Saturday, March 28, 2009

An idyllic weekend staying with college-days friends, chewing the fat and the Mothers Day chox and doing a lot of walking. We went to Grantchester, famously the haunt of Rupert Brooke, where the orchard is now a hugely popular cafe so there is indeed honey still for tea. You can also pick up a free booklets about the 'Grantchester Group' which apparently comprised Forster, Russell, Keynes, Virginia Woolf and Wittgenstein as well as the soldier poet. Alongside photos & poems there are intriguing quotes, like Keynes on camping: don't make one nearly so ill as one would suppose, Woolf on Forster: I always feel him shrinking sensitively from me, and Russell on Wittgenstein: he would never have noticed such small matters as bursting shells when he was thinking about logic. There's a little museum too, with pictures of Brooke's grave and statue on Skyros which made me nostalgic for the those Greek skies. Here's the yet unacademic stream, along the river walk to Cambridge.

"We don't care if it's by a man or a woman or a dog, all we care about is the story" is what women's magazine editors say, according to Alison Clink's encouraging talk at the Bath Writers Workshop where she and I were both guests on Wednesday. We were warmly welcomed by hosts Kevan Manwaring and David Lassman, and found the writers of Bath a friendly and participative audience. No canine members, I'm glad to say.

A retrospective footnote this week: positive feedback on Chimes of Freedom in the local paper (read the review here soon) and from our illustrious lead reader, who enjoyed the ‘radical’ edge in Frome - and thanks, Sharon, for the positive vibe on your blog!

It's appropriate maybe I discover 70s cult classic Harold and Maude this week. Elderly Maude has a sound philosophy of life - "Everyone has a right to make an arse out of themselves" - and a catchy theme song if you want to sing out, sing out and when young Harold gives her 'the nicest gift anyone has given me in a long time' she throws it into the San Francisco Bay saying blithely "That way, I'll always know where it is."
Which brings me nicely to my own departure, in 2 days time, for a month in California. Not that I plan to sling anything in the bay - in fact I'm not really sure what I plan to do. Watch, as they say, this space.

Friday, March 20, 2009

A varied week.

On Wednesday Caleb & I recreated our collaborative sonnet Je M'aime at the film studio for the Frome Festival Cabaret, once Howard has edited in the cello sequence and added his own animational flair.

(Loo, lippy, and narcissistic poses are integral to the poem; paper bag was Caleb's idea.)

And on Thursday a complete contrast in mood:
Because the poet is the only person
who never forgets
the meaning of freedom

(Yandamiro Restano, from a Cuban prison, 1993)
Chimes of Freedom at the Merlin, based on readings from persecuted writers around the world, in support of Pen.
Ten local writers and artists reading poems, letters, and speeches from Euripedes to Pinter, all passionately insisting on the right to free speech.
Booker judge Victoria Glendinning, who is among her other literary roles the vice-president of English Pen, introduced the evening and read a moving anti-war speech from dissident Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk. Stories of imprisonment, torture, exile - Come and see the blood in the streets, Pablo Neruda challenged the world after the murder of Lorca. Powerful stuff and inevitably dark - but with a dazzling lift after the break from musical performances by six of the Amnesty Youth Group, as stunningly talented as they were self-assured.

And finally: Andrew Motion speaks out at the end of his 10-year tenure as Poet Laureate to berate journalists who 'turn poetry into a kind of Aunt Sally by making it look ridiculous and out of touch'. Poetry is, he says, 'a fundamental requirement of the human spirit, as natural and necessary as breathing.'
Words worth writing, and perhaps even worth waiting ten years for.
And who's next for the poison chalice? Wendy Cope says the post is ridiculous and should be axed, but Roger McGough demurs: "It's a rather nice tradition to have, and anything that gets poetry mentioned is fine by me - it can put a lot of pressure on a poet, but if you can't handle it, don't take it on." So, Luke Wright, Poet Laureate... Why not?


