Thursday, July 31, 2008

Detecting writers from their letters... 'Miss Austen Regrets', now on DVD, is based on Jane's. Cassandra destroyed most of them, whether to protect her sister's reputation or in the anger stage of grief is not known. But from the remaining correspondence, dramatist Gwyneth Hughes constructed a sparky script as far from those La-Mister-Darcy! bosomy bonneted sagas as a script could be, considering references to Jane's most famous romantic hero were as prominent as those costume attributes. Dialogue is fruity with Janite drolleries, as when the novelist visits the Prince Regent's palace: "I have read them all..." purrs the librarian, "Twice. Will you have cake?" The story's premise is thought-provoking: Would Jane Austen's novels have been penned if she had not gone back on her early acceptance of a proposal of marriage? And did she truly believe loneliness a small price to pay for personal freedom?

Only 10 lines survive from the letters of Emperor Caesar Hadrian Augustus to his eventual successor Antonius, I learned from the exhibition at the British Museum. I'm not a big fan of hi-hype cultural must-do stuff, which is why I've resisted Mama Mia, generally agreeing with Miss Jean Brodie that 'For those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like'. For 12 quid you get to walk round a gallery crammed with monster-sized sculpted heads & architectural reconstructions, and wallpapered with locational photo-shots & maps, but that scrap of papyrus was the most moving exhibit. "I am impelled to write to you as follows, not, by Zeus, as one subtly devises a tedious account contrary to the truth but rather making a simple and most accurate record of the facts themselves." Nothing beside remains...
It was interesting to discover Hadrian came from a Spanish family, that his lover drowned in the Nile during the anniversary celebrations of the drowning of Osiris in the Nile, prompting a cult that at one time rivalled Christianity, and that those classic white marble statues were originally gaudily painted & embellished with metal eyelashes that must have made them look like gross barbie dolls... but my biggest shock & awe moments came watching people hand over their life savings for crap snacks at the museum cafe.

Then on to Stoke Newington, to spend the evening with my writer friend Jane d'Aulby discussing literature, life, happiness, and the pursuit of liberty at The Fox Reformed. Stoke Newington is evolving, Jane says, using as indicator that essential truffle oil became readily available but you couldn't find a white sliced for love nor money. The urban renewal scheme has turned pavements into community art projects and restored to creepy glory the amazing Abney Park Cemetry, popular for spookie movie making and other flesh-tingling activities as darkness creeps in. Sally-Army founder William Booth is buried here, probably rotating.
A trip to London is always a chance of a mini-holiday, so I booked a late train home to spend the day with another writer friend, Christine (Dangerous Sports Euthanasia Society) Coleman, walking round Regents Park and down the canal to Camden Lock to browse the markets and enjoy the sun.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

It's been week of wall-to-wall parties, with several Leo birthdays - including mine - and other celebrations. Main activity with writerly connections was a walk with travel writer John Payne who will be joining our Coleridge Way 'inspirational creative trek' later this year. As a limbering-up for this project, John found us an utterly beautiful walk from Westwood Manor through woods and by field paths to the river by Farleigh Hungerford, a place I used as the setting for a key event in my first novel. We stopped for a swim - my first since the time that gave me the idea for Kirsty's story - then tea & cakes at the farm. Walking back with afternoon sun flushing the quaking grasses in swathes across butterfly-flitted meadows, seeing the sudden stacato elegance of a bounding deer, I think our 'creative trek' could indeed be inspirational.

And so we bop and stagger our way into August when the Frome Literary scene, unlike an Italian coastal campsite, goes all quiet. I commend you to your own scribings - try browsing these helpful thoughts, especially good if you've got writers' angst and inspirational quotes would be as likely to make you clap your hands as that if-you're-happy-and-you-know-it song.
Here's A. L. Kennedy's advice to a young person trying to become a writer: 'Don't. It won't make any difference because they'll do it anyway, but they really shouldn't.' DH Lawrence wrote when he felt spiteful because it was like having a good sneeze; John Mortimer laments that the shelf-life of a modern writer is 'somewhere between the milk and the yoghurt.'
And there's Asimov: 'I write for the same reason I breathe - because if I didn't, I would die.' - now that's not a jest, surely? Sounds like a fact to me.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The debrief meeting for Words@FromeFestival team is traditionally a jolly rather than a postmortem. The sun shone on Alison's garden while we nibbled Mike's amazing tapas and congratulated each other.
We did eventually all sit down round the table but that was more of a praline karioke than a financial and aesthetic analysis.
All over now for another year... till October, anyway, when the the word bunting begins to come out again for next year.

