Ted Hughes: a Tribute

Ted Hughes March 1993
(CC-BY-SA Breakingthings)

Bath Literature Festival
The Forum, Bath, 28 February

I confess that I mostly chose this event to go to because it included Kate Tempest and I keep missing her Bristol shows. But I also like Ted Hughes’ poetry and was interested in what a tribute to him would be like. The answer? A bit uneven and yet also staid. But Kate was really good.

The audience had been expecting Melvyn Bragg and Jonathan Dimbleby, which perhaps explains the make-up of the crowd (largely older than me, and very white upper middle class, but then it was Bath) – they actually groaned when the panel change was announced. Personally I bought my ticket after this change was made. It might have been enough to put me off even the chance to see Kate Tempest. I know Bragg and Dimbleby are supposed to be beloved national icons but I find them very dull.

The event was hosted by Bel Mooney, a writer who co-founded the festival 20 years ago, which was when she first met Ted Hughes, who opened that year’s festival in the Forum, the same venue hosting his tribute. She spoke warmly of him as a man and as a writer, hitting all the right notes of celebration and admiration.

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Bristol Women’s Literature Festival is back!

final logo TEXTOn 14–15 March, Bristol’s Watershed will be home to a celebration of women’s writing, with a series of events covering everything from the overlooked women writers of the Renaissance to the brightest and the best of today’s up and coming literary stars.

The festival was founded by feminist writer Siân Norris “to celebrate the work of women writers in a literary scene that is all too often dominated by male voices”.

It all kicks off with a screening of Paris was a Woman, a 1996 documentary film about the amazing women of the 1920s Paris literary scene including my beloved Colette, followed by an audience discussion chaired by Norris.

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You’re a son of a gun, Sammy

maltese falconThe Maltese Falcon
by Dashiell Hammett

I’ve been meaning to read this for years. As a fan of Raymond Chandler I figured I should read the original gritty noir American detective, so I was pleased when my book club picked this for one of our “classic” reads. I was late to the book club discussion but I think we all felt the same way: this is worth reading but not as good as Chandler!

I guess I was hoping for that luscious purple prose that Chandler is such an expert at – it’s ridiculous and yet in a way beautiful. Hammett has none of that. Which isn’t to say this is badly written, it’s just a bit plainer, but still very entertaining and with moments of beauty.

The story centres on San Francisco private detective Sam Spade. He’s cynical, a womaniser, good at depriving villains of their weapons and on first-name terms with most local police, the DA and the DA’s secretary. And he sees a lot of his lawyer. The plot begins on page one, with a new client arriving in his office. Miss Wonderly wants Spade and his partner to follow a man for her, a simple enough job that predictably is neither as simple or as safe as it should have been. The maltese falcon of the title takes a while to come into play and is an appropriately mysterious unusual object around which to centre a plot that brings together a variety of criminals.

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Comic books short reviews

The thing about comic books in series is that’s kinda hard to say that much about them after volume one, so here’s some brief thoughts on comics I’ve read lately.


modesty blaise grim jokerModesty Blaise: The Grim Joker
by Peter O’Donnell (writer) and Enric Badia Romero (artist)

I’ve jumped in my reading of Modesty Blaise from strips from the early 1970s to those of the early 1990s and it shows. While the stories themselves are still very gung-ho pseudo Bond adventures and they still look quite 1960s, the gender politics and subject matter have moved on. Modesty is no longer the only capable female on the block, though there are still gratuitous scenes of her nearly or fully naked at least once in every storyline. This volume collects three stories: one is about amnesia and the bond between Modesty and her best friend/right-hand man Willie Garvin; one is about two very different treasure hunts that collide; and one is about a series of murders that Modesty and Willie decide to risk their lives to solve. The dialogue can be clunky and the plots a little predictable, but these stories remain enormously fun, with a great sense of style.

“Willie hits the water and finds with some surprise that he is still alive. But on the surface the river pounds with furious speed between the canyon walls. For over a mile Willie is swept down-river, unable to do more than stay afloat…he fends off the menacing rocks and tumbling debris, but at last the current hurls a heavy log at him—and on the other side of the world, where it is night, Modesty wakes abruptly.”

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Night Safari: Love in the Natural World

Natural History Museum, London
Monday 16 February 2015

Dippy has a tail

Our Valentine’s long weekend in London was largely built around Tim managing to get tickets for the Natural History Museum‘s special Valentine’s tie-in evening event. I almost didn’t care what the event was, I was so excited by the prospect of being in the museum at night, sharing it with only 50 or so people. If you’ve ever seen the ridiculous queues to get into the Natural History Museum, particularly on a weekend or school holiday (which this last week was for most of England) you’ll understand why that was exciting.

