Friday, 20 June 2008

Five Days in Norwich: the Last Post

I leave Norwich this morning with a new muse, after all the city and the university have been so lovely to me this week. Chris Gribble, head of New Writing Partnership, who invited me down, spoke after J.M. Coetzee's reading, of it being a special place - and I can only agree with that. Literature is an art without frontiers, or the need for frontiers. Early, in the week the Polish writer, Adam Zagajewski had made the point that 20th century literature had the dominant narrative of exile. I've sometimes talked about the "shorter" 20th century, beginning, not with the calendar, but with the demonic rift in Europe, that was the First World War. Coetzee spoke yesterday of the two great Western censorship trials, "Ulysses" and "Lady Chatterley's Lover", Joyce and Lawrence. They were both exiles, and in their different experiments with form, truth, style and content remain amongst our most important 20th century writers. In his biography of Lawrence, "Flame Into Being", Anthony Burgess makes the point that in our academies, to be both a Joycean and Lawrentian would be seen as an impossibility. For a writer, of course, such contradictions are our lifeblood. When Poland became members of the European Union, I had a drink to celebrate, and felt, knowing the history, that some healing had taken place that day. We cannot know what will be the defining narratives of the 21st century. If Freud, Marx and Nietschze were the presiding intellectual spirits of the last century, what for this? I'd make a case for Marshall McLuhan, Pierre Bourdieu, and James Lovelock; the concepts of communication, habitus, and gaia, becoming ever more relevant to our current state of being. Yet, there is hope, as this week made clear; for if the shooting of Archduke Ferdinand has a contemporary equivalent, it will sure be an environmental absurdity - perhaps Gretel Ehrlich's description this week of the thnning of the arctic ice, perhaps some media event that resonates beyond its few days in the sun. Writers - and other creative artists - remain vital in chronicling and contradicting the absurdities of the age. Globalisation makes us all neighbours, with the computer I'm typing this on made in the far east, and the server that hosts this blog held in the Californian desert; so if I've been reminded of nothing else this week, it's that the 21st century exiles aren't going to be Britains and Americans flocking to Paris, but writers from across the world, settling down wherever they are welcomed. That's the aim of New Writing Worlds, and for the last week, that sanctuary has been here in Norwich.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Never underestimate

Thursday Evening

It is always possible, I guess, to sell out a large hall to see a great writer speak. Dickens toured America after all. Yet, I think its important that we don't underestimate our great writers, rather, that we give them their due. I found myself, on Tuesday, sat next to J. M. Coetzee, and he poured me a glass of water at the start of our literary salon. Tonight, he was the main casting, central billing. Coetzee talked tonight about a singular, vital issue, censorship. Not in any polemical way, but based on his own experience. It is very easy to forget that he has lived through far more turbulent times than we have, and, in the conversation we've been having all week about "how writing can change things" he was writing novels at a certain frontline. A few years ago he was given the "readers reports" of his early novels. They were all published in London, imported into South Africa, and had to get by the censors. What surprised him was that he knew the reviewers, he'd been invited around their houses; in the small intelligentsia of seventies South Africa, he'd been sharing hot dogs with his enemy, without knowing it. He read, not from his latest novel, but from two of the novels they had censored. It is fascinating to see such a calm man gnawing on a thirty-year old bone in such a measured way. I've so much admiration for a writer that , given this situation, is non-polemical. He leaves it to us to decide whether the Afrikaaner censorship board was behaving correctly or not.

New Writing Worlds 2008 - Final Events

Thursday Afternoon

After an exciting week, tonight sees the final events of New Writing Worlds 2008. A final reading at the Millennium Library featuring Jonty Driver, Tishani Doshi and Tijs Goldschmidt, at 5:00, followed by the Nobel Prize Winner J.M. Coetzee, reading at the UEA from 7.30. It's been a wonderfully varied week, taking in readings of poetry and fiction, music, a trip to Strumpshaw Fen, and fascinating 3-day salon on the theme of "Human:Nature," with writers from all over the world contributing to a fascinating debate - and I realise that this week has only been one small part of a much wider range of literary events in Norwich and at the University. With one event left to go, this blogger needs to leave my computer behind, for a while, and get ready for the evening.

