Friday, 9 November 2018

How Do you Read?

 How do you read?
Do you focus on the author's message and line of argument, evaluating modes of writing, such as voice, theme, structure, plot, narrative point of view, character, use of dialogue? Or do you just get sucked right in, so that you’re there, in the writer’s world?

I love the way reading feeds and refreshes me, and I wonder if readers like me filter their reading through their previous experiences, opinions and misconceptions. But there’s also bring an ability to get lost in the narrative, even when it is patently nothing like your experience of life. Most people surface-read, which leads to superficial retention, and poor comprehension, of the text. Deep reading uses the skills of analysis, synthesis and problem-solving, but does it  'spoil the story'?

I've just read the Booker winner, Milkman, by Anna Burns, an Irish writer who has produced a clever and absorbing book about 'the troubles'. Set, perhaps, in the 1990s, and located, perhaps in a Northern Irish town locked in sectarian dispute, it's about an 18-year-old girl who is pursued…stalked, almost… by a member of the IRA looking for a bit of eye candy for his arm. There's hardly any violence described, and yet the atmosphere is heavy with the idea of violence and death. I loved it, and fully recommend it, but it would be an easy book to skim read, being rather dense and there are only six chapter over its 350 pages). None of the characters are referred to by their real names...our protagonist is 'middle sister', a previously rejected boy as 'Somebody MacSomebody, and her lover as 'almost boyfriend' But it deserves to be read slowly, with thought. It's subtle, but under its skin there is clarity.. What it tells you about the troubles, are the things no news report could tell you.  Don't take my word for this, though. Here's Claire Kilroy  in The Guardian… Milkman calls to mind several seminal works of Irish literature. In its digressive, batty narrative voice, it resembles a novel cited by the narrator: Tristram Shandy. It is Beckettian in its ability to trace the logical within the absurd. 

I looked at my last two pieces of reading and asked did the reading hold me? Did I feel the passion of the writer? Did it explain itself to my satisfaction? Did the story increase reading pleasure? Or did my mind wander away from the page? However, this might be true of viewing story too. I read  The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood  in1985and now I’ve watched the TV drama The Handmaid’s Tale.  This was faithful to the story, but included other character’s perspectives in the episodes, dedicating some episodes to quite periphery characters like the husband and the wife. 

Reading a novel alongside a play or film demonstrates how differently prose fiction and dramatic script can be. I’ve done this too with the film Arrival; it blew me away and I immediately got the book of short stories it comes from on my Kindle. The original,  Stories of Your Life by Ted Chiang, is basically the same story, but the screenplay reimagining the landscape and made more of a final twist.  

Arrival  (2016 screenplay by Eric Heissere) is a film that had its genesis in short story Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang 2002, Tor Books) I saw the film, watched the ‘extras’ on the DVD and bought the book of short stories, I was so enamoured with the film. Having read the story on the page, I asked myself about the way the adapting writer approached the challenge of taking a long short story into a movie. For instance, there is a massive, esoteric plot twist at the end of the film, which in the book, is known by the reader almost from the start. The theme of both is linguistics and precognition, which is slowly revealed in the film, but fully apparent from the start of the story. The filmmaker reimagined the sci-fi element so that it was far more pleasing, visually. The poster does not give away any of the subtle of story, the theme or even that there will be a mystery within it, revealed at the end. It is focused on its stars, in the hope they will sell the movie. The ET spaceship, which is visible to the left, is not clarified, except as an UFO which is being threatened, or attacked, by the US helicopters. The film is a complex emotional drama, and very beautiful in both script, structure, and art work, but it’s almost as if the poster wants to hide this, instead giving the wrong impression that this will be like most sci-fi movies. Which it is not. 

May Angelou said in her autobiographyI Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,
There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you. 
I can identify with that. Story is massively important to humans. Lisa Crone has been re-examining the human experience of story, demonstrating that the brain craves story, not for ‘entertainment value’, but because it allows us to plan for the unknown. She believes that very early man listened to stories and processed them as ‘simulators’ which might point out ways to approach and survive the unknown and unexpected. The reason we get so ‘lost’ in books, storytellings and dramatisations is a deliberate ploy on the part of our brain…it’s a surge of the neurotransmitter dopamine that’s triggered by the intense curiosity that that an effective story instantly engenders…we don’t turn to story to escape reality, we turn to story to navigate reality because story translates big ideas, dry facts, abstract concepts, into very specific scenarios… watch her TED talk Wired for Story here.

