Current favourite #BookMeme

The choice of author name is particularly amusing, given the apparent beef between the two 80s alternative musos 🙂

Book meme

Must-read: This biography of South Africa’s legendary ‘Afro-saxon’ muso, Syd Kitchen

You may not know of him, but everyone from Durban, like me, does. Thankfully, a just-published biography by Donvé Lee introduces readers to the poetic misfit who mentored many musicians.

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A mural of Syd, which was at Durban’s old Corner Cafe

When I heard that a biography of Syd Kitchen was being published,  I immediately marked it as a must-read. I’d seen him perform at Splashy Fen, where he played every year from its start before he died, and had seen him around. With his long hair, floppy hat and bare feet, he looked the quintessential hippie muso − no doubt with plenty stories to tell.

Here’s the book’s blurb:

“Skollie, saint, scholar, hippest of hippies, imperfect musician with a perfect imagination, Syd Kitchen was, like all great artists, born to enrich his art and not himself. Plagued by drugs, alcohol and depression, too much of an outlaw to be embraced by record companies, he frequently sold his furniture to cover production costs of his albums, seduced fans at concerts and music festivals worldwide with his dazzling ‘Afro-Saxon’ mix of folk, jazz, blues and rock interspersed with marvellously irreverent banter, and finally became the subject of several compelling documentaries, one of which −‘Fool in a Bubble’ − premiered in New York in 2010.”

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The book’s title is a reference to Syd’s poetry collection of the same name, published in 1974. I have a signed copy – I pounced on it when I spotted it at the Milnerton Flea Market several years ago. See below … I wonder who the mysterious Michelle was?

 

Syd Kitchen poetry book

“Michelle, Thanks for the past help regardless how small. You’re a pretty lady. Luv on ya. Syd”

In the foreword, the late veteran journo Owen Coetzer, who helped run the Durban Folk Club back then, wrote:

“Syd Kitchen is the poet. The seeker. His touch is masterful. His omni-luminescent eyes see it all. His words tell the rest. But more important, he is a musician in the tradition of the ancients – the storyteller who journeyed from land to land singing of the past, the present and the future. The minstrel who laboured for love, and who found peace and satisfaction in the giving of himself and his art.”

When Syd passed away early in 2011, many obituaries followed. In one of them, Owen’s daughter Diane, a music journalist, shares her childhood memories of Syd, and laments the fact that he never received proper recognition, both when alive and at his death.

“To a child, he was a fascinating creature: His hair was long, he sometimes struggled to talk through a stutter, he wore outlandish clothes and, even for children used to being around musicians, Syd seemed to us to carry with him something magical …”

“[His] remarkable 40-year music career, filled with live gigs, songwriting, and albums […] simply never benefited from the mainstream business – not just the labels that never signed him, but retail outlets that never stocked his records and radio that never played his songs […] And, looking at the artists who’ve emerged from under his wing in KwaZulu-Natal especially, it’s easy to see where Syd’s musical legacy will reside, outside of his recordings and songs.”

This is where the book comes in. At the launch at the Book Lounge, we were treated to a performance of Syd’s song Walking, by two muso friends of his. Then Donvé was interviewed by Stephen Segerman, one of the men who ensured ‘Sugar Man’, the musician Rodriguez, finally got his story told.

Donvé spoke of the research she did to compile the book – interviewing over 120 people, pouring over Syd’s lyrics and letters to an old girlfriend etc. – and how she tried to make Syd’s voice prominent. In the “magical process of giving over to his voice,” she admitted the boundaries at times blurred: Syd was under her skin, in her head.

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The biographer

This seems appropriate, given that Syd once asked her to write a book on him. In response to an audience member’s question about the ethics of creating Syd’s ‘voice’, Donvé said the book is “artistically true, not literally so. I put words into his mouth, but they’re what he could’ve or would’ve said … I think he would approve.” At this point, Syd’s daughter, Sev (I think), nodded from her front-row seat.

The biographer had the full support of Syd’s family, and she didn’t shy away from depicting the good, the bad, the ugly. “I had to make it honest,” she explained. And “in the darkness, beauty has its depth”.

