Cheltenham Literature Festival 2017

September 2017, a phone call from Claire.

‘The ticket line opens in five days, Cath, are you up for the Cheltenham Booker this year?  It’s 1937.  I’ve got the reading list.’

‘Great, any you know?’

‘I read Mice & Men years ago, for school, and I’ve seen the film of the Hobbit – does that count?’

‘Pretty much, I think.’

‘The rest I’ve never heard of.  I’ll text you the list.’

Text from Claire:

Which 1937 title deserves to win our very own Booker? Our all-star line-up of Damian Barr, Adam Kay, Jackie Kay, Adam Thorpe and Alex Wheatle discuss A.J. Cronin’s The Citadel, Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. They fight it out to determine which would have triumphed, had The Man Booker Prize existed eighty years ago. Chaired by James Walton, with an introduction by John Coldstream.

Saturday 14th October at the Lit.Fest with Claire: 1.30pm.

‘Good seats, Claire.’

‘Thanks, have you read any of the other books?’

‘Only extracts off the internet, and plot summaries. You?’

‘No.  I’m waiting to hear the outcome, then I might buy the winner.  I love this event, it’s introduced me to so many good writers.  I bought another Elizabeth Taylor the other day.’

 

chelt booker 2017

2.45pm, overheard in the crush on the way out.

‘Steinbeck should have won.’

‘Don’t you think the panel caved-in quickly at the end?’

‘I’m just going to the bookshop for the Zora Neale Hurston, first. I’ll meet you at the Hive in about ten minutes.’

‘I still can’t believe they knocked out Hemmingway in the first round.’

‘Well, does it matter if the characters are all male?’

‘I agree with Adam Thorpe, I don’t like plots to be too tidy.’

‘Not too dark though, surely.’

‘…so I’m going to read it again….’

‘What if it is a children’s book?  Animal Farm nearly won last year.’

‘Are the female characters only in the film, then?’

‘Personally I won’t read fantasy. Fiction should be realistic, not about fairies and dwarves…’

‘Amazing to think it’s really about The Somme.’

‘Actually, this is my ninth Booker.’

‘…and it reminded me of Doc Martin…of course so did Doctor Finlay, now I think about it.’

‘But is it a book only of it’s time?’

‘The thing is, this is an authentic black woman’s voice at a time when there is no black voice.’

‘That first line is just beautiful.’

‘…and I’ve always liked Maya Angelou, so it’ll be interesting to see how she compares.’

‘I can’t think how I’ve never heard of her before.’

chelt lit fest

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Thoughts on recycling for writers

Re-reading old diaries, fragments mostly, I cringe and promise myself that one of these days I will have a bonfire.  One of these days?  Why wait? The ground is dry and I’ve other garden rubbish that needs destroying.

Well, there are environmental considerations.  I try to be responsible about my carbon footprint, perhaps the diaries should go into the compost bin.  It’s probably not so romantic an image to think of them slowly being eaten away by the microbes, worms and slugs who process the weeds and peelings we generate, but it’s practical.

Let’s pause a moment, and imagine harvesting the carrots, cabbages and flowers that have been boosted by a creative compost.  There’s so much energy in my old diaries that they’re sure to improve the productivity of my veg plot. Hah, I’ll cry, take that you plant-whispering, foliage-fondling (yes, there is a theory that stroking leaves improves a plant’s growth), moon-phase-sowing radical gardeners, as I sweep the board at the local garden show.  Only you and I will know the secret of my success.

Stanley Spencer paintingCan I bring myself to do it though? While I don’t want anyone else to discover the mundane or angst-ridden moments of my life, let-alone discover the unedited ramblings littered with comic-book punctuation, the diaries are a writing resource.  I haven’t exactly logged weather, politics and the latest fads or fancies, yet they’re there, implied by the activities and pre-occupations I’ve written about.

Reading them time-slips me back to those moments.  There are things I’d forgotten about daily routines, visits, the dynamics of family, friends and neighbours, that when re-read evoke how I felt at that time. Add to that the advantage of distance, which allows me to recognise an alternative shape for some of the stories I’ve recorded, and I am reminded of a favourite quote by Hilary Mantel:

I have sat, at moments of purest heartbreak, in mental agony, and put my thoughts on paper, and then I have taken those thoughts and allocated them to one of my characters, largely for comic effect.

So, I’ll hold back from destruction just now, and dip into them for some inspiration.

