Category Archives: Writing

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

With so many good books in the world there must be some special reasons for rereading one. I recently took my copy of The Night Watch from my shelves and enjoyed several days in the company of Viv, Helen, Kay and Duncan. I first read it 14 years ago in 2007, a year after it was published.

I had two reasons for wanting to return to this novel. First, I am having something of a binge on wartime novels at the moment. It started when I began a short story set during the war, but I’ve neglected that story recently, while my enjoyment of wartime novels has continued.

Second, Sarah Waters employs an interesting structural device in this novel. The three episodes are present in reverse chronology: the characters are introduced in 1947, their experiences in 1944 follow and the final section concerns their lives in 1941. It’s a bold way to tell a story and I wanted to think about its effects. 

The Night Watch

We first meet the four protagonists after the war is over in 1947. None of them is happy and one of the effects of the chronological structure is that their histories are gradually revealed. Their backstories come later. The influence of the past on the present, of chance, of kindness and innocence are revealed in this way which makes everything unpredictable.

If you think about it, this is how you usually find out about people that you meet, and I don’t mean the ones in novels. You get to know them a little and you ask them about their past, where they’ve lived, their jobs, or education and so forth. We see how the person we have just met fits in with our understanding about the past that they reveal.

However, novels usually take the chronological development of their story in a traditional sequential way, albeit with flashbacks included. Sarah Waters in an exceptional storyteller. I would love to know why she chose to tell The Night Watch in the fashion.

It certainly makes the reader pay attention. They must try to sort out the puzzles that she lays before them. Why was Duncan in prison, for example? Or what is the mystery of the ring that connects Viv to Kay? And how did the war and their experiences in the war change the directions of the lives of the four characters? Part of the pleasure of reading The Night Watch is to resolve such mysteries. 

It is somewhat unsettling to read while keeping the later story in mind as she takes us backwards first to 1944 and then to 1941. The reader is constantly having to make the connections in reverse, as it were. The effect is to show up the accidental nature of so much of life, and, with the background of the war, how dark and dangerous life can be.

And perhaps this is one of the questions being posed – what are the limits of deploying conventional chronology in fiction and what happens when you reverse them?

Another experiment in telling stories backwards is Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis (1991). He employs a different device, telling the whole story in reverse, from a reverse consciousness: death leading to a strange rebirth, the person arriving in the prime of life, recovering their innocence in childhood and finally being reabsorbed into their mother’s body. Slightly yucky but it does raise questions about cause and effect, and moral responsibility especially as the protagonist is a Holocaust doctor who works in the camps. The effect in this novel is also unsettling and raises questions about morality and how we develop and judge moral behaviour.

Within this experimental way of presenting the stories in The Night Watch there are some very vivid scenes. There is a walk during the air raids of 1944 by two women through the city. They must guess where they are by landmarks such as churches as all the street names have been removed in case of invasion. In the same section Duncan experiences a terrifying air raid from inside his prison cell. 

Other aspects of the novel only slowly emerge. For example, we learn where Viv met her older married boyfriend, in the final section. But we have already wondered why she had not ditched him. And her decision not to see him again in the post-war section is really only explained by the long experience of her affair with him.

So I learned more about being on the night watch during the Blitz, and also about playing around with chronology. It’s tricksy, destabilising and an intriguing technique.

Sarah Waters

Born in Wales in 1966, she came out as a lesbian in the 1980s. She came to fame as a result of the success of the television version of her first novel Tipping the Velvet in 2002. The Night Watch was her fourth novel, which took her four years to write. She has described it as like a wrestling match. 

Like her other novels it has been a success, shortlisted for both the Booker Prize and the Orange Prize (later the Women’s Prize) for fiction.

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters, published in 2006 by Virago.

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More Gallimaufry: another achievement for the writing group

This week we celebrate the publication of More Gallimaufry by presenting a copy to Totnes Library. ‘We’ are the Totnes Library Writers Group. More Gallimaufry is the second published collection of our writing. Everything, even the editing, was collaborative. I asked my fellow editors to say something about their experiences 

Carole Ellis said

Delight came in many forms. There was the huge privilege of reading the work of so many talented writers. So much talent within our group! Being able to discuss the work and consider with them even a tiny part of their final contribution – the placing of a comma – was a true delight. There was also delight and privilege in working with my co-editors. We had a winning blend of determination and humour and it was great to discover how two people I really respect work. There was also the immense satisfaction of seeing an idea – “what about doing another book?” –  become an object of such beauty. Nothing beats holding your own book – fresh off the press. Such a magical moment.

Learning came with the realisation that hard choices had to be made. The whole Covid-19 outbreak gave us time to focus and decide what we wanted – whether we wanted to continue and that really honed our determination. I learned that there comes a point at which one has to say ‘enough’. But that point is moveable! Even with a sales team nipping at your ankles, changes may still be needed in pursuit of perfection but at the same time perfection is not possible. There will always be that one mistake that slips through – and you have to accept that. That’s a learning curve.

From Pat Fletcher

Editing Collaboration

The invitation to be part of the editing team was an open one to the whole group. To be honest, part of me thought the invitation wasn’t for me at all, but somewhere, entwined within was the allure of promise and possibility – and I’m a sucker for both!

The whole process was much more than I could have possibly imagined. The scariest bit though was the thought of editing other writers’ work. There’s me with no editing experience, other than my own work, reviewing, assessing and discussing their art! As it turned out, they were gorgeous and for the most part appreciated someone else taking time over their work. It was through this I was encouraged to contribute some work of my own. I love this group.