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Syd’s lack of acclaim and recognition was mentioned, as was a high point in his musical career: Travelling to Scotland to be one of the featured artists (along with the likes of The Cure’s Robert Smith, Beck, Morcheeba, Snow Patrol and Paolo Nutini) on a tribute album to the late John Martyn, who was a Syd Kitchen fan.

It’s hoped that the book will revive interest in Syd’s music, and apparently the Kitchen family will soon be in talks with Robin Auld to see what can be done about, perhaps, getting his music reissued.

For now, you can get the book at all major SA bookstores and online. Or follow the links below to learn a little more about the man and his music.

Here’s a clip of Syd with Die Antwoord.

Here’s the trailer for the documentary on him, called Fool in a Bubble.

You can listen to the MixCloud tribute to him by Mabu Vinyl (called ‘The last of the bohemians’) here, and there’s also plenty more to read on him here.

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I’ll leave you with a short but sweet poem, from page 15 of Scars That Shine (1974).

SPOKE THE WIND
By Syd Kitchen

You have your eyes
as green as the sea,
you have Life
you have Love
you have Word
speared by me.
What more could your soul
set its sights on to be,
but a creature so fair,
so lost,
yet so free?

 

Author and poet Sophie Hannah on poetry and dealing with the dark side

A couple years ago, when I was still working at O, The Oprah Magazine SA, I was lucky enough to interview the British psychological crime writer and poet Sophie Hannah about the books that made a difference to her life. In this transcript of unused material, she discusses writing about the dark side, and the poetry collection that made her decide to write poems about contemporary issues of the heart…

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I’ve always written both mystery fiction and poetry. The two were always side by side; I’d write poetry one day, fiction the next. But I got published as a poet first. And I think my poetry became mature much sooner than my fiction did. I mean, I remember a moment when I wrote a poem and thought, ‘That’s significantly better than anything I’ve written before. I’ve turned a corner.’ And from that moment onwards my poetry was on a certain level. At that point, my fiction was certainly nowhere near. Perhaps it’s because you need to write a certain number of bad poems and novels before you can write a good one. And it just takes so much longer to write a novel than a poem.

Wendy Cope is my favourite living poet. When I read her poetry for the first time, it really was a eureka moment, because I’d been studying poets like TS Eliot, Ezra Pound, DH Lawrence and Ted Hughes at university. They wrote serious nature poems or serious fragmented modernist poems. While I could see there was literary merit in it, I could also see that it was not the sort of thing I would ever read for fun. I would never take The Waste Land and lie on a beach reading it. Round the same time, my mum bought me Wendy Cope’s first collection, which was called Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis, and was full of poems about relationships and the urban modern world. I mean, she writes about things like the difficulty of finding the perfect parking space and what to do if your boyfriend turns up without a bunch of flowers, saying he nearly bought you a bunch of flowers but decided not to… all these kind of things that I identified to and related to real life. All this other poetry I’d been reading didn’t have anything to do with my life, and it didn’t seem particularly enjoyable to read. So this collection made me realise that I could actually be a poet, writing the kinds of things I was actually interested in. Previously, I’d imagined that if I wanted to be a poet I would have to stop writing what I wanted to write about and instead write about windswept moors and dead sheep… that sort of thing.

At the same time, I discovered the American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. She’s probably my favourite dead poet. I discovered her collected sonnets in the library, and it was a huge eye-opener. Her poems are all about love and broken hearts and dodgy boyfriends, basically. It felt such a coincidence, because I’d always written poems about my love life. The Edna St. Vincent Millay Collected Poems was a hugely significant book for me, and I kept it out from the uni library for the three years I was there. I just kept renewing it. Nobody wanted to take it out other than me because she wasn’t on the poetry course. She wasn’t considered high-brow enough, because she writes rhyming metrical poetry about love. At the time I studied, it was about the most unfashionable type of poem you could write. The sonnets are all 14 lines and they’re brilliant. There’s one that begins. “Time does not being relief; you all have lied…” Basically someone has told her that it she gives it time, she’ll get over a man. But she’s given it time, and has avoided all the places that remind her of him. Yet every time she goes to a place that has nothing to do with him, she stands there and thinks ‘This has nothing to do with him,’ and then thinks of him anyway. That’s paraphrasing, but it’s an absolutely brilliant poem. All her poems, although they’re written in slightly archaic language, are about emotions that everyone recognises. I think she’s much better than TS Eliot.

