New Wine in Old Bottles – Writing Fiction for Young Adults

In this blog Barbara Bleiman talks about the idea of ‘cultural conversations’ and how this has informed her new writing project, creating a collection of short stories for Young Adults that are in close conversation with classic texts.

Coming up with a new idea for a book is always exciting. My latest adventure in fiction, though, is quite different to anything I’ve done before. You see, although I write fiction,  I also work for a teachers’ development centre for English teachers. While most of my time is spent working with teachers rather than students, and most of my writing is classroom resources about texts by other writers, I recently decided to have a serious, full-throttle go at writing fiction for students. I’ve written a few short stories for a YA audience in the past, one or two of which have found their way into anthologies but this time it’s a much more serious enterprise – writing a whole collection.

 Where did the idea come from? I’ve been working recently on publications in a series called Cultural Conversations, the idea being to show students how texts talk to each other over time; how they’re part of long traditions, rather than standing in isolation. The resources bring together texts that are considered to be iconic and culturally significant with others that have been inspired by them, drawing on their themes, characters, narratives, archetypes and conventions. So, as an example, Homer’s Oedipus is brought together with the many contemporary re-envisionings by writers like Derek Walcott, Simon Armitage, Margaret Atwood or Madeleine Miller. And Amanda Gorman’s poem for the inauguration of Joe Biden is read alongside Maya Angelou’s ‘Still I Rise’ that inspired her work, and in relation to the other iconic American texts that she paid homage to.

Amanda Gorman’s Performance at Joe Biden’s Inauguration

The most recent publication in the series, yet to be published, is on Antigone. Supported by a grant from the Classical Association, we commissioned four writers to produce new work based on Sophocles’ play. Poets Valerie Bloom and Inua Ellams, fiction writer Phoebe Roy and playwright Sarah Hehir have all written texts for 11-14 year olds inspired by the Greek play. While liaising with the writers and discussing their work, I thought I’d try my hand at a short story myself and ended up writing ‘Being Antigone’, a story about a contemporary school girl whose own life has some echoes of the original. I then wondered whether I might try doing some other ‘versions’, talking back to the famous texts that school students often find themselves studying.

Antigone – painting by Sébastien Norblin

I was instantly captured by the idea, in part because it tied in closely with something that’s been preoccupying me for quite some time . When Michael Gove was Secretary of State for Education, his mission was to radically alter the curriculum, especially at GCSE.  Gone were American authors such as Arthur Miller or John Steinbeck. All students were required to study a pre-twentieth century novel. Some kinds of writing were proscribed, others were side lined, and in the supposed cause of ‘driving up standards’, ‘challenge’ and giving students ‘cultural capital’, lots of texts that enthused students and gave them a love of literature were ruthlessly excised. Ensuring a rich mix of diverse writers of different cultures and genders was not high up the minister’s agenda.

So, students are currently reading a diet of mainly canonical texts, which are not always suitable, not always accessible, often seriously hard work rather than pleasurable for all students in that age group. The majority of the texts are by dead white men.

My ‘versions’ idea suddenly sprang to life. What if I could write lots of different angles, re-tellings and interpretations of these texts , to open up new ideas and ways of reading them? My stories could act as fresh ways in; they could offer the viewpoint of a character left on the side lines, be prequels or sequels, pastiches or serious imitations, updated versions or adaptations. Equally, they could offer many different perspectives – for instance female views and voices alongside male ones, with characters and settings that are sometimes marginalised in those canonical texts, at least some of which reflect the realities of students’ lives.

I got started on the first stories soon before Christmas, sending them to colleagues for comment before committing to the whole project. Each time a story came back with a thumbs up, I was energised to have a shot at another, moving from Jekyll and Hyde and A Christmas Carol to The Tempest, from a Shakespeare sonnet to a poem by Thomas Hardy, from An Inspector Calls to Oliver Twist. It’s been a lot of fun writing them and the scope for writing in different genres – ones I’d never tried before – has been exhilarating, taking me out of my fiction-writing comfort zone. An Inspector Calls has become An Inspector Called, where a class, reading and studying Priestley’s play, suddenly find themselves, like the characters in the play, experiencing a spookily disturbing moral wake-up call. Oliver Twist is seen through the eyes of the Artful Dodger and for Macbeth, the story of the teenage Fleance, who only speaks a few words in Shakespeare’s play, is filled out. I thought that young people might be interested in the kind of dangerous world that a boy of their own age would have had to navigate to stay alive.

The Artful Dodger and Oliver

I have looked for angles that might be enjoyable for a young adult audience but not all the stories have a teenage perspective or protagonist. Hardy’s ‘Neutral Tones’, for instance, imagines the loss of love at the end of an adult relationship, the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet is given a narrative of her own, and one story is told by an ex-teacher, now a writer. In each case, I’ve been juggling lots of different elements –  how to use the source text itself and do justice to it, the teenage audience (alongside the teacher audience who will read it in the first instance and then share it with their students) and my own aesthetic judgements about what might make a good story and how I want to write it. Not easy holding all these things in mind, all at once, but it’s been immensely enjoyable to have a go at it.

The idea of intertextuality is at the heart of all literary creative endeavour. It’s also at the heart of all literary study – we appreciate Shakespeare for what he’s done with source material, for how he uses and adapts existing genres, for how his representations of race or gender compare with that of his contemporaries, for how his work has been interpreted, re-fashioned, drawn on for inspiration across the centuries. Likewise, all writers are constantly re-inventing traditions of writing, ‘putting new wine into old bottles’, as Angela Carter described it. In this project, I’ve been putting some new wine – hopefully rich-bodied and tasty rather than unpalatable and vinegary –  into a crate of bottles by a range of different writers and, along the way, offering new young readers an inviting way of tasting some old vintages.

Barbara Bleiman

28th April 2022

What’s Your Story?

Pamela Johnson reviews an essential guide to life writing …

‘Do it anyway.’ That’s the mantra Cathy Rentzenbrink, author of the bestselling memoir The Last Act of Love, uses to quell all writing doubts. Rentzenbrink is full of plain-talking writing wisdom which she has generously shared in her latest book, Write it All Down: how to put your life on the page.

            Do you carry a story around in your head that you’d like to put down – an aspect of your family history or an unusual experience? If new to writing you may think your story is insignificant but if it’s significant to you then it could be worth the effort of telling it. Rentzenbrink’s philosophy is that everyone’s life would be improved by picking up a pen. She speaks from experience. It took her several attempts and a couple of decades before she finally wrote the story of her brother’s short life.  Her new book shares all that she learned about writing in her struggle to get that story down, followed by two other books and a novel.  

            The book is in four parts with plenty of exercises to keep your fingers clicking on the keyboard or pen gliding across the page. It opens with a warm introduction, ‘Dear writer, I am so pleased to meet you. Welcome.’ The warmth of that voice permeates every section.

            In part two, ‘Excavation’ she guides you through many ways to access memories, noting, ‘…it is the act of writing itself that dislodges memory and engenders meaning.’ You might need to write to find out what matters most. She is also very clear on a little-understood aspect of writing:

            ‘… the single biggest thing that trips up inexperienced writers is underestimating how much work, both on and off the page, goes into any project, and  how much of that work doesn’t end up being reader-facing but is essential to the process.’ 

