Friday, November 30, 2007

Winter Wonderland

Winter sun in Leamington Spa, UK

It has been a truly amazing November - I can hardly recall being happier (but can it last?).

Well, I hope it does. After going to hell and back in Leamington over the past couple of years, I am enjoying life at long last, and looking forward to my birthday and Christmas.

I headlined a poetry gig in Oxford - and it was fantastic.

The club, Back Room Poets, was in a Hardy-esque public house called Far From The Madding Crowd with an intelligent, attentive audience.

It was my very first gig as a 'featured' or 'future' poet and I leapt from reading one to three poems, as I have been doing at poetry club open spots for the past year and a bit, to doing 15 poems during a set which I think ran to 25 minutes.

I performed a mixture of the serious and the flippant, alternating between the two. I believe I kept the audience with me. It was great experience for me, anyway.

It was the first time I have played a poetry club where the audience was more interested in serious poems than the silly ones. I felt most honoured to be playing there at all.

I was most impressed by the other readers. The blind guy was awesome, reading his poems from Braille sheets pinned by crawling fingers to his chest.

A skyscaper of an American rower was also interesting. And a famous horse trainer present was also a talented poet.

Funnily enough, it was the night of the big anti-fascist demonstration outside the Oxford Union.

So, the audience's numbers were swelled by behooded demonstrators with angry anti-fascist eyes. Good for them!

At the end of the night, I was amazed and hugely flattered to be handed a cheque for 20 quid as payment. I have kept it as a souvenir. Like Byron, honour would not allow me to accept payment for poetry!

The day before - in Lewes - I went to a remarkable event at the All Saints Centre - a talk and one-act play about the model and photojournalist Lee Miller.

The slide-illustrated lecture, Discovering The Art of Lee Miller was given by Mark Haworth-Booth, the photo-archivist in charge of a definitive Lee Miller exhibition, The Art of Lee Miller, currently at the V & A in London, and Tony Penrose, Lee Miller's son.

Tony also wrote and appeared as himself in the play, The Angel and the Fiend, which was illustrated by slides too.

It was a superb afternoon. The slide show and talk was excellent and revealed a fascinating divide between the two men behind the exhibition.

Mark was driven by Miller's photography, seeking a photojournalist the world had under-recognised, almost forgotten.

Tony was driven by the fractious relationship he had with the latterly alcoholic Miller, seeking the mother he never truly knew, the lost love.

Clearly the two men had almost fallen out over one image with Penrose eventually getting a photo of personal importance to him included in the exhibition.

I walked away with very mixed feelings. Miller was a remarkable photographer, although perhaps not, in my humble opinion, a truly great one.

What was more extraordinary about her was her gift to place herself where she wanted to be when she wanted to be there; her skill at re-inventing herself as a Vogue model and photographer, war photographer and reporter. I would have loved to have met her in the 1930s or 1940s.

Bonfire Night Torches in Lewes, East Sussex, UK

I could not help but admire her, and seeing her humorous or chilling wartime images reminded me of my long conversations about photojournalism with my former college tutor Sir Tom Hopkinson, who had been Editor of Picture Post during the Second World War.

Like Tom, Lee was truly formed by that traumatic time.

And, yes, I liked the way every last aspect of Lee Miller's life was celebrated as if a surreal masterpiece.

My head has been ablaze this month. I have been enjoying my work and life in the Leamington Garret.

Enormous (and hugely expensive) curtains have been hung over the living room windows overlooking the Pump Room Gardens, making the garret a good deal warmer.

My flatmate, a charming Hungarian called Attila, has been a delightful companion these past 12 months: intelligent, funny, easy-going, polite, and surprisingly English in his attitude to so many things. A tremendous guy!

At the Lewes Garret, it has been a strange month. I managed to break a window after a sloomy bee got in (attempts to get it out led to a picture being trapped under a window frame, my efforts to free the picture shattered a large pane and ended up costing 200 quid!)

Ladettes have vandalised the car wing mirror (another 90 quid down the drain!).

But the Allotment is going well. It is very pleasant to get out to Earwig's Corner to do a bit of digging. It is such a beautiful spot.

Moreover, I am starting a poetry club in Lewes which will kick off at the Lewes Arms at 8.30pm on Friday, January 18, with a tremendous line-up.

I intend to stage it on the third Friday of each month right through 2008, excepting August which is Edinburgh Time!

Talking of Lewes clubs, I dropped into SalsaMagic, the salsa dancing club at the White Hart Hotel in Lewes, and was shocked to see how terribly it has declined.

Since its founder and owner, Miguel Angel Plaza, fell sick, this once-great Sunday night club has fallen into apparently terminal decline.

A couple of years ago, you would have expected more than 100 salseros at the regular Sunday night event, with four classes going at the same time, followed by a huge Merengue lesson and then a lively DJ-ed club night until 11pm.

When I turned up the other Sunday, only four punters were there at the start (plus five teachers or helpers). The night was cancelled.

Afterwards, we all went for a hot chocolate upstairs at the hotel and discussed the parlous state of SalsaMagic and what could be done. Very little, it would seem.

