Sunday, 29 April 2012

Almost Promethean: U3A London Region Creative Writing Study Day at Canada Water Library 19/4/2012

 Had Lewis Carroll and  Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn been partners in building design  they might well have come up with  Canada Water Library. In fact it was designed by Piers Gough, and opened in November 2011. It's said to have solved the problem of how to build a library  on too small a site, as if the fact of a new library were not miracle enough in a time of widespread closures.  Inside,  it was warm and cosy; not at all like the set for a Murnau film.  
The U3A ‘Day for Aspiring, Self-published and Published Writers’ attracted some 40 enthusiasts, from London and other regions. I know because I was i/c of ticking off names.

National Adviser for Creative Writing, Maggie Smith, whose creative writing classes I was once lucky enough to attend,  facilitated. Gwen Wright, U3A London Regional Chair, welcomed guest speakers Ian Skillicorn, Director of  National Short Story Week, and   Catherine King, author of popular fiction novels. There was an opportunity over a buffet lunch for members to buy books and CDs as well as chat informally with speakers and fellow writers.

Ian Skillicorn's past was in non-fiction writing and translating. He returned from Italy to found Short Story in 2006, a project that attracted Arts Council funding and content development in 2009. In 2010 he conceived  the idea for National Short Story Week.  The third annual events will take place in on November 12th-18th 2012 and will be celebrated in about 25% of UK libraries. In addition to adult entries, this year 250 schools will be invited to submit entries. More about this, plus downloadable podcasts, can be found at
Ian had brought along a CD  of short stories,  Women Aloud, to be sold in aid of the Helena Kennedy Foundation (Further details at Contents  include stories by  Katie Fforde, Sue Moorcroft and our next guest speaker, Catherine King, in a two-disk compendium. 
A new Short Story Network will be launched on May 1st with links to organisations such as the National Association of Writers, the Amateur Theatre Network and Writing Magazine.
Ian’s  talk  was titled: What Makes a Good Story?  with an emphasis on writing for radio. Fascinating, but as Ian uses his material for teaching I can't say anymore.
 Catherine King's talk stressed  the need for market awareness. From a scientific background ('I was no good at English in school'), she began writing her popular sagas after retirement. They are set in Industrial Revolution Yorkshire, and feature strong heroines who survive the hardships that were the common lot of working class women in the nineteenth century. From her first novel, Women of  Iron (2006)  Catherine went on to develop the theme through six further works, the latest a story set in the fashionable Edwardian era with a heroine who is in domestic service.
 Catherine was enthusiastic about the income libraries generate for  authors in payments for lending rights especially with  adaptation to audio and  large-print versions.

The development of eBooks was  was a marvellous marketing outlet for writers at a time when publishers are economising on  paper publications.

Her inspirational attitude, as someone remarked, could be summed up as’ If I can do it, anybody can’. There are two things publishers want, she was told: a good page-turning story, and a voice, which could be summed up as the writers ‘take’ on life.  

Catherine  said writers  should network , especially on occasions when agents might be present. Find your own tribe, she said, and join events and associations that would relate to your chosen genre. She talked of ‘rubbing shoulders’ and ‘the elevator pitch’ or imaginary thirty-second slot in which to summarise your novel.
The afternoon session continued with practical writing exercises conducted by Maggie Smith. The results were first read aloud in small groups, and  the best were shared with the appreciative audience. All agreed the programme had the right balance of learning, writing and socialising –the current buzzword, ‘networking’ seeming inadequate to describe the sense  of camaraderie that characterised the day.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

World Book Night 2012 at Manor House Library

There was a good turn-out at Manor Park Library, and I spotted some reading-group members among the standing-up throng. They should have come earlier, I thought. But they'd been vulturing in the adjoining room, where the giveaway books were laid out. By the time I got in there it was almost bare. Never mind, I enjoyed the delicious home-made snack - canapes, they've been called at other minglings I've attended. Especially memorable were tiny jerk vegetable patties and spiced mini potato- cakes. Shame I was off the wine that day, because there was plenty of that.

I did pick up a YA book that a reviewer had brought to swap. She confirmed it would be suitable for my granddaughter, who is fifteen. I'll report on that later.

I took Mrs Fry's Diary, by Stephen Fry, which I blogged about earlier, Hot Kitchen Snow by Susannah Rickards, whose short story class I attended last year, and   Butterfly Tears, by Zoe S Roy, which I reviewed myself  -inspiring stories by a Chinese woman who'd emigrated alone from Hong Kong to Canada.  These books disappeared pretty quick, too.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Old Filth by Jane Gardam

The title refers to an anachronism: 'Failed in London; try Hong Kong'. 'Old Filth is a nickname that the main character. Sir Edward Feathers, acquired during his distinguished career as a judge in the British outpost.

I didn't think I wanted to read a book about a 'rich as croesus' ex-colonial recently retired from Hong Kong to live in Dorset, but it was a local library reading group choice. By chapter two I was hooked, as the old man is stumbling around in the snow, having locked himself out of his remotely-located house and forced to seek help from a hated neighbour (why he hates him we are to learn).

Sympathy grows as he reminisces about his childhood in Malaya (as it was then) where his colonial administrator father leaves him in the care of local villagers when his mother dies shortly after giving birth. Aged five, he's separated from the only person with whom he's bonded - an older girl of his foster family - and sent on the long voyage to England. We learn this was the usual fate of thousands of so-called 'raj orphans' - traumatised by the separation and supported through prep and subsequent public schools by only by monthly cheques.

The narrative switches between the extremities of old age and scenes from a lifetime of interacting with a host of unusual characters, that encapsulate 'a whole period from the glory days of the British Empire, through the Seond World War to the present and beyond'. For me, it's the quality of the writing plus the exploration of a complex character and his relationships that makes the book such a compelling read.
Published in 2004, the book was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2005