Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Two in a Boat

Okay, I lied. I'm writing another review. But this still doesn't mean I'm turning into a reveiwer. For starters, this book is over two years old, and for seconders, I know what I'm like: I'll be writing about seacocks or the spinnaker winches next week.

But for now, my pinprick of a spotlight is on Gwyneth Lewis's boat and her journey on it. I read Two in a Boat after my trip around Scotland last summer, but before I started to write about the interplay between me and my fellow crewmates - how in all that expanse sometimes it's like being locked in a toilet together. Gwyneth's book expands on this. And obviously is much much better.

It's subtitled 'A Marital Rite of Passage'. And this is what makes it different to the other sea adventures I've read - they being by singlehanders. The other big difference is that Gwyneth didn't know how to sail before she and her husband for a round the world trip in the Nicholson 35 they bought for the trip. one of the 'classics' - a solid design that'll look after those on board in big seas (rather like our Sadler 29). And while I started off with little sympathy for her, the quality of observation and relentless honesty at her own ineffectualness and her attitude towards Leighton, her husband, turned me round pretty quickly.

Gwyneth also suffered from seasickness - and not just a few hours of nausea, but days and days of dehibilitation. And while I know how horrendous that is, she manages to turn it into comic material. And then switch from this, to frustration (at her husband's mood swings), to historical facts (about the ports they entered) to the poetic. Perhaps unsurprisingly the latter was my favourite - although only because there was the others in the mix.

Gwyneth makes comparisons between frontal depressions that form the weather and her own emotional pressure systems. They work in a simliar way and the consequence of both is ripe for comparison - one of those things that I can't believe I'd not connected before - which is what makes GL such a great writer, who belies her straight-talking style. There's a brilliant list of man-made ropes midway through that she reconsiders as a list of moral qualities in a potential partner, in which she rates 'resistance to weather' as higher than 'complete kink resistance'.

So much has been written about the sea and us on it that there's a danger of anything more being cliched and worn. Two in a Boat skirts this particular hazard by keeping descriptions of the sea to a minimum and the focus on the human drama on board. Perhaps inevitably there's a lot of fingerpointing (at Leighton), which wore me down a little, as did the blame on the mechanics they employed to fix their continuing engine failure. But then in her position, those things would, wouldn't they?

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

From the Body of the Green Girl

This is a new pamphlet from poet Paula Jennings, which I was given by a mutual friend for Christmas. Shame on me to have taken so long to get around to reading it. But then it's always important to be ready to receive things, especially things of such preciousness.

What particularly swept me away in these poems was how they had me metaphorically crouching in the detail of grass, water and darkness. I finished the pamphlet feeling as though I had been shrunk, like in A Fantastic Voyage, although sent through the veins, webs and hues of the wider world not just one body. That said, my body was vibrating by the end of this experience. Reading these poems one after the other forced not only a slowing down of experience (which then made me laugh with 'The Gift') as all strong poetry does, but a pulling back of the past too. These are poems that refer to our history as a familiar. Which is the true present.

In the sequence 'Looking for God' she takes us to sea. Oh lovely! Her sea is 'chiselled with light', and she turns to 'break in the right pattern'. I roiled and hammered with the waves of rhythm, uplifted by her delicate spiritual view. If I could encapsulate my experience othe sea with such a light confidence I would be content. And not just for writers is this a happy book, uplifting and expansive. Even the first poem, an elegy, while very quiet, is hopeful of the 'wordless news of the true forest'. Through Paula, nature is bursting to speak to us. I want to hear. If poetry isn't urgent, then why does it exist?

I'm not a reviewer, but sometimes you read a book and you just want everyone to know about it.

Friday, 13 February 2009

writers and their valentines

We've had all the Flax017 writers in the office now for their photoshoots, recording and biographical profiling (not a genetic engineering session, honest) and boy, did I enjoy it. It's one of the perks of editing Flax that I get a few opportunities to meet and chat with the writers we publish. And talking with the writers about their motivations for writing is always fascinating.

