Poetry In Motion

The Humpback’s Wail

We’ve been having a bit of a poetry fest recently. Last week we had lunch with our friend Chrissie Gittins, writer and poet (http://www.chrissiegittins.co.uk/index.html) . A lot – though not all – of the poetry she writes is for children and I gave a copy of her book The Humpback’s Wail to my grand-daughter Jessica for her 8th birthday. She loved it. I got Chrissie to sign it and while Jess may not appreciate that now, I am sure she will later.

Chrissie does a lot of readings in schools and at poetry festivals and sometimes others read her work. Last April Carole Boyd (Linda Snell from The Archers) read Chrissie’s concrete children’s poem Gales of Laughter at the Wenlock Poetry Festival. You can see the performance on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AIruWNidCwg  and it’s only about a minute long so the toast won’t burn while you have a giggle.

England Underwater

Our second poet in seven days is Christopher James. We had a drink together in a local pub last night and he signed his latest poetry collection, England Under Water, for us. It is published by Templar Poetry (http://templarpoetry.com/collections/new-titles/products/england-underwater-by-christopher-james)  and manages to be both enjoyable and thought-provoking, not always an easy combination. The title poem imagines an England drowned under the rising waters caused (presumably) by climate change.  It’s never easy – or really fair to the poet – to quote part of a poem but I offer you the opening lines here:

 They took us into sunken Albion, down shafts
of moonlight through forests of floating oak,
where the sandstone of Bath still glimmered
like bullion, thirsting for the sun. We shone
our mustard light on the signs of the old M1,
Stadiums rusted like bathtubs in the silt.

 

Crimson Cats has not published any titles completely dedicated to poetry but a number of our titles do include poems as part of the content. How To Own A Human, the anthology about cats, has a number of poems and verses about our feline friends, My Grandads And Afghanistan uses verses by Rudyard Kipling to illustrate the story of Britain’s previous involvement in that part of the world, and War Girls is a collection of poems and prose by women in the 1st World War.

One of my grandchildren asked me once: “Granddad, what is the reason for a poem?” I replied (she was only about 9 at the time) that it was a way of telling a story using rhythm and rhyme. I can still live with that explanation even though it’s not the full picture. I love poetry – especially when it is read aloud – but I don’t know how my love survived the crass way it was taught at my school – we went straight from The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens into Keats’ Hyperion, a leap of faith so huge as to challenge any literary Olympic jumper. But somehow the love survived and grew and we now have several shelves devoted to poetry books old and new.

I took the title of this Blog from the 1961 pop song Poetry In Motion sung, as I recall, by Bobby Vee. It was only after I had written it down that I wondered how many jokes about this title Andrew Motion had to endure when he was Poet Laureate. Ah, well, there was always the butt of sherry for compensation.

Michael

The Key Word Is “Books”

As a producer and publisher of audio books I seize every opportunity to write or talk about the pleasures of listening but I always try to remember that the term “audio books” is two words and it is the “books” part that is arguably the more important. Most audio books start with an actual book. Okay there are exceptions such as the Crimson Cats titles “Private Rawson’s War” which is compiled from a series of letters or “My Grandads And Afghanistan” which is an original script by Brian Wright, but mostly when we talk about audio books we mean someone reading the text – complete or abridged – from a printed book.

It is not surprising that many people associated with Crimson Cats Audio Books have other links with books and I would like to mention a few of them here. The writer and actor, Felicity Hayes-McCoy, was one of the people who helped us launch Crimson Cats back in 2005 with her adaptation of the Finn McCool stories from Irish Legend which she read herself. We called it “Gods And Fighting Men – The Fianna” and it gained us and Felicity a glowing review from Sue Arnold in The Guardian. Felicity was born in Dublin but in her teens went to Dingle in south-west Ireland to learn the Irish language. She has recently published a beautiful book “The House on an Irish Hillside” in which she tells how she and Wilf, her English husband, bought a home on the Dingle peninsular – at Corca Dhuibhne, ‘back west’ – and now divide their time between there and London. But the book is more than that. It is a song of joy for the sheer pleasure of living and finding a balance in life that affects everything you do. I loved it.