            There’s a section on crafting and editing and another on forming good writing habits that work around daily life. The final section is what she calls ‘An Inspiring Addendum’, which consists of paragraphs of wisdom from other published writers of memoir. Here you will find Kate Mosse, Maggie O’Farrell, Lemn Sissay, Kit de Waal, Terry Waite and many more.

I asked Blue Door Press author, Annabel Chown, if all of this rang true to her writing experience. Aged 31 and working as an architect, she found herself with a cancer diagnosis. ‘I first started writing “morning pages.”  It was awful but interesting. Alongside the therapeutic aspect, I had a desire to capture this surreal world I was now in, get it down on paper.’ Only several years later did material in the morning pages become something she could work with to produce her memoir, Hidden, now read by many others. 

If you have a first-person story that niggles away and demands to be written, whether book length memoir, personal essay or article, and you find yourself hesitating Write It All Down might just be the place to start.

Pamela Johnson, March 2022

Footnotes – part two by Pamela Johnson

In this second excerpt from a longer work in progress, Pamela Johnson continues the story of her accident while on holiday in Cuba alongside reflections on why the pursuit of healthcare remains central to the island’s history

Sunday 6 December 2015

‘I’m okay,’ my voice tells David, though I’m not okay at all. ‘I’ll be fine now I’m in bed.’ My foot is elevated on pillows, with a pack of ice draped across it, as instructed. Thanks to Tricia and the image on her phone of her metal-reinforced ankle I am keenly aware how crucial ice and elevation is. If the ankle swells too much I will be in for a long stay in hospital.

‘I must make a start if we’re going to catch the flight tomorrow. And I need to see if we can keep the room. They say it’s booked – a party arriving today.’  He can’t sit still, agitated and eager to make something happen, shock propelling him into overdrive. He’s taken on the challenge to find how to make the six-hour journey to Havana with me unable to walk and in time to catch our flight to London tomorrow evening. 

‘Really. You go.’   Please stay.

He gives me the remote for the TV we’ve never watched in the four days here. I switch it on. Some satellite channel from Florida – adverts for triple-decker burgers, outsized pizzas, Hershey bars, dog grooming kits, cat treats.

I have this split-screen mental image: Oxford Street with Christmas shoppers anxiously buying alongside ration shops in Havana.[i]  I switch off the TV and doze.

ration shop, Havana

When I wake, David isn’t back. I need the loo. I tamp down panic by mentally planning a route to the bathroom. I wriggle off the bed onto my left leg. The tiled floor is potentially slippery and my recovering sprained foot too weak; hopping is out of the question. By hanging on to walls and furniture, I use the shiny floor to ease into a one-footed swivel action. I make it as far as the walk-in closet – half way – is it wise to carry on? Only a few feet to go but it feels like miles.

Though I make it to the bathroom and back, it’s exhausting and dangerous.

I need wheels.

When David returns he’s smiling.

‘Good news – we can stay another night. And, I’ve hired a wheelchair.’ Through the numbness, a ripple of relief.

‘It looks like we’ll be travelling to Havana first thing tomorrow.’ The medical emergency company, CEGA – part of our travel insurance – will arrange transport.

‘We’ll catch our flight?’

‘That’s the plan but there’s paperwork to do.’

If we stand any chance of boarding that plane, it seems, I’ll need a certificate of fitness to fly.

‘Here, hold this.’ He hands me my x-ray and gets out his phone. We try different angles until he snaps a decent close-up of the damage. He then shifts the ice pack for a shot of the cast. He’ll email these images to CEGA, so I might be assessed by medical staff in England.The time difference could work in our favour. They’ll have had more Monday than us by the time we wake tomorrow. Our fate could be decided by a GP in Chichester. 

Exhausted, David climbs into bed even though it’s not yet nine. We almost daren’t speak. There can be no giving in to doubt or fear. No panic allowed. All energy is to go towards getting on an aeroplane without further mishap. Sleep is what we need if we’re to be in a fit state for the taxi ride, which CEGA has confirmed will collect us at 11am Monday morning which is tomorrow. I need to remind myself what day it is. This Sunday seems to have gone on for a week.

Lying on my back is simplest though I prefer to sleep on my side but the best I can manage is a half turn before the bones click and shift even within the cast. Try not to mind, you’ll soon be on a flight to London. The phone rings on David’s side. Sleepily he reaches to answer it.

            ‘Okay. I see,’ he’s saying. His tone is downbeat. ‘The airline won’t carry you.’

            ‘What?’

            ‘It’s a rule, apparently. You can’t fly within 48 hours following a fracture.’

            ‘So we’ll miss our flight?’

‘The taxi will still take us to Havana,’ he explains and that, at least, feels like progress. ‘They’re trying to find a hotel near the airport where we can stay tomorrow night and have a Cuban doctor issue a certificate of fitness to fly.’

‘But what about the pictures you emailed to England?’

‘I don’t know.’ He sounds weary, deflated. ‘I get a different story each time I call, never speak to the same person.’

            There is so much pressure on flights in and out of Cuba but I daren’t ask how we’ll get another one.

Monday 7 December

Waking, I remember all over again the fall that didn’t happen, can’t be real. As I ease myself into sitting the clicking confirms what is real – managing the practicalities of a six-hour journey on the back seat of a taxi. That’s what’s real today. It could be okay if we can take the wheelchair.

            The phone rings.  David reaches a sleepy hand to the bedside table.

            ‘Yes. Yes. She’s here. When? Why? Okay.’ He gives them my mobile number and hangs up.

            ‘What?’

            ‘We’re not going today. There are no rooms available anywhere near the airport in Havana.’

            ‘Why my number?’

‘Someone from the medical team in England needs to interview you. They’ll call later to assess if you could manage a flight.’

            ‘But which flight? And will the hotel let us stay another night?’ Tourism is booming. December is high season. Hotels are full, flights overbooked.

I know this because yesterday, we spoke to a young tour guide, Mateo, about the pressures he was under, more so since President Obama’s recent visit. I told him of our surprise at seeing the Stars and Stripes raised on the US Embassy in Havana. European companies are vying to build hotels in Havana and on the Cayos. ‘But we will have to do it slowly,’ said Mateo, ‘it’s a risk. Tourism must develop on Cuban terms. Otherwise what were the last 50 years for?’ Mateo, late 20s, has a masters degree in medical psychology but now earns more in tourism. Though Obama’s visit raised hopes about removing the US blockade it continues to stifle trade. Because of this, a regular ‘export’ from the island since the 1960s has been healthcare. For example, in 2006, funded by Venezuelan oil, a programme of cataract operations was delivered throughout South America. It’s reported that in Bolivia, treatment by a Cuban doctor restored the sight of an elderly man who hadn’t been able to see for years. It emerged this former soldier had been on the firing squad that executed Ché in 1967.[ii]  Teams of Cuban medical professionals continue to be available for the World Health Organisation. During the 2014-15 Ebola crisis Cuban teams were among the first to respond, helping to lower mortality rates and initiate preventative measures against the spread of the disease.  Apparently, this work on Ebola had impressed Barak Obama[iii] who, on his historic visit to Havana in 2014, praised Cuba’s medical achievements, nationally and internationally, suggesting the two countries might find a way to co-exist, ‘There is no need to treat those who think differently as your enemy,’ he said. The next president had a different view. 

