London Road film, the Ipswich murders and sex workers: a personal view

Let me tell you that right now it is 10:14pm on Monday, 8 June 2015, and I’ve just walked home from Ipswich town centre on my own. What’s more I felt safe and was safe. I’m not advocating that women walking alone at night in urban areas is a good idea and depending on how late and dark it is I’m more likely to get a lift. But it’s important to state that I feel safe this evening in Ipswich, the town I’ve called home for 12 years.

London Road

Tonight I saw a special preview of London Road, the film adaptation of the stage musical and this technically is a review so here are a few details: the screenplay and lyrics are by Alecky Blythe and the composer is Adam Cork. The director is Rufus Norris. All the words in the theatre show – now immortalised – are ‘verbatim’ performances, speech taken from recorded interviews with real people, set to music and shaped into narrative. London Road offers a perspective on how the murders of five young women in the winter of 2006 numbed and horrified a community. Like a lot of Ipswich people, I have a vivid recollection of events unfolding at the time. Seeing this film brought back emotions and details I’ve forgotten. I didn’t want to see the show when it was on at the National Theatre in 2011, no matter how good it was, because it felt too soon for me and so I can only comment on the screen version.

Here are my thoughts. The work is sensitive and honest. The cinematography is stylised with a muted colour pallet like Nordic Noir and shot (thankfully) in another location. You can tell that it’s based on theatre and the transition isn’t seamless, but credit for staying true to a vision, plus, you have to admire anybody who succeeds with an original musical in this day and age. The performances, including those by Olivia Colman, Tom Hardy and Anita Dobson, are top-notch. The presentation of Ipswich people is slightly skewed towards ‘yokel’ and a little insulting. Of all the things the movie might’ve got wrong, the inclusion of a football supporter wearing a red scarf was the biggest clanger of all. (Red? Really? Unbelievable.) And yet some of the interpretations of real people were so brilliant we knew immediately who they were. Councillor Carole Jones, played by Claire Moore, is as fab-oo-luss as she is in life.

A personal aspect

Since being published in 2011 I have avoided at all costs mentioning that I was involved in local partnership work to address prostitution before, during and after December 2006. My author biography in print and online mentions jobs in the public and charity sectors, working for a member of parliament and at a women’s refuge. However I didn’t want to draw attention to such a recent, dark episode in our town, nor in any way to be misconstrued as benefitting from it while I had a book to promote. The unfortunate truth is that for many people – outside of lovely Suffolk – Ipswich reminds them of the murder of those girls. While the memory was still fresh it’s all they wanted to talk about. When it was happening here it’s all we could talk about too. It was dreadful.

Is a decade is a long time? Long enough, I hope.

Sumac: the five murders

Just to be clear there are no inside scoops here. I was very junior, my job description was a mishmash of objectives set by different agencies temporarily funding my post and I don’t believe I made a tangible difference to anyone connected with Operation Sumac (the case name after the five victims were linked) nor to those at risk of street prostitution, the way Iceni, Suffolk Constabulary and local community leaders did for example. I didn’t have the skills or influence. I was on a steering group but arguably I was meat in the room.

Some things I recall distinctly.

The underwhelming response by local agencies to street prostitution before Sumac. The issue was entrenched and there weren’t many resources to address it. This was not from lack of sympathy, it was simply that other issues had higher priority and so harm reduction and enforcement stayed at low level.

I remember being told in the meeting that 19-year-old Tania Nicol was reported missing and how our colleague hunched over when he said this.

I remember hearing that Gemma Adams, aged 25, was missing and the feeling of creep. The national press hadn’t caught on yet, but they were about to.

CCTV footage of Anneli Alderton, 24, on the train from Colchester was released following her disappearance. You may remember it also, she was the girl checking her hair in the train window reflection.

I remember being in a room with police officers who keep their radios on at all times, even while their drinking their tea, a burr of signals and information in the background so constant you stop hearing it; I remember the chatter fell silent as news came through that another body had been found and then, moments later, another. Annette Nicholls, 29, and Paula Clennell, 24, had been discovered in close proximity to one another.

As a town we were used to being ignored because Ipswich isn’t sexy. Now the world’s media descended upon us and gave a view in every editorial. Residents were pestered. People who had gone to school with one of the victims, even if they hadn’t spoken to her for years, were tracked down by journalists. Ipswich is a smallish place and many felt a personal connection to what was happening. A condolence book was opened in the town hall. One newspaper criticised the decision to hold a minute’s silence at an Ipswich Town football match (I’ll leave you to guess which one).

This was Christmastime and streets were empty after dark. Workplaces paid taxi fares for their female employees and a local businessman offered a reward for information because the women working in his company were the same age as the victims. Thousands of personal attack alarms were given away, a detail shown in London Road. Suspicion, loss and uncertainty, also shown. Some of us regarded our male friends differently for a time (sorry guys, it was nothing personal). No one was feeling festive and the local economy suffered deeply.

Sex workers

Street prostitution went from minor nuisance – to top priority, along with the resources and wherewithal to back it up. This is what happens following a tragedy: it focuses attention on a problem which was invisible before. Other towns now looked to Ipswich for best practice, for leadership believe it or not, and our organisations worked at the highest level to devise and deliver an action plan that had at its centre helping women exit. It wasn’t rocket science.

