Sunday 27 March 2011

Big Writing for a Small World

On Thursday March 24th we launched the fifth anthology of poetry by participants in writing workshops funded and run by English PEN. It was an electrifying evening of work by participants from all over the world.

In my group we had people from the Ukraine, Gambia, DRC, Cameroon, Pakistan, Uganda, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Jamaica and the Phillipines. Few of them had written poetry before and many were struggling with English as a second language. All of our participants were migrants, refugees, asylum seekers or undocumented, trying to establish a foothold in London and make a new life for themselves. Many people came with very difficult stories of why they had left their homes, families, children, farms and businesses behind. Some people have been here for many years with still no hope of being granted the right to stay. But everyone said that they had come to the workshop to write down their stories, to improve their English and to meet other people.

Today is a glorious day
today is me on the rota
today is a lovely breakfast 
today is Crust Day.
by Maggie

When I sit in my garden
and see the flower
beautiful to see
they take my worries away.
by Nanette

Our students bravely stood up and read their poetry out at the launch, telling us how they had never ever dreamed that one day they would see their writing published and have a chance to read it to an audience. The atmosphere in the room veered from laughter to tears as the writers read us their amazing work.

Yaya Yosof attended a PEN workshop with me over a year ago, he has continued to attend our workshops and one run by the Poetry School, sponsored by PEN. Yosof writes, What a delight it is/
To walk on the rain/ Clouds are your umbrellas/......

Lizzie Mendy-Thomas came to my workshop clearly already an experienced and committed writer.
Here is the opening of her poem about water :-

The PEN Readers and Writers Committee is chaired by Lindsey Mackie

Philip Cowell is responsible for administering the programme, raising funds, finding projects to work with and then liaising with tutors.

On this set of workshops the tutors were myself, Malika Booker, Nii Parkes and Shazea Quraishi. We each ran an 8 week course. My workshops took place at PRAXIS a project based in the East End to support migrants and asylum seekers all over London. I was also lucky to have a volunteer, Pat Hicks, who was invaluable to all of us each week on the sessions.

I read a poem by Tesfu, who sadly did not continue with the sessions. Here is the opening of his poem about food.

I hungered for plenty
you were little and never enough.
Drought and war made you scarce.
You appeared for lunch
then disappeared for a day or two,
you made me cry and happy,
your lack made me slim.
your plenty made me fat and miserable.

At the end of our 8 week sessions Jacqueline said to me, "You have taken us from sad to positive!" It was a very powerful moment. Everyone took photos and went home with their folder of work and a certificate of attendance, sad that we were not continuing but positive and happy with everything they had achieved. Their words had been heard, written down and affirmed, they had made new friends and extended their English.

I do hope that many of our participants continue with their writing and attend more courses. Philip is currently raising further funds and planning to extend this fantastic programme even further. We all wish him every success and look forward to taking part again. All our words resonate across the world.

Monday 24 January 2011

Seamus Heaney and the mystery of poetry

I have written poetry all my life since early childhood. Poetry and music have run through my head almost hand in hand, musical notes and musical words. I played three musical instruments, piano, clarinet and guitar and I used to write songs and set them to music. I loved reading poetry aloud even as a child.

When I had finished my three weekly library books ( usually by the end of the weekend) I only had our set of Arthur Mee encyclopaedias to fall back on. But these are full of the most wonderful poetry dotted in between scientific discoveries, histories of kings and queens and how to build a boat out of matchsticks. The poetry in these volumes constitutes my earliest poetic influences and I still dip in and out of the heavy leather bound books today.

But from my late teens one of the greatest influences on my work has been Seamus Heaney. I loved the way he chose his words to be short, strong and wedded to the earth, the way he combined words into layer upon layer and the way he gave me a taste of the classics. I used to learn Heaney's poems off by heart and can still recite odd lines to this day, Some day I will go to Aarhus/ to see his peat- brown head - the opening to TheTollund Man, his famous metaphor on the killing fields of The Troubles in 1970s Northern Ireland.

I first heard Seamus Heaney read his poetry in 1972 in London University. He shared a platform with Ted Hughes. I remember a student calling out, 'What about the Irish Times?' I didn't understand what he meant but I knew that Heaney had been accused of ignoring the situation in Northern Ireland in his writing. In fact Heaney's work does reflect the troubles but hs view was that he was his own man and would write what he wanted to write.

