Friday, 2 September 2011

Life and death on a Cornish farm

I once helped a sheep give birth.  If you imagine the sheep could have done it all by herself, you don't know modern farming.  Today's sheep tend to give birth to twins (the farmers' version of "buy one, get one free") and they tend to do it in winter, in the middle of the night.

I lived on a Cornish farm for many years without farming it myself. The best of both worlds.  But one night came a knock on my door. It was the farmer - let's call her Cheryl because that was her name - and she needed my help because one of her ewes was having a bit of trouble.  Cheryl was one half of a pair of hobby farmers. In order to indulge his love of farming, her husband worked all week at ICI, leaving his wife to get her hands dirty.

On with the wellies and out into the night.  I straddled the sheep as if she were a small horse.  A sheep is a powerful creature, and never more so than when they are in pain at the back end and want to get as far away from it as they can. I gripped her flat, woolly back and hung on, while Cheryl worked away at the business end.  I talked to that sheep over the next half hour as if she were a woman in labour.  Push, push, good girl, one more for me...after a lot of bloody stuff you wouldn't want to know about a pair of trembling, bleating lambs lay in the straw.

New life, like death, is so powerful that you never forget being in its presence.  The ewe could have died.  The lambs could have died.  But here they were, already understanding the basic rules of life: drink, bleat, trust mother, keep away from humans unless absolutely necessary.  Because in a few short months, those darling little lambs would be off to market.  Somebody ate them - but not me.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Advertising - how famous artists and writers pay the mortgage

I've never watched Mad Men because I know I will end up getting it confused with reality, and I do know a bit about the reality.  I was an advertising copywriter for about 20 years, in six very large London agencies.  It was during the time we like to think of as the golden age of advertising, the late 60's, 70's, and early 80's.

Lots of cool people worked in advertising then.  Many of them went on to become famous in different fields.  The first commercial I made was directed by Hugh Hudson, who went on to make Chariots of Fire.  I spent a lovely day in the long grass with him and a bottle of beer.  Ridley Scott of Blade Runner made hundreds of commercials, including the Hovis prizewinner, "bike round".  Radio advertising was equally starry.  Most famous actors are only too happy to work as voice-overs.  My first radio commercial was "voiced" by the Sherlock Holmes before last - Jeremy Brett.  At the end of a long cold day he lent me his fragrant scarf.  "Be sure to send it back" he said, "Larry gave it to me".

And then there were the writers.  It's hard to believe, but the lofty Salman Rushdie once worked in advertising.  He was responsible for the immortal words "naughty but nice" - not original, but the first time it had been used for cream cakes.  I know this because I tried to hire him once and was told by his then wife that he would not be writing any more slogans because he was "about to be famous".  At least Mr Kipling never took out a fatwa.

We all know about Fay Weldon, and her slogan "Go to work on an egg".  Fay has aways denied authorship, because the line came out of a group session and no-one could remember who said it first.  But it has stuck to her like egg white, perhaps more so than the titles of her many novels. Dashiell Hammett, Dorothy L Sayers, David Ogilvy - and of course Peter Mayle who sold Provence so well that he all but ruined it - have all served time as copywriters. 

Before my time, George Orwell kept the aspidistra flying by working in advertising as a copywriter.  Russell Hoban, author of the immortal "The mouse and his child", wrote ads - and lived down the road from me in Belsize Park.  Alec Guinness wrote copy.  John Betjeman wrote for Shell.  The list goes on.

Every copywriter ever born has a novel/play/poetry collection in a drawer waiting for that moment when they can give up "prostituting their art" and become famous for something respectable (like acting). But fame, like advertising, is ephemeral - and many of those artists and writers wandering the corridors of advertising are forgotten - just like the slogans they wrote.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Pandora's Box - judging the Koestler Prize

There are an astonishing 90,000 prisoners languishing in Her Majesty's jails.  All but 4,000 of them are men, and most of them are young.

But prison isn't what it used to be. Nowadays, most prisons have their own website. You can browse through the pages and (perhaps) be surprised by the enlightened attitudes of many of them.  Some offer a whole range of classes, which must be a welcome break from boredom for many of those banged up. These classes are run by an army of volunteers - including poets, writers, artists of all sorts.  People who give their time to help prisoners express themselves creatively.  Or, perhaps, simply to learn to read and write.

I am not one of those who venture into prisons, but last year and this year I am one of the judges for the Koestler Trust, who administer the prize.  Last year there were more than 5,000 entries for a total of 1,500 awards.  Total prize money is £30,000.  My area is Poetry Anthology, and this week I am taking delivery of a large box of entries from prisons all over Britain.

When I opened the box last year, all the troubles of the world flew out.  Here was remorse, anguish, love, self-pity, boredom, humour, longing, fear - and hatred.  Hope was there, too.
The anthologies showed me the reality of prison life, and changed my attitudes completely. Beyond the websites, prisons are stuffed with suffering humanity with years of empty time to reflect on the things they have done. There's no doubt that some have inflicted terrible damage on others, or on society - and often on themselves.  Some are mentally ill, or sharing a cell with someone who is mentally ill.  Some are due for release, but still take part - even though they might never know whether their contribution has won a prize.

Judging is strictly anonymous.Nicknames or first names only. I read every entry, and give each one a hand-written report, with individual contributors singled out for special praise.  The standard of work varies from the brilliant to the banal.  Presentation of the work varies, too, from pretty much professional to a hand-written one-off.  Some are illustrated. Lots of them are genuinely funny.

