Radioplay Review: Direct Red

Friday Drama – Direct Red

How does it feel to hold someone’s heart in your hands? How do you tell a young patient that he’s dying? What do you do when, on a quiet ward in the middle of the night, a patient you’ve grown close to invites you into his bed? This vivid portrayal of the day-to-day life of young female surgeon, and the medical and moral dilemmas she faces, is based on the memoir by Gabriel Weston. One of few women in an alpha male world, she finds herself continually questioning where a doctor should draw the line between being detached and being human. And it’s the conflict between these opposing forces – the personal and professional – that lies at the heart of this powerful play, which has been adapted for radio by Tina Pepler.

A BBC/Cymru Wales production, directed by Kate McAll.

I listened to this play on Monday, fully expecting to be alternately shocked, appalled, saddened and intrigued by the life of a young surgeon from first day as a Junior House Officer to the more experienced surgeon Dr. Weston. I was warned before listening that I might find the vivid descriptions disturbing, the subject matter upsetting, and I was slightly on edge by the time I pressed play.

What I got, for 58 minutes, was the overused trope of tired, philosophical doctor, talking to me in a droning monologue of the apparently life-affirming experiences she has had while at no time raising the tone of her voice to anything that might suggest she has or had any feelings about anything. Yes, some of the experiences were painfully sad, some horribly out of control, others poignant and surreal – but they were dictated to the audience as though they were being read off the page, not acted at all. I wanted to feels something from the protagonist, other than that a life in medicine had worn her down to the point of disillusion, but I was left feeling that the emotion was too little: I was as distant as one of her patients, and never quite satisfied.

Direct Red jumps from timeframe to timeframe with very little change in tone or setting, and also without any discernible explanation. As a train of consciousness, the narrative works well, and as this is a story in which “nothing happens”, it doesn’t really matter that the telling isn’t linear. I got the feeling that these short bursts of memory were just a selection of what Dr. Weston could have told us about her life in medicine, but was struck again by the lack of compassion or personal detail. It is mentioned frequently that being a doctor plays havoc with your sex and social lives, yet we are not given any details of her current situation – other than an almost illegal dalliance with a patient that I found myself clinging to in the hope that it would wake Dr. Weston from her spell of colourless monotony.

I was disappointed. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that for a narrative that promised so much, it delivered very little. What it did deliver was nothing that I felt any creative writing student could have produced – there was no indication that a doctor’s insight was in any way meaningful to the story: the situations were typical, the descriptions obvious and the overall tone well-expected. Although the blurb claims that the “conflict between personal and professional” is at the heart of the play, I felt from the very beginning that professional had won the battle off-stage before Dr. Weston and I had even been introduced. There was a lack of development, or reminiscence, in the protagonist’s escalation from medical student to doctor, and I would have been interested to know how such a distant and cautious professional woman appeared from, presumably, a vibrant and motivated young student.

Is “Fifty Shades of Grey” Liberating?

On the recommendation of the lovely Thursa, and against the recommendation of my friend* at Bibliofreak.net, I decided to read Fifty Shades of Grey in between my own exciting sexual exploits.

I’m surprised, but I kind of like this book. I think it’s in need of an edit, and a thesaurus, and less of a Mary Sue attitude in the first four or five chapters, and if I read the sentence ‘My breath hitches’ again I might hurt someone, but I think I like it. Anastasia Steele was, and is still from time to time, incredibly annoying; and Christian Grey is not fully formed as a character (unless that’s intentional on James’ part to retain his mystery and hopefully make me fall in love with him too), is moody, embarrassing and often says things that make me want to be sick, but – and this is where I think my surprise comes from – it’s better than Twilight.

I think this is a valid reference point, as Fifty Shades started life as a Twilight fanfic. Names changed, sparkly-fangs removed, and the plot beefed up a little, and this is a much better read in comparison. It’s short-sighted of me, I know, to expect that a writer of Twilight fanfic would know how to use a keyboard, but James’ plot is not all bad. It has the potential to be. But I was surprised to find that Steele did question what Grey asked of her (most of the time – but we all have our moments), she did have doubts and she did defy him. There was thought that went into her decisions, and while sometimes the thought was ‘take me now, I’ll worry about the consequences later’, somehow that’s more true to life than Bella Swan’s blatant disregard for the cardboard cut-out characters around her and her single-minded wrecklessness. Steele is more human in this way, and more real. She has ambitions, she has opinions on relationships that she is not willing to give up without question, and even though I knew the decision she was going to make to become Grey’s sub, I appreciated the effort put into getting her there rather than a simple “Reader, I’m doing it”.

My one big complaint (which may yet get addressed by the end – I’m not finished yet) is that I’m not sure something has to be wrong with Grey for him to want to Dominate. It is frequently suggested that his preferences must stem from some kind of sexual abuse. When he claimed “never” to have had vanilla sex before, I scoffed, until Jacobs second-guessed me and came up with a plot point which is yet to be resolved: as a 15 year old, Grey was seduced by and then sub to his adopted mother’s friend. Interesting. And formative. And I can understand that to Steele, being physically punished for bad behaviour by someone you’re falling in love with isn’t great – but it seems to me that the insistence that she is going to be the one to heal his wounds which will in turn make him forget his preference for Domination and make love to her is patently ridiculous. It suggests that everyone in the real world taking part in an s/D relationship is in some way damaged, which feels rather judgemental and probably incorrect.

But I’m aware that I can’t finish this thought yet, as I haven’t finished the book. Perhaps I’m just very liberal in my outlook, but I don’t find the sex that bad. I find the following about and demands on lifestyle weird, but that’s another issue – one that might stem from his lack of control as a child. To turn that into a ‘your sexual preferences are weird, there must be something wrong with you’ judgement doesn’t cut it with me.

Anyway.

