Paradise

Last night I watched Riot at the Rite on BBC4, a recreation of the first performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring as danced by The Ballet Russes, featuring the near riot, the difficulties both the musicians and dancers had with the music and the tension between Diaghilev and Nijinsky. Riot featured the whole ballet in costumes and set very close to the original, it is worth looking at contemporary photographs to see how close. With dance notation they are also able to follow the original choreography. It was fascinating and I felt well done, good to see dancers performing compared to that silly Black Swan film.

I’d seen a couple of performances of The Rite of Spring, one was with the same choreography but very different staging and costuming, the other was a quite wild version by a Canadian ballet company, both at Saddlers Wells. It is not a great favourite of mine but I can see why it changed so much in the arts at the time. It came out at a period of huge changes in all aspects of society, especially the arts. Picasso was painting works such as Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, with its angular broken up figures and African masks and faces (there was a nice touch where in Riot where Picasso was in the audience drawing a chicken!). New music and poetry were changing the soundscape of the avant-garde while experiments in pictorial composition changing ways of seeing. But this was for an elite, in many ways it could be argued that the influence on popular culture didn’t really come about for at least another 50 years.

The recreation of that first performance included the heckling and mocking of the performance, the near riot situation, something we now find hard to fathom. Perhaps the reaction of the good citizens of Caerphilly to the performance by The Sex Pistols is the closest we come! My father told me that he attended the British premier of Ravel’s Bolero at the Royal Albert Hall and throughout the performance members of the audience were heckling and whistling, nowadays it seems a very tame piece!

I only ever booed once at a theatre performance, not during the play and not at the actors but at the director Calixto Bieito when he came on. That was at a performance of Hamlet in Edinburgh by the Birmingham Rep. It was as if a bunch of ‘too clever’ sixth formers had looked in bits at the play, interpreted it, then not drawn all the pieces together back to a coherent play. It all took place in a night club and began with Claudius coming on singing He ain’t heavy, he was my brother…; later the wonderful ‘To be or not to be…’ speech was performed as a TV chat show, and there were even worse bits including live ‘rape’ which luckily have been erased from my memory. The usually three hour plus play was cut to about 1hr 20minutes. So I booed and got looked and frowned at by many others. I was annoyed not just at the stupidity of the production, but also because I knew that this would often be the only performance others would see of what is a magnificent play, it’s like only ever seeing a pub five-a-side team play football, when you could watch Port Vale! Luckily I’ve been to 6 Hamlet’s in the theatre, and there was only one other really bad one by Northern Broadsides. I don’t object to interpretations of Shakespeare and have seen some fantastic plays, but this, it felt like they were scared of the text.

I also booed at Roy Harper in about 1972. It was an expensive ticket at The Victoria Hall in Hanley. He was due on at 8.30pm. He came on stage around 9.45, mumbled a bit, started two songs he didn’t finish, mumbled about what a great time he’d had in the dressing room, fell of his stool, then shambled off, not to be seen again! Lots of people were saying things like ‘hey man that’s a genuine guy’ and things like that. I got escorted through the doors by a policeman for booing and shouting that I wanted my money back! I got rid of the two albums I had of his the next day.

I should have booed at Ginger Baker’s Army in the same venue and I think same year, they also couldn’t finish anything, the band just kept falling to bits, I just left instead!

Today’s photographs are of The Paradise in Paradise Street, Tunstall. The pub goes back around 150 years and has always been one of my favourites. The very interesting sign goes a very long way back, and looks like a set for The Rite of Spring! Taken at 10am on a chilly/mild bright day.

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Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of one of my favourite films opening, Fellini’s 8½. To some like me it is a near perfect work of genius, others think it excessive, presumptuous and self-indulgent. It was greatly criticised by feminists for the scene where Guido in a dream tames all the women in his life like a lion tamer. The film is a critique of film making and the breakdown of a creative person who is haunted by his past with no thought for the future. I love it.

