, Anna Baddeley, explains how the ‘startup’ has attracted the support of The Reading Agency and the innovation charity Nesta as a result of its ‘dedication to boosting creative thinking, team working and literacy skills’. The site, which was set up in 2012, already has in excess of 200,000 users, 75% of whom are girls, an imbalance the founders hope to shift as they move into the world of ‘story games’. As it becomes more difficult for teachers to motivate young people to write, is this perhaps the trick that they are missing?

“Taking to heart the maxim that reading for pleasure is vital to a child’s educational attainment, the company’s founders believe that encouraging young people to write about their passions and share those stories with others can have a positive effect on literacy.”

Comic Genius. Not Just for Kids.

batman.jpg

An enduring superhero makes the transition from page to screen.

As we enter another festive season, books remain one of the most popular of Christmas gifts, but in the age of digital, with its ever-increasing choice and variety of reading formats, there is one statistic which may come as a surprise to many. Nearly one in four adult comic readers is 65 years of age or older, according to a report from US media analysts Simba Information. One of the leading authorities on market intelligence and forecasts in the media and publishing industry, the company believes that the market for comics has been driven by a series of successful film adaptations in recent years, most notably Warner Bros.’ The Dark Knight, which stands as one of the highest-grossing films of all time. Yet, as Overview of the U.S. Comic Book and Graphic Novel Market 2009-2010 clearly shows, the industry remains misunderstood at best.

“Despite notable efforts from many in the industry, comics and graphic novels continue to be repeatedly mislabeled as just another children’s book category,” said Warren Pawlowski, online publishing manager for Simba Information and an analyst within the company’s Trade Books Group. “With nearly a quarter of the comic reading audience beyond the age of retirement, there is a misconception that needs to be corrected.”

The report, which delves deeper into the persona of the modern-day comic reader, with detailed demographic comparisons to book buyers and the general population, also provides bestseller analysis of the three major segments within the comic industry—comic books, graphic novels and manga—featuring multiple listings of the top titles and publishers by both title output and total dollar sales, as well as sales forecasts for the coming year. Until the last few years, the comics industry, particularly the graphic novel segment, has been a market largely untapped by traditional book publishers. However, a growing number have come to embrace it, with both publishers and retailers realising the numerous and significant opportunities offered by this diverse market.

War

A landmark work. Joe Sacco’s The Great War.

Sure to be top of many ‘best books’ lists for 2013, especially as thoughts turn towards the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I next year, is the latest work of art and possible magnum opus from the American journalist and comics writer Joe Sacco. In an extraordinary, 24-foot-long wordless panorama, The Great War depicts the events of a single day – the launch of the Battle of the Somme on 1st July, 1916. It is a day which has come to epitomise the madness of the First World War. Almost 20,000 British soldiers were killed and another 40,000 were wounded that first day, and there were more than one million casualties by the time the offensive halted a few months later. From the riding exercises of General Douglas Haig to the massive artillery positions and marshalling areas behind the trench lines, to the legions of British soldiers going ‘over the top’ and being cut down in No-Man’s-Land, to the tens of thousands of wounded soldiers retreating and the dead being buried en masse, The Great War is a landmark work in Sacco’s illustrious career, and ‘makes visceral one of the bloodiest days in history.’

The Great War seems to work in slow motion. The reader’s eye doesn’t dart quickly over the pages, pulled along by a sense of narrative; rather, we are invited to look closely at every inch of every page, and it’s only in this intense inspection that the horror hits. Over there, an officer quietly vomits. Over here, a horse is put out of its misery. And in this corner, a soldier twists on a stretcher, his arms thrown out in front of him as if he wants nothing more than to embrace death. Most of the time there are so many men in Sacco’s trenches – at the Somme, soldiers were forced to spend the night before the beginning of the offensive on their feet – that all we can see from our position behind the lines are the massed ranks of their helmets, piled and gently curved as if they were just counters in a particularly heinous form of tiddlywinks. So when a face or a gesture is visible, you’re pulled up, caught out, remembrance suddenly sour and fierce rather than merely mournful.”

