Friday, 11 December 2009

The Allure of Chanel

When Jack Black sang “It’s a long way to the top, if you wanna rock and roll” in the 2003 film School of Rock, he knew of what he sang. That line, a perfect ohrwurm if ever there was one, wormed through my own ears yesterday evening as I headed to North London. It got slightly altered along the way to “It’s a long way up to Hampstead if you have to walk,” and indeed it is. Especially from Mortlake. On a cold December night.

Penury had forced me to take Shanks’s Pony to Keats’s House in this charming part of London as I had accepted an invitation to chair an event for Pushkin Press and Daunt Books. It was however to prove worth the shoe leather as something extraordinary happened.

The occasion was the launch of a new Pushkin title, The Allure of Chanel, originally written by Paul Morand and published in 1979 in French. Now available in an exquisite translation by Euan Cameron, it contains quite superb illustrations by none other than Karl Lagerfeld and photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Jean Moral, to name but two. It tells the story of ‘Mademoiselle’ in her own words, as recounted to Morand over a number of days and weeks in 1946 when the writer and designer met in a hotel, the Badrutt’s Palace in St Moritz, Switzerland, awaiting post war calm to allow her return to France. Chanel was at this time unemployed, exiled and ‘waiting to become wealthy again.’ It was a difficult time for her, the sulphurous whiff of collaboration hanging about her, perhaps fittingly for the self styled “only volcano from the Auvergne that is not extinct.” It may be that feeling oppressed and unhappy, she chose this time to tell her story and to self-mythologise parts of it, especially her childhood years. Some believe this to be the case. I, however, am no expert on her and her life and cannot comment. What I can say is that it is a fascinating read and a wonderful insight into the mind and character of a force of nature, a pioneer of both couture and arguably feminism. And all this despite the fact that I'm probably not in the target demographic for the book, but a good story well told has universal appeal.

The evening was an enchanting one. Sitting next to an illuminated Christmas tree, in a beautiful room, in the former home of such an illustrious poet was inspirational. The 50 or so members of the audience were engaged with the conversation between Mr Cameron and myself and engaging with their questions and comments. There was a warmth to the proceedings, a literary conviviality as Cameron’s beautifully prepared piece on Morand and Chanel met with interest and approval. The publisher had flown in from New York and two of the doyens of Pushkin arrived by Eurostar. Richard Strange, the actor, musician and man of letters, one of the finest fellows I know (he once trashed an art gallery with Jack Nicholson) and who is possessed of charm, talent and extraordinary generosity was there, fresh from the film set of the latest Harry Potter film and with his brilliant wife and lovely daughter. The questions came and when neither Euan nor I had answers, other members of the audience offered their insights.

One of the joys of a smaller event is that it can be run less as a performance and more an open talking shop. One audience member, sitting in the front row, who gave her name as Emma, shared insights that belied her youth. As we delved deeper into Chanel’s life, she seemed to be possessed of yet more answers, more rejoinders, all delivered in a voice, an accent, as sweet and soft as crème Chantilly. I laughingly asked her “You’re too young to have known Coco Chanel, but I don’t suppose you’re in some way related… are you…?” She paused and looked at me. I thought she was insulted, that I had in some way ruined the evening for her and was half way through stumbling out a hurried, defusing, apology when she said “Not to Coco no, but my Great Aunt and her husband were two of Mademoiselle’s closest friends,”

Oh boy. Not only could you have heard a pin drop but you could almost feel and hear the goose bumps rising throughout the room. Emma’s great aunt and her husband are mentioned throughout the book and have a chapter devoted to each of them. One of Karl Lagerfeld’s illustrations is of Emma’s forebear wearing none other than an early ‘little black dress.’ It was an extraordinary moment of the sort that happens so occasionally at such events and is gloriously unforgettable when it does.

When at the beginning of this piece I said that something extraordinary happened, I may have slightly dissembled, for as if that wasn’t enough something else occurred. Sitting across the aisle from Emma, also in the front row, was a beguiling, elegant angel. Graceful, alluring and shining with calm intelligence, she was tall enough that when I stretched my legs out at one point, our toe-caps nearly touched and I swear a Michelangelo, Sistine chapel ‘spark of creation’ moment occurred. Whether she felt the same thing is as yet unknown. I therefore can’t write “but that’s another story.” Not yet at least.

So while it may not have been an evening of rock and roll, rock and roll was indeed present. Even when it is a 'long way up to Hampstead when you have to walk' and twice as far if you have to walk back, the return was on feet so much lighter than those that took me there. Chanel’s allure was indisputable. The allure of “The Allure of Chanel’ evening only goes to show that there is still romantic inspiration to be found at Keats’ House.



Sunday, 6 December 2009


Imagine Kent, the garden of England as it used to be known, with its endless orchards, fields of hops and fecund woodland. Now turn the thermostat up to the mid thirty-degree mark, crank the humidity machine up to full and paint in a range of dramatic mountains. Add in the smell of woodsmoke, spices and aromatic cooking, then turn the volume up so that you can hear the gentle susurration of the cooling breeze through the tea plantations of the highlands or the rhythmic chug of marine engines as houseboats sluice their way across the coastal lakes and slowly a picture of Kerala begins to emerge. Kerala the fertile, Kerala the fragrant, Kerala the beautiful. Like Kent, but with the colour, contrast and volume turned to maximum.

This southwestern state of India is rapidly becoming the destination of choice for travellers of all tastes and budgets. They are not wrong. The variety of landscapes and cultures it has to offer are second to none, but so too is the range of accommodation. Homestays are becoming the newest ‘new big thing’ since eco-tourism - the two concepts are not unrelated – and they are playing a key role in the growth of tourism in the region.

On a recent three-centre tour I started in the highlands of Munnar, just west of the border that separates Kerala from Tamil Nadu and the centre of the tea growing industry, started in the 19th century by Scottish planters. The air here, 6000 feet above sea level, is cool and clear. The roads wind and climb the hillsides giving glimpses of spectacular waterfalls one minute and the verdant green, hobbity, topiary of tea fields the next. The highest tea plantation in the world, the Kolukkumalai Tea Estate is here, just fifteen miles from the colourful, pungently aromatic, bustling centre of the little town of Munnar. Not a huge distance, but three hours by bouncing, lurching jeep up an impossibly vertiginous turnpiking track on the private estate. Worth every bruise and scrape of knee for the views from over 2km above sea level and for the purest, freshest tea it’s possible to drink.

Agriculture is the mainstay of the region and not just tea. Cedar Woods, the homestay that was my billet for two nights, is set in 75 acres of cardamom, vanilla, coffee and cocoa plantation. Nutmeg grows wild here, its pear shaped fruit falling and exploding on the ground to reveal the nutmeg within, wrapped in a red sheath that looks for all the world like a waxy, alien, lacework version of something that normally covers a Dutch cheese and which when dried is better known as mace. Cardamom curing houses dot the hillsides, the sweetly fragrant smoke hanging in the air like cathedral incense. Not for nothing is the adjacent homestay, an award-winning pepper plantation, named Spice Garden.

This is not a wealthy area. As the younger generation flock to Dubai and Abu Dhabi to find work in the hotels and restaurants, the pool of agricultural labour has diminished. A worker in the spice trade who five years ago would receive 60 rupees for a days work can now command 250 rupees. But the value of the spices they pick and process has not risen and so the owners of smallholdings are opening their homes to visitors to supplement their incomes. Warmly welcoming and eager to ensure that guests are spoiled with truly excellent home-cooked food, the hosts of these clean and comfortable family homes manage to be superbly hospitable, attentive and informative without becoming intrusive. They have taken the adage “Invite a guest, send back a friend” to their hearts.

