Saturday, 30 January 2010

Poetry and the Prime Minister - Poetry Live for Haiti

Gordon Brown and Carol Ann Duffy at the Poetry Live for Haiti event (taken with my mobile phone so apologies for the poor quality)

I am a lowly creature; I like nothing more on a Saturday than to potter about the house, drinking tea, reading and catching up on bits and bobs that I haven't managed to do during the week. This might sound boring, but to me it is simple luxury as I rarely manage to have such days so I relish my lazy weekends. All too often, however, my lazy weekends evaporate into a burst of outings, chores and general gadding about. My lazy day this weekend was all planned, Saturday was going to be a day of reading, pots of tea and patchwork. But, I found out about an event that I couldn't miss.

I spent this afternoon at Poetry Live for Haiti. Organised by the Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy the event was put together to raise funds for Haiti. The event was a marathon, lasting four hours, during which over 20 Poets from the UK read to an audience who just couldn't believe their luck. The poets included, Dannie Abse, Gillian Clarke, Jo Shapcott, Andrew Motion, Grace Nichols, John Agard, Roger McGough, Elaine Feinstein, Maura Dooley, Robert Minhinnick, Brian Patten and many more some of whom are mentioned here.

I cannot begin to write a critique of their work or the poems they read as almost 100 poems were read out and, frankly, it would require a PHD thesis length of a blog post. All the poets were captivating and I am so grateful to have had the chance to have seen them read their work. I was blown away by Dannie Abse's lyrical and humble words which hung together so clearly and so beautifully. You can hear some recordings of him reading on this website.

Dannie Abse with 'the poets' in the background

Jo Shapcott's poems were wonderfully intellectual, playful and personal but without cliche or pretence and Elaine Feinstein also balanced the personal with a resonating profundity. John Agard stole the show with 'Alternative Anthem' which you can read on this website here if you scroll down a bit.

I do not want to detract from the power, presence and importance of the poetry at this event. However, it has to be mentioned that Gordon and Sarah Brown unexpectedly entered and Gordon gave an opening speech, a transcript of which you can read here. Nothing can hi-jack the poetry, Gordon's speech did not even come close to giving me the rollercoaster ride of emotions that all twenty-odd poets gave me this afternoon. Politics cannot overshadow the beauty and soul-force of poetry. However, I was impressed. Call me naive, call me a sucker but I do not believe that the 'impromptu' appearance and speech was just a PR stunt. Ok, so it's good PR, so Gordon is coming up to an election, so the Chilcott enquiry is taking place at the moment. I was sitting two rows from the front (hurrah for me and my elbow shoving up the stairs) and I saw every movement that man made, I saw his hands shake, I saw him delivering a meaningful and worthy speech for a very worthy cause in the midst of what must be media and political hell at the moment (ahem, having been done up like a kipper by Tony Blair).

Anyway, my blog is not a forum for political views so I am going to move swiftly back to what I know about; words. I am glad that my hermit plans for today were interrupted by the better side of my brain deciding to step out into the crisp, icy day to hear some poems. And I was even more glad when I was walking past the serene and silvery Westminster Abbey and I looked up into the depthless winter sky to see a brilliant, radiant and full moon shining down. A simple and steadfast luxury for modern times.

I am reverting back to my planned lazy weekend so will write the long promised post on the wartime letters of Iris Murdoch which are being published next week and which I was fortunate enough to be sent a review copy of. Lazy weekends should start with a poem so here is one of my favourites from today. Listen to a recording here or read the words below.

The Yellow Palm

As I made my way down Palestine Street
I watched a funeral pass -
all the women waving lilac stems
around a coffin made of glass
and the face of the man who lay within
who had breathed a poison gas.

As I made my way down Palestine Street
I heard the call to prayer
and I stopped at the door of the golden mosque
to watch the faithful there
but there was blood on the walls and the muezzin's eyes
were wild with his despair.

As I made my way down Palestine Street
I met two blind beggars
and into their hands I pressed my hands
with a hundred black dinars;
and their salutes were those of the Imperial Guard
in the Mother of all Wars.

As I made my way down Palestine Street
I smelled the wide Tigris,
the river smell that lifts the air
in a city such as this;
but down on my head fell the barbarian sun
that knows no armistice.

As I made my way down Palestine Street
I saw a Cruise missile,
a slow and silver caravan
on its slow and silver mile,
and a beggar child turned up its face
and blessed it with a smile.

As I made my way down Palestine Street
under the yellow palms
I saw their branches hung with yellow dates
all sweeter than salaams,
and when that same child reached up to touch,
the fruit fell in his arms.

Copyright © Robert Minhinnick 2006

Monday, 25 January 2010

A new baby and a new reading adventure

This is a post to chime in a new arrival on the literary scene - my two week old niece. She is the most beautiful baby and has brought so much joy to our family as she is the first baby to be born since I arrived 25 years ago. As the granddaughter, daughter and niece of three women who live, breathe and devour books she has no choice - she has to love reading. It is a legacy that we will bestow (force) upon her and over the past two weeks I have already been dreaming about trips to the library, bookshop and theatre with her.

