Monday, October 31, 2011

Since it is hallowe'en...

...I am going to finish the day by dipping into a collection of horror stories called Re-Vamp edited by Die Booth, one of the members of Chester Writers.

I have taken a quick look already, and can see it is an impressive production.

Rome Day 2: A Nero Fixation

The historic heart of Rome, and in every ruin and building seemed to lurk Nero.

His mouth is small and mean. To me this is the face of a bully.

At first Nero was a popular emperor, ingratiating himself with public works, but then he concentrated on extending his own private empire, with villas filled with murals

and fine sculptures.

How long it took the world for the world to regain such expertise.

On the Palatine hill he also built palaces

with gardens

and baths with fountains

and mosaics

and veined marble pillars

connected with a tunnel

(with its own plaster moulding)

and, a recent discovery, what may be the circular remains of a revolving dining room, the Coenatio Rotunda

All of this was made possible by a fire that had burnt for days

reducing the city to ruin.

Out of these ashes came the Domus Aurea, Nero's home, which sprawled from this Palatine hill to the nearby Oppian.

Some blamed Nero for the fire, so his successors, intent on removing all trace of him, used the foundations of his lake to build a bigger monster

and new shops sprang up along the road (easy to imagine these spaces displaying yesterday's Armani)

But memories are not so easily removed; the Colosseum evokes Colossus, Nero's 30 m bronze statue

and each setting sun evokes the memory of fire

- a more benign inferno for the modern Roman.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Rome Day 1: Columns and Steps

Our hotel was a former convent (on the right) next to the Roman Forum (over the wall to the left) next to the cobbled street - a somewhat strange choice for a city centre - which caused the fast moving cars to sound as if they were on miniature railway tracks.

To the east is the Palatine hill with the forum beneath

and further east the Colosseum. To the north is the glaringly white Vittorio Emanuele II memorial - a southern adjunct to the Capitol hill which seems to consist of steps and more steps (and on one of these a pair of newly weds being romantically photographed)

as well as museums arranged around a square designed by Michaelangelo, guarded by a statue of the famous she-wolf (which was surprisingly tiny).

We headed north our first day, passing the Trajan Column with its parade of soldiers marching to the top

then, continuing north along the Via del Corso, passed yet another - a copy-cat version of the first erected by Marcus Aurelius.

We were aiming for the Spanish Steps, the start of Walk 3 in Elizabeth Speller's book. A right turn took us along the Via Borgognona lined with expensive shops,

hotels and cafes. Until, at the Piazza Spagna itself

we noted (as instructed) the English tea house, and the fountain shaped like a boat in the bottom, and then, dodging the sellers of single roses, made our way upwards to admire the view

A long walk took us through parks and eventually a Roman gate, a huge piazza called Popolo, and the city streets again with its stalls

shops, and another, much later, column - this time of the Immaculate Conception.

It was this part of the walk that I liked the most. The quiet streets with their ochre-coloured walls,

each doorway revealing something human-sized and intimate - a rest from the Roman and the Renaissance which all too soon overwhelms, like an overbright light.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

King James Bible Readathon in the Chester Literature Festival

My first day back from Rome, and I plunged straightaway back into the Chester Literature Festival: taking my slot in the Readathon of the King James VI bible in St Anselm's chapel in Chester Cathedral. My section was the last chapter of Daniel and the first seven chapters of Hosea.

Some parts of the bible are not frequently read, and having ploughed through these pieces of eventless prose I can see why. There was a lot about whoring and adultery in general, and baring the breast in particular - none of this recommended by the narrator, Hosea.

I much preferred the earlier bits about Daniel interpreting dreams and surviving fires and the lions' dens - and his persecutors (and their friends and relatives) all being torn apart with true Old Testament justice. It reminded me of the colosseum, and made me think that throwing people into a pit with wild animals may not have been a wholly Roman invention.

The audience was not huge, in fact consisted just of Hodmandod Senior at one stage (who took this picture), but thanks to Katherine Seddon who was the understudy for the day, and who has done a lot to organise this event. It's certainly made me appreciate the beauty of some of the Old Testament language.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Chester Writers at the Chester Literary Festival

Chester Writers is having a performance evening (as part of the Chester Literature Festival) at the Bull and Stirrup tonight so I have been getting a few things ready:

1. 50 programmes
2. Guest list
3. Guidance notices to our room
4. Signing-in sheet for the Open Mic session
5. Blu-tack
6. Introductory notes (because I am hopeless at ad-libbing)
7. Tin containing a float of £1 coins
8. Egg timer for the Open Mic session

My colleague Ravi has the audio equipment and lectern, Die has been working hard on the publicity and Anita has agreed to man to door - so I think we are all set...

The performers at the Bull and Stirrup (except for one who came later):
Michael Hall, Die Booth, Ian Cai Mercer, Suzanne Iupa, David Atkinson, George Horsman, Moi, Hilary Alexander, Timothy Heavisides, Ravi Raizada, Michele Rimmer, Christopher Atherton and Jane Mack.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Power of the Spoken Word: Tweet Tales & the Launch of 'Books Are Loud'

What a difference a reading makes! Today I listened to Hugh Bonneville and Brenda Blethyn read out the tweet stories from the Society of Authors, and stories that had seemed to me like an unconnected series of lines (probably because I knew how they'd been generated) had new meaning. They are certainly worth listening to (and, of course, supporting the campaign to save the short story on radio 4 - all it needs is your electronic signature here).

This was something I was thinking about on Tuesday night when I went to an audiobook book launch in Manchester. Judy Franklin is an actress, and has narrated many audiobooks for audible. She is also an author, and I met her and her friends Helen Sea and Diana Bradley through Alison Leonard. All of them were studying, or had been studying, at Manchester Metropolitan University's Creative Writing School. The novels they had produced on this course were launched together on Tuesday night - with not a piece of paper in sight - but through the new audiobook publisher BooksAreLoud. It's an exciting venture. Through Audible, they will be available throughout the world.

Alison (who is the author of the excellent Tinker's Career) has written a book called Flesh and Bronze, is based on a young prostitute who modelled for Degas, and who comes face to face with her younger self when she sees a bronze of herself in a shop window. It sounds a poignant tale and you can read a little more about it, as well as watch a rather good video here. The launch coincides with the Degas exhibition now on at London's Royal Academy.

Capuccinos by Diana Bradley takes place in a coffee house and centres on six people who work or are frequent customers. Diana is billed as 'Manchester's own Jackie Collins', and judging by that extract this is entirely accurate. To quote the publicity: 'It's not just the coffee that's steaming!' You can see more about it here.

Helen Sea's work is aimed at young adults, but as is often the case with this sort of book, is expected to appeal to adults too. Helen, like Alison, produced a haunting film to give a taste of the book. It is based in Norway and tells the story of a quest in the old Norse tradition.

Julia Franklin's Turn Up For The Book is a light-hearted romantic comedy, and is set in a background of advertising, restaurants, book selling... and a little murder! That sounds a wonderfully potent mix, and judging from the excerpt we heard is a hugely entertaining read.

The final author in the launch is one of the lecturers in MMU and his book The Only Living Boy has already been published by Salt. It is a collection of short stories, and we heard a couple of them during the launch: Judy and Robert acting a scene that was so well written that it came vividly to life.

Judy, who has started Books Are Loud, with Alison, Helen, Diana and another author, Paula McDonald, says that she will be able to use her knowledge of fellow actors to make a good match between book and actor. And her colleague, Rick Woodhouse, says he is looking forward to giving authors a voice on the world stage. For a small fee they will make an podcast sample of a book and launch it on iTunes. It sounds like an excellent idea to me - and will no doubt be good publicity for a book. They are hoping to attract small publishers to the scheme.

The guest of honour was the poet laureate (and head of MMU's Creative Writing School), Carol Ann Duffy, who gave a short speech after the launch showing her support for this enterprising group of graduates.

There was then an opportunity to buy flashdrives of the audio and kindle versions of the books (and I am happy to report my first one has downloaded successfully on both Kindle and itunes so I am looking forward to a little multimedia reading when on holiday).

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Chester Literature Festival: Paul Dowswell

I went to my first Chester LitFest event yesterday: a talk by Paul Dowswell about his new book Sektion 20.

It is about East Germany in the Cold War and sounded so interesting I bought a copy (ostensibly for my sons, but I think I shall be reading it first). I also bought Paul's Ausländer which has been hugely acclaimed - and shortlisted for just about every prize (for young adult fiction) going.

Bloomsbury have done a fine job of the covers. In artificial light they sparkle most impressively

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Authors North Weekender

From a subterranean station below Piccadilly station, a tram sweeps over canals and through rejuvenated industrial landscape. It glides, swishes, stops, warbles a reedy warning and then sweeps off again: Piccadilly Gardens, St Peter's Square, Deansgate. Outside the traffic has come to a stand still, but the tram glides on. Salford Quays, Anchorage. It is a regal way to travel. At some precise time later it comes to a smooth stop and the doors open. The end of the line. Step out and look around you. Salford's MediaCity, the new home of the BBC.

Gleaming towers. Smooth lines. Sun setting on water, mirrored planes and the word 'Studio' in big bright letters. The old mill town has become the future.

There are just a few steps over newly-laid turf from the terminus to the studio.

The door - more like an opening in the wall of glass is marked 'Sitcom Showcase'; but I am directed to follow the man in front (who looks as though he might be important) to another entrance. As part of Authors North I have become a VIP. My name is checked against the guest list, and I am given a crimson armband as proof of status.

Upstairs there is a table of wine, beer, juice, water, a couple of waiters and the other VIPs: comedy groups, writers producers and actors. It is like being at a publisher's party or in a Literary Festival Green Room. I chat with a member of a troupe from Newcastle until the Authors North party arrive. The voices become louder. Down stairs the rest of the audience mill around Dr Who's tardis which has landed by the window.

After the rest of the audience is seated, we are escorted to our seats. In front of us is the set representing the interior of a flat: chairs, sofa, ironing board and laundry basket. Around us are video cameras pointing into the audience as well as the stage, and above us a false roof not quite hiding supply lines of cables. People, lots of them, some with clipboards, all of them with tense faces, stand waiting to the side.

There are two acts. The first is called 'Single White Male'. The laughs come without pause, and a pair of hamsters are so convincingly squashed in their cage that I find my hand pressed against my mouth. Then there is a Shakespearean style mix-up that is brought up to date with the involvement of a computer.

The second act, Up!, is about a group of university students which turned out to be an exceptional funny and successful take on a familiar theme. The characters are wistful and well-developed. Some of the lines delivered by an actor called Eric Lampaert are delivered with a sort of lyricism.

After another short sojourn in hospitality, it is time for me to leave (although I do manage to tell Eric exactly what I think of him). Back I am back on the tram, then the train and looking forward to the main event in the Lowry Centre - just across a small wharf from the MediaCentre.

We have a room with a view: a river with skulls and the odd, unexpectedly large, steamer loaded with tourists and their large cameras.

Next door is a room full of ballet dancers. We can see them practising in silhouette through partly obscured windows. Across an internal bridge is the main theatre; the only sound from this is the announcement telling the audience to enter. At lunch-time I see a bride and groom drift leisurely and alone around the empty spaces, and I have the odd impression that I am seeing ghosts, or maybe stars on a film set, but they are just the main performers of the real-life drama of their wedding in the function room below. We are isolated and yet can see everything: an excellent venue. Anna Ganley, attending her last meeting as our secretary, begins to tweet the proceedings ( #authorsnorth)...

I gave the chair's report, and then a couple of excellent talks followed. Gary Brown, the Sony Gold Award-winning producer told us that it was an exciting time for drama in the northwest, with radio a particularly good medium for writers. Almost a million people listen to the Radio 4 afternoon play, and the BBC is the biggest commissioner of new drama in the world. Amidst all this gleaming rejuvenation and optimism I was finding it difficult to remember that I was still in the recession-hit UK.

Using examples he gave us tips on how to structure our work, how we should aim to write visually, and the importance of a strong narrative. He looks for plenty of scene changes when he encounters a manuscript, and recommends that 'the start' should be as late as possible in the story line. 25% of newly commissioned work is by writers 'new to radio', and he recommends that anyone interested should submit via the Writers Room (found on the BBC website). However, he stresses that it is tough to get commissioned, and writers generally had some sort of track record - if not in radio then in other forms of writing. Helen Shay, who introduced Gary, said he was an encouraging and supportive to new writers, and I should think he'd be a marvellous mentor.

After lunch Nazrin Choudhury (introduced by John Rice) gave us an impressive talk about her life so far as an award-winning screenwriter. Apart from making her mark in this country writing for various soap operas, she has also won a 'Focus on Talent' award for her first screenplay, Scum, and in 2005 her radio play Mixed Blood won the Imison award. She is now off to the United States to establish herself there, having acquired a specially dispensed green card. She spoke of the importance of courses and awards to her career, and recommends competitions and awards as a way of getting one's name 'out there' .

The day ended in the Seven Oaks Pub in Nicholas Street, in Manchester City Centre, where we heard The Liars League read out a series of previously submitted short stories (800 - 2,000 words ) on the theme of 'Blood and Guts.' The writing and reading was topnotch - and suitably gruesome. Altogether it was a hugely entertaining finish.

Added later: To see the speakers and members of the audience in their cartoon glory I advise you to go straight to Radiocartoon's blog. By some magical means he manages to make themmore like themseleves than they already are.

Thank you Anna Ganley, Rachel O'Mally and Lisa Dowdeswell for organising such a great weekend.