Friday, 11 November 2011
Remembrance Day: Mum and Dad
There are many myths and stories around my parents long and happy romance, but the most memorable were those years during the 2nd World War. It not only brought them together, but changed my mother’s world out of all recognition.
My mum grew up in one of the poorest areas in Bristol at the time, in a nineteen-thirties slum: a go to bed hungry, wear raggedy hand-me-downs, no shoes slum. Her life before Dad was pretty much Dickensian. A mother who despised her, a step-father who brutalized … Dad would say to us kids – ‘Don’t ask your Mum. She had a horrible life back then.’ What I do know is that her step-father was a violent drunkard – Joe Knowles – who worked on the docks and who’d buy firewood, chop it up small, and send my mother out with a cart selling bundles door to door at the age of 10 just so he could buy more beer. Or send her off to pawn his best suit until payday when she’d have to go and buy it back.
Dad said that he first clapped eyes on Mum at a local school’s sports day. He’d stopped to watch, his eye caught by the pretty girl stuck fast in the ground-level netting of the Obstacle Race. He said he knew then.
Later, when Dad (a handsome Home Guard soldier) was patrolling a patch of Easton near the railway line – he lived in a two-up-two-down bursting-at-the-seams-with-a-large-family house in Barton Hill – he bumped into Mum by the bridge. On their first date, Dad told Mum they’d be together for at least fifty years. These days he’d sound like some crazed stalker, but this was the War years, he was smitten, Mum had film-star good looks and a lively intelligence – it was romance. It was love. It was fifty-four years until she died.
Those war years were some of the happiest of Mum’s life. Not only the war spirit of -we’re all in this together - or the stolen kisses, the dances, the Yanks over-sexed and over-here … but also because for the first time Mum was in the same billet as girls from all walks of life. Mum’s best friend was an upper middle class girl who taught Mum how to speak, instructed her on all matters etiquette. This transformed Mum from what she considered herself to be - an uncouth working class girl - to a confident woman. It gave her aspirations and helped their later social mobility up to the middle classes. Dad already had an easy affability which meant he could fit in anywhere.
So, The War moulded my mother. It saved her in many ways too. She’d insist Dad was her knight in shining armour (raised on the Golden Years of Hollywood!). And who could blame her? One in a million, your dad, she’d say. Handsome, talented, liked by all – and could handle himself in a fight. He once punched Joe Knowles on the nose when he caught him threatening Mum. Yes, one day I shall write about it. Maybe here is a start.
So, today – 11/11/11 - I shall think of Mum and Dad. Of their getting married on a forty-eight-hour pass, of their strolling arm-in-arm down Wine Street and all those other streets which were wiped out during German nighttime bombing raids of WWII; of how - sharing a lover’s walk - they had to dodge the fires, witness sights, screams, smells none of us can imagine; as the Great Blitz of Bristol happened all around them, and how The War shaped a whole generation. How it shaped them both.
They’re gone now. Soon I shall visit that spot where they first met. You can just make out the bridge which crossed the railway line. It was demolished long ago, and is now a cycle path. I can almost imagine them there, Irene with her dark hair and long legs, Charles with his strong walk and uniform. They’re both eighteen, their future before them. They’re laughing, smiling, stopping for a kiss, lighting a cigarette and gazing up into the night sky. Their story not told – yet. xxx
Thursday, 10 November 2011
Then it came to me. OK, I said, it depends on what sort of mood you want to be in. Because Some Like It Hot is upbeat and will make you smile, The Apartment is moving yet sweet – kind of somewhere in the middle because - Sunset Boulevard is tragic and sad. So, c’mon what mood do you want to be in?
This whole conversation got me thinking about writing a story or a scene, and how lately I’ve come round to considering mood. Just what mood am I going for with which scene. Or - and sometimes more importantly, (as I do like to write in close viewpoint) – what kind of mood is my main character in? Then I can check through my short story and/or scene and/or chapter and ensure that this mood is conveyed through story.