Covid hit during the early stages of the process, but we carried on writing. As keeper of the content, I gained early insight into the variety and quality of the work. I was well-impressed. Over six months in, and we decided to meet to assess where we were with it all and where to go from there. That we were going to continue became a no-brainer. The getting together in person sparked something else: requests for more content became more focussed. All systems were go and what had been eleven contributors soon rose to 21.

Then we came to the task of preparing the content for print. I volunteered to have a go at the design, quickly becoming unstuck due to lack of time (and experience) to do the hard yards of putting the content in order, typesetting and pagination. Caroline and Carole rallied round and the decision was made to outsource. Palpable relief! From then on it was all steam ahead as we strove for perfection. Just as one thing was resolved, something else came to the fore – all change! At one point I cringed at the thought of finding something else, but the job had to be done – and well. All anomalies and doubts were aired, shared and cleared – some more comfortably than others (she writes as she remembers both the cringy and sparky ones). The strangest experience happened when it came to sending the final format to the printers. Part of me just didn’t want to let it go! 

Collecting the copies was a dream come true. What began as an idea floated around the group was finally real. And now it’s over to the sales team. 

Printer’s Proof

Caroline writes

And I am very proud of More Gallimaufry for many different reasons.

The cover

The appearance of this collection is very attractive. More than one of our writers are artists. The cover is fittingly called Devon Landscape and is the work of Fiona Green. She also provided the cover for Gallimaufry our first volume. 

Covid-19, lockdowns and the writers’ group

Our group thrives on active participation, this mostly in our fortnightly meetings, some of which are workshops, other involve reading our writing to others for feedback, and sometimes we explore a theme, such as structure, or pick a topic to write on together. 

In September 2019 we had organised a day’s writing festival for writers in Totnes called WRITE NOW TOTNES! It had been very successful and we planned some more activities with the surplus funds we had. 

Lockdown in March 2020 stopped us in our tracks. We managed to get regular meetings going again on zoom after several months, but some writers were not able to join, or chose not to use this method of meeting. 

We had had a schedule planned for the anthology, and the three volunteer editors had started to collect submissions when it all stalled. When we managed to meet again in the autumn of 2020, outdoors, with masks and overlooking the beautiful Dart river we made an important decision.

We had lost more than six months, but by shifting our schedule on a year, replacing all those 2020 dates with 2021, we could still produce a good volume and in time for the Christmas market. 

And that’s what we did. It was a wonderful moment when Pat, who collected all the writing together, informed us that we had work from 21 writers. Not only had we survived lockdown with our regular workshops and meetings, but we had 21 people interested enough to provide short stories, memoir and poems for our second anthology.

Editing

Pat and Carole have described our labours as we edited More Gallimaufry. We got professional assistance with the design of the cover, proofreading and having already commissioned a designer to work on the cover, she relieved us of the difficulties of typesetting as well

And then we set about chasing the last mistake. It seemed that we were nearing the end when we decided that poems spread over two pages should start on an even page, so that they could be read without turning the page. This required a large amount of reordering, and yet another revision of the contents page. 

Eventually, through our collaborative efforts it was all done, and the printer received instructions to print 200 copies.

Collaboration

This has been a collaborative project: the decision to embark on a second collection; the title; the cover; none of this was the work of one person, and often involved discussion in the meetings. 

A few days ago we collected the boxes of copies from the printers and handed them over to the Sales and Promotion team. This group have arranged the launch at the library, a sales event in the High Street, and promoting and selling the book through many outlets.

For me, the delight has been in the buoyancy of the writers group despite the limitations of the last 20 months. And while I don’t want to read it all again for some time, it was a huge pleasure to participate in the creation of a beautiful volume of excellent writing.

Thanks to Pat and Carole for all the fun, creativity and tolerance and for their contribution to this blog.

Carole, Caroline and Pat, slightly hysterical at the printers

If you are interested in acquiring a copy please contact me by email (lodgecm@gmail.com) or find the details of how on the Totnes Library Writers Facebook page. ISBN: 978 1 9996286 1 11

You can read about our first published volume (2015) Gallimaufry here.

Our first collection

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Filed under Books, Learning, Libraries, poetry, Publishing our book, short stories, Writing

Manifesto by Bernardine Evaristo

There were people who thought that Bernardine Evaristo had come from nowhere to win the Booker Prize in 2019 with Girl, Woman, Other. These people had not been paying attention for she has been writing and working in theatre, poetry and fiction for many years. She is also a professor of Creative Writing at Brunel University.

And how could any writer produce a work of such creative imagination and with so many characters, and with an assured innovative style from ‘nothing’. As Manifesto reveals, it takes years of writing, of experimenting, of wrestling with words, of making mistakes, of throwing away, of revising before a writer can create a masterpiece of that calibre. What did it take?

Pay attention to the subtitle: On Never Giving Up

Manifesto

Bernardine Evaristo was born with several apparent disadvantages: she comes from a working-class background; she is female; and she has parents of different ethnicities. Her family was large, and she was not indulged as a child. But she found books and then theatre and then knew that her life would be with words.

If you are imagining a pity-me type memoir, look elsewhere. Each of these possible disadvantages became sources of knowledge and strength as she grew up. She made her own way, beginning in a community theatre that she co-founded and continuing to write poetry and later fiction.

Being positive has been a significant part of her development as a writer, a choice she made. My favourite story in the book is this one:

When Lara was published [in 1997], I wrote an affirmation about winning the Booker Prize – a wild fantasy because I was as far away from winning it as a writer can be. Yet I’d seen how winning that prize could improve writers’ careers, bringing their work to mainstream attention, and because I was thinking big, it seemed obvious to envision winning it. (168)

In addition to her relentless positivity, Bernardine Evaristo has always encouraged others in their writing, and promoted work by people of colour. Currently she is curating Black Britain: Writing Back with Hamish Hamilton at Penguin UK. The series aims to ‘reintroduce into circulation overlooked books from the past that deserve a new readership’. (175) There are several books in the series that interest me, including Black Boy at Eton by Dilibe Onyaema and Without Prejudice by Nicola Williams.

