Friday, 30 October 2009

Sophie Calle: Talking to Strangers, Whitechapel Gallery

Last night I went to Sophie Calle's Exhibition Talking to Strangers at the Whitechapel Gallery. It includes retrospectives of work dating back 20 years and the English-language version of her exhibition Prenez Soin de Vous, first seen in French in 2007. The exhibition is in an art gallery, and therefore beautifully presented, but it's about ideas and language, and would be equally at home in the British Library or some other museum seeking to attract new audiences while educating and entertaining them at the same time.

Sophie Calle appears in Paul Auster's Leviathan as a character called Maria and she's been a hero of mine since I first read the book about 15 years ago. SC is a conceptual artist who reflects on events in her life - whether visited on her by chance or carefully prescribed - and turns them into solipstic work that combines art, literature and performance. If you like words, videos, literature, the French language, French people, philosophy and women, then Prenez Soin de Vous might appeal to you as much as it did to me. I thought it was as near-perfect as any exhibition I have ever seen.

In Prenez Soin de Vous Sophie Calle has asked 100 women to react to an email she received from her boyfriend, breaking up with her. She calls on actresses, singers, writers, dancers, a translator, a philologist, a criminologist, a police chief, a judge, a sharp-shooter, a chess player, and so on, and so on. They read the text on video and comment on it, or they create a performance in response to it, or analyse it from a professional point of view. Jeanne Moreau reads the text in French, in her beautiful voice, with a cigarette burning in the ashtray on the desk beside her. Miranda Richardson sits on a sofa and reads it in English, while her cat sits beside her and grooms itself thoroughly (it was engaged in licking its arse when I first started watching the video, which was slightly distracting). There's a puppet show, some dancing, a clown... there's even a parrot on its perch, repeating 'prenez soin de vous'.

My favourites among the written responses included the translation from French to English with the translator's notes, the children's story which is displayed in full in a cabinet, the rejection letter from the editors of a French news publication, Libération ('this is not news, no-one has died') and the note of caution from a friend who tells SC she is surrounding herself with 'a chorus of death'. But there's so much to enjoy, including the tarot reading, a philosophical reply from a police chief ('we enter love affairs knowing there's an element of risk'), a writing exercise set by a primary school teacher, and so on. I didn't dislike any of it.

The exhibition is free and it's on until 3rd January and I hope to return to it several times. I always thought I wanted to live in John Lewis in Oxford Street; so practical and reliable with its extensive range of haberdashery and 'never knowingly undersold' pricing policy. But actually I wouldn't mind living here, in this exhibition. It's so intelligent and interesting and clever, and French.



I liked the exhibition so much I became a supporter of Whitechapel Gallery. If, like me, you would like to donate £10 or more you can do so here.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Letter to the Guardian

I put my name to this letter published in the Guardian yesterday:


All the signatories to the letter are authors. You can see the full list here or here. More details about the campaign to end child detention here. You can sign a petition here.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Kellerman and The Scouting Book for Boys

On Friday I saw Kellerman by Imitating the Dog and Pete Brooks. It's an extraordinary show, designed by Laura Hopkins. The story deals with time travel/insanity along the lines of Twelve Monkeys/La Jetée. It's brilliantly staged, full of theatrical illusions and trompe l'oeils. Live action plays out on a two-story set against a pre-recorded film which is continually re-framed so you can follow different aspects of the action, sometimes simultanenously, a little like Time Code perhaps. It's very clever - a simple execution of a complex vision that nevertheless is so intricately choreographed that it requires four technicians to travel with the show on tour. It's one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in the theatre.

Yesterday afternoon I went to a preview of The Scouting Book for Boys, written by playwright Jack Thorne, directed by Tom Harper, and starring Thomas Turgoose and Holliday Grainger, supported by reliably excellent actors such as Susan Lynch and Rafe Spall. I have seen RS on stage and he's a charismatic, powerful actor, yet I've never quite seen this captured on screen before.

