Friday 18 December 2015

Sci-fi shorts still work

The Illustrated ManThe Illustrated Man


Ray Bradbury

Some time back my onlne book group read Bradbury’s short story “There will come soft rains”. We found the following excellent reading by Leonard Nimoy.


This inspired me to want to read more of this classic sci-fi writer’s work, so I picked up The Illustrated Man, and was not disappointed. Even for non lovers of sci-fi I think there is something here. Written in the late 1940s/early 1950s its amazing how relevant some of his social commentaries are today. For example in “The Other Foot” we are on Mars, inhabited only by black people, the whites having stayed on Earth. But after years of separate existences, Earth has disintegrated and suddenly the Martians are faced with an earth ship landing. The community faces up to how it should treat these whites wanting sanctuary on their planet – shoudl they treat then with all the hatred and discrimination they had shown to black folks on earth? or should they treat them like fellow human beings? Remember he wrote this in a time when linchings were still happening, the KKK was very active, and the racial divide absolute.

Other stories which resonanted well with me were “The Long Rain” the story of the spaceshipwrecked crew on the eternally wet Venus as they try to reach the dry, warm, quiet of the Sun Dome; “The Vedlt” with its concept of the children’s playroom which made their thoughts and play like reality, a some of interactive holographic play suite, I suppose; “The Fox in the Forest” where a couple have escpaed the horror and war of 22nd century with its leprosy bombs, radioactive madness for the sunshine, smells, sounds, tastes of 1938’s Mexico,. But have they escaped the Searchers who like bounty hunters hunt down Travel in Time, Inc.’s holidaymakers who “forget” to come home. What I liked was his ingenious devices and scenarios, which for me still work some 60-70 years after he wrote them. 

I listened to the audio version read well by Scott Brick, my only issue with the audio was that Tantor Audio could have made a little longer time spacing between the individual stories

ashramblings verdict 4* Great selection of sci-fi stories which still work today

Saturday 12 December 2015

Heralding anew

I am your lover, waiting in the wings
Do not walk aimlessly while you can sing.
I am your lover, desire resting in my hands
Do not sit upon reflection when others make their plans.

I will be your lover, your future I behold
Do not wander lost my love, in a past already told.
I am your lover, your true north, day and night
Do not live without direction thinking only of what might.

I am your lover, waiting by the door
The New Year who beckons forward holding out so much more
Step in and greet me lovingly like a long lost friend
I promise to stay with you right to the other end.

Yes we will have our ups and downs, my dear
but yes we’ll have some fun,
So come wave the old year out, my love
and herald in the year to come.

© Sheila Ash 12 December 2015


Sunday 6 December 2015

I fell in love with the voice….. of Ron McLarty

Last week’s in class exercise was 10 min on this line “I fell in love with the voice…”

I know not the man,
only the voice.
His baritone vocals -
resoundant, deep, slightly gruff
yet warm, at their core
as tender as the night
he reads to me
the works of David Baldacci.
Truly no one compares
to this man who dares
to ravish my heart,
tear at my soul
and thrill me
with spies and detectives
hard-boiled and not.
it can only be he
who reads them to me.

© Sheila Ash 30th November 2015

Sunday 29 November 2015

If the cuckoo don’t crow then you know there’s a wind coming

This week’s homework assignment for our Creative Writing group was to be inspired by the story of “if the cuckoo don’t crow” . So I decided to try my hand at nonsense! Here goes!

If the cuckoo don’t crow
and the crow flies on by
then spring is at hand
and fishes will fly.

If leaves are bright pink
and day break is lost
then hold onto your hat
and be in fear of a ghost.

if pigs walked on stilts
and reindeer were blue
then Harry Potter would have died
and your home is the zoo.

if life is a Truman show
and your best mate a dog
then you’d eat breakfast at midnight
and swim in the fog.

If water was caustic
and acid was sweet
a dose of figs
would be right up your street.

If clocks went backwards
and time was reversed
then your gran is your offspring
and life’s plain perverse.

But the day always breaks
and breakfast’s at seven
the trees are green
in my kindergarten heaven.
gran’s a little old lady who lives with a cat
feeds the fish in the river where we sit for a chat
Harry Potter survived and Ghost’s a dire wolf
the red nose is Rudolph’s - Now there’s no need to scoff
at these things I’m sure of,
‘cos there’s one thing I know -
that pigs don’t fly and the cuckoo don’t crow!

© Sheila Ash 29th November 2015

Thursday 26 November 2015

The Winter’s Tale left me cold

Just been to see Kenneth Branagh's production of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale broadcast live to my local arts centre from the Garrick Theatre in London. I had such great hopes given the cast – Branagh, Judi Dench. But oh dear what a disappointment. The sound was out, by a few milliseconds only, but enough to make it seem like I was watching a badly dubbed Spanish telenovela. OK one’s brain accommodates it after several minutes, but it infuriated me all the way through.

The first scene was really quite dark and although the lighting should have created an atmosphere to capture Leontes’ (played by Branagh) insane jealousy and madness at the supposed infidelity of his wife with his friend, Polixenes, the camera angles were not conducive to it. Perhaps it was due to the small stage at The Garrick, but surely then your production team take that into account when working out the camera direction.

If the acting had been riveting, I’d have forgiven these misdemeanours but it wasn’t. I just did not feel anything from Branagh’s performance which left me cold. Maybe he was having a bad night. But all these together meant that for me the whole production was flat, it had no depth, no emotion. Honestly it was poor. I must not have been the only one to think this as after the interval the woman sitting next to me and the couple behind did not come back.

They missed the better part. The acting improved in the second half with the younger members of the cast stealing the show on the whole, albeit that again the sound engineers let them down badly. We had a feedback loop so for a minute or so we heard everything twice. The camera stayed straight for the second act, giving you a more traditional audience point of view onto the stage, like you were sitting in the theatre. This worked better, especially with there being more people on stage with the dance sequence on the sheep farm. I particularly liked Tom Bateman as Doricles/Florizel whose strong presence on the stage was evocative and full of emotion. I thought the dance sequences around his love for Perdita (Jessie Buckley) were well choreographed, albeit with the redish-purple prairie backdrop lighting effect it felt a little like a scene from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers sexed up for the modern era by the removal of the shirts of some of the males dancers.

The other actor to make a mark was John Dagleish as Autolycus, the jester cum pick pocket who really worked the stage and the audience well, like a trouper from the old time music hall. There were times when his persona came a little too close to a Dicken’s Fagin making me think we were going to hear a rendition of “I got to pick a pocket or two”.

But these higher points could not overcome the failings of artistic direction and production on the night for those of use watching it via live cinecast. I left not entirely sure what Branagh and co-director Rob Ashford were trying to achieve with this production and if I’d paid West End prices to see this I would be less than pleased.

ashramblings verdict: 2* Corny and mostly devoid of feeling!


Tuesday 24 November 2015

Dancing right in front of me

This weeks Creative Writing exercise was to utilise this phrase taken from the David Gilmour song.

Facebook this morning
is full of Belgian cats
cucumbered eyes
snuggled in a health spa bathrobe
the epitome of an enforced weekend’s laziness
the usual pet madness politicised.

Pictures flash by
friends new décor
friends holidays
reunion tales
then dancing right in front of me
Fred Astaire
a real cool cat
in white top hat and tails
tapping his cane.

