Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Tag: librarian (Page 1 of 3)

The Olmec Obituary – a serious case of compulsive reading

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Confession: at school I was one of those kids that always ate her lunch at recess time. That’s right, a severe lack of impulse control on the food front. Reading is the same. On Sunday I found myself in need of some serious downtime. I therefore purchased my airline books seven days early. The trouble is I’ve now finished L.J.M Owens’ Olmec Obituary and am already seriously into the Mayan Mendacity. So what am I going to read on my long-haul flight?

Of course, as soon as I pressed purchase I knew I’d have to formulate a new flight reading plan. I am a compulsive reader and can’t do the single chapter a night thing. I never have been able to, even as a child, and, the fact is, these inter-millennial cosy mysteries have been calling out to me for some time. I mean how many other books are there with an Australian librarian main character who has a Welsh speaking grandfather?

The Olmec Obituary is, in fact, the first in a proposed nine book series of inter-millennial mysteries featuring, Dr Elizabeth Pimms, a young archaeologist  with a speciality in palaeogenetics who has left a dig in Egypt, in order to help her family through a financial crisis. Working full time in the National Library of Australia is not part of Elizabeth’s life plan but when an old classmate offers her the chance to do some part-time analysis on some Olmec skeletons she sees away to begin re-claiming her lost career. However, there are strange undercurrents in the South American research team and there is definitely something odd about the Mesoamerican writing on the pieces of ceramic that have been found at the burial site. As Elizabeth begins to analyse the bones, she realises her old classmate’s offer is not as straightforward as it appears.

Woven between Elizabeth’s third person point-of-view is the first person viewpoint of an Olmec woman. This gives the reader an insight into what actually happened to the bones – an insight that generally eludes the palaeogeneticist in real life. There are also italicised dream like sequences that occur in Elizabeth’s phrenic library. The later are compelling but do not make immediate sense. However, as the novel shares its secrets, they become an integral part of Elizabeth’s characterisation. In keeping with all good cosy mysteries there are also multiple family issues to be resolved. Here are some of the things I particularly liked about these books:

  • A librarian main character
  • librarian secondary characters
  • A  Welsh speaking grandfather who uses Welsh language phrases
  • The inter-cultural mix of Elizabeth’s family – Welsh, Chinese, French Berber
  • Learning a little about palaeogenetics
  • Learning a little about the Olmec culture
  • Descriptions of the National Library of Australia – with its LLywelyn and Merionnydd reading rooms (I’m presuming these are real?)
  • Did I mention the Welsh speaking grandfather?
  • And Welsh words
  • And Welsh recipes at the end of the book
  • What about the descriptions of the Pimms family home
  • The quaint tea and book shops
  • And Lake Burley Griffin
  • The above made me want to visit Canberra
  • Which is quite an achievement as I’ve been there a number of times and always been under-whelmed

The Olmec Obituary was Owen’s debut novel and was picked up by Echo Publishing via its crowd-funding page which makes it a kind of dream-come-true in the publishing world. I’m glad I’ve read ahead of schedule. As I said, the books had my name on them. But I am now looking for airline recommendations. I’ve considered starting the Game of Thrones series. But I do need to get some work done in Wales. Added to which, I’ll be switching to Welsh language books for two months. So preferably something historical with only one or two instalments. Come on people, hit me with suggestions?

 

 

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Getting back on the horse – the 2017 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge

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Confession: I failed. In 2015, I jauntily signed up for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge. I committed to writing four reviews of historical novels by Australian women – four measly reviews! I only wrote three. To be fair, I went to Wales mid 2015 and, although it was possible to keep reading Aussie books, it made more sense to be reading local ones – particularly of the Welsh language variety. I read my first non-learners, Welsh language novel during my seven months in Wales and my first non-learner’s adult biography as well as a host of magazines, articles and shorter language learner novels. In effect, 2015 became a year of living, speaking and reading in Welsh. That final elusive fourth review never materialised.

What about 2016? Well, I blinked and missed it. I’m not sure how. But somewhere amidst the arriving, adjusting, trying to pick up the pieces, I realised it wasn’t possible to just carry on as before. I spent the year re-calibrating my priorities. So, I failed, fell of the horse. Or maybe I jumped off into an alternative language and cultural field? The mode of descent is not important. Only the fact that I am now ready to get back on the horse. That’s what you do when you fall off, isn’t it? You get back on.

