Poppy Shakespeare Giveaway

Back in July we highlighted Poppy Shakespeare by Clare Allan as one of our ‘recommended reads‘ (To read the recommendation click here) Publishers Bloomsbury have been good enough to offer us three copies of the book to give away free to the first three people to take out a year’s subscription to The Reader magazine. Simply click here to register for a one year subscription and if you are one of the first three people to subscribe, not only will you receive four issues of the new look Reader magazine, packed with recommendations, reviews, poetry and fiction, you will also get a lovely copy of Poppy Shakespeare sent straight to your door. Thank you Bloomsbury!

Read more of our Recommended Reads here.

Cheltenham Literature Festival: The Saga of the Broken Glass and the Missing Rucksack

My day at the festival started with a walk across Cheltenham’s Imperial Square in the quiet sunshine of an autumnal Sunday morning to the Garden Theatre, where event 42 (‘Do we live in a world which is more virtual than real?’) was soon to be starting. Not exactly expecting the calmness of the morning to be maintained once I stepped inside the doors of the venue, I was not prepared for just how amusing the conversations between Armando Iannucci (festival Guest Director) and comedian Stewart Lee would be. Discussing to what extent the media reflects the real world and the grey areas between news and entertainment, this morning’s event was littered with amusing anecdotes and unrepeatable jokes from the two hosts. Yet, the real humour of the event was to be found in the moments that were completely incidental.

Arriving on stage, Lee made a point of pouring his glass of water from the jug on the table next to him, claiming, “I have always wanted to get up on a podium and do that.” I can see where he’s coming from, there’s something very ‘Parky’ to aspire to there. So, the water had been expertly poured and the conversation was flowing but it seemed that this glass of water could not be drunk with the same fluent skill. The glass came crashing down from Lee’s hands and fell into pieces on the floor. Shame-faced and showing signs of obvious distress about this incident (the podium-jug moment is a proud one), Lee began picking up the pieces of the glass, claiming – after a previous discussion about the power of television editors and the constant manipulation of all that we see – that it could just be ‘edited’ out (this event is to be podcasted), “well, they edit everything however they want anyway, don’t they?” I don’t think he’ll be so lucky. “That’s what was missing from Cheltenham though, the element of slapstick”, Lee quips. Shortly a member of the audience handed him a bottle of water (he kept trying to drink from his smashed glass), “There you go Stewart, you can’t break that, it’s plastic,” Iannucci responds.

Beneath the humour though lay some pertinent issues: the tacit agreements between the press and politicians; the false facts that are presented that once ‘out-there’ can never be forgotten (Lee co-wrote Jerry Springer The Opera – there weren’t 8,000 swear words, just 127); our engagement with sensationalism which presents an inherent contradiction in us all: which do we prefer, fact or fiction? With Iannucci’s sharp wit and irreverent take on politics and the media, it was not surprising that the conversation moved towards examining comedy as a way to find ‘truth’ about what is really going on in the news. If news is entertainment and entertainment becomes news, then where’s the space for truth and integrity? “Just remember, this [Lee points at the fragments of shattered glass around him], this really happened.”

In The Writers’ Room after the event, I was extremely lucky to be sitting next to Iannucci and Lee whilst eating my breakfast (pain au chocolat and Javan coffee). After a few minutes of sitting there a feeling rather in awe, I thanked Iannucci for a thoroughly entertaining hour and for awakening me from my Sunday daze, which then prompted a conversation about the ‘glass’ incident. Iannucci and Lee both admit that comedians will always have a “few scripted gags” but that above all, a comedian “couldn’t wish for a better comic moment” than that like the ‘glass’.

Lee then had to dash off but I was left talking to Iannucci and his delightful wife about their festival experiences, “fantastic but tiring”, says Iannucci, “I can’t work out whether I’ve said the same thing five times or not at all!” I then took the opportunity to ask him what he was going to pick as his favourite pieces of writing in an event later to be hosted later in the day. He quickly rattled of a list, “Little Dorrit, a George Herbert poem, an essay by Orwell, Marlowe’s Dr Faustusermmm, hang on, I have the whole list in my rucksack.” But where is the rucksack? It is not where it was supposed to be anyhow.

