Wednesday, 21 November 2018

The Travels of St. Cecilia, gets its première on 22nd November. As I said before, I'm coming out of retirement as an actor for this, so it's a one-off.

St. Cecilia is the patron saint of music and thereafter, any resemblance ends, because this cantata is a joyful and often totally bonkers romp celebrating Oxford's twinning relationships with Bonn, Grenoble, Leiden, León, Perm and Wrocław.  It's a deliberately jolly antidote to the horrors of Brexit and Fortress Britain.

Bring your friends. Bring your family. Bring a spirit of international friendship.

Speaking of which, I have no photos yet of the Peace Poetry event on Sunday 11th November at Beckley Village hall, but I can report that it was very well attended. An enormous amount of money was raised for both Peace Direct and Jalina Myhana, the poet who had come all the way from Florence only to be detained at Gatwick, fingerprinted, and deported to Milan, miles from where she and her British husband live. He was also denied entrance to this country. Fortress Britain gets uglier year on year. Eva Wal, our German poet, noticed a hostile environment at the airport as well. It is deeply depressing.

On the positive side, we had some marvellous poetry commemorating mothers - they are too often forgotten in remembrance events - written and read in both Arabic and English by Syrian poet Muradi Bakir. There was poetry from German and Austrian poets of the First World War, again, read in their original language and in translation. There were contemporary poems written in direct response to these, as well. German poet, Eva Wal, played a film she'd made with young people. It was a beautiful meditation on peace and time.

The whole event was deeply nourishing and I am proud that the perspective was determinedly international and forwards looking, as well as humble and reflective about our shared pasts.

Do have a look at Eva's blog to see what we got up to during the marvellous exchange between Bonn poets Dada War Alles Gut and Oxford's Stanza II. I still can't believe how much we managed to cram in.

Links for you:

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Other Ways of Remembering, Twinning Celebrations and One Very Bonkers Reading

I tend to steer clear of events that have strong military associations. "Don't you care about the suffering and loss of life?" people ask. I do. Very much. I care enough not to support anything that promotes or glorifies war. It is not 'sweet and right' to die for your country. The truth is, it's painful and ugly and desperately lonely. It is also a terrible, terrible waste. 

I would rather we concentrated our efforts on reducing the risk of war. Our troops should be withdrawn from overseas unless they are being used to help emergency efforts following international disasters. It gave me me no joy to see a 12 year old boy lose 16 members of his family and both his arms in a bombing raid. It gave me no joy to witness the hypocrisy of the country that bombed him inviting him to receive free treatment for his extensive burns and offering him citizenship and a home, then cutting his access to care once he'd turned 18.

The recent photo of a group of young recruits with the fascist Tommy Robinson has deepened my anxiety. The military seeks to distance itself from racism and far-right groups, but I'm afraid that doesn't hold much water with me. I remember only too well what I witnessed in Northern Ireland, both when I lived there and on subsequent visits - soldiers lying on their bellies 
with loaded weapons trained on the Catholic players of a Sunday afternoon game of football, soldiers entering a bus going up the Falls Road and snapping their fingers underneath young Catholic lads' noses to try and get them to react so they could haul them off and arrest them, searchlights from military helicopters shining in through our windows all night when we were trying to sleep. Then there was the young Bay City Rollers fan who was lifted and interrogated at Castlereagh - the soldiers put a twin bar electric fire behind his legs to make him talk. Several decades on, not a lot has changed. Abu Ghraib, Basra, Helmand are names that are synonymous with torture and murder. 

We know that bullying is rife in the army. My nephew was in the US army for a while and he wrote at great length about how new recruits were broken down and then rebuilt. This is how you form an army. You dehumanise them. It is no accident that some of the people I have worked with who went on to develop huge problems with violence and substance abuse date their falling apart from their army days.  Some of the things my nephew told me were tantamount to brainwashing. 

My father fought in Vietnam and Korea. I grew up with Vietnam on my TV and in the papers every day. Many of those images still haunt me. My father was very proud to have had a man's hands chopped off. He actually boasted about that. So don't ask me why I wear the white poppy instead of the traditional red one. Don't ask me why I will not stand side by side with military personnel on Remembrance Day. I have other ways of remembering - and I insist on thinking about the future.

Also forthcoming is the celebration of Oxford's twinning with six cities - Bonn, Grenoble, Leon, Lieden, Perm and Wroclaw. 

The wonderful Arne Richards has curated and composed some excellent music for the cantata and several community choirs will be performing alongside Oxford Concert Party that evening. As for the text of the cantata, be warned - it's full of eccentric curiosities. I should know. I wrote it. Here's one of them in the picture above. 

