Books n stuff...

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Mercury Prize for Music

Just a word on this year's Mercury Prize for Music. One of the nominees is Benjamin Clementine. And his voice is sublime. His music reminds me of Nina Simone meets Regina Spektor. I haven't felt as enthusiastic about a nominee since P J Harvey won for 'Let England Shake', particularly 'Written on the Forehead'. He's performing in Brighton on 3 December, which is looking like a must for the diary. As a lover of Moloko back in the day, it's also cool to see that Roisin Murphy's album 'hairless toys' is also on the list. 

The Hairy Ape - The Old Vic

Apparently, a Spectator critic noted that some people walked out of the performance of The Hairy Ape at the Old Vic. I'm not sure why. Sure, it's tendentious - it's of its time; 1920s America. It's about 'Yank', a ship's stoker who doesn't like to think, and brands all attempts of workers to question their predicament as belonging to the Salvation Army! Whenever one of the Irish stokers - ageing and 'back breaking' stops to 'think', the group of oil-streaked topless stokers shout 'THINK! THINK! THINK!' 

Yank represents the futurists that would soon follow, admirable of anything that enables machinery, and speed. And he sees himself as an important enabler of the ship's movement and speed. But whilst he sees himself that way, the granddaughter of the ship's owner, who is escorted down to meet them as part of some sociological observation, does not. She, dressed in a silky white dressed, comes face to face with Yank and screams 'filthy beast'.  For a moment, Yank sees himself as 'they' see him, and he is full of rage and fury. It sets him on a course of futile seeking and self-destruction. 

The performance was about ninety minutes long, and there were times when I felt that I was sick of hearing Yank whining on and on... but it is as relevant today and the whole performance was very good. 

The stage design by Stewart Laing was clever, and the choreography by Aletta Collins was absolutely mesmerising. There's a point when Yank is stood on Fifth Avenue, and 'the rich' emerge from church - the women dressed in furs - and their beaus in suits and hats, to move across and around the stage, dismissive of Yank as though he were a mere insect in their way. It runs until 21 November. 

Plays on the horizon include Pinter's fantastic 'The Homecoming' and 'The Caretaker', and 'Wasp' - all at The Trafalgar. I would like to say there is something worth seeing at my 'local' - Chichester Festival Theatre - but there isn't. There's a trio of Chekhov - the staple fare of many a regional theatre, and that's about it.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Review of Keats Lives by Moya Cannon

Keats Lives by Moya Cannon (Carcanet Press)

Many gems weaving the present with myth and ecology – yet sometimes mundane

Myth and ecology are the drivers of Moya Cannon’s fifth poetry collection, Keats Lives. Comprising 42 poems, this collection comes four years after her last, Hands; the title poem a meditation on how the pilot has all flight passengers ‘in his hands’, which I felt suggested little more than a FaceBook e-card passed around willy-nilly.

Planes feature in Keats Lives too, as a vehicle from which to explore grief. In ‘At the end of the flight’, cabin crew announces they are sharing the flight with the family of a ‘fallen hero’, leading passengers to applaud. As the dead soldier’s two sisters and father disembark: ‘further down the plane/… we heard the sound of grief/grinding three separate tunnels/through their days.’

Grief doesn’t so much grind as flow in ‘Shrines’: ‘….to let grief flow/like dense tresses of water/over a weir’, neatly demonstrating Cannon’s timely use of grief-stricken alliteration and imagery.

Winter View from Binn Bhriocain’ is the perfect choice to open the collection, forcing the reader to slow down and be subsumed into its richness: ‘zinc riffles…’, ‘frost-smashed quartzite’, and a ‘palette of hammered silver…’. However, foretold from this first piece is Cannon’s habit of close repetition, which I found distracting; the palette of hammered silver is followed on the following line by ‘grey and silver…’ ‘In the Textile Museum’, line one of stanza two refers to ‘a tapestry tunic…’; line three offers ‘a woman in a short tunic…’.  The opening stanza works a treat in offering a palpable or pleasing tactility to the imagery: ‘These/the cloths of Egypt: a baby’s silk bonnet padded and lined and trimmed’.

Whilst some of the repetition may be distracting, Cannon can excel in personalising the ancient in order to bring it alive, but it is somewhat clumsily done here: ‘I will never meet the weavers/but I remember the swish and click-click-click’, before drawing us into a childhood memory when she hears her mother’s ‘treadle sewing machine’.

Burial, Ardeche 20,000 BC’ offers a deep poignancy: ‘No bear or lion ever raked him up/The five-year-old child…’ alluding to mankind’s own current preoccupation with digging up and over, and so losing something essential.

The poignant touch is also apparent as Cannon thinks of her Mother in ‘In the Textile Museum’: ‘as she bent to it, intent;/as she sliced through it with her good scissors’, which is also a nod to Seamus Heaney, particularly ‘Digging’: ‘Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods/Over his shoulder, going down and down/For the good turf. Digging.

Also present is the child’s lament of the parent’s failure to realise his or her own inner poet, which recalls Jung’s line that what has the most impact on a child is the unlived life, or potential, of a parent: ‘whilst behind her on a high shelf/her books of poetry’.

Perhaps for want of emotional seedlings that would create a more distinct vocabulary, Cannon occasionally resorts to the clichéd, even mundane, sentiment or observation of the ageing process, such as in ‘Do the Sums’, the person ‘astonished/to find myself over fifty/at least half of my life gone…’.

There is also a tendency to spell things out too much, betraying a lack of confidence in her readers. In Treasure, the reference to the baby Moses would have been better unsaid; as it stands, it robs the piece of nuance:

‘Yesterday among green-shouldered reeds/I found a treasure – no young Moses’

In the same piece the repetition appears again, with ‘nest’, just four lines on from the next instance of the word.

There are two works here where Cannon singles out the seemingly downtrodden or outsider. In the poem, Keats Lives on the Amtrak, from which the collection takes its name, it is the ‘African American’ train conductor ‘…on the clunking, hissing, silver train/between Philly and New York,’ who declares that he wants Keats Lives emblazoned across his chest; in Genius, it is the ‘man who polishes the brass handrails/of the curved staircase in the National Library’, who takes that title: ‘The man who keeps the rails gleaming,/who brushes up the rain-soaked leaves outside,/has written no books./He is a genius of care,/the genius of the place.’

Whilst the collection could have done with an honest editor to root out some of the mundane phrasing that I feel betray a poet’s lack of necessary grounding within herself, overall the collection is a timely one, offering many affecting gems and urgent images of our planet’s predicament: ‘fast-calving glaciers/of birds and beasts and fish and flowers forever lost/and the earth’s old bones pressed for oil’. 

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Valhalla - Theatre503, Battersea

Yesterday evening myself and a friend popped along to the theatre above the Latchmere pub, aka the home of Theatre503 in Battersea to see Paul Murphy's debut 75-minute Norse mythic play, Valhalla. And before I write anything else, if you want to see a taut, very-well paced and compelling play, then this is it! But it ends on 24th October (day after tomorrow!) Just don't go for the comfy seats, unless you plan on spending the evening in the comfy pub downstairs. 

Valhalla means hall of the slain, and whilst escaping from the rising crime of the city to a fairly isolated Nordic research unit 'we could see the Northern Lights!', our couple played by Carolina Main (GP) and Paul Murphy (scientist) portray an increasingly intense relationship in meltdown towards mania. Both were fantastic actors, but I was shocked to discover that Murphy had had to step in on press night because his leading man could't go on - and so it seems Murphy has remained. Carolina Main was mesmerising, with her sharp lines, and her equally sharp, translucent face, and orange hair. I bought the play text, which I'm going to read over the weekend, and will no doubt post a little more. 

Talking about reading play texts, in a bid to break the writing ennui that I've felt whilst spending the past few months nesting, I signed up to a playwriting course. The course, whilst developing the fundamentals, also includes a detailed reading of a full-length play, which is a good reason to get mine into sharper shape! 

I'm currently reading Moya Cannon's new poetry collection 'Keats Lives', which I'm reviewing and will post a link to in due course. She's a very interesting writer, but one who is very aware of her place in the Irish tradition, nodding to Heaney, Mahon, et al. I suspect this, her fifth collection, will be on a fair few prize lists over the next year.