Investment + Commitment + Expertise = Results

I was given an action which surprised me. I was asked to do a literature review, which means reading and summarising all relevant information for my colleagues. Here’s why such a project is worth doing. Health practitioners, police officers and local government officials are experts in their fields and, at times of uncertainty, tend to revert to what they know. But prostitution with a street drugs component is such a complex subject, you need for everyone to take a rounded view. Admitting what you don’t know can be difficult. Accepting that there is no silver bullet and the only possible solution in the real world is a holistic one can get on people’s nerves.

Here’s some of what I learnt and here’s what I think.

  1. ‘Prostitute’ is an offensive word. Call them sex workers please.
  2. What happens between consenting adults who don’t harm anybody is none of our business. We shouldn’t interfere with what is safe, orderly, discreet and done by people acting of their free will.
  3. I will never support complete legalisation of prostitution-related activities (and this is not a contradiction with the above). Where experiments have taken place with legalisation, you create a ‘green light’ problem. These places can become focal points for the abuse of children and trafficked women and, because of the veil of legality, investigation and intervention to protect victims becomes even more difficult. (However, decriminalisation in non-coercive contexts remains worth exploring.)
  4. Prostitution is like a spectrum of activities, ranging from the lucrative, lawful and freely acting . . . All the way through to modern day slavery which includes violence, rape and a frighteningly high proportion of disappearances and murders, virtually all of them young women. ‘Prostitution’ is a catch-all term for these categorically different activities bearing little resemblance to one another. Street prostitution is its own thing and needs a unique response. Other types of activities require a different approach.
  5. Street prostitution is inextricably linked with problematic drug misuse. This is when the question of consent becomes iffy because we’re into the realms of serious, complex social problems of which selling sex is just a part. I am loath to use the word ‘chaotic’ although it’s difficult to think of a better one. The women involved are marginalised and the help available severely limited. It is not safe, orderly or discreet when drug addiction plays such a massive role.
  6. Helping women exit street prostitution is possible when the difference between immediate, basic support needs (e.g. harm reduction, drugs treatment, homelessness) and other support needs (e.g. counselling, debt advice, training for employment) is understood. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a useful model. A support package has to be holistic and woman-centred, which means taking into account the full range of issues she faces and allowing for the possibility of relapse.
  7. Society has a hissy fit when the rights of sex workers are mentioned. People panic and it’s weird. This isn’t helpful, we cannot have a proper discussion with raised voices.

As part of the literature review I read about a very sane policy proposal from the Home Office a few years ago which would’ve decriminalised a sex worker who is based indoors, say in her flat, working with a maid for safety. Needless to say such an incremental, practical and controversial improvement didn’t make it to the statute books.

With so much insight and expertise out there, why aren’t we capable of giving this subject the consideration it deserves?

Stigma is what comes up time and again. Being a sex worker invites condemnation like no other job. This is demanding, risky, physical work – as indeed is servicing city drains, coal mining, waste disposal, being a professional soldier, working in a prison and caring for adults with serious mental health disorders. Because it is mainly women, however . . . Because it is sex, however . . .

One of the saddest aspects to recur when sex workers become victims of crime is the view (from a minority, I hope) that they somehow brought their fate upon themselves; also the idea that the lives of sex workers might be worth less than those of women whose sexual practices are more ordinary. I for one do not think the lives of Tania (19), Gemma (25), Anneli (24), Annette (29) and Paula (24) were worth less than mine. I do not think there was a single choice they made that could ever, ever justify what happened to them.

In Ipswich, people donated money to a fund called Somebody’s Daughter and later this helped to build Talitha Koum, a residential centre for women with addictions. As a direct result of their deaths, other women were helped and are still being helped.

There will always be men who hate women and a few who act on their violent tendencies. There will always be women who are vulnerable and few who are never saved. There will always be more we can do to act responsibly, show our strength and give support. There will always be the majority who are compassionate – if puzzled – and individuals who emerge as leaders to address complex social needs. There will always be uncertainty.

Shortly after Sumac my literature review was put on the steering group agenda. I remember coming into the meeting room at Grafton House to find perhaps 20 colleagues not talking to each other because they were reading my paper. It was circulated by email and online for a while. I can only remember one piece of feedback: ‘Before this I didn’t know a lot about prostitution and now I feel that I do.’ Strange, because I wasn’t much wiser myself; research tends to raise more questions than it answers.

#WeAreIpswich

Outside of lovely Suffolk, Ipswich is still associated in people’s minds with the five murders and that’s regrettable. A movie musical based on these events reinforces the connection and gives me mixed feelings. Nonetheless after the preview we clapped because the work is good. The screening took place at Ipswich Film Theatre, a small, artsy cinema that has had its funding cut and is being kept alive by a band of committed volunteers. Alecky Blythe remarked on this as fitting. I like that.