The impetus for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge started late in 2011 when after reading a blog about the gender imbalance in the reviewing of books written by women Elizabeth Lhuede, an Australian poet, academic and romance writer, was forced to examine the gender imbalance in her own reading choices. The outcome,  the Australian Women Writers Challenge – a blog dedicated to the reviewing of books by Aussie women.

In 2017, I plan to review at least four books by Australian women in the historical fiction category. This is not many titles (yes, I have commitment issues). But I have an article on coming-of-age novels to read for. And I’m still trying  to read some books in Welsh. And I do like to read books written further afield. But, despite this, I fully expect to read more than four historical novels by Australian women as the Melbourne, Historical Novels Society of Australasia conference will take place in 2017. From my experience as a librarian, I know that you engage better with the conference if you are familiar with the authors’ works. My first review will be of an historical crime series. But I’m not going to talk about it now as it deserves a post all of its own. I’m simply asking you to watch this space.

Thanks #aww2017 for letting me get back on the horse.

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Cuts, colours and the magic of Christmas

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Some say the bloom of the Jacaranda tree heralds the beginning of Christmas, or cherries in the shops (this is Australia I’m talking about), or children lighting candles. In a less innocent world, we speak of Black Friday, online shopping, and Santa’s Sled wending its way from China. For me, there is another, magical Advent marker.

Namely, the Christmas cut and colour.

What? You didn’t know of this was a phenomena! You clearly haven’t worked in the public library service. We are a female dominated industry and some many of us are no longer young. One by one, from around mid December, my colleagues and I, take turns to flex off work early. Only to return, the following morning, a brighter, crisper version of ourselves.

I’m not working at a single library branch anymore. So this year, the ritual has been less apparent. But it is happening, as surely as the sun rises in the east, I know it is happening and, as I’m going to a work party tomorrow, the need to get my act together has been looming.

My husband says I should abandon the pretence, go grey naturally (aka, keep him company). But here’s the thing. Sometimes, when I tell people I’m a Mam-gu, they say:

‘Oh, no, surely not! You’re way too young.’

Which I kind of like. It makes up for the fact that people keep asking me if I’m pregnant (gotta take the good with the bad). When people stop making these comments, I will surrender my youthful image. Until then, I’m a slave to the Christmas cut and colour.

I have a great hairdresser in Coburg. My first haircut after moving north, my son said:

‘Wow! You look like you haven’t been going to the same suburban hairdresser for twenty years.’

Having my hair cut in Coburg, is an altogether different experience to the chatty, know-everything-about-you event in the leafy suburbs. My hairdresser is from the middle-east. Her salon is filled with family and friends. She talks on her mobile phone, while cutting my hair, switching back and forth between languages. I’m no one. Just a fly on the wall. But I keep going back. Even when the salon had its windows shot in by the underworld, I kept my appointment. A good haircut is worth the risk. It is also expensive (far more expensive than its same-for-twenty-years equivalent). Which is why I now do the colouring myself.

I started dyeing my own hair while in Wales. My friend, Veronica, and I, decided, we’d cut the cost, by sharing the packet of hair dye. Veronica’s sister had been a hairdresser. So she had a little bowl and brush. It was my idea to turn a plastic glove inside out so we had a right hand one each (still pretty proud of that thought). Halving the cost seemed like a good idea at the time. Next day we both noticed the cover was, well, let’s say a little…patchy.

A month later, I lashed out, bought an entire packet and did the dyeing without help. But I didn’t have a little bowl and brush and I was in a rush so I could scuttle back to my room before the other Maelor residents caught me (gotta keep up the pretence). Trouble is, I didn’t have a good mirror in my room. So I didn’t notice the dye all over my left cheek. The end result, a dark-haired woman who looked like she’d been beaten about the face with a rolling pin.

With this colourful (pun intended) history you’d think I’d be begging the hairdresser to do my Christmas cut and colour. But, no, I learned to use a drill in Wales, unblock toilets, catch bats, paint walls, frame artwork, pack sculptures, take down exhibitions, eat chips with cheese, and do second-to-none hill starts. I owed it to myself not to back down. I applied the dye, without mishap, wiped my face, the bathroom sink, the floor, and, oh, yes, maybe also the shower screen. I sat, with the arms of my glasses wrapped in cling-wrap, while reading Dyddiau Olaf Owain Glyndwr (that’s gotta be a first for the author).

Now, it’s done. My youthful facade is fully restored. The nativity scene is set up in the living room, Jacaranda’s are blooming, the cherries are in the shops. Tomorrow, I will turn up at work, a brighter, crisper version of myself and no one will mention the cut and colour, or the wisps of grey I’ve somehow missed, because we have a ritual to maintain, part of the time-honoured Christmas magic. So let the festivities begin!

