Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Wasted on the Young?

I've finished Wolf Hall. Yey! Whoop! Relief.

It was a far longer investment than I expected at the outset. Back in June. And while I am now free to tuck into the pile of novels on the bedside table I have already broken off to read Stig of the Dump, Treasure Island and Wallace Stevens' Harmonium - all these with only 100 pages of Cromwell's activities to go, because I just needed some fresh air.

Not that I didn't enjoy Wolf Hall. It was an intense experience, a delight to hang out with Thomas Cromwell's intelligence, and the scheming of Henry's court. But it was a little like eating a very thick, ery long piece of flapjack, made with molasses. I could only very small chunks at a time, which made the flapjack stickier over time.

So in the past fornight I've gobbled one of the latest Nightjar Press pamphlets and three novels: A Cure for Solitude, Now in November and Whisper my Name. Giddy. All these came to me from various sources and high recommendations. And all so different from each other: an intense eco-gothic thriller (a new genre, I wonder?); a drug smuggling thriller set in Prague, that despite some clunky writing was unputdownable; a Pulitzer Prize winner set on a farm in the American Depression of the 30s - drought drought drought, with equally pared language: "the heat was like a hand in my face, day and night"; a Victorian drama/mystery marketed for young readers that had me eating out of the palm of its hand.

So on reflection of all these it would seem I've rediscovered my love of books for 'younger readers'. Their appeal, I think, lies in the basic skill of telling a fabulous story, straightforwardly. No tricks or narrative gimmicks that jump out at me and get me involved in the function of devices. I also think all these books have clear, strong characters, that stand above the plot, that I empathise with: either their youthful confident derring-do (of Jim Hawkins), their confusion at the world (the grubby Stig), or their rather innocent selfishness (of the Victorian Meriel). All of these traits I can relate to, grimly accept and smile about as an adult that I probably didn't even recognise I had as a teenager.

I'm hungry for more. Any suggestions?

Thursday, 21 October 2010

We buried the whale at night

That, believe it or not, is the prize-winning short story of the Arvon Foundation's six-word story competition.

"The winning story was simple, yet memorable and enigmatic in its detail. It immediately conjured up a strong and unusual picture and by implication a setting.” Karen McCarthy Woolf

Monday, 18 October 2010

Random Acts of Literature: Flax Day

It was always going to be a risky affair - although I don't think I fully appreciated the depth of uncertainty until the day itself.

Having asked all the Flax writers way back in January, or sometime last millennia, what they fancied doing for the annual Flax picnic I sifted through the various replies and came up with what I thought responded to virtually everything people said (even the translation suggestion if you consider a response to Storey Gallery's current exhibition as 'translation' - I know I know, Ian, that wasn't exactly what you meant...)

And then I went back to the writers and asked who would like to take part in scattered readings around The Storey, followed by lunch, followed by a collaborative writing hour, followed by a performance of whatever they'd just written. To my surprise 13 out of the 60 odd writers said they'd love to. The 2010 Flax Day was born.

Random Acts of Literature was advertised and we had a 'greeter' at the main entrance to The Storey to let visitors know what was happening in the building for the hour the (now eleven) writers were doing their stuff:

There were not so many visitors between noon and 1pm, but those that were innocently eating lunch or visiting the gallery seemed to enjoy what they heard. Bursts of appaluse bounced up the satirwell and down corridors.

And the writers did a brilliant job of supporting each other in what was a daunting prospect of guerilla readings, and a real sense of solidarity grew throughout the hour - or at least from where I was standing (or scuttling, organising lunch). Which I hadn't bargained for, but was a great foundation for the next stage of the day - writing something to read together at 3pm.

Another big deal. But again. They rose to it. And some told me afterwards - somewhat surprised - that they even enjoyed it. They'd selected words to all work from, including, moths (continuing the theme of pets, pests and prey of the exhibition), shabby and errr errr... well, I wasn't there.

So at 3pm I collected them from the writing and we trooped up to Storey gallery, where the artists of the exhibition, Uncertainty in the City (apt title for the day) were holding a symposium. We were due to slot into their afternoon teabreak, but had a few minutes to wait for this, so some took advantage to listen to more of the exhibition.

They slotted like moths slotted. Frittered and flickered between the eleven voices that read their pieces overlapping, then individually, and finally flutteringly, overlapping again. Tremendously moving, strangely. Or perhaps I was knackered. But the audience clearly enjoyed the performance (which unbeknownst to us was webbed worldwide live so lordy only knows who else heard it and what they thought).

For me, while this final performance was the natural culmination of three hours hard work, what was the real joy of those three hours was seeing writers who have all been published by Flax (and therefore very very diverse writers) come together, enjoy each other's company and collaborate on a small improvised project that was particular to that day, that place and those people.

Thank you, Elizabeth Burns, Mark Carson, Annie Clarkson, Kate Davis, Brindley Hallam Dennis (sorry you managed to completely avoid the camera), Rosie Garland, Cath Nichols, Gill Nicholson, Claire Massey, Carla Scarano and Ian Seed for being so game and positive and up for it.