I attended a day writing workshop at the British Museum about a decade ago. She is an excellent and encouraging teacher.

The Manifesto

Two sentences from the manifesto chimed with me:

Be wild, disobedient & daring with your creativity, take risks instead of following predictable routes; those who play it safe do not advance our culture or civilization. (189)

The two books by Bernardine Evaristo that I have enjoyed very much, Mr Loverman and Girl, Woman, Otherhave both been risky, and both have advanced our culture. 

Personal success is most meaningful when used to uplift communities otherwise left behind. We are all interconnected & must look after each other. (…) nobody gets anywhere on their own. (189-90)

This endorsement of fr community engagement in writing is very pertinent for me right now. Before lockdown my writing group organised a writing festival in our town, and we have just published our second collection of writing, a collaborative effort which I will write about in the next post.

Manifesto: On Never Giving Up by Bernardine Evaristo, published in 2021 by Hamish Hamilton.

Related posts on Bookword

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (May 2020)

Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo (August 2014)

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Filed under Books, Feminism, Learning, Libraries, Reading, Women of Colour, Writing

Pepita by Vita Sackville-West

You have probably heard of the multi-talented Vita Sackville-West. Born in 1882 she shone in many fields before her death in 1962. Consider the many ways you know of Vita Sackville-West.

Her love affair with Virginia Woolf

 

Somehow the rather intellectual Virginia was bowled over by Vita’s charms and they were lovers and great friends for many years. Their love letters were recently published by Vintage press: Love Letters: Vita and Virginia. Vita was also the lover of other women and men.

Orlando

One of the outcomes of that relationship was Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando. Vita Sackville-West’s son, Nigel Nicolson, wrote, 

The effect of Vita on Virginia is all contained in Orlando, the longest and most charming love letter in literature, in which she explores Vita, weaves her in and out of the centuries, tosses her from one sex to the other, plays with her, dresses her in furs, lace and emeralds, teases her, flirts with her, drops a veil of mist around her. (From Wikipedia)

I like that: Orlando is ‘the longest and most charming love letter in literature’. It’s also great fun.

All Passion Spent

Vita Sackville-West was a prolific writer herself, poetry, novels, journalism and biography. One of her 17 novels takes pride of place in the older women in fiction series on this blog: All Passion Spent, published in 1931. 

In the novel, Lady Slane is in her 60s. She is the widow of a Very Great Man, and when he dies her six middle-aged children meet and decide what she will do: stay with each of them in turn. To their consternation, she announces that she saw a house in Hampstead thirty years before and that it will do for her now. She rents it and lives in it with her maid. These final years bring new friends and interests, and after a lifetime of being eclipsed by her husband, Lady Slane finds happiness on her own terms.

Sissinghurst Castle

You may also know that Vita Sackville-West was a great gardener. Unable to inherit the family property Knole, she bought Sissinghurst Castle in Kent and created a beautiful garden there, which you can visit as it is now a National Trust property. She wrote regular columns for the Observer on gardening from 1946 until 1961.

Her portrait

Lady with a Red Hat by William Strang.

Love that hat!

Pepita by Vita Sackville-West

Vita came from a long line of rather remarkable and flamboyant women. She wrote about three of them in Pepita, published in 1937: her great-grandmother Catalina, her grandmother Pepita, and her own mother Victoria Sackville.

Her great-grandmother Catalina was a Spanish gypsy, who made her living selling second-hand clothes. It is not entirely clear whether Catalina’s barber husband was the father of her child Pepita. It suited people in their circle to suggest that the father was the Duke of Osuna, Catalina’s lover. The barber disappeared quickly from the story and died.

Pepita became a dancer of some renown in Europe, partly because she was very beautiful. She became very rich and supported her mother, who rose to be a landowner of a considerable estate in Spain. Pepita had been married briefly to her dancing master, but soon separated, apparently on account of her mother’s unpardonable actions – there’s a theme beginning here. While performing in Europe Pepita met the English diplomat and aristocrat Lionel Sackville-West. They became lovers, and he was the father of her children, including Victoria. 

He seems to have been a taciturn diplomat, one who did not observe the niceties of proper society for it was widely known that Pepita was his mistress and mother of his children. Pepita died in 1892 in the South of France, giving birth to her final child, who also did not survive. The children were farmed out, Victoria to a convent in Paris. Later her father needed her to act on his behalf in the social and diplomatic world of Washington. This was not a conventional arrangement as Victoria was not legitimate. Nevertheless, she played the part very well, and bowled over Washington society receiving many offers of marriage. 

Back in England she met and married another Lionel Sackville-West and went to live at the family estate at Knole. They had one child: Vita. Victoria was a very difficult and demanding woman, who also attracted admirers. 

Vita retells the stories of these women in Pepita. Her sources came from a trunk she found of papers, researched in Spain as part of a court case by one of her uncles. The Sackville-West men seem to be rather socially withdrawn, taciturn even, who liked these dramatic women, but did not exert themselves to make their lovers’ lives easier or mind much about the scandal that followed them. Vita’s own father did not (?could not?) leave Knole to her, so she invested her energies in Sissinghurst instead. 

As historic background to a talented and vibrant figure of the twentieth century, Pepita makes good reading, even if it is somewhat rose-tinted. 

Pepita by Vita Sackville-West first published in 1937 and reissued by Vintage in 2016. 266pp

Picture credits:

Sissinghurst Gardens: by Grace Kelly September 2011 via Wiki Commons

Pepita Dancing via Wiki Commons

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Summerwater by Sarah Moss

To create her compelling fiction Sarah Moss places her characters out of their usual location, often on holiday. The characters are tested, by each other and by the environment and having wound them up she sits back and lets the drama unfold. This is something of a pattern in her books and it is very effective.