Nadolig Llawen pawb a blwyddyn newydd da i chi i gyd!

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Some unexpected developments on the job front

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You apply for a job, not just any job, a dream job in a library close to home. You pull out all stops in your application, co-opting your colleagues into editing and checking your resume and selection criteria. You are offered an interview and, though your daughter is in hospital awaiting surgery, you manage to attend – and answer the questions. In fact, you think the vibe was positive. You were right. The following week you receive a phone call. Congratulations, the guy on the phone says we’d like to offer you a position. Start dates are discussed, details checked with HR. Yes, you’ve done it. You hug the triumph to yourself in satisfaction. You talk to your current employer. Though you are supposed to give a month’s notice, they pull out all stops to ensure that you can start on the date indicated. You tell your friends, family, start to get excited. Your long-haul commute will soon be a thing of the past. You will be able to cycle to work, meet your husband in a trendy bar on Sydney Road afterwards. You will have flexibility. Ample opportunity to return to Wales. You think you are lucky. Too lucky. You think somewhere in your youth or childhood you must have done something good.

Then the second phone call comes, a week before the anticipated start date. Your job offer is being inexplicable, shatteringly withdrawn. You hang up the phone in disbelief. You try to make coffee but your hands are shaking. For some reason you can’t stand still. The reality begins to sink in. You think my God, I’m not a librarian anymore. With that the tears start. You sit with the dog in your lap and let them flow. Once the first wave of shock passes, your mind springs into action. You email your original employer. They are shocked, outraged and sympathetic on your behalf. They make phone calls. The stops so recently pulled out are jammed back into place. But of course none of your colleagues know this. When you arrive at work on Thursday morning they think you are leaving. They have made you a banner. Pob Lwc! It says in Welsh, Good Luck, Liz! You have to blight their well-wishes, tell them you might be sticking around after all. They are incredulous, enraged, and, underneath it all, a teensy bit glad. They never wanted you to leave. You think maybe they have a point. Maybe you already work on the best library service. When they ask if you want the banner taken down, you say, hell no, I’m claiming that luck after all.

PS. This is not a blame and shame exercise. Just my writerly attempt to come to terms with the situation. So, if you want to comment and know of the libraries involved, please don’t mention them by name. 🙂

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Library lessons – from the other side of the desk.

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My name is Liz, I work as a librarian, and I love libraries. The public ones, due to their underlying principle of equity of access, research libraries due to their wealth of information. In addition to my multiple Aussie public library memberships, I hold Gwynedd and Powys library cards. I am also a member of the National Library of Australia, State Library of Victoria, and the Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru (LLGC). 

One of my methods, when reading a secondary resource is to pore over the bibliography and footnotes, identifying further reading materials. A search on Trove made it plain that some of the items I require – like the Denbighshire Historical Society journal – will not be found in Australia. Others, are available through the LLGC website, and are now on my iPad in PDF format. Many of the medieval chronicles, parliamentary proceedings and patent rolls are also available online. But because I am a mildly (cough) obsessive person, I have also registered with the U.K. Data Service in order to acesss the Dyffryn Clwyd court rolls, intermittently presided over by Reginald de Grey, the man whose actions pushed Glyn Dwr into open rebellion. 

Yes, I know, major excitement.

But Liz, I hear you ask, do you need all this detail when much of it is provided in the secondary sources? Possibly not. But I am learning to trust the process. Indeed to revel in it. For my recently completed novel, I spent two afternoons in the Victoria and Albert Reading rooms sifting through nineteenth century theatre play bills. Did any of them make it into the novel? Well, no. But they made the whole damn thing feel pretty real. And when you are trying to connect with an historical character, real is important. Imagine my excitement, when scrolling through a muster roll of medieval soldiers, to see Owain Glyn Dwr listed. To quote Billy Elliot:

‘It was like electricity.’

I experienced a similar frisson of excitement when I found the Bulletin Board of Celtic Studies journal on the state library catalogue, with issues spanning all the way back to 1921. The record said:

Available  Phone 03 8664 7002 to arrange delivery from Offsite Store  YA 913.36 B87

Ten o’clock Monday morning I called the state library. ‘Good Morning, I said. I am phoning to order some journals from offsite storage.’

Silence.

‘Hello? The catalogue said to phone, is this the correct number?’

