Saturday, December 29, 2007

Ever since Haz and I decided, almost on impulse, to go to New York for christmas, we'd been touting for Must-Do recommendations. So huge thanks to all of you who helped us compile a brilliant wish-list so we could fill our four days and three nights in Manhattan with dazzling highlights, cultural gems, and unforgettable experiences. Thanks to Mike McIlya for recommending comfortable shoes as we'd walk miles (we did) - to Owen for adding 'try & remember to get some sleep' (ignored I'm afraid) - to Steve for picking out 'I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change' as a super-stylish & hilarious musical (it was) - to Rod for summing up our mission: go anywhere, do anything. We absolutely did.
And to everyone who warned us how exceedingly cold it would be - well, actually it was milder than England and I never even got to wear my new thermal tights.
Flying on Christmas morning was a great idea - champagne and movies all day, and with the time delay we still arrived in Manhattan mid-afternoon. Our hotel was just a few minutes walk from Times Square, though waiting for crossings doubles the time getting anywhere, as Manhattan appears to practice a random-directional urban evacuation on a daily basis.

The energy in the city is amazing - there's never a time of day or night when shops and diners aren't open, lights aren't flashing, and yellow cabs aren't streaking past. New York exceeded and confounded all my expectations, often simultaneously, and 'rollercoaster' came to seem a sluggish sort of word. So many paradoxes and anomalies. That flamboyant skyline is as familiar as Big Ben, but from the top of the Rockefeller building at dusk it's impossible not to be awed. Those now-familiar iconic builders on the skyscraper girder are anonymous as they grin out from mugs and merchandise while their rich patrons are lauded for these monstrous monuments. Show me the money, is the message.
'There is never any embarrassment here about overt consumerism' a columnist in Independent had written the day before we left, but despite the opulence there's elegance and even simplicity in this festive decor. We saw no plastic santas, blow-up snowmen, moulded bells, or any of the ugly narratives of UK xmas tat. Instead, huge pine trees, everywhere, lavishly illuminated, and tiny strings of gold and silver lights on all the street trees too. Admittedly a small country could probably have powered a year's supply of energy on the wattage complacently squandered here, but the city is humble about its profligacy too. On our bathroom door there's a message from PROJECT PLANET: "We invite you to join with us to conserve water by using your towels more than once." You don't have to, though. You can throw them on the floor and they will instantly be laundered.
Preconceptions don't survive here. In four days I've learned about tax and tipping, and that you don't queue for the loo, you make a line at the rest room. No one, not even friendly policemen, will use your city map to show you where to go - they reckon it by blocks. You won't necessarily meet anyone all day who speaks English as a first language, or even at all. With more than a third of its people born outside the US, there's no such person as a typical New Yorker so this melting pot culture has incredible vibrance. We saw classical painting at the Frick collection and hiphop dancing on the street; walked the Literary Mall in Central Park by day and to the Bowery at night, found famous names like Bloomingdales and Barnes & Noble and cheap healthy eateries like Pax and Hale & Hearty; we marvelled at modern architecture like the Grace Building and at the profusion of art noveau motifs. Some of the best things were free - the Kerouac exhibition at the central library, the people we spoke with in delis and diners, and most of all the place itself, with all its dilapidating ostentation and yearning flamboyance.
Kerouac wanted to examine his life by writing it, not autobiographically but as an act of radical creation. In this city it almost seems every journey is somehow engaged in that.

(Haz's words & pix here)

Thursday, December 20, 2007

A quick trip last weekend to visit Hazel's new home, a converted byre down a long lane with nothing nearby but fields, a pub, and a postbox. What more does a poet need? asks Haz. We have porridge and poetry readings for breakfast, and take a trip to Evesham where a crazy shop called High Street Milan sells sequin puffa jackets incredibly cheaply.. yes of course I bought one. Perfect for the Sunday night 'Resonate' performanc at Media Arts with Howard Vause projecting visuals from the DVD - including alphabetti serendipity. An amazing night - especially the collaborative impro 'homage to Stockhausen' - us live, and three multi-media musicians all going at once. ("I'll die happy now I've heard a Stockhausen tribute band" heard from one fan.)