Rachel Cooke, The Observer, Sunday 8 September 2013

Click here to see my full list of recommended picture books, comics and graphic novels for all ages.

See also:

The 13 Best Children’s, Illustrated and Picture Books of 2013

Related Posts:

Getting Serious with Comics

The Wonderful World of Comics

Understanding Comics

Books – Designing the Future

I’d like to thank my friend Yatra for bringing this to my attention, and John at I Love Typography for posting it first, as well as having the most elegant, unique and beautiful blog. I make no apologies for bringing it to a wider audience.

As someone who still reads only paper books for now (not that I have any sentimental moral objections to eReaders, I just haven’t got round to buying one), I am intrigued by what it is that makes us hang on to books, literally and metaphorically. In this fascinating account, the writer, designer and publisher Craig Mod examines our emotional relationship with books and looks at how we might preserve this relationship into the digital age.

Harry Potter and the Fan Fiction Factory

Teachers, and perhaps especially teachers of English, understand how difficult it often is to convince young people that writing is a worthwhile activity. This is especially true where there is little incentive beyond ‘this will improve your final grades’ – always the last resort of a desperate teacher – but I wonder whether the opportunities afforded by access to the Web have just introduced a whole new set of  challenges as well as opportunities. Could it be that unless teachers can guarantee a real purpose and audience for those youngsters who are already motivated to write – possibly via wikis and blogs – they will increasingly look elsewhere for more meaningful outlets?

In Convergence Culture – Where Old and New Media Collide, the American author Henry Jenkins considers the shift which new technologies have brought in the way we think of our relationship to media, and how the skills we acquire initially through play may have implications for how we learn, work, participate in the political process and connect with other people around the world. Dismissing talk of a ‘digital revolution’, he prefers instead to think of a ‘digital evolution’ where popular storytelling increasingly takes place across different media platforms (transmedia), in a world where passive consumers have been replaced by active  participants or ‘players’.

In the chapter Why Heather Can Write, Jenkins examines the phenomenon known as ‘fan fiction’, and the ways in which it exemplifies the new media landscape. On fan fiction websites like Fiction Alley for example, the largest of a number of websites dedicated to fans of Harry Potter, young writers come together to write, collaborate and share stories about their favourite characters, and sometimes to invent new characters of their own. New writers are mentored by an army of unpaid volunteers known a ‘beta readers’ – a term derived from the world of technology where ‘beta’ means ‘in development’ – and criticism, while it is always positive and constructive, is also focused and direct, dealing with issues of grammar and style as well as plotlines. The beta readers are also contributing authors and what all the writers have in common is that they are looking to improve their work, not simply to have it praised. On another fan fiction site, FanFiction.Net, beta reader Cat Foxglove describes her strengths as ‘Very picky about grammar and continuity. If tenses constantly change, words are continually misspelled, or the very flow of a story contradicts itself, I have no problem saying so.’ Night Monkey, who describes herself as a college writing major from Pennsylvania has written 23 stories for Batman and Dr Who, and says in her beta profile, ‘I’ll read just about whatever you’d care to give me, but I would prefer humor above all else. I’m also, oddly enough, a fan of horror. If you do fanfiction based off (sic) books, there’s a good chance I’ve read or at least heard of it. I’d be tickled to work with Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, or Stephen King fanfiction. I won’t say no to Twilight, but don’t bring me senseless crap.’

This relationship between learner and mentor, based on the trust of peers on what is effectively a shared journey is, by definition, quite different from the formal teacher-pupil relationship found in school and allows the young writers to experiment with their craft within the safe confines of a pre-existing fictional world. For many of the writers who contribute to the fan community, the journey begins by simply reading the efforts of others, before they are comfortable enough to submit their own stories. Once they are committed however, the feedback provides the incentive for them to develop and improve. They quickly come to regard themselves as real ‘authors’.