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

There’s an out-of-season indolence along the sea front at Shanklin, souvenir shops still shut, entry to the lovely Chine area locked and the cliff-top lift closed till official holiday time begins. None of this detracts from the Isle of Wight's timewarp charm, which starts with the London tube-train waiting at the ferry point to transport the visitor on a rattling journey of nostalgia. As Yannis our host at The Grange says: 'Here you are a time-traveller. You walk down the street and you walk into the 1950s.'
My last Find Your Voice weekend here was a year ago - the 2008 Grangewriters had their reunion while I was back on the island - and though the group was great the weather was not. This time both were fab. Best bits: golden gorse and daffodils, red squirrels playing tag in the pines, spring notes of birdsong, and above all supportive friendly company and wonderful writing, brave, quirky, inventive & funny. For a sample - and a lush seascape image - see Jay's blog where the 'recipe for Shanklin' says it all.

Regular readers - don't laugh, there are some - of this blog may recall my comments on the revival of William Saroyan's play The Time of Your Life last December. I talked about an 'unsatisfying ending' but I wasn't nearly so disparaging as one reviewer of the original London production, 63 years ago this month. "The high spot of the evening was the incursion of an anonymous drunk. For this no marks can be allowed to the author" his summary concluded, adding dryly: "Certainly a play to be seen; one could hardly read it."
It's a voice I remember well. Regular readers of this blog will have to delve the archives a bit to realise why this review struck such a chord with me, as it was back in August last year I wrote "My father was a drama critic and he had a typewriter that must have been twinned with a lemon grater..." Yes, my regular and irregular friends, the H.G.M. at the end of this and several other pieces in Theatre World magazine in March 1946 was himself. My father, younger than I ever knew him but clearly no less acidic.
I owe this emotional reunion to the lost world of my London childhood to a pile of just-post-war issues of this once-premier theatrical magazine, dug out of my dramaturgic friend's attic. "I thought you might like to see these" he said, and indeed I did. Theatre World was heavy on black-and-white photos featuring kohl eyepencil and intense expression, and featured photo-stories of the major productions rather as The Sun uses graphic illustrations on their problem page.
HG continued to review in his own distinctive, often lugubrious, style until the late 70s, and was particularly proud of his appraisal of The Mousetrap: "I give it a week." His review of the 1946 Stratford-upon-Avon Festival concludes: "There were many children in the audience and from them the loudest applause followed the murder of Macduff's son and his mother's screams as she is strangled. Such are these times."

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Black comedy hour again... Blavatsky's Tower (at the Alma Tavern Theatre till March 21st) shows Sartre got it wrong: Hell is not other people, Hell is an agoraphobic family incarcerated in the top flat of a tower block with a crazy father who is the architect of this cultural monument to dysfunctionality. Gaudi built his cathedral high so the angels could reach it easily but angels aren't so easily lured here. Even the doctor who staggers up fifteen flights with an armchair can't save a trio who have normalised incest and incineration of their father's corpse in the roof garden. "We used his copy of Paradise Lost to start the blaze." And the comedy comes in... where exactly? Oddly enough, quite a lot, in Moira Buffini's script and in the actors' interpretations of this Chekhovian family dynamic, where the 'crushed' world below the high-rise is their own unattainable Moscow. Oliver Millingham as the patricidal son is especially moving.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Mardi Gras night at Frome Poetry Cafe: a dash of razz-ma-tazz, a score of performers, and a Garden Cafe-ful of enthusiastic audience. The theme of celebration enjoyed wide interpretations, from Stephen Ledbury's ode to Shepton Mallet carnival to John Payne's charming Quantocks bestiary, from Bev's Salvadorian story to Lucy Howlett's fish-eye view of fairground life. James Stokoe brought us Euridice and Rose Flint evoked Venus: "If love isn't around a Mardi Gras, I don't know where she'll be." A fantastic range of delightful reads and performances.

Actor Cameron Stewart found his grandfather a hard act to follow, so instead he's chosen to take that act around the country as a one-man show called 'My Grandfather's Great War'. The grandfather is Captain Alexander Stewart who fought in the three major assaults of the first world war with extraordinary heroism and survived to tell the tale in a handwritten diary forming the basis for this performance, which reached the Ustinov in Bath last week. The diaries have much of the grim humour of Blackadder Goes Forth, including their own genuine General Melchett who agrees one particular mission is deathly lunacy but adds that it's the Brigadier's order, so "do your best, eh?". An amazing record of a man of exemplary moral qualities, but for me the most powerfully affecting words were the grandson's own as he ends his proud and passionate tribute: "I'm confused. All war is abomination. What the devil did you think you were doing, running around in the mud slaughtering each other?"