I think it’s useful to think about how we want our readers to feel about the story, overall. I know that I’ve had to rewrite actions and dialogue to reflect better just what mood my main character is in. I feel this brings extra clarity and truth to my fiction. The action is then driven even more by my main character(s) and I am better able to convey theme through mood. Sorted.
Mood is something I now look for in students written work. If there is an overall mood to a piece then I reckon that deserves extra brownie points!
Tuesday, 8 November 2011
Listening about how it was made, the creative processes, put me in mind of creative writing too. The music producer and Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel talked about how they made the sounds, how they created that unique mix. How important it was to, instead of add echo, to actually go into an echo chamber and record in there. How instead of doing separate voice tracks the boys recorded together on one mike and then recorded separately, all perfectly in sync, and then put together Again and again they talked about how they got such great sound and textures by not over-mixing and using gizmos but going out to different settings – from corridors to churches - using musicians, instruments, people, and how these were sounds and textures which could never be replicated by machines or in the studio alone. Not that they didn’t use machines and recording studios, but “instead of adding on the hand claps we decided to actually go out and find an audience to do that.”
It made me think about how many new creative writers feel that the only way to write is on the keyboard. They think that pen and paper are anathema. They can’t see/ feel that the texture, the gradations, the flow is different with paper and pen. Yes, of course I use computer, laptops, smart phones, (I’d use an i-pad if I could afford one) – but there’s no substitute for the creative flow which goes from brain through body, down arm, to hand. Just watching Art Garfunkel describe how they made music, using the whole of his body, gesticulating, those large – sculptor-like hands – brought to mind the feel of writing and crafting with paper. Writing with which you can take actual scissors and cut and paste with actual glue, write on index cards and physically move these around a table, lay them out on the floor. No amount of Scrivener or other similar programmes will ever replicate this. I can usually tell which of my students have written a passage by hand first, and which have done so straight onto the screen.
I agree with the writer who said – you have to get stuck in and get your hands dirty. I maintain that an over-reliance on keyboards is bringing the hackneyed, the plinky-plonk, the over-edited into creative writing. I want mine to soar, to be origami, to be moulded with my body and hands in a way that the squareness of screens and keyboards can not. I don’t want to be penned in – or should that be keyboarded in.
Our lives are full of typing – from text through to i-pad to emails to report writing – all of which is great. It’s all words. But I still maintain they’re not reaching your visceral brain. What is happening is writing which is too much in the head, or too much in the heart – i.e. either striving to be “clever” or “intellectual” or too gushing and purple prose. What is needed is some of the groin/ the visceral/ the getting those finger nails dirty. I maintain you’re more likely to connect there when employing pen, scribbles, freewriting from brain down hand to paper.
At times I’m accused of being too old or a Luddite to understand. Not so. I agree with Pablo Neruda who said "The keyboard separated me from a deeper intimacy with poetry, and my hand brought me closer to that intimacy again.' Pablo Neruda. And novelist Anne Tyler agrees that the muscular movement of putting down script on the paper gets her imagination back on track and Clive Barker said that for him, handwriting is 'the most direct assocation I can make between what's going on in my mind's eye and what's going to appear on the page.'
It seems nuts to me to chuck writing by hand out of your writer’s toolkit. It’s invaluable, and nothing gives you the same flow or the same words. I’m not saying abandon the keyboard, what I’m saying is give the p’s (pen and paper) a chance (yeah, rubbish John and Yoko joke).
Back to S & G – dontcha just love Bridge Over Troubled Water?
Tuesday, 25 October 2011
So, what is the reason for Vanessa's - and presumably the script-writer's - conviction that Will S. was not the author. Why, because he was "just an actor". Well, excuse me for getting incensed on the behalf of actors - but what on earth has that to do with the price of fish (or cod-pieces!)
