UWRF 2011 / Books, Booze and Boogie-Woogie in Bali
I’m typing this on the balcony of The Honeymoon Guesthouse: It overlooks a grassy sea of paddie fields. Above me there’s a swish of palm trees and the sun is setting, magenta, gently, whilst I sip an ice cold Bintang beer. As I write this, my sense of smell is invaded by frangipani, incense wafts from temple blessings and the moon is gonna rise high and full tonight.
This morning I was up at dawn, first light, I exhaled, inhaled this natural beauty, like I was some Eat.Love.Pray moron. I drank black tea and started writing poetry, meditating on the beauty of nature, inner peace and my tranquil surroundings. Imagine, there I was counting my blessings, admiring the creatures of the dawn, when I was attacked by a giant electric-blue-black butterfly. I jumped up and ran screaming like an idiot through the garden, shouting “fuckers going for my face….” So no, when you come here you do not become suddenly enlightened, however, I must admit, you cannot help but feel the world turning just a little more gently, a slow and steady pace.
Of all the literary gatherings I have been to, this has to be the friendliest and also the broadest in terms of cultures and far flung nations. I have enjoyed performing at Crossing Borders, Hay-On-Wye, Electric Picnic and Port Eliot etc...I fondly remember all of these wicked events – And so Ubud writers and Readers Festival its like that, but placed among paddie fields in a village, a small arts town called Ubud in Bali.
This is a lush country: We are in the colourful coconut life, your bikini is damp in your bag with your signed books, your sunglasses are glued to your face. When you are not hot-footing it or on bikes to different venues for lively debates, readings and talks, you’ll spend your free hours in cafes, roadside shack BBQ’s and ornate gardens, talking books, books, books all day and all night. This is the place to meet writers from the four corners of the world, to share ideas and to get inspired. Theres a fizz of exchange, feedback, advice, publisher tips, a hullabaloo of creativity and a lot of laughs too. You’ll quit giving out business cards and just swap books instead. Here we have the greatest minds of this generation in flip flops and sarongs, sucking noodles and Mango Daiquiries, or meandering through paddie fields and taking a breather.
Denpasar airport was a buzzing 1950’s retro arrival lounge with hustlers and tourists queuing for visas. There was an ominously clear sign stating that the death penalty is enforced here. The drive to Ubud was long, thick with traffic, a million mopeds and bicycles, a raucous ringing of bells and car horns. I felt like I’d been in the sky for a week to get here, stopping over at Singapore and Perth contributed to the arrival here taking on a dreamy quality, slipping out of my London manic reality into this heat, this vivid paradise.
I stayed at The Pita Maha Hotel for the first five nights. It is perfect for a honeymooning couple sure, but also great for a writer that rises with the dawn everyday to write, watch sunrise and freak herself out with face-eating butterflies. Once settled and unpacked, my first mission was to track down the genius behind this festival and thank her, for her great big heart and generosity, the awe inspiring Janet De Neefe. After months of emails and organisation I had to find her to thank her: THANK YOU. What a beautiful soul, its her warmth and energy in the centre of this event that made this all come together and with so much style and grace too. We all love her, and its easy to love her right away, she’s the real deal. She’s a woman of so many talents, author, restauranteur, business woman, teacher, wife and mother of four beautiful children, a community spirited super woman, not just the local community but the global community of books and writers too, creating a platform for Asian and Western writers and poets to meet. I noted that whenever I mentioned the name, Janet, albeit to taxi drivers or tender bar boys, they’d smile and say “Oh Janet, she’s good woman, all she done, for Bali, for Bali and especially, all she do for Ubud, good woman…”
In fact all of the organisers, volunteers and staff were brilliant, helpful, kind, Jeni Caffin and Jane Fuller too. To paraphrase David Attenborough he said that in Ubud you will find “...the most talented and friendliest people on Planet Earth.” And so its not just me that's picking up on this, he also said Bali is the most beautiful of all places too, and that's our favourite British broadcaster and naturalist, Sir Attenborough, so its not just me going soft and gooey here...