Note, too, that I will be making a comeback from my acting career (last seen in 1987) with the inimitable Rip Bulkley of Back Room Poets. Don't miss it. This is a one-off. The date for your diaries is Thursday 22nd November and the performance will be at Oxford Town Hall. 

In the meantime, if someone can help me with my pronunciation of Wroclaw, I would be very grateful.

​I am delighted to have been placed 3rd in the To Hull and Back Short Story Competition. This is a marvellously bonkers competition and, as the writer of many bonkers' stories, it's a rare and welcome opportunity to find a wee bit of a platform.

I'll be reading in Bristol on Saturday 8th December at the Left Bank, 128 Cheltenham Rd, BS6 5RW at 6.30pm.  Do come and join us if you're in the area.

And if you're wondering about the picture above - it isn't a scene from Dr. Who, but a snapshot of the city's residents who painted themselves blue for Spencer Tunick's installation 'Sea of Hull'. There is no nakedness in my short story, however, unless you count the dead pig.

Thursday, 12 July 2018

Sun, Song and Seriously Good Writing

The terrors unfolding on the world stage at the moment and football fever aside, this summer has felt like something of an everlasting daydream. It is deeply pleasurable to wake up to blue skies every morning and to step out into heat and brilliant sunshine. I don't care that the grass has turned brown and that the leaves are sweeping off the trees like so many bits of crispy paper. I welcome the laundry fading as it's hung out to dry. I love the fact that the laundry barely takes an hour some days. Soon, the evenings will be filled with golden dust as the wheat is gathered in and it won't matter how many times I wipe the window sills and little piles of stones and shells I've gathered over the years, the dust will settle again and again.

I resent being indoors when it's this sunny and warm. I'd rather not work. I prefer to to be out on my bike or swimming somewhere. And yet I wouldn't have sacrificed a single moment behind bars watching a dozen or so prisoners and staff singing the other evening. Arne Richards and Isabel Knowland of Oxford Concert Party have been working with HMP Grendon's choir for nine weeks. The performance was attended by a number of men from the wings, officers, chaplains and the governor. It was an absolute joy to see everyone shiny eyed and grinning as their voices filled the room.

Grendon is, I believe, the UK's only therapeutic prison. We have a revolving door system, unfortunately. The focus is far too much on dehumanisation and not enough on rehabilitation. Having worked in High Security for a number of years, I can categorically state that the vast majority of offenders have begun life as victims. They have  grown up under very challenging circumstances. It takes a lot of unpicking and hard work before an offender can begin to turn his/her life around. We would do well to learn from the Dutch model, I believe and certainly, we need more Grendons. See Eric Allison's article.

Another highlight was a fascinating day at Pembroke College, Oxford where I was running a poetry workshop for a group of 15 - 18 years old as part of the Orwell Youth Prize Celebration Day. There were some really rigorous contributions and observations and the debate in the afternoon was great fun. Do explore the links to the writers who won awards. Their work was fantastic. These are, I believe, names we will see again at some future date.

Junior Prize
Senior Prize
Tomorrow I meet in Brighton with a panel of judges to choose the winners of this year's Creative Future Literary Awards. It's always hotly contested because there is so much to commend. I think I have two outright platinum winners chosen but, as is often the way, other panel members might think differently. The discussions can get quite passionate and, because we each bring our own sensibilities and experience to the table, we find ourselves considering things in new and unexpected ways. This is why I prefer panel judging to the single-handed variety which always feels slightly arbitrary.

And after that? Well, it's in Brighton. What else would you do on a bright sunny day by the sea?

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Cross Country - an open letter

Dear Cross Country,

These are my knees.

As you can see, my left knee, which is on your right, is not a happy bunny. This is why I always book seats on trains.

I booked a seat on the 15:13 Oxford to Newcastle train scheduled to run on 25th June 2018. I was allocated seat D54A (booking reference 7GRCHKTF).

Bear with me now, because this is a long story.

The train came in over 50 minutes late, which couldn’t be helped, owing to a tragic incident near Winchester. A lot of trains were running behind schedule because of the incident and, understandably, they were becoming very crowded as people swapped one service for another in an attempt to reach their destinations in reasonable time. However, I found my seat had been allocated to someone else travelling from Oxford to Banbury. Moreover, it had also been allocated later to another person travelling from Birmingham New Street to Doncaster. Thankfully, a person travelling to Derby chose not to use their allocated seat, so I didn’t have to stand.

