Saturday, 21 March 2009

A post which takes longer than expected to get to the point

About a month ago, I came up with a new New Year's Resolution. A bit late you may argue, so maybe I should just call it a March Resolution.

I was browsing on, as I do from time to time, when a blog article caught my eye, entitled 'Why we need a female poet laureate'. It all seemed eminently reasonable. And there are a nice selection of eminent women from whom to choose. But not as many as there are men. So naturally I started looking around, and I found that in general male poets are more likely to be celebrated. The Guardian's own 'great poets' series included only one woman: Sylvia Plath. Their critic Frances Leviston, who is also a poet herself, wrote to justify this.

Now, I'm definitely a proponent of people succeeding on the basis of merit, but I thought about the poets that I read, and specifically the poetry books that I own. A good half of them are dead, and of them all but Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Bishop are men. I do better with established poets: Jo Shapcott, Carol Ann Duffy and Wendy Cope are three of my favourites, along with Simon Armitage, Seamus Heaney (or 'Famous Seamus' as Mrs Greenwood would say in her broadest 'Norren Irish' accent), Benjamin Zephaniah, John Agard etc etc. The list goes on. Unsurprisingly my collection shows a bias towards poets who have appeared in the AQA Anthology, although I'd like to plead that Armitage and Duffy were on my favourites list before that anthology existed, and that nothing on this earth would persuade me to buy a book by Gillian Clarke.

But when we get to emergent poets - people who you won't necessarily have heard of, or of whom I hadn't really heard, people just starting out, most of those kind of poets are men. Michael Symmons Roberts, for example, whom I heard reading jointly with Simon Armitage and loved. The books of poetry sent to me when I was a member of the Poetry Books Society were all by men. I do own a book by Lucy Newlyn, called Ginnel, which my mother bought me, because it's about a childhood spent in the same places we grew up, but I'm afraid although it's a first collection, Lucy Newlyn herself is an established academic, a good few years older than my imagination painted her on reading her poems.

The thing is, it's quite hard to get ahead in poetry. You need to have had plenty of poems published in journals and magazines, and ideally to have won a few competitions. There's only a few outlets for poetry publishing in this country, although Bloodaxe Books are doing a marvellous job (and in the North too!) and I urge you to support them. But without support, these young poets aren't going to get anywhere. They're going to give up and stick to the day job, or spend fifty years writing their first collection.

So this was my new New Year's Resolution. To buy and read one book of poetry per month written by a woman under forty. How to find books by women under forty turned out to be a whole new challenge. I had intended to use this post to review the first one, but it turned out that the introductory justification was much longer than I'd intended. So I'll leave you for now with the suggestion that you think about whether you want a world with poetry in it, and that if you do, you're going to need to support something which is not so much an industry, and more a service to the community.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

An Inkling of another world

This morning I went to Narnia. Sort of.

C. S. Lewis bought a house in 1930, jointly with his brother and the mother of one his friends who was killed in the First World War, with whom he had lived ever since. The house in question was 'The Kilns', in Risinghurst, a suburb of Oxford which now stands immediately outside the ringroad, about ten minutes' drive from where I now live. The house then stood at one end of an 8-acre garden, which included a large pond or lake, which was a water filled clay-pit, with a number of brick kilns scattered around it, and a wooded headland. Five acres of this garden are now the C.S. Lewis Nature Reserve, administered by the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust, and open to the public to wander around at will.

Local lore* has it that this woodland is the inspiration for the Narnia books, written after Lewis moved to the Kilns. This morning it was quiet and empty, despite the sun. A couple of coots were making desultory circles on the lake, although a few ducks emerged later on. The trees were ankle-deep in dead leaves, and there were more than a few muddy holes, some of which were bridged, some not. Behind the lake the hillside rises steeply and there is a slightly clearer patch of woodland, with seats. It's only here that you really escape the feeling of being in a town - albeit at the edge, because you are away from the lower edges which abut people's gardens and are overlooked by the roofs of houses.

I didn't feel that it was Narnia, for that very reason. It was too close to this world to be in another. And to be fair, I suspect I may have had too high expectations of the place. I expected to walk in and suddenly recognise the places where the Pevensies met the Beavers, or where the Marshwiggles pitched their tents. And that was never going to happen. Narnia is not a real place, or not one on this planet: it exists more in a kind ur-imagination to which we all have access, but which we perhaps see in slightly different ways, complicated further by the television and film versions, which took our minds' eyes to Scotland and New Zealand, both a far cry from Oxford.