As Iannucci goes to where he thinks he has left it but finds it missing, the room breaks into mild panic. The walky-talk clan are working overtime, Iannucci and his wife are scouring the Writers’ Room and I am just sitting in the middle, at my table, with my cake, watching this drama unfold around me whilst I’m thinking, I have just indirectly caused festival HQ meltdown. I did feel useless, although it was quite helpful that I had prompted Mr Iannucci to locate his rucksack (with all his notes in) before he had to get somewhere in a rush, but I felt that there had to be something I could do. So, think Jen, think… Ah! Stewart Lee had been sat there, maybe he or his driver picked it up without realising? It was worth a shot. So I approached a rather panic-striken Iannucci (with a small tap on the shoulder and a sheepish smile), “perhaps Stewart Lee picked it up?” No sooner had I mentioned it that he was on the phone and indeed, there it was. The bag was returned to its rightful owner. “It’s professional sabotage”, remarked Iannucci, resuming his more relaxed demeanour, “now, books… books…” and produced the copies of the text that he had and went through each one with me. This was fantastic, a full preview of one of the festival directors most admired works. I couldn’t end our conversation without asking who was ultimately his favourite author, “well, Dickens, of course”, he replies, “his prose style is so supremely succinct.” I thought it then best to leave, before any more chaos could unfurl (although I was later to become guarder of the bag).

Posted by Jen Tomkins

Cheltenham Literature Festival: Shakespeare

Yesterday, my day at the festival was bridged by two events that could not have provided two more different insights into the life and work of Shakespeare. Which am I more convinced by? Depends upon whether I want to indulge in fantasy or face the facts.

Promoting her new book, Shakespeare’s Wife, Germaine Greer thrilled her audience by giving an intelligent and quick-witted key note lecture. Critically acclaimed as an “engaging and speculative” work, this defence of Anne Hathaway’s integral position as Shakespeare’s wife and the influence on his work is intriguing but it is, as Greer admits, “all guess work”. What Greer aims to achieve with this publication is to “open our eyes to Anne” and make literary scholars work to disregard her. “This woman seems to be the still centre of Will’s giddy world,” states Greer as she plots possible social, economic and political reasons for Anne’s central position in Shakespeare’s life. Greer also examines Shakespeares “resourceful and measured” wives in the early comedy plays (her PhD thesis focused on the ethic of love and marriage in these plays), believing that these resolute figures are a reflection of Anne. Rooted in extensive socio-historic research, Greer’s arguments are compelling and she seems to achieve her aim of putting Anne into the frame in relation to Shakespearean literary criticism. An entirely speculative work, yes, but Greer although there is no proof to her arguments, there is nothing to disprove them either.

The evening’s panel discussion about Shakespeare’s history plays and their relevance to today’s society could not have been a more disparate environment, rooted firmly in traditional critical theory. Radio 4’s James Naughtie, Michael Boyd (Artistic Director of the RSC) and historian Michael Wood even discussing these plays in the first instance shows that they are still in the centre of public discourse. Why is this? Because these plays, like all of Shakespeare’s work, present fundamental truths about us as humans. In the history plays, Shakespeare demonstrates a unique ability to see the situation of the times but as Michael Wood suggests, “they go bigger, they tell us something of the truth of history, something useful.” We should not underestimate Shakespeare’s involvement with politics but the power that resides in each of his plays are the moments of humanity – where the man triumphs over the king – and we are reassured that the essential order of humanity cannot be broken. Michael Boyd, who has the demanding task of staging all of the history plays over the coming year at the RSC, states that Shakespeare was an “optimist of the will but pessimist of the intellect”. A credible record of historical events is important to Shakespeare but their “hopelessly and brilliantly unresloved nature” shows that he was a man torn between two worlds: that past relationships and events have an undeniable connection with the future; what has happened in the past has gone but there is an integral sense of having to move foward.

