It’s been a while since I’ve written an old school confessional blog post. You know, the everyday “this is what my life has been like lately” type. I wasn’t even sure if they fitted my blog anymore, which these days is mostly just a website or a place where I can share my work but I also kind of miss writing them.
The last 6 months have been very strange for me and there has been so much going on in my life that I wouldn’t even know where to begin if I tried to write about it. There are still quite a lot of things that are up in the air at the moment with work, my health, our living situation and my writing, so I have been holding on to all the small, simple things that have cheered me up, made me feel a bit calmer or helped to slow everything down.
I was going through our stack of film photographs the other day and among the ones we took last year, I found these two. It struck me how similar looking they were and while I remember taking the first one on my birthday almost a year ago, I did not remember Daniel having taken the second some months later.
I had big plans for the final day of the year and by big I mean that I was going to spend the day doing all the small, simple things that make me happy: picking a vinyl to dance around the livingroom to, have a luxurious bath with a Lush bathbomb, wear my new cosy socks and dressing gown all day, order chinese food and end the year watching a really good film.
Instead I have ended up in bed and will not only end the year being ill but will most likely be kickstarting the new year in the same way tomorrow. It sucks. Especially as I have been looking forward to 3 days off from work to quietly spend time with D and my new presents, doing all those things I haven’t had time for lately but which makes me feel whole.
For a while now I have been walking around with an idea for a new series of blog posts. As much as I intended to blog more this year it hasn’t really happened (because hey, life!) but maybe this series could help me share what I’m up to without stealing too much of my time to do other things.
Last year I stopped myself blogging about something quite a few times because I was in the middle of a project and wasn’t sure what format I would end up showing it in. I don’t have a problem with showing work-in-progress or something unfinished but I didn’t want to share anything prematurely if I wanted those projecs to be seen or engaged with in a different way.
There are bruishes on my legs, scratches from when I walked through the bushes in the forest and the trees with their branches caught me and held on. There are mosquito bites too and two, very small red marks from where the ticks got me. Half-healed scratches on my hands.
My knees are the brownest I have seen them in years, even if that doesn’t say a lot and for a few days my hair, my skin smelled of saltwater and the sun.
There are too many women in museums
tucked into corners,
these busts with sad faces and
demurely downcast eyes,
by what someone else has seen.
But where are all the names
on the signs
that should have been here,
theirs only used for titles, leaving whole walls blank,
as if no woman had thought
to put anything on them.
I want the women in all these paintings
to be blushing,
not of humility but rage.
I demand to see in writing
all the names that should have made me
mine could be here too.
- Lea Elm
I can’t believe it’s April already and that this is the first thing I have posted this year. The first thing in fact since November, where work in the bookshop speeded up.
After I recovered from the craziness of the shop during Christmas and everything calmed down a bit in January, I decided to focus more on getting back to writing and working on my photo projects, as well as spending more time actually reading the books I buy, rather than spending it composing photos and putting up posts of them on Instagram. So while my website and social media feeds haven’t been brimming with new updates, my life has been full in a different way and most of March went by in a blur of work, some much appreciated overtime, photography and a week’s holiday in Denmark with my family, which I have just come back from.
Most of last year was like that really. I had so many new and fantastic experiences and I wanted to write about them all and show you all the photos I took from them but I just never got around to it because one event followed the next. I preferred to savour those moments when I was in them, rather than stressing about sharing what I had just experienced in the moment that went before and while I would have liked to post a lot more, I don’t regret taking time to just be in whatever I was doing.
Even though I work in a bookshop I still love visiting other ones and I especially love going back to the bookshops I discovered when I lived in Bloomsbury.
I know in the good old days Charing Cross Road was the place for bookshops in London but I think Bloomsbury is a better area for bookshops these days because it has a large but cosy Waterstones on Gower Street and another big one on Tottenham Court Road, independent ones like the London Review Bookshop, Persephone Books and Gay’s the Word and second-hand ones like Skoob and Judd books. They are all in walking distance from each other and I love getting a chance to walk around my old neighborhood again.
As well as having celebrated my annual anniversary in September of the day I moved to London, my boyfriend Daniel and I also recently celebrated our 5th anniversary and like last year we chose to spend it browsing around bookshops together on a quiet Sunday in Bloomsbury. This is the books I found that day.
Devotion – Patti Smith
I have been eyeing Smith’s writing for a while now and been trying to decide where I should start but after seeing an interesting review of it on Instagram recently, as well as finding a pile laid out on one of the tables in Gower Street, I ended up picking this one. I had a little look at the language inside in the bookshop and it seems like an exquisite, melt-in-the-mouth kind of writing that I’m really looking forward to just let wash over me.
