The joys of research for a writer- and the scrapes…

As writers, we are often told that we should write about what we know. That much is true – we write about people, places, relationships and the vagaries of the human condition. So much of what we write is based on what we know already. But sometimes our writing ventures into places and areas we know nothing about. I don’t know everything. Sometimes I think I don’t know much at all.

Knowledge comes to us in many ways and one way to understand the world is through experience. So if I need to find out about a place I know nothing about, I pack up the camper van and go there. Research has its positives, and travelling is a huge opportunity. I’ve been to various locations in the UK and Europe to find out how it feels to be in such-and-such a place, as well as to understand the geography. Currently in the early planning stages, one of my future novels involves a road trip in the US, so I’m saving up for that, but it’s not cheap so it won’t happen this year – possibly next. Of course, when everything else fails in terms of actual physical research, there’s always the internet.

As a student years ago, the first time round, libraries were the places where much of my research happened: I spent hours leafing through books, files, documents, letters, trying to find the information I needed. There was also empirical research – direct or indirect experience or observation. But in those days, there wasn’t the immediacy of going on Google and having so many choices thrown up in seconds, which I discovered was a great benefit in recent years and during my master’s. The internet is a writer’s dream and I’m grateful for it every day.

However there is one drawback. I’m sure all writers will tell you this: we become victims of algorithms. It’s hilarious. When I was writing A Grand Old Time, I wanted to find out how much Evie would pay for a second-hand campervan in France. So I researched it on the internet. For the next month, I was inundated with spam emails asking: Are you hoping to buy a campervan, Judy? Look no further.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, I wanted to write about an older woman who tried to find love on a dating site. So, having no experience of dating sites except for the sound advice of my twenty-something-year-old son, I delved into the internet to find out exactly how it happens. It was really successful research – I found loads of information. I sifted through it all with a smile on my face and sent my character on an internet date or two with fascinating results. I loved writing those scenes. Then I received excessive amounts of spam about internet dating sites and did I need to find love now that I was over forty? I was even offered a Russian bride, a suggestion that was received with much humour from my partner Big G who, it has to be said, is tolerant beyond belief.

This brings us to the drag club scene I was writing this week. I’ve never been to a drag club, although I’d love to, and I think it’s the least I can do to make my research as authentic as possible. But, for the time being, pre-editing, I did the research on the internet and found out pretty much what I needed to know to write the scene. But then the emails that came into my spam box this morning… No, no, I’ll leave it to your imagination.

There’s a novel to be had from all this: a writer is researching the internet perfectly innocently for a new book, but the trail left by the algorithms points to… dah, dah, daaahhh!!!

I’ll give that one some thought. Meanwhile, I’ll keep up the researching – it makes me laugh every day and it’s great to be writing with a big smile on my face.

 

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In praise of audiobooks

Today is world book day and I’d like to bring up the topic of audiobooks. Life is a learning journey and it is good to have the opportunity to reconsider and sometimes even change our views. I’ve always loved reading – I’m usually stuck to the pages of a book, often multi-tasking, reading while I eat, cook, hoover, travel – anything that doesn’t require an active mind or great dexterity is better with a book on the go, clutched in my hands, my eyes not on the task. However, I’d never really thought about audio books as a choice. Then an artist friend of mine told me she was into audio books in a big way while she worked. A light came on almost immediately. Of course – it is so much easier to do those tasks that have to be done when you are listening to a book. I’d never really thought about audio books before but oh, what a joy they are.

Then another flood of realisation rushed in. Think of all those kids at school, the ones who didn’t like books, those who are dyslexic, those with concentration problems, the ones who’d been switched off reading at an early age, being able to enjoy a good story. And people who don’t see well enough to read print  – how important it is that they can access a library of books through their ears.

As children we love to be read to. We read to our own kids. It often helps us to access sleep – not because a book is boring but because a voice is soothing and safe and we are transported on the wings of our imagination. How nice to go to sleep listening to a story being read to us!

Then A Grand Old Time came out, as a novel and as an audio book, read beautifully by Aoife McMahon. She narrated the story with warmth and humour, bringing out the character of Evie Gallagher perfectly. I was so impressed. And in a review, someone wrote that she’d enjoyed the audio book so much; that the narration was so skilful and Evie’s occasional expletive wasn’t offensive at all, because the voice of the reader was Irish and it sounded so beautiful. That made me smile.

