A SHEEP’S HEAD

The other day, I was walking past a counter in a supermarket and I heard a customer ask the man who was serving, “Do you have a sheep’s head?”.

The man behind the counter gave a shrug and said, “No…I think it’s just my hairstyle.”

 

ERGO

My wife makes animated films. Because of her, I quite often find myself at an animation festival or in a cinema…watching some strange and beautiful new film dreamed up by an animator somewhere in the world.

That’s my luck!

Like puppet theatre and poetry, I think of animation as one of the art forms that can genuinely come close to making magic.

Over the years, animated films I’ve seen have sparked all sorts of ideas that have fed into my writing.

Here’s one – a twelve-minute-long film by Hungarian director Géza M Tóth. I saw it five years ago at the Anima Mundi festival in Sao Paulo.

It has stuck in my mind!

 

 

INSPIRATION…Maurice Sendak

If you ask me, the picture book was one of the very best artistic forms to evolve in the 20th century. It’s up there with the three-and-a-half-minute rhythm and blues song, the animated film, the television drama series, or any other remarkable creative innovation you can think of that came out of the same period.

There were illustrated books for children long before 1900. But something seemed to happen around the time of the first commercial edition of Beatrix Potter’s ‘Peter Rabbit’, in 1902.

A taste developed for short, affordable, colour-illustrated storybooks for younger children. And in the decades that followed, the illustrations in these books became ever less decorative, ever more a part of the storytelling. So, sometimes step by step, sometimes in leaps forward, the special form of the picture book that we know today came to be.

It’s a special form because it’s such a mix of delights. Inside good contemporary picture books you get characters that children love from the opening words…engaging themes…page-turning stories…inventive, skilfully-crafted illustrations…flights of imagination…colour…humour…emotion and – as if all that wasn’t enough – endings which uplift, provoke, surprise (or do all three!)

That’s a lot of delight for an adult reader and child to share – all packed into 12 (or so) double-page spreads.

And it would be wrong to speak only of delight. There’s a notable history of picture books going into uncomfortable, shadowy subjects too. And for that aspect of picture-book making, I’d say we should raise our hats to the American author and illustrator, Maurice Sendak.

 

maurice sendak 2

 

Sendak was a fiercely independent, honest, funny, questioning character. (Have a watch of this short film, capturing him at home, in his later years. You’ll see what I mean…)

 

 

He wasn’t the only one to push back boundaries around what can be in a story for 2 to 6 year-olds. But his picture book, “Where the Wild Things Are” was such a brilliant challenge to the conventions of its day, and became so popular, that it ended up paving a good bit of the way for other challenging picture books that have followed.

The story of Max (the protagonist of ‘Where The Wild Things Are’) is a simple one. It’s a tale of leaving and returning. It’s only 338 words long. But over that short distance, Sendak touches on a many difficult themes: cruelty, uncontrolled anger, punishment, loneliness, ecstatic release and fear (among others.) The ‘wild things’ themselves are wonderfully complex. (Are they going to be friends with Max, or are they going to eat him up?) It makes for one of the most fantastic journeys in all of children’s literature.

And it’s telling that, despite being one of the best known children’s book makers of his generation, Maurice Sendak didn’t like to be described as a children’s author.

He broke the mould with his picture books. He went searching for truths about what it is to be human, whether you’re a child, a grown-up, or somewhere in between. In other words, he approached picture-book making with the sharpness of a genuine artist’s sensibility.

And it has been a wonderful thing for children’s literature that this sensibility found its way into the making of books for very young children.

Picture books could have evolved into pretty, soothing boxes of delight to help parents get children to sleep. Thanks to the likes of Maurice Sendak, they are a much more exciting and wild prospect.

 

wild things

 

 

FROM SIDE TO SIDE

A long time ago, I met a Zimbabwean film maker who had travelled from his country and was living in England.

We were talking about the differences between his country and mine: differences between the way people live and work and talk…differences in the attitude towards time…

And the man told me this story.

“After a couple of years of living in England, I went back home to visit my family members in Zimbabwe. My grandmother was watching me when I got back. And, after a day or two, she said to me, ‘You’ve come back different. You’ve come back looking straight ahead. Please, don’t forget to look from side to side as well. You see the most interesting things when you look from side to side!”

 

Four quotations about COMEDY

American author, Mark Twain: “The human race has only one really effective weapon and that is laughter.”

British writer and comedian, Barry Cryer: “Analysing comedy is like dissecting a frog. Nobody laughs and the frog dies.”

British actor, Peter Ustinov: “Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious.”

American film director, Woody Allen: “I’m thankful for laughter, except when milk comes out of my nose.”

 

What do you think?

A friend of mine in Brazil left the hectic megacity of São Paulo in the 1970’s to live a quieter life, a thousand miles or so to the north west, in the state of Mato Grosso.

While there, he got to know some native Brazilians of the Xavante people. And he brought one of them – a young man called Rubens – with him on a visit to São Paulo.

Rubens had never seen a large town before, let alone a city on the scale of São Paulo. So, before anything else, my friend took him to the top of a downtown skyscraper where he could take a proper look at the place.

The young Xavante took his time, staring out at the city, which stretches off as far as the eye can see.

