Sunday 29 July 2018

A Day at Lowdham Book Festival, by Rosalind Rustom

The Lowdham Book Festival is a yearly event that takes place in the village of Lowdham just outside Nottingham, and as of 2018 has been running for nineteen years. This year, the event took place from Tuesday 19th to Saturday 30th June, and I travelled to Lowdham to attend the last day of the festival.

The locations for the talks were spread around Lowdham, the main hub of the festival being in the village hall. Here, there was the opportunity to buy books at a collection of stalls which showcased the work of authors talking at the festival, as well as tables to sit and enjoy food from the café. In the gardens outside the hall, there were marquees for the talks as well as areas for further book stalls.

I started my day by attending a talk titled ‘New Irish Writing’, which was given by Deirdre O’Bryne, a lecturer at Loughborough University and an expert in Irish literature. She discussed the new voices in Irish writing and the use of experimentation in terms of form and content. O’Byrne focused on the work of authors such as Louise O’Neill, Sara Baume, Sally Rooney and Eimear McBride, and led an entertaining and stimulating discussion concerning the topic of identity in Irish literature. 

Next, I attended 'The Shoestring Poetry Hour,' which was led by poetry publisher John Lucas and showcased the work of Roy Marshall and Jonathan Taylor. Roy Marshall gave a reading of a selection of his new and older poems, and explained that some were inspired from his work within hospitals in Leicester. Thus, many contained themes of illness and mortality, and Marshall’s readings gave the poems an enhanced harrowing undertone. Following this, Jonathan Taylor read a selection of poems from his new collection Cassandra Complex. Jonathan read a mixture of amusing as well as darker poems, which the audience enjoyed and resonated with them.

Lastly, I attended a talk titled ‘Crime fiction,’ which was led by Roz Watkins following the publication of her debut crime novel Devil’s Dice. Watkins briefly spoke about the novel and the inspiration of the Peak District in the setting for the novel, but more focused her talk on her personal struggles and obsessions with writing what she saw as a ‘publishable book,’ detailing her journey into the publishing world. She discussed her insecurities in her writing,  tackling negative reviews, and the life of writing as a job. This made for a very interesting and personal talk, and resonated with the audience, leading to many further questions that were posed during the Q&A section of the event. 

I had a lovely day at Lowdham Book Festival and thoroughly enjoyed the variety of talks that took place over the day. The event was well organised and a friendly atmosphere was clear across the festival, due to the passionate and engaged audience members as well as the many authors who took time to give talks or showcase their work. 

About the author
Rosalind Rustom is a recent graduate from the University of Leicester with a degree in English and American Studies, with a particular interest in fantasy fiction.

Thursday 12 July 2018

Edna Welthorpe Lives!

By Emma Parker

In 1967, Leicester-born playwright Joe Orton won the prestigious Evening Standard Play of the Year Award for his anarchic black comedy, Loot, prompting David Benedictus (author of the Winnie-the-Pooh sequel Return to the Hundred Acre Wood) to issue a public objection. How could a play widely condemned as ‘sick’ and ‘disgusting’ merit commendation? 

Amused that his satire on religious hypocrisy and police corruption should arouse such ire, Orton penned an ‘Edna Welthorpe’ letter in response:

        May I add my thoughts to those of David Benedictus on the subject of those ‘much-
        talked-of awards’?

        I agree that no one should seriously nominate as the play of the year a piece of 
        indecent tomfoolery like Loot. Drama should be uplifting. The plays of Joe Orton have 
        a most unpleasing effect on me (19 February, 1967).

‘Edna Welthorpe’ was the persona that Orton invented to write letters spoofing social and sexual conservatism. Middle-aged, middle-class and middlebrow, she is the opposite of Orton, a working-class gay man living in a period when homosexuality was still illegal. First created in 1958, Edna anticipates the emergence of Mary Whitehouse, the moral crusader who co-founded the ‘Clean-Up TV Campaign’ in 1964. In Orton’s Edna Welthorpe letters, concerns about public decency and declining moral standards sparked by the new ‘permissive society’ are rendered amusingly absurd.

In recent years, the growth of global conservatism (Brexit, Trump, the rise of the Far Right) seemed to call Edna back to life. 

When Curve, Leicester, staged Orton’s final play, What the Butler Saw, in 2017, I decided to reanimate Edna in a letter to director Nikolai Foster. I knew that Nikolai was familiar with Orton’s alias and would get the joke but didn’t anticipate that he’d share it by tweeting the letter. Edna’s outrage at a ‘depraved drama about sexual irregularity’ - especially intolerable when there’s already ‘enough of that in Holby City!’ - caused a stir on social media. Her reappearance was even reported in The Stage.

Once back, Edna soon found herself busy writing letters again.

To mark the 50th anniversary of Orton’s death in 2017, I teamed up with BAFTA-nominated filmmaker Chris Shepherd to launch a national Edna Welthorpe creative writing competition. Designed to teach students about satire and to encourage the next generation to keep Orton’s playfully subversive spirit alive, the competition debunked the myth that young people are politically disengaged: Tory Prime Minister Theresa May, retail tycoon Sir Philip Green and Waitrose were all lampooned. 

