Monday, 24 April 2017

The Concept of Leadership - and the mess it's got us into

Another round of elections, none of which seem to make life any better, and I can hear that word being bandied around on every TV or radio channel and it leaps out at me from every newspaper article on the stand.  Leadership.  That's what it's all about isn't it?  That's the most essential quality to look for in the top job. The reason we should be going for anyone except Jeremy Corbyn. Right?
Corbyn - an honest man?
It seems it's not enough to have integrity and a set of rational, humane and economically sound policies.  You also have to have this elusive quality that gets you on TV and across the front pages of newspapers and has everyone trooping after you like the Pied Piper, no matter how daft or draconian your politics. Why are we so sure that the attributes of ruthlessness, cunning, speciousness, and ability to dominate others that we require of a leader are desirable qualities? I can't help but think that 'Leadership' is the last thing I'm looking for at the moment.  I just want someone intelligent and capable, with some kind of vision for a better future for my kids. Someone I can trust not to blow up the planet, who might just try to make sure there's still a planet there with a tolerable environment for my grandkids to grow up in.

A supreme leader
When you begin to think about it, leadership isn't exactly something to be admired.  Mrs Thatcher had it in spades.  Presumably Donald Trump has it, since so many people were conned into voting for him.  Tony Blair had it, and he followed Leader George Bush into one of the most damaging wars of the 20th century. Hitler had it;  Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, Stalin, Lenin, Pol Pot - almost certainly Attila the Hun.  So now you can see why I'm not sure it's a desirable quality. Look where it gets us.

Not a poster boy, but a very effective prime minister
Before the age of TV and mass media a glamorous image and a corporate reputation weren't so necessary in a politician.  One of our most effective prime ministers was Clement Atlee, who won a huge Labour majority just after the second world war.  He laid the foundations for rebuilding the shattered UK economy and established the National Health Service.  Atlee was not a natural public figure - a shy, clever man who, as Deputy PM in Churchill's administration, had been the one who handled the detail behind the scenes, with a tremendous depth of knowledge.  But a poster boy he certainly was not. Yet he has had a great influence for good in shaping our lives throughout the second half of the 20th century.  Michael Foot, another intellectual with no public image, didn't fare as well, nicknamed 'Worzel Gummidge' in the press.  He led Labour into an election they lost spectacularly and was quickly replaced. He is sometimes referred to as 'the best prime minister we never had'.
Gordon Brown being humiliated by the Daily Mail
Gordon Brown was vilified by the media for his lack of leadership skills and polished image.  Yet his record as a Prime Minister will bear scrutiny for a long time into the future and his integrity and honesty were impeccable.  The Tories have also had their PR problems.  They ditched Alec Douglas Home, not because he wasn't clever enough to do the job, but because he looked like Skeletor on television.

Another question that bothers me - we're supposed to be a democracy, not an autocracy or dictatorship -  rule is by cabinet committee.  So why do we need a Supreme Ego to lead us?  Why? I'm beginning to think  that until we deal with this, we're doomed to keep on electing the politicians we deserve - leaders like Donald Trump.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Tuesday Poem: - Remember to be Kind

You have no idea,
absolutely no idea.

Sixteen, all imagination and deceit;
you can play anyone
except yourself.

It won’t go well; there will be times
you’ll wish yourself dead, somewhere else, anywhere
but the place you’re in.

Wanting to belong you’ll plant yourself
in foreign soil, sending your roots down deep

only to tear yourself up, bleeding, time after time, moving
your tent like a nomad across the world.

(Remember to read the instructions, the small print,
never hope for the best. )

Refuse to be seduced by roses, fast cars,
their owners, sentimental music, sunsets.

(Love, like belonging, is an uncertain partnership).

Claim your own space, never be afraid
to step out into unknown territory, armed only
with words.  They will serve you well.

Love fearlessly, give everything,
and never, never regret the consequences.

Listen for your own inner music:
it has something important to tell you.

Laugh, dance, drink wine and always
remember to be kind.

© Kathleen Jones 2017

I've been dipping in and out of NaPoWriMo.  I find it impossible to write a poem a day - sometimes it's a prompt I don't like, often just too busy/tired, but I'm trying to write something every day, even if it's only a few jottings.  The prompt 2 days ago was to write a letter.  I've also been asked to write a 'letter to my younger self' for the Royal Literary Fund website, so it's been in my thoughts for a while without me doing anything about it.  So I sat on a train and did a freewrite, starting with the first words that came into my head when confronted by my sixteen year old self,  'you have no idea' - and this is the result.  Still needs knocking about a bit, but I'm daring to share. 

On the left is a picture of me at 16 - all romance and no sense!!

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Leading a Double Life and the Carpenter of Lampedusa

Writers are supposed to be good at leading double lives.  'We write to taste life twice,' wrote Anais Nin. 'In the moment and in retrospection.'   But I not only have a writing life, I have an English life and an Italian life.  I'm always amazed at how easily I slip into my Italian skin.  There's a slowing down, a tendency to linger over sensual moments - food, wine, the sun slipping into the Mediterranean, conversations with friends, sliding your fingers through a rack of silk lingerie (ridiculously cheap) in a street market, shop window displays that are colourful works of art, a stucco building just catching the pink and amber rays of the setting sun.. . .  perhaps I'd better not go on.

I'm a small part Italian, on my mother's side, so perhaps the susceptibility is in my genes.  The Italians are a more sensual people than we hardened northerners. And then, Italian life is so attractive, centred as it is around the table with family and/or friends.  So much of life here is sitting in the piazza with a coffee or a glass of wine (depending on how broke you are) chatting to people.  Then there's the alluring workman's lunches, the 'pranzo di lavoro', with home cooking to die for and the local wine thrown in.
'Pranzo' with friends on our terrace
Because my partner works in a community where almost everyone is an artist or a technician, or makes their living in some way from sculptors and painters, there's always a gallery opening with free prosecco and nibbles and much hugging and kissing, and often live music as well.  There are pop-up exhibitions, and impromptu affairs in people's back gardens.  Life is more sociable than you can ever imagine.
Neil at work
But under all this conviviality beats the dark heart of Italy - a precarious banking system, a political and economic system as corrupt and crony-ridden as any in the 3rd world, a massive unemployment issue among young people, taxation at 50% of everything, an increasingly unstable climate, and a refugee problem that dwarfs any other European country.

