Archive for the ‘Peirene’s Literary Salons’ Category

Hoover Threapy

Sunday, December 4th, 2016

‘I think you might soon be out of a job,’ I hear the Nymph say. She is standing in the door, both hands in hips, watching me hoover the living room after last nights Salon. I’m working very slowly. My bones are aching, my head is aching. I’m 2816922905_724435aa1a_ztired.

‘Why?’ I brush away the sweat from my forehead, turn off the hoover and sink exhausted into the sofa. I love hosting my salons but they take a lot of effort to prepare and clear up.

‘Your work ethic isn’t good enough. You just want to drink your tea and stare into the void.’

‘You are right! I could do with a cup of tea,’ I sigh and hope Peirene will take the hint.

She doesn’t move. Instead she rolls her eyes. ‘You see. That’s what just what I mean. All you have to do is tidy the house a bit, and what happens? You collapse! That attitude would not have got you from Sudan to the UK.’

I suddenly see what’s on her mind. Yesterday’s Salon was all about ‘breach’, our first Peirene Now! commission. The stars of the night were the authors, Olu and Annie, who were joined by Mohamed, a young Sudanese man who they met in the Calais refugee camp last autumn when they did the research for the book. Shortly afterwards, Mohamed made it to England and is now legally working and studying here.

I asked him: ‘How long were you in Calais?’ ‘Only one month,’ he replied. ‘I kept on trying to get on a truck every single night. That was the only thing on my mind. I just didn’t give up. Others gave up after three or maybe four times. I didn’t. And then I was lucky. I managed to hide in a truck full of tyres where no scanner or police dog could find me.’

‘Take Mohamed as an example.’ The Nymph walks now over to the hoover. ‘He will be a successful man what ever he does. Because he has focus, determination and knows that he has to create his own luck. You should be worried, I might give your job to him. Then things would get done.’ She pushes the hoover in my direction.

For a moment I want to protest. But she’s got a point. I’ve recently moaned a lot, about too much admin, about having to sort out issues that didn’t go right straight away and about why it’s always me who has to pick up the pieces. In fact I have spent a fair amount of energy feeling sorry for myself. And truth to tell that’s what actually exhausted me. Time to change.

I lift myself up from the sofa and turn on the hoover.

Image by Connie, creative commons.

An Alien Spaceship In our Garden

Sunday, September 25th, 2016

It’s hard to allow others to express their creativity. Especially if that person is my husband AND he decides to express his creativity in garden design. 9400949816_7a4819e43b_z

For the record: We’ve been together for nearly 25 years. So I must be a person easy to get on with. And certainly tolerant.

The Nymph rolls her eyes. Twice.

‘Why twice?’ I ask irritated.

‘One for  the ‘easy to get on with’ and one for ‘tolerant,’’ she replies.

I decide to ignore her. She doesn’t know what a marriage can be like, if one partner has good taste and the other… well …

‘You’re being unfair.’ Peirene again. She always takes my husband’s side. ‘He writes beautiful poetry. And as a first reader of your own novels, his editorial advice is often spot-on.’

‘Ye-es,’ I admit reluctantly. She’s beginning to take the wind out of my sails.

So let me tell you what has recently happened in our back garden, and you can judge for yourself.

Two years ago we spent our family summer holiday cycling through Romania. There my husband fell in love with the traditional carved gates that stand at the entrance to villages and farm houses. After much research he found a Romanian woodcarver online and ordered a custom-made gate to put into our backgarden. ‘It won’t be big,’ he promised me, ‘We will have a work of art in our garden.’

Last week the gate arrived in a van from Romania. In six separate parts. The Nymph opened the door and let the men carry everything through the house. I wasn’t there. Which was lucky. Because I might have refused to accept the delivery. The roof alone is huge – totally out of place in a North London backgarden –  and it’s already clear that it will look more like an alien spaceship than folk art. But my husband is determined. ‘Its pillars represent the tree of life, ‘ he tells me with sparkling eyes.

‘I think the Salon guests will love it,’ Peirene now says, as we are standing side by side staring at the still cellophane wrapped roof.

‘Yes, ‘I sigh. ‘As a curiosity and because they don’t have to live with it day in day out.’

‘You will get used to it,’ she puts her arm around my shoulder.

‘I guess I have no choice.’ I pause for a moment. ‘But you have to admit, Peirene, you can’t any longer accuse me of not being tolerant.’

The Nymph squeezes my shoulder.

Image by Nan Palermo, creative commons.

Reading Break

Thursday, May 26th, 2016

I’m in Scotland for a week – to catch up with my reading and stock up on whiskey for the next salons. I will be back with new Peirene adventures second week of June.



After Midnight

Sunday, February 28th, 2016

‘James won’t be able to load the dishwasher probably. Not like Clara. And then what? Then I will have to reload it tonight after the Salon. In the middle of the night. When I’m totally 14408695072_b109e5f8d3_zexhausted.’