Everything we read isn’t story, however. I noted down everything I’d read (and written and heard) in a 24 hour period, from 6.30 am to 10.30
All the stories are in red.

READ emails on phone
READ Weather  “ “
READ Cookbook for recipes
READ some of  The Lie of the Land by Amanda Craig
WRITE shopping list
WRITE emails online
HEARD The Radio 4 Story of the Week

READ Guardian (some of it)
READ seed packets
READ plant food box
WRITE My Welsh Homework
READ the Welsh handbook at Welsh class
READ The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey, first chapters
READ internet info on The Power
WATCH the news at ten
READ (in bed) The Waves.

In Death of an Author, Roland Barthes argues that readers should ‘liberate’ their reading, from the ‘interpretive tyranny’ of the critical reader, who first looks at the writer, their ethnicity, politics, religion, even personal attributes and relates these to the read. For instance, if the writer was a known 30’s fascist, then that would be immediately taken into consideration to be part of gaining the meaning. As we’ll be doing textiles later, I liked this quote…text is a tissue of quotations, drawn from innumerable centers of culture, rather than from one, individual experience. The essential meaning of a work depends on the impressions of the reader, rather than the passions of the writer; a text's unity lies not in its origins, or its creator, but in its destination, or its audience.

I like the idea that the reader is as important as the writer. And in a way, I think most people do believe the reader can and should interpret what they read, in just the same way as one interprets modern dance, a sculpture or artwork, or even an installation or video art, such as Battle of Orgreave by Jeremy Deller, which I talked about in a previous blogpost review. I can certainly be swayed by what people say about a book, and often don’t buy one if there are bad reviews (although I might borrow it). 

The approach in Death of an Author works well for literature written by people we’ll never known or have chance to understand, possibly because they are long dead, or a recluse like DJ Saligner. He seems to argue that a writer's views about their own work are no more or less valid than a reader’s interpretation, as real as the author's intention. It certainly eliminates an issue of reviewing/discussing/interpreting books – how anyone can ever know what the writer intended? It also makes a point with regard to the way women in the past had to publish under a male name, like the Bronte sisters, or anonymously for other reasons, as JK Rowling did, when she wanted to see how her crime novel would be accepted. Of course that ‘rouse’ could only work once the real name of the author was revealed, otherwise The Casual Vacancy would have dropped like a stone. On the other hand, readers don’t seem to be interested in this as a literary argument; they don’t really ‘utilize it’. Otherwise, the Radio 4 favourite, Book Club, wouldn’t be so loved. In this programme, you are told in advance which author will be attending with a studio audience, who will ask questions about the author’s recent work. For the same reason, Book Festivals, are massively attended. We all want to hear what the author says about their own work.

If you'd like some help with reading more widely, deeply and passionately try these books; 

The Novel Cure: An A to Z of Literary Remedies by Ella Berthoud 

Jacob's Room is Full of Books: A Year of Reading by Susan Hill 

Maps and Legends; Michael Chabon
Reading like a Writer, Francine Prose
The Child Books Built by Frances Spufford.
The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life by Andy Miller

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Grayson Perry – The Most Popular Exhibition Ever

The Grayson Perry Exhibition Arnolfini, Bristol -- The Most Popular Exhibition Ever

I've been a fan of Perry's for a long time, probably since seeing a TV programme about the journey he took by motorcycle across Bavaria with his childhood bear Alan Measles. And then I listened to his Reithe  Lectures which were both anarchic and academic – a mixture of belly laughs and perfect truths.  So when my friend Liz asked me to accompany her to his retrospective exhibition, along with a bunch of Open College of the Arts students, I jumped at the chance. 

As soon as we arrived at the Arnolfini (Bristol's 'Tate Gallery'), I spotted the bike, a pink and pale blue Kennelworth called Patience; it was pride of place in the gallery with a backdrop of an Alpine scene. I loved the way Perry managed a huge number of themes and metaphors all in one go; travel, biking, masculitity, feminity, childhood memories (and long-lasting affection for teddy bears), cross-dressing, the strangeness of strangers, acceptance, humour, exploration and pushing boundaries. Now, as an exhibit, devoid of Perry in mauve leathers, and with only a photo of snowy mountains instead of the cold air and crunch of the real thing, the bike felt a bit out of context. Did that make it even more ‘a piece of artwork’ than when it was roaring along a Bavarian autobahm? I tried to visualise how people might have felt, standing outside their chalets and watching it appear on horizon, when it must have been more like the talking point of the week (year!), rather than an artwork.