Miguel is said to be unwilling to reliquish the reins while seemingly and sadly not running the business himself. Only the loyalty of his friends keeps it going at all - and hardly. . .

At its peak, SalsaMagic had four club nights on the South Coast; the others being at Eastbourne, Bognor and Portsmouth.

Now only the former flagship at Lewes remains. . and for how long?

We all wish Miguel a full and speedy recovery. However, unless he allows another dance promoter to run the club for the time being, it is doomed, and, when he is well, he will not have a business to return to. A tragedy in itself.

So, I am sending out an S.O.S. - Save Our Salsa! If you loved SalsaMagic and can think of a way of saving it, please do so.

As things stand now, I reckon it is only a matter of time before the White Hart Hotel takes it out of its misery, and the magic is no more.

I have been in London quite a lot this month through business and was highly amused by a story I saw in a free London newspaper about the Croatian national football squad being egged on against England by the mispronunciation of their national anthem by a British opera singer (booked for the gig).

opera singer Tony Henry

Tony Henry belted out 'Mila kura si planina' instead of 'Mila kuda si planina', so that 'You know my dear how we love your mountains' became 'My dear, my penis is a mountain'!

Of course, the players cracked up with mirth and relaxed. . . and the rest is history. Now Tony Henry is being adopted as the national Croatian mascot for Euro 08!

A big fuss was made about England's failure to qualify and Steve McClaren's failure as coach.

Speaking as someone who only supports the national side and almost never watches club football, even I can say that from before his appointment McClaren clearly lacked the leadership qualities to make a success of the England job.

It is a disgrace that he was appointed in the first place and has trousered two-and-a-half million squid for his predictable failure (can I have a go at coaching these overpaid Premiership poodles?)

Still, the solution to this quandary is obvious. We should all support Croatia in Euro 08.

They are spirited underdogs and likely to fail, so ideal for England fans. I am leading the way by ordering my Croatian strip and 10 trillion cans of cooking lager, to prop up Mr Bean's (I mean, Brown's) fast-failing Government and economy!

At least their mascot is British! (and can sing).

My efforts to read the New Oxford Book of Verse continue apace. I am now on Poem 298 having read through much of the 16th centry since I last blogged about it.

I enjoyed John Donne, Ben Jonson and Robert Herrick among others, but was not so keen on Sir William Davenant, Sir Richard Fanshawe et cetera. Just 650 pages of poetry to go!

I am starting to revise my own humble collection of poetry of 2007 - about 38 or so. I would like to go through them all by year's end, as well as writing at least two or three new ones.

November was a good month for me. As I have previously written, I enjoyed bonfire in Lewes (and some more pictures from that magnificent occasion are sprinkled through this entry).

And in Leamington Spa, I find myself drawn onto the streets - which can be boring or buzzing.

The other Sunday I went to buy some milk and ended up at a student arts magazine gig at the Jug and Jester.

A tremendous band called the Rrrs were playing, with an utterly outrageous girl lead singer called Sharliza R.

I have also been enjoying the Wednesday nights at Kelly's in Leamington (when the bands turn up) - some images from which adorn this journal entry.

My mate Shanade, who has been poorly, put up a particularly spirited performance a few weeks back.

* I am in the Lewes Garret and, suddenly, life does not seems so wonderful.

Journalist Michael Knapp

It is raining cats and dogs outside and rather chilly up here in the rafters. I heard today that my old friend Mike Knapp is dead. My dear friend McJannet called with the terrible news.

I did my first Fleet Street shifts. on the pop desk of the Daily Star, with Mike. He was a tremendously kind and generous man, and a far more talented reporter than I.

I recall him giving me a picture exclusive story he had found to help me through a lean patch, and also fondly remember the lunchtime drinks we would have in the Punch pub on Fleet Street.

When I first knew him in 1988, he was a workabholic, doing a day-shift at the Daily Star followed by a night shift at The Sun.

His girlfriend (and future and then ex-wife Rebecca Hardy, who later rose to be Editor of The Scotsman, would chauffeur him between London and his home in Brighton.

I was never a really close friend but would always have a good chat with Mike when I saw him about.

Once I was drinking with him in the Express Newspapers bar and was astonished to discover, through a convoluted conversaton, that his parents were living in the exact same bungalow in Cumnor, Oxford, that I had grown up in - 15 Hurst Lane - having bought it from the people my parents had sold it to!

I last spoke to Mike about 18 months ago when he called me on a Saturday afternoon from the newsdesk of the Sunday Express.

He was handling a Catholic story and hoped I was still spin-doctoring for the Catholic Church and hoped I could give him a quick comment.

When I explained I had moved on and was currently sunning myself on the sunfront in his town of Brighton, enjoying a beer, we had a lovely chat. He said he wished he was there instead of stuck in a newspaper office.

We promised we would meet for a drink soon, but, of course, we never did.

I guess the smoking and the booze did for him in the end, but, all the same, mid-40s is far too young to go.

So, tonight I raise a glass to Mike Knapp - a fine fellow, sadly departed.

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