Archive for ‘Practically Marzipan’

September 21, 2011

On garlic

And, most dear actors, eat no onions nor garlic, for we are to utter sweet breath; and do not doubt but to hear them say it is a sweet comedy. - William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Some of you who have been reading this blog for a while will remember my “Practically Marzipan” column – it ran in the New Indian Express’ Zeitgeist from 2008 to the beginning of this year.
One of the (many) columns I never reposted to the blog was written in 2008 and it was about garlic. And various other things (like sex), but mostly garlic. A conversation on twitter today led me to seek it out.
(This is an unedited version – the published version appears to have disappeared from their website)


The consumption of onions and garlic (and others among the delicious consolations that make human life worth living) was just one of the many things a large number of my ancestors seem to have been against.

In India, a number of religious groups disapprove of onions and garlic. These are supposed to be Rajasic foods, clouding the mind with passion and making it harder to concentrate on spiritual matters. A related explanation I’ve seen used in various quarters is that these foods enhance the libido. I find this baffling – surely onion-y, garlicky breath is a turn off? – but supposing it to be true, the hostility is understandable. Few people would meditate when there were enhanced libidos to be taken care of.

The writers of scripture (and more recently, well known dieticians) express themselves even more strongly on the subjects of meat and alcohol. Had America been discovered at the time when these scriptures were written, doubtless potatoes and chocolate would have been found to be objectionable too.

Of course, this idea that you are what you eat is not limited to the subcontinent alone. In 1800s America, similar beliefs led to two major culinary revolutions. An early campaigner for diet reform was one Sylvester Graham. Like all great reformers, Graham seems to have taken an active interest in the private lives of his fellow men; particularly their sex lives. Being of the belief that any form of excitement was unhealthy and that animal-based products created lust, Graham advocated vegetarianism, sexual abstinence (he believed that masturbation led to blindness and insanity) and (his one good idea) frequent bathing. He also invented the Graham cracker, the most boring biscuit in existence and thus a stalwart foot soldier in the war against sexual gratification.

But as influential as Graham crackers were to become, Sylvester Graham was only preparing the way for a greater man who would one day overshadow him. That man was John Harvey Kellogg.

Like Graham, Kellogg was a fan of vegetarianism and abstinence, and against exciting food and sex. He even wrote a book, titled Plain Facts About Sexual Life (the title was later changed to Plain Facts for Old and Young) to support his views. He and his wife occupied separate bedrooms for the forty years of their marriage. Clearly he practiced what he preached.

What Kellogg is really known for is the invention of the cornflake along with his brother W.K (Will Keith) Kellogg. The cornflake at the time was a healthy, whole grain product that was unlikely to encourage any unwanted desires. In later years the humble cornflake would take on new and startling forms and a number of exotic flavours, but the Kellogg brothers actually argued in 1906 over the necessity of adding sugar to the basic recipe – presumably John thought it would be too exciting for the consumers. A century later, there’s certainly sugar in most breakfast cereals, so it seems that W.K had the right idea.

Religious scripture remains silent on the subject of cornflakes, while continuing to shake its head disapprovingly at onions and garlic. So for now I think my breakfast, however sugared, is safe.



Srividya Natarajan’s 2006 novel No Onions Nor Garlic plays with the Shakespeare quote above – it’s a satire about TamBrahms staging a more Hindu Midsummer Night’s Dream in Madras. It is excellent.
Also I’d like to think my ability to write 500 word columns has improved over the last few years.
April 10, 2010

Practically Marzipan: An Obituary

I discovered last week that William Mayne was dead and had been for about ten days. The reason it had taken me so long to find out was that hardly anyone had reported it – the Darlington and Stockton Times had a story here, and that was the only mainstream publication to have mentioned it at all. Since I wrote the column last week there have been a few more mentions of his death – Locus has a bit here, and links to this bit in the Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, and I’ve discovered this two line obit in the Times. There’s a nice, long piece by Julia Eccleshare in the Guardian too. Which probably makes this column unnecessary. Still, though.

I suspect I made this more about me than was strictly warranted.

