The Ballroom by Anna Hope: review and interview

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“Where love is your only escape ….

1911: Inside an asylum at the edge of the Yorkshire moors,
where men and women are kept apart
by high walls and barred windows,
there is a ballroom vast and beautiful.
For one bright evening every week
they come together
and dance.
When John and Ella meet
It is a dance that will change
two lives forever.”

The Ballroom is a remarkable work of fiction, where the love story between two patients in a Victorian asylum shines a light on a most unedifying and painful time in history. Set in what has been called ‘God’s own country’, the contrast between the ungodly practices going on inside Sharston Asylum and the majestic, pure beauty of the Yorkshire Ridings is acute. As part of this review-feature, I interviewed author Anna Hope about her research and the themes which underpin this evocative novel. 

British asylums were home to people diagnosed with mental illness and/or learning disabilities and although some of their stories have been recorded, sadly, the majority have been lost or weren’t documented in the first place outside of medical records. The history of stigma and fear associated with mental health services means that, historically, patients have been voiceless, socially, politically and culturally, and the public remain largely ignorant about what went on inside these asylums. Privacy laws means that a hundred years must pass from the death of the last patient before any personal details can be released into the public realm, hindering historians from accessing the archives, but author Anna Hope has managed to conduct extensive research which underpins the fictional story of two patients, Ella and John, and their doctor Charles Fuller, who were incarcerated in a fictional asylum she called Sharston, an institution which she says is “crafted as much from the imagination as the historical record” after she learned of a family connection to an actual asylum which once existed nearby.

Hope’s great-great grandfather was called John Mullarkey and he was a patient at Mernston Asylum in the West Riding of Yorkshire after his transfer from a workhouse. Seemingly suffering from what we’d now diagnose as a depressive disorder with an attendant malnutrition and cachexia, Hope’s author notes describe how he never recovered and died in Mernston aged 56 in 1918. The Ballroom is novel is dedicated to his memory and takes its name from her discovery of an actual ballroom inside the asylum, fallen derelict from lack of use. It was this poignant epilogue which triggered my tears which had been brimming for the last four chapters.

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Picture: Mark Davis / Guzelian Picture shows the ballroom at West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum at High Royds Hospital, Menston, West Yorkshire.

Tell us about your research and how you encountered the story of your ancestor…

“I came across the evidence of his time in the asylum by chance (if there is such a thing) when looking at the census records for my great-grandfather, his son. In a tiny crossed-out note on the side of the census form for 1911 it stated that John Mullarkey, the head of the family was in Menston Asylum, explains Anna.

“Having never heard of the place I immediately did a search on the Internet and came across local historian Mark Davies’s fantastic online archive dedicated to the history of what became known as High Royds hospital. It was there I saw the pictures of the ruined ballroom at the asylum’s heart and knew I needed to write about the place. When I eventually accessed my great-great-grandfather’s records I found them to be incredibly moving; he was a man suffering from what was deemed to be ‘melancholia,’ but really he seemed to have been sent out of his mind by poverty and worry over work. To add to this, on his admission from the local workhouse he was ‘emaciated’ and ‘poorly nourished.’ He never recovered and died in the asylum in 1918, ” explained Anna.

“I took many of the biographical details of his life: coming from the west of Ireland to find work in Liverpool as a young man, his ‘melancholia,’ his refusal to speak when arriving in the asylum, and used them for the character of John in the book, but I also always knew I wanted to have the freedom of fiction in creating John Mulligan. Similarly I re-named the asylum Sharston so I might have the greater latitude in writing about the place that fictionalisation allows, ” she adds.

The Ballroom introduces us to Ella, recently admitted from the cotton mill where she worked from a young age after smashing a window- she has barely had a life. The brutal working conditions there caused her eyes to suppurate painfully and skin to develop an inflamed rash. Her desire to see the beautiful moors she knew lay just feet from the building and her need to inhale air which was not clotted with dust motes led to an act of atavistic desperation and as a result of this, she was beaten and committed to Sharston under the care of an ambitious young doctor, Charles Fuller. His own employment there defies the stifling expectations of his own middle-class Yorkshire family and Charles struggles to find his own identity, He has high hopes that weekly music and dances in the asylum’s ballroom will help him make his name in the medical world as a doctor who uses music to tackle psychological fractures. He spends hours imagining the reception his paper will receive in London, adopting a purely intellectual approach in order to inoculate himself against his feeling. Charles is in denial of his own emotional connection to music, despite observing the benefits that listening to music brings to his patients.

John is one of those patients, an Irishman diagnosed with melancholia after a series of losses, and so is Ella. The Ballroom is, on first sight, the story of growing relationships in a closed-off world. John and Ella are catalysts for change and acceptance and submission and through them we meet other patients; resilient and spirited Dan who is John’s friend, and Clem, another victim of a time and place where women who dared to push against a seemingly gilded existence were sat firmly down, again and again, until they broke.

In her authorial note, Hope talks of her shock at learning that the then Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, was a strong supporter of eugenics, espousing his belief that mental illness, poverty and physical disability were all evidence of a weakened genetic stock and therefore provided a good reason to sterilise the significant numbers of people in Britain with these conditions. Her own discoveries colour the prose, allowing us to feel shock, and then dismay, as former critics of the practice become zealous devotees of it. This volte-face is an ironic result of what appears to be Charles own psychological breakdown as he fights with his insight and goes on to project his own failings onto the patients and especially, onto John who represents all those qualities he fears he lacks: poetry, a heart and soul that cannot be imprisoned and a disturbing masculinity which seems hewn from the wild moors.

I drew parallels between the black Ragtime musicians of New Orleans and their small emancipatory gains and that of Charles and his orchestra when he first tried to play Ragtime and failed to embody its spirit. As a reader it was a moment in the story where I held my breath, wondering if Charles would let himself be free. Charles is as imprisoned, in his own way, as some of the patients in the asylum. He fails to recognise this although Ella, Clem and John all seem to display a nascent awareness of this. Did you feel ever tempted to give Dr Charles Fuller the gift of insight, I ask Anna?

“I definitely thought about giving him insight and I do think he’s perhaps more aware than he allows himself in his thoughts,” Anna replies. “Ultimately though, I thought it was dramatically more interesting if he was deeply in denial about his own demons and desires. I think perhaps it’s impossible to become the sort of character Charles does without deep suppression of one’s empathy. And to have empathy you need to have some modicum of self-love. I’m not sure, despite his arrogance, how much Charles really loves himself. I loved him though, despite the horror of what he becomes. I think I kept seeing him as a small boy, terrorised by his father, someone who has never felt comfortable in his own skin and wants to hurt the world in the same way he’s hurting.”

 

Of particular distress to me was learning that relatives of Charles Darwin were also exponents of eugenics and their lectures may well have gone on to influence the modified Feeble-Minded Bill which was passed in 1913 as the Mental Deficiency Act. That Darwin’s own contribution to the knowledge we have of humankind should be so distorted and abused for political ends keeps the story taut as we await the unfolding of history, sitting alongside Charles as he struggles to retain his equilibrium at one of the London lectures and sits in his room, clutching transcripts of Dr Tredgold’s address to the society at Caxton Hall. Tredgold’s findings on the Feeble-Minded were eventually passed onto Parliament and Charles wants this for himself because he is surrounded by almost faceless patients and fears invisibility as a result of what must feel like voluntary professional incarceration.

The reader cannot help but draw parallels with the politics of today but there is authorial subtlety at play here and as a result, realisation creeps slowly and coldly upon the reader.  Whilst Charles and his fellow eugenicists burn with the fevered heat of the zealot, Ella, John and the other patients remain oblivious which adds to the creeping unease until Hope allows it to bloom fully in her reader. What is particularly affecting is our realisation that the patients remain unenlightened as to Charles’s plans for medical posterity. We see them react in confusion and fear as things happen to them but any resolution of this does not involve knowledge and a consequently attendant power. And so the paternalistic philosophy of the asylum system perpetuates their dis-empowered status and our knowledge makes us collusive.

Whilst the government of today is not advocating eugenics, there does seem to be a feeling that there is a growing British under-class who are depicted as taking more than their fair share. Instead of eliciting compassion and support, they are instead dehumanised and ‘othered’ as a prelude to drastic social-welfare cuts. It has been a primitive and successful strategy to date. We are privy to Charles in his private space, a small room in the grounds where he studies, practises music and reads a transcript by Tredgold which states: “I have no hesitation in saying, that nowadays the degenerate offspring of the feeble-minded and chronic pauper is treated with more solicitude, has better food and clothing and medical attention, and has greater advantages than the child of the respectable and independent working man, So much is this the case that people are beginning to realise that thrift, honesty, and self-denial do not pay,” and in this, we cannot help but hear the words of Ian Duncan-Smith.

And Charles in his own private space, reads of measures which involve the most private space of all- a person’s sexual and reproductive organs- a potential decision which will make them public property, and their removal a tacit condition to access welfare and mental-health care. The plot exposes a paradox: sterilised patients remain incarcerated in a hidden asylum, where daily doings are secretive but patients are not permitted privacy or secrets and their bodies and minds have fluid boundaries which are defined by those who have charge over them. They are permitted only the most cursory of identities.

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High-Royds asylum at Menton, West Yorks

An early scene introduces us to John and Dan as they dig communal un-marked graves and these graves act as sump for all manner of fears as well as being a literal and metaphorical barrier to hope and progression: even death is not an escape and death will not return identity to patients nor give them a longed-for privacy and personal space. Hope finds a way to navigate us through a realisation which might otherwise threaten to overwhelm the reader, via runaway Ella, whose furious, defiant flight is brought to an accidental end by her encounter with John as he sees her fleeing as he digs the graves for patients who die in the feared chronic wards.

Released from Scarston asylum, Hope’s prose roams and probes the glorious countryside and when the reader is plunged back into the crepuscular gloom of the buildings, it is a shock. The sense of place is profound and John and Ella’s appreciation of the world outside is heightened because they are divorced from it. The asylum is a scar on the landscape but it also seems hewn from it. The dramatic Yorkshire moors which seem wild, dangerous and untamed to those of us unfamiliar with them and to Charles who prefers the tamed and subdued, but to John and Ella, they are places of safety, an alternative and purer form of asylum for the couple who seek out the dark woods and fields of crops to meet and fully be themselves. As Ella finds ways of escaping the dankness of the laundry and the dank gloom of the day-rooms and dormitories, she steps into the light and we see her.