These sorts of arguments have been bandied about for years (centuries, even). That a seemingly "lowly" person from the sticks must be incapable of such brilliance. What arrant, if not arrogant nonsense. (Again excuse me while I clamber up on my hobby horse and gallop off across the Warwickshire countryside!)
They hold no water whatsoever. For as long as there has been natural selection there has been a brilliant member of the species who sticks their head above the rest because they have a special talent. In this case it was William Shakespeare. And, so what? The Warwickshire gene pool threw up a genius. Happens all the time, the whole world over. Stop messing with the story - even if it is a myth.
Does it matter?
This sort of rummaging around in a writer's things after they are dead reminds me of the horrible scene in Dickens A Christmas Carol when - after Ebeneezer's demise - a bunch of people crowd around like so many vultures:picking over his clothes and the meagre possessions he left behind.
This kind of "picking over" makes me feel queasy and that it's unnecessary. Why do people feel the need to do this?
I enjoy biography as much as the next person - ok not strictly true as I much prefer fiction which, to me, gets closer to "truths" - but this raking through the past to provide a kind of retro- ah-ha - so it wasn't you! Not so clever as you thought, eh? Serves what?
It's the same way I feel about Jane Austen and how her sister Cassandra did her a service in destroying her letters. Far better that Austen's work should stand alone - although, yes, I admire her hugely and wish I'd been around when she was alive on the planet. I think that the interest in Jane A. and others often stems from that sort of wish. A desire to claim her back - to pull her from the clutches of the past, from out of the river Styx (am now picturing The Mummy and that's not quite right - descending into purple prose here ...). Hopefully, though, you can follow my drift.
To me, the whole Shakespeare mallarkey smacks rather of point-scoring. Why can't we just leave and marvel at his brilliance. Does it really matter if it wasn't him? And why do some people appear to present these unmaskings of "the real Shakespeare" with lip-smacking relish - as if they hate the poor chap.
I felt much the same about the whole Carver affair. How some appeared to get pleasure from declaring "Ah yes, not so great now, are we Carver? We know now that it wasn't you, but your editor. Ah ha! We've found you out." Similarly I do rather wish that his "unsullied by Gish" pre-writings hadn't been published. What has that added? I felt as a fan that it rather took away.
Much as I've often wondered out loud just how culpable Ted Hughes might have been in Sylvia Plath's death at least he kept their private lives private and didn't go through her waste paper bin to publish earlier drafts ...
A writer friend who has gone on to be famous and highly successful once told me she'd had written into her will that she wanted all her old diaries destroyed after she was dead. (She uses them now for material - of course). She said she didn't want people poking about in her teen thoughts/ dreams/ stupid and rubbish scribbles. And I think she was right.
In this age when all remains on the world wide web for ever (or at least until the power runs out and the lights do finally go off!) it gives one pause for thought. How on earth can we manage what is left behind now? Will collaborations/ re-writes/ emails, etc. etc. might be dragged out to show - ah ha! - that we didn't do it all alone. That each and every one isn't after all (to paraphrase Hugh Grant's character in About A Boy) an island! (Yes, I know that if he were he wanted to be Ibiza!)
So. No. I shan't be going to see the film. Nor shall I be reading any exposes on writers/ artists lives and what they've left behind. Not if it might leave a bad taste. I much prefer an artist's work to stand alone. To delve into the dead's psyche feels rather too much like grave robbing to me.
Wednesday, 6 July 2011
I Wish I’d Looked After Me Teeth
Once again there’s discussion in the news re. how to pay, and who should pay for the care of the elderly.
This is a subject dear to my heart, as my dear old Dad developed dementia (maybe Alzheimer’s – who knows, the doctors were certainly reluctant to give Dad a definitive diagnosis. Maybe it doesn’t matter when the end result is the same …). And his small inheritance which he’d hoped to leave to us kids was spent on expensive yet crap care.
