Earlier this year, I made my 50th blood donation. I thought this was quite an achievement – the Blood Bank gave me a little badge and a few weeks later I got a certificate in the mail. Then I got an invitation to a Red Cross event at Parliament House.

So I went along, feeling pretty good about myself. When I got there, the woman at the desk ticked my name off a list of people who’d made 50 donations. But I couldn’t help noticing she also had lists for 100 donations, and 150, and a list of bone marrow donors. And then during the morning tea, I saw a few people with stickers saying 200 donations, and even one that said 350. So I started to feel that my 50 donations weren’t that impressive after all. (Though I give whole blood donations, which you can only do 4 times a year. Plasma donations – also very much needed – can be done every two weeks. But by any reckoning, 350 is a LOT of visits to the blood bank.)

Then the presentations started. There was a general welcome, and a talk about how important blood donation is, and the fact that only 1 in 30 Australians is a blood donor (to which I’m surely not the only one who thought ‘preaching to the converted’). Then there was a short talk by a man whose little boy’s life had been saved by blood donations (I forget exactly what he had, but I think it was cancer of some kind). They called out by name all the people who had made 50 donations, so I and a huge number of other people went up, and received a gift (presented by the little boy). Then they called up the people who had made 75 donations, then 100, 150, 200, 250, 300. (300 donations is a donation every fortnight, for a minimum of 11 years!) Based on the man I’d seen earlier, I knew they were going to go to 350, and after that they did 400. I was pretty sure they’d stop then, but no … 450, 500, 550. Then they called up two people who had given 700 donations each.

After that, there was a brief talk by a 13 year old girl who had been ill with something at age 2, and then at 12 was diagnosed with leukaemia. She had received over 40 blood donations, plus a bone marrow transplant. She and her mother both spoke very movingly. The bone marrow donors were then called up and received gifts.

Finally, they called up a man who has made 854 donations. 854!!! He (and also one of the 700 people) has been in the RH program (where they collect Rh negative blood, to be used in a drug that protects babies from rhesus disease) since the 1960s. His plasma has saved the life of 2.5 MILLION babies.

So by the end, while I still felt pretty good about my 50 donations, I was completely overwhelmed by the total awesomeness of the other people. Just normal, everyday people, who are trekking off, year in, year out, sometimes every fortnight, to help save the lives of people they will never know. I now feel slightly guilty that I had to skip my last donation, but the event has inspired me with fresh enthusiasm for the whole process.

Possession by A. S. Byatt

Possession was the first A. S. Byatt I ever read, and it is still far and away my favourite. I love the variety and interactions of the modern characters, the sense of such a completely diverse group of people linked by nothing more than a passion for two long dead poets, and the fact that they have such different ways of relating to them. I find all the characters – even the unlikable ones – enjoyable to read about. I also love the treasure hunt aspect of it – particularly as it gains momentum towards the end.

For all that I love the book, though, I don’t think I’ve ever read the Ash or LaMotte poetry, and I mostly skip the LaMotte prose as well. In fact, this time through I found myself skimming very lightly through the whole Ash/LaMotte correspondence, and I also skipped large segments of Sabine’s journal. On the other hand, I still read the Ellen Ash journal bits with great pleasure.

For me, though, this book also crystallises why it is I chose to study literature rather than history. With history, there is an absolute Truth – events either happened or they did not – and the historian may never know for certain whether what they believe is right. And there are other things that will simply never be known – as the Postscript to Possession says, “There are things which happen and leave no discernible trace, are not spoken or written of”.

This is also reflected earlier in the book, when Roland and Maud go to the Boggle Hole to “take a day off from them, get out of their story, go and look at something for ourselves. There’s no Boggle Hole in Cropper or the Ash Letters”. And then in the next chapter we see that Ash and LaMotte did go to the Boggle Hole – I love the parallel between the two pairs, but at the same time it is incredibly frustrating and sad that Roland and Maud will never know about it.

The same idea comes up in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia (which, co-incidentally, I saw at about the same time I first read Possession). As in Possession, while the modern characters end up knowing most of the things the audience does about the past, there are some things they are unaware of – or, as in the case of the Fuseli portrait, some things they have a gut feeling about, but no way of proving it (“I know it’s them. … How? It just is.”)

Studying literature isn’t like that, at least for me. You have the text, and you have the reader, and you really don’t need anything else – it’s all about the relationship between the two, which, of course, will be unique for each reader. I guess an exception to this is if you are specifically trying to work out “what the author intended”. But I suspect this is a task sitting somewhere between the problematic and the impossible – and, as with history, leads to the situation where you will never know – or never be able to prove – how close to the truth you are.

But in terms of general appreciation/interpretation of a text, everything you need to know is between the covers of the book. If the author has written or said something elsewhere about it, that’s a bonus; and a greater knowledge of the author’s life, or the historical period they lived in, or anything else of that nature, may shed a different kind of light on the text. But ultimately, any interpretation a reader chooses to make of the book – unless it is actually contradicted by something between the covers of the book itself – is totally valid. It’s not like history, where you may never know if you are right or wrong. If you know something about a text, then it is true – even if the next person to read it knows the complete opposite.

Book Meme

Someone on Girlsown posted a link to a book meme at Online Learning. (If you follow the links back from the site, you may find where the meme originated. Or you may not – I gave up after a while.)

