Tuesday, 7 February 2012

‘Literature and Peace’

Forgive the parlous lack of posting of late, but while I gather my thoughts for somethig worth saying, here's an interview I did for the wonderful Eclectica:

‘Literature and Peace’

“I do believe poetry can be part of a peace process, that all literature can. I believe it passionately.” Paul Blezard

“An author and broadcaster, Paul Blezard was the founder of the Chelsea Poets Society and his work has been published in the UK and abroad. Currently writing a new novel and chairing events at literary festivals around the world, he was the former Literary Editor of The Lady magazine, for ten years was the popular voice of Oneword Radio and writes for various publications. He is also the author of the blog LibraDoodle.

Elizabeth Glixman Welcome. You have quite a resume when it comes to involvement in the world of literature as a novelist, poet, publisher and broadcaster (Oneword Radio).

Have I missed any of your “hats?”

Paul Blezard You’re very kind, but no, I think you’ve caught all my book related work. It’s been more of a winding goat track of a career than something clearly linear. There is also the Firebird Poetry Prize, of which I’m honoured to be the Literary Director http://www.firebirdpoetry.com/. It’s a new venture that seems to be catching on, and will in time, we hope, become the world’s richest prize for a single poem. Free to enter, open to all, from anywhere in the world, for poems in English. We hope to open Arabic, Cantonese and Spanish versions in the future.

EG When did your interest in literature begin?

PB Like many people I was taught to read and write by my mother, herself a keen reader, and I think that if you’re caught that early on it’s for life. Mind you there were fewer distractions when I was a child (I was born in the 1960s). We didn’t even have a television until I was in my mid teens and so books were not only the preferred leisure activity, but were a window on the world, on history, on modes of life other than that which I was living.

Let me also say that I really was much older than I should have been before I realized fully that these wonderful stories, whether by Dickens or Jack London, the Brontes or Twain, were actually written by real people, that books and their stories didn’t just materialise out of the ether and that one could actually be an author. It was something of a revelation to me. Life altering. That’s when I began to take more notice of the style of an author, the structure and flair of a piece, to really start to appreciate that there was more to a good story than the page turning aspect.

EG I never heard anyone express the idea of a book materializing without an author. Very unique perception.

You’ve participated in numerous literature forums, the most recent The Dubai Forum in London, where the question was asked, “can literature contribute to the creation of a more peaceful world?”

I don’t think most people consider literature as tool or avenue in helping to create peace in the world. From what I have observed on the news (the Occupy Movements in Europe and the US and the Arab Spring) protestors are focused on economic equality and freedom. I have not seen one sign that says we need more poetry or fiction (wish I had). These desires seem to imply diplomatic or political solutions. Do you believe poetry can help the peace process?

PB Well first let me say that yes, I do believe poetry can be part of a peace process, that all literature can. I believe it passionately.

For me the argument runs like this: that all good literature is a window into the lives we can never live. I will no more be a prisoner in a mid 20th C Soviet gulag than I will be a child soldier in a war torn Sierra Leone. But through reading Solzhenitsyn or Ishmael Beah, I can gain insights into what those lives were, how they felt, and in doing so understand the dynamics and emotions of those who lived them. Through such empathy, what might be frightening becomes understandable. As we tend to fear that which we don’t understand, absence of fear through knowledge creates the space in which dialogue and peace can grow. It’s reductionist I know, but those are the bones of the argument for me.

In a way I feel even more strongly that literature of any hue, prose or poetry, can not only help a peace process but be an integral, important part of that process. The dialogue between writer and reader being an aspect of what Churchill succinctly said in his “Jaw, jaw not war, war” speech at the White House in 1954.

Of course, if we talk to each other we tend to be less inclined to want to harm or kill each other. It always sounded horribly cheesy to me but there used to be a phrase that ran something along the lines “a stranger is just a friend you haven’t met yet.” In some of my non-literary life I’ve found myself amongst strangers, in Rwanda, Bosnia, in less awful times, and I’ve been struck by how quickly it has been possible for strangers to become friends merely through the telling of a story, the reciting of a poem, the shared experience of an exchange of culture. You wouldn’t believe how even the most dire of situations can be lightened by a rendition of a simple nursery rhyme!

And while I understand your point about the Occupy Movements not demanding more poetry as you put it, you have also to understand the role of writers in such movements. It not just a simple equation of more poetry equals less conflict, I’ll give you an example.

