Tag Archives: London

Long May Poetry Rain

Review: Rain of Poems at the Poetry Parnassus, Southbank, London

The rain it rains. Photo by Charlotte Geater

At Jubilee Gardens last Tuesday a crowd of people celebrated an episode of state-sponsored littering. In an event orchestrated by Chilean arts collective Casagrande, the English and Spanish translations of poems by writers from Britain and around the world were dropped out of a helicopter, which perched in the air as a fleck on the lashes of the London Eye. It did this one hundred thousand times.

The crowds oo’d and ah’d and cheered as the poems rained down. I saw Simon Armitage and his wife cooing like they’d seen a sea-lion do a trick. Many ran to catch the falling paper in all sorts of odd places, very much a competitive sport to them like Ultimate Frisbee. Some climbed trees and policemen told them off.

Casagrande describe their event, which has happened in many cities that have suffered bombings across the world, as “an alternative image of the past and a gesture of remembrance but also a metaphor for the survival of cities and people.”

I hadn’t read that description before the event and I certainly didn’t think about anything like that during it. And were I a more cynical person I might even conjecture that it was little more than the sort of guff written beside paintings at badly curated exhibitions. But I am not a cynic and the description, whilst over-laden with abstract nouns, does have a ring of sincerity about it. Artists are rarely insincere about remembrance.

What I am more interested in, however, is the idea of poetry as the vehicle for this sort of message and as the substance of this kind of event. The Rain of Poems also asks – what is it about poetry that means this kind of off-the-wall, symbolically charged, dazzling event makes sense to us?  I probably wouldn’t go and see a Rain of Prose. A Rain of Tax Returns might have a certain satirical edge. A Rain of Post-cards, I’d say now you’re talking. I would stay well clear of a Rain of Arts Reviews.

But a Rain of Poems, that’s got legs. Why?

To some poetry is, superficially, a symbol of peace and grace. True, it is the language of funeral and mourning and delicate contemplation. But it is also the language of epic narrative, battles, dragons, brawls, drug-taking, visions and revisions, coke cans, abstraction, disruption and dentures.

What poetry is, is obstinate and awkward and patterned. It is predictable, yet unpredictable. More than perhaps any other form, it gives us clue after clue to which way it is going, sometimes following its own rules, sometimes flying off into another direction entirely. Appropriate, then, to see it falling from the sky.

It also demands its own space – it does not conform to word limits or the rules of the page. Another reason for it to make a lot of sense to see it demanding a spectacle, moving an audience – physically – to jump and dive and fight for it. I was pleased on Tuesday to hear none of the usual quibbles when poetry and stunt are combined, of dumbing down, of selling out, of vulgarity. This is partly, of course, because the physicality and spectacle of the act defy an immediate intellectual response: it is more than enough for it to be pretty and cool and exciting.

My three poems! Photo by Charlotte Geater

The event was not a competition. But if it was, I got my ass kicked. More dexterous audience members had scavenged for whole wads of bookmark-shaped verse. I got three. Mine were from Belgium, North Korea and Uzbekistan. My favourite is the one fromBelgium, originally written in Flemish by a poet named Els Moors.

She writes, in the guise of the gardener who tends to a golf course: “in a glass ticket booth I am selling ice-cream / to the visitors”. Is that usefulness, symbolism, tourism or an essential keeper of the peace? Sometimes, it is hard to say.


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The BBC Dickens Season: Post-Mortem

Warning: The paragraphs on Great Expectations contain SPOILERS.

Three months into the BBC’s Dickens Season it does not seem to have ended, with several Dickensian offerings still knocking around on iPlayer. Reports of its death in my titled “post-mortem” are therefore greatly exaggerated. But it’s fair to say that the bulk of the programming, including all of its major flagships, has been and gone. How, then, to draw any conclusions from the sheer glut of Victorianalia spread out to TV and radio audiences like the largest turkey in the window on Christmas morning?

"The broadcasters, they did it all in three months"

Whenever the Beeb does a ‘Season’ of anything – race, poetry, Stephen Fry – you can guarantee that one phrase will sum up its overall quality: “mixed success”. I think this is just inherent in the vision of unifying so many styles and audiences under one thematic banner with several contrasting artistic strings pulling in all sorts of directions that they don’t usually pull. Something has to give.