In 2008 I was fortunate enough to meet the great poet himself. He was reading at the annual T.S. Eliot festival at Little Gidding, where Eliot set part of his famous sequence, 'The Wasteland.' There were only about a 100 people in a marquee in the ground of Ferrar House and Heaney was mingling and chatting to the audience. Taking a deep breath I walked up and said hello. He was absolutely charming and very easy to talk to. I said that he had been an inspiration to my writing since I was 18 and told him about my memory of him reading with Ted Hughes in the 1970s. He gave his famous warm smile and commented that the audience was probably hurling more insults at Hughes over the death of Sylvia Plath.

Later he signed my copy of Death of a Naturalist, his first collection which I have kept close by me for decades.

I always try to hear Heaney read in London once a year and last night I saw him read from his new collection, Human Chain, at the shortlisted readings for the T.S. Eliot prize. This is the first time I have seen a change in the man, a shake in his voice and in his hand. I feel very privileged to have seen him read again and wonder how many more opportunities we will have.

We are very lucky to live in his time. Seamus Heaney is one of the greatest living poets today in the English language and his words will last and last.
Heaney was asked in an interview a couple of years ago, "Where do your poems come from?"
"Ah, that's a mystery," he replied. "I just don't know."

Breaking the thread
by Miriam Halahmy
first published in Staple 71 2009

 The first girl not to sew, I was bewildered
by the geometry of pattern, fumbled
with bobbins, took all term to fit a zip.

My grandfather was a tailor,
foot jammed to the metal pedal,
black cloth skimming under a racing needle.

Grandma on the other side lined furs,
best outworker in the business,
in her seventies, she cursed the unforgiving skin.

So neat, you couldn’t tell the wrong side,
my mother won prizes for embroidery,
cut down army surplus for winter coats,

knitted pram suits for three children.
Nearly had time to start on grandchildren.
I followed thought like weave across a cloth

my needle flowing ink, cross stitching
into the warp of black on white.

Who inspires your writing?

Wednesday 12 January 2011

GOD COP and the editing process

HIDDEN is the first novel where I have properly experienced the editing process and it has been a combination of enormous fun, rigour, soul searching and extreme satisfaction. My editor at Meadowside Books, Lucy Cuthew, has more than anything allowed me to develop the more contentious issues on immigration and human rights law. I have been able to extend my research and write much more extensively around the issues which initially inspired me to write this novel. Young people need to be involved in this debate and I believe that fiction can help to present the facts.

But at the same time my editor has kept a close eye on the humour in the text and the flow of the narrative. Neither of us wanted to spoil the enjoyment of the unfolding story for the reader, for the sake of hammering home a point. Keeping that delicate balance has been one of the hardest things for me to do since starting the novel. With my editor to share the journey everything has fallen beautifully into place.

Lucy has also visited Hayling Island, the setting for all my three novels in the cycle, which shows her dedication to my work.

Once we had dealt with the nitty gritty of the text there seemed to be so many other things to work on. Was I being given more comments than any other author in history? I wondered at one point. But then I heard some more experienced writers discussing their experiences. It made me realise my editor had a light touch compared to some. I felt considerably cheered and felt that I could really embed myself from then on in the editing process and trust that together  Lucy and I could produce an even better book.

And then there were the howlers. I did warn Lucy that I was not great at copy editing. Finally Lucy did one final trawl through the text and phoned me up, "Miriam, I found something on almost every page," she said blithely, "but the best one was God Cop." We both cracked up.

In HIDDEN, the main character Alix has agreed to help hide an illegal immigrant until an organisation can be contacted to provide legal advice. But the police are aware that illegals are trying to come into the local beaches. They turn up at Alix's house one day and start questioning her. She hates lying to the police but she doesn't like the way one policeman barks at her and then the other one speaks nicely. She dubs them 'Good Cop/Bad Cop' like in the TV shows.
Need I say more?

If you are lucky enough to have as astute and dedicated an editor as me, go with it.I am a very contented author on the eve of publication.

Monday 20 December 2010

Deep snow in Camden Town

Last Saturday in the teeth of the worst blizzard I've ever seen in North London, I ventured out to meet my daughter in Camden Town. By the time I arrived ice crystals were falling out of the sky. Camden Lock right in the heart of the famous Stables Market was covered in snow and the water was beginning to freeze in the canal.
The lock dates back to the 18th century when horses pulled the barges along the tow path.

The market opened up in 1972 on the cobbled yards outside the old warehouses and has become world famous. We had a festive mulled wine from Santa to keep us warm.

The market underwent a huge facelift recently and now there are statutes of horses everywhere and of course suitably covered in snow after the raging Arctic blizzards.

The canal looked so amazing in the snow. We crossed over the steep old bridge which also dates back to the 18th century. There were groups of young people throwing snowballs to each other from bank to bank but I was concentrating on staying on my feet.

