‘WEA? It stands for Workers Educational Association,’ I reply.

There is a moment of thought, and then Jackie says, ‘Does that mean you’re socialists?’

I smile and shake my head.  ‘We’re not a political organisation.  “Workers” were who the organisation was originally set up for, in 1903, so that they could access higher levels of education, and have the chance to improve their opportunities,’ I say.  ‘The title’s historical.’

Jackie wonders how she’s never heard about WEA before, if it’s been around so long.

‘It always surprises me how many people haven’t,’ I agree.

‘So what is it about now?’ says Jackie.

‘It’s still about improving lives,’ I tell her, ‘but that doesn’t necessarily mean economically.  It’s also about health and well-being, about keeping our minds active and enquiring, and getting us involved with our communities.’

I think about all the different sorts of classes I’ve been involved with since I started tutoring for the WEA over a decade ago.  As well as the Open Access Programme anyone can sign up for, there have been community groups set up for students with chaotic lifestyles, and disadvantaged backgrounds, where creative writing activities have provided a safe outlet for self-expression, and for some, has provided a first step  into employment or back onto the education ladder.

‘People come to classes because they want to learn, not because they have to,’ I say.  ‘That creates a real buzz in the room.’

‘So your students are still workers in the sense that they’re working at their education?’

‘I like that,’ I say.  ‘I might steal it.’

‘Help yourself,’ says Jackie.  ‘Can I keep this brochure?’

workers_educational-association-wea-adult-learning-course-reuben-internet_main

 

Advertisements

Our WEA heritage

wea-heritage-projectThursday evening I went along to Blackfriars Priory, where the latest exhibition of the South West WEA Heritage Project was being launched as part of the Gloucester History Festival.   What a lovely event.

blackfriars-gloucesterThe priory is a beautiful building, and the weather was perfect.  Sunlight slanted across the ancient stonework, and those heavy walls kept the air comfortably cool.

The Heritage project has raised some fascinating stories.  Essays, minutes of meetings, branch brochures and newspaper accounts and photographs have been tracked down in attics, cupboards and archives; memories have been jogged and research skills honed and practiced.  A map of the way the WEA has developed, expanded and adapted to suit the changes of the last one-hundred and thirteen years is building.

The stories have circulated.  Last week, for instance, I was told about classes being held in a railway carriage, during the home-going journeys of commuters.   Imagine that…

During the 1930s, the Gloucester WEA Branch had a separate Dramatic Section.  The one surviving Programme I’ve seen, for Four One-Act Plays to be performed on two nights in February 1937 had a cast of 26, 14 front-of-house and back-stage staff, plus an orchestra, under the direction of Arthur S. Morrell.  The background notes about the WEA Players says that in seven years they staged ’60 plays of varied types.’  That’s quite an achievement for a small city.

Those were different days.  To get back to that kind of commitment we don’t just need to remember times when there was no social media, we have to think about no tvs, and the majority of us relying on public transport, bikes and shanks pony.

A Minute book that survives for this group makes interesting reading, not just for the level of commitment the Players had, but also for the incidental references to events in the local area and occasionally, the wider world.

At the end of a meeting on March 8th 1939, Mrs Sparrow read a letter from Mrs Edwards, thanking the Players for their efforts on behalf of the food ship for Spain.

The thing I like about research is the way it invariably widens my horizons.  I’ve had to revise my cosy assumptions about The WEA Players, and think about what their engagement with world events suggests about the learning that was taking place.  In the programme notes for the Four One Act Plays the Players say:

To promote and develop a love for the Drama seems to be, in these days, not only worth-while, but very necessary.

The Study and performance of these plays also gives much satisfaction to the players, who are glad to think that they afford their friends an evening of pleasure and entertainment.

We would also bring to the notice of our audience the opportunities existing in the Worker’s Educational Association for the study of a wide range of subjects.  If you are interested…please leave your name and address with one of the stewards.

I think The Players would have ticked the six points of WEAs ‘mission’ today:

  • Raising educational aspirations
  • Bringing great teaching and learning to local communities
  • Ensuring there is always an opportunity for adults to return to learning
  • Developing educational opportunities for the most disadvantaged
  • Involving students and supporters as members to build an education movement for social purpose
  • Inspiring students, teachers and members to become active citizens

glos-history-festival

The Oxford Book of English Short Stories

I’m sitting at the front of the class, with my notes and my presentation, throwing out leading questions on the two short stories we’ve read for our homework.  Sounds like school, but this is adult education.  We’re in the church hall, on a sunny Autumn morning, by choice.

