Monday, 5 January 2009

To Cheltenham and back by way of...

No, it's not like going to the Antarctic and back, but it does take a good five hours cross-country with two changes of train. That is why Sunday's post did not appear - lack of radio contact. I had been invited by Angela France to run a one hour workshop and do a reading for her group and that is what Sunday night was.

A little background. The genesis of this goes back to my complaint a good while ago about an invitation to read poems to a small group that told me, rather grumpily, that I would be paid nothing, should expect nothing, not even travel expenses, that there would be an entrance fee but that most writers donated it to the upkeep of the place, meaning, so should I. I turned it down, not because I don't do things for free - I do, when asked nicely or when there is a genuine good cause to be supported - but because I didn't like the manner of the person doing the inviting. Posh woman whistling up entertainment, I thought.


In a similar way I recently received an invitation from a well known bookshop in Paris. Of course, I said. Nothing was said about payment but I am too much of a gentleman to ask and usually someone mentions it sooner or later. I don't hold out for minimum fees, like some. I don't insist on minimum accommodation of four star hotels. Offer me something, speak nicely to me, and I am yours.

Some time after accepting the invitation I did ask, because dates were crowding in on me. At this point it turned out there wasn't going to be a fee. They had forgotten to tell me. Very well, I shrugged, can you at least pay my travelling expenses? No, they said, but we can give you accommodation for one night and if you want to come back you can stay in the apartment another time. At this point I thought, why not? It is going to cost me about £200 but it's such a nice thing to do. A little later I received another email that said the accommodation was off too. On the other hand, by way of encouragement, they told me who else had accepted the same conditions: X and Y and Z... If these important writers were prepared to accept so should I. That was the implication. It was the implication that settled it for me. That, I thought, was arrogant of them, dropping names and leaving me with a sense of obligation.

Was I flattered to be asked? Yes, of course. I am always flattered to be asked anywhere and this, given the history and reputation of the bookshop, was particularly flattering, but I wasn't sure whether I was prepared to pay a lot of money to be flattered, not during term time, in the winter, when I am away a lot anyway.

I must say I felt mean thinking this. But then I thought, surely they are the ones being mean. I would go if they paid just part of my fare but I didn't want that 'greater folk than you have done this, sonny' business. In the end I felt quite angry. Yes, they would guarantee a large audience and sell lots of books. So they said. Well, they might sell a lot of books, but it would be they who would be selling them. A bookshop is a commercial business. They have money. Much more than I will ever have. They could at least make a gesture of hospitality. We pitiful, easily flattered, poets are suckers for gestures. But we should not be assumed to be pitiful. It wasn't even the proprietor or the manager who had written to me. He / she / it, presumably, was above such things.

Martin Bell once cursed the head of the institution I attended as a student. The head of the institution immediately fell ill. Beware the power of poets, pitiful as they are. They can curse, and flyte and rain misfortunes down on you.

And so my anger grew. Why should I be bullied by the supposed flattery? I have read in many places the equal, and more, of the bookshop and they weren't expecting me to come running out of sheer joy at being flattered. Let the others go if they want. I won't. Stuff them. If it is fame to be summoned to famous places, bugger fame. And so it stands.

Juvenile, I know.


The group in Cheltenham have very little money but they offered me a fee without traveling expenses and when they found out the cost of the journey they brought the fee up. The very kind proprietor of a guest house, a member of the workshop, offered me B & B for free. Both B's were good. It was generous. They were good people and the evening was a real pleasure. Alison Brackenbury and Nigel McLoughlin were in the audience. I drop their names because it's always nice to guide people to good books. And because it is genuinely flattering that they should come along.

I was thinking of an interesting exercise for them and came up with something - a couple of things - that I might put up as a post since they spring from some ideas about the narrative structure of lyric poems. The other thing I was going to do on Sunday was add to the Sunday night series of music or films, so I will do that tonight instead. In fact right now. The space above this.


Anonymous said...

That sounds terribly like Shakespeare's. Mind you, it's the only Parisian bookshop I've ever heard of, so...

George S said...

I shall leave the name blank, James...