Six hours westwards along pitted roads where monkeys wait for handouts on the verge is Pala. Larger than Munnar and straddling the river Meenachil, it is a lively little town set in the rolling hills of Kerala’s mid country. Here the landscape is more tropical. Palm trees abound. The humidity is turned up another notch or two. The Indian street orchestra of constant car horns and puttering auto-rickshaws (three wheeled Vespa scooters with bench seats and flat bed rears for loading with wood, families, furniture or fare-paying passengers) is louder here, more cacophonous but somehow pleasantly and curiously calmingly so. Outside the town are stands of rubber trees, private groves that support entire extended families one of which were to be my hosts.

The Meenachil Enclave is the heart of a small industry and a good example of the diversity that one family relies upon for its sustenance. It is also properly luxurious, opulent even. The house looks like a Thai temple. Beautifully ornate wood panelling, doors and carvings rise up from the pristine lawns on which are dotted bird cages alive with budgerigars, love birds and in one three very impressive eagles. The marbled interior, with its central atrium open to the sky so that rain feeds the water feature, would not look out of place in a five star hotel anywhere in the world. The bedrooms, crammed with dark wood furniture, designer bathrooms and skin-caressing linens, belie the fact that this is not just a family home but an ancestral home.

Rubber is the mainstay. The result of the mornings tapping brought to the rear of the house for processing, rolling and finally smoking in the lofts above. The cured sheets of latex, thick bathmats of browned rubber are then stored, hung over wooden dowels until the market price meets with the owner’s approval. The rear of the house is where the chickens, rabbits and guinea pigs (oh yes) are kept in hutches or roam the pasture. No pets these though, but good organic ingredients for superb Keralan cuisine. The byre hold cows for milk. There is a pool. There is family warmth. There is impeccable hospitality and gracious attention to one’s comfort. There is even gold cutlery.

Finally to the coast, not that of the Indian Ocean however, but of Lake Vembanad and the town of Alleppey, the Venice of the East.

Here there is a delightful breeze and life takes on the slower pace that proximity to large bodies of water instils. Here there are endless paddy fields of rice. Here there is Vembanad House, a family home surrounded on three sides by water, a spiritual retreat and a balm to the world weary. Here there is lobster fishing from wooden canoes that leave from steps at the bottom of the garden, where clams can be raked from the lake bottom and cooked for you over open fires under waving palms. This is where time can be spent gently, swinging in a hammock, visiting the Church of St Mary in Champakullam, a site of Christian worship since St Thomas founded a church here in AD 52. Here the beautiful husband and wife owners and their wonderful small son will play cricket with you, cook you exquisite Ayurvedic inspired meals to be eaten at night under the star-studded velvety skies by the lakeshore and then treat you to a captivating Kathakali performance by masters of this oldest of theatre forms. Here there is India, glorious India. A little like Kent and at the same time nothing like Kent at all.

Paul Blezard stayed at the following Mahindra Homestays locations:

Cedar Woods, Munnar, Kerala with Jean and Anita Jayan

Meenachil Enclave, Kottayam, Kerala with Jose and Mariamma Kuruvinakunnel.

Vembanad House, Alleppey, Kerala with ‘Bala’, Sandhya and Dhanush Balakrishnan.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Sits Vacant - a physical description as much as a column heading.

I must firstly apologise for the hiatus since my last post. Normally tradition would dictate that I explain it away by citing pressure of work, but the eagle-eyed among you will know that I cannot claim such.

For those who haven’t read or heard, I was recently made redundant from my post as literary editor of The Lady magazine. Sadly it was a shorter-lived position than I’d imagined and I’m really very sad not to be still in harness there, as the book pages that I had instigated seemed to find great favour with readers. Still, such are the vicissitudes of commerce, not to mention office politics and personal taste.

My reasons for not having posted anything for a while are thus to do with the troublesome issue of finding work and it is this ticklish matter that is exercising me as I write this.

I’ve just returned from an author tour with Anthony Horowitz, helping him launch the eighth Alex Rider novel to excited fans up and down the country. It was a fun tour, wonderfully organised by Walker Books and both the Walker team and Anthony himself were surprised to find that I’m, now what’s the term? Ah yes, that’s it, redundant. Ugly word. Ugly situation. They are not alone.

Many kind people who know what I do and how I do it, have been kind enough to say generous things about my ability to chair events, host a radio show, empathise with authors and enthuse readers. It’s lovely to hear such compliments of course and I’m grateful for them but the problem is that they don’t pay the bills. Such is the parlous state I find myself in that I’ve even taken the extraordinary step of posting a notice in the Eye Need column of Private Eye in the hope that some kind benefactor will take pity. It feels a bit like pan-handling in the street only slightly warmer and more anonymous. (until I wrote that line, that is)

When Oneword Radio died there were those who assumed that I’d be snapped up. I’d interviewed over 1600 authors, many of whom so enjoyed the experience they were more than happy to return. The audience loved the show and it played no small role in the station winning the Gold Sony Award for its category no fewer than two years running. It had led to my being asked to chair innumerable events at innumerable literary festivals here and abroad. They're hard work and great fun to do, but no replacement for a proper job. But no offers came. It seemed that the world of book broadcasting is a small one and a yet smaller number of names have it all sewn up.

The Literary Editor job was the result of many months of lobbying and despite having no magazine experience, let alone in a weekly publication, was one that I relished. Recommending good books to readers and supporting and encouraging authors and publishers I admire has after all been my mission for the last ten plus years. However as I’ve explained, it was not to last, despite my having been described by some as ‘taking to it like lamb to mint sauce.” Sacrificial lamb in this case.

So then I post this by way of an SOS. If anyone has any ideas how I might exercise what little talent I am possessed of do let me know. If you own a TV station, radio station or magazine so much the better! Failing that if anyone needs quality content for a website or radio station then I’ve an archive of 1600 interviews with the great and the good that I’ll happily trade for root crops!

Yours (in need of a canoe, let alone a paddle)


Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Creative Writing

I was recently asked by a friend of mine if I could recommend some creative writing courses and since being made redundant a couple of weeks ago I’ve finally found time to do it. I post them here as they may be of some use to those of you quivering to pen the Great British Novel:

Despite Hanif Kureishi's possibly highly accurate contention that creative writing courses are the 'new mental hospitals', I've compiled the following list of those that I rate. Right, here goes:

1. The Faber Academy

For those who want to really take their writing seriously, this is the place to go. Where else can you be tutored by John Sutherland in the subtle art of memoir writing, coached by Marcel Theroux and Erica Wagner on the strategy of writing or be instructed by Tracey Chevalier on the ticklish issues that come with writing historical fiction? All in all Faber offers perhaps the highest level of targeted course-based CW education. Not cheap, of course, but feel that quality.

2. The Arvon Foundation

Arvon, as it is popularly known, offers residential creative writing courses in locations from Yorkshire to Devon, Shropshire to Inverness-shire. Like Faber they cover all aspects of creative writing from poetry to screen-plays, novels to short stories and attract a fine and established cadre of published, successful writers to tutor. Indeed if success can be measured by the number of students who have gone on to be published then Arvon is impressive indeed.

3. West Dean College

Set in beautiful surroundings in Chichester, West Sussex, WDC runs a number of CW short courses which are tutored by two successful writers, wife and husband team Kate and Greg Mosse. Greg is something of a peripatetic CW tutor and also runs courses through the SouthBank Centre. Kate has written two bestsellers as well as being one of the founding mothers of the Orange prize. Needless to say they both know what they're talking about. They are currently running a competition giving the winner the opportunity to write undisturbed in the rather luxurious surroundings. I’m entering, why don’t you? Good luck!