John and Ella are very much part of the landscape and show such love for the countryside and nature. Indeed Ella’s need for air and space and connection is what causes her to be committed in the first place when her breaking of the mill-window is deemed such a transgression, it cannot be the act of a sane person. I found their attempts to maintain this connection with nature inside such a dark place almost unbearably sad and Hope’s own love for the Yorkshire Ridings shines through her prose.
Was it a shock for you when your research led you to read about such darkness (unnamed graves, abusive practices) existing in what is called ‘God’s own country’? For the reader, it is such a contrast and a triumph of writing, I comment.
“I grew up in Lancashire, in a beautiful village on the moors, but close to towns like Bolton, Blackburn and Bury, which in the 80’s were suffering a lot from post-industrial malaise. It always struck me how these towns, which were often full of deprivation were so close to such wild, open country and I always thought about the mill workers, and what their relationship might have been to those moors,” Anna says.
“As for Yorkshire, my dad’s a Yorkshireman and I have many Yorkshire members of my family, and I see that darkness and wildness as definite Yorkshire traits. There’s a blackness to the humour there which I love, and which only comes from things being a bit tough, but also this sense of incredible expansiveness you get from the landscape. I walked a lot on Ilkely moor, for instance, when writing the book, which is such a rich and inspiring spot. But I suppose, no, it wasn’t a surprise to me to discover such darkness there, although it must be said the unnamed graves were by no means confined to Yorkshire and the north, I think such practises were widespread in the asylum system across Britain,” she adds.

 

Hope is adept at writing conversation, melding evocative visual imagery and exquisite dialect with casual chat which contain little speech bombs if you pay attention, encouraging readers to become more insightful. Clem quotes Emily Dickinson; “There’s a certain slant of light. Winter afternoons. That oppresses, like the heft of cathedral tunes” as she helps Ella in the laundry where they both work, a beautiful example of the way Hope uses light, shade, and dark to emphasise the taunt of the countryside outside as the light and dark of day and night flows over the moors and pushes against the high windows. Music contains the same light and shadow too, as does dancing and the question is whether a moment of joy makes the rest of life more or less bearable. We’re forced to ask that of ourselves.

There’s epistolary conversation too and the letters that John and Ella write to each-other, with Clem’s assistance, are full of delicate yet powerful natural imagery; the epic migration of the swallow and the changing light of the surrounding woodland; a flower picked from the lawns and pressed in an encyclopaedia. Like them, we are swallowed up by the stolid and sere asylum walls but Hope reminds us to look up, out of the windows as they do and to keep watch over the future on their behalf even when it seems as if the walls have closed in on them [and us] permanently.

For Clem and the other patients, the life of the mind is a divine agony and there are no easy answers, even in death. Charles introduction of music as therapy in the asylum is a troublesome catalyst, making patients vulnerable in new ways, opening them up to the divine as Dickinson elucidates in her poem. Handling a man’s cotton shirt with stained cuffs, Clem half muses, “Men. You can never  get the stains out,” a shivering reminder of events which might have triggered her symptoms and caused her incarceration. Mental illness can be hard to articulate for even the most verbally adept and at a time when this was not encouraged socially, and little benefit seemed to result from an open conversation with ones doctors, these asides act as signposts which we can navigate from, although it is frustrating that the doctors do not see what we, the reader with historical hindsight, can.

In The Ballroom, Anna Hope gives voice to stories rarely told and life to people who were secreted away, living lives so tenuous and shifting, they barely seemed to exist at all. The historical detail is handled skilfully by Hope and her own historiography never overshadows that of her characters whose ability to make themselves heard is already seriously hindered. Like Dickinson’s poem, her book shifts from the place where hurt originates- society, religious doctrine, the culture mores of the time- to the earthly recipients of that hurt- the patients and staff who are trapped in their own way. Hope roots her characters strongly in the dramatic landscapes of the Yorkshire Ridings, giving back the dignity, belonging and sense of place that asylum has denied them, and her prose soars over the story, reminding us of the swallows which so fascinate John as they return each year to make their summer homes on the moors. The love story at its heart is painful but one of the best I have read in a long time.

The Ballroom is very cinematic, I comment to Anna. Who would you like to see play the main roles? Or is it something you find hard to envision?
“I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about it at all, but as an ex- actress I know how fickle that world can be, so I try not to think about it too much! If it happens, I’ll definitely have some ideas to pitch in though – the characters are so dear to me and I can sense them so clearly that to have a very different sort of actor playing the role would be hard,” Anna replies.
I’m pretty sure that The Ballroom will be on our screens at some point.
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Author Anna Hope // photo contributed

The Ballroom was published February 4th 2016 and is in all good bookshops.

Publisher: Transworld Publishers Ltd
ISBN: 9780857521965

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Martin Bell: my time in The Suffolk Regiment during the Cyprus Conflict

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Martin Bell / Image contributed
 The former BBC journalist and Independent MP, Martin Bell appeared at the Theatre Royal on September 25 of last year. I’ve taken the liberty of re-publishing this Bury Spy interview where he speaks about his involvement with the Suffolk Regiment and his recent book about his National Service during the Cyprus crisis. I also take a look at the Suffolk Regiment Museum, housed in the Gibraltar Barracks in Bury St Edmunds.

The Suffolk Regiment was one of the great infantry regiments of the British Army. It finally disappeared, after 274 years of continuous service in 1959, after a service with distinction through two world wars and in many other conflicts including Cyprus.  Martin did his national service with the regiment in its final years and his latest book, End of Empire, serves as a worthy tribute about the regimental swansong spent on a tiny island fighting a conflict which people today still know very little about. Originally intended as a personal memoir, what we can now read is the story of the Suffolk Regiment via a period of active engagement by a man who has continued his close association with what he calls “the 12th of foot.” Indeed, as you study the Suffolk Regiment Museum vitrines displaying artefacts from the regiments final tour of duty in Cyprus, look closely and among them you will find photographs taken by a young Bell during his time in the Intelligence Service.  Taken for press purposes, they are of a young recruit called Tim Davis and Tim is now one of the museums senior volunteers after an illustrious 26 year career in the Army which saw him rise to the rank of Sergeant Major.

The Suffolk Regiment Museum and Friends was established in what was once the officers mess inside the red-brick Keep at Gibraltar Barracks. The museum documents over 274 years of military history and provides a vital contextual backdrop for modern day military conflict. Located on the Newmarket Road and next to the West Suffolk College which was built upon its once very extensive grounds, little remains of the original army depot which was originally built in 1878. Enter the museum and you will see the original site maps, tracing the former location of parade grounds and infirmaries, office buildings, munitions, vegetable patches and the extensive cellars which have not been explored to date.

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(Exterior of the Suffolk Regimental Museum) 

The Suffolk Regiment was formed in 1685 when King James II ordered the Duke of Norfolk to raise a regiment and include men from Norfolk and Suffolk, although the next century saw more of a Norfolk influence than a Suffolk one. The Regiment already possessed informal links with the Suffolk Militia and tended to depend upon them for new recruits but eventually the Cardwell reforms of 1873 formally recognised these links.

Cambridgeshire was then added to the recruiting area and the Depot of the Regiment was established at Bury St Edmunds where the barracks to house the Depot was built in 1878. However, the title of The Suffolk Regiment had been conferred earlier in 1881 and the West Suffolk Militia and The Cambridgeshire Militia became the third and fourth Battalions, respectively. By the end of the century, 90% of regimental men came from Suffolk whilst the forerunner of the Territorial Army, the Territorial Force, was formed in 1908. This strengthened county links, establishing the fourth Battalion throughout East Suffolk and the fifth Battalion in West Suffolk.

Martin Bell served as a soldier in Cyprus between 1957 and 1959 and a few years ago, as he rummaged through his attic, he rediscovered a chocolate box filled with more than one hundred letters written to his family by him whilst in service. Although he was not a journalist at that point, the letters appear to hint at his future profession because they serve as a subjective war report, giving valuable insights into the life of a young conscript, serving in a conflict that was poorly understood and sparsely covered by the British press. Those letters went on to underpin End of Empire and their descriptions of explosions and terrorism, cordons, searches, interrogations, and riots in the face of a repressive military response with roots in our old colonial history demonstrate why the strategy was doomed to failure. Hearts and minds this was not as EOKA fighters (Εθνική Οργάνωσις Κυπρίων Αγωνιστών / National Organisation of Cypriot Fighters) were treated like heroes and fêted on the streets of Nicosia which, to this day, remains a divided city.

Bell ended up falling out with his Regimental Sergeant Major but he acknowledges that a great deal of his National Service was ‘on the sunny side of tolerable’ and he received an education which was not only the best he had (even in the light of going up to Cambridge shortly after) but imbued him with a pride which has not faded as the years have passed. This is clearly apparent when I asked him about what audiences might expect when they come to see him at the Theatre Royal:

“I wrote this book about my time with the Suffolk Regiment at the very end of their tour,” he says.

” I had the idea to perhaps raise money for the theatre itself and to talk about the book and when I said “can I bring my band?”…They said, ‘band?’ and I replied, ‘of course I’ve got a band.’ I’m the president of the Suffolk’s concert band which inherits the traditions of the music of the Suffolk Regiment,” he added. “It’s going to be a mixture; I’m going to talk a bit and play some music, mainly military stuff and we’re going to recall the glory days of one of the finest regiments in the British Army.”

Bell is the son of ruralist writer Adrian Bell who lived and farmed in various locations in the county from Hundon and Bradfield St George to Beccles and he sent his son to school in Cambridge. The Suffolk’s were his local regiment when it came to the obligatory period of National Service that all healthy young men were required to submit to.

“In those days we had an army of 400,00 thousand strong and when I was eighteen years of age, a draft letter arrived requiring me to report to the Gibraltar Barracks in Bury St Edmunds on a certain day in June 1957 and serve two years with the Suffolk Regiment,”he said.

After his demob, he went up to Kings College, Cambridge where he read English, gaining a first class degree, and then joined the BBC as a reporter in Norwich in 1962, following his graduation at the age of twenty four. Three years later Bell transferred to London and covered his first foreign assignment in Ghana. The next thirty years saw him covering eleven conflicts globally, from Angola and Rwanda to the Middle East, a career that many might say was usefully underpinned by a peripatetic period of National Service.

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The Cyprus conflict seems to be a forgotten conflict, I say. So much of what happened there sounds pretty horrific and it also sounds familiar, reminiscent of the conflicts we face today. What can we learn from it?

“I think we have some lessons to learn from it. It’s a forgotten episode of our history, towards the end of empire.  We had 35,000 soldiers deployed in Cyprus, it was on rather a large scale and in and around Nicosia, the capital, we had four or five battalions. There were lots of us,” Bell replied.