It’s Saturday. Peirene and I are preparing our 28th salon. I’m making the potato salad. She is supposed to tidy the kitchen. But for the last ten minutes she’s done nothing except stand in front of the dishwasher. She has opened it, closed it, opened it again. She has shaken her head. Now she is pulling out the bottom tray.

‘I’ve explained to him what to do,’ she mumbles as if talking to herself. ‘When most of the guests have gone, he has to collect all the plates, rinse them and then stack the machine. Only plates, no glasses. Like this, ‘ she bends down and demonstrates with the palm of her hand how many plates can fit into the dishwasher if they are stacked in a certain order.

‘I’m sure he will do it just right,’ I say. ‘I wish you would stop being nervous and just get on with your own task.’ I take the first pot of potatoes from the fire and drain the water.

‘I know men,’ with heavy steps she walks over to the table and sits down. ‘They are not into details. He will stack it any odd way and only fit five plates. While it is absolutely vital to fit at least 30.’ She lets her head hang low, hair in front of her face. ‘He won’t succeed. And he can’t succeed.’ She sighs. ‘At his home they prefer to do the washing up by hand.’

Abruptly she lifts her head: ‘I will never find myself in this situation again. Never. Do you hear me? Next time we interview for a new assistant, I will ask them how often they have loaded dishwashers during their lifetime. One hundred is the minimum requirement.’


It is midnight by the time the last guest leaves. I lock the door, turn off the lights and want to head upstairs. Suddenly Peirene holds me back. ‘You have to come into the kitchen and see this.’

I shake my head. I’m tired. I want to go to bed.

‘No, you have to come. ‘ She takes me by the wrist and pulls me inside the kitchen. She turns the light back on and opens the dishwasher. A perfectly, beautifully stacked machine appears in front of me.

‘Wow!’ I exclaim. ‘That is Clara standard.’

‘It certainly is.’ The Nymph nods happily. ‘I guess the young man has potential to become a high class publisher’s assistant.’

Image by Rachel Kramer, creative commons.

Of Husbands and Whiskies

Tuesday, September 15th, 2015

To no surprise, writers fear discussions about their book in a foreign language. What if I can’t express myself adequately? What if I don’t understand the questions?PeirenePressSalon-268

In addition, there are writers who love to talk about their work, and others who don’t. Some are natural performers, while others struggle to speak up.

Over the years, the Nymph and I have had many opportunities to observe the ways writers deal with stage fright. After all, we bring our authors to London to talk about their work at the Supper Club and our Salon.

There are those who pretend that they are not nervous at all, projecting their anxieties straight onto the Nymph, who then complains bitterly to me about feeling emotionally drained. Others close up and don’t even try to engage. Some get drunk and one didn’t turn up at all.

But then there are those who are able to hold their fears. They are eager to engage with the new audience. They see their trip to London as a chance to learn new things – about themselves and others.

In the Nymph’s league-table of salon performers Norwegian women come out top.

Last year, Hanne Ørstavik discussed The Blue Room. She was fiercely intellectual but also displayed a personal vulnerability. It was an enthralling talk. And last weekend Gøhril Gabrielsen launched The Looking-Glass Sisters. Her gift? She could observe and articulate her own creative processes. She left the audience inspired. The Nymph and I were in seventh heaven.

Gøhril ought to have received all the glory for the evening. But sadly she didn’t. Judging by the audience reaction, someone else stole the show. My husband.

‘He is wonderful,’ a regular Salon attendee whispered into my ear. I smiled. Fifteen minutes later, a second one came up to me: ‘Your husband is just a lovely man.’ When eventually a third one sang my husband’s praise, I rolled my eyes.

I know his trick. While the authors, the Nymph and I work hard for the Salon, my husband has carved out a role that earns him praise without effort.

From 10.30pm onwards he sits on the carpet in the front room surrounded by a selection of Scottish whiskeys. He pours them into special glasses with ice, while in his deep voice he tells stories about Scottish highlands and islands.

At the end of the evening, even the Nymph put her tipsy head onto my shoulder. ‘Gøhril was brilliant and really inspiring. But your husband’s Scottish whisky…,’ she didn’t manage to complete the sentence. She had gone to sleep.

Image by Loy Olsen.


Monday, June 15th, 2015

‘Oooh, isn’t it exciting!’ Peirene exclaims. It’s the morning after our 26th Salon. The Nymph and I are moving boxes from the bedroom back into the office… Well, I’m moving boxes. 5639337229_3525809995_zWhile I’m pushing them along the corridor, Peirene sits on top, dangling her feet over the edge and enjoying the ride. Then she starts jumping from one to the next.

