Thursday, September 27, 2007

Katherine Mansfield and reviewers


It's hard to imagine anyone getting violently upset about Katherine Mansfield's gorgeous stories. Critics are a funny bunch though. Fresh from what were sometimes highly personal reactions to a fairly impersonal work, my new biography of J. S. Haldane, I'm astonished anew at the love 'em hate 'em response. Someone suggested to me recently that the author produces a holograph of herself / himself within a work, and it is this that reviewers respond to. That seems to make sense. When they go out into the world writers can protect themselves, select among those they meet, make great friends and avoid potential enemies. When a book goes out into the world that screen between ourself and other people is removed. With readers the case is somewhat different; those that might hate your book simply don't buy it. Reviewers have books foisted on them, and it is very often a wrong fit.
So here's Katherine Mansfield, in a letter to William Gerhardi after the publication of her 1922 collection The Garden Party:
"I wonder if you happened to see a review of my book in Time and Tide. It was written by a very fierce lady indeed. Beating in the face was nothing to it. It frightened me when I read it. I shall never dare to come to England. I am sure she would have my blood like the fish in Cock Robin. But why is she so dreadfully violent? One would think I was a wife beater, at least, or that I wrote all my stories with a carving knife. It is a great mystery.'

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Mentoring for writers

I'll be appearing on a panel in London tomorrow night, a Spread the Word event to launch the new book on mentoring for creative writers, The Write Guide. Sara Maitland and myself interviewed a fair few people for the book. Here's the writer Jill Dawson on one reason mentoring works for her:
“When I started out as a writer I was envious of those with writers in their families, or to be growing up where writing is normal, belonging to a circle, being able to show your work to someone who was published. That’s one reason I feel so passionate about mentoring, providing the thing I never had but always wanted—access to people to whom writing really matters.”

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Buckland, Dartmoor and Cotehele

Saturdays have become special. By Friday night, after a full week of my brain whirring, I'm tending to stumble and head outdoors with the wrong keys. Saturdays are now designed as a break from all thought and so a chance for recovery. Newly arrived in Plymouth, the options for days out are legion. There was no real need even for a map. Choose a direction and see what you find.
We headed north. By ten we were at the home of Sir Francis Drake, Buckland Abbey. Once a Cistercian Abbey, after the Dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII it passed into private ownership. Various houses were inserted into the abbey space to produce a curious historic hybrid. The stewards at these National Trust properties are all very game folk, boning up on different aspects of the buildings and ready to regale you with insights, all on a volunteer basis. They turn architectural visits into a very human experience.
Then we were off across Dartmoor, just the briefest hike across a vast range of wilderness, up a couple of Tors (small stony peaks)among scores of free-ranging Dartmoor ponies ... picking our way across acres of pony sheep and cattle droppings, but otherwise glorious.
Then through Tavistock (voted England's favourite market town, though for us too clogged with traffic) and on to Cotehele. This is another National Trust property ... and following the signposts to it took us from Devon into the county of Cornwall. It was intriguing to be driving the same narrow windy lanes, with steep green banks, I was last on as a child on summer holidays. Cotehele is a grand house on an intimate scale, almost a Normandy village in feel. On from there down to the River Tamar where an old mill has been restored into fine working order.
A good burst of landscape, river views, history and fresh air does wonders to clean the head.
I still managed to head outdoors with the wrong keys this Sunday morning, and ended up having to leap over a glass-studded wall and a spiked fence ... so the next trick is maybe to extend the Saturday off into a whole weekend. A liberating thought.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Two poets of the English Southwest - Tony Lopez and Luke Kennard



The new year for English undergraduates here at Plymouth kicked off with a couple of poetry readings - from Tony Lopez, professor of poetry here at Plymouth University, and for young blood, Luke Kennard.
Luke is completing a PhD at nearby Exeter, his latest collection The Harbour beyond the Movies already on the current shortlist for the Forward prize. At 26, that makes him the youngest ever shortlisted author. He has a mild presence, almost the young gentleman bumbler in his delivery style, which makes a neat balance to the surreal nature of his work. Many of his poems are short prose pieces, in effect surreal short stories. In an ideal world he would publish them with the same brief width as poems, to make the form more particular. They were funny and engaging pieces, often with a witty play on other's work yet readily accessible. For me, it opens up a new form to play with.
As does Tony's work, drawn from his brand new collection Covers. The novelty for me here was Tony's preference for snipping lines and phrases from other people's texts from which to assemble his own work, often with a political edge. In listening to them for the first time, my main focus was on the technique - the experience was a little schizophrenic, somewhat like listening to a lot of different voices being rattled together in a glass jar. It is often the case with me and poetry that it takes a few readings before my own understanding dawns. The one poem of Tony's that used his own words, blending reactions to the likes of Andy Goldsworthy's dry stone wall in the New York sculpture park, the films of Donald Sirk, and Rock Hudson, was the one that really worked for me. That had the most obvious unity of voice and narrative cohesion ... as a novelist, I remain a sucker for narrative.
The event a fine way to kickstart one of my own fresh aims ... to actively build up my appreciation of contemporary poetry. Part of Ray Bradbury's advice - for all writers - is that we start each day by reading a new poem. It breaks old patterns and shifts you into a newly creative way of looking out on the world.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Alvin Ailey

