Friday, 30 March 2018

LEBANON - COUNTRY OF CONTRASTS

What do you associate with the word Lebanon?

Perhaps a photograph of Jackie Onassis on a luxury yacht in Beirut harbour, or the blackened ruins of the Holiday Inn (a bleak symbol of the Civil War 1975 – 1992), or news bulletins of refugees who have fled into the country from Syria.  I think too of Phoenician traders on the Mediterranean coast thousands of years ago and the ‘Cedars of Lebanon’ which are mentioned in the Bible and which still grow here – even the national flag has a cedar on it.

In a short visit I experienced a small part of this fascinating country of contrasts. 

On the plane from Heathrow I read in the i the obituary of the Lebanese novelist, Emily Nasrallah, whose honours included German’s Goethe prize.  She was born in 1931 and refused to leave Lebanon during the Civil War, despite losing her family’s home and possessions.  She described herself as ‘a village farmer from South Lebanon’ and rose to be an international writer.

Beirut is a centre for art and literature.  I visited the Sursock Museum of modern art and was impressed by Abed Al Kadiri’s thought-provoking mixed media exhibition of paintings, sculpture and film all centred round a tree and an abandoned house.  There are some beautiful old buildings in Beirut but too many of them are dilapidated or even derelict, and are being swamped by modern high-rise blocks.

Of course I went to some bookshops, despite having little extra space in my suitcase.  Aaliya’s Books is a small well-curated bookshop with a café.  I browsed an anthology of Lebanese women’s poetry.  The café was quiet and the waiter brought out a box of toys for two fidgety small children – and then sat down on the floor and played with them, giving their mother time for conversation with friends.  By contrast, Librarie Antoine, is more like a Waterstones – a big glossy shop with books laid out over three floors (I found the glass stairs slightly unnerving and felt like my father’s old sheepdog who wouldn’t go up steps if he could see through them – after the second floor I resorted to the lift).  It is a sobering thought that in both bookshops there were books in Arabic, French and English – many people in Beirut are trilingual. I’ve never managed to master a second language fluently – I’m still working on my Welsh.

Just a short distance from Librarie Antoine I found some verses of Arabic (mainly), French and English set into the pavement.  Here are the two verses in English –
     How can we build a Lebanon without the participation
          of the youth and the new generation,
     while their opinion is still ignored?
and
     When is the killing of the dreams of the youth going to end?
          When is the endless flow
     of departing immigrants going to stop?
These were modern inscriptions but Emily Nasrallah recalled her grandmother saying ‘Lebanon is a land that does not hold its people’.

But on a lighter note, I was just there visiting family and doing touristy things.  As well as mooching round Beirut I visited Chateau Kefraya and Chateau Ksara wineries in the beautiful Bekaa Valley, went to the impressive limestone caves of the Jeita Grotto, and was fascinated by the layers of history of the ancient city of Byblos (inhabited continuously from about 8000 BC) .  At Byblos the Palm Sunday service was broadcast on loudspeakers from the church (there were too many people for them all to fit inside).  When the service had finished loudspeakers started up again – this time broadcasting the call to prayer from the nearby mosque. 


So many contrasts in this small country where on the same hot sunny day I paddled in the Mediterranean and saw snow on the mountains.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

SNOW, WATER AND WORDS

There were still grubby snowdrifts by the side of the road last week when I went up to Cumbria for the annual Words by the Water literary festival at Keswick.

I enjoyed meeting up with friends old and new and having the opportunity to hear some brilliant speakers.

Some highlights included Jenny Uglow on Edward Lear (a relative of the wife of my father's half-brother!) and the naturalist John Lister-Kaye not on the lives of wild creatures but on his own life.   The talk by popular linguist David Crystal was full.  His topic was the history and sociology of pronunciation and as usual he entertained and enlightened us.  My favourite talk was by the gently-spoken Christopher Nicholson  and was on the elusive summer snows of Scotland's mountains.