I recently chaired an event at the SouthBank Centre here in London, one of the largest arts and culture centres in the world. The panel comprised three fine Egyptian authors Khaled al Khamissi, Ahmed Mourad and Ahmed Khaled Towfik, all highly regarded best-selling writers of prose and poetry. As we talked and explored their roles, Ahmed Khaled Towfik said something that stunned the audience. Because of his asthma and the State’s use of tear gas he was unable to be a part of the Tahrir Square demonstration that led to the downfall of Hosni Mubarak, and instead watched it from his Cairo home. But because of his prodigious writing over the years, because he had captured the imagination of a generation through his stories, the same generation that was demonstrating, they called him for his advice when things started to turn nasty, when the state tried to quell them. In fact, he said that he believed he had received calls and messages from a majority of the demonstrators and that the responsibility he felt for them was enormous. That is the power and the duty of the written word, in whatever form: to inspire, to inform and when necessary to incite into action against inequality. It is also why W.H. Auden was so wrong when in his work ‘In memory of W.B. Yeats’ he wrote, “poetry makes nothing happen.”

EG I’ve been hearing John Lennon’s words ‘Give peace a chance’ in my mind lately? Do you think people really want peace? In the scheme of things isn’t survival more important than peace? Is the idea of a stable peace contrary to what life is about?

PB Well, where to start? I assume you don’t really mean that question as you’ve framed it?

EG It seems like an odd question. Sad to say I think since reading about the corruption in governments worldwide and the many revealed scandals in major corporations there is a bit of cynicism behind the question.

PB Of course people want peace. In some of the war zones I’ve been in, peace has been the main aim.

Of course the conflict starts over more base human instincts: greed usually, whether for land, water, mineral rights, political power, whatever. But you don’t have to see too much of the awfulness of conflict to realize that peaceful resolution to disputes is far, far better than the armed conflict or physical oppression that leads to cycles of retribution.

If we had a democratic global vote among all 7 billion inhabitants of the planet for peace or war, surely the majority support for peace would be enormous. I certainly hope so. It is the inequality of lives that leads to conflict rather than an absence of will for peace. And as for survival, it could and has been argued that peace is survival, that in any conflict someone pays a price, someone doesn’t survive.

Of course, it’s not as simple as I’m painting it, I know, but I do feel that there exists in all of us the fundamental recognition of another’s right to live and to live in peace. The absence of that recognition I have seen with my own eyes, what some might call ‘evil’, but which I saw as an absence of any humanity. It is terrifyingly devoid of anything that can be debated with, communicated with, at that time, in that moment. But after it has passed, when even the person who was driven by the rawest of animal impulses, who has enacted the most appalling atrocities, has returned to a semblance of normality, it doesn’t take long before they start to voice their own will just to live quietly, and their understanding of others right to do so too. It is dialogue that prevents that fall into the abyss, or so I believe.

And let’s remember that while Lennon’s sentiment is of course to be lauded, he is also the man who wrote, “Imagine no possessions” on a white baby grand piano... in his lovely mansion.

EG Ha! Good point.

Please tell us about The Dubai Forum, its origins and what was the goal of the forum and about the history of Arabic poetry.

PB The Abdulaziz Saud Al-Babtain forum was new to me until I received an invitation to appear at this year’s forum in Dubai. The focus of the three day event was “Poetry towards Peaceful co-existence,” a concept that chimed so readily with my own philosophy that it was an easy invitation to accept.

I understand that for 20 years the Foundation, set up by an influential Kuwaiti industrialist, has been evangelizing the Arabic tradition of verse as a literary form, awarding prizes for creativity and using the forum and its annually alternating conference as a meeting place for heads of states, industrialists, thinkers, politicians and poets, a sort of Arabic “Davos World Economic Forum” event but for poets. The fact that the foundation is able to attract such a diverse range of nationalities, disciplines, opinion formers and interests through the medium of poetry is as much testament to their endeavors as it is to poetry’s enduring power.

The history of Arabic literature is largely one of poetry from the 6thC to the present day. The history is far too rich and there are just too many poets of note for any exploration here to be of value but a new reader should certainly be aware of the court poetry of ibn Uqbar, the Sufi poetry of Mansur al-Hallaj, the satire of al-Jahiz and of course Rumi and ibn Sina, better known in the west as Avicenna.

What is interesting is that poetry is still far and away more popular in Arabic speaking nations than in the west, not only as a literary endeavor but also as a medium of expression for news, comment, political analysis and dissent. Its various forms and modes are used to great effect, poets often being able to say in public things that would see journalists, writers and other commentators sanctioned.