There are just two things I’m going to discuss here. The first one briefly – I’ll come back to that in another blog – and the second one I want to explore here.
1. Sadly, my experience of residential “homes” for people with dementia is: They’ll say anything to get your money. It goes without saying that I was vulnerable too because of the guilt and tons of other emotions, about basically kidnapping my dad and placing him in a home. Why did I do this? All the usual reasons. But more of that later. But I decided that if this had to be the only option for Dad, then I wanted the best for him. It’s what he would have done for me. Trying to get the “best” I ended up transferring him twice, and was promised, in turn, all sorts of excellent care by all three of the care homes he stayed in, (in the two and a half years before he died). Sad to say they all lied. They all subjected my dad to thoughtlessness and casual neglect (or maybe stronger neglect as apparently my dad punched a care worker on his nose – hmmm, Dad wouldn’t have taken abuse from anyone! So who knows …) And, to add insult to possible injury, I was paying £850 A WEEK for that so-called care. The Beatles were right - money can’t buy you love.
2. I’m seriously considering saying to my kids – If it looks like I have to go into any sort of residential care, then it’s EXIT for me, or if not then at least HAVE
I first realized Dad’s teeth were a problem when it was clear that they were discoloured and almost brown. I asked the carers to please make sure he cleaned his teeth. I was met with blank stares, which I came to recognize was the normal response of carers on low pay and with English as their second language. I don’t blame them, I blame those who are coining it in, buying in cheap labour from other countries, giving minimal training, and paying the minimum wage while fleecing residents’ family members who pay through their noses and their guilt! We all hope for the best!
Dad was deaf when he went in and wore hearing aids. These were never cleaned out by the carers, unless I made a fuss; and even then it was like I’d asked them to perform brain surgery. It was too much bother. Never mind that it ought to have been my Dad’s basic human rights – to hear as best he could! He had nothing else to occupy his days – as their promised activites never arrived ... Dad became more and more isolated, more frustrated, and his spirit sapped. (Oh how I cheered inside when I was informed that he’d punched one of the assistants!!!)
Dad would use a toothpick after his meals. But this wasn’t allowed in the care home – “In case he harms himself” – so we brought him in floss – again not allowed by the Gestapo. Dad’s teeth continued to decline and I insisted that he saw a dentist. They tried to get me to take him, but he was so demented and anxious that this was a ridiculous idea. What on earth do I pay you for? I said.
Then came the day when Dad was mithering about his teeth more than usual, with his fingers in his mouth. ‘Can you please check his teeth?’ I said. Eventually I discovered a couple of weeks later when I looked inside his mouth, that he had a broken tooth. I hit the roof with the carers. There was much fussing about, and this proved the last straw for that home – there were numerous other things which happened not least of which was Dad developing a bed sore.
Now, when I think back with hindsight I wonder if it would have kinder to suggest he had all his teeth extracted. I know that wouldn’t have happened because 1) they would have thought I was a nutter daughter, and 2) he was unlikely to survive the anaesthetic.
I seriously don’t think that care homes have thought through dental hygiene. Imagine, not only not having your teeth brushed day after day, but also having bits of meat and other food stuck in between your teeth, sore and rotting. Think of no-one understanding and caring, and how you lose all your dignity, and are in pain. There’s also the real danger of infection from teeth tracking down to the heart. This is a real medical danger.
So, I Wish I’d Looked After Me Teeth? Hmmm. In the horrible neglectful shameful shambles which is elderly care, it might well be better if you hadn’t!
Monday, 27 June 2011
On Collaborating with Helen Thomas
I count myself as very lucky to have a writing pal I trust enough to collaborate with. Now, it’s not unusual for musicians to collaborate – think McCartney and Lennon – but I don’t know any poets who collaborate with other poets (unless they’re married).
Raymond Carver had his editor Gordon Lish, and I’ve got Helen Thomas.