4. Ty Newydd

Ty Newydd is the national writers’ centre of Wales and is set in an inspiring wooded location with views over Cardigan Bay. They attract tutors of the calibre of Patrick Gale and Tiffany Murray both of whom are fine writers and damn fine teachers. That they can also attract Kevin Crossley-Holland tutoring on myth, Horatio Clare on life writing and Carol Anne Duffy on poetry gives you an idea of just how good they are. They also have a lovely pay-by-instalment plan for the more impecunious author-to-be.

5. The London School of Journalism

Although unsurprisingly focussed on mainstream journalism courses there is a very good short CW course tutored by Andrew Taylor which covers the basic building blocks of writing creatively. The next of these three-day courses is due to run in March 2010.

6. The Open College of the Arts

An educational charity devoted to the arts, the OCA runs a number of rather good correspondence courses that encompass basic beginner themes to more advanced material for those who wish to hone already practiced skills. Each of the courses is 12 months long and requires some 8 hours per week of study.

7. University of East Anglia

The Ur-course of creative writing and still the most highly regarded. For those who want to do it properly then nowhere can be better than here. Since it's founding in 1970-71 by Angus Wilson and Malcolm Bradbury this MA course has seen a hugely impressive list of former alumni go on to be the bestselling, award-winning writers of at least two generations; Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Anne Enright, Tash Aw, Richard Beard, Andrew Cowan, Joe Dunthorne, Andrew Miller, Owen Sheers, Tracy Chevalier, Trezza Azzopardi, Panos Karnezis, Suzannah Dunn and Susan Elderkin to name but... well, you get the point.

8. The Writers' Workshop

Run by writers for writers the WW offers a fairly wide range of courses in London, Manchester, Glasgow and Oxford and covering the intro courses for complete beginners to seriously advanced stylistic stuff for the seasoned pro. They have one of the best teams of editors who between them have been responsible for winning damn near every award going.

Happy writing.



Monday, 12 October 2009

Good Story Tellers vs Good Writers – will they ever be reconciled?

A little musing I wrote a few weeks ago but couldn't find a home for:

The six-year wait is over. The fanfare has faded. The circus has left town and bookshelves across the nation heave with the latest offering from Mr Dan Brown.

The Lost Symbol is his first book since The Da Vinci Code. Within hours of its publication 300,000 copies were sold in the UK alone, more than any other hardback novel for adults since Gutenberg invented the moveable type printing press. Of the six and a half million copies printed, a million have been bought worldwide already. The e-book sales have broken yet more records and the pirates were hard at work offering hooky copies just a day after it was launched. So surely all those people handing over their hard earned credit crunch cash can’t be wrong, it must be brilliant mustn’t it?

Well actually no. It’s rubbish. It’s poorly written, cast-iron clunky and with more italicised words to stress the really important bits in case you miss them than I’ve ever seen used in a single book. In short it’s has all the verve, grace and charm of a tractor, making it to literature what Massey Ferguson is to Ossetra caviar, utterly unrelated. If great writing could be likened to a gazelle, this is an ass and Brown’s fans will absolutely love it because he gives them all they’ve ever wanted from him. And that is a corking story.

I must confess that despite my innate snobbery and the offence to any critical sensibilities I may possess part of me enjoys what Brown and his ilk write. Jeffery Archer’s Kane and Abel is for me an example of masterful story telling. In fact I’d go so far as to say that Archer was one of the great storytellers of the late 20th century and I offer up as proof his collection of short stories A Quiver Full of Arrows. It’s just a shame that it’s so badly written. Another is Stieg Larsson who was a storytelling genius. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is magnificent – we shall perhaps gloss over the original title, which translates as Men Who Hate Women - the characters he created, the journeys he takes us on are unforgettable. But to tell the story he uses words as pile drivers, smashing the reader over the head to better drive it home. These authors are the Thors rather than the Freyas, Vulcan not Venus; the writers for whom the story is all and on whom the artistry of language is lost or at least temporarily misplaced.

And herein lies the rub. It’s the old Manichaean divide. Those authors that win the prizes yearn for the sales and those that achieve the sales wonder why they never get the prizes. It would be that never the twain shall meet but there is, on the micrometer thin dividing line between the two camps, that rare breed of authors that can do both; tell a great story and use language as art to do so rather than merely using words like the pieces of an IKEA flat pack, to be loosely bolted together to form something that looks like literature. Those few, win the awards and sell the copies but, boy are they few.

The corollary is that there are some writers whose prose is so beautiful, so a pointe; they are such gifted surgeons of the lexicon that you would entrust them with your last vowel. But they can’t tell a story for toffee. Or to be more precise they once told a good story so well that they set the bar too high for themselves and could never quite reach that dizzying height again. The one-book-wonders. Like bands whose first albums harness all the vivid teenage, experiencing-life-for-the-first-time energy, angst, love and hate, and sell many millions but then disappear when the second album turns out to be a squib, the energy having all been used up. One feels sympathy for such authors and often loyalty. We buy the books and read them, but more in hope than expectation, for we know the worst of it. They will write lovely prose for the rest of their lives but they will forever be trapped as the authors without a story.

So while it is possible to be a master storyteller and a good writer it’s also rare. Perhaps we expect too much. After all we wouldn’t expect a street fiddler to be able to play Mendelssohn’s violin concerto in E minor so beautifully that it bring tears to our eyes but we’ll happily throw some coins in his violin case and thoroughly enjoy his rendition of something by the Gypsy Kings.

Perhaps that is ultimately Mr Brown’s fate, that of an author-busker. For having read his latest volume I’ve worked out why he’s so popular, it’s that he makes stupid people feel intelligent, at that he’s a bleedin’ genius. Indeed ‘volume’ is a good word for his work as it signifies the space his writing takes up with no reference to mass; no artistic heft there, no depth to his work you see, no gravitas. But he does have a very large violin case for all the coin he’s collected so that’s alright then.



Saturday, 10 October 2009

Cross Training

Quite literally as I write this, I am on board a train heading west to chair an event at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. It’s a murky day beyond the window, all autumnal browns and muted greens under zinc-grey skies and drizzle. Not much to look at then and so, having finished the book I was reading, my attention has focussed on my fellow travellers.

Across the aisle from me is a long haired fellow in his mid forties who seems to be living under the misguided impression that it is possible to be a Goth while having grey straggly hair, appalling dress sense – largely a collection of five hoodies of various sizes and colours, all worn one atop the other – and a fascination with the inner geography of his nasal passages. While somewhat unpleasant, it’s his life and none of my affair, but what does get my goat and has for most of the hour and a half since we left Paddington is the appalling and regular sound of him clearing his sinuses. It’s been happening every 5 minutes now. I can almost set my watch by it. He seems completely oblivious to the fact that the honking, grating, echoey noise he makes while doing it has led to raised eyebrows, sighs of indignation and I’ll swear that one woman looked at the little knife she’s using to peel an orange with more than necessary longing the last time Goth-man honked. Frankly he’d almost deserve to have a lung punctured if it would stop him from making that horrible noise and us from feeling cross. I’m minded to ask him to stop but something’s holding me back. It would be easier if I could pass him a pack of tissues as a subtle hint but I don’t have any.

Some years ago now I found myself in a similar quandary. I had boarded the train, heading back to London from chairing another literary event, and had found myself the sole occupant of a table. A rare and special moment this as it allows one to spread out papers while writing and generally treat the place as one’s own. It was not to be however as just as the train pulled out of the station, a chap walked past all the vacant seats in the near empty carriage and plonked himself down directly opposite me. I nodded a quizzical but partially welcoming hello as I attempted to take up less space on the table and went about my work.

