Thursday 13 December 2007

Paper and writers

A paper essay; this is not an essay simply couched on paper, but an essay about paper and writing. As a writer it is natural that I am interested in paper, it is the basis of this…can I say obsession…to put ideas on paper, to record them, for what precise reason is difficult to say. Without paper we would still be writing on stone and paper in one form or another has been the support to communicate written ideas of all possible kinds for more than two and a half thousand years.

I can speak from forty years of experience in the paper industry - modest in comparison to those two and a half thousand years, but quite a lot for a writer. Some have spoken of the demise of paper, including myself, but its future seems to be more assured than ever. News papers had seemed threatened by Internet; however, it appears they have found another parade in the form of ‘free’ papers.

On the subject of newspapers it can be observed not many writers are that close to paper, that is paper in any quantity, apart from journalists who live with those huge reels and printing presses, though perhaps what with modern technology they are no now not as close to them as they were. The paperless age still seems far away in spite of efforts to produce electronic books, the latest of which is Amazon’s model of a supposedly convenient hand held e-book. However, we humans are for the moment hooked on our paper versions of books, newspapers, magazines and brochures.

After the pleasure of feeling and reading a new acquisition, old or new, we use it to decorate the bookshelves that declare our intellectual pride? Not really possible with characterless plastic DVD boxes that we now see on the shelves of others or even our children, next to computer game boxes, today videocassettes seem to have slightly more respectability, though unfortunately there’s a good chance that our videocassette player no longer works or has perhaps been inadvertently thrown out in our last clean out of older electrical devices.

We prefer to download our throwaway news from our handy newsvendor for a couple of dollars or so and once finished with it we dispose of it without more ado than by chucking it in our nearest trash bin. In any case it has little value and if it is mislaid in a taxi or on the subway it's of little consequence; it never runs out of power and if something special attracts our attention it can be cut out and stuffed in a pocket or a drawer. Magazines have those nice glossy photographs that speak more than words. Magazines analyse or condense older news that we can read when we relax on a train or a plane, we like to hang on to them a little longer than a newspaper.

So coming back to paper; my first encounter with it was when I got a job during my summer holidays of 1955, did I say 55? Yes, I was fifteen years old and lived in central London, very central. The job was in the Army & Navy Stores, an upmarket department store on Victoria Street, conveniently near to most ministries and more precisely those of the British army and navy, for officers' and adminstrators' needs, posted across Britain’s Empire; it was founded in the nineteenth century. My job was in the stationary department, which catered for more than simply stationary, it housed a large printing department that produced copper plate invitations, bearing the crests of noble families, embossed visiting cards for government ministers and army generals, and of course fine headed paper.

When I left school I joined an engineering firm in Cavendish Square, a stone's throw from the headquarters of the BBC in the West End of London, and commenced in their special process department, where systems for the paper manufacturing industry were designed. It was the start of a forty year long career in industry, travelling the world to promote paper technology in one form or another, which finally drew to a close in the comfortable Paris offices of a Scandinavian engineering group.

What did I do most of that time, design new processes, invent new technologies…no…I suppose in retrospective I talked a lot, discovered the world, from the Russian Taiga to the forests of Indonesia, from pulp mills in New Zealand to Canada, from paper mills in South Africa to Scotland, and businesses from Santiago de Chile to Helsinki.

That’s for the background, so what about this paper? Paper is an essential need, one of the first needs of an emerging nation, one of the key industries for a highly developed nation. It provides printing and writing paper, news and magazine paper, packaging and wrapping materials. Paper is abundant and cheap, essentially produced from wood mostly grown in vast manmade forests and plantations in the northern hemisphere, but more and more in the tropical belt and to a lesser degree in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

Little is heard about paper manufacturing, it is not spectacular, and although its manufacturing plants are huge they are discretely hidden in the more isolated regions of North America and Scandinavia. It does not make headline news like the financial sector, with boom and bust cycles, it grows at a steady 2.5% per year, year in year out, and with occassional cycles of overcapacity as large new production plants come on stream.