“I was very fortunate that when I got to write the book I went through the National Archives and all the top secret documents of the time- exchanges between the governor and the colonial office- had been recently declassified and now we can tell the whole story. It’ s not something of which we can be especially proud although I think we soldiers did pretty well.”

That’s often the case isn’t it? The actions of those who execute the decisions of those in power tend to be ‘better’ than those of the decision makers

“That’s very true. I wouldn’t say that in the end we were successful. We held the line against the rebels of this organisation called EOKA, the National Association of Cypriot Fighters, until a constitutional compromise could be arranged and Cyprus could become independent but of course the independence didn’t hold and 14 years on the Turks invaded and Cyprus has been conflicted and divided ever since. So I don’t think we can put it down as one of Britain’s success stories.”

Is it true that some of the EOKA fighters are sueing the British government?

“Yes there are veterans who are, some were EOKA fighters , others were detained by the British under emergency powers and others, they are threatening legal action. They’ve been in contact with me but I said that I was was never more than a low grade operative: I was never more than an acting sargeant and what they were complaining about were interrogation techniques, especially, but these were usually done not by the army but by Special Branch.”

What was it like going up to Cambridge after doing your national service?

“I think that what happened, those two years, were the best education I’ve ever had. Better than three years at Kings College Cambridge. Of course, I couldn’t wait to get out of the army and my views were very much like those of the late great Peter Ustinov who served as a private  soldier and said that he hated the army like poison but he wouldn’t have missed it for the world. So I felt much the same.”

From time to time we hear calls for National Service to be brought back and championed as some kind of cure for crime and youthful miscreancy. One imagines that there was no crime at all during the period of history that it was in force, if we listen to the extravagant claims made for its return. Should we bring back National Service?

“I deal with this in my closing chapter of my book and I say there might some be a case for some form of civic or voluntary service but it could not be brought back in the form in which we experienced it because todays generation just would not stand for it,” Bell counters.

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Image: Suffolk Regiment Museum

“We were much more deferential, that generation. When our Sergeant Major said jump, we jumped. I think today they would say ‘why?’. I think even my Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM) who is still alive at the age of 97 would not not be able to tear young people away from their Ipads. We did what we were told. It did us a lot of good but I don’t think its realistic to dream about bringing it back.”

Would you say that our sentimentality about the army risks masks the reality of an underfunded service where the mental health of veterans and serving soldiers is neglected?

“I am a supporter of Combat Stress and I think the armed services have turned a corner on this. I think they know it is out there and they are trying to erase any stigma attached to it. But we know that between the original bruising of the mind, usually in active service, and a soldier coming forward for treatment, there’s an average gap of twelve years. It’s no longer viewed as it used to be and it is viewed now as a hazard of service. Of course there have been many obviously life changing injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan but a soldier who has PTSD may not necessairly know it at that time,”said Bell.

You must have seen and been involved in events that many would find traumatising? What psychological support have you received from the BBC, I ask.

“None at all” he says emphatically. “But they did summon me to see the doctor now and again to see if I was okay but I have just been relatively lucky in that all my nightmares have not been about the wars I have been in but about losing my bags at Heathrow – much more mundane,” he laughs. Bell seems to come from a time when it was not done to seek counselling or expect it although he is not that much older than I am.

Martin Bell stood for election in 1997 as an Independent candidate on an anti-sleaze ticket against the sitting MP, Neil Hamilton. I ask him about his subsequent election and time as an Independent MP. I can imagine him taking a keen interest in the recent election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour party leader and the problems that arise when the party rhetoric is defied by Labour party members and some of its own MPs.

“It’s still unrealistic to be elected as an Independent. There was only two of us, three of us in the last 15 years but what is happening now, I have noticed, is that there are many more independent minded MPs being elected and I welcome that, although it would be imposssible for the new Labour leader to insist on blind loyalty since he was a serial rebel himself. And no Labour leader has ever been elected to rebel against his own party so things are changing fast.”

Do you think we’ll ever have a crusading government, a government properly concerned with raising standards in their own house?

“I think it is important that the regulation of the House of Commons should be taken out of the hands of the House of Commons,” Bell is firm about this.

“And by the way, this [issue of expenses and MPs self regulation]  has been going on nearly 20 years now. They are incapable of regulating themselves and lessons have to be learned. Another thing, in the interests of MPs if they are accused of some wrongdoing, we seem to have a Gentleman’s Club looking after itself. If they had a proper regime of external regulation, that would be better for them and better for us,” he said.

Returning to the subject of his recent book, The End of Empire, I ask Bell about the writing itself and the research involved which appears extensive.

How long did the book take?

“It was a fun book to write and I got a lot of pleasure out of it. I discovered the letters in my attic at the beginning of last January (2014) and it was in the hands of the publishers by December.”

I’m intrigued by Bell’s account of another book about the Cyprus conflict called The Flaming Cassock. In End of Empire, Bell describes its author as “the most remarkable soldier I served under…who should have commanded the Battalion but did not” and a soldier whose command enhanced the Suffolk’s reputation for steadiness under the direst of circumstances.

“It was written by one of our officers, a wonderful man called Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Campbell who had already written a bestseller about the Malayan emergency of 1950 titled Jungle Green,” Bell told me.

“He was commissioned by Field Marshal Sir John Harding to write a book  about what Harding thought was a winning campaign and it very nearly was. Then in December 57, Harding was succeeded by Sir Hugh Foot who was not a soldier but a conciliator and he thought that this book which by then was finished would be an impediment to a settlement so he ordered it to be suppressed.”

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Foot’s reputation was as a liberal administrator and it was certainly hoped that he could play an important part in setting Cyprus on the road to self government within the Commonwealth. This in itself was very important because according to the Sandy’s Defence White Paper, Britain would no longer be able to maintain a large enough presence on the island to retain it by force. Foots attempts to conciliate a settlement that pleased both Athens and Ankara resulted in Cyprus descending into a downwards spiral of violence as the two communities railed against each other. It is clear, in retrospect, why the decision to redact Flaming Cassocks was made, regardless of the rightness of such a decision.

Bell is convinced of the importance of the book to future narratives of Cyprus and its bloody history.

“It [the book] has been resting under lock and key until I got it under the Freedom of Information in July 2014. It’s a marvellous story of the campaign against EOKA by a soldier with a real flair for language. And I think that if we can get it published it will be as important a contribution to the literature of Cyprus as Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons.”

Three copies are believed to have survived according to Bell’s book. Two are held in the National Archives at Kew whilst the third is an unedited text subjected to a sixty year gagging order meaning that it will be available to read after 2022. There is also an earlier draft which has been redacted under an eighty year restriction. The reasons for their suppression aren’t strikingly obvious considering the book was a commission from the governor, intended for publication as opposed to a sensitive government document, according to Bell. The file of documents relating to its suppression is over an inch thick apparently.

Are publishers interested in the book, I ask?

“We have only just started finding out because for a start we couldn’t find the family of Campbell because of course the copyright lies with them.

“Arthur Campbell died in about 1992/3 and we’re looking for the family now” Bell replies.

It is to be hoped that Campbell’s descendants are swiftly traced and agree to the books re-issuing. What seems to be clear is that between its pages lie a considerable contribution to not only the history of Cyprus but of British military engagement too.


 

Friends of the Suffolk Regiment.

St Edmundsbury Chronicle

We meet.. Vanessa La Faye, author of Summertime

Interview with author Vanessa LaFaye: 'Summertime'

With its setting in the humid and isolated Florida Keys of the mid-thirties as the islands and their inhabitants stood defenceless against an oncoming hurricane, Summertime, the novel by Vanessa LaFaye shines a light on a historical event that passed virtually unnoticed by the rest of the world despite its horrific consequences. Based on a true event with fictionalised characters drawn from very real tales of human survival and deaths, Summertime is a beautifully evocative and deeply moving account of a period of history that retains strong parallels with our present: Katrina, race relations and the way we treat veterans.

Lafaye is from Florida but had not heard of the tragedy herself until she began some research for another project. The real event that sparked the main theme of Summertime centres upon a group of damaged and dispirited veterans who were despatched to work on the Overseas Highway then abandoned by their government to perish in the hurricane which struck, all too ironically, on Labour Day 1935. One of the worst storms to ever hit the United States it resulted in the deaths of several hundred veterans out of the approximately 700 working there and many locals who lived permanently in the Keys were killed too. A category 5 hurricane, it was so severe that people caught in the open had their clothes sandblasted off their bodies by 185 mph winds.

memorial to hurricane dead

(Memorial to the hurricane dead)

The veterans were living in three Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) camps in a work initiative designed to bring employment in the Depression Era to thousands of out of work veterans who had, earlier in the decade, marched on Washington DC in protest at their treatment. Denied adequate housing, cheated out of the bonus they had been promised and unable to find work after being feted upon their return as heroes, the men found themselves living in squalid conditions in a part of the world that was very different to the Florida the tourists of today visit. Their relegation to the bottom of the heap became apparent when the simple storm evacuation plan, where a train would be sent from Miami to evacuate the workers, went awry….

Overseas_Highway,_wooden_bridge_between_Key_Largo_and_Mainland,_April_9,_1929_(Matlack_127-50)._-_Seven_Mile_Bridge,_Linking_Florida_Keys,_Marathon,_Monroe_County,_FL_HAER_FLA,44-KNIKE,1-67.tif

[Overseas Highway, wooden bridge between Key Largo and Mainland, April 9, 1929:  Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), Historic American Engineering Record (HAER)]

Against a backdrop of torpid heat, racial segregation and the dissonance that arises from living a life so closely intertwined with the African-American locals who raise your children and care for your home when you are a wealthier white resident of the Keys, the stories of the Heron Key families unfold. As the residents of a tiny community try to cope with their proximity to a camp full of disturbed and desperate men, they also have aspirations: to be respected as equals and thus develop their own authentic and independent identity. We see how the white residents hold all the power in defining what a relationship can be and the problems that arise when Henry, a returning African American veteran, will not allow himself to be defined. He will not be customary in his response to the situation he finds himself in when he becomes the main suspect after a white woman is attacked and left for dead. His is not the only life put at risk when the hurricane marries an attitude of ‘every man and woman for themselves’ with the social codes that are more rigidly enforced when both a storm and a violent crime threaten the status quo.

Vanessa LaFaye

We spoke to Summertime’s author Vanessa LaFaye who told us about her book and its background:

(1) I am a huge fan of fiction and memoir set in Florida and the lesser known parts of the American South and am also aware of how the southern narrative can get stuck in a groove. However it is important to reexamine the events of the past especially in the context of what is happening now. How would you say Summertime straddles the old Southern narrative and the emerging one, created by the new generation of writers of which you are one?

