Categories
a writer's life Book Launch Fiction Guernsey Literature Novels Reviews Richard Fleming

Barking Mad! By Jane Mosse

418CImAzKeL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_Barking Mad! by Jane Mosse published by Blue Ormer

What with one thing and another, I have found it hard to read lately. It’s as if a smoke alarm keeps going off in the house. Yesterday, having a hateful ear infection, I opted for a sofa day. When I wasn’t dripping antibiotics into my ear and moaning peevishly, I was completely taken by the highly-diverting Barking Mad! by my Guernsey based pal Jane Mosse. Her last project mentioned on this blog was Guernsey Legends — but this is a very different book, being a fictionalised account of several years of pet sitting with her husband Richard Fleming.  All they have to do is live in stranger’s houses, and befriend their pets. Sounds simple doesn’t it? Luckily for the reader, things are rarely straightforward.

Travel, plus animals, plus nosing about in other people’s houses? It’s a perfect formula for an enjoyably escapist read. You can imagine yourself anywhere from arriving in Alderney in a tiny aircraft on a rabbit sitting mission, to the ballroom of a grand estate in Northumbria with a Shetland pony that lets itself into the house from time to time, freezing in Prague as the boiler goes kaput before Christmas, or in a lock keeper’s cottage deep in a northern industrial wasteland.  There is a panoply of loveable pooches and pampered cats — not to mention the cast of eccentrics who hand them into our heroes’ care. Our pet-sitting wanderers also encounter all manner of other critters on their travels, from water snakes to deer, mosquitoes to rabbits, piglets to a lugubrious bathtub carp. Many of these creatures harbour ideas of their own so they certainly give their temporary minders plenty deal with.  

Part of the fun of course, is getting an real insight into their host’s lives. So if your sanity could benefit from imagining yourself basking in Tuscan sunlight under lemon trees as cats haunt the shadows, or gazing out on snowy, deer-filled parkland just before Christmas… Then you’d be mad not to simply get yourself a copy of  Barking Mad!  

Categories
Poetry Reading Reviews

Exploring Janet Sutherland’s poetry

There are perhaps only a couple-of-dozen poets I find myself returning to time and again. In the last year, however, Janet Sutherland has become one of them.

Janet Sutherland Home Farm jpeg

I own her four collections from Shearsman Books, which are, in order of publication,  Burning the Heartwood, Hangman’s AcreBone Monkey, and Home Farm. Each of these books contains an embarrassment of riches, and the more I look into them, the less able I feel to convey just how much I admire this work. But in the spirit of not letting perfect be the enemy of the good, I’ll have a go here. I know it’s a spoiler, but the short version of this blog post is: do yourself a favour and simply read Janet Sutherland’s books now.

Certain themes and images recur throughout the collections. In the first of them, Burning the Heartwood, poems that refer to a Wiltshire farm background in poems like ‘an image of skin‘ are already in place. While in her second collection Hangman’s Acre we meet her character Bone Monkey, who gives its name to her third collection, Bone Monkey. This was the first of her books I read, having been told to do so by my pal Charlotte Gann. Many of the poems this collection contains are about this dark, Loki-like trickster, somehow bestial, but all too human:

Bone monkey knows himself a god
although his raddled arms, his ruined balls
and buttocks seem to say he’s less than that.

(As a God, from Bone Monkey)

62ce33_5a12595d25b24af484a55c2985a78be8~mv2

I love the freedom the adoption of a dubious and unreliable character provides. In Janet Sutherland’s hands he becomes a violent, legendary figure.

Bone Monkey swaggers through a plain of thorns
crowned with insignia of warlike deeds–
emblems stolen from the wolves
are fixed securely to his skull with cords

(Emblems from Wolves, from Bone Monkey)

It was in the Bone Monkey collection that I first became enchanted by Janet Sutherland’s lightness of touch with images.

I think of memory
like three swans that sweep
over the river’s surface

ghosts
of the aerial
and of the deep

or like the rivers’ flow
tidal and complex
at an estuary.

(His exposition on the art of memory, Bone Monkey)

The poet has no axe to grind and never seeks our pity. Instead there is alchemy. Personal experiences accrue a near mythical force, in imagery that is dewy fresh and deftly condensed. Images return hauntingly in her work, such as her repeated association of  association of snakes with water…

little adders fall
out of pitch-forked hay

into the stooks
floating the swollen river

(Memory, from Burning the Heartwood)  

This river’s a snake that opens its mouth
and sings, looping and undulating, leaving
a sloughed skin oxbow by its side.

(At Cuckmere, from Home Farm)

Culminating in the wonderful weirdness of these eels.

                                                                 …At night
white water grinds over and over through this sieve,
and in that loneliness the eels come quietly, one by one,
driven by longing for a spawning place at sea. Slither
an eye across the peep show floor. The risen dark
pools where eels still hide trapped in a storage well,
somersaulting, tumbling and unbalancing.

(The Eel House, from Home Farm)

Home Farm, published this year, contains perhaps Janet Sutherland’s most autobiographical work. Here her childhood exists in several dimensions: in the awareness of the history of the land, of villagers who lived there before, of family history, in the names of fields and beasts and flowers, and in the suggestions of fleeting human experience, and the tragedy of lost memory. And the result is… Well, just wonderful.