One thing I kept reading about Fifty Shades before I started was that it was “liberating” and “mommy porn”. I have come to a conclusion on this, based solely on my tendency to read into and overthink anything and everything.

Fifty Shades can be liberating in one or two ways.

One, there’s a lot of sex in it.

Two, Steele and Grey have a written contract. The whole sub/Dom arrangement in the novel (not in life!) is quite a clever conceit for Talking To The Person You’re Having Sex With.  And that’s probably liberating for people who have spent a long time pretending to like something they didn’t because they felt it was expected of them. Or not suggesting something they wanted to do because they were scared it would be shouted down. Or shouting people down for something ‘weird’ before you’ve thought through what you really think of it. All relationships are negotiations, Steele and Grey’s just has a written contract to refer to. We are at all times making these judgements and compromises, but without the documentation to back us up.

Perhaps, then, it would be beneficial for some of us to have contracts! ‘I like…’, ‘I don’t like…’, ‘… I’m open to persuasion’. This might be easier! We are always being told, in self-help and Ask… columns, that we need to communicate our preferences and opinions more. Rather than talking to the readers of Cosmo about our sex lives, why not discuss them with the people we’re having sex with – a novel idea! And Steele and Grey do just that: they write a contract, they ask opinions – very frankly and directly – and they deal with the consequences.

This is liberating because Steele and Grey are more upfront and honest than I guess a lot of us, but the fact that their negotiation is so obvious makes it easier. Really, there’s nothing in it the rest of us don’t, or shouldn’t, do. Perhaps then, this is liberating as it’s telling people that it’s ok to ask for what you want, and it’s ok not to get it: life is a compromise and finding something that works for all parties involved is essential. Trying something and deciding not to try it again is how this works! So I actually quite like the thought that housewives across America, or wherever, are finally telling their husbands what they want and talking about things that they’ve missed out on.

ETA: Since typing all this up yesterday, I have finished the book. In the light of the great big cliffhanger I’m now left with, I feel I might need to reconsider this viewpoint.

Either, the cliffhanger was tacked on to make me buy the rest of the trilogy. If the rest of the trilogy turns out to be healing via “normal” sex, I’m not sure I’ll like it.
Or, Steele did go along with something she felt she ought to because it would let Grey do something he didn’t want her to do (i.e. touch him) and the whole thing broke down because the compromise shattered. In which case, I was right. Ha.

More thoughts when I have them. Please challenge me!

*Disclaimer: Matthew at Bibliofreak.net is of course also lovely, and beautiful. And has opinions on books.

Fur and Feminism: The Portrayal of Female Characters in ‘G-Force’

For those of you who weren’t previously aware, G-Force (2009) is an animated film about extra-ordinary FBI Agents: specially-trained and technologically-enhanced guinea pigs. As IMDB puts it:

“The story is about a team of trained secret agent guinea pigs that takes on a mission for the US government. A specially trained squad of guinea pigs is dispatched to stop a diabolical billionaire, who plans to taking over the world with household appliances.”

And no, I’m not joking.

The G-Force Team consists of three main guinea-pigs, and two ‘sidekicks’: the technological whizz Speckles (a mole), and a camera-laden fly (or bug) whose name I didn’t catch. All of the animals were trained and developed by two human scientists: Ben and Marcie.

The guinea pigs (from left to right): Juarez, Darwin, and Blaster. Also, Hurley, an extra addition to the team. It’s probably not obvious from the picture, but Juarez is a female guinea pig. A sassy Spanish female guinea pig voiced by Penelope Cruz, no less.

I’m still not joking when I say this post will be a consideration of the character of Juarez and the message it sends to the main audience of this film: children.

Using OverthinkingIt‘s Female Character Flowchart (the best test of a woman that I know of) you can take Juarez two ways. It depends on whether you think she can handle her own story. I’m going to go with yes. Partly because she gets a lot of screentime on her own and her own backstory (but also because this would be pretty pointless if I didn’t think so). In addition, she’s three-dimensional (she shares opinions and challenges others), she’s not just a metaphor (what she’d be a metaphor for I can’t tell you), she has flaws (she’s a flirt, and she’s rude) and she doesn’t get killed off before the third act. Voila! A Strong Female Character.

Alternatively, if you decide that she isn’t any of the above, and follow the flowchart to its conclusion, she’s either a Useless Girl (you cynic), or a Lady of War (the example given is Zoe from Firefly, so almost there!).

Juarez is, throughout, as tough as the boys. There is nothing that she doesn’t take part in, she’s not behind the scenes or merely supervising; and she makes it quite clear that she can stand up for herself. At one point, she is purchased from a pet store and ‘taken hostage’ by a little girl intent on using her as a plaything. Juarez is put in a pink dress and tiara, given an earring, pink nail polish and pink lipstick. On being waved in front of a mirror to see “how pretty” she looks, her reaction is: “Not pink! I look like Paris Hilton’s chihuahua.” The first thing she does on engineering her escape (stealing a toy jeep) is throw off the tiara and dress: Juarez has no need for dressing up or changing her appearance to form her character, she does that by standing by her friends/teammates and working at her special agent training, putting in hundreds of thousands of hours to be as good as she can be. Aside from the hourglass-shaped fur on her abdomen and the long eyelashes, you wouldn’t really be able to tell that Juarez is female: she has similar hair to the male character Hurley, a kind of short mohawk. This shows that while she’s conscious of her appearance, she’s not forever lamenting the lack of hair-styling products or scared of breaking her claws. Think about it, how easy would it have been to cast a long-haired guinea pig as the female?