Final writers' group of the year at Mike's place - great words and wonderful desert.

I'm off to New York with Hazel for the next few days, where it will be freezing, so will take a break with a warm memory:
at Paul & Annie's party, my dancing partner and I realised, simultaneously, that we met once before, 13 years ago, in a tiny village in Turkey called Gümüşlük where she was living then, moon dancing in her garden.
I was there leading my first ever holiday writing group, so here's a picture I've dug out from the album, me with my group on an educational trip to the mudbaths:

Reeds tall as longing

dallying in Dalyan

water green as dreams.

Happy midwinter celebrations!

Friday, December 14, 2007

"I can give her no more power than what she has already. Don't you see how great it is; how well she gets through the world barefooted? She must not hear of her power from us; that power lies in her heart..." Hans Anderson's words, in this quest to recover first love and melt the ice in Kay's heart, chosen by Frome's Merlin Theatre for this year's family show.
"This is Gerda," says Bert Crow, discovering our hero(ine) in the frozen northlands of the Snow Queen, "she doesn't seem to know where she's going."
"Well no-one does in this day and age" snaps his missus, who doubles in this production as a particularly grotesque hobgoblin. Apart from timeless analogies with life and loss, this was the most topical moment in a stunning production with virtually none of the more tedious aspects of panto. Gorgeous costumes and a commendably authentic version of the Hans Anderson tale, but the highlight was the teeny weeny tap-dancing penguins.

Sarah Duncan hates reading from her books, she says, which is strange for a woman of her glamour and presence. She does so enticingly nevertheless - from her new novel 'Another Woman’s Husband' - at Topping & Co Bookshop in Bath on Thursday night, and gives a snappy round-up of 10 top tips on getting published, too. Write from the heart, is the key message: Your USP is you.
Sarah is realistic about the market and the need for strokes of random luck, now 'the days of publishers taking manuscripts off slush piles are well & truly gone.' Learn to cope with rejection is tip 9. I'm reminded of an interview with debut author Marie Phillips in the current issue of Writing Magazine, which I noticed because she sees her blog as a contribution to her success - great for practising and improving writing and storytelling. Marie gives top tips too: 'Everything is part of the process, even the misery.'

From the anguish of novel-writing to the healing power of poetry: Adam Phillips in The Observer muses on Ted Hughes and 'the idea of poetry as shamanistic, the poet as healer rather than seducer or charmer, comforter or entertainer.' Poetry, Hughes wrote in one of his letters, is 'for expressing that complicated process in which we locate, and attempt to heal, affliction... the treatment by which the poet tries to reconcile that pain with the world'.

Or maybe it's the little things that matter. I've had a few emails about my Writing Magazine column over the years. Mostly they're positive but occasionally I touch a raw nerve with a reader, and I get flamed. One arrived this week, Subject: AAAARGH!!, from a 'horrified' subscriber who discovered a typo in my copy ('believe' for 'belief') and writes to tell me "I have almost lost the will to live and will certainly think twice before renewing my subscription." I'm thinking of initiating an award for the most puerile problem of the year. Any other contenders?

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Frome FM ended its pre-festive run yesterday and Frome Spectacular launched the official season of intensive merchandising and ho-ho-hoing. This annual civic celebration kicks off in early evening, at which point the most spectacular thing seemed likely to be the storm, but luckily the worst of the gusting rain subsided in time for the “Aaaaah!” ceremony of switching on the tree lights; bands played, bells rang, and the fireworks were indeed truly spectacular.
So now it's officially panto season, the Poetry Cafe pulled out the box of decorations from the attic with a Snow Queen Night on Monday - 18 performances of stories and poems, all enchanting in their different ways. Merlin Theatre Director Paula brought a fistful of tickets as prizes - the only ones left as the pantomime has sold out for the entire run - which Mike-the-mic and Phyllis Higgins took home. Good to hear new readers too, and wonderful to have such diversity of topics and treatment, but the Paula's final pick was a popular choice: both Phyllis and Mike surprised us with comedy performances very different from their usual genre.

