Review: Mark Thomas, Extreme Rambling: Walking the Wall, Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, Feb 2011

The Israeli-Palestine conflict is not the most obvious choice of theme for a comedy tour, but this is no ordinary tour and Mark Thomas is no ordinary comedian. Aided with a gigantic map of Israel and the West Bank as his backdrop, the evening begins with Mark explaining how he funded his latest work – a walk along the 750 km wall that divides Israel and Palestine – with a thank you to the Metropolitan Police. In 2010, Mark was awarded £1200 compensation from the police for an illegal stop and search they had undertaken in 2007, so he put the money towards funding the walk. ‘I asked them if it was alright to use their logo’ he says with a cheeky smile, ‘and they didn’t reply, so I thought, yeah, why not, I’m just showing my appreciation.’ Although his energy and writing are superior, what ties the show together are Mark’s impressions of his companions on the walk. The characters are brought to life with great comic effect, but it is the stories that stay with you long after you leave the theatre; stories told with poignancy and precision timing. Mark is a gifted storyteller, and this is easily his best tour to date. The story of the wall, his experiences both side of it, and the people that made the extreme ramble possible are all stories worth telling. Ultimately, he is a performer, and understands that this is a complex issue that cannot be played just for laughs – that simply isn’t his style. The stories of humiliation faced by the people he encounters, are often followed with a loaded silence, which he then punctures with a quick line offering some light relief.

The show is a testimony of courage too. In one town, Palestinian children as young as six are regularly stoned by Israeli settlers as they make their way to school. On the day Mark watches them make their journey, they gambol over the hill unscathed; they’ve made it. ‘This is the best it gets for them,’ he says. The silence is deafening, and a few sniffs can be heard amongst the audience.

Mark’s reputation as a campaigner has gone from strength to strength, helped by his tenacious attitude and passion for justice, and this tour sees him on form once more. The show comes highly recommended for those of you who want to look beyond the media images of suicide bombers and army tanks. Entertaining, thoughtful and very moving.

Review: Mark Steel, Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, January 2011

First night of Mark Steel’s new UK tour - Mark Steel’s In Town - so ‘it might be great or it might be complete bollocks.’ It was a good start. I reviewed Mark’s previous tour over three years ago when he was last in Huddersfield. The crowd was smaller then, but tonight was almost sold out, and quite rightly. Mark’s presence on Radio 4 panel shows, such as The News Quiz, has allowed him to test his material, as has his column in The Independent and his blog (click on How I Spent An Afternoon – priceless) which has gone from strength to strength and shows off his love for history and politics. His writing, both on the page and on tour, is definitely sharper, but what stands out this time is his extraordinary talent for regional and country accents – Geordie, Northern Irish, London, Cornish, Brummie, Welsh and Scottish, each one matched with precisely the right combination of swear words that make the accents sing beautifully. He is quite the performer; articulate, smiley and potty-mouthed. Four stars, if anyone’s asking.

My World Book Day gift to you...

She is razor sharp and insightful. Her precise language captures the essence of what it means to be an award-winning, Croatian writer on the margins of a star-struck industry, and she does this without once gazing at her navel.

She uses Ivana Trump as an example of how anyone can be an author, but authors can’t penetrate other industries in the same way, such as become sports personalities or business leaders. Above all, she offers a cultural commentary on the cogs that make up the publishing industry, as well as a candid peek into the writers’ psyche, weaving in encounters with other writers and agents along the way.

Her name is Dubravka Ugresic, and her critically acclaimed book Thank You For Not Reading is a must read for anyone thinking about earning a living as a writer.

Read it and weep heavy tears onto your next tax return.


Husband: What shall we do for Valentines Day?

Wife: What we always do.

Husband: Which is?

Wife: You know, say we're not doing anything, then rush out to the shops at the last minute to buy each other something - ANYTHING - so it doesn't feel like a normal work day.

Husband: Hmmph. We're not doing that this year.

Wife: Agreed.

Husband: So what shall we do then?

Wife: How about fight about your daily fruit and veg intake?

Husband: Excellent, I'll get the wine. It's made of grapes.

Wife: That's just fruit. What about the veg?

Husband: I'll eat a cabbage after.

Wife: What, a whole one?

Husband: For you, yes.

Wife: I love you.

Husband: I know.

Short story ‘Rouen’ published in Litro

Many moons ago, I blogged that I would write a story with a link to France, and it seems that the editors at Litro think it’s worth publishing.

This started as a comic piece about not being able to speak the language, but after rewriting the first paragraph as a ‘warm-up’ exercise at my writing group, the original was scrapped for something altogether darker.

And now I've made it into an ebook...

See what you think?

What, no Nagra?

