Tuesday 30 June 2015

Dogs of War

When war broke out, many animal owners were unable to care for their pets and they ended up in the street. Other owners were killed or had fled the country and their dogs, cats and other pets were abandoned. Those that survived best were the mongrels. In the aftermath of war, you never saw pedigree dogs: the French poodles, Chihuahuas and Lhasa Apsos. They were war’s early victims, too far away from their ancestral stock to live alone for very long, too slow and small to gain advantage in the race for scraps of food. During and after the war, the police organized hunts to cull the survivors, but, many years later, the crafty and the hardy still roamed the streets of the towns and cities. Some of them were heroes. One of these in Mostar, Heki, was a footsore mongrel who hung about in the old town begging food from cafés and passers-by. He had four separate pieces of shrapnel in his body, one of them lodged in his brain. He limped around and somehow survived. His home was the Ruza; the shelled ruins of a tourist hotel constructed in the 1970’s, across a tributary that falls into the Neretva River close to the Old Bridge. It was completely destroyed, but you could still read the fading signs to the “terrace bar”, the “sauna” and “hairdresser.” Heki was its longest-standing guest and when you didn't see him there, you could hear him padding around in the rubble. Whether from brain-damage, resignation or because he'd had his fill of war, Heki was a passive dog with neither bark nor bite. Buildings don’t need their ghosts. They are ghosts. I often peered inside this hotel and the many other shelled homes, offices and shops and felt a tangible memory, a feeling that if you touched the bullet holes and plaster-shattered walls, you would discover the truth of the building, its happiness and sadness. The Second World War spy warning - “walls have ears” could have had added to it that “walls have memories.” If that is true of buildings, how much more is it true of dogs. Read more about the 'Dogs of War' in 'Left Field'. 

Friday 26 June 2015

From Glastonbury to Greeks against austerity

Dubioza Kolektiv's visit to my Spanish 'party' gave me the idea for the final chapter in 'Left Field'. I thank them for that, but more importantly wish them all best for their Sunday night gig at Glastonbury. If you are there go to Shanri-La stage . If not there catch them on TV. They are very exciting and not to be missed. 'Left Field' is packed full of musicians and their stories – from DK to Rachid Taha/Brian Eno, from Tom Morello to Matt Black & Coldcut, Eric Clapton to Elton John. Read about the Pavarotti & Friends gigs, Paul McCartney in St Petersburg and the War Child 'Help' album. Order your copy of LF here. STOP PRESS: Support the Greek people in the bailout referendum on 5 July. They are at the cutting edge of the fight against austerity.

Tuesday 23 June 2015

Seventy miles speeding

La Torre de Dalt is a large 'Mas' (a Catalan traditional farmhouse) in the hills above Girona. It's the place where, for the last five years, Anne has run her annual writing retreats. When her course ended this June, I hired it for a second week and invited friends and relatives to join me. I told them this was a celebration for my 70th year, but it also marked the completion of Left Field - bringing together some of those who have played their part in my life and without whom I would have had no memoir. I had worried how these people from my past and present would mix: a political banner maker, a businessman, a bereavement counsellor, musicians, writers and journalists. I need not have. Widely and in some cases, wildly, disparate people spent the week talking, eating, drinking, walking and partying together. No one there will forget how we all fell in love with Alice Kilroy as she encouraged us all, willingly or not, towards the Revolution. The writers soon became known as the 'murmuration of writers' as they met in corners of the building to create new work or read excerpts from their novels and poems. They seemed to flock and flow through the building like birds. In the evenings, during their 'open mic' nights, they read their work and invited the rest of us to join them. Oha Maslo, who had driven from Bosnia to Spain with Teo Krilic and his family, apologised for turning down their invitation to hear them: “As soon a I see the first comma,” he told me, “I go into a coma.” If I'd told him that one person was writing a novel about setting up a whorehouse in Australia, he might have forgotten his problems with punctuation marks. In any case his apology was adopted by Julian Herbert, one of the poets there, as the opening phrase for his paean to the week: Comma coma? Trace back through castles, Until, until they're in the sky, And we hold hands together, While we fly. Teo played guitar while Oha joined him on the cajon drum. They sang Na Klepeci Nanulama – about a woman hearing the clogs of her dead mother on the stairs. La Torre looks across at the Cap de Creus above Cadaqués where Dali had his summer home. Some guests visited his museum in Figueres, but they didn't need to go there to experience the surreal. The week took on a weirdly wonderful quality when the Balkan rock group, Dubioza Kolektiv, dropped by. They were en route from Barcelona to France, a tour which was to end at the Glastonbury Festival. When someone asked them where they were from, they answered from practically every country of ex-Yugoslavia. “What was that war all about?” said Mario, “Here we are all together again.” With funky haircuts and dressed in black they didn't touch the bottle of whisky they had brought for me, but drank tea and coffee and ate dainty biscuits. The whisky was emptied that evening, but with no help from me. I am no longer allowed to drink much alcohol. Oha and Teo shook their heads in bafflement each time I turned down an offer of another beer or glass of wine. The only advantage of not joining in, apart from staying alive, was that I was able to talk a bit more sense. On the last day, Maureen Larkin read a 'haiku' for me, which pretty well sums up my life in 18 syllables: '70 miles speeding, The cops have not caught me yet, No point braking now'. Check out La Torre: The Film!