When The Age of Misadventure came out, I listened to Julie Maisey read the audio. I was blown away by her skills, as I was with Aoife McMahon’s. Julie Maisey had a Liverpool accent, not intrusive (although I adore the full-on Scouse voice) but with studied accessibility to all people, including those who might find accents difficult. The characters, action, settings were so well evoked by an actor who, apparently, is asked to achieve the whole thing in virtually one take. What impressive skills these actors have and, to the best of my knowledge, they are rarely known for their performances unless they are a big name.

So here’s my chance: thank you, Aoife and Julie and all the brilliant unsung stars out there that bring a book to life and send it singing into the earplugs of all of us. We who listen to audio books in the gym while pounding the treadmill, while walking coastal paths, while doing mundane domestic tasks and while driving or relaxing in a comfy arm chair with our eyes closed or while imagining the most exciting places and people with our heads on pillows, are truly grateful.

I have realised what a treasure an audio book is. I’m now aware of the skills and thought that go towards producing audio books. Audio books are the ears’ equivalent of block buster films, voices creating powerful visual images, and they are so impactful for so many people, including me now. So thank you, to all those involved in audio books. You are rock and roll. I am looking forward to my next sortie with the hoover, my next thirty mile bike ride in the gym, my next sleepless night when I can wake and in an instant be taken to a thrilling place by a warm and accessible voice.

Of course it’s a personal choice and I will always choose to hold a book, turn the pages, and stare at the words on the page in my own time. But audio books are now important too – they are right up there with all the fiction and non-fiction in my library.

 

 

 

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What I learned about writing a novel from the TV detective series Luther

As a writer, I try to learn about the craft of writing a novel from every source I can. The obvious source is reading and I try to read all the time. Each day I’m perched on my exercise bike for an hour, devouring anything I can get my hands on, and even if I have no more time for reading that day, at least I’m getting in the literary and physical miles at the same time. My favourite novel last year without a doubt was Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, the retelling of the Antigone story. Shamsie is a writer who clearly knows how to craft a clever story.

But I am on a mission to learn and to improve my writing all the time, and that means seeking out all other means of refining my skills. And this brings me to the fifth series of Luther on TV, written brilliantly by Neil Cross. Now it has to be said that Luther is a terrifying programme. That shouldn’t be a problem for me: I was brought up with scary films and books. My mum loved everything from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Agatha Christie. She loved the thrill of danger. It was escapism. (It has to be said at this point that my dad did not read, nor could he shift his stance from a stubborn belief in only that which he could see and touch at any moment of time, the real, the mundane.)

But since the screening of the Luther episode of the killer in the street wearing the luminous mask, I won’t to go out in the dark to put out the bins. Neil Cross deliberately targets our potential to be afraid and he unleashes the power that lies in our dread and anxiety about the unknown. He said ‘So all of the bad guys are avatars of my fears and anxieties, and once I have isolated that fear – the guy under the be- that’s a shared anxiety with so many of us – once I’ve got that initial spark of anxiety, then I begin to think about the character that could exemplify it… Who is he? Why is he doing what he is doing? What does he want? But that ultimately comes second to the scary stuff. You start with the fear and work backwards.’

Character is always important. Idris Elba’s John Luther is a sex symbol of our time, but more importantly he’s a maverick, a flawed genius who steps outside the rules, a man of the law who sails close to the wind, breaking convention. Other characters shine. Ruth Wilson’s Alice Morgan is brilliantly contrived – a ruthless unpredictable psychopath who turns up unexpectedly and behaves outrageously.

William Faulkner said ‘In writing, you must kill your darlings’ and Cross does exactly that in Luther. Justin Ripley’s death shocked us all, as if we thought someone so loyal, so important and good-natured was exempt from being murdered, and when he was not, we were stunned and we mourned. And then came the demise of Benny, the tech expert – another martyr. Neil Cross underpins my belief that the reader should be surprised by what happens next – no character is safe, no eventuality should be predictable. And the importance of complex likeable central characters with the potential to amaze but who bring empathy and warmth and human vulnerability is not to be overlooked.

