Korkoro: Come, let’s away to prison: We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage

‘Korkoro’ is one of my favourite films. Directed by Tony Gatlif, a French Algerian of Roma ethnicity,  it came out in 2010 and is one of those World War Two films you may not have seen, but it is a real gem. It documents the rarely-mentioned topic of porajmos, the Romani holocaust.

It is set in France and is subtitled, and it features a  performance by James Thierrée, whic h  is astonishing and memorable for its skill and poignancy. The plot is simple: a Roma family travels through France, attempting to escape the Nazis who are occupying France in 1943.

The film is a sympathetic insight into the Roma  lifestyle, with the musical backdrop you’d expect in this sort of film, composed by Tony Gatlif and Delphine Mantoulet.The film begins with thought-provoking images and  music : we see a wooden fence with barbed wire stretched between it and each wire  becomes a harp string and vibrates with a resonant note. The tune is uplifting and represents the strength and spirit of a culture which will never be extinguished, even though over 25,000 and possibly even 50,000 Romani people were victims of the holocaust.

The theme of a family is central to the storyline: they are private people who are symbiotic, loyal and sometimes too trusting but mostly they shun authority and gadjo rules, preferring to follow their own traditions without causing disruption. Their culture is sharply contrasted by the attitudes of others, some helpful, some who display vehement anti-ziganism, some who simply turn their backs. The family of 15 are on their way to harvest grapes, but a rule has been passed forbidding nomadic lifestyles, and they are vulnerable to persecution and danger.

Korkoro means freedom in Romani language. The freedom they seek at the beginning is the freedom to pursue their traditional way of life; by the end of the film, freedom takes on another meaning and it is Gatlif’s mission to present a story about the persecution of an irrepressible, proud people.

There are some memorable, touching scenes and well- drawn characters. Theodore (Marc Lavoine), who is the town mayor and the local vet, is attacked by a wild horse while trying to save another sick equine and the Roma family surround him and cure them both in a scene which is both humorous and touching. Lavoine’s character is a hero akin to Schindler as he attempts to save the Roma family, bravely handing over his estate as shelter.

The family are also helped by Resistance heroine and schoolteacher, Mademoiselle Lundi (Marie-Josee Croze) and there are fascinating scenes in the classroom. She insists on trying to educate the Roma children and the contrast of cultures is very evident in this environment, demonstrating the voluntary incarceration and rote learning which is an accepted and desirable part of mainstream education, in sharp contrast to the Roma children’s natural inquisitiveness, their freedom of spirit  and their natural understanding of the physical world we live in.

The character of Taloche (James Thierrée ) is worthy of special mention. Taloche is a free spirit,  a visionary who senses the surrounding evil and increasing danger; he is a man who has never grown up and his family respect  him and he is accepted unquestioningly with enthusiasm and love and treated with dignity.

korkoro-kamp

Thierrée’s performance is a triumph of clowning and physicality, of violin-playing virtuosity and mime: it is not surprising to discover that he is Charlie Chaplin’s grandson. His rapport with other characters is bitter-sweet: he fawns over Mademoiselle Lundi and hides an orphan child whom he protects and nurtures. His performance is astonishing in his ability to create a character which is credible, laudable and loveable, and he creates tragedy and comedy in a character which might otherwise have become a stereotype.

The music is uplifting and the sound track is a strong semiotic for audience reaction. The scene at the French dance where the Roma musicians play guitars and violins for the locals’ entertainment is evocative of Eugene Hutz’s lyrics in ‘Break the Spell’: ‘You love our music but you hate our guts.’ It is shortly after this celebration of culture that the family are impounded and, when one character asks why they are being taken away, the French guard replies ‘To rid the country of vermin.’

Korkoro is a feast of visual and musical delight and it is seldom predictable: it contains none of the ubiquitous sentimentality of some films which deal with this topic. We are presented with the family and it’s characters and we follow their lifestyle and treatment from the outside with curiosity and empathy.

The French countryside is stunning and as a audience we are very quickly at one with the nomadic lifestyle. We share their independence and we stand alongside all the characters; one moment we are riding a horse to frantic violin music, the next we are hiding under a wagon with a character who is half Jenische, who loathes himself for failing to kill a Frenchman who has betrayed his family.

It is an emotional, gripping and stirring story which is accessible and fast-paced. It is a commentary on the bravery of the French people against those who  colluded with the Nazis but, above all, it is a celebration of a strong and independent culture whose integrity and survival is paramount.

