Review: A Woman in the Polar Night


This was a real book fluke for me. I was actually buying a couple of other books and needed one more to take up the multi-buy offer and was just drawn in by the cover. It probably took me less than 30 seconds to add to my pile and stroll off to the till.

From the inside cover …” She thinks it will be a relaxing trip, a chance to ‘read thick books in the remote quiet and, not least, sleep to my heart’s content’ but when Christiane arrives she is shocked to realise they are to live in a ramshackle hut on the shores of a lonely fjord, hundreds of miles from the nearest settlement”…

That was what it took, as a self-confessed lover of all things Nordic, I have yet to travel to Norway, let alone the Arctic region of Svalbard where this memoir is set.

Christiane Ritter, and artist and writer from Austria travelled to Spitsbergen to join her husband for a year in the wild in 1933. He had already been away for several years and she was only supposed to stay initially 6 months. They share a cabin with another hunter, who her husband often travels with or alone hunting for food, leaving her to fend for herself in the icy tundra. Her vivid descriptions of her surroundings, her emotions, the pressure the isolation and environment played on her mental health were visceral. I spent the whole book simultaneously wanting to visit and not visit Spitsbergen. I couldn’t help but admire this amazing woman, because to live like she did, off the land (eating seal blubber etc, hand to mouth some weeks) seemed unthinkable now, with all our mod cons and fleece lined technical clothing, let alone almost 90 years ago. I should point out that her husband seems like a bit of an idiot at times, it is noted that he took many utensils and tools from their home when he first went out but doesn’t know where they are, he might have left some in a hut 2 days travel away.

At the time of reading it became apparent to me that this was unlike most nature or travel memoirs I’ve read, in that its by a woman, especially for it’s time. Its easy to understand this book’s success which hasn’t been out of print in Germany.

If you want you can check out the book (and support this blog at the same time) by clicking through to my affiliate independent bookshop of choice – Blackwell’s  or of course by supporting your local bookshop.

There are some photos of the cabins (larger than I expected)and more information in this Independent article.

4/100 Learning a new language

Day 4/100 of my 100 days of blogging self set challenge. Today’s update is fresh. I recently decided to learn a bit of Icelandic. I’ve been learning Swedish for a little over 2 years on and off with Duolingo, but as I’m heading off in a few weeks on my seventh trip to Iceland it feels like this is the language I should be working on. I’ve always been interested in languages and that piqued even more after reading Lingo – A Language Spotter’s Guide To Europe, which is an enthralling book about where different languages originated, who borrowed from whom etc. I’d noticed several similarities between Swedish – Icelandic so this has definitely pulled me in a bit more – now I’ve gotten over the fear of pronunciation. Because that’s half the battle – learning the new sounds that your mother tongue doesn’t naturally make, it actually just reminds me of how I felt learning French in school the first time – all those rolling of Rrrrr’s and trying to remember what the different accents did to vowels – it’s really just that on a larger scale (please don’t tell me otherwise! I need to believe it).

So what am I using for language learning? Well Duolingo doesn’t have Icelandic (yet!), so that stays just for the Swedish. Memrise was one frequently mentioned on Facebook (facebook groups are good for something – plenty of language learners very ready and willing to swap tips and offer advice). I like Memrise in some respects, but it can be quite confusing in how they’ve structured it – for example you go from learning basics such as hello, good day, how are you? what are you called? to Are you attending the polyglot conference? I mean this maybe a bit of fun on their part.. but totally unnecessary I feel. And the clue is in the name, it does feel like you are just memorising phrases rather than learning in a usefully structured way – however it’s good for learning how words are pronounced but another downside is the ‘help me learn this’ sometimes it’s just a phonetically written version of the phrase, sometimes it’s some weird sentence that sounds similar but is clear nonsense. In the first 2-3 weeks, I kept with the free version, but it always tries to convince you to upgrade after your time limited session, eventually it will offer you a year’s subscription for not much more than a standard month, so I gave in given that it worked about about £2.50 a month.

Random image from Drops…

Another app that is popular is Drops – basically a very beautifully designed app where words or phrases are dropped in from the top of the screen, in pictorial format – the voices for these are identical to the voices in the words by the instagram account Every Single Word In Icelandic (who also created the book – Iceland in Icons) – so I’m not sure if there’s a connection there or a generic voice/word bank that can be used. Drops is useful in that you can select what section to choose, ie basic phrases, numbers, foods  – however my only issue is that some of the icons are a little obscure and I can’t remember what they mean – so whilst I can match it to the correct word or phrase, I don’t actually know what it means. Drops gives you 5 minute bite-size sessions, logging in everyday gives you bonus time or you can go pro (also offers discounts like Memrise).