Paper is not only the raw material for printers and packers, but the raw material for book publishers and writers. Now, what practically all writers forget is that paper is a business, as is book publishing, which reminds me of a visit to a notary’s office in the east of France to prepare the articles of association for the setting up of the subsidiary of an American firm. The notary, a certain Maitre Tresch, an Alsatian, asked me what was the objective of the firm, a necessary routine question. I spent about five minutes talking about technology, markets and various others things, whilst he looked at me with growing pain on his face. After a moment he politely stopped me and told me if the proposed subsidiary was a business, it had only one possible goal and that was ‘lucrative’. It was a lesson in business well learnt. The same goes for book publishers, they are not in business for literature, culture or philanthropy, they are there to make money. Paper is their raw material, the content is their commerce. The paper industry produces the raw material and writers produce content. Publishers and editors are few and their goal is evidently ‘lucrative’…readers are consumers, whatever their intellectual pretensions, writers are many and many of them are good, so the law of supply and demand works ruthlessly and relentlessly, few are chosen and they are chosen by chance and circumstance. However, those chosen are not unlike lottery winners, which is to say all winners have bought a ticket and a writers’ ticket is his writing. Writers who write, write to satisfy some intangible desire, those who write to earn money are, in the vast majority of cases, in the wrong business.

There are no excuses, we write compulsively, those who talk of intellectualism and creativity in writing wear cloaks of snobbery and pretension, which whilst said both good and bad writers exist. Each one has his story and each story has its narrator and sometimes a listener, the writer is a mere translator of the recital.

Sunday 25 November 2007

The Independent New York Times of Tokelau

It's always interesting to see that the world press is prospering. A new arrival to this already almost ancient scene, in terms of the printed press, is The Independent New York Times web site based on the Pacific island of Tokelau. The first edition appeared the 24 November 2007 a memorable date! The front page is not all that exciting, but give the editorial team so time to get used to being a world leader...well a leader on Tokelau.

Wednesday 14 November 2007

Writing in English in Paris

This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Jean Sibelius, the great Finnish symphonist, an anniversary in which I participated in two different ways. Firstly and modestly by attending a concert at the Salle Pleyel in Paris to hear the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen play the 4th and 7th symphonies of the great man. Secondly by completing the translation of a huge and remarkable biography of Jean Sibelius by Marc Vignal, written in French and published in France by Fayard.

Now coming back to this specific page, which was prompted by Joseph Hayes of Inked-In when he mentionned to me he would be interested in seeing a blog posted on writing English in a non-English speaking city: I live in Paris, which can be described as a non-English speaking city par excellence, and am therefore confronted daily by the dilema that writing in English presents.

It may surprise readers to know that most French people speak English to some degree and some very well. However, it’s rare that they use it and often only when forced to. This is for complex reasons, but essentially it’s all a question of culture, by that I mean the almost inbuilt culture acquired from our parents that conditions the functioning of each of our individual and collective minds.

After living in France for more than thirty years, I can say, after much reflection, that there is an incompatibility between French minds and Anglo-Saxon minds, in both directions, it’s a fact. Both parties, when they try to get to grips, remind me of two armless men trying to wrestle. Okay, so maybe I’m exaggerating, but the fact is it’s like that. You may retort why do German’s manage to speak reasonably good English? Well first English is a Germanic language, the same goes for most Nordic languages with the exception of Finnish.

So let’s get back to writing English in Paris. First I must point out that I don’t write English for Le Monde or Le Figaro or any other form of news media, for the simple reason they use French. Then secondly books published in English by French publishers are non-existent, whilst almost fifty percent of books you will find on bookshop shelves are the translations into French of American or British books. As to the number of English bookshops in Paris, to my knowledge, there is about five…plus a couple specialised second hand English books (where I recently acquired a copy of the out of print Golden Gutter Life of Francis Bacon and a 1935 edition of a biography of Lawrence of Arabia).

So what am I doing in the middle of all that? That’s a good question. As you can see from the forgoing there is a big demand for translations. So that is where one of my few talents are employed – the most recent example of my work is the translation of a biography of Jean Sibelius written by Marc Vignal and published by Fayard. This work is 1,176 pages long and quite technical since it not only deals with the life of the composer, the history of the Nordic region of Europe, the musical world of his life, but also offers a technical examination of many of his works. In addition to that I have translated various specialised works for different foundations and businesses.