I like that we have the New Wolsey Theatre here, officially the country’s most welcoming theatre. I like parkrun. I like Pulse festival. I like music day and the craft and vintage fairs. I like our historical connections to Cardinal Wolsey, Constable and Thomas Gainsborough. I like our more recent connections to Ed Sheeran, Richard Ayoade and Jimmy’s Farm. I like the Willis Building which was one of the earliest designed by Norman Foster. I like Ipswich Institute, Christchurch Mansion and Suffolk Book League. I like that an author called Eric Blair took his pen name from our river and became George Orwell. I like the Waterfront which has several of my favourite places to eat and drink, University Campus Suffolk and Dance East. I like how people support ITFC (although football has never been my thing). I like Sutton Hoo, Aldeburgh, and that Nazis and UFOs are supposed to have landed nearby. I like that Ipswich people are generally kind and tolerant, and they come out in force for community occasions. I like knowing my neighbours by name. This place makes the writing possible and I feel safe here.

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“Hello, I’m a voter living in your constituency. Are you a feminist?”

I tweeted the five Ipswich parliamentary candidates one question: Are you a feminist? Here’s what they said.

SPIRITED answer

David Ellesmere (Labour, @davidellesmere)

“Yes!”

I love the conviction of this one word reply with an exclamation mark – no messing around. David clearly understands the nuance of what’s being asked here and responds with assurance. If he was on Twitter enough to reply the same day, it would’ve been fab. Having said that when I resorted to email he came back to me within 1 minute. (Somebody get this man an app.)

FASCINATING answer

Maria Vigneau (UKIP, @UKIPipswich)

“I am a woman and most definitely support the equal rights and status of women. I have spent a lot of time in African countries, working on projects to get girls in secondary education and beyond.”

I confess, this threw me! I love that Maria has real world experience of a complex feminist issue – there’s passion there. And yet I can’t help wondering if her response is incongruous with the party she represents? All in all, unexpected. Maria does not appear on Twitter, and the local UKIP ignored me, but her email reply was swift.

MEASURED answer

Ben Gummer (Conservative, @ben4ipswich)

“I’d like to think so – depends by what definition I suppose . . .”

Me: “The @OED definition ‘feminist n. An advocate or supporter of the rights and equality of women’ Clarify?”

Ben: “in that case yes!”

Had I let his first tweet stand with those hesitant, lacklustre ellipses . . . As our MP since 2010, I hope Ben would already have established his feminist credentials. Has the question really never come up in the past 5 years? But respect for giving it thought, tweeting effectively and coming out on the right side. Feeling rather pleased that I appear to have converted a Tory MP, from an equivocal feminist, into a firm one.

FASTEST answer

Barry Broom (Green, @IpswichGreens)

“We certainly support feminist causes, but it is a huge issue. Are there any specific concerns u hav? [. . .] Let us know of any feminist campaigns or causes you deem urgent to back!”

Evidently someone at Ipswich Green Party is keeping an eye on their Twitter, but I don’t think it’s Barry. I was disappointed by the reduction of feminist from noun to adjective, as this dilutes the level of commitment. Although well-intentioned, I wasn’t keen on being asked to suggest issues. I’m persuaded on balance of a support of feminism here, however, he/they don’t strike me as leaders.

FITTING answer

Chika Akinwale (Lib Dem, @LibDems_Ipswich)

“As a female and a mother of 2 – a toddler and an infant – I’m keen on women to be given equal opportunities to flourish so I am definitely a feminist. This is also a strong view within my party and is also embedded in our party constitution . . . We reject all prejudice and discrimination based upon race, colour, age, religion, sex, etc.”

Chika is absolutely right to consider feminism in the context of other types of discrimination and I like the way she brings this to the fore; I also like that she identifies both the personal and party aspects of the issue as important. Although the Ipswich Libs don’t seem to completely grasp Twitter, her email reply was same day which is great.

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New Angle Prize: shortlist

Ta-dah! The New Angle Prize for Literature shortlist. Got your recommended reading for the Easter break sorted:

‘The Time by the Sea’ by Ronald Blythe (Faber & Faber, Jun 2013)
‘Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet’ by Mark Cocker (Jonathan Cape, Oct 2014)
‘Mr Mac and Me’ by Esther Freud (Bloomsbury, May 2014)
‘The Dynamite Room’ by Jason Hewitt (Simon & Schuster, Mar 2014)
‘Two Turtle Doves: A Memoir of Making Things’ by Alex Monroe (Bloomsbury, Mar 2014)
‘She Rises’ by Kate Worsley (Bloomsbury, Mar 2014)

The shortlist was featured on BBC Suffolk today. You can listen again to Lesley Dolphin’s show (starts at 1hr 9mins, after ‘Hotel California’ by the Eagles).

Congratulations to all the authors,

K
x

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A Mary Midgley festival of thought (all in my head)

My latest intellectual crush is British philosopher Mary Midgley. She writes with brilliance on, among other things, dogmatic science, the way we use art to help us understand our place in the world and most eloquently on the mind / body problem. I haven’t read philosophy for fun in a long time and this was like going to my very own festival of thought, in a private park, all in my head. ‘Science and Poetry’ is surely destined to be a classic; I also recommend ‘The Solitary Self: Darwin and the Selfish Gene’ and ‘Are you an Illusion?’ She’s 95 by the way – and amazing.

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New Angle Prize Long List


I’m one of the judges on the New Angle Prize for Literature this year along with Carol Bundock and Jules Pretty. Even if we say so ourselves, it’s a good list!

