Sunday, 28 June 2009

The Power of Words, Theatre and Anna Politkovskaya

I seem to have settled into a habit of Sunday blogging, this may be because Sunday has in the past few months offered up an hour or so when I have not felt guilty at not using it to write other stuff, stuff being poems, another novel and some first novel re-writes at the request of lovely agent (blessings be upon her brunette head). Plus there is finding time to read, the foundation of every literary endeavour. I read therefore I am. I have been an avid reader since I was able to read at three or four. Luckily I picked up how you cracked this code of visual symbols being put together to correspond to the spoken word quite early, before I went to school in fact. My mother always put it down to my reading packets and tins stuck on top of my pram and then push chair. Early exposure to Omo, Brillo Pad boxes and Bronco toilet paper balanced on my lanky long lap obviously allowed me to fathom that these marks held some long term significance . Talking to those, who as adults are still unable to read with ease, I have in recent years become more and more aware of how this cracking of the code was a gift that I never fully appreciated when young. A few years ago a woman once told me that every day she spent in school when young was a confirmation of her inability to join the club, to join what she thought of as the rest of the world about her. Luckily dyslexics and others with learning difficulties receive better treatment these days ( well hopefully they should) but maintaining your self esteem as an intelligent human being whilst struggling to read words and text that others skim through with ease is still hard going.

I often say to non-readers that I can’t ride a bike, I have to think very hard about riding a bike, I have no natural sense of balance, I cannot make the machine a simple extension of my body. I know that others don’t have to think about the process at all, it just flows in one kinaesthetic pattern.It is something I can improve with practice, determination and help but I will always have to work hard at doing it, it will never come naturally. Thankfully I can avoid any necessity to ride a bike whereas reading is a skill current western civilisation regards as important. If bike riding was deemed the skill necessary to be a successful and competent human being I would be sunk.Luckily reading and writing is the skill that is valued and thus 'hurray' nature has been kind enough to endow me with the ability to be able to read with ease; nothing to do with how intelligent I am, how creative I am, how hard working I am, indeed many dyslexics are highly intelligent, creative and lateral thinkers. I may need to think about the odd word when I read, what it means or how it is pronounced but essentially reading just happens for me. What a wonder the human brain and invention is, that the thoughts and words of one person can be transferred and encoded into these strange marks on a page and then decoded again perhaps hundreds of years later or miles away from the originator of the words. Of course publishing and the printing press have allowed this act of reading and writing business to become a global and historic phenomenon but even as I type this now if I really think hard about what I am doing, it still becomes a wonder. These curves, circles, straight lines all combining to convey meaning that you dear reader, however far distant can use to access what I am thinking, sitting here at my desk in the fens. If you think about it too hard, self consciously it almost slows you down. There is an old trick that has done the rounds a lot about the fact that so long as the first and last letter in a word is the same you can jumble up the letters in between and even miss out the vowels and people can still read the text, more slowly maybe, but in some strange alchemy that this embedded skill imparts to us, many are able to combine all the skills of symbol decoding, and syntax together to arrive at the meaning.

Ths bmcs qte aynnng bt mny pple fnd rndg jbmld wdrs and lrtts rlly esy ohrts fnd it mre dcflft.

So having cracked the code I read and read as a child and have never stopped reading. It not only allowed me access to the factual world but to the world of imagination.Imagination is a muscle that has to be exercised in order to grow and it is reading that has strengthened that muscle for me. The ability to read doesn't give birth to imagination of course, but what I can imagine, having read so extensively, would be significantly different, not better or worse but different nonetheless. So I continue to read and find in that experience something about myself, the world and about possibilities everyday.

I have just read Sarah Hall’s new book ‘How to Paint a Dead Man’ with relish, questions being asked of me as I challenge myself to connect all the varying threads and when I finished it, I read it all over again to lick out the bowl of all the rich mix I didn’t get first time around. I like books that demand something from me, the ones that give me the whole cake, iced and finished are great in a different way, so long as the story and language are exciting enough to keep turning the page. That there are different books for different times in our life or our different moods is the whole joy of the printed word. I am currently reading the poet Jacob Polley’s first novel, Talk of the Town, written in Carlisle dialect in the voice of a young teenage boy, it's is a real joy and has taken me into this boy’s world and head with ease. The rough council estate lads and the girls who are fifteen but sometimes going on thirty in their approach to life all resonate with my experiences of working and living in such places for years.I have laughed alot when reading it at the sheer rough puckishness of some of the dialogue and interaction.

I went to see two plays at the Hotbed Drama festival in Cambridge yesterday and saw two new and exciting pieces of work by Fraser Grace and Helen Mort, totally different but equally exciting. Fraser Grace’s piece, Events from a Forgotten War, is about the life and murder of the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya.

It revealed a bleak world of corruption, torture, terrorism and murder but also an insight into real courage, born out of sheer stubbornness in the face of madness and cruelty and Anna’s unwillingness never to give into threat when she was faced with injustice. There has just been an announcement of the re-trial of her murderers. Her assassination occurred on Putin’s birthday.Putin when asked to comment on her murder at the time stated that he had nothing to say about someone so insignificant. Each birthday now ,of course, he is faced with the silent vigils of those thousands that mourn her death and demand justice for her. Assassination of those that publicly question those in positions of power is never the full stop those that may instigate it envisage, it just makes the question mark bigger and more noticeable.Who ever was responsible for her murder the questions she raised about the use of power won't just disappear

A Pint for the Ghost , the other piece I saw, by Helen Mort, was other worldly and delivered in such a way that the language of the poems became heightened but never over the top. The ghosts of the Peak District and Sheffield paraded before us, each different, each taking the stage to quietly assert their right to be heard. Poetry on stage can be mesmerising, it does not have to be the sometimes shouty, 'in your face' world of performance poetry, the sheer beautiful language of the great poem can always sustain the drama and hold you spell bound, even more so in some ways, for its quietness and intensity. Someone just being still and telling you the quiet stories of the dead using words so well, makes you feel you have experienced something special. This piece renewed my faith in the power of the poem as real drama in its own right (in the full sense of the word dramatic).

I note Iran is busy expelling foreign newspaper journalists, the government there understands the power of the written word. All governments understand the power of the written word. Politkovskaya always knew it. Which brings me back full circle to the power of reading. In a world that may seem dominated by TV and film, the written word is still able to move mountains and topple governments not just MPs with duck houses. Even great TV and theatre starts with the written word, a good script. The ability to distribute marks on a page to communicate something is not just a human right it is one of the things that helps us be more human.

Off now to make some more marks on page and look at some others and end up in somewhere else for a while in my head.I have not mentioned Michael Jackson there are thousands of marks on a page or computer screen that you can find elsewhere on his death.

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