He didn’t say anything. He walked across to the other side of the building.

There he looked down at the same urban scene, sprawling in the opposite direction.

Still he didn’t say a word.

So my friend asked, “O que que você acha?” (“What do you think?”)

Rubens replied, “Não vai dar certo.” (“It’ll never work out.”)

 

vista 4

 

 

THE ADVENTURE OF WRITING

I came across this a couple of days ago…

 

Joey's first alphabet 2011

 

It was written by my elder son, Joey. It was his first try at writing the alphabet.

Joey was four at the time. I was sitting nearby at the table, as he wrote it. And what I remember was the excitement that radiated from him as he worked at the task. It was a tricky but exhilarating journey, into a mysterious place he’d never been to before.

Remembering the mood it put him in, I’m left feeling that, when encouraging beginner writers, we should do everything possible to feed (and keep alive) the sense of excitement and adventure which comes from setting out on the journey into writing.

I may be a few years further down the line than Joey, but I’m still on that same writing journey myself.

And that sets me thinking us older writers, too, should do everything we can to keep alive the feeling of excitement and adventure…as (like Joey) we take our tricky routes into mysterious places we’ve never been to before.

 

Three quotations about WRITING AND PASSION

American science-fiction author, Melissa Scott: “Writing isn’t generally a lucrative source of income; only a few, exceptional writers reach the income levels associated with the best-sellers. Rather, most of us write because we can make a modest living, or even supplement our day jobs, doing something about which we feel passionately. Even at the worst of times, when nothing goes right, when the prose is clumsy and the ideas feel stale, at least we’re doing something that we genuinely love. There’s no other reason to work this hard, except that love.”

American novelist, Judy Blume: “The only thing that works with writing is that you care so passionately about it yourself, that you make someone else care passionately about it.”

Russian and Soviet poet, Marina Tsvetayeva, “If I were taken beyond the ocean into paradise and forbidden to write, I would refuse the ocean and paradise.”

 

What’s the difference between a story and a lie?

This comes from a book published in 1984, by the American author Paula Fox, called ‘The Servant’s Tale’:

“What’s the difference between a story and a lie?” I asked.

“A lie hides the truth, a story tries to find it,” Nana said, impatiently.

I strained to grasp her meaning.

“Don’t worry,” she said soothingly. “You’ll see it all some day.”

I understood enough to know that Nana saw what others couldn’t see: that, for her, the meaning of one thing could also be the meaning of a greater thing.

INSPIRATION…Seamus Heaney

I was sad to hear that the poet Seamus Heaney died today.

I’ve long loved the mix with which he wrote…of sharp-eyed observation, challenging thinking, musical language and an almost startling awareness of the weight of each word.

He and his friend Ted Hughes were the two elder poets working in my corner of the world as I made first, clumsy attempts at writing poetry in my teens.

When it came out, in 1982, my father gave me their anthology ‘The Rattle Bag’, as a Christmas present. I was seventeen. It was quite some present – an amazing, travelling collection of poetry.

I can remember feeling new things going on inside me as I turned the pages of that book…trying to keep up with the new words, the unfamiliar names, and the range of poetic styles from all round the world and all across the centuries.

It was one of the moments when a cultural object seemed to burst open something in my young mind.

It had happened three or four years earlier when I put on the first album by the punk band Stiff Little Fingers, and dropped down into the fierce, dark guitars of the opening song.

I remember seeing Joan Miró’s strange, blue work ‘Painting’ at the old Tate Gallery as a teenager. And the world suddenly seemed bigger and bolder than I had thought.

Similar things went on as I stared my way through a season of Luis Buñuel films that was on the television around then.

I even remember a building having the same effect – the first time I looked up at the glass and bright-coloured tubes of the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, aged 16.

What was bursting? Horizons? New doorways? The innocence of someone yet to leave home? I’m not sure how to put it. All I can say is that each time it felt like something opening that wasn’t going to close.

I heard Seamus Heaney reading his poems, at the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2002. I remember him being refreshingly bumbling (coming on the stage with his poems in a tatty old bag) and, with it, serene and tuneful.

He read with passion and care. The most beautiful poem of the night was ‘At The Wellhead’, in which he describes his wife’s shut-eyed singing and talks of Rosie Keenan, a blind, musical neighbour in the farming community where he grew up, who opened his young mind to the possibilities of music and poetry.

At the end there were questions for him and someone asked, “How did you become a poet?” Seamus Heaney replied, “It’s a mystery to me, happily. At school I wasn’t good at English. I was good at sums.” Then he added that there were ways in which maths still felt central. He tried to remember the mathematical formula for work. Someone in the audience helped him: WORK = FORCE + DISTANCE.

Yes,” said Heaney, with sudden passion. “And it’s the distance that’s so important. It’s no good if you just dump it down. Move it!

POSTSCRIPT

And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown, headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And find the heart unlatched and blow it open.

by Seamus Heaney (from ‘The Spirit Level’, 1996)

 

LOVE OF LEARNING

Childhood is

“Running our schools like performance institutes is
an outrage. Rather than instilling a love of learning
we are alienating our children and our teachers.
Let’s work to bring the awe-inspiring ‘journey’ back.”
Syracuse Cultural Workers