The instructions are:

1. Grab the nearest book.
2. Open the book to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the text of the sentence in your journal along with these instructions.
5. Don’t search around and look for the “coolest” book you can find. Do what’s actually next to you.

The closest book is Tops and Bottoms by Noel Streatfeild. Since I am writing my Uni treatise on Streatfeild, all her books are handily shelved on the bookcase nearest my desk, and this one happened to be at the end of the shelf. The fifth sentence on page 123 is the rather uninspiring “Beaty looked ashamed of herself -“.

Tops and Bottoms is definitely not one of the better Streatfeilds, and I’m not actually referring to it in my treatise, but it was the closest book to hand. At least, it was the closest book to my left hand. The closest book to my right hand was the Dreamweaver 3: Using Dreamweaver, but I’m not sure that a several-versions-old software guide really counts as a book; and, in any case, it was about four centimetres further away than Tops and Bottoms. Amazingly enough, at this precise moment in time there are actually no books lying on my desk – the ones that were there about an hour ago are currently in a pile on the floor. Had I not cleared off the desk, you would have got a sentence from Artemis Fowl: The Opal Deception – or maybe Booktalk: Occasional Writing on Literature and Children.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Attwood (plus a rant about punctuation)

This was the first Margaret Attwood I ever read, and it’s the only one I tend to re-read. I find the society she envisages fascinating, and I love the way the story unfolds. I simultaneously enjoy and am frustrated by the open ending. However, I do find it a bit hard to believe that the society could undergo such a radical change in a relatively short period of time.

I have to admit, though, one of the things that annoys me about Attwood (and a number of other “serious” modern writers) is the attitude of “I can make up my own rules of punctuation”. This particularly applies to dialogue. What’s wrong with the generally accepted standards of opened and closed quote marks? I’m not a big fan of writing in the present tense, or idiosyncratic grammar, but I can see how these can have a real impact on how the story is being told, and the effect it has on the reader. But changing punctuation?

Some authors choose to replace quote marks with other dialogue signifiers: for example, in Everything Will Be All Right, Tessa Hadley puts a dash at the beginning of the paragraph, and immediately after (though not before) the “he said/she said” tag (if there is one). Attwood, however, dispenses with signifiers altogether – as in the following example:

I’ve learned to do without a lot of things. If you have a lot of things, said Aunt Lydia, you get too attached to this material world and you forget about spiritual values. You must cultivate poverty of spirit. Blessed are the meek. She didn’t go on to say anything about inheriting the earth. (The Handmaid’s Tale, 1996 Vintage edition, p. 74)

These authors may find quote marks aesthetically displeasing. However, standard punctuation, understood by readers, does actually make the reading process easier – particularly when it comes to separating the actual dialogue from the “he said/she said” tags. Of course, it’s not actually difficult to read these authors, but a higher level of concentration is required, and occasionally one needs to re-read a sentence after misinterpreting a tag as dialogue (or vice versa) the first time through. And personally, I’d prefer to be putting my cognitive processing power into dealing with the intricacies of plot, the subtleties of character or the beauties of language, rather than into coping with unfamiliar punctuation.

Maybe there is some subtle effect that is passing me by. But to be honest, what it actually feels like is that these authors are just looking for a gimmick that will set them apart from “ordinary” authors. I think Attwood’s writing is good enough to do this on its own, and I find that messing around with punctuation detracts from her book, rather than adds to it.

Out of competition drug testing

For all that I’ve been on the National Fencing Squad for years, I’ve been lucky enough to never be picked for drug testing. This changed tonight.

I had arrived at training, and was just changing my shoes, when two ASDA people walked into the room, with my name on their list. This is the first time they’ve ever turned up at our club – previously, they’ve come to National level competitions, but as it happened I haven’t made the top four at the comps they’ve been at, so I was never selected for testing.

The way it works is that from the moment they’ve identified me, one of them has to keep me in their sight at all times. This includes the bit when I’m actually producing the urine sample for them. What fun! (That was sarcasm, by the way.)

After drinking about a litre of water in 40 minutes, I was able to produce the sample in spite of having a witness. But the security around it is really amazing. I had to give them a list of any medication (including vitamin supplements) that I had taken in the past week. They gave me a choice of three (sealed) cups in which to produce the sample. Then I had a choice of three packs of sample jars – the pack was numbered and sealed. I had to unseal it, take out the two jars inside, make sure they were sealed and that they and the pack all had the same numbers on them. I then had to pour the sample into the two jars (they weren’t allowed to touch it) and reseal the pack. One of the jars is sent to a lab for testing, and the other is held for a second test if there is a problem with the first one – i.e. if it comes out positive. If everything is okay, I’ll get a report in 8 to 10 weeks. However, they explained that if there’s a positive result from the first jar, I should hear back in a couple of days, and I then have the right to be present for the opening and testing of the second jar.

It was all a bit embarrassing from my point of view. However, later I got to thinking what kind of a job it must be to follow an athlete around and then watch her pee into a bottle. I hope that it’s only a small part of the ASDA person’s role, or that it’s only something she has to do for a short time, before moving on to bigger and better things. I don’t imagine it’s the sort of job most people are thinking about when they talk to the Careers Guidance person at High School.