Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Title taddle (1)

Titles are something writers struggle with almost as much as their prose. Sometime a fitting title comes easily, sweetly, encapsulating exactly what you want to convey. Other times, the lack of the right title leaves you wanting to pull your hair out.

Titles and covers are how most readers choose a book. If you’re lucky, one or the other (or both), grabs your attention and reels a potential buyer in for a closer look. With so many books screaming for your attention, you need to find the title that will immediately hook a reader.

Imagine yourself in Waterstones at a 3-for-2 table. If you saw Trimalchio in West Egg, O Lost or Tote the Weary Load would you have been tempted to pick them up? Probably not. These are the titles their authors originally called them. Much better as The Great Gatsby, Look Homeward, Angel and Gone With the Wind.

I’m very happy with the name of my new book, The Double Happiness Company. It’s a deliberately enigmatic one which a reader has to work at, but they may be intrigued enough to want to try. Not just happiness, but double happiness! Something that is even enshrined in the Declaration of Independence: “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.

But the manuscript wasn’t always called that. For years, it had a half dozen working titles, only two of which I, cringing, care to reveal: Return to the Strange Land and Cage of Light.

I can remember when the right title came to me one New Year’s Day several years ago. I saw an abandoned paper horn on the pavement. Intrigued, I picked it up and read that it had been made in Hong Kong by The Double Happiness Company. A eureka moment. I had my title at last.

If you’re having trouble finding a name for one of your literary babies, don’t be tempted to resort to title generators when you’re stuck. While researching this blog I found a website which said, ‘Have you written a book, and have everything ready except for a great attention-grabbing title? Or perhaps you have writer’s block and need a title to get you started. Either way, the Instant Title Generator will save the day, as it gives you an automatic title that is sure to be a hit with potential publishers and the public alike!’ I tried it and one of the titles it came up with was The Devil and The President of the World. Underneath was the book’s suggested subtitle: Pizzas Are The #3 Men in Iraq. Hmmm, not something, I think, the buyers at Waterstones or Barnes & Noble will be rushing to stock. 

Stay tuned . . .

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes

I recently went to the latest exhibition at the V&A, Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes. This innovative company is one that has blazed in my imagination from the time I could read. It was a thrill to see so many iconic items: original posters for Ballets Russes performances, the tunic worn by Nijinsky in Giselle, Alexandre Benois’ stage model for the first abstract ballet, Les Sylphides, the Cubist costumes from Parade, a pointe shoe worn by Tamara Karsavina, Picasso’s 34 x 38-foot front cloth for the ballet, Le Train Bleu (pictured below) which, because of its size, has spent more than 80 years in storage.    

Sergei Diaghilev was the wizard and impressario who brought this hugely-influential company into existence. He was once described by Jean Cocteau as “that ogre, that giant . . . that Russian prince who lived only to create marvels.”

Diaghilev was one of the greatest, and most controversial, ballet directors of the early 20th century. He managed to hold his company together through revolution, exhausting world tours and war for two decades, dealing with the difficult demands of dancers, artists and composers who have since became household names: Anna Pavlova, Pablo Picasso and Igor Stravinsky, to name but a few.
Diaghilev had no home; his home was his company and the road so it's not surprising that very few of Sergei Pavlovich's personal possessions were on display: only his top hat, opera glasses and travelling clock. More poignant were his travel documents (Diaghilev was stateless after the Russian Revolution of 1917) and the hotel bill he left when he died in 1929.    

Like many Russians, Sergei Diaghilev was an intensely superstitious man. Told by a fortune-teller that he would die on water, he refused to travel by ship with his lover, Vaslav Nijinsky, when the Ballets Russes went on its first tour to South America in 1913. A Hungarian aristocrat and ballet groupie of the time, Romola de Pulszky, married Nijinsky as soon as the boat docked in Buenos Aires. Apoplectic with rage, Diaghilev threw Nijinsky out of the company when he found out. Sadly, his star dancer and choreographer became insane a few years later.

In my new novel, The Double Happiness Company, the book's protagonist, Katie Rivers, performs the role of Petrouchka, a signature production of the Ballets Russes. That it is a ballet is entirely due to Diaghilev's browbeating. In 1910 Stravinsky wrote the score for the ballet, The Firebird, and afterwards wanted to “refresh himself” by composing an orchestral piece that featured the piano. He composed “Petrouchka's Cry” and “Russian Dance” in 1911 and when Diaghilev heard them, he called their odd meters and shifting tempos “works of genius”. The impressario persuaded a reluctant Stravinsky to let him turn these pieces into a ballet and Petrouchka was born.  
But back to Diaghilev, the master puppeteer of the Ballets Russes. The fortune-teller wasn’t wrong in her prediction. The man whose motto was “Astonish me!” died on the Lido. He is buried on the island of San Michele in the Venetian lagoon, his grave not far from his collaborator and compatriot, Igor Stravinsky. If you love the theatre, see this stunning exhibition before it ends on 9 January. 

Stay tuned . . .

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

The Alligators of San Jacinto Plaza

In a book store I was chasing an interesting read when I picked up a Charles Bukowski novel in which one of his characters, while stinking drunk, got into a fountain in El Paso, Texas, that contained alligators. This wasn’t fiction. There was a fountain in that city with alligators; I paid them a visit almost every time my mother and I went downtown to shop. Knowing what a huge boozer Bukowkski was, it’s my guess it was the writer who got into the pond which contained up to seven reptiles and then wrote about it. “Drinking,” Bukowski said, “yanks you out of your body and your mind and throws you against the wall. I have the feeling that drinking is a form of suicide where you’re allowed to return to life and begin all over the next day. It’s like killing yourself, and then you’re reborn. I guess I’ve lived about ten or fifteen thousand lives now.”

In researching this blog, I discovered several interesting facts about the alligator pond in San Jacinto Plaza. In 1883, the first winter the 'gators were in the Pass of the North, some kind-hearted men were worried they might freeze so they kidnapped the reptiles, covered them in burlap sacks and carried them to a saloon where they spent comfortable nights behind a potbellied stove. In the morning the men would wrap the alligators up again and return them to their home, breaking the ice with their boot heels before putting them back into the frigid water.

