Picture of the Month: furl all flags?

WATSONWORKS
Blog 36
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James Watson

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A Writers’ Notebook
December 2013

CONTENTS
Editorial Quote of the month Mick Hume on Leveson Issue: Arts funding: a worrying trend Poems of Place 13: Paradise of Pignut Contribution: ‘An Almighty Lesson’ by Bron O’Brien Correspondence: a summary

Editorial

Lauren gets the Bull
This month (December) Brooklyn-based author LAUREN OLIVER received the top German prize for young adult fiction, the BUXTEHUDER BULLE for her second novel, Delirium described by the Sunday Times as ‘convincingly terrifying as the North American of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale’. The Bulle prize was launched by a local bookseller Winfried Ziemann in 1971, the aim to prompt young people to take ‘an active and in-depth interest in reading’, further to ‘promote the widespread publication of good books for young people’. Worth 5000 euro, the Buxtehuder Bull is judged by an equal number of young readers and adults. Congratulations, Lauren; and well done Buxtehude for sponsoring the prize down the years. As a mark of its commitment, this picturesque town an hour from Hamburg created, in June 2011, a BULLEvard in the town centre surfaced with copper plaques bearing the names of the award-winners and the titles of their books.

Plus ça change?
Leveson has reported. Such was the publicity the Leveson Inquiry received down the months since its inception in 2011, such was the clamour of headlines on 30 November when the report was published that, for a moment, one might have been forgiven for thinking that overnight and for ever things would change. Within days the Leveson balloon began to shrink. Within a week it was in a state of shrivel, the attention of politicians, press and public well on the way to forgetfulness. Still, there was the sight of Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson trekking to the Westminster magistrates’ court to identify themselves prior to a trial (next September!) on corrupt payment charges. The shame of it! And yet…in the blink of an eye Miss Brooks and her husband were occupying the Royal Box at Newbury races, along with Cilla Black, Liz Hurley, Lord Lloyd-Webber and Labour supporter Geoffrey Robertson QC, to watch the Hennessy Gold Cup. It is not known whether phone hacking, allegations of bribery, the suffering of victims that had been targeted, pillaried and stalked over many years by the press were discussed. Maybe the topic of conversation was ‘country suppers’. What is known is that Beks got a £10m pay-off from Rupe.

Quote of the month Mick Hume on Leveson
The truth is… that the British press is far from free or open enough, even before a new regulator is appointed to teach it a lesson. Press freedom and openness is already constrained by more than 50 different laws, and by a conformist culture of You Can’t Say That. We need to begin from the position that our society needs greater freedom of expression, not more

formal and informal constraints on what can be said or read. From ‘Ditch Leveson – let’s get back to first principles’, published in Spiked! 13 December, 2012. Mick is author of There is No Such Thing as a Free Press…And We Need One More Than Ever (Societa, 2012).

ARTS FUNDING: SQUEEZING OUT THE LITTLE GUY?

Arran-based writer ALISON PRINCE questions the direction of arts funding in Scotland. Her article prompts fears that the marginalisation of individual artists and small arts groups may be happening in the rest of Britain. The rumpus about Creative Scotland has perplexed many people. Just what is going on? As a professional writer, I have something of an overview. I was a member of the Scottish Arts Council’s Literature Committee for some time, and knew the nitty-gritty of grant applications from the inside. As a recipient, I had earlier been helped immensely by an occasional travel or research grant that enabled a book to be completed. In those days the Scottish Arts Council (SAC) operated modestly from a couple of converted Haymarket houses, and its function was clear-cut. As well as supporting the big enterprises such as Scottish Opera, it provided vital sums of money – often quite small – that could make the difference between surviving and not surviving in the choppy waters of freelance creative work. But everything changed. Perhaps in a wave of euphoria following the construction of the Parliament building in Edinburgh, a mixture of ambition and spin swept over Scotland like a tidal wave.

Favouring the big guys
Grubby little artists were out; the big art business was in. The SAC morphed, slowly, painfully and expensively, into Creative Scotland. It designed a numbingly dull logo at dizzying cost and moved into a glass palace behind Waverley station, a prime Edinburgh site. Individual artists began to realise that they no longer mattered. Those who ventured to seek support for a new project were told they should raise a first thousand from elsewhere, then Matched Funding might be available. For those already struggling to survive, as artists commonly do, that was not helpful. A lot of potentially good work died before it was born. Depression grew. Artists tend not to be business people. They are prepared to live on next to nothing because of the absolute imperative to pursue and develop a

creative idea, and even when successful, they seldom swim happily in the world of form-filling and accountancy.