I click
he morphs
to Rita Hayworth,
Judy Garland,
Gene Kelly
Hollywood greats from a golden era
all mashed up now
the Big Band sound replaced
by Ronson’s “Uptown Funk”.

© 23rd November 2015

Cucumbered Cat: 
More Cats:
Watch the Video: Uptown Funk - Old Hollywood Mashup Posted by Trini Lulz on Thursday, 19 November 2015

Wednesday 11 November 2015


This weeks Creative writing exercise was a quickie – write in 5 minutes on “Compulsory”.

You have to do it.
You must do it.
You should do it.
”It is compulsory to do it” (said with Indian accent)
The habitual Indian usage comes back to my ear.
The confusion of the colloquial English language in different climes
Clarified like ghee
traced back to grammar
confounds the beginner always
be it in English, Spanish or Hindi.

Tuesday 10 November 2015

November Meeting Halesworth U3A Music Appreciation Group


Alison was up first with her desert Island disks

  • Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 Pastoral, played by Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Erich Kleiber Decca 1987 Alison chose the last movement. YouTube has the whole Symphony in 5 parts Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5
  • Joseph Hyden’s Die Schöpfung / The creation. Last Chorus. Sung by Camilla Tilling and Mark Padmore, Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks Conducted by Bernard Haitink Part 1 and Part 2
  • Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2  played by Nash Ensemble and used in the film “The Page Turner”. Alison’s choice was the final movement. YouTube has the whole piece in 4 parts Part 1, Part 2, Part3, Part4

Martin’s selction was

Ken’s choice was

  • Beethoven’s 9th Liverpool Philharmonic conducted by Charles Mackerras YouTube has it in 5 parts Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5
  • Shostakovich 8th Quartet played by The Gabrieli Quartet . I couldn’t find a free to listen to recording of this on the net by this Quartet. There are several other recording available for free, for example The Kronos Quartet
  • Miles Davis Summertime From Essential Miles Davis Compilation

and finally John rounded us off with another dittty from the stage  production Tomfoolery which is available on itunes Track 13 entitled Irish ballad but probably best recalled as RikkiTikkiTinTin

Monday 9 November 2015

A weekend of Zhang Yimou

I’m a huge Zhang Yimou fan and especially his films with Li Gong from the very first one I saw which was Raise the Red Lantern, so this week has been a trip down memory lane.


Red Sorghum was his first film in 1987 and their first together. His shots of the wild sorghum fields are somewhat reminiscent of Tarkovsky. Li Gong plays the strong female lead who takes over control of the winery of the man she had been forced to marry when he dies. Narrated by her grandson, the story starts with her journey to marry the leper, her attempt to return to her family after having stopped the consummation of the marriage, and her return to the now dead leper’s winery, persuading the staff to stay on, their successful wine harvest and the arrival of the Japanese army to build a road and their destruction of the sorghum fields.  The films shows signs of what was to come from both director and leading lady.


Curse of the Golden Flower 2006 show just how far they had come together. Li Gong has mastered her craft. I am always particularly struck by her portrayal of strength and vulnerability, and this is brilliantly put to use in her role here as the Empress plotting overthrow of her husband and Emperor (played by China cinema’s legendary Chow Yun Fat) in attempt to put her eldest son and his second son on the throne. The Emperor however did not get to his position for no reason. He is trying to poison her at the same time. The intricate plot twists and the powerplays continue to the end. Yimou direction comes into its own with the battle scenes in the Imperial Palace grounds – huge numbers of warriors in scenes which according to imdb took 20 days to film  and which in my opinion rival Lord of the Rings in end effect – and in the marvellous introductory sequence as the thousands of Palace servants ready  themselves for the Emperor’s return from war. There are beautiful customs (it was nominated for a 2007 Costume Design Oscar but lost out to Marie Antoinette which I have not seen) and great choreography throughout – its just epic! If you missed it watch it now!

Friday 6 November 2015

A week of strong film dramas

This week’s movies I watched are

A Second Chance

Usually the cover of a DVD gives a fairly accurate assessment of the type of movie it is, but here the movie is so much more. The cover seems to suggest, to me at least, a police thriller in the ScandiNoir tradition whereas although the lead, played by Game of Thrones star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is Andreas, a cop, noir it is not. It tackles the trauma associated with the sudden death of a baby.

The acting is tremendous from both him and the two actresses who play the two mothers in the film - Maria Bonnevie who plays Andreas  wife, and May Andersen who plays the female half of the “junkie” partnership alongside Nikolaj Lie Kaas.

When Andreas’' and Anne’s baby dies and he witnesses the neglect of the junkies’ child, he looses his grip on reality and with it his sense of justice. The plot has some shocking turns in its storyline and one I for one did not see coming. A challenging topic and a challenging film, exceeding well played and directed. Excellent!

Kill the Messenger (2014)

Jeremy Renner stars in this movie version of a neglected true story as journalist Gary Webb as he attempts to maintain his own integrity in the face of smear campaign which rendered him neutralised as a journalist when he got his big scoop story on a the San Jose Mercury, a provincial US newspaper, namely, that the US CIA funded Nicaraguan Contras with money raised from dealing crack cocaine to predominantly black communities in places such as south LA . Just a pity it doesn't continue the story through to his death - a suicide by two gunshots to the head!





Salamander Season 1

Begun by browsing the first few minutes to see if this would prove any good since I’d never heard of it and ended up watching the first 3 episode in one sitting instead of going to bed. So good plot!

66 safety deposit boxes are broken into in the Jonkhere is a small private bank in Brussels, Belgium. They belong to prominent public figures who do not want the police involved  in order to avoid scandal because of the materials they contained.

But incorruptible police inspector Paul Gerardi discovers that the victims belong to a secret organisation, Salamander, a cabal made up of the country's industrial, financial, judicial and political elite, and the safety deposit boxes contain their most intimate secrets which stretch back to World War II. As the pressure begins to be applied to these individuals it becomes apparent that the very fabric of society, government and even the Belgium Royals could be brought down by it. Suicides of prominent figures start to mount. Pressure is applied by the state and criminals to Geraldi who is stripped of his police status, only to be taken in by the ultra secret P9 force whose sole purpose is to shore up and protect the state.

Killing Them Softly

The ruthless business of the hired killer is played out against the background soundtrack of US political news bulletins featuring Obama and Bush. Pretty violent, but that's its subject matter. Good casting, with perhaps Sopranos' actor James Gandolfini stealing the limelight as past hitman Mickey from Brad Pitt's lead as cool, chatty Jackie Cogan, crescendo-ing into Pitt's final line "America is not a country it's a business"

Monday 19 October 2015

The man on the stairs

The Stirling staircase cascades down its landings.
Descending you approach
as in one long David Lean take of Sherif Ali approaching the well
my eyes are held blinkless.

Gradually a figure forms
wrapped against the winter chill
the sheep’s skin jacket crowned with a leather hat
adorned by multi-coloured pheasant feathers.

As we pass
from below its brim shine two chestnut eyes
as dark as the midnight sky
as bright as the moon leading the traveller home.

My north, my south, my east, my west, my anchor
Forever I am bound to them and the warmth of their accompanying smile.

© Sheila Ash 19th October 2015

See a great set of photos of this iconic building

Tuesday 13 October 2015

Desert Island Disks

For today’s Halesworth U3A Music Appreciation Group meeting three of us did our Desert Island Disks, a choice of 3 each from 3 of us. If I have mistaken any of the pieces in any way, apologies

First Up Joan with

(1) Salvatore Accardo playing Bruck’s  Violin Concerto with Leipzig orchestra conducted by Kurt Masur.