But it was also a cool event in itself: three short lectures from NHM scientists about “romance” in the natural world (there was also a “passion” option with three different scientists, which I’m guessing concentrated more on sex but let’s face it, both options were mostly about sex).

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It became frightening to step back onto firm ground

getting-the-pictureGetting the Picture
by Sarah Salway

When new publisher Dean Street Press offered up any of their books for review, I picked this one partly because the synopsis sounded good but mostly because they had a quote from Neil Gaiman on the cover. Not the greatest reason but I think it worked out.

The book opens with Maureen accompanying her model friend Pat to a photographer’s studio. Maureen is married with a young child and the photographer, Martin, specialises in nude portraits – tasteful ones, but nudes all the same – so Maureen is nervous to be there but undeniably attracted to Martin. Cut to 40 years later and Martin is moving into a retirement home. He writes a letter to Maureen to tell her that he picked the same home that her husband George is in, because he wants to finally understand why she went back to her husband after their affair ended.

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Politics are what brought us together, in this room

asylum and exileAsylum and Exile: the Hidden Voices of London
by Bidisha

I picked this book up at its launch in London last week after hearing a few samples from it read aloud. It’s a short, jauntily written memoir that is deceptive in the power of what it has to say.

Bidisha is a British author, journalist and broadcaster who in 2011 started to run creative writing workshops for asylum seekers and other migrants in London, organised by English PEN. She quickly realised that most people who turned up for the class were not interested in becoming writers – they were there to improve their English or to spend some time with people in a similar situation or even to receive the free tea, cake and £8 travel subsidy provided by the charity. But she also found that didn’t matter because she discovered amazing people and had her preconceptions of refugees challenged.

“On the board, I draw a sun with a smiling face and rays and all its clichés flowing out from it: warmth, light, shininess, redness, yellowness and gold, nourishment, hope and life and growth, tanning and health, sunset and sunrise. These are all banned.

A woman with a canny face, gleaming jet skin and matte black eyes chuckles as she prepares to read hers out. Grandly, emphatically: ‘I miss the African sun because it made me sweat out all my African fat.’

Clapping, laughter and loud agreement from everyone.”

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Sunday Salon: So much stuff

The Sunday Salon

It’s been a busy week, full of bookish stuff, plus friends and family, and that work thing, so I am too tired for our weekly pub quiz and instead am sat at home watching junk TV instead of reading any of the many piles of unread books lying around. I should probably feel bad about this but I don’t.

Watermark BooksOn Tuesday I went to London and I tried really hard not to go to any bookshops while I was there after last week’s book buying. I avoided all the bookshops I know and love and instead went to the British Library to visit the Lines in the Ice exhibition (one of their smaller exhibitions but still really interesting – lots of old maps, which I love). Thankfully the place was so swarming with people visiting the Magna Carta that I didn’t even consider visiting their giftshop, which is basically a bookshop. But then when I was searching for the toilets in Kings Cross Station I stumbled across a tiny but lovely branch of the US book chain Watermark Books next door to the Harry Potter Shop. Of course, I couldn’t walk into a new bookshop find without buying anything, but I picked a couple of smaller books in the hopes of actually squeezing in reading them!

bookshop buys

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A gleam of light in the impenetrable mystery

The Little PrinceThe Little Prince
by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
translated from French by Katherine Woods

This is my first read for Classics Club and it may have been an odd place to start, or maybe a very good place. I’m not sure. It certainly wasn’t the book I expected and yet, thinking about it, I really should have known exactly how it would be.

First of all, it’s a children’s book, which I knew, but so many adults rave about it that I suppose I thought it wouldn’t read quite so very much like one. Also, it was written in the 1940s and has the moralising tone to suit, though it’s an unusual set of morals that it’s selling.

The story is wonderful, by which I mean both that it’s lovely and that it’s full of wonder. A young pilot crashes his plane in the Sahara Desert and there meets and befriends an alien who has travelled to many worlds. The alien, the little prince of the title, tells the pilot about his home world and his travels and the life lessons he has learned.

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Asylum and Exile: the Hidden Voices of London


Free Word Centre, London, 3 February

I’ve been on the English PEN mailing list for years, but as their events are mostly in London I’ve never actually made it to one before. This one was also in London but I had some holiday to use up so I took a half-day off work to make my leisurely way to Clerkenwell and listen to a fascinating discussion around issues of refugees, asylum and the written word.