I let her be. I, too, am in a good mood. I always like this part of the clearing up.  Before putting everything back into its place, I go through the boxes with flyers, newspapers and books and reorganise the half full ones in order to reduce the clutter. At the same time I look through one or two bookshelves, throwing out books I know I won’t read again.

Peirene is now dancing in her socks on top of the coffee table. ‘I’m being really useful,’ she announces, ‘I’m cleaning the table.’

Indeed, it begins to shine. ‘Yesterday evening has given me so much energy.’ She steps down from the table, fetches the duster and runs it along the skirting boards, humming: ‘I love, love, love to clean.’

For a moment I stare bewildered at my Nymph. This is not normal behaviour. On the other hand, I don’t want to interrupt her. She is doing good work.

‘Do you know why I’m so nice to you, ‘ she eventually asks as she is wiping my computer screen.

I shake my head. I’m hoping that her newly found enthusiasm won’t stop too soon.

‘Because you were very nice to me last night.’

I wrinkle my forehead. I have no idea what she means.

‘You made sure the party finished on time. By midnight everyone had left. And by half past twelve I was in bed. That’s all an Ancient Greek Nymph needs to be happy: to get enough sleep.’

I laugh. ‘And that’s all a middle aged woman needs too. I’m so pleased we were all in bed just after midnight.’ I move one last box and ask myself what the nymph and I should do next.

Peirene provides the answer, ‘Actually an Ancient Greek Nymph also needs a Sunday afternoon nap.’ She hands me the duster. ‘And once you’re done here, don’t forget, the kitchen is still waiting for your attention.’

Image by Jared Wong.

One Year Older

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015

‘Welcome back to the land of the living,’ Peirene greets me with a teasing smile.3280874479_f96240c935_z

It’s Tuesday late morning and for the first time this week I am making an appearance in Peirene HQ. A migraine struck at 6am on Sunday morning and kept me bed bound for 48 hours.

‘You could show me a bit of empathy,’ I mumble as I shuffle to my desk. There is still a lingering pain in my right temple. ‘After all, you too, sometimes suffer from headaches.’

‘Ye-es,’ the Nymph draws the vowel ominously long. ‘But it’s never self-inflicted.’

‘I don’t inflict this upon myself either,’ I retort sharply in self-defense. Peirene has hit a raw nerve.

On Saturday evening we held our latest Salon with Finnish author Aki Ollikainen. As usual all went really well. Author was brilliant, guests were delighted. I allowed myself a glass of sparkling after the discussion. Well, two. That was a mistake. Deep down I knew I was playing Russian roulette. But I was enjoying myself. And I lost.

Over the last year it has become increasingly clear that my body can’t deal with alcohol any longer. Sometimes I drink a glass of wine and it’s fine. Sometimes half a glass makes my head explode and I am out of action for a day or two. Thus, a few months ago, I stopped drinking completely during the week. But on weekends? And after a successful Salon discussion?

Peirene has more wisdom to offer. ‘Last week was your birthday. You are now a year older. A woman of a certain age. You won’t get any younger….’

Before she continues, I interrupt: ‘Thank you, thank you. I’ve understood the message.’ The pain in my right temple has suddenly increased again. And as I turn on the computer I make a mental note to look into serving non-alcoholic cocktails at the next salon.

Image by Kris Gabbard.

Discovering Serenity

Sunday, December 7th, 2014

‘You are a hero,’ I hear the Nymph mumble in the background as I light a candle. I take my mug and sit down on the sofa. It’s two o’clock on 3740820498_8a2e8a3bef_zthe Sunday afternoon following the 24th Peirene Salon. As I sip my tea I close my eyes and think of the conversations I had last night.

‘You are a hero.’ Peirene repeats, sitting down next to me. She has some kind of list in her hands.

‘Are you talking to me?’ I open my eyes and turn to her in surprise.

‘Yes, of course. There is no one else here, is there?!’

For a moment I am speechless. It’s not often that Peirene pays me compliments.

‘Why am I a hero?’

‘Because for the first time in five years of running the Salon you got us help with the clearing up.’

It’s true. I brought in some help and so the house returned to normal by Sunday lunch time. We both turn our heads and stare into the dancing flame on the table.

After a while Peirene says: ‘I wonder, if the twenty three other times  you wanted to punish me. ’

‘Punish you?’ I raise an eyebrow in disbelief.

‘Yes. You create something everyone enjoys – the authors, the guests, your family. Each time we should be in seventh heaven, proud of ourselves. Instead we work so hard in preparing the salon and then equally hard to bring the house back to order that there is no time to breathe. That to me sounds like a punishment.’

I contemplate the Nymph’s words, while she in turn is warming to her subject.  ‘But now I have an idea how you can pay me back. With all this time on your hands you can start wrapping the gift orders now. Then you can take off a day for Christmas shopping during the week.‘ With that she shows me her list. She has a slightly guilty look on her face.