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When my novel is an unweeded garden that grows to seed

How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on ’t, ah fie! ‘Tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this.

In actual fact, I am now on 81,000 words and coming to the part which should make a really good denouement for the reader: if my novel is un-put-downable, then it follows that my writing is incessant  because I am so engaged with my characters and their situations that I have to keep writing.

It is there with me when I go to bed: it wakes me up at two in the morning and it is there at breakfast when I drink my tea. So what is this blog post really about? Not the inability to write. As Orwell said, and Orwell is a kind of writers’ God:

“All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives lies a mystery. Writing a book is a long, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

At the moment I am certainly driven. It is seldom that I can’t think what to write or can’t be bothered. So, why the Hamlet reference about the unweeded garden? Exactly that: it is full of stuff which needs pruning, sorting out, editing and of course the seeds are sprouting out in all directions.

That doesn’t worry me: I can tame this garden and I l0ve the challenge of editing. The problem is deciding which is the best edit. A wonderful tutor on my MA course told me to follow my instinct and , of course, that instinct has to hold me up when I am not sure whether what I am creating works well enough.

The instinct also has to be there for me when I disagree with a reader’s comment. The vanity Orwell mentions, a kind of arrogance, lies between the writer thinking she or he is right, the instinct saying so and the crushing dismissal of a reader who says ‘I would do it this way.’or ‘I think you should do it that way.’

I have a lot of feedback on my writing. I welcome it. No, I really need it. I take it seriously. I always think about it and I mostly act on it.

I have lovely writer friends who always offer me an intelligent and balanced critique: mostly I listen to what they say because they are great inspirational writers and also honest, intelligent friends.

Sometimes, I ignore what they say because it’s not right for me to take on their ideas but it is always something to consider, especially in terms of my own intention and the ensuing clarity – have I got my point across, does the character behave or act how I intend to portray them on the page? Have I been accurate and clear and used the right words and the right amount of them? Will the reader get it?

I have submitted a couple of short stories recently and had them accepted for publication. One editor actually went to the trouble of annotating my story, and I agreed with every comment. I like concise writing and the editor had pointed out a place where I could have cut a line or two.

I am never on the side of indulgence and I am always ready to cut. But I also have had a reader who suggested that I need to evoke all the details of the place: the reader can’t see it, so I need to paint the full picture. I disagreed with him: I had already created the ambience of the location and it was active in the reader’s mind – I checked with 3 readers – and I didn’t want to overegg it by interfering with or dictating to their personal imagination.

I like to create an idea but let the reader fill in their own details at times.

The same reader then went on to say ‘I would make this character more attractive…’ It was at that point I stopped listening to him. Vain and selfish I may be, arrogant too, but add discerning and wilful and you have an author who is writing her own stuff, not someone else’s.

I’d never preface any critique with ‘I would…’. All you can say is ‘You might consider… because…’. This is something else entirely, because you are offering a rationale and sharing ideas, not trying to control someone’s keyboard.

Worse still, the critic who doesn’t read the writing properly. The one who  says ‘You could have told the reader that…’ when I have blatantly said it once, maybe twice and don’t need to say it again. At this point I tell myself again, not every reader will like my books.

And that is ok: writers don’t seek widespread popularity, although it is great if people like your stories, but we seek to please some people a lot of the time. After all, I’m not an Austen fan and she is really good: I love Cormac McCarthy, but not everyone finds him as uplifting as I do!

So back to the unweeded garden. I am about to do something quite amazing with two of my protagonists and it is going to change the flower arrangement in my plot quite significantly; the weed killer is out and the rotavator is digging deep. I am not going to find this section easy and I’d like to thank a the brilliant author Matt Haig for a superb piece of advice, which I will gladly share.

He told me to face up to tough moments like this for the reader’s sake: don’t pussy foot around but crash headlong, make a mess of the garden, throw it all in the air and watch the soil settle. You can’t avoid the carnage of tension, and so I will be making a really big deal of the scenes I write this week.

It would be safer to not write them; it would be more comfortable to skirt around them but these scenes are not subtle and hinting won’t work – thanks, Matt – I am up to my neck in brambles in this one and I will dig my way out. It is so exciting to be writing action and emotion and I am well up for it.

So, the latest update on my novel is that I am going for some seriously powerful scenes at the moment then it is time for the big edit, where I will have to strip out sentences and upgrade whole sections. I am looking forward to it.

Then what: when it is all done and the story is over? I have a few seedlings ready to germinate in another plot in my allotment of ideas.