Just one point concerning translation work: this is fairly poorly paid in France, there is a plethora of expats and students willing to work for almost nothing, so I wouldn’t encourage anyone to jump on a plane in the hope they could survive on nothing in The City of Light (the title of a book I have been writing for too long now). The days of George Orwell (Down and Out in Paris and London), James Baldwin, Hemingway, Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell and Alan Ginsberg have long passed.

Tuesday 9 October 2007

The Legacy - A Chapter

They left for Jerusalem early the next morning, just sixty or so kilometres from Tel-Aviv. Hertzfeld had laid on a people carrier for the day, the best, with aircon and coffee. As O'Connelly took in the scenery it only confirmed to him his earlier impressions, the roads of Israel were nothing less a huge chaotic parking lot, even at that early hour the highway was choked with tailbacks, and whenever the traffic got moving the drivers were bent on either suicide or murder.
Once they had passed Ben Gurion Airport the traffic slackened a little and after about thirty or so kilometres the road started to rise turning around the steep hills that led up to Jerusalem. Their driver pointed out, amongst the sparse pine woods that bordered the road, the rusting carcases of Israeli home made armoured vehicles that lay abandoned or destroyed in their battle for independence, almost sixty years before, left as a remembrance.
Their first stop was a café overlooking the Old City where they seated themselves at a table and spread a map on the table, identifying the different edifices saw before them.
‘What I’d like to do is make a tour of the walls of the Temple Mount, get a feeling for the layout,’ said Hertzfeld.
‘Have you been here before?’ asked Laura.
‘Sure, but to be honest apart from a couple of visits to the Wailing Wall I can't say I've really thought about the religious or historical aspects very much.’
‘You're Jewish?’
‘Yes, my grandparents came from Germany. They immigrated to the US after the Crystal Nacht. My family was lucky, they owned a successful publishing firm in Berlin and Frankfurt with a branch in New York. We were not very religious, you know just celebrating the usual things Bar Mitzvah, Yom Kippur, Rosha Shannah, the synagogue from time to time, weddings and all that stuff.’
‘And the business here?’
‘That goes back to the Six Day War, I was eighteen at the time, my father tried to do everything he could to stop me joining the Israeli army, by the time I got here it was all over,’ he said wryly. ‘Did you stay?’
‘Just for the glory then I was back to college in New York, but I realised our ancient roots were in Israel and convinced my father to start a printing house here. The market for books was too small, but printing costs were much lower than back home in the States.’
‘Did you ever try to retrace those roots?’
‘Not really, I suppose they remained vague and distant, the reality was we were far from all that kind of Orthodox thing, we were what is called Universal Jews. It was later I became interested in history and languages, not as a specialist, just a keen amateur,’ he said smiling, ‘perhaps an enthusiastic amateur.’
‘So you're familiar with the details?’
‘To be very honest no, in a way it's a bit like a good book, I can't say I retain all the details, just a general picture, but it's something that has always interested me.’ ‘Do you know your way around the Old City?’
‘Yes and no, as I said I have never really made the effort to explore Jerusalem. I'm not an expert, it's why I've asked David Elquayam from Tel-Aviv’s Ben Gurion University to join us, he is a real expert,’ he said looking at his watch, ‘he’s also a very old friend.’
A man of about forty approached, he wore a relaxed smile, it was clear that he did not belong to the world of business.
‘David, you're on time for once!’
‘I'm always on time, usually you're too early,’ he said laughing.
He was good looking, dressed in jeans and a white tee shirt, tall, blond, good looking in a manly way, exuding a charm that women appreciated. Connelly saw Laura appraising him as women do before a quality potential male producer.
‘Let me introduce you, this is Laura, she read Oriental history in Paris, she’s with the Irish Cultural Centre.’
‘Irish,’ he said appreciatively.
‘Nice to meet you Laura, where's the Orient?’
Laura laughed, ‘Anywhere between Istanbul and the Indian Ocean!’
‘And this is Patrick O’Connelly, one of my successful writers.’
‘Ah, a writer, fact or fiction?’
‘That's up to you to decide, it’s a question of how you look at things.’
‘I see, a philosopher into the bargain.’
They laughed and Hertzfeld invited him to sit down and take something to drink.
‘So tell me about the reason for your visit, you were a little vague over the phone?’
‘Well it starts with the Palestine Exploration Survey, perhaps Pat can tell you more than me.’ O’Connelly outlined de Lussac’s theory explaining that it was entirely based on the findings of the Palestine Exploration Fund. The Fund had been established in 1865 to provide a survey and archaeological investigation of the Holy Land for the needs of the British Empire, then at the height of its glory. It had all commenced with the Ordnance Survey of Jerusalem by British Army engineers in 1864-5. Then the Palestine Exploration Fund began its work in Jerusalem in 1867, led by Captain Charles Warren, whose discoveries included a water shaft, known as Warren's Shaft, and a series of tunnels cut into the bedrock of the Temple Mount. The fund expanded its scope in the 1870s to a complete survey of the Holy Land. The fund's geographers, archaeologists, anthropologists, and orientalists published a great many articles that influenced British public opinion at a time when the enlightened Anglican Church and its followers pointed to the bible as a source of belief and attitude for the builders of the Empire. The maps, drawn between 1871 and 1877, had served Sir Edmund Allenby in his victorious cavalry campaign in Palestine in World War I and were still an invaluable tool to present-day historians. The maps designated the historical boundaries of Palestine as extending a few miles east of the Jordan River. Certain members of the fund, particularly its director, Claude Reignier Conder, advocated British colonization of Palestine and the restoration of its Jewish population. The group also funded the work of archaeologists such as W. M. F. Petrie and Kathleen Kenyon.