The reptiles’ descendants were moved to the zoo as late as 1965 after two unfortunate animals were killed by vandals and another had a spike driven through its eye. The alligators were briefly returned to the plaza in the early 70s, only to be removed once more because they were still being tortured. Their pond was replaced by a fiberglass sculpture created by Luis Jiménez. Though the alligators are long gone, many El Pasoans still call the park where they once lived La Plaza de los Lagartos.

Most people don’t think of alligators as being protective of their young, but they are. In 1952, Minnie, a 54-year old female, laid an egg in the fountain at San Jacinto. Spectators were astonished when a maternal Minnie rushed to protect her egg as park employees cleaned her concrete home.

Lola Rivers, the mother in my new novel, The Double Happiness Company, watches over her teenage daughter with the fierceness of a Minnie. I would have loved to include more information about these fascinating creatures in my book, but the dictates of the narrative meant I couldn’t stop and give any back story about the alligators of San Jacinto Plaza. This blog will have to serve.

Stay tuned . . .

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Viva la vida

On a visit to my hometown I recently went to see "Frida Kahlo: Through the Lens of Nicholas Muray". This exhibition of 46 photographs is currently touring the United States. These portraits of her stare sensuously at the camera: Frida in her Tehuana costume, Frida posing with an eagle, Frida wearing earrings of tiny, severed plastic hands given to her by the surrealist, André Breton.

Frida was the wife of the Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera, who was unable to be faithful to any woman. The Riveras had a tempestuous marriage and, to hurt him, Frida look lovers, among them Leon Trotsky and Nickolas Muray, a Hungarian photographer who had immigrated to New York City. 
Muray became internationally known as a portrait photographer, but he became famous for the many portraits he took of Kahlo. Their affair lasted ten years. To see the many pictures he made of her is to follow the waxing and waning of their love.

Muray photographed Kahlo not only with great artistry and skill, but also with extraordinary feeling. In the exhibition was a reproduction of a love letter Frida sent Muray. In it she enclosed an impression of her lips with her signature fire-engine-red lipstick. This is specially for the back of your neck. Despite Diego’s many betrayals, including an affair with Frida’s sister, Cristina, Frida always loved Rivera which explains why Muray wrote this plangent sentence, "The one of me is eternally grateful for the happiness that the half of you so generously gave."

I think of Kahlo as a novelist in paint because her pictures are a series that chart the events of her life and her emotional reactions to them: her broken body, her inability to have children. Muray let us see the woman behind them: proud, passionate, sometimes cruel (she made him photograph her kissing Diego). 

Hayden Herrera has written a mesmerizing biography of her, Frida, and the British poet, Pascale Petit, recently published an excellent book of poetry, What the Water Gave Me: Poems After Frida Kahlo. Both highly recommended. 

Frida’s last, defiant painting was executed eight days before her death. Bedridden and in great pain, she chose as her subject the most beloved Mexican fruit: watermelons. Whole, halved, serrated, sliced. In blood-red oils, she depicted the lusciousness of their dying flesh. Should anyone miss her meaning, she painted in capital letters on the glistening pulp of the wedge nearest the viewer, VIVA LA VIDA. Viva life.

Stay tuned . . . 

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

The Devil's Dance

In my writer's notebook is a sentence by Eric Satie: "The tango is the devil's dance. He does it to cool down." Tango is something I have been thinking about a lot recently. One chapter in my book, The Double Happiness Company, which will be published in January, deals with a ballroom dance instructor who teaches tango.

So it was a moment of serendipity when friends from Barcelona gave me tango songs sung by the Spanish flamenco guitarist, Diego El Cigala. It was a most welcome gift because, at the time, I was going through the hard graft of finalising my 95,000 word manuscript for publication. Cigala & Tango, the album they gave me has el duende, that difficult-to-translate Spanish phrase. If someone, or something, has el duende, it gives you chills, moves you, makes you smile or cry.

The tango is a dance of passion. Invented in Buenos Aires at the turn of the last century, it was first danced in bordellos by lonely immigrant men and ladies of the night and even between the men themselves. Tango lyrics are about broken hearts, pimps, thieves and drunks. One famous tango opens with “The world is and always has been a pigsty, in 510 and the year 2000 as well.”

Researching this blog I came across a clip of a ballet created by the late, great Pina Bausch. I have never seen her Bandonéon performed, but I long to now that I have seen this YouTube clip. The filming is jerky and yet, in its own way, is as mesmerising as the choreography. Men and women move out from their line and begin to dance. They move from sedate steps with their partners to sensual hip-grinding combinations that suggest vertical fornication. Meanwhile, upstage behind the couples there is a lone man wearing a romantic tutu. In his long net skirt he repeats the same step over and over: the first step a dancer learns, the humble plié. I don’t know what it is about this repetition that is so moving, that makes it pull at my heart. The simplicity perhaps, the yearning of someone who will never fit in, never know love, but is destined to dance alone, echoing what Bertrand Russell called the ‘terror of cosmic loneliness’. 

Stay tuned . . .

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Homage To Catalonia

The picture illustrating this blog is a wall covered with loaves of bread which decorate the rear wall of the Salvador Dalí Museum in Catalonia. It was chosen because I have just completed my first novel writing retreat in Spain, close to Dalí’s birthplace of Figueres.

There was something magically surreal about the week, the absence of the reality of my life in North London. At home, I go to bed listening to police and ambulance sirens. In Camós, there was silence, broken only by the bell-like call of a scops owl. I woke to the sound of cuckoos.

On this retreat there were morning workshops that covered six different aspects of novel writing. Lunch was then served on the terrace and, in the afternoons, I offered one-to-one tutorials. Each evening before dinner, we had a showcase night where students read and received feedback on their work.

