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a writer's life Peter Kenny The Writer Ltd. Poetry Travel Working

A pre-Christmas ramble

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A side-street not taken in Vienna.

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.

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Me, before the Santa beard went on

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.

Cheers! Have a peaceful one.

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A Glass of Nothing a writer's life Poetry Theatre Working

Life in splinters

All work at present with a forest of deadlines. This mixed with unpleasant things like a house flood and the death of an old friend, means my life is being lived in weekend splinters.

So a few of the splinters:

My play with Beth Symons, A Glass of Nothing will be staged at The Box Theatre, The Warren in May as part of the Brighton Fringe. There is lots to be done between then and now, casting starts in a few weeks. More details here when we, quite literally, get our act together.

Had the Telltale Poets AGM two weeks ago. It’s a privilege to be know such a talented group of poets. More news about forthcoming Telltale announcements shortly. I did a reading with them at the beginning of January. I felt the force wasn’t with me that evening, however one of my poems Ernstophilia was filmed by Robin Houghton which can be watched here… along with a performance by the splendid Jack Underwood.

I finally read all of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen having been very taken with her performance at the T.S. Eliot wards. It seems to me to be concerned with how history amplifies everyday slights and unfairness, and gives them a resonance for people of colour in the US and elsewhere. A legacy which will take a lot of healing. This is illustrated through chunks of elegantly  anecdotal prose, an essay on Serena Williams, photographs and so on. It is an interesting miscellany (and IMO only poetry if you cast your modernist net wide enough). An important work, but did I enjoy it? Frankly not much. When poetry is dealing with really difficult subjects it can make the heart soar and affirm life. I personally didn’t get this from Citizen. But I am certain there are loads who will – and I am pleased I read it.

As usual I’m reading several things at once. Life, the biography of Keith Richards, I’m listening to as an audiobook. I’m not a massive Rolling Stone’s fan but as a glimpse into hedonistic life lived with gusto it is bracing and strangely cheering. And quite funny too.

A Year with Swollen Appendixes by Brian Eno is a book I return to when I need to refocus and remotivate. For those who have not read it, it is essentially Eno’s diary for 1995. Or to look at it another way, a prototype blog. His engagement with creativity is utterly inspiring, as well as his friendships with so many amazing people. Including David Bowie. But Bowie is another blog post, bless him.

Enodiary

 

 

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a writer's life Autobiographical Working Writing

Omega day

The-Omega-Man-1971

Long ago I decided that the last day of the year should be treated with the sort of extreme caution owed to a snake in a sack.

And at this time of year I often think about The Omega Man (1971) a film starring Charlton Heston and based on the enjoyable novel I am Legend by Richard Matheson (as was the 2007 Will Smith remake I am Legend). The last man alive is not alone, and has to contend with the undead.

In my case, left alone to brood, the zombies of self-recrimination can lumber out of the dark at this time of year. Give them permission and I can hear them muttering through cracks in the windows about how my objectives for 2015 were not all fulfilled. Not to mention the persistently mystifying absence of a J.K. Rowling level of success.

The only thing to do is to seize my imaginary infrared light rifle and fight all these undead miseries off. The bloodless clumping ‘should-have-dones’ do have a purpose, however. They help me refine my plans for next year, and inspire me to keep trying. But as soon as they get too negative, they have to be culled.

So join me in slaughtering a few zombies. It can be quite therapeutic. Once I thin them out a bit I  can notice my actual achievements. Nothing extraordinary, but a  year perhaps that lays the foundations for a stronger one next year. My blessings are many. My personal life is fantastic, my business is going strong, I continue to find joy in reading literature and the friends I make through it, my own poems are finding new audiences, and I have a play in the offing. Everything is great apart from a few pesky zombies.

Tomorrow is New Year’s Day. An opportunity for a fresh start that’s literally built into our calendars. I’m looking forward to it already. I hope you are too. Cheers, and I wish you a zombie-free new year.

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Charity Film Marketing Peter Kenny The Writer Ltd. Travel Working

Filming in the centre of Chad

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The Chief of the village holds the drone camera

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.

The chief and people of the community prepare to be filmed on the last day of our shoot
The chief and people of the community prepare to be filmed on the last day of our shoot

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.

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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.

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Working

Zen and the art of desk maintenance

If I were one of those people who are constantly quizzed about writing I would say this: pay attention to your desk.

If you live in your head, as writers do a good deal, it is important to have a physical place to work. If not a room of one’s own, at least a desk. A desk inhabits the real world and is not a nebulous thing of The Cloud. It is your situation, an anchor as you drift about on the currents of your imagination. It is also tangible evidence that you do some kind of work.

I am far from being a desk Nazi obsessed by tidiness. Nor do I feng shui my desk with a money tree in the far left hand corner of abundance, or place a telephone in the near right hand corner of helpful people.

My wife and I have just moved into a temporarily house, taking with us our two scuffling cats and some skeleton belongings. The first thing I did after reassembling the bed, was to rebuild my desk. But my desk right now is still a mess. There is tube of toothpaste on it, and a nest of wires from forgotten gadgets which reflect my disrupted state of my mind.

So I am going to tidy my desk. It is one of the main tools of my trade. Honor the tools, and the work will follow.

But a new thought is germinating. I enjoy pacing when I am thinking and Google tells me that worthies like Hemingway and Nabokov stood to write – as did Charles Dickens. It is also supposed to be a good deal healthier. Two desks? Sounds mad, but I’m going to try it.

 Winston Churchill at a standing desk
Winston Churchill at a standing desk