One of the great pleasures, about the Al-Babtain forum was that this was the first time that non-Arabic poets had been invited to participate, to perform. And not just poets but critics, analysts, academics and publishers, all were there forging links, creating friendships, discussing the works and engaging in cross-cultural ways that were so very true to the aims of the conference and a delight to be a part of.

EG Are there any other forums or projects you have worked on or are working on you’d liked to mention that you feel are relevant to the topic of literature and peace?

PB Well of course the whole ethos of the Firebird Poetry Prize, www.firebirdpoetry.com which was founded by UK poet Michael Warburton, is that of international communication through verse, that the expression of deep personal truths and emotions when distilled in poetic form, speak of the much wider human condition and show that we are all driven by the same emotions and desires, irrespective of our nationality, beliefs or mode of life.

It is poetry as a strand of the connecting web of human endeavor if you will. The more we connect, the more we feel connected and the less willing we are to destroy.

EG Who are several contemporary poets whose work in your opinion successfully encourages peace? I know you quoted from Maya Angelou’s poem “Human Family” on The Dubai Forum video) “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”

The Maya piece came from writing a poem, especially for the forum, about the time I met Maya Angelou at the Basil Street Hotel in London when I was presenting my daily author interview show “Between the Lines” on Oneword Radio. It was, to say the least, a memorable and extraordinary 35 minutes in the presence of such a humane, deeply evolved and connected artist. She gave me her bookmark on which is printed the quote of hers: “I note the obvious differences between each sort and type, but we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.” I treasure it as I treasure the memory.

But aside from Maya Angelou, there are so many poets who do exactly as you say, ‘encourage peace.’ From friends like Ben Okri, Ruth Padel and Gwyneth Lewis to new discoveries such as the amazing young Kuwaiti poet Dalal Albaroud and the extraordinary Sudanese poet Rawda Alhaj.

Then there are the superb poets such as Jang Lian, Kirpal Singh, Luljeta Lleshanaku, Jeet Thayil and America’s own Brian Turner who all write so eloquently of peace and with whom it was such a pleasure to meet through the forum.

EG Who are several fiction writers whose stories encourage people to create a peaceful world?

PB Are you kidding, you want me to name them all?

EG A few would be fine.

PB I’ll give you one. Michael Morpurgo, who is considered a writer of children’s fiction but who is to my mind the world’s leading exponent of peace based literature for readers of all ages. A prodigiously gifted and prolific storyteller, his works ‘Private Peaceful’ ‘Warhorse’ and ‘Alone on a Wide Wide Sea’ do more than anyone I can think of to explain the value of peaceful kindness and human empathy to the sum of human endeavor. I would recommend them and him to readers of all ages, abilities and nations.

EG Do you have any favourite “ peace” writer whose name and excerpts of work you can share with us?

PB I don’t think in terms of favourites I’m afraid but while considering your question it was this quote from Ben Okri that sprang to mind:

“The most authentic thing about us is our capacity to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love and to be greater than our suffering.”

EG What is in the future for the literature/ peace movement?

Time will surely tell. But as long as there are more people who will a peaceful co-existence, more people that care about the security, safety and needs of others than there are those who look out only for their own desires, then a form of peace will exist.

We must remember that we are the product of millions of years of evolution, and try to act like it. There will always be disharmony until we evolve yet more, but through the highest forms of human sentiment, empathy and communication we may be able to ameliorate the worst of human activity.

I can’t think of a poem that was written to incite violence, to advance war. It has always struck me that everything we consider to be and therefore name ‘war poetry’ is in fact anti-war poetry, and while poetry may not be the answer in and of itself, it may be – and I believe is – part of the process of communication that prevents there being less peace. Whether that constitutes a movement is for your readers to decide.

Links to related sites

The Dubai Forum

The Abdulaziz Saud Al-Babtain Foundation for Poetic creativity brought together Arab and foreign academics and poets from five continents to take part in a three day symposium in Dubai, entitled “Poetry Towards Peaceful Co-Existence,” to discuss the impact of Arabic and world poetry on human communication throughout the ages. There was a subsequent forum held in London, at the Mosaic Rooms, with a panel comprising award winning translator, Sarah Ardizzone, The Independent writer and columnist Christina Patterson, Sharmila Beezmohun, the deputy editor Wasafiri magazine, Rhona Wells, assistant editor, The Middle East magazine, Paul Blezard journalist and Literary director of The Firebird Poetry Prizes, and journalist and broadcaster Rosie Goldsmith who chaired the event.