For my first gig I was asked to speak at a press conference. I was nervous and when asked how I found Ubud and the festival I wanted to say something like this:
Literary festivals are integral for authors to meet to exchange ideas, to cross borders and share this documentary we are all writing, of this life and of our time. We are living in exciting times. Some of the writers on the bill here are old friends of mine and others I have read and admired or follow via facebook or twitter. Its brilliant to finally meet these people and hear them speak. We may all come from different countries but we are all telling our version of the story, all with our own language and experience, but all sharing one key love and that’s the writing and that’s the books.
I’m not sure if I got even a fraction of that point across though, I got shy and I was sitting next to the brilliant and twinkly smile of Indonesian novelist Andrea Hirata.
That first evening there was an opening ceremony at the Palace. Traditional Balinese dancers, intricate costumes in gold, dazzling music and drama. There was a ceremony of thanks and praise, blessings and joy and this was followed by a dinner at Casa Luna. I lucked out and got a seat next to Australian poet Alicia Sometimes, a Melbourne poet I’ve known for over a decade and yet have not seen face to face for ten years, so you can imagine there was a lot of catching up to do. Alicia and I met when she published me when she was co-editing ‘Going Down Swinging’ back in my early ‘Saltpetre’ SaltPeter and Resonance FM days. We used to send packages to and fro overseas and play each others spoken word compilations on our respective radio shows back then…already that’s ten years ago…where are the years going my friends? Now Alicia is a broadcaster on national Australian Radio Station 3RRR and her highly-regarded literary show is called Aural Text. Also on our table I met SeanWhelan for the first time, and what a diamond poet he is too. Terrific writer, a warm Brautigan feel to his work, and a great laugh to have midnight swims and gins with too. I was so glad when I discovered nearly all of my shows and panel debates were alongside these superstars from down under Alicia Sometimes, Sean Whelan and also the brilliant Australian writer GeoffLemon too. Google them after you read this…
I was quite drawn to introduce myself to the great Arthur Flowers, there was a big magnetic pull in the room, like there was this giant of a soul in the room. I was convinced I had met him before. Arthur Flowers is a Vietnam veteran, Memphis blues dude and a contemporary griot. You must check out his book, an extraordinary jam session of Patua art and masterful story telling. I read it in one greedy gulp, give this book to your children, but after you read it first of course ‘I See A Promised Land - The Life Of Martin Luther King’ - illuminating, a pure delight of a book.
I also clocked another favourite of mine, Chris Abani. Chris and I were published in anthologies together back in the mid-1990’s, but more recently I’ve been thrilled to check out his TED talks. Amazing to run into that great soul again too.
So festivals, of course, you try to catch as many talks, panel debates and readings as you can - I had two or three missions or gigs a day and so missed many that I had ear-marked in my programme. Although I heard people buzzing in the bars having met or heard the likes of Alexander McCall Smith, Aneesha Capur, Benjamen Law, Gregory Day, Jaya Savage, Kunal Basu, Iain Bamforth, Meg Mundell, MohezinTejani, Oleg Borushko, Rudolf Dethu to name just a few…
Another massive highlight for me was meeting and performing with The Cambodian Space Project they blew me away with an awesome version of ‘The House Of The Rising Sun’ sang in Cambodian. This was followed by an original song titled ‘Broken Flower’ which is sublime, a real tear jerker. The Cambodian history and life story is interweaved into this shockingly beautiful music. We played two shows together, one out in Denpasar at Antida and one was in the middle of a lotus lake, all flowers and fairy lights. That night there was a soft warm rain shower, beautiful children singing, they were angels in gold.