An impactful setting is something we all strive to create in our writing. Luther is firstly a visual medium, but it works on the same principle as writing. Whether it is from a camera angle or the written word, whether we are following a victim onto a bus or watching someone take off their shoes from a killer’s viewpoint under the bed, setting can create emotional impact and needs careful consideration. Cross’ work prompts me to ask myself if I can make the setting more powerful, more relevant or can I find an alternative setting that is more surprising and unexpected.

Neil Cross excels at twists and turns in storylines and having several threads unravelling at the same time. He leaves vital questions unanswered, which draws the viewer in, and he misleads us deliberately to add to the surprise at the moment of anagnorisis. My background in both theatre and writing tells me how vital it is to suspend disbelief, to keep the interest of the audience strong but to draw them out of the comfort zone and keep them guessing. In series 5 of Luther, we wonder what will happen to George Cornelius’ kidnapped son, but we don’t expect what Alice does or when and how she’ll do it. We are interested in how new DS Catherine Halliday will fare working with Luther – the signs are mixed, a tentative novice but with a cool head. It could go horribly wrong. And DSU Martin Schenk is on to Luther – he now has real evidence of his dangerous liaison with Alice.

Then there are the murderers – Vivien Lake and her evil, strange husband, Jeremy: the luminous horror mask, the needles, the eyeballs, and that incredible moment where the patient was talked through her impending heart operation by the psychopath doctor and he slipped the shocking phrase ‘diseased whore’ into the professional dialogue, much to the patient’s – and our- revulsion and incredulity. Cross is offering a master class on suspension of disbelief, terrifying the audience, misleading them and keeping them guessing, interweaving threads of characters’ action and contrasting story lines in an intricate way so that the outcome will never be clear until the shocking moments of catharsis.

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Photo by Stephan Müller on Pexels.com

I got into Luther late, and scared myself silly by watching all the earlier series in a week. Series five is no exception – it’s horrific, brilliantly contrived, the stories unfolding expertly. Most importantly Neil Cross, like any good writer, knows how to channel and manipulate his audience’s emotions, how to create the dynamic interplay between fear and hope, relief and shock, admiration and sadness and dread. He knows how to pull us in to the plot and keep us there, how to make us take sides and invest in the characters, how to force us to feel sympathy, empathy, antipathy and to steel ourselves against a huge barrage of horror. And he knows how to keep it coming.

There is a lot to be learned about writing a novel from a television series, and in particular, from Neil Cross’ Luther. Series five was excellent, and although the action is often about male killers and female victims, I still focused on the belief that the horror was real and spent a lot of it watching through the gaps in my interwoven fingers. But, like every great novel, it leaves me sad when it’s over and waiting for more, although I’ve no idea what the next series might hold. But I’m looking forward to the superb storytelling and how it can help me to refine my own writing.

Pausing to think about The Stopping Places

I read Damian Le Bas’ book The Stopping Places in two days.

It’s the sort of book that should be available everywhere, on all shop bookshelves, in libraries, schools and universities, and widely read. It offers a first-hand account about the Romani people, the culture and their experiences in society, in history and in the community.

It touches on something I’m always concerned about, that there are so few books written by Romani writers which depict real Romani people, as opposed to the romanticised or demonised stereotypes so often used in novels and folk-lore.

Moreover, there are so few realistic books about Roma issues and lives available to children in schools and to older readers, so books like The Stopping Places enable Roma readers find themselves represented in literature and non-Roma readers are able to broaden their understanding.

Damian Le Bas writes beautifully, with clarity and warmth. He is also able to bring the situations in which he finds himself and his emotions to life: much of what he writes resonated with me. In particular, his experiences at school, the conflicting attitudes of his family and those outside his family, and his sense of difference being something he should keep quiet about.

I enjoyed reading about his mother and father, and his Nan in particular reminded me of my own Nanny: her sayings, her cooking, her positive attitude to life and the present.

By tracing the old stopping places, the atchin tan of travelling communities, Le Bas is looking to find out more about himself, his heritage and his identity. I empathised with his desire to discover; I shared his quest for knowledge and followed the journey in his van through the South East to the South West and then upwards, to North Wales and Scotland, with interest.

I was fascinated by the people he met: those who welcomed him, who challenged him and those who would rather stay separate. His experiences at Halden Hill in Devon and at Appleby Fair did not surprise me.

I am familiar with the suspicion which follows travelling communities. Le Bas writes without comment or judgement, but not without emotion. We understand his reactions to moments of intimidation and we rejoice in the recognition and affirmation he receives from kindred spirits on his journey.

