Category Archives: Literature

Bedtime Stories for Grown Ups

There’s something potent about breaking accepted sartorial conventions by appearing in your nightwear, in public. Who hasn’t either thrilled or squirmed at the thought of a sleepover, a slumber party, a pyjama pub crawl? Favourite Christmas nightdresses giving way to trendier frocks, fit to be paraded in front of one’s peers whilst pouring over one battered copy of Judy Blume’s Tiger Eyes; undercut by the compulsory heavy PJ wearing during swimming survival lessons; only to be eclipsed by the raunchy debauchery of dressing-gown clad freshers laying waste to Wetherspoons. To say nothing of shoppers in Cardiff pushing the supermarket boundaries, or Guy Ritchie on his Mayfair doorstep, for that matter. The exquisite mixture of vulnerability and comfort, allure and embarrassment, innocence and experience inherent in making the private self public; the nightie or PJs more revealing, in a sense, than the garments that take us to nightclub, gym or beach.

It was in just such a frilly frisson of satin and chiffon that two of my best friends and I trotted off to Bedtime Stories at 40 Winks, a sumptuous boutique hotel (allegedly the world’s smallest) situated on the still rough and ready Mile End Road. The house dates back to a more genteel time, being a Queen Anne townhouse of 1717, to be exact. Each of its four storeys have been lovingly and expertly dolled up with the most opulent interior embellishments that the mind of designer and resident host David Carter could dream up. Avid Notes readers will recall this from my audio preview back in December. The toast of Vogue and Time Out since 2009, the Bedtime Stories events enforce a strict nocturnal dress code.  Indeed, there was something of the night in the formal, inquisitorial crossing of the threshold at which guests were required to offer an answer to a riddle (‘What has eyes but cannot see?’ Mole/ bat/ potato/ needle/ storm/ blindfold house guest…?) before gaining admittance and being assigned to either Heaven or Hell, according to the aspect of our countenance. Charming! These domains turned out to be the polarized literary salons to which we would either ascend or descend for our evening’s entertainment, only to have the hierarchical spheres turned upside down as the evening wore on.

We were ushered to girls’ and boys’ dressing rooms, past a statue of Christ’s Passion sporting a top hat and a sculpted head of Medusa, up winding stairs to the respective boudoirs that had already taken on the theatrical ambience of backstage preparation, with lovely creatures beautifying themselves in every corner. Such effort for one’s night-time ablutions! I myself had thrown on a slinky M&S number and concealed it under a pink mac, to spare the blushes of my fellow passengers on the 106.  It was tempting to linger in the luxurious wings, but wary of missing our share of the gin we hurried downstairs once we were all, er, ready for bed. We stood in the grand basement kitchen, sipping Hendricks cocktails from Hendricks teacups (I can swallow any amount of branding when it slips down this easily). Feeling slightly sheepish in our duvet-dress, everyone took the opportunity to eye up just how sexy/structured/cosy/authentic everyone else had pitched it. I was dismayed that the rumoured Godiva chocs were nowhere to be seen but pleased to find smoked salmon bagels cut into dainty portions and proper jelly babies for afters. However, the accurately promoted ‘yummy nibbles’ didn’t meet the glamorous expectations one of my companions, who consoled herself with another teacup refill. Suitably refreshed, we were called to order by Mr.Carter playing the dour schoolmaster in his kilt and blazer, complete with cane (or was it a wand?). After a gracious if absent-minded preamble, it was time for the heavenly and the hellish to retreat to their allotted chambers.

Sally Pomme Clayton beckoned us into the cloud-coloured music room with whimsical percussion and a twinkle in her eye. Under a golden-hued night sky to rival the Hogwarts ceiling, we settled in an upholstered window seat for the first instalment of Stories for the Beautiful and the Damned. With a nod to F.Scott Fitzgerald’s saga of riches and ruin, we were reminded to be careful what we wish for by the cautionary tale of the Wish Tree. With the room of PJ-posers in the palm of her hand, Sally then steered us through the perilous fortunes of The Bear- a penniless soldier who makes a Faustian pact with the devil in a green jacket. In exchange for the garment, the pockets of which produce endless gold coins, the soldier vows to go unwashed for seven, long years. Ms.Clayton was as rosy and cosy as sherry trifle, but she conjured skin-crawling disgust and duplicity with the ease of the demonic magician of her story. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that part of the pleasure of being told a story is the soporific power the voice exerts, but just as you felt yourself lulled into a mist of fairy dust, you’d be snapped out of it by a blood curdling scream, a violent double take or a spine-tinglingly pregnant pause. Even the prospect of more gin couldn’t quite slake my appetite for the next instalment.