[An edited version of this was published in today's New Indian Express]


This must be how the Michael Jackson fans felt.

When Michael Jackson died last year and various people were writing obituaries, I was a little disturbed by friends’ refusal to confront the child sexual abuse allegations. It wasn’t their conviction that he was innocent of the charges that was bothersome (everyone has the right to weigh the evidence for themselves and believe what they choose) – it was the complete dismissal by people who would normally take such allegations very seriously, just because they happened to be fans of the accused. That’s the easy way out, of course; it’s harder by far to acknowledge that an artist whose work you love and admire may have had serious flaws or committed crimes. There were obituaries that did just that, and those must have been difficult to write.

Fans of British children’s writer William Mayne do not have the comfort of wishing the bad parts away. Mayne was charged with the sexual abuse of young female fans. He pleaded guilty (though he later retracted this statement) and was convicted in 2004. He was imprisoned for two years.

I discovered Mayne’s writing only last year, and as an adult. I had heard him spoken of in connection with other children’s writers I liked, and around this time last summer invested in secondhand copies of A Grass Rope (which won a Carnegie Medal in 1957) and A Swarm in May (which was filmed in the 1980s). And I was overwhelmed; this was phenomenal writing. Not quite real, not quite fantasy, deep and introspective and uncomfortable and lovely. When I look back and try to remember my childhood (which wasn’t that long ago) Mayne’s books feel achingly familiar.

And this is not just my opinion. Mayne was widely acknowledged as one of Britain’s finest children’s writers. In addition to all the critical acclaim, he was quite popular. In addition to the movie of A Swarm in May, a five-part television series adaptation of another of his works, Earthfasts, was shown on the BBC in 1994. By anyone’s standards he ought to be considered at least a reasonably well-known writer.

Mayne was found dead in his home on the 24th of March this year. He was 82, and he seems to have died alone. Only one newspaper (and not a particularly big one) has reported his death. As of this date (almost two weeks after his death) none of the major papers have made mention of it. I don’t know why that is; whether it has anything to do with his crimes (and as I said before, such an obituary has to be hard to write) or he has just been forgotten.

Mayne was one of the greatest writers of the last century. His writing thrilled me when I first discovered it, and it continues to delight me. His actions in his personal life on the other hand upset and anger me. It’s a contradiction that we should all be used to handling by now (so many great artists have been less than ideal as human beings), yet somehow it’s still hard.

But I’m writing this column because Mayne deserves some sort of memorial, somewhere. He was brilliant, he was loathsome, but he mattered, and it would be shameful to let that knowledge die.


Also (and I wish I could have hyperlinked this in the column itself) here is the Guardian’s report of Mayne’s trial. The quote from Mayne there enrages me.

March 27, 2010

Practically Marzipan: In which I am revealed to be a fraud TamBrahm…

…rejecting a symbol of our culture almost as central, as relevant, as thayir sadam.
In my defence, I cannot help it. Also, I had a traumatic childhood.

[A version of this was published in today's New Indian Express]


One of the few real problems I have with my cultural heritage is my extended family’s love affair with jasmine. We love the stuff. Everyone wears it in their hair at every opportunity, and when a cousin is so insensitive as to cut her hair short the major protests that arise involve the difficulty of properly attaching mallipoo in the future. There are crushed, dead flowers on people’s pillows in the morning, and sometimes more fall out when hair is being brushed. I think I might like them if they weren’t so omnipresent. Even in Delhi, where most people walk around flowerless, three huge jasmine plants grow on the terrace and provide a constant, if not huge, supply to those who want them. Sometimes they are picked and then put in the fridge to keep fresh, and this is almost the worst of all because the smell permeates everything. It is, I suppose, possible to think of jasmine as a pleasant smell in most circumstances. When the items that smell of jasmine include your slice of left-over pizza and your bottled water, this is no longer the case.