Change of pace again on Saturday, with the launch of the Concertina Books weekend event at Widcombe Studios in Bath. Ruralist writer Peter Please is making a stand against the mass production of books, creating instead something 'quirky and individual' which combines old and new technologies. He has the support of John Moat, co-founder of the Arvon foundation, and several luminously talented writers and artists who contributed words and images to the project. There were readings too, some gentle, some charismatic; the whole evening a reminder that prim Bath can do bohemian, delightfully, too.


Tuesday, March 03, 2009

I'm disconcerted to find myself in agreement with Salman Rushdie on the Slumdog subject - although he is considerably more irascible about this 'banal fluff.. slum tourism', commenting in the Guardian: 'To watch your home town's story being told in this comically absurd, tawdry fashion is, finally, to grow annoyed.'
Back in Bristol, Polly Teale from Shared Experience, was at Bristol Old Vic to reveal 'how to weave a more physical approach into the building of character' to sixteen keen would-be playwrights. Hurtling around with chairs and intensive text analysis combined to confirm: objectives and obstacles are the essence of drama. "A good scene can be quite spare, a lot of it will come from the playing of it."

Bath Literature Festival boasts 'debate discovery passion and inspiration' and like all good festivals there's far too much to do. I went to hear Debby Holt, Sarah Duncan, and Robyn Sisman discuss the place - & status - of romance, an entertaining debate which proved a point made by Robyn: the novels may be light but that doesn't mean they're easy to write, despite the literary prejudice against romantic comedy. As Sarah said: women's issues are no less valuable than man-genres like Goth the Impaler. But can the complexities of a relationship be conveyed in a novel designed to entertain? asks chair Caroline Kington. Debby says an emphatic 'Yes - you can make a point more effectively in a funny way." I agree, and I wish I could remember who said Humour tells the truth, but faster.
Writer and publisher Diana Cambridge has a neat take on relationships too: they're our way of warding off death, she suggests, by making life dangerous and dynamic. We met for long nibbly lunch at Cafe Rouge, and later I was back in the Guildhall ready to be dazzled by the heavyweight talents of literary award-winners Helen Dunmore, Jane Gardam, and Rose Tremain. The brochure blurb predicted converse on writing about love and yearning, youth and old age, loneliness, sex and exile. Irresistible. In the event they discussed form, research, and something defined, somewhat pompously, as 'the writerly frame of mind'. Perhaps it's a problem of format. Mathematically, a trio of writers talking should be three times as interesting a solo subject in the chair, but actually this triple division of topic feels superficial even in a heavy-going event like this. Paradoxically the chick-lit authors in the morning event achieved interactive discussion more successfully to create a sense of reciprocal interest. Or maybe it was the chandeliers in the great hall upstaging all below.

And finally... a word & image miscellany from here, there, and beyond:

"It's fun and it's difficult but that's the combination that, sometimes, gets you through" - Larry from U2 on making music. True of writing & life too.

"It's the best rush I've ever had and I'm utterly, hopelessly, addicted to it" - T.C.Boyle on writing. He's allegedly done 'vandalism, alcohol, drugs, maniacal driving, and the writings of Kerouac' so he should know.

LET DE MAN SPEAK, LET DE MAN BE HERD - Islamic hiphop site.
(Heartfelt echo is from a shopfront in Frome.)

"Can written language ever capture and recreate spoken language, or is it a place where the book is a lesser place than the tongue and the ear?"
Ian McMillan's piece in The Reader is about writing in dialect, but i think it's a good question for every writer.

'In all Fairhurst's work there is a powerful human presence through actions, intervention, emotion and humour.'
Arnolfini guide to the Angus Fairhurst exhibition, on till the end of the month.

One of the first things you learn as a writer is that you write what you can, not what you want. - Gabriel Garcia Marquez, quoted by Debby.

Crysse finds her niche in the temple of Diana at Stourhead.