Most of them are from northern Africa.  The ones who have made it this far north, make their living from selling trinkets to tourists, or parking cars in the chaotic car parks in town.  Very rarely do you see anyone begging.  But they do hassle you and many people give them money to go away.
My favourite street trader, Mortela, who never hassles!
Further south, in the poorer 'Mezzogiorno' (roughly translated 'afternoon') of the country, the problem is much worse. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of refugees are rescued from sinking boats every week. Hundreds more die.  Anyone who has read about the optician of Lampedusa and his courageous actions, while out for a quiet afternoon sail, will have been moved by the decision he had to make. 'How do I save them all?' the optician asked, faced with hundreds of drowning migrants he knew could not be hauled aboard his little boat that would hold only 10.  That he saved so many, at risk of sinking his own craft, is a tribute to human courage.  But he is still haunted by the others he couldn't help. 'We were terribly traumatised afterwards,' he said, and his wife had to be hospitalised. Since then he has worked to help the refugees, whatever the personal cost.

Italy is more charitable than many other countries - but one does wonder when that will begin to crack under the pressure of numbers in a region that is already one of the poorest in Europe.

In the small museum in Pisa, among the precious medieval icons, there is a single rough cross on a pole.  This was made out of two planks from wrecked boats by Francesco Tuccio, the Carpenter of Lampedusa, who has made memorials for each of those who died in the crossing.  Its simplicity brings you up short among all that gilded inconography.  The values of Christianity and Islam - the two religions that straddle the Mediterranean, are charitable and compassionate.  They have been undermined by fear and overtaken by the brutal, uncaring values of property, wealth, and the pursuit of power through oppression and dispossession.  While the Un-United Kingdom inspects its own entrails with a magnifying glass and shuts the door on a few hundred orphaned children, Italy's generous people are opening weary arms to embrace desperate people every day of the week.  That's only one of the reasons why I love this country.

One of our spectacular sunsets over the Mediterranean
How much longer, given the UK government's chosen Brexit path, will I be able to live a double life? Probably not much longer, which is unbelievably sad.  My partner is already packing up, affected by the new and horrible exchange rate, anticipating the withdrawal of health care and visa problems that are in the pipeline.   He hasn't booked the flight home yet though, so there's still hope! 

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Tuesday Poem: Revolution - Tatlin's Flight


It is machine, eviscerated, just
a grace of polished ash and canvas

the elegant equivalence of flight

I stand under its shadow
watching the cage of  ribs
rotating dark and light

on a white screen; a metaphor
for all our airborne dreamings.

Long spokes - the aluminium pin feathers
of its wings - scissor across
the backdrop simulating naked aviation

the fish-shaped tail tilts up, nose down,
a structure arrested
in beautiful fall, what is left

of himself and the revolutionary music
trapped - a gigantic insect - revolving
in the moment of its execution.

© Kathleen Jones 2017

Photo Hettie Judah, Instagram.

It's NaPoWriMo - and I can't write a poem a day.  Maybe a poem a week.  This poem (still in progress) came out of a visit to the Revolution exhibition at the Royal Academy.  Tatlin's Glider, 'Letatlin', suspended under the dome and lit so that images are projected onto the canvas backdrop as it rotates, was one of the most interesting things I saw.  I could have sat for hours watching the images changing, in a silent simulation of flight.

Vladimir Tatlin was a Russian artist and architect and is usually mentioned alongside Malevich as one of the most influential artists of the revolutionary period, though the two had violent disagreements.  Tatlin became a 'constructionist'.  He was fascinated by the flight of birds and constructed many 'gliders' in an effort to facilitate human flight.  He called them 'Letatlin' - a play on words.  'Letat' is the Russian word for flight and he combined it with his own name.

There were many other wonderful things at the exhibition - film footage by Eisenstein, a lot of paintings and sculptures by Malevich, Kandinsky, and other major painters of that period. There is some wonderful photography, and propaganda, as well as ceramics and textiles, showing the struggle that artists had to conform to the political agenda and still make a living. There are portraits of Anna Akhmatova and her lover, the artist Nikolai Punin, who was sent to the Gulags by Stalin and died there. One of the most moving parts of the exhibition was the Memory Room where you can sit and look at a screen projecting images of some of those unfortunate people Stalin sent to the camps. Civil servants, teachers, doctors, workers, writers, artists, students. Some of them survived, but many of them were shot or died of ill-treatment.  It's not often that an exhibition is able to give you a glimpse of a whole culture, but this one does.  It's a chilling taste of what it is like to live as a creative being under authoritarianism.  Let's just pray that it never comes back. 

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Tuesday Poem: Thirteen Shades of Black

There is the black of a young raven
which is blue;

and the event horizon at the centre of a galaxy
beyond which is an absence of light;

the fluttering fabric of a hijab in the courtyard
of the women’s mosque, a dark sail
‘veiling human-kind from God’.

The bones of a tree, inked
on a winter horizon.

A Jaguar; all burning eyes, white teeth and darkness
in the Amazon rain forest.

The dress my mother treasured
Chanel style; the one every woman
should have.

The dark sink-hole at the centre of an eye
you disappear into
upside down.

The purple-black of a bruise
after the failure of love.

The mildewed winter coat my grandfather kept
for funerals and weddings
green at the cuffs and pockets.

Malevich in Lenin’s Russia, painting his revolutionary square;
a black symbol of the new art.

The bloated corpse floating in the loch;
the faceless killer, child abductor.  This is NOIR.
You are too afraid to sleep but
can’t stop watching.

The almost seen, out-of-the-corner-of-the-eye
dart and flutter of a bat – a flitter-mouse
of fur and leather, writing its character on the dusk.

New school shoes; their black Cherry Blossom shine.

Blacking out. An absence of consciousness,
the spinning vortex of the fall.  Which is gravity.
Which is black.