Some course members arrived with manuscripts they’d been working on for several years, others with just the germ of an idea. Novel themes included the history of the North Tyrol after World War I, a boy whose dead twin speaks to him and the unrequited love of an undertaker and his long-suffering housekeeper.

On the chefs one night off (the incredibly-talented Lee Pennington and Debbi Reid), we had gin and tonics, followed by a meal in Banyoles whose lake was the location for water sports during the 1992 Summer Olympics. We ended the week with a fiesta. To get a flavor of the course, click here to view the video which featured the talented Catalan musicians, the Bel and Sammy Duet.

I’ll be back in Camós next year for two workshops: a novel intensive, followed by a retreat for those who want time to write and receive extended tutorials. Click on the respective links above for full details. Stay tuned . . .

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Chocolate Unwrapped

In a January blog I mentioned that one of Margaret Atwood’s cures for writer’s block was, “Eat chocolate . . . must be dark, shade-grown, organic.” The chocolate tree’s scientific name, Theobroma cacao, comes from theobroma, “food of the gods”. I wonder what depressed writers did before the 16th century when chocolate first arrived in Europe.

In 1528 the conquistador, Hernando Cortés, presented Charles V of Spain with cocoa beans. In Mesoamerica the plant had been cultivated for over three thousand years where these highly-prized tropical seeds were fermented and used to make a drink. Chocolate was also prized as currency. Two hundred beans would buy a turkey; one hundred beans a rabbit. Three beans could be traded for a turkey egg, an avocado or a fish wrapped in maize husks. One bean would get you a ripe tomato.

The Aztecs attributed the creation of the cocoa plant to their god Quetzalcoatl, but it was the Mayan people who gave it the name we use today, xocoatl (bitter water).

Given most people’s taste for chocolate, not surprisingly it features in book titles: Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Dying for Chocolate (Diane Mott Davidson’s tale of murder in high society) and Robert Rankin’s The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse where the inhabitants of Toy Town are killed with chocolate treats!

Writing this blog has reminded me of a handwritten note that used to be on my mother’s fridge: Chocolate is in your mouth for a few seconds, in your stomach for a few hours, on your hips forever. Reading about this “food of the gods” is the best way to enjoy it . . . without any calories.

I’m off now to chew on Laura Esquivel’s Water for Chocolate, a novel which features a chocolate recipe at the start of each chapter and combines Mexican mysticism with Esquivel’s love for this wonderful concoction. Viva chocolate! Stay tuned . . .

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Pavarotti & Friends

After years of thinking I couldn’t crack the problems with my second novel, a Bosnian poet, Danijel Lozancic, asked to read the opening chapter of The Double Happiness Company. At the time I was working in East Mostar, the beautiful Ottoman town whose iconic limestone bridge had been destroyed in 1993. I was treating war-traumatised patients with acupuncture when Danijel had heard, through the grapevine, that I was a novelist. He turned up in my treatment room one day with his poems and asked to see what I was working on. The yellowing manuscript of DHC had been in my bottom drawer for years and after he’d read the first few pages, Danijel’s positive reaction excited me enough to make me think this book might be worth resurrecting.

I met Danijel at the Pavarotti Music Centre in 1998, built with money raised by Luciano Pavarotti through his concerts in Modena. I was thinking of the Maestro as I watched him last week singing a short extract of Turandot on Rick Stein’s BBC4 programme, Food of the Italian Opera. Check it out on BBC iPlayer.

According to Stein, food was inspiration, as well as fuel, to the great Italian opera composers Puccini, Verdi and Rossini, who loved their meals as much as their music. The gourmand Rossini once declared that he had only cried three times in his life: once when his mother died, a second time when he listened to Paganini playing the violin and the third time picnicking beside a lake when a warm truffled turkey slipped from his arms into the water.

Rossini was a prolific artist who could compose an opera in less than two weeks, but sometimes left the overture until the day of the première. The composer would be locked in a room with a bowl of cold pasta until he produced it. Once the distraught conductor had his overture, Rossini would be released to feast on a full-blown meal.

Stein said that the Big 3 of Italian opera took their own food with them when they travelled. Maestro Pavarotti followed them in this practice by not only taking his own food with him, but also his Columbian chef. He had his own restaurant, Europa 92, which was housed in a converted stables on the outskirts of Modena. I dined there once as his guest. The best dishes on the menu were pasta and the black rice risotto the tenor loved.

Luciano Pavarotti was a great humanitarian as well as a great singer. He did not have to raise money for the children of Bosnia, or anywhere else. But he did. I was privileged to have attended his “Pavarotti and Friends” concerts for two years running. One of my great memories is of watching Liza Minelli and Pavarotti rehearsing a duet of “New York, New York” wearing a Hawaiian shirt and his trademark scarf. To hear it, click here. I remember him with gratitude and joy. Stay tuned . . .

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Edward Hopper

Waiting to meet my editor last week in Foyles, I came across a book cover which stopped me in my tracks: a stunning colour portrait of one of my favourite artists. Inside Edward Hopper was a collection of poetry by Ernest Farrés, published by Carcanet Press. On opposite pages was the same poem in Catalan and English, each in response to a Hopper painting.

I have been a passionate admirer of Hopper’s work for years. His iconic painting Nighthawks (1942) served as an inspiration for a chapter of my book, The Double Happiness Company. At least two other Hopper paintings have wormed their way into my fiction . . . or tried to.

When my first novel, No Angel Hotel, was accepted for publication, I desperately wanted Hopper's Hotel Room for the cover. My novel was eventually published three times by HarperCollins, Grafton Books and St Martin’s Press, but all my editors said, “yellow on a cover doesn’t sell”. I had no choice but to listen, but in my short story, “Secrets”, set in Ireland, the woman in Carolina Morning was the inspiration for the ending and I didn’t have to refer its “use” to anyone:

There is a picture of Eileen Flynn in the family album. 
        She is wearing a striped dress, a sun-hat, standing 
        in the doorway of the kitchen, five toes heavenward, 
        the chunky heel of her shoe resting on the step. The
        foreground is in shadow except for a rectangle of light 
        falling on the hem of her dress. The concrete yard is as 
        bare as the moon.