As a result, my dislike of the smell of jasmine has grown intense. It’s a pity, because I do like looking at flowers in other people’s hair (while they’re fresh and alive, at least). And while I don’t mind picking up other people’s dead flowers, I find myself coughing and choking at anything that smells intensely of jasmine. A couple of years ago an unfortunate set of circumstances led to some jasmine perfume being spilled on a book I was reading. Unable to read the book for several days as I could barely breathe near it, I finally resorted to desperate measures and stuck the book in the microwave, hoping to toast the scent out. I can find no reasonable scientific explanation for the fact that it actually did alleviate the smell.

While one flower smell effectively cuts me off from a huge chunk of my heritage, two others provide strange links to it. Roses have a definite claim to being part of Our Culture, as evinced by the quantities of rose attar used by our ancestors. The smell is slightly spicy, deep and not particularly sweet. It is as complex as (and far more pleasant than) most perfumes. I’ve never encountered actual roses that smelled quite like that, and if I did I’d by them in an instance.

The other flower I refer to connects me to a chunk of my heritage that is rather more humble. It’s the smell of violets. I do not think I have ever seen a violet flower actually growing and alive, and all I really know of them is that they’re kind of purple and kind of shy. I have certainly never smelled one, as far as I know. But they can be sugared and put on cakes, too. I’m not sure how big their role is in the confectionery industry as a whole, and whether they are a common ingredient in many sweets. All I know is that when I was washing my hands with violet-scented soap a few years ago I breathed in and felt like I had come home – I was a five year old in a sweet shop again. I do not remember actually loving or even noticing this smell when I was a child, but now it means any number of things to me. Perhaps one day jasmine will do the same.


Oh look, I am only one of a generation of Degenerate Youth. Who knew?

March 14, 2010

Practically Marzipan: The corruption of the swayamvar

This week’s column was swayamvar-based, since Rahul Dulhaniya Le Jayega had just ended (sadly before I’d ever seen an entire episode). Being sadly unoriginal, I stole a lot from this post I wrote a couple of years ago.

[An edited version was published in yesterday's New Indian Express]


Of the many things I admire about our rich and ancient culture (its excellence at building things, its fondness for good stories, its invention of the gol gappa) my favourite may just be the swayamvar. Let’s face it, our ancestors, in common with most ancestors the world over, have had a pretty dismal showing where women’s rights are concerned. Yet the swayamvar allowed women at least a nominal choice in who they would marry; an important decision in a world where (judging by the epics) your husband might be banished to the forest at any moment and you would have to tolerate living with him in the close confines of a hut.

In these degenerate times the men have it far too easy. All a man has to do is get a good engineering degree, it seems; no one cares whether he is the best archer in the room anymore. Whether or not being the best archer in the room is likely to be a useful skill is, of course, debatable (if a forest exile is on the cards then it might well be), but at least it allowed for the power equation to be temporarily reversed. This is not the case with the modern arranged marriage, where the female’s less-than-wheatish complexion is as likely to work against her as the groom’s PhD in English literature is to him.

Which is why I have watched with guarded hope the resurgence of the swayamvar in recent times. In the summer of 2008 a number of news sources reported that a “young tribal girl” (most of them don’t seem to have bothered with her name) had chosen her groom through a swayamvar in which her father had asked the hopeful young men philosophical questions. Then there was last year’s TV show Rakhi Ka Swayamvar, which, though dreadful in almost every imaginable way, did at least show us a number of (presumably) eligible men competing for the attention of a woman who their families would almost certainly disapprove of. Like the traditional Swayamvar these shows tested men on skills completely unrelated to normal life: does one want a husband who can answer philosophical questions and dance, or one who can negotiate Delhi traffic?

Unfortunately, all good things are made impure by our sinful and unregenerate world. The Americans (who I am frequently informed are the source of unregenerate behaviour) took our idea of the swayamvar and perverted it, creating a situation in which multiple women competed for one man. Programmes like Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire and The Bachelor were so influential as to make Indian producers forget their culture and create the monstrosity Rahul Dulhaniya Le Jayega which ended last week. It is a national shame.

Should I, at some point in the future, hold a swayamvar myself, I’d like to test prospective grooms on skills that would be useful to me. I would shut a contender into a room filled with books and empty bookcases and see what shelving system he used. I would quiz him on the home delivery numbers of restaurants I like. I would ask him to buy me shoes and test his ability to chop onions. If one must have a husband, he might as well be useful.