Another Crimson Cats author is Susannah Fullerton who wrote and read the Crimson Cats title “Finding Katherine Mansfield”, the life of the New Zealand short story writer told through her diaries and letters with extracts from some of her stories. Susannah is a New Zealander who lives in Australia and is passionate about English Literature. She is also the President of the Jane Austen Society of Australia and has written several books about Jane. The latest is “A Dance with Jane Austen” in which she draws on contemporary accounts and illustrations, together with a close reading of the novels and Austen’s correspondence, to take the reader through all the stages of a Regency Ball as Jane Austen and her characters would have known it. Susannah’s new book “Celebrating Pride and Prejudice: 200 Years of Jane Austen’s Masterpiece” is due out shortly.

The Iliad

Then there’s Nick McCarty who has adapted two titles for Crimson Cats. The first was based on Mary Kingsley’s “Travels in West Africa” which we published under the title “Hippos, Hairpins and High Button Boots”. Then came “Tales My Grandcat Told Me”, a re-telling of a number of folk tales about cats from different parts of the world. Nick has been a professional writer for over 40 years, working mostly in television and radio, but he is also a published author of historical fiction. Try “Fox – Betrayals” for starters or, for the younger reader I can thoroughly recommend Nick’s retelling of “The Iliad”.

Audio books have not replaced printed books and I don’t believe E-books will either. Television did not kill film and neither of them killed radio. All these “delivery mechanisms” if you will, are simply different ways of telling stories, and storytelling is as old as time. Those of us who love stories want to share them – our tastes may not be the same – but all we can do is say “I enjoyed this. It’s worth you giving it a try. And what have you enjoyed recently that I could look at?”

Happy reading and, of course, listening. We offer a great range of titles at Crimson Cats www.crimsoncats.co.uk

Michael

The publishing details for all the books mentioned above are as follows:

The House on an Irish Hillside
Publisher:  Hodder & Stoughton (ISBN: 978-1444730302 )
A Dance with Jane Austen
Publisher: Frances Lincoln (ISBN: 978-0711232457)
Celebrating Pride and Prejudice: 200 Years of Jane Austen’s Masterpiece
Publisher: Voyageur Press (ISBN: 978-0760344361)
Fox – Betrayals
Publisher: Kenelm 978-0955477133
The Iliad
Publisher: Kingfisher Books Ltd (ISBN: 978-0753404997)

My Friends And Other Animals

It is 1985. I am a freelance – a freelance writer and a freelance producer. I shook off the shackles of the BBC at the end of 1982. I wish I could say I had seen the disaster that was John Birt looming on the horizon and decided to abandon ship before he arrived to kill the BBCs creative heart, but that would not be true. I loved the BBC job but knew I was going no higher – at least not as a programme maker – so when I was offered the chance to help start a new commercial radio station in Guilford, I took it.

As a short term decision this was a disaster. As a long term solution it was brilliant. Commercial radio and I were not natural bedfellows. I learned nothing about broadcasting from them but I learned a lot about running a commercial organisation, something the BBC had certainly not taught me. I lasted one year on the staff, then resigned to go freelance.

I wrote and sold radio plays, corporate videos, audio book scripts. I did a short term contract with British Forces Broadcasting and earned a living. And then in 1985 I had this bright idea. Why not ask Gerald Durrell if he would read some of his own stories for broadcast?

Gerald Durrell - 1985

Gerald Durrell – Jersey Zoo 1985

I knew Gerry slightly. In the 1970s when I was working in BBC Children’s Television as a director I proposed 5 short films about Gerald Durrell, his life, animal collecting expeditions and, of course his zoo on Jersey, for Jackanory. I wrote/compiled the scripts and, together with a film unit, spend a happy week on Jersey shooting these films.

Back to 1985 and I managed to persuade the MD of County Sound Radio in Guildford that broadcasting some of Gerald Durrell’s stories with Gerry himself reading them would be great programming and great publicity. He agreed, so off I went to Jersey with a recording engineer to spend 4 days working with Gerry on a selection of his stories which I had abridged.

Gerald Durrell at home 1985They were fun to do, Gerry was great to work with and we enjoyed some good chats outside of the recording sessions. The programmes were broadcast on County Sound later that year and were well received. And that was that.

