On a wet, windswept Sunday evening in Exeter, two friends and I went to see 12 Years a Slave. It was just as we had expected it to be: extraordinary, powerful, and profoundly moving. For once, I had read many of the reviews beforehand and although there were some dissenting voices, most critics and commentators seemed to speak as one. This is what the Channel 4 newscaster, Jon Snow, had to say on his C4 blog.
I don't think that I would dispute one word. Do go to see 12 Years a Slave if you can.
My friends and I agreed that watching this particular film on a large screen was worthwhile, not least because it emphasised its dramatic impact. But for us there was a distinct downside to this - the cinema itself. One of a large national chain, it had all the atmosphere of an industrial warehouse and the dreary, chilly foyer, with just a handful of seats, could have put us off cinema-going for life.
There was the usual limited selection of you-know-who's sugar-laden soft drinks and giant buckets of popcorn but surely, we thought, this could not possibly be the sort of film people would want to munch and slurp through. How wrong we were. Once we were in the auditorium, we found ourselves surrounded by people clasping mega-containers and, yes, they did munch and slurp, even through some of the film's most harrowing scenes. Two of them sat at the end of our row, having arrived with so much food and drink that they seemed to be having difficulty carrying it all.
As soon as the film ended, the same people all rushed to the exit -they didn't hang around to watch the credits; they felt no need to acknowledge all the people whose individual and collective efforts had enabled them to watch this magnificent work.
When we got up to leave, almost the last people in the cinema to do so, we had to tread over a substantial pile of uneaten popcorn and fried food that the couple at the end of our row had thoughtfully thrown on the floor. Even if it had occurred to them that, apart from the waste, someone else would have to clear up their vile mess, it seemed that this was of no concern. Oh the irony, after such a film.
It reminded me of a scene I witnessed almost 30 years ago in what was then one of Sainsbury's newest and largest branches in central London. Its location meant that it attracted some of the company's wealthiest customers, many of whom had deserted the much pricier Harrods Food Halls about a mile away. A mother and daughter were making a stately progress around the aisles, when the daughter picked up and promptly dropped a bottle of something or other. The bottle smashed into pieces on the floor, leaving a shard-strewn, viscous mess. The daughter bent down and started to pick up the pieces of glass.
'Oh leave it, darling,' droned the plummy mummy, 'they have people to do that sort of thing.' And they resumed their stately progress.
I'm sure that Jon Snow is right. Everyone should see 12 Years a Slave. But not everyone will see it in the same way . . .
Richard Burton was in a BBC studio recording his inimitable performance as the narrator of Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood. It was broadcast on what was then the Third Programme the following evening. At the age of six, however, I knew nothing of Dylan Thomas and no-one in my family listened to the Third Programme.
My introduction to Thomas came five years later at my primary school, thanks to a Welsh student called - yes - Mr Jones, who was completing a teaching practice with our forty-strong form. One wet, chilly afternoon, at the start of an English lesson, Mr Jones announced that he had a treat in store for us. Out of one of the classroom cupboards, he hauled a wind-up gramophone, whose prior use had been confined to providing the music for our weekly country dance classes. (Our form teacher was a very keen member of the English Folk Dance and Song Society.)
Then, from his briefcase, he produced a record . . .
'This,' said Mr Jones, in reverential tones, 'is something remarkable. We are going to listen to Under Milk Wood. Some of the finest words in the English language - and written by a Welshman, Dylan Thomas. The narrator possesses one of the finest voices in the English speaking world and he is a Welshman too, Richard Burton. So, I want you all to sit still, absolutely no fidgeting.'
I can't remember what my classmates did but, from the moment I heard the opening line:
'To begin at the beginning . . .'
delivered in those deep, rich, nut-brown tones, there was not the remotest possibility that I might fidget. I was somewhere else - hovering on the edge of Llareggub, looking down on Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard, Captain Cat, Rosie Probert, Mr Mog Edwards, Gossamer Beynon et al. It was the first time that I can recall shivers running down my spine while listening to the spoken word. Mr Jones also had the look of a man for whom, in the words of Louis Macneice, 'time was away and somewhere else'.
