Raymond Soltysek's Blog

Have creative writing workshop, will travel…

Posted in Education by raymondsoltysek on February 20, 2010

Am just back from four days of creative writing workshops, knackered but uplifted by the people I met.

First was an in-service at Annan in Dumfries on Tuesday. The school there has a target to improve Standard Grade attainment, so they’d drafted me in to talk about preparation for exam writing. I’ve always felt that testing a pupil’s creativity by plonking them at a desk for an hour and telling them to write is just a nonsense of the highest degree; however, that’s what we’ve got to live with, and what we have to prepare the students for. Many of the texts which give advice to pupils concentrate on purely procedural points – read the paper, make a plan – without paying attention to the underlying skills and content: I believe that there are ways to help pupils create the content they will use and develop the skills of manipulating and expanding those ideas. The day went very well, and I’d love to see what the teachers make of it.

Then off to Belfast for three days. Wednesday was spent with a group of 15 year old pupils at St Dominic’s school on the Falls Road.   Using some of the techniques suggested in my recent NAWE article, the girls produced some marvellous writing. A short, ten-minute poetry writing spell had them coming up with gorgeous little lines like:

“My third birthday
Wrapped in a pink bow.
The smell of my father’s smoking
Outshone all other presents.”


One of the joys of being an English teacher, I reckon, is that the pupils get the chance to outshine their teachers; on the other hand,  a Physics teacher fills pupils up with information, but still has the dubious satisfaction of saying to themselves that they know more than the children, because they’ve got a degree. I wrote a short piece of narrative and shared it with the pupils. When I asked for volunteers to read their efforts out, Hannah put her hand up and tentatively said, “I’ll go, but mine isn’t anywhere near as good as yours.” And do you know what: it was ten times better than mine. That’s the sort of thing that gives me a huge buzz. Great writing, lovely girls. I’ve set them a little competition, and I can’t wait to see the results!

Thursday was spent with Queen’s University PGCE students, and Friday with local teachers. Their enthusiasm was fantastic; many teachers feel so constrained by the curriculum and the demands it makes through assessment that showing them a way to free up themselves and their pupils to make real choices about what they write is always a welcome revelation. Both groups worked like Trojans, and yet we all had great fun. It’s such a shame that in a profession that should be so invigorating, teachers rarely get the chance to stop and think and be creative. Judging by their responses, I suspect they’ll be going back to school to try out some of the strategies I suggested, and I’m hoping to hear some interesting ideas from them soon.  The teachers also put up with a reading from me, and made really generous donatons to The Mwendo Needy Children Project – thanks to them!

So – four days of hard work, terrific writing and really nice people! Many thanks to Lindsay Brown in Annan, Phyllis McNulty at St Dominic’s and Joy Alexander of Queen’s University for having me over, arranging it all and being so hospitable.

If you’d like to contact me about writing workshops or creative writing in-service, please contact me here.

Great Garbo came to Donegal, Tricycle Theatre, 10/2/10

Posted in Theatre review by raymondsoltysek on February 13, 2010
Great Garbo came to Donegal

Caroline Lagerfelt as Greta Garbo

Another little Tricycle triumph, this impeccably written Frank McGuiness ensemble piece is delightful.  It’s a lovely premise;  Garbo visits a rather unpleasant artist friend who is keen to flog his house to her, complete with the resident  previous owners, the Hennessys,  who fell on hard times and who now find themselves servants in what was their family home.

There are sub-plots galore: the feuding Sylvia and James, drunken firecrackers both, baulk at the expense of supporting their whirlwind of a daughter Colette through medical school; the artist Matthew and his young lover Harry stumble towards the end of their relationship; and Matthew’s manipulation of Garbo and the Hennessys reveals a fairly repellent self-centeredness.  Central to it all, though,  is the sweet sexual tension between Caroline Lagerfelt’s Garbo and Michelle Fairley’s housekeeper Paulie, a relationship so sensitively explored by McGuiness that the whole audience feels the tug of their parting.

The performances are uniformly excellent, with all the male characters revealing at some point a streak of real menace and Lisa Diveney showing real spice as the wilful Collette.  Best of the bunch, though, is Fairley.  Her Paulie is a woman of incredible spirit, the type of rock which could easily tip into cliché but is held in check by a tremendously warm performance.

It’s a touching, hilarious, beautifully set play, and continues what has been a fantastic run of critical successes at The Tricycle.  It’s fast becoming one of the real theatre heavyweights in London, and deservedly so.  I’m hoping to be back in May to see their Twelfth Night: it should be a stunner.

