Date to note March: The London Book Fair, 12-14 March. Olympia, London. UK

Dates to note this month were limited to two items. Firstly the 1st of the Month release of Chaos Walking, based on Patrick Ness’s Guardian award winner The Knife of Letting Go and secondly, the London Book Fair.

Unlike some of the other dates to note in the Literary Calendar I had at least heard of the London Book Fair, or as booky people in the know seem to refer to it as, ‘LBF’. It would seem that every man and his dog in the publishing world – according to the LBF (how easily we slip into it) – 25,000 publishing folk were expected to attend the event 12-14th March 2019. The LBF website notes it as a ‘global market place for rights negotiation and the sale and distribution of content across print, audio, TV, film and digital channels’. By content, they mean every aspect of possible content from academic to children’s to publishing rights, to digital and print and so on.

The London Book Fair had never especially caught my eye before today and it was playful of the Literary Calendar to add it as a date to note.

Certainly and obviously (once one ponders) it is an ‘of course’ date of enormous importance for everyone in the book industry. I imagine some members of the Guardian Book team chomping at the bit to be there, wearing their Guardian ID like bright golden sheriff stars, feted as celebrities by the publishing houses and authors keen to become pals. I have to say I envy them! If I had a Guardian press pass, I might even sashay a little at LBF.

Sian Cain (@siancain) of the Guardian was hot off the press in an article published on the the 13th March (https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2018/apr/13/london-book-fair-roundup-jrr-tolkein-naomi-alderman). The article is a list of books we can look forward to in 2020. It is an intriguing list and will no doubt feature to some extent in the Guardian Literary Review ‘calendar of books to look forward to in 2020’. Both Sian and Alison Flood also note increased interest of publishing houses in true crime and feminist fiction so we might expect to see this interest reflected in publishing lists next year.

LBF19 Day 1 highlights

Olympia heaving with agents, exhibitions a spectacular list of seminars and presentations and of course, enough books, of every shape size and description to bankrupt the majority of bibliophiles.  A seductive and delicious event for sure!

There is little to say more to say about this event not already covered in helpfully thorough detail by the LBF website https://www.londonbookfair.co.uk/About/

Tickets cost £45.00 or priority access £100 (each VAT inclusive). I cannot find information about what ‘extra’ the priority ticket gave attendees.

It would be great if disability access information had more prominence on the LBF website

On the LBF Facebook page, one attendee with disabilities wrote of his extreme frustration and his experiences of inaccessibility at the 2018 event. The information about accessibility and carer passes is buried a little on the website – I had to search for it. It would be useful if this information had more prominence in the future.

Date to note: February

Perhaps February is a literary dry month. Options offered in this month’s dates to note were thin.

8th. Bicentenary of the birth of John Ruskin in 1819.

Release of James Baldwin adaptation of If Beale Could talk by Moonlight writer/director Barry Jenkins.

20th.  20th Anniversary of death of Blasted playwright, Sarah Kane age 28

John McKie in a 2016 BBC review of ‘Cleansed’ offers the view that Sarah Kane is one of the UK’s most acclaimed theatre writer with work is a standard part of the drama A level syllabus.

I had not heard of either Blasted or Sarah Kane and chose this to date to explore further because I was intrigued by how young she was when she died.

I was captivated firstly by images of Sarah Kane.  I am often irritated when authors focus on the physical attraction (or otherwise) of their subjects.  I am also of a generation of feminist who well remembers the perils of being accused of objectifying women, so it is an odd place for me to start this piece.  I saw  beautiful black and white images by Jane Brown held by the National Portrait Gallery (on-line).  She looked like many women I have known – lairy, funny, self-aware, tough yet vulnerable. Like a woman I might have stood alongside waving a banner.  From of her images alone, I wanted to like her and her work.  The more I read, the more there was to like.  She was interested in sexuality and violence, was described as ‘notorious’, happily accepted her plays were radically divisive and near impossible to stage – and – according to one reviewer, wrote ‘disgusting feast(s) of filth’.

How had I never heard of this amazing rebel woman?