Nature and Imagination

Thursday Morning

If in previous posts I've been writing about something incomplete, I realise now, I can write about something whole. It's a tribute to the organisers of the writers salon, that both the themes of the 3-sessions, and the chosen speakers, have created an arc, both of argument and narrative. From "nation" to "panic" to "imagination", I feel that we've been steadily humanising, if not nature, but the relationship we have with nature. Gwyneth Lewis lead today's session, as equally nuanced as the presentations we'd had on Tuesday and Wednesday. However, she'd made some adjustments to her original speech in response to the arguments, the questions, and the controversies. She talked about the two types of writing we'd been talking about this week, "nature writing" and "creative writing" and that partly she wanted to see how these can be brought together, writers becoming advocates for the natural world, with, certainly in the case of a poet, them becoming "natural historians" of language (my quotes.) It's a wonderful phrase, since if our arguments earlier in the week had sometimes been hard to paraphrase, surely that was a question of language as much as anything else? She elaborated, with an example. Out looking for cranes with the nature writers, Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey, they'd drawn a blank, cranes apparently not liking to be seen out early on a Tuesday evening, with rain threatening. That is the nature writer's difficulty, transcribing an uncertainty - a creative writer (and the nature writer, the good one, becomes that as well) - has to know what the language will do under all atmospheric conditions. In talking about language, Lewis, is talking from a position of complexity - the role of the Welsh language, its relationship both to English and to nature/landscape - that requires both a sense of metaphor and a literal understanding of what words mean. When the Welsh poet Taliesin says "I was born in the region of the summer stars" it is both metaphor and literal truth. To illustrate further, she read John Clare's "Transcription of a Nightingale's Song", a co-authorship if you like, between Clare and the nightingale.

Chee chew chee chew chee
chew—cheer cheer cheer
chew chew chew chee
—up cheer up cheer up
tweet tweet tweet jug jug jug begins. Perhaps, felt Lewis, we need to think of our own role, in nature, how our own bodies - the relationship to them - our frailties, and particularly our illnesses are our most intimate understandings of "nature". Becoming, somehow "naturalists of ourselves" and using this example to more better understand our relationship with and to wider nature.

This opening piece gave us a kind of synthesis of the week; not just the salon but the other events - even the visit to the fen - and seemed to loosen up the discussion, taking it away from what the writer can hardly affect (climate change) and therefore must be in anxiety about, to what the writer can do - to create a bridge between words/language and the natural world (including ourselves) that they describe. Adam Thorpe appropriately asked that we still had to "define" nature - and this seemed only right, but also difficult. That ecologists don't use the word loosely, as its too later. "To return a wood to its natural state" - is this an idea of past nature - or rather a future nature, different in many ways. Those of us who'd been to the fen turned to the recollection that some of the fen had been ploughed and some hadn't and that one act had made an indelible difference to the habitat. Nature, even in a small way, can be damaged or changed, in a way that makes it "unnatural." Given that "nature" was a problematic word in itself, then the term "human nature" - that ancient discourse between "reason" and "our nature" was given added bouyancy. In this context, literature is not "knowledge" and how it contributes to knowledge is perhaps an unecessary - and unhelpful - burden on the writer. Given the scope of panic that we'd identified earlier in the week, from Gretel Ehrlich's description of the inuit's deteriorating landscape, to Geoff Dyer's recollection of the holy Indian city of Varanasi, and its massive contradictions of the spiritual and earthy, Lewis talked about appreciating the "sparrow in the garden." In other words, no longer searching out the exotic nature, but valueing the everyday - that may not be there much longer.

But we'd had a sense - all week - that despite our individualism, and our differing viewpoints, experiences and priorities, we somehow should be taking a "stand." The despair - if you like - was partly because of how little power we had to change things. Literature rarely does, and when it does, it is accidental, perhaps banal. The European sparrow was introduced to America, we were reminded, by a group of American Shakespeare lovers bringing over every bird mentioned in Shakespeare. A single reference in Henry IV, got the sparrow its passage, and it was a highly successful import, so much that it's now virtually plague like. Be careful, writers, for what you wish for.

