June Is All About Celebration!

June has always been my favourite month: not just because it contains my birthday (and now also my younger son’s birthday), but also because in my childhood it meant the end of the school year (with all the resultant parties, shows and sports days). Plus. it’s the month of Midsummer, long days, nice weather even here in the UK, gardens looking their best…

So I’m determined to ignore any negativity currently haunting the fringes of my life in the shape of one single misguided person and keep June light and giddy with joy! As you know by now, joy usually accompanies cultural events in my case, so this is what I’ve been up to lately.

On the 1st of June, I attended a graduation show at RADA 3 Winters  by Croatian playwright Tena Štivičić. The play has been described as ‘a  family drama that moves between three alternating time periods and four generations of one Croatian family. From the 1945 victory of Tito’s communist supporters, to the 1990 break-up of Yugoslavia, to 2011 and the brink of EU membership – the fortunes of the Kos family are entwined with that of their country as political upheaval mirrors familial struggles. I found the content very moving and the young actors were pretty amazing, it goes without saying, but I also had the pleasure of sitting next to a young woman who was graduating in technical theatre, and specifically in lighting. She was taking notes throughout – that kind of professional dedication just fills me with joy!

I also had a funny experience at the interval. The people behind me were wondering loudly about the historical events mentioned in the play, they didn’t understand the allusions to the Yugoslav War in the early 1990s. It turned out that most of them had been born after that war had started (or even ended). So I couldn’t resist turning around and explaining things to them – a womansplainer, I believe that might be called? To be fair, it was more of a Q&A session, and the young people were genuinely interested (and shocked) and wanted to find out more. Then, at the end of the play, an older lady, who had heard me talk to the audience members at the interval, asked with awe in her voice: ‘Are you the writer?’

On the 11th of June, I had the great pleasure of attending the English National Ballet’s Emerging Dancer competition. Six finalists, three men and three women, showed us their dancing skills in a classical pas de deux followed by a contemporary solo. I thought the women in particular were hard done by with the choice of contemporary pieces, so it was not surprising that a man won: Daniel McCormick. He was, however, very gifted, and his leaps in the Le Corsaire pas de deux reminded me of Nureyev. My favourite ahead of the show was the Romanian ballerina Francesca Velicu (McCormick’s partner in the pas de deux) and she was certainly formidable in both her fast spins and the perfect balance in her slow pirouettes. During the show, I also fell in love with the cheeky charisma of Fernando Coloma (who reminded me of my younger son, so my friend was amused to hear me calling him ‘Cutie Pie’). Above all, it was delightful to see all their friends and colleagues, lots of young dancers, out in force to support them.

I’ve also been busy writing (not my poetry or fiction, unfortunately, but better than lazing around). The story of my inspirational grandmother Troy was published on the Women Who Made Me website.  If you haven’t heard of this initiative, I would encourage you to have a mosey on that website, as it’s all about hearing the hidden ‘herstories’ and finding the extraordinary in the ordinary. I could equally well have written about my other grandmother, the one I am named after, matriarch of the family, mother of seven, who had both German and Soviet soldiers  during WW2 bayoneting the hay in the barn searching for my grandfather (who happened to be the mayor in the village). I used to lap up their stories when I was a child and think that my own life would seem very tame and boring in comparison to my grandchildren. But then I took part in a revolution… So hey-ho, you never know what life will throw at you.

My beloved grandmother in one of my favourite places on earth, the Vienna Woods.

I’ve also recently reviewed the historical novel Savage Liberty (set in pre-Revolutionary America) and Baby Blue (set in post-austerity Athens) on the Crime Fiction Lover website, and my first batch of #20booksofsummer books on this blog. I’ve written an article for the Asymptote newsletter, comparing translations of one of my favourite books Tales of Genji (I had to cut it to half the original size, as I can waffle on endlessly about this topic and own five copies of the book). If you want to subscribe to the free fortnightly newsletter, you can do so here. Even better, do join the subscription-based Book Club to receive a monthly delivery of high-quality fiction in translation. I think it would make a perfect Father’s Day gift [and that’s the only mention of Father’s Day that you’ll get from me this year].

Entirely gratuitous headshot of Aiden Turner here – to turn heads.