Yesterday I gave my boyfriend a book-shelving problem to solve. He failed miserably at it, suggesting that I sort my books by size rather than genre or author. I am rethinking this whole swayamvar thing.

I think Wilbur Sargunaraj has the best idea.

February 28, 2010

Practically Marzipan: Books on a plane

I am amazed I managed to get through this without screaming about getting these motherfucking books off this motherfucking plane.

Anyway. An edited version of this appeared in the New Indian Express yesterday.


Recently I read of a rumour (hopefully proved false by now) that passengers on flights bound for the US would not be allowed to carry anything on their laps during the last hour of the journey in order to prevent terrorism. Among the dangerous items banned from passengers’ laps were books.

Packing books for a journey is a complex and involved process. For one thing, there’s the time factor to be considered. How long is your trip, and how much time will you, realistically, have to read? If you’re like me, you will vastly over-estimate this and carry twice as many books as are actually required, but it’s good to have a figure to base things on.

There’s also the question of packing relevant reading. Until relatively recently, when I went on holiday I would try to carry books about the place I was visiting – historical fiction or crime thrillers or anything that would be familiar with the geography of the place. It took a few years for me to realize that this didn’t always work. Some places simply that interesting, and even when they are you still risk an informational overload that could leave you craving a bad romance novel. The situation is made worse for me because I’m actually a terrible packer, and far too prone to wanting to carry everything I might need – I have a pair of formal shoes that have traveled halfway across the world with me on the pretext that I might need them. They have never been worn. With books, my instinct is to fill my bags with related and unrelated literature, thus (in theory, at least) preparing myself for every eventuality.

At this point constraints of space and weight come into play. I know through long experience exactly how many trade paperbacks can be stuffed into a regular backpack – subtract four if the backpack also contains a laptop. Whether it is wise or healthy to carry a big bag of books on ones back is of course another matter entirely. But the alternative is to put the books in one’s checked-in baggage and airlines are unfairly harsh about those of us who wise to transport mini-libraries around with us. (I could, perhaps, just about avoid having to deal with airline baggage allowances if it wasn’t for the fact that I buy books compulsively when in other cities).

Once on a plane, the books you’ve carried with you become tremendously important. You don’t want to carry anything that will make you cry – I made two businessmen seated next to me quite uncomfortable once when I carried a particularly weepy book on a flight. Equally, you don’t want something that will make you laugh too much or cause the stewards to think you require medical assistance (P.G Wodehouse is not a valid excuse for disrupting a flight). And it must be absorbing enough to keep you absorbed, since if you glance away from the page you run the risk of being sucked into conversation with the guy next to you, who wishes to tell you all about his son in England who is well settled and unmarried and possessed of every virtue. Do not look away from the page. If books are a weapon in this case, they’re a defensive one.


The book that made me cry and so disturbed those unfortunate men was Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses, which I wrote about here. I think my most inspired choice of themed books was on a few days’ trip to Turkey, when I carried Umberto Eco’s Baudolino, Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red, and Teresa Tomlinson’s The Moon Riders (also a tear jerker, though).

February 13, 2010

Practically Marzipan: Bad Romance

rah rah ah ah ah ro ma ro ma ma ga ga ooh la la…

Ahem. An edited version of the column below was published in today’s New Indian Express.

Regular readers of this column are probably aware that I am well-disposed towards the romance novel. I will devour uncritically most historical romances, and I do not scorn the products of Messrs. Mills & Boon or Harlequin when accompanied by the right combination of tea and laziness.