Until about a year ago. By now I was in another life in another place. Dee and I had left Guildford in 2006 and we now live in Norfolk where we run, as most of you know, the audio book publishing company, Crimson Cats. Sorting through a pile of old boxes one day I came across the Durrell recordings and thought why not.

Gerry had died in 1995. Many of his very popular books had been recorded as audio books but always with someone else reading them. Why not let Crimson Cats publish some of the stories read by the man himself?

Well, two possible reasons why not were, although I had the tapes, I did not have the rights to the recordings or the rights to the material so some work was needed. First, the recordings. County Sound had long since gone, bought out, sold on, absorbed into other radio stations. I contacted the MD of the current radio station in Guildford and, as I suspected, he know nothing about the recordings. However, he very kindly wrote to me saying that as far as the radio station was concerned I could consider the recordings as mine.

I then contacted the Gerald Durrell estate via his literary agent. They were also very helpful and we agreed a deal whereby Crimson Cats would publish these stories and would pay the Estate a royalty on sales. A Win Win situation. The Estate also helped by providing the pictures for the front cover of the CD.

CD CoverSo there we are. Five stories about Gerry’s life on Corfu where he lived with his family before the 2nd World War read by Gerry himself, which gives the readings a very personal touch, especially in his characterisation of the various voices. These stories are taken from his books Birds, Beasts and Relatives and Fillets of Plaice and are presented in a double CD pack or as an MP3 download.

Gerald Durrell 1985I never saw Gerry again after those recording sessions on Jersey but listening to the recordings as I edited them and prepared them for publication brought it all back. The recording sessions themselves, walking through the zoo in the early morning, the evening drinks in that wonderful living room in Les Augrès Manor, the pleasure of meeting and working with a man who, through his conservation work and his books, did so much good and brought so much pleasure to other people.

Thank you, Gerry.

Michael

Crimson Cats – At War and Peace

I always think of November as the month of War, which is silly really when you think that there is at least one war going on somewhere all the time. It’s Armistice Day month, of course, that and the dark, dark evenings once the clocks have gone back. It also makes me think about the range of Crimson Cats titles – out of 20 (soon to be 21) titles a disproportionate number of them seem to have some war connection.

Private Rawson's War

Private Rawson’s War

The most obvious ones are Private Rawson’s War – the amazing collection of personal letters written by a soldier serving in Iraq and the middle east during the second world war. Then there’s War Girls, the anthology of prose and poetry written by women in the first world war. Finally we have My Grandads And Afghanistanwhich isn’t about the current conflict in that country but has personal recollections of all the previous conflicts there in which Britain has been involved, illustrated with quotes from Kipling.

War Girls

War Girls

Those are direct “War” titles as it were but if we look at the our list more closely several others have war links. Gods and Fighting Men – The Fianna, the legends of pre-Christian Ireland, has a lot of fighting in it. My Adventures As A Spy shows Robert Baden-Powell gathering intelligence in preparation for war. Authentic Narrative Of The Death Of Lord Nelson covers the battle of Trafalgar. If our audio books were cats, there would be a lot of torn ears and scratched noses.

 

Death of Nelson

Death of Nelson

But not entirely. Sometimes – quite a lot of the time actually – cats curl up (usually in pretty calendar poses) and relax. So we have The Beautifull Cassandra, the delightful and amusing stories written by the teenage Jane Austen, or Every Lady A Gardener showing that women in the 19th century faced many of the same gardening problems as we do today or How To Own A Human, an anthology of stories and poems about cats. Then there is our new title, due to be published in mid-November. This is Stories From A Corfu Childhood, some of Gerald Durrell’s stories of growing up with his larger-than-life family on the Greek island of Corfu. These stories are read by Gerald Durrell himsel

These, and many more titles, make up the Crimson Cats list available as CDs or as MP3 downloads. The CDs make great Christmas presents – easy to post – so why not have a browse through our web site, listen to audio extracts from all titles and find something that appeals to you or your friends.

Michael

Join Us At Guildford – Don’t Paws To Think About It

Crimson Cats has been invited to the Guildford Book Festival to talk about how we produce and publish audio books and to read from some of our titles.