We toured the exhibition slowly until lunch, each taking our separate ways. There were over 25 works in several rooms and corridors throughout the gallery, so it was sensible to zone in to the ones we felt drawn to. I started on the ground floor, which was dedicated to the idea ‘what is a man’, a concept Perry uses a lot in his work, and has written a book about, The Descent of Man, reviewed in October 2016 by the Guardian…  As Perry says…Maybe there is room for all kinds of masculinity, including tough guys, as long as everyone is kind to each other.

The major artwork downstairs was a massive woodcut, a self-portrait of Perry, lying back on a couch in his studio, surrounded by the paraphernalia of his work. He’s naked, but has given himself breasts, and assumed the sort of attitude taken by female artists’ models of
past centuries. In conventional art, the female naked form is so much more idealised than the male, which might echo the way the patriarchal societies across the world and down through centuries function, and I think this is part of what he was trying to say. This woodcut  remained my favourite piece, even after seeing all the exhibits. It spoke directly to me as a woman, but I like to think it can speak directly to men as well, suggesting ‘we are all androgynous’, although others might find a more aggressive message and some might be forced to look away. Perry said about this work, People seem as interested in me as in my work, so why not make a piece about that idea, that here I am, in my studio, in the nude or in a fantasy version of myself in the nude.  

I stood for a long time, looking into the woodcut, Animal Spirit, (you can view the artwork here) in which an aggressive 'horned and horny' bear stands over a naked baby in a wasted industrial landscape. Sometimes, what Perry says is a bit obvious, but the imagery here stopped me in my tracks. However, he uses words a lot, something I’ve never been sure of in his work because this is the obvious bit, too ‘readable’ by half, he’s almost telling you what to think. The bear’s guts are filled with abstract nouns, never the best of words if you’re aiming for metaphor…Sensible  Rational, Prudent…etc.

Brexit Ceramics, with thanks to
I like the ceramics, such as the two Brexit pots, one 2 % larger, one 2 % smaller. In a video viewable at the exhibition, Perry’s talked through his ideas behind this – to give visual voice to both sides of the argument by asking the general public to send in images of themselves…and the way they voted. “I thought it would be an interesting experiment to make a work that involved, to use the fashionable term, crowdsourcing via social media. The two pots have come out looking remarkably similar, which is a good result, for we all have much more in common than that which separates us”. Commonalities found on both pots, include: bacon and eggs, the local pub, walking the dog, family, David Bowie and Marmite. However, I’m wondering if these  images were successful in delivering the message he hoped. They did look awfully similar…does that mean we are all the same? Was that the message he intended? I don’t think so, but what I like about Perry’s art is that he doesn’t mind if what he might have said can’t be interpreted as he wanted it to be, but rather reinterpreted, again and again.

What I really loved was the way he'd address issues by representing a person as icon. To the left is his 'working-class boy'. I imagined a street gang member, stuck in his life and unable to see his way out of drinking, drugs and violence, was depicted by this  youth, peirced (with his own and other people's) sharp impliments, badges and beer bottle tops. 

At lunch in the querky Arnolfini cafe, we downloaded our thoughts. We talked about some students disappointment in discovering that he does not create his work 'from scratch'. For instance, he'll ask a potter to throw a ‘naked’ pot, rather than taking the clay and throwing a pot himself, then paint and transfer in his designs. He also sends his digital designs away to be made into a tapestry, rather than doing the weaving. I was surprised this was an issue with anyone, it didn’t worry me. I’m thinking that people might as well ask the painter to mix his paints from basic ingredients, as they did in Holland in the 17th Century, or for photographers to go back to film and developing…I know some do, and are, but that’s not the issue. The art isn’t in making two pots, 4% different in size. That’s a craft, and bit of science, perhaps. The art is in covering them with what you want to say about something. 

Liz had brought with her, an article by Adrian Searle about the exhibition  ( . Searle took exception to the title (The Most Popular Exhibition Ever), which he clearly did not, or could not, fully accept as ironic. Instead, his article berated most of the exhibits; the jokes become laboured and the Brexit Pots were better on TV…

I decided to put this to one side and make up my own mind.  Okay some of the imagery was not so appealing, and I have to admit that Searle had a slight point; I did prefer the pieces that made their point more subtlety.

