Free Thinking

BBC Radio 3 & Radio Merseyside’s Free Thinking Festival returns to Liverpool

Free Thinking BBC Radio 3 and BBC Radio Merseyside’s festival of ideas returns to Liverpool for a weekend of debates, talks, performance and conversation from Friday 9th to Sunday 11th November. At the heart of this year’s festival is one of the 21st century’s most contested ideals: freedom. Look out for The Reader‘s Books at Breakfast event, being held on the Saturday and Sunday, more details to follow.

Romanian Summer Diary 6

Saturday 4th August ­ ­– Things I have seen in Romania ­

A cow grazing by a brand new glass-plate office suite
A drunk old man falling into the gate to his house while trying to open it
A 1970s Romanian-built Renault with BMW badges
A funeral parlour blaring out rap music
A taxi firm called Trans Prod
A 17th century church glazed with UPVC windows
A crazily leaning shack proclaiming itself the Hotel Lido
A pig on a balcony on the block of flats opposite
A gyspy woman walking along a smart shopping street while breast-feeding
In time-forgotten villages, gleaming cars with Italian plates outside the houses
A hearse with “FUN” on its number plate
A tree in a beauty spot with beer cans stuck up its branches – Christmas come early?
A company called Semi-Daniel – a case of split personality?
A herd of sheep on a train
A horse and cart in a supermarket car park
A beggar with an Armani T-shirt
A seller of Dolce & Banana watches
In the market Crowds of old women weeping at the death of the Romanian Orthodox Patriarch

All of these would be ample opportunity for any photographer or journalist. They would send back a report peppered with “local colour”, confident that they have got to the heart of the place. Some, more enlightened, might skirt away from the really obvious ones – the cow, for example, reflected in the plate-glass window – dismissing them as clichés. And certainly the list is full of such clichés, almost all of them boiling down to contrast: between old and new, communist and capitalist, Orient and Occident.

Romania as a country is not afraid of clichés. We get on with it, the typical shrug of the shoulders and benevolent nod of the head accompanying us. Perhaps in this crazed sunshine, there are some Western niceties which just don’t apply.

The budding teachers at the English school are learning…

Tuesday 15th August The Brits have left and another year will run its course of change before the next summer school. Each year we take the volunteers to the Black sea coast for a few days, and then to Bucharest, before the tearful journey to the airport. We ask ourselves, and so do they, whether what they have seen is the true face of Romania. Among this year’s highlights there have been desperate phonecalls for a comfort stop on the way to Constantza, trunks lost whilst skinny dipping and midnight rowing on Herastrau lake in Bucharest. Occasionally we get returning volunteers: I remember this, is so and so still there, is that still going, the kid I taught then has gone to university. I, too, am like that now – in my native country a visitor, with a bagful of memories and apprehensive of new experiences every year, relieved to go back home and eager to return the next summer. Invariably.

I am yet to find how much of the attraction in all this lies in the security of the past and how much in the challenge of the new. All in a summer’s teaching job.

William Faulkner and the End of Man

Like James Joyce, William Faulkner has an unjust reputation as a ‘difficult’ writer. Perhaps for this reason he is relatively underrepresented online. William Faulkner On The Web is by far the most comprehensive online resource on the writer and his works. It includes summaries of his works, bibliographies, character analyses and a great deal of other material. Faulkner. In fact Faulkner was a man of high ideals and surprising optimism; his stories are often very funny in a bleak sort of way. While novels such as As I Lay Dying take a humorous look at the grim lives of their characters, Faulkner is also sympathetic and perhaps just a little bit admiring of their resilience.

But what about his idealism and optimism? On December 10, 1950 William Faulkner addressed an audience in Stockholm to accept his Nobel Prize. In his speech he argued that the fear of global destruction had distracted writers from the real purpose of literature, which is to understand the problems of the human heart. He went on:

Until he learns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal because he will endure: that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things.

Here’s a link to the whole speech.

Upcoming TV Adaptations

Angela Macmillan made contact to point out that the BBC is working on several interesting-looking TV adaptations of eighteenth and nineteenth-century novels. Cranford Chronicles combines several novels by Elizabeth Gaskell and sports an all-star cast:

Francesca Annis, Eileen Atkins, Michael Gambon, Philip Glenister, Lesley Manville, Julia McKenzie, Imelda Staunton and Greg Wise are set to star alongside Judi Dench in Cranford Chronicles, a new five-part period drama created by Sue Birtwistle and Susie Conklin for BBC One and written by Heidi Thomas (I Capture The Castle, Madam Bovary, Lilies).

