I’m not given much to hero worship, but Brian Eno is as close as I get. His ambient music is often the backdrop to my work, and his albums Neroli, Thursday Afternoon, The Plateaux of Mirrors (with Harold Budd), Music for Airports, and On Land are all favourites. While his book, A Year With Swollen Appendices, which I read several times, influenced the course of my life and helped me diversify and enrich what have done with my life.
Lately, I have been researching hospital waiting rooms, as I believe the experience for people using them can be drastically improved. No surprise to find that Eno had already gone there before me. I visited the Montefiore Hospital in Hove, just walking distance from my home, which has two installations by Brian Eno.
In the reception area you can find Brian Eno’s 77 Million Paintings for Montefiore, a slowly-mutating light painting, which layers and combines in millions of ways previous artworks by Eno. He says in his notes, ‘The movement of the whole piece is deliberately slow. My feeling is that this slowness produces a calming experience — because it takes the viewer down to its speed.’ Soothing ambient sounds also provide a tranquil backdrop to the reception area.
The Quiet Room for Montefiore is chiefly used by patients after chemotherapy and it creates a therapeutic, humanising tranquillity. About this room Eno writes, ‘Creating a healing environment isn’t only about correct surgical procedures and the right technology but also about making an atmosphere where the patients feel able to relax enough to clearly think through their options, and to properly take part in the healing process themselves.’ As you sit on the sofa and watch the light combine in different ways, and sense the ambient sound calming you, you can tell this is art of a different sort, that provides a context for you to exist calmly. It is a brilliant piece of work.
I picked up the comments book in reception and read, ‘you can feel your blood pressure calming by the minute. It made me think of cells and change and the beauty of life.’ Another person wrote, ‘I truly believe they play a significant role in my treatment and my journey to being well’.
I believe treatment should begin in the waiting room, and The Montefiore Hospital, through its use of these Eno installations, may be on the way to doing just that.
I would like to thank Tom Collins of Montefiore Hospital for showing me the work.
Below a snap of the endlessly changing 77 Million Paintings for Montefiore, in the reception area, and a photo taken from the sofa in the darkened The Quiet Room for Montefiore.
Seven items from the imaginary news desk at Kenny Towers.
Anice, not to mention speedy, review of TRUTHS A Telltale Press Anthology in London Grip. If you’d like to buy a copy, simply get in touch with me through this site. In other poetry news, I have a poem called Commuted on the Amaryllis site, and another War Diary in 1/72 scale accepted by Arachne Press anthology provisionally called An Outbreak of Peace.
Two books of poetry are currently lighting up my life. Eleni Vakalo, Before Lyricism, translated by Karen Emmerich, which drips with timeless vitality and sheer Greekness which I love. One day I must post more about the riches of Greek poetry since Cavafy. And Janet Sutherland‘s Bone Monkey, which was recommended to me by my poet pal Charlotte — I have the sense in reading Janet’s poems that she sees the world a bit like I do, except she has words for what I’ve not been able to say, so for me her poems are revelatory. I am just about to order her other two books now. Some writers make you fall in love with reading all over again, and Vakalo and Sutherland are two of those.
I think I have started a new play, but I don’t want to hex myself by saying more. It seems to want to be another black comedy.
I have lost count of the number of agents I’ve approached with my children’s book. Not a glimmer so far, and the majority are so swamped they simply don’t reply. As the book has been read to actual schoolchildren who have lapped it up, clearly lateral thinking and persistence must now be deployed (after a brief spell of shaking my fist at the indifferent gods of publishing).
In the other part of my double life as a creative, I found out a concept I’d done with my pals in the Paris agency, Life Animal Health, about the animal disease rinderpest, has won a prize in the French Empreintes awards.
I have been learning how to make stained glass windows. My class on a short hiatus before restarting. The design part I find fairly easy, but the practical stuff I find a bit of a ‘pane’. Cutting different thicknesses and types of lead (I love the name of one – ‘wide heart lead’), cutting glass, sometimes overlaying two lots of glass one on the other, grinding glass, soldering (I’d never done this before), and generally getting my finicky hands dirty, have all challenged me. I love it though. My design was quite complicated, so despite working on it for weeks every Friday morning, it is still not finished. The tutor, Ben Conti, a very patient and skilled man and has not let me compromise my vision. My fellow students all lovely. I’m planning a bench at home.
