Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A worm's tale


It was scary as a kid, knowing I had the power of creation. Pull a worm in half, I was told, and each half would live. From one worm, I could make two. I took a breath and tugged. It seemed to work. Each half wriggled. I kept my doubts though.
Then my mother told a different story, of when she and my father ran a farm. It wasn't a very successful farm, out in Wales near Camarthen. They ran a dairy herd but my father liked to sleep in. He milked the cows after that day's milk collection had already been around, the pales standing on the rack waiting for the following morning's pick-up. My mother's best relationship of the time (probably including that with my father) was with the farm's pigs. She liked their intelligence. However bright the pig, though, its day would come. After the slaughter the innards were heaped into an old bath tub, where they kept on writhing.
Lke my childhood worms.
I've only been fishing once, in a Canadian lake a couple of years ago. Bass kept biting and I hauled them in. It seemed a breeze, but I doubt I'll do it again. I hated piercing the worms on the hooks. They writhed as the hook entered their sides. I'll never believe worms don't feel pain. The hooks clearly struck them immediate and drastic shocks.
Walking Plymouth Hoe on the way to work, I spotted a thin pink worm stretched out on the half-mile stretch of tarmac which is the promenade. The writer Carlos Castaneda states that we should leave such creatures on their paths, for to move them is interfering with nature. That strikes me as nonsense. We are as much a part of nature as the worms. If we've been brought along, notice something that seems to need a helping hand, and are inspired to provide it, then that is nature at work.
I picked up the worm, flung it onto a lawned area, then stepped across the grass to see how it fared. It wriggled away ... then I noticed it had landed in a square foot of its kin, a whole set of pink worms a-wriggling.
Seagulls parade the morning grass. They paddle their webbed feet on the ground, early birds out to catch the worms, drumming them up to the surface. The gulls of the day had come and gone. My worm had lived to fight another day. And so had I.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Train reading

Two snippets from my reading on the London-Plymouth train. From the current London Review of Books comes a wry celebration of V. S. Naipaul by Sanjay Subrahmanyam: 'So, in the end, there is a reason why we should be grateful that Naipaul exists. With his clarity of expression and utter lack of self-awareness, he provides a window into a world and its prejudices: he is thus larger than himself.'
And so Naipaul is cast as a character in the novel of hisd own life.
My other snippet comes from Cormac McCarthy's splendid No Country for Old Men. I'm re-reading it so as to teach it, taking the chance to understand what tricks he plays to achieve his tremendous narrative drive. I paused to appreciate the following statement on truth, from the local sheriff. I think that when the lies are all told and forgot the truth will be there yet It dont move about from place to place and it dont change from time to time. You cant corrupt it any more than you can salt salt. You cant corrupt it because that's what it is. It's the thing you're talking about.
A humdinger of a truth, that one.
I might have offered more, but the trains are stopped at Tiverton Parkway on Sundays and passengers marched on to a dark bus for the rest of the journey. That led me to another truth I've learned - that book lights are worth carrying after all.

Friday, October 26, 2007

David Bintley's Edward II


'It makes Swan Lake look rather tame,' said the little old lady in last night's interval of Edward II. She was having a whale of a time at Birmingham Royal Ballet's production of the David Bintley ballet at Plymouth's Theatre Royal. As Gaveston, Edward II's gay lover, Chi Cao thrilled and taunted the stage. John McCabe's score, from 1995, had a biting rhythm but was surprisingly lyrical too - great contemporary ballet music that left me wanting more. True epic staging, a fabulous dancing troupe, I left the evening happy to see the whole thing again, soon. Bracing.
I admire the sheer bravura of producing a whole new epic ballet on such an outrageous theme (nothing stinted here, even the death by red hot poker). It renews my confidence to dare.
All that for £16 too. I dropped down to Plymouth's Panier market this morning for some veg and Devon crab meat, and whisked up a crab pasta. It's in my bag ready for the train, and will be eaten alongside my partner in the Barbican foyer tonight, accompanied by our own bottle of wine. £10 for a great dinner for two in the fine venue of the Barbican gallery where tables await, and £16 for a pair of tickets to John Adams' 60th birthday concert after the meal. It's fun to live grandly on very little.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Life After Scandal - Robin Soans