Based on three Elizabeth Gaskell novels – Cranford, My Lady Ludlow and Mr Harrison’s Confessions – this witty and poignant story follows the small absurdities and major tragedies in the lives of the people of Cranford during one extraordinary year.

Writer Andrew Davies is involved in an adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. Jane Tranter, Controller, BBC Fiction, had this to say:

This adaptation of Sense And Sensibility is classic Andrew Davies: his writing goes straight to the heart of Jane Austen’s novel and together they create a piece of work that is bold, original, authentic and powerful.

And as if that wasn’t enough it sounds like Davies’ new adaptation of Fanny Hill will steam up the nation’s TV screens this winter:

Alison Steadman, Hugo Speer and Samantha Bond lead the cast in a raunchy new version of John Cleland’s saucy 18th century novel Fanny Hill.

Adapted by Andrew Davies for BBC Four, Fanny Hill is the story of a young country girl who falls into prostitution in bawdy 18th century London. Forced to take a succession of lovers to survive, she slowly rises to respectability but only after enjoying wholeheartedly the fruits of her labour.

Considered the original erotic novel, Cleland wrote Fanny Hill whilst in debtors prison in 1748 and it has remained a firm literary favourite ever since.

Posted by Chris

Booker Prize longlist announced

Judges have announced the titles longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize for fiction. The prize is one of the world’s most prestigious literary awards. The longlist of 13 will be cut down to a shortlist in September.

The long list:

Nicola BarkerDarkmans (Britain)

Edward DocxSelf Help (Britain)

Tan Twan EngThe Gift Of Rain (Malaysia)

Anne EnrightThe Gathering (Ireland)

Mohsin HamidThe Reluctant Fundamentalist (Pakistan)

Peter Ho DaviesThe Welsh Girl (Wales)

Lloyd JonesMister Pip (New Zealand)

Nikita LalwaniGifted (India)

Ian McEwanOn Chesil Beach (Britain)

Catherine O’FlynnWhat Was Lost (Britain)

Michael RedhillConsolation (Canada)

Indra SinhaAnimal’s People (India)

AN WilsonWinnie & Wolf (Britain)

 

 

Philip Roth Discusses Everyman

Philip Roth is one of my favourite writers; he is one of the few writers whose prose seems like it couldn’t be any other way. So I was delighted to find this interview with him in which he discusses Everyman, his 2005 novel about life, death, and growing old. The work Roth has produced in the last decade–in his 60s and 70s–is generally acknowledged to be his best; he must be sick of reading about his “late flowering.” In this interview he also talks about his desire for work and his love of writing as well as discussing his career, his books, and the state of American writing.

Here’s the link to the download page (mp3 courtesy of RadioOpenSource).

Posted by Chris

Pitmatic

Earlier in the week a dictionary of the lost language of Pitmatic was reviewed in The Guardian. Coming from a North East family I find this fascinating. The dialect of the North East is a wonderfully playful, and self-conscious one. Both my grandfathers used to take great delight in baffling me with words and phrases I had no hope of understanding. Melvyn Bragg, in his Routes of English series on BBC Radio 4 covered Pitmatic a few years ago. You can hear people speaking it here. And there’s more on the Woodhorn Colliery archive page.

With the closure of the last Northumbrian pit in 2005 Pitmatic is dying now, so it’s great to hear someone has managed to preserve its vocabulary if not necessarily the impish spirit:

The first Pitmatic dictionary, including pit recollections and analysis of the origins of the dialect’s words, has been compiled by Bill Griffiths, the country’s foremost Geordie scholar, whose previous work includes the standard Dictionary of North East Dialect. His new book reveals an exceptionally rich combination of borrowings from Old Norse, Dutch and a score of other languages, with inventive usages dreamed up by the miners themselves.

“The golden age of writing about the pits by working pitmen for working pitmen and their families is over,” said Mr Griffiths. “It is time to save and share what we can.”

Here’s the link to the review.