I wasn’t initially so keen on Death of a Working Hero(You can view this artwork here)
simply because the imagery he used wasn’t attractive to me, imagery associated with the banners of the trade union movement, and reminiscent even of the Orangemen marches in Belfast. These symbols are signifiers with strong and clear meanings but there are often deeply personal emotions reactions in people (as there was in me) which wouldn’t be expected by the artists, perhaps. I have no idea why I take against these symbols because it goes back to at least my teens. Maybe it goes back as far as the church and chapel banners of my childhood, although I have no distressing memories of any of these, I think I’ve always found them a little to ‘shouty’. For me, they also signified strongly, the boredom of being in church.
After lunch, we went round again, trying to spot the things we'd missed. I wanted to watch the people going round. The gallery was filled with families, okay, a lot of them were gallery-going families, but even so there were a huge amount of kids enjoying a Saturday outing – clearly in the week, the schools are coming too. Every age group seemed to be enlivened by the work, and by loving or hating, or not understanding, or by understanding by a process of osmosis – that moment when you take in an artwork and know you know something.

Our Mother
I wrote two poems, there and then, sitting on a bench in the gallery. The first is about Our Mother, which affected me deeply. She is doing what women all over the world do…holding on, and holding up, and this 'holding' is represented by everything she loves and cherishes and needs being attached to her bending body. Made of cast iron with string and cloth, she's a moving indictment of poverty. I feel it brought into life the images of stateless people worldwide, but wierdly the image also reminded me of a TV children's programme from the sixties, which included a quiz called Double or Drop:

So, what you had to do, 
Was step up and stand on the stool,
Say your name and where you came from,
Laugh when he made a joke, 
Answer when he fired a question.

So, when you got your question right, 
Meccano boxes and Dinky cars were pushed into your arms,
Dollies dangled from your fingers,
Toys and games for every right answer--
Cauliflowers and wooden spoons for every wrong one.
The pile growing, 
People laughing, 
Soon, you couldn’t see over the top.

So, the idea was, never to drop a prize.
But every time you got a question right, 
There was another thing, tumbled upon the others…
Exam success, qualifications, jobs,
Sex, boyfriends, parties,
Unaffordable fashion,
LIving in flats,
Wedding rings, mortgages, DIY,
Babies, children, families,
Holidays on credit
Until it was all impossible to hold!

So, what you couldn’t ever do, 
Was drop the baby.

I also tried a poem on a theme suggested by Liz, that we should try 'climbing into a ceramic vase. I climbed into The ‘Remainer’ vase of the Brexit pair.

She dreamed that she peered through the little door 
And saw a landscape filled with starry circles
And two people kissing like it was all the world
But she was too tall to get through the door
And there was no little cake to eat
Or potion to drink.
The white rabbit,
Marching down and down the vase,
Dangling his fob like a hypnotist,
Frightened her so much 
She ran past all the people with jaded faces and deadbolt eyes,
Past swallows and a woman holding a sad cat,
A guitar man, 
A box of nesting sparrows
And a falcon with a fierce stare.
When she landed at the bottom, all she found was an earthen pot.
It had all been a dream.

Thursday, 4 October 2018

Learning from the Experts

Writers, especially writers of fiction long and short, sometimes have trouble getting their story structured so it makes the best sense, the most interesting read and yet becomes something fresh. In fact, structuring fiction is an elastic technique that can stretch story into new shapes. 
One of my favourite authors, David Mitchell, is a ‘structure Titan’, taking the way a novel works and starting from scratch, approaching storytelling with innovation. In a single book he can span the geographical and historical world, chop stories in half then join them together again, invite in characters from previous novels, and catch his reader out with shocks and surprise twists in books like Cloud Atlas,(Sceptre, 2004) which consists of six interlocking short stories spanning 500 years, each narrative breaking off suddenly at the half-way point before moving on to the next half-tale.
Mitchell has won a bookcase full of awards, including two Bookers and the Costa Novel prize and now, the Sunday Times Award for Literary Excellence. On October 6th he’ll be at the Cheltenham Festival in conversation with Peter Kemp, and as a taster of what we can expect if we manage to get a ticket for that event, he was interviewed by Francesca Angelini for the Sunday Times, in which he revealed what she described as ‘his literary ticks and tricks’. 
I've just written a blogpost for We Are the OCA blogsite, to encourage my students to experiment like the experts, passing on five of his writing tips. 

Friday, 14 September 2018

Is it Art? The Battle of Orgreave

Is it Art? The Battle of Orgreave 

Part three of  Kitchen Table Writers' look at contemporary art

Seventeen years after the 1984 minor’s strike, conceptual artist Jeremy Deller’s The Battle of Orgreave, reconstructed its most violent confrontation in documentary film and showed on the UK’s Channel Four. 