He had the air of an avid walker or rambler but without any of the equipment I normally associate with such fine folk. No rucksack, no binoculars, no woolly hat or stick. Indeed he wasn’t carrying anything at all. Not even a map. He was wearing an army surplus camouflage jacket with jeans beneath and what looked to be size 16 trainers on his feet and it was the footwear that was to prove the problem. Or rather the footwear’s contents. For he took his trainers off and released a stench would have felled lesser men. The cheesy, vinegary, sulphurous cloud that rose up from beneath the table would surely have contravened all the United Nation’s carefully drafted resolutions on the use of chemical and biological warfare. I have – and I’m not proud of it, but it’s true – smelled corpses that were less revolting. Truly this made me almost retch up my kidneys on the spot, even the perfume of rampant gangrene would have been preferable. I didn’t quite know what to do. Should I ask him to replace his footwear? Should I just move and forsake my table? I didn’t want to of course but in the event, and fearing him to be mad, packed up my things and moved on, feeling cowardly and confused.

Perhaps on reflection, regular flamboyant sinus clearing isn’t as bad as the alternative.



Thursday, 8 October 2009

The Importance of Being Nice

Here’s a piece of mine that the delightful and highly recommendable Mien Magazine have just accepted for inclusion.

The Importance of Being Nice

One of the great brands of Britain, up there with Marmite, Foyles and Bristol Motors, has as its logo a depiction of a dead lion with a cloud of bees rising above it and a legend beneath stating that ‘out of the strong came forth sweetness.’ You will recognise the quote as being from chapter 14 of the Book of Judges and the brand as Tate and Lyle’s Golden Syrup. But what’s the relevance of this to the subject of being nice?

Nice seems to have become unfashionable of late. While the very word encompasses politeness, kindness, thoughtfulness and decency, it also hints at a gentle affability, an amiable pleasantness and there’s little enough of that around. We live in a world where grasping insecurity and aspirational greed has all but won the day, where self is the overriding concern and where rights take precedence over responsibilities. All this works as acid corrosion on the unwritten contract of reciprocal humaneness that is the essence of nice.

Nice has had to put up with some fierce criticism over the years. There’s a Dutch proverb which states that ‘too nice is neighbour’s fool’, even Dag Hammarskjöld, the second Secretary General of the United Nations once commented that ‘It’s easy to be nice, even to an enemy – from lack of character.’ And here’s where the golden syrup comes into it because I believe that the Dutch and Dag were wrong, that niceness is actually grossly misunderstood and as result completely undervalued.

Niceness takes strength, moral fibre and confidence in one’s self to exhibit and enact. It is not an act of cowering weakness to be nice but the action of the evolved and compassionate. Bullies are nasty because they are weak, threatened and insecure. Rudeness is generally the default stance of the arrogant and thoughtless who care not one jot about their fellow man. Even the famed and over used Jimmy Durante quote “Be nice to people on your way up because you’ll meet them on the way down” completely misses the spirit of nice which is as close to altruism as is possible, doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do, not for any reward or recognition. Certainly not as any hedge against future descent. You see you can’t really fake nice. Nice is as nice does and much like honesty, although we are disposed to be tolerant to its simulacra when we see or hear them, we certainly recognise its true presence on some basic, hardwired emotional level when it manifests itself.

Nice is often not easy. It has a morality of its own which is supererogatory. It’s the quiet, persistent bell in your head that when heard demands that you act, often not only because it is the right thing to do – we’ve all walked away from such situations in our lives – but because to not act would play on our consciences. Nice is therefore demanding, a self imposed personal challenge that when met and met well can enhance our feeling of self-worth, that warm glow of having made the world a better place in some small way. It’s not the reason for being nice, of course, that wouldn’t be nice, but it is a secondary benefit, a modest, welcome reward.

And that gets to the heart of the importance of nice. No one should be above morality and certainly not the morality of nice. Bullies should feel weak and insecure until they learn to be nice. The arrogant should have their rudeness reflected back at them until they understand the enduring power of nice. Nice is the domain of the highly evolved; perhaps the highest expression of the art of community living and of course with niceness comes an understanding and tolerance of the weakness of others, because to be otherwise wouldn’t be nice.

And in case none of the above convinces you, perhaps this will; it surely can’t be an accident that the regional capital of Provence is a city in the south of France so good they named it Nice and that my mother brought me up to understand that while it’s nice to be important, it’s more important to be nice.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Queueing - an obituary.

Britain is a small island, one in which the population has exploded by some 50% in as many years. Politeness is not only the code word for the repression of rage, violence and selfish impulses of all hues, it is also one of the key national traits. The old joke that runs ‘how do you tell an Englishman in a crowd? When you step on his foot he apologises to you,’ once spoke volumes about a nation that was brought up to mind its p’s and q’s of which it is the queues that have given me cause for misery of late.

In 1941(the year that is, not a hitherto unknown precursor novel to 1984) George Orwell wrote that ‘the English are not gifted artistically’ and that they are ‘… not intellectual. They have no gift for abstract thought.’ I believe him to have been wrong on both counts. But he might have added that we do have a practical facility for happily rubbing along on this crowded island and on this issue I would have agreed with him. For nowhere is this facility more visible, nowhere can there be a more startlingly simple application of this concept than in the British ability to form an orderly queue. At bus stops, for trains and in the post office this idiot-proof form of social respect, of British sense of fair play and decorum acted out. I realise that I write this as a keen but amateur observer of the human condition as it pertains to a London, metropolitan perspective. But what happens in the capital, unlike Las Vegas, tends not to stay in the capital but leaks out to the nation as a whole.

Daily I see a half-hearted attempt at what might be considered to be a form of queuing, as if some vestigial national memory of correct behaviour exists to pull on our conscience. Someone will stand by a bus stop for example and in time people will join from behind in the traditional manner. But not in any ordered sense as I used to understand it. Smokers will stand to one side as if nodding to other queue members’ right to not breathe their exhaust gases. Someone’s mobile phone will ring and in the course of the conversation they will wander off and then, too embarrassed to rejoin their place directly, will hover somewhere around the region of the queue that they once claimed as their own. It doesn’t quite adhere to the ‘form an orderly queue’ ethos, but it’s pretty close.

Until the bus arrives that is and then everything breaks down. Mothers with children will assume that they have priority, as will the more elderly or those less able. They will fight and struggle between themselves, vying for comparative concession and in the chaos those younger and more able will seize the opportunity for themselves and leap on board. In the melee rudeness occurs, resentments are created, something gets lost and a little piece of Britain dies.

The Englishman in the joke is now as likely to reach for a vulgarity as he is for a phone with which to call his lawyer. It is thus my onerous duty to mark the passing of the queue.

So farewell then, dear queue, your life was long and noble. But it has passed and with the passing a part of all of us who claim Britishness has gone with it. You will be missed greatly and remembered fondly.

If you have been, thanks for reading.



Thursday, 3 September 2009

The Good, The Bad and The Da Vinci Code

In conversation recently I was asked why I only recommend books that I like. It slightly stumped me at the time as I thought that was the whole point of recommendation, to impart to someone else one’s own love or enthusiasm for something in the hope that it will also bring them joy or pleasure. Rarely if ever do holiday guides say “oooh don’t come here, it’s horrible” or restaurant guides say “this restaurant serves the most appalling filth I’ve ever eaten.” There are of course exceptions. Shock columnists out to make a name for themselves or occasions when something is so truly appalling that it becomes comment worthy. But the general aim, as I understand it, is to empower, to inform and to enthuse.

Some time later I then wondered how such recommendations speak of what we consider to be good. How do we decide “good” from “bad?” All the books that I recommend to you I do so because I have read them and enjoyed them. I have thought about why they were “good” and tried to convey that in the reviews you see opposite. But it is personal taste. It is subjective. You, of course, may disagree with me vehemently and consider that I’ve made you waste your time reading a book you loathed. It happens. Someone once recommended The Da Vinci Code to me saying that it was the “most amazing book I’ve ever read.” I couldn’t even finish the first chapter without wanting to throw the appallingly written, clumsily plotted pile of ordure to the wall before taking it outside, setting fire to it, scattering the ashes to the four winds and then washing my hands in sulphuric acid to remove the soiling effect it had had on my skin. In short I loathed something that a friend loved. It was to my mind a “bad” book. Of course my argument was somewhat shaken when said book became a huge international bestseller read by countless millions and spawning rather a decent film. But it doesn’t change what I thought and indeed still think of that book. It simply means that the millions of people that read it and “loved” it are just plain wrong!