With well-judged casting, Nell Phoenix who occupied the elegant ‘opium den’ drawing room was the Black Swan to Sally’s white. Raven-haired and rich-voiced, she lavished us with altogether darker, sultrier tales once ensconced in her velvet-cushioned hell. ‘I need to see the whites of your eyes,’ she told us before launching into re-spun folklore of a hubristic fisherman who fell in love with a sea nymph, only to be cursed by a jealous sorceress and doomed to swim the ocean, tethered to lost souls, for all time. Not being much of a classicist I was easily swept up in the lyrical, tragic moments that tripped off Nell’s tongue like water off the proverbial merman’s back, but my more knowledgeable contemporary caught every mythic reference and was transfixed all the same.

Before being cast out into the wilds of Whitechapel, wide-eyed and impressionable, we were treated to the talents of Tricity Vogue, a cabaret singer in our midst who gamely stood in for the indisposed Robbie Boyd. It was the first and perhaps only time I’ll ever hear Edith Piaf strung on a ukulele by a turbaned, oriental-robed chanteuse (especially one that I’d just ‘robbed’ of the Most Glamorous Nightie Award- Benefit Cosmetics here I come!), but the impromptu, eccentric flourish of the set was entirely in keeping with the whole mad affair. So with that, we tottered into the night with enough stories to sustain us through the summer ahead, be it beautiful or be it damned.

Bedtime Stories returns in September.


Trust in Books

Booktrust, the independent charity that gives free books to under-11s, is to have its funding slashed by half. The scheme narrowly escaped the cost-cutting axe in December, when a public outcry by household name authors including Phillip Pullman and Michael Rosen forced the Government to make a swift U-turn. For our World Book Day- themed radio show at City,  I spoke to a Homerton mother and Stoke Newington- based teacher about the impact on the culture of reading for children.

Squatter’s Rights

For 12 months between the credit-crunching spring of 2008 and 2009, twenty-something journalist and Cambridge grad Katharine Hibbert decided to chuck it all in. She’d been made redundant and the rent on her flat had increased into the bargain, but never the less, she seized the opportunity to fundamentally re-imagine her life. Primarily through squatting, she sought to shake off the shackles of 9 to 5, wage-slave living for the weekend and paying into the ruinous London  rental market. No job, no flat= no boss, no landlord; but could it be possible to be truly free in in the modern metropolis?

Katharine found that it was, bar a few quid for an emergency KitKat here, and a bus fare there.  Here, she tells me the tale in an interview first recorded for Resonance FM on 10th March 2010.

Scratch n’Sniff

Usually suffering from the tail end of a cold, or riding the heady waves of hay fever (depending on the season), I’ve never set much store by my sense of smell. The one occasion it served me well was in greedily identifying my surprise dish of fish pie from a distance when dining effectively blind-fold in the pitch black of Dans Le Noir in Clerkenwell. My hitherto neglected nostrils have since been roused from a lengthy torpor by Scratch n’ Sniff– a revolution in sociable scent appreciation. This series of events are the brainchild of the fragrantly enterprising Odette Toilette and have been running since early 2010. My second-ever foray into the esoteric field of olfaction was courtesy of Scratch n’Sniff’s fourth outing, the literary-inspired Scent and the Pen on 23rd November. A chatty evening spent in the basement of the quirky Book Club in Shoreditch in the company of one’s undergrad cronies is always a pleasant prospect, but the added interactive ‘smell-o-vision’ dimension promised true edu-tainment.