David spends most of Monday morning in the hotel reception area where wifi is strongest and he can make international calls.  Back in the room I get washed and dressed which takes a good while. Then I sit in the wheelchair with my phone sending expensive 4G texts and emails – things I must cancel, reassurance to the family.

            The incoming call is from a nurse.

            ‘Where are you right now?’ Her voice pleasant, up-beat.

            ‘In the hotel room in a wheelchair.’

            ‘Can you stand?’

            ‘Yes, on my left leg but not for long and not without support.’ I don’t say I’m terrified of falling. I must pass this test.

            ‘Could you manage to get down the aisle of a plane?’

            ‘Yes,’ I say weakly then muster an eager voice. ‘Yes.’ I see myself, progressing by sheer will power along the length of a 747. ‘I could hold on to seats either side and hop on my left leg.’ This seems to satisfy her. I don’t mention the recovering ankle. That left ankle must buck up. It’s had enough pampering. It’s the only leg I’ve got to stand on.

Shortly after this David returns. He’s up-beat too.

            ‘Paris, Madrid or Amsterdam?’ he asks, excited as if offering a fantastic city break. There are no seats on direct flights to London until next week, by which time my ankle will be too swollen for surgery.

‘But what about the certificate?’

‘Here.’ He shows me an email with the certificate attached, sent by the Chichester GP. I’ve passed! 

            The Amsterdam option isn’t until Wednesday and Madrid seems too far from London, so we settle on Air France to Paris tomorrow night.

            ‘But how will we get to Havana?’

            ‘They’re trying to find an ambulance. If not it’ll be a taxi. Don’t worry. We’re getting there. Juan is on the case.’

‘Juan?’ David now has a direct line to Juan who is to be our dedicated contact, assigned to us until the dots from here to London join up.

I toy with watching TV but I’ve had enough Seinfeld.

Don’t worry. In an attempt not to, I make a list in my notebook.

            Ten reasons to be cheerful:

  1. It happened on the last day of the holiday
  2. Alex was so calm and wasted no time in getting help
  3. Belkis was on hand to translate
  4. The swift action and kindness of Dr Carlos
  5. There was an x-ray machine 7k away
  6. The kindness of Dr DIY willing to help on his day off
  7. We have credit cards and mobile phones
  8. I have a wheelchair
  9. We have robust travel insurance
  10. David is here to look after me, and keep in touch with CEGA and has bonded with Juan

By Monday afternoon new flights are booked. But there’s a glitch: the Air France connection to London leaves us with a long wait at Charles De Gaulle.

‘We won’t be home till late evening,’ says David. Home. What will that be like? It’s all stairs. David finds a better connection with British Airways and Juan changes the flight from Paris to London.

‘And the ambulance?’

‘Not looking good. It will have to be the taxi.’

Somehow the numbness of shock has kept panic at bay but the thought of a six hour ride in the back of a car made before 1959, however lovingly restored, has me on the brink of a major wobble with all of me feeling as fragile as my ankle.

taxi rank, Havana

I know what I’m doing in this room, have it all mapped out, I’m adept with the wheelchair.  Yes, yes, but you also want to get home. Break it down, a kind voice in my head whispers to the old cliché – a journey of a thousand miles etc etc

 A journey in seven stages[iv]

  1. getting out of the room down 2 lots of steps
  2. six hour road journey to Havana in a 1950s taxi – food? loos? wheelchair?
  3. Transfer to Havana-Paris flight
  4. 10 hour flight through the night – foot elevated above heart.
  5. Transfer to Paris-London flight
  6. flight to London with leg elevated – how on small plane?
  7. Heathrow to home? or A & E at The Whittington?

Think not of the taxi but simply the next stage on the list. Getting down steps is impossible. I will have to be carried. Who will do that? The taxi driver? David?

Move on to No 2. Can the hotel provide sandwiches? Could I somehow squat by the road? I look around the room. Two ice buckets, one large, one small. Would the smaller one be missed? Plus the 2 spare loo rolls from the bathroom.

We settle down for an early night. There’s a final call from Juan. 

            ‘That’s it. No ambulance,’ David reports as he hangs up. The taxi will be here at nine. Belkis will come to help. We’ll get a packed lunch.’ And, we can’t take the wheelchair, there’s no way it could be returned to Dr Carlos’s clinic, and wheelchairs are in short supply. We were lucky to get one.

            ‘I’ve been wondering, do you think it would be okay to take the ice bucket? I mean, six hours … ’ 

            I talk David through the mechanics of this.

            Ice bucket and loo rolls are squeezed into hand luggage.

Tuesday 8 December

Awake from 5.30 am, I won’t sleep again. Instead, I doze planning how to get out of this room to the taxi. I play various scenarios in my head; all end in further injury. The phone rings. It’s not yet six. I nudge David awake and he takes the call.

‘Juan,’ he mouths in reply to my questioning face.

At this time in the morning it can only mean bad news. No taxi? Flight cancelled? I don’t want to hear this and consider putting fingers in ears. Despite all the ice and elevation, how much longer will my ankle resist swelling beyond the possibility of surgery? What internal damage are those wayward bones doing?

            ‘Thanks, thanks so much. We’ll be ready,’ says David and hangs up. ‘They’ve found an ambulance. It’s on its way! Juan says to be ready by 8.30.’

            The next couple of hours are filled with purpose. David goes to find us some breakfast. I pull on a sleeveless linen shift and strap a sturdy walking sandal on my good foot.

            When Belkis arrives to tell us the ambulance is here, she and David line up the luggage. I sit in the wheelchair watching the activity and grip its blue metal frame, reluctant to let go of my security, my one bit of independence.

            Once the luggage is loaded a stocky man in shorts and white t-shirt appears. He is not tall but broad, a big man no more than forty, with a big smile. 

            ‘Martez,’ the man says and points to himself.

            ‘Hello, I’m Tamara,’ says the woman with him who is a nurse in uniform! Like Martez she too has a warm smile and a calm presence.

            ‘Ready?’ asks Belkis and she turns to speak rapidly in Spanish to Martez. Tamara encourages me to stand on my good leg. 

            ‘Okay?’ she asks as she steadies me.

            ‘Thanks, but what about the stairs?’

            Without another word, Martez scoops me into his arms, carries me down the three steps from the bedroom to the threshold of the room like a reverse honeymoon gesture, and then effortlessly down six steep steps to where a trolley waits. He shows no strain as if I were no more than the weight of a small bundle. Parked a few meters away is a very smart ambulance. Martez gently deposits me to sit on the trolley. 

            ‘Okay?’

            I’m so grateful I can hardly speak.

            ‘Relax’ says Tamara and encourages me to lie flat.

I’m wheeled to the rear of the vehicle where a ramp appears. In one smooth movement I’m on board. My trolley takes up one side of the space inside, along a window and I’m high enough to see out.

