Dead Poets Society

Keats-Shelley House in Rome is a wonderfully quaint tribute to the work of John Keats and the English romantic poets.

View of the Spanish Steps from Keats’ deathbed

The sad history of the house is that Keats moved there from England after being diagnosed with tuberculosis. His friends thought the warm climate might help but the disease was incurable and he died there just three months later in February 1821, aged 25.

He had already witnessed his younger brother die a slow and painful death from the disease and when he realised he had it himself, he referred to his remaining time as ‘posthumous’ because he knew he was under a death sentence. He ended all contact with the love of his life, Fanny Brawne, as he felt he could never experience real joy again. Jane Campion made a film about their story called Bright Star.

A tribute near Keats’ grave

The house has been a museum for over a hundred years. There is a library with an extensive collection of around 8,000 volumes relating to the works of the romantic poets, including Keats’ contemporaries Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron. Inside, it feels like stepping back in time as the rooms have been painstakingly renovated to appear as they would have when Keats lived there.

It’s in a stunning location at the foot of my favourite spot in Rome, the Spanish Steps.  There are usually hundreds of people outside socialising in the sun and the rooftop bar at the top, Il Palazzetto, does fabulous Bellinis.

The House is at the bottom of the steps on the left

There are also wonderful views of the city from the stunning Trinità dei Monti church at the top of the steps where you can watch the sunset.

How beautiful is sunset, when the glow Of heaven descends upon a land like thee, Thou paradise of exiles, Italy! (P. B. Shelley)

Keats’ grave is in a peaceful corner of the beautiful (if unfortunately named) Non-Catholic Cemetery for Foreigners, near an ancient pyramid dating back two thousand years.  The ashes of Keats’ peer Shelley, who died in a boating accident near Pisa aged 29, are buried nearby.

Shelley’s grave

Keats actually wanted a nameless tombstone stating simply ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water.’  But unfortunately, some of his acquaintances waded in after his death and misguidedly arranged for extra wording to be added.  His actual epitaph is therefore: “This Grave contains all that was mortal, of a YOUNG ENGLISH POET, who on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his heart, at the Malicious Power of his enemies, desired these words to be Engraven on his Tomb Stone… ‘Here lies One whose Name was Writ in Water.’

Keats’ grave

Bizarrely, there’s also an underground cat sanctuary at the cemetery so you may find a few feline friends wandering amidst the graves. When I told someone about this recently they thought I meant it was a pet cemetery so just to be clear, the cats are alive! I’m no cat lover but I must admit that when I was reading on a bench once near Keats’ grave and a black cat came and sat at my feet, I got goosebumps.

Keats’ former home in London is also a museum, the lovely Keats House in Hampstead. There is also a statue of him sitting on a bench at Guy’s Hospital as he was a surgeon there before becoming a poet full-time. It may have been a big career change but both vocations are creative in different ways.

My dog Peggy visited Keats House London with me. A huge Keats fan, she’s currently tackling Endymion.

Keats-Shelley House Rome and Keats House London host events including literary talks and plays. Each museum is a must-visit place not only for poetry and history lovers but also for anyone who fancies a random slice of old-fashioned life and a unique haven away from the chaos of both these amazing cities.

NB) This is an updated version of my original post published on my closed Rome lifestyle blog Living La Vita Roma.

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Writing Competition

I’m thrilled to be organising a UK & Ireland-wide writing competition to celebrate twenty-five years of Link Age Southwark. This lovely London charity ‘builds friendships between older people and volunteers in order to end feelings of loneliness and isolation in the local community’.

The competition launched this month and is open to UK and Ireland residents, both adults and children. Entries may take the form of either a short story or poem, based on the theme of friendship and/or generations.

Prizes:

18+ Category:

  • 1st – £200
  • 2nd – £150
  • 3rd – £100

Children’s Categories:

  • 1st, 2nd & 3rd – Book vouchers

Winning entries will be published on the blog. Copyright will remain with the writer.

Winners will also be invited to the charity’s birthday party and AGM in Dulwich Village, London, in October if they wish, where prizes will be presented. Attendance is not essential and prizes will of course be sent by post to those unable to come. The Charity cannot cover transport or accommodation costs.