I last saw the Alvin Ailey dance company in 1975, as a teenager living in Berlin and trying out everything new. It was blazingly good - the movement so sensual, dancers apparently having a ball.
The company I saw in Plymouth last night must all have been born since then. The audience was young and wildly enthusiastic. Plymouth does seem to be a convivial place for theatre. I was admiring, but that excitement of old, the thrill of finding something new, seemed to have faded.
Then the last piece hit the stage, Revelations, set to black spiritual songs. It pumped in the thrilled to be alive gusto.
Hooray for dance.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Do birds and animals grieve?


Last year we delighted in the progress of a family of blackbirds, deep inside thorny branches. The parents flew off on feeding missions as the chicks called out. They would soon be ready to fledge. Then magpies heard the call. The mother b lackbird screamed, but her young were all snatched away, birds become morsels.
I'm reminded of this by a touching episode in The Odyssey, which has some splendid images drawn from nature. Odysseus has just been reunited with his son Telemachus. ‘They both broke down and sobbed aloud without a pause like birds bereaved, like the sea-eagle or the taloned vulture when villagers have robbed the nest of their unfledged young.’
SOm folk bother to wonder whether animals have feelings. It seems absurd to wonder something so obvious.
Teaching in Saud Arabia once, at an oil refinery in the west coastal town of Yanbu, we passed a dead donkey by the side of the road. On the way back from work, two other donkeys had found it. They stood in the desert, braying and braying in misery.

Picture of a mourning dove from San Diego Birding Pages

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Ham & High


The Ham & High is a local newspaper but has one of the best literary sections in the country - no doubt because its region, Hampstead and Highgate, has just about the highest remit in the world of top quality authors. It's striking how many writers interviewed take their daily constitutional around Hampstead Heath.
Deborah Moggach in a recent interview spoke of her daily swim in the ladies' pond at Hampstead. She felt the ladies were graceful, the men more like racing demons. I opted for decorum myself in my own gentle circuit of Hampstead men's pond last week. It was a surprising expanse of water once in it, chilly to the head in a backstroke, yet a wonderfully free space. This whole principle of open air bathing is a 19th century relic still going strong despite health and safety measures to stop it.
I was pleased to be interviewed by David Crozier for the Ham & High the other week ... and have just spotted the interview online - so here it is.

Trafalgar Square, human trafficking - and a message from Emma Thompson

Fame's an odd ball to carry, but some folk do so with relentless care and awareness of the good that can be wielded through it.

Human trafficking, particularly of girls and young women for the slave trade, sneaks under the wire of public consciousness. The women and girls are in an abject situation, made invisible, and the trade is a secret one conducted in dark rooms. Emma Thompson's been working for a year to bring it out into the open, and make us all conscious of what is going on.

It's very easy NOT to bring off an art installation in the middle of Trafalgar Square, then send it touring around the world. Emma has really stuck to the plan, bringing artists in to make it real. I've been touched by seeing the gathering designs of the containers in which the various tableaux will take place, the designs for their exterior, the unbearably poignant statements made by young girls as they are enticed away from their villages to the 'bright lights'.

I'll be going along on the evening of Saturday 29th September, to take part in a candlelit vigil. See you there perhaps ... or you might prefer to catch a viewing through its London week (I know it's going on to Glasgow, but don't know the other details yet).

Emma's asked me to pass on the following invitation, so here it is:

"Dear all - forgive the impersonal nature of this
message, but it is nonetheless a very personal plea.
For a year now I have been curating or developing or
whatever the word is, an art installation about human
trafficking (specifically sex slavery).
It will be in Trafalgar Square from September 23rd -
30th before leaving for a journey that will take it
around the UK and then into Europe and the USA.
Please - and this is the most important please of my
life - come and visit it. It's open from 12pm till
8pm. I hope I'll see you there.
One of the artists involved is Anish Kapoor.
So it's not a chore.
Oh god that rhymes.
How ghastly.