The London panellists discussed issues, reflecting the themes raised at the Dubai symposium, of translation and interpretation, poetry and performance, as well as debating the role poetry can play in today’s world, and its impact on different cultures globally. Paul Blezard took part in both the Dubai and London sessions, and summed up both events saying: “To find myself discussing nursery rhymes as early poetic influences with poets from Albania to Saudi Arabia, and to talk about Dante with Kuwaiti, Sudanese and Egyptian poets makes me think that, while poetry may not cure the world’s ills, it certainly opens up communication, discourse and friendships that will endure across the boundaries of distance, politics and language.”

Also, here is the link to a You Tube video which contains images from both forums – www.youtube.com/watch?v=5XsWlsmF8ZQ.

Abdulaziz Saud Al-Babtain Foundation


Michael Morpurgo


Ahmed Khaled Towfik


Ben Okri


Poetry International Jeet Thayil


Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Snapshots of Voewood Festival 2011

Breaking my journey through Norfolk to stand outside the house that my beautiful clever Hannah lived in in Norwich and finding myself crying uncontrollably at the still raw irreplaceable loss her death has left, remembering the moments, conversations, life and love we shared within those walls.

Singing ‘da diddly qua quas’ stage side with Glen Matlock as Adam Ant gave a beautiful stripped down rendition of Stand and Deliver.

Watching Glen Matlock rock out performing ‘Anarchy in the UK’ to a delighted Voewood literary audience and then turning to see John Hurt, gently dancing to it.

Standing in for Misha Glenny and interviewing former M.I.6 Chief Sir John Scarlett, who gave generous, exact answers and revealed his keen sense of custodianship of his department.

Hearing Beth Orton perform a superb set and realising that Hannah sang with the same fractured cadence and wondering if Hannah had been a fan of Beth’s, a question I’ll never now be able to ask.

Hearing Beth’s partner, the hugely talented Sam Amidor, harmonise vocals and guitar to the open mouthed admiration of those who were watching as he sang us through some superb American folk.

Listening to Glen Duncan perform some of his excellent novel ‘The Last Werewolf’ to music by Steven Coates and Geraldine McEwan and realising I was witnessing the birth of the Were-opera.

Watching D.B.C. Pierre deliver the most cogent, lucid and generous masterclass on how to structure a novel to 50 plus people, all of whom were furiously scribbling his pearls into their Moleskine notebooks.

Discovering the best pork pies in the world at the Samphireshop food tent. No really, they are simply, sublimely out of this world, especially the onion marmalade versions

Arriving at Voewood to be warmly greeted by owner Simon Finch who, understanding that the last time I had been at his home had been the time that Hannah and I first met, took me by the hand to the bedroom we had been in, where the story of she and I had started. Bless you for that Simon.

Helping Clare Conville pick up cigarette butts in the garden with the wonderful Kirsty Lang, a true star who was collecting horrible dog ends with all the tenacity of a journalist on the trail of a hot story.

Feeling sorry for David Gilmour as he told me that he had just put 15 litres of petrol…. in his diesel car.

Meeting on Saturday an extraordinary, beautiful couple, Roz and Tom and spending so much of the weekend, when able, in their company, feeling some sort of natural resonance, an instant connection, only to find on the last night, after the last event, that Tom and I had met before... he being a friend of Hannah and one of the few that she had told our plans to. Karma? Maybe. An extraordinary moment in a life? Certainly. Unforgettable.

Doing some serious bunting with Gavin Turk and his wife Deborah Curtis, son Caesar and the inimitable, wonderful Jane Simpson. Pimp my ride? Nah. Bunt my tent.

Watching Clare Conville manage to pull off gracious hostessing duties while at the same time dealing with three crises, two guests wanting stuff and all the while casting her eye around making sure that the authors, musician and guests gathered on the terrace had full wine glasses.

Meeting Emily and Kate Austen (great-grandaughters of, since you ask) who ran the kitchen and catering with quiet grace and efficiency and enjoying being mercilessly teased by Emily all weekend for being controlling and bossy.

Listening in rapt concentration to Damon Murray of Fuel as he described the story behind "Russian Criminal Tattoos Encyclopeadia - Vol 1," a brilliant tome with such an extraordinary, heartrending and fascinating story behind it... get yourselves a copy while they're still available.