Q: Is it ok to have a main character we don't like?
A: Yes, if they go the journey to self-resolution, like Austen's Emma or Hosseini's Amir in The Kite Runner - but we should be aware readers spend hours with these people and as Sarah Duncan has pointed out, that's like being stuck in a lift with someone you detest.
A point pondered during a lively Fromesbury meeting at Emily's, with updates from the group: Debby Holt's next novel "Love Affair for Grownups" out in January, and Debs Hughes "Ultimate Supply Teachers Handbook" already on the shelves in eyecatching splendour.

'What think you of falling in love?' is Rosalind's suggestion when her cousin Celia casts around for Friday night entertainment. They settle for Mafia-inspired wrestling, chatting with stray from 'Allo 'Allo, and running off into a forest full of banished dukes, but love of course intrudes, and triumphs in the end. It's 'As You Like It' , entertainingly performed by the Bradfordian Dramatic Society in the gardens of Winsley Dorothy House, where the woodland slowly illuminated as dusk fell. Magical.

And it's the last Bath Poetry Cafe at the Mission Theatre before the summer break. 'What a triumph this has been' says organiser Sue Boyle - ''Seven months, from a standing start, full every month!' It's a real privilege for Hazel & me, as 'Live & Lippy', to share in this amazing line-up: from Linda Saunder's lucent elegy 'on the vulnerability we all feel on an edge between past and unknown future' to laptop cellist Caleb Parkin's 'Hexadecimalice'... a brilliant evening of experimentation and classical quality. (Thanks Alan for the picture)


Monday, July 14, 2008

Rose Flint writes about nature - all nature, the vastness of elemental powers and the small details: a spider, a hare's ears in the corn, jasmine pollen. Her poems are luminous and enamelled with jewel-like clarity; intensely personal evocations of the world we inhabit, or should inhabit. 'The Field', which won this year's Cardiff International Poetry Competition, is a wish-list the Earth Goddess Gaia herself might have conjured. Rose's new collection 'Mother of Pearl' had its launch on the final Friday of Frome Festival at La Strada. Rose, looking stunning in midnight indigo, illuminated the room with moonlit images and John Slater serenaded the event on accordion.

From owlsong to Cabaret Sans Frontières... a quintessentially Frome event: local talent with a decidedly leftfield edge. I'm privileged to be the Philosopher Provocateur, pontificating with risqué relish from behind a frame provided by Folies Bergere heavenlies Clare and Nicky. And also knitting an independent man... who materialised a tad too independent and ran off. A bizarre and wonderful night.

Alison Clink's short story contest 'Winner's lunch' always holds special interest for writers, as the senior judges traditionally share tips for success in their speeches. Steve Voake, who picked Bath writer Magnus Nelson for 2 of the top prizes in the 'local writers' category, urged resilience in those dark-night-of-the-soul times: "Don’t think you’re finding it hard because you’re bad – it really is hard. Just have faith." Katie Fforde ended her 'top ten' with the reminder "You must give yourself permission to write, and to write badly! We learn our craft by doing it. Keep writing.”
I'm reminded of Samuel Beckett's famously laconic advice: "Try. Fail. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."
Overall winner was Colin Smith with his story '1963, the winter Dad left home.'

Scriptwriter Matthew Graham urges writers to keep the faith too; the BBC initially rejected ‘Life on Mars’ as "a bit too silly." His talk is full of practical information, like pre-planning stories on a board to get the structure right - a big board, so you can pace around it. Matthew paces around quite a bit himself, mixing in realistic encouragement with ideas for exercises and helpful contacts. Start with a premise that can be summed up in a few words, he says, and today's story is about wannerbe writers discovering "There’s so much stuff you don’t know, and you don’t know you don’t know it till someone tells you.”

Yes, writing's hard and marketing even harder, but turkeys still slip through. One of the 'happenings' of Festival Fringe was a Richard Cameron play at Rook Lane Chapel. 'Can't Stand Up For Falling Down' took on serious issues: domestic violence, suicide, bullying, mental disability, one-parent families, bereavement, broken homes, neglected children, alcoholism... perhaps rather too many issues for a one-hour play. What with all this and a stereotypical Northern time-warp as setting, the cast of this Troupers production did pretty well with this mawkish murder story.

