Category Archives: literature

Visiting the birthplace of Syria’s much loved philosopher poet.

Yesterday, the @guardian carried a report by Martin Chulov about the latest bombing in Syria. It took place in the famous town of Maarat al Numan, not far from Aleppo. The town had been home to one of Syria’s much-loved philosophers, al Ma’arri. And so I took a  local bus there to find out more. This was before the war in Syria had become so terrible. Here’s the story:

I get off the bus at the top of the town and start assembling my meagre vocabulary in order to get to al Ma’arri’s tomb.

Abu ‘ala al Ma’arri or, to give him his full and glorious name, Abu ‘ala Ahmad ibn abd Allah ibn Suliman al Tanookhy al Ma’arri, was a writer I think I might well have got on with. He had a quirky, iconoclast take on life – a refreshing antidote to the strict, humourless way in which religion in Islamic countries today is sometimes both presented and perceived. He was also a vegetarian and an atheist – and therefore a very rare bird indeed in these parts.

Al Ma’arri was born in Ma’arrat al Numan, in 973CE and spent the greater part of his 84 years here. An illness left him blind from the age of five and he was forced to develop other compensatory skills including that of an exceptional memory which allowed him to study at Antioch, Aleppo and Tripoli – three of the great centres of learning at that time. His literary career was helped by the fact that he had a small private income.

In his 30s, he travelled to Baghdad where he established himself as a writer with very individual views and where he was much in demand at literary get-togethers. Those same views, however, worked against him when he decided that rather than sullying his art by selling his work he would simply recite it or offer it for discussion. Such high ideals, however, required a patron and unable to find one, and his own private income not being enough to survive on, he ran up against hard times and two years after arriving in Baghdad left it again to return to Ma’rrat al Numan. By then, he was 37 and on the way to adopting a lifestyle that was to characterise him for the rest of his long life.

From then on, he withdrew into himself, renouncing the excesses and vagaries of contemporary life. His own was governed by three things: his blindness, his writing and his solitude.

If this had been all I had to go on, I might have written off al Ma’arri as an eccentric recluse. However, his views marked him out as a very rare writer indeed for he spoke loud and clear of possibilities other than the orthodox.

The idea that there was only one true religion was one he rejected out of hand and, writing some seventy years before the First Crusade, was remarkably prescient: “Religions have only resulted in bigotry and bloodshed with sect fighting sect and fanatics forcing their beliefs onto people at the point of a sword. All religions are contrary to reason and sanity.”

Read more about the town in my book My Home is Your Home

 

 

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Filed under Books, journalist, Kurds, literature, Observer newspaper, Syria, Travel, Uncategorized

Crossing the road

First fix is in the coffee shop.  Regular cappo. Newspaper headlines not too bad. England won the cricket. No cartoons of politicians’ various arses. So far so good. Then work calls so time for the first challenge:  getting back across the busy road again. No lights at the pedestrian crossing so we are dependent on good offices of car drivers. Some glide along carefree as a lark at dawn, ignoring waiting pedestrians. Despite the fact that lights at next crossing are red, six cars press on. Then one, seeing the red lights ahead, stops and waves me across to the mid-road island. Great. Better still, the bus as the second and final section also waves me across. I feel myself carried forward on a surge of drivers’ goodwill  and think if I were to rise up on my toes and flap the sleeves of my jacket I might even fly the rest of the way home.

Then again, that might just be the effects of the caffeine.

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Some tips about applying for an Arts Council grant in England.

Last night’s marvellously useful session at Oxford’s Old Fire Station ( #OFS) was with Will Young, producer of Snowflake, the play Mike Bartlett has written specially for the OFS.  Young is an experienced producer who is also under contract to the Arts Council so his contribution was of value to those wanting to learn more about promoting a play as well as learning how the funding arm of the Arts Council works. Interestingly, the budget for Snowflake ran to £50.000 with the Arts Council grant amounting to £15.000, a tidy sum which will allow the play to run for two weeks, unusually long for a theatre as small as the Old Fire Station.

Below are a few paraphrased pieces of advice given by Young on how to apply for an Arts Council grant.

Read carefully what the Arts Council is looking for. It can take three days to fill in the application form so factor this in when applying. Submitting early will allow you adjust your application and resubmit if it is rejected.

The Arts Council gets something like 100,000 applications a year so brevity is the name of the game.

Make it easy reading by using  bullet points and sub-headings. Think of your application as a project so say clearly who will it reach, who will it benefit etc. Be specific. Focus on the project rather than on your own glittering theatrical career.

Finally, the best advice of the session:  ask a friend to read through your application. It shouldn’t take more than five minutes. If it does, then shave off the offending minute or two.