Below… A workbench snap a few weeks ago. Ben seems to think it will be done one day, but stained glass is, for me, a work of glacial progress…. But once the mammoths have thawed out, it could look nice all buffed up and completed.
Once again, the learning is this: PUT A DAMN VERB IN YOUR SLOGAN IF YOU ARE ASKING PEOPLE TO TAKE ACTION. Every copywriter knows people need to be told how to respond to the message you have just given them. It’s not called a ‘call to action’ for nothing, it needs a verb. I find it a mystery that this was able to escape the notice of the both the Remain campaign in the UK, and the Hillary campaign in the US .
Stronger Together, echoed Britain Stronger in Europe with its hanging comparator. Stronger than what? Neither has a call to action. What do you do with Stronger Together? Go out and hug someone?
Of course, the thinking behind it is clear. Opposing the wall-building, happy to be divisive Trump campaign, the Hillary side wanted to present itself as bridge-building, and inclusive, ergo: Stronger together.
All good in theory, till your figurehead and brand ambassador describes half the voting population as ‘deplorables’. D’oh!
Make America Great Again is a far stronger slogan.The voter can infer that a vote for Trump will make the place he or she loves, and calls home, great again. As someone who has visited the US many times, I found everyday patriotism far more evident there than any other country I’d visited. Old Glory flutters everywhere, while the pledge of allegiance to it is repeated by every school child in the country.
Make America Great Again, also paralleled the UK Brexit Leave campaign’s Let’s take back control in that it hankered back to a mythical past. Making America great again, sounds like something no American could disagree with. But surely, as Michelle Obama and others pointed out, America is already great.
But Make America Great Again compares the America today with a nostalgic America, against which reality can only fall short. The slogan seems positive but there is an engine of negativity in the word ‘again’. A provoker of the angry question, so why isn’t America great any more? And then, ‘who is to blame?’
This campaign was bold. It could have been flipped to make it seem that Trump thought that America was no longer great. It plays with the never-to-be-spoken fear that the US will one day no longer be top nation. Just as the Brexit campaign still talks to the UK’s faint memories of former dominance.
But as an emotive, action-provoking slogan, Make America Great Again beats Stronger Together by a country mile.
* * * *
It is a popular revolution. It seems that Brexit provided at least part of the blueprint for Trump’s election. We are told those who have been left behind by an increasingly globalised capitalism, who feel marginalised by ‘liberal-elites’, have had enough. Donald Trump, (again borrowing some of the more extreme Brexiter’s clothes) positioned himself as a highly patriotic candidate with easy solutions, who unashamedly played to bigotries.
Sadly, the vision of the future both Trump and Brexit offers is unachievable, however. Their vision of the future is a myth about what happened in the past.
As someone who loves literature, I know that myths are powerful things. In fact these two post-factual elections show that myths beat facts hands down.
For me this turbo-charging of a national myth is alarmingly reminiscent of Germany in the 1930s. This mood in the US and the UK, allied to increasing nationalism in some European countries, could destabilise Europe. This is exacerbated by the possibility of NATO withdrawal, and Putin’s territorial ambitions. Add China’s expansionism, and the threatened tearing up of climate agreements, which will accelerate huge global migrations, the future is in want of hope right now.
Or perhaps everything will be okay. Please, God, let it be okay.
It’s nice to imagine that people are going to ponder your marketing message, but sadly real life isn’t like that. Here are two Facebook executions of campaigns I’ve worked on with 11 London. Both are in what I call decision territory, which is particularly useful when there’s little time to engage and you want to encapsulate a dilemma. It forces the target audience to get off the fence and make a decision.
Working with 11 London and Tearfund I arrived at the phrase ‘Give Like Jesus’ and the questioning format that prompts the target audience to ask herself Would Jesus leave her hungry? She’ll supply her own answer. The beautiful photograph was taken by Peter Caton on our trip to Chad last year.
Similar thinking went into this execution for World Animal Protection UK. I suggested interrogative headlines such as ‘Kill or cure?’, ‘Act now. Or ignore?’ ‘Vaccinate. Or exterminate?’ to emphasise the urgency of the choice animal lovers have make about this cruelty.
The campaigns run by both sides in the recent referendum were failures. Here’s why.