It was made in black and white and would have lost almost all its power in colour. It has an amazing Nino Rota score, mixes surrealism with an everyday realism. It is also probably the only Italian film quoted in Steptoe and Son, when young Steptoe is trying to better himself (and of course impress a woman) by going to a foreign film, and old Steptoe pulls him down from his pedestal.

I first saw it on the invaluable BBC2 World Cinema series around 1971, which introduced me to so many films otherwise unavailable in a place like Stoke-on-Trent. For so many people that was an important part of their ‘education’. It is hard now to imagine how hard it was to see such films outside London and just a few cinemas around the country. Now we can find almost everything online or on DVD, then if you missed it, you missed it! There were not the repeats BBC4 has and no way of recording. I loved it then but when I eventually got to see it on a cinema screen then it really ‘blew my mind’.

50 years feels a very long time and is. The Fellini films stand the test of time, they are very much of their period, La Dolce Vita is the signature film of the early 60’s mentality, but because they are so good and so powerful still have a power few other films do. The final scene of 8½ would now be made with lots of cgi, but the fantastical realism Fellini used through actually making the scene means it works so much better.Image

The film ends with my favourite scene where Guido is at one with his breakdown and all the people from his past (priests, wives, lovers, mother) come together and dance in a circle around the film set to a wonderful music tune, then as the screen fades it shows one of my favourite quotes, (I ended Underpainting quoting it) – “Any artist worthy of his calling should make one vow: to learn how to be silent”.

If you’ve never seen it, please see it and you are so lucky to have such a great treat in store!

Today’s photograph is looking from Jacqueline Street towards Burslem into the sun on a bright breezy sometimes cool sometimes mild day at about 11.20.

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Point of view

Last night’s Renegade Writers meeting highlighted the difficulty of point of view (pov). One of the new members had written a very effective piece about a mother being taken away to a mental institution in what felt like the 1960’s, and the reaction of her 5 year old daughter, then the changes in her over a number of years until she was her mothers’ carer. The problem with it was it jumps from one pov to another. He wrote some really fine and moving passages, which I think we all appreciated.

POV is difficult to master. If you write first person then there are passages you want to include which show what another person is thinking, or action away from the readers’ viewpoint. There is also another issue which I started to bring up but Misha intervened to stop me complicating things even further for the poor man! That is not just whose viewpoint are you writing from, but from what time is it written. Are you living through the events with the characters in real-time; are you looking back and in what circumstance; is the narrator’s situation important to the story?

If the story is told looking back after the event (past tense) how does that effect what maybe life threatening situations, the reader knows you survive! If maybe written from a prison cell the reader knows you’ve been caught! It’s difficult isn’t it!

In The Tin Drum, Grass writes the pov from his ‘hero’ Oskar’s situation much later on when the he is now living in some form of institution, so the narrator can make comments on his past, and of his life in the institution which becomes part of the narrative, there is interaction with a guard, short descriptions of his life there. In his book Too Far Afield, Grass uses more than one narrator from a government department giving reported conversations during regular meetings with the two, linked through time, characters Theo (known as Fonty) and his constant shadow Ludwig, and we hear about the disintegration of their world when the Berlin Wall falls, in Fonty’s fight to save a paternoster lift inside what was once the Nazi Air Ministry. It is a highly complex novel and required me to stop after about 200 pages and read novels by the 19th Century German novelist Fontaine to make any sense of it!

Of course such complicated pov is not for a beginner. I was saying on my way home from Renegades how in effective novels you don’t actually notice the pov. Choosing a pov is probably one of the initial actions when writing. In my first big piece of writing, Underpainting, by default I chose to tell a story from an omnipotent viewpoint, I wrote characters’ thoughts, dreams, saw things from fly on the wall, looked back, wrote phone conversations from both sides. It could be said like watching a film, and that was a criticism many years ago, that it wasn’t literature but an extended film script! It probably is.