The celebrations are set to continue over June and July, both via writing (I am writing three features on: German crime writers, Deadly Summers and When Detectives Go on Holiday, all for CFL) and by attending events. Next weekend, my actual birthday weekend, I’ll be partying in Berlin with two of my oldest and dearest friends who live there and who are also celebrating the same milestone birthday this year. I’ll be seeing the gorgeous and talented Aiden Turner in The Lieutenant of Inishmore, going for a gin-tasting with my local friends, chalking the White Horse at Uffington with a former colleague and our ex-boss, seeing a bilingual version of Tartuffe to celebrate the 14th of July, attending the Flash Fiction Festival in Bristol (I’ll be volunteering, to keep costs down) and going to a production of Romeo and Juliet at the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon on my way to a course in Warwick. Interspersed with lovely meals and conversations and cosy World Cup games viewing with my youngsters and cat – and life couldn’t be better!

 

 

 

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Part 5 #HayFestival: The Iconoclasts

You are probably suffering from Hay Festival fatigue by now as you notice that just 2 1/2 days spent there produced a whole week’s worth of output. Anyway, after a short lull yesterday, here is the last of the posts on this topic. 

I mentioned in my first post that Hay Festival does feel a bit like it should be part of the Henley Regatta, Ascot Races, Wimbledon summer circuit, although in a fairly muted way. But the festival organisers are trying hard to incorporate more diverse voices into the programme and some of these events have been attracting a considerable crowd. Nevertheless, it is amusing to play the game of ‘spot the false liberal’, who’ve come to the event to establish their ‘tolerance credentials’ and are slightly nonplussed or unmoved by what is being said. [I suppose this is where my status as an ‘outsider’, albeit a white one who speaks English with a flawless accent, comes in handy. I lull them with a false sense of security and the then – wham! – am hit with a vicious side-glance or nervous rictus.]

The Dylan Thomas Prize winner Kayo Chingonyi is perhaps the kind of black man that the Hay audiences are most comfortable: born in Zambia, he came to the UK as a child, is well-educated and widely read and speaks with the required accent (this is important when I compare him to the other two below), has published two poetry pamphlets before his debut volume Kumukanda, and has been winning accolades from the established literary community, including residencies, shortlistings, judging poetry competitions, being poetry associate at the ICA and so on. In other words, he has played by the rules and been successful, so we can think of him as a ‘good immigrant’. If he had arrived in a suit and tie, it would have been like Sydney Poitier in ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?’.

I’m not saying this to make fun of the poet, who was indeed most impressive and felt no need to pander to the audience. Yet it has to be said: he was signalling all those things which the largely pale and posh audience could understand and accept. But I really enjoyed it when he started talking about growing up in a multilingual home, that Bemba was his first language but English is the only one he can express himself in poetically, and that he feels the loss of that native tongue. He talked about the different texture of languages when you grow up multilingual, how you search for the chewiness of a particular word which might be missing in the other language. He was very modest about his poetry, saying that the moments when he feels most like a poet are when a word or line or poem takes on a life of its own and he says to himself: ‘That’s not absolutely awful!’. But that feeling never lasts too long.

Kumukanda is a rite of passage in his ancestral tribe, one that he never undertook back home, so in his poetry he describes the rites of passage of an immigrant black child in Britain. He told us about being discriminated against, listening to pirate stations and rap and making mix tapes, his discomfort with his own admiration for Eminem, the ‘white man’ who made rap acceptable. Yet in his poetry he warns against those easy generalisations, against typecasting of black people. His poetry is witty and just the right amount of angry without sounding resigned or bitter. I wonder to what extent the poem below is autobiographical, but it doesn’t matter, because it will be familiar to many.

My agent says I have to use my street voice.
Though my talent is for rakes and fops I’ll drop
the necessary octaves, stifle a laugh
at the playwright’s misplaced get me blud and safe.
If I get it they’ll ask me how long it takes me
to grow cornrows without the small screen’s knowing
wink. Three years RADA, two years rep and I’m sick
of playing lean dark men who may have guns.
I have a book of poems in my rucksack,
blank pad, two pens, tattered A-Z, headphones
that know Prokofiev as well as Prince Paul

So the content of his poetry is less comforting than his appearance might make you believe.

Akala is the less acceptable face of black youth: with dreads, hip-hop artist, poet, political activist, founder of the Hip-Hop Shakespeare company, brother of Ms Dynamite, he has produced a book called Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire. He talked eloquently about growing up poor and mixed race in Camden, about suddenly realising that his mother was white and the conflict that led to during his teens, how he very nearly became a bad boy and certainly had plenty of friends who did, but how he was treated very differently in Jamaica because of his lighter skin and British accent. He considers himself lucky because although he was economically poor, he was culturally rich. He’s been called ‘unpatriotic’, Britain hater, but as he said: ‘If you’ve got a problem in the family, you don’t do anyone a favour by avoiding talking about it. So perhaps what people are trying to tell me when I dare to criticize anything about Britain, is that I am not really part of the family.’

