The Vitriol of Life Led Offline


It’s ironic, isn’t it? I often complain that people nowadays are incapable of talking to each other without a device to mediate between them. I despise people who bring their phones wherever they go… and actually answer them or check messages while they are having lunch or dinner with you. I can happily live without a single glance online while on holiday, surrounded by my physical books, good food, stunning landscapes – with only a minor urge to immortalise that moment in a photograph. I advocate (or should that be nag?) that families should unplug from the internet and spend more time together.

But then our internet and phone connection fails completely and I go mad with rage. My dear online friend, fellow crime lover, academic and author Margot Kinberg wrote a post about this very recently.

The meltdown is not instant, you understand.

The first day, I’m quite relieved to be untraceable. I happily finish a book (or two) guilt-free, write my WIP with relish. The second day, I even take on additional tasks which have been put off for far too long: tidying out wardrobes and the garage. I bake cakes with my sons and try to keep snails as pets in a glass jar. Yes! Quality time!

By the third day, I miss the companionship of Twitter and blogs, but I can just about live with it. And yes, before you ask, it IS different from being offline during a holiday, because it’s not my own decision. It’s being forced upon me, and I have no idea how long it will last, so cannot make plans.

On the fourth day, I start to feel incredibly isolated and frustrated, especially when the calls on my mobile to the internet service provider Numericable prove fruitless. Did I tell you that mobile reception is rubbish in my house, so I have to either hang halfway out the window in the bedroom upstairs, stand in a corner of the garden where my neighbours can hear every word, or be on hold for 20 minutes with outrageous Swiss roaming charges? (We live on the border, and sometimes the Swiss signal is far stronger than the French one).


McDonald's to the rescue...
McDonald’s to the rescue…

Yes, yes, first world problems, I can see you roll your eyes just now. I’ve done it myself in the past. I’ve had to remind myself of others who’ve fled home with no belongings, perhaps no families, only their lives and a few memories. I came across a woman in one of the McDonald’s I found refuge in, who gave me a bit of reality check: left penniless after an acrimonious divorce, living in a part of France with high unemployment, she had made her way to this part of the world, in the hope of finding a job in or near Geneva. She was sleeping in her car, having a shower at the swimming pool and applying for jobs online while nursing a cup of coffee for hours at McDo. Life could be worse.

Of course, my parents live happily without a landline, internet or computer. But they are retired, live in the countryside, walk daily to the marketplace to buy their food and newspapers, and spend most of the day in the garden. They also forget to take their mobile with them into the garden, so I seldom can reach them during the day. They don’t even have a proper aerial for their TV, so can only watch one channel, shaky at that.

So, yes, life like that is possible and undoubtedly very peaceful.

I have it neither so good, nor so bad as some others.

I merely have to move a family, a household full of goods, a cat and some broken pieces of myself back to the UK this summer. All I need to do is ensure a smooth handover of schools, orthodontists, doctors, banks, utilities companies… well, I don’t need to go on about this, you all have experienced a move, and I’ve done it many times before, so I could handle it if I could do my research online and then phone. But I can do neither.

If I were like this, maybe I could spread myself all over and please all people…

In the meantime, all the usual end of school year craziness is amplified, because it is the LAST one EVER (I am using my teenage son’s emphatic style), and they also want to have farewell parties and birthday parties and do memorable things which you’d always meant to do, as well as return to all their favourite places in the area to say goodbye. No matter how often I repeat to myself: ‘You can’t make everyone happy. You are not chocolate’, I still fall into the trap of trying, partly because of the guilt about disrupting the children’s life by moving again.

