Tag Archives: City Lit

Two Authors in Search of an Audience

Authors: Caroline Lodge, Eileen Carnell

Stage manager: Marian Lennon

And an audience of hundreds

Place and date premiered: Drury Lane, London. Thursday 12th March 2015

Setting: The foyer of City Lit and room 508

 

Prologue

Eileen made her way down Drury Lane on a lovely sunny afternoon. She had been attending courses at City Lit for the last 50 years – from movement, speech and drama to art, calligraphy and writing. Her favourite class had been Acapella singing and it was there she had sung with Marian Lennon who was a member of staff at City Lit and whose idea this event was. Eileen was excited about her new role of co-author and meeting up with Caroline to sell their book and promote their course*.

161 City Lit1Meanwhile Caroline and Marian had prepared the stage. A massive table in the foyer had been laid out with the books, posters and flyers – all in bright red and yellow it looked really eye-catching. The backdrop was a huge electronic display of the book – very impressive. The only concern had been whether the props would arrive on time but phew Retiring with Attitude published by The Guardian had arrived.

Act one: The foyer of City Lit

161 CityLit 2Excited crowds gathered to talk with the authors and declare they had either retired last week, last year or were just about to. Some spoke about the joys of retirement and that were having the time of their lives. Books started selling. Caroline and Eileen were thrilled at all the interest.

Act two: room 508

Five characters turned up to meet the authors: Jenny who had been part time for the last year, Anne who was experiencing the slowest retiring period in history, James a novice retiree who teaches as a sideline occupation, Ashley who was looking for strong role-models and Veronica who wondered if she needs to work for a further seven years. Key themes emerged: considering the process of retiring over time, the concept of retiring zones and the importance of belonging to at least three communities in order to flourish, being busy and finding purpose, making your mind up to retire, the importance of singing to bring joy to one’s life, finding resources within ourselves and outside.

Act three: The foyer of City Lit

This photo was taken at a quiet moment!

This photo was taken at a quiet moment!

More crowds of enthusiastic people, more smiling, more selling and signing. More retiring stories: working in the community, political activity, attending courses, living with loss, writing novels, jewelry making. Bustling atmosphere and movement.

Act four: room 508

Five new characters: June, a novice retiree, Timothy who had set his retiring date, Belinda who was considering her options, and Mary and Fiona who were thinking about retiring. The main themes were worry about the loss of identity in retirement, taking control of one’s life, stopping running around like a headless chicken, the importance of inter-generational living, the role of ‘carer’ in the family, maintaining self-esteem after work, where to live and rolling in the hay!

Epilogue

101 RWA pile19 books were sold during the day. Two men had signed up already for the one-day course in June and many more people said they were going to apply. At the end of the afternoon one person came back to show how much of the book she had already read! She was beaming. Caroline, Eileen and Marian were delighted.

Reviews

Really useful and fascinating.

That really cheered me up.

It was nurturing.

The ‘Attitude’ is great.

This is really a good thing that you are doing.

Brilliant marketing to be here at City Lit for this perfect demographic.

The themes are so relevant.

Although the groups seemed on the small side it was richer for those who came.

I found the session very helpful, inspiring and timely.

The course at City Lit is PG732 Retiring with Attitude, on Saturday 6th June 2015, 10.30 – 16.30 at City Lit, Keeley Street, Covent Garden, London WC2B 4BA. On-line details can be found here.

101 RWA coverRetiring with Attitude: approaching and relishing your retirement by Caroline Lodge and Eileen Carnell (2014) published by Guardian. Available from the Guardian Bookshop (at reduced price) and all good bookshops.

Thanks to Eileen Carnell who was the guest blogger for this post.