(2) Barbara Streisand with Barry Gibb singing Stranger in a Strange Land

(3) Elisabeth Welch singing “In No Time” a comic song which I cannot find a working link to online but you can see more of her stuff on her Youtube channel and they might even have repaired the link

Next Up – Michael with a locally themed collection

(1) Halesworth Community Choir singing Red Sails by Bridget Cousins – its an amateur recording and amazingly I found it on YouTube!

(2) Shir playing Shalom Aleichem from the album From the Heart which you can listen to on Soundcloud its track 8.

(3) Gould Trio playing Brahms Piano Trio in C minor No3

Next Up Myself

(1) Adiemus: The Etrenal Knot Track No 1 Cu Chillan


(2) Toumani Diabete and Ballake Sissoko New Ancient Strings Track No. 1 Bi Lamban

(3) Google and You Tube commission Internet symphony by Tan Dun entitled Eroica

And finally we rounded off with a comic ditty from John

Jonathon Adam and Robin Ray singing When you are old and Grey from the stage  production Tomfoolery which is available on itunes Track 6

Monday 12 October 2015

Desert Island Disks

I was asked to pick 3 recordings as my "Desert Island" disks for our Music Appreciation group which meets tomorrow. After much deliberation I picked the following -

(1) Ch Chullain, from Adiemus: The Eternal Knot by Karl Jenkins - because it reminds me of my Celtic heritage and is uplifting;

(2) Bi Lamban by Toumani Diabete and Ballake Sissoko, two master players from Mali of is probably my favourite sounding instrument, the kora, from west Africa;


(3) Tan Dun's Eroica - The Internet Symphony because I love fusion is all things - food, music - and this has it, with intertextual homages and great percussion, I love it. 

Suicide on the beach?

Todays scenario for our Writing Group in class exercise was as follows:
On the beach you find a scrap of paper with hand writing saying “John says it would be better this way – but what do you ……” , write the background to this

Should I go or should I stay?
Will my nights become my day
Will shadows into colour blend
or stagger forward to the end?

Should I go or should I stay?
Will rainbows push away the rain?
Tears dried up but streaks remain
Mascaraed eyes to hide my pain.

Lightning claps and thunder sounds
My head is spinning round and round
Storm filled the howling seawind blows
Should I stay or should I go?

( I am imagining a tormented woman had been on the beach, contemplating whether to stay in her abusive relationship or not, where to stay in life or not, after her partner has said it would be better if she were dead)

© Sheila Ash 12 October 2015

Saturday 10 October 2015

In Cameo

8 lines curve upon the screen
a minimalist caricature
of the puppet master.
the music begins
Gunoud’s Funeral March of a Marionette
his silhouette floats by
an eternal cameo.

definitive, trademarked
totally identifiable
this self deprecating cartoon of his old man’s curve.
the ponchy, chubby, tubby soul
this master of suspense looks
weirdly like an elder Tintin without his trusted dog.

He’s suited up
Hairline receding
double chin flapping as he walks and talks
Those eyes, peering down his nose
through glasses that were never there
Over his pug dog droopy jaws
penetrating, demanding, interrogating,
making us look deep into our own souls
maximising the fear we see within.

he always appeared slightly aloof
from his herd of actors
like his cameras
props for his craft
pitching up to transform us into willing voyeurs
to bring our gaze in close
only to find him there “in cameo”

© Sheila Ash, 2015

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Monday 5 October 2015

Me and I


This weeks prompt was a silver Victorian/art nouveau hand mirror similar to this picture. Our tutor asked us to look at ourselves in the mirror, image some 10 or 20 years previous and see where that reflection took us in our writing.

I found this quite hard as I don’t normally do much character based writing, but after a hesitant start which ate up some 5 of my 20 minutes, I came up with the following.




I see you, you look at me
Are we the same?
Always and forever linked
in past and present,
Stepping together into our future
You pull one way, I another.
Yet somehow we find a common path.

If I met you on the street
would recognition follow?
Would I like you?
Find you fun?
Your smile infectious,
your skins soft,
your eyes appealing?

You tell me off when courage fails
Laugh at my silliness
Shoulder my pain.
Know all my fears and dreams.

Are you my missing soul mate?
my partner in crime?
my unborn twin
whose dent is still in my ribcage
or merely a reflection of me?

© Sheila Ash, 2015

Sunday 4 October 2015

In the end everything simply began…..


Divine hands at work.
Particles expand.
Whatever! Am I bothered?
Does it matter? Dark matter
Big bangs, multiple universes
expanding ever outwards into nothingness.

What was there before?
A void?
the absence of all is surely something in itself?
A singularity?
Located where? in what? on what?
The Kantian fallacy of absolutes
gives way instead to spacetime curvatures.

Dynamic, unfixed, shaped by matter and energy
bubbles in the boiling pot
summing possible histories
into inflationary expansion
strong gravitational fields propelling
a quantum potential?

There amongst the thermal cosmic background
a cosmological constant?
Einstein’s blunder revived as the accelerator
for dark energy ignition
of life.

Of life. Of death.
Transitions measuring time’s passage,
confirming our finite nature within the Infinities
and Aristotle’s adage that something eternal is more perfect than something created

© Sheila Ash, 2015

Tuesday 29 September 2015

Wood Words – for Rachel’s Wood

Majestic guardians stand tall.
Keepers of our past,
protectors of our future.

Enclosure in decay.
Crumbling atop the earth
where deep below unseen fingers work
breaking down
releasing regeneration, renewing fertility.

Continued and coppiced.
Rustlings release restraint
an upward melody of movement skyward.

© Sheila Ash, 2015

Saturday 26 September 2015

Hommage à Bergman

This weeks homework for our Creative Writing Group was to write 300 words beginning “Yesterday Ingrid came back into my life”. Here is what I wrote.



Ingrid came back into my life yesterday
as she frequently does.
Entering stage right
hers is the intermezzo that holds it all together.
I’m spellbound …..
the famous lines, that look,
belying innocence,
oozing sexuality.
A face that always looked good in hats.

She’d be 100 now and still gets me every time
“Play it for me” misquoted yes,
but yes, oh yes I’d play it for her, for her ….
tender curls rolling down her flawless cheeks,
caressing her angular face,
outlining her cupid lips.
No size zero
but the perfect frame for 40s fashions.

Decked out in virginal white more often than not
Purity embodied as in her Joan of Arc.
The onscreen porcelain doll illusion
broken well and true
for Rossellini’s love .
To leave her man, her child
“an influence for evil” said senators
but still we watch, as they do now I’m sure
bedazzled, enthralled,
hooked line and ….
sink into her deep brown eyes
her eyebrows, full, unplucked -
rampant by today’s trends -
they made her Meir more authentic.

I imagine it’s me
in Humphrey Bogart’s arms,
with Gregory Peck, with Yul Brunner.
Torn between Rick and Lazlo;
saved by Robert Jordan.
personas dramaticus
her life, my life, separated by the flimsiest of veils
Yes Ingrid came back into my life yesterday
as she frequently does.