But, this being the 1950s and my primary school being run by a head teacher who was feared by all, our literary transports of delight were doomed. Half way through the lesson, our head teacher stormed in, red of face and teeth clenched. She almost wrenched the gramophone arm out of its socket.
'This,' she bellowed at Mr Jones, 'is NOT suitable listening for 11 year-olds. See me in my office at the end of the lesson.'
And that was the end of our introduction to Dylan Thomas and Under Milk Wood. And it was the end of Mr Jones's teaching practice at our school. But I thought at the time that he had been right about the words and the voice. Sixty years later, I still think he was right and I have a much-read first edition of Under Milk Wood and a frequently-played copy of the BBC recording to prove it.
So thank you, Mr Jones, for that great gift. And here, to mark the 60th anniversary of Burton and the cast's magnificent recording, the opening of Under Milk Wood.
You can find the rest of the recording on YouTube. Unless, of course, you have your own much loved and much played copy.
No, I'm not under surveillance - can't imagine that any of my emails or telephone calls or tweets would be of significant interest to the Forces of Darkness. No, just laid low since Christmas with some sort of mega-bug, which has been having a merry time, working its way around various parts of my anatomy. Forsooth.
But while I am, of necessity, taking it slightly easier than usual, the joys of the single life mean that there is no-one else to walk the dogs. So, wrapped up to the nines, I have braved the elements each day to ensure that the four-footed ones get to run about and chase balls in gale-force winds and horizontal rain. But they are such dear creatures, who would deny them this small pleasure?
The Loved Ones were here for Christmas and, despite all our recent sadness, we had a happy time, doing the things that we love and that have become something of a tradition since I moved to Devon 16 years ago. And this year, at least, the Aga did not die on Christmas Eve, so the festive fare was served without a hitch. I may have mentioned, in the past, that none of us like mince pies or Christmas pudding or Christmas cake, so none were served. I did however, receive a request for home-made espresso ice cream, which is beyond scrumptious. The last time I made it was about 15 years ago but I underestimated how long it would take to prepare, which meant that it wasn't served until late evening on Christmas Day. Not the smartest of moves as we were still wide awake and goggle-eyed at three in the morning. . . this year I got the timing right and our ice cream was on the table at a sensible hour. Despite generous helpings, we all enjoyed a good night's sleep.
The Loved Ones headed homewards immediately after Christmas as they were off to foreign parts to see in the new year. Meanwhile, I cancelled all engagements, took to the sofa with a pile of books, a box of tissues, industrial quantities of Vitamin C - and 62 episodes of Breaking Bad. Believe me, I know how to do home alone with a bug. On New Year's Eve I was in bed and asleep by 9pm. There was a party going on next door, apparently. I slept through it all.
And now, here we are, it's 2014 already. I avoid making resolutions at this time of year; they tend to come to naught. Instead, I have simply made a promise to myself to do even more of the things I love - singing, writing, reading yoga, seeing friends etc, etc, etc. Nothing too ambitious because lurking behind these modest aspirations is a pretty fearsome list of Things That Must Be Done. Stuff to be sorted. Repairs to be done. A house to be sold. Oh yes . . . (see how I slipped that last one in there?)
Still, there are another 364 days to sort out the list and, as Miss Scarlett observed, 'tomorrow is another day.'
My good wishes to you all for a year stuffed full of good things. And may your lists always be manageable.
Today, on the other side of the country, people are gathering to say farewell to someone who was once the centre of my life. But I decided to stay here in Devon and simply light a candle in his memory.
There was a time when we were as close as it is possible for two people to be; we shared so much and music was at the heart of the sharing. Through him I learned to listen to music in a wholly new way, with the heart and the soul. For him, Sinatra was the singer par excellence and through him I came to understand just what made Sinatra's voice so special. Our Concert Sinatra album has been played repeatedly in recent days . . .