For some reason, she makes me want to use the word ‘ontology’ for her poetry has a complex kind of ‘being’ that has, for me, proper heft and its own strange life. At her best, Janet Sutherland has the power to make her fabulously-realised world exist in the imagination as a place one wants to continually return to.  I can admire lots of poetry, but there are few collections I genuinely love as much as these.

Categories
Reviews Theatre

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.

Categories
Poetry Reviews

The magnetism of the mise-en-scène

In The Cinema by Stephen Bone, published by Playdead Press

screen-shot-2016-12-17-at-15-21-00I bought a copy of In The Cinema at the end of last year, and find these poems have lingered in my mind longer than most. It was the careful mise-en-scène in several of the poems,  which first began to intrigue me. Stephen Bone’s choices of objects lends the poems a distinct, slightly down-at-heel 1960s atmosphere. There’s a Baby Belling cooker discovered in an attic, a woman’s ‘perspiration dampening her Yardley powder’ we glimpse a mouth ‘full blown with Victory Red’, or Victory V liquorice lozenges and so on.

Of course care in the description of objects is a characteristic of good writing. But there is something especially charged about this technique in In The Cinema;  noticing objects as a displacement from something disturbing, or how anxiety makes us map subjective anxieties onto external objects. For me it is the first poem in this collection, Coal Tar, which best condenses this aspect of Stephen Bone’s work.

Coal Tar

Still available. A throwback
to cigarette cards and iodine
Victory Vs. Spit and polish.

The soap, my aunt, who wasn’t,
scrubbed herself with
as if she were a stain.
Her water hard and scalding.

Used to ease her father’s
signet ring from her finger
on hot airtight days

and on me the time I slipped up.
I have never forgotten
the froth, the taste

or the way she set down
a tablet in the lodger’s bathroom
beside the copper taps,
like an unwritten house rule.

An orange threat.

(Coal Tar)

This also nicely demonstrates the poet’s ability to pose more questions than he answers. If she’s not ‘my aunt’ then who is she? And why does she scrub herself like a stain? What had been said to warrant such a mouth-scrubbing punishment?

In  Attic, meanwhile, one of the objects literally contains the essence of another person, ‘A yellow beach ball//still limply holding/his father’s breath.’

In Picnic, the trigger objects are photographs that ‘turn up now and then‘.  A typical example of In The Cinema’s understated but pervading sadness:

you standing on your hands
claiming you were holding up the world;

and the other moments,
the wasp attack, the freak shower.

Have you your photos somewhere?

(Picnic)

This polite understatement acknowledges the hurt below, but also represents the coping mechanism. This sort of thing is unfashionable at the moment. We live in a time when some much of the focus of politics is on the  personal, which permits many to shout louder and louder in a hierarchy of suffering.  But I find this understatement refreshing.

In Rain, in the middle of a heatwave, and a time in the UK when water was rationed. This rare event comes to stand for an unrepeatable summer.

Water precious as silver we shared baths
where we stopped or dipped flannels into feeble streams;

at night our skin a layer too much
as we sprawled or tangled on sepia grass.

Set To Continue, the news stands read.
The forecast held. In part.

(Rain)

I hope Stephen Bone is set to continue too, as I enjoy his quietly-persuasive work.

Categories
Poetry Reviews

A poet between worlds

Touchpapers by Tess Jolly, published by Eyewear Aviator 2016 Series

cover_jolly_print_1024x1024There is a magic and darkly fairytale quality in Tess Jolly’s work which I greatly admire. The poetry is the product of a powerful imagination.

In several poems a brother is depicted as a magical other, and their sibling relationship seems closest when dressing up, or playing imaginative games.

my legs swinging, his anchored to the floor –
one of us would shriek the code name

and we’d both hunch knees to chests,
pretend to be scared as the ground gave way
to glittering blue and silver carapaces,
giant razor crabs screeching and rattling scales
in rock-pools of pavement or lino.  

(Crab Water) 

In The Gingerbread House, where ‘I follow crumbs through the wood to find him’ the recurring brother and sister theme becomes filtered through a nightmarish lens:

He wants to show me around. We feel our way
along the sticky walls like children learning the dark.
Licking sugar from his lips he tries to hoist me
onto his shoulders as if he hasn’t realised I’ve grown.
I admire the toffee paving-slabs, butter-cream roofs.
He opens wide. Mice are nibbling his tongue.

(The Gingerbread House)

Having establishing that their realest connection was through a kind of make-believe, Tess Jolly’s poems function as acts of magical reanimation. As long as the imagination is alive, the relationship still exists. This is something I personally find very moving.

The poem Prayer is starker and uncloaked. Rigorous critics tend to resist biographical interpretations, but I find it hard not to draw the conclusion that the brother figure is also the same person featured in the two extraordinarily powerful end-of-life poems, Prayer and We’ll talk about this when it’s over.

If I prayed at all it wasn’t when I thought you were dying,
when children and dogs oozed from pavements
to gawp at you: a falang with shrivelled limbs and jaw
hanging, eyes dragged deep in their sockets.