Nor am I particularly against the romance movie genre. I like romantic comedies; I like films that are all romance and no comedy; I even like teen films and have a special fondness for the Makeover Movie. Nevertheless, on what is probably the most significant weekend of the year, romancewise, I feel the need to complain about them (thus proving that this column is Serious Cultural Critique). So here are some of the romance tropes that annoy me most:

  • Eyes Meet Across A Room: I said I liked makeover movies, though they rest upon the assumption that a romance can only really go ahead after the girl has shown herself to be capable of beauty (and every virtuous heroine is secretly gorgeous). Nonetheless, at least in those stories the couple are forced to get to know each other before they fall in love. Whereas all this love at first sight rubbish requires is that one partner be superlatively attractive. For the majority of us who have had to charm our partners through conversation, this can all be rather dispiriting.
  • The Hero Learns An Important Lesson: This trope works in Pride and Prejudice. Mr. Darcy has actual, cultural reasons for thinking so highly of himself, and he does learn (we’re told) to laugh at himself. But Austen was writing at the end of the 1700s. Why, then, do I keep reading romances where the male romantic lead consistently underestimates the female because she is female before finally learning to respect her? Occasionally this is masked in terms of career – the (male) businessman dismissing the (female) baker/designer because after all, how hard could it be? Of course by the end of the book they generally do learn some respect, and it’s nice that they’ve reformed. But why bother with such a man in the first place? I’m not sure what Elizabeth Bennet’s choices were, but I live in a world where there are a number of good men. Why go to all the trouble of reforming the arrogant ones?
  • Sex Is Suddenly Really Good: You find the man of your dreams and sex suddenly goes from being awkward and bumpy and comical to transcendent and earth shattering. Even leaving aside the question of whether this is even desirable (surely sex with no sense of humour would get boring?), this is a bit off. Sure, sex with someone you Truly Love adds a new and excellent dimension, but was it really that bad before? I feel like they’re trying to confer upon the heroine a sort of virginity: sure she’s (in the interests of modernity) had sex before, but at least she didn’t enjoy it.
  • All Romance is Heterosexual: You could apply most of the traditional romance plot (barring the sex) to most buddy movies – thus the“Bromance” genre. I’m sorry; if you don’t think Star Trek is about the epic romance of Kirk and Spock, you simply haven’t been paying attention.


February 1, 2010

Practically Marzipan: In which I meditate upon the end of the world

(An edited version of this appeared in the New Indian Express on the 30th of January.)


Recently someone I know, on being handed a foil-wrapped product*, discovered that the date of expiry printed on it was the year 2012. Uncontrollable giggling ensued. Since then, I have checked the expiration dates of every perishable good that has come my way. An alarming number of them seem to forsee 2012 as the year of their demise. 2012 is, of course, the year the world is expected to end, or at least change drastically, according to a much-debated prediction in an ancient Mayan calendar.

This is not, of course, the first time the world has been scheduled to end. The 1000AD, 1666AD and 1843AD apocalypses all failed to take place. 1999 saw the release of that dreadful Arnold Schwarzneggar film, End of Days, and also Y2K hysteria. I was fourteen years old when 1999 turned into 2000 and I remember being terribly disappointed that nothing had happened. I had gotten all dressed up for a party that turned out to be a dead bore, the world as we knew it had not ended, and our computer still functioned no less efficiently than it had the week before.

If 2012 is not our collective expiration date we still don’t have long to wait. Various relatives of mine have been complaining for years that we are in the Kalyug and surely it has to end some time. Isaac Newton apparently used the Bible to calculate that the world would end in 2060, giving us an extra half-century should the Mayans be proved to have gotten it wrong. I am support of this particular date: in 2060 I hope to be a venerable old lady with a colourful past – it seems to me that that is the perfect time of life in which to enjoy an apocalypse. I am glad that the apocalypse seems set to occur during my lifetime. It would be a pity to miss such a major event.

But it is looking more and more likely that 2012 is the year. Over the last few years there have been a number of signs and portents to indicate that we were coming to the end of all things. Reality TV. The gradual decline of Liverpool Football Club. The monstrous regiment of women who were behind the pink chaddi campaign. At the beginning of this year Dubai’s Burj Khalifa was opened – the world’s tallest building (if the Tower of Babel story from the Bible were not warning enough).Most damningly there are both global warming and the extreme cold wave sweeping across Europe this winter.

If the world is to end in a couple of years (and by now I have convinced myself that this is unavoidable) I’d like it to be dramatic. None of this anticlimactic Y2K nonsense. I expect, at the very least, a universal deluge, celestial bodies being swallowed up, and if possible some rampaging ice giants. I have enough faith in humanity to believe that we’ll go out with a bang, not a whimper – could the race responsible for Rakhi ka Swayamvar really settle for less?