Today’s photograph is of the rear of my flat which is being cladded to improve the warmth as part of a government scheme for areas of deprivation. They have done inside at the front and will soon do the side. It was taken at 9.30 on a mildish getting brighter day.

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A little hard copy now and then…

I was reading Karl Hyde’s quite mesmeric daily online diary (http://www.karlhyde.com/) which he has kept with a new image since 2000 and found this – I have so much in my life that’s virtual it’s important that I have a little hard copy now & then.

It was a response to being offered a virtual receipt in a shop, but I feel it is a highly profound statement, especially where books are concerned and for many music. I could not ‘live’ now without my PC, I started using the things in 1989. I have always seen them as a tool and never had a great love for them, but they have organised things for me because I am an awful physical filer, my office used to be a series of piles of papers with empty filing cabinets; my writing is awful so at least notes and letters were now readable; I was awful when doing handwritten accounts and spreadsheets were clear and added up properly.

Now, living for 98% of the time on my own I have people to ‘talk’ to, articles to read, music to listen to, films to watch, things to fully waste my time, and a machine to write on and importantly research on. However, it does feel nice to pick up a book, a CD/DVD and isn’t it odd how hard it is to edit/correct on screen, even though printing out, making the notes then doing the work is twice the work. I wonder why that is? Is it a perceptual thing, should we use a coloured background on screen? When people have difficulty reading they often need a ‘pastel’ paper or background, I’ll have to try it, or is it that we naturally scan the page because of the unnatural distance the computer screen is from our eyes. In 1992 when I really began to work intensely onscreen I found I was getting very bad headaches, screens of course were not as subtle and much smaller. I went to the optician who found that my right eye was compensating by missing the screen altogether, so I had a pair of glasses which moved it leftwards, for a while it was quite painful as the muscle fought against it!

PC’s are a pain but we would find it hard to go back to not having them. For a couple of years I didn’t have one at home and every day walked to the library to use one there. You could only have a period of two hours per day, so writing had to be quite intense and I didn’t wander off onto interesting sites! What was annoying was that 10pm moment when you wanted to get down what you’d been mulling over, I often tried writing it down, not only did I get hand/arm/wrist ache I usually couldn’t read what I’d written when it came to transcribing it the next day!

Karl is releasing his first solo album soon after three decades with Underworld and I have an interview planned for this blog around the time of release.

Today’s photograph taken at 9.10am on a bitterly cold day looking like snow, in the backs near my flat.

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Genius

It was back to school again today.

I put together a PowerPoint presentation (well the Open Office version) of work by Picasso from his early works right through to his death in 1973. I couldn’t show too many, their concentration couldn’t have handled it, there were 26 pieces. Luckily there are also a huge amount of photographs of Picasso working which I interspersed amongst the works.

It is a long time since I had really looked at Picasso. There is always an assumption that you know him, but with so much output there is always something new, and always something new to find in the great works, that is why they are works of a genius. One picture I showed was Guernica, the greatest work of visual art in the Twentieth Century. In talking about it and listening to the children’s reactions, I realised how much the painting has to be put in context to get the most out of it. It does stand alone as a remarkable portrayal of suffering, looking at it again it is a painting of little hope, it’s role is to make us react against the inhumanity being portrayed. The pictures strength is in it’s simplicity of line and image, it could almost be a cartoon, and that isn’t belittling it, it still has that immediacy. If the painting was called Drone Attack or Terrorist Bombing, it would equally work. Each tragic ‘scene’ becomes part of a whole, just have a look at how lifeless the baby on the mother’s knee is to the right hand side, just a few lines create an image far more powerful than a thousand photographs. It is this throughout Picasso’s work that made him a genius.

I finished the presentation with Picasso’s Dove of Peace, again simplicity personified, a remarkable drawing made up of just twelve confident lines. Afterwards in the short time left over the children drew that image and one of a woman sleeping. It was not easy, and they worked hard to  recreate the images, with some very interesting results!

I enjoy working with children, to see their reactions to art they have never seen before and without the prejudices of learning.