Ronald Blythe, The Time by the Sea (Faber & Faber, Jun 2013)
Mark Cocker, Claxton. Field Notes from a Small Planet (Jonathan Cape, Oct 2014)
Esther Freud, Mr Mac and Me (Bloomsbury, May 2014)
David Gentleman, In The Country (Full Circle Editions, Sep 2014)
Jason Hewitt, The Dynamite Room (Simon & Schuster, Mar 2014)
Amanda Hodgkinson, Spilt Milk (Fig Tree, Penguin Books, Feb 2014)
Alex Monroe, Two Turtle Doves (Bloomsbury, Mar 2014)
Sarah Perry, After Me Comes the Flood (Profile Books, Jun 2014)
Jo Riccioni, The Italians at Cleats Corner Store (Scribe UK, Jun 2014)
James Runcie, Sydney Chambers and the Problem of Evil (Bloomsbury, May 2014)
Saskia Sarginson, Without You (Little Brown Book Group, Jul 2014)
Kate Worsley, She Rises (Bloomsbury, Mar 2014)

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What does it take to be an artist?

You may be surprised to learn that I didn’t consider myself an artist until quite recently – long after publication, in fact – and I’ve been thinking a little about what it really takes to be an artist, and I’m going to share some of these thoughts with you.

Bear with me please because I’m going to start with Blackadder (we’ve all seen Blackadder, haven’t we?) and the final episode filmed for the millennium. This is when Baldrick invents a time machine which transports Blackadder to important moments in history. In so doing, he meets famous historical figures and gathers priceless artefacts to bring back with him to the present day, in order to win a bet. One of the items is a signed play by William Shakespeare: Blackadder time travels to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and runs into Shakespeare in a corridor (who looks suspiciously like Colin Firth) and in his hand he carries the original manuscript of Macbeth. Blackadder offers a pen for Shakespeare to sign his autograph, relieves him of the pages, then punches Shakespeare in the face. He tells him, that’s for all the misery he’s going to cause generations of school children in English lessons and exams hereafter – and how dreadful Kenneth Branagh’s 4-hour Hamlet is.

I know what you’re thinking and, honestly, I’m as shocked as you are. Macbeth is not an Elizabethan play, it’s a Jacobean play. I have no problem, actually, with Baldrick being the greatest genius who ever lived by virtue of the fact he invented a working time machine, but I have to take issue with the glaring inaccuracy; Macbeth was written during the reign of James I, not Elizabeth I. We’ll skip over that part.

Of course what happens is this: Blackadder inadvertently changes the course of human events. Shakespeare is so traumatised by the encounter, that he does not go on to become the greatest writer the world has ever seen. Instead he fades into obscurity, having made but one contribution of note: he becomes the inventor of the ballpoint pen.

Now, I like a ballpoint pen as much as anybody, but the thought of having lived a life without Shakespeare . . . having never seen a Shakespeare play at the theatre or read the words on the page . . . the thought of it I find genuinely upsetting. It would be a personal tragedy for me, never mind the rest of you, or the actors and scholars who’ve devoted their careers to him.

A life without having cried at Othello. A life without laughing at the lovers’ quarrel in Much Ado About Nothing. A life without seeing Mark Rylance play Hamlet at the Globe (he is better than Branagh) and without hearing Cleopatra described in this way,

“Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety.”

No Romeo and Juliet either. The entire Wars of the Roses cycle, 8 plays – and I’ve see all of them more than once – gone, blinked out of existence. As is the Merchant of Venice, and all the controversy that perturbs us even now.

No Tempest! What? No one who thought or wrote,

“We are such stuff / As dreams are made on; and our little life /Is rounded with a sleep.”

I would be poorer without this work. I wouldn’t know myself. The very language I speak, the idioms that are so familiar, would be obliterated.

The idea that Shakespeare doubted himself horrifies me. But I bet he did. He was the son of a glove maker, the grandson of a farmer. Based on his family history, there was no reason to suspect that this boy from Stratford-upon-Avon would become one of the greatest artists to draw breath. And I reckon those nobles at court didn’t let him to forget where he came from. Even now, there are people who believe that the man we call William Shakespeare could not possibly have written all those plays and sonnets – and they call their prejudice, ‘The Authorship Question’. It’s insulting.

But it is, perhaps, useful to remind ourselves that the artists we love and admire most have dark moments too, that they know fear and failure as much as any of us. There were times when things got so bad, that they just wanted to give up and throw it all away. What stops them? How do they carry on? And when we face difficulties in our work, our meagre offerings, how do we carry on?

What does it take to be an artist? Not a great artist. Not even a good one. Just being an artist.

I’ve wanted to write fiction since the age of 19, but it’s only recently that I began to have a sense of what the answer to this question could possibly be. So here goes.

Delight. I believe it’s imperative that you enjoy your work, every minute. You may’ve heard the saying, “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.” This is vital for the working artist, especially when things go wrong. I do not subscribe to the idea that it’s somehow necessary to suffer for your art. Yes, as artists, we tend to live a lot in our heads and we’re predisposed to having doubts. This is the challenge. At the very least the creative process can have a therapeutic effect and at its best we are elevated by it – we ourselves change and are made better. Delight in the effort. Delight in your work when it’s finished, including its flaws. If the creation and the outcome bring you pleasure, then that’s the achievement.