‘You want sit?’ asks Tamara and raises the back of the trolley so I can be upright – I might be on a sun lounger. 

To the side of my trolley are two seats, of the sort air hostesses sit on when the plane takes off. There is a third member of the crew.

‘This Peter,’ says Tamara. Peter yawns, and does not look happy. He does not smile. He takes up his seat and puts on his seat belt. I don’t think I’m imagining his hostility.

            Belkis explains that have come from near Varadero which is 2 hours from Havana on this side of the city. They’ve been on the road for hours already.

            ‘Hello,’ I say to Peter. He shrugs and scratches his arm and the back of his neck.

            ‘El zancudo,’ says Tamara.

            I look blank.

            ‘Zancudo, er er zancudo is …’ She mimes the trajectory of a mosquito.  It seems he has acquired the bites coming here to mangrove territory.

            Poor Peter, sleep deprived and suffering from bites.  He looks at me as if I might be just another mosquito. I don’t blame him for being pissed off. Added to his discomforts there doesn’t even seem to be a role for him and now he must sit for hours and repeat a journey he’s just done. Perhaps they are a team and need always to go where the ambulance goes. He wears a uniform – a paramedic? Well, Tamara and Martez outnumber him.

            David does a final check of the room and comes to see me.

            ‘This looks cosy,’ he jokes.

            He will travel up front with Martez who turns out to be the driver.

 Belkis makes sure I have my hand luggage within reach and gives me a carrier bag which contains a generous packed lunch then waves us off.

Well, that was easier than I could have imagined. I find my notebook, cross out No. 1 on my list. Here we go – No. 2.

We set off along the causeway that skims the sea towards the main island. I settle back on my medical sunbed and try to enjoy the view. Peter has closed his eyes. Silently, I wish him sleep the whole way to Havana. Without his eyes on me I feel somewhat better but still guilty on many levels:

  1. I could have returned the ice bucket to Belkis
  2. Three people have travelled from Varadero and now must do that journey in reverse plus the extra time to the airport
  3. Right now, there might be a Cuban in far worse plight than me who needs this team and this vehicle, a child, perhaps in a traffic accident.

Peter has every right to resent me. Medical equipment is scarce here as the ancient x- ray machine proved.  At least I can rationalise the ice bucket as I haven’t yet established the facilities on board. Thinking the word bedpan makes me want to pee. I send a message to my bladder: Not yet. We can’t wake Peter.

Soon we are off the causeway, passing though Caibarién. I look with fondness at the giant concrete crab that sits on the roundabout into the town. I wonder if Dr DIY settled back to his house repairs? How is his wife managing their disabled son today?

We’re on the A1, the main route through the island. And so we begin the reverse version of the journey we’d travelled over the last two weeks. It’s a road with variable surfacing and an array of traffic that includes: Chinese-built tour buses, ancient cadillacs, pony and trap, tractors.

We pass through Ramedios, a colourful town believed to be among the first Spanish settlements, known for its Christmas festivals and its drag queen community since Mariela Castro, Raul Castro’s daughter, campaigned for LGBT rights and gender assignment surgery through the health system. In Remedios only 6 days ago we’d celebrated David’s birthday at breakfast. I’d bought him a Cuban cigar, also one of the balasa wood boxes bearing the cigar-smoking image of Ché.

At college I did not display a poster of that other iconic image of Ché, seen throughout the world on t-shirts and banners. I wore a CND badge on my duffle coat, listened to early Bob Dylan and shared his rage at the Masters of War, but stopped short of manning the barricades. At 18 I understood Ché was a hero who had been brutally murdered, allegedly with CIA backing, but my memories of the missile crisis of ’62 – the terror my eleven-year-old self had felt alone in the girls toilets – still lingered around the idea of Cuba which seemed far away and somewhere to be wary of. Back then, I still felt an undertow of concern around this legendary figure. The child of deeply conservative parents, voting Labour in the general election had been transgressive enough.

If only I could have whispered to my teenage self: one day you will benefit from Ché’s legacy; one day you will learn the significance of that image.

In my student days I didn’t know that image of Ché had been taken in 1960. In March 1960, fearing another US invasion, Castro had ordered rifles and grenades from Belgium. A French ship, Le Coubre, delivering the consignment exploded in Havana harbour killing and injuring many. Castro believed it to be sabotage. As a trained doctor, Ché had administered to the injured and dying. It was at a memorial rally for the dead that the picture was taken by Alberto Korda. Castro addressed the crowds, flanked by Simone De Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, with Ché standing behind the group. For a moment, Ché stepped forward to survey the crowd and Korda, drawn to his pained expression, focused on him before he’d stepped back. But in newspaper reports the next day it was Korda’s picture of Castro and the French visitors that made the front page.

Korda printed and cropped a version of his Ché image, creating a portrait. He kept a copy pinned to his studio wall.  Following Ché’s execution in 1967, a huge blow-up of the picture was displayed on a banner draped over the façade of the Ministry of the Interior, as a backdrop to Castro, announcing Ché’s death.

A steel replica of the image remains in place.

Castro also agreed to an Italian publisher, which was issuing Ché’s diary of his time in Bolivia, using Korda’s photo on the cover. Posters of the image were printed to advertise the book.  These posters proliferated throughout Europe at student demonstrations protesting Ché’s murder. As Fidel had not recognised the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, no fee was received or even sought. Initially, Korda was happy to see the image used in support of the Cuban cause, but he drew the line when Smirnoff used it to advertise vodka. Korda proposed legal action and received a settlement of 50,000 US dollars, which he donated to the Cuban healthcare system. With copyright secured, might Ché, posthumously, have gone on funding healthcare?

When the road signs show we’re approaching Santa Clara, I’m reminded of Ché’s victory here that secured the Revolution’s success in 1959[v]. I flick through photos on my phone, find one I took, less than a week ago, of a crowbar that derailed the train full of arms sent by USA, destined to reinforce Baptista’s troops and so defeat Ché and the rebels.

Messages whispered along the railway line alerted the rebels to the train’s approach, saying which train and its arrival time. A crowbar loosened the points; a tractor raised the railway line, ensuring derailment; an example of communal co-operation, intelligence and ingenuity – a great deal done with very little. Cuban characteristics that, so far, I have been lucky to benefit from.

I take a photo of my legs on the trolley and text it to Jake, my son, and daughter, Izzy, on our way.

Was it the whoosh of the message being sent or the click of the camera function? Peter opens his eyes. Maybe he was only pretending to sleep.

            ‘In your country, how much is?’ he points to my iPhone. And shows me his not smart phone and tells me how much a month it costs. What can I tell him? I don’t honestly know right now without having to look it up. And if I did, how would that translate into Cuban currency?  He’d be appalled and, rightly, resent me even more. I fudge.  When I don’t give him a neat answer he shrugs, checks his bites and closes his eyes again.

            We’ve been on the road over two hours when I clear my throat and whisper to Tamara:

            ‘Bedpan?’

            She looks puzzled.

            ‘Bedpan – I need to pee …’ I say and point, feeling useless.