DSCF8020My paperback copy of The Oxford Book of English Short Stories, edited by Antonia Byatt, is battered, but still holding together.  It’s a working copy, with a continually shifting fringe of post-its.  The terse notes on them have, here and there, strayed onto the pages.  You’ll have gathered that, as an object, this book is no longer a thing of beauty.

As a source book for a reading group though, this anthology is a joy.  The stories provide a taste of how short story ideas changed during the twentieth century, and they’re a challenge.

Half of my class, at least, are not sure about either of the two stories I set them to read for this discussion.  ‘He didn’t keep to the point,’ says Jean.  Several of the group nod, and Geoff adds that he’s not sure what’s going on with the ending.

You might wonder why people would choose to read stories that they don’t ‘get’: some kind of torture, perhaps?

Well, it is a stretching exercise, but I hope that’s for pleasure rather than feeling they’re on a rack.

The reason for choosing this anthology is that it contains a wide range of carefully constructed stories, each open to more than one interpretation.  Readers have to be active.  I like to think of us as detectives, gathering clues.

We’re never sure where any story will take us.   There are twists in tone and plot, and tricks in the language to be watched for.  We look for patterns. One person’s interpretation of what those clues mean is as valid as any other.  What happens in a reading group is that we sift through as many ideas as we can so that each of us can take away ideas that suit us.

The amazing thing is, although I’ve read the whole collection several times now, when I go back to them, they’re never quite the way I remember them.  Then I take them to a new group, and they always provide me with something I haven’t thought of.

Where do these understandings come from?  Our lives and experiences are reflected in our readings as well as our writings.

Isn’t that magical?  Imagine creating something able to achieve that kind of connection.    It’s no wonder my classes set my mind buzzing, and that I leave them feeling that I’ve come closer to discovering some of the secrets of story.

 

Readers, narrators and authors.

That I’m reading a memoir this week is either a happy accident  or serendipity, depending on how you view the world. Friday morning, as I was heading for an appointment that was guaranteed to include a waiting room, I grabbed a book off my to-be-read shelf.

After three months of focused studying, I was looking forward to some simple pleasure-reading.  My course paperwork was finished, and ready to post, the new classes would not be starting until mid-April. The long Easter weekend could be given over to indulgence.

I don’t know how I missed knowing that Fever Pitch wasn’t a novel.  If I had, it would have been shelved with the other memoirs that I’ve been gathering as background for the Writing Family Histories course that is next on my list of classes to prepare, and perhaps I’d be writing this post next week.

fever pitchInstead, I was several pages in before my suspicions were roused.  That’s the thing with first person narration of course, when it’s done well, it should convince us that the character and their world is as real as we are, even when we know it’s a fiction.  The thing that tends to give memoir away is usually shaping.  It can be tricky to translate the random, scoincidental nature of life as most of us experience it, into a convincing novelistic form.

Nick Hornby has shaped his life around an obsession with football in such an entertaining way that I’m hooked.  I still couldn’t answer a pub quiz sport question, but he has helped me understand something about the need so many people have to cheer on a bunch of players chasing a ball around a cold, muddy field.  Before this, my most entertaining connection to the game was thanks to Sarah’s Knitted Footballer blog, which demonstrates another approach to expressing passionate interest in a sport.

 

 

 

Appreciating Elizabeth Taylor’s short stories.

I heard Phil Jupitus talking about paintings to Susan Calman on Radio 4 this week.  Amongst other sensible and intriguing things, he said that there are some paintings he just has to stand and study, because the details ‘have made me laugh out loud with how brilliant they are.’

Cat & Lobster, by Picasso

Cat & Lobster, by Picasso

It struck a chord with me, because I’ve been having a similar experience reading Elizabeth Taylor’s short stories.  Have I just been lucky in picking out the best of her writing from amongst the Complete Short Stories volume that we’re using for the reading group class?  Because so far, they’re providing masses of material for discussion.

Take The Letter-writers, which we discussed this week.  It’s about two people who, after ten years of exchanging letters, are meeting for the first time. Most assessments of the story will include the fact of Taylor’s letters to Robert Liddell, another novelist.