Remain – a classic negative campaign that backfired
Remain vote’s tagline was Britain Stronger In Europe. At first glance this seems fair enough. But look again and you’ll see how extraordinarily passive it is. With no verb there is nothing to be done. Instead there is the hanging comparator of ‘stronger’. Stronger than what? It’s a dead end that constrained their campaign right from the start. In the photo above you can see how this line becomes something more positive. But by this point the grey anaesthetic of remain had done its job.
The next textbook error was that the campaign bombarded us with features not benefits. The opinions of leaders like President Obama or the IMF’s Christine Legarde, Governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney – as well as a slew of home grown experts were wheeled out to suggest that leaving the EU would be a historic error. Many of them quantified exactly how bad it would get. But where were the benefits? Where were the positive reasons to stay? There were no carrots, only sticks, in the Leave campaign.
It became branded as Project Fear by its opponents (a phrase which had been recently used in the Scottish referendum). This jibe could have been overturned at a stroke, if the Remain camp had responded by varying its tactics. But the campaign failed to do so. It also allowed Michael Gove to dismiss the ‘experts’. Like hardened smokers being told cigarettes are bad for you, once you scare people beyond a certain point, they tune out. This relentless negativity gave no positive outlet for those who felt disaffected. Basic psychology, and 101 marketing. The call to action was… do nothing.
On the eve of the vote, we heard sound bites from Jean-Claude Junckers. “Out is out…” David Cameron got “the maximum he could receive, and we gave the maximum we could give so there will be no kind of renegotiation.” Listening to this dispiritedly at home, I imagined the gleeful whoops from the Leave camp. As these vaguely menacing sound bites were everything they could have wished for.
So those who put their cross in the Remain box had been given no positive reason to vote by their side’s referendum campaign. There were great stories out there, but they were all presented as scare stories. Rather than an opportunity to positively redefine the UK’s role in Europe, the remain vote was a dreary exercise in maintaining the status quo, which wasn’t going to wash with a nation struggling, often miserably, in persistent austerity.
Leave – the fabulous panacea
Time and time again the Leave campaign hammered home the message “Let’s take back control”. Those who work in marketing think of this as a bog-standard off-the-shelf benefit that fits almost any product. You can take control of your finances with a mortgage tracker account, take control of parasites with flea powder, and so on ad infinitum.
The beauty of Let’s take back control is that, like the Nike tagline Just do it, you can attach a million aspirations to the phrase. It has a verb in it. It is performing an action, it is the active ‘doing something’ choice. Let’s take back control appeals to those who feel disaffected or profoundly unhappy with the status quo. Context is everything however in marketing. A narrow reading of this phrase suggests we’ll take back control from Europe, who were apparently running our country. I don’t know about you, but I am barely able to walk down the road without being ordered what to do by a faceless Eurocrat. No, wait. Other than being able to be travel and be welcomed throughout the EU, the bureaucrats have left me alone.
So an open-ended active messaging was a huge advantage for the leave camp. They deployed figures sparingly, and often vaguely. Somehow we would have improved fishing quotas (ignoring that the EU’s policy on the north sea, for example, which has brought back several food species from the brink of extinction). Their claim that they would spend £350 million a week to the National Health Service was hotly disputed (and later reneged on the morning after the vote was won). But on the whole they cleverly steered clear of a feature-led, figure driven approach to campaigning. They focused on the benefits. This mainly relied on the deployment of abstract nouns. We would gain Sovereignty, Freedom, Control, Independence and so on. It sounded great. This optimistic mood music allied to the undoubted charisma of Boris Johnson, meant the campaign became a magnet to all kinds of aspirations.
But underneath it all was the messaging about immigration, of taking control of our borders, and limiting the numbers of immigrants. There are many people in the UK who are uneasy about migration, and here I think of older people living in areas whose entire language and culture has changed about them, and there needs to be a conversation about this. But the campaign went straight to blaming the foreigner for the ills that beset our nation. For me personally, racism is something I have actively campaigned against in my life so this strain of the campaign was anathema to me.
The racism was exemplified by the poster below, launched by Nigel Farage. It is the nadir of political marketing in my lifetime. Its forebears were a monstrous hybrid of Nazi propaganda, and the old Conservative Labour isn’t working Saatchi & Saatchi poster for the 1979 election campaign.
So where now?