I've bought The Times a couple of times recently, and been surprised and weary at what a scandal rag it is. Can't we do better in this great and troubled world than find people's underwear to sniff through?
Robin Soans' Life After Scandal opened at the Plymouth Drum Theatre last night (fresh from Hampstead Theatre, the two theatres within walking distance of my homes). It's peopled by characters familiar to British newspaper readers ... disgraced politicians and peers mostly. These characters(played by a splendid troupe of actors)shared tea with the author Robin Soans and talked through the experience of riding through the aftermath of a scandal. The playwright has then removed himself, leaving the audience in his wake, characters addressing us in 'verbatim theatre', structured out of their actual words.
I'm coming to admire this form of playwriting ... all very artful and selective (while a lot is edited out, the barks of pet dogs remain in the script), while the language of course is marvellously individuated and surprisingly powerful. Lord Montagu, now eighty, speaks us through the trauma of being a jailed victim of the state's homophobic attacks in the 1950s, for example. Edwina Currie shows us the wronged woman taking revenge on her lover, the prime minister John Major. Some characters, like the couple Neil and Christine Hamilton, were very buoyant,. transcending the joke they've been forced to make of themselves in order to survive. Major Charles Ingram was somehow the most moving, still very much the major, clinging on to the pieces of a wrecked life after accusations of cheating on 'Who Wants to be a Millionaire'.
It's an effort to reach into others' lives with real sympathy. The audience of all these characters, their articulacy, their sincerity, was a surprising privilege. Subtle and powerful theatre.

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Monday, October 22, 2007

Sunrise over Plymouth


Here's a real bonus to getting up early to write. I'm sitting at my table, head bent over a manuscript, pen flashing in some edits, and I look up. The world has let itself loose into a moment of magnificent melodrama. (This new Plymouth home looks east across Plymouth Hoe, the column in the centre being the war memorial to those who died in the Navy.)

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Dovedale, Derby and its writers


I spent Wednesday evening in Derby, joining poet Jane Draycott in handing out the prizes for this year's Citye of Derby writing competition - more of which anon.

It's now decades since I was last in Derby (for those unfamiliar with the city, it's in the Midlands, industrially home to Rolls Royce). I know Derbyshire better. The county introduced me to the concept of mountains. As a kid our family went on occasional weekends to the Isaac Walton hotel in Dovedale, my favourite among our vacation spots. It was an adventure to follow the River Dove, and cross it on stepping stones, but more magnificent than that was the opportunity to climb the steep green-flanked hills to the side. This was my first opportunity to rise above a peopled realm, and become small yet also somehow placed for a time in the sweeping context of nature.

Over breakfast in the hotel a fellow guest spoke about his love of mountains. I wondered where they could be found, and he pointed out of the window. A mountain, in his estimate, was anything over 1000 feet so what I had taken to be a hill outside was in fact my first mountain. I stared out at it in awe.

In introducing the evening, the competition organizer Rob Smallwood quoted Jane Austen from Pride and Prejudice (chapter 8): 'There is not a finer county in England than Derbyshire'. The point is open to debate, of course, but Derbyshire can punch its weight in such a challenge. In literary terms, Rob has a fine web page on the competition site establishing Derby's literary heritage. The page singing the county's literary values might be further boosted by including Isaac Walton. I was impressed as a kid to be staying in the 'hotel' of this writer, an acclaimed fisherman and naturalist. Walton's The Compleat Angler is the third most published of English books, with more than 300 editions.

I stem from the neighbouring county, Leicestershire. While I am inordinately fond of it, Derbyshire did in truth help to stretch me beyond my home confines. Derby itself has always been a rival to my city of birth though, and so I've never thought much of it.

Decades change a place, and I walked around with gathering fondness. Street names such as 'Friargate' echoed the names I know from Leicestershire, and the run of dark brick buildings was cosily familiar as an architectural style. One brief run of workers' cottages was named 'Francis Thompson walk', bringing in a modicum of respect for writers from the very beginning. An underpass led me direct into 'Westfields', which I took to be another glossy shopping mall but which had actually just opened that week. Emerging from the other side of it, the city is impressively pedestrianized, given over to its people. It all seems cared for, history preserved and adding lots of individual sparks, the Cathedral on top of a gentle hill to crown the place.