In summing up - synthesising - the week's sessions there was an opportunity to remember the persistent issues; the role of metaphor, when describing nature; valuing the subsistence lives that have been chosen by the inuit and others as a model for how one lives with the planet; how we see nature through the prism of the story, through the human response to it; the difficulties of a political response to impending crisis - but the importance of at least being aware of it; and finally, I think, the author's right, in their work, to join together in front of their readers, to state, firmly, and without embarassment, this is my work, and in it, "I am I."

I realise that none of these posts can be more than a snapshot of a detailed, nuanced skein of arguments. I think if we'd have stayed discussing climate change again today - the fallout perhaps of monday night's orginal debate - we'd have been lost to an insoluble argument. Yet writers are at their best, I think, when they can mix together the strains of science, history, nature, and, yes, creativity into some coherent whole. There was some sense of writing being always a study in "uncertainty", yet I think this is self-effacement. As Gretel Ehrlich pointed out, in explaining her interest in the inuit peoples, writers have to choose subjects that mean something to them. Therein lies the value. There is both the political statement, and the philosophical argument. Human:Nature - the use of the colon had perhaps set up a conflict, a dichotomy; I'd like to think that a different punctuation mark might now be appropriate.

I think we've all felt privileged to be involved in such an interesting discussion this week, me especially - I've felt that I've learnt alot, from unusual sources, and in different ways, that will probably take quite a while to surface. In blogging about the salon, I've tried not to betray any confidences of the room, whilst at the same time giving a flavour of the arguments that have been developed, and the presentations - all five of them excellent and thought provoking - that led our discussions. Any misrepresentations are mine alone - and each piece can only give a taste of the salons themselves, which were conducted in a spirit of honesty, collaboration, and frequently, though this is the hardest thing to replay outside the room, with humour.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

From Angola to the Arctic

Wednesday Evening

One of the key points to make about New Writing Worlds, and this is as an outsider, seeing it for the first time,is the interface between the public and the private. Yes, its to some degree, a private conversation - albeit with some eavesdropping such as this blog - but it is also open, with a range of high quality literary readings for the public. I've sometimes been to places where there's a conference or something on, and you've felt excluded, almost embarassed at asking if you can come to something of interest, only to be asked, "are you a delegate?" The public readings in the library earlier in the week, were followed on Wednesday by a range of events in the Sainsbury Centre at UEA. Like a large glass-and-steel shoebox, this impressive Norman Foster-designed building was a cornucopia of wonder, from the walkway by which we entered, through its impressive art collection, down to the readings themselves. I'd spoke briefly with Mia Couto and Jose E Agualusa earlier in the week; Portugeuse language writers from, respectively Mozambique and Angola, they'd just flown in from Africa via an event in Lisbon, and had a packed few days. Tonight's event "Connecting Worlds", seemed an entirely appropriate title. A little later, in another part of the building, we moved from the heat of Africa; to talk more about nature itself - from Geoff Dyer's exploration of Walter de Maria's "Lightning Field", to Gretel Ehrlich reading vividly from her travels with the inuit. I don't know if it was the building or the displacement of the subject, but at some point I felt a little disorientated, and looking back on it now, I seem to be looking down on them both speaking, seeing vividly their readings, as if I was almost - but not quite - a participant.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Bittern

Wednesday Afternoon

Conferences have to walk it like they talk it, so just as it would be wrong to have a technology conference in a place without technology (believe me, I've been to them!) a nature conference that is purely indoors would seem a little bit of a missed opportunity. Luckily, New Writing Partnership have been working with the RSPB these last few months, and so with them, and the nature writers Richard Mabey and Mark Cocker, we headed off to Strumpshaw Fen. The drizzle stayed off, despite a big cloud over the weather map when I woke up this morning, and we had a pleasant hour and a half walking through the maintained land of the fen. A marsh harrier was seen carrying a pheasant to its young; a family of coots were having an afternoon out on the water; and finally, in the distance, a bittern was spotted, poking its long neck above the grass. Twenty writers, some with binoculars, others straining to see, looked over for the distinct neck in the distance, but like a magic eye picture where you're not quite sure if you've seen it, not all of us managed to see it. However, we definitely saw the bizarrely beautiful bee orchid, a plant that has flowers that looks like bees, and being self-pollinating, annoyed Darwin no end. Stubborn little fellow, the bee orchid.