‘You will be able to buy most of the things around Bond Street – and after working twenty-three Sundays I think I deserve it’.

I breathe in the sandalwood smell of the candle and smile mildly. ‘Whatever you say, Peirene.’

Image by Akuppa John Wigham.

Writing Like a Libyan Jazz Musician

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014

The Nymph has been out of action since Sunday. A bad migraine attack has kept her in bed. Every now and again I peep into her darkened room.5146725115_3861c205bc_z

‘I’m so exhausted,’ she sighs. ‘My poor, poor head has gone on strike.’

We held the three launch events for our 15th title last week. Peirene Experience, Supper Club and Salon with the Libyan author Kamal Ben Hameda. All three events were a huge success.

I fetch a wet flannel and place it across Peirene’s forehead.

‘Thank you, ‘ she mumbles. ‘These author visits drain me. They are so intense.’

‘It all went swimmingly. ‘ I sit down on the side of her bed. ‘Kamal was an excellent performer. And a nice man too. He gave us lots of compliments.’

‘I know. I know,’ she whispers. ‘Still. They arrive and we throw them into the deep end. Place them in front of an Anglo-Saxon audience. English is often our authors’ third or even fourth language. They worry that they can’t express themselves well enough and I worry that our audience doesn’t really understand them.’

‘But isn’t that precisely why we introduce our audience to these foreign authors? Each language, each culture perceives reality differently.  It was fascinating listening to Kamal. He’s a Jazz musician. He answers questions like he tackles music. He never provides a direct answer, but takes each question as a starting point to develop themes, to meander, before he returns to the place where he started. He does the same in his book, Under the Tripoli Sky. It’s not a linear narrative. There is no beginning, middle and end. Instead he improvises on a theme and the reader is invited to go with the flow.’

‘But what if our audience doesn’t get it?’

‘It’s not about “getting it.” It’s about opening up to unusual ways of experiencing life.’

‘Oh, listen to you. So very wise,’  Peirene mocks me.

‘Hah, you’re feeling better now.’ I know my Nymph. When she begins to tease me, she is usually on the mend.

‘No! I’m still very poorly. I will have to stay in bed for at least another day. Do be so kind and bring me a big pot of tea.’

I bend forward and give her a kiss on the forehead. She behaved impeccably while Kamal was here. In return I am happy to obey her orders. I brew her a lovely pot of camomile tea to calm her still ruffled nerves.

Image by Nikkorz.

Thoughts of a Hostess

Monday, June 30th, 2014

Last Wednesday I went to see the artist Marina Abramovic at the Serpentine Gallery where she is staging ‘512 Hours’. For three months Marina Abramovic is at the gallery from 10am to 6pm, six days a week. Everyone is invited to come.  She 7198892352_2726579394_z(1)greets you at the door. Then you walk into three empty rooms. Throughout the day she approaches her visitors and talks to them. A young assistant tells you to do things, such as standing with a face against a wall or walking in a room blind-folded. But you don’t have to. You can just sit on the floor and observe.

My visit made me think a lot about private versus public, and our individual body – and emotions – as part of a public performance. It also made me think about the role and power of a hostess. Because that is precisely what I explore with the Peirene Salons.

Four times a year total strangers enter our house. We wine and dine them. We provide literary entertainment. We offer our private, personal space for public encounters and conversation.

Strangers drop their coats on our bed, glimpse our family photos on the wall and see the books that we are reading. For an entire evening our personal refuge – our home – turns into a public arena.

It’s by far the most stressful thing I do.

Traditionally, a Salon has always taken place in a woman’s house. Two hundred years ago that might have been a necessity. Women were not part of public life. However, the connection between women and Salons goes deeper. A Salon is an exploration of what happens when private and public spheres collide, interact and fuse.

I went with a friend to Mariana Abromovic’s 512 Hours. My friend left the gallery angry. In her view, Marina Abranovic didn’t do anything. I, on the other hand, felt exhilarated. As far as I could tell, she had done a lot – she provoked feelings which we were forced to carry with us to the outside. And apparently she provoked these feelings without doing much. Or did she?

What I suddenly realized last Wednesday: Abramovic in her function as the hostess created a fusion of the private and the public and so offered her guests – and herself – a chance to participate in a communal performance.

I attend a lot of public literary events. Often they are completely disconnected from the actual creative source of literature which is the private. I.e. Good literature, in my view, always stems from a personal space or preoccupation. However, many literary events stand in stark contrast to that. The environment has no connection to the book presented and the author is interested in selling the work rather than talking about it and inviting the guests on a journey of discovery.

I have now finally understood why the Peirene Salon is so important to me – and why, despite of all the stress, I am looking forward to each one of them: The Salon not only brings together hosts and guests and fuses private and public, but it also offers a platform where the story is linked back to the private place from where it originated. Thank you Marina Abramovic for giving me these insights.

Image by David Lombardia.