We passed a church as Rob drove me back to the station hotel. 'That's where Samuel Johnson was married,' he told me. Cities gather charm for me as I learn of snatches of writers' lives woven into them. Johnson's biographer James Boswell wrote that he "felt a pleasure in walking about Derby such as I always have in walking about any town to which I am not accustomed. There is an immediate sensation of novelty; and one speculates on the way in which life is passed in it, which, although there is a sameness every where upon the whole, is yet minutely diversified."

He and Johnson probably drank in Ye Olde Dolphine, Derby's 16th century inn. I was tempted to do so myself. I entered the wood-panelled lounge bar and found a room pleasantly buzzing with conversation. Then the fine folk gathered around the tables, looked up at me, and grew silent. Not one word was spoken as they stared. I walked across the carpet and out through the oak door on the other side. Pausing to listen, conversation resumed behind me.

Perhaps you can take a Leicester man out of Leicester, but you can't take Leicester out of him. Derby gave the name to rivalry between cities. I suspect these good burghers had sniffed me out.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Short Stories

I head up to Derby tomorrow, presenting the short story awards for the annual City of Derby writing contest.

What makes a winner? I'll be articulating that on the train. In the meantime, here's a curious illustration, For a couple of classes here at Plymouth, I gave fifteen openings to stories, most of them contemporary. They came without the authors, titles etc attached, and had to compete it out. Which was the best short story opening?

A William Boyd story opening came third, and a George Mackay Brown one second, but here's the winner:

'No man will ever know the exact truth of this story; though women may sometimes whisper it to one another after a dance, when they are putting up their hair for the night and comparing lists of victims. A man, of course, cannot assist at these functions. So the tale must be told from the outside—in the dark—all wrong.'

A surprise choice, I thought. Rudyard Kipling's 'False Dawn' from his Plain Tales of the Raj. An oldie but a goodie.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Children's tales


I had a great run of a couple of months before starting this new job (teaching creative writing at Plymouth) - and delved deep into writing a new novel, my first one for teenagers.
The other week I woke early one morning, gazed out towards a sunrise, and penned a couple of hundred words. As the crimson sun rose above trees I gazed on, letting the plot structure for the rest of the book assemble in my mind. Last time I did that, I failed to note the ideas down. This time I picked up my pen again and captured them.
At some point in the next few weeks my new run of life should establish a rhythm that lets writing back into it. For now, that old adage one preaches to emerging writers, 'read read read', is taking effect. Books I re-read to teach keep teaching me. Homer's Odyssey took me back into a Hellenic world sympathetic to my own world-view, (alien to the world of my subsequent Judaeo-Christian culture,) in which the natural world plays a wild and natural part. Angela Carter's 'The Loves of Lady Purple' joined with Margaret Atwood's Penelopiad to make me think how the stories we inherit might change our lives, and that sometimes we might need to reinvent those stories in order to move our lives forward.
A comment by Philip Pullman impressed me some years ago. Writing for teenagers gives a writer freedom, for children are free to take imaginative bounds, they will cross genres with you. I'm enjoying that freedom ... and I suppose I am also reinventing the story of life, since what my adult world dismissed as fantasy is for me in fact very real. I am working to make that 'fantasy' world real within a book, so that children can inhabit it.
My favourite book as a child was a story about Pegasus the flying horse. I could hear it read to me over and over again. My mother never interrupted her reading to remind that such tales were ridiculous. She enjoyed conjuring me into a world that I found more pleasurable and exciting than my mundane one. So adults don't always decry fantasy. They tell tales about fairies and Father Christmas. Silly for adults, of course, but so fine for children.
In writing for kids, I am refashioning that talent that was imbued in me as an infant, to rejoice in what is scary, magical and remarkable.