© Kathleen Jones 2017

How many of you have been doing NaPoWriMo?   National Poetry Month - that good intention to write a poem a day for a month?   I definitely can't keep up - my life has been so busy I haven't even managed to blog for a couple of weeks now.  But I am trying to at least think around a subject every day.  I found Jo Bell's 'A Month of Poetry Prompts', which she created for the 52 project, very useful and I've been having a go at some of them.  

Yesterday was a command to write a new take on 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird by Wallace Stevens and the response by RS Thomas, Thirteen Blackbirds Look at a Man.   So this is my version of thirteen ways to look at something - written appropriately in the middle of the night.   Some bits are contentious:  does gravity have a colour?  But if gravity is associated with dark matter then, yes, it's probably going to be black. Unconsciousness certainly is.  And there will be some who question my inclusion of no. III. on the grounds of cultural sensitivity.  But one of my most potent memories is sitting in the women's mosque in Shiraz and watching a billowing hijab against the light - the quote in the third line is taken from a Muslim text explaining why it might be necessary to wear one - the idea of covering one's head in the presence of God is also common in Judaism and Christianity.  As children we had to wear a dark head covering to enter a Catholic church.  In Spain and Italy women still do.

Someone is bound to point out that it should be 50 Shades of Black, but then I'd have been up all night!!

Jo Bell is also posting a poem a day this month, with commentary, on her blog - and very good they have been.  This is the link. 

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Tuesday Poem: In the Village, Derek Walcott


Who has removed the typewriter from my desk,
so that I am a musician without his piano
with emptiness ahead as clear and grotesque
as another spring? My veins bud, and I am so
full of poems, a wastebasket of black wire.
The notes outside are visible; sparrows will
line antennae like staves, the way springs were,
but the roofs are cold and the great grey river
where a liner glides, huge as a winter hill,
moves imperceptibly like the accumulating
years. I have no reason to forgive her
for what I brought on myself. I am past hating,
past the longing for Italy where blowing snow
absolves and whitens a kneeling mountain range
outside Milan. Through glass, I am waiting
for the sound of a bird to unhinge the beginning
of spring, but my hands, my work, feel strange
without the rusty music of my machine. No words
for the Arctic liner moving down the Hudson, for the mange
of old snow moulting from the roofs. No poems. No birds.

Derek Walcott
excerpt from 'In The Village' 
White Egrets by Derek Walcott. Copyright © 2010 by Derek Walcott. 

Derek Walcott, who died a few days ago, was one of my favourite poets.  A Nobel prize-winner, like Seamus Heaney, he changed the landscape of poetry for the next generation.  I loved the way he wrote about his homeland, the ocean and about writing poetry - twisting these three strands together until they became one.   

Joseph Brodsky said of him that “For almost forty years his throbbing and relentless lines kept arriving in the English language like tidal waves, coagulating into an archipelago of poems without which the map of modern literature would effectively match wallpaper. He gives us more than himself or ‘a world’; he gives us a sense of infinity embodied in the language.”

Saturday, 18 March 2017

The Failure of Biography - Katherine Mansfield and the anonymous author of 148 journals in a skip

How many of you out there write a journal?  I'm guessing quite a few.  I've been keeping one on and off since my sense of Self began to develop at around 13 or 14.  And, as I wanted to be a writer, I was fascinated by other writers' diaries.  The journals of Kathrine Mansfield, edited by her husband John Middleton Murry, were the first ones to really grab me by the metaphorical throat when I found them at the age of 17.  They had a raw, vulnerable quality that entranced me, though I never dreamt I would one day become her biographer and hold the originals in  my hands.
One of Katherine Mansfield's notebooks, a few months before she died.

They also gripped a young woman in Cambridge, who read Mansfield and had ambitions to become a writer or an artist. She kept a journal every day, recording her own life at great length for 60 years.

I've been reading Alexander Masters' intriguing book 'A Life Discarded', after hearing him talk about it at the Keswick Words by the Water festival.  A friend of Masters discovered 148 journals, written in an assortment of notebooks and diaries, thrown away in a skip beside a house that was being demolished in Cambridge.  Being a historian, the friend rescued them and they were eventually passed on to the biographer.  Masters was fascinated by the idea of writing the life of an 'unknown person'.

Initially he thought of the 'I' of the diaries as a man, but then the subject began menstruating and referring to the self as 'Not-Mary', so was obviously female.  She was writing a couple of thousand words a day, amounting to millions of words in total - a very daunting task for anyone to read - but Masters was hooked by the story.  Some of the journals were written as comic book strips and they were all illustrated with very competent drawings, just to add to their attraction.  The mystery deepened.
One of the 148 diaries found in a skip

Something very traumatic had happened to the writer of the diaries, who shrinks from a lively, curious, ambitious girl to a fearful, inadequate, reclusive older woman - a change revealed by the handwriting, which starts out bold and gradually gets smaller and smaller until it's only decipherable with a magnifying glass. Some trauma seemed to have occurred to halt 'Not-Mary's' emotional growth and it's there in the diaries, recorded without comment or reflection.  At 13 she fell in love with her piano teacher, the exacting, unsparingly cruel, 'E'.

Katherine Mansfield also fell in love as a teenager, with an older woman, but artist and mentor Edie Bendall was kinder and more understanding towards her protege.  Katherine quickly outgrew her. Not so 'Not-Mary'.  For two decades she desperately tried to please the unidentified 'E', believing, as she was told, that she was useless, ineffectual, that she would never achieve anything.  All the bitterness of 'E's' own wasted talent, sabotaged by WWII, was vented on a young, impressionable girl who was prepared to lay her life down like a mat to be trodden on.  The damage takes your breath away.  Not-Mary develops an eating disorder, agoraphobia, depression.  Her family don't seem to notice her distress.

It is always assumed that the author of the journals is dead - after all, isn't that when their effects get dumped in a skip?  Biographers spend a lot of time reading the diaries of dead people.  We are the 'unintended reader', who - according to Virginia Woolf - is always at the back of a writer's mind as they scribble down their inmost thoughts for posterity.  That may have been true for Katherine Mansfield, but it wasn't for the 'Not-Mary' of these notebooks, who admits:

'I just enjoy writing.  I enjoy the sound of the words . . . I just like the feeling of the pen on the page'.