‘Yes.’ A sigh on the end of the line. 

‘Are you the person I need to talk to?

‘I am, but it will be difficult.’

‘Difficult?’

‘Our process is clunky.’

At this point a younger, less experienced version of myself may have said, ‘Oh, I see, well, sorry to bother you.’

But I am no longer a girl and I work in a library and I have it on good authority that this is not how one is supposed to conduct a reference interview. In fact, I strongly suspected this librarian was being lazy. ‘Would it be easier if I came in and made the request?’

‘No,’ another sigh. ‘What journal are you after?’

I gave him the name of the journal, heard the keyboard clattering, imagined a bald, bespectacled librarian, let’s call him Lionel, peering at the screen. (yes, yes, I know, a stereotype, but some of them are real okay) ‘Yes, it is in our collection.’ Lionel dredged the admission up from the soles of his scuffed, brown lace-up shoes. ‘What issues are you after?’

I pulled up my list, began reeling off years and numbers.

‘Hang on a sec!’ Did I detect a note of smug triumph in Lionel’s voice? ‘You are only allowed six items.’

‘So, you want me to order six items now, cycle into the library tomorrow, then call again the next day and order six more issues, cycle home, then repeate the whole process the following morning?’

A longer silence. To give credit where credit is due, Lionel was starting to register my level of persistence. ‘Leave it with me,’ he said. ‘I’ll make enquiries.’

When Lionel called back a couple of hours later, he told me that he had managed to put in a trolley order. ‘I’m not sure if it will work,’ he added with a signatory puff. ‘But hopefully there will be something on the reserve shelf tomorrow.’

The next morning, I don’t mind admitting, I approached the reservation shelf with a degree of pessimism. I was not surprised to find that there were no journals under my name, only the three additional books I had ordered through the catalogue. However, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard borrowers announce that their reservation is not on the shelf, only to find it below, the items under letter of their surname having spilled over onto a lower shelf. I scanned the reservation area, saw four huge cartons, with my name on them. Journal upon journal, some wrapped in plastic due to their infrequent use. Lionel had delivered. Big time. From which I concluded he wasn’t a lazy librarian at all. Though, I strongly suspect the poor fellow has confidence issues. 



 

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Library lessons

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You get a sixth sense with some library customers. As I worked through the simple trouble-shooting steps, the woman beside me was becoming increasingly agitated. 

‘I have to scan these documents,’ she said.

‘Yes, we have to get you logged onto this PC first.’

‘Then I have send them.’ She shifted nervously, from foot to foot, her frame slight, her jaw tight.

‘Yes, we can do that too. Have you logged out of the other terminal?’

‘Oh, no, sorry.’

‘Right, let’s try the password again, shall we?’

We eventually got the woman logged onto the fifteen minute PC. At which point, I could have handed her over to my colleague. I was only meant to be on the library floor to cover tea relief. But my colleagues were busy and I’d taken longer to troubleshoot the problem than I’d have liked. I pulled up a chair and prepared to see the woman’s project through to the end. 

We placed the documents onto the flat-bed scanner and followed the simple step-by-step instructions. She had logged onto a fifteen minute terminal and the clock was ticking down. I asked how she wanted to save the documents. She chose to email them to herself. Though, from her nervous smile, I could tell wasn’t too confident about her ability to complete the task.

We logged onto Hotmail, attached the documents. ‘Write something in the subject line so you can find them,’ I suggested, imagining she simple, neutral words like: scanned documents, or library scanning. She typed the words: application compassionate grounds.

As I said, you get a sixth sense with some people.

We sat waiting for the email to arrive. By the time it hit the woman’s inbox, her fifteen minutes was almost up. We checked the attachment, deleted the file from the computer’s memory and logged out. 

‘Do you want to log you onto another terminal and send them now?’

She hesitated. ‘Maybe another day.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘It’s just well, I get anxious, you see.’

Yes, I saw, perhaps more than she realized. ‘They will be safe in your inbox until next time,’ I assured her. ‘You can do them whenever you are ready. We are always here to help.

‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘Thank you for understanding.’

*

At other times, you get the whole thing wrong. In this instance, I was serving a stooped, elderly woman wearing a yellow hand-knitted beanie. 

‘I can’t use your computers,’ she said. ‘Can you help me find a book?’

‘Yes, of course.’ I smiled benignly. Hers wasn’t an uncommon question, especially among the woman’s demographic many of whom missed the boat on the technology front and now find themselves needing help in certain circumstances. ‘What book are you after?’