Criteria:

The theme is friendship and/or generations

Short stories can be between 250-1000 words in length

Poems can be up to 40 lines

The competition is open to UK and Ireland residents only

The adults category is for aged 18+ and the entry fee is £5 per entry. You may make multiple entries but each requires a payment

The children’s category is for aged 11-17 and is free to enter. Children’s entries will be divided into 11-14 and 15-17 age groups.

Entries must be the writer’s own unique work and unpublished

Meet the judges:

Our prestigious panel of judges includes authors, poets, publishers and book reviewers who can’t wait to read your work. Read all about them here.

How to enter:

Entry to the 18+ category will cost £5. Children’s entries are free.

To enter, please email your submissions to competition@linkagesouthwark.org as a .doc or .docx file. Please include your name and age group in the subject heading, whether your entry is a short story or poem and proof of payment if entering the Adults Category by including the receipt number in the body of your email.

Adults Category Only: Please submit your £5 entry fee here before emailing.

Save the document as the title of the short story or poem. No personal details are to be included in the document

The deadline for entries is 11.59PM on 31 August 2018.

Winners will be notified by 1st October 2018.

Main competition webpage.

Posted in Blog, Charity, competition, Contest, Diversity, Dulwich Village, Ireland, Literature, London, Poetry, Prize, Publishing, Reading, Short Stories, shortstories, Storytelling, UK, Writing | Leave a comment

When in Doubt, Go to the Library

The local library I used to visit as a young child has recently closed down, prompting me to contemplate the many positive experiences I’ve had at libraries throughout the world.

Kents Moat Library was a tiny but vital community hub at the Poolway Shopping Centre, a relatively deprived area in Birmingham. The Poolway is now set for regeneration without a local library.


The lady who ran it was very good with children and introduced me to Roger Hargreaves’ Mr Men series. The first book I ever borrowed was Mr Greedy, which must have been an influential tome as I do love cake!

Apparently there’s a new version for grown-ups called Mr Greedy Eats Clean to Get Lean which I may have to check out…

My favourite library in the world is the New York Public Library. But the one in the most atmospheric location has got to be Leabharlann Oilean Chleire, the tiny library on Cape Clear Island, Ireland’s southernmost inhabited spot. Housed in a prefab building, it’s situated beneath the ruins of a 12th century church with spectacular views of the harbour. I came across it during the International Storytelling Festival on the island last year.

I used to volunteer at the Santa Susanna English Language Library in Rome. It was a lovely social place for Italian people and international expats to meet up at events like afternoon tea and book sales.  I made lifelong friends there and donate the review books I’m given to the library.

Since moving to London, I’ve spent a lot of time at the fantastic British Library. I was given the opportunity to recite from Jane Eyre there for a special recording to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Bronte’s birth and also met Sir Trevor McDonald at the library’s World Book Night celebration.

I must give a shout out to the Library of Birmingham, possibly the biggest library in Europe. This stunning building houses the Shakespeare Memorial Room, one of the most important Shakespeare collections in the world. Unfortunately it has to close on Sundays due to cuts but I’ll be glad to visit again next time I’m in my home town.

Literature should be accessible to all, something I bear in mind when writing unpretentious book reviews. Now a member of my local library in South East London, I look forward to the many benefits that will bring.

“The very existence of libraries affords the best evidence that we may yet have hope for the future of man” ― T.S. Eliot

Posted in Birmingham, Blog, Books, Brum, Cape Clear Island, Cork, Ireland, Libraries, Library, Literature, London, New York, Novel, Reading, Rome, TS Elliott, UK | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Link Age Southwark Charity Celebration


I’m delighted to be volunteering with Link Age Southwark, a fantastic London charity providing support for isolated older people in the community. I’m organising a UK and Ireland-wide writing competition to celebrate the charity’s 25th birthday this year as well as helping to put together a commemorative history brochure.

Both projects are currently in the planning phase but will be launching fairly imminently so watch this space!

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A London Literary Salon

This month I went along to the Tea House Theatre for a Words Away literary salon. These monthly talks aim to ‘bring writers together in a creative environment to explore the writing process.’

