Friday, May 29, 2009

May is the month for confetti whites – hawthorn blossom, horse-chestnut candles, wild garlic, and cow-parsley, my favourite, drenching the river banks and fluttering along the lanes like a ragged peasant army returning glorious. This seems a specially good year for these wonderful wayside umbellifers everywhere.
I’ve been travelling up north staying with friends: Hazel my bard-buddy now living near Worcester (which counts as north to a Watford-orientated south-Londoner like me) then way up into the wilds of the M6 – to Ribchester, a tiny Lancashire village on the banks of the Ribble, which traces its provenance back to Roman days and celebrates its farming status with two pubs called after bulls.

I’ve come to visit Anya, who I first met in Tobago over a decade ago; we now have one of those friendships that picks up effortlessly with each connection. With her new partner John we explored the noble history of Hutton-in-the-Forest, the industrial history of Salts Mill, and the natural history of High Head Sculpture Valley, where the cow parsley was as impressive as the art trail.

Writer and social psychologist Stephen Whitehead is staying too, and we spent Bank Holiday Monday walking the fabulous unpeopled landscape around Anya’s home on the hottest day of the year so far.
Stephen’s specialism is gender and unusually for an academic his published work includes popular & accessible books like The Many Faces of Men – featured on Richard & Judy among other media worldwide – as well as course readings on feminist post-structuralist theory.

And after a stop-off with my brother on the borders of Derbyshire, I'm back home in Frome, where the lilac really is in bloom, and the white roses out too, and there's a literary look at nature next week at the library. Organised by John Payne for the Lost World series of events, Nature Friend or Foe on June 5th is based on John's upcoming book The West Country: a cultural history. I'm specially pleased I get to quote bits of Kubla Khan, written by Coleridge "in a sort of Reverie brought on by two grains of Opium taken to check a dysentery."

And finally... definitions for Tories: Louise Marnel, the Bromsgrove housewife who organised a petition against Julie Kirkbride for fiddling her parliamentary expenses, denies that the 4000 signatories she amassed mean she used "mob rule".
Quite right Louise. It's called - or was once - democracy.


Friday, May 15, 2009

Purchasing hairspray, choosing a belt,
waiting for cheese on toast to melt
and daytime TV doesn’t watch itself.
A poet’s work is never done.

Luke Wright has a vocation: “It’s what I was born to do, say filthy things that rhyme”. With Sex Butler, outrageously Cool Mum, and the Ballad of Fat Josh - he robbed pizza delivery boys and ate the evidence - you could nearly believe he means it. But Luke’s brilliant new show A Poet's Work Is Never Done is a fast-moving journey from the bantery mockery of the show-title poem to powerful and dark scrutiny of modern life. “In a society where we do everything ironically, where does that leave meaning?” Luke’s theme, beneath the wicked wit & relentless rhyme, seems something like atonement. For cruelties of youth, insensitivities of adulthood, dread of spleen-filled old age … even the delirious stand-up that splices his poems is tinged with self-deprecating failure.
Most performance poetry has an edge of fury for social ills – callousness, classism, prejudice, stupidity. Luke is extraordinary in that his target is himself. Luke’s Got A Joke is the most searing character assassination – even in a week of politicians’ expenses revelations – I’ve heard for a long while. He feels it’s the best thing he’s done.
“Here is wit, beauty and unashamed intelligence, in a show which should reap nothing but recommendations.” said Edinburgh Festivals Magazine in a 5 star review. The audience at the Merlin last Friday agreed, and gave extra applause to Luke & charming support act Molly Naylor - who worried unnecessarily we might judge her for writing about boys - for their 6 hours on the M25 to bring the show to Frome.
It's official: May Madness at Frome Poetry Cafe was "the nipples" - and thankyou Alison for sharing this term of high approbation in a hilarious tale of teen times.
Dianne Penny and Jo Butts delighted the appreciative audience with musings on both May and madness as well as love and life generally, with sixteen other poets & writers contributing to the open mic. Impressively, several pieces had been written especially for this event. Many, like Bristol slammer David Johnson and local bard Phyllis Higgins, made us laugh; others were touching, intriguing, entertaining, lyrical... yeah, it was a great night. The nipples.

Jill (Happy as a Dead Cat) Miller and I went to the inaugural 'Writers' Lounge' at Bristol Old Vic on Thursday. Writers' Room Co-ordinator Sharon Clark had the great idea that as writers tend to feel isolated we should get together for "drinking, talking, and listening to music". Great fun, and good to meet up with writerly friends: screenwriter David Lassman, Bath bard Kevan Manwaring, and poet/novelist Rosemary Dun.