            A smile of understanding breaks out on her lovely face. She lifts the lid of one of the many compartments and produces a female urinal.  From its wide, vulva-shaped throat I get the idea. She produces a blanket, covers me up and says I can use it lying down. I’m not convinced and neither is my bladder. I try. I really do try. I press the thing close, surely that’s enough of a seal but, no. It’s as if a steel gate has come down inside, a muscle spasm blocks the flow. It’s not happening. And now Peter is awake. I really don’t want to pee on their trolley. The sensation of needing to pee, coupled with the refusal of my body to comply is distressing but I keep smiling and suggest it would work if I could be upright. I swivel my feet off the trolley.

            ‘No, stop!’ Tamara looks alarmed. She signals to Martez to pull over.  Peter has to get out for the sake of my dignity. I stand with bottle in place and, after some deep breaths and much soothing encouragement from Tamara, fill the bottle.

            ‘I’m sorry, so sorry’ I keep saying, alternating with, ‘Thank you, thank you.’

Tamara smiles through it all and strokes my arm as she helps me back on the trolley. Peter returns to his seat and closes his eyes but not before, once again, he points to my phone and asks, ‘In your country, how much?’ Now, it’s my turn to shrug.

We pass the signs to Playa Giron, or as we know it, Bay of Pigs, where there is a Museo de la Intervención, commemorating the event that turned the revolution from green to red, and led to Soviet backing, which, in turn, tightened the US blockade ensuring further reliance on the USSR. I look at Tamara with her Russian name and wonder which of her parents came here.

We stop for lunch, the crew led by Martez heads off to a roadside café, but we call him back to share our provisions. Even though I’m hungry there is plenty for all of us: ham and cheese sandwiches, oranges, bananas and more bottles of water than either David or I could drink. This pleases Peter.

Tamara, Peter and myself tuck into the packed lunch

Close to Havana the weather becomes overcast – grey sky, some rain. I notice an increasing number of Cubans hitchhiking, attempting to get into or out of the city. And here am I riding in like lady muck. 

On arrival at José Martí airport, Martez makes his way to Terminal 3, weaving around a chaos of taxis and tour buses. The ambulance comes with a wheelchair.  Inside the terminal, Martez wheels me to an information point. The crowds and the busyness are overwhelming. We wouldn’t last long if left to our own devices.

Martez is arguing with a woman in uniform, airport staff. He is forceful. What emerges is this: the airport wheelchair service, secured by Juan at CEGA, claims to be unaware of my plight. The woman shrugs. It’s never clear if she is denying all knowledge of the arrangement with CEGA or if they don’t have a spare wheelchair. Martez will not budge. He stands with his arms folded.

‘We stay until they bring chair,’ Tamara is constantly reassuring.

David would like to wade in but doesn’t have the Spanish. Should he call Juan at CEGA? Better leave it to Martez. Peter looks resentful at further delay. He scratches his bites in what I think of, ungenerously, as a theatrical manner. And so the five of us stand the only still group in a fast-moving throng.

Eventually, a wheelchair arrives along with a person to accompany us to the departure lounge. As we say our goodbyes, it is hard to show the deep gratitude we feel for their kindness. Yes, they were medical professionals doing a good job but they were so kind. Peter may have been grumpy about his bites but he stuck with us.

Muchas gracias, muchas gracias. We thank them endlessly. I rummage in my bag – we have no currency and would it offend to offer? I find a sort of bracelet that is meant to repel mosquitos. White plastic, like a watchstrap, supposedly impregnated with slow release repellent. Peter is intrigued.

‘Please, take it.’ He puts it on his wrist, and smiles. I have more and fish them from my bag. ‘Here, taken them all.’

More rummaging through hand luggage reveals the ice bucket and toilet rolls. Tamara and Martez light on these, delighted to have them. We give them the remaining sandwiches, fruit and bottles of water from the packed lunch. Meagre gifts.

For the ten-hour flight I must keep my leg elevated if I am to avoid the kind of swelling that kept Tricia bedbound for 10 days before they could operate.  CEGA has arranged an upgrade to the front row of business class. I’m wheeled to the VIP lounge.

The Air France crew are reassuring and attentive. At the door of the plane I say goodbye to my airport wheelchair and I’m transferred to a sort of stool-on-wheels that fits perfectly in the plane’s aisle; none of the clinging to seat backs and hopping, as discussed with the CEGA nurse. Once in my seat, extra pillows and blankets form a tower on which to plonk my leg. It’s a night flight. David sleeps most of the way. I doze and half watch films. And cabin staff regularly rebuild my tower when it slumps.

Wednesday 9 December

8am. Paris, Charles De Gaulle Airport.  I’m still in a sleeveless dress, bare legs, as I hadn’t found a chance to change into the warmer clothes I’d put in hand luggage. The switch to the earlier BA flight might get us back home at a more reasonable hour but it means having to do baggage reclaim from one flight and check-in to the London one. This requires a change of terminal and a wait on a mini bus assigned to wheelchair uses. Through the bus’s open door, chilly air finds my bare limbs: 4C, apparently.

At Terminal 2A we are greeted by a member of ground staff who wheels me and guides us to the BA check-in. This young man exudes cheerfulness as he asks about my injury. Then, in perfect English with the most attractive French accent says: ‘Do not think – why me? It is has happened. I was laid up for 6 months with my knee. Don’t beat yourself up. There is no point. It will soon pass; you will be strong again. Relax.’ Words I would hold onto over the next few months.

CEGA had booked three seats on the short flight to London so that I could sit with my leg raised. It doesn’t go to plan. Soon two other people are demanding that I put my leg down, ‘those are our seats.’ The plane isn’t full so, thankfully, it’s sorted out and I can maintain the vital leg elevation.   

Wheelchair and baggage reclaim at Heathrow pass without incident. Shortly after, 1pm we are met by Juliana, the driver of a private ambulance arranged by CEGA. She loads up not just me but our luggage. We live near the Whittington hospital where I’m headed but she sees that having large suitcases in A & E is no good for anyone. She swings by our house. David off-loads the luggage while I, helped by Juliana, change into the jog bottoms and sweatshirt. At the hospital, she warns:

            ‘They’re going to wonder why you are coming in on a trolley, so be ready with your explanation. Have your x-ray to hand.’ And with that, the remarkable Juliana is off to rescue someone else.

            I’m soon ushered into a cubicle where I offer the x-ray to a senior nurse.

            ‘What’s this; where did you get it?’ She holds up this two-foot square piece of negative.  A nurse trained, working in the days of electronic imaging, she calls others to come and witness this antique. But this antique was delivered to me within two hours of having fallen and no one asked me to produce a credit card before they’d let me near the x-ray machine; it secured a cast within three hours of the accident that prevented my ankle from swelling; it secured me a flight within 48 hours of the accident.

It’s thanks to the ‘antique’ I’m first on the list for surgery in the morning.

You can download this pdf version of Footnotes, Part 2.

First publication 2021 by Blue Door Press in Altogether Elsewhere, an anthology of writing about place  © Pamela Johnson 2021

Pamela Johnson is the author of three novels Under Construction, Deep Blue Silence and Taking In Water, which was supported by an Arts Council Writers’ Award.  Her poems appear in magazines and anthologies. She has also published short stories, art criticism and journalism. From 2002-2018 she taught fiction on the MA in Creative & Life Writing, Goldsmiths, University of London, and has devised writing workshops in a range of contexts: schools, community groups, U3A, residential courses for The Arvon Foundation.


