Tuesday, 22 December 2015

The Key to Winter Reading

Step One: Find a cosy corner. The armchair, the bed, your favourite spot in the library. Anywhere really that’s warm, quiet and comfortable. Extra points if you have a lovely wintry view to gaze on.

Step Two: Choose a book. The most important stage, of course. Winter is the time for comfort so it’s no surprise if you find yourself returning to old favourites that never let you down. I tend to go for festive reads. One absolute favourite is Christmas Pudding by Nancy Mitford – country house shenanigans, satirical swipes abound.  At the moment I’m reading The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle by Arthur Conan Doyle. This is particularly recommended for those who are anxiously counting down the days to the Sherlock special - I know I am.

Step Three: Select a snack and drink. My personal winter beverage of choice is Whittard’s white hot chocolate because it’s the colour of snow and I can imagine myself drinking it in a cosy log cabin. I tend not to eat and read (crumbs in pages, chocolate smears obscuring page numbers etc.) but there is always something tasty up for grabs in my house at this time of year so who am I to refuse?

Step Four: Optional Extras. Now, it’s time to make it yours. Add candles, hot water bottles, bolster yourself with plump cushions. Be comfy and enjoy.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Six Ways to Enjoy Winter

Winter is the time that we hibernate into a cocoon of Quality Streets and Chocolate Oranges. Winter is the time we wrap up in scarves and gloves and embrace the chill on walks across frosty landscapes. Winter is the time for celebration, friends, family, food and festivity. Here are my six ways to get the most out of this magical season.

1. My favourite way to embrace the changing seasons is to go for a long walk in the midst of it all. Reflect on the passing year and dream about brighter days as you trudge along in boots. Take pictures of bare branches, blue white skies and red berries. Catch up with your companion and pack a little pick me up to warm you through!

2. One of the best things about having a little one in my life is the way I’ve begun to see things through a child’s eyes. Winter is transformed when you look at things this way; puddles are for jumping in, leaves are there to be collected and everything is worth a closer inspection. You notice the little robin you might have passed by or a statue overgrown with ivy. Be observant, be curious and be imaginative.

3. With Christmas just around the corner, it’s this time of year we are at our most generous. I love taking time to pick out things that will make my loved ones happy. Tell people how grateful you are for them and prove that cheesy sentimentality isn’t just a make believe thing from Christmas adverts.

4. Christmas can be a stressful season for some. Even I, who floats through advent to new year in a sugar induced joy bubble, sometimes need to take some time out to relax and cut off from frantic preparations and festive expectations. Treat yourself to a bath treat (Lush always have the best Christmas selection) and evaporate tension in a tub.

5. Fill your house with all the natural beauty you encounter outside. A Christmas tree, faux or no, is a good starting place. Mistletoe, pinecones and sprigs of holly are good ones too. Buy some scented candles with earthy notes. And make sure you look out the window to see if Mr. Robin has come to call.

6. The cosy feel of being surrounded by a fluffy blanket; The smell of cinnamon and cloves when rolling out biscuit dough; The taste of a little chocolate in the Advent calendar; The sound of brass bands and choirs when you’re out Christmas shopping. The most enduring Christmas memories are infused with sensory detail. This December relish those evocative smells, sights, tastes, sounds and textures you associate with all things festive.

What are your favourite ways to enjoy Winter? 

Friday, 27 November 2015

Writing Exercise: Character Correspondence

Before I write down one word, I have to have the character in my mind through and through. I must penetrate into the last wrinkle of his soul. - Henrik Ibsen
Write a letter to one of your characters. You might choose a character that you’re struggling to get right or a character you love but don’t know what to do with. You might want to ask them a question, offer some advice, air your frustrations towards them, or to ask them to tell you what they think should happen next.

This may sound a bit odd but there are lots of benefits to this exercise. First, if you’re feeling blocked it will get you writing something. More importantly, it will clarify where you are with your character- what you feel is going badly, what you feel you’ve done well. Given a letter is usually a small space, it will allow you to really think what you would like to find out.