Thursday, 15 October 2015

The Father - Wyndham's Theatre

Yesterday evening the husby and I trotted off to Wyndham's Theatre to see Kenneth Cranham and Claire Skinner in the French play, 'The Father'. Cranham played the father, Andre, and Skinner his daughter, Anne, in what was a 95 minute series of 'pieces', rather like those of a jigsaw, in which each piece was different but related to the whole. The play has earned a raft of 5-star reviews across the press, and all the nationals - and it came to Wyndham's following successful runs in Bath and at the Tricycle. But it came from France initially, where it was awarded one of theatre's highest accolades. So it had a lot to live up to. It helps to know that Cranham as Andre is suffering from dementia or Alzheimer's. But apparently I didn't impart this info to my husby - who wondered what was going on for a little while. What struck me particularly as Cranham was through yet another musing on where his watch must be (the constant and confused passing of time) was that he must have so many moments when performing in which he experienced  utter mental paralysis or at least a magnified sense of 'who am I?' The performances of all the cast made clear the utter sense of frustration at living with such a condition - and the sheer anger revealed by 'both' partners of Andre's daughter, at what they felt was an intolerable burden on their lives - I found myself flinching inwardly when Pierre or Antoine verbally and physically bullying Andre in cruel moments. This was an insightful play, the structure clearly representing the fragmented nature of time experienced by the sufferer - but there was also an anti-climactic feeling too, that there was something not quite there; that it was too cold - a bit too 2-D. My Husby gave it a 6 out of ten and I would have to agree. I can do cerebral - even fragmented cerebral - but there needs to be a bit more warmth, too. One last point. We know the play was French, but why keep the same names of the characters? Andre, Antoine, Pierre. And of course the running joke uttered by Andre in response to Anne moving to London being 'it always rains in London!' 

Monday, 28 September 2015

Dinner with Saddam - Menier Chocolate Factory

I booked tickets to see Dinner with Saddam, a new play by Anthony Horowitz, and featuring Stephen Berkoff as Saddam. We rushed to get to the theatre on time, having driven to Ashford in Middlesex first (never mind), and from there caught the train to Waterloo. The brisk twenty minute walk left us with ten minutes to spare. The small theatre was full. Horowitz has been doing the promotional  rounds. Me, I never need any encouragement to see a play, but I had specifically booked this for my Husby; I once asked him what his specialist subject would be if he was ever on MasterMind and he said 'Saddam Hussein', and the 1988 Housing Act as a back-up topic. Saddam is the topic of half of a long shelf of political books in our sitting room. The other half includes Tony Benn, Tony Blair, and Margaret Thatcher. So I had booked the tickets, and we'd rushed to the theatre followed by a two hour drive. Sanjeev Bhaksar who plays Ahmed Alawi, isn't the most serious of actors - sitcom veteran that he now is - and to have him star alongside Berkoff should raise questions, perhaps. But the from the second it started it launched into Farce; slapstick. It was never going to be my cup of tea, but it's tedious when you realise in the first hour that everything was so predictable. I waited with hope that all would change once Saddam had been welcomed into the Alawi household for dinner. Even though his head of security, a one eyed villain with a scar worthy of a Bond villain, had already mistakenly eaten rat poison and lay dead in the Alawis kitchen. Cue set ups like excitement in a carrier bag that would be later given to Saddam instead of a bag of figs, and a string of other juvenile mishaps and it was little more than a very poorly written sitcom. Berkoff had stage presence - but to be expected given his long theatre history. He also has blue eyes. So for too long of the second half I wondered why this Saddam had blue eyes. And was overweight. Saddam wasn't overweight! He did, however, like Mateus Rose. But it was an easily Google-able point that was hammered to death - as was the heavily laden exposition throughout. I left the theatre feeling quite angry. It should have been renamed Carry On Faux-Saddam.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015


My current reading pile:

All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr - Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2015

Purity, Jonathan Franzen

Beneath the Earth (short stories) John Boyne

The Island, Victoria Hislop

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Booker 2015 - Beach Reads - Worthing

There's no better opportunity of breaking a blogging hiatus than with the announcement of one of literature's finest prize shortlists.

The shortlist for the Man Booker Prize 2015 was announced this morning:

Marlon James - A Brief History of Seven Killings (Jamaica)
Tom McCarthy - Satin Island (UK)
Chigozie Obioma - The Fisherman (Nigeria)
Sunjeev Sahota - The Year of the Runaways (UK)
Anne Tyler - A Spool of Blue Thread (US)
Hanya Yanagihara - A Little Life (US)

I've read not one. Nor have I read anything ever written by any of them. Anne Tyler has a long established reputation in the US, and has been championed often by Jonathan Franzen. Franzen's new book, Purity, is on my To Read list. I figure I might as well get it, as I have read The Corrections, and Freedom (and How to be Alone - non-fiction).

The winner will be announced on 13 October. 

I haven't read an awful lot recently. I have reviewed Nicola Wilson's (Reading University) new book on the representations of Home in British working-class fiction, which should be in the Times Literary Supplement in due course. Wilson's tome is a very welcome addition to the small list of such books that look at 'working-class fiction'. 

Whilst on holiday in Cyprus in August, I read The Sunrise by Victoria Hislop, author of the notable debut The Island, which I'm currently reading. The Sunrise didn't seem like my type of read - but Hislop writes clearly and has a very keen sense of pace and I had galloped through it in no time. The Sunrise is the name of a hotel in Famagusta, once dubbed the Cannes of Cyprus, but the 1974 civil war between supporters of 'enosis' (unification with Greece) and those against it, as well as the Turkish Cypriots, effectively closed it all down. And now Famagusta is little more than a ghost town, where nature has wrapped itself around the neglected buildings, many of which were the height of grandeur. Famagusta is next to capital, Nicosia. We visited Nicosia but gave up walking to 'no man's land', the stretch separating 'Turkish' Cyprus and 'Greek' Cyprus because it was so hot - ten degrees hotter than where we stay, in Paphos. Hislop is very good at revealing the issues at play and also portraying the friendships between both Turk and Greek Cypriots - whether they are co-workers or neighbours. And The Island, described as a 'beach read with a heart' again focusses on that part of the world, this time Crete and the former leper colony of Spinalonga, or Kaylydon. 

Aside from waiting for a review to appear in the TLS, I've also provided a piece on Mary Burns and Friedrich Engels for socialist e-magazine, Monthly Review. Monthly Review hasn't yet posted a piece on new Labour party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, but the New Yorker has, weirdly declaring that he makes Bernie Sanders look like Ted Cruz! I love the New Yorker, one of the only monthly titles I now read, particularly for its short fiction, but it sometimes misreads. It recently referred to Dream Land, Banksy's dystopic theme park as representing the decline of the British seaside town! By the way, I now live in a British seaside town - ten miles from Brighton - Worthing. Yes, it's 90 minutes drive from London, and London will always be Home - but for now Worthing is where 'we' (me and the hubby) live. There seems to be next to no literary culture here - but that's a generalisation because I haven't yet sought out any culture beyond the cinema. The good thing, living just a road away from the sea front, is the salty sea air and the stronger than usual wind, and more hours of sunshine! It's not your usual seaside town - more of an ordererly yet growing coastal town - Brighton's reclusive cousin. It really is growing, though. House building on the outskirts is going on at a rate of knots, as is inward investment - and house prices. But whether it can retain its quiet charm remains to be seen.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Mumbai Slums and a Tree

The first week back at work, following a lovely fortnight with my darling Husby, was hard. To say the least. (Cliche alert!) Too much to do, too little time in which to do it. However, tending to the cultural side helped. Our first theatre outing of 2015 was to see Behind the Beautiful Forevers at the National Theatre. It had received lots of fab reviews. It follows a motley crew of 'recyclers', or rubbish collectors, whose only form of income is derived from the collection of plastic bottles, cans... the detritus of western capitalism as it takes hold in developing countries. I was most enlivened by the earthy language and expletives mouthed by sari-wearing mothers. One of the daughters insistently reads Woolf's Mrs Dalloway - asking why on earth it's important - a book about preparing for a dinner party. The first half had the flavour of Teresa Raquin - rivalries, fights... It was compelling. At the interval, Husby and I wondered where the story would go. I said it would end in a court trial, following one of the women - a cripple (her words) dies - after insisting her rival and family did it. The second half was so disappointing - it lacked depth and direction. But the theatre was packed and it was very well received.

The following week saw myself and Arabella at the Old Vic (I'm currently reviewing a history of the Old Vic - more later!) to watch a well formed perfectly placed 90 minute play Tree. Two male actors. One in a tree, complete with safety gear, and one waiting down by the tree. It was a funny and well paced play - although some of the dialogue was laboured and hackneyed and some responses repeated needlessly, aiming at cheap laughter from another packed house. There's a good old-fashioned twist in the end, which had me musing on whether I'd been had. Lots of positive tweetings on it - Richard Curtis, the film man, was there on 'our' night. I don't know if he tweeted on it. A good play with good acting. 