Marvellous Ways and marvellous words

When Hamlet tells Polonius he is reading ‘words, words, words,’ I think he is implying that each page is the same, that the words written there have no relevant meaning and go on and on for the reader with no real impact or benefit.

Sarah Winman’s novel ‘A Year of Marvellous Ways’ is a delight of words. She is in touch with her inner poet and each word is selected and combined to create impact and emotion, to evoke a picture or to deepen a character.

On my MA Professional Writing course, we were told to keep our writing clean and simple, a lesson I find invaluable now I write for a living.

Most literature does not benefit from being clogged with adverbs and packed with so many words that the meaning becomes muddled. Yet Sarah Winman’s ability with words is a gift and she uses language to involve and enthrall the reader from the first page to the final chapter.

I met Sarah at a book launch in a Waterstones. She is a modest, warm, intelligent woman who enjoys sharing her passion for words. Her protagonist, Marvellous Ways, is an older woman who is wise and solitary.

My own protagonist in my current novel, Evelyn Connolly, is involved in a journey of discovery, both physical and emotional, and I was interested that we had both picked a woman in her later years as a protagonist. The latin word for old woman is anus: it is a neuter noun, and most old female protagonists in television and plays  are witches, crones or grannies who have little individuality: they are past it, whatever ‘it’ happens to be.

Both Marvellous Ways and Evelyn Connolly are bursting with power and personality, and I asked Sarah if her motive for creating such a heroine was political. She agreed that when writers are of a certain age – and we are both baby boomers – we demand that our protagonists are meaningful and strike a chord with readers.

Marvellous Ways has lived and loved; she can heal; she has a story to tell and her story is both a parable and a poem. Sarah Winman’s language is insistent; she demands to write in a language rich in beautiful sounds and vital meaning. As an author, she has inspired me to be unafraid of the impact of words; they should be sonorous and strong, keeping character and action buoyant.

I recommend both of Sarah Winman’s novels absolutely; A Year of Marvellous Ways, the latest book,  is a heroine for generations of us who will live to be old and will refuse to lose our identity in old age. As writers we want our readers to be delighted by character and action, but we also want them to share a journey which has a meaning on a physical and allegorical level and to enjoy a character who has the strength to live on.

Marvellous Ways is an inspirational character; she is gutsy and sensitive; she never stops learning; she is a source of love and an enabler of others. She is a paragon for woman of all ages.

Culture first or is it all relative?

On his way to England where he has been banished, Hamlet encounters a captain who tells him that the Norwegian army is riding to fight the Poles. Hamlet asks about the conflict, and he is told that both sides will fight over “a little patch of land / That hath in it no profit but the name” (IV.iv.98–99).

Hamlet is moved that soldiers will be asked to fight a bloody war over something so insignificant. He marvels that humanity can be violent for so little gain, based on their relationship to the country in which they were born.

This leads me to consider wars and conflicts, and then to wonder whether it is ever right to adhere to cultural beliefs first – and put human rights second. I am inclined to think not. Let’s take a few more extreme examples: female genital mutilation (FGM); terrorism; child soldiers.

The following, about comments about FGM made by well-known feminist Germaine Greer – a writer many of whose other works and positions I have a lot of time for, is from this archived BBC article.

In her recent book, The Whole Woman, Ms Greer argued that attempts to outlaw the practice amounted to “an attack on cultural identity”, adding: “One man’s beautification is another man’s mutilation.”

She said that women should have the right to undergo genital mutilation as a form of “self-decoration” and posed the question: “If an Ohio punk has the right to have her genitalia operated on, why has not the Somali woman the same right?”

Ms Greer is suggesting that we Westerners should not involve ourselves in other cultures’ businesses. Are we not meddling by imposing our views and values on another cultural group whose practises stem from tradition?

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 13: Germaine Greer on stage during a media call at the NSW Teachers Federation Conference Centre on March 13, 2008 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Gaye Gerard/Getty Images)

For me, the answer lies in the well-being of girls themselves, as they are cut and stitched, often under their mother’s guidance, in the belief that it will make them more marriageable, and more acceptable to men. Often girls’ wounds become infected; often huge complications occur at childbirth or even before, in the marriage bed where male pleasure is paramount.

Patriarchal societies often, sometimes subtly and sometimes brutally, influence what women will do with their bodies. Their compliance is expected as members of their society and to refuse could render them outcasts. They may not even have the opportunity to be aware that another option outside the societal norm exists.