The description of Romani values, customs and language struck a chord with me. Le Bas tells it as it is, with warmth and affection, and he evokes a community where allegiance and tradtions run deep, where the struggle for survival has been paramount amidst prevailing suspicion, mistrust and misunderstanding for centuries.

There are no answers; he is not seeking to justify or explain: his book is a journey of his own, a way of understanding his past and present.  For me, there is one clear resolution which jumps from his book, and that is the importance of education. Erudite and articulate, Le Bas demonstrates the power of the written word, the impact of experiences shared, the need for research and understanding, the joy of empathy and ongoing discovery.

The Stopping Places is a book which is long overdue; it has taken too long for such a celebration of identity to reach the public. It should be read widely. It has its place on my shelf, in between Ian Hancock’s The Pariah Syndrome and Cecelia Woloch’s Tsigan. It is an important book, and one which can only open doors to more of the same writing.

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My top ten to bring us in from the January cold

January isn’t most people’s favourite month. I’ve heard a lot of people complaining about it. It’s cold. Christmas has gone and won’t be back for a long time so it seems like there’s nothing to celebrate. It hasn’t snowed. It probably won’t. A holiday to somewhere warm would be nice but….

So, with a brief nod to a lovely woman I worked with once, who said I was ‘horribly positive,’ here’s my top ten of things to warm the heart this January. In no particular order other than random selection …

  • VEGANUARY. So many people are trying a plant- based diet this January and 61% of them, according to statistics, will still be vegan by December. The Bosh! Cookbook will be out soon and, having followed their blog for years, I know there will be some sumptuous recipes to make everyone happy, whether they are looking for a Christmas dinner, a delicious burger or a chocolate cake.
  • BOOKS. There are so many good books to read. Mary Beard. Sarah Winman. Patrick Gale. This is just my January reading list. On the exercise bike, it’s amazing how many chapters I can whizz through in an hour. I’m so lucky to have good books to read.

  • FOOTBALL. After Liverpool’s monumental win over Manchester City last week, (a team I admire for their attacking football and excellent players such as De Bruyne,) the future for the Reds looks good, especially if we can sort out the goalkeeper conundrum. Plus we have signed Virgil Van Dijk, and the Fab Four (Salah, Mane, Firmino, Ox) continue to amaze. Football is theatre, a performance in two halves. Which brings me to the next one on my list.
  • THEATRE. Last year ended on a high, seeing Josie Lawrence in Mother Courage. This year promises to be brilliant too. Hamlet is on in Plymouth next month and it will be really good. I must sort out tickets and then I’ll look forward to it throughout January.
  • MUSIC. I’m enjoying Spotify while I work at the computer and my current writing backing track is Humble Pie. I love Steve Marriott’s voice and the stomping rhythm makes sure my writing is pacy. Check this one. I know it’s from way back in 1973 but who cares if it’s this good…
  • WORK.  My book cover is out. My novel follows soon and I am so excited. I’ve had a wonderful review and such kind words and real enthusiasm blow me away. It’s a joy to work with people who aren’t just incredible professionals, but truly lovely. We are blessed if we find ourselves alongside people we trust, who are supportive, efficient and completely totally nice. Kiran, Rachel, Sabah, the Avon Team – they know who they are.

  • NATURE AND TRAVEL Whatever the season, whatever the weather, being outside, travelling, going somewhere the wind blows the salt of the sea in your face, or somewhere there is nothing but silence and a deer peering behind a tree, or somewhere you have to try a new language and rethink your own lifestyle, or somewhere you can be lost in bustle and noise and culture. It’s good for the soul.
  • ANIMALS (CATS). Last year, my best cat, Pushkin, was knocked down on a lane where three cars pass daily. She was so unlucky and of course, I said, as we all do, ‘No, I won’t get another cat. Ever.’ My daughter persuaded me to adopt Monty and Murphy, two mad clowns who had been feral and will now scrounge hummus on toast. Colin is just starting to tolerate them. They are lovely and cats make such great company. I love the way they slap their bottoms full-on the keyboard when I’m editing and give me six pages of dzzsmk..rrrtlgggggggggggg

  •  FRIENDS. My friends are scattered everywhere from the North to the South. I don’t always see them all as often as I’d like. I know we have email, messenger, Facebook, Skype, Twitter, phones. When we do meet up it’s rock and roll. I have happy friends, mad friends, friends who need a hug, who give hugs. I have funny friends, talented friends, kind friends. Where would life be without friendship? I love you all.
  • FAMILY. Family is at the centre of everything I think and do. Without them, it would all mean so much less. They are my backbone. They are my smile when I wake up each morning.

