Friday, November 24, 2006

The Family Of Things...

It's a special day for me today; a milestone, you could say. So I'm including a favourite poem specially for myself. It's called "Wild Geese" and it's by Mary Oliver.

"You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things."

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Getting Hooked On The Ko San Road...

What on earth IS the connection between a picture of a second hand bookshop on the Ko San Road Bangkok and the following BlogPost about an evening class on the outskirts of a small(ish) UK city????
It's this: in July,I found a superb collection of short stories in the bookshop ; the book was Alice Munro's wonderful "Hateship, friendship, courtship, loveship, marriage"
The title, like the open frontage of the bookshop, well and truly hooked me in.... so I bought the book, read it on the long flight home, and a few months later, I find we're discussing the start of one of Munro's brilliant stories in a writing class one chilly November evening..

Here's the story:Last Wednesday I sauntered back to an old stamping ground of which I'm very fond; this is the highly successful writing group at Dorin Park, run by Liverpool writer and publisher of Headland Press, Gladys Mary Coles. This week, they had a special visitor, Merseyside writer David Evans, who came to talk on the art of short story writing.
It proved to be a fascinating evening;David is both informative and entertaining and I enjoyed being back, if only for an evening. I'd previously attended D Park sessions for six years and they became a highlight of my week. Those sessions fanned my interest in writing;they led to new activities, new friends and a change of direction in my working life..

David Evans is an accomplished writer, also a most interesting tutor. He draws on his own life experiences; this results in crisp absorbing work. His history is intriguing. As a journalist in South Africa during apartheid, he was imprisoned for political beliefs for five years. On release, he came to Liverpool where he now lives with his partner, writer and tutor Jenny Newman. She herself was once a nun, but left her convent after many years and has since written brilliantly about her experiences. It's a sobering thought that both Newman and Evans led lives in closed communities, be they vastly different ones.
Jenny's book, based on her experiences, is called " Going In" . David's novel " A touch of the sun" ( a " play" on the words sun/sun) was published last year and is based on the life and times that he knew. This book, like Jenny's, was well received. It tells the tale of a young South African journalist from the South African town of Victoria, who becomes embroiled in decisions both political and personal. Jimmy McGovern ( a son of Liverpool, if ever there was one..) describes the book as having:"a sense of place,a sense of time, honesty, messy humanity.."

I'd actually been in David's company before. However, I don't think he remembered the sodden-haired creature he met previously and I'm quite relieved about that.
One very wet evening in April, a friend and I staggered out of a Liverpool railway station ( umbrella-less and lightly dressed) into a Scouse version of the Monsoon. I'm not exagerating.It's not often the average Liverpudlian stares speechlessly up into the sky but that evening, several did; the deluge was ceaseless, almost unbelievable in its tropical violence.
And as the rain lashed, my friend and I fell into a taxi (steamed-up windows, the smell of damp leather, someone's forgotten red spotted brolly lolling on a seat), eventually arriving soaking wet at a wine bar in Hardman St for the launch of David Evans' new book of short stories. This was the excellent " Portrait Of A Playboy" which I thoroughly recommend. In fact, after reading it, I gave it to one of my sons; he too endorsed it as a great read.

And back to last week. My friend Pat ( who has attended Gladys Mary's classes for ten years ) invited me to last week's session. I was pleased to be invited back and particularly interested to learn more through David Evans about the art of the short story.

David's favourite short story writers include Chekov, Dorothy Parker, VS Pritchett, Michele Roberts, Alice Munro** ( see end of this Post ) James Lasden. The last mentioned writer recently won the acclaimed Arts Council shory story prize for his " Peter Kahn's third wife" . David also descibed how he came to write himself, how as a boy at school he won a prize for his writing, only to be told by his Head: " But don't go thinking you've made it yet!"

