Blogger wings it with wordplay

Last week I couldn’t be bloggered so must post now… Scrabbling for inspiration I see my blogger colleague (bloggeague?) Robbie Cheadle has a nice post on nursery rhymes where she quotes Lewis Carroll changing the words of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Any wordplay good enough for Alice in Wonderland is good enough for me too! I’m always changing the words of songs and do it almost automatically in response to feelings and events. As do others – here’s one doing the social media rounds, origin unknown. If we all sing along maybe he’ll get the hint:

Donald the President packed his Trump,

And said goodbye to the White House

As Robbie says, learning and adapting song lyrics is part of language and creativity development for young children (at the other end of the scale there are important benefits for the memory and well-being of dementia patients). Children often make endearing mistakes, which I learn from a fascinating article are called Mondegreens. In my childhood all primary schools whether denominational or not had a Christian hymn at daily assembly and misinterpretations were common among the pre-readers. A more recent one suitable for Covid hoarders is “Come, come ye saints! No toilet paper here!” I found the child who sang that here. I wonder if like many children she follows it with:

Our Father who art in Heaven. Harold be thy name

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto on Pexels.com

Also hooray for the deliberate adaptions! We all know the shepherds were much too busy washing their socks to keep an eye on any sheep. My family left carols alone but they’d roar round the table at Christmas:

Hitler – has only got one ball

The other is in the Albert Hall

Himmler – has something similar

But poor old Goebbels has no balls at all!

You can find many versions of this surreal take on Captain Bogey’s March in an informative but completely po-faced Wikipedia article that describes this as “a World War II British song that mocks Nazi leaders using blue comedy in reference to their testicles…” I’ve searched for the copyright owner but found only: “There is no known attempt by anyone to claim or enforce a copyright on the lyrics.” Writers should always take care quoting song lyrics.

As a teacher, I used song a lot: as a memory or pronunciation aide, to explain simple concepts and just for good old fun. About ten years ago I had the job of teaching teachers who only spoke English to teach French (which I speak fluently) or Spanish (which I have a basic grasp of) or German and Modern Hebrew (which I don’t speak at all) to their classes – do keep up at the back. That tells you all you need to know about investment in expertise for British state education, except that it’s even worse now. It was uphill but entertaining work. One exercise was to get the teachers in groups to set some key vocabulary/phrases to a well-known tune – at the most basic level this might be the numbers 1-5 or a bit later on, classroom objects to the tune of Y Viva España. The first line was:

La regla, el lápiz, el libro y el papel

Ironically I’ve forgotten the rest but the end of each verse was great fun as we went emphatically down the scale:

(1)¡Y el bol-í-gra-fo! (2) ¡Y el peg-a-men-to!

Gracias to www.saveteachersundays.com for reminding me of the vocab.

I was on safer ground with French, so cocky I got my knuckles rapped by senior management when I jazzed up the boring compulsory housekeeping announcements at the beginning of each training session. To the tune of Tea for Two:

En cas de feu, vous descendez

Dans le parking, vous rassemblez

Les WC*, vous trouverez

Tout près…

*pronounced lay-vay-cay

Many resource producers were more adept than me and I’ll be forever grateful to the authors of Français, français for setting an action song about body parts to the Match of the Day theme tune. Even the stroppiest kids took notice when they heard that introduction.

Back to messing about with English. If cheerful songs lend themselves particularly well to pastiche (I’m forever blowing bubbles; Yellow Submarine) so do the most respectable of poems. The first lines of To be or not to be, that is the question… must have been casually adapted by most people at some stage in their lives, with or without apologies to Shakespeare. Browning did us all a favour when he wrote, O to be in England, now that April’s here.. It’s a great leveller when we commoners seize ownership of such classics.  Wikipedia may not crack a smile but the rest of us have fun.

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

Blogger time, and the writing is easy

Words are flowing, and I’m seizing the day

I don’t earn much, and I’m hardly good-looking

But hush little blogger, it’s all okay!

I didn’t have a post but now I’ve winged it, albeit to a fairly random audience which could include writers, readers, singers, teachers, and humans. Also I just uploaded two illustrations from the free selection rather than adding lots of my own (but that may be a good thing). All those silly songs have released something in me and I think I’ll enter some writing competitions next. Which songs and poems get your creative juices going?

©Jessica Norrie 2020

Barcelona, Sombra y Sol

Shade and sun, noise and…not much silence here in London where we still have intermittent NOISE unless I scream at the builders through the walls. For me the sounds were more harmonious last week in Barcelona, so here’s a post about what I’ve heard and seen there, over the years.

Barcelona Jn sol y sombra azules
Sun, shade and building, from Park Guell

I first visited Barcelona in November 1979 with a student friend. Our filthy train rumbled down from Paris for ten hours. We dozed upright and stepped over recumbent bodies in the aisle to get to the unspeakable loo. The track gauge changed at the border so we had to take another even worse train, arriving sleepless with grit filled eyes. We found a room in a narrow alley off the Ramblas, not because it was billed as “quaint” (it wasn’t, then), but because it was cheap. It looked onto a high blank wall about six metres away and the streets were quiet. I wanted to practise my Spanish, which G didn’t speak, but we soon found it was better if he did the talking. The only other females around were nuns and prostitutes, and no-one seemed ready to engage in the friendly dialogues suggested by my phrasebook.Barcelona SF 2 I don’t remember hearing Catalan or English either: people simply didn’t speak in our presence. Probably, under Franco, they’d lost the habit of talking in front of strangers. Their mother tongue, after all, was banned. It rained. The Sagrada Familia was forbidding and silent – no-one was working or visiting under the four completed towers and much of the roof was open to the gloomy sky. There was little money available for the project. Franco had only been dead four years and Catalonia had suffered as much if not more than the rest of Spain. Barcelona was poor, dirty, dreary and dark. We escaped to Sitges, even then a cheerful, bouncy little town with a sunny beach that defied the season.

My next trip was sometime around 2004.  What a difference! Spain had (apparently) shrugged off Franco. The 1992 Olympics had regenerated Barcelona, cleaned up its beaches, replanted its parks. The shops were full and colourful, the people stylish. You could still wander around the “temple” without a guide, but parts were taped off with stonemasons chipping away behind them. The human statues in the Ramblas only jogged into movement when the adjacent ball dribbling exhibition hit them accidentally (or was it?) I watched Almodovar’s La Mala Educación which had just come out, in a showing starting at 10pm and then we went to eat and then the sparkling metro was still running to get me home. Watch out for your purse by the bullring, warned Señora Herrero, my hostess, but I felt quite safe.

Barceloan palau interior
The Palau de la Musica

I returned with my son and his father in 2005. I wanted to see the Palau de la Música, built to celebrate both Catalan and international musical traditions and an Art Nouveau sensation. I wanted to visit the Picasso Museum, where you can see his dashing, respectful variations on Velasquez’s Las Meninas. I wanted to congratulate myself again on how much written Catalan I could understand – by now all signs were bilingual and if you can read French, Spanish or Latin you can decipher Catalan. Robert and his dad went to worship at Camp Nou, and back we all went to the Sagrada Familia. Not much had changed in a year. Health and safety awareness had produced a few more hoardings so work was audible but harder to watch. (Why am I moaning about the builders next door? At least it’s not an unfinished cathedral started 90 years ago.)