[i] ration shops provide basic foods at subsidized prices: rice, beans, sugar, milk

[ii] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2007/oct/02/cuba.international

[iii] see Chapter 6, We Are Cuba, Helen Yaffe, Yale University Press, 2020

 

 

Snow on the Danube by Francis Gilbert

Snow on the Danube (Blue Door Press 2019) evokes the lost world of Budapest during and between two great wars  and is recounted in the inimitable voice of Count Zoltán Pongrácz: a fussy hypochondriac who becomes an unlikely and compromised hero when the Fascists take over his beloved country and he is forced to rescue his adored, wayward sister Anna. An unlikely comedy, a document of filial love and a compelling portrait of the horrors of war, Snow on the Danube is the story of one man’s quest to save everything he loves most: his family, his friends – and, perhaps, his soul.

The Beginning    1920

Hungary wore black on the day of my birth. Street vendors tied black ribbons around bouquets of flowers; archdukes donned their darkest garb and thrummed their fingers on gold-tasselled armrests. Tram-drivers left their trolley buses in the depot and sat with their children in their tiny flats. Priests and civil servants hoisted black flags and watched them flutter in the air. The streets were empty. Church bells rang. Gamekeepers cancelled their early morning walks; they slumped in their chairs, hounds at their feet. Maids failed to make their daily trips to the grocers and lay on camp beds in their cubby-holes; bakers neglected to light their ovens and open their shutters. The keeper at the City Zoo threw a few thin slabs of meat to the lions and slouched home.

It was a day of national mourning. In Paris, a treaty was signed that butchered Hungary. Two-thirds of the kingdom was turned over to Romania, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia. Hungary had supported the losing side in the First World War.

My father had two reasons to wear black on June 4, 1920. Not only had he lost the family’s monumental Transylvanian castle in the unceremonious carve-up of the Treaty of Trianon but he had also, on the very same day, to endure the birth of his son.

My memories from those very early years are vague. I don’t remember much about the family’s life at our chateau in Villány. I can recall my father’s imperious voice barking orders at the workmen who toiled all day at the bottom of our ornamental garden. ‘Down there! Careful now. Easy with those girders!’

His shirt sleeves were rolled up and his bald head seemed to glow as he twirled his silver-topped cane. In his polished hunting boots he was a mass of perspiring muscle, mushrooming dust as he heaved bricks. I had no idea what was going on but I guessed it was of the utmost importance.

My first memory of my sister is of her informing me about those mysterious, grunting proceedings. Her black hair brushed my cheek as she leaned towards me and whispered: ‘They’re building a bridge. Papa says it’s very important that the lions have tongues.’

Trying to connect the idea of the bridge with lions was very difficult for me. I imagined that Papa would place real ones on the bridge and this was the whole purpose of the exercise: to give the lions a decent home.

This supposition was no more ridiculous than what he was attempting to do. My father, being fanatical about bridges, thought that he could somehow rectify the dire financial problems afflicting his vineyards by building a replica of Budapest’s Chain Bridge at the bottom of his garden. He persisted in believing in this illusion for a long time, even after the construction of the imitation bridge had bankrupted him, forced him to sell the chateau and move permanently back to Budapest.

Many years later, when I would stroll with my father on the actual bridge in the Budapest twilight, he would sigh and point to the monumental but tongueless lions, commenting regretfully: ‘People were coming from miles around to see my Chain Bridge at Villány. The archduke Frederick himself greatly admired it. That bridge was the only thing that wretched estate had going for it: it was a rotten, dry, wizened sort of place. We never grew a single decent grape there.’

After the Count’s death, I discovered that this was an outright lie. Although my father sold the chateau, he continued to own vast tracts of the vineyards. He had the good sense to appoint an honest and practical Magyar supervisor to run them all. This doughty chap wasn’t even discouraged by the lack of any venue to make the wine in and converted some abandoned cellars on the estate for that purpose. The fantastic Hungarian wines that this chateau-less estate produced was the only real source of income that my family had.

But, of course, I knew none of this as a tiny child gazing on all those workmen toiling away at the banks of the small river that babbled at the bottom of our garden. At the grand opening of the bridge, which most of the neighbouring villages attended, my father held me up proudly before the stone lions.

‘My lions have tongues that definitively exist — unlike the lions on the Chain Bridge in Budapest. They’ll be seeing my lions’ tongues for miles around! Just look at them!’ the Count roared as he held me aloft before the curled manes of those sandstone felines. To be honest, I don’t remember this but the anecdote was recounted with such regularity in the following years that it has almost become a genuine memory.

Certain smells awaken glimmerings of the chateau at Villány in my mind. The sharp, rich tang of fermenting wine transports me to the time when Anna gave me an illicit sip: I can still see her dimpled fingers wrapped around the glass. The cool dampness of mould compels me to recall the wooden barrels in the wine cellars. The baked warmth of the hard earth makes me see those dry vineyards tapering off into the horizon. And the delicious whisk of a breeze sends me back to the moments when I would stand in the middle of the bridge, watch the water ripple underneath and feel the airy draught against my cheeks. Ah yes, I’m never far from those sensations.

My sister told me that we used to play a lot of games around the bridge’s building site. Her favourite pastime was a game that she had invented after reading Molnár’s The Paul Street Boys. This was a classic Hungarian children’s story about a group of boys who engage in a fierce battle with a nasty gang to claim ownership of some derelict but treasured land in the slums of Budapest. I’m not sure that our massive garden in Villány, with its circular ponds and cherub-infested fountain, topiary hedges and lichened griffins, replicated those conditions but apparently Anna managed to persuade the servants’ children and myself that it did.

According to my sister, we all had a marvellous time throwing sand and bricks at each other and hiding behind wheelbarrows until I received a vicious crack on the head.  Anna had to scoop me up in her arms and run with me into the drawing room where my mother was reading. Mama said there was so much blood spurting out of my head that Anna’s white frock turned red. Because there was no hospital nearby, they had to take me to a gypsy healer who waved some leaves over my battered skull and curtailed the bleeding.

My only memory of the event is of a warm stickiness sprouting out of my scalp and wondering whether cocoa and other hot beverages were extracted from people’s heads. Push back my hair and you can still see the long, white scar.

* * *

Yes, yes, yes: there are black and white photos from this time. There’s my father, the Count, standing in his hunting gear and deerstalker hat with his Purdey shotgun in front of the fat-tongued lions. There’s my mother, sitting under a parasol in her white, floral dress, reading Pride and Prejudice and looking like the fair English maiden that she was before we moved to Budapest. There’s me, as a baby, wearing a long, cotton dress with frilly edges and long sleeves being carried by my mother in the road leading to the Archduke Frederick’s farm – his wine cellars and hunting grounds were close to us and we used to visit them regularly. What big round eyes I have! But you can certainly see in my pale, agitated face the first inklings of the illnesses that would plague me for the rest of my life.