In Summerwater the characters are staying in log cabins in a holiday park in Scotland beside a loch. It is summer and it should be beautiful, but it is raining. It is raining so much that it feels like the end of the world. They have no phone signals and no nearby shops. The rain and the random selection of guests at the holiday park isolate the cabins’ occupants from each other.

Summerwater

We begin with the rain.

the sounds of blood and air

Light seeps over the water, through the branches. The sky is lying on the loch, filling the trees, heavy in the spaces between the pine needles, settling between the blades of grass and mottling the pebbles on the beach. Although there is no distance between cloud and land, nowhere for rain to fall, it is falling; the sounds of water on leaves and bark, on roofs and stones, windows and cars, become as constant as the sounds of blood and air in your own body.
You would notice soon enough, if it stopped. (1)

Short interludes, such as this one, separate the chapters. But pause a moment before getting into the story to notice the quality of the writing, the observation that rain in these circumstances gets everywhere and distorts the landscape (the sky is lying on the loch … no distance between cloud and land) and feels visceral. 

The occupants of the log cabins emerge into the day slowly, for what is there to do? Justine takes an early morning run. As she creeps out of the cabin, leaving husband and children sleeping, we learn about her frustrations, the lack of money, the lack of opportunities for families like hers. Her observations about the other occupants of the holiday cabins are revealed, including the Rumanians who held another loud party the previous night.

We meet a young lad who goes kayaking and ventures out on the loch and whose trip nearly ends in disaster. He does not tell his parents. A young teenage girl climbs out of her bedroom window to find a phone signal or to visit the ex-soldier in his tent. Here she is as she escapes from her parents for a while.

She goes along the side of the gravel track, not that anyone would hear her footsteps over the weather, past the cabin with the sad woman who never goes out and the two kids. They’re still having their tea, and the scene reminds her of her old Playmobil dolls’ house, the stiff-jointed figures you could arrange around a green plastic table, the tiny plastic cutlery Mum was always telling her not to lose. The rain is seeping through her leggings and Alex’s hoody is beginning to cling to her hands at the cuffs. (150)

A couple spend most of the day in bed as they pursue his ambition of simultaneous orgasms. An older man, with his increasingly disabled wife takes her for a drive. He muses upon the happy times they had in the park when the holidaymakers owned their own cabins and came every year, providing consistency and friendship. Those times have long gone, and he must take care of his wife in the face of the limitations of the cabin, the park and the weather.

There are nearly middle-aged women who, like Justine, are finding life hard, and this cheap holiday is no holiday for them. Children are bored. The men are bored. Only the Rumanians appear to be enjoying themselves, although some of the holidaymakers think they might be Bulgarians and other that they might be Russians. What’s more, they appear to have phone connections, for as evening arrives so do visitors with drink and music and another party starts.

Here is a nightmare scenario: rain all day, nothing to do, nothing to see except your neighbours, the only thing to think about is your sad life and then loud music at night prevents sleep. Resentment is building and the partygoers are clearly going to be the object of judgements and aggressions that are building up. The men decide to go and ask the Rumanians, or Bulgarians or Russians, or Shit-chenkos, (according to one family) to turn the sound down. 

Watching from the neighbouring cabin the little girl see what happens when they knock on the Rumanians’ door.

The Shit-chenko woman steps back into the cabin and a man comes out with two bottles dangling from between his fingers and nods and hands one to Dad and one to the other dad, and then all of them go inside. (193)

By now the tension is very high and the novel’s resolution unfurls very fast, rather surprisingly and very badly. The little girl witnesses the events. She sees the tragedy, but also the community that is suddenly created in response. 

Sarah Moss writes so well, so succinctly, with detailed observations and, in this novel, fully inhabiting the range of characters in the cabins. 

Observing the way we subtly edit ourselves and one another – the limits that puts on us, as well as the strengths it creates – is Moss’s metier. [Melissa Harrison in a review in the Guardian in August 2020]

It is bleak, and harsh and almost apocryphal. It captures the current generally depressed mood and seems to be a comment on the modern world.

Summerwater by Sarah Moss (2020) Picador. 202pp. A paperback version is available.

Related post about books by Sarah Moss on Bookword

Night Waking by Sarah Moss (2011) in a post of two short reviews

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (2018)

Names for the Sea: strangers in Iceland (2012) in a post called Bookword in Iceland

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Literary Lifelines and Stepping Stones

Here is another guest post on Bookword Blog. After my friend and co-author Eileen Carnell’s contribution Perfect Presents for a Bookish Bod I invited other blog subscribers to write me something if they wished. The writer Jude Hayland has written this brilliant post which connects her reading and writing.

Literary Lifelines and Stepping Stones

It’s the question that so many writers are asked and that is so impossible to answer:

So when did you start to write? 

It feels akin to being asked:

So when did you start to read?

And I suppose the honest, but no doubt frustrating answer is – as soon as I could. For me, the reading and writing have always gone hand in hand. Once I had begun to read – with early memories of Milly Molly Mandy, Little Pete Stories, Teddy Robinson, My Naughty Little Sister– I wanted to write. My bedroom was full of small exercise books bought with pocket money from Woolworths, lined pages filled with my ill-formed handwriting spilling out stories of dolls that came to life at night, talking cats and bewitching fairies.