I wonder though, should I put a clause in my will?  Perhaps I’ll revive the custom of grave-goods.  If there is an after-life I’d like to give myself a head-start in ‘the writing game’ (as Katherine Mansfield called it).

And, the gesture would be in-keeping with the tendency towards gothic-melodrama that my diaries reveal I’m prone to.

 

*Illustration: Sunflower and Dog Worship, 1937, by Sir Stanley Spencer. 

Ursula K. Le Guin – The Left Hand of Darkness.

left hand of darknessIf you’re not a science fiction reader you may not have heard of this author, and maybe those of you who aren’t are already preparing to skip past this post.  Indulge me for a moment though, step into another world of writing.  Why? For all the usual reasons we have for reading.

I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.

So says Genly Ai, at the start of The Left Hand of Darkness. Genly Ai is an envoy for Ekumenical Scope, an alliance of eighty-three habitable planets, trying to invite the world of Winter to join them in interplanetary trade.

Is it other worlds that bother non-science fiction readers? If so, think of Le Guin as your holiday guide to Winter. She’ll provide you with views of the local customs and some of the most interesting characters, explain the history and culture through a variety of voices, leaving you to read between the lines – if you choose.

The drawing of comparisons, the tracing of a ‘proper…equivalent’, is what strangers in strange lands do.  So, we mostly follow Genly, yet Genly is not quite us either: his Earth, we gradually realise, is not our Earth. It sounds utopian, with its ability to deal honestly, and it’s codes of conduct.  He seems a sophisticated contrast to the suspicions and fears of Winter.

Winter is in an ice-age.

Fires in Karhide are to warm the spirit not the flesh.  The mechanical-industrial Age of Invention in Karhide is at least three thousand years old, and during those thirty centuries they have developed excellent and economical central-heating devices using steam, electricity and other principles, but they do not install them in their houses.  Perhaps if they did they would lose their physiological weatherproofing, like Arctic birds kept warm in tents, who being released get frostbitten feet.  I, however, a tropical bird, was cold; cold one way outdoors and cold another way indoors, ceaselessly and more or less thoroughly cold.

If the story were told only by Genly, it would be a simple tale.  Instead it’s threaded through with reports from earlier visitors; fragments of Winter history and the events experienced by Estraven, a seasoned politician, ‘one of the most powerful men in the country’.

When this novel was published in 1969, it became part of the feminist debate about gender, sex, culture and society. Forty-eight years later the central premise, of a race that is androgynous, and remain that way ‘when kept alone’, and that ‘normal individuals have no predisposition to either sexual role….do not know whether they will be the male or the female, and have no choice in the matter’, seems to fit with contemporary debates around gender definitions and identities.

Cultural shock was nothing much compared to the biological shock I suffered as a human male among human beings who were, five-sixths of the time, hermaphrodite neuters.

There’s more though.  This novel investigates displacement and asylum issues.  On some levels, it examines atrocities of the past, but in doing so, it shines a light on what is happening now.

Le Guin’s use of two narrators forces us to think about what divides or unites them.

Everything I had said, tonight and ever since I came to Winter, suddenly appeared to me as both stupid and incredible.  How could I expect this man or any other to believe my tales about other worlds, other races, a vague benevolent government somewhere off in outer space?  It was all nonsense…my own explanations were preposterous.  I did not, in that moment, believe them myself.

Reading back through this post, I notice that I’ve been so busy presenting the subtleties that I’ve failed to tell you it is a story of incident, of movement and conflicts.  Worthy as all of the above arguments are, the real reason for reading this book is because it hooks you.  I hope it might, science fiction fan or not.

Travel log: scenes and stories

Usually, taking holidays in September we strike lucky with the weather.  This year however, we arrived at Gower in a gale.  The blast coming in off the sea buffeted our stone cottage fiercely.  Upstairs, as I drifted into sleep, I felt as if I was on the top of a bunk-bed with a restless sleeper below.

It was cosy though.  The under-floor heating was generated by a ground-source-heat-pump, so I felt a little virtuous about the luxurious warmth.

wind on rhossiliLike all the best storms, it had pretty much blown out by morning.  Though as Ray, Rusty and I made our way down the cliff path the sky was still overcast, and there was a gusty wind.  It was cool enough that when we reached the sand I didn’t consider taking my wellies off.

shipwreck 7I suspect we did the thing that everyone arriving on Rhossili beach for the first time does, when we headed for the main shipwreck. Yes, I did say shipwreck, and no, not recent.  The Helvetia grounded in November 1887, and is now a partial skeleton deeply embedded in the sand.