‘The correspondence between Elizabeth and me, begun in the autumn of 1948, was to become increasingly frequent and intimate, and it lasted to within a month of Elizabeth’s death, when she was no longer able to hold a pen.’

He lived in Cairo, Alexandria and then Athens, and it has been suggested that this story is a fictionalized account of their first meeting.

The Letter-writers was first published in 1958, and portrays a rural spinster living a quiet, contained life.  You could read it as that and enjoy the details of characterisation:

For years, Emily had looked into mirrors only to see if her hair were tidy or her petticoat showing below her dress.  This morning, she tried to take herself by surprise, to see herself as a stranger might, but failed.

and the descriptions,

The heat unsteadied the air, light shimmered and glanced off leaves and telegraph wires and the flag on the church tower spreading out in a small breeze, then dropping, wavered against the sky, as if it were flapping under water.

However, if you work on the assumption that this is a carefully constructed story, and therefore every word has been deliberately chosen, then you have to look again at how the narration is operating.

Is it just the air that is unsteadied?  Why does the light ‘glance’ off the leaves and telegraph wires?  When I attack the text with my highlighter, tracing patterns, clues within the text, I begin to see an alternative, contrary reading.  I’m reading now from a new perspective, asking myself, why would it be a crisis for Emily to meet, ‘the person she knew best in all the world’?

The theory I’m shaping suggests something beautifully, elegantly, clever.  Can a writer really create something so subtle that it can have multiple, even contradictory meanings?

Consider how Taylor describes Emily’s approach to writing.

Emily, smiling to herself as she passed by, had thoughts so delightful that she began to tidy them into sentences to put in a letter to Edmund.

If you carry the idea of this apparently simple description on into the story, Edmund will tell us how carefully Emily ‘tidies’ her words:

In Emily’s letters, Mrs Waterlow had been funny; but she was not in real life and he wondered how Emily could suffer so much, before transforming it.

Words then are not simple tools.  Writers, like painters, arrange the details of the world they are portraying.  They decide which perspective to show us, arrange the light and shade, and order the components to create a specific effect.  Nothing in a good painting is chance, it is designed.  So I ask myself, was Taylor also transforming some thing, with her story about writing?

At first he thought her a novelist manqué, then he realized that letter-writing is an art by itself, a different kind of skill, though with perhaps a similar motive – and one at which Englishwomen have excelled.

 

 

Reassessing my relationship with W. Somerset Maugham

Maugham, by Graham Sutherland, 1949

Maugham, by Graham Sutherland, 1949

I admit now, that despite his long-time home on my bookshelf, it took a discussion with a reading group to push me onto opening my two volumes of W. Somerset Maugham stories.  It’s not that they were on the shelf as decoration, but there have always been so many other authors, well recommended, that I wanted to read.

In a way, I’m glad that was so.  If I’d picked them up casually, would I have read them carefully?  Because despite the fact that I’ve seen some great film versions of his novels, I had preconceived ideas about his writing.  His short stories, I understood, were…well…old-fashioned, and horror of horrors, commercial.

I think I might have missed the point without an agenda attached to my reading. Instead, because we’re going to be discussing two of his stories this week, I’ve looked more closely at what’s going on.

You know what? They are ‘ripping yarns’, but they’ve also got layers of other meanings embedded in them.  There are subtleties in the way the narration works.  So although I can see how his words could be misread as promoting colonialism, I read the opposite message, and more…

What he has, in abundance, is entertainment value.  The two stories we deconstructed in the previous reading session went down a storm, and I’m expecting these will too.

I might love the brevity of the modernist style stories, but many of my students see them as difficult, and often struggle with the idea of open endings.  I understood that Maugham belonged to the Maupassant school of story telling, but he’s not so simple to pin down.  The French influences are there, but so too is Chekov, and it shows.  The stories I’ve read so far, despite having a beginning, middle and end, are not closed.

I’m left with the feeling that these characters moved on into new stories, and are about to behave just as badly in a fresh setting.

 

 

Thinking about the benefits of reading groups for writers

The most confusing and repeated piece of advice that I was given during the years when I sat on the other side of the desk in Creative Writing classes, was to read, lots.  Not knowing how to fit more books into my days, I decided that my tutors must mean I should be more selective, so I cut back on the thrillers and romances, and looked out for novels that had literary reputations.