The attraction for Alexander Masters was in not knowing who that person was and so unable to determine the truth or otherwise of the story that the journals unfolded. Because, normally, for the biographer, what matters is their reliability, how much can be verified.  But this is wrong, because it is the journal's own truth - the author's truth - that matters, written in that moment, in that situation, in that frame of mind.  The entries' contextual truths, in the light of current events, the point of view of other people in the life of the author, or the illuminations of hind-sight, are immaterial.  These exterior 'truths' are irrelevant to the emotional and personal reality of that momentary revelation.

It is the triumph of the character/subject, who constantly eludes the biographer.  Something in their refusal to be pinned down guarantees their immortality.  They remain themselves, enigmatic, unexplained.  The ultimate unreliable narrator and yet the author of the absolute truth about themselves.  Which is just as it should be.

Alexander Masters' book is deeply reflective and set me thinking about the very nature of journals, particularly those of ordinary people, who, not being famous, are never likely to believe they are going to be published at some point in the future.  Does this make them more confessional?

Katherine Mansfield at her desk.
The Katherine Mansfield journals, which contain some of her most startling writing, have been deciphered and annotated, first by Margaret Scott, scholar, librarian and Katherine Mansfield addict, and then re-edited by Mansfield scholar Gerri Kimber.   But still, Mansfield eludes us.  I read the originals in New Zealand, alongside Margaret Scott's (not published at the time) transcription because Mansfield's handwriting was so terrible. It was both a jigsaw puzzle (writers don't always use notebooks consecutively) and a detective game.  But it was always a moving and engrossing occupation.

Katherine also made little drawings to illustrate her diaries and letters.

As Alexander Masters found, the character of the writer is in the very notebooks they choose, the way they handle them, the character of the script and the doodles, the little reminders, the shopping lists, marmalade thumb prints and coffee rings, that hold the story of a life, not a literary myth.  This, you can tell yourself, holding the book as the author may have held it, is the very page they also held open and pressed between their fingers.  A hair, a flake of skin even, may still be trapped in the binding. You are touching their life.

When Masters had finished his book and drawn his conclusions, he went in search of the author's identity in order to get the permission of her estate to use quotes from the diaries. And that was where the revelations began, though I'm not going to spoil the plot by telling you what they were!  You'll just have to read it for yourself.

Katherine Mansfield: The Storyteller,  by Kathleen Jones

Katherine Mansfield: The Early Years, by Gerri Kimber

The Katherine Mansfield Notebooks, transcribed by Margaret Scott 

Katherine Mansfield: The Diaries, edited by Gerri Kimber and Claire Davison

Friday, 17 March 2017

Remembering Derek Walcott - The Schooner Flight

One of my most loved poets has died - Derek Walcott, at the age of 87.  From a very young age, his poems stuck in my mind like grit.  I think partly because they are so full of longing - a yearning for a particular place.  I was a homesick girl and his poems resonated with that feeling.  But, more than that, they are full of the sea and the natural landscape and his words have a 'rightness' that makes him one of the greatest poets. There's a very good tribute to him in the Guardian today.  And if you would like to listen to him talking about the music that meant most to him, this is the link to BBC Radio 4. 

Just wanted to post this short sonnet-shaped excerpt from Star Apple Kingdom.  It's about sea fever and also about the poet's craft.

Derek Walcott on St Lucia [New Yorker]

The Schooner ‘Flight’

As I worked, watching the rotting waves come
past the bow that scissor the sea like milk,
I swear to you all, by my mother's milk,
by the stars that shall fly from tonight's furnace,
that I loved them, my children, my wife, my home;
I loved them as poets love the poetry
that kills them, as drowned sailors the sea.

You ever look up from some lonely beach
and see a far schooner? Well, when I write
this poem, each phrase go be soaked in salt;
I go draw and knot every line as tight
as ropes in this rigging; in simple speech
my common language go be the wind,
my pages the sails of the schooner Flight.

Monday, 13 March 2017

An interesting American perspective on working life in the Lake District

I follow the blog of an American archaeologist who blogs under the name 'Bensozia'. He writes about some fascinating stuff, but this week I was very surprised to find that he's writing on the Lakeland shepherd James Rebanks whose book seems to be getting about a bit.  Bensozia approaches it with a comparison between working life in the USA and the rural idyll that Rebanks portrays in the north of England.  I'm not sure how many people (on either side of the Atlantic) would agree with what Ben has to say.

Blencathra - my own particular fells

". . . if you ask me why so many Americans prefer early retirement or disability to paid labor, I answer: read James Rebanks. Take a close look at what truly compelling work looks like. And then measure how far the sort of jobs available to most Americans fall short of it. People are abandoning work not because they are lazy or lack moral fiber, but because the work they could get is soul-destroying: mindlessly routine labor under the strict eye of domineering bosses, completely lacking in community or tradition, leading to nothing that you can hold in your hand or be proud that you have done.”

If you'd like to read everything that Ben has to say, here's the link to Bensozia. 

Oh, and if you'd like a really good Tuesday Poem on a suitable theme, why not take a look at 'Translating Mountains from the Gaelic' which is on Seren publishing's website at the moment.  It's from Yvonne Reddick's prize-winning pamphlet called 'Translating Mountains'.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Poetry Day at Words by the Water, Keswick

It's poetry day at the Words by the Water festival, Theatre by the Lake at Keswick and there's some fantastic poetry on offer.

First up is Helen Farish, reading from her new Bloodaxe collection 'The Dog of Memory' which has some intricate and beautiful new poems,  paired with Adam O'Riordan publicising  his collection, 'In the Flesh', (Chatto).   The covers of each book look very similar even though they're from different publishers, and I find myself wishing that they were more cheerful looking!

Adam's collection was published in 2010 and I find it curious that such an award-winning poet hasn't published another since, though he has written a collection of short stories 'The Burning Ground'.  My favourite from In the Flesh is 'Candle Moulds', written at Dove  Cottage, though it's not for the squeamish. It begins:

Pig fat, goose fat, tallow, they lie like corpses
in their narrow cots, fingers in a drowned
girl's glove, or barrels full of pistol shot. . .

