“Homes” Launch

A huge thank you to everyone who made yesterday possible!  We had a fantastic launch and exhibition for “Homes” our new short story anthology.  The writers, the artists, the sponsors, the judges, the local media, the companions, the cake bakers, my family, friends and our charity of the year Emmaus. This morning I posted all pre-orders and all author gratis copies….and at the last count we only have 2 copies left.  Don’t worry I will be ordering more – but this is fantastic news – and may mean we can run the whole thing again next year (we will see).  I will be writing to you all separately in the next couple of days, but I wanted to get this thank you up as soon as possible.  In a break from tradition, I have moved away from our usual monochrome ethos and posted some colour snap below, as befits the occasion!

A Proper Haunting

kael and luke

We were warned several times that the performance of Dickens’ The Haunting by Nasu Enzuru Theatre would be quite frightening, but last night’s final performance at Burwash in Cambridge was scarier than the audience could have imagined.

An outdoors performance in November was a brave decision – but no body could accuse this theatre group of not taking risks.

There were clues early on in the evening; as the audience gathered for warm food and drink in a giant teepee the wind blew out the fire spinner and smoke madly billowed from an open fire.  There were rumours that local fireworks displays had been cancelled because of the wind. Excitement grew as the audience was led to the open marquee from where they would view the performance.   It was immediately apparent that this was going to be an exceptional evening.


With the help of radio mikes, actors Cael McNally and Luke Harvie could be heard through the howl of the wind – and as the gusts banged cupboard doors on set, it was hard to establish what was a haunting and what was the weather.  But they managed to set the scene and establish a rapport with the audience to such an extent that when part of the set collapsed in the wind and crashed to the floor, it almost seemed part of the show.  Real terror struck however when a gust shattered a mirror close to the crowd and despite being weighed down by concrete blocks, the marquee lifted off the ground – forcing audience members to cling to the sides to keep it from blowing away.

Miraculously as the rain started to lash down on the performers, they bravely continued.    The winds that threatened to end the show, marginally calmed – and through saturated  props, a tattered and part-missing set, The Haunting ran its course.  This was a real testamont to the skill of the actors on stage, who ad-libbed about “the bloody wind” with a mastery, and still managed to frighten a pre-occupied audience with glimpses of rain-soaked ghosts.

This was a real night to remember – I look forward to their next performance…in the snow maybe?

A Performance of Inert, Silent Objects

A review of Sentinels by Caroline Jaine

sentinelsLast Thursday I had a rare encounter with the Babolin Theatre group.  Their one and only Cambridge performance of Sentinels was fully booked and I was lucky to have got a seat:  fresh from Edinburgh Fringe success, the audience was filled with boisterous home-crowd friends.

When Sentinels opened with the “sculpted” cast members facing out to sea, the cast iron work of Antony Gormley immediately came to mind. The audience were soon silenced as Boudicca powerfully announced herself and her two daughters – three fine performances that would lead us through the narrative during the play.

Singling out the three actors is unfair and perhaps prompted by their refreshing presentation that related so well to a pet subject – that of contemporary analysis of feminism – “they are all Roman’s aren’t they” repeats Boudicca’s raped daughter throughout.   Perhaps a cliché that young people should choose rape and death as subject matter, but far from the usual overacted teenage issues of “unfairness”, Sentinels is handled with absolute maturity and real sensitivity.  You laugh, you weep, and you believe in every performance.

A multitude of other tales and characters expertly weave their way through Boudicca’s tragedy: a stone mason gripped with passion and frustration; an ever-so-slightly-camp Roman centurion; a drunken east ender; the delicacy of a speaking lump of granite; defacement; a plastic surgeon struggling with the bottle; and her errant step-daughter, who throws herself from a rooftop on the back of a grumpy gargoyle.  And as complex as that sounds, it is not over ambitious – songs gently float from the performers, metallic  painted costumes coordinate, and it is choreographed in such a way that Sentinels is presented as a cohesive whole.

As Anthony Gormley once said, “How do you make the timelessness of inert, silent objects count for something? How to use the dumbness of sculpture in a way that acts on us as living things?”  Sentinels have somehow bridged a gap between the living and the silent object.  I will never look at a statue in the same way again.