Thank you and love, Emma"

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Plymouth, and Lizzie Roper


Some symmetry has set in. I attended the Drum Theatre here in Plymouth the night before the interview for the new post at the University. Now I've been again, on the evening of my first day in the new job. The stroll down to the theatre took just five minutes from my new apartment overlooking Plymouth Hoe - furnished at present by an inflatable bed. This is posted from my new office on the city campus. There's traffic noise outside but it's otherwise bucolic enough, looking out onto a short stretch of lawn, a fine stone wall, and trees beyond. I'm grateful for it.
The show at the Drum was Peccadillo Circus, a solo show from Lizzie Roper. She interviewed a range of folk about their sex lives. Those 90 minute interviews are edited down to 55 minutes played on an iPod strapped to her arm - she then gives a verbatim account of what they said, compete with stutters, repetitions and vocal sounds. Some verbatim theatre works by memorizing lines. This playback approach, according to Lizzie Roper in conversation afterwards, brings in an extra discipline. You can't just let your actor's mind take over, you deliver the person exactly how they appeared. 'I hear what they're thinking' Lizzie told me, inhabiting their thoughts as she delivers their dialogue.
She is clear that her role in the process includes being a writer, selecting and splicing the material - and also, I must say, conjuring it out of people. All her characters have come to see the show, and been well pleased with the representations of themselves. The hour was filled with a neat run of powerful stories, some very fine 'writing' in among the lines (though no written form of this show exists at all). Lizzie Roper was still distressed at the number who walk out in moral outrage from what has been clearly advertised in advance as a filthy show - 10 stormed out of Glasgow in the previous performance. Plymouth seemed well up for it all. The show was bawdy and brazen, but big-hearted too. With characters ranging fro the dominatrix and the gay man trawling for sex across Europe to an elderly Jungian psychoanalyst, it was surprisingly intimate and tender.

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Friday, September 07, 2007

'But the Summer had passed ...'


'But the summer had passed,' writes Kathleen Jamie in her beautiful book Findings, 'and already, like migrant birds, my university students were arriving, waiting for the teaching term to begin, expecting to be taught how to engage with the world in language.'
I'm migrating myself, heading to the South West of England, getting in gear for my first term teaching at Plymouth University. My focus has shifted to course preparation, with that little incidental of setting up a new home ... and New Writing North's Mentoring roadshow (up in Lancaster tomorrow).
It's time to jot notes for my novel down in the back of my manuscript book, should they flit away before my writing time resumes. I do feel recovered by the summer, blowy as it was. And I look forward to the engagement of a new term, after a 'sabbatical' year of fulltime writing. It's been tough work, but a treat,

(The photo is from a window at Dornoch cathedral, visited this summer)

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Susanna Clarke's 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell'


'Have you read 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell?' I asked at a dinner party last night.
My friend she had started it ... and given up.
'But it's marvellous,' I said. 'Read on!'
The book is magnificent. In truth though, I added, I too had stopped at page 100 first time around. Up to that point I had enjoyed one terrific scene, in which the sculptures of York Monster found movement and voice. The rest had seemed a tad ponderous. Language wandered off into occasional Victorian-style digressions, which I was finding tiresome.
At about p103 though, the book kicked in. Some books do that. Patrick White is an all-time favourite novelist of mine, but I was often wearying of his books a third of the way through. Then I turned a page, and wham, all that early work took effect and I was engrossed.
Maybe Susanna Clarke was still learning her craft a bit in these early pages, gaining fresh mastery as she progressed. I sometimes think that once you have finished writing a novel you should return to the beginning and write that section again, so it contains all you have learned since you were last there. Re: any accusation of verbosity, Susanna Clarke has her Mr Norrell say: 'I am not one of those miserly authors who measure out their words to the last quarter ounce. I have very liberal ideas of authorship.' (p.609)
And here's a powerful line: imagine the book that can have this sitting neatly within it: 'Doors slammed in his mind and he went wandering off into rooms and hallways inside himself that he had not visited in years.' (p.596)
This is a hugely daring and imaginative book. The dialogue is terrific, some of the descriptive feats astoundingly good, such as when a man becomes the land of England for a while. It calls on real intelligence as well ... a woman takes a boat out from Venice on a grey day, slips a vial into the sea so that its bronze liquid disappears. From that, and a smell of cat, you are left to realize she has had a meeting with Jonathan Strange, and what their agreement was. If you don't realize it, that's fine, the story winds itself on ... but you have been given just enough to set you working in the right direction. The book is very engaging of the reader.
And it is wondrously metaphysical - and terrific that such a book spins out of England, which might be seen to fight shy of such things. Our magicians are left seeing themselves through the perspective of a raven's eye the size of a mountain. We also have that aboriginal notion of our being a dream, in the suggestion that our heroic magicians are in fact elements in someone else's spell.
Get to page 103 and off you'll soar. I heartily recommend the book.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Alias me