When I wrote my letter I found myself apologising to my character for the misfortunes in her life, but resolved that despite the sadness I’ve made her tolerate it would be the wrong move to give my novel a ‘happy ending’. I finished my letter with a series of questions all of which basically asked ‘have I portrayed you correctly?’ These answers are emerging over time. By seeing your character as a real person you become a biographer. You’re no longer inventing someone’s life but trying to reveal and unearth all the facts slowly.

I did draw the line at sending the letter – I feel imaginary penfriends is probably not a track I want to go down. However, in terms of getting to know my character and deciding what to do next with my story writing, letters to fictitious people has proved a very helpful little tool.

Further suggestion >>> Write a response from your character to your letter. This is a great way of familiarising yourself with their voice and gaining further knowledge into where they want to take you. 

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Little Luxury: Lush Yoga Bath Bomb

The pursuit of calm is something I try to bring into my everyday routine.  My fast track way to calm is a perfect temperature bath, some twinkly candles and something lovely from Lush to make the water smell and look heavenly. Therefore, I was excited by the idea that this bath treat could help me achieve a tranquil state of mind without me having to do the downward dog. By Lush’s standards the Yoga bath bomb is of an unassuming appearance, the kind you might easily pass by for something more dazzling and colourful but don’t let its calm exterior fool you. What makes Yoga special is how long it takes to fizz, meaning for the duration of the bath you can watch the orange shell give way to purple and turquoise infused waters. The key ingredients are chosen for their soothing qualities, particularly Sandalwood oil, Olibanum oil, Cassie Absolute and Ho Wood oil. The result is a warm, woody and comforting fragrance which is perfect for these cosy, wintry evenings.

You can buy the Yoga Bath Bomb from Lush for £3.95.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Review: Great Shakespeare Actors by Stanley Wells

When in Rome do as the Romans do. When in Stratford-upon-Avon, purchase everything you can that’s Shakespeare related, i.e. everything. This is my mantra anyway. When I went this summer I treated myself to Stanley Wells’ Great Shakespeare Actors which lay on the Shakespeare themed table in Waterstones so temptingly.
In his book, Wells has chosen thirty-nine masters of Shakespeare. Not simply actors who can act Shakespeare but artists who bring something new or profound to the work. Wells explains how these great Shakespearean actors translate the works to us in the audience. So many people get turned on to Shakespeare by a particular performance or performer, in this way the actor has a crucial role. Wells has a difficult job in that he must recreate what it was like to witness watching the actors in performance. To do this he draws upon contemporary accounts, reviews, and autobiographies of the actors and, for some of the more recent entries, his own memories of seeing them in the flesh. In brief flashes he brings the experience of watching the actors to vivid life. He goes to great lengths to help us envision the voice and movement of these actors- we’re told of Georgian actress Sarah Siddons’ black eyes which could ‘flash with ferocity’ and of Paul Schofield’s gravelly, nasal twang. This is particularly beneficial for those performers we have no audio or visual record of.
The stories that emerge are colourful, theatrical and full of monumental egos. Anecdotes include: George Frederick Cooke’s drunken performance as the ghost in Hamlet to the alarming tale of Drury Lane favourite Charles Macklin murdering his co-star backstage. As the book is assembled into mini, readable essays per actor it means you can dip in and out quite happily, flitting between time periods. These entries give a quick but in depth analysis of the actor’s life, major roles and noteworthy characteristics of their style. This format makes for a great starting point for further reading, with its tantalising glances of these figures. You’re bound to be attracted to some actors more than others. I found myself drawn to the intelligent and womanly actresses of the Victoria era such as Ellen Terry and Helen Faucit. Faucit was keen to engage with the characters she played on a real, empathetic basis. Wells quotes her thoughts on Ophelia’s childhood envisioning it as one ‘with no playmates of her kind, wandering by the streams, plucking flowers, making wreaths’. Gratefully, there is plenty of backstage gossip thrown in too- we hear about the sexual appetites of Edmund Kean as well as the bitchy rivalry between theatrical heavyweights Donald Wolfit and John Gielgud.
At the heart of the book is a centuries long conversation between actors about how the lines should be delivered. Wells tells us that in one camp we have the actors who think of their craft as ‘an imitation of how people behave in real life’ versus an exaggerated, majestic style favoured by actors ‘acknowledging the artificiality of what they are doing.’ Throughout the book styles pendulum between these extremes, at times co-existing together. Preparatory methods also seem to be a crucial factor. Wells talks about the actors who transform themselves to look like their characters, the greatest example being Laurence Oliver as a hunchbacked, prosthetic everything Richard III. In the other camp are those who adapt the character to their own appearance and quirks- Gielgud remarked he wouldn’t stoop to impersonation. Written chronologically, the book charts the fashions of acting and casting over time. We meet the first great female actors to bring us the bounty of Shakespeare’s women. He highlights other trailblazers –Ira Aldridge, the first Shakespearean black actor as well as those championing the bard further across Europe and in America.
Stanley Wells is a rarity in that he has a gift of being able to tread the fine line between academia and accessibility. He reminds us that Shakespeare is there to be performed, heard and seen. The dedication of the book is to all great Shakespearean actors not mentioned in the book which I take to be a disclaimer that Wells has not intended this to be a definitive list. A whole host of names don’t make the cut- Patrick Stewart, Vanessa Redgrave and Helen Mirren to name a few. For the book’s younger readers, it is disappointing not to see mentions of the heroes of our generation like David Tennant, for example. Above all, the book emphasises that great Shakespeare acting is like the plays themselves, something woven into history- growing, regenerating, changing and modifying as times goes on.
For anyone interested in Shakespeare, acting and theatre this is an essential. Shakespeare sticky notes, Shakespeare colouring pencils and Elizabethan player’s masks probably aren’t - but I’ll keep buying them anyway…
Who would make your list of Great Shakespearean actors? What have been your favourite productions of Shakespeare?  