The Scouting Book for Boys is one of the best films I have seen for a long time; economically written and visually stunning, with compelling performances and a moving bitter-sweet story, it's rather like a European film or an American art-house film. It avoids falling into the too-wordy, too-telly, too-flippant trap that many British films seem to fall into, while nevertheless evoking a very British feel with the Norfolk caravan park setting, good characterisation and acting, and some funny lines. Both Jack Thorne and Tom Harper have won awards for previous work, and when you watch this film you can see why.

There are diaries from the writer and director on Channel Four's website. There's also a fascinating Cineuropa interview with Tom Harper at the San Sebastian festival, in which the interviewer asks 'what is the thesis of this film?' and later reads to TH from a piece of paper containing an enigmatic sentence summing up his reaction to the film. Don't watch it if you're just about to see SB4B, though, as it gives away quite a lot of what happens.

The Scouting Book for Boys opens in the Spring. Hopefully it will be a big hit. You can follow the film on Twitter @SB4B.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Im in Ur Wasteland Burying Ur Dead

Yes, of course I watched Nick Griffin on Question Time last night. But before that I went to Josephine Hart's Poetry Hour at the Royal Society, as part of the British Academy Literature Week. Kenneth Cranham, Charles Dance and Elizabeth McGovern read poetry by T.S. Eliot, Robert Browning, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, Philip Larkin, Kipling and Robert Frost. It was wonderful.

One of my favourite poems last night was The Applicant by Sylvia Plath. I must have read it at some time as I used to have a copy of SP's complete works, though I gave it to a boyfriend one night after he had stayed over; a kind of payment, you could say. He refers to it whenever I see him (not often, thankfully) so perhaps he's unused to receiving an honorarium after an evening's entertainment.

I always wish I'd had a better education and try to take heed of the maxim that it's better to say nothing and be thought a fool than to speak and leave no-one in any doubt. So when the woman sitting next to me in the audience said she loved T.S. Eliot, it's unfortunate that the only contribution I felt able to make on the subject was to direct her to the Lolcat translation of The Waste Land. Unsurprisingly, she hadn't heard of it. Hopefully the beauty and power of the readings last night will have wiped my suggestion from her mind, though I gave a thorough explanation, 'You mean you haven't heard of I can has cheezburger?' and spelled it out for her: L O L C A T.

Then I came home and got drunk and watched Question Time. It's a shame that they have to put a racist homophobe on the telly to get the nation to sit down and watch a current affairs programme. But it was lovely to feel that all of us watching the show were united in our disgust, though a friend on Twitter reports that someone on The Wright Show today said that Griffin was 'like Joan of Arc'; an intriguing comparison.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

0110: Twisted Tales & Glorious

I've just been announced as part of the writing team for 0110: Twisted Tales & Glorious, a six-part TV series created and devised by Lara Greenway.

Writing is a solitary occupation, as you know, so it will be wonderful to work as part of a team for a change, without having to forgo creative autonomy: we'll all contribute stories that we have written and created individually, and they'll fit together to make up each of the six one hour episodes.

A friend got hired to work on an ongoing drama series a couple of years ago, and after attending a story conference for the first time he reported that the experience exceeded all his expectations: 'Imagine this: I was sitting round a table with a group of writers,' he said, 'and every single one of them was as clever and talented and funny as me.' I laughed at him then and quoted his words back to him as an example of his lack of humility - and to others as an example of his lack of self-awareness.

But, I don't know... we had our first 0110 planning meeting the other day. And I couldn't help remembering what my friend had said. The only thing I'd add is this: 'every single one of them was as clever and talented and funny and drunk as me.' Marvellous. I'm really looking forward to it.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Noah's Ark Zoo Breeds Tigers for Circus

The BBC reports that Noah's Ark Zoo near Bristol has been breeding tigers for the Great British Circus, a circus where undercover filming has shown elephants in distress and subject to cruel treatment by employees of the circus.

Regina - Tom Sapsford

Tom Sapsford is bringing his multi-media dance piece, Regina, to Glasgow this weekend, and then to Manchester the Friday after that. Tom has worked with the Royal Ballet and Michael Clark, among others.

I saw the show in Bath earlier this year and I loved it.

Details of the Glasgow show here.
It's on at the Tramway, 23rd and 24th October.

