Writer in Residence

Persephone – a symbol of female creativity.

I discovered a new bookshop and business just before Christmas that is so Bloomsbury-Bluestocking-Retro I can’t wait to go back. It was a pleasure to buy these books for pressies for my girlfriends and one for myself too. Their USP (as it were) is that:

“Persephone Books reprints neglected fiction and non-fiction by mid-twentieth century (mostly women) writers. Each one in our collection of 104 books is intelligent, thought-provoking and beautifully written…”

They are beautiful to look at with matt silver covers that beg to be picked up, caressed and opened, revealing end papers of reprinted fabric designs of the period. They are also great value at £9 to £12 or three for £30. The shop is made for browsing and situated and on a delightful street (Lamb’s Conduit St) of wine bars and delis that all add to the feeling of stepping back in time. I should have worn a headscarf and vintage post-war frock with sensible brogues. Most of the other customers seemed to be friends of Miss Marple.

Not as in-yer-face as Virago was or is, I thought the books might be bit cosy, but the one I read was a corker.  The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding kept me turning the page as events run out of control for a post-war mother trying to protect her family. Apparently, Raymond Chandler was a great fan of this author and I can see why. I guess this idea of making readable books as things to covet is the antidote to the rise of the e-reader. However, Persephone have been going since 1996, so I wonder if they have seen more interest recently. It was begun by an author herself, Nicola Beauman, who has written biographies of E. M. Forster and Elizabeth Taylor (the writer not the film star I imagine!) Her son is the famous author Ned Beauman. What a family!  

An interesting article from the Guardian explains how the business, described as “an unlikely success story”, began and found readers “avid and highly particular. They have joined the nearest thing British publishing has to a cult.”

“She set up Persephone almost, if not quite, on a whim, and without having drawn up anything that even remotely resembled a business plan. “It was just the writers,” she says. “Virago was, and is, great as far it goes, and sometimes they did do books I suggested to them. But I had this inconvenient attachment to all these other books that they wouldn’t publish. That’s all I care about, really, you see: the text, the text, the text.”

And the textiles it seems. The whole idea feels so British and literary and eccentric with an on-trend vintage feel, it’s  wonderful it’s a success? I will be back.

 

A Good Read For The Time Being

It takes a brave soul to write a novel about Zen mastery, quantum mechanics, a teenage suicide diary, an elderly buddhist nun, a kamikaze pilot, Marcel Proust, and a half-dead cat, and not only get away with it, but end up on the Booker Prize short list. A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki didn’t win, but I’ve been reading it on and off for a while now and finally finished it this morning. It isn’t a novel you can rush. It opens well with the teenage, Japanese girl’s diary. 

“Hi! My name is Nao, and I am a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well, if you give me a moment I will tell you. A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and everyone of us who is, or was, or ever will be.”

And so her story of bullying and despair in Japan unfolds. This can get a bit much at times as well as the right-on, teenage tone becoming irritating.  However, Ruth, who found this diary washed up on the shore, becomes so involved in the girl’s story she begins a quest to trace her, even though she fears it may be too late.

“Ruth stared at the page. The purple words were mostly in English, with some Japanese characters scattered here and there, but her eye wasn’t really taking in their meaning as much as a felt sense, murky and emotional, of the writer’s presence. “

and:

“handwriting…resists the eye, reveals its meaning slowly, and is as intimate as skin.”

But, hang on, isn’t the author also called Ruth? Does that mean then the husband, Oliver, in the book, is the author’s real husband and Pesto their real cat? Apparently so. It dawns on me we’re dealing here with a story playing with the nature of reality. Very interesting! Right up my alley.

However, I did get exasperated with the sometimes plodding pace and form and the dairy alternating with Ruth’s narrative a bit repetitive, but I am glad I stuck it out as, by the end, all the threads weave wonderfully together in a sort of ‘theory of everything’ that fiction can do so well, even if physics is still struggling on that one. And I mention physics, because quantum mechanics is used here, along with Eastern philosophy, to explain struggling humanity across a generation. That sounds quite off-putting, but there’s a moving mystery at the book’s heart that is also laced with a deadpan humour. There’s also loads about the act of reading and writing that is ultimately about the nature of change and how we can change our own realities too.

” Sometimes when she was writing, she would lose herself in the story so completely that the next morning, when she opened her document file and looked at the manuscript, she would find herself staring at the paragraphs that she could swear she’d never seen before…. It was an uncanny feeling, usually followed by a quick upsurge of panic– someone has broken into my computer! — which often turned into excitement as she read on, leaning into the monitor as if it were a source of light or heat…..but what happened this time was different. She hadn’t been writing, she’d been reading. Surely a reader wasn’t capable of this bizarre kind of conjuration, pulling words from the void?”