Patriarchal societies, whether in Somalia, Australia or the UK, need to be challenged where women’s human rights are threatened and where women themselves are treated as currency, as pawns, or as victims. Does anyone seriously believe that other cultures’ practices are more important than women’s rights and safety?

With reference to child soldiers, War Child, the charity for Children affected by war, tells us that:

  • There are an estimated 250,000 child soldiers in the world today.
  • It is estimated that 40% of all child soldiers are girls. They are often used as non-combatant ‘wives’ (sex slaves) of the male combatants.
  • Child soldiers are recruited by government forces as well as rebel groups.
KONY
Who remembers Kony 2012, the consciousness-raising viral video that promoted awareness about Joesph Kony, a War Lord and the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a paramilitary organisation based in Eastern Africa known to kidnap children for use as child soldiers.

Children may be recruited  by a state or non-state armed group. They are deployed as fighters, cooks, suicide bombers, human shields, messengers, spies, or for sexual purposes. It would be difficult for anyone to argue that the culture in which these children live has precedence over their right to be children.  Surely no one, regardless of their culture or heritage, has the right to make decisions which will endanger children’s lives and threaten their futures.

Another pertinent example is terrorism. Awareness about it is currently and constantly seeping its way into our collective consciousness but there are still people who excuse acts of terrorism, often coming close to suggesting that it is a cultural norm to express one’s views through violence. Their suggestion is that it is a natural reaction to racism or to Western foreign policy. The implication is that terrorists know no better than to commit atrocities and this somehow excuses their behaviour and gives them the right to take lives and threaten freedom.

Listen to George Galloway, an egregious example of this tendency, talking about 9/11. “Those aeroplanes on 9/11,” he says, “emerged out of a swamp of hatred, created by us.” Whatever your views are on the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq following 9/11, the idea that the West is responsible because we have somehow angered and provoked people to terrorism and we reap what we sow is to show great disrespect for all the innocent human lives lost in such attacks.

Unfortunately, this tendency is alive and well in some sections of left wing politics. The tweet below was sent by the Stop the War Coalition, a left wing anti-war umbrella group, before the bodies of the dead in Paris were even cold, and was deleted shortly after people complained that it was offensive and misguided.

STW

The problem with this mindset, anchored in cultural relativism, is that, at its core, it expects no better of certain people than to commit terror, or in the desire to blame Western foreign policy it unintentionally minimises the responsibility of the perpetrators of terror. You can no more hold responsible the authors of the Treaty of Versailles for the crimes of the Nazi regime than you can hold responsible Western foreign policy or provocative cartoonists for the crimes of those who spread terror in the name of Islam.

It is always wrong to blame all Muslims or Islam as a religion for atrocities committed in its name. It is also wrong to expect nothing better from Muslims (or any other group) than to justify their views and values through extreme and violent actions: the majority are peaceful and purposeful in their worship, and would never become involved in such acts.

Western society has not always covered itself in glory in terms of human rights: lengthy involvement in slavery, wars and imperialist rule cannot be airbrushed from our history, but change is possible if we do not accept that violence is the way to achieve progress. Tradition should not get in the way of human rights or an individual’s comfort or right to choose.

The story of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and the consequences to her and to Theo Van Gogh demonstrates what can happen when people dare to speak out. Ali’s courage and escape from oppression are contrasted sharply with the ensuing behaviour of those who believed themselves to have the right to make judgments about her choices.

TvGAHA

If we in other countries where we have better human rights cannot bring ourselves to stand up for other humans, are we not guilty of what some have aptly termed ‘the racism of low expectations’?

People from both left and right fall into this trap. Rightly and properly, the left recognises the brutality and the shameful history that we ought to associate with all kinds of old imperialism practised by Britain and many other European nations.

However, to view democracy, liberty or human rights as distinctly Western values being spread and imposed is to fail to grasp the fundamental tenet of any 21st Century liberalism worthy of the name: liberty, human rights and self-governance are universal values, so any lefty who makes excuses for governments beyond ‘the West’ that deny and abuse these rights are, in a way, the successors of the old imperialists. Hoarding human rights and democracy in the West would not only hinder global progress, but would also prevent individuals who are at the receiving end of abuse from having the opportunity to improve their lives and change their situations.

At the same time, people on the right too often see culture as immutable and fixed. Twinned with the conservative desire to cling on to many regressive and outdated aspects of our own culture is a pessimistic propensity to see what is regressive and outdated in other cultures as unchangeable.