We went again last week. I’ve written before about singing, and this trip was Run by Singers giving us the opportunity to sing in the temple! And goodness how it’s come on (the temple, not my singing). The midpoint of construction was reached in 2010 and it’s hoped to finish in 2026, the anniversary of Gaudi’s death (although the pious architect famously said “my client [God] isn’t in a hurry”). There are now eight towers completed of the projected eighteen. The roof is finished, and the stained glass creates glorious changing patterns in the nave, while the internal pillars rise in the shapes of palm trees to a forest canopy of intricate stone. I was relieved the choir stalls are not yet finished, as they’re going to be about 15 vertiginous metres up on three sides, with a screen so that all 1400 potential singers can see the conductor. Meanwhile we sang in a roped off space in the nave and some tourists were good enough to stop and listen. In the evening, we gave a charity concert at an enchanting little theatre in the nearby town of Vilassar. I wonder how many UK towns can boast such a charming performance space?

There was a little time for sightseeing. The Park Guëll was scorching, and to me had changed only in that it was much more crowded. The mosaics that aren’t mosaics (they’re “trincados” and you can try making one yourself next time you smash a plate) were still delightful. I suffered real vertigo on the roof of La Pedrera, but enjoyed the apartment inside and gazpacho at their cafe. The bullring has become a shopping centre since Barcelona banned bullfighting – bravo! But the cherry on the cake was to return to the Palau. This time, the guided tour was much less overtly political, less focussed on Catalan pride and the need to protect and nurture their culture. The glowing Palau spoke for itself, as now do the people, and the tour included 20 minutes of beautifully played Chopin, Liszt, and Mozart. Next time, we must surely sing there!

I’d downloaded books set in the region, referring as ever to the TripFiction website for my choices. But we were too busy. I haven’t touched them. All I can recommend is those I’d read already. George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, about his experiences during the Spanish Civil war, can’t be bettered as an explanation of why 43 years later the Barcelona I saw was still so downtrodden and sinister. The novels of Carlos Ruiz Zafón are mostly set there. I read them in Spanish, in order to practice, which means I’m vague about the content. There were lots of alleyways, dark passages, dusty booksellers and libraries, abandoned railways and gardens with wrought iron gates, mysterious young women, wrinkled grandparents with jewels and sadness, shadows and secrets but the plots eluded me.

Barcelona Montjuic steps
Montjuic

Depending on NOISE, posts over the summer will be intermittent. Maybe I’ll reblog something of someone else’s instead, now I’ve discovered how. Or maybe I’ll leave you all in blissful silence, to browse through some photographs – this time, it was harder than ever to know what to leave out.

Barcelona SF palm trees

Barcelona SF stained glass

Barceklona SF stained glass 2

 

Bracelona JN La P gazpachoHasta luego!

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

Writing about NOISE!

How do you write your blogs? Are your subjects meticulously planned out weeks in advance? Book reviewers structure posts by publication date or genre, gardeners by season, travellers by route. Mine are more random, with the proviso to involve words, reading, writing, language. When I taught, we defined four language skills in order of acquisition: listening which comes long before speaking (think of a baby absorbing and imitating sounds), much later reading and a little after that or concurrently, writing. For an adult, those skills may be conflated or even reversed – most adults feel more comfortable reading than trying to speak, although the phonetic way they do it plays havoc with their pronunciation. And many adults can’t listen.

house 16Anyway, recently, I can’t do any of those. I can’t listen to words or music, because of noise from masonry drills and other power tools. A masonry drill works at between 110-147 decibels, depending whose health and safety advice you read (this is from New Zealand, but we have the same anatomy). A builder using such drills should wear ear protection to reduce (not completely prevent) sudden and irreversible hearing loss. A neighbour of a house which is having its chimney breasts removed has no such protection. She can shut the windows but since the house next door now has no back wall, she’s shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted (noise can confuse a writer: there isn’t now and never was a stable).

I can’t speak because there’s no one else here. My daughter who works from home as a translator has gone to head office in despair. If I phone anyone up they go “What? Pardon? Wh…? You’ll have to speak up! Who?”

33870669I can’t  read because although I’m in the middle of the delightful Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes Hallett, it’s hard to concentrate on the construction of a landscape garden in the 17th century when the china is rattling in the cabinet and it feels like tanks are about to roll onto the sofa. Of course, works then must have been just as disruptive to the locals: a right of way was threatened, bogs were turned into lakes, statues rolled in from Italy on rumbling carts with outwalkers to check the axles didn’t collapse. There were no masonry drills but gunpowder may have been used.

I can’t write. Well, yes, I can. I can write objections to planning applications, requests (unanswered) for notice of dates of especially loud work or the erection of scaffolding next to my bedroom window (which was, to be fair, taken down reasonably promptly), and this moan of a blog post.

I had builders when I moved here. The project expanded, because the house was in a worse state, underneath the pebble dash, than the survey had shown.

house 17
In fact the pebble dash had been holding it together.

But we were not extending beyond or above the existing building line. My builders were jocular, working from about 9.30 to 4pm with lunch breaks. One reason they took over a year was because while I was at work they did other jobs for my new neighbours up and down the road. At weekends they gave us all a break. I lived in the house as the work dragged on, available morning and evening to be complained to, but I didn’t have one complaint. Could be I’m complacent, of course. Could be the households around were all full of wax models of me, and their occupants were busy sticking in pins.

I’m afraid I’m intolerant too. I’ve complained about the new toilet and washing machine and dryer that will rumble against a party wall with my living room. I’ve objected to losing light from my ground floor, views from my kitchen and garden, sunlight for my plants. I’ve objected to the building line of the whole terrace being disrupted by an extension pushing into what was coherent green space (we border a conservation area). A new loft will also disrupt the terrace roof line and three new RSJs will bore into my party wall. I have no formal right to object to this or even to refuse access to my land so the building work can be done. (Many other houses already have standard dormer designs. When those lofts were converted there were appropriate planning regulations keeping them to scale and protecting the environment and neighbours. Such guidelines have now been relaxed so permission is automatic.)

house 15

There are an increasing number of policy makers who would simply say, “Well, it’s property development.” Those who would build on green belt land are among them. Property development is, for some, a virtue in itself and any wound to the environment, to local relationships, to neighbours’ health and homes is simply collateral damage. (Oh, there’s that war metaphor again.) Only time will tell whether the objections of people in the firing line were over-reactions.

The planning application for the ground floor extension was rejected, on the grounds of my objections. Hooray! Now it’s been resubmitted. It will stick out 80cm less, otherwise it’s identical. The time consuming stressful rigmarole of objecting begins again. Sooner or later, one of us will lose. I don’t say one of us will win. Relations are sour. My new novel is, broadly speaking, about communities getting on well. I can’t do any revisions in these circumstances and anyway, I’m inclined to think: sod that. Maybe I’ll turn it into a war novel, immersing myself in ambient bangs, booms and thuds while I have the chance.

noise 2

Ah me, silence is golden. I wrote about it once. Meanwhile I’ll try watching Wimbledon. As an English (wo)man whose castle (house) is under siege, my assaulted brain can only think in clichés: every cloud has a silver lining. The power tools are very loud, but at least they drown out John Inverdale.