(Left Field has reached its target of 100% . If you haven't bought your copy yet it's now 100% certain to be published)

Order here

PIC: Alice Kilroy' 'banner inspired by the haiku

Monday 15 June 2015

Rock band visits La Torre de Dalt

My 'birthday' week in Spain takes on an even more Dali-ish quality when Oha tells me that Dubioza Kolektiv are coming round for tea. They have been gigging in Spain and are 30 kilometres away on the road from Barcelona to France. They are on a European tour which ends at the Glastonbury Festival on 28 June. (Shangri La and Glade stages for those going there this year). DB are returning to the UK on 21 November to perform at the 100 Club. They are known for their fresh take on hip-hop, reggae, dub, rock and Bosnian folklore. The concept of the band has been to show the rest of the world that life in the Balkans exists outside the overused media stereotypes. Many of DB's lyrics revolve around themes of peace, understanding and tolerance, alongside criticism of nationalism and injustice. They are known in Bosnia for lending support to the country's first grass-roots civil society group Dosta!” and their album release party for album “Firma Ilegal” took place in front of the Bosnian Parliament, in a powerful statement against government corruption. Oha had been in DB as percussionist and singer and I was at their performance at the Arena stadium in Belgrade in April 2014 when he made a guest performance which you can see here. Check out the last five minutes. It was great to meet up again with Senad Šuta, who I knew when we were both at the Pavarotti Music Centre, Adis, Amir, Vedran, Brano, Armin, Mario and others. Yesterday they arrived with a Carhu single malt whisky as a present for me. Thank you guys. Hey, the bottle is empty this morning! Want to join me at the 100 Club in November? More about Bosnia and music in 'Left Field'

PIC: Dubioza Kolektiv with me at La Torre de Dalt, 15 June 2015: Teo, Oha and Senad Šuta  are 2nd, 3rd and 4th from left

Commas and comas

La Torre de Dalt is in the hills above Girona in Spain. We are less than 20 kilometres from Figueres, Salvador Dali's hometown, and this gathering is as wonderful as his paintings. Thirty friends and relatives from diverse backgrounds are here and last night Teo Krilic played guitar for us. He opened with Na klepeci Naunulama – my favourite traditional Bosnian sevdah song. The words are those of a daughter hearing the clogs of her dead mother on the stairs. We all remember our missing dead and some of us our missing living as well. There are still a few writers here. They move around together and we have named them the 'murmuration of writers'. In the evenings they read their work and last night invited Oha Maslo to join them. He laughed and apologised for turning down the invitation: “As soon a I see the first comma I go into a coma.” I write looking across at the Cap de Creus above Cadaqués where Dali had his summer home. Some of my guests are going to visit his museum in Figueres this week, but they don't need to go there to experience the weirdly wonderful. It's right here. And I think I am going to have to write another chapter for 'Left Field'. Its title?  'Commas and comas'.

Saturday 13 June 2015

Grappaling with the music

Just finished Anne Aylor's 6th novel writing course at La Torre, Spain. Here she is cooling down with some of her students after an exhausting week for her. Now for a very different week with not a book in sight! Over 30 people have arrived to celebrate my first 70 years. I am happy to see them all and honoured that they are here. Most of all my two 'Mostar sons' - Oha and Teo - who drove for over 16 hours to be here. Oha came with his  homemade grappa and Teo with his guitar. One guest asked if there was going to be a a fiesta. The grappa has all gone this morning and I am listening to Manu Chao. Teo is going to perform sevdah songs for us today. The fiesta has started. (You can read about Oha and Teo in Left Field' - they have a chapter to themselves. And about Anne and her courses here)

Tuesday 9 June 2015

Naïve art

Naïve artists work without formal technical qualifications and with a remarkable indifference to perspective. Uninfluenced by art traditions, they paint pictures mirroring their memories, desires and dreams. When most people think of naïve art, the names that come to mind are Henri Rousseau and Grandma Moses, but southeast Europe has produced many of these painters. Among the best known, the peasant, Ivan Generalić; the postman, Ivan Lacković and the carpenter, Ivan Rabuzin.  Rabuzin's buyers included Yul Brynner and Woody Allen - you can see one in Annie Hall. His pastel-coloured silk screen prints sold well in the Far East and he was known in Germany, France, Italy and Japan, but his reputation had never been established in Britain. My job was to find a London gallery which would represent him … There were only two possibilities, the Portal Gallery, who represented Beryl Cook, and the Rona Gallery. The Portal weren't interested, but the Rona was. A regular visitor there was Mervyn Levy: writer, artist and art critic who’d been a childhood friend of Dylan Thomas. Mervyn was a small, dapper man with a moustache and neatly-clipped white beard. We planned to write a play together about Dylan, based on Mervyn’s memories, and he would invite me to the Chelsea Arts Club to discuss our project. We never got far after the first bottle of wine. Read more about my years in the art world at Left Field. 