Overlapping with Helen and Adam's reading, is another by Autumn Richardson and Richard Skelton of Corbel Stone Press - at the forefront of the 'eco-poetry' movement.  They produce exquisite publications - this is the latest:-

Then it's the Eden poets turn - first is Jacci Bulman, promoting her first collection from Cinnamon Press, 'A Whole Day Through From Waking', followed by the rest of us, Josephine Dickinson, Mary Robinson, Alison Barr, Kim Moore, Nicola Jackson and myself - including readings from our new anthology 'Crossing the Wild'.

It's going to be a great day at the Theatre by the Lake in Keswick - and if you're not doing anything this afternoon, why not come along?  Tickets for the Eden poets event is Free!!!

Thursday, 2 March 2017

World Book Day and the Plight of Authors in a Corporate Jungle

It's World Book Day today, when we're supposed to celebrate our favourite authors and the wonderful world of Books which, without authors would not exist.  Books are still very profitable for publishing houses and for a handful of celebrity authors.  As in ordinary life since the Great Crash of 2008, money has percolated upwards, enriching the top 1% at the expense of the other 99%.  Once upon a time, a portion of the income from best-sellers went to promote and develop authors further down the list who one day might become best-sellers.  Authors in the middle of the book-list were welcomed so long as they broke even - readers liked them and they kept a big slice of the reading public loyal to The Book.

But then publishing went corporate.  It wasn't about books any more, it was about the Bottom Line and keeping shareholders happy.  Big publishers bought up small publishers and there was blood on the floor throughout the industry, for editors as well as authors.

Mid-list authors were the first to be evicted in the transformation of the industry.  Slow burners which have, in the past, turned into publishing sensations, were out too. Catherine Cookson didn't get anywhere near it until her tenth book.  Imagine that today!  The culling of authors didn't get a lot of publicity.

Tracy Chevalier, President of the author's charity The Royal Literary Fund, describes the current plight of the typical author "who had some success in the 1990s":

 "She could live reasonably on advances and royalties from her growing backlist - not setting the literary world alight, perhaps, but solid. By 2010 however, her sales have dropped. She is not new or a celebrity, and doesn't produce the sexy hit her publishers crave. One day her agent tells her that they are not buying her next book. He finds her a smaller publisher, who pays a tiny advance and doesn't put a marketing budget behind the book, which sells poorly. That publisher doesn't offer another contract. Her agent drops her, regretfully. She gets her backlist back and self-publishes it on Amazon as ebooks. That helps, but not enough. She is too old to change careers entirely. The mortgage looms. Her income dips below her expenditure . . . . "

Tracy Chevalier probably doesn't have to worry!
This situation affects not just mid-list authors, but big literary prize-winners (including Hanif Kureishi). The Guardian tells the story of  one of them.

"Rupert Thomson is the author of nine novels, including The Insult (1996 Guardian Fiction Prize), which David Bowie chose for one of his 100 must-read books of all time, and Death of a Murderer, shortlisted for the Costa Novel of the Year awards in 2007. His most recent novel, Secrecy, was hailed as "chillingly brilliant" (Financial Times) and "bewitching" (Daily Mail). According to the Independent, "No one else writes quite like this in Britain today." Thomson has also been compared to JG Ballard, Elmore Leonard, Mervyn Peake and even Kafka. In short, he's an established and successful writer with an impressive body of work to his name."

His sixth novel was made into a film and his memoir won the Writers' Guild Prize for non-fiction. But he is one of the authors now over sixty and afraid for the future. "I don't buy anything. No clothes, no luxuries, nothing. I have no private income, no rich wife, no inheritance, no pension. I have nothing to look forward to. There's no safety net at all." 

Rupert Thomson - 'nothing to look forward to'. 

It seems we are returning to the insecurities of the 18th and 19th centuries when it was said of writers "They knew luxury, and they knew beggary, but they never knew comfort."  As one author who has been from bust to boom to bust, I can say that that is absolutely true.  There is no security at all, for even the biggest best-selling authors.  For anyone who wants to read my own story of betrayal and back-stabbing in the world of corporate publishing (the Catherine Cookson story), please click here.

I'm often asked for advice by new writers, or those who are writing, but have yet to publish.  My best advice?  Don't give up the day job!  One of the big ironies is that the day job for a writer is often tutoring creative writing at a university or college - encouraging others to compete with them in an increasingly crowded environment.  One poet I know told me, after a few glasses of wine, that they were very proud of the number of budding writers they'd deterred from the profession. I was shocked at the time and disapproving.  But now, I wonder if he was, in fact, doing them a kindness.  The book business has become a ruthless business.


If you're an author in difficulties, have you thought of making an application to the Royal Literary Fund? 

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Tuesday Poem: The Met Office Advises Caution - Rebecca Watts

This is a debut collection from Carcanet Press and it's made me feel more excited about the future of poetry than I've felt in a long time. This is poetry straight from the gut, or the heart, whichever you prefer, and both joyous and unselfconscious.  It's also straightforwardly northern.  'Southerners stay indoors:  Northerners you'll need your big coat' goes the weather meme.

On Christmas day the poet  escapes from her family:

'Home, yes
unmarried, yes
          but how I go

zip up my coat
show my back to the gaudy telly
          and step out

How the cold boxes my ears'

She walks the canal path on a damp, misty day watching the bare trees

'like disciples, arms thrown up
        in love

or surrender, or
whatever they hold themselves
         open for.'

Rebecca Watts' images are clean and vivid. I particularly liked 'Insomniac' - maybe because I am!

Sky hung like ink in a jar of water.
Moon smooth as a glacier mint on its way to dissolution.'

The poet walks the tow path in the dark on a damp night when the 'river has taken to air' and the damp gropes at her face and lungs. Her creative mind is racing, noting every detail.  All she wants is

'To lie down still as a woman between new sheets:
eyes closing effortlessly, mind empty
as a jar of water'.

It's a neat return to the image in the first three lines.