Many writers and poets have tried to interpret Hopper’s themes as stories. Take Nighthawks, for example. Joyce Carol Oates composed interior monologues for the couple sitting in the fish-bowl brightness. Erik Jendresen, author of the film, Band of Brothers, wrote a short story inspired by the painting. The German poet, Wolf Wondratschek, imagined that the Nighthawks’ couple had grown apart:

I bet she wrote him a letter
Whatever it said, hes no longer the man 
Whod read her letters twice.

His late-night diners, anonymous lobbies, lonely gas stations and empty streets are visual literature. “If you could say it in words,” Hopper once said, “there would be no reason to paint.” I, for one, am glad he was such a mysterious, prolific artist, allowing us to stand before his canvases to ponder his elliptical meanings for ourselves.

Stay tuned . . .

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Something New

After attending classes at the City Lit with novelists David Plante and Carol Burns, I formed a writing group with fellow students who were keen to write, keen to learn. More than quarter of a century later, The Group, as we have always unimaginatively called ourselves, are still meeting, still writing.

Members have come and gone, but the core, the heart, has remained the same. One of those is the artist and poet, Keith New. My earliest memories of him are of his wavy, grey hair and beautifully-ironed shirts with “saloon” arm-bands which kept his cuffs from getting dirty. He is older than the rest of us by two and a half decades, but his youthful spirit, energy, constructive criticism and excellent poems make him a valued member of The Group.

Keith's poems often have landscape as their theme. In his poem, “Surrey: A Poet in Residence”, this home county is a place of prim lawns, love and lust, the land of “the everlasting Sunday lunch”:

        Kind county, kind towns
        kind park seats up the road,
        kindly force-fed ducks.

Surrey is a place where

        thoughts of loneliness and death
        are mown short as well-kept lawns.
        However, love (conjugal) is permitted
        preferably when shares are rising.

Keith’s art also has its “well-kept lawns”, but his canvases work very differently to his verse. His land- and garden-scapes present us with beautifully-manicured compositions, as in Act One, Scene One: A Garden in Farnham (below). This is the world as we would like it. His poems are the world as it is: messy, complex, precious. Keith has been seriously ill in hospital. Get well soon, my friend, to write and paint again.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

May Day

When out walking on May Day, I came across a pagan rite which prompted this blog. I was striding past this circle of celebrants, fascinated by the surreal sequinned mermaid, when I was stopped in my tracks. A member of the group said, loud enough for the nearby crows and dogs to hear, “This is the day of the vulva.” You don’t hear that very often on Hampstead Heath. The General Election got in the way of publishing this blog last week, so here it is. The political and secular interrupting and mixing with the spiritual and personal. That is the story of May Day itself.

In pre-Christian Britain, May Day divided the year into half and was called Beltane. People lit bonfires which were danced around and cattle and young couples passed through the flames to be purified. These rituals were meant to give strength to the spring sun beginning to warm the earth for next year’s crops. In early May, the Romans had a five-day celebration of spring, known as the Floralia, to worship the goddess of flowers. Today, many customs associated with May Day are a combination of Beltane and Floralia: the Maypole (a fertility symbol) and the crowning of a May Queen (the goddess Flora).

In the eighteenth century in France, the May Tree became the “Tree of Liberty” and the symbol of their revolution. May Day went international and took on a secular form. It was the struggle to win the fight for an 8-hour day that resulted in the first May Day parade in Chicago in 1886. Three years later, French socialists declared 1 May “Labour Day”.

There are at least two short stories with this day at their heart: F Scott Fitzgerald’s “May Day” which uses the May Day riots of 1919 to intertwine the lives of drunken socialites and brawling soldiers. In “May Day Eve”, the writer Nick Joaquin shows the oppression of Filipino women who were forced to marry men against their will.

Stay tuned . . .

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

The Carve Up

There are plenty of contemporary novels with elections at their heart, Jonathan Coe’s What A Carve Up, Justin Cartwright’s Half in Love and Robert Harris’s The Ghost which has recently been made into a film of the same name with Pierce Brosnan and Ewan McGregor. But I want to take you back to the nineteenth century when elections were a persistent theme in novels.  

In Charles Dickens's Pickwick Papers he described the parliamentary system as “eatandswill”. In Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, Augustus Melmotte is a "great financier" (read my lips . . . crook) who bribes his way into Parliament. In The Prime Minister, another Trollope book, Tory MP Gerald Fedden is elected, despite his involvement in sexual and financial scandal.
Benjamin Disraeli was a novelist as well as Prime Minister. In Coningsby two spin doctors, Tadpole and Taper, devise a catchy election theme, “Ancient Institutions and Modern Improvements”. Nothing changes.
Napoleon started out an idealist and became an emperor. When he was still a man of the people he said, "A throne is only a bench covered with velvet."  To most politicians, the electorate is a steamed pudding to be carved up and eaten. Gore Vidal, the American writer and essayist, said "Apparently, a democracy is a place where numerous elections are held at great cost without issues and with interchangeable candidates." Personally, I'm for the planet. Stay tuned . . . 

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Remembering Corin Redgrave

It was with sadness that I learned of the death of Corin Redgrave who I had the privilege of working with in what was to be the last year of his life. He took part in two readings of The Trainer, acting alongside Tim Pigott-Smith, Janie Dee, Paul Herzberg and Jana Zeineddine in a play co-written by David Wilson and me. The Trainer is a play about a love affair between an Israeli Jew and a Palestinian law student and includes a court case about an opera. It was staged to raise money for the rebuilding of the Gaza Music School. (For a slideshow of more of Guy Smallman’s photos, click here). Despite being unwell, Corin played his role of Oliver Higdon-Brown to perfection, giving a fabulous performance as a pompous High Court judge.