Annie Clarkson, for example, finds "writing about childhood evokes so much emotion in me as a writer and a reader. It is a time where everything is ahead of us, and yet our whole lives are impacted on by what happens in these years." I love that idea of writing pivoting around childhood - that meshing of past and future. John Siddique was wonderfully passionate once I got him going on his new book, Recital, saying how he saw the book as being the part of the shamanic tradition of healing poetry, and how it was his way to contributing to the spiritual regeneration of England. His story, Prism, that's going into Flax follows the same nerve. It was great to catch up with a writer we've previously published, Andrew Michael Hurley. His short stories are like crystal. And it was great to hear he's set himself the challenge of writing a novel. I take my hat off to anyone who embarks on that voyage. Especially when making the transition to it from short story writing. It's like clambering out of a rubber dingy onto one the yachts in the Vendee Globe.

Also fabulous was to meet two writers for the first time. Marita Over is a beautifully accomplished poet, and has taken to writing short stories. Needless to say, Bread, which will be appearing in Unsaid Undone (the next Flax anthology)is a delicately written story dealing with a disquietening subject. The fifth writer is also a poet. Brindley Hallam Dennis's contribution is an extract of a novel in progress. His enthusiasm for writing is boundless - covering scripts, poems, short fiction and this novel. He claimed it's the only thing, apart from washing up, that provides a deep sense of satisfaction.

So Valentine, Schmalentine ... Romantic love is, of course, lovely, but the love that comes from respect and admiration for people's passions deserves not just a day but year-round acknowledgement

Sunday, 8 February 2009

pretending to be Marlene Dietrich

Just back from Southport where I had a meeting with members of Gambolling Arena to talk about a new project of theirs - a two-handed musical piece about Edith Piaf and Marlene Dietrich. We sat in a long thin room on Lord's Street and blasted out various tunes from Lili Marlene to La Vie En Rose and Falling in Love Again and Mon Dieu - what voices they both had - madly different and idiosyncratic.

My job is write a twenty minute piece for them that links the songs and creates a narrative of their lives and friendship. Coo wee - feels like a bit of a number in the research department. I have a feeling I'll be pretty familiar with their speech and singning patterns by the end of March - or at least, hope I will. I'm looking forward to it - I love stepping into someone else's head (imaginatively speaking) and getting to the point where they slip out of my mouth, as if I'm a channel for the whole process.

I also love that much of the research will be to watch footage of them (I have to admit a bias for Marlene) so here's a taster:

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

rnli and the long view

I've just heard that the Royal National Lifeboat Insititute depends solely on public for its survival and generally raises £90 million a year! That's some campaign/ loyalty. It's also staffed by volunteers. But then it's a small island and while on it, we're never more than 80 odd miles from the sea. The sea features if not in our everyday lives then in our yearly lives and if not then, certainly our ancestors had to cross it to get here.

And what I love most about the sea, that despite its proximity to us, our familarity with its sight and sound, most of it remains apparently untouched by us. It provides a wilderness right on our doorstep. There's the odd oilrig, a new turbine tidal farm in Strangford Loch in Northern Ireland, wind farms off the coast, but our main impact on the sea is through the invisible pollution.

Some facts:
80% of marine pollution comes from the land
in 1992 4 million tons of oil were released into the ocean
50% of hydrocarbon pollution at sea comes from us pouring stuff down our drains
Between 1971 and 1979 36,000 birds were found dead on the British coast as a result of oiling.

I won't bang on about the radioactive waste we dispose of at a supposedly safe 2km off land ...

I'm not into fear and perpetuating fear of an invisible enemy - like 'terror' - more my style is to celebrate what we have while we've got it, hence my love of poetry. I also belive in the power of the natural world, and while we can fuck things up really quite badly for ourselves with a remarkable degree of unawareness, it will be only for ourselves. Our time on the planet is teeny in relation to the plants and fish. They'll be here long after us. So in a way, all this anxiety about climate change is another egotistical manmade fear.

War on fear! Volunteer now for your local RNLI!