©Jessica Norrie 2017

Behind the words, between the lines.

In my post last week on beautiful writing, I said I’d go on to talk about the spaces between words. Now I’m wondering if that was pretentious! However, spaces are the glue that holds words together and deserve attention. We wouldn’t know what cold felt like had we never been warm; we wouldn’t experience joy if we didn’t know sadness: for the contrast between words and spaces it’s likewise. I apologise if this post seems muddled – silence is hard to grasp. But here are some points to consider. (A pause for thought.)

fermata
fermata (a musical pause, over a note or a silence).

The English language is full of references to the spaces in language, and to the silence they offer among the usual blather. Think of expressions like: “between the lines” “behind the words”, “words left unspoken”, “the subtext”, “hidden meanings”, “understatement”, “less is more”, “silence is golden” and “the calm before the storm”.

Is there a parallel with music? In quiet, reflective music such as a Chopin Noctune, or a Satie Gymopédie, each single note is precious. If it was part of a chord, or backed by an orchestra, it would have a different effect on the listener. (If you’re not familiar with these you can look them up on YouTube, where you’ll probably find you do recognize them from meaningful moments in the cinema.) Or from different musical genres, think of syncopation, or  tango. Without that tiny pause before the upbeat, the message would be entirely different. Personally, I don’t like rap music or poetry much, although they’re very clever. I think it’s because there aren’t enough spaces in which my brain can process what I’ve heard, so I feel rather battered. (I could just be too old.)

fermata 2
notation for musical rests

Think how, in music of any genre, the pauses (over notes or silences) and silent beats are written in. It’s no coincidence they’re called “rests”. They have concrete form so musicians can locate and acknowledge them, and the symbols themselves are beautiful calligraphy.

Somewhere between music and prose lies poetry. Here are some lines, as printed, from   “[in Just-]” by e. e. cummings:

cummings
e.e.cummings, 73 Poems, Faber 1961

it’s

spring
and
         the
                  goat-footed
balloonMan          whistles

I rest my case.

But now, prose. I remember from my teaching days how infant children just learning to write usually don’t leave spaces between their words. (They don’t pause between words when they’re first learning to read, either.) One method of teaching them is to have them put their finger at the end of the word they’ve just written and start the next word on the other side of it – a physical “finger space”. Some pick it up quickly and the fingers are no longer needed. Others take a couple of years.
finger

Unless they have a specific learning difficulty or have been abused or neglected, children learn to use separate words orally in a phenomenal number of different combinations according to need, by the time they start school. Yet they don’t naturally “hear” the spaces on the page without being taught. They understand individual words have meaning (we know this because they ask, “What does that word mean?”) but not, it seems, that groups of words without spaces have none. If you ask a child to read back their unspaced writing, they can’t, and if you allow them to continue reading a printed story without stopping for spaces and punctuation (as apparently fluent young readers do naturally), they can’t tell you what happened in it.

ValerieAs we grow up, we grasp all this. However, there are still many adults who don’t paragraph, which is related. And I’m shocked at the moment, as I wade through Fay Weldon’s “Death of A She-Devil“, to  find the dialogue neither indented nor spaced horizontally. Presumably this was an editorial – or the author’s – decision, but, as an aging visually challenged she devil myself, it makes it very hard to tell who’s saying what or to want to continue reading much longer (other factors may be at work there too). Goodness knows how it appears on Kindle. Speaking of which, there is now evidence that readers (adult and child) retain less of what they read on screens than in print and paper books, and it’s thought that may be partly to do with left/right eye movements across the page (or the opposite in certain scripts), and with physical positioning and layout on the page. Anyone who has tried scrolling back through an ebook for something they could easily have located in the print version will support that theory.

My post seems to have turned into one about punctuation or formatting, rather than the airier theme I started with. But I think they are related. As an author, I read aloud what I’ve written to see how it sounds, and I care deeply about how it presents on the page, because that’s part of the composition. There’s a certain kind of florid, vocabulary strewn writing that done well can be wonderful (think Dickens, Balzac) but those of us with a lesser grasp of our craft are rightly advised to aim for economy, clean, clear prose, no wasted words, tautology or irrelevance, plain punctuation and sentence structure. Stage writing, which has to get its point across immediately, without a second chance, each speech leading on from the one before and clearing the way for what will follow, is often a good model, and you can see the spaces more clearly: they’re when a character turns round, paces up and down, pours a drink, or makes a face.

Chekhov was a master. When I was about 10 I asked my parents what they’d seen at the theatre while we had the indignity of a “babysitter”, and I remember our dialogue, perhaps because it was so spare.

143513“We saw a play about three sisters who live in the country,”  my mother said.

“What happens to them?”

“Not very much. They want to go to Moscow.”

“Do they get there?”

“No.”

 I understood why this non situation made The Three Sisters (first published 1900) great drama on seeing it when I was older. Through spare statements  and laconic answers, a simple drawing room staging and quiet costumes and gestures, Chekhov transmits social history, universal emotions of love and grief and boredom and disappointment, the position of women and that of the impoverished landed gentry in a Russia that was about to explode. His plays still command full houses around the world.

41qfuzbgl-l-_sx325_bo1204203200_A comment last week suggested Dorothy Parker as a source of beautiful prose. Her satire is clipped, funny, and not a word longer than necessary, but it’s a more serious  short story that I’m unable to forget. In “Soldiers of the Republic”, she’s in a Spanish cafe with a group of friends when they get talking with some soldiers who are fighting in the Civil War. They discuss hardship, poverty, violence, tragedy, and how the men miss their families. When they get up to leave after a long session in the cafe, they signal the waiter for the bill. “He came, but he only shook his head and his hand, and moved away.” The last line, stark in its own paragraph, reads simply: “The soldiers had paid for our drinks.

The 1965 novel “Stoner” was rediscovered in 2006 and fêted for its spare prose. It simply tells a story, a simple story of a man to whom very little happens beyond the ordinary setbacks and irritations of everyday middle class, middle income life. (Greetings, Chekhov). I couldn’t put it down. Some reviewers see quietness as a lack of intensity and think at first they can take it or leave it, until the subtleties intrigue them and they’re hooked: see this recent blog post on the work of Olivia Manning. I must return to her…and I must also return to a metaphorical exploration in a more exciting story: the Rose Tremain novel of 2001,”Music and Silence“. Yet how laden with verbosity this brilliant novel is, compared to her masterpiece of last year, The Gustav Sonata.

Erich would like to teach history – to get to the truth of things.” Tremain tells us nothing more about how, why, when Erich would like to teach history. She just tells us he thinks it will lead to the truth of things. She knows, and we know, in post-truth 2017, it will only at best lead to the subjective truth of whoever has chosen or been coerced into recording and interpreting history, and because we know that, we also know that it’s a misguided wish made by a person who won’t have the knowledge or the means to achieve it. All that can be read into the spaces between and the silence behind the simple, clear words.