Just to add to the mess, there are a couple of deadlines for writing competitions, debut novels or debut poetry chapbooks which I want to make sure that I don’t miss. Besides, I do also have a day job, even if it’s become nearly invisible of late. I’m supposed to facilitate a few courses in mid-June, but so far have been unable to access the (very large) files, because public WiFi does not like Dropbox and other such sharing platforms. Ironically, one of the courses is on working in virtual teams…

In fact, life is full of irony at the moment. I could share such funny stories with you! How I sit in a car outside someone’s house because I know they don’t have a security key on their WiFi (this must be illegal in at least 50 countries). How I buy a cup of coffee (although I don’t really want another one) in a neighbourhood café and sit down with a sigh for an action-packed morning of work, only to discover that their own WiFi isn’t working. How I then rush back to McDonald’s, where the lady at the counter already knows I avoid their coffee and prefer a smoothie (why do they no longer provide their classical strawberry milkshake, for heaven’s sake?). I can never stay for more than an hour there, before it gets too busy and noisy at lunchtime, or all day really, as there are construction sites just outside, cleaning staff mopping underneath your feet in the morning, team meetings in the ‘quiet’ corner in the afternoon. I could share with you strategies for switching on/off/on/off even at these public WiFi spots, so that the simplest cut and paste from a Word document to a website only takes five times longer than it should, instead of ten times.

Why don’t you buy some temporary internet access via your mobile phone? Why don’t you use your neighbours’ networks? I’ve been asked all that. The answer is that you awake each day with renewed belief that today is the day when the problem will be fixed. You are not told from the beginning that it will take 3 weeks (or more?). Unless you are my older son, who had his own meltdown about not being able to use his tablet to search for film reviews or cheat sheets for video games. Now he gloomily predicts that internet will never come back until we go to England.

Image courtesy of
Image courtesy of

I can also write a film script for a farce about how my neighbours felt sorry for me and gave me the key to their house to use their WiFi, but forgot to switch off their alarm. To make things worse, the key was for the cellar door, so I looked doubly sneaky, but luckily, I was spotted trying to smuggle a laptop into the house, rather than out of it. The second time I try this, having been told the alarm is most definitely off now, I discover the key doesn’t actually turn in the lock.

I could also tell you the classic tale of Cinderella after everyone went to the ball. How I sat at home all day waiting for the engineer to come and fix this problem, biting my cuticles, not wanting to start any serious writing for fear of being interrupted, popping out the front door at the sound of every car or even bicycle, only to be stood up like a wallflower.  Of course, it was then reported back to HQ that he did come to our address, but there was no one home and the phone (yes, the one that hasn’t had a dial tone in 3 weeks) was engaged.

Oh, so many potential sources of Mr. Beanish confusions! Being held up at the border in the UK because I have not filled in the right forms for our cat. The French Tax Office sending a Jean Reno in Leon look-alike professional to shoot me for not filling my tax returns in time (which, from this year on, can only be done online). How I will wing it for the workshops, having never seen the slides before that day: ‘Oh, look, and that’s another thing I should be talking about, but I don’t know what it means!’ Last but not least, a domestic noir brief about a wife murdering a husband who not only doesn’t shoulder any of the burden (other than to murmur supportively that he misses watching BBC iPlayer and Netflix), but actually forwards you (via email) the one and only enquiry you get from posting a few sales items on his company intranet, because you have not had much joy with Facebook sales postings even when you could access them daily. Why? It was in French, of course, and one can’t be expected to speak any French after studying it in high school over twenty years ago and living in France for 8 years in total.

Some day in the distant, rosy horizon of a future where all our thoughts can be uploaded instantly and transmitted to whom we like, when we like and only if we like, without depending on any cables or optic fibres or the people who put them in the ground, and without  any ‘oops, wrong button’ moments…

Some day, when Numericable company bosses will have died a slow and agonising death, not before paying out a large compensation to all those unhappy customers who have not been able to do their work or live their lives for so many weeks…

Some day, when this madness will have passed, when your health and sanity will have returned, when husbands will have been buried and courts will have been clement because you had ample provocation…

Some day, this too shall pass and seem hilarious! Until then… ohmmmmm….

