A mixed bag

I have been working hard on my children’s story The Second Kind of Darkness in the last two months. The end is in sight. Putting the story aside for a few years has really helped. Time is a great editor.

I’ve also been filling in gaps in my reading of good children’s books, including Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman, and a book that is going down brilliantly with under 11s at the moment, Wonder by R.J. Palacio. I even went as far back as Peter and Wendy, by J.M.Barrie, which I found to be fresher than I expected, and genuinely strange in parts.

Having run earlier drafts of my story past schoolchildren in schools, I have two teacher friends, specialists in the age group I am writing for and in English, lined up to read it, not to mention my wife, who is a headteacher. Bracing myself for feedback soon

***

Dates have now firmed up for my play A Glass of Nothing which will have a preview in the Surgeon’s Hall Theatre 2 in Edinburgh on 5th August, and then a short run Monday-Thursday 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th of the following week. As before, it will be a Brighton Blonde Productions performance, and star Beth Symons in the central role.

***

Two deaths in the last few weeks. One in the family, which I won’t write about here, the other of Andy Wilson, a former art director of mine.

I flew down to the funeral in Cornwall, with two other fellow advertising writers Pat and Barney who knew him well too. You get to know your partner inside out when you are working in a creative team, although Andy and I were partners only for about a year and a half, I knew him as a truly gentle soul, who was one of the most original and creative people I have ever met in any walk of life. Sadly his last few years were blighted by demons of addiction. This, as Andy’s death serves to remind me yet again, is a terrible illness that people pretend is a flaw of character.

One memory. When Andy and I were working late, Andy told me out of the blue that to make a party a success (I was thinking of having a party that weekend) I had to get a bucket. He emptied one of the metal bins under the desk, and laughed hollowly into it in a crazy Jack Nicholson style. He invited me to follow suit, and we passed the bucket back and forth until we were crying with laughter at nothing.

***

I once met the Nobel Prize winning Derek Walcott,  who died on 17th March. I admired him as a poet greatly, as I am especially interested in poets from islands (in his case St. Lucia).

With a group of other young poets, I attended a seminar with him back in the 80s in the South Bank.  I found myself standing next to him, and when we were all settling in and in confusion about chairs, I made some joke about sitting on his lap. He looked at me very stonily, clearly deciding I was an idiot from that moment. We were all asked to chuck a poem into the middle. And Derek picked one out at random. The whole session was taken up with his close reading and commenting on this first poem, leaving me at least feeling a bit short changed. At least I got him to sign my copy of The Fortunate Traveller.

***

Got around to reading Jacob Polley’s Jackself eventually. I think it is a worthy winner of the T.S.Eliot award this year. The poems feel very solid and realised, there is a meaty, chewable quality about the language. I want to reread it already. There is an excellent review here from the guardian.

***

Been haunting the National Gallery in London lately. This picture by Joseph Wright of Derby , which I had never looked at before, has begun to obsess me. It is An experiment on a bird in an Air Pump, a picture which becomes stranger the more I look at it. A white cockatoo, presumably the family pet judging by the cage in the corner, is being suffocated to demonstrate the nature of a vacuum. The two girls are naturally appalled, while the scientist with his wild hair and red clothes looks out at us as if to ask us if the air should be allowed back in to revive the poor creature.

An_Experiment_on_a_Bird_in_an_Air_Pump_by_Joseph_Wright_of_Derby,_1768

 

Posted in A Glass of Nothing, a writer's life, Brighton Blonde Productions, Painters,, Poetry, Theatre, Writing | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Basil O’Flaherty

I’m enjoying the intriguingly-named U.S. literary arts website, The Basil O’Flaherty. It is edited by J.K. Shawhan, and I am grateful to her for publishing four of my short poems here.

Posted in Blowing my own trumpet, Poetry | Tagged | Leave a comment

Yeats’s Tower and Coole Park

p1020291

So having carried Yeats’s words about in my head for 40 years, it was amazing to finally get to look at Thoor Ballylee, a one time home of the poet, and a place which had an enormously powerful symbolic presence in his mind and his poetry.

I went there with Lorraine wife, and our friends John and Sue Lahiff. John comes from a family firmly rooted in this area. Finally arriving was an emotional moment for me, arriving out of season, when the tower is not open to visitors, was great. We were the only people there for some of the time. And it was exactly how I had pictured it (having seen photos and so on over the years). And still unchanged from Yeats’s description of it in the second section of the long poem Meditations in a time of civil war.

An ancient bridge, and a more ancient tower,
A farm house that is sheltered by its wall,
An acre of stony ground,
Where the symbolic rose can break in flower,
Old ragged elms, old thorns innumerable,
The sound of the rain or sound
Of every wind that blows;
The stilted water-hen
Crossing stream again
Scared by the splashing of a dozen cows;
A winding stair, a chamber arched with stone,
A grey stone fireplace with an open hearth,
A candle and a written page.