You can get preliminary advice from  the Arts Council on 0161 934  4317

 

Let me know if you find this useful. I’m on: scribea1@hotmail.com

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Famous writer pinches things in Regents Park

 

From Alan Bennett’s Keeping On Keeping On

I was given this book for Christmas and am now on page 361 out of 753. Quite a bit to go which is great as I won’t want it to end.

Also reviewing another book at the same time and the temptation, with KOKO, is to pick up a pen and make notes. Fatal. I’d be making notes all the time.

Here’s one anecdote out of many: he cycles through  Regent’s Park every day for the exercise but one day it’s raining so he walks.

“Almost out of piety and a respect for a tradition I filch a couple of  branches from the base of  a balsam poplar  on the north side of Regent’s Park. The buds are hardly open  and thus are briefly heavily scented.  Now in a glass on the sitting room mantelpiece they bring a flavour to the room as they have done every spring for the last forty years.”

http://www.maryrussell.info

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Books my mother gave me

It was a chance remark overheard on a train, someone recalling a book given to them by their mother, not one I recognised.

Mine were The Hound of Heaven and the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. The first has a blue cover and the other a soft leather cover, smooth to the touch. I can feel it now. But wait – they have long since disappeared, shoved into battered cases and pushed under the bed. Or stowed in black plastic sacks and carried from one Earls Court bedsit to another and then lost on the momentous journey that led to married life.

Lost but not gone for they were treasured gifts from my mother to my teenage self in the days before teenagers were invented, categorised as YA, isolated in bookshops  a month and cut off from the chequerboard of poetry.

And so, some years,  I give myself a treat by swearing faithfully to read  a book of poetry a month.

Last time I did this, about ten years ago, I kept my New Year’s Resolution for three or four months and then forgot….

I may do better this year though then again I may not.

I can’t recall how I heard about Portadown poet Sam  Gardiner. Perhaps it was his marvellous witty poem  Protestant Windows for it was this one that made me buy the book – published by Lagan Press in 2000.

Here’s the poem:

Protestant Windows

They come at sunset peddling daylight, two

Salesmen wearing glasses through which they view

His shabby sliding sashes with disdain.

“Wood?” they suppose and feign

Dismay. “Yes, comes from trees.”

And he raises the drawbridge ten degrees,

a hurdle to reservists

but child’s play to frontline evangelists

with news of paradise

in earth ( at this address to be precise)

in whitest white PVC.

“Think of all

the blessings. And if economical

heavenly comfort isn’t what you need,

think of our Earth,” they plead

and their plastic-rimmed, double-glazed eyes glow

with love for generations of window

salesmen as yet unborn.“If I were you,

I’d save  my CO2

For atheists and papists. I doubt

They even know about King Billy.” “Who?” “William lll to you,

Brought sliding sashes to

Britain. Fetched in pure air and sanity.

Without him we’d still be in the dark.

“Sorry, we must go. It’s late,” they say

And beat a retreat to the gate,

And pause. Quick as a flash

He raises an effortlessly sliding sash

For a parting shot. “Plastic heretics!”

He shouts. The window sticks.

He lugs, a sash cord snaps. The window  drops

On his head, where it stops.

Latimer and Ridley know how he feels

As bloodied, martyred for his faith, he reels

Towards eternity,

Where planets, the  latest novelty,

Are looking less and less

Like being a success

If you liked this blog, maybe have a look at my website: http://www.maryrussell.info  – and keep in touch.

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Always the bridesmaid?

Went last week  to see Pinter’s No Man’s Land at London’s Aldwych Theatre, starring Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan.

Patrick Stewart had lost his voice and so his understudy took over.

At the end of the play. Ian McKellan came forward and praised the performance of the understudy. And quite rightly as it was excellent.

Two points: as the cast were taking their curtain calls ( there were three) McKellan kept the understudy’s hand  in his – a brotherly gesture or an attempt to prevent the understudy from stepping forward to take a well-earned applause of his own? Still, that’s the theatre for you.

And the second point? McKellan got the understudy’s name wrong so here it is:  Andrew Jarvis.

If you’re interested in the plight of the understudy – always the bridesmaid never the bride – have a look at David Weston’s excellent book Covering McKellan. He spent a year as understudy to Ian McKellan when the latter was touring Lear.

Poignant but a story that has to be told. All part of the theatre canon.

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Bob Crowley’s sexy set.

I was lucky to see the production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses at Stratford, directed by Howard Davies who, sadly,has just died.

I returned Stratford  a week later having persuaded the Irish paper for which I was then freelancing that it should be reviewed, pitching  it to the paper as something that should be covered since the set designer was Irish, from Cork.

Bob Crowley was his name. Still is. And it was his set that mesmerised me:  a larger than life chest of drawers  out of which was spilling an array of white, gauzy female underwear.

Alan Rickman and Juliet Stevenson were in the lead but I couldn’t take my eyes off that chest of drawers. Brilliant.

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