Image from a selection of Zen wallpaper at



Wind in the Willows – stage adaptation

windKenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows was not an integral part of my own childhood. I had read it at some point, probably when I was a little too old to fall under its storytelling magic, but too young to be gripped by nostalgia. I liked it well enough, but I only really understood it and began to love it when I moved close to Cookham, the small village on the River Thames where Grahame had grown up and where he lived with his sickly son Alastair, for whom he wrote The Wind in the Willows. When I had children of my own, we read it together and often visited the River and Rowing Museum in Henley, where there is a loving recreation of the story. My older son knew big chunks of the text by heart at the time.

So you can imagine that, five years later, when he heard that Simply Theatre in Geneva (where he attends weekly drama classes) would be producing a stage version of his beloved book, he was desperately keen to get into it. He had been unsuccessful in all of his previous auditions, and this was his last chance to get into a show before our move back to the UK, so we didn’t hold much hope.

But, in a wonderful instance of karma or poetic justice, he managed to get in! Just a small role and a member of the ensemble, but that was all he needed. Suddenly, my lazy, disorganised, dreamy teenager who moans about having to do homework, that he never gets enough time to play, that he can’t get up in the morning… well, he’s become disciplined, focused and incredibly hard-working. Not a word of complaint about all-day rehearsals at the weekends, going straight from school to 5 hour rehearsals in the evening, missing out on all the fun of playing with his younger brother and his friends.


Last night was the premiere (which is why I am posting twice today – plus I never know when I will next have access to the internet). The audience consisted mostly of parents, prepared to be indulgent and forgiving, as the young actors had warned us that there were still some glitches to be ironed out. However, huge sigh of relief, I could give my maternal bias a rest…

This is an excellent show! You can bet your life it’s not your average school production. Actress/director Selene Beretta certainly does not make life easy for her cast in this complex and ambitious retelling of the story of Ratty, Mole, Toad and Badger, rabbits and weasels. There is constant movement, countless sound and light cues, so many costume and set changes, a very imaginative recreation of the river bank, Toad’s mansion, the prison, Badger’s home and so on.

Although the adaptation has a funky modern feel to it, it stays close to the original and has captured many of the elements which make the book such a unique reading experience: the wit, larger than life characters, rollicking good story, but also the more lyrical aspects. I particularly loved Mole’s sense of yearning for adventure and Badger’s sage reminder that human civilisations rise and fall, while the rivers and wildlife remain. There were even some scary moments in the Wild Woods, reminding us that nature is not all cutey-wootey. But there are also those perennial moments of relaxation we all aspire to: just messing about in boats, having picnics by the river, chatting to friends…


Congratulations to everyone involved in this production! For those of you who are based in Geneva and would like to experience it for yourselves, the show continues until Sunday 29th May and you can book tickets online on the Simply Theatre website. I’ll certainly be going more than once (and not just to pick up my son after the show).

Friday Fun: Home Libraries to Aspire To

Still planning for that perfect study/home library combo, which is just dangling out of my reach, like the proverbial carrot in front of a donkey.

Because everything is better on two floors. From
Because everything is better on two floors. From
A reading gallery may be a bit too noisy for some of us. From
A reading gallery may be a bit too noisy for some of us. From
A reading tower in the Dordogne? Don't mind if I do! From
A reading tower in the Dordogne? Don’t mind if I do! From
Yet another comfy chaislongue and gentlemen's club scene for the lady in me! Frm
Yet another comfy chaise longue and gentlemen’s club scene for the lady in me! From
Never mind the bookshelves, I'll have the cat as well! From
Never mind the bookshelves, I’ll have the cat as well! From
For the impoverished student look, from myhousebutprettier on Tumblr.
For the impoverished student look, from myhousebutprettier on Tumblr.
For fans of purpose-built studies, from Neville Johnson.
For fans of purpose-built studies, from Neville Johnson.
And we finish on a doubledecker note again, from
And we finish on a double-decker note again, from

What intrigues me about all of these pictures is that, although they have a lot more shelves and space than me, they seem to have fewer books! Life just isn’t fair, is it?

