Monthly Archives: November 2009
I was off on my travels again on Thursday. Down the A6 and A508 to Northampton, riding shotgun with fellow writer, Keith Morley. Keith had entered the 2009 H.E. Bates Short Story Prize, which entitled him to an invite to the grand draw, an event to be presided by the novelist Martin Davies.
I was surprised, when we finally got there, at the sheer size of the event. There were probably a hundred people in the place. Over 300 entries were received for the various competitions (Junior, local author and general). Judging was held under the auspices of the Northampton Writers Group and hosted by Northamptonshire Libraries, all combining in an event that brought groups and people together. By a cheeky acquisition of some comfy chairs, I got to sit next to the bubbly mistress of ceremonies, Grace Kempster OBE, head of Northants Libraries. It was she who introduced the guest speaker, Martin Davies, who got the whole show on the road.The best thing about the night was to hear authors reading extracts of their work. The juniors, Matthew Harris and Katie Bunting were a highlight. To see young kids getting into writing (perhaps the drug that will kill them the slowest) is always inspiring. The eventual winner of the Local Author prize, Simon Howes, read part of his story. Denise Reeder, another shortlisted author, also took to the stage to read. It’s always good to hear authors read their work. Particularly nice for them in an audience composed in part by proud family members.
Then, the competition winners were announced, the winning entry read, the glittering prizes awarded. A climax to a thoroughly enjoyable evening.
I will not leave you in suspense any longer. We did not leave the hall (Northampton’s newly refurbished central library, no less) with a prize. I say this because some people might only think it worthwhile going to such events for the glittering cup, the photo at the award ceremony and the cheque for x amount to stuff into their back pocket. At one time that would have been my view as well. I was naive and wet behind the ears when it came to writing. I thought it was all about the glory, the praise and affirmation of my peers, the money in the bank. I was taking my paper plate to the buffet of life and gorging on the cheetos and wotsits, ignoring the meat and potatoes that provide the real, healthy soulfood needed to sustain yourself and grow.
Something happened, however, that steered me away from the snack-foods. I grew up, that’s what happened. Was I slightly disappointed that Keith didn’t win? Of course, a little, but the trip was not about that. We’re meat-and-potatoes guys, Keith and I. We know what it is that makes writing precious, valuable and important to us: its the people you meet, the friends you make the thrill of seeing yourself –and them– improve and grow. I had thought (before I met any other writers), that writing was all about sitting on your own, typing away on your lonesome as your tea goes from hot to warm to tepid. I didn’t know then that it’s other people’s input that make your writing great. It is these other flesh-and-blood writers, with whom you read, critique and share experiences that make you grow into your craft. In Northampton I watched it happening to other people, most of whom I did not know. Other grown ups (of all ages) who had found out that very same thing that made me spit out my cheetos years ago. It was a quality moment.
1) Juliet West
2) Veronica Bright
3) Sarah Gillan
Under 18s Violet McDonald
(apologies for any spelling errors in names etc. I had no time to check them at the event).
Yep. There’s a lot of exciting things afoot at Floppybootstomp Compress. Some real treats for you all to warm those cockles during the winter months.
# My last post on Carrot Nappers went global (Well, it was picked up by the Literature Network*…). All kinds of writers were kind enough to compliment the report as well as Keith’s excellent play. Simon Whaley now wears a ‘Nappers T-shirt while writing his next blockbuster!
# I am pleased to announce two new series for the blog. These will appear monthly and will, with any luck, become regular features. I am quite excited about them and have begun to plan their development over the next year. 2010 holds some promise, I can tell you!
The first series I am unveiling today, is a monthly guest-spot. We’re kicking off in December with successful and talented author, Judith Allnatt (Northamptonshire Libraries most borrowed author, 2008). The series is planned to run until July. Some guests may be familiar, others surprising. I am sure, however, that they will all be of interest to writers, readers and casual browsers alike.
My next trick is a series on Comic-Book Classics. A long-neglected art-form, I hope to give you some insights into the treasures that they hold. Armed with nothing but my PhD in Mexican press cartoons, I will dispense what little wisdom I’ve gleaned from a lifetime studying these beautiful objects. First in the series (Also in December), is The Tale Of One Bad Rat by Bryan Talbot.