Poet James Nash has a new interactive site on Facebook, a kind of poetry party-bag, with songs, snippets and pictures - he's inviting Spring poems which he'll discuss onsite, and you can download his monthly podcast from here too. If you're not a Facebook fan, you can listen to it here. I have a special interest in the May edition as I'm James's interviewee. We did it via Skype while I was in California, and just listening to it takes me back...

And finally... It's out! The 2009 Frome Festival brochure. Months of meetings interspersed with emails, enquiries, corrections, confusion, celebration, and the usual stuff involved in putting on 25 events in one week, ensuring there's something loosely under the banner of 'Literary' for every taste and age-group, including contests, talks, walks, agent-interviews, poetry performances, and workshops, with every genre covered from picturebook to screenwriting... you get the idea. So get the brochure, and start booking! You won't find Hat Box poets declaiming in the streets or internationally-acclaimed Arabic writers reading over supper in any other Lit. Fest. this year!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

"The first thing you must do as a writer is read" is Sarah Duncan's top tip at the inaugural meeting of Writing Events Bath in New Oriel Hall in Larkhill last Sunday. Organised by Alex Wilson and Jude Higgins, the event covered fiction both long and short, adult and children's, as well as drama, poetry, and self-publishing, in a fast-paced day with lots of breaks to mingle - and a really good lunch. What else could a writer want? Well, plenty of positive advice, answers to specific questions, and internet resource addresses. Happily all these were provided by the contributing practitioners: novelist Sarah, YA author Julia Green, poet Carrie Etter, short story specialist Alison Clink, publisher Miles Bailey - and (this blog is not noted for modesty) I did my best too.

"Poetry & a Pint" at the Wine Vaults takes me to Bath again on Monday. Robert Palmer is one of the featured poets, bringing his own quirky performance style to existential words both droll and sombre: all his battling life he's wanted to trust someone - to give up - to believe...

Bristol's Mayfest has been bursting out all over, giving the new(ish)ly reopened Old Vic a great showcase for its makeover face of accessibility and vibrant modern writing, like Kellerman, a touring production from Imitating the Dog. All drama is a journey; this one is five journeys in different time spheres, two of them in a mental institution. It boasts - appropriate use of verb here - "a magnificent two-storey set which incorporates a revolving stage, flying harnesses, moving masks and stunning back and front projections". It was all, as claimed, extraordinary and exciting, but what I enjoyed most was the dark conundrum-laden script.
'Where does it all go, everything that’s ever happened to us?’
‘We’re left with what we remember.’

But Harry remembers pasts he never inhabited, and people he never knew. "Perverse, erotic, poetic and grotesque, Kellerman is a meditation on desire, loss and the structures that bind us to the lives we believe to be real."

Finally - a couple of plugs: May madness at the Poetry Cafe TONIGHT - the posters have become collector's items, thankyou Suzy! - and Luke Wright is at the Merlin on Friday with his new show A POET'S WORK IS NEVER DONE... rarely begun, in my case. "Gifted social observer and wordsmith" Luke is sandwiching Frome into his national tour betwixt York and Maidenhead, which gives some idea of the truth of the title. If you missed Luke's on C4's "Seven Ages of Love", here's a bite of the real thing.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Invasion of the blog-snatchers...
Writer John Baker's new book Winged with Death is about time and tango and revolution, and is currently enjoying an ingenious extended launch, cyberspace-hopping through blogsites worldwide and collecting appreciative reviews along the way. Today is my turn to welcome this novel and its enterprising author.

The first thing that impressed me is the fluency of the writer’s voice. The story is narrated by Frederick Boyle, aka Ramon Bolio, who establishes a dual time-zone from the outset. As an older man now living in England, he looks back to the journey of the boy he once was, jumping ship in Uruguay and finding a new name and a new life. His mentor Julio is introduced in a striking pen portrait as a man of aphorisms, sometimes making sense but more often devoid of context. ‘Middle-class is the definition of criminality’ he would tell me, or ‘I don’t use drugs, my dreams are frightening enough.’ And then we’re back in now, and a new character sidles into the room and onto the page: an interruption that upsets the flow… It’s this intriguing combination of adventure story and real-time immediacy that for me makes this novel so compelling, with its suggestion of continuing dualism as shadows from the past emerge and reconnect.
I asked John about this notion of threads linking the past to the present, and the unpredictable pattern of the dance; these themes, he feels, emerged as he wrote rather than being catalysts. “In the beginning there was the dream of Montevideo, an obsession with time and the wish to utilize dance as a metaphor. I don't believe I had more than that. The novel was the product of my immersing myself in these three and experimenting with the various ways they might combine.”