Review of Mend the Living – Reparer les vivants

Author photo from Babelio.

Written by Maylis de Kerangal, it has been translated as Mend the Living by Jessica Moore and as The Heart (although I am not sure if that was by a different translator) for the US markets.

The story is incredibly simple: we follow 24 hours in the life of a heart transplant, from 5:50 in the morning until the following morning at dawn. The story certainly does not lack in incidents: we witness an accident – not a surfing one, although that is what we suspect at first – we see the emergency services spring into action, we see everyone rush around the young man in a coma – Simon –  in a desperate manner: doctors, nurses –  including the wonderfully named Cordelia Owl, new to the ICU unit (much more poetically called the ‘reanimation unit’ in French), organ donor coordinators, specialists all over France, the parents, friends and other families affected by this tragedy.

reparer-les-vivants-619588But, of course, the story is not about this febrile activity. It is all about the interior life of all the people involved:  Thomas Remige the organ donor liaison nurse, who grew up on a farm in Normandy and likes to sing in the nude;  Simon’s parents – French mother Marianne, New Zealand father Sean- who are currently living apart; his girlfriend Juliette who is slightly jealous of his surfing buddies;  the recipient of his heart, Claire, who has put her life on hold for the past three years, living in a poky little flat just opposite the hospital in Paris which can do heart transplants, hoping against hope that this moment would come.

Do we need to know all those concerns (in many cases, peripheral) of people whose lives are touched (and in some cases, irrevocably changed) by Simon’s death? Too many descriptions, too many details? Take for example the multiple phone calls and sounds Marianne receives or tries to make, her Simone Signoret eyes, Charlotte Rampling eyes, the roads she drives on en route to the hospital – all this minutiae seems useless. But this accumulation of details slows down time – we feel the second hand ticking – which makes some readers give up, I can fully understand. And perhaps I would have too, if I wasn’t keen to compare the French and English language version and switched from one to the other constantly.

I interpreted this, however as a way of distancing oneself from the subject, avoiding sentimentality. The rapid switches from one protagonist to the next can be disorientating, and we have no time to connect emotionally with some of them, despite the wealth of details we are given – yet this contributes to that sense of urgency. Quick, harvest those kidneys, liver, lungs, heart before they perish… Ultimately, this is about the fragility of life itself, and what it means to be human, what remains of us after we die.

This is another example of a book which demands surrender to its rhythms and oddness and fragmentation. If you allow yourself to be hypnotised by its long sentences, patient accumulation of detail, then it becomes a most moving experience. To know if this is the book for you, just try that waltz of an opening sentence which goes on for 1 ½ pages – spiraling and twirling, up and down movement, all the rhythm of a heart beating, in ¾ time, with emotion and experience, the black box of a healthy 20 year old male body in love with the sea and adventure and surfing and a pretty girl.

‘ce que c’est ce Coeur, ce qui l’a fait bondir, vomir, grossir, valser leger comme un plume ou peser comme une pierre, ce qui l’a etourdi, ce qui l’a fait fondre – l’amour…’

‘What it is, this heart, what has made it leap, swell, sicken, waltz light as a feather or weigh heavy as a stone, what has stunned it, what has made it melt, love…’

mendlivingA translation very close to the eccentric original, yet not afraid to change the order fo things for added musicality in English. The only thing I was unsure of was why Simon’s surname Limbres had to be changed to Limbeau in the English version.


Friday Fun: Places to Relax and Lounge

Not all of us want to remain in bed all day. So we need to find alternative places to lounge, for when the great laziness sets in… or when you just need to leave the world behind and look after yourself. Because you are most certainly worth it, now and forever!