And thank you, Simon Baker, for taking all these great pics of the day. And Sandie and Jan for being such superstar help to ensure everything ran smoothly.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Lancs v Yorks

This is my second 'vrs' entitled post. Suggesting what about my current state of mind?

But let's look outwards:

The boundary between Yorkshire and Lancashire was the most apparent it has ever appeared to me on the M62 last Friday as I trundled over to Brighouse Library. I left Lancaster in bright sunshine, the radio talking of the 9000 pink-foot geese at Pilling (amongst which were 2 barancle geese apparently - some sure and steady observation on that), the Trough of Bowland sharp and green. M6, M61 blue blue skies making the motorway almost seem a pleasant place to be.

As the M62 rolled out before me, the Pennines proud either side,
the horizon changed.

In my rear mirror I could see the sun, the blue. Through my windscreen the green hills had been swallowed. Oncoming traffic glared full headlights. The white rose at the road side a little bleary in the muted landscape.

I entered a new land. Debatable as to whether it was God's own - depending which god ruled it, and your perspective on that god. But it, inevitably, had its effect on me. Athough not in diminishing my wonder at what I was driving through: glints of reservoirs were still visible through the low cloud, dim outlines of cars wheeled over the blurry horizon to my left. Everything seemed slower because of the rubbing of edges. Perhaps there was more caution around.

On reflection this change in mood - which remained as the mist for the two days I was in Calderdale (while Lancashire held on to the sun) suited my approach to the job in hand: a reading, a couple of critiquing feedback sessions/a writing workshop for the Calderdale Readers and Writers Festival.

Poetry, in all these manifestations, is a slow, often intangible process for me. I can't know the effect or impact of it either on me or others immediately. I can't entirely understand all of it (even what I've written) in any one moment. It does glint through blurriness at times. It's the glinting that mkakes me want to unpack it, reread, or rewrite it. But my thinking is so often muffled. It is a sense of something that requires development; perhaps I operate more in sensations rather than intellect, and poetry offers the chance to wed the two. For me, talking is the bright sure sunshine in a blue sky; where definite lines of shadows fall. Silence, the shrouded misty world of my interior, is far less certain.

Good to have the two. I think the three engagements in Brighouse and Halifax enabled me to share (although not so consciously) this with the people I met and worked with. Writing, like the driving over the Pennines, entering a new world of a new lumination, that cannot be shaped to any expectation, is best left to each individual to explore.

Good, too, to arrive home at 6pm on the Saturday to a fabulous sunset over the Bay where a low tide silked turquoise in the strangely sharp light.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

On the Eve of My Mini Tour ...

My mini library tour begins tomorrow and takes me through Brighouse, Accrington, Preston and Ansdell over the next few weeks - as part of Calderdale Festival and Lancashire's Family Festival. I'm looking forward to it. Although have what seem to be common reservations ...

Thanks for Jane for directing me to this.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Stop Press: John Denver is Alive!

Well, in that I went to a read-through of the script on Wednesday night. It's been months since I've looked at the script - having presented it to Suzy (the director) back in March, so I couldn't really remember details of it. Although once they started asking me questions about them, the characters' motivations and quirks started to flood back.

So I settled in to listening. And how surprised was I? I hadn't remembered the humour in it. Not a poking fun kind of humour but the comedy that arises from two strangers meeting, coming from very different backgrounds, living with a very different set of codes, not entirely 'getting' each other, but connecting through one person (yep, Mr Denver).

It was a great experience to feel so removed from my work, yet recognising my intent in there as I listened, feeling these characters are very much separate from me, that the actors brought their own backstories and foibles to their speech and mannerisms.

And the cherry was hearing Chris Bannister sing the songs. I, as regular readers may remember, am not over-enamoured with JD's music, but Chris brings a stronger, perhaps rougher voice to the songs that moves me and - to coin a phrase Mr D might well use in a song - sends shivers down my spine. Which all serves to remind me that some of them are absolute classics. (And believe me, I can't quite comes to terms with having said that)

We're having an open session in December, playing more with the script and more actors so see what else can be drawn from it. The age of the characters are currently under scrutiny - one's in her fifties, the other in her sixties. One of theread-through actor's on Wednesday (24 years old) questioned how much she could bring to the role. She said she was fearful without having any experience to draw upon, she could provide only a stereotype. How is the company going to deal with this? When most of the actors in it are in their twqenties. Use them or invite older women to audition?

Personally, as I guess the audience will predominantly be older (a younger work-colleague, when I mentioned the read through, said to me, "he's a singer, isn't he?"), I'd encourage the use of older actors. Since we're looking at empathy between strangers. And one of the themes is death, dying and grief. Why shirk from that with younger faces? We get enough of them on the telly, in mags, ads for plastic surgery blah blah blah. It's the one inevitability and we're surrounded by images that hide it. I don't relish the prospect of being part of that. But (perhaps for the best) the choice is not down to me.