Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Letter to God

Dear God

I wanted to give my dog Jessie a lovely retirement here, with the garden for a toilet, walks in Battersea Park, 24-hour companionship and plenty of treats. We had years of happiness and now I'm spoiling it all by letting her live on with these increasingly frequent episodes of distress and pain.

You will recall that I resorted to prayer when I was giving birth to my daughter and I was very grateful for the safe delivery of a healthy child. I'm contacting you again now because I hope you might intervene to facilitate a death, rather than a birth.

This morning, as perhaps you're aware, two notable things happened: the knob came off the kitchen cabinet where I store my baking ingredients, tins of artichoke hearts, jars of peanut butter, etc. But before that I woke to the sound of the dog honking in distress and came downstairs to find her collapsed in a puddle of wee, her legs splayed awkwardly behind her. Only one of these problems can be solved with Araldite. I'm asking for your help with the other.

How many times should a dog be allowed to collapse in a puddle of wee before being taken to the vet to end its life? A few months ago, I'd have said, maybe twice. But now it happens all the time. We have a routine: I hoik her up, she goes into the garden and stands there looking disconsolate while I mop the floor. I carry her upstairs and hose her down in the shower with warm water mixed in with a little bit of that cheap apple shampoo we don't use any more since we discovered Tresemmé. Then I dry her off with a towel - I'm thinking of getting a hairdryer actually, I don't use one myself - and carry her downstairs and give her a treat, a gravy bone or something. She cheers up and we say no more about it, til the next time.

I have taken her to the vet who says she has a good heart. My daughter was delighted, thinking it meant he saw how sweet and loving she is, and he must find her nearly as adorable as we do. 'Do you have a good heart, Jessie? Do you have a good heart?' she says, cuddling her, as if she believes that Jessie goes out and does good deeds for old ladies up and down the street while I'm busy working. But I know what it means - she's not going to die of natural causes before we have to take the decision to have her put her down. But not yet, the vet said, she's fine for at least another year.

I had a second opinion from my friend Brenda when she came to stay a couple of weekends ago. Brenda's a vet. She said that if she's in London when it needs to be done, she'll come round to the house and kill Jessie herself - an overdose of anaesthetic, it only takes 30 seconds and she'll fall asleep. She won't feel a thing. But not yet, Brenda said.

So anyway, God, if you could just kill Jessie very gently while she's asleep on one of the many blankets or cushions I have spread out around the house for her to lie on, I'd be so relieved. I just don't think I'll have the courage to arrange for her to be put down until she's suffered a lot more than this, and that doesn't seem right. I'm going out now to buy a hairdryer but I'll keep the receipt. It's my birthday on Monday but you can do it then, I don't mind. Birthdays aren't much of a cause for celebration when you get to my age, anyway.

Oh, one more thing. I'm not sure if you have read the Dawkins book? If you have, I'm sure you'll understand if I ask that we keep this between us.

Thanks very much
Helen Smith
(Not the nurse who died, or the psychologist, I'm one of the other ones. If it helps, you can find me on Wikipedia.)

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Libel Reform Report - Free Speech Is Not for Sale

I went to the launch of the Libel Reform Report at the Free Word Centre today. The report is co-authored by English PEN and Index on Censorship. The report makes ten recommendations.

More information here, here and here Write-ups here and here. There's a #libelreform hashtag if you want to follow on Twitter.

Friday, 6 November 2009

My First Entry in the 0110 Scribes' Diaries

I have written my first entry in the 0110 Scribes' Diaries. You can read it here.

My First Poetry Gig

I do loads of ridiculous things but I don't usually mention them on here, the exception being the impromptu one woman show that I gave on a train on the way back from the Edinburgh Festival two years ago. It's reasonable to assume that people might find their way here because they're considering commissioning a piece of writing from me, or because they've just met me and they liked me, or because they've read one of my books or seen one of my plays, and so I'm trying to save up all my seedy or silly anecdotes for my memoirs.