 

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Six Stories & an Essay by Andrea Levy

Andrea Levy is best known for a novel that everyone should read: Small Island. Published in 2004, it won the Orange Prize for Fiction, the Whitbread Book of the Year, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Orange ‘Best of the Best’. It was also made into a tv series. More recently, 2010, The Long Song won the Walter Scott Prize and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.132 6 Stories cover

Six Stories & an Essay is her newly published book, October 2014. It is intimate, and lets us into her motivation and her development as a writer. She enrolled on a City Lit writing class. At the time she was starting out on a painful transition from being scared to call herself a black person to welcoming being called a black British writer. It was a difficult time.

Writing came to my rescue. The course had an emphasis on writing about what you know. So, nervously I began to explore what I knew – my family upbringing and background, my complicated relationship with colour. Thinking about what I knew, and exploring my background with words, began to open it up to me as never before. I soon came to realise that growing up in this country was part of what it meant to be black. All those agonies over skin shade. Those silences about where we had come from. The shame. The denial. In fact I came to see that every black person’s life, no matter what it is, is part of the black experience. Because being black in a majority white country comes with a myriad of complications and contradictions. It was writing that helped me to understand that. (11)

And she goes on to suggest that the black experience is part of a largely unknown, or forgotten or denied aspect of Britain’s life. She concludes the essay with these words

My heritage is Britain’s story too. It is time to put the Caribbean back where it belongs – in the main narrative of British history. (19)

She has already got this project underway. Small Island is about the period when the peoples of Britain and the Caribbean began to develop shared history here in Britain, the period from the Second World War on. The Long Song is set in the time of slavery in the Caribbean. They offer hard lessons about the intersection of British and Caribbean histories at the same time as reminding us of heartening human qualities.132 SM Island

This collection also explores the histories of peoples in the Caribbean and in Britain in the last 100 years. Uriah’s War was the First World War. It follows two friends from Jamaica who joined British West Indian Regiment and fought in Palestine and Egypt. The dominant version of this war is of the British Tommy fighting in the trenches, a version that ignores the considerable sacrifice of people from all over the Empire, and of women in the war. (I wrote about remembering women poets in a post called Women’s Poetry in the First World War. Lest we forget!)

Other stories refer to other people who are less powerful in our society and we would like to ignore, forget or deny, especially children in poverty (Deborah), newly arrived immigrants (The Empty Pram and That Polite Way That English People Have) and refugees (Loose Change). As a first step communication or a shared language is important, a theme of The Empty Pram and February.

I welcomed the insight into Andrea Levy’s development as a writer. She read the short story called The Diary aloud to the City Lit writing class.

At last I could get my own back, I thought. But what I really enjoyed as I read it out was that people laughed. It was much more satisfying than the revenge. And once I’d made them laugh they seemed more open to what I had to say. I have never forgotten that. (23-5)

132 A Levy2So if what I have said about the stories suggests that they are rather earnest and political, I should point out that Levy has a delightful lightness of touch, a humour that readers of Small Island will recognise. Here is the ending of the story in which the narrator, newly arrived in Britain, has tried to explain that she was bringing the baby back to his mother and is finally understood to be a rescuer not a kidnapper.

My wrist was released and the mother of the baby, who was smiling now, said, ‘Thank you for bringing her back. But you should have told us what happened.’ Then all three women began patting me like a dog – on the shoulder, on the head – as they discussed together whether I would like a nice cup of tea.’ (102)

132 Tinder LogoOne final point about this book. It is published by the independent publisher, Tinder Press (a new imprint), who have produced a lovely hardback book, with beautifully tactile paper, and included photographs to match the stories – it’s an object of pleasure.

 

Six Stories & an Essay by Andrea Levy is published by Tinder Press at £12.99 in October 2014. Thanks to Tinder Press for the review copy.

 

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Reading with others

Anything you enjoy is better done in the company of fellow enthusiasts. I love talking about reading and books. Here are my six top ways of sharing reading.

 1. On the bus

Actually it has only happened once, or rather twice but about one book. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. I was preparing for a reading group. ‘Are you enjoying it?’ a total stranger asked as he sat down next to me. We had a conversation about it how he had always intended to read it. ‘How are you getting on with The Master and Margarita?’ asked the second. I got a 4 minute critique. ‘One of my favourite books,’ she said before getting off.

