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 . . .