# The Alt.Fiction 2010 conference website should be up and running soon. On there you can (probably) find Chapter 1 of the novel I’m presently working on, with the snappy title of Vampsov. It’s a simple tale of vampire hunting in the USSR at the beginning of WW II. It’s still a work in progress, but I have a good feeling about it.
# I am performing as a werewolf. On stage, for charity (I wouldn’t do it otherwise). If you want to witness this travesty, it is taking place on Saturday 30th of January 2010, 6.30 pm @ Leicester Guildhall. It’s a Loros fundraiser with lots of fun events planned. Entrance fee is 10 quid.
# Places remain on a number of courses at the Writing School Leicester.* You can book online from their website. More useful and better value than 99% of creative writing MAs.
# The Speculators, Leicester’s coolest SF/Fantasy Writing group, are still meeting regularly on Wednesday nights at the Friends Meeting House, Queen’s Road.* Beer and cheese-boards afterwards. Come and join the fun!
# Check out my interview with prize-winning Evington screenwriter, Mehul Desai. You can find it in Avatar, the E-zine for the Starbase Leicester group.* If you are curious about Starbase, do drop in to one of their events. You won’t find a more friendly (and vocal) group of Sci-Fi enthusiasts anywhere.
* My blogroll (the list of links on the right of your screen) gives you access to all the groups mentioned.
Sunday, November 8th: It was a clash of the leviathans. Chelsea and Manchester United, the only two teams who can now reasonably win the league, met for a kickabout. They are two of the only four teams that ever win anything in the English Premier League. These four have the most money, the best players, the greatest clout with referees. Just occasionally, however, smaller teams are cute and smart enough to beat them. Rarer still are the minnows who grab some silverware from under the noses of the four-team establishment.
As with football, the arts are similarly divided by rank, influence and wealth. On Sunday the 8th, however, Leicestershire outsiders travelled to an away fixture in Cambridge. Keith Large, a Loughborough writer, had won the rare accolade of having his 45 minute play, Carrot Nappers, read by professional actors at the legendary ADC theatre (erstwhile lair of the Cambridge Mafia). Keith took his team –including my good self– down to the performance. He even brought cake for everyone!Carrot Nappers is that rare thing in modern British theatre: a no-holds-barred, unapologetic ‘Carry-On’ style farce. The plot involves the theft of a 17-foot prize-winning carrot from an allotment. Vegilante Vinnie (Gary Mooney), the security guard who failed to protect the lengthy vegetable, plots to get it back. With the help of his third-best girlfriend Lisa (Genevieve Cleghorn) and the allures of the allotment’s “love-shed”, they set a honey-trap for the main suspect; the devious and amorous Onionhead (Steve Kantor). Acted with gusto, the vegetable-themed puns and snappy one-liners just kept on coming. In the end Onionhead lost his trousers and the play’s director (Francesca Brown) made an appearance as the carrot itself, returned to Vinny, Lisa and his pal Albert (Tim Waterfield) –who gets the girl in the end. Fabulous stuff. The readings were organized by the Write On! Cambridge scriptwriting forum. An annual competition selects the best script submissions and performs them in front of an audience. This year, Naked Stage 09 held 14 readings, selected from a huge number of entries. The deal is that two or three play readings (per event) are performed and then the audience is invited to comment and critique. It is an opportunity for the writer to receive feedback and engage with a live audience.
In the case of Carrot Nappers, however, it was the actors who spoke –rather enthused– about the play. They loved it, explaining that it was a rare opportunity for them to play larger-than-life characters and to really have fun. All the actors involved in Naked Stage 09 had wanted to perform this play. Those that did, really did it justice. I was amazed to learn that they had reached their high level of performance after only three rehearsals. The craft and expertise of these actors was humbling to behold.Memories of the day? The sightseeing with fellow Carrot-heads Keith Morley, Maria Smith (great driver and photographer) and the playwright himself, Mr Large. The carrying of the carrot cakes back and forth from car to theatre to storage area and back. Meeting a bunch of talented actors and directors happy to help bring new authors to the stage. Most of all, it was knowing that we can win away from home. Keith Large in Theatre, Mehul Desai in Film and Graham Joyce in novel-writing: all from Leicestershire, all prize winners in 2009, all proving that minnows can have their day. Get in!
“Can I go and stay at Janet’s house tonight, mum?”
“But Janet’s mum said it would be OK and me and Janet have a project to do for biology and…”
“I’ve told you once.”