Pic. Ivan Rabuzin

Sunday 7 June 2015

Dogs are our link to paradise

I am excited that Russell Mills will design the book cover for 'Left Field'. He is well known for his record covers - Michael Nyman, Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno, Nine Inch Nails amongst many others. His book covers include Milan Kundera's 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Samuel Beckett and Don DeLillo. I like this from DeLillo: “I think it's only in a crisis that Americans see other people. It has to be an American crisis, of course. If two countries fight that do not supply the Americans with some precious commodity, then the education of the public does not take place. But when the dictator falls, when the oil is threatened, then you turn on the television and they tell you where the country is, what the language is, how to pronounce the names of the leaders, what the religion is all about, and maybe you can cut out recipes in the newspaper of Persian dishes. There's always a period of curious fear between the first sweet-smelling breeze and the time when the rain comes cracking down. I've come to think of Europe as a hardcover book, America as the paperback version.” I try to follow Becket's, “Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” But having just written a new chapter for my book on the dogs of war, I love this from Milan Kundera: “Dogs are our link to paradise. They don't know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing is not boring--it is peace.” Watch this space for news on Left Field's progress to publication and buy the book here

Friday 5 June 2015

Spirit of the music

Doing final edits on Left Field, I came across Pay-Uun Hiu's amazing article in de Volkskrant from December 1997. Writing about the opening of the Pavarotti Music centre, she had this to say about Eugene Skeef: "Born in South Africa and former co-worker of Steve Biko in the Seventies, Skeef is a phenomenal drummer and has an equally phenomenal gift for music communication. In the small room, with a view of the strip of land where an aromatic herb garden is planned to bloom, it is impossible not to hear the forceful call of Skeef’s djembe. With Skeef there is no place for quasi-serious or quasi-creative playing. “Focus,” he demands, while rolling his dreadlocks into a ponytail. “Do not play before I ask you to! Concentrate! Watch each other. We want to get into the spirit of the music.” Gradually the workshop takes on the air of an almost magical ritual. Every single player gets into the rhythm of his own rhythmic pattern which corresponds with the rhythmical pattern of the djembe trio formed by Skeef, Oha and Peter Vilk, a young English drummer and music psychologist. Through repetition of the pattern not a single part of the body is left unaffected by the sound. The lower djembe tones go right through your diaphragm and with their long waves provide a feeling of stability and calmness. The higher tones in the faster patterns work directly on the muscles and absorb all the concentration until everybody’s attention is solely focused on the music. When this level of concentration has been reached, Skeef increases the intensity and complexity. He not only increases the tempo, but also the difficult rhythmic combinations and the tempo in which the patterns change. With extreme precision he moves every participant just a tiny bit over their limits, while stimulating them with his djembe. His voice has become like a hurricane: 'power, power, man! Keep going! Keep watching.' Hands no longer feel pain, legs and feet are moving by themselves. Then Skeef lets his drummers go. The rhythms slow down and the drummers become kids again. 'Relax, relax. That was real power energy, man,' he says." 

Russell Mills has agreed to design the book cover. He has produced record covers for Michael Nyman, Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno, Nine Inch Nails and book covers for authors such as Milan Kundera. Left Field will be published in March 2016. 

Writing in Spain

I am back at La Torre de Dalt in Spain to help Anne Aylor run her annual creative writing course. This is now in its 6th year and I am looking forward to this week, including G&Ts in Banyoles where this pic is taken. The work is not too onerous, her students are lovely and our chef, Lee Pennington, is amazing. Not just for his food, but his radical Manchester humour. I have learned a lot about cooking from my time in the kitchen with him. And after the course (pardon the pun) we are staying for a further week with over 30 family and friends to celebrate my 70th! My two Mostar 'sons', Oha and Teo, are coming from Bosnia so there will be a lot of drinking and music. I am not able to drink any more so will have to play guitar! You can read more about Anne, Oha, Teo, and my family in 'Left Field'

Monday 1 June 2015

Pavarotti dips into wall art

Writing my last blog about street art reminded me of the opening of the Pavarotti Music Centre. Weeks before the tenor arrived, children had decorated the art room with their hand prints. This gave us the idea to have Pavarotti and the other guests place theirs under the tablet we had made to commemorate the opening. We arranged for trays of paint to be prepared for this. When Pavarotti’s head of security saw two children standing at the side with the trays, he told me that the last time this had happened was at an Italian school and paint had ended up on Pavarotti’s clothes. I was about to order the graffiti exercise cancelled when, to my horror, the children stepped through the crowd just as Pavarotti, Bono and Brian Eno were unveiling the memorial. Pavarotti gleefully covered his hands with poster paint, followed by the others. No one’s clothes were splashed. More on this opening at 'Left Field'.