But last night I faced one of my fears and thought I'd share the results with you. I'd say I'm a shy but confident person - and if that sounds like one of those absurdly contradictory dating site compounds (kind but strong, open but secretive, etc.) then what I mean is that even when I don't feel nervous, I act nervous, and this manifests itself most strongly if I have to get up on stage. Actually the last time I got up on stage was when I was 18; I was cast as a nurse in a Restoration comedy, I don't remember which one. It was my first and last acting gig. I knew the lines but nerves meant that I forgot them all and extemporised wildly, and though this must have caused problems for my fellow cast members, I don't suppose it mattered too much to the audience - we only had two performances, one at a summer fete and one in an old people's home.

On Monday night I read two of my friend's poems that I had helped her translate. I didn't have to get up on stage but I stood in front of a fairly large audience. The poems are about my friend's brother who died in prison in Iran when he was young, and she herself has been a political prisoner and has endured terrible suffering. So I wanted to do the best I could for her in the reading, and I got through it (you were very calm, she said) and didn't shake or stutter, even though I went bright red.

Still, I'm not comfortable reading my own work. I decided to do something about it and last night I signed up for a poetry slam competition. On reflection, this might have been a more hard-core choice than necessary for my first poetry gig. The way it works is that you get three minutes to impress, and you're marked on your performance by members of the audience (sometimes rather harshly, as I discovered last night). You can read or perform from memory, and the latter tends to get you higher points, though it's much harder to do.

I went along to a few of these events several years ago, hoping to find something that might resemble the 'battling' scenes in Eminem's film, Eight Mile. I never found it. I seem to recall that most of these nights were sparsely attended and, though the performances were sometimes impressive, the standard of the poetry was rather patchy. Fortunately for the poetry scene (though unfortunately for me), either I have a very poor memory or things have moved on. Last night's event was very well-attended, and the standard of both poetry and performance was extremely high, both from 'slammers' and featured poets. I don't think there was a dud among them, and the fact I didn't actually come last in the competition could be interpreted as a grave insult to those who placed behind me.

I turned up last night to discover we'd be reading from a stage, using a microphone. I had never done either before. Still, I decided to go through with it, reasoning that no-one there would know me, and that the venue might empty out a bit before the event got started. But just after I had signed up to read, and signed the audio and video release forms (!) the place began to fill with acting luminaries leaving the theatre next door, including Adrian Lester, Sean Parkes and a man I recognised from Yes, Minister. I know Sean Parkes slightly - I've met him half a dozen times or more over the last ten years. He's good-looking, charming and a very good actor. He used to be in a band with one of my best friends. The last time we met, at a late-night party at a friend's house about a year ago, I mentioned that I don't like Curb Your Enthusiasm, and he said, 'you don't get it?' And I said, 'I get it, I just don't particularly like it.' And he said, 'lots of people don't get it.' And I said, 'I GET it. I just don't find it funny.' And so on, interminably. He looked over a few times last night, trying to place me, but I took a seat and ignored him, trying to look resolute, with my handbag on my lap.

So, a crammed venue, a microphone, a stage, audio & video release forms, brilliant performances from the other poets (though these were yet to come), Adrian Lester & Sean Parkes in attendance. The evening couldn't possibly get any worse, from my point of view.

Fortunately all the acting types left before the poetry began. My performance, on the whole, wasn't too bad, though I'm not sure that I endeared myself to the audience by reading a sonnet and a poem about a funeral I had attended. I had learned my pieces but bottled out of peforming them from memory and read from the pages in my hand. I didn't stand close enough to the microphone (a mistake that was corrected by shouts from the audience), I read in a quavery voice, I didn't score very highly - except from a very nice dub poet who was sitting next to me, a featured performer who had rocked the place with a high energy, heartfelt poem about homelessness, and who whispered 'Good luck, sister' to me as I stepped up to the stage. (He gave me a score of 9 and consequently had to award almost everyone else a 10, though he gave low marks to those whose poetry included swearing or lewdness.)