Friday, October 12, 2007

West Hampstead Author wins the Nobel Prize

She was born in Iran, raised in Africa, but Doris Lessing moved to West Hampstead in 1949 which makes her more West Hampstead than anything else.
I moved to West Hampstead in 2006, so with a little gene manipulation, maybe some monkey gland injections, a batch of international publishing sensations and some hard core supporters, I stand a chance of the Nobel before I'm 110.
I do actually have a bet on my winning the Nobel, £1 even odds made in Italy in 1978. Fourteen years on from the bet I had my first novel published ... slow-burn to be sure, but then I have no need to rush. Those Swedes are canny and bound to let a few years pass before releasing the award to a West Hampstead author once again. I suppose if they give me advance notice I might consider moving, to save them blushes.
My partner introduced himself to Doris Lessing as a fan a while back. 'Where are you from?' she demanded. 'America,' he responded. 'Then you have never suffered!' she chided him, and turned away.

Mentoring Book for FREE!

The agent Clare Alexander, in her Bookseller blog, questions the value-for-money of literary consultants or 'life coaches'. She asks if a code of practice could be set up.
In many ways The Write Guide provides that, but with the focus on mentoring instead of coaching. It's an easy-going how-to book for all sides to the mentoring agreement. Philippa Johnstone, who runs Literature Training from up in Edinburgh, came down to the London launch event the other week and reminded me that a slim version she commissioned is available online as a free pdf download. (Otherwise it can be bought at £3.50). A a model contract is available online from the same source, and Philippa plans to keep extending the mentoring section of their website as a developng resource.
This is a genuine public service announcement - I don't get royalties for sales. And I'm delighted so much is available for free (the printed version is much expanded, with more sections and a lot of additional interview material). As the first book of its kind in the world, the online version can reach countries that might never normally have found it.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

MA in Nonfiction

I had lunch (at a fine noodle bar on The Cut near Waterloo) last week with Julie Wheelwright. I had met Julie the week before, when she came to the London launch of The Write Guide. 'Hello,' she said. 'I'm running the MA Nonfiction course at City that you set up'.
I felt a stab of ownership, then promptly let the feeling go. Ownership is stupid. It's like getting a puppy and resisting its growth into a dog.
Curiously the City course stemmed from interviewing people for The Write Guide. Harriet Gilbert runs City's MA in Novel Writing, a fairly unique course in that its participants produce an entire novel. An MA in Nonfiction seemed like a natural companion. Over six months I designed and wrote a course, and we began the process of steering it through the various committees.
It's now enrolling for January 2008. Julie tells me that the current interest is in the life-writing angle, though the course's remit is larger than that. As with the novel, the course is geared to production of an entire book. That is much tougher with nonfiction than fiction, so realistically students are going to turn up with much of the research in place. Nonfiction really is the growth area in creative writing at university.
I wish it very well. I'm delighted that thorugh Julie Wheelwright it is being brought into real kicking and breathing existence.
Meanwhile I've just steered second year students here at Plymouth University through their first creative writing workshop, in which they all wrote a nonfiction piece on place. I was moved to see the work that stems from people I have already come to know. The writing showed a real variety of depth, talent, craft and effort. That's a bonus of teaching writing - people you come to appreciate in any case dare to invert themselves and reveal their writing side. You're suddenly in a room of kindred souls.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Ned Sherrin


I shifted seats to the back of the Royal Court Theatre some years ago. Two men made the same interval manoeuvre behind me, and we fled the Howard Brenton play together. One was the playwright Alistair Beaton, the other Ned Sherrin. A shared dinner was much more fun than the rest of the play.
Typical of the tributes to Ned Sherrin, who has sadly just died aged 76, are accounts of his generosity to others. He was far from inaccessible - his phone number was listed in the directory with surname and first name reversed, so it stood there as 'Ned Sherrin'. For my first novel On Bended Knees he had me as a guest on his national radio show Loose Ends, drawing me out, bubbling with enthusiasm for the work, leading all his guests round to the pub afterwards. His enthusiasm helped spur that novel onto the awards lists. He welcomed me into his home to let me know why a new play of mine might not work in England, but opened up his address book to deliver names that might help me on my way. Seeing him in the theatre he always remembered me, and sought to introduce me round. I was a squib of a thing in his world, in terms of eminence, but he was the opposite of pompous and always made me feel good about myself. His was a kind and world-enhancing life.