‘I see, I’m very familiar with the work of the Fund, unfortunately today it is impossible to verify that work with modern techniques or even continue the exploration that they had commenced.’ ‘Why is that?’ asked Hertzfed.
‘The Temple mount or the Haram esh-Sharif is under the authority of the Muslim religious body, the Waqf. Very regretfully it is totally out of the question for a non-Muslim to enter the underground water system of the Haram.’
‘Okay, what do you suggest.’
‘We can start with a historical tour of ancient Jerusalem, a history course, starting with Solomon, then Herod, the destruction of the Temple, the Muslim conquest and more recent history.’
‘I see, what about Christian history?’ asked Laura.
‘Christianity came later, if the Temple is your subject then it would best to stick to its history, as you perhaps already know, the Temple was destroyed in 70AD before the emergence of Christianity as a religion.’
‘Okay, let’s stick to the facts?’ said Hertzfeld. ‘Archaeological facts!’
‘Good, so let's start at the Wailing Wall.’
‘That’s fine with me,’ said Hertzfeld looking at the others.
‘Why?’ said O’Connelly. ‘I mean why not another spot?’
‘Well the reason the Jews pray at the Wailing Wail, which incidentally we call the Western Wall or the Kotel, is that it has been confused with the western wall of the Temple of the Jews.’
‘What do you mean confused?’ asked Laura. ‘That's a very complicated question. It's related to the site of the Temple, razed by the orders of the Emperor Hadrian in 70AD, and the Jews banished from the city under the threat of instant death if they attempted to enter it.’
‘How did they make the difference between a Jew and a non-Jew? Laura naively asked.
They laughed and Hertzfeld offered an answer.
‘Suspects had to present themselves.’
Laura looked puzzled.
‘The Jews were circumcised, by the order of Abraham, so if a Roman soldier suspected a visitor he had to lift his frock and present himself.’
‘Oh!’ said Laura shutting up like a clam. The three men laughed.
‘So over a period of two or three hundred years few Jews penetrated into the ancient city of Jerusalem.’
‘Tell us about the City today?’
‘The Old City is divided into four quarters plus the Haram esh-Sharif or Temple Mount. These are the Christian Quarter, the Muslim Quarter, the Armenian quarter and the Jewish quarter. The Western Wall is situated in the Jewish Quarter against the flank of the south west wall of the Haram.’
They left for the Old City and parked outside of the Zion Gate near to the Armenian Quarter the made their way by foot along Batel Makhaee into the City following David Elquayam towards the Western Wall Plaza and the Ophel Archaeological Park. Their first visit was to the Western Wall that stood before a large square cordoned off into prayer areas closer to the Wall itself.
As they stood admiring the huge ancient stone wall a couple approached them, the woman was smiling broadly, it took some instants for a confused O’Connelly’s to recognise Florence Lucci, a journalist friend from the French newspaper Le Monde who was .
‘So the saying is true!’
‘The saying?’ said O’Connelly as he embraced Lucci.
‘It’s a small place the world.’
They laughed and made their introductions, her friend was a producer of television documentaries.
‘Where are you staying,’ she asked him.
‘At the Sheraton in Tel-Aviv.’
‘For how long?’
‘We haven’t fixed anything yet, but probably a couple of weeks.’
‘Great, we’re here for the interview with Perez, we’ll be here a few more days, at the Hilton, why don’t we get together.’
‘Great, why not, let’s say at seven in the bar at the Sheraton.’
They said goodbye and they followed Elquayam to the prayer area. He stopped and took a paper kippa from a wicker basket and told Hertzfeld and O’Connelly to do the same. Laura not wanting to be left out reached out to take a kippa.
‘Sorry,’ he said laughing, ‘men only. Ladies to the right.’
He pointed Laura to a smaller area reserved for women, she pouted and turned away annoyed at being left out from the men’s thing.
‘So what do we do now?’ asked O’Connelly.
‘Go to the Wall and pray like the others.’
O’Connelly shrugged and joined the men at prayer, there were people of all kinds including Orthodox Jews rocking as they prayed, their prayer books held before them. There were a number of tourists, many pushed small tight wads of paper between the joints in the huge blocks of stone, which Elquayam had told him were prayers and requests to the Almighty.
O’Connelly could not help thinking as he looked at the ancient stones how strange it was that this site and the religion of the Jews had had so a great an impact on Western civilization. He remembered singing Jerusalem as a child at the daily morning assembly in the Church of England School he had attended in London. As a Roman Catholic, he did not know or even stop to think why Jerusalem had played such an important role in the formation of modern England. He remembered reading Thomas Mann’s book Doctor Faustus, when Zeitblom had described his childhood surroundings and a hill called Mount Zion in Bavaria, it was curious that a hill in German Bavaria be called Mount Zion, but when he thought of Martin Luther, Protestantism and the Bible it seemed normal, but why should it be normal a hill in Germany, so far from ancient Jerusalem in time and distance, be called after the Temple Mount? The Jewish Bible had influenced Western civilization for two millennium and continued to influence the philosophy and politics of the Western World to the chagrin of the Eastern Muslim world.