Its a thrill to travel and to be able to perform to new audiences, to crowds who perhaps do not have English as a first language too. To perform long forgotten songs and poems, for they may be old to me, but they are new to new people who have never heard my work before and I do have over two or three decades of poems now - I did the maths and I have been doing this longer than I have not. It’s a freedom and a celebration to showcase all your old favourites as well as try out new work too as a response to the other authors in your session. An example of this and a great inspiration for me was performing alongside MarcelaRomero a spanish speaking story-teller. We were on a panel discussing performance, page v's stage, and even though I do not speak Spanish, her delivery was totally universal, her smile, her pauses, spoke volumes, and in every and any language, her work came from her heart. And this reminds me of this:
The theme of this years festival was Nandurin Karang Awak – Cultivate the Land Within. The theme is inspired by a line in Gaguritan Salampah Laku, a long poem in traditional metres. It was composed by Bali’s greatest Kawi-Wiku (poet-priest) Ida Pedanda Made Sidemen. In one part of the Geguritan, Ida Pedanda Made Sidemen says,”…idep beline mangkin, makinkin mayasa lacur, tong ngelah karang sawah, karang awake tandurin…” (My intention now, pursuing the life of simplicity, [since I] don’t have any rice field, [I shall] cultivate the land within myself).
My next mission was to host a lunch ‘in conversation’ with Booker Prize winning author DBCPierre at the sensational Four Seasons Hotel. A stunning establishment, with the wow factor and a lake of lotus, lilies on the roof. I haven’t hosted a literary lunch before, but how difficult can it be to have a chat, drink wine and have a laugh with one of the most infectiously mischievous writers I have ever had the joy to meet. Pierre has a smoky, gravel voice, a quick mind, an infectious laugh and many a great long yarn to spin. I saw him a month ago at the terrific Voewood Festival in picturesque Norfolk and now we’re here together in Bali, quite a lovely coincidence and a happy collision.
“Old punks never die, they become writers.” Paul Kelly said in his talk at the festival about his book How To Make Gravy. Now between you and me, back in London, I’ve been glued to youtube clips of PaulKelly and Kev Carmoody. I love his work and was overjoyed to be asked to support him at a Mudra Swari Saraswati Foundation fundraising event at a new venue in Ubud called Betel Nut. Truth be told, I’m not sure that Paul Kelly fans liked being told to Imagine If You Had To Lick It. My gig however was saved by being joined on stage by Jakarta-born singer Kartika Jahja, we collaborated together on a rendition of a piece of prose about London’s homeless titled Dead Drunk. Afterwards she told the audience she is a boxer and sang a heart-stopping bluesy version of my Boxing Poem.
When Paul Kelly took to the stage the venue was packed and cheering, rammed with fans. He was joined on stage by clarinet played beautifully by Sian Prior and also the wicked blues dude Lucky Oceans. Like a love-sick fan I wrote him a one minute poem, an Ode to Paul Kelly, and read it to the crowd after the fundraiser auction for laughs. Paul was very kind, he said he liked my poem, he asked me to sign it and give it to him. Paul Kelly is a gentle soul, to shake hands with him you meet a man with soft edges and a big heart. I was lead to believe this by following his lyrics and music and was moved to finally meet him.
That next day was a Sunday and I was off-duty and found myself kidnapped by the young volunteers, Australian university literary students from the Gold Coast. We had a laugh drinking Bintang beers. We also got into a deep discussion, a private Q&A, by their pool on the life of being a writer. I recall us discussing the work of Brett Easton Ellis V’s Hubert Selby Junior and pondering the hole in the market for gritty female erotica, not Anais Nin pillow fights or chick lit fluff. Following the lazy afternoon on Bintang, we partied well into the small hours…cheeky monkeys.-->
And the next day I remember giggling through the sacred monkey forest with Australian comedienne and author Corrine Grant and writers ClementineFord and DBC Pierre. I remember laughing as we did impersonations of the lion from the Wizard of Oz “If only I had more courage!” “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto” As a pink German tourist got set upon by a crew of hardcore gangster monkeys from the projects. The monkeys, truthfully, I thought they were pretty scary, really they were, wicked sharp teeth and claws, I reckon they were trained to bite, nick sunglasses and cameras from gaping mouthed tourists. But then I was running away from butterflies so what do I know?