Behind every great man there is a great woman; behind every monarch there is a human being; behind every theoretical argument there is the text itself. Shakespeare criticism is always going to present conflicting (and controversial) arguments and it is difficult to bring the strands of yesterday’s events to any sort of conclusion. The premise of the discussions were so incongruent that they’re essentially incomparable. However, both examinations were concerned with the fabric of history, how history itself is built on thought, ideas and relationships and there is no argument against Shakespeare’s unmitigated ability to communicate the human condition.

Posted by Jen Tomkins

Cheltenham Literature Festival: Reports from The Writers’ Room

So what’s it like in the Writers’ Room on the first Saturday of the festival? In a word, busy. I arrived this morning to an even larger selection of cakes and pastries, the choice of the day being an enormous double chocolate muffin accompanied by a large cup of freshly brewed Columbian coffee (yes, very nice indeed). I brunched in the company of Times journalist Ben Hoyle, enjoying the morning papers and a moment of tranquility before a hive of excitement erupted and Germaine Greer entered the room. Wearing a black smock dress, black and white stripy tights and silver shoes, her presence sent a ripple through the room. She sat opposite me, deep in conversation with an academic about seventeenth century art, so obviously I didn’t really feel it possible to interrupt and introduce myself.

Today I’ve been to see two Shakespeare events and these are my general impressions: Germaine Greer’s discussion of the life of Anne Hathaway and her influence on Shakespeare’s life and work was engaging but perhaps too speculative to persuade me; a panel consisting of James Naughtie (Radio 4), Micheal Boyd (Artisitc Director of the RSC) and historian Michael Wood discussed the relevance of Shakespeare’s history plays to society today, providing an intriguing insight into the “hopelessly and brilliantly unresolved” nature of the plays.

I will write further tomorrow about my opinions of these two very differing events. Until then, I will continue to enjoy the delights of the festival (culinary and literary) and spread The Reader word.

Posted by Jen Tomkins

Cheltenham Literature Festival: Life Lines

Life Lines is an audio poetry anthology of some of the best poets writing in the English language today, including Fleur Adcock, Carol Ann Duffy, Blake Morrison, Andrew Motion and Benjamin Zephaniah. Its editor, Todd Swift, is Oxfam’s Poet in Residence and it was his idea to ask established and new poets to contribute their writing in support of Oxfam’s charitable work. Contibutors Kate Clanchy and Michael Rosen joined Todd Swift at the festival last night to launch Life Lines 2, reading extracts from it and from their own collections.

The event started with an lively discussion about the relevance and importance of poetry to our lives today. Poetry is often regarded as a ‘dying art’ but these poets are flying their flag high, believing poetry to be blazing with life and eager to feel that their words are able to make a difference in this world. Recently a newspaper journalist had written, “now that poetry is dead…”, which prompted Michael Rosen to write a swift response on the paper’s blog in defence of poetry (rather Shelley-esque). His indignation was still obvious last night, “it’s crazy to say that, of course it’s not!”, “it’s an extrapolation outwards of the egocentric self to say poetry’s dead” and there was not a soul in the room that would have consider poetry a dying art after hearing these efficacious speakers. “It’s not dead, just listen to rap music, that’s poetry: a new way to deliver rhythm and rhyme,” says Rosen, “but us poets, we were there first!”

Todd Swift read four poems from his new collection Winter Tennis, all touching accounts written about his father and their relationship (Swift’s father died last year). Kate Clanchy’s ‘War Poetry’ delves into the realities and unrealities of our lives, about our ability to watch television war reports with silent abashment, distancing ourselves from the reality. Then Michael Rosen took centre stage and had the audience captivated with his piercing blue eyes and animated delivery; it was an amusing, poignant and powerful reading of some of his most loved work (although I was most disappointed not to hear ‘Don’t put Mustard in the Custard’, a favourite from my childhood). Three very different poetic voices but with the same common goal: to use poetry to make us rethink the how we use words and how they can change the world for the better.

