Black Iris: Poems from Jordan by Alexander Williams

Black Iris: Poems from Jordan by Alexander Williams

I met Alex at the premier showing of Heaven’s Rage (Leslie Tate and Mark Crane) in October 2017.

Alex is multi-talented. At the showing of Heaven’s Rage (Berkhamsted Live), Alex was singing numbers form the musical he’d written for a school production. Later I heard him at The Kitchen, Croxley, were he hosted Dial Up – an open-mic event featuring music, readings, poetry and whatever goes. THis was the last night at Croxley, the new venue being the Improv Theatre on Finchley Road (entrance the North Star pub. For those not wanting to travel, The Kitchen has a new open mic host).

Singing, writing musicals, a young adult novel written and poetry. I’m not a great poetry fan but asking Alex about his two-year stay in Jordan, he produced Black Iris, a short book of poems based on his stay.

Now this is poetry which speaks to me – reflections on life, what you see, in simple bite-size chunks. However, Alex’s use of words allows something simple to become multi-layered and nuanced. The poems covering an event or a range of experiences allowed an insight in a way a narrative would most likely have flattened, or telling rote.

Highlights included encounters with children and learning the language – reminscent of my early days of Swahili learning in Tanzanian schools; and how soon you settle in, forgetting to remind guests of morning calls and such like.

This is a poetry book I think I’ll find myself dipping into again on occasion. And for those wondering about the title: it’s the national flower of Jordan.

The gallery was not found!

Ernest Hemingway

On our last day in Cuba, having visited Hemingway’s home – left exactly as it was when he’d been there – we chanced upon the launch of Ernest Hemingway’s Havana at the Buena Vista Curry Club – yes, you read right – this contains Cuba’s first Indian restaurant and is a tiny venue for literary events.

The food was great and so was the evening – giving a flavour of what Havana had been like in the time of Hemingway. Some of the artists performing had been alive in Hemingway’s day – the last member of the group which invented the Rumba, a Cuban diva and Victoria Hemmingway (assistant in Spain/Cuba, not a wife) giving some inside tales on Hemingway in Cuba, including the fact that Fidel Castro when he perchance met Hemingway mentioned that The Old Man and the Sea was his favourite novel (it gave tips on how to conduct a revolution).

Robert Wheeler, author of Hemingway’s Havana, captures some of the feeling in his blog (despite not being updated since 2015). Another place Hemingway frequented is the Hotel Ambos Mundos, the place we were having a drink when we discovered the evening show.

A full list of Hemingway’s books can be found on the Nobel Prize site. Heminway received the award in 1954.

Hemmingway’s first short story. He was the first to sign the Wall of Alassio in Italy.

Hemingway came to a sad end:

In Sai-Ko, Gabriela Harding refers to a Hemingway hat
Sue Hampton refers to the author in her short story The Minimalist
And the author features in comparison in Leslie Tate’s Heaven’s Rage
Bhupendra Brahmabhatt refers to Hemingway’s time in Africa in Kenya Days, Moonlit Nights


3AM: Wonder, Paranoia and the restless night – Angela Kingston

I met Angela in about 2013/4. We were both teaching.

In those days, even lecturers at some universities were required to undetake a teaching course. Angela was new to teaching art curation and I was assigned as her teaching mentor. And what a journey! As most who know me are aware, I’m not a great art connoseur. I have my eye-catching pieces – invariably a dark painting of a ship blowing up or burning, or a prisoner in a dark cell, a shaft of light streaming in. You get the picture. So, how could I be of any help to Angela? Thank goodness there’s more to teaching than content.

Needless to say, Angela and I hit it off and have remained in touch since then. She’s an absolute inspiration and this showed in her apprach to teaching art curation and her exhibition 3AM which is the feature of this blog. Unfortunately I never got to see the actual exhibition as I was always in the wrong place everytime it moved. But I have read the accompanying book.

Angela’s strength is that she gets behind the image – trying to understand the artist in order to mediate with the observer. One teaching observation was done in an artist’s studio – his home. He allowed all of us, 15 students and me, into his space to talk about his art and his relationship with curators. What an eye-opening experience and waht a treat for the students. This was risky business – Angela being observed in a situation over which she had little control. She’s bold and brave – and this shows too in 3AM, particularly reading the introduction by Bryan Biggs, Artistic Director at Bluecoat.