Unsurprisingly the positive, open ended campaign attracted more votes. After all, who wouldn’t want to take control? The problem now, however, is that people who voted to leave did so for a vast array of reasons. In the aftermath of the campaign it seems few of them were related to the EU.
The leave campaign’s castle of clouds is melting away. Election promises about money to the NHS, limiting immigration and so on have all evaporated. Of the three most prominent leave campaigners, Gove, Johnson and Farage, only Gove remains, his hands bloodied after backstabbing Johnson. Because the marketing promise of the election was so vast and ill defined, it is inevitable that there will be ‘buyer’s remorse’.
The Remain camp too. David Cameron has resigned. While the Labour party, largely ineffectual in communicating their Remain support, is left in disarray.
We who live in the UK needed better from our political class. Possibly the most marketing savvy country in the world fell foul of terrible campaigns, of fear and empty promises. The media too were either partisan or failed to unpick the arguments.
There is a crisis in the UK, that affects the stability of other countries in Europe and beyond. It manifests itself as a political and economic crisis. But at its heart is also a crisis in the way we communicate with each other. There has to be a better way than this.
I should mention here that some of the work I was doing in Chad has now started to go live. The audience for this particular execution (below) is those watching faith channels on TV, particularly Evangelical Christians. After much discussion with the 11 London team with Tearfund I came up with the positioning Give Like Jesus, and evolved the questioning format that poses the thought “Would Jesus…” I wrote the initial script for this advert, however, as it became a very collaborative process and I cannot take credit for the final wording.
The filming was done by Brad Bell, with Tearfund’s Steve Adams and 11 London’s MD Matt Hunt doing the drone shots, which Brad incorporated. Before I went to Chad I imagined (from the comfort of my Brighton office) a shot that would dive down from the sky onto an isolated village, thinking this would enable us to show the lack of infrastructure and support for these people living with the consequences of terrible drought. I also liked the way it focuses attention from a vast landscape down to the detail of lives lived there.
I call this approach Helicopter territory. A film director will fill the screen with an actor’s face in close up when the story requires us to see things from that actor’s perspective. Think of Janet Leigh in the Psycho shower scene, and we are left in no doubt that that the actor’s thoughts and expressions are important to the story. In this advert we come in from afar so we can see the context. By locating and locking onto an individual, however, we pin the landscape and its drought to an individual. And when that person is vulnerable, and immediately relatable, we have taken a big step towards bringing the subject to life.
Even in Chad, this shot proved fairly simple to achieve with a drone camera. The shot had to be done in reverse, with the drone hovering in front of the child, before climbing into the sky. I think the results are excellent.
I sincerely hope that Tearfund is successful with its campaign to raise money for those people we met in Chad and others like them who have been affected by erratic rainfall across the Sahel region of Africa.
A month or so has passed since I returned from what was a particularly intense experience in Chad. I spent a day this week sitting with filmmaker Brad Bell tweaking the edit of some of the shots from our trip so I found myself reliving some of my experiences.
Some impressions take longer than others to surface. I find myself often gratefully thinking about my sheer luck of being born where I was. In Chad the average life expectancy for a man is 50.8 years. I’d likely be dead already if I had been born there. The situation in Chad is dire and this drought will trigger a major hunger crisis across Africa’s Sahel region. People in a community we visited hinted that they were already quietly burying children due to the effects of malnutrition.
Normality is an amazing thing. It is stronger force than we think. Near the village we were working in during the day, was the town of Oum Hadjer. It seems normal enough. You can buy a cold coke if you can afford it, go to the market and trade and drive around about your business in cars and on scooters just like a normal town. Women from the village went there on donkeys to trade the mats they wove attempting to replace some of their lost income due to the failure of their crops. The fact is they cannot sell their mats at a high enough price to justify the labour. It takes them, for example, five days work to earn enough money for two days food. But they go anyway. What other choice do they have?
Common sense alone says some of these women going to the market were grieving recently-lost children. But people carry on, supported by the comforting fiction of normal life. In times I have been in grief I have noticed how everyday life can seem strangely banal and on the other side of a veil. You wonder why people can’t seem to tell that you are full of misery. It makes me wonder about these women carrying on under the burden of their grief.