Never leave the bed, with views like this... Shadow architects, as seen on
Never leave the bed, with views like this… Shadow architects, as seen on
Perhaps make it as far as the porch. From
Perhaps make it as far as the porch. From
This porch might also do nicely - with a hammock and sofa... From
This porch might also do nicely – with a hammock and sofa… From
If that's too taxing, just relax in a bath. From
If that’s too taxing, just relax in a bath. From
Or perhaps this sunken bathtub? From
Or perhaps this sunken bathtub? From
I rather like tropical images, as long as I don't think of insects and things. From
I rather like tropical images, as long as I don’t think of insects and things. From
Of course, the Japanese are pretty top notch when it comes to tranquil bathing... from
Of course, the Japanese are pretty top notch when it comes to tranquil bathing… from
And if a bathtub is just too small, how about a pool? From Urbis magazine.
And if a bathtub is just too small, how about a pool? From Urbis magazine.

Friday Fun: For the Terminally Lazy…

… Or should that be ‘the truly wise’? Because there is no better place for reading, especially when you are poorly, as I am at the moment. (Perfect timing for the long Ascension weekend in glorious sunshine – boo!) Besides, I can’t help but remember that doggerel rhyme by Dorothy Parker:

Daily dawns another day;
I must up, to make my way.
Though I dress and drink and eat,
Move my fingers and my feet,
Learn a little, here and there,
Weep and laugh and sweat and swear,
Hear a song, or watch a stage,
Leave some words upon a page,
Claim a foe, or hail a friend—
Bed awaits me at the end.

Up, and out, and on; and then
Ever back to bed again,
Summer, Winter, Spring, and Fall—
I’m a fool to rise at all!

Bed with a view, from
Bed with a view, from
Or you can turn your back on the view, from
Or you can turn your back on the view, from
Some like to live dangerously in their beds, from
Some like to live dangerously in their beds, from
This one has a handy reading chaiselongue. From
This one has a handy reading chaise longue. From
For camping (or should that be 'glamping'?) fans, from
For camping (or should that be ‘glamping’?) fans, from
For those who prefer bunk beds, from
For those who prefer bunk beds, from




Rare Books and Artworks

I promised to share a love story with you from the Salon du Livre. Here is the story of how I fell in love with a cat, lost a substantial amount of money but gained much happiness.


In addition to the bold, colourful artworks decorating the various stands at the Geneva Book Fair, there was one stand which drew my attention. Fortunately (or should that be unfortunately?) it was right next door to us, so I could browse to my heart’s content.


ACB (Art, Creations et Bibliophilie) is a small company based near Morges, specialising in rare books, beautiful ililustrations and limited edition original artworks.


This is a booklover and book collector’s dream. Hand-coloured prints on delicate handmade paper – these are the illuminated manuscripts of the present day.


For the 70th anniversary of The Little Prince, they commissioned a contemporary artist to reinvent the colour prints to accompany the text. I cannot explain how exquisitely made the paper is, what a pleasurable tactile experience it is to leaf through the book.


But, of course, the original artwork is there too – on loose leafs, so you could frame each one of them.


I was also attracted by a leather-bound, gold-edged, hand-coloured edition of Ulysees, but at the price of around 4500 CHF (£3200 or $4700), it was well beyond my budget. However, if I were a millionare, I know in which shop I would go mad when it came to decorating my house!

ACB also had original artwork to decorate their stand and there was one painting by a Chinese artist which caught my eye. Apologies for the rather dim photo.


Only problem was: it was way out of my price range. After three days of hmming and hawing, much soul-searching, worrying and then telling myself that my parents had once upon a time given me some money to buy something memorable for myself on a round birthday (and I never had)… and after the lovely Pierre Perottin and other people at the ACB stand promised to deliver, offered me a better price and allowed me to pay in instalments… reader, I married this painting and am in utter honeymoon bliss!

If you want to see more of the artwork on offer, ACB have a Facebook page or you can contact Pierre Perottin directly on acbperottin[at]gmail[dot]com. They are not paying me to advertise or promote their business, but it’s the kind of thing that us inveterate booklovers might enjoy (to at least dream of!).