Words 234

© Sheila Ash 26th September 2015

Monday 21 September 2015

An Inspector’s eye view

This weeks Creative Writing Group exercise was one of tutor’s mystery bags. Picked, contents unseen, these are our starting points. Mine were a half burned candle in a candlestick, a piece of rope, a large peg with various letters written on one side, but not a proper word, a Dictaphone type mini-cassette recorder. We have one minute to decide whether to keep or exchange the bags. My initial thought was “Shit, this is the murder mystery writer’s pouch.” I love reading them  but can’t and don’t want to write them. This is what I ended up with in our 20 minutes. I think of it as what the inspector sees when he first goes into the room where the dead body sits in the chair by the fire.

Molten wax
drip, drip dripping
tape deck
whir, whirl whirring
sound captured
stir, stir stirring
in the chair
sleep, sleep sleeping.

Letters jumbled
Words criss-crossing
puzzles unravelled
pieces missing
caught memories fleeting
on the wash line of life.

Winds of change howling
ties that bind straining
strenuously holding
illusion of life evaporating.

Wick burns out blackening
charcoal ash crumbling
upward smoke floating
body and soul separating
life unravelling
time collapsing
emptiness beckoning.

© Sheila Ash 21st September 2015

Just One More

They sit cross legged
eagerly anticipating.
Passed hand to hand
rapidly at first, then slowly
hoping for the game’s end.

Tiny hands tear at the wrapping
another layer,
an audible sigh,
so on again, back and forth
this way and that.

Crumpled pink and blue bunny rabbits
torn Thomas the tank engines
partial Peppa Pigs
discarded in piles en route to the prize

just one more
just one more paper frontier to be crossed
just one more

© Sheila Ash 20th September 2015

Quest – purveyor of flavours and fragrances

Last week was our first week back at our Creative Writing Group after the summer break. I can never get this consistent regress back to school timetabling, both here and at other things, why people insist on taking holidays in the summer months when the schools are out when they no longer are restrained by such schedules. Anyway, for me it really breaks the rhythm, the discipline of writing. So the first week back is always hard. This time our tutor brought in a collection of freshly picked items from his large garden, many still damp with morning dew, others already decaying, mould filling the air as he emptied the bag containing them across the library table.  These our topic, or springboard for our first piece of writing of the new term when our theme is reflection on memory, mood and the senses.

The memory they conjured up was of a long time ago long term customer Quest International, now part of Givaudan, based in Ashford in Kent, who make flavours and fragrances. What I recall is how the concentrated essences emerging from their refinery were often very difficult to distinguish or identify if you didn’t have a “nose” and that there effect on me was always intense.

Stainless steel tubes and pipes
bending, turning,
intertwining architectures like Terry Gillam’s Brazil,
glistening in the sunshine -
an Escher maze enlivened by heat venting, steam evaporating.
The breeze carries the days refinement far before you see it.
Oxo cubes? Or is it Orange Blossom that assaults my nasal passages?
Sniffles streaming; Sheila sneezing.

Still from the film Brazil

© Sheila Ash 14th September 2015

Monday 14 September 2015

Contrasting coping mechanisms revealed

The Illuminations

by Andrew O'Hagan

Yet another book about dementia and memory!  This time threaded through with the story of dementia sufferer’s grandson, Luke, who is a soldier. Anne, the grandmother, is getting less able to survive in the sheltered accommodation that is currently her home, even with the help of family and neighbours. Luke has returned from serving in Afghanistan, still dealing with the death of his colleague, the inadequacies of their commanding officer and their betrayal by a fellow Afghani officer.

The book alternates  between Annie’s story and Luke’s both in Afghanistan and once he is back home in Scotland. Always closer to his gran than his mother, Alice,  ever has been, he sets about helping her to get ready for the move and discovers much more than they ever knew about Anne’s past. SPOILER ALERT – That past is her origins in Canada, that she came to look after aunts in Scotland, became a famous documentary photographer in the 60s, fell in love with a married man with whom she spent time in a a flat in Blackpool (hence The Illuminations)  and who left her high and dry, pregnant with Luke’s mother and an unknown twin brother, who died as a child, and surrounded by lies.

I like the characterisations throughout – of Anne, of her neighbour, and of Luke and the boys from his platoon. I did struggle with the dialog of the army life, but therein lies the contrasts at the heart of this novel – coping with the battlefield now and after the soldiers try to loose their memories of war in drug fuelled nights on the town, in playing computer games, whereas the Memory Club tries to help the old folk cope with the passing of time, to recall their past youth, the past familiar, to enable them to continue to live semi-independently in the now. As Luke decides not to return to the army life, his exploration of Anne’s past is “illuminating” of her, of his mother’s relationship with her, his own and himself, of different ways of dealing with memories, loss, lies and cover ups.

ashramblings 3* I suspect some people will really like this novel, but for me it was just a bit to sentimental. Not my normal read, but it would make a fine, topical, dramatization for TV.

if I were fishing for a winner…..

The Fishermen

by Chigozie Obioma

A 1990s middle class Nigerian childhood in which the loving Agwu family is torn apart by the prophecy of the “madman” Abulu. Freedom for the four eldest boys comes when their father’s work at the bank means he has to live in Yola in the north far away from their southern home in Akure, returning only at the weekends, and they go fishing in the local river, the Omi-Ala, which has, unbeknown to them a bad reputation, having once been worshiped by local people.  It is there that Abulu’s prophecy of fratricide is uttered.

The character and story of Abulu is marvellous in itself – how he became the man he is today, what he did (raped his mother), how he looks and what he does (public masturbation) and says (prophesies) -  as is the whole mix of African storytelling and Western novel. The  first disintegration is of Ikena, the eldest son who is knocked of balance by the prophecy which shatters his love for his brothers. He begins to seriously fight with Boja, the next in age with whom he shares a room, and so the downward spiral of destruction starts despite his brothers pleas that they love him and would never harm him. The reader really buys into the conflict as retold by the now adult Benjamin recalling his childhood experiences and memories – his child’s voice is very authentic.

Nigerian politics is a backdrop to a number of aspects of the story. The period is that of the military dictatorship of General Sani Abacha between the 3rd and 4th Republics, when the father wants his sons to be successful and has planned out various careers – doctors, lawyers etc   - and to put behind them the corruption of the country through education and ambition. The change in status of the river echoes the change in perspective of the regime. The boys meet opposition candidate MKO Abiola and the fate of the gifted calendar is part of the story of destruction.

Likewise the prophesy does not just impact the killer and the killed brother, but affects the others in the family. The mother, unable anyway to cope with the boys unruly behaviour whilst nursing their baby sister, has a nervous breakdown when Ikena is killed. The father has to give up his job and return home as he sees not only his career, his ability to provide for his family, but also his dreams for the boys’ future destroyed in turn. His resolve and love for his wife and children really come through in his determination to manage no matter what – he opens a bookshop to earn money, he hides his wife’s illness so no one will taint her, he tries to cover up his inadequate attempt to deal with Abulu so she will not know and never worry over this as well.