But this is not to say that she isn’t feminine. For one, she keeps the earring as she likes the way she looks with it. But it’s as an enhancement, not a pandering to femininity. Another giveaway is the fact that both male guinea pigs, Darwin and Blaster, argue over her affections and confront her more than once about which one of them she is “interested in”. Rather than the conventional ending of Boy Gets Girl, the film ends with Juarez denying the obvious assumption that she has to be interested in one of them: in fact she’d rather they both wanted her and she played hard to get. Now, I’m not saying that teasing boys is a mark of a strong woman, but you can’t deny her her independence here. Juarez is challenging the assumption that she will end up with one of the boys because of mere proximity, instead she is confident and independent – and it’s this that makes her, for want of a better word, sexy. They want her because she’s not waiting for them, and she says as much. “If she acts as though she’s interested in you, it’s to make me think that she’s really interested in me,” to paraphrase Darwin. It could be argued that she’s trying not to complicate matters, there is no animosity between the boys, no awkwardness between the team: she’s responsible. I’m sticking with sassy and independent, to be honest. But that fact that she’s a single woman not waiting for a man to sweep her off her feet is what I’m struck by here.

In fact, so much so is she not waiting to be rescued that she’s the saving grace at the climax of the film. I hope I’m not spoiling things here, but Speckles and Darwin fight and Darwin loses his parachute but they need to jump from the enormous violent appliance-cum-robot before it explodes thanks to a computer virus. Did you get that? In any case, when they jump – free-fall – Juarez is the one who appears above them, grabs them both and says “I’ve got you” while opening her parachute.

In this film, the girl literally saves the day. Or at least the hero.

Am I wrong in assuming that this is quite rare in movies about humans?

It’s also important to point out that Juarez asks for help from the boys: she’s not an artificial StrongWoman who’s stubborn and gets everything right. During a car chase she calls to both Darwin and Blaster to help her escape from the FBI agents – exposing her flaws, if you like, and also showing that she is equal to them. She needs help, but she can also save the day when necessary. And all without the validation of a romance at the end of it.

Not that romance is bad, guys! Just that I think it’s rare for a female character to be portrayed as sexy, appealing, smart, strong and also ‘human’, as it were. The fact that she’s a guinea pig, and that now this whole post makes me sound mental, is beside the point really. (Unless you want to get into an argument about why human females aren’t portrayed this way… I’ll pass for now.)

So: perhaps the Christmas port has got to me. But if not, I’m impressed with the decision taken by filmmakers not to just include a female character because they had to – or if they did, not take the obvious decision to include her as a love interest. And let her have a vital role in the survival of the male protagonist. And make her funny, pretty and independent also.

I don’t even know what to ask you anymore. Ask me things. I can barely believe I just wrote that with a straight face. Happy Christmas!

Books I Wish I Had Written

No matter how much you read or write, there are always some stories you wish you had thought to tell first, or metaphors you wished you’d come up with. Below are a list of the top five books I wish I had written.

1. Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban

“Walker is my name
and I am the same.
Riddley Walker.
Walking my riddels
where ever theyve took me
and walking them now
on this paper the same.”

In Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban tells the tale of post-apocalyptic England through the mangled and re-written voice of its inhabitants, specifically the titular protagonist Riddley. In his search for knowledge, Riddley dissolves the myths which have sprung-up in this post-nuclear dystopia and uncovers the secret of mankind’s downfall.
I studied this book as part of a third-year English Lit half-unit on the Male Bildungsroman. I had absolutely no idea what to expect when I turned the first page, and it’s safe to say that this completely blew me away. This book is a revelation. Hoban imagines a world without history so convincingly that the novel is compelling from the first sentence and I really found that I could not put this down until I had worked it out. From the post-apocalyptic dialect to the somehow-familiar myths and rules of the new society, I was challenged throughout and as a result of my perseverance I was rewarded with a totally original and haunting world. I’ve never come across anything so foreign, yet uncanny, and if there is one book you must take on trust, it’s this one. I won’t tell you anything more as it really ought to be a surprise, but please read Riddley Walker! (And then come back and talk to me about it.)

2. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce

“Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo…”

Portrait of the Artist tells the story of Stephan Dedalus’ (of Ulysses fame) youth – from birth to his teenage years. Joyce reflects almost exactly Dedalus’ thoughts, even in his personal dialect as a baby, and the book is a rollercoaster of scenes and internal monologue that I’m sure you only truly understand once you’ve finished.
I remember reading this when I was at secondary school, and after the first chapter I remember being amazed at the audacity Joyce displayed in writing something which plainly made no sense at a first reading. Since then, I’ve wanted to write something this confident. I’m not there yet, so this is still on the list of wishful thinking.

3. A Song of Ice and Fire, George R. R. Martin

“Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death. I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die at my post. I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the fire that burns against cold, the light that brings the dawn, the horn that wakes the sleepers, the shield that guards the realms of men. I pledge my life and honor to the Night’s Watch, for this night and all the nights to come.”

George R. R. Martin’s undeniably ambitious saga begins with A Game of Thrones, in which the fictional land of Westeros and its difficult and dangerous politics is introduced. Beginning at the end of a multiple-year ‘Summer’, the saga charts the stories of a number of characters; all of whom, it emerges, have claims to the Iron Throne.
I’m currently only on Book Two, A Clash of Kings, but so  far I’m jealous. Martin’s books are immensely long, and immensely detailed. At the end of Book One I was so engaged I had to keep reading, and now I’m reading on I’m amazed at the ease with which Martin introduces new characters. And here lies my envy: every character is complex. There are no real stereotypes, and everyone changes their mind or experiences a genuine conflict of interests at some point. This really keeps a reader on their toes. That and Martin’s lack of fear when it comes to killing off his darlings: there are points at which you know where this book should go – if only it were another book. With A Song of Ice and Fire, you can never be sure what will happen…

4. House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski

“This is not for you.”