Michael Allen, the Grumpy Old Bookman, has just blogged on the use of pen-names. He has run with several, since he explores different genres. He published three as Anne Moore - yet while he had meant those books, presumably, to be recognizable alike, a publisher pointed out they were in fact so different to each other that she could not ave published them together. My agent recommended a female pen-name for my last novel, Slippery When Wet, thinking to hide what he felt might be low sales figures. I was proud of the book and wanted to stand by it, so ran it as by me. Given hindsight, Michael Allan reckons he would have been better publishing all under his own name.
I've only ever run with one pen-name, Brett O'Neill, for a magazine that wanted to run a separate stream of features from an apparently American correspondent. It was also a nod to my family, who started to adopt my mother's maiden name of O'Neill. Even my stepfather married into my mother's maiden name, though since his own given name was Pratt that was understandable. I once added a 'J' to my name, Martin J Goodman, to avoid confusion with other Martin Goodmans that stepped onto the scene. Another Martin J Goodman emerges, so I gave up that pretense.
For success, as Michael Allan suggests, brand yourself by sticking to one tight element of one genre. Like him, I enjoy writing across all categories - that's my schtick. The new novel I'm writing takes me into children's fiction (I believed Michael Allen was having success with one such book, The Tunnellers, though can find no listing for it on his site so maybe it's another alias, I'll check; and Phillip Pullman recommends children's fiction as an area where your readership does not worry at all about you crossing genres). Since this new novel the first of a possible sequence I may yet rebrand myself as M.J.Goodman. Is that daring, or what!

Monday, September 03, 2007

Saint Joan, Montsegur and being burned alive


Put on a play, and you never know what springs into the audience's heads. Everything is filtered through individual experience.
I watched the excellent production of George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan at the National theatre on Friday night, and thought about my mother.
Some years ago she chanced upon a book by Arthur Guirdham, We Are One Another. It told the tale of the last adherents of the Cathar religion, who were burned at the stake after the siege ofthe castle of Montsegur in the 13th century. Guirdham's is a tale of group reincarnation - those who died at the stake found themselves reborn in the UK in the 20th century, and coming into contact with each other.
For years my mother had doodled while on the phone, her pad filling with intricate patterns. She saw these patterns duplicated in the book, associated with the Cathar religion. My mother felt a real kinship with these reincarnated folk.
Year later she came to visit us in our French home in the Pyrenees, in the middle of Cathar country. We headed out to Montsegur. The castle is still pretty extant, a medieval pile crowning a hilltop. Our family party began to climb, but my mother had to give up on a flat area near the base. She was breathless. She returned to the car while the rest of us continued our excursion to the summit.
Back in the car, we found her near collapse. She had never felt worse in her life and had thought she was going to die. It had become impossible for her to breathe for a while, her lungs choking.
We had paused on the way down to examine the information signs. From these we had learned that the plain where my mother had been forced to turn around was the spot where the martyrs had all been burned. It was as though, in coming to the site, she had returned to that experience of the flames.
Watching Saint Joan be consumed by the bonfire on the stage of the National, I travelled into something of the experience of those martyrs. Whether or not my mother had lived through that life, the family tale added some intensity to my perspective.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Marion Zimmer Bradley's 'The Brass Dragon'


While it's not leaping straight into my list of greatest neglected novels (though I would place her THE CATCH TRAP in that category), Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Brass Dragon was an excellent recent read. Its teenage lead has lost his memory at the opening, two rival fathers coming to claim him. He has no memory of either so goes on gut instinct as to which he follows home: one seems good, the other evil. The excellent premise, a boy moving into a family that claim him as their own even while he has no recollection of them whatsoever, is marvellously handled. It's a factor one finds in the lives of great mystics: they have a sense of their true family being in some other realm, their 'birth' family seeming an awkward fit.
The book shifts from horror mode into sci-fi with spaceships and aliens. Entertaining enough, but it's the first half that's terrific. A great addition to the fiction of displacement.

Fifty unduly neglected novels

Fun in The Observer today, where writers have selected fifty unduly neglected novels. I'm finding most of my reading fun at the moment with such works from the past. I've only read a few on the list - and have already banged in my order for half a dozen of the titles.
I'm choosing what my own number one neglected novel would be - it's a toss-up between Walter Baxter's Look Down In Mercy and Charles Mungoshi's Waiting for the Rain.