Inspired by the vibrancy of the poets event, I dashed out of the room to the book tent to buy a copy of this CD. This, you may think, would be easy. Not so. I saw Todd Swift sitting down ready to sign away so I asked him where his fantastic anthology could be found. He didn’t know. This was obviously a little worrying for Todd and whilst people were off looking for the cds I was able to talk to him about his work and The Reader (delighted that he was familiar with it). I am now the proud owner of his personal copy of Winter Tennis, which he read from last night (he wrote in the inside cover but I can’t work out what it says, any handwriting decoders out there?). In this time the CDs were found and I duly went to pay (which itself proved difficult: lack of change and surplus of people at the till) before taking them back for the grand signing (which was also difficult: neither myself, Todd Swift or Michael Rosen could get the cellophane off for a good while, ultimately a biro proved invaluable). Thinking that I had then made enough fuss around this table, it was time to leave, so I said goodbye and off I went. Only I had forgotten my CDs, to their amusement and my embarrassment. It is now firmly in my possession and once I have some moments of calm solitude, I will listen to the anthology and review it in full.

Posted by Jen Tomkins

Cheltenham Literature Festival: What’s in a name?

My first evening at the festival started with a conversation with an older lady who had got up to let me sit down(!). Of course, I explained this was entirely unnecessary but we got talking, about The Reader (which she remembered from its early days) and Merseyside experiences (of which she has many). Her enthusiasm was engaging but a holler of “Ok, one minute!” across the Writers’ Room jolted me back to reality and I began to end our conversation, knowing that I too needed to be at an event. It was at this point she asked me my name: “Jenny”, I said. “Oh! I’m a Jenny too, Jenny Joseph”. I couldn’t believe it, Jenny Joseph in front of me, two minutes ago talking about West Kirby and now telling me the meanings of our names. I’m a Jennifer really, a derivative of Guinevere, meaning ‘white wave’ (so Jenny tells me); Jenny Joseph, on the other hand, is a genuine Jenny, a corruption of Joan, which comes from John. She told me that her name wasn’t as pure as mine yet Jenny means ‘gracious gift of God’. Ms Joseph told me that she wishes she could have lived her life as the ‘white wave’ but had to settle for whichever wave it was that came her way. Confused? Me too. A gift dressed in purple nonetheless.

Featured Poem: The Stone Beach

In the last of our poetry recommendations for this week Reader outreach worker and Reader Online editor Katie Peters chooses Simon Armitage’s ‘The Stone Beach’. She says: “I like stanzas 4 and 6 best, and especially the idea of living in the present but simultaneously carrying the memory of a distant past life which lives on in the present through that memory and through those who shared that life with you.”

Of course we asked permission to print this poem and Simon Armitage replied through his agent that he was happy for it to appear here, but to contact Faber, the publisher, to confirm. The agent said there was unlikely to be a problem. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be. I contacted the permissions department of Faber earlier in the week to ask if we could post the poem here. We promised of course to cite the conditions of the permission offered and it goes without saying that we would have linked to the Faber catalogue and to places where our readers could buy the collection The Universal Home Doctor, which was published in 2002. ‘The Stone Beach’ is characteristic of the collection, which was described by The Guardian at the time as “amusing and charming – effortlessly winning over an audience when read out loud – yet essentially serious, substantial enough to repay reconsidering. [The poems] achieve this because their preferred method is allegory, “mouthing off” about one thing while thinking about another.”