“Awww! But she’s my bezzie mate!”
“She’s your best friend. ‘Bezzie mate’ is what the educationally subnormal say.”
“But I am educationally subnormal!”
“No you’re not. You have all the genetic enhancements available for superior cognitive development. You are a super-genius. It cost your father and I a pretty penny to get you these advantages, young lady, so stop being so silly.”
“You’re a horrible poo-monster.”
“Now, Anna, I understand that one of the side effects of supra-intelligent children is the amount of extra emotional input they require from their parents. But you are pushing the boundaries of attention-seeking too far, young lady. So don’t swear at me again, OK?”
“You’re horrible, I hate you!”
“It’s not nice to talk like that to your own mother. I do, however, understand. In time you will grow out of these infantile mood-swings and employ a more reasoned method of argumentation. In the meantime, please refrain from throwing a tantrum if at all possible. I’m really busy today and can’t spare the time. Go into the conservatory and listen to your Mozart. You love Mozart, don’t you, Anna?”
“No! I’m going to listen to the GFXH chart! Really, really loud!”
“Don’t you dare listen to those vulgar, socially indeterminate slouchers!”
“No Fair! You don’t know what they’re like!”
“I’m sorry, Anna. I was a little unfair to those nice pop stars wasn’t I? I’m sure a lot of them are from perfectly good homes and just as enhanced as we are. It’s just that they pretend to be so… common. I get your rebellion against authority, I really do. But it’s just a phase that all one-year olds go through. Sorry, Anna, but there will be no pop music in this house.”
“Puh! Going sleepy-byes now.”
“Of course, sweetie. Don’t forget to plug yourself in.”
In the greater scheme of things, the decline of the novel is perhaps one of the least of our worries. If we shift the focus from the hand-wringing world of literary matters, however, there is a huge underlying problem with reading as an activity (or, as the government likes to call it, a key skill). The central issue is the sheer number of our fellow citizens who suffer from poor reading abilities and illiteracy. For the individuals involved, this can be a crushing setback to their lives. Without reading and writing you cannot search for work, surf the net, pass your driving test or even check your utility bills for the inevitable mistakes (what is it with British Gas bills?). Oh, and you will be unable to enjoy the latest Iain Banks or Will Self either.
The most vexing aspect of this problem is that it can be extremely difficult to teach adults who have problems with literacy. They have often been written off as stupid or lazy and have therefore become very defensive and hostile to the process of learning. What they fear, above all else, is to face humiliation in a classroom setting. Again. People with literacy problems are overwhelmingly from deprived backgrounds, with family histories of low educational attainment. Figures also show that adult literacy problems are major problems within the prison system. Poverty, crime and educational dysfunction; all a heady mix of problems that are seemingly intractable. Is there no hope of a solution to all this?
Luckily, I never ask such leading questions in the middle of an article without having some sort of answer to hand. The answer I have is not new and has been applied in many countries that want to educate a lot of people without much money. It involves, get this, FREE BOOKS FOR PEOPLE THAT NEED THEM. It is a fairly simple idea when you come to think of it. One of the indicators of deprivation used in the UK to measure child poverty, for example, is households where there are no books. It is estimated that about 10% of children in the UK grow up in such households. If there are no books around, how can children (or their parents) develop their literacy skills or get into the reading habit?
Now, there are probably a number of very good reasons why people have no books. Maybe you work as a librarian and cannot face the things in your own house, perhaps you favour minimalist interior design and see books as mere clutter, but apart from these excellent excuses, overwhelmingly the answer is simple; people don’t have books because they are just too poor to buy them.
As usual when faced with a problem, your handsome interlocutor takes a solution in the maw of the most dangerous communist regime he can. Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, for example. His government has given away schoolbooks to poor families since he came to office in 1998. The results in increased literacy have been staggering. Furthermore, this programme has been hugely popular with the poor. So there you have it, free books for the disadvantaged. Good innit? And that’s all there is to it. A policy that will popular, good for the educational attainment of the poorest members of society and relatively cheap. Bring back free school milk and cut fuel taxes as well and hey presto, you’ve got yourself a winning manifesto. Are you listening, Gordon? Because I’ve done all the hard work for you. No, thats OK, no need to thank me. Just punch that creep Milliband in the face and post it on YouTube. That’ll do me.