A film found its way into the post work schedule. Me and
Husby trotted off to our nearby posh film house, Olympic, in Barnes to see the brilliant Birdman. Ed Norton and Michael Keaton are fantastic. 

Tonight's it's off to see The Theory of Everything. 

Sunday, 28 December 2014

End of the year...

It's been five months since my last post, or thereabouts. A lot has happened.

In the spring I started dating a lovely man. We already knew each other and had many chats over the year or so since we'd met. In the summer we were a definite item and took our first trip away, to Cyprus. And we had agreed to move in together. And have our basement flat in London refurbished. I say 'our flat' because it was already his, but whilst it wasn't yet his home, it was mine.

Yes reader, I dated my landlord. But that's not all.

In the autumn, whilst I was on a work trip in North Devon, we got engaged. And in the winter - just two weeks ago in fact - we got married at Chelsea Town Hall. This was followed by a few days away in the New Forest, and a celebratory dinner held in Arundel for his family. So, yes, it's been rather a different year, with something for each of the four seasons! Hence my blogging hiatus.

Writing, though, is always on my mind. It's a constant. I haven't written anything for ages. I thought I'd wait until I felt 'grounded' again. Not sure when that will be though, as if refurbishing our flat in London wasn't enough stress on a new relationship (it wasn't really, quite exciting to see it all change), he then sold his house in Worthing, Sussex, and bought a place we both chose - a mid-century maisonette with art deco features, which needed lots of work. The past couple of months he, much more than I, has been up to his eyeballs in dust. We spend weekends down here, overlooked by the South Downs and just a minute from the channel. This afternoon we talk a short, brisk walk around Cissbury Ring, followed by a pub lunch. And having another home means there are more shelves on which to place new and old books, which is just as well, as the London basement has too many of them.

But the writing... I finished the first draft of a play earlier this year, which I duly sent to a few theatres, and then heard zip back. This is despite the fact that it received many good comments from friends who have track records in theatre acting. So this needs pushing come the New Year - as do a few other things. When I think about 'my writing', I almost feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of stories waiting to be told. But it's hard, this writing lark. Very hard. When I taught creative writing at Kingston University, whilst doing my PhD, I never felt it was appropriate to stress to students just how difficult a task writing can be - I mean, good writing that makes one feel as though they've done their story/stories justice. And yet most quotes referring to writing mention it as a madness, a sickness, undertaken only by those with neuroses. Yet most people I know want to write something!

Perhaps it's true that we each feel we have our own story to tell - but then this reinforces the notion that storytelling is innate in the human. The need for stories. And this year - 2014 - I have lived a story, in a way that I hadn't really done before. This year I've still managed to see enough theatre - although art has been somewhat lacking, having wanted to see the Anselm Kiefer exhibition at the Royal Academy, which was widely lauded. And the Moroni at the same place. On the theatre side, there were many - including True West at the Tricycle... I shall have to do a list, as the titles of the others completely escape me. 2015 already promises much on the theatre front - yesterday evening I booked tickets for four plays - Tree at the Old Vic; Behind the Beautiful Forevers at the National Theatre; Islands at Bush Theatre; and Time for Heroes at the Baron's Court Theatre / Curtain's Up. All in January and February.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again, the London theatre scene is electric and eclectic. And is one of the reasons I'd always be loathe to live full-time outside of London, or at least longer than an hour or so away. On the books front, I've barely read anything, except the occasional New Yorker short story and article. I bought Richard Flanagan's Narrow Road to the Deep North, and Colin Barrett's Young Skins, a collection of short stories. My husband (so weird writing that) bought me a couple of books for Christmas - a poetry anthology called Life in Verse, which is a very good collection; and a slim novella about a stray cat and a couple in Tokyo, called The Guest Cat, by Takashi Hiraide (probably because I insist on feeding a 'guest cat' who appears regularly at the London basement. My parents-in-law bought me Clive James's Poetry Notebook, which I'm dipping in and out of and which I'm finding very engaging. Here's to 2015 and to increased creativity, which provides solace for those, like myself, who need it as respite from busy and demanding careers.


Friday, 4 July 2014

It's been a while. Am now trying to work out what plays I've seen and books I've read since the last post. I went to see Imelda Staunton in Good People at the Noël Coward theatre in Covent Garden. It was a good play. Imelda Staunton's Irish American Boston / New Jersey / whatever accent was first class. And once again had me lamenting for a solid genre in British novels and theatre. The US does blue collar so much better. In May it was to the fantastic Bush Theatre to see Nick Payne's new play, Incognito, a literally cerebral play about Einstein's brain. Back to accents and the range of them voiced by the four actors (I think it was four) was dizzying and hugely impressive. Skylight is the west end play to see at the moment, starring the lovely Bill Nighy and the (very much younger) Cary Mulligan. Tickets are proving hard to buy unless you're willing to pay over £120 a seat or willing to stand! I love the name Cary Mulligan. My sister had a cat called Mulligan, which ran away and turned up in the local park, having found a new home on the other side of it. But I digress. My own play is 'out there' with a few off west end theatres. I shall report on responses in due course. I still feel as sure of it as I did last year when I felt the urge to scribble it down. And I'm now also getting 'snippets and slices' of other stories - more suitable for books than stage. The creative fermentation process. A lot has happened since my last post. I am now in a relationship with a wonderful man, for whom I recently bought the new treatise on Baghdad: City of War, City of Peace... which is the first major history in over a century. It's had many good reviews and the opening is compelling. I've just finished reading the first novel in ages - Elizabeth Strout's The Burgess Boys. Strout won the Pulitzer Prize for 'Olive Kitteridge', which I have beside me. The Burgess Boys was a good novel - but Zachary - the son of the sister of the Burgess Boys (!) is not adequately drawn. He's too passive and doesn't convince as an apparently 19-year-old man. Having said that, it is good book managing to weave inner generational issues and stories with a tragic incident at its heart. I have started drafting an article on my Dad for Annagh, the parish magazine of the area in Mayo that my Dad came from. But I'm not close to finishing. At all. Maybe by the next post it will be done. Onwards!

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Manchester House pays homage to City's Radical Past

Ok, so. Just a fairly quick post. The Pulitzer Prizes were announced this week. Donna Tartt won for fiction with Goldfinch. Annie Baker won for Drama with The Flick. Vijay Seshadri won for Poetry with 3 Sections published by the uber-brilliant Graywolf Press. Talking of theatre I am hoping to have a finished play text of my own by the time the Easter break is done with. Mind you, I'm also off to the Old Vic on Friday to see Old Desert Cities, which has earned considerable acclaim in the US. I have expectations, it's fair to say. The Telegraph has published a strange list of the top 20 British and Irish novels. Most of them can't be argued with - but I have to ask, where the heck are the Brontes? To not include even one is (at the risk of sounding chattering class bourgeois) outrageous. Good to see Banville's The Sea though. And finally, a bit of telly - well, downloaded from iPad. Restaurant Wars focuses on two restaurants opening in my native Manchester. Simon Rogan opens New French at that old bastion of middlingdom The Midland Hotel, which, it's got to be said - can't be first choice of venue for hip happening gourmands with cash to splash. Aiden Byrne, on the other hand, who's opening at Manchester House, seems bang on the money. His menu is exciting and pays full homage to Manchester's very radical and working class heritage - including its strong Irish links and its part in acid (aceeeed!) house! Aidan showed he knew Mancunians when he said 'Mancunians won't be told what to do or what to eat.' He also said he wouldn't be telling them what to wear either. Anyone who knows Manchester knows first of all that you can tell a Mancunian but you can't tell 'em much. Rogan however, basically said 'we'll tell Mancunians what they should be eating.' And then doesn't even produce a menu! Needless to say, Aiden is much more likeable. Rogan is a bit of a tool, and shaming one of his kitchen staff on TV is not on. Manchester House with Aiden Byrne's very exciting menu are on my list for my next visit. And I hope it becomes THE place to eat. Onwards!

Sunday, 6 April 2014


First, the writing. It's a process, not an event.

It's typical that, on my last day before plunging myself back into the day job, I could now do with a good week working on my play. It was only yesterday and today that I garnered the momentum, first through a natural development in the story, and the second, because the script had a read through from four actors in Richmond. Having my words read out was both very helpful, and at times, particularly towards the end with one particular 'monologue', rather cringey. It's all good though and there seemed to be no doubt that the material was timely and relevant.