We then discussed certain ingredients said to be keys to the successful short story.
David believes SOMETHING should happen, even if only internal; a glimpse into a life should be a GOOD glimpse. He's saying, I think, there should be movement "of a kind" even if it's merely a character coming to a conclusion about something simple , or making a decision about a detail in their life.
David also said writers should take risks, should challenge conventional wisdom. They should, we felt too, follow their own instincts. Nobody ever did anything new, without bearing that in mind. But it's easier said than done!
Too many characters in a short story confuse. Of course there's always the theory that rules are there to be broken and sometimes THAT works brilliantly... That's "the thing" about creative writing; it grows, it's organic, it often does it's own thing. That, I think, is one aspect of "taking risks".
David believes, and we agreed, that dialogue should " push" action, not waste time. Information should be given through well chosen dialogue, character's thoughts, how they behave.
Description should be minimal; what's used should be concise, well-chosen. A "busy" urban street is best peopled with characters who show this, who show their uniqueness, with detail that creates " atmosphere" ; a setting casn be created with a couple of phrases.
The title of a story ( or book) matters; it should " hook" the reader, intrigue, make them keen to read on. ( As I was, on seeing Munro's book title in Thailand...)
Openings are crucial for the same reason; David cited the opening to Alice Munro's first story in " Hateship, Friendship..." ( its name is the title of the book) :" Years ago, before the trains stopped running....., a woman with a high, freckled forehead and a frizz of reddish hair, came into the railway station and inquired about shipping furniture..." Immediately, readers ask questions. Who is she? What's going on in this woman's life?
All these points are ingredients in a well baked short story. But like the best, most innovative recipes, writers do their own thing, find their own methods..

**Alice Monro has the knack of blending bizarre with ordinary; this is, I suppose, what life's about. She can be funny, she can be movingly sad, all within the same paragraph.

One of her best stories is "Family Furnishings". There's a fabulous description of a family meal, where "our family...put boards in the diningroom table".... where" there had to be far too much to eat, and most of the conversation had to do with the food, with the company saying how good it was and being urged to have more, and saying they couldn't, they were stuffed, and then the aunts' husbands relenting, taking more and saying they shouldn't, they were ready to bust.....And dessert still to come.........And everybody went on cutting, spooning, swallowing, in the glare of the fresh tablecloth, with the bright light pouring in through the newly washed windows. These dinners were always in the middle of the day.."
NB to me: Read this book again!

Stuff and Nonsense in Crickhowell

My grandson George owns a smart red Welsh dragon made of felt ( thankyou L+G) so I was particularly interested in a piece in yesterday's "Times".
It appears a spicy sausage called ( yes, really) the "Welsh Dragon", has to be renamed. Trading Standard officers have warned the makers ( the Black Mountains Smokery at Crickhowell ) that there's a possibility of prosecution because their sausages don't actually contain dragon. Funnily enough, they merely contains chili, leek and pork.
The company said yesterday that they'd had no complaints about the abscence of real dragon meat. Hmm.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

"Happiness Makes Up In Height For What It Lacks In Length" ( Robert Frost, 1942 )

Talking still of Happiness.....
In the summer, we went to the civil marriage ceremony of two local poets, Liz and Helen. It was a friendly celebration, warm as toast, lots of family and friends; the affection between these two talented women was clear to anyone. The reception took place in Watergate Street in a lovely old black and white Tudor building called Stanley Palace* ( See end of this Post)

As a teenager, I went to parties at Stanley Palace; we took over the whole building, with its oak panelled rooms, its leaded lights, its chandeliers, its dark corners, its secret alcoves...
We danced to the Stones ( " Paint it black" and the wonderful " Ruby Tuesday"). We leapt about to the Who ( the Who??... I later saw them go wild at L'pool Uni Union) and we sang out with Dylan ( "Hey, Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me") and we chanted Beatles songs ( " Its been a hard days night, I've been working like a dog.." and the brilliant " Norwegian wood"... )
And, of course, we swopped boy friends and makeup, jokes and secrets (and probably lies) and all this beneath the oak beams while we sipped punch and ate anaemic sausage rolls and wondered if our legs looked too fat or our eyes were too piggy or our hair was too curly ( mine was...) .
Years on, I went to lectures at Stanley P ( grave faces) to meetings ( even more grave faces) And I went to the odd grown up party at Stanley P where everyone wore stuffed shirts ( and possibly even crinolines ) and the men had seriously-polished shoes and the women wore Jaeger ( navy, usually) and they chatted intently while wearing their masks of polite convention.

But this was different. This was a celebration of two lives meeting and joining and as part of their celebration, Liz and Helen asked some folk to perform their own work. Most of the performers were members of Chester Poets, like Liz and Helen. There was just me and another friend, Clare, representing Chester Writers. I wrote something about Happiness. It's called ( surprise surprise) " Happiness".

"Sometimes Happiness stares you in the face, touches the pores of your skin with its fingers. Sometimes Happiness lies on its back, kicks its legs in the air, begs you join in. Sometimes it floats and it swirls and it laughs with its eyes. Happiness jigs on donkeys, glides with swans on the river. And sometimes Happiness dances in your soul.

