Monday, 29 March 2010

The White Guard

Whenever I try to talk about Mikhail Bulgakov I go all spluttery and purple-faced, my eyes water, I choke and gasp, and I might after a few minutes’ gibbering manage to squeak “bloody genius” – and that doesn’t express a fraction of the regard I have for his work. Mention The Master and Margarita and I fall apart completely. Refer to his novel The White Guard and I may just about manage to convey that it’s got the best ending of any book anywhere in the universe at any time.

Imagine, then, how much I was looking forward to seeing The White Guard at the Lyttelton Theatre last Saturday (20 March), in Andrew Upton’s “new version”. I read the novel in readiness, spent the afternoon at the splendid Wallace Collection, and then went to the theatre. The performance surprised me. The play was funny – and I hadn’t expected that. Yes, I expected humour – this is Bulgakov – but I suppose I had something darker in mind.

I was frustrated by not knowing how much of a new version Upton’s rewrite is. I rushed to Amazon on Monday morning, bought Six Plays edited by Lesley Milne, and raced through The White Guard wondering: what had been changed? An odd question perhaps, since this is a play which had the filthy hands of the censors all over it. Bulgakov was compelled to make many changes before it was finally passed for performance, and then only in the Moscow Art Theatre. The text I have is the 1926 censor-approved version. I spot some differences: Alexei doesn’t make a speech about the coming of the modern man, it’s the coming of the Bolsheviks that is the threat. The deserter with frost bitten feet isn’t shot, and the second scene of Act Two doesn’t seem quite so comic as Bolbotun’s repeated cries to the telephonist “don’t lose that connection” make it. Lena isn’t proposed to by all the men in her life, so Shervinsky’s comic response to her “boys” doesn’t feature.

But the humour is there: this is Bulgakov. Larion does walk dog shit on the carpet, spill red wine on the tablecloth, and get drunk. The scene when the Hetman flees is funny - and beautifully played by Anthony Calf. But once or twice the exchanges in the Turbins’ flat felt a bit too much like drawing-room comedy with their witty repartee, and the scene with Bolbotun could with just a little push have featured a Comrade Blackadderski. If Upton’s version of the play is a restoration of Bulgakov’s earlier version, it too seems to have left out some of the darker elements removed by the censors, for example a torture scene.

I don’t have - I wish I did – any of the pre-censorship versions, if they still exist, so I can’t say how Upton’s version fits with any other Bulgakovian vision of the work. But in the end the play works. It’s yet another of the many wonders of theatre, that there are so many different ways of approaching the same work. I would have played it more sombrely perhaps, but it doesn’t matter. It’s a great work, a great production, and if you can see it I say go. The laughter fades, but not the truth. And that’s pure Bulgakov.

And if anyone is thinking of making a film of The Master and Margarita then Terry Gilliam is the man to do it. Luckily he isn’t going to – read why at

Booking information for The White Guard at the National -

The Wallace Collection -

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Quidve petunt animae?

You may have noticed that a blog or two ago I used a Latin quotation. Perhaps you wondered why. The fact is, I’m hopelessly addicted to being hopeless at Latin. I started learning it about three years ago. After two terms of a beginner’s course (now cut, along with a host of other wonderful adult education courses like art and archaeology), and armed only with a dictionary and grammar I am travelling through the underworld with Aeneas. Very slowly.

Why am I learning Latin? Because I’m a writer.

Let me explain.

The novel I am currently working on has as one of its main characters an eighteenth century classicist. I wanted to understand what it was he loved and why, know a little of what he knew. The other main character is the Roman who haunts him, and to get to know him I had to learn about Roman history. Without Latin what can you know of that? I did the same thing when I wrote a novella set in Wales. I taught myself some Welsh (forgotten now, alas). So I am learning Latin because I am a writer.

There are enormous advantages to a writer in learning another language, especially one that feels very different from English. It makes you pay more attention to your own language, its words and meanings, why and how we name objects, how our concepts are defined and contained by our language, and leads us on to contemplation of the ideas we live by and our perceptions of the world. It makes you think about tone and rhythm; it helps you to hear voices. It improves your grammar. So I am learning Latin because I am a writer.