He explained why he thought that a lot of the present-day discourse about black on black crime is not based on actual statistics, but about stoking the flames of fear, about pitting class against race and thus not having to deal with either. ‘We can’t afford racism and classism as a society, because it leads to so much wasted potential.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last but not least, it was fascinating to see Anthony Anaxagorou again, this time in action with a predominantly young British audience (you might remember I brought him over to Geneva Writers Group for a memorable workshop on performance poetry). He ruffled a few feathers back then but had a mostly rapturous reception, and it was the same now. The young people loved him, while their parents were somewhat less sure about his ‘working class London accent’. He talked very openly about growing up without many books and aspirations, but how he taught himself the craft of poetry while being stuck in a series of dead-end jobs. I can personally vouch that he has reached an almost encyclopaedic level of knowledge of poetry and literature by now, and that he can speak to a wide range of audiences. He also spoke about how he very nearly got caught up in a life of petty crime, how he often gets asked ‘But where are you from?’ because Cypriots are racially somewhat ambiguous, too dark for some, too light for others. And he is very openly political, because, although he often talks about things he hasn’t experienced personally, he feels that as a poet he has to highlight the problems – although it’s policies, not poetry, that can offer solutions.

‘Poets are perceived as nouns but we’re actually verbs. Poeting is a way of engaging with the world. I can’t do anything else but try to organise the world’s turmoil through a sequence of words.’

I was very sad to miss his evening performance at the Hay Poetry Slam (together with Emmeline Armitage, Sabrina Mahfouz, Sophie McKean, Zena Edwards, Rufus Mufasa and Akala), but I was facing a very long drive home and, after getting lost on my way there, I was afraid that I would do the same on the way back, but this time in the rain and dark. I’m sure they put on an amazing show, however.

Last but not least, if you want to see a literary festival that has diversity at its very core, and hopefully diverse members of the audience as well as participants, then you should check out the Bradford Literature Festival.

 

 

 

 

Part 4 of #HayFestival: Translations

What could be more suitable for #TranslationThurs than a report on the panels on translated fiction which I attended at Hay Festival this past weekend? I had heard of the Bogota39 initiative and planned to attend one panel on it, but perhaps the Caetano Veloso CD I listened to on the way to the festival knew something that I didn’t, because I ended up attending three panels on Spanish-speaking literature, most of it Latin American (and yes, sadly, there were no Brazilians among them that I could practise my three phrases of Brazilian Portuguese on). As it happens, all the three panels I attended were moderated by Daniel Hahn, translator and cross-cultural promoter, whom I’d also met at the London Book Fair last year, and who must slowly be starting to wonder if I’m stalking him…

Bogota39 is a Hay Festival initiative to make the work of young writers from Latin America (under the age of 40) visible to the English-speaking world. The first edition back in 2005/6 was hugely successful, with many of the writers going on to become international stars. This current crop are just a small selection of the many, many talented and vibrant writers working in or stemming from Latin American countries today. There is a freedom to experiment with fiction that perhaps few writers elsewhere have – because the language feels younger and more adventurous than the more literary Spanish from Spain, but most of all because there are no Creative Writing courses that ‘teach’ people to write in a certain way, and there are no advances or royalties (not much money in publishing), so editors are not so focussed on commercial success and writers can write pretty much whatever they like.

Liliana Colanzi and Carlos Fonseca being kind enough to pose. Felipe Restrepo Pombo on the left is chatting to Daniel Hahn.

The first panel included Liliana Colanzi (Bolivia, short stories), Felipe Restrepo Pombo (Mexico, non-fiction) and Carlos Fonseca (Costa Rica, novelist). The second featured Peruvian author Claudia Ulloa and two more Mexicans (yes, they do dominate a bit): Laia Jufresa and Emiliano Monge. Of these six, only three have been translated into English at present (just one book in most cases), so I hope events such as these will make publishers more keen to gamble on them. They certainly have the brains, wit and English to be very personable guests (which shouldn’t matter, but we all know it does).

The two panels had many common themes, so I’ll discuss them together. For instance, although the previous generation of writers might have felt that they were living in the shadow of the Boom generation of Latin American writers (Marquez, Cortazar, Fuentes, Vargas Llosa – the giants of the 1960s and 70s – which coincided with the rise of Latin jazz), this generation does not feel intimidated by them. Nor do they think that they have been influenced by them as much as by other writers, many of them from abroad. As Emiliano Monge put it: ‘We have the same territory and the same guns as the Boom writers, but we are hunting different animals.’