There are of course lots of books I haven’t enjoyed. Some just don’t grab me but I know are highly regarded by others. Some I didn’t understand. Some are just badly written or ill thought out and I don’t see why I should recommend that you invest your time and effort in something that the author couldn’t be bothered to fully invest their time and effort in.

I feel that there’s little point in telling someone that they won’t enjoy something, because they just might. Better surely to explain what you have enjoyed in the hope that they enjoy it too. But then I was brought up to believe that ‘if you have nothing good to say, say nothing.’ Except where The Da Vinci Code is concerned. Of course.

If you have been, thanks for reading.



Friday, 17 July 2009

London Literature Festival blogs... with added zombies... and a recipe!

For those who couldn't attend the London Literature Festival in person and who didn't realise that there was a whole web-presence for it, I here post the entirety of my submissions. They're in reverse order, (most recent at the top) so you may wish to start at the bottom.

If you'd like to catch up and see what else was going on then follow this link

Have fun.



London Litfest Blogs

17th July

A literature festival? In London?

Derived from the Middle English, festive, via Old French and Medieval Latin festivalis, from Latin festivus, in turn from festus and with its roots in the Indo-European dhēs, the word festival conjures many images, of lavish banquets certainly; of a community and communities coming together in celebration; of times of jointly enjoyed joyousness and rejoicing. It is a word that brings to mind mutual merriment, eating and drinking, fun and storytelling.

A literature festival should thus be a banquet of books and of those who write them, read them, publish them, sell them, buy them and love them; a coming together of the various tribes of the word; a jamboree of and for the tellers of tales. And it is the tales and the storytelling that are the key factors here.

Books themselves are of course wonderful; from quotidian containers of necessary information to treasured objets that are adored, collected and venerated as art forms in their own right. But while the book as an article is to be admired it is merely the plate on which the food is served. When we speak of cuisine it is the work of the chef we have in mind, however much we appreciate and admire the art of the china-ware. A literature festival should celebrate those chefs-des-mots, those whose artistry and ability in story-telling is served on the plate of the page.

London has played host to many inchoate literature, literary and book festivals over the years. But none of them have actually quite stuck. There is of course much competition for attention in London. Every night in this cultural and cultured capital there is a menu of artistic endeavour that almost defies selection. It is also a big place and if a festival is to work it has to have a heartland, somewhere that the community that makes the festival can call home. Multi-centred festivals almost never work; they defy the very nature, the very essence of ‘coming together’ that defines festive sentiment.

So a literature festival in London? Fraught with difficulties, as many before now have found.

But hold on. The last two weeks have seen something rather curious happen.

It seems that a heartland has been found and founded in the Southbank Centre. For a fortnight there has been real sense of community among the authors, organisers and audiences who have contributed to and attended a fascinatingly diverse sixty plus events. Across generation gaps, across cultures and across tables, over food, over drink and over time I have seen new friendships being made and old friendships being renewed. I have watched audiences laugh and cry, get angry and been made happy, be inspired and be questioned by philosophers and scientists, poets and authors, singers and players, adults and children. In short I have seen a diverse group of communities come together, form a whole new community and feast on a veritable banquet of stories in all their forms.

The people who made all this happen have been mentioned in previous posts and I’ll spare their blushes here, but I will tell you this: London now has a Literature Festival worthy of the title, a proper literature festival with a beating heart, a good literature festival with a great sense of community. It has in Southbank a true centre, a cathedral for the celebration of stories. In only its third year something remarkable has happened and the fire - so often found at the heart of any gathering of warmth and integrity– has truly caught and it can only be a matter of time before the smoke signals are seen and that it becomes ‘word-famous’ and world famous.

Yes you read that right, but I’ll write it again; at last London has a Literature Festival, it is the London Literature Festival and it is indeed a capital thing.

As ever, if you have been, thanks for reading.

14th July



Global Poetry System is almost with us. The team and I are now closing down on the final stages of the website development, and it’ll soon launch live to the public.

In case you hadn’t heard, GPS is an online map, which users will be able to mark and flag with uploads of photographs, written words, video, and sound recordings, that convey the poetry of a place.

You can find poetry everywhere. It’s not just in books. There is always something poetical about the different places we find ourselves in and the experiences we have there. Soon you’ll be able to capture it and then tell the world where you were, by flagging it on the GPS map.

Paul Blezard has captured the poetry that’s recently been pulsating through the place we call Southbank Centre in his poem ‘A Word Album of the London Literature Festival 2009’. This will be one of the first entries on the GPS map, proudly flagged at SE1 8XX. Here it is!

Festival feasting, literary leanings

Conrad, Coleridge, Colethorpe

Kureishi and the ‘Caine’.

Prizes for writing, classroom creativity

Miller, Mosse, Mieville,

Arundhati Roy.

Word worriers,
word warriors

Moon walkers,
smooth talkers

Aldrin is a buzz

Dwan is Beckett’s new ‘Not I’.

We say, Sissay,

we all scream for Sissay

Artist in residence

Poetical in temperament

Pushing back the membrane

Come and feast your mind.

11th July

Event Chairing continued

Some posts ago, as part of the intermittent series on chairing events at literary festivals, you were promised an insight into what happens when one of the authors can’t attend their own event. Please forgive the delay, but here it now is.

Having been asked to stand in for Rachel Holmes, the Head of Literature and Spoken Word at Southbank Centre, and chair the Mama Africa event with Brian Chikwava and Petina Gappah, it became apparent the night before that there was a problem.

Petina had discovered that despite her best efforts, she was not going to receive a visa in time. It seemed that urgency and priority were losing out to bureaucracy and checks despite the fact that as well as being an author, Petina is a high profile, highly regarded, Zimbabwean lawyer who has a permanent job in one of the wealthiest nations of the world (Switzerland) and who is highly unlikely to trouble the resources of the UK taxpayer. The reasons for the delay, far from being sinister, were rather more prosaic. The UK consulate, it seems, now outsources such applications to a private company who have their own pace and procedure, one that cannot be affected by human reason or, come to that, humane reasons.

So, the double bill in the programme now sadly reduced to a single bill with chairer, (sic. See earlier post) some quick footwork was required to be able to put on a show that would at least attempt to justify the price of a ticket. The starting point was that it would be introduced by Rachel H, who would explain the situation, apologise for it (despite it being beyond her control) and offer any audience member who so wished, a refund. Very decent behaviour on the part of Southbank, I thought and somewhat at odds from the music-world equivalent where certain lead singers seem to just shout ‘you’re not getting your f***ing money back’ when the sound packs up!

So, the show went on and as any decent chair would, I took it as a challenge to try to ensure that no one took up the refund offer.

Now the key to this revised programme was Brian Chikwava, who not only is a star author, but was also a star human on the day. He’s not the biggest fan of reading aloud from his work, but when the situation was explained to him, he instantly understood that it would make for a better event if he were to read, rather than he and I talking for 45 minutes and then opening up to questions from the floor.

So we had a plan. He and I would discuss the themes of Harare North, the inspiration behind it, the origin of the extraordinary and compelling voice that he wrote it in and suchlike. He would then read an extract. We would riff for a few more minutes and then, some 40 minutes in, we would take questions from the floor. And so it was or thereabouts; a quick fix to a problem. Heavily reliant on the graciousness of the author I grant you, but the show went on, Brian was funny, generous and thoughtful, the questions came thick and fast from the audience and were brilliant in range and depth and to my knowledge, no-one asked for their money back. Or maybe Rachel just is too kind to tell me.