What was the battle? During the miners'strike, picketing took place all over the county of Yorkshire. One such picket was at a coking plant near Rotherham called Orgreave. The miners picketed and the police came to break this up so that the coke could continue to be shipped out. 

Jeremy Deller was asking…was it that simple?

The police had swelled ranks bussed from all over the UK – some were not police at all, but subscripted from the army. The miners also had many strike sympathisers bussed in to increase the picket numbers. The clash turned into a running battle, resulting in over 120 people injured and 93 arrests. Jeremy Deller wanted to reproduce the battle to get to the heart and the truth of it, which he believed did not emerge at the time.

I first encountered Jeremy Deller in 2012, when I heard, through my Druid friends, that he had conceptualised the idea of a life-sized bouncy castle replica of Stonehenge. I can recall him saying online, that this was ‘a bit of fun’. He reinforced this with the title ‘Sacrilege’. I’m a druid, and was horrified to hear that a group of druids wanted to hire the castle in an attempt to get into the Guinness Book of Records…how many fully-robed druids can you get on a bouncy castle shaped like Stonehenge…

Image courtesy of Jeremy Deller
Druids have a varied press, from satanic to dippy, and bouncing on Stonehenge wasn’t going to improve our image, in my opinion. I was somewhat pacified when the idea was abandoned due to lack of funds, but to this day, I shudder at the thought. 

Deller won the Turner Prize for Memory Bucket, (a video study of Texas) in 2004, but I was still not convinced. An artist who used the words bouncing and Stonehenge in one breath would surely do nothing more than fatuous hommage to the miner's strike with a single video reconstruction.

Before I watched it, I imagined that The Battle of Orgreave would hardly be art at all – despite becoming part of an exhibition at the Tate…The Battle of Orgreave (An Injury to One is an Injury to All).

The Channel Four documentary, directed by Mike Figgis, also wove together interviews, live filming of the battle’s rehearsals and footage of the original event. Such programmes are usually for entertainment and information, not art’s sake. What does one remember about a BBC 4 documentary on the Romans? Not Mary Beard talking about history. It’s the re-enactment that’s impactful. Done well, battle scenes can be good telly, but surely they are not a piece of art.

But watching it on Youtube, I had to admit to myself that The Battle of Orgreave was informative, dramatic and engaging. The re-enactment itself hit home emotionally, even knowing the truncheons were plastic and the bricks were foam. I was moved and newly informed. 

Artangle Media described the making of the documentary as a ‘decoy’ – it would raise sufficient money to pay for the reconstruction in the first place. This led me to rethink my position. Why would this reconstruction be a contribution to conceptualised art? I was reminded of Walter Benjamin’s argument…a work of art has a presence or aura that was the consequence of its authenticity.
The Battle of Orgreave (An Injury to One is an Injury to All).The Courtesy of The Tate 

Deller says of the original event, the clash in 1984;  I had witnessed as a young person on TV, images of striking miners being chased up a hill and pursued through a village. It has since become an iconic image of the 1984 strike – having the quality of a war scene rather than a labour dispute. Immediately after the original confrontation, questions were raised. There was a suspicion the operation was under government control, and that police instructions were to switch strategies from the defensive protection of collieries to actively breaking up crowds and making arrests. It was revealed that the police charged on horseback prior to any major violence by the pickets. The subsequent case made against the arrested miners was thrown out of court. 

Prior to the reconstruction, Deller made posters he displayed at other art events he created (for example ‘Acid House’ at Tate Liverpool), printed on fake parchment and announcing a re-enactment of ‘The Bloody Battle of Orgreave’ under the title The English Civil War (part 2) . All this sounded very esoteric. You’d have to be in on the joke. On the other hand, it would raise anyone’s curiosity, so it was an excellent advertising move.

In the documentary, re-enactment expert Howard Giles pointed out how ‘Roman’ the original confrontation was, and how rudimentary the weapons were. The police were licensed to use only truncheons, but they did have protection; helmets and perspex shields had recently been issued as part of riot gear. The miners had stones, no protective gear, but a strong belief in what they were doing. They were lined up in traditional battle format, the miners in front of the coking plant. The police moved towards them with a basic strategy of hold the line and attack from the middle of the ranks, with a cavalry charge pursuing the strikers through the village. Roman, medieval, or reminiscent of the Napoleonic wars – certainly not the UK policing in the 1980s.