As I progressed onto reading about skating stars and vicarage children with Noel Streatfeild, wallowing in ballerina ambitions with Lorna Hill and harbouring theatrical dreams with Pamela Brown, so more exercise books were filled with attempts to emulate such plot lines. Always a child who enjoyed her own company, nothing was more treasured than retreating to my bedroom when I came home from school, losing myself in a book, then writing the latest chapter of my ballet tale or stage school saga.

When I was a teenager there was no such thing as YA literature. The transition to adult books from the children’s section of the library was via Catherine Cookson and Jean Plaidy before discovering Monica Dickens, Lynn Reid Banks and early Margaret Drabble. I am afraid I can’t claim that I read all of Jane Austen and most of Dickens by the time I was 18 as so many writers impressively seem to do – although Jane Eyre, studied for ‘O’ level, became a lifelong favourite and I remember reading LP Hartley’s The Go-Between one teenage summer, thinking that finally I had left children’s fiction behind. 

But my own writing had stopped – those Woolworths’ exercise books now seemed childishly redundant – as I embarked on an English Literature degree and spent three years reading such awe-inspiring literature that the only way I could put pen to paper or tap away on my manual Olivetti was in critical praise of their brilliance.

What got me writing again?

Then I began to teach. 

And, standing one day in a classroom of 14 year olds, setting them the task of writing a story, I thought I want to be doing this! I want to write stories, have the fun of making up characters, playing with words, inventing settings and conflicts.

And I began to write fiction again.

Not with any high literary aspirations – but for the pleasure of writing and the desire to be read. By this time, I had already had several non-fiction pieces published in national magazines – lightly amusing articles on learning to drive, my sister’s wedding, holidays for singles, flat hunting and sharing – so it seemed the obvious route to take to start submitting short fiction to women’s magazines.

And I was lucky.

Over the course of the next twenty years or so, I was published widely (under a different name than the one I now write under) both in the UK and in Scandinavia, Switzerland, Australia and South Africa. I acquired an agent and she took over the submissions to magazines such as Woman’s Realm, Woman, Woman’s Weekly, Bella, Fiction Feast and similar publications abroad. The market was rich with opportunities at that point with a high demand for stories – providing they fitted in with the prescriptive brief of the magazine.

And I was happy to fulfil it, delighted to derive some small income from sales to supplement my teaching salary as well as to see my name, briefly, in print. The discipline of writing to a given word limit was a good training in editing skills and even the limitations of subject matter provided an interesting challenge.

By now, I was reading Anita Brookner, Margaret Forster, Jane Gardam; Susan Hill and Penelope Lively; Carol Shields and Anne Tyler. Of course my reading of contemporary novels was not limited by gender and writers such as William Trevor, Ian McEwan and William Boyd found their way into my selections. But somehow it was and is the women writers whose books I return to again and again – both as a reader and also as a writer, to examine and study their craft. 

After a couple of decades of writing commercial short fiction, I was straining at the leash to write more freely. The markets were fewer, the parameters imposed growing more restrictive.

Confidence and self-belief were woefully lacking. Who was I to think I could write a novel of some 100,000 words, to believe that I had a story to tell that was worth a reader’s time and attention? 

How did I dare to write a novel?

Two events, however, nudged me into trying. First, I had been a runner-up in the Bridport short story competition, judged one particular year by Margaret Drabble. Not exactly a full length novel, but at least my writing had been favourably judged. Then I graduated with distinction from an M.A. in Creative Writing. My final submission was the first 20,000 words of a novel and the examiners’ comment was: this is worth continuing and completing. 

I would like to say I was off and at the finishing line within the year – but real life, of course, gets in the way of the best of intentions. There were the small matters of earning a living and bringing up a child, combined with increasing visits to much loved, aging parents. 

Eventually, however, I completed that first novel. Then tucked it away out of sight and embarked on the next. And it was only after completing and publishing that next novel, Counting the Ways, that I went back to what was, ostensibly, my first book, redrafted it extensively, and released that as my second, The Legacy of Mr Jarvis. The journey to writing my third novel, Miller Street SW22 which was published in February, was a little more chronological and straight forward and I am now working on my fourth.

What I like to write

Like the novels I love to read, the novels I write are character driven. I am at heart, unfailingly fascinated by other people. About the chance events, the choices and impulses that drive their lives. Ideas start with a character, a relationship or a family dynamic that drives the plot. 

I set my novels in the recent past – in the last half of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st. This is partly out of a need to write about a time that is fixed and open to hindsight. It also reflects my interest in domestic and social history and in particular how the nature of our lives is inevitably determined by the era in which we are born. 

There is also a practical aspect for such setting. Technology in the form of mobile phones, internet access, social media et al can run rough-shod through plot lines that require characters to be elusive, capable of dissimulation. Secrets were far easier to perpetuate and thus fester in the past and all three of my novels depend partly on such concealment. 

These days I am still reading and loving Anne Tyler. Additionally, Anna Quindlen, Linda Grant, Ann Patchett, Mary Lawson – to mention just a few of the names that flit into my head. And I am now trawling back to some wonderful 20th century writers that I unintentionally overlooked years ago while reading Iris Murdoch and Doris Lessing – writers like Cecily Hamilton, Dorothy Whipple, Jean Rhys, Elizabeth Taylor. 

And I am pleased to say that I have never lost that childhood thrill of walking into a book shop, into the local library (lockdowns permitting) and spending time mulling over the shelves, suppressing the smile on my face at the thought of a new book to take home for company.

Reading and its inseparable partner writing are, for me, lifelines – this particular body’s essential daily bread. 

©Jude Hayland

Look out for Jude Hayland’s novels:

Counting the Ways

The Legacy of Mr Jarvis and 

Miller Street SW22

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Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me by Kate Clanchy

They are at it again. They are always at it. Teacher bashing! I spent nearly 50 years working in schools professionally (and another decade as a school child). They have always done it. Blamed teachers for: falling standards of morality; falling standards in exams; grade inflation; poor grammar; crime; teenage pregnancy; homosexuality; radical politics. And now blaming them for the pandemic, or for being cowards or not helping with the roll out of testing. Or for the rising rate of infections. Whatever it is it’s the teachers what done it.