If you have been, thanks for reading.

11th July

The Austen Industry.

There had been chatter earlier this week that this event might be too “Austen fluffy”; that despite my pride in being asked to chair a panel comprised of Claire Harman, Deborah Moggach and Gurinder Chadha there might be prejudice against the author of the set-texts on so many school curricula around the world.

So employing some sense while being aware of the sensibility of the occasion, I thought I would introduce an edgy theme and set about the task with electrified relish.

Oh fool that I am. But in my defence, how could I know that the author of Jane’s Fame – How Jane Austen Conquered the World would herself introduce themes that included the role of Austen’s work in the defence of fetishist pornography? I could tell you of this man’s felled spark.

The big secret that I mentioned in an earlier post, is that in the remarkably short time available I’d not only managed to contact the publisher of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (the classic Regency Romance — now with ultraviolent zombie mayhem), the latest, smash hit Austen outing, but through the incredibly helpful Melissa Monachello there, had been able to field a few brief questions to Jason Rekulak – the Editorial Director of publisher Quirk Books – and to Seth Grahame-Smith – the author. That they were so comprehensive and speedy in their replies is due entirely to Melissa M’s powers of persuasion.

So without further ado, without leaving you on a cliff-hanger badly, so to speak, the following is the entire Q & A email that dropped into my inbox. My thanks to Melissa M, Jason R and Seth G-S to whom I am extremely grateful. Needless to say, ‘emma’ fan. (right, is that all six novels mentioned? I think so, so that’s quite enough of that – Ed)

1. Paul Blezard – How did the concept of Jane Austen and zombies as a ‘fusion fiction’ first come about?

From Jason Rekulak, editorial director:

I’d always wanted to do a mash-up of a famous literary novel – I thought it would be funny to do a “new and improved” version of a classic that kids are forced to read in high school. So I made a list of classic novels that were published before 1923 (these are all safely in public domain). Then I made a second list of elements which could enhance these novels –pirates, ninjas, robots, monkeys, and so forth. Then I started to connect entries on the two columns with lines. When I drew a line between “Pride and Prejudice” and “Zombies,” I knew I had my title, and it was really easy to envision how the book could work. I was forced to read P&P in high school, and I’d seen “Dawn of the Dead” a dozen times, so it was easy to imagine how a funny writer could merge elements of both. So then I called the funniest writer I knew—Seth Grahame-Smith—and we were off and running.

2. Paul Blezard – What (if any) responsibility was there felt to be in approaching the works of such a global literary ‘brand’ with such an idea.

From Jason Rekulak, editorial director:

Our responsibility to Austen was to stay true to her original plotline. The book is about 85% of Austen’s original text and 15% zombies. To be honest, Quirk wasn’t sure how the public would react to adding zombies to one of Austen’s most beloved works. There have definitely been criticisms to what we have done, but it seems most people truly do enjoy the zombie mayhem—and on a global scale. The book has been translated into 17 languages. At the same time, we feel we have introduced others to her work. Over and over, we’ve heard people say, “I would never read Austen. But ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies?’ I could get into reading this version!”

3. Paul Blezard – What does it speak of Austen’s value that Pride and Prejudice was the work selected for zombie-addition?

From Jason Rekulak, editorial director:

Austen is probably one of the most popular deceased author of the past two decades. Her books have been made into various movies and miniseries. Even Austen herself has become the subject of movies and books. So yes, we knew that” Pride and Prejudice” had a built-in audience. However, as I had said we weren’t sure if we were going to completely alienate the Austen fans. Some Austen fans were appalled by what we did, and others had a sense of humor about it.

4. Paul Blezard – Why/how was Seth chosen as the writer?

From Jason Rekulak, editorial director:

Seth is the funniest writer that I know. He had written a few books for Quirk before, most notable How to Survive a Horror Movie. Seth was already in tune with the horror crowd and had a wealth of knowledge when it came to zombies. He seemed like a natural fit.

5. Paul Blezard – What were his thoughts on i) being approached to write it and ii) tackling the challenge.

From Seth Grahame-Smith:

Jason Rekulak was the only editor I’d ever worked with. Over the course of four books, we’d exchanged hundreds of calls and thousands of emails. We’d established something of an electronic shorthand. So when I heard him say, “Hey Seth, it’s Jason,” I knew something was up at once. There was a restlessness in his voice. This was no “I need another 500 words to fill some space” call. This was the voice of a man possessed, a man struck by a lightning bolt of inspiration.

“OK. . . . I just need you to listen,” he began. “Just listen, and tell me if I’m crazy. All I have is a title. It’s just a title—but I can’t stop thinking about it. Just promise me you’ll wait a minute before you say anything, OK?”

I promised. The next words out of his mouth were Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

I broke my promise. I didn’t wait a minute. I didn’t need to. He’d barely finished the word zombies before my head was flooded with images of aristocrats being eaten alive; of the Bennet girls flying around Crouching Tiger style; of Mr. Darcy riding into battle atop his mighty steed, his glorious chestnut mane awash in musket smoke. My loins began to quiver as I imagined the joy of writing ridiculous, gratuitous scenes of violence and gore in the imitated style of Jane Austen. And the blood . . . oh, the blood. I told him it was the most brilliant idea I’d ever heard. I meant it. I was hooked.

We talked for an hour or so, excitedly trading ideas about tone, style, and body count. That afternoon, as I began rereading the original (it’d been years since I struggled through it in high school), Jason began the prodigious task of convincing his publishing executives to say yes. For a while, it seemed like he and I were the only two people on the planet who thought this was a brilliant idea.

After rereading the original, I re-reread it, making notes in the margins, jotting down ideas, and working out the logistics of weaving a zombie uprising into one of the most celebrated novels in the English language. If I changed something in Chapter 6, what were the consequences in Chapter 56? What were these new zombie sequences going to be, and how could I evenly distribute them throughout the book? What kind of zombies were these? Where did they come from? What were Elizabeth’s abilities? Where was she trained? Would any of this work, or were we just kidding ourselves?

Once I had most of these logistics worked out, I opened the original manuscript on my computer (thank you, Internets), and set about changing words, adding lines, and inserting all-new scenes—one bloody page at a time. In order to keep track of my changes, I made the new text red (seemed appropriate). Sometimes there’d be two- or three-page blocks of all-new, all-red action. Sometimes there’d be a red paragraph or a few red lines on a mostly black page. Sometimes, there was only a red word or two. As I wrote, I constantly zoomed out to view the manuscript as a whole, judging my success by how much red I’d left behind. My self-imposed rule was to change something on every page, no matter what.

I worked seven days a week, usually until two or three o’clock in the morning—almost always with Nine Inch Nails’s Ghosts I–IV or a Jerry Goldsmith score blaring in my earbuds for inspiration. When I turned in the manuscript on July 31, 2008, I curled up on the floor and wept. OK, not really. But suffice it to say, it was the most fun I’ve ever had writing in my life, and I was sorry to see it end.

From Melissa Monachello, publicity manager:

I would like to add one last thing if you see it fit. Quirk is announcing the follow up to “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” on July 15th at It will be another work of classic literature paired with a monster. That’s all I can tell you. Thanks!


Once again, if you have been, thank for reading!

10th July

Comment is not only free but positively encouraged

If you have been reading these posts by all the bloggers-in-residence and have your own perspectives on events you’ve seen or opinions on the posts you’ve read, please do comment. We’re only really here to catalyse the debate and to flag up what we like the look of, but there are many more of you than there are of us and, frankly, you’ll have points of views that we haven’t considered. It’s not a private party but an open door. Come and join us in virtualitland. You’d be very welcome!