Not finding Rowan Pelling’s grey cardigan evidently picked up by someone in error. It’s fitted, charcoal grey and she wants it back should you find it in your bag by mistake – she has yours in the meantime!

Diana Athill. I need say no more, surely.

Observing talented, admirable and admired authors, poets, musicians and artists mucking in with plate clearing, bin emptying and all the domestic chores that one might think they would have people to do for them. Life affirming reality and authenticity.

Watching lean purposeful Richard Long walking around the grounds of Voewood and bending to smell the occasional flower.

The Peter Pan of Brit Art and all round delight, Colin Self, picking me a sprig of lemon verbena for my buttonhole.

Seeing Salena "Sex Goddess" Godden performing her poem “I’m Gonna Move to Hastings” and wanting to laugh - and weep - at the bleak humour of it.

Getting to know Damien Barr and David Whitehouse as they lay in a bed together discussing David's brilliant new book “Bed”, Damian sporting excellent striped p-js, David looking suitable authorial.

Loving Kirsty Lang's quiet pride in husband Misha Glenny's 'Dark Market" being the best-selling book of the festival.

Discovering the rare talent that is David McAlmont and hearing his beautiful song "Ode to Gene."

And more, so much more.

Truly a lit/mus fest that passes the litmus test with flying colours

Monday, 23 May 2011

Wham! Bam! Thank Ewhurst Am-Dram

It’s not often that LibraDoodle veers off into Terra Theatricalis, over-proximity to the flatulence of strangers, the prohibition on smoking and a remarkably short attention span being just three reasons. Another is that anything I might think or write about what I’ve seen has generally been better thought and more beautifully written by others before I’ve even got out of the stalls. It’s hard to follow such pithycisms as Walter Kerr’s ‘Me no Leica’ review of the 1951 Broadway production of “I am a Camera” and unless I’m much mistaken, the Swiss psychiatrist’s view on theatrical light comedy, “Live farce? Die! – Jung” is just too tough to match let alone beat and I do have some pride.

So when on Saturday two friends spoke the dread words “We’ve got you a ticket to join us at the local players production of Ayckbourn after supper,” my mind silently replied with “Oh what fresh hell is this?’” before playing a speed psycho Powerpoint demo featuring images of a fetid village hall scented by decades of Cub Scouts and bingo, creaking scenery and creakier performances and topped it off with a reminder that politesse would prevent early escape. And we’d been having such a lovely time, I thought.

I should not have worried. As it happens the Ewhurst Players (Ewhurst – pretty little village near Cranleigh in Surrey’s Rockbroken heartland) are a highly proficient band of performers. The production was Alan Ayckbourn’s “Improbable Fiction” in which a writers group convenes at the grand house of its chairman to discuss their authorial progress. A Sapphic smallholder confesses that she hasn’t written a word for fear of ruining the perfection of the novel in her head, an artistic children’s writer owns up to having spent six years only doing the drawings, a busybody who claims to be prolific has failed to bring anything with her while the geek who pens multi-layered sci-fi that proves to be overcomplicated, narcissistic escapism has and we wish he hadn’t. Then there is the ageing roué librettist with a weak bladder, no musical partner and only one finished verse leaving only the chairman host, a rather endearing “Tim, nice but dim” type whose artistic endeavours extend only as far as translating instruction manuals for household appliances. Add into this mix Ilsa, the exotic “girl from the village who does,” and we’re set for a nice meander through artistic aspirations that remind us of the old joke: Two writers meet in the pub. One says to the other, “I’m writing a new novel.” The other replies, “Neither am I."

Everything rumbles along nice and sedately until just before the interval when WHAM! - a huge peel of thunder blasts cast and audience alike and BAM! - the lights go out and we’re all thrown into pitch darkness… until the lights fade back up to reveal…

I shan’t spoil it in case you’ve not seen it either but what happens next shows that it really is a play of two halves and that all the carefully crafted intros not only have a purpose but are neatly and are hilariously referred to.

There proved to be some real talent on stage. Jason Butler’s wonderfully portrayed host and fulcrum for the whole production, Arnold Hassock rather than Tim, revealed an Alan Cummings-like style fused with David Tennant authenticity, Roland Butcher’s brilliantly OTT librettist, Brevis Winterton, was deliciously grumpy old mannish, Jane Biggins’ lesbian pseudo-Bronte, Jess Bales, was trouser-wettingly funny while Peter Barnett’s, whiny science fantasist Clem Pepp, was deftly drawn and played a point. Tricia Coopers’ blousy Grace Sims had some lovely Mrs Slocombe undertones, Wendy Davies cunningly underplayed the mouse-like Vivvi Dickens and Gaynor Arnold’s effortlessly sexy Ilsa deployed a fascinating range of accents which veered from Somerset to Scandinavia, often via Solihull and usually in the same sentence but with the red hot pants she was wearing I doubt anyone cared… or even noticed.