The readings took place in 2009 at Oxford House and the Hackney Empire. It was not easy for him to get from South London to Bethnal Green and Hackney, but with support from his wife, the actress Kika Markham, Corin was determined to help the cause. Because of his huge reputation, I was nervous about working with him, but I needn’t have been. The man who had played major roles at the RSC and National and starred in movies and TV gave attention and care to his performance in The Trainer. He was a consummate professional: courteous and enthusiastic and put everyone involved with the benefit at their ease.

For many years, his acting took second place to his deeply-held political beliefs. As a Shakespearean actor, I’ll bet he loved these lines from Richard III:

     And thus I clothe my naked villany
     With odd old ends stol'n out of holy writ,
     And seem a saint, when most I play the devi

In exposing the villainy of those devils in power, he disappeared from the stage for many years. In 2005 he suffered a heart attack while campaigning for Roma rights. After a period of recuperation, he returned to the theatre as Oscar Wilde in De Profundis. He had been weakened, but he never gave up. I last saw him at the Jermyn Street Theatre performing letters of the blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo. The show opened on the night news broke of his niece Natasha Richardson’s tragic death.

He was a sweet bear of a man, a humanitarian who loved the world. He will be sorely missed by his public, as well as by his family and friends. The words on the oldest known pyramid are these: ‘The doors of the sky are thrown open for you.’ Corin, travel well.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Under the Volcano

Our planet is volcanic. All life emerged from volcanoes and their ash and yet they have the power to induce fear in all of us. In Virgil’s Aeneid, the entrance to the underworld was on Mount Vesuvius. Over a thousand years later, Dante Alighieri’s nine levels of Hell was inspired by volcanoes. As man’s understanding of the natural world advanced, volcanoes continued to inspire awe, but became a backdrop to works of fiction and science fiction. In Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Professor Lidenbrock and his friends descend into Iceland’s Snæfellsjökull volcano, have many adventures and then are spat out of another volcano on the Italian island of Stromboli. In The Crater James Fenimore Cooper, the author of The Last of the Mohicans, wrote of shipwrecked sailors who set up a utopia on a volcanic island.

How many people know that the Tambora volcano in Indonesia was the genesis for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein? In 1816 Mary, her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron were confined to a cottage in the Swiss Alps because of bad weather brought about by Tambora’s eruption the year before. Byron suggested a ghost story competition and this resulted in Mary conceiving her monster.

In our own era, volcanoes continue to erupt in fiction. One of the great works of twentieth-century literature, Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, tells the story of an alcoholic British consul in the Mexican town of Quauhnahuac on the Day of the Dead. In Susan Sontag’s The Volcano, Sir William Hamilton’s wife, Emma, becomes the lover of Horatio Nelson under a steaming Vesuvius. Isabel Allende’s memoir, My Invented Country, refers to her native Chile “shaken by the sighs of hundreds of volcanoes”. Her fellow countryman, the poet Pablo Neruda, wrote, "Give me silence, water, hope. Give me struggle, iron, volcanoes". Volcanoes have given the earth life. They have also given us a few stories. 

Stay tuned . . .

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

City of Dreams

New York City is a place of dreams, a city where you can feel the electricity in the air. It is also the setting for fiction as diverse as F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Phillip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint and the poignant stories of John Cheevor. When I lived there, I was drawn to Greenwich Village because this was where the cool cats went: an area of coffee houses, small theatres, bookstores and art house movies. It was also where some of my cultural heroes had lived: Isadora Duncan, William Faulkner, Eugene O’Neill.

I spent my first months in New York in a women’s residence on the northern border of the Village with grim-faced nuns. As soon as I could afford to, I moved to a garret on Christopher Street where the previous tenant had been evicted and the paint-drizzled floor looked more like a canvas than something to walk on. The flat was bohemian: unfurnished with one consumptive, gasping radiator I nicknamed “Camille”.

In the 50s and 60s Greenwich Village was hopping with jazz and folk music. Now Tin Palace in the Bowery and Bell’s of Hell on West 13th Street are gone. The building I lived in houses a Petit Puppy parlour which sells small breeds to residents who are now more likely to be drinking fine wines than going to smoky dives for a set.

You would need to take the L train to Williamsburg in Brooklyn to find a place which carries on some of the Village traditions. The coffee houses and bars are now off Hope Street. Across the East River is Madison Avenue, the setting for the brilliant TV drama Mad Men set in 60s New York. For their 2009 Christmas party the series that is Cheever on celluloid asked the Brooklyn-based group, Eclectic Method, to provide the entertainment. EM are also madly creative men whose innovative audio-visual remixing of film and music is a leap into the future. Check it out here

Stay tuned . . .

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

The Mango Orchard

At 7PM on 14 April at Waterstones in Hampstead there will be a book launch I’d strongly encourage you to attend. One of my students, Robin Bayley, will be talking about, and reading from, his new book, The Mango Orchard.

As a child, Robin had been bewitched by his grandmother's stories of her father's Mexican adventures: of jungles and banditos, of hidden silver and a narrow escape at the time of the Mexican Revolution.

Almost a hundred years later, Robin retraced his ancestor's steps via New York and Columbia. His book is as much about this journey as it is about Arthur's odyssey. It is a story that travels through time and place, culminating in the discovery that Arturo had left behind him, not just a country, but a Mexicana who had given birth to his child. The story ends with an extraordinary coming together of Arturo’s two families who had not known of each other’s existence until Robin’s arrival.

Trevor Dolby said of Robin’s book, “This is an extraordinary travel book from an extraordinary new talent. The Mango Orchard ranks up there with Sandra Cisneros's Caramelo, and even the books of the great Bruce Chatwin himself.” Click here to check out Robin’s website. There is also a video clip of the the launch party and my interview with Robin here. Stay tuned . . .

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Cooking with Pooh

As writers, the way we order each word is important. This thought came to mind on Tuesday after the screening of this week’s Channel 4 Dispatches. My husband’s friend, Robin Beste, pointed out that the name chosen by the filmmakers who approached the “cash-for-influence MPs” with their bogus lobbying company was called “Anderson Perry”. Geoff Hoon, Patricia Hewitt, Stephen Byers and others were being given a clue that this was a stitch-up. Perry Anderson was, for many years, the editor of the New Left Review and remains a prominent philosopher and polemicist on the British Left. He probably finds it amusing that his fore- and surnames had been transposed for this sting.

