Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Melksham Food Festival this week included, among such succulent delights as wine and chocolate tasting, a poetry night at the Art House Café, where I guested along with Kevan Manwaring. Open mic for local poetry fans, relaxed atmosphere, and warm welcome from organiser Susan Drew, all added to the pleasant ambience of this excellent venue. Memo to self: next time passing Melksham, make a detour and visit the Art House Cafe again.
Good too to meet Dee La Vardera, Festival 'Writer in Residence', who's been talking to people about their foody recollections, collecting such gems as "My mother was suspicious of a mushroom."

And now Frome is gearing up for its own summer celebration, the 10th Frome Arts Festival, 190 events in 10 days, from free street poetry performances and bands to big name comedians and concerts. Everything kicks off on July 9th...

Sunday, June 27, 2010

One of the worst things about the Winchester Writers Conference is that it clashes with Glastonbury festival, always a big date on the calendar for anyone living in Frome - most of the town decamps to the fields of Worthy farm in some working capacity - and the prospect of five hours in a windowless room giving one-to-ones didn't have the allure of sunshine, Faithless, and Florence & the Machine. And then when I arrived at the university, after two diversions and town centre gridlock, I decided another worst thing was my room, at the far end of the top floor of an antiquated residency with that pallid aroma of scented puke that lingers in student accommodation. All grumpiness evaporated with my first workshop: a sparky, utterly delightful, group, and by Saturday morning as the jazz band played us into the Stripe for Terry Pratchett's plenary speech, I knew this would be a good conference. Barbara Large, who conceived and mothers this vast 'family of writers', is inspirational and held in deep affection by all the delegates. Organisation is sometimes erratic but always refreshingly egalitarian - no hierarchy or status, just writers sharing their enthusiasm and experiences. And it was great meeting up with old friends (like Chris Coleman, above) and making new ones.
"I write serendipitously - I've never yet plotted a book" Terry Pratchett confided. He recommends the 'Valley of Clouds' theory: "you can't see the way ahead so you have to find out by making the journey." His top tip was reading 'till you overflow': Books like The History of False Teeth and Anecdotes of the Great Financiers can be a treasury of ideas and fascinating social insights, apparently. Sir T's rambling speech was warm, funny and totally charming, and received the longest and loudest applause I've ever heard at this or any other conference.

Monday, June 21, 2010

My London stopover from Skyros on Saturday gave me the chance to reconnect with a bit of theatre - a double dose in fact. First, a matinee: Beyond Therapy by Christopher Durang at Islington's Hen & Chickens pub theatre. Six smart, silly, New Yorkers at the height of the 80s therapy fad, all seeking fulfillment - or at least a waiter. The script is brilliantly funny in a way that's more screwball than sardonic, and the cast gave performances so polished you could see your face in them. High eye-candy factor among Theatre Six too, especially gorgeous Prudence (Heather Gibbs) exploring her traumas through restaurants and consulting rooms where the analysts are crazier than the clients and even the waiter - when he finally shows - is a psycho.
And then to Camberwell for Stairway to Heaven at the Blue Elephant, written by Steve Hennessy and directed by Chris Loveless, with Matt Ward (my angel-vampire in Love Bites) performing. So I had at least three reasons to want to see this tale of ancient Egypt where a team of Pyramid builders struggle with the hardships of work, wrangling, bullying, and the existential question: what's it all for? Among the brutal, often gory, events of their daily lives, what emerges is the irrepressible human need for some kind of religion which can answer - or at least muffle - that timeless uncertainty, at whatever cost. The actors, especially Matt who brought charisma to the role of Geb the bluff joker, were all strong and the set effectively evoked a working landscape both surreal and claustrophobic. And if I'd had more than 4 hours sleep in the previous 39 hours, I'd be able to give a more coherent appreciation.

Back in Bristol: Red Shift brought their brief 2-hander The Fall of Man to the Tobacco Factory's tiny annexe The Brewery, made an even more intimate space as seating was crowded close to the set, a bed on and around which all the action takes place. The story focuses on a difficult, acrimonious more than passionate, affair between Peter and his children's au pair. There's torrid, uncomfortable, sex and there's tears before bedtime, but what elevates this way above ordinary sleaziness is the grandeur of the text - Milton's text, in fact. Amid the self-justifying and complaining of their contemporary voices, writer Jonathan Holloway splices in Paradise Lost, and lo! it works. It really works. Self-tempted, self-depraved, the pair of them, but Natalie Jones as Slovenian Veronica is so lovely it's difficult to blame her boss for pulling off his Pringle pants and attempting things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme... All the more powerful as we the audience were in their face, practically in their bed, the whole time, voyeurs to their blowjobs and their belligerence. Unforgettable theatre, brave and beautiful.