My argument in this post is this: that the BBC did well at the Dickens, not so well at the Season. Well at the Dickens for the imagination and innovation in the season’s best bits and for the depth of courage given to his work, life and legacy. But not so well at the Season, because it lacked range, focus and coherency across platforms. The biggest flaw may have been that the season’s central online interface was hard to navigate and almost impossible to find. I know, I just blew your mind with that zinger, right? But it means that the broadcaster both missed the opportunity to exploit the multi-platform potential of the season and to commission some cool Dickensian graphics.

Ok, let’s talk about Dickens and let the Season stuff fall in around it. Or more particularly let’s talk about people talking about Dickens: Armando Iannucci and Sue Perkins, both of whom presented those single-author celebrity-fronted documentaries of which the Beeb are so fond. Armando’s Tale of Charles Dickens was undoubtedly excellent – passionate polemic advocating the love of Dickens for the sake of his writing. There was little argument here, just a very enthusiastic clever bloke enthusing cleverly, just as Iannucci had done on his superb Milton doc for the Poetry Season two years ago.

Sue Perkins: a threat to Howard Jacobson's very manhood

More controversial was Mrs Dickens’ Family Christmas, in which Sue Perkins playfully poked around in Dickens’s troubled biography to reveal the oddities of his family life. It provoked Howard Jacobson to rant in the Guardian that Perkins was “sneering” at Dickens, not only as a husband but – and please frame this in your mind in a big over-dramatic voice – “as a man”. That’s right, that Sue Perkins should be so audacious to have sympathy for the women in Dickens’s life is a direct cause of the shrinking Y chromosome.

Now, at university I was very much a scholar of Dickens’s language and social politics – I am not on good terms with his biography. But there was nothing in Perkins’s documentary that made me suspect it was anything other than well argued, well researched and in reverence to Dickens as a writer. It even, I think, pulled off that sometimes problematic sweep from biographical to literary detail. It’s telling that in Jacobson’s article he says effectively nothing about the argument of Mrs Dickens’ Family Christmas, but makes his case by (mis)characterising the tone. You can make any argument sound bad if you accuse someone of ‘sneering’ it (just as I labled Jacobson’s article a “rant” a paragraph ago). It doesn’t make Dickens a good husband, nor does it make Perkins’s script any less witty, or the subject of Dickens’s family life any less interesting a one for a documentary.

Jacobson also had problems with the season’s biggest hit, Great Expectations. Here he stumbles on something much more interesting, accusing it of presenting a reading that “suits our would-be egalitarian times”. Now, this does not mean it was not good drama. Directorially, the thing was a treat, with the breathing sighing moorland and wonderfully framed action, which beautifully underlined the story’s fantasy leanings. But there was something odd about it for anyone who’s read the novel.

In the novel, as in the adaptation, the little boy Pip meets the escaped convict Magwitch and gets him a file (to cut his chains), and some food. But there’s one important difference that I think shows in miniature what the script editor was up to in the production as a whole. In the book, Magwitch asks for the food and Pip, who is scared absolutely shitless by the guy, feels almost physically compelled to do his bidding. It’s a religious relationship, similar to that with a vengeful Old Testament God. He fears punishment, resents charity. But in the show, Magwitch just asks for the file – the good little soul Pip takes it upon himself to give the guy some cake. Magwitch looks positively elated, a moment of shared compassion flickers between them. Dickens’s original fable demonstrates how fear and compassion-less charity are no substitute for human contact. (The book is obsessed with hands – Pip longs to touch. Not to receive money, or a fist, but simply a hand.)

And here’s the important thing: if you let Pip get the food himself, out of compassion, then the whole relationship changes. Instead of an unearned fortune, Pip inherits Magwitch’s wages in some kind of cosmic, karmic justice.

A modern Vicotorian: Sherlock

The drama didn’t have the confidence to deal with this moral ambiguity, so it eliminated it. Pip, it thought, cannot be a benefit scrounger. Our audience cannot cope with a morally ambiguous hero, they reasoned as Sherlock, Dr Who, House and a hundred other dramas blazed from TV screens proving them wrong. Don’t get me wrong, I liked Great Expectations despite these things – the performances and atmosphere were terrific – but they would still have been terrific without blunting the tale’s emotional complexities.