I have been wanting my own copies of Look We Have Coming to Dover and The Hole in the Sum of my Parts for a while now, so off I went to the gigantic high street bookstore in Leeds. Three spacious floors of books, with each section given a huge flank of shelves and tables piled with the ‘must reads’ du jour. Imagine my disappointment, then, when the impressive poetry section had no Daljit Nagra or Matt Harvey. As if that wasn’t bad enough, I turned the corner and...wait, what’s this...why, it’s a tiny, puny, itty, bitty eight shelves dedicated to Black and Asian writers. Here they are:

asian shelf
asian shelf
asian shelf2
asian shelf2

I counted the number of authors they put on these shelves: approximately 150 (although it looks a lot less in the photos). They have included Yann Martel as a Black and Asian author. It beggars belief.

So a big fat raspberry to that particular store, but a huge bunch of fair-trade flowers to Foyles on Charing Cross Road (but not Mr Grump who served me), for having the brilliant Look We Have Coming to Dover and The Hole in the Sum of my Parts plus Where Earwigs Dare. Not even the London Review Bookshop could match that.

Writer's rant: The distant hum of white noise

After a hoohaa about World Book Night, I sat down to watch the coverage of it on BBC and ended up having a rant about...well, you can read it yourself (first published on The Asian Writer):

As an extension of Farhana Shaikh’s earlier rant about Asian writers being outsiders looking in, I have to confess that watching New Novelists 12 of the Best from The Culture Show left me a little queasy about the lack of diversity in the their list of ‘up and coming’ authors in British literary fiction.

The Guardian Comments section sparked a healthy discussion about the lack of ethnic diversity in the short-list, but no one expressed a huge amount of surprise at this ‘glass ceiling.’ It’s a shame that the long-list wasn’t made available online for us readers to make our own judgments and recommendations. I realise that the group of ‘judges’ convened for the Culture Show (which included the show’s own editor, Janet Lee) is one of many panels charged with producing lists such as this throughout the year. We know that each time a list like this is given prominence (two and half pages in the Guardian Review section a week earlier), it pushes up sales for both long- and short-listed authors. A published long-list by The Culture Show would have gone a long way in benefiting more than just the 12 authors showcased on the night. It would also have given us a glimpse of a more diverse range of debut novelists; 57 novels were submitted, and I spotted Neel Mukherjee’s A Life Apart amongst the pile.

Of the 12 books presented on the night, I’m afraid I’m only likely to pick up one, David Abbott’s The Upright Piano Player, firstly because the wonderfully eloquent Helen Oyeyemi described it as having ‘a quiet dignity’ and secondly because he is the man who wrote the JR Hartley commercial for Yellow Pages in the 1980s.

On the same night, In a Million Books for Free: A Culture Show special, raised questions about how writers are selected for promotion. In an interview with Jamie Byng, Chairman of World Book Night, Andrew Graham-Dixon glossed over any questions of why new authors were not considered. According to Byng, the criteria for making it onto the list was that the books should be ‘great reading experiences,’ and there’s no doubt that each of them are. This suggests, however, that forcing titles from anyone other than ‘star’ authors onto the public would not provide enough of a hook for them to continue reading or, crucially, buying books.

Don’t get me wrong, the event itself was worth staging for many reasons, and I really enjoyed handing out books at my local library. World Book Night has its supporters and its critics and I’m not going to rehash those discussions here but next year I would like them to seek out lesser known authors.

This brings us back to lists again. Given that 23 of the 25 titles given out freely have reportedly seen an increase in sales from being featured on World Book Night, imagine how many more authors would have been able to pay their gas bill if they had been promoted in a similar way, and their back catalogue or debut novel sales had increased as a result?
I suppose it’s early days for initiatives such as World Book Night, but the broader question remains. How do we promote a diverse range of writers without relying on closed or elite circles of critics and judges (largely based in London)? And what is the criteria for making it onto a judging panel anyway? Maybe The Asian Writer should set up it’s own panel?

For events like World Book Night, diversity appears to mean ‘a conscious attempt’ to include thrillers, memoirs, crime, literary fiction, poetry and cross-over novels (no short stories though).  It seems that what is viewed as ‘promising’ is highly subjective and that the power of recommendation and the marker of critical acclaim still lie in the hands of a predominantly white publishing industry; an industry where we are indeed outsiders looking in.

Maybe we’re outsiders because we present problems for marketing teams; we’re too Asian, or not Asian enough, or too niche, or too serious, or too predictable or just not producing what the industry expects from us.  Terrorism or arranged marriage is what we do best, or so we’re told. Or maybe it’s just that our voices are being drowned out by the distant hum of white noise.

Here’s the list of the “12 Best New British Novelists” according to The Culture Show:

David Abbott – The Upright Piano Player
Jenn Ashworth – A Kind of Intimacy
Ned Beauman – Boxer Beetle
Deborah Kay Davies – True Things About Me
Samantha Harvey – The Wilderness
Adam Haslett – Union Atlantic
Rebecca Hunt – Mr Chartwell
Stephen Kelman – Pigeon English
Jim Powell – The Breaking of Eggs
Anna Richards – Little Gods
Eleanor Thom – The Tin-Kin
Evie Wyld – After The Fire, A Still Small Voice

Dear Diary.....