Bravery. Critical voices are everywhere, but be brave if you can – if you dare to. Work that pleases you because it’s strange and unusual is all to the good. If you play it safe and try to do what’s popular or conventional, you can’t unlock any real power. There’s no force behind it. Your work will be bland and fade quickly. You need bravery in the face of criticism and disappointment and, to be clear, these are coming. All artists have to face it some time or another, including the best. Sometimes it’s insulting; sometimes it’s motivated by jealousy or rooted in private pains. Worse still there are artists, even today, who endure intimidation, perhaps imprisonment for what they do. Those critical voices – don’t let them get to you. Whether they’re in your head, on your Twitter, or out there in the real world – they don’t deserve a moment of your time. When Blackadder punches you in the face, don’t give up your Macbeth in favour of the ballpoint pen. Show bravery in spite of everything.

Staying power. There are lots of ways to describe tenacity, determination, patience, practice . . . I think ‘staying power’ covers all of it. Because to have staying power is to acknowledge that this is a marathon, not a sprint. One theory holds that in order to be accomplished in anything – music, sport, chess, whatever – you have to practice for not less than 10,000 hours. This means that if you practice your art for 8 hours a day, 6 days per week, you would have to work for 4 solid years to reach your goal – without stopping to earn your living or take a day off, other than Sundays. And of course if you used that model, you wouldn’t have much life experience at the end. You’ll neglect your friends and family, compromise your wellbeing and you’ll not have time to enjoy the works of others. You’d be a hermit. Actually, you need life experiences to inform your work. If you’re an artist, you’re a long distance runner and you need take all this in your stride. Steep hills and rough terrain should be negotiated with care. Set a pace you personally can maintain (never mind anyone else and how fast they’re going). Recover and rest when you need to. This is the knack of staying power.

Allies. You have allies, believe it or not. They are the other artists who’ve been there. They are people who care about you, whether you succeed or fail. I think there’s no phrase in the English language as appealing (or as loaded) as the words, “I love you”. But to the ear of an artist there are sweeter, gentler words, a phrase which resists tarnish and that cannot be spun with ease. Because they’re spoken so rarely and by someone with nothing to gain, when the hearer is in most need: “I believe in you”. When your friend says this (your colleague, your partner, maybe) magic happens. The phrase “I believe in you” can make the difference between whether work gets made or it doesn’t. Take comfort from your allies and don’t forget to reciprocate from time to time.

Insight. Your art is informed by life experience, by the things you have discovered to be true. If in all your years on this planet you’ve gained one insight worth sharing, a single piece of wisdom that you can pass on to another human being, then do so through your art. Art without insight is merely decorative. Great works of literature, great paintings, great performance needs above all clarity of thought. Transmit your thought in the most direct and ingenious way possible, like a poet. The lessons you’ve learned may well have saved you; now is the time to put a message in a bottle because they may save somebody else one day.

So to recap: it takes 5 things to be an artist. Delight; Bravery; Staying power; Allies; and Insight. And of those 5 things, delight is the most important. Because even if you’re a bad artist – and I might include myself in that description – if you’ve delighted in the creation of your work, then you haven’t wasted a single minute of your time.

But 5 things are a lot to remember and I don’t expect anyone to be taking notes. So let me give you one word instead which captures all of these things, one word to imprint on your brain and keep on a post-it note above your desk. Integrity. You are an artist if you have integrity. Integrity will see you through the good times and the bad. People admire integrity, even if they can’t stand the work you’ve made. Hold on to it and everything falls into place. Integrity redeems your poorest effort. Integrity makes your best work fly. If you can keep your integrity, then I can honestly say, “I believe in you”.

And yet it might not be enough. That’s frightening, isn’t it? The fact is as artists we might never succeed in creating anything of worth. For instance, it has taken me two thousand words to express what has been said before – briefly and far more elegantly – by the avant-garde Irishman of letters, Samuel Beckett.

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

This is a copy of a speech given by Katie to Ipswich Arts Association on 5 March 2015

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Alexandria – The Last Nights of Cleopatra by Peter Stothard: book review

On page 67 of Alexandria: The Last Nights of Cleopatra, Peter Stothard acknowledges what the reader knew some 60 pages earlier. ‘This is becoming a book about me. That is not what I intended.’

Based on the cover, one might assume this to be a conventional history of Cleopatra; born 69 or 70 BC, the last pharaoh of Egypt, the woman who murdered and seduced to advance her political ambitions. Theatrical motifs from her life are scored into our collective unconscious. It is said that at 21 years old, she was smuggled past Ptolemy’s guards in a carpet and unveiled to Julius Caesar, then over 50, and became his mistress. She dissolved a pearl in a cup of wine and drank it to vex her other famous lover, Mark Antony, in a bet over who could feast the most extravagantly. And her grand finale, a spectacular suicide involving (if Shakespeare and the Victorian painters are to be believed) a basket of figs and an asp. There have been countless depictions of her story rendered in art and print, and yet since the age of nine, Stothard has wanted to make his own version.