Counter-attack
As Creative Scotland sailed on, an unhappy silence set in, which did nothing to convey the dismay felt by countless working artists. It was the established leaders of the profession, secure enough not to care what the new organisation thought or did, who opened a counter-attack. Don Paterson, one of Scotland’s leading poets, wrote a strongly critical letter that hit the headlines, and since then, Creative Scotland has been blasted by a communication from 400 of the country’s most eminent writers, musicians and artists, demanding a rethink. Sir Sandy Crombie, Chairman of the Creative Scotland board (formerly chief executive of Standard Life, which is hardly arts-related) said the board had been ‘taken aback’ by the intensity of criticism. He offered the excuse of ‘limitations and expectations’ imposed by the Government and Lottery on how their funds should be used, but that is exactly what must be tackled.

Artists not executives
The truth is, artists do not constitute a corporate Art Business. Like cats, they are difficult to herd and highly individual. The old SAC’s system of flexible funding understood this and embodied a hands-on working relationship with artists all over Scotland. In its place we have a glass monolith with a massive desire for self-publicity. It serves the abstract concept of Scottish Art, but has lost connection with the people who make art happen. The fact that the board admits to being ‘surprised’ by the strength of feeling expressed in the letter from the 400 leading artists tells its own story. Why were they surprised? Such blindness is a matter of national concern. Something has to change, and not in terms of adjustment to the windowdressing. Creative Scotland must listen to those who do the creating. Alison’s article was originally published under the title Creative Scotland nibbles at the bullet in the Isle of Arran’s impressive newsletter Voice for Arran (info@voiceforarran.com), November 2012, published monthly.

POEMS OF PLACE (13)
THE PARADISE OF PIGNUT
In one year in one month in Mountfield churchyard An unnamed anthologist listed a century of plants Among lichen-enamelled tombstones: Yarrow, ransome, Lady’s smock, kingsweed,

Wood anemone (my favourite), rocksfoot and violet, Primrose (Auntie Muriel’s dearest), hairy bitter cress, Nipplewort, common cat’s ear, willow herb, Bed nettleweed (how’s that?), smooth hawkbit, ribwort, Good Friday grass, herb Robert, barren strawberry, Goat willow, birdsfoot trefoil and hogweed, Plantain, prickly sowwhistle (so pigs whistle as well as fly), Hairy tare, cleavers, common mouse-ear, bush vetch And so on, accounted for in faded type held By rusting pins in the draughty porch.

I copied down the names, my head a hive of bees Each dancing to the tune of time. This same list Could have been read out by Chaucer’s pilgrims, Recited by Perdita, enfolded Ophelia in watery grave. And with each name, a story, a remedy, a caution, Most of all, a sermon on life and death, For with what reverence drove our historian To tease out from tuft and cranny This breeze-brushed registry of short lives, Each a poem in word or phrase, a masterwork Of shape and pattern, colour and scent. Doubtless our sorrel scribe, our ox-eye archivist Now feeds the willow herb. I would like to think There is a will somewhere that declares ‘My body I bestow to the eternal sustenance Of saxifraga and shepherd‘s purse, periwinkle and celandine; In return for one summons of bugle at dawn, One vista of bluebells at dusk; with this codicil, That my paradise of pignut is not sub-let To the grim reaper astride a Honda mowing machine; And with this final supplication: Oh Lord protect My children from puritans and lawns!’

AN ALMIGHTY LESSON
By Bron O’Brien
In the beginning, God was happy. Mankind was happy. The world was happy. But Serpent was not happy. One day Serpent said, ‘God, life is boring.’ God replied, ‘Why is that?’ ‘There are no weekends,’ said Serpent. God was pleased to grant humanity weekends, but asked, ‘How shall weekends be different?’ ‘For five days,’ replied Serpent, ‘people will work, for two days, they will play.’ God was puzzled on two counts, first why Serpent wished for the bliss of heavenly weeks to be reduced by two days, and second He was confused by the reference to work.