Happiness can fly with swallows, sweep dark streets clean for the morning. It appears round the corner when you least expect it, when your jeans are frayed and your shirt is grubby and your friends have boarded a train to elsewhere. Sometimes happiness plays Mozart and Lennon on the same piano.

Happiness is a laugh bright as lemons. It’s the ordinariness of today, when yesterday shivered with fear. It’s a smile that shines, a voice rich as chocolate. Happiness is remembering that yesterday was special, that someone nestles in your heart forever. It’s stretching and yawning, opening your eyes to someone who needs you. It’s the taste of strawberries, the sip of burgundy, the long draught of icy water on the hottest of days. It’s walking on cobbles in Abbey Square in the highest of heels, when evening is summer and evening is young and your hips swing and the sky shimmers. It's knowing he's right and admitting you're wrong and knowing you're thankful. It's hearing a voice, remembering a time, it's planning a dream.

What else is happiness? Happiness knows the full story when the gossip broke your heart. It’s those black trees against purple skies when Christmas has gone and New Year is near and your family still gathers. It's remembering your baby's skin, your father's face, your mother's loyalty, times you spent with a friend. It’s the old lady sitting at The Cross in velvet cloche hat, who lifts her veil of taffeta so that her smiles stretch all the length of Watergate. And it's the boy with his dad, the girl with her mum. It’s the faraway aunt, who came at bedtime, who kicked off her shoes, who told stories late in the night. It's the letter you find, thirty years on, when your Grandma's long gone and the time's long since gone but her kisses still dance on the page. It’s the welcome home, the Bon Voyage, the Good Luck card. It’s the phone call in the night that you wanted.

Happiness is also the perfect fit, the completion of the outfit. Happiness is the most glorious skirt. It’s the fur of the cat, the best cup of tea, its fresh linen sheets, it's your mother's roast on Sundays. It's holding someone's hand at the end of a garden, on a bench in a garden, while you talk and they listen and they talk and you listen and the cats brush against your feet and the night draws in and the problem is solved and the problem has gone.
It's remembering a sound, that pattering sound, your feet in brown Clarks sandals on Llandudno pier; it's the voice of the teacher who praised. It’s the lady next door in the crimplene dress, who poured Lucozade in sherry glasses, who dried your tears with a hankie smelling of lavender. It’s the kiss in the alley, the hug in the kitchen, the talk late at night; it’s the first glimpse of the sea, the walk at the edge of the mountains.It’s the glance between friends when sun is dying and wine is good and the talk is free and the talk is honest and the talk is wise. And Happiness is the friend who listens.

But mostly, happiness is a life together, the good times; the bad.
Happiness grins, and knows when you’ve both come home. "

*Stanley P, as well as being part of MY history is a very interesting part of Chester's. In fact it's supposedly got its own ghost (as well as a few of mine ).
It was built in 1591, originally for Dominican Friars, then was occupied by an eminent Chester lawyer and MP, who gave it to the Stanley family of Alderley, Cheshire, as part of his daughter's dowry. It then became the townhouse of James Stanley, 7th Earl of Derby. However in 1651, Stanley was arrested, tried for treason, then kept on House Arrest ( surrounded by Roundheads ) until his execution in Lancashire. Today, it's said his ghost still haunts the narrow rickety staircase, the dark gloomy rooms...

Remembering Thailand....

And continuing the theme of Happiness, how it comes unexpectedly...

This summer we made a sudden decision to join my son Guy, his partner Liz and their year old son, George, in Thailand. They were spending two months in SE Asia; would we join them in Bangkok, then travel with them to the island of Ko Tao, several hours out in the Gulf Of Thailand? Would we join them? Would we think about coming with them?

YES, we most certainly would!We'd like nothing better!
We booked flights that same afternoon and soon after, Ray and I met them on the crazy unforgettable Ko San road in the middle of one of the wackiest cities in the world.

And continuing the I am, with George, on the beach in Ko Tao...

Happiness. It comes on unexpectedly....

I woke very early this morning. I looked out of the window into the dark road, watched as light crept in. Two boys, fourteenish, ambled towards my house; they kicked stones as they walked, listened to ipods, probably whistled. Just as they passed by, they looked up at my window, caught my eye, smiled; in fact, they smiled hugely, both of them. I've no idea where they'd been or where they were going, but this poem by Raymond Carver epitomised what I saw...exactly.