So as well as the words themselves, space, and silence – the spaces between words, the silence between the notes – are what make these works so special. The principle applies whatever the medium: The Crown (Netflix) was such a success not in spite of but because of its slowness, the unfashionably long duration of its scenes, allowing the watcher to appreciate the quality of the acting and digest and react to what was happening (providing time for wonder too: it’s got to be good acting if I can sympathise with Prince Philip and want the series to continue so I can “see what happens next” even though, of course, I know). Recently I re-watched the 1960s BBC Forsyte Saga on DVD: as a colleague commented, “It was so slow you could hear Irene’s dress rustling when she turned around.” And that gave you time to reflect on what had brought Irene to the scene and to anticipate what might follow. Nowadays all the thinking work is done for you, by the directors, the stylists, the camera crew. The 2002 version with Gina McKee and Damian Lewis wasn’t bad. If they remake it this decade it will probably be interactive. But will the dress rustle as Irene keeps her counsel?

I was fortunate last month to see Madame Butterfly at Covent Garden, with Ermenela Jaho. Forget Callas, she was too feisty. Jaho sings Butterfly so quietly, with such care. Even the highest notes are discreet, as though she’s already left us, but perfect. The rapt audience drinks in every resigned gesture accompanying the pure sound. The recording included in the link above doesn’t do Jaho justice: you needed to be in a huge, fully booked theatre craning forward in communal silence to witness her subdued desperation. It takes years of technique to make so little noise so perfectly, and I would say the same of O’Brien’s writing and that of Ishiguro, Kate Atkinson, Hilary Mantel and the other writers I’ve cited above. Turn off social media, close the curtains, and immerse yourself. When you have fully rested, please let me know what you chose.

 ©Jessica Norrie 2017

In praise of beautiful writing

Such an obvious thing and so easy to overlook: stories and books are composed of words so it’s the words that matter most. In these days of unreliable heroines, bodies eviscerated in infinitely revolting ways, and rush-to-the-finish plots, what a refreshing pleasure it is to be greeted by an author who won’t let you pass on by without stopping to admire her words. And having paused, you find yourself re-reading and reciting them to benefit fully from the careful cadences.

25064563This week I’ve been reading Edna O’Brien’s The Little Red Chairs. I haven’t finished it yet, I’m not even half way through. I’m on a walking tour through musical Irish prose and I’m in no hurry for it to end. The plot is important, she makes that quite clear, and so far it has included many different ideas as well as events, with first hints and then revelations of domestic betrayals and terrible, true war crimes. But I’ll consider the plot as a whole when I reach the end. For now I’m lingering in the language.

Note: I started writing this when I’d read about a hundred pages. I read some more this morning, and O’Brien has jolted me back into the plot with a twist more shocking than I’d anticipated. Interestingly, now I’m propelled by events, I’m not finding the language so engaging. Nonetheless for those hundred pages I was enraptured by words as mesmerising as waves breaking onto the shore. Since they’re what I set out to look at, they’re what I’ll continue with for now.

Some of her language is poetic; these lines occur within just four pages:

“Clouds chased each other across the heavens that bright afternoon, when she drove into the hotel car park. It was much further south and the air was balmy. Yes, clouds on a great maraud, up there staging a tournament.”

“…she heard the lilts and hollers of children.”

“From the slant of the hall light she saw the spray of rain on his hair…”

Some is indirect speech, rhythms and phrases caught in the present tense like pinned butterflies:

“Sister Bonaventure is lost for words and also worried about the palpitations. She can hardly believe it. A surprise party and she thinking she was going to the chapel to say the rosary.”

Some is fierce: “As for the bodies, that was a matter for the engineers, hence the zillions of secret graves that litter our land.”

“He is all alone (…) with the frozen lostness of the abandoned.”

Such care taken: active  “clouds on a great maraud” where most would settle for “marauding clouds”; an “also” added to Sister Bonaventure’s worries, mirroring her speech and also echoing the sounds of the word “lost” that preceded it; “zillions” – I thought, is zillions a real number? Is it childhood slang for a massive uncountable amount beyond thinking and reason? Juxtapose “zillions” with engineering projects to create “secret graves” and you see how naivete and carelessness, attractive attributes in childhood, can lead adults to genocide. I’m still only a couple of pages further on, and the pickings are rich. Yes, words on a great maraud, staging a festival between the covers.

15790829
See “Country Girl” for O’Brien’s own account of her writing and her life.

I don’t have the patience to take such care crafting my own prose. I didn’t start writing, like Edna O’Brien, in my late teens and I haven’t nearly reached my late eighties, and even if I’d had her time, it’s unlikely I’d have developed her skill. I do try to write well. I try to construct clear sentences, of varying length for interest, with one appropriate word instead of a blitz of six. I try to make them lead on from the one before, without unnecessary length or repetition or cliché. Unlike O’Brien, I haven’t spent a lifetime listening, adapting, honing and polishing, consorting with Marianne Faithful and Marlon Brando and undergoing therapy with R D Laing, interviewing terrorists and piling up literary prizes in the bulging trophy cupboard. Nonetheless, I – we all – can learn from her.

In this matter of cadence, what makes a beautiful sentence? For O’Brien, her Irish heritage provides a sound (in all senses of the word) foundation. “Lilting Irish” is a cliché, but clichés only come into being because they are true. So much Irish prose, poetry  and song does lilt – but lilting implies lulling and Irish writers inevitably go on to pack in a shock. Think of Yeats’ first lines: “Although I’d lie lapped up in linen”; “I think it better that in times like these”; “On the grey sand beside the shallow stream” – then look up what comes after. Think of Beckett, Molly Keane, Toibin, Boyne, Anne Enright…no, I’ll think of them for another post, on Irish writing, another time.

The Irish are front runners but often the language of a title signposts a book from elsewhere whose language will stop you in your tracks: “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller” (Italo Calvino), (as beguiling in translation as in Italian); “After Leaving Mr MacKenzie” (Jean Rhys)“If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things” (Jon McGregor); “By Grand Central Station I Sat  Down and Wept” (Elizabeth Smart). (Note how many of these titles start with what is now inflexibly labelled a “connective” in school English teaching.) Or the effect could be gained from something as small as a comma: “Cry, the Beloved Country” (Alan Paton). These elegiac titles precede lyrical prose, while economical, clean, precise writing may be heralded by a single powerful word: Persuasion (Jane Austen); Futility (William Gerhardie); Atonement (Ian McKewan).

 

Exposure (Helen Dunmore), which I reviewed here, also has a one-word title announcing gleaming prose. Dunmore is of course a poet as well as a novelist, her words as thoughtfully arranged, selected and refused as in her verse – test any page by reading a paragraph aloud. Another of my favourite writers, Julian Barnes, has written extensively of his debt to Gustave Flaubert. 10746542Nobody took more care with prose than Flaubert, who would spend weeks on a single sentence and coined the term “le mot juste” which ecompasses infinitely more meaning than the translation, “the right word”. In my review of The Noise of Time, I discuss how Barnes uses language to make the reader stop, and think.  Incidentally (but perhaps it’s not incidental) good prose can be more successfully re imagined in other media: the recent film of Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending is concise, clear, meaningful, allowing the reader/viewer space for reflection, as are the successful film versions of McEwan’s novels.

This was a small reflection on words. I could go on, but I’d like to hear examples that you have found beautiful, and we can take a moment to share them. Perhaps as well as the words themselves, space, and silence – the spaces between words, the sounds between the notes – are what make these works so special. I think I’ll look at that next time.

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

Happy Blogiversary to me!