The re-enactment was held on a field very close to the original site. Over 800 people took part, mostly veteran re-enactors, but also former miners and policemen. The footage of interviews with them demonstrates how vividly they relived the events they’d taken part in. I had difficulty believing they considered what they were doing an artistic endeavour, it felt more urgent than that, and far more like a social protest. It came across strongly that they wanted people to be aware of what really happened. It’s also fair to say that many participants did not know the full extent of their involvement in an artistic project. Individually, some of them weren’t there to make art at all.

Photo of Deller Courtesy of The Tate 
Deller wrote…The image of this pursuit up the hill stuck in my mind and for years I wanted to find out what exactly happened on that day with a view to re-enacting or commemorating it in some way. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the strike, like a civil war, had a traumatically divisive effect at all levels of life. 

Deller then, did not plan to re-enact what was reported to have happened on that day (which most historic re-enactments strive to do), he wanted to document the truth as he perceived it…or, as it turned out to be when reconstructed. At first, this reminded me of factual media programming, investigative journalism and reconstructions of crimes ontelevision. But I recalled Pablo Picasso’s words, Art is a lie that makes us realise truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand’ . There is something in this which suggests an artistic concept, without leaving the social comment behind at all. 

Until that point I had been keen to spot ‘artistic filming’ or things like the use of music or heightened language (as in Pinter’s plays) in the television programme, and had been disappointed to realise that the reconstruction was almost as chaotic and unconstructed as the original battle. Once I began to think of art as 'realising the truth', I began to see how the work was propelled essentially by an aesthetic interpretation of passionate socio-political ideals, which Deller presented within an imaginative and original piece.

So, after viewing the documentary, and doing my research around it, I’ve had to extend my view about what art can be, and ask myself, can art be an idea in the mind an artist that will need many other people, often with skills artists don't have, to bring an artistic project to fruition? There are two aspects to this piece of art; the actual re-enactment itself, with or without the video that recorded it, and, afterwards, the TV documentary programme, that actually only showed snatches of the re-enactment alongside the other aspects. Both seem quite valid, and the entire project made me look at how art raises emotions and forces the viewer to re-evaluate their perceptions, often, as in this case, by creating a work appreciated for its integral truth.

Watch the documentary here

Jeremy Deller (born 1966) is an English conceptual, video and installation artist. Much of Deller's work is collaborative; it has a strong political aspect, in the subjects dealt with and also the devaluation of artistic ego through the involvement of other people in the creative process. He won the Turner Prize in 2004, and in 2010 was awarded the Albert Medal of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce (RSA). Deller is known for his Battle of Orgreave (2001), a reenactment of the actual Battle of Orgreave which occurred during the UK miners' strike in 1984

Saturday, 8 September 2018

The Hogarth Project: Re-examining The Bard.

I've been reading the Hogarth Project.
Not sure what that is? Well, it's a series of books by renown authors. Each one has taken a Shakespeare play and turned it into a contemporary novel. 
I'm trying to keep up with the output - six books so far and many more to come. 
But the reception for the project hasn't all been welcoming, and what is the Hogarth Press, anyway?
Read about it in my latest  article for the Open College of the Arts blogsite,
CLICK HERE to read the full article

Thursday, 31 May 2018

New York - A Cultural Experience in Manhattan

New York - A Cultural Experience in Manhattan 
– Episode One.

Start spreading the news, 
We’re leaving today
We’re popping a cork,

These vagabond shoes
Are walking the grid
We’re popping a cork

When my daughter surprised me with a holiday in New York all I could say was 'you're being ridiculous'! I don't think I actually believed I was going until I got there.  We spent five marvellous days soaking up the history, literature, music, art and culture of Manhattan, with the added bonus of almond, pear and magnoilia blossom scenting the air and falling like confetti.

Sammy the Limo driver, who brought us from JFK, was a lively introduction to New York. He’d lived here all his life, but had been born in the Dominican Republic. ‘I love the DR,’ my daughter calls from the back seat.’ When I’m there with my work mates, we dance in the clubs to bachata music.’ ‘Bachata!’ Sammy yelled in delight. He had loads of this on his phone and we left Queens and saw the Big Apple skyline for the first time in our lives to the sounds of Bachata.  A sight of the Empire State gets us squealing. The skyline is unique; no two scrapers are the same, and older buildings fit between them as if they’d always been there…because they always have.