It was, I must confess, a bloody good laugh. Good people putting their hearts into their last night and pulling off a play that could easily have bested a less proficient and hard working group. What they in fact managed was to pay the dramatist the biggest compliment; show a proper understanding his text or as I’d put it “Am Dram Thanks Alan” (See para 1)

Yours ever,


(Nb: some quotes and words may be freshly coined in this post and are available for rent or hire. Please contact for rates.)

Saturday, 14 May 2011

All’s unfair in Stow-on-the-Wold Annual Gypsy Horse Fair

Stow-on-the-Wold, straddling the Roman Fosse Way in the heart of the Cotswolds, is considered by many to be a jewel of Gloucestershire charm; all honeyed stone, prissy cafes and quaint antique shops nestled next to vendors of high-priced posh tat: faux amusant cushions, £200 rubber boots and gnarly rural kit that looks as if it has purpose but bearing price tags that will forever consign it to ostentatious display in a second homers weekend cottage. Mind you, not everyone is suckered by Stow’s outward charm, A.A Gill, the deliciously acerbic restaurant reviewer and penner of bon mots described it as "catastrophically ghastly" and "the worst place in the world,” in his excellent book The Angry Island (2005) and in doing so incurred the tepid ire of the town’s mayor.

Architecturally it is undeniably beautiful with many of the buildings dating (and often predating) the Civil War in which Stow was a Royalist stronghold and the locale for many battles. There are mullion windows aplenty, little alleyways that tempt you to explore ever onwards and the sharp eyed visitor will notice names and dates carved into lintels and stonework, defacement so old and of such quality of ‘penmanship’ that there ought to be an entirely separate name for such antique graffitos.

Being stuck on top of an 800-foot hill, the eponymous ‘wold’, affords it glorious views of the surrounding arable land and woods and doubtless made it a highly defensible position when the Cromwellian Roundheads came a-calling. But these days, although the enemy comes in a different form, the town behaves as history has taught it, locking and shuttering doors and windows, literally shutting up shop and repelling all-comers. And never more than when the annual horse fair comes to town.

Stow has a history of fairs. In 1330, Edward III set up an annual market in August. Edward IV replaced this in 1476 with two 5-day fairs and yet another in October on the feast of St Edward the Confessor (the saint associated with the town). The aim of these was to establish Stow as a place of commerce and to level out the unpredictability of passing trade.

As the fairs grew, the town became more prosperous. While traders who had dealt solely in livestock started to deal in other goods it was the wool trade that underpinned the town’s income, 20,000 sheep changing hands at one 19th century fair. The aforementioned alleyways, known as "tures," that run between the buildings of Stow into the market square, used to herd sheep from surrounding holding pens and fields into the square to be sold.

As the wool trade declined, people began to trade in horses, a practice which continues today and which reveals the lurking fear and ugliness that seeps through the place.

Twice a year in field just 5 minutes walk from the main square a gathering of clans occurs. Travellers, Roma - I am loathe to write ‘Gypsies’ having been taught by a true Roma that that word is the equivalent of the N-word in such circles – gather for two main reasons, to trade bloodstock and to present their marriageable children to each other in the hope that good matches may be made. The huge field becomes alive with a multi-generational conclave of folk from all parts of the UK. Some have traditional caravans, beautifully painted wooden-wheeled, horse drawn affairs with immaculate interiors revealing wood-burning, pot-bellied stoves and intricately painted ceilings like mobile Michelangelo’s. Some have state-of-the-art trucks and cars that haul chromed and honed modern mobile homes with interiors that would shame many a suburban drawing room. The comfortingly atavistic smell of wood smoke wafts across the place. Fires everywhere are straddled by great iron tripods from which blackened stew pots and kettles are suspended on chains, steaming away with a meal or a brew. Small children skittle around, the girls like little meringues in layers of white or cream netting with twists of ribbon at their throats or laced through their hair, the boys smartly elegant in mini tweed jackets and trews, shined boots and with errant hair lines cow-licked into place. The teens favour more defiant dress, young women this year in a uniform of tight jeans, lycra micro skirts and day-glo, fluorescent pink or lime green crop tops; tanned midriffs, arms and shoulders bared to maximum effect and with the most spectacular two-tone suede boots, gravity testing stilleto-ed shoes blinged to the max with sparkling rhinestones or, when the new shoes hurt, bare feet. Teen lads move around in packs, effortlessly James Dean cool in tight t-shirts (often even with a cigarette packet tucked in the sleeve), tighter jeans and yet tighter muscles testifying to a life spent working with horses, bareknuckle fighting and just, well, just being cool.