Danielewski’s House of Leaves is a beautiful, ambitious hypertext that teaches you what ‘hypertext’ really means. A potentially fictional, tortured protagonist uncovers and reassembles the work of a potentially fictional blind man, who is reviewing a film that cannot be found created by a filmaker who seems not to exist. The book covers the lives of all three main characters, looping and twisting through their lives while all the time exposing the real protagonist, the House. It is the setting of the film, the academic focus of the essay, and it too may not even be real.
This book is filled with metaphor, clues, and contradictions to keep you on your toes and occasionally scare you half to death. I loved it. It can be read in a number of ways, it’s visually appealing, and it is guaranteed to get you thinking. I only wish I had the brain power to contemplate writing something of this scale.

5. Rapture, Carol Ann Duffy

“I want to call you thou, the sound
of the shape of the start
of a kiss

Rapture is a collection of love poems charting an affair from the first brilliant shock of attraction to the final resignation and complacency that comes with time. As ever, Duffy’s writing is bright, vivid and unique, and the poems range from odes of love to short and snappy declarations that stick in your mind. A particular favourite of mine is Syntax, and I really could read it aloud again and again.
The reason I wish I had written it: Duffy manages to capture these fleeting moments in a manner that makes them almost understandable. Whenever I write poetry I want to do the same; to make something undefinable real for just the length of that page. It’s a real skill, and I firmly believe there’s beauty to her writing.

So, that’s enough of me waxing lyrical!
What are your top five? Which books do you just wish you’d written?

Happy Birthday, Blog!

One year's worth of blog

It’s here! PGP (as I’ve taken to calling it in my head) is one year old today!

To commemorate the occasion of one year’s successful ranting – by which I mean blogging – I have created the above: a PGP Wordle. If you are not aware of Wordle, it is a time-consuming website that allows you to create pretty word pictures out of poems, stories, letter, blogs: anything you or anyone else has written. Try it!

In creating my wordle, I discovered that in that past year I have written 33539 words. This means two things to me: Wow. And also, if I managed that, why can’t I write a novel? All it takes is a year! Oh yeah, no decent novel ideas… (well, maybe one). I’ll work on that.

So what does the Wordle tell me, as an analytical tool?
All of the big words are ‘feeling’ words: I think a lot, I feel a lot, and I want a lot, apparently. I also mention writing, knowing and reading a lot. But my main pre-occupations are women, people and poetry.

So I’m opinionated and demanding about writing poems, thinking about people and about women. Sounds like me, actually. Good.

It amuses me that other words which show up as having a fair number of mentions are sex, men, library, love and friends. Aww, what a soppy git I am.

This is a really fun thing to do – and a heartily recommend you self-analyse in the same non-scientific way! It’s so much fun!

So what have I acheived after a year of blogging?
Well, I’ve met a small number of new people – not as many as anticipated, but that’s probably down to my own laziness. My friends who read my blog probably regret it know a lot more about the opinions I have, especially those who I don’t see all that often.
I am still not really writing more, and I find that this is not really the place for criticism, as I had hoped . So I’ll have to work on that one.
I have also redesigned it about 20 times, but another birthday present is a brand new and finally pretty layout! Hopefully I’ll stick with this one…
But mostly, I’ve enjoyed writing each week. Whether it’s a new idea, an old idea, or some sort of opinion, it’s been nice to feel that I’m sharing. I hope you’ve enjoyed it too…

What next for PGP?
Well, I’d like opinions on this one, really. I’m considering streamlining it somewhat – but I’m not sure how. I’m not a book reviewer or blogger, like my friend The Bibliofreak, so I can’t do that. The market for library blogs has been saturated by CPD23, including my own feeble attempt Nouveau Librarian. I already don’t contribute to a cookery blog out of sheer laziness. I don’t write enough, or know enough about writing to make a writer’s only blog.
Currently, I just write about a mixture of all of these things, and do what I set out to do: have an online Moleskine.
So should I streamline? I might attract more readers if I did. But what would I say?! I could do themed days, like some other bloggers… What do you guys think? Is PGP fine the way it is, or do you wish it had more direction?

And if you don’t reply, I’ll ask you in person.

Meanwhile, happy birthday, PostGradPanopticon – and thank you all for reading and commenting!

“I will take you where the goblins are all good”

Eventually, after missing it for three years, I watched the documentary Johnny Too Bad on BBC4 a couple of weeks ago. It’s about the life of singer/songwriter/guitarist John Martyn, who passed away just over two years ago. (Annoyingly, just after I discovered him, but such is life.)

The documentary was not what I expected, I have to admit. It was fixated with the idea of a ‘bad boy’ and rather than talking about the music; it instead focused on Martyn’s drinking, drug-taking, fighting, marriage breakdown and ultimately, a number of lingering shots of his soon-to-be-amputated leg with the ever-present suggestion that he had got himself into it.

As an aside, I watched a documentary on Nick Drake a year or so ago, and had the same feeling. It was called A Skin Too Few and from the very beginning was obsessed with the details of Drake’s suicide. All of the interviews focused on his death, all of the music was read with the knowledge of his depression, and as a result I found the whole thing rather cliche.

It’s not to say that I wasn’t aware of these details – I was. I knew Nick Drake felt unappreciated and took his own life (or so we believe), and I know that John Martyn drank and smoked an awful lot and that it took its toll: but I didn’t watch the documentaries to see things I already knew. By focusing on the salacious details of both singer’s lives, I felt that something was missing – there was no reading of the music that did not take these details into account, yet as we all know our feelings and opinions fluctuate. We cannot be as fixated in our approach to life as these documentaries believe, not everything is coloured by these details.

But all this is beside the point, really. Prepare yourself for a diatribe on Why I Love John Martyn.

I first came across John Martyn while watching a DVD of the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test, a kind of showcase for music in the 70s and 80s (so my sort of music, then). I’d like to pretend that I knew a lot about music and folk music, but I can’t. Essentially, I saw the way his hands moved on the fretboard and the way he could still play and sing so well with his eyes closed, and that was pretty much it. Follow the link below to see what I’m talking about.