I’ve also picked up a traditional phrase book (proper paper format) by Lonely Planet – part of their ‘Fast Talk’ series, this was a bargain coming in at under £3 – for almost 90 pocket sized pages. It includes what you’d expect – chatting, reading menus, transport and accommodation but also practicalities such as parts of the body and other healthcare related phrases you might need one day!

Finally there is a slightly more traditional course Icelandic Online run by the University of Iceland which I’ve just signed up to online and completed the first part of the ‘survival Icelandic’ aka level 0 (from a range of 0 – 5, where 5 is reading Icelandic literature).

Blog Challenge: Celebrating Freedom!

Day 10, last day! Can’t quite believe I stuck at it, but rather pleased I did. The last day’s challenge is quite simple, to read through your posts from the challenge and choose your favourite. After thinking it over for all of 30 seconds, it wasn’t hard to realise that day 8 was my favourite – taking time out to enjoy myself but reconnecting with creativity at the same time reminded me how valuable non-work actions can be for your work. I realised when writing yesterday’s post what the big take home message was for me – to plan realistically what I want to achieve with each day. As I work full time on my day job, finding time and energy to do my ‘spare time’ job on evenings and weekends when all I want to do is flop or have housework and other life stuff to do can make it difficult and overwhelming. Except with a little planning, and adjustment to my day I’ve found after only 10 days that I’m being more productive in the areas I want to be. Long may it continue.

This blog post is in response to Natalie’s 10 Day Freedom Plan Blog Challenge Day 10


Back in the game

pile of books on a table

Or trying to be. I realised today, that it’s February. Not that I only just realised what month it was, but that my usual new years resolution of writing and blogging more often still had not gone beyond the draft stages. Such is my proclivity for procrastination, that I’ve done nothing more than make lists of what I should be doing and reading articles on why people fail at keeping resolutions, smugly thinking “that’s not me”!

I also have more drafts that posts, because I spend so much time self editing, that the posts become past their sell by date. So a challenge for myself is to throw caution to the wind and try to just throw down some words on the paper/keyboard and hope that something good spills out. Hopefully I’ll find my writing style in the process and perhaps my mojo which I think I lost down the back of the sofa midway through 2015.

So maybe, just maybe by throwing my challenges out in the open, will make me more inclined to stick to them.

  1. To post at least once per week ie maybe some weeks I’ll post twice and not another week – as long as I end up with 52 posts by February 2017.
  2. Aim to post about events within 5 days of said event, it seems pointless to me to say, post a review raving about an exhibition I think people should see, if it’s already closed by the time i post about it.
  3. To not overly edit or fret. Just spill my guts onto the page, metaphorically speaking.
  4. To get better at saying what I mean. I read a lot, and I always fail at book reviews other than saying ‘I think it’s awesome’
  5. To blog from my phone/tablet. One of my main excuses internally for not posting very often is that I dont have time once I sit in front of my PC. I think posting from a tablet/phone may also improve 3. as editing too much on a small device is tedious.

Au revoir!


The Act of Writing

I really enjoy the act of writing, I don’t mean typing away on a keyboard or writing to be published or blogging, I mean putting pen (or pencil) to paper and actually writing. It doesn’t matter what I’m writing, whether it’s an article about something I care about or an address on an envelope as long as I’m writing for me. Iit doesn’t matter how many (incredibly useful) apps I have for making lists to organise my life, nothing beats the feeling of writing a list and putting a satisfying strike through each item. The same goes for diaries and calendars, flipping forward through the pages to mark down upcoming events such as a cool trip away or some special event, they’re not exactly something you find lying around a few years later, have a good old thumb through and reminisce over, in fact I can only think of one occasion I’ve used a digital calendar to backdate something and it was incredibly tedious, like they don’t want you looking back.
Maybe it’s the physicality of the written word that appeals to me? I’m really enjoy artists who incorporate text such as Ed Ruscha, Robert Rauschenberg and Kurt Schwitters to name a few, and I’m also (probably) overly critical of my own writing and have tormented myself over using text in my own art work, that fear of exposure and harsh critique too overwhelming to contemplate.