Posted by Chris, Powered by Qumana

100 Years On The Road

This year is the 50th anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s famous rambling American epic, On The Road, but few people will have noticed that it is also the centenary of another book about the road, by another famous American Jack. Jack London’s The Road, published by Macmillan in 1907. The Nation is carrying an article by Jonah Raskin about London’s book, which picks up on the way American life changed in the 50 years between them:

In the years between 1907 and 1957 America changed radically–it became a world power and developed a full-blown mass culture–and those social and cultural changes are reflected in these two books. The Road depicts an industrial America in which hobos and tramps are an integral part of the system–“a reserve army of the unemployed,” as Marxists have called it–who help keep wages down. On the Road describes a postindustrial America in which cars are everywhere, almost everyone can afford a car, a radio and a television, and the mass media shape the lives of American citizens.

You can read a free ebook of The Road by Jack London here and another with pictures here. The link to the article in The Nation is here.

Thanks Angie.

Charles Simic–US Poet Laureate

The Guardian reports that Charles Simic has been named poet laureate of the United States by the Library of Congress. Simic, who left Yugoslavia aged 16 in 1953, is also editor of the Paris Review, and a contributor to the New York Review of Books. From the article:

Simic’s appointment was announced by James H Billington, the librarian of Congress. Asked why Simic was chosen from the shortlist of 15 candidates, Billington replied that it was down to "the rather stunning and original quality of his poetry … His poems have a sequence that you encounter in dreams, and therefore they have a reality that does not correspond to the reality that we perceive with our eyes and ears. He’s very hard to describe, and that’s a great tribute to him."

Speaking by telephone from his home, Simic described himself as a "city poet", joking that he has "lived in cities all of my life, except for the last 35 years." He originally wanted to be a painter, he said, until "I realised that I had no talent."

Here’s the link to The Guardian and another to the New York Times.

Posted by Chris, Powered by Qumana

Romanian Summer Diary 5

Saturday 28th July–Busy days. The first British contingent taught their lessons, forged friendships, played their quick cricket in bewildered partnership with the Romanians, staged the customary talent show to the self-acclaim of beaming participants, said their goodbyes with swimming eyes and departed – some to the mountains, some to the seacoast for a deserved short holiday before returning to our rainy kingdom. The unusual this year was manifest in the confirmation of theft of handbag by bear for insurance purposes; the chosen (by the bear!) protagonist was Wirral Grammar Emma.

New forces arrived on Thursday – seventeen students and sixth formers for the school in town and eleven for the children’s home. The twenty-eight-strong group of volunteers going out in the evening is anything but inconspicuous. Welcome shouts of ‘hey, English!’, although a little irritating to our Welsh and Irish nationals, are received as such: warm welcome.

The volunteer ‘profesori’ have far more ideas than there is time to put into practice. They will learn much about the ideal and the practical by the end of the summer school. Some will find out that keeping it simple is the best policy. A few will realize that teaching others is the best way of learning. The only uncertain thing so far is the declamations favourite; ‘Brutus was an honourable man’ goes head to head with the girlie taking of tea chez Ernest’s Gwendolin.

Wednesday 1st August–I know from past experience that nothing draws the Brits and Romanians closer than twenty-four hours of supervisorial absence. Not reckoning that such extreme teambuilding efforts should be required, I decide to abscond for just a couple of hours and drive to the countryside.

Romanian Dream II

Locals only were allowed
To leave the tarmac road,
Cross the rickety bridge
And sink into the dust track
Around the lake.

Strategic route, we used to be told,
Secret in case of Western invasion.
Throughout my teenage years I had wished
To sit on the grassy banks and watch
The sun in the water.

Path at the bottom of orchards, gardens, cornfields,
Thinning under the feet of my teenage son:
Same hair, some of my dreams,
His gain, my lost lake, his to return to,
Mine now, only once.

Cristina Pascu-Tulbure.

British-Romanian Connections has been operating in Romania since 1991, and each year Cristina organizes the summer schools staffed with young British volunteers. She says the fascination lies in watching British and Romanians alike teaching and learning, as well as seeing the yearly changes in attitudes, the vernacular, and the home-grown notion of what it is to have achieved the Romanian Dream. It’s a heady mix of old culture, second-hand Western ideals, slight embarrassment about one’s history, and variations on a theme of European unity. Cristina is in Romania with a party of girls from Wirral Grammar School.