Even 2 hours after arriving in JFK, I still can’t quite believe it. I don’t know what I deserved to be granted such a special a wish; a dream come true. I’ve always wanted to see New York. I wanted to prove to myself it really is the city of culture it says it is. I want to see the Art Deco of the thirties, when a lot of Manhattan was being built in the depression. I want to see the famous Radio City, the art galleries and experience the world-famous sights. And, if possible, I want to meet some of NY’s people.

So now we’re sitting on the 35th floor of the Mandarin Hotel in the Asiate restaurant, overlooking Central Park. Becky describes the view as ‘zen’; the skyscrapers suddenly judder to a halt at the edge of the huge park, lime-green with spring growth, as if someone held up an invisible hand to stop the onrush. Directly below us, in Columbus Circle, a statue of Columbus looks down on two dancers as the pirouette as they did in La La Land. The circle is the only roundabout in NYC; heaven knows what New Yorkers think of it, they are so used to the grid system, which we are going to learn to love, and the traffic light intersections, which seem kinder to pedestrians than it does to the stop-start traffic. We’re eating fabulous food and drinking champagne, and for pudding, I get an individual chocolate birthday cake with a candle and fruity sorbets to share. 

To get back to our hotel, we decide to risk the subway, imagining it’s even more maze-like than the Tube. Turns out it’s not a bit difficult because of the finger-shape of Manhattan  –simples! There are four north-to-south lines that take you from the top to the bottom of the island, while getting from side to side is actually easier on foot.

This evening we’re getting the Baton New York, a glass-sided river cruiser that takes us down the Hudson River as the sun goes down and the lights of NY start winking and twinkling. There’s a sort of romance in the air (perhaps it’s all the couples who have booked tables for two) and as we pass the little wharfs that hold boats of all description ready to travel this very wide river, I’m thinking that one of the things that makes New York such a place of romance is its story.
It’s a narrative that started in 1609 when an English captain called Henry Hudson navigated his clipper the Half Moon into New York Harbour. He had been sent by the Dutch East India Company to find an Artic passage to the Far East, but he went no further. Did he think…why not stay here, build a town, let it grow, make it a city? The first Dutch settlers first had to bargain with the native Lenape, who sold the island of Manhatta for what seemed a bargain $24 worth of beads, worth about $1000 today, but actually the Lenape might have been cannier that this suggests, as they only used the land to hunt and probably only sold the camping rights. Generations of settlers fought the aboriginal people to keep the land they thought they owned…and as we know, they won. The Dutch called Manhattan New Amsterdam, but in 1664 the British gained it and changed the name…and the rest really is history. 

I’m starting to ask, can Champagne become an addiction? I hope not, we’re ordering like it will be out of fashion tomorrow. We go out on deck to watch the wharfs dissolve into evening mists. The live band starts up, a little trio all of whom can sing. Every so often, one breaks off from the song and begins to tell us something new about what we are seeing, and we all dash outside to the helm of the boat to catch a proper glimpse, and maybe a photo or two. We order our evening meal, which we’ll eat as we cruise. Suddenly, two of the staff arrive to present me with a birthday bouquet of flowers. They seem delighted to do it and asked to have their photos taken with me. This lovely gift lasted all week in our hotel room.

 As the night deepens to navy blue, Wall Street and the Financial District is redolent with light; I’m betting you can see it from the moon. We pass under Brooklyn (described, the tour guide suggested, as the ‘prettiest bridge in the world’, but only, I would say, by those who have never seen the Clifton Suspension Bridge). 

We slide under Manhattan bridge, steadily turn round in the East River and head back towards the great lady herself; the Statute of Liberty. She is lit from below, illuminating herself solely with her torch and coronet. We are told that she is a colossal neoclassical design, built in France and given to the people of New York after their revolution. To me, she’s divine, literally, like a goddess, gigantic and sea-green, her face exuding peace and warmth. Her figure, though, is strong, powerful, she reaches up as if calling out, ‘there is justice here…’ I can imagine those ‘huddled masses’ as they stood at the prow of so many ships watching her grow close, and it occurs to me that the sensations they would have felt if the statue had been in the form of a man, would have been very different. She is a mother, and a goddess, offering and protection liberty, and a new start. Hopefully, very soon, she’ll be back in business, welcoming desperate emigrees hoping for a better chance in life into the US.

More Manhattan Adventures on KITCHENTABLEWRITERS soon...