So, what is 3AM wonder, paranoi and the restless night all about? Just that. How life is experienced in the early hours of the morning when most people are asleep.

In addition to a sample of what the artists displayed at the exhibition, there are some essays on life at 3AM – insomniacs tell their tale, a snippet from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a donkey in Cevennes, the importance of sleep, Mariella Foxtrup on fearing the dark and so forth. And for the musically inclined – a track listing of songs about the early hours. The mix of dark and light meant I was in my element.

For an insight into another world – one many of us avoid, this little book which started life accompanying an exhibition is a little gem with something for everyone.

You can see more about Angela on her website and get a taste of some her earlier projects here.
I hope to eventually see one of Angela’s exhibitions in person.



Oh for a princess…

Little did I know that the day I started reading Sue Hampton’s Pomp and Circumstances (2012) that the ‘breaking news’ which would appear on my phone was the announcement by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge that they were expecting their third child.
Pomp and Circumstances is a sweet book about young teenagers finding acceptance for who they are on the day William and Catherine got married.

In true Sue-fashion, she shows how people from different walks of life and circumstances experience things and come together in adversity – personal or more general. Sue’s ability to ‘get under the skin’ exposes vulnerabilities we’re often reluctant to consider. We sometimes need to be shown the other side.

TSL has published Sue’s two books of short stories for adults: Ravelled and Woken as well as a picture-poem book for People Not Borders, I am Me. Pomp and Circumstances is for those in between.

You can get Pomp and Circumstances direct from Sue for £5.99 or from TSL for £6.99 (incl £1 towards postage)

novel 1

The Thorn Birds – Colleen McCullough

Do you remember The Thorn Birds? I remember watching the television series, well my lasting image of it is Richard Chamberlain dressed in purple robes but more than that I cannot tell you.

Recently, however, a friend was clearing out books and lent me The Thorn Birds as she knew I hadn’t read it. I can’t say how it compares to the tv series, as I can’t remember any of the story from the small screen. However, I continued to see Father Ralph as a young Richard Chamberlain so clearly the casting had an impact. Colleen seemed to think otherwise, but then I was not even a teenager.

Regarding the book, I felt it could have been much shorter than it was – descriptions seemed to go on and on and although I could see what Colleen was aiming at, I couldn’t quite work out what should be cut. Perhaps if I knew the Australian countryside, the descriptions would not have seemed so long-winded (different to tedious). For all the detail, I was surprised at how quick a read the story was.

One thing I found fascinating was the insight into papal thinking. One generally knows about the network – the old school tie and having a mentor or sponsor is still the way to get ahead for most people (despite all the talk of equality and tickbox recruitment policies). The wider outlook of the papal hierarchy compared to the masses was striking giving credence to Karl Marx’s view that religion is the opium of the people. How do people trained ‘to follow orders’ become so open minded with little apparent input? That man is fallible was another strong recurring theme but surprising was the understanding of the papal superiors. Very refreshing and human!

What Collen manages to capture well is the harshness of growing up with limited resources and the lengths people would go to as well as the impact of war on families. The theme of siblings working against each other is strong and reminded me of the South African film, Katrina.

The Thorn Birds having been published in 1977 is still around, and for that stickability deserves a read. I’m pleased I did.

Germaine Greer review
Therese Walsh review
And for those studying the book, there’s a study guide and questionsObituary for Colleen McCullough

Arnie Wilson, Poetry, limericks, Sunday Express 0

On limericks – Arnie Wilson

Limericks. You can view them as silly, irrelevant and infantile nonsense. Or as witty, nicely balanced and subtle jokes. For me it all depends on the punchline. And yet when the father of limericks, Edward Lear, made them so popular in the 19th century the established custom was that the last line was often essentially a repeat of the first line. To me this is all wrong. A bit of a damp squib in fact. An anti-climax.