No diving necessary to look at this wreck, no pieces of eight either: the vessel’s cargo was timber.  There’s treasure here though.  It’s in the worn oak posts, and the large twisted iron nails and bolts that are slowly being eaten by the weather, the sand and the sea.  shipwreck closeup

The Helvetia was lucky: other ships lost lives as well as cargo, on the long shallow beach or against the rocks below Worms Head.  Don’t be misled by the earthy nature of that ‘worm’, this name derives from Wurm, the Viking word for Dragon.

It makes sense as a visual descriptive, and as a warning.  Imagine the stories to go with that naming.  It’s figurative language. It’s the imagination examining, explaining and dramatizing.  Even when the sun came out I could see how it had earned such a name.

 

rhossili beach.and the worm 2. jpg

 

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Is Writer’s Block A Real Thing?

I found this ‘writer’s block’ post, last week, and thought, could I better it? The answer being no, I’m offering you a useful anecdote that covers how it happened, the steps Allison Maruska took to overcome it, and the conclusion she drew from her experience.

Even if you’ve never been blocked, I think it’s a useful reflection on some of the ways story-writing can work. Hope you find it useful too.

Allison Maruska

I saw an interesting image on Facebook this morning.

writers block

I’ve been chewing on it all day and decided maybe “The Block” is reserved for creative pursuits – creating something from nothing can go off the rails sometimes. Are Painter’s Block and Quilter’s Block a thing?

Allow me to offer my answer with a little story.

I was “blocked” for more than a year with my upcoming novel, The Seventh Seed. Or at least I thought I was…

What really happened was I wrote about a third of it and put chapters in my critique group as I went. One chapter needed significant rewrites, which happens. It doesn’t usually happen while still writing new material, however. I couldn’t decide if I should fix the broken chapter or keep on keeping on with the new stuff.

So I did neither. Instead, I stopped writing Seed and focused on Drake and the…

View original post 378 more words

Trust me.

fairies 2You’ve got to see this.  I had such a surprise as I glanced through the blinds of my office window on Saturday evening that I grabbed my camera.  Of course, like every other photographer of fairies, I’ve not managed to capture any clear image.  Look carefully, though, and you can see three of them on the left hand side of the picture, glowing against the ivy.

What do you mean, no one believes in them any more?  These pictures are incontrovertible proof that I saw them.  Okay, so I only got three dancers in any shot, and there were about fifteen, but they moved surprisingly fast. Several of my pictures missed them entirely, and their colours have come out as closer to pink than gold…

No, I hadn’t been drinking, though I was still buzzing after a lovely day leading a memoir-writing workshop.  I wasn’t looking for fairies either.  I haven’t thought about them for years.

I was unpacking my class notes and reflecting on the activities I’d set. I scribbled a few reminders about the adaptations I’d made onto the session-plan, then slotted it back into the folder.  It was as I lifted the folder into its space on the shelf that I noticed the glimmer of movement outside the window.

Coincidentally, over the course of the day we’d had some discussions about writing truthful life experiences.  There had been questions concerning the reliability of memory, interpretation and partiality.

Perhaps all of the recent furores around ‘false news’ has made us more conscious of the difficulties in providing an account of events that is true.  Maybe you’ll need to look closely at these two pictures, but once you do, I think you’ll agree that you can trust me…

fairies 3fairies 4

 

Autumn thoughts turn to classes

blackberrying Angus Racy HelpsI’ve never understood why I was taught to think of Autumn as a metaphor for closing down.  Okay, so my early school was rural.  In this season tractors hauling crops regularly passed our gates, and after 3.30pm many of us roamed amongst the workers gathering things in.  We even helped, occasionally, especially if fruit was involved.  Yes, days were getting shorter and winter was approaching.

But, and it’s such a big but I was tempted to set it in capitals, at the same time as harvests were happening, soil was ploughed, harrowed and sowed with crops for the next year.  In the UK, it’s one of the busy times of the agricultural year.

The same rule applies to learning.  Autumn is the beginning of the new academic year.  Remember the noise and excitement of that first day at school, the energy: the excitement?

Working in the FE sector on short courses, I’ve learned that September and October are still the main time when people think about signing up to learn something.  Are we wired to look for classes in autumn, or just following a pattern established in childhood?