You don’t choose your family. They are God’s gift to you, as you are to them. Desmond Tutu 
I’ll tell you what I’m grateful for, and that’s the clarity of understanding that the most important things in life are health, family and friends, and the time to spend on them. Kenneth Branagh.

A book in the hand…

There are some things which are improved by time.We don’t have to sideline everything old in favour of something new. When they are left to develop, whether it is an idea, a favourite jumper or a bottle of brandy, some things just keep on improving. The same can be said of a book. Holding a pristine book, unread, unexplored, is a thrilling feeling: no blemish of a fingerprint, the endless possibilities of a good read jumping from each page. But think of the deep fulfilment of finding an old book, knowing its crumpled cover has been turned over by many hands, its pages bruised and thumbed and avidly read.

Second hand book shops smell of dust and warmth and love: the books hold the scent of every person who has touched a page and there is promise of so much magic. As you move around the shelves and sift out a book, sliding the title towards you with interest, there is a secret shared between the binding.

I picked up some ancient books on a market stall this week. A coverless copy of Victor Hugo, with stained pages, the past leaping out, letters black against the grey. The book lay in my palm like a prayer, and then the bookseller held out another book by Alphonse de Lamartine: maroon cover wrinkled, dry as an old fig, the gold letters of Poésie almost worn away.

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I continued to search, touching each book lightly with my fingers and found Tout Compte Fait and Réflexions sur la question juive, by Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus, side by side as they probably are now at the Cimetière du Montparnasse.

The books cost me five euros altogether. That’s currently just over four pounds; a pound each and a few pennies for each piece of genius.

Last week someone recommended to me that I read a novel called The Butcher’s Hook. It was brand new and cost me £6.99 and I will give it away to anyone who wants it for free. I read the first hundred pages.

Alphonse de Lamartine and Victor Hugo, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus may be old, battered books, creased and coverless, but they hold a special place in my heart. And now they are on my bookshelves.

Sublime Shakespeare: ‘Tis Beauty Truly Blent

‘… we will draw the curtain and show you the picture.’

I loved Shakespeare when I was at school, despite my English teachers. They were not the enthusiastic pedagogues of today, striving to make the bard accessible because every child mattered. My teachers were dry pecking birds who wanted to perpetuate a class system in which the Felicities and Florences were urged towards Oxbridge and the threadbare uniformed eleven plus-passing paupers like me were relegated to the back row of low expectations. I knew I would achieve an A grade at A level in English. When I mentioned going to Liverpool to study my degree, the headteacher wrinkled her rhinoceros nose at me and said ‘Eww, that is so towny!’

I paid her about as much attention as I ever did and never looked back once I’d left.

But I loved the Literature classes, even though Abigail and Arabella got to read all the best parts round the class and I had the occasional comic role because I could do accents.

In year eight we ‘did’ ‘Twelfth Night’. I struggled a bit with the concept of Shakespeare’s comedies at that point. We were told that some plays were classed as comedies, but I didn’t understand why some of them  were funny, and no-one explained it to me. In ‘A  Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ we were meant to laugh at Bottom’s working class plight and his subsequent humiliation. In ‘The Shrew,’ we were meant to find Kate’s subjugation funny. And I never knew, as a kid, what was  so hilarious about the antisemitic abuse and exploitation of Shylock in ‘The Merchant of Venice.’

It was the 20th century, not the 17th, and I was clear why Sir Toby was fairly funny and Sir Andrew was a figure of parody, and I understood that it was hilarious that Maria and her boys took the poke out of Malvolio because he deserved it for being priggish. I was a bit uncomfortable with that, though. The idle rich and drunk laughing at others and marrying the maid because she showed her superior wit by ridiculing someone a bit weak with probable low self-esteem. Wasn’t that bullying, I wondered? And as a thirteen year old, I had no idea why it was funny to dress up as a boy and cause a rich egotistical heiress to pursue you.

Then much later I saw Mark Rylance as Olivia.