More than just a flouncy gimmick, the concept-driven scents are central to the given theme of each event and serve to unlock the cultural mores and artistic conventions of the period, place or person they evoke. Ms.Toilette is in the business of making the high-brow accessible and fun to boot. Scratch n’Sniff debuted by laying a scent-trail of fashion through the ages, has since sniffed out cinema icons and will be turning its well-tuned nostrils towards the eaux de colognes and toilettes aimed at the masculine and adolescent markets in the New Year; Kurt Cobain having bequeathed a gift of a title in ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ All the perfumes on offer are hand-picked from the stocks of Les Senteurs of Belgravia. The SW1 perfumery, which specialises in rediscovering and retailing vintage scents, provide the miniature sample bottles which are bestowed on willing sniffers as the evening progresses.

My previous visit to the 1920s-themed night had yielded the nugget of social history that during the Jazz Age, fashionable men wanted to smell like women and decadent women wanted to smell like they’d just had a fag (what with the pleasures of tobacco being considered the preserve of their male counterparts). Gender-bending meets social shock tactics, to the tune of the Charleston, perhaps. I’d felt the urge to secrete the appropriate tester sticks between the pages of my favourite Waughs and Fitzgeralds, so that I might return to them for a synaesthetic bedtime read. In my haste to pour effusive congratulations over Odette Toilette’s already anointed head, I had abandoned all testers and samples in a slapdash muddle. This time around I was determined to be more methodical in my smelling, labeling and reflecting- all participants being invited to record their impressions of the aromas on headed note paper, to encourage sharing of ‘Smelling Notes’ throughout the evening.

Taking a good nasal swig of the nearest glass of coffee beans on offer to cleanse the olfactory palate of any residue of Great Eastern Street, I delved in to the first scent- Eau de Gloire. A Corsican perfume created in honour of Napoleon: I have to admit to only truly connecting with its bergamot, lemon and rosemary when someone mentioned really succulent Sunday dinners. Ah well, on to Bendelirious. A bit more to my taste and reminiscent of YSL Babydoll that I was wont to douse myself with before tripping the light fantastic in the Noughties nightspots of South Yorkshire. It was in fact conceived as something a little more exclusive- ‘a Jean Harlow kind of perfume,’ as Les Senteurs would have it. ‘An homage to legendary New York department store Henri Bendel,’ via Love Hearts and bubble bath and Britney Spears, as interpreted by the Scratch n’Sniff contingent.

Now for the literary bit. With our noses warmed up from the cold, Cambridge English don Dr Rowan Boyson guided participants through a whistlestop stench tour of the 18th century- think Horrible Histories for grown ups with a dash of Blackadder the Third. The central paradox for any writer setting out to capture scent in words is, she explained, the very lack of vocabulary at their disposal, unlike the myriad adjectives for colour, texture and taste. The entertaining Dr.Boyson quoted Locke, noting that ‘the variety of smells… do most of them want names…’ I learnt that for the early part of the century, smell was considered a ‘low-ranking sense’ and when it did get the poetic treatment it was reserved for expressing disgust, as in the ‘sour flatulence and rank armpits’ peppering Smollett’s Humphrey Clinker. In 1738 Pope declared that ‘perfume to you to me is excrement,’ and it wasn’t until Rousseau and the Romantics that writers were able to muse sincerely on the more delicate vapours of rose water and violets. It was with Shelley’s ‘The Sensitive Plant’ of 1820 that ‘the connection between smell and the imagination was made,’ Dr.Boyson told a captive audience drinking in Carnal Flower. An intoxicating floral number made with tuberose, it’s attributes closely recalled the poet’s description of mimosa: ‘music delicate, soft and intense… felt like an odor.’

Noses were given a break over refreshments at the bar (the smelling atmosphere being somewhat corrupted by notes of nachos and guacamole) before we heard from Dr.Ian Patterson, poet and Modernist specialist from Queens’ College, Cambridge. Charmingly clad in cords and hoodie, Dr.Patterson invited us to ruminate on the potential of the poem to ‘fill the hole of the indescribable.’ He proceeded to discourse on Swinburne, Tennyson and even T.S.Eliot’s inability to move far beyond the descriptive smell-by-association or substitution model that still prevails today. He aptly quoted the latter’s ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’- ‘her hand twists a paper rose: That smells of dust and old cologne.’ With that I found myself quite content to make do with such elegant comparisons in the face of ineffable whiffs.