Either way, now’s the time when I begin to check in with the office to see how the pre-enrolment numbers are going.  What will be popular?  How busy will the next few months be?

Busy, busy, busy, that’s my view of autumn.  Okay, so the days are shortening, but far from life slowing, in the classroom, the energies and excitements of the summer are being re-focused.  What better way to keep spirits up, as the light levels drop, than to learn or practice something?

It’s easy to feel that once we reach adult-hood we can, or maybe even should, put ‘school’ away.  Not so.  While it may be tricky to fit learning into the busy modern lifestyle, once tried, many stick with it.  They discover that joining a group of focused and enquiring adults can be stimulating, fun and stretching.

Aside from the chance to make new social connections, there are long-term health benefits to returning to classes as an adult.  In a Radio Times article from April 2016, Ellie Walker-Arnott reported that:

A Scottish study has tested over 600,000 factors in a group of 79-year-olds regularly since they were 11. It found that a quarter of brain ageing is down to genes while three quarters (75%) is dependent on our lifestyle choices.

One of the lifestyle choice the studies advocate is on-going education.

Learning something new changes the micro-structure of your brain and sees its size increase in certain areas, rather than shrink.

If you do similar sudoko challenges every day for 10 years it won’t work different parts of your brain, it’s got to be something new. Life drawing is a good option, as each picture is a fresh new challenge. As is learning a new language. Whatever you choose, continuing to learn as we age can have a “dramatically positive effect.”

Autumn thoughts, it seems, should be active.

 

*    Illustration at top of page, ‘Blackberrying’ by Angus Racy Helps.

I’d like to recommend Elizabeth Jane Howard.

elizabeth jane howardThe Long View is a novel told in reverse.  It begins with a portrait of the marriage of Antonia and Conrad Fleming in 1950, when their son is getting engaged, and then steps back through various key moments in the adult life of Antonia.  Hmm, I thought, turning the novel over, shall I: shan’t I?

Could I care about the domestic angst of an upper-middle-class, middle-aged woman in the 1950s?  I tried the first page, ‘This, then, was the situation.

I do like beginnings in media res, a technical term that translates to ‘into the middle of things’.  Clearly this is not a high-octane action sequence, it’s something much more juicy.  ‘Want a bit of gossip?’ the narrator is saying, leaning in close over our coffee cups.  ‘I’m going to share secrets.’

This, then, was the situation.  Eight people were to dine that evening in the house at Campden Hill Square.  Mrs Fleming had arranged the party (it was the kind of unoriginal thought expected of her, and she sank obediently to the occasion) to celebrate her son’s engagement to June Stoker.

Then there’s that lovely piece of subtlety, ‘she sank obediently to the occasion’.  Lovely, a narrator who will leave me room to work things out.  I was hooked. Time to step back from the stereotyping and residual prejudices, and see what a skilled writer can do with a domestic situation.

On arrival the men would be politely wrenched from their overcoats, their hats, umbrellas, evening papers, and any other more personal outdoor effects by the invaluable Dorothy, until reduced to the uniformity of their dinner jackets…

Remember I said this is a story told in reverse?  It isn’t flashback, with the narrator balancing the pressures and consequences of previous events against an on-going development, this is an exact reversal of time.  Once we have gathered what the situation is in 1950, that segment closes and we step into 1942.

That’s a tricky game to play.  In a novel I’m expecting some sense of continuity, of development.  There are five segments to this story, taking us back in uneven stages to 1926.  Each requires us to begin again with setting, situation and characters, and go forward for a while, getting to know a younger Antonia.  How will she do it, maintain my interest, my belief in the wholeness of this concept?

Well, one trick is repetition.  Here’s the beginning for 1942:

‘The situation is perfectly simple.  All you have to do is to meet me from the 7.38 at Euston.’

Thus Mr Fleming on a trunk call from the previous night from goodness knows where.  Indeed, put like that, what could be simpler?  With the world at war, meticulously grinding vast cities exceeding small; with such catastrophes as Singapore and Dunkirk behind one..’

Reassuringly the same tone, and style, but now neatly, economically, creating setting and, did you see it?  SITUATION.

Each of the other three sections open with a reference to situation, but with a fresh take, a subtle re-setting of tone.  All build up to a domestic event that will impact on Antonia, and in so doing, reveal other layers of story and backstory.

Gradually, my picture of Antonia is rounding out.  I learn something about why, at the outset, she is expected to be unoriginal, and why she might sink ‘obediently to the expectation’.  More importantly, I think I understand how this process has evolved.