The Chain Bridge, Budapest

* * *

And there’s Anna. Doesn’t she look naughty with her dark, inquiring eyes, her cheeky grin, her thick black hair, and her high, Pongrácz cheekbones, all dolled up in that ridiculous harlequin’s costume and hat? She always loved dressing up, even in the days when she became a hardened communist.

And here we all are together in our stately horse-drawn carriage, setting off for Mass in our Sunday best: my father is dressed in sober black with a top hat and my mother entirely obscured by the huge, netted hat she’s decided to model. And there we are behind them: me, in an absolutely tiny shirt and tie, and Anna looking distinctly grumpy in a Transylvanian frock. She never liked acting the role of a Magyar. But my goodness, she looks so slim and young!

* * *

It’s a shame that I remember so little from that time, but I was only five years old when my sister and I left Villány. My memory only revives when we moved to Budapest. And those first days and weeks I can recollect so vividly that I can shut my eyes and replay them with the same ease that a projectionist can pop a film into his whirring machine and shine it in Technicolor onto the darkened cinema screen.

Budapest 1945

Anna ran out of the apartment. If she had been speaking sense, I probably would not have followed her and tended to the unconscious Miss Virág. But my sister wasn’t herself at all: there was a desperate light of optimism in her eyes, the kind of optimism that quickly dwindles into suicidal depression once it has been disappointed. I felt that she was in more danger than my tutor.

I pursued her onto Andrássy where she slackened her pace, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to keep up. I called out to her to come back but she ignored me and, thus, I trailed after her through the nightmarish wreckage of Budapest all the way down Attila József utca right down to the river.

The relatively intact state of my apartment had been an exceptionally misleading indication about the general condition of our capital city. How can I begin to describe its ruinous condition? The streets were strewn with overturned tanks, burnt-out trams and cars; flames still lapped at the ruins of great apartment blocks and grey smoke drifted around the tree-tops. Great swathes of the apartments on the ring road around Deak Ter had been obliterated, leaving only charred timbers, pulverized bricks, broken tiles and smashed glass, and the dead bodies of dogs and cats. The corpses of Germans, Hungarians and Russians littered the gutters. Although most of the bodies were of uniformed soldiers, I did come across one unfortunate Swabian flower vendor who was still holding out a sprig of heather and lavender in her hand as if she was just about to sell the pitiful herbs. Her throat had been slashed and the blood had dried around the deep wound like old egg yolk.

After that I determined that I wouldn’t look closely at anything lying on the frozen ground unless I absolutely had to. However, despite this pledge to myself, I couldn’t help discerning that much of the snow was streaked with bright, red blood and many of the icy puddles were the colour of English strawberries. Her determination to reach her destination seemed to make her oblivious of the carnage around her; she hopped over bodies, skipped across gutters full of bloody pulp and twisted metal, and ducked around the abandoned trams and tanks.

As we approached the Danube, we heard feet tramping through the snow and the howling screech of a Russian officer. I swivelled round and saw that a large infantry division was marching in our wake: the sound of a drum reverberated through the eerily quiet, snow-thrilled air.

I managed to catch up with Anna on the fragmented remains of the Corso. She had come to a dead stop in front of what used to be the Carlton hotel and was staring at the Danube. The snow mocked us as it fell so peacefully onto the icy water.

“Ahhh!” Anna screamed.

I rushed up to her and took her arm by the railings of the promenade, which were now as looped and bowed as shoe laces. Then I embraced her, and she buried her face in the crook of my shoulder. As I held her, I could see what had happened to this once beautiful part of Budapest: every bridge had been blown up and all the great hotels on the Corso were simply piles of rubble with the occasional glint of a chandelier or hint of red carpet poking through the devastation.

I remember thinking it was a good thing that my father was dead: he couldn’t have borne the vision of the Chain Bridge’s lions with their manes blasted away and the middle of the bridge sliding into the unforgiving currents of the Danube. Nor could he have endured to see the great Buda castle’s dome stripped of its green copper finery and its inner scaffolding exposed to the elements. Most of all, the smell of burnt flesh and rubber and wood, and the crackle of simmering fires eating up the great hotels of the Corso would have told the Count that everything civilised about Hungary had been lost, irretrievably cast to oblivion. And yet, I couldn’t help feeling that my country deserved it. Quite frankly, I didn’t care that the Chain Bridge was totally destroyed.

You can find a PDF of these extracts here:

Biography

Francis Gilbert found the process of working with the other members of Blue Door Press on Snow on the Danube an enriching and enlightening process. He began the novel in the late 1990s, doing much research and rewriting the novel a great many times. It was not until he worked with Blue Door Press in 2016 that the narrative finally took a compelling and original shape. You can read about this process in his blog here: https://bluedoorpress.co.uk/2019/03/12/the-importance-of-patience-why-it-took-21-years-to-publish-snow-on-the-danube/

The Danube, the Chain Bridge and Budapest

What’s in a Kiss?

Here at Blue Door we’re delighted to welcome a new author, novelist Barbara Bleiman. She’s been exploring the connotations of a kiss and explains how her collection of stories, The Kremlinology of Kisses, evolved

Barbara Bleiman

Ten years ago, when I did an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck, I started writing some short stories that were clustered around a particular idea – a concept, if you like – prompted by re-reading Anton Chekhov’s wonderful short story, ‘The Kiss’. I was bowled over by the way that Chekhov managed to invest something as seemingly simple as a kiss with huge emotional freight and significance. It made me think about the kiss and the part it plays in our lives. Sex is an obvious, highly charged subject for fiction but what about the kiss?

At the time, I wrote five or six stories involving different scenarios, kisses given and taken, wished for or rejected, in different contexts and time periods, from renaissance Italy through to contemporary London and even into the future. Later, as I was working on first, second and third drafts of my novel, I would step back for a while and give myself a little break by writing another ‘kiss’ story. People would say something in conversation and it would spark off a fresh idea; sometimes, a scene in a film would set me off in a new direction and get me writing a new story.

Gradually I accumulated more of them and this autumn I began to think that perhaps they might make a coherent collection. Here were thirteen stories, one of which had already been published in Birkbeck’s book The Mechanics’ Institute Review, another of which has been selected for an anthology for the secondary classroom, due out in the autumn. But commercial publishing houses are reluctant to invest in short stories.

What to do? I could go down the route of self-publishing. Instead, having learnt about Blue Door Press, I decided to submit the collection to the wonderful group of writers who set it up and publish through it. This co-publishing model offers a third way between self-publishing and mainstream, which means all books will be professionally edited and designed.

A few months after submitting, I received the thrilling news that the group had read my manuscript, loved the overall concept and the stories themselves and were happy to welcome me on board as a new Blue Door Press writer.

Now more really hard work begins. I have had brilliant collective editorial comments from the group and a discussion with Pamela Johnson about polishing the stories, the process of preparing them for publication, the choice of a title, cover and ways in which BDP can support me in this. In return, I’ve agreed to contribute what I can to the Press. One thing I’ll be doing (drawing on my expertise from my working life) will be to work on the BDP’s social media presence.

My collection The Kremlinology of Kisses should be due out early in the new year. I can’t wait to see it in print, with the Blue Door Press logo on its spine.