Great! I thought – conversations on buses, about books. I thought about the conductor who sang calypsos on the 38 bus, and began to imagine poetry readings on the 210 and a 73 bus route reading group. On reflection it seems that the conversations were more a response to the book than the potential of buses for such conversations.

96 73 Bus

 2. With friends

Naturally, friends recommend, deconstruct, give me (I can’t bring myself to say gift me) books. Thanks to Rose I found Sebald, and my sister recommended Barbara Kingsolver years ago. I read Alone in Berlin recently, by Hans Fallada, recommended by a friend (thanks Jennifer). Most meetings with friends include enquiries about current reading and lead to most pleasurable talk about books.

3. When I have my hair cut

Usually the conversation is about holidays. I’ve never sat and stared at myself, all red eyed and too like my parents, and discussed books before. Great stuff. Recently, after 9 months I decided to have my hair cut, and went to see Gill Goddard in Totnes, who subscribes to this blog. Gill did ask me for my holidays recommendations – so watch out!

 4. In a reading group

96 J&JLove this – being required to read a book I may not have considered before, and then discussing reactions to it, hearing other people’s responses, and sometimes seeing things differently. Next up for discussion in my group is Julie & Julia by Julie Powell. It’s about food and blogging and life. Lots to enjoy and talk about there then. The first book I ever read for a reading group was one I had decided would be too difficult: A Child in Our Time, by Ian McEwan. A young child disappears from a supermarket … I am glad I have faced that one, and (like much of McEwan) it’s a tough starting point.

5. On courses

A day talking with other people, usually women, who I have not met before, and learning about books on a particular theme. What’s not to love? While I was in London I attended courses at City Lit. I remember one excellent course on women’s short stories at the end of the C20th. We focused on the collection edited by Elaine Showalter called Daughters of Decadence (Virago). And that led me on to Women Who Did, a Penguin Classic collection of stories 1890-1914. That was a good course, one that extended my reading.

A good way to talk books in Devon came my way a couple of weekends ago. I attended a day in the Reading Room on madwomen in the attic. Oh, the pleasure, an indulgence as so many of the participants described it, of a day looking at fiction, in an environment entirely consonant with the conversation! The house was on a hill, just outside Chagford. The drive through Dartmoor was a treat, the refreshments and lunch entirely delicious, and the room itself comfortable, warm, everything a reading room should be.

96 2 booksThe day provoked, entertained, introduced new ideas and we enjoyed much laughter. Again I want to revisit some of the books we explored: The Awakening by Kate Chopin and The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Gilmour Perkins are two of them. Thank you to Leah, Naomi and Frances.

6. With children

96 Reading with motherThe physical closeness of reading to a small child, watching them engage with the text and pictures, sharing the love of certain books – I spend hours doing this. Current favourites with my nearly 3-year-old grandson are still the Aybeeceedee book (in the picture), and also Not Now Bernard, by David McKee. I’ve been reading with both grandsons since they were just weeks old. Magic. I hope to read to their children in time. (That’s my daughter in the picture, by the way.)

96 Not now BAnd there is another way I am coming to enjoy conversations about books …

 7. Blogs.

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She’s leaving home …

Indulge me! After 28 years I’m leaving Stoke Newington (North London). My house has been sold, the papers signed, keys ready to hand over and I’m off – tomorrow! What follows are my reflections on my literary time here.

44 Sold

Stoke Newington has always attracted dissenters. The non-conformists of the 1790s lived around Newington Green. I think of them every time I catch the 73 bus (no tubes in Hackney). Focused on the Unitarian chapel, which is still here, a group of radical thinkers met and talked and wrote their views on the repression instituted by the government following the French Revolution. They included Tom Paine, Richard Price, Joseph Priestley, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. She lived and taught here. There is a wall painting of her on the side of the Unitarian chapel.