(Prayer)

Touchpapers moves from such harrowing desperation to moments of beauty. At the end of Prayer the poem’s narrator is momentarily absorbed by looking out at the stars and moonlight on the sea. Tess Jolly’s imaginative leaps can make me laugh out loud too. Take the start of Frog:

Frog and I sit opposite each other comparing belches.
Obviously Frog’s are louder.

(Frog)

I’m not sure why this works so well. Maybe it’s the deadpan matter of factness. We are instantly there, with no necessity to suspend disbelief at this manifestation of the magical other.

… I have to be careful because Frog’s secretions
can be toxic, and there’s the danger his skin will dry
if we spend too long between worlds like this
mostly conversing but sometimes just squatting in silence.

(Frog)

Between worlds. That pinpoints it for me. Tess Jolly’s Touchpapers brings an otherworldly beauty, which stimulates the reader’s sense of wonder. Tess Jolly’s book is a tour de force of the imagination, and of course this quick look has only scratched its surface. But I highly recommend you read it for yourself.

Categories
Actors Performance Reviews Theatre

Nina Conti on the edge of darkness

elib_5507639

I saw Nina Conti’s In Your Face tour at the Brighton Dome last Saturday. The climax of her show, when she had seven people up on stage, wearing her masks on demonstrated her sheer bravery, improvisational skill and speed of thought in remembering all the accents and attributes she had given them.

She had three moments of darker theatre in her show with Monk, her glove puppet. This monkey has such a strong identity, that despite frequent postmodern allusions to it being a puppet, the audience believes in it all the more strongly.  The shorter first half ends with Nina being hypnotised into sleep by the monkey. Of course when Nina is asleep, the monkey must remain silent and they are carried off stage.

Later Nina climbed into a black sack, with just Monk visible, and the puppet fielded audience questions. This was brave, especially in a large place like the Dome where it is hard to hear everyone, without first having climbed into a sack.

But most of all I loved the end of her show, when she puts the monkey away, then talking to her naked hand finds the monkey is still present, and beginning to take her over and puppet her. This was all over too quickly for me, but was nodding to a darker, more absurd territory that is clearly present for her. I’d be fascinated to see her enter it.

 

Categories
Poetry Reviews

The darkness is real

Noir by Charlotte Gann published by HappenStance Press9781910131350_1793727299.jpg

Noir is a word with a freight of associations, but in the title poem of Charlotte Gann’s first full collection the protagonist enters what seems to be a cinema where ‘I only ever catch a moon-thin glimpse /of the projectionist’s face…’ This fits happily with the film noir atmosphere in many of these poems. The cinema (or what seems to be a cinema) is the place ‘where my life and the darkness meet’.

But what the ‘I’ of the poem is watching, or how she feels about the projectionist, or the liquidly tangible darkness with its ‘deep thick folds of milky black,’ is another matter.

Darkness leaks into the poems, a darkness impossible for the trained eye of the protagonist to miss, but perhaps unnoticed by others.

                                        …I can’t not see
the cold dark water, can’t not feel its oil
seep through my boyfriend’s jumper.

(The Black Water)

An atmosphere of spy-like surveillance pervades these poems. People peer at each other’s apparently mundane lives and catch glimpses of darkness and impending catastrophe. In Tunnel, ‘She and I, two farmers’ wives’ are shown drinking ‘giant frosted lagers’ but soon we are in territory that reminds me of filmmaker David Lynch: ‘The darkness is real, she says, leaning towards me’.

When we are hunting for clues, we see this is a world where windows take on an unusual significance, offering portals into other realities, or presenting us with choices to be made.

Where are you getting your information?
My walls are papered with newspaper
cuttings–black and white on deep-red
plaster. Through one window I see
the red-brick houses I grew up in. Through
another, cliffs and sea and wild woodland.
(Column inches)

Sometimes this choice is evaded, the world outside to be hidden from.

We’re at the small high window.
You stand. I kneel, rest my cheek
on the window sill.

You’re reaching for the letterbox
of blue, I’m ducking down low.
(Sisters)

One of the cumulative effects of all this is that it begins to supercharge Gann’s images. We are in Gannland as soon as we notice that the woman sitting alone in a pub is wearing a black jumper. Something’s not right:

She sits alone, swaddled
in a boy’s black jumper
unravelling at the cuffs,

(The King’s Head)

Noir provokes all kinds of questions. There is an inherent seriousness to this work that I find thrilling. In the angst, the curious interplay of observed and observing, and the sense of near-palpable danger, there is a dark magnificence to these poems.

Categories
A Glass of Nothing Brighton Fringe Comedy Reviews Theatre

Four stars from BroadwayBaby

Absolutely chuffed by a great review of ‘A Glass of Nothing’ by Charley Ville.

“Writer Peter Kenny’s and actor-director Beth Symons’s A Glass of Nothing knows exactly what it’s doing – and who it’s doing it for. The very first lines pop like a Formula 1 celebration and we are delightfully bathed in a stream of deliciously fizzing jokes and observations. Featherweight bliss, this is a real Babysham of a show.”

Read the full review here.