‘Twelfth Night’, at The Globe in 2013, was an all-male cast, much as it would have been almost 400 years ago, in Jacobean costume, with traditional music and instruments.

Rylance as Olivia brought everything into sharp focus: with his tiny steps, which gave the impression of gliding daintily across the stage, and his falsetto-high voice, his performance was not a parody or a grotesque, but a radical and witty interpretation which cleverly makes the traditional also sharply contemporary. Olivia was not played for her superficial beauty, but for her keen wit and her ability to run her own household powerfully and with insight. And when she sees Cesario, Viola’s male character in disguise, looking very similar to Boy George in his days of ‘Karma Chameleon’, she decides she must have him.

All performances were incredibly impactful and strong. The cast were a collaborative team, but Rylance has such a superb sense of timing and diction and how to use Shakespeare’s language to wring out the most meaning for the audience. The moment Cesario and twin Sebastian appear on the stage together for the first time , Olivia exclaims ‘Most wonderful!’ A fresh interpretation from the one which implied a miracle: we as the audience know she is goggle-eyed, considering the prospect of a ménage a trois and we oblige with spontaneous laughter.

Olivia is in charge but her attraction to Cesario is a sucker punch to her omnipotence, and it is this new found frailty and dependence which swings from cool mistress to besotted girl which inspires the humour. We find ourselves, like the groundlings of the 1600s, laughing raucously at the innuendo jokes which would never be noticeable in a straight performance done entirely for the type of middle class audiences who laugh politely in the right places. Yet Rylance remains credible, a dilemma of delicate femininity and a woman who rules her own world. It is fun and frivolous, but never a pantomime.

The scene between Orsino and Viola/Cesario annoyed me when I was in year 8, when Orsino says such lines as:

There is no woman’s sides
Can bide the beating of so strong a passion
As love doth give my heart; no woman’s heart
So big, to hold so much. They lack retention.

But this scene was tenderly homoerotic. Orsino is not the priggish macho aristocrat here: we realise that his words are currently mistaken as Viola gazes at him through the eyes of Cesario, but we forgive him, because she does, and also because the rapport between the characters promises such passion and hope for change. This too is why the scene is humorous but also full of tension and romance. It’s perfectly positioned to pave the way for the action and confusion which follows.

While Stephen Fry as Malvolio and his rowdy tormentors create the slapstick which the groundlings would have revelled in, Rylance and the actors play out the love triangle and confusion of identity with  intelligent comedy, wit and farce, a great homage to how Shakespeare should be done. I just felt really happy to be in the audience: no numb bum moments, which can be the case with some productions – we were truly transported and delighted throughout. If I didn’t understand Shakespeare’s comedies before, this production made every opportunity crystal clear.

I also saw Rylance as Richard the Third, a performance rich in self-loathing and machiavellian exploitation. But perhaps that production is for another blog.

As we remember Shakespeare’s birthday, and his death on April 23rd, 400 years ago, we can contemplate an important part of our culture which may once have been the property of the middle class audiences who, due to their elitist backgrounds, understood or claimed to understand what it all meant. But it didn’t start that way. Shakespeare’s plays were the top dramas and soap operas of his time, played for fun, for laughter, for passion, loved by all who saw them, whatever age, class or background.

It is thanks to brilliant actors like Rylance and his cast, and thanks to the dedication of outstanding modern teachers who make Shakespeare’s plays fresh, accessible and meaningful that those times are here again. We can all enjoy Shakespeare; we can understand the meaning of every line in context, and new and exciting interpretations enable us to build bonds with the characters and make the storylines contemporary and meaningful without losing their original impact. The curtains have been drawn and we have been shown the picture. And what a great picture it is too.

If I could go back to my dry and diffident English teacher, I’d still say thanks, though. She may not have taken me to where I was always going to go, but I had a seat in the room and a book marked ‘Shakespeare’. And from that starting point, the journey was always going to be exciting.

How will you celebrate World Poetry Day?

Today marks the first day of Spring and it’s also World Poetry Day. It is a time for rebirthing and creativity. All around the country, countless kids will be going to school and reading a poem, maybe some Edward Lear or Ogden Nash or a wonderful bit of Benjamin Zephaniah? Maybe the old favourite, Blake’s Tyger, will crawl out of the woodwork.