* Read “condom”. I’m never quite sure how far I’m supposed to self-censor in these columns, and I tend to go overboard.


Have you been noticing any portents of doom recently? Mention in comments, please, I know I’ve left lots out.

January 17, 2010

Practically Marzipan: Girls, Geeks, Sports.

People who have been reading this blog for a while probably know that I write a fortnightly column of fluff in The New Indian Express titled Practically Marzipan, and have been doing so since early 2008. Most of these columns have not been put on the blog – this is partly because I’m lazy, and partly because the blog and the column are (I think) addressed to different audiences.* But a couple of people who do seem to want to read the columns have asked me to put them up anyway, and so from now on I’m going to try to be more regular.

Recently a party I was attending descended into chaos when someone brought up the subject of sports. It started with a discussion of the merits and demerits of two particular major tennis stars that nearly led to bloodshed. Luckily, the subject was changed to football, and while things remained tense, the fear of actual physical violence was considerably lessened. The people doing most of the arguing, however, were young women. There were men at the party, but most of them were too busy looking surprised to join in.

I was brought up in a household full of sports-loving women. My mother is the local expert on cricket, and my aunt knows far more about tennis than anyone I’ve ever met. Yet when I went to school I was informed that sports was something that girls knew nothing about. It took a while to convince the people who said this that I did know what I was talking about. After that, however, things got really strange. Now that I had been established as a girl who liked sports, I was constantly told that I was unusual, and special, and superior to the majority of girlkind. With a family like my own, I had no reason to believe that this was true. But I did; everyone wants to think s/he’s special.

I know a lot of women to whom this experience will be familiar. We all grew up with some interests that were not “conventionally” female, and were told by everyone around us that this made us unique. Cars, quizzing, comic books; all of these raised us in some way above other girls. We were placed in a position where it was convenient to think of other girls with mild contempt, for traditionally “girly” activities with scorn. We could, while being female ourselves, make blanket pronouncements about women that (somehow) were not meant to apply to us. It was a weird position to take, but none of us ever really examined it or noticed its inconsistencies.

Adulthood (and a few years in an all-girls college) taught me that no one runs entirely to stereotype, and that “female” activities (as if no man ever engaged in any of these) could be as engaging, and absorbing as those typically considered to be dominated by men. I like sports (though the women at the party put me to shame with their technical knowledge). I like romance novels. I wear a lot of pink. I quiz. I cheerfully admit to being technologically challenged. And I am surrounded by people who, being individuals rather than stereotypes, have eclectic sets of likes and dislikes of their own.

And so I have been known to bite off the heads of people who dare to compliment me now by telling me how unusual I am, or male geeks who whine about a lack of female geeks in their lives. Just last week I mentioned my own geekiness on twitter and a few minutes later received a message asking if I was single from someone who knew nothing else about me. Of course I’m glad if anyone approves of my tastes in things, but surely it’s possible to compliment me without an implied insult to the rest of my gender?

An edited version appeared here yesterday

*In that if you’re reading this blog you’re probably already into a lot of the stuff that I am into, and I tend to assume you’re familiar with what I’m talking about.

October 17, 2008

Conspiracy theories

(From last weekend in the NIE)