The subject matter ranges widely through Emperor Penguins, Antarctica, China, literary landscapes such as Aldeburgh,  Haworth, Dove Cottage, and the more familiar locations of Ickworth and Ditton Meadow. The poet has an eye for detail that lifts the poems up and away from the 'nature poetry' category. My favourite poem in the book is one in which a snail escapes from the poet, as subject matter so often does!

Carpe Diem

Surprised by the underside of a snail -
a beige highlight
on an otherwise black window -
I went to the next room for paper and a pen.

I would have sat for hours in the dark
distilling words from it;
studying the plasticine slur,
the way it stuck there
as though on purpose, to rescue
the evening from monotony.

Before I got back
the snail moved on
leaving the window vacant,
a frame to hang a poem on.

The Guardian featured one of Rebecca Watts' poems from the collection, the brilliant 'Turning', as its Saturday Poem which you can read here.  

All poems and quotes copyright Rebecca Watts

The Met Office Advises Caution by Rebecca Watts
Carcanet Press 2017

Monday, 27 February 2017

Monday Music: How can a poor man stand such times and live? Ry Cooder

This track, by Ry Cooder, really says it all at the moment,  when even people with jobs are having to queue up at the food bank and pensioners are deciding between eating and heating.  The song dates back to tough times in America - times that are returning there as well as here.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Poetry and Performance in a Group

I currently belong to one of the Poetry Society's Stanza groups and find it good fun as well as very supportive.  We get together in each other's houses and read poetry round a wood-burning stove and eat a lot of cake! Being in a group also means that you can do things that are more difficult on your own, like becoming a publisher.  We've just produced an anthology, called  'Crossing the Wild', and are about to launch it in performance.

I'm struck by the difference that technology has made to publication.   Years ago, when I was living in Bristol, I was involved in a similar project.  I was part of a poetry performance group called Invisible Lipstick, with poets Liz Loxley, Pat Van Twest and (initially) Moira Andrew.  Sadly Pat died of cancer, but Liz and Moira are still around on Facebook.
Pat Van Twest, Kathleen Jones, Liz Loxley
Our first publication - in the grainy image below - was typed on my old manual typewriter, cut and pasted and then photocopied in the local print shop.  The cover was drawn by my daughter in a school art class and printed onto glossy paper to be stapled together and folded into a pamphlet.

It was a lot of work and we couldn't afford colour - Pat and I were single parents on tight budgets, buying bread and milk on tick by the end of the week, paying it off when we cashed our Family Allowance (now Child Benefit) on a Monday.  As a group we did lots of gigs in strange places. This was us being embarrassing in Broadmead shopping centre, attempting to interest consumers in poetry, attended by a fire-eater and a unicyclist.  Fay Weldon's (now ex) husband is trumpeting jazz somewhere in the background.

This time, the Stanza Anthology, Crossing the Wild, has been type set on a computer using technology available to everyone, the cover converted from photograph to book cover with text by Neil in Photoshop, and the whole turned into a PDF file and loaded up to Amazon Create Space.  It didn't cost us anything.  With Print On Demand technology, the printing costs are taken from each copy printed.  We're also using Lightning Source to wholesale the book internationally and get it into bookshops.  It's in full colour at no extra cost and all the profits are going to charity.  This time to support the Air Ambulance, which is so essential in terrain like the Lake District and also to a charity for head injuries 'Headway'.

Now we're planning some readings and little parties to launch the collection - but perhaps a bit more mainstream than the Invisible Lipstick collective!  Our first outing is at the Words by the Water Festival in Keswick, Tuesday 7th March at 5pm, where we're the supporting cast for one of our members, Jacci Bulman, who has a new collection 'A Whole Day Through From Waking', out from Cinnamon Press.  There are rumours that Kim Moore might be reading too.

How many of you out there are members of a poetry workshop group or Stanza?  It's so much more fun than doing it on your own!

Friday, 17 February 2017

Joan Eardley in Edinburgh

This week I made a special trip up to Edinburgh to see the Joan Eardley exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.  I've loved Eardley's work ever since I saw her painting of 'Catterline in Winter' at an exhibition about 25 years ago.  It mesmerises me;  the snow, the tilted line of houses on the cliff top, the winter sun just glimpsed through grey cloud.  As a writer it suggests a backstory - people's lives, struggle, living with the elements.  There's nothing easy about this painting. It has a dramatic tension made visible by the gully that bisects the canvas and where, in reality, a tortuous path staggers down from the fishermen's cottages to the beach where their boats are pulled up and their nets are drying.

'Catterline in Winter'

So I welcomed the chance to see more of Joan Eardley's work and find out about her life.  I knew that she had died in 1963, from breast cancer, at the age of 42, just as she had been accepted into the Royal Scottish Academy and was regarded by everyone as one of the contemporary painters with the most potential.  And, in 1963, this was remarkable for a woman and a northerner.  Sexism was alive and well in the art world, which had its centre in London.

Joan Eardley painting at Catterline

Joan was born in 1921 on a dairy farm in the south of England to a mother used to quite a comfortable life and a father who had suffered in the First World War.  His mental collapse meant that the farm had to be sold in 1926 and Joan's mother and sister moved to Blackheath on the southern fringe of London, to live with their grandmother. Joan's father committed suicide in 1929.  Ten years later the women moved north to Scotland, where they had relatives, to avoid the London bombings. They settled on the outskirts of Glasgow, where Joan attended the School of Art.  She had a studio in the Townhead area of the city, fascinated by the tenements and the people who lived there. 'I like the friendliness of the backstreets.  Life is at its most uninhibited here.  Dilapidation is often more interesting to a painter as is anything that has been used and lived with - whether it be an ivy covered cottage, a broken farm-cart or an old tenement'. 