Sunday, 20 May 2018

The Devil's Tune, by Fran Kempton

I've just read a great new release; a book set in Italy in ther 16th Century, but as full of dark evil as any recent Lee Child. Set on true events, it's a gripping read. It's The Devil's Tune, by Fran Kempton, and I'm lucky enough to have her here this week, guest-blogging on Kitchen Table Writers.
I asked her what she meant, when she describes the writing process as 'dream spinning' – is this how she wrote The Devil's Child? This is what she says…
If you are reading this you are probably a dream spinner, or hope to be. This is my name for a writer struggling with their one thousand words each day – or not. Instead of conjuring up the all- too- familiar vision of a lone, stressed creature slumped over a computer while wearing coffee-stained pyjama bottoms, it envisions a more spiritual creature, possibly clad in a cashmere lounge suit, weaving tales in the manner of Scheherazade at the feet of her Sultan.
Jean's cat often helps her write
    Oh, all right, I am getting carried away here, but I have just launched a new book under a pen name and I am quite euphoric about having another set of stories in hand, quite different from anything I have written before. I understand a little of what Dr Jekyll felt when he escaped from Mr Hyde, but in happier circumstances.
    There is a useful lesson here for any writer. Creating a different persona even for a day or two in your own writing space can be a liberating tool. You will be surprised at what your imagination throws up. It’s also a useful tool for a creative writing class.
    We know that writers get their ideas from everywhere – out of the ether, in dreams, from a place, a scene, a weird thought. It is fitting in this year when we are celebrating the two hundredth anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to remember that she read something in a scientific journal about ‘galvanism.’ From this came her idea of galvanising a corpse and bringing it to life. Essentially, we writers or dream spinners, are trying to galvanise our imagination into coherent life so that we can form the words of our stories.
    In my case the fascination with the subject of my book, the 16th century composer, Carlo Gesualdo, was sparked by strange music, the Italian Renaissance and grisly murder. A tale that Hollywood might have rejected as over the top appealed to me immediately. Gesualdo’s life has been the subject of two operas, plays, a film by Werner Herzog and even a ballet by the New York City Ballet Company. Fortunately for me, few books have been written about him in English.
    There is a particular problem in writing historical fiction about real people. You are spinning a story around someone who actually lived. Is it permissible to take imaginative liberties with this person? When I wrote my first book, a spin off from Pride and Prejudice featuring Lydia Bennet, I was occasionally reproached for taking liberties with Jane Austen’s sacred characters, but I pointed out that they were fictional and therefore fair game for a writer’s imagination.
    After writing two spoofs and two travel memoirs I decided that my venture into serious historical fiction warranted a new name. Thus Fran Kempton was born and I feel I should create a life, a back story for this shadowy character. Marjorie Bowen, one of my favourite HF writers wrote more than one hundred books under various names. I can’t match her output but I approve of her imaginative take on her own personality.
    Many writers have used pen names for a variety of reasons, not all of them honourable. Dean Koontz, writer of horror stories, used eight or more pseudonyms because his output was so vast that publishers could not cope. Food for thought there, I think.
   Mostly, writers use pen names in order to change direction, veer into a new genre, as I have done. JK Rowling famously departed from boy wizards to write detective fiction as Robert Galbraith. Agatha Christie, when wearied of crime and its trappings had fun writing romance as Mary Westmacott, Anne Rice, celebrated creator of memorable vampires had a previous life as a writer of erotic fiction under the name AN Roquelaure.
The launch of Who Needs Mr Darcy
    Sometimes a writer is so uncertain of his abilities that he starts out in disguise. Stephen King published his first novel as Richard Bachman. If the he is a her there is a powerful reason for altering the name. If the writer is perceived as male it is a definite advantage. PD James used this formula – the initials give an impression that the writer is a man. Another writer of historical fiction, S J Sansom, admits to using this formula. It is a sad that this should still be the case in 2018. Perhaps I should have called myself Francis Kempton – or even Frank!

I moved to Bristol from London many moons ago having lived in the USA and Latin America at various times. I studied at Exeter University and did a Master’s Degree at Cardiff,University of Wales.
I write historical fiction ranging from the Regency period to the Italian Renaissance. I have also written two books of travel memoirs, including: 
The Devil’s Tune  by Fran Kempton (Jean Burnett)l 2018 (Chetwynd Books).
Who Needs Mr Darcy? (Little Brown). Published as The Bad Miss Bennet in USA (Pegasus)
The Bad Miss Bennet Abroad (pub. By Canelo)
Vagabond Shoes –a travel memoir-(Chetwynd Books)
A Victorian Lady in the Himalayas (Brown Dog Books)
The Italian Trilogy-Book One-The Devil’s Tune (Chetwynd Books) (Written as Fran Kempton) Available Here at Amazon