I have way more experience of schools and teachers than any gavin-come-lately education minister. I know teachers who knew what it was to hold to a child steady between the chaos of home and their own selves. I have seen teachers feed and clothe children, not their own. I have known teachers coax necessary disclosures from young people. And teachers who have inspired youngsters with love of knowledge, of history, or geography or maths. Teachers who introduced young people to literature and to becoming readers for life. 

You know these people. You have met these people. They always have stories to tell. They always have experiences that are illuminating. They are adaptable inside the classroom or in the playgrounds and corridors to rapidly changing situations , and to governments and ministers who claim to know better what to do. (Governments and ministers easily fall into this trap as there is so little over which they have influence, especially, it seems, at the moment).

I found the experience, including as the headteacher of in inner London comprehensive, so draining, so exhausting that I have retired to the country and don’t involve myself very much at all with educational discourse. This book changed that.

Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me

I first came across the talent of Kate Clanchy when I discovered her tweets during the first lockdown, many of which contained poems by young people she was working with. That taster led me to Unmute, a collection of poems by young poets who met on-line during Lockdown. All thirteen had at one time or another attended her weekly poetry workshops when attending their Oxford secondary school. I obtained a copy and was very impressed and wrote a post on this blog about it. You can find it here.

A friend (yes from the world of education) told me about this year’s winner of the George Orwell Political Writing prize: Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me. She knew I would be interested in the writings of a teacher who respected the voice of students. It came to the top of my reading pile recently

The world of schools and teachers must seem a little exclusive to outsider. It is hard to understand the way it calls you, holds you, gives back almost imperceptibly the richness of the school community. But in her Introduction to Some Kids, Kate Clanchy has captured why so many people become entrapped and entranced.

Thirty years ago, just after I graduated, I started training to be a teacher. As far as I remember, it was because I wanted to change the world, and a state school seemed the best place to start. (1)

Most teachers I know began with the same desire. To those who belittle the profession, partly because it employs so many women, Kate Clanchy suggests more people should listen to teachers. Having considered and accepted the title Miss, she goes on:

I would like more people to understand what Miss means, and to listen to teachers. Parts of this book, therefore, are a kind of telling back: long-stewed accounts of how teachers actually do tackle the apostrophe; of how we exclude and include; of the place of religion in schools; of how the many political changes of the last decades have played out in the classroom; of what a demanding, intellectual, highly skilled profession teaching can be. These confident answer, though, are short and few, because mostly what I have found in school is not certainty, but more questions. Complex questions, very often, about identity, nationality, art, and money, but offered very personally; questions embodied in children. (4)

It is not the public perception that teaching is ‘a demanding, intellectual, highly skilled profession’ is it? But this book demonstrates exactly that.

And the perception that the questions raised in schools are ‘embodied in children’ is succinctly put. I remember Oddy (full name Odysseus) and the stolen koi carp, Boris (another wayward one) and the milk float, the child of the murderer, the refugee who did not know the fate of her parents, the child afraid he was homosexual, Carl who lied and lied and was not literate, the slow to read, to write, to understand. 

Kate Clanchy explores the questions raised by the young people she has met, and by some brilliant fellow teachers, much of it mediated through poetry. Here are some chapter headings:

About Love, Sex, and the Limits of Embarrassment,
About Exclusion
About Nations, Papers and Where We Belong
About Writing Secrets, and Being Foreign
About the Hijab
About Uniform
About Selection, Sets and Streaming
About What I think I am Doing.

Each chapter embodies its topic in young people’s stories and struggles. 

No wonder readers are suggesting that trainee teachers and would-be teachers read this as part of their preparation. 

I would have liked to  have worked with her. I would like to have had her teaching poetry in the London Comprehensive where I was headteacher in the early ‘90s) alongside the many brilliant teachers of Art, Drama, RE, English, PE and life. And all the brilliant work that we did with our students.

The Schoolyard by Cynthia Nugent. (That’s me on the right there, in the blue jumper, carrying some files.)

Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me by Kate Clanchy, published in 2019 by Picador. 269pp Winner of the Orwell Prize for political writing 2020

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Missing my writing group

I miss my writing group. We have not met in person since March, six months ago. The Coronavirus pandemic has postponed or cancelled some of the good things planned for this year, including an away day to work together on writing.

The Writing Group

I have been in this writing group since it started 7 years ago. The librarian called together some local writers and we formed our group. We have retained the library connection because we want people to be able to join in, as freely as they visit a library. It’s open to all. We only have one rule: don’t put yourself or your writing down. (None of this ‘it’s very rough really and I think you’ll hate it,’ or ‘I’m not sure about this, I’m not as experienced as the rest of you,’ and so on. It’s surprising how hard it is to wean people off this way of introducing their writing.)

Over the years we have achieved some rewarding things. We produced an anthology of our writing called Gallimaufry. We sold it to the public for £5 a copy, using the marketing ploy that it was an excellent Christmas present. We put our oldest and whitest haired members to the front and stood in the library entrance and sold them. 

It was a good experience. We learned a fair bit about producing a book and although it did not raise any funds for the group we were proud of our efforts.

Then there was the evening when brave members performed their work. We celebrated our 4th birthday with a brilliant bookish cake. We were not quite brave enough to open this to the public, but the event was attended by tolerant and appreciative friends and relations. 

Emboldened by all this, and wanting to try new aspects of sharing our work in the community, we decided to host a one day writing festival. None of us had realised what a step up that would be. It tested our organisational skills and rather got in the way of writing for the committee members. 