And like a big fat tiramisu dessert, the last drops of Frome Festival have finally been licked, leaving us all elated but sated. You can listen to highlights of Frome FM on archive - Laurie's wonderful 'Eclectic' show includes contemporary poetry; there's Mike's writers' roundups, and Rosie Jackson reads her new story on Wednesday's Afternoon Magazine.
And for no connective reason but just because I really like them, here's some words by Spanish poet Antonio Machado, translated for me by Emily:
"Traveller, there are your footprints,
The path, and nothing more.
Traveller, there is no path,
You make the path as you go."

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

"Something in our spirit dies if we accept the taming of wildness" Rose Flint tells the Women & Wildness poetry workshop at the library on Monday. "We should all connect with it, be aware of our sensual bodies and our inner wildness, and honour our right to live our lives the way we want to be."

Nathan Filer, guest at the Festival Poetry Cafe that evening, is reflective too.

He says he feels full of love for us, but crushingly sad, because we're all going to die. He also says my pictures of him are disconcerting. There may be some connection here. Nathan gives us 3 sets, all new material, all brilliant & bizarre, and much appreciated by the record-number audience crammed into the Garden Cafe.

Eleven open-mic contributers competed for the 'Festival Poet Laureate' title, sharing a range of thoughts and styles, and good-humouredly submitting to random judgement by coloured card. And the winner is.... David Sollors! I forgot to get a pic of David in his moment of triumph, but here's one of our new champ enjoying Nathan tell us how he overcome his own aversion to slam contests: "There's nothing that makes a person reassess the validity of competition like winning it."

'I feel like I've landed in the middle of the Mad Hatter's tea-party crossed with a Chinese laundry' says MC Elvis McGonagall at the start of the "Green is the New Black" fashion show on Tuesday night. The event's a sell-out, with about 500 people crowding around the catwalk for Elvis's 'retro and preloved' poems, the music, the amazing costumes, the whole crazy glitzy glam-rock street-theatreness of it all... The 2-Mandy organisers urge us to "worship guilt-free at the altar of fashion' and green-awareness has never been such fun. Fantastic.

Undeterred by the arrival of monsoon season, audiences continue to arrive in unexpectedly large consignments. 'Desert Island Reads' needed 3 extra rows of chairs and an extended interval to accommodate the queue for cake (thank you, Dining Divas, for that scrumptious array). Readings were yummy too: thought-provoking, sensuous, funny, and profoundly personal.
Sarah Duncan led us off with Ann Tyler's 'Accidental Tourist' and the theme of intimate journeys underlay several other choices: Rose Flint's pick of 'Prodigal Summer' by Barbara Kingsolver for its 'plea to be awake to diversity, and beauty, and pain'; John Birkett-Smith took us to Mani in Greece with travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, and Peter Macfadyen reminded us that 'when the earth shrugs its shoulders' and throws us into climatic disarray we all need to ask, as Tom Hodgkinson does, whether we should learn to be more idle.
Alison Clink's journey was back in time, to 1967, with Martin Philips's 'Listening to Coloured Dreams' and, linking to thoughts of herbal refreshment, poet Dave Angus gave a witty deconstruction of ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ with special emphasis on that mysterious Bong-tree, while Gordon Graft shared 3 great contemporary poems. Performance poetry, he said, 'doesn't exclude anyone, so it's very dear to my heart.' Although nothing was pre-planned, Annie Lionnet's choice of 'The Middle Passage' by James Hollis united all this diversity, his message recalling the theme of Rose's workshop: "Follow your passion. Choice is what defines, and validates, a life. We must say 'yes' to the journey."

Sunday, July 06, 2008

And the winner is...
the literary bit of Frome festival kicked off on Friday with Band Night at the Masonic. Alex Whittington took the prize for the lyric writing composition, as judged by Jakarta, local band who wrote the music and will be inspiring more swarming & squealing at Battle of the Bands on July 19th. Here's drummer Miles in post-judging mode.

Saturday, the big street party day, began benignly weather-wise: sun like the Soap Box poets shone (Rosie, you're such a star for this fesival innovation!) and Writers In Residence toiled with their tales in Cheap Street, but by evening the World Food Feast was a drizzle-fest. Frome, of course, being random & resilient, the street stalls and bands were well-supported but a bit of Greek shimmering dusk and mellow warm breeze would have enhanced the night...

Sunday... and the dreary dizzle of Saturday night became a distant memory, as temestuous rain, floods, and thunder, rocked the town. What is going on?