Monday 24 September 2007

Solomon's Legacy

The Temple of Jerusalem was razed to the ground by the Roman Titus in 70AD, not a single stone was left standing, its sacred treasures were looted and triumphantly paraded in Rome and the city’s people massacred and carried off into slavery. Today the Temple Mount is the Haram esh-Sharif, the second most holy site of Islam, where the Temple is believed, by Jews and Christians alike, to have once stood. It is controlled by the Muslim Waqf. All archaeological research or excavation is strictly forbidden to the chagrin of the Jews and the site has become a continual source of conflict between Jews and Muslims as well as provoking the Second Intifada. Pat O’Connelly, an Irish American writer, meets Isaac de Lussac, an obscure biblical archaeologist, who believes he has discovered the solution to the enigma of the Temple, building his theory on the work carried out by the Palestinian Survey Fund founded in the 19th century by Queen Victoria’s Royal Engineers.
This is the outline of my new book The Legacy of Solomon

Monday 25 June 2007

A Book I am Preparing on Writing and Publishing

This is not a book on Grammar and perhaps I am exaggerating, but there there are a million of those and many are very useful, I have to say that, further it is not a ‘How to’, another million! This is rather, I hope, a explanation or description of publishing by someone who has been there before you, a friendly guide, myself, who like you has experienced exactly what you are experiencing in writing and trying to publish your first book or books.

Thursday 31 May 2007

A Little Political Agitation

I wrote this article last summer for Charles Hugh Smith in San Francisco for his excellent blog Oftwominds. So why am I adding it here? Because following my last visit to the Basque Country I see that things never change, so it’s worth a reminder!

July 17, Hendaye, Basque Country. As I sit here the outside temperature hovers between 95 and 105°F, probably the highest ever recorded in the Basque Country, a region straddling the Spanish-French border, known for its mild and often wet, temperate, North Atlantic climate. To the Spanish side, the Basque Country is an autonomous region called Euskual Herria, politically part of the Spanish Republic, to the French side it has no political status - to the great chagrin of the Basques - other than through its long history and traditions.