I read the Blasted script online (I have not added a link because I am unsure whether the full copy on-line meets copyright rules – but yes, I did read it).  The script was said by Kane to be a response to the Bosnia war. I did not like it.  Not at all.  Like many of the journalist who went to the first press show, it read to me as a not very skilled writer, lazily keen to shock and I found it both dull and tedious.  What a disappointment! 

I read that Sarah Kane committed suicide by hanging with shoelaces after being hospitalised by an earlier overdose.  In that context Blasted made more sense to me (I had not yet looked at 4:48 Psychosis).  In my professional life, I have read material written by people with severe mental health conditions and the Blasted script seemed to me to be not dissimilar to those writings which screamed of inner pain and torment. 

As sad as any death of a troubled person is, and unpersuaded by the Blasted script, I was still unsure why the anniversary of her death was a literary ‘one to note’ for February.  Was I missing something?

It would seem that the original reviewers of Blasted missed something too.  Charles Spencer of the Telegraph  (5th April 2001) acknowledges that from initially thinking the play was ‘rubbish… designed to shock’, he later came to realise that Kane had ‘genuine artistic vision and great dramatic talent’. It is clear that he was not the only critic to dramatically and quite quickly amend his opinion.  But what changed their minds?  A cynic might ponder upon the fable of the Emperor’s new clothes and journalistic egos or the modern concept of FOMO – fear of missing out.  Kane herself was not terribly interested in the ‘middle-aged, white, middle-class men’ who were unable to understand her work, possibly, as she laughingly proposed in her interview with Dan Rebellato, because they empathised rather too uncomfortably with the lead character in Blasted – Ian, the bigoted and subsequently horribly abused journalist.  

Sarah Kane in conversation with Dan Rebellato

Subsequent review from both critics and learned people of the theatre referred to her ‘incredible instinct’ and, I was particularly interested in Katie Mitchell, Director of another of Kane’s work ‘Cleansed’ who refers to it as an astonishing piece of work and a ‘strong feminist piece of writing’. Consciously drawing on a feminist perspective, I considered her work further trying to understand the alleged originality. While not a scholar of theatre, I was able to understand that her work challenged the (then) norms of theatrical delivery and the new form powerfully presented her passion. Kane’s works when read have the difficult musicality of jazz. Experts in the form of theatre suggest her words on the page are made meaningfully complete in the actual performance of them. Theatre scholars also suggest her works are hugely complex but so lacking in stage direction they demand the most of actors. The scripts compel them to deliver exquisite and perfectly nuanced performance which properly manifests Kane’s meaning. The skill of her ideas is in forcing the presentation to reflect her powerful message accurately.

I watched as much material as I could find on YouTube which covered theatre performance snapshots of Blasted, Crave, and 4:48 Psychosis and reviews predominantly. I also watched ‘Skin’, her short and only film.

Skin by Sarah Kane

I listened to her charming and funny interview with Dan Reballato, and I listened to his later (excellent) audio documentary which can be found on his webpage http://www.danrebellato.co.uk/sarah-kane-documentary and also on the BBC Sounds app https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/b00hlbp2

I was particularly taken with her response to an audience question in which she said she did not make things up but described real things she saw around her.

The violence that made people gasp/faint/walk out is based on the truth of violence in war.  I went back to Blasted and read it differently.  At the second reading, I understood what she meant when she said that Blasted was not a violent play but a play about violence.  I also felt overwhelmingly sad.  In discussion with Dan Rebellato she explains 4:48 Psychosis – her last play.  It has been suggested the play is effectively a suicide note – though her brother strongly suggests that to view her work as such is diminutive and lacking. 

Nevertheless, her work is so full of pain and hurt it is difficult not to see trauma, torment, loneliness and autobiography. 

It is difficult not to feel sorrow for a talent lost too soon.  I am hoping I have the opportunity to see her plays performed.

Is the anniversary of Sarah Kane’s death a literary date to note?  Yes – it seems fair to say so – but the Guardian Literary Calendar list of dates to note speaks only to those who already know. What is the purpose or value of such a list for the rest of us? Is the intention of the Guardian Literary Calendar list to document or educate?  I think this is a valid question, loaded with responsibilities, which I will ponder further in subsequent blog posts.