They carry on because there is no alternative, and there were other children to take care of. My friend Catherine Pope reminded me that infant death in the UK in the nineteenth century was far more commonplace than it is now. When many infant deaths are the norm, perhaps there is comfort in knowing your peers are likely to have experienced it too. Like in wartime when people lose their sons, if death becomes commonplace does it lose something of its sting?
Although I realised it was an inappropriate metaphor for the dry Sahel, I kept thinking that if we looked up above the dusty land we would see a tsunami of death and starvation racing towards the village instead of the wide sky and unrelenting sun.
The people we talked to lived in earthen huts but were every bit as intelligent as us, and could see plainly what was happening all around them. One woman told us a little about plans she had to expand into cattle farming and take on more land in a kind of franchise, but now her life is reduced to thinking about where she can get food from for the next meal. This is the grimmest end of ‘normal’ life, when the routines of daily life shrink to abject necessity. As the lack of food hits you, you can’t think properly. Simple things begin to seem impossible. The fiction of normality can’t help anybody then.
Currently, with terrorist attacks, entire populations being forced to move in fear of their lives, we are clinging, ever-more tightly, to rigid ideas of what we consider normal life. What is normal is a collective hallucination. We have to wake up from it sooner or later.
As an Africa newbie, a visit to Chad was in at the deep end. Chad is a landlocked country unappetisingly described by Wikipedia as the ‘dead heart of Africa’. It proved a difficult place to gain entry to. Despite having the right papers, as soon as our team of five landed we were shepherded from the airport into a hot, ramshackle office and given a grilling. Luckily our guardian angel Passiri arrived with a policewoman, and our problems began to melt away.
Our team was led by Steve whose leadership and clarity of purpose on this trip were inspiring, our photographer Pete is someone driven by a deep humanitarian instinct to move between disaster areas taking amazing photos, while Brad our filmmaker and cameraman, is a quietly spoken Canadian with an original mind and a fantastic eye. My old friend Matt Hunt and I were there to witness conditions for ourselves, contribute, help out and write stuff on the hoof. My remit was to help ensure the vision I had when writing the material was kept in mind. The team, many of us new to each other, collaborated excellently. This work was superbly enabled by the local team led by Passiri, and our two highly-diplomatic translators Tchang and Sylva.
The capital N’Djamena seemed to crackle with tension. This is due to the terrorist Boko Haram organisation, who in June set off a bomb in the main market, which killed a dozen or more. The threat from this appalling outfit feels very real. While we were far away from trouble in the heart of the country, another marketplace bomb went off near Lake Chad, not far from N’Djamena, killing 37 people.
Our journey from N’Djamena was a good ten hours by road, through a flat open country of the Sahel’s semi arid scrubland and trees, and interrupted only by armed roadblocks and goats or cattle crossing the road, or stubborn donkeys refusing to move out of the way. We glimpsed many villages of traditional mud huts with thatched roofs from our Toyotas. Here and there we could see people travelling on donkeys and camels, or at work driving cattle, carrying water and so on in the bush.
Not long out of N’Djamena we passed an enormous oil refinery. We had been told by locals that the Government signed a disadvantageous deal with Exxon Mobil, and while there was clear evidence of recent building in the capital, it is said that precious little oil revenue has trickled down to the poor.
Hour after hour we travelled deeper into the centre of Chad, until at sundown we arrived at the edge of Oum Hadjer, and a compound that was to be our base for the next six nights. Early next morning we got to work. First, protocols had to be observed: we met the secretary general, the Government’s chief representative in the area, then the mayor of Oum Hadjer, and finally we were driven to one of the local villages to be introduced to the Chief and the community.
Once these formalities were over we could start talking to ordinary people. I felt punched in the guts by the stories the women of the village told us. They had pitiful amounts to eat, one day’s food in the bottom corner of a little plastic bag. The crops were diseased and withered. The rainy season had not happened, the rainfall replaced by a heartbreaking drought. One woman showed us how they dug up ant’s nests to find grain that the ants had dragged underground. This grain stolen from insects was what one lady would feed her children with the day we spoke to her.
The children were obviously malnourished, their orange hair is a sure sign. Others had tiny bodies, one little boy had stump-like arms, deformed feet, and had only one eye and yet he smiled at us cheerily.