What I learned from the documentary was that Martyn was about 18 when he recorded his first album London Conversation and couldn’t have been more than 20 at the time of recording May You Never. Which, frankly, amazes me. What a talented bastard.

Since I saw this video I’ve been slowly collecting all of John Martyn’s albums, and after watching the documentary I realised that I wasn’t doing as well as I thought I was. Wikipedia lists 21 actual album releases and then 17 other recordings/compilations etc. Of those, I own 7. A terrible effort.

Martyn’s lyrics are dark, beautiful and uncomplicated. The sentiment is such that it would be impossible not to know what the singer is talking about, and Martyn’s voice is always so full of emotion as to paint you a very clear picture. Listening to Small Hours, for example, always gives me goosebumps.

What was interesting, therefore, was that this man who I had all but fallen in love with was such a ‘bad boy’ – as the documentary focused on. It was as though he had to compensate for the emotional richness and sensitivity of his songs by being as hard and oppositional as possible in real life. Those interviewed in the documentary all stated that Martyn must have felt some enormous loss in his childhood to make him feel so vulnerable, but I’m not sure about all that. What I know is that underneath all of the swearing and fighting and occasional betrayal of trust, there was a man who felt – and felt a lot. Before watching, I would have thought that the man who wrote My Baby Girl, Bless The Weather, Fairy Tale Lullaby and Couldn’t Love You More was as actively sensitive and feeling in his every day life. And I could not have been more wrong. I’m sure I should feel a tad cheated by this, but I don’t. Hence the need for a blog post. In spite of my apparent disappointment, I’m still in love with John Martyn* and I think I’ll continue to be in love for some time.

It’s not all lovey-dovey, though! Listen to Cocaine, Over the Hill and Johnny Too Bad for something more light-hearted but equally musically-brilliant. Something which the documentary and live recordings highlighted was the fact that Martyn, although sometimes cruel, had a sense of humour and wasn’t afraid to laugh. Again, almost as an antidote to his writing, in person he was forever cracking jokes and not listening to people (probably his doctor) and laughing.

So, in essence, I love John Martyn and you should too. He played the guitar beautifully, wrote painful, funny and touching songs and as I’m learning – there is always more to listen to!

* And as my boyfriend pointed out, the curly hair and facial hair also helps.

Carol Ann Duffy at the Cheltenham Festival

So, it struck me that I hadn’t updated on the other days I spent in Cheltenham.

As well as attending two Radio 4 recordings (Excess Baggage and The Write Stuff), putting up with Giles Brandreth in order to learn a lot of really fascinating things about Oscar Wilde, squeezing into the most packed tent in the place to see Julian Fellowes and other involved with Downton Abbey be very cryptic about what was to come, attending two talks on Religion and Writing (one of which I posed a question that could not be answered, and the other where Anne Rice was mystic and wonderful), a number of coffee dates and gossips – I sawthe Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy give a poetry recital of her new collection The Bees.

I’ve loved Carol Ann Duffy since GCSE English Literature. Her poem Anne Hathaway was, I think, the first time I’d ever come across oral sex in poetry, and the first time it had been discussed in class in a serious manner! Then Warming Her Pearls… Salome was another poem about danger, sex and powerful women and I think it must have really struck me that poetry could be about something other than the stereotypical flowers and chaste beautiful women. Of course, one English Literature BA later, I’m aware that very little poetry isn’t actually about sex (or is that just what we were taught?!) but Carol Ann Duffy was the first poet I remember reading that used language in such a strong way. Education for Leisure (now inexplicably banned from the GCSE syllabus) is another example of the power of words in her poetry.
It was her tenderness and wit, also, that I remember. Before You Were Mine is a beautiful account of Duffy’s mother when she was young, before she was a mother, and I remember thinking that the use of image rewound time in a way that was just so vivid.

Duffy has lost none of this strength, nor wit, nor tenderness. Her readings were funny, poignant and in some cases, moving. She read a number from the collection, moving from a poem to speak out against the removal of her poem Education for Leisure from GCSE study-books, a poem protesting against the Royal Mail’s eradication of counties, and a celebration of British pubs, through to poems about the death of her mother.

Throughout the readings she was interspersed by a colleague John Sampson; a kind of sixteenth-century wind instrument recitial-cum-cabaret. He was hilarious, talented and engaging to watch – although together Duffy and Sampson made an odd pair. During the final poem, however, he began to play on the tenor recorder a quiet ‘Danny Boy’ behind her slow words rewinding her mother’s life from birth to death.

I’ve since found a copy of this poem published in a newspaper and I’ll include it here. Reading it is one thing, reading it aloud another. But I hope you’ll believe me when I say that while Duffy read this poem and Sampson played his solemn tune, there were some tears shed around the room.

Premonitions

Dedicated with love to the
memory of UA Fanthorpe

We first met when your last breath
cooled in my palm like an egg;
you dead, and a thrush outside
sang it was morning.
I backed out of the room, feeling
the flowers freshen and shine in my arms.

The night before, we met again, to unsay
unbearable farewells, to see
our eyes brighten with re-strung tears.
O I had my sudden wish –
though I barely knew you –
to stand at the door of your house,
feeling my heartbeat calm,
as they carried you in, home, home and healing.
Then slow weeks, removing the wheelchair, the drugs,
the oxygen mask and tank, the commode,
the appointment cards,
until it was summer again
and I saw you open the doors to the gift of your garden.

Strange and beautiful to see
the roses close to their own premonitions,
the grass sweeten and cool and green
where a blackbird eased a worm into the lawn.
There you were,
a glass of lemony wine in each hand,
walking towards me always, your magnolia tree
marrying itself to the May air.