SPOLIER ALERT – the family is in effect hit by multiple tragedies – Ikena’s murder, Bola’s suicide, mother’s breakdown, father’s loss of professional status. father’s inability to see to Abula, and then Obeme and Benjamin’s murder of Abulu and a soldier who interrupts them.  Whilst Obeme runs, it is Benjamin who stands trial, his father encouraging him to stand talla nd tell the truth about why they did it. Condemned to imprisonment till he is 18 years without family visits, he is eventually released when there is a change in government, he is welcomed back home at the end of the book when Obeme also return on the same day “to face their father together”

I loved this story, the writing style, the characters, the the author has Benjamin describe each of the main people of the book in their animal form – tadpoles, falconer etc. As such it really does blend African and Western traditions seamlessly and smoothly. My radar is on high alert for his next book. This one has, quite rightly in my opinion been longlisted for the 2015 Booker, for the Guardian First Book Award and other prizes.

ashramblings verdict 4* and I might even be persuaded to give it more! For me, so far, this is the best of the 2015 Booker Longlist I have read.

Saturday 5 September 2015

Music group playlist

Our music sharing group met again on Thursday this week. The playlist was 

  1. Richard Strauss  - 'At sunset'  from The Four Last Songs (Lisa Della Cara was the singer on the version we heard but I can’t find an online link to her version so here is Jessye Normans)
  2. Michael Brecker  - Escher Sketch  A Tale of Two Rhythms from the  1990 album 'Now You See It... Now You Don't
  3. George Gershwin  (arr P. Grainger)   - The Man I  Love

Monday 31 August 2015

If the dead could tell the real story

Echoes from the Dead (The Öland Quartet #1)


Johan Theorin

The death of a child must remain with its parents for ever. How much worse when there has been no body found. The story of Jens, a five-year-old boy who went missing 20 years ago, but whose body has never been found, is told alongside that of Nils Kant, a wayward boy from the island who lies buried in the local cemetery. Jens' mother, Julia,  and grandfather, Gerlof, unearth the true story of what happened that day. Their search brings Julia back to life from her paralysed state of denial. This is a really great thriller, so no surprises then that it won Best First Mystery Novel by the Swedish Academy of Crime in 2007. It has an excellent plot that holds the reader all the way through. Moreover the author gives excellent descriptions of the local terrain, the Swedish island of Öland and bleak remoteness of the alvar. I could see Max von Sydow  playing old Gerlof in a film version quite easily as Theorin's characters are well described, but upon checking it was Tord Peterson who played him in the 2013 Swedish film. Definitely good to see more of these great Swedish thrillers available in English, hopefully more as movies soon as well

ashramblings verdict 4* Excellent thriller

Saturday 29 August 2015

Bringing back memories of India but with a hint of darkness

Sleeping on Jupiter


Anuradha Roy

As a seven year old Nomi sees her father murdered by armed men, looses her brother, and is finally abandoned by her mother before being picked up and transported to an orphanage run by a great spiritual guru who heads an ashram. Instead of love, she finds abuse and finally aged 12 she escapes the sexual gratification of the Guruji only at the cost of leaving behind her only friend. She ends up in an orphanage and is adopted by an Norwegian woman.  At 25, a now slightly punkish, English speaking westernised woman with a splattering of broken, long unused Hindi returns to the fictional town of Jarmuli on the eastern seaboard of India ostensibly to make a film but with a wish to tie up the loose ends of her life story, to keep promises made to her friend Piku, to finally tell the truth.

Old ladies on the beach_croppedOld ladies on the beach_cropped2

Roy intertwines Nomi’s return with the very contrasting lives of three elderly, very conventional, Indian women, Gouri, Latika and Vidya, who have come on their first ever holiday together. The town’s beach and  temple provide a living for the locals and a focal point for much of the action of the story. There we encounter the women’s tour guide Badal trying to woo street boy Raghu, the subject of his unrequited homosexual love. Raghu makes out as best he can, cadging from others, working at the beach tea stall of Johnny Toppo etc. Johnny Toppo continually sings and hums sad songs and may well have been the young gardener of the ashram back in the day. And finally there is Suraj, Nomi’s assistant, I suppose a bit like a local fixer, but who is trying to work out the breakdown of his own marriage.

Each of them is escaping something, each has their own dreams, in Badal’s case of “living on Jupiter and sleeping under its many moons” where there just might be a full moon every night, to bring light into the darkness and keep you safe. Because rumbling constantly just below the surface of one’s life is danger, despair, and violence. Perhaps it is the somewhat minor character of Raghu who shows best that this precariousness still exists in today’s India, bonded labour, living from hand to mouth on the streets, at the whim of the tea stall holder. Badal has his escape fund hidden in a bank account his uncle doesn't know he has, he has his scooter.

Kornak temple detail 2Kornak temple detailKornak Temple.


Reading this reminded me of visiting the beach resorts on this part of the Indian coastline, the temple at Kornak with its salacious, almost pornographic stone carvings on the Kama Sutra and the double standards of Indian views on sexuality and the place of women.

Overall the book touches on an important subject matter thread, but I got to the end of it wishing it had been more. More what? I am not sure. More explicit, more violent? Perhaps I am now too used to reading Scandinoir! On the other hand, one could argue the softening of the violence is appropriate as it is how it was all being related, years after the event, by Nomi and that her blurred memories, jotted down from 12 to 25 into her manuscript are a collage of fleeting moments, muddled by emotions of the moment, of regret, and of survival.

ashramblings verdict 3* Evocative read.

Saturday 8 August 2015

An orchestral composition - The Chimes by Anna Smaill

The Chimes


Anna Smaill


Many of the write ups about this book cite it as challenging, unusual, difficult to get into and as requiring perseverance to work into the storyline. Yes, those statements might be true and Winner it will not be but surely this has to be shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize. It is on the Longlist and deservedly so, because it is a remarkable piece of writing.

In telling the story of a post apocalyptic world (London and Oxford) where memories have been destroyed, writing is long forbidden, in which communication is via music with all its chords, harmonies, rhythms, modulations, cadences and key changes are used to signify distance, direction, shape etc.

Simon has come to London where the population’s communal memory loss is enforced by means of the Carillon, an immense musical instrument which brainwashes everyone with its musical message beginning with “Matins” which tells the “OneStory” of the “AllBreaking”, the “dischord” that destroyed the past and created the present now, and ending the day with “Chimes” at “Vespers” when mental faculties are bombarded leaving the people with only their “bodymemory” to get them through sleep, and to wake again the next morning in a endless repetition and dying in a state of “chimesickness”. Simon carries with him a bag full of precious “objectmemories” which enable him to recall and fell calm about some moments in his life. Loss of these would mean total “memoryloss” and destitution.

Simon falls in with a group of young “pactrunners” (Lucien, Clare, Able and Brennan) who scour the leftovers of London’s underground networks of tunnels  for nuggets of Palladium which they sell. The Palladium is used by “The Order” to build the Carillon. In this first half of the book the author needs to deftly find a way to tell us the story when the world is supposed to not use words and writing. How she does this is what makes the first part difficult for many readers – words are misspelt eg trompet, prentissed, poliss, others words are used just ever so slightly out of context and unexpectedly but continuously eg subito, presto, lento, and place names and slightly altered eg The Isle of Dogs becomes Dog Isle. All this gives you a sense of how over time what had been the English language had changed once writing disappeared and only sound communication survived on the street.

SPOILER ALERT But as with all dystopian states the disorder and chaos of the masses is controlled and the elite exist in a different place, in this case Oxford where the Order overseas the production of music and the “Orkestrum” of the Carillon’s calls. Also not surprisingly their has been a underbelly of resistance, “The Ravesguild” a network of “memorykeepers” to whom people brought memories for storing before they were completely lost. The Ravesguild is all but annihilated, and only the last memorykeeper, Mary, survives behind her mad-woman facade.  It falls to Simon and Lucien to bring all the memories together in a new music piece which tells the true story behind the Allbreaking and to somehow play it through the Carillon to open up and birth a new dawn and free the people from their enforced collective amnesia.