My love of writing started early on, I can clearly remember the frustration at being unable to actually write real words, but I would still spend afternoons making lines of swirling patterns in a vague attempt to mimic what other people did when writing – especially the super flouncy joined up fancy writing. So what followed was disappointment that my writing never looked as neat and swirly as any grown up I knew (I still have unattractive handwriting) and then a teenage identity crises when I tried to copy my peers as their handwriting styles were so much cooler than mine.
Of course there were periods when I detested writing, such as exam time when I had to write pages and pages in response to questions about the setting and atmosphere of Macbeth in under a couple of hours, to the point where it feels like you hand is going to fall off and the almost neat handwriting makes away for barely legible scrawl, much like what happened when I first drafted this post in my notebook, late at night, the tight cramping feeling inching further up my forearm to my elbow.
We make many excuses why it’s not the right time to write (as artists, the perfect time to create in whatever medium), and I’m no exception. I have my optimum conditions for writing, which include: with a soft bound A5 (ish) size notebook, and a good black ballpoint pen (I have some favourites that write well, most seem to come from medical reps). If I’m typing for my blog / the web, then I really struggle unless I’m sat at my pc with a full size keyboard (although at a laptop with a full size keyboard will do), this can halt my creativity as I get a lot of inspiration whilst travelling, especially on trains and although I have a tablet I just cannot type fast enough on a touch screen device to keep pace with my thoughts
I am interested to know how other people overcome these type of writing problems?

What I think about when I think about running

I’ve recently signed up to do a 10k race and aside from the usual I want to be fitter / healthier / run more, I tend to find that I struggle to stick to challenges or more often simply forget about them, without a defined goal. So signing up to a public race with people I work with was just the challenge I needed to get me out there and back into regular running. Or Jogging, I don’t really run that fast so for the pendants out there, when I say running I mean jogging at a pace of around 8 minutes per km. I prefer to track my running in kilometres rather than miles as it just sounds more impressive in my head to say I ran 10km than I ran 6.3 miles, the rest of my life is strictly in imperial measurements only though, not to worry.

The Manchester 10k in five weeks’ time will be my second ever race, and for an infrequent runner like me it kind of sounds like a lot. In fact double the distance of my only other race (which was the furthest I’ve run in one sitting, ever) a 5k Race for Life which I did almost 4 years ago, so I suppose personally it is quite the challenge, not least to my ability to stick at something for longer than 10 minutes. Prior to starting my training plan a few weeks weeks ago, the furthest I would usually run would be 1.5 – 2km runs around the local park, with the dog in toe. This was all I did to prepare for the 5k race and I managed to hold my own, considering it was in the delightfully hilly Heaton Park, this time I am assured the race course is mostly flat but I know I still need to prepare and train a lot more than I’ve ever done previously.

What I’ve discovered about myself over the last few years is my tendency to over-think and this creates my biggest barrier with running. Initially with the short runs, I found it a great to clear my head of all the days stresses for the 10-15 minutes I was out there, but trying to run for much longer than that I began focusing on how hard I was breathing, how my shoe was rubbing my toe or some other imaginary ailment that means ‘You’re bored so it’s time to head home now’. I had a true mental block. So it was with great anticipation that I started reading What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

book, cover, japanese author,
Haruki Murakami – What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

I found the book in my local charity shop by chance, when looking for something to read on the long train journey to Scotland. I’d read some of Murakami’s short stories before and found the style very calming, almost therapeutic to read. The book’s premise is around how he started running to keep fit after giving up his Jazz bar to focus on being a writer full time. How this in turn has lead to many marathons & triathlons and is written over the course of just over a year.I found the similarities of how he approaches both disciplines interesting and had a couple of light bulb moments that helped me understand where I was going wrong myself.

It’s not just about physical preparation, but the mental preparation too

Realising that I needed to get my head straight, get in the zone as it were and prepare mentally for the task ahead was the main lesson. This was to take in two factors, thinking and music.
Instead of trying to empty my head on my first training run, I had a whole inventory of subjects to think about, from this blog post to shopping lists to dreaming of holiday destinations.
Factor two was the music, Murakami mentions the music he listens to while running quite a few times. For me getting the right play-list was essential to getting in the right head space. I’ve split the play-list into 3 parts, 1st part is something upbeat to get me in the mood for running, the middle part is a more chilled, rhythmical section for when I’m at a good pace, when my lungs give up fighting against exercising and go with the flow. The final section is my much needed boost of joy, on nearing the end. I’ve put my 20 minute run play-list on Soundcloud so you can have a listen, I managed to put that one up before my iphone was plugged into iTunes where it took it upon itself to wipe six out of the eight play-lists I’d created, annoyingly.

Being four weeks into my training plan (this was a plan devised by the Bupa Great Run website), I’m committed to three runs a week, the longest being on a weekend. More recently it’s thrown in interval training midweek and this weekend’s run was 40 minutes, I even ran in the rain which used to be a sure fire excuse in the past not to go outside!

I’m sure I’ll update more with my progress in the coming weeks…