For me, a poem has to be musical. It has to work in the same way that a song works. Think of a piece of music: You hear the beginning and it creates that expectation, so you want to hear the rest. You get hooked at the level of melody or music. For me, the most important thing when it comes to writing a poem is ensuring there’s as much music in it as there can be. That’s where the bestselling album at any given time will sell millions of copies, because music is something you wouldn’t want to live without. Now, a lot more people will quite happily live without poetry, and I think that’s because so much poetry that is being written now doesn’t have that kind of melody. Rhyme is quite unfashionable, traditional metrical forms are unfashionable. But why can’t you use rhyme and metre in a non-old-fashioned way? I mean, you can. I do. Wendy Cope does, as well as a few others, so it can be done. But a lot of people think there’s that danger that a rhyming poem will be “Thou art my one true love, sent to me from heaven above.” They throw the baby out with the water, thinking that rhyme and metre have to mean that kind of archaic poetry. They don’t at all. So I tell new poets to try and make sure there is music within their poems. It’s quite hard to do, because poetry isn’t a musical form. How do you do it? Well, that’s the key. I can’t explain how you do, but if you try to do it…you will write a better poem.

A poem I wrote that I’m rather attached to is called ‘In the Chill’. It’s a love poem, and the rhyme and metre is very traditional. It’s made up of four verses of four lines, so 16 lines in total. It looks like an old-fashioned poem and it even uses seasonal imagery to talk about love blossoming and so on, but it is absolutely a contemporary poem and it expresses exactly what I wanted to express about my feelings at that time. It came out almost fully formed; I didn’t need to labour over it. And you don’t have to be a poetry person to love it.

There are some people, who, as long as their lives continue to be safe and happy and reasonably normal, just don’t think of the dark side, as if it doesn’t exist. But I’ve always been quite aware that all the good stuff in life is sitting very close to all the bad stuff. You can be sitting on the train and reading a novel on your way to meet friends for lunch, and next to you the person could have lost their whole family in a house fire. Or someone commits a crime and all the neighbours say, “Oh, he seemed so lovely and polite.” That dark side and the danger of people who aren’t quite who they seem to be is always there. My preferred response is to tackle the darkness in books, because I can’t pretend it’s not there. And once I’ve got it out of my system, then I can be jolly and happy. People are often surprised when they meet me: While my books are quite sinister and dark, I’m happy and chatty. They say, “How can you write those books?” A lot of it is a kind of therapy, a way of processing the negative things that comes up in life.

Funnily enough I don’t, I don’t creep myself when writing my novels. I find other people’s books scary, but with my own, I’m usually thinking, ‘Should I say silver or should I say silvery,’ in terms of the glint that is coming off the psychopath’s knife. If you’re focusing on that level, it’s hard to find it scary. Plus, you know you’re making it all up.

I never get scared when doing background research, either; it’s just so fascinating. For the scary parts of novels or films to be scary, you have to be caught up in the pretence; pretend that it’s all real. The creator of the work can never be caught up in that, because they are creating it.

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Sophie Hannah’s latest novel, The Narrow Bed (Hodder & Stoughton) was released in the UK this week.

Writerly tips from author Patrick Gale

British author and screenwriter Patrick Gale was one of the international acts to join this year’s Open Book Festival. The Oxford-educated novelist is an avid gardener who lives near Land’s End in Cornwall, where he and his husband farm.

Patrick Gale

By Dan Hall (www.dan-hall.co.uk) from the author’s website.