But in September 2019 we hosted about 100 local people to attend 12 workshops, some readings, a school’s writing display, a sale of books, and a poetry slam. It was a great success 

The feedback was positive. No we wouldn’t be doing this annually. We might repeat some of the activities. We needed to recover. We got ourselves sorted to use our funds for various activities, all aimed to support writing by people in the community and –

Covid-19 locked us down.

Writing in a pandemic

It’s been hard, writing in this pandemic, or rather not writing. Like many people I wrote a lockdown diary. I stopped after 4 months because I felt that my life was being prescribed by the virus. I began to feel that I should make my life be about more than Covid-19, that I would take account of the pandemic of course, but not be more defined by it than necessary. 

I have continued with my Morning Pages. I follow a modified version of the recommendation in The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. I start every day with Morning Pages. It helps me reflect on my writing and my reading and other activities important for my mental health. 

And I have continued to post on this blog every 5 days. Bookword was launched in December 2012, and I have since posted 613 times. Most of those posts are about books, but a fair number are about writing and publishing. I have no plans to stop soon.

Recently I felt frustrated by my lack of writing. I stopped wondering why I wasn’t getting on with my short story. They always take me a long time, but this one was largely conceived in November 2019. I have written perhaps two thousand words, some of it very poor and written just to get something down. So I decided that I would write 500 words a day. That’s roughly two handwritten sides of A4. I have been doing that since the beginning of September and enjoyed it. Some of it is memoir. Some of it is comment on what’s happening. Some is more like an exercise, a description or a response to a prompt.

And I have decided to take advantage of some on-line writing courses. I love writing courses, although I did feel at one point that I was a course junky and that attending courses was replacing or displacing my writing activities.

And in the last two or three months the writing group has been meeting on zoom. Or rather a few of us have been meeting on zoom. Usually one of us volunteers to offer a prompt and then we write together and read the results of our efforts. There is always laughter and always lots of praise and encouragement. We were just thinking that we might meet in person in a suitably distanced way when the rule about meeting in groups of six as a maximum was introduced. 

We are at the point of thinking about some variations in the way we use the zoom facility to share our work on the chat or screen share facility, using the audio and visual possibilities and so on.

So now I know

So now I know that my writing group, in person, round a table, with people who I know only as writers (often nothing more about them, their families, jobs, where they live etc etc) is important for my writing and that I will want us to operate again as we did when this is over.

What I like about the group is the stimulus, the laughter, the audience, the critique and above all the community.

Tell us what do you need from a writing group?

Related posts

Gallimaufry or why my writing group is cock-o-hoop (January 2016)

A Writing Festival – why would you organise one?

A Birthday for Our Writing Group

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The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard

Do you have this experience? It doesn’t happen very often, but when I finished The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard I felt that I had been lifted onto a different plane. In part it was the accomplishment of the writing, its elegance, sparseness and the observations of human relationships revealed in the prose. And in part it was the breadth of Shirley Hazzard’s observation and of her imagination of the post-war world.

The Transit of Venus is my choice for the 1980s in the Decades Project 2020 (see below). The novel captures something of the international influences happening in the decades following the Second World War. 

The Transit of Venus

The novel’s narrative stretches over 30 years allowing the characters and their relationships to be played out with the inevitability of the transit that gives the book its title.

Two Australian sisters have come to Britain in the 50s and are staying in a house of an eminent astronomer, Professor Thrale. Grace is the younger, very pretty, engaged to the son, Christian. Caroline is older and with more purpose in life. There is a third sister, a half-sister Dora who is an eternal victim who has cared for Caroline and Grace since their parents died. We follow Grace and Caro through several decades, and mostly Caro because Grace leads a calm and largely unexplored life. 

Ted Tice is a young astronomer come to spend time with Thrale and he falls for Caroline, a love he nurtures beyond the end of novel. Caro however is seduced by a friend of the family, a young playwright, Paul Ivory who in turn is engaged to Tertia who lives in grand style nearby. Paul and Caro begin an affair. The reader is sure that Paul is untrustworthy and that Tertia knows about the affair but has other motives for continuing with her engagement and marrying Paul. 

Paul Ivory is the bad boy, cynical, calculating, enjoying power and influence. He has a secret, known to Tice (and he knows Tice’s secret too). He breaks up with Caro.

She works in an office, subjected to the taken-for-granted sexism of the time. She is very hurt by the end of her affair with Paul but eventually marries an American benefactor and goes to live in NY. Christian Thrale has an affair because he believes he should. Grace falls in love with her son’s doctor, but he refused to compromise her. The marriage is not made better or worse by these episodes. Ted Tice goes on loving Caro from a distance until two important secrets are revealed. 

Themes

Although the transit of Venus across the sun is predictable it is an event that occurs only every 120 years, and then twice in 8 years. Captain Cook’s voyage to Tahiti in 1768 was designed to coincide with one transit to help with astrological measurements, specifically the size of the solar system. His measurements were inaccurate. The next transit will be in December 2117.

Shirley Hazzard understands that our lives are influenced by both predictability and chance, by those we meet and the moment we meet them. The important thing is what we do with our experiences: perhaps use them to manipulate others as Dora does. She turns every situation into a story of wrong being done to Dora. She is the saddest of all the characters.