Consider The Brothers Karamazov which has a very different connotation to The Karamazov Brothers. The former title carries gravitas, makes the reader think this is a classic Russian novel. Had it been given the same title with the two main words reversed, it could have been a circus act or the HBO sequel to The Sopranos. So the placing of each word is important. The poet Andrew Motion said, "Every time I peer into [the Oxford English Dictionary] . . . I think: All the words I'll ever need are here; the only thing I have to do is get them in the right order."

While we’re talking about word order, I thought you might like to know that there is a book with a picture of Winnie the Pooh on the cover that teaches children how to bake. It’s unfortunate, but hilarious, that its title is Cooking with Pooh and offers the promise of “Yummy Tummy Cookie Cutter Treats”. The recipes in this cookbook would only be “yummy” if it had a different title. The ex-Cabinet Ministers who were so willing to offer their services “for hire” were either so beef-witted or greedy that they couldn’t foresee the poo they would be in. Stay tuned . . .

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

A Star Who Fell to Earth

The past few weeks I have been reading Julie Kavanagh's biography, Rudolf Nureyev. Today is an apt day for posting this blog as it would have been Rudi's 72nd birthday.

When I was a teenager, everyone else I knew had posters of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones on their walls. I had a dozen different posters of Rudik. He was a huge and charismatic presence and, even 17 years after his death, he still seems to be here among the living, one of those rare people you can't quite believe still does not walk (dance) this earth.

Born in 1938 on the Trans-Siberian Railway, he was constantly performing, choreographing, teaching. He had a huge intelligence, educating himself about everything from Byron's poetry to how to spot the best kilims. He worked endlessly, pushing his body to extend his repertoire and technique. From 1973 until his death in 1993, Kavanagh writes "Rudolf had been dancing with a permanent tear in his leg muscle; he had destroyed his Achilles tendon by years of landing badly; he had heel spurs; his bones were chipped so that even basic walking gave him pain." None of this stopped him from his passion of performing. One of the many ballets he left his stamp on was Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet. If you want to see the final heartrending scene with Margot Fonteyn, watch this YouTube clip and weep. Stay tuned . . .

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

The Other Side of the Tapestry

Translations have always fascinated me and even more so when I read this quote by Miguel de Cervantes: ‘Translations are the other side of a tapestry.’ That set me thinking. You have the original writer writing in their own language. Then you have the translator writing in theirs and, in some cases, you have translations from translations, not to mention literal translations. Most early English translations of Turgenev were not from Russian, but from French!

One of the great Chekhov translators was Constance Garnett (1862 – 1946) who translated seventeen Chekhov works, seventeen volumes of Turgenev, thirteen volumes of Dostoevsky, six of Gogol and four of Tolstoy. She worked so quickly that when she came across an awkward passage, she would leave it out. D H Lawrence remembered her ‘turning out reams of her marvelous translations from the Russian. She would finish a page, and throw it off on a pile on the floor without looking up, and start a new page. The pile would be . . . almost up to her knees, and all magical.’

In 1994 Donald Rayfield compared Garnett's translations with the most recent scholarly versions of Chekhov’s stories: ‘While she makes elementary blunders, her care in unravelling difficult syntactical knots and her research on the right terms for Chekhov's many plants, birds and fish are impressive . . . Her English is not only nearly contemporaneous to Chekhov's, it is often comparable.’ In the 1998 anthology, The Essential Tales of Chekhov, the Constance Garnett translations were used by its editor, Richard Ford.

In the spirit of exploration I thought it might be interesting to look at the first sentence, and title, of one of Chekhov’s most famous stories. Here goes:

‘People were saying that someone new had appeared on the seafront: a lady with a little dog.’ “The Lady with the Little Dog”, translator: Rosamund Bartlett

‘It was said that a new person had appeared on the sea-front: a lady with a little dog.’ “The Lady with the Dog”, translator: Constance Garnett

‘People said that there was a new arrival on the Promenade: a lady with a little dog.’ “The Lady with the Little Dog”, translator: Ronald Wilks

‘There was said to be a new arrival on the Esplanade: a lady with a dog.’ “A Lady with a Dog”, translator: Ronald Hingley

‘The appearance on the front of a new arrival - a lady with a lapdog - became the topic of general conversation.' “The Lady with the Lapdog”, translator: David Magarshack

On the basis of the story title and the opening sentence alone, which ‘other side of a tapestry’ would you choose as the most authentic ‘voice’ of Chekhov? Which has the most nuance and style? Having read all the various versions of this story, I know who my money would be on. 

Stay tuned . . .

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

A Foreshadowing of Paris

Books are so important that some regimes have burned them. There have certainly been books which have marked me as permanently as a branding iron. The first I can remember was a biography of Anna Pavlova which made me want to become a dancer.

The next was one I had to read in school when I was thirteen, A Tale of Two Cities. It was with a chill I realised that the broken cask outside the Defarge’s wine shop was Dickens’ foreshadowing the blood that would flow during the French Revolution: “The wine was red wine, and had stained the ground of the narrow street in the suburb of Saint Antoine, in Paris, where it was spilled. It had stained many hands, too, and many faces, and many naked feet, and many wooden shoes.”

Another book which changed my life was Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast which, with 20/20 hindsight, encouraged me to think of writing as something I might do. It also made me determined to come to Europe as I wanted to see the Paris he had written about so poignantly. On my arrival in Europe I spent a month there, surviving on $5 a day. Four weeks in a bug-infested hotel on the Quai de la Tournelle whose only advantage was that I could see Notre Dame from my window. Walking from one end of Paris to the other, I could hardly believe that I was in the city of two of my literary heroes. Standing in the Place de la Concorde where the statue of Louis XV had been replaced by the Obelisk of Luxor, I saw not only the stone needle pointing to the sky, but something that had never physically existed: the knitting needles of pitiless Madame Defarge secretly stitching the names of victims who would one day lose their heads. Stay tuned . . .