So early it's still almost dark out.
I'm near the window with coffee,
and the usual early morning stuff
that passes for thought,
when I see the boy and his friend
walking up the road
to deliver the newspaper.
They wear caps and sweaters,
and one boy has a bag over his shoulder.
They are so happy
they aren't saying anything, these boys.
I think if they could, they would take
each other's arm.
It's early in the morning
and they are doing this thing together.
They come on slowly.
The sky is taking on light,
though the moon still hangs pale over the water.
Such beauty that for a minute
death and ambition, even love,
doesn't enter into this.
Happiness. It comes on
unexpectedly. And goes beyond, really,
any early morning talk about it.

Raymond Carver

Happiness, can't beat that!

Thursday, November 09, 2006

A few hours in a stylish city.

On our visit to Slovenia, we spent a few hours in Ljubljana before taking the late evening flight home to UK.
I'd imagined a typical East European city, pleasant in places, beautiful in some, but pretty soon viewed, pretty soon left. ButI was surprised. Ljubljana is colourful, graceful, sophisticated even. It has its drabness, its poverty, its share of poor planning, but it also has an elegance, a vigour, and a loveliness ( at least to me) that equals, even surpasses, many other celebrated cities of Europe. Our few hours there were not enough; we shall be back. We'll go back to explore, to enjoy, to snap, to eat. ( And, G+L, if you're listening, to look in shoe shops!! )

In 1895, Ljubljana suffered a massive earthquake. The mayor of the time, Ivan Hribar, set up a rebuilding project. His architects were Slavic ones; they included Josip Vancas, Cyril Metod Koch and Maks Fabiani. Fabiani, in particular, then introduced the Austrian Secessionist ( Art Nouveau ) style of architecture to Ljubljana, following the influence of fashionable Vienna. Here are some snaps of some of these fabulous buildings and others....

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

A generous helping of Scouse.**

In 2008, Liverpool becomes European Capital of Culture. I've been reading about some of their plans for celebration. It's a varied concoction of art and culture, revealing the wide mix of tastes and styles that is, undoubtedly, Liverpool. In a nutshell, here are some of the plans:

Sir Simon Rattle ( originally from the city ) will be a welcome part of the programme.
Pete Postlethwaite, whose career started in Liverpool (when he worked along with Julie Walters, Jonathan Pryce, Willy Russell) will play " King Lear" at the Everyman.
The work of the Austrian artist, Gustav Klimt, will be shown in a high-profile exhibition.
There will be a Fashion Show, hopefully including several WAGS ( footballing wives, such as Wayne Rooney's Colleen McLoughlin and Alex Curran, Steve Gerrard's girlfriend. )
And there will be an Opera, based on the staff who work at Liverpool's famous " Adelphi" Hotel....
See what I mean about " varied"?!

*** Scouse: the dialect/language of Liverpool, anything relating to L'pool, a person who speaks Scouse or originates from L'pool AND also a rather delicious stew...

Monday, November 06, 2006

At last....Slovenia!

Two weeks ago, with our longtime friends Geoff and Lorna, we walked in the lower meadows of the wonderful Juliijske Alpes.
We climbed between banks of birch trees in valleys glowing with October; gold, orange, ochre, crimson.
We listened to silence and peace and we watched it and it warmed us.

Two weeks ago, we saw gunmetal skies, we saw rosy ones, skies still smiling with summer.
We saw Lake Bled in twilight, as day darkened and the castle on its island sparkled with lights.
We put the car on a train early one morning and were carried from Bohinj to Tolmin through long dark tunnels carved a century ago into the Alpes.
We saw where the landscape changed, where it spread itself out into terraces of vines, where it glittered with late summer sunshine. We neared the borders with Italy and we marvelled at the change, at the differences, at the beauties of two distinct neighbouring lands.

So much to see and so much to say. Enjoy the snaps.

Writers At The Little Theatre

Last week Chester Theatre Club invited me to take along some writing friends to perform stories and poetry for their regular Tuesday Club Evening.
Ten of us appeared at the Little Theatre with our offerings; the audience are a lovely mix of ages, interests etc and all appeared to enjoy us. They certainly laughed appropriately and, indeed, turned grave appropriately... This was our third visit and we're asked again for March.
Two of the directors, Jane and Lisa, take part as they also write and the other performers are either in Chester Writers ( more of that soon ) or in one of my WEA Creative Writing groups. We perform a mix of poetry and prose, different moods and genres, so hopefully there's something to appeal to most of the audience.
I'm enclosing a picture of another good evening at the Theatre; that's me on the right, with my brother Andrew and friend Tricia on the left. We're in the Bar, which has been newly refurbished and is much appreciated after the plays by cast and audience alike!