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.
My double life requires me to switch from working in advertising agencies, back to picking up the threads of my creative life and vice versa. My most recent agency stint was with a lovely crew at DDB Remedy in London, which culminated in six days in Austria. The work was a bit full on, however, so all I could do was imagine the foresty, golden Klimts in nearby Viennese galleries I knew I had no time to see. One night I broke away for half an hour and walked randomly from the hotel, looking wistfully at the side streets not taken, but happy that I had at least a few minutes to breathe the cold night air of Vienna and feel for a moment that I was inside a film.
One thing about doing agency work for a couple of months is that it gave me plenty of commuting time to read. I can devour a short novel in a day or two, and I usually take some poetry with me to dip in when feeling the need. I read novels by, among others, Ali Smith, Elizabeth Stroud, Richard Ford, Lloyd Jones and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and poetry by Fernando Pessoa, J.O. Morgan, Adélia Prado, John McCullough and Tess Jolly.
I’ve noticed several agency creatives over the last few years using Instagram and ‘late-adopter’ that I am, I now use it too, documenting lunchtime strolls around the canals of Little Venice near Paddington, London, and a couple of snaps in Vienna.
Now, feeling a bit exhausted, I’m taking stock of my own creative work. Apart from two poetry readings, and some quickly scribbled drafts of poem ideas, I have left everything untouched since October. And not having much on the horizon feels odd and dangling. I have no play in production, no new play written, my children’s novel is waiting for another agent to look at it, with one rejection so far that took over four months to receive.
But poetry, my first love, remains true and I’m always tinkering at some poem or another. I met with some fellow poets on Monday in Lewes, to talk about a forthcoming poetry anthology from Telltale and to drink some beer. This is therapy for me. Chatting with friends Robin Houghton, Sarah Barnsley, Charlotte Gann and Stephen Bone, makes me feel the obsession that has dogged me since my teens is actually a perfectly reasonable response to the world. Writers can be as backbitey and competitive as anyone else, so when you find yourself among supportive colleagues the affirmation is priceless.
I am doing a course in making stained glass windows in the new year, something I’ve always had a hankering to try, despite not being very good with my hands. A poem I wrote in the 80s, The Window Maker was printed on some National Book Tokens. Apparently an impostor went into a northern bookshop raging because Book Tokens had stolen his poem, and he was in fact the real Peter Kenny and wasn’t happy about it. I often think about doppelgängers, because my life contains quite a few incidents like this. Having a twin brother is the worst nightmare I can imagine. But I digress… I love stained glass. I love the way light passes through it. I love the leading too, and how these thick lines allow something to be assembled from fragments into a whole that plays with gorgeous light. What’s not to love? I already have designs in my head that are on the scale of Coventry Cathedral. I might have to reign in my expectations.
So to end this pre-Christmas ramble, I would just like to wish you a very Merry Christmas. I love this time of year enormously. Even looking at a Christmas tree can bring a tear to my eye. Luckily I got to be Santa this year at my wife’s village school. To play a part in the unfurling of Christmas was great fun, and I am always amazed by the intelligence of children. I was plunged into ontological debates about the reality of Father Christmas with three or four nippers, (trying not to feel affronted, for did I not refute their argument just by being there in front of them?) I came out of that quite well I thought.
Pete’s shot of many of the people of the the village meeting under a good tree is typical of his excellent work. For the people he captures here, there is plenty to discuss: an appalling drought, extreme hunger that threatens the children. The fact that several crazy guys in a charity team had arrived and were busy flying a drone, taking photos, interviewing people and generally disrupting normal life was also quite a talking point.
Watching Peter Caton at work was fascinating. He is a man of perpetual motion, and always working.
I was very interested in how he would lean right into the faces of people he was taking, all the while smiling and engaging with his subjects. Asking him about this, he said that leaning in was actually less disconcerting for the person he was photographing that being aloof and pulling away. I’d never thought of it like that.