Writing Catastrophe: Nature and Panic

Wednesday Morning

The second salon session's title "Nature and Panic" was a sombre title. In the idyllic surroundings of the UEA campus, where the only possible threat is the physical size of the numerous rabbits (clearly being fed on student ready meals), the ominous world can seem along way from us. Adam Thorpe gave the first presentation, and followed on from some observations he'd made yesterday about having a particular view of time. On an archeological dig a few years ago, he'd been amazed by how an ancient site had brought up evidence of a hearth that had been used for hundreds of years. Our ancestors it seems believed in the eternal - without a written history, and with peoples spread out across the land, a sense of permanence, if not of life, certainly of existence was commonplace. If the history of this planet was revisited as the journey from London to Norwich as had been posited during Monday night's lecture, we are apparently just coming into Norwich station - but Thorpe baulked at this: for what comes after? This, he insisted, was not scepticism about the science, but about the almost theological tenets of the climate change debate, with scientists as priests. Surely, science was equally to blame in getting us into this mess? Thorpe's often written about history, but with a contemporary sensibility - and made the link, between medieval indulgences, available to the rich to forgive their sins, with modern ideas of carbon offsets to forgive our "carbon sins. Our panic is both a media one, and a Western one - as other contributors to the debate pointed out. For those in Britain and America, our fears and perils are different than those in, say, Eastern Europe, where freedom, and the loss thereof, remains a living memory. Whilst in India, just beginning to gain some of the benefits of a growing economy, the idea of climate change as the key issue of the day, or a reason to "panic" would seem absurd...a marginal and marginalised affair. It was pointed out that though on the one hand there seemed to be a need for some trans-national movement for ecological change, the risks of ecological Robert Mugabe were real.

If our sense of panic is so embedded now in the Western psyche - then how writers deal with this was a more difficult issue. We'd moved on, it seemed from yesterday's thoughts around being true about nature, to something more difficult to articulate. Yet, at the same time climate change, like 9/11, was in danger of becoming a media event, with the artistic imperative forced upon us for that reason. Should we, the writers in the room, be making some kind of statement, lying as if dead on the rabbit-plagued lawns of UEA?

C.K. Williams, in the second part of the day, talked about his own writing, and how increasingly climate change had become his subject, finding its way into many of his poems. He talked about early man, the Paleolithic cave painting from 30,000 years ago, where, it appeared, an aesthetic was already in place. Our response to nature could, even that far back, already encompass humour, aestheticism, even love for our landscape. Man has already suffered climate change, or a changing climate, with the virtual wiping out of the reindeer in an earlier age, causing unknown catastrophes from which we only somehow survived. He spoke about how the sense of dread that you get from knowing more about climate change can certainly affect a writer who has takes a depressive view on things; but also, that as a writer - the task is always to look for beauty. He spoke about the lack of hope in a novel like Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" - a book I'd packed in my bag on the way down to Norwich, but had left for another time - with its incredibly sadistic, dystopian view of the future: our darkest fate if you like. I probably wasn't the only person in the room wanting a little light at this point, enter stage left Beckett, who, always seems to turn up in conversation when there's some brooding to be done. A need for a kind of optimism, even if it's only humour, or perhaps humanity, becomes a necessity. There's always the search for beauty even if its a broken world. I don't know if we all agreed with the dark pessimism that was sketched out here: after all, even in the worst of times, art - and great art can flourish. Though, its perhaps not the very worst of times; compare the flowerings of Weimar Germany to what happened afterwards, or the virtual extinction of music in post-revolutionary Ethiopia. Was there a certain pathology in extreme situations that led the writer into a dark place? If so, what was the way out? It was a rather nervous laugh we gave when Gwyneth Lewis pointed out the mordant truth, that people often got to beauty spots to kill themselves.