Nearby was Coole Park, where Yeats’s patron Augusta Gregory lived. We had to drive past Kiltartan to get there, mentioned in An Irish Airman Foresees His Death. Coole Park is now a nature reserve, and there is a lovely walled garden, where there was a quote from Yeats suggesting their shadows were still there in the gravel, with an Autograph Tree featuring the carved signatures of Lady Gregory, Yeats, Singe, Jack B Yeats, and many others. The house itself, according to Wikipedia, was actively demolished by the state in the 1940s.

A very misguided act in my opinion. For the house was very tied up with the Irish Literary Renaissance in which Augusta Gregory was a leading figure, as a folklorist, playwright and speaker of the gaelic tongue – but also as a mentor to younger writers. Evocative to find stone stairs leading up to a lost grand house.

p1020335

 

Posted in Poetry, Travel | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Madagascar in Eastbourne

fullsizeoutput_8dcfullsizeoutput_8cafullsizeoutput_8cc

I snuck into the final dress rehearsal for Madagascar last night, in the final run through by The RHT Community Production at the Royal Hippodrome Theatre, Eastbourne which starts its run today. This is just the kind of initiative I love – seeing such vibrant community theatre gladdens the heart.

This production of the show Madagascar, A Musical Adventure was based on the Madagascar movie, is a high energy, all singing and dancing romp, really well directed and full of fine performances and strong voices. Even the sets were great, while the costumes were extraordinary.  Tickets have sold like hot cakes over the last few days and extra performances have been added. And after last night, I know that for kids on half term holidays at the moment (not to mention their parents) there’s no better way to spend a February afternoon. This show is just enormous amounts of fun.

Posted in Reviews, Theatre | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Rattling locked doors

img_0675

A page with pictures of gyres, from my copy of A Vision by W.B. Yeats, still with strangely neat annotations by my 21-year-old student self.

I’m having a bit of a fanboy moment. I am off next weekend to Eire, and I hope to have a look at Thoor Ballylee where my all time poetic hero, W.B.Yeats, once lived. Although it is out of season and The Tower is not open to the public I hope at least to be able to mooch about and take some photos.

I love poetry that rattles locked doors. One thing I love about Yeats was his engagement with the esoteric and the occult. He continually thought about what was hidden, and regularly wove symbolism he had derived from his esoteric investigations into his poetry to give it an electrifying charge. One such example is the famous poem The Second Coming.

Lines in the poem, ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity’ seem particularly apposite whenever I think about politics right now. (Along with W.H. Auden’s phrase from Lullaby ‘fashionable madmen raise/Their boring pedantic cry’.)

The Second Coming has many roots, some are in Blake’s poem The Mental Traveller, others in his ideas about the cycles of history and how each cycle is the reverse of the previous one. So we are given an image of the anti-Christ, with Yeats’s theories of a repeating but inverted 2000 year cycle of history.

That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

I love the ambition here, the image is so crazily charged that it brands your memory. I love the fact that it has followed such strange pathways to become such an iconic piece of literature.

How I pored over Yeats’s A Vision, which is a book based on his young wife Georgie’s automatic writing conducted while on honeymoon. It is a system grounded on an adapted astrological model (or that was how I argued it in a dissertation once) of supernaturally inspired images and metaphors. I came out exhausted and thinking that Yeats was half charlatan, half genius. But that seemed to be his essential nature, a highly complex character with all kinds of interests.

As in architecture, an engagement with the occult is all over the place in poetry. The Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes is just one example.

Anyway I am looking forward to jetting off next weekend for a few days. I’ll be taking my collected W.B. Yeats with me, that’s for sure.

Below, a few years ago in another fanboy moment at the great poet’s grave at Drumcliffe.

yeatsgrave

Posted in Poetry, Travel | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Stick or bust?

skelly-crop

Skelton Yawngrave, by Margaret Hamlin

When is it sensible to give up? Persistence we are told is a characteristic of success. Against this idea, I always think about sunk costs. An agency pal once explained to me there’s no sense pouring money into a project because you’ve already poured lots of money into it. Likewise, there comes a moment to cut your losses on an artistic project, and not pour any more time into it.