I'm sure that there will be some in the audience who - after congratulating the best of the poets there - went into the night saying, 'wasn't sonnet woman awful?' But really, I don't mind. My hands didn't shake. I got through it. I didn't come last. It was a good night for me.

As to whether things could possibly have got any worse, well, of course they could. At the end of the night someone asked for my card and I pulled out the little case I keep them in, only to find, as I proferred it, that there was a pantyliner lying on top of it. Now, a pantyliner is one of those unmistakeable items that it's always useful for a woman to have in her handbag, like hand sanitizer and Smints, even if it is never actually going to be used. I have no idea how long that one had been in there - it could have been two years or more - or why it chose last night to rise up out of the depths of my handbag and present itself in mixed company.

Still, all in all, notwithstanding Adrian Lester, my quavering voice and the rogue pantyliner - it was a good night. For future bookings, feel free to contact me here.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

0110 Covert Team and Scribes' Diaries

The names of 0110's 'covert team' are being revealed on the site this week, and Elinor Perry-Smith of Nun with a Gun Productions has been unveiled (or should that be 'de-frocked'?) as the Script Editor for the project.

Meanwhile Laurence Timms has made the first entry in the scribes' diaries on 0110. He reports strange disturbances, the creepy sensation that he's being watched, and a mysterious phone call as he tries to start work on his scripts for the series. And he name-drops the photo of the Brown Lady of Raynham, which made me lose all sympathy, in case he's much further on with the development of his ideas than I am.

We have another 0110 meeting in a secret location in a few weeks time, when we'll get together and share our ideas. And in the run-up to that meeting, as Randy Jackson would say, I'm feeling kinda pitchy.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Poetry, Poetry, Hippo World, Late Night Shopping, Licorice Comfits

Yesterday I went to two very different (but equally entertaining) poetry events. First to SOAS to celebrate the launch of See How I Land and MPT's Freed Speech. Along with Yousif Qasmiyeh, Vahni Capildeo and Michael Foley, I read some poetry before taking part in a panel discussion chaired by Philip Spender. There was a good crowd and an interesting discussion about literature and migrant/exiled writers both during the session and informally afterwards.

Later, I headed to the Book Club Boutique at Dick's Bar in Soho, to see Luke Wright, Byron Vincent, Martin Figura and Todd Zuniga read/perform their poetry to celebrate the launch of Luke Wright's Nasty Little Press. I had seen LW a few times but not the others - they were all excellent. BCB takes place every Monday, the performers are brilliant, the location is funky, drinks are reasonably priced and it's free to get in. I'd definitely recommend it.

This evening I went to see Chris Goode's Hippo World Guest Book, followed by a discussion with Matt Trueman afterwards in which CG said that, for him, theatre is a way of showing real life but making it a bit kinder. Hooray for that. I'm very wary of seeing anything at the theatre that doesn't fit that description, unless it's funny. I loved Hippo World Guest Book, it was poetic and sad and sweet, and funny. It's a revival, and was reviewed by Andrew Haydon here first time around and you might as well read that, as AH is a professional and does a better job of summing it up than I ever would.

After stopping to buy dog treats, carrots, soy sauce and Flash, I got on the Tube and watched as a young man tasted a licorice comfit for the first time. He had been to see Avenue Q and the young woman supplying the confectionary had been to see Calendar Girls. It seemed they were acquainted but had met by chance this evening on their way home. How often do you see an adult try something for the first time? He took the yellow licorice comfit she offered him and put it in his mouth, calmly reflecting on the experience, after which he said, 'It's OK.'

I love London, from discussions about literature to performance poets, from Hippo World Guest Book to Avenue Q to Calendar Girls - you can see pretty much anything you want to see. And the shops are open late and public transport runs 24 hours a day.