Blogiversay cake 2.3I didn’t know the word “blogiversary” existed last year, and now I’m having one myself! Strictly speaking my first post went up on April 9th 2016, but since then I’ve established a pattern of book and writing related blogging every Friday. This is the closest Friday, so I hope you’ll join my celebration by entering my draw for one of four giveaways:

510glyvrrdlGiveaways 1 & 2!

Two paperback copies of “The Infinity Pool” for the winners of those who comment below (UK only, for postage reasons, sorry).

 

Giveaway 3! This costs me nothing but time and I’m sure I’ll find it interesting. I’m offering a critique of a piece of writing up to 2000 words (open to writers worldwide but note my usage is UK.)

You could submit the opening  of a novel, a short story, an academic essay, a book review, a blog post, a presentation text, a persuasive letter, a memoir – whatever you like. I’ll comment on coherence, structure, readability, style and content (unless it’s academic or technical). I’ll check grammar, usage, punctuation, and spelling. I’ll do this using the tracking programme in Word. It doesn’t have to be something you’ve written already, any time in the next 12 months will do. (I aim to get these critiques done by email within a month of receiving your writing, and I reserve the right not to enter into further discussion afterwards unless we both want to.)

Giveaway 4! I’m offering a similar critique of a piece of writing up to 1000 words.

Blogiversary cake 1.1

What are my credentials? Well, I studied European Literature at Sussex University. As a teacher I marked work  – all ages, right across the curriculum – for 33 years! I wrote articles back in the day for DC Thompson magazines, and I’m a qualified translator. I’ve written successful academic essays and dissertations, and many papers, reports and policies for my teacher training work. I’ve published a novel and a textbook for primary schools. I write this blog, if you want to explore my own writing style further, and I’m working on a second novel.

For Giveaways 1,2,3 and 4 please comment below to win. Please state in your comment whether you’d like the book (UK only) or one of the writing critiques (anywhere). Please comment before midday (UK!) on Friday 14th 2017.

Also – a near Giveaway!The Infinity Pool ebook is on a countdown deal on Amazon UK and US, from Saturday (midnight UK) for 7 days to midnight (UK) on Friday 14th. Your chance to read (and review please?) for only 99p or whatever they decide is the equivalent across the pond.

anniversary-2x

So – the blog’s a year old, I’ve written nearly 60 weekly/occasional posts or around 60,000 words, and three weeks ago I was nominated for a Blogger Recognition Award! I’ve saved it for today’s celebration. The lovely blogger who nominated me is Marlena at Fabulous Fusions, who I found when I was researching Punjabi customs for the novel I’m writing at present. She’s in a mixed race marriage with a multilingual child and after my career teaching such families I want to celebrate them as much as she does. I found useful information on her site but also much more – diversity, connectivity, tolerance, open mindedness, the future – everything the UK so badly needs right now. It’s typical of her generosity that she nominated me for my first award. Do visit her blog for yourselves.

Below is the award in the form she gave me (top left), and some of the other forms I’ve found on Google. If someone holds the copyright, let me know! I have tried to find out…

It was appropriate Marlena’s award turned up so close to me completing my first year, as the questions you have to answer (if you decide to take part – nothing’s compulsory) lead you to reflect on why, what, how, who, when, etc. Here goes:

How and why did I start the blog? Kicking and screaming! I’d published The Infinity Pool in July 15 and it had sold quite well, but 10 months in interest was tailing off and I was finding social media time consuming, stressful and random. You have to blog to maintain interest and build an audience, said Amazon. You have to blog, said Goodreads. You have to blog, said Writers and Artists, and the Alliance of Independent Authors, and Books Go Social. Blogging is great, said Book Connectors. More social media, I thought. But maybe I could control the way I used it better if I held some of the cards.

I knew I didn’t want to concentrate on book reviews, because I like to choose what I read and read it at my own pace and I don’t always want to comment on it. I do like to write, but was disheartened: I’d started a few second novels and chucked them at around 10,000 words. I thought a blog might unblock me. Regular, shorter, less intense assignments, snacks rather than a three course dinner. Also, I have opinions and it struck me this was a way of recording them. So I stopped kicking and screaming, and began composing (and deleting).

tennis player 2How’s it going now? I was still teaching until July, and my highest viewings were around May and June for arguments against SATs (won that one this week, it seems!) and discussion of how children learn to read and write. A couple of posts on Shakespeare boosted my ratings, and my posts on a trip to Japan are still being shared 6 months later. I’ve written about narrative, via tennis, mosaics, and packing a suitcase; I’ve written about diversity in teaching, society, literature and my own writing; I’ve begged the UK not to leave Europe (lost that one!) I’ve discussed children’s books and feminist writing, writing in translation and songwriting and I’ve wrestled with the Three Edded Monster.

I take my hat off to those who blog every day. Once a week is more than enough for me. I love the writing part, and sourcing illustrations is really creative. Sometimes I draw them myself, which has revived a pastime I hadn’t tried for decades. Sometimes they involve bizarre montages. I can always think of something to write, even if occasionally an idea only occurs as my Friday deadline hits the letter d. I’ve built a modest audience, I’d like to see it increase but who’d have thought a year ago I’d have one at all?

In particular I’ve made online contact with some incredibly kind and generous people, who regularly comment, sometimes repost, and are always encouraging and interested. I know I don’t return this enough and can only plead lack of time, as the blog has done what I wanted it to do and unblocked the second novel, now well under way.

child writing edited

Advice to new bloggers

Take time to choose a theme, font size and colours that are clear to read. The biggest turn off for me is something I have to peer at to decipher.

Keep posts reasonably short and edit, edit, edit. Break up text with images.

Check copyright on images and words very carefully indeed before you use them. If you keep it original you’ll know you’re safe.

Respond to other bloggers who show an interest. They are the key to increasing your audience! And most of them have very interesting blogs too.

My nominations

I’m nominating these fellow bloggers for the Blogger Recognition Award. Most of the blog titles are self explanatory. I ‘ve tried for a selection of smaller and larger, individual and group blogs. I hope those I have included will be pleased, but if not, just ignore it! If anyone feels unjustly left out, please comment and I’ll link to you in a future post.

blogger-recognition-award1The Daily Annagram – occasionally offensive, always very funny. Anna takes no prisoners!

Crafting Your Novel  …as it says on the tin

blogger-recognition-awardThe Writers Newsletter…this tin says it all too

Pamreader  A book reviewer with more challenges than many

Bookalicious – books and travel from a travelling bookworm

Tanya Cliff: “The Quill That Shatters Glass”

thelearnify-3Books from Dusk till Dawn – see the tin!

Morgan Hazelwood:Writer in progress – as she says

Julie Proudfoot a helpful and stylish Australian writer

 

bloggerrecognitionawardBooksandbeyondreviews.com I especially enjoy his Friday Face Off series comparing different book covers

Cathyreadsbooks Has a number of different angles on working in the book trade, writing, and reading

Olga  Núñez Translator and writer

blogger_recognition_award_1025x853D.G.Kaye US author, traveller and blogger

Annabelle Franklin children’s author

Jude Lennon children’s author and one time classroom colleague of mine!

blogger-recognition-award-badge1Tina Frisco the most positive voice in the blogosphere

Brit Fic Posts by contemporary British authors

Oh dear, that’s 17. Never mind – do check out their blogs. All of them are different, yet all of them very interesting.