Why was my booking not honoured?

Are booking references and allocations made over the phone never to be trusted?

I would be grateful if someone could answer both these questions.

Bear with me, please. This story has some way to go.

My return journey from Newcastle to Oxford was due to be the 17:32 on 26th June (seat booking D48A - booking reference 7GRCHKTF).  This train was cancelled owing to an incident that was never explained to me – though someone said there was a rumour of pigeons on the overhead line, which I thought was a rather interesting variation of ‘leaves on the line’ and ‘wrong kind of snow’, but that’s neither here nor there. I was instructed to take the next available train to Birmingham New Street which was the 17:41.

Still with me? Good.

Now, several other trains had been cancelled running between several cities and the trains that were running were beginning to fill up. I was warned that the 17:41 would be packed and I should be prepared to stand.

Here are my knees again. I know. Not a pretty sight. 

Well, the 17:41 duly arrived and it was mercifully on time, but it rather resembled the London Underground in rush hour. 

Standing for a few stops is quite manageable on the Underground, especially as you’re usually being propped up by all the other squeezed in passengers. But three and a half hours and my knee would have been in agony. I therefore decided to wait for the next Birmingham train. The 18:35 was the next one. 

Here’s another picture for you: 

Goodness, only three out of eight trains running on time!

Still with me? Good, because this next bit is quite complicated.

So, the 18:40 to Dundee pulled in and – I assure you, I am not making this up – all the passengers for Dundee were told to get off and find seats in the very back of the train and those of us waiting to go to Birmingham were told to get on the front of the Dundee train.

It never ceases to amaze me how trusting the British public is and I expect that probably accounts for the dire political mess we’re in at the moment but, get off they did and get on we did and lo, the hand of some unseen god spilt the train asunder and the back end went off to Scotland and the front departed at 18:57 precisely for Birmingham New Street.

There was a glorious sunset on the way and lots of splendid bucolic scenery as I finally ate my sandwiches and drank a small can of pale ale. What joy to live in England! There was just the small matter of a train connection to Oxford now. The 18:40 which had somehow mysteriously become the 18:35, except that it left at 18:57 was due to get in with about two or three minutes to spare for the 22:04 which was, I’d been told, my Very Last Train to Oxford. The next one would be the 05:02 the following morning.

Here are my knees again. I'm sorry if you're getting tired of looking at them, but really, you want to try living with them. I’m afraid I haven’t got a selfie of me running from platform 2 to platform 5a…but you can probably imagine what I must have looked like lolloping along with my rucksack and a bottle of water slopping everywhere.

I got on the 22:04 and found myself sitting next to someone who’d boarded the 17:41 (remember the London Underground train?). It was she who told me about the pigeon on the overhead cable. It turned out that she was a scientist, so we had quite an interesting conversation about the composition of rails used in hot countries like India and why the rails at Waterloo were beginning to buckle and it hadn’t even got to 30°. I tell you, there was quite a lot to laugh about, especially as she’d got the earlier train and was no quicker getting to Oxford than I was. 

I must apologise here, because I didn’t take a picture of the man who had to change out of his hot and sweaty clothes into some fresh clean ones in between two carriages because the toilet wasn’t working. To be frank, I was rather taken with his crisp white shirt and charming manners. Aren’t the English good at apologising? He was concerned that he might upset passengers. I can’t say that anybody minded. There was, however, a bit of a mad dash to the toilets at Oxford station.

Yes, I did get to Oxford, but of course I missed the final train of my journey which was the 22:56 to Charlbury, so I had to fork out £4.20 for an all-night bus (on time and enough seats for everyone) and then a further £11 for a taxi to take me home and to my bed. I got in at ten past twelve in the morning, which wasn’t bad considering I had to be up for work first thing the next morning.

Here’s a picture of my tickets and the bus and taxi receipts:

And a pigeon:

I look forward to hearing from you in due course.

Yours sincerely,

Pat Winslow

Thursday, 21 June 2018

Looking Back, Looking Forward

I wouldn't call today Midsummer - summer started officially yesterday - but it does feel like mid-year.

What do we have to show for it? Children separated from their parents and locked in cages, protesters and medical personnel gunned down on a putative border, more land grabs, more money grabs, more migrations and drownings. 

Remember Alan Kurdi? Where is the world's compassion now after all those Facebook hits? 

It was World Refugee Day yesterday. The Independent newspaper tells us that 2.9 million people became asylum seekers in 2017. That figure is the biggest single-year rise in the history of the UN refugee agency. And yet we are still closing our doors. And our minds. And our hearts. 