TS Eliot Prize for poetry awarded

January dates of note (Review 5 January 2019)

  • 1 Centenary of birth of The Catcher in the Rye Author JD Salinger*.
  • 7 Winners of Costa category awards announced.
  • 11 Release of the biopic Collette, starring Kiera Knightley.
  • 12 50th Anniversary of the publication of Phillip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint.
  • 14 TS Eliot prize for poetry awarded.
  • 29 Costa prize-giving with book of the year revealed.
  • Germaine Greer turns 80.

In this post I will be pondering upon 14th January: The TS Eliot prize award for poetry

Image: TS Eliot by Lady Ottoline Morrell © The estate of Lady Ottoline Morrell. Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence

I mentioned in my first post that some of the dates are written as if self-explanatory – that anyone would understand why these, rather than other dates, are especially of note in the literary year ahead.  In a future post, I will reflect on the influence of the lens upon the collection offered.

For this post, and for future monthly choices of dates to consider specifically, I will be guided by one simple question:  Why is this a date to note?

I chose this date because I am relatively ignorant about the event.  What I know about the craft of poetry writing could be covered in a seven-line limerick. Beyond ‘knowing what I like’ in a poem (John Cooper Clarke, Maya Angelou, Roger McGough, – popular but arguably unadventurously mainstream) I find many as difficult to interpret as another language.  Learning about the shortlist and the winner provides me with an opportunity to give more time to poetry than I usually allow. 

Helpfully, readings from the full shortlist are posted online:

Personally, I find hearing poetry is a more satisfactory, more sensual experience than reading it and so I spent a couple of hours being variously caressed, battered or bored. 

I do not have the technical knowledge to critique but I found Tracy K Smith’s reading from Wade in the Water (Penguin, 2018) to be distinctive, evocative and politically thought-provoking.

The winner of the TS Eliot prize was announced as Hannah Sullivan for her book Three Poems (Faber, 2018). Her work is precise with a near-forensic economy of chosen words.  Her reading readily evoked visceral imagery. Belying my lack of a framework to understand poetic form and discipline, I did not have as powerful a response to it as the prize awarding panel which found her work ‘exhilarating’. The Chair of the panel and previous winner Sinéad Morrissey is reported, in a Guardian article, to have said of Ms Sullivan that ‘a star is born’.   

A quick peruse of Wikipedia shows there are a great many well-respected poetry prize opportunities internationally and I assume this must be a good thing for poets and therefore poetry.  It must be a very challenging field in which to publish and become successful.  Prizes must help bring work into focus and audience and this can only be a very lovely thing.  The TS Eliot prize is unquestionably much coveted and indeed, valuable. 

I found an unexpected prize.  The TS Eliot Prize website made available for download readers notes for each nominated author.  Notes include brief bio’s of the author, example reviews of their work – some samples of which are also included – and, super-usefully, discussion ideas through which to dissect and debate the authors work. Suggestions for other writers of a similar vein are offered.  The reader notes allow poetry novices such as me a way to engage with and learn how to understand the poems submitted.  It is my intention to now actively use these so go back to the recordings and consider them with a more discerning ear. There was also an invitation to join the mailing list and I enthusiastically signed up.

If one is a poet or involved personally/professionally in the literary world, then I guess the TS Eliot prize is indeed noteworthy and perhaps obviously so.  I am sorry (and perhaps just a little bit embarrassed to admit) it had not crossed my own horizon before, but I am very sure it will become a date to note for me in the future. I am grateful it was included in the list. 

Postscript: *I note that the Review of 2 February 2019 carries a four-page article based on an interview with Matt Salinger, JD Salinger’s son and literary executor.  On 3rd February the Observer (sister paper) ran a ‘book of the day’ article by Tim Adams (@TimAdamsWrites)  about the publication of volume 8 of the letters of TS Eliot. I wonder if perhaps the Literary Review calendar is in fact plan which will be guiding future editions of the supplement?  Time will tell.