If you accept this nomination (you don’t have to):

  • Thank the blogger who nominated you and provide links to their blog.
  • Write a post to show you have the award and attach the logo to your post.
  • Write a brief story of how your blog started.
  • Give a piece of advice to new bloggers.
  • Select 15 other blogs you want to give the award to (I notice some people do fewer than 15, if that seems too many. I thought it was at first but look what happened!)
  • Comment on each blog and let them know you have nominated them. Please don’t be offended if they decide not to mention it on their blog or make any awards of their own as it is entirely up to them what they put on on their blogs and when, and your award may not fit with their plans.

Thank you Marlena one more time for my own nomination – I was very touched.

Congratulations to all new nominees!

Jessica

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

Northern Lights

Here’s a very short book quiz:

  1. In which country is 10% of the population a published author?
  2. In which country did 4 million adults not read a single book for enjoyment in 2013?
  3. And in which of the two above did more than half the country’s population read at least eight books a year, with the most popular Christmas present a book?

The good news, on behalf of the British book trade, readers, non readers, children, adults, English speakers and others, Christmas celebrants and those with other faiths or none, is that the Jolabokaflod Book Campaign aims to learn from Iceland, represented by numbers 1 and 3 with the UK in between. The campaign says: Essentially, we want to inspire people to discover – and rediscover – a love of reading for pleasure.

Last night it was my pleasure to attend their gala party at the Café Royal. First, I learned how to pronounce Jol – a – bok – a – flod, more or less as written, the faster the better. Even in Brexitland familiarity gets our tongues round Djokovic, Pocahontas and tagliatelle bolognese with ease, so I disagreed with the guest who said it was too complicated. Especially once we unpack the meaning which is, roughly, Christmas Book Flood.

jola-bokafold

Icelandic author Hallgrímur Helgason describes the tradition thus: Jolabokaflod … is the nicest of Icelandic traditions. It may always have existed … since we have been saga-nerds for a thousand years, but it acquired its current form in the Post-War Years. When people had little money and even fewer things to buy … locally made books became the perfect Christmas present. Publishers went with the flow, a tradition was born, and ever since, almost all Icelandic fiction and most of the non-fiction is published in the month of November.

For the authors, it’s a bit of a horse race. You can almost hear people calling: ‘Let the games begin!’ and ‘May the best book win!’

“Saga-nerds!” Eat your heart out, Dr Who!

jola-catalogTo quote the website: “every year since 1944, the Icelandic book trade has published a catalogue – called Bókatíðindi (Book Bulletin, in English) – that is sent to every household in the country in mid-November.” (Meanwhile we get flyers from Tesco.) “People use the catalogue to order books to give friends and family for Christmas.…gifts are opened on 24 December and, by tradition, everyone reads the books they have been given straight away, often while drinking hot chocolate or alcohol-free Christmas ale called jólabland.”

Jol(a?) – Yule. Bland – a drink without alcohol. Icelandic’s a doddle. You can practise huddled on your sofa during those Icelandic noir series on BBC4 – Case, or Trapped.

A feature I especially liked is the emphasis on books as a personal gift. In Iceland, when giving a book you give something of yourself, and subsequently it’s expected that you’ll ask how the recipient got on with it. The UK JBC (sorry to abbreviate, my heroine wants me to save my typing strength for the novel) has its work cut out. “Oh, aren’t books lovely! What a shame you can’t really give them as presents!” When I overheard that in Foyles recently, the assistants and fellow customers were all too British and discreet to shout: “Oh yes, you CAN!”

The JBC issues a Book Bulletin, funded through Crowdpatch. You make book recommendations with a donation, and at the same time inform JBC of any URL you wish to promote (for a book, product, service, blog etc). They feature your recommendation and promotion together. You can also start a “patch” to fund any “campaigns that encourage people in communities … to buy books to give to friends and family for reading during a special event...”. The scope reaches way beyond the book trade to education, activism, chaitable and cultural provision and more.My understanding is that it continues year long, not just at Christmas.

jola-chris
Christopher Norris

How did I get involved? Well, book traders have always been networkers. One of first and best was Martyn Goff, Booker Prize administrator and National Book League director, who died in 2015.I went to represent my late father Ian, also a “bookman” as they were once known, at his memorial service, where I met Christopher Norris, who was instrumental in setting up World Book Day and now JBC. Martyn was still networking from beyond the grave, getting me invited as a result to the sort of book trade event he and my father used regularly to attend. (It was a special pleasure to meet Suzanne Collier from Book Careers who remembered them.) Christopher was an efficient, genial and informative host and my agent Bill and I had a wonderful evening for which many thanks are due.

jola-lamp
The Lumio lamp

Drinks flowed and delicious canapés were served in traditional style, but there was also state of the art photography (not my pictures here!) by Christina Jansen, glorious husky singing by Eckoes, and a draw for two extraordinary book lamps by Lumio, JBC’s sponsors. They’re stocked in London at the British Library and the Conran Shop, and I need to write a bestseller fast, because I didn’t win one. (If you have friends in Australia, you could help crowd fund my book lamp by telling them my own first novel The Infinity Pool is on an Amazon monthly deal there until February 28th.You can read about the ups and downs the first time it went on Aussie promotion here.)

Another sponsor, The Cuckoo Club, provided generous hospitality for an after party, but this Cinderella needed to be fresh enough today for blogging and lip service to my demanding heroine-in-progress. She kept me on track last week; that lamp is in my sights.

For the last word, back to Hallgrímur Helgason: Thanks to the Jolabokaflod, books still matter in Iceland, they get read and talked about. Excitement fills the air. Every reading is crowded, every print-run is sold. Being a writer in Iceland you get rewarded all the time: People really do read our books, and they have opinions, they love them or they hate them. At the average Christmas party people push politics and the Kardashians aside and discuss literature. ‘His last book was so boring, but this one’s just great!’

In Iceland book lives matter in every sense of that phrase: The shelf-life of the book, the lives in the book, the life of the writer and the life of the reader. 

 

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

How well do you know your characters?

An author of fiction must inhabit the world of their characters convincingly. But how far may they travel from their own experience to do so?

Clearly, authors of fantasy and science fiction have the most leeway. Nobody can know what it’s really like to be an imaginary creature, an alien or someone/something from the future. Authors of historical novels must make an imaginative leap fuelled by as much accurate research as possible. But how about those of us writing contemporary fiction? Can men write as women, gay people as heterosexuals, white people as Asians or Africans, the British as Poles or able bodied writers as those with a disability? Can Ian McKewan write as an unborn child? (Of course that is an experience we’ve all had, and it seems from the reviews  that he can.)

globe-2

A fellow author recently posted in an online forum that she had been taken to task in an Amazon review thus: “You are unbelievable as an adolescent black girl from the South“. It’s one of only 2 poor reviews out of 66 excellent ones for a prize winning book that involved many years of research, but it concerned her. It’s clear from her Amazon page and other reviews that she had thought deeply about her right to tell the story, but the reviewer’s complaint worried me too, as I’m currently writing my second novel set in East London (UK). It would hardly reflect the location if I didn’t include many different ethnicities, so I have to speak in their voices. Previously, in The Infinity Pool, I didn’t find the voice of a young girl from a rural Mediterranean community a problem and no one (yet) has suggested I’ve got it wrong. But are a Punjabi grandmother who grew up in India, a Hong Kong Chinese father and a Somali single mother who came to the UK as a toddler steps too far for this middle class, solvent white woman? Having taught in multicultural schools for 33 years, I thought I knew their user groups well, but now I’m stepping inside their homes and their heads, and there is a scary amount of scope for accidentally giving offence, misrepresenting or simply promulgating stereotypes. At times I think I’ll give up, but I have my story, and my teaching experience, and I don’t want to waste either of them.