My stay here has been one laugh after another, but I have also found some breathing time and peace, it is an illuminating culture and nourishing to get away from the city. I know there is so much to learn and am sure I have made many faux pas. For example: you must always take your shoes off when you enter a home, you must never show the sole of your foot, and as well as please and thank you, it helps if you learn to say this - sing ken ken – no problem. I must stop gushing, but its difficult not to fall in love in these heavenly surroundings. The people of Ubud are the most friendly and peaceful and its catching after a while. I suggest you read Janet De Neefe's 'Fragrant Rice' before coming here, its got some excellent tips for local culture and protocol. She also mentions the best places to eat and explore in and around Ubud. Janet stepped off the plane in Bali in 1974 and never looked back, falling in love with the culture, the landscape and the mouth-watering cuisine. She later married the wonderful Ketut Suardana here. In this delightful memoir Janet offers insights into the ancient myths and rituals you will witness while you are here. Fragrant Rice is published by Periplus.
Janet De Neefe at the opening ceremony
Janet De Neefe at the opening ceremony
During this trip I also flew to Bima, a small Island in Indonesia for a satellite gig in collaboration with the main UWRF event. Bima was another world altogether, hotter and drier and less advanced than Bali. There I read and met with students from the college, writers and poets of Bima and the Minister of Culture, all hosted by the wonderful local poet Alan Malingi.
I was taken to the Palace of the Sultan, in glass boxes there were gilt ornate swords, gold and silver betel-nut pot and spittoons, all belonging to the former Sultan and all his elders. Bima might be off the map for Westerners now, but it has much to offer, mountains and wide empty beaches. I can imagine tourism blossoming there over the next decade, so if you want to get off the beaten track I suggest you go now before its changed too much. I felt like an alien, sticking out like a sore thumb in a Muslim country, but the welcome was very warm and hospitality so kind. That night the students put on a performance, music, song, dance and theatre. Afterwards we jammed a song about Bima and they tried to teach me to dance, all under the biggest starry skies.
So, once the festival is all over and the writers have gone back to their respective writing garrets, if you are lucky, like me, you can stay to explore Bali a little. I have never been to Bali, so I organised to stay on alone to write and explore. You might want to seek out the Balinese massages and health spas or take up yoga if you are that way inclined. For the more adventurous there's hiking and cycling up mountains, volcano walks plus water sports, scuba diving and white water rafting. I enjoyed drinking a pina colada and meeting an elephant. What a wonderful experience to ride at a lolling pace at such a lofty height through the jungle. I’d love to take an elephant home and ride it to the pub...
Local Ubud art and artists are astonishing too, stunning sculpture and paintings, batik and jewellery, its well worth taking time to visit one of the very many art galleries and the temples too. While I have been here I’ve been making Bali style Book Club Boutique gigs in Bar Luna reading stories and poems and improvising with local Indonesian musicians. What a lovely idea - Books, Booze and Boogie-Woogie in Bali – maybe next year we’ll bring the whole BCB crew, now wouldn’t that be wonderful. In fact after posting this missive, my next mission is to make a hit list of poets and writers, gather troops for UBUD 2012, who's coming?
Janet De Neefe, author and festival producer and business woman. And I discovered she also teaches Balinese cooking classes here in Honeymoon Guesthouse As I write this I can eavesdrop from here on my balcony and hear recipes, you need chilli, lime leaves, coconut…and…Oh you’ll have to come find out for yourself.
Buy your ticket to UBUD 2012 NOW and I’ll meet you here! We’ll see the sights, hear ground-breaking talks, inspiring sessions, an array of story telling, poetry and book readings. We’ll walk up into the paddie fields, sit at Sari Organik, eat beautiful food, watch the cool ocean of green, listen to the swish of rice growing, sip mango daiquiris, take moonlit midnight skinny dips…And don’t forget that after Ubud festival you’ll need to buy an extra suitcase for all the books you’ll want to take home!
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you to everybody at UBUD 2011!
SOME BOOKS IN MY SPARE UBUD SUITCASE!
Fragrant Rice by Janet De Neefe
Lights Out In Wonderland By DBC Pierre
Soundtrack By Alicia Sometimes
The Rainbow Troops By Andrea Hirata
I See A Promised Land by Arthur Flowers
Odd Poems And Slogans by John O’Sullivan
Lessons In Letting Go: Confessions of a Hoarder by Corrine Grant
Indonesia Bermimpi by Sean Whelan
NANDURIN KARANG AWAK / A Bilingual Anthology of Indonesian Writing