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 cafĂ© 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 . . .