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Cheltenham Literature Festival pt 2


Reimagining Shakespeare: Jeanette Winterson

The second event I attended at this year’s Cheltenham Literature Festival couldn’t have been more different from the intimate chat with Pat Barker.  The session with Jeanette Winterson to showcase her take on Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, was more of a performance than a talk. She appeared in the vast assembly room at Cheltenham town hall, and the place was packed to the rafters.


She stepped onto the stage to Cher’s If I could turn back time, it didn’t really feel like Winterson’s style if I’m honest, but I went with it.  She started by saying a few words to explain some basics about the The Winter’s Tale. Written late in Shakespeare’s career and life, he had become tired of the violence towards women in his plays. The Winter’s Tale ends with 3 women, very much alive, left standing on the stage.  Shakespeare also dared to feature magic in this play, which had been outlawed by the new King, punishable by death.  Clearly, a new direction for the bard.  Before starting a lengthy reading from The Gap of Time she showed us a glimpse of what drove her to re-imagine Shakespeare and this play in particular.  “We go to things we love for reasons which are embarrassingly obvious. The Winter’s Tale has a foundling at its heart – I am also an orphan”

Winterson read a significant piece from her book, accompanied at times by music, sound effects and film clips.  It was very poetic and lyrical, but I think this has much to do with the lilt of her voice and bold delivery.  There were two memorable quotes from the reading (these may not be entirely accurate – I was writing as fast as I could!).

You think you’re living in the present but the past is right behind you like a shadow

What is memory anyway? Memory is a painful dispute with the past.

I have to say, I think she read a bit too much, I wondered if we were going to get to hear her talk at all.  But then we did and I remembered how much and why I admire her.

Members of the audience fired questions at her and she delivered flawless, full and witty answers without hesitation.  She was eloquent, forthright and confident in her ability and in her delivery.

Asked about how a writer goes about reimagining Shakespeare she said “the thing easily updates itself” as though it were a breeze.  She said later in his career, Shakespeare became interested in the notion of forgiveness and second chances.  She told us about Freud’s thoughts on time where he suggests that everyone should go back to fix things gone wrong in their past.  She quoted Mandela; “You can’t forgive and forget, you can only do one.” Winterson explained that Shakespeare explored these ideas in The Winter’s Tale and she has become fascinated with them as she’s got older.

Asked whether she remembered the first story she every wrote, she admitted to not being archivally minded.  She throws a lot away or chucks it on the fire.  She said her background was oral; words start in the mouth before hitting the page.  She stands up to write, speaks it aloud and then types it up on a typewriter.

She told us about a fascination she’s had with a story she read years ago.  It featured a dream poet Gerard Lebruine had about a vast and majestic angel who fell to earth landing in a tiny Parisian courtyard.  As the angel fell, he folded in his wings.  He was trapped. If he opened his wings to escape, he would destroy the buildings around him, if he remained, he would die.  This imagery presents an age-old dichotomy; if to be free means destroying everything around you, what can you do? Winterson told us she has been obsessed with this image for some time and had to write about it to get it out of her psyche.  She finally managed to get it into this book.

She first read The Winter’s Tale when she was 16 and trying to find answers about herself.  But reading is not static, it is chemical and dynamic, so when she read the play again as an adult it spoke to her differently.  She realised that Shakespeare was a pirate as well as pioneer.  “He went about nicking stuff and bolting it together to create new shapes…Shakespeare is much more fluid and volatile than we all remember.” This gave her the confidence to adapt the play because… “we’re all just trying to tell a story for now.  Creativity is always new; we need newness…if literature is about anything it is about finding a way forward.”

I’ve been fascinated by Winterston since I saw her interviewed on TV.  This latest encounter has only made me admire her more.  We added The Gap of Time to our bookclub TBR list.

Next up – Kate Atkinson

Cheltenham Literature Festival pt 1

Cheltenham Literature Festival 2015 pt 1


I’ve just spent the most fantastic two days at a whirlwind of literary events at the Cheltenham Literature Festival.  The festival itself was awesome; but the company made it.  I went with my amazing bookclub girlfriends (written about previously in these pages) which added the sparkle we all need at an event like this, when half the fun is the giggles during the talk and the debate after.

I thought I’d give you a brief flavour of some of what I saw, but there was so much more to choose from and the organisation so slick, it was a pleasure to be a visitor.

Celebrate with Pat Barker

Booker winner Pat Barker was only one of the many heavyweight, first class authors appearing at the festival this year.  She was interviewed by Cathy Rentzenbrink of The Bookseller in an intimate setting where the discussion centred on how Barker blended fact and fiction to create her Regeneration Trilogy.  Inevitably the conversation strayed to include the rest of her back catalogue, including her most recent trilogy.