Florida is weird because it is geographically southern but only on the fringe of the Southern cultural tradition. Although it shares a lot of values with states like Georgia and Alabama, it is so different in terms of history. The Civil War defined those states in a way not shared by FL. For one thing, most of the population consists of transplanted northerners, which has a huge impact on the culture. So I hesitate to call myself a Southern writer. I plan to write more books set in FL, but there other places that I’d like to write about in the future. For now, I’m catching up with the history of my home state, 35 years after departing!

(2) We’re all saturated in images of Florida or, at least, the standard Disney-beaches- holidays one. Your story takes us to visit another aspect of the state. How would you describe Florida to newcomers and what are your favourite places to visit? What do you wish we knew?

It’s great that British people come for the big attractions, but there is so much more. St Augustine in the north is the oldest town in the US, founded by the Spanish in 1565. Everyone should swim with wild manatees in Crystal River once in their lives. I am completely besotted with these amazing creatures. And Fort Jefferson, a short ferry ride from Key West, is Florida’s Alcatraz. Built during the Civil War to defend the Union, it’s an immense brick fortress that rises out of the ocean. Amongst its unwilling guests was Samuel Mudd, who treated John Wilkes Booth’s injured ankle after he assassinated Abraham Lincoln. And don’t get me started on the Everglades or the Native American history…see what I mean?

(3) Tell us about how you came to write Summertime and your growing awareness of the historical events that shape the novel- at what point did you grow a story in your mind?

I came to it through a series of accidents. I was discouraged by lack of success with other books (women’s fiction) and debilitated by my first experience of breast cancer when I stumbled on a newspaper story on a visit to my parents. This led me to the story of the hurricane and the veterans. I didn’t think that I would write another book, and certainly not one set in FL. But I felt compelled to dramatise the events because I thought that it was wrong that they had been forgotten. It’s just what happens sometimes. My life has taken several unexpected turns, and this one is especially welcome.

(4) Tell us a little about the progression of the novel and about how it might have changed from first draft to being ready for publication? What was your initial plan?

In deciding to depict the largest storm ever to strike America, I gave myself several challenges. The obvious one was creating the storm scenes in a way that would bring the power and terror of it to life, using only words. But first I needed a set of characters that the reader would relate to, before I put them in peril. Some of this was dictated by the facts, e.g. the rescue train crew. The rest came from my imagination and the survivor stories. I had lists of characters who lived and those who did not, and I assigned a fate to each of them. I drew heavily on the factual accounts for this. People really were found in the tops of key lime trees, and they were cut in half by flying debris. But none of the violence and destruction would make a gripping narrative without characters who we care about. So that was my top priority, along with honouring the memories of the people who went through it. The final draft mostly involved cutting. I had too many minor charaters who interrupted the flow. I probably deleted 7 of them before submitting the manuscript. It’s still a big cast, but it was unmanageable before.

Manatee

(5) There’s that old adage “write what you know”. How much do you subscribe to this? Would you say that the writing is the process of knowing?

I can’t emphasise enough how important this is. People often assume that the research for the book took years. I didn’t, because I drew on a huge store of childhood memories that I had never used in fiction before. Although I didn’t grow up in the 1930s, I was very familiar with the sounds, smells, sights, and tastes of FL. It would have been much harder for me to write about Wisconsin, for example, or North Dakota. Once I move away from writing about FL, I will need to allow a lot more research time. But there is also the credibility factor. It’s easier to get away with showing the reality of a place if you come from there.

(6) A giant and lethal hurricane is a pretty daunting plot device. How hard was it to control this and avoid the possibility of it overshadowing the more nuanced side of the story, the hopes and thwarted dreams of Hilda Kincaid and her troubled intrapersonal relationship with her own body or the pace at which Dwayne works through his feelings about his baby (or not his baby as the case is?).

I wanted to make the storm into a character in its own right. The way we track them and describe their behaviour is similar to how we talk about wild beasts. And they almost seem to have personalities. But the storm is also the agent of change, for good and bad. By the end of the story, all the main characters have lost and gained something important to them. Writing those passages was emotionally exhausting because I wanted the reader to feel things in real time, without ever forgetting the personal stories of the characters.

Statue

(7) There’s the drama of Missy and Selma and the alligator which is one hell of an introduction and one which made me feel physically unwell with anxiety. Was this a difficult decision to open the novel with this? You control it beautifully by the way.

Thank you. I had actually written the opening before I decided to write this book. Likewise the scene where we first meet Hilda. When I stumbled on the hurricane story, I dug them out, and realised that they fitted into the landscape that I wanted to create. From this, I have learned never to throw away anything that I’ve written, because one never knows when it may be useful!

(8) I once heard Florida described as “always having a rich literary tradition- even if much of it has been tattooed across our felons necks” which was said in reply to the news that Hemingways ‘To Have and Have Not’ was the most famous novel set in Florida. What are your essential Florida reads?

I’m a big fan of Carl Hiassen. His books are funny and violent and full of great characters, but he also has a very important message: that the state is being ruined by uncontrolled development. Zora Neale Thurston’s ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ (referenced at the end of ‘Summertime’) is a classic of FL literature, and includes an amazing description of a hurricane.

(9) The way the veterans were treated has parallels with Vietnam, the Falklands in the UK and the Gulf situation now. Have we learned anything? The relative lack of knowledge of what happened in the Keys is a major divergence from the war hero rhetoric of most Western governments isn’t it?

I don’t think that we have learned much, although there are more assistance programs than in 1935. In general, Western societies do not know how to cope with damaged soldiers. The situation is far worse when the conflict lacks public support, as it did in WWI and the others you mention. It’s mainly left to charities to give them real help. They remind us of the reality of war, which makes us uncomfortable, so we prefer to label them as heroes and then forget. We like to think of Western society as civilised, highly evolved beyond such messy, primitive things as war. But as Henry says, civilisation is just a veneer.

(10) Summertime is saturated in atmosphere. I could hear the bellows of alligators, the sizzling noises that bugs make as the sun goes down. I could smell the mangroves, the salt and the acid of the key limes. I also heard music as I read it. Along with the eponymous song, what would be your soundtrack should the book be made into a movie? Let’s imagine a musical score!

I love this question because music is a big part of my life. I conduct a local community choir and sing in an acapella sextet. I would love to have a soundtrack for a novel. Imagine playing it while you read! Someone should do this. I chose ‘Summertime’ for the title because I wanted the reference to ‘Porgy and Bess’, which was first performed in 1935 and was the first opera written for an all-black cast. It’s such an atmospheric yet complex song. The words sound happy but the tune in the minor key says different. There are archives of folk music recorded in FL in 1930s, which would be important to include – the real voices of the people who kept those songs alive. Plus you would need a good sample of gospel songs, because church was the centre of the community. This was a time when popular music was being written for the radio, and there are some great songs from the period, like ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz’, ‘Night and Day’, and of course, ‘Stormy Weather’.

(11) What’s next for you as an author?

I’m going to write about an epic love story and unsolved murder which took place in Key West in the 1920s. It’s another fascinating yet forgotten story from a place that a lot of people think they know.


All images (manatee, hurricane memorial, cemetery angel and author photo) courtesy of Vanessa LaFaye

Vanessa Lafaye was born in Tallahassee and raised in Tampa, Florida and her first visit to the UK was back in 1987. She now lives in Marlborough, Wiltshire, with her husband. You can follow her on Twitter and visit her writers den on Facebook.

Summertime is published in the UK by Orion Books.

Taking it to the Next Level: Tuddenham Mill’s Head Chef Lee Bye

Taste Head Chef

Image courtesy Tuddenham Mill/Lee Bye

 Chef Lee Bye hit the ground running when he took the top job as head chef at Tuddenham Mill two years ago and he hasn’t stopped for breath yet. Steering the restaurant to gain an award of two rosettes by the AA a mere two months after taking up position and then being named the winner of the Employee of the Year Award in the Bury Free Press Business Awards, 2014 culminated in the restaurant being awarded the prestigious Good Food Guide Editors’ Award for the best set lunch. In 2015, his team at Tuddenham Mill went on to win the prestigious Good Food Guide Editors’ Award 2015 for the best set lunch menu in the UK and Lee was titled Suffolk’s Chef of the Year in the Suffolk Food and Drink Awards 2015.

Tuddenham Mill enjoys a bucolic setting on the outskirts of its eponymous village, close to Newmarket, Bury St Edmunds and Cambridge. The hotel has been sensitively restored with a restaurant and bar used by locals and visitors to the region. Having developed a new menu, Chef Lee and his team intend to ensure that Tuddenham Mill becomes a regular stop off for locals and visitors to the region and Lee’s input has been fundamental to steering the Mill restaurant in a fresh direction.Lee may have won accolades early on in his tenure as head chef but he is far from complacent, aware of the pitfalls of the culinary equivalent of that difficult second album:  “When I was told about the [Editors] award I kind of sat in my chair for two days; the spotlight comes onto you and brings a lot of pressure. As a young chef I was suddenly made to think ‘how do I sustain this?’ I’d reached a goal- The Good Food Guide- it was always a personal and professional goal of mine, that old school vintage thing that the award has, I like it and I achieved it early.”

How would you describe yourself as a colleague and boss?

“I wouldn’t say I am a modern chef in that respect.” He takes a moment to think… ” My focus after winning was not to move onto the next thing but to sustain our success and build on it. I’m old school [as a chef]. I like the traditions, that idea of ‘win as a team, lose as a team’ and my main focus now is finding the right team members, the right blend of people in my kitchen.”

Every chef knows that to a certain extent they have to build a kitchen and the people who work within it in their own image but they also must balance this with bringing on the individual talents that each person brings to the table (or prep area in this case). The chef also has to manage their teams response to the long hours involved at the top. “It’s challenging across the industry as a whole and for the right reasons. It is hard to attract the right personnel and the people who want to do it for the right reasons. I’m 99.9% of the way there but it has been hard.” he answers when I ask him about how he copes- both as head chef and as a person trying to have a life, a life that involves a partner (who works front of house) and a new baby, born at the end of last year.