This book is partly about Cleopatra and partly about the author watching himself trying to write about her. For this is Cleopatra the eighth, as in, ‘precisely the eighth time’ Stothard has attempted this biography. ‘I never intended to write so much here about my own life,’ he reiterates later in the book, getting a twinge of writers’ doubt over past promises unfulfilled:

‘But I do select every memory by how much it connects to those promises. It seems random. But there is a reason, a pattern and, in the end maybe, a picture too.’

Yes. I can confirm there is a lucid and rewarding whole.

This is a history book because I now know more about Cleopatra’s life and times than I did before. It is also a writer’s journal, a record of false starts when one has a project in mind that eats away at you if don’t get it down on the page. It is travel writing, about Stothard’s days in Alexandria in January 2011 and the prelude to the Arab Spring. And it is memoir, recalling the author’s intellectual awakening and most especially two friends, Maurice and V, who, though not so very close to Stothard in the usual sense, both challenged, frustrated and inspired him.

Peter Stothard is the editor of the TLS. He was the editor of The Times from 1992 to 2002, chronicled Tony Blair’s war from inside the goldfish bowl, is a survivor of cancer and a classicist. These accomplishments make it difficult somehow to reconcile this as the author of Alexandria, an object which represents childhood wish fulfilment. The prose is as clear and elegant as you would expect, but the tone is surprising. Alexandria is meditative, sentimental, written from the heart, not from a journalistic imperative.

One of themes in this book is how written language, the most indelible method we have of recording human thought from one century to another, is fragile. Names of the ancient Egyptian dead, cut in stone to guarantee immortality, were later chiselled out by enemies to obliterate souls in the afterlife. The burning of the Ancient Library of Alexandria is another motif Stothard evokes when he describes going to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a vast, modern complex built to recapture the spirit of the original. (Of course, Stothard does what any procrastinating author might be tempted to do: he looks himself up.) Even his writing, many hundreds of thousands of words over the course of a career, is vulnerable. ‘Most have sunk deservedly deep beneath the library sea,’ he says.

Words have permanence when they’re not lost or destroyed.

Sometimes a mere fragment survives from classical antiquity for scholars to pore over. There is, Stothard explains, one example of Cleopatra’s handwriting discovered recently on a papyrus used as post-mortem packing material. It is a tax exemption for one of Mark Antony’s generals drafted by a secretary upon which Cleopatra writes in Greek, ‘ginestho,’ meaning, ‘let it be done,’ ‘make it happen,’ a single queenly command passed down through the ages.

In Alexandria, Stothard concentrates on the ephemera of his Cleopatra, different incarnations rough-written, partially typed, bits copied or sellotaped together. He arranges them in his hotel room and his mind. He’s drawn into spaces of the past, schoolrooms, college bedrooms, red tents, drab offices, while giving the reader a sense of this as unfinished business as though the decades spent on news and politics were an interruption.

It is possible, perhaps, to read too much into a bereavement or health scare as the motivation for making work. Books have a spirit of their own. Sometimes authors don’t realise what they’re writing until they’ve written it, and this memoir is unusual because it lays that process bare. The people on the page, whether they lived long ago or are alive and well today, are captured as an impression – a reaction – a mood. It’s a way for the author to understand these relationships. Stothard has succeeded in writing his book about Cleopatra, yet her presence in our memories was already assured. It is the people history probably wouldn’t remember, his friends, his teachers, his colleagues, his guides, that he has done a real service to. This is writing from kindness.

Alexandria – The Last Nights of Cleopatra by Peter Stothard

Published in the UK by Granta, June 2013

@GrantaBooks @TheTLS on Twitter

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Americana – The Kinks, The Road and The Perfect Riff by Ray Davies: book review

During his book talk at Norwich Playhouse on Saturday 10 May 2014, Ray Davies says, ‘I didn’t use a ghostwriter, I could have done.’ This isn’t news to me because I’ve read it, and there’s no doubt in my mind he weighed and wrote every word.

There is nothing inherently wrong with rock stars using ghosts for their memoirs. These books, composed from hours of recorded interviews, are filled with pleasing anecdotes captured in the speaking voice of the ‘author’ and are often eminently readable. Keith Richards virtually shared credit with his ghost, James Fox. The problem with the ghost-written conceit is that when an artist comes along who actually does write their own book – and in doing so creates a work of dignity worthy of being read – there’s no way of telling the difference by looking at the cover.

In ‘Americana’, Davies tells two stories about his life and work in the United States. The first narrative spans three decades, beginning with the Kinks’ arrival as part of the British beat invasion in June 1965 and subsequently getting banned due to ‘bad management, bad luck and bad behaviour’. What follows is the slow rehabilitation of the Kinks’ credibility through years of touring and some 20+ studio albums until, in 1990, they are officially accepted back into the hearts and minds of America when they’re inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The second story is more recent, recalling the dramatic events surrounding a day in January 2004 when Davies was shot by a mugger in New Orleans. When news filtered back across the Atlantic that the lead singer and songwriter of one of the most influential bands of the twentieth century was hospitalised with a gunshot wound, the obituary writers must’ve been ebullient . . . but they were left unsatisfied because Ray Davies survived.