Suitably inspired, the assembled party fell into a haiku-writing parlour game to be judged by the two guest speakers. Taking any of the five proffered mystery scents as stimulus, we toyed with similes ranging from the mundane (elastoplast, Savlon- Vierges et Toreros) to the indulgent (chocolate, chilli, cannabis, Shiraz- Coze) to the outrageously pretentious (alpine mist, pot-pourri chintz, cat sex- Nuit de Noel). The assorted scribbles have been assembled by Odette for the delectation of smell fanatics here.

I’ll never be the next ‘nose’ of the perfume houses of Caron or Chanel, but my senses were certainly invigorated and a few hours spent inhaling such potent infusions did my sinuses the power of good.

You can catch a whiff of the next Scratch n’Sniff on Tuesday 25th January with ‘A Scented Journey Around the World’, a nasal flight of fancy of global proportions.

Storybook Chic

Here’s my third audio featurette for City, which won this week’s Tutor’s Choice Award! It features the unmistakable Rag, Tag & Bobtail theme from Watch with Mother:

Bedtime Stories is a luxury story-telling soiree held in Stepney Green. It’s one of many live literary events springing up around the capital, appealing to bohemians and book worms alike. The venue doubles as London’s smallest boutique hotel, 40 Winks, and hosts an intimate gathering of 50 guests. Unlike other low-fi, no frills ventures, it’s a bespoke evening which aims to raise the bar of taste and elegance whilst telling tales. Gin in tea cups is served to those adhering to the strict pyjama party dress code.

Spinning Yarns

White Rabbit's Are You Sitting Comfortably?

Venus in furs/ fortune tellers/ Pestilance personified/ a botoxed starlet/ corpse babies/ cerebral rodents/ cannibalistic mink/ a kinky charlatan-surgeon. Populating a literary landscape defined by Southwark Cathedral, a Wolverhampton office block, a Deptford park bench, a cruise liner cabin and a Danish fur farm. Such was the character/ landmark montage that coloured my Thursday night when I finally made it my business to attend premier east London storytelling night Are You Sitting Comfortably?. The monthly spoken word evening is curated and performed by White Rabbit. AUSC? has been hosted by Arts Admin HQ Toynbee Studios’ in their Arts Cafe Bar on Commercial Street, E1 since October 2008.

I knew the airy, spacious venue from attending a Living Pictures theatre making workshop there last year, but after dark the quaint courtyard off a busy traffic corridor takes on a rather forbidding aspect. However, a warm glow emanated from the cafe, my friend had successfully bagged the well-worn Chesterfield in the corner and as uncharacteristic early birds we found ourselves with first pick of the scrumptious array of cupcakes. Seventh heaven, and we still had the entertainment to come.

The place was decked out in charmingly kitsch fashion- all quaint crockery, table cloths and doilies boasting cake stands piled high with homemade treats. Each children’s party fayre platter was affixed with the tempting, Alice in Wonderland-esque instruction ‘eat me’ and were generously included in the modest £5 ticket price, I might add. Obviously this love affair with all things vintage, frilly and feminine is very de rigueur at the moment, from Borne and Hollingsworth’s chintzy living room bar in Fitzrovia to Tea and Sympathy in New York’s Greenwich Village, with the Blitz Parties and dressing up box boutiques in between. Could all things passé be becoming just a tad, um, passé? Or cloyingly ubiquitous at any rate. But I have to admit to nurturing more than a little affection for all that sepia-tinted retrojection (at least where clutch bags and confectionary are concerned) and in this setting it felt utterly apt. Actor- writer duo Bernadette Russell and Gareth Brierley had created a quirkily civilised and gently nostalgic context allowing adults to indulge in that rare treat usually reserved for the under-5s- being read to. I hesitate to suggest that the content of the stories was less important than the soothing ambience and intimate concept; afterall, the well-judged sweetness of the tea party scenario might well have left a sour aftertaste had it all been a case of style over substance. Which it wasn’t remotely, thankfully. But as it was, the captive audience of apparently discerning, right-brain dominant book worms had been lulled into just the right mood of childlike comfort and anticipation that left listeners in my line of vision hanging on every word.