The show is called TELLING TALES and will take place at the Electric Theatre, Guildford on Thursday 25th October at 4.00 pm. Tickets from the Festival Box Office 01483 444334 or 01483 444789.  Hope as many of you as possible can join us for the kind of show that only Mike and Dee could present.   Miaow..!

Telling Tales

 

 

Travelling Writers Have Fun

Kansas

Kansas

I think it was the American author Paul Gallico who once wrote something along the lines of “When I am making no progress with my writing I always manage to convince myself that I would do better if I were in Switzerland. Of course once there and hitting the same problem I become convinced that where I really need to be is New York or London or Paris. Even while making the decision I know it is false but it keeps hope alive and gives one a great excuse for travelling.”

Bearfoot Pass, Montana

Bearfoot Pass, Montana

I’ve never needed an excuse for travelling (the only need has been time and money) but I can sympathise with Gallico. The first urge when you’re struggling with a piece of writing is to think of all the different circumstances which might make it easier – better weather, less pressure, a new computer, house to yourself and so on. All false – if you want to write it, if you need to write it, then you will write it.

However, when you do travel – especially for a long period – it is notable how easy it is to solve problems that were defeating you back home, problems ranging from how to re-build the kitchen, to the ideal plot for a short story or how to get your email Inbox under control. While you’re away these problems are easy to solve because they are abstract, there is nothing you can do about them until you get home so you can find theoretical answers that make you quite proud.

Nevada City, Montana

Nevada City, Montana

Of course when you do get back home reality kicks in and unless you’re careful you can find yourself back at Stage 1, perhaps even more disillusioned because somewhere in your head you thought everything was sorted.

Of course none of this should ever prevent you travelling – because travel is inspiring – and above all don’t let the thoughts of abstract problems spoil the pleasure and experience of travel itself. With that in mind I have compiled the…

 

 Bartlett/Palmer 10 Top Tips for Crossing America

  1. Keep a diary written and/or recorded. You think you will remember the details but you won’t. A small recorder helps you note interesting/funny things as you come across them such as this sign outside a church: “Lord, make me as good as my dog thinks I am”.
  2. Avoid the Interstates and keep to the back roads. Takes longer, but you see the real America not just large trucks.
  3. Do NOT eat in George & Nick’ Steakhouse in Centreville, Iowa unless you like your meat frazzled to several inches beyond its normal life.
  4. Never pass a petrol pump (gas station) without checking how far it is to the next one. It’s worth stopping anyway as most of them also sell pretty good coffee.
  5. Do NOT stay in Motel 6 in Eureka, California. (However, Motel 6 in Boisie, Idaho is excellent).
  6. When in Custer City, South Dakota you must visit the Dark Horse saloon. 100 different beers – 24 of them on tap – and steaks to die for.
  7. If you’re running short of clean clothes, check that your chosen motel has a guest laundry BEFORE handing over your credit card.
  8. Do NOT ignore signs in National Parks that tell you not to molest the animals – just hope that someone has given the Bears the same instruction.
  9. Never turn down the chance to talk to people you meet. Casual conversations in bars, motels, restaurants, filling stations, supermarkets, museums, roadside junctions, ferries, anywhere your wandering takes you are ultimately going to be more satisfying than any view of rivers, mountains or wildlife, however spectacular and memorable they may be. (In Red Lodge, Montana, we met Allen and Linda. Allen is a lawyer and defined a self-employed person as “Someone who can decide how many hours he works – on Sundays”)
  10. Stay flexible and trust your instincts. If you come across something that looks or sounds interesting, then it probably is interesting. Give it a go.

Above all, (yes I know this is No. 11), have fun…!

Michael

Goat in The Badlands

Goat in The Badlands

 

Starston to Starston (via the USA)

We’re home – our Trans-American trip completed. Sitting on the plane in San Francisco airport on Sunday morning I was interested to note that the flying distance home from there (by whatever route the planes use) was somewhere in the region of 5,800 miles. We drove 5,866 miles in our trip from Washington DC to San Francisco and it took us just over 4 weeks. The plane did the same distance (more or less) in 10 hours. Not a fair comparison, I suppose, just one of those little oddities of life.

Holly

“And where do you think you’ve been?”