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Dreaming of Baghdad

One of the exercises I give my students is to ask them to list what they would take if they were suddenly forced into exile. This always results in profound and moving writing. Objects chosen range from a pinch of soil to a map of the London Underground.

An Iraqi exile is the poet, painter, novelist and Guardian columnist, Haifa Zangana. Her book, Dreaming of Baghdad, has just been published by the Feminist Press, New York City. One of the strongest parts for me is the chapter about Haifa’s mother attempting to visit her in Abu Ghraib in the 1970s where she was held as a political prisoner. “That little woman with big black eyes, full lips, and a round face, that woman who hated walking the streets alone, hated shopping alone, hated sleeping in the dark, went to the Ministry of Defense alone for weeks on end.” Haifa’s moving account of her mother trying to bring her food and clothing, not knowing whether she was alive or dead, reminds me of Anna Akhmatova’s searing poem, “Requiem”, one of whose stanzas is about a prison vigil when she was trying to visit her son during the Stalinist Terror. In a video interview I recently did with Haifa, she reads an excerpt from the chapter, “Heart, What Have You Seen”. To view it, click here. Stay tuned . . .

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Push Bottles Up Germans

My father-in-law was editor of The Lancet. Though long retired, he is still a stickler for meaning what you say and saying what you mean. He remembers the Daily Express headline at the time of El Alamein which lacked an all-important comma: “8th Army Push Bottles Up Germans”. Another headline during World War II that made him laugh was “Monty Flies Back to Front”.

Here are some interesting facts about punctuation. In Roman times, writers did not punctuate. “The marking of pauses in a copy of a text was normally left to the initiative of the individual reader who would insert them, or not, according to the degree of difficulty presented by the text, or the extent of his comprehension.” (M B Parkes, 1992). Until approximately the eighth century, writers did not use spaces between words. Until the middle of the nineteenth, punctuation in books was usually determined by the printer rather than by the author.

I have my own favourite sentences with missing commas (or hyphens) like this one at a safari park: “Elephants Please Stay in Your Car” or “Sheep rustling in the hills”. Apostrophes are also something that need to be used correctly. A vegetarian café advertised goat cheese salad on its menu. Its ingredients included “tomatoes, onions, goats, cheese.” Spot the missing apostrophe and superfluous comma! Edgar Allan Poe was right: “The writer who neglects punctuation, or mispunctuates, is liable to be misunderstood . . . For the want of merely a comma, it often occurs that an axiom appears a paradox, or that a sarcasm is converted into a sermonoid.”  

Then there are those wonderful mistranslations such as this one seen in a Moscow hotel: “You are welcome to visit the cemetery where famous Russian and Soviet composers, artists and writers are buried daily except Thursday.” Or this one at a tailor shop in Rhodes: “Order your summer suit. Because is big rush we will execute customers in strict rotation”. Or this photograph of a Korean sign with its hilariously accurate, but unintended, English translation: “For Restrooms, Go back toward your behind.” Tautology or what? 

Stay tuned . . . 

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Rooftop Ghost

I've just booked a ticket to New York City where I used to live. After so many years away, it will be interesting to visit my old haunts, one of which is said to be haunted. The New Amsterdam on West 42nd Street is the oldest surviving theater on Broadway and, according to Wikipedia, “the first concrete example of art nouveau in NYC”. The New Amsterdam was, for many years, the home of the Ziegfeld Follies. During the Depression it became a movie house, but by the late 70s it was derelict. It was only returned to its former glory in the 1990s when the Disney corporation spent a rumoured $34 million to restore it. It reopened in 1993 with The Lion King and is currently the Broadway home of Mary Poppins.

I went to the New Amsterdam’s old rooftop theater in the 80s to see a showcase evening of what was eventually to become the movie, Popeye, starring Robin Williams. On the way up to the miniature theatre where the naughtier version of the Ziegfeld Girls used to perform, the elevator operator told me an intriguing story. The place was haunted by a ghost called "Olive" who had been a famous Ziegfeld star. He said she had killed herself by overdosing on her two-timing husband’s pills.

During research for this blog, I read a Playbill article by Robert Viagas that said that not long after she committed suicide, stagehands at the Rooftop Theater started seeing Olive wearing her green beaded Follies’ dress, her beaded headpiece and sash. She was carrying a big blue bottle which had held the mercury bichloride pills her husband had used to treat his syphilis. During the Disney restoration, a security guard was patrolling the building and saw someone on stage in a Twenties’ dress. He yelled at her and was terrified to see Olive’s ghost vanish through a stage wall on the 41st Street side.

I didn't see Olive when I visited "the Roof", but the dilapidated theatre with its dusty seats and flaking gilt felt distinctly ghostly. The place was so atmospheric I decided to write a story with its setting there, something unusual for me, because I usually start with character. I don’t know where the narrator, Ruby McGuire, came from, but maybe Olive wanted someone’s story to be told, if not hers. “Roman Candles” which was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 was the result. Click here if you’d like to hear it. 

Stay tuned . . .

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Pencil Pushers

My writing career began many years ago with the purchase of an Adler typewriter. I hated writing by hand, hated the look of my own kindergartenish writing, and so it was not until I purchased my new machine from the Regent Street Typewriter Company for the then huge sum of £50 that I started in earnest. It was on this machine I wrote, and re-wrote, many short stories and clacked out my first novel, No Angel Hotel. When home computers came onto the market in the 80s, I resisted moving to one for a few years, knowing I would miss the athletic fingerwork and the percussive noise of my reliable German machine.

Now I work on a sleek, silent, state-of-the-art Apple, but I also make good use of my Ryman's lined notebook which I use when I travel or when I set exercises in class. I still hate my handwriting, but I like the look of my neat printing so I do that instead. While the students write, I write too, plugging into the creative energy that comes when a group of people are drawn together to bring something into existence that has never existed before.