I find it difficult to justify war even when it seems that there is no alternative, and I am against aggression. I also consider myself to be politically left-of-centre. But I am concerned about the safety of the individual and I believe every person should be protected from violence and oppression as a human right, whatever their society, culture or continent.

culture cartoon

I will leave the last comment to the brilliant Nick Cohen who, as ever, encapsulates the worst of these relativists in cleverly chosen words:

The apologias from some liberals are so comprehensive that they must also support radical Islam in their hearts. Far leftists have to head to the far right because there is simply nowhere else for them to go now that the revolutionary guerrillas and communist regimes of the twentieth century are history. A love of violence and hatred of their own societies – well merited or otherwise – leads them to conclude that any killer of Americans is better than none.

Hopkins’ poems: sprung rhythm and ‘unmanly grief’?

If I were to find myself in a position where I would write a thesis about someone who had a creative and intriguing life, a contender for my  research and attention would be the priest and  poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, (1844-1889). He had a fascinating and tragic time on earth: his life was short and his experiences harsh, but he wrote poems which are both visually and aurally beautiful. Given his stoical dedication to Catholicism after his conversion, when he was urged to suppress his creativity, it is incredible that he was able to achieve writing of such emotional depth and meaning.

Born to Anglican parents, Hopkins won a scholarship and he was subsequently educated at Oxford, at Balliol, where he studied classics. He took vows as a Jesuit priest in 1870, choosing the austere life of chastity, poverty  and obedience. On his deathbed, his last words are said to have been: ‘I am so happy, I am so happy. I loved my life.’

GAF Balliol Greg Smolonski
Balliol College, Oxford

Yet most of his poetry remained unpublished until after his death and, because of his dedication and faith, he tried to suppress his desire to describe the physical beauty of the natural world: a creative man, he also wrote music and sketched, but was committed to sacrifice any personal ambition, so he burned many of his his early works.

A Jesuit’s workload was heavy and he struggled with his hard life in Wales, the North of England and Dublin. His work as a parish priest was exhausting  and he  often felt that his prayers did not reach God and he suffered from bouts of deep depression. He struggled with ill health for years and his eyesight failed.

His lifestyle  and workload and his belief in an austere God  forced him to subdue any egotism which might occur as a result of his artistic creativity. He was lonely and unwell, struggling with the dilemma of  being a writer who glorified in nature but was not allowed to publish his poems. He spent his last years in Dublin where where he died of typhoid, aged 44.

Behind this private, constricted man who was not the most effective teacher or priest is the most incredible poetic genius, although his poetry lacked real acknowledgement in his lifetime. Influenced by the Welsh language, he used archaic (eg: sillion) and dialect words and devised a number of new ones (eg: twindled) and his use of hyphens, compound adjectives and alliteration combined to create the evocative ‘sprung rhythm’.

At 5 feet 2 inches tall, Hopkins did not see himself as a prepossessing man: it is a paradox that his sensuous religious poetry comes from his need to restrict and repress his feelings. One explanation of this may be to do with his relationship with Digby Dolben, four years his junior and the cousin of his Oxonian friend, later the Poet Laureate, Robert Bridges. Hopkins corresponded with Dolben and wrote poems about him, but then was told by his High Anglian Confessor to sever the contact.

GerardManleyHopkins

Dolben drowned in 1867 and Hopkins was deeply affected. His poems are marked by a powerful eroticism, which could be all the more poignant and tragic, given his suppressed desires. In his poetic writing, he fuses nature, religion and love, the imagery going beyond sublimation to encompass yearning and to show his stifled appetite: many writers have interpreted his works as an exegesis for his homosexual love. His poetry can be identified for its striking language and his extensive use of onomatopoeia, alliteration, assonance and also rhyme, which appears both internally and at the end of lines. His spondaic meter and visual language communicate his joy and longing, his delight in the beauty of nature and his fear of its powers, controlled by a changeable, magnificent God.

Some of his most famous poems include God’s Grandeur and Pied Beauty, which glorify the wonders of divine creation but also show him determined to escape the constraints of conventional metre and running rhythm. The Wreck of the Deutschland  is an ode in stanza form, dedicated to the nuns who died in the storm, but it is also a lyrical theodicy, attempting to justify the cruel ways of God to mankind.

His language expresses his adoration and his incredulity of God’s powers but Hopkins has a clear dilemma with the works of a ruthless God and his personal  strivings for submissiveness and resignation, and his feelings of abandonment , found in lines such as :

‘and dost thou touch me afresh? Over again I feel thy finger and find thee.’