 

 

TAKING LIBERTIES with The Goose Woman

Prague_Lapidarium

Many of the poems in The Goose Woman focus on a village in Bohemia. I did worry that a neighbour might come across them and take offence but decided that was unlikely. The collection was in English, published in Britain, I was safe. And there were only a few poems that might be insensitive.

However, when asked by Svět Knihy to talk on a panel about translation, and read a few examples, the risk became more pressing. Svět Knihy is a book fair held annually in Prague in May, both a trade fair for publishers and a literature festival, combining promotion with readings, discussions, argument. The events are held in Výstaviště, exhibition grounds that were built around an industrial palace in 1891.

This year had the usual long queues to get in, people of all ages in a three days extravaganza, a celebration of books: fantasy, romance, TV cooks demonstrating their dumplings, people hunched over incredibly complex, incomprehensible interactive games, talks on politics, philosophy…

An event at the Cafe Europa was about Brexit, with an emphasis on its literary ramifications. David Vaughan moderated and Bernie Higgins and I identified ourselves as fully Europeans, and tried not to get too heated. Questions from the audience included confusion about what the Labour party or more precisely Corbyn was up to. Fintan O’Toole was quoted from Heroic Failure ‘…the strange sense of imaginary oppression that underlies Brexit. This mentality is by no means exclusive to the Right.

The poetry events were held in the Lapidarium. This extraordinary museum houses stone sculptures dating from the 11th century. I could only hope that no one in the audience or wandering through looking at the original statues from Charles Bridge would glance over at the poems projected wall size behind me.

I was asked ‘How has your relationship with Czech (and a Czech) affected your poetry? Which was impossible to answer. The second question ‘because of your close relationship with Czech and your translators (Aleš and Tomáš), when you are writing do you ever pause and deliberate on whether to use a line that you know will be difficult to translate into Czech?’ made me realise I’d failed completely to consider and value translators. Tomáš Míka talked about the difficulty in translating ‘One Made Earlier’  from Stories & Lies. It looks impossible but he did it – a few in the audience were even familiar with the reference to Blue Peter.

Then I was asked to read ‘I Am Slabce’ from The Goose Woman. My untruths/exaggerations were projected behind me; no one seemed to have any difficulty in understanding. Slabce was less than eighty kilometres away; I could only imagine Mr Novak or the mayor or Vladimir wandering in and being appalled by such slander.

Is the poetry world of cravats and bow ties slowly disappearing?

Possibly. Or so Ian McMillan, a poet from Barnsley and presenter of The Verb on Radio 3, heard Daljit Nagra, a prize winning poet from London, suggest when the two were chatting in the interval at the RFH during the TS Eliot shortlist readings.. You can hear some of the shortlisted poems on iPlayer until the first week in February.

Daljit described how different the poetry world seemed to him twenty years ago. Poets (with or without cravats) were mostly preoccupied with themselves and elitist. Now there are more people ‘singing from the margins’, about gender issues, sexuality, race. Poets are writing confidently, are able to speak freely, unlike in the more limited possibilities of the non-poetry world.

The ten shortlisted represented this change in both North America and Britain. Poets are being daring with form, more are using the long poem; they are doing something with poetry that can honestly address identity politics. Poets now dramatise, have nuance, they look at the small p of poetry. Collections are no longer a list of lyric poems; poets are going back to the roots of poetry, to Chaucer, Beowolf, The Ramayana, so the ‘ reader can walk up to the poem and be challenged’.

The judges, Daljit Nagra, Sinéad Morrisey and Clare Pollard chose as the winner Hannah Sullivan who won the £25,000 prize against strong competition with her brilliant debut: Three Poems. The first, You, Very Young in New York is a ‘wry and tender study of romantic possibility, disappointment and the obduracy of innocence’. Repeat Until Time ‘unfolds into an essay on repetition and returning home’. The Sandpit after Rain explores the birth of a child and the death of a father.

You can hear an extract read by Hannah Sullivan:

 

Poetry in Prague

 

 

After Poetry in Aldeburgh just keep going east and there is the water of the Vltava rather than the sea…

IMG_0036 and it’s two weeks of poetry in Prague.

 

  • Den poezie is an annual international and multicultural poetry festival held for two weeks every November around the birth anniversary (16.11.1810) of the great Czech Romantic poet, K.H. Mácha. It is the most widespread poetry event in the country with events now taking place in around 60 Czech cities, towns and villages. Almost all the events are free. This year’s Den poezie runs from 12th – 26th November and its theme is Labryrint světa / Labyrinth of the World (after the work of the great Czech humanist and educator, Jan Amos Komenský – Comenius.
  • In the 2017 programme there are two events in English – on Tuesday, 14th November at 7 pm in the library of Anglo-American University, Letenská 5, Prague 1 there is a reading by poets Stephan Delbos (US) and Jane Kirwan (UK), who will read their own poems, and the Irish poet Justin Quinn will read from his new translation of the works of Czech poet, Bohuslav Reynek, The Well of Morning. David Vaughan of Czech Radio will moderate. The second event takes place on Tuesday, 21st November at 7 pm in the Literary cafe Řetězova, Řetězova 10, Prague 1 when Scottish poet, novelist and playwright Alan Spence, recently appointed ‘Makar’ of Edinburgh, will read his poetry.
  • Den poezie first took place on just one day in 1999, and marked the launch of a Poezie pro cestujíci (Poetry on the Metro) project initiated by the festival founder, the Literary and Cultural Club 8 (Renata Bulvová and Bernie Higgins). The festival is now coordinated by the Poetry Society (Společnost poezie), a small group of people involved in literature/teaching who work as volunteers to organise events and promote interest in poetry. Year by year, the length of the festival extended, as more and more organisations and towns participated, until it reached its current two-week duration

 

Hidden – a memoir

Here at Blue Door Press we’re delighted to be publishing our first memoir, Hidden by Annabel Chown, a beautifully written, thoughtful book, scheduled for September 2020.

Annabel Chown012_RT_F.jpg

Aged 31, Annabel was diagnosed with breast cancer. At the time a successful architect with a busy London social life, this came as tremendous shock. In Hidden, Chown charts each stage of the treatment and her growing understanding of different kinds of architecture – those of her own body and the structure of the life she’d built up. Is this what she wants?

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Annabel Chown, in the Swiss Alps, 2017

As Annabel recalls, “It was a very challenging time, but also – in a strange way – an intriguing time, as I was catapulted from my familiar worlds of architecture deadlines and dating into the hinterland of cancer and its treatments. I wrote Hidden because I wanted to create something meaningful out of the devastating diagnosis.”

Fast forward almost a decade and Chown makes another startling discovery about her illness which has meant having to make more choices.

This is not a gloomy book. It’s one woman’s story about learning to accept what life throws at you, learning how to make positive changes. Now she’s ready to share that story, “I’m excited to be putting my book out, and I hope it can support and inspire others in the same situation. Recently, I’ve been revising the manuscript as I prepare it for publication and it’s been interesting to realise how much I’ve changed and my life has changed. Life can actually be better after cancer, something I would never have believed at the time.”

You can read more about Annabel’s story in the November issue of Red magazine, but do come back in September 2020 when you can read the full story in Hidden.