We were greeted (if that is the word) by a deeply suspicious cat. Holly does not do people and she had clearly had a traumatic 5 weeks with strange people coming into the house to sort out post, water our plants and handle all the Crimson Cats book orders. Our lovely neighbour, Rachel, who was feeding Holly for us and is herself a cat lover, described her interaction with Holly as a “hiss and cuddle relationship”. Holly clearly resented her but still craved the affection she normally demands from us. I should add that having been deeply suspicious of us when we first walked in, within half an hour she (Holly, that is, not Rachel), was lying across our knees purring loud enough to be heard in Yellowstone Park. Probably frightened the bears.

Everyman's EnglandHolly clearly regards travel as totally unnecessary but we love it. New places, new people, a break from ordinary routine, a chance to refresh both body and mind. Accounts of people’s travels often make good reading as well. We currently have 2 travel titles in the Crimson Cats range – Everyman’s England by Victor Canning and Hippos, Hairpins and High Button Boots by Mary Kingsley.

Hippos, Hairpins & HIgh Button BootsGood travel writing is not just about the places visited, but also about the experience of the person doing the visiting. Victor Canning was best known as a writer of thrillers but his journeys round England in the 1930’s, the observations he made and the people he met, give us a pin-sharp picture of the country before the 2nd World War. In contrast Mary Kingsley’s journeys along the rivers of West Africa in the late 19th century to collect specimens of fish and makes notes of local religions show us a very different world. In particular her battles with French customs officials and crocodiles are very funny.

We would like to publish more travel titles but it is difficult to find good material that fits the Crimson Cats criteria – interesting, different, not currently available in audio, probably out of print. Most contemporary travel writing is ruled out as the good stuff is already in the hands of the major publishers. We did look briefly at an Englishwoman (whose name escapes me) who left England to go and live in the Rockies in western America in the 19th century and kept a diary of her experiences. It sounded promising but in reality was rather dull. As I’ve said before in these Blogs, not everyone can write in such a way to entertain and captivate an audience. Victor Canning and Mary Kingsley achieve it magnificently, the Rockies lady did not.

If anyone has any suggestions for good travel writing we might consider, then pleased get in touch. In fact if you want to comment on any of these Blogs, then please do so. The Blog itself is not interactive but an email to editor@crimsoncats.co.uk will always find me and all emails will be answered.

Michael

Cathedrals Of Towering Wood

Redwood Trees

Redwood Trees

Well, we have made it to San Francisco – 5866 miles from Washington – at least that’s the route we took. The final stretch of our journey down the Pacific coasts of Oregon and northern California took us the through the forests of giant Redwoods. We have seen so many wonderful things on this trip that we ran out of adjectives long ago but these trees aren’t just beautiful – they are humbling. Driving along a narrow road through lines of trees that seem to touch the sky is rather like driving along the nave of a cathedral.

When we stopped the car and got out the silence was deafening. The forest was all around you, trees, moss, ferns, lichen and these beautiful trees, some with a circumference of 25 feet, towering above you. Suddenly all the stories about woods and trees seemed very real. Think of the children’s stories: Babes In The Wood, Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, The Wild Wood in Wind In The Willows, Robin Hood and Sherwood Forest. Moving up an age range you have the Old Forest and Fanghorn from Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings, John Buchan’s Witchwood, many of the Inspector Morse stories have scenes in Wytham Woods in Oxfordshire, there’s Burnham Wood in Macbeth and the forest in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and so on. And speaking of Midsomer, anyone who watches Midsomer Murders knows that to go alone into any of the Midsomer woods after dark means you won’t come out alive.

More RedwoodsPerhaps the magic of trees is that the best of them make our life span seem insignificant. Some of these redwoods were saplings when William of Normandy was invading England in 1066. That’s what I call endurance. Endurance is what we all need. One definition of a professional writer is an amateur who refused to give up. They say that everyone has a novel in them, well that may be true but not everyone has the ability to see that story nor the skill to express it and structure it and present it in a way that will appeal to others.

The word “classic” like so many others in the English language is used with gay abandon. The true classics are those which stand the test of time, those stories which still speak to us 50 or a 100 or 400 years after they were first written. These are the real classics – like the giant redwoods of California – they are eternal.