It’s a brilliant ending, which I won’t give away. So though I feel the whole novel is perhaps trying a bit too hard to fit everything in and bring it together, it is engaging, fascinating, and I love all the connections it makes in an East-meets-West-meets-quantum-theory look at our modern values. I’ve always enjoyed books and plays that play with reality, not in a silly science fiction kind of a way, but as if trying to explain something about being a human on this planet now. I’ve always been a big fan of the playwright Pirandello, and though his plays are rarely performed, there’s one on at the National at the moment, though it finishes this week and I can’t get to it. If only it were really possible to be in two places at once. Or is it only my own limited view of life that is preventing me?

 

Bridget, Alice and Malala

It’s a truth universally acknowledged, that a woman in possession of a fortune through writing, must have her latest book panned. I’m talking about the fact that Mad About The Boy by Helen Fielding has been slagged off by the right, left and centre press. It’s also the reason (probably) that JK Rowling changed her name for her last book. 

I have to fess up that I’ve never read any Bridget Jones, apart from the odd diary entry in its original form in The Guardian , which I recall as being a bit boring and all about fags and weighing scales, yet this became the book that launched a 1000 chicks. So I guess, to those of us who write books about relationships in a comic and hopefully meaningful way, Fielding is our Alma Mater. Somewhere along the way, though, the meaningful bit got left out of much of what is called chick lit and Mad About The Boy does sound as if it has joined that club.  I haven’t read it and don’t want to, but it seems Fielding had to kill the hero, Mark Darcy, in order to free up Bridget to go back and begin another desperate search for a replacement. But can she, as a 51 year old widow and mother, still faff about in the same ditzy way she did as a 35 year old?

There was a great article in The Guardian  last Saturday (12.0.13) by Rachel Cooke looking at Fielding’s latest and bemoaning how singleton females are portrayed in fiction. She describes the mature Bridget like this: “If you met her in a pub, you might find yourself worrying about how she was going to get home, but you had nothing at all to say to her.” And: “… rather oddly for a novel that purports to be comic, it is shot through with a horrible, paralysing fear.”  This fear is about not having a man or hanging on to a man. She then goes on to describe how this has been set up from Jane Austen onwards. “In Austen’s world, such anxiety is well-founded: the woman who has no fortune literally cannot hope to survive if she does not bag a husband.” However, are we really still doing this these days? I think we probably are, but only as an archaic fear system that where both men and women adopt patterns of behaviour and set roles, eg. breadwinner/all-powerful as opposed to needy/acquiescent. But these days? Really?  Come on. Come on Bridget, you’re supposed to be a role model, of sorts.

Of course, Fielding is known for using Jane Austen’s plots, but why does she do this and invite the the comparison? I feel she’s reversed the dumming down, as nowadays many people consider Jane Austen to be chick lit. Aaaaagh!  Actually, I did read and really enjoyed Fielding’s first book Cause Celeb, which had a much more satirical take on the narcissism of celebrity and the course of true love not being quite where you might expect it. It felt quite prophetic for its time.

However, fiction is all about conflict, so if we are writing about relationships — and many of us are, both men and women, it’s the stuff of life after all– then that conflict doesn’t come from happy families, but from the difficulty of making and maintaining decent relationships.  And what this whole mature Bridget debate throws up, for me, is whether there is a market for writing about fifty something women looking for love anyway? Is that Fieldling’s real sin? Or maybe, as a 52 year old myself, I’m wondering if I could think up a better plot for a mature woman. I might have to think about that one. Watch this space.

I’d also like to state that I believe the best modern day Jane Austen is actually a man, Philip Hensher, (he’s also from Sheffield like me- Yey!). His detailed, witty accounts of the relationships and connections in small communities (The Northern Clemency, King of The Badgers)  are wonderful and remind me of Austen’s advice to her writing niece:

 Three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on, and I hope you will do a great deal more, and make full use of them while they are so very favourably arranged.

Back to women, because also this week, of course, Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Liiterature and there have been snipes about her being a bit of a lightweight, because she writes about the minutiae of relationships and is also more known for the short story form. How dare she? Actually, I haven’t read her stuff for years, but this makes me want to look at her stories again, as others will now too, no doubt. Then there’s Malala missing out on the Peace Prize. A girl shot because she wanted to be educated. Am I wrong in connecting all these things? That anything women do is slightly inferior, lesser, yet at the same time we shouldn’t be allowed to express ourselves. It might be dangerous, this holding of a pen? Is that why we dumb down our own work.  Oh I just write chick lit. I have to say I am glad Malala didn’t win, because I think it’s putting too much on a young girl’s shoulders. She needs to express herself as she is, not be burdened with another set of rules and have to behave like some  kind of guru. Go be as you are Malala.

“Give a girl an education and introduce her properly into the world, and ten to one but she has the means of settling well, without further expense to anybody. ”
― Jane Austen

A Walk on the Beach

This is my last view of Bournemouth beach yesterday morning just before I left there for the last time. It seems quiet and lonely after months of being packed during this long summer. I guess it suits my mood in leaving: the end of summer, the end of an old life.