Her interest in war trauma led her to William Rivers and Siegfried Sassoon and in them she found something which hadn’t been touched on before in war fiction.  She described their story as “S” shaped, not a classic full circle story.  This kink in their history appealed to her.

Barker’s Regeneration trilogy features historical characters, so when asked about issues relating to writing about “real” people she said she has never found writing about real people a constraint.  Her only rule is never to follow her real people into the bedroom, because she owes them that privacy.  The reason Billy Prior in Regeneration is so randy, is because he gets to have everyone else’s sex.  She continued by saying the best thing about fiction is that a writer can explore the most private elements of a character without anyone getting hurt.

Asked about how she inhabits the world of her characters, she described the job of a writer as creating the reader’s 5 senses on the page as they move through the story.  Almost as important is creating the sense of movement, shift of gravity that comes from righting oneself, that feeling you get inside when experiencing something unexpected.  This element is what produces the psychological dimension for the reader.

Describing the mechanics of writing, Barker explained that she always does mountains of research before writing and amends the manuscript as she goes along.  However, a writer has to be prepared to do all the research and then throw it all away.  Even if it is the most fascinating piece of evidence.  Everything is at the mercy of the character and their journey, so if the historical research doesn’t fit, it has to go.

She also explained that she never goes back to re-read her previous works for two reasons.  It will either be totally awful or much better than anything she is writing at present.  Also, her old characters start speaking to her again, imposing themselves and getting in the way of new characters which is a distraction.

When discussing her most recent three books, she was asked whether she knew she was going to write another trilogy.  Barker answered this one with an amused tone, saying that having already written one trilogy she suspected as much, but it was confirmed for her by the newspapers.

Offering tips for budding writers she said that every writer has to be a good reader first and must immerse themselves in all sorts of writing.  Meeting other readers is also useful as “things happen when you meet other readers that wouldn’t happen in any other way.”  Most fascinating though was her advice that whatever writers write about, must be within their emotional range or it won’t work.

Pat Barker was fascinating to listen to.  This gives you an idea of the quality of conversation, but she also talked at length about medical research, war literature, trauma and memory and how families and communities deal with absence.  I credit her with guiding me towards war poetry, which in turn led me to Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth and re-readings of A Level German texts by Remarque.  Reading her Regeneration trilogy affected me deeply when I read it in the 1990s so it was amazing to finally meet the woman behind the words.

Next up Jeanette Winterson

Jackson Brodie and Me

Unfortunately I don’t have the time to write my thoughts on the four brilliant Kate Atkinson books featuring her private investigator, Jackson Brodie, so I thought I’d write about him instead trying to keep to my “10 sentences or less” rule!  His back story and antics are the central feature of all four books, so at the end of this rambling brain dump you should have a better idea of how his character complements the plot of each volume and helps bring the stories off the page.

Jackson Brodie; former soldier and police officer, private investigator of marital and other every day misdemeanors is an enigma to himself and this is what makes him so attractive to a reader like me.  He is a character full of contradictions.  He is tender, yet grumpy; he has a keen sense of social justice, yet makes some dubious decisions; he is able to sniff out the bad eggs, yet often doesn’t see personal trouble coming.  He can be irritatingly dim in that respect.  Jackson goes about his investigation of the sometimes gruesome, sometimes odd crimes with an unwilling intensity that only someone brilliant at what they do can.    For all these contradictions and especially the mastery with which he begrudgingly plies his trade, he is utterly adorable.  I want to mother him and sleep with him at the same time – an odd situation mirroring the paradox of the character.

Although I am writing this primarily about Atkinson’s main character, I wouldn’t want you to think these are books without substance, self-indulgently developing Brodie into the swoontastic anti-hero he is, because that couldn’t be further from the truth.  The world Jackson inhabits is real and vivid on the page, the cases intricately developed and, unlike other crime fiction, the stories are often wrapped up through chance connection or coincidence  – sound cliché? It isn’t.  So my advice is, go seek out these books as an alternative to run-of-the-mill crime fiction and I dare you not to fall in love with Jackson Brodie.

I’m writing this ahead of attending the Cheltenham Literature Festival where I will be seeing Kate Atkinson talk about her newest book A God in Ruins

p.s. I broke the 10 sentence rule with this one – but only just!

Other Kate Atkinson stuff

Wait Until Spring, Bandini – John Fante


Sometimes it is useful having a husband who works in the publishing industry…although he doesn’t work in fiction publishing, he got hold of this gorgeous edition of John Fante’s Wait Until Spring, Bandini by Black Sparrow Press some years ago, but I only picked it up last year; what a shame I waited so long.