The team at Tuddenham Mill/ photo by kind permission Tuddenham Mill/ Chef Lee Bye
The team at Tuddenham Mill/ photo by kind permission Tuddenham Mill/ Chef Lee Bye

“I believe in the old values, of team work and consistency and complete honesty and I do not want them to suffer in silence when things are tough.”  Valentines Day was a recent case in point, seventy people booked to eat the tasting menu with 350 plates to prepare and get out to tables of couples, buzzy with the expectation that Lee and his team will give them a memorably romantic evening- a LOT of pressure. If a chef is not proactive enough about signalling a potential problem in advance, the potential for it to all go tits up (technical term, that)  is huge and there is no second chance from a customers point of view as he says: “The team is a very young one, top to bottom and it takes a lot of dedication to bring them on. When someone runs into deep trouble on their section and sits in silence I cannot bear it.  I have to have honesty, for them to come to me early on. It can be sorted out then and the team functions as a whole.”  Fortunately, they powered through what must be one of the industries busiest nights to live, cook and prosper another day in an industry where every service is the equivalent of opening night as far as the customer is concerned.

Behind the professional satisfaction these awards bring lies another, more complex story about consequences and implications, the behind the scenes stuff that places a young chef and his team in the running for industry recognition even though Lee is keen to impress that accolades do not define him and nor is he chasing them. As we talk about what it takes to function well in the kitchen and the long hours built into the industry as standard, a look of determination crosses his face.  Lee is just a few months into new fatherhood and and working hard because of a joint decision made by himself and his partner that this is his time and one he must take full advantage of. Although their family life might appear to the casual observer, to be, in his words. a traditional set up, it is one that acknowledges that he has to sacrifice some family time now for the bigger picture and means hours away from his new baby and partner. This is something that he does not ask of his employees though, rather more, it is a decision that they must make for themselves “I cannot ask them to put me in front of their own families.” It is the right decision for his family and whilst undeniably, a tough one, he has a partner who he says fully understands the unique pressures of the hospitality industry being employed within it herself.

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Tuddenham Mill at Halloween / courtesy Lee Bye

With regards to the under reported problem of stress, anxiety and other mental health issues within the catering industry, he has a clear sighted grasp on how it affects chefs and the difficulties they face in trying to wind down after a hectic adrenalin filled service. He is also cognizant of the lazy stereotype of a chef with a drink problem. ” People laugh at the thought of chefs as alcoholics, they laugh at the label. They should work in the field and they’d see what it is really like” he says with a degree of annoyance. “They just say, ‘there’s a lazy assed chef’ and don’t consider that there’s a life balance out of the window. If a policeman did that [drink excessively] people would acknowledge it as a problem but with chefs, people expect it or don’t think it is important. Chefs come home after 18 hours of service and have to force themselves to relax. You cannot just go to bed and that’s why many younger ones end up wandering down the High Street looking for a drink- they have to release that [adrenalin].”

Acknowledging this problem in an everyday manner is something he sees as important and the first step towards prevention. “it’s sad to see when chefs fall off the edge. I want my chefs to have a life [outside of work] and I want them to build their own strength, to be resourceful but I do check up on them to see if they are alright. I’ve been there- I didn’t want to ask for help- so I do ensure that they know they can come to me, to ask for help. I’ve seen when people go off in the wrong direction in their heads, they just swim off and you can lose them so I step in, get there before that.” He concludes by pointing out that this has benefits to both himself and the customer. Lee works six days a week and has just the one day off. Building a reliable team with an inbuilt sense of Lee as mentor and boss means that he can have time away knowing that all is well without him. “The customer must not know that on that day I am not in the kitchen. The food must not give that away.”

Stonebass 'St Jacques' sprout heart and Jerusalem artichoke/ courtesy Lee Bye
Stonebass ‘St Jacques’ sprout heart and Jerusalem artichoke/ courtesy Lee Bye

So who motivates the motivator then? As he says, It is very easy to let go when you are at the top without somebody else there and like most chefs, Lee has a strong background of mentors, the people who have guided his career or conduct themselves in ways he admires. Top of the mentor tree appears to be former head Chef of Tuddenham Mill Paul Foster, who Lee trained under, eventually becoming Sous, two and a half years ago. When Paul left last year, Lee returned to the Mill after a spell working across several other establishments, gaining experience. He donned his head chef toque. Aged only 31 when he left Tuddenham, Foster has garnered huge praise and respect from his former sous.“Working for Paul massively improved my brain and I will always be thankful. You find a lot of chefs will add one component too many and the dish then becomes unbalanced. Paul [among many things] educated my palate, taught me to bring my own personal edge to my food, not think too hard and end up with too much on a plate, using stuff for the sake of it and losing seasonality.”

The same respect is afforded the ‘chefs chef’, Marco Pierre White and Lee acknowledges that while he will probably never get the chance to work by his side, the books written by this undoubtedly great chef serve pretty well in his absence. “Going back to the idea of my kitchen philosophy and those of others, well Marco is full of them. He said ‘nature is the true artist’ and for me, that says it all. The easiest guideline but one that too many chefs ignore.”Lee’s own cooking shows he has taken heed of Marco’s counsel too. Take one main that caught my eye, served for sunday lunch- a straightforward sounding crispy pig’s head, cockles, pear aïoli. coastal herbs, written as is, on the menu. I asked Lee to talk me through the conceptualisation of the dish.

“I always bring the pig back to Suffolk. The pig is Suffolk and a lot of our meals, our canapes are pork based. Our core base has, in the past been a lot of city folk but I do not want to be London in Suffolk. I want our diners to have the experience of Suffolk with a boutique edge in the surroundings. As I’ve said, I’m quite old school, traditional in what I do and am inspired by what is around me.”

The dish is clean, uncluttered, paying homage to the pig as orchard animal with the pear spiked aoli, designed to both cut through the natural fattiness of pork and season the plate. Instead of going with the obvious apple, we have pear, also an orchard fruit and feasibly what pigs would eat should they get the chance to live as a pig naturally would. The coastal herbs are from Walberswick and whilst Lee doesn’t seem to want to be identified as someone who has adopted the recent trend for foraging- and there are serious environmental implications (some parts of the New Forest have seen indigenous fungi populations decimated)- he is aware of the amazing produce the region contains. “That salty edge from the sea herbs pulls this dish together. These are from Walberswick and collecting them on a walk is a great way to spend spare time. I’m not a massive fan [of foraging] but stuff like Samphire that is so good here? You’d be mad not to use it.”

Stone bass, chervil root, Moules St Jacques, runner beans courtesy of Chef Lee Bye
Stone bass, chervil root, Moules St Jacques, runner beans courtesy of Chef Lee Bye

 The award winning set lunch menu features a lot more of the same good regional stuff (sea trout, beef flank with St Edmunds sauce, an under used cut) but avoids an over adherence to the principle to the exclusion of other ingredients worth a look in from further afield (Shetland mussels, Spanish squash). The puddings are eye rollingly tempting-  a banana tea loaf with salted toffee, blackberries, earl grey ice cream had my name on it- and don’t seem an afterthought, something that a lot of other pudding menus display. My particular dislike is snobbishness about patisserie and good puddings where they aren’t seen as important as the other courses which might be the result of a place not employing a creative or technically innovative pastry chef or existing chefs simply not being interested in this aspect of cooking. The whole set menu comes in at £15,50 for two courses, £19,50 for three at the time of writing. That’s less than twenty quid for serious technique and flavours, right there.

I am unsurprised when I ask Lee what his last meal would be and he cites Pierre Koffman’s Gascony birthed stuffed pigs trotter, one of THE greatest signature dishes of all and originally served at La Tante Claire. Pureé chicken breast, egg whites and double cream are bound in with veal sweetbreads and morels then fried in butter to make an unctuous stuffing, elevating this usually humble pig part to an exalted position on the hog eating scale. It is a dish of classical technique, a test of a chefs training and a wonderful collection of contradictions- high/low, earthy/ethereal. Lee would follow this with a chaser of Beef Wellington cooked by Marco and Gordon Ramsay. (Would the dish ever end up at the pass or would it serve as kitchen projectile?) He rounds his last meal off with a glorious tarte tatin-made by Pea Porridge’s Justin Sharpe to be precise.

Cox apples baked in dark muscovado sugar with buttermilk cream and oats/ courtesy Lee Bye
Cox apples baked in dark muscovado sugar with buttermilk cream and oats/ courtesy Lee Bye

A bit of a coincidence that on the way to see Lee, I subjected my husband to a long monologue about the Koffman stuffed trotter and how one could protect a signature recipe from plagiarism. I asked Lee about this whole issue and he turned out to have a pretty measured take:

“It’s flattery at the end of the day. People will always be inspired by the food of others and they will want that for themselves.”

But how do you deal with this when it appears to be less of an homage and more attempt to actually pass off somebody else’s creation as your own, I wonder, finding it hard to imagine your average chef not turning puce with annoyance at all their hard work and inventiveness being essentially nicked. Lee passes on more wise advice from his former boss. “Paul used to say that they [plagiarists] will never replicate your brain, they cannot reproduce where that dish comes from.” He goes on to explain that when he trains his own team, he can teach them to cook from their hearts and to use their imagination to create dishes but the mind, the terroir if you like, of a chef is uniquely his. This terroir, like all carefully tended land, is multi layered, both wellspring and sponge, soaking up all that surrounds the chef, inspiring him to produce food that is greater than the sum of its parts.

And one thing that surrounds all chefs are critics- start making a name for yourself and they will appear. What do you think of them? Without missing a beat, Lee assured me that he saw a place for them, “It’s an opinion at the end of the day although we are at the needle point of the freedom to be praised or slagged off.” He spoke amusingly of the day Jay Rayner came to town, dined at the Mill and reviewed it, raving over the less is more, local and relevant philosophy that Paul became known for and Lee is now revising and developing.  Lee was sous back then and was busy prepping in the kitchen on the Sunday the day the review came out- published some time after Rayner’s visit. He watched in amazement as “car after car, Jags etc came flooding in, down the drive and parking then people getting out with the copy of the paper underneath the arm.” He laughed. “We got on with it but…” I asked about the double edged sword of a review’s effect and he admitted that yes, there is the danger that for smaller establishments especially, the attention can be overwhelming and cause as many problems as a regular full service can solve.

Rosemary, hazelnut and bitter chocolate truffles: courtesy of Chef Lee Bye
Rosemary and bitter chocolate truffles: courtesy of Chef Lee Bye

Lee is pragmatic about critics, Trip Advisor reviews, and having to deal with the good and not so. As he points out, a chef cannot own the praise of a top critic and the approval of less famous patrons then disregard and reject the criticism if and when it comes. Not if he wants to avoid looking like a dick that is. But he also makes it clear that the work is hard, arduous involving deep emotion alongside finances and time: a bad review from someone who doesn’t understand what the chef is trying to do and bases an opinion more on personal taste as opposed to objective analysis may be a game changer, restaurant closer and career ender. There are consequences. The same goes for twitter he feels. Lee uses it (find him on @leebye) but counsels against unnecessary and indulgent unpleasantness for the hell of it. and because it can blur the line between professional person and professional ass, even if it is a private account. “it’s a brilliant tool.” After I recount a recent trolling experience that spilled over into real life from social media (threats made over my land line, police called), his face blenches.