John Baker has published 8 novels already but this is the first time he’s gone galactic, as it were, with promotion. Feedback, he says, has been mostly positive, but “the tour has been hard work in a way I never quite imagined - touring, even virtual touring means actually engaging in a way that my day-to-day working life as a writer shields me from. So there is a sense in which I'm 'whacked' as though I've been on a real road for the past few weeks. On the other hand it has, of course, been exhilarating to feel that kind of support that only can come from people who are engaged in the same struggle as oneself, either as writers or as readers.”
John picked his hosts from the links of literary blogs on his own blog. “Some of them run popular sites with relatively large followings, others are little more than personal blogs. I wanted the book to find itself in as many various environments as possible. This seems to me to be the destiny of a book.”
You can read the first chapter here. Tell John what you think, and let me know what you think of this creative new notion of host- blogging.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Lord Hamlet is mad.
But what does that mean?

The provocative production at Frome’s Merlin theatre tonight explored this question like peeling skins from a schizoid onion. The players become characters, characters players, with even the observing audience implicated in the eyes of the paranoid prince. Directed with exuberant bravado by Ben Macfadyen, this innovative production enhances menace through masks, hi-impact physicality, dance, and even disturbing humour- as when Hamlet turns ventriloquist with the limp body of Polonius. In a script that impressively holds the emotional story while playing hideandseek with the best-known speeches, the famous soliloquy is saved for the finale.
Is he even mad at all? Or are all these occurrences merely figments of his imagination? Who is in control? ask the programme notes, which explain the brief was to produce 'an anagram of Hamlet'.
At the helm is an A-level examination piece for the seven young people who took part; the examiner was seated among the awestruck audience crowded onstage around the action and the prince’s line ‘Madam, how like you this play?’ was addressed with ingenuous charm towards her. I hope the lady's marking did not protest too much.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

So I arrive home to a blossomy English Mayday and the excellent news that Carol Ann Duffy is our new Poet Laureate. She says she doesn't want the pay but will take the butt of sack upfront, please. That's 600 bottles, should be a good celebration party up there in 'leafy Manchester suburb of West Didsbury' where, surprisingly, this Scots working class poet now lives.

A month's worth of post takes a while to dispose of, mostly in the recycling bin, but it's nice to hear my first novel Frozen Summer is being reprinted again in the Netherlands. Googling the Dutch edition, I found this intriguing plot summary:
Forgotten Summer of Crys Morrison
A fall Kirsty is 10 years from her memory lost.
Although it does its best to its past back to get
Kirsty feels in her heart still twenty student she once was.
If the first is lost gradually reminders are rising to the surface,
Kirsty is also very relieved. But the image that looms up
as more loose puzzle pieces fall into place,
does it realize that amnesia may be preferable to the truth...

The new comedy drama Boy Meets Girl - which coincidentally is also based on trauma-created character confusion - was reviewed enthusiastically by Times online. "...really good. ITV1 has, almost unprecedentedly, given a total newcomer — the writer David Allison — three hour-long episodes." In fact the writer David Allison had a 10-year scriptwriting apprenticeship, according to his interview with Screenwriting Goldmine. This site is a great resource for any writer interested in the meeja, by the way, as you can sign up for a free newsletter which is genuinely useful and topical. Asked how he sold this rather cheesey concept, David is frank: Knowing people - like Head of Productions - helps. "I was going to have lunch with him and I was panicking, and I saw a friend who'd seen this awful film about a man trapped inside a woman's body and it was really naff. I thought, is there a gender story here that's not a cliché? And I pitched up. If Id been just someone off the street I don't think he'd have listened, but I knew him." (Martin Freeman plays Danny/Veronica, which helps too.) The bit that's 'not a cliché' is the notion that personality, not gender, is what shapes people. "If you try and sit down and write about things that matter to you, like the class divide, its really dull and boring. You need a vehicle, and then it takes off, so if there's something that you're interested in, go for it. You should never pitch what you think people want - it never works because you're not as passionate about those things."

And finally: the Writer's Blog, initially seen as the shell-suit of the publishing fashion world, has apparently found its Pride. The May issue of Writing Magazine features blogging as one of five key trends for success - a chance to interact in a more private-conversational way as well as a tool for self-promotion. I use mine as a kind of exercise in right-brain/left-brain dovetailing - what songwriter Bob Peterson calls negotiating between the engineer and the muse. Recently I've veered to the musey, so I'm balancing out with a few more oily rags this week.