I say our, but of course, not everyone feels the same. I have absolutely no doubt that  the vast majority of people would try to pull someone back from stepping out into the path of an oncoming car. Generally speaking, people don't like to see another human being being injured. Why, then, do we refuse to admit people fleeing from the most unbearable situations? How do we let acts of brutality and inhumanity happen in our name?

This was going to be a post about wonderful poetry readings - and there have been, believe me, with some very committed poets and an equally vociferous and active audience: Poems for Grenfell in Oxford, Songs for the Unsung in Kenilworth last night and a welcome and generous return to Derby Poetry Society. Equally nourishing are the Creative Future workshops up and down the country with writers who are under-represented, writers who have much to say and say it well. 

It has been pure joy for me to work with speakers of different languages. My ears have grown old and fluffy of late. They've been needing a good pulling. We lose our bearings if we belong to ourselves too much. That's the trouble with the world. We seem to be adopting a siege mentality. Feeling under siege makes us prone to rumour and speculation. No wonder fake news is flourishing. If we'd only look around us and see what's really there. If we'd only speak to each other and find out what other lives are really like, then we'd realise how much nonsense we're being fed.

I am heartened by young activists and I am sorry that so many feel let down by my generation too. Many young people feel disenfranchised. 

I have written on these pages before about the hope young people inspire in me - Syrian refugees, most recently, and children in some of the schools I've been working with.

Next week I shall be enjoying the privilege of meeting young people from up and down the country at the Orwell Youth Prize Celebration Day at Pembroke College. It promises to be a very full and eventful day.

Monday, 30 April 2018

Readings and Workshops Galore!

Some great events coming up. 'Poems for Grenfell Tower' has been published now and there are national readings taking place over the next couple of months. If you scroll down to my previous blog, you'll find the venues and dates listed, as well as where to buy the book. But if you're in Oxford this Friday, do come along to the Cape of Good Hope. It's a great line-up and the event is free. Please make a donation to the Grenfell Foundation if you can. People are still struggling and many are still homeless. You can, of course, buy your copy of the book at the venue. There's an open mic, too, so if you fancy reading something, put your name down on the list when you arrive.

Further ahead, I am reading at Derby Poetry Society on June 8th. This will be in Room 3 of the Friends Meeting House on St. Helen's Street, DE1 3GY. It starts at 7:30. You can phone Gina Clarke on 01773 825215 for more details.                                                                                                              And even further ahead, I am reading from 'Songs for the Unsung' in Leamington Spa at Kenilworth Books on Wednesday 20th June. Again, the line-up is very good and I shall be selecting some of my favourite poems by other writers as well as my own.

The Creative Future Literary Awards writing workshops have got off to a tremendous start. There are waiting lists for the Newcastle and Brighton sessions, but still some places left for the Preston sessions. Workshops run from 10:00 - 12:00 and they are held at They Eat Culture's brand new premises - People's Production Lab, Guildhall Street, PR1 3NU. If you want to sign up, click here and this will take you straight to bookings and more information about the workshops.

I am also  pleased to be part of  'Think Human' week at Oxford Brookes later next month. The poet and artist Jane Spiro is curating work from local writers and placing it alongside objects that have special meaning for us. More about that in my next blog. All I can say for now is that it looks very interesting indeed!

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Syrian Sisters, Synaesthesia and Stories Galore!

Lots of exciting things happening this year. After the most intense and busy funeral period I have ever experienced, it is a great relief to be turning once again to arts work up and down the country.

What a fabulous two weeks I spent with Oxford Concert Party and Tony Lloyd working with Syrian Sisters at Rose Hill Community Centre in Oxford. Though it was more like running a play scheme than an arts project at times (we had tiny tots as well as juniors and teenagers) we got an incredible amount of work done.

For two weeks, we danced and sang, told stories, wrote poems, made scores of migratory birds which we stuck to the windows, and travellers' footprints from maps of the world which we stuck to a never-ending roll of card. The food the children's mums prepared for us all was fantastic, too. This was a nourishing project in every way.

What joy it was to discover a supreme storyteller amongst the children. She told us a new story every day and she told an amazing tale about a mouse and a lion on the last day when we held a showcase for the general public. Two of the women turned out to be excellent drummers, as well. There was no shortage of volunteer dancers once they struck up.