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Today’s photograph is of Tunstall Square at around 11am, cloudy, dull, chilly. 

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Dark Show

Today’s blog is the first of a series of interviews. Today it is with Peter Coleborn, who is the driving force behind Alchemy Press, a small publisher of fantasy genre books. After reading this I would urge you to go on line and buy them!

Hello Peter, I am very pleased you have given your time to answer some questions. We meet every week at Renegades Writers Group but I have never asked how you got into writing and especially publishing? Does your science background affect your writing?

I don’t think so.  I enjoy reading or watching programmes about science I’ve never been that keen on reading “hard” science fiction. At one time the type of SF I read was labelled “science fantasy” but you seem not to hear that term used nowadays.

How would you describe the publishing policy of Alchemy Press?

I want to publish stories (mainly short stories) that I like to read and perhaps wish I had written.  The Alchemy Press has published short story collections and anthologies since the late 1990s (after a break of several years we’re back again). The Press published the award-winning collection Where the Bodies are Buried by Kim Newman, and Rumours of the Marvellous by Peter Atkins was short-listed for the Best Collection Award last year.

I am sure you are inundated with writers wanting to be published. What excites you when you read a script enough to publish it?

To coin an old phrase, I want to have that “sense of wonder” when I finish a story – the I-wish-I-had-written-that-story buzz. I want tales with a strong narrative, realistic characters and dialogue, and half-decent grammar (or better; we work with writers if the story is good enough). For every story that fits the bill we probably receive dozens that don’t.

How has the development of online publishing effected the Press, do you see a time when you will publish no paper based books?

I suppose I’m a bit of a Luddite: I much prefer printed books. I love the feeling I get when I hold a real book and flick to and fro through its pages. However, I am persuaded that eBooks are a vital addition to our repertoire and thus The Alchemy Press is now issuing printed and eBook editions. I hope to always offer the choice of buying the book in printed format.

As a publisher and editor what are you looking for?

At the moment The Press has three anthology markets open:  Pulp Heroes 2, Urban Mythic and Astrologica. Each book has a different editor (not me), and each editor has their own tastes.

Pulp Heroes 2 is a follow-up volume to last year’s Pulp Heroes, stories that feature heroic (and anti-heroic) characters found in the pulp fiction of the first half of the 20th century. Urban Mythic is looking for stories that re-interpret urban legends and myths (but no cute vampires!). And Astrologica wants stories based on the twelve signs of the Zodiac. Details can be found on www.alchemypress.co.uk and clicking on the tabs at the top of the page.

As you can tell from all this, The Alchemy Press is mainly a publisher of fantasy fiction.  Bear in mind, we consider that “fantasy” has a very wide definition. It includes everything from horror fiction to supernatural and ghost stories, to heroic fantasy, to science fiction, by way of sub-genres that touch on these areas. However, The Alchemy Press has published one mainstream novel, Sex, Lies and Family Ties, simply because it has a brilliant, well-told narrative; a compelling story.

For years I have found attending a writers group vital towards the development of my work. How important is it to you?

Attending writing groups confirm my suspicion that writing fiction well is very, very difficult. They are very useful in my role as editor/publisher. Very educational.

Who do you see as the main audience for the books you publish and how much time do you spend on marketing to develop that audience?

People who want to read well-written fantasy short stories. Personally, I think that not enough anthologies are generally available in the UK – hence the small press, of which The Alchemy Press is one. There is a vibrant small press scene worldwide, especially in the horror field.

Marketing: this is a difficult area to get right. Over the years I’ve sent many review copies of our books to mainstream publishers with very little in return. I’ve paid for ads in newsstand magazines – and received no boost in sales. This was, I admit, mainly pre-Internet.

Now, the Internet allows us to spread the word further and faster. There are many websites and blogs that cover the genre, and if they take eBooks there is little cost to the Press. Word of mouth and reviews on Amazon and Goodreads all help.