A panic hadn't really gripped hold of the group - but a sense that we still needed to tease out the mysteries of how to deal with a sense of "dread" - perhaps the west has had it since the 2nd World War - potential nuclear holocaust first, global warming second. Yet, may that be a better state than walking blindly into battle, because God and your country needs you? Like yesterday, both speakers gave detailed and learned "think pieces", adding history and philosophy to yesterday's ecological expertise, and demand reviewing, revisiting, when they're put up on the web, following the event.

The Planet Has The Last Laugh

When we talk about saving the planet, what we're really talking about is saving ourselves. Species come and go, the planet keeps on turning. Here's a fantastic poem which reflects on just such matters from Jenny Toms, an RSPB worker who attended Mark Cocker's Reads and Writes workshop at Strumpshaw Fen.


The rain brings back the smell
The memories of ancient things
The sodden peat, driving out new life
From decaying dreams
of bark-dark canopies and liverwort.
Horsetail, not just clinging on, but thriving
through the aeons,
makes the solitary tern
seem a new strange thing.
A sudden happening.
Brief, then gone.
Too fancy; too new-fangled
to survive for long
And flowers - fashionistas:
what use for them?
next to the ages of this wise old man
Who knew the world long
before horses - or tails - had come along.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

A Tuesday Six Pack

Tuesday Evening

The "overnights" are never easy - those first cut reviews of the night before's "show" - but at least with this week's events they're delicious one-offs, be there or its gone. With 3 poets tonight in Norwich Millennium library our accompaniment this time was a jazz band tuning up. Libraries used to be built with walls as thick as castle keeps, but in our "open plan" present, everything runs into each other. Never mind, for another packed audience came along for C.K. Williams, Gwyneth Lewis and Adam Zagajewski, each given a rounded 20 minutes. There's all kinds of poetry readings, of course, but twenty minutes, just poetry, with three poets of intelligence and reputation, is perhaps an unbeatable model. They all commented wryly on the theme of "nature", since poets, good ones at least, don't write to theme - but it's rare to find a poet who hasn't seen something in the natural world to admire. Zagajewski read in translation, except for a short poem he read both in Polish and English, and the value of having a regular translator could be seen when he gave us a very recent poem, freshly minted, freshly translated. Williams half name-checked his Polish friend in one of his new poems; the opportunity to read something new - as well as something old - one of the advantages of the "twenty minute set." The last poem he read was a parade of his personal saints - yet, these saints were poets, a reminder of how art itself can have the power of the spiritual. Whilst Lewis gave us a mix of poems, some sad, some funny. Norwich is lucky indeed to have so many poets and other writers passing through its doors, and nipping out for a quick reading, such as this one. Before we moved on to a show at Norwich Arts Centre, everyone sat down for pizza. A pizza of course is very like a poem, From the outside it always looks rather familiar, a mix of dough, tomato, cheese and toppings. You need to bite into it to find its essense. I'm pleased to say, the pizza was delicious.

Norwich Arts Centre is in an old church, and as a result has both a grandness and a quirkiness to its layout. Tonight's show, "Turning up the Temperature" was a livelier, lighter kind of event. Performance poetry has sometimes been the bane of my artistic life living in Manchester, but arriving to find Ben Mellor sat on an exercise on the edge of the stage, was a surreal start. A one-man show, (albeit with audience assistance), Mellor gave us a performance, not just perfomance poetry, which generated its own energy (literally). He was followed by the Jamaican writer Kei Miller, who read both his poetry and fiction, to much acclaim; humorous, confident and orginal. I've been a little allergic to bands/artists singing in front of films ever since seeing the Beta Band many years ago, where all their musical genius couldn't quite hide how awful their student film backdrop was. Art students, eh? So apologies to Samia Malik, completing the evening, who sung and performed her set with confidence, if it took me a while to shake off my post-Beta Band aversion to film backdrops.