Parents and grandparents have the look of those who have lived lives on the outside, in all senses. Weathered and well fed, the men have hands that look as if manually wrenching a living from a recalcitrant life has been their lot while the women veer from exuding a wiry energy to extruding from clothing two sizes shy of flattering. They all are cautious and guarded, perhaps used to insults and rejection, but friendly. A cheery “good morning’ is reciprocated here, a question is politely answered there. A request to take a photo is met with a smiling “Go on help yourself’ or ‘Of course you can fella.” There is no sense of threat, no background radiation of suppressed or impending violence, none of the angst that the good burghers of Stow had warned me about. Just hard-working, hard-living people gathered for trade and exchange, graciously putting up with the hordes of rubbernecking tourists, here to take pictures, buy souvenirs and absorb a little of a lifestyle largely gone and increasing vilified.

Mind you this isn’t all bucolic rural charm. The caged cocks with the huge, vicious-looking spurs weren’t there for food. The dogs tied up around the perimeter, guarding the caravans and possessions, weren’t called Muffy and certainly weren’t over-fed, over-pampered pooches. Doubtless after the sun goes down and the drinking starts, things warm up. My guide told me tales of knife fights and mortal stabbings. The police presence in the town was as overt as in a Trafalgar Square university fee demo. To be fair, the stabbing had been some years ago and the constabulary was charm personified but you take the point.

And therein lies the rub. Given that Stow-on-the-Wold’s fame and fortune is historically based on such fairs, you might imagine that the residents would welcome those who attract coach loads of incomers into their curio shops and cafes, hostels and hostelries; that Stow would know which side its bread is buttered on. Sadly not. The general air when the fair’s in town is that ‘people from off’ are coming and it’s time to shut up shop. One of the big hotels in the square literally barricades its doors. Many small businesses clear the stock from view and close for the duration. An unattractive haughtiness descends upon some of the permanent residents. There is sneering at some of the dress sense on display, a general unfriendliness, an overt snobbery directed at the descendents of the very folk who helped make Stow what it is today by those who are living on the fat that previous generations of those ‘people from off’ helped to create.

I was told a story that a former Lord of the Manor was so against the whole affair he prevented it from happening at all in Stow’s domain during his tenure. I heard also that while the very field in which the fair takes place is owned outright by the travelers, bought by them to protect their right to convene in the face of fierce local opposition, they are oddly – and unfairly – prevented from actually setting up there, on their own land, until immediately beforehand, thereby forcing them to make do in the verges of local lanes until the appointed hour when they can gain access.

Of course there is bound to be partisanship in such situations, but it strikes this correspondent that when so much legislation is created to ensure parity, fairness and equality in a nation that historically prides itself on diversity and offering a warm welcome to the oppressed, dispossessed and downtrodden, there is a small corner of our national psyche that is blind to that which is before eyes, a band of folk who choose an alternative lifestyle that brings colour, heritage and a tang of smokey authenticity and that stems our relentless fall into a homogenised blandness.

There is an unattributed couplet “Stow on the Wold where the wind blows cold and the cooks can’t roast their dinners.” It could easily describe the welcome the town offers and may come from a rhyme about Brill in Buckinghamshire that runs:

At Brill on the hill

The wind blows shrill

The cooks no meat can dress

At Stow-in-the-Wold

The wind blows cold

I know no more than this.

I know that that Stow’s cutesy charm hides a darker, unattractive streak and that - as my Grandmother used to say in another context - it is “all fur coat and no knickers.’ Not much good when the wind’s even colder than the welcome then.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Once I was a trillionaire

It is today exactly 6 months since the awful events that have rendered me wordless for so long and which I tried to explain in LibraDoodle passim.

I shall not dwell but will tell this. There is no loneliness like the eviscerating loneliness of turning and walking away after the funeral of the one person you loved completely and who loved you back equally. There are no words for it. The empty pain does not subside. It sits there daily, a cold, hard rock in my heart. There are times each day when I just wish it, my own heart, would stop and I could join her, the one I miss so much, so hard, so sweetly. My beautiful, clever Hannah.