‘I’d like something on Canadian totem poles.’

Right, I thought. That’s out of the box. I’d expected her to name a favorite author, or the latest family saga. 

‘I’m a lacemaker,’ she added. ‘My son and his family are living in Canada. I’d like to create a piece of lace based on the totem poles in their area.’

Right, I thought, technologically challenged and beanie wearing but no slouch in the arts and crafts department. I couldn’t make a piece of lace to save my life. But as it happened, if did know a little about Canadian totem poles. We used to have an amazing book about the artist Emily Carr. I typed in her name. Sadly, the book was no longer on our system. I widened my search, found some possibilities and and took her down to the relevant section. ‘If you don’t find anything come back to me,’ I said. ‘I can always do a Google search and print a picture out for you.’ 

‘Oh, I’ve already done a Google search,’ she said. ‘On my tablet. I didn’t find anything that took my fancy.’

Right, I thought, a culturally aware, lace-making, tablet-using old woman. I slunk back to the reference desk making a mental note not to make anymore foolish assumptions about stooped, senior citizens in hand-knitted beanies.

 

 

 

 

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A series of first world problems

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For months, my MacBook Pro has been on the blink. Hanging regularly like a PC, the rainbow wheel-of-death spinning endlessly. Crashing every time I perform an update, only to be kick-started by an emergency call to Apple support. I knew it had to be replaced but, to be honest, I’d been procrastinating. It was an expense, for a start, and I’d have to decipher terms like Intel Core and GHz, PCle-based flash storage and LPDDR3, decide what data to transfer and then set the whole computer up, complete with passwords for every application. Yes, I know, a first world problem, half the world does not have access to clean water and I am bitching about buying a new MacBook.

The thing is, I’m in research mode, so I’m spending more hours reading, jotting and imagining than I am serious word crunching. As  consequence, I’ve been able to place Great MacBook decision on the back burner. Until last week, when my iPad became terminally ill, the battery draining away like blood from a beast. Damn, thought, I’m going to have to go to the Apple Store.

apple-ipad-air-A1474-Wi-Fi-Cellular-1st-Generation

This is no great chore. To take my iPad to a warm, well-lit store, where a friendly young, tattooed technician wearing a navy blue T Shirt, would fix my problem free of charge. But I’d have to schedule an appointment, drive to the store and find a parking spot when I could at home be reading books on Owain Glyn Dŵr.

I drove to the appointment, parked, drank my obligatory Westfield coffee, topped up on Body Shop supplies and arrived in time for my session. The Apple store attendant hooked my iPad up to his iPad, pronounced my battery dead and told me he was going to give me a replacement. Just like that. A new iPad. I’d have to set it up, of course, and, when I visited mum on the way home, we’d have to squint at pictures of Charlie on my iPhone. But, hey, first world problem, right?

Mum and I managed to adore the phone-sized images of Charlie. But I can tell you I felt pretty angsty knowing my iPad was lying dormant in my bag. It was akin to the feeling I’d had in Corris for seven months without the stunning scenery and the music of the Welsh  language to compensate. As soon as I arrived home, I fired it up, chose my language and region, launched the set up process. I chose to restore from iCloud <insert shaft of ethereal light and booming God voice>.

macbook-air-gallery2-2014

But here’s the rub – iCloud told me I had no back ups. Really? No back ups! Could The Cloud lie? My iPad and phone back up automatically whenever they are on WIFI. But no matter how many times, I tried to restore, The Great God of the Cloud said, No Back Ups. I turned to my MacBook. No problem, I’d restore from iTunes. Except, my computer had joined the evil circle of doom. No matter what I tried, the damn thing would not sync with my iPad. I rang the Apple support team. We set the iPad up as a new product. The guy assured me, we’d be able to connect to The Cloud once I’d done a software update. I managed to connect to WIFI. But my back ups were still missing. I rang Apple Support again. The team member got me to log onto iCloud on my phone. There was nothing there. Do you hear me? My cloud was empty! Panic washed over me in a series of hot waves. I had an app with all my passwords, thousands of words of notes and research, all backed up to The Cloud.

The young woman was well trained. ‘I can tell that you are upset. Let’s go through the situation one more time. I want to make sure I am understanding you correctly.’

Upset! I was more than upset.

She went and talked to her supervisor. ‘Your apps aren’t lost,’ she said. ‘You simply need to go to the app store and download them manually.’

‘What about the data,’ I repeated. ‘My notes, my research, my passwords.’