44 M Wolst

I made a special study of Mary Wollstonecraft as part of my undergraduate degree, studying with another dissenter, EP Thompson, at Warwick University. Unaffiliated and pursued for a definition of his ideas, he famously announced in one lecture that he was a Marxist Muggletonian.

On Stoke Newington Church Street one of the houses is called Defoe House. Here lived the first novelist, Daniel Defoe. Perhaps he spent the plague years here, for Stoke Newington was a village outside London in the 17th and 18th Centuries. The young Samuel Pepys was sent here as a child, for his health. Defoe was sentenced to the pillory for his writing, but, according to legend and Wikipedia ‘the publication of his poem Hymn to the Pillory caused his audience at the pillory to throw flowers instead of the customary harmful and noxious objects and to drink to his health’. My kind of dissenter, one who turns the tables.

When I came here in the early 1980s houses were cheap (in London terms) and attracted public sector workers, especially teachers and social workers. We were mostly in our 30s. The women of this tribe were called drabbies. Mary Wollstonecraft was the original drabby perhaps. Nowadays it’s renown as a good place to bring up children, and is choked by those up-cycling chops and three wheel drive buggies. Where are the drabbies and dissenters of yesteryear?

They reassemble at the Stoke Newington literary festival, established a few years ago. Unlike other literary festivals, it does not rely on Radio 4-type audiences hanging on the words of (mainly male) news presenters, politicians including members of the House of Lords and tv gardeners turned novelists. Rather the buzz comes from radicals and outspoken thinkers in fiction, poetry, journalism, humour and other cultural areas. Lindsey Hilsum talking about her experiences in Libya, for example. Jacky Kay reading from her short stories. And lots of other original women and men.

And there have been other delights to feed the literary soul: there has been an independent bookshop here for as long as I have walked up the High Street. Independent bookshops are treasures. Stoke Newington Bookshop seems to be thriving. And the library – no praise is too much for the service from London libraries, the on-line ordering service, the ability to reserve books from anywhere in Greater London, the pleasure of seeing the library used day in and day out by Hackney residents. And I have had access to a very wide range of writing classes: two at the Faber Academy in Bloomsbury and several at City Lit. Spread the Word run great workshops and other events.

Moving house is making me nostalgic in another way. Packing up and decluttering my stuff means discovering items from 28 and more years ago. I have come across a collection of juvenilia. But here is my earliest extant writing:

44 diarey

            1955

18/9/55

Name: Caroline

Diarey.

Yesterday I went to the fair. I liked the swing-Boats. Mummy could not come. She had to fech granny. I liked it very muech.

Six days later, the second entry shows more grasp of narrative.

24/9/55

Yesterday I had an apple. When I was counting how many bettle holes, on the last one a bettle came out. I went and told mummy. Fuzz [my aunt] came to get it, but when we got there it was gone.

A flurry of misspelling occurred on 25th September:

Yesterday I went to the ceinama. I liked it verey much. I saw a buffaloa. I[t] was lovley.

The first entry was illustrated with a swing-boat and the second with an apple and a bettle making off. It is clear why I stuck with writing (despite my spelling) rather than developing my drawing skills.

The collection also includes several school exercise books of novels – the start of three or four novels, with my favoured nom de plume. There is a playscript or two and copies of the school magazine to which I contributed.

In this house I have written all my published books (on education and on retiring), drafted my novel, edited my short stories, written my assignments, dissertation and thesis for my higher degrees.

The bulk of my books are here, despite considerable de-cluttering. Every morning I sit at my writing table and look out of the window at the cherry tree, the apple tree (both planted since I arrived) and the people in the windows of the houses next door. (I’ll miss you, naked man, getting up every morning at 6.50!) I’m writing my Morning Pages.

I’m giving all this up – Mary Wollstonecraft, the library, my peaceful writing room, but not my books, volumes of morning pages, juvenilia or writing amibitions.

I’m going to a village in Devon – a cottage in a village in Devon. I’ll have a writing room with a view of Dartmoor. It’s a new adventure for an ageing drabby. Normal blogging will resume shortly.

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