Yes there are obvious similarities here to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy, but for me that doesn’t distract from the work. The storyline held me all the way through. Whilst reading it I kept thinking that the real challenge for this book is to fund a film director and a musical score writer who would take up the challenge of composing the score in such a way that the different characters, the “bodymemories”, the mapping of the tunnels, tube lines, sewerage systems of London could all be made music. At one point in the book, Simon is being given the last memories held by Mary and each one of them tells a part of the story of what it is like to really be human – each with their own melody. I’m not knowledgeable enough about musical composition but I’d just love to see this done, with phrases to identify each of the characters, using rhythm for direction, key change for shape, modulations for direction etc. and then bringing them altogether in the final Carillon piece for full orchestra. The idea has tremendous potential. Potential also for a backstory/prequel about how The Order rose to power, how The Chimes first started, how the sickness spread, how the Ravensguild was inaugurated, founded and eventually fell.

I don’t expect this to be Longlisted, but I do hope t gets shortlisted to encourage a wider readership.

ashramblings verdict 4* An orchestral composition on the theme of memory, freedom, identity and the essence of humanity, love.

Tuesday 4 August 2015

Caine Prize 2015 – The Sack by Namwali Serpell


I’ve been reading this short story by Zambian writer Namwali Serpell, with my online book club buddies at Constant Reader and you can follow the discussion here where much of the discussion surrounding our understanding of eactly what happened at the end. The ending left us debating 3 possible scenarios. Don’t let that put you off reading this little masterpiece as it is, I suspect, a classic Serpelian play with uncertainty!

The author is a Zambian writer and It is the story of two old men as they wait for the imminent death of one of them who is sick. The other men, his lifelong friend cares for him during this period. They have a past together – they are old freedom fighters who both fell in love with the same woman, whose death they are mourning each in their own ways. This unsteady calm is rocked by the arrival of a young boy selling fish. The writer executes the story in an unusual way with one strand telling the story chronologically in real time, whilst the other is a dream like sequence told in reverse of what happens after the death of the old man. It is almost like you have to finish the story, then reread only this second thread to get the full chronology.

Here is a good interview with Serpell after she won the Caine Prize for Fiction in 2015 and a video of her reading come of her work – just speed forward past the awful high pitched American voice who introduces the video with her consistently raised pitch end of sentences which are not questions  - an style of intonation that is sadly too common in today’s thirty something women. She reads first a short story which is sci-fi in style, then the first chapter entitled C from a forthcoming novel with the working Title Furrow. There is some interesting Q&A at the end where she describes her style and method of writing, albeit that the video mic has not picked up the actual questions.

ashramblings verdict 5* – One to watch out for - looking forward to her novel coming out This is a writer we shall hear a lot more of judging from this story.


Tuesday 21 July 2015

A Horse in the Morning – Roger Ley

A friend has just written a memoir – A Horse in the Morning  - which is available on Amazon, the proceeds from which will go to the Smile Train a charity which provides hare lip and cleft palette operations to children worldwide and one that our "No Birthday Nor Christmas Cards Appeal" supported a few years back.


No borders large

Tuesday 23 June 2015

A Song of Joy and Pain

Sitting there upon your knees

Hair blows gently in the breeze

softened up by all your charms

resting peaceful in your arms


Sinking gentle in the waves

Smoothing all my woes and pains

Was the moment that you came

Loudly shouting forth my name


Paradise upon the ocean

Thrilled by love and devotion

Looking only for the sun

Life together just begun


You said we would be forever

Always holding fast together

Through until the end of time

Staying true and being mine


From the moment I first met you

From the moment that you shook me

From the moment I first took you

was the moment that you hooked me


Still waters still run deep

Memories invade my sleep

Broken hearts alone remain

Nothing left can be the same


Mother nature cannot shift you

Fork lift trucks cannot lift you

Little pills cannot rift you

from deep inside my brain


Nothing I do can ever move you

Nothing I say can ever restore you

Nothing I feel can ever replace you

There is nothing without you


Broken hearts alone remain

Bearing all your brutal pain

Drowning daily in the strain

I love standing in the rain


Washing away all my tears

Washing away all the years

Washing away what could have been

Washing away the great unseen


© Sheila Ash, 2015

Monday 22 June 2015

Planning my writings


A couple of weeks ago it was my turn to talk about my work in Progress at our Creative Writing Group. I spoke about my planning of the stories for my Stories from Nemia fantasy work. This is a picture taken by my colleague of me explaining the storylines using my storyboard/mindmap.

Sunday 21 June 2015

Fleeting by – a story of childhood

As a child she had kept caterpillars in a glass jar. Slightly hairy, black and white curly things she’d found on the blackcurrant bushes on the waste ground where rumour had it more swings were to be build, but which continued to house the village’s Guy Fawkes Night bonfire. Not at all like the normal green ones found in the garden. She’d looked through her Enid Blyton books and some encyclopaedias from the library to try and find out what they were called when after a few weeks they turned into beautiful black, white and orange moths. Or were they butterflies? Butterflies were always prettier colours than moths with their drab greys and browns. Pests according to her dad, eating his peas and cabbages, privet hedges and lilacs. Magpie moths. Like the birds. Thieves.

One for sorrow
Two for joy
Three for a girl
Four for a boy
Five for silver
Six for gold
Seven for a secret never to be told

Perhaps they’d spin some silk? She always took care to put a few of the leaves of the currant bushes with them in the jam jar, as large as she could get from mum’s collection. Her mother made jam. Lots of jam. In the summer the house was filled with its sweet smell, either in the kitchen as the sticky mix boiled away in the enormous jelly pan, or in her parent’s bedroom where the broom pole was laid to rest between two spare dining chairs with the jelly bag hanging from it so the jelly juices could drain through into the pan standing on the floor below leaving the coarse brown bag covered in a pink layer of spent bits of fruit. She was never tempted by those remnants. The texture of the bag gave her the creeps. But the spoonfulls of the jam left on a saucer to set by the back door, those were something else. As long as the wasps had not settled on them and got stuck. She’d been stung in the mouth on the way back from the village school one lunchtime, dragging her hand along the hedgerow singing away to herself. The bee, or wasp, had been disturbed and flew straight in, luckily stinging in front of her teeth not on her tongue. Sipping cold water through a straw for the rest of the day was the outcome as her face swelled up. Now she was afraid of being stung again and wouldn’t be for another 50 years.

But that hadn’t stopped her exploring the fields, the hedgerows, the back lanes, running wild around the farm, clambering into the rafters of the old part of the farmhouse, crawling down into the subterranean foundations on the building site, climbing trees and finding other peoples secret places. She’d found their hide. It was not like she imagined a hide to be, roughly strewn together from branches, twigs, bits of this and that, well camouflaged into the woodland so no one could see it. Somewhere you’d camp out with billy can and fire. No, this was a properly build hut. Probably Sue’s dad’s handiwork. She couldn’t imagine Nora’s dad, spending time doing that. There it was a child sized garden shed, complete with door, painted a bright apple green, with curtains at the windows, hidden by the summer growth on the bushes along the wild space between the farmer’s field behind her favourite climbing tree and the ends of the gardens of houses on the new estate which had sprung up surrounding the village. It looked just like a play house. Yes they were the sort of girls who liked to play house. She’d seen them disappear down that hedgerow from her perch high, unseen up the tree. What were they doing down there? When she went back the second time, hoping to catch them there, it lay in ruins. Somehow she knew. They’d been followed. She’d been followed. She’d led him straight to it. Wonton destruction, the bully. Not the worse of them though. Perhaps he’d had help, after all the hut had been well built, it wouldn’t have been that easy to pull down, much less trash the boards. How cruel and unnecessary! She’d never have done that. She just wanted to be friends.