Still on a theme of full-house attendance, Alison led the monthly self-help writers group at the library - we really must think up another name, what kind of acronym is FSHWG? - with an excellent session on short stories for writers looking ahead to the 2008 festival competition, which Katie Fforde will judge. (Last year's winners can be seen here)

Nearly solstice, long nights turning towards renewal. My thoughts turn to decluttering. Decluttering is one of those things like mending a hole in the roof, you can't do it when it's raining and when it's not raining you don't need to. With me, if I'm feeling upbeat I'm not bothered about this life-debris and when I'm down it's all too sad... a little at a time, says Emily. 10 minutes is enough. Remember it's not your past you're trashing, just stuff. And I know too, as with writing, these chronciles of a life are process not product, and need no storage.
So with these maxims and some black bags maybe some kind of start is possible, though all I've done so far is start a 'de-cluttering for the terrified' group on Facebook. Six members already, but as James Nash confesses 'I have never knowingly thrown away anything belonging to me.... the very thought makes me feel a bit shaky!!' I may not get many tips.

On a more serious note, I’ve been reading ‘In Bed with Madness’ by Yannis Andricopoulos, co-founder of Skyros. ‘Trying to make sense in a world that doesn’t’ is the subtitle of the book, and the theme of a trilogy. “I have written it”, Yannis says “with my whole heart and soul”, and it’s clear this is so. It's a dark picture but painted richly, full of soundbites that snap at the heels of your conscience. Many of these are Yannis’s own; he cherry-picks through the greatest minds of this and every other century, too, creating a treasury of quips quotes and comments. It’s a well-argued, powerful, profound indictment of contemporary culture, which ends paradoxically with hope. The next books, ‘The Greek Inheritance’ and ‘The Future of the Past’, will explore that optimistic thread from the model of ancient Greece. Yannis Andricopoulos knows whereof he speaks: he’s written three books on the history of his country and reported around the world as foreign correspondent. This is a series that deserves attention.
Publication is March 2008 by Imprint Academic (preorders:

Friday, November 30, 2007

"Let's meet up when we're back in the UK!"... that impulsive pledge under blue skies! Then winter arrives, it's a long drive in the dark to the venue agreed so light-heartedly last summer, and there's so much more you ought to be doing. Tempting, however fond the memories, to postpone the reunion. Lucky for us we had Jane, tenacious as a terrior, organising the gig, and fortunate too to be meeting in Esme's lovely home on the outskirts of Bath. A wonderful day sharing words, food, and laughter.

It's been a busy weekend for catchups: on Friday with my friend Diana, journalist and editor, who reminds me that all writing is travel writing. We supper on tiger prawns and Belgian chocolates looking out on the glittering night-lights of Bath and musing on our different journeys this year. Next day in Bristol I meet with poet and novelist Christine Coleman, and again the talk is of writing and life travels. "We have to make our own map for relationships" Chris says.

The week continues in this puszipajtas manner - puszipajtas in Hungarian meaning a person you know well enough to kiss in the street - with more writerly reconnections: Jane D'Aulby, who I first met on Skyros, talks about why she appreciates the firmness of her Creative Writing course: "It’s like when you’ve planted a seed, you need to tamp down the sides - but not stamp on the growing tip." Another soundbite, this one over supper with Roger Jinkinson who's researching for his next book: “Biography is just another form of novel. If someone tells you something, you don't have to write it down just because it's true, if it's not part of your story." Roger's Tales from a Greek Island is selling like popcorn at a saturday matinee - and quite right too, it's a great collection.

Literacy corner, 1840's style: "Learning's not for everyone" snarls surly Gregson in "Cranford" on the box (BBC's latest Sunday night costume drama) when his son shows a reckless interest in reading the newspaper used to wrap his new(ish) boots. He's going to have to get used to it, Gregson senior that is, as young Harry has been taken under the wing of Mr Carter, erstwhile the brusque unreconstructed yet somehow hunkily delectable Gene Hunt from Life on Mars and now a brusque forward-looking yet still hunkily delectable land agent. He's apparently trying to shed the Mars tag. Well Philip Glenister you shouldn't persist in looking hunkily delectable, that's all I can say.
The 1840s is also the decade the painter Millais began his astonishing career, entering the Royal Academy aged 11, their youngest-ever student. I've finally made my pilgrimage to that exhibition at the Tate. On a grey November day (I wrote in my notebook) this is a feast of opulent beauty, sensuousness you can smell, dresses you can hear rustle, jewels that glint in the light, fresh flowers that wilt a little as you watch, so close is mortality to this warm flesh...
as you see, I was transported. Millais was inspired by literature, especially poetry: he used quotations as titles and painted interpretations of works by Shakespeare and Keats. It's true some of his pot-boilers are a bit chocolate-boxy - in the case of Bubbles, a bit Pears-soap-adsy - but his women are strong and wilful, and his skill in showing of psychological relationships is quite extraordinary.