In one area I looked at, I found at least two YA authors who’d overcome my reservations. Here’s a 51ch1bjotslmale author in the voice of a Somali girl who is about to be cut, and a white female author in the voice of one who manages to avoid it. Do they sound authentic? It would take a Somali woman to tell you, but the stories were vivid, compelling and exciting. Cutting is not a major theme in my novel, but in the course of checking assumptions about my own Somali character, I did background research and found UNICEF reports showing the almost universal prevalence of FGM in Somalia has only dropped by 2% in recent years despite all the efforts to oppose it. (In other countries campaigns have been more successful, as they have among Somali families in the UK.) I asked one such campaigner whether white western authors should attempt to speak in the voice of somebody whose experience is so far removed from their own. Her reply was that given the lack of success on the ground her colleagues now look to writing and journalism to change hearts and minds. Fiction may put the case where other means have failed. But of course, the fiction must be well written, well researched (and available, but that’s another story).51mrzlcrrml-_sy346_

So why have doubts? Let’s consider these scenarios: men writing as women and vice versa; parents writing as childless adults and the other way round; adults writing as or for children; social drinkers writing as alcoholics, healthy people as invalids; vegetarians writing as meat eaters; humans (well obviously) writing as animals? Some of these sound ridiculous: of course writers should tackle such challenges. If we only write about ourselves, there would be even more navel gazing white dinner party novels than the indigestible number there already are. But may I, a solvent, educated white middle class woman write in the voice of a refugee on an overloaded boat somewhere off the coast of Greece? May I write in the voice of a prisoner despite a parking ticket being my biggest ever brush with authority, or in the voice of a doctor even though I failed chemistry O level? I think I’ve decided yes, if I write convincingly, do my research, avoid stereotypes and above all if those people are necessary to my story. (Although they could also be bystanders, mentioned just to acknowledge they exist, so the default model for fictional characters isn’t white, middle class, able bodied, hetero…) There, problem solved. I’ll get on with it.

But then I read The Good Immigrant, a collection of essays by BAME writers in the UK, recently featured on BBC Radio 4. This is timely, entertaining, angry and should be compulsory reading for…everyone. Do you get stopped at airports? Searched when waiting at a bus stop? Have you had a headscarf ripped from your head as you go to buy a sandwich? Won all the school prizes, graduated with first class honours, and still not been shortlisted for a job unless you change your name? Do you never see yourself reflected on a screen or in a book, or if you are, only as a stereotype (minicab driver, terrorist, arranged bride)? You probably know actors no longer “black up” to play Othello nowadays, but did you know “yellowface” is still in common use? These writers are angry with reason. They want to be portrayed in all kinds of media, but they don’t want to be portrayed as stereotypes (I must take very good care) or with tokenism (I mustn’t use “namaste” as a shortcut to showing how well I understand people of Indian ethnic origin). Above all they want to be portrayed as everyday characters whose ethnicity is incidental and who do not have to win Olympic gold medals or have their skins lit like Beyoncé’s to be an acceptable part of UK society.

61twx2rf9vlI saw what they meant about stereotypes and authenticity when I looked at the time scale for my novel. A digression will illustrate the point. I do not follow any religion (an idea the children I taught almost unanimously found appalling). But my family celebrate Christmas, in that we eat special food and drink a lot, buy presents, spend £35+ on a pot plant that we throw away two weeks later, and give more money to charity than at other times of year. Now imagine a novel with my family in it, set in December, that didn’t mention Christmas. Or imagine one that does, but gets fundamentals slightly wrong: Midnight Mass on Boxing Day, for example, or Father Christmas driving a sleigh pulled by ponies. These are the pitfalls I face if I write about “other” cultures – which I have been conditioned to think of as “other” even when I mean third, fourth generation “immigrants” who speak English better than I do. Mistakes that wouldn’t be noticed by some readers could well be offensive to others, and add to the pile of examples of “host country” ignorance. For that reason I’ve moved my six week long story to a year when it doesn’t fall during either the important Muslim festival of Eid-al-Adha or the important Hindu festival of Diwali (and yes, I do know Eid moves around the year). That way it makes sense that I barely mention them AND I avoid the pitfalls of getting details wrong. Of course, much other daily background detail remains and must be researched and referred to, both in the sense that it’s the same as for the majority community and for where it differs. But what do I mean, majority community? The parents of over 90% of children I taught in East London ticked a box other than White UK on their entry forms, and among that 90% around 25 different languages were spoken. There was no clear majority.

What if I get something as fundamental as names wrong? Somali women do not take their husband’s surnames (although now, in the UK, some do). Bhangra is not the only music Sikhs enjoy (and maybe some Sikhs don’t). Hong Kong has rural areas as well as the twinkling skyscrapers we all associate with it. Is Gulab Jamun a Bengali sweet or a Gujarati one? (Perhaps it’s both.) And the grandmother – what will her grandchildren call her?

Will every moment of every day be informed for my characters by their ethnicity? Here’s Bim Adewunmi In The Good Immigrant: “Here’s what black people do: we breathe air, we drink water and we fart noxious gasses, just like other people. Our hopes and dreams are similar, and alongside the various hardships we may suffer because of the way we look or where we come from, we largely do the same things – and that includes all the frivolous things too.” On the other hand will it not be? Himesh Patel writes: “In discovering so much about how my family arrived here in the UK, I discovered how rich their story is with the culture and traditions of their homeland, but at its core it’s a universal story about love and life.” In the shoes of my characters, would I be in fear of racism, or hate and despise it, or fight back against it, or not actually experience it much? globe-1There is one way I can respond. It’s true I’ve never experienced racism, but, having lived and travelled abroad, I have come across xenophobia – not so serious, but it may give an inkling. And there’s a better parallel. I am female, so I do know what it’s like to walk into a public social place and not see anyone else like me there (less so nowadays but that used to be true of all pubs and bars, and it was very intimidating). I do know how it feels to walk down a dark street and hear footsteps behind and think they may be those of an attacker. I have been on the receiving end of hatred and aggression, derision and disgust, purely because of the body I was born with.

And so I’m going to take the plunge, and write my Somali single mum, my Punjabi grandmother and my father born in Hong Kong. They will, after all, only be characters in fiction. They will not represent the entirety of their culture, any more than I represent the entirety of mine. The story is about family relationships and relationships with the school the children go to, before it’s about ethnicity. It’s just that – hooray! – I can’t write a London based story nowadays, with an all white cast, or even with a white majority. (I wonder what Dickens would have made of it?) I’ll give Himesh Patel the last word: “My heritage, while inherently linked to my ethnicity, only makes up part of the role I play in society – day to day I’m just another face in the multicultural population of twenty-first century Britain.”

