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The Place book reading

2 February 08 words: James Walker
Pushkin sonnets, poetry and Kevin Keegan. It could only be The Place in Sherwood

Earlier in the week Kevin Keegan made an intriguing comment regarding attendance at Newcastle United Football Club: ‘When they’ve worked all week, they come here to be entertained; it’s like the people down south going to a theatre’. Given Newcastle’s recent form his notion of entertainment is almost as perverse as his perception of the north/south divide. Anyway, with his words ringing in my ears I was left with a similar dilemma. Do I go and see Forest blow yet another early season lead and end up in mid- table mediocrity or do I attend a poetry reading? There was no choice really, particularly given that Andy Croft was travelling down from the north east to give one of the most enjoyable readings I have ever had the pleasure of witnessing. Although I should point out – before Keegan’s stereotype is shattered, Andy is from Middlesbrough which technically makes him a southerner in relation to the Tyne.

If Newcastle United are full of over paid under performing prima donnas then The Place, an independent community centre in Sherwood which hosted the readings, is the binary opposite. It was packed with local literary celebrities, who, unlike footballers, were there to support each other. On the coffee’s we had Jenny Swann, Poetry Editor for Five Leaves, lurking precariously close to the complimentary gluten-free cakes was Stephen Lowe, who, quite remarkably, is having problems securing Arts Council funding for his second Cloughie play which was written primarily to help support Derby Playhouse. As he joked ‘this must be the only play I have ever written that has received excellent pre-performance reviews but may never be performed on stage’ If a playwright of his calibre is feeling the economical pinch of recent cuts, what hope have any of us? Wayne Burrows of Staple magazine made a half time appearance and must have been delighted with proceedings as Staple will be releasing their East Midlands edition at this very same venue soon.

The packed crowd were all here to see Andy Croft, John Lucas and Kevin Fegan give readings of their respective works in the forerunner of a series of events organised by Ross Bradshaw. Kevin Fegan, who has been published three times by Five Leaves, read from the new edition of Let Your Left Hand Sing, a series of individual stories taken from the East Midlands; ‘Today I will knock on their doors and ask them their stories’.

Let Your Left Hand Sing - CoverKevin gave a couple of readings, although it was his last tale, Zanta’s Story, which left the audience in silent contemplation. The story highlights the plight of an immigrant who has left a country of incomprehensible bloodshed and settled into the UK. Kevin seemed to be visibly shaking as he read and this had an incredibly emotional impact on the audience. In a period in which immigrants are demonised as scroungers it is a refreshing change to be reminded that migration is rarely by choice.

‘I don’t understand who they are fighting for
When they cut off a person’s nose, ears, lips
Or gouge out their eyes? Who will they rule
When the bloodshed finally stops?’

John Lucas read from his memoir 92 Acharnon Street where he was bestowed the title of ‘Lord Byron Visiting Professor of English’ at the University of Athens between 1984-5. Following on in the tradition of writers such as Bill Bryson, Lucas shares his observations of foreign culture with the kind of comical lucidity afforded by his detachment. Greek tavernas are bestowed particular affection whilst the corruption and insolence of bureaucracy is something we can all regrettably associate with. The memoir also offers an intriguing historical account of civil war and the US-backed junta of 1967-74, which, when coupled with stories of the everyday adventures of moonlighting lecturers and odd-job men, paints a quite complex and beautiful picture of Greek life. Listening to him read it is easy to see why he has fallen in love with Greek culture and now has a hideaway on the island of Aegina, for when running Shoestring Press takes its toll.

The book was published by Eland whose twenty fifth anniversary year has seen them recently recognised as one of the ten most important influences on travel writing in Conde Nast Traveller’s tenth anniversary issue.

The highlight of the day though was Andy Croft performing extracts from Ghost Writer as he ‘forced’ Kevin Fegan, John Lucas and Sue Dymoke to come up on stage and join him in an impromptu reading. The mixture of personalities and voices perfectly complimented what has to be one of the most complex narratives of modern times.

Ghost Writer is a literary detective story, based on Hamlet, which touches on the Spanish Civil War, communism, love, poetry and possibly every facet of human nature. Just to complicate matters further it is written in the Pushkin sonnet as done by Vikram Seth in the Golden Gate. Andy was kind enough to explain how the Pushkin sonnet operates but unfortunately this reviewer was lost after five minutes (make that two). Reading back through my notes, I seem to have written down ‘female rhyming scheme’ ‘no deviation’, ‘fucking genius’ and ‘intellectual slapstick comedy’, followed by a series of hunchbacks(?) Next time I promise to try harder and there will be a next time because this guy is a ‘fucking genius’ and well worth the £3 entrance fee.

I should point out that the reason this reading was so enjoyable is not because the other texts were inferior, but simply because of the comical effect it created. For example, Andy asked John Lucas to read the part of Rex Dedman, a minor 1930s poet, womaniser and drinker. The look on John’s face had the audience laughing before a word had been uttered. But the book is actually dedicated to Mr and Mrs. Lucas (yes, of course in Pushkin sonnet) so this would have been an affectionate jibe. Andy Croft is also able to laugh at himself and so after spending years researching a biography of the neglected communist poet Randall Swingler it should come as no surprise that Ghost Writer features Tod Prince writing the biography of a fictional neglected poet, Rex Dedman. Pushkin sonnets, intertextuality, free cakes. Who needs football?

 

James Walker's website

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