Joan's studio - which was freezing cold in winter

In 1950, Joan Eardley had an exhibition in Aberdeen and it was while staying up there that she discovered the village of Catterline, on the east coast, further south towards Dundee.  The area made a big impression on Joan.  'It is really very lovely country, I have quite fallen for it, both the sea and the country behind . . .  where there are lovely moors, and new forests and rushing burns, quite different from the west, more rolling and lovely reddish earth.'   Catterline was a fishing village in post-war decline. The cottages were primitive, two rooms, no sanitation, and only a fireplace for cooking and heating.  But Joan loved it, describing it in a letter to a friend.   'Catterline has such a terrific clarity and terrific light, whereas Glasgow feels as though it has a sort of lid on the top of it.' But it was also very similar to Glasgow in that it was a small community, ' ... a little backstreet, where everybody knows everybody else.  . . It's the sort of intimate thing I like, and I think you've got to know something before you paint it.'   From then on she divided her time between Catterline and Glasgow, renting one of the cottages as a studio and later on buying another to live in.  It offered her, she said, 'vast wastes, vast seas, vast areas of cliff'.

Flood Tide at Catterline

Joan Eardley's comment that you 'have to know something' before you can paint it was a statement of her method.  She observed even the small details, explaining in an Arts Council interview:  'When I'm painting . . . I hardly ever move out of the village, I hardly ever move from one spot;  I find that the more I know of the place, or of one particular spot, the more I find to paint in that particular spot.'   Among my favourite paintings are her landscapes, particularly the fields, where seed heads and flowers are pressed onto the canvas and sculpted there with paint, creating a fantastic texture.  the detail in the different layers of colour is incredible.

In Glasgow her focus was not on the landscape, but on the people, particularly children.  Her portraits of the street children are never sentimental - in fact I found them rather scary.

Glasgow Children

They grimace;  they have dark eyes.  These are children who know things.  Children who have dangerous lives.

Three children at a tenement window
This is a fabulous exhibition - 5 rooms packed with paintings as well as cases of letters and notebooks and sketchbooks and press cuttings detailing the painter's life.  I would love to go again. Towards the end of her life her work was veering much more towards abstraction, revealing her fascination with colour.  It is tragic that her life was cut short at the age of 42.

'Summer Sea', one of the last paintings from Catterline, 1962

Joan Eardley:  A Sense of Place, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh. 

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Tuesday Poem: Penguin Modern Poets

In the sixties and seventies I was reading these.

They were stylishly monochrome, in-your-face contemporary, the poets they featured white-skinned, and very, very masculine.  Penguin Modern Poets were overwhelmingly male. Only a couple of women made it - Elizabeth Jennings being one of them. This was quite a difficult role model for a young teenage girl who wanted to be a poet.  But recently Penguin have decided to re-visit the brand and this time things are very different.

Not only are the new Penguin Modern Poets very colourful, but they are also ethnically diverse.  And they are as female as their predecessors were male dominated.  In the twenty-tens, this is what contemporary poetry looks like.

I'm thoroughly enjoying the little snapshots of a poet's work, particularly poets I hadn't read much before.  Malika Booker (of Grenadian and Guayanese descent) was new to me.  I loved her poem 'How Our Bodies Did This Unfamiliar Thing', which gives a voice to all those women who took the places of men in the war and were subsequently sent back to the kitchen sink. My mother became a land-girl, and one of her relatives became a welder in the shipyard.

"We women stand in our men shoes, our bodies
doing this unfamiliar thing.  Hands that scrubbed
clothes in wash basins, wrung pillowcases, hung white
flannel sheets on long clothes lines, pinning and clipping,
how now those hands have become cranes, each hand
a link in a chain, joining steel feathers, building birds
of prey.  It was the world turned inside out. . . ."

My 15 year old step-granddaughter picked up the collection while she was staying with me and laughed aloud at Sharon Olds' poem 'The Pope's Penis'.

'It hangs deep in his robes, a delicate
clapper at the center of a bell.'

Was it even possible to write about this stuff, she wanted to know?  But why not?  Men have written odes to women's breasts, in or out of their clothes, for hundreds of years.

Warsan Shire, of Somali-British descent, was a poet I had only read in snippets on the internet, aware that she was being ignored by the 'establishment' publications (most of them still edited by men) and that her words were used by high profile figures like Beyonce.  Her poem 'Home', about refugees, is one of the most powerful I've ever read. The Penguin collection contains a prose-poetry sequence that pre-figures 'Home'. This is an excerpt:-

'I hear them say, go home, I hear them say, fucking immigrants,
fucking refugees.  Are they really this arrogant?  Do they not
know that stability is like a lover with a sweet mouth upon
your body one second and the next you are a tremor lying on
the floor covered in rubble and old currency waiting for its
return.  All I can say is, I was once like you, the apathy, the pity,
the ungrateful placement, and now my home is the mouth of a
shark, now my home is the barrel of a gun.  I'll see you on the
other side."

At a poetry reading recently a very well-published male poet suggested that it was not legitimate for people, particularly women, to write about personal experience.  I simply couldn't believe what I was hearing, or the academic argument that supported his statement.  If we can't write about personal experience, what can we write about? It is the closest, most powerful, truth we own.  If you don't want to hear women's voices, then don't buy this series!  But if, like me, it is as welcome as clean, fresh water, then please do - you won't be disappointed.  Oh, and there are men in some of them!

Penguin New Modern Poets 1. Michael Robbins, Patricia Lockwood, Timothy Thornton
Penguin New Modern Poets 2. Emily Berry, Anne Carson, Sophie Collins
Penguin New Modern Poets 3. Malika Booker, Sharon Olds, Warsan Shire


Sunday, 12 February 2017

Revisiting the scene of a disaster - Catherine Cookson and after . . .

I've been blogging over on Authors Electric about the experience of being a best-selling biographer who suddenly finds herself black-listed for no other reason than that of telling an inconvenient truth. Corporate publishing is all about marketing, and sometimes the truth gets in the way. Bankrupting your publisher with an unexpected best-seller and revealing that a literary saint was actually a human being are sins unlikely to be forgiven!  Read the whole sorry story here.

"I have known what it was like to be on the front pages of newspapers, or the subject of a double-page spread inside the Independent.  Television interviews, radio shows – my 15 minutes of fame.  It was fantastic being chauffeur driven across London, with a huge bouquet of lilies and roses on my lap, to a champagne reception. The reviews were glowing and I’ll never forget the experience of walking into WH Smith and seeing my book, in hardback, at number 8 in the best-seller lists.  The six figure sums of money being bandied about were head-turning. ‘You’ll never have to worry about money again in your life,’ my agent said.  I should have known! . . ."  Read on 'When a Best-seller Becomes a Disaster".    