Luckily all my events today are indoors, and I scurry from Frome FM Radio Station - you can hear my Playlist choices here - to Frome Library for the Travel Writing talk. Main theme from both (excellent) speakers is that travel writing can and should be "rewarding - but not necessarily financially." Editor David Kernek gave a helpful & humorous guide to being a favourite contributor, while Laurence Shelley inspired potential self-publishers with his advice on editing and marketing.
Informative, affirming and fun... but still the rain fell. I abandoned plans for a late-night evening in favour of drying out at home. And they wonder why English people talk about the weather! I wonder why we don't have 57 words for rain, as Eskimos allegedly do for snow.
Meanwhile for the dryer side of festival writing, there's Mike's radio programmes - his One-on-one session with me on Friday is archived here. (And still indoors, my latest story "Quiet Women" found a home in Penumbra lit. mag.)

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Lists... I love them. Perhaps in an alternative reality somewhere I am a list. To-do lists cluster on my desktop, my diary will hardly close for the inlay of lists. And as for list poems... How do I love them? Let me count the ways - oh goody, another list.
So when Laurie asked to make a list of tracks for The Sunday Playlist on Frome FM, I was elated. An opportunity to trawl through all my CDs, to postpone work (this is a list already) and to make a list of the best music tracks in the world ever...
If you've ever tried this yourself, you will have spotted a flaw. The best music tracks in the world ever do not stay still in line. They run like ants, only more randomly; they rush from one end of the row to the other like naughty boys in those old-fashioned school photographs. I managed, in a kind of drenched sweat of ecstasy from hours of saturation in musical memories, to reduce the list to a fairly consistent baker's dozen. Only one more track left to face that Alan Sugar moment and creep from the list, hauling its long-handled cabin-baggage behind it.
And I had just about decided that Dylan must go. OK, he's god an' all that, but he's such an obvious choice... and the others had fought their case so irresistibly. And then I read an Arts Comment in the Guardian on the lyrics of Bob Dylan by Germaine Greer, the pundit who does for wit what Catherine Tate has done for grandmothers, headed "That creep couldn't even write doggerel."
"Great lyricist? Bah! Humbug!" the article began, but any coy pussyfooting-around ended there. My adjectival-list-ometer collected from the opening paragraph: agonised posturing, pretentious, illiterate, senseless, not even doggerel, and annoying. (It’s a good tip to end a list on a lighter note.)
So Mister Tambourine Man has retained its place, not on compassionate grounds but because in the great celestial list of women of our age, I don't want to stand anywhere near Ms Greer. This is the woman who said of aspiring writers: "Every week I am sent the effusions of people who, from springs bubbling up in the pits of their stomachs, have produced long strings of truncated syntactic elements, often rhymed but never intelligible or melodic, usually embarrassingly illiterate and often even more embarrassingly visceral.” (This went straight to the pit of my stomach, which promptly bubbled up the following visceral effusion:
There once was a writer named Greer
Whose views on her peers were severe,
Delusions of lyricism
had her snorting with cynicism
Support for the sisters? Stick it up your career.)
So if you want a Germaine quote to pin above your work area, I recommend going back to the days when she wrote:
"If a woman never lets herself go, how will she ever know how far she might have got?"

More about writers on Frome radio at Mike's blog. And of course more about Frome Festival just about everywhere. Where to begin? Try the free events on Saturday, for a start - Soapbox Poets on the hour in Cheap Street - and peer into shops and cafes at the pen-chewing scribes striving to win as one-day Writer In Residence. There's loads more writerly stuff & I'm tempted to push my own events (they looks so tasty!) so for more impartial coverage check the website, and pick up a Festival Fringe leaflet too. (Gremlins R Us spot: If you're wondering when Helen Feltham's "Spirit of Place" writing workshop is, it's Thursday.)
And for something " irreverent ~ risky ~ witty ~ strange", there's the innovative "Cabaret Sans Frontieres" at the Masonic Hall on Friday 11th. "Faded splendour, where echoes of Moulin Rouge and burlesque tangle with edgy contemporary performance" is the promise from distinctly non-faded, totally splendid, organisers Annabelle & Howard. They urge you to dress up, but Mimi and Fifi will be at your service on the night...

And writers everywhere, spare a blush for Tom Bullough, hailed as winner of Wales Book of the Year last night, for... erm, about 30 seconds. How that 15 minutes of fame is shrinking. Poor Tom has blogged it as 'A Glimpse of Hell' preceded by traumatic dreams of being hunted naked down a labyrinth. So if you get those dreams too, avoid Wales is my advice.