The BBC ran a series of programmes in March 2010 (repeated in Aug 2010) about diaries. A lot of it confirmed my own research about diaries, namely the cathartic nature of spilling your thoughts onto a page, unedited (supposedly), and that the writer, subconsciously, always has an audience in mind. These programmes, however, were about the diary as a literary device and what make a ‘good diary.’ On ‘memoirs,’ vulgarity and gossip is good, as is letting yourself or the ‘character’ come across, and observing important events. The narrative arc is ‘this is the story of my life’ where the writer recreates a picture for the reader. The programme interviewed publishers and agents, who commented that they ‘crystalise your version of events’ as well as offer details of history that cannot be recaptured, as in the wonderful Housewife 49. Here, anonymity brings with it a huge amount of freedom.

As a literary device, Sue Townsend (author of the popular Adrian Mole diaries), states that they have an ‘in-built structure’ that offers a technique for revealing a character (think Bridget Jones and Bram Stoker). The diary then develops a persona, it becomes your confidante, your friend (think Anne Frank).

This series is a fascinating sweep of a literary genre that is highly undervalued. The low status of the diary is mirrored in academia, in that it is mistaken for a tool that allows for pointless navel-gazing. It’s often said that you need to have something to say to write a diary, but I don’t agree. The language you use reveals something of you and your time, even in seemingly mundane depictions of events. This is invaluable to a researcher.

Bye bye Borders

In the last week, we've walked away with 4 carrier bags of books from Borders (£200 is nothing for a family of bookworms) before they finally padlock the doors. We've watched the shelves of Borders get picked dry by people, like ourselves, eager for a bargain on every type of book imaginable. Slowly, the stock has dwindled and the empty shelves and sections have been cordoned off. Over the weeks, piles of books will appear under Christmas trees, in office raffles and as Secret Santas. The cycle of death and rebirth continues; as we mourn the loss of a big name bookstore on the high street, maybe a new generation of book lovers will be born over the festive season. Soon they will hunger for more books and scurry to far corners to find small independent book havens. Death and then rebirth, as the cycle continues. Bye bye Borders, hello local and independent bookstores. Please support yours.

Down to The Wire...

Firstly, thank you so much to The Guardian for quoting me when I said am a geek about The Wire. A real badge of honour in this case. It made me sound ever so slightly like a stalker (which I can assure you I'm not), but what the hey. Secondly (and more importantly), it was great just being able to attend an academic conference on The Wire, the first of its kind in the UK I believe. I presented an academic paper (of sorts) on Omar Little, and as an academic it's the most fun I've had in a long time. Harvard University has already hosted a conference on The Wire and was graced by David Simon's presence. Our conference was opened by Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore police officer at the Eastern District, who gave us a detailed insight into the reality of working as former cop in a neighbourhood full of challenges for the individual, community and the city. The only low point was not enough clips of The Wire (including my own paper). I think the conference organisers definately missed a trick not rounding off the conference with a montage or two of some of the finer moments of comedy (yes, The Wire is very funny in parts).

But that's just nitpicking, as the high points were many. Kimberly Moffitt, from the University of Maryland Baltimore County, and a native of Baltimore herself, gave a paper on the representations of Baltimore through the eyes of natives. She's mid-way through the research, and already there are some interesting themes, particularly around how 'white ethnics' are portrayed as heros - very interesting indeed and a great piece of research that's well worth keeping track off. Fans of Omar Little will be pleased to know that as he's such a compelling character, he got his own conference slot (not sure McNulty's ego could cope with that).  All the other presenters before me gave wonderful insights into the man who is easily the favourite of many (even Obama).

Terry Austin from University of Canterbury, New Zealand, gave a joint paper with John Farnsworth on the writers room process. The strength of this process shows in how the story arc can move from the small narrative (corrupted families) through to the grand narrative (urban politics) with such clarity and tightness. He also said that Simon produces the journalist's traditional beat in telling his story; the street, unions, government, schools and public institutions, and press colleagues.

The best papers were most definately saved till last. The standout papers, for me, were from Natasha Whiteman (University of Leicester) on the response of fans and academics to the cult programme; Daniel Trottier (Queen's University, Canada) on how the use of new media has made The Wire into a different viewing experience altogether. And finally, an outstanding paper by Linda Speidel (Roehampton University) about how different forms of work were represented throughout the 5 seasons. The characters in their different settings, she says, are all struggling to find an ideal work situation which is forever out of reach, inspite of the compromises they make in striving for this ideal. And she's right - if you watch The Wire, you'll see a work situation that you recognise and emphasise with how frustrating it can be, whether it's in the office or otherwise. You'll recognise the pettiness and competition that surfaces between colleagues, the emphasis on hierarchies and the 'rules of the game' that restrict some and help others.

I wish I'd had time to digest more papers, but that's the nature of these conferences. More later on The Wire once I've gathered some more of my thoughts.....