10th July.

Where to?

Billed as an eclectic line-up of poets, artists and musicians, I’d been looking forward to this show since first meeting two of its young curators Alex and Jayga at a pre-festival meeting.

The precept for it was a response to the concept of escape and its destinations and it drew inspiration from Benjamin ‘the bard’ Zephaniah, whose own show Where to? preceded.

What I did not expect was the superb fusion of spoken word, music, art, graphics and the extraordinary buzz that hit me as I walked into the Front Room at Queen Elizabeth Hall. I know it’s a real pain to be told how good something was after the event, when you’ve already missed it, so I’m sorry, but this show was everything that it could have been. Slick, sassy, soulful and with more heart and guts than Fergus Henderson’s notoriously offal-centric restaurant, St. John.

It would be easy for a middle-aged, grey haired gipper like me to wail on about how talented the younger generation are and I won’t disrespect the perfomers by even dreaming of doing so, because actually age didn’t come into this exquisite, diverse gem of a show. Because this was all about performance and integrity and art and the artistry of all these elements.

So I’ll make a bet with you. If super-singer-songwriter Aruba Red doesn’t have the stellar career in music that she royally deserves; if Woe don’t get signed, become bigger than, oh I don’t know, Oasis… Blur… whoever’s pestering the music journalists at the moment, and win a Grammy; if artist Adele Morse doesn’t win a Turner prize; and if none of this happens within five years… then I’ll take you for lunch. All of you!

10th July

Naughty Blezard.

I have a secret. And no, I’m not going to share it with you, not yet at least.

You’ll just have to come to ‘The Austen Industry’ event at 1pm on Saturday the 11th to find out what it is.

It’s a good ‘un, you’ll like it. Really…

See you at the Purcell Room tomorrow!

9th July

“Mouth on Fire”

There is a history of terror on the part of those who have played Samuel Beckett’s Not I.

Since it was written in 1972 it is generally agreed there have been a mere handful of notable stage performances (for the purposes of this post and on the grounds of taste, we’ll not get started on the filmic renditions.) Jessica Tandy in 1972, Billie Whitelaw in ’73 and ’74, Madeline Renaud in ’75 and ’78 being the highlights.

All confess to having approached the playing of ‘Mouth’ with trepidation. (The image was ‘suggested,’ Beckett wrote, ‘by Caravaggio’s “beheading of St. John”’ The painting which hangs in the co-cathedral of Valetta, Malta) Tandy was terrified and had to rely on a “teleprompter” for fear of losing the lines. Whitelaw described the physical and mental ordeal in such a way that ‘torture’ is the only word that springs to mind. When she say’s ‘I found so much of myself in NOT I. Somewhere in there were my entrails under a microscope.” One gets the sense of just how much guts, real guts it takes even to perform the piece. Lisa Dwan is possessed of such fortitude, the very same fortitude that ‘Mouth’s’ stream of thought outpouring in part addresses.

In a filmed piece after the performance, Billie Whitelaw, who has become a friend of Dwan’s since Dwan’s first performance of NOT I at the Battersea Arts Centre (BAC), publicly handed the Beckett baton to Lisa. It was a goose-bump moment. It was proof positive that a worthy new addition may be added to the list of performers first mentioned, of whom, interestingly, none went to drama school.

So Not I is very alive and very well, a sentiment confirmed by Beckett’s biographer whose praise of Dwan after the Tuesday performance was heartfelt, true and brought a prickle to the eye. While the fact that Lisa Dwan performed it in what is possibly a record 9’ 57” is of great interest and highly admirable, that she did so with utter dedication, with impeccable delivery and with a soul displayed for all to see is what makes her the new and deserved “Mouth on Fire.”

7th July

And now for something slightly silly…

It’s not often that a man of my advancing years gets the opportunity to go all quivery of knee but last night was onesuch, You see, I got to meet a real-life star of the airwaves, Bidisha.

Her BBC World Service programme The Word has a global listenership of 95 million people. Yes you did read that correctly. 95 million. And as if that wasn’t enough she also presents BBC Radio 3’s Nightwaves that will be featuring co-blogger Suzi Feay in the very near future. In addition to her broadcasting career she has also written the novels Seahorses and Too Fast To Live and was one of this years judges for the Orange Prize for Fiction.

But those are only her day jobs, for Bidisha has a secret talent that was only revealed last night in the green room of the London Literature Festival.

When Antonio, our superb green room waiter, came around with dainty little meringues on a tray with a bowl of cream and fruit puree and then spooned the mixture onto the crisp little peaks as we took them, someone - possibly Rachel Holmes or Rosie Goldsmith or Suzi Feay - said “Oooh look, it’s like Eton Mess… but without the mess.” Quick as a flash someone else - possibly me, possibly not - then said “So Eton Tidy then.”

A mild titter wafted around the table and just as all was about to become silent it was Bidisha who, with a calm, considered tone, looked up and said “Eton Neat, I think you’ll find.”

Now that’s talent. That’s what gets you 95 million listeners. In fact that what gets you 95 million listeners and a grey haired, literary chair as a fan. Damn she’s good.

Eton Mess Recipe


(Serves 4 to 6) 

Preparation time: 10 mins 

800g fresh ripe strawberries 

Kirsch, berry liqueur or Cointreau to taste 

1 tbsp icing sugar, sifted 

200g fresh cream for whipping 

200g thick Greek-style yoghurt

6 plain meringues or meringue shells


Wash and dry the strawberries and then hull them, cut in half or into thick slices. Place all but 200g of strawberries in a bowl and sprinkle with 2tbsp of liqueur. Dust with icing sugar and chill for an hour or two. Whizz the remaining 200g of berries into a purée, adding a dash of liqueur to taste, and chill. 

Whip the cream lightly, fold in the yoghurt, and chill. Crush the meringues into bite-sized pieces and when you are ready to serve, gently toss the cream, meringue and strawberries and pile the lot into a glass bowl. Drizzle with the strawberry purée. Toss once and then serve. 

6th July

“The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men…

… gang aft agley” as Rabbie Burns, Scotland’s Shakespeare (or is Shakespeare England’s Burns? Hmmm.) once said.

To continue the “dark art of chairing” strand, having prepared for the two events I was to chair on Saturday, the flexibility mentioned in an earlier post was brought home to me. The preparation all done for the Clare Mulley and Alexander Masters discussion on biography, the event turned out not to be quite as I’d expected or planned for.

Clare is a brilliant writer and researcher and I was told that she had a prepared piece with visuals from her computer. Indeed she did and for just over forty minutes the lecture she gave was a fascinating précis of her book, a wonderful tour around her subject Eglantyne Jebb – the charismatic and adventurous woman who founded Save the Children - and a superb stand-alone piece that would have worked extremely well as an entire event of itself. Alexander Masters rose to the occasion magnificently, not least when asked by Clare to click the images forward from her computer on her command, a very generous contribution from a co-programmed, equal-billed author.

The problem was that to then ask Clare some questions before turning to Alexander would mean cutting into his already shaved time allotment, it being a matter of courtesy and the unwritten literature festival norm for the time available to be equally shared between the number of authors on the stage. Solution? To distil the questions that I wanted to ask Clare down to three before attempting (rarely has one word done so much work in a sentence) a seamless segue into the very different nature of Alexander’s biography of Stuart Shorter, a young, alcohol and drug dependant homeless man with an extraordinary ability to cut to the heart of his dreadful situation.

Alexander spoke emotionally and eloquently about his subject and one could feel the crowd warm to this gentle, funny and humane writer. Not least during the revelation that when Stuart had read Alexander’s manuscript (the product of three years of literary endeavour) and was asked his opinion, Stuart replied “It’s b*ll*cks boring.”