‘Your data will be there somewhere,’ she said, ‘if you’ve backed up to The Cloud. But we can’t take responsibility for individual apps. You may have to contact the developer.’

By this stage it was getting late. I suggested we schedule a call for the morning. I still had my iPhone. Proof that my data was out there somewhere. If we couldn’t get it from The Could, I’d simply have to transfer it manually. Meanwhile, I’d still be able to do my banking, keep appointments, phone my ageing mother, email and send text messages. I plugged the phone into the charger and tried to adopt an attitude of Christian calm. Though, I have to admit, libations and small animal sacrifices did cross my mind.

I woke the next morning with a jolt of recollection. Apple would be calling soon. I picked up my iPhone. It was dead. I kid you not. The screen was black. I pressed the button. The battery showed a thin red strip. I must have knocked the USB cord out by mistake. I pressed it into the plug. Nothing. I jiggled, tried another plug. By this time I was wide awake. I scuttled about the house plugging and unplugging my iPhone. Nothing. No life. No lightning bolt. No ding. My documents, my research notes, my passwords, all gone. Vanished.

hero-grey

I made myself coffee. Lit my candle. Placed it on my Welsh tapestry placemat. Sat staring at the flame. Call me a slow learner but I realised some decisions had to be made. I needed a new MacBook, to somehow find my documents in The Cloud, and get my phone working. Meanwhile, the Apple gods must have been working overtime. My iPad calendar and contacts had  filled up overnight. I started downloading apps manually. I opened, aNote, my note-taking app (chosen for its rainbow coloured folders). Set it up to sync to WIFI. Nothing happened. I sent a note to the developer. Within half an hour I’d received a reply.

Dear Customer,

We have analysed your log file, it has not downloaded data from iCloud. You have a lot of notes. Please wait until download is completed.

The developer gave me a list of instructions. I went into preferences, turned buttons on and off (as you do). Went into the app, followed Mr aNote’s directions to the letter. Powered the iPad off and on, took a deep breath. Waited thirty seconds. That’s the magic number right? Then pressed the button. The Apple logo appeared, my home screen. I opened aNote. My data had downloaded, from The Cloud <insert: hallelujah chorus>, where it had been safe all along. I still had to organise my apps into categories (hey, I’m a librarian), change my language preferences to Welsh, log into each individual app, get my phone fixed, then buy a new MacBook. But those are first world problems, right? Nothing to complain about.

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Library lessons – or how to be a decent human being

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I am not a morning person. But Friday, I had to start work by eight o’clock. As I dressed in a fumble, main lined coffee, grabbed my make up bag and hair care products, and headed out into the half-light, I was surprised by an overwhelming I’m-living-in-Melbourne-and-lovin-it, sensation. It didn’t last. As soon as I saw the five lines of creeping of red tail lights on the freeway, I knew this would be no easy run. My foreboding was confirmed by the electronic sign:

Incident on the Bolte Bridge, expect delays. 

Unfortunately, this instance, Citylink, weren’t exaggerating. I arrived at work, tufty-haired, late and without my age-defying foundation in place. It didn’t help that I had to fit an extra home library delivery into the two hour set up time. Or that the cash reconciliation wasn’t straight forward. As I walked out onto the library floor at opening time, I saw one of our most everyday difficult customers pacing up and down outside the door.

‘She’s early,’ I said to my colleague.

‘My thoughts exactly.’

‘Let’s hope it isn’t a bad omen.’

The minute we logged the phones in, all three started ringing. It was story time, so there were lots of mum’s and crying babies. Added to which, every woman and her dog wanted to join the library. Not sure why, maybe it was announced on the radio?

<insert ABC News music>

We interrupt this bulletin to make and important announcement. That building in the High Street that you have walked past a thousand times, is a library. If you race down there today you will get a discount on your free membership.

Whatever the reasons, they didn’t stop coming. By mid-morning, my blood sugar levels were seriously low. Good Afternoon, I said to the woman standing at the desk. How can I help you? 

Silence. I realised my error. ‘Sorry it isn’t afternoon yet, it only feels like it.’

I went through the usual spiel about needing ID, with a current address to join the library. She passed me her drivers’ license. I handed her a piece of paper on which to write her email address and phone number and began typing details into the catalogue. She paused after jotting down her phone number, looking up at me.

‘Can I give you my husband’s email address?’

 ‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘as long as he checks it.’

‘He does,’ every day. But I don’t use the computer.’