Disbelief suitably suspended, cynicism sugared away with calorie content quite forgotten, we were quite simply all ears. You could have heard the proverbial pin drop on the floor of our collective nursery- well, over the discreet munching of marshmellows. The proceedings began with a haunting war time mystery by Vanessa Woolf Hoyle, conveyed in 4 minutes flat. A destitute matriarchal protagonist was confronted with prophetic visions of her dead son, suspiciously conjured by an attentive stranger. The theme for the evening’s narrative offerings being ‘Lies,’ I was questioning the veracity and reliability of narrators, characters and even the readers themselves from the word go. I felt both at ease and strangely on edge- the ideal contradictory state induced by great storytelling.

But no time for lingering over the finer points of the prose, as before the applause had even died away we were ushered from Sarah Waters territory to something resembling Helen Fielding at her most candid as Hannah Proctor invited us to play voyeur over ‘the sweat-drenched hours on a futon’ enjoyed by her adulteress heroine and a ‘fragrant, delicate herbivore,’ prior to an awkward morning-after over corn flakes and the subsequent transatlantic abortion- denied thereafter, of course.

I was relieved that the tenor of the short stories promised to be anything but saccharine, if the first two were anything to go by. I was wary of simply letting the voices wash over me, as is the tendency when you tune into Book at Bedtime half way through the week whilst brushing your teeth and planning tomorrow’s packed lunch. The darker and spikier the tale-telling, all the better for catching you off guard and fighting the tide of fatigue; a war of attrition which I regrettably lost at the final starlit reading delivered by my favourite hirsute raconteur, Daniel Kitson at the Latitude festival in July.

As the male half of White Rabbit took to the stage it was welcome change in pitch to hear a masculine voice relate a macabre absurdist romp. Gareth Brierley’s apocalyptic ‘The End of All Things’ zig-zagged through made-for-media massacres, satanic New York laboratories and the afore mentioned administrative drudgery of the Midlands-an unlikely aphrodisiac for a white collar Death to get it on with his adoring assistant Nigel.

The format of the evening allowed for a brisk pace in which three stories were reeled off back to back, punctuated by a 10 minute break for reflection and refueling. As the evening wore on we were treated to the Machiavellian anthropomorphism of a gerbil’s maths tournament (rigged) by Joel Shay. Cue outbreaks of unrestrained audience guffaws. Michael Spring’s ‘Truth’ closed the evening with a skin-crawling, if tantalising account of a white-coated temptress climaxing with talk of scalpels on board a bodice-ripping booze cruise. Inspiration for SAGA holiday makers everywhere.

The stand-out story of the programme for me was undoubtedly Bernadette Russell’s self-penned tale of a god-fearing vicar’s alfresco crisis of faith in his Deptford parish. ‘Losing My Religion’ allowed for a smattering of real pathos as we followed the earnest William from agnostic boyhood through ordination and finally to drowning his doubts in a hip flask at the dead of night. Wicked flashes of character comedy were embodied by Mad Johnny of the Codfather fish and chip shop, the local fool on the hill lending an ear to Father William’s soul searching, amid Existential angst and the nightmarish meowing of copulating cats.

Whilst some writing was undoubtedly more assured and original than the rest, the standard was universally engaging and imaginative. Bar the intermittent flickering of the delightful back projections (stills of Pinocchio, Watch with Mother & Ladybird book spines) which were at turns entirely appropriate and at others wildly distracting, I had no complaints. Cynics might say I was softened up by the chocolate coin cache I claimed from the literary pass the parcel, or, more likely the goodbye hug from lady in red Bernadette, but I care not.

Submissions are now being accepted on next month’s theme of Horror to be aired on 16th December. It’s enough to rudely awaken the sluggish inner scribe in us all.