Another reason why I didn't get much done it during the week was because my uncle in the west of Ireland died. Suddenly I have no uncles left on either side. My Mum's four brothers all died within the last decade or so; all way short of the old three score and ten. My Dad had six brothers. Kieran was the last remaining. So it's true. Women do live longer, in this case at least. All of my aunts are alive; the four on my Dad's side, including the oldest, now deep into her eighties, and the two on my Mum's side. I was not close to any of these aunts and uncles - most lived far away. It is a rite of passage, to bury the previous generation. And it brings mortality right up close and, for myself, a sense of needing to do things; to live vitally. But given the rightful pessimism of our climate scientists, and many others, it makes striving for 'things' absurd. This weekend's FT featured Lunch with 94-year-old philosopher Mary Midgeley. And hers was another voice that prophesied imminent catastrophe. I can't help but think that many of these warning of the collapse of civilisation, are all in the winter of their lives - save for The Guardian's George Monbiot. And some of their cries of doom are the same cries that the aged have made for millenia. It is true that we cannot hope to consume at the rate that we have been doing. It is obscene. Catastrophe? Certainly global consumption of the earth's resources need serious attention, including tackling the continuing growth in population, which creates more strain for the future. Perhaps creativity and the need to express are the things that will become even more important? That's more of a rhetorical question, actually. So many of my friends are engaged creatively; ceramics, acting, dancing, gymnastics, photography, writing, painting. Life affirming. Sharing their processes in different ways. We cannot go on shopping, piling up stuff we neither really desire or want. Or need. I wrote a piece for Guardian / CiF last week, which looked at the pressures to keep buying and changing cosmetics as they go through their late capitalist 'product life cycle', initiated by a tweet and comments by Emma Watson, the young actress.

A good friend and fellow Kingston alumni (we did our PhD at the same time too), Heidi James, has a new book soon out, called Wounding. I read an early version of it, but I am looking forward to reading this version, published by the brilliant Bluemoose.

Tracks of the week: Paloma Faith - Can't rely on you. Kendrick Lamar - Swimming Pools (Drank). Agnes Obel - Chord Left. Clean Bandit - Sea Shanty.

Reading/To read: FT Weekend / Roseberg as white Jewish guardian of 'pure' hip-hop in the New Yorker. Wounding by Heidi James.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad
Location:Mortlake, London,United Kingdom


Thursday, 3 April 2014

I Found My Horn

Yesterday evening I went to see the second west end run at Trafalgar Studios of 'I Found my Horn', which was adapted by a book written by journalist Jasper Rees.

It's a slightly high brow feel good play about a newly divorced Dad of one and his mid life crisis who feels a sudden urge to perform the French horn solo that he so catastrophically failed when he was still at school - 31 years ago.

It was co-written for the stage, and performed by Jonathan Guy Lewis. It was directed by Harry Burton, he of Working with Pinter, and who has not long returned from Copenhagen, where he directed stage play Carnage. As a film Carnage was directed by Roman Polanski and started Jodie
Foster and Kate Winslet. Disclosure: Harry is a friend - one who is never less than creatively generous and just a really good, hard working man who is dedicated to drama.

Jonathan Guy Lewis played about seven different roles - from the Chezch voiced French horn itself, to his teenage sullen son and a good few fellow French horn players whose regional or non- accents were delivered perfectly by Lewis. It was about halfway through the 125 minute performance that I felt carried along with his need - conveyed so realistically - to perform a French
Horn solo. Never did I think I would ever know so much about a musical instrument! In the first half there seemed to be too many puns and jokes that I'm guessing were music / horn related, but which a good portion of the intimate audience knowingly laughed along to.

At the end I was amazed at Lewis's endurance and the intensity with which he had to perform.

I'm still working on a play that I began writing last year. But I'm pleased to say that the first draft is having its first reading at a drama workshop in Richmond this Sunday by actress Selina Giles, who will read the main role, and three others. It's exciting that it will suddenly have some life - even though I already anticipate cringing at my own words, and crossing lots out as it's read.


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Location:East Sheen

Friday, 14 March 2014


So a longer gap between this and the last post. I could list many cliches here like how there aren't enough hours in the day, or that I'm not reading enough for pleasure to warrant posting on literature. Maybe this post is as a result of it being a heavy week on the work front - as well as seeing the loss from public life of Bob Crow and Tony Benn. The latter had a true indefatigable spirit - and undoubtedly inspired this generation of speakers out and speakers up. Marilyn Butler also died - literary critic whose work resisted too much of the opaque of many of her peers.
Talking of voices (!) I did watch The
Network - a documentary on ToLo, Afghanistan's independent media network; TV and radio. And the power of the media for good as an agent of social progression in a country that has undergone immense trauma is undeniable. Remarkable documentary. And the timings of when the Taliban were in power and then not slightly weirded me out. Any nation - it seemed to say - that either can't see other cultures to measure oneself by, or to have one's own culture reflected back - is a severe handicap. It enables voices - as well as a collective voice.

It always seems strange when I use 2000 as a year to benchmark. I opened my current hotmail email account in 2000. I registered on the Guardian's website in 2005. What was more strange is that I registered on in 2000! Fourteen years! They should give me a free digital premium subscription for that, I'd say.

I watched The Weir last weekend. As a play it worked well. And it still draws the crowds since it burst onto the scene in 1998. Ardal O'Hanlon was brilliant. But here was, at the end, something missing.

Off to see 'I Found my Horn' next month, which is directed (in its second run) by a friend - Harry Burton.

The Viking exhibition at the British Museum looks unmissable, too.

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Monday, 13 January 2014

Sinead Morrissey wins TS Eliot for Parallax

I know; its been ages. It's not you - it's me. Really. Can we stay friends? Look, the fact that I've even taken notice of the TS Eliot Prize, announced this evening, means that there's still a flame.


So Dr Sinead Morrissey, creative writing lecturer at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry, and Belfast Poet Laureate, receives garlands galore. And £15,000. Not bad. The first book I bought this year was the Forward 2014; and I have yet to read one that's had me by the throat - I've not read them all; barely had time to read my weekly New Yorker let alone anything else. But a sign that I'm reconnecting is that I recently wrote a poem - first in months - a year, even.

I recently heard an acquaintance - a man who's no stranger to high-powered roles - declare that he had accepted a new role. But that he felt only flat. He'd been able to take a year off before then, during which time he had engaged the poet within, and he was now feeling flat because he knew the new role would distinguish the poetry. Maybe it won't - the thing is, unless you're into metaphysical poetry, or feel the need to be consciously intertextual - then, like grass, it will try and find a way through the cracks in the concrete facade of corporate life. Allowing the emotional connection and the breath deep enough to bring us to the bottom of the well that grounds us, is often enough.

I am very fortunate that I see my Welsh wizard weekly; a strong old bear of a man who is also one of the few male feminists I know, despite also providing emotional coaching to boxers! I dedicated my intro to Miss Nobody to him. Talking about Miss Nobody, I have decided to do more given that the national books sections didn't cover the republication (except the trusty old TLS and the sincere engagement of Michael Caines). I'm writing a longer piece for Review31, and will post link here when it's ready.

More soon.

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Thursday, 28 November 2013

Running Home and Mary & Ula

So, instead of them living in the dark (well, Dropbox and my hallway cupboard), I've decided to upload two works to the Amazon Kindle platform. Mary & Ula - A Tale of Two Women is here and Running Home here.

Mary & Ula was the creative element of my PhD a couple of years ago. It is a split narrative tale of the rhyming lives of Ula Tulla - who has retuned to present day Manchester as her Dad is seriously ill, and Mary Burns in Victorian Manchester, whom Ula is attempting to write about whilst there. Despite being over 150 years apart, they share particular issues - as well as geographic places. Mary Burns was the long term partner of Friedrich Engels and they lived together in Ardwick, Moss Side, Hulme, and on Hyde Road. Very little is known about Mary, hence the reason why Ula struggles somewhat to write about her. Instead we get fragments.

Running Home is a poetry collection that I wrote a few years ago. It deals with sadness, humour, darkness, grief - and particular ghosts of a troubled family.

If you buy either or both free to let me know what you think.

I'm also on twitter @belindawebb

More again soon. I'm writing. And working.

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Sunday, 17 November 2013

The numbers tell the stories

This year I'm making an effort not to enter into a frenzy of panic-induced conspicuous consumption - each year it gets worse - how much plastic do kids need? How many gift sets can be sold? How many utterly useless gadgets? So I decided instead to be much more thoughtful and for gifts not to be about money. So for the adult siblings I decided on researching and presenting our family tree. It's my thing - rooting around the family closets - and so this made sense. I started with my Mum's Dad: Thomas Henry Sanders (14-02-1896 - Feb 1954). A veteran of World War 1 he signed up in 1914, aged 18, and stayed until 1920 without ever rising above the rank of Private. He left with a limp courtesy of shrapnel. The fact that he survived at all is astonishing. When he entered the army he was already married, having wed at sixteen to a woman called Margaret Hargrave.