Sure it had been seven days of hard work to create the world, but now there was no need for anyone to lift a finger. Serpent explained, ‘If people do not work, they will have nothing to spend…which brings me to a further request.’ God scratched His head in puzzlement. ‘But I have provided for us all, for ever. I am satisfied, Man is satisfied, the world is satisfied.’ At this moment Serpent sprang his surprise: he reached into a fiery bush and drew out Woman by the hand. ‘I took the liberty,’ he said, ‘of fashioning a complement and helpmeet for Man.’ ‘Well I’ll Adam-and-Eve it!’ exclaimed God. ‘What is her purpose?’ ‘You will see,’ responded Serpent. ‘Look into my crystal ball. It is a vision of the future.’ ‘I see,’ commented God, ‘that the man and woman –‘ ‘Indeed,’ interrupted Serpent, ‘they are wearing clothes.’ ‘Clothes?’ ‘Garments to cover up their nakedness.’ ‘But why? I granted them unblemished skin and nakedness, and here in Paradise it is neither too cold not too hot for man and womankind to cover themselves up.’ ‘They call it style O Wondrous One. And with style comes quality and with quality comes aspiration and with aspiration…’ Serpent paused. ‘…comes cost, or to put it more simply – money.’ ‘I notice,’ said God, ‘that Man and Woman are not only wearing garments, they are shod like horses.’ ‘Shoes, Almighty.’ God’s all-seeing eyes cast a wider glance. ‘But I notice not all my subjects are wearing them.’ ‘It’s the system, Lord. Style makes for difference and difference makes for style.’ ‘These are words unfamiliar to me, Serpent.’ ‘We are all individuals these days, Almighty One. It’s the rage. Even you. I mean, not to put too fine a point on it, you could do with smartening up. A suit, perhaps, shirt, a tie, some transport…You see, Lord, people are way ahead of you. Oh, and aftershave. Beards are definitely out. No style.’ ‘Who decides these things?’ ‘The ladies, of course,’ joked Serpent, meaning every word. So God shaved off his beard, acquired a suit from a bespoke tailor recommended by Serpent; inched himself into shoes and gazed once more on the World of Difference as Serpent described it. Serpent saw God in a state of confusion and bewilderment. ‘Everything,’ confessed God, ‘seems to have become so complicated.’ Serpent had a ready answer. ‘What we need, Lord, is some rules, the kind that keep people in line, contented with little, ever-grateful to our good selves.’ The Almighty felt himself on safer ground now they were not talking about style and difference. ‘Since the beginning I have always respected the freedom of my subjects, so long as that freedom does not harm others.’ ‘Freedom butters no parsnips, Lord.’ ‘I’m not sure I understand you.’ ‘Well, if everything was free, Lord, if people could just walk into shops and take what they wanted there’d be chaos.’ ‘Shops?’ ‘Didn’t I tell you? A little innovation of mine: places of convenience where people spend their money.’

‘That’s twice you’ve mentioned money. Just what is it?’ Serpent controlled his impatience. ‘You buy things with it, Lord.’ ‘But my subjects can have whatever they want, whenever they want it, according to their need.’ ‘Not any longer, Lord. There’s no profit in giving stuff away.’ Shamed by his ignorance of all these new words, God held his tongue, resolving to watch and see what this thing called money did. But he was not happy. He was not sure his subjects were happy. He was longer sure the world was happy. Perhaps Serpent knew best. He nodded when Serpent said, ‘Leave it all to me, Lord. I’ll scribble down a few rules and regulations, do a bit of order, separate the better from the lesser sort, and by morning you’ll have a brave new Paradise; only in this case there’ll be money in it for both of us.’ Still only half-persuaded, God went off to bed carrying the latest Argos catalogue, given him by Serpent. ‘Rest your eyes on that, Lord. It’s got everything humanity will ever need.’ The very next day God sent off for another pair of shoes. They were never delivered, so he asked Serpent for an explanation. ‘No cash, Lord, no shoes.’ ‘Then spare me some cash.’ Serpent seized his chance. ‘What I recommend is a pay-day loan. Subject to interest, of course.’ ‘Thinking of his new shoes, covetous of those shoes with a luminous flash on the side and heels thick enough to enhance his height, God replied. ‘Don’t doubt my interest, Serpent.’ ‘These days we call them trainers. Often people riot in order to obtain them. This particular pair is state of the art. Five hundred per cent interest, per week, Lord.’ Unaware of how out of his depth he had become, God smiled. ‘I’ve a thousand per cent interest in those shoes.’ Serpent smiled: ‘I’m glad that makes you happy, Lord.’ He tapped God’s catalogue. ‘Anything else you fancy while we’re at it? A sack of fertiliser for the Garden of Eden? A Samsung Galaxy, thirty quid off? Designer shades to protect you from the Light of the World? Available while stocks last. I might be able to fix you up with two for the price of one. Seeing it’s you, I could make it a trinity.’ God was engrossed. ‘I’ll see what else interests me.’ Serpent was happy.

We introduced Bron’s work to A Writers’ Notebook in Blog 34 (October 2012) – Two Dialogues (A* and E-). Many thanks, Bron. We look forward to publishing more of your work.

CORRESPONDENCE: a summary
Our postbag was set a-bulging following NED BASLOW’S letter to hard-up composer WAM affectionately known as Wolfie. This was divided between those angered by what one correspondent described as ‘speechless arrogance’ on the part of Ned when he took issue with the compositions of John Cage or Gage, and a number who generously offered food tins and second hand toys for WAM and his family. The good news is that Ned reports plenty of early bookings for the Wickerstaff-cum-Fernhaven Arts Festival and it looks as though Wolfie will

be writing a dozen arias for Lord Gilbert’s opening recital to which members of the royal family have been cordially invited. We were hoping to publish Ned’s next letter in his publicity campaign but this will have to wait till the January edition as Ned and his wife Betty will be occupied, night and day, throughout the Christmas period running the recently-introduced soup kitchens in Wickerstaff and Fernhaven. Contributions of tinned soups, veg, fruit, corned beef, spam and Ardennes paté would be welcome if delivered to the Watsonworksblog office. No bric-à-brac, please.

Season’s Greetings!

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