Local writer Rachel Ward launched Numbers 2: The Chaos at Waterstones in Bath on Tuesday. It's a sequel to her brilliant debut novel Numbers, marketed for teens but straddling the adult market - it's currently on the best-selling list in France, and picking up awards all over the place. Rachel's first step to publication was sending the opening section to the Frome Festival Short Story competition and Alison and I both loved it, so have felt somewhat proprietorial ever since. Chaos picks up the story sixteen years later and is, her publisher tells us, a fast-paced thriller with deep and thought-provoking undercurrents. Numbers 3 is on the way too.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The second week always goes faster than the first. The island has refamiliarised itself, changes have become the new routines. Sunflower is now Adraxti, with charming Cretan hospitality and place of choice for sundowner and co-listening. Kalypso hasn't changed, nor Korfari, but the secret beach is inaccessible after another landslip. Faltaits museum terrace is still peaceful in the shaded fig-tree terrace high above the bay. The writing sessions, here and elsewhere, have been a delight - and so has yoga, dancing, singing, swimming daily in translucent water. There's poignancy too - Keats understood when he wrote that melancholy dwells with beauty: Beauty that must die; and Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips, bidding adieu... Do I sound rhapsodic? Probably because I am. Rhapsody here is easy as breathing. Skyros is about creativity and community, and the way each enhances the other - you can't explain it, you have to experience it.

Time now to pack the sunlotion and the new greek dress, shake the sand out of my sarong and to say goodbye to my lovely group and to Suzie, Sarah-Helena, Hazel and Julian, and leave the magic island still basking below that sizzling blue sky. At 6.30 am tomorrow, to be precise...

Thursday, June 10, 2010

So how is the collapse of the Greek economy affecting Skyros? Well Juicy Bar now charges 3€ for a frappe but for that you can lie under a grass canopy, dozing after your Aegean dip, until the southern hills fade from gold to violet in the still-warm dusk. In Agora in the Plateia, wine is 4€ but nuts and internet are free, and so is the street theatre of night: promenaders, families, flaneurs, and children fired with World Cup fever. And bliss is free everywhere: Laughter of friends, gentleness, hearts at peace, Rupert Brooke wrote just before he died, close by, sailing to Gallipoli - he probably wouldn't have survived anyway though I like to think if he had seen more of the pity of war, as Owen did, he would have scratched his eulogy to an English heaven... The Skyrians forgave his gauche patriotism: his grave, in an olive grove, is a place of pilgrimage and his statue stands at the top of the town, best place to watch the sun rise.

It's the end of the first week of my creative writing course and it's been brilliant. Twelve varied voices, sharing and supporting - this has become a master-class and I can't wait for next week. We've worked on the terrace by the Centre, in a beachside restaurant, and in a bar by the Plateia, and everywhere has produced great writing, exciting ideas, and lashings of fun.

Garnishing the recipe for a wonderful Writers Lab: cobbled alleys arched with bougainvillea, long soft sandy beach, sessions painting and singing, evenings dancing, a nine-mile walk across the island, Vasso's legendary suppers, fabulous friendships, brazen blue skies and solid sunshine...
the list could go on... and on...

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

"The cats have come in on the side of the French," warns the old lady in the cottage far away, “They’ve been killing babies in China.” Joan is becoming petrified: “I didn’t know what side the river was on. The Japanese are working with gravity – who’s going to mobilise darkness, and silence? That’s what worries me.” It's the final scene of Caryl Churchill's extraordinary absurdist, and perhaps prophetic, play Far Away at Bristol Old Vic. The story starts with eerie, near-credible menace, proceeds with futuristic dull horror, and ends in total paranoia with no-one left to trust, not even the ospreys. Not even the grass. And it's totally brilliant theatre. One of the most shocking scenes for me was the aftermath of the hat parade when, back in the millinery factory, Joan muses "It's such a pity the hats have to be burned, along with the bodies." She learned that level of denial about atrocities from childhood, and the play ends abruptly on the image of water lapping around her ankles, like the blood in the shed she mustn't speak about when she was a little girl.
So what's it all about? There's a 'conversation' after every performance on issues raised in the play. Max Stafford-Clark, hugely respected theatre director, was talking about his professional relationship with the writer on Monday when I went. Caryl, he confirmed, is passionately political and since she realised a left-wing feminist humanist can't change the world her plays have become increasingly elliptical. So if theatre doesn't change the world, what's it for? Max answered immediately. "To entertain and provoke us on the way. We tend to despise the middle-aged, middle-class, audience that most of us are-" ("I love that audience," murmurs BOV artistic director Tom Morris, sitting beside him) "-and people are always saying, you are preaching to the converted, but what’s the alternative? Yelling at the unconverted?"
The production is on till June 9th. Brilliant acting, wonderful direction, fantastic set, and a script I would have listened to in total darkness and still been totally rapt. Go see it if you can. It's funny, too, honest...

And finally: my friend James Nash, one of our premier Northern poets, generously agreed to let me use one of his new poems on my blogsite. (scroll down, it's on the right below the links). It was on his facebook page with this picture so I've nicked that too.

Next posting will be from Skyros, where the forecast for next week is 32 degrees of sunshine....