Lisa Mitchell, Monto Water Rats, London, 9/2/10

Posted in Gig review by raymondsoltysek on February 12, 2010
Lisa Mitchell

Lisa Mitchell

Oh dear.  Now I know what it’s like to have to write a bad review: I feel I’ve done unspeakable things to a puppy.

The signs were promising.  First, I love female singers; in fact, I think music was created for the female voice, especially in languages I don’t understand.  Secondly, Lisa Mitchell is from Australia, which has a fine record of female singers, such as Gabriela Cilmi, Missy Higgins or, my favourite, the wondrous Sia Furler.  Thirdly, there’s a sell-out crowd in this spit’n’sawdust little venue, so she obviously has a following.

But then it goes wrong.  First problem is that she doesn’t really have much of a voice.  Sure, there are plenty of successful singers who have similarly thin, fey, girly voices – Lily Allen again –  but they also have a charisma that carries them beyond that.  Mitchell doesn’t really project much of anything, other than a lot of hair tossing and showing off a fine alabaster neck.  She’s sweet looking, but it’s no great substitute for vocal presence or personality.

Then there’s the material.  Her website describes her thus: “At just 19, Lisa Mitchell is shaping up to be a new kind of singer-songwriting protégé.”  Given that we’re not told who she’s a protégé of, presumably they mean prodigy. If that’s the case, someone should remind the writer that Kate Bush rewrote all the rules with “Wuthering Heights” when she was 17: Mitchell’s gentle head-bopping teeny pop isn’t anywhere near the same league. We live in hyperbolic times, but if she believes her press, she really needs to get some perspective.

She expresses admiration for “Romeo and Juliet”, calling it the greatest love story ever.  Okay, I’ll let her away with that populist nonsense, even though I can’t watch the damned thing without wanting Romeo bumped off in the first ten minutes, hormonal adolescent that he is.  However, she then plays an acoustic version of Dire Straits’ execrable faux-West Side Story dirge of the same name, the only merit of which was that it was a fairly effective vehicle for Mark Knopfler’s sublime guitar work.  It seems to pass her by that the song has absolutely bugger all to do with the play (“Now you just say Oh Romeo, yeah you know, I used to have a scene with him”, for God’s sake…).   It’s this sort of superficiality that suggests she’s not the greatest teenage thinker on the planet.

What’s really irritating, though, is the indifference with which she treats the audience.  Perhaps she’s jet-lagged, or ill; perhaps some terrible disaster happened earlier in the day.  If so, I’m sorry, but I would like to know why she feels that a 40 minute set of only six songs and no encores is anywhere near enough to win her any new fans.   At 9.15, the end of the show, a guy in front of me looks at his watch and says “That’s rubbish” to his pal.  I’m afraid I had to agree.

The circle of corruption is squared…

Posted in Politics by raymondsoltysek on February 8, 2010

Hot on the heels of yesterday’s post about BAE escaping further corruption investigation comes the news that Western banks are in the spotlight for allowing African politicians to squirrel money away into their vaults with minimal identity checks and no questions asked.

So now we can see the whole process at work: in order to maximise profits, corrupt Western corporations pay bribes to corrupt African leaders, who then pay those bribes into corrupt Western banks who maximise their profits.

Isn’t capitalism a wonderful thing?

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Corrupt corporations pay their way out of trouble…

Posted in Politics by raymondsoltysek on February 6, 2010

So British Aerospace’s long-running problem with investigations into the way it does business has disappeared with a one-off payment of £286 million to the UK and US governments.  If that’s what it’s worth to get corruption investigators off your back, just think how much they must have made from their shady dealings in countries like Saudi Arabia in the first place.

Quite rightly, people in the West complain about corruption in foreign governments, or that aid to countries is siphoned off by venal dictators: I’ve heard it often when discussing the poverty I’ve seen in Africa.  But we forget the key to the issue: it takes two to tango.

For every corrupt government official with his hand out, there are several Western businessmen willing to dig into their back pockets to slip some cash over.  And why?  Because these businessmen know that paying off an official is ten or twenty times cheaper than doing it honestly and paying a fair price for what they want, and because it’s an easy way to sell impoverished countries something they don’t really need, like dams or guns or supersonic jet fighters.

Until we are prepared to hold our own to account for corrupt practices, let’s not get all pious about corruption in the developing world.  Until we’re prepared to turn our backs on free trade – which basically means that those with buying power exploit those without – and embrace universal fair trade, we don’t have the right to judge. 

But of course, we’re never going to jail the CEOs of BAE or Haliburton or Blackwater or  any one of those corporations currently pillaging the world; and if we do, they can always buy a neurologist to claim they have Alzheimer’s, so that they can take up hugely lucrative directorships when being released secures their miraculous recovery.

Does anyone with any power at all respect honesty and justice?