My poem ‘1,000 miles from sea’ is published in London Grip this morning. I wrote this after visiting Chad, and seeing its struggle against drought and hunger. This poem is about how the conditions there brought my personal struggle with religion to a head.
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.
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.
I saw Eddie Izzard on Saturday night. I love the proliferation of characters (all played by himself) that populate his stand up act. He carried the audience with him on fantastic imaginative journeys. I particularly liked the death of Caesar scene. Stabbed twice by a Roman called Tenacious and his dying gasp misinterpreted as ‘remember me as a salad’. Always impressed to see how one person can hold a whole theatre for the evening. And despite it just being one man with no props, it managed to be a properly theatrical experience.
He had a lovely stage too, simple but with its chessboard-like design gave him areas to work from or cavort lengthily round on an extended riff on Dressage for example, which he described as ‘non-mammalian’ sport. The backdrop made me think 1960s TV series such as The Time Tunnel. Pretty much in tune with Izzard’s brilliant time-travelling, polyglot, culture-hopping comedy. Certainly gave me a much-needed laugh.
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.
In fact Sarah Barnsley’s new pamphlet is just out from Telltale. The Fire Station contains some truly exceptional poems.When I get back from Chad I will write more about them.
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.
I am off to Chad. In less than a month I shall be going to what is, according to the United Nations human development report 2011 is the fifth poorest nation on earth. I will be part of a small team to fact-find and shoot film for fundraising activities. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit twitchy about the idea at first (Chad being roughly three thousand miles outside my comfort zone) but this rare opportunity to do something good in the world has to be seized. My trepidation is rapidly being replaced by curiosity and excitement at the opportunity to grow as a writer and a person.
Telltale Press news… The Poetry Book Fair is happening on Saturday 26th in The Conway Hall London. I’m really proud to be on the Telltale stand (it’ll be our first time and we are sharing a stand with the lovely folks at The Frogmore Press) with Robin Houghton, Siegfried Baber and Sarah Barnsley.
Sarah’s spanking new Telltale pamphlet, The Fire Station, is about to released into the wild, and having read it I can tell you it is wonderful.
My own poems have had a couple of cheering acceptances lately. From Under the Radar magazine another with The Island Review which is a beautiful site visually and in content. While the excellent poetry anthology edited by Josephine Corcoran called And Other Poems will also feature a poem later this year. No doubt I shall be bragging about these more when they see the light of day.