We rather raced through Alexander’s tale, but covered the main themes in some detail before I encouraged the two authors to compare and contrast their differing dynamics – Clare’s dealing with a subject no longer living but about whom much has been written, Alexander’s being with the complete opposite. They riffed magnificently for ten minutes or so before I realised that were in rapid danger of running over time (a literature festival faux pas of sackable magnitude) and invited questions from the audience.

How can you tell if an event has gone well? Two simple ways really. Are there any questions from the audience and if so are they equally divided between the authors? And do people then buy the book. I’m very happy to report that by both yardsticks the event was deemed to be a success. There is of course another test: were the authors happy? Well only they could tell you but my eyes remain unblacked and I’ve received a charming email from Clare. You will be the judge.

So when the “scheme” has ”gang agley,” remember the watchword, flexibility, flexibility, flexibility.

Next in this slightly odd series, “What to do when one of the billed authors can’t make it.”

If you have been, thank you for reading!

More soon.

4th July

Day the thrice.

Day three at LLF and the anniversary of the birth of a nation to boot. How fitting that this evening the festival hosts one of the supreme all-American heroes, Buzz Aldrin.

After a Friday that saw the day job as Literary Editor of The Lady magazine segue into a sweltering train journey to Oxford to host the launch of Oxfams’s Oxfest - and the publication of Ox-Tales, a four volume collection of stories by 38 great writers that feature here on the 14th July – I finally returned to the South Bank mid-evening to catch the end of Jake Arnott’s superb event discussing his latest novel “The Devil’s Paintbrush.” A hugely talented man is Mr Arnott, not only as a writer and storyteller but also in giving voice to his own work. I managed to catch a few minutes with him after the event and will transcribe and post the conversation we had later this morning.

But to the work of chairing. I was saying in a previous post about the importance of ‘open’ questions. It’s more of a guideline than a rule as any good conversation has to be flexible and make room for the digressions and culs-de-sac that make such interactions so fascinating. Having read the books and done the research, the trick, for me at least, is to slightly forget it all.

There’s a temptation to script a list of questions that you’d like to ask, to have a safety net that will take you through your allotted time. There is of course nothing wrong with this, but it can lead to an overly formulaic, stilted event where the ‘life’ part of the live performance aspect is sacrificed and squashed in order to get to the last question you’d originally thought of. If there’s an element of investigative journalism inherent in the event then of course that must take precedence but if there isn’t it can be interesting to author and audience alike to go with the conversation and see where it leads. It often leads to the author making new observations about their work or indeed life in general.

How does that work? Simple, you ask your first question and in the answer to it will be the seed of the next question. It can feel a little like a high wire act without a harness, but when it works it’s really worth the risk. Now I just have to apply all this to the event with Alexander Masters and Clare Mulley at 1 o’clock. I hope to see you there.

Happy birthday America, have a lovely day and enjoy today’s fantastic events.

3rd July

“The game’s afoot” as the Bard once wrote and certainly the game opened last night with much fanfare.

At the launch party, South Bank’s “empressaria” Jude Kelly gave the opening speech, explaining that the South Bank’s remit is to “push back the membrane” to the point that there is “no-one on the outside.” Now that’s a properly inclusive approach to creativity, artistry and expression, a rousing, modern version of ‘Cry “God for Harry, England and Saint George”’ as the Bard went on to say.

Receiving the microphone Rachel Holmes gave thanks to those people who make such a festival happen, not least in this case, the quiet guru of the London Literature Festival, Martin Colthorpe, who Holmes described as ‘forensic’. If any of you are/were fans of the TV show NCIS then Colthorpe is the Jethro Gibbs character. He’s that good at what he does, but without the head slapping so favoured by his TV avatar.

Fred D’Aguiar, could be found mingling as briefly could Arundhati Roy before being whisked off for her sound check. You’ll have read about her event in Jayga’s excellent post below.

All in all a great start. I’ve got to dash… or as William S put it, and so much better, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.”

More later…

2nd July 2009

Having read up for the event on Saturday with Alexander Masters’ “Stuart – A life backwards” and Clare Mulley’s ‘The Woman who saved the Children” I now have a pretty clear picture of the path the event might take. There are the obvious themes of identity, biography and the approach that each took to their subjects (why obvious? Because that’s what it says in the London Literature Festival programme about the event!). Then there are the matters peculiar to each of these fascinating books; the research issues, the keeping track of the story issues and in Alexander’s case the “what to say when your subject thinks the manuscript is “b*ll*cks boring” issues. A slightly rarer one that. It has all the hallmarks of being a really fascinating glimpse into four lives, those of the subjects and those of the writers, so I hope you can make it at 1pm on Saturday.

In a slight departure from the programme, Rachel Holmes - the Head of Literature and Spoken Word at the South Bank - has asked me to step into her shoes (no, not literally!) and chair the Brian Chikwava and Petina Gappah event at 4pm on Saturday, which bears all the hallmarks of being a fascinating hour that I was hoping to attend as an audience member. Zimbabwe is in all our minds at the moment and Brian and Petina have such superb perspectives on it. Thankfully I’ve read “Harare North” and have been a fan of Brian’s since before he won the Caine Prize for African writing. I interviewed him back in 2004 for the radio show that I then presented and remember well his short story “Seventh Street Alchemy” but Petina’s collection of stories is new to me and boy am I impressed at the power of her writing. If you love great writing, let alone great writing on Africa, then this will be well worth the ticket.

Now, what’s happening at Wimbledon? “Come on Tim… oops…sorry…come on ANDY!”

1st July 2009

Notwithstanding the light-hearted blog yesterday on event chairing (or should that now be Chairering?) there is a serious side to what might look like an easy way to get a good seat at an event. Over the next few days I’ll try to lift the veil on various aspects of what looks so simple when it goes right but which can be a horrific form of torture when it goes wrong.. And it does sometimes go wrong.

There’s always thrill in being invited to interview or be “in conversation” with an author whose work you admire, a philosopher that has changed the way you think or a person of otherwise notable achievement. It’s a bit like being invited to a meal where the host says, “oh by the way you know that person that you call your hero? Well they’re coming too and you’re sitting next to them.”

The thrill can soon give way to utter fear as the realisation dawns that you actually have to have something to say to them. With festivals it’s worse when as you soon realise that what you have to say to them not only has to be interesting to your subject but also to the audience of thousands that have bought tickets to see them. That’s when the works starts, the research and reading begins and a chairs mind turns to planning the shape and nature of the event. The thing to remember is that audiences have come to see the person you are speaking to and not you, so the simple watchword is “questions.” The trick is to ask them in a way that will elicit a fascinating answer so “open” questions then, those that Kipling described best in the “Just So” stories

I keep six honest serving-men

(They taught me all I knew);

Their names are What and Why and When

And How and Where and Who.

The worst opening word for a question is “Did” or “Do” or “Does.” Why? Because with such “closed” questions your interviewee can respond with ‘yes’ or ‘no” and there’s not much room for entertainment or theatre there.

Right, I’m off to read Alexander Masters’ and Clare Mulley’s books for Saturday’s event. More soon.

30th June 2009

As the excitement builds and the weeks of fevered, expectant anticipation come to an end with the start of the festival on Thursday, the final meeting for bloggers took place at the South Bank this lunch time and a whole new word was coined.

Susie Feay, that doyenne of literature, the former Literary Editor of the Independent on Sunday no less, was responsible. We were each asked to introduce ourselves to the assembled group and having outlined her career SF went on to say that she is also a “Chairer” at the festival. “A Chairer?” various voices queried. I thought about it and realised that I rather liked it, so chipped in a quick defence along the lines of “Work… Worker. Chair… Chairer.”

So you’ve heard (or indeed read) it here first. The correct term for a person that chairs events at a literary festival is a Chairer and Susie Feay invented it.