In the eighteenth century Latin was ianitor antro: the doorkeeper of the gates, the gates to knowledge, university, the professions. Women couldn’t study it, the lower classes couldn’t study it, and when I was at school I couldn’t study it either though I wanted to. Perhaps this was a wise decision from the point of view of a school concerned with its examination results. I was dreadful at languages. Of course there was no question of learning for pleasure, self-development, or the mere appreciation of beauty. But that’s all changed now. Surely. We aren’t letting subjects like Latin die out are we? We aren’t favouring league tables over knowledge?

Latin is challenging, difficult, and beautiful. Just hearing it read out loud makes me shiver. It is elegant, sonorous, allusive. It has become one of the loves of my life. I think I shall struggle on with it even when this novel is finished. Don’t worry - my characters won’t be spouting Latin in the book. Well, maybe once or twice, for veracity’s sake.

And you can read Will Self on learning French in today’s Guardian – though of course his is a live language! See

Friday, 19 March 2010

Merrily Merrily

So it’s a capital offence to use adverbs? It is, according to Elmore Leonard, who lays down the law in his book 10 Rules of Writing, to be published shortly. If you haven’t seen the Guardian’s Leonard-inspired article Ten Rules for Writing Fiction, in which a number of authors share their dos and don’ts, you should. It’s packed full of advice: useful, funny, exasperating, gnomic, silly…see

But the poor old adverb. Why such animosity? I think there can be few words as wonderful as an adverb when it’s used in the right place. I remember the first time I came across “friendlily” many years ago, in a novel by Kate O’Brien. I’d never thought you could make an adverb of friendly and it stopped me dead in my reading tracks.

Hang on – isn’t that what good writing is not supposed to do, interrupt the flow, introduce a bit of rough with the smooth? Well, no, not really. The occasional jolt or jar can work wonders. I stopped at “friendlily” and I read the sentence again and I said the word to myself a few times: friend – li – ly. I said it quickly, I said it slowly, relishing the sound of it, the sense of it. Then I reread the sentence and I thought, yes, that works.

A couple of days ago I came across "premonishingly" in Mikhail Bulgakov’s Diaboliad. I had to look it up. What a lovely word! Pre – mon – ish – ing – ly. Say it quickly, say it slowly…I don’t even agree that it’s a bad thing when a reader has to go to a dictionary (another bugbear of Elmore Leonard’s). Can you imagine anything more dreary than being stuck with just the words you know? Being deprived of the excitement of discovering a new word?

When I was a child I read a bowdlerised version of Gulliver’s Travels long before I was old enough to understand it. I didn’t know half the words, but I loved the sight and what I thought was the sound of them. I copied some of the best into a little notebook, long, multi-syllabled words, they looked so good on the page, so packed with significance. I didn’t know what they meant, but I loved them. (OK, I was a weird child.) I remember reading somewhere of one writer – I think it was Will Self – who said he collects words. I know what he means. Words are beautiful things. Even adverbs.

So enjoy your adverbs, I say.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

A mote will turn the balance

When I was at school I had problems with A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It wasn’t just the dull way it was taught in my school back in the day. Students nowadays have much livelier texts to read from; many don’t even have to read a whole Shakespeare play any more but can get by with extracts. (Though how deciding half the school population are too stupid to read Shakespeare and thus denying them access to a hugely important element of our culture fits into the brave new widening participation world is beyond me. Still, it keeps the school exam results looking good.)