It started when we spent time together on a poets trip to the
We decided to write a stage play based on our adventures (which was never finished), where I’d write one scene, send it to Helen, who’d polish it, then she’d send the next scene to me where I’d add my alterations/ suggestions, and so it carried on. We discovered that we were on the same wave length, and I trusted her opinion completely.
I’ve admired Helen and her word craft from the off, and have to say that her suggestions have been spot on.
Next I asked Helen’s advice and editorial skills on a few poems. They were mainly ones which I had a deadline for. We both found that something new was happening. It wasn’t a mere case of editing. I found that my work was transformed by Helen’s intervention, and she said that she’d never have written anything like the finished poems if I hadn’t begun them. The finished poems which we wrote together, then, were an amalgam of both our talents – and I think greater than the whole. A bit like Lennon’s rough added to McCartney’s smooth. Not that Helen’s poems are rough at all! I had (have) a tendancy to waffle and write more dancing poetry whereas Helen’s were (are) tight with no lean meat. If you’ve not read Helen’s poems then do.
I guess we both have the same sort of humour and find the same things funny, which is essential. I can’t imagine this sort of creative partnership with anyone else. Helen now collaborates with her partner Owen and they are Tingle In The Netherlands – again, visit them on facebook/ youtube, myspace, etc.
I hate anyone else’s input on my work – which is a terrible thing to admit – but I know that Helen can tweak something even better from my poetry.
I don’t call on Helen for all my poems – after all, she has her own work. But also because many of my poems are distinctively mine and have my voice. I enjoy the ones on which Helen and I have collaborated or which she’s edited for me. They have that extra Helen oomph!
The process usually starts with me contacting Helen in a panic – I have a poem I need for a festival/ performance, etc., and it’s just not coming together and I’m running out of time. I’ll then send it to Helen, and she’ll send back suggestions (usually in red). They could be suggested alterations, suggested rhymes for me to think about, or just a “I don’t think this scans”. It always gives me an injection of creativity and helps either jumpstart the poem, or triggers an avenue I’d not thought of, or highlights something I knew deep down wasn’t working.
So, here’s one of the first poems we collaborated on. It ended up a joint poem as Helen picked out many of my lines, added some new ones, and made tight suggestions. We wrote it for one of my performances at Ashton Court Festival (it’s credited to us both).
We Are The World by Helên Thomas and Rosemary Dun
By aspirant bouncing butterflies, I crouched coy as a grub
Back stage at the One World Festival, I wasn’t in their club
Of housewives with a hobby, belly dancing, flounced in silk
Some looked like Mr. Blobby with skin as white as milk.
Pot bellies swathed in chiffon, they danced the seven veils.
Not one of them was muslim, but some had come from
“We love the Arab traditions,” trills Mrs. Pontin-Fraynes
Elsewhere in far off deserts, vultures peck at shallow graves.
The Cotswold Samba Band’s as hot as Salsa and tequila
Amplified like gun shots on the streets of the Favela
As the future of a hunted child forever lies unfurled
His culture’s cherry picked by those who sing, “We are the world!”
And so I seek asylum in the toilets down the hall
From the Anglo Saxon Mummers, and their global festival.
Their faces stodgy cake mix paste, no dusky maidens here,
Just flaccid white bread, lemonade, drop scones and ginger beer.
So, thanks Helen, and until the next time xxx
Saturday, 25 June 2011
COLUMBO, MY MOTHER, AND ME
We now live in an age where television and film help form part of our own personal historical and emotional landscapes. Yesterday came the news that Peter Falk, the actor who played Columbo, was dead. I felt sad, in a way which touched me viscerally. This is ridiculous, I thought, you didn’t even know the man. But then I realized that it wasn’t about the whole celebrity movie star thing - where you can feel as if you know someone and are then sorry for their passing. This ran deeper. And I realized it was much to do with my emotional landscape. This led me to reflect, blab out loud in the ether, about the intimate interaction between ourselves and that box in the corner of the room. Television has a way of inveigling itself into our lives on an emotional level, maybe even deeper than literature in the form of favourite books, can.