The music in us lives on.
I go round in ever-decreasing, but seemingly never-ending, circles about whether or not to blog and so the weeks go by, with nary a word written. At least not on the blog. Many words written elsewhere, just not on here. So I go back to basics, although not in that John Major way. Heaven forfend; we all know how that particular campaign foundered. No, it is in more or a 'what did I say about this blog when I set it up?' way. And when I do that, I realise that I hardly ever write about the topics that I touched on when I started. Which is fine until I reflect that these days I blog about hardly anything. And there's the rub. I'm no longer sure what I want the blog to be, if anything.
I know that I'm not alone; many of my favourite bloggers write now only occasionally; others have ceased blogging. And then there's the time factor: being a conscientious blogger and blog reader eats into the hours; every day I try to spend less time in front of a computer screen and every day I seem to fail.
Still, after almost eight years of blogging, something has to give, or shift or change. Quite how this should be done, I am unsure . . . I never wanted the blog to become simply an account of 'what I did today' (or 'what I did on my holidays', so please ignore previous post); I never wanted it to become a paean to consumerism ('just look at all my stuff') - unlikely given my post-60 straitened circumstances, nor did I want it to become a one-topic blog - equally unlikely given my butterfly mind.
And then I reflected, whenever my writing students get stuck, I tell them to write anything, anything at all, just keep writing, even if it appears to be nonsense. Keep that pen moving. So I thought I might write a word or two about about the courses and workshops I offer, as well as the individual mentoring sessions, because I absolutely love planning and running these. And my delightful students seem to love them too.
Way, way back in the 1970s, I trained as a teacher but spent far too much time working on things like the college magazine and, in the end, I opted for a career in which I wrote, rather than taught, for a living. Neverthless, I have always believed that no education is ever wasted and, decades later, I can still remember how to construct a lesson plan. This has proved to be rather helpful in the past two years, since I embarked on my brand new post-retirement career.
In case you are wondering, the courses and sessions I run bear very little resemblance to formal creative writing programmes. None of that 'this term we are going to focus on the novel form'. No, we focus instead on firing the creative spark and this means that my writers never quite know what they are going to be working with from week to week. I use all manner of things such as paintings, photographs and music, as well as poems and extracts from a wide variety of books as a starting point. There is intense concentration as pens fly across notebooks but there is also much shared laughter and plenty of lively feedback and discussion.
And that is more or less how I work with the students I mentor online, via Skype. It still amazes me that this technology enables me to work in real time with aspiring writers not just here in the UK but around the world. It also enables people who live nowhere near a writing class or group, or who don't have transport, or who are unable to get out for one reason or another, to explore their creativity through writing. When I started mentoring, this was the group of people I most wanted to reach. I still do.
So, much of my time now goes into background reading and research for session plans and to reading and giving detailed feedback on individual pieces of work, as some of my students like to use all or part of their sessions to discuss writing that they have sent me earlier.
My satisfaction, as a teacher, comes from watching each of my students as they grow in confidence and develop their own, distinct, writer's voice. This summer one of my groups was invited to stage a platform performance of some of their work at the café-bistro where we meet weekly (in a private room that has become something of a writing sanctuary for them). They rose to the challenge and read superbly to a packed house; I went straight into proud mother hen mode.
Meanwhile, some of my students are now confidently writing blogs or submitting their stories to literary competitions. Others are using their newly polished skills to write memoirs or family histories for their children and grandchildren, or poems. They've all got the writing bug.
So, if you are interested in discovering your inner writer, wherever you are in the world, just let me know. We can always make adjustments for time differences . . .
And if you live in or near Mid Devon and are frustrated by the lack of local creative writing classes or groups, let me know and I'll see what I can do. We need only five people to get a class up and running. Just email me via the link in the right-hand sidebar and we'll take it from there.
All you need is a pen or pencil and a notebook. And the urge to write.