She had been with Nora for a while, but then Sue came to the village and she lost her friend to the new girl. They all rushed to be friends with whoever was new. Not her. She preferred to watch and wait. Her friendship with Nora had spoiled, not only because Sue came, but because they were different. They had gone out walking one day, down the country lanes, up the hill past the farm, past the hut which her dad said used to be a workman’s lunch stop and which he often used as shelter when caught out in the rain. He’d sit there with his binocular’s watching the bridge being built. One of the largest in the world he’d told her. They continued down the other side of the hill. She’d been this far before but not Nora. She never went far from home. No sense of adventure. We’ll get lost. Just because you don’t know where you are doesn’t mean you are lost. We know how we got here, so we can go back the same way. Anyway this road comes out on the road near my uncle’s house so we just need to walk along a bit to the east find his road on the left and then come back north that way. A round trip. Easy. Nora had not been so keen. But on they walked, playing various games along the way, not seeing a soul. She broke of a grass leaf to make a whistle like she seen her dad do by making a small cut in its centre. Nora liked that and had tried to do the same but the leaf cut through her skin on her finger and made it bleed. Don’t worry, suck it to clean it, spit it out and tie a dock leaf over it. It’s only a cut. But Nora was having none of it crying that she wanted to go home. Disappointment because her friend had not enjoyed their big adventure, she also felt some self-pride that her understanding of the terrain had got them home. It was only geography and basic geometry after all, knowing your north from your south, your east from your west. Something all those walks with dad had taught her.

Those were her summers. Free to roam, to explore. Alone or with whoever was her current friend. But like the hatched moths, friendships bloomed then quickly faded, leaving her for new best friends, or when their parents moved away.

1132 words

© Sheila Ash, 21st June 2015

We each build walls to protect ourselves



Eduardo Halfon

I read and reviewed his Polish Boxer late last year and was mightily impressed. In this his second book Halfon continues his flowing disjointed stream of stories. Are they biographical or not? Big question! They are however all about identity.

In the first chapter entitled “Tel Aviv was an Inferno”  we see the young man from Guatemala visiting Israel for his sister’s wedding. He is repulsed by the ultra conservative group she is marrying into – he fails  to see the young girl he recalls from their youthful days in the bewigged adult woman before him. As he leaves the ultra orthodox community, stones are flung at his taxi because taking a car is forbidden on Shabbat. The anti Arab sentiment he encounters in another taxi reminds him he is 3 parts Arab, 1 part Polish – his grandfather being an Arab Jew from Beirut, his grandmother an Arab Jew from Alexandria, his other grandmother an Arab Jew from Aleppo. He recounts his trip to the Wailing Wall , its touch only feeling of stone – which prompts the recall of his previous trip to the last remnants of the ghetto wall in Warsaw and the imagery it inspired in him. What touching something signifies also come up in his second chapter, entitled “Bamboo”, after the bamboo cage in which a poor indigenous family keep their son  - mentally ill or alcohol dependent?  As readers we never know the cause, neither does Halfon’s narrator, who wants to feel the reality of the bamboo, to not feel his own or his country’s indifference to such a situation. In the third chapter, entitled The Birds are Back, he feels like he wants to hug old Don Juan Martínez after the old coffee farmer has told him why has farm was called  San Andrés, why each of his 5 daughters were named, but does not say why his murdered son was so named – “I suddenly thought I saw his eyes begin to get misty, but the kitchen was dark and smoky and I couldn’t be sure. We kept silent for a moment, and I got a fleeting urge to hug Don Juan Martínez. Maybe for consolation. Maybe for his nostalgic tone and his sad and subtle sense of humour. Or maybe for reasons much more my own.”

The chapter entitled “White Sand, Black Stone”  to me seems to epitomise Halfon’s style. Ostensibly an account of him crossing the land border between Guatemala and Belize, it is a series of discrete yet connected snapshots of life and coincidence, mixed with memory (his grandfather’s ring) , imagination ( how the ring got to Central America) with metaphor (the captive macaw with his own need for flight from the coincidently  (or not) pursuing immigration officer). His crossing of the border at Melchor de Mencos recalled my own same crossing ten years ago. I liked this chapter/story very much.

The final chapter entitled “Monastery” is at one level the account of Halfon’s escape from gong to his sister’s wedding instead going to the beach with Tamara, an Israeli girl he had once met in Antigua, Guatemala. In it he returns to his thoughts about walls as they pass the separation well between Israeli and Palestinian areas. He recalls the various stories of how individuals escaped from Nazi persecution and death, surrounding themselves with walls of protective lies, dressing up as Germans (his friend’s grandfather), Catholic Christians (the family of Polish writer Jerzy Kosinski), taking false names and identities, including the touching story of a Jewish family who transformed their boy in to a Catholic girl and left her at a Monastery to be the only one to see out the war safely. “A wall is the physical manifestation of man’s hatred of the others” “ A wall is never bigger than the spirit it confines”.

ashramblings verdict 4* - I think that Halfon’s writings are quite distinctive and ripe for academic analysis, but they still make for a very interesting read because of their individuality whilst addressing issues we all have in common, namely one of identity in a global world. I look forward to more being translated into English.

Saturday 20 June 2015

Stories from the Land of Neme

So I have been writing more bits of Stories from the Land of Neme,  (see Tala’s story) my fantasy collection which is my work in progress at my Creative writing group. This is one of the unknown Nemian people’s songs which is a secret prophesy foretelling the return of the Blue eyed black hair warrior messengers of olden days

Patrolled the waters of the Great Divide

Kept the peace on either side

Blue eyes will come again this way

Telling stories from far away

Of peoples strange

and times of change

Messenger warriors of yesterday

Tuesday 16 June 2015

The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez

The Sound of Things Falling

Juan Gabriel Vásquez

Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean

Longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, 2013

Columbia, has we know had a period in its recent history when it was notoriously synonymous with drug lords and extrajudicial killings under the auspices of infamous drug king Pablo Escobar. This period of Columbian history forms a backdrop to Vásquez beautiful, yet sad, story of Antonio Yammara as he searches for the reason why has been shot alongside his now dead new friend, the older Ricardo Laverde, an ex-pilot whom he has met in a billiard hall in Bogatá. As he unravels the older man’s story, meets his daughter from his marriage to an American Peace Corp volunteer in the early sixties, when their innocence led her to Columbia to “make a difference” and him to pilot shipments of the marijuana he thought would one day be legalised, Antonio’s own family life, his wife and daughter, take on a similar parting of the ways that Ricardo had done. Like the mate and child of the now dead hippopotamus from Escobar’s private zoo, wives and daughters are cast alone to face the world. The final lines of this novel read “..the world is too risky a place to be wandering on our own, without anyone waiting for us at home, who worries about us when we don’t show up, and who can go out to look for us?