After a while we were so frozen we settled down in my favourite cafe right on the water and watched the ducks go by. I love turning over ideas for new stories with my daughter. She has an excellent nose for what works and so we sat and talked books and ideas for over an hour.

Then we walked past Marine Ices looking decidedly chilly and out of place in the snowy landscape. This is our fave family icecream parlour and I don't remember ever seeing it in the snow.

We parted company at the iconic Chalk Farm tube rounding its red tiles between two arterial roads between Hampstead and Swiss Cottage, one of the oldest unchanged tube stations in London.

When I got back to suburban Golders Green the garden looked like a scene from an Arctic forest. I huddled down inside for the rest of the day, overheating my computer with all the ideas and poems from my trip to icy Camden Town.

English garden snow

Without warning the ground is covered
Rear windscreen a white out, wipers icing up

David Bowie gives us Major Tom on Kiss FM
 - Ground Control would never cope with this.

Cars back up in hour-long jams
Kids grab snow from my bonnet

Impatient now I run down the window
Feel the slab of deepfreeze on my skin

I want to slide home, pull on thermals
Snow boots, ski gloves,

Flick the security lights
And moonwalk onto virgin lawn

copywrite : Miriam Halahmy 2010

Wednesday 15 December 2010

Mince Pies and Sweeney Todd

What do you do if your publisher invites you for mulled wine and mince pies, but their offices overlook the former shop of Sweeney Todd Demon Barber of Fleet Street?
Accept and vow not to touch the mince pies? Warn everyone else not to touch the pies? Pretend to eat a pie but secretly drop it behind the book displays?
Answers on a postcard please.

As many of you know, my great passion is History and so imagine my delight when my editor, the lovely Lucy Cuthew, at Meadowside Children's Books,  informed me that their offices off Fleet Street overlooked Sweeney Todd's barber shop. The pie shop was next door."We get tour groups down there all the time, " Lucy said as we looked down into the Hen and Chicken Court from the fourth floor windows. "They love it, snapping away like mad."

So of course when I returned last week for the Meadowside Christmas Party I took my camera.
Here's the entrance to the courtyard, off 186 Fleet Street. Spooky, isn't it? You can almost imagine Sweeney Todd hurrying down there to his next victim, saying a cheery hello to the pie man as they squeeze past each other, water dripping down the walls and mangy stray cats brushing against their legs. Gorgeous!

The gruesome site itself, in all it's Victorian glory ( or should that be gory?) Sweeney Todd's window is on the right hand side above the wheelie bin.  Imagine what the dastardly barber would have done with wheelie bins!
The courtyard has very deep cellars too and you can look down into them through huge iron grids. Very grim, like some deep medieval dungeon prison.

But fortunately the Meadowside offices are lovely and bright and there was a real surprise of a welcome when I finally reached the fourth floor ( toilets on the floor below.) "We've got something to show you," said Lucy with a grin and pulled me to a bookshelf display at the back of the room. And there is was! My novel, HIDDEN, in proper novel format! I was so excited.
Here I am with Lucy proudly showing off our hard work!

It was a lovely party. I saw some old friends, Lynne Chapman and Anne Rooney, from Facebook, SAS and SCWBI. Made some new friends and got a bit squiffy on the mulled wine. I even bravely ate half a mince pie and it was ok - promise. I had a lovely chat to the publisher, Simon Rosenheim who talked about how fiercely independent Meadowside is  and I said I felt really at home here. Its good to have a publisher who is 100% behind your ideas. I also talked to Catherine about foreign rights and New York Art Galleries and to Rupert about sales. Meadowside publishes over 40 titles a year and has an established reputation for good books. That feels the right place to be. 2011 is going to be a great year!

Monday 6 December 2010

HIDDEN goes live with a great cover!

Here it is -  the cover to the first novel in my cycle of three novels set on Hayling Island.

Its been quite a journey, taking photos to send to the designer, Sarah Andrews, at Meadowside, looking at different ideas, but ultimately Sarah has come up with a wonderful image which truly represents my novel.

Perhaps the most important element for me that I hoped for in this cover was the colour blue. This is the colour I think of when I think of Hayling. It is the colour of the sky reflected in the sea and also in the pools left behind on the mudflats when the tide goes out.

Then my editor, Lucy Cuthew sent me the A.I. ( er, the what?)  It means Additional Information.
This what Lucy wrote about HIDDEN.

The AI also contained a bit about me. My daughter took the photo. I'm standing in front of a poster of Jean Genet!

So now I have a cover, a press release and a fully edited manuscript. What a wonderful way to end 2010.
Roll on 2011 and then I'll be in publication year.
Watch this space!