This week's Arts section continues with Steve Hennessy's new play The Demon Box, at the Alma Tavern - the third in his Lullabies of Broadway trilogy and the most difficult, for me, in terms of graphic material. Complete contrast tonight with the RSC production of The Comedy of Errors at the Theatre Royal Bath, a big colourful ensemble romp, part carnival, part Danse Macabre. Themes of confinement, identity, and madness mingle with farce; this too is - as Steve says of his - "a play about the nature of theatre itself". A clever production, and very funny.

And as Wednesday was William Blake's birthday, I'll end this long posting with some words of Raymond Friel from a publication called simply PS, which I found in the Poetry Library on South Bank:
"Yes, there is darkness, belligerance, and vulgarity. There always has been. This is why we need our poets, our visionaries, to speak as they always have done, of hope."

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

It's impossible to fly out of Dublin without consuming truffles. Routes to departure gates are lined with samples and coffee comes with a plump choc. I'm home now after a workshop at Chrysalis Holistic Centre in Wicklow, extending my trip by 2 days to stay with college friend Jenny who cossetted me and took me long windblown walks on the beach at Howth.

November I always find a tough month; this year another severance, yet paradoxically recent workshops have all been amazing and uplifting. The twelve scribes at Chrysalis shared profound and powerful words.
I'll remember the weekend for rain, porridge, candlelight, and unforgettable writing.

Merlin Theatre productions are famous in the panto world, thanks to Claudia Berry who waves her magic wand over these wildly popular events. This year there's a writerly tie-in: Snow White Poetry Night at the Garden Cafe on December 3rd - a wide-ranging collection (I hope) of open mic contributions on a suitably seasonal theme. Best on the night, as picked out by theatre director Paula, win prizes of tickets and vouchers for goodies at the show - come if you can, we start 7.30pm.

This month's Writers Circle was at Sue's; an indulgence of good listening and an update from Mike-the-mic on the return of Frome Radio on Friday (23rd) for a week to lead up to the Frome Spectacular, our street-party start to the festive season. By popular demand there's a repeat of "Quantock Court", an everyday tale of Fromie folk - sort of The Archers meets Secrets and Lies - co-scripted under overall guidance of Matthew (Life on Mars) Graham. Haz and I wrote our episodes during a memorable weekend in Amsterdam. When it was first broadcast (Quantock Court that is, our Amsterdam w/e escapades were mercifully never aired) drivers reported arriving late at destinations as they'd had to pull over rather than go out of range and miss the rest of the episode... pretty good feedback, I'd say. It's on daily 10.30-11.00 and 6.30-7.00pm. There's also a new series of Local Story Tellers 12.00-12.30 weekdays, repeated 7.30-8.00pm - full details here at Mike's new blog.

Posting pix on my Facebook I find Ben has called me a spleeny, clapper-clawed barnacle. I respond that he's a fitful, toad-spotted rampallion. Good old Shakespearean Insult Generator, not just there for the bad things in life.