Although they recognise the limitations of the Bogota39 initiative (somewhat arbitrary and subjective inclusion of authors, only a small fragment included which barely gives a flavour), they are also aware that it provides a calling card for UK and US publishers and that it extends the concept of Latin American literature beyond the same obvious names. Hopefully, it also extends the idea of the topics that Latin American literature can cover, beyond the obvious violence, memory, heritage.

The second panel: from left to right, Ignacio (? – translator, though not much needed), Emiliano Monge, Claudia Ulloa, Laia Jufresa and Daniel Hahn.

What surprised me most was the lack of a continent-wide distribution system despite most of the continent being monolingual. Each Latin American country has its own small publisher and they only bother to distribute to the other countries for the big successes. Sometimes Spain would step in as a mediator, but since the 2008 crash, Spanish publishers have been somewhat bankrupt. So this anthology also helps to introduce these writers to each other.

What, if anything, did this disparate band of brothers and sisters have in common, other than the fact that they didn’t consider themselves ‘Latin American’ until they went abroad and were put in that category? Well, they all love playing around with language, structure and stories; they have quite an ironic tone; most of them are no longer overtly political, but feel that choice of form is a political act in itself.

Another communality is that many of these writers are now living and working abroad. In most cases, it’s this actual physical distance from their home country which also gave them the necessary mental distance in order to be able to write about it. While Valeria Luiselli might be on the cusp of starting to write in English, all of the panellists felt that they wouldn’t write in anything else but Spanish. As Claudia Ulloa memorably put it: ‘I learnt to breathe in Spanish, and writing is like breathing, very physical.’

If you would like to explore any of these authors further, Laia Jufresa’s Umami, Carlos Fonseca’s Colonel Lagrimas and Liliana Colanzi’s short story collection Our Dead World have been translated (the latter two were published in the US only).

The flower arrangements were beautiful throughout.

The third panel I attended consisted of two current giants of Spanish-language literature – Juan Gabriel Vasquez from Colombia and Javier Cercas from Spain. They’ve had more of their novels translated into English and were presenting their latest hardbacks, The Shape of the Ruins and The Impostor respectively. I haven’t read those yet (they both sound extremely interesting, but are slightly expensive, so I’m waiting for the paperback), but I have read earlier books by them and even included him in the Crime Fiction Lover article on Latin American crime novels. At first glance, they seemed to agree on many things, not least that Don Quixote contains within it all the possibilities of the novel and proves that you don’t have to follow the rules.

Javier Cercas and Juan Gabriel Vasquez – apologies for the blurry picture.

They talked about how their novels were based on certain true facts and their own personal reactions to those facts at the time. Cercas writes about the infamous case of a Spanish man who pretended to be a resistance fighter and Nazi camp survivor, while Vasquez met a doctor who had a vertebra and a piece of skull from the two most famous assassinations in Colombian history. Both of their novels feature a protagonist called the same name as the author, but which apparently is not the author. And both of them are sceptical about calling their novels ‘historical fiction’, because actually they are about how history impacts upon us in the present. Although the past seems remote and alien, it has repercussions and long echos in the present, for generations. What can we do with our bad inheritance (and this applies not just to Latin America or Spain, but to the British Empire and most other countries in fact)? Who gets to control the narrative of the past? And if it’s usually the victors, those in power, then the mission of the novel is to provide alternative possible versions of the story. The novel makes history more democratic, by giving voice to marginalised, forgotten people, by providing a side door to the edifice that is textbook history.

Perhaps the most uplifting moment came at the very end, when someone in the audience asked if the novel has a future. At which all three (including Daniel Hahn) pointed out that the very name ‘novel’ indicates that it is something constantly renewing itself, that it’s an omnivorous monster devouring other genres and influences, and that it constantly mutates and comes out on top.

Finally, a very personal observation: that although it is false to think of ‘Latin America’ as a monolith, I did instantly feel at home with the ‘thinking out loud’ both on the page and on the panels, the chatty replies, the warmth and humour, the serious yet also deeply ironic way of looking at things, which reminded me so much of my own culture. Another reminder that I need to read more of their literature.

 

 

Part 2 of #HayFestival: The Prize Winners

However we might feel about the subjectivity and inclusiveness of literary prizes, they certainly help to raise the profile of authors and books that a more general audience might not come across otherwise. So I’m all for this ‘democratisation’ of literature. In the queue for Olga Tokarczuk (and her translator Jennifer Croft, who share the Man Booker International Prize for 2018), most of the people I spoke to admitted they had neither read Flights nor heard anything about the author, but were curious to find out more. And after the very charismatic duet that the two of them gave with moderator Gaby Wood, almost everyone in the audience was charmed and rushed off to buy the book and get it signed by her. Hurrah!