But it hasn’t stopped, I am here and life must be lived so lived it will be, if sometimes grudgingly.

One of the events that took me out of the gloom was this week when on Tuesday evening I chaired the Southbank Centre Book Club. The work under inspection was Peter Godwin’s excellent memoir When a Crocodile Eats the Sun and to add a little spice to the event - and also to reward the hardy stalwarts who not only book their tickets, but also turn up – I invited a rather special guest.

You may be aware of this book which explores the appalling events that occur as Zimbabwe sinks into despair, as the so-called ‘war-vets’ requisition farms and as state-sanctioned violence and depravity wash like a dark tide over the beautiful bread basket of Southern Africa. Godwin traces all this through the prism of his parents, his fears for them, his attempts to protect them, and in doing so we learn about his family and the nation they call home, of the revelations that can often arise through periods of high emotion.

Peter is appearing in an event at Southbank next week and on the night we were discussing his work he was launching his latest work the optimistically titled The Fear – The Last Days of Robert Mugabe at a bookshop in West London. But my special guest was his sister, Georgina, who had been a highly regarded broadcaster in Zimbabwe, a Sarah Cox of the nation as she has been described. She features greatly throughout the book and I thought she might give the readers an interesting insight into the family dynamic of a sibling writing a frank memoir. I could not have predicted how generous she was with her time and her answers as she gave well thought out analyses of the situation in Zim now and then, of the emotions surrounding her family’s situation, of her own situation and of the difficulties involved.

It was during an exploration of the economic situation that prevailed in Zimbabwe before it adopted the American dollar, when we were discussing how one actually survives in a country that is suffering from super-hyper inflation, that Georgina removed her wallet from her handbag and produced a banknote.

She handed it to me and for a brief few moments I couldn’t actually believe what I was holding. Like many I had seen the news reports of hundred thousand dollar notes, million dollar and billion dollar notes even. But this? I read the words. I counted the numbers and still it didn’t seem quite real. You wouldn’t believe it if I told you. So I’ll show you.

Yes, your eyes do not deceive you. One hundred trillion dollars. Fourteen zeros. Four commas. A lot of money or so you’d think, as it seems to have only been enough to buy a loaf of bread… until the next day of course when the staggering power of inflation rendered it near worthless.

I passed the note to one of the readers and it got passed hand-to-hand around the group to ‘coos’ and looks of utter disbelief. One of them, Eva Arnold, photographed it and I’m grateful to her for letting me use the photo.

So yes, once I was rich. Once I was worth one hundred trillion dollars. Once I loved and was loved so very richly. In both cases all too fleetingly.

Yours ever,


Sunday, 11 April 2010

Cozy Valentine R.I.P.

It is with a heart so unbearably heavy and with tears that refuse to stop that I write of the untimely passing of my precious Cozy Valentine.

She had been unwell since an operationlate last year and had borne the last few months of constant pain with extraordinary stoicism, great fortitude and, when she was able, her trademark humour.

Cozy was as bright as Venus on a frosty morning and as quick as a drop of runaway mercury. Her beautiful green eyes were as unique as the love she had for her family and her friends.

She read the post below before anyone else, as I wrote it, and it made her cry. Happy tears. She loved the fact that so many of you read it and followed the link to her music.

That she had only recently celebrated her thirtieth birthday makes her death such an unaccountable tragedy.

That she leaves behind her two beautiful daughters, Eluna Red and Grace, who she loved so completely, who she was so proud and so protective of, makes it a hundred times more so.

She delighted in her adored and adorable maidens, in life, in her music and in all that was good, true, authentic and heartfelt.

Please find time in your thoughts for her Mother, her sister and brother, for Ela and Grace and for Rodd and Taz.

Her name was Hannah. I called her ‘my darling’ and ‘my sweetheart’ for she was both. She called me ‘her dearest darling boy.’ I was.

We had been making such lovely plans for a gentle future of warmth, stability and 'niceness' together as she put it, as adored wife and proud husband, and I can’t believe that I’m having to write these words about the woman, the girl, that I loved with all of my broken heart and who I was so very fortunate to be loved by.

Rest in gentle peace my darling girl, my precious, adorable and adored, beautiful Hannah and know that you were so deeply loved by your dearest boy who wanted the world for you and who loved your true love for him as the dearest thing in his life.