Enough is written in print and on the internet about Ray Davies’s accomplishments so I won’t repeat them here, except to say ‘Waterloo Sunset’ is a flawless masterpiece. In ‘Americana’, he calls his song-writing muscle the ‘doo-di-dum-dums’ and describes it as too personal to share, an explanation that will frustrate music theory scholars for years to come. Characters and their stories are the lifeblood of his songs, and his book introduces the reader to several characters of note over the Kinks’ career including loyal roadies, trusted security minders and foppish managers. By no means is this a tell-all autobiography. There are no insights into the cause of apparent bad feelings between himself and his guitarist brother, Dave Davies, merely an acknowledgment of them and a tenor of regret. Gossip here is limited, so readers looking for vicarious sex-and-drug fuelled experiences will have to go elsewhere (although the part when Dave Davies and Keith Moon are unable to throw a television out a hotel widow because the window was too small did make me laugh).

Instead Davies builds a picture of years of touring and recording, of a relentless pressure to deliver the next show and the next album, and how these obligations have taken their toll. The road is not conducive to a stable family existence, and he missed the court appearances of his shooter and, by an unkind twist of fate, the death of his mother due recording commitments he felt he had no choice but to fulfil.

The creative life once chosen does not always go according to plan. Anxiety comes with the effort of producing and perfecting work. There’s a lovely chapter set in March 1978 in New York when Davies admits to having writer’s block and struggles even to leave the apartment:

‘Who were music people, anyway? It’s just another business, after all, and I don’t have to put myself through all this. I wanted to cry out, “I am a successful songwriter with many songs to my credit. I am an artist. I deserve to be heard.” The reality was that I didn’t feel like a songwriter because I couldn’t produce at that time. Questions kept running through my head. What are you trying to prove, anyhow? You just got lucky a few years ago, so why should the world open up to you just because you wrote a few hits in the distant past? I thought about going home to get a trade and a day job. I was ready to quit the music industry altogether . . .’

In his talk as part of the Norfolk & Norwich Festival (a literary event, not a music one) Davies says that when he gives a bad performance, he walks the streets. It’s easy to imagine the stream of self-reproaches, the over analysis of each mistake, the resolutions to get it right next time. In the Q & A part of the evening, I ask how the creative process has changed over the years? He replies he is more refined and more critical now, that it’s important to get the bad ideas out as well as the good ones, that no matter what else has gone before, the writing still begins with a blank piece of paper. It is refreshingly honest. And this is the real thrill in ‘Americana’, the honesty with which he deals with the recent past.

Davies goes to New Orleans in search of inspiration, to soak up blues, jazz, the spirits of musicians living and dead. He stays at a house where he can hear a high school marching band practicing nearby and decides to facilitate a project with them.

Then he tells the story of being gunned down and it is astonishing.

After being circumspect about the history of the Kinks, the reader is taken fully into Ray Davies’s point of view: the weather on the day, the face of the attacker, the instinct to fight back that was later the source of victim-blaming in the press by New Orleans authorities. The wound, the shock, the miasma of pain relief. The fact that for a time in hospital, because all his cards had been stolen, the medical staff called one of England’s famous sons, ‘Unknown Purple’. These chapters are full of intimate detail and stark vulnerability. The author wears his heart on his sleeve and whatever can’t be said directly is illustrated through selected lyrics.

‘See the sun, the day has come, and the night is just a memory / Do you live in a dream or do you live in a reality?’

It is a sincerely attempted self-portrait and a revelation.

‘Americana’ is not Davies’s first memoir. ‘X-ray: The Unauthorized Autobiography’ was a playful experiment in semi-fiction published in 1994. Twenty years later he is using prose to tease out personal truths and as healing; the result is a piece of writing of rare and thoughtful quality. With perhaps one or two exceptions (‘Just Kids’ by Patti Smith springs to mind) the vast majority of Davies’s musical peers are simply incapable of this much depth and self-awareness in book form.

In the audience in Norwich, I suspect I am the only person who has read ‘Americana’ in advance and is more excited about meeting Ray Davies, the author, rather than Ray Davies, bona fide rock god. I want the interviewer to ask about his literary influences, not his musical ones, but the questions put are predictable and crowd-pleasing. The crush in the book-signing queue after is not conducive to writerly confidences and I sense an opportunity slipping away. There are several things I wish to know from this author and only the length of a signature left to ask; so I take a leap of faith based on the person I’ve met on the page.

‘It’s a great book,’ I say. ‘Are you going to write another?’ Yes, he replies. ‘What are you going to write about?’ And he tells me.

Americana – The Kinks, The Road and The Perfect Riff by Ray Davies

Published in the UK by Virgin Books, October 2013

Ray Davies on Facebook, @TheKinks on Twitter
 

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The Dynamite Room by Jason Hewitt: book review

Suffolk, July 1940 . . . In terms of choosing a place and time to set his debut novel, Jason Hewitt is off to a scintillating start. Suffolk is a county of diverse landscapes, rich in myth and fascinating histories that includes a wild man, green children, a buried Anglo-Saxon ship, UFOs and an abundance of rumours concerning thwarted German landings. The Second World War is of course much written about, but Hewitt’s angle is well chosen for this is Britain in the early throes of war with no end in sight and without a key ally, the United States, to tip the balance. The Channel Islands have just been occupied by the Nazis and an invasion of the British mainland seems entirely plausible, even imminent.