The History of Love – Nicole Krauss
There’s something I haven’t mentioned but which happened quietly behind the scenes this summer. Something I was too upset about to get into at the time.
When my mum was here in July, I was showing her around Holland Park when the shutter on my camera suddenly stopped working. The first few minutes I was hoping it was just a small mechanical fault I could fix myself by pressing some buttons and releasing some tension but I had an ominous feeling straight away like I knew already that my camera, my dad’s old camera, had broken for good.
The next day I took it to a camera repair shop and they were very kind and very knowledgeable and they told me that even though they could fix it, it was definitely broken and that fixing it wouldn’t be worth the cost. “The lens is good,” they told me, “get yourself a Pentax instead and use it on that”.
My mum flew back to Denmark and I took the train back home to Kent. I tried to tell myself that it was just a camera, a thing, an object that, unlike people, can be easily replaced. But because that camera had been my dad’s, so painstakingly saved up for in the 80s when him and my mum were students and because it was the camera that truly got me into film photography, I was quietly heartbroken about it even if I tried not to show it.
After a while though I was less upset about that camera and more upset about no longer having a film camera to use at all. I started looking at other cameras but nothing felt quite right. Should I get the same camera type from somewhere else even though it wouldn’t be the same? Or should I upgrade and choose a completely different camera that might have some advantages over my old one? Either way it didn’t really matter because I couldn’t afford to replace it.
But there are photographs in this post, I hear you say, where do they come from?
Yes, there are and they haven’t been taken with my old Ricoh. They are from a test roll, the very first photographs taken with my “new” Pentax K1000 that Daniel recently surprised me by buying in an online auction for me.
It feels different in my hands than my old one and I’m not going to lie, I need to get used to it, even if it technically does the same and pretty much in the same way. The one advantage it has over my old camera though is a sharper image quality that I’m almost afraid to admit was holding me back sometimes, so I’m excited about that. I’m also excited about the three rolls of film that are waiting for the new personal project I’m going to begin when I go home to Denmark next week.
And maybe this time, the camera can be just mine.
P.S. These photos were all taken around my flat and the neighbourhood where I live, on a roll of Kentmere 400.
It’s time for another round of “What has Lea been reading these last few months, which has prevented her from finding time to write something on the blog”. Joke aside, I have been reading some fantastic books this summer and I have liked them more than many other books I have read this year.
So with no further ado, here are the books that have taken up my time and captured my heart lately.
The Summer Book – Tove Jansson
For some reason I had never come across Tove Janssons fiction writing for adults before I started hearing about it here in England. I think it’s weird that even as a literature student in Denmark I never heard about her work outside The Moomins and after reading The Summer Book I think her writing deserves a much bigger place in our literary history.
The novel has been inspired by Jansson’s family and her memories of the times they spent on their small island in the Gulf of Finland, particularly of her niece Sophie and her mother who died shortly before she wrote it. It’s been written in a deceptively easy and simple language that I really liked, maybe because it feels typical of the kind of Scandinavian writing I’m familiar with but also because there was so much underlying humour in it. I loved the tenderness, the playfulness and the dignity she portrays in the relationship between Sophia and her grandmother, and her descriptions of how they act together in the landscape around them.
I really felt a connection with the book and the way it writes about something remembered, especially because it doesn’t feel like a romanticised kind of nostalgia but a kind that has more to do with appreciating and preserving the memory of people and places that have once been loved. That’s definitely something I can relate to.
The Woolgrover’s Companion – Joy Rhoades*
It’s raining as I type this up. It’s actually been raining for three days now and I would be disappointed but after the long spell of drought we’ve had, it’s been kind of nice. Even if my plan had been to make some cyanotypes this week.
The first time I saw a cyanotype – the blue-tinted photographic prints made without a camera – was on the wall of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London during a tour guide training day.
I had recently started getting involved with their young people’s collective and as part of our training that day we received a tour of the photographer’s gallery, where we were shown a print by the revolutionary botanist and photographer Anna Atkins, who created cyanotypes of algae to make what would be the world’s very first photo book.
Afterwards we were shown a demonstration of how to make our own and it was there that I first tried making a cyanotype myself and fell in love with this utterly magical and simple way of creating and printing images directly from light that anyone can do.
Making cyanotypes is pretty easy and you don’t even need a camera or a lot of fancy equipment or a darkroom. All you need is a paper coated with light-sensitive chemicals, an object to print from and a bit of sunlight. In the beginning I bought pre-coated solar- or sunpaper (Silverprint has a good one) but after a while I got interested in mixing my own chemicals and learning the historical process behind it, which hasn’t changed since Atkins’ Victorian days.