Lee has achieved so much, relatively young but this is not a guy who is ready to rest on his laurels and nor is he restlessly looking for a new thrill or gimmick. Keen to take himself, his kitchen and the hotel to the next level, the last year has been about him establishing himself as head chef in a kitchen he has come up through, about putting more bums on seats and building the reputation of Tuddenham Mill as a flexible place to eat, offering many different options for dining. The coming year will see a challenges to attract even more locals to the restaurant and build on the reputation that being the recipient of such awards bring. As Chef Bye says “We’ve been through a long tunnel and held the ceiling up. This year we’re going to build through it.”

Rice pudding, blueberry and pistachios / courtesy Lee Bye
Rice pudding, blueberry and pistachios / courtesy Lee Bye

To make a reservation, head to the Tuddenham Mill website.

“My daughter calls what I am doing the Vagina Monologues of food”- I talk to MsMarmiteLover

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Photo courtesy of Kerstin Rodgers

 

 Stand in front of a map, don a blindfold and point, and the chances are that you’ll choose a country that food writer Kerstin Rodgers, aka MsMarmiteLover has either visited or plans to do so very shortly. For those of us who lack the budget of an oligarch but still aspire to eat well and see the world, Kerstin is your go-to woman, having travelled widely on a realistic budget as sole parent, often with her child in tow, and packing little more than a curious mind, an appetite and a guidebook. And now Kerstin ventures forth to Bury St Edmunds to stage a show at the Theatre Royal with wine expert Nick Adams which promises to marry memoir, menu suggestions and travelogue with food and wine pairings, compared by BBC Suffolk presenter, Lesley Dolphin. It is a night that promises to be interactive and informal and offers something a little different for audiences in this Georgian jewel of a venue.

Check out Kerstin’s blog and her four books and you will see that she isn’t the kind of woman to draw the footbridge up behind her either. Her latest book is packed with advice and guidance for would be food writers with a dream of making a living in one of the most competitive industries of all and her blog is jam packed with seriously useful advice designed to make you feel that you can do it. There’s recipes of course, but also a fresh and at times irreverent take on the High Church of Careers in Food and the Art of Travel Discourse with stories about her exploits in places such as a state fair in Alaska where she could have paid ten dollars to enter a raffle to win her own gun or meeting anarchic French wine producers (and correctly and helpfully defining what anarchy actually means).

She writes about staging an exquisitely researched secret 18th century tea party at Dennis Severs’ ghostly Georgian house in Spitalfields, Christmas spent with her daughter at an abandoned mining town La Vieille Valette near Alès and Kimchi cooked Gangnam style which was inspired by her first Korean meal, served bizarrely in Ecuador and not, um, Seoul or Pusan. This is set against a back story which involves her starting out as a teenage photographer at New Musical Express, becoming the subject of the Madness single ‘My Girl’s Mad at Me’ and launching the supper club/pop up/underground restaurant movement in the UK in 2009 via the inception of her supper club The Underground Restaurant.

At a time when the dominant narrative around single parenthood can lean towards little money, limited horizons and a serious lack of agency, Kerstin is a refreshing change and I would have loved such a role model back in the day when I (briefly) found myself alone with a child. You also might not know that Kerstin is a facilitator and, as she describes herself, a passionate believer in the punk philosophy of a DIY philosophy as applied to food, meaning that she acts as friend and mentor to many small food producers across the UK. Kerstin helps them to establish themselves in a crowded market and sell their wares whilst sharing mutual expertise and advice. I am hoping that she will find Suffolk a new and fertile stamping grounds for her ideas and initative and that we might benefit as a county from her gastro-expertise which has been hard won over time.

Another of Kerstin's books
Another of Kerstin’s books

Over the course of a near three hour interview (a lot of which featured delicious food world gossip and off the record laughs) I asked Kerstin about her life and career and about what we might expect when she comes to the Theatre Royal. As someone who adores food writing myself, I am keen to hear her opinions on the genre and what direction it might take in the future. “I’m desperately hoping that food blogging won’t die out” Kerstin says, straight off the bat when I ask her this. “My daughter calls what I am doing the Vagina Monologues of food but I do worry that people don’t actually want food writing and content anymore. They want lifestyle.”

Yet Kerstin’s blog is remarkably broad in its remit without being unfocused, going from elaborately staged supper clubs to relatable suggestions for creating a similar ambience in your own cooking and home. From embroidering her own tea towels to writing posts about niche ingredients that we all buy then wonder what the hell to do with (bottarga anyone?), there is a spirit of can do realism in Kerstin’s work. You encourage people to enjoy their nests, I remark.

“I’ve always been a bit of a nester. I love doing that. I think we are still in recession and a few lucky people aren’t and people haven’t got a lot of money. I’m very careful with money. I’ve just been careful. There was an urge to go with that when I started the supper club. That, in a way, was the ultimate nesting thing, you are having a whole night out in my own house.”

Kerstin provides a much needed alternative to the dominant media image of lone parents- the idea that they all live poverty-struck, grim and unimaginative lives of subsistence, eating TV dinners in front of a giant flat screen. This narrative can be a dangerously narrow one where aspirational and hard-working single parents are not accurately represented in the media. It’s important to be a different role model, I tell her, whether you intended this to be the case or not.

“I’ve been a single mother for twenty years. I KNOW what it can be like. I was on benefits too and the one thing I didn’t do was starve. In fact what I could afford to do was eat. That was the one thing I could do. I was one parent with one child taking on all the responsibility and it’s an intimate situation. I don’t hide things,” she said.

“It’s not what you say, it is also what you do. Kids aren’t watching us cook anymore. It’s a really important life skill.

“It is tough [single parenting] and as single parents, we are very scary. We’re often single women and we are managing! I’m a bit like Elizabeth the First; without a man I am more efficient… Stronger, I get stuff done and a man can be a distraction. It can take away from yourself to look after them although I’d quite like one, sometimes….” she laughs.

Kerstin self identifies as feminist, telling me that “to learn to drive, it’s the most important thing to do, as a vehicle gives is freedom. It’s a feminist thing,” and we talked at length about the ‘official’ food world and the narrow tropes that tend to dominate it.

“99.9% of the worlds cooking tends to be done by women yet there is an inverse proportion of men doing the high profile restaurant reviewing, food writing and cheffing. It’s narrow and it is wrong and its all wealthy white men.”

Kerstin is well documented as the creator of the now widespread idea of eating out in other peoples homes, known as supper clubs. Despite the profound effect her idea has had upon the culinary zeitgeist she claims, “If I were a man, having created a new style of eating, I would not be in this position I am in. It can be really difficult to earn money and one of my battles is trying to earning enough money to carry on.This is my living, people pay money for my food.

“Tim Hayward (a food writer and owner of Cambridge bakery and cafe Fitzbillies) always says you need to be rich to be a food writer. Many people who work in food are well off to start with,” she adds.

What do you call yourself, I ask. What job description describes you best in this career of yours which weaves together so many different creative and practical strands?

“I call myself a reporter” she replies. ” I feel that is what I am doing. With my blog I only write about what I have done, seen and the people I talk to. Basically I go to places, like when I met the anarchic punks who make wine. I go to them, I interview them and spend the day with them. I learn about what they do and photograph it and then report back.

“And that is the sort of stuff thar really interests me.”

Kerstin’s background as a rock photographer stands her in good stead in an industry where visual aesthetics are beginning to take precedence over the ability to construct a sentence and write knowledgeably about the culture of food. Her ability to let a photograph tell the story is clear (and if you check out this blog post, you’ll see what I mean) but she is generous with her skills and keen to pass them on to a new generation of bloggers- if they are willing to listen and learn.

Her latest book, Get started in food writing: Teach Yourself (Hodder Staughton) is packed with handy tips from how to construct a recipe to building brands and securing TV appearances. “It’s the first non cookery book I have done and although it was pretty badly paid for a lot of effort, in the end I enjoyed doing it,” she says, wryly.

“It is a bit of a dry format but I tried to make it as juicy as possible. I enjoyed doing the interviews, from the horses mouth of talking to people so to speak, and that really interests me”, she added.

This is a word heavy book, and she is unfairly comparing it to her previous cookbooks which are visually very rich, packed with lovely images, memories and recipes with context. However ‘Food Writing’ solicits the expertise of some very well known food industry bods including the aforementioned Tim Hayward and is a really useful resource with cautionary tales about what the business can be like and hints on avoiding these pitfalls. Kerstin’s work has been plagiarised in the past and has had to use the resources available to her in order to seek redress through social media and her own blog posts about the experience. “I sometimes think that sometimes with certain celeb chefs, my feed is basically their pinterest board,” she confided.

I ask her about the recent backlash against the ‘clean food brigade’ those deliciously glossy and long boned young women (because they do tend to be female) who are all over the weekend food supplements, plying us with recipes for avocado slices dropped into cucumber (Yes, this was actually offered as a ‘recipe’, recently) and other digestively moral advice.

“There are all these skinny 22 yr olds talking about food. I went to Istanbul with one of them recently” she confides, “It’s the shadow side of the food industry. Its basically, a complicated relationship with food. It’s rock n roll, it’s glamour and we have incredible guilt about what we eat,” Kerstin says emphatically.

“There’s all these diseases from overeating such as diabetes but these girls are unrealistic. We all looked like that when we were 22, or most of us did. It’s easy to be thin and moral when you are 22 with beautiful youthful hormones, dancing all night in clubs,” she added.

“I’m not a fan: it’s another fad and in a years time we’ll all be going, do you remember that time when we were all mad about…? It’s another form of dieting, these women are diet bloggers. It’s this lifestyle thing, focused upon what you look like and these girls photograph well. Can any of them cook? I don’t know.”

So at its worst is it a form of eating disorder?

“Yes.”

Look at the men in food, I add. Not glam are most of them?

“We treat food like fashion and it is all about being in your twenties- there’s ageism going on too,” she agrees.

V is for Vegan is one of Kerstin's books and she was at the vanguard of vegan recipe creation.
V is for Vegan is one of Kerstin’s books and she was at the vanguard of vegan recipe creation.

Kerstin writes about vegetarian and vegan food a lot and one of her books is an incredibly useful and realistic cookbook for vegans (V is for Vegan). Despite her concerns about some aspects of the food industry, she is aware that the zeitgeist is quite sensibly focusing upon eating less animal fat and finding ways of enjoying food without contributing towards the environmental burden upon the planet.