Event founder and host Kellie Jackson welcomed award-winning novelist Tessa Hadley to explore the question of ‘Short or long? Form in fiction writing.’ Fellow writer and mentor Emma Darwin led the discussion.

There was a great mix of people in the friendly crowd. I took my tea and cake* and sat down. Claire Scobie, whose novel The Pagoda Tree was launched this summer, was at my table. She had been a guest speaker at a previous salon and was full of praise for their special sense of informality. ‘It’s like a free-flowing conversation between the writers and audience,’ she said.

Onstage, Tessa revealed that short stories were initially her preferred format because their scale felt less daunting than a novel.  ‘Short stories come like gifts,’ she said. ‘They fall into your lap… But nothing is alive until you have written it!’ Tessa is a frequent contributor to the New Yorker and it was fascinating to hear how their editors meticulously sculpt every sentence to be syntactically perfect for their readership.

The Tea House Theatre is a magical little place situated on the site of the legendary Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens which featured in William Thackaray’s Vanity Fair. It is a unique and cosy space with a real fire housed in a Victorian pub building dating back to 1886.

Its twinkling fairy lights and quaint exterior beckon you in from across the park. Inside, red velvet curtains open to reveal a tiny stage in the middle of the room.

 

A furry tail brushed past my leg at one point which turned out to belong to Gladstone, one of the resident cats. The regular chimes of the old grandfather clock added to the quirky atmosphere.

It was my first time at this monthly event but it won’t be the last. What an intimate and insightful evening!

*I must give a special mention to what was the most sumptuous red velvet cake I have ever eaten. The slice was so huge it couldn’t be devoured in one go and so was savoured throughout the talk (most unusual for me!) And the quality was more than equal to the quantity. Hats off to the baker, what a magnificent feast of a cake!

 

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Celebrating Jane Austen at the Althorp Literary Festival

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the death of Jane Austen. I was thrilled to attend the Althorp Literary Festival for a talk by Paula Byrne.

Paula’s book The Genius of Jane Austen: Her Love of Theatre and Why She Works in Hollywood challenges the academic critical consensus and seeks to uncover ‘the real Jane Austen.’ In her entertaining Q & A session at the festival, Paula explained how the author shaped the English novel by incorporating theatrical techniques.

It was fascinating to learn that Jane’s books were prescribed to shell shocked soldiers during the First World War as they were considered comfort reading. Winnie the Pooh author AA Milne was also known to read her books in the trenches.

Paula described Jane Austen as an anti-romantic comic author with eclectic tastes who loved a farce as much as a Shakespeare play. Ahead of her time, she would take a laptop writing desk on the road with her when she travelled.

It is fitting that Jane’s image is on the new British ten pound note as it turns out she received exactly that amount as an advance for her first book, Northanger Abbey!

This was my first visit to historic Althorp, the ancestral home of Diana, Princess of Wales, which dates back to 1508. The talk was presented in the State Dining Room and Diana’s brother Charles, Earl Spencer, was in the front row. Featuring candelabras and gold-trimmed velvet drapes, it was a splendid setting for a thoroughly entertaining, insightful and educational session.

This year also marks the twentieth anniversary of Princess Diana’s death and her memory echoes throughout the house and grounds. The huge impact of Diana’s life is celebrated in a series of poignant exhibitions.

It was very moving to see the hundreds of Books of Condolence signed by people from all over the UK and the world as well as Earl Spencer’s powerful funeral speech. Walking In Her Shoes promotes the inspirational young people who have won the Diana Award for helping others.   Mario Testino’s iconic photographs are also on display.

The island burial place is in an incredibly peaceful spot on the estate’s grounds. It is a genuinely tranquil haven surrounded by ancient tall trees.

What a stunning backdrop to a truly exceptional literary festival!

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Cape Clear Storytelling Festival, Ireland

I recently headed over to Cape Clear Island, the southernmost inhabited spot in Ireland, for the International Storytelling Festival. This wildly beautiful and unspoilt location formed the backdrop to a brilliant creative weekend.The short voyage by ferry to Cape Clear from the town of Baltimore was spectacular. There was shark spotting along the way and whales, leatherback turtles and dolphins all thrive in the area.