Olga listens to Jennifer reading that wonderful passage about the English language (will refer to it later in my review, because I LOVED it).

I’d just recently read her book and was smitten with it and with the possibilities it offered for fiction (review forthcoming). And I am also very proud to say that Asymptote Journal was the first to publish an excerpt from it back in 2016, so we have a good eye for quality! (Actually, of the 6 authors and 9 translators featured on the Man Booker International Shortlist, we could count 3 authors and 5 translators amongst our contributors). And there was some satisfaction in Tokarczuk attending the prize-giving ceremony wearing the earrings she had bought with her paltry salary when she was working as a chambermaid in London 15 years ago. I will write a separate post on Iconoclasts (writers who go against the grain, do not fit into the established literary norms), but it would be fair to say that Olga fits into this category as well.

First of all, her approach to the novel is completely unconventional. I kept thinking Flights  was non-fiction, but the first person narrator is not Olga herself, although she shares certain characteristics. However, the narrator is the only solid base to cling to in this dazzling and dizzying array of stories, situations, reflections, sudden shifts of gear and locations. This is what the author herself calls a ‘constellation novel’: just like the human eye creates patterns in the night sky to orient themselves, this novel is full of disparate shapes and themes and stories, and each reader will create their own pattern, dependent on their past experience, mood, how they come to the reading of the book. She described how she assembled the book by printing it all out, putting the different sections on the floor and then rearranging visually from a high point within the room (very much how I approach a poetry collection), so that the tyranny of linearity of writing on a computer is destroyed. Why write like that? Because Olga believes that the traditional 19th century door-stopper novel no longer fits with the way we lead our lives now. Everything seems to be fragmentary perceptions, from many different sources (some often contradictory), with brief flashes of insight. Stories are a great way to perceive reality, but sometimes they are not quite enough, so it’s important to juxtapose them with facts, lecture-like discourse and other elements.

Meanwhile, it became clear just how crucial her translator Jennifer Croft was in bringing her work to the English-speaking audience. She encountered Tokarczuk’s work while on a study year in Poland and has been a champion for it ever since (approaching publishing houses on her behalf, running her English language Facebook page, touring with her etc.). Jennifer also pointed out that, although the novel is conceptually very ambitious and seems ‘difficult’, the language is very clear and accessible, making it a fun and easy read. I certainly look forward to reading more by Olga – and two of her books will be coming out later this year and in 2019 respectively. Meanwhile, back in Poland she is very well known, has published 10 novels, one of her books has been filmed by Agnieszka Holland and she has become political almost without intending to. She somewhat ruefully said that her generation thought that after the collapse of Communism politics was over in Poland and most of the writers switched to introverted style and inner-life topics. But now it appears that any personal opinions, such as feminism, animal rights, love of democracy, have become political in her home country.

The International Dylan Thomas Prize winner Kayo Chingonyi was the second event I attended and it is once again extremely gratifying to see the prize awarded to poetry at long last. Founded in 2006, this £30,000 Prize is awarded to the best published or produced literary work in the English language, written by an author aged 39 or under. Furthermore, Kayo is of Nigerian descent, growing up in the UK, and English was not his first language, so I will present his talk in more detail in the post on Iconoclasts, but suffice it to say he blew me away with the breadth and depth of his knowledge and his sensitivity to nuances and the world around him. (Well, most poets are like that!) Plus, he likes Douglas Dunn, Kathleen Jamie, Don Paterson and other such poets that I admire!

I wasn’t planning to attend the 10 a.m. panel on Sunday morning on the Golden Man Booker Prize, but I’m glad I changed my mind, because the three panellists were thoughtful and funny and brilliant, as you might expect with Elif Shafak (I adore that woman and that writer!), Juan Gabriel Vasquez and Philippe Sands. All of them brought a distinctly international flavour to this celebration of English-speaking literature (mostly the former Empire and more recently opened to the US – which was once former Empire as well, let’s not forget). To celebrate 50 years of the Man Booker, five judges were each assigned a ‘decade’ and asked to select one winner. The shortlist was announced at they Hay Festival on the 26th of May and readers can vote for their favourite online. The panellists talked about their favourites, their surprises and disappointments in re-reading or reading the shortlist, with Philippe Sand admitting he found he had to work too hard for something he did not enjoy with Lincoln in the Bardo, while Vasquez admitted what a huge influence Naipaul’s book had been on him as a writer. Overall, it appears that Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient and Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger, surprise winner over Kazuo Ishiguro or Salman Rushdie, were the favourites both with the panel and with the audience in the tent.

Forgot to take a picture of this panel, so you’ll have to make do with a gratuitous generic picture.