Critics of fan fiction argue that it is unoriginal and imitative, but as Jenkins points out, this kind of ‘apprenticeship’ model is common in other cultural spheres, and historically young artists learned their craft by initially imitating the great masters, sometimes contributing to their work, before establishing styles, techniques and content of their own. Whether the same conditions for writing can be created within a formal school setting, is a different matter. Again, as Jenkins points out:

“Schools have less flexibility to support writers at very different stages of their development. Even the most progressive schools set limits on what students can write compared to the freedom they enjoy on their own. Certainly, teens may receive harsh critical responses to their more controversial stories when they publish them online, but the teens themselves are deciding what risks they want to take and facing the consequences of those decisions.”

Armed with this knowledge, it might be tempting for teachers either to write off fan fiction entirely as inferior or worthless (despite its massive popularity), or to wholeheartedly encourage their students to get involved and even to join them in the endeavour, but the growth in such online communities raises a number of questions for teachers and schools.  Could it be that part of the attraction of fan fiction writing and its devotees is that they are outwith the formal structures of the education system? Should teachers simply accept that there are some elements of a young person’s literary (and literacy) development which should be left alone, and, whether or not teachers embrace the new orthodoxy which determines that we are all learning together, will there always be a gap between formal and informal learning? I’d be interested to hear your views.

World Book Night

I love books, and I love giving them away. Which is why I signed up early to volunteer as a ‘giver’ on yesterday’s World Book Night and how I ended up spending six hours tramping around the streets, cafes and pubs of my home town of Ayr giving away 48 copies of Life of Pi to complete strangers. The brainchild of Jamie Byng, MD of Canongate publishers and a controversial figure within and without the publishing world, the idea was that 20,000 volunteers across the UK and Ireland would each give away four dozen copies of a book, chosen from a pre-selected list of 25 titles, with a further 40,000 copies distributed to ‘difficult to reach’ places such as prisons and hospitals, making a grand total of 1 million books. Supported by television and with extensive coverage in the media generally, the overall aim of the event was to spread the word about reading and to set a million books on a ‘journey’ which can be tracked back to the original giver. Each book has been allocated a unique ten-digit number and the receiver is encouraged to register the number on the WBN website where he or she will subsequently be able to comment on the book before passing it on to someone else. The organisers put it like this:-

“At the heart of all reading lies a journey, a mental journey into the unknown that has the power to alter the passenger in the course of the travelling. The journey is indeed the destination and World Book Night seeks to celebrate the many journeys that books allow people to go on.”

Life of Pi

Despite having the approval of the Publishers’ Association, the Booksellers’ Association and the Independent Publishers’ Guild among others, the scheme has not been without its critics, not least those who say that it will only serve to make it more difficult for new authors to find an audience, or that it will result in people failing to understand the real cost of books. Some have suggested alternative projects, like author and blogger Nicola Morgan, who encouraged readers to buy a book from their local bookshop and write the inscription ‘Given in the spirit of World Book Night, March 5th 2011 and bought from [insert name of shop] – please enjoy and tell people about it’, before passing it on to a friend. A great idea, and something which I’m sure many readers, myself included, already do on a regular basis. If you’re passionate about books, it’s difficult not to want to share that passion with others.

As for my own experience on World Book Night, it made me have a fresh look at my home town, gave me an excuse to have some lengthy conversations with complete strangers, and left me with a great feeling of satisfaction to see the obvious pleasure the gift of a book can still bring to people in a sometimes chaotic world.

I would like to thank the owners and managers of Cafe Nero, Su Casa, Cafe Francais, Beanscene and Billy Bridge’s Bar in Ayr for allowing me to harass their customers during their busiest day of the week, especially in the case of the latter as my visit coincided with the television broadcast of the 3.30 from Doncaster.