Norman Nicholson Festival

News has reached The Reader of another literary festival in October. It seems unlikely that the Danish pastries and power breakfasts will be as flamboyant as those in Cheltenham, but devotees of poet Norman Nicholson will be interested to hear about the 2007 Norman Nicholson Festival, to be held at The Guide Hall, Millom, Cumbria, on Saturday, 20 October, 10am to 3.30pm. Here’s the blurb:

2007 marks the twentieth anniversary of the death of Norman Nicholson (1914 to 1987). The Norman Nicholson Society’s programme of events climaxes, at the end of October, with a one-day Festival in the poet’s home town of Millom. The Festival will feature talks by two leading poets, a special exhibition and the prize-giving for the inaugural Norman Nicholson Poetry Competition for Schools. Tickets for the Festival are priced at £8 for the whole day (including buffet lunch) and £4 (without lunch) for non-members of the Society. Please send cheques, made payable to The Norman Nicholson Society, to:

Mrs Rosemary McFie, 4 Devonshire Road, Millom, Cumbria, LA18 4JF. Tel. 01229 775192.

‘Time swims before me’

Eleven months ago I began working on a Get Into Reading project at a local care home for elderly people with dementia. Since then I have been struck by my experiences of reading to and with individuals, some of whom struggle to remember who or where they are, but can recite the words of a poem they learnt at school 60 years ago.

Interestingly, poetry receives a completely different reaction to the short stories and chunks of prose I attempted near the beginning of the project. There is something about the poems, the way they sound and move ( everyone prefers poems with a clear rhythm and rhyme scheme), but also in the fact that each line is full of meaning which can be pondered and considered over a period of time, rather than got at instantly. Here is a short example from the final stanza of I wandered lonely as a cloud:

‘For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude’

You can appreciate the instant sound and rhythm of the words, but as they are read, that rhythm slows you down, and draws your attention to the words themselves and to their meaning. I believe this is a big part of what appeals to the people I am working with. Poetry provides the opportunity to hold a thought together through time. So much of the communication we have with people is fleeting and in the care system, with time such a precious commodity exchanges are often hurried. The staff at the care home are fantastic and I know they would dearly like to have more time to really engage with patients, but interactions operate under time pressure. With these poems, there is a chance to stop for a moment and hold onto the words and understand the meaning. And the experience is not a solitary one. Many people in the care home have talked to me about loneliness. It can be difficult for residents to hold meaningful conversations with one another, lost as they are in their own world and way of understanding it. I have observed dialogues where the exchanges bear no relation to each other, two separate conversations held together by intonation only. In the reading group however instead of disparate, disconnected conversations, connections are made, with the poem acting as the shared point of focus.

In a discussion we had about February Afternoon by Edward Thomas, people started talking about the line

‘Time swims before me, making as a day
A thousand years…’

One lady commented,

‘I understand now. I sometimes find it hard to understand things, but we’ve talked about it together and it’s helped. Sometimes in the afternoon when you try and talk about something it doesn’t drop – then you talk about it here and it sinks in and you can understand. I loved the way he puts something down here that we can read about and know something of’.

I couldn’t agree more.


Here’s the link to Get Into Reading again.

Cheltenham Literature Festival: The Otherness of Helen Mirren

Not unfamiliar to a regal presence, yesterday Cheltenham played host to one of Britain’s most admired leading female actors, Dame Helen Mirren. In the midst of the media-hype surrounding the cinema release of The Queen last year, Mirren was dubbed ‘more royal than the Royals’. It is not hard to see why, her poised elegance and oratory eloquence gives the impression of an unreachable and majestic figure. Promoting her autobiography In the Frame: My Life in Words and Pictures, she spoke to a crowd of fifteen-hundred people in The Centaur at Cheltenham Racecourse, about her very first theatrical performances, her time at the RSC and, of course, that Oscar. She explained her feelings at the prospect of playing the Queen, “I was utterly intimidated at the thought of it and terrified of getting it wrong,” she admits, “but whilst looking at portraits of the Queen, I realised that what I was attempting to do was not an impersonation of the Queen but creating my own portrait.”

At these large events you rarely feel that you see anything of the ‘real’ person, especially with actors–that’s what they do, act–but occasionally you glean something from what is said that seems to come from somewhere more personal. Dame Helen discussed how dissimilar she felt from her friends whilst growing up (her father, Boris Mironof, was a Russian immigrant), how in the theatre she was (and still is) always rebelling against formal acting doctrines and trying to make her way forward as a woman in a male dominated arena. What you can infer from all of this, is that Mirren carries a sense of ‘otherness’ in her life: she was acutely aware of her status as an immigrant’s daughter; she left the RSC to join Peter Brook‘s innovative theatre company in Paris, describing him as a “tough task master but very truly brilliant”, and holds in very high esteem, “there’s beautiful rhythm to his plays, he’s like a composer–he picked the best from us all and created beautiful compositions”; her strong female roles, most obviously as Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect and the Queen, have demonstrated her desire to put women at the “centre of drama.”

We all battle with ‘otherness’ in varying degrees–it’s what makes us individuals–but I suddenly realised how these huge celebrities have to deal with not only their own otherness but the otherness of being a ‘star’ and the pressure that entails. When she received her Oscar, Mirren explained that “everything stopped, everything shut down for a moment”, the actor was left behind and she was lost in herself, in her otherness.

Posted by Jen Tomkins

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.