Photograph by Kirsty McQuire

Poetry Please

Time was, poetic stereotypes puncturing the mainstream were all romantic cliché. Keats and Byron look-alikes moping and yearning for unrequited loves in frock coats, living in garrets and expiring of consumption, that sort of thing. Well, either that or all Left Bank intellectual, a la Modernist poster boys Ezra Pound and T.S.Eliot, through to moody and brooding Ted Hughes, the Iron Man forever entwined with the Hollywood-worthy tragi-lit-romance with the suicidal twin-set and pearls word-smith, Sylvia Plath. Hitting the household name headlines in more recent times we’ve had the first female laureate Carol Ann Duffy, the brittle Northern denim and trainers aesthetic of Simon Armitage. The latter has stayed just the right side of hip since the release of his debut collection Zoom in 1989 by championing fellow Yorkshireman Alex Turner, whose swaggering lyrical dexterity brought the Arctic Monkeys critical as well as popular acclaim with that paean to Saturday night couplings, ‘I Bet You Look Good on the Dance floor.’

But it was in 1976 when the literary landscape was really shaken up by the arrival of the shambolically razor-tongued Bard of Salford, John Cooper Clarke. Dovetailing haphazardly with the riotous birth of the Punk movement, Clarke achieved cult status supporting luminaries The Sex Pistols and Joy Division, and taking poetry to places most poets wouldn’t take a train. Cutting a dash in drainpipe trousers he was and remains a spindly, androgynous figure, strutting about the stage on Cuban heels with a rock star charisma, complete with artfully dishevelled barnet. His material takes in the political and satirical spheres alongside the mundane and surreal; whether the subject be ‘Euro Communist/ Gucci Socialist’ or ‘(I Married A) Monster From Outer Space’, the writing and delivery are bitingly irreverent, laugh out loud witty and sometimes just plain daft. By honing his craft on the live music circuit rather than any refined spoken word salon-scene, Clarke was simultaneously reigniting a neglected oral tradition of sharing poetry aloud and en masse that dates back to innumerable folk tales, whilst being achingly of the moment.

However, by the 1980s this rollicking success was blighted by Punk’s demise, whilst Clarke himself was in the grip of a crippling heroin addiction. This unlikely man of letters seemed forever consigned to my Stepfather’s dusty vinyl collection, his New Year’s Eve part piece. But fashion being what it is, the reading, listening and thinking public’s appetite for the retro is nigh on insatiable, and within two decades the pendulum had swung back to Punk- by which time John Cooper Clarke’s ‘I Wanna Be Yours’ had made its way into my GCSE poetry anthology and doubtless won teenage hearts and minds across the nation.

Fast forward ten years and a new generation of rhymesters have been heralded as the resurgence of performance poetry- and once again the readings (or ‘slams’ as they are now known), are not confined to the bookshop but are down and dirty in the pub, the club, the street, the field. Luke Wright, founder of poetry collective Aisle 16, co-programmer of the Poetry Arena at the Latitude Festival and purveyor of the kind of fast-paced, observational, visceral verses that owe more to stand up than oratory, also cites Clarke as a major influence. Essex-born Wright confesses that he was ‘totally blown away’ by the old school writer’s appearance at Colchester Arts Centre when he was ‘about 16,’ chiefly because his poems ‘were funny and written about a world I lived in.’ An unpretentious, accessible, disarmingly honest style unites the otherwise disparate output of the new crop of Young British Poets. Aisle 16 is itself a motley crew, among them Swansea success story Joe Dunthorne whose Bildungsroman debut Submarine is currently in pre-production for Warp Films, and the charmingly self-deprecating John Osborne, author of Radio Head– a Radio 4 Book of the Week that was born out of temp job hell.

For those literary ladies amongst you who are starting to sense that this is all an unreconstructed boys’ club, fear not, as Dockers MC AKA Laura Dockerill, Brixton-born Brit School grad and best mate of pearly queen of pop Kate Nash is also making a noise with her inimitable gift of the gab. With literary cabaret in the form of Homework and the infamous Literary Death Match taking East London by storm, there’s no sign of poetry retreating to the library, pale and angst ridden, in bad shoes.