Thursday 29 March 2012

"Comedy of Errors" was a comedy of errors

Another thing I love about Wellington, as well as the brilliant cafes: brilliant movie theatres. The Penthouse in Brooklyn has a regular programme of plays performed at the National Theatre in London. The plays are filmed and broadcast live to audiences in cinemas all over the country. In NZ, we have to wait a bit longer, but it's still - almost - like being there. You get to watch the audience settling down in their seats, then the the lights dim and as well as seeing all the action on stage, you get fabulous close-up shots of the actors.

The latest play was Shakespeare's The comedy of errors, which I'd never seen performed before. As part of the deal, you also get a few interviews beforehand with the actors or directors. Some people are a bit snooty about this play because it's one of Shakespeare's earliest ones, but as the interviewee said - if you didn't know that King Lear and Othello and all the other plays still  lay ahead, and took this one at face value, it is still a very funny play, but with serious overtones about how we know who we are and what happens when we forget that.

And it was very funny, thanks to a great cast and especially Lenny Henry. I love it when an actor can convey so much by merely rolling their eyes or raising an eyebrow, and how they can make an ordinary action quite hilarious simply by how they perform it .

The play starts with a long monologue, which is apparently another reason why it's considered hard to stage, but it was carried off in style with the help of some amazing scenery to re-create the shipwreck (OK so you can't afford that kind of stuff unless you are the NT, but it was amazing.) And the Phoenix 3-storey apartment block, complete with lift and door buzzer, was also great. The one time I wished I really was there in person was during the chase involving a real ambulance and lots of white coated attendants, which was bursting with Keystone-Kops style energy.

And the other comedy of errors? Well, the first 20 mins of the film (mostly ads and interviews) were played in silence while everyone in the cinema first laughed and then grumbled and then hoped that someone else would go and fetch the projectionist. Of course it didn't take long before someone said "this really is a comedy of errors " at which everyone chuckled again, but that's how it is with Shakespeare - all those useful everyday phrases that we take for granted without (usually) thinking where they come from.

Finally someone did go and tell the staff, and the sound came on just as the lights dimmed and the actors came on stage. But then we went right back to the beginning... so we could see the ads again and hear them this time. Never mind. It was all worth it as soon as Lenny Henry turned up.

Wednesday 28 March 2012

Cafe culture

One of the things I love about Wellington is that there are so many great cafes, each with its own unique atmosphere- so much so that the paper can run a weekly column on My favourite cafe, in which people can fill columns explaining why and how this particular cafe is their favourite. This week's cafe-goer is Barb Stone at the Milk crate (Another special thing about Wellington cafes is what great names they have!)

Monday 26 March 2012

The art of adaptation

Still haven't seen The hunger games, but in the weekend we went to the glittering Roxy cinema in Miramar to see The best exotic marigold hotel. Lovely funny movie with a stellar cast cast including Maggie Smith as a bigoted old lady who comes right in the end, Judi Dench and the fabulous Bill Nighy.

The setting is also fabulous (although it's hard to get across the full assault of the senses that is India without the smell of markets and spices and flowers and cooking and rubbish and everything else), and at one stage there is a glimpse of the island hotel on the lake in Udaipur which we were once politely asked to leave, as it was obvious we were scruffy backpackers hoping for a swim in the hotel pool, not bona fide hotel guests.

(You can see why two travel-worn backpackers would not have fitted in very easily.)

However I had no idea until the credits started to roll that the film was based on a book by Deborah Moggach  called These foolish things. Google (tells you everything you want to know) put me onto her website, which includes an extract from the book - set not in Jaipur and Udaipur at all, but in Bangalore. That makes sense in terms of the call centre theme I guess, but it did make me start thinking about everything that's involved in adapting a book for a film, and how you decide what to keep and what to change and what to throw away. Somebody must have decided that Jaipur was going to be more photogenic than Bangalore, or maybe it was some other reason altogether to do with proximity to Delhi or the weather - or anything. I once went to a talk by Andrew Davies (who adapted the BBC series of Pride and Prejudice) and it was really interesting hearing him talk about just that sort of stuff, such as why the TV adaptation starts with Bingley and Darcy on horseback, and how and why the famous "wet shirt" scene came about.

Deborah Moggach has written a string of other books (Tulip fever is one) and film adaptations  - she even did the film script for the Pride and Prejudice version with Keira Knightley - and her name sounded familiar so I went looking on my bookshelves and sure enough, I've got a copy of her book Close to home. But I have to admit, the main reason I keep it is because the main character, Kate, lives on Brinsley Street: "an ordinary terraced street of four-storey houses" (not ordinary at all when you live somewhere like Wellington where one-storey wooden houses cling to hillsides) and that was my maIden name. There is a village called Brinsley in the north of England and there was a Brinsley colliery where D.H. Lawrence's father once worked, so it is nice to know there is a Brinsley St too, even if only in fiction.