Bidisha, a writer who has run writing workshops in London for asylum seekers, refugees and other migrants, has written some great background to the event here so I will summarise fairly quickly and nudge you over there for more detail! The event took its name from a book Bidisha is publishing (official release date is 11 February, though last night was effectively its launch) about the writing workshops she ran, the people she met through them and the stories they had to tell. (I started reading it on the train home and I’m already most of the way through – it’s a great book that I will post more about soon.) She is an elegant, poised woman who spoke with passion but also plenty of humour about issues surrounding asylum. The event is part of a series organised by English PEN to counter the pervasive negative media picture of asylum seekers in the UK and Bidisha was joined on stage by people who have worked for or with a whole host of related charities, mostly with a literary aspect to their work.

Maurice Wren, CEO of the Refugee Council, kicked things off by explaining that the problem they face when countering media stereotypes is that they are “tackling simple lies with complex truths”. It’s a tough task, but one thing everyone on stage believes can work is telling individual stories. It’s certainly true that the things that stand out for me from last night are those individual stories – they are unavoidably more powerful than numbers, however big or small.

Bethan Lant works as an advocate for asylum seekers for Praxis Community Projects, dealing with the legal side of things but also the practicalities of finding them a place to sleep, an interpretor for those who don’t speak English and so on. She told a very telling story about two young men who recently showed up in her office at the end of the day with no English, no place to stay, no clue what papers had to be filled in or what status they needed to apply for. Bethan went into work mode, solving all their problems, including escorting them to the Tube to reach their temporary accommodation. Afterward, she realised she hadn’t even asked their names until a form required it, and all she knew about them was their country of origin and that they had come to the UK via Calais. What stories they could have told her, what journeys they must have led, but she had fallen into the trap of seeing those young men as problems not people.

Bethan added that the problem isn’t exactly that refugees’ stories aren’t heard. They have to tell their stories over and over again in the official process, but they aren’t heard as human beings. This point was picked up by Bamidele Hassan, a refugee from Nigeria who now runs poetry workshops for the Migrant and Refugee Committees Forum. The worst part of the UK process for asylum seekers is that the Home Office assumes your story is false. It is not uncommon for refugees to spend years in various detention centres being told over and over that they are lying, which is not only dehumanising but can make people doubt their own sanity.

Nadifa Mohamed and Malika Booker are both writers who came to the UK as children. Nadifa has been here now for 30 years, but says that anti-immigration rhetoric still has the power to make her feel like an outsider, that this isn’t her home. Malika added to this that she is alarmed by the rise of the far right wing across Europe; looked at in historical context this is something that should worry us all. An audience member added that it isn’t just Europe experiencing this. In her native South Africa, violence against refugees and migrants from other African countries is on the rise, but newspaper reports focus on the outrage of the South Africans at the “invaders”, never on the migrants.

Bidisha picked up the baton here with her own hope that art can be a counter narrative. The people she spoke to for her book weren’t writers but when people are talking about things that really matter to them, they are eloquent. These are the stories that need to be heard, not the nameless faceless numbers games that newspapers play. She urged the audience to go away and write articles, spread these stories. Malika said that it’s not just for political benefit that these stories should be told. She has learned from the writing classes she runs that it’s of huge benefit to people to find a way to tell their story and feel heard. Bethan added that the best way of doing that is to get a group of people with similar backgrounds together, to let them discover for themselves what is universal and what is unique about their experience.

Which is of course where Bidisha and her book come in, because they make this point so very well. The experience of exile, seeking asylum, building a new life from nothing, is sadly all too common, but the people sharing that experience are hugely diverse, from the lives they led before to their personalities to the way they approach life – it sounds like a crass, obvious thing to say, but it’s all too easily forgotten. It would be easy to say what I learned last night about Bamidele is that he spent 11 months in detention before being granted refugee status, the suffering and indignity that he went through. But I also learned that he is a soft-spoken man brimming with justified anger. I heard the conviction in his voice when he told others’ stories and implored us to see that the system cannot be right. I saw how shyly he read out the poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley, with what quiet power he explained why it speaks to him, and in particular the final lines:

“It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.”

Thank you to the Free Word Centre and English PEN for organising this excellent event. I only wish I could do it justice, but suffice to say that I came away both suffused with the need to share these stories and full of hope because these people are already doing such wonderful things that I really believe in.

For more information, please do check out the excellent work that these charities do:
Free Word
English PEN
Refugee Council
The Migrant and Refugee Communities Forum
Praxis Community Projects
Migrant Voice