The overarching cause of these problems is climate change. The change in the weather means areas of the Sahel, a semi-arid scrubland between the Sahara and greener regions of Africa, are rapidly becoming desert. As the rains fail, the soil quality deteriorates. All around we can see the soil rapidly eroding into sandiness and large trees and bushes becoming islanded in a dry sea of poor soil. On one drive I asked Tchang our translator to ask the Chief who was travelling with us, what the name of the place we were driving through meant, ‘The place where crops grow’ he said. We looked out at the window at the desiccated scrubland. Little grows there now, and certainly no crops.
There are steps that can be taken to limit the spreading desert. Planting trees is one remedy to reduce the combined effects of drought and human agency, irrigation and water conservation initiatives are another. But optimism is hard to come by when you can walk on vast stretches of a sun-baked riverbed that should be deep underwater at this time of year.
Personally I found this trip to be an endurance test. While we were there the temperature soared to 49°C, the hottest I’d ever experienced in my life (and far hotter than the 36°C it should be at this time of year). Steve and Brad came down with sunstroke and vomiting, I had diarrhoea that Steve fixed for me with antibiotics and we all were dehydrated or had too much sun at some point. But everyone, including me, just picked themselves up and carried on. Compared to the trauma we were seeing around us, our ailments were minor. We filmed and photographed everything we needed, and the use of a drone was a real boon, as the people in the village community loved it, and would laugh with delight and gather every time we flew it.
Curiously, this journey has left me thinking about God. My own faith is a simple one. I believe in God. I have personally drawn spiritual nourishment from a variety of sources including both Testaments of the Bible, but also from attending Buddhist retreats and in my reading, such as the Bhagavad Gita. Generally though I find the man-made structures and hierarchies of religions to be obstacles and distractions.
The charity I am working with is a religious one, and there was prayer woven into each day we were in the field. I had absolutely no problem with this. Not to pray in gratitude for our food when a few kilometres down a dusty track the people of an entire village are in desperate need would have been unthinkable.
Oum Hajder, the town we used as our base, is a predominantly Muslim community, a fact the call to prayer reminded us of each day. It started a couple of hours before dawn from the town’s main mosque, until other more distant voices joined in as dawn grew nearer. A memorable soundscape added to by the crowing of cockerels and other animal and insect noises bubbling up from every direction of the dry land. We attended the Church next door on Sunday, and I found it to be an explosion of sung joy and dancing. God is known by everyone in Oum Hadjer, and surely this must count for something.
After our passports had been examined on nine separate occasions in the airport at N’Djamina, and the plane soared up over Chad, I felt both relief and a responsibility not to give-in to helplessness.
I recalled standing on the edge of the fields as the team were shooting scenes that I had first imagined sitting in my office in Brighton. I had to keep pinching myself thinking that it really was me actually standing in the centre of Africa with the other guys of our team. But now I have seen this situation with my own eyes, it is something I cannot unsee.
I am lucky enough to have the opportunity to do something, to write the most compelling material I can to persuade people that this situation our team encountered is something that needs urgent attention. It seems that it’s time to step up.
Final stage of prep seems now to be done. Passport renewed, visa obtained, jabs jabbed (although inconveniently I had a fever when I went for my yellow fever jab so I had to return a few days later) anti-malarial Malerone tablets bought, while my wife has armed me with lots of practical things like wet wipes, hand sanitisers and so on. Final thing to buy is a mosquito net, and I need to locate and deploy my inner hairy-chested man of action.
My inner h-c man of action especially required after a day of compulsory security training. Essentially the training gave you an idea of what to do in every conceivable worst case scenario, delivered by a man who has spent much of his life working in the most hostile environments, bless his white-rimmed eyes. Lots of advice from what to do if you are being robbed (simply give them everything) right up to the best position to take on the floor if someone throws a live grenade into the room. Rather melodramatically a dummy grenade was thrown into our room, prompting us to flatten ourselves on the floor, heads pointed away from the blast. Hardly soothing stuff.
Nevertheless, the script I wrote which we are filming seems to have been approved by everyone, and next week we see how reality matches our expectation. I am hoping we can edge beyond the normal tropes of DRTV and see if we can get something exceptional. Fundraising DRTV advertisements have some rigid but proven conventions so it is definitely about striking a balance between abiding by conventions and managing to surprise people.
I’ve not had much chance to engage with poetry over the last few weeks, due being very busy in my Peter Kenny The Writer Ltd mode. This is making me itch to write poems again.