I would not have been bereft if I’d seen in the newspapers that Lizzie Bennet had died or that Jo March had been run over by a bus. These, I know at a deep intellectual – yes and emotional - level are fictional characters. And yet, onscreen with a much-loved television character the identification and emotional melding with character also embraces the actor: a living embodiment of a much-loved fictional character. Even though one’s intellectual brain is telling you that they are a separate person, somewhere on a more primitive visceral level there’s a bit which connects the onscreen with the actual. Our perceptions of reality are blurred.
I don’t mean that if I’d met Peter Falk I would have been one of those crazies, convinced that he was Columbo and not Peter Falk – but I’d also be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that a little voice somewhere would be trying to pipe up with “Look, there’s Columbo!”
So why did Peter Falk’s dying make me feel more sad than I’d ever been about other stars/ celebrities passing? It came to me, like one of Columbo’s flashes – “Doh,’ slaps head with hand – it’s because it’s a connection to my mother. I have fond memories of sitting on the sofa with my mother – now herself long dead, and who had loved Columbo. I adored my mother and absorbed many of her loves. I grew up with Columbo as part of my emotional landscape. My mum told me how Peter Falk was part of the new American cinema new wave alongside John Cassavetes, Gina Rowland, and Ben Gazzara. She told me all about his glass eye, as I tried to figure out which one. Yes, Columbo is inextricably woven into memories of my mother. With him gone, another piece of her goes too. Rational? No. The truth? Yes. Or something close to it.
Oh, and one more thing.
Tuesday, 7 June 2011
So, I searched for ukelele lessons and luckily there was a 2-hour workshop in Bristol. Along I went, and there were about 20 people there too! So, I reckon that my lesson was about the equivalent of 10 mins uke instructions. Never mind! I went home and realised that I couldn't remember any of the chords, that they were too complex, as was the strumming which I couldn't do either. So, driven by panic - only 2 weeks and counting to the show, I picked something which sounded ok and wrote (well ok devised) a chorus about - Brian Cox! Then added verses (with the help of my mate Helen Thomas - more about that in another blog), and I had my comedy song-slash-poetry mash up (or as I like to refer to it, my mish-mash up!) Taking heart from a late-night tv viewing of Stewart Lee asserting that comedy songs are the way to go!
Ok, this was coming along - then a poem on philosophy, plus another comedy song based on The Rapture (the predicted coming of the Lord on 21st May which never materialised) was - of course - based on Country Joe and The Fish Vietnam Song - accompanied on a newly purchased tambourine!! Oh yes!
I'm a big fan of going with first thoughts - as suggested by Natalie Goldberg - and it was amazing how seemingly random thoughts and ideas coalesced into a show with an overall theme. I'm also a bit of a devotee of surrealists random-ness, and the audience participation - which went extremely well, formed a large part of this. We did a list poem together, a flip chart was involved, some laughter, a small open mike, and a resolution of: If Love Is The Answer, What Is The Question. Finishing off with a playing out to The Beatles All You Need Is Love - preceded by a random (and hilariously unexpected) fanfare in the middle of one of my poems as the sound engineer, who'd been fiddling about with the levels on the cd accidentally fired up All You Need Is Love, and the excellent trumpeted fanfare rang out. Brilliant. I shall use that as an intro for my next show.
being generous and knowing it's ok to be who you are!
I had lots of fun at the festival. Good food. Stayed at a wonderful B&B (I want them to adopt me!), bumped into a musician from Bristol who used to come along and perform at the openmike nights I used to host at Bristol's Folk House, hung out with some people I met at my show, and stayed for the comedy in the evening where the highlight for me was - yes, a comedienne performing comedy songs on her ukelele!! It's the way to go folks!