Gale, whose books have previously made it onto Richard and Judy’s list of summer reads, is currently promoting his 17th novel, A Place Called Winter. The novel, a BBC Radio 2 Book Club choice, is described as follows:

To find yourself, sometimes you must lose everything.
A privileged elder son, and stammeringly shy, Harry Cane has followed convention at every step. Even the beginnings of an illicit, dangerous affair do little to shake the foundations of his muted existence – until the shock of discovery and the threat of arrest cost him everything.
Forced to abandon his wife and child, Harry signs up for emigration to the newly colonised Canadian prairies. Remote and unforgiving, his allotted homestead in a place called Winter is a world away from the golden suburbs of turn-of-the-century Edwardian England. And yet it is here, isolated in a seemingly harsh landscape, under the threat of war, madness and an evil man of undeniable magnetism that the fight for survival will reveal in Harry an inner strength and capacity for love beyond anything he has ever known before.
In this exquisite journey of self-discovery, loosely based on a real life family mystery, Patrick Gale has created an epic, intimate human drama, both brutal and breathtaking. It is a novel of secrets, sexuality and, ultimately, of great love.

A place called winter cover

In a panel talk on researching time and place, Patrick generously shared some tips and tricks with the aspiring writers in the audience.

On the limits of research
Patrick described how A Place Called Winter came about. When his mother decided to move into an old-age home, he inherited her set of Georgian drawers, stuffed full of old Vogue patterns, mismatched knitting needles, years of correspondence between his mother and grandmother… and his grandmother’s unfinished life story.

When asked why he decided to fictionalise his family history, rather than writing a biography, he said: “Fiction is very useful to get to the emotional truth of a situation that you won’t find with only historical research”.

He also confirmed that old adage that you should write from what you know, saying: “The glorious realisation you’re a novelist comes when you suddenly realise no experience is wasted”.

On the subject of researching when you’re a new novelist, Patrick said he believes a lot of the extraneous research is about the writer’s need to gain confidence. “But sooner or later,” he said, “you must trust your ability to tell the story”.

He also suggested that new writers follow advice he’d heard another author give: Try tell as much of the story you want to tell before you research it, even if only in note form, as “it’s easy to get overwhelmed by research with your first novel.”

On archiving your past, and your stories, for the future
Gale keeps all the notebooks from his old manuscripts, but he hands them over to an archivist for safekeeping. The first time he did this, the archivist was pleased he did things the old-fashioned way. Apparently, with technology changing so much, paper lasts more than documents on memory sticks (which you may not be able to read from in a few years), so archivists always print out any digital material authors hand them.

He also reiterated something my Irish great aunt Margaret told me: It’s really important to write the names of people on the backs of photographs for the sake of leaving an accurate record of your life as legacy.

On the value of writing in ink
Extending the writing-like-gardening analogy he mentioned at the start of the talk, Gale said the reason he makes his writing students have “inky days”, with no electronic note-taking or writing allowed, is because “the mess that comes with scratching out and so on is hugely fertile”.

His own preference? Gale writes in Toffee Brown ink (the one that “looks like dried blood”) as archivists say that’s the tone that lasts the longest.

On what writers talk about
“People think when writers get together, they talk art. We don’t. We talk about backing up,” Gale quipped. When I tweeted this, writer Jenny Colgan replied: “and VAT and writer’s arse and unfair car insurance premiums.”

Gale, still generous with his writerly tips, replied to say “I beat writer’s arse by investing in a sort of brain surgeon’s chair − the Hag Capisco: lets one lean forward”.

The Hag Capisco is environmentally sound (the seat is made from recycled car bumpers and waste household plastic packaging, and its plastic components are labelled to help sorting for recycling) as well as ergonomic. Here’s what the chair looks like, and where to learn more about it.

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Top tweets from the Franschhoek Literary Fest 2015, Day One

It’s a recipe for success: The annual Franschhoek Literary Festival (FLF) gathers authors, opinion-makers and book-lovers deep in South Africa’s winelands in the autumnal season…

This year’s programme is the festival’s best yet, and international authors participating include Sarah Waters and John Boyne. Follow the action online using the Twitter hashtags #FLF15 or #FLF2015. Here are my favourite tweets from Day One:

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Best Bits from Darryl Bristow-Bovey’s Book

The columnist was South Africa’s most stellar and searingly funny social commentator, until a plagiarism scandal caused his spectacular fall from grace (and newspaper pages). But with his endearing, thigh-slappingly funny coming-of-age memoir, the bad boy has done good.

