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: