Thursday, 21 August 2008

A Thought on Conventions, Tillie Olson and Bolt

Apart from when working hard on the agent’s suggested re-writes for the novel (definite article) I find myself relaxing by watching other people sweat in the Olympic Games. Mr Bolt seems to be the fastest human on two legs now, the ability to propel yourself along a track faster than others is still quite compelling. He was considered too tall to be a sprinter, legs too long to move that fast. I was told the same at school I was pushed into (or should that be up to) the high jump. Trying to do the Fosbury Flop onto a wet concrete hard sand pit was probably the cause of my spine being re-arranged temporarily into something akin to a toppling Jenga tower. There was a particular kind of thud as you hit the ground and if unlucky the cat shit which the local feline community deposited there. I may have been crap at sprinting but at least I would have liked an opportunity to dodge the cat shit. Well done Mr Bolt, well done those people who told him that conventions can be overthrown

I was talking with someone a while ago involved in a project to introduce ‘literature’ to a group of young single parent women on a council estate that is struggling with a number of problems. These women firmly believed that literature was only for ‘posh’ people. When at school ‘literature’ was a special word used for books written only by a special few. I suggested they might like the short story ‘I Stand Here Ironing’ by Tillie Olson, the American socialist writer from her book of short stories ‘Tell me a Riddle’ (If you haven’t read it then you should, it’s probably one of my Desert Island Books). All of them without exception instinctively understood this story at a deeper level; some of their lives had echoes of this story. All of them were desperate to read more stories by her. One woman apparently said, this was the first time she was glad they hadn’t been shown the film first as the teachers at school usually did that to make them think the story was worth reading. ‘This one was better with words and what was in my head.’ I mention this only because the new convention seems to be that adolescents will only engage with literature if the carrot of the DVD is there. You’ve seen the film…now read the book. If it isn’t selectively used this approach could deny some the right to create their own images in their head. Does Harry Potter look like the actor who plays him in the films in everyone’s mind now? I am still unable to shake off the trauma of seeing Great Expectations updated and transported to Florida and New York and Jennifer Day warbling in the background.

Friday, 15 August 2008

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside no brass band required to play tiddly om pom pom

I have not seen the sea for three months, I am beginning to feel the need. Summer holidays and no seaside to mark it seems distinctly sad. Seeing the sea was an annual prerequisite when I was a child, even if only on a day trip. I lived in the Midlands so I understood rivers and canals, I understood what it felt like to be surrounded by land but the sea was always something extraordinary. I still can’t go over the rise of a hill without expecting to see the sea from the top as this was my first embedded sight of the sea. Seaside of course came with all the razzmatazz of ice-creams, fun fairs, donkeys, sandcastles, shops that sold everything you may need on a beach. It was, however, the actually sea that excited me. The tide was a mystery no matter how much my father tried to explain about phases of the moon and gravitational pulls it only succeeded in deepening the mystery of why the sea came out and in. The sea always seemed to breathe to my childhood psyche, out and in, very slowly, like some great animal. I still don’t fully grasp how tides work, the change of times, equinoxes etc.

I haven’t seen the sea since early May, not long by my childhood calendar as then I only saw it once a year. I nearly drowned when I was six, I fell off a small pier in Devon in a place called Beer (for ever afterwards my Dad would joke that I nearly drowned in Beer and laugh heartily). My father dived in and rescued me whilst my mother (who was unable to swim) waded in up to her waist until a local fisherman stopped her as two people drowning, he pointed out, was not advisable. All I recall is being the centre of attention on the beach when I was pulled out and a doctor, holidaying there, declaring me fit for purpose once I had thrown up copious amounts of salt water. I have never held this incident against the sea, but it has deepened my respect for it. There is an old superstition, usually amongst people whose livelihood and well being depended on the sea that there is a duty not to save the drowning man. The drowning person is seen as a sacrifice to be paid, a propitiation of the sea gods. It was believed that if someone is rescued from the sea it will claim the rescuer at some point. My Dad never drowned and three cheers for the National Lifeboat Institution. I always give money to them on their flag days, a sort of small propitiation of my own.

Of course what I reflect on now is also that both my parents were willing to risk their own lives to save me. What ever the arguments and problems that may have occurred later in tempestuous teenage years that was always a baseline, their knee jerk reaction was to save me whatever the consequences. You can’t expect more than that from a parent.

I’m hoping to see the sea later in the month, just for a day, Brighton..posh seaside not rock pool wild or working class stick of rock seaside but it will suffice. Last time I was there I watched a huge muscular seagull swoop down on a woman’s bag of chips and neatly take them out of her hand; he almost had a grin on his face, if beaks can grin. Of course the other superstition is that seagulls hold the souls of those lost at sea. A superstition used by David Harsent in this poem from his wonderful collection Legion.
If I had drowned in Devon, I like to think I would have subsequently enjoyed stealing chips from unsuspecting holiday makers.

Monday, 11 August 2008

Ali, Zatopek, Spender and the Fire's Centre

So the Games are in full flow, the opening seemed a consummate lesson in wire work but as it was directed by The Crouching Tiler Flying Bread Knives man one would expect someone to be suspended in space for a little longer than is natural. I have to say I always hold my breath when it comes to the lighting of the torch, is it arranged so nothing can ever go wrong these days? If that archer missed in Barcelona would someone have just quietly thrown in a lighted match, if Ali had collapsed in Atlanta would a look alike have been there to stand in.

Of course I am a real sucker for that grand gesture, and I can’t watch it without beginning to get that tight feeling in my throat. Here was Ali, racked and shaking with Parkinson’s, the man who flung his Olympic medal away in response to his treatment as a black man in the United States, the man who was a real showman but who in his prime fought and looked like a athletic god, struggling to light a small flame.

I know Stephen Spender in his introduction to his poem The Truly Great thought of Beethoven, Eisenstein, D.H Lawrence but I think this poem could also be applied to those great athletes who were/are greater than the politics, the razzmatazz, the money, who, when you watch them raise your spirits just a little about humanity. They may not stop wars, find cures for diseases, create great works of art but a truly great sportsman or woman does show us something akin to fire in their centre.

‘….wore at their hearts the fire’s centre.
Born of the sun they travelled a short while towards the sun,
And left the vivid air signed with their honour.’

I wonder who will be the truly great of the Olympics in living memory. Of such stuff is endless arguement made down the pub. Phelps looks on track to deliver eight golds but then sometimes it is not always the ones who are weighed down with bright metal, that get the sponsorship or the advertising deals that you remember.Some that stick in my head from old filmed highlights are of course

Jesse Owen

Emil Zatopek at the 1952 Olympics

But some of those things I recall from sitting in front of my television either crying at, cheering on or generally biting my nails at are

Eddie 'The Eagle' Edwards

Derek Redmond and his Dad

Lillian Board

It's that old question of 'Do you know where you were when England won the World Cup'. I recall that the settee was green, the cat needed worming and I had shepherds pie on a tray on my lap when Lillian Board got beaten for the gold in the last few seconds of the race. Enough said

Monday, 4 August 2008

Forward Prize and the Women are in there. Clowns Without Borders may not be in the Forward but they are in Syria

Just a quick post to say hurray for Jen Hadfield and Kate Rhodes as they have both been nominated for something in the 2008 Forward Prize.Jen has been nominated for best poetry collection with Nigh-No-Place which I have posted about a while back and Kate for best individual poem with 'Wells-Next-To-Sea' a prize winning poem in the Bridport prize last year.
Good to see more women nominated for once, good to see that it may be a close tussle for all the prizes. A close tussle for me seems to indicate a wealth of interesting poetry out there to choose from. It is strange that Seamus Heaney has never won anythng in the Forward but he is nominated this year for best individual poem. He does have a nobel prize for literature to console him however.

Also want to point out that New Exposure is on its travels again this time in Syria and the group has been working with young refugees from Iraq there, teaching them the skill sneeded for photojournalism. Always a really interesting blog to look at. It was interesting to see that there is a group called Clowns Without Borders who have been involved in a project to train Iraqi clowns to work with the refuge children...more power to their elbow and paint for their noses I say.