The Poetry Breakfast was a sell-out and all the croissants were eaten.  It's a strange phenomenon that open mics and workshops always seem to have a subtext or a hidden agenda - in this case it was elegies.  I resisted the temptation to read a poem about my  mother (being a switherer I had brought a handful of poems to choose from).  Instead I read a poem about the 'lollipop coloured gifts' we find on the shore - the plastic that gets washed up everywhere.  Not exactly a sea elegy but ...

Elsewhere there were few poetry sessions - the Write to be Counted anthology reading, William Sieghart (founder of the Forward prizes for poetry) talking about prescribing poems, and Adam Feinstein comparing translations of the Chilean Pablo Neruda's poetry before the showing of the remarkable and unnerving film Neruda (2016).  Blake Morrison, an accomplished writer of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, talked about his new novel The Executor which includes poetry written as if by one of the characters.

Adam Feinstein judged the biennial *Mirehouse Poetry Prize.  Congratulations to Alison Carter for her winning poem 'Topiary'.

As I packed up the hire car yesterday morning snowflakes were falling again.

*The winning poem and the commended poems are up on the Mirehouse website  www.mirehouse.co.uk  (go to The House and then click on Poetry Prize and 2018 Poetry Prize Winners).  



Wednesday, 7 March 2018

WRITING AND MUSIC IN PEACE AND WAR

Peter Scupham was 85 on 24 February.  PN Review  celebrated his birthday with a bumper thirty three page celebration of the poet, teacher, book dealer, publisher, house restorer and "genius of activity".

The magazine printed a selection of his decorated envelopes which show a man with a keen sense of humour and a love of cats.  I was amused by the satirical cartoons drawn round postage stamps of Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher (the latter sporting a pinny and a handbag labelled "Blood and treasure").  A large fluffy cat on an orange rug adorned a letter to Dr Jane Griffiths at Wadham College ("College cats: series one").

Reading the contributions from friends and colleagues (including Anne Stevenson, Peter Davidson, George Szirtes and Grevel Lindop) I was struck by how much Peter Scupham is a great encourager.  Ex pupils praised an inspiring English teacher who refused to be limited by the curriculum.  John Mole wrote about the Mandeville Press, which he ran with Peter Scupham:
"Our editorial principles ... approaching poets who we felt had been overlooked or undervalued and publishing them alongside familiar 'names'.  We used the best quality laid paper and card that we could find".

The magazine included a selection of Peter Scupham's poems.  I thought at first that his work was unfamiliar to me, then I realised that some time ago I had copied into my notebook a quotation from "Prehistories":
"Ghosts are a poet's working capital.
  They hold their hands out from the further shore."

Robert Wells wrote "Peter told me that he has never begun a poem without finishing it".  That seems good advice, even if the finishing might take a some time.  I must tackle that little heap of half-abandoned poems in the wire tray on my desk.  Finish them or scrap them.

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A few days ago I heard on Radio 4 Douglas Adams' statement that 'Any fool can write, only a writer can cut.'  All that editorial fiddling is worth it.  I remember reading in Lyndall Gordon's biography of T S Eliot that the poet (an air-raid warden and fire watcher in the Blitz) bewailed the fact that while there was a war on he spent hours messing about with a few words. But the few words became Four Quartets.

The recent blizzards and extreme wind and cold have taken up much of the news but like a running sore the horrors of besieged Eastern Ghouta have refused to heal.

On the last day of February Syrian composer and qanun musician, Maya Youssef, featured on BBC Radio 4's "Front Row".  She has lived in the UK for five years and has written "Syrian Dreams" in response to the Syrian Civil War.  I was moved by her simple statement: "Before the War, there was music".

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Thursday 8 March is International Women's Day.  Thanks to Kathleen Jones who has posted my poem, "The Women" on her blog "A Writer's Life".  You can read the poem at http://kathleenjonesauthor.blogspot.com