Details of the Manchester show here.
It's on at the Greenroom, 30th October.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Antonia Fraser and me, 20 years on

Last night I saw Antonia Fraser again, after a break of about 20 years. She won't have missed me or thought about me in the intervening period as we weren't introduced the first time round. We were in the Groucho Club - it had only just opened and was very much the place to be - and she went past me, with Harold Pinter, to a private party upstairs.

I had recently given birth and was very thin, and had borrowed a friend's floor-length backless black dress for the occasion, not realising that everyone else would be wearing ripped jeans and t-shirts (not AF and HP, of course; I don't recall exactly what they were wearing, I only seem to remember a kind of fragrant whooshing as they passed directly behind me to go up the stairs.)

At the time I had pretty much abandoned my dream of writing a novel and getting it published and was temping for Newham Council to support myself and my child, having royally fucked up my life by getting pregnant when I was little more than a child myself. The crowd I was with at the Groucho were mostly music business types, all keen to progress their careers, and smart enough to realise they wouldn't do it by talking to a post-partum temporary filing clerk in an evening gown. Had any of them asked where I'd like to be in twenty years time, however, I probably would have said: at a literary party with Antonia Fraser.

So last night I saw Antonia Fraser again. The occasion was the inaugural PEN/Pinter Prize ceremony at the British Library, in which the poet and playwright Tony Harrison was awarded the main prize. Though I'm delighted to have been invited there as a guest last night, it wasn't quite an exclusive literary party; you could buy tickets on the internet.

And nor was I 'with' Antonia Fraser, though I did stand next to her as we waited to take our seats in the auditorium. I smiled, as if to say, here we are at last, but unfortunately my mobile phone rang just then, which seemed to mark me out as a cultural ignoramus with too little respect for the memory of her dead husband to turn my phone off, and rather spoiled the moment. Worse, I had to answer it as I needed to report to the caller that I had failed in what seemed to me the insurmountably difficult task of finding, at the Euston Road exit of King's Cross station, an exiled writer from Africa whom I had never met before, to bring him with me to the British Library.

I had been instructed to look out for a shortish, middle-aged African man but, though a representative of every age, gender and ethnicity on God's great earth seemed to walk through that little patch of King's Cross between 5.48 and 6.17 pm, I couldn't for the life of me see anyone who matched his description. I called the number I'd been given for him, and texted a message along the following lines: Outside the Newsweek Stand, Euston Road, purple scarf. All to no avail, as the number I had been given for the unfortunate chap was wrong.*

So, twenty years on: I've had a few books published, and a couple of plays produced. My poems, though not widely admired, are readily available on the internet, with the dog shit haiku in particular proving a modest hit. I still can't say that I'm an insider on the literary scene, though I can say I'm an author, something which makes me very proud. In fact I'm as poor and gauche as I ever was. But at least I'm free to express myself and not liable to be imprisoned for anything I say or write - unlike the Burmese writer Zargana, the winner of the PEN/Pinter award for a prisoner of conscience, who's in prison for 35 years. **

*It's OK. Someone else found him.
** How to join PEN.

Friday, 9 October 2009

National Poetry Day and Midsomer Murders

It was National Poetry Day yesterday. Did you do anything to celebrate?

I went along to the Royal Festival Hall and saw Carol Ann Duffy reading and admired the Poetry Society's Knitted Poem.

There's a video of Roger McGough reading and a video of the knitted poem over on the Bookfutures blog. I think that's my full stop you can see, just after the word 'heart'.

The poem we were knitting was kept as a surprise (I'm not sure why) until 7th October, when the giant square was unveiled for the first time at the British Library. It's Dylan Thomas's In My Craft or Sullen Art.

Inviting a group of strangers to contribute letters to a knitted poem whose identity is a secret is very Midsomer Murders, isn't it? We had to sew a tag on the back with our name, location and the title of our favourite poem. (I chose Love Song by Rilke, translated by Cliff Crego.)

I wonder if we'll all get picked off, one by one, perhaps by a disgruntled poet whose name doesn't appear on the mosaic of tags on the back of the giant square. Will the murderer start with those who knitted the letter A and then target the Bs and then go right on through the alphabet? As mine was a full stop, hopefully I'll be the last on the list and I'll have solved the case by then. Or perhaps I'll team up with the person who knitted the blue full stop after 'art' and we'll solve the case together.