But when I'd released that wish to see 'the real Narnia', leaving myself open to just enjoying the woodland, things began to fall into place. This woodland isn't Narnia; it's the Wood Between the Worlds. It's the place from which you can get to other worlds - the place that Lewis leapt off from. And here and there I began to see where Narnia had crept in. In the clearing at the top I saw the place where Caspian encounters the mythic inhabitants of the forest dancing and vows to restore their country to them. Around the place lie round sandstone boulders, covered with lichen and mushrooms, known as 'doggers': a board tells of the legend that they were used as marbles by the giants who used to live in the mediaeval forests of England. The Silver Chair sprang to mind, and stayed there as I saw a series of stone pillars, diminishing in size, which looked like they had once supported a crossing over a stream, or the ravine that Eustace and Jill cross with Puddleglum, in the eye of my imagination.

And the best thing about it being the Wood Between the Worlds? It's not just Narnia you can get to from there. There's a forest full of other worlds just waiting to be discovered. I'll be going back to find them.

* I have to point out that it is only local lore, no matter how bandied about on the internet. It seems more likely that the inspiration for Narnia was the Mourne Mountains, located in Northern Ireland, near where C S Lewis grew up, at least when he wasn't away at school.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Happy World Book Day!

Today is the day dedicated to books: the day that it's okay to bunk off work and bury your nose in a book*, the day that is specifically designed for you to go to a bookshop or website and buy a book - any book, the day that you should spend asking other people what they've read recently and enjoyed, and telling them what you've read recently and enjoyed. Change your facebook status to tell everyone you know the title that changed your life. Spot a stranger reading a book and ask them about it. See someone in Waterstone's looking at a book you hated and tell them that: then recommend a better one.

I love reading. I love bookshops. I may have mentioned this before. When I'm feeling low, visiting a bookshop is practically therapy. I don't have to buy anything - in fact I frequently don't - instead, I just browse and let all the pages and covers calm me slowly, tell me of the thousands of other worlds I could enter if I chose. That's the best thing about books: inside any one could be the portal to another world, a parallel dimension, an ideal place.

The books that keep me coming back for re-read after re-read are always those ones which do capture me and transport me bodily. I'm not just talking about the books which I can fall into and switch off completely from the outside world - I'm pretty talented at that. Easy to stop up your ears when your inner ear and eye is so completely concentrated on the object in your hand. I'm talking about the books which are a perfect mix of big ideas and tiny details, that contain characters I can identify with, that recreate that sense of magic I got from my first hit of fiction all those years ago. It's like heroin only without the fatal side effects or fall off from the intensity. I can re-read books like these instantly - have been known to - and still get the magic.

Books like this usually fall into one of two categories for me: children's fantasy (The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, The Song of the Lioness by Tamora Pierce, practically anthing by Diana Wynne Jones, to name but a few) or books about books (I'm talking things like The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield, The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, things which Middeke and Huber call 'biofictions' that create their own intertextuality). I know not everyone likes the same things, and not all the books I go back to time after time are like this, but a good proportion are. (To my shame, the other major category is Dick Francis novels. I re-read all thirty odd of them every year or so. But then that only takes about a fortnight!)

I find that I have this strong emotional reaction to books less often nowadays though. When I was six or seven I saw my mother putting aside some books to take to Oxfam. "Didn't you like them, Mummy?" I asked. "Yes," she said, puzzled. "But then why don't you want to read them again?" I couldn't conceive of the idea of liking a book but not wanting to go back to it. Now I know there are so many books out there that I won't have time to read, that it's sometimes not worth going back to them. I'm trying desperately to reduce my holdings of books at the moment: I don't have room to store all of them on bookshelves as it is, and I'm expecting to have to move to a smaller place in the summer, and to have fewer shelves still. I've got a shelf which contains only books which I haven't read yet but which I expect to get rid of when I do. So far only two out of seven have escaped the cull: Q&A, the novel which Slumdog Millionaire is based on, and The History of Love by Nicole Krauss, even if it made me cry. I regret a little letting The 19th Wife go, but since it was a free book anyway it probably won't kill me.

So the only question is: do I celebrate World Book Day by buying a new book? Or by reading one I've already got? There's just so much choice!

*subject to terms and conditions: namely your boss's attitude...