One tiny problem. It won’t be possible to give away school books, as there are, in effect, no nationally agreed subject curricula (different exam boards, you see), so if you write a Physics textbook to suit one exam board, it might not cover areas included by other boards. Furthermore, the UK has a very important educational publishing industry that might get upset if you start giving away the merchandise. The next best thing is to give away novels. My idea would be to give away ten volumes a year for five years to families that qualify. They would have to go to their nearest public library to pick up their books Once there, the librarians could go to work signing them up for a library card, directing them to literacy courses and children’s reading groups (for their kids, obviously) and other useful things.
Together with their books they should be given advice about setting up a family bookshelf, setting times for family reading. Even some DIY advice on how to make a bookshelf for your home. Ideally recipients of this programme would end up after the five years with a family bookshelf containing about fifty novels by a variety of authors. Enough for any family to be getting on with. Welcome to the National Literature Collection. These books could then be produced in a single collection (hardback volumes would look classier) that would look and feel attractive so people would feel proud to display and collect them. The books themselves should highlight the best of British and world literature, have a number of titles specifically for children (particularly adventure stories for boys) and collections of British short stories, plays and verse.
Got the idea yet? Free books leads to increased levels of functional literacy, more people getting the reading habit, which leads to more books being consumed, which leads to greater numbers of books sold. No downside at all. Oh, and it’s cheap. Distributing and printing these books will cost, what? Five million, if that? Peanuts when compared to bank bailouts and other tax-funded bagatelles.
Because of copyright restrictions, most of the novels used should be in the public domain (although agreements with living authors should allow contemporary works to be included). Sadly, copyright for a lot of 20th century literature is held by rapacious trusts that charge publishers a fortune to use the author’s work. Avoiding authors like John Betjeman and James Joyce is therefore wise. Just for fun, I’ve compiled a list of titles that I would use…
National Literature Collection
1 Collected British Verse
2 Shakespeare – Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet, As You Like It (Annotated)
3 Charles Dickens – Great Expectations
4 H. P. Lovecraft – The Call of Cthulu Stories
5 Laura Esquivel – Like Water for Chocolate
6 Grimm’s Fairy Tales
7 George Orwell – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
8 William Thackeray – Vanity Fair
9 Alexandre Dumas – The Three Musketeers
10 Jane Austen – Pride & Prejudice
1 Collected British Humour
2 Shakespeare – Othello, King Lear, Two Gentlemen of Verona (Annotated)
3 Anna Sewell – Black Beauty
4 Emilio Salgari – Sandokan
5 Virginia Woolf – Orlando
6 Herman Melville – Moby Dick
7 Jules Verne – Journey to the Centre of the Earth
8 Robert Louis Stevenson – Kidnapped
9 Magnus Mills – The Scheme for Full Employment
10 Anthony Trollope – Barchester Towers
1 Collected British Theatre
2 Shakespeare – The Tempest, Richard III, Henry V(Annotated)
3 Charles Dickens – A Christmas Carol and Other Stories
4 Joseph Conrad – Heart of Darkness
5 Oscar Wilde – A Picture of Dorian Gray
6 Truman Capote – Breakfast at Tiffany’s
7 Jorge Icaza – Huasipungo
8 Lewis Carroll – Alice Through the Looking Glass
9 Emily Bronte – Wuthering Heights
10 Maya Angelou – I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
1 Collected British Prose
2 Shakespeare – Julius Caesar, A Comedy of Errors, Timon of Athens (Annotated)
3 Homer – The Iliad
4 Wu Ch’ung We – Monkey
5 George Eliot – Middlemarch
6 Ken Saro Wiwa – Lemona’s Tale
7 Richmal Crompton – Just William
8 Thomas Hardy – Jude the Obscure
9 Jerome K Jerome – Three Men in a Boat
10 Kurt Vonnegut JR – Cat’s Cradle
1 Shakespeare – Macbeth, All’s Well That Ends Well, Much Ado About Nothing (Annotated)
2 Jane Austen – Emma
3 Charles Dickens – The Pickwick Papers
4 John Bunyan – The Pilgrim’s Progress
5 Daniel Defoe – Moll Flanders
6 Walter Pater – Marius the Epicurian
7 LaFontaine – Selected Fables
8 Sherezade – Tales of the 1001 Nights
9 Charles Kingsley – The Water Babies
10 John Galsworthy – The Man of Property