“*I don’t have meat in my house and it is an ethical choice. The book (V is for Vegan) is my way of paying respect to the vegan community and I would have loved more space as its quite a short book. I fought to get the pages I got.”

Going back to economic constraints on food budgets she points out that “the first thing we give up on when money is short is meat. I think eating animal protein should be a rare treat if you are going to do it and a lot of it is not good for your health., I don’t think it is something for 3 times a day.

“Meat used to be for Sunday best. Stir fries etc, tiny bits of meat making it go a long way for the rest of the week. We never used to eat the amount of meat that people eat today.

“I honestly believe that cutting down on eating animal protein is good for your health.”

The advantage of travelling so much means that Kerstin is able to see these trends (if indeed this issue should be called a trend) and her travels to the USA in particular have informed her recipe development and menu creation although she is exasperated at times by the way we respond over here.

“The decision to become vegetarian or vegan is more respected in the States and [it is] very well written about over there. Lots of very well respected chefs are doing fantastic things with food but here, yet again, we’ve turned it into a fashion item. The British always seem to need to turn everything into a gimmick, like we do with street food” she said although she acknowledged the benefits of veganism becoming “fashionable again” for newly vegan people desperately searching for inspiration.

The Theatre Royal will be a good fit for Kerstin in my opinion with its intimate Georgian atmosphere. The show’s format is a new thing for her and she is keen to explore new ways of working in food and collaborations with people who possess expertise and longevity..

You’ll be well placed on that stage, I tell her. People in East Anglia are happy to travel miles to see a show. We’re kind of like the British version of Midwesterners living on the great plains, I laugh, and whilst it might be something a little different to the usual theatre programme, I think that those attending will enjoy the format.

“I’m working with Nick Adams who is a most respected master of wine” she said.

“I know him. He isn’t showy, you talk to people in the know and they say ‘yup’. He is very knowledgeable and quite acerbic about wine which is refreshing. I’m keen to see what he will do.”

We’ll be like the Muppets audience, jabbering away and completely slaughtered in the stalls and little theatre boxes if he passes the wine around, I comment, which we laugh about.

“It’s hard, talking about wine,” she explains.

“I’ve just done an article for the Wine Trust. I basically finished it at 2am last night and I’m not a wine buff. I hate writing wine descriptions. Some people do it really well but its very difficult to describe HOW something tastes and I always try to avoid it. I tend to concentrate upon stories about the wine, the winemakers- that I can do something with.”

So, the show will be something different for those of you going along and by all accounts, a new way of working for Kerstin Rogers. She told me that “this mania about food will move on. We’ve kind of jumped the shark about it and I’m wondering what the zeitgeist is going to be next.”

I agree that the mania needs to move on but I am hoping it will leave room for a more considered debate about food and the kind of enjoyable essays about food and the people who produce it that Kerstin and other good food writers publish. Kerstin has always been aware that they are the real stars of the show. The rest of the food world will eventually, and hopefully, catch on.

This feature was previously published on Bury Spy and publicised an event held at The Theatre Royal

 

“Nursery rhymes are wonderful and surprising little dramas”- An interview with Michael Rosen

 

Michael_Rosen

This interview has had a gestation more complicated than a multiple pregnancy. Bedeviled by a stolen voice recorder at the Latitude festival, where Rosen was speaking and I was doing press coverage- leaving me with no choice other than to frantically scribble down answers in situ (with a pencil– old school). Then, at home, I was burgled and the bag containing the original notes PLUS transcribed document on a memory stick was nicked. I had come to accept that this was the one that got away. However a few weeks ago the police recovered some of my stolen property including the purse with the stick in. Hence interview.2 reconstructed as best I can. Apologies Mr Rosen for the time-lag.

The previous November, it had been announced that Michael Rosen had been appointed Professor of Children’s Literature at Goldsmiths, University of London in order to run a new MA in Children’s Literature starting in 2014. It was this that I was particularly interested in; the need to build an academic knowledge base for children’s literature and how this could be of benefit at a time (July 2014) where Michael Gove, then the education secretary, was making pronouncements about the worth of one set text over another.

The relative lack of critique and study of literature for children has left us all wide open to Gove-ian interference regarding what is ‘right’ and who gets to arbitrate ‘taste’ (and his departure doesn’t mean we are out of the woods either). The wrong people are exerting influence for reasons motivated by something other than their critical analysis of the texts themselves but until we have that critical rigour, we lie helpless in the face of this.

So, Michael, who is the arbitrator of taste? Who is deciding now what we read as children?

“I gained my MA in the early nineties and have been teaching and involved in education since then, from a position of wanting to share what I have learned- it all comes from that. As artists and critics, we can easily be bypassed, we have zero power and we need to work towards establishing a consensus. Through research and collaboration and educational critique, it is possible in a sense, to all get that opportunity to be a ‘King for a Day’ where we can say ‘my turn to talk…’

And Gove? Where does he come in?

Power engenders power. It’s a well-oiled party machine and there’s a belief that if they talk ‘this’ way they’ll get ‘it’ into power but Gove…he’s a liability to their side. In whatever role. 

“Gove oddly set himself up as a know it all and was not generous in his way of listening and working with teachers, those in education…the children. He has the ‘power of convenient’, he is using his position to impose his own political views. He could have convened a discussion in a human and thoughtful manner. He is very Napoleonic and cannot bear to think of a consensus. Nothing is being set free here. It is all about imposition. We have teachers who have invested their lives in learning how to do what they do really well. He doesn’t want to hear from them. 

In previous interviews, Michael Rosen has made clear his belief that despite Gove (and the government) stating that these stipulations allow schools to act as they wish with regard to what is studied in literature, in fact the adding in of extra texts above and beyond those stipulated would be almost impossible for teachers. The workload is already immense.

He goes on to state that there is huge interest and academic potential in children’s literature, not as addendum and tag along to adult literature (nor framed in the light of what we loved as children) but a whole new world of critical theory with more than 10,000 children’s books being published in the United Kingdom every year.

“Children’s books are different, in so many ways and are vulnerable to the opinions of uninformed ‘experts’- they have a dual focus in that they are part of the process of formally educating a child but they are also guiding, reflecting and nurturing. The best do this.”

If you take into account the view that each child’s background will affect their relationship not only with the idea of reading itself but the content on every printed page, it is baffling as to why there has been this snobbery for so long about the formal study of children’s literature. It has made us vulnerable to seeking out the wrong people as arbitrators of taste- people like Gove.

“We can value reading for pleasure. We learn beyond exams and the feeding in of information and the retrieval of it through exams and tests. But we learn through the world and what is around us- our bodies, the earth, the way we play and eat and the energy and life around us.

Go onto Michael Rosen’s website and what strikes you is his love of words- a playfulness and exploration and inquisitiveness that we of course celebrate in children and then find that most of us seem to lose along the way. There are videotapes of poetry readings and interviews conducted by year-sixers, jokes and quizzes and while there are sections for ‘adults’, there is little sense of him hiving off younger age groups.  The same applies too, to the different ways in which humans use words. To some of us poetry seems to breathe a more rarified air and it can be a little intimidating- not something for the ‘beginner’ in literature which is a shame.  I asked Michael how parents (and non parents too) can engage with poetry despite their unfamiliarity or unease with it-

But poetry is everyday- it isn’t a separate ‘thing’. Think of nursery rhymes- They are wonderful and surprising little dramas, full of mysteries with all kinds of interesting meanings. Even tiny babies are suddenly engaging with life- a richness of life when they hear them. Think of one- Why was Little Miss Muffet on a tuffet? What is a tuffet? Think of the sound of that word. You can ask questions about them, the child can ask questions about them and it doesn’t matter about the answer.

“Sing songs to them. Look at Dolly Parton and her song ‘The Coat of Many Colours’ which is written verse and is the loveliest story. Engage children with words that fill their heads with the strangeness of non speech language. Writing and the reading of it alone cannot show them everything that is special about a story. Use non verbal storytelling by singing and acting out the words and show them how emotion can be conveyed through the whole body. That teaches them how to manage their own feelings and how to understand the feelings of others. 

So can you recall what your own introduction to poetry was? Your first book?

“My first poetry book was the Kingfisher Book of Children’s Poetry and I love the work of Grace NicholsRoger McGough and John Foster. My parents loved poetry, we had poets visiting and we all told stories.

Michael goes on to discuss how song and poetry share an affinity through their rhythmic structure and cites the example of ‘The Song of Hiawatha’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow for which Longfellow invented the four beat line. The tetrameter, (also called  strong-stress, native meter or four by four meter) is commonly used  in nursery rhymes, ballads and folk songs and has four beats to a line. On a simplistic level, anything with a heartbeat-like rhythm is going to soothe or arouse but more importantly, if you want to introduce yourself or a child to the realm of human experience seen through the prism of poetry, why not exploit what we already know to be familiar and comfortable? Start there and progress onto the other stuff.

Certainly poetry celebrates the rhythm, pitch and sound of language and also the non language sounds that come out of our mouths. Individual words convey meaning in themselves- not only when they are combined with other words. Michael Rosen’s own poetry is testimony to this. Watch this VT of Rosen reading out ‘Chocolate Cake’. There are sounds and expressions that you won’t find in a dictionary and sounds that mean something even if you have an impaired inability to decode language. A son of a friend who was diagnosed with Autism aged three responds to Michael’s sounds of glee with his own glee and it is one of the few times we see him associate joy with sound. It usually troubles him. Small babies are oblivious to the values and meanings attached to words and until they learn those things, they will enjoy a word for the sound it makes solely.  We all eventually learn that a word is an object and it has its own tale to tell but there is a kind of joy involved in going back in time through the reactions of the very young to words and poems and stories. Their reaction is unfiltered.

I once read that babies are born able to make every sound of every language in the world. So the acquisition of language is as much about the process of forgetting as it is about learning. Babies are the kings and  queens of neologisms, they play with sounds, feel them in their mouths, they listen and experience the sound of speech and noise from the inside out and this is something that poets seem to retain or relearn.

“Babies are natural poets. We as writers and poets morph and invent language- babies do this from the start. They don’t know that the sound you are making is ‘right’ or wrong. They borrow and they invent and poets- they do that too. People like Shakespeare, they didn’t fossilize or get pedantic about what word is ‘right’. 

Is poetry more supportive and reflective of changing language and idiom and would you say that it is a more natural vehicle to reflect a child’s lived experience?

“Poetry can and does talk in many voices. I see my own fathers voice..and that of others but you also need to find your own voice too. Poets can use and mine the language of anybody or anything- we do steal the voices of others when we need to. Our language is rich and it reflects what we borrow and what we invent. My own childhood home was full or oral history, tales told, my parents recited poetry and they were teachers and questioned everything. 