In ‘The Dynamite Room’, Hewitt tells the story of a Suffolk girl, the sole occupant of a house in an isolated village, who comes face to face with a Nazi soldier; the soldier takes her as his hostage. Whether this tale has any basis in fact whatsoever, whether it was propaganda designed to needle the conscience of our American cousins or just a product of wartime paranoia and too many pints of Adnams may never be known. But that doesn’t matter, because Hewitt’s version gives us a fleshed-out psychological drama between two extraordinary characters, Heiden, the first of a German invasion party to reach dry land, and Lydia, 11 years old and utterly alone.

Both Lydia and Heiden are resilient in their way. Both are afraid of – and dependent upon – one another. The book provides an explanation of how such a meeting may’ve occurred and plays out the intriguing consequences. Domestic challenges such as trying to get the water running, sharing a dinner with one’s captor or prisoner and procuring maps from hiding places are magnified into emotional battlegrounds. Each character probes the other for information while trying to conceal their troubled past and the anxieties of the present.

This is WWII fiction as apocrypha and alternative reality, as opposed to researched-to-the-nth-degree realism. Hewitt delves into his two lead characters’ points of view, in essence switching the protagonist/antagonist roles. Some of the flashback scenes are ambitious, and perhaps uneven as a result, because this writer is trying to explore human feeling in extremis. Not wishing to detract from the Nazi character whose conflicting motives drive the story forward, Lydia is the one who steals the show. She’s vulnerable without being passive and at a precarious age where innocence is ebbing away and full maturity has yet to blossom. Her thoughts and reactions are the soul of this novel.

It’s interesting to note that Hewitt is an actor and playwright because his work undoubtedly has the dramatic elements of a play. Claustrophobic, touching, character-driven and told in lovely prose, this novel has great crossover appeal. Readers who loved ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ by John Boyne and ‘The Separation’ by Christopher Priest will have a strong affinity with ‘The Dynamite Room’.

The Dynamite Room by Jason Hewitt

Published in the UK by Simon & Schuster, March 2014

@Jason Hewitt123 on Twitter

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The Hunger Trace by Edward Hogan: book review

In The Hunger Trace, Edward Hogan’s second novel, we’re led through a landscape that feels simultaneously familiar, intimidating and astonishing. Derbyshire and falconry; a wildlife park and a love triangle that includes a deceased husband; a young man with special needs and a preoccupation with Robin Hood . . . Each of these themes has outward charms to be sure. But take a closer look, the way Hogan does, at these characters’ precarious existence, at their preoccupations and how they pit themselves against one another. Battles over territory, mating privileges and tests of strength pulse beneath the surface of seemingly mild personalities.

There are three characters we come to know intimately. Maggie, the young widow of David Bryant, pretty, placid and urban who inherits a languishing wildlife park. Christopher, her stepson, who is difficult and vulnerable, and at odds with his stepmother. Finally, Louisa, a woman who lives on the estate and who keeps no company except her hawks.

David is the centre of their world – and the void in it. Louisa in particular pines for him because she has the longest history with David though the true nature of her craving is obscured by the hold she had over him in life.

The natural world seeps into these relationships, literally and figuratively. There are practical problems to solve like when the herd of ibex are set free by persons unknown and tracked down to Morrison’s car park, or when the worst rains in a century come, flooding roads and endangering the raptors’ aviary. At times like these Maggie and Louisa have no choice but to work together, for whom else can they turn to?

Maggie is the warmer of the two women and sees better then Louisa does how much they have in common. Louisa, made bitter by experience, is unwilling to relinquish the comforts of isolation. They’re ostensibly rivals though the object of their mutual affection has died. The language and gestures are human; the forces moving them are animal.

Christopher is more than just a troubled teen, he is an abandoned child in a man’s body. His real mother is alive and well and has had nothing to do with him for years. He cannot accept the maternal overtures from Maggie for what they appear to be. What he would like most is to create his own family where he’s the man of the house or, alternatively, live the life of a noble outlaw in Sherwood Forrest. Neither dream is very realistic. Christopher is the physical embodiment of David, the new focus of Maggie and Louisa’s emotions, challenging and unpredictable. He requires no less patience than an injured animal who may attempt to bite you while you’re trying to save it.

The recurring image of falconry in this book is excellent. The delicate balance between care of the birds to keep them healthy, and the measured denial of food to keep them returning to the falconer’s fist works for numerous reasons, exposing the complexity of the human relationships that surround. This is but one example of Hogan’s creative brainpower, whose prose is crisp, the sounds and views of Derbyshire beautifully recreated. Equally impressive is the thorny friendship between Louisa and Maggie, how it deepens through the story, how each finds themselves influenced by the other.

Jealousy, hostility, helplessness and growth. The reader’s instincts constantly prickle. The Hunger Trace is accomplished and understated, a gem of a novel that manages to perturb and ultimately to reassure. For when we are consumed by terrible pain, what better therapy is there than to take care of a creature more fragile than ourselves?

The Hunger Trace by Edward Hogan

Published in the UK by Simon & Schuster, March 2012

@simonschusterUK on Twitter

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