I’m sorry I missed the show in Edinburgh, and I am sorry for readers who have missed it entirely.  Sentinels is now over.  I would recommend watching out for any aspiring actors with Babolin Theatre experience in their CV.  I will be disappointed and surprised if none of them meets with big stage or screen success.

Babolin Theatre on Twitter https://twitter.com/BabolinTheatre

First cheque to Emmaus Cambridge

cheque giving to emmausI was delighted yesterday to hand over a cheque for £250 to an Emmaus companion in Cambridge.  The money was raised from this years entries to our short story competition (and also by the art competition arranged by Cambridge International Arts).

I always enjoy spending time at Emmaus – this time I was not buying furniture, but talking to Diane Docherty over a cup of tea about how the social enterprise works.  We very much look forward to the launch of our book of short stories at the site in October, and writing more cheques for our charity of the year!


Mission Accomplished! Iraqi Media at the House of Commons

Haider Al Safi
photo by Lily al Tai

Yesterday we were delighted to help author Dr Haider Al Safi celebrate the completion of his PhD and the publishing of “Iraqi Media: From Sadam’s Propaganda to American State-Building”.  Askance chose the 1st May to coincide with the tenth anniversary of Bush’s famous “mission accomplished” speech delivered on a US war ship to a mass of cheering American troops.  At the book launch a former Iraqi Ambassador called the US invasion a tsunami that did nothing to “build” Iraq.  Another Iraqi gave a first hand account of how the Pentagon squandered millions with ill-thought-out and dubious media contracts.  We learned that even a decade later, as Iraq’s current sectarian crisis impacts media channels – for Iraqi media – it is far from “mission accomplished”.

Yesterday on Twitter @LOLGOP tweeted: They should unveil George W. Bush’s Library 8 years before it’s done. #MissionAccomplished.  To which @hazzardeuce replied: They should tell people there are books, but after searching, there won’t be any. Askance likes the book analogy very much, but unlike Bush, we feel genuine in our claim (in so far as publishing the work and organising a great event) that it really was Mission Accomplished.

Askance would like to thank everyone that attended – in particular those that travelled from far, and those who contributed to the discussions by sharing their first hand experience.  A special thank you to Lord Ahmed and the All Party Parliamentary Group on Conflict Issues for supporting the event at the Houses of Parliament and to DJ Wiseman for his hours of painstaking proof-reading and editing – without him it wouldn’t have happened.

The Invasion of Iraq – Where Were You?

Askance founder and author of A Better Basra, Caroline Jaine has recently written a piece on the World Bank blog titled A Better Baghdad following a short visit to the city.  Here she reflects on where her feelings during the invasion of Iraq.

bw skyline 2
Baghdad in February – copyright CJaine 2013

A Better Basra was my story of life in Iraq in 2006 as Head of Press & Public Affairs at the British Embassy Office in Basra. The book is about the personal struggles of a mother and a woman in a war zone, but also the challenges of forming a communications strategy and fire-fighting with the media.  On the tenth anniversary of the invasion I choose to share a short extract from the book that discloses how it felt being a British diplomat in Sri Lanka during the invasion.  Where were you when Iraq was invaded?” – Caroline Jaine.


I was still living in Sri Lanka when Britain joined America’s attack on Iraq on 20th March 2003.  The build up to the invasion was uncomfortable.  Everyone at the High Commission was told to buckle-down on security and we learned how to check our vehicles for car bombs and varied our routes to work, whilst we saw many of our US colleagues in the Embassy next door simply fly home back to America.  Two days before the invasion I wrote in my diary: “We all wait with baited breath to see if Saddam & Sons leave Iraq in 48 hours. I think I know the answer already”.

The signal that the war in Iraq had started came at 3am on 20th March 2003, with the arrival of the Sri Lankan Special Task Force outside our home. Two of them were asleep across the barrels of their loaded weapons in the garage the next morning. That day we were told to keep the children away from school and although I went to work at the High Commission, as soon as we learned there was a large demonstration planned outside the US Embassy that day, all staff were sent home early.