My Mum knew about this first marriage - yet she had always referred to her as 'Jean Cosgrove'. What she didn't know - and perhaps her Mother hadn't either - was that Thomas Henry married again - in 1932 - to a Jane Glennen, a jeweller's daughter.

By the time Thomas Henry met my grandmother, Mary Fitzgerald, he was forty-seven - and she was twenty-nine. It was, perhaps, an age at which a single woman from rural Ireland (Cork) had given up on having children and getting married. Although another thing that has been steadily dispelled during my genealogical travails is that women always had children young and the men were always older. Not true at all. But in 1944, in the last year of WW2, Mary was working as a barmaid at the Dog & Partridge pub at the Stretford end of MUFC. It was here she met the cellar man, Thomas, who also worked as a joiner. He who had been through war before may have reassured the younger woman who had not, as air raid sirens went off on long evenings. My Mum's birth certificate states her as Joan S Fitzgerald. The 's' presumably standing for Sanders. She believed her parents had married not long after her birth. Another myth. In fact they hadn't married until January 1954 when Mary Fitzgerald was pregnant with their seventh child. In February, days after his 58th birthday, he sent his oldest, my Mum, to the shop. When she returned he was dead. One week later his seventh child was born.

My Mum said her Dad came from Devon and distinctly remembers his ... She asked me what it was. I said it was a 'burr'. 'That, a Devon burr', she said.
When I started looking I searched for his name and birth year for Devon but nothing arose. Then his name was listed as being born in the district of Stockport. Some burr, I thought. She described him as a strict man - a Protestant, possibly Methodist, with a - and here she'd pat her crown. 'Pate', I'd say. 'Yeah, a bald pate,' she'd add. It turns out that whilst he hadn't been born in Devon, his roots there went back through North Devon for centuries. But whilst Thomas had listed 'John Sanders - joiner' as his father on his marriage certificate - it turns out that John was his uncle. John's sister, Mary Ann, a glove-maker who had learnt her trade in her home town of Torrington, also the glove making capital of the 19th century, had followed her brother and his new wife from Devon to Hyde, in Cheshire. And perhaps falling for the first man she met, got pregnant, whilst Thomas's father scarpered. So he has only a line for a father. It's questionable whether Thomas knew that John wasn't his father but his uncle. His mother doesn't seem to have stayed around either and I can find no record of her in censuses. Thomas was brought up by his uncle John, alongside his cousin, Herbert Henry, although it remains to be seen why both Thomas and Herbert both had Henry as their middle names. Herbert Henry ended up in a regional newspaper in 1933, for blowing himself up during an attempt at making a firework, leaving behind four sons.

It's astonishing what my Mum remembered of her dad, given that he wouldn't have had the Devonian burr, but was something she had long associated with him.

What's also surprising is that, whilst only a couple of years younger than her Mum when she had her first - my brother Sean - (27) - but that like her Mum she would also have four boys and three girls within the same time period. And not get married until they were all born. And my dad, like her own, had their birthday on 14th February. My Dad's actual birthday was 10th but he was called Valentine and he was baptised on that day and we knew no different for years. My dad's side has its own irregularities. Not only those coincidences - but my youngest brothers, twins, were born on 23rd February, but my dad registered their birth as 24th because he wanted them - like him even though it wasn't really - to have a 4 in their dob. That's only remarkable when you realise that Mary and Thomas's seventh child - my aunt Georgina who was born a week after her Dad died - was also born on 23rd February - but it was registered as 24th.

Anyway - back to North Devon. I've reached back to late 1500s so far and have names such as Smale and Mithall, and Liverton, Gliddon and Burd and Lake. And towns and villages such as Great Torrington, Woolfardisworthy (Woolsery) and Dolton. And I have a story yet to be revealed as to why five of my forefathers - all Gliddons - all died on 24 July 1757 in Trier, Germany.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Herd, Land of our Fathers, and my own

Another long gap between my last post and this - work has been utterly manic. Does one need to use utterly alongside manic? I feel I need to emphasise just how manic! And it's Sunday afternoon, with rain lashing onto the skylights of this coffee shop in Mortlake. And I'm trying to focus more on the play I began in the summer. It's had enough time for its first rough draft to become a little more defamiliar - enough for me to try and tackle second draft. So I began reading it through, thinking, what am I missing here? And the most basic and most important question had not been asked - how do / does my main character(s) change or transform through the conflicts? So I've begun to answer that, which should open it up enough to develop. 

I've also been deep into family tree research. Ireland really has some amazing records - one benefit of the churches - including petty sessions records, featuring raps on knuckles for having unleashed and dangerous dogs, and unlicensed. And trespassing cattle. And between the cold figures of birth, marriage, and death dates, tragedy reveals itself over and over again. My great grandfather Edward Webb (1837-1902) was married three or four times. His first son, Alfred (1886-1957), my grandfather, lost his Mum Margaret nee Higgins (1863-1887) at just a year old or thereabouts. And then when I look up James Higgins, my great great grandfather, a Farmer from Cashel in Mayo - father to Margaret - in the years following his daughter's death, he seems to go on a dog licensing spree! Why all the dogs? My Dad's Mum seems to have been constantly pregnant! Aunts and Uncles who didn't make it to late childhood include Edward, Catherine, Kathleen... I have told my siblings that they'll be getting a family tree for Christmas - I cannot bear the prospect of yet another mid-December weekend rushing round for pointless presents. It needs to be personal this year, I've decided. 

This past week I went to see Land of our Fathers, a Theatre 503 production at the Latimer in Battersea. The setting in this tiny theatre was first class; the black mine and six South Wales miners, stuck underground. It had earned five and four stars from critics. I'd have given it a three. I felt it was a tad long and intense - don't get me wrong I love intense - and it was great to hear the South Welsh accent (isn't it but...) as well as some of the Welsh language - but because it's only in one tiny setting it felt like I too was trapped in the mine. That was the aim, yes, but the seats and legroom left a lot to be desired. 
Also went to the Bush Theatre to watch Herd, actor Rory Kinnear's debut play as a writer. The acting was superb, but quite in that middle-class sitcom type of way. In the first ten minutes me and Arabella (friend) kept looking at each other pulling faves whenever the audience laughed knowingly at inane observations made by the characters. But then it becomes clear this covers a whole raft of hurt on the part of the stage family. It's about an invisible twenty-one year old son who has had to spend the past several years in a care home - but his Mum - whose acting was frantic - has never given up control - especially not from her ex-husband, who suddenly turns up having been off the radar for five years. It's very sad, funny in parts, and by and large well written, particularly the parts of the grandparents; the grandmother is scathing! I like Rory Kinnear; his Hamlet at the National Theatre was nothing short of astonishing - as was his Iago in Othello - and this writerly debut demonstrates his versatility. Not sure what to book next. Arnold Wesker's Roots at the Donmar is sold out and am not sure if want to queue for day tickets - the same for Lesley Manville in Ghosts. There's also Routes at the Royal Court, and Billy the Girl at Soho Theatre. What is absolutely clear is that London theatre seems to never have been in ruder health. And so there has to be a space for my play. When I finish it. 

Wednesday, 25 September 2013


It's just been a tough two weeks. As with my personal writing as with my day job, often getting people to see, understand, and acknowledge one's own experience and and reality of situation is incredibly difficult. I'd have loved to have sought solace in the literary lately though, instead of the literally. But I've not had time even to have a proper dinner in the evenings; not that I'm complaining - I like crumpets. Just not every evening. I'm also incredibly disappointed and more than a tad angry that despite several emails, the books sections of the nationals have ignored the centenary republication of Miss Nobody, which is rather fucking apt given the title and that she has been ignored for so long thus far! One expects more from The Guardian though - as ever, one can't help but come to see it as yet another Oxbridge dominated media outlet and spouter of their own brand of hegemony. One can't find a home anywhere these days. 