Alongside the competition, Chris and I commissioned new Edna letters from acclaimed actors and TV comedy writers such as Emmy Award winner Alec Baldwin (Saturday Night Live30 Rock), Caroline Moran (Raised by Wolves), Arthur Mathews (Father TedToast of London), Jesse Armstrong (The Think of It, Peep Show) and David Quantick (Veep, The Fast Show). As the project grew, it was amazing to see how far Orton’s influence reaches and the depth of his impact on contemporary culture.  

With the aid of a Grant for the Arts from Arts Council England, Chris and I also made an animation inspired by the original Edna Welthorpe letters. The film, in which the wonderful actress Alison Steadman plays Edna, has been screened at Latitude festival; The Little Theatre, Leicester; Encounters Short Film Festival, Bristol; the London International Film Festival, Barbican; the British Animation Awards, London; the Short Film Festival, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London; the LGBT Feedback Festival, Toronto - billed as ‘a showcase of the best LGBT shorts in the world’; on the BBC Arts webpage and on Criterion TV in the USA. It’s tantalising to ponder what Edna might say to Donald Trump.

The film and new Edna letters can be found on a website that includes a creative writing worksheet showing how anger at social injustice can be channelled into humour and offers satire as an alternative to hate speech:

The website won a Saboteur Award in 2018 (Wildcard category). What more appropriate award could there be for a project that honours Joe Orton, a prankster and provocateur who gleefully sought to demolish repressive social norms and hierarchies?

As Alec Baldwin, channelling Edna, commented on news of the Saboteur Award via Twitter: ‘Jolly good!’

Wednesday 4 July 2018

Cassandra Complex

By Jonathan Taylor

My new poetry collection, published in June 2018 by Shoestring Press, is entitled Cassandra Complex, and is full of prophets, prophecies, and apocalyptic visions of the future. Some of these prophecies are personal to me – moments in my life where I or people close to me seemed to glimpse the future; some of the prophecies are based on myths, or historical dreams of the future; and some of the poems about the ways in which our modern culture binds us to the future – through threats or promises. Despite our apparent rationalism, our society, it seems to me, is full of Cassandras – politicians, economists, CEOs – spouting possible and impossible futures.   

Cassandra, as you may well know, was an Ancient Greek prophet who was cursed by Apollo always to be right, but never to be believed. Likewise, the term ‘Cassandra Complex’ (or Syndrome) has been used in various contexts, including modern psychology, often to refer to someone who has a gift for prediction – or believes they have a gift for prediction – but is condemned to be disbelieved. When I was growing up, my father certainly felt he had a gift for predicting the worst, and rather enjoyed being proved right. Like many fathers, he enjoyed saying “I told you so,” when things went wrong – even if he hadn’t. 

On a miniature scale, this is what is known as ‘retroactive clairvoyance’ (or sometimes ‘hindsight bias’): where prophecies are retrospectively invented, so someone can say “I told you so,” or, more generally, where prophecies are reinterpreted in light of subsequent events. There are various poems in my collection which fall into this category – where, for example, historical prophecies are read and interpreted differently because of intervening events. They are proved true, as it were, in hindsight. Maybe this is sometimes the fate of poetry in general: to be proved true retrospectively. It was certainly the fate of that greatest of all poet-prophets, William Blake. 

As Blake knew, poetry’s association with prophecy is ancient – back at least as far as the Ancient Babylonians – and, for all our irony, rationalism, cynicism, bathos, the association still haunts modern poetry. In his famous essay ‘A Defence of Poetry’ (1821), Percy Shelley draws on the association, when he writes that poets are ‘the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; … the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’ Clearly, this is grand, Romantic language – Shelley is making big claims for the prophetic role of poets in society. But he also qualifies this language: poets are ‘unacknowledged legislators,’ ‘the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration.’ Poets are, in effect, Cassandras, whose prophecies are unacknowledged, and whose poems are expressions of an underlying Cassandra Complex. Poets are often the kind of people who want to say “I told you so” to the future. 

Here are two linked poems from the collection. 'Teleology II' was first published in I Am Not A Silent Poet

Teleology I

It is no very good symptom either of nations or individuals that they deal much in vaticination.

 – Thomas Carlyle  

You might catch a glimpse of toga
like a slip beneath the manager’s 
pressed suit, doctor’s white coat,
economist’s titillating bar-charts

for the prophets are everywhere
spouting a cacophony of futures
on screens, stages, street corners
in Medieval Latin, Ancient Greek. 

There is a wind-up Nostradamus 
in your head. Just for tonight 
let him wind down, shut curtains
on Cassandras crowding like triffids,

like refugees from an Apocalypse
yet to happen, and do something 

Teleology II

The refugees from an Apocalypse yet to happen 
are flooding through the time-gate in bloodied rags, 

marked by the Antichrist, trembling from earthquakes,
scorched by stars and planets crashing to earth, 
chewed and spat out by dragons with various heads, 
nibbled by locusts. 

Tens of thousands have already perished en route 
and most who reach their past are denied sanctuary:
after all, it’s their fault they weren’t among the Elect. 
The future can hardly be blamed on us, can it? 

A select few we save, those who bring with them 
knowledge of soon-to-be-discovered technologies,
oh, and the plumbers. 

The others – the godless, hairdressers, poets – 
are shoved back, 
whingeing they can’t win on either side of history.  

Afterwards, if you press your ear against the door
and listen carefully, I have heard it said, 

you can hear trumpets, distantly, from the other side.