Michael

From Sea To Shining Sea

Well, we made it. From Washington DC on the Atlantic coast (more or less) to Florence, Oregon on the Pacific coast. From sea to shining sea. A magnificent journey encompassing so many different types of scenery that we – yes, I kid you not – have run out of adjectives. All that remains is our final run south down the coast road to San Francisco, a few days with our friends there and then we fly home next Sunday. Our trans-American adventure complete.

 

 

Florence, Oregon

Florence, Oregon

We have kept a journal, as every good writer does when travelling, but for our eyes only. This trip is special to us but there is no reason why anyone else should be interested in the detail. We have enjoyed the scenery and the wildlife but even more we have enjoyed the chance encounters with people along the way.

Nancy in Lewisburg who we only knew because she had bought some CDs from us, the same with Jennifer, Amy and Beth in Ohio. These are friends we will keep in touch with. Then there was Larry in Decatur, Indiana whose wife was English. She died last year but when he learned we were English he told us about their trip home to Manchester together. He also gave us the name of his daughter Juanita who lives in Gardiner, Montana on the edge of Yellowstone National Park. He said we must contact her when we got there and he would ring her to tell he we were coming. Well, he forget to do that, but when we got in touch with her, she and her Park Ranger husband, Joe, welcomed us anyway and gave us lots of helpful advice.

With Joe in Yellowstone

With Joe in Yellowstone

Then there was Barbara and Joe from Southern California who we met in Jackson, Wyoming and had a long chat with after dinner, discovering we had much in common. A few days later we met Linda and Allen in Red Lodge, Montana. They were on their way home to Iowa and we all had dinner together. These last two couples look as though they will become on-going friendships.

A few nights later we met Rod in Boisie, Idaho. He is a ski instructor in the winter and a kitchen designer in the summer. He was on his way home from Seattle to southern Idaho and had stopped for the night. We had a long chat about wine, ski-ing and Europe. Then today we met a couple in Bandon, Oregon which stands on the estuary of the Coquille River. We never got their names but they come from Toronto and the lady was born in Deep River, Ontario, next door to where my cousin Pam lives in Chalk River. And so it goes on.

Of such encounters stories are made. My father had this knack of making instant friends and he also knew a lot of people. Whenever he went on holiday sooner or later he would bump into someone who would say: “Hallo, there, Alf, how are you?” As a child I assumed you always met someone you knew when you were away from home. Well, that’s not quite true but if you have the ability to make friends, whether they are friends for half an hour or for a life time, then your life is richer for it.

On that basis Dee and I are millionaires.

Michael

Cor, Ain’t America Big…!

Rocky Mountains in Wyoming

Rocky Mountains in Wyoming

The scale is the thing. As you drive across America “vast” is the word that comes to mind. The Mississippi river, the plains of Nebraska, The Badlands of South Dakota, the soaring Rocky Mountains, the sheer splendour and magnificence of Yellowstone, the emptiness of Montana. If America was a piece of writing it would be a 3-decker novel, with England being a short story. This is not a quality judgement, simply that you can’t compare them. They have nothing in common (not even the language).

Rodeo in Montana

Rodeo in Montana

 

For example, we had dinner with Juanita in Gardiner, Montana (after she had taken us to see our first Rodeo). She has a 3 hour drive to a town where she can buy her main groceries. And we thought we were struggling because our nearest Waitrose is 20 miles away.

America close up is better than America from a distance. Individually most of the Americans we have met have been delightful and seem genuinely pleased that we are taking the time to drive right across their country. Another thing that has impressed us is the number of bookshops we have found – many of them in smallish towns – good, quality bookshops where the owner knows about their stock and books in general.

Most supermarkets also have racks of books which once I would have described rather unkindly as “airport reading”. I have revised this view. I may not want to read stuff about nurses swooning into the arms of a young surgeon and some pseudo superhero defeating aliens from outer space, but if they give people pleasure and encourage them to read, who am I to criticise?

My dear friend and producer of many of my plays, the late Glyn Dearman, used to have a sign on his office wall which said “Imagination is the only exact science.”

Imagination is a great gift and it will appear in different forms but let it flourish, say I. Whether you exercise it or experience it, it is critical to the mental well-being of us all.

Michael