I have been writing a novel aimed at a 10-12 year old readership for almost ten years. Having set it aside for four years, I recently had a moment of clarity about how I could fix the problems that had previously stumped me. While I have felt that this story contains my best writing, it also didn’t all hang together. But at the beginning of the year, I bought myself some time and have decided to try again. Because I believe in the project, there can only be one answer – once more unto the breach it is then.

grey

Grace Brown, by Margaret Hamlin

This time, at least, I’ve a new weapon: the writing software Scrivener. My friend Catherine Pope told me about its ages ago, and I finally got around to buying it. It has been a revelation.  And thanks to Scrivener, moving blocks of text, reordering chapters, keeping tabs on the story flow, characters and so on, in a 60k text is all far, far easier. Something that would have taken me hours to sort out, can now be done in seconds. And the new (eighth) draft of the novel (now called The second kind of darkness) is becoming streamlined into something that seems to me to be much improved.

When I first started working on this, almost ten years ago now, I asked my mother Margaret Hamlin to quickly visualise some of the characters I’d created. One of them, Skelton Yawngrave, is above, and the girl is Grace Brown, the story’s heroine, is the smaller image. It’s nice to be back in their company.

* * *

Since attending the T.S.Eliot awards I sent off for several shortlisted books. The first one I received was Rachael Boast’s Void Studies and I have enjoyed dipping into her delicate, dreamlike work. Often the poem’s meanings are tantalisingly out of reach, but like dreams, convey a strange significance.  Coincidentally, while reading landscape-1448893172-trumpsleep Void Studies I’ve been going through one of those phases where I remember my dreams on waking. I’ve noticed again how dreams touch on things I’ve tried to sweep under the carpet. Reading Void Studies during the unfolding catastrophe of Donald Trump’s presidency, makes me think about Donald Trump’s dreamlife. Is all that gold compensating for slate grey dreams? What monsters must live there.

What is the relevance of a book like Void Studies in Trump world? None. But that is the exactly the point. A subtle and delicate work like Void Studies is an example of a culture that must be protected from the jackboot of ignorance that figures like Trump represent.

* * *

And while I’m on the subconscious, having decided to relentlessly focus on prose I found myself writing a series of 13 short poems this week. On Thursday morning I wrote eight eight-line poems in an hour. I have never written eight poems in a week before, let alone eight in an hour. It seems there’s nothing like deciding that under no circumstances will you think about something to make the opposite happen.

* * *

All being well, my play A Glass of Nothing will be having a five-night run in the Surgeons Hall during the Edinburgh Festival, in August. More about that later in the year.

Posted in a writer's life, Novels, Poetry, Prose, Theatre | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

T. S. Eliot Award readings

Just a quick note about the T.S. Eliot readings.  Luckily I met up with Robin Houghton, Charlotte Gann and Jess Mookerjee. The first phase of these readings is always the same, gathering in the long bar before and having to talk to people. It is good to have some pals with you, as this can be awkward. There is a tendency for poets, all pressed together on the ‘works outing’ (as host Ian McMillan said poet Jo Bell had called it) and there only being a limited amount of time, to be looking over each other’s shoulders for someone more influential to talk to.

Ian McMillan is a perfect host for this event, blending a down-to-earth (code for Barnsley) tone with some poetic flights of his own. This is the third successive awards I have been to, and I always enjoy the readings. I treat it like one of those old fashioned sampler albums, where you’d hear a track or two by lots of different bands. Vahni Capildeo mentioned Aimee Cesare, so had my attention, and I found her writing was ambitious and free.  J.O. Morgan performed his poems like dramatic monologues, and again was something I’d like to investigate further. Denise Riley‘s reading was full of excellent, dense poems that I look forward to seeing on the page, but I found her performance style mannered.  Rachael Boast has natural charisma, and her mysterious and musical poems were intriguing to me, although she professed to not knowing what they were about, a statement that I always take with a pinch of salt. Alice Oswald spoke her poems from memory very well with a clenched right hand. A reading that made me want to buy her book Falling Awake. I thought she was a nailed on favourite.

The eventual winner, however, announced the following day was Cumbrian poet Jacob Polley, whose reading I warmed to, despite a sinking feeling when I heard the central character in his poetry book was called Jackself, which made me think of John Self in Martin Amis’s Money (1984) and other self-insertions. Still he’d won me over by the end of it, and I think he is as worthy a winner as anyone. Who wins the thing is not something that bothers me much. Only time will tell who the winners are, if any.

So I have half a dozen shortlisted books on order, and I am looking forward to dwelling with them properly. If you bought all ten of the shortlisted books each year, you’d have a pretty interesting poetry library. A nightmare journey home followed, thanks to train cancellations and so on, but it was well worth it.

My view of the readings. Here is Ruth Padel, who introduced the event with a reading of Journey of the Magi, by T.S.Elliot. I didn’t take snaps of the others, as I didn’t want to distract myself and the others around me, for what weren’t going to be particularly good shots.

fullsizeoutput_890

Posted in Poetry, Readings | Tagged | 2 Comments