Friday 23 March 2012

The hunger games, The lottery and other creepy stories

The hunger games had its New Zealand premiere on Wednesday night. I've read the series and liked the first book more than the next two, which felt a bit repetitive. "Liked" isn't exactly the word. I found the whole premise behind the hunger games gripping but almost too dystopic (is that a word?) Today while I was thinking about it, I was suddenly reminded of the American short story The lottery by Shirley Jackson, which was first published in the New Yorker in 1948 and is one of the creepiest stories I have ever read.

The lottery tells the story of what happens in a small village as children and adults gather for this annual event, meant to guarantee a good harvest. The head of each family first draws a slip of paper from a box; then each member of the chosen family has to draw another slip. Part of the horror of the story (which resulted in cancelled subscriptions for the New Yorker and sackfuls of hate mail for the author) lies in the very matter-of-fact way in which it is told. I won't say what happens next but you can read it here:

And on the subject of The hunger games, there's a fascinating guide to dystopian literature put out by Good reads, tracking its progress since the 1920s with a graph (tied in to world developments like WW2, the Cold War and 9/11) and descriptions of themes, and including classics like Brave new world and 1984:

You can ever view a very funny spoof Hunger games board game here ("where girls face their biggest fears: dating and death"):

Thursday 22 March 2012

Amazing Pop Up Books

...... and I had no idea just how amazing they could be. In fact, I'd never thought much about pop up books at all, but thanks to last night's WCBA event on Paper engineering, I'm a lot more knowledgeable. I now know that the proper term for them amongst serious collectors is "movable books" (which encompasses wheels that turn and tags that pull and 3D reconstructions and anything else that moves, not just bits that pop up), and that their history dates back to the work of a 13th century monk.

Our speaker was Trevor Morley, who collects pop up books. A couple of people brought their children along and it was great to see these boys sitting on the floor right at the front, gazing spellbound as Trevor opened up yet another astonishing page. A silver stage coach with six horses, and a side window showing a rat that turned into a coachman as you opened it. The tea party in Alice in Wonderland, and a whole pack of cards soaring up into the air. Glowing light sabres in a Star Wars book, operated by a secret switch and a hidden battery. Page after page of intricate paper  constructions that unfolded themselves and then folded back down again.

I remembered some of the books that our children used to enjoy when they were little, and how the thrill of pulling a tag to make something move or opening a flap to see what was inside never seemed to pall. But I've always taken pop ups for granted and never really considered exactly how they were produced. I certainly had no idea that they could be such marvels of "paper engineering" - a fascinating term in itself.


This wasn't in Trevor's collection, but how amazing is that!

Tuesday 20 March 2012

Blue Dragon Book Fair

Writers and Readers Week is over. Looking out the window, it seems that summer is over (if it ever arrived.) But the good thing about living in Wellington is that there are always lots of interesting Readers' and Writers' activities on - whatever the weather (which is just as well.)  Last week I went to the launch of David Hill's wonderful new picture book "The red poppy", illustrated beautifully by Fifi Colston.

This week, it's the turn of the Fundraising book fair for Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation in the Ngaio Town Hall from 9.00am to 1pm on Saturday 24 March. This is a fundraiser for the Blue Dragon Children's Foundation in Hanoi, Vietnam. All proceeds will be donated to Blue Dragon to support its work in providing education and training for kids in crisis in Vietnam.

Books - and access to books, whether in bookshops or libraries or second hand book fairs - are something we take for granted, but in countries like Vietnam and Laos, they are often a luxury and in many villages there are no books.

On holiday last year, we visited the public library in Luang Prabang (Laos)  and bought some books in Lao for US$2 each to put into a book bag hanging up on display. When the bag was full with 100 books, it would be taken out and distributed to village schools as part of the National Library's Book Bags for Lao Kids project. You can find more about it here:

We didn't get to visit the Blue Dragon children's home in Hanoi, but we did enjoy an excellent meal at the Blue Dragon cafe in Hoi An, which also supports their work. If you are travelling through Vietnam, it' s worth looking out for restaurants like these (Streets restaurant in Hol An is another one, or KOTO in Hanoi) which provide training and support for street children.


Tuesday 13 March 2012

Writers and Readers Week: Poetry masterclass

I can't imagine how terrifying it must have been for the three poets in today's masterclass (Alistair Galbraith, Vida Zelenka and Jo Morris) to sit up on stage with Bill Manhire and read their poems out to everyone in the Embassy theatre. But they all looked surprisngly relaxed -which must be a tribute to Chris Price's chairing of the session, and also the supportive atmosphere of the audience.

Alan gave a wonderful description of the event that launched his poem Gliding; the day that he saw "an explosion of autumn thistle-heads" and suddenly realised how the wind is composed of such astounding shapes and complex movements. Vida's poem This is another church - full of energy and joy - which Bill surmised might be to do with running, turned out to have its basis in playing soccer. And Jo's poem with its intriguing title Accompanying person (Anaesthetic Conference, Wellington Town Hall) has stayed in my mind with its disturbing imagery, medical terminology and implied story.