©Jessica Norrie 2016

My kind of Shakespeare

Every so often a new Shakespeare Companion comes along. If you’re like me you’ll have had times in your life when Shakespeare’s appeared on your stage a lot, and times when you’re Shakespeare-lite – very young children put an end to theatre going for a while, for example, but as they grew up it seemed as important to tell them about Shakespeare as it was to go swimming and encourage playing a musical instrument. 61o9iu2bugfl-_sx394_bo1204203200_The Shakespeare companion my parents gave me was Twenty Tales from Shakespeare which amazingly is still available from secondhand booksellers. It had Richard Burton in moody black and white on the front cover, and gave succinct plot summaries with well chosen quotes from the most popular plays. For my children I bought Marcia William‘s beautiful comic strip versions, and found it did me no harm before seeing a play to sneak a quick plot update or remind myself of a juicy scene or speech to look out for.

Apart from luxuriating in the beauty and appositeness  of the language, we all use Shakespeare for our own ends. He helped me defend school children earlier this year, against the reductive iniquity of SATs testing. (I may call him out soon on the Remain side.) He provides quotes for politicians (of all types, unfortunately), and backs up war leaders (think how Churchill used Henry V for propaganda in World War II). He gives a voice to women’s equality: currently London has Harriet Walter as Prospero and Glenda Jackson as King Lear. He could keep A level English publishers going single handed; most of us have old annotated copies on our shelves. (Hoping I don’t sound too nerdy, it’s worth the effort deciphering Shakespeare and fast becomes an enjoyment in itself.) He’s even there for culturally philistine profiteers, among the highest selling tea towel/fridge magnet/iphone covers in the UK tourist industry. (Unverified data, btw.)

Last week I was reading the newest companion to join the group, Beth Miller’s For the Love of Shakespeare. There’s the usual content: simplified plots, nutshell summaries, the words and phrases Shakespeare gave to English, the debate about sources and authorship, different interpretations people have given down the ages  from all cultures and in all languages and media. What I liked best were the interviews with people who work with Shakespeare, and so with her permission I’ve taken her questions and interviewed myself. I hope it inspires you to interview YOURselves too.

What was your switch-on moment?

Aged about nine, I had a beautiful book called Shakespeare’s Flowers which is still in print (an excellent Christmas gift). It contained part of the fairy’s speech from A Midsummer Night’s Dream with a detailed illustration of a cowslip. At the risk of stereotyping little girls, it had everything one could want: gold, jewels, flowers, fairies, dewdrops…

shakespeare-cowslip
Cowslip page from “Shakespeare’s Flowers”

 …I do wander everywhere
 Swifter than the moon’s sphere.
 And I serve the fairy queen
 To dew her orbs upon the green.
 The cowslips tall her pensioners be.
 In their gold coats spots you see.
 Those be rubies, fairy favors.
 In those freckles live their savors.
 I must go seek some dewdrops here
 And hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear…
I learnt it by heart!

Which is your favourite of Shakespeare’s plays?

The Merchant of Venice. I grew up in North London. All my school friends were Jewish; most had lost their grandparents in the Holocaust. When I was 11, my parents took me to see an elderly Laurence Olivier as Shylock and took care to explain the play need not be seen as anti semitic if you listen to Shylock’s great speech: I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.

Here’s a long aside: my father kept a file of notes on every play he ever saw in his life, and clearly didn’t think as highly of the performance as I did. But then he’d seen Olivier as a young screen idol at the height of his powers.

MERCHANT OF VENICE,THE, by William Shakespeare,Old Vic,SE1,6.1.53(1st night), cast including Claire Bloom,Douglas Campbell. Hugh Hunt directed.I almost knew it by heart from having done it at school. Came over well.

MERCHANT OF VENICE,THE  Stratford,SMT,28.8.53,Peggy Ashcroft,Donald  Pleasance,Michael Redgrave, Robert Shaw, Denis Carey(d) “Impeccable production. No director’s quirks.  Dame Peggy enchanting.”

468px-shakespeareMERCHANT OF VENICE,THE. Old Vic(NT)SE1,1.5.70.Anna Carteret, Derek Jacobi,Jane Lapotaire,Laurence Olivier,Joan Plowright . Jonathan Miller (d) “Rather tiresome because it was set in Victorian times which added nothing at all.Olivier did a version of his famous Oedipus roar at the end.”

MERCHANT OF VENICE,THE, Stratford(SMT).4.71.,Judi Dench,Derek Godfrey,Terry Hands(d) “Don’t remember it but it must have impressed at the time because, back at the hotel, we talked about  it until the early morning.”

MERCHANT OF VENICE,THE  Old Vic,SE1,13.11.80.,Maureen O’Brien, Timothy West,   Michael Meacham(d) “Run of the mill”

MERCHANT OF VENICE,THE Olivier,SE1,8.3.00.,David Bamber,Derbhle Crotty,Henry Goodman,Alexander Hanson,Richard Henders, Trevor Nunn(d) “Splendidly done at a good pace. It was like discovering it for the first time.” This comment is so telling. After seeing his first performance aged 26, and four more with the best actors of their time, Shakespeare’s Merchant still had something to offer my father at a sixth visit when he was 73.

Tell us about the most memorable performance you’ve seen.

Comedy: A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Oddsocks Theatre Co in Valentine’s Park, Ilford – my children’s first Shakespeare outing too, I think. Sirens blasted past on the main road as the lost couples were chasing each other through the “woods” (actually the municipal shrubbery) and quick as a flash, one actor quipped: “See – even the police have come out to search!”

Tragedy: I was mesmerised by a television film of a production of Hamlet with David Tennant. I hadn’t realised what good actor he was until then – I think it was Boxing Day and despite being stuffed and sleepy I stayed with it to the (bitter) end.51srkjph8sl-_sx326_bo1204203200_

Which Shakespeare character would you most like to meet?

Poor Desdemona, the original domestic violence victim. For selfish reasons: I’d get her to sing to me, her Willow Song aria from the Verdi opera Otello.To hear her sing this as she waits for the death she knows is coming is one of the most poignant marriages of theatre and music anywhere.

How would you persuade somebody to give Shakespeare a chance?

I used to teach English as a Second Language in a Sheffield secondary school. At the time, many pupils had just arrived from Pakistan and Bangladesh speaking no English. I showed them films, stopping from time to time for discussion. Roman Polanski’s bloody, haunting Macbeth went down a treat! There are so many brilliant film versions, Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet, Derek Jarman’s Tempest, the Kenneth Branagh Much Ado and Henry 5th… Or try a live production by Oddsocks – see above. Fringe or theatre-in-education companies are often the best at making Shakespeare accessible.

I’ve allowed myself much longer answers than the ones in Beth Miller’s book. But do look at it; much of it is new and interesting. Note the Globe staff member responsible for helping disabled audiences members access Shakespeare, for example, or Richard Burton complaining about Churchill in the front row when he was playing Hamlet. Churchill rumbled the lines along with him. “I could not shake him off, I tried going fast, I tried going slow…”

“Our revels now are ended.”  An ending pinched from Shakespeare, via Beth Miller. I hope this post has reminded you of your own best Shakespeare moments, and tempted you to book seats for some more.

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“For the Love of Shakespeare”, a quality small hardback with integrated bookmark.

© Jessica Norrie 2016