How you talked! And how I listened,
spellbound, humbled, daughterly,
to your tall tales, your wise words,
the joy of your accent, unenglish, dancey, humorous;
watching your ash hair flare and redden,
the loving litany of who we had been
making me place my hands in your warm hands,
younger than mine are now.
Then time only the moon. And the balm of dusk.
And you my mother.

Day One at the Cheltenham Literature Festival

So today I was near my hometown visiting the Literature Festival ’11 in Cheltenham. Each year this takes place in the second week of October and so falls quite happily over my birthday. Hence, a nice birthday weekend of books, food and thinking.

Instead of keeping my notes to myself, I though that this year I’d share them with whichever people still happened to be reading this.

Today we saw David Lodge discussing his fictional biography on the life of H. G. Wells; A Man of Many Parts. Turns out Wells had a rather scandalous life of politics, sex, interviewing people like Stalin and sometimes squeezing in enough time to write successful novels such as The Time Machine.
Lodge read out a section in which Wells considers a flirtation with children’s author Edith Nesbitt, and apparently it’s the only time in the novel that Wells does not succumb to temptation. In Lodge’s typical style it’s quite unique, plain-speaking and understated; adjectives are used sparsely and to effect, meaning that their message comes across loud, clear and the prose is vivid. I’m considering reading it, and at the very least I want to read all of Well’s major fiction first so that I can make my opinions of him as a writer before philanderer.

Points of interest:

  • Lodge’s suggestion that Paradise Lost is Science Fiction: in particular the suggestion that the first line of The War of the Worlds is reminiscent of Milton’s Satan. “No one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s…”
  • Wells was too busy having sex to fully edit his novels. Apparently it’s a good thing he was a quick writer!
  • Wells’ novels are of interest to people such as myself, with a “secular and scientific bent”.

After lunch, we saw Tony Benn being his usual hilarious and quotable self. We had already decided that Benn’s politics are not in line with our own, but that as a character he is worth listening to. Case in point being that regarding a question about the provision of jobs, homes etc for debt-worried graduates – Benn’s answer was that education was a human right and that graduates would have high-paying jobs… missing the point entirely. An idealist, a humorous man, but not entirely practical.
This session also provided the Most Mad Question of the Day: a lady somewhere at the back waited for some time to ask whether Benn knew that Harold Wilson was considering assassinating a Ghanian in the 1970s, and was this discussed in cabinet, as a Radio 4 programme she had listened to last year had suggested.
Benn’s reply: “I’m sorry, I’m a little deaf, I didn’t quite catch that.”

The final session of the day was a discussion on Lives of the Novelists (i.e. literary biography and biographical fiction) between David Lodge and John Sutherland, author of the new Lives of the Novelists, a chronological literary history of 294 writers’ lives. It looks like a beautiful encyclopedia, and I want it for Christmas.

Points of interest:

  • books are “little time machines” – on each re-reading you are taken back to how life was when you first read each page
  • “literary criticism is fun because ultimately there is no consensus”
  • drawing on her own life, the novelist uses aesthetics and tactics to combine fantasy/plot with reality to make something which moves us all. And so, biography is dangerous as it unpicks this creation (and shines light onto areas kept dark for a reason). The work is therefore no longer original and whole.
  • Speculation in biography is fine, but in fiction it is a killer. In Lodge’s words “a novelist cannot produce a character who’s not sure if he’s had sex or not”.
  • The poet is at the disposal of the reader? What does this mean? In T. S. Eliot‘s words, poetry is an escape from personality, whereas fiction draws on personality and experience. (Could this have been a tactic on Eliot’s part to keep critics from using biography to ‘understand’ his writing?)
  • Using biography to make sense of poetry is reductive
  • Through non-specificity, poetry means more and touches more people – it can stand for itself where it is not explicitly the confessional device of the poet.
  • “the poem is a statue” “in clinical isolation” – in studying poetry there is no context, just text. Sutherland suggested that this might be unsatisfying; there is always a human element to poetry, surely biography can illuminate this? Lodge countered this by bringing up the case of Philip Larkin, a darling poet of the nation until letters were released exposing his ‘distasteful’ private natures, which caused outrage and for him to be potentially dropped from some UoL curriculums.
  • How can poetry make us identify with things with which we have no experience? Good poetry will do this; you do not need to know what the poet has experienced to feel something also e.g. students can identify with Ted Hughes but not Sylvia Plath – I think this is because students have preconceptions about Plath and so make judgements on her poetry, thinking that they cannot identify. Yet, they understand The Bell Jar
  • Why does context help us to understand fiction but inhibit our understanding of poetry?
  • The poet has two selves.
  • “Great novelists are bisexual” in being able to write convincingly from the point of view of both sexes.
  • “the novel is obviously fiction” – is it?!

And finally, The Second Most Mad Question of the Day: two people who lived in one house were ‘homosexually-inclined’. “Was there something in the brickwork that made them homosexually-inclined?”

So with that thought to play on your mind, I’ll leave you. Bring on tomorrow!

Strange (Re)Invention: Recycling Poetry as Song

Mike Scott reads aloud from a book during a Wa...

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I was listening to Radio 4’s Front Row last week (<– showing off) and discovered that the singer/songwriter of The WaterboysMike Scott, has created a new album using the poetry of W. B. Yeats. It’s called “An Appointment with Mr. Yeats” and while I only heard snippets, they were interesting for a number of reasons. I’ve been trying to form an opinion on this ever since.

What I found particulary interesting was that Mike Scott had waited particularly for W. B. Yeats poetry to come out of copyright before he made the record. This was on account of the fact that he was re-arranging the lines in Yeats’ poems to suit his verse. Which in itself begs the question of whether it was right, or fair, to do so. My gut tells me this was a little bit sneaky, but then in order to stick to his creative vision there was no other way to go about it without risking a lawsuit. But equally, I can see where the Yeats estate is coming from: the words of W.B. Yeats were protected from tampering and suchlike, and they obviously want to protect what is obviously considered to be very valuable intellectual property – but there is nothing they can do once the work is out of copyright. Like it or not, Scott is completely within his rights to edit Yeats poetry.