The male figure of Christ enabled him to express his glorification of God but also to demonstrate a human passion for physical beauty and erotic love.

He wrote the sonnet, The Windhover, in 1877. It can be read on several levels and it is certainly a beautiful piece of writing by the genius Hopkins, whether he is talking about his passion  for God, for nature, or for man.

To Christ our Lord
I caught this morning morning’s minion, kingdom
of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in
his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl
and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing! Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier! No wonder of it: shèer plòd makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold vermilion.

Vegans. Are they the paragon of animals or have they lost all their mirth?

I am Judy, and I am a vegan.

I try to keep it quiet, except in restaurants. Over the years I have developed the skill of asking for something I can eat, latterly even expecting it. I have had well over 20 years of practice.

I am not a quiet vegan in my blogging, however. I blog recipes and occasionally restaurant reviews, although I tend to only comment on the good ones. I am a member of several vegan FaceBook groups and I use this channel to highlight my blog posts and put up pictures of  my scrumptious food. I never understood why vegans were such a loathed bunch until I encountered these groups. I’m not referring to the delightful recipe sharing facebook pages like ‘Vegan Friends’ and ‘Vegans Who Don’t Argue’. Lovely people!

If someone shares one meal with me, they are vegan for that period of time.

No, the nasties lurk in nefarious corridors, waiting for any opportunity to spit venom at those omnivores, their hated enemies. I shuddered at the comment which was posted when the World Health Organisation revealed a few weeks ago that some meats are carcinogenic, and in the same bracket in that regard as cigarette smoke or asbestos. One of the somewhat less empathetic vegans in one of the more belligerent groups posted ‘Karma’, a bisyllabic reaction akin to the Sun’s vituperate ‘Gotcha’ after the sinking of the Belgrano.

Equally nauseous are posts along such lines as: ‘I can’t find a boyfriend because I could never kiss a carnivore.’ Even worse are the egocentric one-up-person-ship rants which vie for being the best vegan in town. ‘Oh, I never cook with coconut oil. I find hemp is so much better in my vegan batters.’ I very quickly leave groups like this and share my blog with nicer people. But it is no wonder the world is wary of such vegans.

My own philosophy is that people can make decisions for themselves. I am happy with my own choice and I am comfortable with the balanced food I make and the small contribution I offer to the environment and to animal welfare. But it isn’t my place to make omnivores swallow my ethics, although I am always happy for them to eat my food and make a point of inviting them round. I even kiss some of them.

vegan-or-not
The question…

If someone shares one meal with me, they are vegan for that period of time; even better, they are nourished and happy, and we can dispense with foodist labels. I will share my philosophy about why I am a vegan only when asked to do so. Often I will ask in reply: ‘Tell me why you eat meat.’ The answer  is normally because that person always has – it is how they were brought up. It is the norm. Why change?

My site, veganbaconbites.com is about sharing love food, sharing healthy ingredients and not sharing negative judgements. We vegans may be helping the world and its animals even if we eat tasteless rubbish in a sanctimonious and belligerent fashion. But there is a better way. Why would we love animals and hate fellow humans based on what they have for dinner? Why would we settle for gritty, grey gunk? Rather, let’s share delicious food and celebrate each mouthful together.

And while I am on that point, I often hear people say ‘I could do without meat but I love cheese and could never give it up.’ I really do sympathise: you can’t deep fry or oven bake the wad of rubbery blandness which defines some vegan cheeses and make it taste like camembert.  You can’t spread or melt or make tasty, piquant sauces from the chunky, lumpy plastic that constitutes some of the vegan cheese you can buy. French people I know have laughed at the notion of vegan cheese substitutes, however noble they are and however adequately they work in quiches and frittatas.

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My delicious vegan brie

But watch this space. I have discovered how to make rejuvelac, and from this acrid-cat’s-pee-fermented-quinoa-water-monstrosity will come the most delicious vegan cheeses, which I will readily share over on my recipe blog.

Keep a space on your plate. We are lucky to have food, to have a say over what we eat. Whether you are vegan or not, we can share the food and love.

In anticipation of Stevie’s return

Steven Gerrard is something of a Hamlet figure to me: he possesses the Danish prince’s  intelligence and wit, albeit in his feet. He has a fatal flaw – he will never achieve his full potential: remember the slip at Chelsea. He is a hero figure: the night in Istanbul and the dynamism of his leadership will never be forgotten by fans.