They pointed out of course just how different the novels are both thematically and stylistically. Yet in some way, they are all about ways of dealing with the past, how an individual gets swept up by the course of history, and they all demonstrate that there is no single truth but rather a multiplicity of versions of history. Perhaps because both Shafak and Vasquez come from very different storytelling traditions, they did not enjoy so much Hilary Mantel’s linearity, while Sands reminded the audience that Mantel criticised Ondaatje’s lack of linearity back in 1993.

‘The English language is very open and welcoming to new words in the vocabulary, unlike Turkish, but its literature is much more inflexible and not so open to new forms, to stories within stories, which are simply other traditional ways of telling stories that clash with linearity.’ (Shafak)

‘I’ve seen many a Spanish or French book destroyed in the British reviews because they contain multiple stories that have nothing to do with each other or contain digressions that shouldn’t really be there.’ (Vasquez)

Could it be that Tokarczuk’s win marks the start of a new era? That the inclusion of Lincoln in the Bardo on that list also means something? That English-language literature is opening itself up to less rigid consecutive structures and experimenting more with simultaneous stories with no unique interpretations or clear answers?

I loved the baaing of these sheep as I picked up my car in the evening.

 

Hay Festival 2018: Part 1

I did not have internet access at my B&B while I was in Hay, and the Wifi access on the Festival site was patchy at times, so I only tweeted occasionally but was unable to give a day by day account of the three days I spent at the Hay Festival. So I will have to write several posts to discuss the panels, discussions, personal thoughts and book buying binges that all took place during those amazingly rich days.

After an adventurous trip led by the GPS across cattle grids, narrow one-lane roads, Brecon nature reserve with sheep and horses following my car curiously and a pallour of fog hanging over me, I finally made it to my B&B just outside Hay on Wye. The weather was atrocious. There had been thunderstorms earlier in the day accompanied by power failures, but by the afternoon it was merely raining heavily, and it kept it up for most of the weekend. Luckily, the organisers are prepared for the Welsh climate and there are plenty of tent-like structures everywhere, plus covered walkways between them, so this is not Glastonbury levels of mud (although one year it was apparently more like Hay IN Wye). And of course, as soon as any ray of sun came out, everyone was milling about on the wet grass and deckchairs. You have to admire British resilience!

Those dark clouds only lifted in the evening.

I was sensible on Friday afternoon and allowed myself plenty of time between the two events I attended. There is a downside to that, however: too much time to browse both in the Festival bookshop and the second-hand bookshop run by Oxfam. My total book tally by the end of the weekend was 27 (many second-hand, and all the new ones signed by the authors), although I feel very virtuous that two of those are for my boys. I suppose I’ll have to write a separate post about the book haul.

The first day was all about debate rather than literature. The first panel featured researchers from the University of Cambridge Helena Sanson (Italian studies), Prof Bill Byrne and Marcus Tomalin talking about machine translation. I was amused to hear how algorithms transform words into numbers (with all the lack of subtlety one might expect), and that the BLEU score for establishing the accuracy of a translated text can lead to garbage results. It felt a little bit like the conversations between me and WB – with me as the human translator and him as the machine translation. The key message was that machine translation can increase a professional translator’s productivity or help in the case of basic, technical and repetitive texts, but human translators are unlikely to be supplanted by it anytime soon. What unnerved me slightly was the more sinister message about the fate of the so-called minority languages, the ones spoken by few people. Of the approximately 6000 languages in the world, Google Translate covers only 130, so less than 2%. This is unlikely to change, as it’s costly to train machines to learn the equivalences between languages, so the money for research will flow into the languages where there is a lot of potential for application (and where there are already lots of examples in place). The preservation of smaller languages will have to rely on charities, research councils, public initiatives… so many will die. Plus, does this artificial preservation of a dead language in a showcase really help? As an anthropologist who has listened to recordings of natives speaking now defunct languages, I can confidently say that these are meaningless without knowledge of the cultural context surrounding it.

A glimmer of hope and sunshine on the horizon…

The second panel (attended by fewer people and most of them women) was organised by the University of Worcester, and included academics Maggie Andrews (consultant on the BBC programme Home Front), Sarah Greer, Krista Cowman (consultant on the Sufragettes film), Anna Muggeridge (Ph.D. student researching women’s work in the Black Country) and Dana Denis-Smith (founder of Obelisk Support for women lawyers, who started an initiative about telling stories from the first 100 years since women entered the professions in 1919). The title of the session was: Is 2018 going to go down in history as the year of lasting change in women’s rights?