I froze. Though this wasn’t an uncommon admission, especially among the elderly or so socially disadvantaged. But this woman didn’t look old, or poor. Didn’t she realise the world has changed? I see this often among my home library clients. Women who never learned to use a CD player in the 1980’s are now old and infirm and beyond learning and we no longer have cassette tapes in the library. If you extrapolate this scenario out across all the other technologies that have emerged and how they have transformed the way society operates, this woman was setting herself up for social and emotional isolation in her old age. 

I didn’t say this, of course. My job is to meet specific information needs not to lecture people. I did however carry a waspish sense of sense of outrage over to my next enquiry. A significantly older woman with a list written in a spidery old lady hand. She wanted to know about a book called Dancing with Strangers. My colleague had punched the title into Google and come up with a number of possibilties. 

‘Do you know the author?’ I asked.

‘I think it might have been Glen Dinnen.’

I typed: Dinnen, Glen, into our catalogue. No result. I looked at the Google list again.

‘Do you remember what the book was about?’

‘It was about the early settlement of Australia and the first contact with the aborigines.’ 

‘Ah, I said. Clendinnen.’ But it had been a long morning, and I was due for morning tea and, as I read the book description out to her, I found myself thinking: if you’d learned to use a computer you could have worked this out for yourself. 

‘It’s for my book group,’ the old lady said. ‘I’m ninety two years of age. But I like to keep my mind active.’

Ouch, I thought. Retract earlier waspish sentiment. I found myself wondering whether I’d be discussing books and ideas in my ninety-third year. But that wasn’t the end of the lesson. Have you ever found that? When life sets out to teach you something, it is rarely gentle? As I worked through the woman’s book list, trying to ascertain how many copies of various titles we had in the collection, I started writing down, authors, titles and numbers for her.

‘Oh,’ she said, on seeing the list. Thank you… thank you so much.’ She stopped, swallowed, her voice wobbling with emotion. I kept my eyes trained on the computer screen. 

‘My husband, is a veteran.’ She said, when she found her voice again. ‘It’s hard looking after him. I come to the library every Friday, on the oldies bus. It is the highlight of my week.’

I swallowed, looking up her. At this point, she wasn’t the only one getting misty-eyed. 

‘Sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.’

‘No.’ I shook my head. ‘Thank you, for making my job worthwhile.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Back at work and other exhausting aspects of daily life

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I’m back into the full swing of daily life and if going bush at Easter felt like rubber hitting the road, going back to work felt infinitely worse. Not that I’m complaining. I have an amazing job in a fantastic library service with wonderful colleagues but logging into an inbox with 2,897 emails was bound to put skid marks on my soul. Fortunately, I am a quick deleter or should I say reader. As I culled my inbox making mass irreversible decisions, I did notice one consistent theme – blocked public toilets. 

It’s good to know people have been focussed on the important things while I was away. 

Back at Welsh class we facing a crisis of too many learners and not enough not tutors. Added to which there has been a coup by the dirty rotten northerners. I arrived back thinking I’d be picking up where I left off with my Hwntw (southern) class only to find myself back with the beginners teaching a Gog (northern) version of the NEW SSiW course. This has meant the production of a whole new set of flash cards. Other tutors don’t do this. They use neat handouts and words printed on Roldex cardboard. But I can’t, teach this way. Though, I have zero evidence my colourful efforts are any more effective. For me, getting my head around the course material involves Google images and laminating. 

The good thing about teaching the beginners, is an opportunity to record what does and doesn’t work. By the end of the year, I should have a basic tutors guide for others to follow.

I am back at the gym and, after my experience of doing Seiclo Dan Dô (under roof cycling) in Machynlleth, I have been braving weekly spin classes. Last Wednesday the teacher did a kind of creative exercise in which he pretended we were racing out on the open road. As well as riding ‘up hills’ and turning ‘sharp corners’ and being told we were great and could do it and that we really love the climbs, he divided the class into four groups and pretended we were in a peloton. As each group took their turn in the lead they had to pedal hard against the wind. It wasn’t real – the peloton, or taking the lead, or breaking the wind – but as I rose red-faced and gasping in my saddle I thought: I’m into this. Followed by, what does this gullibility say about me?

While settling back down my manuscript has been in the drawer while trusted friends do a final read through (the word drawer being a little like the mythical peloton). Meanwhile, I have started researching Australian publishing options. There’s no rush. I have some irons in the fire. But my manuscript is sitting right on the border between young adult and adult fiction – a wonder tale set on board a nineteenth century emigrant vessel with both teenage and adult viewpoints. Sadly no one seems to have a designated submissions editor for historical and slightly mystical crossover novels with multi-age viewpoint characters. Call me cowardly. But I don’t like rejection. So if you could read my blog over the coming months and tell me how much you’re enjoying it, and how great I am, and how much you’re loving my climbs, you will help keep my therapy bills to a minimum.

