Friday, February 22, 2008

PEN was founded in 1921 (by John Galsworthy) to support persecuted and imprisoned writers across the world, and still vigorously does so, now in more than a hundred countries worldwide. On Friday night, choreographed by Victoria Glendinning, a group of ten more fortunate authors and poets gathered at Bruton's Hobhouse Theatre to read some of the words of these writers, several now assassinated or suicides in exile. They write, among other things, of a swallow's twittering, a spider spinning its web in the door of the cell, and it is in these luminous glimpses we see most clearly the indomitable spirit of human soul... the generous hospitality of our organiser afterwards was so overwhelming in contrast to the starkness of these experiences I hurried home to join PEN forthwith. Voices of Conscience indeed.

"It's a great pleasure to launch the Bath Literature Festival" says BBC Producer Sara Davies to a packed Guildhall audience as the radio4 afternoon stories for next week are recorded before our eyes. Certainly a great pleasure for me, as Alison Reid reads my story 'Mrs Somerville's Garden'. I'm there with Alison Clink - we've both had stories in the festival before, and take it turns to act as each other's groupie. Gill Edwards, another Frome writer, is in the line-up too, with a quirky list of tips on how to survive that dreaded School Reunion (top tip: don't steal more glam car to impress old boyfriend...) Stories will be broadcast next week at 3.30, Gill's on Monday 25th, mine on Friday 29th - come on, you know how to listen on line later if you miss out!

"The Romantics: James Fenton on Samuel Taylor Coleridge" next day was a quintessential Bath event, and slightly sombre despite the glittering lights of 6-tier crystal chandeliers. The gist of the talk appeared to be that Coleridge could be a rather difficult character, what with the opium addiction and the clinical depression and those suicide threats hidden in the rich loam of his landscape poems. James Fenton picks his words slowly, like plum tomatoes fingered from a trailing vine. Sometimes he finds one that's a bit squidgy. "Did I say Dorothy was the inspiration for Wordsworth's writing? I meant his wife Mary, of course." Cue muted chuckles.

And now for something completely different. "Probably the most charming film you'll see all year" says some website I found while googling Juno. There isn't a duff review anywhere, and nor should there be. Cracking script, brilliant cast, who to pick out? Well Juno, definitely, and her dad too, maybe because these two shared such brilliant dialogue:
“Hey there big puffy version of June-bug, what you been up to?”
“Just out dealing with things way beyond my maturity level.”
I was empathising with her way before that though, from “I don’t really know what kind of girl I am” to “I guess normalcy isn’t our style”. But she does find out how to love 'a part-time lover and a full-time friend'.
"A surprise hit and simply one of the most delightful films of recent times" enthuses the reviewer. If you want convincing, try the trailer.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

For a writer, television can be distraction or it can be research. I want both, as Pooh said when Rabbit offered him honey or condensed milk with his bread. (Pooh was polite enough to add 'Don't bother about the bread' which is how I feel about media news coverage.) Currently I'm following Lark Rise to Candleford, BBC's soft-as-putty Sunday night costume drama, which this week took inspiration from its title, being filmed in the dim ruby luminosity of candlelit night parlours when not in dewy soft-focus through leafy glades. The storyline was especially puttyish: a little girl abandoned alone. Exquisite as a porcelain doll she was, and touched the hearts of all around including, rather belatedly some might feel, that of her mother. "Put her in your bed, Laura" said Dorcas as little Polly reached round 3 of pass-the-parcel from cottage to castle. Nobody mentioned nits, though.

And the very wonderful Ashes to Ashes, as well as celebrating the Return of Gene Hunt (regular readers may recall my ode on this subject & will envisage the throaty appreciation inherent in these words), also features a left-by-her-mother little girl. Candles too, though these are cake candles so their function here is merely poignant. Will DI Alex Drake psychologically-profile her way out of the 1980s in time for her daughter's birthday...? Frankly my dear I don't give a damn, I just love the characters, the humour, the music, the narrative pace and most of all the terse laconic dialogue. Unmissable for any writer. Taster here.