Monday, November 12, 2007

My car was in the wrong lane for the M4 turn at Swindon so I ended up tacking my way home through splendidly gilded autumnal landscape on Sunday. The workshop at Lower Shaw Farm was splendid too. Matt Holland, who creates these events, takes writing seriously - as seriously as food, which was also wonderful. Communication, he says, is more than self-expression, and 'that E M Forster "only connect" thing is the most important thing we do.' Thirteen of us gathered together to share words, ideas, reasons-we-write, and best-ever reads. Matt urges us to discover Anna Wickham's wry observations like “The true male never yet walked Who liked to listen when his mate talked” and poet John Richardson introduces us to Tang Dynasty Confucian Du Fu who wrote: 'We cry sour sobs till our lives end.' At the start of last week I knew how he felt. But this is all nourishing: yoga and laughter as well as industrious writing with lots of ah! and mmm... moments, and the sun shone all weekend.
Feedback is spoken from a circle of cushions, rather than ticked on a form for filing, so we all leave on a high from poems and affirmations of new confidence, enjoyment, doors throw open, and "haven’t been buzzing like this since Glastonbury."
Matt has reminded me of a poem of mine he found on the Mslexia website, inspired by a newspaper report that doctors examining a 36 stone woman found an asthma inhaler under her armpit, coins beneath her breasts, and a TV remote control in her thighs.
Why I do it

I am woman mountain. I swallow storms
like butterflies. Bees swarm in my eyes.
Below my arms are forests where gaudy parrots flit
through shifting shadows, between my breasts
are languorous lagoons where dragons fly. My sweat
drowns oil slicks. Turtles crawl between my toes.
In my womb the tribes of lost children safely sing
while wounded soldiers blunder through the valleys of my thighs.
When I smile grim rocks sweat honey. When I shiver
the moon freezes. I munch the rolling years for fun.
I am woman mountain. I chew death like gum.

And talking of list-poems, which I did quite a bit last weekend, there's a black-and-white version of Things that are Weird, from the Live & Lippy DVD, on Youtube now.


Thursday, November 08, 2007

Short stories seemed to be flavour of the week. In the post, a classy compilation of stories from the Santiago Writers group I worked with earlier this year - I hope the "In Transit" team submit this anthology for the award it deserves. In the air, Frome FM has renewed its broadcasting licence and the indefatigable Mike-the-mic donned his hunting pink in chase of local writers for the story slot. I managed to record my festive offerings without breaking any equipment. And at the end of a thoroughly enjoyable story-writing day at Sherbourne, I'm alerted by a participant to a reflection on the craft in The Guardian. Richard Ford identifies a quality he calls audacity, which he finds 'whether or not something far-fetched is "fetched" by a writer's imaginative muscle. Sometimes that happens... sometimes not.' It's true. There's always a journey at the heart of a short story, but sometimes the shift in understanding is the reader's not the character's. Story formulas, like recipes, are great to give initial confidence; once you've got the ingredients you can do what you want. Thanks too, Jonathan, for your feedback on the session - glad to know your 'flickering pilot light' is burning strongly.

Dark evenings, cold nights - could this be the reason I'm watching more telly these days? This week's thought-provoker was 'A Room with a View', re-adapted after the Merchant Ivory romance by Andrew Davies to a more edgily class-conscious film undoubtedly closer to EM Forster's intention. The author's interest in 'the love that dares not speak its name' - homosexuality would remain illegal for another 50 years - is highlighted too, with the character of Mr Beebe alternately farcically comedic and piercingly sad. More audacious than scripting a clergyman as a tragic buffoon is the altered ending: First World War carnage is dragooned, Flanders poppies, trench death and all, into that idyllic Italian field where Miss Honeychurch fell in love below her station and ran off with a railway clerk. I'm not sure what I think about this. I guess it's likely young George would have fought, and maybe fallen, a decade later - but all heroes die in the end. Is there a justification in extending the author's time-scale to delete his optimism with post-modern hindsight? Answers on a postcard please. More about the programme here.

Breathing deeply and practising constantly were key tips on public reading at the 'Frome self-help writers' meeting at the library, ably and charmingly led this this month by Helena Drysdale. The Fromesbury Group met on Monday too: the big news is that Debby ("witty wise and wicked") Holt's new novel 'The Trouble with Marriage' is out in January. Ardent fans can prebook here.

As this posting's been a bit wordy I'll endpiece with a few sparklers: November 5th outside my house, Annabelle and Peter's wonderful 25th anniversary party, and the Frome Drama Club tapping sensationally on the first night of Stepping Out at the Merlin Theatre.
November needs a bit of fizz, doesn't it.