There was a warm welcome with tea and cake when I arrived at Cape Clear B&B. The weather was beautiful on the first day and the initial events were held outdoors. Paddy O’Brien provided a crash course in the Irish language and many of the stories were told using a combination of Irish and English.

People came from all over the world to share their stories, including Turkey, Austria and the USA. Storytelling is an ancient spiritual art form involving the passing on of tales from generation to generation. Gifted New Zealand-based Irish traditional storyteller Niall de Búrca created the powerful illusion of sitting around a campfire a hundred years ago. Listening to him was a truly astonishing, uplifting experience.

Cape Clear is an Irish-speaking island with around 120 residents. It features harbours, cliffs, bogs and a lake, and its tiny but well stocked library is housed in a cabin beneath the hillside ruins of a 12th century church and graveyard.

Trekking back from the Grand Concert on Friday night, there were panoramic views of the island by moonlight. As a city dweller it was a rare treat to see so many stars in the sky.

What an amazing weekend!

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Judge of Flash Fiction

I’m thrilled to be judging the flash fiction category of the Hysteria Writing Competition. Looking forward to reading the huge array of entries by talented and inspirational women writers! The competition also includes poetry and short stories. Submissions are encouraged between now and the closing date of 11.59pm on 31 August 2017.

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City Writes Competition

My short story The Anniversary recently won the City Writes competition. So I was very excited (and a tiny bit scared!) to do a reading at a special event at City University London.

I was in excellent company with fellow winners Katy Darby and Bren Gosling as well as guest author Luiza Sauma. Katy is an award-winning writer who runs the live fiction event Liars’ League. Bren’s stories have been published in numerous magazines and anthologies. Luiza read an extract from her new debut novel Flesh and Bone and Water.

The competition was organised and hosted by Rebekah Lattin-Rawstrone. Rebekah is a published author who is teaching creative writing at City whilst working on her second novel.

I wrote the first draft of The Anniversary during a brilliant creative writing course run by the Literary Kitchen. I’m very grateful for the valuable feedback I received during the course from tutor Andrea Mason and all the students (pictured below).

The story was inspired by the Thomas Gainsborough portrait Mr and Mrs Andrews at the National Gallery. Although it was painted in 1750, I think the couple look surprisingly modern.

This was the first time I’ve read my own work publicly and despite the intimate setting, I was very nervous. My knees started actually shaking mid-recital! How ridiculous. What a lovely evening!

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National Writers’ Conference 2017

This month I attended the National Writers’ Conference 2017 held in my home city of Birmingham. Emerging and established writers were welcomed to a day of panel discussions on subjects including digital writing, how to raise your profile, and writing overseas.

The Bramall Music School at the University of Birmingham was our venue for the day

As a Brummie based in London, what impresses me most when I go back for a visit is how genuinely inclusive and diverse Birmingham’s creative scene is. Authenticity was a theme running throughout the conference and speakers emphasized the need for everyone in society to have their voice heard.

Andrew McMillan

Opening keynote speaker Andrew McMillan gave an inspirational talk on how writing should be ‘a political act of resistance’ celebrating the history and artistic identity of the under-represented in society.

He particularly focused on working class writers and the reactions he himself has experienced as a poet and academic from Barnsley.

L-R Publicist Amy Winchester, agent Ella Kahn, Chair Jane Commane and writer Luke Kennard

The specialist session ‘Working with Agents and Publishers’ provided some great tips on writers’ rights, the role of the literary agent, and submission guidelines. ‘Writing for Broadcast’ featured TV and film writers as well as a producer from the BBC Writersroom. Again, the emphasis was on telling the stories you want to tell reflecting different backgrounds and cultures. Over a networking lunch we were treated to thought provoking readings from Birmingham Young Poet Laureate Nyanda Foday and Birmingham Poet Laureate Matt Windle.

Film writer Paven Virk perfectly summed up the day when she observed: ‘The beauty of the arts is that it’s open to everyone of any background. We are an open door.’ This was certainly true of the National Writers’ Conference 2017!

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