He is tragic: his personal loss at Hillsborough embodies so many fans’ feelings of the injustice, which will never be forgotten. Now he has left the team he loved so well, and the fans who loved him, will the rest be silence? I hope not.

Jurgen Klopp has said that Gerrard will not return as a player. But Stevie G ‘s exit from Anfield and his journey to LA Galaxy is a little like Hamlet’s exile to England. We believe he will be back and picking over the bones of past defeats and he will look to lead the challenge for accolades, a foil in his hand, at whatever price.

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I have seen Gerrard in action. He is a playmaker, an inspiration, he can rally troops and  demand that others give their very best , as he demands of himself at all times. He plays with passion, which many may perceive as a weakness, but it makes for dynamic and heroic football on the field.

Camus said football was like theatre and Gerrard is our own tragic prince. Fans will recall his post-match huddle after the win against Manchester City, that season we so nearly won the title, in which his rhetoric was spot on. They will recall the time he stamped on Manchester United midfielder Ander Herrera and was given a red card and how he regretted that his desperation to urge the team forward had resulted in a madness akin to Hamlet’s own blasted ecstasy. Gerrard is Liverpool’s own legend. ‘In action how like an Angel! in apprehension how like a god!’

Gerrard certainly has a place in fans’ hearts. These fans will demand that he will have a place at Anfield and he will play a pivotal role in the club’s future and the club’s striving for success. Whether this role is as a player, a coach, an ambassador, a manager, only time will tell. As Hamlet suggests to Horatio, it will happen, but we do not know when.

We can be certain, however, that he has a major role to play in the future of the club. Maybe our success is inextricably linked to the return of the talisman. We await it eagerly. ‘If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all.’

Review: Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet

Although audiences looking for a more faithful adaptation, without additions or subtractions, may feel Lyndsey Turner’s Hamlet isn’t complete or fulfilling, there are plenty of reasons why this Cumberbatch Hamlet hits the mark.

Benedict Cumberbatch himself is a likeable, accessible Hamlet, his madness arising from his grief. This is entirely clear, easily marked out from the moment he stands upon the dinner table and proclaims ‘O, that this too, too solid flesh would melt.’ At this point, the rest of the cast are obscured, slow motion shadows. We are enabled to focus on Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Hamlet’s inner thoughts, and provide some window into his isolation and his intentions.

Not only is he plausible, but Cumberbatch’s Hamlet is admirable. Unlike other Hamlets, he is not a misogynist in the way that Ken Branagh and Rory Kinnear have portrayed him; nor is he an egotist, like David Tennant’s or Jude Law’s Hamlets.

The brutal edit may be deemed inappropriate by purists, but it was imaginative and inspired, allowing the play to flow quickly, revealing exactly what the director and actor intended their characters to show without the archaic nuances of  17th century cultural mores.

Lyndsey Turner is unafraid of cutting lines that contradict the portrayal she intends in order to support the modern expectations of her audience. Ophelia does not sing songs about any sexual relationship she has had with Hamlet, ‘Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s day ‘ not making the cut at all. Instead she sings a plaintive song, accompanying herself on the piano, seeming to only half-recognise Laertes as she does so. Her wasted wit is embodied by what looked like a patch of hair that had been ripped out, a semiotic with a little more indication of violent madness than the typical, predictable ripped dress.

Cumberbatch’s Hamlet is caring towards Ophelia. Her descent into madness is not catalysed by sexual rejection, but her own sensitive nature combined with the tragedy of her father’s violent death. Siân Brooke’s Ophelia’s delicacy is cleverly sign-posted: from very early, she exhibits tentative idiosyncratic gestures, which grow into the aching embodiment of mental breakdown following Polonius’ death.

“To be or not to be” was not misplaced at the beginning, as it had been earlier in the run, but the script around it was still subject to some major edits. It followed the scene where Hamlet teases Polonius: again, there was no malice, unlike Tennant or Kinnear who used their antic disposition to plague ‘these tedious old fools.’ Instead, clad in soldier uniform, Cumberbatch showed Hamlet’s failure to be the son his father wanted, and the depth of the misery this caused him. A brief banter with Polonius was followed by the famous soliloquy, showing the impact of his self loathing. Cumberbatch’s performance here was faultless, revealing Hamlet’s hamartia and his weakness to an audience sympathetic to his tears.