Poetry is one of those delicate issues in schools where kids can easily be turned off. But there is also a huge opportunity to galvanise their love of words and mix it up, make it real and find your inner poet.

I remember a group of us being taken into some gorgeous gardens and told to look at nature because we were all going to write poems. One student turned to me and said ‘Bloody Haiku again, innit?’ as we were ushered into a cold room and asked to use the beautiful things we’d seen around us in nature and render it in a five-seven- five formation. I admire John Cooper Clarke’s Haiku best, the one which goes:

To-con-vey one’s mood
In sev-en-teen syll-able-s
Is ve-ry dif-fic

I think iconoclasm is important in a poem, or at least that the poet uses the opportunity to write something big. It doesn’t have to be world changing but it must say something resonant, something more than just personal indulgence. It goes beyond self gratification,  to create a bond with the reader, so that they either understand, want to work at understanding or are simply blown away by the ideas and the words.

I am fortunate to know four brilliant poets personally – probably more, but I am going to mention the four on World Poetry Day, because their poems mean a lot to me. Nathan is a performance poet and he is incredibly gifted, not just with his words but with how he takes ideas and works an audience. Julie, too, a talented actor and performance poet. I heard her do one on Dunblane last week which made everyone in the room gasp. Erika, who is a wordsmith, an artisan, who creates beauty in words and hones them so that they are a gift from her to the reader. And Zack, a poet of incredible sensitivity and skill, who unwraps words in his poems which astound and gratify. They are four brilliant poets, and today, being the first day of Spring and a time for rebirthing, I am going to wish you the best of all words this year.

I know people who don’t like poetry. While I loved trochees and iambic pentameter, metaphors and allegory, they didn’t see the point and were not enabled to see it. Poetry should not be hard graft, it should be a joyous exploration. If one has the slightest love of words, then the delights of Hopkins, Plath, Byron, Donne, Ginsberg, Coleridge, Lamartine, Atwood, Heaney, Nichols,  Rimbaud, Tagore, Thomas, Bukowski, Angelou, Frost, Pushkin, Yeats, Larkin, Duffy – I could go on – are  blooms in a Spring garden, each offering something different for the reader, but it has to be said, there are so many people out there who don’t get poetry at all.

In my case, I love literature despite being drilled, hammered, bashed, cajoled and threatened in the classroom, made to read around the room words which made little sense to anyone at all and were never explained. I remember the whole class being given detention when we sniggered at the lines ‘Pistol’s cock is up,’ without the teacher ever explaining that Shakespeare’s Henry V and other great works  had characters who were there to be bold and bawdy and amuse the groundlings, and that this was perfectly legitimate literature.

I know some brilliant teachers who work a lot harder than is physically good for them. They are not just trying to achieve the target percentage of passes which the education system deems they should reach each year, but they aim to ensure that each kid is inspired, learning something  which will last  long after they have left the classroom and which will be their first steps to wider autonomous reading, writing and enjoyment throughout their lives.

I dare say the old adage, with a bit of adaptation, could be true here: if you love words and can read them, thank a teacher.

great-teacher

For Mums: flash fiction

On Mother’s Day, we remember our Mums with love and we give thanks for all they have done for us. Many of us don’t have our Mums any more and feel quite sad that maybe we did not say thank you enough at the time and it’s a bit late now.

I often think about how great my Mum was and how her life was tough on all levels, but at least she knew we all loved her, even though we weren’t always there with the right words, or there at all. But what about those Mums who give so much and receive very little back? I often think about what a lonely place that must be, to love and be a victim for loving, to be perceived somehow as weak for caring, or to care about a child who has gone away.

I never asked my Mum how she felt when I left home at 18. I was more interested in pursuing my own education and my own independence and it never occurred to me that it might feel to her like part of her life had changed forever.

This blog post is a piece of Flash Fiction, written for all Mums, but especially for those Mums who don’t get the love and thanks they should. In the lines of self-sacrifice and expecting nothing in return, I can also remember my Mum too.

Mother’s love

Gingerbread cake, warm as mother’s love. Spicy and harsh as an absent father.

Her whisk whirled in her hand as she beat away thoughts of the father’s leaving, his new lover, his old threadbare life, a closed door, a final slamming. The eggs dissolving, frothy: her marriage dissolving, messy.

The flour, light as hope. The sugar, each grain a birthday wish, the cake rising, foetal, new, golden and gifted as her son’s future.