And so: is Mike Scott’s work original or is at an adaptation?

As I’ve said above, ‘An Appointment with Mr Yeats’ is Mike Scott’s creative vision. It is his hard work which has produced the melodies, arrangements and all other production that goes into making an album. The words, though, are – certainly were – Yeats’. In this way, Scott’s work is similar to that of musicians such as Keith James, whose efforts to re-imagine the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca include setting it to music. The music is, of course, James’ own imagining, and the lyrics that he chooses (both Spanish and English) are Lorca’s.

By rearranging the words of W.B. Yeats, though, Scott is doing something quite different, and it is this that the Yeats estate objected to and the reason Scott had to wait so long before he could complete (and significantly; release) his work. If Scott recycles Yeats’ words and re-arranges them, they are no longer the works of Yeats in the form that they were written – although they may still be recognisable. In fact, given that Scott makes no attempt to hide his creative efforts as a combination of his and Yeats’ creative influence, it is almost impossible for a listener to not pick out Yeats’ words.

But are they still Yeats’ words? Once re-arranged, the poetry is not Yeats’ own. It is implausible to suggest that the words cannot be used by Scott because Yeats used them first; if that were the case we would need to invent a new language every time any of us spoke or wrote anything – from a tiny text message to a epic ballad. We are re-using and recycling language all the time; language that famous dead poets and writers used, and language that our friends have used casually. We copy what others say, and we modify and rephrase so often, that we can never lay claim to that words that we use when out of context. By re-arranging Yeats’ poems, I would argue therefore that Scott’s work is merely that: a recycling of language that has already been used many times before.

So Scott’s work is clearly not plagiarism. But is it fair? Legally, yes. But perhaps morally, from the point of view of the Yeats estate, it is not. The words out of order are merely words, it is the creative effort put into creating the order of those words as poetry which is the intellectual property protected by copyright. And yet, Scott makes no claim to own the words or the poetry – this is clear by the title of the album ‘An Appointment with Mr. Yeats’ does nothing to disguise the fact that these are Yeats’ words set to Scott’s music. Sometime out of order, yes, but firmly contextualised as a modern revival or re-imagining of classic texts. Scott lays claim, as he should, to the music he has put the poetry to – and in this way his work is entirely fair. It could be argued that morally Scott is being very fair, he has waited until he is able to make his changes without damaging Yeats’ estate – and that’s as fair as you can get under the copyright law.

I would still argue that Scott has done much more than merely set Yeats’ poetry to music, but I think that he is still very much within his legal and moral rights to do so. His work is considered, the music is compelling, and he has broadly acknowledged the source of his lyrics. In fact, it is almost refreshing to see the creative influence that a poet such as Yeats’ is still having. Scott is not merely discussing Yeats’ influence on him, but displaying it in a manner befitting of the creative arts: he is letting us experience it.

On a personal level, as someone who attempts to write, I think recycling of language is something I have trouble coming to terms with. Of course, I am widely influenced, and I want to borrow a certain turn of phrase from time to time – but the desire to be totally original often stops me. I think what’s interesting for me in this case is that I couldn’t decide whether Scott was being totally original. His music is certainly original. But the lyrics not. They are re-worked, but nonetheless they have been heard before.

But saying that, haven’t we all heard things before. I think the work of a writer is to make these familiar thing unfamiliar again, and stay at arm’s length from cliche, but in this case Scott is not claiming to be a writer, he is claiming to be a musician and so his work is valid and original. If I were to re-order John Donne‘s words (for example), that wouldn’t be original, but if I were to use the language in a way that is relevant to me, then that would.

What do you think? Is Scott’s work original? Is it valid? Can writer’s feasibly re-use the words of other writers and make them their own?

A Social Media Timeline

Emergency "Twitter was down so I wrote my...

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I’ve just written a post for my Nouveau Librarian blog about social media and how ‘social’ it really is and two things have struck me:

1. It’s amazing that we can be ‘friends’ with so many people these days

2. I’ve been using social media, in one form or another, for about 10 years now.

Ten years! That’s a rather long time, and it got thinking about the social media milestones I’ve experienced along the way.

A Timeline of My Experience with Social Media

2001: Council of Elrond/Livejournal

I’ll regret saying this eventually… but my whole experience of social media and making friends online began as a direct result of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film adaptations. A young nerd, my previous experience of online interaction was lying about my age and occasionally being groomed on online chatrooms. Tame, I have to say, but formative experience nonetheless.

How I stumbled across Council of Elrond I no longer remember, but as soon as I’d set up an online account to participate in the forum discussions, I found myself gifted with an online journal as well. As such, through various posts/arguments about – from what I remember, life and not Lord of the Rings – I discovered a group of like-minded people. It’s funny how being online makes you less afraid, and so through being outspoken about other people’s prejudices and my own opinions I accidentally made some very, very close friends who shared all of my beliefs and interests. Also, being online put enough distance between us to really get to know each other, and so some of the time these girls knew more about me than my in-person friends did.

Eventually the CofE admin got sick of arguments about abortion taking up their generously-given journal space and so we were forced to migrate to that most adolescent of places: Livejournal. I still have three active LJs, only one of which I ever look at and the others I probably couldn’t remember how to access if I tried. At the time, LJ was the place to go to make new friends who wanted to write, to share my writing (original or otherwise), and to continue discussing any number of important things with my new online girlfriends. I think it got to Sixth Form when I finally shared the details of my LJ with people I had met in real life, and after reading all about their personal lives (and mostly likely, they about mine), I promptly stopped using it. I still check back from time to time as I’m never going to stop being nosy, but I don’t think I’ve made a public post for something approaching three years.