3D Artworks by Julian Beever

3D Artworks by Julian Beever

It was an interesting and eclectic period in my reading history.  I didn’t mind whether a book was a classic or modern; so long as someone had considered it worth mentioning, I’d give it a try. Once I’d entered the first page of a novel I forgot all about my writing tutors.  Well, isn’t that how it should be with a good book?

Of course it is, and that’s fine.  But as I closed the covers on one book I was already checking the shelves for my next read.  What I hadn’t understood then was that having read for pleasure, I needed to take time to think about what I’d read, and how it worked…or what didn’t work, and why.

Some writers seem to pick that up early.  I didn’t get it until I became a mature student, studying Literature and Creative Writing.  Since then, my horizons have broadened with every read, whether that’s with a fresh text or one of those that I first read when in that voracious period.

I’m often asked if that doesn’t spoil the fun of reading.

3D Artworks by Julian Beever

3D Artworks by Julian Beever

Actually, it opens up a text.  Yes, I can often see the workings, but I like that, because it offers another dimension of story to enjoy.  I like the process so much that I teach it, and the thing I’ve discovered is that this approach is as rewarding for readers as it is for writers. We get into some fascinating discussions about how writing works.

And most importantly, we share ideas on what a story was about.  Think you know something inside out?  Give it to a group of readers and then get into a discussion and see what is revealed, I’m continually finding that the exchanging of ideas opens up unexpected worlds beneath the surface of the words.

Thinking about how readers read has to be a useful thing for any writer, surely?

Reading for writers

This week I’ll be starting the first of my Autumn reading groups.  Lined up are two seven week courses and a day school, that means I’ll be discussing one novel and two short story collections.  So alongside the writing groups that are already up and running, I shall be kept on my toes until Christmas.

I’m not complaining.  What I’ve found is that these two strands compliment each other. At the first pass, I read purely as a reader, sometimes racing, at others, taking my time, getting involved with the characters: enjoying the story.  It’s only after that my work starts.

I see my role as being to help a group get the most from what we’ve read.  Book coverSo I re-read the set piece again, and again.  I delve into the writing, asking myself questions about what the author was doing.  I construct a series of feasible theories, suggestions, questions and ideas that I can take in to intrigue and challenge my class with.

The interesting and intriguing thing about this process is that no matter how thoroughly I think I’ve investigated a story, when we get into a group discussion, we always find at least one more way to read it.  Everyone brings their own understanding of the world to a story, and sharing our ideas opens up our perspectives.  I learn loads.  

book coverReading groups seem to me a perfect place to investigate how skillful writing can be. I take my discoveries not only into my own writing, but also to my writing classes.

Group Sequence Poem

We’ve just finished a Writing Residential in North Wales – a great week, thank you very much, to all involved.DSCF6077One of the challenges I set the group this year was to contribute either a haiku or tanka to a Japanese style sequence poem.  A pad containing the first three lines was left on the coffee table.  This is the poem I picked up on the last day:

Voluptuous waves

matted fibres lift from the rocks

a forest wakens.

Carrying the soft waters

a spiral of tide and light.

Silver fish fly through

laughing green seaweed branches

dancing in their sky.

Infiltration of the stones

seaweed scent released to air.

Small stones roll to beach

children throw them at each other

no more smell of weed.

photo(22)

 

Writer’s, club together…

butterflies graffitti artThe first rule for a writing class is you do ask questions.

The second rule for a writing class is:  You do ask questions.

Third rule for a writing club: you jump every daft hurdle the tutor sets, and follow whatever convoluted directions she or he gives.

Fourth rule: you write for as long as it takes to say what you find yourself trying to say.

Fifth rule: you don’t allow yourself to hear the voice of that critic who sits behind your shoulder whispering disparaging comments about your ability to be inspired, to transcribe ideas or complete a piece of writing.

Sixth rule: there is only you and your writing implements.

Seventh rule: castles in the air are desirable residences.

And the eighth and final rule: even if this is your first time in a class, you have to write.

So now you know the rules.

What’s stopping you?

You are Writer Club people.  There is a Tyler Durden waiting to break out of your sensible or otherwise lives.  Set them free.  Those thoughts you’ve nurtured for so long about setting aside time to write, are ripe.  Don’t waste this potent moment.

There’s no way to break this news gently: it is nearly Autumn.  Now’s The Time – get on-line and sign up for a class or group near you.

fight-club_0

With apologies to Chuck Palahniuk, whose film and novel, Fight Club, have provided me with hours of entertainment.