I normally spend two or three months a year here, relaxing by the sea, walking in the nearby green hills and mountains, eating the local specialities: tapas, Jamon Iberico and drinking Rioja wine. Recently, however, I cannot but help noticing that things are changing, and changing fast, faster than I could have ever before imagined.

In the background a continuous TV news channel reports alarming news from the Lebanon, which, perhaps strangely, does not seem to concern the tens of thousands of holiday makers sunning themselves on the long sandy beaches of Hendaye, that is apart from the fact that here the price of gasoline has risen to almost 8 dollars a gallon at the pump, a price that would cause a revolution in California.

Hendaye is a town with a population of approximately 15,000 permanent residents during the most part of the year, but which rises to about 80,000 at the peak of the summer. Locally, property prices have now reached astronomical heights, rivalling those of Paris, 500 miles to the north, and Madrid, 300 miles to the south. These prices reflect the general property bubble in a good number of the so called developed countries.

Why such property prices in Hendaye, this small unimportant town in the south west extremity of France? Ever since the disappearance of borders in the European Union, Hendaye has become an attractive residential area for a certain number of Spaniards from the prosperous neighbouring towns in the area between Irun and San Sebastian, said to be the smartest Spanish seaside resort, only a little over ten miles from Hendaye. They have mostly acquired second homes, but many also first homes. This is mainly due to the lack of availability of apartments on the more densely populated Spanish side of the border, plus the facility of the San Sebastian rapid transit system, the last station of its northern branch being situated on the Hendaye side of the border, allowing them to commute to their work places in and around San Sebastian from their new homes on the French side of the border.

In the space of ten years or so the Spanish population in Hendaye has risen to reach almost one third of the total population, a not unwelcome change to a previously pleasant but economically fading town. This situation has led to galloping property speculation and the development of infrastructure projects to meet the needs of the burgeoning population. This infrastructure need includes an ecologically doubtful, large scale, urban garbage incinerator just a few miles to the south of Hendaye and the Spanish city of Irun.

The municipality of Hendaye is part of what is called the ‘Consortio’, that is to say a cross border administrative structure made up of three adjacent municipalities, the other two being the cities of Irun and Fuenterrabia with populations of 100,000 and 10,000 respectively. Fuentarabia is an old and picturesque coastal town facing the Hendaye boat marina, it lies on the southern side of the Bidasoa River, with its magnificent Cathedral and Alcazar built to defend Spain against France in the 16th century. The general atmosphere has an odour of speculation, ranging from property to for example the extension of the small San Sebastian Airport that lies in the magnificent Xingudy Bay, which is surrounded by the foothills of the Pyrenees. For decades the airport, the single runway of which juts into the bay under the shadow of the Jaizkibel, and just a couple of hundred yards or so short of Ile des Oiseaux, a transit point for migratory birds, has been the point of arrival and departure of just a dozen daily commercial flights, the majority of which are relatively silent turboprops. Ambitious politicos and businessmen envisage the extension runway more than half a mile into the bay to facilitate the arrival of big jets, transforming this landscape of extraordinary beauty into another polluted industrial-transport zone.

Even the small park with its hundred year old plane trees I can see across the road from me, bequeathed in trust to the town by its long defunct owners, is in the course of being transformed into a superfluous play park, with more than its fair share of concrete. On a much larger scale the one hundred and fifty year old Paris-Madrid railroad line that runs through a deep cutting in the centre of the town is in the course of being covered by a monumental concrete platform, three or four hundred yards long by almost one hundred wide, a construction site more in line with an airport terminal building than the foundations for a 450 apartments condo, complete with shops and a parking facility, conceived on a totally speculative basis. This will increase the total number of residential units in Hendaye by not far off ten percent. And this is just one of the projects!

Our elected representatives tell us all these changes are needed for growth, for jobs, to encourage development. I ask myself what will they do for an encore when the current projects are completed in a year or two. Will the cycle start again? Then again and again? Where will it led us? Do we need these changes, changes that indirectly influence the course of events in other parts of the world, the struggle for resources, oil, minerals, water, space, changes in the climate, and a future when we will see more and more summers with temperatures in the order of 100°F.

copyright © 2006 John Francis Kinsella. All rights reserved in all media.