The Words@FromeFestival team met on the night of the lunar eclipse (sadly cloud-covered before the dragon began to bite at 2am) to dot the I and cross the T of 'Literary' in the summer festival. Still time to enter the story contest!

Friday is the start of the London Word Festival which the posh papers are already lauding in terms like 'gritty' and 'illicit joys'... "Rap-inspired verse" whispers the header in the Times, adding quickly that "if that thought turns you purple with rage, you are probably not quite the target audience." Tee hee. Much as I like purple as a colour, I'm more of a mint green with envy I can't get there, so if you can, do!

This week's non sequitur: Strictly Come Duck Dancing on Ice - the frozen lake at Stourhead.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse - and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness,
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.

Perfect for Valentine week.... yes, except Thou might have been a sense of internal divinity rather than a lover, though possibly both. "In the West we make too big a distinction between physical love and spiritual love" suggests poet Paul Sutherland, talking about Omar Khayyam at the Bath Royal Lit & Sci Institute. We know so little about this Persian philosopher who inspired Edward Fitzgerald to create, as 'translations', those sensusal verses now accepted as the Ruba'iy. Khayyam lived in a place of beauty at a time of danger, and the urgency to seize life pulses through his words, whether that life is sufi inner spirit or epicurean erotic passion. Fitzgerald translated only about a fifth of the 500 verses in existance, and only a tenth of these are estimated to be by Khayyam himself. "Maybe we don't need to give a name to the writer, or any of the writers,' Paul suggests at the end of his sensitive and intriguing discourse, "maybe we should just treasure these as fragments that somehow survived a thousand years."

The Merlin artists' salon this year was held in the Bath Arms on the edge of the Longleat estate - very useful when debate reaches need-to-walk-in-the-sunshine intensity. The bedrooms have intimate names like Bird-in-the-Hand (where I nestled) and Axis-of-Medievil (ok I made that one up). Artistic discussion ranged from Is The Play Dead? (conclusion: at Death's door, might yet be pulled through...) to Why We Do It: why we embark on what dance choreographer Mark Bruce so lucently calls 'the long journey of making something that's about your life, and producing something which is special, and potent, and touches people'.

And back to the theatre on Saturday, to see the current Rejects Revenge production.
"To be honest, Here Be Monsters, created in difficult circumstances, is not a classic Rejects show" writes Lyn Barber in the Guardian. awarding the play two stars. One for the acting and set probably, but the second must surely be in consolation for those difficult circumstances, it can't be for the script. Is The Play Dead? well it will be if stage wit descends to injokey jibes about arts funding.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

What women want... or rather, what's wanted of them: The Herbal Bed, at Salisbury Playhouse this month, is a play I wanted to see because it's based on actual historical records. William Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna is accused of adultery and, to save her husband’s medical practice and her lover’s reputation as well as her own good name, fights the claim through the ecclesiastical court. A word-conjurer like her father, Susanna magicks the verdict she requires from the stubbornly sceptical Vicar General, and persuades her reluctant co-conspirator their embrace in the night garden has an imperative that should not be held to account in the prosaic light of day. Peter Whelan’s play raises timeless questions of love, loyalty, and integrity which are still relevant to our very different sense of social morality.
After this immersion into women's social status in Elizabethan days it was fascinating at the opening night of The Taming of the Shrew to see the Tobacco Company's interpretation of that contentious issue. A hugely successful high-energy production which grabbed attention unflaggingly for nearly 3 hours. I'd never seen an uncut version before so had always missed the point of the 'play-within-a-play' structure. Above all this complex plot is about duplicity, with much swapping of coats and assuming false personas, as well as that (in)famous storyline of the role of woman in society and in marriage. 'Altogether disgusting' Shaw called Kate's final speech of submission, and Michael Billington dismissed the whole play as 'totally offensive'. I see the Shrew as a wonderful play about social role-playing. "Love wrought these miracles" says Lucentio ingenuously, when the dissembling of these false fathers, teachers, servants, and masters reaches its climax in preposterous confrontation - and for this Kate and Petruchio it seems true, as they play their conflict games for sexual frisson once the destructiveness of anger has been shown and understood.