Michael went on to talk about how he wrote ‘Words are Ours’, a perfect reflection of the way in which language and its signifiers- the signs of the times, the signs of our times morph. The poem Incorporates ‘text-speak’ to wonder what the next thing, the next word will be and what it might say about us and the impermanence of a fast moving technology is the perfect vehicle to convey this

“We’re not statues and we don’t stand still. Poetry is dynamic and changes. We use dialect- Wordsworth wrote in dialect. People like Grace Nichols and Benjamin Zephraniah taught me how to stand and perform and how to reach people using me. I saw how they used their bodies and their voices, how the poems emanated from them. 

He has no truck with word snobbishness. He also has no truck with the idea that we must stick to our ‘own’ dialects although he is also emphatic about the role poetry has to play in promoting and valuing regional and cultural variations. Rosen sees poetry being as inclusive as any other art form and beautifully  experimental – he talks to me like a poetic Professor Branestawm. Sense of place is important but entrenchment is to be resisted. In a poet like Grace Nichols we see the linguistic gymnastics that move language forward leaving pedants trapped in a mire of their own making. Creole and standard English are woven together in her work BUT this is poetry to be performed, heard, not just left on the page. And it is this lesson that Rosen has really taken on board and demonstrated to us. He has taken it further. As I spoke to him he would break off into verse, would show me what he meant by playing with his own words, either via his own poetry or that of others, or song. He recited a portion of his own poem ‘Hand on the Bridge’ to show me how a dynamic, chanting, speechy way of reciting had been inspired by Benjamin Zephaniah and I, like a typical repressed English person at first sat a little awkwardly then by the third or fourth word, grew still and then spellbound.

For more information:

Michael Rosen’s website

Michael Rosen A-Z of Best Children’s Poems

 

Photographs copyright of Michael Rosen. Taken from his website.

 

 

 

 

We meet Emma Healey – author of ‘Elizabeth is Missing’

images.list.co.uk_elizabeth

In her debut novel ‘Elizabeth is missing’, author Emma Healey subverts the commonly held tenet of writing – ‘Write about what you know’ because the central theme of her book, Dementia, is unknowable to all except the person living with it. The condition all too often renders a person unable to adequately express their lived experiences and the essential mystery that lies within the heart of every human becomes ever more so.

Beautiful, painful and rich, ‘Elizabeth is Missing’ defies easy categorisation based as it is on Maud, an older woman with a fading memory who is convinced that her friend has gone missing and whose concerns are not taken seriously. Echoes of the long unsolved disappearance of Maud’s sister seventy years ago soon merge with the present as Maud refuses to be thwarted in her search for answers and we move back and forth in time alongside her.

At just twenty nine years of age, Emma’s ability to capture the essence of dementia is haunting and masterful, even more so for this reader, having had experience of working with people affected by the disease and its patterns of thought and behaviour; the restless searching, dislocution and their polar opposites- a determined fixation upon things or places or events that are all vividly captured along with the awful awareness that something is wrong but the person knows not what.

“I loved writing from the point of view of an older person” says Emma. “I have been writing since I was young but I never finished any of it and it felt boring – writing about my age and experiences. Writing about Maud was freeing because it isn’t about my life or my experiences but I am exploring and seeing her life from my point of view alongside the reader” The original idea of the book grew from a car journey on an ordinary sort of day when Emma ‘s own grandmother expressed a fear that her friend had gone missing. Emma’s gran has Multi Infarct Dementia and at that point was able to be mollified by the reassurances of her granddaughter and retain the information that her friend was only staying with her daughter- “I thought about this over the next year as Gran deteriorated- what would happen if and when a person couldn’t retain an explanation and I looked for ways to explain this condition; it was an excuse to explore it and then my other Grandmother died. She had been the family story teller and before she died I wrote down all the stories of her life. And they went into Maud’s story.”

Initially the idea of writing about something as intimate and painful as this might appear to be a form of catharsis but the end results proved to be more complex than that- “I thought it would be cathartic, there is a lot of Dementia in my family but I have found it quite frightening;  ‘It will be my fate’ and it can be quite terrifying. The misconceptions about the illness upset me more than anything, the idea that you can be less than pleasant to somebody with Dementia ‘because they won’t remember’ whereas in fact the feelings evoked are residual. They know something is wrong, that something bad has happened and they don’t always forget that”

For Emma, part of the process of trying to understand her Grandmothers condition involved learning about it, reading textbooks, dry journals, going to visit her gran and the relative of another friend  in hospital and it was then that the dearth of variety in writing about it became obvious- “A lot of the textbooks were quite boring and didn’t really give any feeling for what it might be like to live with the condition. What it is like for family and for everyone around and this is where fiction is important. Giving the feeling that people with dementia, the elderly, are part of the community and books can reflect that”

The otherness of getting old, of confronting the changes and failings of the body, of having dementia is beautifully depicted. We see a variety of reactions to Maud from the cruel, dismissive mickey taking of the police officer who deals with Maud every time she comes to the station to try to report the disappearance of her friend (and forgets she has been there already) to the kindness of the receptionist at the local paper who tries to help Maud fill out a missing person notice, mistakenly believes a cat is missing, releases she has misunderstood and shows humanity in her attempts to normalise Maud’s forgetfulness and her own attempts to decipher what Maud wants. The scene is amusing at times through Mauds own bewilderment at the receptionists apparent confusion -“She asks if Elizabeth has a collar and it seems like an odd question” but they get there in the end.  The over riding impression is that we all need to be more patient, to be familiar with the small acts of kindness that help make the world less confusing and stressful for many of us, let alone a person with cognitive problems. “People blame the person for not being able to remember” Emma says ” although there is humour in life and I wanted to reflect that people with Dementia use that humour too. It mustn’t be left out but I didn’t want the humour to be related to Maud’s distress, about that distress. I didn’t want people laughing at her and i didn’t want it to be cruel.”

Much is left for the reader to surmise, often in retrospect too. Maud forgot that she had made multiple trips to the police station in her attempts to discover Elizabeth’s whereabouts, making this far more effective a surprise to us because the reader isn’t aware of these visits as they happen. We think ‘oh’ when the officer cruelly points out the truth and we see where his frustration comes from and then recoil from his scathing humour. It is NOT funny. We never lose our place on Maud’s side but we can also empathise with Maud’s daughter, Helen as she tries so hard to retain her patience as she retrieves her mother from yet another wandering off or muddled and failed mission to find Elizabeth. Rich with the imagery of ageing- events and things obscured, buried and obfuscated, becoming faded and dulled but then what was lost returning slowly to the surface.

From the discovery of her sisters buried compact to the memories in her own mind, Maud nonetheless lives a rich sensory life with senses still sharp and the ability to feel emotions connected to smell, feel and sounds. From the vividly tactile description of Maud trailing her fingers along a moss covered wall. peeling away clots of moss to the collections of objects Maud accumulates- seeds, discarded fingernail clippings, stones and feathers and the way the smell of nylon evokes memories of her younger days, we are given a real insight into the world of Maud and a great way in; a way of relating.

Responding to the underlying feelings as opposed to what is being said or done can help relatives and carers to cope with some of the more challenging aspects of the persons behaviour. Maud gets ‘grumpy’ as Emma describes it but we never lose sympathy for her. We see what has gone into building Maud throughout her life and as Maud loses the ability to explain herself and as her personality starts to shatter, we see Maud distilled through her senses. “I am a sensory person, I have always kept a diary of the senses, I suppose you could call it, rather than a day to day diary of what has happened in my life” said Emma. “You can add more meaning to a scene if you add sensory detail, the motives and character can be explained in this way. It is so easy to be pulled out of a book as a reader when much is going on around us. Adding this detail, these little descriptions helps to pull people back in again” Maud is anchored in the natural world and we are anchored too, especially when the reader feels distress and adrift in empathy with Maud. Emma herself is a bit of a gatherer too, describing her collection of ‘bits and bobs’ from her grandmothers’- seeds that are too old to germinate but she is loathe to throw away, bits of costume jewellery, pebbles from beaches and little photos slotted away of nothing in particular.

Realising how Emma shares some of these traits and her previous studies in book art (Emma read for a degree in book arts) we wondered how hard it was for her to hand over creative control to her publishers with regards to the books design and the editing process overall- ” I didn’t have a lot of input with the cover and design. Because of my book binding studies, I knew that a book has to be filled with good content and it is not enough to just produce something that looks beautiful. I couldn’t just adopt a ‘let’s get the plot done’ attitude, it had to be vivid and rich and I had that to get on with”

Publishers were justified in their attempts to win Emma’s heart (and signature on a book contract). From the would be publisher who filled a room with Forget- me -Nots, played Maud’s music and posted ‘Elizabeth is Missing’ posters all over their building to the eventual victor, Penguin who gave her hand-written notes from staff members who had read and loved her book, a fierce bidding war led to a good contract and a very bemused and modestly appreciative Emma who hadn’t quite factored in this level of interest.

What made her choose Penguin? “Karolina Sutton (my editor) had a vision of the book that lay closest to mine. I needed someone who would be strict with me especially during the final draft when I couldn’t see the book anymore. Karolina’s feelings about the book mirror my own” The television rights have already been sold and we predict no end of interest should it get made- Maud is a dream of a role for any actor and the other characters are as finely drawn as she is. As women and men choose to have their own families later in life, we will see more and more parents having to simultaneously cope with children still at home and the needs of ageing and maybe infirm parents. A book and programme that reflects this is of immense value.

What would be Emma’s dream cast and how does she think she will react to a dramatisation of her book? “That is SO difficult to answer when you have lived with the characters for so long. It is hard to imagine your characters embodied in another persons ideas about how they might look or be and even harder to imagine Maud on screen. So much of her is within her own head, showing her from the inside, whereas television is much more about the external, not the inner life and it shows that from the outside in”

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Emma Healey -Photo by Tristan Conor Holden

Emma will be appearing at Jarrold’s book department in Norwich on Tuesday, June 17 at 6pm. Tickets are £3, including a glass of wine, with £3 redeemable off purchases of her book and at the Festival read at Literary Ipswich on Monday 30th June between 7-9 pm at Waterstones in Ipswich. Lesley Dolphin, the BBC Radio Suffolk presenter will be joining in the discussion and featuring ‘Elizabeth is Missing’ in her afternoon book club, BBC Radio Suffolk, 30 June  Thank you so much to Emma Healey for this interview and to Lija Kresowaty at Penguin for arranging it.  Find Emma’s Website here