Elizabeth Jane Howard 2Told chronologically, it’s a novel that might easily be defined as a saga.  Told in reverse, with economy, it becomes an intriguing and sophisticated exploration of character. Read this, and you might never make easy assumptions about a marriage again.

Read this, and you might be tempted to try out some of these strategies in your own writing.

Story Generators part two

Following on from my random low-tech post two weeks ago, here’s another idea if you’re looking for inspiration – museums.  It does need a little more effort than my previous suggestion, but I promise you, it’s worth it.

at-bristolOn Saturday, we went to At Bristol – and no, that is not a grammatical error.  At Bristol, or @Bristol as it is also known, is a science museum full of interactive exhibits, and packed with stories.

I’m not just thinking of the stories of human development and biology, of space exploration, food production, physics, engineering and chemistry, or even the animations section where every aspect of devising, creating and producing films was being practiced, although there is plenty of material in any portion of that.  You could, of course, look up many of those facts from the comfort of your armchair.  What you get when you visit a place, is something basic and obvious, but I’m going to say it anyway – an opportunity to people watch.

at bristolSo why a museum?  Because they’re places where people behave differently.  In the traditional style ones everyone has to be ‘hands-off’ and that can provide some interesting situations.  But when it’s hands on, people of all ages engage with things.

What I liked was watching how much braver children are than adults.  Whether they understood what they were doing or not, they moved water, drowned ships, made music from plastic spheres, built landscapes in sand, models in giant lego bricks, weighed brains, did psychological tests… and sometimes studied the accompanying short explanations.  If I met something out of my comfort zone, I started with the instructions, and followed them faithfully, or nurdishly enjoyed the short theories presented and made notes to find out more.

Children just launched in.  They pushed, pulled, and pressed without fear of consequences or inhibitions.  Every so often when I stopped playing and watched, I saw that the barriers and boundaries between adults and children were dissolving as the day progressed.

I’ve come home with a lot of ideas.  For some of them I’ll need to do some research, but the human parts of the stories have been generated by that wonderfully basic creative writing tool, people watching.

bristolcardiff013

Porter Girl: The Vanishing Lord

lucy brazierJust had a cracking afternoon following the shenanigans and rumpuses of life at Old College.  Lucy Brazier’s second novel about life as the first female to take up the post of Deputy Head Porter at a Cambridge college is an unconventional detective story.  It’s a good pacey read, with plenty of twists, turns, puns and double-entendres.

What happens when you give a woman access to a bowler hat?  It goes to her head, and then she gets to grips with the rest of the Porter accoutrements – starting with tea (lots of tea), yummy biscuits and some sharing of extra large mugs of whisky.

Sounds fun, but where’s the mystery?  There’s a Head Porter with personal problems, a missing oil-painting, flashbacks to the founding of the college, convenient deaths, an interesting relationship with The Dean, and keys, lots of keys opening all sorts of locks. What does a college porter have to do with keys?  Well at Old College, everything:

The uninitiated are often perplexed to discover our disinterest in their luggage and our almost obsessive fascination with keys.  And hats, food and tea.  Old College does like to attribute unusual and inappropriate titles to things.

So why else would there be keys?  Well this is a novel of detection, which makes keys the perfect metaphor, too.  Watch out for the fishy ones.

Are you tempted yet?  Try a little scandal.

Night Porter is looking at me aghast.

“So, it’s true, then,” he says.  “What on Earth do you see in him?”

I consider this question wisely. The fanciful affair between myself and The Dean has been a very good cover for all number of even more scandalous machinations, but it is a difficult pretence to maintain.

“What can I say?” I reply wearily, “It’s his intellect.  And inventive use of the ‘F’ word.”

I’ve been allowed within the gates of a privileged world where sins come in different shapes and sizes, and encompass all kinds of actions, from buying the wrong kind of biscuits, and walking on the grass, to the breaking of bones, locks and desks and a lot more that fall between and around those examples.  And it’s all done at a cracking pace and with charm and wit.

And the crucial question, where can you get hold of a copy?  There are links for both Porter Girl novels on the Porter Girl blog site, where there’s lots of additional photographs and material, as well as snippets from Lucy’s other fictional enterprises, including Poirot parodies, and some political satire.

Or you could just check it out on Amazon – but the blog has so much more to enjoy I’d recommend that route.