From the very first page Fante’s spare but energetic writing allows the reader to form a vivid impression of Svevo Bandini, his family and their pathetic existence.  Debt ridden, dirt poor and living on the edge we follow this Italian immigrant family’s attempts to survive another winter in depression era Colarado.  Chancer and smooth talking builder and odd-job man, Bandini abandons his family for 10 days over Christmas to escape his vitriolic and spiteful mother-in-law.  He thinks he’s found an answer to his miserable debt situation with a rich local widow who he shacks up with for a while.  Meanwhile things at home go from bad to worse with his wife having a nervous episode and his eldest son experiencing an adolescent crisis of identity.  This is very much a story of identity, fitting in and the importance of family and heritage.  Wait until Spring deals with familiar themes and in some respects Fante has nothing new to add to depression era writing, but the vivid description of his characters’ emotions, desires and motivations are so energetic, moving and often funny that it is a pleasure to read despite the grim situation of the characters.  Writing at its best.

I’m the King of the Castle – Susan Hill


If you are a budding writer of thriller, crime or horror fiction then Susan Hill is where you should go for tutorials on how to build menace.   I’m the King of the Castle is a story which induces fear of immense proportion, totally outweighing the size of its slim volume.  As the chapters progress we witness ever more cringeworthy episodes of the persecution and exploitation of a boy powerless to resist the bullying, underhand tactics of his almost-step-brother; these eventually push him to extremes and the saddest of ends.  Hill does her usual expert best at building the psychological intimidation dished out by the persecutor and the escalating anxiety felt by the persecuted.  It is heart-rending to witness the parental indifference, the vulnerability of the helpless boy and the pure evil of the cruel bully.   This book is short, but says so much about power and powerlessness in society and as you may expect, it does not have a happy ending.  Just when you think the young victim has found a means of escape, his way out is blocked again leaving him with few options. I urge you to read this book and marvel at a masterful example of a violence-free psychological thriller, made that much more moving by it’s tragic pre-teen central characters.

Another Susan Hill book

Beastings by Benjamin Myers


Ben Myers sees the countryside, really sees it; he is able to describe things in his writing most of us may notice but don’t really take in.   You get the impression that the core of his novel must originate from intimate knowledge and communion with nature and a love of an outdoorsy way of life.  Although, like with his last novel Pig Iron, Myers writes about the surroundings as though it were another character in his story, lending comfort, shelter, hardship, pain and salvation, a provider of a sort-of religious experience in a green cathedral, Beastings is in essence a chase novel reminiscent of Geoffrey Household with characters remaining nameless and most of the action taking place in the open.  Unlike Rogue Male, this is a story of a vulnerable, innocent and mute girl pitted against the knowledge, strength and cunning of the priest and poacher, her pursuers, as well as a myriad of obstacles placed in her way by the elements and punishing terrain of the Lakeland fells, woodland and mountain environment she must traverse to escape her oppressive past.  Her only company is the baby she has stolen.

If you are familiar with Myers’ work you will know to expect some grim moments, all of which are necessary to make a point and move the plot forward. But there is measure and equity in his writing; each gruesome description is balanced by beautiful observations of cloud formations or bird song.  There is plenty of ecclesiastical language aswell and an underlying commentary on the destructive capabilities of organised religion when left unchecked – but this is not done in any sort of preachy way.  In fact, no word is wasted in Myers’ writing, every sentence propels the action forward, raising the reader’s heart rate in time with the girl’s as she stumbles towards her final fate.

Extraordinary, visceral, heart-breaking and visually stunning, this is another belter from Myers.  You’re missing out if you don’t read it.



Big thanks and apologies to Blue Moose Books for taking so long.

Other Ben Myers stuff:


Pig Iron




Haweswater – Sarah Hall


Set in 1936, Haweswater is part furiously passionate and obsessive love story, part tale of an attempt to save a way of life overtaken by industrial development.   Beautifully melancholic and emotionally stirring, this homage to landscape, established country ways, family lives and a community soon to be submerged and destroyed, is an evocative read.  Hall’s spare writing style, with its continuous tinge of sadness, mirrors the rough landscape of Westmorland and the doomed fate of the sacrificial village of Mardale awaiting it’s watery demise to create a reservoir for the ever-growing sprawl of urban Greater Manchester.   This is a exquisitely crafted work with undertones of a disaster waiting to happen and will not fail to surprise or delight; you will probably cry.  Superb.