Finally, I’ve had a brief brush with fame the last couple of weeks. Bethan Gwanas interveiwed me about my language journey. The ensuing article can be found in the 31 March edition of Golwg. I also did an interview with Geriant Lloyd for Radio Cymru. My segment comes 59.15 minutes into the program. I am speaking a lot faster than in my earlier interview with Siân Cothi and a lot less fluidly than I was speaking six weeks ago in Cymru. Ond fel na mae – but that’s how it is…for the time being.

L

 

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A week of small things

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Last Saturday, I told my husband I wouldn’t be speaking English and spent the day chatting in Welsh on Skype, doing SSiW lessons, and listening to Radio Cymru. It was a long, intense, surreal kind of day. As daylight gave way to dusk, I took the dog for one more walk around the block and had the strange sensation of Welsh words jostling to the front of my mind. I thought, this is weird, totally weird. I wonder if anyone else is preparing for Dysgwr y Flwyddyn like this? As I walked around the night black silence of an empty house, I thought: maybe not?

Maybe this is a little crazy?

I didn’t progress to the final round of Dysgwr y Flwyddyn. In retrospect, I never was a serious contender. But I managed to bag myself a greater prize at Welsh class the following Tuesday evening. I had been teaching the beginners class for a couple of months and, on rejoining my intermediate class for the first time in ages, I felt seriously out of touch. But my brain was still in the curious Welsh language hinterland that my day of intensive preparation had produced. I pulled out a stack flash cards and said:

‘We are going to use these images as a springboard for discussion.’

An hour and twenty minutes later, we were still taking. In Welsh. It was the first time any of my classes had broken through the barrier from lessons to conversation. Riding home that night under the rainbow strobe of city lights I thought:

Yes, yes, yes! This makes the whole thing worthwhile.

Thursday, I found myself working a regular library desk shift. From amid the general queries about what book came next in a series, relevant school project materials, and technological issues, came a rough, half shaven, probably-from-the-local-council-estate man, wanting information on butterflies. Not general bookish, kind of information either. Butterfly man wanted to identify a chrysalis he had found and determine when, exactly, his buttefly would emerge. I directed him to the relevant library shelf and helped him connect his tablet to the WIFI. But armed with information and connectivity, he saw no reason to exclude me from the ongoing excitement of the his research. In the course of his hour long residency at the information desk, snippets of butterfly man’s story also emerged. In between serving customers, I marvelled at this socially and economically disadvantaged older man who clearly hadn’t thrived in the education system, rediscovering the wonders of the natural world.

On Friday evening, I visited mum in hospital. She asked me how my Welsh language competition had gone. ‘It went well,’ I replied. ‘I spoke quite fluidly. But I didn’t get through to the final round.’

‘Why not?’ mum asked.

‘Well, I think, perhaps, my Welsh wasn’t good enough.’

‘But you’re my daughter! You can do anything.’

You’re my daughter…

I couldn’t help reflecting on mum’s comments as I lined up for Saturday’s how to be a barrista course. Maybe this attitude lay at the root of all my naive overconfidence? Thinking I could write a novel? Learn a second language? Start teaching it before I could even speak it fully? Believing I could compete against Welsh people in a Welsh language competition. As I looked around the class of wannabe barristas among whom I was the oldest, tallest, most English-as-a-first-languagest, I thought:

Maybe I’m out of my depth here too?

Over the course of the day, my initial suspicions were confirmed. I could set up the machine okay and produce esspresso shots with a nice crema. They tasted good too. I made the mistake of drinking far too many early on. By the end of the day, my class mates were decorating smooth coffees with spirals and seagull patterns while, with my hands burned and my heart racing and my over-caffeinated nerves jangling, I was still struggling to create the requisite micro foam. ‘You’re doing well.’ I said to the girl next to me. ‘Do you work in a cafe?”

‘I have.’ She said. ‘But not as a barista. What about you?’

I looked down into my jug of frothy over boiled milk. ‘I work in a library. And teach Welsh as a hobby. I think that’s where I belong.’

PS: If you’re a cafe in the Corris area, please replace that final sentence with:

But once I get the hang of this I’m going to be the bomb! 🙂

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