Note: Anne McLean has twice won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize – in 2004 for Javier Cercas’s Soldiers of Salamis, and in 2009 for Evelio Rosero’s The Armies. She was also one of the translators who worked on Eduardo Halfon’s The Polish Boxer which I reviewed previously on this blog.

ashramblings verdict 4* the translation reads exceedingly well and the storyline hooks the reader from its strange opening story about the shooting of a hippopotamus that had escaped from Escobar’s old private zoo in 2009.

Monday 8 June 2015

Lost souls – lost soles

IMG_1065For our regular Monday morning brain teaser, our Creative writing tutor had spread before us a collection of various old shoes, boots, plimsolls, sandals etc. We had 10 minutes to write something. Here is what I wrote.





From dance halls to football pitches,

From nightclubs to farmyard ditches,

High heels and Cuban wedges,

stacked along the tables edges.


Polished under sergeant’s orders,

scuffed by playful playground dodgers,

worn, buffeted and battered,

unlaced tongues lie shattered.


Bejewelled and velcro’ed knots and straps

studs and hooks lie back to back

upright, sidewise, upside-down

A collection of soles from the lost and found.


© Sheila Ash, 8th June 2015

Wednesday 27 May 2015

U3A Music Appreciation Group

I heard that Halesworth Branch of the U3A were trying to start a Music Appreciation group  so this afternoon went along to a meeting designed to test the water of interest. Sadly only 4 people turned up, and one of those let after 10 minutes or so – having thought it was Musicals appreciation and preferring to be outdoors on a lovely summer afternoon. The 3 of us left listened to 4 very different pieces of music brought along by one person. They were

Out of this only Michael Brecker is in my own collection albeit not the particular track that was played and assuming I got the track name correct I can’t find an online link to it.

For me the “introduction” of the session has to be the Ketil Bjornstad’s music inspired by the paintings of Edward Munch. Although not normally a lover of choral music I very much took to the mix of cello, timpani and choral voices and bought the album! I found this interesting review of his work

Monday 18 May 2015

Dziękuję (Thank you)


His best friend

Our best man

Memories of years ago

His wedding

Lots of vodka

Smuggled in, in cases large and small,

for toasts,

which seemed to go on forever,

Translated by a maiden aunt for me

the only other non-Polish speaker there.

And now, amazingly they emerge from slumber,

a few refugee words,

heard then,

reheard now

in another story

performed this morning by Krystyna

(c) Sheila Ash, 2015

Sunday 17 May 2015

Blues for BBK – an Elegy for B.B. King

“The thrill is gone” sings the reprise

I wipe the tears from my eyes.

“The Thrill is gone” is all the airways play

Hallelujah on this his judgement day.

Is it true the main man’s gone?

His music lingers long.


Raised sharecropping cotton in the American South

Discrimination and the Klan handing its justice out

a 15 dollar guitar nestling sweetly in your hand

“3 O’clock blues” sounding strong across the land

You hit the road in ’52

Nothing else for you to do.


The Beale Street Blues Boy and his bands

played a year of one night stands

Playing the juke joints, clubs and bars

You and Lucille were the stars

Heading t’ward the legend you became

“King of the Blues” in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.


Don’t fight over women. Don’t run into a fire.

Sing praises to the Lord in a gospel choir.

Foot stomping blues made me sway,

broken heart laments took my breath away.

Soulful 12 bar poems, finger-plucked in 4-4 time,

endorsing my heart strings to resonate in rhyme


With that deep gruff vibrato’s cadence

Full of pain and perseverance

Signature songs of lust and loss

overcame at such a cost

rhythmic rifts of grief and pains

The Man is gone, but the thrill remains.


© Sheila Ash 17th May 2015

Monday 11 May 2015

Thoughts for a defeated Liberal politician

He sits in front of his computer screen


avoiding the news.

Fixating vacantly on its pixels.

Demoralised, crestfallen

He drifts

amongst feelings of rejection,



The long night

still showing in his red, tired and baggy eyes;

the open window to his depressed soul

rejected by that 4:40 alarm call.


Why him?

Yesterday he had it all.

Now nothing, redundant;

ousted, displaced.



His unplanned future

waits before him as an empty screen.


© Sheila Ash, 11 May 2015

Saturday 9 May 2015

Mongolian Winter, 2010


Slowly it advances ever onward

striding southward

crossing mountains, plains and seas.

Spreading forward

never stopping

relentless, creeping fingers of death

of white and cold

of ice and snow

of mist and fog.

Temur Zud, the cold one approaches

blanketing the sky

shrouding bodies

chilling bones

brittlising sap.

Life snaps away at the gentlest touches

whilst moonlight shimmers on the winter ice.

The lakes, solid to depth

giant mirrors on the barren-dry, unyielding earth

enclosed on all side by mountains white from top to toe

the herds lie dying.

The migration to the cities begins.


© Sheila Ash, 2015

Wednesday 6 May 2015

A Man and His Camel – a devotion above all else

Gold Dust (first published in Arabic in 1990 as al-Tibr)

by Ibrahim al-Koni

Upon reading that al-Koni was a Libyan Tuareg, writing in Arabic, who had been translated into English, and now had been shortlisted for the coming 2015 International Booker I knew I had to read his books. I was then even more amazed that his books were in my local Library. I tackled this one first just because it was a short one.

It tells the story of Ukhayyad and his thoroughbred Mahri camel whom he deeply loves. Their relationship is one of both physical interdependency and spiritual communion, and one can read the camel as being a manifestation of Ukhayyad’s untamed self. A tribal sheikh tells Ukhayyad: "We always say that the Mahri is the mirror of his rider. If you want to stare into the rider and see what lies hidden within, look to his mount, his thoroughbred . . . Whoever owns a Mahri like this piebald will never complain for want of noble values."

Their story is set at the time of the Italian occupation of northern Libya and its associated warring disputes, so I am surmising the early part of the 20th century. This would still have been a time of Tuareg cross Saharan caravans and a primarily tribal nomadic lifestyle. Unfortunately for the young man, he pays a heavy price for his dedication to his camel, having to give up his wife and child, kill a man who tries to swindle him, and isolation and rejection from his family and tribe. The camel had saved his life once when, thirsty, he found a well but it had water only in its depths and there was no bucket to pull it out. Instead Ukhayyad jumps in the well tied to his camel who then pulls him free. The bond between man and animal is surpassed by nothing and no one for either party. The reader is touched by the camel’s dogged determination to return to the young man when he is pawned for grain during the devastating famine which places Ukhayyad, his wife and child in danger of death. However the young man forgets his oath and pledge to the goddess Tanit made to save his beloved Mahri.

Finally hunted by relatives of the man he had killed he is chased to the remote  rock caves at Jebel Hasawna. He attempts to finally say goodbye and send south his camel to safety and freedom in the deep Sahara and alone in the caves he is haunted by the prophetic cave art  of ancient hunting scenes and the cries of djinn and his pursuers.

The book reminded me in this aspect of Naguib Mafhouz’s A Thief and The  Dogs, and of Paulo Coehlo’s The Alchemist in its fable like construction and moral tale.

ashrambling’s verdict 3* A classic story of brotherhood between man and animal, the companionship that is the difference between life and death in the desert. On one hand, it is a story of endurance and love across the desert voids, and on the other it is a parable of survival human society with al its own pitfalls.