And the answers of the panel matched my own not very optimistic one (although I’d be happily proved wrong). Although it has become much more acceptable to define yourself as a feminist than it was 5-10 years ago, the panel felt that it was almost like clicking Like on a Facebook page, that #MeToo is still very much a privileged white middle-class movement and that 2018 happened to coincide with a lot of anniversaries but by 2019 it might feel already like ‘it’s been done, it’s over now and we can move back to life as usual’.

The Women’s Panel.

There was also a warning that progress for women’s rights always seem to take a step backwards when bigger events overshadow them (world wars, Vietnam war and oil crisis, austerity government and economic crash and Brexit), yet women are the ones that get disproportionately hit by these.

One important point that the panel made was that a lesson contemporary feminists might learn from suffragettes is that we should focus on a single issue and really fight hard for that. However, it all unravelled a little when it came to defining what that single issue might be even amongst the panel (let alone across the world). Opinions were split between equal pay, social care and precarious work, extending Me Too to all women everywhere, valuing women’s work more. I really liked Dana Denis-Smith’s comment that we devalue women’s work so much that as soon as women enter a particular bastion of men’s work, that also becomes devalued and starts paying less (women in accountancy or solicitors for example).

And the rain, rain, rain came down, down, down…

One final thought on today’s post about Hay, before we move on to literature, was that although some care was taken in programming a diversity of writers, the audience was still predominantly white middle-class (with a tendency to upper). This is perhaps not surprising considering how expensive it is to attend. I don’t even want to calculate the total amount spent, for fear it will give me a panic attack, but add up: petrol costs, B&B, overpriced food at the festival (£9 for a burger – without any extras, £3.50 for a coffee), parking, £7 entrance fee on average for every panel…

So I was not surprised to find lots of yummy mummies sipping Prosecco and gentlemen with straw hats, pink trousers and kerchiefs, children dressed in muddy designer clothes and wellies called Freya, Sebastian, Benedict and Isla. However, I also started chatting to lots of wonderful people in the queues: sheep farmers from the local area, translators, Americans, Irish, Sri Lankans. And of course I do wonder how much of the earnings of the festival gets ploughed back into the local community – or do the organisers just pack up their tents at the end of it all and take all the money and leave? As my B&B host said: ‘At least for 10 days a year most people in Hay can make a little money from renting out their rooms or fields.’

Cultural Events Summary 20 May 2018

I hope you have all been enjoying the nice weather this week. I’ve been mostly stuck inside, as we’ve been busy at work with two conferences, a workshop, becoming GDPR compliant and budget forecasts. However, sunshine is always good for the soul, and especially at the weekend. And I’ve managed to sneak in a couple of cultural events too…

On Thursday I watched the film 120 BPM (beats per minute), runner-up at the Cannes Festival last year. Filmed as a sort of faux-documentary of life as an activist member of ACTUP Paris in the early 1990s, it captures that frenetic spirit of being young (but not only), fighting for your life as well as for justice, fighting Big Pharma, public ignorance and apathy, government failure to debate, inform or provide any coherent policies. It is also a love story and, inevitably, as with any story about AIDS, there is grieving. But this is no Philadelphia or Longtime Companion, unashamed tear-jerkers, with (usually not gay) actors fading away eloquently and elegantly. This is about anger and survival, doing anything you can to feel alive, about strategy and protest and disagreements within the group, but also about coming together, solidarity and changing the world. ‘Paris were frankly a bunch of complete maniacs’, a former ACTUP London member said, and I had to laugh as I tried to imagine those protest or virulent discussions transposed in a British environment. The two male leads are extremely charismatic: Arnaud Valois from Lyon and Nahuel Pérez Biscayart from Argentina (who, as far as I can tell, are both gay, which makes it all the more realistic) make that very serious struggle look like fun.

The real ACTUP Paris in 1995.

The film transported me back to 1989-1992 when I too was young and politically engaged, although in our case it was regime change and democracy that we were fighting for. In spite of the disillusionment or flaws or failures (and the pain of watching friends die), it was an exhilarating movement to be part of (both mine and ACTUP) – and this is perfectly captured in this film. It’s all too easy to say that the world has moved on since then regarding attitudes towards AIDS and the LGBTQ+ community, but sadly, it hasn’t really progressed that much. The film is forbidden in several countries (where homosexuality is illegal) and in my own home country, alas, there was a church-organised protest when it was first screened.