2005: DeviantArt

Roundabout the same time that I discovered ‘Real People’ (by which I mean locals) used Livejournal, I discovered DeviantArt. It was something possibly suggested by these lovely, in-person friends as a place to share and archive my writing at the time. To be honest, it wasn’t really a social explosion. The friends I had told about it read it, some of them mentioned me to other friends of theirs who used it, and we chatted. Nothing special. It still exists – like the abandoned livejournals. It too, remains untouched.

It wasn’t all bad! I did write a poem which was awarded a university poetry prize, and if I hadn’t been conversing with other writers online I probably wouldn’t have had the motivation to write or submit it – so that was worthwhile. I did also make one almost-friend who, through serendipity, was to attend Royal Holloway at the same time of me for an English and Drama degree (I think). He stumbled across one of my poems, we commented on each other’s galleries a few times, and eventually through private messaging began chatting.

However, it was most definitely not to be. Once installed at Royal Holloway, he and I decided to meet. Oh, the failures of real-life meetings with people you should only talk to online! At least online you have the capability to consider your responses…
We arranged a rather nice way of meeting up. Clues were given to locations in Founder’s Library, and notes left for one another suggesting a place to meet. We found one another in the North Quad and went for hot chocolate. Where we then discovered we had nothing in common but locality and an ability to use a keyboard to compose poems and private messages. Not a single thing else. It was altogether rather awkward and put an end to our online discussions also! Oh well.

2006: Facebook

Is this rather late? A quick Google query of “when did facebook start” tells me that I was two years late to the game, with Mr. Zuckerberg launching the much-discussed social networking platform in 2004. Well, in my defence, why the hell would I have needed Facebook before then?! I spoke to all my ‘friends’ every day at school, and as I’ve clearly stated above, those who I wanted to talk to online; I already could.

I joined Facebook at the end of Sixth Form, which was around the 2006/2007 mark. My first photographs are a (rather bedraggled-looking) me in an off-white Pates’ Grammar School hoodie with various other Patesians on our very last day. The relief in my face is obvious. After leaving Pates’ Facebook became a necessity to keep up with those on gap years or at other universities, as well as to check up on the lives of those we used to go to school with. So I joined. It also meant I could play Scrabble in my pajamas with people who lived on the other side of the wall in halls, and caption pictures with ever-embarrassing taglines (“Promises, promises!”).

I liked Facebook, but by graduation (2010) I had become thoroughly bored of it. Again, I spoke to the people I wanted to speak to, and was getting bored of keeping up with the ever-embarrassing antics of others. In short, I lost touch. My profile became bereft – and possibly the only thing I ever updated regularly was my photo albums, and only then to prove to other people that I was still alive and doing things and that I hadn’t just crawled under a rock.

2010: The iPhone

I consider the iPhone to be a social media milestone simply because it helped me to re-connect. On buying it, I immediately downloaded the Facebook app, even though I no longer used Facebook. I also opened a Twitter account and downloaded the Twitter app. At first, I didn’t know what to do, but after a while I got into the habit of tapping the icon and updating my timeline with whatever gripes/thoughts arose.

I have two twitter accounts, collectingwords and _kimguin – one for literary quotations and the other for aforementioned gripes etc. I do not know how to use Twitter unless it is with this app. And I use it A LOT. There are times my housemate and I will sit next to each other, reading timelines and not talking. This may have to stop… But we are addicted – and it’s down to the iPhone. It has genuinely changed the way in which I interact with the internet.

As an aside, some of those girls I made friend with at Council of Elrond that time ago I now follow on Twitter and am friends with on Facebook! So who says internet relationships don’t work?

2011: Twitter, WordPress

As was the point of the original post on Nouveau Librarian, I’ve been learning how to use social media in a professional sense since I became, for want of a better word, a ‘professional’. As a 9-5 working human considering a career in libraries, joining the CPD23 project was an obvious choice – and although I had recently set up this blog in an attempt to be more interesting and less personal online, I split my professional and ‘other’ persona with Nouveau Librarian and this blog.

Twitter is now not just a place to moan about things, or retweet inappropriate jokes – and nor is WordPress. Both I now use in a a vaguely professional sense – I want to be able to share my opinions on a number of things that I read, watch and encounter and so I’ve been using CPD23 to learn a little more about creating a decent online persona. A work in progress, as I’m sure I don’t have to say. But I am certainly using Twitter more and more to follow library-related conversations, tweet at conferences/events and make new professional friends so that I can learn more.

And I have to say, I’m really enjoying using WordPress. I love it here, it’s easy to use, I can create new blogs as easy as blinking (although I do now have a number of the damn things registered and it’s been some time since I properly updated any of them…) and I’m doing what I wanted to do – keep writing and keep sharing. One day I hope this will stretch to original writing again, but we’ll see!

Social Media I missed, and why

MySpace/Bebo

I’ve dumped these in the same category because really, what was the point of either? Weren’t they kind of the same – expect that MySpace was for bands and Bebo for children? I don’t know…

From what I remember, everyone at my secondary school went through a phase of creating a MySpace/Bebo account – some even went as far as a Geocities webpage (aah, I am that old…) – but I never, ever did. The reasons for this are twofold: firstly, I am overly cautious about sharing my name, location, age, etc onine; secondly, I’m lazy. These things take a lot of time to maintain and I think at the time I was too busy journalling and chatting to people in America and New Zealand to bother. And again, MySpace and Bebo were sort of ahead of Facebook and so mostly unecessary for someone whose social circle really did consist of the people they saw at school.

I think I’m quite glad about that now. As I’m attempting to be a new professional, not having to clean up my online presence is really a good idea – old MySpace accounts are surely nothing but embarrassing?

What else did I miss? Are there any social media milestones that stand out for you?