This Hamlet’s relationship with his mother (Anastasia Hille) is one of the most tender I have encountered. The rapport between them ably demonstrates Hamlet’s genuine affection for his mother as well as the scorn he feels about her “o’er hasty marriage” to his uncle. Both actors showed the difficulty of this dilemma. Their scene together in Gertrude’s chamber, often and easily overshadowed by more obvious dramatic moments of Hamlet’s killing of Polonius or the reappearance of the ghost of King Hamlet to “whet [his son’s] nearly blunted purpose,” was characterised by the symbiosis and evident understanding between Hamlet and his mother.

Ciarán Hinds’ Claudius was immediately redolent of a Pacino-esque patriarch (there being something in his voice and his bearing that certainly put me in mind of Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate, albeit with Hinds’ Claudius exhibiting more vulnerability and guilt), and there was something in his just slightly hammy portrayal of a controlling, calculating monarch which communicated the precariousness of his hold over his court. There was nothing one-dimensional, however, about Hinds’ Claudius. He carried much of that period in the early second half of the play from which Hamlet’s personality and development are absent. And there is a hint of contrition when he soliloquises his confession. He is an unsalvageable, twisted Claudius, but no pantomime villain.

Minor roles include shining performances by various individuals, including a loyal, supportive Horatio, devoid of the subservience from which insipid characterisations  so often suffer.

Even Rosencrantz was likeable, with his affable humour. The gravedigger’s chipper, cockney philosopher did not jar with the mood of rest of the play. The ending was swift. I recall Simon Russell-Beale taking nine minutes to die, but Cumberbatch’s exit was marked from the moment he realised he had been poisoned, and his credibility was better and more poignant for his quick end.

The play was not without imperfections and oddities: we saw Hamlet being playful with Ophelia in a scene change before she rushed to Polonius and told him she had ‘been so afrighted’, a moment which jarred with implausibility.

There were few of the gimmicks we are used to in modern Shakespeare interpretations, but the play did not suffer, as Turner’s directional ideas were fresh and Cumberbatch’s Hamlet honest and heroic, despite his tragic flaws of procrastination and hypersensitivity. We did not need Ophelia present and laid out downstage throughout the second half, an ingenious diretor’s addition to the Kinnear play; we did not need the t-shirt of bones Tennant wore to depict his closeness with the afterlife. Cumberbatch’s performance reminded us all the time of his aching solitude and his grief.

This is an unabashedly clever Hamlet, an intellectual, such that something is made of his mother’s plea that he ‘return… not to Wittenberg.’ But because Cumberbatch did not, as many previous Hamlet’s have done, cram the prince with arrogant egotism, the intelligence of his character was allowed to shine through as an entirely positive character trait, a rare – if not unique – feat among Hamlets I have seen.

He was a Hamlet to be admired; he evoked pathos and empathy and there was no badness in him, as any lines where we might lose sympathy had been cleverly cut. This Hamlet was indeed a ‘sweet prince’, and his energy and passion embodied and empowered a very impactful production.

On writing my novel: ‘Older, Wiser, Wilder.’

My novel, Older, Wiser, Wilder is up to 57,000 words. My protagonist, Evelyn, is at a point where she has a life changing decision to make about what she will do in France. Her son, Brendan, is still trying to track her down but he has been temporarily held up; his wife, Maura, is not speaking to him and things look bad.

There has been binge drinking, bed-hopping and karaoke – not bad for a septuagenarian protagonist.

I find it is easy to write daily: what I write sometimes makes me laugh out loud and I have a valued group of readers who regularly check that it does the same for them. My critics span all personality types, genders, ages, many backgrounds and cultures and this is an incredibly useful way of gauging whether a reader will be interested and immersed.

Reading good books is a must for me. I know some writers say that plagiarism will loom if you read others’ stuff while you are writing but I believe the inspiration of reading well written prose is well worth taking time out.

Write while it rains and have fun while the sun shines is also a great way of working. It follows that you can write lots in any season unless you live somewhere hot.

Write or don’t write, guilt free. It is important not to spend the time you don’t write feeling bad that you aren’t at the computer. Time out is always good time. It is thinking time and inspiration time. Time well spent. And if it takes you on a walk, or to a friend’s or down the pub, well, that’s fine.

Writing from passion and love is also vital. I have sympathy for all my characters, even the ones you might not like much at some point in the novel; they all have their own perspective and they all have their own worth. Plus it makes for an interesting bubble in the novel cauldron.

I am not giving any more away for now: however, the novel is packed with humour, mischief and mayhem. More to follow in this genre-bending tale of travel, romance and bad behaviour.