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Tuesday Poem: Words by Edward Thomas

Out of us all
That make rhymes,
Will you choose
Sometimes –
As the winds use
A crack in a wall
Or a drain,
Their joy or their pain
To whistle through –
Choose me,
You English words?

I know you:
You are light as dreams,
Tough as oak,
Precious as gold,
As poppies and corn,
Or an old cloak:
Sweet as our birds
To the ear,
As the burnet rose
In the heat
Of Midsummer:

Strange as the races
Of dead and unborn:
Strange and sweet
And familiar,
To the eye,
As the dearest faces
That a man knows,
And as lost homes are:
But though older far
Than oldest yew –
As our hills are, old –
Worn new
Again and again:
Young as our streams
After rain:
And as dear
As the earth which you prove
That we love.

Make me content
With some sweetness
From Wales,
Whose nightingales
Have no wings –
From Wiltshire and Kent
And Herefordshire,
And the villages there –
From the names, and the things
No less.
Let me sometimes dance
With you,
Or climb,
Or stand perchance
In ecstasy,
Fixed and free
In a rhyme,
As poets do.

From 101 Poems for Children, chosen by Carol Ann Duffy and illustrated by Emily Gravett published by Picador. 

As light as dreams/ As tough as oak  - yes, I'd like to write words like that.  A very belated Tuesday Poem, but I've been involved in setting up web pages and links and all the publicity connected with a new project.  A few of us, who belong to the Poetry Society's 'North Cumbria Stanza Group', have just launched an anthology project 'Write to be Counted', intended to be an antidote to all the turmoil and gloom of the world at the moment.  And intended to be a defence of free speech and the right to write.    You can read all about it here

And if you're a poet, why not send us a couple of poems for consideration?  Poems to

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Returning to Chaos and Alternative Facts

Returning from a journey is never easy.  There's a damp, cold house, a pile of mail in the hall, a mountain of washing and the thud of everyday life demanding attention.

This time it was even harder because it was compounded by a newsfeed that destroyed any peace of mind or feelings of optimism.  A fascist takeover in America that pays no regard to democracy, freedom of speech and the Rule of Law. An increasingly racist policy that will cause anguish to millions of people.  The denial of Climate Change, the most dangerous threat to human existence on the planet since the Black Death. Then, in the UK, I have to watch our own (unelected) representative cosying up to dictators and rulers whose human rights record is atrocious, and I think, 'Are these going to be our new allies?'

My anger and shame have kept me awake for several nights. What can be done?  I've always tried to keep my blog and Facebook page fairly neutral, in recognition that not everyone shares my personal political beliefs.  But this has gone beyond the political to a place where basic human values are at stake.  Integrity and Truth have been replaced by Expediency and Alternative Facts. And I can't stay silent.  I have a feeling that we are at some kind of international crossroads and that things could descend into chaos very quickly unless the majority of us take a stand.

To begin with, I'm joining the National Write Out - a protest movement for writers. Its slogan is 'What's worth fighting for is worth writing for' and it explains what's involved here on its website. 

 "Writers and non-writers alike recognize the election of Donald Trump as an unprecedented threat, one that demands we deploy our craft and words in the service of justice. Recognizing that we cannot and will not defeat the forces behind Trump without stopping to think, without first imagining what truly matters, we call on writers-poets, playwrights, essayists, short storyistas of the world to unite by joining all those already committed to the National Write-Out.

Who: You. Everyone who writes, draws, thinks, dares, creates…

What: Write or share a poem, a piece of flash fiction, short story, essay, inspired long tweet, handwritten ars poetica or other literary creation responding to this prompt:

'What’s worth fighting for is worth writing for' accompanied by the hashtag  #fightandwrite

If you have any doubts, read 'Poetry in a Time of Protest' by Edwidge Danticat, whose 81 year old uncle died in immigration custody despite having a valid visa and family waiting for him at the airport.  She quotes the poet Audre Lorde:-

Poetry is how we name the nameless. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.

A group of us (Poetry Society members) are currently talking about the idea of publishing an anthology, the proceeds for an appropriate charity.  Watch this space!

Monday, 23 January 2017

Tuesday Poem: Swinging in a Hammock on Koh Seh

(After James Wright)

A white egret picks its way through rocks along the shore.
Over my head, the tamarind leaves spread their green fingers.
A black butterfly, the span of my hand, flaps through the canopy.
The sea laps, cat-like, at the shingle, pummelling the hull
of the wrecked boat with a dull percussion.
Pair trawlers and squid boats punctuate the horizon
drawing a grey line between sea and sky
where the new moon is lifting Venus towards
the evening thunderstorm, piling itself in pink, ice-cream cloud.
The long-tail boats are chugging in for the night
their noisy out-boards shattering the silence.
The jetty stretches seaward in a single line of lights.

Time to evaluate; thoughts like the silver flying fish
lifting from the water, bright, elusive.

It's cold here!  But the frosty terrain is very beautiful in the winter sunlight, so I don't mind (much!).
The journey back seemed longer than usual.  We stayed in the small Khmer hotel the previous night so that we could get to the airport on time the following morning - where boats are concerned you never know whether you'll make it punctually.  There's the weather and the whole mechanical engine business. In Cambodia, anything mechanical needs a lot of tinkering!

The hotel gave us time to pack properly and shake out any small hitchhikers from the luggage (I found a stowaway baby cockroach anxious for a change of scene).  These are all the hazards of 'real' travel.  But now I'm home and back to work and the delights of swinging in a hammock with nothing on your mind are long gone.  The poem is a response to James Wright's wonderful 'Lying in a hammock on William Duffy's farm', particularly that ambiguous last line 'I have wasted my life'.  Swinging in a hammock was very definitely not wasted time for me, it was essential unwinding at the end of a terrible, stressful year.  But neither would I want to live like that all the time.