Nature and Nation

Tuesday Morning

The first session of the writers salon took place in the Council Chamber. We were sat around like knights of the round table, or perhaps, Alderman passing parking legislation... but so much nicer than being in a lecturer theatre, all facing forward. The theme before us, Nature and Nation, with the "unacknowledged legislators" including poets, non-fiction writers, memoirists, fiction writers, and, best of all, multitaskers. Last night's debate, primarily on climate change, had seen the imagination take a little bit of a backseat, as the heaviness of science's worst predictions seemed to label the creative writer as being either a denier or a propagandist. The writer, I've always thought, can sometimes go underground when faced with politicians, economists and... yes, scientists. A few years ago there was a big splash about poets like Lavinia Greenlaw writing about science in their work, poetry apparently requiring a specific relevance to time and place... the first job of the day, I think, was a bit of untangling, an unburdening, if you like of the expectation that writers could somehow be enlisted in some environmental Peace Corp. The messages here were far more subtle. Gretel Erhlich has spent many years travelling with the inuit, and she was never less than fascinating. It was the detail that stood out: the mythologies of the people; their belief that over the ice horizon, was simply more ice; even the insistence that they are modern people (fax machines, portable radios), living an ancient, and endangered life. The danger, of course, comes from the changes to the ice, where even in the coldest February, the ice hasn't the thickness to carry sleighs; not the cold, but the turbulent waters underneath causing it to crack and shatter. "Nation" here defined itself, not with flags and anthems, but with ice, with polar bears and reindeer, with finding and sharing food. I'm reminded of Thomas Hardy's "Woodlanders", an enclave community, that is still holding on to an ancient way; the difference being that here it's not "progress" that is destroying the life, but the effects of progress. Her most important point, I think, iterated from the floor, was that if we lose these people and their lifestyle we lose an echo of our own past life, and with it the skills, the understanding that we might just need in the potentially turbulent future.

It wasn't so much that the naturalist and nature writer, Richard Mabey, had a different view, as a different subject. He talked more about the need for us - for writers - to have, and he put it bluntly, a less colonial attitude to nature. The emphasis on writers is to tell the truth, to get it right. Neither to sentimentalise nature by our reference to it as "our" landscape, nor to denigrate it when it's less than beautiful. It is not the snow leopard or the elephant whose extinction that will be unforgivable, but the insect life, the microbe life, the plant life. Extinction, we were reminded, is a relatively modern concept - not a comfortable one for theologians, I guess, and even problematic for Darwinists, with their emphasis on "natural selection."

How then to reconcile these complex messages? Mabey felt, not uncontroversially, that there was a duty now on writers to "get it right" when talking about nature; that using the moody landscape as a "prop" for our own melancholy was no longer enough. Teasing out how all writers - any writers - can take on board a responsibility that seems counter-intuitive to the creative process, was one of the day's - so far - unanswered questions. Mabey's other points perhaps got lost in the complexity - and politicisation - of the argument. His initial point had been how for much of his life he'd wanted to "own" a landscape, one where he'd lived for so long, and yet when illness led to him leaving, it also freed him. Our own "private" nations are adaptable, it seems, if we're willing to accept a different kind of citizenship. When owls arrived in his village, he had to dump his preconceptions of owl life, and think again, on their terms. This, it was agreed, was no longer a scientists' job; perhaps a writers.

I think everyone in the room will have had more things that they didn't say, than did, as both Mabey and Ehrlich, ably chaired by Jon Cook, were giving us the anti-Powerpoint, a polemical essay. Emerson, Dickens, Shakespeare, Stevens, Sebald, Thoreau, Rousseau, Wordsworth, Clare and Ruskin were mentioned in despatches, amongst others. Literature - great literature - changes us by letting us see the world through its prism, understanding more in the process. Though certain writers can appear to be express universal thought (wither the Lakes without Wordsworth for instance?) it is their individual sympathy and empathy (John Clare, suggested Mabey) that comes first. If, as Adam Zagajewski, maintained, the 20th century writers state of being was primarily that of "exile" - what of the 21st? I suggested that both of our "case studies", if you can call them that, the inuit community of Greenland, and the threatened Norfolk coast, were both, in their different way "margins", but ones which were increasingly valid to our understanding of what comes next.