I first became aware of Darryl Bristow-Bovey in the late 1990s, when I was a university student, he was in his twenties and the South African media was struggling to keep up with the nation’s democratic transition. In-between the rebranded SABC 1, 2 and 3 shows and daily Oprah show episodes, you still had to suffer through talk shows with older white male presenters who spoke in those ‘radio broadcast’ voices and were beginning to feel somewhat stale.

One night, one such presenter (whose smugness just irked me, I forget his name) introduced his show’s guest by first pointing at a bowl of Brussel sprouts set out on the set’s shiny coffee-table. Apparently, the young guest − one Darryl Bristow-Bovey − had dared to compare the host to a Brussel sprout. Having him on air was the host’s attempt to show the lad just who was boss.

But Darryl won the duel, hands down. Me and my sister were rolling around the couches, tickled pink by the analogy (if you’d seen the presenter, and had a taste of my dislike for both him and the offending vegetables in question, you’d’ve been too). Of course, it helped that the audacious fella was a bit dashing…

Darryl Bristow-Bovey

Credit: Via BooksLIVE

Of air and in print, more columns followed, as did the accolades: As Kevin Ritchie said in his Saturday Star review, “Just over 10 years ago, there was only one writer in South African journalism: Darrel Bristow-Bovey. The only nationally syndicated columnist in the country under 35, he was prolific, writing best-selling books and appearing almost simultaneously in competing newspapers, the Cape Times, Business Day, Sunday Independent, and he was good. Supernaturally good. He won the Mondi awards for excellence in magazine writing so often over six years that judging convener Dennis Beckett asked him to stop entering to give other writers a chance.”

But along with legions of devoted fans came detractors. So when news spread that Darryl Bristow-Bovey, the enfant terrible of the media, had been accused of lifting words from Bill Bryson’s Notes From a Big Country in his novel, The Naked Bachelor, the fall-out was epic. Darryl’s career and reputation were delivered such a blow, the writer was essentially off the scene for 10 years. (You can read his column about the experience of the scandal and public shaming here.)

Gradually, after years of self-flagellation, his name (and super-smart words) began appearing in print again. He had also been working on a memoir, which was released a few months ago. One Midlife Crisis and A Speedo (Penguin RandomHouse) is about approaching the big Four-Oh, and how Bristow-Bovey decided to follow a bucket-list dream of swimming across the Dardanelles in Turkey.

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As Ritchie said in his review, the book also charts how the author subsequently matured into being less of an ass, and faced the imposter syndrome head-on: Bristow-Bovey is quoted on the “long process of realising and getting over the shock of not just what’s happened to you, but of the disappointment you have caused others – and yourself.”

I loved the book, for its hilarity (as Michele Magwood, contributing books editor of the SA Sunday Times said, it’s one you want to read next to someone else, “so you can read out the funny bits”), its honesty, its charming (and cringe-worthy) self-deprecation, and for the ‘heart stuff’ (it is, also, somewhat of a love story).

Below is a section (p54-55) where Bristow-Bovey talks on the Tim Noakes ‘Banting’ diet that has become the subject of dinner-table talk ad nauseam in South Africa over the last couple years. Enjoy!

“The first thing you notice about the Tim Noakes diet is how interesting it is to talk about it. Actually, that’s not true. The very first thing you notice is it’s not at all interesting to talk about, but that’s only when you’re not on the diet yourself.

“When you’re the one living your life as a normal human being, peaceably eating as your forefathers did and their forefathers before them, you might have a reasonable tolerance for chit-chat about what other people are eating. You might even ask a polite question or two of your own.