The idea for this week's blog came about when I saw this picture of what I first thought were sculptures, only to find out that they are graphite pens. I was tempted to order a set of them for their beauty alone: acorn and twig, curled leaf, spindle shell. Then I thought about it. If I did, these beautiful objects would disappear. If I used them to leave words on a page, they would vanish. Then I wondered which writers in the past might have wanted these on their desks. My research showed that Ernest Hemingway frequently wrote in pencil, beginning his writing day with the ritual sharpening of dozens of them. John Steinbeck used pencils too. When he complained that hexagonal pencils cut into his fingers after a long day's work, his editor supplied him with round ones.These gloriously anarchic pencils wouldn't have worked for him! 

Thomas Wolfe wrote with pencil stubs he kept in a coffee can. Truman Capote’s favourite writing tool was the Blackwing No 602, an intensely black lead pencil made by Faber Castell. Stephen King and Elmore Leonard are among those who write in longhand, though I'm not sure whether they are pen or pencil pushers. Ernest Hemingway said, “You have the sheet of blank paper, the pencil, and the obligation to invent truer than things can be true.” Stay tuned . . . 

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

A Walk Around the Block

Margaret Atwood’s blog has ten tips for writer’s block. Number 1 is to go for a walk. Others include “Write in some other form - even a letter or a journal entry. Or a grocery list. Keep those words flowing through your fingers.” (No 3) and “Eat chocolate, not too much, must be dark, shade-grown, organic.” (No 6)

Whether I am struggling with my current manuscript or not, I walk on Hampstead Heath. Where I turn back to go home, there is a bench with this verse in place of the usual dedication to a deceased loved one: 

I was born tomorrow Today I live Yesterday killed me 

Perhaps I should use these words by the Iranian writer, Parviz Owzia, in an exercise and ask my students what Parviz meant. Each time I look at them, I come up with a new meaning.

This being Hampstead, there is quirky poetry too (Leslie Noaks 1914 - 2000): 

“Seagull, seagull, how do you float?
Upon the water without a boat?”

He thought to himself and then he frowned

Turned on his side and slowly drowned

There is one near the ponds on the Parliament Hill side of the Heath which was meant to be funny, but has undergone a change since its original inscription: "Now in years bestride my eighties, this Elysian seat I have vacated, but gentle neighbour sigh not yet, I’ve only moved to Somerset." It has an addendum: “Died 1999” 

These benches are wooden memorials, as well as places of rest and refuge. Those marking a life are poignant reminders of how precious, and short, life is. One of my students, Pat Conway, came to a workshop last year and sent me the following: "Write Now! in New Mexico” was the best writing workshop I've ever been to. Every aspect was helpful: the exercises, the feedback, the sharing. It made me realize that WRITING is the point, not writing a book or even getting published. Those can all come or not; writing is the goal. Your teaching helped me remember that I don't want to die with my song unsung." So go for that walk, look at the sky, the kites, the grass. Then come home and write. 

Stay tuned . . .

Wednesday, 20 January 2010


I was walking in a small park near my home when I saw a woman with binoculars, intently staring at a tree. For a long time she stood in the middle of the path. Intrigued, I asked her what she was looking at. She pointed at hundreds of small birds perched on several tall trees which I’d not noticed. She said they were redwings, a type of thrush who spends the winter months in England. In cities, she said, they gather in parks and small woods. ‘You’ll never find them in gardens. They like to stick together.’ She said they come from Scandinavia and Russia, arriving in November and returning north in March.

After being alerted, I could hear their excited chirping. The writer Maya Angelou said, "A bird doesn't sing because it has an answer; it sings because it has a song." That’s true, but I think there is more to it when it comes to the redwing. Surely it sings to keep in touch with the flock when in flight over great distances, hence its scorn for small gardens where there isn’t enough room for them to roost together. To hear redwings, click here.

One of the exercises I set is to write about birds because we need to protect them, as well as watch them. Join the RSPB, leave food out in your gardens. Look out for the birds. 

Stay tuned . . .  

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll

This week I went to see Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, the biopic about the rocker, Ian Dury. It's not a movie I would have chosen to see but, because of the snow, I couldn't be bothered to travel into town in the ice and cold for Jane Campion's Bright Dreams or Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story. I was pleasantly surprised.

Dury is brilliantly played by Andy Serkis who spent three years getting into character. Ian Dury suffered from polio which caused his lameness. To capture his ungainly walk, Serkis injured himself while wearing a leg brace to prepare himself physically, and psychologically, for the part. Directed by Mat Whitecross, the film is a fantastical take on standard biopic film-making. In an act of alchemy, Serkis literally becomes Dury. Today, the actor now sings with Ian’s band, The Blockheads, the result of his commitment to the part.

Those three years of Stanislavskian preparation is the filmic equivalent of a writer truly getting under the skin of a character. Annie Proulx spends years researching her next project, even going so far as to draw most of the plants in the landscape where her books are set.

This kind of thoroughness has lessons for us all, whether we’re actors or writers. Go see this movie and check out Dury's songs for yourself. 

Stay tuned . . .

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Pitmen Painters

Over the Christmas holidays I went to see Lee Hall's Pitmen Painters at the National Theatre. It is the extraordinary story of a group of Ashington miners in Northumberland who, in 1934, hired an artist to teach them art appreciation. Bored with lectures on the intricacies of Rembrandt's use of shadows and Modigliani's lines, they rapidly abandoned theory in favour of practice.

In their evening classes the pitmen began to paint . . . and to paint well. Within a few years, avant-garde artists became their friends and their work was acquired by prestigious collecters, but every day they continued to work as miners.

Pitmen Painters is a humorous, yet serious look at art, class and politics. As a creative writing teacher, I know that the world is full of “pitmen painters”. Many who enrol on my courses are initially worried whether they will be competent enough to write. I never hesitate when I answer: “Yes, you are good enough.” And then I quote Henry Van Dyke: "Use what talents you possess; the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best." Stay tuned . . .