Things I Do When I'm Supposed to Be Writing

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

So You Live Again

I took Jessie to the Vet this morning. He told me he used to have a dog like Jessie (we always have this conversation, though sometimes I have to prompt him; I find it reassuring) and he prescribed some pills to help her wobbly back legs. When I checked the manufacturer's website later, I was slightly surprised to see, under the section entitled 'Dos and Don'ts if your dog's been diagnosed with Osteoarthritis', that they were recommending hypnotherapy for dogs. But I had mis-read it. Actually they were recommending hydrotherapy.

After we'd been to the Vet, I took Jessie to Clapham Common where she had a short walk in the rain. Then I brought her home.

Jessie is the only one in our family who has a soundtrack to her life. Today it's So You Live Again, sung to the tune of So You Win Again by Hot Chocolate.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Balancing the ledger of recent events

Yesterday morning I took the 137 bus in to town and sat, for part of the journey, in front of two young people who were having a row. The boy was upset because the girl hadn't allowed him to comfort her the night before, during some unspecified event (I missed the set-up, which must have been explained before I boarded the bus. If only they had Sky+ for bus conversations.) The boy said he was hurt. The girl said it wasn't about him. The boy retaliated by telling her 'get off your high horse', 'don't flatter yourself'', and said that all their problems, and - by extension all the problems of the universe - were caused by her failure to understand him. He said she made him feel needy.

Rather than turn round and referee the conversation, (YOU should leave HIM, immediately. What do you need a boyfriend for at your age, anyway? And YOU need to stop being such a bully. Listen to yourself. You put a twist on all your words. Just leave it. Try to think about something nice) I moved seats and reflected on the 'good things' and 'bad things' in my ledger of recent events, and tried to work out what it all meant.

Good things
* I found a £1 coin on the floor at Liverpool Street station on Wednesday afternoon
* My friend's poems, that I helped translate, are published in an anthology on the page next to Seamus Heaney in Modern Poetry in Translation

Bad things
* As I lay in bed on Sunday morning, I heard a strange bellow of distress and rushed downstairs to find my dog Jessie collapsed on the floor in a puddle of piss. She had somehow contrived to do a rather magnificent, glistening shit on the kitchen floor, and she was partly lying in that as well. I can only guess at the sequence of events. Possibly it was shit, collapse, piss, bellow. Dogs hate to soil themselves and Jessie is a particularly ladylike creature, very proper. I gave her a bath and a cuddle (in that order, because of the shit) and then I put her collar on her and gave her a little walk round the block to see if her back legs would hold. Lauren said that when I put the collar on and said I was 'taking Jessie outside', she wondered whether I was taking her to the vet to be put down. I didn't. But perhaps it will come to that.

More Good things
*Jessie's still alive, and quite cheerful. She can't get up but she can get down. I expect there's a joke in there about dancing. You make it if you want.

More Bad things
* I broke the ironic Holy Family fridge magnet that Lauren and Kyle brought me back from Brazil about three years ago. Joseph is now separated from Mary and Jesus.

What can it all mean? What is the Universe trying to tell me? Do you love me or hate me, Universe? You make me feel so needy.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Launch event for MPT's Freed Speech at Amnesty








Last night, at the launch event of the current issue of Modern Poetry in Translation at Amnesty's headquarters in London, co-hosted by Poet in the City, Richard Trinder read three poems by Iranian writer F. Mehrban, which I had helped to translate. Two of F. Mehrban's poems are published in MPT's Freed Speech issue - on pg 54, just before a contribution from Seamus Heaney; very exciting!

The auditorium was packed last night, and it was wonderful to hear the poems read to an appreciative audience - and Richard read them brilliantly. We also heard from Amit Chaudhuri, Carole Satyrmurti, Bernard O'Donoghue, Yousif Quasmiyeh and Jamie McKendrick, as well as the editors of Modern Poetry in Translation, David and Helen Constantine - so it was a fascinating evening.

More details of reasonably-priced and free poetry events in London here on Poet in the City's website.