Friday, 16 October 2015

Inspiration: When music meets Literature

I don’t know about you but I always find it pleasing when artists of different mediums inspire each other. What is extraordinary, though, is when a song of a couple of minutes manages to capture all the drama, excitement and emotion of a book that might take you a couple of weeks to read.  Here I’ve gathered together a list of songs inspired by all things literary. I hope they inspire you…

Wuthering Heights – Kate Bush

A bit obvious I admit, but still. I find it incredible that a 4.29 song can get to the core of the emotions of a full length classic like Bronte’s. Told from Cathy’s point of view, this song’s dramatic, sexually charged lyrics are made more theatrical by Bush’s electrifying and strange vocals. What’s even more remarkable is that Bush hadn’t even read the book when she wrote this. And she was only 18. And it only took a couple of hours. Don’t some people’s genius make you feel sick?

Cemetery Gates – The Smiths

Morrissey isn’t afraid of letting everyone know how well read he is and thank goodness for that. One of the reasons Morrissey’s writing is so rich is that he takes his cue from images set up by other writers. For instance, he’s often lifted lines from Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste Of Honey. In this song, he tackles the complexities of plagiarism with tongue firmly in cheek. I think what I like best about this is the image it sets up of two friends and outsiders walking through a graveyard contemplating life, death and poetry. Instantly relatable for the bookish among us.

What the Water Gave Me – Florence and the Machine

Dreamy, poetical and lulling.  This song is in part inspired by the suicide of Virginia Woolf particularly so with the line ‘Pockets full of stones’. There are echoes of Ophelia here too.

Jamaica Inn – Tori Amos

Slight confession: I haven’t read Jamaica Inn. Which is ridiculous because I’m a big Du Maurier fan and this song is a great advertisement for the setting of the book. In this song, Amos delicately weaves the dramatic Cornish landscape with the romantic turmoil felt by the song’s heroine mirroring Du Maurier’s technique in the novel. The lyrics are earthy, feminine and show the power of delicate, gentle writing.

Paperback Writer – The Beatles

A song that captures the frustrations of the unsolicited submission. The lyrics take the form of a writer’s letter to a publisher with the writer prepared to go to any means i.e. ‘make it longer’ or ‘change it round’. I think this song marks a change in the writing style of Lennon/McCartney- inspiration was coming from different directions.  There should be more songs about the publishing industry. 

The Typewriter – Leroy Anderson

If you ever need cheering up on a slow writing/study/work day pop this delight on. You’ll feel like you’re in Populaire.

What are your favourite songs inspired by great literature? What novel, play or poem do you think would make a good song?

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