In the end on Friday I received word from Faber that we would be able to publish the poem here, but at a cost of £155 (ex. VAT, naturally). That would buy us a year of having the poem on this page, but Faber would retain the right to take it down with a month’s notice. Since we would be providing publicity for Faber, rather than the other way around, I declined this generous offer. So instead of the poem, let us all consider Faber’s permissions letter, published in full below. I’m going to be writing more on this topic in the next few days, since it seems to resonate with the mistakes made by the music industry over the last few years. I just love the bit about not ‘photocopying downloads,’ whatever that means. In the mean time if you think this document is as ridiculous as I do, feel free to contact Faber to tell them so. A contact address is available on this page.

The Permissions Form in Full:

Thank you for your email requesting permission to reproduce the above on your open-access web site www.thereaderonline.com (sic) in textual form.

We have certain conditions for the use of our copyright material on the internet and I have listed these below together with our fees for non-exclusive English Language permission throughout the UK and Commonwealth.

Fee: £155.00 plus VAT

This permission is granted for the period of one year only and we reserve the right to withdraw our permission with one month’s notice. A copyright line including the title of the work, the source of the poem, the author and Faber and Faber Ltd as the publisher must be printed, as well as a warning that photocopying downloads is against copyright law. We would also request that your web site is linked to a book shop site or our own web site [www.faber.co.uk].

Please indicate below how you wish to proceed and then return this fax to (+44) (0)20 7465 0108.

If we do not receive a reply within thirty days we will assume that you have proceeded.


If after all that you still feel like reading the poem ‘The Stone Beach’ is freely available online here. Interestingly very few of the conditions imposed above have been met.

Posted by Chris Routledge. Powered by Qumana

Cheltenham Literature Festival: Eric Hobsbawm

I have just heard Eric Hobsbawm, amongst the first of the speakers at this year’s festival, talking at length about the issues raised in his new book, Globalisation, Democracy and Terrorism: a polemic against the powerful democracies of the world and the barbarisation of our times. In this controversial discussion with Christopher Cook, the Marxist historian urged us to slow down our lives and stop seeking short-term solutions to long-term problems, warning that there are “no shortcuts in history”. Howbsbawm’s fierce critique of Western democracy, surveillence (which, despite its constant intrusion, provides the state with very little information about the actual lives of its inhabitants) and globalisation went deep into the internal contradictions of nations, which have both international and national interests that meet in a peculiar conflict of interests.

Despite the strong-minded political stance of this examination of twenty-first century living and the dangers of inflicting Western values on other nations, Hobsbawn punctuated his speech with amusing comments, saying as he came on stage, “It’s good to see that Cheltenham Literature Festival is more punctual than British Rail”, and provided an interesting insight into why writers come to literary festivals. He says it’s not really do to with book sales but to do with coming eye-to-eye with your reader in an attempt to “cross the void” from the truly closed act of writing to the open communication of reading. An honest comment, and no doubt true in sentiment, but the cynic in me can’t help but think of the huge book tent that is fixed to the back of Cheltenham’s Town Hall.

Posted by Jen Tomkins

Cheltenham Literature Festival: The Inner Sanctum

In the first of her reports from the Cheltenham Literature Festival Jen Tomkins picks up her press pack and gets to eat cake:

In the four hours that I have been at the festival, the crowds have begun to swarm to the main hub around Imperial Square. Luckily for me, I have access to the Writer’s Room, an inner sanctum of calm and quietude. Yet gaining my press pass wasn’t quite an easy as it could have been: I was shimmied from the box office to the information point to the press office to the Writer’s Room, no one could find my press pack. Eventually the (slightly ineffective) walky-talky operating system that is in operation behind the scenes of the festival located the person, my pack was discovered and here I am, writing away in the Writer’s Room: a beautifully decorated Georgian room, full of large white sofas, glass tables and the literary folk of Cheltenham (and a collection of frantic journalists and festival organisers) . It is here that I am hoping to ask some of the festival guests a few questions. I just need to pluck up the courage. I am sure that the delicious selection of cakes, fresh coffee and waiter service may help the situation. Let’s just hope I don’t spill coffee over any of the VIPs.

Posted by Jen Tomkins