Those who heard Ed Miliband's speech may have focussed on what, for me, was a fantastic identifier: story. He shared the stories of a few ordinary citizens. A scaffolder, an ambulance controller, a single mum. In doing so he shared their voice with us. These voices are what we don't hear enough of - and certainly not directly, although it does explain the popularity of talk radio with their phone- ins. Although our public discourse is still dominated by men. I love men, really I do, but they are only half the story - and that's all they should ever be.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Ethel Carnie Centenary

Elinor Taylor has written a very informative summary of yesterday's Ethel Carnie's Centenary Celebration, which you can read at the Rebel Pen Club, here:

Monday, 5 August 2013

Miss Nobody - Title Page

Miss Nobody - Acknowledgements

Miss Nobody - Ethel Carnie

In the meantime

My theatre glut continues apace - friend and I went to Kennington's White Bear Theatre Club for the first time last week. It's a 'space' at the back of a large old-fashioned Irish pub; you know the sort - framed collections of Irish county arms: Armagh to Wicklow. I always look up Mayo, then Cork. It was never the sort of pub I'd have drunk in. I didn't do pubs. My Da preferred the smaller Irish pubs, with portraits of Collins et al on the wall / yet not knowing those of Joyce, Beckett, Yeats. I felt a bit apprehensive in this pub - like I had to be on my guard. Ironic. My friend comes from the landed gentry and she declared in her perfectly posh voice 'I feel so at home in these places!' And put down her motorbike helmet. She grew up in Hammersmith, when it was really Irish. I needed a pen - and chances upon one of those small bookie pens, that my Da always had a few of in each jacket pocket. I pocketed this one. Anyway, the play, Can't Stand Up For Falling Down, which has won awards, had a bit of a hammy start. A trio of three young women began to tell us their story - passing the narrative baton to each other without a missed beat. I thought 'oh god - we're gonna be told this story, like it's JackaNory; but then it changed and we were shown the story. Not shown as in set - the words were the real set - and the common denominator of their woes was one man. As the play progressed so too the power of the growing unity and empowerment of each woman. I left feeling that it was quite remarkable. I'm also currently in the habit of gauging each space for my own play in progress. It couldn't be done there, that I know. 
Tomorrow we're going to watch Lee Hall's Pitmen Painters, which I've been meaning to see for ages. We've also got Ibsen's The Doll's House in the diary, which will be a sell out. And Kinnear's debut at the Bush, which will attract a lot of attention. Onwards! I'll upload the cover and acknowledgements page of Miss Nobody separately. 

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Just because

A random tweet from a twit! 

The play; Austen; Mouthpieces.

Ok, so I stuck with the play. But it took on a different situation; I now have a rough first draft - and it will come in, once formatted, to about 40-pages. Needless to say, it will be one act with no intermission. And those 40 pages don't account for cutting. And I still don't quite know what I'm saying - I only have a tenuous grasp of what it is. May seem odd to those who don't write - or those who have to know exactly before they write - that one can spend so much time just writing something they don't know the message of. But, as many a writer will say, puke up over the typewriter in the morning, clean up in the afternoon. Or, I write and rewrite to know what I'm saying. This writing process for me is different every time. It requires an awful lot of tenacity - it's digging. I probably won't get to look at it now for a couple of weeks. I'm in Manchester next weekend to see family, so that'll be out. Onwards, and all that. 

One of my friends offered me some very kind and generous words of encouragement. A good few years ago she had one of her plays read out at the Royal Court. She could invite two people and I was one of them. And I felt hugely privileged to hear it. And I loved it. One can but dream of the Royal Court! It's there I saw the somewhat exhausting 'Product', a 60-minute monologue by Mark Ravenhill, who also performed it. 

I'm off to the White Bear in Kennington next week to see a play about four women who come together to talk about some man. I'm being curt. I'm sure it'll be good. I'd be very happy to get a play on at a theatre pub. 

So, I wrote a piece for Guardian CiF last week suggesting other feminists to grace the tenner other than Jane bloody Austen! The last sentence asked 'who would you choose'? As per normal most people wrote about how they disagreed with my choices but then didn't offer their own. The Jane Austen fans were out in force as one would expect, declaring to anybody who didn't like Jane Austen, or who, in their eyes underrated her, obviously haven't read her works. The thing that these Jane Austen fans don't and won't understand is that many people have read her and actually are not all that enamoured with what she wrote. To say that she somehow represents women or even women's experiences in the 19th century is utter nonsense. Again, Jane Austen like many other female writers, represents only the middle class woman. The one sat in the drawing room watching everyone. Yes, it is true that Jane Austen's works are widely known throughout the world, mainly through adaptations as costume dramas and films, but that is no reason for her to be put on our banknotes over and above those women who made a huge and significant difference. Or who represented women in a different way. Mary Wollstonecraft. Marie Stopes. One of the Brontes. 

September sees the much awaited second novel by Paul Harding, Enon. Harding wrote the Pulitzer-winning debut novel Tinkers, which I adored. I know I've mentioned it on here before, but Paul Harding persisted for good few years in trying to find a publisher for Tinkers. This is despite the fact that Tinkers was the well-written product of an MFA. And theb it wins the bloody Pulitzer! in your face, publishing industry! I also read in the New Yorker last week about how Lionel Shriver's most successful novel, We need to talk about Kevin, was turned down by 30 publishers. And this from a woman who'd already had six or seven novels published previously. It really is a hard game, publishing. It reinforces my belief that for those writers who stay writing, it is akin to a neurosis. 

Given that I don't watch much television, the last time I was in Wales, staying at my sisters, I watched an episode of We pay your benefits. The programme matched up working people with people who had been on benefits for quite a while. The programme featured Margaret and Nick, who were on the apprentice as Alan Sugar's trusted advisors. I thought the programme was quite balanced. It followed the pairings around, with the people who were in work questioning those on benefits, what they spent their benefits on, what sort of food they could buy with the money they got. It was interesting, I felt, that the people who were claiming, except for the media studies graduate, were all overweight. I don't suppose that it's very politically correct to say that. But it was my observation. I questioned this particularly when one of the obese women whose husband was unemployed, had to go to a food bank to get some food to feed themselves. I felt for the young man, the media studies graduate, because he was genuinely confused that he should be expected to work in a dead-end low-paid job when he had this degree. It was surely an indictment of what one can expect when almost half the population attend university. Perhaps we really do need to start looking at university and higher education as an end in itself, not just as a factory producing workers for the economy. What really got my back up though, is that today, in the New Statesman, I read an article by Laurie Penny. She must've wrote it last week, but she basically claims that the BBC is somehow colluding with the anti-welfare Tories. I must say I disagreed with her view. I was also annoyed by how she claimed that Nick and Margaret had no idea of what the claimants were going through because they are privileged professionals. That was not the case, as far as I was concerned. I believe that Nick Hewer is an ardent Labour supporter, and signed up to the old Labour, in which work is considered essential to one's well-being and life purpose. He also seemed to me quite sympathetic to the plight, if you can call it that, of the welfare claimants lives. Yet Laurie Penny presented them as being somehow representative of Iain Duncan Smith's need to crush those on benefits. I am getting really quite bored and yes irritated, by young public school educated writers, holding themselves up as champions of the oppressed, the  minorities and the working class. Instead of having these young writers build up their careers and journalistic brands on the plights of the issues faced by these groups in society, why are we not, instead, hearing from the people direct? Direct experience is key. And hearing about peoples direct experiences conveys a deeper truth that cannot be so readily challenged. What we have instead, is a profession - journalism - that is packed to the rafters with the public school educated privileged class, who somehow see themselves as the next George Orwell. They are not, for the most part, the next George Orwell. They are residing in the online equivalent of Grub Street. I do not want my articles mediated in this way. Please, can we have some more authentic voices? Caitlin Moran, who writes that for The Times, is one such voice. She makes no bones of where she came from, and because of that she writes with a truth that cannot be denied. People like Laurie Penny, in fact, make these issues that they write of somehow laughable. Like the zealot, they cannot conceive of all the shades of grey in between the black and white, I'm sorry to say that, in many ways their version of being on the left is only the opposite of those on the far right. And I'm bored of it. I think I wrote on here previously, that is the last time I thought about this issue, was when Radio Four invited a group of people on to discuss social mobility. It was obscenely ironic that the people they had invited on to talk about social mobility were people who have not had any problems in becoming socially mobile. So what we get instead is posturing and theory and straplines and  soundbites, and secondhand anecdotes about what it's like to be on minimum wage, or the dole. I really do hope that it becomes a bigger issue, this problem of privileged middle class journalists putting themselves up and building their careers as the mouthpieces of the people who should really be telling us directly. And to have the channels to do so. 

So this is my longest post in quite a while. But that's all for now. Hopefully the next time I post I will be able to say a little bit more about my play, although I can say that it is about voice, and the importance of it, and the importance also of not putting people in pigeonholes. 

Friday, 19 July 2013

Time to give up?