For some years you have been actively involved in a number of writer’s organisations. What do you feel is the value for writers to attend conferences and so forth?

Jan, my wife, has attended several writing conferences and has found them useful, especially when it comes to making contacts with agents and mainstream publishers. I haven’t been persuaded to spend that sort of money – conferences can be very expensive.  But I have attended writing workshops and some of these have been worthwhile. “You pays your money…”

If you write fantasy (including horror and SF) you’ll find that the calendar is peppered with conventions, such as Eastercon and Fantasycon. These tend to be informal gatherings (when compared with conferences) at which readers, writers, editors, agents and publishers all mingle (there is no Green Room mentality) – a fantastic way to make face-to-face contacts. Crime writers also have their own events. I’m not sure about other genres.

I know how much music and other media mean to you, so to finish off, have you any recommendations in recent books, music, films?

I don’t go to the cinema nearly enough as I perhaps should, so my film-viewing experience is a few months out of date.  Despite my affection for the genre, I am often disappointed by fantasy or horror or SF films. They are usually all glitz and no substance.  I did see Avatar in the cinema and came away bored. Pretty pictures, that’s all. A film I watched and enjoyed recently, on DVD, was something made for the BBC several decades ago: Cold Comfort Farm. I loved it. Great characters and a story that held everything together.

Not a movie but close: I recently saw a play at the Rep, Holmes versus The Ripper, written by Brian Clemens; he wrote The Avengers (the Steed and Emma Peel version, not the Marvel comics one) plus many other iconic programmes. (Returning to conventions: I met Brian at Fantasycon a few years ago – I sat with him at dinner – and he was a charming gentleman. Fancy meeting someone of that calibre?)

Music: thanks to you, Mr Tim Diggles I discovered the Girls CD recently – great variety including swirly sounds, which I like. Other recent CDs (not MP3 files, note) I’ve bought and recommend are those by Alt-J, Jake Bugg and dEUS. On order are the new CDs by Richard Thompson (going to see him next month) and Nick Cave.

Books: one of the last novels I loved was Some Kind of Fairy Story by Graham Joyce. Graham has written many find novels, fiction that flip-flops over the boundaries between genres.  Joe R Lansdale’s All the Earth, Thrown to the Sky is a wonderfully evocative YA novel set in Depression Era in the USA.

I’m currently reading Zombie Apocalypse: Fightback. This is a portmanteau novel, created by Stephen Jones – one of the UK’s finest horror anthologists. I tend to avoid zombies (like the plague!) but this is an intelligent look at the zombie mythos, reminding me very much of The Andromeda Strain.

Otherwise I read short stories at random from the several anthologies and collections I have on the go. I particularly enjoy the short stories by Robert Shearman and Peter Atkins. But of course there are many other fine writers.

You didn’t ask about graphic novels, so I hope you don’t mind me mentioning several series published by Vertigo: Fables, The Unwritten, Hellblazer, House of Mystery, Sandman and Lucifer. If you want to tackle these – exemplary examples of the artform – in each case you must start at volume one (OK, you can probably get away with dipping into Hellblazer books at random).

Is there anything else you would like say?

If you want to write you must write often and you must read lots. But to get to a publishable level you need to receive honest feedback – and joining a group like Renegade Writers is just the ticket. Practice makes better. There is no need to pay for critiques if you join a local group. And never pay to be published – try to find a publisher that likes your work enough to invest in you. If you wish to self-publish consider the eBook route. But I still hope you get your worked edited beforehand – unless you are one of the few gifted writers who can see and correct any and all the errors in your manuscript. Happy writing!

Thank you very much Peter for giving your time.

Future interviews will be with editors, poets, performers, writers, musicians and artists, (some rather famous!) so please continue to look out for my blogs.

Today’s photograph is taken outside The Sneyd Arms in Tunstall (where my friend Barry has found many images!), taken after a brief snowfall in high wind, very cold at 11am. I have called it Dark Show in honour of The Alchemy Press.

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