After an hour, there still seemed so much to be said - although not everything was as carefully planned as it might have seemed. The capital letters at the beginning of each line in Alan's poem, for example, which Bill commented on as giving it a "Wordsworthian" feel, only came about because Alan was using an old computer that put them automatically!


Sunday 11 March 2012

Writers and Readers Week

One of the really interesting things about hearing writers talks is how the same themes appear and reappear, seemingly by coincidence - but I guess it simply reflects the way that writers all face the same sorts of challenges, no matter what genre they are writing in, or how famous they are.

This morning I've been to hear Kate Grenville, Selina Hastings and Kim Scott talk on "Fictional life stories and Biography" at the Wellington Writers and Readers Week. The very last question from the audience we was to do with whether it should be called "Writers and Readers Week" or "Readers and Writers Week". In other words - "would you still write without anyone reading?"

Kate Grenville immediately claimed to have the smallest rejection slip in existence - a tiny card from a magazine she submitted work to when she was 16 - amongst her "fabulous collection" of rejection slips. But, she said, 'each time I got one, it encouraged me" (and this is what reminded me of Marilyn Duckworth's talk last week). "It's reassuring me," she said, "that I'm in the process of writing - thinking my way into a problem. And I decided that it's not that I want to be a writer. It's that I want to write."

P.S. Writers and readers? Readers and writers? Actually, I can never remember which way round it is. Which should it be??


Friday 9 March 2012

What is a widget?

I'm feeling very pleased with myself, having finally sorted out how to get my links to show up on the sidebar - and without any help from teenagers, none of whom are at home today. Hint: yes, it is something to do with widgets. I did get some help from a writer friend (thanks, Maggie.)

One of the things that stuck with me from Marilyn Duckworth's talk last week was when she said that joining PEN (now the NZ Society of Authors) helped her to connect with other writers and to believe in herself. She said that writers are at the mercy of readers and publishers, and it can be a "damaging ride." That's very true. It's hard to explain sometimes how very vulnerable you can feel when sending out a manuscript, and how deflated and devastated if - for any one of a number of reasons - it ends up being rejected.

On the other hand, I'm very conscious that it is a privilege to have the chance to work on a manuscript and send it away, to have the time, the equipment, the education. Last year we spent a month in Laos and Vietnam, where people work terribly long hours simply to earn enough money to send their kids to school. Another time, we visited our daughter who was teaching on a  remote island in Vanuatu. One of the teachers said, "how lovely to be able to go away on holiday." When we returned to the capital, Vila, we met the woman who did the laundry at our hotel. She had come from that same island over 20 years before to earn money to send back home, but she'd never been able to afford to go back herself, and had grandchildren whom she had never seen.

So sitting here fiddling with links and widgets is a huge privilege, and I'm grateful to all my writer friends for their support and encouragement.


Sunday 4 March 2012

Janet Frame Memorial Lecture

One of the writers organisations I belong to is the New Zealand Society of Authors (NZSA). Every year the President of Honour delivers the Janet Frame Memorial Lecture, and this year it was delivered on 1 March at Te Papa by Marilyn Duckworth. 

Marilyn called her talk "Learning to swivel: the changing face of New Zealand literature", and shared many wonderful insights about how the writing life has changed since the days when she wrote her novels longhand, typed them on a typewriter, laboriously counted the words and posted them off on the long 6-week trip to Britain. She is very modest about her work, but what an amazing achievement to be able to look back over 50 years as a published author.

“Novel writing is a dangerous occupation,” Marilyn believes, and she took her “first blithe steps into that crocodile swamp”, aged just 23, with her novel A gap in the spectrum. Back in the 1950s, there were no book launches, no writing courses or fellowships, few local publishers and only a few other women writers, and it didn’t matter if you were “shy and tongue tied” because the publicity machine didn’t exist. Today’s writers travel a very different path, and “the excitement of stepping out into unfamiliar territory” is perhaps no longer quite the same. 

Marilyn also looked back over many years of PEN activities - remembering John Pascoe and Monty Holcroft (who would raise their hats to her in passing on Lambton Quay) Pat Lawlor, Ruth Gilbert, Denis Glover (who told her it was her job “to look decorative” on the committee), Ngaio Marsh and Noel Hilliard, among others. She recalled many “eye-opening and unforgettable” parties, and a number of Wellington bookshops, with fond memories in particular of Hugh Price’s Modern Books, which gave her her first window display.

More changes are inevitable, but as Marilyn said: “reading, however we do it, remains one of the nicest and most rewarding things anyone can do.” And despite being a “70-something novelist” whose own favourite writers are “aging and tired, if not already dead”, it’s clear that Marilyn, who has been an outstanding role model and source of encouragement for many, is still a writer at heart.

“I do love words,” she said. “What writer doesn’t?”

Her talk was recorded for Radio NZ and you can find it here:

You can also read Elizabeth Knox’s 1993 interview with her here:

 And here is one of Marilyn's books:


Cherries on a plate: New Zealand writers talk about their sisters, edited by Marilyn Duckworth.  

The picture on the cover is of Marilyn (left) and her sister Fleur Adcock.

Having a sister myself, I'm very fond of this book.