I believe the last line should provide, when possible, an unexpected explosion – or at least a pleasant chuckle – of mirth. For this reasonI usually write the last line first so that the joke is taken care of. And then work backwards. I’m also a great believer in limericks that scan. This can be tricky as sometimes a word or syllable can be pronounced or emphasised in different ways, so depending on how you pronounce it, it can make a line scan – or fail to scan.

Here’s an example, based on a genuine screening of Spectre I went to in Innsbruck in 2015.

We all viewed the latest James Bond
Of whom we are all very fond
But what WAS it about?
All the words were in Kraut!
Overall we were jolly well conned!

Unless you stress the word WAS by putting it in block capitals, and just say what was it about, it suddenly doesn’t scan.

Arnie Wilson, Celebrities, Non-fiction 0

Big Name Hunting – Arnie Wilson

This is a book about celebrities – a group of people completely outside my sphere of knowledge. So, how did TSL come to re-publish Arnie Wilson’s recollections? Eagles – A chance connection between two authors with a fascination for Eagle Magazine and Dan Dare.

I was taken with the description Arnie gave to me and I actually knew many of the names he mentioned – nostalgia and intrigue got the better of me: Spike Milligan, Joanna Lumley, Morcambe and Wise, Yuri Gargarin as starters. A couple of limericks to whet my appetite and to show how human the ‘big names’ are.

In some ways, Big Name Hunting is a social and cultural history. Arnie charts the move of celebrity status from that of aristocracy to film and sport star in an era before agents became the gate keeper. In addition to shedding tales – all good natured – of some famous folk, you get a flavour of the newspaper world – how stories get discovered and end up getting into print. Different types of story having appeal to different papers.

In telling the stories collected over the years, Arnie’s honesty and openness is clear. He’s not been afraid to tell how the rift between him and Spike Milligan developed or how he was rebuffed by Michael Winner and put in his place by Robert Redford. It seems too good to be true these days, but Arnie writes with integrity – all the takes told are reproduced with permission and confidences maintained where agreed except for one or two occasions where the individual has since died.

There’s something for most people in this eclectic gathering of tales. Politics and history – Profumo, Conservative Party conferences, ambassadors and US presidents; Royalty; Music – Bowie, Old Blue Eyes; Actors galore – Greta Scacchi, Arnold Schwartzenegger, William Shatner, Liza Minelli, James Bond; Golf; Cricket and Skiing all intermingle.

Advice from Michael Winner on how to manage one’s finances and from Barbara Cartland on good healthy living. Others give their views, or not, on the value of sex, and David Gower explains how a hire car ended up at the bottom of a lake in Innsbruck. Stirling Moss shares what it was like to race cars back in the days before the big money got involved and a few skiers explain how they keep fit in anticipation of the forthcoming season.

This book makes an ideal gift for a friend, harking back to ‘the good old days’. Heard of space travel and landing on the moon? If so, then this is your era. Step back in time with a light and somewhat humorous read (I caught myself smiling on occasion).

(And the other author – Keith Howard author of Dunn and Dusted)


Inside the mind of a crime writer

On 30 August 2017, I attended an evening with Tess Gerritsen of Rizzoli and Isles fame. Having watched most of the series, before my recent phase of not watching television, I was intrigued to hear what she had to say about writing. The Barn in Hillingdon was the venue – a slightly unusual room for events but very fitting and comfortable.

Tess spoke for nearly an hour giving insight into her writing process – one I can associate with having talked with numerous authors and read their stories.

Tess’ formula: 1+1=4 Wonderful!!

Hearing about her Ideas Book where she stores snippets – sometimes for as long as 15+ years was intriguing. And in particular, I was taken with her advice to struggling authors: ‘Listen to the voice. The character will speak to you.’ The result is 12 books in the Rizzoli and Isles series, something she had never envisaged. In fact, she said Jane was to be killed off in book 1, but curiosity over Warren led to book 2, and new character Moira Isles to book 3.

The historian in me could associate with her writing process – the reality of false memory and ideas germinating until a story forms which insists on being written. Plotting and planning have no place as the story takes its own path (in Tess’ case the characters revealing themselves as stories progress). In line with so many other successful authors, Tess reads. ‘I’m always reading’ and mostly non-fiction books to understand the science, scenarios and other factual necessities to ensure the story holds true.