I've had to say adios to a play I've spent all week working on. And, actually, a good while before then making notes about, and thinking about what form it could take. There's a bit of hope that by letting go of it, it will somehow return to me fully formed, leaving me to just play amanuensis! But somehow each day has felt like a slog; yes, writing is a slog. But add to the mix this enervating climate everyone seems to have wished for all year, but is now moaning about, and the pressure of feeling that IT HAS TO BE DONE this week because I'm back at work on Monday, then it pretty much becomes a dead end. There are plenty of people who have written whilst holding a day job - pretty much all writers, actually; Terry Pratchett wouldn't give his job up as a Press Officer until he had seven novels published, so precarious is a writer's life and income. Juggling the day job and then trying to get into the creative mindset of 'another world' in the evening is something I haven't yet been able to do. I took heart when I listened to a Radio Eireann playwright podcast, who repeated something I'd heard previously - that once you've got the outline, one could knock out a play in ten to fourteen days. It's possible. I dunno. I've reluctantly parked it. I hate letting go of anything. You have to be a bit, no, a lot, of a neurotic and an obsessive to write, I feel. Most writers I know are that way. Maybe everyone is that way, but that writers - constantly feeling they need to get it down in writing - are just more expressive of it? Who the fuck knows. I just know that this play aint for now. And yet it's so timely! It's of the now. It is. But it's about racism. It's not as if it's some wishy-washy story that has plenty of wiggle room; it doesn't. Ho hum. Onwards.

The week before last a friend and I watched the recording of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, filmed at the Globe. I had wanted to see it whilst it played in the West End, but hadn't got a ticket once I got round to it. Stephen Fry wasn't the main attraction, but Mark Rylance. He is so incredibly subtle - not at all hammy. I so desperately wanted to see him in Jerusalem. Anyway, it was compelling and hilarious. An all male cast, it remained true to the original production. Actors in Elizabethan times were all males. And particularly in his comedies, it helps the audience realise that cross-dressing males would have been a huge source of the comedy; to have had women instead, would have totally missed the point. Although I feel it's different with the tragedies.

I also went and heard a discussion on immigration at RIBA. Facilitated by Andrew Neill, and organised by the Spectator, the panel comprised Ken Livingstone, Mehdi Hasan, Trevor Philips, and Peter Hitchens. I actually felt a bit sorry for Hitchens; I felt that Andrew Neil was bullying him to try and get a few laughs. Hitchens comes across as bullied, added to which is the shadow of his eminently more loveable and more brilliant brother. I say that barely knowing the man, which is probably wrong. But that's the impression I get. The debate was a welcome event, I felt; the consensus was that there needs to be far more public discussions on immigration; on the levels of immigration that we've experienced over the past ten years especially. I've lived here since 1996, and I've definitely noticed it. My play touched, or attempted to touch on it.

Race was the 'thing' in Othello. I was fortunate to get a ticket to see it performed at the National, with Rory Kinnear. (I can never get over who his Dad was!) He was great as Hamlet, and no less as the Machiavellian Iago. The Iago figure was a pronounced trope of the Elizabethan era, I think. Censorship laws. Criticism of Elizabeth's reign had to be coded, as was the cause of Catholicism, banned by her father. Courtly conversations, too, had to be 'side spoken', like a shady scouser. I always get that image whenever someone is being 'snide' and having to covertly speak; of a Scouser selling knock-off gear in a pub. I doubt the Elizabethan court would have been much different.

Adrian Lester was suitably stately as Othello. It wasn't set in its original context, but that of the present; war in Afghanistan. Military meetings and kick-abouts in the base yard.

The person who stood out for me was Emilia, played by Lydnsey Marshal. An actor friend this week told me she's a fellow Mancunian. She has some solid form across formats - much more than Olivia Vinall, who played Desdemona. In fact, Vinall has done very little acting, so perhaps it's much more impressive that she played Desdemona at the National.

Next up will be at the White Bear in Kennington, another new venue for me and me mate. We're hoping for another 'Blavatsky Tower at the Barons Court Theatre' experience!

Maybe by my next post, I'll be able to say I've resumed my play, that it somehow worked out! Or not. Do I learn something different each and every time I write? Yep. I've learnt that it's all about process, not event. And each process is different. This week's felt like I was constantly in a maze, trying to jump up to get an overview, then once I thought I had stamped in my mind, I'd be lost again, and so I'd slump down and think 'fuck it', here I am - in a fucking maze. And feeling enervated at the same time because of the heat.

A writer friend this evening said 'stick with it', because he knows that's what I would say. The thing is, I taught creative writing, including 'writers on writing', and 'experiments in form' for three years, and do you know what? It makes it NO EASIER! Sure, one knows without doubt that it requires persistence, but apart from that... maybe it should also be about knowing when to let it go - even if I have to tell myself it's only temporary. And yet I can't not be working on something.

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Thursday, 18 July 2013

A new age...

This coming Sunday I shall be forty. In some parts of the world it is old; spent. People in the UK can think it 'used' to be old here. But I'm not so sure. My grandmother had her seventh child at 40; a few weeks before her husband died. I have not experienced the need for a child. I think it's because I was the oldest girl in a family of seven kids! 'Mummy's little helper'. It was a role I was sometimes ok with. But also one that I often deeply resented. Being an older sibling in a large family can mean missing out on your own childhood; it also meant, for me, that I had never harboured any illusions or romance about the desperately hard work bringing up a child involves. And then there's the fact that I spent my thirties indulging myself in education and juggling work to help pay for it of course. And dealing with my own parents' premature deaths. My Mum would sometimes say 'wait till you have your own kids!' And then in the next breath 'there's more to life than having kids!' My Da never said anything. He never once dictated to us what our lives should be or contain. Having left Ireland at sixteen to fend for himself, his reasoning was that once one reaches a certain age, your life is your own. The only value he instilled in us was to never be lazy or a 'layabout'. He valued work above all else, just for the sake of it; he certainly didn't benefit financially from it. 

My twenties were, for the most part, a mess; a chaos of low self-esteem and a crippling self-doubt. Wanting answers - and looking to people to provide them. It was in my thirties that I fully realised that no one person has 'the answers'. I learnt to trust myself more. I had to try and overcome the fear of being strong, which I still often grapple with, although it's not something that most would guess. Learning to see oneself means I can now see more - identify with - more in others. But it's never 'done'. Life is a work-in-progress and always will be. Pain and regrets have never disappeared, but have faded, almost in proportion to the time spent learning new things, being in new situations, meeting new people; being in the world. I've learnt that it's not so bad to be angry, although I don't enter rage as much as I used to. My thirties were an awakening on so many levels. Not sudden and at once, but gradually. Growing into oneself. I read more than I did during any other decade. In my thirties I earned a BA, an MA, and a PhD. I had my first book published. I wrote a lot on a range of issues. I reviewed books. I revelled in becoming an auntie. I realised that the stronger I became the fewer men there seemed to be. Men have their fears too, of course, but whilst I can be perceptive and empathic, I can't do what used to turn me inside out during my twenties and try and be what they wanted or thought I should be. I became an atheist in my thirties through a long and weird and winding process. I also took up cycling, which I always feel good about. I also realise that I'm neither fully anything; left nor right. Although I have values.

So what do I hope for my forties? 

To have greater periods of time being grounded would be nice. Balance can often be the thing we glimpse as we swing from one extreme to the other. But these periods have grown. To continue writing, because the voice I found in my thirties needs more space. And because I have many stories to tell. About where I'm from; who my parents were; just because. To achieve more. I have always been achievement focussed. And I like it. To learn more; to question more. To listen more. To jut be. 

Forty is cool. Besides, what's the alternative?

Saturday, 6 July 2013

That was the week that was

To Soho Theatre on Tuesday evening to see Address Unknown, a short epistolary play about two old friends and their relationship when one leaves US for his native Germany, whilst the Jewish Max remains. Beautiful set design, comprised two offices. As soon as I realised they'd just be reading letters to and from each other I frowned and sighed. But it maintained a compelling pace, with a few well-placed peaks. What I found striking were some of the parallels with today; of 1930s Germany and its austerity and collective shame and guilt from the First World War. The UK has never, it seems, been more aware of its colonialist past and the consequences of it. Even David Cameron has apologised for some things. But in eras of austerity, one often finds growths of extremes - on both sides of the political spectrum. And so from this mood Hilter, the failed and thwarted artist, came to power, offering the people a sense of pride and purpose. And a scapegoat. Towards the end it felt a bit like the Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, but this play was adapted from a much earlier text. I recommend it. The only gripe - yet again - is allowing people into theatres, even theatres as laid back as Soho, after the play has begun!