Dora sat on the corner of the spread rug, longing to be assigned some task so she could resent it. […] Dora was not one to lie down under the news that a veranda was called a loggia, or a mural a fresco. Let alone villa for house. (45)

Grace lives a life of conventional comfort, with her husband making steady progress in the Foreign Office, and children and a nice house with beautiful things. A mirror bought in Bath is frequently mentioned, yet towards the end of the book Caro reflects that

It was not clear now, as formerly, that Grace was satisfied with chintz and china – with Christian saying, “A wee bit fibrous,” or hoisting his trousers at evening and announcing, “Must get my eight hours.” It was not quite certain Grace had remained a spectator. Those who had seen her as Caro’s alter ego might have missed the point. (324)

The reader has seen Grace’s thwarted love for her son’s doctor and noted the dignity ascribed to her by Shirley Hazzard.

With these prospects and impressions, Grace Marian Thrale, forty-three years old, stood silent in a hotel doorway, with the roar of existence in her ears. And like any great poet or tragic sovereign of antiquity, cried on her Creator and wondered how long she must remain on such an earth. (289)

Caro’s life has also contained much hurt and loss. She had not remained a spectator, but engaged with the experiences life sent her with dignity, reflection and generosity.

Writing

Reading The Transit of Venus one could not fail to notice the quality of the writing. The novel’s plot is skilfully managed and the tension is held to the final chapter. Some of the sentences are beautifully constructed. Look at what she wrote about Grace’s reaction to the departure of her would-be lover quoted above. And as I typed Caro’s reflections I noted the provisionality of the sentences: ‘not clear now’, ‘not quite certain’, ‘might have missed the point’. 

Within her sentences the choice of words, especially adverbs and adjectives, add complexity, depth and nuance to the novel. She writes on a wide canvas: across several decades and across the globe: Australia, Britain and New York as well as parts of Europe and South America. It has been described as an unbearably sad book, but I felt moved by it, as if the experience of reading it had added to my own life. In part this is because of her ‘huge charity towards the people’ (Kirkus Review 1980). 

Perhaps you have felt uplifted by this novel and are only surprised that I mention it. Or perhaps you have yet to experience one of Shirley Hazzard’s novels, in which case you have a great treat in store for you.

Shirley Hazzard

Shirley Hazzard was born in Australia and died in 2016 in New York. She had spent time in the Far East after the war, before being employed by the UN from 1951. She was posted for a while to Naples, and developed a love of Italy. 

It wasn’t until 2003 that she published her next and final novel, The Great Fire, which was also much acclaimed by the critics. I am currently reading some of her essays in a volume called We Need Silence to find out What we Think.

The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard, published in 1980) and reissued by Virago in 1995. 337pp The novel also won the National Book Critics Award.

The Decades Project 2020

In 2020 I am exploring previously published novels by women. I am framing my choices from the Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20th Century Fiction, edited by Ali Smith, Kasia Boddy and Sarah Wood. This collection reproduces an extract from one hundred books, one published in each year of the century and reissued by Virago. My choices include rereads, classics and some new discoveries. 

The most recent choices for the project are

A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn (1940)

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (1958)

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter (1967)

Benefits by Zoe Fairbairns (1979)

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Unmute: Young Voices from Lockdown

Every now and again in April- July I noticed that on Twitter Kate Clanchy had posted a poem written by a young person. So often these were beautifully crafted lines that made me stop my scrolling and wonder at the young person who had written the poem, and at Kate Clanchy the teacher who had assisted at the emergence of the poem and the poet. Like. Retweet. 

Recently a friend told me about the winner of the George Orwell Political Writing prize for the book: Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me (2019). She knew I would be interested in the writing of a teacher who respected the voice of students. I told her that I was excited because that very morning I had ordered Unmute, the collection of poems written by her students.

Young Voices

I am not whimsical or romantic about young people. Twenty-five years working in urban secondary schools knocked any of that out of me. But my professional experiences also embedded in me a belief in the importance of giving young people a voice, helping them to find it, amplifying it. So what Kate Clanchy has done is quite in tune with my professional beliefs.

Let us have no talk about young people being ‘the future’. They will make their own future, as we did. It will be both worse and better than the one we created.

And no talk of the innocence of youth, because that denies the reality, the rawness of each person’s experiences at whatever age. I was headteacher of a school in Islington where one third of the population had a different mother tongue than English. And where many of those children had been refugees. Helping those young people explore their experiences, their individual biographies was a major task for the English department. It was a validation for those young people of the lives they had led up to that point. And for some it was a very fearful and dangerous and difficult childhood.

Our young students brought us face to face with their experiences and they also did what young people have done: looked at the familiar with fresh eyes. They can question accustomed responses, traditional ways of expressing ideas; they can experiment with form and language and metaphors and images. They can remind us, too, of the younger selves that we carry within us. 

Unmute

The poets met on-line during Lockdown. All thirteen had at one time or another attended the weekly poetry workshops with their teacher when attending Oxford Spires Academy. Some are sixth-formers, some have moved on with their education. They sought each other’s company to make sense of the lockdown experience, together in poetry. 

And in doing that they touched many people, through the Tweets and now the book. They write about hair, masks,  loss, clapping, separation, changed perceptions and mothers among other themes. I chose the poem below as an example because it speaks to each of us of the smallness of what matters, the invisibility before Lockdown of important truths. 

Crossing

I didn’t know I’d miss waiting
at traffic lights, waiting for a burst
of colour, a static sound.
I didn’t know I’d miss noise,
crowds, the breath of rain
as it hits parched tarmac,
being near enough to hear people’s 
breath. I didn’t realise I was only
exactly alone when I was
walking home from school, or 
to the shops. I didn’t
realise it was the in-
between times that held
me together.

Linnet Drury

You can read more poems from the collection by visiting Rathbones Folio Prize. And you can buy the kindle version here. For £5.00

Proceeds from the sales of UnMute go to Asylum Welcome, which is an Oxford organisation. I have made a donation on account of quoting the poem in this review. 

Unmute: Young Voices from Lockdown edited by Kate Clanchy (2020)

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