Also, I have to say, Mutley’s kennel is no more, so though I am keeping my website logos, I will be residing in London from now on. However I will also have with me a little bit of Milford in Elephant & Castle, including a deckchair as well as a pile of pebbles from the beach, a reminder that I one day hope of returning to the sea. For now, I love my balcony and spend many a minute on my deckchair reading or just having a good nosy at what is going on around me. There’s so much to see rather than the sea.

 

This brings me to an appropriate literary connection for this post. I’ve been reading a lovely book recommended by a friend. It’s a true story of  a woman who takes a year out to live and write by the sea. One day on the beach she meets this ninety year old lady, with a zest for life and a different take on the world. This old lady turns out to be Joan Erikson, the writer wiife of famous pyschoanalyst, Erik Erikson. I’m finding it inspiring in this transition of my life. It seems to have a gem on almost every page and loads about writing in it.

 

 

 

“The importance of play all the way through life and how we all need to unlearn the rules set up for us by others.”

“Can’t you see people are sick for the truth? Nothing in our culture encourages us to break out of the mold.”

“Where curiosity and playful discovery are the focus of activity, there’s little opportunity to fail.”


“Ideas do not simply germinate when you sit inside and stare at a piece of paper. You need to activate them again and again—bring it all to life.”

“It’s never too late to pick up a lost stitch or revise yourself.”

“Having been solitary children, you and me, we were shaped to be writers. When you’ve been on the outside from the beginning you become a keen observer.”

“Henry James said that a writer must be willing to embarrass himself. Everyone wants to hear the voice of someone who has gone through something real.”

“I think you’re afraid to actually put into words the rules you broke, how you broke them, and what the aftermath really feels like—how much of it you’ve enjoyed and how much still remains unresolved.”

 

Rosalind Corfe, writer, mentor, friend, has died

My first writing teacher and good friend, Rosalind Corfe, died suddenly this week. I know how devastated her always supportive husband, Anthony, and her family, must be. By coincidence, when I heard, I was looking up some poetry for a project and came across this by Carol Ann Duffy, which seemed appropriate somehow.

Death of a Teacher

The big trees outside are into their poker game again,
shuffling and dealing, turning, folding, their leaves

drifting down to the lawn, floating away, ace high,
on a breeze. You died yesterday.

When I heard the hour – home time, last bell,
late afternoon – I closed my eyes. English, of course,

Three decades back, and me thirteen. You sat on your desk,
swinging your legs, reading a poem by Yeats

To the bored girls, except my heart stumbled and blushed
as it fell in love with words and I saw the tree

In the scratched old desk under my hands, heard the bird
in the oak outside scribble itself on the air. We were truly there,

present Miss, or later the smoke from your black cigarette
braided itself with lines from Keats. Teaching

Is endless love; the poems by heart, spells, the lists
lovely on the learning tongue, the lessons, just as you said,

For life. Under the gambling trees, the gold light thins and burns,
the edge of a page of a book, precious, waiting to be turned.

A lot of this rings true, though I was 25 when I first turned up to her WEA writing course in Bath. I was already writing, but felt I needed focus and guidance with my false start novels and faltering stories. I remember being absolutely terrified, sitting round a big polished table that smelled of Pledge, in a room with oil paintings of disapproving dignitaries. I always remember that fear when welcoming new people to my workshops. Rosalind was warm, encouraging, interested and inspiring. I learned so much and continued to as we became friends, discussing our various projects down the years. She wrote wonderfully rich and poetic radio plays broadcast on BBC radio and in Ireland. I recall one story called Petra, with its recurring motif of “some of the eggs were warm” which has stayed with me. I, meanwhile, was winning short story comps and attempting various novels that she’d happily read and critique. When I had my novel published I felt she was my guest of honour at the launch. She also arranged a book signing for me at Waterstones in Bath managing to produce quite a gathering of people from I don’t know where.

Though I have wonderful memories of long cream teas and literary chat, the last time I actually saw her was when I asked her to be a guest facilitator for my writing group last year. I was a bit nervous for my gang as she has quite an original style, very different to mine. However, she was amazing, and just gave everyone a word, I cannot remember what now (please let me know any of my writing group reading this) and everyone was very inventive with it.

Now, feeling a great sadness and realising what a huge hole she has left, I can only give this description as a flavour of her complexity. She always wore the most wonderful clothes. Slim as a pencil, she would buy up sale bargains, and refashion them in her own way. Sometimes, she’s have flecks of different colours in her silver hair, so she resembled some exotic bird, which she was.

 

Curious, bright, generous, warm, eccentric, darkly comic, demanding, exasperating, interested and interesting, encouraging, inspiring,warm, blunt, full of life, real. I shall miss her.