It's hard for me to imagine what their lives were like before they arrived in Oxfordshire. I have never experienced war first-hand, much less the total decimation of my country. Grief isn't just about mourning the dead, I am reminded. It's also about loss of one's home and that deep sense of belonging when your family has lived somewhere for generations. I hope we managed to contribute  a sense of welcome in this chilly little corner of the world. I hope we managed to silence some of those terrors and deflect that grief for a little while.

We mustn't underestimate a human being's capacity for survival, of course. The Syrian Sisters are building a future. So are the children. And, I do believe, they are building this country's future too. Such generosity, warmth,  courage and openness are necessary ingredients for a healthy society. When we come together in a true spirit of sharing, we can achieve so much.

I'm back with Creative Future, too. This means lots of travelling up and down the country - Preston, Newcastle and Brighton - working with writers who find themselves underrepresented for many reasons. Some people are new to writing and are trying it for the first time. Others have been writing for years are beginning to explore and experiment with new ideas and audiences. As always, I find I have something learn. It was really interesting listening to a discussion amongst ex-offenders about how a writer can inspire empathy in a reader.

This series of workshops - there are six in total - explore synaesthesia, colour, music, translation, story-boarding and tone. Essentially, these are workshops that focus on how we communicate and interpret. Every act of writing is perhaps a form of translation. Even the way we read and intuit and finally comprehend something  is an act of translation. Since we can never inhabit each others' heads, that is the nearest we can ever get. It all seems terribly imprecise, but there's something fizzy and spicy about the bits we fail to get. It's like stepping on the edge of a crack in the ground knowing you could fall into it. That's what reading and listening are for me. That's what learning a language is like. It's good to fall sometimes. It's good to take risks.

After an interval of two years, I'm doing a storytelling session at the Corn Exchange's Memory Cafe in Newbury next month. I have plenty of new stories to share as well as some musical instruments and an assortment of hats. There's always a chance that someone might want to play a part or make the sound effects.

Am I writing myself? Well, the short answer is 'yes and no' - which means I'm writing in gasps and gulps. I'm very pleased to be one of the contributors to Songs for the Unsung edited by Joy Howard for Grey Hen Press. There are some terrific poems in this, many by poets I have a  lot of respect for, and there are various launch readings taking place this year.

I shall be reading from it at Kenilworth Books, Leamington Spa on Wednesday 20th June.

‘They are everywhere. They curl on streets in quiet blankets, wait at borders, work in cabbage fields, staff hospitals by night. They can be unheard, unseen. But when you read the generous and eloquent poems in this anthology, they are no longer the unsung.’ 
Alison Brackenbury

‘This beautiful compilation illuminates lives of the unseen and unheard, unheeded and, at times, hated. Here is a migrant child making sense of insults, here someone kind meeting a stranger and listening. We are blessed witnesses, guided gently out of grey apathy, towards understanding. And those words. They sound like intonations, not to the careless gods above, but to the humanity within each of us.’ 

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

You can buy the collection here.

Similarly, Poems for Grenfell Tower is a very good collection - again, featuring work by poets whose work I admire. The book is available from Onslaught Press. Here is a brief extract lifted from the foreword by David Lammy MP:

The poems are able to express the scale of loss, in a way that prose is not able to do — from the empty school chair invoked in Michael Rosen’s piece, to Rachel Burns’s ‘In a Hotel Room, A Father Sits Alone’. Unlike countless newspaper articles and reports in the media, poetry goes some of the way in allowing the reader to understand what is really missing — a child in a schoolroom, a much loved daughter.

Poems for Grenfell Tower brings together many different poets, whose voices are joined together in elegy. Ricky Nuttall, a Red Watch firefighter who attended Grenfell, offers a heart-wrenching account of coming to terms with what happened. His heroism is reinforced by Christine Barton’s ‘Red Watch’, which pays a moving tribute to the work of firefighters. Poems such as these are able go beyond the limits of prose in expressing the impact of the tragedy. In doing so, they offer an important way in which the voices of Grenfell are heard.

Dates for readings from Poems for Grenfell Tower are as follows:

Harrow Club                                                      April 15
Machynlleth                                                       April 21  
Seven Dials Club                                               April 27
Cape of Good Hope, Oxford                            May 4
Artefact Café, Birmingham                              June 8
RMT Education Centre, Doncaster                June 14
Dolman Theatre, Newport                               June 14
Scottish Poetry Lib, Edinburgh                       June 23
Newcastle        venue TBA                               June 27
Bradford Literary Festival                               July 7
Poetry Library, South Bank                            September 5
You can buy the anthology here - and for every £10 spent, £5 will go to the Grenfell Foundation.