My sister, I should add, claims that she is Librarian in Chief - oho, how I laugh at this weak assertion. I am planning my literary coup as I write this. She has no idea.

Some of my earliest memories are trips to the library in Chichester, reading with my mother and reading with my sister (who always did excellent voices). There are so many fantastic children's books that I want to read to my niece (if I can send my sister on a fool's errand), many of which I still know off by heart.

I can recite Each Peach Pear Plum in its entirety - not the sexiest party trick, but a party trick nevertheless. One of my ultimate favourites (and I still have this) was The Jolly Postman and, for my favourite time of year, The Jolly Christmas Postman. These lead me on to Burglar Bill, Peace at Last and the First Picture Book by Althea which my sister and I obsessed over. It is now out of print (published in 1978) and it is the most extraordinary book of illustrations and stories. We still have our copy at our mother's house in safe-keeping where it is falling apart. We go through it together now and when I look at a particular illustration of some hedgehogs in leaves I truly feel like I am at home. I am small again and joy and wonder can be found in a simple picture.

My ultimate favourite picture book has to be the very cool feminine tract Princess Smartypants by Babette Cole. I vividly remember my mum giving it to me, and she has called me her Princess Smartypants ever since (she always was sarcastic). Smartypants does not want to get married, why should she? She is rich, beautiful and can do anything. But her father orders that she has to find a husband and a string of weedy, dweeby, wimpy Prince's try to woo Smartypants by completing the tasks that she sets them. Of course, they can't. Her man-eating slugs attack them, her glass tower is too slippery and she is far too good at out roller-skating them at her roller disco. But then Prince Charming turns up and he can do the lot. Will she succumb and marry him? Babette Cole also wrote Prince Cinders which is equally as fantastic and witty. These will definitely be on my niece's bookshelves.

It is so exciting to think of all the book discoveries that she will make, to watch her find joy in words and stories and also to learn from her. Sometimes I feel that as adults we forget to see things for the first time, we miss simple pleasures and we find it too easy to speed through reading experiences. There are few, if any, books that I have revisted over and over again as an adult but I still open my picture books when I go home and I must have read some of them hundreds of times. Obviously, it is easier and more fleeting to read a 20 page, rhyming picture book again and again than it is to read a 400 page novel but the memory of reading those first books is somehow more lasting, prominent, comforting and, ultimately, exciting.

I wonder which will be my niece's favourite and which will be her worst. One of my sister's favourite was Dogger which absolutely scarred me for life as I couldn't bear the thought of losing my cuddly toy. I only hope I don't have to read this to baby at bedtime, although I think the Librarian in Chief will make sure it is on the nursery shelf.

What books were on your nursery shelf? Any that you absolutely hated? Do you still read your favourites? It would be great to know as I am on the hunt for the best picture books around to usurp my sister and steal the Chief Librarian crown - it's going to be a difficult task but I'm not called Smartypants for nothing.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Team Whipple

Endpaper for High Wages by Dorothy Whipple, 'Farm Scene', a 1930 dress fabric by Crysede Ltd. Copyright V&A Images

To use Darlene from Roses Over a Cottage Door's phrase, I am a fully-fledged member of Team Whipple. For the one person on Svalbard who does not know to whom I am referring, I will explain. Team Whipple refers to the author Dorothy Whipple who Persephone Books has resurrected and republished after she shockingly fell from favour somewhere between young men who got angry and modernism going postal.

On Christmas Day I jumped out of bed to see if Father Christmas had brought me the one thing, the only thing that I really wanted; the latest Whipple offering from Persephone Books - High Wages. As I rumpaged through my stocking so lovingly put together by my mother, I was after one thing. My fingers reached something smooth and book-like. I pulled out a delightful, grey book with shining endpapers.

The thing is, I couldn't read it straightaway. I had to save it for the perfect moment so I read a couple of other books before settling down on a snowy day with the tabby cat on my lap, a slice of my mum's delicious Christmas cake and, of course, a pot of steaming tea.

Jane Carter is ambitious, resourceful and intelligent. She loves to read, she loves clothes and she loves success. When she enters Mr Chadwick's draper's shop to ask for the job of assistant she sees the chance to escape her stepmother and make a better life for herself. Mr Chadwick hires Jane and very quickly she becomes his best worker. Jane soon befriends Maggie, who also works in the shop, and Maggie's young man Wilfred who works in the library. Wilfred falls in love with Jane as she is interesting and reads, unlike Maggie, and he quietly yearns for her as he knows she does not love him.