Our regular guards were two Tamil cousins who argued day and night, but we liked them very much and they played cricket with the children in the garage and on the street outside our house.  Unarmed as they were, they suddenly found themselves redundant as guards and were demoted to making tea for the new soldiers who shared their space.  The addition of the soldiers was unwelcome all round as they made us feel more vulnerable not less.  Dotted around the wealthy suburbs of Colombo the additional “security” flagged up every British and American diplomatic household in town – good information for any potential enemy.  My assignment on the tropical island of Serendipity was about to change – and all because of the War on Terror that was happening many miles away.

On my birthday 11 days later, with a tongue firmly in my cheek, I wrote: We haven’t taken Baghdad yet.  The Visa Section at work remains closed in case someone brings a pile of Semtex cunningly disguised as a visa application form.

Twenty-two days after the invasion, whilst taking a break with my family in India, we heard news that the war in Iraq appeared to have come to an end.  Peter, to whom I was married at the time, had been growing a beard in protest since the war began, and enjoyed having a roadside bucket-and-blade shave in Jaipur to mark the occasion. Once we arrived in Delhi after a hot trek across Rajasthan in a jeep, we soaked up some air conditioning and cable news channels. On Indian TV, we snatched our first glimpses of the scenes of jubilation in Iraq as Saddam’s face was torn down and torn up.  I remember there were green parrots on the window ledge as I looked out across the city of Delhi.  I flopped onto the bed in the hotel room and wrote something in my notebook that makes me smile (or is that grimace?) when I read it over today: “I hope things will start to improve for the Iraqi people.  I am sure that not all of them are terribly impressed with the UK/US occupation of Iraq, but our propaganda is reliably informing us that the British troops are especially lovely to the locals”.

Back in Sri Lanka, back at work, it became apparent that the British were not exactly flavour of the month in Colombo. Pressure was mounting, not least because my health was failing, but also because one of my colleagues was under investigation for corruption and visa fraud which was making big news in the Sri Lankan press.  My tendency to mingle with Sri Lankans rather than other ex-pats, meant that things got pretty tough socially.  Not only was I being asked about my colleague and his sex-for-visas scandal exposé (the tabloid take on it), but I was being put on the spot over British action in Iraq, especially by my Muslim friends.  One friend, an eminent peace-loving intellectual and a great artist who had recently taken up wearing the hijab, I felt hardly able to look in the eye.  As a diplomat I was obliged to toe the line.  Well, quite clearly I couldn’t be seen to be criticizing the government I represented, but frankly I was often lost for words, so I began to slink back into the safe ex-pat zones of places like the Hilton and Colombo Swimming Club and hide amongst the fair-skinned folk.  Hell, I even went to the American Marine Ball in search of allies – a mistake not to be repeated – we sat with a Netherlands crowd and nearly got thrown out for sniggering during the American National Anthem.

My mood was not cheered any by a man named Perera, who somehow got hold of my government email address and sent me obscene photos of dead Iraqi children.  Not once or twice, but every single day for weeks.  Finally our IT people were able to block him, but not before the disturbing images of the charred and mutilated little bodies had left an imprint on my mind.

Where were you when Iraq was invaded and how did it leave you feeling?  Read more about Caroline Jaine’s decision three years later to volunteer to work in Iraq with what she thought was the reconstruction effort.

Mince Pies, Hot Wine & Readings at Plurabelle Books

We had a lovely evening on Tuesday.  With many thanks to Michael Cahn of Plurabelle Books for being a gracious host, Hilary Cox and Hugh Chapman for reading so well, to author DJ Wiseman for answering some tough questions and to everyone who came along – nice to meet new friends, despite the mid winter chill! Happy New Year everyone!hugh chapman

Author DJ Wiseman listens to Hugh Chapman reading from The Subtle Thief of YouthHilary Cox

Cambridge artist, Hilary Cox reading the part of Vicki Gardnerplurabelles moment bw

Text & Context?  The best Christmas tree in Cambridgeteenage fictionCaught in the act. Teenager, Billy Botha “hates books” – but Plurabelles inspired a search.