Archive for January, 2010

Edinburgh’s biggest ever book signing?

Wednesday, January 20th, 2010

Still on a Common Ground note, this month saw the launch of the book itself at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. The event was a spectacular success, selling out the 190-seat venue, with more eager punters waiting outside for returns. Chaired by Jamie Jauncey, the panel included John Simmons, Stuart Delves and Whitbread Prizewinner Ali Smith. With fellow contributors Richard Medrington, Lorelei Mathias and Sarah Burnett all in the audience, this led to a rather unusual seven-handed book signing after the event – a first even for the Edinburgh International Book Festival. It was good to see the whole concept really firing the imagination of the audience, who were all keen to chip in with their own suggestions for authors with whom they felt ‘common ground’. Great stuff. Next stop The Globe…

Tom Wilcox and Giles Smith in Colchester

Wednesday, January 20th, 2010
Arriving early at Colchester’s Arts Centre, we immediately suspected someone had pulled a fast one. The cabbie dropped us at a dark church and even darker churchyard on a cold, misty evening and we wondered if he hadn’t liked the look of us. However, once the lights came on, the bar opened and the audience filed in, it turned out to be a brilliant venue, complete with stained-glass windows. Shame it wasn’t available when Maniac Squat and The Cleaners from Venus kicked off their careers.

Tom’s evening (part of the ongoing ‘Common Ground’ celebrations, sponsored by the Arts Council) brought back fans of the Squat and the Cleaners, plus a friendly bunch of young Goths – all shiny long hair, matt-black clothes and perfect make-up – who’d come to see Martin Newell, ex-Cleaners, poet, musician and storyteller.

Martin told stories about the music industry, which tasted like a big bite of lemon, determined at some point to offend everyone in the audience at least once. His final song on whisky and women was guaranteed to irritate at least 50% of those attending. His charm? His talent and the fact that he doesn’t give a tinker’s cuss.

Giles Smith told us a tale he’d written for the occasion about how he got his first break in journalism (now his main stock in trade). It’s not fair that he can be so funny and play the Postman Pat theme tune in the style of Count Basie. If you heard Tom Wilcox read the lyrics of Maniac Squat’s greatest hit at The Globe, you’ll want to hear it performed live by his new band, The Chavs. We’ll get it up on the website, just as soon as we’ve mastered the technology. In the meantime, you can see it on Tom’s MySpace. In honour of Woody Woodmansey, Tom’s drummer who toured with Bowie for ten years during his wildest times, the band played ‘Jean Genie’.

The Londoners dragged themselves off to catch the last train back to Liverpool Street, hoping for a repeat performance somewhere within cab distance from their homes.

John Simmons in Chalfont St Giles

Wednesday, January 20th, 2010

It was billed as a candlelit evening in Milton’s Cottage, the tiny bolt hole in Chalfont St Giles where he spent the years that the Great Plague infested London. In the end, it was fluorescent lights in the village hall over the road. Heath & Safety decreed that there were too many people for the cottage and that candles were definitely out in a tiny house which contains scripts that the British Library would love to own.

John explained what 26 is for, how the book came to be written, then read them his chapter during which the Friends of Milton’s Cottage nodded in amiable agreement.

As lovers of Milton, the audience were almost by definition lovers of writing. Many of them bought the book, were genuinely interested in reading about the other authors featured in Common Ground and may even splash out and join 26.

Penny Williams in Falmouth

Wednesday, January 20th, 2010

The café at Falmouth’s magnificent, modern Maritime Museum was filling up with tanned, greying women and men, with taut, toned muscles. They stood with their feet slightly apart as if they expected the ground to tilt at any moment. These were people who were clearly not at home on a floor that doesn’t sway with the waves, all waiting to hear what Penny Williams had to say about a hero of theirs, Bill Tilman, explorer, sailor and writer.
Most non-sailors haven’t a clue who Tilman was, what he did, and what he wrote. ‘Mischief Among The Penguins’ isn’t what you’d first imagine; it’s about his adventures in the Antarctic on board his boat, Mischief. In the Maritime Museum’s theatre, as part of Falmouth’s Literary Festival, Penny read her chapter, including the story of her encounter with him at the age of 10. She was then joined by one Bob Comley, who had answered a small ad for crew during his gap year, and ended up sailing with a legend.

Afterward, on Penny’s parents’ boat, the sailors sympathised when I said I had to catch a train back to London. “I love it,” I said. They just smiled, nodded and looked very sorry for me. “We’ve got a crew!” one announced. “What are we doing in harbour?” and they all started looking around them for a reason to get going. Every one of them had what Penny calls the ‘thousand mile stare’, a longing to get out to sea again.

Back at the Maritime Museum café, the older sailors who remembered Tilman drank tea, reminisced, and swapped stories until they got fed up with dry land and set off to do some more exploration of their own


Wednesday, January 20th, 2010


A look back at Rishi Dastidar’s Arts Council-sponsored Common Ground event, by Justina Hart.

We met, appropriately enough, in the Met Bar above Baker Street station on Saturday 2 December 2006, on the promise of a poignant but pointless journey to the end of the Metropolitan line and back, to celebrate Rishi Dastidar’s Common Ground chapter about Julian Barnes’s Metroland. This was also touted as an escape from the Christmas shopping we hadn’t yet done, and proved the perfect respite from doing something constructive of a Saturday afternoon.

After a kerfuffle about the price of tickets, we plonked in our Met line seats, where we were to remain for the next hour and a bit. We noticed that Sarah McCartney’s outfit blended perfectly with the magenta swirls of the décor, which seemed an excellent omen. Other passengers steered clear of our carriage, much to Rishi’s relief as he declaimed Betjeman’s ‘The Metropolitan Railway’ and ‘Harrow-on-The-Hill’ over the sound of arriving trains, human traffic and whooshing, clonking station noise.

Our tube started to chuff along the ancient line. With nowhere to go but the end of the line, we heard only Betjeman’s iambic pentameters in the rhythm of the train and were free to gaze on the passing scenery – leaping up to take in sights like the new Wembley Stadium. It brought back memories of school trips, where a mysterious sense of higher purpose filters down to the excitable schoolchildren: (fortunately, the badges marking us out as 26ers hadn’t arrived). London was soon replaced by a Betjemanesque landscape of ever larger mock-Tudor houses, fields and woods. Various of our number told anecdotes about periods of their lives measured out by different stops along the line, and the winter light shafted through the windows into our eyes, turning gold and red before it died.

Having changed at Chalfont & Latimer, the end of the line turned out to be a place called Chesham, replete with a beautiful toy town station. Bitterly cold, it was disappointing to have to walk rather than sit, but we were comforted by the low rooflines and amateur shop window displays, all remarkably reached by tube. Christmas had arrived in Chesham in the form of piped organ music and a faux-Victorian merry-go-round. We paid our two quid and climbed aboard the shiny horses and went round and round.

It was time for the serious bit. We found a bookshop boasting a café but the drinks actually lived next door in a shop which sold fruitcake, as well as all manner of sewing and knitting implements. Carrying our drinks and knitting needles back to the bookshop, we discovered its upstairs room – like a cosy local library – empty and perfectly suited to a reading. Rishi introduced us to Chesham, to his experience of the suburbs as a teen and how he’d discovered Barnes. He then read from his chapter and we bantered about how we had perceived London if we had grown up outside, and how we had perceived the metropolis if we had been born where it’s at.

Our cockles warmed by the pace of plush suburban life, like reverse commuters, we nodded all the way back into town.

[In fact the merry-go-round was genuine Victorian, it just seemed unreal. SMc]