Mr Chadwick's business improves with Jane's expertise, he is a wealthy man yet the high society in Tidsley do not accept him into their social circle. He is after all, a shopkeeper. So, when Jane befriends Mrs Briggs the honest wife of a partner in the local cotton business she secures tickets for herself and Mr and Mrs Chadwick to attend the Hospital Ball. The social event of the year oganised by the social queen of Tidsley, Mrs Greenwood.

Mrs Greenwood makes it clear that she disapproves of their attendance and when Jane is assaulted by a young and wealthy man, Mrs Greenwood purposefully implies that Jane is of 'loose' virtue and threatens that she and her daughter, the beautiful Sylvia, will not take their custom to Mr Chadwick's any longer.

Mr Chadwick is beside himself as he respects the social strata and regrets ever trying to ignore it. When Jane tries to defend herself his position is very clear,

""What happened at the ball was no fault of mine, placed as I was. Mrs.
Greenwood has no right to speak like that; she oughtn't to be in a position to
speak like that...'
'Now, Miss Carter said Mr Chadwick, wriggling. 'No
socialistic notions here, please.'"

Despite this incident Jane manages to keep her job and continues to bring good business to Mr Chadwick's. Jane frequently looks outside of her position and sees things that people like Mr Chadwick will never allow themselves. She sees the local eligible bachelor, Noel Yarde and daydreams about him. She watches as he courts Sylvia Greenwood and thinks about what it would be like to move in those social circles. But, after all, she is just a shopgirl.

When Maggie finds out that Jane and Wilfred shared a quick, meaningless kiss she forces Jane to leave Mr Chadwick's. This turns out to be a triumph of fate as she receives a loan from Mrs Briggs to set up her own shop. Jane becomes incredibly successful but more importantly she is an independent businesswoman and Noel Yarde, now married to Sylvia, finally notices her.

As the First World War comes and goes Whipple manages to capture the slow but pervading change that took place in small towns like Tidsley. She examines a moment in British history when social boundaries were shifting, women were emerging from the shadows and shopping would become a whole new experience with the introduction of 'ready to wear'. Clothes are still, to some extent, an indication as to your wealth or social standing. In the early twentieth century they were even more so - they were clear social signifiers. With the introduction of ready made clothing, these clear signals started to wane and the image of the regal, corseted Mrs Greenwood would disappear.

High Wages absolutely lived up to my expectations - Whipple has once again captured the minutiae of everyday life, of the conditions for women and the fact that life does not always go to plan. I like Jane, I easily sympathised with her even when she was so obviously getting it wrong (as we all do). Jane is inspirational - she receives knocks, she is caught in a changing world which is as hard for men as it is for women and she is, to some extent, a slave to fortune. But, through hard work, effort and internal struggle she develops into a competant and liberated young woman.

So - another win for Team Whipple. For the person on Svalbard, Persephone Books deliver. For Whipple-lovers, you won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

A belated welcome to 2010

View from The Trundle in West Sussex
It has been too long since I last posted. I came back to London after my week in Sussex refreshed and ready for the new year so I decided to completely overhaul my flat and sort everything out which turned into a week long endeavour rather than the afternoon that I had anticipated. Two trips to Ikea later and I am now sitting at my brand new desk in my transformed bedroom. At long last I have somewhere proper to write! I have no excuses now (theoretically).

This is the first year that I have no official resolutions. Last week, as I was rummaging through a cupboard wondering how it had got so full of tat, I found a crumpled list. It was my New Year's Resolutions for 2009. Evidently, I am no good at fulfilling resolutions as I had spectacularly failed to fulfill any for 2009. As my mood started to droop I realised that I may not have 'achieved' any on the piece of paper I was holding but I had done plenty of other things in 2009 that could easily constitute a resolution. The most important one is this blog.

I started this blog because I love writing and I love reading and I was losing a connection to both of these things through the monotony of full time work, sleep, domesticity and just life after university. I am still finding my way and my voice but this blog helps me to do that. I have loved dipping my toe in to the blogging world and I am so grateful for all the comments since I started. And I am actually staggered that there have been any at all as I thought my only readers would be my mum and sister. Both of whom should take all the credit for this as without them I doubt I would ever have picked up a book in the first place. My sister has been a reading inspiration since the moment she read Peace at Last to me - with voices. And my mum, a dedicated reader, has the best bookshelves in all of Sussex.

The other major achievement for 2009 was that I gained a City & Guilds qualification in bookbinding. It was a year of hard work but was worth every moment as I met some fantastic people who have become good friends and I learnt a wonderful craft which I hope to take further and turn into a bigger part of my life.

So, no resolutions for 2010. I am going to see where the year takes me and when I am clearing out my cupboards in preparation for 2011 I won't have a stark reminder of what hasn't been done - only a year's worth of memories, all of which will be a bonus.

As for my reading challenge to read 50 books - I read 44, which I intend to beat this year! My reading highlight for 2009 was absolutely Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, followed closely by both The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald and Princes in the Land by Joanna Canaan. I am determined to reach 50 this year - perhaps I have made one resolution after all?