I’m looking forward to reading her first book The Surgeon to see how much of it differs to the TV series – Tess has already hinted at humour as well as more ‘darkness’, and in particular how she’s used tension to keep the reader’s interest. Maintaining tension/conflict being the special ingredient to a well-written, captivating book. This was reiterated recently by Arnie Wilson who said a similar thing about the detective/mystery books written by Peter James – short chapters make you want to ‘just read the next chapter’. There must be something in it.

Peter James has written the foreword to Arnie Wilson’s A Limerick Romp through Time.
Also by Arnie Wilson, Big Name Hunting
Gabriela Harding – Sai-Ko, Santa Claws
RJ Whitfield – The Good Vicar


Insight into an actor’s world – Antony Sher

I first came upon Antony Sher when he was performing Titus Andronicus in South Africa. His frustration at South Africa’s attitude to Shakespeare I took to be a rant especially as we’d been to see the performance which didn’t quite grab me on the night. However, it has remained with me no doubt due to his attempt to place the story in a recognisable context: camouflage jeeps overflowing with people filling the small stage area at the Johannesburg Market Theatre are my recollections of this performance. South Africa has an interesting relationship with Shakespeare as I recently discovered (also links to Sher and Titus Andronicus etc).

Later we saw him in ID in London and it was here he really impressed – a one man show telling the story of the assassination of Dr Verwoerd, the then South African Prime Minister with the result that I purchased some of his books, one being Year of the King. This has been a fascinating read as Sher takes the reader through a season or two with the Royal Shakespeare Company providing insight into how the season’s performances are selected through to actor selection, rehearsals etc.

What I found particularly striking was the effort Antony went to in preparing for his role and how easy it was to injure oneself on stage. The research undertaken regarding the character and, how it had been performed before and so forth. Learning lines, remembering what had been changed at the last minute and how the performance is impacted by one’s feeling of ease with the lines was another revelation. And yet, despite all this pre-planning and preparation, there is still a last minute mad rush with things still being finalised on critic pre-view/final dress rehearsal night. Significantly, I also now know why it takes longer to read a Shakespeare play than it does to perform it. I’ll leave you to read the book and find out for yourself.

Interspersed throughout the book are illustrations by Antony himself, characters inspired by where he had been, what he had seen or experienced. A visual representation of what he was writing. TSL’s Philip Philmar is another actor/illustrator I know of and presumably there are many others: creativity can’t be button-holed.

This was an enjoyable, easy and insightful read into the year of an actor. Anyone contemplating setting out to be an actor might find this a useful read.

For plays, monologues and sketches by TSL playwrights, visit TSL Drama.


The hare with the amber eyes – Edmund de Waal

I should have enjoyed this book. So many people recommended it and it contained a combination of factors I enjoy in a book: fact, linking the past with the present, World War 1, biography, links between the past and the present and an easy read. So, why didn’t I?

Simply? I was reading it at an inappropriate time and this was annoying. That’s one of the problems belonging (or running) a bookgroup. You have to read the selected book by a specific day. My attention was elsewhere and this wonderful book suffered – well my indulgence in it did. I hope I manage to find some time to re-read it so I can really do it justice. Whilst reading the book, I was conscious of my frustration – I was in an Africa phase and this book was dragging me into Europe. I was needing escapism and this was a reality I was trying to escape (the destruction of war).

Putting my personal feelings aside, The hare with the amber eyes is an incredibly well-written book, and for a genealogical study (which in effect it is), it’s a very refreshing read. Not starting such a book with ‘xxx was born in yyy to parents who zzz’ can only deserve respect. The painstaking research recorded in some detail and the emotions attached resonate and provide a blue-print for others wanting to discover an aspect of their family’s past.

Reading The Hare with the Amber Eyes forced me to analyse my reading preferences. This coming soon after having struggled with Sue Hampton’s Woken in e-book format. For me, this incredible book of short stories was undermined electronically. Reading it later in paper format brought to light the quality writing it contains and Sue’s ability to bring her characters to life.

I wonder how many books get poor reviews purely because the reader is not in the right frame of mind for the book or that the book is accessed in an inappropriate format for the reader?

Have you seen?