In fact, Sue Perkins aside, the TV leg of the season was characterised by its conservatism. It’s a particular shame the only TV fiction commissioned for the season was Costume Drama – even the only comedy, The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff, was Costumed. It seemed oblivious to the exciting contemporaneity of Dickens, of his potential for modern adaptation. Where were Matt Lucas and Noel Fielding to stylise the surreal, trippy riffs embedded in The Pickwick Papers? Or the trans-Atlantic commission for a modern, high velocity Martin Chuzzlewit?

That seems an ambitious ask, but then the new radio fiction commissioned for the season abounded with this kind of ambition and even loftier inventiveness. Firstly, Dreaming Dickens, hidden away on BBC World Service (although I guess “hidden” isn’t the right word for a place where nominally the whole world can hear it) – a blend of drama, documentary and found sound in which extracts from an exciting range of Dickens’s writing guide us through London, a London that blends dream, imagination, reality and the dirt beneath your feet. This was a mood piece, all about connecting the emotion of Dickens to the streets he left behind.

from Radio 4's Dickens in London

And secondly (my highlight of the Season), Dickens in London, an extraordinary set of new 15-minute plays commissioned for Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. Written by Michael Eaton and starring, among others, the phenomenal Antony Sher (you know Antony Sher, you probably saw him in a Shakespeare once), these stories were slightly farcical, non-naturalistic pieces that followed the personas of Dickens throughout his life, as if whole new characters existing somewhere in the spaces between Dickens’s short stories and Eaton’s imagination. Dramatically, these were brilliant, finding a great artistic space to play around and fanaticise in the margins of Dickens’s work – true to the emotion of Dickens, flippant with the letter.

But what’s even more exciting is that each of these plays is visualised on the Radio 4 website. ‘Visualised Radio’ is the current ‘big deal’ in radio broadcasting and, having heard a lot about it at the Radio Fast Train conference earlier this month, I have to admit my initial scepticism. But Dickens in London has converted me – short films that support the primacy of the audio to tell the story. They’ve got what you might call the ‘grammar’ of radio – it’s structured like radio, it feels like radio but it’s something more. The visuals themselves include beautiful puppetry, alarming fighting shoes and talking oven gloves. If you check out one strand in the whole season, check out these.

It’s exactly the kind of innovation the BBC – and for that matter Dickens – is all about.

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Stuff and Nonsense: The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff

Few TV writers can feel as lucky, professionally speaking, as the author of The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff, Mark Evans. Evans, who quilled Radio 4’s Bleak Expectations, was an obvious choice for a BBC2 commission to kick off the television output of the BBC’s Dickens Season. Not only did that guarantee him an audience, but also gave his writing the benefit of what looks to have been quite a sizeable budget as well as some of the country’s best loved comic actors: Robert Webb, David Mitchell, Katherine Parkinson and Stephen Fry.

What’s more Charles Dickens provides, for Evans’s source material, one of the richest legacies of work a single writer has left us since Shakespeare. There are, accordingly, plenty of silly names, gratuitous facial hair and wind-up top hats that get bigger with the dramatic tension. On paper this light Dickensian parody could have been one of the funniest shows of the year.

So what the Dickens went wrong?

First, three things that went resoundingly right. Terrence “The Demon Headmaster” Hardiman running around with a goose on his head stole every scene he was in, whilst everyone who even laid a stitch on the absurd sumptuousness that was the show’s costumes should give themselves a good old-fashioned bravo. Especially the hats. I also couldn’t help but smile every time the lead character’s full name, Jedrington Secret-Past, was mentioned.

The trouble with The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff in fact is more fundamental: it doesn’t understand parody.

Parody can work in a number of ways. It can take an established trope or sequence and put it into an entirely new place – exposing both that familiar place and that familiar trope as odd, fraudulent even. Or it can out-do its source, exposing its own fraudulence in the process. Think of the product placement parody in Wayne’s World. Or take this scene from US sitcom Community, the culmination of a plotline that out-paranoids the best conspiracy theory movies in dazzling style:

The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff, however, views parody as just: the thing it’s parodying, but a bit shit. Instead of out-doing the classic Dickensian plotlines by escalating their ridiculousness, shifting them to another setting, or by bringing another setting’s tropes into the Dickensian realm, Evans instead treads in Dickens’s shadow, saying what Dickens says, but in a funny voice – a tone inherited by the one-note “plot exposition with a veneer of irony” style of the show’s actors.