The real issue for me was the play’s violence. This is a work that is often played as if it’s sweet and light, a bit of a romp, an easy confection. It’s got fairies, hasn’t it? But for me from the very start it was the violence that struck and disturbed me. A play that opens with a father threatening his daughter with death if she doesn’t marry the man of his choice, and that daughter being told that her father should be as a god to her, filled me with horror. The funny thing was that no one else in the classroom, least of all the teacher, seemed to notice. Nor did the sexuality of the play bother them, the hints of bestiality (“lion, bear, or wolf, or bull…she shall pursue it with the soul of love”), of rape (Hippolyta “wooed with my sword”, Demetrius’s veiled threat to Helena who risks “the rich worth of her virginity” by putting herself into his power), and of domestic violence. “The more you beat me I will fawn on you” declares Helena, as forgiving as any battered wife. And I always, always, felt sorry for poor Bottom, who was made such a dreadful fool of though he didn’t seem such a bad sort to me. I always thought it was Theseus who deserved a lot more than he got.

So for many years I didn’t go near the play. I didn’t read it, and I didn’t go to see it performed. I managed to enjoy Mendelssohn but that was as far as I got. Then Gerard persuaded me to go to a production by Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory (SATTF) (on 1 March). I’d seen their fabulous Much Ado About Nothing and thought I’d give A Midsummer Night’s Dream a chance. The Tobacco Factory is a theatre carved out of a section of the abandoned Imperial Tobacco factory that once dominated Bristol, and SATTF is an unsubsidised theatre company who produce Shakespeare, and you will know all you need to know about them if you read their artistic policy at (Which is a far cry from the brave new widening participation world of teaching Shakespeare in bits.)

That did it for me. SATTF showed me, first of all, what a brilliantly constructed play it is. Then they drew my attention to the wonder of the language, to its bucolic madness, its primrose beds, oxlips, and eglantine, and the love-wounded flower which is the instrument of the human madness. They showed me the mundane world where magic dwells: anarchic, challenging magic that makes the butter fail and old dames fall onto their bums. They evoked the figure of Silvanus, god of the wild woods that encroach with exuberant power on our feeble constructions of reality, and inflict us with such blessed, blessed madness. And then, when they’d pulled out all sorts of spiritual rugs, made men into beasts, scarified young women with lovers’ scorn and tangled briars, destroyed childhood friendships, and made parents the objects of terror for their children, everything was restored. The protagonists were left loving and sleeping safely in their palace, though the screeching owls and howling wolves were still outside.

For that is one aspect of the play’s power and magic. The darkness is always there, the violence that I so feared as a young girl, the suffering, the anarchic forces of Faerie. But in the end, after all the pain and confusion, it is a fundamentally good world. The fairies come to challenge; they also come to bless.

A wonderful production, filled with wonderful things amongst which I recall Jay Villiers’s Theseus and Oberon, Christopher Staines’s Puck, Rebecca Pownall’s towering Helena, Jonathan Nibb’s gloriously absurd Bottom, and above all Felix Hayes’s Wall. If you get the chance, go and see SATTF do anything. As for me, I’m half way through reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream and haven’t time to linger in this dream world.

For Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory see
For the Tobacco Factory see

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Missing Simon Armitage

Last Sunday (28 February) we (husband Gerard and I) went to see Simon Armitage at Bath Literary Festival, reading from the anthology he and bird enthusiast Tim Dee have put together: The Poetry of Birds. I love birds and I love Simon Armitage’s poetry and I’m sure I’d have loved Tim Dee too except that when we got there Simon Armitage was cancelled. That is, he was unable to be with us but lovely Helen Dunmore took his place. Lovely she is, but we had our hearts set on Simon Armitage so we got our money back and then looked for ways to redeem the morning. We quickly found them in coffee and cake followed by a joyous half hour in that book paradise which is Topping & Co Booksellers.

I first encountered Mr Armitage at On the Border, a series of poetry readings which take place in the Drill Hall, Chepstow. He was appearing with Owen Sheers, and if I am honest – though at the risk of hurting Mr Armitage’s feelings – it was Owen Sheers I wanted to see. (If you want to know why read Resistance.) I didn’t know anything about Simon Armitage save that Gerard owns every book he has published and never misses a chance to hear him read from them and get them signed.