I particularly enjoyed being on the Telltale Stand for the Poetry Book Fair. More than anything I value the chance to get a snapshot of what is going on in poetry in the UK, and also to drift about chatting to some old friends and putting some names to faces. I bought books too. One simply because I liked its name: Infragreen by Kate Bingham, and another because it was connected with Guernsey: Timothy Adès translation of How to be a Grandfather, by Victor Hugo. I spoke with Timothy who had just returned from the Guernsey Literary Festival, and had bumped into Edward Chaney there. I also bought a Carcanet New Poetries IV anthology. I love these Carcanet anthologies. They invite a kind of personal statement of its poets, which is a potential minefield. Some are illuminating while others make me hoot with laughter at their portentous vacuity. All adds to the fun.
My favourite moment on the Telltale stand was when a woman looked at the four free poem postcards we were giving away. Silently she picked up one after another, read the first line or two through her magnifying glass, and replaced the card on its pile with a visible shudder. She came to Sarah Barnsley’s card last, and lo! She regally retained it before moving on. Praise indeed.
Planning now well advanced for the trip to Chad in two weeks. For me this has already meant several jabs, and the final one, yellow fever, will be done privately next week. I’ve also had to buy some lightweight, UV and mosquito-resistant clothes and urgently renew my passport.
Africa, then. I have never been there before. We will land in N’Djamena, Chad’s capital, stay overnight, before setting off the next morning. Chad is in the centre of the continent, and we are going to travel to the centre of Chad. Across the middle of Chad, and south of the Sahara, runs the central semi-arid belt called the Sahel. This belt extends three thousand miles from the Atlantic to the Red Sea and is a region that is experiencing increasing desertification. I’ve never really looked at maps of Africa with such interest before, and I find myself horribly fascinated by the size and spread of the desert.
I was pleased to learn security is to be tight, and we will be led by an in-country expert. Mobile phone coverage is good there, as Chad has skipped landlines and gone onto mobile. I like the idea of being able to phone home.
Meanwhile I’ve been refining the DRTV script which we are going to shoot. There is a strange dislocation about sitting in a home office in mild-mannered Brighton writing a treatment for filming in the heart of Chad. We may be taking a drone, which suggests we can shoot some aerial shots too. But above all the reason for the script is clear, which is to raise money for those most in need, so it’s not quite as impossible as it might seem.
Other than some work I am doing with colleagues in France on a preventing the spread of rabies throughout the Balkans by encouraging vaccination, this Chad project is edging out all other writing. The poet in me, however, is excited. I went to bed the other night wandering how bright the stars might be in what is for me a remote part of Africa and felt nervousness converting to excitement. It’s a fine line.
I’ve been thinking of Léopold Sédar Senghor, who was for a time the Senegalese President, among his other accomplishments. His gorgeous poem Night of Sine made a massive impact on me when I first read it in my early twenties. And I shall certainly be stowing his Selected Poems with me for the trip. Here is Night of Sine, beautifully rendered into English by Craig Williamson in the long out of print Rex Collings 1976 edition.
Night of Sine
Woman, lay on my forehead your hands of balsam, your hands
softer than fur.
High above, the balancing palms hardly rustle in the high
Nightwind. Not even a cradlesong.
Let it rock us, the rhythmic silence.
Listen to its song: listen to the beating of our dark blood, listen
To the beating of the dark pulse of Africa in the haze of
See how the tired moon slips to its bed of slack water,
See how the laughter drowses, how the tellers themselves
Nod their heads like babies on the backs of their mothers.
See how the feet of the dancers grow heavy and heavy
the tongues of alternate choirs.
This is the night of stars and the night that dreams
Leaning on this hill of clouds, draped in her long milk gown.
The thatch of the huts gleams gently. What does it say so
secretly to the stars?
Inside, the hearth grows dim in close, bitter and sweet smells.
Woman, light the lamp of clear oil, let the Ancestors gather
and speak like parents when the children have gone to bed.
Listen to the voice of the Ancients of Elissa. Like us, exiled,
They feared to die, to lose their seminal flood in the sand.
Let me listen, in the smoking hut, to the murmur of favorable
souls come down;
My head on your breast like a couscous ball smoking from fire,
Let me breathe the smell of our Dead, let me gather and tell
their life-voice, let me learn
To live before going down, deeper than the diver, into tall
fathoms of sleep.