Part of the problem is that Dickens is himself a parodist – even Jedrington Secret-Past’s name is not as grotesquely obvious as the title character of one of my favourite Dickens short stories, ‘Captain Murderer’. You can guess what he does by the end of the story. Dickens’s language, modern screen audiences are liable to forget, is itself often deliberately old-fashioned, playing a game with the heightened language of the author’s predecessors, a game in which Dickens sets the rules, moves the goal posts and somehow has the warped logic to end with a home run every time.

David Mitchell’s character, Jolliforth, is one of the few things in the show worthy of a Dickensian label. Jolliforth gets bigger when he’s happier, inflating to an amazing size. But when he’s sad, such as when nasty mister Skulkingworm whispers bleak thoughts in his ear, he gets thinner and thinner. A good parody is like Jolliforth when he’s happy – it just keeps growing and growing into absurdism. But when you handle parody cynically, without any artistic purpose, it’s bound to deflate. Like Jolliforth, its life depends on the richness of the ideas whispered into its ear.

If what you’re looking for this Christmas is a TV show that presents funny scenes on bookish topics with Stephen Fry in it, then watch Horrible Histories. If you want a fun romp set in a CGI Victorian London with Stephen Fry in it, then go out and see the new Sherlock Holmes film. The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff hasn’t got enough stuff or enough nonsense for your swettlepence.

The endeavour was worth it, however, for us to discover one very important thing: David Mitchell looks really good with a handle bar moustache.


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Book Burner #3 – Panic on the Streets of London

I’ve spent the last three years writing essays as a university undergraduate. Every fortnight on this blog I’ll be burning off a little bit of that stock-pile, those bits and pieces that might interest the general or semi-academic reader, edited and formatted into short blog posts. Follow the ‘Book Burner’ posts for the full series.

Maps and fiction: the Olympic Park, Stratford

“Signs had lost their signifieds, the map symbols attached to nothing; building elevations were become empty fictions; London had to rebuild from the ground up – literally, visually, and conceptually.” – Cynthia Wall, writing about London after the Great Fire in her book The Literary and Cultural Spaces of Restoration London

In this blog post I want to sketch out the notes from a short presentation I made in the second year of my degree, which makes a pretty simple point, but one you might find interesting if you’re into your London history.

The map shown above is called A Plan of the City and Suburbs of London as fortified by Order of Parliament in the Years 1642 & 1643. It is typical of the cartography commissioned by the government in the period: each road has a consistent width, equal to roads of similar importance. Even the width of the Thames is consistent along the length of the river, a fiction if it were drawn now let alone in the mid-seventeenth century.

The government map values order, but that order is artificial. At least this is what Ogilby and Morgan thought. Ogilby and Morgan made a map called A Large and Accurate Map of the City of London: Ichnographically Describing all the Streets, Lanes, Alleys, Courts, Yards, Churches, Halls and Houses, &c. Actually Surveyed and Delineated. Quite a boast.

Here it is:

And here is a section of it:

It was publihsed in the 1670s and was one of the first popular maps after the Great Fire. Maps were fashionable items, used for novelty and recreation as much as navigation. It reacts against earlier maps (like the government one) in which, as Cynthia Wall describes, “the topographical spaces are cleared of visualized, imagined life”

The really remarkable thing about the map for me is that the nature of the new detail is, in its own way, pastoral. The flowing river. The inner city green spaces. And right there in the centre, the rows of trees.

This is interesting to a literature student for a number of reasons. One is that what is demonstrated in these maps is also demonstrated in literature. Many writers wrote literary “maps” or “tours” of London. In their work we sometimes see the city poet as pastoral muse or the city as a living organism. Here are two examples I think are pretty good:

“It is the Disaster of London, as to the Beauty of its Figure, that it is thus stretched out in Buildings, just as the Pleasure of every Builder, or Undertaker of Buildings, and as the Convenience of the People directs… this has spread the Face of it in a most straggling, confus’d Manner, out of all Shape, uncompact, and unequal; neither long or broad, round or square;” – Daniel Defoe, A Tour thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain

“Now the city being like a vast sea, full of gusts, fearful-dangerous shelves and rocks… as wanting her compass and her skilful pilot, myself, like another Columbus or Drake, acquainted with her rough entertainment and storms, have drawn you this chart or map for your guide” – Henry Peacham, The Art of Living in London

The cartography and the literature of the period have much in common – each of them maps the other.

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