A very different atmosphere on Friday when I attended an early morning viewing of the Rodin Exhibition at the British Museum. This beautifully curated, reasonably small show demonstrates that you don’t need to overwhelm museum-goers with information or exhibits if you stick to a narrow topic and present it well. Rodin was obsessed with ancient sculptures, and collected many of them himself, so it was refreshing to see to what extent they inspired his own work.  There were plenty of original plaster, bronze and marble examples of many of Rodin’s sculptures on loan from the Musée Rodin in Paris, as well as the Parthenon marbles that are already (controversially) in the British Museum.

Icarus’ sister.

I also got to hear that Lord Elgin originally wanted sculptor Antonio Canova to ‘renovate’ the Ancient Greek fragments and complete them. Luckily, Canova was wise enough to not meddle with the beauty of the original. Rodin himself was so taken by the incomplete statues, that he deliberately sculpted many of his own like that.

The Walking Man.

The links with literature were never far away. Not only was Rainer Maria Rilke briefly Rodin’s secretary, but I was not aware that Rodin had illustrated Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal (one of my favourite volumes of poetry, especially back when I was in my teens). And that he intended to reproduce it in sculpture as well.

Je suis belle, ô mortels! comme un rêve de pierre…

A wonderful, calming way to start the day with art, not forgetting the quotes from Rodin about the sculptor’s ability to capture motion.

For next week, I have a very special recommendation for you: experience a piece of literature in an all-immersive annual event at Senate House on 23rd May. To celebrate 200 years since the first creation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the School of Advanced Studies will present a Living Frankenstein evening, with pop-up activities, talks, films, performances and ghost stories. The full programme is here.

Finally, no weekly summary would be complete without a few books begged, borrowed, stolen or bought.

From the library I borrowed Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason, the May read for the David Bowie Book Club. Written in 2007-8, it is sadly more timely than ever. I was also looking for some Richard Yates novels which I haven’t read yet, but found instead a very bulky biography by Blake Bailey A Tragic Honesty. Nicely cheery, then…

I also got Ali Smith’s Autumn, the so-called Brexit novel, and Louise Penny’s A Great Reckoning. I’ve already finished the latter: this author is one of my favourite comfort reads, and Three Pines is where I would love to retire if only it existed. I also came across a strange little volume called Alberta Alone by Cora Sandel, an early Norwegian feminist compared to Colette and Jean Rhys.

Last but not least, Europa Editions are producing new editions of Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseille trilogy and have sent me the first volume, Total Chaos. Little do they know that it is one of my favourite French novels (or trilogies) ever and that I bribed a second-hand bookshop in Lyon to find me all three volumes in French. You can expect a close read of the book in French and in translation coming up soon. (Although my personal favourite is Chourmo, the second in the trilogy, coming out in August 2018.)

 

Cultural Events Summary 7 May 2018

I’m greatly enjoying the Bank Holiday weekend with my children: a lazy pub lunch, even lazier attempts at gardening, lashings of ice-cream, visitors and BBQs… and the occasional cultural foray.

This was the weekend of Open Artists’ Studios in our area, under the somewhat misleading name of Henley Arts Trail. Misleading, because we never made it as far as Henley, since there are plenty of artists in our more immediate neighbourhood. But a great initiative overall to get to know local artists, of varying quality of course, but something for every taste.

We only made it as far as two venues, but it was inspiring nevertheless. At The Big Plant Nursery near Twyford we saw animal sculptures made out of bronze, metal and recycled kitchen utensils hidden amongst the foliage, as well as the multilayered, large-scaled pointillist paintings of Sarah Pye. I don’t have a wall big enough in my house to hang one of the paintings up, but I got some postcards to remind me of their colourful, tactile exuberance.

Summer Dreams, Copyright Sarah Pye.

The second venue was a private property which had been opened up to the public and for local artists to display their work in an almost purpose-built extension to the rear. It turned out that the owners had previously housed a graphic design agency there but had now retired and were thinking of organising art classes in the future. The combination of gardens, art, sunshine and coffee and cakes was simply irresistible.

Micklems Farm.

I was particularly taken with the stained, fused, slumped and woven glass of John Eastwood. Despite my financial uncertainties, I couldn’t resist the jewellery of Pink Costello either, or the extremely diverse, East Asian-inspired ceramics of Lucie Lambourn. After all, I know how hard it is to make a living as an artist… And, as if to confirm that, I met a couple at a BBQ later that day who were artists – or rather, they had met as artists, but he had given up his jewellery making to become a systems architect and IT specialist, so that he could support his family and their move to the UK.

Ceramic bowl by Lucie Lambourn.

I was also going to tell you about the books I acquired this week, but I think I will prepare a video to post tomorrow. So let me just finish off with another glorious image of the venue. Nothing beats cake by the pool, with a black cat purring nearby and the scent of clematis filling the air like a haze.

Friday Fun extends all the way into Monday…