Last night I returned to Soho. First we stopped off for an early bite at the Groucho. I hadn't been there in a good fifteen years. I was twenty-five then. Sigh. I went for the twice-baked goat's cheese soufflé, which was heavenly. My friend had the sea bass with fennel. For pud, I went for the poached peach, which I was a bit disappointed with. For some reason I had expected it warm, like my own delicious (better!) baked peach! Friend had the incredibly indulgent Eton Mess, which I helped her with! We returned up the road to Soho Theatre to see David Baddiel try out new material on the nature of 'fame'. I met him and his partner, Morwenna Banks, at a party years ago. Not that he'd ever remember. Although he recalled to us many a party anecdote featuring Andrew Lloyd Webber, which was very funny. I loved that he talked a bit about Peter Gabriel, who I've always loved. It was an intimate, sometimes vulnerable set from Baddiel. It was more of a funny essay on the nature of fame; that tricky thing that to which so many people aspire. And prominently features Twitter, which was a very good touch. And then it ends with a clip of his daughter, singing. Beautiful voice. 

Tomorrow I'm off to the Tricycle cinema to watch the film of Twelfth Night, which starred  Mark Rylance, and Fry as Malvolio. Preceded - or followed by - a Q&A. 

Only a week to go until Othello at the National. 

Friday, 21 June 2013

Plays. Plays. Plays.

I thought I'd at least mentioned, in a previous post, one of the plays I'd recently watched. But it seems not. Recent theatre evenings include Amen Corner at The National, Marie-Ann Jean Baptiste's first UK appearance since Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies. It was an uplifting performance all round - from Marie-Ann as the Pastor of a run-down church, to the live band who I had not even realised were playing just behind the main set, to the gospel choir parts of the play. It is, ultimately, the argument between spirit and religious conformity. Originally written by James Baldwin. 

I was also astonished by Blavatsky's Tower, which was performed at the lovely intimacy of Baron's Court Theatre in Kensington. Astonished isn't the word. I admit that most theatres I've ever been to have been the major players: Donmar, National, Old Vic, et al, but rarely had I been fringe or 'off-fringe'. Blavatsky's Tower had me riveted in the scarily cohesive performances of the Blavatsky family, holed up atop the Tower of the title, designed by Blavatsky Snr. 

I then went to the Tricycle for the first time, which is a bit shocking when one considers that I lived in north London for more than a decade. I saw Bracken Moor, my first 'spooky' play. Joanne Woodward gave a standout performance. The play centred on the death of an only child, a son, at Bracken Moor. 

This week I got to see Disgraced at the Bush Theatre. Disgraced won the Pulitzer for Drama last year in America. And it's not hard to see why. Writer Ayad Akhtar has written a concise, sharp, unflinching play about an American 'secular Muslim', who had changed his name to fit in. The naïveté of his white American wife, Emily (Kirsty Bushell) is tormenting, and his subsequent downfall is on her ideals, which she later admits were naive. It was so incredibly infuriating. So too the outraged responses of the liberal elite representations in the play, in the other form of a Jewish art dealer Isaac (Nigel Whitmey), when protagonist Amir admits to feeling just a little proud that Muslims were responsible for 9/11. Abe, a name that automatically brings up Abe Lincoln, is Amir's nephew, who has also changed his name and who later embraces his Muslim heritage to the point of being arrested by the FBI whilst drinking coffee in Starbucks. It's a truly astonishing play - and I related to different aspects of the feelings explored; of feeling one's repressed ancestry in one's bones. It's had brilliant write ups too. I'm sure it will have to move on from the Bush Theatre - as perfect as that theatre and its environs are - to the West End. As we all filed out of the theatre and onto the bustle of Uxbridge Road, no one could have failed to notice the sharp divisions between many passersby, young male Muslims in their traditional dress, and us - the white liberal cultural elite, despite my saying to myself, but I knew how Amir felt! I got it! It needs to be required watching, I feel. 

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Carnie and others

I know. It's been a while since my last post. The cause is the writer's usual; the day job. But also it's the weekends I've spent writing the introduction to this September's re-issue of Miss Nobody, by Ethel Carnie. It's exciting that it will be published on the centenary of the original publication. I was in the British Library's Newspaper Library in Colindale last Saturday, reading through back issues of The Woman Worker and the paper she and her husband, Alfred, edited - The Clear Light. Below is a section of 'adverts' from one issue, which struck me in their verve and immediacy. And to think it was written in c1908! 

Anyway, I think I've finished the intro, which I sent across yesterday to Carnie champion and series editor Dr Nicola Wilson, of Reading University. Nicola also wrote the introduction to This Slavery, the re-issue of another of Ethel's novels. What I would be keen to see published is a collection of Ethel's journalism. Roger Smalley is set to have published a biography of her, which he wrote in 2006 for his PhD, and which I mined for the section of Ethel in my own PhD thesis. It's all astonishingly overdue. 

In other news, I've yet to finish mapping out the 'Book of Joan', the oft-started, oft-abandoned book on my Mum. I have lost count of those to whom, having related snippets of its draft contents, have said 'you must write it'! And yes, I must. I sometimes question whether it's residing too much in the past, but given that I am able to even consider writing it at all means I'm very much in the future from where I was, if that makes sense? To be 'in the past' would, for me, signify a paralysis of intention. And there's always the old adage of to know where you're going you need to know where you're from. And my Mum's book will serve many important feminist and class-based considerations that are still hugely relevant. 

I have also been thinking about turning my PhD novel, part 1, which is the contemporary element, into an e-book. Nothing to lose, etc. And it would mean that it isn't just confined to my bound phd, which I see every time I open my cupboard, where it now languishes.

What have I been reading? To be honest I have struggled to read the TLS every week, and the LRB has fallen by the wayside. I will renew my LRB sub. I let my London Library membership lapse. One needs to be able to visit regularly to get the most from it. I have been keeping up with the New Yorker though. I like it, natch. New story every week, and some good reports. As well as the cartoons. 
On my 'must buy' list are novels of
James Salter, as well as The Mussel Feast, by Birgit Vanderbeke. 

A couple of weeks ago I caught the George Bellows exhibition at the Royal Academy, which was very good. He was part of the 'Ash Can School'. Greater realism etc. He died in his early 40s from peritonitis. I read yesterday that Sherwood Anderson, whose work I have never read, also died from it; although much older, and because he swallowed a toothpick! 

The Lowry exhibition at Tate Britain next month will make the headlines; cue articles on his seeming penchant for young girls. 

More anon.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Call for papers - Miss Nobody Centenary

This one-day conference marks the 100-year anniversary of Ethel Carnie Holdsworth’s first novel, Miss Nobody, published in September 1913. Widely believed to be one of the first novels published by a British woman of working-class background, Miss Nobody marks a rare and important intervention in the history of working-class women’s writing and publication.

To mark this event Dr Nicola Wilson at the University of Reading is seeking papers or short presentations on any aspect of Ethel Carnie Holdsworth’s life and work. Also welcomed are papers looking at Ethel Carnie Holdsworth’s literary and political contributions in relation to other working-class women writers and political movements of the period.

Please send abstracts (max 250 words), contact details and brief biographical details to Dr Nicola Wilson, University of Reading at by Friday 28th June 2013.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Miss Nobody

A little while ago I was delighted to be asked by leading Carnie expert, Nicola Wilson, to write the introduction to a reissue of Ethel Carnie's Miss Nobody (1913). I now have the text to Methuen's original publication. It would seem that the British Library have lost its only copy. The importance of Ethel Carnie to English literature cannot be underestimated; she was this country's first working-class female novelist. Her achievements throughout her life are extraordinary, given the unlevelled playing field for women and more so for working-class women, which remains the case in literature.

Nicola initially made contact in response to a piece I wrote on Carnie for the Guardian's books blog, in response to a piece championing the 'overlooked' Sylvia Townsend Warner, by acclaimed novelist Sarah Waters. I argued that, far from being 'overlooked', Townsend Warner, like many of her middle-class writing peers of the time, had enjoyed incessant championing - particularly by the Virago publishing house.

I am not sure what reception Miss Nobody will receive upon its reissue, expected to be September this year, but I - along with others - will undoubtedly be active in drawing attention to the novel - and to Carnie.

I came across Carnie almost by accident when researching the critical element of my PhD. I became particularly interested in her use of the romance motif, and how working-class women in her era could ill afford it. She also pointed to the feminism of the working-classes - the cry to have the freedom to have some fun, which was sadly lacking in the lives of women up until the Education Act, who would have begun work from the age of seven onwards and barely have stopped until they dropped dead, exhausted. And, more importantly, the freedom to be able to stay at home and spend time with their children instead of having to rush back to work. And yet this is not the feminism or history that we are left with. Most know only that the middle class suffragettes fought for 'equality' for women; equality to vote; equality to work. Working-class women had 'enjoyed' the 'luxury' of work for centuries. And they had much political agency within working-class movements, such as the Chartists.

And yet, in our twenty-first century, it is the issue of women (and men) being unable to afford to give up work to spend time with children, that has become an increasingly urgent issue.