This publication happened at an interesting time for me, as only recently have I been able to start writing properly about what was for me an experience unlike any other I’d had. I find that there is a filtration process going on. That whatever experience I have it takes months (in this case about nine months) before I could write about it freely in the way I wanted. At last I’ve been gripped by a the sudden urge to write about Chad, and am already five poems into a sequence. Of course I hope I don’t block myself by mentioning it here…
I’m off now on holiday for a couple of weeks. Time to unwind, and of course write more poetry. To finish, here is a shot I took of Pete with a screen-lit face at night in the compound after another sweltering day. The large locust crawling in his hair just evaded photographic capture.
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.
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.
“The disbelief, the grief, the doubt, the flung out, the anger, the banter, the bargaining…” Personal experience enabled English artist Michele Angelo Petrone (1963-2007) reach out to others fighting disease. Diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease at the age of 30, Petrone became artist in residence at several schools and cancer centres, and created his own arts in health foundation.
As well as Petrone’s work, A Cancer Landscape at the ONCA Gallery Brighton till 28 February also features medical images of cancer cells, and workshop pieces generated by people who have experienced the effects of cancer. It is a fitting tribute. “My journey,” Petrone wrote, “has two intertwined threads – elements which mirror each other as exactly as the two chains of a double helix. One is the medical history. The physical injury, the illness, the happening… The parallel thread is my emotional response.”
Writing about healthcare in my professional life, last year I happened to spend weeks looking at dozens of artworks by people with autoimmune diseases. I discovered that when people use art in the context of disease, they frequently dramatise pain or emotional isolation. But when art is brave and skillful enough, as Petrone’s work is, it can connect with the other patient’s feelings and show them that their emotions are not somehow freakish or unique. It can be cathartic, and I was told at the gallery that exhibition has prompted many people to share their own stories as they visited.
Each piece was accompanied by Petrone’s written description, giving something of the emotional and physical context. More interesting to me, however, was the fact that the emotional landscapes he depicted were in primary colours and had an almost childlike quality about them. This hinted that there was something more important than the disease, and were a positive affirmation of life glowing out against the backdrop of cancer. This feeling, of course, made the few sombre compositions on display all the more poignant.
Let nobody tell you that moving house twice in five weeks is a good thing. Murderous impulses it produces aplenty, but writing… no. I now sit in my new study, white augmented by a recently applied shade of grey-green called Sophisticated Sage (what can I say, it spoke to me). A small room, with an elevated view west over north Brighton and rows of streets gleaming in the low sun. There’s even a windmill on the horizon. A visual lottery win compared to my last place, where, if you craned your neck, there was a choice of a square of sky or a guano-spattered brick wall.
In fact my new view gives me the heady feeling feeling I get looking at the Caspar David Friedrich cover on my old copy of Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo.
As the exhaustion abates, I discover I am happy. I am usually an optimistic person, but two years of property and legal stuff worked my nerve in some ways far more than a full-blooded crisis. Bleak House I understand you now: how appalling the sense of time, money and hope slipping away can be when nothing ever seems to happen except for Kafakesque correspondence, tetchily requesting installation details about the property’s non-existent ‘bulls-eye windows’, for example.
So what’s new? Well when not scraping walls of biscuit-coloured bobbly wallpaper, packing and unpacking boxes, mainly I have been copying my friend Robin Houghton and hoping her sheer professionalism will rub off on me. She and I are working closely on Telltale Press, a poet’s collective, and there will be more news in the new year. Meanwhile I understand The Nightwork is about to pick up a few reviews. Its first review, however, is here at Sabotage, with the writer somewhat underwhelmed by my efforts.
On a more elevated note there will be a reading in London on Wednesday 7th January. My old friend Rhona McAdam will be gracing us with her poetic presence too, armed with her new book, her sixth, Ex-Ville. There will also be the frankly steamy Catherine Smith, shining new talent Siegfried Baber as well as Robin and I. I’m really looking forward to it.
I am also no longer just a humble Peter Kenny. For various reasons I have morphed into Peter Kenny The Writer Ltd. This all seems fine and dandy till my bank sent a bank card with my business embossed in plastic as Peter Kenny The. I guess what comes after the The is the big thing. I’m in the mood to prove it.