“‘Oh really?’ you might say. ‘You’re putting butter in your coffee and making toast out of halloumi cheese now? That’s interesting.’ Or you might say, ‘Oh, so then you’re not going to eat those chips? Do you mind if I…’

“But after a while it becomes irritating to have people constantly volunteering to tell you how much energy they have and how bloated they aren’t. I never realised how bloated everyone was before they all started telling me they aren’t anymore. First you roll your eyes, then you start avoiding everyone who has recently lost a suspicious amount of weight.
[…]
“But then you start it yourself and you realise you were wrong. No, it’s not boring to talk about what you’re eating. In fact it’s fascinating, because there’s so much science in it, you see. The science is the best part. Hoo boy, who knew I loved science so much?

“The other thing you realise is that this is the time of the cauliflower. The cauliflower is taking over the world. Where once there were fields of wheat and corn waving golden in the sun and rustling creepily by night, soon there’ll be just the stubbly scalps of cauli heads. There are cauliflower appreciation groups on FB and cauli-loving websites. There’s cauliflower porn. I haven’t seen it myself, you understand – those freaks aren’t getting my credit card number – but sure, I’ll admit, I’m cauli-curious.”

One Midlife Crisis and A Speedo is available via Amazon and Exclusive Books.

Book buzz: The Sunlit Night, by Rebecca Dinerstein

This anticipated debut has a dreamy back story, and effusive praise for its author from her former teacher, Jonathan Safran Foer.

TITLE: The Sunlit Night (Bloomsbury)

AUTHOR: Rebecca Dinerstein, a Brooklyn-based poet and graduate of Yale (BA) and NYU (MFA in fiction; a Rona Jaffe Graduate Fellow).

RELEASE DATE: 2 June 2015

Rebecca Dinerstein

Image credit: Nina Subin

THE BACK STORY: In their ‘Most anticipated debut novels of spring 2015’ list, Publishers Weekly described how Dinerstein travelled on a Yale postgrad fellowship to the Norwegian art colony of Lofoten, an archipelago in the Arctic, to write a book of poems. But the solitude and space was so inspiring, the poet began what was to become The Sunlit Night, first her MFA thesis, now her debut release.
“I grew up in Manhattan, in a really crowded environment,” Dinerstein was quoted as saying. “Suddenly I had nobody around me. That solitude and that silence − and that really inspiring beauty of the landscape − led me to figure out a way of being productive […] I realised very quickly that you can’t write poems all day.”

THE PREMISE/BLURB: In the beautiful, barren landscape of the Far North, under the ever-present midnight sun, Frances and Yasha are surprised to find refuge in each other. Their lives have been upended − Frances has fled heartbreak and claustrophobic Manhattan for an isolated artist colony; Yasha arrives from Brooklyn to fulfil his beloved father’s last wish: to be buried “at the top of the world.” They have come to learn how to be alone.
But in Lofoten, an archipelago of six tiny islands in the Norwegian Sea, ninety-five miles north of the Arctic Circle, they form a bond that fortifies them against the turmoil of their distant homes, offering solace amidst great uncertainty. With nimble and sure-footed prose, Dinerstein reveals that no matter how far we travel to claim our own territory, it is ultimately love that gives us our place in the world.

The Sunlit Night cover

UK Cover | Design: Emma Ewbank

THE PRAISE: (From Dinerstein’s website)
“Lyrical as a poem, psychologically rich as a thriller, funny, dark, warm, and as knowing of place as any travel book or memoir, The Sunlit Night marks the appearance of a brave talent.” Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

“By turns ravishing and hilarious, The Sunlit Night is more than a shining debut − it’s the work of a young master. Dinerstein writes of her two lovers with sensitivity and chutzpah: human drama, a nightless summer, the transformative power of nature. Here’s an exciting new voice that sings perfectly in key.” Darin Strauss, author of Half a Life

“Dinerstein’s deliciously melancholy debut…is light and lyrical and her descriptions of the far north are intoxicating…A poetic premise with language to match.” Kirkus Reviews

“Dinerstein has done readers a big favor not only by writing this luminous story about love, family, and the bewilderment of being young but also by bringing them into an otherworldly setting: a nightless Arctic summer on the spectacular Lofoten Islands. Enchanting in every way.” −Maggie Shipstead

Lofoten

The village Reine, Lofoten Islands (source: Wiki Commons)