On a Saturday evening in Dublin I was startled suddenly by a gang of women in short pink wigs apparently running towards me. At the last moment, though, they turned towards the street and I realized that they were merely trying to get a taxi. As they ran across the road into a waiting cab, I realized that they were all accomplishing this in most unstable looking pairs of high heels.
I’ve been traveling rather a lot recently, and at every airport and station I have been struck by the athleticism shown by women in stilettos. They walk briskly along main roads. They negotiate traffic. Cobblestones. Huge amounts of luggage. Or even all of the above. When I wear stilettos I teeter. I can barely negotiate furniture and a handbag. If there is any soft ground anywhere I will find it and sink into it. I catch myself wondering if there were secret classes held to teach people how to negotiate these shoes that I somehow got left out of.
It’s the same with a number of other minor skills. Each year during the monsoons I curse my inability to competently roll up my jeans so that they won’t get drenched in the rain. One leg will always be longer than the other, and the minute a dirty puddle appears the whole thing unravels and rushes lovingly down into the mud. It’s like one of those old myths about how certain animals came to be the way they are – “one day the gods summoned all the animals to teach them how to roll up their jeans. Only one animal did not arrive. Aishwarya was asleep in the forest and so had missed the message”.
Comfortingly, I am not alone in the “secret lessons” theory. Stephen Fry (actor, author and genius at large) has also voiced this suspicion. In a post on his blog a few months ago he spoke of his inability to dance and his bafflement when, as a child, all his classmates seemed to know how to do it. “Here were boys and girls my age twisting, spinning and jumping at each other and they all seemed to know what they were doing. Had I been confined to the sick room with an asthma attack the day disco dancing was covered in the syllabus?” Evidently I’m in distinguished company. A friend of mine believes that the art of whistling, too, might be said to fall into this category of mysterious skills. She’s been trying for years, asking for help from anyone who might provide it, and no amount of practice or instruction has ever coaxed a sound out of her. She’s beginning to suspect they are giving her the wrong directions to keep her out of the club.
As a whistler myself, however, I can assert that this is not the case. I can remember exactly where I was and how old when I first learnt to whistle, the ability just arrived out of nowhere. Perhaps dancing, and walking in high heels, and rolling up one’s jeans; all these and countless other actions are also just instinctive – some are lucky enough to have them and some aren’t. But it all seems terribly unfair.

October 10, 2008

Voices from the margins…

…was a title we were given in second year for seminar papers. I did mine on writers from marginalised communities writing genre. It was fun, but I wish now that I’d done something related to the physical margins of the book.

Anyway, since I’m a) too busy to write and b) 23 as of a couple of days ago and really should do responsible grown up things now like read my texts, here’s last week’s Express article for you instead.

Aristotle is said to have given his student Alexander the Great a personally annotated copy of Homer’s
Iliad. Alexander slept with it under his pillow.
The margins of my copy of C.S Lewis’s Till We Have Faces – found secondhand at a book fair many years ago – are filled with bad drawings and notes in purple pencil. The previous owner has also underlined all the paragraphs that she (or he) most enjoyed in the same bright purple. It’s interesting, but it’s sometimes hard to read and looks horrible.
But there’s something fascinating about the traces left by other people who have held a book before you. Library books, for example. I generally hate it when people write in library books. Often these acts of vandalism are in the form of word definitions – people take out books, discover that they do not know the meanings of half the words (why not take out books whose words you do understand?), underline them and then painstakingly look them up in the dictionary and write the definitions in the book. Perhaps they think they’re doing the rest of us a favour. They’re not. Library books do not belong to you, you’re (hopefully) going to return them, and there’s no need to spoil the reading experience of future library users.
Then again, not all writing in library books is bad. I once took a very old book out of a library to find that comments (sensible ones too) had been made in the margins by someone who had read it perhaps thirty years ago. And someone had replied, also in the margins, and someone else had chimed in below. And so, wonderfully, there was a conversation going on across generations at the edges of those pages. The notes in the margins brought up points I hadn’t considered, they enhanced my reading, and at some point they crossed over into art.
Notes and marks left in secondhand books are different and far more personal. From previous owners of books I own, I have received artwork, pressed flowers, earwax, class notes, declarations of love, and bills for vegetables. I know that the previous owner of my Lewis book was a terrible artist, but I also know that she could recognize a good sentence when she saw one, and I like her for it. Then there are the little notes from book givers to book receivers. Many of my friends are upset by people giving them books without writing something on the first page to provide some sort of context for when and how this book entered their lives. When I read these notes in second hand shops I can see why. I even own a book that seems to have been personally gifted by the author to a friend of his (who hopefully waited for a decent interval before giving it away).
I’m tempted sometimes to make up fascinating inscriptions of my own and write them in my own unmarked books. Perhaps in the future some young bibliophile will think I led a far more interesting life than I actually do.