She looked at her hands: cooking hands, caressing hands, empty.

She would keep active, useful, to forget.

The cake, displayed in magnificence, shining plate covered with a flurry of flour, icing soft as mother’s hugging, melt in the mouth then forgotten.

Soon her son would be like him. Gorged. Grown. Gone.

 

Slade House – David Mitchell. Come in and feel the noise!

I have just read David Mitchell’s ‘Slade House’. It took me a day and I didn’t put it down. What a clever book! Again, no spoilers from me for anyone who hasn’t read it yet, but there is a scarily  weird place, Slade House, where things happen and have happened in the past, which the reader visits with readily suspended disbelief and held breath.We are propelled from one terrorised protagonist to the next with car-crash speed, but the journey is breath takingly enjoyable.

The novel is short: it is composed of five stories or novellas, set in different time periods, nine years apart. Slade House is a mysterious place, a huge mansion down a dark alley, accessed by an iron gate, and its residents are fascinating twins Norah and Jonah who lure their prey into the house with scary results.

David Mitchell is the master of the ability to show the reader every detail of a character without telling. His first narrator, Nathan, is a teenager who is obviously on the autistic spectrum and is charming and delightfully funny, although Mitchell allows the reader to discern the character’s individuality through anecdotes, such as tales of his teacher/ enabler getting him to practise reading people’s expressions, or his examples of semantic/ pragmatic errors, such as the brilliant story: ‘Our scoutmaster told me to get lost, so I did, and it took the Snowdonia mountain rescue service two days to find my shelter.’

In true ‘Psycho’ style, Mitchell builds up an intriguing hero and then disposes of him, and the reader doesn’t know whether Nathan has taken too much of his mother’s valium or if something horrendous has happened to him, but we are led to suspect the latter.

The second narrator, CID Gordon, is not so likeable. He is sexist, racist, a bit of a player and a manipulator, but the character is evoked without obvious exposition: details are filtered cleverly through action, dialogue and description, and the plot rolls forward as we wonder why Norah and Jonah seem to be still active as ghosts in Slade House and they frighten him witless when he is there ostensibly on a hot date.

Each novella develops the story’s intrigue and propels us through the possibilities, until the final climax in which they merge and there is an exciting conclusion.

I enjoyed the clever twists of this story and the way each novella’s character was plausible, written vividly and very quickly established with depth and idiosyncrasy. While the narrator is becoming a credible part of the reader’s experience, the parallel story of Norah and Jonah is tantalisingly present, but no solutions about them are made clear, so that the reader is constantly looking for clues and signals.

Mitchell makes it apparent to us that the twins are evil in nature, malevolent and capable of soul- sucking slaughter. Moments such as when we see Nathan’s portrait on the wall, in which he appears dressed in a bow tie and with facial blemishes, exactly as he was on that day, but with his eyes missing, are powerful symbols which hook the reader into the storyline and make us hang on for the next moment of suspense.

Mitchell writes well; his characters are captivating, his dialogue witty and his language exactly perfect. There is a small section where Nathan is in Rhodesia with his father, and the colours and characters are perfectly evoked and we are there with him; although he has taken valium, and we are never sure what is real and what is distorted, and Mitchell continues this brilliant confusion for the reader until the last section, leading us by the nose round twisting, turning, unexpected corners.

Vampires and ghosts have been done to death! Most writers, myself included, have dabbled in writing the supernatural dirt, evoking atmospheres bulging with haints, dybbuks, mulo, monsters, spirits and psychics. It’s fun to write but not always fun to read, unless the writer has the ability to create the credible and enable the reader to invest in outcomes.

Mitchell keeps us prickling with gooseflesh and all the time he is having fun with ‘Slade House’: he doesn’t expect us to take it seriously, but he is a slick dude of a writer who can mix in jokes about tropes, throw in some farce and a bit of spine tingling horror, and what emerges is a spell of magical reading which is a gift of pure enjoyment and impressive stylistic skill.

As readers, we are safe in Mitchell’s hands, we are safe within the genre but we are not safe in the sinister Slade House. His prose sings spells from the pages and we laugh, we cringe and we shiver. It is a skilful book and one which shocks and which entertains. ‘Slade House’  is a genre-bending horror tale and one I enjoyed more than I thought I could . Superb writing!