Future Imperfect?

Monday Evening

The majority of the "worlds" writers arrived tonight, and there's something quite inspiring about a group of virtual strangers, with something in common, getting together. For what...? Well, that will come clearer over the next few days. A writer, at least should approach something like this, without preconceptions. I'm reminded of a country house mystery, we're all meeting in the drawing room, and haven't yet realised the chambermaid's been murdered in the kitchen with a staple gun. Yet, if tonight's debate, "Future Imperfect?" discussing the planet-in-peril, is anything to go by, the victim is already tagged, it's US. Prof. Andrew Watson gave us a cautionary history story about blue-green algae who manufactured the oxygen that took over the atmosphere and destroyed all life on the planet; leading the way (much, much later) for our evolution. Giles Foden, whose next novel, Turbulence concerns the weather conditions at D-Day (a kind of gung ho "Perfect Storm" perhaps), is investigating another kind of evolution - for that event remains one of the key events in our living memory. An imaginative writer can do justice to D-day, but to humanity as the next blue-green algae? The subject suddenly seems too big and serious for art; yet at the same time, artists, writers, poets - though rarely bellwethers (aside: I was very pleased, a few years ago, when I found out that the "bellwether" was nothing to do with the weather, but referred to the practice of tying a bell round the the neck of a castrated ram to lead the sheep home) are still something of the written conscience of a society. We don't have to go as far as Harold Bloom, who reckoned that Shakespeare showed us how to be ourselves, to appreciate that art is like a cultural flouride, providing a slow, counteraction to our decay.

Earlier in the pot-banging maelstrom of Norwich Millennium Library (Q. at what point in human history did libraries not just stop being silent, but became loud?) Mimi Khalvati and Adam Thorpe read bravely above the din. Mimi read from her book, the Meanest Flower. A question from the audience to Mimi said, "I'm a bloke, I only buy flowers for my missus when she's ill, so they don't really interest me that much." Men should be more careful in their appreciation of the dark beauty of flowers, there was many a husband who didn't recover from a bit of digitalis (the poisonous foxglove) in the soup. Nature always has its way.

Monday, 16 June 2008

Bishop's Garden: inspiration through the rain

At about 1pm yesterday afternoon, the rain was thundering down on the NWP tent, and spirits were sinking. Will anyone really come out in this weather? We talked of Dunkirk spirit and such, and said yes yes they will, and then all fell silent as the hail bounced off the tent. Yet at 2pm when the gates opened a steady stream of the truly great British public started coming through, just as the sun splashed out onto the green.

Half an hour later there was a queue for the ice-creams, children running round the maze, and much toing and froing from the cafe. Yet for many the beautiful Bishop's gardens served as a backdrop for the main event - the readings - which were delivered to a packed tent, despite all the other attractions on offer. It was easy to stay interested, as each reader delivered a little insight into their world and the world of their writing, and the general feeling was of wanting to hear more. Mark Cocker, Jay Griffiths and Richard Mabey all related how they turned to nature during periods of depression. Nature was presented not only as a salve, but as the essential base of our nature that we have to get back to. Griffiths elucidated most directly how the lack of 'Wild' is at the root of many of the social ills that we see today, however all the writers delivered the same insistent story - that we ignore our natural home at our peril. The joy of living more directly with the natural world was evident in the writing - from the colourful images of Guthrie's poems, to the poetic imagery in Cocker's Crow Country; all in all it was inspirational.

The kids showed us how it's done as well, running around through the flowers, and taking part in the many RSPB activities. Thanks to the RSPB, Charlie CrickCrack , all the authors, and of course all those who came out despite the showers...