Monday, 2 March 2009

To bleed or not to bleed, that is the question...

So this year I've already seen three Shakespeare plays - a total I'm extremely pleased with, especially since two of them were ones I'd never seen before, and one of them I'd never even read (Hadn't read King Lear, hadn't seen Othello, and I've read and seen Hamlet at least twice before.). Two of them have been in London, and one, as I may have mentioned before, is at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. One had realistic but restrained amounts of blood (Hamlet), one had no blood at all, despite quite a number of fatal stabbings (Othello) and one had copious amounts of blood and a scene where someone bit out someone else's eyeball, rolled it around in her mouth and then spat it out into a trough at the front of the stage (Lear).

So which makes for a better production? I honestly don't know. The audience was revolted and horrified by the gore in Lear, although the eyeball almost provoked a laugh of disgust. There was no question that the violence in Othello was highly believable. Lack of blood didn't wake us from the suspension of disbelief. Strangely, these two, representing two extremes, were also the two set in venues where the stage and seating are intimately collocated, so that you are very very close to the actors. Sitting in the front row of the WYP, I had to uncross my legs at one point to bring my feet in for fear of kicking the actors dragging off the body of Roderigo.

You could argue that the difference lies in the plays. Lear is a play which revels in its violence, as the country descends into a bloody mess. But then, Othello can equally be seen as doing so, creating a sea of blood surrounding the central murder - the symbolic smothering of Desdemona, whose husband is deaf to her voice. The point is, you don't need the prop. The theatre is essentially a place of artifice, as someone much more knowledgeable than me says, and it is not realistic. Yet if we can believe that the same basic set is several different castles, or in different countries, if we can accept that the same actor can play several roles in the same play, and yet see the characters not the actor, why would we need realistic blood? Lear went one step further with a real rain storm on the 'blasted heath' (yes, I know, that's from Macbeth) which was spectacular, and fun, but fundamentally unneccesary. Maybe that's the answer: you don't need the blood, but sometimes a ketchup-splattered stage is just plain fun.

P.S. On another but related matter, I wrote an article for The Oxford Student earlier this term wondering about the current trend for celebrities taking on Shakespearean roles. I excluded David Tennant and Patrick Stewart because they were well-known Shakespearean actors before they became famous on television, but did mention Pete Postlethwaite as King Lear and Lenny Henry as Othello. Luckily, they both came through, with Lenny Henry in particular proving that he is indeed capable of acting his socks off. Pete Postlethwaite was slightly hampered by a production that only worked in places (blood being one of them). However, I have to admit, I'm not going to rush to see Jude Law as Hamlet...

Sunday, 1 March 2009

"The world is broad and wide"

If you've had even half an ear on arts news recently you will know that Lenny Henry has been making his Shakespearean debut as Othello at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. What you may not have known is that he is doing so under the auspices of a company called Northern Broadsides, whose USP is the just that - they perform Shakespeare's plays, and occasionally those of other people, in broad northern accents. This is not just regionalism. It makes more sense than that. The poet Jackie Kay talking about this production for Front Row, the Radio 4 arts programme, was most taken not by the transformation of Henry from comedian to tragic hero, but by the sheer accessibility of Shakespeare when uttered with a northern twang.

I could at this point attempt a long and linguistic explanation of how the vowels of the northern accent are phonologically closer to those of the sixteenth century and how the Great Vowel Shift created a problem for us, but frankly it would all be rubbish. I suspect that it has more to do with the cadences of the accent, and also that the stressed syllables of Shakespeare's lines are closer to the natural stresses of the north than they are to the south, or rather, to RP, which is what Shakespeare tends to be performed in. With the exception of the comedic characters of course. They get regional accents because regional accents are 'funny'.

I've been to see quite a few Northern Broadsides productions since we first saw them in my teens. They're always excellent productions, clear and mostly quite traditional. The Wars of the Roses plays make much more sense done in Lancastrian and Yorkshire accents... it's easier to tell who's siding with who. Pity the two middle aged ladies on the row in front of me during Richard III (my first Broadside); one turned to the other in the interval and said, without a trace of irony, in the most posh accent you can imagine "It's very good, but I do wish they'd speak properly. I can't understand a word they're saying." I think she'd missed the point.

So if you get the chance, go see Othello. It's a very good production, with almost nothing out of place. And Iago was BRILLIANT....