The easiest way is to make a cyanotype photogram, where you place an object directly onto the paper but you can also use a negative as your object, which is a little trickier but can give very detailed images. You put it somewhere with sunlight and leave it in the sun to expose the image until the paper has changed colour. Afterwards you put the paper in a tray or tub of tap water while gently rocking it for 5-10 min to develop it, rinse it under the tap and hang it or leave it flat to dry. That’s it.
A print lying exposed in a patch of sun on the floor of my living room
The South Stairs leading up from the entrance
As you might have seen in one of my latest posts, I decided to spend my birthday this year in my favourite bookshops and at the British Museum. That’s my new thing now, photographing museums. While I spend most of last year trying to freeze fleeting everyday moments with my film camera, my new obsession this year has been to not only wander through museum galleries but to photograph them as well.
If you had asked me a few years ago if I liked the British Museum I would have said that I liked it as much as the next person. If you had asked me if I was interested in history, I would probably have given the same answer. As much as I would like to claim to be an independently minded woman, it has taken my boyfriend’s interest in history to realise how interesting both can be and it’s become a place we visit together.
Even though they always tend to be overcrowded, my favourite rooms are the galleries with the Greek sculptures. Daniel on the other hand tends to seek out the Middle Eastern galleries, particularly the ones with the huge Assyrian gates, Lamassu and friezes. Because the weather was unseasonably bad the day we went, it wasn’t as busy as normal and it was nice to be able to walk around more freely.
Whenever I write about books on the blog I tend to write about books I have already read. I thought I would do it a little different this time, as with summer now in full bloom, I have been looking forward to pick up books that I have been saving all year to read or just recently discovered.
I definitely choose what books to read not only on my mood but also on the season, so I thought I’d put a little list together of the books I am planning and looking forward to read this summer.
The Peace Machine – Özgür Mumcu*
I’m taking a bit of a chance with this one. Described as a historical “Ottoman Steampunk” adventure, it’s not the kind of thing I would normally go for but when I read an interview with the author in The Guardian a few days ago, there was something about the way the book was described that really piqued my interest. It made me think of ‘The Vanished Futurist’ that I read and enjoyed last year but Mumcu’s book also seems to be its own interesting fictional mix of mystery, travel, futuristic technology and politics. So I’m really interested to see how I will find it and whether I should take my chances on something different a bit more often.
The Woolgrower’s Companion – Joy Rhoades*
It’s been a few months since my birthday in March but last week I got the prints back from the film rolls I shot that weekend and I thought I’d write a little post to share some of the pictures I took. I have already mentioned in another post that my birthday didn’t exactly go like I had planned because of the snowstorm that decided to take over the country but looking through the photos of everything covered in snow made me realise that the memories I have of those two days have been made quite special because of the whole snowstorm affair.
Canterbury looking very Dickensian in the snow
The snow falling down over the riverbank that runs next to our flat, after we got back from Canterbury
Spring is my absolute favourite time of year. Around the time of my birthday in March I suddenly start to feel I have more energy and that usually also comes with more ideas and more inspiration to work on projects. It also happens to be the time of year, where new and emerging authors are often published, so any reading I do at this time of year always feels fresh compared to Autumn where I tend to reread a lot of my favourite classics.
While I spent most of this winter being creatively inactive, I did spend a majority of my spare time reading and looking through the publishers’ Spring catalogues for books that looked promising and ended up falling in love with the description of these four.
Monsieur Ka – Vesna Goldsworthy*
“The London winter of 1947. As cold as St Petersburg during the Revolution. The Karenins keep their vodka under the layers of snow in their suburban garden, in bottles entombed like their Russian past. But when a young Frenchwoman arrives to work as a companion to the aged ‘Monsieur Ka’ he begins to tell his story…
As she is drawn into Ka’s dramatic past, her own life is shaken to its foundations. For in this family of former princes, there are present temptations which could profoundly affect her future.”
Back in March when the Beast from the East swept over the country, I found myself having the first snow day of my life when I woke up to discover my bus wasn’t running. So I trudged back from my stop, snuggled up with a cup of hot chocolate and started reading.
I liked Goldsworthy’s other book Gorsky when I read it a few years ago, so I was excited to read this one, too because it sounded like just my kind of thing. The novel is inspired by Anna Karenina but even though I’ve owned a copy for many years I’ve never actually gotten around to reading it, so I didn’t have anything to compare it with and don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing.