Later in the year, some prisoners, judges and tutors will join the great and the good at the Royal Festival Hall, where there will be an exhibition of all the winning entries. Celebrity supporters include Will Self, Grayson Perry and Jeremy Paxman.  Go to the website and take a look - I promise you, you will be amazed.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Amateur Melodramatics

Musicals were our thing at Land's End Players.*

Guys and Dolls, Finian's Rainbow, Annie Get Your Gun, Bittersweet - cutting edge stuff.  Any really ambitious show with a cast of thousands, requiring an American accent and considerable dancing skills.  And at Christmas we did panto.

There's a strong tradition of song in Cornwall, so no shortage of singers.  Our leading lady - a real "voice" - played the romantic lead as a matter of course. The leading man was pushing it a bit to call himself the juvenile lead: stout and proper Cornish and perhaps not the ideal choice for Sky Masterson. Other mature local ladies obliged as dancers or in the chorus.  Yes, folks, in my youth (38) I was a Hot Box Doll.

I also painted the scenery - wildly ambitious and given to falling over. The stage was eight trestle tables, lashed together. Performances took place in the church hall, which was meant to seat a maximum of 80 but on panto nights accommodated a hundred plus, with children on the granite window ledges, 7 feet above the floor.

Our producer was from Up North and in accordance with tradition had been born in a trunk. What she lacked in size she made up for in temperament.  At some point in every production she would flounce out.  LOOK AT YOU! she would scream to the motley band of farmers and fishermen. DRESS REHEARSAL IS ON APRIL 10 AND IT'S ALREADY JANUARY!

A delegation would be sent to her house to talk her round, which involved chocolates and humble pie.

We rehearsed in the barn, just up the road from the pub.  After rehearsals it was straight back to the pub, where the more extravert cast members played Truth, Dare.  Secrets, as well as body parts, were exposed fo the world to enjoy.  Affairs were rife, and it was reckoned that one pregnancy was set in motion for every production staged.

All my London friends came down for a good laugh, and were not disappointed.  But joining the Land's End Players was the best thing we ever did.  We got to know some brilliant local characters, and had the best fun it's possible to have in a wig.

* Not the real name.  I've got to live here, dammit!

Monday, 23 May 2011

Fishy Tales

I swear you could smell Nigel's fish van before you saw it.  Monday was his day and it was a safe bet that the fish so artistically arranged in the back of the van had spent a warm weekend there.  Perhaps it wasn't the fish, but Nigel's coat, spattered with scales and blood, that announced his coming.

Or perhaps it was Nigel.  For Nigel was half-man, half-fish: a bucca from the village of Newlyn - one of Britain's biggest fishing ports, a mere three miles from our farmhouse at Castallack.  Health and Safety had passed Nigel by, or not reached him yet.  But I always bought fish from Nigel because he brought something else with him as well as the fish: Cornish dialect expressions.

Even though hardly anyone speaks Cornish any more, even as a second language, the Cornish have taken everyday English and made it little short of poetic.  When they are speaking quickly, there's no way an incomer can understand them, which is probably the point.  When they are speaking slowly, Cornish-English is a revelation.

We all know the word emmet (ant) used for holidaymakers.  Most of us have heard of dreckly, the Cornish version of manana.  Most of us know proper job, meaning good.  We soon get used to hearing dear of her whenever mention is made of a child or old person (it means Ah, bless!).  Almost every woman who has been to Cornwall will have been pleased to be called my handsome, my queen, my lover.  Or, in the case of a man, greeted with orright, boy?  Wasson, old cock?  You might not be so pleased to be described as a beauty, however, since she is a woman of ill repute.  Or, if you are a man, a tuss.  Same as cock, only ruder.

Many expressions reflect the close relationship with animals in a community that is very much about farming and fishing.  How dark was it, Nigel?  Black as a dog's gut. How rich was he Nigel?  More money than a oss got shit.  Someone scritched like a winnard - a winnard being a redwing.  A clumsy person behaved like a cow handling a musket.  You might be teasy as a' adder, or rough as rats.   She 'ad a mouth like a duck's fert is self-explanatory.

The Cornish dialect is rife with double negatives.  Instead of "Would you like to buy a donkey?" a Cornishman might ask don't spose you don't know nobody what don't want no donkey, do 'ee?  Where are you two going? translates into Where you two to?  Very is always some, as in she were some teasy (pretty annoyed).

Never mind if Nigel's fish sometime smeeched a bit - his fishy tales were always proper job.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

The incomer's tale

When you finally get to the end of the railway line and find yourself in Penzance, you will step blinking into the sunshine of a different world.  There's a sign at the entrance to the station which says Pensans a'gas dynergh - which means Penzance welcomes you.  At this point you might start to worry that there's a whole new language for you to learn here, and in a sense there is.  But it won't be Cornish. Only a couple of hundred people speak Cornish (as a second language) and they tend to be academics - or members of the tourist industry. 

All they had to go on when they revived the language a century ago were some mediaeval mystery plays, so "Cornish" includes lots of words that are made up, and the few speakers there are tend to argue about which of the four versions of Cornish has the correct syntax.

Cornish is a dead language.  The last person to speak it as her mother tongue died in l777.  She lived close to where I live, in a village called Paul.  There's a memorial to her there.  She even has her own poem, written in Cornish by a certain Mr Thomson of Truro.  The English translation goes like this:

Old Dolly Pentreath 100 aged and 2
Deceased and buried in Paul Parish too.....

I will spare you the rest of it.

I am an incomer, and proud of it.  I came to live in West Penwith on the very edge of Britain 27 years ago.  In London I had been an advertising copywriter, but Cornwall allowed me the right amount of space and time to be a writer.
The differentness of Cornwall is what interests and inspires me, and I will be writing about my life here in this blog.

So welcome to my blog - or Blogas a'gas dynergh, as Dolly might have said.