We set off for Chepstow by way of Cheltenham’s shops which were full of rubbish, it being just before Christmas. The rain poured down bringing darkness with it. The drive alongside the Severn was a lovely, eerie, ghostly experience. The river was on our sinister side, and I knew that gleaming amongst the debris at its lapping edge were the bones of river pilots, mariners, and ferrymen. From those bones their forms would rise to prowl the misty littoral, the between-life-and-death, like the souls Aeneas saw pleading and wailing on the bank of the Styx: huc omnes turba ad ripas effusa ruebat.

Chepstow was a bit like that too, caught between life and death. The streets were empty except for a group of rugby-drunk youth who staggered out of the darkness, shouted, and disappeared into the icy rain. We walked up the shuttered high street and down the shuttered high street looking for somewhere to eat. We were in despair until on the downward turn we discovered a congenial bar where our spirits were raised by veggie burger and chips.

The Drill Hall was much bigger than we expected. We were very early and the first of the audience to arrive. The helpers were still setting everything up but put the kettle on and sold us coffee and bottles of water at rip off prices of around 50p an item. The hall was ferociously heated by radiators suspended from the ceiling; I’d never seen a heating system like it and very welcome it was. On the stage was a painted backdrop of Chepstow, its bridge and castle and so on. We walked around the echoing hall looking at old photographs of the same and whispering: it’s far too big, they’ll never fill it, we’ll be sitting in the front two rows with vacancy pressing against our backs and our faces pink with embarrassment for the poor poets.

By the time the readings began the place was packed. Our poets arrived, girls (and perhaps a few boys) swooning as Owen Sheers passed like (as Rosamund Lehmann said of her baby brother John) young Mithras. Owen Sheers read and was wonderful. There was an auction of hand written and original poems donated by poets who had previously appeared On the Border. After an interval, during which Gerard apologised in advance for inflicting his favourite on me, Simon Armitage stood up.

And I was hooked. He gave us poem after poem, poems beating with life, with meaning, with form and sound and voice. And what a range of structure, of subject! To be honest, and at the risk of hurting Mr Sheers’s feelings, I fell for Simon Armitage’s poetry like a red kite falling from the sky to feed.

I hope Mr Armitage has recovered from whatever it was that prevented him from appearing in Bath last Sunday. I shall certainly be on the look out for the chance to hear him read again. In the meantime, there’s more poetry on the border to look forward to. You can see the programme at

For more on Simon Armitage see - look out for details of his Pennine Way adventure this summer, when he will be walking by day and reading by night.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Good things come

Fill in the missing word:-

They also serve who stand and -
Good things come to those who -
- in the wings

I’ll accept “wait” but the word I was looking for was “write”. I know, you won’t find “write” listed under “wait” in your thesaurus but that’s Roget’s oversight, not mine. I’m convinced that writing and waiting are synonymous. Not in the sense of sitting down and waiting for inspiration. Who needs to wait for words who is a writer? But if you write you do wait. I think that what you need to be a writer is masses of patience and faith in your own longevity.

It seems to take ages to finish your book because you want to wait until it’s as good as you can make it before you send it out. So you leave it to one side, a few weeks here, a few weeks there (while you start the next one of course). When you think it’s had long enough you read it and wait for the despair to pass. This happens after nail-gnawing days and teeth-grinding nights when you suddenly realise what’s wrong with it and what you can do to put it right. You start again. You do this several times.

At last the book seems as ready as it will ever be and you submit it to an agent or publisher. You wait three to six months for a response. It comes back; the agents are encouraging but it’s not for them. So you send it out again and wait…and again…until at last you get a publishing deal. The long wait is over! Life can begin! You are a writer at last!

Then you wait. A year passes. A year and a half. (Though of course you have nearly finished the other novel and you’re thinking about the one after that.) But good things do come to those who. Lovely Myrmidon Books are going to publish my novel, To The Fair Land. It’s set in the eighteenth century and is about a voyage of discovery to a mythical Fair Land rivalling Captain Cook’s.

I can’t wait! But while I do maybe you would like to wait with me. Think of this blog as rifling through a tatty old magazine in a dentist’s waiting room and reading little snippets about books and writing and reading. After all, when you go to the dentist the waiting is usually the best bit.