I wasn’t really sure how I felt about the book at first. I was expecting the book to be very atmospheric and it did have some beautiful descriptions of London and the weather but the characters just felt like felt like actors to me, moving from one scene to the next, only there to push the plot forward. I was disappointed, if I’m being honest but then, about halfway through something happened. I’m still not sure what it was exactly but they suddenly started feeling real, so by the time I reached the end, I found myself genuinely caring about what happened to them.
The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland – Nicolai Houm*
“An American woman wakes up in a tent in the Norwegian mountains. Outside a storm rages and the fog is dense. Her phone is dead. She is completely alone. Her name is Jane Ashland, and her life has spiralled out of control.
Moving between Jane’s past and this extraordinary remote landscape, Nicolai Houm weaves a dramatic trail of suspense through one woman’s life – via love, grief, and a devastating accident that changes everything.”
For some unexplainable reason I was eyeing this book on my shelf for weeks without feeling like reading it but the minute I picked it up, I was hooked from the first page. From the very beginning you get such a strong sense of Jane’s voice and what she is like as a person and for me that is what made me like this book so much.
I loved the switches between past and present and there were times when I completely forgot I was reading a story about a fictional person. When I was reading the two chapters that trace the beginning of Jane’s relationship with Greg, I had to look up and remind myself that it was a story and not an account of someone’s actually lived life.
I’m a slow reader but I read it in just a few days because I couldn’t put it down and even though it deals with heavy questions about loss and survival, it still had this lightness about it from Jane’s morbid self-irony and a subtle humour which runs through it.
Tomorrow – Elisabeth Russell Taylor*
“Every year Elisabeth Danziger travels to the Danish island of Møn to spend one week at The Tamarisks, a lavish hotel which was once, fifteen years ago in 1945, her family’s second home. With each annual visit, Elisabeth stays in the same room and walks familiar paths. She visits the local museum to peer at artefacts that once belonged to her family; she unscrews the panel of an old bath tub to retrieve the crumbling piece of paper on which is written her name and that of Daniel Eberhardt – her beloved cousin.
Elisabeth’s annual pilgrimage is part of a long-standing family promise to meet again in Møn after their separation during the War. A promise that only she has fulfilled. And she has no reason to suspect this year will be any different from all the others.”
It’s not often I come across books about Denmark written by English writers and this post includes two!
Taylor’s novel tells the often forgotten story about the Jews living in Denmark at the time of WW2, a part of Danish history I don’t know much about, except for the few stories my dad have told me. It was interesting to see Denmark described from an “outsider’s perspective” and I felt like I could really see the landscape she is describing. Her descriptions made me want to go and see the island, especially as they reminded me that my dad grew up near there and must be familiar with those places.
The novel is heavier than the other three, both in terms of language and subject but it didn’t stop me from enjoying it and it’s beautifully written at the same time as being sad. Such a quietly heartbreaking story about the meaning of returning and what love can endure.
Meet Me at the Museum – Anne Youngson*
“When Tina Hopgood writes a letter of regret to a man she has never met, she doesn’t expect a reply. When Anders Larsen, a lonely museum curator, answers it, nor does he. They’re both searching for something, they just don’t know it yet. Anders has lost his wife, along with his hopes and dreams for the future. Tina is trapped in a marriage she doesn’t remember choosing.
Slowly their correspondence blossoms as they bare their souls to each other with stories of joy, anguish and discovery. But then Tina’s letters suddenly cease, and Anders is thrown into despair. Can their unexpected friendship survive?”
You know how you sometimes come across a book that feels like it was written just for you? That’s exactly how I felt when I first read about Meet Me at the Museum. I mean, a book about a museum, physical objects and a correspondence between an English woman and a Danish man? It’s like Youngson has gone inside my head, picked out the things I like and decided to write a story about them.
Sometimes it’s dangerous to be so excited about a book because it can easily end up disappointing you but it definitely lived up to my expectations. I have always loved the letter writing format and I liked how the relationship between Tina and Anders slowly developed in them. I’ve been really excited to tell people about the book and sent my mum home with my copy when she was visiting last weekend because I believe it was written for someone like her too.
I still can’t quite believe this is Youngson’s first book because it’s absolutely fantastic. Read it if you have ever had a pen pal, fallen in love from a distance, had a quarter- or midlife crisis, wondered what your place in history is or questioned if you are living the life you were meant to. Like Youngson herself, it’s never too late to get started on living it.
Since I started reading the books and began working on this post, Spring has gone through a snowstorm, freezing rains, a heatwave, more rain and now another heatwave. It’s been an odd one this year and right now at the beginning of the last month of Spring it feels more like summer but after the freezing cold we’ve had for so long, I’ll happily take it.
*All four books were kindly sent to me from the publishers at my own request in exchange for an honest review.