Tenuous link time: Luxurious twilight Bath spa date with my friend Diana, free-lance journalist and now broadcaster. "A writer has to be fearless" is one of her mantras. Lured by sun and their generosity, I extend my sleepover to include lunch by the river near Pulteney Bridge with Diana and her partner David, also a writer. And here's Burrington Coombe on sunny Friday: See the teeny weeny cars in the bottom left corner? That's how high we'd climbed...

Wicked Passions, our Valentine 'Poetry Frome' event on Sunday, was held at the Media Arts Centre so performances could be recorded. Wiltshire poet John Richardson leading, first, a full workshop of passionate poets and, later, an evening of wicked readings. A wonderful day and evening of erotica - and that includes the supper too, courtesy of the creative imagination of Nicki Deli from 'Sagebury Cheese'. More pictures on Facebook!

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Russell Brand markets himself as the Marmite of the media world. Love or loathe him, he wants only your dilated gaze - which I suppose makes him not really like Marmite at all as those squat pots are inanimatedly indifferent to our taste. Perversely, I used to consider him ok but not unmissable, somewhere between Moylesy and Scott Mills in the mid-list attention bracket, until my son, rightly intuiting incipient allure, gave me a copy of 'My Booky Wook'. Stylistically it's a chaotic blend of self-help casestudy, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Heat magazine, and must be compulsive reading for anyone who a) ever looked back at their life with mortification b) enjoys bizarre phraseology or c) likes to laugh. So that's 3 page-turning reasons for me. "I don't wanna get all Holden Caulfield about it," says our 'congenitally self-obsessed and solipsistic' hero looking back on the 'psychotropic fog' of his life, "but I do see the passage into adulthood as a betrayal of the innocent values of childhood. Even the most savage monsters that history or red-top tabloids can parade were once just soppy tots, and before that snug li'l foetuses - and I've never met a foetus that I didn't like yet."

Which segues seamlessly into writer/actor Pip Utton's double bill at the Merlin Theatre on Friday: "Adolf" and "Bacon". I much preferred the second. Frances Bacon may have been a bit on the depraved side but sadistic buggery between consenting adults is less horrible than genocide. And I liked the jazz and the TS Eliot quotes, and camp quips such as “champagne for my real friends, real pain for my sham friends”, and the underlying sense of scraping for some kind of artistic truth like smearing paint from a canvas to uncover the reality: that flesh is meat. "Art should shock," the dead painter declares, in between reminiscing of life, love and lust: "The job of an artist is always to deepen the mystery."

And this is release week for another monster, Sweeney Todd with lovely panda-eyed Helena Bonam Carter being a very naughty girl as she convinces revenge-riddled Johnny Depp to butcher his clients, starting with the plump ones: "the trouble with Poet is how do you know it’s deceased? Try the Priest."
I know the characters have other names - the demon barber has 2 - but huddling in the Westway cinema for this gothic-lit Jacobean tragedy, we're all here for the real-life talents scrolling down the screen - especially Tim Burton.

While bad weather hits the headlines nationwide, Spring continues to creep cunningly into the southwest. Here's the lanes near my house, and the canal at Bradford on Avon.
Frome Writers' Circle decamped to Bradford for a meeting at Jo's cottage, with quirky love stories and tales of independent living. Some great opening lines, like "Is it possible to sue God?" and "Stella had flue, not the sedate kind..." Starters were this month's theme, so finishes will be the focus for next time.

Coming soon to Frome, another one-man show: Luke Wright, "Poet and Man". It's brilliant - I saw it in Edinburgh - and at the Merlin March 29th. Luke mails to say he's been plagarised by a guy called Gav, which is especially annoying as the ripper doesn't get the rhythms of the poems he's ripping off. The full & very funny story is on his new blog.
News of this and other upcoming local events will be on Poetry Frome. Big virtual bouquet to Harry and Helen of who've created this new site to promote and archive all our writerly activities. One to bookmark.